Category Archives: Crime and thrillers

Tense And Absorbing: Wicked Game by Matt Johnson

Wicked Game by Matt Johnson

If you enjoy taut, high octane thrillers with good characterisation, Wicked Game by Matt Johnson is the perfect fit.

Johnson takes us into the covert world of national security and intelligence services through the figure of Robert Finlay. He’s an ex SAS operative who thought he had left those days behind him, his past cloaked with the secrecy of a role in the Royalty Protection Service. Even his wife doesn’t know about his involvement in surveillance of IRA suspects or hostage negotiations.

But his first day in a new job, as a police inspector in one of the London suburbs, is marked by a wave of attacks on police officers in the capital. Finlay learns there is a real and present danger that his cover has been blown and he could be the next target. What he doesn’t know is the identity of the assassin/s. He made enemies during his time in Northern Ireland. Could this be an IRA revenge attack for his activities in Northern Ireland. Or is there a connection to his previous involvement in ending a siege at the Iranian embassy?

Finlay’s quest to find the answers and kill the assassin/s before they get to him, makes Wicked Game a tremendous page turner.

It has a complex plot and, since this is the murky world of intelligence and counter intelligence, more than one character we’re not sure we can trust.

Finlay is a well crafted character. He’s intelligent,; thinks fast on his feet and is a good marksman. But he’s also vulnerable; caught between his love for his wife and young child and his desire to hunt down his attackers.

What lifts Wicked Game far above many other thrillers, is its strong sense of authenticity. The book is packed with fascinating details about surveillance techniques. Who knew for example that during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the army officers’s cars were regularly repainted so they wouldn’t get tracked by IRA shooters.

This is a world that Matt Johnson writes about with authority. And that’s because this was his world for 25 years. He was a soldier and then a serving officer with the Metropolitan Police, a witness to acts of terrorism and attrocity.

In 1999 he was officially diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and discharged from the police so that he could receive treatment. He turned to writing at the encouragement of his counsellor.

Wicked Game was the result. The book was a word of mouth success when it was self published in 2012. Matt was then spotted by Orenda Books who published it under their imprint in 2015 and have also published his next two titles. Deadly Game and End Game, both featuring Robert Finlay.

I’m keen to read these next two books in the series. But first I have to catch up on all the sleep I missed because I kept reading Wicked Game way into the early hours.

Although I’m not a big fan of thrillers, this was a gripping read. I am however left with a puzzle. This is a novel that has garnered praise from many quarters – my copy of the book has testimonials and praise from some highly respected authors like David Young (author of Stasi Child) and Peter James (Chief Inspector Roy Grace series). With that kind of commendation i’m baffled why Matt Johnson hasn’t received a lot more attention.

What I'm Reading: Episode 25, January 2020

For the first time in 2020 I’m sharing with you all what I’m currently reading, what I recently read and what I plan to read next. 

What I’m reading now

Last year I had the opportunity to listen to Matt Johnson, an author from Wales, explain how writing had helped him deal with post traumatic stress disorder. Matt had served in the army in Northern Ireland and then as a senior police officer in London, both experiences taking a toll on his mental health. 

Wicked Game by Matt Johnson

I’ve now been reading his debut novel: Wicked Game. It’s a fast-paced novel that draws on his experiences in the front line through the character of former special forces operative Robert Finlay. He’s just moved from the Royalty Protection team to a new job as a police inspector in a London suburb. But his past involvement in a terrorist siege is putting his new life in danger.

Matt self published this novel in 2012 but in 2015 it was picked up by Orenda Books – they also published his next two titles.

I’m half way through and can’t help wonder why we haven’t heard more noise about this author.

When breath becomes air by Paul Kalanithi

My current audiobook is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. It’s an extraordinary book. Kalanithi wrote it after he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer at the age of 35 when he was on the verge of completing a decade of training as a neurosurgeon. He didn’t live long enough to see it published.

It’s more than a memoir about a man facing mortality; it’s a meditation on life; the relationship between doctor and patient, and the intersection of science and literature.

This is such a deeply moving book that I have to take it in small doses.

What I just finished reading

The year got off to a fabulous start with The Hours by Michael Cunningham and Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

But then it came crashing down with two books I had to abandon.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern was the book club choice for January. As a fantasy novel it was always going to be a challenge for me but I was willing to give it a go. After 50 pages I’d had enough. It had neither a plot or characters that interested me, nor was it particularly well written.

Independence Square by A D Miller

My attention turned to Independence Square by A. D Miller which is due to be published next month. I’d read his earlier, debut, novel Snowdrops set in post-Glasnost Russia and thought it was well paced and well observed but lacked good characterisation.

I expected he would have ironed out those flaws by his second novel only to find more of the same issues. His new book has a dual time narrative (frankly I’m getting rather tired of those now), moving between Ukraine at a time of political turmoil and London, 10 years later. Connecting the two threads is Simon Davey, a former senior British diplomat who lost his job because of something that happened in Kiev a decade earlier.

It had potential but fell far short of my expectations.

What I’ll read next

Usually this is a hard question because I simply don’t like to plan my reading.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

But my reservation of the next book club selection Little by Edward Carey came through in the library. So of course when I went to collect it, I absolutely had to have a browse (yes you can roll your eyes given it was only a few days ago I said I had 264 unread books at home). And I found Revenge by Yoko Ogawa. I’ve been keen to read more by her ever since experiencing The Housekeeper and The Professor. It’s currently the Japanese Literature Challenge so what a perfect opportunity to do just that with this novella.

That should keep me quiet for a little while.


Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.


This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

Uncovered: An Overdose Of Crime On The Shelves

Today marked yet another attempt to bring some order to the chaos of my book collection. Thanks to a mini cull I can see some space on the bookshelves which is just as well because the piles on the floor are in danger of toppling.

Every time I do this exercise I make a discovery about my stock of “owned but unread” books. Today’s discovery was that I own a load more crime fiction novels than I expected.

It’s a surprise because, though I’m partial to a little crime fiction from time to time, I’ve never considered myself a huge fan.

I view them as entertaining, something I enjoy at the time, but not the kind of book that makes me think or that lingers in my mind long after I’ve got to the final page. Most of them are so forgettable that, were you to ask me to describe a particular book, I’d be in difficulties.

Those I do recall are memorable because the characterisation is sharp, the setting evocative and the narrative deals with interesting issues. Hence why I enjoy Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series so much.

Given all this, how have I ended up owning 22 crime fiction books?

Fortunately I can turn to the spreadsheet where I record all my purchases and acquisitions (gifts, donations, ARCs etc) to find some answers.

Completing A Series

A few are parts of a series I’ve been following. That accounts for my copies of Nature Of The Beast and Bury Your Dead which are part of the series by Louise Penny I mentioned earlier.

It also accounts for In Two Minds by Alis Hawkins. It’s the second in her Teifi Valley Coroner series and I enjoyed the first None So Blind so much I had to get the follow up. I do need to read this soon however because there is a third book Those Who Can due out in May 2020.

Earlier this year I started reading a series by Abir Mukherjeeset in India at the time of the Raj. I must have been convinced this would be good because even before I read book one, A Rising Man, I had already bought books 2 and 3 and have an ARC of the fourth.

Who Can Resist A Bargain?

I can’t, at least not when it comes to books.

I volunteer at a National Trust property which runs a second hand bookshop as a way of raising funds. So of course every time I report for duty I just have to have a peek at the most recent donations.

The prices are ridiculously low – just £1 will get you a paperback in good condition (the volunteers who run the shop vet everything before it goes on the shelves). So hard to resist…..

Which is how I acquired two books by Jane Harper: The Dry and The Lost Man, both of which a friend had highly recommended.

A “two for the price of one” offer at The Works brought me Stasi Child, a debut novel by David Young which has won several awards. What attracted my interest was that it is set in the former East Germany during the time of the Cold War. I also bought the follow up Stasi Wolf.

I have a set of three books by Alexander Wilson that came as a discounted bundle from The Book People. Wilson was one of the pen names of Alexander Joseph Patrick “Alec” Wilson, an English spy and MI6 officer. I’ve no idea about the quality of the books; maybe their plots won’t be as interesting as the real life story of the author. After his death in 1963 he was discovered to have been a serial bigamist but then questions began about the true nature of his intelligence work.

Buzz Books

There are some books I bought purely on the strength of reviews from other bloggers, mentions in social media and the occasional newspaper review. Unfortunately I failed to record the exact source of the recommendation – something I shall try to remedy with any future purchases.

Into this category falls Sixty Four by Hideo Yokoyama which revolves around the disappearance of two teenage girls 14 years apart. It was published with considerable buzz in 2018. It’s a massively chunky book , which is probably why I haven’t tackled it yet.

I also have Lewis Man by Peter May which is clearly a mistake because it’s book number one in a trilogy and I don’t have book one. So now I have to decide whether to go back to the beginning and add yet another title to my shelves…..

It’s going to take me a few years to work my way through all of these because I’ll space them out among other genres. If you’re a crime fiction expert maybe you can help me decide which of these to read first? And if there are any titles here that I could maybe give away…..

Reading horizons: Episode 24

Reading Horizons: November 2019

What I’m reading now

I’ve been digging into my stack of “owned but unread” books in an attempt to  bring some order to the chaos of the bookshelves. 

A Change of Climate was published in 1994 and is nothing like any of the other books by Hilary Mantel that I’ve read. She never seems to write the same kind of book twice.

This one is focused on a couple living in Norfolk who run a charitable trust for homeless people; drug addicts and problem teenagers. In their early married life they worked as missionaries in South Africa at a time when restrictions are tightening towards the non white population. The couple’s liberal attitudes land them in trouble and they are arrested.

I’m half way through and while I’m enjoying Mantel’s descriptive style I think the book needs to move up a gear now.

By contrast I’m reading The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, owner of the second largest second hand bookshop in Scotland.

It’s a journal which details the day to day events including the number of books ordered, the number of customers and total sales for the day (horrifyingly low!) Shaun’s comments on his often eccentric customers and his eccentric shop assistant Nicky are wonderful because he has a great eye for the absurd. This should be required reading for anyone thinking of buying a bookshop because while it sounds like great fun, the economic reality is sobering.

What I just finished reading

After a run of three books so disappointing that I abandoned them (one of them after just 5 pages) it was a delight to read Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming. From start to finish it gave a fascinating insight into the character of a woman that stamped her mark on the White House. I loved her honesty and her humility – even with everything she achieved, she constantly asked herself “Will I be good enough.”

The Bowery Slugger was an experimental toe in the water of crime noir. Set in one of the most notorious neighbourhoods in New York in the early decades of the twentieth century, it traces the downward spiral into violence of a Jewish immigrant boy. The level of violence was disturbing but the book was redeemed by its depiction of New York gang culture and the Jewish community.

What I’ll read next

A friend keeps raving about the Australian author Jane Harper. I have two of her novels, The Lost Man and Force of Nature, both of which are appealing. But I’m also in the mood for some Trollope so might delve into the next in the Barchester Chronicles – Framley Parsonage.

That should keep me busy for a while.


Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.


This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

Reading horizons: Episode 23

Reading Horizons: October 2019

What I’m reading now

Abir Mukherjee is about to publish the fourth book in his crime series set in 1920s Calcutta. Death In the East comes out on November 14 in the UK. I have a copy to review. But before plunging in this far into the series I thought I should get familiar with the main character and the setting by reading the first in the series: A Rising Man.  

This novel introduces us to Captain Sam Wyndham, formerly a Scotland Yard detective, who arrives in India hoping to make a new start after his experiences in the trenches of World War 1. He has barely got his feet under the table in his new role with the Indian police when he’s called in to solve the murder of a senior British official. 

Abir Mukherjee

So far this is proving an enjoyable read. I love the detail about Calcutta and the tense relationships between the British governing class and the Indian population. I can see why this book won the Crime Writers’ Association Endeavour Dagger for best historical crime novel in 2017 and was the Sunday Times crime novel of the month in May 2017.

By contrast I’m listening to Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming. I have the print version of this and have dipped into sections of it over the past few months. Hearing her narrate the book gives it extra impact I think.

What I just finished reading

It’s a mystery why I haven’t read more of Penelope Lively’s work. I loved Moon Tiger which won the Booker Prize in 1987 but I’ve never gone on to read anything else by her, despite having three of her books on my shelves.

Reading How It All Began was a chance to put that right. And what a wonderful experience this turned out to be. It’s a cleverly plotted tale of seven people whose lives are derailed because one elderly person is mugged on a warm April day.

Penelope Lively

Via Twitter and comments on my review I’ve now added to the list of other Penelope Lively books I definitely want to read. The Photograph seems to be the one most highly recommended.

What I’ll read next

Now usually this is a tough question because I don’t like to overly plan my reading (I’m realising that challenges which involve making a list are not my thing). But for once I know what I’m going to read next because there are some books that have deadlines attached to them.

First in the queue is The Dutch House by Ann Patchett which I just collected from the library. There’s a very long queue of library members who all want this book so I know there will be no chance of renewing it and I’ll have to finish it before the return date.

Then there’s the new Abir Mukherjee novel I mentioned earlier, Death In the East which I need to read and review by November 18.

Also coming up soon is Love Is Blind which is the book club choice for November. I’m ambivalent about this one. I used to love William Boyd (Brazzaville Beach was my favourite) but in recent years I’ve been less than enthused by his work. Have any of you read Love Is Blind and can tell me whether its so-so or Boyd at his best?

That should keep me busy for a while.


Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks?


This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

Spectacular. Superb. Thrills in house of slaughter [bookreview]

The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage

The Woman in the Dark should be sold with a health warning emblazoned across its cover.

WomanInTheDark

Readers deserve to be cautioned that it’s such an addictive novel they will want to sacrifice domestic chores and forgo sleep until they reach the final pages.

As you’d expect with a thriller,  it has a cracking pace and oodles of twists and turns. But Vanessa Savage has done something far more interesting than simply trotting out the standard elements of the genre. Within her chillingly dark tale of a family in crisis, she spins a disturbing narrative about the legacy of child abuse.

The Woman in the Dark begins on a day that seems just an ordinary one for a rather ordinary family.  But the tensions become quickly apparent. Mum Sarah is suffering from a deep depression as a result of her mother’s death. She’s taken to drink to help dull the pain but her cocktail of alcohol and anti depressant tablets leave her feeling spaced out and unable to function. They need a fresh start according to her loving and caring husband Patrick.

So he persuades her to move home, to buy the Victorian beachfront house in which he grew up. It’s the ideal spot in which to raise their two teenage children Joe and Mia, he argues.

Conveniently he overlooks the fact that this house is where a brutal double murder took place 15 years ago. The Murder House, as the locals call it, is now a dilapidated shell of its former self.  Patrick is convinced they can make it as perfect a home as it was in his childhood. No-one else in the family shares his optimism for the peeling paint, rattling windowpanes and unexplained cold spots in some rooms.

And that’s before they are even aware of the creepy messages on the cellar wall.

From these elements Vanessa Savage has created an intense and deeply disturbing novel about lies, secrets and buried tensions.

No-one comes out of this intact.  Certainly not Sarah who becomes obsessed by the murder and perturbed by what she discovers about Patrick’s past. Definitely not Patrick whose moods swing from concern for Sarah’s wellbeing to uncontrollable anger. Nor their children who suffer nightmares and physical trauma as their parents’ marriage disintegrates.

This is a novel in which nothing – and no-one – can be trusted. Is Sarah right to imagine the house is a malevolent force? Does she have good reason to suspect Patrick is a threat to her and her children? The only version of events we hear is Sarah’s and given her propensity to become confused and muddled, the problems could all be in her mind.

The Woman in the Dark is a spectacularly strong debut novel.

Vanessa Savage writes with such confidence that you quickly overcome doubts that any sane adult would want to live in a house whose previous occupants were slaughtered.  It’s not a book to enjoy (unless you like to revel in other people’s misery) but it’s certainly one in which you can become engrossed.


 

Vanessa SavageAbout the book

The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage was published in January 2019 by Sphere in the UK and by Grand Central Publishing in the USA.

About the Author 

Vanessa Savage trained as a graphic designer and illustrator. She lives with her family in South Wales (just down the road from me I just discovered 🙂 She has won the Myriad Editions First Crimes competition and was shortlisted for the Caledonia Fiction Prize.

Look out for an interview with Vanessa when she joins me in Cwtch Corner next month.

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