Who Can Unlock Our True Selves?

The cover of Ashleigh Nugnet’s novel blurring fact and fiction, ‘Locks’

‘LOCKS: A Story Based on True Events’ by Ashleigh Nugent

“1993 was the year that Stephen Lawrence got murdered by racists, and I became an angry Black lad with a ‘chip on his shoulder’.”

Aeon is a mixed-race teenager from an English suburb. He is desperate to be understand the Black identity foisted on him by racist police, teachers, and ‘friends’. For want of Black role models, Aeon has immersed himself in gangsta rap, he’s trying to grow dreadlocks, and he’s bought himself some big red boots.

And now he’s in Jamaica.

Within days of being in Jamaica, Aeon has been mugged and stabbed, arrested and banged up.

Aeon has to fight for survival, fight for respect, and fight for his big red boots. And he has to fight for his identity because, here, Aeon is the White boy.

In some ways, it can be difficult for a privileged, white, liberal, middle class man to review a novel like this, (not that it’s ever stopped those of us from that category sharing our tuppence’s worth, it has to be said).

Presumably, the starting point is to acknowledge that I have never shared the awful experiences of racism which are shown in this wonderful novel by Ashleigh Nugent. You find yourself saying, “It wasn’t that bad then was it?” and, one suspects that the answer is, “Yeap! And worse…” To not know that is to come face to face with privilege, race and class in the UK of the 90s.

For those of us who have that good fortune, it is the Liverpool-based reminiscences which punch hardest. Nugent has crafted a narrative which jumps between his memory of growing up as a mixed race boy in Liverpool and the disorientating “foreignness” of his trip to Jamaica.

The division for our lead character, Aeon, between being the “white” man in his father’s homeland and the “black” man in his own homeland.

There are also some rather charming narrative passages where Aeon narrates his own Joseph Campbell ‘Hero’s Journey’ as taught to him by a primary teacher.

This novel enjoys blurring fact and fiction, memoir and fable. It is a sensory journey through a vividly reproduced Caribbean experience filled with the shockingly mundane reality of violence, the paranoia of mixing drugs and alcohol and the stress which comes with trying to find an identity – something which all teenagers remember.

I must be of a similar age to the character of Aeon (and, by extension, Nugent), perhaps a few years younger. But I remember that explosion of gangsta rap, the visceral thrill of hearing oppression articulated and a lid being lifted on a life you didn’t know existed.

Aeon is captivated and tries to live the life. It is well worth your time finding out whether he makes it out the other side.

Purchase Links

Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/LOCKS-Story-Based-True-Events-ebook/dp/B08JCZ9D71/

Orders also available from: www.newsfromnowhere.org.uk

Author Bio –

Author, playwright and campaigner, Ashleigh Nugent

Ashleigh Nugent has been published in academic journals, poetry anthologies, and magazines. His latest work, ‘LOCKS’, is based on a true story: the time he spent his 17th birthday in a Jamaican detention centre.

‘LOCKS’ won the 2013 Commonword Memoir Competition and has had excerpts published by Writing on the Wall and in bido lito magazine.

Ashleigh’s one-man-show, based on ‘LOCKS’, has won support from SLATE / Eclipse Theatre, and won a bursary from Live Theatre, Newcastle. The show has received rave audience reviews following showings in theatres and prisons throughout the UK.

Ashleigh is also a director at RiseUp CiC, where he uses his own life experience, writing, and performance to support prisoners and inspire change.

Social Media Links –

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/LocksBook

Twitter – @LocksBook

Instagram – @locksbook

Youtube Trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8TVrX7J2j4

Mint Condition

Thanks so much to Rachel at Rachel’s Random Resources for her help as ever with this blog tour and please check out the sterling efforts of WhatCathyReadNext and Lisa at Coffee, Dogs & Books

MINT’ by SR Wilsher

This may change with so far to go!

It’s the summer of 1976, and after nine years in prison, James Minter is home to bury his mother.

A history of depression and a series of personal issues has seen her death ruled as suicide.

His refusal to accept that conclusion means he must confront his violent stepfather, deal with the gangster who wants his mother’s shop and, of course, face the family of the boy he killed.

But will his search for the truth in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a small seaside town, and the unpicking of the peculiar relationship his mother had with the Stonemason next door, put his own life in danger.

SR Wilsher launces ‘Mint’ onto an unsuspecting public. It is interesting to me that Wilsher talks about how he will “never see any of his books on the shelves of bookshops” but, with writing of this quality, I’m surprised at his lack of optimism.

From the blurb and synopsis, you might be tempted to think that this is going to be a rough and tumble gangster epic. However, it is a much more subtle piece than that.

This is a tale of toxic masculinity and its consequences. It’s a tale of broken families and the impact that one punch can have on a life no matter how well meaning.

It is a very well put together tale with a narrative which skips between decades and narrators. This works very well and each character has a clearly differentiated voice of their own. However, this may be the factor which turns some readers off – you can’t relax with this spiralling story as old enmities bubble up and we learn what motives even the most unpleasant of people.

Purchase Links

UK – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mint-S-R-Wilsher-ebook/dp/B08RZ5V3P8/ 

US – https://www.amazon.com/Mint-S-R-Wilsher-ebook/dp/B08RZ5V3P8/

Author Bio

I tend to divide my life in two. Prior to 2009, I did the long hours and the commitment to paying the mortgage, studying, and finishing the house, whilst trying to write in a way that didn’t impact too much on family and career. The reality was work affected my writing, and my writing prevented me ever committing to my job wholeheartedly.

In 2009, I had a kidney transplant. It took a while to undo the way I had lived before, my life still involved work, children, coffee and chocolate. But slowly I’ve stepped back from work and now spend much more of my time pleasing myself; writing, making furniture and creating art. I’m no better off financially, but I have been much more productive with my writing.

There was a time when I was rewriting the same book over and over in some attempt to second guess the rejections I received. Self-publishing has freed me to move on. Now I usually have two books on the go, one in development and one on its way to completion. 2020, however, being the year that it was, means I’ve been working on three.

I continue to be disappointed that I’ll never see any of my books on the shelves of any bookshop. But I console myself with the fact I’ll never see any of them in a charity shop either.

The Show That Must Go On

‘The Road to Cromer Pier’ by Martin Gore

Janet’s first love arrives out of the blue after forty years. Those were simpler times for them both. Sunny childhood beach holidays, fish and chips and big copper pennies clunking into one armed bandits.

The Wells family has run the Cromer Pier Summertime Special Show for generations. But it’s now 2009 and the recession is biting hard. Owner Janet Wells and daughter Karen are facing an uncertain future. The show must go on, and Janet gambles on a fading talent show star. But both the star and the other cast members have their demons. This is a story of love, loyalty and luvvies. The road to Cromer Pier might be the end of their careers, or it might just be a new beginning. 

The cover of Martin Gore’s second novel, ‘The Road to Cromer Pier’

Martin Gore’s second novel is, I think, going to divide opinion. If you share his characters’ affection for, and nostalgia of, the great seaside holidays of the past in places like Cromer and Hastings and Bracklesham Bay, then you will adore this book. 

If, like many others, you think the reason that these places are dying a slow, strangulated death is because what they offer is over priced, miserably devoid of entertainment and plasticy crap, then you’ll find it hard to engage much with the central dilemma of whether the show will go on and the theatre saved. I grew up in one. I know they don’t need to be saved.

What Gore creates extremely successfully here is a world. This is a town where celebrities on the way up or the way down converge to put on a show which keeps the end of the pier theatre going. 

Gore populates this world like a soap opera: the stand up comedian with a dark secret, the former talent show starlet struggling to put together a life and a career, the mother and daughter team holding the thing to together with sticky tape and glue all the while attempting to evade the shark like attentions of local worthy, and seedy adulterous businessman, Lionel Penrose.

Into this cast of characters as shop soiled and seedy as the seafront town they inexplicably want to keep going, washes up disgraced former football manager on the run from his own troubles and a lover of the head strong Janet, who has some secrets of her own.

This is a novel which walks a bit of a tight rope as I mentioned. If you like the characters, then the ensemble nature – cleverly structured to the mirror the type of show they are building up to at the end of the pier – will allow you to swoop in and out of their stories to satisfy your curiosity. However, this becomes a high wire act as a reader can struggle to stay engaged if there is not a clear protagonist, or at least pair of protagonists to hold on to.

The version I reviewed was an audiobook and this lead to one or two other issues which might not be such and issue in print.

Certainly I once read that a writer should avoid having characters whose names begin with the same letters. I must confess that at times I struggled with Carol and Karen but this somewhat went into overdrive when, in such a large cast, there is a Lec, a Les, a Lauren and a Lionel. I ended up gravitating to the Paul and Janet story just because I could remember who the hell they were.

Additionally, the narration of Penny Scott-Andrews is variable. She renders the Welsh lilt of Lauren with beautiful precision and does a very sleazy Lionel too. But it does grate when a novel about showbusiness has a narrator who pronounces Captain Mainwaring as Captain Main-Wearing. Dad’s Army isn’t that obscure a reference even these days, surely?

Overall, however, I enjoyed diving into the underbelly of a failing theatrical enterprise and the setting was enhanced by rooting the piece so firmly against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crash. This is light, simple story telling, well told and engaging the big themes in life. I rather hope Mr Gore gets back on the Road to Cromer Pier in future. 

Purchase Link 

https://www.audible.co.uk/pd/The-Road-to-Cromer-Pier-Audiobook/B08FCW2BNS

Author Bio – 

I am a 63 year old Accountant who semi-retired to explore my love of creative writing. In my career I held Board level jobs for over twenty five years, in private, public and third sector organisations. I was born in Coventry, a city then dominated by the car industry and high volume manufacturing. Jaguar, Triumph, Talbot, Rolls Royce, Courtaulds, Massey Ferguson were the major employers, to name but a few.

When I was nine year’s old I told my long suffering mother that as I liked English composition and drama I was going to be a Playwright. She told me that I should work hard at school and get a proper job. She was right of course.

I started as an Office Junior at Jaguar in 1973 at eleven pounds sixty four a week. I thus grew up in the strike torn, class divided seventies. My first career ended in 2015, when I semi retired as Director of Corporate services at Humberside Probation. My second career, as a Non Executive Director, is great as it has allowed me free time to travel and indulge my passion for writing, both in novels and for theatre.

The opportunity to rekindle my interest in writing came in 2009, when I wrote my first pantomime, Cinderella, for my home group, the Walkington Pantomime Players. I have now written eight. I love theatre, particularly musical theatre, and completed the Hull Truck Theatre Playwrite course in 2010. My first play, a comedy called He’s Behind You, is now available on: https://www.silverbirchingtonplays.com/product-page/he-s-behind-you-by-martin-gore

Pen Pals was my first novel, and a second, The Road to Cromer Pier, is now available in all three formats. It was officially launched on Cromer Pier itself, coinciding with the new season of the Summertime Special Show.

I’m active on twitter @authorgore and on Facebook Martin Gore Author. My website is www.martingore.co.uk.

I’m an old fashioned writer I guess. I want you to laugh and to cry. I want you to believe in my characters, and feel that my stories have a beginning, a middle, and a satisfactory ending.’

Social Media Links

Twitter – https://twitter.com/AuthorGore

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/Martin-Gore-Author-1237780169706466/

Chasing Shadows in Paris

The Purple Shadow‘ by Christopher Bowden

In the years before the war, Sylvie Charlot was a leading light in Paris fashion with many friends among musicians, artists and writers.  Now she is largely forgotten.  Spending time in Paris during a break in his acting career, Colin Mallory sees a striking portrait of Sylvie.  Some think it is a late work by Édouard Vuillard but there is no signature or documentary evidence to support this view.

The picture has some unusual qualities, not least the presence of a shadow of something that cannot be seen.  Perhaps the picture was once larger.  Colin feels an odd sense of connection with Sylvie, who seems to be looking at him, appealing to him, wanting to tell him something.  Despite a warning not to pursue his interest in her portrait, he is determined to find out more about the painting, who painted it, and why it was hidden for many years.   

Colin’s search takes him back to the film and theatre worlds of Paris and London in the 1930s – and to a house in present-day Sussex.  As he uncovers the secrets of Sylvie’s past, her portrait seems to take on a life of its own.    

The cover of Christopher Bowden’s novel, ‘The Purple Shadow’

‘The Purple Shadow’ by Christopher Bowden is a novel of flowing prose, elegiac phrasing and subtlty of characterisation.

At the opening of the novel, out of work actor Colin Mallory is a malingering flanuer, perusing the streets of Paris at his pleasure. 

Oddly, one of the toughest aspects of reading this novel is that it is so evocative of Paris that is almost painful in a world of lockdowns and social distancing. Bowden writes with a quiet panache and obvious affection for the City of Love that one is left with a feeling of nostalgia and great longing to return to the capital.

“His view was dormers and balconies, shutters and skylights, chimneys and blank walls. Even these were becoming indistinct as the blue light of evening gave way to night.”

Christopher Bowden is clearly a talented artist in his own right and he weaves the strands of plot between forgotten British movie stars of the interwar years with the latter day painting recovery with the skill of a Royal Academician. 

Author Christopher Bowden

Colour imagery positively throbs through the tale. From the second page’s “bright white walls,’ to the “chevrons of indigo, orange and grey” on the last, colours are used to mirror emotions and evoke the surroundings. It is skilfully and unobtrusively carried out.

My issue with the novel is, unfortunately, one which perturbed me for the entire end third of the book. The purple stain of the title is, as the blurb makes clear so this is not a spoiler, one on a painting. The stain seems to be changing, adapting and – possibly – literally moving and yet all of the characters just seem to shrug and say, “Creepy, isn’t it?”

Sorry, no – not creepy. Stupid. You’re confusing a sentient painting with some tawdry sub-Halloween-level balls. 

All of the characters’ entirely blasé approach to the supernatural might enable the plot to wallop on, but it made me want to chuck this finely plotted, beautifully written little novel across the room in irritation.

Still, a quick read by a master craftsman which can be savoured for the quality of the writing alone.

Purchase Links 

UK – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Purple-Shadow-Christopher-Bowden-ebook/dp/B01JLMD7N4/

US – https://www.amazon.com/Purple-Shadow-Christopher-Bowden-ebook/dp/B01JLMD7N4/

France – https://www.amazon.fr/Purple-Shadow-Christopher-Bowden-ebook/dp/B01JLMD7N4/

Author Bio – Christopher Bowden lives in south London. He is the author of six colour-themed novels, which have been praised variously by Andrew Marr, Julian Fellowes, Sir Derek Jacobi, and Shena Mackay.  

Social Media Links –  https://www.facebook.com/christopher.bowden.90

Website – http://www.christopherbowden.com/

Hunting A Portrait By An Artist By A Young Man and Woman

‘Lady in Red’ Tessa Buckley

Pursuing the truth can be a dangerous game…

School’s out for the summer, and Eye Spy Investigations have a new case – looking for Lady in Red, a lost masterpiece by Victorian painter, Gabriel Pascoe.

The clock is ticking for Alex and Donna, because the artist’s house, Acacia Villa, where their friend Jake lives, is due to be demolished, and vital clues may be destroyed. And Alex has an additional problem: he is terrified of snakes, and Jake has a pet snake called Queenie…

As the twins pursue their enquiries, they come up against the man who wants to demolish Acacia Villa. But Mr Mortimer is the godfather of their baby half-sister, Sophie, and criticising him could open up family rifts, which have only just healed.

Then Queenie goes missing, setting in motion a disastrous train of events that will turn the search for Lady in Red into the twins’ most dangerous case yet.

The cover for Tessa Buckley’s third novel in the Eye Spy series, ‘The Lady in Red’

The third in the series of Eye Spy novels for “middle grade” readers aged between 8-12 sees intrepid investigation twins, Alex and Donna, on the trail of a lost Pre-Raphaelite painting.

I really enjoyed ‘Lady in Red’. What I’m going to say next might not sound like praise but it is: this novel is old fashioned, in the best sense of the word, and has all the hallmarks of the vintage Secret Seven or Famous Five, but updated for the modern age. 

This is a world where adults are caring, but suitably hands off to let children go play and fall down coalholes. Where the children might be reckless, but they try to be respectful and really just want to help.

Investigations grind to a halt for family barbecues and time together with friends. Yes, there are the trappings of modern life – mobile phones, their eccentric, inventor father is on a second marriage and they have a half sister – but none of these things so often used for melodrama in heavier novels slows the plot down – find the old man’s painting and save his house from a dark suit wearing, boo hiss villain. Love it!

Buckley is clearly a talented writer. Her prose nips along like skipping children in a field of wheat and, as an author, she is clearly on the side of her adventurous protagonists. 

Author Tessa Buckley

She has really captured that blunt, nonsense, brutality of younger children. To whit, as Alex says:

“Although I felt sorry for Billie, I don’t like whiney kids, and she was beginning to get on my nerves.”

Or later, at his half-sister’s christening:

When I pointed to what look like a pile of frogs’ eggs on little biscuits, Lucy laughed. “That’s caviar. You can try it, but you won’t like it.” She was right. I didn’t.”

I jut love that. You can hear Buckley relishing the little victories of these often overlooked voices and she’s clearly a skilled practitioner of the genre.

This is not a criticism at all, but an observation. There won’t be many 8 year olds who will find this an easy read and so it does present an excellent extension task for capable younger readers and a rip roaring, rollicking read for the lower secondary pupils.

However, this is wholesome family fun and a rip roaring adventure tale which parents could enjoy with their children.

Purchase Links 

‘Lady in Red’    Amazon.co.uk  paperback

‘Lady in Red’    Amazon.co.uk  ebook

‘Lady in Red’    Amazon.com ebook

‘Lady in Red’    Ibooks

‘Lady in Red’    Matador bookstore

https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/young-adult/lady-in-red/

Author Bio – 

Tessa Buckley was an inveterate scribbler as a child, and spent much of her time writing and illustrating stories. After studying Interior Design, she spent fifteen years working for architects and designers. 

She took up writing again after her young daughter complained that she couldn’t find enough adventure stories to read. This led, in 2016, to the publication of Eye Spy, the first in a series for 9-12 year olds about two teen detectives. 

There are now two more books in the series: Haunted, which was a finalist in the Wishing Shelf Book Awards 201, and Lady in Red.

She lives by the sea in Essex and recently completed an Open University arts degree.

Social Media Links –  

Website:        https://tessabuckleyauthor.com

Facebook:     https://www.facebook.com/Tessa-Buckley-Author-

Trailer Reveal!

Trailer Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfVtbrJZY2o&feature=youtu.be

Everything is Beautiful‘ by Eleanor Ray

Sometimes it’s impossible to part with the things we love the most…

Published on February 4th, this novel is billed as “Perfect for fans of Eleanor Oliphant and The Keeper of Lost Things, this exquisitely told, uplifting novel shows us that however hopeless things might feel, beauty can be found in the most unexpected of places.”

Personally, I can’t wait.

When Amy Ashton’s world came crashing down eleven years ago, she started a collection. Just a little collection, just a few keepsakes of happier times: some honeysuckle to remind herself of the boy she loved, a chipped china bird, an old terracotta pot . . . Things that others might throw away, but to Amy, represent a life that could have been.  

Now her house is overflowing with the objects she loves – soon there’ll be no room for Amy at all. But when a family move in next door, a chance discovery unearths a mystery long buried, and Amy’s carefully curated life begins to unravel. If she can find the courage to face her past, might the future she thought she’d lost still be hers for the taking? 

Pre-order Links:

UK – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Everything-Beautiful-Eleanor-Ray/dp/0349427437

US – https://www.amazon.com/Everything-Beautiful-Eleanor-Ray-ebook/dp/B087ZDNZM8/

Publication Date: 4th February 2021

Author Bio –  Eleanor Ray has an MA in English Literature from Edinburgh University and works in marketing. She lives in London with her husband and two young children.


Eleanor was inspired to write Everything is Beautiful by the objects her toddler collects and treasures – twigs, empty water bottles and wilting daisies. She is currently working on her next novel.

Social Media Links – 

Twitter: @EleanorRayBooks
Facebook: @
EleanorRayBooks
Instagram: @
EleanorRayBooks

Rude Awakenings…

The Awakening Of Claudia Faraday by Patsy Trench

‘It got better, in time, though to be truthful it always felt more of a duty than a pleasure: a little like homework, satisfying when over, and done well, but never exactly enjoyable. But then nobody had ever suggested it could be otherwise.’

This was the view of Claudia Faraday, 1920s respectable wife and mother of three, on the subject of sex. That is until an unexpected turn of events shakes her out of her torpor and propels her back into the world revitalised and reawakened, where she discovers, as Marie Stopes might have said: Approached in the right way, even homework can be fun.

The cover of The Awakening of Claudia Faraday by Patsy Trench

The Awakening of Claudia Faraday is a delightful little novel which consistently confounds expectations. The cover, with its silhouetted protagonist could be for a new spy series, the pink writing could signal traditional “chick lit” (urgh – what a bind of a brand that is), the “Roaring Twenties” strap line makes it sound like a PG Wodehouse romp and the blurb description could be anything from a Jilly Cooper bonkbuster to a serious and measured study of the sexual awakening of upper middle class women in the early part of last century.

And, in the end, this rather sad, rather charming novel is a little of all of these things, (although spy thriller is a stretch. The only revelations here are of the human heart and mind, it is a little lacking in unmasked super villains to be fair.

Penetrating Pathos

It is sad. This is a quite and understated sadness of withering dreams and slipping youth. Claudia is a lovely protagonist. A gentle and well intentioned woman who, in her sixth decade, is only beginning to question her wants and desires.

Trench writes with such a penetrating pathos of the boredom of a newly empty nest that the reader’s heart aches for our heroine, so used is she to being of service to others that she is not even the lead character in her own story.

“And so the weeks passed, September into October, and no omnipotent author stepped in to liven up the shapeless plot that was Claudia’s life. She was back to counting the creaks as she ascended the stairs on her way to her bedroom.”

I spent a huge amount of time in the novel feeling desperately sad for Claudia. The Twenties were in distinct danger of not only failing to roar for her but also to go out with barely so much as a whimper.

It was clear that not only sex, but also any agency had been ground out of the character: by society; by men; by her friends; by her mother. This fundamentally sweet woman hadn’t noticed the hypocrisy of everyone else and so was facing the outgoing sands of time in baffled and barely articulated sorrow.

Charming Oddities

This gentle gloom is alleviated by the light touch, page turning writing skill and the assortment of charming oddities which surround her.

The loyal housemaid Lily – fairly consistently having to let her hand fly to her mouth after yet another misplaced observation of her mistress – is a cutie, old friend and occasional sparring partner Prue, seems to be made up of equal parts scandalous affairs in hot climates and terrible driving.

The absentee husband Gerald sounds what used to be called a perfect pill. Having ruined sex for her, then impregnated her three times scooting off overseas for archaeological digs, he could only make it to one of their children’s weddings.

The children themselves add colour and charm to the rather drab world of their mother. Jessica has a horsey laugh, a disordered house and is a flapper with a jolly husband with an alliterative name; Harriet is a Bohemian with a penchant for interior design and a wayward husband while the youngest daughter, Flora is all horse breeding and country air.

It is not a difficulty to spend time in the world of these delightful characters. It is especially easy when Claudia is making her slightly waspish observations such as:

“It was invariably the revolutionaries who managed to consume most of other people’s wine, and their food, while looking down on them from some lofty moral plinth upon which they had placed themselves.”

In conclusion, The Awakening of Claudia Faraday is a nice little novel filled with excellent characters, charming locations and the quiet desperation of some of our fellow citizens. I can’t wait to meet up with them again.

Purchase Link – https://mybook.to/ClaudiaF

Author Bio –

Author Patsy Trench

Patsy Trench lives a quiet and largely respectable life in north London. Claudia’s story shows a side of her normally shy and reserved nature that is little known, even to her friends and acquaintances. Her previous books, about her family’s history in Australia, are entertaining and informative accounts of that country’s early colonial beginnings. She began writing late, and in a previous life she was an actress, scriptwriter, playscout, founder of The Children’s Musical Theatre of London and lyricist. When not writing books she emerges from her shell to teach theatre and organise theatre trips for overseas students. She is the grateful mother of two clever and grown-up children, and she is addicted to rag rugging and, when current circumstances permit, fossicking on the Thames foreshore for ancient treasure.

Social Media Links –

Website: www.patsytrench.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PatsyTrenchWriting/

Twitter:  @PatsyTrench

Instagram: claudiafaraday1920

Author Simon Conway set to triumph with ‘The Stranger’

Scottish author Simon Conway’s fifth novel looks poised to position him as one of the best authors working in the thriller genre today c

Full confession: I’d heard of Simon Conway but this is the first novel of his that I have read. Frankly, after this, my ignorance shames me and, I mean this sincerely, this piece should propel Conway into the very first rank of thriller writer’s working today. 

A world of smoke and mirrors

The Stranger centres on Jude Lyon, an SIS officer, dispatched by his duplicitous Head of Service, Queen Bee, to track down a legendary terrorist who was taken to Syria back when we didn’t do that sort of thing. Honest. 

But this terrorist is not all that he seems. And neither is anyone else in this novel.

As well as Lyon, a lead character with a love life complicated enough to make George Smiley blush, and Queen Bee, the smoke and mirrors head of the security services, the novel is populated with a fascinating cacophony of characters, including a squirming semi-alcoholic former Foreign Secretary, a Scottish journalist with a professional and personal interest in Lyon and a Russian diplomat and his wife who may or may not be luring Jude towards the rocks of disaster. 

Conway’s plots are onion layered: peeling back one skin at a time. He manages that neat trick so often missing in this type of novel which makes plot reveals seem inevitable and surprising rather outlandish or tediously predictable. 

His storytelling remind me of the best of Charles Cumming or Jeremy Duns – engaging, jigsaw tight, satisfying at the end but with potential for expansion in a future work. 

Descriptive passages Martin Amis would be proud of

He writes well too. “Jude’s immigrant provenance is equally exotic and fragmentary, shot through with competing veins of conformity and criminality, from a cigar-chomping bank robber for a grandfather to a general given to eccentricity and dark moods for a father,” is the sort of descriptive passage that Martin Amis at his most interesting would have been proud of. 

And, while it is true, Conway’s novel doesn’t – of necessity – have the same laugh out loud quality of some of Mick Herron’s novels, “Jonno Butcher, one of Cathy’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of meat-faced nephews,” is a description of which even the Slough House author would be proud.

I will be surprised if it emerges that Conway is not a fan of Le Carré. In fact, I’m not sure if it’s an affectionate nod to Le Carré, or merely to do with the abundance of such names in the region, but all the characters from the Caucuses we encounter in the book have names from Le Carré’s novels, especially ‘Our Game’.

Perhaps the most impressive area is that of the terrorists. He makes them well-rounded, whole characters who you don’t mind spending time with. Terrifying, yes, but nuanced and engaging too.

A crash, bang, wallop conclusion done with joie de vivre 

The ending of The Stranger may be slightly crash, bang, wallop for some people’s tastes but even this is done with enjoyable joie de vivre and edge of the seat inducing tension as well as some final plot twists which make me hope that this is not a standalone novel but the first in a series.

Overall, a triumph of a novel that makes me long for the opportunity to encounter Jude Lyon and his world again. 

Just need to go back and read Simon Conway’s back catalogue now. Whole-heartedly recommended.

Agent Running Through Fields of Wheat?

“You know what Trump is?’

‘Tell me.’

‘He’s Putin’s shithouse cleaner.’

Which is as good a place as any to begin with John Le Carrè’s latest work, Agent Running in the Field. Rumoured to have angered his former employers, (according to one very put out spook at the Cliveden Literary Festival at least)

Mr Le Carrè’s somewhat classy retort in The Times was enough to generate some publicity for what is certainly a lower key release than 2018’s Legacy of Spies (which even got a session at the London’s Royal Festival Hall beamed to cinemas over the UK).

This was supposed to be his Brexit rant – his anti-Trump, reactionary wail of despair at UK national suicide, the world gone mad, manipulated by the kleptocratic, Tsarist spook-in-chief in Moscow. This was supposed to be his deconstruction of the British state and it’s Cambridge Analytica-altered, Putin fiddled with, Big Red Bus of Deceitful Propaganda opus. Hell, even the title sounds like a riff on our former Prime Minister’s childhood agricultural misdemeanours. And, at least in the character of Ed, the novel does reflect those emotions.

“It is my considered opinion that for Britain and Europe, and for liberal democracy across the entire world as a whole, Britain’s departure from the European Union in the time of Donald Trump, and Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the Us is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterfuck bar none.”

This, in fairness, is hardly an equivocal position. But, nor is it a radical stance so far out with the opinions of many of the people watching Brexit unfold and, in comparison to – say 2003’s Absolute Friends – this is a quiet and measured response.

And, really, that is my take away from the novel. It is a small story in a way that the absolute first rate Le Carrè pieces aren’t. The character of Ed is a graceless and, as a narrator in one of his novels might say, seems to have elevated gracelessness to an art form. Nat is an unreliable narrator, the seemingly happy marriage undermined by what everyone else sees in him apparently, although the influence of this on the plot seems slim.

Overall, it’s always better to read Le Carrè than others. There are the usual damning characterisations, the usual pithy descriptions and he does physical nuance just about better than anyone but, here, the plotting lacks surprises and the ending fails to pack the sort of punch that even a relatively minor novel of his latter period, Our Kind of Traitor or A Most Wanted Man for example, manage to produceAgent Running.

Mister Brunetti and the things that he is not

Is it really 23 years since first we  met? Who could not love Commisario Guido Brunetti and his loveable collection of family and colleagues?

Venice – it is traditional at this point to say that the city is as much a character in the novels as the humans,  – the city Brunetti navigates with as much detached san froid as he can muster as the murky world of Italian police work intrudes on his homelife.

Falling in love

Donna Leon’s 24th addition to the Brunetti series is Falling in Love

There are many theories as to why people read crime fiction – catharsis born of frustration at their own lives, vicarious wish-fulfillment to name but two – but there’s no doubt that Donna Leon’s characters buck the trend of the standard tropes found in the genre.

So much so, that to define the character of Brunetti, it may be easier to say what he is not.

Brunetti is not divorced. Married to a wonderful professor of literature, Paola. She may have been born into the Venetian nobility, but this rebellious left wing academic with a burning – necessarily unrequited – love of Henry James is mother to his children and always on hand to tease him, gently chide or act as a moral arbiter for Guido if he begins to stray too far from the path of righteousness. Paola can cause him problems, such as when, in fury at the authority’s lack of power to counter a sex tourism travel agency, she was driven to smashing the firm’s window with a brick, but she is almost always on hand to provide a sumptuous home cooked lunch or dinner.

Brunetti is not an alcoholic. Although, he is partial to a little tipple on his terrace at the end of a long day. Or lunch time. Or whenever the Veneziano weather will allow.

Brunetti is not fetishistic about the law.  As a Commisario of the Italian police, Brunetti is most often found examining his cases in terms of real politik – can something be done? If so, at what cost? And, how many favours will it cost a good man? If the answer to any of these is too much; then he may well let things slide. But never too far – after all, he still has to face Paola at the end of the day.

Brunetti is not estranged from his family. He has too children, Raffi and Chiara. They have not aged a great deal over the preceding near-quarter of a century, Raffi is a perpetual teen at university and still coming home to Mama, whilst Chiara has inherited his mother’s social conscience, but both children will still do the washing up after a family meal – even with a little grumbling.

Brunetti is not a lone wolf, or vigilante against the world. Guido relies heavily on a support network of colleagues, most notably his sergeant (later Ispettore) and friend Vianello, who plays Horatio to his Hamlet.

His greatest asset in his work – at least in terms of getting results – is the mysterious Signorina Elettra. His boss Vice-Questore Patta’s secretary, well connected and with a varied dating history, she spends the finances of the Questura on flowers to brighten her day and spends the rest of the time frightening Patta with her intelligence and Brunetti with her ability to circumnavigate the computer systems of the Italian state. Oh and the law, but she never seems to worry too much about that.

Brunetti

Some of the Brunetti books were adapted fro German television, apparently to Leon’s displeasure.

On the other hand, Brunetti is in conflict with his boss. One trope of the genre Guido does fit is his dislike of his boss. Vice-Questore Patta is vain, lazy and southern. Not a great combination in Brunetti’s opinion. He is joined by his subordinate brought along from Naples in the unlovely form of Lieutenant Scarpa who, over the course of the novels, has done nothing but snarl and act as a counter-weight to Brunetti and Vianello’s innate goodness.

Across a series this long, there is some variation in quality, for sure. The earliest novel, Death La Fenice was a promising start, but the series really hit its stride with a run that took Brunetti from a military academy in Uniform Justice to the famous glass works on Murano in Through a Glass Darkly.

Latterly, the novels feel like they have fallen into a comfy rhythm that pleases rather than pulsates on the reader’s palate. The latest novel, Falling in Love, is the 24th in the series and brings us back full circle to the opening opera-themed novel. And it’s fine. Not the best, not the worst.

But, if you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting the Brunettis, dip in. You’ll not be sorry.

Falling in Love is available from Amazon.co.uk