Quick Review: THE NIGHT AGENT by Matthew Quirk (William Morrow)

QuirkM-NightAgentUSA fast-paced, gripping political conspiracy thriller

To find a Russian mole in the White House, an FBI agent must question everything… and trust no one

No one was more surprised than FBI Agent Peter Sutherland when he’s tapped to work in the White House Situation Room. From his earliest days as a surveillance specialist, Peter has scrupulously done everything by the book, hoping his record will help him escape the taint of his past. When Peter was a boy, his father, a section chief in FBI counterintelligence, was suspected of selling secrets to the Russians — a catastrophic breach that had cost him his career, his reputation, and eventually his life.

Peter knows intimately how one broken rule can cost lives. Nowhere is he more vigilant than in this room, the sanctum of America’s secrets. Staffing the night action desk, his job is monitoring an emergency line for a call that has not — and might never — come.

Until tonight.

At 1:05 a.m. the phone rings. A terrified young woman named Rose tells Peter that her aunt and uncle have just been murdered and that the killer is still in the house with her. Before their deaths, they gave her this phone number with urgent instructions: “Tell them OSPREY was right. It’s happening…”

The call thrusts Peter into the heart of a conspiracy years in the making, involving a Russian mole at the highest levels of the government. Anyone in the White House could be the traitor. Anyone could be corrupted. To save the nation, Peter must take the rules into his own hands and do the right thing, no matter the cost. He plunges into a desperate hunt for the traitor — a treacherous odyssey that pits him and Rose against some of Russia’s most skilled and ruthless operatives and the full force of the FBI itself.

Peter knows that the wider a secret is broadcast, the more dangerous it gets for the people at the center. With the fate of the country on the line, he and Rose must evade seasoned assassins and maneuver past jolting betrayals to find the shocking truth — and stop the threat from inside before it’s too late.

That surprisingly long synopsis does set up the plot for Matthew Quirk’s latest fast-paced thriller rather well. Peter Sutherland is languishing in the basement of the White House, working for two prominent administration staffers, in a strange, important-yet-unexciting job. Then, with a single phone call, his job and life is thrown completely out of whack. What follows is 400~ pages of breakneck paced thriller action and conspiracy. This is an entertaining, well-written thriller. Continue reading

Quick Review: THE SAND MEN by Christopher Fowler (Solaris)

FowlerC-SandMenAn interesting, slow-burn mystery in Dubai

In Dubai there’s a new world of high-luxury resorts emerging for the super-rich – but at what price to everyone else?

Lea, Roy and their 15 year-old daughter Cara live in a gated community reserved for foreign workers. Roy has been hired to deal with teething problems at Dream World, a futuristic beach complex. In the oppressive heat, the wives appear happy to follow behind their husbands, cooking and arranging tea parties, but Lea finds herself a virtual prisoner in a land where Western women are regarded with indifference and suspicion.

At least there are a few friendly outsiders who don’t enjoy the conformity of the ex-pat community — until one night, when the most outspoken one dies in a suspicious accident. It’s the first in a string of terrible occurrences that divide the foreign workers. Lea’s neighbours start to blame migrants, locals and even each other.

Lea is convinced that deliberate acts of cruelty are being committed – but is there a real threat to her life, or is she becoming paranoid? And what if the thing she fears most is really happening? What happens in a world where only the rich are important? Welcome to a future that’s five minutes away, where rebellion against conformity can lead to the unthinkable…

This is the first of Christopher Fowler’s novels that I’ve read, and I must say I rather enjoyed it. The Sand Men wasn’t quite what I’d expected: in good ways, and one I thought could have been expanded upon. Continue reading

Upcoming: BITE by Nick Louth (Sphere)

LouthN-BiteOriginally self-published, Nick Louth‘s BITE will be published in paperback by Sphere in the UK next year (it is available now in eBook).

Tomorrow should be the greatest day of Erica Stroud-Jones’s life. In just 24 hours this brilliant young scientist will present her secret work to a conference in Amsterdam – research that promises to revolutionise the battle against a deadly tropical disease. Millions of lives could be saved; a Nobel Prize beckons.

Arriving to watch her are sceptics and rivals, admirers and enemies. Erica’s own eyes will be on sculptor Max Carver, her American new love to whom she will dedicate her achievement.

Tomorrow never comes.

Erica vanishes during the night. Max, desperate, terrified, sets out to find her, descending into an underworld full of malice and cunning. But even he is shocked by the dark terror he finds in the heart of the woman he loves.

This sounds intriguing. The synopsis doesn’t give much away at all, but that could be a good thing.

Review: LOCK IN by John Scalzi (Gollancz/Tor)

Scalzi-LockInA solid sci-fi crime thriller

Imagine a plague that incapacitates almost 1.7 million people — and now imagine a cure that is even worse.

Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. 4% suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And 1% find themselves “locked in” — fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus.

1% doesn’t seem like a lot. But in the US that’s 1.7 million people “locked in” — including the President’s wife and daughter.

Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can fully restore the locked in. But then two new technologies emerge. One is a virtual-reality environment, “The Agora”, where the locked-in can interact with other humans, whether locked-in or not. The other is the discovery that a few rare individuals have brains that are receptive to being controlled by others, allowing those who are locked in to occasionally “ride” these people and use their bodies as if they were their own.

This skill is quickly regulated, licensed, bonded, and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse…

Another very good novel from John Scalzi, offering an excellent blend of two genres. In Lock In, Scalzi takes core elements of the crime/conspiracy thriller and injects some excellent techno-sci-fi elements reminiscent of Surrogates and I, Robot. I enjoyed this. Continue reading

“The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair” by Joel Dicker (MacLehose Press)

DickerJ-TruthAboutTheHarryQuebertAffairUKA gripping and absorbing, slightly flawed thriller

August 30, 1975. The day of the disappearance. The day a small New Hampshire town lost its innocence.

That summer Harry Quebert fell in love with fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan. Thirty-three years later, her body is dug up from his yard along with a manuscript copy of his career-defining novel. Quebert is the only suspect.

Marcus Goldman – Quebert’s most gifted protégé – throws off his writer’s block to clear his mentor’s name. Solving the case and penning a new bestseller soon blur together. As his book begins to take on a life of its own, the nation is gripped by the mystery of ‘The Girl Who Touched the Heart of America’. But with Nola, in death as in life, nothing is ever as it seems.

This is not an easy book to review. It has been on my radar for a while, and I’ve been eager to read it ever since I saw it mention on (I think) The Bookseller. I would say it mostly lived up to my expectations. It is expansive, brilliant, absorbing, briskly-paced, but also flawed and at times frustrating, even aggravating. A confounding novel to review. Despite the issues I had with certain elements of the novel and story, it was utterly gripping, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

First of all, I very much enjoyed reading it – I was always eager to get back to it, when life forced me to stop reading (sleep, meetings, etc.). Dicker has written an engaging thriller, one that brings a decades-old disappearance back into the spotlight, as a beloved member of a small town community – the titular Harry Quebert – is accused of two shocking, heinous acts: continuing an affair with a fifteen year-old girl, and also her murder. What follows is an investigation by the accused’s protégé (of sorts), in an attempt to clear his name and salvage his reputation. Along the way, things get very messy indeed. Threats and revelations abound, which keeps readers guessing all the way through – the truth is only revealed in the final 10% of the novel (I read it as an eARC). I really liked the way Dicker keeps throwing out red herrings, and also that Marcus’s investigation does one hell of a lot of damage along the way: relationships are shattered, secrets (related and not) are brought into the light, and the competing agendas at work tear the community apart.

Speaking of these competing agendas: there are times when Dicker’s character come across as cartoonish, and not in a good way. For example, Marcus’s editor/publisher is rather unrealistic – as if every commercial consideration that any publisher would need to take into account is exaggerated and overblown. He is an awful person, and there’s no reason to disbelieve the existence of such characters, but he does certain things that seem so stupid. Considering he’s able to offer $2,000,000 dollar advances, he comes across as singularly devoid of the emotional intelligence to be a high-powered, successful publisher in New York. The publishing aspects of the novel were, actually, the most lacking in verisimilitude, which was a real pity.

Dicker’s writing is, for the main, excellent and the translation is superb, too. The pacing is superb, and I was absolutely captivated by the narrative and investigation. At the same time, there were instances when the dialogue – especially that featuring Marcus’s editor, Nola and select other characters – appears melodramatic and just not very good. At the risk of sounding condescending or unfair, I can’t help but wonder if this is an instance of lost-in-translation?

There were times when the investigation – official and Marcus’s amateurish actions – veered off in strange ways. Partly, this was to allow for the frequent upending of their attempts to get to the bottom of things. For the main, it worked very well, but there were certainly times when I became frustrated. Without shedding too much light on particulars, some of the switcheroos felt forced. In addition, some of the characters are morons – especially when it comes to the writing of the book-within-the-book. Marcus and his editors commit some astonishing failures and cock-ups, one that didn’t ring true at all. One in particular, very near the end, is an unforgivable oversight that I just can’t see happening in real life – something that could so easily have been rectified over the course of the investigation. Frustrating moments like this robbed the novel of some of its impact.

This review is, I recognise, rather vague on the details. This is because, despite this flaws – and some might consider them huge – I could not stop reading. In terms of sheer enjoyment, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a while. Given how picky I can be, and how easy gaffs and inconsistencies can ruin a novel for me, I think that’s saying something. It is not surprising to me that this has been such a success.

If the goal of any novel should be to entertain, be thought-provoking, and get the reader thinking, this this novel succeeds on every level. That is has some shortcomings is made almost irrelevant by just how good the rest of it is.

Gripping and absorbing, this is well worth reading. Definitely recommended, but be warned that there are some niggles.

An Interview with DAVE HUTCHINSON

Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Dave Hutchinson?

Dave Hutchinson is a 53-year-old journalist and writer, born in Sheffield and living in London. He likes cats and hates mushrooms. He is obsessed with Twitter to a disturbing degree.

HutchinsonD-EuropeInAutumnYour latest novel, Europe In Autumn, is published by Solaris. How would you introduce the novel to a new reader?

Europe In Autumn is, for want of a better term, a near-future espionage thriller. It’s set in a Europe where the EU has begun to fracture for various reasons, and new nations are springing up all over the place. Rudi, the central character, is a chef who becomes involved with a group of couriers and people smugglers, and finds himself mixed up in what may be a very large conspiracy. It wasn’t originally planned as part of a series, but while I was writing it I had an idea for a companion novel, and since I finished it I’ve started to see a possible sequel. We’ll see how things go.

What inspired you to write the novel? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?

Inspirations… that’s a tough one. Alan Furst’s novels were a big influence on the feel and structure of the book, and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential inspired me to make Rudi a chef. Further back, Len Deighton’s definitely an influence, as is Keith Roberts. More widely, ideas come from anywhere. You can be reading the paper and a phrase will jump out at you and set off a chain of association that will wind up with you writing a story. Other times a bit of dialogue will pop into your head, or you’ll see something, and a few months later you’ll see something else and sort of subconsciously bolt them together, and that keeps happening until all the bits reach critical mass and you find yourself sitting down and starting to write. It’s just a matter of keeping your eyes open. That’s the easy bit; it’s the writing that’s hard.

How were you introduced to reading and genre fiction?

WellsHG-FirstMenInTheMoonI’ve been a fan of science fiction ever since junior school, when I read First Men In The Moon. It was really the only thing that seemed interesting to me, and I spent years working my way through Asimov, Heinlein, Niven, E.E.  ‘Doc’ Smith and so on. Then I read Funeral In Berlin and really got into spy fiction. Then I read Farewell, My Lovely and really got into crime fiction.

How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?

I find writing very, very difficult. I’m an enormously lazy writer – I was picking around at Europe In Autumn for at least ten years, probably longer – but I love doing it. I love the act of imagining something and describing it, and seeing that turn into a book, an object you can actually hold, is a continual delight to me. It’s a very different discipline to journalism, which – at least in the journalism I did – doesn’t allow great scope for creativity. It does, however, knock any prima donna tendencies out of you; I once wrote a double-page feature on the Reagan-Dukakis Presidential election and saw it subbed down to four column inches.

When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?

I wanted to be a writer very early on – I was scribbling little stories in notebooks when I was about thirteen or fourteen. My first novel was a rip-off of the Lensman books. It was awful beyond belief, and the world is far better off without it. When I was sixteen my mother bought me a typewriter, and that’s really where I date my writing “career” from. And since then it’s just been a long slog of stories, some better than others.

What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?

One of the things I like about science fiction is the way it’s constantly examining itself, asking itself questions. I’m not sure other genres do that. Sometimes, I think science fiction puts itself to the question a little too harshly, but it keeps everyone on their toes, keeps things moving forward, and that’s healthy. I think I’ve been seeing articles about how science fiction is dead, or at least stagnant, for the best part of forty years, but it always keeps going, there’s always new blood coming through, new points of view, new questions to face. If my stuff does fit into it at all, it’s in a small, quiet, English kind of way.

What other projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?

At the moment I’m working on the companion to Europe In Autumn, which is a kind of parallel view of some of the events in the first book. I’m also working on a novel called Gunpowder Square, which is a detective story involving gnomes and the nature of Reality. There will also be a book of previously-uncollected short stories at some point either this year or next from NewCon Press.

What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?

Right now I’m re-reading Alexandra Richie’s fabulous biography of Berlin, Faust’s Metropolis, which is an utterly terrific book, I really can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m also reading Dracula for the first time, and I’m finding it a bit of a surprise. Which is always good.

HutchinsonDave-Reading

What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?

What would readers be most surprised to learn about me? I’m not sure anything would surprise people who know me. I was once quite athletic – I was Sheffield City discus champion, back in the day. But then I discovered the joys of sloth and I haven’t looked back since.

What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?

I have a feeling the next twelve months are going to be a period of great change for me. Some of it for good, some of it maybe not so much. I’m really looking forward to Europe In Autumn coming out, though. It’s amazing to me to think that this thing, which began over a decade ago as a bunch of notes and bits of dialogue, is now a physical object which other people are reading, and whatever happens I’ll always be grateful to Solaris for taking a chance with it. A lot of writers aren’t so lucky.