Book reviews -Deity, The Devil’s Playground, and The Burning

I know, I know, I’m ridiculously behind on these and I’ve read at least three more books since starting to write them. Anyway, better late than never (I hope).


Deity, by Steven Dunne

I believe this is the third in a series starring DCI Damen Brook, but it’s easily picked up as a stand-alone (though I would have liked to know the background to the killer known as the Reaper). Four college students have disappeared, and internet videos suggest they may have committed group suicide. At the same time bodies start appearing with missing vital organs – consistent with having been mummified.

What’s right with it

The plot elements feel sharp and current (internet voyeurism, teen disaffection), and I really liked the intertextuality of films and books. The main character, though formed in a familiar mould, is sympathetic and believable, flawed yet entirely trustworthy. The teens were also very well drawn and spoke with fresh, pitch-perfect voices. All in all it delivered an impressive range of characters and viewpoints, and a satisfyingly twisty plot. I’ll have to go back and read the first two in the series now.

What’s wrong with it

The ‘loner cop’ is overdone in crime fiction, though I liked that this one struggled with nicotine withdrawal rather than other vices. It’s a little predictable that once the DCI’s daughter turns up, she’s going to be in some kind of danger, though I didn’t guess the twist at the end, which is always satisfying.

What I learned

How different viewpoints can create a book that’s richly multitonal.

The Devil's Playground

The Devil’s Playground, by Stav Sherez

A young London man, adrift in his life, is summoned to Amsterdam when his phone number is found on the body of a dead homeless man. He’s soon caught up in a dark web of corruption, stretching from Nazi-era atrocities to the horrors of the current internet. He meets a young American woman with secrets of her own and teams up with a Dutch detective to unravel the dark knots of the story.

What’s right with it

The viewpoint characters, though many, were all compelling and sympathetic (the cheesecake-eating detective, the Jewish artist lost in the Holocaust, the two young people drifting round Europe, unable to name or own their own lostness). It made me hungry for cheesecake (and I am again now, damn) and itch to revisit Amsterdam and seek out these dark corners. It is also one of the most genuinely disturbing books I’ve ever read. If you aren’t ready to face up to the full horrors of what happened in Auschwitz, or what you can buy in the filthiest corners of the interest (hint- everything), then don’t read this. In fact it’s really a meditation on how low humanity can sink, threaded like ribbon through a crime plot. As you read, you will wonder what’s wrong with you that you can find atrocities fascinating – as we all do, if we’re honest, on some level.

What’s wrong with it

Not really a criticism, but that leads me on to the observation that this is not really a crime novel at all. The serial killer aspects felt like they had less conviction behind them, beside the baldly horrific Holocaust strands (never sensationalist, always quietly unblinking). I realise I’ve not really summarised the plot very well, because it’s so densely intertwined I’m not sure I can unpick it. Perhaps this is a lesson that we need to let crime be wider, more all-encompassing, less hidebound by rules. On some level the book seems to ask why we get hung up on one or two small deaths, and ignore the crimes against millions that happened in living memory.

What I learned

People are awful and there is scant redemption in life. But cheesecake is nice.

The Burning

The Burning, by Jane Casey

Maeve Kerrigan is a young DC with the Met, struggling in a man’s world. When a man is stabbed by the woman he’s apparently tried to abduct, it seems they may have caught the serial killer Burning Man, who’s been responsible for four murders so far. But in the kind of clever reversal that marks the book out, it’s a false alarm, and that night another woman is found burned. But when Maeve delves into the latest victim’s life, it seems there could be a lot more to the murder, stretching back years to a secret to her time at Oxford, and involving her buttoned-up best friend.

What’s right with it

This book was a total revelation. I was expecting a straightforward serial-killer procedural, but instead I got a pacey crime story twisted around a dark and disturbing psychological thriller. Maeve is hugely likeable and the rest of the squad, from the hunky young DC to the ageing plod, are well drawn. The details of police life feel meticulously researched, but interesting rather than heavy-handed, as is so often the case in crime novels. I loved the subversion of the serial killer narrative and the twists and turns, and can’t wait to read the rest in the series. As an Oxford exile, I also got a big kick out of the portrayal of college life, its charm and its pitfalls.

What’s wrong with it

There are a few different narrators in the book, and the main two, Maeve and Louise (the victim’s best friend) are excellently done. But the first chapter is from the viewpoint of a character we don’t really see again, and towards the end, when Maeve is offstage for a while, we also get Rob, her colleague. This felt a little jarring, though I suppose it was necessary for plot reasons. I also think the blurb and cover didn’t quite do the subtlety of the story justice. It’s way more than a police procedural and Louise in particular is a seductively repellent character.

What I learned

How to work in research detail so it’s fascinating and believable, not clunky.

I know all of the authors above. 

Sorted for ebooks and whizz

I had planned to write something on ebooks for a while, as I’m a recent convert, and as it has suddenly become the hot topic of the day, beside that big Sports Day happening sometime soon, I’ve dragged my post-Harrogate festival hungover corpse-like body up and pounded out some of these thoughts.

As you may have seen, one of the panels at Harrogate turned into a fascinating and controversial debate on the subject. Personally I thought this was great, as panels can sometimes be a little staid, though the discussion did become muddied with the question of self-publishing, which people sometimes forget is a different debate altogether. My thoughts are more about the actual issue of ebooks versus print books. My view: there is no issue. End of.  Both are reading, both are good for authors. Either way it goes towards my royalty payments. (You can read about the panel here

I was a latecomer to ebooks. I’m a lifelong bibliophile and while no Luddite, not the fastest adopter of technology. I didn’t have a computer until I was 22. I refused to get an ereader for years, even though my house is groaning with books and I have to take at least one for every day I’m on holiday. I won a Sony reader in a competition and didn’t use it much, mainly because it was too much of a chore to plug it in to the computer, and their ebook store was very hard to use. Then I got an iPad and the Kindle app, and since then I’ve read dozens of books on there.

There are many advantages to them. Lighter suitcases. The chance to read anywhere, for small bursts. I can read in bed without using one of those silly clip-on torches -for me this is the main advantage as I do most reading then. The saving on storage space – I was almost killed by my books last year when a case collapsed on a gas pipe. If you’re enjoying something, you can instantly buy the sequel and read it too. I’ve bought far more books since I started e-reading. Especially if they are cheap, I’ll buy things to stock up and read another time. Often I don’t finish them, but I’ll try more things without having to stockpile or get rid of an unfinished paper book (to my mind one of the saddest objects in creation, staring down at you accusingly from the shelves). You can carry your library round with you- I used to give myself chronic shoulder pain as I’d always take two books out, in case I didn’t like one. Also, papercuts are a real bitch.

And then there are disadvantages. You can’t get them wet, or sandy, and if you leave them in the sun they seriously overheat. If you take them to the beach you’re worried about losing the whole device, rather than a cheap paperback. If the device gets dropped or stepped on or runs out of charge, you’re screwed. You can’t easily lend them yet. You can’t take them out of the case and give them a hug when you’ve especially loved them. You can’t tell how long they are, or enjoy the tactile joys of smell and touch and colour. They’re no good for flicking back and forth, or remembering what the cover was like. Reading on a device with other apps makes you more distracted (though if the book’s gripping enough, this won’t happen). You can’t nosey into what other people are reading on the train. I’m weird so I will probably end up re-buying any books I’ve especially loved on the ereader. You can’t get them signed, either.

So, we can learn a lot from ebooks. How to play with price points, how to promote things online (quickly and responsively), how to adjust blurbs and descriptions. How willing people are to pay for things if they are as easy to get as falling off a log (I would never be bothered to hunt down pirate ebooks, especially if they are full of typos as I hear they often are). I do think publishers need to stop being scared of them and learn these lessons fast. Good content is ultimately what people want, but ease of delivery and price is what makes them press ‘buy now’. I don’t agree with the 20p model  – that smacks of desperation. I’d like to pay about 3.99 for most ebooks. Anything more than that and I’ll hesitate. If something’s on at less than £2 for a day or so, I’ll take a punt and try a new author. If people don’t like selling at that price, they shouldn’t have allowed paperbacks to be priced at under £4 in supermarkets and on Amazon. Whatever you say about production and editing costs, you can’t expect people to pay more for a digital file than a physical book. It’s one thing about ebooks that makes me hugely angry. It’s true we mustn’t let the price of ebooks collapse too – but in that case we shouldn’t have let the price of paperbacks go so low either. In other countries, a book costs at least £20. Visitors from Australia and New Zealand are stunned at how cheap ours are. I think it’s too late to adjust upwards, and cranking up the ebook price just makes people feel they’re being shafted.

I’m not very worried about piracy either. I think that if people can get something easily and cheaply without stealing, they won’t. I lived in China for a while and it’s basically not possible to get non-pirate films there. Eventually we got sick of them, the quality was so unreliable and so many would cut out before the end (still no idea what happened in Life is Beautiful so I assume it ended well). Books aren’t the same as songs – we want to take them away and savour.

Ultimately, I think we all get too hung up on these things. It’s either ‘Oh no, I love books too much, I want to press myself against their frayed pages in a manner that would get me arrested in a library’, or ‘Paper books are only for weak Luddites, in my ebook utopia I will have you all rounded up and burned at Fahrenheit 451’. I think it’s great if people read more and find different ways to do it. What I’m more scared of is that people will stop reading altogether. Our real competitors are TV, games, films, and everything else that distracts from the written word. If a book is something you can flick to on your phone or tablet device, so much the better. But we need to make sure they’re easy to get and not more expensive than physical books, and we need to understand that the internet is like upending a box of flies and then trying to stuff them all back in again – once something’s out it’s out. All you can do is try to keep up.

Things we lost in the fire

The other day I was looking for a notebook. I have a lot of notebooks, because I often write longhand, and I also keep lists in them (‘buy milk…email someone to shout at them…write bestseller’, that sort of thing) I wanted to find the notes I made on a screenplay idea. It wasn’t as easy to find as I’d thought – I’ve narrowed it down to six possible notebooks. I have only the vaguest idea when I did the writing and I’m not very good about dating or filing my notebooks. I am not as organised as the heroine of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, who kept five, colour-coded.

What I did realise was I’ve written a hell of a lot of words over the years. I’ve been writing on and off since I was nine years old. Excluding some things I’ve thrown away, it amounts to a lot. This much, in fact:







I’m not sure how the dog sneaked into that one.

A life’s worth of writing, some fiction, some journaling, some embarrassing pages and pages of moaning about my boss and mooning over a boy I liked who inexplicably didn’t like me. I do all my first drafts by hand, feeling my way into the story, shaping it like a sculpture rather than with mechanical cut and paste of the computer. It stops me fiddling, and keeps me looking forward, and I can’t get distracted because the notebook doesn’t also have a Twitter app. I love buying notebooks and I often give them as presents to friends who write. I didn’t get my own computer until I was 23, and until then I hand-wrote all my university work too. So the majority of my work is in that box. In a few more years I imagine I might install a secret cave, so when I pull out the right book the wall will spin round and reveal them all. ‘Behold…the graveyard of ALL MY DREAMS!’

I was talking to a writer friend about my box and they said, ‘But aren’t you worried there might be a fire or something?’ I’d never really thought of that (now added to the great and growing list of writing neuroses, so thanks for that) but in truth I’ve lost far more data over the years to crashed laptops (four in the past four years), lost or exploded USB sticks, and unravelling floppy discs (yeah, remember floppies? They were crap weren’t they. Bless them.). But if I ever lost that box of scribbled words, I’d be bereft. At times I have decided to delete work, or throw away notebooks, and I bitterly regret every single lost word. Even if they were awful. Especially if they were awful.

A few times at writing events I’ve been asked about how to cut your work. What I do is put it all into another Word document, which I might call ‘cut bits’, or ‘extra bits’ if I feel my own psyche might be fooled by the euphemism. When I wrote my first book it was the only way I could bear to get rid of what I felt to be my precious and perfectly crafted passages. Of course, I never put them back in. In time I forgot all about them (because they were awful). But psychologically it let me take them out – the techy equivalent of that big box of old words above. So if you’re in that situation, just try it. It might work. And never get rid of your work. Even if it’s awful, and cringe-making, you never know when you can use that idea again, or recycle that sentence, or even just read them through with misty-eyed nostalgia for the pretentious young scribe you used to be.

So many stories in those books. There was my first, about some friends at school who were nine. I had no story and didn’t get past page 2. There was the novella about a teenage girl fancying a boy, who turned out to be lovely and kind and not at all like the local farmers I only ever seemed to meet. There was the one about the 19 year old girl from a dull town who meets a fabulous and exciting family – 10 chapters (all lost somewhere. Massively regret this, though it was probably dire. I was going to call it Travelling Hopefully. Vom.) There was the one about the three twenty-something girls living in the flat and having twenty-something issues – 40,000 words. (Basically I just wrote whatever my life was at the moment – one day you’ll read my opus Living in the Suburbs and Buying a Flatscreen).

Then there were others that might still have legs. The one about the two sisters, one pregnant and going off the rails, hiding a trauma from their childhood. The one about a terrorist attack, and people going missing in Africa. The one about the artists. More recently, I’ve written two books that I thought might get published. The first literary one, about the Irish family. The third psychological thriller. So far they haven’t been, and I’m starting to realise this might never happen, but it might be OK. Maybe they were just books I needed to write to get somewhere else. Letting go is an art, but sometimes, all you have to do is close your eyes and open your hands, and it’s gone. As they say, if you love something, set it free. I would amend that to, if your book is truly crap, let it go, but never ever ever throw it out. That shit could be worth millions when you get famous. Then they’ll see. THEY’LL ALL SEE. Excuse me while I retreat into my cave of abandoned novels.

What I read this [week] fortnight (18 June-1 July)

What I read this week fortnight

Time seems to have wasted me, as I do waste time, these past few weeks. I’m slightly ashamed of the paltry three books I’ve read in that time. But here they are all the same.

Absolute Zero Cool, by Declan Burke

It’s hard to explain this book. I was expecting a straightforward crime novel, perhaps with added jokes, but I got something very different. Absolute Zero Cool uses the device of the struggling writer (who may or may not be the author, if you know anything about him), accosted in a Pirandello-esque nightmare by the hero of his own unpublished novel. We then cut between the main storyline, the novel as it’s resurrected and rewritten, and the inset novel the character is writing. This is often a comic device (think of Adrian Mole with Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland) but in Declan Burke’s hands it is quite chilling. Indeed the whole book will strike terror to the heart of anyone who writes for a living, or tries to maintain that creative spark under the weight of bills, disappointments, commitments of the heart, and the ceaseless onward drag of life.

What’s right with it?

It’s beautifully written and very funny in parts, stuffed with wisdom and acerbic wit. I will definitely read his other novels, hoping to admire more smooth and cutting sentences, barbed jokes like thorns around some real naked pain. It has a great twist ending, and the title is – well -absolutely cool.

What’s wrong with it?

It kind of made me want to drink a whole pint of vodka just to drown out my own fears about the writing life. The cleverness of the structure may also put off those looking for a straight-up crime drama, and if so I’d recommend trying the others, which I also plan to do.

Do I know the author? – yes

Did I pay for the book? – yes

What did I learn?

That writing for a living can be really bloody hard sometimes.

Crossbones Yard, by Kate Rhodes

I approached this crime novel with interest, as my next book also has a female lead with a similar job, and similar tendency to fall into bed with unsuitable men. Dr Alice Quentin is consulting on a case linked to a previous one, that of a murderous couple who killed their lodgers and buried them in the cellar.  She quickly stumbles over a dead woman who seems to have been killed by the same brutal methods the couple employed (kept alive, starved, mutilated). Soon Alice realises someone is stalking her, and that her brother (disturbed by their traumatic childhood) is possibly involved.

What’s right with it?

It’s great to see a strong female lead in a crime novel, and I enjoyed the insights into Alice’s dating life. I was (pleasantly) surprised by how steamy the book got, in fact, as various gorgeous men kiss her in alleys and give her meaningful looks over the corpses (definitely my own MO too. In my next book, I mean…not life…You know what I mean). The novel is very well-paced, flying along nicely, and the sense of central London beautifully caught. I also thought the concept, with its echoes of Rose and Fred West, was both strong and chilling.

What’s wrong with it?

Although the murder story had lots of promise, I didn’t feel it was fleshed out or exploited for chills enough. And when the killer is unmasked, I did genuinely get a surprise –the twist really worked – but I still don’t understand what their motivation was. There were many, many descriptions of what people are eating and wearing. At times this added a nice sense of realism, but on the whole it felt as if meals got much the same screentime as murders. Still, having a female lead in itself felt fresh enough to lift the book above the ordinary.

Do I know the author – no

Did I buy the book – no

What did I learn?

How to do fresh and fast-paced female-centred crime with a steamy centre – watch out, Shades of Grey…

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

This one I approached with curiosity. I absolutely loved Bel Canto, her Orange-prize winner from 2002 – it was charming, funny, romantic, and tragic. I felt less sure of the follow-up, Run. I’d put State of Wonder between the two. Marina, a corporate scientist, is sent by her employer (with whom she’s also in love), to the Amazon to find out how a colleague has died, and track down rogue researcher Dr Swenson, who’s developing a wonder drug with a native tribe in the jungle. What Marina finds there will surprise and change her.

What’s right with it?

The sense of place is just wonderful – sensual, oppressive, so creepy you’ll be slapping the back of your neck for insects. There’s a scene with an anaconda that is just (literally) jaw-dropping – full of flesh and stink and awe and horror. Patchett is brilliant at conveying the sense of fear, exhaustion, and heightened awareness that comes from being in a strange and hostile country. The novel manages to layer extreme realism with a magical world apart from ours, where the remarkable discoveries they’ve made seem entirely plausible. The science, such as we get, is quite fascinating, though I’d have liked to know a lot more about what they were actually doing.  Despite a slow start, I was eventually totally gripped.

What’s wrong with it?

It takes forever to get going. Marina hasn’t even gone into the jungle until halfway through the book. Yes, this helps us to feel her frustration and boredom, but perhaps this would also worked had the story kicked in, say, a third of the way in. None of the characters are particularly likeable. Even Marina, whose head we stay in, is irritatingly passive, both in her relationship and how she behaves in the jungle. As a for instance, she puts all her essentials (malaria tablets, satellite phone, spare pants) in her main suitcase rather than hand luggage – has she never been on a flight before? The bag then goes missing, but rather than march to the airport and kick up a humungous stink, she passively accepts it, and what’s more, allows all her things to vanish for a second time on moving to the jungle.  Perhaps we’re meant to take from this that Marina secretly longs for abnegation in the wilderness, but come on. It’s the jungle. You’d be weeping for your lost insect repellent within two minutes. Never underestimate how important clean pants are until you don’t have any, that’s what I always say…

Do I know the author – not at all! I wish.

Did I buy the book – yes

What did I learn?

Um…don’t put important stuff in your checked luggage. And that I never really want to go to the Amazon.