BOOK REVIEW: Jerusalem Ablaze by Orlando Ortega-Medina

Richly textured, thought-provoking and atmospherically charged – a sparkling collection of short stories that will leave you clamouring for more.

Jerusalem AblazeOrtega-Medina’s debut collection of short stories centres on themes of passion and obsession. Often dark and menacing, the stories fold like origami, into something unexpectedly beautiful. The collection is thoughtfully interwoven; each tale faintly echoing its predecessor, sending the reader on a breadcrumb trail, but to safety or destruction I have yet to decide.

Lyrically written and richly layered, these stories are emotionally driven and thought-provoking throughout. They are shadowy and atmospheric. The author builds tension so artfully that even the shortest in the collection, under two pages, left me breathless. And without exception, every character in this collection aroused my interest – they are flawed and broken, and we see but a snapshot of their lives.

I believe the mark of a successful short story is being left desperate to know what brought these people to this point, and where they go from here. There’s not one tale in Jerusalem Ablaze that left my curiosity satisfied – I need to know what happened to that woman in Oregon to make her want to bring a corpse into her living room; did the beaten wife take her revenge, or did her resolve fail at the pivotal moment; and did Jean-Jacques ever chase tigers again?

I admit, I am a fan of short stories, so I know how rare it is to find a collection where each entry is as strong as its comrades. If you’ve never tried them before, I would urge you to start with Ortega-Medina’s Jerusalem Ablaze: I promise you won’t be disappointed. At least, not until you pick up another collection and find that here lies a diamond in the rough.

 

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You’re still here?

Oh hey! It’s been a while, huh?

IMG_0148Things have been quiet round here, mostly because Roux is no longer with us. His snores and snuffles have long since faded and our home was the sadder for it. It took me a while to come to terms with his loss and the events leading up to it – almost two years later and I still miss him daily. I’m reminded of him at random times, which only makes it all the more heart-breaking.

But I know that Roux wouldn’t want anyone to be sad. He’d stick his slobbery tongue in your face and invite you out for a run in the park or a game of catch, and then laugh at you for ever thinking he would give up his ball.

IMG_1659.JPGHis personality, and those adventures we shared, told me it was time to introduce a new doggo into our lives. Enter: Archer. Or, King Archer as he is affectionately known within these four walls, for he has taken up position as head of the household, despite his foot-high stature. At 14-weeks-old he is already completely in charge: dictating bedtimes, meal times, seating arrangements and who’s in control of the remote. But can you really blame him? He’s just so cute. Annoying, but cute.

So, if you are still here, I guess you’re dedicated to the cause and telling you to stick around for {NEW REVIEWS SOON!} would be preaching to the choir! Maybe I should say ‘thank you’ instead, and just get on with writing some of those aforementioned reviews.

Have you ever lost a pet? Feel free to share your story in the comments below ~ but please send a supply of tissues first!

 

BOOK REVIEW: For All Our Sins by TME Walsh

for-all-our-sinsOpen your crime thriller with the gruesome murder and mutilation of a priest and you’re onto a winner, as far as I’m concerned. There followed a well-paced, and rather grisly string of murders with plenty of twists to keep me reading until I turned the final page.

The first in Walsh’s series, For All Our Sins follows DCI Winters and her team as they track down this disturbed serial killer. A witness to an appalling crime years earlier, the murderer is on the hunt for revenge, and they’re not alone. With help from ‘The Guardian’, they seem to be able to evade the police and leave no clues or forensics in their crime scenes.

A likeable lead, DCI Winters is a strong woman with a creditable home-life and there’s just enough depth to each of her colleagues to spark interest without distracting from the story. I will be interested to see how the team develops across the series.

The story was strong and well written, although as with most crime thrillers, it’s best to take everything with a pinch of salt. Disbelief suspended, I followed with morbid delight as the murders escalated in violence to their terrible conclusion, willing Winters and her colleagues along all the way.

One of my favourite books of the year and if you enjoy a good (fictional) flogging of the clergy as much as the next man (provided the next man is me) then this is definitely one not to miss.

Book Review: Cut to the Bone by Alex Caan

cut-to-the-bone-alex-caan-880x1354Ruby Day is an internet sensation. With millions following her online vlog, her disappearance is an immediate and high profile cause for concern. Cue the newly formed Police and Crime Commissioner’s crack team of investigators. A well-resourced and vastly experienced group, DI Riley’s team also hides some disturbing secrets and shady pasts. When a video of Ruby is released online, the pressure mounts – is this the work of one crazed individual or is there more to Ruby’s kidnap than anyone could ever have imagined?

 

Alex Caan’s debut novel is an interesting and fast paced read. It’s pitched well, without too much emphasis on the technicalities of internet vlogging, making it accessible to anyone with a passion for a punchy thriller.

The depth of Caan’s characters is admirable – almost every individual seemed to have something to hide or an axe to grind; hints at their past, or their dodgy dealings kept me intrigued, but at times I felt these traits were clumsily dropped into the narrative, when otherwise it may have fallen flat. I did start to wonder whether anyone was what they seemed, which had me second guessing every character’s actions, distracting me from the story at hand.

The story itself is strong – disappearance of a young woman, a number of key suspects each with their own motive, a Detective with personal issues – but there’s more to this than your average whodunit. The politics of the new Police and Crime Commissioner’s appointment, the questionable ethics of social media management and the surprise addition of murky international trading lend this novel a fresh edge with a lot of potential.

However, for me, that potential was never truly realised. Unless Caan is setting us up for the second in the Detective Riley series, I felt there were a lot of questions left unanswered, and a significant thread of the narrative was abandoned three quarters of the way through. I can’t help but feel as though Caan had bitten off more than he could chew with this, and decided to leave it to another day, when he could give it the full attention it deserved.

I’d certainly be interested to see where the series goes from here, but perhaps by reading others’ reviews rather than sitting down with the novel myself. My frustration came in no small part from the numerous errors in this book. Almost every chapter had me grinding my teeth at the sloppy proofing. My advice to Caan? Keep doing what you’re good at, don’t stretch the scope of the story more than is necessary, and sack your proof reader.

Overall, a good debut with potential for a great series to be developed, but a little restraint wouldn’t go amiss when developing characters’ backstories and the reach of the novel as a whole.

BOOK REVIEW: The Right Wrong Thing by Ellen Kirschman

The Right Wrong ThingDr Dot Meyerhoff, police psychologist, clears the first female officer to join Kenilworth Police Department. However days later, the officer, Randy Spelling, freezes in the face of danger, risking the life of her partner, and inciting the wrath of the entire department. No sooner has she come to terms with this mistake, when she makes another: fatally shooting a pregnant, unarmed teenager in a routine stop. The consequences of Randy’s actions are far reaching, not least for Dr Meyerhoff who, despite all advice to the contrary, involves herself in the case, risking not only her career, but also her life.

A well-written story that kept me interested from start to finish, The Right Wrong Thing deals with a number of enormously important issues in modern society: sexism, racism, police brutality and post-traumatic stress disorder. But don’t let that deter you; this is still an extremely heartfelt novel. We see each issue as it affects the families and individuals around which the story is crafted. Kirschman cleverly draws you in to each character’s world, makes you feel sympathy or anger or disdain and then completely turns the world on its head so what you knew to be up, is now down, what you were sure was right, is now wrong.

Kirschman herself has more than thirty years’ experience as a psychologist for first responders and this shines through in her writing. Her knowledge of police procedures and department politics gives this novel the depth it needs to carry the drama. The dialogue is smart and moves the story along well, and the characters are interesting enough draw you back for more. Meyerhoff is particularly appealing: she has such a charming humanity about her, aware of her failings and trying hard to do right by the good people in her life. She’s an older, hugely experienced woman working in a very masculine environment. It would’ve been easy for Kirschman to write her as the hard-nosed bitch, but this gentle, yet still hugely capable woman is captivating, and I would argue, extremely relatable to millions of career-minded women in the world.

My only gripe: why is this incredibly intelligent, massively experienced professional risking her career and her life on this one case? Meyerhoff makes a lot of reckless moves that frustrated me to the point of anger. Frankly, it was unfeasible. And the ending was far too cheesy for my liking. But, suspend your disbelief for the duration, and you won’t be disappointed by Kirschman, Meyerhoff or the cops of Kenilworth PD.

BOOK REVIEW: Beneath the Lake by Christopher Ransom

Beneath the LakeOn a seemingly perfect camping trip at Blundstone Lake, Nebraska, the Mercer family find themselves embroiled in another family’s violence. The Mercers are forced to take action, and then to live with the consequences for the rest of their lives. Thirty years later, Ray, the youngest of the Mercers, is summoned from his life of coasting, to a family reunion at the lake. There, they must confront the past if there is to be any hope of a future.

A glorious sense of unease drifted through this book, like fog on a winter’s night; rising, falling but never truly dissipating. From the opening drama, which is never fully explained, to the final climax there is an eerie tension that promised a great deal.

We first meet the Mercers part way through their holiday, and each character is artfully drawn: their strengths, their flaws, their relationships with one another, all beautifully defined and relatable to any modern day family. The Mercers and the mystery of the opening chapters had me clamouring for more, but unfortunately the rest of the story didn’t carry the same momentum.

Intrigue dissolved into indifference and confusion: there was a supernatural element to this story that felt muddled. This was further complicated by poor pacing: instead of arcing to a crescendo, the story peaked in a number of places and then fell flat again. A few times I was certain I had reached the conclusion, only to find there was another ‘encounter’ to be had, with no clearer explanation than before. The story jumped between the present day and the events of thirty years ago, at times rewriting those events. At times I was so unsure of what had actually happened, my frustration tempted me to abandon the book altogether. And the ending was such a disappointment, I now wish I had!

Christopher Ransom is a fantastic writer, his debut novel, The Birthing House, is proof of that, and there is evidence in Beneath the Lake that that talent still exists. But the rhythm and pacing of this book are its downfall.

BOOK REVIEW: Skeleton Plot by J.M. Gregson

Skeleton PlotWhen 16-year-old Damon unearths a skeleton while turning over his grandfather’s vegetable plot it is soon linked to a disappearance that happened more than twenty years ago. Identifying the victim is easy for Detective Chief Superintendent Lambert and Detective Sergeant Hook; however, unravelling her life and the circumstances of her death prove much more complicated. A number of prominent figures with shady pasts seem to be involved, but what is the truth and who has the most to hide?

An undemanding read, this had all the right ingredients for a thrilling murder mystery but it failed to deliver. It was slow and plodding; conversations were laboured, with the detectives revisiting key suspects on numerous occasions, but somehow gaining very little new information. It could be argued that they were sensitive, intelligent police officers, that used their brains rather than their brawn, but I found them lacklustre and I doubt the crime would’ve been solved had it relied solely on their investigative prowess.

I found the story to be unlikely and frustrating: how often do petty drug dealers grow up to become bigwigs in the world of education? And there was such a disappointing ending: it was almost like an episode of Scooby Doo where the perpetrator admits everything in the final scene, in one lengthy confession: ‘…and I would’ve got away with it too, if it weren’t for you pesky kids!’

This is the first of the 28 (28!) Lambert and Hook police procedurals I’ve read, and I can’t help but wonder if Gregson has lost his way somewhat. They can’t all be this dire, can they? Maybe Lambert and Hook are downshifting towards retirement; perhaps if I was a devoted reader who had followed their story from the beginning I’d have more sympathy for the seemingly lethargic duo. But I’m not, and Skeleton Plot has certainly not inspired me to go back to get know them any better!