Affirm Press, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021

‘Ash Mountain’ by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – paperback; Affirm Press; 270 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Glasgow-based Australian writer Helen Fitzgerald does a nice line in dark, edgy fiction. I’ve read six of her novels and they have all been wildly entertaining if somewhat over-the-top. I quite like them as “palette cleansers” because they are so different to anything else out there.

Ash Mountain, which was published in the UK by Orenda Books last year and has just been published in Australia by Affirm Press, is cut from a similar cloth — with one important difference: this is her first novel to be set exclusively in Australia.

It’s billed as a “disaster thriller” because the storyline revolves around a terrifying bushfire and explores events leading up to the tragedy and what happens on the actual day of the fire.

I must admit that about half-way through I wondered whether this book could actually be described as Southern Cross crime, because I was struggling to find the crime in it. It’s there though, hidden in the dark folds of the time-hopping narrative, if you look closely enough. But don’t expect it to tick all the boxes that you might normally associate with the genre. It’s actually more litfic than crimefic.

In the UK the book is published by Orenda Books

Small town life

Set in a small town north of Melbourne, Ash Mountain revolves around a single mother, Fran, who has returned to the country after many years away to look after her bed-ridden father, the victim of a stroke, in the family home.

She has two children by two different fathers: 29-year-old Dante, whom she had when she was a teenager at school following her first sexual experience, and 16-year-old Vonny, whose father is indigenous. She cares for both very much and has quite a healthy, frank and empathetic relationship with both.

The narrative, which is comprised largely of flashbacks spanning a period of 30 years, shines a light on what it is like to grow up in a claustrophobic, predominantly Catholic community in rural Victoria, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, isn’t afraid to cast judgement and where tensions either fester or explode in the form of dust-ups in the pub or local swimming pool.

Fran thought she had escaped all that, but moving back after two decades in Melbourne has come somewhat of a shock. She can’t shake the feeling that she’s still at school, being stared at because she’s 15 and pregnant, or being pitied because her glamourous Italian mother has died prematurely in a car accident.

The third-person narrative swings between school life three decades ago and the current day, and is largely told from Fran’s perspective. It jumps around a lot, which can be disorientating for the reader. Occasionally I had trouble keeping up with what was going on. But slowly, once I understood the dynamics of the family and realised FitzGerald was drip-feeding information for me to process, it began to make much more sense and I found it difficult to put down.

Raging bushfire

The natural disaster at the heart of Ash Mountain is a raging bush fire on Australia Day (or Invasion Day, as Fran calls it throughout). It’s easy to think that this is what the book is about — indeed, it features some heart-hammering moments and is filled with terrifying imagery, such as when Fran discovers some burnt out cars, complete with bodies inside, parked in what should have been a place of safety — but it’s more subtle than that. If you read closely enough you will see that the fire brings out the best — and worst — in people, but it also exposes the town’s deep secrets, which have festered unchallenged for decades.

It’s difficult to pigeonhole this novel into any single category. This author used to be classified as “intelligent chick lit” and there’s no doubt it features her blackly comic take on the world, complete with her trademark snark, bad language and whip-smart dialogue, but Ash Mountain feels more mature than anything else she’s written.

I wasn’t sure I liked it to begin with, but the “mystery” at its heart, its brilliant cast of characters and the subtle social commentary running throughout made this an absorbing read, and one that will linger in my mind for a long time to come.

In her afterword, the author claims it was optioned for TV before the book was written. She struggled with the screenplay and decided she needed to put it in prose first. I’m glad she did.

About the author¹: Helen FitzGerald is the bestselling author of 10 adult and young adult thrillers, including The Donor (2011) and The Cry (2013), which was longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and is now a major drama for BBC1. Helen worked as a criminal justice social worker for more than 15 years. She grew up in Kilmore, Victoria, Australia. She now lives in Glasgow with her husband. (1. Source: Affirm Press website)

Where to buy: This book is widely available in most territories.

This is my 3rd book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021, a month-long celebration of crime writing by authors from Australia and New Zealand. You can find out more by visiting my Southern Cross Crime Month page. It is also my 3rd book for #AWW2021.  

Africa, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Deon Meyer, Fiction, Hodder, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘Blood Safari’ by Deon Meyer


Fiction – Kindle edition; Hodder & Stoughton; 384 pages; 2009. Translated from the Afrikaans by K. L. Seegers.

I seem to have been going through an (unplanned) mini South African fiction phase lately — I recently read and reviewed both Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing and Damon Galmut’s The Good Doctor — so when I was casting about for something easy to read when on holiday in Australia earlier this month, Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari was a good fit.

In many ways Blood Safari, the author’s fifth book, is an unconventional thriller — the protagonist, Lemmer,  is a bodyguard with a shady past, rather than a policeman or a journalist, for instance — and it’s imbued with a real sense of what it is like to live in modern South Africa, where the past and the present have an uneasy relationship, and where black and white tensions still remain despite the birth of a new nation.

But it also features some typical (or should I say lazy?) clichés: there’s a budding romance between Lemmer and his client, a beautiful young businesswoman, and there’s plenty of gun action, car chases and the like. But, to be honest, those things don’t really matter when you’re in the throes of a master storyteller — and Meyer is, indeed, one of those.

Mistaken identity?

The story, which is a heady mix of politics, environmental activism, corruption and greed, centres on a rich young woman, Emma Le Roux, who believes she has seen her long-dead brother on TV, the prime suspect in a murder case in which four poachers were killed. However, the suspect and her brother have different names, so is Emma merely mistaken or has her sibling been “reborn” under a new identity?

Not long after she contacts the police to tell them of her suspicions, her house is burgled and it seems Emma’s life may be in danger. She hires Lemmer as her bodyguard and then begins her own investigation into her brother’s disappearance, but her probing questions ruffle feathers and she’s thwarted at almost every turn.  When she is put out of action by a serious accident, Lemmer picks up the mantle and finds his own life  is suddenly on the line…

That’s when things really begin to heat up — and when the tone of the story changes from seemingly innocent “detective” work to one of pure vengeance.

Lowveld setting

Aside from the obvious drama and adrenalin-fuelled narrative, which twists and turns so you’re never quite sure who to trust or who to believe, the book’s unique selling point is its setting: the Lowveld province of Limpopo, where Kruger National Park is located, a region plagued by political unease and ongoing land claims. One character describes it as follows:

This is still the old South Africa. No, that’s not entirely true. The mindset of everyone, black and white, is in the old regime, but all the problems are New South Africa. And that makes for an ugly combination. Racism and progress, hate and cooperation, suspicion and reconciliation . . . those things do not lie well together. And then there’s the money and the poverty, the greed.

The social commentary that runs throughout the story brings to mind the likes of Australia’s Peter Temple, for Meyer is very good at painting a portrait of the deep unease between the Afrikaners and the English speakers, between the police and civilians, between black and white, between the various different black tribes keen to advance economically. He shows how corruption affects almost every level of society and he reveals how tourism —  “the lifeblood of our country, a bigger industry than our gold mines” — has become a monster growing out of control, pitting development against nature in a way that threatens to destroy the very thing the tourists pay good money to see.

Similarly, he also highlights the dangers of “the new wealth”, which is changing attitudes and behaviour, and creating a population — “white, black and brown” — frenzied by consumerism but marked by a deep unhappiness:

I couldn’t understand it. The Russians and the Romanians and the Bosnians would collect their children after the evening karate class and they would say, “This is a wonderful country. This is the land of milk and honey.” But the South Africans complained. They drove smart cars, lived in big houses and seafront flats, they ate in restaurants and bought big flat-screen TVs and designer clothes, yet no one was happy and it was always someone else’s fault. The whites complained about affirmative action and corruption, but they forget that they had benefited from the same for fifty or sixty years. The blacks blamed apartheid for everything. But it was already six years since it had been abolished.

Blood Safari isn’t the perfect thriller, but its mix of social commentary, politics and action gives it an edge over the usual run-of-the-mill fare you might expect in this genre. It kept me entertained on the road for a week or more (at a time when I didn’t want anything too challenging to read) and piqued my interest enough to make me want to explore more of this writer’s back catalogue.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Setting, Shuichi Yoshida, Vintage

‘Villain’ by Shuichi Yoshida


Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 304 pages; 2010. Translated from the Japanese by Shuichi Yoshida.

Shuichi Yoshida’s Villain isn’t your typical crime novel. Yes, there is a crime at its heart — the murder of a young woman — but it’s not a police procedural and it’s fairly obvious from the start who committed the crime, though we are never completely sure why he did it.

The book, which is set in Japan, is more a look at the outfall of the murder on a series of characters — including the woman’s hardworking parents, her friends and the accused — and how they adjust to changed circumstances. As such, it provides an interesting glimpse of contemporary Japanese society.

A young woman’s murder

Yoshino Ishibashi is a young insurance saleswoman who has moved to the city to work and have fun. She is a regular user of dating sites and has become acquainted with several men — the rich college boy Kiago and the good-looking but aloof construction worker Yuichi — but she doesn’t have a serious boyfriend. Yet that’s not what she tells her flatmates, Saki and Mako, who believe she’s seeing Kiago on a regular basis — a notion of which Yoshino does not disabuse them.

This, of course, muddies the waters when Yoshino does not return home after supposedly meeting Kiago very late at night for a date. When her body is discovered in the remote and forbidding Mitsuse Mountain Pass, Kiago is immediately put in the frame. Then, when his friends admit he’s been missing for several days, there seems little doubt that he must be the murderer.

However, as events unfold, Kiago’s role in Yoshino’s murder isn’t as quite clear cut as first thought — but to say more would spoil the plot.

Troubled characters

The most interesting aspect of this novel is the ways in which different characters react to the crime: the two men accused go to ground, but when one of them is cleared, he turns boastful; the victim’s father becomes incredibly angry and wants revenge, while his wife becomes an emotional mess and cannot function properly; Yuichi’s grandmother finds herself caught between defending her grandson and protecting herself from a blackmailing scam she’s become caught up in; and an additional character, Mitsuyo, a department store worker, finds herself falling in love with the alleged perpetrator and goes on the run with him.

Their stories, their emotional and inner turmoil, are told using various viewpoints — third person and first person — which can, occasionally, be confusing, but this narrative structure gives the reader a well-rounded picture of a group of people struggling to readjust to life after the murder.

It also provides a fascinating portrait of life in Japan. It may just be the lower class portrayed here, but everyone seems obsessed by three things: food (there’s endless descriptions of it), sex (many of the characters visit “love hotels” and one is a prostitute) and consumer goods as status symbols (cars in particular). All the young people are working lowly paid or menial jobs and the women are doing all they can to find good husbands. I got the feeling that almost everyone in this novel felt alienated from the people they loved and the world in general (a common theme, I’ve noticed, in other Japanese books I’ve read). It’s a bleak picture, tinged by criminality, poverty and despair.

Detached prose style

The book is written in clear, lucid prose in the kind of flat, detached style I’ve come to expect from Japanese crime novels (interestingly, the author translated it himself). It’s a style I generally like, but I found my interest in the story waning the further I got into it. I think the lack of central narrator with which to identify (and cheer on) may have had something to do with this.

It didn’t help that many characters had similar names, which I found confusing, and I simply didn’t care enough about any of them to want to keep reading, so getting to the end of this novel became a bit of a hard slog.

That said, Villain is a rather thought-provoking book and I’ve come away from it not quite sure who the real villain was, something I suspect the author wanted to achieve. To what extent is the murderer the villain, because surely there are other factors at play? Was his upbringing to blame? Should the person who put the victim in a dangerous situation but not commit the murder take responsibility? Or is the victim to blame?

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, London, Louise Doughty, Publisher, Setting

‘Apple Tree Yard’ by Louise Doughty


Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber and Faber; 358 pages; 2013.

Louise Doughty‘s Apple Tree Yard is a dark, smart and sexy psychological-thriller-cum-court-room-drama, full of twists, turns and unexpected shocks. It is arguably the best of the genre I’ve read this year.

Adulterous affair

Yvonne Carmichael, 52, is a highly successful geneticist who is happily married with two adult children. But one day, while attending a House of Commons Standing Committee hearing — where she is presenting evidence — she meets a man to whom she is immediately attracted.

They strike up a conversation and he takes her on a lunch-time tour of the crypt, where they end up having sex — and from this one spontaneous and illicit act the rest of Yvonne’s steady suburban life spirals out of control.

What follows is a highly charged affair in which Yvonne and her unnamed lover meet in cafes and side streets, sharing little of their lives outside of their new clandestine relationship. In fact, Yvonne is so swept up in the romance of it all that she is convinced that her lover works for British secret services — why else would he be so non-communicative about his normal life?

Unusual structure

The structure of this novel is unusual. It starts mid-way through the story arc, when Yvonne is in the dock at the Old Bailey, answering to the charge of murder. What you don’t know is who she has murdered and why, nor who her co-conspirator is.

The story backtracks to the beginning of her affair and from there the reader is kept in an almost constant state of tension. The story is exceptionally well plotted and Yvonne’s voice — one of constant disbelief that her ordinary dull and predictable life has come to this — is believable. Here’s an example of that voice — the reader is addressed as “you” throughout the entire novel:

Then, after a long while, you do something that will endear you to me
when I think about it later. You pause. You stop kissing me, withdraw
your face, and as I open my eyes I see you are looking into mine. You
still have one hand in my hair, your fingers entwined.

Fast-paced and suspenseful

Doughty is very good at moving events along quickly without compromising on detail. Indeed, London — particularly the area around Westminster and Embankment — comes alive in these pages to the point of it being an extra character in its own right.

And she’s an expert at dropping in little nuggets of information that add a new twist to the story. Yet nothing feels forced or added on; it all flows naturally and reads effortlessly.

Apple Tree Yard is a very good look at the stories we tell ourselves to justify our actions. It’s a thoroughly absorbing and intelligent read with a dark edge and bucketloads of suspense — and it’s set to be one of my favourite books of 2013.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, Publisher, Setting

‘The Cry’ by Helen FitzGerald


Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 320 pages; 2013.

I love novels that feature morally dubious characters — and Helen FitzGerald‘s latest novel, The Cry, slots very nicely into that category. I’ve read a couple of Fitzgerald’s novels before — Dead Lovely (2007) and My Last Confession (2009) — and both were  edgy, entertaining reads featuring well-meaning people behaving in abhorrent ways. The Cry is cut from the same cloth.

Plane ride from hell

Joanna is a first-time mother from Glasgow, bound for Australia with Alistair — the father of her child — a high-powered spin doctor for the British Labour Party. But the flight to Melbourne, via Dubai, is traumatic: nine-week-old Noah cries the whole way and won’t settle.

Joanna, who is suffering from an ear-infection, is frazzled and ill-tempered. But then Alistair steps in and offers to nurse the child, so that Joanna can finally get some much-needed rest.

When the trio eventually arrive in Australia, Noah is fast asleep. They dare not wake him, and decide to drive straight to Alistair’s mum’s place, in Geelong, despite the fact that it’s bushfire season and the sky is awash with ash and black smoke.

But on the car journey Joanna makes a fateful discovery: Noah is not asleep — he’s dead.

What happens next is a heart-hammering psychological ride in which one bad decision follows another, because instead of going to the police or calling an ambulance, Alistair decides to engineer Noah’s disappearance from a roadside petrol station.

Realistic plot

The plot borrows heavily from all manner of missing children cases — Azaria Chamberlain immediately springs to mind, as does Madeleine McCann — particularly in the ensuing media coverage (including Twitter and Facebook) and the way in which Joanna is expected to behave in court. (She’s told not to fidget and has to remind herself not to smile — “Don’t smile, don’t smile, remember Foxy Knoxy, remember Lindy.”)

And because truth is often stranger than fiction — how many parents do we see on the news protesting their innocence, only to be arrested for murder at a later date? — the storyline never seems over the top even though Alistair’s actions are repugnant. Indeed, the entire plot seems incredibly believable — and current.

It is also very fast moving. FitzGerald keeps the momentum up in several clever ways: she makes grief-stricken Joanna want to confess to the crime, so the reader is constantly wondering, will she or won’t she; she provides an interesting back story in the form of Alistair’s ex-wife, who is fighting over the custody of their teenage daughter and may possibly be framed for Noah’s murder; and she tells the story from multiple viewpoints and intercuts it with short scenes from the resulting court case.

I read the entire book in three sittings, eager to get to the end so that I could find out what happened next. And while it’s not a completely satisfying read — the climax, which has a neat little twist, didn’t seem convincing to me — it’s a thoroughly good psychological-type drama, perfect for those who like stories that explore why normally good people end up doing bad things.

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Iceland, Publisher, Setting

‘Strange Shores’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 304 pages; 2013. Translated from the Icelandic. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Strange Shores is billed as the last in Arnuldur Indridason’s long-running Reykjavik series, a series which I’ve loved following ever since I discovered it in 2006 (you can read all my reviews here).

I had mixed feelings about reading this book: I couldn’t wait to see what happened to Detective Erlunder (he’s been “on leave” in the last two books in the series), but at the same time I didn’t want to read it because that would mean I had no more left to enjoy. In the end, I couldn’t resist…

Two missing person cases

As with many of Indriðason’s novels, this one has two narrative threads, each one looking at a missing person case from the past.

The first focuses on Matthildur, a fisherman’s wife, who disappeared in a notorious blizzard in 1942, never to be seen again, and the second looks at Detective Erlunder’s own brother, Beggi, who was lost in a similar blizzard when he was eight years old, a tragedy which has left deep emotional scars on the policeman. (While you could easily read Strange Shores without having read any of the previous titles in the series, those who have followed Erlunder’s journey from the start will find this aspect especially fascinating.)

The book feels like a police procedural as Erlunder painstakingly examines what happened to Matthildur under the guise of doing historical research; it is not an official police investigation. This is just as well, because what he discovers threatens to destroy an elderly man’s life and much of it is hard to prove. As he goes about piecing together the jigsaw of Matthildur’s case, Erlunder looks for clues related to his own missing brother, which results in two deftly woven storylines.

Slightly clunky structure

But the structure of the book poses a dilemma for the writer: how to explain incidents from the past when Erlunder is looking for evidence in the present? Indriðason solves this by having Matthildur’s story recalled by a character who remembers her well, but his account is not written in conversational dialogue, as per a police interview, as one might expect, but by an omnipresent narrator — I’m not sure I liked this approach, which felt slightly clunky and at odds with the rest of the book’s third-person style.

That said, once the book gets going it is a fascinating story and the resolution of Mattildur’s disappearance feels authentic and believable. Readers who like retribution in their crime novels may find Erlunder’s balanced, free-from-judgemental approach difficult to comprehend, but to me this was one of the most appealing aspects of the novel.

Of course, when you come to the final book in a long-running series, you want to know what happens to the central character. Erlunder has never been a happy man. He has investigated some pretty horrible crimes, experienced distressing fallout from his failed marriage, seen his adult daughter succumb to drug addiction and watched his son struggle to find his place in the world. And all the while he has been obsessed (and psychologically damaged) by the death of his younger brother when he was a youngster. Would he find happiness at last in this final novel?

I’m not going to give that away, but let me say that the ending is beautifully ambiguous, because it’s not clear if the event in which “he takes Bergur’s hand in his and together they walk along the river into the bright morning” is meant to be a dream or not. I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to say goodbye to one of my favourite fictional characters…

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Doug Johnstone, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘Gone Again’ by Doug Johnstone


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 256 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When it comes to high-octane psychological thrillers, Scottish writer Doug Johnstone knows how to deliver. I’ve read two of his novels — Smoke Heads (2011) and Hit & Run (2012) — and thoroughly enjoyed both. His latest novel, Gone Again, is another fine example of his raw, edgy and fast-paced narrative style.

A missing wife

The story, which is set in Edinburgh, revolves around a newspaper photographer, Mark Douglas, whose wife, Lauren, goes missing. Lauren was supposed to pick up their six-year-old son, Nathan, from school, but she never turned up.

Mark is out on assignment — photographing a pod of whales stranded in the waters off Portobello Beach — when Nathan’s school principal calls him to break the news.

At first, Mark thinks Lauren might have got side-tracked at work — she has a high-powered job in a real estate company — and simply forgot. But when she never answers her mobile or responds to her voicemail, Mark begins to suspect that something isn’t quite right. Has she run away? Or has someone done her harm?

The second time she’s disappeared

But this isn’t the first time Lauren has gone missing. Not long after Nathan’s birth, she disappeared for several weeks, which makes Mark wonder if history is merely repeating itself. If he keeps telling Nathan that his mother has simply gone on a work trip, perhaps when she eventually returns he’ll be none the wiser. But how long can you keep lying to an inquisitive six-year-old?

In Mark’s case, pretty much for as long as it takes. His relationship with Nathan is one of the novel’s strengths. In fact, Johnstone captures the joys and frustrations of parenthood so well that it’s easy to think you’re reading a gentle domestic drama — albeit tinged with a generous dose of paranoia.

When things really kick into action — about 50 pages from the end — it comes as quite a shock. The explosive finale, complete with Johnstone’s trademark Tarantino-like violence, is a little crazy but that’s largely a failing of the genre (in which all loose ends need to be tied up in dramatic fashion) rather than the author’s. In other words, it comes with the territory and doesn’t necessarily detract from the overall entertainment value of the novel.

Beautifully controlled reveals

In terms of narrative pacing, Gone Again is exceptionally good — the chapters are short, the writing is tight — but it is the beautifully controlled reveals that make this such a glorious page turner. Johnstone delivers a steady drip feed of information that makes you question Mark’s version of events all along the way — is his marriage with Lauren all that he says it is? What secrets do they have? And why are the police so hesitant to get involved?

I enjoyed the emotionally charged storyline even if I wasn’t entirely convinced by the over-the-top dénouement. But this is a novel filled with moments of genuine tenderness, genuine fear and genuine shock — perfect fodder for those who like their psychological thrillers with a bit of bite to them.

Gone Again will be published in ebook form in the UK tomorrow and paperback on 7 March.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harper Collins, Lisa Brackman, Mexico, Publisher, Setting

‘The Day of the Dead’ by Lisa Brackman


Fiction – paperback; Harper; 376 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I’m not sure what made me keep this book when it arrived unsolicited months and months ago, but it survived two or three book culls and I took it away with me on holiday thinking it would make the perfect read for a wintry day. I was right. Lisa Brackman’s Day of the Dead — published in the US under the title Getaway — is nothing special in terms of psychological thrillers, but it’s fast-paced and (slightly) more intelligent than your average “airport novel”.

The holiday from hell

The story is not a particularly original one — woman alone on holiday has one-night stand with dangerous man and then gets herself into all kinds of bother — but who cares when you are looking for some instant gratification of the easy reading variety?

In Day of the Dead, the main protagonist is Michelle Mason, a feisty if somewhat naive young widow from Los Angeles. On holiday in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, she is trying to come to terms with the loss of her husband and the subsequent loss of all their assets — it turns out rich hubby got caught up in the global financial crisis but didn’t let his wife know. He continued to fund their luxurious lifestyle — which he couldn’t afford — and now Michelle has been lumbered with all his debts.

But that turns out to be the least of her concerns, because when she meets Daniel, a handsome expat American (aren’t they always handsome in these kinds of novels?), and takes him back to her hotel room, she unwittingly gets caught up in events that are beyond her control. By page 16, it’s clear that the dream holiday is about to turn into a nightmare.

A Faustian pact

It’s a bit tricky to explain much else without spoiling the plot. But essentially Michelle is trapped in Vellarto, thanks to a missing passport and lack of cash, and doesn’t know whom she can trust. Even the police are suspect.

When a shady man called Gary asks her to spy on Daniel in exchange for her personal debts being paid off, Michelle baulks at the idea — but then she realises she has no alternative: Gary will kill her if she refuses to play his “game”.

Once Michelle agrees to this Faustian pact, the narrative goes through all kinds of twists and turns, so that you’re never sure what is around the corner for our poor heroine caught in the dangerous world of drug runners and corrupt police officers. While the ride is wild, to Brackman’s credit, the plot developments and the life-or-death situations in which Michelle finds herself don’t feel too far-fetched. Even the characters, of which there’s a small but defined cast, seem considerably fleshed out for a novel of this type. And despite the simple prose style, it’s very visual — it would make a terrific Hollywood blockbuster.

Day of the Dead won the Grand Prize for general fiction at the Los Angeles Book Festival in March 2012. It may not be highbrow literature, but it’s entertaining, smart and fast. The point is to just go with the flow and enjoy the journey.

Andrew Gross, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harper Perennial, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘The Blue Zone’ by Andrew Gross


Fiction – eBook; Harper; 317 pages; 2008.

I never planned on reading Andrew Gross’s The Blue Zone but when I found myself stuck on a plane for eight hours I was desperate for some light relief. I flicked through my Sony Reader and came across The Blue Zone, which had been preloaded when I received it, so thought I’d give it a try.

Under normal circumstances I normally avoid these kinds of plot-driven books with thinly drawn characters and cringe-inducing dialogue because I find them a complete waste of time. But it wasn’t always this way: I read plenty of best-selling crime thrillers of this ilk in my early 20s before I got bored with their lack of “substance” and moved onto more challenging literature.

Reading The Blue Zone was a not so subtle reminder that my tastes have changed enormously over the past 15 or so years. I hesitate to describe the book as dreadful, because it does have quite an entertaining if totally preposterous plot, but it does come pretty damn close to being one of the worst books I have read this year. I can’t say I am surprised. Andrew Gross is the co-author of many of James Patterson’s best-selling thrillers, and the one and only time I read any of Patterson’s work — a free chapter taster that came with a daily newspaper a few years ago — I hated it, so much so I vowed never to read anything by him because I didn’t want to waste my time when there were so many other better written novels vying for my attention.

I should have made that same vow for Gross.

But let me tell you a bit about the (overly dramatic and entirely implausible) storyline. The book revolves around a young woman, Kate Raab, whose father, a wealthy Manhattan gold trader, is arrested by the FBI for money laundering. When he agrees to turn witness for the prosecution it means that some nasty Columbian mobsters could put the lives of the picture-perfect Raab family in danger. As a result the family enters the witness protection program and are given new lives and new identities in a new undisclosed location. But Kate, a cancer researcher too caught up in her fledgling career, refuses to co-operate and remains living in New York with her husband. It is only when her best friend and colleague is shot — a suspected case of mistaken identity — that Kate begins to understand that she may have made the wrong decision…

Through a series of twists and turns and completely unexpected changes in plot direction, the narrative moves along at an exhaustive pace, and the ending, when it comes, is almost laugh-out-loud funny because it’s far from credible.

I’m sure The Blue Zone — the title refers to the FBI’s code for a blown cover — would make a superb blockbuster movie. Indeed, much of it does read like a screenplay. But as a book it feels too sensational with its overly engineered plot and shallow characters, and for that reason I can’t give it more than two stars. This is one for die-hard fans of this genre only — and even then the most skeptical of you will probably struggle to enjoy it on the basis the story is so farfetched. Mental note: this will be the first — and last — Andrew Gross novel I will ever read.