How can a man die twice? That's the question facing Detective 'Kubu' Bengu when a mutilated body is found at a tourist camp in northern Botswana. The corpse of Goodluck Tinubu displays the classic signs of a revenge killing. But when his fingerprints are analysed Kubu makes a shocking discovery: Tinubu is already dead. He was slain in the Rhodesian war thirty years ago.
There's something in the water (or maybe it's in the dust) in Africa at the moment. Whilst there has been a slowly increasing number of crime or mystery books set in Africa, there's now an increasing number written by African authors appearing for our enjoyment. Michael Stanley (the South African duo of long-time friends Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip), have now released their second book - A DEADLY TRADE (aka The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu), follow up to the very well received debut book - A CARRION DEATH.
Wrapped up in the well devised plot of a solid police procedural, A DEADLY TRADE is very much a novel of Africa. The setting for the crime obviously helps - a tourist bush camp, made up of tents, set on the banks of crocodile and hippo infested waters. The characters fit so well into that setting - Detective 'Kubu' Bengu the central investigator (Kubu means hippopotamus in Setswana) and Detective Sergeant Joseph 'Tatwa' Mooka (Tatwa - Giraffe in the same language) are the main investigation team, working to solve the disappearance of one man and the killing of two others at the camp. The brutal death of Tinubu is the most baffling of the killings - despite having been declared dead many years ago during the Rhodesian war, he seems to have subsequently lead a blameless and quiet life as a much respected teacher in Botswana. The other two elements that firmly set this book in Africa are the terminology, and a quintessential use of pacing. Whilst the general pace of the book is rapidfire, and the investigation moves constantly forward, there is a wonderful feeling of slowing, of consideration, of reflection whenever Kubu appears in the narrative. There's something about the writing of this character that imparts a feeling of consideration, intelligence and thoughtfulness, a large man physically, Kubu doesn't rush around no matter how hectic an investigation gets. He thinks, he ponders, he eats (very well). Connections have to be drawn between Kubu and Hercule Poroit in the way that they both approach an investigation, Montalbano in the way that they both approach the next meal. Kubu has a family though, and when his beloved wife Joy and sister-in-law Patience are threatened as a result of this investigation, the reader sees a little more than his size as a link to his nickname. Kubu enraged must be a sobering sight!
There is another level to A DEADLY TRADE and that is the glimpses into the ongoing effects of the Rhodesian War, the current day problems in Zimbabwe and the complicated relationship between that country, and the surrounding nations. There are also touches of the problems that beset all nations - drugs, violence and organised crime. The fallout from the Rhodesian War is something that greatly impacts on A DEADLY TRADE, and in the way of all very good story tellers, the implications of that are spelt out in the book without it being a lesson, rather it's a revelation.
A DEADLY TRADE (as with the first book A CARRION DEATH) is just simply good crime fiction. The crime occurs within a social situation and in a social reality that impacts on the actions of everyone. Small events in the past don't necessarily go unforgotten, and brutality often engenders brutality. Adding an African situation to that scenario adds a new twist to the events, at the same time that it shows that human reactions are human reactions, the world over.
Incidentally - there is a cast of characters at the front of the book to help if the unfamiliar names are phasing the reader, and a Glossary at the back which can help with understanding of some of the terminology. As part two in a series of books, it's often best if you've read the earlier book - so that you have a background to all the characters. Having said that, it would be possible to pick up A DEADLY TRADE and start - but that's no reason why you shouldn't also seek out A CARRION DEATH.
ORPHEUS RISING, Colin Bateman
The first time Michael ever laid eyes on Claire she was pulling porn shop owner, Paul de Luca, out of the sea after a shark attack - Paul lost his feet and Michael his heart.
The last time he saw her she was laid out in the morgue, shot dead in a bank raid.
ORPHEUS RISING is a standalone from Colin Bateman, perhaps best known for his dark, comic previous offerings set mostly in Northern Island. Which this one isn't - it's set in the US, albeit with an Irish central character - Michael Ryan. Although you'd be hard pressed to remember he's supposed to be Irish, as the setting is 100% mid-Atlantic sort of nowhere particularly special. But then I'd imagine setting wasn't the whole point of ORPHEUS RISING, although I confess I'm not 100% sure what the point of the book was at all.
Basically Michael is smitten when he meets and eventually marries Claire. He's been on a sort of a road trip around America, lobbing into the small town where she lives with her father - the local newspaper owner - at the time that's she's pulling the porn shop owner out of the ocean after a shark attack. Michael stays - works for the newspaper for a while - writes his great American novel. Claire's got a bit of a past with a weird ex-boyfriend who she says isn't. Long story short - she's shot dead in a bank robbery. Michael goes completely off the rails, but returns, years later, the writer of the "great novel" who is haunted by visions of his wife, who he claims has returned from the dead. Along with a whole heap of other people.
Now I confess I'm a huge fan of Colin Bateman's books - and ORPHEUS RISING wasn't really what I was expecting from this author - but the book just gets, well flat out weird very very quickly. And it stays weird for most of the narrative. And not good weird - just weird weird for a fair part of it. This probably isn't helped by Michael Ryan starting off just a bit annoying and ending up very very annoying. Maybe it's because some of the supporting characters are too over the top as well - Ambrose, who he is travelling with in the later part of the book, is just gross and mostly not very funny and Michael is flat out just unlikeable. Not that being unlikeable is a bad thing for a central character - it's just that there's got to be something that keeps you interested in him - and I struggled to find a single thing that involved me.
The structure of the book was interesting - maybe that was the only weird bit that was good weird. But, despite a willingness to store my disbelief out the back, and expect the totally unexpected, ORPHEUS RISING ended up a bit too much like hard work.
A CARRION DEATH - Michael Stanley
Set in Botswana, A CARRION DEATH introduces the reader to, amongst a lot of other characters, Assistant Superintendent David Bengu. David is a big man. A very big man. As a young man, his friend Angus coined the nickname Kubu - which means Hippopotamus in Setswana. That friend belongs to one of the families in Botswana - his father, until he died, and his uncle have run the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company for many years. His friend - Angus and his twin sister Dianna are about to reach the age at which they inherit and they can take over from their uncle Cecil.
In the meantime a body is found in a wash near a waterhole. It seems the location has been carefully chosen - the waterhole is popular with local animals and there are a lot of predator animals who should have disposed of the remains before they were found. Unfortunately for the killers, a young scientist is working in the area and it is his team that make the discovery. There are some very odd things about this body - most likely a white man, there are very few missing white men in Botswana, and the body is missing an arm, perhaps to further confuse identification, but there are distinctive old breaks in both legs so surely it won't be that hard to match the body to a name. Kubu investigates, from the wash and the nearby tourist resort, back to the capital of Gaborone, through the boardrooms of big business and into the dust and dirt of the desert and the diamond mines.
A CARRION DEATH has a real feel of Africa for a number of reasons. The character of Kubu is somebody you can just see: a tall, stately, large, unflappable man methodically sailing through the investigation. The setting also means that whilst there is some concentration on the city locations, a large part of the book takes place in the desert, in the diamond mines, in the sand and dust and heat of the place. Maybe that is part of the reason why some parts of the book proceed slowly - at a stately pace - thinking more and more about that aspect makes me think that that was a quintessentially African thing. The investigation meanders at points, there's the occasional foray into various private lives, there is Kubu's relationship with his much loved wife and his own parents. It seemed, to somebody who has never been there, to give the entire book an overwhelming atmosphere of Africa. There are a lot of messages about the place and the people woven into the story as well and again, these seem on initial reading perhaps to have been padding, but if you think about it - this is a book set in a place and amongst a people of which the majority of us will know very little.
You will have to slow down to read this book, you will have to revel in the side roads and the meanderings. You may even have to forgive a few investigational hiccups that might not occur somewhere where speed and outcomes are all the rage. You will most likely also find that the last parts of the book drags slowly. But this was a good debut, with an interesting central character, supported by a fantastic location. Hopefully you won't be left like I was - with an overwhelming desire to try Kubu's favourite thirst quencher - a Steelworks. The glossary provided at the back of the books says this is made from cola tonic, ginger beer, soda water and bitters.
Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, two South African-born friends who have travelled frequently to the magnificent Botswana wilderness and A CARRION DEATH is their debut novel.
TALL, DARK AND DEAD by Tate Hallaway
TALL,DARK AND DEAD has taken a clever dive into the booming chick lit market
of urban fantasy by including just enough of the current female reader's
interest(vampires) and mixed it up with a little of the occult. The book
slips and slides between seriousness and silliness (which, despite its marketing
tags of comedy, is NOT funny, and that's a good thing), with fortunately just
enough of the former to cement its appeal. With the character of Garnet immersing
herself in a stereotype in order to actually better disguise herselffrom those
who seek to do her harm, there is an unexpected poignancy to therelationship
angles. Garnet is a survivor and has many clever and appealing coping
mechanisms in dealing with all that comes her way.
Tate Hallaway has since written a second novel in her new series, titled
DEAD SEXY. One has to wonder whether this first somewhat darker urban
fantasy novel (with its pagan references and the like) has fallen prey to more
than just a few subtle editorial tweaks in order to make it appeal to a
greater market. There are enough of the vampire "lite" novels out there, and Tate
Hallaway from this debut novel seems to have something a little grittier to offer
up. The cover art is very visually appealing, but cartoon images of a skinny
would that give out to the person picking it up in the bookstore? TALL DARK AND
DEAD shows a lot of promise, but judging by the title of the second book - there
comes that sinking feeling.
STALKED - Brian Freeman
Lieutenant Jonathan Stride knows his partner Maggie Bei is in trouble when she reports a deadly crime on a winter night. Maggie's obviously hiding a terrible secret. And her silence only feeds suspicion. Maggie isn't the only one keeping secrets. A young woman has disappeared, leaving behind a stash of lurid fantasies and a cryptic message. I know who it is.
STALKED is the third Jonathan Stride novel. Set in Duluth on the shores of Lake Superior in Minnesota Stride finds himself investigating his own. His long-term work partner Maggie is in her house, asleep in bed, when her husband - downstairs, on the couch, is shot with her gun. A local woman disappears after some bizarre allegations of rape. As further rape victims come to light, Stride finds that the threat is even closer to home.
There's obviously some back story to Stride, Maggie and Stride's life partner Serena that comes from the earlier books in the series. Reading this one as a standalone didn't suffer from not knowing that back story as it's handled pretty well. Obviously it's Serena that has had to move to Duluth, obviously she has had a torrid past. Obviously there is somebody out there who is menacing her. Is that person the rapist? Is the rapist also a blackmailer? Well it's not immediately obvious who's who.
Summing up STALKED is actually quite a challenge. On the one hand I really liked the way the story rolled along. On the other hand, the subject matter is pretty sordid and there's a real sense of pointless cruelty and viciousness as well as tacky sexual behaviour. Add to that there doesn't seem to be a single female character in the book who isn't damaged. Profoundly damaged. To the point where it was off putting, sadly almost cartoonish. That is a huge pity as frankly, it got distracting. Mind you, by the same token, the menacing presence of the uber-evil villain had a bit of that OTT thing going on at the same time.
What did work was that the male characters were interesting - complex without being complicated; pasts that aren't all dire. The plot was multi-layered and there was a startling amount of action, but there was never any feeling of that getting out of control or being too much. There are some actions on the part of the main characters which just don't seem sensible, but by the same token, they happened and the book draws to a fast-paced conclusion.
POWER PLAY - Joseph Finder
POWER PLAY is the latest in a string of stand-alone corporate thrillers by this author. It explores the idea of a corporate hostage taking exercise - when senior managers of the Hammond Aerospace corporation are held at a remote retreat where they have headed for an annual meeting.
In this group the obvious ring-ins are Jake Landry - more of a technical assistant to a boss who is unable to attend the retreat - and his old girlfriend Ali Hillman. She was in HR, but has now been moved across to work with the new company CEO. There's tension within the Hammond group before they even get to the retreat - after the death of their long-time CEO a female executive has been appointed to that role and many of the hard headed old men in the group are not happy about her or her approach. There is a big a marketing opportunity for the company when a competitors product fails spectacularly in front of an airshow full of witnesses. The group are already snipping and fighting amongst themselves, a situation that is exacerbated, rather than improved when heavily armed men - originally thought to be opportunistic local hunters, take the entire group and the staff of the retreat hostage.
POWER PLAY sets a cracking pace once the hostage taking gets underway - the lead up to that point fills in some details of the tensions between the characters, the background between Jake and Ali and a lot about Jake himself. This reader is still somewhat confused about why Jake's background mattered or what it necessarily contributed to him, but then by the end of the book he'd taken on somewhat more of a confusing persona so it might not matter to other readers so much. Mind you, the rest of the character's were less studies and more categories, for want of a better way of putting that. The new CEO, as a female is being strongly resisted by the older men in the group. She's sending out memos that annoy everybody before they go, she's had her powers of hiring and firing curtailed because of the tensions between her and senior executives and the retreat itself is unpopular because of the timing. All of this starts to make a bit more sense in the aftermath of the hostage taking. I'm not too sure what else she brings to the story other than providing one of the two possibly more vulnerable victims in the group. The harder headed, louder men in the group - the ones that were against the appointment of this woman the most vocally, form part of a series of targets for the hostage takers and there is a bit of rather extreme violence committed in the early stages of events. Conveniently most of the extreme threat - particularly to Ali, to whom Jake is still very much attracted; doesn't occur until Jake is armed, dangerous and free to take on the hostage takers - one by one.
POWER PLAY is definitely a thriller that takes advantage of pace, there's quite a few twists and turns in the plot - a lot of them obviously on the way, but they loomed up really quickly and the book just continued to charge along. All in all the pace was good; the characterisations less convincing; and the plot had it's definite high points but some concomitant low points. It's interesting that the marketing information that came with the book says that kidnappings and abductions of American business executives has increased dramatically in recent years. Big Business fans of POWER PLAY might be looking towards their lower ranks to check who they should take with them on any risky annual retreats.
LAST OF THE GOOD GUYS - John Carbone
From the Book: On the streets of 1970s Brooklyn, it's all about walking tall and making your own luck. Marco Bolzani refuses to work a dead-end job, wasting his life away for a few measly bucks. So he goes into 'business' with his closest friends. Compared to the guys around them, bank robbers and murderers, they're just a group of small-time hoods that aren't making any real noise.
That is, until Macro's Uncle Tony gets involved.
LAST OF THE GOOD GUYS is blurbed as having echoes of The Godfather, Goodfellas and Sleepers. What it does have is a very different sort of style. It's written in the first person, the central narrator - Marco - talking about his life, how he became a gangster, how he and his friends worked that life, what happens to them when he tries to get out, how it affects his friends and family. The "getting out" is complicated when Marco and his gang come up against corrupt authorities - two people who want nothing more than to wipe Uncle Tony, Marco and the rest of the gang off the face of the planet.
The thing you take away most from LAST OF THE GOOD GUYS is the style or tone. It's very matter of fact. Firstly about the way of life that gets you into crime, how they set up a house renovation business to "explain" the money, about the obscene amounts of money they could accumulate. And mostly about the relationships within the gang and with their girlfriends, wives, partners and families. The matter of fact acceptance of violence, of death, of revenge and the cold blooded removal of roadblocks - human or physical. The way that a life can simply be dumped - the cash is the only important element - take the cash - disappear - set up a new life - drop that life - disappear again - move around - form relationships - dump relationships - anything that it takes to stay alive.
And that's the final thing that you take away to ponder long and hard. Is a life lived like this, with no second glances, no consideration of the damage caused as it proceeds and absolutely and utterly no guilt, really worth living? Marco gets to the end of this book as untroubled by the chaos he's caused as he was as a damaged and troubled young boy. Sure he discovers things that might seem to some to mean that he has a future - but there's a brutal failure to accept the past.
LEAN MEAN THIRTEEN - Janet Evanovich
From the Book: New Secrets, Old Flames and hidden agendas are about to send Bounty Hunter Stephanie Plum on her most outrageous adventure yet.
In LEAN MEAN THIRTEEN, Stephanie is chasing bail skips, destroying cars and generally causing a bit of havoc wherever she goes - not least of all by losing her cool and trying to strangle her ex-husband Dickie Orr, just before he goes missing, presumed dead. All of this starts out mind you, with a simple favour for Ranger, and whilst Ranger is very interested in the firm that Dickie works with, Stephanie rapidly becomes more interested in keeping Dickie's lunatic girlfriend from strangling her in retribution for Dickie; keeping just out of reach of the cops who really are wondering about her alibi when Dickie disappeared and staying out of trouble as everyone seems to think that Stephanie knows more than she thinks she does.
You can count on Stephanie Plum for some things that absolutely never change - and I suppose that's what the main attraction of these books is. Stephanie Plum is a bounty hunter, she lives in an apartment with a perpetually empty fridge and a hamster named Rex (how old must Rex be now!) She's broke and desperate to pick up her next bond skip so that she can pay the rent and maybe put something in that fridge. Her mother is still spending a lot of time gazing longingly at the liquor cabinet - especially when Grandma Mazur is in full flight - and Grandma Mazur is at the top of her standard form here. Stephanie is still a disaster where cars are concerned, the bond skips she's after invariably have some very weird ways of amusing themselves (either in their criminal pursuits - or their hobbies), and Lula is still loud and proud! There is still that romantic tension. Morelli has now achieved boyfriend status, but Ranger is still there - still dangerous and Stephanie is just managing to keep her distance.
There are some smile inducing moments in LEAN MEAN THIRTEEN, there's some over the top slapstick comedy that fans of this series are really going to love, and I think that's probably the point. LEAN MEAN THIRTEEN is going to be like an outing with old friends or, if you're game to admit it, maybe even family.
UNDEAD AND UNPOPULAR - Mary Janice Davidson
UNDEAD AND UNPOPULAR moves the vampire queen Betsy Taylor just a little bit
further down the line to being married, and to being more like a reigning
monarch over her people. This little read is very much a one room drama - the
characters hardly leave the house and spend their time bumping into each other
in the hallways to throw out some sass and then move on. As will be the wont
with vampire novels, there isn't a lot further up in the predatory chain to a
competant vampire so therefore there's no threats coming from above. The
warring factions approach has been attempted here but it is all so haphazard and
casually done that you would feel a greater sense of tension from not
remembering where you last saw your bookmark.
This series had an explosive start, and suffers now from the problem of what to
do with Betsy. The marriage card can only be dragged out so long, and it's hard
to feel much for two people who drink blood from each other anyway. This book
is more of a quick character catch-up for the regular readers with a
barely-there plot which would do little to draw in a new readership.