Alternative Dimension by Bill Kirton

newadThis is a second opinion review. For an earlier review (before Bill ‘came out’ as author) click HERE 

First of all let me say that this book is different. It is not one of Bill Kirton’s crime novels, nor is it a spoof, although Kirton’s brand of humour does shine through. I hesitate to classify this one. Is it fantasy? Is it sci fi? Or is it a blend of both. Whatever it is, I found it not only unusual but highly entertaining.

As soon as I started reading I knew I was going to like this book, although the Prologue did not really address what the book was about, and the character in the Prologue appeared only fleetingly in the story. But the character, who hates mirrors as much as his name, is the product of flower children, and because he was conceived in a barn at the Stitchley Experience event, he was named Stitchley Green. His parents, Samuel and Samantha “tossed a coin to decide whether to make love that night or wait until the following day, and do it in dew and sunshine. It was tails so Stitchley was conceived twelve minutes later on a hay bale. If the coin had come down heads, he’d have been called Dew.” I would have liked to follow Stitchley, But Kirton had other ideas.

The story is based on a computer programmer’s vision of an Alternative World. A world where people could go to relax, have fun, and be anything they want to be. He sets up this world which he calls Alternative Dimension, or AD for short, whereas real life is labelled Normal Dimension, ND for short. When describing what he has done, he says “Their avatars moved in magic kingdoms but the experiences took place in the minds of the people sitting at keyboards in ND.” Initially the world he set up reminded me of the computer game Sims, where other worlds and realities are played out on the computer. But AD goes well beyond this, and “in AD if you could imagine it you could do it.” Needless to say that the avatars acting out the imaginations of millions of people around the world created some interesting situations.

Joe gives himself two avatars. He is Ross Magee who moves around AD like any other player, but the other avatar is Red Loth, the creator of AD which is based on God’s creation of earth. But Red Loth gets more than he bargains for when other avatars demand commandments, and the compilation of these commandments was hilarious. For example, Joe thought anal leakage should be banned until he is reminded that avatars do not possess an anus! He reckoned people could worship graven images if they wanted to, and he advocated castration, the removal of the entire male organ in order to make bicycle and horse riding more comfortable. In this section Kirton comes closest to the kind of spoof writing that he is so fond of, and uses to great effect in The Sparrow Conundrum.

There is also social commentary in this book, and I loved the quote, “To the north were the Canadians, who were thought by all to be Americans, but nicer.” (apologies to any Canadians reading this but it is an example of Kirton’s satire). Kirton goes on to say that AD mimicked the world. The UK had no “industrious shopkeepers from the Indian sub-continent, no plumbers or construction workers from Poland and Eastern europe, no Russian plutoctrats” and so “AD Brits were deprived of the chance to grumble that all these foreigners were taking their jobs and claiming unemployment benefit.”

Stitchley appears briefly in chapter five, where he is classed as an entrepreneur. He takes the name of Brad the Enigma, and tries various occupations, they all fail, but then he sets himself up as a Consultant and becomes highly successful.

Joe, meantime is busy creating an environment in which normality and virtuality could be synchronised. He is trying to create the perfect world but “others found that their avatars freed them from life’s limitations, and yet their only use of freedom was to tread predictable paths.” When creating their avatars “almost everyone elected to be beautiful, fall in love, become tycoons, warlords or porn kings and queens.” Not all of the avatars are human though. There are animals of all descriptions, both real and mythical. It would seem that some people were more comfortable as cats, dragons, unicorns, dogs, horses, ad infinitum.

As the book continues Joe is not entirely pleased with how things develop. He had meant AD to be a fun place, but bureacracy has a way of rearing its head, and he is less than pleased to find the Health and Safety Inspectorate operating.

The book continues, illustrating various stories of the people involved in AD, the real life stories as well as the imaginary ones, such as the voluptuous sexy female who is, in reality, a wheelchair bound male researcher. Some of the stories are pleasant, some not so pleasant, and at one stage in the book cannibilism rears its head.

I don’t want to go much further in describing the book as I don’t want to reveal the ending. Suffice to say that AD is a place where inhibitions could be cast off and dreams lived. A place where someone could be outrageous and do anything with no consequences. It is a mix of satire, social and political commentary, with a philosophic outlook. It is a very clever and interesting novel illustrating what can happen in a perfect world.

I’m glad I read it, although it gave me a lot to think about.

Reviewed by Chris Longmuir

Available in Kindle format

Find out more about Bill Kirton 

The Hurricane Lover by Joni Rodgers

hurricaneAnyone like disaster movies?  Did you watch the Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno, Volcano, Deep Impact? I have to admit that I did and – even more shocking! – have even watched repeats, wrapped up in a blanket and dosed with flu remedies.  Written by Joni Rodgers, an experienced novelist and ghost writer, the Hurricane Lover would make an excellent script for another and I’d probably watch that too, with or without the honey and lemon.  It’s based on the phenomenon of the two mega-hurricanes Katrina and Rita which piled into the Gulf coast within a few weeks of each other, and it gives graphic descriptions of what it was like to live through them. Very topical in the wake of the recent New York disaster.  This isn’t my normal kind of reading, but I’m a sucker for documentaries about storm-chasers and was eager for a bit of light reading after ploughing through piles of lit-crit for research purposes. So, I put myself in James Bond mode, disengaged the brain and the reality check and prepared to be entertained, scared witless, and finally have the universe returned to normality – a bit like a ride on the Tower of Terror roller coaster in Australia, but at £1.94 it’s a lot cheaper.

There are two feisty central characters.  Shay, a ‘smile’ girl on daytime TV, longs to do some serious journalism.  Her ex-lover Corbin is an expert on hurricanes and earns his living predicting them and advising companies and governments how to minimise the damage.   Hurricane Katrina brings them together again after a long period of bitterness and acrimony.  Shay has uncovered a website that lures men into bizarre sexual encounters that result in identity theft, financial ruin and murder.  She believes that Corbin’s much loved brother, Guy, whose wife is 8 months pregnant, is going to be the next victim.  The perpetrator, known only as Queen Mab, is known to operate under the cover provided by hurricane chaos and Shay believes that Katrina is going to be the backdrop for her next strike.

Corbin, having predicted the horror that Katrina is likely to bring, leaves the safe haven he’s created for himself, Guy and his wife, to follow Shay out into the storm in pursuit of Queen Mab.  Conditions worsen, Shay almost drowns in rat-infested water, is separated from Corbin by the storm, but survives despite everything.  And even though she has initially failed to pin down the murderess, she has a story about the victims of the hurricane that networks are going to compete for.  Guy is safe, but the victim proves to be another member of their close family.  Corbin wants revenge.  He also realises that he is still in love with Shay.  Hurricane Rita builds out in the Atlantic and it becomes clear the Queen Mab now has someone else on her hit list.  As Corbin and Shay close in on her, their own lives are increasingly at risk.

There are some chillingly authentic descriptions of Shay’s interviews with people who refuse to leave their properties and she has to leave them to face what she knows is certain death as the water level rises.  At one point she bumps into an obstacle in the water and realises that it is the body of a young woman.  Later she is challenged by a terrified policeman holding a rifle and threatening to shoot her because he believes she’s a looter. The hard choices that survivors had to make are illustrated in one scene where Shay has to drown a caged dog to save it from an even slower and more painful death.  Based on personal accounts of what actually happened in New Orleans on the night the hurricane made landfall, this isn’t a novel for the faint-hearted.  It’s the inclusion of these elements of reality that lift the novel into a different league.

The chapters are also interspersed with emails (in the public domain)  from the disaster management team at FEMA and they make sickening reading.  If Nero fiddled while Rome burned, then the FEMA management’s inaction should also be immortalised with a similar saying.

The novel contains all the elements of the disaster movie genre – the fast pace, the superhuman escapes from near death experience, the ability to have sex anywhere, at any time despite having broken several ribs, been stabbed, kicked in the nether regions and recently knocked unconscious!  You have to suspend disbelief, but it all adds to the fun.

This novel is well outside my usual comfort zone in terms of genre.  I love thrillers, but rarely read this kind of hybrid, though I have to say that it carried me along like a tidal surge.  The only thing I struggled with was the American vernacular.  English English and US English seem to be diverging at the speed of light. Shamefully, I didn’t know what a ‘goat screw’ was – I obviously don’t get out enough!  The novel is set in the deep south of New Orleans where residents still speak a version of French.  The author has included just enough simple French phrases to give a taste of the New Orleans dialect and that didn’t give me any trouble.  It was the fast-paced vernacular that puzzled, as it sometimes does these days in US movies and TV series. I got the gist however, and it didn’t deter me.  It was quite late when I finally put out the light.  And I won’t be moving to the Gulf coast of the US any time soon!

Reviewed by Kathleen Jones

Available in Kindle format  

Find out more about Joni Rodgers

Sitting Duck by Robert Dodds

sittingduckI looked forward to reading this book which was described as a pacy, comic novel, which was ‘Not a whodunit, but a who’ll do it!’

Sitting Duck is written in the form of a journal, and right at the beginning, the reader is informed that ‘This is a journal of a man about to die’. So no surprises there – Martin Mallard, the man writing the journal will not survive.

Martin is not a particularly likeable man. He is a middle-aged dentist who comes over as pedantic, staid, and uptight, and the journal follows his first holiday outside Europe. He has chosen the island of Pootapuri which is a somewhat rough and ready place more likely to attract backpackers.

His fellow holidaymakers are an odd bunch and he succeeds in alienating quite a few of them. I felt this was a place and holiday which was an odd choice for this man to make. I also felt the holiday venue could have done with an inspection by health and safety, because many of the tours the holiday makers took were fraught with danger.

As I read further into the journal I couldn’t help feeling Martin was accident prone, but then the accidents took a sinister turn. Things like a pile of roof slates falling on him when the group visit a slate making factory, then his bed goes on fire, he’s pushed over a precipice, warned of danger by a priest, and is lost in the jungle. All this, plus the knowledge that this man will not survive, makes it plain he is being hunted by someone with homicidal tendencies.

I did cringe at places when he did silly things, such as eavesdropping, looking through bathroom keyholes, and his encounter with a masseuse – I won’t go into details about that.

I didn’t find Martin a likeable character, nor did I find his antics particularly appealing. The comic nature of the situations he found himself in, also eluded me, however I think I may lack a funny bone, and I’ve never found the slipping on a banana skin type of humour, funny.

However there was a growing feeling of menace as the journal progressed. There was also a great feeling of the primitive nature of the country which was largely uncivilised.

I think the author achieved what he set out to do and this was an unusual and intriguing book.

Reviewed by Chris Longmuir

Available in Kindle format 

Find out more about Robert Dodds

 

Bold Counsel by Tim Vicary

 

 

 

 

BoldCounsel33

This is the third in the Sarah Newby case sequence, after A Game of Proof and Fatal Verdict. Although I hadn’t read the others, I found it didn’t matter. Bold Counsel stands alone and is very readable – a strong plot with well-drawn characters and a lot more personal detail than you normally get in a thriller.

The book begins with what appear to be unrelated episodes – a fox digs up old bones which are found by a small boy; in London Sarah is fighting in the Appeal Court for the release of a man who has been in jail for 18 years convicted of a murder he claims he didn’t commit.  Meanwhile Sarah’s youngest child, who has just left home to go to university, is experiencing problems, and Sarah’s marriage is crumbling.  Her personal and professional lives are further complicated by the fact that she’s also the object of competing male desire.  A young, recently widowed detective, involved in tracking down the perpetrator of a series of sexual assaults on lone women, is seriously attracted to Sarah. And then there is the property developer she meets on the train, but isn’t sure that she can trust. Gradually all the separate elements merge together into a complex plot and it becomes clear to the reader that Sarah’s judgement is compromised and her life is in danger.

Tim got the idea for the Sarah Newby novels from a court case and an item in the local paper.  He taught English to foreign university students and occasionally took them to the Crown Court to see English justice in action.  One afternoon he watched a rape case being heard, knowing, from court scenes the jury weren’t allowed to see, that the accused had previously been acquitted on similar charges and was acknowledged, even by his barrister, to be guilty.  Nevertheless the man was acquitted again. Angered by the humiliation and distress of the victims, Tim felt that it was something he wanted to write about.  A newspaper cutting, telling the story of a young girl who had become a barrister, despite dropping out of school at 16, gave him the idea for his heroine and he began to write The Trials of Sarah Newby.

The first novel in this series, A Game of Proof, was traditionally published by Constable and Robinson as part of their crime catalogue, but Tim Vicary made the decision to go into Indie publishing with the sequel Fatal Verdict and again with the third novel Bold Counsel.  He has also re-issued A Game of Proof as an e-book.  Bold Counsel was a very interesting read and it has made me want to read the others.  And if I was ever in trouble, Sarah Newby is the lawyer I’d want to see on the front bench representing me!

 Reviewed  by Kathleen Jones:

Find all three books on Tim’s website:

Available in Kindle format 

Find out more about Tim Vicary

 

 

Steps to Heaven by Wendy Cartmell

I came to this book with mixed feelings. On the one hand I like crime stories, but on the other I’m not particularly drawn to army settings or army life. Maybe it’s because we see so much in the national news about the army in Afghanistan, which can be quite overwhelming and, although I have every sympathy with soldiers and their lot, I’m not particularly drawn to that kind of lifestyle.

However, as soon as I started to read I was so drawn into the story that I didn’t even register until I was quite some way through the book, that the author was the narrator and she was telling the story, rather than the characters showing the reader what was happening. I’m not a lover of the omniscient point of view because I feel it puts a space between the story and the reader, so it is a tribute to the author that she was writing in this style but it wasn’t immediately obvious.

Her descriptive powers are impressive, whether that be descriptions of the character, setting, or army life. I felt as if I was there, walking the army camps with her, or maybe I should say, with her characters.

The story is set mainly at Aldershot Garrison and centres round the return of a soldier from Afghanistan who murders his wife, and child and then commits suicide. The investigation throws up similar crimes at other garrisons and the growing belief that these are not simply murder, suicides, but something a lot darker, involving the church and possible cults. I will say no more as I don’t want to include spoilers.

Her main character, Tom Crane, an army investigator, is particularly well drawn. His mix of exasperation with army protocols while being very much steeped in those protocols himself, came over very well. I did feel the pent up anger that he exhibited most of the way through the book was at times overdone. For example, when he vented that anger on his wife, treating her in a very macho way and demeaning her role, I lost sympathy with him and positively disliked him. However, bringing these feelings to the fore with the reader is the mark of a good writer. But I would have preferred a less brutal way of treating his wife, although he did redeem himself by the end of the book.

The story was well plotted with believable characters and it kept the element of mystery to the forefront. I must say I did have my suspicions about one character, although I wasn’t absolutely certain until the end. However, as a crime reader and writer I think I am pretty good at detecting the red herrings and misdirection that is all part and parcel of a good crime novel, and I doubt whether most readers would actually guess correctly.

The ending was action packed and exciting, although I couldn’t help thinking that with a different point of view – perhaps Tom Crane’s – the element of suspense could have been ratcheted to a higher level.

In the main, however, this was a well written, absorbing book with enough mystery and action to satisfy most readers of crime fiction.

Reviewed by Chris Longmuir

Available in Kindle format

Find out more about Wendy Cartmell

The Quickening By Mari Biella

From the very first page of this absorbing psychological, supernatural, highly atmospheric thriller I knew exactly the territory I was treading.  I recognised the calm, reasonable narrative tone: the voice of an educated, thinking, rational person, bookish even, who was about to experience terror fit to shrivel the blood.   The book starts with the narrator’s unambiguous statement of the sort of story he is about to tell.  This is the style and technique of Edgar Allan Poe, MR James, Henry James in The Turn of the Screw, and in our own day, Susan Hill in The Woman in Black, The Mist in the Mirror and The Small Hand: even Kate Mosse in such a book as The Summer Ghosts.  And it is done extremely well – as well as Poe, the two Jameses and Hill: better, I have to say, than Mosse.

Lawrence Fairweather, an amateur botanist with a private income, lives with Julia, his wife, and their seven year-old daughter Hazel.  They have returned from Europe to Lawrence’s family home on the Fens: a lonely house in the flat countryside beset by wind and rain straight from the Urals, lying under huge skies: the sort of fictional scene which attracts the supernatural.  Only the housekeeper, Mrs Jessop, has entered it since they have been away.  Julia seems unstable: Hazel has not uttered a word for months.  Before they left for Europe their three year-old daughter Emily died.  Their stay away had not helped Julia over her grief.  Signs of Emily’s short life lie all over the house.

Soon, we know there are not merely bad memories but actual presences in the house.  The rational and self-absorbed Fairweather will not allow the supernatural into his thoughts: nevertheless the unnamed menace grows.  Dr Devonald is their only friend and offers what understanding and solace he can.  But in a crucial episode at a dinner-party in Devonald’s house with his sister Sophie and a visiting medium, events occur which show there is something evil connected with but not altogether of the house because it directly affects Julia herself.   What are we in the presence of?  A real haunting or a psychosis?  Or both?

The tragedy moves swiftly and even more effectively because it is mediated through Fairweather’s increasingly urgent, frightened. slightly unreliable voice as he realises that more self-awareness on his part might have prevented much of it.  The conclusion is not a shock to us, there is something even inevitable about it, but it is none the less terrible.

Someone once said that the classic ghost story became obsolete after the invention of electric light.  In a way, that’s right. Modern ghosts have to appear either on summer afternoons or inhabit machines.  Yet Victorian stories of the supernatural, first written when faith was declining, scientific thought was superseding it and a post-religious spiritual yearning found its outlet by dabbling in the spirit world, keep their special significance because they exist in an imagined world we can still connect with.   The new ones, the best of which are far more than mere pastiche, still have the power to move us.  The Quickening fits well into such company.

Reviewed by Dennis Hamley 

Available in Amazon Kindle format 

Find out more about Mari Biella

 

 

No Place for Dinosaurs by John Morrison

First, the declaration of interest. I came across No Place for Dinosaurs long before it was finished, and played some small part in its construction. John Morrison joined a select band of people who were prepared to gather round me – I got paid, they did not – and see if I could help them to become writers in any way. They weren’t writing classes, because I thought then as I think now that writers are born, not made. It’s like being a good sub-editor, or being able to sail a boat – some people can, some people can’t, and no one knows exactly why. I couldn’t catch a criminal if he came and begged me to slip on the cuffs. John Morrison is an ex Detective Inspector with a huge Yorkshire force.

The book is a police procedural, as we call them nowadays. But most police procedurals (ask any policeman) skate so lightly across the reality that they are in fact a sort of fairy tale. None the worse for that, of course. Look at the Dragon Tattoo books. The heroine is actually Superman, right down to the magic powers, and even Cally Blomkvist’s name is out of Pippi Longstocking. Don’t believe a word of ’em – but my, what glorious fantasies.

John’s take on it could not be more different. The heroes are policemen, true, but they are anything but heroic. They are not cowards or run-of-the-mill bent coppers, either, they are just normal policemen doing the Job like normal policemen do. Detective Superintendent Bob Menzies drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney, and despises the time-servers and arselickers who make up most of the ranks above him. His friend and sidekick Harry Grice is not dissimilar. And they share a secret from their past which one day might bring them down. Or maybe not.

The story is likewise the stuff of hundreds of such novels. A young girl is sexually assaulted and battered to death with a hammer. There are no clues, no witnesses, and nothing but a crippling round of fruitless searching. In most books, though, there would be a breakthrough. In real policing, and in Dinosaurs, it’s no such luck. The policemen work their days out, watch the parents of the dead girl fall to pieces, drink and politick and bicker. They involve the press, and get rolled. They involve academic experts, and get nothing. Written about, it sounds boring. Written by John Morrison it is fascinatingly authentic.

There is another incident at last, when the first one is landlocked and derelict. Another girl – nineteen this one, a student – disappears off the face of the earth in similar circumstances and in almost the same place. Oh joy, oh rapture! Now the machine can swing again. Except for family misery, and department budget cuts, and more dead-ends, brick walls. This time, though, there is a sort of breakthrough. Except that the perpetrators are not the same, the abduction probably an ‘accident,’ a whole new can of worms.

Now more police forces are involved, the bureaucracy runs crazy, and Menzies and Grice get involved in a mess of allegations of misconduct. And the exhausting, painstaking day-to-day rolls ever onward. Barnaby it ain’t. Nor Frost, or Maigret. It is tired policemen, overworked and undervalued, being backstabbed by their bosses and the system.

I found it compulsive, from the beginning to the end – which is not to say that everybody will. Most such books are read for pure escapism, but this one portrays a harsher world. Its ending is a complete surprise, however, and parts of it are extremely exciting. It’s a little overwritten in places – the ‘tutor’ did try, honestly, but who is he to judge? – and the punctuation could do with a fair bit of tidying up. Which can be rectified on ebooks, and will be, I’m sure.

I wouldn’t wait around for that though. As a police procedural it’s a genuine eye-opener, and I’ve read oodles of the damn things. I’m proud to have been a part of it from an early stage, and I look forward to the next one, which I think is coming soon. No input from me this time, though – they couldn’t get the funding.

Reviewed by Jan Needle  

Available in Kindle format

Find out more about John Morrison via Skinback Books