In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie

https://i1.wp.com/d.gr-assets.com/books/1438885095l/25923223.jpgRebecca Mackenzie’s debut novel, In a Land of Paper Gods, is surely set to delight readers this spring, as we’re treated to an often startling—and decidedly perceptive—look at one child’s journey into a strange world that is far from home.

Here we see Henrietta—or: Etta to her wild group of girl-friends and fellow classmates—as she spends her days amongst Christian missionaries, at a school in amongst the mountains. Her life is that of a daughter of parents who spread the word of God, as China sits on the brink of war, and all that implies.

Etta is thrust into a world where she is influenced by two separate cultures, and it is fascinating to see how Mackenzie picks through these ambiguities and conflicts, as the tension of the impending war ticks menacingly in the background.

The steadily approaching Japanese soldiers spent the most part of the novel in the background—conspicuous by their absence—before becoming increasingly more important figures in these girls’ lives. Mackenzie writes with a natural touch, contrasting the beauty with the impending war so subtly that you sometimes have to pause for breath before you realise what she’s done. She captures the spiritual world of China and forests, as mountains and waterfalls seem to come alive, leaping off the pages.

Mackenzie’s cast of characters are delightfully strange and innocent, often laugh-out-loud funny. Sarah, Isobel, Fiona, Kathryn, Edith, Flo, Hilary—and let’s not forget Big Bum Eileen—will form the weird and wonderful Prophetess Club.

At first their predictions seem just a little too ridiculous, hard to take seriously, but it’s quickly understood that this is a child’s way of dealing with the circumstances of war: of allowing themselves to disappear, Narnia-esque, away from reality and all that comes with it, in the soon to be war-torn Chinese mountains.

In the latter stages of In a Land of Paper Gods, inevitably the war catches up, as it has threatened to do in patches throughout its pages. At times Mackenzie’s writing can be brutal—but always hauntingly beautiful—as we are swept forward to an emotionally draining denoument that will have the most hardened of hearts aflutter.

This is a book that teems with beautiful images and descriptions—on love, friendship, and mostly: what it means to be human, regardless of your upbringing or culture. Mackenzie has crafted a debut novel that blends the historical with the personal, and she has done so with ease. I for one look forward to the next adventures that surely wait in future pages.

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My thanks, as ever, to the ever-wonderful Ella (@EllaMatildaB) and @TinderPress for the ARC.

In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie is available online and in all good bookstores, January 28.

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The American by Nadia Dalbuono

https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1434090579l/25712959.jpgIf you like your thrillers intricately crafted and pulling no punches, Nadia Dalbuono is definitely one writer you should be looking up right now. The Few—Dalbuono’s debut novel—introduced us to Detective Leone Scamarcio and a style of hard-hitting writing that tackled some big ideas. Now, The American has risen the stakes.

A few months down the line from the action of the last book, Scamarcio is struggling to deal with some important moral decisions he’s had to make, as he tries to live his life as a balancing act on both sides of the law. Piero Piocosta, his father’s old lieutenant, has kept an eye on his old mafia boss’ son, but the favours Scamarcio demands will not be granted without the debt being repaid.

Scamarcio needs to remove his underworld connections for the good of his career, but the problem is he needs them—particularly when he’s given a new case that good send ripples through international intelligence agencies across the world and, by association, threaten Scamarcio’s very existence.

An American is found hanging from the Ponte Sant’Angelo, just a stone’s throw away from Vatican City. At first it appears to be your average suicide, but Scamarcio is troubled by similarities to the 1982 murder of Roberto Calvi, known as ‘God’s Banker’ for his administration work for the Vatican. This isn’t going to be a home-by-six kind of day for the Rome detectives.

Dalbuono goes big with the overarching ideas in this one, and as soon as Scamarcio begins to look deeper into what he believes are two interconnected murders, he is warned off by two Americans in suits: self-important government types.

Scamarcio is quickly thrown into a world of subterfuge that goes deeper than he could have ever imagined: the mafia, international governments, The Vatican. Answers are elusive, both for our detective and the reader, as Dalbuono dangles enough information at us to keep us enticed, but while keeping it suitably mysterious.

We learn a lot more about our protagonist in this book, as Scamarcio begins to realise that he must make an important decision about whether to honour the old values of his father and his mafia ties—and before its all too late. Clearly, people don’t want him to continue with his investigations, as he is repeatedly warned not to tread on some very important toes. Scamarcio, however, is brave, and will do what he has to do to show the world the atrocities that are committed behind closed doors. Whether he can do so before they get to him, is another question entirely.

Although The American can be read as a standalone, it expertly fleshes out the characters we first go to know in Dalbuono’s predecessor, and it is useful to read them in order. Both books are intelligent thrillers that combine the political with the police procedural expertly, discussing some big ideas in the process, and Dalbuono definitely has an exciting series on her hands.

The denoument from this latest instalment leaves many questions open for the wider character arc, and I for one am excited to see what Dalbuono has up her sleeve for our next Leone Scamarcio thriller.

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The American is out online and in all good bookstores right now.

As ever, my thanks to Molly Sight at @ScribeUKbooks for the ARC.

The Few by Nadia Dalbuono

https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1412094719l/23290195.jpgNadia Dalbuono’s The Few is a razor sharp thriller, mixing the political with an intelligent police procedural as it bubbles and simmers, drip-feeding us the relevant information while holding back enough to keep us flicking through the pages.

Set in the city of Rome and on the island of Elba, we join Detective Leone Scamarcio—a superbly penned character, full of tension and a Mafioso past, through his father, that is difficult to shred—as he explores a case that begins when his chief hands him a file full of photos that certain people would rather not have see the light of day. The consequences are complex and high-reaching, as we’re thrown into a world of dark political dealings, murder, sex trafficking, murder, and other nefarious crimes.

Dalbuono is a terrific a writer—her descriptions of stale cigarette smoke and strong latte coffee leap off the page so much you can almost envision yourself there, wandering the dark streets of Rome in an attempt to unlock its secrets. A murdered male prostitute sets the action in motion, but The Few is a slow-burner: Scamarcio senses that these are events beyond his paygrade, and yet he slowly, but inevitably, begins to paint the picture of the involvement of a group that calls themselves ‘The Few’.

This is a debut novel that does not hold back: we’re faced with everything from kidnapping to sex and drugs—each crime bleeding into the next. For Scamarcio and his father’s past, sometimes the lines between being morally upstanding and needing to get results as a detective become blurred, and some of the best scenes are the interactions between Piero Piocosta, his father’s old lieutenant, and Scamarcio, as he struggles against some morally difficult choices

The author brilliantly manipulates the way in which the narrative moves as we’re fed italicized titbits of the world of the corrupt politicians at the heart of Scamarcio’s tricky, sensitive case. Not only to you get the sense that the detective is playing a game that involves a fine balancing act, but the consequences could end his career and maybe even his life.

If this strange, murky world—full of corruption and murder—Dalbuono gives us enough to whet the appetite elsewhere, too: particularly Scamarcio’s ‘girlfriend’, Aurelia, who works in the morgue. Theirs is a refreshingly different look at the usual shoe-horned relationship narrative, and you get the sense that Dalbuono is far from finished exploring their strange dynamic.

Overall, The Few is an intelligent debut that introduces us to a cast of fascinating characters—some of whom will be returning in a sequel called The American—whilst telling a complex story of the lengths that people will go to, in order to keep their secrets hidden.

The Widow by Fiona Barton

25734248What a delightfully creepy, slow-burning novel The Widow is. We have been treated in recent years to psychological thrillers such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and it has to be said, Fiona Barton has crafted a thriller that is bound to have everyone talking in 2016—and on her debut at that.

Follow Jean Taylor, the titular ‘widow’, as she tries to deal with the loss of her husband Glen and the can of worms his death has finally unlocked once and for all. Now the secrets won’t stay locked away in a dark desk drawer; no longer will the mysterious remain private, hidden behind closed doors and password-protected computer files.

Narrated from multiple perspectives, The Widow tells the story of a missing 2-year-old girl, Bella—her mother, Dawn, leaving her outside alone for “just a minute”—and how detective Bob Sparkes will never cease in his mission to track down her abductor, a man he believes is Glen Taylor. The problem is, no matter how hard he digs, there isn’t any tangible evidence. A liar? Yes. A man with dark secrets? Absolutely. A kidnapper and a paedophile? Bob can’t find the answers he needs.

The story starts with Glen dead, but it unfolds with him very much alive—in the form of flashbacks—as we dive deep into Jean and Glen’s marriage, and discover everything that comes with it: the secrecy, the arguments—but most of all, the loyalty. Jean lies at her husband’s bequest, but the dynamic is a fascinating one: she has secrets of her own, and Glen is familiar with her weakness, what exactly makes her tick. The suspicion lands on both as their bond tightens during the inquiries from the police. Jean kept her mouth shut when her husband was alive, but what will she say now?

Some of the best parts of this novel come when we get to witness Kate at work—a newspaper reporter who will stop at nothing to get the scoop that all of the biggest journalists want. Offers of hotel rooms, spa services, and the works— all designed to get Jean out of her shell and finally spill the gossip that she and her editor covet. She is a dog with a bone, and it is interesting to see how she develops as a character the more she learns. This is Barton at her finest: crafting some great dialogue and exploring interesting morale dilemmas through an excellent character.

We have, in all honesty, seen a lot of these types of novel in recent times, but there’s something refreshingly different about Barton’s debut. Sure, there’s twists and turns aplenty—and an ending that is executed nicely—but The Widow offers more that just your usual “whodunit”.

It’s a psychological thriller in the proper sense: a teasing, penetrating look at that fact that, when all’s said and done, everyone has a breaking point.

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The Widow by Fiona Barton, is out on January 14 – online and in all good bookstores.

Thanks to @BenWillisUK and @TransworldBooks for the ARC.