Sunday, February 1, 2015

Review: GATSBY'S SMILE by Morana Blue

GATSBY'S SMILE by Morana Blue 

Reviewed by Grant Nicol

This book was a pleasant little surprise I must say. It’s slightly unorthodox in the way that it goes about itself but that’s what I liked about it. It’s a psychological thriller in the true sense of the word. In many ways it feels as though the entire story happens between the ears of the central character, Morana ‘Moody’ Blue such is the claustrophobic nature of the narrative. The story do esn’t move around very much physically either which makes it feel as though it’s all being played out inside her head. She is a psychologist who works for the police and suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder which makes her as unsure about what’s going on most of the time as you are as a reader.

You can check out any time you like. But you can never leave.

There is a killer on the loose at an old folks’ homeand as each body is found the vultures of suspicion circle slowly around Morana before taking a real interest in her and closing in for the kill. As she is unsure of whether she could be responsible or not you will find yourself every bit as confused as her colleagues, police officers ‘Happy’ Harry and ‘Handsome’ are. They are a little unwilling to think ofher as a suspect, at first anyway, but get used to the idea as the circumstantial evidence builds and builds.

She paused to gauge my reaction. There was none. Which, of course, is a mighty fine reaction.

Initially you don’t want to contemplate that she is the one committing the murders either but as her inner turmoil becomes evident and her relationship with her childhood imaginary friend, Maro builds you are left with little choice but to open your mind to any number of strange and disturbing possibilities.
That’s where the fun begins. Once you discover that this is not just another police procedural but a genuinely strange and unsettling book you can settle back and enjoy the ride. There is some genuinely good writing and at times it really captured my imagination. The humour is dark and sometimes bleak. I liked that a lot as well.

"Just do it."
"Just murder a woman?"
"Not just any woman. It's your mother.”

But sometimes it is beautiful and heartfelt too.

And saw that, maybe, whirling unseen above us, beyond the range of weak human perception, beyond the weighty span of mere human suffering, ethereal souls screamed and screamed and screamed in perpetual terror. Infinite horror. Trapped, vaporised into the earth's sick atmosphere,by what we decide to do to our dead.

There is some real talent on show here and I can see this book doing very well. The character of Morana Blue is as complex, or maybe complicated would be a better word, as you will find and her struggles to make sense of herself are honest, painful andchaotic. A bit like real life really.

This is it. This is Life. Not the stuff of films or novels. Life is simple. Complicated and hard.

She is maybe not someone you would want to spend the rest of your life with but she’s a lot of fun on the page. If you like things dark, pithy and intricate this will be a book for you.

Grant Nicol is a crime writer who lives in Reykjavik, Iceland. You can follow him on Twitter @GrantNicol1. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

A new Kiwi thriller: SASSAFRAS by Richard Gooch

A friend in the New Zealand publishing industry made mention of a new New Zealand thriller recently, which caught my eye.

It seems more and more budding New Zealand authors are stretching their fiction-writing muscles in the crime and thriller genre, perhaps spurred on by what some academics and others have called a new 'golden age' of Kiwi crime writing.

It is great to see.

So here's a quick first look at a new New Zealand thriller, which has a fascinatingly realistic setting, given the history of drug trafficking in Asia and into Australia and New Zealand, such as the infamous 'Mr Asia' drug cartel of the 1970s (as recently dramatised in the Underbelly TV series).

SASSAFRAS by Richard Gooch

The blurb: Two thousand litres of sassafras oil is enough ingredient to manufacture 2.5 million tablets of pure MDMA aka Ecstasy with a street value of over 30 Million Euros. Sassafras oil is difficult to make, harder to find and almost impossible to smuggle. Garry Carter is 39 and starving for adventure and a sense of meaning in his life. He decides to put everything on the line – including his life – to deliver this huge shipment from where it is produced high up in the Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia to the port town of Mawlamyine in Myanmar.

Garrys’ Cambodian partners, Fa and Dang, are river traders. Between them, the father-and-son team have 70 years of experience navigating the spectacular river routes of South-East Asia – and dealing with the corrupt officials and soldiers along the way. Garry’s Dutch partners are drug manufacturers who have the skill and experience to navigate the European drug trade. The Cambodians and Dutch are ruthless. Garry, a New Zealander, isn’t. He’s just looking for a good time, then he unexpectedly falls for the beautiful Noy. The stakes are high: his money or his life.

The author: 42-year-old New Zealander Richard Gooch has spent decades travelling and working his way around the world. He now lives back in New Zealand, working as an importer. Travelling and writing are his passions, and Sassafras was written on location in Laos, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia.

You can find SASSAFRAS on Amazon here, and Goodreads here.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Ghosts of a younger self: Peter May speaks

This week I have a large feature on Scottish crime writer Peter May published in the New Zealand Listener. It really is a privilege to get to interview amazing writers and share more about them and their stories with readers in some high quality publications. I've been very fortunate over the past few years. New Zealand readers can grab a print copy of the Listener this week, or online subscribers to the Listener can read the full article from anywhere in the world (click here). I really enjoyed chatting to May late last year: about his latest novel RUNAWAY (inspired by his own teenage sojourn to London to follow his musical dreams, almost fifty years ago), the Lewis trilogy, his earlier screenwriting career, thoughts on crime fiction as quality literature, and much more - he is a fascinating and thoughtful man, as well as a heck of a good crime writer.

Ghosts of a younger self
It took 50 years for Peter May to turn a childhood dream into the plot of a thriller. He talks to Craig Sisterson.

It’s fitting that it was in a place of escapes and returns, among the soaring arches and rusting rail lines of Glasgow Central Station, that an idea Peter May had nurtured for 30 years finally coalesced. In the late 1960s, May had run away to London with his teenage friends. The dream: musical stardom. The reality: running out of money, returning north on a train with his best mate Stevie and being met by their fathers for “quite an extraordinary encounter” on Platform 1. May had marinated the idea of a novel ...

READ FULL ARTICLE HERE (Listener subscribers)


Have you read any Peter May novels, and if so, what do you think of his storytelling? How much does the past play a part in our present? What does it take to elevate crime writing to top literature?

Asian Drug Running and British Daggers


Asian drug-running and British daggers
Wellington-based NZSA member Bob Marriott talks to Craig Sisterson about being considered one of the best unpublished crime writers in the English-speaking world

A couple of messages from the British Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) could end up changing NZSA member Bob Marriott’s fiction-writing life. Last year, as part of a regular CWA email newsletter, Marriott, a Wellington-based freelance travel writer and former Naenae College teacher, discovered the CWA Debut Dagger, an unpublished crime writers’ competition open worldwide. Then in May Marriott found out he was one of 12 shortlisted authors selected from “hundreds and hundreds” of entries for the 2010 Debut Dagger.

Since 1998 the Debut Dagger has been part of the prestigious CWA Dagger Awards, which for half a century have recognised the best of the best in the crime and thriller writing world. A glance at previous Dagger winners reads like a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of crime writing; PD James, Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin, Colin Dexter, James Lee Burke, Reginald Hill, Sarah Paretsky, Henning Mankell, and many more. “When I read the names of some of the people involved, I thought, well, this has got to be pretty big,” says Marriot, with a chuckle.

As an unpublished novelist, it was the Debut Dagger that caught Marriott’s eye, especially since it was open worldwide and many previous entrants have gone from unknown to published author thanks to the competition. Marriott, who was born in England but moved to New Zealand in 1966, had been working on a thriller for several years; In the Lion’s Throat, an action-packed tale set amongst the spectacular scenery of Southeast Asia that he knew so well from his travel adventures. “I’ve travelled extensively and the characters I have met and the places I visited gave me the idea for a story,” says Marriott. “I worked on it spasmodically in between articles and travel for two or three years, then last year decided to finish the book then do something positive with it.”

One eye-opening trip into the Laos mountains provided plenty of fictional fodder. “It’s a hotbed of drug smuggling up that way, and they don’t really hide it in many cases,” he says. “They were growing opium [poppies] quite openly, and the guide said ‘we grow a little just for our own use’, with a sort of a little grin at the corner of his mouth, and I thought, well there’s acres and acres there. What I know about opium you could write on the back of a postage stamp, but I thought obviously there is more going on than meets the eye. It’s a sort of fairly lawless, remote area. I found it sort of mystic.”

Entrants for the Debut Dagger, which is open to anyone writing in the English language who has not yet had a novel published commercially, must submit the opening chapter(s) of their crime novel (up to 3,000 words) along with a short synopsis of the overall story. Although he thought his story might struggle to pique the judges’ interest, since it was “more of an action thriller” than a classic whodunnit, Marriott says he looked at the Debut Dagger “and thought, you know, what the heck?” After all, you’ve got to be in to win, and he’d been looking to “do something positive” with his completed manuscript.

Although he’d finished his full-length novel, Marriott still faced one final hurdle before he could enter; writing a good synopsis of In the Lion’s Throat. “I found of course that writing a decent synopsis is harder than writing the book,” he says with a laugh. Particularly when you’ve only got a certain amount of words - they wanted 500 words or something like that - to write what the whole book is about.” A good synopsis is fairly important, as the entire competition is judged \ on each entrant’s opening 3,000 words and synopsis. Unlike the recent NZSA/Pindar Publishing Prize (which incidentally was won by another Wellington-based budding crime writer, Donna Malane), where unpublished authors were shortlisted based on their extract and synopsis, but then the judges considered the full manuscripts of the finalists, for the CWA Debut Dagger the winner is chosen based solely on their extract and synopsis. “The amazing thing is, you don’t even have to have written the [entire] book,” says Marriott. “I mean, obviously if you want to get anywhere with it [later] you have to write the book.”

Marriott crafted his synopsis - distilling down his rollercoaster story of unorthodox Interpol Operator Brett Sadler waging war on drug smugglers in Southeast Asia and New Zealand into a few hundred words - paid his £25 entry fee, emailed his entry to the CWA, and promptly “forgot all about it”. So he was “surprised and delighted” to find out a few months later that In the Lion’s Throat had been selected by the judges (which include fiction editors from publishers Faber & Faber, Orion, and John Murray, along with a literary agent and the CWA Chairman) as one of the 12 finalists.

Speaking to Marriott in the week before the winner of the CWA Debut Dagger was announced at the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in late July, he says he has no expectations for In the Lion’s Throat to win, and is just thrilled to be on the shortlist. Rather than being an Oscar-esque ‘just happy to be nominated’ spiel, when it comes to the Debut Dagger it’s actually the case that being shortlisted can be as good as winning. Since its inception just over a decade ago, 23 winners and shortlisted authors have been published, and several have gone on to be recognised by major writing awards around the world. Inaugural winner Joolz Denby was short-listed for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction, 2001 winner Ed Wright was awarded the 2005 Shamus award for Best PI. novel by the Private Eye Writers of America, and Allan Guthrie won the 2007 Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year for Two Way Split, developed from his entry shortlisted in 2001. Barbara Cleverly, shortlisted in 1999, won the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award in 2004.

Another author who was shortlisted but didn’t win has perhaps been the most successful Debut Dagger alumni of all. Canadian Louise Penny’s manuscript for her mystery Still Life endured two years of constant rejection by publishers and literary agents around the world, until she decided to enter the 2004 competition. Making it through to the shortlist from around 800 entries that year, Penny was noticed by agents then publishers, and her career took off. Once published, Still Life went on to win the CWA New Blood Dagger (best first novel), the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award, and the Dilys, Barry, and Anthony awards in the United States.

The CWA established the Debut Dagger as a way for talented new crime fiction writers to be noticed, rather than lost amongst the ‘slush pile’ of submissions that accumulate on publishers’ and agents’ desks. The success of Penny’s debut and ongoing career (her Inspector Gamache series has featured on the New York Times bestseller list, been nominated for many literary awards, and earlier this year won the prestigious Agatha Award for an unprecedented third year in a row) is just one of many examples demonstrating the Dagger judges have a knack for spotting crime writing talent that might otherwise be overlooked by busy agents and publishers.

Marriott hopes that being shortlisted may likewise help In the Lion’s Throat get more of a chance. “The book is actually finished, it’s there for anybody who wants it, and I’m hoping of course, against hope, that some publisher or agent takes an interest.”

In the meantime, he’s continuing to travel, and continuing to write. He’s now working on a second travel-inspired thriller, set in Central America.

Craig Sisterson writes news, reviews and features for magazines and newspapers in New Zealand, Australia, the Pacific Islands, North America, and Europe. He is also the creator of Crime Watch, a website focused on New Zealand crime and thriller writing: 


This article was originally published in the August/September 2010 issue of NZ Author magazine. It is available from the archives of the National Library of New Zealand. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Review: THE SILENT HOUR by Michael Koryta

THE SILENT HOUR by Michael Koryta (Allen & Unwin, 2009)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Young wunderkind crime writer Michael Koryta won the PI Writers of America Best First Novel and was nominated for an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his debut Tonight I Said Goodbye. That acclaimed novel, which Koryta wrote when he was only 20, introduced Cleveland-based private investigator Lincoln Perry to the genre. Now, four books later, Koryta (who is also an award-winning journalist and part-time private eye himself) has moved from rising star to establishing a solid position amongst the upper echelon of crime writers.

In The Silent Hour Perry is asked by convicted murderer and former parolee Parker Harrison to investigate the 12-year old disappearance of Alexandria Sanabria, the founder of a unique residential program for released killers. A woman whose brother is a suspected underworld kingpin, and whose husband’s skeletal remains, Perry quickly discovers to his dismay, have recently been unearthed. Perry finds himself scratching at the scab of a sordid family mystery, intertwined with decades-old threats and past and present police and FBI investigations, and unwittingly following a trail that leads to more deaths.

Koryta weaves a nicely-paced and engrossing tale with some unexpected twists, but like the very best in the genre, his storytelling is much more than just page-turning plotlines. Perry is an intriguing and complex protagonist, whose struggles with not only this investigation, but also his commitment to even being in a job that has brought danger to his few loved ones, give him a humanity that will resonate with many readers. The supporting cast is full of interesting and reasonably well-rounded characters; authentic and distinct personalities, perspectives and voices.

Koryta makes you want to turn the page, for the characters and the story, and when you get to the end, you want to go out and immediately find another of his books.

This review was originally published in print and online in the Nelson Mail newspaper in mid 2009. Due to archiving, the review is now no longer on the Nelson Mail website, so has been republished online here.