Liz Robinson – Expert Reviewer and all round book nut.
Liz Robinson has been providing expert reviews for Lovereading.co.uk since 2014. She is one of the most prolific readers I know and has excellent taste and knows good fiction when she sees it. I’m therefore delighted to welcome her to Tales Before Bedtime where she’ll be sharing some of her favourite books with guest posts and reviews. You can also follow Liz on Twitter: @LRLizRobinson
I have been writing expert reviews since February 2014. I relish my time spent exploring all genres, and particularly enjoy novels that send my mind into fevered action, scare the bejeezers out of me, or fling me back in time or to unknown places. Books have always played a huge part in my life, they take pride of place on my shelves, and often receive a pat or a hug as I pass. – Liz Robinson
My April book of the month is a biography, a rather special, searingly honest insight into policing, ‘Blue A Memoir’ by John Sutherland.
A candid, objective, cooly passionate, and often unsettling account of policing from a police officer. John Sutherland joined the Met in 1992 aged 22, we see snapshots of his life as an officer, as he progresses up the career ladder, as he deals with all the horrors and glory a life in blue has to offer. From the very first page my attention was sucked in whole, I come from a family of blue, married blue, and spent 20 years as a member of police support staff. Even then, I was on the edge of understanding, I didn’t ever have to run towards danger, tell someone a loved one had died, sit with death, experience the bitter lows, the jubilant highs of being a police officer, yet John Sutherland takes you there.
As we read, we step in and out of a series of events that have all added up to create this man. It isn’t a glittery or gory descriptive feast, but it doesn’t have to be, he simply and clearly gives you a connection, and an understanding that under that uniform is flesh and blood and feelings. One thing is abundantly clear, this man loves his job. He feels the continued effort is worth it and yet it very nearly broke him. It is truly captivating; whether you nod, smile wryly and wish he could have been your boss, or feel the shock and admiration as you learn what our police are exposed to day after day. ‘Blue: A Memoir’ is a worthwhile and fascinating read, I really do recommend it with my heart and soul.
Note: John has written an epilogue to his story, which has been included in the paperback of ‘Blue A Memoir’. He speaks with his normal good sense, and he has the remarkable ability to put into words the thoughts and feelings so many officers struggle to properly articulate. He speaks from the heart, and his words made me cry. I wish him every success in his future, and whatever path he decides to explore. I’m quite sure to the many who know him, follow him on twitter and read his blog, he will forever remain a true inspiration.
Liz in conversation with John Sutherland
Liz – ‘You’ve been incredibly honest in ‘Blue A Memoir’, prior to the publication did you have any concerns about feedback?’
John – ‘There were definitely one or two moments before Blue came out when I wondered how on earth people were going to respond – and when the prospect of publication felt more than a little overwhelming. I guess that, in writing a memoir, you are giving something of yourself away – without having any control over the myriad ways in which people might read and react to it.But, almost without exception, the response has been amazing.’
Liz – ‘At what point did you realise ‘Blue’ was truly speaking to, and touching peoples hearts and minds?’
John – ‘My dad died a couple of years before ‘Blue’ was published. But he read a very early draft of something that, in parts at least, resembled ‘Blue’ – and he loved it. I always said it would have been worth writing it just for that. As I continued to write, I began to show extracts to friends and family and they were incredibly encouraging. But it wasn’t until I found Laura, my brilliant literary agent, that I began to appreciate the extent to which there might be an audience beyond those closest to me. My words and stories became a book published by the wonderful Weidenfeld & Nicolson – and complete strangers picked it up and started to read.’
Liz – ‘What has been the most interesting piece of feedback you’ve had from both police and public about ‘Blue’?’
John – ‘There are two recurring pieces of feedback that I’ve had about ‘Blue’. Police officers (both serving and retired) have written and spoken to me to say that my story might have been their story – and they wanted to thank me for telling it. That has meant more to me than I can say. Members of the public have written to say that the book has given them a glimpse into a world that was previously unknown to them – and that it has left them with a renewed sense of gratitude and appreciation for the men and women who stand on the thin blue line.’
Liz – ‘What was the most difficult and enjoyable part of the writing process?’
John – ‘I started writing as part of my recovery from serious illness. It became increasingly cathartic – and I found that I really loved doing it. I have always loved reading stories. I discovered that I loved telling them too. Because much of the subject matter is quite raw, there were days when I had to step back from it to give myself a break. Once or twice, a few weeks went by before I got back to it. But it was always there waiting.
Liz – ‘Did you develop any writing habits?’
John – ‘To begin with I simply used a notebook and pen. I sat quietly and allowed myself to remember, before starting to write – for as long or short as the inspiration and energy were there. Eventually I graduated to computer and keyboard – and my favourite place to type is sitting at our kitchen table, under the natural light pouring in through the glass roof. Puffin – the 2 year old family spaniel – sits at my feet as I type.’
Liz – ‘Are you an avid reader? Which books beckon to you from bookshelves?’
John – ‘I love books. I always have done. I have to be careful what I read these days – one of the long term hangovers of my illness is an inability to deal with trauma and violence. But that still leaves plenty that’s wonderful.
Favourite books include:
• ‘First Light’ by Geoffrey Wellum: the breathtaking memoir of a Battle of Britain spitfire pilot.
• ‘Seabiscuit” by Laura Hillenbrand: the remarkable true story of three men and a racehorse.
• ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ by Stephen King: a short story about love and hope.
• ‘The Measure of a Man’ by Martin Luther King: powerful observations on the meaning of life.
But if I had to choose one book (or series of books), it would be ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ by C.S.Lewis. I read them as a child and was captivated. I read them as an adult and was overwhelmed. I read them aloud to my wife when I first tried to win her heart. I’ve read them to each of our children in turn. And the magic remains. The deeper magic.’
Liz – ‘Has the book world been a surprise to you?’
John – ‘I bumbled into the world of books without a clue in the world! I really had no idea what expect – it all just felt like an adventure to me. And people have been wonderful.’
Liz – ‘Are you planning any more books?’
John – ‘I would love to write another book. I’ve got a handful of ideas, but I haven’t quite picked up my pen yet. There’s a family holiday to come first!’
John is appearing at the Chiddingstone Literary Festival
on Sunday 6th May at 2:45pm.
‘Blue’ was published in paperback by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on the 19th of April 2018.
Follow John on Twitter by clicking here.
Find out more about John Sutherland by visiting his blog here.
Matt Johnson – A Liz Robinson Author of the Month (March 2018)
Liz Robinson knows a good book when she reads one and this month she has picked Matt Johnson, as the author who has stood out and grabbed her attention with his final instalment of the critically acclaimed ‘Robert Finlay’ trilogy. Read on for her review of this fast-paced, gripping finale and also a fascinating Q&A with the author himself.
End Game by Matt Johnson
A fiery, fast-paced, bullet of a read, and the last in the Robert Finlay trilogy. Continuing on from ‘Deadly Game’, Robert Finlay and Kevin Jones find themselves in the middle of a whole heap of trouble. A Superintendent from the Complaints Investigation Branch is on the warpath, and then quite separately, a document from the past puts the two men directly in the firing line, and things turn very, very personal. Matt Johnson has the most credible and authentic voice, he blends his knowledge as a soldier and police officer into an absolutely cracking storyline. Finlay’s post traumatic stress disorder can clearly be felt in the small but biting descriptions of PTSD, it is a part of him, but not the whole of him, and he is an incredibly engaging character. A suitably dramatic end ensured I was kept on the edge of my seat. ‘The Robert Finlay’ trilogy has been a thunderingly good read, and ‘End Game’ is a wonderfully thrilling, gripping, and fitting conclusion. – Liz Robinson
Robert Finlay seems to have finally left his SAS past behind him and is settled into his new career as a detective. But when the girlfriend of his former SAS colleague and close friend Kevin Jones is murdered, it’s clear that Finlay’s troubles are far from over. Jones is arrested for the killing, but soon escapes from jail, and Finlay is held responsible for the breakout. Suspended from duty and sure he’s being framed too, our hero teams up with MI5 agent Toni Fellowes to find out who’s behind the conspiracy. Their quest soon reveals a plot that goes to the very heart of the UK’s security services. End Game, the final part in the critically acclaimed Robert Finlay trilogy, sees our hero in an intricately plotted and terrifyingly fast-paced race to uncover the truth and escape those who’d sooner have him dead than be exposed.
Matt Johnson served as a soldier and Metropolitan Police officer for twenty-five years. Blown off his feet at the London Baltic Exchange bombing in 1993, and one of the first police officers on the scene of the 1982 Regent’s Park bombing, Matt was also at the Libyan People’s Bureau shooting in 1984 where he escorted his mortally wounded friend and colleague, Yvonne Fletcher, to hospital. Hidden wounds took their toll. In 1999, Matt was discharged from the police with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
While undergoing treatment, he was encouraged by his counsellor to write about his career and his experience of murders, shootings and terrorism. One evening, Matt sat at his computer and started to weave these notes into a work of fiction that he described as having a tremendously cathartic effect on his own condition. His bestselling thriller, Wicked Game, which was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey Dagger, was the result. Deadly Game once again draws on Matt’s experiences and drips with the same raw authenticity of its predecessor. – Orenda Books
Liz in conversation with Matt
Liz – ‘In End Game (book three), Robert Finlay is called in to act as a negotiator, the whole scenario, including Robert’s thoughts and how he speaks to hostage-taker Doug has such a ring of truth about it. How did you draw on your own experiences as a negotiator to write about Robert’s handling of the situation?’
Matt – ‘Police negotiators are all volunteers. I can’t speak for how things are today as policy may well have changed, but when I first applied to be considered I went through a selection process that included a realistic portrayal where each candidate assumed the role as negotiator. That set the basis for quite a bit of the subsequent training where theory and good practice, initiative and operational procedure were repeatedly rehearsed and tested in realistic make-believe scenarios.
Writing about such a situation is, in some ways, much easier than doing it live. In the hot-seat, you have to think on your feet, you don’t have time to fully think through the implications of every question, every response and every statement. If you get it wrong you can go back and start again, not a privilege granted in the real world, unfortunately.
Aware that I wanted to get around the luxury of that privilege, I decided to enact the scenario with a serving negotiator with me playing the role of the hostage taker. I recorded the resulting conversation and then edited it to an acceptable length for the book, added in the thoughts of the character and the descriptions of the scene. I was pleased with the result which, I believe, is as realistic as I could have made it.
Liz – ‘All three books have characters who have formed incredibly close bonds during their working careers. How important has camaraderie been to you, particularly when in high pressured and dangerous situations, and how difficult or easy was it to portray in your books?’
Matt – ‘One thing that has always struck me when reading books that enter my former working world is how many of them focus on a maverick, a character who bucks the system, who works on his (or her) own and achieves results despite the resources available rather than as a result of them. The truth is that the military and police services are very much about achieving success through team-work and good leadership. In creating the character of Finlay I wanted to show him make use of this aspect of policing and, whilst I accept that individuals do have a place, it is often through the pooling of ideas, skills and expertise that solutions are found and cases solved.
In both the police and military worlds, loyalty is immensely important. It is being part of that team – being a member – that can bring out the best in people, the heroism, the bravery, the willingness to go out on a limb for a comrade. Sometimes, of course, that sense of camaraderie can be mis-guided and loyalty can overcome good sense. But, generally speaking, soldiers and coppers need it to get their job done.
It’s difficult to answer the question as to whether that camaraderie was easy to portray or not. What I would say is that it is probably that part of the job I miss the most. There are times when I meet up with both old and new friends from that world and I’m aware that we soon become quickly comfortable in each others company. Writing about that side of my old world – describing it in a way that appeals to a reader – is something that I do my best to achieve.’
Liz – ‘Were you an avid reader before you started writing?’
Matt – ‘As a child, yes. I can still recall the excitement I felt as I rushed home from the local library with a clutch of books selected from the shelves. I used to particularly enjoy science-fiction in those days, possibly inspired by the TV coverage of the moon landings.
As an adult, work and other demands got in the way and I got out of the habit of reading. I became a holiday reader of novels and tended to focus on reading more non-fiction in the small amount of free time I had available.
I had some favourites, of course. Joseph Wambaugh’s ‘The Choirboys’ was one, as was ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho. Even now that I’m writing myself, I wouldn’t describe myself as an avid reader. I always have one or two books on the go but they can take me upwards of a month to finish. At the moment I’m reading the ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ story. It’s a breath of fresh air, really good. To have found Gail Honeyman’s debut – a birthday present, I’d add – was a real delight.
Liz – How different is the book world to your expectations?
Matt – Now that’s a tough one to answer as I’m not sure what I really expected. I can say with some certainty that it is very, very different from my previous professional worlds. Policing, for example, can be a very fast moving and reactive world, publishing is more nuanced and considered. But, with time, I’m learning to understand not only the fact that publishing is different but why that is so. There are good reasons why this industry operates in the way it does and, let’s face it, it’s an industry that has been around for a very long time – longer than policing, I might add!
Liz – What are you planning next?
Matt – To take a break, to refresh and rejuvenate my thoughts before starting on my next writing project. I have a few ideas – too many, to be honest – that I need to research and then make a decision on where to focus my efforts.
And I want to spend time meeting readers. I’ve very much enjoyed the interaction of social media and the opportunities I’ve had to talk on national radio but what I really appreciate most is sitting down with people who love reading, who know their books, and who have read my work. I’m humbled by complimentary remarks and I hope that never changes. I also welcome constructive criticism as I want to know if people like what I write and why they like it, so I can learn from that feedback and improve.
One day, who knows, I might get it right.
You can find out more about Matt here.
End Game is published by Orenda Books in paperback on the 31st March 2018.
We Were The Salt of the Sea by Roxanne Bouchard
What a beautifully written, captivating, and soulful read this is. Detective Sergeant Joaquin Morales, newly transferred, begins to investigate the death of a women found in fishing nets out at sea. Catherine Day leaves Montreal for a remote fishing village, looking for answers about her birth mother. The Gaspe Peninsula sits centre stage in the story, remote, set apart, and yet intimately connected to the sea. I immediately fell headlong into the story, the seamless translation encourages the words to join together, creating a vividly stunning picture. Catherine tells her own tale, having such personal access allows a connection, yet she still feels hidden from view. Other peoples thoughts tumble freely over the pages, yet they belong, they anchor the story. I felt that the author Roxanne Bouchard has a profound connection to the sea, she loves it, respects it, yet the immense power simmers, occasionally rages in the background.
I quite simply adored We Were The Salt Of The Sea, refreshingly different, unpredictable, yet deeply rich and touching, it became a part of me.
Genres: Lit, crime, family drama, relationship tale.
Come And Find Me by Sarah Hilary
Simply superb, ‘Come and Find Me’ is one hell of a clever, twisting, powerful story.
This series is one of my favourites and DI Marnie Rome returns here in splendid style. Taking place a short time after ‘Quieter Than Killing’, Marnie and Noah find themselves hunting an escaped prisoner, for both, work overspills into their private lives. A strikingly distinctive voice greets you as you start reading, setting the scene so completely and clearly I could feel the presence, feel the confines of the prison. Sarah Hilary has the ability to take you into the words, to actually feel, to experience, and she sent my thoughts worming and writhing. At one point I found myself so exasperated and frustrated with one of the characters, it came as a shock when I came up for air and realised where I was. The ending buffeted me, surprised me, emotionally affected me, and a certain someone is still creeping around inside my mind. I already know that ‘Come and Find Me’ will be one of my favourite reads of the year, and I think this is Sarah Hilary’s best yet, I simply can’t recommend this series highly enough.
Come And Find Me will be published by Headline on the 22nd of March 2018.
Last Letter From Istanbul by Lucy Foley
Just gorgeous, this is a story to shine a light in the darkness, even in moments of despair.
Constantinople in 1921 is a confusing, often frightening place to be, in the first few pages, two reports from 1918, perfectly sum up the two opposing sides, each report almost interchangeable. Nur’s house is in the hands of the British and being used as a hospital, she finds her thoughts on the occupiers altering and conflicted when she takes an orphan in her care to be treated by George Munroe. Five separate yet entwined stories exist side by side, different time frames ensure the past spears the present, while the future whispers to the past. Lucy Foley has developed a beautiful writing style, the vivid colour stamps it’s impression on the pages, conjuring taste, touch, smells and sounds, as well as creating a feast for your eyes.
As the book began to come to a close, it felt as though two trains were on an inevitable collision course. The sweeping horror of war and occupation, both momentous and insidious, is clearly felt, yet it is the intimate, the individual connections, that were the highlight of this read for me. ‘Last Letter from Istanbul’ caresses, sparks and skewers thoughts and feelings, it is a truly penetrating and captivating read – highly recommended.
Last Letter From Istanbul will be published by HarperCollins on the 5th of April 2018.
The Devil’s Dice by Roz Watkins
The first in the ‘DI Meg Dalton Thriller’ series is an addictive, absolute treat of a read. Meg recently moved forces and is now based in Derbyshire, she is thrown in the deep end when a lawyer is found dead in a cave and a sinister game of cat and mouse is initiated.
‘The Devil’s Dice’ was shortlisted for the 2016 Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award (for unpublished writers), so my expectations were high, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. The first few pages set my thoughts fluttering, and throughout this tale a ghostly shadow hovers over the pages. Roz Watkins allows humour to enter at just the right moments, and has created a fabulous main lead. While Meg does have her fair share of problems, and a certain vulnerability too, she really grew on me. As I read, I set my mind free, to delve into the pages, to ponder, to speculate. ‘The Devil’s Dice’ is just so readable, this is a thoroughly modern tale with a teasing strange connection to the past, and a towering cliff hanger of an ending… hopefully there will be many more stories to come.
The Devil’s Dice was pubished by HQ an imprint of HarperCollins on the 8th of March 2018
Sal by Mick Kitson
Just gorgeous… this is an emotional and quite, quite beautiful read. After a particularly traumatic time at home, 13 year old Sal and her younger sister Peppa escape into the wilds of Scotland. Sal has spent a long time preparing, the wilderness beckons them, can they survive on their own? Sal tells their story, the first chapter is so clever, I started to realise what had been happening, and then a few carefully chosen, yet almost casually thrown away words, sent a shockwave running through me. I could clearly hear Sal’s voice, she is so individual and distinctive, her words entered my mind and expanded, filling my heart. Mick Kitson encourages the Scottish countryside to sing with intensity, while you can hear Sal, you can see and feel the clean and natural space she and Peppa find themselves in. Kindness flows from unexpected places, and love is behind every word shared by Sal, even in the darkness. Simple, beautiful, provocative yet touching, this is an outstanding debut, and a read I will return to again and again. Highly recommended.
Sal was published by Canongate on the 1st of March 2018
Blue Night By Simone Buchholz
This was a dream of a read for me, relatively short, different, beautifully written, and full of jarring, jolting impact. ‘Blue Night’ is the first in the Chastity Riley series, was a number one bestseller in Germany, and has been fabulously translated by Rachel Ward. After a particularly difficult case (which involved in-house corruption) Chastity Riley, state prosecutor in Hamburg, has been transferred to witness protection. Chastity’s next case propels her straight back into the main ring, she has to throw her guard up and come out fighting. The introduction surprised me, raw and gritty, yet written with a lyrical beauty, it really sets the tone. Simone Buchholz shoots abrupt, short sentences across the page, her writing is sparse and to the point, yet connected deeply within my heart and mind. I adored the sections which freeze-framed the characters in time, they burst with energy and information, almost popping with intensity. It feels as though you are on a collision course with the ending, which exploded in dramatic style. Constantly surprising, ‘Blue Night’ is an original, firecracker of a read, it will undoubtedly be one of my books of the year, I absolutely loved it.
Blue Night was published by Orenda on 28 February 2018
The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey
Told over a period of three weeks, with forays into the past, this thrilling debut gathers tension into a knotted tangled ball, before hurling it sky high. Set in Australia, a teacher is found murdered in the town lake with roses scattered in the water above her. Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock ignores connections to the past in order to pursue the case, yet years old secrets start to push forward and batter at her mind.
Sarah Bailey allows Gemma her own voice, she speaks with a simple intensity, her words have a gritty almost dispassionate feel, yet passion is clearly simmering in the background, edging ever closer to the forefront. Other characters are occasionally allowed voice, giving further insight into Gemma. As information is slowly revealed, and the policing team struggle to place all the pieces, I felt the links closing in.
‘The Dark Lake’ simmers with tension, infatuation, secrets, and lies, ensuring an absorbing, provocative read.
Published on the 1st of March 2018.
Published by Atlantic Books
The Misper by Bea Davenport
A tale for young adults about friendship, loyalty, and bullying, while a chilling twist of supernatural haunts the pages.
Anna and Zoe are stuck with Kerry, she follows them around like a puppy dog. Kerry is always on the edge of things, she’s different, and often bullied, when she disappears, will life ever be the same again? Anna tells her own story, her voice feels fresh and authentic, normal teenage problems are on offer, but they begin to warp, to affect Anna and her friends. Bea Davenport writes with a smart, realistic tone, Anna’s thoughts and feelings flow from the page, she is a likeable girl, someone you would want to be friends with.
There are some spine-tingling sections which are deliciously sinister, and you might want a handy cushion to hide behind! With a decidedly dark undertone, ‘The Misper’ is a captivating, suspense filled tale for young adults, and ultimately very satisfying indeed.
Published on the 1st of March 2018
Published by Conrad Press
Every Man a Menace by Patrick Hoffman
Riveting, raw and gritty, this is a story that rockets around like a ball in pinball wizard’s championship run. Focusing on some of the players in a drug smuggling ring, this tale crosses oceans, and proves how cheap life can be when greed takes over. Patrick Hoffman’s first novel was shortlisted for the Crime Writer’s Association Ian Fleming (best thriller) Award, this is his second novel, and another winner. There is a real earthy feel to the writing, I felt as though I was balancing on a serrated edge, viewing the action from an external position, yet also completely in the moment. I could see humanity in action with the characters, could almost see their thoughts taking place, and feel their emotions. As the end came closer, and the snare grew ever tighter, so the story came full circle. ‘Every Man a Menace’ is a chilling, short and sharp, utterly engrossing read, and I loved it.
Published on the 2nd March 2018
Published by Grove Press
Oliver Loving by Stefan Merrill Block
Oh, what a truly beautiful read this is, though do prepare for your heart to ache, weep, and possibly even break. For the last ten years, Oliver Loving has been lying in a hospital bed, paralysed and non-communicative, is he trapped in his own mind, can a new test release him? Everyone wants answers, they also want to know what happened ten years ago, on the night of the school dance in Bliss, Texas… and what caused the tragedy that took place there. The story focusses on Oliver, his mother Eve, and brother Charlie, and how one event has trapped them, has maimed them all. Stefan Merrill Block writes so thoughtfully, an almost gentle lyrical quality caresses the pages, yet he encourages searching questions, for you to travel deeper, to look further.
This is an emotional read, the writing touched me, deep inside my heart, and a part of Oliver Loving will remain there. Almost otherworldly, yet raw and true and full of heart, ‘Oliver Loving’ is profoundly moving, and captivating, I highly recommend stepping inside the pages, and becoming one with the story.
Published on 1st of March 2018
Published by Atlantic Books
The Year That Changed Everything by Cathy Kelly
Uplifting and delightful, ‘The Year That Changed Everything’ is another gorgeous read from Cathy Kelly. Three women have three milestone birthdays on the same day, they don’t know each other, yet a featherlight connection binds them together. In one day, the day of their birthdays, a bombshell shatters the life Callie knew, Sam’s waters break but she might not be ready for motherhood, while Ginger is forced to reconsider who she wants to be. These women aren’t perfect, they make mistakes, yet they are just so likeable and relatable I would be more than happy to be their friend… to hug, to console, to cheer them on.
I just adore Cathy Kelly’s books, she writes with a lovely warmth and kindness, beautifully engages with women across the years, and doesn’t shy away from reality. I found myself sinking into a delicious story that wrapped itself around me, and even with heart-ache along the way, ‘The Year That Changed Everything’ is ultimately a captivating, enjoyable, feel-good read.
Published on 22nd February
Published by Orion Books