The Villainess

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“Action cinema levels up in Korea.”

This opens with a blistering seven minutes of action which starts off in first-person perspective, looking like the most deranged video game ever, as the protagonist slices, dices and shoots their way through a building to a confrontation with the final boss. After being slammed head-first into a mirror, the point of view changes and we see the attacker is a young woman, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin). Finishing her slaughter, she calmly accepts arrest, but the Korean intelligence services recruit her, hoping to channel her skills to their own ends, after a spot of plastic surgery to ensure a fresh start. When training is completed, under Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung), she’s given an apartment, unaware that the man next door, Jung Hyun-soo (Sung), is actually her handler. However, he’s not the only person with something to hide. Because Sook-hee is out to leverage her new position, and is still after long-awaited revenge on the man who killed her father.

With a storyline that’s little more than equal parts of Nikita and Kill Bill, deep-fried in a crimson vat, the only way this is going to survive is to be all about the style. Fortunately, it delivers on that aspect by the bucket. I watched that opening sequence three times before I could bring myself to proceed, and other set-pieces are almost as spectacular (and slightly less motion sickness inducing!), such as the sword-fight on speeding motorbikes. Or the final battle on a bus. Or… Yeah, let’s just say, when this is in motion, it’s utterly glorious, demented and bloody beyond belief. The problems are when it isn’t, with a horribly muddled narrative structure which also seems cribbed from Tarantino. So it’s extremely heavy on the flashbacks, and leaps around the heroine’s time-line like an amphetamine crazed mountain-goat. The payoff, when it arrives, certainly isn’t worth the effort: I’d figured it out, well before the dramatic revelation arrives on-screen.

So convoluted and murky is the story, that I found myself increasingly tuning out, and was more or less disinterested in the characters’ fates, most damningly that of Sook-hee. About the only person I cared about was her little, moon-faced daughter, whose serious expressions provoked more emotion in me than all the contortions performed by the plotting. Director Jung, like David Leitch of Atomic Blonde, has a background as a stuntman before moving into direction, and perhaps that explains why it feels as if the attention and effort here have gone into those elements. In comparison, the script is something which could well have been cobbled together on the back of a beer-mat, after an all-night video session, and then run through a shredder in an attempt to instill it with some artistic merit. Jung is certainly an action director to watch, and I’ll be very interested to see where he can possibly go from here. Is there a setting for cinematic violence above eleven?

Dir: Jung Byung-gil
Star: Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun, Sung Joon, Kim Seo-hyung

Diamond Cartel


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“Kazakhstan, number one exporter of potassium”

This Kazakhstani production took its time in seeping out to the West, having originally been filmed over a three-year (!) spell back in 2011-13. While slickly produced, and with some impressive sequences of action, its storyline is garbled nonsense, to the point of almost being incomprehensible, and is utterly without heart or soul. Millionaire crime-boss Musar (Assante) is negotiating the purchase of a renowned diamond from another gang, but the deal goes south, with both diamond and cash ending up in the hands of one of his assassins, Aliya (Mukhamedzhanova). She goes on the run with her former boyfriend (Frandetti), pursued by her more recent boyfriend, who is another one of Musar’s hitmen.

Which would be fine, if that’s what this was. But the film muddies the waters terribly, with secondary plots, a bevy of superfluous characters, and a convoluted flashback structure which explains how Aliya went from a casino croupier to part of Musar’s posse. In some ways, that story would probably have been more interesting that the one actually told, not least because of all the other leather-clad hitwomen he keeps hanging around his lair. Not that they appear to do much; outside of the attempted double-cross at the diamond handover, they are notable by their absence from the action elements, disappointingly.

I should instead talk about the supporting cast, which is far more laden with Western stars than you’d expect from the source. Though by “laden”, this does include people with one scene, such as Michael Madsen. And by “stars”, beyond Assante, I mean people such as Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa, Bolo Yeung, Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson and Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister. But the name which stands out is Oscar-winner Peter O’Toole – sadly, in his final film role before his death in December 2013. Here, bizarrely, he plays a Kazakhstani customs agent. And it’s not even O’Toole’s own voice, because his performance has been dubbed over, making for a sad end to a stellar career. Though he’s not alone in losing out in post-production, with even the lead actress, as well as her copious voice-over narration, being dubbed too.

The only aspects which pass muster are the technical ones. Mukhammed-Ali seems to have studied at the same school of flashy visuals as the other Kazakhstan director, Timur Bekmambetov, who gave us Wanted and The Arena. It’s hard to deny that the frequent car-chases and shoot-outs here are handled with a decent degree of hyperviolent flair. But this is in pursuit of nothing having any significance. The plot falls somewhere between uninteresting and incoherent, and the audience will have little or no reason to care about even the reasonably photogenic lead, whose story this is supposed to be. It comes over as little more than a poorly-constructed exercise in stunt casting, with a succession of somewhat recognizable names, passing across the screen to trivial effect. I hope they at least got a nice holiday in Kazakhstan out of it.

Dir: Salamat Mukhammed-Ali
Star: Karlygash Mukhamedzhanova, Aleksey Frandetti, Armand Assante, Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa
a.k.a. The Whole World at Our Feet

The Hundredth Queen, by Emily R. King

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

An interesting premise gets wasted, buried under a muddied writing style which sets up in one direction, then abandons it for another. Orphan Kalinda has been brought up by The Sisterhood in their remote temple in the mountains (kinda Indian, kinda Sumerian, annoyingly non-specific), training in the ways of a warrior – though others have far more talent in the era. Her life is upended when the local monarch, Tarek, visits the temple and selects Kalinda to be his next wife. Next, as in he already has 99, not to mention his additional courtesans. The problem for Kalinda is, this sets up a tournament in which she can be challenged by the other women, who seek to supplant her.

The journey to Tarek’s palace is barely under way before two issues rear their head, that drive the plot the rest of the way. One is Kalinda falling into a forbidden love for Deven, the guard who’s escorting her. The other is her encounter with a “bhuta”. These are half-human, half-demons, who exist in four kinds, each possessing power over the elements of fire, earth, air and water. Might this, perhaps, be connected to the mysterious fevers from which Kalinda has been suffering from a child, only kept in check by her daily consumption of a potion?

Of course it is. For the book rarely strays from the obvious, virtually from the start when Kalinda immediately falls head-over-heels in love, with literally the first man she has ever seen. There’s no sense of chemistry here at all, or of a romance growing naturally out of the characters. It seems shoehorned in there because, dammit, it was on a checklist of things fantasy books need to be successful, which King found online somewhere. The interactions between Kalinda and the other women weren’t much more convincing, sitting somewhere between Mean Girls and The Hunger Games.

I’m not even clear on the details of the tournament, which is supposed to be the main plot device of the book. Who challenges who? What are the mechanics here? What does Tarek get out of it? It’s the ultimate plot-device, since his motivation for setting up the event is entirely obscure. It’s not as if he can exactly stream the event on pay-per-view. There are a couple of plot twists later on, that did manage to engage my interest briefly – these did help explain why Tarek picked Kalinda, when we had repeatedly been assured earlier of her plainness and lack of talent.

However, the actual competition is largely glossed over with a disapproving frown, culminating in a big, damp squib of pacifistic grrl power. This is less drama than melodrama, with every character being exactly what they appear to be, and possessing few hidden depths. The last third of this proved to be a particular slog, and it’s not a universe to which I’ll be returning in future.

Author: Emily R. King
Publisher: Skyscape, available through Amazon, both as an e-book and in a printed edition.

The Tournament (1974)

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“Face off.”

There’s a lot of chit-chat about face, honour and respect here. It begins when the master of a kung-fu school, Lau, has his daughter kidnapped by local hoodlums, after he won’t cough up protection money. Perhaps surprisingly, rather than using his skills to kick their arses, he sends two students to Thailand, including his son, Hong (Wong) in an effort to win the necessary funds. Hong loses, the other student is killed, and Lau is drummed out of the local Kung-Fu Association for having disgraced the name of Chinese martial arts by losing to foreigners. He’s so devastated, he hangs himself, leaving it up to his daughter, Siu Fung (Mao) to restore the family name, learn how to mesh Chinese kung-fu with Thai boxing, and rescue her sister. Quite the “to-do” list, I’d say.

There are 10 extremely good minutes in the middle of this, beginning when Siu Fung has to fend off a predatory takeover bid from a Japanese karate school, and their top fighter, played by Korean kicker Whang In Sik. This is immediately followed by a visit from the Kung-Fu Association, who are intent on testing her skills. Repeatedly. And against a range of opponents, including a particularly impressive battle against a young, fairly long-haired Sammo Hung. It’s glorious, and probably just about justifies the rest of the film. Because the remainder is likely only of interest if you are really into Thai boxing bouts, and since the great majority of these do not involve Mao, I was severely unimpressed.

The story is particularly poorly-written, to the extent I still couldn’t tell you with any degree of confidence what the competition proclaimed in the title actually was. Similarly, the kidnapping with which the film opens, is entirely forgotten about, for what seems like forever. Even by the low standards of plotting for the time, this is particularly weak sauce. Not least, because it’s clear that Mao is a better fighter than Wong, both in storyline and cinematic martial-arts terms – and that’s even before heading off to learn Thai boxing. For example, the sequence described above starts when Siu Fung has to rescue her brother from the Japanese, after their master has beaten Hong up. So why is she stuck on the sidelines for so much of the film? It’s immensely frustrating.

Random trivia note: the home of the Kung-Fu Association is located at 41 Cumberland Road, which in reality, was the last house Bruce Lee bought. He purchased it in July 1972, and lived there until his death a year later. Barely 12 months further on, this movie came out in Hong Kong: seems a little tastelessly quick by Golden Harvest to turn Lee’s home into a location. This nugget is likely more interesting than a good 80% of the film – specifically, the 80% which does not feature Angela Mao kicking ass. But as my gift to you, the YouTube video below is paused to start at the beginning of the best bit. You’re welcome!

Dir: Wong Fung
Star: Angela Mao, Carter Wong, Wilson Tong, Sammo Hung

The Day I Met El Chapo: The Kate Del Castillo Story

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“Life imitating art, imitating life”

Del Castillo is the undisputed queen of the action telenovela. She made her name as the original “Queen of the South” in one of the most popular entries ever, La Reina Del Sur, and has since followed that up with Ingobernable and Dueños del Paraíso, playing the Mexican First Lady and another ambitious drug dealer. It was while filming the latter, that the stranger than fiction story told in this documentary reached its climax.

As we mentioned at the end of the Reina article, in January 2012, she Tweeted about notorious drug-lord El Chapo. Three and a half years later, after he had been arrested, and subsequently escaped from prison, this led to her and Sean Penn visiting the fugitive, with the plan being to make a film based on his life. Except Penn turned it into an interview for Rolling Stone, the Mexican government got very upset with Del Castillo, and when El Chapo was recaptured, they said it was largely a result of the Del Castillo/Penn visit – with all that implies. The actress was investigated for money laundering, the charges being dropped only a couple of days ago, and is still largely persona non grata in her home country.

The three-part series tells events from her perspective. and even though she was a producer on it, Del Castillo doesn’t necessarily come out clean. From her first Tweet, she seems a little naive. “Let’s traffic love,” she says to a man who supposedly told authorities subsequently, he had killed between two and three thousand people. It feels as if Del Castillo believed the narcocorrida hype: bosses like El Chapo are often seen as folk heroes in Mexico, along the lines of Robin Hood. How much their social works are genuine, and how much practical business sense, is open to question. She does say she understands the cinematic meaning of the word “cut”, and lets go of the characters she plays. Yet I also suspect Kate may have felt that playing a trafficker on TV made her El Chapo’s “equal” somehow.

You can certainly argue that journeying into the heart of the Mexican countryside to meet the most wanted man on the world, who seems to have a crush on you, shows poor judgment. On the other hand, she does come over as courageous. While you can question her ideals, it’s hard to say she’s not entirely committed to them, regardless of the personal cost. Even now, you sense the personal cost has, if anything, probably hardened her resolve. I can’t blame her at all for that: the Mexican government appear to have engaged in a campaign of harassment of Del Castillo, little short of a vendetta. This involves everything up to, and including, fabricating text messages between her and El Chapo, with the intention of damaging her reputation and credibility.

Penn comes off little better. Though we don’t hear directly from the actor – he refused to take part in the documentary – the evidence presented here seems to suggest he used her for his own ends. Most damningly, he got journalist accreditation from Rolling Stone for himself and the film producers who also went with them – but not Del Castillo. And while he may not have directly or wittingly informed the authorities of their plans, it’s quite possible it was through his circle they became aware of the trip. In a subsequent media statement about the film, Penn’s camp didn’t hold back, saying, “This is nothing but a cheap, National Enquirer-esque tale spun by a delusional person whose hunger for fame is both tawdry and transparent.” I think it’s safe to say, if Kate ever gets to make her El Chapo movie, Penn will not be taking part.

While mostly talking heads and old news footage, it does a decent job of weaving the narrative, despite the lack of contemporary input from two-thirds of the people in the photo above. It was still interesting enough to make Chris become one of Del Castillo’s 3.5 million followers on her bilingual Twitter feed. Now, if only I can get her into watching Dueños del Paraíso

Dir: Carlos Armella

Here Alone

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“Forest of the Dead”

A viral plague has decimated mankind, turning its victims in mindless, flesh-craving ghouls. One of the few to have survived is Ann (Walters), who has taken up residence in the woods, where she has camped out. Ann uses the survival skills she received from her now-absent husband, Jason (West), only occasionally having to emerge and risk the threat of the infected, in order to gather supplies. Her secluded, yet relatively safe existence is disturbed, when she finds an injured man, Chris (Thompson) and his teenage daughter, Liv (Piersanti) on a road. They are supposed to be on their way north, to where the epidemic is reported to be in check. Yet Chris, in particular, seems curiously unwilling to be on his way.

If there’s nothing particularly new or inventive about this version of the zombie apocalypse, it’s not without its small-scale merits. Ann is far from some kind of survivalist Mary Sue: she’s barely getting by, perhaps having paid less attention to her wilderness lessons than she should have. Probably wisely, for a small budget film, the infected – the term “zombies” is never used – are kept largely out of sight, heard more than they are seen. While their shrieks are unnerving enough, the tension comes more from internal forces: the opaque nature of Chris’s motives, for example, or Ann’s dwindling supply of bullets. The former are particularly troubling: the dynamic between Chris and Liv just seems “off” in a variety of ways, and I was not surprised when this played a part in the film’s climax. However, things do not unfold in the way I expected, so credit for that.

The film does cheat a bit with regard to previous events. At the beginning of the film, Ann is already alone, and information about what happened to Jason and their child, is only doled out in teaspoon-sized flashbacks over the course of subsequent events. It matters, because these flashbacks reveal quite a lot about her character, and the way she interacts with other people: information we otherwise don’t have. By not getting it until later, we end up retro-fitting it into what we’ve already seen, and I’m not certain the additional complexity of structure imposed, serves any real purpose.

In the earlier stages, it reminded me of The Wall, with its tale of a woman thrown back entirely onto her own resources. While that solo adventure would have been difficult to sustain, it is the most interesting and original part of proceedings. I was rather disappointed when Chris + Liv showed up, because the entire dynamic changes at that point, and the film becomes something with which I’m somewhat too familiar. While there are twists down the stretch, this rejects the chance to truly separate itself from the large pack of zombie apocalypse movies in terms of plot. Fortunately, a solid performance from Walters helps the film sustain viewer interest through the weaker second half.

Dir: Rod Blackhurst
Star: Lucy Walters, Adam David Thompson, Gina Piersanti, Shane West

Manami Toyota retires from pro wrestling

Manami Toyota is perhaps the greatest wrestler you’ve never heard of – at least, unless you’ve an interest in the Japanese women’s version of the sport, known as joshi puroresu. There, she has been its almost undisputed queen for much of the past three decades. That covers the span from her debut on August 5, 1987, at the age of just 16, through to her farewell show which took place on November 3 in Yokohama’s Daisan Bashi Hall. She was in the vanguard of, and a significant force in, the joshi resurgence which took place during the mid-nineties, when women’s wrestling crossed over beyond its usual audience. That likely peaked with the Big Egg Wrestling Universe cross-promotion show at Tokyo Dome in November 1994. A crowd of more than thirty thousand attended the event, which ran for more than ten hours.

If you’ve only ever seen the WWE Divas, then joshi will come as a shock, with monsters like the aptly-named Aja Kong punting their opponents around the ring with brutal efficiency. Toyota was slightly-built in comparison: billed at 150 pounds, and that likely an exaggeration for marketing purposes. But her bouts against far larger opponents were still credible, because of three main things. First, her incredible technical ability: there’s good reason a video exists on YouTube called “Top 60 Moves of Manami Toyota“! Secondly, her fearless high-flying. for example, I remember a match outside in the rain, where Toyota was still climbing up the light rigging and flinging herself off it. Third, an insane level of stamina. She could wrestle 60 minutes non-stop, and at a pace few wrestlers of either gender could match.

Yet that intensity is what led to her retirement, Toyota increasingly suffering from neck and shoulder issues as a result of the in-ring punishment she both took and dished out. Or, should I say, her second retirement. For Toyota first “quit” due to a silly unspoken rule of the All Japan Wrestling promotion that its women wrestler had to retire at the age of 26, whether they wanted to or not. Toyota would continue for two decades after that point, surviving the fall of AJW and the resulting disintegration of the joshi scene into a slew of smaller, independent promotions. Her feuds and partnerships with the likes of Toshiyo Yamada, Akira Hokuto and Kyoko Inoue remain unmatched, even now. And, of course, Toyota would not go out quietly, wrestling fifty opponents at her retirement show, before then fighting a best-of-three falls match against her designated heiress, Tsukasa Fujimoto.

Legendary pro wrestling writer Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (WON) called Toyota “one of the greatest wrestlers of all-time, regardless of gender,” and awarded 5+ stars to more of her matches than any other woman. Melter was famously stingy with those rankings: few would see more than one in a year. But at the peak of her career and talents, between 1991 and 1995, Toyota was involved in seventeen such matches, including three in one week. She was part of WON’s Match of the Year in both 1992 and 1995, and won named its Most Outstanding Wrestler in 1995. Neither award is divided by gender, meaning she beat all men that year as well. She was just that damn good.

Below, you’ll find a playlist including 11 of the 17 five-star matches. They might help give you some insight as to why many regard her as the greatest of all time.

Colossal

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“A giant conundrum.”

After breaking up with her boyfriend, Gloria (Hathaway) holes up in her middle-American hometown. She gets a job in a bar, run by her childhood pal, Oscar (Sudeikis) – not that this employment does much for Gloria’s burgeoning alcoholism. Meanwhile, over in Korea, the city of Seoul is being plagued by a giant monster, which will appear out of nowhere, behave oddly, and then vanish again. Gloria eventually figures out that when she goes through a particular spot – a local children’s playground – at a specific time, the creature appears in Korea, and its actions reflect hers. Turns out Oscar can do the same, manifesting in Seoul as a giant robot, and he may not be as benign with his new-found powers, as Gloria is attempting to be.

This is a severe mess in terms of genre, and very difficult to put into any particular bucket. It’s part comedy, part drama, part fantasy – yet not sufficiently any of them to the point where I can confidently say it would appeal to fans of that kind of film. It is the kind of quirky role for which Hathaway is well suited, and Sudeikis does well, in a “low-rent substitute for Ben Affleck” kinda way. I just wish Vigalondo (whose time-travel flick, Los cronocrímenes, is one of the best of its kind) had taken the concept here and really run with the possibilities. I guess budget may have limited him there, but I’d like to have seen  Gloria and Oscar do more than standing around, waving their limbs somewhat. The trailer suggested a bit more than that.

I think this might be intended to be a parable for abusive relationships, with Oscar using controlling tactics and threats to ensure that Gloria doesn’t go back to the big city and/or her boyfriend there. Or perhaps Oscar is intended to represent the alcohol which is Gloria’s bête noire? You can more or less make up whatever you want here. And you’ll probably have to, because if this film doesn’t credibly explain how two people can project into South Korean monsters (it’s something to do with a childhood trauma, a smashed show-and-tell project and lightning), you know you’re not going to be given much in the way of character motivation.

Re-reading the above, it comes over as negative to a greater extent than it should. Gloria is a likeably flawed lead, I was kept interested, generally amused and occasionally impressed. Yet, it feels like a seriously wasted opportunity, something which could have ended up occupying a deliciously excessive and demented spot between Pacific Rim and Monsters vs. Aliens. Instead, it’s far lower-key and takes place on a surprisingly small scale, than anything involving a monster, hundreds of foot high, terrorizing an Asian city should. If your expectations are similarly restrained, this is likely to work better. I can state with a fair degree of certainty, you won’t have seen anything like it before. And once you’ve seen it, you will probably understand why.

Dir: Nacho Vigalondo
Star: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell

Unlocked

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“Lisbeth Salander vs. Elf”

That would have been a more appealing title. Although the incredibly generic one here reflects the incredibly generic plot, which sinks this, despite the efforts of a well above-average cast. CIA agent Alice Racine (Rapace) has, at her own request, been assigned to the backwater of an East London community, after blaming herself for failing to stop a bombing in Paris. She’s called out of her semi-retirement to interrogate a terrorist courier, believed to be carrying a message about an imminent biological attack on a US target in London. She cracks the subject and hands over most of the intel, only to discover the recipients are not the agency employees they claimed to be, and will kill her as soon as they get what they need. She goes on the run, unsure of who she can still trust: her mentor (Douglas), the MI-5 boss (Collette), or a burglar she encounters who happens to be a former British commando (Bloom). Can she stop the attack before it’s carried out?

Yeah, if you ever wanted to see The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo go hand-to-hand against Legolas, this film is for you. Anyone else? Probably not so much. It’s the kind of striking boilerplate spy vs. spy shenanigans we’ve seen a lot of lately. This reminded me particularly of Survivor, with Rapace standing in for Milla Jovovich, though to be honest, neither film makes much impression – and what they do, isn’t necessarily good. For example here, I spotted what the target was going to be as soon as it was mentioned, and a laughably long time before the movie’s characters were able to work it out. I hope American’s real intelligence assets are considerably smarter than the ones depicted in this film. The way in which Bloom’s character, Jack Alcott, is shoehorned into proceedings is no less clunky, and the story overall has no flow, lurching through the components to its finale (obviously not endorsed by the NFL, given the non-specific names used!).

The positives here are mostly from the performances, with the exception of Bloom, who seems woefully mis-cast – though it may partly be my difficulty in taking anyone with a man-bun seriously. Rapace gives a good account of herself, kicking ass with terse efficiency, particularly when escaping from the hotel room where she’s carrying out the interrogation. Collette, previously known to us from United States of Tara, turns out to be as good with a British accent as she is with an American one, especially considering she’s neither (Australian). There’s also John Malkovich as the CIA boss, and he’s watchable as ever, albeit underused. Seems like the Czech Republic largely stood in for London, which may help explain the limited sense of place, and Apted’s direction is little better here than in one of the more underwhelming Bond flicks of recent times, The World is Not Enough. Rapace needs to keep looking for the right vehicle, one which will make use of her undeniable talents.

Dir: Michael Apted
Star: Noomi Rapace, Orlando Bloom, Toni Collette, Michael Douglas

Random Acts of Unkindness by Jacqueline Ward

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

Manchester Detective Sergeant Jan Pearce is part of an investigation into local crime lord, Connelly, whose family has managed to evade the reach of the law for decades. Indeed, this is the second recent investigation, the previous effort having collapsed, apparently due to procedural blunders. But the boss isn’t taking it lying down, beginning a campaign of intimidation against those investigating him. This hits DS Pearce, with the disappearance of her teenage son, Aiden: she’s convinced this is retribution from Connelly. But neither her colleagues on the force, nor her ex-husband, Sal, agree – they think Aiden simply ran off.

When investigating one of Connelly’s properties, Pearce finds the body of an old woman – along with a bag of cash and her hand-written memoir. It turns out the deceased, Bessy, and Jan had something in common – both had sons that went missing. As she reads the memoir and proceeds with the investigation of Connelly, Pearce gradually realizes that might not be all she shared with Bessie. But the truth about what is actually going on, in the underworld hidden below the working-class estates of Northern England, is infinitely more terrible than either of them would ever have imagined. And considering Bessy thought her son might be a victim of the infamous Moors Murderers (whom she refers to, only as “him” and “her”), that’s saying something.

I’m very much impressed by the way Ward is able to write in two entirely different voices. The sections which are Bessy’s writings, are completely different in tone and style from Jan’s, to the point it almost feels separate novels have had their chapters intertwined. The two women are opposites in many ways. Jan is a career policewoman, who has sacrificed a lot for the job – maybe too much, including her marriage and perhaps even her relationship with Aiden. Meanwhile Bessy is a housewife of the 1960’s, with no interest at all beyond being a home-maker. But the sudden loss of their child turns their worlds upside-down, and forces them to reassess what truly “matters”. Bessy’s life is, literally, never the same again, and there’s undeniable poignancy there, especially near the end of her story.

Both exhibit an utterly dogged determination to pursue what they see as the truth, regardless of the cost or what others may think. In Jan’s case, that leads her into direct peril, because she’s going up against some very dangerous people, who have good reason to prefer privacy. There’s a certain amount of happy coincidence needed for her to unravel the threads, yet there’s no denying her bravery, intelligence and tenacity. The special ops skills, of surveillance and its avoidance, don’t hurt either, though I’d have liked to see more of them being put to use. While the first in the series, it works as an entirely stand-alone novel. If you manage to see where this is going before it happens, you’re a better armchair detective than I.

Author: Jacqueline Ward
Publisher: Novelesque, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.