Selling Poetry

Accept you’re in for the long haul

Poetry rarely sells quickly. There may be a peak of sales as news of a new book or pamphlet gets out, spikes of sales as a review appears, but most poetry sales happen at readings or when a potential reader starts noticing your poems in magazines and sticks your name in a search engine. Waiting for reviews can be frustrating but yours isn’t the only book the editor or blogger had been sent that week and you have to wait your turn.

Publicity

Tried and tested methods:

  • Press releases – remember ‘writer writes book’ is not news, find an angle and make it newsworthy
  • Book launch
  • Readings
  • Mailing lists
  • Blogs – announce on your own blog if you have one and consider writing guest posts for other relevant blogs that feature guest posts
  • Social Media – inform, don’t broadcast; update your profile(s) to include your new publication; add your publication and a link to where it can be purchased in your email signature.
  • Reviews
  • Advertising – if budget permits
  • Special offers and discounts – if your book is linked to a season or anniversary offering a limited discount tied to that season or date of the anniversary may generate interest but be wary of long term discounts
  • Competitions – check any legal requirements and ensure the prize is proportionate to the effort required to enter. A free copy of your book is fine if entrants simply have to answer one question or retweet a message but looks mean if you’re asking entrants to do something more complex or that will incur costs
  • Promotional items – bookmarks and leaflets can be done at little expense. Factor in the return on investment: low quality items can suggest a low quality book, expensive items might not provide a reasonable return. If you use a QR code on publicity items, make sure it links to useful content that can be read on a mobile device.

Coordinate with your publisher

Check what publicity your publisher can do before you launch your own campaign. Duplicating press releases or sending multiple review copies to the same publication is wasted effort. Before you organise a launch or promotional readings, check your publisher can get copies of the book to you in time.

Most book prizes will only accept submissions from publishers, not authors. But don’t insist your book is entered. Some publishers’ budgets won’t extend to the entrance fees and publicity premiums charged by prize administrators. For instance, The Poetry Book Society’s New Generation promotion charged an entry fee of £20 plus 7 copies of the entered book and a publicity premium of £300 per successful title. So if a successful poet had two qualifying books, the publicity premium would be £600 for the publisher, who may decide they would get a better return on investment though other publicity.

Don’t use the guilt or fear factor

Your publisher will not disappear overnight if people don’t buy your book. Yes, getting poetry readers to buy books and support poetry presses and magazines is a good thing, but using guilt as a sales tactic will fail. Readers like to feel good, not feel pressurised into buying a book to save a press or because your journey from writing poems to publication was a difficult one.

Similarly the fear factor – fear of missing out (not ordering before the special offer runs out, not getting at the discounted price), fear of being left behind (everyone’s talking about this book) – might encourage a handful of early sales but isn’t a viable long term strategy.

Reputation

  • Poetry readers associate your name with quality poems they’ve seen in poetry magazines
  • Your publisher has a good reputation
  • You’re known for giving good poetry readings and being approachable
  • You don’t solely broadcast on social media but take care to share useful links, retweet and engage with followers
  • You don’t continually beg followers and connections to post reviews on booksellers’ sites, review sites or tell their friends your book is available
  • You don’t use your mailing list to bombard people with news about you, but use it sparingly to notify people of relevant news about new releases and readings
  • You’re seen to be supportive of poetry in general because you review, you blog, you support readings and events in your local area, you buy poetry books and pamphlets, you subscribe to magazines, you are a member of a scheme such as HappenStance subscribers or Friends of Cinnamon Press and/or you help promote poetry through social media.

Recommendation

Good reviews and recommendations from trusted, established sources do help sales. But constantly urging people who’ve bought your book to recommend it will backfire. Pestering book bloggers who write reviews for a review is not recommended either.

Price

Your book isn’t priced too cheaply (suggesting low quality or desperation to sell) or too highly in comparison with books of a similar quality and length. If you offer a discount, do it for a limited period, offer a discount for buying directly from you or at a specific event. Offering a long term or permanent discount makes it look as if you got your price wrong or it’s not selling.

Reviews

  • No one owes you a review. If you send a copy of your book and ask for a review, the answer may be no, especially if you demand the review appears in the next issue or within a week or before the publication date or put other restrictions on who can review, when they can review or how you want the review to appear.
  • Don’t panic over a bad review. If the reviewer is not your target audience, they probably won’t like your book; that’s not a problem. If your intended audience don’t like your book, that’s a problem, but it’s your problem: you didn’t target the right audience.
  • If you like a review of your book, publicise it: link to it or quote from it.

A good review from an established, respected reviewer can help sales. But firing off group emails to every blogger reviewer you can find or sending out unsolicited review copies can lead to no reviews. Target magazines and reviewers carefully: do they give positive reviews of books like yours? Approach with a query first and tailor your query to the publication – see my reviews policy and how not to approach book bloggers.

If you don’t like a review, take care about what you say, particularly on social media which may not be as private as you like to think. By all means ask a reviewer to correct a factual inaccuracy such as a publication date or their statement that your book is contemporary when it’s set in the past or future, but don’t complain. A reviewer is entitled to their opinion. Focus on publicising the good reviews instead.

Don’t obsess over sales figures

Instead of focusing on the numbers, look at what those numbers are telling you. They might act as a guide to whether your current publicity campaign is working or not.

Mostly poetry book sales happen at readings and those sales aren’t captured in the sales figures.

What’s in it for your readers?

The ‘What’s In It For Me’ factor: what will make people buy your book? Most poetry readers want a book of quality poems that speaks to them in some way, it may surprise or challenge them, it may be that you’ve touched on their favoured subjects or you speak to their world view. Why should a reader buy your book instead of a book by another poet?

Focus on your next book

Publishers don’t like writers who only write one book, no matter how well that one book sells. They prefer writers with the potential to deliver another book in due course. Give your current book chance to sell before launching another.

Your second book will help sales of your first as new readers become interested in your backlist so it’s a good idea to have your book available as an ebook even if it’s no longer available in print.

In the meantime, you still need to read, research and write.

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“Brotherhood” David Breckler (GWL Publishing) – novel review

Brotherhood David Breckler book cover

Set in Manchester, “Brotherhood” looks at intergenerational and gang loyalty without drawing judgment. Although the gangs here don’t have female members, females are not immune from the fallout of gang rivalries and problems. It starts with Philip taking his friend Liam to a basement of a disused mill. Both are teenaged friends still at college. There they meet college friends Mugisa, Asif, Anthony and Ryan.

Liam is charged with betraying the Jeshi (the gang’s name). He expects a beating. The kangaroo court, led by Mugisa, sentences him to death. Adrenalin, triggered by fear at the sight of Mugisa’s machete, spurs Liam into escaping, but not fast enough to avoid a cut to his ear. Mugisa tells the gang to follow before Liam can tell his uncle (a local gangster) and blames Philip for letting go of Liam’s arm. Mugisa’s intention was to threaten not inflict injury. Anthony, Asif and Mugisa snatch up their bikes and set off after Liam. Philip runs. Unfortunately for Liam and Philip, Mugisa catches up with Liam first, stabs Liam in one of his thighs to disable him and then slices his throat. Philip panics and flees but is pursued by the others. He makes a narrow escape. Mugisa instructs the others to return to the site of Liam’s body. They bundle it into a wheelie bin and abandon it in a derelict house that already stinks of urine and decomposing rubbish. Later one of the gang returns to set the wheelie bin alight.

Detective Chief Inspector Siobhan Fahey of Greater Manchester Police gets the call to the house after two firemen find the wheelie bin and the remains of Liam, plus two bodies upstairs. These two bodies are later identified as drug addicts who’d died from smoke inhalation. The police soon find Liam’s ear and pool of blood in the alley where he was killed but no identification.

Philip fakes illness to get a day off college. His mother, Rebecca, a nurse, says she’ll check on him later. After seeing her husband, a doctor, off to work and Philip’s sisters off to school she goes to work and comes home at lunch time. She finds Ritchie, Liam’s gangster uncle, standing in the driveway and tells him to leave. Ritchie, used to leaving heavy work to others, leaves. Philip knows Ritchie will be back and after his mother’s returned to work, he phones his uncle Byron. Byron, who was in the army and now runs a private security firm, knows Ritchie from schooldays and thinks helping Philip might help heal the rift between him and his brother, Philip’s father.

Meanwhile, Mugisa is mulling over the previous night’s events. His adoptive parents call him Matthew and have given him their surname. However, Mugisa’s friends call him by his African name. Mugisa thinks he can forgive Philip and goes to call on him but Philip shuts the door in his face.

Maria, Liam’s mother, who’d told Ritchie to visit Philip, reports Liam missing. She provides confirmation that the body in the wheelie bin is Liam’s. Now they have an identity, the police start interviewing college students. When they interview Philip, he gives them the gang members’ names. His mother refuses to let the police have the clothes Philip was wearing that night without a warrant. She later washes them, convinced Philip had nothing to do with Liam’s murder. Philip’s girlfriend, Jenna, provides him with an alibi. At this point Philip’s the only member of the gang the police have managed to speak to. After the police leave, Ritchie turns up with two thugs. With realistic timing, Byron turns up just afterwards and despatches the thugs. However, in the melee, Philip escapes. Byron tells Philip’s parents what he knows, i.e. Philip knows who the murderer is and had no direct involvement, but his life is in danger.

Byron is staying with a friend, Adam, who is a firefighter. By posing as a welfare officer from the college, Adam discovers Mugisa is adopted and was a former child soldier. Byron gives Adam a description of the disused mill Philip mentioned and, by process of elimination, they find the building.

Philip’s mother reports him missing and tells the police about Ritchie’s visit. DCI Fahey decides to warn Ritchie against being a vigilante after Ritchie inadvertently reveals his injured ear happened at Philip’s parents’ house, DCI Fahey suspects, correctly, there’s a leak in her force, but doesn’t have time to follow it up. She suspects that Mugisa has coached the gang members because all of them gave the same story about what happened the night of Liam’s murder. However, the police are still compiling evidence and checking for CCTV film and witnesses. She does decide to re-interview Jenna and the other gang members.

Meanwhile, Philip has been tied to a chair in a disused commercial building. Knowing how dangerous Mugisa is, Philip tries to work his bonds loose. Fortunately, Adam and Byron find him. They decide Philip is safer at Adam’s house. Byron hatches a plan to get Ritchie off their backs to free them up to deal with the danger from Mugisa. Mugisa also hatches plan: to visit Philip’s grandmother. Unknown to him, Philip’s grandmother is babysitting Philip’s sisters and Mugisa’s visit is disturbed by Rebecca’s return. In the melee, Mugisa drops his machete but escapes.

Mugisa buys a gun, which he knows how to use, and plans to find Philip and then leave to start a new life somewhere else. Philip sneaks out from Adam’s house to meet Jenna, but Ritchie’s men capture him. Mugisa, who was tailing them, follows. As soon as they discover Philip’s missing, Adam and Byron start searching. Can Byron and Adam get Ritchie to give Philip up before Mugisa gets to him? The chase ends with a shootout at block of flats which are about to be demolished for development.

Interwoven with the fallout from Liam’s murder, is Mugisa’s back story. He was living in an African village and returning home from a post-school game of football when intruders invade his village. He witnesses the rape and murder of his sister and his mother. The intruders round up surviving children, including Mugisa, and take them to a training camp. Mugisa learns to become a soldier and becomes involved in raids on other villages. He tries to escape, but is recaptured. On another raid, he becomes caught in a camp run by Europeans who try to counsel the child soldiers. Mugisa tries to return home but finds his father weakened and his brothers regard him as a nuisance. Realising he can never reintegrate with his family, Mugisa returns to the European camp. He’s brought to England and, after a year’s counselling, is adopted.

By making it clear from the beginning that Philip is a witness and pushing Mugisa’s back story to the fore, readers’ sympathies stay with the main characters. Philip, a boy who’s been dragged into something that’s beyond his experience, and Mugisa, brutalised by his former existence and the effects of that underestimated by his adoptive parents, who foist an English name on him and deny him his African heritage. Before his murder, Liam used to boast about his uncle’s gangster connections and made his uncle sound tougher than he was. In contrast, Philip knows his uncle, Byron, was in the army but doesn’t boast about Byron’s past.

“Brotherhood” is pacey, credible and it’s strength lies in its characters. Philip is engaging: out of his depth but trying to put things right. He’s shocked by Mugisa’s murder of Liam, but also has an understanding of Mugisa’s past, where loyalty was the difference between survival and death. The values behind gang warfare in Manchester aren’t so different.

Byron appears to be the only adult who knows where the limits are: he knows Philip’s out of his depth and he grasps the danger before Philip’s own parents do. Liam’s mother is shocked and grieves but doesn’t seem hugely surprised by Liam’s death. She implicates Phillip to get back at his family, not on grounds of race, but class. Ritchie’s a working class thug and, for all his expensive suits, will never move up to Philip’s parents middle class. Philip’s father is a rare thing: a wheelchair user who’s allowed to simply be. His disability is not part of the plot nor does it provide a ‘triumph over adversity’ story. His wife, Rebecca, is strong and practical as you’d expect from a nurse, and strongly protective of her family. She initially searches for Philip until it becomes clear that’s not practical. In contrast, Mugisa’s adoptive parents, Miriam and Joseph, don’t seek him out when he goes missing and choose to believe him rather than challenge him when they know he’s lying. They passively answer questions from the police without thinking through the implications and never follow up to keep themselves informed about what’s going on. As easily as he entered their lives, their adopted son seems to exit it, long before the final shootout.

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“An Evil Mind” Chris Carter (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

An Evil Mind Chris Carter book cover

A freak accident leads to the discovery of a serial killer. A couple of Wyoming police officers decide to breakfast at a diner off a freeway. Whilst they are placing their order, a car, clearly out of control, runs off the freeway and hits one of the diner’s outbuildings. No one in the diner is injured but the car driver is dead; later it’s discovered he had a heart attack and was probably dead before the crash. However, the out of control car hit a Ford Taurus left in the diner car park, popping open the trunk. The police officers discover two human heads, just about recognisable as female but carrying sufficient injuries to make facial recognition impossible. The Ford Taurus driver is arrested and the FBI called in. The driver, first identified as Liam Shaw and then as Lucien Folter when it’s discovered the first identity was fake, refuses to talk unless he can talk to Robert Hunter.

Robert Hunter is with the Violent Crimes Unit in LAPD and is a brilliant criminal psychologist; known to the FBI for the textbook they use. Actually about to go on a rare holiday, Hunter reluctantly agrees to be involved in the investigation. He recognises Lucien Folter. They used to be roommates at college but lost touch after graduation. Lucien mentions the twin theory: the exploration of why one twin is happy to theoretically explore criminal psychology and why another isn’t satisfied with theory but tips into exploring what it’s like to actually kill someone. It doesn’t take Hunter or the FBI Agent Courtney Taylor who’s been assigned to work with him, long to figure that Lucien is the worst type of psychopath: completely incapable of feeling anything for his victims. Initial evidence suggests his victims were mainly, but not exclusively women, of differing ages and body types so trawling through unsolved murders and/or missing persons for a certain type of victim isn’t an option.

They quickly work out there could have been around thirty-three victims. Their job now is to identify who they were and where their remains are so that their relatives at least have a chance of closure. In order to do that, they need Lucien to cooperate. But Lucien likes playing games and his background means he can tell when Taylor or Hunter are lying. Unable to inflict physical pain on Taylor and Hunter, Lucien goes for mental and emotional pain. The death of Hunter’s mother when he was only eight years old is a good starting point and Hunter knows he’s got to play along if they’re going to get answers. Can Hunter stomach Lucien’s terrorising games long enough to get him to reveal the names and locations of his victims?

For all that Lucien tries to persuade Hunter that their places could be swapped, Hunter doesn’t lose sight of the fact that Lucien can only see others as tools, a means to use as he sees fit. Lucien’s complete lack of compassion, combined with practiced mental discipline make him utterly dangerous. Lucien wants notoriety. He wants his journals to become criminal psychology text books: his immortality. Hunter knows the value of those journals, but needs to deny Lucien.

Just when the tension couldn’t be tighter, Lucien discloses that one victim is still alive: imprisoned and beginning to suffer dehydration but still alive. Lucien demands he accompany Hunter and Taylor to retrieve the victim. At the same time, Lucien pushes Hunter for details about his late fiancée, particularly how she died. Hunter knows Lucien is planning to use this retrieval to escape, but can Hunter thwart his escape and save the victim?

“An Evil Mind” is a taut as a tuned guitar string played by an accomplished guitarist, who doesn’t just play the tune but owns it. Chris Carter, a former criminal psychologist, doesn’t just dump his background knowledge on the page, but crafts an engaging story with compelling characters.

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“You” Caroline Kepnes (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

You by Caroline Kepnes book cover

Joe works in a bookshop in New York and takes it as a sign when a young woman, his type, stands in the “F – K” section, clearly braless under her sweater and asks if a book by his favourite author is in stock. He notes her name on her credit card, Guinevere, although she prefers Beck, her surname. He stalks her, discovers she has a ground floor apartment where she never closes the curtains, is a student, writes short stories, has three best friends and is sort of dating Benji. After a girls’ night out with Joe stalking at a distance, Beck drunkenly tumbles onto subway tracks and Joe rescues her. They arrange a date, but, more importantly to him, Joe has her phone.

After guessing passwords, Joe now has access to Beck’s email and text messages. From this he learns her movements, what she thinks of fellow students from her classes and even topics she discusses with her therapist. Beck’s parents divorced and she’s told her friends that her father’s dead, but he’s remarried and she can’t stand her stepmother or her much younger half-siblings. Despite this, she leans on her father for money because it’s easier than taking a part-time job. Joe learns that all of her friends are trying to talk her into dumping Benji. Joe hatches a plan: get rid of Benji so Beck will date him instead. The removal of Benji from Beck’s social circle proves easy. The dating starts well: he holds back on sleeping with her, uses her emails, texts and social media updates to learn more about her likes and dislikes.

The only downside is Peach, a wealthy lesbian who also has designs on Beck. Peach is going to be trickier to remove. She tolerated Benji because she knew Beck wasn’t really serious about him, however, Beck has feelings for Joe. Peach claims to have a digestive problem and a stalker so calls on Beck when she’s feeling ill or when she claims her stalker’s broken into her house, playing the scared victim so Beck will stay. Joe pretends to tolerate this. When he looks up Peach’s digestive problem on the internet, he discovers she has the right symptoms but seems to have no problems eating foods that should cause a problem. Peach manages to interrupt several dates and pull Beck away from Joe, persuading her to take a break from him. This break involves a weekend away at Peach’s family’s holiday home. Joe pretends he’s OK with Beck going, but drives out and holes up in a neighbour’s boathouse so he can spy on them.

So far, Joe is a confused mix of hopeless romantic and creepy stalker. He wants to make Beck happy and be her perfect boyfriend, not coerce her into being with him. He casts himself into a guardian angel role, looking out for and over her. Despite his obvious shortcomings, Joe is a compelling character and carries the novel.

However, when he sees the unsent letters she writes following an exercise her therapist has given her, the power balance changes and readers start to wonder who is playing whom. Beck had confessed to Joe about telling her friends her father is dead when he’s actually still alive. She confesses to exhibitionism – leaving her curtains open when boyfriends stay over, that she had Joe make out in a changing room and the bookstore Joe works in while the shop is still open – and talks about having “daddy issues” and struggles with intimacy. Joe discovers she’s acquired a new computer so he’s not seeing her emails anymore and has bought some curtains for her apartment so watching her is harder. Joe decides to create an excuse to see her therapist to try and find out if Beck’s current behaviour can be explained there. What Joe discovers forces him to re-assess his relationship with Beck. Will Joe’s romantic side win over his creepy stalker side?

Beck too has two sides: the ditsy student who doesn’t do housekeeping or cooking, and the self-centred manipulator who gets daddy to fund her lifestyle and tries to wreak a marriage. She’s not a straightforward victim of Joe’s stalking. She encourages him but pushes him away when it’s more advantageous to her to spend time with Peaches. Her vacillations justify Joe’s behaviour: he doesn’t know where he stands so it’s OK for him to use her phone to find out. Up to the point of the final showdown, they seem to deserve each other.
“You” is the story of an obsession. Through Joe, Caroline Kepnes explores the logic behind stalking and, by making Joe’s target the manipulative Beck, she can present issues without reducing it to a simple equation of stalker = bad, victim = good.

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How not to approach book bloggers

I write book reviews both on this blog and for other magazines. Occasionally I do review a book I have bought and enjoyed reading, but most reviews here are done because a publisher or author approached me for a review. I have a reviews policy: take a look if you want to know how to ask a blogger to review your book.

Here’s how not to approach blogger-reviewers:

Don’t call me “Dear Blogger” and send a mass-circulation email

I have a name. I know I won’t be the only reviewer you are approaching but if you can’t be bothered to send an individual email I can’t be bothered to review your book. Sending a mass email tells me you are broadcasting and don’t care if I reply or not.

Don’t send me a link to your book on Amazon

Letting me know your book is available for purchase is not a request for a review. If you want to ask for a review, be prepared to send a review copy free of charge. Writers get requests to work for free, usually from people who somehow think this is “good publicity” and will somehow translate into book sales. When that request comes from another writer, it’s actually an insult.

Don’t attach an eBook

Doing so tells me you are presuming I will agree to do a review. This makes it incredibility tempting to say “no.”

If your book is an eBook or has an eBook version available, let me know. If I agree to review and am happy to look at the eBook version, I’ll let you know. I can review eBooks, but sometimes it’s more practical to have a hard copy. I don’t write in margins, but some reviewers do so prefer a hard copy. Sending an eBook on the assumption they can print, at their expense, so they can write their review is unhelpful.

Don’t demand to know when I’m posting my review

I usually email to confirm receipt of a review copy and email again with a link to the posted review. How soon I can turn around a review depends on my current work load and commitments. Review copies are dealt with in order of receipt so if I’ve already received a couple of novels and half a dozen poetry collections, yours is ninth in the queue and the review will not be posted next week. Even if my review tray is empty, there is no guarantee I can start reading your review copy the moment it arrives.

Don’t urge me to turnaround a quick review

I know the feeling: your book is out there and you want feedback (reviews) and people to buy it. But before I can write my review I need time to read your book. If I say I will review your book, I have committed to do a review and will post the review when I’ve had chance to write it. If I didn’t want to review your book, I would have said so when you sent me your request.

If I can read a book in an hour and write my review within thirty minutes, that’s a shallow, formulaic book with no complexity, no depth of character that deals in stereotypes or caricatures written in predictable text. Your book’s not like that is it?

Don’t get careless on social media

Social media is public, not private. If you complain on-line about my review or the fact I decided not to review your book, chances are I’ll find out and you’ll be the one who looks stupid. I’ve blogged about responding to reviews before.

A professional approach will get a professional response

It’s usually a good idea to check if a blogger reviews the type of book(s) you write. Sending me your carnivore recipe book might get an interesting review, but not the enthusiastic review you wanted. Some reviewers won’t review out of their favourite genre. Don’t lambast them for it, accept it. Reviewing is undervalued and bloggers are often reviewing in their own time so if they chose to only review books they know they will be passionate about: that’s their choice. It’s also their blog. If you think there’s a gap and no one’s reviewing space opera anymore, start your own review blog.

I know how many hits I get on my blog so it’s not necessary to mention that you’ve read some of my articles or reviews. My decision to review is purely based on the book you’re requesting me to review.

I can use a search engine and I have been reviewing for a long time. It’s not necessary to send an overwhelming amount of information about you or your book when requesting a review. A paragraph on your book is sufficient.

I don’t expect a thank you. My review is my opinion. My opinion of your book may not agree with your opinion of your book. If you like my review, please do post a link to it on social media. It promotes your book as well as my blog: win win.

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“One Kick” Chelsea Cain (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

One Kick by Chelsea Cain book cover

Kick Lannigan is a young adult who has never been allowed to escape her past. Local journalists want to fill space with follow-up stories, particularly on the anniversary of her rescue or when another child is reported missing. Her only mother has published an autobiography and is more than happy to carve out a secondary career as the mother of an abducted daughter. No one asks if this is healthy for Kick.

Fortunately, in Chelsea Cain, Kick has a creator who does treat her with empathy and compassion. What happened to Kick when she was abducted is hinted at rather than spelt out in explicit detail. Kick is understandably conflicted. When she was rescued, she couldn’t remember the name her parents gave her, because she’d become so accustomed to the name her captor gave her. Despite the conditions she’d been kept in, she thinks of her captor as a father figure (something he’d encouraged), not helped by the fact her biological father walked out of the family home soon after her rescue. It’s implied he had a problem with the way his wife and Kick’s mother lapped up the media attention. Various therapies failed to help until Kick discovered self-defence classes and, as soon as she was legally able to, she bought a licenced gun.

Returning to her apartment after a session at the shooting range, Kick discovers an intruder, John Bishop. He doesn’t harm her, but asks for her help. A boy, Adam Rice, has been reported missing. Kick already knew: she and her ‘brother’, James who lives in the apartment below, have been monitoring reports of missing children. James’s specialities are coding, gaming and spotting patterns. He’s two years older than Kick and prone to panic attacks so they text and keep in touch regularly. Kick also feels guilty. When she was rescued, she implemented the plan she’d been repeatedly trained to carry out and typed a command in her captor’s computer. Afterwards she learnt that command wiped her captor’s computer files, effectively preventing the FBI from tracing and stopping other paedophiles and other distributors of child pornography known to her captor. John Bishop is not FBI but the magnate he works for is a powerful ally for the FBI so Bishop has access to FBI resources and shares information to suit. Guilt propels Kick to go with Bishop.

He takes her to a house where Adam Rice had been spotted. The house is now empty, but Bishop believes Kick’s knowledge might help find evidence. What Bishop has not prepared for is that dragging Kick along might trigger repressed memories. Kick soon finds the “safe room”, the false wall that conceals a child-sized hiding space designed to be used when visitors came or the house was searched. Unfortunately it’s booby-trapped and Bishop and Kick escape with injuries. Meanwhile James scoured the internet for any information he could find on Bishop and comes up largely blank. Kick remembers a series of photographs of Bishop as a boy. Earlier photographs are shared with another boy, clearly a brother. But there is no brother in later photographs. James trawls through missing persons reports but they can’t find Bishop’s brother, strongly suggesting the brother is no longer living. Kick concludes that’s why Bishop’s so interested in missing children.

Bishop doesn’t stop there. He persuades Kick to visit her captor, now in the prison infirmary with renal failure, to see if he will give them anything. Bishop raises his eyebrows at her choice of a yellow dress for the visit but doesn’t comment until after their visit when he comments on her calling her captor “Daddy”. She explains it was the only way her captor would give them anything. He gives them a description, a man Kick knew as Klugman.

When they return to Kick’s apartment, Kick insists on going to James’s apartment first because that’s where she left her dog. She was originally abducted at the age of six when her dog ran away and she was looking for him. Her captor offered to help. She couldn’t remember her original name, but never forgot her dog’s name. Alarm bells ring when they discover James’s apartment has been broken into and James is found critically injured. In hospital, Kick learns the marks on James’s wrists she’d always assumed where down to self-harm were actually ligature marks from restraints. As well as stab wounds, James has fresh ligature marks.

Kick remembers how she met James. Her captor, Mel, had taken her to Klugman’s house and down to the basement. Kick remembers hearing children play in a nearby school yard and sounds she identifies as the ocean. The basement had a mattress and travel pictures on the wall, pictures of places James dreamed of travelling to. It was used as a movie studio. Mel referred to his contacts and child abductees as family so James and Kick saw themselves as brother and sister. James had never been reported missing: his mother had traded him for drug money. Because no one knew James was missing, no one was looking for him. He was released, i.e. abandoned as a teenager. On hearing of Kick’s rescue, he moved to be near her, the only family he knew.

Now Kick has fresh impetus: can she and Bishop follow her trail of shattered, partial memories, find Adam Rice and bring Klugman to justice?

Kick is very likable. One moment she’s adult, self-aware and logical, prepared to turn detective to help others who have gone missing. Another she can be child-like, remembering the girl whose childhood was stolen. She doesn’t cast blame or use her past abuse as an excuse for not taking responsibility for the adult she’s become. Bishop is less likable: he seems too focused on results without caring who gets hurt on the way until his past is revealed and his actions become more understandable. At first he seems harsh towards Kick but then softens when he sees what it’s costing her to help him. The pair make a complementary team: Bishop’s logic and Kick’s intuition. Kick and James are both very much products of the environments they found themselves in and Chelsea Cain’s focus is very much on the issues the pair face as adults, not on raking through their childhoods for sensationalist details. “One Kick” is a sensitively written, compelling, fast-paced thriller, with a great, engaging main character in Kick Lannigan.

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“The Confessor” Mark Allen Smith (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

The Confessor Mark Allen Smith book cover

Geiger has left the information retrieval business and taken up furniture making. At the end of the previous book, “The Inquisitor”, he was left for dead and allowing the people he knew then to presume him dead suits Geiger. A traumatic past that’s not been fully dealt with has left Geiger able to withstand severe pain and also to lack compassion. However, the information retrieval business hasn’t finished with Geiger. Dalton, whose information retrieval methods were brutal and sadistic, is convinced Geiger is still alive and determined to track him down to torture him. Dalton has long been an admirer of Geiger’s work and has thorough studied Geiger’s methods, believing he has come to understand Geiger himself.

Geiger’s sole friend and former agent, Harry, is holed up in Brooklyn, suffering a combination of grief and paranoia. His all too human foibles complement his friend’s lack of an emotional life, making them a near-perfect team. He’s jolted out of his self-pity when David Matheson, an investigative journalist, uncovers some information he wants Harry to help him check out. Harry returns to his apartment to collect some files where he meets Geiger. Harry tells Geiger about Matheson and that both are travelling to Paris to investigate. Geiger declines to join them. Although they suspect it might be a trap, Harry and Matheson travel to Paris. Harry’s reasonably familiar with the city because his ex-wife, Christine, lives and runs a café there. She and Harry had split up after the death of their daughter and Christine is still amicable towards Harry. Later she meets Geiger and triggers a long buried memory which explains why Geiger doesn’t remember his mother. Readers already know of Geiger’s father’s cruel and abusive treatment of him.

Harry and Matheson’s suspicions turn out to be right: with the help of two operatives, Victor and Dewey, Harry and Matheson are captured and brought to an isolated country house where Dalton shackles them. He also tortures them, not for the purposes of information retrieval, but because he can. They learn Dalton’s real target is Geiger and they are merely bait.

Like Dalton, Zanni, an FBI Agent, is convinced Geiger is still alive. One night, while Geiger is out running, his image is picked up on a CCTV camera. Zanni tracks him down and asks him to do one more job. Geiger refuses at first but learns that Harry and Matheson are being lured into a trap set by Dalton. He knows that he’s Dalton’s real target so he agrees to get involved. In Paris, Zanni uses two operatives, Victor and Dewey, to follow Geiger. She knows Geiger won’t work as part of the team and will divert from her agenda if he feels it necessary.

Geiger figures that Dewey is following him and detains him with the aim of finding out who Dewey works for. Geiger learns Dewey is working for Victor who is working for Dalton. He doesn’t yet know where Zanni’s loyalties lie. Thinking that Victor will betray Zanni and so her life is in danger, Geiger tries to warn her. Geiger’s plan is to get into the house where Matheson and Harry are being held and give himself up to Dalton so his friends can be freed. Can Geiger pull off the seemingly impossible: keep Dalton to his promise to free Harry and Matheson and come out alive?

Although “The Confessor” picks up where “The Inquisitor” ends, it’s not necessary to have read the first book and “The Confessor” can be read as a stand alone novel. Background information is seamlessly fed in as characters plot, plan and try to work out what to do next. “The Confessor” is better paced: background information does not hold up the plot and the build-up towards the final scenes doesn’t feel rushed.

“The Confessor” is a fast-paced thriller with a difference: its compelling and enigmatic main character, Geiger.

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Review of “The Inquisitor” by Mark Allen Smith

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