Well, I can't deny it, this feels strange. As I sit here in my newly refurbished writing den, drinking in my surprising flair at recreating an old fashioned, gentlemen's club vibe in what was formally the man cave of an 80s nerd, I can't help but feel a little apprehensive. Why? Well, firstly, I've only just realised that frankly, it's been a while since my last blog. Secondly, though, and most notably, I'm about to embark on my inaugural participation in a blog tour. Eek!! Thankfully, I'm no stranger to a book review ,nor is it my first blogging rodeo, despite the saddle rustiness.
That said, I'm absolutely delighted to have been asked to be included on the tour, and equally delighted to finally get to tell you about this excellent book.
Having both recently signed publishing deals with Spellbound Books, Richard soon made it onto my radar, particularly as he has links to Northern Ireland and spends a considerable amount of time here. So when I was offered an ARC of his debut thriller, I jumped at the chance. So, what's it about? Well Richard and the Spellbound Team can sum that up much better than I ever could:
It’s the summer of 1995. The US Peace Envoy, Fred Martinson, begins to broker a peace deal for Northern Ireland. The world holds its breath as the first tentative steps are taken.
Jones, an 18-year-old from suburban England, has stumbled through education and yearns to be a football reporter. He is offered a place at Milton College, a former secretarial school with a clandestine partnership with GCHQ in seeking the communication stars of the future.
Before he knows it, Jones has been recruited, paired with Jenny Richmond, who is every bit his equal, and sent to Northern Ireland to undertake skills development and resilience testing with the Young Communicators Unit (YCU).
Training becomes a matter of life and death when a group of trainee spies learning on the job are betrayed to their death, and their most promising member, Isadora Brown, is taken hostage. MI5 and YCU are sent a video of her reading demands by a mysterious organisation called Red Line.
What if a group of young trainees were forced onto the frontline to deal with one of the most sensitive issues in UK history? What if political relations were so sensitive at the end of The Cold War, that only a group of deniable students could change history and keep super powers from ruining the first steps of a peace deal in Northern Ireland?
It’s a race against the clock to find and free Isadora, and make sure the US peace talks aren’t sent up in flames.
But who, exactly, is betraying who?
Well, what can I say? Let's start with full disclosure. As most people reading this will know, I absolutely adore crime fiction and the vast majority of its sub-genres, with a few exceptions, one of which namely, Espionage, Topaz, unfortunately falls into. Still, I approached enthusiastically (largely down to having gotten to know and like Richard personally) and with an open mind. The outcome- I'm so glad I did. From the first page to the last I found myself completely captivated by book one of what has become, The Topaz files (a further 2 instalments are due in 2024).
In 1995, I was a mere year older than central character, Jones, so was particularly taken by his attempts at navigating the socio-political events of the time in Northern Ireland, as once too did I, albeit not from a suburban English perspective. I also found that after taking a few tenuous steps into a world where the Young Communicators Unit (YCU) co-exists with GCHQ and MI5, I became fully immersed and all thoughts of this novel being, "not my bag" genre wise quickly dissipated. No mean feat, this was largely down to Richard's creation of a believable cast of characters and placing them against the backdrop of a fascinating plot grounded in the annals of recent history. Add to this a fast paced style, more than a sprinkling of dark humour and geographical descriptions and nuances that only someone who has spent significant time here could fully appreciate and you have an excellent piece of work. It's a definite 5 stars from me, and I look forward to the arrival of the others in the series.
LINKS TO BUY
Richard lives in East Anglia with his wife and two daughters. He is a trained journalist and spent his early years freelancing or in agency positions across the UK, including a stint in Northern Ireland in the mid-1990s. He then transferred to the third sector, working in charities focusing on issues as diverse as international development (in India and Bangladesh), air ambulance operations, music and the creative industries, mental health and homelessness. He also acted as Chief Executive of the Olympic Park charity during London 2012.
He is currently the CEO of Hourglass, the UK’s only charity focused on ending the abuse and neglect of older people, a job he applied for after a family experience of neglect.
Richard wrote his first novel in the early 2000s but this has yet to see the light of day. Instead, he started with a new idea in 2020 and Topaz was born. He has written two more in the Topaz Files series, Wild Flowers and The Mainstay, which are expected to be published in 2024.
He is also happily in the dugout for Boxford Rovers F.C. on a Saturday, a committed cratedigger (vinyl collector) and can occasionally be seen in the stands at Loftus Road and Windsor Park.