Reviews & Comments


Easter, Smoke and Mirrors AMAZON READERS' COMMENTS
  • "Benacre paints full and vibrant backdrops and then populates them with strong, recognisable characters and plausible events. He favors authhentic, no-nonsense dialogue and he creates plot-lines that reflect true life, current affairs and historical accuracy. The potency of humor, especially humor in adversity, is evident throughout."
  • "...loved this book... Suspenseful and well written, I found myself 'sneak reading' at work as I was so involved in the story."
  • "...what a great read. Lots of historical facts weaved through everyday lives of well-defined fictional characters. This book entertained my 84 year old father as well as my 20 year old grandaughter."
  • "...the author takes his time with the characters, here are real conversations, and enough attention to setting to give the reader a sense of place... A cast of British security officers is also very well-developed, and the narrative cuts back and forth between the two at a reasonable pace."
  • "Great book, it quickly grabbed my attention and was extremely hard to put down once I started reading it!"
Shape, Shine and Shadow KIRKUS REVIEWS
     The failure of a resurgent Irish Republican Army–planned bombing in 2016 London puts an Irishman on the run from both MI5 and his boss in Benacre’s (McCann, 2015, etc.) thriller. A bomb threat tips off MI5 with specific details: a sophisticated device lies in a central London skyscraper. Intelligence officers, including Neill McCormac, surmise it was planted by Michael McCann, already a suspected covert IRA member, a Cleanskin. MI5 manages to locate the nuclear bomb and successfully disarm it before its Easter Friday denotation time. By then, McCann’s over 100 miles away, unaware that IRA surveillance and a clandestine Patricia Whelan have eyes on him. But once McCann realizes nothing exploded in London, he’s on the lam, knowing IRA leader Frank O’Neill’s Middle Eastern terrorist pals will target him for assassination.
     He goes deep undercover as Russian sailor Yury Borzov while accomplice/warlord Ruslan Barayev ducks out in Amsterdam. There’s a danger, of course, of MI5 tracking down Barayev, having found Mia Dawkin, an escort McCann saw back in ’03 and ’08. Agents themselves are understandably nervous that someone’s got a second nuclear bomb somewhere. Mass killings within an unstable IRA, meanwhile, signal a possible clean slate for McCann—provided he’s not on the hit list, too.
     The novel opens full tilt, the plans for the bombing a main plot in an earlier McCann book. McCann, as in preceding stories, is delectably complex, easy to cheer on as he skillfully adapts to his Yury persona despite readers’ knowledge that his device would likely have killed countless Londoners. But while it’s fascinating to watch the protagonist incognito, as well as the fallout his actions have for others in his life, it doesn’t afford much suspense. McCann is so good at hiding that he rarely seems to be at any risk and, sure enough, later becomes more invested in having sex with girlfriend Bonnie’s closer-in-age mom, Pat Munro.
     Regardless, the perspective of MI5 retains a lively narrative, especially its methods— using a keystroke signature like a fingerprint—and collective resolve, periodic talks with Mia evolving into “monthly luncheons.” An IRA protagonist perhaps too smart for his pursuers, but the recurring character is always entertaining.
    The following is the Kirkus Review of McCann dated July 2015. In December it was subsequently named to Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2015.
     "Benacre’s (Easter, Smoke and Mirrors, 2014) short story collection trails an Irishman who’s been training most of his life to carry out a planned terrorist strike in London.
     In the author’s previous novel, Michael McCann was an Irish Republican Army Cleanskin (akin to a sleeper terrorist with no criminal background) stationed in London to help launch a bombing on Easter Friday. This collection of chronological stories, starting in 1968, follows his life from his birth to the 2016 attack. Provisional IRA leader Frank O’Neill courts 15-year-old Michael for the cause, eventually sending him to Libya and later to Afghanistan to train as a soldier.
     Frank keeps Michael “under wraps” until the IRA makes plans for an assault on such a grand scale that they believe it will finally unite Ireland. The stories here are comparable to chapters in a novel; the tale of Michael in Afghanistan fighting with the mujahedeen against the Russians, for instance, is comprised of four stories that make up a single narrative. As a result, readers will likely want to read the stories sequentially, like a novel (as the author recommends), to subvert potential confusion. Some of them, including the one-page “Murder by Suicide,” could have been amalgamated with others to avoid repetitiveness. Michael is generally a cold character—a calculated killer who avoids genuine relationships with the women he chooses to bed. But a series of first-person accounts of Michael’s childhood generate sympathy and showcase Benacre’s knack for description.
     “A Picture to Keep” is a standout: 4-year-old Michael explores a bomb’s devastating aftermath, frantically searching for his mother and siblings; its simple passages (“I was bleeding from somewhere, from everywhere it seemed”) offer dynamic, harrowing imagery. The book’s historical backdrop, too, is first-rate; Michael’s life, for example, is affected by the ongoing Troubles, the war in Afghanistan, and even 9/11, ultimately leading to the Provisional IRA’s disarmament and Frank’s forming a resurgent version of the terrorist group. A later story, “Morning Tea,” zeroes in on Patricia Whelan, another Cleanskin, who will hopefully have a collection (or novel) of her own.
     This book’s strong, sometimes-insightful focus on its protagonist makes it a definite improvement on the author’s prior outing."
     An adolescent boy develops a political ideology during Ireland's tumultuous Troubles in Benacre's (Shape, Shine and Shadow, 2016 etc.) latest short story collection.

     After the opening tale, "God's People," a discussion between prospective British MI5 agents, narrator Neill McCormac dives into an account of his life in the very next story, "What's In A Name?" Growing up in Newry, Ireland, in what he calls the "border heartland of the Provisional IRA," he gets an early introduction to the violence of The Troubles. His mother believes she's cursed, as each of her children has been born on the same day that a bomb or bullet devasted lives.
     In "Fence Posts & Milestones," the 10-year-old McCormac's rather brutal fight with some other boys is upstaged when word gets out that he uttered anti-IRA remarks at school.
     Puberty makes its mark, as well, as he recognizes his unmistakeable attraction to Aunt Una, his mom's younger sister, in one of the book's best stories, "Flat Shoes and High Hopes," when he and Una have no choice but to discuss this infatuation when they're alone at his brother's wedding.
     In "...From Little Acorns Grow," McCormac's college dissertation on the procurement of Provisional IRA weapons so impresses Capt. Eric Lawrence of the British Army's HQ Northern Ireland that he offers him a job, only half-jokingly. This ultimately leads McCormac to MI5, where he chases Michael McCann, the suspected IRA terrorist and the protagonist of Benacre's earlier work.
      The author's depiction of the historical backdrop is profound, with McCormac moving from being a witness (perusing his mother's scrapbook of bombings, for example), to being a part of the Secuirty Service. At times, the historical events overshadow McCormac's sometimes-conventional childhood; for example, he acknowledges that the loss of his virginity, which happened the same night as the 1996 IRA bombing of the London Docklands, was "farily unremarkalbe." That said, the book still makes a worthy counterpart to the the first volume, which centers on McCann and his decidely more savage youth.
     Like that collection, this one is truly a novel in disguise; and author's note suggest reading the stories sequentially, and certain tales' callbacks to earlier characters or incidents make this a neccessity.

Book 1: Easter, Smoke and Mirrors 
Book 2: Shape, Shine and Shadow 
Book 3: McCann 

These three books are reviewed as one piece. They should be read in the order given and the review refers to the Kindle edition.

First, to declare an interest. “John Benacre” is a nom de plume and the author is personally known to this reviewer. He is a retired soldier, decorated for gallantry and has a long and illustrious career behind him, with particular and extensive experience in Northern Ireland and the complex world of CT generally.

Benacre has crafted a complex and compelling narrative which spans the Irish Troubles from World War Two to Good Friday 2016 and beyond. His experience shows in the insight he has into the thinking behind militant force Irish Republicanism and the romantic and idealistic attraction it has held for generations of young (and perhaps not-so-young) Irishmen.

He has resisted the temptation to produce a novel or novels about the Army and the Provos (and he could have written a cracker), preferring to take a more strategic approach and produce one which could have come, mainly, from today’s headlines.

The narrative revolves around a plot by a successor group to the Provos, formed specifically to keep the flame of armed Republicanism alight as the mainstream moved into the peace process and the dissidents muddied the waters, in order to mark the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising with a massive mainland ‘spectacular’ on a truly incredible scale, coupled with simultaneous attacks on ‘hard’ targets in the Province the same day.

The successor grouping is controlled by a group of IRA godfathers, who have exercised influence over the Republican movement for many years and the ‘spectacular’ is to be carried out by a cadre of ‘clean skins’, raised, trained and nurtured over many years to be available for a single, unexpected blow.

The narrative switches easily between the lead clean skin – a remarkable individual with truly exceptional experience in Afghanistan, Chechenya, Kosovo and Bosnia (as a ‘loan player’ with Sunni militants), the godfathers and the stalwarts of the Security Service in London and Northern Ireland. The tension is maintained throughout, the various efforts made to counter and execute surveillance are neatly explained and the individuals are well-realised and credible.

The narrative rocks along, across the first two books, which detail the events leading up to and past Good Friday and is also tidily done in the third, which is best described as a series of vignettes covering the recruitment and training of the lead clean skin and bringing out some extra detail from the period covered by the main narrative.

All three books are self-published and show some of the typical signs of the phenomenon. They would have benefited from a jolly good editing and the writing sometimes stutters and switches tone, tense and person in an awkward manner. The sex scenes are entertaining but sometimes slightly intrusive and the author should perhaps review his prose for cliché and hackneyed allegory and simile in a new edition. It is not a major issue – his prose is generally clear and workmanlike, but, stylistically, as it is so clear, the infelicities rather leap off the page at the reader.

That said, the books are a rollicking good read. While some of the geopolitical background strains the reader’s credulity (for example, a key plot point is support given to Daesh aka the Islamic State by a faction within the Iranian government), it is this reviewer’s suspicion that the author was hesitant about presenting a more credible Sunni supporter for the Daesh ambitions in case doing so might be a cause of embarrassment to HMG. He himself, when questioned, suggests that a touch of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ is required of a professional intelligencer reading his work!

This and works like it are precisely why the ability to self-publish on Amazon is a great thing. Buy these books, read them and keep an eye out for more from this author – he is finding his voice and, while his storytelling may improve, the stories themselves are very well done.