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Raven Crime Reads

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March 2016

Katie Medina- Fire Damage

medinaFour-year-old Sami is deeply traumatized, and it’s up to psychologist Dr Jessie Flynn to unlock his terrifying memories. She needs to find out who ‘the girl’ is – but nothing can prepare her for the truth about what haunts him. Meanwhile, Jessie’s former patient, Captain Ben Callan, is investigating the suspicious death of an officer in Afghanistan – the problem is the only suspect refuses to talk. When a dead body washes up on a Sussex beach, Jessie and Ben’s cases converge. Soon it’s clear that the mystery in Afghanistan began with a secret much closer to home. And a desperate killer will do anything to keep it buried…

Having been swept away by Medina’s debut thriller  White Crocodile set in Cambodia, I was extremely interested to see how a change of publisher and nom de plume, along with a new setting would work for Medina. I’m very happy to report that this author appears to be going from strength to strength…

In a similar style to Matthew Frank’s debut If I Should Die and tapping in perfectly to my love of fiction depicting the experience of war, Medina tackles some weighty psychological issues in tandem with producing a genuinely emotive and compelling thriller. Drawing on her psychology degree, Medina said recently in an interview that she wanted to not only address the overpowering love or destructive nature of familial relationships and the emotional fallout of military service, but also to create a female protagonist to represent strong, clever and independent women. Through her characterisation of her central female character Jessie Flynn, four year old Sami, and her portrayal of three victims of their war experience, Sami’s father Major Nicholas Scott, Captain Ben Callan and Sergeant Colin Starkey, Medina achieves this admirably. Jessie Flynn is a multi-faceted character being a compassionate and headstrong psychologist, with a background in the military, but also struggling with her own behavioural disorder in the form of OCD.  I liked the way that she so seamlessly moulds her approach and interactions with those around her, driven on by a tenacity of spirit, and total dedication to her chosen profession, striving to unlock and treat the severe mental stress that affects Sami, and his family, along with being sensitive to the simmering tensions present in the character of Callan as she aids his investigation into a violent episode that has taken place amongst service personnel in Afghanistan.

The physical and mental stress exhibited by both Scott and Callan as a result of their military service is handled sensitively and honestly, and Callan in particular is a hugely empathetic character within the book. The sudden fluctuations of his mood and behaviour is beautifully handled as he struggles to keep a lid on the more destructive elements of his psyche, as without the Army he would be left bereft floundering with his personal demons. The repartee, and interesting relationship he has fostered with Flynn gives a further emotional weight to the overall plot, and I was heartened to see Medina avoiding some more obvious directions that their personal relationship could take.

Aside from the emotional gravitas of this book as we gain an insight into the troubled facets of Sami and particularly with his mother, Nooria, whose personal story is heartbreaking, the plot is incredibly well drawn, with a brutal honesty as to the dark chasm of secrets and lies that people conceal and seek to escape. The ending of the book is unexpected, and will make your heart race a little faster, and is entirely unpredictable but totally believable. The plot is punctuated throughout by real heart in the mouth moments, that interrupts but never detracts from the array of human emotion that Medina has structured the book upon. I also enjoyed the very real and vital portrayal of the experience in the theatre of war that so impacts on her characters, without resorting to timeworn clichés that some fiction with this story arc tends to produce.

It really is an ‘all things to all people’ kind of thriller, where the narrative, plot incidents, and skilful characterisation work together perfectly, and I was held riveted throughout. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to HarperCollins for the ARC)

Blog Tour- Matt Johnson- Wicked Game- Extract

27220378To mark the publication of debut author Matt Johnson’s thriller Wicked Game, I am delighted to bring you an extract of this taut, action-packed and emotive thriller about a man who is forced to confront his past in order to face a threat that may wipe out his future…

2001. Age is catching up with Robert Finlay, a police officer on the Royalty Protection team based in London. He s looking forward to returning to uniform policing and a less stressful life with his new family. But fate has other plans. Finlay’s deeply traumatic, carefully concealed past is about to return to haunt him. A policeman is killed by a bomb blast, and a second is gunned down in his own driveway. Both of the murdered men were former Army colleagues from Finlay’s own SAS regiment, and in a series of explosive events, it becomes clear that he is not the ordinary man that his colleagues, friends and new family think he is. And so begins a game of cat and mouse a wicked game in which Finlay is the target, forced to test his long-buried skills in a fight against a determined and unidentified enemy.

Early the following morning, I walked the mile or so along the River Mymram to Mym Wood. It was an old wood, oaks, wild cherry and other natural English species, overgrown to hide a dark and secretive interior. Close enough to the cottage that I could drive to it in a few minutes, it was also off the beaten track, without bridleways or footpaths, which was exactly why I had chosen it. There was a local syndicate of pheasant shooters who turned up every so often during the winter in pursuit of the wild birds, and the local hunt would sometimes draw it for a fox, but most of the time it was undisturbed. I wasn’t alone in having a personal collection of kit. Many soldiers did it. Often, when a retired serviceman died, guns he’d kept as war
mementoes would turn up when his relatives went through his personal effects. That wouldn’t happen with me: my mementos were buried, in plastic dustbins in Mym Wood. I had made an initial visit to the wood a few days previously. That trip had been simple reconnaissance, a check for surveillance or discovery. Even then, I had been uncertain whether I should uncover the hide or leave it where it lay. If the cache had been discovered then the ground would be disturbed or, possibly, it would be under observation. It was unlikely, but I had to be careful.
The hide had remained intact. This time, I dressed as if I were taking a walk in the country. If the wood was being watched, I would look like an innocent passerby. The morning was hot and still. It was something of a relief to get away from the uncomfortable humidity of the open meadows and enter the cool cloisters of oak and hawthorn. Flies jinked in the shade under
the arching tunnels of trees. In the distance I could just see my objective, a brilliantly lit clearing full of wild flowers.
As I reached the glade, I smelled the heady scent of hot, damp vegetation. Pink mallow, willow herb, teasel and the fragile, creamy flowers of the meadowsweet complemented the still air. As a schoolboy I had little interest in plants. But on army survival courses, you soon learned their value. Some could be eaten, some would kill you, others were a natural painkiller and many could be used to make even the worst army cooking taste great.
I breathed deeply, hands on my hips.
The interior of the wood seldom saw a man. As I walked slowly forward a small muntjac deer started from near my feet, making me take a quick step back. It must have tucked in to hide as I had appeared in the clearing and now decided to make its escape. I watched it go. It was a young male, its tusks barely grown. As it reached the edge of the woodland it stopped and turned. Human and cervine eyes met for a moment, and then the creature was gone. My goal was an old gnarled oak on the north-east corner of the glade. At head height, I had cut a blaze from the bark. Now overgrown and stained, it was hardly visible, but it was there. I didn’t touch it, just observed it. If prying eyes were watching me I didn’t want to give my deliberations away.

Everything had to appear casual.

I turned and faced south-west. Seven steps ahead lay the first dustbin. I sat at the base of the oak and waited.After five minutes, I stood and paced seven casual steps. I bent down, untied and re-tied my shoelaces. The ground wasn’t disturbed. A flint still lay where I had placed it. To the casual eye it was just a large stone, but here in the wood it was quite out of place and could
only have been put there by man. Had it been moved I would have known that someone else had been there.

I wandered around the wood, checking through places I had already identified as being suitable observation points. Again, I kept my stroll apparently aimless and casual. It took over an hour. I was being extra careful. The ease with which Jenny had crept up on me and Kevin at the common had disturbed me. We should have been more careful. Age and lack of practice had made us sloppy. If she had been one of the terrorists, then we would have been finished. Deciding that I had lingered for long enough, I relaxed and returned to the oak. The coast was clear. Not only was there no observation, there was no evidence of anyone having been here at all. Everything told me that the wood was undisturbed. But I was still uncomfortable. Electronic surveillance could have developed to the extent that observation might have been undertaken from a distance. A satellite could even have been watching my every move.Finally, there was nothing for it. I started digging using a small trowel that I had slipped in my pocket. Progress was slow. After about twenty minutes’ effort, I had the first plastic bin exposed. Reaching
down into the darkness, the first item to emerge, which I placed in the plastic bin liner I had brought with me, was my National Plastics composite helmet. It still bore the scratches and scars of both training and live operations. Across the brow was the crease mark of a bullet
that had nearly taken my head off in Armagh.
‘Never thought I’d see the day when I’d be digging this lot up,’ I muttered under my breath.
Next came my integrated personal protection system. Superseded by modern improvements, it was, nevertheless, effective. All finished in black, the Nomex fire retardant boiler suit, Armourshield GPV25 body armour vest and SF10 respirator gave the wearer a sinister
appearance. I’d sprayed everything with moisture repellent oil before consigning it to the ground. As a result, it all looked almost as good as new. The bin had remained airtight and dry.
The last item to go in the plastic bag was a Davies CT100 microphone transmitter and receiver. Kevin had the same system, so at least we would be able to talk when wearing the respirators.
At the bottom of the bin was the first item of hardware. Wrapped in a small towel was my old Beretta, the same pistol that I’d used to defend myself when attacked in Northern Ireland. It was an older version of the weapon that I’d been using on Royalty Protection duties, but just as reliable, and just as effective. As I weighed it in the palm of my hand, I felt a wave of nostalgia, as if I was being reunited with an old friend. I checked the clip and pulled back the slide. A full
fifteen rounds, with one up the spout, just as I’d left it.The pistol was heavily greased and looked to be in good order. I wiped the bulk of the grease off with the towel. Proper cleaning would have to wait. I slipped it into the side pocket of my coat.Finally, I pulled out the disassembled sections of an Armalite AR-15, which I placed gently onto a hessian sack I’d laid on the grass beside me. The light in the wood was diffused but I hadn’t forgotten the art of battlefield weapon maintenance. Had I been blindfold it would have made little difference. Within a minute the parts were together and the shape of the assembled Armalite was silhouetted against the morning sky as I held the weapon up to the light to check over my work.
The clearing remained peaceful and unmoving as the trees watched my shadowy figure load the thirty-round rifle magazine. Dustbin lid and turf replaced, I stood up.A gust of wind rustled through the surrounding trees as a flock of starlings settled in the nearby oaks chose that moment to launch into the air. I shivered as the noise of their beating wings filled my ears. It made me stop for a moment. There was something about the trees. It was as though the old oaks had eyes. Like ghostly sentinels, their icy stare seemed to bore into my soul. The feeling of being watched was unnerving.
The second bin containing the heavy stuff would have to be collected later. It was now time to head home. Tomorrow I would call Kevin again and tell him I was nearly ready.
As I trudged across the peaceful meadow, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. I stopped and listened but heard nothing. Jenny attributed such feelings to ‘guardian angels’, the spirits of departed relatives who look over us and protect us. Of course I was sceptical, but there had been many times when we had been driving along a country lane and she had suddenly warned me to slow down at a bend. Every time a fast-moving car had appeared from the opposite direction and by slowing down we had avoided a collision. Jenny said it was her angels and nothing to do with luck.

Perhaps the sensation of being watched was those angels looking out for me?
Perhaps I just needed to understand their warning.

Matt Johnson- Wicked Game published by Orenda Books.

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Catch up with the blog tour at the sites below…

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Blog Tour- Yusuf Toropov- Jihadi: A Love Story- Review #Jihadi #BlogTour

4Well, this blog tour for Yusuf Toropov’s Jihadi: A Love Story is on to the final furlong, but stopping off today here at Raven Crime Reads for a review of this clever and thought-provoking book…

A former intelligence agent stands accused of terrorism, held without charge in a secret overseas prison. His memoir is in the hands of a brilliant but erratic psychologist whose annotations paint a much darker picture. As the story unravels, we are forced to assess the truth for ourselves, and decide not only what really happened on one fateful overseas assignment, but who is the real terrorist. Peopled by a diverse and unforgettable cast of characters, whose reliability as narrators is always questioned, and with a multi-layered plot heaving with unexpected and often shocking developments, Jihadi: A Love Story is an intelligent thriller that asks big questions. Complex, intriguing and intricately woven, this is an astonishing debut that explores the nature of good and evil alongside notions of nationalism, terrorism and fidelity, and, above all, the fragility of the human mind…

Suffused with unreliable narrators, shifting timelines and locations, addendums to the text encased in grey boxes with a miniscule font, and short diversions from reality, this is not an easy read, and attention must be paid throughout. I really found that a few precious moments reading time snatched throughout the day were not conducive to the pleasure of reading this book, and only when reading substantial sections at a time did the real intelligence and cleverness of this book impact on me more. It is also by extension, one of the most difficult books I have had to review, so bear with me…

The nature of the writing from the outset is challenging, and you may feel a little ‘all-at-sea’ when first embarking on this, until the characters gain a foothold in your mind, and the swift changes of narrative begin to establish a pattern and rhythm. But beware because, as a further ramification of this initial state of confusion, you will be further toyed with by Toropov as things happen, both cruel and unusual that will surprise and shock you in equal measure, further heightening the strange state of unreality, and the pure unpalatable truths of reality that the author seeks to convey. In simple terms, the whole book reads as a memoir, narrated by an American special operative on his return from a particularly ill-fated incursion into an unnamed Islamic state, and the characters and incidents that impact on his personal experience. However, this story then delineates to address far bigger themes, amongst them, the nefarious grasp of religious radicalism counterbalanced by the beauty of true religion, feminism, love and loss, and the clash of cultures that leads to violence and human collateral damage. Consequently, the essential style of this book is difficult to pinpoint as it reads like T. S. Eliot, fused with Homeland, with a soundtrack of The Beatles The White Album (referred to in the aforementioned grey boxes), interspersed with references to the Koran, whilst ultimately fulfilling its criteria as a heightened socially, and culturally aware, literary thriller.

Every single character within the book is shrewdly drawn, causing a gamut of emotions within the reader themselves, from the appalling actions of Mazzoni, an American marine, the religious rabble rousing of Abu Islam, the road to conversion of our main narrator Thelonius himself, and my favourite character Fatima, a good Islamic woman whose personal experiences lead her on an unexpected but completely justified path to revenge and retribution. Between all the protagonists we bear witness to the very best and worst of human behaviour, their prejudices and goodness, and how the predatory nature of some individuals wreaks havoc on the innocent, and undermines our faith in each other. This blend of assured characterisation to pass comment on issues that ultimately affect us all is extremely cleverly done, not with browbeating and preaching, but with a thought-provoking and subtle prod for us to consider our own responses to these weighty issues.

So shut out the world, turn off that phone, ramp up The White Album by The Beatles, and devote time to this to appreciate it fully. It is a challenging and, at times, a difficult read, but this is a good thing. Embrace it, and I think you’ll find this a pleasingly different reading experience.

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(With thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for the ARC)

 

Catch up with, or continue to follow this excellent blog tour at the sites below…

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Kate McQuaile- What She Never Told Me- Reading Ireland Month 2016 #begorrathon16 #readIreland16

readingMarch always heralds the arrival of the brilliant Reading Ireland Month- celebrating all that is good about Irish books and culture- hosted by Cathy at   746books  and Niall at The Fluff Is Raging  Eager to join in the fun, here is my small contribution to the #begorrathon16, reviewing debut author Kate McQuaile.

41UrW7G50YL__SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Louise Redmond left Ireland for London before she was twenty. Now, more than two decades later, her heart already breaking from a failing marriage, she is summoned home. Her mother is on her deathbed, and it is Louise’s last chance to learn the whereabouts of a father she never knew. Stubborn to the end, Marjorie refuses to fill in the pieces of her daughter’s fragmented past. Then Louise unexpectedly finds a lead. A man called David Prescott, but is he really the father she’s been trying to find? And who is the mysterious little girl who appears so often in her dreams? As each new piece of the puzzle leads to another question, Louise begins to suspect that the memories she most treasures could be a delicate web of lies…

Despite my steadfast resolution to avoid crime fiction of the more domestic variety, I was hearing good things about this one, and so am happy to break my self-imposed resolution. In the spirit of honesty, which I appear to be known for, I did have some issues with this one, but here are my thoughts…

What I really liked about this book was the central premise of the story itself revolving around familial bonds and how memory can be such a deceptive but powerful driving force in how our sense of self is formed. I thought McQuaile captured perfectly the mother/daughter bond between Louise and Marjorie, and the inherent differences in their character which are slowly revealed as the book progresses. As Louise seeks to fill in the gaps in her family background, with her unknown father, and a mother singularly reticent to answer her questions, even as her own mortality catches up with her, I found their relationship totally believable, and striking a few emotional chords with my own background. I thought the gradual unfurling of the truth behind Louise’s identity was perfectly weighted throughout, with a denouement that was both plausible and clever, forcing Louise to completely reassess who she was. Another interesting conundrum McQuaile examines is how easy it is to do the wrong thing, but with the overriding sense that it is for the right reasons, however twisted the logic is behind these actions, and this was painfully brought to the fore when the truth about Marjorie is exposed. Also McQuaile manipulates the truthfulness of memory, and how half-remembered incidents, sensual indicators, and locations impact so strongly on our perception of past events, and the emotions these produce in us.

Less successful for my enjoyment of the book was the personal life of Louise, the relationship with her husband Sandy, an ill thought out dalliance, and a verging on Fatal Attraction storyline that to me seemed slightly unnecessary in the wake of such a strong central storyline. Obviously, to avoid spoilers I can’t go into too much detail, but I felt that aside from Louise’s regret and reasons for not having her own family, the marital woes she experiences would have been easily remedied without the amount of naval gazing, and emotional to and fro that afflict her as the book progresses. As I was enjoying the spirit of detection she exhibits in tracking down her father, I found myself side-tracked by the marital shenanigans, and was champing at the bit to see where her next line of enquiry would take her. Although I did like Louise as a character, her sometimes swift descent into extreme wooliness was slightly frustrating.

To bring this back to the initially positive vibe, there was a strong location of place throughout the book, and I enjoyed the way that McQuaile gave us snapshots of the way that the locations of Ireland and London seemed to surreptitiously shape the behaviour of Louise herself. There was a good contrast between both the city and rural locations as the book progressed, and an intervention of the authorial voice to bring a real sense of colour and life to each location. We clearly see how Louise perceives her former life in Ireland, set against her current residence in London, the sharp differences between the two, and how they subtly impact on her emotions and actions.

All in all I’m rather glad to have put my head above the parapet and broken my domestic noir resolution, as I found this debut by and large both intriguing and enjoyable. Recommended.

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quentin Bates- Thin Ice #IcelandicNoir #ThinIceBlogTour

28925475Pleased as punch to be hosting the next stop on the rolling blog tour for Quentin Bates, and reviewing his new book, Thin Ice, featuring the wonderfully likeable female detective, Gunna Gunnhildur. Replete with a tagline saying ‘snowed in with two psychopaths for the winter’ this certainly draws one’s attention from the outset. So what’s it all about?

When two small-time crooks, Magni and Ossi,  rob Reykjavik’s premier drugs dealer, hoping for a quick escape to the sun, their plans start to unravel after their getaway driver fails to show. Tensions mount between the pair and the two women, they have grabbed as hostages when they find themselves holed upcountry in an isolated hotel that has been mothballed for the season. Back in the capital, Gunna and her team find themselves at a dead end investigating what appear to be the unrelated disappearance of a mother, her daughter and their car during a day’s shopping, and the death of a thief in a house fire. They are faced with a set of riddles but as more people are quizzed it begins to emerge that all these unrelated incidents are in fact linked. At the same time, two increasingly desperate lowlifes have no choice but to make some big decisions on how to get rid of their accidental hostages…

I have read most of the series to date, and I love the way there is that instant feeling of comfort and familiarity with Bates’ style, and the way he marries the positively soap opera elements of Gunnhildur’s private life, with a solid Scandinavian police procedural. Having come to terms with the peccadillos of her son Gisli in the previous book she now has to grapple with the sudden reappearance of a ex-lover, and his impending demise. But in traditional Gunnhildur fashion she keeps calm, despite her burning animosity to her ex, pulls up her all weather bootstraps, and forges on. She is a great character, tenacious and dogged but clear thinking, and I like the shades of light and dark that Bates reveals within her character throughout the series.

Despite the tangled affairs of our redoubtable police officer, I actually rather enjoyed the greater emphasis that Bates places within the main narrative to the bumbling duo of Magni and Ossi. I think it’s fair to say that the plot rather resembles an inverted and twisted version of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, with skinny ringleader Ossi, being quickly revealed as a real liability to any hopes of escape from their predicament, and rufty tufty big guy Magni stepping up to be the brains rather than just the brawn. However, with the sensual temptation of Magni’s growing relationship with their younger captive Tinna Lind- the comely daughter and Mata Hari-esque femme fatale of the piece- Magni has to keep a balance with Ossi and Tinna which makes for an interesting development of his character. Although, as it transpires his brain does begin to take rather a backseat to other parts of his anatomy. Ahem. As the ineffective robbers lurch from one disaster to another, their story starts to take a whole other turn, and although I did have my suspicions to the denouement, it was an entertaining journey to the conclusion. Along from some nice violent interludes in the story as Magni and Ossi seek to evade both the police and the bad guy they have crossed, who is definitely out for vengeance, there is a great balance of sauciness, humour, darkness and high emotion. A good addition to a highly enjoyable series.

The blog tour continues tomorrow at Eurodrama  and check out the rest of the tour below…

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