Elizabeth H. Winthrop- The Mercy Seat/ Michelle Sacks- You Were Made For This/ Elena Varvello- Can You Hear Me?

As the sun begins to set over Louisiana one October day in 1943, a young black man faces the final hours of his life: at midnight, eighteen-year-old Willie Jones will be executed by electric chair for raping a white girl – a crime some believe he did not commit.

In a tale taut with tension, events unfold hour by hour from the perspectives of nine people involved. They include Willie himself, who knows what really happened, and his father, desperately trying to reach the town jail to see his son one last time; the prosecuting lawyer, haunted by being forced to seek the death penalty against his convictions, and his wife, who believes Willie to be innocent; the priest who has become a friend to Willie; and a mother whose only son is fighting in the Pacific, bent on befriending her black neighbours in defiance of her husband…

Billed as having a kaleidoscopic narrative, The Mercy Seat, Winthrop’s tale of racial and social division is a measured and emotive story from beginning to end. As the hours tick by we bear witness to a young man’s progression to the electric chair, after a false accusation of rape, and Winthrop uses a myriad of voices throughout the book, changing the reader’s perception of events along the way. Weighing in with some big, meaty issues revolving around crime and punishment, justice and injustice, and condemnation and mercy, there is no denying the emotional heft of the book, and the raw human emotion that Winthrop pours into the novel. Cleverly, she integrates the shadow of WW2, and the bloodbath events of war in the Pacific, as a juxtaposition to the incredibly moving faltering journey of the condemned man’s father. The exposition of the loss of a mother of her son to war, and the loss of a son to a father through America’s racial war is beautifully rendered, and for me these two narratives were the real emotional lynchpin of the narrative.

With nine characters voices echoing throughout the book, I did feel there was a slight weakness to the clear identification of them, and some blurriness to their own morality or perception of the events unfolding. Interestingly, I came away from the book feeling that I had not read a contiguous tale, but more that these alternating chapters had taken the shape of a short story collection in my mind, as some chapters seemed less related, and a little less relevant to the whole. So I had a slight issue with the structure, preferring to absorb these as connecting stories, moving towards the same end. I was left a little unsettled by the ending too, as the clarion call of mercy was dealt with in a strangely weak denouement, that rather left the reader hanging in the balance at the end. Consequently, although I admired greatly some aspects of the novel in terms of the rendition of time and place, and the strong emotional resonance of some of the characters’ voices, I felt that Winthrop had maybe cast the net a little too wide, and so some sections of the book felt  a little disjointed, and were less satisfactory than others. Would still recommend though despite, in my own opinion, some minor flaws.

(With thanks to Sceptre for the ARC)

Doting wife, devoted husband, cherished child. Merry, Sam and Conor are the perfect family in the perfect place. Merry adores baking, gardening, and caring for her infant son, while Sam pursues a new career in film. In their idyllic house in the Swedish woods, they can hardly believe how lucky they are. What perfect new lives they’ve built for themselves, away from New York and the events that overshadowed their happiness there. Then Merry’s closest friend Frank comes to stay. All their lives, the two women have been more like sisters than best friends. And that’s why Frank sees things that others might miss. Treacherous things that unfold behind closed doors. But soon it’s clear that everyone inside the house has something to hide. And as the truth begins to show through the cracks, Merry, Frank, and Sam grow all the more desperate to keep their picture-perfect lives intact...

With the creeping unease of recent domestic noir thrillers like Gone Girl, but tinged with the emotional darkness of the brilliant Monster Love by Carol Topolski, I rather enjoyed this twisted tale of marital bliss gone sour, and the more than dysfunctional relationship that we suddenly start to observe.

I found the first half of this book in particular, a fine example of pot-boiling suspense, as one couple’s new life in rural Sweden begins to show cracks and fissures, that Sacks exposes in a beautifully controlled fashion. The sudden sinister shocks that she surprises the reader with, and which may unsettle those of a more nervous disposition, become darker and darker as the plot progresses. Structured in alternating chapters, both Merry and Sam begin to have aspects of their characters exposed which become just a little more distasteful and disturbing in their words and deeds, but Sacks unashamedly brings the darkest compulsions of Merry front and centre, in her fraught relationship with her child. I think Sacks walks a very thin line here between voyeurism and objectivism with the issue of abuse she raises, and unlike the aforementioned Monster Love , I felt a certain disconnectedness with the intent of choosing this narrative, and the response it seeks to spark in the reader.

I think it appealed to me at first, that these are two of the most dislikeable and smug characters that I have encountered for some time, and although initially finding myself unable to look away from their solipsism, self absorption and fake morality, I did begin to grow weary of their naval gazing self justification for their eminently disturbing behaviour. With the advent of the arrival of Merry’s friend Frank, further scope was given to the author to explore the formative years of this trinity of more than a little screwed up protagonists, and give the reader time to see the strange dynamic between them begin to evolve. However, with this introduction of a new character, I felt the plot begin to crawl to a more sedentary drawn out pace, sparking a feeling of frustrated boredom, and just a muted eyebrow raise at some of the revelations. I felt that the story seemed to start circling itself only inching the narrative forward, after the assured pace and reveals of the first half of the book, and a strange propensity for overwritten truisms began to become increasingly more evident towards the end of the book, as opposed to the clarity of statement and intent from the characters at the beginning. Definitely a book of two halves for this reader.

(With thanks to HQ HarperCollins for the ARC)

1978.
Ponte, a small community in Northern Italy. An unbearably hot summer like many others.
Elia Furenti is sixteen, living an unremarkable life of moderate unhappiness, until the day the beautiful, damaged Anna returns to Ponte and firmly propels Elia to the edge of adulthood.
But then everything starts to unravel.
Elia’s father, Ettore, is let go from his job and loses himself in the darkest corners of his mind.
A young boy is murdered. And a girl climbs into a van and vanishes in the deep, dark woods…

I experienced a mild sense of excitement that I would have to talk about this book for a whole month wearing my bookseller hat, so I started reading with a heightened sense of anticipation. Now I love a translated slow-burner as much as the next person, but for some reason or other this one just didn’t hit the spot. Unlike undoubtedly hundreds of others, I was unerringly frustrated by this obvious hybrid of autobiography and fiction, at odds with my usual enjoyment for the genre- for example Karl Ove Knausgard or Edward St Aubyn. I felt for the most part I was just an incidental passenger to the author’s cathartic writing exercise, which revealed itself quickly to be what I perceived to be an exploration of her own father’s mental disturbance. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but I felt it was to the detriment of what could have been an infinitely more engaging experience for the reader.

Sometimes as a bookseller, I recommend books to people with the words, “Well, nothing really happens, but things don’t happen in a beautifully written way”, and this is what I was longing for in this book. There was a real feeling of deferred happenings in this book, and at times a notable compulsion by the author to pull back from events that could have given some substance and interest to the whole affair. Yes there’s a tangible thread of violence running through the book, and a not altogether convincing seduction, but the weirdly overemotional tone that reveals itself in the words and deeds of some characters, does begin to feel like some kind of therapy group literature, and a real lost the feel of dramatic tension to what cites itself as a thriller. As I said, I was looking forward to this one immensely, but feel I must go elsewhere for my Italian fiction fix, where nothing can happen, as long as it doesn’t not happen beautifully.

(I bought this copy)

 

 

 

 

William Shaw- Salt Lane/ Kate Rhodes-Hell Bay

I am going to don my bookseller hat here, and say with some confidence that if you like the sound of one of these beauties, I can pretty much guarantee that the other book will appeal too.

Go on. You know you want to…

DS Alexandra Cupidi has done it again. She should have learnt to keep her big mouth shut, after the scandal that sent her packing – resentful teenager in tow – from the London Met to the lonely Kent coastline. Murder is different here, among the fens and stark beaches. The man drowned in the slurry pit had been herded there like an animal. He was North African, like many of the fruit pickers that work the fields. The more Cupidi discovers, the more she wants to ask – but these people are suspicious of questions. It will take an understanding of this strange place – its old ways and new crimes – to uncover the dark conspiracy behind the murder. Cupidi is not afraid to travel that road. But she should be. She should, by now, have learnt…

Having made the acquaintance of DS Alexandra Cupidi some time ago in The Birdwatcher , a wonderfully atmospheric thriller set against the backdrop of the bleak coastline of Dungeness, prepare to be completely absorbed as she makes her return in Salt Lane. Not only is this a well plotted and compelling police procedural, once again using this particular landscape to its full brooding and slightly sinister effect, but Salt Lane reveals itself to be so much more.

When you cast your eye over the backlist of William Shaw, comprising of his evocative 60s series, and the aforementioned The Birdwatcher, one cannot help but be struck by the skill of his storytelling, and the strength of his characterisation. As well as unfailingly producing absorbing, moving and carefully constructed police procedurals, Shaw also uses either the zeitgeist of the period, or the locations to envelop the reader completely in the atmosphere he seeks to produce. In Salt Lane the desolate, but rawly beautiful, locale of Dungeness once again reveals itself as a centrifugal force in the book, being either a place of safety or danger in equal measure, but also effectively acting as a prism for the emotional state of both Cupidi and her troubled teenage daughter, Zoe. As Zoe seeks to deal with her emotional pain and seeks solace from the landscape, also unwittingly leading herself into the heart of her mother’s investigation, Cupidi herself finds herself at times waging an emotional and physical battle with the unique geography of the area, and the murders that occur within its boundaries.

Taking a backward step for a second, I can’t emphasise enough the weight of emotion, and more importantly the completely plausible emotion that Shaw injects into his trinity of female characters, Cupidi, Zoe and Cupidi’s mother Helen, who will be recognisable to some readers from Shaw’s previous books. I was absolutely blown away by how succinctly and honestly Shaw captured the internal and external emotional lives of these women, as they navigate their differences and similarities in the course of the book. The tension and moments of conflict are balanced beautifully with moments of epiphany in their personal relationship with each other, and the scenes featuring these three exceptional characters are a joy to read, feeling raw, true and suffused with realism. I must confess that I don’t read much ‘women’s fiction’ as that which I have encountered always has a slightly mawkish feel in its depiction of ‘women’s experience’,  but I was held spellbound by the resonance of these characters in my interpretation of how women truly are, and how that which separates them, can be seen to actually bind them together more than they initially feel.

As for the plot itself, Shaw is given free reign to expose the worst ills of a Britain caught in a monstrous wave of nationalism and post-Brexit turmoil. Against the Kent location of the book, Shaw weaves a disturbing police investigation into an unflinching and, most importantly, objective appraisal of immigration and exploitation, that boils the blood, and tugs at the heartstrings in equal measure, depending on your political viewpoint. Without resorting to soapbox declarations on the state of Britain, Shaw holds a mirror up to the conflicting sides of the immigration issue, whilst keeping the book solidly on track as a crime thriller. Consequently, Salt Lane is never less than a wonderfully multi-layered contemporary thriller, replete with the highest calibre characterisation, and a looming feel of unease. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Riverrun for the ARC)

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DI Ben Kitto needs a second chance. After ten years working for the murder squad in London, a traumatic event has left him grief-stricken. He’s tried to resign from his job, but his boss has persuaded him to take three months to reconsider. Ben plans to work in his uncle Ray’s boatyard, on the tiny Scilly island of Bryher where he was born, hoping to mend his shattered nerves. His plans go awry when the body of sixteen year old Laura Trescothick is found on the beach at Hell Bay. Her attacker must still be on the island because no ferries have sailed during a two-day storm. Everyone on the island is under suspicion. Dark secrets are about to resurface. And the murderer could strike again at any time.

With all the claustrophobic feel of a locked room mystery, and introducing us to a little fictionally represented corner of the world, Hell Bay proves to be a real treat, and on the back of Kate Rhodes’ brilliant series featuring Alice Quentin, this introduction to a new character DI Ben Kitto can only augur well for books to come…

I know I’m always going on about location in the books I read, but I genuinely think that if,  as a reader,  you can’t imagine this all too crucial element to a story in a tangible sense the book is lost before it starts, hence my adoration of writers such as Peter May and Ron Rash whose evocation of place is always perfect. So first big tick in the box to Rhodes who deftly depicts the ruggedness and solitude of her Scilly Isles location from the opening age, and consistently and atmospherically through the course of the book. The unique feel of this landscape, and the ever present changeable moods of the sea, provides the most sinister backdrop to her story, and I love the way that Rhodes manipulates this to add to the tension and emotion of the human dramas played out against its omnipresent influence. Indeed, many of the characters have an unbreakable and sometimes damaging connection to the sea, be it by occupation, by loss or by emotional disturbance and its influence looms large in the story and readers’ consciousness throughout.

I did like the character of DI Ben Kitto from the off, with his, at first concealed reasons for returning home, and his reluctance to re-engage with people from his formative years, adding a nice degree of shade and light to his character. I also enjoyed the way that we see him slowly assimilate himself back into the community, the pace of life, the pressures on peoples’ livelihoods, the suspicions of neighbours, and the reopening of conflicts from years past. This gave a very rounded feel to the particular pressures of living within such a small community, and how the actions of one person, is so deeply felt in the lives of the others. Kitto aside, I thought Rhodes’ characterisation was excellent throughout, and loved the disparate band of island dwellers who thwart or assist Kitto in his investigation. There was a real satisfying melting pot of characters, some infinitely more demonstrative than others, and the way that Rhodes’ uses them to portray the frustrations and hardships of island life, and the rootedness or need to escape each display.

Obviously with the premise of the book being a murder mystery, Rhodes works hard to achieve a marvellous modern interpretation of a classic locked room mystery, and she achieves this admirably. With only a finite number of suspects, I very much enjoyed the sense of personal detection she encourages in the reader in true Agatha Christie style, and I found the outcome of the book entirely satisfying. Hell Bay is a particularly strong start to a potential series, I hope, and one I shall follow with interest. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Simon and Schuster for the ARC)

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#1 Denis Theriault- The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman- #20booksofsummer

Secretly steaming open envelopes and reading the letters inside, Bilodo has found an escape from his lonely and routine life as a postman. When one day he comes across a mysterious letter containing a single haiku, he finds himself avidly caught up in the relationship between a long-distance couple who write to each other using only beautiful poetry. He feasts on their words, vicariously living a life for which he longs. But it will only be a matter of time before his world comes crashing down around him…

 

Unassuming man

Toils daily with mail

Seeking soulmate with haikus.

 

Shines light on circle

Of life, love, being.

Your heart will ache pleasingly.

_________________________________________________

 

 

Blog Tour- Gunnar Staalesen- Big Sister

Varg Veum receives a surprise visit in his office. A woman introduces herself as his half-sister, and she has a job for him. Her god-daughter, a 19-year-old trainee nurse from Haugesund, moved from her bedsit in Bergen two weeks ago. Since then no one has heard anything from her. She didn’t leave an address. She doesn’t answer her phone. And the police refuse to take her case seriously.
Veum’s investigation uncovers a series of carefully covered-up crimes and pent-up hatreds, and the trail leads to a gang of extreme bikers on the hunt for a group of people whose dark deeds are hidden by the anonymity of the Internet. And then things get personal…

Just when you thought that wily private investigator Varg Veum’s personal life couldn’t get any more complicated, Staalesen illustrates once again his ability to stretch his character to almost breaking point. Grappling with ghosts of the past, and a particularly emotional and troublesome missing person case, Veum is tested to the limit in the course of this all too personal investigation…

It goes without saying that Staalesen consistently produces crime thrillers to the highest standard, and considering how many books have featured the mercurial Varg Veum it is a remarkable achievement to keep a main protagonist so fresh and interesting after so many encounters. And yet this is what Staalesen does, and Big Sister is no exception. From the nod to Chandler in the title of the book itself, Staalesen once again engages us completely with Veum in his now trademark drily witty and hardboiled style. It’s almost as if Staalesen treats Veum as a metaphorical onion, peeling back layer after layer to reveal other aspects of Veum’s character, and unerringly placing him in difficult physical and emotional situations, which are all the more entertaining for us. I think the thing I enjoy most though is the very palpable sense of Veum getting older, and how he reacts differently to situations he’s placed in, as opposed to his younger self, whilst retaining that slightly gung-ho impetuousness and then realising his physical limitations as an older man. The deadpan humour, and cynical world view are in evidence as normal, but Staalesen tempers this beautifully with Veum’s realisation that his life to this point has not been all that it appears, and weighs him down beautifully as to how far he should pursue the truth of his family history. I loved the unfolding of this particular part of the plot, as Veum tries to reconcile his own character with what he knows of where his true parentage lies, and his sudden inclusion in a family and community as the truth of the past is revealed. Staalesen handles this arc of the story sensitively, and fully conveys the emotional confusion that Veum experiences, whilst tempering it to perfection with Veum’s naturally stoical personality.

In the main plot of the missing person investigation, Staalesen again weaves a complex connectivity between Veum and those he encounters, as they seek to evade and conceal their involvement with the victim. This book again takes us to some very dark places dealing with weighty issues such as sexual abuse, suicide, organised crime and addiction, and as always Veum’s gritty determination to solve the case, leads him and those closest to him into physical danger. I always enjoy Veum’s interactions with those he questions, chipping away at them until they either give up what the know, or punch him on the nose. Staalesen’s fluid dialogue, so resonant of the hardboiled masters, is here in spades, and complimented by a twisting and testing plot,  and with no exceedingly obvious guilty party there was, as always, much to enjoy here. With pithy references to the ills of contemporary society, the habitual strong sense of place, and a beautifully weighted translation again by Don Bartlett,  Big Sister is a brilliant addition to one of the most consistent and enjoyable European crime thriller series. Just what will Staalesen put Veum through next I wonder…. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

Blog Tour- G. D. Abson- Motherland

Student Zena Dahl, the daughter of a Swedish millionaire, has gone missing in St Petersburg (or Piter as the city is colloquially known) after a night out with a friend. Captain Natalya Ivanova is assigned the case, making a change for Natalya from her usual fare of domestic violence work, but, because of the family’s wealth, there’s pressure for a quick result. But as she investigates she discovers that the case is not as straightforward as it may seem…

Pining for the heady excitement of Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 trilogy? Wishing that Martin Cruz Smith would recapture the magic of Gorky Park over and over again? Well fret no more gentle reader, as we may be onto a bit of a winner with Motherland, the first instalment of a new series featuring Captain Natalya Ivanova of the St Petersburg Criminal Investigations Directorate…

From the air of breathless danger that Abson introduces in the prologue, through to an extremely tense conclusion, real heart in the mouth stuff, I found this thriller utterly compelling throughout. I thought that Abson’s control of pace and tension was superb, and the balance between the domestic affairs and professional life of Ivanova, was spot on, with neither overpowering the other. They worked together to give the reader an extremely rounded depiction of all aspects of Ivanova’s life,  be it the professional tension of being married to a fellow crime investigator, the nefarious interference in their investigation by other Russian security services, and the sheer intensity and intrigue of the case itself involving a major figure in Swedish industry, and the suspected kidnap and murder of his adopted daughter. I also enjoyed the intermittent references to Putin, his rise to power, his strengthening grip on all aspects of Russian life, and how his shadow looms over the structures of law enforcement and criminal investigation, which reminded me strongly of David Young’s excellent depiction of Stasi interference in East Germany in his series featuring Major Karin Muller. All of these strands weaved in and out sustaining the reader’s interest and engagement, and I found it very difficult to second guess where the story was going, and who was the most duplicitous of the characters involved. There were some nifty little tricks and turns in the plot, and most satisfyingly I didn’t identify the utter rotter at the close of the book, but thought this revelation was unexpected, but totally believable in the context of the plot itself.

Another aspect of the book that I particularly enjoyed were the little instances of gentle, and not so gentle, joshing that occur between Ivanova  and her colleagues, and the wonderfully eccentric babushka who inhabits the apartment next to that of the murdered girl, who finds herself inextricably linked to the case as the finale approaches. I enjoyed the building of tension and suspicion in Ivanova’s marriage, from her belief that her husband Misha has acquired dirty money, her growing reliance on alcohol and cigarettes, and her wonderfully lax approach to housework and cooking. She has a natural feistiness to her character that is endearing, and by the same token Abson does not make her some kind of indestructible kick-ass heroine, with the violence she experiences producing realistic results. I appreciated the balance that Abson brought to her character, and that her character is nicely defined by not being completely Russian, and that her upbringing in Germany, where her sister resides, could be expanded on in future books.

Overall, I thought Motherland was a strong, positive start to a series, introducing a notable female protagonist, and a nice little cohort of personal and professional relationships, that will give stability, and opportunities for character development in further books. Abson can dip his toes in an oligarch’s fountain, and avoid a trip to the gulag as Motherland was an extremely enjoyable thriller. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Mirror Books for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

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20 Books of Summer 2018

With one thing and another, I’ve found my blogging a bit challenging of late, and although I will be bringing my crime reviews up to date, I feel…well…a bit crime’d out. My reading soul is crying out for some fictional fodder so aside from the reading commitments I have over the next couple of months, I’m going to tackle the 20 Books of Summer Challenge again, the brainchild of the brilliant Cathy at 746 Books.

You’re entirely free to choose 5, 10, 15, 20 books- the choice is yours, to be read between 1st June and 3rd September. I’ll be tweeting my reviews via my blog using the #20BOOKSOFSUMMER, and via @cathy746books  but check out the link above for other social media info, and to look at the other participants’ choices too! I’ve seen some cracking lists, containing many books that have piqued my interest over the years too.  

 I think I managed 10 last time, but dodgy eye aside, I am proper going for it this time, and have raided my bookshelves for 20 ‘I will read this someday’ books, which have tarried long enough in the to-be-read mountain…

So in no particular order, here they are…

  • Richard Wight- Native Son
  • Olaf Olafsson- Absolution
  • Michael Ignatieff- Charlie Johnson In Flames
  • Paul Lynch- Red Sky Morning
  • Walker Percy- Lancelot
  • Michael Pitre- Fives and Twenty-Fives
  • Linda Olsson- Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs
  • Zoe Duncan- The Shifting Pools
  • Christopher Hibbert- Angels of Detroit
  • Matt Gallagher- Youngblood
  • Paula Coccoza- How To Be Human
  • Kyo Maclear- Birds Art Life Death
  • Theodore Brun- A Mighty Dawn
  • Denis Theriault- The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman
  • Sarah Hall- The Carhullan Army
  • Nadim Safdar- Akram’s War
  • Connor O’Callaghan- Nothing On Earth
  • Jonas Hassen Khemiri- Everything I Don’t Remember
  • Laura Lindstedt- Oneiron
  • Eowyn Ivey- To The Bright Edge of the World

Happy days!