Raven’s February Round Up

As is the way with the strange days we still find ourselves in, despite reading voraciously over the last month, the old concentration has definitely gone out the window when it comes to actually reviewing the books I’ve read. Tut tut. I will try and make up for this paucity of output here by rounding up a few more of the books I have read recently! It was good to set aside some time to read outside of the crime genre before an upcoming wealth of good crime releases on the horizon, and making a start on my Petrona Award for Scandinavian Crime Fiction reading too. Have a good March everyone with signs of spring in the air, and hopefully a growing sense of normality starting to appear for us all. Keep safe and keep reading! 

Books reviewed- yes, all two of them…

Thomas Enger/ Jørn Lier Horst- Smoke Screen (tr. Megan Turney)

Sergio Olguín- The Foreign Girls

 

And the other books I read…

NADINE MATHESON- THE JIGSAW MAN

When bodies start washing up along the banks of the River Thames, DI Henley fears it is the work of Peter Olivier, the notorious Jigsaw Killer. But it can’t be him; Olivier is already behind bars, and Henley was the one who put him there. She’d hoped she’d never have to see his face again, but Henley knows Olivier might be the best chance they have at stopping the copycat killer. But when Olivier learns of the new murders, helping Henley is the last thing on his mind. Now all bets are off, and the race is on to catch the killer before the body count rises. But who will get there first – Henley, or the Jigsaw Killer?

If you are a real fan of crime fiction there is so much to enjoy in The Jigsaw Man, the gritty debut from Nadine Matheson. Apart from having a uniquely different central police protagonist in the shape of DI Anjelica Henley, a successful female black officer in a predominantly white male institution, there is a wonderful feeling of familiarity with recognisable crime writing tropes aplenty. Set in and around dark and deadly Deptford, this is a really solid police procedural with characters that will form a good solid base for further books in the series I hope, and garnered with enough shocking moments to make this a real read-in-one-sitting thriller. What I absolutely loved was the way that you get a sense of Matheson as a real fan of the crime genre herself, with some lovely allusions to other crime films and books. You will notice them as you read and adds to the feeling of comfort around this book when you just want to immerse yourself in some murder and mayhem for a while. Darkly funny, some good gory moments, a twisted and entertaining serial killer and a very likeable and multi-faceted police protagonist makes this a deliciously dark debut. Recommended.

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TIM GLISTER- RED CORONA

It’s 1961 and the white heat of the Space Race is making the Cold War even colder. Richard Knox is a secret agent in big trouble. He’s been hung out to dry by a traitor in MI5, and the only way to clear his name could destroy him. Meanwhile in a secret Russian city, brilliant scientist Irina Valera makes a discovery that will change the world, and hand the KGB unimaginable power. Desperate for a way back into MI5, Knox finds an unlikely ally in Abey Bennett, a CIA recruit who’s determined to prove herself whatever the cost. As the age of global surveillance dawns, three powers will battle for dominance, and three people will fight to survive…

Having had a long-held love for and fascination with spy fiction, the space race, Russia and 1960s society- both home and abroad, Red Corona ticked so many boxes before I even began reading it- and I was not disappointed. Beginning with seemingly unconnected story lines in Britain, America and the Soviet Union, Tim Glister slowly and precisely draws them together into an international tale of espionage and surveillance that is so entirely readable and fascinating. I was particularly enamoured with the story of Irina Valera which not only focussed on this woman of exceptional intelligence, but also the heart-breaking pathos of her journey from Russia to the West, and her importance to various nefarious agents of the state. With a good old fashioned Le Carre-esque tale of double agents and betrayal at its core, the various branches of the story all held a particular interest for me, and I glided along with Glister’s superb characterisation, and his nifty twists and turns in the plot. If spies, lies and espionage are your thing, as they are mine, you will find much to enjoy here. Highly recommended.

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CHRISTINA SWEENEY-BAIRD- THE END OF MEN

Glasgow, 2025.  Dr Amanda Maclean is called to treat a young man with a mild fever. Within three hours he dies. The mysterious illness sweeps through the hospital with deadly speed. This is how it begins. The victims are all men. Dr Maclean raises the alarm, but the sickness spreads to every corner of the globe. Threatening families. Governments. Countries. Can they find a cure before it’s too late? Will this be the story of the end of the world – or its salvation?

I was absolutely blown away by this debut from Christina Sweeney-Baird and The End Of Men is definitely one of those books that will stay in my head for a long time to come. Written pre-Covid, this tale of a global pandemic systematically effecting the male population is so clever and so prescient that the boundaries of fact and fiction continually crossed over in my reading. The book is structured through the stories of an array of women from normal everyday people, to medical professionals, to researchers, to those working on vaccines, with each of their voices brilliantly well-defined throughout. It was impossible to not make a personal connection with at least some of these women experiencing either the loss of the men in their lives, or those becoming empowered in their own right without male influence. It’s fair to say that the reader will experience a gamut of emotions in the course of this book as it ebbs and flows from extreme emotion and poignancy to the world of cold hard facts and the development of a global cure for this decimating virus. Having recently read Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, I was extremely taken with the way that Sweeney-Baird begins to structure her world where women move into the foreground of previously very male dominated institutions and employment. She demonstrates clearly in this novel how the world does indeed march to the will of men from politics, to academia, to very normal everyday things as the designs of simple objects that work for men only. Beautifully researched and a totally absorbing rendition of a fictional world that now in the light of current times doesn’t seem that far from reality. Highly recommended.

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BETHANY CLIFT- LAST ONE AT THE PARTY

It’s December 2023 and the world as we know it has ended. The human race has been wiped out by a virus called 6DM (‘Six Days Maximum’ – the longest you’ve got before your body destroys itself). But somehow, in London, one woman is still alive. A woman who has spent her whole life compromising what she wants, hiding how she feels and desperately trying to fit in. A woman who is entirely unprepared to face a future on her own. Now, with only an abandoned golden retriever for company, she must travel through burning cities, avoiding rotting corpses and ravenous rats on a final journey to discover if she really is the last surviving person on earth. And with no one else to live for, who will she become now that she’s completely alone?

So in the grip of a devastating global pandemic, what better thing to read than a book set in the wake of a devastating global pandemic, but I’m jolly glad I did. A very loose tagline for Last One At The Party would be “Bridget Jones goes Bear Grylls”, and despite the very pink chic-fic cover, there is a lovely balance of the frivolous and the serious in this book. Our female narrator finds herself in the unenviable position of being what appears to be the last human on earth, and once getting a serious spell of therapeutic looting and louche behaviour under the influence of drugs and drink out of her system, she begins to really look inside herself as to how she can live and how to overcome her feelings of despair and loss and simply survive. I thoroughly enjoyed- as much as I loathe this word- her ‘journey’- from a fairly shallow and irritating  individual to an emboldened and resourceful woman, which is so much in evidence towards the end of the book and its surprising turn of events. I loved Clift’s depiction of this post pandemic world, particularly in her descriptions of London’s eerily empty buildings and streets, and I thought that this sense of solitude and the unnerving peacefulness that she conjures up was incredibly vivid and powerful. However, it is in the narrator that the real power of the book lies, and I liked her very much indeed, rooting for her to survive and hoping that her emotional despair and loss could not prevail… Recommended.

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WILL DEAN-THE LAST THING TO BURN

Her husband calls her Jane. That is not her name. She lives in a small farm cottage, surrounded by vast, open fields. Everywhere she looks, there is space. But she is trapped. No one knows how she got to the UK: no one knows she is there. Visitors rarely come to the farm; if they do, she is never seen. Her husband records her every movement during the day. If he doesn’t like what he sees, she is punished. For a long time, escape seemed impossible. But now, something has changed. She has a reason to live and a reason to fight. Now, she is watching him, and waiting . . .

Despite The Last Thing To Burn attracting some stellar praise from the writing and blogging community this did, I’m afraid, leave me rather cold. As much as modern slavery and trafficking are worthy topics to explore, and the book is highly emotive and pertinent to the suppression and abuse of women, I just felt a small void in terms of my connection to it. I think I just found it a little too black and white in terms of how the reader should respond to ‘Jane’ and to her husband, with the book coming across as a little imbalanced. As much as Jane’s experience is horrific, and I am not seeking to minimise the trauma she undergoes as the main thrust of the book, I felt the theme of nature vs nurture and the propensity for evil that arises from this, could have been explored a bit more deeply in her husband’s background. There was obviously some extreme darkness there that I was curious about. Overall the book was very well-written, emotive and full of emotional and physical trauma and if this is not a subject you are overly familiar with, Dean approaches it with a mix of stark realism and sensitivity…

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PHOEBE WYNNE- MADAM

For 150 years, Caldonbrae Hall has loomed high above the Scottish cliffs as a beacon of excellence in the ancestral castle of Lord William Hope. A boarding school for girls, it promises that its pupils will emerge ‘resilient and ready to serve society’. Into its illustrious midst steps Rose Christie, a 26-year-old Classics teacher and new head of department. Rose is overwhelmed by the institution: its arcane traditions, unrivalled prestige, and terrifyingly cool, vindictive students. Her classroom becomes her haven, where the stories of fearless women from ancient Greek and Roman history ignite the curiosity of the girls she teaches and, unknowingly, the suspicions of the powers that be. But as Rose uncovers the darkness that beats at the very heart of Caldonbrae, the lines between myth and reality grow ever more blurred. It will be up to Rose – and the fierce young women she has come to love – to find a way to escape the fate the school has in store for them, before it is too late…

I usually shy away from reviewing books that I have really not enjoyed, but in the spirit of balance, and my credibility as a blogger, I couldn’t go without putting Madam in my round up. I eventually made it through the whole book with a fair few stops and starts, and wanted a second opinion, so saying nothing about its contents, I passed it on to Mama Raven for a little look see. Mama Raven unceremoniously tossed it at page 100 with a few choice words. A picture is emerging isn’t it? First of all this is being compared with Rebecca and The Handmaid’s Tale, two of the finest books in the canon of world literature. It’s also being touted as  marvelously Gothic fiction. Um. No. The writing is simplistic and cliched, and the plot overly gratuitous probably in an effort to shock and stand out and tick off a few political correctness boxes. The main character is weak, the other characters are pretty one dimensional, and the book is about 50 pages too long.  I did enjoy the little inserts about the classical female figures and their fates at the hands of horrible men and gods, but even this was not enough to change my overall opinion of the book. A boarding school drama that left me, well, bored. Disappointing…

 

 

 

 

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