A. D. Flint- The Burning Hill

On the run from unjust court-martial back home, a young British soldier gets robbed and shot on Copacabana Beach. The bullet in Jake’s head should have been fatal, but miraculously, it saves him from a previously undetected condition that soon would have killed him. Jake doesn’t believe in fate, nor does he feel he owes anything to anybody, but he does hate injustice. Vilson, the teenage favela kid who fired the bullet, is a victim of injustice, in a corner with a corrupt cop and a sadistic drug-lord after his blood. With a turf war erupting in Vilson’s favela, fear stalks every narrow alleyway, and anyone dragged up to the notorious Burning Hill had better hope they’re dead before they get there. But it’s not just fear that shapes life in the favela, belief is also powerful, able to both save and destroy…

I seem to have acquired quite a taste for Brazilian set fiction of late, so The Burning Hill looked to be a bit of a tempter from the outset. With a screwed up central protagonist, razor sharp observations of life among the dispossessed, and positively throbbing with the rhythm and atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro, what more could you ask for?

Based on the author’s experience of living in Brazil. I think it’s fair to say that this location has obviously made a real impact, in terms of what has been observed and remembered from their time there. The book oozes authenticity from its opening pages depicting the woeful living conditions and threats from authority endured by the street kids, going on to the shockingly misjudged attempted robbery of a western tourist by two young boys from the favela. Flint clearly demarcates the problems experienced by the kids in their dealings with the less than moral representatives of law enforcement, and the dangerous forces at work within the favela itself at the hands of unscrupulous gang members. Little wonder that these kids dream of a better life, far away from a life of destitution, thievery and violence.

Throughout the book Flint uses the character of Vilson, a young boy abandoned by his mother, and having recently lost his brother, to represent life on the margins of society, and this works incredibly well as we bear witness to his anger, frustration and his futile attempts to overcome the feeling of abandonment. Through his turbulent interactions with Jake (the aforementioned tourist) and a female lawyer Eliane, the layers of Vilson’s character are exposed in dramatically different ways, revealing a tough street kid persona underpinned by all the vulnerability that his life experience has caused. Equally, by aligning his character with that of Jake, a disillusioned British ex-soldier with more than enough demons of his own, these two characters are a real tour de force and drive the narrative throughout. As much as Vilson and Jake are united by incurring the wrath of an utterly corrupt police officer, their relationship is defined by suspicion and misguided communication, where even the grandest of gestures inevitably go wrong, but even still serves to make their relationship compelling. This is the real hook of the book, as you become more and more inveigled in their trials and tribulations.

Flint is an incredibly visual writer, be it his depiction of the slums, the noise and hudy gurdy of vibrant Rio, the rural outreaches of the farming community, a truly terrifying rodeo or a visceral and tense boxing match. His pace of writing and attention to detail exerts a steely grip on the reader, and you genuinely find your reading speed increasing in the interludes of pure tension and dramatic action. Most importantly though he manages to keep the reader on the backfoot all the time, as the story took several unexpected and violent turns along the way, ramping up the tension and putting his central characters under extreme pressure, and by extension the reader too, which is all to the good. I enjoyed this book immensely with its multi-faceted characters both the good guys and the bad guys, and those that veer perilously between the two. Flint unerringly gets right beneath the skin of his characters. The book has a nervous energy, that increases the sense of danger and threat throughout, and with the vibrant and intuitive depiction of life in this most colourful of cities, that at its heart has a huge and unbridgeable chasm between the haves and have-nots, there is a real raw feeling of truth about the book too. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Unbound for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

A Reading Round Up- Clare Carson- The Canary Keeper/ Rob Hart- The Warehouse/ Laura Sims- Looker/ Neil Broadfoot- No Man’s Land/ Becky Chambers- To Be Taught, If Fortunate

Time for another quick round up as the ‘I’ve read these’ mountain continues to grow, but time for reviewing decreases for a little while. Although not going the whole hog with a reviewing spreadsheet, (the pinnacle of blogging time management), plans are afoot for some better time organisation, so hopefully will be up to full speed soon as I’ve read a host of excellent books of late. Anyway, let’s get to it and hope you enjoy this eclectic mix of recent reads…

Clare Carson- The Canary Keeper: London, 1855. In the grey mist of the early morning a body is dumped on the shore of the Thames by a boatman in a metal canoe. The city is soon alive with talk of the foreign killer and his striking accomplice: a young woman dressed in widow’s weeds. Branna ‘Birdie’ Quinn’s sleeplessness led her to the river that morning, but was it only thoughts of her drowned husband that kept her awake? She has always been wilful, haughty, different… but is she a murderess? To clear her name, Birdie must retrace the dead man’s footsteps to Orkney and the far north. A dangerous journey for a woman alone, but one she must make in order to save her neck from the hangman’s noose…

A definite change of direction and style from one of my favourite authors, and despite not being a massive reader of historical crime fiction, I enjoyed this book very much indeed. The story traverses between 19th century London and Orkney, and opening with the discovery of a dead man on the fetid shore of the River Thames, Carson immediately places us firmly in the feel and atmosphere of this burgeoning city.

As with her previous series, Carson once again demonstrates her intuitive and precise approach to scene setting, and as we journey with Birdie to the remote reaches of Scotland, as she flees a trumped up murder charge, Carson cleverly draws comparisons between the claustrophobic intensity of le in a teeming city, and that of a small coastal community. Carson also expands the story significantly to draw on the story of the ill-fated journey of William Franklin to Canada and beyond, and having recently read Michael Palin’s book Erebus, about Franklin and his exploration, it was really satisfying to have an overlap in the realms of fiction and fact, demonstrating again Carson’s attention to detail and her skilful interweaving of the plain facts into incredibly readable fiction.  Aside from the historical accuracy and sense of time and place, Carson creates in Birdie a truly empathetic and brave protagonist. From the familiar surroundings of her life in London, this determined and feisty girl embarks on a journey of discovery, not only to a completely alien community, but on her own mission to unmask a murderer and clear her name. Again, Carson adroitly mixes a commentary on the patriarchal nature of the time and how women’s lives are defined and shaped by their correlation to such an ardently male society, but cleverly pushes a subtext of how women can escape from, or manipulate this overarching definition of 19th century society. Indeed, the female characters within the book all demonstrate this inner will to defy and challenge the patriarchal norm, and exhibit a strength of character that is to be admired, despite the perilous situation that Birdie amongst others find themselves in.

There is always a slight flicker of tension, but also anticipation when an author you admire decides to travel a different path with their writing. However, my fears were quickly assuaged and Carson has only succeeded further in endearing myself to her writing, her superlative plotting, characterisation, and her innate ability to thoroughly immerse her reader in the world she presents. Highly recommended.

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Rob Hart- The Warehouse: Amidst the wreckage of America, Cloud reigns supreme. Cloud brands itself not just as an online storefront, but as a global saviour. Yet, beneath the sunny exterior, lurks something far more sinister. Paxton never thought he’d be working Security for the company that ruined his life, much less that he’d be moving into one of their sprawling live-work facilities. But compared to what’s left outside, perhaps Cloud isn’t so bad. Better still, through his work he meets Zinnia, who fills him with hope for their shared future. Except that Zinnia is not what she seems. And Paxton, with his all-access security credentials, might just be her meal ticket. As Paxton and Zinnia’s agendas place them on a collision course, they’re about to learn just how far the Cloud will go to make the world a better place. To beat the system, you have to be inside it…

As a person employed in the increasingly fragile bricks and mortar bookselling trade, I have my own axe to grind about the almost world domination of a certain online retailer. Consequently, I felt honour bound to read this fictional critique of the world of globally powerful organisations that control, monitor and manipulate our shopping habits. I absolutely loved this clever and inventive thriller set in the world of Cloud, that bears more than a passing resemblance to the all powerful corporations currently strangling free enterprise, and consumer choice across the globe. Within the Cloud all workers are monitored, corralled and totally controlled, so although they have the dubious honour of a job where millions don’t, Hart constructs an interesting analysis of this grand manipulation of the workforce, and how easily these people can find their services dispensed with. Indeed, this world that Hart has constructed is scary in the extreme, as elements of it already exist in certain workplaces, and to be honest some of the other indignities that the workers suffer are all too easy to imagine coming to pass as the years progress. As each layer of scurrilous corporate behaviour is revealed, Hart has produced not only a tense, nerve shredding thriller, but a damning indictment on the world of big business, that will strike a chord with most people I’m sure who care about the evils of certain areas of global capitalism.

However, before you begin to think that this is all a bit preachy and big business bad, free enterprise good, Hart has actually produced a damn fine, unsettling and nerve shredding thriller, that will appeal to most readers of dystopian fiction. This is Nineteen Eighty-Four for contemporary times, whilst not losing the thrust of the thriller form, with action, suspense and pace beautifully controlled throughout. Both Paxton and Zinnia are compelling characters, and I really liked the way that Hart builds their relationship and depicts their sharply contrasting experience of life within the Cloud. Zinnia’s militancy is superb from the get go and she is a total firebrand, set against Paxton’s slowly growing awareness of the suppression of the corporation, and the ethical dilemmas he proceeds to do battle with.  This is certainly one of the most tightly plotted and clever dystopian thrillers that I have read for some time, and a grim reflection on the all too recognisable power of the virtual retailing world. Highly recommended.

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Laura Sims- Looker: The Professor lives in Brooklyn; her partner Nathan left her when she couldn’t have a baby. All she has now is her dead-end teaching job, her ramshackle apartment, and Nathan’s old moggy, Cat. Who she doesn’t even like. The Actress lives a few doors down. She’s famous and beautiful, with auburn hair, perfect skin, a lovely smile. She’s got children – a baby, even. And a husband who seems to adore her. She leaves her windows open, even at night. There’s no harm, the Professor thinks, in looking in through the illuminated glass at that shiny, happy family, fantasizing about them, drawing ever closer to the actress herself. Or is there?

A slim but ultimately satisfying read, very much in the territory of Notes On A Scandal, but with a nod to the familiar creeping unease of writer like Patricia Highsmith. This is  an intense and claustrophobic read, depicting the maelstrom of envy and covetousness that one woman exhibits, as she studies the seeming perfect life and family of ‘The Actress’ who lives in her street. As the intensity of her scrutiny and jealousy increases, Sims ramps up the transition of  The Professor from her initially emotionally wounded and depressed state into something increasingly akin to a Hitchcock thriller, as she slowly makes inroads into ingratiating herself into The Actress’ life. I read this pretty much in one sitting, and would suggest that this is the perfect way to approach this book to really get the full experience of the increasingly creed unsettling tale that Sims unfolds. Although I found the ending a little disconcerting, for the most part I enjoyed the book, and how Sims carefully manipulates our empathy and relationship with this woman on her descent to irrational behaviour, and how emotional trauma can take an individual on a strange and troubling path in their lives. Recommended.

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Neil Broadfoot- No Man’s Land: War is coming to No-Man’s Land, and Connor Fraser will be ready. A mutilated body is found dumped at Cowane’s Hospital in the heart of historic Stirling. For DCI Malcolm Ford it’s like nothing he’s every seen before, the savagery of the crime making him want to catch the murderer before he strikes again. For reporter Donna Blake it’s a shot at the big time, a chance to get her career back on track and prove all the doubters wrong. But for close protection specialist Connor Fraser it’s merely a grisly distraction from the day job. But then a bloodied and broken corpse is found, this time in the shadow of the Wallace Monument – and with it, a message. One Connor has received before, during his time as a police officer in Belfast. With Ford facing mounting political and public pressure to make an arrest and quell fears the murders are somehow connected to heightened post-Brexit tensions, Connor is drawn into a race against time to stop another murder. But to do so, he must question old loyalties, confront his past and unravel a mystery that some would sacrifice anything – and anyone – to protect.

Neil Broadfoot is a consistently excellent crime writer and I have read many of his books, so all the signs were there that this would be a cracking good read- and so it proved to be. What I like about Broadfoot’s books is the less linear and more complex plotting that he employs, tackling big themes but never losing sight of the fact that his characters caught up in these webs of deceit need to be credible. In Connor Fraser, ex police officer and now security specialist, Broadfoot has has come up trumps, marrying the image of the tough guy with a more cerebral edge, similar to genre stalwart Jack Reacher. Fraser is a character that will appeal equally to men and women, and supported by another great character in the shape of female journalist Donna Blake, who proves an excellent foil for him but also being a likeable and determined protagonist in her own right. Broadfoot slowly fleshes out both his principal characters, putting them through the wringer, but not afraid to balance their more dangerous experiences with some good character analysis, particularly Blake balancing her compulsion for career advancement with the attendant difficulties of being a single mother. As the story segues between Fraser’s former experiences in Northern Ireland, and a series of pretty visceral and inventive murder around Stirling, Scotland. Broadfoot keeps the action flowing, as a dark conspiracy comes to light, affording Broadfoot the opportunity to put a more socio- political slant on the main plot, which resonates with the troubled times we currently find ourselves in. Very pleased to report that the first of this new series augurs well for further books, and there will be much to enjoy from Broadfoot in the future. Highly recommended for thriller lovers everywhere- it’s a damn good twisty one…

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81KAJMvXg5L__AC_UY218_ML3_Becky Chambers- To Be Taught, If Fortunate: At the turn of the twenty-second century, scientists make a breakthrough in human spaceflight. Through a revolutionary method known as somaforming, astronauts can survive in hostile environments off Earth using synthetic biological supplementations. They can produce antifreeze in sub-zero temperatures, absorb radiation and convert it for food, and conveniently adjust to the pull of different gravitational forces. With the fragility of the body no longer a limiting factor, human beings are at last able to explore neighbouring exoplanets long suspected to harbour life. Ariadne is one such explorer. On a mission to ecologically survey four habitable worlds fifteen light-years from Earth, she and her fellow crewmates sleep while in transit,  and wake each time with different features. But as they shift through both form and time, life back on Earth has also changed. Faced with the possibility of returning to a planet that has forgotten those who have left, Ariadne begins to chronicle the wonders and dangers of her journey, in the hope that someone back home might still be listening.

Well, here is a major revelation for everyone, but I have hardly ever read science fiction, and over the years I cannot recall ever finishing a book that I have idly picked up in this genre. I’ve always found this strange as I do have an abiding fascination with space and enjoy movies in this genre. Finding myself, book-less one lunchtime at work and drawn by the cover, I picked up a proof of this one. Between lunchtime and finishing the commute home, I had fair whipped through it, and was really pleasantly surprised to find that I thoroughly enjoyed my first foray back into this genre for some time. I obviously didn’t know a huge amount about Chambers started but was delighted to find out that her writing is informed by her own family’s involvement in the world of space, giving a glorious reality to the experiences of Chambers’ characters, and although speculative, sowing the seeds of possibility for generations to come. I loved this microcosm of humanity, with just four principal characters, and how they co-exist in such a compressed space, millions of miles and years away from home, and how we are given such an insight into their relationship with each other. I also liked the passion that each character exhibits for their own particular specialism be it geology or meteorology for example, and went into complete geek mode for the more intricate science that Chambers balances with her examination of these peoples’ lives, hopes, fears and thirst for discovery. Needless to say, I shall be seeking out other books by this author, and would like to extend a personal thank you for awakening a new interest in me for this genre- fortunately, I have been taught… Highly recommended.

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(Thanks to Head of Zeus for a copy of Clare Carson- The Canary Keeper, Bantam Press for  Rob Hart-The Warehouse, and Hodder for Becky Chambers- To Be Taught, If Fortunate. I bought Laura Sims- Looker and Neil Broadfoot- No Man’s Land)

 

 

 

August Round-Up- A Raven’s Dozen…

I don’t know if it’s been noticed but I have had nearly a month pretty much away from the blog and social media, as I was feeling a little crime fiction’d out and just wanted to spend some time reconnecting with some of the other genres I enjoy reading. Obviously, I couldn’t let myself be totally crime fiction free so there will be some of my normal longwinded reviews appearing again soon, but for the most part I disengaged from crime and had a lovely time traversing the fictional globe. Having confidently stated which of the books of summer I would read for CATHY746Books  annual summer reading fun, I very soon went off-piste, and have just been picking up a completely random selection of books, along with some of my stated choices. I will return to my original choices in the fullness of time- promise! So let us begin…

Meet Keiko. Keiko is 36 years old. She’s never had a boyfriend, and she’s been working in the same supermarket for eighteen years. Keiko’s family wishes she’d get a proper job. Her friends wonder why she won’t get married. But Keiko knows what makes her happy, and she’s not going to let anyone come between her and her convenience store…

Read this on the recommendation of a couple of work colleagues who have positively raved about this. It contains all the elements of quirky Japanese fiction that I adore with its slightly off-kilter central character, Keiko, and her unique perception of life around her. As much as I hate to use the word ‘charming’ it is totally charming as we observe her small microcosm of life within the store, and how the equilibrium of this is disturbed by a potential romantic entanglement. I can’t say that I altogether enjoyed the slightly deflating ending of the book,  but if the opportunity arises to read this slender novella it’s well worth an hour or so of your time.

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Dawn, mist clearing over rice fields, a burning Vietnamese village, and a young photographer takes the shot that might make his career. The image, of a staring soldier in the midst of mayhem, will become one of the great photographs of the war. But what Jonathan has seen in that village is more than he can bear. He flees to Japan, to lose himself in the vastness of Tokyo, and to take different kinds of pictures: of streets and crowds and cherry blossom – and of a girl with whom he is no longer lost. Yet even here his history will catch up with him: that photograph and his responsibility in taking it; his responsibility as a witness to war, and to other events buried deep in his past.

I absolutely adored this book for so many reasons, and it will definitely be a book I shall re-read in years to come. Opening in the killing fields of Vietnam where a photographer takes the defining war photograph of his career, but suffers a classic case of PTSD in its aftermath. Moving between Vietnam, Japan. and Jonathan’s former life back home in rural England, Harding depicts all three locations in panoramic detail, capturing the essence of nature and setting against these beautiful backdrops the futility and destruction of war, turbulent relationships, and exploring notions of home. The language just flows through the reader, the descriptions present themselves as technicolour photographs, and the exploration of Johnathon’s life and emotions is poignant and resonates with emotion. Quite simply a beautiful book.

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Kim Jiyoung is a girl born to a mother whose in-laws wanted a boy. Kim Jiyoung is a sister made to share a room while her brother gets one of his own. Kim Jiyoung is a female preyed upon by male teachers at school. Kim Jiyoung is a daughter whose father blames her when she is harassed late at night.   Kim Jiyoung is a good student who doesn’t get put forward for internships. Kim Jiyoung is a model employee but gets overlooked for promotion. Kim Jiyoung is a wife who gives up her career and independence for a life of domesticity. Kim Jiyoung has started acting strangely. Kim Jiyoung is depressed. Kim Jiyoung is mad. Kim Jiyoung is her own woman. Kim Jiyoung is every woman.

I read this book with an increasing sense of disbelief and anger, as Nam-Joo charts the life and experiences of Kim Yijoung, an ordinary woman of South Korea, struggling to exist in a hugely paternalistic and belittling society. Little wonder that this book has been such a touchstone in South Korea for women since its publication in 2016. Working as a mirror to society, the ordinariness of Kim’s existence from childhood to womanhood is delineated by the instances of sexism, chauvinism and subjugation that women endure in a society so completely controlled and dominated by the actions and needs of men, and the way that these needs, and their perceived ‘superiority’ are so routinely put before those of women. As a single Western woman with all the freedoms that this affords me, I felt myself growing increasingly enraged and frustrated by the denial of freedom and visibility of Kim herself. The writing is clipped and sharp where small explosions occur within the sedate pace of the book overall, and made all the more powerful for it. An eye-opening and necessary read.

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When Cy Bellman, American settler and widowed father of Bess, reads in the newspaper that huge ancient bones have been discovered in a Kentucky swamp, he leaves his small Pennsylvania farm and young daughter to find out if the rumours are true: that the giant monsters are still alive, and roam the uncharted wilderness beyond the Mississippi River…

What can I say? 149 pages of sublime, intuitive, lively, and descriptive writing that encapsulates some big, powerful themes of destiny, family, and loyalty. With the cadence of some of the best American western writers, Davies has delivered a book that beautifully blends together history and pure storytelling so resonant of the western tradition. Punctuated by violence, and the strength of family bonds against the lure of discovery and exploration, this is all in all a perfect little package.

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If only time allowed, I would attempt to read the entire Booker longlist as a few of my bookselling colleagues do, so instead a cherry pick a few, and then endeavour to read the shortlist in its entirety. To be honest Kevin Barry could pretty much write anything and I would lap it up, so of course Night Boat To Tangier is marvellous/wonderful/ exceptional in every way! In this Beckett-esque tale of two ageing gangsters, Barry offers a darkly witty, and sharply observed novel on the moral wasteland that defines the lives of these two career criminals. The Lost Children Archive is just so apt as a novel of our present time, as one New York family embark on a road trip to Mexico, and a stream of children and young adults travel from Central America to Mexico in a perilous mission to reach America. Contrasting the easy affluence of the American family with the worn down lives of those in search of a better life, this book is deeply moving and beautifully articulated, so this along with Kevin Barry should be shortlisted! I struggled with Lanny (unlike the world and his wife) finding it a wee bit mawkish and slightly pretentious, and am just halfway through Girl, Woman, Other which is hitting the bookish sweet spot so far, with its realistic characterisation and Evaristo’s trademark smooth prose, and biting observations.

So, it would seem that I couldn’t leave the dark and fascinating world of crime to one side completely, and have slightly binged on a selection of true crime accounts. I would wholly recommend all four of these whether you be interested in the forensic investigation of crime, or with The Five a whole new exploration of an iconic crime case with a sharp focus on the victims of this most notorious of killers, and bringing their lives to the fore, attempting to dispel many inaccurate perceptions of these women before their reduction to ‘victim’ and salacious Victorian tabloid fodder. Traces, When The Dogs Don’t Bark and Unnatural Causes all cast a light on the procedures of, and the scientific breakthroughs in, the forensic investigation of crime, and all traverse a myriad of crimes, some familiar, some not, in an incredibly readable and endlessly engaging style. All three draw the reader in the emotional lives of these incredibly dedicated individuals, and for those stout of heart and strong of stomach, the information they reveal along the way is absolutely fascinating…

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(I borrowed a copy of Convenience Store Woman from the library. I received an ARC of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 from Scribner UK. I bought The Gun Room, West, Lost Children Archive, Night Boat To Tangier and Lanny. I received an ARC of Girl, Woman, Other from Hamish Hamilton, The Five from Doubleday and Traces from Blink Publishing. I bought When Dogs Don’t Bark and Unnatural Causes)

 

 

A gargantuan round-up! Parker Bilal, Adrian McKinty, Alex North, Trevor Mark Thomas, Guillaume Musso, Luca D’Andrea,

Stumbling upon a massive pile of books that I have read and failed to review, desperate measures are called for to address the problem, before I get even further behind! So, in an attempt to clean down the decks, so to speak, what follows is probably a rambling and longer than average round up of a veritable smorgasbord of thrillers. Hopefully there will be something for everyone here, and concealed within the round up will be a couple that will make a reappearance later in my Top Reads of 2019. Although some reviews will be briefer than others this is more to do with the stress level of being so far behind, although I’m sure this will fall by the wayside as I start to rave! 

So eyes down and here we go…

 

PARKER BILAL- THE DIVINITIES- When two bodies are found brutally murdered at a building site in Battersea, DS Calil Drake is first to the scene. He sees an opportunity: to solve a high-profile case and to repair his reputation after a botched undercover operation almost ended his promising career in the Violent Crimes Unit. Assigned to work with the enigmatic forensic psychologist Dr Rayhana Crane, and on the hunt for an elusive killer, Drake’s investigations lead down the dark corridors of the past – to the Iraq war and the destruction he and Crane witnessed there. With a community poised on the brink of violence, Crane and Drake must put their lives on the line to stop the killer before vengeance is unleashed…

I absolutely loved this opening salvo to a new London set crime thriller series from Parker Bilal, author of the Markana Investigations. Not only capturing the chasm existing between rich and poor in our capital city, and the general feel, spirit and energy of London, Bilal has produced the best police procedural I have read so far this year. The Divinities quickly reveals itself as a multi-faceted thriller, encompassing a gamut of issues and social observation, that gives layers of interest to what could have ostensibly been a straightforward narrative. I was intrigued, shocked and genuinely curious about the issues that Bilal raises, once again demonstrating how so much more of ‘real life’ can be encapsulated and distilled in a crime novel than more traditional forms of fiction. Drake and Crane are two of the most complex and interesting characters, working through and coming to terms with events from their chequered pasts, but adding a vitality and emotional heft to the narrative, sadly lacking from many police procedurals at the moment. What I also liked was the sensitive and compelling handling of the scars both mental and physical left on our protagonists through their prior involvement in warfare, and how difficult it is to make that transition from this life to their civilian careers. Both characters react and act to their own defined moral compass, and Bilal depicts the contrast between them beautifully, as they struggle at first to work together in a complex and testing investigation. This will probably be one of the few crime thrillers that I will re-read in later life (there’s no higher praise than that), but for now I would highly recommend this one, and am anticipating a similarly brilliant book two. No pressure…

(With thanks to The Indigo Press for the ARC)

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ADRIAN MCKINTY-THE CHAIN- Your phone rings. A stranger has kidnapped your child. To free them you must abduct someone else’s child. Your child will be released when your victim’s parents kidnap another child. If any of these things don’t happen your child will be killed. You are now part of the chain… 

Without a doubt the most hyped crime book of the summer with stunning endorsements by Don Winslow, Steve Cavanagh et al, and to be honest, there is probably little more to be said about this tense, twisty and nerve wracking thriller. It’s great to see McKinty finally getting some of the kudos that is long, long overdue with this breakout book, and hopefully will gravitate people to some of his earlier books which I can heartily recommend having read them all. With shades of Linwood Barclay and Harlan Coben, McKinty has produced an accomplished page-turner with a unique premise, and although I was not quite as swept away as the majority of my fellow reviewers, I can see why The Chain has attracted the stellar reviews that it has as bringing something fresh to a very overcrowded sub-genre, and it’s tailor made for a film adaptation.

(With thanks to Orion for the ARC)

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ALEX NORTH- THE WHISPER MAN- Still devastated after the loss of his wife, Tom Kennedy and his young son Jake move to the sleepy village of Featherbank, looking for a much-needed fresh start. But Featherbank has a dark past. Fifteen years ago, a twisted serial killer abducted and murdered five young boys. Until he was finally caught, the killer was known as ‘The Whisper Man’. Of course, an old crime need not trouble Tom and Jake as they try to settle in to their new home. Except that now another boy has gone missing. And then Jake begins acting strangely. He says he hears a whispering at his window . . .

Alex North is the pseudonym of an established crime novel whose work I have always admired greatly. With a change of name, publisher and style, North has produced a thriller that will very much appeal to a wider crime reading audience, and is definitely a chilling read to temper the summer heat. With shades of the great James Herbert combined with an interesting exploration of life beyond bereavement and the bond of father and son in the wake of the loss of their mutual anchor, North has produced a sinister and intriguing story with supernatural overtones. I will be a little bit of a party pooper and say that I did find parts of it a little slow and slightly lacking the darker, quirky finesse of the author’s previous books, but for the most part it worked well, and would definitely recommend.

(With thanks to Michael Joseph for the ARC)

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TREVOR MARK THOMAS- THE BOTHY- Tom is grieving for his girlfriend. Her powerful family, convinced he is responsible for her death, place a bounty on his head. On the run, Tom seeks refuge in the Bothy, a dilapidated moorland pub run by ageing gangster Frank. Tom tries to keep the bounty a secret, but news travels fast, even in the middle of nowhere…

Described by yours truly on Twitter as akin to Magnus Mills on meth, The Bothy proved to be something quite special from the outset. Tapping into the rising reputation and visibility of working class writing in the UK of late, Thomas has, with a limited cast of characters, constructed a dark, and unsettling book, packed to the gills with atmosphere and an overhanging miasma of violence. As Tom is sucked deeper into the strange, isolated world of the Bothy, and its attendant visitors and employees, one can’t help but wonder if he would be better off facing the music back home. Thomas’ sharp, punchy dialogue and his use of description to beautifully convey the cold, dirty shabbiness of Tom’s warped place of sanctuary, is absolutely first class. Throughout the book you feel completely immersed in the chaotic beauty of this isolated landscape, the sheer grit and grind of life, and the less than moral code that defines the lives of these characters. As this is a such a sinister and extremely claustrophobic tale of not your everyday country folk, I can’t reveal more about the violent chain of events that come to pass, but if you’re stout of heart and strong of stomach, I would absolutely recommend this to you.

(I bought this copy of The Bothy published by Salt Publishing)

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GUILLAUME MUSSO- THE REUNION- FRENCH RIVIERA, WINTER 1992 On a freezing night, as her high school campus is engulfed by a snowstorm, 19-year-old Vinca Rockwell runs away with Alexis, her philosophy teacher. No one will ever see them again. FRENCH RIVIERA, SPRING 2017 Formerly inseparable, Thomas, Maxime and Fanny – Vinca’s best friends – have not spoken in twenty-five years. But when they receive an invitation to their school reunion, they know they must go back one final time. Because there is a body buried in that school and they’re the ones who put it there…

Oh what tangled webs we weave with the folly of youth, as we soon discover in the dual timeline of The Reunion and a web that will prove particularly tricky for three former students with more than one secret between them. This is a top notch psychological thriller, effortlessly keeping the reader in a state of anticipation as Musso slowly drip, drip, drip feeds the events leading up to the disappearance of femme fatale Vinca, which gradually reveals a tale of jealousy, lust and greed, spanning families and decades. There are tricksy little twists in the narrative that genuinely caught me unawares, and there is a real assured sense of control as to how and when these little surprises are revealed to the reader.  Musso writes with a real sensitivity and intensity about the dilemmas of youthful emotion and obsession, and the changing perception we have of ourselves, and self realisation that we all experience as we grow older and look back on our younger selves. There is a real finesse to this one, and again a wonderful translation by Frank Wynne. Although it is hard to feel any kind of empathy with Musso’s cast of, it has to be said, quite self absorbed individuals, I was genuinely entranced by this clever and knotty thriller. Recommended.

(With thanks to W&N for the ARC)

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LUCA D’ANDREA- SANCTUARY- Marlene Wegener is on the run. She has stolen something from her husband, something priceless, irreplaceable. But she doesn’t get very far. When her car veers off a bleak midwinter road she takes refuge in the remote home of Simon Keller, a tough mountain man who lives alone with his demons. Here in her high mountain sanctuary, she begins to rekindle a sense of herself: tough, capable, no longer the trophy on a gangster’s arm. But Herr Wegener does not know how to forgive, and in his rage he makes a pact with the devil. The Trusted Man. He cannot be called off, he cannot be reasoned with and one way or another he will get the job done. Unless, of course, he’s beaten to it . . .

I read this some time ago, and to be honest I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. It’s a very strange story, somewhat reliant on coincidence, but there is something I can’t quite put my finger on that made it very readable. I’m not helping am I? Maybe, I’ll start with what I definitely liked, which was the isolated mountain setting of Marlene’s place of safety, and the slowly building relationship between her and the incredibly odd Simon Keller- a man at one with nature, with unsettling mystical healing powers and a frankly alarming sty of quite terrifying pigs- yep, said it was strange. Anyway, aside from this quite bizarre aspect to the story, there is all the tension of woman pursued by hitman with unlikely saviour, and there are some genuinely perilous moments for Marlene along the way. As much as this central premise works, there are some odd diversions in the course of the plot about ancient mystical healing, more about the murderous pigs, and a slightly baffling denouement, which further illustrates my general confusion to how much I enjoyed this. I liked it well enough, I think…

(With thanks to MacLehose Press for the ARC)

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M. P. Wright- A Sinner’s Prayer

1970, Bristol. What’s buried doesn’t always stay buried. It’s a new decade and JT Ellington has taken himself out of the investigation game. But when an old friend asks him to help a doctor whose son disappeared hours after his wedding, JT’s commitment to a life lived under the radar is tested. His quest hurls him back into the underworld he’s worked so hard to leave behind. Charred remains in a churchyard, and a series of cold-blooded threats are stark warnings to JT, and to everyone he holds dear. Amid his terrorised community, JT locks horns with the vile underbelly of British far-right politics and a notorious gangland king. It’s not until JT uncovers a name from his own tragic past that the pieces of the investigation slot into place. But, with dark forces intent on destroying him, JT is pitted against an extraordinary enemy. He must play as dirty and dangerous as those who want him dead…

This is such a consistently excellent series that I would say from the outset it is an incredibly valuable use of your time to backtrack and begin from the beginning if you get the opportunity : Heartman, All Through The Night and Restless Coffins.  However, if you’re diving in to this one, The Sinner’s Prayer first, have no fear as you will soon become very well acquainted with Mr J. T. Ellington, his turbulent past and the very real dangers that threaten his present. Transporting us to Bristol in the 1970s, with an impeccable realisation of the city and the seamless inclusion of cultural and social references to root us firmly in this period, Wright leads us into a false of security with Ellington ( an ex colonial police officer hailing from Barbados) leading a quiet life as a school caretaker and caring for his adopted daughter, but trouble swiftly arrives on Ellington’s doorstep, and his natural impulse as an ex police officer and a ‘resting’ private investigator takes a hold when his newly acquired peace is threatened.

What defines Ellington as a character is his unerring sense of morality, the sense of atonement he carries from the dark events of his past, and his general compulsion to ‘do the right thing’ and give comfort to those that innocent victims leave in mourning. Sometimes his heightened sense of morality leads to him acting in ways slightly contrary to the law, but throughout the books there is just this resonance of goodness about him, whatever ends may justify the means. Of all the crime series I’ve read this is one of the few where I have a real picture of Ellington in my head, as due to the vividness of Wright’s characterisation I instinctively picture how Ellington dresses, moves and hear the cadence and rhythm of his speech. I hesitate to use the word flawless, but if any budding writer wants to know how to convey a character with absolute clarity to their reader, using relatively slight descriptions and implied characteristics that imprint on the reader’s imagination, this is a good place to start. Just to linger on characterisation for a little longer, this aptitude for an incredibly visual realisation of his central character is also extended to Ellington’s family, friends and criminal acquaintances, and tempted as I am to rattle on about Ellington’s colourful, criminal, unscrupulous and violent gangster cousin Vic, I will contain myself. I adore Vic, despite his borderline psychopathy, and the fact that the minute he enters the fray, you know that the danger and violence will be ramped up to the nth degree…

Once again, the storyline is tightly plotted, weaving in echoes of past events and people previously encountered as Ellington finds himself in the crosshairs of a powerful and influential local figure. Tasked with tracking down those responsible for two particularly insidious murders, Ellington faces a tricky task to discover who is be trusted or not, and how this case could be the dangerous he has faced to date. By engaging us so comprehensively with his characters, the twists, turns and inherent dangers of Ellington’s quest, become totally consuming as you feel very invested in him, and his less than honest associates. There are a more than a few unexpected twists in the narratives, and one demise of a character was followed by an audible gasp from me. On a bus. Full of people. In the course of Ellington’s investigation, outside of keeping up the necessary pace of the story, you are given space as a reader to think about and absorb some of the wider issues that Wright brings to the narrative, so it’s an incredibly satisfying blend of thriller and social and cultural observation.

I’m actually writing this review with a slight sense of loss hanging over me, as it would appear that this series is being put to bed for a while, with M. P. Wright stating that he wanted to deliver a sense of peace to Ellington and his kinfolk at the close of the series. All well and good, but by heck, does he put some of  them through an emotional and violent wringer first, once again proving the author’s prowess at plot, pace, characterisation, and his absolute ability to capture the zeitgeist of the period that he sets this series within. I can honestly say that I have never experienced a dip in the pure readability of all the previous books, and The Sinner’s Prayer is no exception to the rule, completely mirroring the obviously very high standard of writing that this author consistently produces. Absolutely recommended, and do bear in mind my advice to read all of the series. You won’t regret it…

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Raven reviews: Heartman / All Through The Night / Restless Coffins

An interview with M. P. Wright

(With thanks to Black & White Publishing for the ARC)

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Oliver Bottini- The Dance of Death

One wet and misty weekend in October, the Niemann family find a stranger in their garden. He is armed and tries to force his way into the house, but disappears as soon as the police are alerted. That night he’s back with an impossible ultimatum . . .

Freiburg detective Louise Boni and her colleagues are put under enormous pressure. Traces of evidence lead her to a no-man’s-land, and to a ruthless criminal who brings with him the trauma of conflict in the Balkans…

And so to the third of Oliver Bottini’s Black Forest Investigation series, The Dance of Death, which sees stalwart investigator Louise Boni, drawn into a case of retribution precipitated by the turbulent history of the Balkan states…

Whilst confessing to the fact that I did find the first of the series, Zen and the Art of Murder a tad ponderous for my tastes, and having read and enjoyed the second A Summer of Murder, I have come to appreciate the more meandering and slow moving pace of Bottini’s writing. Veering very much more towards literary fiction than crime thriller per se, I found myself adjusting to the pace and style of it the further into the book I read. This more measured feel to Bottini’s prose does rather dilute the feeling of this being a crime thriller, but  interestingly does give a platform for the author to really get beneath the skin of his characters, and to thoroughly interrogate the actions of the main antagonist, Antun Loncar, threatening retribution on one man’s family for the perceived sins of the past. We become as intimately involved with the motivations and history of this perpetrator as the police investigation team, and as his turbulent, unsettled and ultimately tragic story is slowly revealed, Bottini poses some interesting questions as to the balance between justice, revenge and compassion. As a reader it is good to feel conflicted about a character, where the boundaries of black and white merge into a mysterious grey, and this was an incredibly interesting facet of the book as a whole.

Talking of conflicted, police investigator Louise Boni, is a mass of contradictions, being a quixotic, emotionally challenged and a sometimes  slightly unfathomable protagonist. I still can’t quite decide if I like her or not, as her compassion and clear-sightedness, is so often blurred by her own self absorption, with a messy and unsettled private life, and her recovery as an alcoholic. At times, more often in her professional life, she shows a huge clarity of thought and sense of action, underscored by compassion and determination, but all too often in her private life be it due to drink or relationships there’s an overarching feeling of indecision and naval gazing  that makes you want to grab her by the shoulders, and give her a good shake. She proves to be a consistently complicated character, sometimes overwhelmed by her own feelings of guilt in relation to events of the past, and I still don’t know quite what to make of her.

The Dance of Death is not an easy read as there is a huge weight of historical factual detail, that although entirely necessary to the plot, does slow the pace of the book considerably, but it is difficult to see how this information could be imparted to the reader in any other way, tracing the history of war and resettlement between the Balkan states and Germany post Second World War. Although at times somewhat dense, and a little overwhelming, I did find the historical aspect fascinating, looking at the history of conflict and resettlement in the Balkans, from a new and interesting angle- special mention to translator Jamie Bulloch for the singular challenge this presented. Overall,  I actually enjoyed the final part of the book more, as Boni physically retraces Loncar’s past, and takes her own journey through the Balkans, and although it did feel rather truncated in comparison to what  had proceeded it, this section of the book had a real vividness and verve as Boni encounters the strange environs of Loncar’s home state. This is also quite possibly a journey for Boni that will take her life in an entirely new direction, so will be interested to see where Bottini takes her, and us, as readers…

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(With thanks to MacLehose Press for the ARC)

Pre-order a copy of The Dance of Death here

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#Blog Tour Sergio Olguin- The Fragility of Bodies

When journalist Veronica Rosenthal hears about the suicide of a local train driver who has jumped off the roof of a block of flats, leaving a suicide note confessing to four mortal ‘accidents’ on the train tracks, she decides to investigate. For the police the case is closed (suicide is suicide), for Veronica it is the beginning of a journey that takes her into an unfamiliar world of grinding poverty, junkie infested neighborhoods, and train drivers on commuter lines haunted by the memory of bodies hit at speed by their locomotives in the middle of the night. Aided by a train driver informant, a junkie in rehab and two street kids willing to risk everything for a can of Coke, she uncovers a group of men involved in betting on working-class youngsters convinced to play Russian roulette by standing in front of oncoming trains to see who endures the longest. With bodies of children crushed under tons of steel, those of adults yielding to relentless desire, the resolution of the investigation reveals the deep bonds which unite desire and death…

Right, where on earth do I begin, to get across to everyone how intensely, sublimely brilliant The Fragility of Bodies is? A book shot through with painful truths and gritty realism, and with the ability to put its reader through a whole gamut of emotions with its pared down prose, perceptive exploration of the human compulsion to make connections, and larger themes of trust, exploitation and social injustice. This is a huge, important book hiding behind the deceptively simple label of an Argentine noir thriller, but has much to say about the nature of human relationships, and the power and exploitation of the few on the lives of the many…

With such a self assured, dogged, yet emotionally turbulent central character as journalist, Veronica Rosenthal, I was instantly entranced by her. She sets about her investigation into the worrying trend of suicides on local railway lines, with verve and energy; a verve and energy that also extends to the more base needs of her character, and the mutual seduction that occurs in the course of her investigation. She is flighty and independent, in relation to her friends and siblings, but she has a real strength of character and essence of self control, that her peers can only aspire to. Not only does Olguin put his readers through the emotional mangle, but Veronica is tested constantly in her pursuit of the truth behind the pattern of suicides occurring on train tracks of late, sucking her into a world of bribery and exploitation that will prove dangerous in the extreme. I can truthfully say that she is one of the most well-realised, compelling and authentic female characters that I have encountered for a long time, and this mix of tenacity and bravery, is beautifully tempered by the more impulsive, reckless and passionate side of her nature, be it in her professional or personal life.

The breadth of crime fiction set in South America has been a recent revelation to me, and Olguin naturally captures the grinding poverty, misplaced optimism, and dangerous existence of the lower classes of Buenos Aires society. Young boys believe that football is their ticket out of the slums and the path to riches, but putting them squarely into the path of those that would exploit them, and such is their desperation to escape the clutches of poverty and to help their families, or just to feel valued that they are easily coerced into the dark activities of the adults in whom they trust. Olguin perfectly captures the conflicts that arise in these young boys, lured into a dangerous form of ‘chicken’ to satisfy the men who place bets on these youngster’s bravery and ultimately survival, with the lure of a hundred pesos.

The world of these boys is unflinchingly depicted by Olguin, capturing the deprivation of the neighbourhoods they live in, the struggles of their families, and the thin line that exists between survival and criminality in the dangerous world of the favelas. Olguin’s depiction of this world is written with sharp clarity appealing to the reader’s senses, and which cannot fail to move the reader’s emotions too, but what is also detectible is the thin veneer of hope that lies behind the most meagre of lives, the feeling that not all is lost, and that a sense of morality can breach the divides Olguin so truthfully depicts. As long as journalists like Veronica, and honest citizens seek to expose the morally bankrupt despite the risks, there can always be hope, despite the inherent danger in society of those in positions of power.

The Fragility of Bodies has rocketed into my best books of the year, and all I can say to Sergio Olguin and his wonderful translator Miranda France, is that I am already salivating for the next in the series to be translated. This book shocked, moved and completely absorbed me from beginning to end, and think this will leave a few of my future reads trailing in its wake. Gritty, beautifully prosaic, and intensely moving, I cannot do justice to the power of this book, which moves the emotions, sparks the social conscience, but pays heed to the need of a thriller to excite and entertain us too, with a truly compelling central character. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Bitter Lemon Press for the ARC)

 

 

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