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Blog Tour- David Young- A Darker State

The body of a teenage boy is found weighted down in a lake. Karin Müller, newly appointed Major of the People’s Police, is called to investigate. But her power will only stretch so far, when every move she makes is under the watchful eye of the Stasi.

Then, when the son of Müller’s team member goes missing, it quickly becomes clear that there is a terrifying conspiracy at the heart of this case, one that could fast lead Müller and her young family into real danger.

Can she navigate this complex political web and find the missing boy, before it’s too late?

Eyes down and here we go everybody for the next instalment of David Young’s gripping series set in 1970s East Germany, placing us at the heart of Cold War fear and suspicion. Following on from Stasi Child and Stasi Wolf  the book opens with a new home, a seemingly settled family life, and an unexpected promotion for Oberletnant Karin Müller, and yet a creeping feeling of unease as to just what the payback for these rewards will be…

Although I experienced a little dip in my perception of Müller in the previous book, she is back on fine form in this one, despite the pressure she comes under in both her personal and professional life. There’s a good balance between the doubt and self questioning she experiences as a new mother, and in her supposedly solid relationship with her partner Emil, set against her day to day trials and tribulations in a particularly knotty investigation, under the unwavering eye of the sinister Stasi. It is the latter element in her life that really brings her character to life, as she has to out-think and pre-empt the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, sabotage of her investigation, at times putting her in extreme physical danger, but never once denting her sense of morality and focus to get the job done. Reunited with her right hand man, and sometime lover, Werner Tilsner, Young is given the opportunity to not only show the solidity of their professional partnership, but to also insert some moments of lighter, teasing humour into the proceedings. Likewise, Müller’s interactions with slippery Stasi man Jager, whose presence adds another frisson to the investigation, also allows her to show us her steely determination, and her ability to use and manipulate him as much as he does her. Although he does have one particular revelation to foist on her at the close of the book that neither she, nor us, would entirely expect…

As we have come to expect from the two preceding books, Young does not stint on the historical, political and social detail attendant to this period of German history. Not only do we become fully conversant with the ramifications for the individual living in the grip of Communist rule, but also the differences in existence between two halves of the same nation. Interestingly, there are small freedoms that those in the supposedly more totalitarian east experience, and Young also contrasts the feelings of acceptance and pride that some hold, as a juxtaposition to those who feel trapped and surveilled at every turn. The book is absolutely brimming with research, applied in such a way as to not outweigh the natural flow of the plot, but enough to give the reader an inherent feeling of time and place. With a surprising, and unsettling, premise for the murders that occur, Young inveigles us in an underground world of sexual intolerance, and blackmail that is truly disturbing, and one cannot help but feel supremely sorry for the victims of these heinous crimes. I enjoyed the split narrative and timelines, and as the story segued between the two, Young once again showed his knack for pace and tension building. I remember reading somewhere that good authors always write the kind of books that they themselves would like to read , and with Young’s balance of fiction and fact, coupled with a genuinely compelling and exciting plot, I think in this case he has written as a reader and not just a churn-‘ em-out writer that the crime genre is sadly littered with.

Although there is a danger in coming into a series part way through. I think A Darker State actually works extremely well as a stand alone for those late to the party. With a nifty tie up with a certain event in the first book, there is ample opportunity to go back to the beginning before the next book appears. Definitely a series that I have enjoyed, and with an overview of all three books, this has been my favourite to date. Highly recommended and bring on book 4!

(With thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

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Blog Tour- M. P. Wright- Restless Coffins

1969, Bristol. Bajan ex- cop and reluctant private detective, Joseph ‘JT’ Tremaine Ellington is still trading in cash and favours, lending a helping hand to those too scared to go to the police or anyone trying to stay one step ahead of them.
Life is tough for JT, who is broke. It is about to get a lot tougher when he receives a telegram informing him of a tragedy that has unfolded thousands of miles away. Ellington’s sister, Bernice has been murdered. Ellington wants to make the long journey back to his home on the island of Barbados to pay his final respects and to settle his late sister’s affairs. To do so, he must accept a ticket from his shady cousin, Vic, on condition he travels to New York first, where Vic is building himself a criminal empire in Harlem.
JT soon discovers that Vic is the American end of an operation that stretches back to Barbados, and that Vic’s business partner is Conrad Monroe, the man responsible for the death of JT’s wife and daughter. As JT finds himself embroiled in the world of drugs, bent law, voodoo and the bitter legacy of slavery, he must return to the island of his birth and face the demons of his past

Having quietly championed the first two books in the J. T. Elington trilogy , Heartman and All Through The Night , as both a blogger and a bookseller, it was with a sense of anticipation that I approached the reading of Restless Coffins.  As life conspires to kick Ellington in the teeth again, you know things are going to get a bit lively, but with the intervention of his wayward cousin Vic, it can only get downright dangerous…

Obviously, having been following the books already, the doom laden back story of JT is firmly established in my mind already, but fear not dear reader, the set up of Restless Coffins is quite accessible to the first time reader, if you randomly begin here. With the first two books being so firmly set in the UK, this book also strikes a broader appeal as the story travels from Bristol, to the gangs of Harlem, to the hoodoo voodoo of New Orleans and then propels us to the bloody denouement in JT’s native Barbados. By broadening the book in this way, it also enabled Wright to consolidate his position as, in my opinion, one of the finest purveyors of descriptive fiction in the thriller genre. His attention to detail, to atmosphere building, to location, to the very make up of whatever environment he places his characters into, is absolutely second to none. Every scene is loaded with precise and vivid detail, more commonly encountered in literary fiction, which enshrouds you completely, and transports you with absolute clarity to the environs of his character’s experiences. Every location, every means of transport, every person, everything JT sees and experiences, puts us there with him, entwining us even more intensely with the book.

Likewise, Wright’s characterisation is pitch perfect as usual, and the intensity he imbues in JT in particular, is absolutely compelling. JT’s emotional, complicated, self questioning inner life must be exhausting to convey to the page, and every scene that puts the spotlight solely on this character, is an emotional rollercoaster for JT as well as the reader. As well as the constant pull on his emotions through the loss of those closest to him, both by birth, by marriage, and by association, he undergoes an extreme amount of physical assault. Indeed, the fight scenes are so precisely written I have an image of the author throwing himself his writing room choreographing them to the nth degree of detail, and by extension in the aftermath of JT’s physical encounters, the reader, through the exact descriptions, can feel every cut, every bruise. As well as being a hugely sympathetic character, there is always a degree of questioning from him, at times struggling to keep his emotions and impulses in check, showing his very real human frailty, but steadfastly demonstrating his loyalty to those closest to him, and to the memory of those he has lost. A troubled and complicated man, but also one of great integrity.

And then there’s cousin Vic.

Glorious, dangerous, slippery, sharp-talking Vic. I adore him. You just know that Vic’s gonna turn up, shake up JT’s world a little more, and tweak the nose of death along the way, and that he does. Brilliant. With the new American cast of characters, and some unwelcome faces from JT’s past, there are a host of good, bad and in some cases, exceptionally ugly people to keep JT and Vic on their toes, and the reader thoroughly entertained, horrified, or enraged. There’s some real bad folks in this one.

With Wright’s finely honed ear for the lilting cadence and rhythm of the Caribbean and American dialects, the use of language and dialogue is never less than perfectly authentic, and you quickly assume the pace and rhythm of each interaction. The heat, the atmosphere, the pulsing of human life, the frailties and strengths of his characters, and the rush of blood in violence, assails your mind and senses throughout Restless Coffins, leading to a completely immersive reading experience. Highly recommended.

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

 

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

Blog Tour- Olga Wojtas- Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar

Fifty-something Shona is a proud former pupil of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, but has a deep loathing for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which she thinks gives her alma mater a bad name.

Impeccably educated and an accomplished martial artist, linguist and musician, Shona is thrilled when selected by Marcia Blaine herself to travel back in time for a one-week mission in 19th-century Russia: to pair up the beautiful, shy, orphaned heiress Lidia Ivanovna with Sasha, a gorgeous young man of unexplained origins.

But, despite all her accomplishments and good intentions, Shona might well have got the wrong end of the stick about her mission. As the body count rises, will she discover in time just who the real villain is?

In the year that all of us Muriel Spark fans are taking advantage of the centenary celebrations to revisit her books, a lovely random invitation to join this blog tour enticed me with the dangling carrot of a book with shades of Spark’s most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Quite frankly I didn’t need asking twice, and although I rarely pick up comic crime capers, my interest was piqued by this one, and into the world of Shona, I eagerly scampered…

I think apologies are due to my fellow bus travellers, and staffroom sharers, who had to endure a flurry of guffaws and sniggers as I read this. This book is an absolute hoot, packed to the gills with entertaining misunderstandings, acerbic asides, and comic set ups that although by their very nature were farcical were not annoyingly so. Wojtas has an absolute field day with the inevitable gaps in communication- contemporary Scottish vs 19th century Russian- as Shona responds to each situation with her mellifluous brogue and earthy vernacular, underpinned by her obvious raw intelligence, and mischievous delight at bamboozling those around her. Although her use of language is the primary way she establishes an exotic difference from those around her, this is compounded by her encyclopaedic knowledge of facts and figures, accrued by her ‘crème de la creme’ education, and her by day. mild mannered librarian guise. She continually trawls the depths of this knowledge,  to try to establish which period of history she has been transported into, and readily draws on it she needs to extract herself from potentially socially awkward, or perilous situations. I have read other books that have used this conceit in relation to the character, but unlike those I found this clever, witty, and brain-tickling.  I have also absorbed a host of possibly useless knowledge, that may stand me in good stead one day, during a particularly knife-edge game of Trivial Pursuit…

Still on the subject of Shona, I would like to applaud the author on putting a more mature woman- no need for the ‘o’ word- as her central character, and the additional layer of fun it brings to the proceedings. With her obvious intelligence, comes a wonderful bluntness, and sense of self awareness that carries the plot beautifully, colouring her interactions with others, but also delightfully lowering her defences at times when her slight susceptibility to flattery becomes evident. She is proudly Scottish, totally adept at manipulating situations to her advantage, and exudes an air of confidence and charisma that charms and alienates in equal measure. As potent a figure as she is in the book, Wojtas does not neglect the need to provide Shona with a consummate surrounding cast, and this she achieves with her merry band of fatuous, wealthy upper class Russian women, and Shona’s inherited serfs, who ramp up the comic aspect of the plot, but allows us to recognise the unfairness and brutality of Russian life and society at this time. With reference to that, Wojtas places both Shona and us firmly in this period with her historical detail, and a heightened sense of place and atmosphere, with colourful, rich description, and accomplished scene setting.

Although I am not an ardent fan of the time travelling trope in fiction generally, I thought this was well executed, even if an amount of suspension of disbelief was needed, and the foray into the upper echelons of Russian society from the rarefied air of Morningside in Edinburgh was easy enough for Shona to insinuate herself in. Yes, the plot was a little obvious from a fairly early stage in the case of whodunit and indeed whydunnit, but to be honest, the book just carries you along on a stream of hilarity with our gung-ho gal Shona, that this matters little. A faint air of the ridiculous, more than a few belly laughs, and you may well pick up some interesting factoids too… Recommended.

(With thanks to Saraband Books for the ARC)

Catch the blog tour at these excellent sites:

 

 

Banish Those January Blues… Alan Parks, Oliver Bottini, Mari Hannah, Donato Carrisi, Masako Togawa

Hello everyone. In the whole killing two birds with one stone thing, and realising I am already behind with my reviews (despite my resolution to do better), here is a little round-up of books to chase away that January feeling of gloom. As you would expect, I had issues with one of them, but you may be intrigued nonetheless, and the rest were pretty damn fine indeed.

You may need a little book retail therapy…

When a teenage boy shoots a young woman dead in the middle of a busy Glasgow street and then commits suicide, Detective Harry McCoy is sure of one thing. It wasn’t a random act of violence.
With his new partner in tow, McCoy uses his underworld network to lead the investigation but soon runs up against a secret society led by Glasgow’s wealthiest family, the Dunlops.
McCoy’s boss doesn’t want him to investigate. The Dunlops seem untouchable. But McCoy has other ideas . . .

Gritty, unflinching, perfectly non- politically correct, and with echoes of the grandmasters of black-hearted noir, Lewis, McIlvanney, Raymond, Bruen et al, this was an absolute corker.

From the outset I was heartily entertained by the exploits of Detective Harry McCoy, with his nefarious relationships and more hands-on methods, and his wet-behind-the-ears sidekick, Wattie as we find ourselves firmly rooted in 1970’s Glasgow. The book is peppered with cultural and political references familiar to those of us born nearer that era- ahem- as well painting a grimly real backdrop for readers less familiar with the period. This is a city down on its uppers, with only occasional glimmers of the city that Glasgow was to become, and Parks’ colourful and inventive use of the Glaswegian vernacular brings a heightened level of enjoyment to the book too. The main storyline is very seedy indeed, involving as it does drugs, exploitation and abuse, which Parks determinedly lays before us warts and all. As I’ve said before I do like a book where I feel slightly soiled by the reading experience, in a similar vein to Benjamin Myers and Jake Arnott,  and Bloody January fitted the bill perfectly. It was feisty, fresh, wonderfully sordid and a sublime blast of noir to welcome in the new year. Highly recommended.

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Louise Boni, maverick chief inspector with the Black Forest crime squad, is struggling with her demons. Divorced at forty-two, she is haunted by the shadows of the past.
Dreading yet another a dreary winter weekend alone, she receives a call from the departmental chief which signals the strangest assignment of her career – to trail a Japanese monk wandering through the snowy wasteland to the east of Freiburg, dressed only in sandals and a cowl. She sets off reluctantly, and by the time she catches up with him, she discovers that he is injured, and fearfully fleeing some unknown evil. When her own team comes under fire, the investigation takes on a terrifying dimension, uncovering a hideous ring of child traffickers. The repercussions of their crimes will change the course of her own life.

Now this one perplexed me, as for the first half of the book I was submerged in the existential peace of tranquillity that gradually evolves into a more straightforward thriller. I loved the concept of this calm, ethereal figure of the monk, traversing the terrain of the Black Forest, pursued by this, as it turns out, very emotionally unstable female detective. I felt a bit like like Manny in Black Books where he swallows The Little Book of Calm as reading this induced a kind of contented relaxation in me, as Bonetti brings the natural serenity of monk, woman and forest into alignment.

Then I got bored.

And increasingly annoyed.

Boni began to irritate me with her constant self obsessed, self pitying keening, and to be honest, my interest was waning from this point. I found the child trafficking plotline slightly repetitive and circular, and I fair scampered to the end of the book just to see how things would pan out. Did feel a huge sense of disappointment in not enjoying this one more, as regular readers know my universal love for translated crime fiction, but alas not this time.

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When a mysterious DVD is delivered to Northumbria Police Headquarters, DS Matthew Ryan and Detective Superintendent Eloise O’Neil are among the few to view its disturbing content. With little to go on the only lead comes from the anonymous and chilling woman’s voice narrating the blood-soaked lock-up depicted on screen.
But with no victim visible, nor any indication of where the unidentifiable crime scene is located, Ryan and O’Neil get the distinct feeling someone is playing with them. What is certain is that the newly formed special unit has just taken on its first challenging case.
As further shocking videos start arriving at police stations around the country, the body count rises. But what connects all the victims? And why are they being targeted? As the investigation deepens, the team is brought to breaking point as secrets from the past threaten to derail their pursuit of a merciless killer . . 

I know I baulk every time I read the strapline, that so and so author is ‘at the height of their powers’ but, I think in Mari Hannah’s case this is absolutely fair. Not only the author of the brilliant DI Kate Daniels series, but onto a winner with this, the follow up to The Silent Room which first introduced us to Ryan and O’Neill.

Obviously you will discover for yourselves the extremely well crafted storyline, and the highly original compunction the killers have for committing the crimes they do (as usual no spoilers here), but I just wanted to highlight something else. The thing above all else that I admire about Hannah’s books is her way of really fleshing out, and roundly depicting her characters, their fears, their flaws, their missteps in communication, but also their moments of empathy, comradeship and loyalty. Every character in this book works seamlessly with the others, with fluctuating levels of trust, professionalism and friendship. Although there was a significant gap between The Silent Room and this one, I was instantly back in the groove with O’Neill and Ryan, and the brilliant Grace and Newman, who make up their merry band, as if there were just friends that I hadn’t bumped into for a while, but instantly recalling when I had last seen them, and what they’d been up to! Obviously, with my affection for the North East, I was once again, transported effortlessly to my old stomping ground of Newcastle, and the sublime, rugged beauty of Northumberland and beyond.

Cracking story, equally cracking characters, and plenty of thrills, tension and heartache along the way.

Superb.

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Sixty-two days after the disappearance . . .

A man is arrested in the small town of Avechot. His shirt is covered in blood. Could this have anything to do with a missing girl called Anna Lou?

What really happened to the girl?

Detective Vogel will do anything to solve the mystery surrounding Anna Lou’s disappearance. When a media storm hits the quiet town, Vogel is sure that the suspect will be flushed out. Yet the clues are confusing, perhaps false, and following them may be a far cry from discovering the truth at the heart of a dark town.

I must confess I did read this one a little while ago, so I may be a bit shady on the detail, but my lasting impression of this one is that I enjoyed it! Referencing my previous point about translated crime fiction, I think that Italian author Donato Carrisi consistently produces extremely atmospheric and gripping psychological thrillers and The Girl In The Fog continued this tradition. Flipping backwards and forwards in time, tracing the disappearance of the eponymous girl in the fog, Carrisi presents a flawed but fascinating character in the sharply dressed and obviously psychologically haunted figure of Special Agent Vogel. I was particularly enamoured with his one to one conversations with the seemingly affable psychologist, Flores, and the little tricks and twists in the interaction between the two men as the story is teased out. As usual, Carrisi perfectly employs the more sinister aspects of the landscape to colour the tale further, and what ensues is a claustrophobic and tense tale of the darkness of the human psyche. Recommended.

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The K Apartments for Ladies in Tokyo conceals a sinister past behind each door; a woman who has buried a child; a scavenger driven mad by ill-health; a wife mysteriously guarding her late husband’s manuscripts; a talented violinist tortured by her own guilt. The master key, which opens the door to all 150 rooms, links their tangled stories. But now it has been stolen, and dirty tricks are afoot.
A deadly secret lies buried beneath the building. And when it is revealed, there will be murder.

Another bijou delight from Pushkin, in the shape of Japanese thriller The Master Key from the late, multi-talented author Makamo Togawa. Revolving around the female inhabitants of the K Apartments, Togawa weaves a spellbinding tale of jealousy, covetousness and chicanery that I can only compare to the brilliant Patricia Highsmith. As we become involved with the everyday lives of this disparate group of single women, and the secrets they conceal, Togawa has not only constructed a compelling thriller, but also has much to say on the nature of the womens’ experiences in Japanese patriarchal society, and how they are compartmentalised and suppressed by the community they inhabit. By turns shocking and moving, but consistently engaging, I will definitely be seeking out more works by this author. An eye opening read.

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(With thanks to Canongate for Bloody January, Quercus Books for Zen and the Art of Murder, Macmillan for The Death Messenger, Abacus for Girl In The Fog and Pushkin for The Master Key)

 

Rory Clements- Nucleus

June 1939. England is partying like there is no tomorrow, gas masks at the ready. In Cambridge the May Balls are played out with a frantic intensity – but the good times won’t last… In Europe, the Nazis have invaded Czechoslovakia, and in Germany the persecution of the Jews is now so widespread that desperate Jewish parents send their children to safety in Britain aboard the Kindertransport. Closer to home, the IRA’s S-Plan bombing campaign has resulted in more than 100 terrorist outrages around England. But perhaps the most far-reaching event of all goes largely unreported: in Germany, Otto Hahn has produced the first man-made fission and an atomic device is now a very real possibility. The Nazis set up the Uranverein group of physicists: its task is to build a superbomb. The German High Command is aware that British and US scientists are working on similar line. Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory is where the atom was split in 1932. Might the Cambridge men now win the race for a nuclear bomb? Hitler’s generals need to be sure they know all the Cavendish’s secrets. Only then will it be safe for Germany to wage war.
When one of the Cavendish’s finest brains is murdered, Professor Tom Wilde is once more drawn into an intrigue from which there seems no escape. In a conspiracy that stretches from Cambridge to Berlin and from Washington DC to the west coast of Ireland, he faces deadly forces that threaten the fate of the world…

Brace yourselves for more conspiracy, subterfuge and a good dose of derring-do in Nucleus, an accomplished follow up to the brilliant Corpus , which first introduced us to dashing American academic Tom Wilde. Must admit I was on tenterhooks waiting for this next book after the explosive and captivating events of the first outing…

Rory Clements could not have picked a better era as the backdrop for these books, with Europe on the cusp of war, the reluctance of America to be drawn into the crossfire, the race for the harnessing of atomic power, and the hotbed of Cambridge academia where the security services plucked the finest and the best for a life of espionage. Throw into the mix a missing young German boy, the son of a prominent scientist, the increasing occurrence of IRA activity, and a smattering of Hollywood glamour, and the scene is set for a rich reading experience indeed. As in Corpus, Clements is incredibly proficient at drawing on the salient historical detail of the period, and the subtleties of the underlying political and racial conflicts, without compromising the tautness and tension of the plot itself. I think when I reviewed the previous book, I made a similar point that as I was fairly unfamiliar with this period, I came out of the book with an enriched and enhanced knowledge of the era, as Clements is so good with this balance of detail and narrative. I was fascinated by not only the background to the race for atomic supremacy, but also the Quaker involvement in shepherding so many Jewish children to safety from the increasing persecution of their families in Germany. This latter theme of the book is incredibly important in one character’s foray to Berlin, at an incredibly dangerous time, and I thought this aspect of the book was very well executed indeed, with a palpable sense of peril. I was also impressed with Clements’ handling of each branch of his storyline, as referenced above, and the balance that he keeps between them, pivoting the readers’ attention between them effortlessly, but maintaining the harmony overall, and never to the detriment of our engagement with his cast of characters.

After a hiatus in reading Corpus and Nucleus appearing, I was drawn back instantly into the world of Tom Wilde, a character that has obviously stayed in my mind since, and equally with Lydia Morris, whose personal involvement with Tom has moved on apace in the meanwhile- admittedly with some tribulations along the way. Although they are the real lynchpin to both books, Clements surrounds them again with an interesting, and broad ranging supporting cast, who enliven and colour the story further, and arouse in the reader a mixture of empathy, revulsion or distrust depending on their interactions with Tom and Lydia themselves. By carefully manipulating the foibles, duplicity or amiability of this surrounding cast, Clements has the opportunity to produce a couple of real sucker punch moments, which surprise and unsettle the reader. I thoroughly enjoyed being drawn into this world of contrasting nationalities, social standing and their guiding beliefs, some abhorrent, some not. It’s a rich mix, and carries the book along with aplomb.

All in all, Nucleus is a very satisfying thriller that captures the spirit of the era perfectly, enlightens the reader with its intelligent, but never overpowering, use of historical and social detail, and provides a wide ranging and engaging group of characters, who perfectly fit the model of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Believe me, you’ll be consistently changing your mind as to who belongs to each category…

(With thanks to Zaffre Books for the ARC)

 

 

Blog Tour- Tim Baker- City Without Stars

In Ciudad Real, Mexico, a deadly war between rival cartels is erupting, and hundreds of female sweat-shop workers are being murdered. As his police superiors start shutting down his investigation, Fuentes suspects most of his colleagues are on the payroll of narco kingpin, El Santo. Meanwhile, despairing union activist, Pilar, decides to take social justice into her own hands. But if she wants to stop the killings, she’s going to have to ignore all her instincts and accept the help of Fuentes. When the name of Mexico’s saintly orphan rescuer, Padre Márcio, keeps resurfacing, Pilar and Fuentes begin to realise how deep the cover-up goes.

Tim Baker burst onto the Raven’s radar a couple of years ago with the brilliant  Fever City – a skilful and mesmerising reimagining of the events surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. Having waited patiently, okay, somewhat impatiently- for his next book, City Without Stars plunges us into the nightmarish realities of life in Mexico, and presents the reader with a searing indictment of lives lived in the shadow of the cartels, corrupt law enforcement, unrelenting poverty, and female exploitation…

Harbouring a deep fascination with Mexico for many years, and citing The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow as quite possibly my favourite crime thriller ever, there was a palpable sense of excitement on embarking on this book. I will say quickly that I could not have been more satisfied with Baker’s exploration into, and intuitive depiction of life in the violent and corrupt surrounds of Ciudad Real. Punctuated by references to the well documented cases of scores of women disappearing, and being found brutally murdered, which by their inclusion crash into the reader’s consciousness throughout, City Without Stars is a claustrophobic and intensely compelling thriller.

The whole book is alive with the feel and atmosphere of the city itself, the heat, the noise, the grime and the sense of hopeless lives lived in the shadow of corrupt wealth and criminal activity. I really felt the harshness of the bleak desert terrain, the final resting place of the many female victims, and each time we encounter it there is an air of menace and threat that envelops you completely. Equally, the grinding poverty of the city, is prevalent throughout, particularly when Baker takes us in to the world of the maquiladoras – Mexican factories run by foreign companies, that export goods back to that company’s country of origin- and trains our attention completely on the exploitation of the women that they employ, with gruelling shift work, a pittance of pay and the malevolent shadow of violence and sexual abuse. Pilar is a mesmerising character, working as a union agitator, and seeking to spur these women on to challenge their feudal bosses, and to improve their working conditions. Baker not only captures her unrelenting crusade and her strength of character, but also hammers home to the reader the doubt and fear of those she tries to encourage to rise up and rebel. She is a real force of nature, and when she crosses paths with Fuentes, an isolated incorruptible cop, there is a wonderful frisson of suspicion and distrust between them that drives the book on. I think Baker captures the female voices of this book perfectly in this macho, patriarchal society, sensitively portraying the level of threat and violence they encounter, but also showing the strength of spirit they have to draw on to simply survive day to day. It’s beautifully handled, and gives rise to some of the most raw, emotional, and moving passages of the book- the writing is superb.

The whole book is underpinned with the stink of corruption, as Baker expands the plot throughout to encompass the deadly influence of the cartels, the rife corruption in the police force, and in this staunchly Catholic country, the seedy and immoral actions of the priesthood. These purveyors of misery, violence and greed, coil together like a roiling nest of snakes, impervious to punishment, and where life and death are treated with a dispassionate and cool contempt. The characters who inhabit these treacherous worlds are, to a man, brilliantly wrought, and you increasingly feel sickened, yet oddly intrigued, by the way they operate and prosper, feeding off the vulnerable and the addicted. The cartel boss, the priests, the police chief, and the factory owners all come under intense scrutiny, and you find yourself unable to look away from the depths of their depravity.

City Without Stars is an intense, emotive and completely absorbing read, suffused with a violent energy, and with an unrelenting pace to its narrative. It heightens the reader’s senses and imagination throughout, completely enveloping the reader in this corrupt and violent society, with instances of intense human frailty and moments of strength, underpinned by precise description, and flurries of dark humour.

I thought it was absolutely marvellous. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

Catch up with or continue to follow the blog tour at these excellent sites:

 

Blog Tour- Peter May- I’ll Keep You Safe

Husband and wife Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane co-own Ranish Tweed: a Hebridean company that weaves its own special variety of Harris cloth, which has become a sought-after brand in the world of high fashion. But when Niamh learns of Ruairidh’s affair with Russian designer Irina Vetrov, then witnesses the pair killed by a car bomb in Paris, her life is left in ruins.
Along with her husband’s remains, she returns home to the Isle of Lewis, bereft.
The Paris police have ruled out terrorism, and ruled in murder – making Niamh the prime suspect, along with Irina’s missing husband, Georgy. And so French Detective Sylvie Braque is sent to the island to look into Niamh’s past, unaware of the dangers that await her.
As Braque digs deeper into the couple’s history, Niamh herself replays her life with Ruiairidh, searching her memory for those whose grievances might have led to murder. And with each layer revealed, and every unexpected twist uncovered, the two women find themselves drawn inexorably closer to a killer who will not turn back…

There is little that banishes the January blues quite as effectively as a new book from the popular, and diverse,  crime novelist Peter May. It is with some pleasure that the Raven can declare that I’ll Keep You Safe, another Hebridean outing and laced with a touch of the Parisian, accompanied by leftover Christmas chocolate and a wee dram was, by and large, a real new year treat…

For my review I will only dally fleetingly on the plot of this one, as there are neat little twists and tricks, heralded by the literally explosive beginning that will unsettle, surprise and delight you in equal measure. Integral to the success of these is the structure of the book, and the characterisation, and this is what I would particularly like to draw your attention to. Strangely, I’m going to compare Peter May to a stand up comedian, and here’s why. Just as a good stand up comedian would begin to tell you a story, then seamlessly goes off on what appears to be a largely unconnected tangent, then drawing you back to their original story, and repeating this process to the story’s conclusion, so May uses this same device to great effect. He provides us with a relatively linear plot in that woman’s possibly unfaithful husband is killed in car explosion and setting the reader on the course to find out who did it, but by using casual small references to previous events,  he then takes us on an intriguing circular perambulation to explore these happenings, satisfyingly building up layers of the personal histories of his characters. It’s also akin to looking at an old photograph album, so that we can picture Niamh and Ruairidh at crucial points in their formative years, as well as in the life they build together. Niamh’s life and experiences in particular are a real driving force in the book, and as the book is so closely structured around her grief, confusion and anger, I felt incredibly drawn to her. I enjoyed discovering more about her as the book progressed, and the emotional weight that May invests in her does to a certain extent put other characters in the shade, most notably French detective Sylvie Braque, who aside from her interactions with the island police, disappointingly failed to ignite my interest to any degree. Some of the more minor Hebridean characters like Richard Faulkner of Ranish Tweed, and ruddy faced policeman George Gunn provide some good local colour, but I had mixed feelings about another character who brings strife and chaos in their wake…

Throughout the book I couldn’t shake the sense that although I was enveloped in the characters’ lives, the authorial voice of May was very strong as he embellishes his narrative with the depth of research, the evocation of landscape, and his astute understanding of human frailty and strength compounded with his natural flair of almost seeming to speak to the reader one-to-one. For this reason I found myself genuinely interested in the history of tweed, bizarre burial rites, the dangers of peat, and other random facts, that I will be certain to introduce into conversation when the opportunity arises. But seriously, May’s depiction of the landscape, texture and rhythm of life in this island community is fascinating as always, triggering our senses, and enveloping us completely in the story. I was enthralled by his descriptions and observations, so much so that the strangeness of the ending, which I confess did baffle, and slightly perplex me, faded into the background due to the mesmeric beauty of the four hundred pages which preceded it. I loved the pure storytelling I’ll Keep You Safe, and was again in thrall to May’s ability to so closely draw the reader in to this insular and unique community, and the secrets and lies that come to bear. Your senses will be tantalised, your fancy will be tickled, and I guarantee that ending will get you talking…

(With thanks to Riverrun/Quercus Books for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites

 

 

Raven’s Yearly Round Up and Top 10 Crime Reads 2017

And so another year of ups, downs, swings and roundabouts draws to a close and, quite frankly, I’m rather glad to see the back of this one. Having had a whole barrelful of stress for most of the year, I’m now basking in a positive glow, and with the clear intention of working round the demands and frankly stupid hours of working and travelling, hoping that I can get my reading and reviewing back on track.

I have not yet experienced the life changing magic of getting myself organised,  but plans are afoot, and I march bravely into 2018 with a Dodo Pad, oodles of caffeine, leftover Christmas chocolate, some great forthcoming books, and a renewed sense of purpose.

Watch this space…

THAT WAS THE YEAR THAT WAS

As the events in the world at large have been as unerringly depressing as 2016, I’m sure many of us crime readers grabbed a book, shut out the world, and lost ourselves temporarily in slaughter, cruelty, and bloodshed- hmmm- art or life?! Anyway, this year has been a complete cracker, hence the need to extend my regular Top 5 of the year to a Top 10, and which could easily have  been a significantly higher number.

Once again, I have been taken on a voyage of discovery from continent to continent, to the past, to the present, to the future, to different cultures, but always witnessing people with the darkest intentions, and the sometimes noble, sometimes dark individuals who pursue them. And a thoroughly enjoyable year it was too, replete with splendid debuts, superb follow ups, and some surprising new discoveries.

And remember this little nugget from last year’s round-up…

“Resolution for 2017? Quoth the Raven. Nevermore. Not a single dopey domestic noir thriller will grace my blog in the next year.”

I only read one, and with some glee, I can announce J. P. Delaney- The Girl Before  was legitimately the worst book that I have read this year. With another slew of these girl/woman/wife/mother/sister/auntie books hitting us in 2018, I’m going to stick with this resolution! 

So with no further ado these are the chosen 10 books that have delighted and thrilled me the most. Just click on the jacket covers to go to the reviews, and don’t forget to add them to your wish-lists…

10.

9.

8.

 

7. 

6. 

5. 

4. 

3.

2.

 

1.

When I read this in the late summer I said it could quite possibly be my book of the year- and so it is.

It was just a completely wonderful emotional rollercoaster,  suffused with historical detail, and a totally authentic evocation of place. It is a hugely complex and challenging novel, addressing themes of war, religion, revenge, human connection and emotional strife.”

 

AND FINALLY- SOME SPECIAL THANKS…

Just wanted to end my round up to say thank you to my fellow bloggers, publishers and publicity assistants for feeding my reading habit, and being as supportive as ever in sharing my reviews as sporadic as they have been this year. Also for significantly increasing my wish-list, and my TBR mountain.  You’re the best.

Thanks also to the witty and good looking (!) band of authors who quite selflessly share my reviews of others, and have sent me some very heartening messages, and hilarious tweets this year…

Biggest thanks of all to Mari Hannah, who was a total rock at a time when I needed it the most, and although our cunning plans did not come to fruition, a big thank you for all your efforts- much appreciated!

I shall escape to the wild wastelands of the North. Be afraid… Ha!

Happy New Year everybody! 

 

Getting That Blogging Groove Back (2)…Myers, Hirvonen, Tuomainen, Jonasson, and Sigurdardottir.

Right, eyes down and here we go again with the next instalment of my sorely neglected reviews. These are short, sweet, and to the point, as my propensity for rambling will return in the fullness of time, I’m sure…

 

First up one of my favourite deliciously dark authors, Benjamin Myers with These Darkening Days. Taking as his inspiration a real life crime case from the north of England, Myers once again lures us into the deepest disturbing psychological realms of his characters, delivering more than a few grim sucker punches along the way. A series of women become victims of a vicious assailant, plunging this close knit community into a miasma of suspicion and accusation.

I absolutely loved it. 

From the cynical world weariness of embittered reporter Roddy Mace, fighting off the temptation of the demon drink, to the reappearance of fastidious, OCD suffering detective James Brindle, and a cornucopia of dislikeable victims and suspects along the way, Myers (as in previous books) draws us in, shakes us up, and then spits us out the other end slightly soiled by our reading experience, but guiltily satisfied by it too. As always the book is suffused by Myers strange mix of sometimes lyrical, oftentimes unerringly brutal imagery of the natural environment against which his characters roil, fight, and will to survive.

Perfection. 

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Next we go the quirky, dry-humoured latest offering from Finnish author, Antti Tuomainen in the shape of The Man Who Died, a marked diversion in style from the intensely emotive, and lyrically profound psychological novels that we normally associate him with. Other reviewers have drawn comparison with Fargo, but I was strongly propelled back in time to the devilish Tales of The Unexpected by Roald Dahl, coupled with the brilliantly black humour of one of my favourite books ever, ever, Beyond The Great Indoors by Ingvar Ambjornsen. Tuomainen’s unlikely protagonist, Jaako Kaunismaa takes us on a surreal journey in rural Finland of tracking down his murderer whilst fighting the clutches of death by poisoning, to the sheer cutthroat mentality of competing mushroom harvesting businesses, instances of potential death by samurai sword, and exceptionally scheming women.

It’s all a bit mad, but in a good way, and with Tuomainen’s natural propensity to draw his reader into his exploration of the essence of humanity, just from a slightly different angle, his lightness of touch, and manipulation of absurdity work a treat. Who could possibly know that the world of mushroom growing was such a hotbed of evil intentions? Highly recommended. 

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Staying with Finland, I can confidently say that When Time Runs Out by Elina Hirvonen is champing for a place in my top five of the year. I was absolutely mesmerised by the pure intensity and sensitivity of one family’s turmoil in the wake of a mass shooting. With shades of We Need To Talk About Kevin, Hirvonen meticulously and stealthily portrays the increasing emotional dislocation of a family, over a period of time, to the devastating effects of this inability for them to communicate and connect on an emotional level.

Hirvonen broadens the sweep of the book even further with incisive comment on global human crises, and the ravaging of the environment which really engaged me and enraged me, but was wonderfully unflinching and truthful in its depiction. I am already recommending this left, right and centre, thrilled by its power as both a clear sighted narrative of familial breakdown, but also of the larger issues it encompasses in a comparatively condensed read.

Superb.   

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We’ll go for an Icelandic head-to-head now with Ragnar Jonasson- Whiteout and Lilja Sigurdardottir- Snare, the former being a continuation of the very successful series featuring policeman Ari Thor, and the latter the starting point of the Reykjavik Noir Trilogy.

Ragnar Jonasson’s quality as a crime writer need no further commendation from me, but truthfully, I would say that this has been my favourite of the series to date. I found the writing wonderfully understated, and the whole book exuded an air of English Gothic fiction, with women hurling themselves from cliffs, and the sinister backdrop of the all-seeing lighthouse, compounded by the revelations of very dark pernicious behaviour indeed. I found it tense, involving, and as usual there was a great harmony between the intensity of the criminal investigation itself, and the playing out of Ari’s domestic situation, and his eagerness to progress in his police career.   

Snare proved a curious mix for me, as my overriding feeling that this was almost two books running parallel to each other, with a gripping story of drug running, running alongside a slower Borgen-esque feeling of financial impropriety, and double dealing. I’ll be honest, and say that I didn’t take to the latter thread as much as the former, finding it a little turgid against the relative excitement of the drug smuggling narrative, and although I was slightly questioning of the veracity of single parent Sonja’s involvement in drug running, this was certainly the more compelling of the two storylines, and led to some real heart in the mouth moments. I also enjoyed playing witness to the touchingly sentimental ‘other’ life of customs officer Bragi, whose game of cat and mouse with Sonja was another enjoyable strand of the book. However, the emotional handwringing of Sonja’s romantic involvement with Agla, the bank executive under investigation, became increasingly tiresome, but cleverly the seemingly anodyne ending of the book must signpost further developments for the second part of the trilogy. A little unsure, but curious, and intrigued to see how the story progresses in the next instalment.  

 

(With thanks to Moth Publishing for These Darkening Days, Bonnier Zaffre for When Time Runs Out, and Orenda Books for The Man Who Died, Whiteout and Snare

 

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