#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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#BlogTour #Extract-Adam Southward- Trance- “A tense, original thriller”

To mark the publication of Trance by Adam Southward, I am delighted to be hosting an exclusive extract of this very book. Billed as an edge-of-your-seat psychological thriller, with a speculative twist, Trance is, according to crime writer John Marrs,  A tense, original thriller that perfectly blends the nail-biting suspense and shocks of Silence of the Lambs and Shutter Island.”

So what’s it about?

Three university scientists are found dead in a gruesome murder-suicide, and the only suspect in the case, Victor Lazar, is quickly captured. When the spate of violent suicides follows him to prison he is moved to solitary confinement, reserved for the highest-risk inmates. And then his assigned psychologist inexplicably takes his own life. Alex Madison, a former forensic psychologist turned private therapist, is brought in to interview Victor. He suspects that Victor is controlling his victims, somehow coaxing them into a suggestive trance. It seems like science fiction, but as Alex digs deeper he uncovers a frightening reality of secret research and cruel experimentation—and the perpetrators are closer to home than he could ever have imagined. Too late, Alex learns the true extent of what Victor is capable of—and who he’s after. With everything he holds dear at risk, can Alex take control of a dangerous mind—before it takes control of him?

Intriguing huh?

So here for your enjoyment, is an extract of the book, just to whet your appetites a little more…

Sophie kept glancing at Alex as they descended the stairs to the guard station. He noticed it and wondered what was bothering her.

‘Will you be assessing him?’ she said, after several steps.

‘Him?’

‘Him. Thirteen. Victor Lazar.’

Alex slowed and turned to her. ‘Mr Lazar is why I’m here. Thirteen?’

Sophie’s eyes narrowed. ‘It’s what he called himself when he arrived. Thirteen. So that’s a yes?’

Alex was surprised at her reaction. ‘What do you know about him?’

Sophie bit her lip. ‘Not much,’ she said. ‘His case is sensitive. Robert has access to the full case file. I don’t.’ She shrugged and walked faster.

Alex hadn’t seen the full case file yet either. He’d had a summary history emailed to him by the CPS but was told the full information would be available once he was on site.

As well as the unusual circumstances surrounding Victor Lazar’s arrest, there was the headline mystery, which was that Victor’s previous psychologist had committed suicide while treating him. Dr Henry Farrell, an experienced clinician close to retirement, had interviewed Victor alone in his cell for an hour. He’d left the cell complaining of a headache and driven home to call his wife, who was out of town. He’d made various nonsense statements over the phone, which his wife couldn’t accurately recollect, then jumped out of a third-floor window, landing on the concrete driveway. He was pronounced dead by paramedics at the scene.

Alex could no doubt suggest several theories why a sane and intelligent man would take his own life, but the association with Victor was bizarre and curious. Victor appeared to be special – a potentially untreatable psychopath if the initial report was anything to go by. But that didn’t explain Dr Farrell’s behaviour. Connected or not, Alex intended to find out.

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Trance is published 1st July by Thomas & Mercer (published in paperback and ebook, price £4.99)

Available at Amazon

Twitter: @adamsouthward

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#BlogTour- Gunnar Staalesen- Wolves At The Door

One dark January night a car drives at high speed towards PI Varg Veum, and comes very close to killing him. Veum is certain this is no accident, following so soon after the deaths of two jailed men who were convicted for their participation in a case of child pornography and sexual assault, crimes that Veum himself once stood wrongly accused of committing. While the guilty men were apparently killed accidentally, Varg suspects that there is something more sinister at play, and that he’s on the death list of someone still at large. Fearing for his life, Veum begins to investigate the old case, interviewing the victims of abuse and delving deeper into the brutal crimes, with shocking results. The wolves are no longer in the dark, they are at his door. And they want vengeance…

I think it’s no exaggeration to say that Gunnar Staalesen is singularly the most difficult author I have to review, as his books are just so consistently superb, and beautifully translated by Don Bartlett. To this end, each new instalment of the Varg Veum series just puts an increasing strain on the scope of my vocabulary and my stash of superlatives, so apologies for any noticeable repetition detected of previous reviews for We Shall Inherit The Wind , Where Roses Never Die, Wolves In The Dark, and Big Sister. So now we come to Wolves At The Door, where the shadow of the misdemeanours of Veum’s past, both real and imagined come back to haunt this most tenacious of private investigators in the streets of his beloved Bergen and beyond…

This book is closely linked to the catastrophic events of Wolves In The Dark, but as ever with Staalesen, each of these books can be read in isolation, with the precise, and concise use of back story always contained within the books. Consequently, the reader can quickly get a handle on why Veum is once again under threat, and  the dangerous lengths he needs to go to in order to discover why. As is usual, the slightly gung-ho actions of Veum, also have ramifications for those he is closest too, and places a maybe unbridgeable strain on his most personal relationships. Staalesen always exhibits a sublime skill in his plotting, with a smooth, assured grip on the tension, pace and use of reveals in particular, so we experience the same level of frustration as Veum as his lines of investigation are consistently blurred by a web of lies, deception and interludes of violence.

I thought this plot was exceptionally well realised, bringing to the fore the age old hypothesis of nature vs nurture, the issues of familial dysfunction and how this manifests itself in the victims and survivors of abuse, and is natural justice more warranted in some cases than the grinding wheels of legal justice. Staalesen explores these themes with an intensity and clear sightedness through his conduit Veum, a former social worker illustrating once again, that alongside his innate ability to draw the reader in to an extremely well-structured and compelling thriller, these additional levels of societal and behavioural exploration serves to raise his books above the depressingly familiar norm of thrillers exploring the world of domestic abuse and family conflict.

Aside from Veum being such a vivid, slightly flawed and genuinely likeable character, with his tenacious attitude, his companionable relationship with aquavit, and his sometimes foolhardy denial of not being the spring chicken he was, these books always appeal to my own love of language and taut dialogue. I have never reached the end of one of Staalesen’s books without noting down several pages containing sharp and snappy exchanges, or just brilliant punchy little observations such as “On the way up to the house I passed a thawing snowman bent at the hip, an arthritic terpsichorean,” Staalesen has an elasticity of phrase, and what I perceive to be a general love of, and skill for, honing his language to compress a visual panorama into a pared down image, or short, taut description which reveals so much to the reader by saying relatively little. I also get a large amount of enjoyment from Veum’s perfectly delivered cynical asides in the face of other people’s stupidity- an admirable quality that dissipates the general irritation that the sometimes crotchety Veum experiences pretty much every day in his interactions with pretty much everybody. There are exceptions to this rule of course revealing an assuring soft-centeredness to him, which then quickly dissipates yet again, bringing a welcome return to cynicism and irritation as the idiots raise their ugly heads again.   

So, once again, Wolves At The Door accrues a five star rating for a five star book from a five star author, and a five star translator Don Bartlett. There is little more to say, apart from a personal note to Gunnar Staalesen in the light of the ending this book, you might want to rethink the beekeeping idea for both Veum’s sanity and ours…

Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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#BlogTour- A. A. Dhand- One Way Out

A bomb detonates in Bradford’s City Park. When the alert sounds, DCI Harry Virdee has just enough time to get his son and his mother to safety before the bomb blows. But this is merely a stunt.

The worst is yet to come. A new and aggressive nationalist group, the Patriots, have hidden a second device under one of the city’s mosques. In exchange for the safe release of those at Friday prayers, the Patriots want custody of the leaders of radical Islamist group Almukhtaroon – the chosen ones. The government does not negotiate with terrorists. Even when thousands of lives are at risk.

There is only one way out. But Harry’s wife is in one of those mosques. Left with no choice, Harry must find the Almukhtaroon, to offer the Patriots his own deal.  Because sometimes the only way to save lives, is to take them…

Of late there have been a couple of “completely unputdownable, the only thriller you need to read this year, blah…” action thrillers, hyped to buggery that sadly have actually been quite disappointing. Oh no, you say, surely there must be a book that combines the pace of a high octane thriller, underscored by an incisive commentary on the nature of radicalism, with a thought provoking and touching meditation on family conflict and forgiveness. Well, funny you should say that. Having read the first three of Dhand’s DI Harry Virdee series, this being the fourth, I can honestly say that these books have quickly secured their grip on me, and boy, does this one ratchet up the action, with a backdrop of a terrorist atrocity in Bradford, and a race against time to prevent a further one.  Also, where the first three books are intrinsically caught up with Harry and his criminal brother Ronnie (the devil and the angel of Bradford with a nice blurring of these seemingly straightforward definitions), this book sees Ronnie absent, and Harry, his wife Saima and Harry’s parents, Ranjit and Joyti, firmly in the spotlight. So, let the fun begin…

Right let’s start with the pow, kaboom aspect of this book, and that is quite clearly, the energy, pace and tension that Dhand so assuredly weaves into the tick-tock race to foil another terrorist attack in Bradford. This is proper high-octane thriller writing as the clock ticks down towards a potential attack that could cost the lives of many people. I must admit throughout the entirety of this book, I was astounded by Harry’s mental flexibility, and physical prowess, as he is tasked by the Home Secretary, Tariq Islam, to round up a group of terrorists, before disaster strikes. Harry is nothing if not tenacious, quick thinking and seems to be able to absorb a fair amount of physical punishment along the way too, and I can totally guarantee that as each twist in the plot hits home, you will be reading breathlessly throughout. It’s fast and furious, compounded by some sublime plotting, and yet moments of solemn pause for thought, as Dhand explores the theme of radicalism, in all its guises, be it through religion, right-wing prejudice, or for the manipulation of society by political chicanery. This is definitely a plot filled with thrills, spills and compelling action, that, to use a well worn adage, will keep you on the edge of your seat, but also with some beautifully weighted moments of reflection on the greater forces at work behind this abominable course of events.

Having been on the periphery of the opening attack with his mum, Joyti and young son, Aaron, Dhand uses this as a recurrent motif in the book, that being the fundamental impulse of Harry as a husband, father and son, to protect his family, and something that not only influences his actions in the book, but also, importantly distracts him periodically from the task in hand. The theme of family, as in previous books, sounds loud as having Harry and his wife Saima so deeply involved in the main thrust of the action, Dhand dedicates an equal part of the book to the ongoing familial conflict that Harry has experienced through his marriage as a Sikh to his Muslim wife Saima and the seemingly unbridgeable gap this has caused in his relationship with his parents, and most significantly with his father Ranjit. Tasked with caring for Harry and Saima’s young son Aaron as events unfold, Harry’s parents Ranjit and Joyti provide perhaps the most emotionally charged element of the book, as Ranjit tries to come to terms with his prejudice and dislike of Harry’s involvement with a Muslim woman. There is an incredibly enlightening account of Ranjit’s experiences as a child which shines a light on his fear and prejudices, and what we witness is a man in a huge amount of emotional turmoil, where hatred and love clash so deeply in his psyche, particularly in such close proximity to his grandson. Dhand depicts this beautifully, putting both his characters, and us as readers, through an emotional wringer, and I felt myself increasingly moved by Ranjit’s struggle to come to terms with his ingrained prejudice, with some truly heart wrenching and poignant writing in this part of the narrative.

So, as you’ve probably gathered this was a superb read, and demonstrates once again, how Dhand excels in particular with the issues that surround family conflict, and how relationships flounder and stall when prejudice raises its ugly head. Equally, this is a terrific thriller, with a verve and energy that sits as a wonderful counterpoint to the more soul searching dilemmas that arise as a consequence of the unfolding terrorist plot, so relevant to the increasing grip of radicalism across the world today. What I love about Dhand as a writer is the obvious pressure that he puts himself under as an author, and there is a real sense of him pushing himself a little bit further with every book, that is leading to some absolutely superlative writing. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Transworld/Bantam for the ARC)

 

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#BlogTour Helga Flatland- A Modern Family

When Liv, Ellen and Håkon, along with their partners and children, arrive in Rome to celebrate their father’s seventieth birthday, a quiet earthquake occurs: their parents have decided to divorce.

Shocked and disbelieving, the siblings try to come to terms with their parents’ decision as it echoes through the homes they have built for themselves, and forces them to reconstruct the shared narrative of their childhood and family history…

A slight diversion from my normal crime fare in the shape of this one, A Modern Family from Helga Flatland, dubbed the Norwegian Anne Tyler. The machinations of family life has been a rich seam for Scandinavian fiction and film for many years, instantly bringing to mind Festen and the Danish TV series The Legacy, both structured around the pressure points that arise, and relationships that become strained in families. Although the events of Flatland are probably less driven by greed and competitiveness, Flatland constructs a story that really delves beneath the veneer of this particular family, and the seismic implications of an unexpected announcement…

I think it’s fair to say that this is a book driven by character, as this nuclear family of mother and father, their two daughters, Liv and Ellen and their son, Hakon, their respective partners, and their children are put so much under the microscope, after the announcement that their parents, in their twilight years, are seeking a divorce. What Flatland does is raise this book above a rather humdrum premise, to an incisive and probing exploration of family life; what makes them tick, the underlying alliances, the individual members’ weaknesses, strengths and their own personal issues. Speaking from the viewpoint of an only child from a small family, I found this particularly interesting, never having to navigate the general stresses that this particular family seem to have in droves!

As the story unfolds between the split narratives of Liv, Ellen and Hakon, we not only bear witness to their own assimilation of the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, but also a detailed insight into their own lives with issues of infertility, marital strain, fear of commitment and so on, swirling around the central motif of the unsettling effect of their parents’ break up. Flatland also pays particular attention to the changing dynamics of the relationship between Liv, Ellen and Hakon themselves, as in the wake of their parents proceeding boldly on the course of their new lives untethered to each other, it seems that their children find the whole scenario just a tad more difficult to cope with themselves. In fact, as the story progresses my admiration for their parents’ growing fearless attitude was one of the highlights of the book. As Liv and Ellen get sucked into a increasingly gloomy narrative arising from the emotional fissures in their lives, and Hakon, who comes across as a teenager in adult clothing, seems entirely confused by how the whole world of relationships works, it serves to put them on a different emotional plain entirely to their increasingly stoical and pragmatic parents.

Although A Modern Family obviously has its foundations firmly rooted in this family unit, Flatland also punctuates the book with some interesting observations on a whole array of subjects from publishing to politics, from green issues to female equality, some of which brought a wry smile to this reader, as the characters mount their soapboxes and let fly with their observations. I think this is done extremely well, rooting the reader in a fixed space and time in the characters’ lives, but also adhering to the Scandinavian reputation, both in fiction and crime, of giving their readers a broader and balanced view of the world against which their narratives play out, and I enjoyed Flatland’s realisation of this very much. I will confess that this is not normally the type of book I would naturally seek out, but I did enjoy this modern saga of a family in a period of change, crisis and renewal, and the points of stress, high emotion and the process of acceptance that Flatland explores within her characters. Recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

 

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Orlando Ortega-Medina- The Death of Baseball

Former Little League champion Kimitake “Clyde” Koba finds strength in the belief that he is the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe as he struggles to escape the ghost of his brother and his alcoholic father. Born on Yom Kippur, teen prodigy Raphael Dweck has been told his whole life that he has a special purpose in God’s plan. The only problem is, he can’t shake off his doubts, his urges, or the trail of trouble and ruin that follow in his wake.

A decade later, Raphael and ‘Marilyn’ find each other wandering the plastic-bright streets of Hollywood and set out to make a documentary about the transmigration of souls. But when the roleplaying goes too far, they find themselves past the point of no return in their quest to prove who and what they are to their families, God, the world, and themselves…

I first encountered the work of Orlando Ortega-Medina through his brilliant, emotionally charged and meditative short story collection Jerusalem Ablaze etched into my memory as one of the trickiest reviews I have ever had to write. Now having read Ortega-Medina’s full length novel, The Death of Baseball I feel that my reviewing skills will be put to the test once again, as I try and communicate to you all how necessary, heartfelt, thought-provoking and sublimely perfect this book is. Oh yes. I did say perfect…

When I began reading this book, I somewhat intuitively avoided reading the full synopsis, as I had a vibe from the outset, that I very much just wanted to be taken wherever this book wished to take me. Aside from the sway of the beautifully retro cover, I felt from a very early stage of reading that this was a book that would consume me completely, and consequently this was one of the rare occasions where this was the only book I was reading at the time. I think this was also influenced by the fact that Ortega-Medina’s two main protagonists, Raphael, and Marilyn are so singularly deserving of the reader’s full attention, as the drama, tragedy, and human frailty plays out against a backdrop of changing decades and social mores, America and Israel, conflict and peace, and the underlying need of both to form a lasting emotional connection. I am only going to give you a silhouette of the characters and the plot, as I think this is a book that needs to be discovered in an almost neutral vacuum, to fully appreciate its emotional depth, and to open yourself up to some extremely accomplished and sublime storytelling.

To say that these characters’  lives are troubled and tempestuous would be an understatement, and as the author highlights the crisis of conscience, faith and loyalty, he weighs them down with, I can guarantee you will be held completely in their thrall. I can honestly say that I did have a sustained emotional response to this book, which is incredibly unusual, as books rarely achieve this for me.  I think the emotional heft, moments of extreme poignancy, frustration and anger that we bear witness to in the lives of these characters, is so beautifully realised and communicated that you do become completely immersed in the powerful positivity and destructing negativity, that Raphael and Marilyn seem to take it in turns to display. These conflicting traits lead on occasion to impetuous, ill-judged acts, tempered by moments of extreme tenderness and self realisation as they battle with issues of faith, identity and the instances of wretched tragedy that blight their lives. However, despite the incredibly visceral humanity of this book, I did feel that a certain sense of equanimity was achieved in the life of one character, and that their struggle for acceptance and recognition did come to fruition, which lifted the book to a more life affirming plain.

Tied up with the superlative characterisation of Raphael, Marilyn and the social, religious and familial crisis they suffer, I would also draw attention to two other strengths of the narrative of this book. One is location and period detail, firmly rooting us in the changing decades from the 60s through the 80s, and the way that Ortega-Medina subtly places us in the grip of each decade, using the recognisable markers of each decade, and certain tumultuous events both in America and Israel. The section of the book set in Israel was particularly compulsive reading, as Ortega-Medina places Raphael in a largely unfamiliar setting, under pressure with the weight of certain aspects of his family history, clinging to his faith, pushing the boundaries of his sexuality, and tentatively feeling his way to love. The threat of war with Egypt plays out in the background, and this sojourn in Israel also provides an incredibly interesting reappraisal and exploration of Raphael’s faith, and the seismic effect on his own character that events in Israel cause.

When I’ve been talking about this book to friends and colleagues, another aspect I keep drawing attention to is the sheer cleverness of the structure. Every chapter, and yes, it is every chapter, can be read in isolation to the others as a completely self contained short story, whilst not disrupting the momentum and continuity of the story in any way. Once I stumbled upon this notion and blown away by the skill of this, I actually went back through the book at random picking certain chapters to re-read, particularly those in Israel, and those set in a certain location towards to the end of the book. When I reviewed Jerusalem Ablaze, I drew attention to the fact that this author so quickly enables the reader to connect on an emotional level with his characters, and this sustained use of structuring his chapters like this, adds even more to the intensity with which he enveigles us in his character’s lives. The Death of Baseball is a glorious miasma of contradictions and conflicts, the need to love, the need for acceptance and recognition, fame, faith, abuse, identity and hope. I found it thought provoking and powerfully emotional, and I loved the way it immersed me so fully in these two lives with their unique voices. This book has such a strong message at its core, clearly illustrating how we are all the same in our desire to achieve contentment and an equilibrium in our lives, however we choose to live and with whomever we choose to love. Highly, highly recommended.

(With thanks to Cloud Lodge Books for the ARC)

#20BooksOfSummer 2019 – A game of two halves!

Have been a little under the weather of late, so am a little late on posting my list for the #20BooksOfSummer challenge hosted by the brilliant Cathy746Books.

The aim of the challenge is, as always, to cut a bit of a swathe through our toppling TBRs, or to simply catch up on those books we have been meaning to get to… So by simply selecting to read 5, 10, 15 or 20 books between 3June and 2 September, you too can join in the fun by clicking the link here…

Knowing how woefully disorganised I am at this challenge, I have selected 10 books initially, and have a subs bench of 10 titles too, depending on how my reading pans out.

So here are the first ten books I have selected:

Marie-Else Bragg- Towards Mellbreak

Anna Burns- Milkman

Sam Byers- Perfidious Albion

William Gay- The Lost Country

Georgina Harding- The Gun Room

Michael Hughes- Country

Gabino Iglesias- Coyote Songs

Martin MacInnes- Infinite Ground

Max Porter- Lanny

Mark Thompson- Dust

Enjoy the challenge everyone, and good luck!