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Blog Tour- Jack Grimwood- Nightfall Berlin

In 1986, news that East-West nuclear-arms negotiations are taking place lead many to believe the Cold War may finally be thawing. For British intelligence officer Major Tom Fox, however, it is business as usual. Ordered to arrange the smooth repatriation of a defector, Fox is smuggled into East Berlin. But it soon becomes clear that there is more to this than an old man wishing to return home to die – a fact cruelly confirmed when Fox’s mission is fatally compromised. Trapped in East Berlin, hunted by an army of Stasi agents and wanted for murder by those on both sides of the Wall, Fox must somehow elude capture and get out alive. But to do so he must discover who sabotaged his mission and why…

Since an early age I have been fascinated by spies, lies and espionage and all the cloak and dagger activities of those who detect, and seek to subvert threats to national security: grey squirrel can’t fly without umbrella and all that tricksy spy-craft stuff. I was mightily impressed by Jack Grimwood’s debut Moskva that provided a fresh new take on the path previously trodden by Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, and most pleasingly Major Tom Fox is back in the fray in this follow up, Nightfall Berlin. The events of the previous book resonate here as Fox navigates the world of East Berlin, firmly under the control of both the Soviet occupiers and the secretive agents of the state, the infamous Stasi. Tasked with bringing a notorious double agent back home to the clutches of British Intelligence, Fox quickly finds himself embroiled in, and accused of murder, as well as being thrust firmly into the gaze of the pernicious security services, calling on all his skills of evasion and detection to extricate himself from his increasingly perilous situation: a situation that has ramifications for those closest to him too…

This is one of the most skilfully plotted traditional Cold War thrillers I have read in recent years, and as we are effortlessly transported between the harsh, concrete world of East Berlin, and the verdant peace of rural England, Grimwood moves between past and present, laying false clues and leading us as much as Fox himself down blind alleyways, with a trail of misinformation and double crossing galore. Grimwood, similarly in his fantasy oeuvre, is an extremely visual writer, and not without reason I was reminded strikingly of those classic black and white spy films, as Fox navigates his way around this hostile environment. The sheer poverty, and unrelenting grind of life in this communist enclave is front and centre, and by extension what people will do to escape its iron grip. People are fearful and mistrustful, and Grimwood depicts beautifully how Fox seeks to circumvent this pall of suspicion and fear to prove his innocence, and to catch a ruthless killer.

I get the sense that it was with some glee that Grimwood delights in not only constructing a disparate, interesting and slightly damaged characters, but also that he so brilliantly masks those that are treacherous and self serving so well. Without exception, each character is precisely drawn and tangible in their thoughts and motivations for their actions: in what they reveal and what they conceal. In the grand tradition of Le Carre, Ambler, and Deighton, Grimwood tricks and feints the reader, but never to the detriment of the sheer believability of the narrative itself. I was genuinely absorbed and loved the web of reveals and surprises that Grimwood so effortlessly introduces into this seriously gripping thriller. There is a pace and tense nervous energy to the narrative that urges the reader on, and yet a subtle slowing of pace in some of the most nerve shredding scenes that provide a much more unsettling effect on the reader. Grimwood handles all aspects of this book with a deft touch from setting, to characterisation, to pace, to the plot itself, and if you love a twisty, cerebral Cold War thriller as much as I do, I would definitely recommend that you seek out Nightfall Berlin. Duplicitous spies, and conniving Russians seems oddly prescient at the moment… Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Penguin/Michael Joseph for the ARC)

Check out the rest of the blog tour at these excellent sites…

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Vicky Newham- Turn A Blind Eye

A dead girl.
A wall of silence.
DI Maya Rahman is running out of time.

A headmistress is found strangled in her East London school, her death the result of a brutal and ritualistic act of violence. Found at the scene is a single piece of card, written upon which is an ancient Buddhist precept:

I shall abstain from taking the ungiven.

At first, DI Maya Rahman can’t help but hope this is a tragic but isolated murder. Then, the second body is found. Faced with a community steeped in secrets and prejudice, Maya must untangle the cryptic messages left at the crime scenes to solve the deadly riddle behind the murders – before the killer takes another victim…

Having recently been a wee bit disillusioned with British crime thrillers and some of their failures in presenting a realistic picture of multicultural Britain, Turn A Blind Eye proved to be a refreshing new thriller from debut author Vicky Newham.

Rooting the book in the East End of London in a comprehensive school, Newham, drawing heavily on her own experience of teaching in this environment. From the outset, we bear witness to a singularly authentic depiction of the daily grind and small moments of achievement that teachers experience in this most challenging of educational environments. With such a disparate array of cultures, differing educational achievement, and the often difficult family backgrounds of the pupils, Newham balances perfectly the everyday experiences of the both the teachers and pupils, the good and the bad, the challenges and the rewards.  Giving nothing away, the series of murders that then begin to happen within the school, allows Newham to dig deeper into the teachers’ and pupils’ lives, and puts front and centre the question of the degree of  responsibility  teachers hold when their pupils school and family life begin to impact on each other, and to what extent their intervention can lead to harmful results. The suicide of a female pupil plays an integral role in the plot, and Newham never fails to treat this issue, and the reasons for it in both a sensitive, and balanced way. Equally, she applies this same degree of balance to the characters of the teachers involved, and their contrary responses, both sympathetic and less so, to the everyday troubles and pressures that the pupils experience, when cultural and familial conflict arise.

The multicultural tensions and difficulties of the schools and society are expanded in the book in the characters of DI Maya Rahman, and her partner DS Dan Maguire. Rahman is Bangladeshi, and Maguire is a resident of Australia where his Aborigine wife and children live. Rahman has recently lost her brother, having just returned from his funeral in Bangladesh, and the book is punctuated with a shifting of timelines showing the problems she has experienced in relation to her family, and the cultural demands that have so sadly resulted in her brother’s death. Although she is still in a state of grief, she is a determined and professional detective, unafraid to confront the stupidity of her superiors, and to ask uncomfortable questions to ascertain the truth. Maguire proves an interesting sidekick with the references to his life in Australia, and the challenges he and his family face, and the natural bonhomie and good humour that he injects in to his and Rahman’s working relationship. I liked the way that Newham portrays them both as inching their way to a comfortable working relationship, and the strength of this gradually grows as the book progresses, leading to a solid base for hopefully further investigations in the future.

As I have mentioned, their is a particular onus in the book on cultural and religious experience, and Newham deftly addresses the beliefs and tenets of Buddhism, Islam and so on. This undercurrent of religious and cultural tension is thought provoking and informative throughout, and the authorial voice is detectable but not overly obtrusive, as Newham seeks to balance her own first hand experience and knowledge within the boundaries of the story. As well as being entertained and engaged with the book as a crime thriller, I enjoyed this extra level of detail, which I found both informative, enlightening, and at times incredibly poignant too.

All in all, I found Turn A Blind Eye a well-plotted and compelling thriller throughout, and despite the fact that the reveal of the guilty party felt slightly disjointed in the depleted cast of characters in the overall narrative, I still felt that this was an assured and well written debut. Am looking forward to my next entanglement with Rahman and Maguire. Recommended.

(With thanks to HQ for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

Emma Viskic- Resurrection Bay

 

*With the joyous news that Resurrection Bay is now available in paperback in the UK, and as one of my Top 10 reads of 2017, thought a timely reminder of this excellent book might be in order. The follow up And Fire Came Down is due for release in late August too, if this one whets your appetite. Happy reading!* 

Caleb Zelic, profoundly deaf since early childhood, has always lived on the outside – watching, picking up tell-tale signs people hide in a smile, a cough, a kiss.

When a childhood friend is murdered, a sense of guilt and a determination to prove his own innocence sends Caleb on a hunt for the killer. But he can’t do it alone. Caleb and his troubled friend Frankie, an ex-cop, start with one clue: Scott, the last word the murder victim texted to Caleb. But Scott is always one step ahead.

This gripping, original and fast-paced crime thriller is set between a big city and a small coastal town, Resurrection Bay, where Caleb is forced to confront painful memories. Caleb is a memorable protagonist who refuses to let his deafness limit his opportunities or his participation in the investigation. But does his persistence border on stubbornness? And at what cost? As he delves deeper into the investigation Caleb uncovers unwelcome truths about his murdered friend – and himself.

As an ardent fan of Pushkin Press‘ publishing output, and their bijou Vertigo collection of European crime in translation, I was more than a little curious to read the latest addition to the series. But what’s this? Not European, but Australian, and the Raven’s curiosity went into overdrive…

Okay, so before I start generally gushing about Resurrection Bay, I will set my stall out early, and say that I would be very surprised if this one doesn’t feature prominently in my year end round-up. I thought it was accomplished, original and utterly riveting, so much so that I read it in pretty much one sitting, and indeed felt slightly bereft when I had finished it. I was totally immersed in the difficult and dangerous world of Caleb Zelic from the very beginning, and with its resonance of the sharp, snappy hard-boiled essence of American crime fiction, and the refreshingly original main protagonist of Zelic himself, there is much to enjoy here.

Having a profoundly deaf central protagonist, I imagine poses its own particular difficulties for an author, whilst keeping us focussed on the difficulties and subtle nuances of this disability, but by the same token not over-egging the narrative to reflect this. I think Viskic achieves this balance beautifully, as we come to appreciate the attendant difficulties of Zelic’s life coping with, and largely overcoming the problems associated with his deafness. This was a subtle and sensitive portrayal of this disability, emphasising his reliance on Auslan (sign language) and lip reading, and I particularly enjoyed the way that his perception of people was formed through their varying degrees of success of communicating with him through these methods. The problems that arise through other’s indistinct speech, or shouting at him like he was an idiot was nicely done, and also the mental stress he encounters through tiredness, or the malfunctioning of his aids. As an extension of this, Viskic focusses a great deal on the barriers of communication that exist, not only through Zelic’s deafness, but between other characters in different situations, and how this can lead to danger or emotional isolation. This adds a whole other level to the narrative, which although perfectly serviceable as a compelling thriller, is enriched further by these observations of human communication. Zelic is obviously at the forefront of the book, but there is equally strong characterisation of those around him, including his work partner, ex-detective Frankie Reynolds, and Zelic’s estranged wife Kat. Both women are strong, resilient and uniquely different, and it’s interesting how our perception of Zelic is affected by his particular relationship with each, and how each adds humour, danger or sheer emotional intensity to the plot. Kat provides another sense of depth to the tale with her Aboriginal roots, and the unquestioning acceptance, or blatant racism that her ancestry provokes is touched upon too, but again with a subtlety that doesn’t bash the reader around the head.

I thought the plot of Resurrection Bay was pacey and gripping, as Zelic sets out to investigate the murder of an old friend, and certain dark secrets come to light. There are sporadic bouts of violence and peril, cross and double-cross that keep the story moving nicely, punctuated by more tender and introspective scenes, with an exploration of addiction, love and loyalty. There’s also a good twist at the end, that this reader most definitely didn’t see coming, which is always satisfying, and to be honest I am on tenterhooks for the next instalment, And Fire Came Down. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARC)

#BlogTour- Kerensa Jennings- Seas of Snow

To mark the paperback release of Kerensa Jennings’  Seas of Snow, here is a revisit of my original review. Remember to check out the other stops on this special blog tour, to discover more about this emotive and beautifully written novel…

1950s England. Five-year-old Gracie Scott lives with her Mam and next door to her best friend Billy. An only child, she has never known her Da. When her Uncle Joe moves in, his physical abuse of Gracie’s mother starts almost immediately. But when his attentions wander to Gracie, an even more sinister pattern of behaviour begins. As Gracie grows older, she finds solace and liberation in books, poetry and her enduring friendship with Billy. Together they escape into the poetic fairy-tale worlds of their imaginations. But will fairy tales be enough to save Gracie from Uncle Joe’s psychopathic behaviour – and how far will it go?

I must confess that when I started reading Seas of Snow, I was entirely unsure of what to expect, hoping that this would go far beyond a simple, linear tale of family misery. My fears were very quickly dispelled, and to be honest, this was one of the most emotive, thought-provoking, and beautifully characterised novels I have read for some time…

For the purposes of this review I will studiously avoid the words crime novel, as to my mind what Kerensa Jennings has produced with aplomb is much more akin to literary fiction, in terms of emotional depth and narrative tone. With the use of the dual narrative structure, where the past is seamlessly intertwined with the contemporary timeline,  the reader finds themselves  gently pivoted back and forth. To avoid any unwitting spoilers, the contemporary aspect of the book involves two characters looking back on childhood events with their knowing adult perspective, but so as not to reveal a hugely surprising twist in the tale I can say no more. Suffice to say this part of this story was incredibly moving, and sees these characters wrestling with the emotional consequences of the events so many years previously. It is emotionally uplifting yet perturbing in equal measure, as Jennings’ explores the themes of redemption and blame in relation to their actions, leading to some exceptionally moving revelations.

Instead, what I will focus on is Jennings’ absolute mastery of the language and thought of both Grace and Billy as children. I do tend to avoid reading books with a child’s narrative, as I am so often disappointed by the lack of realism, and how many authors slip into the attribution of adult reasoning that then undermines the credibility of the young narrator. Jennings’ portrayal of her child protagonists is never less than perfectly realised. Gracie’s dialogue, thoughts and child’s reasoning is absolutely authentic throughout, and as a reader, when the dark events unfold, you are genuinely terrified for her. Jennings’ depiction of the abuse that Gracie suffers is totally unflinching, so much so that at times I had to physically take a breath when reading these scenes. I admired the bravery and realism with which Jennings’ approaches this hugely emotive subject matter, be it the sheer physical fear that Gracie experiences, or in the uncompromising and brutally graphic depiction of the psyche of her abuser. Jennings’ neatly circumvents the clichéd  bogeyman images of paedophilia, but instead, presents a much more frightening depiction by the way she explores so fearlessly and thoroughly the mind-set of this deeply disturbed individual who brings fear and havoc to Gracie’s childhood. It takes the reader into the darkest recesses of psychopathy, and Jennings’ intuitive exploration of the conundrum of nature vs nurture is both deeply chilling, and strangely fascinating. The writing is emotionally intense, graphic and unceasingly honest.

As much as the novel focuses on the violence of Gracie’s childhood, Jennings’ harmonises this throughout with the simple pleasures of childhood friendships,  and increasing perception that both Gracie and Billy begin to experience of the world around them. There are childhood stories of make-believe, adventure, and Gracie’s flourishing interest in the world of books and poetry, that in tandem with her friendship with Billy, sustains her mental equilibrium, as the dark events of her household play out. It brings a beautifully weighted lightness, and emotional relief to the novel, that keeps the reader balanced and engaged, before the next plunge into the darker aspects of the book, and Jennings’ cleverly uses this part of Gracie’s development to change the nature of her narrative voice, and the images she ascribes to her tormentor’s presence. This is the only point where you can quite clearly hear a resonance of Jennings’ own authorial voice, as Gracie’s increasing appreciation of books and poetry, reflect what I believe is the author’s own joy and emotional succour afforded to us all by literature and verse. I found the scenes reflecting Gracie’s growing appreciation of this world of words and images strangely reminiscent of my own, and I’m sure many other readers too, and it was a delight.

This was without doubt an emotionally intense, but extremely rewarding reading experience, despite the harsh and quite often unpalatable depiction of a childhood destroyed. The language, imagery and controlled nature of Jennings’ writing was at times deeply unsettling in the portrayal of the darkness of Gracie’s experiences, and the psyche of her abuser,  but then uplifting in the purity and simplicity she attributes to Gracie’s discovery of the pleasures of storytelling and poetry that becomes her coping strategy. At times, an incredibly discomforting read, with a shockingly powerful denouement, but equally a brave, truthful, and thought-provoking novel. Highly recommended.

(With much thanks to the author for the ARC)

 

A Global Round-Up- Jane Harper, Arnaldur Indridason, Snorri Kristjansson, Walter Mosley

Just been grappling with a bout of flu, and realising I am a gazillion reviews behind, am bringing you a compact little round up. Luckily, some of you prefer this format anyway so it’s a win-win! 

When five colleagues are forced to go on a corporate retreat in the wilderness, they reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking down the muddy path. But one of the women doesn’t come out of the woods. And each of her companions tells a slightly different story about what happened. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing hiker. In an investigation that takes him deep into isolated forest, Falk discovers secrets lurking in the mountains, and a tangled web of personal and professional friendship, suspicion, and betrayal among the hikers. But did that lead to murder?

A follow up to the bestselling The Dry featuring Police Agent Aaron Falk, and smattered with references to the aforementioned if you are one of, what seems to be, the only people on the planet not to have read Harper’s debut. I immediately liked the premise of this one, being no big fan of these tedious teambuilding exercises where you have to achieve miracles worthy of JC himself to navigate your team across a pond with a pair of tights and a tea-tray. The fact that Harper also has her group of work colleagues simmering with resentment, unavenged slights, and general testiness endeared me even more, as the group becomes increasingly fractured, leading to the disappearance of one member, Alice. Using a split narrative, so we are pivoted back and forth from the events of the weekend, to the real-time investigation, Harper handles the pacing of the plot perfectly, and by slowly decreasing the spacing between the events of then and now, urges the reader on to read quicker, and step up the pace generally. There is also a neat little side story, referencing a notorious killer, and the continuing search for one of his victims, which adds another frisson of murderous intent to the proceedings. I thought the depiction of the characters, both within the group of women, and of Harper’s detectives, Falk and Carmen Cooper, was engaging, and there was a good mix of rivalry, tension, and stretched loyalties among them. Although I was a little disappointed by the ending, in terms of how realistically it played out in relation to how the story had been constructed, I found this a satisfying enough read, although it does pale in comparison slightly  to The Dry.


Now to two books by the undisputed king of Icelandic crime, Arnaldur Indridason, The Shadow District, and The Shadow Killer, which I read back to back, and both set in wartime Reykjavik. My only slight annoyance with doing this, was that the first book is set in 1944, and the second in 1941, and as the first book ties up what happens to the two main protagonists in subsequent years, I was frustrated by going back in time in the second with this knowledge of the future in my head. On a more positive note, however, I thought both books were pretty flawless in their period detail, dramatic tension, and with a thoroughly likeable pair of investigators, Flovent, a police detective, and Thorsen, a military policeman with Icelandic and Canadian roots. There was a good sense of equanimity in the structure of their working relationship, and both characters had pleasing emotional depth and quirks to their personalities. As both are young men, Indridason not only builds into their characters a slight sense of impetuousness, but balances this with moments of mature emotional clarity, as they seek to track down murderers, with the opposing weight of the police force and the military sometimes seeking to thwart their progress.

Although both books focus on fairly linear murder plots, both are superbly enhanced by the wealth of detail that Indridason weaves into the stories, focussing on the country’s gaining of independence and, the role of Iceland in supporting the allied war mission, and the social implications, particularly on families, women and personal wealth, by this massive influx of British and American military personnel. Prior to reading these books I had no awareness whatsoever of the singularly important part that Iceland played in WWII, and certainly for me I found the military detail fascinating, and I was utterly intrigued by the whole concept of ‘the Situation‘- the sense of judgement meted out by families and society alike on young women fraternising with the allied personnel. This is pertinent to both books, and by the incorporation of a creepy subplot based on equally creepy totems of Icelandic folklore, the role of women and their subjugation plays heavily throughout. I found these different themes of home, family, folklore, war and society work in perfect tandem with each other, leading to a real multi faceted reading experience, with the characters of Flovent and Thorsen holding the whole narrative together. I would highly recommend both books but maybe read them in date order!

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He can deny it all he likes, but everyone knows Viking warlord Unnthor Reginsson brought home a great chest of gold when he retired from the longboats and settled down with Hildigunnur in a remote valley. Now, in the summer of 970, adopted daughter Helga is awaiting the arrival of her unknown siblings: dark, dangerous Karl, lithe, clever Jorunn, gentle Aslak, henpecked by his shrewish wife, and the giant Bjorn, made bitter by Volund, his idiot son.
And they’re coming with darkness in their hearts.The siblings gather, bad blood simmers and old feuds resurface as Unnthor’s heirs make their moves on the old man’s treasure – until one morning Helga is awakened by screams. Blood has been shed: kin has been slain. No one confesses, but all the clues point to one person – who cannot possibly be the murderer, at least in Helga’s eyes. But if she’s going to save the innocent from the axe and prevent more bloodshed, she’s got to solve the mystery – fast . . .

I will tarry a wee bit longer in Iceland with Kin by Snorri Kristjansson, the first of the Helga Finnsdottir mystery series, and what holds the unique position of being the first Viking murder mystery, apart from the great sagas themselves, that I have read. I thoroughly enjoy Kristjansson’s normal historical fare having read all three of his Valhalla series, but I had a curious reading experience with this one. At first, I didn’t feel that the opening of the book really reflected the time period it is set in, and this just felt like a small rural community on the cusp of some forthcoming upset. It was only as the family members began to arrive that I felt Kristjansson really settled us in to the timeline, exemplified by the sons’ tales of plundering and fighting. I also felt like it took an absolute age for the actual ‘crime’ to happen, as the story packed to the gills with all the necessary conflict, jealousies and infidelities essential to an Icelandic soap opera, which eventually results in murder. I was rather enjoying this mash up of the Icelandic sagas, Shakespearean treachery, and Viking ‘It’s A Knockout’ , when it was punctuated by a rather unexciting, but completely predictable murder, and then another, which led to young Helga ‘Nancy Drew’ Finnsdottir becoming a rather unconvincing super sleuth. So a thumbs up from me for the familial conflict, and the generally entertaining conniving women and wonderfully Neanderthal male characters, but as a murder mystery in a conventional sense I felt it was a little loose fitting and awkward, and less than convincing overall. Shame.

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Joe King Oliver was one of the NYPD’s finest investigators until, dispatched to arrest a well-heeled car thief, he is framed for assault, a charge that lands him in the notorious Rikers Island prison. A decade later, King is a private detective, running his agency with the help of his teenage daughter, Aja-Denise. When he receives a card in the mail from the woman who admits she was paid by someone in the NYPD to frame him all those years ago, King realises that he has no choice but to take his own case: figuring out who on the force wanted him disposed of – and why. At the same time, King must investigate the case of black radical journalist Leonard Compton, aka A Free Man, accused of killing two on-duty police offices who had been abusing their badges to traffic drugs and women into the city’s poorest neighbourhoods.In pursuit of justice, our hero must beat dirty cops and even dirtier bankers. All the while, two lives hang in the balance: Compton’s, and King’s own…

Although he ranks alongside James Lee Burke and James Ellroy in Raven’s trinity of favourite contemporary American crime authors, it is highly unusual for me to post a review of his work, as he is always read in a vacuum of serenity outside of critical reading, and imminent reviewing- my hygge zone if you will. So I’ll keep this review of Down The River Unto The Sea as brief, and as objective as I can, but frankly Mr Mosley probably writes more interesting post-its than a substantial swathe of self published tosh, we as readers, are assailed with. Every word, image, theme and plot contrivance are perfectly done, and as the first book in a new series, I can only salivate with anticipation as to what is to come for Oliver in future books.

I don’t know if there is any technical term for this, beyond him being a supreme practitioner of observation, but every description of a character imprints a visual image of that person on the reader’s mind. I love the way he shapes and draws his characters, from their way of dressing, to their gait, to the timbre of their speech, underpinned by wit, pure sassiness and razor sharp dialogue. I love the way his characters always seem to walk that line between doubt and certainty, morality and immorality, strength and vulnerability, and the blurring of these credos that always underscore his protagonists, most notably in Oliver himself. In true Mosley fashion the book hums and sings with a rough-edged lyrical intensity, and encompasses all those big powerful themes of racism, political and police corruption, and subjugation that are so redolent of Mosley’s oeuvre to date.

Objectivity is overrated. I totally loved this and cannot fault it.

Mosley is a master. End of.

Highly recommended.

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( With thanks for the ARCs to Little Brown for Force of Nature, Harvill Secker for the Indridason Reykjavik mysteries, Quercus for Kin, W&N for Down To The River Unto To The Sea, which I also bought in hardback)


 

 

Blog Tour- Michael Farris Smith- The Fighter

The acres and acres of fertile soil, the two-hundred year old antebellum house, all gone. And so is the woman who gave it to him. The foster mother who saved Jack Boucher from a childhood of abandonment now rests in a hospice. Her mind eroded by dementia, the family legacy she entrusted to Jack is now owned by banks and strangers. And Jack’s mind has begun to fail, too, as concussion after concussion forces him to carry around a notebook of names that separate friend from foe. But in a single twisted night Jack is derailed. Losing the money that will clear his debt with the queen of Delta vice, and forcing Jack into the fighting pit one last time the stakes nothing less than life or death…

I would like to begin this review by heartily congratulating Michael Farris Smith on writing a book that is so beautifully plotted and exquisitely characterised that I’m already doubting my ability to do justice to the book in this review. I’ll try…

The Fighter is at times so painfully brutal in terms of the physicality of violence that the author presents, but this is tempered by some of the most sensitive and soulful prose that I have encountered for some time.  In a throwaway comment on social media I described Smith as the bastard lovechild of Cormac McCarthy and Willy Vlautin, as his writing exudes all the pain, brutality, and baring of the soul of his characters that these two writers excel in. Jack Bouchard- the fighter of the title- is a man metaphorically and physically bruised and battered by the life he has led, and suffering in the wake of bad decisions and wrong turnings that he has made. As he teeters on the edge of financial ruin, and in the face the impending loss of the one person who, to use a boxing analogy, has fought his corner, since his less than stable childhood, we see a man at his lowest ebb. More importantly as dependent as he is on gambling, illegal medication, and fighting the physical effects of a life spent punched and pummelled as a prize-fighter, Smith loads this character with an incredibly strong moral centre, and a man capable of a depth of emotion that his actions and outward appearance belie. Smith plays with our expectations of this character from the beginning, as he moves Bouchard from an almost clichéd portrayal of a punch drunk wastrel, to this incredibly empathetic character. The characterisation of Bouchard is phenomenal, as we experience his extreme lows, and see his increasingly desperate reaching towards a safe haven and stability in his life. The scenes with Maryann, his adoptive mother, and his recollections of the life lived with her, are beautifully poised and incredibly moving, and there is such a melancholic grace about Bouchard as he teeters on the edge of loss. Bathed in pathos, but not cloyingly so, Smith achieves a rare balance between the essential tough masculinity of Bouchard, and the more sensitive core of his emotional regret and sadness – it’s masterfully done.

Parallel to Bouchard, we enter into the less than stable existence of a young woman, Annette, who bears her pain in a strange parallel to Bouchard. As much as he wears the scars of fights lost and won, Annette has chosen to represent her life, and channel her emotions and thoughts with her body art. As we see her initially in the roustabout world of the travelling show, with no sense of permanence of rootedness, her and Bouchard’s paths crossing seems inevitable, opening up a whole other world of emotional bargaining and personal revelation. I liked very much her curious mix of strength and vulnerability, and how, as a reader, we recognise this symbiosis of emotion that Smith imbues in these two characters. Also, with shades of Elmore Leonard, Smith constructs a small band of despicable criminal characters, to whom Bouchard is indebted, replete with their southern redneck mentality, and violent compulsions, to raise the stakes for Bouchard’s survival. They play beautifully in the overarching feel of violence and hopelessness that permeates the book, leaving the reader in hope of more uplifting revelations…

The sultry, suffocating feel of Mississippi drips from every page, and the laconic cadence of the Deep South, resonates in your mind, in the stripped down, bare bones dialogue, that says as much in the gaps that it leaves, as the spaces it fills. The book oozes atmosphere and tension, and as Smith weaves his tale, I would defy you not to surrender to this dark,  brutal, but utterly beautiful story with its glimmers of redemption, and the power of human connection. Cannot praise The Fighter enough- highly recommended.

(With thanks to No Exit Press for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

Blog Tour- Roxanne Bouchard- We Were The Salt Of The Sea

  • As Montrealer Catherine Day sets foot in a remote fishing village and starts asking around about her birth mother, the body of a woman dredges up in a fisherman’s nets. Not just any woman, though: Marie Garant, an elusive, nomadic sailor and unbridled beauty who once tied many a man’s heart in knots. Detective Sergeant Joaquin Morales, newly drafted to the area from the suburbs of Montreal, barely has time to unpack his suitcase before he’s thrown into the deep end of the investigation. On Quebec’s outlying Gaspé Peninsula, the truth can be slippery, especially down on the fishermen’s wharves. Interviews drift into idle chit-chat, evidence floats off with the tide and the truth lingers in murky waters. It’s enough to make DS Morales reach straight for a large whisky…

As an avid reader of crime fiction in translation for its more lyrical and considered look at the human psyche , and highly atmospheric use of place, French Canadian thriller We Were The Salt Of The Sea, ticked many boxes for me. Roxanne Bouchard’s beautifully lyrical appreciation of the sea and its ever changing moods, provided a wonderful backdrop to this tale of human frailty, and the unstinting shadow of the past on this small coastal community.

There’s a wonderful quote in the book,  which to me summed up completely the psyche of the host of colourful and interesting characters that inhabit this book- “The people I met here were living in the past, in the nostalgia of a bygone era they had all conspired to revere as it had been. The only beauty in the present was the memory of yesterday, and nothing else would ever compare…” As the story is firmly rooted in past events, and how the character of Marie Garant has loomed so large in the lives of the residents, there is this unerring feeling of the past controlling and reverberating so strongly in the present. Of all the individuals that Catherine Day encounters in her quest to discover more about her birth mother, Garant seems to have played a significant role be it as a conduit for love, jealousy, violence and death. I liked the way that we never really achieved a complete picture of Garant, as everyone’s different opinions of her, and interactions with her are refracted like a prism through their differing accounts. That’s not to say that we don’t ultimately care about how she met her watery fate, and I rather enjoyed this sense of still not knowing her intimately by the end of the book. I felt there was an almost symbiosis with Garant and the sea, as she seemed to be a woman of mercurial and unpredictable behaviour leaving a trail of anger, regret and sorrow in her wake.

Although I wasn’t particularly enamoured with the character of Catherine, as I felt the author was maybe trying too hard to imbue her with the same qualities as the mother she had never met, I thought the surrounding cast were superb. I was strongly reminded of other French thrillers I have read set in coastal communities, and the balance that they achieve between the more quirky and serious protagonists was perfectly mirrored here. There’s the salty old sea dogs, the too talkative bartender, the shyster running the funeral parlour, jealous women, and into the mix the hapless detective Morales, with his Mexican roots, and embarrassing midlife crisis. As I said the balance between moments of heart wrenching emotion, and dark humour, embodied in Bouchard’s depiction of these people was consistently pleasing, and I felt very much like I was in a small boat on calm, and then stormy waters, as the mood of the book chopped and changed.

As a lover of the more naturalistic writing of authors such as Annie Proulx and Ron Rash, I loved the way that Bouchard showed such an incisive and lyrical edge to her writing in her depictions of the sea. Whether as a murder scene, as a source of making a living, as a route to a different life, or simply as the ever present force in these people’s existence, you feel its influence at every turn, and there are some truly beautiful descriptions permeating the book throughout. This sense of the poetic adds another level of enjoyment to the book, and through the translation of David Warriner, I was quite bewitched at times by the language and imagery the author employs. A very satisfying read, and recommended for those who like their crime fiction with a more literary edge.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

 

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

 

 

Blog Tour- Claire MacLeary- Burnout

My husband is trying to kill me : a new client gets straight to the point. This is a whole new ball game for Maggie Laird, who is trying to rebuild her late husband’s detective agency and clear his name. Her partner, Big Wilma, sees the case as a non-starter, but Maggie is drawn in. With her client’s life on the line, Maggie must get to the ugly truth that lies behind Aberdeen’s closed doors. But who knows what really goes on between husbands and wives? And will the agency’s reputation and Maggie and Wilma’s friendship remain intact?

Having been so heartily impressed by Claire MacLeary’s debut Cross Purpose, which introduced us to the fledgling private detectives, Maggie Laird and ‘Big’ Wilma Harcus, here we go with the second outing for this thoroughly likeable duo…

At a time where the subjugation of women in society be it professionally, emotionally, or sexually has been so in the spotlight through the #MeToo campaign, MacLeary adds a wise and all too pertinent voice to the arena. Along with the sheer affability and humour of her two female protagonists, the book carries with it a larger message on the hostile and demeaning behaviour that all too many women encounter within their domestic lives. I must admit that I did find some of the episodes within the book quite difficult to read at times, having experienced a familiar situation in my own life, which did stir up some uncomfortable memories. Having said that though, I applaud MacLeary for taking these issues, and treating them in such an even handed and sensitive manner, which will not only resonate with women like myself, but also alert others to recognise those gradually increasing indicators in a relationship of an escalating feeling of unnatural control. MacLeary very much focuses the book on a series of relationships, in their myriad forms, between husbands and wives, and Maggie’s self will to emerge from the disgrace of her dead husband and clear his name, and most crucially to the story, a recognition of the power of women to take back control for themselves. We see this in the relationships of Ros, a work colleague of Maggie’s whose marriage is taking a darker turn, the investigation into Sheena Struthers who believes her husband is plotting to kill her, and in the tension that grows in Wilma’s relationship with her partner Ian. I enjoyed the equivalence between these situations, and the way that MacLeary also wove into the plot the professional pressures that Maggie, and Detective Susan Strachan face, infiltrating the masculine bastion of the police force. The plot is incredibly character driven, and I think most female readers will recognise something of themselves in one of this contrasting band of women. As I commented on with Cross Purpose, MacLeary has a knack of balancing the insecurity and self questioning of her characters with moments of real strength or sheer bloody mindedness. Not all of her women are compliant victims, and those that would appear so, are given the space to break free. I admire this aspect of her writing very much.

Before you begin to think that this all sounds a bit serious, MacLeary breaks up the emotional tension at a beautiful pace, largely due to the character of Big Wilma. She’s blousy, brash, fearless and the comic interludes including her night out a strip show, and an unfortunate pratfall in the countryside, have a wonderful comic timing. I genuinely feared for the possible dissolution of her partnership with the ‘stuck up’ Maggie, but as much as they are chalk and cheese, the banter and interplay between them is absolutely integral to the enjoyment of the book. They are a formidable partnership, and there’s plenty of mileage in them yet I warrant, and I, for one, will await the next book with interest. Highly recommended.

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

There’s Always Someone Watching… Leo Benedictus-Consent / James Lasdun- The Fall Guy

 

This book is an experiment.
We’re experimenting together.

You are part of the experiment, if you’ll agree to it.

Normally I don’t let my subjects choose to be subjects. If you know you’re being watched, you cease to be you.

But I want you to read this. I wrote it for you.

This magnetic book pulls you in its wake even as you resist its force. Sometimes you don’t want to know what’s next…

Just to make my reviewing equally difficult, here is another book,  that in common with the book jacket itself, I am going to tell you hardly anything about in terms of plot. I saw the author being interviewed by James Naughtie recently, and my interest was piqued by what I was liberally describing as a creepy ass psychological thriller to my bookselling colleagues….

I thought this was absolutely superb and a truly dark and deliciously twisted thriller, entwining us in the psyche of a stalker, and providing a commentary on the repercussions of his actions on just one of his many chosen targets, Frances.  Benedictus is completely without fear in his representation of this despicable individual and the measures he takes to inveigle himself more and more deeply into Frances’ life, and the danger this poses to both her associates, both personal and professional, and to Frances herself. I was mesmerised by the supremely cool and dispassionate first person narrative of the stalker, whose actions seem perfectly reasonable to his own consciousness, but grow increasingly unsettling and worrisome to us, as we pre-empt the effect his actions will have on Frances. Likewise, the growing unease and persecution of Frances, slowly gathers pace, again feeding into, and adding to the chilling nervous tension that Benedictus perfectly builds. I enjoyed his depiction of Frances, as such a normal, hard working, ambitious, and unencumbered by personal vanity type of woman, as this sense of her being such an ‘everywoman’ resonates much more strongly with a female reader, and making her plight all the more tangible, and ramping up the effect on us as a reader.

I am always held in the thrall of writing that has a tangible physical effect on me as a reader, and Consent did this admirably, as I felt my heartbeat quicken on several occasions, and a slight roiling of the belly at one particularly graphic moment, that discomfited even this normally strong stomached reader. I didn’t, however, object to the use of violence in this particular context, unlike say the gratuitous violence of American Psycho (which I do have a wee soft spot for), as to my mind it actually worked extremely well within plot, and allows the book to remain on the right side of the needlessly voyeuristic.  It merely elevated the fear quotient a little more, and gave the narrative a swift injection of kapow, before carrying us along to that unexpected, supremely creepy denouement…shudders…

I thought the pacing, use of language and increasingly uncomfortable feeling that this book produced in me was cleverly done, perhaps reflected by my reading this in pretty much one sitting, and putting down the book with a palpable sense of satisfaction, despite that truly dark and unsettling ending.

As it says on the cover, Read Me….

Highly recommended.

(I bought this copy of Consent, published by Faber Books)

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It is summer, 2012. Charlie, a wealthy banker with an uneasy conscience, invites his troubled cousin Matthew to visit him and his wife in their idyllic mountaintop house. As the days grow hotter, the friendship between the three begins to reveal its fault lines, and with the arrival of a fourth character, the household finds itself suddenly in the grip of uncontrollable passions. Who is the real victim here? Who is the perpetrator? And who, ultimately, is the fall guy?

A new author for me, and a great introduction to his work, as The Fall Guy, resonates with a feel of Patricia Highsmith, and kept the Raven hooked in its clutches…

As is natural with an intense character driven psychological thriller of this kind, the synopsis above is all I am going to give you in terms of plot reveal. Like me, I would urge you to read this largely in a vacuum of unknowing, as the tension both in personal relationships, and the air of deceit and disloyalty, gradually builds and builds. With such a finite group of characters, I felt like I was almost observing a stage play, and for some reason I had an echo of Albee’s brilliant  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf tickling in the back of mind throughout. I thought the relationship between the three main characters and the dips, ecstasies and growing dislike and distrust were beautifully played out, against the backdrop of a sultry heat that seemed to add to the tension of the piece even more. There is an increasingly poisonous relationship building between married couple Charlie and Chloe and cousin Matthew, and be warned your sympathies will be toyed with, and your allegiances shifted along the way…

Lasdun shows his perfect control of pace, as slight reveals and little moments of trickery, lulling us into the feeling that we know exactly what’s going on, and how this will all play out. Wrong tiddly wrong wrong. I was sucker punched by the ending, and was just so, so pleased that it caught me completely off guard. Beautifully paced, a brilliant escalation of tension, and great characterisation. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Vintage for the ARC)

 

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