Nicolas Obregon- Sins As Scarlet

obregonLiving in LA and working as a private detective, former homicide detective Kosuke Iwata spends his days spying on unfaithful spouses and his nights with an unavailable woman. Still he cannot forget the family he lost in Tokyo. But that all changes when a figure from his old life appears at his door demanding his help.

Meredith Nichol, a transgender woman and his wife’s sister, has been found strangled on the lonely train tracks behind Skid Row. Soon he discovers that the devil is at play in the City of Angels and Meredith’s death wasn’t the hate crime the police believe it to be. Iwata knows that risking his life and future is the only way to silence the demons of his past.

Reluctantly throwing himself back in to the dangerous existence he only just escaped, Iwata discovers a seedy world of corruption, exploitation and murder – and a river of sin flowing through LA’s underbelly, Mexico’s dusty borderlands and deep within his own past…

Having been much impressed by Obregon’s first book, Blue Light Yokohama featuring Japanese homicide detective Kosuke Iwata, I’m delighted to report that Sins As Scarlet is even better. So much so that it has parachuted its way into my top five reads of the year so far…

Kosuke Iwata is a powerfully constructed character, shaped and formed, but with an underlying sense of self questioning, by his dual heritage and the collision of west and east  almost fighting for supremacy in his identity. He has had a troubled past in terms of his upbringing and former estrangement from his mother, and has undoubtedly been tarnished emotionally by his fraught and ultimately destructive marriage. This book effectively straddles all of these relationships, providing an offshoot of narratives concerning his mother and wife, and cleverly by what we observe of their own characteristics gives us a broader understanding of Iwata himself, as a man, a son, a husband and a father too. I felt that sometimes I was observing him through a prism when it came to his emotional and personal identity, and the only real clarity in his character came through his professional role as a private investigator. I liked the way Obregon did this, and how Iwata then became a man of contradictions, and certain notions about his morality, integrity and so on were undermined by his interactions with, and influence of, the women in his life. An extremely interesting character, beautifully rendered, but undercut with a sense of personal tragedy, and a tangible lack of belonging.

Similarly, to the first book, I admire Obregon’s willingness to tackle big issues head on, showing no fear or favour, and opening the reader’s eyes to aspects of society that some would rather ignore. I think Obregon achieves this cleverly in two ways. First the straightforward narrative of murder within the transgender community, and Iwata’s later, and harrowing, experience traversing the desert from Mexico to the USA, which neatly encompasses the experiences of two groups of people that society as a whole are prone to vilify. Secondly, through the psycho-geography element of the book, where Obregon neatly uses the course of Iwata’s investigation, to crisscross Los Angeles, taking us on a tour of myriad neighbourhoods, divided by race and social inequality that show not only the singularly unique makeup of the city, but the gritty reality behind the showbiz exterior. I found these wanderings of Iwata absolutely fascinating, and the little factual nuggets of Los Angeles  life that these give rise to, summed up by the assertion that, “Kosuke Iwata had gotten used to the staggered pockets of city that made up Los Angeles”, as his investigation becomes ever more difficult and personal.

Having become increasingly annoyed with a recent upsurge in the decrying of crime fiction as somehow inferior to ‘literary’ fiction, this is where a book such as this is worth its weight in gold. As author Jon Courtenay Grimwood commented on my social media rant on the subject saying “Crime novels specialise in asking the hard questions” and this is what Obregon deftly shows here. Sins As Scarlet is not only compelling as a thriller should be, but has layers of scrutiny and observation on the themes of race, gender roles, social division, migration and more, which makes it punchy and thought provoking, and at times exceptionally moving. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Michael Joseph for the ARC)

Abir Mukherjee- Smoke and Ashes

India, 1921. Haunted by his memories of the Great War, Captain Sam Wyndham is battling a serious addiction to opium that he must keep secret from his superiors in the Calcutta police force.
When Sam is summoned to investigate a grisly murder, he is stunned at the sight of the body: he’s seen this before. Last night, in a drug addled haze, he stumbled across a corpse with the same ritualistic injuries. It seems like there’s a deranged killer on the loose. Unfortunately for Sam, the corpse was in an opium den and revealing his presence there could cost him his career.
With the aid of his quick-witted Indian Sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee, Sam must try to solve the two murders, all the while keeping his personal demons secret, before somebody else turns up dead…

First there was A Rising Man and then A Necessary Evil and akin to the sound of an angelic host the very words, “There’s a new Abir Mukherjee book out now” made my heart soar with an excitement rarely achieved, since I won a handwriting competition at the age of 10 on holiday on the Isle of Wight i.e very excited indeed. And so we are catapulted back to the inglorious days of the Raj, and to be honest, it would unwise to even countenance the thought that our dynamic duo would be experiencing anything like a straightforward investigation. There is some serious trouble afoot…

It is so gratifying to reach the third book in a series and for it to feel as fresh and vibrant as the first two. Partly, I would put this down to the developing working relationship, and growing friendship of our chalk and cheese partnership of Sam and Surrender-not, and the sheer level of engagement Mukherjee creates with the reader in how he presents the social and political unrest of this turbulent period of Indian history. With the former, I would say that each time we encounter these wonderful characters, there is always a little stretch of unchartered territory between them, little pieces of which Mukherjee brings to the narrative, giving us a different perspective of them as each investigation develops. This book is no different with Sam’s largely deniable opium habit leading to all manner of trouble, and becoming an increasingly large elephant in the room in his relationship with Surrender-Not. Equally, Surrender-not’s personal connection to some prominent political enemies of the Raj, reveals a whole new side to his character, and the very personal toll it has on him, trying to make his way in a career that puts him at odds with his family and fellow citizens. Mukherjee captures perfectly their points of similarity, as much as their points of difference, and how at the crux of their working relationship, these points of separation or conflict actually lead them to be an extremely effective working partnership. This unity of purpose becomes especially evident when pitted against other representatives of law, order and security, and some thorny encounters ensue, and, needless to say when violence comes a-knocking you can guarantee Sam will be in the way. Although, this investigation is markedly more emotive and darker in tone than the previous books, there is still time for the badinage, and affectionate leg pulling that Mukherjee affords his detecting double act, as well as to those they encounter along the way, which is, as always, entertaining.

With the war for Indian independence raging on, and the upcoming visit of the Prince of Wales, there is a tinderbox atmosphere in Calcutta, and Mukherjee completely immerses the reader in the stifling heat, social unrest, and the simmering violence that regularly explodes. Peppered with figures in the fight for independence, and their differing attitudes in how to achieve this aim of liberation from suffocating British rule, the book positively throbs with suppressed and overt rebellion, from the average citizen on the street, to those who would keep order, to those who seek to overturn the status quo, and the increasingly less confident smug satisfaction of the British themselves. All this tension and turbulence is delivered in a measured, informative and entertaining style, underscored by the sights and sounds of the city streets, and the building heat, both meteorological and political, sucking you in and ramping up the tension to the nth degree. Brilliant.

I think this just proves, if further proof were needed, that this is a remarkably good book in a remarkably good series, and I cannot find a bad word to say about it.

Which is lovely.

And why you should all seek out these books for yourselves.

Which would be lovely too.

 

(With thanks to Harvill Secker for the ARC)

 

 

#20BooksOfSummer #2 Theodore Brun- A Mighty Dawn #3 Conor O’Callaghan- Nothing On Earth #4 Sam Selvon- The Lonely Londoners #5 Michael Ignatieff- Charlie Johnson In The Flames

Hakan, son of Haldan, chosen son of the Lord of the Northern Jutes, swears loyalty to his father in fire, in iron, and in blood. But there are always shadows that roam. When a terrible tragedy befalls Hakan’s household he is forced to leave his world behind. He must seek to pledge his sword to a new king. Nameless and alone, he embarks on a journey to escape the bonds of his past and fulfil his destiny as a great warrior.

Whispers of sinister forces in the north pull Hakan onwards to a kingdom plagued by mysterious and gruesome deaths. But does he have the strength to do battle with such dark foes? Or is death the only sane thing to seek in this world of blood and broken oaths?

Right, so I’m now embarking on another series chockfull of Vikings, smiting, pillaging, rumpy pumpy, more smiting and so on, set in eighth century Denmark. Having read Tim Severin, Giles Kristian, Robert Low and the brilliant Frans G. Bengtsson amongst others, I thought this might be worth a look. With the reference to Game of Thrones on the cover, I would agree that this book is incredibly, incredibly similar in tone, and story arc with added horns…no sniggering at the back there. It does feel a little more cinematic to some of the series I mentioned earlier, with a steadfast injection of action and shock horror moments, but this is no bad thing and I like the way that Brun has obviously been influenced by the Scandinavian sagas in the way that he controls the pace and moments of high drama within the book. This also feeds into the way that the story takes on a more mythical feel as the story progresses, and this was effectively done without feeling contrived.

When I was toying with buying this I saw one reviewer draw attention to the Shakespearean feel of the book, and this is a very valid observation, as there are marked themes of betrayal, conspiracy, family conflict and thwarted relationships. I enjoyed this first book very much indeed, with its earthy humour, a myriad cast of characters, and yes, a more than satisfying amount of violence, treachery and ambition with which we associate the marauding Viking hordes. Recommended.

(I bought this copy of A Mighty Dawn)

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It is the hottest August in living memory.

A frightened girl bangs on a door. A man answers. From the moment he invites her in, his world will never be the same again.

She will tell him about her family, and their strange life in the show home of an abandoned housing estate. The long, blistering days spent sunbathing; the airless nights filled with inexplicable noises; the words that appear on the windows, written in dust.

Why are members of her family disappearing, one by one? Is she telling the truth? Is he?

In a world where reality is beginning to blur, how can we know what to believe?

Okay, so on a scale of one to nigh on impossible to review without spoilers, this book is one such challenge. So moving swiftly on from any discussion of the plot, I will merely say that that there was a very strong  feeling of Jon McGregor’s mesmerising If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things about this one, and that pleased me greatly. I think O’Callaghan does a masterful job of constantly keeping the reader slightly on the back foot playing with our perception of the characters and causing us to question their motivations, and the face they present to the world. Everything in this book feels slightly gauzy, and unreal, in what slowly reveals itself as a tense, psychological drama, suffused with a Gothic-esque use of misdirection, luring us further into the darkness. O’Callaghan has perfectly married the suffocating atmosphere of a heatwave, with the building tension of a society that has veered from boom to bust, and the havoc this wreaks on ordinary people’s lives. There is a lyrical intensity to the writing throughout, and I would absolutely suggest that this book is read in as close to one sitting as possible, to appreciate the rhythm and imagery that O’Callaghan employs. Highly recommended.

(I bought this copy of Nothing On Earth)

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At Waterloo Station, hopeful new arrivals from the West Indies step off the boat train, ready to start afresh in 1950s London. There, homesick Moses Aloetta, who has already lived in the city for years, meets Henry ‘Sir Galahad’ Oliver and shows him the ropes. In this strange, cold and foggy city where the natives can be less than friendly at the sight of a black face, has Galahad met his Waterloo? But the irrepressible newcomer cannot be cast down. He and all the other lonely new Londoners – from shiftless Cap to Tolroy, whose family has descended on him from Jamaica – must try to create a new life for themselves. As pessimistic ‘old veteran’ Moses watches their attempts, they gradually learn to survive and come to love the heady excitements of London.

Okay, so my first question is why it has taken me so long to discover this little diamond of book, which has been languishing  on the  bookshelves for years? As an account of the particular problems faced by West Indian migrants in 1950s London, this is a glorious mix of pathos and humour, with the narrative reflecting the rhythmical beauty of  Jamaican patois. I loved the almost poetical flow of the dialogue, and the characters are so roundly drawn that you cannot help be drawn in completely to the fate of them as they navigate the often hostile environment that they now inhabit. The dual monsters of poverty and prejudice loom large throughout, but there’s also an overarching resonance of community, resourcefulness, stoicism and hope too . A wonderful read.

(I bought this copy of The Lonely Londoners)

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Charlie Johnson is an American journalist working for a British news agency somewhere in the Balkans. He believes that over the course of a long career he has seen everything, but suddenly he finds himself more than simply a witness. A woman who has been sheltering Charlie and his crew is doused in gasoline and set on fire by a retreating Serbian colonel. As she stumbles, burning, down the road, Charlie dashes from hiding, throws her down rolling her over and over to extinguish the flames, burning his hands in the process. Believing the woman’s life to have been saved, Charlie is traumatized by her death. Something snaps. He now realizes he has just one ambition left in life: to find the colonel and kill him…

With shades of both Greene and Hemingway, I found this is a finely nuanced and, at times, a deeply moving novella addressing the Balkan crisis. Based on the author’s own experience of war reporting, Ignatieff imbues Johnson with all the moral questioning, unbridled seeking of truth and so on, that more reputable and brave journalists have  been renowned for. Interestingly though, he takes the question of morality further still, testing Johnson’s resolve to resist meeting violence with violence after his witnessing of a war crime. I have read many accounts of war reportage, due to my interest in the  factual and fictional representation of war, and although this stood as a strong testament to the nature of conflict and personal responsibility within the Balkan crisis, I think I prefer the author’s journalistic works like Blood and Belonging and Empire Lite. Worth checking out though…

(I bought this copy of Charlie Johnson In The Flames)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blog Tour-Jesper Stein- Unrest

When the bound, hooded corpse of an unidentified man is found propped up against a gravestone in the central cemetery, Axel Steen is assigned the case. Rogue camera footage soon suggests police involvement and links to the demolition of the nearby Youth House, teeming with militant far-left radicals. But Axel soon discovers that many people, both inside and out of the force, have an unusual interest in the case and in preventing its resolution. With a rapidly worsening heart condition, an estranged ex-wife and beloved five-year-old daughter to contend with, Axel will not stop until the killer is caught, whatever the consequences. But the consequences turn out to be greater than expected – especially for Axel himself…

In the best possible way, Unrest is very much a what you see is what you get type of thriller, as it ticks every single box required of a Scandinavian crime novel, and is extremely reflective of the genre as a whole. Indeed, as I was reading, I felt echoes of Nesbo, Larsson, Staalesen and Nesser throughout the book particularly in terms of plot and characterisation, and the density and slow burning feel of the plot again fulfils perfectly the familiar characteristics of the genre, so plenty to enjoy here for the Nordic noir fan…

The reader is thrust straight into the familiar realm of police conspiracy, so beloved of the Scandinavian set, suffused with the gritty, unflinching gaze on the political and social ills of Danish society. With a riot in full flow, the discovery of a body would seem an ordinary occurrence, but Stein perfectly hinges his whole narrative on why and how this victim is of such significance on a much larger canvas, and the wider ramifications of this killing. Stein presents a broad spectrum of issues including immigration, police corruption, the drug trade, trafficking and so on, and generally  this is one of the more slow burning Scandinavian thrillers I have encountered, as reasons for, and suspects of the killing are slowly addressed, investigated and discounted as the plot develops. It did take me a while to slow down to the pace of the plot, and begin to appreciate the more laborious style of investigation that the main police protagonist, Axel Steen, finds himself embroiled in, in contrast to say the more compact style of other Nordic writers. I think Unrest is extremely reminiscent of some of the fine Nordic TV dramas that we love, with chicanery, social and political division and big meaty issues at its core.    Consequently, the political and social elements of the plot and the tensions between the investigative branches , engaged me more, and I very much enjoyed Stein’s warts-and-all portrayal of Copenhagen. I thought he depicted beautifully the chasm between the areas of the city, both monetarily and structurally, and I loved the way his writing had shades of the old fashioned flaneur, with the very visual and observant tone of his descriptions, as  Steen traverses the different neighbourhoods.

I’m sure regular readers of my reviews know of my general aversion to too much being made of the familial and romantic upsets of the main police protagonists, and to an extent this book did irritate me slightly in terms of this. Personally I grew a little tired of Steen’s domestic woes and his sexual involvement with a key witness, and the less said about his reves humides the better, but on a more positive note I found his professional persona contained some of my favourite characteristics of an officer operating to his own agenda and with his own methods. Stein imbues his detective with the cynical and slightly hangdog air so beloved in the genre, but this pall of negativity usefully detracts other people’s perceptions of Steen, thus revealing a keen mind and nose for a conspiracy. He’s also not afraid to get his hands dirty or to take a knock or two along the way, skating the boundaries of professional behaviour, but delighting us with his aversion to following the rules.

Overall, I enjoyed this new-to-me author, and judging by the praise the author receives across Europe, I think there may be more enjoyment to come in the company of Detective Superintendent Axel Steen. A solid Scandinavian thriller, and recommended for fans of the genre…

(With thanks to Mirror Books for the ARC)

‘Jesper writes about a Copenhagen that’s both full of change yet always the same. Its harsh, dark, yet with a warm, beating heart at its core.’ LARS KEPLER, author of The Hypnotist ‘

‘Jesper Stein’s crime novels cast a strong light on contemporary Denmark in such a way that they deserve readers far beyond Danish borders.’ GUNNAR STAALESEN, winner of the 2017 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel Of The Year

‘Stein’s first novel establishes a whole new Scandinavian style.’ ROLLING STONE (Germany)

Follow the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

 

***COVER REVEAL*** Amer Anwar- Brothers In Blood

brothers-in-blood-cover

 

WINNER OF THE CWA DEBUT DAGGER

THE MUST READ THRILLER OF 2018

A Sikh girl on the run.
A Muslim ex-con who has to find her.
A whole heap of trouble.

Southall, West London. After being released from prison, Zaq Khan is lucky to land a dead-end job at a builders’ yard. All he wants to do is keep his head down and put the past behind him.
But when Zaq is forced to search for his boss’s runaway daughter, he quickly finds himself caught up in a deadly web of deception, murder and revenge.
With time running out and pressure mounting, can Zaq find the missing girl before it’s too late? And if he does, can he keep her – and himself – alive long enough to deal with the people who want them both dead?

“An engaging hero, a cunning plot, and a fascinating journey into Southall’s underworld. We’ll be hearing a lot more from Amer Anwar.”

– Mick Herron

“A fine debut novel. With his engaging characters and skilful plotting, Anwar brings a fresh and exciting new voice to the genre.”
 Ann Cleeves

Raven’s review…

Winner of the CWA Debut Dagger Award, Brothers In Blood marks the start of an incredibly promising crime thriller writing career for Amer Anwar. This one of the most vibrant and edgy crime thrillers I have encountered for some time. From the very start of the book, I was completely immersed in the trials and tribulations of central protagonist Zaq Khan, who through the fickle finger of fate finds himself entangled in a very dangerous situation indeed. Subject to blackmail and intimidation, he is tasked with uncovering the whereabouts of his boss’s errant daughter, Rita, who has ostensibly run away from an impending forced marriage. Finding himself at odds with his boss, Rita’s two meat-headed brothers, and ghosts from the past seeking to inflict some serious physical damage upon him, Zaq needs to be resourceful, cunning and more than a little devious to survive this trial by fire…

Zaq is a truly likeable and engaging character, who immediately gets the reader on side with his mix of easy humour, craftiness, and genuine good guy demeanour. Anwar instils him with a honesty and charm that has you rooting for him from the outset, as pressure is brought to bear on him from all angles. He’s fast-talking and quick thinking, and despite the hole he finds himself in does not lose his keen sense of morality to extricate Rita, and by extension, himself, from a nasty situation.  I loved his interactions with his best mate Jags, and the solid camaraderie that exists between them, despite the twist in fate that sees their lives having progressed on two very different courses. I also admire Jags’ natural ability to act as a second mother to Zaq in terms of tea-making and painkiller providing as his mate gets into a succession of scrapes, and is always happy to play second fiddle to Zaq’s suicidal plans. This has to be one of the greatest friendships forged in crime fiction, and is a constant source of delight throughout. Anwar’s band of bad boys, out for Zaq’s blood are equally well depicted, slow, dull-witted, and handy with their fists, and allowing for some exciting and very well written fight scenes, where there is a realistic and palpable pain. There’s nothing worse than a fight scene where everyone is seemingly unmarked by the experience, and boy, does Zaq take some punishment.

Set around the environs of Southall and its Asian community, the life, colour, languages and atmosphere of this area shines through Anwar’s depiction of its inhabitants. The sights, sounds and delicious aromas of the area bring a vibrancy and liveliness to his descriptions, and gives the reader a real sense of the connections between our main protagonists and their community. The plotting is assured, and I liked the way that Anwar leads us in a seemingly linear direction, which is entertaining enough, but then pulls a couple of startling revelations that take the story in a different direction indeed. The pace is perfectly controlled, and I genuinely found this incredibly hard to put down, as it is punctuated by a glorious mix of fast visceral action, a dash of heart-warming interactions, a further sprinkling of violence and chicanery, and then a steady build up of misdirection to an exciting, and not altogether predictable ending.

I absolutely loved  Brothers In Blood, and having become a little jaded with the British-set crime thriller scene of late, this gave me a right old flying by the seat of my pants reading experience, which seemed fresh and exciting. A cracking new voice on the thriller scene, and yes, I can’t wait to see what Amer Anwar produces next. Pure brilliant and highly recommended.

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Amer Anwar grew up in West London. After leaving college he had a variety of jobs, including; warehouse assistant, comic book lettering artist, a driver for emergency doctors and chalet rep in the French Alps. He eventually landed a job as a creative artworker/graphic designer and spent the next decade and a half producing artwork, mainly for the home entertainment industry. He has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London and is a winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award. Brothers In Blood is his first novel. For everything else, he has an alibi. It wasn’t him. He was never there.

Published by: Dialogue Books
Release date: 6th September 2018
Also available as ebook and audiobook.

Elizabeth H. Winthrop- The Mercy Seat/ Michelle Sacks- You Were Made For This/ Elena Varvello- Can You Hear Me?

As the sun begins to set over Louisiana one October day in 1943, a young black man faces the final hours of his life: at midnight, eighteen-year-old Willie Jones will be executed by electric chair for raping a white girl – a crime some believe he did not commit.

In a tale taut with tension, events unfold hour by hour from the perspectives of nine people involved. They include Willie himself, who knows what really happened, and his father, desperately trying to reach the town jail to see his son one last time; the prosecuting lawyer, haunted by being forced to seek the death penalty against his convictions, and his wife, who believes Willie to be innocent; the priest who has become a friend to Willie; and a mother whose only son is fighting in the Pacific, bent on befriending her black neighbours in defiance of her husband…

Billed as having a kaleidoscopic narrative, The Mercy Seat, Winthrop’s tale of racial and social division is a measured and emotive story from beginning to end. As the hours tick by we bear witness to a young man’s progression to the electric chair, after a false accusation of rape, and Winthrop uses a myriad of voices throughout the book, changing the reader’s perception of events along the way. Weighing in with some big, meaty issues revolving around crime and punishment, justice and injustice, and condemnation and mercy, there is no denying the emotional heft of the book, and the raw human emotion that Winthrop pours into the novel. Cleverly, she integrates the shadow of WW2, and the bloodbath events of war in the Pacific, as a juxtaposition to the incredibly moving faltering journey of the condemned man’s father. The exposition of the loss of a mother of her son to war, and the loss of a son to a father through America’s racial war is beautifully rendered, and for me these two narratives were the real emotional lynchpin of the narrative.

With nine characters voices echoing throughout the book, I did feel there was a slight weakness to the clear identification of them, and some blurriness to their own morality or perception of the events unfolding. Interestingly, I came away from the book feeling that I had not read a contiguous tale, but more that these alternating chapters had taken the shape of a short story collection in my mind, as some chapters seemed less related, and a little less relevant to the whole. So I had a slight issue with the structure, preferring to absorb these as connecting stories, moving towards the same end. I was left a little unsettled by the ending too, as the clarion call of mercy was dealt with in a strangely weak denouement, that rather left the reader hanging in the balance at the end. Consequently, although I admired greatly some aspects of the novel in terms of the rendition of time and place, and the strong emotional resonance of some of the characters’ voices, I felt that Winthrop had maybe cast the net a little too wide, and so some sections of the book felt  a little disjointed, and were less satisfactory than others. Would still recommend though despite, in my own opinion, some minor flaws.

(With thanks to Sceptre for the ARC)

Doting wife, devoted husband, cherished child. Merry, Sam and Conor are the perfect family in the perfect place. Merry adores baking, gardening, and caring for her infant son, while Sam pursues a new career in film. In their idyllic house in the Swedish woods, they can hardly believe how lucky they are. What perfect new lives they’ve built for themselves, away from New York and the events that overshadowed their happiness there. Then Merry’s closest friend Frank comes to stay. All their lives, the two women have been more like sisters than best friends. And that’s why Frank sees things that others might miss. Treacherous things that unfold behind closed doors. But soon it’s clear that everyone inside the house has something to hide. And as the truth begins to show through the cracks, Merry, Frank, and Sam grow all the more desperate to keep their picture-perfect lives intact...

With the creeping unease of recent domestic noir thrillers like Gone Girl, but tinged with the emotional darkness of the brilliant Monster Love by Carol Topolski, I rather enjoyed this twisted tale of marital bliss gone sour, and the more than dysfunctional relationship that we suddenly start to observe.

I found the first half of this book in particular, a fine example of pot-boiling suspense, as one couple’s new life in rural Sweden begins to show cracks and fissures, that Sacks exposes in a beautifully controlled fashion. The sudden sinister shocks that she surprises the reader with, and which may unsettle those of a more nervous disposition, become darker and darker as the plot progresses. Structured in alternating chapters, both Merry and Sam begin to have aspects of their characters exposed which become just a little more distasteful and disturbing in their words and deeds, but Sacks unashamedly brings the darkest compulsions of Merry front and centre, in her fraught relationship with her child. I think Sacks walks a very thin line here between voyeurism and objectivism with the issue of abuse she raises, and unlike the aforementioned Monster Love , I felt a certain disconnectedness with the intent of choosing this narrative, and the response it seeks to spark in the reader.

I think it appealed to me at first, that these are two of the most dislikeable and smug characters that I have encountered for some time, and although initially finding myself unable to look away from their solipsism, self absorption and fake morality, I did begin to grow weary of their naval gazing self justification for their eminently disturbing behaviour. With the advent of the arrival of Merry’s friend Frank, further scope was given to the author to explore the formative years of this trinity of more than a little screwed up protagonists, and give the reader time to see the strange dynamic between them begin to evolve. However, with this introduction of a new character, I felt the plot begin to crawl to a more sedentary drawn out pace, sparking a feeling of frustrated boredom, and just a muted eyebrow raise at some of the revelations. I felt that the story seemed to start circling itself only inching the narrative forward, after the assured pace and reveals of the first half of the book, and a strange propensity for overwritten truisms began to become increasingly more evident towards the end of the book, as opposed to the clarity of statement and intent from the characters at the beginning. Definitely a book of two halves for this reader.

(With thanks to HQ HarperCollins for the ARC)

1978.
Ponte, a small community in Northern Italy. An unbearably hot summer like many others.
Elia Furenti is sixteen, living an unremarkable life of moderate unhappiness, until the day the beautiful, damaged Anna returns to Ponte and firmly propels Elia to the edge of adulthood.
But then everything starts to unravel.
Elia’s father, Ettore, is let go from his job and loses himself in the darkest corners of his mind.
A young boy is murdered. And a girl climbs into a van and vanishes in the deep, dark woods…

I experienced a mild sense of excitement that I would have to talk about this book for a whole month wearing my bookseller hat, so I started reading with a heightened sense of anticipation. Now I love a translated slow-burner as much as the next person, but for some reason or other this one just didn’t hit the spot. Unlike undoubtedly hundreds of others, I was unerringly frustrated by this obvious hybrid of autobiography and fiction, at odds with my usual enjoyment for the genre- for example Karl Ove Knausgard or Edward St Aubyn. I felt for the most part I was just an incidental passenger to the author’s cathartic writing exercise, which revealed itself quickly to be what I perceived to be an exploration of her own father’s mental disturbance. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but I felt it was to the detriment of what could have been an infinitely more engaging experience for the reader.

Sometimes as a bookseller, I recommend books to people with the words, “Well, nothing really happens, but things don’t happen in a beautifully written way”, and this is what I was longing for in this book. There was a real feeling of deferred happenings in this book, and at times a notable compulsion by the author to pull back from events that could have given some substance and interest to the whole affair. Yes there’s a tangible thread of violence running through the book, and a not altogether convincing seduction, but the weirdly overemotional tone that reveals itself in the words and deeds of some characters, does begin to feel like some kind of therapy group literature, and a real lost the feel of dramatic tension to what cites itself as a thriller. As I said, I was looking forward to this one immensely, but feel I must go elsewhere for my Italian fiction fix, where nothing can happen, as long as it doesn’t not happen beautifully.

(I bought this copy)

 

 

 

 

William Shaw- Salt Lane/ Kate Rhodes-Hell Bay

I am going to don my bookseller hat here, and say with some confidence that if you like the sound of one of these beauties, I can pretty much guarantee that the other book will appeal too.

Go on. You know you want to…

DS Alexandra Cupidi has done it again. She should have learnt to keep her big mouth shut, after the scandal that sent her packing – resentful teenager in tow – from the London Met to the lonely Kent coastline. Murder is different here, among the fens and stark beaches. The man drowned in the slurry pit had been herded there like an animal. He was North African, like many of the fruit pickers that work the fields. The more Cupidi discovers, the more she wants to ask – but these people are suspicious of questions. It will take an understanding of this strange place – its old ways and new crimes – to uncover the dark conspiracy behind the murder. Cupidi is not afraid to travel that road. But she should be. She should, by now, have learnt…

Having made the acquaintance of DS Alexandra Cupidi some time ago in The Birdwatcher , a wonderfully atmospheric thriller set against the backdrop of the bleak coastline of Dungeness, prepare to be completely absorbed as she makes her return in Salt Lane. Not only is this a well plotted and compelling police procedural, once again using this particular landscape to its full brooding and slightly sinister effect, but Salt Lane reveals itself to be so much more.

When you cast your eye over the backlist of William Shaw, comprising of his evocative 60s series, and the aforementioned The Birdwatcher, one cannot help but be struck by the skill of his storytelling, and the strength of his characterisation. As well as unfailingly producing absorbing, moving and carefully constructed police procedurals, Shaw also uses either the zeitgeist of the period, or the locations to envelop the reader completely in the atmosphere he seeks to produce. In Salt Lane the desolate, but rawly beautiful, locale of Dungeness once again reveals itself as a centrifugal force in the book, being either a place of safety or danger in equal measure, but also effectively acting as a prism for the emotional state of both Cupidi and her troubled teenage daughter, Zoe. As Zoe seeks to deal with her emotional pain and seeks solace from the landscape, also unwittingly leading herself into the heart of her mother’s investigation, Cupidi herself finds herself at times waging an emotional and physical battle with the unique geography of the area, and the murders that occur within its boundaries.

Taking a backward step for a second, I can’t emphasise enough the weight of emotion, and more importantly the completely plausible emotion that Shaw injects into his trinity of female characters, Cupidi, Zoe and Cupidi’s mother Helen, who will be recognisable to some readers from Shaw’s previous books. I was absolutely blown away by how succinctly and honestly Shaw captured the internal and external emotional lives of these women, as they navigate their differences and similarities in the course of the book. The tension and moments of conflict are balanced beautifully with moments of epiphany in their personal relationship with each other, and the scenes featuring these three exceptional characters are a joy to read, feeling raw, true and suffused with realism. I must confess that I don’t read much ‘women’s fiction’ as that which I have encountered always has a slightly mawkish feel in its depiction of ‘women’s experience’,  but I was held spellbound by the resonance of these characters in my interpretation of how women truly are, and how that which separates them, can be seen to actually bind them together more than they initially feel.

As for the plot itself, Shaw is given free reign to expose the worst ills of a Britain caught in a monstrous wave of nationalism and post-Brexit turmoil. Against the Kent location of the book, Shaw weaves a disturbing police investigation into an unflinching and, most importantly, objective appraisal of immigration and exploitation, that boils the blood, and tugs at the heartstrings in equal measure, depending on your political viewpoint. Without resorting to soapbox declarations on the state of Britain, Shaw holds a mirror up to the conflicting sides of the immigration issue, whilst keeping the book solidly on track as a crime thriller. Consequently, Salt Lane is never less than a wonderfully multi-layered contemporary thriller, replete with the highest calibre characterisation, and a looming feel of unease. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Riverrun for the ARC)

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DI Ben Kitto needs a second chance. After ten years working for the murder squad in London, a traumatic event has left him grief-stricken. He’s tried to resign from his job, but his boss has persuaded him to take three months to reconsider. Ben plans to work in his uncle Ray’s boatyard, on the tiny Scilly island of Bryher where he was born, hoping to mend his shattered nerves. His plans go awry when the body of sixteen year old Laura Trescothick is found on the beach at Hell Bay. Her attacker must still be on the island because no ferries have sailed during a two-day storm. Everyone on the island is under suspicion. Dark secrets are about to resurface. And the murderer could strike again at any time.

With all the claustrophobic feel of a locked room mystery, and introducing us to a little fictionally represented corner of the world, Hell Bay proves to be a real treat, and on the back of Kate Rhodes’ brilliant series featuring Alice Quentin, this introduction to a new character DI Ben Kitto can only augur well for books to come…

I know I’m always going on about location in the books I read, but I genuinely think that if,  as a reader,  you can’t imagine this all too crucial element to a story in a tangible sense the book is lost before it starts, hence my adoration of writers such as Peter May and Ron Rash whose evocation of place is always perfect. So first big tick in the box to Rhodes who deftly depicts the ruggedness and solitude of her Scilly Isles location from the opening age, and consistently and atmospherically through the course of the book. The unique feel of this landscape, and the ever present changeable moods of the sea, provides the most sinister backdrop to her story, and I love the way that Rhodes manipulates this to add to the tension and emotion of the human dramas played out against its omnipresent influence. Indeed, many of the characters have an unbreakable and sometimes damaging connection to the sea, be it by occupation, by loss or by emotional disturbance and its influence looms large in the story and readers’ consciousness throughout.

I did like the character of DI Ben Kitto from the off, with his, at first concealed reasons for returning home, and his reluctance to re-engage with people from his formative years, adding a nice degree of shade and light to his character. I also enjoyed the way that we see him slowly assimilate himself back into the community, the pace of life, the pressures on peoples’ livelihoods, the suspicions of neighbours, and the reopening of conflicts from years past. This gave a very rounded feel to the particular pressures of living within such a small community, and how the actions of one person, is so deeply felt in the lives of the others. Kitto aside, I thought Rhodes’ characterisation was excellent throughout, and loved the disparate band of island dwellers who thwart or assist Kitto in his investigation. There was a real satisfying melting pot of characters, some infinitely more demonstrative than others, and the way that Rhodes’ uses them to portray the frustrations and hardships of island life, and the rootedness or need to escape each display.

Obviously with the premise of the book being a murder mystery, Rhodes works hard to achieve a marvellous modern interpretation of a classic locked room mystery, and she achieves this admirably. With only a finite number of suspects, I very much enjoyed the sense of personal detection she encourages in the reader in true Agatha Christie style, and I found the outcome of the book entirely satisfying. Hell Bay is a particularly strong start to a potential series, I hope, and one I shall follow with interest. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Simon and Schuster for the ARC)

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