Lou Berney- November Road

Frank Guidry’s luck has finally run out. A loyal street lieutenant to New Orleans’ mob boss Carlos Marcello, Guidry has learned that everybody is expendable. But now it’s his turn–he knows too much about the crime of the century: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Within hours of JFK’s murder, everyone with ties to Marcello is turning up dead, and Guidry suspecting he’s next, hits the road to Las Vegas. When he spots a beautiful housewife, Charlotte, and her two young daughters stranded on the side of the road, he sees the perfect disguise to cover his tracks from the hit man on his trail. The two strangers share the open road west- and find each other on the way. But Guidry’s relentless hunters are closing in on him, and now he doesn’t just want to survive, he wants to really live, maybe for the first time. 

Everyone’s expendable, or they should be, but now Guidry just can’t throw away the woman he’s come to love. And it might get them both killed…

Parachuting straight into my top three reads of the year is this little beauty from Lou Berney, one of the most engaging and sensitively written books it’s been my pleasure to read of late. Championed by the mighty Don Winslow among others, and with an irresistible premise, this was more than reason enough for me to seek out November Road

As the book is so bound up with the Kennedy assassination, and the violent ramifications for the small group of individuals who enabled it to happen, Berney’s evocation of the period is absolutely perfect. Paying close attention to the social and political fallout of this event, and firmly placing the reader in the heart of 60s America, Berney also traverses the country from New Orleans, to Dallas to the west coast with vivid detail, as Frank Guidry attempts to escape the retribution of his gangster associates seeking to tie up the ‘loose ends’ of those involved in the assassination plot. The sense of the period is always front and centre, from the smallest detail to passing references to civil rights, the filling of the political vacuum, and Berney’s interesting new reworking of the assassination itself, although this is ground that has been trod by many writers and social commentators before. In tackling the Kennedy assassination myth, Berney not only shows belief in himself as a writer, but also succeeds in constructing an incredibly plausible narrative of this most examined and documented event in American political history.

Although the sense of peril looms large with Guidry, and by extension Charlotte and her daughters, being pursued by a particularly pernicious and ice-cold hitman, Berney balances this beautifully with the development of Guidry and Charlotte’s characters, with Guidry in the guise of a travelling salesman, and Charlotte rapidly trying to come to terms with the impulsive decision to leave her alcoholic husband with no plausible plan of what would follow her instantaneous decision. The growing tension in the book, as the sinister hitman Barone unmercifully (for those in his way) pursues them across states, ratchets up the pace of the narrative, and as we focus on the growing relationship between Guidry and Charlotte, the reader has this nagging feeling that danger is just around the corner, as does Guidry himself, and that the clock is ticking down to some kind of showdown. It’s beautifully done, keeping our attention pinned in two strands of the book, inwardly dreading the consequences of these two strands meeting.

Although, theirs is a relationship built on smoke and mirrors, certainly in the case of Guidry, Berney weaves a heartfelt and, at times, incredibly sensitive portrayal of two strangers in flight, drawing closer together, despite the hug chasm between them of their lives up until this point. Suffice to say, we see a gradual change in both of them, and a growing appreciation of how life can sometimes so surprisingly chart a different course, and that these opportunities should be grasped and learnt from. As Guidry becomes more involved with Charlotte and her daughters, I loved the way that Berney handles the initially tentative nature of this, but how he develops and explores both their characters, and the shift in strength and self-determination, particularly in the case of Charlotte. In an effort to avoid spoilers, I can only say that Guidry’s actions both pre and post Charlotte reveal a very different man from the perception we have of him at the outset, and prepare yourself for an incredibly moving denouement…

Regular readers of my blog will know that I appreciate my crime reading is always influenced more by those books that span the genres of crime and contemporary fiction, as I find the more linear, and therefore utterly predictable crime books, less enriching as a reader. Along with two of my reads earlier in the year, Tim Baker’s City Without Stars, and Derek B. Miller’s American By Day, this book held me in it’s thrall from the outset, with its clarity of prose, and perfect characterisation, digging down deep into the nature of human relationships forged in troubled circumstances.

November Road is one of those books that will haunt me for some time. Highly recommended.

(I bought this copy of November Road published by Harper Collins USA)

 

 

Blog Tour- Mari Hannah- The Insider (Stone and Oliver 2)

When the body of a young woman is found by a Northumberland railway line, it’s a baptism of fire for the Murder Investigation Team’s newest detective duo: DCI David Stone and DS Frankie Oliver. The case is tough by anyone’s standards, but Stone is convinced that there’s a leak in his team – someone is giving the killer a head start on the investigation. Until he finds out who, Stone can only trust his partner. But Frankie is struggling with her own past. And she isn’t the only one being driven by a personal vendetta. The killer is targeting these women for a reason. And his next target is close to home…

The Insider is the second outing for Northumbria detectives, DCI David Stone and DS Frankie Oliver introduced in the hugely enjoyable first book, The Lost Our intrepid duo are back in search of a pernicious and twisted killer (rubs hands with glee) and once again Mari Hannah has produced a quality page-turner of a thriller for these increasingly dark winter nights…

I felt a wonderful sense of familiarity stepping back into the world of Stone and Oliver, such was the strong impression that the first book left on me, and was delighted that their working and personal relationship was as emotionally bumpy yet suffused with a genuine feeling of respect as the previous book. Both characters are extremely empathetic, realistic and genuinely likeable- Stone for his calmness and pragmatism, and Oliver for her impetuousness and gumption.  As traumatic experiences from their own lives rise uncomfortably to the surface in the course of this investigation, and as Stone continues to navigate his way as a surrogate father to his teenage nephew Ben, Hannah has a wide scope of emotional upset, and self doubt to convey in her characters. There are some moments of emotional revelation for both, and one storyline in particular will, I’m sure, have further repercussions in the future. What I like about both characters is their unerring ability to handle their own personal upset so incredibly ham-fistedly, but also the rock solid and extremely professional way they go about their search for this killer, overcoming an initially mistrustful and obstinate Murder Investigation Team, and meticulously picking apart the threads of the investigation before their arrival. Once again, the procedural detail is spot on, and the reader experiences all the tension and frustrations that the detectives do themselves in this thorny and distressing case. As the necessity to trap the killer gains in intensity, so too does the pace and vigour of Hannah’s writing, echoing the increasing frustration but slowly appearing chinks of knowledge that Stone and his gradually cooperative team unearth.

What I am consistently impressed with in relation to Hannah’s writing is the extremely well structured and visual quality of her writing. Everything is so clearly described that there is a strange sense that you almost watching the action unfold before you- an experience more akin to watching a thriller on television than reading a book. Even outside of the fact of being incredibly familiar with the various north east locations that Hannah uses, her depiction of landscape, whether town or country, is vibrant and oozes with colourful detail. If ever the Northumbria tourist board is looking for a regional champion, they need look no further than Hannah whose affection and love of her home turf, both its good and bad points, shines throughout the whole book.

Another sterling addition to Hannah’s repertoire, and I am very much looking forward to the next Stone and Oliver investigation, which I think, judging my the unresolved issues in this book, is likely to be another emotional rollercoaster for Hannah’s characters, and us, as readers, too. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orion for the Netgalley ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

A small (and imperfectly formed) October round up!

Ha! This will probably be the worst round up I have ever posted as life has seen me flying by the seat of my pants this month. I have been juggling some home stuff with exciting new responsibilities at work, and grappling once again with the peculiarities of my misbehaving laptop (adds to Christmas wishlist), so although I have been reading steadily, the reviewing aspect has rather gone out of the window. I did have a series of disappointing reads so, in a rather ham-fisted attempt to catch up with myself and let the world know that I haven’t disappeared entirely, here is a quick round up of some of the books I’ve been reading- the good, and the meh…

Officially on the blog this month, I managed the grand total of two reviews…hangs head in shame…

John Le Carre- The Little Drummer Girl

Quentin Bates- Cold Breath

So moving swiftly on I also read the four below, plus the start of a few others that fell quickly by the wayside…

  

Although widely reviewed and praised already, C. J. Tudor- The Chalk Man, was as brilliant as everyone has proclaimed so far. With its split timeline, shades of Stephen King, and one of the best endings I have read for some time, this was a real almost in one sitting job. I loved the authenticity of the character’s voices as youngsters, and Tudor’s building of suspense and tension was just nerve shredding. An absolute dream for booksellers across the land to recommend, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Soon, it will be announced why I’m reading so much Scandinavian crime in a compressed time, but until that point, here is a trinity of Nordic thrillers. I thought Ane Riel- Resin was superb, again with an authentic child’s voice, in a claustrophobic tale of the lengths one man will go to in order to protect his family. With its fairytale quality, this was creepy and macabre in equal measure, and with its encroaching forest setting, the landscape used seemed to perfectly mirror the dark tale that unfolds. Unfortunately, Karin Fossum- The Whisperer, proved a little disappointing, although the build up in the beginning recounting the lonely life, and subsequent arrest of the whispering woman of the title for a slowly revealed crime, promised much. I did enjoy the head-to-head interrogation by Fossum regular, Inspector Konrad Sejer of the seemingly mouse-like suspect, Ragna Riegel, but it was all a little too ponderous and drawn out- about 100 pages too drawn out. Shame. Susanne Jansson- The Forbidden Place was not without its charms, particularly in the very atmospheric use of the remote Swedish wetlands, and the rather likeable main character of the young female biologist returning to her childhood community and caught up in a crime mystery with supernatural overtones. Again though, I found myself drifting off as those little annoying clichés rose to the surface, but luckily the setting, and back story of bodies discovered in peat bogs through the ages appealed to my more ghoulish fascination…

But fear not, Raven followers, I have just read three brilliant, once of which I posted a review for today Margaret Millar- Vanish In An Instant and two more that I will hopefully get my bottom into gear and post soon- one of which has catapulted straight into my top three of the year. Yes indeed.

Have a lovely month of reading everyone, and if you are starting your Christmas shopping, just remember that books (bought from proper bookshops) make the best gift.

Yes they do.

 

 

 

 

Margaret Millar- Vanish In An Instant

On a snowbound night near a small Michigan town, Virginia Barkeley is discovered staggering around, covered in blood and blind drunk. Nearby, wealthy lothario Claude Margolis is found dead, stabbed several times in the neck. The case seems open and shut. Even Virginia thinks she probably committed the crime, although she cannot for the life of her think why. In this classic noir tale of blurred guilt and flawed innocence, a cynical lawyer, Meecham, uncovers the desperate lives of a group connected only by a gruesome murder…

Despite being a huge fan of classic American crime, it is with some shame that I admit to never having read Margaret Millar before. Perhaps slightly overshadowed by her husband, fellow author, Ken Millar aka Ross MacDonald (of whom I’ve read many), on the strength of this one, I think I have a whole new cache of her work to discover…

This is classic American hardboiled crime fiction with a steely feminine edge, that absorbs the reader instantly, and sucks you in to a superbly plotted tale of murder and deception. Millar captures the claustrophobic and suspicious atmosphere of this small town with finesse, where rumour and petty jealousies fuel every interaction. Everyone seems to have an ulterior motive for their actions, and like Meecham you find yourself picking through the evidence, trying to uncover who is the most duplicitous individual in a cast of possibly guilty characters. The plotting is absolutely flawless, and Millar keeps Meecham, and us, in a state of mistrust until the final, and unexpected unmasking of the killer.

The characterisation, particularly in relation to the female characters is just peerless, and I loved the way that each woman Millar introduces are so defined by their difference to the others. We have a femme fatale, a controlling mother, another alcoholic mother, a young doe eyed companion, a strident, though adoring, wife, and so on, each one precisely drawn jumping from the page to our imagination due to the strength of Millar’s characterisation of them. It’s also interesting how she uses her male character, the smart talking and cynical lawyer Meecham, to colour our perception of them further by observing his differing interactions with them, sometimes testy, sometimes flirtatious, or others that reveal a deeper compassionate edge to his character too. All through the book, he is the perfect foil for their particular episodes of scheming, dishonesty or weaknesses of character.  In true hardboiled fashion, both his, and their, cadence of speech and dialogue reflects the razor sharp and clipped style of the genre, conjuring up images of the classic old black and white crime movies with the ‘I speak, now you speak’, style of conversation.

I think we can safely say that Vanish In An Instant was a little gem of a discovery for me, and my hunt for further Margaret Millar books starts here. Her writing is just wonderful, with a tightness yet rhythmic fluidity to her prose that is enviable. A superb plot of red herrings and unexpected twists, populated by a vibrant and perfectly realised group of characters, further adds to the overall distinction of her writing. Cannot recommend highly enough.

(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARC)

Quentin Bates- Cold Breath #BlogTour

Gunnhildur reluctantly allows herself to be taken off police duties to act as bodyguard to a man with a price on his head. Hidden away in a secure house outside Reykjavík, Gunna and the high-profile stranger, a guest of the interiors minister, are thrown together – too close for comfort. They soon find they are neither as safe nor as carefully hidden as Gunna and her boss had thought. Conflicting glimpses of the man’s past start to emerge as the press begin to sniff him out, as does another group with their own reasons for locating him. Gunna struggles to come to terms with protecting the life of a man who may have the lives of many on his conscience – or indeed may be the philanthropist he claims to be.
Isolated together, the friction grows between Gunna and the foreign visitor, and she realises they are out of their depth as the trails lead from the house outside Reykjavík to Brussels, Russia and the Middle East…

As well as being an accomplished translator of Scandinavian crime, Quentin Bates is also more than a bit nifty at this crime writing lark too! I am a staunch admirer of his Gunnhildur series, and, pardon the pun, Cold Breath once again proves to be a (cold) breath of fresh air…

I think where Bates excels is in his central character of Gunna Gunnhildur herself, and the different facets he reveals to her character with each book. Although most of the series to date have dwelt to a larger or lesser extent on her private life, and that of her sometimes wayward offspring, this book puts her firmly centre stage. Bates places her in an isolated position, where her conduits for conversation are either with the man she is tasked with protecting, or her police colleagues, shifting the focus of the book entirely onto how she copes with this new assignment. Suffice to say she proves herself more than up to the task, and with her refresher firearms training, a limited supply of clean underwear, and a steely determination she throws herself into this tricky assignment with a sense of purpose, determination and her customary dry humour.   Fending off those who would seek to harm her slippery protectee, and avoiding the equally slippery advances of said protectee, Gunnhildur finds herself involved in a tangled and disturbing global conspiracy, forcing her into a situation that calls on all her training and level headedness.

I thought this was a sophisticated and perfectly paced conspiracy thriller, touching on some large and controversial themes, with an even handed and focussed approach. Certain aspects of the conspiracy were very concerning, particularly in relation to the European migration issues, and the way that not all those involved in the charitable aspect of rescue and assimilation may be all that they seem. I enjoyed the political hornet’s nest that Osman’s, the erstwhile philanthropist, sojourn to Iceland stirs up, and the controversial fleeting visit of a gauche right wing American, in addition to the central plot itself. There is a real sense of evasion and coercion throughout, and with four murders in close succession, Gunnhildur and her colleagues find themselves in a fraught and frustrating investigation, stretching from the lowlife of Reykjavik to the harbingers of power.

Once again, Bates has produced a really enjoyable, and compelling read packed to the brim with energy, suspense, violence and humour, powered by his own knowledge of and perspective on Iceland. This really is a superb series, and if you haven’t dipped your toe as yet, I would highly recommend them. Gunnhildur is great!

(With thanks to Constable for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

Blog Tour- John Le Carre- The Little Drummer Girl

Charlie in an unhappy English actress in her twenties, longing for commitment: but to what and to whom? While holidaying on the Greek island of Mykonos, she is seduced by a handsome and mysterious embattled Israeli intelligence officer, on a mission to stop the bombing of Jews in Europe. Forced to play her most challenging role, Charlie is plunged into an elaborate plot set to entrap the elusive Palestinian terrorist behind the attacks, and soon proves herself to be a double agent of the highest order…

And so to the last stop on the John Le Carre blog tour, and with the upcoming six part BBC screen adaptation, what better book to conclude this celebratory tour with than The Little Drummer Girl . The release of the book into a Penguin Modern Classic marks the completion of a nine-year project by Penguin to publish twenty-one of Le Carre’s novels, thus making him the most published author in this iconic series, acknowledging him as a writer not only for today, but for all time. As Helen Conford, Publisher Director at Penguin Books says, ” John Le Carre is one of the most important writers of our generation. For twenty-one of his novels to be published as Penguin Modern Classics is an acknowledgement not only of his immense literary achievement and the timeless quality of his work, but a well-deserved recognition of his significance as a writer who holds a mirror up to society, and encourages us to question the world around us.” The October transmission of the screen adaptation is brought to us by the award winning producers of The Night Manager, and stars Alexander Skarsgard and Florence Pugh.

The Little Drummer Girl is a page-turning story of love and loyalty set against the backdrop of the Middle East conflict, and I found it significantly different in tone and composition to the George Smiley series, and his other spy novels generally, which I am more familiar with. I think its no exaggeration to say that Charlie goes on an emotionally and physically draining journey during the course of this book, quickly maturing from an outspoken, incredibly dislikeable, and shockingly naïve young woman as she becomes a tool of the sinister Israeli Secret Service in their plot to entrap a Palestinian terrorist- a plot full of bluff and double-bluff The book is incredibly dense and labyrinthian, and attention must be paid, as some characters have different identities, and as a reader you are always second guessing their intentions and motivations in this unceasingly complex plot. With Le Carre’s always impeccable detail to plot structure, characterisation, location, and social and political mores of this particular point in history, the book manages to balance a sense of menace and claustrophobia with a convoluted love story that ties into the themes of loss and betrayal, with an immensely powerful denouement. A complicated. but ultimately satisfying read, that any admirer of John Le Carre will savour…

*****I have a copy of The Little Drummer Girl to giveaway to one lucky entrant in the prize draw. Simply leave your details in the contact form below (your details will not be displayed) by midnight on Friday 12th October to enter. UK only.***** GIVEAWAY NOW CLOSED*** 

Congratulations to the winner Andrea Hedgcock

The Raven will be in contact soon for your mailing address! 

You can buy the complete range of John Le Carre Penguin Modern Classics here 

Catch up with any John Le Carre posts you’ve missed at these excellent sites:

Douglas Skelton- The Janus Run

When Coleman Lang finds his girlfriend Gina dead in his New York City apartment, he thinks nothing could be worse… until he becomes the prime suspect.

Desperate to uncover the truth and clear his name, Coleman hits the streets. But there’s a deranged Italian hitman, an intuitive cop, two US Marshals, and his ex-wife all on his tail. And trying to piece together Gina’s murky past without dredging up his own seems impossible. Worse, the closer he gets to Gina’s killer, the harder it is to evade the clutches of the mysterious organisation known only as Janus – from which he’d long since believed himself free…

Egged on by some of his fellow Scottish crime authors, Douglas Skelton has taken a break from crime fiction set in his native Scotland, and taken a wee diversion to the mean streets of New York in The Janus Run, and what an utterly splendid diversion it is…

Like another Raven favourite, David Jackson, I think Skelton has set out on a series that could have a lot of mileage, having introduced a cast of strong, well realised characters, combined with a real fly by the seat of your pants action thriller, with the action coming thick and fast. The central character, Coleman Lang is a man with a mysterious past, by day an advertising executive, and after the murder of his girlfriend Gina, revealed to be another man entirely with former links to a shady organisation with the moniker Janus. Joining forces with Gina’s estranged father Tony Falcone, a former Mafia henchman now in witness protection, the two set out on a troubled and violent vendetta to bring the real killer to justice, and avoid the attention of the NYPD (with Lang as their chief suspect), and the vengeance seeking former acquaintances of Falcone. It’s a dynamite combination from the start, with Lang clearly trying to resist being sucked back into his old ways and his links to Janus, and Falcone as a real act first, think later man with violent impulses, bent on revenge. Add into the mix a couple of credible strident female law enforcers in the shape of no-nonsense, Lieutenant Rosie Santoro, who I adored, and the shadowy US Marshall TP McDonough, along with a host of caricature-ish Mafia types, estranged lovers and family, and a real old school NYPD cop who tries to assist Lang and Falcone, all of whom Skelton brings vividly alive throughout. I thought the characterisation was first class, and supported by whip-smart dialogue which carried all the cadence and rhythm of speech you would expect from a New York/Italian cast, it all worked in harmony beautifully.

The plot itself was well constructed, high octane and full of tension, littered with car chases, shoot outs, and cross and double cross. As Lang and Falcone edge nearer to the truth of Gina’s demise, they begin to attract the attention of some real rum sorts, and no-one is safe, with violence being meted out willy-nilly along the way. It’s real punchy stuff, driven forward with energy and pace, and although I had a brief hiatus in reading this, when I picked it up again, I was slam bam right back in the thick of it. I really enjoyed this first foray by Skelton to stranger shores, and cannot wait for the next! Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Saraband for the ARC)