Anna Mazzola- The Story Keeper

Audrey Hart is on the Isle of Skye to collect the folk and fairy tales of the people and communities around her. It is 1857 and the Highland Clearances have left devastation and poverty, and a community riven by fear. The crofters are suspicious and hostile to a stranger, claiming they no longer know their fireside stories. Then Audrey discovers the body of a young girl washed up on the beach and the crofters reveal that it is only a matter of weeks since another girl disappeared. They believe the girls are the victims of the restless dead: spirits who take the form of birds. Initially, Audrey is sure the girls are being abducted, but as events accumulate she begins to wonder if something else is at work. Something which may be linked to the death of her own mother, many years before…

Having thoroughly enjoyed Anna Mazzola’s debut, The Unseeing based on an historical murder case, I was more than intrigued to see what would come next from the author. Suffice to say that this glorious mix of the gothic and the folkloric more than hit the spot…

Once again, the breadth of Mazzola’s historical research is clearly in evidence again, using the backdrop of 19th century Skye to weave this dark and mysterious tale. Melding together the utter poverty wrought by the infamous land clearances of the period, the chasm between rich and poor, and the superstitious belief in folklore, Mazzola paints a vivid picture of the period which has a vivid clarity, and transports the reader effortlessly to this moment in time. I absolutely loved the rendering of the folkloric tales, that Audrey is employed to collect and catalogue, and the natural compulsion displayed by the crofting community to withhold these tales from prying outsiders, leading Audrey to chip away at this reluctance to satisfy her strange and eccentric employer Miss Buchanan. Equally, the interweaving of Gaelic history, and the reduced livelihoods of the local inhabitants adds further colour and context to the story, but there is an even more vital strand to this book concerning Audrey herself.

Audrey has fled from London unchaperoned to take up this position, causing us instantly to wonder at the reasons for such ‘unladylike’ behaviour, and here a very important story arc is revealed. Mazzola uses Audrey’s story, and that of other young women she encounters in Skye, to really cut to the grist of the position of women in this period in society. Without giving too much away, the patriarchal, male oriented society is very much the catalyst for her escape, and her story is poignant and thought provoking, allowing Mazzola to explore the extreme emotional and financial hardship that Audrey and other women experience, and the abuses and indignities they suffer. I found this theme in the book very emotive, and with a modern sensibility felt a righteous anger on their behalf. As the abuses in the local community come to light, Audrey is compelled to intervene and defend the right of these women for justice, placing herself in extreme danger too, and as the sense of peril builds, with a beautifully weighted feel of gothic suspense, there are some extremely dark misdemeanours to reveal.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Story Keeper, and as each layer of the story was peeled back, and different facets of the everyday existence of this community was brought to light there was an enhanced level of interest throughout the book. With it’s curious mix of the ordinary, the strange, the gap between rich and poor, mental illness, and the inherent danger to, and tacit subservience of women in this period, I was held in a state of fascination from beginning to end. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Tinder Press to the ARC)

Raven’s Yearly Round-Up and Top 5 Crime Reads 2016

 

largeWell, what a perfectly horrible year we’ve all had. War, poverty, death, and selfishness on a dizzying scale has defined 2016. We’ve had political meltdown, and our country is now floundering due to the 52% of the British people who really should not have been allowed anywhere near the Brexit vote, by reason of their gross stupidity. (Don’t even get me started on Theresa ‘we know you’re struggling but we don’t give a toss’ May). Then, to cap it all,  the weirdness of the U.S. voting system allowing the ascendancy of one of the most xenophobic and misogynistic individuals to the most powerful position imaginable and I refuse to even utter his name.  Also, I know I am not alone in having personal strife this year too. Yes. It’s all been a bit crap.

book-love-books-to-read-23017145-619-463But, gather round bookish friends and let’s take a moment to rejoice in the good stuff- ‘the books, the books’, I hear you cry. It’s been a superb year for crime fiction this year, and I have discovered some absolute gems along the way. So here’s how Raven’s reading year panned out…

(click on the book jackets for reviews)

 

DEBUT-TASTIC!

With 90+ books reviewed and over 150 read during the year, 2016 has been a bumper year for some damn, fine fiction. (Still 40+ non-starters but we’ll move swiftly on).  I was particularly struck by the quality of the debut authors I have encountered this year. A couple will be featuring in my Top 5, so aside from them, special mentions, and a round of applause to the following…

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THAT DIFFICULT SECOND BOOK…

Also wanted to highlight those authors that blew me away in 2015 with their debuts, and who have now produced second books, the equal of, or even better than their first foray into the world of crime fiction…

deadlyCarson_02_THE%20SALT%20MARSHsuzimedinathe-pleaFever_of_the_Blood

 

6c217d7a427ef735dcbf85b02b5c40a4AND STILL IT GOES ON….

In last year’s round-up I wrote this… It seems that only by dwelling at the outer reaches of the Arctic Circle could you escape the hype surrounding The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins. And yet the Raven was unmoved by the sheer intensity of the praise heaped upon this book on its release, and the ensuing avalanche of ‘domestic noir’ thrillers that it helped spawn. There again I didn’t like Gone Girl either. I am the domestic noir Grinch. Enough already.” Unfortunately, I still failed to heed my own advice, and have either abandoned at the 40 page mark, or trawled all the way through on pain of death, a substantial number more of these over the last 12 months.

Resolution for 2017? Quoth the Raven. Nevermore.

Not a single dopey domestic noir thriller will grace my blog in the next year.

WORDS FAILED ME…BUT IN A GOOD WAY…

492ec49_6e4d53e237f2437cb87cd049f0b4cfaaAlthough I am not the most prolific of bloggers, and tend to give breathing/thinking space between finishing books and writing a review, there are some books that with fingers poised over keyboard that prove excessively difficult to review, because they are so damn weird/clever/thought provoking/intense (delete as applicable). Courtesy of Orenda Books, two such books have crossed my path this year, and never has it taken me so long to try and write reviews that reflect the sheer cleverness and thought provoking intensity of these two. Mr Yusuf Toropov, Mr Michael Grothaus, I salute you…

fb929b12453a2ce028c765b5197b1a04THE TBR PILE…

Yes, the behemoth of the TBR mountain looms large on my conscience, but to be honest, there are worse problems to have, and no, I am not going to count the number of books vying for my attention. Have started making a dent with my commute to work, which has afforded me the opportunity to finally get round to reading some excellent authors who had slipped the net, for example Eva Dolan, Neil Broadfoot and Helen Cadbury, and some quirky crime in translation too. I’ll keep chipping away…for at least the next ten years…or more…

And so to the winners, no prizes, but big thanks for your sparkling and enthralling books. Not all of these achieved Book of The Month status but have remained resolutely in the Raven’s mind all year…

Raven’s Top 5 (ish) Books of the Year

5.

A RISING MAN

“Not only is the writing whip smart and intuitive with a clever and engaging plot, but the depth of the historical research to so vividly portray the teeming life of this beautiful, yet socially and racially torn, outpost of the former British Empire, sings from every page.”

4.

aa

“A genuinely terrific thriller; clever, well-researched and beautifully executed, as the action ebbed and flowed, keeping me on tenterhooks throught. There’s scheming, corruption, violence, and a strong sense of the personal cost that power, political envy and money can bring in its wake.”

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“This is an intelligent, thoughtful and emotionally compelling read, peopled by a sublime cast of characters and a balanced and realistic portrayal of weighty issues, firmly located in the fascinating and tumultuous period of post war America. Cut through with moments of raw emotion, thought-provoking social observation, and never less than totally engrossing, Darktown is something really quite special indeed.”

tall-oaks

“There are moments of genuine tension carefully interspersed with warmth and humour, as this band of misfits, for various reasons, go about their daily lives, with the overriding urge to make personal and emotional connections with friends, lovers and relatives. It’s wonderfully plotted, and I enjoyed every minute of it.”

What do you mean, that’s cheating?

They are all set in America.

(My excuse and I’m sticking to it)

3. 

bird

“It’s dark, psychologically tense and packed full of emotion both overt or deliberately disguised, with the reader invited to fill the spaces between.”

2.

dod“The writing is flawless throughout with Beverly being as comfortable with the rat-a-tat rhythm of the young teenagers’ dialogue, and conveying the brutality of their world, to describing elements of the landscape they travel through with the lyricism of some of the best naturalistic American writers.”

1.

blood

“As a crime reader, precise plotting, the control of suspense, and believable characterisation lay at the core of my reading pleasure, and Lemaitre achieves this beautifully throughout. The plot twists are in no way reliant on the suspension of disbelief, or clumsily wrought, leading to a genuinely intriguing, and utterly enthralling, example of psychological suspense.”

———————————————————–

All the best for 2017 everyone

and just remember…

keep-calm-and-happy-reading-2

 

 

July 2016 Round-Up and Raven’s Book of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Aside from losing my internet access for 12 long, long days, July has really been quite productive and mostly enjoyable. A week off work, a birthday, and lots of terrific books read too! Had another heart-breaking book cull, which I imagine to be akin to asking a parent which is their favourite child, waving goodbye to 500+ books to my local charity shop, but still have a few hundred in reserve- hurrah!  And still on the positive,  I have at last made a slight in-road into my 20 Books of Summer Challenge- post coming soon. So, onward to the books…

Books read and reviewed:

Clare Carson- The Salt Marsh

Simon Booker- Without Trace

Anna Mazzola- The Unseeing

Frederic Dard- The Wicked Go To Hell

Frederic Dard-Bird In A Cage

Jonathan Ames- You Were Never Really Here

Massimo Carlotto- For All The Gold In The World

Pierre Lemaitre- Blood Wedding

Malcolm Mackay- For Those Who Know The Ending

Elizabeth Haynes- Never Alone

wilberI also dipped my toe back into non-fiction crime and read Del Quentin Wilber- A Good Month For Murder– which I would put very much on a par with David Simon’s Homicide or Mile Corwin’s The Killing Season. Wilber, an award winning reporter at The Washington Post, gives us a truly compelling behind the scenes look at the police officers and investigative cases of  a homicide squad. By following the progress of several cases and the dedicated officers who approach their task with a mixture of dedication, doggedness, and world weary cynicism, Wilber shines a light on the day-to-day frustrations and danger that this noble band of men and women grapple with, to go about their remit to protect and serve. Incredibly readable, well-researched and thought provoking throughout. Recommended.

Raven’s Book of the Month

No. I can’t do it. This has been an absolutely stellar month for reading with some real stand-out reads along the way. They are all so completely different and wonderful in their own way, so this is the fairest decision I can come to…

Extremely honourable mentions to Clare Carson- The Salt Marsh , Massimo Carlotto- For All The Gold In The World and Anna Mazzola- The Unseeing Seek these out immediately.

Carson_02_THE%20SALT%20MARSH            cover_9781609453367_661_600        unseeing

And down to the wire, the twisted genius of Pierre Lemaitre- Blood Wedding and the seedy,  gritty Glasgow gangland world of Malcolm Mackay- For Those Who Know The Ending proved impossible to choose between. Joint winners chaps and thoroughly deserved.

blood                   malcolm

 

Anna Mazzola- The Unseeing

unseeingSet in London in 1837, The Unseeing is the story of Sarah Gale, a seamstress and mother, sentenced to hang for her role in the murder of Hannah Brown on the eve of her wedding. After Sarah petitions for mercy, Edmund Fleetwood is appointed to investigate and consider whether justice has been done. Idealistic, but struggling with his own demons, Edmund is determined to seek out the truth. Yet Sarah refuses to help him, neither lying nor adding anything to the evidence gathered in court. Edmund knows she’s hiding something, but needs to discover just why she’s maintaining her silence. For how can it be that someone would willingly go to their own death?

Despite my patchy reading of historical crime fiction, I heard Anna Mazzola talk about her debut at this year’s CrimeFest convention in Bristol, and was suitably intrigued by this fictionalisation of a true murder case from the Victorian period. The Edgeware Road Murder of 1837 which led to many a lurid story in the popular press, resulted in Sarah Gale being convicted of aiding and abetting James Greenacre in the murder of his fiancée Hannah Brown. Gale refused to give a full testimony, simply stating that she knew nothing. Frankly, having been bored witless by other non-fiction accounts of Victorian murder cases e.g. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher,  hopes were high that the story of Sarah Gale would draw me in…

From the very beginning I found this an intelligent, detailed and emotionally engaging read. Mazzola’s characterisation of Sarah in particular was incredibly powerful, showing a woman struggling with the secrets that she chooses not to expose in open court, and thus willingly forfeiting her right to a fair trial. As the plot unfolds, and Edmund Fleetwood investigates her case further to commute her sentence,  it becomes abundantly clear why she has adopted such a closed and taciturn demeanour during her trial. Mazzola controls the pace of Fleetwood’s uncovering of Sarah’s motivations and actions beautifully, and the characterisation of both is perfectly drawn throughout. Sarah exudes a natural dignity that makes her appear rather closed down from natural emotion, and I liked the way that layers of her character are revealed gradually, with her fierce loyalty to both her sister Rosina,  and her young son George, shaping her reluctance to reveal her suspected involvement in the murder of Hannah Brown. Mazzola neatly swings our own perception of her back and forth, with us constantly questioning her innocence or guilt in this heinous crime, and cleverly uses the, at times, witless Fleetwood to echo the doubts of the reader as he tries to unpick the mystery that is Sarah Gale, and in the process exposing some of his own family’s unsavoury secrets…

Mazzola’s depth of research is constantly in evidence, but never to the detriment of her ability for natural storytelling. You can positively taste, smell and feel the fear that inhabits Newgate prison, where Sarah is incarcerated. The utter despair or false bravado of her fellow prisoners is portrayed wonderfully, and the rundown and unhygienic confines of this disease-riddled gaol enfolds the reader in a foul miasma. A particular enjoyment of this book is the way that Mazzola incorporates the less politically correct attitudes exhibited in relation to women from the press, the courts and in wider society itself, neatly summed up by one quote from Fleetwood’s father; “Remember that, while women are often very good liars, they are generally less capable of independent and complex thought” and that women are generally more susceptible to loose morality and scurrilous crime. The book is peppered with references to the unfairness of the legal system when women are in the dock, and how the punishments meted out to them are more harsh in relation to the crimes committed, and more often than not leading to convictions on the flimsiest of evidence.

So all in all, a brilliantly researched, emotional, perceptive, and utterly engaging slice of Victorian crime fiction. It skilfully manipulates the reader’s responses to the accused, Sarah Gale, by using the reactions of Edmund Fleetwood who is emotionally drawn to both her, and the seeming travesty of justice against her, as well as painting a visceral and realistic picture of the period itself. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Tinder Press for the ARC)