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)

 

 

 

 

Time To Catch-Up- Malcolm Mackay- In The Cage Where Your Saviours Hide, Mari Hannah-The Lost, David Jackson- Don’t Make A Sound, M L Rio- If We Were Villains, Renata Serelyte- The Music Teacher

I’ll keep it simple, and no over-sharing! One of my eyes is knacked,  and proving a wee bit troublesome, but now reading and using the computer pretty much one-eyed, which is frustrating but better than nothing! So at last- and huzzah- the time is ripe for some life changing magic of catching up on some albeit shorter reviews.  

The Raven is back.

 

The independent kingdom of Scotland flourished until the beginning of the last century. Its great trading port of Challaid, in the north west of the country, sent ships around the world and its merchants and bankers grew rich on their empire in Central America.

But Scotland is not what it was, and the docks of Challaid are almost silent. The huge infrastructure projects collapsed, like the dangerous railway tunnels under the city. And above ground the networks of power and corruption are all that survive of Challaid’s glorious past. Darian Ross is a young private investigator whose father, an ex cop, is in prison for murder. He takes on a case brought to him by a charismatic woman, Maeve Campbell. Her partner has been stabbed; the police are not very curious about the death of a man who laundered money for the city’s criminals. Ross is drawn by his innate sense of justice and his fascination with Campbell into a world in which no-one can be trusted.

It’s always interesting to see an established crime author suddenly take a wee flight of fancy. and toy with their reader’s expectations, sometimes successful, and sometimes not. Although an ardent admirer of Mackay’s work to date,  I must admit that this book perplexed and delighted me in equal measure, with its linear Chandler-esque crime mystery, replete with world weary private investigators, bent coppers, devious men of business, and a splendid femme fatale. This arc of the plot worked on every level, littered with Mackay’s trademark dark cynical humour and explosive interludes of down and dirty violence, and was a complete pleasure as always.

However, I did find myself slightly less engaged with the whole parallel history malarkey, and the punctuation throughout the text of assorted newspaper articles, historical referencing and so on illustrating the changing fortunes of Challaid throughout the years. It was disruptive to the flow, thus making the book feel like two distinctly different parts of the whole, whereas if both parts had been fleshed out into two books it would maybe not felt quite as jarring and disconnected. Despite this criticism, I feel that the Challaid story would be worth revisiting by Mackay, but maybe bound up in a more pure fantasy style, if such a thing is possible. Not without its charm, and an interesting experiment, but a little unbalanced overall, but glad to see Mackay still rocking the unfeasibly long book title, and his hardboiled edge. Worth a look though.

(With thanks to Head of Zeus for the ARC)

 

Alex arrives home from holiday to find that her ten-year-old son Daniel has disappeared.

It’s the first case together for Northumbria CID officers David Stone and Frankie Oliver.

Stone has returned to his roots with fifteen years’ experience in the Met, whereas Oliver is local, a third generation copper with a lot to prove, and a secret that’s holding her back.

But as the investigation unfolds, they realise the family’s betrayal goes deeper than anyone suspected. This isn’t just a missing persons case. Stone and Oliver are hunting a killer…

And now to the first instalment of another new series from the wonderfully prolific Mari Hannah, introducing the crime detecting duo of seasoned copper David Stone, and keen as mustard sidekick Frankie Oliver. Hannah’s trademark is the sheer believability of her characters, and how quickly she envelops her reader’s interest in the world they inhabit, and she does this with her usual flair and empathy. I loved both characters, and although there is the necessary concealment of certain darker aspects of their lives that needs to be gradually teased out, unlike other pure police procedurals this never felt hackneyed or trite in its deliverance. They are both genuinely likeable, dedicated, refreshingly human protagonists, and the way they interact with and challenge each other throughout this investigation, leads to some brilliantly realised moments of confrontation, and the growth of a greater understanding of, and empathy with each other. The plot itself is probably the closest I’ve come to reading my bete noir of domestic drama, with a family on the brink of destruction leading to some very uncomfortable revelations for all, not to mention murder. As always Hannah’s timing and pace in The Lost is assured and compelling, and there’s some nice dramatic reveals, and emotive scenes, adding to the overall feel of an authentic, and hugely engaging police procedural. I also appreciated the title of the book itself, and how closely it represents and reflects most of the characters within the story. Once again, highly recommended

(With thanks to Orion for the ARC)

Meet the Bensons. They’re an ordinary couple. They wash their car, mow their lawn and pass the time of day with their neighbours. And they have a beautiful little girl called Daisy.

There’s just one problem.

SHE’S NOT THEIRS.

D. S. Nathan Cody is about to face his darkest and most terrifying case yet . . .

Okay, prepare to be utterly creeped out again with another dark and twisted tale from the always entertaining and unsettling David Jackson. This new instalment of the D.S. Nathan Cody series, begins with a typically dark scenario, and to be honest, and thankfully, doesn’t really let up, as Jackson ramps up the weirdness, the violence, and positively torments Cody even more than he has done previously. I like Cody’s character very much, as neurotic and strange as he is, despite wondering intermittently quite how he keeps his job. However, with the back-up of two strong female characters in the shape of his police partner, the long suffering DC Megan Webley, and his boss, the perfectly named DCI Stella Blunt, Cody’s relationships with both provides some interesting juxtapositions in terms of how we perceive his character. There’s also a nice little group of other police personnel, who provide moments of humour, succour and annoyance to Cody and Webley, but with an overarching feeling that there is an underlying bonhomie and cohesion to the team, apart from Cody going a bit lone wolf from time to time. With his trademark gallows humour, a few little pulls on our credulity, and a goodly amount of spine tingling tension, Don’t Make A Sound proves an enjoyable crime caper. Recommended.

(With thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for the ARC)

A small town police investigator broods obsessively on her tragic love affair with her school music teacher in Soviet Lithuania. After the town is shaken by the murder of a teenage girl, the investigation seems to dry up. When her ex-lover, now local politician, tries to close down the case, she begins to suspect that he may have been involved…

My first entanglement with Lithuanian crime, swathed in hugely descriptive imagery, lyrical pontifications, and poetical flights of fancy, that to my mind completely overwhelmed the premise of this book as a crime novel. I like to consider myself a not unintelligent person, but must confess that after being taken off on some roaming poetical tangent for what seemed like an eon, I began to lose sight of what was actually happening. Although I am a regular reader of slightly pretentious literary fiction, and do achieve a perverse sense of enjoyment from it, this just irritated me, and I began to care less and less as we were endlessly enveloped in this loop of a exceedingly tedious love affair. With hindsight, I can’t tell you why the girl was murdered, or who did it, or if they were brought to justice, as all I remember for some reason is that electricians are full of negative energy,  and quite frankly I feel much the same. Disappointing.

(With thanks to Noir for the ARC)

Oliver Marks has just served ten years for the murder of one of his closest friends – a murder he may or may not have committed. On the day he’s released, he’s greeted by the detective who put him in prison. Detective Colborne is retiring, but before he does, he wants to know what really happened ten years ago.As a young actor studying Shakespeare at an elite arts conservatory, Oliver noticed that his talented classmates seem to play the same roles onstage and off – villain, hero, tyrant, temptress – though Oliver felt doomed to always be a secondary character in someone else’s story. But when the teachers change up the casting, a good-natured rivalry turns ugly, and the plays spill dangerously over into life.When tragedy strikes, one of the seven friends is found dead. The rest face their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless…

I have only ever submitted three one star reviews, and one of these was for a book called The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton, which I rather scathingly said would probably only be required reading for first year drama students, if they weren’t out getting drunk on cheap cider. This flashed into my mind quite soon after embarking on this book, despite the promise of it being perfect for fans of Donna Tartt. As we become inveigled more and more in this group of largely egotistical, privileged, and increasingly annoying drama students at a prestigious arts academy, the allure of this being anything like Tartt is quickly dispelled. Despite being vaguely intrigued at the outset as the incarcerated Oliver, on the brink of release, reveals himself to have been refreshingly different to his dramatic cohorts, I quickly ascertained how this story of jealousy, and conflict would pan out. And it did- although I confess to skipping to the end, after trudging through 200 odd pages. There’s also a large amount of lazy writing, with substantial passages of Shakespeare reproduced that began to feel like superfluous filling, as most readers familiar with the plays that the students re-enact would not need what felt like chunks of text. Also the little references to lines from Shakespeare that pepper the students’ speech becomes increasingly wearisome, and pretentious, and merely propels their name into my roll call of writers as up themselves as Martin Amis.

I didn’t like this. I will exit pursued by bear. Now I sound like a knob too. Sorry.

(I foolishly bought this copy)

 

 

Bill Mesce Jr- Legacy: A DiMarchese Case File

Dante DiMarchese is a forensic psychologist, an expert in the workings of the criminal mind and the man responsible for putting the Bailey Beach serial killer behind bars. When a soldier home from a tour in Afghanistan is charged with manslaughter, Dante is immediately called on to help. Meanwhile, the Bailey Beach killer is threatening to smear Dante’s name, while Dante’s persistent ex-brother-in-law ropes him into an inheritance dispute between a still-living father and his family. In the heart of New York, will Dante’s unravel the legacies and lies that others have left behind? Can he contain his own deceptions?

There is the age-old adage that you should never judge a book by its cover, and Legacy is very much proves the rule. I must admit that I was a little put off by the very ordinariness of the book jacket on this, but what a little gem of a thriller lies between its pages…

With its sharp shooting, rat-a-tat dialogue cut through with humour and pathos throughout, Bill Mesce has produced an incredibly readable and highly enjoyable tale centring on the vain and self absorbed character of forensic psychologist, Dante DiMarchese. Enchanting and infuriating in equal measure, DiMarchese is a brilliant creation suffused with professional arrogance and obsession with his appearance, but gloriously underpinned by a genuine sense of morality,  as we observe his involvement with three disparate criminal cases. With somewhat of a car crash personal life, and an inherent knack of getting up most people’s noses, he walks a fine line between irritation for his overdeveloped solipsism, but possessing a charm and honesty that is really rather endearing. I loved this blend of characteristics within him, and equally the reaction of others to him. His long suffering secretary, Esther Froelich, proves a feisty defender of her self imposed position of arbiter of Checkpoint Charlie, as she calls her office, and is a wonderful foil for the shenanigans of her employer, particularly in the realm of hypothetical situations. She very much reminded me of the redoubtable Mrs Landingham from West Wing with her sharp tongue and no-nonsense approach, and the scenes between her and Dante were a joy. There are some pointed and bitter encounters with some in Dante’s personal circle that lead to some caustic and darkly funny episodes, and also those that manage to make us reassess the character of Dante completely. Throughout the select band of supporting characters generally,  we observe a host of contrasting reactions with, and respect for Dante, which fills out our general impression of him, but will our strutting peacock of a main man take some of this criticism on board and mend his ways? That would be telling, but I think there’s more than enough scope for us to waltz with Dante once again…

The book spans Dante’s personal and professional involvement in three contrasting cases, and the case of a contested will, revealing some pretty ugly and acrimonious familial relations is dwelt on the most. Although this legal battle was interesting in, and of, itself focussing on jealousy, manipulation and miscommunication, I felt there was a slight imbalance in the narrative, as the two other cases, one of an emotionally damaged war veteran, and an incarcerated serial killer, had the potential to hold more of the ground in the book, and I felt the former case in particular was worthy of greater focus, as I was interested in this young man’s experiences and his route to a moment of madness. However, on discovering that this was originally written as a screenplay, I totally understand the need to stretch the narrative over three stories and to focus on one in particular to hold the viewer’s interest, but in a novel I would have adjusted the balance slightly with the luxury of more room to explore the perpetrator’s motives and mind-sets. To be honest though, this is just a minor quibble in what proves to be a thoroughly engaging tale of dubious morality, emotional turbulence and the search for resolution, or revenge, in differing ways.

With its feel of John Grisham meets Elmore Leonard, I would heartily recommend Legacy as a bit of a must read for fans of contemporary American crime fiction. Looking forward to Mr DiMarchese’s next cases however he is coiffured…

(With thanks to Impress Books for the ARC)

#BlogTour- A. L. Gaylin- What Remains of Me

gaylinJune 1980: 17-year-old Kelly Lund is jailed for killing Hollywood film director, John McFadden Thirty years later, Kelly is a free woman. Yet speculation still swirls over what really happened that night. And when her father-in law, and close friend of McFadden is found dead – shot through the head at point-blank range – there can only be one suspect. But this time Kelly has some high-profile friends who believe she’s innocent of both crimes…

Being a fan of contemporary American crime fiction, and particularly those featuring ‘damaged’ female protagonists, such as Jax Miller’s Freedom’s Child and Emma Cline’s The Girls , I’m incredibly pleased to report that the trinity is now complete with this truly compelling novel from A.L. Gaylin, What Remains of Me.

Front and centre of this tale of redemption, revenge and murder, is the figure of Kelly Lund, convicted of murder at a young age, but now having served 25 years for the crime, still battling with her readjustment to life on the outside. Lund is a powerfully constructed and multi-faceted character who gets under your skin, and toys with your empathy as the tale unfolds. Her naivety as a seventeen year old girl, finding herself enveloped in the starry world of Hollywood and its nefarious temptations, is beautifully balanced with our view of her post-incarceration, and the damage this has wreaked on her emotional make-up. The barren emotion and dark shadows of her marriage is set against the frail and tentative emotional connection she makes with her neighbour Rocky, as she struggles with her past actions coming to impact on her new life. I found the lines drawn between the teenage and adult Lund with those connected to her past and present lives, with some particularly nasty skeletons emerging from the closet, were never less than utterly believable, and emotionally engaging throughout. The frailty and imperfections of Lund, as she seeks to make sense of the deeds attributed to her, drive the plot on, and her surrounding cast of characters, and their own failings both in their actions towards her, and their own pernicious acts are constantly surprising, and sometimes deeply disturbing. Gaylin’s fearless and uncompromising eye on the world of celebrity, and those that grow up in its shadow with their attendant emotional problems, is crucial to the playing out of this twisted tale, and grips the reader as our alliances to the main players shifts and changes.

What I liked most about this book is the control of pace and reveal that Gaylin uses, echoing the central theme of the seedy underbelly of the Hollywood crowd, who lie at the centre of the book. There is a real sense of zoom and focal adjustment, as Gaylin seems to anticipate perfectly how closely to bring the reveals into focus, and when to leave the reader hanging slightly by pulling away from certain story strands at exactly the right time. and then bam, another twist socks you right in the kisser.

Equally, Gaylin’s description of location, offsetting the glamourous Hollywood world of Lund’s teenage cohorts, against her new existence in the barren desert flats is beautifully realised, and providing another surreptitious reference to the morally bankrupt excesses of the movie fraternity, against the cleaner moral life of frugality, and engagement with the natural world. There is also a wonderfully dispassionate style to Gaylin’s writing, so it feels that the moments of revelation and emotional intensity are slightly dampened down, to add to the overarching feeling of sadness that permeates the story. In this way, the book exhibits the twin attributes of a nod to the best of hardboiled noir, fused with the emotional sparseness and literary prowess of contemporary American fiction.

So with its blend of strong characterisation, assured plotting, attention to location, and moral ambiguity, What Remains of Me, ticked every single box for this reader. It loitered in my head for some while after finishing it, and that for me is further testament to how good it was. No hesitation in the Raven’s mind that this is one highly recommended read. Excellent.

 

 

gaylin

PRAISE FOR WHAT REMAINS OF ME
‘Completely absorbing with a knock-out twist’ – Harlan Coben
‘You’ll stay up late to read this’ – Laura Lippmann
‘Full of crackling energy and heartache’ – Megan Abbott
‘An exceptional book by an exceptional writer. Gaylin is an expert at acute emotional observation combined with seamless plotting. I adored this book.’  – Alex Marwood
 
 

A. L. Gaylin’s first job was as a reporter for a celebrity tabloid, which sparked a lifelong interest in writing about people committing despicable acts. More than a decade later, she wrote and published her Edgar-nominated first novel, Hide Your Eyes.
 
She’s since published eight more books, including the USA Today and international bestselling Brenna Spector suspense series, which has been nominated for the Edgar, Anthony and Thriller awards and won the Shamus awards. She lives in upstate New York with her husband, daughter, cat and dog

(With thanks to Arrow Books for the ARC)

Catch up with, or continue to follow the blog tour at these excellent sites:

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Blog Tour- Melissa Ginsburg- Sunset City- Review

Sunset cityTwenty-two-year-old Charlotte Ford reconnects with Danielle, her best friend from high school, a few days before Danielle is found bludgeoned to death in a motel room. In the wake of the murder, Charlotte’s life unravels and she descends into the city’s underbelly, where she meets the strippers, pornographers and drug dealers who surrounded Danielle in the years they were estranged…

Billed as ‘taut, erotically charged literary noir’, Sunset City pretty much ticks all these boxes, and in common with the brilliant  Cracked by Barbra Leslie, explores the life of a damaged young woman in an impersonal and isolating metropolis, in this case Houston. Through her first person narrative, we observe Charlotte immersing herself totally in the life of her murdered friend Danielle, to uncover the truth behind her death, and drawing her into maelstrom of danger and jealousy. Fans of edgy, slight and sexy crime fiction in the style of Megan Abbott will love this. There’s a good development of Charlotte’s character as she navigates the underbelly of Houston life, encountering the less savoury characters that Danielle has been associating with, and drawing the reader in to a hazy world of drugs and sex, that are graphically explored in the course of the book.

This is another incredibly female-centric novel with much time expended on developing their characters, and very little development of the male protagonists, who again begin to conform to stereotype, although one or two of them would have been more interesting if they had been fleshed out a bit more. I liked the portrayal of Charlotte and Danielle’s relationship and the way their paths had diverged only to be brought back together in such difficult emotional circumstances. Charlotte herself exhibits a curious mix of strength and flakiness, that is so representative of the insecurities that women undergo in their twenties, seeking their place in the world, and being not altogether immune to the temptations that life that throw up, She was a likeable character throughout, despite moments of exasperation with her as she wandered blindly into moments of danger. I also thought the underlying angst and the exploration of the relationship  between Danielle and her mother was incredibly well drawn, paying particular attention to the difficulties and jealousies that can place pressure on the mother and daughter bond. These parts of the narrative really gave a sense of depth to the book, as the central mystery of the reasons behind Danielle’s death became very obvious very quickly, and the emphasis on characterisation rather than the delineation of the plot itself led to a rather damp squib ending.

Always one to comment of the use of location in the book, and in this one Houston provides a smart backdrop to the book. In a recent interview Ginsburg, who was brought up in Houston but now lives elsewhere, says that she is almost re-imagining the city from her youth, and this is very evident in the book. The Houston we see through the different characters viewpoints and experience of it is a prism of the city as a whole, making it not strictly urban and not strictly rural, not completely moral, but underscored with social darkness. The city mirrors the moods and lives of the protagonists in Ginsburg’s portrayal of it, and this works incredibly well throughout, in this not altogether unsatisfying dark, violent and sexy tale. Worth a look.

Melissa Ginsburg was born and raised in Houston and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of the poetry collection Dear Weather Ghost and two poetry chapbooks, Arbor and Double Blind. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Mississippi. Sunset City is her first novel.  Visit her website here and follow on Twitter @Ginsburgmelissa

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

Catch up with, or continue to follow the blog tour at these excellent sites

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Blog Tour- Yusuf Toropov- Jihadi: A Love Story- Review #Jihadi #BlogTour

4Well, this blog tour for Yusuf Toropov’s Jihadi: A Love Story is on to the final furlong, but stopping off today here at Raven Crime Reads for a review of this clever and thought-provoking book…

A former intelligence agent stands accused of terrorism, held without charge in a secret overseas prison. His memoir is in the hands of a brilliant but erratic psychologist whose annotations paint a much darker picture. As the story unravels, we are forced to assess the truth for ourselves, and decide not only what really happened on one fateful overseas assignment, but who is the real terrorist. Peopled by a diverse and unforgettable cast of characters, whose reliability as narrators is always questioned, and with a multi-layered plot heaving with unexpected and often shocking developments, Jihadi: A Love Story is an intelligent thriller that asks big questions. Complex, intriguing and intricately woven, this is an astonishing debut that explores the nature of good and evil alongside notions of nationalism, terrorism and fidelity, and, above all, the fragility of the human mind…

Suffused with unreliable narrators, shifting timelines and locations, addendums to the text encased in grey boxes with a miniscule font, and short diversions from reality, this is not an easy read, and attention must be paid throughout. I really found that a few precious moments reading time snatched throughout the day were not conducive to the pleasure of reading this book, and only when reading substantial sections at a time did the real intelligence and cleverness of this book impact on me more. It is also by extension, one of the most difficult books I have had to review, so bear with me…

The nature of the writing from the outset is challenging, and you may feel a little ‘all-at-sea’ when first embarking on this, until the characters gain a foothold in your mind, and the swift changes of narrative begin to establish a pattern and rhythm. But beware because, as a further ramification of this initial state of confusion, you will be further toyed with by Toropov as things happen, both cruel and unusual that will surprise and shock you in equal measure, further heightening the strange state of unreality, and the pure unpalatable truths of reality that the author seeks to convey. In simple terms, the whole book reads as a memoir, narrated by an American special operative on his return from a particularly ill-fated incursion into an unnamed Islamic state, and the characters and incidents that impact on his personal experience. However, this story then delineates to address far bigger themes, amongst them, the nefarious grasp of religious radicalism counterbalanced by the beauty of true religion, feminism, love and loss, and the clash of cultures that leads to violence and human collateral damage. Consequently, the essential style of this book is difficult to pinpoint as it reads like T. S. Eliot, fused with Homeland, with a soundtrack of The Beatles The White Album (referred to in the aforementioned grey boxes), interspersed with references to the Koran, whilst ultimately fulfilling its criteria as a heightened socially, and culturally aware, literary thriller.

Every single character within the book is shrewdly drawn, causing a gamut of emotions within the reader themselves, from the appalling actions of Mazzoni, an American marine, the religious rabble rousing of Abu Islam, the road to conversion of our main narrator Thelonius himself, and my favourite character Fatima, a good Islamic woman whose personal experiences lead her on an unexpected but completely justified path to revenge and retribution. Between all the protagonists we bear witness to the very best and worst of human behaviour, their prejudices and goodness, and how the predatory nature of some individuals wreaks havoc on the innocent, and undermines our faith in each other. This blend of assured characterisation to pass comment on issues that ultimately affect us all is extremely cleverly done, not with browbeating and preaching, but with a thought-provoking and subtle prod for us to consider our own responses to these weighty issues.

So shut out the world, turn off that phone, ramp up The White Album by The Beatles, and devote time to this to appreciate it fully. It is a challenging and, at times, a difficult read, but this is a good thing. Embrace it, and I think you’ll find this a pleasingly different reading experience.

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(With thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for the ARC)

 

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8

Something ‘Ould’, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue…

SOMETHING ‘OULD’…

bloodHaving left the Faroes as a child, Jan Reyna is now a British police detective, and the Islands are foreign to him. But he is drawn back when his estranged father is found unconscious, a shotgun by his side and someone else’s blood in his car. Then a man’s body is found, a shotgun wound in his side, but signs that he was suffocated. Is his father responsible for the man’s death? Jan must decide whether to stay or forsake the Faroe Islands for good…

Okay, so I haven’t really shut up about this book for a month in my daytime job as a bookseller, as it is set apart from much of crime fiction by the largely unfurrowed terrain of its Faroe islands setting. With a similarity in its premise to Peter May’s excellent Hebridean trilogy of a mainland detective returning to the stamping grounds of their youth, and replete with the sense of place exhibited in Ann Cleeves’ Shetland books, I was soon immersed in this far from everyday tale of island folk. What Ould achieves in spades with this book is a seamless intertwining of the mysterious and beautiful but harsh setting of the Faroes themselves, fully bolstered by an intriguing and sinister plot. There is a real sense that the author has absorbed completely the language, traditions and unique character of this location, and as much as I was gripped by the excellent plot, my enjoyment of reading was further enhanced by the revealing of a way of life that I had not encountered before. Ould homes in on the discreet character of the Faroese with their natural respect for the privacy of the individual, and the difficulties this presents in our detectives’ investigation, the differences between the inhabitants of each separate island,  and the story is peppered with examples of the vernacular adding an authenticity to the book overall. I was also completely taken with the two main police protagonists, the returning prodigal son Jan Reyna and local detective Hjalti Hentze, with both men exhibiting shades of light and dark as more of their character was slowly revealed as the tricky investigation progresses. Also, satisfyingly Ould has managed to maintain a further air of mystery about Reyna in particular, no doubt to be revealed in future books. There is an easy sense of professionalism and growing friendship between the two men, and I liked the camaraderie and their individual tenacity in their slightly different investigative styles that becomes apparent. Probably due to Ould’s extensive screenwriting experience, the plot unfolds at an assured pace, and contains both suspense and surprise along the way and delighted to say that I was very impressed indeed…

(With thanks to Titan Books for the ARC)

SOMETHING NEW…

JOEWhen the first young boy goes missing in a quiet Cape Cod town, Lieutenant Bill Warren is pulled into a morass that promises no happy ending. As his pursuit uncovers the unimaginable, he is led into a world of gambling, drug peddling, corruption and secret psychiatric experiments. As facts become murkier and the threat rises, Warren struggles to survive in a world where the police can be just as tainted as the criminals they chase, and where a murder inquiry will ultimately lead to his front door…

With my innate love of American fiction, it is always pleasing to read a debut that traverses both the crime and contemporary fiction genres, and Flanagan achieves this wonderfully here. With all the tension and darkness of a crime thriller Lesser Evils also contains a real depth of characterisation and psychological exploration that raises it above your average crime read, and I was held completely in its thrall from start to finish- leading to late night reading and late returns from lunch-breaks too. Set in 1950’s Cape Cod, the story centres on a series of child murders, which Flanagan unflinchingly, but compassionately portrays, and which in turn reveals a level of corruption among opposite branches- county and state- of the police fraternity, which leads the central police protagonist Bill Warren into dangerous territory, and personal threat. Warren is one of the most perfectly constructed characters I have ever encountered in crime fiction, blessed with a nobility and morality of character that sets him apart in the morass of immorality that surrounds him. He is dogged, dedicated but also hampered by his own insecurities particularly in relation to his driving sense of doing the right thing both professionally, and personally in his role as a single father. He has a natural compassion for those maligned due to their gender, race or sexual orientation and the sense of fairness that exists in him  makes him a natural target for the bigoted and corrupt behaviour of some of his fellow law enforcement officers. As the tale unfolds, Flanagan is given tremendous scope to ruminate on greater themes such as religion, addiction, mental illness and physical abuse, and he addresses all of these with a measured and thoughtful air, which leads to a real lyrical beauty to some passages, that fair takes your breath away. The visceral darkness of the main plot, set against this more metaphysical tone in the writing is beautifully balanced throughout, and skilfully manipulates our emotions throughout. So much more than a crime thriller, and a book that I would urge devotees of exemplary fiction writing to seek out.

(With thanks to Europa Editions for the ARC)

SOMETHING BORROWED…

51t+BxvtL2L__SL160_Percy is sixteen and used to her mama disappointing her. But this time her mama’s been gone for nine days and she’s been seen up at Shelton Potter’s farmhouse. Which can only mean she’s strung out on meth again, and who knows when she’ll be back. A blizzard rolls in and Percy jumps in her pickup and sets off for the farmhouse. She finds Shelton and a woman passed out on the floor, sleeping off the latest binge. But no sign of her mama. Percy heads upstairs and finds a neglected baby girl, in urgent need of care and attention. Percy knows she has no choice. She has to take the baby and get her to a hospital as soon as she can. But the blizzard shows no sign of stopping and soon her pickup is snowed in. Now she’s on foot and before long two-bit criminal Shelton wakes up and heads out with four of his associates, on the hunt for whoever has taken the baby . . .

Making the most of the brilliant loan facility that exists in the bookstore where I work, I quickly homed in on this new arrival. Resplendent with a jacket quote from the marvellous Ron Rash (Serena) and with comparisons to Daniel Woodrell and Denis Johnson, my attention was instantly grabbed. With a small cast of traditionally redneck characters residing in backwoods Michigan, with their attendant drug addictions and propensity for violence, this book does bear a distinct resemblance to Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone with a similarly driven young female protagonist. Mulhauser constructs a slim but well played-out story, with a small cast of characters, that slowly builds to a tense conclusion, punctuated by moments of extreme violence along the way. He exhibits a touching sympathy to what initially seem to be a cast of dislikeable characters, exposing their hidden humanity, humour, and how the conditions of your upbringing can mould your character to retain a sense of morality, or to take a different path of self destruction. The dialogue was sharp and authentic, and the atmosphere in terms of weather and landscape was well depicted. I enjoyed the book to a certain degree, but seeking to break out from the shadow of Woodrell in particular is no easy task, and the feeling of imitating Woodrell’s style too much worked slightly to the detriment to the overall feel of the book.

(Sweetgirl is published by Fourth Estate/HarperCollins)

SOMETHING BLUE…

51TiHDraCIL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A body is discovered in a Milan apartment, and Inspector De Vincenzi investigates. The apartment happens to belong to and old university friend of his, Aurigi. When the body turns out to be that of Aurigi’s banker, and a phial of prussic acid is discovered in the bathroom, suspicion falls on the apartment’s owner, and De Vincenzi is agonisingly torn between his sense of duty and his loyalty to an old comrade…

As a staunch devotee of Simenon’s Maigret books, I was delighted to discover this previously unknown to me Italian author, who exhibits a wonderfully similar style and pace to his French counterpart. This is the first of de Augusto’s books to feature Milanese detective de Vincenzi, originally published in 1935, and now re-issued under the mantle of the Pushkin Vertigo series. The detective we encounter here is thoughtful, pragmatic. and like the venerable  Maigret possesses a wonderful appreciation of the grey areas of crime detection, and the inevitable pulls on professional honour, and personal loyalty that this presents. In this relatively slim tale, de Vincenzi insinuates a greater level of psychological exploration than in books three times its length, and there is a strong sense of the socio-political feel of Italy in this period too. It’s bijou, but perfectly constructed and I can’t wait to discover the rest of the series…

(With thanks to Pushkin for the ARC)