Raven’s Yearly Round Up and Top 10 Crime Reads Of The Year 2018

And so another year of superb reading has ended, throwing all bloggers into a state of rumination, indecision and mild despair, as we seek to narrow our reads down to our particular favourites. Although, for various reasons I won’t bore you with, I had a slightly lower reading count this year, I feel I have unearthed some real beauties, and delighted that my general plan to ignore the most overhyped books of the year worked a treat for me! I only read two of these (for work) and was totally gratified that my new rule held true- if it’s hyped it’s probably a turkey! Joking aside, I genuinely have struggled to narrow my reading to a definitive list, so I’m going to cheat slightly and round up a few of those that just missed the final ten, as they are completely worth your close attention, before revealing the final line-up…

I already have a substantial list of books coming this year that have caught my attention, both crime and fiction, so I may mix it up a bit and do some fiction reviews too, as I love both genres. I’m also going to pull back a bit on participating in blog tours, to allow me a little breathing space, and better time management for reading and reviewing. My reading list has also been significantly increased due to my inclusion as a judge for The Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year, as a replacement for the most excellent Barry Forshaw. It’s all very exciting and looking forward to discussing and comparing notes with Sarah Ward, Kat Hall and Karen Meek on a not insubstantial list- there’s been some great reads so far, but my lips are sealed…

So my honourable mentions go to these that only missed the cut by a hair’s breadth (click on the image for the review). From Barbados to Brazil, from Denmark and the USA to Belgium and France, all of these are brilliantly character driven, atmospheric, socially perceptive or just damned thrilling reads, that were close, so close, to my favourites of the year. If you missed them, add them to your New Year reading lists, and you won’t be disappointed…

   

So, eyes down and here we go for the Top 10 of the Year- click on the images for the full reviews…

10.

“It was feisty, fresh, wonderfully sordid and a sublime blast of noir to welcome in the new year.” 

  9.

“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.”

8.

“Caleb’s character works well on several levels, due to the authenticity that Viskic brings to him and his voice. Here is a man that recognises his own weaknesses, and by extension the weaknesses of others, and carries with him a real sense of emotional intelligence, despite the constraints that his aural impairment places on him.”

7.

Grimwood handles all aspects of this book with a deft touch from setting, to characterisation, to pace, to the plot itself, and if you love a twisty, cerebral Cold War thriller as much as I do, I would definitely recommend that you seek out Nightfall Berlin. Duplicitous spies, and conniving Russians seems oddly prescient at the moment.”

6.

“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.

5.

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

4.

“I think it’s safe to say that a significant number of people that read, aside from the pure enjoyment of reading, do so to provide themselves with an enhanced comprehension of the world around them, and to encounter and experience people, places and cultural differences, and this is what Miller achieves here. American By Day is smarter than your average thriller, but containing all the essential components of good crime fiction that keep us reading and reading.

3.

“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.

1.

Yes, I know you’re thinking where has number 2 gone?

Well, all year I was convinced that a certain book would be my top read of the year until November when I read a certain book by Lou Berney called November Road, which was completely inseparable from Tim Baker’s City Without Stars, which deservedly held the number one spot since January! So I have two favourite books of the year and here’s why… 

City Without Stars is an intense, emotive and completely absorbing read, suffused with a violent energy, and with an unrelenting pace to its narrative. It heightens the reader’s senses and imagination throughout, completely enveloping the reader in this corrupt and violent society, with instances of intense human frailty and moments of strength, underpinned by precise description, and flurries of dark humour. I thought it was absolutely marvellous.

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. November Road 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. This is unquestionably one of those books that will haunt me for some time to come.  

So there we have it. Another year packed full of brilliant books, so thanks as always to my regular followers of this blog and on Twitter, to the publishers for the advance reading copies, to Netgalley for the same, to the wonderful bookshops across the land, and to my fellow bloggers who have directed me to many more amazing reads over the course of the year. A big Happy New Year to you all, and wishing you all another splendid year of reading delights. 

 

Derek B. Miller- American By Day

She knew it was a weird place. She’d heard the stories, seen the movies, read the books. But now police Chief Inspector Sigrid Ødegård has to leave her native Norway and actually go there; to that land across the Atlantic where her missing brother is implicated in the mysterious death of a prominent African-American academic. America. And not someplace interesting, either: upstate New York.
It is election season, 2008, and Sigrid is plunged into a United States where race and identity, politics and promise, reverberate in every aspect of daily life.
To find her older brother, she needs the help of the local police who appear to have already made up their minds about the case. Working with – or, if necessary, against ― someone actually named Sheriff Irving ‘Irv’ Wylie, she must negotiate the local political minefields and navigate the back woods of the Adirondacks to uncover the truth before events escalate further…

Following the absolutely stunning Norwegian By Night which has been a stalwart recommend of mine as a bookseller, it was with some degree of excitement that I greeted the arrival of American By Day. Instead of keeping you in suspense as to my reaction to this book, I will quickly say that it has already claimed a position in my top reads of the year so far, and here’s why…

This book reunites us with Norwegian police chief inspector Sigrid Odegard, who finds herself on a journey, both professional and personal, to track down her missing brother in upstate New York. By marrying the disparate methods of beliefs and practice of law enforcement between Odegard and her American counterpart Sheriff Irving ‘Irv’ Wylie, Miller weaves his dialogue between them with emotional punch, feisty exchanges and differences of opinion, but never losing sight of the fact that they are both are fundamentally on the same side, albeit moulded and shaped by differing social influences. The verbal sparring, but growing mutual respect, is beautifully depicted, and the frisson of tension between them never feels contrived or clichéd as is all too common in crime fiction.

Odegard’s character in particular carries with it a weight of self doubt, constant self appraisal and moments of vulnerability that really resonate with the reader, and she is without doubt one of the most roundly drawn, authentic, and empathetic female characters that I have encountered of late. As she grapples with the gaps in language, cultural differences, and her growing fearfulness as to her brother’s fate, Miller effortlessly carries the reader on her journey of discovery and epiphany, engaging us completely as the story progresses. The dialogue throughout the book is beautifully controlled, infused with wit, gaps in understanding, and envelops the reader in the definition of the characters, their relationships, their emotions and how they perceive and seek to make sense of the world around them.

By aligning these protagonists from two entirely different cultures, Miller has afforded himself the opportunity to provide a mirror to the social and racial issues that plague American society both in the timeline of 2008, with the election looming, and perhaps more pertinently how these conflicts plague American life still. One review I read of this book made a sniffy comment about Miller’s didacticism, and yes, there is a strong sense of authorial comment pervading the book, which is inevitable in the time period, and with the social, racial and political issues the narrative gives rise to. However, I think any reader with a modicum of intelligence will have the gumption to embrace the author’s more cerebral observations, be they objective or subjective, and process this information for themselves. Personally, I had no problem with Miller’s exploration of the American psyche, the ever present issues of racial division, police brutality and so on, as I don’t believe that anyone can claim ignorance as to the existence of these divisive issues. Harking back to the quote from Karin Slaughter that crime fiction is the best medium to reflect the true ills and division of society, this is the lasting impression of this book for me. I found Miller’s juxtaposition of a compelling and emotive plot, with the exploration of race, violence, mental illness and social conflict a perfect blend, and his balance between the two streams of narrative are never less that completely absorbing.

I think it’s safe to say that a significant number of people that read, aside from the pure enjoyment of reading, do so to provide themselves with an enhanced comprehension of the world around them, and to encounter and experience people, places and cultural differences, and this is what Miller achieves here. American By Day is smarter than your average thriller, but containing all the essential components of good crime fiction that keep us reading and reading.  Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Doubleday for the ARC)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Derek B. Miller- Norwegian By Night

Product DetailsEighty-two years old, and recently widowed, Sheldon Horowitz has grudgingly moved to Oslo, with his grand-daughter and her Norwegian husband. An ex-Marine, he talks often to the ghosts of his past – the friends he lost in the Pacific and the son who followed him into the US Army, and to his death in Vietnam. When Sheldon witnesses the murder of a woman in his apartment complex, he rescues her six-year-old son and decides to run. Pursued by both the Balkan gang responsible for the murder, and the Norwegian police, he has to rely on training from over half a century before to try and keep the boy safe. Against a strange and foreign landscape, this unlikely couple, who can’t speak the same language, start to form a bond that may just save them both.

I must admit to having a slight crisis of confidence in writing this review, questioning whether I could do justice to just how marvellous this book is. From the first few pages, I was totally immersed in the life of Sheldon Horowitz, our curmudgeonly hero of the piece: a man haunted by the ghosts of his former life and coping with the daily frustrations of growing old. From the synopsis, it is impossible to harness all the themes and subtlety of prose that this book conveys to the reader. On one level, not only does the book contain all the quintessential elements of a Scandinavian crime novel, it also encompasses the Korean, Vietnam and Balkan conflicts, and on a more emotional level, presents a poignant and meditative examination of aging and regret, that unusually for this cynical reader, really touched me, engaging me even more with the characters and the multi-faceted plot.

 As the book opens we get our first encounter with the beautifully realised character of Sheldon Horowitz, uprooted from his native America following the death of his wife, to live in Norway with his granddaughter Rhea and her husband Lars, and the dynamics of this relationship quickly become clear. Indeed, Sheldon’s first response to Rhea urging him to move to Norway is to tell her to get stuffed, feeling his independence is under threat and resenting her assertion that he is in any way senile. He is stubborn and headstrong, but ingrained with a mordant sense of wit and a deep compassionate humanity, particularly evident in his utter determination to protect the life of the young boy he goes on the run with, and his seemingly testy, but ultimately loving relationship with Rhea. What we recognise at the core of his character is a wiliness and a steely determination tempered by the tragedies he has experienced in the past, in particular the loss of his comrades in Korea and the death of his son Saul (Rhea’s father) in Vietnam. Throughout the book, Miller carefully incorporates touching vignettes of Sheldon’s past life experiences, that convey how a man must rise above tragedy to hold onto his sanity and compassion, and how this dicates Sheldon’s actions, that seem foolhardy at first, to keep those closest to him safe from harm. He is without a doubt one of the most perfectly conceived and constructed characters that I have ever read, and one that will stay with me for a long time.

 The plot is completely engaging, constructed as a powerful story of flight and the will for survival. Following a brutal murder in Sheldon’s apartment he, without hesitation, goes on the run with the murder victim’s young son, quickly realising that the boy’s life is under threat. Hampered by the barrier of language, Sheldon and his charge pick their way through the beautifully portrayed backwoods of Norway, pursued not only by the boy’s sinister father and his cronies, but by the Norwegian police. Every protagonist in this scenario is utterly convincing, and with the poignant relationship developing between Sheldon and the boy, stirring up an evocation of Sheldon’s own relationship with his dead son, Saul, the plot is multi-layered and compelling from start to finish. The motif of war runs strongly throughout the book, not only in Sheldon’s reminiscences, but in his reliance on the skills he gained in Korea to outwit those who pursue him and the boy, leading to a dramatic and heartfelt denouement which threatens all involved.

I can only say in closing that I would urge everyone to read this exceptional debut with its powerful and emotive themes, but this is also a book that retains all the tension of a totally authentic Scandinavian crime thriller. I cannot praise it highly enough and on this showing ‘Norwegian By Night’ could well be one of my top crime reads this year. An outstanding read.

Derek B. Miller is the director of The Policy Lab and a senior fellow with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. He has a PHD in international relations from the University of Geneva, and an MA in national security studies from Georgetown University, in cooperation with St Catherine’s College, Oxford. He lives in Oslo with his wife and children. ‘Norwegian By Night’ is published by Faber & Faber.
(With thanks to Faber & Faber for the ARC)