Doug Johnstone- Breakers

Seventeen-year-old Tyler lives in one of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas. Coerced into robbing rich people’s homes by his bullying older siblings, he’s also trying to care for his little sister and his drug-addict mum. On a job, his brother Barry stabs a homeowner and leaves her for dead, but that’s just the beginning of their nightmare, because the woman is the wife of Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord, Deke Holt. With the police and the Holts closing in, and his shattered family in devastating danger, Tyler meets posh girl Flick in another stranger’s house, and he thinks she may just be his salvation, unless he drags her down too…

About three years ago I reviewed a book by Doug Johnstone called The Jump , a book that remains as one of the best books I have ever read. In my original review I said that, “When people decry genre fiction as somehow not being as worthy or the compare of ‘literary fiction’,  I have no hesitation in drawing their attention to books such as this, which possesses an emotional intensity and sensitivity that is rarely encountered in any genre, harnessing emotional, and by their very nature, contentious issues that many writers in the ‘literary’ field would struggle to address in such an affecting way as Johnstone achieves.” So it will come as no real surprise to hear that in this intensely compelling read, and in my ever so humble opinion, Doug Johnstone has more than achieved this again…

Let’s start with Tyler, the central protagonist, balancing his role as protector, provider, and accomplice, at a relatively tender age, and with an over enhanced sense of responsibility and some times misplaced loyalty in his familial role. Juggling the role of caregiver and protector of his younger sister ‘Bean’, but finding himself at the behest and control of his aggressive and borderline psychopathic step brother, Tyler navigates a tense and ominously threatening path through life. Desperate to keep the equilibrium of his home life, but with his mum’s instability and dependence on drink and drugs, casting a shadow over the stability of this, one impulsive criminal act places Tyler and Bean in extreme danger. What Johnstone captures so perfectly in the character of Tyler, is that of a young man propelled into adulthood and maturity due to the extreme behaviour of others. He’s bright, resourceful, and emotionally intuitive, and a wonderful caregiver for Bean, but there’s also there’s always this sense of the child about him, dominated by his stepbrother, his tentative handling of his relationship with spiky posh girl Flick, and his unflinching acceptance of his mum’s emotional and physical weakness. He is the epitome of a young man who’s had to grow up a startling fast rate, but not to the detriment of his own strong moral code, his integrity and compulsion to protect others.

As we have come to expect of this author, Johnstone himself is also unflinching in this portrayal of a family in meltdown. The particular angst, borderline poverty and issues of abuse and anger, that all too many families encounter lay at the very heart of this book, but tangentially Johnstone also shows through the home life of Flick that this emotional paucity is equally relevant to her life, with the emotional neglect of her parents, her mother’s alcohol abuse, and the coldness of her father. She seeks attention in destructive ways and she’s financially rich, but only attains an emotional richness through her growing attachment to Tyler, and by extension, Bean too. Through this relationship we also see her bravery and resourcefulness, and the sense of her yin to Tyler’s yang that begins to become apparent as her involvement in these dark events escalates.

The authenticity of Johnstone’s characters is due in no small part to his intensely realistic portrayal of the world that Tyler and his family exist in. The book is peppered with sudden outbreaks of violence and abuse, with the overriding control of his sadistic stepbrother Barry, and the ramifications of entering the dangerous world of a hardened criminal that Barry’s foolish and impulsive actions, catapult them into. At one point Tyler berates Flick for embarking on her own ‘poverty safari’ as their life experience appear to be so markedly different, and Tyler’s world is a stark contrast socio-economically- harsh and poor, with the threat of violence a norm. As much as the book is brutally realistic, it is also tinged with sensitivity and compassion, with a strong message that a less than promising start in life is not necessarily proof of a moral deficiency, and that a good nature can overrule bad nurture. Despite the anger and tension so in evidence in these characters’ lives, I found this book tremendously life affirming, and as Tyler grows in stature and strength, he very much takes the reader with him. You’re rooting for him, and it doesn’t feel that your belief in him is misplaced. Breakers is a superb read (with an equally excellent soundtrack woven into the narrative) and once more I would heartily encourage you that, if you haven’t read this author before, you really should do so.

It would be rude not too…

Highly recommended.

 

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

 

   Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

November (and October!) 2016 Round-Up and Raven’s Book(s) of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Well, hello everyone- lovely to see you!

Having just realised that I completely neglected to post a round-up in October, for reasons far too wearisome to go into here, so someone has missed out on the accolade for October’s Book of the Month. That will be rectified forthwith! Still getting to grips with my work/life balance, so despite reading loads thanks to my bus commute, haven’t quite got a handle on finding time to review them all. It’ll sort itself out soon…promise. However, an upside to my new regimen is more time to tackle that TBR pile, and it’s been nice to read books that have been languishing on my shelves for far too long. More of these to come.

So let’s get down to business and bring this blog up to date, as December is with us, and Raven’s Top 5 of the year is on the horizon. Serious stuff which needs to be thought about carefully…in other words, how on earth is this year of stellar reading going to be whittled down to just 5 favourites. Hmmm…..

Have a good month, and just remember that most sensible people would love to be bought a shiny new papery book from your local bookshop for their Christmas stocking!

Raven’s Book of the Month- October

birdAgnes Ravatn- The Bird Tribunal

Samuel Bjork- I’m Travelling Alone

Helen Cadbury- To Catch A Rabbit

Owen Sheers-I Saw A Man

Domenic Stansberry- The White Devil

Carl-Johan Vallgren- The Tunnel

Steinar Bragi-The Ice Lands

Raven’s Book of the Month- November

gaylinDoug Johnstone- Crash Land

Mark Hill- The Two O’Clock Boy

A. D. Garrett- Truth Will Out

Nuala Ellwood- My Sister’s Bones

Eva Dolan- Long Way Home

Davide Longo- Bramard’s Case

Pascal Garnier- The Eskimo Solution

                                    Frederic Dard- Crush

                                                A. L. Gaylin- What Remains of Me

 

Blog Tour- Doug Johnstone- Crash Land

41iatw0focl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Sitting in the departure lounge of Kirkwall Airport, Finn Sullivan just wants to get off Orkney. But then he meets the mysterious and dangerous Maddie Pierce, stepping in to save her from some unwanted attention, and his life is changed forever…

I must confess that when I initially read the book description, my first thought was, ‘ well, this doesn’t sound like a Doug Johnstone book to me,’ having been completely blown away by the sensitivity and raw emotion of his previous book The Jump . However,  the Raven’s slightly ruffled feathers were quickly smoothed, as after the initial seat-of-your-pants scenes of an air crash in the seemingly tranquil peace of Orkney,  my equanimity was quickly restored…

Drawing on my earlier comment, I think what Crash Land demonstrates so effectively is the flexibility of Johnstone as a writer. With his main protagonists of Finn and Maddie, and the intensity of the relationship that builds between them as events unfurl, Johnstone confidently, and most importantly believably, draws together two people so defined by their differences of experience into a claustrophobic and tense relationship. Finn is a naïve, slightly gauche young man, who, as is the wont of young men generally, is initially attracted to Maddie on a primal level. Maddie, older, experienced and obviously a woman carrying a burden of emotional torment, realises the usefulness of this  young man’s infatuation with her, as her plans for escape from Orkney are thwarted. Johnstone carefully builds up this symbiosis between them, as Finn finds himself in the unwelcome spotlight of the police and the media, following the plane crash, and Maddie’s complicated emotional ties, and possible acts of violence come to light. Finn puts the reader through some emotional upheaval, at times being a sensitive young man, who was deeply affected by the death of his mother and attachment to his grandmother , and then being so boundlessly naïve you want to put him in a sack and shake him. I found Maddie an intriguing and mercurial character, who manipulates our feelings as a reader as much as she draws in the hapless Finn, proving there is much more to her than meets the eye…

The landscape of Orkney and the Scottish isles in general, has proved itself a rich hunting ground for many British crime authors, as its similarity to the bleak Scandinavian terrain affords ample opportunity for psychological exploration. Johnstone has obviously immersed himself fully in the unique topography and history of Orkney, as the clarity and authenticity of his depiction of the landscape, people and spiritual and mythical backdrop of the island shines through every description. I loved the evocation of the island’s history and the way it has shaped its hardy souls in terms of their stoicism and mental toughness, as the sea and elemental weather conditions rage around them. Johnstone confidently mirrors the bleakness and raw beauty of the island in the psychological travails of his protagonists, and the more nefarious activities that the remoteness of this location lends itself to. The descriptive element of this book is never less than perfect, and Johnstone uses it to its full effect.

With consummate skill Johnstone takes his reader from a high octane, emotionally charged opening, then slowing the pace radically to provide a thoughtful and intriguing exploration of the relationship between Finn and Maddie, and our changing perceptions of both. By weaving together these two elements so effectively, alongside the pitch perfect depiction of the mercurial nature of  Orkney itself , Crash Land ticked all the boxes for this reader, and proved a satisfying and engaging thriller. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

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

crash-land_blog-tour-graphic_

Raven’s Yearly Round-Up and Top 5 Crime Reads 2015

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)As the end of 2015 approaches, it is time to look back in awe and wonder at some of the books that have thrilled and entertained the Raven over the last twelve months. With approximately 125 crime books read, and not far off 100 reviews posted, this year has heralded a bumper crop of exciting crime reads, A slew of brilliant debuts including Oscar de Muriel- The Strings of Murder, Tom Callaghan’s The Killing Winter, Ragnar Jonasson’s Snowblind and David Young’s Stasi Child, and great new offerings from established names such as Mari Hannah, Steve Mosby, William Shaw, Simon Toyne and Malcolm Mackay have been a joy to read.  So here are the highlights and lowlights of the year… 

THE 40-PAGE RULE

With the constant influx of books I receive as a blogger, full time bookseller, and my day off job as a volunteer in a charity book shop, there is never a shortage of reading material accumulated in the teetering to be read mountain! Hence the need for the 40-page rule. If a book has failed to ignite my interest within this page count, I’m afraid it is discarded, passed on to others, or fulfils it’s charitable duty as a donation to the shop mentioned above. The parameters for a book’s untimely fate vary- clichéd, overwritten, one-dimensional characters, too much similarity to another book, obvious plot turns or killers, and if anyone mentions someone opening a door in their underwear, all hope is lost. I usually manage to read nearer 200 books in a year so a fairly hefty count of 42 non-starters have impeded my reading. Unusually for someone known for their bluntness, in the good spirit of Christmas I’m naming no names, but rest assured your books have found a good home elsewhere…

THE MOST HYPED CRIME GENRE OF THE YEAR

the-girl-on-the-train-uk-e1420761445402It 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.

WORDS FAILED ME (BUT IN A GOOD WAY)

litten2As a non-professional reviewer and a casual blogger, sometimes a book utterly defeats any talent for reviewing that you believe you possess! One such book this year was Russ Litten’s Kingdom. Having waxed lyrical about Litten’s previous book Swear Down which was terrific, I was incredibly excited to receive Kingdom to review. I was totally in its thrall from start to finish, but when it came to the depth of this reading experience, the majesty of the language, the emotional intensity, and sheer cleverness of the whole affair, words defeated me. Completely. Too marvellous for words.

TURNING MY BACK ON CRIME (OCCASIONALLY)

It may be hard to believe, but yes, I do quite often read books that are not crime. Yes really. So three stand-out fiction reads for me this year would be Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone, where the voice of the late lamented John Lennon sang from every page, The Reader On The 6.47 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, a beautiful French novel with echoes of Patrick Modiano, and Glenn Taylor’s A Hanging At Cinder Bottom, an American writer who never disappoints in his characterisation and crackling dialogue.

And so to the awards ceremony….cue fanfare….and in a break from tradition not all of these were nominated as books of the month at the time, but have stayed in my head, popping up in unguarded moments…

RAVEN’S TOP 5 BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Click on the book jackets to read the reviews.

5. KARIM MISKE-ARAB JAZZ

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4. DOUG JOHNSTONE-THE JUMP

The-Jump-Doug-Johnstone

3. MATTHEW FRANK-IF I SHOULD DIE

mf

2. ANTTI TUOMAINEN- DARK AS MY HEART

antti

1. JAX MILLER- FREEDOM’S CHILD

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In a strange instance of premonition, I ended my review of Freedom’s Child saying that it would possibly be my book of the year. Lean prose, a laconic and rhythmical style and an utterly compelling central character in the shape of the emotionally damaged Freedom. A brilliant and unforgettable debut.

 

 

August 2015 Round-Up and Raven’s Book of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Started off the month at quite a pace, and more than happy that despite some recurrent issues with my technology, managed to post ten reviews. However, thanks to the blip with the I.T. (yes, I did try turning it off- and back on again) there are another couple of reviews in reserve for September posting. With three blog tours on the horizon for September for Simon Toyne- Solomon Creed, Rod Reynolds- The Dark Inside and Kati Hiekkapelto- The Defenceless, and a stack of new releases,  I’m also going to try and get to a lovely little pile of books from authors I discovered in May at CrimeFest. Fingers crossed. It’s going to be a busy month that’s for sure!

Books read and reviewed:

Neely Tucker- Murder D.C. (www.crimefictionlover.com)

Jason Hewitt- The Dynamite Room

Simon Sylvester- The Visitors

 S. Williams- Tuesday Falling

M. O. Walsh- My Sunshine Away

Catherine Hunt- Someone Out There

Jax Miller- Freedom’s Child

Doug Johnstone- The Jump

Olen Steinhauer- All The Old Knives (www.crimefictionlover.com)

Ava Marsh- Untouchable (www.crimefictionlover.com)

RAVEN’S BOOK OF THE MONTH

tuesInterestingly this has been a month of real highs and lows but there are three books worthy of another mention before the grand unveiling. I absolutely loved the fresh, vibrant and unique debut Tuesday Falling by S. Williams, and have already been recommending it to colleagues and customers alike. Mixing the hidden history of life below London, with cutting edge technology, this was a real winner.  Pacey plot, great characters and some real “well, I never knew that” moments.

I was bewitched by Olen Steinhauer’s All The Old Knives with it’s seemingly familiar settingall-the-old-knives-978144729574701 of an intimate dinner for two, but by the clever use of shifting timelines in a fairly compact form, revealed much more beneath it’s surface, in a twisting tale of CIA chicanery and double-dealing. An intelligent and compelling thriller.

The-Jump-Doug-JohnstoneAlso, Doug Johnstone’s The Jump, which could certainly feature in my end of year round-up, due to the emotional intensity and sensitivity with which he draws his main character, and the mesmeric quality of the prose. Powerful writing, which would put many contemporary fiction writers in the shade.

 

CJZBS7gVAAAmIfbHowever, top honour this month goes to Jax Miller- Freedom’s Child– with its edgy subject matter, a brilliant main protagonist in the form of the eponymous Freedom, and for demonstrating all that the Raven likes best about gritty American fiction. Lean and lyrical prose, social comment, a sublime use of location, and a book that resonates long after the reading of it. Loved it. Loved it. Loved it.

 

Blog Tour- Doug Johnstone- The Jump

 

Welcome to the next stop on the Doug Johnstone blog tour, coinciding with the release of his latest book The Jump. Raven is quite the fan of Mr J.  and have previously had the pleasure of reviewing both Gone Again and The Dead Beat , so what did The Jump hold in store…

The Jump, immediately draws us into the world of Ellie, a middle-aged woman struggling to come to terms with the seemingly inexplicable suicide of her teenage son, Logan, and the fractured relationship this has caused within her marriage to Ben. Living in the shadow of the Forth Bridge, where Logan ended his life, and succeeding in talking down another suicidal teenager, Sam, Ellie finds herself with a second chance in helping Sam, and gaining some kind of redemption from the sadness that defines her life. However, in becoming so closely involved with him, and his younger sister, Libby, Ellie becomes enmeshed in a family that is filled with secrets, far darker and more dangerous than she can possibly imagine…

When people decry genre fiction as somehow not being as worthy or the compare of ‘literary fiction’,  I have no hesitation in drawing their attention to books such as this. The Jump possesses an emotional intensity and sensitivity that is rarely encountered in any genre, harnessing emotional, and by their very nature, contentious issues that many writers in the ‘literary’ field would struggle to address in such an affecting way as Johnstone achieves. Obviously, the book is very much centred on the theme of suicide, both the causes of, and the aftermath for,  those left behind by this devastating act, and in the character of Ellie, Johnstone personifies all the linked emotions, doubts and blame that those left behind have to process. I loved the marked difference that Ellie and her husband exhibit in their reactions to the loss of their son, and the way that they too are faced with a leap of faith to restore their relationship to what it once was. Also with the interaction between Ellie and troubled teenager Sam, Johnstone blurs the lines between Ellie’s response to him as a mother, and a strange sense of sensuality, not sexuality, that seems to permeate their relationship. As we discover more about Sam, and his family (no spoilers from me), Ellie seems to undergo a marked change, and discovers a real inner core of strength that has been suppressed by her grief, and her journey back to her former resilience is moving throughout. With so much of the weight of the plot and the emotional issues therein on her shoulders, there was always a chance that Johnstone may have strayed down the route of mawkish sentimentality. He doesn’t, and must be applauded for his very sensitive, and most importantly, utterly real characterisation that Ellie embodies. As the plot unfolds into a very dark tale indeed, this sense of brutal reality persists, and is both shocking and redemptive in equal measure.

Another facet of the book that I enjoyed greatly was the absolute attention to sense of place, that Johnstone consistently shows in the book. With the incredibly visual depiction of this small riverside community, dwarfed by the architectural scale of the bridge itself, and the threatening power of this mass of water, Johnstone also draws a contrast of the smallness of our lives in the face of nature. His description of the life of the river and its environs, and man’s attempts to harness it, raises some interesting questions on our place within the natural world, but equally how the power of nature can provide succour in times of emotional uncertainty. I thought the description of Ellie’s wild swimming, where she sheds her land-bound skin, almost like a folkloric Selkie, to calm her restless spirit, was incredibly effective, and how this physical and, at times, perilous act brought her a closer connection with her son. It was beautifully done, and further ingrained in the reader’s sensibility the inescapable link that the water holds for Ellie in all spheres of her life.

You know how you sometimes encounter a book that just swirls around your consciousness in the wake of its reading, and pops back into your head at odd moments- well, this is most definitely one of those. The Jump is one of the most emotive and intense books it’s been my pleasure to read, and despite the weighty issues it explores, and the inherent sadness within its pages, ultimately one of the most satisfying. A brave, yet sometimes difficult, subject wonderfully handled. Prepare to be moved.

Doug Johnstone- The Dead Beat

Meet Martha. It’s the first day of her new job as intern at Edinburgh’s The Standard. But all’s not well at the ailing newspaper, and Martha is carrying some serious baggage of her own. Put straight onto the obituary page, she takes a call from a former employee who seems to commit suicide while on the phone, something which echoes with her own troubled past.Setting in motion a frantic race around modern-day Edinburgh, The Dead Beat traces Martha’s desperate search for answers to the dark mystery of her parents’ past…

I must confess that after the slight disappointment of Gone Again, Johnstone’s previous book, he is completely back on song again with The Dead Beat, a thought provoking and emotive thriller set in Edinburgh. With the backdrop of a failing local newspaper, Johnstone not only reprises the character of reporter, Billy Blackmore (Hit and Run) but brings to our attention, Martha, whose first day on the paper as the obituary writer, proves eventful to say the least, setting in motion a whole series of events that resonate strongly with both the here and now, and echoing back to the early 1990‘s…

Following the recent suicide of her father, himself the former news editor at The Standard, Martha is embarking on a work experience placement at the paper. She takes a call from the former obituary writer, and during the course of it, he appears to commit suicide. Naturally, she and her colleague Billy become intimately involved with these events, and soon the investigation begins to encroach heavily on the dark secrets of Martha’s family background. Not only does Johnstone weave a compelling thriller from those initial events, which I will not reveal more details of, but with the theme of mysterious suicides looming large throughout, takes the opportunity to present the reader with an entirely more meditative study of death, the breakdown of families and how the events of the past can so insidiously impact on the present. The real strength of the book, for me, lies in the slow unveiling of the dark and twisted past of Martha’s family through the flashbacks to the early days of her parent’s relationship. Johnstone focuses on how this relationship fostered such an atmosphere of resentment and hatred, resulting in her mother’s current emotional instability, her father’s suicide and the murderous role of another in the fragmentation of Martha’s life, which impacts so heavily on her life now. The writing is emotive and tinged with poignancy, as past events are gradually revealed, with Martha becoming one of the most empathetic characters I have encountered in crime fiction, in her role as a young woman progressively trying to improve herself from troubled beginnings, and seeking to find her place in a world so polluted by the actions of those closest to her. Along with Martha, there are other stand-out characters, not only the reappearance of fellow reporter Billy, with his own interesting past, whose relationship with Martha is both endearing and protective, but also their spiky and ballsy colleague at the newspaper, V, and Martha’s colourful brother Cal.

The other enjoyable aspect of this book, which it has to be said is quite sombre in tone, is Johnstone’s interspersing of references to particular music and bands, so influential in Martha’s parents’ fledgling relationship, and which keep Martha connected with the spirit of her father following his suicide. Indeed, during the period of reading this book, I felt compelled to revisit my old vinyl collection, for some of the bands mentioned and have even discovered a couple of new ones, which added further to my enjoyment of The Dead Beat. So, overall a bit of a hit with me all round, providing a reading experience that went far beyond the average thriller, and that did give me pause for thought with the larger issues and emotions that the book contained. Excellent.

(With thanks to Faber & Faber for the ARC)