Raven’s Yearly Round Up 2019 and Top 10 Books

And so another year has drawn to a close and what a very strange and perplexing year it’s been all round. I won’t dwell on the dispiriting nature of the political events and the looming hardships we will all encounter, and instead turn my thoughts to the nicer things in life. Books. Just the books…

It’s been a year of real contrasts in my reading with just over 100 books read, which is a much lower figure than normal for me. For at least a couple of months I was trapped in a cycle of did not finish books, and also was singularly unimpressed with many of those books hailed as ‘the thriller of the year’ and so on. I was also exceptionally lax in keeping to my ratio of reading and reviewing, partly due to the new responsibilities I have at work, and at a more basic level, can’t-be-arsedness, so for that I apologise. Will do much better this year! There are many good books that didn’t make the review stage, but if you follow me on GoodReads you can see my five star ratings there and hopefully discover some of them for yourselves, but some real highlights were Abir Mukherjee’s Death In The East, the Pushkin reissues of the brilliant and woefully underrated Margaret Millar, Ragnar Jonasson’s The Island, Adrian Duncan’s Love Notes From A German Building Site, Isabella Tree- Wilding, Vaseem Khan’s Inspector Chopra series, Don Winslow’s The Border and many more…

I am reading again this year for the Petrona Award for Scandinavian Crime Fiction, and have made good progress on this year’s contenders- there’s some real goodies and reviews will follow as we get nearer the shortlist stage in March. I have a general resolution for the new year of making sure I keep up with my reviewing, and also to keep mixing up my reading material as after eight years of pretty much solid crime reading, I need to keep my sanity intact and turn my gaze away from the dark side now and then! On that note I would like to offer a thank you to the many bloggers I follow on Twitter who have enriched my reading this year with their varied and excellent reviews of crime and non-crime books- you guys are the best 🙂 Thank you to all the authors and publishers for making life very much more enjoyable, and to all my followers and blog visitors- thanks for your support. More great books to explore in 2020 I’ll wager! 

Right, with no further ado let’s cut to the chase and those books that blew me off my feet this year. As is tradition, a little round-up of those most excellent books that didn’t quite make the Top Ten, but gave the chosen titles a damn close run for their money. So put your hands together for A. D. Flint- The Burning Hill , Eamonn Griffin- East of England , Kjell Ola Dahl- The Courier , David F. Ross- Welcome To The Heady Heights , William Shaw- Deadland , Will Carver- Nothing Important Happened Today and the very, very recently read M. W. Craven- Black Summer. I was delighted and enthralled by each and every one of your books- thank you. 

So now the TOP 10… Just click on the jackets for my full review. There is much to enjoy here!

10. James Delargy- 55

” I thought that 55 was an extremely cleverly plotted, well-paced, and consistently engaging thriller with some nifty tricks in the narrative, solid characterisation of the main players, and suffused with the claustrophobic heat and isolation of its Australian setting. A compelling debut. “

9. Doug Johnstone- Breakers

“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.”

8. Orlando Ortega Medina- The Death of Baseball

This book is a glorious miasma of contradictions and conflicts, the need to love, the need for acceptance and recognition, fame, faith, abuse, identity and hope. I found it thought provoking and powerfully emotional, and I loved the way it immersed me so fully in these two lives with their unique voices. This book has such a strong message at its core, clearly illustrating how we are all the same in our desire to achieve contentment and an equilibrium in our lives, however we choose to live and with whomever we choose to love.”

7. Alan Parks- February’s Son 

No linked review for this one as I only finished this one a few days ago! I described the first book in the series, Bloody January as “feisty, fresh and wonderfully sordid, and a sublime blast of noir” and this was equally powerful taking us back to the mean streets of 1970’s Glasgow. As much as Parks’ protagonist Detective Harry McCoy is no angel, I was incredibly moved by the surprising turn his personal story took in this one, and the very compassionate tone of the book overall, whilst keeping up the pace with nefarious dirty dealings and bursts of violence.

6. M. P. Wright- A Sinner’s Prayer

“There are a more than a few unexpected twists in the narrative, and one demise of a character was followed by an audible gasp from me. On a bus. Full of people. In the course of Ellington’s investigation, outside of keeping up the necessary pace of the story, you are given space as a reader to think about and absorb some of the wider issues that Wright brings to the narrative, so it’s an incredibly satisfying blend of thriller and social and cultural observation.”

5. Trevor Mark Thomas- The Bothy 

“Described by yours truly on Twitter as akin to Magnus Mills on meth, The Bothy proved to be something quite special from the outset. Tapping into the rising reputation and visibility of working class writing in the UK of late, Thomas has, with a limited cast of characters, constructed a dark, and unsettling book, packed to the gills with atmosphere and an overhanging miasma of violence.

4. Parker Bilal- The Divinities

I was intrigued, shocked and genuinely curious about the issues that Bilal raises, once again demonstrating how so much more of ‘real life’ can be encapsulated and distilled in a crime novel than more traditional forms of fiction...This will probably be one of the few crime thrillers that I will re-read in later life (there’s no higher praise than that), but for now I would highly recommend this one, and am anticipating a similarly brilliant book two. No pressure.”

3. Sergio Olguin- The Fragility of Bodies

“A book shot through with painful truths and gritty realism, and with the ability to put its reader through a whole gamut of emotions with its pared down prose, perceptive exploration of the human compulsion to make connections, and larger themes of trust, exploitation and social injustice. This is a huge, important book hiding behind the deceptively simple label of an Argentine noir thriller, but has much to say about the nature of human relationships, and the power and exploitation of the few on the lives of the many…”

2. Ilaria Tuti- Flowers Over The Inferno 

“I think it’s fair to say that this book left a real impression in its wake on this reader, being not only a perfectly formed murder mystery, but also a book that is layered with a supreme awareness of the frailties and strengths of the human condition, through the investigators, the inhabitants of the village and the killer too. I found this a really intense and emotional reading experience, and felt utterly bound up in the lives of the characters, and the travails they experience.”

RAVEN’S TOP READ OF 2019

NICOLAS OBREGON- UNKNOWN MALE

 

Yes, I had to wait until December to read my top book of the year, but more than worth the wait…

“What Obregon gives us is a real smorgasbord of the good, the bad and ugly where the lines of morality and decent behaviour become fractured, and at times are difficult to discern. People acting in surprising and unpredictable ways give a real emotional heft to this book, and also work beautifully in concealing the real villains of the piece, with revenge being another incredibly strong motif.” This book encapsulated all my favourite aspects of crime thriller writing from character, to location, to plot and was an absolute joy, as the whole trilogy has been. 

 

 

Ilaria Tuti- Flowers Over The Inferno

In a quiet village surrounded by the imposing Italian Alps, a series of violent assaults take place. Police inspector and profiler Teresa Battaglia is called in when the first body is found, a naked man whose face has been disfigured and eyes gouged out. Soon more victims are discovered – all horrifically mutilated – and when a new-born baby is kidnapped, Teresa’s investigation becomes a race against the clock.

But Teresa is also fighting a battle against her own body, weighed down by age and diabetes, and her mind, once invincible and now slowly gnawing away at her memory…

Okay, I think I’m going to have rein in my exuberance, passion and generally ‘gee-that-blew-me-away-ness’ that this book aroused in me. Having already staked a claim for a spot in my Top Ten of the year, I will endeavour to do justice to this frankly incredible book. Bear with me…

The first absolute stand out feature of this book is the character of Teresa Battaglia herself, an older woman battling the twin issues of ageing and physical deterioration. Tuti paints a moving and incredibly touching portrait of this indomitable woman who caught up in an exceptionally distressing and seeming unsolvable case, is battling with her increasing concerns over her mental aptitude, recording her thoughts day by day feeling that they could slip away from her at any time, “what am I if not my thoughts, my memories, my dreams, my hopes for the future? What am I without these feelings, without my dignity?” These sections of the book where Battaglia unloads her consciousness into the written word are incredibly moving, brimming with a self-awareness, and a fluttering sense of mental fortitude that enthrals the reader, and says much about every person’s fear of losing their sense of self.

Partly because of this, she over compensates in the tough exterior she is known for, not suffering fools gladly, and proving a hard taskmaster for her investigating team. The scenes that focus on her repartee with one of the newer members of her squad, who experiences no easy ride from his new boss are particularly barbed, but cut through with wit and a slowly developing sense of acceptance in a play on the pupil and mentor roles. She is, however, bestowed with a remarkable empathy for both victims and the killer saying at one point that “before crossing the point of no return, even a serial killer is a human being in pain. Often abused. Always lonely” which is incredibly prescient as the plot plays out. Tuti cleverly manipulates both Battaglia’s and the readers’ perception of the killer throughout, blurring the lines of moral responsibility, and with a real sense of there but for the grace of God.

As regular readers of my reviews know, landscape is all important in my assessment and enjoyment of the books I read, and this small village overshadowed by forest and mountains in the Alpine region, works completely in harmony with the story. It’s an enclosed community, rife with secrets, and permeated with suspicion and folklore, producing a creepy and chilling backdrop to this murderous tale, “it was like the village had for many years been infected by a dark, tainted humour which had slipped beneath its surface, and festered there, out of sight.” The darkness, density and danger of the surrounding terrain, provides a place of both safety and threat for a group of children with difficult home lives, lending the story a touch of Stephen King who often employs children as a conduit for evil. It’s very effectively done, and really heightens the creeping sense of unease that permeates the book, and with the portrayal of the St Nicholas’ Day torch-lit procession evoking the evil figure of the Krampus, Tuti builds further on this theme of darkness and threat lurking in the shadows of this claustrophobic community.

I think it’s fair to say that this book left a real impression in its wake on this reader, being not only a perfectly formed murder mystery, but also a book that is layered with a supreme awareness of the frailties and strengths of the human condition, through the investigators, the inhabitants of the village and the killer too. I found this a really intense and emotional reading experience, and felt utterly bound up in the lives of the characters, and the travails they experience. Absolutely highly recommended.

(With thanks to W&N for the ARC)