Raven’s August Round Up and Books of the Month…

It’s been a while since I did one of these, but having returned to work post-furlough, at the start of August, and my reading and reviewing time now depleted again, this may become a regular feature once more! Mainly, this will be to capture all the books I have read during the month, even if I haven’t had the time to review them, so there will still be lots for you to discover, I hope, so you can beat a path to your local bookshop’s door, either virtually or physically. September heralds the start of a pretty intense publishing period so there will be many books vying for our attention. I, for one, cannot wait!!

So I’ve managed to review just the five books this month:  

Chris Carter- Written In Blood

Will Carver- Hinton Hollow Death Trip

Steve Cavanagh- Fifty Fifty

J. J. Connolly- Layer Cake

Lin Anderson- The Innocent Dead

Almost certainly one of these books will be making an appearance in my Top Ten of the Year, and it was lovely revisiting Layer Cake on the 20th anniversary of its original publication. 

Although I have picked up and put down more than a few overly hyped duffers this month, I have supplemented my crime reading with both fiction and non-fiction this month, which has made a nice change. Was absolutely blown away by Doug Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, really enjoyed Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Mexican Gothic and communing with nature with Helen MacDonald’s Vesper Flights.

However, I absolutely cannot let this round up go by without drawing your attention to quite possibly the two best books I have read this year. I don’t know about other bloggers but sometimes I love a book so much that I feel I cannot do it justice in one of my meandering, waffling reviews, so I’m going to keep it simple (see below) and say that if I do not read another book this year, the memory of these two will hold me in good stead for some time. Yes folks, they are that good…

Have a good month and keep safe, keep sane everybody!

Blacktop Wasteland: the searing crime thriller Lee Child calls 'sensationally good' Kindle EditionBeauregard “Bug” Montage: honest mechanic, loving husband, devoted parent. He’s no longer the criminal he once was – the sharpest wheelman on the east coast, infamous from the hills of North Carolina to the beaches of Florida. But when his respectable life begins to crumble, a shady associate comes calling with a clean, one-time job: a diamond heist promising a get-rich pay out. Inexorably drawn to the driver’s seat – and haunted by the ghost of his outlaw father – Bug is yanked back into a savage world of bullets and betrayal, which soon endangers all he holds dear…

Blacktop Wasteland completely embodies for me what I adore about the cream of American crime fiction- sharp, sassy and superbly written. Think Mosley melded with Winslow by way of Cain. Set in rural Virginia, and echoing the cadence, rhythm and colloquialisms of the speech throughout, this book is at once incredibly high octane and gripping, but underscored by moments of supreme emotion and pathos. Not only is Bug one of the most mesmerising and textured protagonists that I have encountered for some time, but he encapsulates a mass of contradictions as he navigates the thin line between legality and criminality. As he periodically looks back to his former years with his estranged father, and how he himself now wears the mantle of husband, father and son (his elderly mom is an absolute gem of a character too) Bug is revealed to be a complex man with his own brand of morality, but fundamentally decent at heart. Sometimes good men need to do bad things to protect what they love most. This mental struggle that Bug grapples with is tinged with a razor sharp poignancy, and completely immerses the reader in his troubles, and his increasingly pressurised decisions on what to do next.

The action sequences related to the heists are absolutely pounding and filled with an intensity rarely seen outside a visual portrayal of these events, and I applaud Cosby for getting across through words alone the speed and heart-stopping danger of these fast and furious action scenes. Heart -pounding and heart-wrenching this book totally deserves the huge amount of praise thrust upon it so far. S. A. Cosby, on the strength of this book, and his previous work which I have also gobbled up, is destined to be a standout name in American crime fiction for some time to come, and amen to that.

A damn perfect read, and very highly recommended.

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Three-Fifths: 'So incredibly suspenseful' Attica Locke
Pittsburgh, 1995. Twenty-two-year-old Bobby Saraceno is a biracial man, passing for white. Bobby has hidden his identity from everyone, even his best friend and fellow comic-book geek, Aaron, who just returned from prison a newly radicalized white supremacist. During the night of their reunion, Bobby witnesses Aaron mercilessly assault a young black man with a brick. In the wake of this horrifying act of violence, Bobby must conceal his unwitting involvement in the crime from the police, as well as battle his own personal demons…

Although not published in the UK until October, I wanted to draw your collective attention to Three Fifths as soon as possible. This seemingly simple synopsis disguises a work of such intensity and emotion that it will rattle around your mind, and intrude on your thoughts for days after reading it. Despite a relatively slim page count, this book embraces such big powerful themes, that it’s pared down style intensifies to the absolute max. The reader is taken on a poignant and disturbing ride through the ills of urban America and the racial tension that has always blighted America and led to continuing division and disparity.

As two young men try to recover their close ties of friendship, after separation, Vercher depicts their individual frustrations and growing antipathy with a clear and unflinching honesty, that will move and shock in equal measure. There are stark revelations for both, with Bobby trying to keep a solid home for himself and his alcoholic mother, and then being confronted by a blast from the past which turns his world upside down. The shocking details of Aaron’s incarceration, his indoctrination in white supremacy and the simmering violence within him that spills over on his release, is so deftly portrayed that the reader is torn between distaste, and yet an innate sympathy for him. I was genuinely breathless and deeply moved at the end of this one with its bleak denouement, but an utterly necessary one. Few books move me to tears, but there was a definite’ oh there’s something in my eye’ moment at the close of this. Three Fifths is astonishing, important, hugely poignant and very highly recommended.

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20th Anniversary #BlogTour- J.J. Connolly- Layer Cake @vivajjconnolly “Layer Cake remains a classic of London crime, and a lucid and compelling tale of the criminal underworld.” @Duckbooks

Layer Cake, a metaphor for the many murky layers of the criminal world, is set in modern day London and features smooth-talking drug dealer X who has a plan to quietly bankroll enough cash to retire before his thirtieth birthday. Operating under the polished veneer of a legitimate businessman, his mantra is to keep a low profile and run a tight operation until it’s time to get out .

When kingpin Jimmy Price asks him to find the wayward daughter of a wealthy socialite who’s been running around with a cokehead, he accepts the job with the promise that after this he can leave the criminal world behind with Jimmy’s blessing. Oh, and he needs to find a buyer for two million ecstasy pills acquired by a crew of lowly, loud-mouth gangsters, the Yahoos. Simple enough, until an assassin named Klaus arrives to scratch him off his list, revealing this job is much more than it seems at first…

In much the same way as Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting defined a generation in Scottish fiction, I believe that Layer Cake did much the same for London based crime fiction. The influence of this book on some of the best known London noir crime writers is inescapable, and J. J. Connolly really set the bar high for those following in his wake. It’s been a real pleasure dusting off my old copy of this and entering this violent and visceral world once again…

The characterisation of this disparate band of gangsters and wannabe gangsters is superlative from beginning to end, and they are, without exception so vividly drawn that the reader can picture each of them in all their sullied glory. Connolly plays close attention to how these men hold themselves, their physicality and manner of dress, and in this world where the appearance of confidence and strength is the key to success, it becomes easy to identify the weak and powerless who will definitely not make it to the end of the book. Despite having the moral code of a band of backstreet alley cats, I love that these men have a taste for the finer things in life be it smart threads, flashy motors and the finest food and drink. Much of their business is conducted in the rarefied air of high end restaurants and exclusive clubs, but equally in dodgy cafes and unsavoury boozers.

Our unnamed narrator, has all the street-smarts and at a relatively tender age is assured in his mission to retire at 30, unscathed and unpunished for his more nefarious drug dealings behind his appearance of respectability. Throughout the book, he not only cleverly negotiates the world of the gangster kingpins, but is more often than not, manipulated at the whim of others and things begin to get very dodgy indeed for him. I like the way that Connolly uses him as a mirror to the unsavoury cohorts encircle him, and through his perception of them, and their outbursts of violence, we get an even more vivid picture of these sometimes desperate and always dangerous men. In this world where money is all and double dealing the way to get on, there is little in the way of honesty, but there are flashes of loyalty and friendship that transcend this tough, dog-eat-dog and immoral world. The sudden and visceral outbursts of violence are as natural to these men as breathing, and as they alternately turn on each other, or band together to defeat outside forces, The psychological aspects of their personalities really fleshes them out for the reader, and poses puzzles all of its own as their behaviours change and by extension our perception of them.

The raw earthiness of Connolly’s prose is relentless, so for those of a sensitive disposition and an aversion to profanity, you would probably best avoid this. Even for a hardened reader the sheer weight of colloquialisms, street slang and swearing, added to the pace and rat-a-tat dialogue and narrative can be a little overwhelming at times, but the breath-taking scope of Connolly’s vocabulary and prose is a marvel. The prose is harshly rhythmical with a beat and musicality all of its own and although I have read the book a few times over the years, and I never tire of the snappy prose and the raw rhythm of the language  that the book marches along to.

Admittedly, some of the book seems a little dated now in terms of how time has moved on and how technology plays a much bigger part in the world of cross border drug dealing, but of its time, Connolly’s Layer Cake remains a classic of London crime and a lucid and compelling tale of the drug underworld. There is a raw sophistication instead of a sleek one, as the book does untangle a little in terms of tight narrative, and goes off in tangents at some points, but it’s all part of its charm. This is probably why I’ve always loved it, and will always return to it when the opportunity arises, Highly recommended.

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Check out the exclusive signed editions available from NO ALIBIS BOOKS

(With thanks to Duckworth for the PDF ARC, although I read my twenty year old beaten up, well loved copy!)

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