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. 

 

Jack Grimwood- Nightfall Berlin

In 1986, news that East-West nuclear-arms negotiations are taking place lead many to believe the Cold War may finally be thawing. For British intelligence officer Major Tom Fox, however, it is business as usual. Ordered to arrange the smooth repatriation of a defector, Fox is smuggled into East Berlin. But it soon becomes clear that there is more to this than an old man wishing to return home to die – a fact cruelly confirmed when Fox’s mission is fatally compromised. Trapped in East Berlin, hunted by an army of Stasi agents and wanted for murder by those on both sides of the Wall, Fox must somehow elude capture and get out alive. But to do so he must discover who sabotaged his mission and why…

Since an early age I have been fascinated by spies, lies and espionage and all the cloak and dagger activities of those who detect, and seek to subvert threats to national security: grey squirrel can’t fly without umbrella and all that tricksy spy-craft stuff. I was mightily impressed by Jack Grimwood’s debut Moskva that provided a fresh new take on the path previously trodden by Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, and most pleasingly Major Tom Fox is back in the fray in this follow up, Nightfall Berlin. The events of the previous book resonate here as Fox navigates the world of East Berlin, firmly under the control of both the Soviet occupiers and the secretive agents of the state, the infamous Stasi. Tasked with bringing a notorious double agent back home to the clutches of British Intelligence, Fox quickly finds himself embroiled in, and accused of murder, as well as being thrust firmly into the gaze of the pernicious security services, calling on all his skills of evasion and detection to extricate himself from his increasingly perilous situation: a situation that has ramifications for those closest to him too…

This is one of the most skilfully plotted traditional Cold War thrillers I have read in recent years, and as we are effortlessly transported between the harsh, concrete world of East Berlin, and the verdant peace of rural England, Grimwood moves between past and present, laying false clues and leading us as much as Fox himself down blind alleyways, with a trail of misinformation and double crossing galore. Grimwood, similarly in his fantasy oeuvre, is an extremely visual writer, and not without reason I was reminded strikingly of those classic black and white spy films, as Fox navigates his way around this hostile environment. The sheer poverty, and unrelenting grind of life in this communist enclave is front and centre, and by extension what people will do to escape its iron grip. People are fearful and mistrustful, and Grimwood depicts beautifully how Fox seeks to circumvent this pall of suspicion and fear to prove his innocence, and to catch a ruthless killer.

I get the sense that it was with some glee that Grimwood delights in not only constructing a disparate, interesting and slightly damaged characters, but also that he so brilliantly masks those that are treacherous and self serving so well. Without exception, each character is precisely drawn and tangible in their thoughts and motivations for their actions: in what they reveal and what they conceal. In the grand tradition of Le Carre, Ambler, and Deighton, Grimwood tricks and feints the reader, but never to the detriment of the sheer believability of the narrative itself. I was genuinely absorbed and loved the web of reveals and surprises that Grimwood so effortlessly introduces into this seriously gripping thriller. There is a pace and tense nervous energy to the narrative that urges the reader on, and yet a subtle slowing of pace in some of the most nerve shredding scenes that provide a much more unsettling effect on the reader. 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… Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Penguin/Michael Joseph for the ARC)

 

June 2016 Round Up and Raven’s Book of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)I’ve already had my say about the farcical EU referendum, and the ensuing anger and unease that accompanied its outcome, so let’s get onto the fun stuff:  the books, the books. This has been a very productive month for the Raven in terms of books read, and if you’re currently considering what to be reading over the summer there are some real crackers here…

SJI Holliday- Willow Walk

Bill Daly- Cutting Edge

Chris Ewan- Long Time Lost

Jack Grimwood- Moskva

A. A. Dhand- Streets Of Darkness

Gunnar Staalesen- Where Roses Never Die

Michael Grothaus- Epiphany Jones

Emma Cline- The Girls

Eric Rickstad- The Silent Girls

Colin Winnette- Haint Stay 

Colin Winnette- Coyote  

John Sweeney- Cold

The additional good news is that I have another four reviews waiting in the wings- Clare Carson- The Salt Marsh, Simon Booker- Without Trace, Anna Mazzola- The Unseeing and Pierre Lemaitre- Blood Wedding. July is an absolute corker for crime publishing and there are further treats in store.

20 booksHowever, my 20 Books of Summer Challenge hosted by Cathy at 746books.com is progressing less well than expected. I have read the giddy total of…2… mmmm… not great. So I will hang fire on posting reviews for these two until I can provide a more fulsome post for you… *slapped wrists* (However, Raven’s mum has read 7 of her 20 picks. That’s just plain showing off…).

 

Raven’s Book of the Month

I can honestly say that June has been a reading pleasure, and pretty much all of the list above entertained, gripped or thrilled me to some degree. I was particularly taken with SJI Holliday’s Willow Walk, Jack Grimwood’s Moskva, and the bearded genius that is Colin Winnette.

92ec49_6e4d53e237f2437cb87cd049f0b4cfaaAnd speaking of bearded genius, the accolade of Book of the Month goes to the hirsute Michael Grothaus for the truly extraordinary, unsettling and singularly strange Epiphany Jones. A book that repulsed, mystified and enchanted me in equal measure, and one that rolled around my subconscious for days after reading. As I said in my review, it’s not for everyone, but this one thought it was just swell.

Summer Thrills- Chris Ewan- Long Time Lost, Jack Grimwood- Moskva, A. A. Dhand- Streets Of Darkness

It is this time of year when peoples’ thoughts turn to summer holidays, and as a bookseller I begin to receive the inevitable requests for the best books to take to while away the time on the plane, on the beach, in a soggy tent, tramping through the forests of Borneo…

So with this in mind here are some recent reads that more than deserve a bit of that precious hand luggage space.

chris

CHRIS EWAN: LONG TIME LOST

Nick Miller and his team provide a unique and highly illegal service, relocating at-risk individuals across Europe with new identities and new lives. Nick excels at what he does for a reason: he’s spent years living in the shadows under an assumed name. But when Nick steps in to prevent the attempted murder of witness-in-hiding Kate Sutherland on the Isle of Man, he triggers a chain of events with devastating consequences for everyone he protects – because Nick and Kate share a common enemy in Connor Lane, a man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, even if it means tearing Nick’s entire network apart.

Having quickly established himself as one of my particular favourites Ewan brings us, Long Time Lost, which takes us on a chilling adventure throughout Britain and Europe, focusing on the work of a small team on a personal mission to protect individuals under witness protection. From its suspenseful opening to a beautifully weighted unfolding of a dark and dangerous tale, this book totally justifies the label of ‘unputdownable’. What struck me as I was reading was the sheer cleverness of plotting that Ewan demonstrates throughout, fortified by a band of characters that range from emotionally damaged, to quirky, to downright dastardly. The two main protagonists of Nick and Kate are incredibly appealing, and with both having more layers than a proverbial onion, Ewan slowly draws back the curtain on the tumultuous events in their lives that have shaped Nick’s role as a protector, and how Kate’s character evolves as she finds herself increasingly under threat as a valuable witness. Ewan uses feints and red herrings to great effect, wrong footing our perceptions of certain characters as the story progresses. By slickly moving from country to country there is a wonderful momentum and sense of movement so just as you adjust yourself to the mortal danger our protagonists face, you are speedily transported to another setting where more tension awaits you. This also makes it incredibly difficult to know when to stop reading, as there is a real sense of you wanting to see what’s around the next corner. It’s thrilling, unpredictable and engrossing. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

 

moskva

JACK GRIMWOOD: MOSKVA

Red Square, 1985. The naked body of a young man is left outside the walls of the Kremlin; frozen solid – like marble to the touch – missing the little finger from his right hand.

A week later, Alex Marston, the headstrong fifteen year old daughter of the British Ambassador disappears. Army Intelligence Officer Tom Fox, posted to Moscow to keep him from telling the truth to a government committee, is asked to help find her. It’s a shot at redemption. But Russia is reluctant to give up the worst of her secrets. As Fox’s investigation sees him dragged deeper towards the dark heart of a Soviet establishment determined to protect its own so his fears grow, with those of the girl’s father, for Alex’s safety. And if Fox can’t find her soon, she looks likely to become the next victim of a sadistic killer whose story is bound tight to that of his country’s terrible past …

It’s a brave writer indeed who pitches up with an idea for a thriller set in 1980’s Moscow, as we all know and love Gorky Park, and many have failed in its wake. But good news crime buddies, Grimwood has cracked it with the atmospheric and claustrophobic Moskva. With impeccable plotting, research and narrative tension, Grimwood has produced one of the best Soviet set thrillers I have read. Drawing on, and using to great effect, all the inherent and documented fear and suspicion so redolent of Soviet life within this period, Grimwood has crafted a supremely intelligent serial killer thriller, with a depth of characterisation that will draw in admirers of other exponents of this subgenre. As the depth of  conspiracy and concealment begins to reveal itself, frustrating Fox’s investigation of Alex’s disappearance, there is a crackling tension to the book throughout, compounded by Grimwood’s unflinching analysis of the weaknesses and dangers of the Soviet state that so consistently thwart Fox, giving him a slippery grasp on truth amongst the smoke and mirrors emanating from the echelons of power in Moscow. I’ll say no more to avoid spoiling your reading of this one, but you must seek this one out. It’s a terrific read, and Grimwood demonstrates again his real flexibility as a writer. Add to your wish list now.

(With thanks to Penguin for the ARC)

 

9780593076644

A. A. DHAND: STREETS OF DARKNESS

The sky over Bradford is heavy with foreboding. It always is. But this morning it has reason to be – this morning a body has been found. And it’s not just any body. Detective Harry Virdee should be at home with his wife. Impending fatherhood should be all he can think about but he’s been suspended from work just as the biggest case of the year lands on what would have been his desk. He can’t keep himself away. Determined to restore his reputation, Harry is obliged to take to the shadows in search of notorious ex-convict and prime suspect, Lucas Dwight. But as the motivations of the murder threaten to tip an already unstable city into riotous anarchy, Harry finds his preconceptions turned on their head as he discovers what it’s like to be on the other side of the law…

Streets of Darkness is to my knowledge the first crime book set in Bradford that I have encountered, and with only having visited the city a couple of times, my curiosity was instantly aroused with the mouthwatering prospect of unexplored crime territory. Unlike other British police procedural writers, Dhand paints an entirely bleak and unflinching portrait of this city, without the little moments of affection that normally punctuate other writers’ portrayals of their home towns. The image that Dhand portrays of his city is unrelentingly grim and depressing, and there is a downtrodden air amongst its inhabitants that hammers home the true picture of inner city deprivation and neglect that this city has suffered. Even allowing for the rare moments of happiness that Virdee experiences on the cusp of the birth of his first child, his character, with all his personal torments and professional frustrations, is a perfect mirror of Bradford itself. Dhand also highlights the long standing religious intolerance experienced by those marrying outside of their religion- Virdee is a Sikh, but is married to Saima, a Muslim- and I very much enjoyed Dhand’s exploration of the role of religion in their marriage and personal beliefs. Indeed, the attendant problems of faith loom large for Virdee throughout, both personally and professionally, as he becomes embroiled in a violent and dangerous investigation, that soon threatens all he holds dear, against a backdrop of a city thrown into a state of social unrest. Virdee is a traditional maverick, and goes out on a limb in the course of the book, despite operating whilst suspended as a police officer. Despite his downtrodden and naturally pessimistic air I did quite take to him as a character,  but was a little unconvinced by the slightly schmaltzy feel when Dhand turned his attentions to Virdee’s home life.  There was also an annoyingly predictable plot device linked to this that did make me punch the air in frustration as it wasn’t needed, and rather undid the fact that this was a very well-plotted and compelling depiction of inner city strife and burgeoning violence up to that point. However, that niggle aside I would still strongly recommend this debut. Grim, violent and a welcome addition to the British crime writing scene.

(With thanks to Bantam Press for the ARC)