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. 

 

 

#BlogTour- James Delargy- 55

Wilbrook in Western Australia is a sleepy, remote town that sits on the edge of miles and miles of unexplored wilderness. It is home to Police Sergeant Chandler Jenkins, who is proud to run the town’s small police station, a place used to dealing with domestic disputes and noise complaints.

All that changes on a scorching day when an injured man stumbles into Chandler’s station. He’s covered in dried blood. His name is Gabriel. He tells Chandler what he remembers. He was drugged and driven to a cabin in the mountains and tied up in iron chains. The man who took him was called Heath. Heath told Gabriel he was going to be number 55. His 55th victim. 
Heath is a serial killer.

As a manhunt is launched, a man who says he is Heath walks into the same station. He tells Chandler he was taken by a man named Gabriel. Gabriel told Heath he was going to be victim 55.
Gabriel is the serial killer.

Two suspects. Two identical stories. Which one is the truth?

There is a real slew of solid Australian crime writing at the moment from the likes of Jane Harper, Emma Viskic, Chris Hammer et al, and although not of Australian stock himself, James Delargy has produced a clever, disquieting, and altogether compelling thriller set in the remote western Australian outback, that holds more than one or two surprises of its own…

I think I can confidently guarantee that the very premise of this book, and the lengths that Delargy goes to in order to trick and wrong-foot his readers, will catch you out at regular intervals. With two men under suspicion of being a remorseless serial killer, and their individual stories of being captured and tortured by said serial killer, Delargy manages to keep the narrative tension spread over, for what is a crime thriller, a remarkable stretch of time. This is no mean feat as there is a relatively slim cast of characters, with only one real other story arc, the tension between the Police Sergeant Chandler Jenkins, and the team that come in to takeover the investigation, headed up by an unwelcome face from his past, Inspector Mitch Andrews.  I absolutely loved the conundrums that the seeming innocence of Gabriel and Heath, the two accused men brought to bear on the story, leading me to constantly re-evaluate the evidence that Delargy lays before us, perplexing the reader as much as the investigative team. Delargy is a real tease, as he consistently exposes pseudo Jekyl and Hyde aspects to both these men’s characters, and just as you fixedly decide on one’s guilt and the other’s innocence, guess what, you’re wrong. There is a real controlled and supremely well-measured pace to the book, so that the slightly slower passages where the men are interrogated, threatened or cajoled into professing their guilt, is punctuated by not only the backstory of the build up of animosity between Chandler and Mitch, but sporadic moments of nerve shredding tension, as the police mine for some credible evidence to prove the guilt of either Gabriel or Heath. Or neither. Or both. Or somebody else entirely…

I liked the character of Chandler Jenkins enormously, with his integrity and seemingly natural fair-mindedness, which plays of beautifully against the power crazed narcissism of Mitch Andrews, former friend, now foe. The differences between the two men, which is brought to light as the sub-narrative of one of their earliest cases together plays out, makes for a rocky, testy and tension filled investigation, outside of their basic remit of bringing a killer to justice, and there’s some nice little twists and turns in their relationship along the way too. To be honest the other members of the investigation team didn’t make a significant impact on me, but with the book focussing so intently on the changing boundaries,  and intensity of the exchanges between Chandler and Mitch, and their interactions Gabriel and Heath. There was more than enough angst, threat of violence and the whiff of testosterone to pretty much drown out the other characters, but not to any real detriment of the book overall.

Thinking about the characters further, I think there is a nice correlation between them, and the environment and location, the book is set in. Set in the bleak expanse of remote western Australia, there is an intense feeling that although the landscape is sprawling and open, the vastness and aridity of it can conceal so much. Two of the characters, seem to reflect the openness and raw beauty of this hostile landscape, whereas two others seem to reflect the opposite, with their characters being altogether more dark and volatile. Despite being set in this endlessly repeating landscape, there is a significant sense of claustrophobia to the book, and the local police station becomes a microcosm of energy and pent up tension, that works exceptionally well to unsettle the reader, and the ending? Well, far be it for me to spoil the ending, but I think the author deserves more than a smattering of applause for not going down a certain well-worn path in thriller finales- so thanks for that- and loved the ending.  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, and a recommended read.

(With thanks to Simon and Schuster for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: