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. 

 

Raven’s Really Very Belated November Round Up…

And so November is but a distant memory, and the Yuletide season is upon us, welcome news for just about everybody, unless you work in retail. It strikes fear into many a heart when people who obviously never shop during the course of the year suddenly emerge blinking into the dazzling Christmas streetlights, intent on making life as awkward as possible for the hapless shop assistants in their paths. Now call me a masochist, but I really quite enjoy these strange interactions with these mythical beasts, mainly because it gives me a chance to gush about brilliant books, or conversely steer them on the sometimes safer course of a gift voucher, avoiding the inevitable conversation:

What type of books do they like to read? Don’t know, just thought I’d buy them a book.

What was the last book they read? See above.

Do they have any particular interests?

Actually this last question often proves to be the most interesting, as I have sold copious amounts of books on whittling, trains, animal husbandry or the Kama Sutra on the back of this one, fervently hoping the last two interests were not connected. Ho ho ho…

November has been a glorious mash-up of weirdness as far as my reading has been concerned, so while it has been my normal lacklustre performance in actually writing reviews, I have read oodles of books. So four reviews posted-

Margaret Millar- Vanish In An Instant

Mari Hannah- The Insider (Stone and Oliver 2)

Lou Berney- November Road

Chuck Caruso- The Meaning of Blood and Other Tales of Perversity

 

I’ve also read this little bevy of beauties too, all of which I bought, as book bloggers do buy books too you know!

It goes without saying that I am an ardent fan of all things raven related, and so reading the excellent The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife was a tremendous source of pleasure. What I love about this book is that Skaife could just as well be sat next to you in the room, just shooting the breeze about his singularly different and totally fascinating job. Laden with interesting historical detail, accounts of Skaife’s exploits in his previous army career, and if course th ravens themselves, this is a joy!

Stick Together by Sophie Henaff, is the brilliant follow up to The Awkward Squad, which introduced us to the chaff of the French police service, transplanted into one investigation unit full of misfits, overseen by the eminently more sensible, though formerly trigger happy, Commissaire Anne Capestan. I love this collection of disparate souls, from there first outing solving cold cases, and now thrust into the limelight of a particularly baffling murder investigation. Fast, furious and funny.

Keigo Higashino’s The Newcomer, features Detective Kyoichiro Kaga of the Tokyo police department, who is a curious blend of Columbo and the Dali Lama. Formed as a series of vignettes into local residents and tradespeople’s lives, Kaga drifts in and out of each story, uniting families, and spreading benevolence, whilst chipping away at his investigation, with his slightly distracted air. I really enjoyed the interplay between Kaga and the community, and also the sweet moments of extreme poignancy that suddenly drop into the narrative. Strange, beautiful and highly recommended. 

I can’t believe how long Back Up has languished on my TBR pile, as this tale of rock ‘n’ roll and murder by Paul Colize was just brilliant from start to finish. As members of a sixties rock band start to meet their deaths in troubling ways, the story criss-crosses between past and present, weaving their story with a mysterious man hospitalised with locked in syndrome. The evocation of one of the most important periods in the development of popular music was perfectly depicted, with numerous references to the known and lesser known artists of the period, in addition to the cleverly crafted murder mystery that lies at the heart of it. Colize’s characterisation, and expression of the strengths and weaknesses of the human psyche was never less than masterful, and the sinister undertones of the reasons for the self destruction of these young men was truly chilling. Excellent.  

Last, but not least, is Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds with a double recommendation from a bookselling colleague and a fellow blogger Mrs Peabody . Set in a small Texan community in the middle of nowhere, the inhabitants of which have their own disturbing criminal back stories, a murderer is loose and unlike a traditional murder mystery the suspects seem innumerable. The members of this unique community have opted in to an experimental programme, where memories of their previous crimes have been erased, but all with the knowledge that if they leave The Blinds they will most likely turn up dead. Not only has Sternbergh delivered a singularly different premise for a crime thriller, but the level of tension and shock reveals he injects is absolutely compelling. With a broad spectrum of characters who you will like, despise, pity, or empathise with in equal measure, this has to be one of the most unusual thrillers I have encountered. There’s a slight whiff of Stephen King about the main set-up, but Sternbergh easily proves himself equal to the master, and if you’re looking for crime writing with a difference, this is the book for you. Loved it.  

And so I am almost up to date, as the hurly burly of Christmas in retail descends. Now I just have to make a decision on my Top 10 of the Year- never an easy task- but all will be revealed at the close of December as I may not have even read my favourite book of the year yet….  

Happy book shopping everyone! 

 

Lou Berney- November Road

Frank Guidry’s luck has finally run out. A loyal street lieutenant to New Orleans’ mob boss Carlos Marcello, Guidry has learned that everybody is expendable. But now it’s his turn–he knows too much about the crime of the century: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Within hours of JFK’s murder, everyone with ties to Marcello is turning up dead, and Guidry suspecting he’s next, hits the road to Las Vegas. When he spots a beautiful housewife, Charlotte, and her two young daughters stranded on the side of the road, he sees the perfect disguise to cover his tracks from the hit man on his trail. The two strangers share the open road west- and find each other on the way. But Guidry’s relentless hunters are closing in on him, and now he doesn’t just want to survive, he wants to really live, maybe for the first time. 

Everyone’s expendable, or they should be, but now Guidry just can’t throw away the woman he’s come to love. And it might get them both killed…

Parachuting straight into my top three reads of the year is this little beauty from Lou Berney, one of the most engaging and sensitively written books it’s been my pleasure to read of late. Championed by the mighty Don Winslow among others, and with an irresistible premise, this was more than reason enough for me to seek out November Road

As the book is so bound up with the Kennedy assassination, and the violent ramifications for the small group of individuals who enabled it to happen, Berney’s evocation of the period is absolutely perfect. Paying close attention to the social and political fallout of this event, and firmly placing the reader in the heart of 60s America, Berney also traverses the country from New Orleans, to Dallas to the west coast with vivid detail, as Frank Guidry attempts to escape the retribution of his gangster associates seeking to tie up the ‘loose ends’ of those involved in the assassination plot. The sense of the period is always front and centre, from the smallest detail to passing references to civil rights, the filling of the political vacuum, and Berney’s interesting new reworking of the assassination itself, although this is ground that has been trod by many writers and social commentators before. In tackling the Kennedy assassination myth, Berney not only shows belief in himself as a writer, but also succeeds in constructing an incredibly plausible narrative of this most examined and documented event in American political history.

Although the sense of peril looms large with Guidry, and by extension Charlotte and her daughters, being pursued by a particularly pernicious and ice-cold hitman, Berney balances this beautifully with the development of Guidry and Charlotte’s characters, with Guidry in the guise of a travelling salesman, and Charlotte rapidly trying to come to terms with the impulsive decision to leave her alcoholic husband with no plausible plan of what would follow her instantaneous decision. The growing tension in the book, as the sinister hitman Barone unmercifully (for those in his way) pursues them across states, ratchets up the pace of the narrative, and as we focus on the growing relationship between Guidry and Charlotte, the reader has this nagging feeling that danger is just around the corner, as does Guidry himself, and that the clock is ticking down to some kind of showdown. It’s beautifully done, keeping our attention pinned in two strands of the book, inwardly dreading the consequences of these two strands meeting.

Although, theirs is a relationship built on smoke and mirrors, certainly in the case of Guidry, Berney weaves a heartfelt and, at times, incredibly sensitive portrayal of two strangers in flight, drawing closer together, despite the hug chasm between them of their lives up until this point. Suffice to say, we see a gradual change in both of them, and a growing appreciation of how life can sometimes so surprisingly chart a different course, and that these opportunities should be grasped and learnt from. As Guidry becomes more involved with Charlotte and her daughters, I loved the way that Berney handles the initially tentative nature of this, but how he develops and explores both their characters, and the shift in strength and self-determination, particularly in the case of Charlotte. In an effort to avoid spoilers, I can only say that Guidry’s actions both pre and post Charlotte reveal a very different man from the perception we have of him at the outset, and prepare yourself for an incredibly moving denouement…

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. Along with two of my reads earlier in the year, Tim Baker’s City Without Stars, and Derek B. Miller’s American By Day, this book 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.

November Road is one of those books that will haunt me for some time. Highly recommended.

(I bought this copy of November Road published by Harper Collins USA)