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. 

 

 

M. W. Craven- The Puppet Show

A serial killer is burning people alive in the Lake District’s prehistoric stone circles. He leaves no clues and the police are helpless. When his name is found carved into the charred remains of the third victim, disgraced detective Washington Poe is brought back from suspension and into an investigation he wants no part of.  Reluctantly partnered with the brilliant, but socially awkward, civilian analyst, Tilly Bradshaw, the mismatched pair uncover a trail that only he is meant to see. The elusive killer has a plan and for some reason Poe is part of it. As the body count rises, Poe discovers he has far more invested in the case than he could have possibly imagined. And in a shocking finale that will shatter everything he’s ever believed about himself, Poe will learn that there are things far worse than being burned alive …

So here we go springing (or crawling depending on the ratio of fruit:mince pies consumed) into the New Year with a hugely enjoyable serial killer thriller, The Puppet Show from debut author, M. W. Craven. I could easily break this down into a short list of attractive features, as it ticked many boxes for me from the outset. A dryly witty maverick detective with exceptionally cool name, and hints of darkness in his past. Cute doggy called Edgar Poe (great name). Techno nerd providing inadvertent comedic moments. Fire obsessed serial killer. Pagan stone circles with a backdrop of one of my favourite areas of the country, Cumbria. However, as I’m known for my long, yes possibly too long, reviews I’ll tell you why all this worked so effectively throughout the book, so linger a while longer.

This has to be one of the most intensely character driven thrillers I have read of late, and to be honest, Craven has paved the way for a series of books, that will accommodate them in whatever investigation for some time to come. In common with Stuart MacBride’s Logan Mcrae books for example, I have a feeling that these are characters, Poe himself and Tilly Bradshaw (aforementioned techno nerd)  that you will immediately pick up on again even if you have to wait the usual year for a new book, and that is a great thing to nail this quickly. He’s also allowed himself a bit of wiggle room to flesh out another of the main characters, DI Flynn, as well as a tantalising opportunity to dig deeper into the darkness of Poe’s unsettled past, as well as building further on the fresh and entertaining interplay between these three characters generally. I really enjoyed the fluidity of the dialogue between the characters, and how Poe and Bradshaw gradually change and influence each other in differing ways but with a real feeling of yin and yang as his darkness is deflected by her light. Pretty deep huh? No, joking aside there is a lovely innocence and gentle joshing underpinning the more difficult sides of their characters, and it works superbly. 

As mentioned, Craven has picked a wonderful part of our green and pleasant land as his location, and uses it at every opportunity and extremely effectively to add an air of menace and drama to his dark and twisted tale. Highlighting the desolate and remote nature of the Cumbrian landscape, I felt it both mirrored and heightened the general sense of darkness at play in the killer’s psyche, the unfolding trauma of Poe’s own life, and the fact that Poe lives a solitary life in such a place is wholly in keeping with his own psyche. Using the stone circles that occur in multitudes throughout the region as the perpetrator’s killing sites is a neat touch linking the theme of sacrifice from the past to the present. Too often writers do not manipulate the landscape enough to add depth and colour to their central story, making their stories have the feel that they could just be plonked into any setting, but Craven (alongside authors like Mari Hannah and William Shaw) has definitely mastered the art of landscape in this one. 

And so to the plot itself, and with my familiar refrain of no spoilers here, there are no spoilers here! What plays out is a perfectly paced, twisty murder investigation with some surprising reveals, a really quite empathetic killer and (cue host of angels) a killer whose identity remained remarkably well hidden. So another box firmly ticked, and giving an overall feeling of tremendous satisfaction to this reader. I shall be recommending this at work and beyond on its publication later this month, and a cracking good read to start the year. Highly recommended. 

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(I downloaded this ARC from Netgalley UK via Little Brown Books)

Pre-order your copy of The Puppet Show here