Raven’s Best Discovery of 2014…

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Ooh, I love this time of year, as I cast my mind back to all the wonderful and not-so-wonderful books that I have encountered over the past twelve months. Starting a series of posts on the highlights of my reading year, I feel that I must start with this. My favourite discovery of 2014 has to be Marco Malvaldi, an Italian crime author with more than one string to his bow. I have read and reviewed three of his books this year at Crimefictionlover.com , but am keen as mustard for more people to discover this clever, witty and hugely entertaining writer, with the added bonus of Howard Curtis’ pitch perfect translations. I implore you to enter the madcap world of amateur sleuth Massimo the barman, and the curmudgeonly elderly patrons of his bar, with whom you will share more than a few wry smiles along the way…

gameforfive200Game For Five is the first instalment in the Bar Lume series, which are bestsellers in the author’s native Italy. Set in a small coastal town in Tuscany, the book features Massimo – a barman and amateur sleuth – and a gaggle of hilarious old timers in their 70s and 80s. Between downing shots of espresso, and lively card games, Massimo and his cohorts while away the time chatting and arguing. When a young girl is brutally murdered near their watering hole, and left in a trash can, they start theorising about events surrounding her death.

The victim’s less than moral lifestyle makes everyone think her death is connected to the world of drugs and casual sex in which she was immersed. Two of the prime suspects in her murder are linked to this very lifestyle. Out of their love of gossip and their wit and intelligence, the old friends at Bar Lume begin to pull the case to pieces.

With his connection to the discovery of the body, Massimo is coerced into the role of amateur sleuth and becomes the overseer of this band of merry pensioners. He systematically scrutinises their friends and neighbours. Add into the mix an arrogant yet ineffectual local police officer called Fusco, who investigates the murder, and the scene is set for the amateurs to solve the crime.

The book has an endorsement from Andrea Camilleri, and if you are an admirer of the Inspector Montalbano series you won’t be disappointed. The characterisation is absolutely marvelous throughout, from the hangdog barman Massimo through to the unruly pensioners with their politically incorrect observations and acidic treatment of their neighbours, who are possible suspects.

What I found particularly interesting were the slight differences in the relationships Massimo has with each player in the piece. His elderly customers exasperate and entertain him in equal measure. With the barmaid, Tiziana, there is consistently flirtatious and affectionate interaction. As Massimo becomes more entwined with the murder investigation there are some wonderfully spiky scenes between him and Inspector Fusco. They stiffen Massimo’s resolve to find the real culprit, and bring justice for the victim’s mother, with whom he confers during the course of his unsolicited investigation. Massimo really does don the hat of a detective, systematically eliminating potential suspects, and gradually working out who the real killer is.

He is a multi-layered and empathetic character, and along with the colourful members of the community in which he resides, adds a real texture and solidity to the plot. The unruly old timers are fantastically well-realised, and the barbed wit and general bonhomie between them is a delight throughout the book. They’re full of humour and yet make knowing nods to the frustrations growing old. In relation to the humour, I would make special mention of Howard Curtis’ translation, which seems to convey the atmosphere, dialogue and lively writing style of the author perfectly.

With a great blend of humour and underlying darkness, Game For Five, proves to be an excellent introduction to the owner and customers of Bar Lume and their small community. An entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable read.

Three-Card Monte is the second instalment in the Bar Lume series. Set in a small coastal town in Tuscany, the book once again features Massimo – a barman and amateur sleuth – and a gaggle of hilarious old timers. Between espresso, and lively card games, Massimo and his cohorts while away the time chatting and arguing, but nothing sets their tongues a-wagging more than an unsolved crime.

The Twelfth International Workshop on Macromolecular and Biomacromolecular Chemistry – “What a waste of capital letters,” one character comments – has descended upon the small coastal town of Pineta in Northern Italy. Massimo and Aldo, one of the curmudgeonly pensioners, are to provide catering during its coffee and lunch breaks. Much excitement and speculation ensues when an esteemed Japanese professor dies under mysterious circumstances – it is quickly deemed a homicide.

Massimo reluctantly reprises his role as an amateur detective when summoned by the marvellously ineffectual Inspector Fusco to aid the investigation. With the conference ending in three days, with all delegates heading back to their native countries, there is little time to catch the killer. But fear not. Within the safety of their favourite watering hole, Massimo and his aged band of speculators have their own theories and serendipitous insights into the murder and who is culpable.

From the opening chapter Malvaldi instantly draws us back into his cynical and witty writing style that so impressed in the first book. Koichi Kawaguchi is seen as nervous, apprehensive of Italy’s chaos and of attending the conference. He ponders the travails of the days ahead. Meanwhile, Massimo is blighted by the installation of WiFi in Bar Lume – it only works at one table, under a tree, which is invariably occupied by his stubborn, elderly cohorts. There’s a less than serious tone to this murder mystery, but it’s one that will entertain and delight in equal measure. Malvaldi’s attention to characterisation is superb throughout, as you find yourself, like Massimo, exasperated by his unruly pensioners but thoroughly entertained by their non-PC observations, saucy humour, and scathing complaints about their friends and neighbours.

In common with Andrea Camilleri and Marco Vichi, the inherent wit of the book is tempered by an intriguing murder mystery. Malvaldi has constructed a neat and engaging crime plot, nicely peppered with scientific geekery. It illustrates perfectly the competitive professional rivalries that exist in the scientific professions, and the race to make that one great discovery, and how far others will go to thwart this. The level of detail that Malvaldi insinuates into the plot adds to the overall enjoyment of the mystery, lending a credible feel to the whole affair. His fluid and engaging prose with its perfectly placed vignettes of humour is totally entertaining, but yet sates the thirst of those craving a tricksy and puzzling murder mystery. An absolute gem.

And why not seek out this cheeky little stand alone with its tongue-in-cheek on the Golden Age murder mystery genre…

A country house murder mystery, complete with locked room conundrum and a nod to the Golden Age, The Art of Killing Well is set in a Tuscan castle in the year 1895. It’s the home of the seventh Barone di Roccapendente and his extended family, all of whom seem indolent, rude or quite simply barking mad.

On this particular weekend they plan to hunt wild boar. The Barone has invited not only the reputable photographer Signor Ciceri, but also the real life chef Pellegrino Artusi who is compiling his masterpiece, The Science of Cooking and The Art of Eating Well.

With two cats as companions, and his well-thumbed edition of Sherlock Holmes, Artusi’s presence is an absolute joy, giving rise to the inveterate snobbery of the Barone’s clan, however he is generally indifferent to the supposed wealth and influence of his hosts. Things get underway with a murder. This time, it wasn’t the butler… no, he was the victim. Artusi, with his nose for a mystery, relishes the challenge of unmasking a killer. As he delves into the inner workings of this not so noble family, he uncovers a hotbed of gambling, sexual shenanigans and greed, but can he reveal the true murderer?

Few books make me laugh out loud, but the acidic and wry humour here is pure entertainment. With the gentle intrusion of an omniscient narrator, who provides a series of observations from a contemporary viewpoint as well as injecting dry asides as to the moral integrity of the aristocratic family, the book sparkles with wit. Malvaldi excels in a series of humorous little vignettes, detailing the weaknesses and foibles of these eccentric and incredibly dislikable people. Characters are described variously as having the intelligence of a fruit bowl, or dressing in a cross between a monk’s habit and a grain silo. Much fun is poked at the idiosyncrasies of the rich along with cynical asides about the politics and social mores of the period. The natural alacrity and joie de vivre of Artusi is set against the rather buttoned down dryness of his eminent hosts. The author garners considerable enjoyment from the jokes at their expense.

The rumbustious Artusi is a wonderfully warm and multi-layered character, seemingly intent on just sampling the earthy and rustic Tuscan fare for his cookery book, but actually donning the mantle of detective with consummate ease, walking in the footsteps of his hero Holmes. Added to the mix is local policeman l’inspettore Artistico, who has little time or patience for the demands of the Roccapendente family, but who forms a touching alliance with our chef in the course of the investigation, particularly in the wake of a second attempted murder.

It is not a thick book, but a fully satisfying one not only due to how the unfortunate butler is dispatched, but also because of how this death unearths such a viper’s nest of corruption. The plot unfolds with all the charisma of a traditional Agatha Christie, but its near-the-knuckle humour and bizarre characters provide an all together more fulfilling reading experience. A perfectly bijou and mischievous crime book, I would be more than happy to read it again in years to come.

(With thanks to Europa Editions and Quercus for allowing me to discover Malvaldi)

October Round-Up and Raven’s Book of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)

It was wonderful to host an exclusive Q&A with Dwayne Alexander Smith and to take part in the blog tour for the release of Luca Veste’s The Dying Place, but a month of total frustration reading-wise which saw my normal list of 10 or more severely curtailed! Due to the time pressures of reading and reviewing, I now have ‘the 40 page rule’.  So if a book has not piqued my interest, be it with characterisation, location, the writing style or other random points of interest that I look for, it gets consigned to the slush pile. Some people have questioned me on the wisdom of this, but having seen other reviews of books I’ve abandoned, some people have suffered excruciating mental torment in their dogged determination to read to the end. Sadly, the axe fell on six books this month which didn’t make the grade in terms of what hooks me in- a well-crafted writing style, a-smack-between-the-eyes plotline, or an endearing or likeably dislikeable protagonist. It also means that I have more time now to unearth some real gems, and as I am participating in Crime Fiction Lover.com  New Talent November features, (see next post) a chance to discover some cracking new authors. Fear not though, I have already read three incredibly strong books for release in November, and looking at the to-be-read pile they will have good company I’m sure…

Raven reviewed:

Val McDermid- Forensics: The Anatomy Of Crime

Ryan David Jahn- The Gentle Assassin

Steffen Jacobsen- Trophy

Marco Malvaldi- Three Card Monte (www.crimefictionlover.com)

Luca Veste- The Dying Place

 

Book of the Month

jahnRyan David Jahn- The Gentle Assassin:

Seems a tad unfair to only have 5 to choose from this month, but having waited a good while for a new one from the exceptionally talented Mr Jahn, I could not award this to anyone else. Once again, Jahn lifts the ordinary crime thriller to join the ranks of the best contemporary American fiction writers, with this thoughtful, emotional and genuinely engaging novel. With its careful interweaving of two timelines, and two central characters that effortlessly carry the emotional weight of this compelling thriller, this may well feature in my end of year Top 5. Watch this space…

 

Happy reading everyone!

August Round Up and Raven’s Book of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)August provided a real rollercoaster of crime reading, with highs and lows in equal measure. Some I loved, some not so much, but perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the month was finally getting to a couple of books that have been languishing on the bookshelves for far too long. Will try to keep the momentum of this as, over the months, a few reads have fallen by the wayside with the temptations of shiny, new books popping regularly through the letterbox. And as always there are other books read in August to catch up with reviews-wise…

Thanks again to K.T.Medina, for her piece on the inspiration for her superb debut White Crocodile, and to Kevin Sampson for giving us an insight into the world of DCI Billy McCartney, in his new book, The House On The Hill.

So, here for your entertainment is a summary of the month. Hope you discover something good to read!

Books reviewed in August:

Kevin Stevens- Reach The Shining River

K. T. Medina- White Crocodile  

Kevin Sampson- The House On The Hill  

Kanae Minato- Confessions

Andrea Maria Schenkel- The Dark Meadow

Jake Woodhouse- After The Silence

Rachel Howzell Hall- Land of Shadows

J. A. Kerley- The Death Box

Marco Malvaldi- The Art of Killing Well (www.crimefictionlover.com)

Erin Kelly- Broadchurch (www.crimefictionlover.com)

 

Raven’s Book of the Month

Yet another tough decision this month in terms of my top read- I really shouldn’t set myself up for this deliberation and cogitating every month should I?! So, a decision has been made…

reachx2700Despite my continuing affection for the escapades of Kevin Sampson’s troubled detective, Billy McCartney, and my admiration for two debuts this month, K T Medina’s emotive and haunting White Crocodile and Rachel Howzell Hall’s refreshing new thriller,  Land of Shadows, I have plumped for Kevin Stevens with the mesmerising Reach The Shining River. Crafted as beautifully as any contemporary American fiction novel, Stevens underscores his thought-provoking and engaging novel with a pure jazz and blues soundtrack, conjuring up the atmosphere of a troubled period of American history and its attendant issues. Great characters, a well-defined plot and a hugely satisfying read.