September 2016 Round-Up and Raven’s Book(s) of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Apologies again for being so off the pace in providing fulsome reviews during September,  due to a period of personal and professional  upheaval in  Raven’s world. Thanks to all of you who’ve sent lovely messages of support- much appreciated. Things are still a little up in the air, but having recovered my reading mojo in the last couple of weeks, I am going to use this post to catch up with everything and hopefully come bouncing back into October. So along with these:

William Ryan- The Constant Soldier

Sarah Ward- A Deadly Thaw

Thomas Mullen- Darktown

here are just a few more of my September reads that you really must seek out for your teetering reading piles. Hope that these short and sweet reviews pique your interest… 

51v0u7ucipl-_ac_us160_I reviewed Matthew Frank‘s compelling debut If I Should Die last year featuring ex-soldier turned trainee police detective, Joseph Stark, and was absolutely enthralled. Between The Crosses sees Stark having cut his teeth, so to speak, and is now a fully badged DC, with a reprisal of police characters from the first book, including the wonderfully feisty DS Fran Millhaven. Again, Frank provides the perfect balance between a gritty and tense police procedural, with a testing investigation for Stark and his cohorts, and his faultless characterisation of Stark himself, haunted physically and emotionally by his past experiences, and the travails and triumphs of his new career. Frank really digs into the day-to-day frustrations of the rank and file in this one, and I strongly felt that the aspects of the book revolving around Stark and Millhaven’s personal and professional tribulations really held the weight of interest in the book, with the actual investigation feeling a little drawn out this time around. Frank excels in his characterisation throughout, and as the parameters of both main protagonists subtly shift at the close of this book, I am looking forward to see how this plays out in the dynamics of the next in the series. Highly recommended.

41a-DHkeVXLI bought this deliciously dark and disturbing read blind, and what a revelation Benjamin MyersTurning Blue turned out to be. A glorious mash up of the staccato darkness of David Peace, fused with Ross Raisin, this book was not only utterly original, but infused with a beautifully realised balance of naturalistic imagery, and a totally compelling tale of sordid murder in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. Drawing on the theme of the infamous Yew Tree investigations, Myers has conjured up a cast of emotionally damaged characters across the spectrum, with blood chilling moments of revelation, that will haunt your dreams. His use of the brooding bleakness of his Dales’ setting works perfectly in tandem with the very real and flawed characters that he presents to us, shifting our empathy back and forth with each twist and turn in his perfectly plotted drama. Although, I felt that the plot was just a little too extended towards the final third of the plot, at odds with the brevity and sharpness of his writing, I would still highly recommend this to the more stout hearted amongst you. I felt grubby after reading it, but in a wickedly enjoyable way. Excellent.

waking-lions-front-647x1024Next up is Waking Lions from Ayelet Gundar-Goshen billed as a novel with a psychological edge set in Israel centring on the fall out of a hit and run incident, where a privileged doctor, Dr Eitan Green, kills an Eritrean migrant. The book then revolves around his intense involvement, and developing relationship with, the migrant’s widow, and his entry into a world of the desperate and the poor, as she blackmails him into providing medical assistance for the unseen migrant community. Indeed, Gundar-Goshen’s portrayal of Sirkit, and the revelations of her migrant experience were incredibly vivid and compelling, and added a huge emotional weight and interest to the book.  As much as I liked the central premise for the book, I did find it incredibly slow moving, and truth be told, felt no particular empathy for the flaky Dr Green, even when the scales fall from his eyes, and he starts to lose some of his prejudices. His wife, who just happens to be a detective investigating the hit and run, bears little plausible resemblance to a real police officer, and was frankly quite annoying, so this was a real mixed bag for me.

murderabilia-9781471156595_hrBack onto familiar ground with Murderabilia by Craig Robertson, and regular visitors will know I’m an ardent fan of Robertson’s series featuring DI Rachel Narey and her partner, ex-police scene of crime photographer, Tony Winter. Finding herself house-bound and therefore bored witless, Narey becomes immersed in the dark and disturbing world of the Dark Net, following a truly grim murder at the opening of the book (fabulously done), which she is anxious to investigate from the confines of her bedroom, and its link to a cold case which her father worked on many years previously. Focussing on the trade in macabre items associated with murder scenes, Narey, and us as readers, are introduced into a world, that its hard to fathom exists, beneath the everyday familiarity of the internet. This book felt slightly different in style to previous books, in terms of the emotional tension that Robertson layers in to the plot, as the darkness of the central storyline,  the emotional turbulence of Narey’s confinement, and other traumatising events (that I won’t reveal here) all come to a nerve shredding conclusion. Packed full of what no doubt was quite disturbing research, Murderabilia also effectively develops the enforced changes in Narey and Winter’s relationship, but also sees another regular character disappear in distressing circumstances. A one sitting read, and another winner from Robertson. Recommended.

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I absolutely loved this debut- Tall Oaks by Chris Whitaker– and from the rather humdrum synopsis on the back of the book, I have an awful feeling that the casual browser may miss out on a rare treat. Missing child from small American town, and seemingly cardboard cut out characters, did not really sell it to me from the jacket alone. But what a delight this was, revealing itself as a brilliant cross between Twin Peaks and Fargo, and with some beautifully paced reveals that definitely caught this reader on the hop. It made me smile wryly, laugh out loud and gasp in appreciation throughout, with a colourful cast of characters that Whitaker introduces and pivots between seamlessly, slowly drawing us into the connections between them. There are moments of genuine tension carefully interspersed with warmth and humour, as this band of misfits, for various reasons, go about their daily lives, with the overriding urge to make personal and emotional connections with friends, lovers and relatives. It’s wonderfully plotted, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Highly recommended.

honourableAnd finally, An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich, a Cold War thriller set in 1950’s Washington, where a disillusioned CIA officer embarks on his final case tracking down a notorious American/Soviet double agent. Sharing the name George Mueller, with my favourite character in Boardwalk Empire played by the wonderfully hangdog Nelson Van Alden, was a distraction from the start, and to be honest, although I fair whipped through this one, I didn’t really feel that it brought anything new to a well-trod genre. I did enjoy the wonderfully dispassionate writing style and clipped dialogue that Vidich employs, but found the reveals a little obvious, and less well-disguised than the clever narrative tricks of say John Le Carre, the master of the Cold War thriller. An interesting distraction but not quite satisfying enough.

Raven’s Book(s) of The Month:

510-vjvl8ql      tall-oaks     constant

After much rumination, I will go for a three-way split this month between Thomas Mullen‘s Darktown, set in 1940’s Atlanta, with its brooding racial tension, the sheer entertainment factor of Chris Whitaker‘s Tall Oaks and William Ryan‘s elegiac and beautifully written wartime drama The Constant Soldier. A round of applause chaps- well deserved.

 

(With thanks to Faber, Simon & Schuster, Mantle, Pushkin Press, Twenty7, Penguin, Little Brown and No Exit Press for the ARCs)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Katie Medina- Fire Damage

medinaFour-year-old Sami is deeply traumatized, and it’s up to psychologist Dr Jessie Flynn to unlock his terrifying memories. She needs to find out who ‘the girl’ is – but nothing can prepare her for the truth about what haunts him. Meanwhile, Jessie’s former patient, Captain Ben Callan, is investigating the suspicious death of an officer in Afghanistan – the problem is the only suspect refuses to talk. When a dead body washes up on a Sussex beach, Jessie and Ben’s cases converge. Soon it’s clear that the mystery in Afghanistan began with a secret much closer to home. And a desperate killer will do anything to keep it buried…

Having been swept away by Medina’s debut thriller  White Crocodile set in Cambodia, I was extremely interested to see how a change of publisher and nom de plume, along with a new setting would work for Medina. I’m very happy to report that this author appears to be going from strength to strength…

In a similar style to Matthew Frank’s debut If I Should Die and tapping in perfectly to my love of fiction depicting the experience of war, Medina tackles some weighty psychological issues in tandem with producing a genuinely emotive and compelling thriller. Drawing on her psychology degree, Medina said recently in an interview that she wanted to not only address the overpowering love or destructive nature of familial relationships and the emotional fallout of military service, but also to create a female protagonist to represent strong, clever and independent women. Through her characterisation of her central female character Jessie Flynn, four year old Sami, and her portrayal of three victims of their war experience, Sami’s father Major Nicholas Scott, Captain Ben Callan and Sergeant Colin Starkey, Medina achieves this admirably. Jessie Flynn is a multi-faceted character being a compassionate and headstrong psychologist, with a background in the military, but also struggling with her own behavioural disorder in the form of OCD.  I liked the way that she so seamlessly moulds her approach and interactions with those around her, driven on by a tenacity of spirit, and total dedication to her chosen profession, striving to unlock and treat the severe mental stress that affects Sami, and his family, along with being sensitive to the simmering tensions present in the character of Callan as she aids his investigation into a violent episode that has taken place amongst service personnel in Afghanistan.

The physical and mental stress exhibited by both Scott and Callan as a result of their military service is handled sensitively and honestly, and Callan in particular is a hugely empathetic character within the book. The sudden fluctuations of his mood and behaviour is beautifully handled as he struggles to keep a lid on the more destructive elements of his psyche, as without the Army he would be left bereft floundering with his personal demons. The repartee, and interesting relationship he has fostered with Flynn gives a further emotional weight to the overall plot, and I was heartened to see Medina avoiding some more obvious directions that their personal relationship could take.

Aside from the emotional gravitas of this book as we gain an insight into the troubled facets of Sami and particularly with his mother, Nooria, whose personal story is heartbreaking, the plot is incredibly well drawn, with a brutal honesty as to the dark chasm of secrets and lies that people conceal and seek to escape. The ending of the book is unexpected, and will make your heart race a little faster, and is entirely unpredictable but totally believable. The plot is punctuated throughout by real heart in the mouth moments, that interrupts but never detracts from the array of human emotion that Medina has structured the book upon. I also enjoyed the very real and vital portrayal of the experience in the theatre of war that so impacts on her characters, without resorting to timeworn clichés that some fiction with this story arc tends to produce.

It really is an ‘all things to all people’ kind of thriller, where the narrative, plot incidents, and skilful characterisation work together perfectly, and I was held riveted throughout. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to HarperCollins for the ARC)

Raven’s Yearly Round-Up and Top 5 Crime Reads 2015

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)As the end of 2015 approaches, it is time to look back in awe and wonder at some of the books that have thrilled and entertained the Raven over the last twelve months. With approximately 125 crime books read, and not far off 100 reviews posted, this year has heralded a bumper crop of exciting crime reads, A slew of brilliant debuts including Oscar de Muriel- The Strings of Murder, Tom Callaghan’s The Killing Winter, Ragnar Jonasson’s Snowblind and David Young’s Stasi Child, and great new offerings from established names such as Mari Hannah, Steve Mosby, William Shaw, Simon Toyne and Malcolm Mackay have been a joy to read.  So here are the highlights and lowlights of the year… 

THE 40-PAGE RULE

With the constant influx of books I receive as a blogger, full time bookseller, and my day off job as a volunteer in a charity book shop, there is never a shortage of reading material accumulated in the teetering to be read mountain! Hence the need for the 40-page rule. If a book has failed to ignite my interest within this page count, I’m afraid it is discarded, passed on to others, or fulfils it’s charitable duty as a donation to the shop mentioned above. The parameters for a book’s untimely fate vary- clichéd, overwritten, one-dimensional characters, too much similarity to another book, obvious plot turns or killers, and if anyone mentions someone opening a door in their underwear, all hope is lost. I usually manage to read nearer 200 books in a year so a fairly hefty count of 42 non-starters have impeded my reading. Unusually for someone known for their bluntness, in the good spirit of Christmas I’m naming no names, but rest assured your books have found a good home elsewhere…

THE MOST HYPED CRIME GENRE OF THE YEAR

the-girl-on-the-train-uk-e1420761445402It seems that only by dwelling at the outer reaches of the Arctic Circle could you escape the hype surrounding The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins. And yet the Raven was unmoved by the sheer intensity of the praise heaped upon this book on its release, and the ensuing avalanche of ‘domestic noir’ thrillers that it helped spawn. There again I didn’t like Gone Girl either. I am the domestic noir Grinch. Enough already.

WORDS FAILED ME (BUT IN A GOOD WAY)

litten2As a non-professional reviewer and a casual blogger, sometimes a book utterly defeats any talent for reviewing that you believe you possess! One such book this year was Russ Litten’s Kingdom. Having waxed lyrical about Litten’s previous book Swear Down which was terrific, I was incredibly excited to receive Kingdom to review. I was totally in its thrall from start to finish, but when it came to the depth of this reading experience, the majesty of the language, the emotional intensity, and sheer cleverness of the whole affair, words defeated me. Completely. Too marvellous for words.

TURNING MY BACK ON CRIME (OCCASIONALLY)

It may be hard to believe, but yes, I do quite often read books that are not crime. Yes really. So three stand-out fiction reads for me this year would be Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone, where the voice of the late lamented John Lennon sang from every page, The Reader On The 6.47 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, a beautiful French novel with echoes of Patrick Modiano, and Glenn Taylor’s A Hanging At Cinder Bottom, an American writer who never disappoints in his characterisation and crackling dialogue.

And so to the awards ceremony….cue fanfare….and in a break from tradition not all of these were nominated as books of the month at the time, but have stayed in my head, popping up in unguarded moments…

RAVEN’S TOP 5 BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Click on the book jackets to read the reviews.

5. KARIM MISKE-ARAB JAZZ

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4. DOUG JOHNSTONE-THE JUMP

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3. MATTHEW FRANK-IF I SHOULD DIE

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2. ANTTI TUOMAINEN- DARK AS MY HEART

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1. JAX MILLER- FREEDOM’S CHILD

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In a strange instance of premonition, I ended my review of Freedom’s Child saying that it would possibly be my book of the year. Lean prose, a laconic and rhythmical style and an utterly compelling central character in the shape of the emotionally damaged Freedom. A brilliant and unforgettable debut.

 

 

November 2015 Round-Up and Raven’s Book(s) of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Aside from a nasty viral thingummy afflicting the Raven last month, luckily it did not affect my reading too much, so a not too shoddy 11 reviews posted, and some in reserve for December. I actually really enjoyed my reading this month, as it was a good mix of debut and established writers, and a variety of locations and styles. Also, after my wee moan last month at the crime dramas on British TV, my mood was lifted considerably by the return of Scandinavian treat The Bridge, and the truly excellent London Spy which is both compelling and beautifully acted and filmed. To lift the spirits even further Luther is back on the BBC on the 15th December. Swoon….

Well silly season is now upon us, so after a pretty impressive book tally in November, December may be a bit more sporadic thanks to the demands of working in retail at Christmas. I’m taking part in a blog tour in conjunction with the marvellous The Booktrail  which will feature some cracking crime books across a host of blogs, so keep an eye out for that. Also, 2016 is knocking at the door, with an influx of next year’s releases plopping through the door, so every moment not spent recommending and selling books to harassed Xmas shoppers, will be spent reading as much as physically possible! Oh, and how could I forget? My Top Five Reads of 2015 beckons- best put my thinking cap on…

ravenxmasHave a great month everybody. Ho, ho, ho and all that!

Books Read and Reviewed

 Matthew Frank- If I Should Die

Alice Thompson- The Book Collector

Luca Veste- Bloodstream

Andrew Mayne- Angel Killer

Hugo Wilcken- The Reflection

Jo Nesbo- Midnight Sun

Caroline Mitchell- Don’t Turn Around

Denzil Meyrick- Whisky From Small Glasses

 Barbra Leslie- Cracked

Mari Hannah- The Silent Room

Cilla and Rolf Borjlind- Third Voice

Raven’s Book(s) of the Month

An incredibly tough month to pick from, with many of these appealing to me in different ways. So very honourable mentions to two of my favourite writers Mari Hannah and Luca Veste for keeping the British police procedural and thriller genre so vibrant and engaging with The Silent Room and Bloodstream respectively. Thanks to Hugo Wilcken for stretching my little grey cells with The Reflection, to Barbra Leslie for the kooky high octane Cracked, and loved the Gothic intensity of Alice Thompson’s The Book Collector– great cover too!

So completely level pegging for November’s accolade are these two, actually published further back in 2015 but a joy to finally get to! Intelligent, well crafted, and totally compelling reads that I would urge you to discover for yourselves…

 Matthew Frank- If I Should Die   Cilla and Rolf Borjlind- Third Voice

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Matthew Frank- If I Should Die

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When a homeless man walks into Greenwich police station and confesses a killing, it should be the admission that cracks open a murder enquiry. Instead, he stumbles out on to the street and collapses, bleeding from a stab wound he’s attempted to repair himself. The newest member of the Met’s murder investigation team, twenty-five year-old Afghan veteran Joseph Stark, doesn’t believe the man’s story. Yet it becomes clear that Stark and the down-and-out share a connection. And that this could provide the key to unlocking the case. Soon, the young detective and his colleagues are drawn deeper into a dark, disturbing world as dangerous as anything Stark has known on the frontline. And where there’s enough at stake for a man to risk everything . . .

Somewhat belatedly I finally managed to squeeze this debut from Matthew Frank into my reading schedule. As the old adage runs, all good things come to those who wait, as this was truly one of the most well-plotted and compelling crime thrillers I have encountered this year…

What struck me most was how this book could so easily be all things to all men (and women) due to the complexity of the book as a whole. First, it is a socially aware thriller with the story focusing on the random attacks on the homeless community in a corner of London by a group of disaffected and vicious youths from a local sink estate. Frank taps in perfectly to the moral degradation of said youths, drawing a contrasting depiction of those on whom they vent their misguided and sadistic violence. This is particularly emotionally affecting after their attack on an aged homeless war veteran, a man of integrity and honour fallen on hard times, and the casual sadism that their ringleaders exhibit. Set against the isolation of their homeless victim, Frank also really gets to the crux of the manipulation and fearful isolation that certain members of the young gang feel, as their sense of morality begins to kick in, putting them at odds with their manipulative gang leader. There is a huge sense of emotional damage running as a motif through the book generally, and in the experiences and dialogue of the youths, Frank captures this perfectly.

Secondly, it’s a well plotted, linear, police procedural with an assured and likeable cast of characters, which could easily establish this as a series. Frank sets up a team of detectives, that you immediately feel comfortable and emotionally engaged with, and the petty rivalries and jealousies that affect any workplace. With the team being mostly overseen by headstrong and outspoken DS Fran Millhaven, Frank immediately gets a gold star for constructing a female character who is both believable and normal, without the usual emotional baggage that tends to follow these characters around. Her interactions with TDC Joseph Stark in particular are a mixture of spikiness, an almost sisterly affection and then pure exasperation, which gives shades of light and dark to their relationship, providing a strong central base for the plot to pivot around. There is also an extremely strong group of bit players, from those linked to the central investigation, through to the characters we see outside of Stark’s police role, reflecting his former career, and the therapy he is undergoing, giving ballast to this being the first of a series. Frank uses some of these exceptionally well, as a mirror to his main character Stark, and how they and we should perceive him and his emotional and physical vulnerability. It’s very well accomplished.

But more than a socially aware thriller, and police procedural, and this is what impressed me the most, was the depth and characterisation of ex-soldier and TDC Joseph Stark ,which gives Frank an enormous amount of opportunity to give us an insight into the mental and physical turmoil experienced by returning soldiers in the wake of conflict. As the representation of war in fiction is a particular interest of mine (and the subject of my MA) I have read widely in the genre, detailing the experiences that Frank explores here. The depth and clarity with which Frank narrates Stark’s experiences in combat, the journey to recovery and the particular difficulties he experiences in adjusting to civilian life and his return to the police force, is truly compelling. Every nuance of his emotional state, and the frustrations caused by his psychological and physical therapy is captured perfectly, along with the intermittent flashbacks to the harrowing events that he experienced as a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. This gives a real emotional third wheel to the overall solidity of the book, and the structure of this within the realm of what could be labelled ostensibly as a police procedural, is powerfully done, and perfectly realised.

As you can no doubt tell, I was incredibly impressed with If I Should Die for many reasons, not least because it avoid well-worn cliches within the genre, was powerfully characterised, and addressed some weighty issues in a believable and engaging way. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Penguin for the ARC)