A. D. Flint- The Burning Hill

On the run from unjust court-martial back home, a young British soldier gets robbed and shot on Copacabana Beach. The bullet in Jake’s head should have been fatal, but miraculously, it saves him from a previously undetected condition that soon would have killed him. Jake doesn’t believe in fate, nor does he feel he owes anything to anybody, but he does hate injustice. Vilson, the teenage favela kid who fired the bullet, is a victim of injustice, in a corner with a corrupt cop and a sadistic drug-lord after his blood. With a turf war erupting in Vilson’s favela, fear stalks every narrow alleyway, and anyone dragged up to the notorious Burning Hill had better hope they’re dead before they get there. But it’s not just fear that shapes life in the favela, belief is also powerful, able to both save and destroy…

I seem to have acquired quite a taste for Brazilian set fiction of late, so The Burning Hill looked to be a bit of a tempter from the outset. With a screwed up central protagonist, razor sharp observations of life among the dispossessed, and positively throbbing with the rhythm and atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro, what more could you ask for?

Based on the author’s experience of living in Brazil. I think it’s fair to say that this location has obviously made a real impact, in terms of what has been observed and remembered from their time there. The book oozes authenticity from its opening pages depicting the woeful living conditions and threats from authority endured by the street kids, going on to the shockingly misjudged attempted robbery of a western tourist by two young boys from the favela. Flint clearly demarcates the problems experienced by the kids in their dealings with the less than moral representatives of law enforcement, and the dangerous forces at work within the favela itself at the hands of unscrupulous gang members. Little wonder that these kids dream of a better life, far away from a life of destitution, thievery and violence.

Throughout the book Flint uses the character of Vilson, a young boy abandoned by his mother, and having recently lost his brother, to represent life on the margins of society, and this works incredibly well as we bear witness to his anger, frustration and his futile attempts to overcome the feeling of abandonment. Through his turbulent interactions with Jake (the aforementioned tourist) and a female lawyer Eliane, the layers of Vilson’s character are exposed in dramatically different ways, revealing a tough street kid persona underpinned by all the vulnerability that his life experience has caused. Equally, by aligning his character with that of Jake, a disillusioned British ex-soldier with more than enough demons of his own, these two characters are a real tour de force and drive the narrative throughout. As much as Vilson and Jake are united by incurring the wrath of an utterly corrupt police officer, their relationship is defined by suspicion and misguided communication, where even the grandest of gestures inevitably go wrong, but even still serves to make their relationship compelling. This is the real hook of the book, as you become more and more inveigled in their trials and tribulations.

Flint is an incredibly visual writer, be it his depiction of the slums, the noise and hudy gurdy of vibrant Rio, the rural outreaches of the farming community, a truly terrifying rodeo or a visceral and tense boxing match. His pace of writing and attention to detail exerts a steely grip on the reader, and you genuinely find your reading speed increasing in the interludes of pure tension and dramatic action. Most importantly though he manages to keep the reader on the backfoot all the time, as the story took several unexpected and violent turns along the way, ramping up the tension and putting his central characters under extreme pressure, and by extension the reader too, which is all to the good. I enjoyed this book immensely with its multi-faceted characters both the good guys and the bad guys, and those that veer perilously between the two. Flint unerringly gets right beneath the skin of his characters. The book has a nervous energy, that increases the sense of danger and threat throughout, and with the vibrant and intuitive depiction of life in this most colourful of cities, that at its heart has a huge and unbridgeable chasm between the haves and have-nots, there is a real raw feeling of truth about the book too. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Unbound for the ARC)

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Travels with the TBR #1-Samuel Bjork- I’m Travelling Alone, Helen Cadbury- To Catch A Rabbit, Owen Sheers-I Saw A Man

With the new frustration of a lengthy bus journey now extending my working day, I realised that this actually presents a great opportunity to catch up on some of the 150+ books in my to-be-read pile, alongside new releases. Here are the first three books in a regular series of posts…

bjorkWhen the body of a young girl is found hanging from a tree, the only clue the police have is an airline tag around her neck. It reads ‘I’m travelling alone’. In response, police investigator Holger Munch is immediately charged with assembling a special homicide unit. But to complete the team, he must track down his former partner, Mia Krüger – a brilliant but troubled detective – who has retreated to a solitary island with plans to kill herself. Reviewing the file, Mia finds something new – a thin line carved into the dead girl’s fingernail: the number 1. She knows that this is only the beginning. To save other children from the same fate, she must find a way to cast aside her own demons and stop this murderer from becoming a serial killer…

To be honest, I usually have a slight aversion to thrillers that are constructed so whole-heartedly on the use of coincidence, and moments of sheer implausibility but I’m Travelling Alone managed effectively to keep me in its thrall from start to finish, despite my reservations…

Starting with the characterisation of detective Mia Kruger, the archetypal troubled individual, seemingly intent on ending her life and existing on a toxic cocktail of prescription drugs, that would keep most stout-hearted folks from functioning on any kind of level, she proves herself an empathetic and multi-faceted character. Having so roundly criticised other authors for using this foil before, Kruger’s journey from intense psychological bleakness to her reluctant involvement in a particularly dark murder investigation,  Bjork manages to overcome the reader’s initial scepticism regarding her character, and she was, for me, the reason to keep those pages turning. Likewise, her boss, the shuffling and put-upon Holger Munch, with his nefarious familial problems, conforms to some stereotypical character traits, and the coincidence of him being the father of a six-year old daughter, the age of the murder victims, did toy with the credibility of the reader too. However, for the necessity of the final denouement of the plot, it was understandable that Bjork had to travel this path, and Munch and Kruger, prove themselves an effective team despite their vastly different approaches to their work, and this particular investigation.

I thought the central murder investigation with the trademark Scandinavian darkness was well played out, drawing in themes of religious fanaticism, and I always enjoy a book that points the finger at the supposedly superior state of grace that accompanies those who hold religion dear. In the rural backwoods there are shown to be dark forces at work, leading to a pacey and gripping conclusion to what is a convoluted but nonetheless intriguing investigation for Munch and Kruger, despite a rather clumsy plot twist involving Kruger herself. I’m Travelling Alone is not without fault, but has enough hooks and tricks to hold its appeal throughout, and to entice this reader to read the next in the series. Recommended.

new-rabbitTwo young boys stumble on a dead prostitute. She’s on Sean Denton’s patch. As Doncaster’s youngest community support officer, he’s already way out of his depth, but soon he’s uncovering more than he’s supposed to know. Meanwhile Karen Friedman, professional mother of two, learns her brother has disappeared. She desperately needs to know he’s safe, but once she starts looking, she discovers unexpected things about her own needs and desires. Played out against a gritty landscape on the edge of a Northern town, Karen and Sean risk losing all they hold precious…

First of all, big kudos to Helen Cadbury, for introducing us in to the world of the Police Community Support Officer, a role oft neglected in the consciousness of not only the British public, but also in the world of crime writing. I immediately liked Sean Denton, with his charming mix of at times wide-eyed innocence, underscored by his strong sense of morality and his determination to see justice served for the victim. This combination of traits that Cadbury instils in his character is absolutely central to the manipulation of the reader’s empathies throughout, and also gives Cadbury scope to show how far Denton progresses professionally in the course of this thorny and sensitive investigation. I also liked the comparison we see in Denton’s character between his professionalism and intuitiveness when donning the uniform, and his hesitant and quite frankly clumsy efforts in matters of the heart. By so effectively balancing these two sides of her central protagonist, you feel as a reader a truthfulness and authenticity to the character, which enhances your reading pleasure. Similarly with the character of Karen Friedman, we encounter a woman who is doggedly searching for answers regarding her brother’s disappearance, and Cadbury takes time to push the boundaries of Karen’s character, drawing her into a criminal world, and testing her resolve as a professional, working at a migrant’s advice centre, and as a wife and mother. Cadbury really puts Karen through the wringer, but never to the point of incredulity, and I found her a particularly likeable character. Her husband, though, has less to recommend him…snake in the grass.

Drawing on the sensitive subject of immigration in the UK , Cadbury keeps a balance and fairness in her portrayal of this subject throughout, without the mealy-mouthed hand-wringing liberalism, that tends to afflict modern British fiction. Cadbury presents the desperation and exploitation of the immigrant community with an almost detached air of realism, that makes their plight all the more affecting, and allows her readers to be gently drawn into to the salient plot-lines that focus on this, while keeping solidly within the bounds of objectivity. This thought-provoking, and extremely well delineated plot carries the book along to a gripping conclusion, with many moments of tension along its way.

Hence, To Catch A Rabbit neatly straddles the bounds of crime thriller and police procedural punctuated by the  feel of contemporary social fiction. Am already eyeing up the second instalment, Bones In The Nest, in my to-be-read pile. Highly recommended.

sheersAfter the sudden loss of his wife, Michael Turner moves to London to start again. Living on a quiet street in Hampstead, he develops a close bond with the Nelson family next door: Josh, Samantha and their two young daughters. The friendship at first seems to offer the prospect of healing, but then a devastating event changes all their lives, and Michael finds himself bearing the burden of grief and a terrible secret.

Okay so not strictly speaking a crime book, but is billed to possess ‘a dark psychological edge’ and have heard comments glowingly positive, and exceedingly negative about this one. I will concede that  the first half of this book held me firmly in its tentacles, and flipping the action from the leafy London suburbs to heat scorched America and the military storyline, I Saw A Man was shaping up to be a terrific read. I was genuinely drawn into the grief-filled world of Michael, and the pernicious military action that had caused his wife’s death. I was also enjoying the intriguing build up of tension as Michael made his way through a neighbour’s house one hot summer’s day, and had even mange to overcome my working class aversion to posh people who do fencing, and my dislike of the name Josh.  And then within two pages it lost me. Totally. With one of the weakest plot contrivances I have encountered for many a year, this formerly well-written and engaging book, waved goodbye to the Raven, as the writing became overwhelmingly overwritten, and any previously held empathy disappeared in a flurry of florid prose. I read the last two chapters to confirm my suspicions at how this tortured storyline would play out. And it did. Oh dear…

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

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)