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Criminally good reads…

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murder

William Shaw- Salt Lane/ Kate Rhodes-Hell Bay

I am going to don my bookseller hat here, and say with some confidence that if you like the sound of one of these beauties, I can pretty much guarantee that the other book will appeal too.

Go on. You know you want to…

DS Alexandra Cupidi has done it again. She should have learnt to keep her big mouth shut, after the scandal that sent her packing – resentful teenager in tow – from the London Met to the lonely Kent coastline. Murder is different here, among the fens and stark beaches. The man drowned in the slurry pit had been herded there like an animal. He was North African, like many of the fruit pickers that work the fields. The more Cupidi discovers, the more she wants to ask – but these people are suspicious of questions. It will take an understanding of this strange place – its old ways and new crimes – to uncover the dark conspiracy behind the murder. Cupidi is not afraid to travel that road. But she should be. She should, by now, have learnt…

Having made the acquaintance of DS Alexandra Cupidi some time ago in The Birdwatcher , a wonderfully atmospheric thriller set against the backdrop of the bleak coastline of Dungeness, prepare to be completely absorbed as she makes her return in Salt Lane. Not only is this a well plotted and compelling police procedural, once again using this particular landscape to its full brooding and slightly sinister effect, but Salt Lane reveals itself to be so much more.

When you cast your eye over the backlist of William Shaw, comprising of his evocative 60s series, and the aforementioned The Birdwatcher, one cannot help but be struck by the skill of his storytelling, and the strength of his characterisation. As well as unfailingly producing absorbing, moving and carefully constructed police procedurals, Shaw also uses either the zeitgeist of the period, or the locations to envelop the reader completely in the atmosphere he seeks to produce. In Salt Lane the desolate, but rawly beautiful, locale of Dungeness once again reveals itself as a centrifugal force in the book, being either a place of safety or danger in equal measure, but also effectively acting as a prism for the emotional state of both Cupidi and her troubled teenage daughter, Zoe. As Zoe seeks to deal with her emotional pain and seeks solace from the landscape, also unwittingly leading herself into the heart of her mother’s investigation, Cupidi herself finds herself at times waging an emotional and physical battle with the unique geography of the area, and the murders that occur within its boundaries.

Taking a backward step for a second, I can’t emphasise enough the weight of emotion, and more importantly the completely plausible emotion that Shaw injects into his trinity of female characters, Cupidi, Zoe and Cupidi’s mother Helen, who will be recognisable to some readers from Shaw’s previous books. I was absolutely blown away by how succinctly and honestly Shaw captured the internal and external emotional lives of these women, as they navigate their differences and similarities in the course of the book. The tension and moments of conflict are balanced beautifully with moments of epiphany in their personal relationship with each other, and the scenes featuring these three exceptional characters are a joy to read, feeling raw, true and suffused with realism. I must confess that I don’t read much ‘women’s fiction’ as that which I have encountered always has a slightly mawkish feel in its depiction of ‘women’s experience’,  but I was held spellbound by the resonance of these characters in my interpretation of how women truly are, and how that which separates them, can be seen to actually bind them together more than they initially feel.

As for the plot itself, Shaw is given free reign to expose the worst ills of a Britain caught in a monstrous wave of nationalism and post-Brexit turmoil. Against the Kent location of the book, Shaw weaves a disturbing police investigation into an unflinching and, most importantly, objective appraisal of immigration and exploitation, that boils the blood, and tugs at the heartstrings in equal measure, depending on your political viewpoint. 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. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Riverrun for the ARC)

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DI Ben Kitto needs a second chance. After ten years working for the murder squad in London, a traumatic event has left him grief-stricken. He’s tried to resign from his job, but his boss has persuaded him to take three months to reconsider. Ben plans to work in his uncle Ray’s boatyard, on the tiny Scilly island of Bryher where he was born, hoping to mend his shattered nerves. His plans go awry when the body of sixteen year old Laura Trescothick is found on the beach at Hell Bay. Her attacker must still be on the island because no ferries have sailed during a two-day storm. Everyone on the island is under suspicion. Dark secrets are about to resurface. And the murderer could strike again at any time.

With all the claustrophobic feel of a locked room mystery, and introducing us to a little fictionally represented corner of the world, Hell Bay proves to be a real treat, and on the back of Kate Rhodes’ brilliant series featuring Alice Quentin, this introduction to a new character DI Ben Kitto can only augur well for books to come…

I know I’m always going on about location in the books I read, but I genuinely think that if,  as a reader,  you can’t imagine this all too crucial element to a story in a tangible sense the book is lost before it starts, hence my adoration of writers such as Peter May and Ron Rash whose evocation of place is always perfect. So first big tick in the box to Rhodes who deftly depicts the ruggedness and solitude of her Scilly Isles location from the opening age, and consistently and atmospherically through the course of the book. The unique feel of this landscape, and the ever present changeable moods of the sea, provides the most sinister backdrop to her story, and I love the way that Rhodes manipulates this to add to the tension and emotion of the human dramas played out against its omnipresent influence. Indeed, many of the characters have an unbreakable and sometimes damaging connection to the sea, be it by occupation, by loss or by emotional disturbance and its influence looms large in the story and readers’ consciousness throughout.

I did like the character of DI Ben Kitto from the off, with his, at first concealed reasons for returning home, and his reluctance to re-engage with people from his formative years, adding a nice degree of shade and light to his character. I also enjoyed the way that we see him slowly assimilate himself back into the community, the pace of life, the pressures on peoples’ livelihoods, the suspicions of neighbours, and the reopening of conflicts from years past. This gave a very rounded feel to the particular pressures of living within such a small community, and how the actions of one person, is so deeply felt in the lives of the others. Kitto aside, I thought Rhodes’ characterisation was excellent throughout, and loved the disparate band of island dwellers who thwart or assist Kitto in his investigation. There was a real satisfying melting pot of characters, some infinitely more demonstrative than others, and the way that Rhodes’ uses them to portray the frustrations and hardships of island life, and the rootedness or need to escape each display.

Obviously with the premise of the book being a murder mystery, Rhodes works hard to achieve a marvellous modern interpretation of a classic locked room mystery, and she achieves this admirably. With only a finite number of suspects, I very much enjoyed the sense of personal detection she encourages in the reader in true Agatha Christie style, and I found the outcome of the book entirely satisfying. Hell Bay is a particularly strong start to a potential series, I hope, and one I shall follow with interest. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Simon and Schuster for the ARC)

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Vicky Newham- Turn A Blind Eye

A dead girl.
A wall of silence.
DI Maya Rahman is running out of time.

A headmistress is found strangled in her East London school, her death the result of a brutal and ritualistic act of violence. Found at the scene is a single piece of card, written upon which is an ancient Buddhist precept:

I shall abstain from taking the ungiven.

At first, DI Maya Rahman can’t help but hope this is a tragic but isolated murder. Then, the second body is found. Faced with a community steeped in secrets and prejudice, Maya must untangle the cryptic messages left at the crime scenes to solve the deadly riddle behind the murders – before the killer takes another victim…

Having recently been a wee bit disillusioned with British crime thrillers and some of their failures in presenting a realistic picture of multicultural Britain, Turn A Blind Eye proved to be a refreshing new thriller from debut author Vicky Newham.

Rooting the book in the East End of London in a comprehensive school, Newham, drawing heavily on her own experience of teaching in this environment. From the outset, we bear witness to a singularly authentic depiction of the daily grind and small moments of achievement that teachers experience in this most challenging of educational environments. With such a disparate array of cultures, differing educational achievement, and the often difficult family backgrounds of the pupils, Newham balances perfectly the everyday experiences of the both the teachers and pupils, the good and the bad, the challenges and the rewards.  Giving nothing away, the series of murders that then begin to happen within the school, allows Newham to dig deeper into the teachers’ and pupils’ lives, and puts front and centre the question of the degree of  responsibility  teachers hold when their pupils school and family life begin to impact on each other, and to what extent their intervention can lead to harmful results. The suicide of a female pupil plays an integral role in the plot, and Newham never fails to treat this issue, and the reasons for it in both a sensitive, and balanced way. Equally, she applies this same degree of balance to the characters of the teachers involved, and their contrary responses, both sympathetic and less so, to the everyday troubles and pressures that the pupils experience, when cultural and familial conflict arise.

The multicultural tensions and difficulties of the schools and society are expanded in the book in the characters of DI Maya Rahman, and her partner DS Dan Maguire. Rahman is Bangladeshi, and Maguire is a resident of Australia where his Aborigine wife and children live. Rahman has recently lost her brother, having just returned from his funeral in Bangladesh, and the book is punctuated with a shifting of timelines showing the problems she has experienced in relation to her family, and the cultural demands that have so sadly resulted in her brother’s death. Although she is still in a state of grief, she is a determined and professional detective, unafraid to confront the stupidity of her superiors, and to ask uncomfortable questions to ascertain the truth. Maguire proves an interesting sidekick with the references to his life in Australia, and the challenges he and his family face, and the natural bonhomie and good humour that he injects in to his and Rahman’s working relationship. I liked the way that Newham portrays them both as inching their way to a comfortable working relationship, and the strength of this gradually grows as the book progresses, leading to a solid base for hopefully further investigations in the future.

As I have mentioned, their is a particular onus in the book on cultural and religious experience, and Newham deftly addresses the beliefs and tenets of Buddhism, Islam and so on. This undercurrent of religious and cultural tension is thought provoking and informative throughout, and the authorial voice is detectable but not overly obtrusive, as Newham seeks to balance her own first hand experience and knowledge within the boundaries of the story. As well as being entertained and engaged with the book as a crime thriller, I enjoyed this extra level of detail, which I found both informative, enlightening, and at times incredibly poignant too.

All in all, I found Turn A Blind Eye a well-plotted and compelling thriller throughout, and despite the fact that the reveal of the guilty party felt slightly disjointed in the depleted cast of characters in the overall narrative, I still felt that this was an assured and well written debut. Am looking forward to my next entanglement with Rahman and Maguire. Recommended.

(With thanks to HQ for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

Emma Viskic- Resurrection Bay

 

*With the joyous news that Resurrection Bay is now available in paperback in the UK, and as one of my Top 10 reads of 2017, thought a timely reminder of this excellent book might be in order. The follow up And Fire Came Down is due for release in late August too, if this one whets your appetite. Happy reading!* 

Caleb Zelic, profoundly deaf since early childhood, has always lived on the outside – watching, picking up tell-tale signs people hide in a smile, a cough, a kiss.

When a childhood friend is murdered, a sense of guilt and a determination to prove his own innocence sends Caleb on a hunt for the killer. But he can’t do it alone. Caleb and his troubled friend Frankie, an ex-cop, start with one clue: Scott, the last word the murder victim texted to Caleb. But Scott is always one step ahead.

This gripping, original and fast-paced crime thriller is set between a big city and a small coastal town, Resurrection Bay, where Caleb is forced to confront painful memories. Caleb is a memorable protagonist who refuses to let his deafness limit his opportunities or his participation in the investigation. But does his persistence border on stubbornness? And at what cost? As he delves deeper into the investigation Caleb uncovers unwelcome truths about his murdered friend – and himself.

As an ardent fan of Pushkin Press‘ publishing output, and their bijou Vertigo collection of European crime in translation, I was more than a little curious to read the latest addition to the series. But what’s this? Not European, but Australian, and the Raven’s curiosity went into overdrive…

Okay, so before I start generally gushing about Resurrection Bay, I will set my stall out early, and say that I would be very surprised if this one doesn’t feature prominently in my year end round-up. I thought it was accomplished, original and utterly riveting, so much so that I read it in pretty much one sitting, and indeed felt slightly bereft when I had finished it. I was totally immersed in the difficult and dangerous world of Caleb Zelic from the very beginning, and with its resonance of the sharp, snappy hard-boiled essence of American crime fiction, and the refreshingly original main protagonist of Zelic himself, there is much to enjoy here.

Having a profoundly deaf central protagonist, I imagine poses its own particular difficulties for an author, whilst keeping us focussed on the difficulties and subtle nuances of this disability, but by the same token not over-egging the narrative to reflect this. I think Viskic achieves this balance beautifully, as we come to appreciate the attendant difficulties of Zelic’s life coping with, and largely overcoming the problems associated with his deafness. This was a subtle and sensitive portrayal of this disability, emphasising his reliance on Auslan (sign language) and lip reading, and I particularly enjoyed the way that his perception of people was formed through their varying degrees of success of communicating with him through these methods. The problems that arise through other’s indistinct speech, or shouting at him like he was an idiot was nicely done, and also the mental stress he encounters through tiredness, or the malfunctioning of his aids. As an extension of this, Viskic focusses a great deal on the barriers of communication that exist, not only through Zelic’s deafness, but between other characters in different situations, and how this can lead to danger or emotional isolation. This adds a whole other level to the narrative, which although perfectly serviceable as a compelling thriller, is enriched further by these observations of human communication. Zelic is obviously at the forefront of the book, but there is equally strong characterisation of those around him, including his work partner, ex-detective Frankie Reynolds, and Zelic’s estranged wife Kat. Both women are strong, resilient and uniquely different, and it’s interesting how our perception of Zelic is affected by his particular relationship with each, and how each adds humour, danger or sheer emotional intensity to the plot. Kat provides another sense of depth to the tale with her Aboriginal roots, and the unquestioning acceptance, or blatant racism that her ancestry provokes is touched upon too, but again with a subtlety that doesn’t bash the reader around the head.

I thought the plot of Resurrection Bay was pacey and gripping, as Zelic sets out to investigate the murder of an old friend, and certain dark secrets come to light. There are sporadic bouts of violence and peril, cross and double-cross that keep the story moving nicely, punctuated by more tender and introspective scenes, with an exploration of addiction, love and loyalty. There’s also a good twist at the end, that this reader most definitely didn’t see coming, which is always satisfying, and to be honest I am on tenterhooks for the next instalment, And Fire Came Down. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARC)

Blog Tour- Roxanne Bouchard- We Were The Salt Of The Sea

  • As Montrealer Catherine Day sets foot in a remote fishing village and starts asking around about her birth mother, the body of a woman dredges up in a fisherman’s nets. Not just any woman, though: Marie Garant, an elusive, nomadic sailor and unbridled beauty who once tied many a man’s heart in knots. Detective Sergeant Joaquin Morales, newly drafted to the area from the suburbs of Montreal, barely has time to unpack his suitcase before he’s thrown into the deep end of the investigation. On Quebec’s outlying Gaspé Peninsula, the truth can be slippery, especially down on the fishermen’s wharves. Interviews drift into idle chit-chat, evidence floats off with the tide and the truth lingers in murky waters. It’s enough to make DS Morales reach straight for a large whisky…

As an avid reader of crime fiction in translation for its more lyrical and considered look at the human psyche , and highly atmospheric use of place, French Canadian thriller We Were The Salt Of The Sea, ticked many boxes for me. Roxanne Bouchard’s beautifully lyrical appreciation of the sea and its ever changing moods, provided a wonderful backdrop to this tale of human frailty, and the unstinting shadow of the past on this small coastal community.

There’s a wonderful quote in the book,  which to me summed up completely the psyche of the host of colourful and interesting characters that inhabit this book- “The people I met here were living in the past, in the nostalgia of a bygone era they had all conspired to revere as it had been. The only beauty in the present was the memory of yesterday, and nothing else would ever compare…” As the story is firmly rooted in past events, and how the character of Marie Garant has loomed so large in the lives of the residents, there is this unerring feeling of the past controlling and reverberating so strongly in the present. Of all the individuals that Catherine Day encounters in her quest to discover more about her birth mother, Garant seems to have played a significant role be it as a conduit for love, jealousy, violence and death. I liked the way that we never really achieved a complete picture of Garant, as everyone’s different opinions of her, and interactions with her are refracted like a prism through their differing accounts. That’s not to say that we don’t ultimately care about how she met her watery fate, and I rather enjoyed this sense of still not knowing her intimately by the end of the book. I felt there was an almost symbiosis with Garant and the sea, as she seemed to be a woman of mercurial and unpredictable behaviour leaving a trail of anger, regret and sorrow in her wake.

Although I wasn’t particularly enamoured with the character of Catherine, as I felt the author was maybe trying too hard to imbue her with the same qualities as the mother she had never met, I thought the surrounding cast were superb. I was strongly reminded of other French thrillers I have read set in coastal communities, and the balance that they achieve between the more quirky and serious protagonists was perfectly mirrored here. There’s the salty old sea dogs, the too talkative bartender, the shyster running the funeral parlour, jealous women, and into the mix the hapless detective Morales, with his Mexican roots, and embarrassing midlife crisis. As I said the balance between moments of heart wrenching emotion, and dark humour, embodied in Bouchard’s depiction of these people was consistently pleasing, and I felt very much like I was in a small boat on calm, and then stormy waters, as the mood of the book chopped and changed.

As a lover of the more naturalistic writing of authors such as Annie Proulx and Ron Rash, I loved the way that Bouchard showed such an incisive and lyrical edge to her writing in her depictions of the sea. Whether as a murder scene, as a source of making a living, as a route to a different life, or simply as the ever present force in these people’s existence, you feel its influence at every turn, and there are some truly beautiful descriptions permeating the book throughout. This sense of the poetic adds another level of enjoyment to the book, and through the translation of David Warriner, I was quite bewitched at times by the language and imagery the author employs. A very satisfying read, and recommended for those who like their crime fiction with a more literary edge.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

 

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

 

 

Blog Tour- Claire MacLeary- Burnout

My husband is trying to kill me : a new client gets straight to the point. This is a whole new ball game for Maggie Laird, who is trying to rebuild her late husband’s detective agency and clear his name. Her partner, Big Wilma, sees the case as a non-starter, but Maggie is drawn in. With her client’s life on the line, Maggie must get to the ugly truth that lies behind Aberdeen’s closed doors. But who knows what really goes on between husbands and wives? And will the agency’s reputation and Maggie and Wilma’s friendship remain intact?

Having been so heartily impressed by Claire MacLeary’s debut Cross Purpose, which introduced us to the fledgling private detectives, Maggie Laird and ‘Big’ Wilma Harcus, here we go with the second outing for this thoroughly likeable duo…

At a time where the subjugation of women in society be it professionally, emotionally, or sexually has been so in the spotlight through the #MeToo campaign, MacLeary adds a wise and all too pertinent voice to the arena. Along with the sheer affability and humour of her two female protagonists, the book carries with it a larger message on the hostile and demeaning behaviour that all too many women encounter within their domestic lives. I must admit that I did find some of the episodes within the book quite difficult to read at times, having experienced a familiar situation in my own life, which did stir up some uncomfortable memories. Having said that though, I applaud MacLeary for taking these issues, and treating them in such an even handed and sensitive manner, which will not only resonate with women like myself, but also alert others to recognise those gradually increasing indicators in a relationship of an escalating feeling of unnatural control. MacLeary very much focuses the book on a series of relationships, in their myriad forms, between husbands and wives, and Maggie’s self will to emerge from the disgrace of her dead husband and clear his name, and most crucially to the story, a recognition of the power of women to take back control for themselves. We see this in the relationships of Ros, a work colleague of Maggie’s whose marriage is taking a darker turn, the investigation into Sheena Struthers who believes her husband is plotting to kill her, and in the tension that grows in Wilma’s relationship with her partner Ian. I enjoyed the equivalence between these situations, and the way that MacLeary also wove into the plot the professional pressures that Maggie, and Detective Susan Strachan face, infiltrating the masculine bastion of the police force. The plot is incredibly character driven, and I think most female readers will recognise something of themselves in one of this contrasting band of women. As I commented on with Cross Purpose, MacLeary has a knack of balancing the insecurity and self questioning of her characters with moments of real strength or sheer bloody mindedness. Not all of her women are compliant victims, and those that would appear so, are given the space to break free. I admire this aspect of her writing very much.

Before you begin to think that this all sounds a bit serious, MacLeary breaks up the emotional tension at a beautiful pace, largely due to the character of Big Wilma. She’s blousy, brash, fearless and the comic interludes including her night out a strip show, and an unfortunate pratfall in the countryside, have a wonderful comic timing. I genuinely feared for the possible dissolution of her partnership with the ‘stuck up’ Maggie, but as much as they are chalk and cheese, the banter and interplay between them is absolutely integral to the enjoyment of the book. They are a formidable partnership, and there’s plenty of mileage in them yet I warrant, and I, for one, will await the next book with interest. Highly recommended.

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

There’s Always Someone Watching… Leo Benedictus-Consent / James Lasdun- The Fall Guy

 

This book is an experiment.
We’re experimenting together.

You are part of the experiment, if you’ll agree to it.

Normally I don’t let my subjects choose to be subjects. If you know you’re being watched, you cease to be you.

But I want you to read this. I wrote it for you.

This magnetic book pulls you in its wake even as you resist its force. Sometimes you don’t want to know what’s next…

Just to make my reviewing equally difficult, here is another book,  that in common with the book jacket itself, I am going to tell you hardly anything about in terms of plot. I saw the author being interviewed by James Naughtie recently, and my interest was piqued by what I was liberally describing as a creepy ass psychological thriller to my bookselling colleagues….

I thought this was absolutely superb and a truly dark and deliciously twisted thriller, entwining us in the psyche of a stalker, and providing a commentary on the repercussions of his actions on just one of his many chosen targets, Frances.  Benedictus is completely without fear in his representation of this despicable individual and the measures he takes to inveigle himself more and more deeply into Frances’ life, and the danger this poses to both her associates, both personal and professional, and to Frances herself. I was mesmerised by the supremely cool and dispassionate first person narrative of the stalker, whose actions seem perfectly reasonable to his own consciousness, but grow increasingly unsettling and worrisome to us, as we pre-empt the effect his actions will have on Frances. Likewise, the growing unease and persecution of Frances, slowly gathers pace, again feeding into, and adding to the chilling nervous tension that Benedictus perfectly builds. I enjoyed his depiction of Frances, as such a normal, hard working, ambitious, and unencumbered by personal vanity type of woman, as this sense of her being such an ‘everywoman’ resonates much more strongly with a female reader, and making her plight all the more tangible, and ramping up the effect on us as a reader.

I am always held in the thrall of writing that has a tangible physical effect on me as a reader, and Consent did this admirably, as I felt my heartbeat quicken on several occasions, and a slight roiling of the belly at one particularly graphic moment, that discomfited even this normally strong stomached reader. I didn’t, however, object to the use of violence in this particular context, unlike say the gratuitous violence of American Psycho (which I do have a wee soft spot for), as to my mind it actually worked extremely well within plot, and allows the book to remain on the right side of the needlessly voyeuristic.  It merely elevated the fear quotient a little more, and gave the narrative a swift injection of kapow, before carrying us along to that unexpected, supremely creepy denouement…shudders…

I thought the pacing, use of language and increasingly uncomfortable feeling that this book produced in me was cleverly done, perhaps reflected by my reading this in pretty much one sitting, and putting down the book with a palpable sense of satisfaction, despite that truly dark and unsettling ending.

As it says on the cover, Read Me….

Highly recommended.

(I bought this copy of Consent, published by Faber Books)

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It is summer, 2012. Charlie, a wealthy banker with an uneasy conscience, invites his troubled cousin Matthew to visit him and his wife in their idyllic mountaintop house. As the days grow hotter, the friendship between the three begins to reveal its fault lines, and with the arrival of a fourth character, the household finds itself suddenly in the grip of uncontrollable passions. Who is the real victim here? Who is the perpetrator? And who, ultimately, is the fall guy?

A new author for me, and a great introduction to his work, as The Fall Guy, resonates with a feel of Patricia Highsmith, and kept the Raven hooked in its clutches…

As is natural with an intense character driven psychological thriller of this kind, the synopsis above is all I am going to give you in terms of plot reveal. Like me, I would urge you to read this largely in a vacuum of unknowing, as the tension both in personal relationships, and the air of deceit and disloyalty, gradually builds and builds. With such a finite group of characters, I felt like I was almost observing a stage play, and for some reason I had an echo of Albee’s brilliant  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf tickling in the back of mind throughout. I thought the relationship between the three main characters and the dips, ecstasies and growing dislike and distrust were beautifully played out, against the backdrop of a sultry heat that seemed to add to the tension of the piece even more. There is an increasingly poisonous relationship building between married couple Charlie and Chloe and cousin Matthew, and be warned your sympathies will be toyed with, and your allegiances shifted along the way…

Lasdun shows his perfect control of pace, as slight reveals and little moments of trickery, lulling us into the feeling that we know exactly what’s going on, and how this will all play out. Wrong tiddly wrong wrong. I was sucker punched by the ending, and was just so, so pleased that it caught me completely off guard. Beautifully paced, a brilliant escalation of tension, and great characterisation. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Vintage for the ARC)

 

Blog Tour- David Young- A Darker State

The body of a teenage boy is found weighted down in a lake. Karin Müller, newly appointed Major of the People’s Police, is called to investigate. But her power will only stretch so far, when every move she makes is under the watchful eye of the Stasi.

Then, when the son of Müller’s team member goes missing, it quickly becomes clear that there is a terrifying conspiracy at the heart of this case, one that could fast lead Müller and her young family into real danger.

Can she navigate this complex political web and find the missing boy, before it’s too late?

Eyes down and here we go everybody for the next instalment of David Young’s gripping series set in 1970s East Germany, placing us at the heart of Cold War fear and suspicion. Following on from Stasi Child and Stasi Wolf  the book opens with a new home, a seemingly settled family life, and an unexpected promotion for Oberletnant Karin Müller, and yet a creeping feeling of unease as to just what the payback for these rewards will be…

Although I experienced a little dip in my perception of Müller in the previous book, she is back on fine form in this one, despite the pressure she comes under in both her personal and professional life. There’s a good balance between the doubt and self questioning she experiences as a new mother, and in her supposedly solid relationship with her partner Emil, set against her day to day trials and tribulations in a particularly knotty investigation, under the unwavering eye of the sinister Stasi. It is the latter element in her life that really brings her character to life, as she has to out-think and pre-empt the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, sabotage of her investigation, at times putting her in extreme physical danger, but never once denting her sense of morality and focus to get the job done. Reunited with her right hand man, and sometime lover, Werner Tilsner, Young is given the opportunity to not only show the solidity of their professional partnership, but to also insert some moments of lighter, teasing humour into the proceedings. Likewise, Müller’s interactions with slippery Stasi man Jager, whose presence adds another frisson to the investigation, also allows her to show us her steely determination, and her ability to use and manipulate him as much as he does her. Although he does have one particular revelation to foist on her at the close of the book that neither she, nor us, would entirely expect…

As we have come to expect from the two preceding books, Young does not stint on the historical, political and social detail attendant to this period of German history. Not only do we become fully conversant with the ramifications for the individual living in the grip of Communist rule, but also the differences in existence between two halves of the same nation. Interestingly, there are small freedoms that those in the supposedly more totalitarian east experience, and Young also contrasts the feelings of acceptance and pride that some hold, as a juxtaposition to those who feel trapped and surveilled at every turn. The book is absolutely brimming with research, applied in such a way as to not outweigh the natural flow of the plot, but enough to give the reader an inherent feeling of time and place. With a surprising, and unsettling, premise for the murders that occur, Young inveigles us in an underground world of sexual intolerance, and blackmail that is truly disturbing, and one cannot help but feel supremely sorry for the victims of these heinous crimes. I enjoyed the split narrative and timelines, and as the story segued between the two, Young once again showed his knack for pace and tension building. I remember reading somewhere that good authors always write the kind of books that they themselves would like to read , and with Young’s balance of fiction and fact, coupled with a genuinely compelling and exciting plot, I think in this case he has written as a reader and not just a churn-‘ em-out writer that the crime genre is sadly littered with.

Although there is a danger in coming into a series part way through. I think A Darker State actually works extremely well as a stand alone for those late to the party. With a nifty tie up with a certain event in the first book, there is ample opportunity to go back to the beginning before the next book appears. Definitely a series that I have enjoyed, and with an overview of all three books, this has been my favourite to date. Highly recommended and bring on book 4!

(With thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

Blog Tour- M. P. Wright- Restless Coffins

1969, Bristol. Bajan ex- cop and reluctant private detective, Joseph ‘JT’ Tremaine Ellington is still trading in cash and favours, lending a helping hand to those too scared to go to the police or anyone trying to stay one step ahead of them.
Life is tough for JT, who is broke. It is about to get a lot tougher when he receives a telegram informing him of a tragedy that has unfolded thousands of miles away. Ellington’s sister, Bernice has been murdered. Ellington wants to make the long journey back to his home on the island of Barbados to pay his final respects and to settle his late sister’s affairs. To do so, he must accept a ticket from his shady cousin, Vic, on condition he travels to New York first, where Vic is building himself a criminal empire in Harlem.
JT soon discovers that Vic is the American end of an operation that stretches back to Barbados, and that Vic’s business partner is Conrad Monroe, the man responsible for the death of JT’s wife and daughter. As JT finds himself embroiled in the world of drugs, bent law, voodoo and the bitter legacy of slavery, he must return to the island of his birth and face the demons of his past

Having quietly championed the first two books in the J. T. Elington trilogy , Heartman and All Through The Night , as both a blogger and a bookseller, it was with a sense of anticipation that I approached the reading of Restless Coffins.  As life conspires to kick Ellington in the teeth again, you know things are going to get a bit lively, but with the intervention of his wayward cousin Vic, it can only get downright dangerous…

Obviously, having been following the books already, the doom laden back story of JT is firmly established in my mind already, but fear not dear reader, the set up of Restless Coffins is quite accessible to the first time reader, if you randomly begin here. With the first two books being so firmly set in the UK, this book also strikes a broader appeal as the story travels from Bristol, to the gangs of Harlem, to the hoodoo voodoo of New Orleans and then propels us to the bloody denouement in JT’s native Barbados. By broadening the book in this way, it also enabled Wright to consolidate his position as, in my opinion, one of the finest purveyors of descriptive fiction in the thriller genre. His attention to detail, to atmosphere building, to location, to the very make up of whatever environment he places his characters into, is absolutely second to none. Every scene is loaded with precise and vivid detail, more commonly encountered in literary fiction, which enshrouds you completely, and transports you with absolute clarity to the environs of his character’s experiences. Every location, every means of transport, every person, everything JT sees and experiences, puts us there with him, entwining us even more intensely with the book.

Likewise, Wright’s characterisation is pitch perfect as usual, and the intensity he imbues in JT in particular, is absolutely compelling. JT’s emotional, complicated, self questioning inner life must be exhausting to convey to the page, and every scene that puts the spotlight solely on this character, is an emotional rollercoaster for JT as well as the reader. As well as the constant pull on his emotions through the loss of those closest to him, both by birth, by marriage, and by association, he undergoes an extreme amount of physical assault. Indeed, the fight scenes are so precisely written I have an image of the author throwing himself his writing room choreographing them to the nth degree of detail, and by extension in the aftermath of JT’s physical encounters, the reader, through the exact descriptions, can feel every cut, every bruise. As well as being a hugely sympathetic character, there is always a degree of questioning from him, at times struggling to keep his emotions and impulses in check, showing his very real human frailty, but steadfastly demonstrating his loyalty to those closest to him, and to the memory of those he has lost. A troubled and complicated man, but also one of great integrity.

And then there’s cousin Vic.

Glorious, dangerous, slippery, sharp-talking Vic. I adore him. You just know that Vic’s gonna turn up, shake up JT’s world a little more, and tweak the nose of death along the way, and that he does. Brilliant. With the new American cast of characters, and some unwelcome faces from JT’s past, there are a host of good, bad and in some cases, exceptionally ugly people to keep JT and Vic on their toes, and the reader thoroughly entertained, horrified, or enraged. There’s some real bad folks in this one.

With Wright’s finely honed ear for the lilting cadence and rhythm of the Caribbean and American dialects, the use of language and dialogue is never less than perfectly authentic, and you quickly assume the pace and rhythm of each interaction. The heat, the atmosphere, the pulsing of human life, the frailties and strengths of his characters, and the rush of blood in violence, assails your mind and senses throughout Restless Coffins, leading to a completely immersive reading experience. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Black and White Publishing for the ARC)

 

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Blog Tour- Tim Baker- City Without Stars

In Ciudad Real, Mexico, a deadly war between rival cartels is erupting, and hundreds of female sweat-shop workers are being murdered. As his police superiors start shutting down his investigation, Fuentes suspects most of his colleagues are on the payroll of narco kingpin, El Santo. Meanwhile, despairing union activist, Pilar, decides to take social justice into her own hands. But if she wants to stop the killings, she’s going to have to ignore all her instincts and accept the help of Fuentes. When the name of Mexico’s saintly orphan rescuer, Padre Márcio, keeps resurfacing, Pilar and Fuentes begin to realise how deep the cover-up goes.

Tim Baker burst onto the Raven’s radar a couple of years ago with the brilliant  Fever City – a skilful and mesmerising reimagining of the events surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. Having waited patiently, okay, somewhat impatiently- for his next book, City Without Stars plunges us into the nightmarish realities of life in Mexico, and presents the reader with a searing indictment of lives lived in the shadow of the cartels, corrupt law enforcement, unrelenting poverty, and female exploitation…

Harbouring a deep fascination with Mexico for many years, and citing The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow as quite possibly my favourite crime thriller ever, there was a palpable sense of excitement on embarking on this book. I will say quickly that I could not have been more satisfied with Baker’s exploration into, and intuitive depiction of life in the violent and corrupt surrounds of Ciudad Real. Punctuated by references to the well documented cases of scores of women disappearing, and being found brutally murdered, which by their inclusion crash into the reader’s consciousness throughout, City Without Stars is a claustrophobic and intensely compelling thriller.

The whole book is alive with the feel and atmosphere of the city itself, the heat, the noise, the grime and the sense of hopeless lives lived in the shadow of corrupt wealth and criminal activity. I really felt the harshness of the bleak desert terrain, the final resting place of the many female victims, and each time we encounter it there is an air of menace and threat that envelops you completely. Equally, the grinding poverty of the city, is prevalent throughout, particularly when Baker takes us in to the world of the maquiladoras – Mexican factories run by foreign companies, that export goods back to that company’s country of origin- and trains our attention completely on the exploitation of the women that they employ, with gruelling shift work, a pittance of pay and the malevolent shadow of violence and sexual abuse. Pilar is a mesmerising character, working as a union agitator, and seeking to spur these women on to challenge their feudal bosses, and to improve their working conditions. Baker not only captures her unrelenting crusade and her strength of character, but also hammers home to the reader the doubt and fear of those she tries to encourage to rise up and rebel. She is a real force of nature, and when she crosses paths with Fuentes, an isolated incorruptible cop, there is a wonderful frisson of suspicion and distrust between them that drives the book on. I think Baker captures the female voices of this book perfectly in this macho, patriarchal society, sensitively portraying the level of threat and violence they encounter, but also showing the strength of spirit they have to draw on to simply survive day to day. It’s beautifully handled, and gives rise to some of the most raw, emotional, and moving passages of the book- the writing is superb.

The whole book is underpinned with the stink of corruption, as Baker expands the plot throughout to encompass the deadly influence of the cartels, the rife corruption in the police force, and in this staunchly Catholic country, the seedy and immoral actions of the priesthood. These purveyors of misery, violence and greed, coil together like a roiling nest of snakes, impervious to punishment, and where life and death are treated with a dispassionate and cool contempt. The characters who inhabit these treacherous worlds are, to a man, brilliantly wrought, and you increasingly feel sickened, yet oddly intrigued, by the way they operate and prosper, feeding off the vulnerable and the addicted. The cartel boss, the priests, the police chief, and the factory owners all come under intense scrutiny, and you find yourself unable to look away from the depths of their depravity.

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. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

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