#BlogTour- Rod Reynolds- Blood Red City- @Rod_WR @OrendaBooks “Reynolds immerses us in a world where money talks, the media whitewashes, and a seemingly impenetrable cabal of powerful figures pull the strings.”

When crusading journalist Lydia Wright is sent a video of an apparent murder on a London train, she thinks she’s found the story to revive her career. But she can’t find a victim, much less the killers, and the only witness has disappeared. Wary she’s fallen for fake news, she begins to doubt her instincts – until a sinister call suggests that she’s not the only one interested in the crime. Michael Stringer deals in information – and doesn’t care which side of the law he finds himself on. But the murder on the train has left him exposed, and now he’ll stop at nothing to discover what Lydia knows. When their paths collide, Lydia finds the story leads through a nightmare world, where money, power and politics intersect, and information is the only thing more dangerous than a bullet…

Having enjoyed Rod Reynold’s previous series set in the United States, Blood Red City marks a change of direction for this author. Now firmly ensconced in the greedy and grimy streets of London, this book has shades of both State Of Play and McMafia, enlivened by Reynold’s unique and compelling writing style…

In writing a thriller with a storyline such as this, there is always a danger that a writer will drift too far down the Hollywood road, relying on coincidence and unbelievable twists to push the action on and provide that high octane pace that comes with the territory. What Reynolds gives us is a skilfully crafted and perfectly balanced thriller that feels incredibly rooted in reality without the bells and whistles that others rely on. From the opening scenes of an apparent murder on the London Underground, the drawing in of a tenacious and determined journalist, and the shadowy figure of a man for hire, what unfolds before us is a tale of duplicity, greed and corruption that sucks you in and spits you out at the end, drained, yet satisfied.

For my money, and having a read a few thrillers this year which circle the same kind of plot as this, I think this is the best of the recent bunch. The plotting is so finely controlled with just the right amount of change of gear in terms of pace, and reveal, that although it doesn’t stint on the page count, I found myself reading big, meaty sections of it in one sitting. Giving nothing away I’m sure most of us are extremely aware of the correlation behind the scenes of crime and politics, so what perturbed me the most was how believable this all felt, with the incredible influence of money and power at the root of the story, and at the very heart of the corruption that plays out before us. Reynolds immerses us in a world where money talks, the media whitewashes, and a seemingly impenetrable cabal of powerful figures pull the strings.

I loved the front and centre role that London occupies in this book where, whether you are familiar or unfamiliar with it, Reynolds neatly captures the most resonant features of the metropolis. The rush of stale air before a tube train arrives, the streets, the noise, the pace, the grinding poverty, the glittering, grasping riches, and the very essence of the city. By paying such attention to the location itself, and like his previous books, the author transfers us into his very visual and almost tactile rendition of the city, and as his characters live, work and are pursued through its streets in extreme danger, the city is the constant and completely perfect backdrop for the web of corruption and danger he places his characters within.

So into the pulsating heart of the living, breathing city and its shadowy, scheming powerbrokers, Reynolds gives us two main characters, diametrically opposed to each other, in almost every way possible, but with a growing sense that together they are stronger. Lydia Wright, dedicated journalist with a strong moral code, fiercely loyal to those she holds dear, but unafraid to go off in pursuit of a story with wrongs to be righted. Her character is underpinned by a  tendency to trust the wrong people, particularly one scurrilous individual whose card I had marked from early on, and a slightly too gung-ho attitude in the face of some considerable danger. I liked her very much, flaws and all, and I also admired the way that Reynolds didn’t manipulate her character to make her act unfeasibly out of character, keeping a sense of ordinariness about her, but not shying away from her sense of determination and loyalty, when the pressure is on. Which brings us to Michael Stringer, a man for hire, whose true intentions and character are more of a closed book for a fair amount of the book, perhaps because of his bad start in life, and by his current shady employment. Who is he and who is he working for, and as the more secretive aspects of Stringer’s character are gradually revealed, can Lydia really trust him?…

So, Blood Red City more than proves itself as a thriller with edgy tension, a powerful and well constructed plot, and a stark insight into a world of violence, greed and corruption within the echelons of power.

Intrigued? You will be.

Gripped? Definitely.

On the edge of your seat? Oh yes…

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(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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#Blog Tour- Eva Björg Ægisdóttir- The Creak On The Stairs @OrendaBooks

When a body of a woman is discovered at a lighthouse in the Icelandic town of Akranes, it soon becomes clear that she’s no stranger to the area. Chief Investigating Officer Elma, who has returned to Akranes following a failed relationship, and her colleagues Sævar and Hörður, commence an uneasy investigation, which uncovers a shocking secret in the dead woman’s past that continues to reverberate in the present day. But as Elma and her team make a series of discoveries, they bring to light a host of long-hidden crimes that shake the entire community. Sifting through the rubble of the townspeople’s shattered memories, they have to dodge increasingly serious threats, and find justice, before it’s too late…

It’s always good to discover another member of the Icelandic crime writing stable, and if you have previously enjoyed Ragnar Jonasson or Yrsa Siggurdottir, there is much to enthral you here. The Creak On The Stairs from Eva Björg Ægisdóttir is the first of a series introducing a new female detective, and displays all of the recognisable hallmarks of Icelandic crime fiction…

Usually when I review I tend to focus on one aspect of the book which totally hooked me, and in this case the overriding impression I was left with was that of location and atmosphere. After a short sojourn in Rekjavik, Elma returns to her hometown of Akranes, and we are instantly immersed in this dark, elemental setting, separated by a stretch of water from the capital city, and Ægisdóttir builds the character of the town and its surrounds with as much care and precision as the plot and characterisation too. The whole book is enveloped by an intense feeling of claustrophobia and foreboding, which is mirrored by the wild and tempestuous weather, and the changing moods of the sea. The descriptive elements of the book are extremely powerful, and really allow the reader to picture each individual setting, and to feel the mercurial changes wrought upon it. From the sinister old lighthouse to the roiling shoreline it rests upon, our feeling of darkness and foreboding is constantly manipulated and shaped by this aspect of the book.

Chief Investigating Officer Elma is at the heart of the book, and the gradual reveal of her reasons for returning to Akranes, reconnecting with her family and her developing relationship with her police colleagues are perhaps the most interesting aspects of her character. As the investigation she is bound up with is fairly linear, Ægisdóttir has more opportunity to establish this character, and her cohorts as a base to build further investigations on. Although I question the speedy intensity of one of her new relationships, which was a little cliched, there was a solid building of camaraderie and cooperation established with the team Elma is now part of. Aside from Elma, I felt that the author used her female characters effectively to address some powerful themes of control, subjugation and abuse, and one older character in particular seemed to embody the meek acceptance that builds into a simmering and then violent resentment was very well realised indeed.

Using a split timeline to recall the experiences of a young abused child Elisabet, with her experiences as an adult is an effective trope of the book. As we see how her character develops, and her increasingly physical outbursts, little wonder that these events as a child so fully shape her as a woman. The passages that recount her childhood are an emotive mix of malevolence and pathos, and in the closing chapters as the murderer is eventually unmasked, it becomes increasingly clear that a whole web of lies and deceit have also blighted her entire life. Although the plot had a sedate pace, Ægisdóttir does strive to hold the reader’s interest, and there were a couple of satisfying plot twists to change our perspective on some of the characters we encounter.

With its claustrophobic intensity and a measured but powerful depiction of female oppression, I think The Creak On The Stairs was a solid start to a series, with plenty of opportunity to grow and develop the central female police character. Another assured translation by Victoria Cribb, and a real sense of affiliation with, and appreciation of the location used, by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir herself, there is much to enjoy here. Recommended.

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(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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***Author Spotlight*** Anna Jaquiery

I thought the time was right to highlight one of the best French crime authors you may not have read, so very pleased to introduce you to Anna Jaquiery. I had the pleasure of reviewing her previous two books featuring Commandant Serge Morel, The Lying Down Room and Death In A Rainy Season (reviews below) and with the release of the third in the series Wasteland, wanted you all to experience this writer for yourselves.

Wasteland once again features Commandant Serge Morel of the brigade criminelle, a philosophical, sensitive and hugely empathetic detective, investigating two murders of young boys within Villeneuve a sprawling, deprived multi-cultural estate in Paris. “If you grew up in a place like Villeneuve, where you knew there was a pretty high chance you wouldn’t get a job when you left school, where it was hard to stay on a straight path and achieve anything, the only way to be heard was to get really pissed off, and loud, and break things. Otherwise, no one heard. No one was listening”  The racism and poverty that Morel uncovers in the course of his investigation underpins the whole story, and as Morel gets closer to the unmasking of a killer, we are totally absorbed into this melting pot environment.

Once again, Jaquiery writes with a stark clarity, that by its at times dispassionate air serves only to immerse the reader more. She focusses particularly on the younger sister, Aisha of one of the victims, Samir, and through her eyes and perception, far in advance of her teenage years, we see the hopelessness and disparity of life for those within Villeneuve. Aisha is both intelligent and street smart, suffering at the hands of schoolyard bullies, but who has a fierce affection for her late brother and a steely determination that his killer will not go unpunished. As Morel becomes more embroiled in the case, we see his natural empathy to and protectiveness of Aisha develop, that puts both himself and her in the crossfire. With police confrontation and gangs a normal facet of life on this estate the stage is set for a violent conclusion, and Morel and his team are right in the centre of the crossfire.

As the book progresses, we also see more of Morel’s difficult home life, and the growing stress that his father’s mental degeneration places on him, which Jaquiery handles in a clear-eyed and sensitive way. Morel remains philosophical in the face of this additional pressure in his life, and it is these passages relating to him and his father that are both poignant and emotional. I love the way that this author balances these slices of his home life so effectively with the particular stresses ands strains of Morel’s murder investigations, and these only serve to flesh out more what is already a very compelling character. From his interactions with his colleagues, to his natural empathy for the murder victims and their kin, Morel is genuinely one of my favourite police characters, and this series one of the best I have read. I love the sensitivity of Jaquiery’s writing and the way she injects a more philosophical edge to her books through the character of Morel himself.  I would definitely recommend that you seek out this series as soon as you are able. Think you may enjoy them…

Discover the Commandant Morel series: HERE

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The Lying Down Room introduces us to the charismatic and dedicated Chief Inspector Serge Morel. The story opens in Paris in the stifling August heat, and Morel is called to examine a disturbing crime scene. An elderly woman has been brutally murdered to the soundtrack of Faure’s Requiem, and her body grotesquely displayed. The reasons for this murder and the choice of victim baffle Morel and his team.

But our detective has problems of his own. His father, such an influence in his life, is descending into the grip of senility. If that weren’t enough for him, Morel is having an affair with a friend’s wife, but has become unsettled by the reappearance of his lost love, Mathilde. Like so many other fictional detectives, Morel has a quirky interest to relieve his angst and focus his mind. In his case it’s origami.

As the investigation continues, and further murders happen, his fingers fold faster and faster. He makes a connection between the victims and two individuals – a middle aged man and a young boy – who distribute religious pamphlets in the suburbs. Soon his inquiries take him back into the past, away from Paris into the French countryside, and eventually to the heart of Soviet Russia. A tragic story begins to unfold.

In terms of characterisation, The Lying Down Room contains all the key ingredients needed to herald the arrival of a new detective in the crime fiction genre. Morel is a very carefully constructed and wonderfully realised character. He combines natural charm and humour that immediately resonate. His interactions in both his professional and personal lives allow the many different facets of his character to shine – like the focused and dedicated police officer, and the man thwarted in love. There are some intensely moving scenes between him and his father. This relationship is filled with pathos, adding poignancy to Morel’s situation. Morel is a man of contradictions with his character being all the more emotionally interesting for it, and consequently the scene is set for further exploration of this detective.

The narrative is particularly impressive, with nice, clean delineation between the various strands that come into play within the plot. Not only is the central murder storyline well paced and realistic, but as Jaquiery expands the story to encompass the personal narratives of the perpetrators themselves, she weaves together various locations and timelines. What emerges is an incredibly human tale of lost opportunities and wicked twists of fate that can put an individual on the path towards murder. Cleverly, this aspect of the novel invokes natural sympathy in the reader as we bear witness to the incredibly sad events in our antagonists’ pasts, evinced in the stark portrayal of life in Soviet Russia, and the mental and physical wounds this produces. At times, Jaquiery handles the sheer emotional heartache of some of these scenes more in the vein of literary fiction rather than a genre crime novel.

There is little to fault in this debut, combining as it does a superbly plotted and emotive criminal investigation with the introduction of a police protagonist more than imbued with enough charm and interest to carry the weight of a series. Anna Jaquiery demonstrates all the natural flair and quirks of French crime fiction that fans of Vargas, Lemaitre, et al, will relish reading. More than proud to proclaim this as my debut of the year.

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Always a tense time to be reviewing a second book from an author whose debut you absolutely loved. Anna Jaquiery’s haunting debut The Lying Down Room was a joy to read and review, so much so that it was second in my Top Read of 2014, and is one of the books that I most consistently recommend in my day job as a bookseller, when people are looking for a new slice of Euro crime.

Death In The Rainy Season is the next book to feature Jaquiery’s charismatic and thoughtful French detective Commandant Serge Morel, and marks a change of location from France to the hot climes and unique atmosphere of Cambodia, where the modern socio-economic problems of this country are counterbalanced by its spiritual core. Morel is taking a well-earned sojourn after the vents of the previous book, a welcome break from caring for his father who has been diagnosed with Alzheimers, and a chance to further come to terms with a failed relationship. He finds himself unwillingly drawn into a local murder investigation, when the son of a prominent French minister is found murdered in a down-at-heel hotel room. The victim, Hugo Quercy, oversees a local NGO providing charitable support to street children, and is generally a well-regarded figure in the local community, and  respected by his colleagues. However, as Morel under pressure from his boss back home, joins forces with local Police Chief Chey Sarit, also enlisting the help of grumpy local medical examiner Sok Pran, it quickly becomes clear that Quercy is not quite the man everyone had perceived him to be, and that the conspiracy behind his murder reaches further than Morel and his cohorts could possibly imagine…

Perhaps my first point of reference for my enjoyment of this book should be an appreciation of Jaquiery’s style of writing. Throughout the novel the sense of serene simplicity that her narrative style evokes in the reader is beautifully evinced not only in her evocation of location, but also through the character of her police protagonist Morel. The multi-dimensional facets of the Cambodian setting are sublimely juxtaposed, as Jaquiery carefully balances not only the deep spiritual core of this intriguing country, with the social ramifications of political corruption and misguided economic policies on the Cambodian populace. Where some authors blatantly crowbar in the depth of their research at the expense of the needs of the plot to keep the reader’s interest, Jaquiery intertwines her social detail simply, adding to the richness of the strong central plot, and I learnt much from the quality of this research.

As Morel becomes immersed in the pulsating and bustling atmosphere of Phnom Penh after his initial calm retreat in Siem Reap with its ancient temples and traditional way of life, the sights and sounds of the city form a vital backdrop to his investigation. Likewise, the change of location impacts on Morel himself, as he wanders deeper into the underbelly of the city, and the pressure of the investigation and the demands of home, begin to unsettle his formerly peaceful equilibrium. He is a mesmerising character throughout and one cannot fail to find him empathetic, morally strong and entirely likeable. As he deals with the wife, friends, and colleagues of the victim, whilst slowly establishing a close working relationship with his Cambodian counterpart Sarit, the strength of his character always stands front and centre. Sarit too was instrumental in my enjoyment of the book, as his initial reticence and secrecy at the beginning of the investigation is slowly broken down by his interaction with Morel, and brings instead a sense of understanding and respect between the two men. We share in their frustrations as the investigation progresses, and I loved the slow reveal of the various dynamics of Quercy’s relationships with the possible suspects, and the gradual unfolding of Quercy’s true character as the man behind the myth.

I really cannot fault Death In The Rainy Season in any way, as it contains so many aspects of human interest, emotion, and intrigue along the way. Not only is it a intelligent and compelling tale of murder and corruption, but the quality of the writing and the evocation of its setting and characters make it a rich, multi-layered and totally rewarding piece of crime fiction. I am singularly impressed once again, as I was with The Lying Down Room, and have no hesitation in wholly recommending this one too.

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Vaseem Khan- Bad Day At The Vulture Club

The Parsees are among the oldest, most secretive and most influential communities in the city: respected, envied and sometimes feared. When prominent industrialist Cyrus Zorabian is murdered on holy ground, his body dumped inside a Tower of Silence – where the Parsee dead are consumed by vultures – the police dismiss it as a random killing. But his daughter is unconvinced. Chopra, uneasy at entering this world of power and privilege, is soon plagued by doubts about the case. But murder is murder. And in Mumbai, wealth and corruption go in hand in hand, inextricably linking the lives of both high and low…

In uncertain times, such as these, I think that the benefits of reading are immeasurable to aid an escape and distraction from global events. Looking for more of a comfort read, I turned to Vaseem Khan’s excellent Baby Ganesh Agency Investigation series of which I have read a few now, and this is the latest in the series.

As much as I love the colourful and whimsical covers on these books, I always worry that readers may avoid them, lumping them in with the more cosy elements of crime fiction. What Khan actually achieves is a skilful balance of the cosy, encapsulated by the home life of Inspector Chopra and his intuitive charge, Ganesha the baby elephant and sharply observed social commentary that really taps into the grinding poverty and political corruption of India as a whole, and Mumbai more specifically. As we are equally amused by some of Chopra’s associates and Ganesha’s uncanny ability to keep Chopra safe from harm, and some truly laugh out loud moments, the true character of Mumbai and its inhabitants is referenced throughout the book. In keeping with the best crime writers who specialise in urban crime, there is a feeling of affection on the author’s part for the city, in all its grime and glory, and a reticence to look away from the darker aspects of it too, giving him a great canvas to create these taxing cases for the indomitable and always focussed Chopra.

I like the way that Khan shines a light on the city both through Chopra’s cases and the social missions that his wife Poppy embarks upon, much to the chagrin of the wrongdoers and their neighbours respectively. In this way, Khan can cover many different issues in the course of one book, keeping the stories realistic and, most importantly, engaging, as we as readers discover so much about this uniquely vibrant, yet sharply contrasting city. I found the background to this particular case incredibly interesting, as I was not familiar at all with the finer details of the Parsee religion, its ceremonies, traditions and how modern practices are beginning to encroach on these traditional rites. I thought that this gave an incredibly solid grounding to the case Chopra becomes inveigled in, and again reflects the prowess of Khan’s writing, both here and in other books in the series, to utterly engage us in a particular aspect of Mumbai society, underscored by a no doubt fascinating research process, and to carefully balance this with a compelling crime plot.

Chopra is a beautifully drawn character, as a former police officer turned private investigator of some repute. He is an incredibly moral man, with a defined code of justice, that instils a trust and respect in him by those who know him best, and those that come to seek his help. He is always completely focussed on the victims he encounters, and no matter how trying or dangerous an investigation gets, he retains a dogged determination to expose the perpetrators and gain justice or clarity for the victims. As Chopra says himself, “For me, each and every case is a personal matter. It is the only way we can be sure to see things through.” This sense of dogged determination seems to carry over to his personal life too, as the logistics of caring for his unusual young charge, Ganesha, and the particular challenges that his tenacious and headstrong wife presents, keep Chopra well and truly on his toes. It can never be said that Chopra is not a practical and pragmatic man though, which stands him in good stead for all the challenges that his life presents. Khan’s characterisation in general is always spot on, with a wonderful supporting cast for Chopra himself, and an innate ability by the author to focus so perfectly on people’s visual characteristics, and quirks of appearance. He does this is in such a way that every character is vividly drawn in the reader’s mind, and compounded by the sharp and perfectly pitched dialogue adds another layer of enjoyment to these excellent books.

Love them! Highly recommended.

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(I bought this copy of Bad Day At The Vulture Club: Hodder Books)

Marion Brunet- Summer of Reckoning #BlogTour

A psychological thriller set in the Luberon, a French region that evokes holidays in magnificent pool-adorned villas. For those who live there year-round, it often means stifling poverty and boredom. Sixteen-year-old Céline and her sister Jo, fifteen, dream of escaping to somewhere far from their daily routine, far from their surly, alcoholic father and uncaring mother, both struggling to make ends meet. That summer Celine falls pregnant, devastating news that reopens deep family wounds. Those of the mother Severine whose adolescence was destroyed by her early pregnancy and subsequent marriage with Manuel. Those of the father Manuel, grandson of Spanish immigrants, who takes refuge in alcoholism to escape the open disdain of his in-laws. Faced with Celine’s refusal to name the father of her child, Manuel needs a guilty party and Saïd, a friend of the girls from an Arab family, fits Manuel’s bigoted racial stereotype. In the suffocating heat of summer he embarks on a drunken mission of revenge…

Now onto a slice of French psychological crime from author Marion Brunet, translated by Katherine Gregor set amidst the machinations of a very disturbed family. Brunet is probably better known for her prize winning YA novels, so this is her first adult novel and the first translated into English…

In no way, shape or form could this be described as a comfortable read if you are seeking some respite from the current global events, so prepare yourself for a story of unrelenting misery, peopled by a cast of unrelentingly miserable characters. Without exception, well maybe Celine as she is quite shallow and charmingly dense, this is a family fuelled by anger, suspicion and violence, where everyone is caught up in a self destructive cycle of familial despair. Their torturous interactions and stilted communication is an incredibly powerful central theme of the book, and apart from the daughters, Celine and Jo who have some semblance of a sisterly bond, despite their seemingly different characters, there’s not a whole lot of love and understanding permeating this family. Their father resents his father, his Spanish heritage and Said, the girls’ Arabic friend with violent consequences.Their mother seems to resent pretty much everyone too, including her husband and daughters, in this claustrophobic and oppressive atmosphere of home.  Little wonder that both teenage girls long for escape and adventure in their differing ways, but cruelly seem to find the opposite is true…

I did rather like the character of Jo, the younger daughter, who is sharp and quick witted, and although as physically attractive as her fatuous older sister. uses her intelligence and slightly teasing nature to expand her life out beyond the simmering pot of resentment she calls home, “Jo drinks the poison of a landscape that’s too familiar. Her nonchalance is just a façade; inside, there’s a clash between love and revulsion for these paths travelled thousands of times…Jo is looking for a way out”  She is heartily bored by her surroundings (although she does seem to have more of a connection to nature), her circle of schoolfriends, the company of her sister, and her irritating parents, and anticipates that as her sister’s due time approaches and she still refuses to name the father, things will get a whole more uncomfortable. As clever as she is though, she is still undone at times by her naivety and impetuosity, and at the close of the book, despite interludes of ‘freedom’ we all have call to question how far she has escaped at all from the domestic familiarity she seem to so resent.

Despite the relative slimness of the novel, there are some quite weighty themes addressed in this book, from internal and external racism, jealousy, unfaithfulness, sexuality, murder and domestic violence. As is so typical of French crime fiction, there is a maelstrom of heated emotion in some characters perfectly balanced with the brooding surliness of others, all within the familiar trope of loaded miscommunications, and petty jealousies escalating into more destructive events. I think if I had been reading this in happier times I would have probably being enveloped in this blanket of misery a bit more as I quite like a bit of angst and sadness in my crime reading, but overall it was a solid read with some interesting observations on family cohesion, loyalty and jealousy. Recommended.

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(With thanks to Bitter Lemon Press for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour, organised by Anne Cater at these excellent sites:

 

Trevor Wood- The Man On The Street

It started with a splash. Jimmy, a homeless veteran grappling with PTSD, did his best to pretend he hadn’t heard it – the sound of something heavy falling into the Tyne at the height of an argument between two men on the riverbank. Not his fight. Then he sees the headline: GIRL IN MISSING DAD PLEA. The girl, Carrie, reminds him of someone he lost, and this makes his mind up: it’s time to stop hiding from his past. But telling Carrie, what he heard – or thought he heard – turns out to be just the beginning of the story. The police don’t believe him, but Carrie is adamant that something awful has happened to her dad and Jimmy agrees to help her, putting himself at risk from enemies old and new. But Jimmy has one big advantage: when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose…

There is little that gladdens the heart more than encountering a debut novel that absolutely strikes a chord with you as a reader, but also promises that you have discovered an author that will probably remain a firm favourite for years to come. With The Man On The Street, Trevor Wood has achieved just that, with a crime novel that is both compelling and unerringly perceptive…

Up to this point I had only read crime novels that if a homeless person appeared in them, it was always as a periphery character, either as a witness to a crime or as a snout, an occasional source of information to the main investigator. What Wood does is put the character of Jimmy front and centre, a homeless man, deeply scarred emotionally and haunted by his military service in the Falklands, as his main protagonist. Rarely, have I read such a well-formed and utterly believable character, and felt such a deep-seated compassion and empathy as a result of this. Accompanied by his constant companion Dog, Jimmy drifts through the city with a cloak of invisibility, trying to keep anonymous and to not attract the attentions of those who derive pleasure from meting out violence on the homeless community. Estranged from his wife and daughter, Jimmy is obviously suffering from PTSD, tormented by nightmares, and with events from the war being triggered by sensory factors like sound or smell. As he unwittingly becomes involved in a murder investigation, Jimmy proves that the old adage that, “a true hero is not measured by the size of his strength, but the strength of his heart.”  Despite his tough past, Jimmy has a strong moral core, and when weighing up how far to get involved in events, and how this could impact on him, is drawn to doing the right thing, be it tracking a killer, or protecting those he has a personal alliance with. I also liked the way that Wood dialled down the intensity of Jimmy’s character in his interactions with a couple of his homeless pals, giving wonderful little chinks of humour and lightness to the book.

With the book being set in Newcastle Upon Tyne, this obviously struck a note with me personally having lived there for several years. There was a certain particular joy that as Jimmy circumnavigates the city, it evoked a fond remembrance in me of places I am very familiar with. However, thanks to the clarity of Wood’s description of each locale, Newcastle is vividly drawn, capturing the spirit and verve of this unique city, but also unashamedly depicting the more downtrodden and threatening aspects of it too. Psychogeography plays a real part in the book I noticed, where Jimmy’s mood and fight or flight instinct is very much influenced by the areas of the city he traverses, so there are definite spaces of calm or threat for him, and this worked incredibly well. I also found the scenes depicting Jimmy’s traumatic experience within the confines of a naval ship incredibly powerful and so vivid that you were absolutely rooted in the heat, the noise and panic in the midst of an attack. Consequently, the flashbacks that Jimmy experiences throughout the book take him, and by extension us, back to this scene of trauma in an intensely deep way, arousing empathy in the reader. On a smaller scale I grew up in a naval city during the Falklands and the sight of those damaged ships limping back to port and my school friends losing brothers or fathers in this conflict will never leave me either. This makes the emotional depiction of Jimmy’s trauma all the more affecting and poignant for me personally, and certainly for readers generally.

As I like to give nothing away about plots, guess what? I’m giving nothing away about the plot, but suffice to say as you sail along on a story that keeps you utterly gripped, there is an absolutely bobbydazzler of a reveal at the latter end of the book; unexpected, dark and beautifully done. Taking this in conjunction with the characterisation, location, and the wonderful fluidity of Wood’s writing, The Man On The Street is genuinely one of the most unusual and affecting books I have read for some time. A dead cert for my Top 10 of the Year, although it’s only April, and I will be champing at the bit so see what Wood writes next. No pressure…

Highly recommended.

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(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)

Amy Engel- The Familiar Dark #BlogTour

Eve Taggert’s life has been spent steadily climbing away from her roots. Her mother, a hard and cruel woman who dragged her up in a rundown trailer park, was not who she wanted to be to her own daughter, Junie. But 12-year old Junie is now dead. Found next to the body of her best friend in the park of their small, broken town. Eve has nothing left but who she used to be. Despite the corrupt police force that patrol her dirt-poor town deep in the Missouri Ozarks, Eve is going to find what happened to her daughter. Even if it means using her own mother’s cruel brand of strength to unearth secrets that don’t want to be discovered and face truths it might be better not to know…

I must admit I am rather partial to a journey into the redneck heartlands of America, so it was pretty much a dead cert that The Familiar Dark would be tailor made for this reader. Also every so often a book comes along with such an understated, but breathtakingly powerful, writing style that knocks your socks off, and yes folks, you guessed it, this box is firmly ticked too. Focussing on the character of Eve Taggert, a weary and careworn but devoted mother whose world is shattered by the seemingly unexplainable murder of her young daughter, Engel weaves a tale of simmering violence and deceit that absolutely grabs you by the throat, and at times heart and refuses to ease its grip. As the story unfolds I couldn’t help but think of the quote, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when at first we start to deceive” as Eve edges ever closer to the truth of this senseless crime, and shocking secrets come to the surface.

I absolutely adored the character of Eve, scarred by the physical and mental claustrophobia of a childhood with an abusive mother, and by a series of similarly abusive interactions with men, “here it was still the same old merry-go-round of drugs and poverty and women being chewed up and spit out by men,” in the small town of Barren Springs.  She exhibits a fortitude and strength that belies her previous state of victimhood, and like her hometown itself, whose residents have a “sheer, stubborn wilfulness that kept people breathing when it might have been easier to give up,” so she embarks on an increasingly dangerous, and emotionally testing path to uncover the truth behind her daughter’s murder. What I found incredibly affecting in the book was the way that Engels dissects the very nature of womanhood, and a woman’s part in this incredibly controlling patriarchal community. In one passage the author refers to the fact that women were expected to show weakness and conformity, but anger and any form of challenge to the accepted norms was not acceptable. Hence, as Eve, fuelled by anger and a sense of injustice, begins to routinely challenge the notions of how she should be behaving, and the posturing masculinity she encounters, and as a consequence our respect for, and empathy with her is heightened. Although she cannot evade the pernicious grip entirely of some of the male figures in her life, inch by inch she begins to garner the strength to chew them up and spit them out herself…

I found her relationship with her previously estranged mother, a real lynchpin of the book, as Eve had so effectively distanced herself from this less than stellar influence in her formative years. Where Eve has on the surface of it effectively turned her back on, and grown away from her poor and abusive roots, her mother has stayed rooted in a destructive and criminal life. What becomes increasingly interesting in the book is the enforced return of Eve to her mother’s influence, and what this means in terms of her relationship with her. There’s some surprises in store from our initial perception of this relationship, and none more so than closing chapters of the book. Eve’s relationships with others (aside from her work colleagues) are guarded and defensive, but like her increasing interactions with her mother, Eve, and the reader, make some interesting discoveries along the way. It’s so hard to review this without spoilers…

Engel has a laconic, lean and incredibly rhythmical cadence to her writing style, where the brevity of her prose works to increase every word and image used. Little wonder that I read this in pretty much one sitting, and really appreciated the book as not only a fully formed and compelling murder mystery, but also as the exposure of one woman’s harsh and emotionally isolated existence, outside of the fullness of love for her daughter. As we learn more about Eve, both good and bad, we care increasingly more about her, and her search for justice, however this is to be meted out.

Amy Engel is a new-to-me author, and if The Familiar Dark is anything to go by, one whose previous books are going to be investigated. From its heart-in-the-mouth and visceral opening, to its superb characterisation and beautiful writing style, this book is one that will stay with me for a long time, and I will most certainly read again. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Hodder Books for the ARC)

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Vanda Symon- Containment #BlogTour

Chaos reigns in the sleepy village of Aramoana on the New Zealand coast, when a series of shipping containers wash up on the beach and looting begins. Detective Constable Sam Shephard experiences the desperation of the scavengers first-hand, and ends up in an ambulance, nursing her wounds and puzzling over an assault that left her assailant for dead. What appears to be a clear-cut case of a cargo ship running aground soon takes a more sinister turn when a skull is found in the sand, and the body of a diver is pulled from the sea- a diver who didn’t die of drowning. As first officer at the scene, Sam is handed the case, much to the displeasure of her superiors, and she must put together an increasingly confusing series of clues to get to the bottom of a mystery that may still have more victims…

Right where are we off to now on another global crime adventure- New Zealand that’s where, and into the world of Detective Constable Sam Shephard, where a seemingly simple case of container looting, leads to a whole heap of trouble for this sassier than your average cop…

Containment marks the third outing for DC Sam Shepard (following Overkill and The Ringmaster) and it’s good to see our female cop has lost none of her gumption and slightly gung-ho attitude in the interim. From getting physically assaulted at the opening of the book, Shepard is once again steaming in to perilous situations, getting right up the nose of her superior officer, and having a fairly intense crisis of confidence in both her love life, and with some unwelcome news about one of her nearest and dearest. I think Shephard’s character is what really engages the reader throughout the series, as she is so utterly believable, whether giving as good as she gets with the ribaldry of her mostly male police colleagues, or just going above and beyond in her investigations. What she so evidently displays is that no investigation is black and white, and that a slightly less dogmatic and more considered approach is the most useful way to unlock people and what they may be concealing. She often sees ‘both sides of the coin’ in terms of those she interacts with, be they colleague, friend, victim or perpetrator and a touching affinity with the underdog. There’s a lovely quote in the book, where Sam says, “If I thought about it, I’d spent my entire life trying to save things…Sam Shepard champion to the underdog…Policing was the perfect profession for someone like me. You got paid to save people, fix problems.” I love the close up of her life that Symon seems to blanket us in, be it as a female detective, a friend, a lover, a concerned daughter, and at times just one of the boys, joshing on, and fearlessly (and sometimes thoughtlessly) putting herself into the same level of physical danger as her male colleagues. She is a wonderfully well-rounded character, with an endearing amount of flaws and Symon really connects her to the reader.

Symon’s writing has a real rhythm and fluidity , and carries the reader along on a sea of humour, action and waves of human emotion from the intensely confrontational to the deeply personal, but never at the expense of the natural unfolding of what is essentially a police procedural. The interludes of humour are perfectly placed to connect the reader more with the police protagonists, and to accentuate the fact that these are just ordinary people doing a relatively thankless job, and having their own worries and pressure points. There at petty rivalries but also some deep seated loyalties, and I do like the way that Symon’s plays with the notion of ‘honour amongst thieves’ in terms of the less law abiding characters. Although, I felt some aspects of the plot were a little weaker than the previous books, Symon’s aptitude for colourful, believable characterisation across the board, and sublime dialogue gives the reader a real momentum as the investigation unfolds. If you haven’t had the pleasure of checking this series out yet, I would definitely give it a whirl, as Symon’s writing and in particular her pithy wit is akin to such stalwarts of the genre as Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone and Janet Evanovich with a beautiful New Zealand twist. Recommended.

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(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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Riku Onda- The Aosawa Murders #BlogTour

On a stormy summer day the Aosawas, owners of a prominent local hospital, host a large birthday party. The occasion turns into tragedy when 17 people die from cyanide in their drinks. The only surviving links to what might have happened are a cryptic verse that could be the killer’s, and the physician’s bewitching blind daughter, Hisako, the only person spared injury. But the youth who emerges as the prime suspect commits suicide that October, effectively sealing his guilt while consigning his motives to mystery.

The police are convinced that Hisako had a role in the crime, as are many in the town, including the author of a bestselling book about the murders written a decade after the incident, who was herself a childhood friend of Hisako’ and witness to the discovery of the murders. The truth is revealed through a skilful juggling of testimony by different voices: family members, witnesses and neighbours, police investigators and of course the mesmerising Hisako herself…

Having a wee bit of a sojourn into Japanese crime fiction so couldn’t resist the premise of this one- a mass poisoning at a family gathering and a degree of doubt of the guilt of the man accused of the crime. What transpires is a clever, compelling and perfectly plotted tale that at times throws up many more questions than it answers…

Composed of a series of vignettes in an almost testimonial form, the book circles around a collection of people that had either had a direct connection to the crime, or some kind of personal connection to the victims, the accused or were merely onlookers to the strange events of the Aosawa murders. This had a mesmerising effect of either drawing the reader closely in to the actual event or holding us at an arm’s length as some of the narrators had a much less involved role in the central crime. As you reach the end of each little section, you find yourself having a sense of wonderful anticipation as to whether the next narrative will provide further clues as to the tragic events of that day and unmask the true killer. What then transpires is an intriguing game of hide and reveal as the author cunningly withholds, and then suddenly exposes, the personal narratives that inch us closer to a satisfying resolution. I loved the adoption of this particular structure which leads to a circular narrative instead of a more simplistic linear one, and looking back on the book now, even the most seemingly unimportant character testimony can withhold vital clues.

Alongside this intriguing narrative structure, the author also injects the book with some incredibly interesting ruminations on the role of truth and memory, be it in the dissection of a crime or in the more every day scenario of us constructing our personal histories, and what we perceive as truthful memories. Onda consistently makes the point that truth is always filtered through an individual’s perception of events, and what is ‘true’ to one person’s perception of an event, may not be reflective of another’s perception of the same event. This theory is mirrored throughout the book with the use of the polyphonic voices as each character recounts their perception of the Aosawa murders, whatever their personal distance from the crime. Consequently, the reader is engaged in a mystery where nobody’s account can be taken at face value, and sometimes looking back on the event, in the case of the now retired detective, can cast doubt on what was taken as truth at the time, and new avenues of investigation can open up. This idea of filtered truth also applies to our perception of the main protagonists as we see them reflected through the testimonies of others, altering our perception or leading us to have or own suspicions as to their role in the crime, or how they have implicated others.

With such a complexity in the characterisation and plotting, there is always a danger of the author losing focus on the more statutory elements of a story in terms of setting and atmosphere, which grounds the reader in the unique location and environment of the book. Not so with this one, as there is a fixed attention on the diurnal course of nature, and equally how an appreciation of the natural environment and seasonal changes provide both succour and inspiration for some of the key characters. I thought that some of the more extended naturalistic writing was beautiful in its delivery, and afforded some time for the reader to have the grip of dark deeds loosened from time to time. When taken in unison with the sophisticated plotting, and more existential musing on truth and memory, this endeared me to this book even more, as I am always intrigued to how the crime genre can be stretched and manipulated to broaden its horizons. A definite candidate for a favourite crime read of the year, and highly recommended.

(With thanks to Bitter Lemon Press for the ARC and to Anne Cater for organizing)

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#BlogTour- Jesper Stein- Die For Me

A depraved stalker. An unsolved murder. A cop who will stop at nothing to catch the killer. A brutal stalker is preying on women in Copenhagen. DI Axel Steen begins an obsessive manhunt that sends him spiralling out of control.  The investigation is fraught with heart-stopping near misses, dark mysteries, and a final revelation with devastating consequences. 

I was fortunate enough to take part in the blog tour marking the release of the first Axel Steen thriller Unrest which proved an exhilarating and thought provoking series opener. In common with the first book, Jesper Stein has no reticence into plunging his reader into a nightmarish scenario, with a particularly vicious and sadistic individual stalking the streets of Copenhagen…

On the basis of the first two books, it comes as no surprise that they have been optioned for television by the producers of The Bridge, and if they find the right actor to bring the right level of tortured maverick detective, well, it will be an absolute must see! What Stein achieves so beautifully is manipulating the old cliché of crime fiction, that of the maverick cop with mental and physical weaknesses, estranged from personal relationships, lives for the job and so on, by making his protagonist Axel Steen utterly mesmerising. He’s strong-willed and tenacious, somewhat foolhardy at times with his physical wellbeing, both by his own actions and by putting himself in the path of danger without a moment’s hesitation, but what I really like about his character is the absolute certainty and steadfastness he brings to every action he takes in his professional life.  His doggedness of purpose and the absolute empathy he has with both the murder victim, and the women who have been subjected to the most violent and degrading attacks, sets him apart admirably from his colleagues, and more importantly instils a faith in the women that their attacker will be caught and punished. To balance it out nicely, his personal life is not so clear-cut and leads to times of procrastination, doubt, and complete tactlessness but hey, he’s only human, but there is also an insidious presence in his day job who would probably tick off even the most mild mannered individual, to add to his troubles. Steen carries within him a mercurial mix of hot-headedness, empathy, compulsiveness, and sheer bloody-mindedness that makes him unpredictable, but also fascinating. A complicated man to be sure, but a great character…

Dealing with such an emotive and troubling subject as violence against women and rape, I think there is a danger of readers becoming desensitised slightly to the effect of these crimes, and the fear, shame and anger that women live with afterwards. I found this central theme in the book was handled in a particularly sensitive and balanced way, that whilst not shying away from the more visceral physical details of what these women have been subjected to, there is a real sense of understanding throughout of how this impacts on both their lives, and physical and mental wellbeing post-trauma. It felt to me that Stein had either researched this extremely thoroughly, but more evidently had spoken to women who had experienced this extreme violence, and what it had meant to live with the memory and affect of this crime. I may be wrong, but the book felt that it had a deeper connection to, and empathy with, victims of violence, rather than some of the more lazy depictions I have read. Equally, Stein succeeds admirably in steering clear of the mawkish, having a cool and clearheaded approach to the specifics of the crimes, a sense of sympathy to the victims, but wholly adhering to the natural aspect of the Scandinavian crime fiction tradition, where character and plot are so completely bound up with one another.

As well as focussing on the emotional and physical effects of the crimes perpetrated, there was also a dizzying amount of detail regarding the forensic investigation, written in a very natural and engaging way, and not just clumsily shoehorned into the narrative. Admittedly, those of us who practically inhale crime fiction would be aware of some aspects of forensic detection, but I learnt some really interesting stuff along the way, in terms of forensic investigation, reading a crime scene, and the intrinsic correlation of science with intuitive investigation in approaching cold cases. In conjunction with the extremely unpredictable Axel Steen and  the slow burning tension of a complex and twisting investigation, I thought this was a great follow-up in the series. With the usual precision and sheer readability of a translation by Charlotte Barslund, Die For Me is to be recommended. Excellent.

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(With thanks to Mirror Books for the ARC)

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