A Reading Round Up- Clare Carson- The Canary Keeper/ Rob Hart- The Warehouse/ Laura Sims- Looker/ Neil Broadfoot- No Man’s Land/ Becky Chambers- To Be Taught, If Fortunate

Time for another quick round up as the ‘I’ve read these’ mountain continues to grow, but time for reviewing decreases for a little while. Although not going the whole hog with a reviewing spreadsheet, (the pinnacle of blogging time management), plans are afoot for some better time organisation, so hopefully will be up to full speed soon as I’ve read a host of excellent books of late. Anyway, let’s get to it and hope you enjoy this eclectic mix of recent reads…

Clare Carson- The Canary Keeper: London, 1855. In the grey mist of the early morning a body is dumped on the shore of the Thames by a boatman in a metal canoe. The city is soon alive with talk of the foreign killer and his striking accomplice: a young woman dressed in widow’s weeds. Branna ‘Birdie’ Quinn’s sleeplessness led her to the river that morning, but was it only thoughts of her drowned husband that kept her awake? She has always been wilful, haughty, different… but is she a murderess? To clear her name, Birdie must retrace the dead man’s footsteps to Orkney and the far north. A dangerous journey for a woman alone, but one she must make in order to save her neck from the hangman’s noose…

A definite change of direction and style from one of my favourite authors, and despite not being a massive reader of historical crime fiction, I enjoyed this book very much indeed. The story traverses between 19th century London and Orkney, and opening with the discovery of a dead man on the fetid shore of the River Thames, Carson immediately places us firmly in the feel and atmosphere of this burgeoning city.

As with her previous series, Carson once again demonstrates her intuitive and precise approach to scene setting, and as we journey with Birdie to the remote reaches of Scotland, as she flees a trumped up murder charge, Carson cleverly draws comparisons between the claustrophobic intensity of le in a teeming city, and that of a small coastal community. Carson also expands the story significantly to draw on the story of the ill-fated journey of William Franklin to Canada and beyond, and having recently read Michael Palin’s book Erebus, about Franklin and his exploration, it was really satisfying to have an overlap in the realms of fiction and fact, demonstrating again Carson’s attention to detail and her skilful interweaving of the plain facts into incredibly readable fiction.  Aside from the historical accuracy and sense of time and place, Carson creates in Birdie a truly empathetic and brave protagonist. From the familiar surroundings of her life in London, this determined and feisty girl embarks on a journey of discovery, not only to a completely alien community, but on her own mission to unmask a murderer and clear her name. Again, Carson adroitly mixes a commentary on the patriarchal nature of the time and how women’s lives are defined and shaped by their correlation to such an ardently male society, but cleverly pushes a subtext of how women can escape from, or manipulate this overarching definition of 19th century society. Indeed, the female characters within the book all demonstrate this inner will to defy and challenge the patriarchal norm, and exhibit a strength of character that is to be admired, despite the perilous situation that Birdie amongst others find themselves in.

There is always a slight flicker of tension, but also anticipation when an author you admire decides to travel a different path with their writing. However, my fears were quickly assuaged and Carson has only succeeded further in endearing myself to her writing, her superlative plotting, characterisation, and her innate ability to thoroughly immerse her reader in the world she presents. Highly recommended.

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Rob Hart- The Warehouse: Amidst the wreckage of America, Cloud reigns supreme. Cloud brands itself not just as an online storefront, but as a global saviour. Yet, beneath the sunny exterior, lurks something far more sinister. Paxton never thought he’d be working Security for the company that ruined his life, much less that he’d be moving into one of their sprawling live-work facilities. But compared to what’s left outside, perhaps Cloud isn’t so bad. Better still, through his work he meets Zinnia, who fills him with hope for their shared future. Except that Zinnia is not what she seems. And Paxton, with his all-access security credentials, might just be her meal ticket. As Paxton and Zinnia’s agendas place them on a collision course, they’re about to learn just how far the Cloud will go to make the world a better place. To beat the system, you have to be inside it…

As a person employed in the increasingly fragile bricks and mortar bookselling trade, I have my own axe to grind about the almost world domination of a certain online retailer. Consequently, I felt honour bound to read this fictional critique of the world of globally powerful organisations that control, monitor and manipulate our shopping habits. I absolutely loved this clever and inventive thriller set in the world of Cloud, that bears more than a passing resemblance to the all powerful corporations currently strangling free enterprise, and consumer choice across the globe. Within the Cloud all workers are monitored, corralled and totally controlled, so although they have the dubious honour of a job where millions don’t, Hart constructs an interesting analysis of this grand manipulation of the workforce, and how easily these people can find their services dispensed with. Indeed, this world that Hart has constructed is scary in the extreme, as elements of it already exist in certain workplaces, and to be honest some of the other indignities that the workers suffer are all too easy to imagine coming to pass as the years progress. As each layer of scurrilous corporate behaviour is revealed, Hart has produced not only a tense, nerve shredding thriller, but a damning indictment on the world of big business, that will strike a chord with most people I’m sure who care about the evils of certain areas of global capitalism.

However, before you begin to think that this is all a bit preachy and big business bad, free enterprise good, Hart has actually produced a damn fine, unsettling and nerve shredding thriller, that will appeal to most readers of dystopian fiction. This is Nineteen Eighty-Four for contemporary times, whilst not losing the thrust of the thriller form, with action, suspense and pace beautifully controlled throughout. Both Paxton and Zinnia are compelling characters, and I really liked the way that Hart builds their relationship and depicts their sharply contrasting experience of life within the Cloud. Zinnia’s militancy is superb from the get go and she is a total firebrand, set against Paxton’s slowly growing awareness of the suppression of the corporation, and the ethical dilemmas he proceeds to do battle with.  This is certainly one of the most tightly plotted and clever dystopian thrillers that I have read for some time, and a grim reflection on the all too recognisable power of the virtual retailing world. Highly recommended.

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Laura Sims- Looker: The Professor lives in Brooklyn; her partner Nathan left her when she couldn’t have a baby. All she has now is her dead-end teaching job, her ramshackle apartment, and Nathan’s old moggy, Cat. Who she doesn’t even like. The Actress lives a few doors down. She’s famous and beautiful, with auburn hair, perfect skin, a lovely smile. She’s got children – a baby, even. And a husband who seems to adore her. She leaves her windows open, even at night. There’s no harm, the Professor thinks, in looking in through the illuminated glass at that shiny, happy family, fantasizing about them, drawing ever closer to the actress herself. Or is there?

A slim but ultimately satisfying read, very much in the territory of Notes On A Scandal, but with a nod to the familiar creeping unease of writer like Patricia Highsmith. This is  an intense and claustrophobic read, depicting the maelstrom of envy and covetousness that one woman exhibits, as she studies the seeming perfect life and family of ‘The Actress’ who lives in her street. As the intensity of her scrutiny and jealousy increases, Sims ramps up the transition of  The Professor from her initially emotionally wounded and depressed state into something increasingly akin to a Hitchcock thriller, as she slowly makes inroads into ingratiating herself into The Actress’ life. I read this pretty much in one sitting, and would suggest that this is the perfect way to approach this book to really get the full experience of the increasingly creed unsettling tale that Sims unfolds. Although I found the ending a little disconcerting, for the most part I enjoyed the book, and how Sims carefully manipulates our empathy and relationship with this woman on her descent to irrational behaviour, and how emotional trauma can take an individual on a strange and troubling path in their lives. Recommended.

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Neil Broadfoot- No Man’s Land: War is coming to No-Man’s Land, and Connor Fraser will be ready. A mutilated body is found dumped at Cowane’s Hospital in the heart of historic Stirling. For DCI Malcolm Ford it’s like nothing he’s every seen before, the savagery of the crime making him want to catch the murderer before he strikes again. For reporter Donna Blake it’s a shot at the big time, a chance to get her career back on track and prove all the doubters wrong. But for close protection specialist Connor Fraser it’s merely a grisly distraction from the day job. But then a bloodied and broken corpse is found, this time in the shadow of the Wallace Monument – and with it, a message. One Connor has received before, during his time as a police officer in Belfast. With Ford facing mounting political and public pressure to make an arrest and quell fears the murders are somehow connected to heightened post-Brexit tensions, Connor is drawn into a race against time to stop another murder. But to do so, he must question old loyalties, confront his past and unravel a mystery that some would sacrifice anything – and anyone – to protect.

Neil Broadfoot is a consistently excellent crime writer and I have read many of his books, so all the signs were there that this would be a cracking good read- and so it proved to be. What I like about Broadfoot’s books is the less linear and more complex plotting that he employs, tackling big themes but never losing sight of the fact that his characters caught up in these webs of deceit need to be credible. In Connor Fraser, ex police officer and now security specialist, Broadfoot has has come up trumps, marrying the image of the tough guy with a more cerebral edge, similar to genre stalwart Jack Reacher. Fraser is a character that will appeal equally to men and women, and supported by another great character in the shape of female journalist Donna Blake, who proves an excellent foil for him but also being a likeable and determined protagonist in her own right. Broadfoot slowly fleshes out both his principal characters, putting them through the wringer, but not afraid to balance their more dangerous experiences with some good character analysis, particularly Blake balancing her compulsion for career advancement with the attendant difficulties of being a single mother. As the story segues between Fraser’s former experiences in Northern Ireland, and a series of pretty visceral and inventive murder around Stirling, Scotland. Broadfoot keeps the action flowing, as a dark conspiracy comes to light, affording Broadfoot the opportunity to put a more socio- political slant on the main plot, which resonates with the troubled times we currently find ourselves in. Very pleased to report that the first of this new series augurs well for further books, and there will be much to enjoy from Broadfoot in the future. Highly recommended for thriller lovers everywhere- it’s a damn good twisty one…

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81KAJMvXg5L__AC_UY218_ML3_Becky Chambers- To Be Taught, If Fortunate: At the turn of the twenty-second century, scientists make a breakthrough in human spaceflight. Through a revolutionary method known as somaforming, astronauts can survive in hostile environments off Earth using synthetic biological supplementations. They can produce antifreeze in sub-zero temperatures, absorb radiation and convert it for food, and conveniently adjust to the pull of different gravitational forces. With the fragility of the body no longer a limiting factor, human beings are at last able to explore neighbouring exoplanets long suspected to harbour life. Ariadne is one such explorer. On a mission to ecologically survey four habitable worlds fifteen light-years from Earth, she and her fellow crewmates sleep while in transit,  and wake each time with different features. But as they shift through both form and time, life back on Earth has also changed. Faced with the possibility of returning to a planet that has forgotten those who have left, Ariadne begins to chronicle the wonders and dangers of her journey, in the hope that someone back home might still be listening.

Well, here is a major revelation for everyone, but I have hardly ever read science fiction, and over the years I cannot recall ever finishing a book that I have idly picked up in this genre. I’ve always found this strange as I do have an abiding fascination with space and enjoy movies in this genre. Finding myself, book-less one lunchtime at work and drawn by the cover, I picked up a proof of this one. Between lunchtime and finishing the commute home, I had fair whipped through it, and was really pleasantly surprised to find that I thoroughly enjoyed my first foray back into this genre for some time. I obviously didn’t know a huge amount about Chambers started but was delighted to find out that her writing is informed by her own family’s involvement in the world of space, giving a glorious reality to the experiences of Chambers’ characters, and although speculative, sowing the seeds of possibility for generations to come. I loved this microcosm of humanity, with just four principal characters, and how they co-exist in such a compressed space, millions of miles and years away from home, and how we are given such an insight into their relationship with each other. I also liked the passion that each character exhibits for their own particular specialism be it geology or meteorology for example, and went into complete geek mode for the more intricate science that Chambers balances with her examination of these peoples’ lives, hopes, fears and thirst for discovery. Needless to say, I shall be seeking out other books by this author, and would like to extend a personal thank you for awakening a new interest in me for this genre- fortunately, I have been taught… Highly recommended.

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(Thanks to Head of Zeus for a copy of Clare Carson- The Canary Keeper, Bantam Press for  Rob Hart-The Warehouse, and Hodder for Becky Chambers- To Be Taught, If Fortunate. I bought Laura Sims- Looker and Neil Broadfoot- No Man’s Land)

 

 

 

Raven’s Yearly Round-Up and Top 5 Crime Reads 2016

 

largeWell, what a perfectly horrible year we’ve all had. War, poverty, death, and selfishness on a dizzying scale has defined 2016. We’ve had political meltdown, and our country is now floundering due to the 52% of the British people who really should not have been allowed anywhere near the Brexit vote, by reason of their gross stupidity. (Don’t even get me started on Theresa ‘we know you’re struggling but we don’t give a toss’ May). Then, to cap it all,  the weirdness of the U.S. voting system allowing the ascendancy of one of the most xenophobic and misogynistic individuals to the most powerful position imaginable and I refuse to even utter his name.  Also, I know I am not alone in having personal strife this year too. Yes. It’s all been a bit crap.

book-love-books-to-read-23017145-619-463But, gather round bookish friends and let’s take a moment to rejoice in the good stuff- ‘the books, the books’, I hear you cry. It’s been a superb year for crime fiction this year, and I have discovered some absolute gems along the way. So here’s how Raven’s reading year panned out…

(click on the book jackets for reviews)

 

DEBUT-TASTIC!

With 90+ books reviewed and over 150 read during the year, 2016 has been a bumper year for some damn, fine fiction. (Still 40+ non-starters but we’ll move swiftly on).  I was particularly struck by the quality of the debut authors I have encountered this year. A couple will be featuring in my Top 5, so aside from them, special mentions, and a round of applause to the following…

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THAT DIFFICULT SECOND BOOK…

Also wanted to highlight those authors that blew me away in 2015 with their debuts, and who have now produced second books, the equal of, or even better than their first foray into the world of crime fiction…

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6c217d7a427ef735dcbf85b02b5c40a4AND STILL IT GOES ON….

In last year’s round-up I wrote this… It seems that only by dwelling at the outer reaches of the Arctic Circle could you escape the hype surrounding The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins. And yet the Raven was unmoved by the sheer intensity of the praise heaped upon this book on its release, and the ensuing avalanche of ‘domestic noir’ thrillers that it helped spawn. There again I didn’t like Gone Girl either. I am the domestic noir Grinch. Enough already.” Unfortunately, I still failed to heed my own advice, and have either abandoned at the 40 page mark, or trawled all the way through on pain of death, a substantial number more of these over the last 12 months.

Resolution for 2017? Quoth the Raven. Nevermore.

Not a single dopey domestic noir thriller will grace my blog in the next year.

WORDS FAILED ME…BUT IN A GOOD WAY…

492ec49_6e4d53e237f2437cb87cd049f0b4cfaaAlthough I am not the most prolific of bloggers, and tend to give breathing/thinking space between finishing books and writing a review, there are some books that with fingers poised over keyboard that prove excessively difficult to review, because they are so damn weird/clever/thought provoking/intense (delete as applicable). Courtesy of Orenda Books, two such books have crossed my path this year, and never has it taken me so long to try and write reviews that reflect the sheer cleverness and thought provoking intensity of these two. Mr Yusuf Toropov, Mr Michael Grothaus, I salute you…

fb929b12453a2ce028c765b5197b1a04THE TBR PILE…

Yes, the behemoth of the TBR mountain looms large on my conscience, but to be honest, there are worse problems to have, and no, I am not going to count the number of books vying for my attention. Have started making a dent with my commute to work, which has afforded me the opportunity to finally get round to reading some excellent authors who had slipped the net, for example Eva Dolan, Neil Broadfoot and Helen Cadbury, and some quirky crime in translation too. I’ll keep chipping away…for at least the next ten years…or more…

And so to the winners, no prizes, but big thanks for your sparkling and enthralling books. Not all of these achieved Book of The Month status but have remained resolutely in the Raven’s mind all year…

Raven’s Top 5 (ish) Books of the Year

5.

A RISING MAN

“Not only is the writing whip smart and intuitive with a clever and engaging plot, but the depth of the historical research to so vividly portray the teeming life of this beautiful, yet socially and racially torn, outpost of the former British Empire, sings from every page.”

4.

aa

“A genuinely terrific thriller; clever, well-researched and beautifully executed, as the action ebbed and flowed, keeping me on tenterhooks throught. There’s scheming, corruption, violence, and a strong sense of the personal cost that power, political envy and money can bring in its wake.”

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“This is an intelligent, thoughtful and emotionally compelling read, peopled by a sublime cast of characters and a balanced and realistic portrayal of weighty issues, firmly located in the fascinating and tumultuous period of post war America. Cut through with moments of raw emotion, thought-provoking social observation, and never less than totally engrossing, Darktown is something really quite special indeed.”

tall-oaks

“There are moments of genuine tension carefully interspersed with warmth and humour, as this band of misfits, for various reasons, go about their daily lives, with the overriding urge to make personal and emotional connections with friends, lovers and relatives. It’s wonderfully plotted, and I enjoyed every minute of it.”

What do you mean, that’s cheating?

They are all set in America.

(My excuse and I’m sticking to it)

3. 

bird

“It’s dark, psychologically tense and packed full of emotion both overt or deliberately disguised, with the reader invited to fill the spaces between.”

2.

dod“The writing is flawless throughout with Beverly being as comfortable with the rat-a-tat rhythm of the young teenagers’ dialogue, and conveying the brutality of their world, to describing elements of the landscape they travel through with the lyricism of some of the best naturalistic American writers.”

1.

blood

“As a crime reader, precise plotting, the control of suspense, and believable characterisation lay at the core of my reading pleasure, and Lemaitre achieves this beautifully throughout. The plot twists are in no way reliant on the suspension of disbelief, or clumsily wrought, leading to a genuinely intriguing, and utterly enthralling, example of psychological suspense.”

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All the best for 2017 everyone

and just remember…

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Travels With The TBR #3- Neil Broadfoot-Falling Fast, Paddy Magrane-Denial, Stefan Ahnhem- Victim Without A Face

In the thick of the Christmas rush, as a retail drone currently battling with the lurgy too, time for reviewing has been a bit limited this month. Here’s the last little flurry of books that have made it to the top of the TBR mountain, before my end of year round-up,  and hopefully this little feature will continue next year *eyeing the Eiger sized pile of books yet to be read*….

9781908643537Story-hungry journalist Doug McGregor is out to track down a convicted rapist, on the run after being hounded out of his home by a lynch mob. But a grisly suicide in the heart of tourist Edinburgh piques Doug’s curiosity and diverts his attention – especially once his police contact and occasional drinking partner, DS Susie Drummond, reveals that the victim is connected to a high-profile and controversial politician. Together, they find themselves unravelling a story of secrets, drug abuse, violence, murder…and the ultimate taboo.

Having been meaning to catch up with this author, having seen him at CrimeFest this year and instantly purchasing the first two of this series. It was a wise decision, as I have now discovered a great author to add to my Scottish favourites! I was instantly drawn to the two main protagonists, Doug McGregor- dogged reporter, and his police contact DS Susie Drummond, and the relationship that exists between them. I loved the underlying feeling of them both being slightly square pegs in round holes, with McGregor’s incredible self reliance which tends to alienate others, and Drummond’s former misguided fling with a senior officer which has marked her out as an outsider to her police colleagues. However, although their professional relationship alternates beautifully between frustration and spikiness, there is a mutual respect underpinning everything, leading to some intense scenes that alternate between danger, humour and high emotion, thanks to their razor sharp characterisation.

I thought the plot was superb, and am always gratified by the exposure of political corruption, and this book takes some incredibly dark turns as the truth behind a young woman’s death at the outset of the book comes to light. Broadfoot captures perfectly the nature of family bonds with their sometimes misguided loyalty, and explores the issue of parental responsibility in both its good and worst forms. Equally, the author uses both the location of Edinburgh, and his own background as a journalist, to add further layers of realism to what is altogether a completely absorbing thriller. Highly recommended.


A riot breaks out at Creech Hill Immigration Detention Centre. Zahra Idris, a terrified Eritrean detainee suffering with amnesia, escapes. That evening, Zahra’s psychotherapist, Sam Keddie, finds his girlfriend lying unconscious in their home – the victim of a brutal attack. When Zahra’s solicitor is found dead, drowned in the waters of the Regent’s Canal, Sam becomes convinced that his connection with Zahra is significant – and that someone wants them both dead. He tracks down a frightened, confused Zahra in Amsterdam. But their pursuers are close behind, and Sam and Zahra are soon on the run. As they’re hunted through Europe, Sam races against time to piece together Zahra’s fragile memories and discover why she and those close to her are being picked off – one by one.

Having really enjoyed Disorder , the first of Paddy Magrane’s series featuring psychotherapist Sam Keddie, I’m glad the hiatus has ended and another has appeared! This is real breakneck, edge of your seat thrilling stuff, chockfull of danger, excitement and some very bad men indeed, but tempered by an innate sensitivity to the very contemporary issue of immigration. The character of Zahra, in particular, who has experienced the very worst of human behaviour during her passage to supposed safety in Europe, is mesmeric from the very start, and she holds the reader in the palm of her hand with her mix of,  at times, extreme vulnerability underscored by a steely resolve and bravery to overcome the evil that pursues her. I adored her character, and the way that Magrane uses her so effectively to explore important issues, and bring to the fore elements of corruption, greed and expose those that trade in human exploitation. I also liked the little areas of grey that Magrane employs in relation to one of the men pursuing Zahra, which leads us to reassess our feeling towards him as the tale unfolds.

Despite the more serious issues that the book encompasses, Magrane balances this perfectly with the ‘thriller’ aspect, as Keddie and Zahra are caught up in a  desperate game of cat and mouse across a series of European locations, with all the pace and energy one would expect of the genre. There are some real heart in the mouth moments along the way, and Magrane moves us effortlessly from one impending moment of peril to the next, with a flowing and unbroken narrative. Yes, there are a couple of plot turns which may raise a mildly quizzical eyebrow, but fear not, you are so quickly moved on to more dangerous ground, that these will not deter you. Thrilling, thought-provoking and highly entertaining. What more could you possibly want? Highly recommended.

 

9781784975500Two men are dead. Both had been bullies at school. A single clue has been found at the scene: a class photo from 1982, with two faces neatly crossed out.

Fabian Risk is the lead detective on the case. He’s also one of the children in the photograph. He thought he’d left his schooldays behind. Now his classmates are dying for the sins of their childhood…

You and I both know that you can’t whack a good old slice of Scandinavian noir, so here’s another author to add to your Scandi wish list. Ahnhem has produced a meaty, compelling and impeccably plotted thriller, with a sizeable body count, and increasingly imaginative ways of having despatching the victims, straying into Chris Carter territory with the sheer ghoulishness of some of their deaths. Which was nice.

Fabian Risk proves himself a feisty, and lone wolfish investigator, having recently relocated to his childhood town, after an ‘incident’, putting him perfectly in place to try and outwit a demented killer targeting his school chums. With numerous twists and turns along the way, too convoluted to try and explore here, inevitably Risk finds himself at well, risk, and experiencing an isolation from his police cohorts as the plot thickens.The plot culminates in a slightly clunky and predictable endgame involving a kidnap, but can be slightly forgiven as the story up until that point, and other reveals at the tail end of the book, did diffuse my sense of annoyance somewhat. Certainly enough here to make me seek out the next in the series, and a good recommendation for you Scandi fans out there…