Raven’s Yearly Round Up 2019 and Top 10 Books

And so another year has drawn to a close and what a very strange and perplexing year it’s been all round. I won’t dwell on the dispiriting nature of the political events and the looming hardships we will all encounter, and instead turn my thoughts to the nicer things in life. Books. Just the books…

It’s been a year of real contrasts in my reading with just over 100 books read, which is a much lower figure than normal for me. For at least a couple of months I was trapped in a cycle of did not finish books, and also was singularly unimpressed with many of those books hailed as ‘the thriller of the year’ and so on. I was also exceptionally lax in keeping to my ratio of reading and reviewing, partly due to the new responsibilities I have at work, and at a more basic level, can’t-be-arsedness, so for that I apologise. Will do much better this year! There are many good books that didn’t make the review stage, but if you follow me on GoodReads you can see my five star ratings there and hopefully discover some of them for yourselves, but some real highlights were Abir Mukherjee’s Death In The East, the Pushkin reissues of the brilliant and woefully underrated Margaret Millar, Ragnar Jonasson’s The Island, Adrian Duncan’s Love Notes From A German Building Site, Isabella Tree- Wilding, Vaseem Khan’s Inspector Chopra series, Don Winslow’s The Border and many more…

I am reading again this year for the Petrona Award for Scandinavian Crime Fiction, and have made good progress on this year’s contenders- there’s some real goodies and reviews will follow as we get nearer the shortlist stage in March. I have a general resolution for the new year of making sure I keep up with my reviewing, and also to keep mixing up my reading material as after eight years of pretty much solid crime reading, I need to keep my sanity intact and turn my gaze away from the dark side now and then! On that note I would like to offer a thank you to the many bloggers I follow on Twitter who have enriched my reading this year with their varied and excellent reviews of crime and non-crime books- you guys are the best ūüôā Thank you to all the authors and publishers for making life very much more enjoyable, and to all my followers and blog visitors- thanks for your support. More great books to explore in 2020 I’ll wager!¬†

Right, with no further ado let’s cut to the chase and those books that blew me off my feet this year. As is tradition, a little round-up of those most excellent books that didn’t quite make the Top Ten, but gave the chosen titles a damn close run for their money. So put your hands together for A. D. Flint- The Burning Hill¬†, Eamonn Griffin- East of England , Kjell Ola Dahl- The Courier , David F. Ross- Welcome To The Heady Heights , William Shaw- Deadland , Will Carver- Nothing Important Happened Today and the very, very recently read M. W. Craven- Black Summer. I was delighted and enthralled by each and every one of your books- thank you.¬†

So now the TOP 10… Just click on the jackets for my full review. There is much to enjoy here!

10. James Delargy- 55

” I thought that 55 was an extremely cleverly plotted, well-paced, and consistently engaging thriller with some nifty tricks in the narrative, solid characterisation of the main players, and suffused with the claustrophobic heat and isolation of its Australian setting. A compelling debut. “

9. Doug Johnstone- Breakers

“As much as the book is brutally realistic, it is also tinged with sensitivity and compassion, with a strong message that a less than promising start in life is not necessarily proof of a moral deficiency, and that a good nature can overrule bad nurture. Despite the anger and tension so in evidence in these characters‚Äô lives, I found this book tremendously life affirming, and as Tyler grows in stature and strength, he very much takes the reader with him.”

8. Orlando Ortega Medina- The Death of Baseball

This book is a glorious miasma of contradictions and conflicts, the need to love, the need for acceptance and recognition, fame, faith, abuse, identity and hope. I found it thought provoking and powerfully emotional, and I loved the way it immersed me so fully in these two lives with their unique voices. This book has such a strong message at its core, clearly illustrating how we are all the same in our desire to achieve contentment and an equilibrium in our lives, however we choose to live and with whomever we choose to love.”

7. Alan Parks- February’s Son¬†

No linked review for this one as I only finished this one a few days ago! I described the first book in the series, Bloody January as “feisty, fresh and wonderfully sordid, and a sublime blast of noir” and this was equally powerful taking us back to the mean streets of 1970’s Glasgow. As much as Parks’ protagonist Detective Harry McCoy is no angel, I was incredibly moved by the surprising turn his personal story took in this one, and the very compassionate tone of the book overall, whilst keeping up the pace with nefarious dirty dealings and bursts of violence.

6. M. P. Wright- A Sinner’s Prayer

“There are a more than a few unexpected twists in the narrative, and one demise of a character was followed by an audible gasp from me. On a bus. Full of people. In the course of Ellington‚Äôs investigation, outside of keeping up the necessary pace of the story, you are given space as a reader to think about and absorb some of the wider issues that Wright brings to the narrative, so it‚Äôs an incredibly satisfying blend of thriller and social and cultural observation.”

5. Trevor Mark Thomas- The Bothy 

“Described by yours truly on Twitter as akin to Magnus Mills on meth, The Bothy proved to be something quite special from the outset. Tapping into the rising reputation and visibility of working class writing in the UK of late, Thomas has, with a limited cast of characters, constructed a dark, and unsettling book, packed to the gills with atmosphere and an overhanging miasma of violence.

4. Parker Bilal- The Divinities

I was intrigued, shocked and genuinely curious about the issues that Bilal raises, once again demonstrating how so much more of ‚Äėreal life‚Äô can be encapsulated and distilled in a crime novel than more traditional forms of fiction...This will probably be one of the few crime thrillers that I will re-read in later life (there‚Äôs no higher praise than that), but for now I would highly recommend this one, and am anticipating a similarly brilliant book two. No pressure.”

3. Sergio Olguin- The Fragility of Bodies

“A book shot through with painful truths and gritty realism, and with the ability to put its reader through a whole gamut of emotions with its pared down prose, perceptive exploration of the human compulsion to make connections, and larger themes of trust, exploitation and social injustice. This is a huge, important book hiding behind the deceptively simple label of an Argentine noir thriller, but has much to say about the nature of human relationships, and the power and exploitation of the few on the lives of the many‚Ķ”

2. Ilaria Tuti- Flowers Over The Inferno 

“I think it‚Äôs fair to say that this book left a real impression in its wake on this reader, being not only a perfectly formed murder mystery, but also a book that is layered with a supreme awareness of the frailties and strengths of the human condition, through the investigators, the inhabitants of the village and the killer too. I found this a really intense and emotional reading experience, and felt utterly bound up in the lives of the characters, and the travails they experience.”

RAVEN’S TOP READ OF 2019

NICOLAS OBREGON- UNKNOWN MALE

 

Yes, I had to wait until December to read my top book of the year, but more than worth the wait…

“What Obregon gives us is a real smorgasbord of the good, the bad and ugly where the lines of morality and decent behaviour become fractured, and at times are difficult to discern. People acting in surprising and unpredictable ways give a real emotional heft to this book, and also work beautifully in concealing the real villains of the piece, with revenge being another incredibly strong motif.” This book encapsulated all my favourite aspects of crime thriller writing from character, to location, to plot and was an absolute joy, as the whole trilogy has been.¬†

 

 

Raven’s Top Read 2019 – Nicolas Obregon- Unknown Male

He is a completely unremarkable man. Who wears the same black suit every day. Boards the same train to work each morning. And arrives home to his wife and son each night. But he has a secret.¬† He likes to kill people. With just weeks to go before the Olympics and the world’s eyes firmly fixed on Tokyo the body of young British student, Skye Mackintosh, is discovered in a love hotel. Tokyo’s Homicide Department are desperate for a lead. As a last resort they enlist the help of a brilliant former detective whose haunted personal life has forced him into exile thousands of miles away. But it isn’t long before Kosuke Iwata discovers the darkness in the neon drenched streets as Skye, like so many others, had her own secrets. Lies and murder haunt a city where old ghosts and new whisper from its darkest of corners and the truth is always just out of sight..

So we come to the last instalment of Nicolas Obregon’s remarkable Tokyo trilogy featuring former detective Kosuke Iwata. Having previously reviewed both Blue Light Yokohama and Sins As Scarlet and quite frankly, raved about both, I approached Unknown Male with more than a sense of delicious anticipation. What I love about Obregon as a writer is the way he so consistently holds his reader in the palm of his hand and the sense of real storytelling that is so absolutely central to the narrative. I must admit that I find it hard to define what it is about his writing that enthrals me, but will try in my own ham-fisted way to do so…

Firstly I think Obregon’s obvious love affair with Tokyo is absolutely central to this book, and his fearlessness in portraying this city with very much a love/hate edge to his depiction of it: “As he walked, he inhaled a cologne of rubbish, exhaust, wet concrete. No city had more nameless streets or alleyways…To walk through her ways was to be inveigled in her web…She murmured from steam vents and snickered from overflowing gutters.” All through the book the intangible hold of the city both on the main characters, and the general populace is front and centre, with Obregon exposing the pulsing beat of a city where there is a real sense of sink or swim, poverty or success and a constant feel of movement in “this shingle beach of crossed purpose“. Obregon also emphasises how easily people become lost, in this teeming morass of people, whether slaves to a wage, slaves to people basest violent desires, and how people seek to navigate a society that slows for no man. Although our detective figure Iwata is a native to the city, Obregon also instils in him a feeling of having to get to grips with this mercurial city after time abroad, and the very particular problems that arise in having to almost start afresh in navigating its unique idiosyncrasies.

Iwata himself is also a complicated soul, imbued with a deep sense of morality pertaining to his professional standards and the way he conducts himself in relation to this particular investigation. However, back amongst his countrymen he does at times seem like a square peg in a round hole, as his methods and thought process put him at odds with his fellow investigators. He is an outsider, but in that mould proves to be extremely effective at approaching the case from a different angle, and intuitive thinking. The issue of morality is explored in many ways throughout the book both through Iwata who is also seeking some personal retribution, but also through the British female detective Anthea Lynch (who finds herself despatched to Tokyo after a serious blip in her own career) and individuals involved with Skye, the murder victim. Throw into the mix one of the most strangely motivated serial killers I have encountered for some time (the thermos flask-eugh) and what Obregon gives us is a real smorgasboard of the good, the bad and ugly where the lines of morality and decent behaviour become fractured, and at times difficult to discern. People acting in surprising and unpredictable ways give a real emotional heft to this book, and also work beautifully in concealing the real villains of the piece, with revenge being another incredibly strong motif resonating through the characters.

I think it goes without saying that Unknown Male has secured a place in my Top 5 of the year with its masterful depth of characterisation, use of location with Tokyo as a living and breathing entity so crucial to the lives and crimes unfolding within it, and the way that the book keeps you in its grasp from beginning to end. It is the close to a trilogy which left me tinged with sadness as I loved these books so much, but also heartens me that hopefully more readers will discover these for themselves. Absolutely outstanding.

_____________________________________________________________

(I bought this copy of Unknown Male published by Michael Joseph)

 

 

 

 

Raven’s Yearly Round Up and Top 10 Crime Reads Of The Year 2018

And so another year of superb reading has ended, throwing all bloggers into a state of rumination, indecision and mild despair, as we seek to narrow our reads down to our particular favourites. Although, for various reasons I won’t bore you with, I had a slightly lower reading count this year, I feel I have unearthed some real beauties, and delighted that my general plan to ignore the most overhyped books of the year worked a treat for me! I only read two of these (for work) and was totally gratified that my new rule held true- if it’s hyped it’s probably a turkey! Joking aside, I genuinely have struggled to narrow my reading to a definitive list, so I’m going to cheat slightly and round up a few of those that just missed the final ten, as they are completely worth your close attention, before revealing the final line-up…

I already have a substantial list of books coming this year that have caught my attention, both crime and fiction, so I may mix it up a bit and do some fiction reviews too, as I love both genres. I’m also going to pull back a bit on participating in blog tours, to allow me a little breathing space, and better time management for reading and reviewing. My reading list has also been significantly increased due to my inclusion as a judge for The Petrona Award¬†for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year, as a replacement for the most excellent Barry Forshaw. It’s all very exciting and looking forward to discussing and comparing notes with Sarah Ward, Kat Hall and Karen Meek on a not insubstantial list- there’s been some great reads so far, but my lips are sealed…

So my honourable mentions go to these that only missed the cut by a hair’s breadth (click on the image for the review). From Barbados to Brazil, from Denmark and the USA to Belgium and France, all of these are brilliantly character driven, atmospheric, socially perceptive or just damned thrilling reads, that were close, so close, to my favourites of the year. If you missed them, add them to your New Year reading lists, and you won’t be disappointed…

   

So, eyes down and here we go for the Top 10 of the Year- click on the images for the full reviews…

10.

“It was feisty, fresh, wonderfully sordid and a sublime blast of noir to welcome in the new year.”¬†

  9.

“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.”

8.

“Caleb‚Äôs character works well¬†on several levels, due to the authenticity that Viskic brings to him and his voice.¬†Here is a man that recognises his own weaknesses, and by extension the weaknesses of others, and carries with him a real sense of emotional intelligence, despite the constraints that his aural impairment places on him.”

7.

Grimwood handles all aspects of this book with a deft touch from setting, to characterisation, to pace, to the plot itself, and if you love a twisty, cerebral Cold War thriller as much as I do, I would definitely recommend that you seek out¬†Nightfall Berlin. Duplicitous spies, and¬†conniving Russians seems oddly prescient at the moment.”

6.

“It is so gratifying to reach the third book in a series and for it to feel as fresh and vibrant as the first two. Partly, I would put this down to the developing working relationship, and growing friendship of our chalk and cheese partnership of Sam and Surrender-not, and the sheer level of¬†engagement¬†Mukherjee creates with the reader in how he presents the social and political unrest of this¬†turbulent period of Indian history.

5.

“The sultry, suffocating feel of Mississippi drips from every page, and the laconic cadence of the Deep South, resonates in your mind, in the stripped down, bare bones dialogue, that says as much in the gaps that it leaves, as the spaces it fills. The book oozes atmosphere and tension, and as Smith weaves his tale, I would defy you not to surrender to this dark,¬† brutal, but utterly beautiful story with its glimmers of redemption, and the power of human connection.”

4.

“I think it‚Äôs safe to say that a significant number of people that read, aside from the pure enjoyment of reading, do so to provide themselves with an enhanced comprehension of the world around them, and to encounter and experience people, places and cultural differences, and this is what Miller achieves here. American By Day is smarter than your average thriller, but containing all the essential components of good crime fiction that keep us reading and reading.

3.

“Sins As Scarlet is not only compelling as a thriller should be, but has layers of¬†scrutiny and observation¬†on the themes of race, gender roles, social division, migration and more, which makes it punchy and thought provoking, and at times exceptionally moving.

1.

Yes, I know you’re thinking where has number 2 gone?

Well, all year I was convinced that a certain book would be my top read of the year until November when I read a certain book by Lou Berney called November Road, which was completely inseparable from Tim Baker’s City Without Stars, which deservedly held the number one spot since January! So I have two favourite books of the year and here’s why…¬†

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.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I appreciate my crime reading is always influenced more by those books that span the genres of crime and contemporary fiction, as I find the more linear, and therefore utterly predictable crime books, less enriching as a reader. November Road held me in it’s thrall from the outset, with its clarity of prose, and perfect characterisation, digging down deep into the nature of human relationships forged in troubled circumstances. This is unquestionably one of those books that will haunt me for some time to come.  

So there we have it. Another year packed full of brilliant books, so thanks as always to my regular followers of this blog and on Twitter, to the publishers for the advance reading copies, to Netgalley for the same, to the wonderful bookshops across the land, and to my fellow bloggers who have directed me to many more amazing reads over the course of the year. A big Happy New Year to you all, and wishing you all another splendid year of reading delights. 

 

A Quick Round Up-Sara Flannery Murphy- The Possessions/ Mikel Santiago- Last Night At Tremore Beach/ Nicolas Obregon- Blue Light Yokohama

4133aZlueGL__SX317_BO1,204,203,200_For five years Edie has worked for the Elysian Society, a secretive organisation that provides a very specialised service: its clients come to reconnect with their dead loved ones by channelling them through living ‘Bodies’. Edie is one such Body, perhaps the best in the team, renowned for her professionalism and discretion. Everything changes when Patrick, a distraught husband, comes to look for traces of his drowned wife in Edie. The more time that Edie spends as the glamorous, enigmatic Sylvia, the closer she comes to falling in love with Patrick and the more mysterious the circumstances around Sylvia’s death appear. As Edie falls under Sylvia’s spell, she must discover not only the couple’s darkest secrets, but also her own long-buried memories and desires ‚ÄĒ before it’s too late…

Billed as a thriller, a ghost story and as a tale of sexual obsession, The Possessions was one of the strangest reading experiences I have encountered for some time. With comparisons to the work of such estimable authors as Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro and Daphne Du Maurier, Sara Flannery Murphy encloses the reader in a world of grief, guilt, love and obsession where irreality, spirituality and human emotions are inextricably entwined…

Curiously I am still unsure as to how much I really enjoyed this book, despite being initially enraptured at its highly¬†original approach to the bridging of the gap between the living and dead. Equally, at first I was held in the thrall of the author’s emotive and completely accurate exploration and characterisation of the human response to personal loss and the assimilation of grief. She explored well the feelings of guilt and emotional stress that the recently bereaved experience, and the need for us to hold on to the one we have lost on some level to eventually move on to emotional closure. Her depiction and description of these differing but highly¬†intense feelings of grief could not be faulted. By using Eurydice (whose name conjures up images of mythical strangeness) an isolated and emotionally closed off individual to act as a conduit from living to dead was expertly handled from the beginning, but as her strange¬†relationship with the recently bereaved Patrick comes to the forefront, I started to find myself doubting her credibility. There was an escalating amount of repetition as the book progressed, with the author re-treading themes and images that started to irk me as the book progressed, and I began to care less and less about Eurydice’s increasing involvement with the spirit of Patrick’s dead wife. As a very obvious plot reveal came to life, I began to falter, and despite reading to the end, I felt strangely unsatisfied by what at first had held my interest entirely, and undoing my initial¬†general crowing about this weirdly good book I was reading. One to make your own minds up about.

(With thanks to Scribe for the ARC)

TREWhen Peter Harper, a gifted musician whose career and personal life are in trouble, comes to northwest Ireland and rents a remote cottage on beautiful, windswept Tremore Beach, he thinks he has found a refuge, a tranquil place in a time of crisis. His only neighbours for miles around are a retired American couple, Leo and Marie Kogan, who sense his difficulties and take him under their wing. But there‚Äôs something strange about the pair that he can‚Äôt quite figure out. One night during one of the dramatic storms that pummel the coast, Peter is struck by lightning. Though he survives, he begins to experience a series of terrifying, lucid and bloody nightmares that frame him, the Kogans and his visiting children in mortal danger. The Harper family legend of second sight suddenly takes on a sinister twist. What¬†if his horrifying visions came true, could tonight be his last…?

With one reviewer billing¬†The Last Night At Tremore Beach¬†as a cross between Don’t Look Now and Straw Dogs, I can only concur thus leaving me only a little to say about this one. I found it a slightly unbalanced affair, although I was intrigued by the back story of Peter’s coast dwelling neighbours, and the secrets in their shady¬†past. With shades of Dean Koontz and Stephen King in the portrayal of Peter’s supernatural gift, I felt that this was to some extent, a bit superfluous to the plot, as a more linear depiction of his uncovering, and being threatened by, his neighbour’s former lives could have been portrayed without this. It felt a little padded. Peter’s character left no real impact on me, and found him generally a bit woolly around the edges. However, on a more positive note I did enjoy Santiago’s attention to the geography of this barren Irish¬†coastline, and how he built tension through the secluded position of this location, and the natural elements that assailed its shores. A mixed bag.

(With thanks to Simon and Schuster for the ARC)

BLInspector Kosuke Iwata, newly transferred to Tokyo’s homicide department, is assigned a new partner and a secondhand case. Blunt, hard as nails and shunned by her colleagues, Assistant Inspector Noriko Sakai is a partner Iwata decides it would be unwise to cross. A case that’s complicated – a family of four murdered in their own home by a killer who then ate ice cream, surfed the web and painted a hideous black sun on the bedroom ceiling before he left in broad daylight. A case that so haunted the original investigator that he threw himself off the city’s famous Rainbow Bridge. Carrying his own secret torment, Iwata is no stranger to pain. He senses the trauma behind the killer’s brutal actions. Yet his progress is thwarted in the unlikeliest of places. Fearing corruption among his fellow officers, tracking a killer he’s sure is only just beginning and trying to put his own shattered life back together, Iwata knows time is running out before he’s taken off the case or there are more killings . . .

So saving the best until last, I was incredibly impressed with Blue Light Yokohama based on the real life, and still unsolved, slaying of a family in Japan, and the suicide of its lead investigator. Obregon has beautifully manipulated and used the details of this original case to construct a real slow burning thriller that kept me gripped throughout. Aside from referencing a real case which is one of my favourite tropes in crime fiction, there is a consistency of atmospheric building of tension, punctuated by moments of extreme stress and violence that demonstrates what a good writer Obregon is. His characters, particularly Iwata and Sakai, are completely believable, and undergo real trials by fire throughout, with their reactions and actions also entirely plausible. The story of female officer Sakai is heartrendingly honest and how her story plays out moved me greatly.

Although the book does not contain the level of attention to Japanese culture and social mores as that of an authentically Japanese author, the strength and gradual build up of an excellent plot cancelled out¬†this slight disappointment.¬†I¬†delighted in the red herrings and false alleyways that Obregon navigates us through, and there were genuine moments of utter surprise and shock throughout.¬†I¬†felt emotionally invested in both the story and the personal travails of Obregon’s protagonists, and knowing that this book was so firmly grounded in reality further added to my enjoyment. When I finished this book I tweeted that I needed to take a breath. I guarantee you will too.¬†¬†Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Penguin/Michael Joseph for the ARC)