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Blog Tour- Ausma Zehanat Khan- The Unquiet Dead

Scarborough Bluffs, Toronto: the body of Christopher Drayton is found at the foot of the cliffs. Muslim Detective Esa Khattak, head of the Community Policing Unit, and his partner Rachel Getty are called in to investigate. As the secrets of Drayton’s role in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide of Bosnian Muslims surface, the harrowing significance of his death makes it difficult to remain objective. In a community haunted by the atrocities of war, anyone could be a suspect. And when the victim is a man with so many deaths to his name, could it be that justice has at long last been served?

Once again with The Unquiet Dead I have had the privilege of reading a book that defies any simplistic recognition of it being a ‘crime thriller’. Instead what we experience as readers is a searing testimony to the futility and brutality of war, in this instance the violent break up of the former Yugoslavia, and a sensitive and heartfelt portrayal of survivor rage, and guilt. All this is cocooned within the more linear investigation of a suspicious death; a death that reaches back into the turbulent past, but with severe ramifications for those in the present.

I am rarely emotionally moved by a book to the degree that I need to sometimes halt and take a breath, and in common with this book, those have been occasioned by novels depicting war and its consequences. Given the emotional reach of this book in terms of its depiction of the genocide and rape that occurred in this conflict, Khan’s prose and imagery of war is beautifully controlled throughout. It is written with a clarity and grace of simplicity that every scene of man’s unconscionable violence towards others hammers straight into the heart of the reader. Taking into account the author’s depth of research, this feeling of discomfort is amplified by the knowledge that these scenes are so firmly grounded in truth. These dreadful events happened, thousands died, and many more live with the physical and mental scarring of having witnessed such tragedy. Alternating between the past and present, the reader remains fully engaged with both timelines throughout, slowly piecing together the incontrovertible truth of  history continually reverberating in the present, as all the protagonists experience to some extent. Khan uses this motif not only in those affected by the war, but also other characters who have experienced some form of emotional, marital or familial upset too, so the level of human interest is palpable and certain situations recognisable to the reader too. It’s cleverly done, and merely strengthens the many levels of human relationships and experiences that permeate throughout the book.

For reasons that will be become absolutely clear when you read this book for yourselves, I am loath to delve too deeply in this review on some of the characters in this book for fear of giving too much away. Suffice to say, several of them exhibit the best and worst characteristics of the human condition, from quiet dignity to unbelievable greed and hatred. Instead, I would draw your attention to the unique combination of detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty who prove themselves so defined by their differences, but so symbiotic as an investigative team. There’s a wonderful quote from Getty on her taciturn and reserved boss, Khattak, in which she says, “He wasn’t a man who dealt in ultimate truths as she did, he traversed the underground cities of doubt and discrepancy where human frailty revealed itself in layer upon layer of incongruity.” Khattak remains almost unknowable throughout, being both sensitive and prone to introspection, but retaining an aura of quiet determination, despite certain revelations and his involvement in the case at a more personal level. Equally, Getty has an intriguing back story in terms of her family background which unfolds slowly, giving her some personal revelations of her own. She also proves an excellent foil to Khattak with her propensity to cut straight to the chase, and ask the difficult questions at the right time, without fear or favour. I liked both these characters immensely, and the strength of their partnership and very individual personalities that lie at the core of the book.

With a slow reveal of historic crimes, emotional wounds and the desire for monetary gain, revenge or closure, this books burns with a unique intensity, that is quite difficult to put into words. As a meditation on war and its aftermath it’s powerful and disturbing, and as a crime thriller on a conventional level it transcends the genre in terms of its emotional reach and characterisation. A difficult, yet thoroughly rewarding read, that will linger in my mind for some time to come. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to No Exit Press for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

Vive La France!(2) Pierre Lemaitre- Three Days And A Life/ Herve Le Corre- After The War/ Antonin Varenne- Retribution Road

En l’honneur de la fête nationale, voici une sélection des thrillers Français qui ont impressionné, déplacé et ravi le Corbeau dans la même mesure.  Ou en d’autres termes, un billet de blog je pourrais simplement étiqueter, voici trois de mes livres préférés de l’année, qui ne risquent pas d’être dépassé n’importe quand bientôt. Hélas, ma collègue française serait un mauvais service à ces critiques, pardonnez-vous à l’anglais! 

Bonne lecture à tous et à toutes!*

Antoine is twelve years old. His parents are divorced and he lives with his mother in Beauval, a small, backwater town surrounded by forests, where everyone knows everyone’s business, and nothing much ever happens. But in the last days of 1999, a series of events unfolds, culminating in the shocking vanishing without trace of a young child. The adults of the town are at a loss to explain the disappearance, but for Antoine, it all begins with the violent death of his neighbour’s dog. From that one brutal act, his fate and the fate of his neighbour’s six year old son are bound forever. In the years following Rémi’s disappearance, Antoine wrestles with the role his actions played. As a seemingly inescapable net begins to tighten, breaking free from the suffocating environs of Beauval becomes a gnawing obsession. But how far does he have to run, and how long will it take before his past catches up with him again?

Being a confirmed admirer of Pierre Lemaitre’s books to date, I rather enjoyed the subtle shift of style and location that Three Days And A Life reveals. Turning his attention away from the big city to the rural backwater of Beauval, Lemaitre constructs a slower and more introspective novel than we have come to expect from him, but equally produces a more heightened, and psychologically deft portrayal of human frailty and morality…

Time after time, I become disappointed, and as you know more than a little incensed, by the unnatural narrative voice given to young protagonists. Consequently I avoid reading many books that have a pre-sixteen narrator or central character. With Antoine, the dislikeable little person that he is, Lemaitre captures beautifully his perception of the world, and his reactions to the consequences of his severe misdemeanour. Antoine is realistically imbued with a child’s thought processes, as to how to conceal and avoid punishment of his crime, and I enjoyed the authenticity of his under-developed sense of morality, which he seems to carry quite happily into his adult years too. I thought the portrayal of his mother was also excellent, and how Antoine’s childish perception of her as just his mother actually spoke volumes to the reader about her true emotional state. Equally, I loved the depiction of parochial small town jealousies, and ill-feeling, that reminded me of the observational prowess, and skewed morality that is so familiar in the works of the late Pascal Garnier. Lemaitre reveals a boiling pot of tension and envy that perfectly fits with the feel of a small community under pressure, and the distrust of their neighbours.

The latter stages of the book are hewed from Antoine’s re-visitation of childhood events from an adult perspective, and Lemaitre’s control of his narrative once again comes to the fore. With Antoine being as utterly self-absorbed as he was as a child, but perhaps with a greater perception of the fall out for others from his actions, and indeed, closer to home, there is another twist in store for the reader, and there was me beginning to worry that the king of the psychological twist would disappoint! Once again, a precise and engaging translation from Frank Wynne allows us to fully appreciate this tawdry and morally ambiguous tale of childhood mistakes, and Lemaitre has again demonstrated his flexibility and natural flair as a storyteller. Three Days And A Life is entertaining, thought-provoking, and as always highly recommended.

(With thanks to MacLehose for the ARC)

 

1950’s Bordeaux. Even now, the Second World War is never far from people’s memories, particularly in a city where the scars of collaboration and resistance are more keenly felt than ever. But another war has already begun. A war without a name, far away across the sea, in Algeria, where young men are sent to fight in a brutal conflict. Daniel knows what awaits him. He’s heard stories. Patrols, ambushes, reprisals, massacres, mutilations, all beneath a burning north African sun. He has just a month left before he leaves but, haunted by the loss of his parents and sister in the atrocities of the last war, Daniel questions why he is even going to fight in the first place. Meanwhile, past crimes are returning to haunt Albert Darlac, the godfather of Bordeaux: corrupt police chief, fascist sympathiser and one-time collaborator. Before long, a series of explosive events will set off a spiral of violence that will bring the horrific legacy of wars past and present to the streets of Bordeaux…

During the reading of After The War, I posted on social media that “This is astonishing. I have been moved, perplexed, disturbed, and enthralled in equal measure” and to be honest, in the wake of finishing it, I could simply leave it at that. Comprising of past and present timelines, the dual locations of the seedy underbelly of 1950’s Bordeaux, and the contentious French conflict in Algeria, and with one police protagonist that is evil incarnate,  Herve Le Corre has produced a truly uncompromising, multi-layered masterpiece…

In common with many crime thrillers this is a story driven by, and built on vengeance, as Daniel, a young man, on the cusp of war,  becomes aware of his estranged father returning to Bordeaux to seek revenge on the man who committed the ultimate betrayal during WWII. Through the powerful narrative of Daniel’s experience fighting in Algeria, juxtaposed with Jean, his father’s, meticulous plan to heap as much misery and wrath on Albert Darlac, an immoral, violent and thoroughly odious police detective, Le Corre raises the emotional intensity, and therefore the reader’s engagement with some considerable skill. His characterisation is absolutely superb, with all three male protagonist’s exposing to the reader the very best and worst of human nature, and digging deep into the notion of how we can be morally compelled to do bad things for good reasons. In the character of Darlac, we see the ultimate realisation of the bete noire, with a man whose actions come from the darkest recesses of immorality, and whose revenge on those around him is driven by evil of the highest order. I was equally repulsed and fascinated by him throughout, and will from this day forward acquire the mantle of one of the darkest characters ever to grace the pages of crime fiction.

Le Corre’s depiction of Daniel experiencing the sheer intensity and dubious morality of men’s actions in war was my personal highlight of the book. As a regular reader of contemporary literary  war fiction, I thought that the author’s realisation and visualisation of the terrain itself was perfect in every detail, and the mundanity of a soldier’s life, interrupted with these big, bold and terrifying incidences of combat was hugely affecting on the reader. Le Corre never turns his full gaze away from this harshest of moral issues as to how the men in Daniel’s platoon react so viscerally to attack, and how they vent this rage on the enemy, contravening the rules of war. The scenes he presents are uncompromising, and yes, uncomfortable at times, but so real and necessary to underscore Daniel’s gradual realisation of the futility of that for which he fights, and in which he loses comrades. It was breath-taking in its depiction.

After The War is a behemoth of a thriller, that challenges and perplexes the reader, testing our notions of morality and empathy, and through the adept translation of Sam Taylor, a thoroughly rewarding, if emotionally troubling read. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to MacLehose for the ARC)

 

And last, but by no means least, and quite possibly my book of the year…

Burma, 1852. Arthur Bowman, a sergeant in the East India Company, is sent on a secret mission during the Second Anglo-Burmese War. But the expedition is foiled – his men are captured and tortured. Throughout their ordeal, a single word becomes Bowman’s mantra, a word that will stiffen their powers of endurance in the face of unimaginable suffering: “Survival”. But for all that, only a handful escape with their lives. Some years later in London, battling his ghosts through a haze of alcohol and opium, Bowman discovers a mutilated corpse in a sewer. The victim appears to have been subjected to the same torments as Bowman endured in the Burmese jungle. And the word “Survival” has been daubed in blood by the body’s side. Persuaded that the culprit is one of the men who shared his captivity, Bowman resolves to hunt him down…

I have tried and failed to write a coherent review of Retribution Road, with several attempts, as it’s impossible to do justice as an amateur reviewer to the sheer magnificence of this novel. Adopting the form of an allegoric odyssey, Antonin Varenne has produced a sprawling, magisterial novel that defies comparison to anything I have read before…

Structured as three interlinking parts, and traversing more than 700 pages, I could feel the influence of a quest serving as a plot device in mythology and fiction, with a difficult journey towards a goal, in the character of Arthur Bowman who inhabits, and influences, each stage of the novel. As he journeys from his military service in Burma, then on to Victorian London, and finally to the swathes of  unconquered territory of America in the grip of the gold rush, each section of the book is wonderfully visual, with Varenne depicting each landscape with pinpoint precision. In his use of location the ordinary is made extraordinary, and the reader’s sense of us being such a small inconsequential part of the natural world is continually brought to bear. Bowman is beautifully cast as both avenging angel and pioneer, weighted down by the brutal events in his personal history, and hence a man of changeable moods and impulses that wax and wane during the course of his mission to track down a killer.

The prose throughout is as tender and sensitive, as it is violent and vengeful, and our emotions and feelings are challenged and manipulated throughout, as Bowman navigates through both testing terrain, and human interaction. The book also poses some interesting theories on  morality and immorality, particularly as a consequence of Bowman’s actions, and those of the man he so ardently and doggedly pursues, at intense personal cost. I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say that this is a true magnum opus, and held me utterly in its power along the long road to redemption and justice. It was just a completely wonderful emotional rollercoaster,  suffused with historical detail, and a totally authentic evocation of place. It is a hugely complex and challenging novel, addressing themes of war, religion, revenge, human connection and emotional strife. As ever, Sam Taylor provides a perfect translation, that subtly captures the nuances of Varenne’s intensity of emotion.  I cannot praise Retribution Road enough, and would highly recommend it for fiction and crime fiction readers alike. C‘est vraiment magnifique!  

(With thanks to MacLehose for the ARC)

 

*In honour of Bastille Day, here are a selection of French thrillers that have awed, moved and delighted the Raven in equal measure.  Or in other words, a blog post I could simply label, here are three of my favourite books of the year, that are unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. Alas my schoolgirl French would be a disservice to these reviews so forgive the English!  Happy reading!

#BlogTour- Sarah Stovell- Exquisite

Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name. Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend. When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops … Or does it?

With marked similarity to the books of Barbara Vine and Minette Walters, Exquisite by Sarah Stovell is a discomforting and taut tale of sexual obsession and damaged personalities that will keep you gripped…

Focussing on an initially altruistic friendship between an established author, Bo Luxton, and her young protegee and fledgling writer, Alice Dark, Stovell constructs an increasingly menacing story, built on unreliable narrators and alternating points of view. The structure of the book is also underpinned by a third narration set within the confines of a women’s prison in Yorkshire, automatically causing us to cast aspersions on which of our female protagonists, if either, are incarcerated within. These alternate narratives work beautifully in terms of controlling the suspense, and each is perfectly weighted, to disabuse the reader of flicking between one and the other, holding the interest throughout. Stovell uses these split narratives to great effect, and the unreliable narration works its magic to unsettle, and cause conflict in our own perceptions of these two women. Personally, I didn’t like either of them hugely from the outset, which perhaps is a credit to Stovell’s depiction of both, and I did question the intensity of their relationship which seemed at odds, and slightly unbelievable in light of what we knew of their lives. However, my sympathy was aroused for one character towards the close of the book, particularly with the exceedingly dark , though slightly obvious occurrence on the last page. I also found the presence of Bo’s husband Gus unsatisfying and increasingly superfluous, but as the story builds around Bo and Alice, this was I suppose the author’s intention.

Aside from this, the prose itself is darkly engaging, with interludes of beautifully lyrical descriptions of the Lake District itself, set against the intensity of the burgeoning tension, and increasingly dangerous nature of the relationship between Bo and Alice. Each woman’s point of view weaves seamlessly in and out of the other, leading the reader to question constantly, and form their own opinions of the veracity of each. Trying not to give anything away here, which is difficult, there is also an exploration of Bo and Alice’s formative years, and how the nature of their childhood familial relationships have impacted on them, and formed their personalities. Increasingly this brings to the fore the age old question of nature vs nurture, and with Bo’s own identity as a mother herself, it is interesting to see the ramifications of her previous life experience in her own relationship with her husband and children.

All in all, Exquisite is a largely satisfying psychological thriller with the influence of others in the genre looming large, but taking on an identity of its own. It is a disturbing tale of lies, jealousy and obsession, which will more than sate the reader of the current domestic noir crop, but definitely at the darker end of the spectrum. Recommended.

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

Mark Hill- Two O’Clock Boy- Review + Extract

Marking the release of the paperback edition of Mark Hill’s compelling debut thriller, Two O’Clock Boy, here’s a timely reminder of why the Raven liked this one so much…

One night changed their lives…
Thirty years ago, the Longacre Children’s Home stood on a London street where once-grand Victorian homes lay derelict. There its children lived in terror of Gordon Tallis, the home’s manager.

Cries in the fire and smoke…
Then Connor Laird arrived: a frighteningly intense boy who quickly became Tallis’ favourite criminal helper. Soon after, destruction befell the Longacre, and the facts of that night have lain buried . . . until today.

A truth both must hide…
Now, a mysterious figure, the Two O’Clock Boy, is killing all who grew up there, one by one. DI Ray Drake will do whatever it take to stop the murders – but he will go even further to cover up the truth…

Casting aside his nom de plume of Crime Thriller Fella, former blogger, Mark Hill marches stridently onto the crime fiction scene with a debut that is compelling and intriguing, and perhaps more importantly a damn good read.  With one of the most ominous and chilling openings that I have encountered this year, as the story draws you in, you would be forgiven for thinking that this would then appear to be a pretty standard London set police procedural. But you’d be wrong. Oh yes, and here’s why…

There is a pernicious killer at work in old London town with the self-styled monicker of the Two O’clock Boy, the reasons for which are gradually unfurled in a real smoke and mirrors tale of childhood abuse, combined with slick police procedural. With its intertwining timelines, depicting the less than savoury goings on at a children’s home some years previously, and the spotlight on DI Ray Drake and his team to solve the current murders, the links between the past and Drake’s own personal history are neatly threaded together. With some degree of frustration, this is one of those books that thwarts the reviewer at every turn, without stepping in a big pile of spoilers, but suffice to say Drake proves an interesting and damaged conduit between past and present, and his character is never less than intriguing and utterly instrumental to this reader’s enjoyment of the book. The plotting is consistently superb, tinged with a real darkness that unsettles and disturbs throughout, and the pacing and balance between the two gradually revealed interconnected time periods is beautifully weighted.

Likewise, the characterisation of both the police protagonists, and the characters connected to the children’s home, both in the past and present is assuredly done. Hill captures not only the naivety, false bravery, and emotional fragility of the children’s personalities, but how this shapes and moulds them and their experiences on reaching adulthood. It’s sensitively and realistically handled, despite the darkness of his central plot, and I guarantee that when certain truths are revealed about this period in some of the protagonist’s lives, your sense of empathy will be roundly manipulated. As I have alluded to, the character of Drake is of tantamount importance to the whole plot, as is the multi-faceted nature of his personality that he presents to the world. I also liked his sidekick, DS Flick Crowley, whose exasperation with Drake, and some personal issues of her own, provide a bit more colour to the whole affair, and provide a strong partnership for future investigations.

So, pleased to report that Two O’Clock Boy delivers on so many levels, with emotional depth,  strong characters, and an effective and suspense-building use of contrasting timelines, to carry the plot along at a pleasing pace. The Raven recommends. Highly.

But don’t just take my word for it, and have a look at the extract below. Intrigued you will be…

PROLOGUE:
The English Channel, 1986
The boy loved his parents more than anything on this Earth. And so he had to kill them.

Perched on the edge of the bunk, he listened to them now. To the squeak of their soles on the deck above as they threw recriminations back and forth in voices as vicious as the screeching seagulls wheeling in the sky. He heard the crack of the sail in the wind, the smack of the water against the hull inches from his head, a soothing, hypnotic rhythm.

Slap . . . slap . . . slap . . .

Before everything went wrong, before the boy went away as one person and came back as someone different, they had been full of gentle caresses and soft words for each other. But they argued all the time now, his parents – too stridently, loud enough for him to hear – and the quarrel was always about the same thing: what could be done about their unhappy son?

He understood that they wanted him to know how remorseful they were about what had happened. But their misery only made him feel worse. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to speak to them, to utter a single word, and the longer he stayed silent the more his parents fought. The boy plugged his fingers into his ears, closed his eyes, and listened to the dull roar within him.

His love for them was untethering, drifting away on a fierce tide.

Slap . . . slap . . . slap . . .

A muffled voice. ‘Darling.’

The boy’s hands were pulled gently from his face. His mother crouched before him. Her eyes were rimmed red, and her hair was plastered to her face by sea spray, but she was still startlingly beautiful.

‘Why don’t you come up top?’

Her cold fingers tucked a loose strand of his hair behind his ear. For a brief moment he felt a familiar tenderness, wanted to clasp her to him and ignore the bitter thoughts that churned in his head. But he didn’t, he couldn’t. It had been weeks since he’d been able to speak.

A shadow fell across the hatch. His father’s voice boomed, ‘Is he coming up?’

‘Please, let me handle this,’ his mother barked over her shoulder, and after a moment of hesitation, the shadow disappeared.

‘We’re doing the best we can.’ She waited for her son to speak. ‘But you must tell us how you feel, so that we can help you.’

The boy managed a small nod, and hope flickered in his mother’s gaze.

‘Your father and I . . . we love you more than anything. If we argue it’s because we can never forgive ourselves for what happened to you. You know that, don’t you?’

Her eyes filled with tears, and he would do anything to stop her from crying. In a cracked voice, barely more than a whisper, he heard himself say, ‘I love you.’

His mother’s hand flew to her mouth. She stood, hunched in the cabin. ‘We’re about to eat sandwiches.’

Moving to the steps, she spoke brightly, but her voice trembled.

‘Why don’t you come up when you’re ready?’

He nodded. With a last, eager smile, his mother climbed to the hatch and her body was consumed by sunlight.

The boy’s heel thudded against the clasp of the toolbox beneath his berth. He pulled out the metal box and tipped open the lid to reveal his father’s tools. Rasps, pliers, a spirit level. Tacks and nails, a chisel slick with grease. Lifting the top tray, the heavier tools were revealed: a saw, a screwdriver, a peen hammer. The varnish on the handle of the hammer was worn away. The wood was rough, its mottled head pounded to a dull grey. He lifted it, felt its weight in his palm.

Clenching the hammer in his fist, he stooped beneath the bulkhead – in the last couple of years he’d grown so much taller – to listen to the clink of plastic plates, his parents’ animated voices on the deck.

‘Sandwiches are ready!’ called his mother.

Every night he had the same dream, like a terrible premonition: his parents passed him on the street without a glance, as if they were total strangers. Sooner or later, he knew, this nightmare would become a reality. The resentment they felt that their child had gone for ever, replaced by somebody else, someone ugly inside, would chip away at their love for him. Until there was nothing left.

And he was afraid that his own fierce love for them was slowly rotting, corroded by blame and bitterness. One day, when it was gone completely, other emotions would fill the desolate space inside him. Fury, rage. A cold, implacable hatred. Already he felt anger swelling like a storm where his love had been. He couldn’t bear to hate them, yearned to keep his love for his parents – and his memories of a happy time before he went to that place – uncorrupted, and to carry it with him into an uncertain future.

And so he had to act.

Gripping the hammer, the boy moved towards the hatch. His view filled with the blinding grey of the sky and the blur of the wheeling gulls, which screamed a warning to him that this world would always snatch from him the things he cherished, that life would always be this way. He stepped onto the windblown deck in the middle of a sea that went on for ever.

Slap . . . slap . . . slap . .

Catch up with, or continue to follow the blog tour at these excellent sites:

 

#PolishBooks Blog Tour- Aga Lesiewicz- Exposure- *Exclusive Extract*

 

Welcome to the latest stop on the #PolishBooks blog tour,  in association with the  Polish Cultural Institute /@PLinst_London  to promote some of the best Polish writing. Exposure by Aga Lesiewicz  is a dark and gripping psychological thriller which will shock and delight you in equal measure…

When up-and-coming photographer Kristin begins to receive anonymous emails, her life in a trendy loft in London’s Hoxton with Anton, her ultra-cool, street-artist boyfriend, suddenly begins to feel unsafe. The emails come with sinister attachments that suggest the sender has an intimate knowledge of Kristin’s past, and soon her life spirals out of control.

Who can she trust? And will she be able to discover the sender’s identity before it’s too late?

Prologue

A new email pings in my mailbox and my chest tightens with anxiety. I know I have no reason to react like this anymore, but the sound still fills me with dread. I click on the mailbox icon and stare at its contents in disbelief.

Exposure 5’.

My worst nightmare isn’t over, after all.

I could ignore it, I could delete it, but I know it will appear again. And again. I also know there is no point in trying to trace its sender. The person who has sent it doesn’t want to be found and isn’t interested in my answer.

I take a deep breath and click on the attachment. It’s a photograph this time and it’s mesmerizing. I’ve seen something like this before. It seamlessly blends two images, the one of the view outside and that of the inside of a room. The image of the exterior is projected on the back wall of the room and is upside down. I rotate the picture on my computer screen and take a closer look. It’s a section of an urban riverbank, a uniform row of solid four- and five-storey houses, perched in a neat line above the dark water. The brown and beige brick mass is inter­rupted by splashes of colour, marking the developer’s frivolous idea of painting some of the tiny balconies white or blue. A modern addition breaks the brick monotony, an incongruous cube of glass and steel crowned with a ‘For Sale’ sign. Below, the river has left its mark on the mixture of rotting wood and concrete with a vibrant green bloom of algae clinging to the man-made walls. My heart begins to pound when I realize the view looks familiar.

I know where the photo was taken.

I rotate the image back and concentrate on the interior. It’s someone’s bedroom, dominated by a large bed. The heavy wooden frame fills the picture, its carved antique headboard clashing with the image of the exterior projected over it. The bed is unmade, a mess of pillows and a duvet entangled with sheets that are dark red, almost crimson. A small bedside table on the left, with an unlit brass lamp on top of it. Some books scattered on the floor, mostly large-format, hardcover art albums. I find my eye keeps coming back to one spot in the image, a body on the bed. The woman is partly covered by the crimson sheet, her dark hair spilling over the edge of the mattress. One of her arms is twisted at a weird angle, revealing a small tattoo on the inside of the forearm, just above the wrist. I recognize the image. And I can tell the woman is dead.

I close the attachment and get up from the table, away from the computer. I feel dizzy and faint, my skin clammy, the thin shirt I’m wearing drenched in cold sweat. No, I can’t let panic get the better of me. I have to think and act. I go to the sink and pour myself a glass of water from the tap. I drink it greedily, spilling some on the floor. It helps a little, but the choking sensation in my throat persists as I go back to the Mac and click on the attachment. I force myself to look at the image again. Yes, there is no doubt about it. I am the dead woman in the photograph. And I know who my killer is…

Aga Lesiewicz is a former TV producer and director. A knee injury led to a change in her career and prompted her to write her first psychological thriller Rebound. She lives in London. Visit her website here and follow on Twitter @Aga_Lesiewicz

Catch up with, or continue to follow the blog tour at these excellent sites:

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

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 — 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)

When 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’s something strange about the pair that he can’t 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)

Inspector 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)

 

 

February 2017 Round-Up + more… and Raven’s Book of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)After a little hiatus in January, my reading rate has improved significantly, but alas, I am still a little off the pace in terms of reviewing. So, I’m going to cheat a wee bit, and incorporate a few additional reviews into this round-up, before I storm into March where five reviews await already, as there are some cracking releases coming up.

Happy reading!

BOOKS READ AND REVIEWED:

Jonelle Patrick- Painted Doll   Claire Macleary- Cross Purpose  Andrew Taylor- The Ashes of London  Kate Rhodes- Crossbones Yard  J.P. Delaney- The Girl Before  Rory Clements- Corpus   Su Bristow- Sealskin  SJI Holliday- The Damselfly  Orlando Ortega-Medina- Jerusalem Ablaze

joe%20thomas%20jacketI was mightily impressed by Paradise City by Joe Thomas, which takes us deep into the throbbing heart of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and the violent favela known as Paraisopolis. Low ranking detective Mario Leme drives through this favela everyday, as this is where his wife, Renata, a lawyer, was gunned down a year previously, the victim of a bala perdida– a stray bullet. One morning at the same spot, Leme witnesses a car careering out of control, but sees that the driver has several bullet wounds, although the incident is written off as a traffic accident. Leme finds himself embroiled in a tale of murder and corruption at the highest level, which puts him at odds with his superiors, and onto a dangerous path. What I liked most about this book was the colour and exuberance that Thomas injects into his vivid realisation of the pulsating favela, albeit suffused by violence. There is a wealth of local vernacular sprinkled throughout the book, and for those, like myself, who know little of Brazil, Thomas paints a broad and wide reaching picture of the social and financial chasm that exists between the different stratum of San Paulo society. Also, Leme, is an incredibly empathetic character, regularly overcome and clouded by grief by the loss of his wife, but also portrayed throughout as a decent man, a fair detective, and more importantly feeling his way back to normality, and the recovery of a life torn apart. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Arcadia Books for the ARC)

51y5jj6fz2l-_sx306_bo1204203200_Having made a new year’s resolution to myself that I would endeavour to read more historical crime fiction, I was made aware of E. S. Thomson and Beloved Poison by one of my bookselling colleagues, who couldn’t recommend it highly enough. Set in the crumbling St Saviour’s Infirmary in the 1850’s the story centres on Jem Flockhart, an apothecary’s daughter who disguises herself as a man to practice her medicinal craft. It is a world of stinking wards, visceral medical procedures, and professional rivalries. As the demolition of the hospital looms, six tiny coffins are discovered, which provide a strong link to Jem’s past, and as a series of murders ensue, she finds herself in terrible danger. I thought this was a terrifically bawdy romp, with a host of beautifully named characters that Dickens would be proud of. Thomson’s precise and graphic description of the disinterment of bodies from the graveyard attached to the hospital,  the medical practices of this time, and the detail of the more natural cures available to apothecaries of the era, were rich and lively in a darkly delicious way, bringing a colour and vivacity to the whole affair. This worked perfectly in tandem with a well plotted and sporadically shocking plot, as Thomson so adroitly immerses us in a tale of murder, sex and jealousy peopled by blundering doctors, whores, sharp tongued servants, and the wonderfully empathetic Jem herself, disguised as a man with the necessary toughness of demeanour, but at the mercy of her finer feelings as a woman. I fair scuttled through this one, with its colourful characters, menacing atmosphere and brilliant period detail. Sordid, rumbustious and totally enjoyable. Highly recommended.

(I bought this copy of Beloved Poison)

carterI cannot resist the allure of a new title from Chris Carter (One By One,   An Evil Mind ) and his dynamite pairing of detectives Robert Hunter and Carlos Garcia of the LAPD. Once again in The Caller our intrepid duo are drawn into the nasty world of another completely loco serial killer, who operates via the world of social media, exacting some wonderfully visceral, and cruel and unusual punishments on his victims and those closest to them. Throw in a hitman looking for revenge on the killer too, whilst hoping to dodge the radar of Hunter and Garcia, and what Carter dishes up is a spine chilling, violent, read in one sitting (in subdued lighting if you dare) serial killer thriller with some very nasty surprises indeed. Typical Carter fare, but highly enjoyable nonetheless.

(With thanks to Simon and Schuster for the ARC)

Raven’s Book of the Month

Without a single moment of doubt, hesitation or procrastination, it can only be…

sealskin

Mesmeric and lyrical writing, weaving a folkloric tale

that will enchant you from beginning to end. 

 

 

 

#BlogTour- SJI Holliday- The Damselfly

the_damselflyKatie Taylor is the perfect student. She’s bright and funny, she has a boyfriend who adores her and there are only a few months left of school before she can swap Banktoun for the bright lights of London. Life gets even better when she has an unexpected win on a scratch card. But then Katie’s luck runs out. Her tragic death instead becomes the latest in a series of dark mysteries blighting the small town. The new school counsellor Polly McAllister, who has recently returned to Banktoun to make amends in her own personal life, is thrown in at the deep end as the pupils and staff come to terms with Katie’s death. And it’s not long before she uncovers a multitude of murky secrets. Did Katie have enemies? Is her boyfriend really so squeaky clean? And who is her brother’s mysterious friend? With Banktoun’s insular community inflamed by gossip and a baying mob stirring itself into a frenzy on social media, DS Davie Gray and DC Louise Jennings must work out who really murdered Katie before someone takes matters into their own hands…

Having previously reviewed and enjoyed the first two books of this series-  Black Wood and  Willow Walk – it’s time to return to the dark and murderous world of the residents of SJI Holliday’s small Scottish community of Banktoun in The Damselfly. Be prepared for some unsavoury goings on…

Once again there is a seamless interweaving of the characters and events from the previous two books, but for those who have not discovered this series yet, fret not if you join in the deliciously dark fun at this later point. Holliday has a great way of placing her characters in differing scenarios of importance, but by the same token moving them forward through changes in their lives, or returning them to their roots after time spent away. In this way, there is an incredibly real fluidity to the lives of her characters, reflecting the natural changes that people undergo in terms of their jobs and relationships, but the lure of one’s roots plays a major part. Generally speaking, I think the central enjoyment of these books for me is the strong sense that you are reading about real people, not those mind-numbingly witless and largely unbelievable middle class creations, that are currently infesting the world of psychological crime fiction. Holliday’s people are a sublime mix of the well-adjusted, and the emotionally damaged, and the observational style of her books as she puts them through various forms of self doubt, or emotional trauma, is done extremely well, undercut by Holliday’s now trademark dark humour.

Likewise, with the story focussing on a broken family and the difficulties of adolescence, Holliday draws on the world of social media- warts and all- to explore the communicative habits of her younger protagonists, and how they use it as a conduit for their problems and insecurities. I must confess that I usually get very frustrated reading books that put teenagers front and centre, but Holliday manages to avoid well-worn stereotypes, and balanced out the mix of the good, the bad and the ugly adolescents very well, and neatly exposes the twisted loyalties, immaturity or plain fear that hampers the police investigation into a young girl’s death. Throughout the book, Holliday neatly uses her younger protagonists to toy with our empathy, drawing on the differences of their backgrounds, although interestingly a more privileged upbringing is certainly no guarantee of a better moral compass, and the theme of family loyalties and jealousy plays a major part throughout.

Throughout this tricky investigation the steadfast figure of recently promoted DS Davie Gray stands tall, where his innate knowledge of the town’s residents proves both useful or difficult in equal measure. He is an open-minded and fair copper, but underscored by a steely determination to catch Katie’s killer, even if it sets him at odds with the community. I enjoyed his partnership with DC Louise Jennings, and the slight air of tension that exists between them, for reasons that you will discover for yourselves. Also big kudos for Holliday, for further exploring one of the more minor characters from the previous books, in the shape of ex-addict Quinn, and I enjoyed the way he was realistically interweaved into the turbulent history of Katie’s family.

I will confess to being a little disappointed in the expose of the killer’s identity, in terms of the intriguing red herrings that Holliday puts in our path, but nonetheless a few hours spent in the community of Banktoun, with its dark deeds and disparate residents is never wasted. Whether this is your first visit, or you’re up to speed with the series to date, it’s a recommended read from the Raven.

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

 

Missed a stop? Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

damselfly-blog-tour

Catching Up…

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)To begin, I would like to thank all of you who left such lovely messages here and on Twitter during my self imposed break from blogging. Although little has been resolved on the personal front, I have continued to read, but circumstances have curtailed the production of reviews. Realising I’m about a gazillion books behind, here for your delectation and delight is a round-up of some terrific, and not so terrific, smorgasbord of reads that have helped keep me sane along the way and more to come. It’s good to be back, and enjoy!

painted-dollFirst up, all the way from the USA is a highly readable Japanese set thriller, Painted Doll by Jonelle Patrick. Part of the Only In Tokyo series. Tokyo detective Kenji Nakamura is more than a little distressed to discover that the death of his mother ten years previously in a supposed accident, is actually connected to a string of murders of young women attributed to the Painted Doll Killer. What follows is not only a complex and compelling investigation to catch a killer, but also a brilliant study of Nakamura’s emotional turmoil when dark secrets from his own familial background come to the surface. Patrick balances both facets of the book with a deft touch, producing a genuinely gripping crime thriller which wrong-foots and perplexes the reader throughout, and drawing us in emotionally to Nakamura’s travails both professional and personal. The case proves itself to be violent and disturbing in equal measure, and there are some good turns of pace in the narrative. The book is steeped in Japanese cultural references, and proved to be incredibly enlightening about the conflicts of old fashioned tradition, and contemporary society, and the gaps between the generations, as well as being highly informative on Japanese life generally. Suffice to say, I will be seeking out the other instalments of the series. Highly recommended.

crossIn a change of pace, Cross Purpose by Claire MacLeary, quickly revealed itself to be a quirky, but nonetheless absorbing debut. When Maggie Laird’s disgraced ex-cop husband is found dead in the office of his private investigation business, various distasteful truths come home to roost, leaving Maggie financially strapped, emotionally wrought, and drawn into the dark criminal underbelly of Aberdeen. Through necessity, and some cajoling from her loud, blousy and utterly loveable next door neighbour ‘Big Wilma’, who joins forces with her, the intrepid duo set out to clear the besmirched name of Maggie’s husband, but find themselves navigating some dark and dangerous waters along the way. MacLeary’s prose is assured and engaging, bursting with the liveliness of the Aberdonian vernacular, particularly in evidence in the contrasting personalities and social standing of Maggie and Wilma and in the criminal world of the drugs trade they find themselves immersed in. Not only does MacLeary paint an unflinching picture of the sink estates, and those drawn into the drugs trade, but also a simple but effective study of people doing what they need to, to simply get by or to profit by the misery and dependency of others. I found it interesting how every character had some semblance of damage or insecurity in their characters in some form or another, and the way that these flaws evinced themselves in their actions or moments of epiphany. Despite the grim realities of life that MacLeary explores, the book is underscored by a wonderful black humour at times, which drew more than one chuckle or knowing nod from this reader. Really enjoyed this one, and an impressive debut.

51kvpsnjk6l-_sx323_bo1204203200_Right, from Aberdonian sink estates let’s time travel back to 1666 and the Great Fire of London, in Andrew Taylor’s The Ashes of London, where the body of a man is found in the smoking ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral, stabbed in the neck, with his thumbs tied behind his back. So far, so good, and what unfolds from this is a delicious and vivid exploration of London society, and through a world of cheats and traitors, class and gender oppression, and a damn fine murder mystery. Absolutely central to my enjoyment of this book, apart from the perfectly realised period detail, was the character of Catherine ‘Cat’ Lovett, a young gentlewoman, and daughter of a notorious regicide, condemned to live with grasping relatives. As a result of an attack on her person, she goes on the run, assuming the position of a housemaid, but is drawn into the sphere of the men charged with redesigning London, but into further danger due to her father’s reappearance having plotted against the former king. Cat is a mercurial and striking character, compartmentalized by society by virtue of her gender and class, but with a keen mind and inquisitive spirit which reveals itself in her aptitude for, and interest in the world of architecture. Equally, she is feisty and brave, and has a determination to track down and confront her father at odds with the demeanour that society expects from her being of a certain social class. Taylor’s characterisation throughout is lively and reminiscent of the band of good natured fellows and absolute rotters that inhabit the works of Dickens for example. Outright villains sit cheek by jowl with characters you root for throughout, particularly those labouring for acceptance in the shadow of the sins of their fathers. Taylor conjures up all the sights, smells and atmosphere of the period with aplomb, and provides an intriguing and twisty murder mystery into the bargain too. Recommended.

51xx4wfgial-_sx324_bo1204203200_Now to London in the contemporary era in the company of Kate Rhodes’ Crossbones Yard which has been languishing on my shelves for far too long. The first of a series introducing claustrophobia-suffering, relationship-fearing psychologist, Alice Quentin, who finds herself unwittingly drawn into the world of a serial killer by virtue of her consultancy work for the Metropolitan police. Using Crossbones Yard, a neglected piece of London ground that was used as a cemetery for fallen women as a locus, Rhodes weaves an intriguing psychological thriller, with a sublime nod to the real life case of murderers Fred and Rosemary West. Alice is a likeable enough character, fitting wonderfully into the mould of psychologically troubled psychologist- physician heal thyself perhaps- who finds herself in some degree of peril throughout. Perhaps, because of my voracious crime reading, the identity of the perpetrator of the heinous crimes was a little too obvious quite early on, but despite this I had a resolute compunction to read on, as I found Alice a compelling figure throughout, and found the band of emotional misfits and miscreants she encounters both professionally and personally rather engaging. I have bought the next in the series so that’s probably a good recommendation.

31300946And so to the pseudonymous J. P. Delaney and The Girl Before, the first contender for the mantle of this year’s Girl On The Train. Brace yourselves. Despite my resolution to steadfastly avoid any domestic noir thrillers in 2017, I had already signed up for this one and its attendant blog tour. Having read the book, I then bowed gracefully out of the blog tour (thanks to Quercus for their understanding) as I really, really disliked this book for a whole host of reasons. My trademark tag-line of Grand Designs meets Fifty Shades of Grey, probably tells you most of what you need to know, about this tortured tale of enigmatic, but emotionally stunted control freak architect, entrapping hapless young women in a prison of his own creation. Still with me? Good. Excruciating dialogue and clunky plotting dismayed me further. However, with a prime spot on Simon Mayo’s Radio 2 Bookclub, soaring sales, and probably a film, my opinion matters little. One to make your own minds up about.

(With thanks to Jonelle Patrick for the review copy of Painted Doll, Saraband for Cross Purpose and Quercus for The Girl Before. I bought The Ashes of London, and Crossbones Yard.)

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