Blog Tour- Nuala Ellwood- My Sister’s Bones

 

msbblogtour_nov18Kate Rafter is a successful war reporter. She’s the strong one. The one who escaped Herne Bay and the memories it holds. Her sister Sally didn’t. Instead, she drinks.

But when their mother dies, Kate is forced to return to the old family home. And on her first night she is woken by a terrifying scream.

What secret has Kate stumbled upon?
And is she strong enough to uncover the truth . . . and make it out alive?

As much as I seek to actively avoid thrillers with the merest whiff of domestic noir about them, I was intrigued to read My Sister’s Bones, a debut psychological thriller by Nuala Ellwood with its blend of emotional domesticity combined with more global concerns. Effectively marrying the usual tropes of domestic noir and familial conflict, with more salient humanitarian issues,  Ellwood has produced a thriller that is a curious blend of the intensely satisfying and the slightly frustrating…

The absolute lynchpin for my enjoyment of this book was Kate’s story, a seasoned war reporter who on her return from war-torn Aleppo in Syria, is battling the twin demons of PTSD and personal emotional stress caused by the death of her mother, and the non-connectedness to her sister Sally who is in the grip of alcoholism, and suffering personal distress at the disappearance of her daughter, Hannah. Reflecting my enjoyment of other thrillers such as Matthew Frank’s If I Should Die, and Kate Medina’s Fire Damage, which also explored the realm of PTSD, I found Ellwood’s portrayal of Kate, so emotionally affected by her horrific experiences in Syria, utterly authentic, bolstered no doubt by the author’s own familial links to the world of war reporting. Her confusion, anger and twisted sense of self worth and guilt was heart-breaking and emotional throughout, really tapping into the reader’s empathy, and depicting perfectly one woman’s personal experience of war. I also admired the clear-headed, objective portrayal of the Syrian conflict exhibited by the author, and its balanced and unflinching tone when describing the danger and human devastation that Kate experiences holed up in this war torn city. I liked the way that we as readers are drawn in and out of states of mistrust towards Kate, due to the symptoms of her stress, constantly questioning her veracity as a reliable narrator, and a credible witness to what she believes is happening in the house next door. Her story and actions totally carries the thrust of the book, and without giving anything away I was a little worried that her story had been too swiftly curtailed to carry my interest to the end.

More frustrating for me, was the close to home aspect of the story, where Kate finds herself immersed in the suspicious goings-on of her next door neighbour, and the grand reveal of how this relates to the travails of her alienated sister, Sally. Again, I think Ellwood, is spot on with the characterisation of Sally, fighting a battle with alcoholism, and the conflicting states of mind and self-awareness that this terrible addiction causes to those in its grip. Her experience was never less than utterly believable and affecting. However, I did find the central plot of the book a little weak, and far-fetched to totally draw me in, and the denouement was just a tad too fanciful to entirely convince this reader. Such is the strength of Ellwood’s writing in terms of human experience, that I wondered with the blips in the central plotting, if crime fiction was the right avenue to go down. With her undeniable knack for portraying the weaknesses and strengths of her female characters, I would happily have read this a contemporary fiction novel examining the condition of war and its impact on human relationships, drawing on the issues of PTSD, familial isolation and alcohol addiction.

So, all in all, a bit of a mixed bag for this reader, who didn’t really appreciate the ‘crime’ aspect of the book so much,  but with exhibiting such strong characterisation in the protagonists of Kate and Sally themselves, had enough to keep me reading on. Recommended.

(With thanks to Penguin for the ARC)

 

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

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Blog Tour- J M Gulvin- #TheLongCount: A John Q Mystery

517UlM8qrSL__SX325_BO1,204,203,200_It’s a pleasure to be taking part in this blog tour marking the release of J. M. Gulvin’s The Long Count, the first of a series featuring Texas Ranger, John Quarrie…

Ranger John Quarrie is called to the scene of an apparent suicide by a fellow war veteran. Although the local police want the case shut down, John Q is convinced that events aren’t quite so straightforward. When his hunch is backed up by the man’s son, Isaac – just back from Vietnam, and convinced his father was murdered – they start to look into a series of other violent incidents in the area, including a recent fire at the local Trinity Asylum and the disappearance of Isaac’s twin brother, Ishmael. In a desperate race against time, John Q has to try and unravel the dark secrets at the heart of this family and get to the truth before the count is up…

With comparisons to Shutter Island and True Detective, my expectations were high for this first outing featuring Texas Ranger John Q. From the very outset of the book Gulvin completely immerses the reader in this particular era of the 1970’s with the reverberations of the Vietnam War playing through the book, and an atmospheric depiction of the sprawling location of Texas. The opening chapter with a real sit up and take notice incident is an absolute corker, that instantly grabs the reader’s attention, and sets the pulse a racing for what is to follow. I loved the sharp cutaway and the instant change of pace in the second chapter, this being the first introduction into the personal world of our erstwhile hero Quarrie. This is a change of rhythm and pace that Gulvin fluctuates between throughout the book, thus ensuring that the more violent aspects of the plot work perfectly in tandem with the more emotional and heart-wrenching interludes, keeping the reader slightly on the back foot, and playing with our responses to the narrative as a whole.

By extension these changes of pace seem to echo in Gulvin’s characterisation throughout the book, and seldom do I encounter a book where every single protagonist- irrespective of how long they appear in the book, or the size of the part they play- are so clearly fleshed out. Quarrie is a man with two personas, as a single father with a young son, James, never happier than in the lively company of James or his Korean War buddy Pious, just shooting the breeze or in his professional status as a dedicated and dogged Texas Ranger. The background story to the loss of his wife never resorts to mawkishness, and in a side plot with James and Pious investigating the history of a train crash in a local river, the real excitement in James’ enthusiasm for his own mystery to investigate comes shining through. This side narrative provides moments of light as Quarrie’s own case finds him drawn into a world of psychological darkness, evinced by the unsettling goings-on at a mental asylum, with a vendetta being waged against those who work there, and the dark personal history of a family with connections to it. The character of Isaac, whose father’s suspicious death is a real lynchpin of the book, is also incredibly well drawn, and as the story develops there are further revelations about himself and the bounds of loyalty his family, in particular his twin brother Ishamel, that hold more than a few surprises…

Gulvin builds the tension of Quarrie’s investigation perfectly, and trying hard to avoid spoilers, there is a real emotional intensity and pathos to this story as Quarrie is drawn into the world of the asylum and those that dwell within it. Obviously being set around forty years in the past, Gulvin engages the reader’s interest further by highlighting what now seem archaic and cruel treatment methods for those with mental disturbance, and drawing on both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts to add weight to the psychological depth of the book. Nothing makes my heart sing more than a book that rises above the commonplace labels of generic crime fiction, and an author that so perfectly insinuates deeper themes, and a well-realised sense of place and history into their work. J M Gulvin has achieved this admirably. Highly recommended.

Born in the UK, JM Gulvin divides his time between Wales and the western United States. He is the author of many previous novels, as well as Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s bestselling travel book Long Way Down. The Long Count is his first John Q mystery and he is currently at work on the follow up. Follow on Twitter @jmgulvin

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

Catch up with, or follow the rest of the tour at these excellent sites…

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Matthew Frank- If I Should Die

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When a homeless man walks into Greenwich police station and confesses a killing, it should be the admission that cracks open a murder enquiry. Instead, he stumbles out on to the street and collapses, bleeding from a stab wound he’s attempted to repair himself. The newest member of the Met’s murder investigation team, twenty-five year-old Afghan veteran Joseph Stark, doesn’t believe the man’s story. Yet it becomes clear that Stark and the down-and-out share a connection. And that this could provide the key to unlocking the case. Soon, the young detective and his colleagues are drawn deeper into a dark, disturbing world as dangerous as anything Stark has known on the frontline. And where there’s enough at stake for a man to risk everything . . .

Somewhat belatedly I finally managed to squeeze this debut from Matthew Frank into my reading schedule. As the old adage runs, all good things come to those who wait, as this was truly one of the most well-plotted and compelling crime thrillers I have encountered this year…

What struck me most was how this book could so easily be all things to all men (and women) due to the complexity of the book as a whole. First, it is a socially aware thriller with the story focusing on the random attacks on the homeless community in a corner of London by a group of disaffected and vicious youths from a local sink estate. Frank taps in perfectly to the moral degradation of said youths, drawing a contrasting depiction of those on whom they vent their misguided and sadistic violence. This is particularly emotionally affecting after their attack on an aged homeless war veteran, a man of integrity and honour fallen on hard times, and the casual sadism that their ringleaders exhibit. Set against the isolation of their homeless victim, Frank also really gets to the crux of the manipulation and fearful isolation that certain members of the young gang feel, as their sense of morality begins to kick in, putting them at odds with their manipulative gang leader. There is a huge sense of emotional damage running as a motif through the book generally, and in the experiences and dialogue of the youths, Frank captures this perfectly.

Secondly, it’s a well plotted, linear, police procedural with an assured and likeable cast of characters, which could easily establish this as a series. Frank sets up a team of detectives, that you immediately feel comfortable and emotionally engaged with, and the petty rivalries and jealousies that affect any workplace. With the team being mostly overseen by headstrong and outspoken DS Fran Millhaven, Frank immediately gets a gold star for constructing a female character who is both believable and normal, without the usual emotional baggage that tends to follow these characters around. Her interactions with TDC Joseph Stark in particular are a mixture of spikiness, an almost sisterly affection and then pure exasperation, which gives shades of light and dark to their relationship, providing a strong central base for the plot to pivot around. There is also an extremely strong group of bit players, from those linked to the central investigation, through to the characters we see outside of Stark’s police role, reflecting his former career, and the therapy he is undergoing, giving ballast to this being the first of a series. Frank uses some of these exceptionally well, as a mirror to his main character Stark, and how they and we should perceive him and his emotional and physical vulnerability. It’s very well accomplished.

But more than a socially aware thriller, and police procedural, and this is what impressed me the most, was the depth and characterisation of ex-soldier and TDC Joseph Stark ,which gives Frank an enormous amount of opportunity to give us an insight into the mental and physical turmoil experienced by returning soldiers in the wake of conflict. As the representation of war in fiction is a particular interest of mine (and the subject of my MA) I have read widely in the genre, detailing the experiences that Frank explores here. The depth and clarity with which Frank narrates Stark’s experiences in combat, the journey to recovery and the particular difficulties he experiences in adjusting to civilian life and his return to the police force, is truly compelling. Every nuance of his emotional state, and the frustrations caused by his psychological and physical therapy is captured perfectly, along with the intermittent flashbacks to the harrowing events that he experienced as a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. This gives a real emotional third wheel to the overall solidity of the book, and the structure of this within the realm of what could be labelled ostensibly as a police procedural, is powerfully done, and perfectly realised.

As you can no doubt tell, I was incredibly impressed with If I Should Die for many reasons, not least because it avoid well-worn cliches within the genre, was powerfully characterised, and addressed some weighty issues in a believable and engaging way. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Penguin for the ARC)