Olivier Barde- Cabucon- Casanova and the Faceless Woman/ Rafael Bernal- The Mongolian Conspiracy

1759: Outside the gates of the magnificent Palace of Versailles, the city of Paris sits mired in squalor and crime. One night a body is found with ghastly mutilations that shock even the hardened city watch. The Inspector for Strange and Unexplained Deaths investigates this macabre outrage, and the clues he finds draw him into a deadly web of intrigue, bringing him face-to-face with the notorious adventurer and seducer, Giacomo Casanova. As a second butchered corpse is discovered, the Inspector finds his revolutionary past exposed and his life in grave danger. Can he pick a path between the factions secretly warring for control of the throne and find a way to the truth?

Take a trip with me, if you will to the excrement filled streets of pre-revolutionary Paris, and the dark and derring-do adventure that is Casanova and the Faceless Woman. I’m not a great reader of historical crime fiction, but with my slight obsession with The Three Musketeers, and the absolutely beautiful production of this paperback, it’s got flaps everyone, flaps, I was more than intrigued, and zut alors, what a brilliant read it was.

From the very first instance, Barde- Cabucon completely immerses his reader in the sights, sounds and teeming atmosphere of a Paris underscored by unrest, seditious movements, and a simmering resentment to Louis XV, the sexually voracious and profligate king. What you completely absorb as a reader is the sense of overcrowding, the imminent eruption of violence from the smallest beginnings, poverty and dirt. This vivid and lively depiction of Paris, set against the sumptuous confines of the royal court is strongly in evidence throughout the book, and this is an author who absolutely excels at scene setting, from the minutiae of a humble library, to a gaudy whorehouse, or to a narrow festering alleyway where danger lurks. I absolutely loved the descriptive nature of this book, and the way it so adroitly captured the lives of its inhabitants through all the senses.

I cannot begin to comprehend the depth of research that had to be undertaken for this, the first, of a now established series. By dint of using Casanova as a central character, there was an automatic need for the author to not only adhere to what we already know about him, but for him to become a fully fleshed out and engaging character who remained truthful to fact. Hence, the book is peppered with references to his own life story, but Barde-Cabucon also has a tremendous amount of fun with him too, as we bear witness to his sexual exploits, swordmanship, manipulation and skulduggery. This works superbly well, as he becomes entangled with the maudlin and intense Volnay, the Inspector for Strange and Unexplained Deaths, quite possibly the best job title in the world. As a larger conspiracy unfolds, we bear witness to an exquisite game of cat and mouse, and intense one-upmanship from two men who are divided on so many levels of life, and their wildly different moral compass. This plays out, not only in consideration of the central crimes and a conspiracy that brings the royal household into the mystery, but also on a baser level as a certain young lady casts a spell on them both too. The joie de vivre of Casanova is endlessly at odds with the despondent pragmatism of Volnay, leading to an entertaining, and at times enlightening insight into the lives of these two very different men. There’s also an incredibly cool monk. What book would be complete without one? Sit down Dan Brown.

The plot itself is quite complex, as Barde- Cabucon brings into play the bigger themes of religion, alchemy secret societies, and presents the reader with a larger puzzle where the questions of morality, loyalty and sedition prove integral to Volnay’s investigation. I did find that closer attention was needed sporadically to really get to grips with who was plotting what, against who and why, but cleverly these more intense periods of the narratives are beautifully interrupted by some great swashbuckling action scenes, or another of Casanova’s  passionate or ill-judged trysts which gives the plot a good fluidity of acceleration and deceleration overall. Yes, it’s quite a dense read, but the strength of the characterisation, the incredibly visual description and scene setting, and the wealth of historical detail just makes this book shine. I am delighted to see that that there a host of further books in this series, as I think that Monsieur Barde-Cabucon has just accrued another devotee. Highly recommended.

 

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Filiberto García is in over his head. An aging ex-hitman with a filthy mouth, he has three days to stop a rumored Mongolian plot to assassinate the President of the United States on his visit to Mexico. Forced to work with agents from the FBI and the KGB, García must cut through international intrigue. But with bodies piling up and the investigation getting murkier, he starts to suspect shady dealings closer to home, and to wonder why the hell he was hired in the first place.

With surely the best jacket quote of all time, from Francisco Goldman, “The best fucking novel ever written about Mexico City,” I was immediately sold on this one.

For readers of a more sensitive disposition, which I clearly am not, this is a book crammed with profanity, sexism and violence, reflecting its conception in the 60s where society allowed for a little more freedom of expression. Setting myself aside from the political correctness brigade, I’m more than happy to read books within the context of the time they were written, and yes, there is a certain flimsiness to the central female character, and the male characters drip testosterone and pent up rage, but I thought this was a brilliant slice of completely non-PC fun.

Ex-hitman Garcia is an odious character, foul mouthed, begrudging and resentful of pretty much anything and anyone including himself. His moments of self criticism are frequent and harsh, continually questioning his actions, his libido, and his worth, resulting in him being a little ball of anger throughout much of the book, until a rather touching moment of self-realisation towards the close of the book. His general peevishness is increased by having to work with two outside agents, as they collectively attempt to thwart a double presidential assassination, and he finds himself out on a limb as the depth of the conspiracy comes to light.

The violence comes thick and fast, in little explosive pockets in this relatively slim tale, with one instance in particular  being the only one to make any impact on Garcia’s generally steely hard-headedness, and there is a real pace and energy to the book as these cyclical moments of pow and kerpow occur. The prose also reflects this pace coming quick and fast, where no word is wasted, particularly the word ‘pinche’ and its more profane translation. Consequently, I rather enjoyed this one, with it’s snappy pace, staccato dialogue and description, and a rather likeable, although fundamentally dislikeable central character in the shape of the curmudgeonly and ageing Garcia, a man with an equal mix of attitude and angst. Recommended.

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Buy Casanova and the Faceless Woman here

Buy The Mongolian Conspiracy here

 

(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARCs)

Blog Tour- Julia Dahl- Conviction

Journalist Rebekah Roberts works at New York City’s sleaziest tabloid, but dreams of bigger things. When she receives a letter from a convicted murderer claiming his innocence, she sees both a story she can’t ignore and, possibly, a chance.
Twenty-two years earlier, just after the Crown Heights riots exploded between the black and Jewish neighbourhoods in Brooklyn, DeShawn Perkins was convicted of the brutal murder of his adoptive family. Rebekah’s search for the truth is obscured by the decades that have elapsed: almost no one wants to talk about that grim, violent time in New York City, not even Saul Katz, a former NYPD cop and once her inside source….

A new-to-me author, despite Conviction being the third of Julia Dahl’s books to feature spirited and tenacious reporter Rebekah Roberts. Grappling with the weighty issues of race, religion, and justice this proved to be a markedly different, and thought provoking read…

In Rebekah we have a confident, young woman eager to prove herself and progress in her career, and what Dahl captures so well is her flexible, but not always completely unquestioning pursuit of information as a reporter. Instead of Rebekah just being depicted as a cold hearted, unfeeling reporter who will stop at nothing for a story, Dahl introduces in her moments of conflicted interest, and the sometimes very personal conflict that will arise from her investigation. Although we do see Rebekah adopt some little underhanded tricks of the trade to wheedle out the necessary information from people, there is a charm to her as a person that deflects us from condemning her methods on these occasions. Admittedly, she sees her current investigation as a chance to improve her career prospects, but as she delves deeper into what becomes a personal crusade for her to save a man from execution, she endears herself to us even more by making some difficult decisions on the information she must expose. Despite the ramifications for those closest to her, and with the potential to destabilize a recently rekindled relationship with her estranged mother, Rebekah’s navigation of this case kept me enthralled throughout, and I appreciated those small moments of vulnerability balanced with the clear sighted determination that Dahl weaves into her character.

As a depiction of the inherent racial conflicts that have plagued American society, I found this quite an even handed portrayal. Obviously, by exploring the differences between the Jewish and African American communities in New York in 1992 and 2014, Dahl provides a balanced assessment of both changes to, and the continuation of, the underlying resentments between the community of people she focuses on. As a black man convicted of multiple murder with little evidence and a coerced confession, sadly his story is all too familiar in the biased justice system and racial profiling so beloved in the American legal system. Equally, Dahl does not shy away from apportioning blame to the original investigating officers, and the whiff of corruption that pervaded this case from the beginning. I also found the focus on Jewish culture throughout the book extremely enlightening, and liked the no punches pulled attitude of the author to expose the best and worst of people’s behaviour no matter their ethnicity or creed throughout the story. The balance of morality and tenacity in Rebekah’s character to both reveal the tensions, yet applaud the instances of co-operation, between the two communities is firmly echoed by Dahl’s even handed and largely balanced authorial voice.

I enjoyed Conviction very much, and despite the necessary signposts in the book relating to the back story of Rebekah’s previous investigations, and the troubled relationship with her mother, I will definitely catch up with the first two books in the series at some point, having enjoyed the playing out of the story, and Dahl’s interesting dissemination of the issues of race, religion and justice. Recommended.

(With thanks to Faber Books for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

 

Blog Tour- Tim Baker- City Without Stars

bakerIn Ciudad Real, Mexico, a deadly war between rival cartels is erupting, and hundreds of female sweat-shop workers are being murdered. As his police superiors start shutting down his investigation, Fuentes suspects most of his colleagues are on the payroll of narco kingpin, El Santo. Meanwhile, despairing union activist, Pilar, decides to take social justice into her own hands. But if she wants to stop the killings, she’s going to have to ignore all her instincts and accept the help of Fuentes. When the name of Mexico’s saintly orphan rescuer, Padre Márcio, keeps resurfacing, Pilar and Fuentes begin to realise how deep the cover-up goes.

Tim Baker burst onto the Raven’s radar a couple of years ago with the brilliant  Fever City – a skilful and mesmerising reimagining of the events surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. Having waited patiently, okay, somewhat impatiently- for his next book, City Without Stars plunges us into the nightmarish realities of life in Mexico, and presents the reader with a searing indictment of lives lived in the shadow of the cartels, corrupt law enforcement, unrelenting poverty, and female exploitation…

Harbouring a deep fascination with Mexico for many years, and citing The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow as quite possibly my favourite crime thriller ever, there was a palpable sense of excitement on embarking on this book. I will say quickly that I could not have been more satisfied with Baker’s exploration into, and intuitive depiction of life in the violent and corrupt surrounds of Ciudad Real. Punctuated by references to the well documented cases of scores of women disappearing, and being found brutally murdered, which by their inclusion crash into the reader’s consciousness throughout, City Without Stars is a claustrophobic and intensely compelling thriller.

The whole book is alive with the feel and atmosphere of the city itself, the heat, the noise, the grime and the sense of hopeless lives lived in the shadow of corrupt wealth and criminal activity. I really felt the harshness of the bleak desert terrain, the final resting place of the many female victims, and each time we encounter it there is an air of menace and threat that envelops you completely. Equally, the grinding poverty of the city, is prevalent throughout, particularly when Baker takes us in to the world of the maquiladoras – Mexican factories run by foreign companies, that export goods back to that company’s country of origin- and trains our attention completely on the exploitation of the women that they employ, with gruelling shift work, a pittance of pay and the malevolent shadow of violence and sexual abuse. Pilar is a mesmerising character, working as a union agitator, and seeking to spur these women on to challenge their feudal bosses, and to improve their working conditions. Baker not only captures her unrelenting crusade and her strength of character, but also hammers home to the reader the doubt and fear of those she tries to encourage to rise up and rebel. She is a real force of nature, and when she crosses paths with Fuentes, an isolated incorruptible cop, there is a wonderful frisson of suspicion and distrust between them that drives the book on. I think Baker captures the female voices of this book perfectly in this macho, patriarchal society, sensitively portraying the level of threat and violence they encounter, but also showing the strength of spirit they have to draw on to simply survive day to day. It’s beautifully handled, and gives rise to some of the most raw, emotional, and moving passages of the book- the writing is superb.

The whole book is underpinned with the stink of corruption, as Baker expands the plot throughout to encompass the deadly influence of the cartels, the rife corruption in the police force, and in this staunchly Catholic country, the seedy and immoral actions of the priesthood. These purveyors of misery, violence and greed, coil together like a roiling nest of snakes, impervious to punishment, and where life and death are treated with a dispassionate and cool contempt. The characters who inhabit these treacherous worlds are, to a man, brilliantly wrought, and you increasingly feel sickened, yet oddly intrigued, by the way they operate and prosper, feeding off the vulnerable and the addicted. The cartel boss, the priests, the police chief, and the factory owners all come under intense scrutiny, and you find yourself unable to look away from the depths of their depravity.

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. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

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

 

A. A. Dhand- Girl Zero/ Felicia Yap-Yesterday

There are some surprises that no-one should ever have to experience. Standing over the body of your beloved – and murdered – niece is one of them. For Detective Inspector Harry Virdee, a man perilously close to the edge, it feels like the beginning of the end.

His boss may be telling him he’s too close to work the case, but this isn’t something that Harry can just let lie. He needs to dive into the murky depths of the Bradford underworld and find the monster that lurks there who killed his flesh and blood.

But before he can, he must tell his brother, Ron, the terrible news. And there is no predicting how he will react. Impulsive, dangerous and alarmingly well connected, Ron will act first and think later. Harry may have a murderer to find but if he isn’t careful, he may also have a murder to prevent…

And so we return to the seedy underbelly of Bradford in Girl Zero, the striking follow up to the excellent debut Streets of Darkness, that introduced us to D.I. Harry Virdee. Following the brutal murder of his niece, and the pressure this puts on Virdee in terms of his family loyalty, and the boundaries of his professional status as a police officer, Dhand is given ample opportunity to explore the issue of morality. For me, this was the absolute crux of the book, as Virdee has to navigate this intensely personal investigation, whilst balancing the demands of his brother Ron, a lynchpin in Bradford’s criminal community. Throughout the book, I kept drawing on the analogy of angels and demons, as Harry in particular, repeatedly seemed to be in conflict between these two forces. Dhand captures the tension and frustrations that exist between the brothers perfectly throughout, and as Harry’s professional loyalties are stretched and bent to the limit, their relationship and quest for justice lies at the very heart of the book.

With the estrangement from his parents because of marrying outside of his own religion, but obviously by necessity being drawn back into these familial conflicts, this added an extra frisson to the plot as the whole. As in the first book, Dhand explores the painful truths that exist in many Asian families when love overrides religious boundaries, and the exile that often occurs when individual are seen to be turning their back on their faith, and going against the wishes of their family. He handles this sensitively and clearsightedly throughout, with this storyline injecting an intensely human feel to what could have been a linear police procedural. Likewise, Dhand portrays the city of Bradford with an unflinching realism, unafraid to expose the social ills of this city, but with an underlying affection that the reader can easily discern.

I enjoyed Girl Zero very much, perhaps more so than the first book where I did criticise one aspect of it. It not only works as an effective and readable thriller, but is underscored by the some very real human dilemmas that heightened my enjoyment even more. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to PenguinRandomHouse for the ARC)

There are two types of people in the world: those who can only remember yesterday, and those who can also recall the day before. You have just one lifeline to the past: your diary. Each night, you write down the things that matter. Each morning, your diary tells you where you were, who you loved and what you did. Today, the police are at your door. They say that the body of your husband’s mistress has been found in the River Cam. They think your husband killed her two days ago.

Can you trust the police?
Can you trust your husband?
Can you trust yourself?

As the intriguing tagline of debut thriller, Yesterday, reads, “How do you solve a murder when you can only remember yesterday?” , my interest was thoroughly piqued by the seemingly unique premise of a thriller that would explore memory,  and the unreliability of our recollection of past experiences.

Undoubtedly, this is a clever premise, and for the most part I was ready to be convinced by the unique difficulties this societal structure of Monos and Duos would present in the course of a murder investigation. I’m afraid to say though, that I, in common with quite a few reviewers, was not entirely convinced by the way the theme of memory played out within the book, with some serious flaws in the way that certain memories would come to the surface within the structured remit of having either 24 or 48 hour recollections. I was intrigued by the way that memories were recorded, and the fallibility of this, using electronic diaries, but I think the mechanics of this were stretched in credibility. I also had an overriding feeling that too many elements of the crime genre were mixed into the central plot, as well as a huge imitation, and not entirely successful endeavour, to draw on the field of dystopian fiction. Also, the book is punctuated by quotes and the factual presentation of research material, that inhibits the flow of the story, and at times reads like an undergraduate’s dissertation.

I wanted to like the characters, and care about Yap’s startling portrayal of a woman’s descent into mental instability, and a marriage in crisis, but aside from the central police protagonist, Detective Hans Richardson, there was little to endear me to their plight. They seemed very closed off on an emotional level, and normally this reader would begin to form some alliance with a certain character on an empathetic level, but I just found them intensely dislikeable and weak. I also had a problem with the closing section of the book, but in the spirit of non-spoilers, I will not identify the problem. Truthfully, I was much more drawn to the intelligence and trials of Richardson, with Yap’s portrayal of him working much more favourably, and in tune with her presentation of the book as a crime thriller. I found myself itching to get back to the segments featuring this character, and enjoyed the air of subterfuge that colours him,  the pressure this puts on him within the remit of his position as a detective, and how this comes to the fore within the progress of this somewhat turgid investigation.

Obviously, this is my personal opinion, and as Yesterday has already garnered much praise throughout the media, I am probably only one of a few that couldn’t quite be convinced by it. I have no reticence in praising Yap’s attempt to use an interesting premise to play with the boundaries of the crime genre, but I did rather feel that too much had been thrown at it to produce a coherent whole. Maybe just a little too clever for its own good…

(With thanks to Wildfire for the ARC)

Blog Tour- Alex Clare- He’s Gone- Review

goneHow do you find a missing child when his mother doesn’t believe you have the right to even exist? When Detective Inspector Roger Bailley returns to work as Robyn, all she wants is to get on with the job she loves while finally being herself. When toddler Ben Chivers is snatched from a shopping centre on her first day back at work, Robyn has to find Ben- and herself- as she deals with the reactions of her police colleagues, the media and her own daughter…

Trawling the inventory of my crime reading over the years, my interest was piqued by this debut British thriller which has a unique selling point of addressing the issue of gender dysphoria. With the central police character D.I. Roger Bailley returning to work having assumed a new identity as female Detective Inspector Robyn Bailley, Alex Clare invites us into a world hitherto largely unexplored in crime fiction with the emphasis on a police officer undergoing gender reassignment…

Although not without some minor flaws, I largely enjoyed this debut thriller, particularly its focus as a police procedural. There are three central cases revolving around a child’s abduction, the discovery of a body at a building project, and a series of home invasions with elderly individuals as the target. To my mind, the first two of these cases being inextricably linked were very well-realised , and Clare’s obvious research into the balance of straightforward, and at times, mundane details of how police officers garner information and follow leads was well plotted and completely realistic. I actually felt that the third case involving burglaries was a little superfluous to the plot overall, as the predominance of the other two cases, in terms of how they were played out, and the attendant frustrations to the police team’s investigation more than held my interest throughout. I was intrigued by the child abduction case from the outset, mainly due to the characterisation of Ben’s mother, Melissa Chivers, a formidable lawyer, who was singularly one of the most deeply unpleasant individuals that one could encounter. Her spiky interactions with the police, and Bailley in particular, added a real stressful tension to the plot. I would have liked a deeper exploration of her connections to the Church of Immaculate Purity, who sounded like a very sinister bunch of bigots consumed with the belief that everyone is damned to hell, especially if you do not fit their criteria of ‘normalcy’- hence the inevitable tension and bile that Melissa heaps on Bailley. However, this slight lapse aside, I liked the quite clean, linear style of the police cases throughout, with the investigations unfolding with no clumsy coincidences or leap in the dark plot twists. There were moments of genuine tension, neatly inserted into the more linear nature of the police investigation, which added a satisfying ebb and flow to the plot as a whole.

In terms of characterisation, Clare has created a band of police officers who were both extremely believable and overall quite likeable. There are some nice instances of the camaraderie that exists between a team working together day-to-day, and the shared frustrations or triumphs that accompany the twists and turns of a police investigation. The dialogue is fluid and realistic throughout, and the conversations and interactions between her police protagonists has an easy flow to it. Obviously, by addressing the issue of Bailley’s new identity, Clare largely captures the differing reactions that Bailley experiences from her colleagues, the press, her daughter Becky and the perpetrators and victims of crime. On the whole, Clare depicts Bailley and her experiences very well, but I couldn’t help feeling that a little too much of it was surface detail, with many references to Bailley’s focus on her physical appearance in terms of clothes and make-up etc and navigating the skill of being comfortable with a handbag. I would have liked a deeper exploration of Bailley’s psychology as to her decision and motivation to change gender, and her underlying feelings as to why this was so central to her growth and acceptance as a person. There was a possible ‘in’ for this, with the introduction of her daughter into the plot, but this storyline was a little at arm’s length, being largely conducted by phone or text. I would like to have known more about Becky generally, and the fraught relationship with her father, and more to have been made of them finding their way back to each other. Hopefully, this further examination of Bailley gender dysphoria will come to fruition as the series progresses, as this is such a largely unexplored and emotive subject, with a wealth of possibilities, and Bailley’s change as a person growing into, and becoming more comfortable with, her new identity will be interesting to witness.

I think this first introduction to D.I. Robyn Bailley and her team has enormous potential in terms of a series, and with Clare’s obvious skill for plot building, attention to police procedure, and, on the whole, well-realised characterisation there is much to build on in the future. Recommended.

(With thanks to Impress Books for the ARC)

 

 

Summer Thrills- Chris Ewan- Long Time Lost, Jack Grimwood- Moskva, A. A. Dhand- Streets Of Darkness

It is this time of year when peoples’ thoughts turn to summer holidays, and as a bookseller I begin to receive the inevitable requests for the best books to take to while away the time on the plane, on the beach, in a soggy tent, tramping through the forests of Borneo…

So with this in mind here are some recent reads that more than deserve a bit of that precious hand luggage space.

chris

CHRIS EWAN: LONG TIME LOST

Nick Miller and his team provide a unique and highly illegal service, relocating at-risk individuals across Europe with new identities and new lives. Nick excels at what he does for a reason: he’s spent years living in the shadows under an assumed name. But when Nick steps in to prevent the attempted murder of witness-in-hiding Kate Sutherland on the Isle of Man, he triggers a chain of events with devastating consequences for everyone he protects – because Nick and Kate share a common enemy in Connor Lane, a man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, even if it means tearing Nick’s entire network apart.

Having quickly established himself as one of my particular favourites Ewan brings us, Long Time Lost, which takes us on a chilling adventure throughout Britain and Europe, focusing on the work of a small team on a personal mission to protect individuals under witness protection. From its suspenseful opening to a beautifully weighted unfolding of a dark and dangerous tale, this book totally justifies the label of ‘unputdownable’. What struck me as I was reading was the sheer cleverness of plotting that Ewan demonstrates throughout, fortified by a band of characters that range from emotionally damaged, to quirky, to downright dastardly. The two main protagonists of Nick and Kate are incredibly appealing, and with both having more layers than a proverbial onion, Ewan slowly draws back the curtain on the tumultuous events in their lives that have shaped Nick’s role as a protector, and how Kate’s character evolves as she finds herself increasingly under threat as a valuable witness. Ewan uses feints and red herrings to great effect, wrong footing our perceptions of certain characters as the story progresses. By slickly moving from country to country there is a wonderful momentum and sense of movement so just as you adjust yourself to the mortal danger our protagonists face, you are speedily transported to another setting where more tension awaits you. This also makes it incredibly difficult to know when to stop reading, as there is a real sense of you wanting to see what’s around the next corner. It’s thrilling, unpredictable and engrossing. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

 

moskva

JACK GRIMWOOD: MOSKVA

Red Square, 1985. The naked body of a young man is left outside the walls of the Kremlin; frozen solid – like marble to the touch – missing the little finger from his right hand.

A week later, Alex Marston, the headstrong fifteen year old daughter of the British Ambassador disappears. Army Intelligence Officer Tom Fox, posted to Moscow to keep him from telling the truth to a government committee, is asked to help find her. It’s a shot at redemption. But Russia is reluctant to give up the worst of her secrets. As Fox’s investigation sees him dragged deeper towards the dark heart of a Soviet establishment determined to protect its own so his fears grow, with those of the girl’s father, for Alex’s safety. And if Fox can’t find her soon, she looks likely to become the next victim of a sadistic killer whose story is bound tight to that of his country’s terrible past …

It’s a brave writer indeed who pitches up with an idea for a thriller set in 1980’s Moscow, as we all know and love Gorky Park, and many have failed in its wake. But good news crime buddies, Grimwood has cracked it with the atmospheric and claustrophobic Moskva. With impeccable plotting, research and narrative tension, Grimwood has produced one of the best Soviet set thrillers I have read. Drawing on, and using to great effect, all the inherent and documented fear and suspicion so redolent of Soviet life within this period, Grimwood has crafted a supremely intelligent serial killer thriller, with a depth of characterisation that will draw in admirers of other exponents of this subgenre. As the depth of  conspiracy and concealment begins to reveal itself, frustrating Fox’s investigation of Alex’s disappearance, there is a crackling tension to the book throughout, compounded by Grimwood’s unflinching analysis of the weaknesses and dangers of the Soviet state that so consistently thwart Fox, giving him a slippery grasp on truth amongst the smoke and mirrors emanating from the echelons of power in Moscow. I’ll say no more to avoid spoiling your reading of this one, but you must seek this one out. It’s a terrific read, and Grimwood demonstrates again his real flexibility as a writer. Add to your wish list now.

(With thanks to Penguin for the ARC)

 

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A. A. DHAND: STREETS OF DARKNESS

The sky over Bradford is heavy with foreboding. It always is. But this morning it has reason to be – this morning a body has been found. And it’s not just any body. Detective Harry Virdee should be at home with his wife. Impending fatherhood should be all he can think about but he’s been suspended from work just as the biggest case of the year lands on what would have been his desk. He can’t keep himself away. Determined to restore his reputation, Harry is obliged to take to the shadows in search of notorious ex-convict and prime suspect, Lucas Dwight. But as the motivations of the murder threaten to tip an already unstable city into riotous anarchy, Harry finds his preconceptions turned on their head as he discovers what it’s like to be on the other side of the law…

Streets of Darkness is to my knowledge the first crime book set in Bradford that I have encountered, and with only having visited the city a couple of times, my curiosity was instantly aroused with the mouthwatering prospect of unexplored crime territory. Unlike other British police procedural writers, Dhand paints an entirely bleak and unflinching portrait of this city, without the little moments of affection that normally punctuate other writers’ portrayals of their home towns. The image that Dhand portrays of his city is unrelentingly grim and depressing, and there is a downtrodden air amongst its inhabitants that hammers home the true picture of inner city deprivation and neglect that this city has suffered. Even allowing for the rare moments of happiness that Virdee experiences on the cusp of the birth of his first child, his character, with all his personal torments and professional frustrations, is a perfect mirror of Bradford itself. Dhand also highlights the long standing religious intolerance experienced by those marrying outside of their religion- Virdee is a Sikh, but is married to Saima, a Muslim- and I very much enjoyed Dhand’s exploration of the role of religion in their marriage and personal beliefs. Indeed, the attendant problems of faith loom large for Virdee throughout, both personally and professionally, as he becomes embroiled in a violent and dangerous investigation, that soon threatens all he holds dear, against a backdrop of a city thrown into a state of social unrest. Virdee is a traditional maverick, and goes out on a limb in the course of the book, despite operating whilst suspended as a police officer. Despite his downtrodden and naturally pessimistic air I did quite take to him as a character,  but was a little unconvinced by the slightly schmaltzy feel when Dhand turned his attentions to Virdee’s home life.  There was also an annoyingly predictable plot device linked to this that did make me punch the air in frustration as it wasn’t needed, and rather undid the fact that this was a very well-plotted and compelling depiction of inner city strife and burgeoning violence up to that point. However, that niggle aside I would still strongly recommend this debut. Grim, violent and a welcome addition to the British crime writing scene.

(With thanks to Bantam Press for the ARC)

 

Blog Tour- Yusuf Toropov- Jihadi: A Love Story- Review #Jihadi #BlogTour

4Well, this blog tour for Yusuf Toropov’s Jihadi: A Love Story is on to the final furlong, but stopping off today here at Raven Crime Reads for a review of this clever and thought-provoking book…

A former intelligence agent stands accused of terrorism, held without charge in a secret overseas prison. His memoir is in the hands of a brilliant but erratic psychologist whose annotations paint a much darker picture. As the story unravels, we are forced to assess the truth for ourselves, and decide not only what really happened on one fateful overseas assignment, but who is the real terrorist. Peopled by a diverse and unforgettable cast of characters, whose reliability as narrators is always questioned, and with a multi-layered plot heaving with unexpected and often shocking developments, Jihadi: A Love Story is an intelligent thriller that asks big questions. Complex, intriguing and intricately woven, this is an astonishing debut that explores the nature of good and evil alongside notions of nationalism, terrorism and fidelity, and, above all, the fragility of the human mind…

Suffused with unreliable narrators, shifting timelines and locations, addendums to the text encased in grey boxes with a miniscule font, and short diversions from reality, this is not an easy read, and attention must be paid throughout. I really found that a few precious moments reading time snatched throughout the day were not conducive to the pleasure of reading this book, and only when reading substantial sections at a time did the real intelligence and cleverness of this book impact on me more. It is also by extension, one of the most difficult books I have had to review, so bear with me…

The nature of the writing from the outset is challenging, and you may feel a little ‘all-at-sea’ when first embarking on this, until the characters gain a foothold in your mind, and the swift changes of narrative begin to establish a pattern and rhythm. But beware because, as a further ramification of this initial state of confusion, you will be further toyed with by Toropov as things happen, both cruel and unusual that will surprise and shock you in equal measure, further heightening the strange state of unreality, and the pure unpalatable truths of reality that the author seeks to convey. In simple terms, the whole book reads as a memoir, narrated by an American special operative on his return from a particularly ill-fated incursion into an unnamed Islamic state, and the characters and incidents that impact on his personal experience. However, this story then delineates to address far bigger themes, amongst them, the nefarious grasp of religious radicalism counterbalanced by the beauty of true religion, feminism, love and loss, and the clash of cultures that leads to violence and human collateral damage. Consequently, the essential style of this book is difficult to pinpoint as it reads like T. S. Eliot, fused with Homeland, with a soundtrack of The Beatles The White Album (referred to in the aforementioned grey boxes), interspersed with references to the Koran, whilst ultimately fulfilling its criteria as a heightened socially, and culturally aware, literary thriller.

Every single character within the book is shrewdly drawn, causing a gamut of emotions within the reader themselves, from the appalling actions of Mazzoni, an American marine, the religious rabble rousing of Abu Islam, the road to conversion of our main narrator Thelonius himself, and my favourite character Fatima, a good Islamic woman whose personal experiences lead her on an unexpected but completely justified path to revenge and retribution. Between all the protagonists we bear witness to the very best and worst of human behaviour, their prejudices and goodness, and how the predatory nature of some individuals wreaks havoc on the innocent, and undermines our faith in each other. This blend of assured characterisation to pass comment on issues that ultimately affect us all is extremely cleverly done, not with browbeating and preaching, but with a thought-provoking and subtle prod for us to consider our own responses to these weighty issues.

So shut out the world, turn off that phone, ramp up The White Album by The Beatles, and devote time to this to appreciate it fully. It is a challenging and, at times, a difficult read, but this is a good thing. Embrace it, and I think you’ll find this a pleasingly different reading experience.

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(With thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for the ARC)

 

Catch up with, or continue to follow this excellent blog tour at the sites below…

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