Raven’s Yearly Round-Up and Top 5 Crime Reads 2015

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)As the end of 2015 approaches, it is time to look back in awe and wonder at some of the books that have thrilled and entertained the Raven over the last twelve months. With approximately 125 crime books read, and not far off 100 reviews posted, this year has heralded a bumper crop of exciting crime reads, A slew of brilliant debuts including Oscar de Muriel- The Strings of Murder, Tom Callaghan’s The Killing Winter, Ragnar Jonasson’s Snowblind and David Young’s Stasi Child, and great new offerings from established names such as Mari Hannah, Steve Mosby, William Shaw, Simon Toyne and Malcolm Mackay have been a joy to read.  So here are the highlights and lowlights of the year… 

THE 40-PAGE RULE

With the constant influx of books I receive as a blogger, full time bookseller, and my day off job as a volunteer in a charity book shop, there is never a shortage of reading material accumulated in the teetering to be read mountain! Hence the need for the 40-page rule. If a book has failed to ignite my interest within this page count, I’m afraid it is discarded, passed on to others, or fulfils it’s charitable duty as a donation to the shop mentioned above. The parameters for a book’s untimely fate vary- clichéd, overwritten, one-dimensional characters, too much similarity to another book, obvious plot turns or killers, and if anyone mentions someone opening a door in their underwear, all hope is lost. I usually manage to read nearer 200 books in a year so a fairly hefty count of 42 non-starters have impeded my reading. Unusually for someone known for their bluntness, in the good spirit of Christmas I’m naming no names, but rest assured your books have found a good home elsewhere…

THE MOST HYPED CRIME GENRE OF THE YEAR

the-girl-on-the-train-uk-e1420761445402It seems that only by dwelling at the outer reaches of the Arctic Circle could you escape the hype surrounding The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins. And yet the Raven was unmoved by the sheer intensity of the praise heaped upon this book on its release, and the ensuing avalanche of ‘domestic noir’ thrillers that it helped spawn. There again I didn’t like Gone Girl either. I am the domestic noir Grinch. Enough already.

WORDS FAILED ME (BUT IN A GOOD WAY)

litten2As a non-professional reviewer and a casual blogger, sometimes a book utterly defeats any talent for reviewing that you believe you possess! One such book this year was Russ Litten’s Kingdom. Having waxed lyrical about Litten’s previous book Swear Down which was terrific, I was incredibly excited to receive Kingdom to review. I was totally in its thrall from start to finish, but when it came to the depth of this reading experience, the majesty of the language, the emotional intensity, and sheer cleverness of the whole affair, words defeated me. Completely. Too marvellous for words.

TURNING MY BACK ON CRIME (OCCASIONALLY)

It may be hard to believe, but yes, I do quite often read books that are not crime. Yes really. So three stand-out fiction reads for me this year would be Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone, where the voice of the late lamented John Lennon sang from every page, The Reader On The 6.47 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, a beautiful French novel with echoes of Patrick Modiano, and Glenn Taylor’s A Hanging At Cinder Bottom, an American writer who never disappoints in his characterisation and crackling dialogue.

And so to the awards ceremony….cue fanfare….and in a break from tradition not all of these were nominated as books of the month at the time, but have stayed in my head, popping up in unguarded moments…

RAVEN’S TOP 5 BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Click on the book jackets to read the reviews.

5. KARIM MISKE-ARAB JAZZ

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4. DOUG JOHNSTONE-THE JUMP

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3. MATTHEW FRANK-IF I SHOULD DIE

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2. ANTTI TUOMAINEN- DARK AS MY HEART

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1. JAX MILLER- FREEDOM’S CHILD

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In a strange instance of premonition, I ended my review of Freedom’s Child saying that it would possibly be my book of the year. Lean prose, a laconic and rhythmical style and an utterly compelling central character in the shape of the emotionally damaged Freedom. A brilliant and unforgettable debut.

 

 

Russ Litten- Swear Down

Product DetailsA young gang leader is found stabbed on a Hackney estate – but two people confess to the murder. Ndekwe, an ambitious, newly promoted Detective Sergeant within a subtly racist police force, believes the more obvious of the two confessions: from McKenzie, a teenager from the estate with a police record of juvenile crime.But why does Jack Shepherdson – an ex-merchant seaman in his sixties – come forward with his own confession? Is he covering for McKenzie, his colleague in the bar they worked at? Or is there more truth in his statement than Ndekwe at first believes?As we listen, with Ndekwe, to their stories – to the lives of the segregated and unheard – a heartbreaking and suspenseful story emerges.

 I’m always keen to discover crime books that offer something new to the genre and demonstrate a different approach what could be a straightforward police procedural- Russ Litten more than achieves both in his powerfully affecting new novel.

Employing a unique premise with two men both confessing to one murder, Litten leads us through both their testimonies with an assured touch, and genuinely muddying the waters in terms of guilt or innocence. By using two such different protagonists- a black London born youth, McKenzie and  wily old Northerner, Jack- Litten exhibits his skills as a writer to achieve an absolute authenticity to both their voices and character, as their confessions come under the microscope of fast track detective Peter Ndekwe, who embarks on a personal mission to uncover the ‘true’ perpetrator of the crime. The characterisation is absolutely superb as Litten captures the tone and nuances of McKenzie’s and Jack’s speech patterns, and their differing life experiences as each layer of their confessions are slowly revealed to us throughout the book. McKenzie is an inherently good lad who like some many youths becomes embroiled into the nefarious world of gang culture. He comes from a broken home and has his own half baked dream of escaping to Jamaica and tracking down his errant father. He crosses paths with Jack, formerly from Hull, whose speech not only draws on his Northern roots, but is also subtly interlaced with old fashioned London slang, and whose life experience and genuine concern for young McKenzie, draws the two into an unlikely but touching friendship. I’m probably not explaining this properly, but there is a real sense of the oral tradition of storytelling running throughout the book, with the narration prompting the reader to soundlessly tap into the cadence of their speech. The rhythms of these confessional passages conjured up the pace and tone of both their accents in my head, and felt myself seamlessly switching between the two. With their exceedingly different backgrounds and divisions of age and race, Litten characterises both with precision and, more importantly, complete plausibility and totally immerses the reader in their powerfully affecting narratives.

Likewise newly promoted and fast tracked DS Ndekwe adds another essential dimension to the plot, as we bear witness to the subtle racism and feelings of resentment that his career progression causes amongst his colleagues. His determination to get to the bottom of the two confessions, to the chagrin of his superior officer Gorman, establishes him as a barometer of morality when confronted with the events leading up to the murder, and as to why both McKenzie and Jack have acted in the way they have. We see a man who is totally focused on his professional life juxtaposed with sporadic snapshots of his home life, as a personal connection outside of his work begins to loom large in the investigation, adding another facet to this unsettling tale.

This is a slowburner, in the best sense of the word, and I would urge you to just be carried away by the beautifully paced narrative, and  be absorbed in the slow rendering up of McKenzie’s and Jack’s hopes and dreams thwarted by the real demands of their day to day existences. Litten’s use of  plot, narrative and dialogue is pitch perfect and a rare treat for those readers who look for an added dimension to their crime fiction but who also relish an ultimately tough and uncompromising read. This novel will challenge your conceptions and most importantly have you thinking about it long after the final page is turned. A remarkable novel that deserves to be talked about.

Russ Litten was born at the end of the 60’s, grew up in the 70’s and left school in the 80’s. He spent the subsequent decades in a bewildering variety of jobs before becoming a freelance writer at the turn of the century, contributing pieces to The Independent, Reader’s Digest, The Yorkshire Post and BSKY B. He has written drama for television, radio and film and currently works as a writer in prisons. His first novel, SCREAM IF YOU WANT TO GO FASTER was published by William Heinemann in January 2011. SWEAR DOWN is published by Tindal Street Press April 2013. Find Russ on Twitter @RussLitten

(With thanks to Luke Brown at Tindal Street Press for the ARC and to Nick Quantrill  for tipping me the wink about Swear Down!)