August 2015 Round-Up and Raven’s Book of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Started off the month at quite a pace, and more than happy that despite some recurrent issues with my technology, managed to post ten reviews. However, thanks to the blip with the I.T. (yes, I did try turning it off- and back on again) there are another couple of reviews in reserve for September posting. With three blog tours on the horizon for September for Simon Toyne- Solomon Creed, Rod Reynolds- The Dark Inside and Kati Hiekkapelto- The Defenceless, and a stack of new releases,  I’m also going to try and get to a lovely little pile of books from authors I discovered in May at CrimeFest. Fingers crossed. It’s going to be a busy month that’s for sure!

Books read and reviewed:

Neely Tucker- Murder D.C. (www.crimefictionlover.com)

Jason Hewitt- The Dynamite Room

Simon Sylvester- The Visitors

 S. Williams- Tuesday Falling

M. O. Walsh- My Sunshine Away

Catherine Hunt- Someone Out There

Jax Miller- Freedom’s Child

Doug Johnstone- The Jump

Olen Steinhauer- All The Old Knives (www.crimefictionlover.com)

Ava Marsh- Untouchable (www.crimefictionlover.com)

RAVEN’S BOOK OF THE MONTH

tuesInterestingly this has been a month of real highs and lows but there are three books worthy of another mention before the grand unveiling. I absolutely loved the fresh, vibrant and unique debut Tuesday Falling by S. Williams, and have already been recommending it to colleagues and customers alike. Mixing the hidden history of life below London, with cutting edge technology, this was a real winner.  Pacey plot, great characters and some real “well, I never knew that” moments.

I was bewitched by Olen Steinhauer’s All The Old Knives with it’s seemingly familiar settingall-the-old-knives-978144729574701 of an intimate dinner for two, but by the clever use of shifting timelines in a fairly compact form, revealed much more beneath it’s surface, in a twisting tale of CIA chicanery and double-dealing. An intelligent and compelling thriller.

The-Jump-Doug-JohnstoneAlso, Doug Johnstone’s The Jump, which could certainly feature in my end of year round-up, due to the emotional intensity and sensitivity with which he draws his main character, and the mesmeric quality of the prose. Powerful writing, which would put many contemporary fiction writers in the shade.

 

CJZBS7gVAAAmIfbHowever, top honour this month goes to Jax Miller- Freedom’s Child– with its edgy subject matter, a brilliant main protagonist in the form of the eponymous Freedom, and for demonstrating all that the Raven likes best about gritty American fiction. Lean and lyrical prose, social comment, a sublime use of location, and a book that resonates long after the reading of it. Loved it. Loved it. Loved it.

 

A Weekend Round Up- Hewitt, Sylvester, Williams, Walsh and Hunt- the good, the bad and the ugly…

As I am so woefully behind with my reviews, and am nervously aware of further reviewing commitments this month, I am going to unashamedly nick a fellow blogger’s idea for digested reads. Here then, for your reading pleasure, and in the curtailed style of internet reading, are five reads from recent weeks- the good and the bad…

dyJASON HEWITT- THE DYNAMITE ROOM: July 1940. Eleven-year-old Lydia walks through a village in rural Suffolk on a baking hot day. She is wearing a gas mask. The shops and houses are empty, windows boarded up and sandbags green with mildew, the village seemingly deserted. Leaving it behind, she strikes off down a country lane through the salt marshes to a large Edwardian house – the house she grew up in. Lydia finds it empty too, the windows covered in black-out blinds. Her family is gone. Late that night he comes, a soldier, gun in hand and heralding a full-blown German invasion. There are, he explains to her, certain rules she must now abide by. He won’t hurt Lydia, but she cannot leave the house. Is he telling the truth? What is he looking for? Why is he so familiar? And how does he already know Lydia’s name? 

Not strictly, strictly, a crime book I know, but contains more than enough thought-provoking psychological suspense to keep any reader satisfied. With the claustrophobic setting of two completely contrasting characters confined within a contained space for the majority of the book, Hewitt completely immerses us in the issues of morality and loyalty that come into play in times of conflict. By using the setting of Lydia’s home, but carefully interweaving details of the background of both characters, there is much mileage to be had in manipulating and changing the reader’s empathy as piece by piece certain details are revealed- particularly in the case of Heiden’s former experiences. In the characterisation of both, Hewitt more than demonstrates his authorial control, and the pace of this meditative and at times lyrically written plot, carries the reader along effortlessly. With his background in acting, there is a very visual quality to his description, and Lydia’s home in particular is tangible and real, taking on a character of its own. I have one small grievance. I wish that the book had been concluded at the end of the penultimate chapter which was mighty powerful and caused more than a sharp inhalation of breath, as I do have a personal aversion to ‘wrap-up’ final chapters. However, the prose style of the book, which I found very reminiscent of the Irish literary style ( a la Toibin, Trevor etc), the depth of research, and beautifully drawn characters, were completely satisfying. Excellent.

 

visitors1SIMON SYLVESTER- THE VISITORS: The island has always seemed such a safe place, such a friendly community. Now the possibility of a killer on Bancree is dangerously close to home.
Nobody moves to the remote Scottish island of Bancree, and few leave – but leaving is exactly what seventeen-year-old Flora intends to do. So when a mysterious man and his daughter move into isolated Dog Cottage, Flo is curious. What could have brought these strangers to the island? The man is seductively handsome but radiates menace; and there’s something about his daughter Ailsa that Flo can’t help but feel drawn towards. People aren’t only arriving on Bancree – they are disappearing too. Reports of missing islanders fill the press and unnerve the community. When a body washes ashore, suspicion turns to the strange newcomers on Dog Rock. Convinced of their innocence, Flo is fiercely determined to protect her friend Ailsa. Could the answer to the disappearances, and to the pull of her own heart, lie out there, beyond the waves? 

There’s something about crime fiction set in small town communities that is endlessly compelling, and if these communities are set on remote Scottish islands, so much the better! Again, another crime book that is much more allayed to the style of contemporary fiction, The Visitors  is an intriguing tale, steeped in myth, murder and a nifty reworking of the familiar locked room mystery, where there are only a finite group of suspects, but where the guilty party is well-concealed. This book is atmospheric, mysterious, and is imbued with a beautiful dream-like quality, incorporating as it does mythical tales from the tradition of oral storytelling. By fusing so completely the superstitions of the past, with an essentially modern murder mystery focussed around  two young female protagonists, Sylvester has really brought something quite different to the genre. Being fascinated personally by the Icelandic sagas and Norse myth, I thoroughly enjoyed the tales of the Shennachie but also how this was counterbalanced throughout by attention to the very particular problems of modern island existence in the contemporary age. Although I found the actual murder mystery a less satisfying aspect of the book, this was of little consequence when taking the character, atmosphere and the rendering of the mythical tales into account. Enjoyed and recommend.

 

tuesS. WILLIAMS- TUESDAY FALLING: You’ve never met anyone like Tuesday. She has suffered extreme cruelty at the hands of men, and so has taken it upon herself to seek vengeance. She wants to protect and help others like her, to ease their suffering. A force to be reckoned with, she lives beneath the streets of London in the hidden network of forgotten tunnels that honeycomb the city – and this is her preferred hunting ground. When Tuesday is connected to a series of brutal attacks on gang members, DI Loss takes on the investigation. A burned-out detective still suffering the devastating effects of the unsolved murder of his daughter three years earlier, the case starts to hit close to home. Because soon Loss will discover that Tuesday could hold the key to uncovering the truth about what happened to his daughter…

Fresh, unique and exciting would be just three of the words I would use to describe this wholly original debut crime thriller. Set underground, over-ground (not Womble-ing free) in London, this  thriller combines the technological savvy age and cut and thrust of the teeming life of the metropolis, whilst bringing to the reader’s attention the historical underbelly of this great city. I adored the delicious and surprising detail of the life below the city streets, that Peter Ackroyd, would be envious of, and the interesting and archaic weapons that Tuesday uses to accomplish her mission. The characterisation was also absolutely top-notch with Tuesday revealing herself as a glorious amalgamation of Lisbeth Salander and Katniss Everdene, with her outward appearance of strength undercut by a heart-rending sense of frailty. Likewise, D.I. Loss and his female police partner, D. S. Stone made for a terrific partnership with his damaged and world weary persona, working in absolute balance with her streetwise nouse and natural humour. The story was clever, full of tricks and totally engrossing. Loved it. Loved it. Loved it.

imagesQRS0CTBCM. O. WALSH- MY SUNSHINE AWAY: Welcome to Woodland Hills, Louisiana: a place of lush, sweltering summers, neighbourhood cookouts in every backyard and vats of chilled beer under the crepe myrtles. One day Lindy Simpson cycles home from school and straight into a trap: someone is lying in wait for her, a wire strung between lampposts blocking the path. She is raped just yards from her front door. No one sees a thing and the perpetrator is not caught. Her fourteen year old neighbour has cherished a crush on Lindy, the ultimate girl next door, since they were kids. After her assault he becomes determined to solve the crime, investigating each suspect in the neighbourhood. But before this long, hot summer is out, it will become clear that the friendly community of Woodland Hills has much to hide. Behind every white picket fence in suburbia lies a tangled web of darkness. In his zeal to solve the mystery, the teenage detective stumbles across a sinister world he doesn’t recognise, drawing ever closer to a terrifying denouement…

On paper, I should have absolutely loved this, as it appeared to tick the boxes of what I most enjoy reading, but it didn’t. This is always one of those tricky ones to review, as  I can appreciate what the author was aiming for, relocating the traditional rural backwoods setting of the Southern Gothic into a suburban setting, but it really didn’t gel for me. On the positive side, I liked the sultry and suffocating atmosphere of Louisiana, and being a native of the state, Walsh made a strong impact with the rendition of place. I was intrigued at the start by the premise of the crime, the infatuation of Lindy’s neighbour, and his angst-ridden musings as to the identity of the guilty party, both as child and adult,  but I soon got tired by the endless circles the plot seemed to go in as it slowly staggered to its conclusion. I just found it all a bit tedious and I was more than a little relieved to get to the end. Think I will remain loyal to my beloved Southern Gothic in its traditional setting. Disappointing.

catherine-hunt-someone-out-thereCATHERINE HUNT- SOMEONE OUT THERE: Laura Maxwell appears to have it all – perfect career, perfect husband, perfect life. But how well do you really know the people around you? All it takes is one tiny crack to shatter the whole façade. A series of accidents causes Laura to believe that someone out there is deliberately targeting her, trying to harm her. The fear starts to pervade every part of her life, affecting her work and her marriage. Increasingly, she feels that no one believes her story, and she must face down her attacker alone…

Another addition to the completely saturated domestic noir market and let’s roll it out again- “perfect for fans of Girl On The Train and Gone Girl”. Aaargh *runs away screaming*.  As a bookseller and a reader I am so over this genre, but in the spirit of being a dedicated reviewer I gave this one a look. Laura was your typical middle class – look at my lovely life- type of woman, destined for a fall (actually there’s a nasty episode with a horse that demonstrates this), and this book was so reminiscent of Sabine Durrant’s  Under Your Skin that my antenna of doom were twitching quite early.  I had my first whiff of a clue on page 9. Had it completely sussed by page 50. And was treading water from there on in. Okay- I skipped to the end. I was correct in my assumptions. Oh well. Lots and lots of people love this book as is testified by the Amazon reviews. Just not me. Sorry.

 

 

Bloody Scotland Blog Tour- An Interview With Simon Sylvester- The Visitors

 

cgmnwk2xaaal1yzAs the excitement builds in advance of this year’s Bloody Scotland crime writing festival, I am delighted to welcome Simon Sylvester, author of The Visitors, to answer some probing questions on his life as a writer…

imgID11657432_1422209231_crop_550x380To whet the reader’s appetite, tell us more about The Visitors…
The Visitors is set on a remote Scottish island called Bancree, and narrated by a girl called Flora Cannan. At 17, Flo feels trapped on the island, and is counting down the days before she can leave. Through her we learn about a string of mysterious disappearances, and also about the myth of the selkie, which Flo studies for a school project. The islanders become increasingly fearful as more people disappear, and then a curious couple move to Bancree, becoming Flora’s only friends. The book blends landscape, crime, and folklore. Ultimately, The Visitors is a murder mystery about love.

visitors1And your route to publication…
I wrote the first draft of the book during a year of teacher-training, part-time college work and part-time childcare, working mostly late at night. My amazing agent Sue sent it to Quercus Books, and we spent another six months working through some edits. I’ve been very lucky that the book has been quite well received, and went on to win a couple of prizes, for which I’m extremely grateful. It’s a strange thing to think of other people reading it. I know you’re not supposed to read reviews, but I can’t help myself. I spent so long bound up in the story and the characters that I’m still thrown by other people reading it.

How did you come to the decision to focus your book on two teenage female protagonists, and was it difficult to achieve the level of authenticity to their narrative voice that you have?
I don’t believe that women, or teenagers, are another sort of species, or speak a different language. Anger and love, frustration and joy, sadness and curiosity – these are true to all of us, and make a core of human experience. It’s my job to bring those things to my characters. Empathy is one of a writer’s most important weapons, I think, giving the ability to temporarily extend their own senses into a charcter, and their situation, and their world, and explore how that feels. I never considered myself a ventriloquist in writing like a teenage girl. If anything, it helped me go an adventure of my own.

What is it about small isolated communities that make them such fertile ground for crime fiction in particular?
Secrets! We all have them. Secrets are the key to all crime fiction. They work really well in cities, where victims and criminals are hidden in a crowd, and the mystery is to pick one culprit from many suspects, but it’s perhaps more unsettling when there are fewer players, and they’re forced together face to face. That can make the story immediate, urgent, personal. Familiarity makes us feel safe, after all, and undermining that sense of safety with fear and doubt is gold for any writer. It creates a grisly little melting pot of distrust, fear, hope and misdirection. Focusing on smaller communities also allows for the landscape itself to become involved, and I like writing about landscape. I spent a windswept week camping on Coll this summer, and found myself imagining a murder there. When the ferry comes once a day and fewer than 200 people live on the island, everyone is a suspect – the same friends and neighbours island communities depend upon. My four-year-old daughter also insisted she saw kelpies in the lochans. Maybe that’s one for another novel!

I loved the use of myth and the harking back to the age-old tradition of oral storytelling you employ in the book. Was there much research involved to capture the voice of the Shennachie?
The Visitors marked something of a crossroads for me. After years of writing experimental fiction, I pretty much stumbled into the understanding that actually, I wanted to write stories, real stories, stories that took me on journeys. I started going to more open mic nights and spoken word events, and enjoying what I heard. One of the best was called Dreamfired. Once a month, Dreamfired brought international storytellers to a hall in rural Cumbria, where they shared myths, or folk tales, or real life tales. I learned a lot from them about storyteling as both a tradition and a performance. When it came to writing The Visitors, I knew Izzy would tell self-contained stories, and he’d tell them in a quite theatrical way. I invented the stories he tells, though! The classic traditional selkie tale makes it into the book, but the others are mine; I did a lot of research, but couldn’t find selkie stories that did quite what I needed.

Is there an immediate connection to you having an idea about a book and getting it down on paper/screen, or do you have an extended period of cogitation. What is your normal writing routine? And what’s in the pipeline?
Some ideas are immediate, and some need to brew, but they all evolve when I start to write. The Visitors popped into my head almost fully-formed, but the more I wrote, the more it cartwheeled away from me. Flora and Ailsa set off on paths of their own choosing, and it began to feel as though I was along for the ride. My current work is a novel called The Hollows. I spent all of last year slogging away on it, grafting out shitty sentences and cutting them again, and then discovered on Christmas Eve, after a year of this grind, that I was writing the exact same plot and setting of another book. I took a deep breath, drank a strong beer, and deleted it all. I spent January with a notebook and a pen, remembering why I wanted to tell the story in the first place. Then I wrote it in in two days a week over the next four months – 105,000 words in about 35 working days, which feels insane. I’ll be finishing the last tweaks this week, and then my wife will read it, and then I’ll send it to my agent and keep my fingers firmly crossed. The Hollows is another mystery/thriller. It’s about memories and mud, and it’s the most fun I’ve had while writing a novel. Part of that is changing my work routine. I used to work late into the night and feel exhausted all the time, but now I go to bed early and write before I go to work in the morning. On a good morning, I can write 500 words. On a bad morning, I barely have time to read what I wrote the day before; but either way, I keep in touch with my manuscript, so I’m coming to it fresh when I get a full day to write. That’s made it easier to carry the flow of the story.

Sticking your head above the parapet, do you have any advice for the budding writer?
I’m a little wary of handing out advice, because ultimately all I have to offer is what works for me, and I suspect that everyone needs to find their own way of muddling through. So, with that said, my humble suggestions are to take public transport as much as possible, so you can eavesdrop in trains and bustops and cafes. Turn off the internet when you’re working and get rid of your smart phone – it’s a vampire for your senses. Go walking or swimming. Read outside your comfort zone. Go to workshops and spoken word nights, because writing needs community. Read your work aloud, all the time. Be kind. Be brave.

In the spirit of the British summer- if it ever arrives- you can invite a bunch of authors (alive or dead) round for a half-cooked barbecue sausage and a warm beer. Who would you choose? 

Never meet your heroes, right? There are living authors I’d like to meet, like Sarah Waters and Sarah Hall and Neil Gaiman and Arjun Basu and J. Robert Lennon, and dead authors I’d like to have met, like Hunter S. Thompson and Roberto Bolano, but most of all, I would have very much liked a pint of beer with Terry Pratchett. His books carried me through some difficult times, and he had a warmth and a humour and an anger that I’m going to miss…

 

cgmnwk2xaaal1yzSimon will be appearing at Bloody Scotland on Sunday September 13th: follow the link here

“We ship out to sea with two highly original voices in crime fiction. Former journalist turned crime writer Mark Douglas-Home’s novels follow oceanographer or ‘sea detective’ Cal McGill who has returned for a third instalment in The Malice of Waves. Not The Booker Prize winner Simon Sylvester’s thoughtful novel The Visitors sees disappearances happen on a storm-tossed Scottish island, and draws on myths of selkies and sea creatures.”

And don’t forget to keep up with the blog tour to discover more about the authors taking part in Bloody Scotland…

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