Raven’s Yearly Round Up and Top 10 Crime Reads Of The Year 2018

And so another year of superb reading has ended, throwing all bloggers into a state of rumination, indecision and mild despair, as we seek to narrow our reads down to our particular favourites. Although, for various reasons I won’t bore you with, I had a slightly lower reading count this year, I feel I have unearthed some real beauties, and delighted that my general plan to ignore the most overhyped books of the year worked a treat for me! I only read two of these (for work) and was totally gratified that my new rule held true- if it’s hyped it’s probably a turkey! Joking aside, I genuinely have struggled to narrow my reading to a definitive list, so I’m going to cheat slightly and round up a few of those that just missed the final ten, as they are completely worth your close attention, before revealing the final line-up…

I already have a substantial list of books coming this year that have caught my attention, both crime and fiction, so I may mix it up a bit and do some fiction reviews too, as I love both genres. I’m also going to pull back a bit on participating in blog tours, to allow me a little breathing space, and better time management for reading and reviewing. My reading list has also been significantly increased due to my inclusion as a judge for The Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year, as a replacement for the most excellent Barry Forshaw. It’s all very exciting and looking forward to discussing and comparing notes with Sarah Ward, Kat Hall and Karen Meek on a not insubstantial list- there’s been some great reads so far, but my lips are sealed…

So my honourable mentions go to these that only missed the cut by a hair’s breadth (click on the image for the review). From Barbados to Brazil, from Denmark and the USA to Belgium and France, all of these are brilliantly character driven, atmospheric, socially perceptive or just damned thrilling reads, that were close, so close, to my favourites of the year. If you missed them, add them to your New Year reading lists, and you won’t be disappointed…

   

So, eyes down and here we go for the Top 10 of the Year- click on the images for the full reviews…

10.

“It was feisty, fresh, wonderfully sordid and a sublime blast of noir to welcome in the new year.” 

  9.

“Without resorting to soapbox declarations on the state of Britain, Shaw holds a mirror up to the conflicting sides of the immigration issue, whilst keeping the book solidly on track as a crime thriller. Consequently, Salt Lane is never less than a wonderfully multi-layered contemporary thriller, replete with the highest calibre characterisation, and a looming feel of unease.”

8.

“Caleb’s character works well on several levels, due to the authenticity that Viskic brings to him and his voice. Here is a man that recognises his own weaknesses, and by extension the weaknesses of others, and carries with him a real sense of emotional intelligence, despite the constraints that his aural impairment places on him.”

7.

Grimwood handles all aspects of this book with a deft touch from setting, to characterisation, to pace, to the plot itself, and if you love a twisty, cerebral Cold War thriller as much as I do, I would definitely recommend that you seek out Nightfall Berlin. Duplicitous spies, and conniving Russians seems oddly prescient at the moment.”

6.

“It is so gratifying to reach the third book in a series and for it to feel as fresh and vibrant as the first two. Partly, I would put this down to the developing working relationship, and growing friendship of our chalk and cheese partnership of Sam and Surrender-not, and the sheer level of engagement Mukherjee creates with the reader in how he presents the social and political unrest of this turbulent period of Indian history.

5.

“The sultry, suffocating feel of Mississippi drips from every page, and the laconic cadence of the Deep South, resonates in your mind, in the stripped down, bare bones dialogue, that says as much in the gaps that it leaves, as the spaces it fills. The book oozes atmosphere and tension, and as Smith weaves his tale, I would defy you not to surrender to this dark,  brutal, but utterly beautiful story with its glimmers of redemption, and the power of human connection.”

4.

“I think it’s safe to say that a significant number of people that read, aside from the pure enjoyment of reading, do so to provide themselves with an enhanced comprehension of the world around them, and to encounter and experience people, places and cultural differences, and this is what Miller achieves here. American By Day is smarter than your average thriller, but containing all the essential components of good crime fiction that keep us reading and reading.

3.

“Sins As Scarlet is not only compelling as a thriller should be, but has layers of scrutiny and observation on the themes of race, gender roles, social division, migration and more, which makes it punchy and thought provoking, and at times exceptionally moving.

1.

Yes, I know you’re thinking where has number 2 gone?

Well, all year I was convinced that a certain book would be my top read of the year until November when I read a certain book by Lou Berney called November Road, which was completely inseparable from Tim Baker’s City Without Stars, which deservedly held the number one spot since January! So I have two favourite books of the year and here’s why… 

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.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I appreciate my crime reading is always influenced more by those books that span the genres of crime and contemporary fiction, as I find the more linear, and therefore utterly predictable crime books, less enriching as a reader. November Road held me in it’s thrall from the outset, with its clarity of prose, and perfect characterisation, digging down deep into the nature of human relationships forged in troubled circumstances. This is unquestionably one of those books that will haunt me for some time to come.  

So there we have it. Another year packed full of brilliant books, so thanks as always to my regular followers of this blog and on Twitter, to the publishers for the advance reading copies, to Netgalley for the same, to the wonderful bookshops across the land, and to my fellow bloggers who have directed me to many more amazing reads over the course of the year. A big Happy New Year to you all, and wishing you all another splendid year of reading delights. 

 

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:

 

January 2016 Round Up and Raven’s Book of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)As we proceed into the new year, January has found the Raven in slightly pensive mood as to the direction of my blog, and what I review.  Having read fellow bloggers’ reading resolutions, I have decided to come up with a couple of my own….

So, first off, I have pretty much dispensed with my e-reader and consigned it to the interstellar realm of oblivion- a bottom drawer. In my work life I spend my whole day recommending books, proper paper books, and the tactile experience of reading,  and that really is where my heart lies.  I find it such a soulless experience reading on an electronic device , and more often than not just scan down the screen of text so I’m not actually taking in everything I read, which isn’t right for me, or fair to the authors whose work I’m trying to engage with. So from now on, it will be a very rare occurrence for me to read on an e-reader. Viva la book!

I also want to concentrate more on debuts, authors I have not reviewed before, and those strange quirky European delights- a shift of focus that began to a certain degree last year. I will probably post less on mainstream authors as I usually have to read the big new releases as part of my remit as a bookseller, and they are invariably very widely reviewed with a higher profile, whereas I do get a vicarious thrill out of discovering new crime authors and hollering about them. Looking at the next couple of months proof pile, there will be a plethora of debuts hitting this blog!  Obviously, I will still enjoy reading and reviewing  time with my old favourites. You know who you are….

And I have to make time to read more fiction. I had a spell last year where I read over 20 crime books back-to-back, neglecting my overflowing pile of fiction, and leading to a little bit of crime burn-out. There’s some brilliant fiction debuts winging their way to us over the next few months,  I’ll give you an early tip for Anatomy of a Soldier  by Harry Parker out in March- the only book that has ever reduced me to tears, and one of the most honest, harrowing and poignant depictions of war I have ever read. Also there’s some great rediscovered classics coming up for air. Currently in the thrall of Thomas Savage- The Power of the Dog from 1967 which is a sublime mash-up of Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy.

So, to January which was chockfull of blog tours, giveaways and some great reads:

BOOKS READ AND REVIEWED

Craig Robertson- In Place of Death

Kevin Wignall- A Death In Sweden

 Nadia Dalbuono- The American

 Ragnar Jonasson- Nightblind 

Tim Baker-Fever City  

Coffin Road book jacketI also read and largely enjoyed Peter May- Coffin Road– a return to the wild outposts of Scotland, with an interesting commentary on the environmental havoc we are waging on our bee populations, alongside an intriguing plotline involving murder and memory loss. Although I didn’t think it was quite as strong as some of his previous books, a Peter May on an offish day is still a delight.

aaaDavid Mark’s Dead Pretty saw a series going from strength to strength, and it is always a delight to spend time in the company of freckled faced detective Aector McAvoy in Humberside. Although I was slightly discombobulated by one of his main characters acting so far out of character, as to be almost unrecognisable, Mark has once again produced an emotional and engaging rollercoaster of a police procedural.

51x9Zv9I5-L__SX323_BO1,204,203,200_And of course, Stuart MacBride’s In The Cold Dark Ground the 10th outing for the wonderful Logan ‘Lazarus’  Macrae and his ex-boss the acid-tongued DCI Steel. Pathos, violence and humour all the way, and always a pleasure, never a chore.

RAVEN’S BOOK OF THE MONTH

theamericanAs I have genuinely enjoyed every book I reviewed this month, this was yet again a tough choice, but Nadia Dalbuono- The American has triumphed. With a  compelling and quixotic central police protagonist, shifting timelines and locations, and interesting commentary on the nefarious and corrupt grip of the Vatican and the CIA,  this intricately researched and gripping tale was an intelligent and hugely satisfying read. Highly recommended and an early contender for the end of the year Top 5.

 

 

#FeverCity Blog Tour-Tim Baker- Review

FEVER CITY _ BLOG TOUR GRAPHICIt’s the next stop on the blog tour to mark the release of Fever City from debut crime novelist Tim Baker. I will be brutally honest and say that I did embark on the book with a certain amount of suspicion, as having read widely on everything JFK conspiracy related, I did wonder if anything new could be brought to the wealth of  theories that Kennedy’s assassination spawned, and the bravery of an author who would tread this well-worn path. I am incredibly pleased to report that Baker has achieved something quite special with this one, firmly dispelling any pre-conceptions that I held about the book. You’re intrigued now aren’t you?

Opening in the 1960’s, Nick Alston, a Los Angeles private investigator, is hired to find the kidnapped son of America’s richest and most hated man, Rex Bannister. With allusions to the infamous case of the Lindbergh kidnapping Alston soon finds himself intimately and dangerously entangled in the grasp of Bannister and his nefarious activities in the higher echelons of American society. Hastings, a mob hitman in search of redemption, is also on the trail but finds himself equally ensnared by a sinister cabal that spreads from the White House all the way to Dealey Plaza, and his own personal involvement in Kennedy’s fate. The story then pivots back and forth to 2014 where Alston’s son stumbles across evidence from JFK conspiracy buffs that just might link his father to the shot heard round the world…

aaApart from inserting a breath of fresh air into the whole mythology surrounding not only JFK’s demise and the agencies behind it, Baker brings into sharp focus a fine array of cultural references from the 60’s period, and the personalities that shone so bright in this golden age of American popular history. I liked the way that Baker explored the power hungry Joe Kennedy, the fragility of Monroe, the poignancy of Sal Mineo’s secret life, and the clear sighted and cold hearted scheming of Mafia figure Sam Giancana with his connections to the Rat Pack and JFK. I particularly enjoyed the way that Baker perfectly controlled the inclusion of these figures in the plot too, heightening the realism and feel of the plot, with some interesting revelations along the way that did not feel contrived nor far fetched. With three narratives, four time-lines, and a mixture of first and third person narration to juggle, it’s hard to believe that this is a debut, such was the control of all these elements within the book. As a book of significant length (in relation to most crime novels) I was also delighted by how long Baker managed to hold off the unfurling of revelations between the 60’s, and the contemporary storyline, in terms of the implications of Alston’s and Hastings’ personal involvement in the investigation of the kidnapping and the JFK assassination and its ramifications. I found my reading sped up considerably as I devoured the last few chapters at a pace, with a nice sense of ‘well, I wasn’t expecting that’ included.

I thought this was a genuinely terrific thriller; clever, well-researched and beautifully executed, as the action ebbed and flowed, keeping me on tenterhooks throught. There’s scheming, corruption, violence, and a strong sense of the personal cost that power, political envy and money can bring in its wake. The writing is sharp, dispassionate but endlessly engaging, and equally unsettling. In fact, the greatest compliment I can pay to this book is that I did feel an echo of James Ellroy along the way, not only with the assured inclusion of instantly recognisable figures, but also in some passages a slight mirroring of Ellroy’s punctilious and spare style, when the main protagonists slipped into stream of consciousness, or when a relevant social/cultural observation was needed to be made. A kind of revisiting of LA Confidential with a Texan twist…. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)