Raven’s Yearly Round Up 2019 and Top 10 Books

And so another year has drawn to a close and what a very strange and perplexing year it’s been all round. I won’t dwell on the dispiriting nature of the political events and the looming hardships we will all encounter, and instead turn my thoughts to the nicer things in life. Books. Just the books…

It’s been a year of real contrasts in my reading with just over 100 books read, which is a much lower figure than normal for me. For at least a couple of months I was trapped in a cycle of did not finish books, and also was singularly unimpressed with many of those books hailed as ‘the thriller of the year’ and so on. I was also exceptionally lax in keeping to my ratio of reading and reviewing, partly due to the new responsibilities I have at work, and at a more basic level, can’t-be-arsedness, so for that I apologise. Will do much better this year! There are many good books that didn’t make the review stage, but if you follow me on GoodReads you can see my five star ratings there and hopefully discover some of them for yourselves, but some real highlights were Abir Mukherjee’s Death In The East, the Pushkin reissues of the brilliant and woefully underrated Margaret Millar, Ragnar Jonasson’s The Island, Adrian Duncan’s Love Notes From A German Building Site, Isabella Tree- Wilding, Vaseem Khan’s Inspector Chopra series, Don Winslow’s The Border and many more…

I am reading again this year for the Petrona Award for Scandinavian Crime Fiction, and have made good progress on this year’s contenders- there’s some real goodies and reviews will follow as we get nearer the shortlist stage in March. I have a general resolution for the new year of making sure I keep up with my reviewing, and also to keep mixing up my reading material as after eight years of pretty much solid crime reading, I need to keep my sanity intact and turn my gaze away from the dark side now and then! On that note I would like to offer a thank you to the many bloggers I follow on Twitter who have enriched my reading this year with their varied and excellent reviews of crime and non-crime books- you guys are the best ūüôā Thank you to all the authors and publishers for making life very much more enjoyable, and to all my followers and blog visitors- thanks for your support. More great books to explore in 2020 I’ll wager!¬†

Right, with no further ado let’s cut to the chase and those books that blew me off my feet this year. As is tradition, a little round-up of those most excellent books that didn’t quite make the Top Ten, but gave the chosen titles a damn close run for their money. So put your hands together for A. D. Flint- The Burning Hill¬†, Eamonn Griffin- East of England , Kjell Ola Dahl- The Courier , David F. Ross- Welcome To The Heady Heights , William Shaw- Deadland , Will Carver- Nothing Important Happened Today and the very, very recently read M. W. Craven- Black Summer. I was delighted and enthralled by each and every one of your books- thank you.¬†

So now the TOP 10… Just click on the jackets for my full review. There is much to enjoy here!

10. James Delargy- 55

” I thought that 55 was an extremely cleverly plotted, well-paced, and consistently engaging thriller with some nifty tricks in the narrative, solid characterisation of the main players, and suffused with the claustrophobic heat and isolation of its Australian setting. A compelling debut. “

9. Doug Johnstone- Breakers

“As much as the book is brutally realistic, it is also tinged with sensitivity and compassion, with a strong message that a less than promising start in life is not necessarily proof of a moral deficiency, and that a good nature can overrule bad nurture. Despite the anger and tension so in evidence in these characters‚Äô lives, I found this book tremendously life affirming, and as Tyler grows in stature and strength, he very much takes the reader with him.”

8. Orlando Ortega Medina- The Death of Baseball

This book is a glorious miasma of contradictions and conflicts, the need to love, the need for acceptance and recognition, fame, faith, abuse, identity and hope. I found it thought provoking and powerfully emotional, and I loved the way it immersed me so fully in these two lives with their unique voices. This book has such a strong message at its core, clearly illustrating how we are all the same in our desire to achieve contentment and an equilibrium in our lives, however we choose to live and with whomever we choose to love.”

7. Alan Parks- February’s Son¬†

No linked review for this one as I only finished this one a few days ago! I described the first book in the series, Bloody January as “feisty, fresh and wonderfully sordid, and a sublime blast of noir” and this was equally powerful taking us back to the mean streets of 1970’s Glasgow. As much as Parks’ protagonist Detective Harry McCoy is no angel, I was incredibly moved by the surprising turn his personal story took in this one, and the very compassionate tone of the book overall, whilst keeping up the pace with nefarious dirty dealings and bursts of violence.

6. M. P. Wright- A Sinner’s Prayer

“There are a more than a few unexpected twists in the narrative, and one demise of a character was followed by an audible gasp from me. On a bus. Full of people. In the course of Ellington‚Äôs investigation, outside of keeping up the necessary pace of the story, you are given space as a reader to think about and absorb some of the wider issues that Wright brings to the narrative, so it‚Äôs an incredibly satisfying blend of thriller and social and cultural observation.”

5. Trevor Mark Thomas- The Bothy 

“Described by yours truly on Twitter as akin to Magnus Mills on meth, The Bothy proved to be something quite special from the outset. Tapping into the rising reputation and visibility of working class writing in the UK of late, Thomas has, with a limited cast of characters, constructed a dark, and unsettling book, packed to the gills with atmosphere and an overhanging miasma of violence.

4. Parker Bilal- The Divinities

I was intrigued, shocked and genuinely curious about the issues that Bilal raises, once again demonstrating how so much more of ‚Äėreal life‚Äô can be encapsulated and distilled in a crime novel than more traditional forms of fiction...This will probably be one of the few crime thrillers that I will re-read in later life (there‚Äôs no higher praise than that), but for now I would highly recommend this one, and am anticipating a similarly brilliant book two. No pressure.”

3. Sergio Olguin- The Fragility of Bodies

“A book shot through with painful truths and gritty realism, and with the ability to put its reader through a whole gamut of emotions with its pared down prose, perceptive exploration of the human compulsion to make connections, and larger themes of trust, exploitation and social injustice. This is a huge, important book hiding behind the deceptively simple label of an Argentine noir thriller, but has much to say about the nature of human relationships, and the power and exploitation of the few on the lives of the many‚Ķ”

2. Ilaria Tuti- Flowers Over The Inferno 

“I think it‚Äôs fair to say that this book left a real impression in its wake on this reader, being not only a perfectly formed murder mystery, but also a book that is layered with a supreme awareness of the frailties and strengths of the human condition, through the investigators, the inhabitants of the village and the killer too. I found this a really intense and emotional reading experience, and felt utterly bound up in the lives of the characters, and the travails they experience.”

RAVEN’S TOP READ OF 2019

NICOLAS OBREGON- UNKNOWN MALE

 

Yes, I had to wait until December to read my top book of the year, but more than worth the wait…

“What Obregon gives us is a real smorgasbord of the good, the bad and ugly where the lines of morality and decent behaviour become fractured, and at times are difficult to discern. People acting in surprising and unpredictable ways give a real emotional heft to this book, and also work beautifully in concealing the real villains of the piece, with revenge being another incredibly strong motif.” This book encapsulated all my favourite aspects of crime thriller writing from character, to location, to plot and was an absolute joy, as the whole trilogy has been.¬†

 

 

A gargantuan round-up! Parker Bilal, Adrian McKinty, Alex North, Trevor Mark Thomas, Guillaume Musso, Luca D’Andrea,

Stumbling upon a massive pile of books that I have read and failed to review, desperate measures are called for to address the problem, before I get even further behind! So, in an attempt to clean down the decks, so to speak, what follows is probably a rambling and longer than average round up of a veritable smorgasbord of thrillers. Hopefully there will be something for everyone here, and concealed within the round up will be a couple that will make a reappearance later in my Top Reads of 2019. Although some reviews will be briefer than others this is more to do with the stress level of being so far behind, although I’m sure this will fall by the wayside as I start to rave!¬†

So eyes down and here we go…

 

PARKER BILAL- THE DIVINITIES- When two bodies are found brutally murdered at a building site in Battersea, DS Calil Drake is first to the scene. He sees an opportunity: to solve a high-profile case and to repair his reputation after a botched undercover operation almost ended his promising career in the Violent Crimes Unit. Assigned to work with the enigmatic forensic psychologist Dr Rayhana Crane, and on the hunt for an elusive killer, Drake‚Äôs investigations lead down the dark corridors of the past ‚Äď to the Iraq war and the destruction he and Crane witnessed there. With a community poised on the brink of violence, Crane and Drake must put their lives on the line to stop the killer before vengeance is unleashed…

I absolutely loved this opening salvo to a new London set crime thriller series from Parker Bilal, author of the Markana Investigations.¬†Not only capturing the chasm existing between rich and poor in our capital city, and the general feel, spirit and energy of London, Bilal has produced the best police procedural I have read so far this year. The Divinities quickly reveals itself as a multi-faceted thriller, encompassing a gamut of issues and social observation, that gives layers of interest to what could have ostensibly been a straightforward narrative. I was intrigued, shocked and genuinely curious about the issues that Bilal raises, once again demonstrating how so much more of ‘real life’ can be encapsulated and distilled in a crime novel than more traditional forms of fiction. Drake and Crane are two of the most complex and interesting characters, working through and coming to terms with events from their chequered pasts, but adding a vitality and emotional heft to the narrative, sadly lacking from many police procedurals at the moment. What I also liked was the sensitive and compelling handling of the scars both mental and physical left on our protagonists through their prior involvement in warfare, and how difficult it is to make that transition from this life to their civilian careers. Both characters react and act to their own defined moral compass, and Bilal depicts the contrast between them beautifully, as they struggle at first to work together in a complex and testing investigation. This will probably be one of the few crime thrillers that I will re-read in later life (there’s no higher praise than that), but for now I would highly recommend this one, and am anticipating a similarly brilliant book two. No pressure…

(With thanks to The Indigo Press for the ARC)

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ADRIAN MCKINTY-THE CHAIN- Your phone rings. A stranger has kidnapped your child. To free them you must abduct someone else’s child. Your child will be released when your victim’s parents kidnap another child. If any of these things don’t happen your child will be killed. You are now part of the chain…¬†

Without a doubt the most hyped crime book of the summer with stunning endorsements by Don Winslow, Steve Cavanagh et al, and to be honest, there is probably little more to be said about this tense, twisty and nerve wracking thriller. It’s great to see McKinty finally getting some of the kudos that is long, long overdue with this breakout book, and hopefully will gravitate people to some of his earlier books which I can heartily recommend having read them all. With shades of Linwood Barclay and Harlan Coben, McKinty has produced an accomplished page-turner with a unique premise, and although I was not quite as swept away as the majority of my fellow reviewers, I can see why The Chain has attracted the stellar reviews that it has as bringing something fresh to a very overcrowded sub-genre, and it’s tailor made for a film adaptation.

(With thanks to Orion for the ARC)

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ALEX NORTH- THE WHISPER MAN- Still devastated after the loss of his wife, Tom Kennedy and his young son Jake move to the sleepy village of Featherbank, looking for a much-needed fresh start. But Featherbank has a dark past. Fifteen years ago, a twisted serial killer abducted and murdered five young boys. Until he was finally caught, the killer was known as ‘The Whisper Man’. Of course, an old crime need not trouble Tom and Jake as they try to settle in to their new home. Except that now another boy has gone missing. And then Jake begins acting strangely. He says he hears a whispering at his window . . .

Alex North is the pseudonym of an established crime novel whose work I have always admired greatly. With a change of name, publisher and style, North has produced a thriller that will very much appeal to a wider crime reading audience, and is definitely a chilling read to temper the summer heat. With shades of the great James Herbert combined with an interesting exploration of life beyond bereavement and the bond of father and son in the wake of the loss of their mutual anchor, North has produced a sinister and intriguing story with supernatural overtones. I will be a little bit of a party pooper and say that I did find parts of it a little slow and slightly lacking the darker, quirky finesse of the author’s previous books, but for the most part it worked well, and would definitely recommend.

(With thanks to Michael Joseph for the ARC)

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TREVOR MARK THOMAS- THE BOTHY- Tom is grieving for his girlfriend. Her powerful family, convinced he is responsible for her death, place a bounty on his head. On the run, Tom seeks refuge in the Bothy, a dilapidated moorland pub run by ageing gangster Frank. Tom tries to keep the bounty a secret, but news travels fast, even in the middle of nowhere…

Described by yours truly on Twitter as akin to Magnus Mills on meth, The Bothy proved to be something quite special from the outset. Tapping into the rising reputation and visibility of working class writing in the UK of late, Thomas has, with a limited cast of characters, constructed a dark, and unsettling book, packed to the gills with atmosphere and an overhanging miasma of violence. As Tom is sucked deeper into the strange, isolated world of the Bothy, and its attendant visitors and employees, one can’t help but wonder if he would be better off facing the music back home. Thomas’ sharp, punchy dialogue and his use of description to beautifully convey the cold, dirty shabbiness of Tom’s warped place of sanctuary, is absolutely first class. Throughout the book you feel completely immersed in the chaotic beauty of this isolated landscape, the sheer grit and grind of life, and the less than moral code that defines the lives of these characters. As this is a such a sinister and extremely claustrophobic tale of not your everyday country folk, I can’t reveal more about the violent chain of events that come to pass, but if you’re stout of heart and strong of stomach, I would absolutely recommend this to you.

(I bought this copy of The Bothy published by Salt Publishing)

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GUILLAUME MUSSO- THE REUNION- FRENCH RIVIERA, WINTER 1992 On a freezing night, as her high school campus is engulfed by a snowstorm, 19-year-old Vinca Rockwell runs away with Alexis, her philosophy teacher. No one will ever see them again. FRENCH RIVIERA, SPRING 2017 Formerly inseparable, Thomas, Maxime and Fanny – Vinca’s best friends – have not spoken in twenty-five years. But when they receive an invitation to their school reunion, they know they must go back one final time. Because there is a body buried in that school and they’re the ones who put it there…

Oh what tangled webs we weave with the folly of youth, as we soon discover in the dual timeline of The Reunion¬†and a web that will prove particularly tricky for three former students with more than one secret between them. This is a top notch psychological thriller, effortlessly keeping the reader in a state of anticipation as Musso slowly drip, drip, drip feeds the events leading up to the disappearance of femme fatale Vinca, which gradually reveals a tale of jealousy, lust and greed, spanning families and decades. There are tricksy little twists in the narrative that genuinely caught me unawares, and there is a real assured sense of control as to how and when these little surprises are revealed to the reader.¬† Musso writes with a real sensitivity and intensity about the dilemmas of youthful emotion and obsession, and the changing perception we have of ourselves, and self realisation that we all experience as we grow older and look back on our younger selves. There is a real finesse to this one, and again a wonderful translation by Frank Wynne. Although it is hard to feel any kind of empathy with Musso’s cast of, it has to be said, quite self absorbed individuals, I was genuinely entranced by this clever and knotty thriller. Recommended.

(With thanks to W&N for the ARC)

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LUCA D’ANDREA- SANCTUARY- Marlene Wegener is on the run. She has stolen something from her husband, something priceless, irreplaceable. But she doesn’t get very far. When her car veers off a bleak midwinter road she takes refuge in the remote home of Simon Keller, a tough mountain man who lives alone with his demons. Here in her high mountain sanctuary, she begins to rekindle a sense of herself: tough, capable, no longer the trophy on a gangster’s arm. But Herr Wegener does not know how to forgive, and in his rage he makes a pact with the devil. The Trusted Man. He cannot be called off, he cannot be reasoned with and one way or another he will get the job done. Unless, of course, he’s beaten to it . . .

I read this some time ago, and to be honest I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. It’s a very strange story, somewhat reliant on coincidence, but there is something I can’t quite put my finger on that made it very readable. I’m not helping am I? Maybe, I’ll start with what I definitely liked, which was the isolated mountain setting of Marlene’s place of safety, and the slowly building relationship between her and the incredibly odd Simon Keller- a man at one with nature, with unsettling mystical healing powers and a frankly alarming sty of quite terrifying pigs- yep, said it was strange. Anyway, aside from this quite bizarre aspect to the story, there is all the tension of woman pursued by hitman with unlikely saviour, and there are some genuinely perilous moments for Marlene along the way. As much as this central premise works, there are some odd diversions in the course of the plot about ancient mystical healing, more about the murderous pigs, and a slightly baffling denouement, which further illustrates my general confusion to how much I enjoyed this. I liked it well enough, I think…

(With thanks to MacLehose Press for the ARC)

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