Raven’s August Round Up and Books of the Month…

It’s been a while since I did one of these, but having returned to work post-furlough, at the start of August, and my reading and reviewing time now depleted again, this may become a regular feature once more! Mainly, this will be to capture all the books I have read during the month, even if I haven’t had the time to review them, so there will still be lots for you to discover, I hope, so you can beat a path to your local bookshop’s door, either virtually or physically. September heralds the start of a pretty intense publishing period so there will be many books vying for our attention. I, for one, cannot wait!!

So I’ve managed to review just the five books this month:  

Chris Carter- Written In Blood

Will Carver- Hinton Hollow Death Trip

Steve Cavanagh- Fifty Fifty

J. J. Connolly- Layer Cake

Lin Anderson- The Innocent Dead

Almost certainly one of these books will be making an appearance in my Top Ten of the Year, and it was lovely revisiting Layer Cake on the 20th anniversary of its original publication. 

Although I have picked up and put down more than a few overly hyped duffers this month, I have supplemented my crime reading with both fiction and non-fiction this month, which has made a nice change. Was absolutely blown away by Doug Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, really enjoyed Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Mexican Gothic and communing with nature with Helen MacDonald’s Vesper Flights.

However, I absolutely cannot let this round up go by without drawing your attention to quite possibly the two best books I have read this year. I don’t know about other bloggers but sometimes I love a book so much that I feel I cannot do it justice in one of my meandering, waffling reviews, so I’m going to keep it simple (see below) and say that if I do not read another book this year, the memory of these two will hold me in good stead for some time. Yes folks, they are that good…

Have a good month and keep safe, keep sane everybody!

Blacktop Wasteland: the searing crime thriller Lee Child calls 'sensationally good' Kindle EditionBeauregard “Bug” Montage: honest mechanic, loving husband, devoted parent. He’s no longer the criminal he once was – the sharpest wheelman on the east coast, infamous from the hills of North Carolina to the beaches of Florida. But when his respectable life begins to crumble, a shady associate comes calling with a clean, one-time job: a diamond heist promising a get-rich pay out. Inexorably drawn to the driver’s seat – and haunted by the ghost of his outlaw father – Bug is yanked back into a savage world of bullets and betrayal, which soon endangers all he holds dear…

Blacktop Wasteland completely embodies for me what I adore about the cream of American crime fiction- sharp, sassy and superbly written. Think Mosley melded with Winslow by way of Cain. Set in rural Virginia, and echoing the cadence, rhythm and colloquialisms of the speech throughout, this book is at once incredibly high octane and gripping, but underscored by moments of supreme emotion and pathos. Not only is Bug one of the most mesmerising and textured protagonists that I have encountered for some time, but he encapsulates a mass of contradictions as he navigates the thin line between legality and criminality. As he periodically looks back to his former years with his estranged father, and how he himself now wears the mantle of husband, father and son (his elderly mom is an absolute gem of a character too) Bug is revealed to be a complex man with his own brand of morality, but fundamentally decent at heart. Sometimes good men need to do bad things to protect what they love most. This mental struggle that Bug grapples with is tinged with a razor sharp poignancy, and completely immerses the reader in his troubles, and his increasingly pressurised decisions on what to do next.

The action sequences related to the heists are absolutely pounding and filled with an intensity rarely seen outside a visual portrayal of these events, and I applaud Cosby for getting across through words alone the speed and heart-stopping danger of these fast and furious action scenes. Heart -pounding and heart-wrenching this book totally deserves the huge amount of praise thrust upon it so far. S. A. Cosby, on the strength of this book, and his previous work which I have also gobbled up, is destined to be a standout name in American crime fiction for some time to come, and amen to that.

A damn perfect read, and very highly recommended.

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Three-Fifths: 'So incredibly suspenseful' Attica Locke
Pittsburgh, 1995. Twenty-two-year-old Bobby Saraceno is a biracial man, passing for white. Bobby has hidden his identity from everyone, even his best friend and fellow comic-book geek, Aaron, who just returned from prison a newly radicalized white supremacist. During the night of their reunion, Bobby witnesses Aaron mercilessly assault a young black man with a brick. In the wake of this horrifying act of violence, Bobby must conceal his unwitting involvement in the crime from the police, as well as battle his own personal demons…

Although not published in the UK until October, I wanted to draw your collective attention to Three Fifths as soon as possible. This seemingly simple synopsis disguises a work of such intensity and emotion that it will rattle around your mind, and intrude on your thoughts for days after reading it. Despite a relatively slim page count, this book embraces such big powerful themes, that it’s pared down style intensifies to the absolute max. The reader is taken on a poignant and disturbing ride through the ills of urban America and the racial tension that has always blighted America and led to continuing division and disparity.

As two young men try to recover their close ties of friendship, after separation, Vercher depicts their individual frustrations and growing antipathy with a clear and unflinching honesty, that will move and shock in equal measure. There are stark revelations for both, with Bobby trying to keep a solid home for himself and his alcoholic mother, and then being confronted by a blast from the past which turns his world upside down. The shocking details of Aaron’s incarceration, his indoctrination in white supremacy and the simmering violence within him that spills over on his release, is so deftly portrayed that the reader is torn between distaste, and yet an innate sympathy for him. I was genuinely breathless and deeply moved at the end of this one with its bleak denouement, but an utterly necessary one. Few books move me to tears, but there was a definite’ oh there’s something in my eye’ moment at the close of this. Three Fifths is astonishing, important, hugely poignant and very highly recommended.

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#BlogTour Will Carver- Hinton Hollow Death Trip “I defy you not to be swept along by this twisty, intelligent, compelling and completely weird book.” @will_carver @OrendaBooks

It’s a small story. A small town with small lives that you would never have heard about if none of this had happened. Hinton Hollow. Population 5,120. Little Henry Wallace was eight years old and one hundred miles from home before anyone talked to him. His mother placed him on a train with a label around his neck, asking for him to be kept safe for a week, kept away from Hinton Hollow. Because something was coming.
Narrated by Evil itself, it recounts five days in the history of this small rural town, when darkness paid a visit and infected its residents. A visit that made them act in unnatural ways. Prodding at their insecurities. Nudging at their secrets and desires. Coaxing out the malevolence suppressed within them. Showing their true selves.

Making them cheat.
Making them steal.
Making them kill.

Detective Sergeant Pace had returned to his childhood home. To escape the things he had done in the city. To go back to something simple. But he was not alone. Evil had a plan…

If I thought that reviewing Will Carver’s previous book Nothing Important Happened Today was damn tricky, it was a walk in the park compared to Hinton Hollow Death Trip which poses infinitely more stumbling blocks to coherent reviewing. As tempted as I am to just say this one freak-ass weird book, which you definitely need to read, that doesn’t really give you much to go on, does it? So dear reader, I feel duty bound to do this properly… cue sharp inhalation of breath and cracking of knuckles…

Centred on a  rural community of 5000+ souls, “a quaint little nowhere,” this is so much more than an everyday tale of small town folk, as Evil walks among them coercing and cajoling these most ordinary of people to behave in ways completely alien to them, and to lay themselves bare to the depraved machinations of this malevolent force. As Evil says, “Fear is my greatest tool. It can be used to make a person do almost anything…It is a slow and deadly poison,” and as he bestrides this small town, gradually infecting and influencing its residents, you are pretty sure from the outset that this will not end well. As Evil recounts a host of horrifying events and disasters, that it has been party to, it blames the small minded, selfish beings that we have become, and through Carver’s examination of our fatuous obsession with social media, our pettiness, narcissism, our destruction of the planet, and cruelties to each other and animals too, you kind of get to thinking that Evil has a point as it observes, “You keep pushing and pushing. Wanting more and more. Listening less and less…Humankind has created evil at a rate that even I cannot keep up with.” 

As with his previous book, I delight in Carver’s diatribes on the sheer bloody uselessness of the majority of human beings, and found myself nodding sagely at some of the more barbed and amusing observations of the human race. very little in modern culture escapes Carver’s microscopic analysis, and this book is full of them. The calorific breakdown of biscuits is, of course, an essential need to know. However, balanced with the more throwaway and blackly funny observations, this book is cut through with the seriousness of our stupidity, and using the trope of Evil to filter this, brings a mixture of thought provoking and poignant meditations on our failings, hopes and how far we would sacrifice ourselves for others. As much as there are individuals in this book pushed into acts of cruelty, Carver never loses sight of their ordinariness, not all of these people are inherently bad, indeed some of them sacrifice themselves quite nobly, but I found it interesting that in some cases, the smallest nudge from Evil really does lead to some quite depraved deeds from where you would least expect it.

Consequently reading this book Carver is playing with and manipulating our emotions from start to finish, and I found this quite fun- I do like a bit of reader participation. An initial perception of a character can be changed in an instant, people you wouldn’t feel sorry for are suddenly made sympathetic, people in similar situations act in different ways, leading you to think what you would do and so on. Obviously some characters are just odious eejits, and your hackles are raised, your indignation aroused, and then someone dies. And then more people die. And then a couple more just for luck. It’s great.  Held together by the first person narration of Evil, as it moves everybody around in a sadistic game of chess, we once again encounter the hangdog and hapless DS Pace still reeling from the events of the previous book. I have a great affection for Pace, so woebegone, so incapable of relating to anyone, but an almost worthy adversary for Evil itself, but can this really end well for him?

As you’ve probably realised, I’ve told you next to nothing about the plot of Hinton Hollow Death Trip, so my own evil plan has worked well. Instead, I would encourage you to read this yourselves, much as I did with not the faintest clue of what would lie ahead. All manner of human life is contained within it, with people behaving badly, bravely, stupidly or nobly. You will gasp, you will laugh, you will quizzically wrinkle your brow, you will ponder the dark inner workings of Carver’s brain, but I defy you not to be swept along by this twisty, intelligent, compelling and completely weird book.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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FINAL Hinton Hollow BT Poster

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 🙂 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’ 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’s 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’s 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 ‘real life’ 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’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.”

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…”

2. Ilaria Tuti- Flowers Over The Inferno 

“I think it’s 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. 

 

 

Will Carver- Nothing Important Happened Today #BlogTour

Nine people arrive one night on Chelsea Bridge. They’ve never met. But at the same time, they run, and leap to their deaths. Each of them received a letter in the post that morning, a pre-written suicide note, and a page containing only four words: Nothing important happened today. That is how they knew they had been chosen to become a part of the People Of Choice: A mysterious suicide cult whose members have no knowledge of one another. Thirty-two people on that train witness the event. Two of them will be next. By the morning, People Of Choice are appearing around the globe; it becomes a movement. A social media page that has lain dormant for four years suddenly has thousands of followers. The police are under pressure to find a link between the cult members, to locate a leader that does not seem to exist.
How do you stop a cult when nobody knows they are a member?

Another day, another challenge, and another book that will prove exceedingly hard to review, being quite unlike anything else I have read this year. Here goes…

This is a beautifully structured book, moving the reader effortlessly between multiple characters and viewpoints drawing us deeper and deeper into the disturbing world of recruitment into cult, and the destructive consequences that arise. A multitude of victims pass through our consciousness as the book progresses from sharply contrasting walks of life, and as Carver interrogates the minutiae of each of these lives, it brings the reader to a heightened understanding of how a conceivably better exit plan is within their grasp. The book is tinged with a sadness and sense of hopelessness for many of the characters, but equally with some who ironically seem enlivened by the prospect of being involved in something they deem powerful and important, ending their lives on their own terms with seemingly little coercion. Carver cleverly conceals the source of this rapidly spreading cult, providing a knotty mystery for his readers as to how this small seed of destruction gathers such a momentum so quickly and so widely, and just what is the real motivation of its founder or founders? I loved the way that Carver focusses on a series of ordinary lives that will resonate with many readers, and the individual stories of dissatisfaction, underachievement, frustration, debt or emotional barrenness that overtakes their will to live with such devastating consequences.

Fuelled by Carver’s own authorial intervention on the disconnectedness of life in the modern age, dependent on the virtual world  of clicks and likes as our one-to-one human interaction is slowly being chipped away at, and the appeal of being part of something like a cult to renew the feeling of connectivity, the book provides a scathing indictment of the world we live in. Carver pummels our consciousness with his observations on life, poverty, cults, social media, even serial killers’ body counts (and how some of them got it so, so, wrong in their preferred killing methods!) the book progresses with a rhythm and cadence incredibly similar in feel to parts of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, with it’s equally dispiriting observations on life and conformity. We all recognise the dark nature of humanity, the undermining of human connection by a world we inhabit through screens, the division and inequality of society which undoes those less able to cope with its challenges, but is the lure of the cult really the best way to overcome these challenges? Yes, this book takes the reader to some very dark places, but as Carver underscores the book with his usual dark, mordant wit this makes the book an overall less gloomy affair than this review has probably led you to believe. An intelligent, morally questioning and challenging read, that raises issues of certainty and doubt in equal measure, and is all very scarily plausible indeed…

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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