September 2016 Round-Up and Raven’s Book(s) of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Apologies again for being so off the pace in providing fulsome reviews during September,  due to a period of personal and professional  upheaval in  Raven’s world. Thanks to all of you who’ve sent lovely messages of support- much appreciated. Things are still a little up in the air, but having recovered my reading mojo in the last couple of weeks, I am going to use this post to catch up with everything and hopefully come bouncing back into October. So along with these:

William Ryan- The Constant Soldier

Sarah Ward- A Deadly Thaw

Thomas Mullen- Darktown

here are just a few more of my September reads that you really must seek out for your teetering reading piles. Hope that these short and sweet reviews pique your interest… 

51v0u7ucipl-_ac_us160_I reviewed Matthew Frank‘s compelling debut If I Should Die last year featuring ex-soldier turned trainee police detective, Joseph Stark, and was absolutely enthralled. Between The Crosses sees Stark having cut his teeth, so to speak, and is now a fully badged DC, with a reprisal of police characters from the first book, including the wonderfully feisty DS Fran Millhaven. Again, Frank provides the perfect balance between a gritty and tense police procedural, with a testing investigation for Stark and his cohorts, and his faultless characterisation of Stark himself, haunted physically and emotionally by his past experiences, and the travails and triumphs of his new career. Frank really digs into the day-to-day frustrations of the rank and file in this one, and I strongly felt that the aspects of the book revolving around Stark and Millhaven’s personal and professional tribulations really held the weight of interest in the book, with the actual investigation feeling a little drawn out this time around. Frank excels in his characterisation throughout, and as the parameters of both main protagonists subtly shift at the close of this book, I am looking forward to see how this plays out in the dynamics of the next in the series. Highly recommended.

41a-DHkeVXLI bought this deliciously dark and disturbing read blind, and what a revelation Benjamin MyersTurning Blue turned out to be. A glorious mash up of the staccato darkness of David Peace, fused with Ross Raisin, this book was not only utterly original, but infused with a beautifully realised balance of naturalistic imagery, and a totally compelling tale of sordid murder in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. Drawing on the theme of the infamous Yew Tree investigations, Myers has conjured up a cast of emotionally damaged characters across the spectrum, with blood chilling moments of revelation, that will haunt your dreams. His use of the brooding bleakness of his Dales’ setting works perfectly in tandem with the very real and flawed characters that he presents to us, shifting our empathy back and forth with each twist and turn in his perfectly plotted drama. Although, I felt that the plot was just a little too extended towards the final third of the plot, at odds with the brevity and sharpness of his writing, I would still highly recommend this to the more stout hearted amongst you. I felt grubby after reading it, but in a wickedly enjoyable way. Excellent.

waking-lions-front-647x1024Next up is Waking Lions from Ayelet Gundar-Goshen billed as a novel with a psychological edge set in Israel centring on the fall out of a hit and run incident, where a privileged doctor, Dr Eitan Green, kills an Eritrean migrant. The book then revolves around his intense involvement, and developing relationship with, the migrant’s widow, and his entry into a world of the desperate and the poor, as she blackmails him into providing medical assistance for the unseen migrant community. Indeed, Gundar-Goshen’s portrayal of Sirkit, and the revelations of her migrant experience were incredibly vivid and compelling, and added a huge emotional weight and interest to the book.  As much as I liked the central premise for the book, I did find it incredibly slow moving, and truth be told, felt no particular empathy for the flaky Dr Green, even when the scales fall from his eyes, and he starts to lose some of his prejudices. His wife, who just happens to be a detective investigating the hit and run, bears little plausible resemblance to a real police officer, and was frankly quite annoying, so this was a real mixed bag for me.

murderabilia-9781471156595_hrBack onto familiar ground with Murderabilia by Craig Robertson, and regular visitors will know I’m an ardent fan of Robertson’s series featuring DI Rachel Narey and her partner, ex-police scene of crime photographer, Tony Winter. Finding herself house-bound and therefore bored witless, Narey becomes immersed in the dark and disturbing world of the Dark Net, following a truly grim murder at the opening of the book (fabulously done), which she is anxious to investigate from the confines of her bedroom, and its link to a cold case which her father worked on many years previously. Focussing on the trade in macabre items associated with murder scenes, Narey, and us as readers, are introduced into a world, that its hard to fathom exists, beneath the everyday familiarity of the internet. This book felt slightly different in style to previous books, in terms of the emotional tension that Robertson layers in to the plot, as the darkness of the central storyline,  the emotional turbulence of Narey’s confinement, and other traumatising events (that I won’t reveal here) all come to a nerve shredding conclusion. Packed full of what no doubt was quite disturbing research, Murderabilia also effectively develops the enforced changes in Narey and Winter’s relationship, but also sees another regular character disappear in distressing circumstances. A one sitting read, and another winner from Robertson. Recommended.

tall-oaks

I absolutely loved this debut- Tall Oaks by Chris Whitaker– and from the rather humdrum synopsis on the back of the book, I have an awful feeling that the casual browser may miss out on a rare treat. Missing child from small American town, and seemingly cardboard cut out characters, did not really sell it to me from the jacket alone. But what a delight this was, revealing itself as a brilliant cross between Twin Peaks and Fargo, and with some beautifully paced reveals that definitely caught this reader on the hop. It made me smile wryly, laugh out loud and gasp in appreciation throughout, with a colourful cast of characters that Whitaker introduces and pivots between seamlessly, slowly drawing us into the connections between them. There are moments of genuine tension carefully interspersed with warmth and humour, as this band of misfits, for various reasons, go about their daily lives, with the overriding urge to make personal and emotional connections with friends, lovers and relatives. It’s wonderfully plotted, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Highly recommended.

honourableAnd finally, An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich, a Cold War thriller set in 1950’s Washington, where a disillusioned CIA officer embarks on his final case tracking down a notorious American/Soviet double agent. Sharing the name George Mueller, with my favourite character in Boardwalk Empire played by the wonderfully hangdog Nelson Van Alden, was a distraction from the start, and to be honest, although I fair whipped through this one, I didn’t really feel that it brought anything new to a well-trod genre. I did enjoy the wonderfully dispassionate writing style and clipped dialogue that Vidich employs, but found the reveals a little obvious, and less well-disguised than the clever narrative tricks of say John Le Carre, the master of the Cold War thriller. An interesting distraction but not quite satisfying enough.

Raven’s Book(s) of The Month:

510-vjvl8ql      tall-oaks     constant

After much rumination, I will go for a three-way split this month between Thomas Mullen‘s Darktown, set in 1940’s Atlanta, with its brooding racial tension, the sheer entertainment factor of Chris Whitaker‘s Tall Oaks and William Ryan‘s elegiac and beautifully written wartime drama The Constant Soldier. A round of applause chaps- well deserved.

 

(With thanks to Faber, Simon & Schuster, Mantle, Pushkin Press, Twenty7, Penguin, Little Brown and No Exit Press for the ARCs)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

William Ryan- The Constant Soldier

constant1944. Paul Brandt, a soldier in the German army, returns wounded and ashamed from the bloody chaos of the Eastern front to find his village home much changed and existing in the dark shadow of an SS rest hut – a luxurious retreat for those who manage the concentration camps, run with the help of a small group of female prisoners who – against all odds – have so far survived the war. When, by chance, Brandt glimpses one of these prisoners, he realizes that he must find a way to access the hut. For inside is the woman to whom his fate has been tied since their arrest five years before, and now he must do all he can to protect her. But as the Russian offensive moves ever closer, the days of this rest hut and its SS inhabitants are numbered. And while hope – for Brandt and the female prisoners – grows tantalizingly close, the danger too is now greater than ever. And, in a forest to the east, a young female Soviet tank driver awaits her orders to advance . . .

Already established as a crime writer of some repute with the Captain Korolev series set in the shadow of Stalinist Russia, William Ryan has now produced a fiction novel with huge gravitas, The Constant Soldier. Using as a starting point, the photographs taken by Karl Höcker, the adjutant to the final camp commandant at Auschwitz, Richard Baer, depicting the “social life” of the SS officers who were responsible for the mass murder at Auschwitz, Ryan has constructed a novel that is not only unerringly poignant and harrowing, but one that will stay in your thoughts for some time after reading…

This is one of those of those books that somehow proves difficult to review, quite simply because the ham-fisted meanderings of an amateur reviewer can in no way do full justice to the essential emotional strength and intelligence of this novel. What struck me the most about the book was Ryan’s ability to load the most simple of images with such a powerful emotional resonance from the steam rising from a bowl of freshly cooked potatoes on a family table while a miasma of emotional turbulence plays out around it, to the simple naturalistic images of the serenity of the landscape surrounding the SS encampment, and the ever present shadow of the Auschwitz death camp within its radius. The horrific images of human cruelty that we know are being played out at some remove from us as readers, are made all the more tangible amongst this natural serenity. The claustrophobic intensity of the SS camp and the dark deeds that occur within also acts as a harsh counterpoint, with its pollution of moral decency and the subjugation of those outside the existing regime, particularly in relation to the treatment of the women prisoners. There is the overriding chill of evil permeating the book, but at times dispelled by Ryan’s main protagonist Paul Brandt, and the humanity that he has retained in a world where humanity is largely absent.

Brandt is a mesmerising character, physically and mentally wounded by his experiences within the Nazi regime, and now finding himself working in the dark, sadistic atmosphere of the SS encampment. Deeply affected by his war experience, he attains the role of the moral ‘everyman’ in the novel, working at the behest of those he despises, and charged with an emotional impetus to liberate one of the female prisoners, whose story is so closely entwined with his own. Through his eyes and experience, we consistently witness the sadism ingrained in the SS officers around him, but also the moments of weakness and fear they experience as the war grinds towards its end, and the impending arrival of Soviet troops. The balance that Ryan ingrains in Brandt’s character of certitude and doubt is exceptionally well-handled, and poses a larger question as to why men such as he would seek to endanger his own survival, and use his staunch moral imperative to help others. In tandem with such a compelling central protagonist, Ryan has also confidently created a strong surrounding cast of characters from Brandt’s taskmasters at the camp, to his touching interaction with the headstrong Agneta, and the righting of a wrong he believes he has committed using his relationship with her as a conduit for this. There is also an interesting co-existing narrative focussing on the approach of the Soviet forces seen through the eyes of Polya Kolanka, a young woman who co-operates one of the approaching Soviet tanks. This alternative viewpoint of the events of the war co-exists beautifully with the central narrative, and her tale is as equally grim as Brandt’s but serves to a larger purpose to reinforce the theme of the futility of war, and the harsh reality of those caught up within it.

As Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong has defined the First World War narrative, so The Constant Soldier achieves this for World War II, with its understated but hugely powerful emotional and moral examination of one of the darkest periods of world history. It is harrowing and emotionally charged, but I would defy any reader not to be utterly moved by the story that plays out before them, such is the intensity and deceptively simple brilliance of Ryan’s writing. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Mantle for the ARC)

 

 

Blog Tour: David Young- Stasi Child/ Guest Post: Top 5 East Berlin Sites + Review

Stasi Blog Tourdavid

Well, today it’s the final stop on the Stasi Child Blog Tour, and author David Young has dropped by Raven Crime Reads to share some info and photos of some must- visit sites in East Berlin, so integral to his debut crime thriller. Then with your interest piqued, read on for Raven’s review of Stasi Child- think you’re going to like this one…

Top Five: East German sights in Berlin

Twenty five years ago this month, the two Germanies – East and West – became one. It seems hard to believe that a quarter of a century has passed. Some fifteen years before that, in 1975, my novel Stasi Child begins – a time when few believed Germany would be reunited in their lifetime. A time defined by the Berlin Wall – known in the east as the Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier or Rampart. It’s already a lost world, yet the ghost of the ironically titled German Democratic Republic (GDR) can still be seen in the eastern part of Germany, and in particular its captivating capital, which – especially in the last century – has been such a crucible of history. These are my top five tips for reliving the GDR on a visit to Berlin …

1. The Berlin Wall Memorial

Reconstructed watchtower at the Berlin Wall MemorialThe Wall is the symbol of all that was bad about East Germany – even though its construction in 1961 had a horrible logic: the GDR’s leaders needed somehow to stem the brain drain from their tiny eastern bloc country into the west. This memorial is sited in Bernauer Strasse – split between east and west in August 1961 – where people jumped out of apartment block windows to try to escape. You can read the harrowing stories of those shot dead in their attempts to flee in a portion of no man’s land that’s been retained, along with an original section of wall and reconstructed watchtower. The opening scene of Stasi Child takes place in St Elisabeth’s Cemetery, adjacent to the memorial.

2. Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial

Internal security in the GDR was the preserve of the Ministry for State Security, more commonly known as the Stasi, and this memorial is site of the main Stasi prison. It’s largely unchanged, surrounded by a barbed wire-topped wall and watchtowers. A visit here is an incredibly moving experience: the guides are usually either former inmates, or relatives of former inmates, with their own personal horror stories of what falling foul of the GDR regime meant. The prison features in the Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others (and also in Stasi Child). If you’re short on time in Berlin, then Hohenschönhausen is a better bet than the former Stasi HQ at Normannenstrasse, though the latter has its highlights (such as a chance to spy on Stasi head Erich Mielke’s private bathroom).

3. ‘Alltag in der DDR’, Kulturbrauerei Museum

Trabi tent at Kulturbrauerei museumThis  is a relatively new museum housed in a former brewery off Schönhauser Allee in the Prenzlauer Berg district – is for me the pick of several in eastern Berlin that seek to depict everyday life in the former GDR (although those in the Palace of Tears – the former border crossing at Friedrichstrasse station – and the privately-run DDR Museum, where you can take a virtual drive in a Trabi, are also well worth visiting). You get a real flavour of day-to-day existence, and it wasn’t all bad. In fact, those who didn’t fall foul of the Stasi had one of the highest standards of living in the eastern bloc. Childcare facilities, welfare, job security, food prices – all put the west to shame, especially in the 1970s when Stasi Child is set, when Britain was riddled with three-day weeks, strikes and an oil crisis. Don’t miss the wonderful letters from schoolchildren imagining what a future GDR might be like.

 4. Museumswohnung, Berlin-Hellersdorf

Kitchen cupboard in the MuseumswohnungSome who brave the seventeen-kilometre drive or U-bahn ride out to this Berlin suburb might be disappointed by the Museumswohnung, but for me it was an unforgettable experience. Only open on Sundays, or by appointment, it’s a former East Berlin flat preserved as a time capsule: nothing more, nothing less. You’ve got all the original furniture, kitchen equipment, books and electrical gadgets. There are smaller displays in the DDR museum or Kulturbrauerei – but this is the real thing, housed in a typical – albeit modernised – GDR concrete slab apartment estate.

5. Waldsiedlung, near Wandlitz

Honecker's HouseNot strictly speaking Berlin, but some thirty kilometres to the north, this ‘forest settlement’ is well worth a trip in a hire car. This was where East Germany’s leaders lived, in comparative – but not ostentatious – luxury. In Stasi Child, it’s the setting where my People’s Police detective, Karin Müller, finally learns from her Stasi ‘handler’ what her case has all been about. It’s now a sanatorium, but in GDR-times was a well-guarded, gated estate. You can either take a guided tour on a road train, or wander round yourself, discovering the former houses of the two Erichs – Honecker and Mielke. Ironically, Mielke’s former home is considerably bigger – but both would be considered fairly modest by western standards.

RAVEN’S REVIEW:

StasiChild_firstlook_540If you still need an incentive to read this book after some brilliant guest posts, reviews and Q&As, I will do my best to further convince you! I’m more than happy to report that the Raven was rather taken with this one…

Constructed around three contrasting narrative viewpoints, the book takes place in 1970’s East Berlin, with the famed wall firmly in place, and the contrast between life either side of it strongly in evidence throughout. A young girl’s body is discovered close to the wall, with the general consensus being that she has taken the unusual step of fleeing from the West to the East, unlike most of her contemporaries. However, as Oberleutnant Karin Müller ( the only female head of a murder squad in the Deutsche Demokratische Republic) and her infuriatingly charming sidekick, Unterleutnant Werner Tilsner investigate further, they come to realise that much darker dealings are afoot. With their every move being monitored by a representative of the Stasi, fundamentally manipulating their remit in the investigation, and Müller’s husband Gottfried also attracting the unwanted attention of the secret police, there is much subterfuge to be undertaken, and angst to be had, by Müller along the way. Additionally, Young incorporates a seemingly unrelated plot involving the restrictive and harsh conditions experienced by a group of youngsters in a notorious ‘Jugendwerkhof‘, ostensibly a home for less well disciplined, or rootless, youngsters to be indoctrinated in the ways of the State. As all three narratives wend their way towards each other, the depth of corruption, control, and conspiracy within this closed society become all too clear.

If, like me, you have enjoyed the Soviet-based crime fiction of authors such as Martin Cruz Smith, William Ryan, Tom Rob Smith or Sam Eastland, this will prove itself an absolute must read. Like the aforementioned authors, Young perfectly captures the socio-political atmosphere of a society in the grasp of a suffocating control of the state apparatus. The fear, suspicion and deprivation encountered by not only Müller and her team and the youngsters at the Jugendwerkhof, but also that of ordinary citizens, is incredibly well depicted, and Young provides an unflinching gaze on the workings of this closed society. He carefully balances the seeming utopia of life beyond the wall in the West, with the harsh and stringent regime of the East, which makes the plight of these citizens all the more affecting as the story progresses. Having only accrued knowledge of this location and period in German history from non-fiction and celluloid representations, it was entirely satisfying to see how well Young crafted the pertinent details into his fictional representation. Ably supported by an engrossing plot, with its varying strands and well-structured premise, this wasn’t just a linear crime thriller, which again added to the satisfaction of this reader.

Likewise, Young’s grasp of effective characterisation was a real bonus. Müller herself was an entirely empathetic and believable protagonist, balancing the problems of her gender, with the importance of her position in the police, and the nefarious individuals seeking to derail and influence her investigation. The interplay between her and Tilsner, both on a personal and professional level, always overshadowed by the demands of her loyalty to her husband, was a real hook throughout, and added a nice frisson to the general gloom and sadness that infuses the story. The character of Oberstleutnant Karl Jager, as a representative of the Stasi was also nicely weighted within the plot, with his shadowy influence and mercurial nature, providing an intriguing and slightly sinister air to the whole affair, in his dealings with Müller and Tilsner.

Similarly to Tom Callaghan’s debut earlier this year, The Killing Winter, set in Kyrgyzstan, it was extremely satisfying to read a book located in a largely unexplored society, within the crime fiction genre. Young has more than proved that his name will be one to watch in the future with this powerful, well-researched and intriguing thriller. A highly recommended debut.

Stasi Child by David Young is out now in ebook. The Paperback will follow in February 2016.

(With thanks to twenty7 for the ARC)

 

William Ryan- The Twelfth Department

Product DetailsMoscow, 1937. Captain Korolev, a police investigator, is enjoying a long-overdue visit from his young son Yuri when an eminent scientist is shot dead within sight of the Kremlin and Korolev is ordered to find the killer. It soon emerges that the victim, a man who it appears would stop at nothing to fulfil his ambitions, was engaged in research of great interest to those at the very top ranks of Soviet power. When another scientist is brutally murdered, and evidence of the professor’s dark experiments is hastily removed, Korolev begins to realise that, along with having a difficult case to solve, he’s caught in a dangerous battle between two warring factions of the NKVD. And then his son Yuri goes missing . . .

 There are few pleasures in life akin to immersing yourself in a great read, and after the brilliant series opener The Holy Thief, followed by the equally compelling The Bloody Meadow (seek them out if you haven’t already), I settled down for another trip to the claustrophobic and suspicious world of Stalinist Russia. So how did The Twelfth Department measure up to its predecessors?

Building on the strength of this already established series, Ryan not only gives the reader the requisite amount of tension and skulduggery that we have come to expect from this excellent series, as Korolev finds himself at the bidding of two masters investigating a dastardly plot involving the brainwashing of dispossessed youths, but also skillfully interweaves an altogether more personal and introspective strand to Korolev himself. The central plot displays its usual strength, as the main theme addresses the necessity for the mind control of the average Soviet citizen to adhere to the rules and constraints of the totalitarian regime. Building on the palpable tension and inherent suspicion of others that such a society produces, Ryan constructs a world where every statement made and action taken must be in accordance with being a model citizen and woe betide those who speak or act of turn. Finding himself at the behest of the feared NKVD, Korolev must endeavour not only not to displease his masters, but also retain his essential humanity in what unfolds as a particularly unsettling investigation that strikes close to his heart and home.

What makes this a different read to the first two books is the addition of Korolev’s son Yuri to the mix, on a long overdue visit to his father, and this enables Ryan to expose the more personal fragility of Korolev, which had only been addressed previously in his tentative relationship with Valentina (who shares his apartment with her young daughter). As Korolev refamiliarises himself with his son, aspects of Yuri’s schooling weigh heavily on him, again drawing on the mind control theme of the central plot, and their relationship seems stilted at first before the layers of tension begin to break down. Ryan balances their strangeness to each other beautifully, and we begin to see the softness that lays beneath both their veneers. As Yuri becomes a pawn in the plot, Korolev must balance his natural role as protector and father with the needs of his professional demeanour to uncover the truth behind a series of deaths in the scientific community, and the disappearance of other young boys. Likewise, the father/son theme has an impact on another character at the heart of these books, as Count Kolya (the leader of the criminal gang The Thieves) also turns to Korolev when his own son disappears, demonstrating for both men the intrinsic value of family aside from their public personas as detective or criminal. As Ryan unfolds these other layers to Korolev and Kolya, the book illustrates the depth and control of Ryan’s characterisation, supported by a whole host of other equally well-defined protagonists connected to both Korolev and the murder victims.

So with exceptional plotting, the assured building of atmosphere and the seamless interweaving of historical detail, supported by a more introspective feel to the characterisation, Ryan has once again produced a superlative read. As I say in the introduction this is a series that deserves attention, so if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading these yet you are in for a treat…

William Ryan is an Irish writer living in London. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and the University of St Andrews and worked as a lawyer before taking up writing full-time. His first novel, THE HOLY THIEF, was shortlisted for the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, The CWA John Creasy New Blood Dagger and a Barry Award. His second novel, THE BLOODY MEADOW, was shortlisted for the Ireland AM Irish Crime Novel of the Year. Visit William’s website here: www.william-ryan.com 

Read Sarah Ward’s review here: http://crimepieces.wordpress.com and by Rob Kitchin at: http://theviewfromthebluehouse.blogspot

With huge thanks to William for the sneak peek of The Twelfth Department during its development- it was an honour- and also a special mention to Katie at Macmillan…

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William Ryan- The Bloody Meadow

Was nice to catch up with William at CrimeFest as he had very kindly sent me a copy of  his excellent Korolev thriller ‘The Bloody Meadow’ to read and review. A thoroughly nice chap he is too!

 In ‘The Bloody Meadow’ we are once again immersed in the claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere of Stalinist Russia, in this the follow up to Ryan’s remarkable debut `The Holy Thief’. Our erstwhile hero and investigator Captain Korolev becomes embroiled in the suspected suicide of a beautiful young woman working as a film production assistant, and is uprooted from the relative safety of Moscow to the wilds to investigate. A seemingly straightforward case one would think, but as Korolev gets drawn in deeper to her complicated private life and her links to an especially violent period of Russian history, dark secrets are unearthed and Korolev must revisit an unpredictable and dangerous ally from the past to thwart a perilous plot at personal risk to his life and career.
Ryan’s attention to historical detail is masterful and because the novel is so rooted in the reality of this period, one truly gets the sense of the fear of speaking one’s own mind and the inherent suspicion of others that was fuelled by the suffocating and paranoid dictatorship of Stalin. This attention to historical detail and sense of place is counterbalanced by the precision of the plotting and a cast of truly well-drawn characters and the storyline is also underscored by moments of mordant humour that catch the reader unawares. I really liked the introduction of Slivka, a young female investigator who becomes invaluable to Korolev’s investigation and the reappearance of Kolya- the leader of The Thieves- was a welcome surprise as despite his criminal tendencies, he makes a wonderful foil to Korolev’s role as law enforcer. I would heartily recommend this book as a terrific criminal read but also as an astute and well-observed depiction of a terrifying period of Russian history. More than just a crime novel…