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.¬†

 

 

#BlogTour- William Shaw- Deadland

The two boys never fitted in. Seventeen, the worst age, nothing to do but smoke weed; at least they have each other. The day they speed off on a moped with a stolen mobile, they’re ready to celebrate their luck at last. Until their victim comes looking for what’s his – and ready to kill for it.

On the other side of Kent’s wealth divide, DS Alexandra Cupidi faces the strangest murder investigation of her career. A severed limb, hidden inside a modern sculpture in Margate’s Turner Contemporary. No one takes it seriously – not even the artwork’s owners, celebrity dealers who act like they’re above the law. However,¬† as Cupidi’s case becomes ever more sinister, as she wrangles with police politics and personal dilemmas, she can’t help worrying about those runaway boys. Seventeen, the same age as her own headstrong daughter. Alone, on the marshes, they’re pawns in someone else’s game. Two worlds are about to collide…¬†

The latest addition to William Shaw’s superlative DS Alexandra Cupidi series following The Birdwatcher and Salt Lane, Deadland returns us to the haunting coastal area of Dungeness, and two compelling investigations for Cupidi and her colleagues…

It’s no secret that I think William Shaw is one of the most accomplished, and consistently good crime authors at work in Britain today, and I always embark on his new books with a slight nervous tingle, hoping that each will be as satisfying as the previous. Which brings us to Deadland which was everything I hoped it would be (massive sigh of relief).¬†What I love with this series (and his previous trilogy featuring DS Cathal Breen and PC Helen Tozer) is the way that Shaw, in common with his coastal location, ebbs and flows with his characters, moving them around like chess pieces bringing them back and forwards to the centre of the storyline with Capaldi being at the rooted centre. Consequently, this book reintroduces us to disgraced ex-police officer William South from The Birdwatcher, and where Salt Lane was very much involved with the generational differences of Capaldi, her mother and her daughter, this book switches the focus more onto Capaldi’s colleagues, alongside the central investigations.

I think it’s worth drawing attention to this, to emphasize the sheer quality of Shaw’s characterisation, and how roundly and believably drawn his characters are. Capaldi is a professional working mother with a recalcitrant teenage daughter, South is a man obviously tarnished by his prison experience, constable Jill Ferriter experiencing professional and personal difficulties, a diversion into the weird and wonderful inhabitants of the ‘art’ world and, at the heart of the book two wayward teenage boys, Tap and Sloth, with their own trials and tribulations. Without a doubt, each and every one of these characters are brimming with realism, so that you feel totally part of their contrasting experiences and world views. The narrative voice of each is precise, and authentic, and this is particularly true of Tap and Sloth, and the changes we see in their brash teenage bravado as the book progresses. With subtle changes in rhythm and syntax, Shaw brings all these voices to life, and with it an even greater connection to them for the reader.

Another element of this book that I enjoyed was the striking juxtaposition of the two investigations that Capaldi and her colleagues are tasked with. Throughout his books Shaw has always tackled difficult social issues be they of the 1960s or now, and the fact that this book straddled two very economically and materially different worlds was an interesting facet of the book. From the dripping wealth and pretentiousness of the art world, to the very different world inhabited by the teenage protagonists, Shaw retains the tension of both, and how crime bridges all social strata and class. It’s also interesting to observe the changes of attitude in the police characters between both investigations, and where their sympathies lie, and how their own attitudes reveal themselves. Indeed, the fears and frustrations at play in this book, in both their professional and personal lives too, are as finely balanced with the arc of the plot, holding the whole book in balance, as Shaw assuredly takes us between these contrasting worlds and characters. Sometimes with two storylines playing out there is a tension in the reader to return to one more swiftly than the other, but I think this was neatly avoided with both strands of the story having their own particular pace and moments of peril. I must confess that my former blissful ignorance of the art world kept me wholly engaged as the book progressed, and admittedly none of my preconceptions about the inhabitants of this world were largely disproved. Which was nice.

So a glowing review for Deadland and another heartfelt plea to discover this author for yourselves. With pitch perfect characterisation, immersive storylines, a striking use of location, and accomplished writing and plotting, there is so much to enjoy in this series. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Riverrun for the ARC)

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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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. 

 

William Shaw- Salt Lane/ Kate Rhodes-Hell Bay

I am going to don my bookseller hat here, and say with some confidence that if you like the sound of one of these beauties, I can pretty much guarantee that the other book will appeal too.

Go on. You know you want to…

DS Alexandra Cupidi has done it again. She should have learnt to keep her big mouth shut, after the scandal that sent her packing – resentful teenager in tow – from the London Met to the lonely Kent coastline. Murder is different here, among the fens and stark beaches. The man drowned in the slurry pit had been herded there like an animal. He was North African, like many of the fruit pickers that work the fields. The more Cupidi discovers, the more she wants to ask – but these people are suspicious of questions. It will take an understanding of this strange place – its old ways and new crimes – to uncover the dark conspiracy behind the murder. Cupidi is not afraid to travel that road. But she should be. She should, by now, have learnt…

Having made the acquaintance of DS Alexandra Cupidi some time ago in The Birdwatcher , a wonderfully atmospheric thriller set against the backdrop of the bleak coastline of Dungeness, prepare to be completely absorbed as she makes her return in Salt Lane. Not only is this a well plotted and compelling police procedural, once again using this particular landscape to its full brooding and slightly sinister effect, but Salt Lane reveals itself to be so much more.

When you cast your eye over the backlist of William Shaw, comprising of his evocative 60s series, and the aforementioned The Birdwatcher, one cannot help but be struck by the skill of his storytelling, and the strength of his characterisation. As well as unfailingly producing absorbing, moving and carefully constructed police procedurals, Shaw also uses either the zeitgeist of the period, or the locations to envelop the reader completely in the atmosphere he seeks to produce. In Salt Lane the desolate, but rawly beautiful, locale of Dungeness once again reveals itself as a centrifugal force in the book, being either a place of safety or danger in equal measure, but also effectively acting as a prism for the emotional state of both Cupidi and her troubled teenage daughter, Zoe. As Zoe seeks to deal with her emotional pain and seeks¬†solace from the landscape, also unwittingly leading herself into the heart of her mother’s investigation, Cupidi herself finds herself at times waging an emotional and physical battle with the unique geography of the area, and the murders that occur within its boundaries.

Taking a backward step¬†for a second, I can’t¬†emphasise enough the weight of¬†emotion, and more importantly the¬†completely plausible¬†emotion that Shaw injects into his trinity of female characters, Cupidi, Zoe and Cupidi’s mother Helen, who will be recognisable to some readers from Shaw’s previous books. I was absolutely blown away by how succinctly and honestly Shaw captured the internal and external emotional lives of these women, as they navigate their differences and similarities in the course of the book. The tension and moments of conflict are balanced beautifully with moments of epiphany in their personal relationship with each other, and the scenes featuring these three exceptional characters are a joy to read, feeling raw, true and suffused with realism. I must confess that I don’t read much ‘women’s fiction’ as that which I have encountered always has a slightly mawkish feel in its depiction of ‘women’s experience’, ¬†but I was held spellbound by the resonance of these characters in my interpretation of how women truly are, and how that which separates them, can be seen to actually¬†bind them together more than they initially feel.

As for the plot itself, Shaw is given free reign to expose the worst ills of a Britain caught in a monstrous wave of nationalism and post-Brexit turmoil. Against the Kent location of the book, Shaw weaves a disturbing police investigation into an unflinching and, most importantly, objective appraisal of immigration and exploitation, that boils the blood, and tugs at the heartstrings in equal measure, depending on your political viewpoint. 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. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Riverrun for the ARC)

============================================

DI Ben Kitto needs a second chance. After ten years working for the murder squad in London, a traumatic event has left him grief-stricken. He’s tried to resign from his job, but his boss has persuaded him to take three months to reconsider. Ben plans to work in his uncle Ray’s boatyard, on the tiny Scilly island of Bryher where he was born, hoping to mend his shattered nerves. His plans go awry when the body of sixteen year old Laura Trescothick is found on the beach at Hell Bay. Her attacker must still be on the island because no ferries have sailed during a two-day storm. Everyone on the island is under suspicion. Dark secrets are about to resurface. And the murderer could strike again at any time.

With all the claustrophobic feel of a locked room mystery, and introducing us to a little fictionally represented corner of the world, Hell Bay proves to be a real treat, and on the back of Kate Rhodes’ brilliant series featuring Alice Quentin, this introduction to a new character DI Ben Kitto can only augur well for books to come…

I know I’m always going on about location in the¬†books I read, but I genuinely think that if, ¬†as a reader, ¬†you can’t imagine this all too crucial element to a story in a tangible sense the book is lost before it starts, hence my adoration of writers such as Peter May and Ron Rash¬†whose evocation of place is always perfect. So first big tick in the box to Rhodes who deftly depicts the ruggedness and solitude of her Scilly Isles location from the opening age, and consistently and atmospherically through the course of the book. The unique feel of this landscape, and the ever present changeable moods of the sea, provides the most sinister backdrop to her story, and I love the way that Rhodes manipulates this to add to the tension and emotion of the human dramas played out against its omnipresent influence. Indeed, many of the characters have an unbreakable and sometimes damaging connection to the sea, be it by occupation, by loss or by emotional disturbance and its influence looms large in the story and readers’ consciousness throughout.

I did like the character of DI Ben Kitto from the off, with his, at first concealed¬†reasons for returning home, and his reluctance to re-engage with people from his formative years, adding a nice degree of shade and light to his character. I also enjoyed the way that we see him slowly assimilate himself back into the community, the pace of life, the pressures on peoples’ livelihoods,¬†the suspicions of neighbours, and the reopening of conflicts from years past. This gave a very rounded feel to the particular pressures of living within such a small community, and how the actions of one person, is so deeply felt in the lives of the others. Kitto aside, I thought Rhodes’ characterisation was excellent throughout, and loved the disparate band of island dwellers who thwart or assist Kitto in his investigation. There was a real satisfying melting pot of characters, some infinitely more demonstrative than others, and the way that Rhodes’ uses them to portray the frustrations and hardships¬†of island life, and the rootedness or need to escape each display.

Obviously with the premise of the book being a murder mystery, Rhodes works hard to achieve a marvellous modern interpretation of a classic locked room mystery, and she achieves this admirably. With only a finite number of suspects, I very much enjoyed the sense of personal detection she encourages in the reader in true Agatha Christie style, and I found the outcome of the book entirely satisfying. Hell Bay is a particularly strong start to a potential series, I hope, and one I shall follow with interest. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Simon and Schuster for the ARC)

==================================

 

 

May 2016 Round-Up and Raven’s Book of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Words cannot express how much I have enjoyed the month of May with a whole two weeks off work, a brilliant trip to the¬†CrimeFest crime writing convention¬†and some jolly good reading too! Had an absolute blast at CrimeFest (superbly organised by Myles, Donna and Adrian *round of applause*)¬†where I attended 18 panels, saw Ian Rankin brilliantly interviewed by Jake Kerridge, and discovered a whole host of new and exciting crime authors through the Fresh Blood sessions. Thanks to all the authors for their wit, intelligence and truly entertaining panels, and for their general good-natured¬†bonhomie in the face of their adoring fans. Lovely to see my favourites again!¬†I would also like to give a special mention to all the authors and publicists who¬†bombarded me with¬†praise for my reviews. I would say that you guys do all the hard work- I am a mere conduit- but thank you, I appreciate it very much.¬†I met a whole host of wonderful people including¬†the blogging posse, Liz, Christine, Victoria, Lisa,¬† Shaz and Tracey,¬† where it was lovely to put¬†faces to Twitter handles- you are excellent people- and fab to catch up with some familiar faces from the blogging community too- interesting discussions guys!¬†¬†As usual there were also¬†late night shenanigans, near the knuckle tales and drunken high jinx- but alas my beak is sealed. Sorry… Can’t wait for next year…

May has been an excellent month in terms of volume of books read, but have let it slide it bit with actually writing reviews. Consequently, there is a small pile of books nestling by the laptop, waiting for their moment in the sun. Their time will come. June will hopefully then be a bumper round-up and with¬†another two blog tours on the horizon,¬†there’s lots of criminal goodies to bring you next month. Have a good one!

Books read and reviewed:

Abir Mukherjee- A Rising Man

J M Gulvin- The Long Count

Steve Cavanagh- The Plea

William Shaw- The Birdwatcher

Tetsuya Honda- The Silent Dead

 

Raven’s Book of The Month:

This month I could easily say all of them! It’s a rare occurrence to love every single book you’ve read, but you wouldn’t go far wrong picking any of these at random, depending on your mood or preferred location. Add them all to your summer reading list. But, having to adhere to my self-imposed convention, I’m choosing the one that really struck an emotional chord with me, with its sublime mix of location, shifting timeline,¬†an appreciation of the natural world,¬†and faultless characterisation. Step forward…

images1

 

 

William Shaw- The Birdwatcher

images1Police Sergeant William South has a reason for not wanting to be on the murder investigation.

He is a murderer himself.

But the victim was his only friend; like him, a passionate birdwatcher. South is warily partnered with the strong-willed Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi, newly recruited to the Kent coast from London. Together they find the body, violently beaten, forced inside a wooden chest. Only rage could kill a man like this. South knows it. But soon – too soon – they find a suspect: Donnie Fraser, a drifter from Northern Ireland. His presence in Kent disturbs William – because he knew him as a boy. If the past is catching up with him, South wants to meet it head on. For even as he desperately investigates the connections, he knows there is no crime, however duplicitous or cruel, that can compare to the great lie of his childhood…

With a¬†notable change of pace, period and location from¬†his 1960’s set trilogy- A Song From Dead Lips¬†¬†, A House¬†Of Knives,¬†¬†, and A Book of Scars¬†¬†– William Shaw transports us in this haunting standalone to the desolate beauty of the Kent coast, and a tale that reverberates with the dark echoes of the past…

I should say from the outset that this book encapsulates the very best of European crime fiction in terms of pace, characterisation and location, drawing on the most recognisable elements of Scandinavian noir with its bleak location,¬†sublimely controlled plotting,¬†and the¬†emotional but strikingly underplayed¬†turmoil that Shaw injects into his central characters. Indeed the mantra of ‘location, location’ is the key element to Shaw’s beautiful mirroring effect of the sparse, wild nature of this area reflecting the feeling of emotional barrenness that lies within the psyches of his characters, and also¬†draws an interesting juxtaposition between the natural freedom of the proliferation of¬†the coastal bird community and the hemmed in feel of his characters’ existences.¬†¬†Personal isolation looms large not only in his main protagonist, William South for reasons that are slowly revealed during the course of the book, but also to a certain degree in DS Cupidi, following her relocation to the area. As much as South struggles with the ghosts of the past coming back to haunt him, Cupidi is seeking to make her mark in this investigation as the new face on the squad, and there is an intuitive use of her daughter, Zoe, to provide South with a path back to normal human interaction that he has so solidly distanced himself from outside of his professional career. I loved the interplay and shifting dynamic between these three characters, albeit with some hard decisions arising from their interactions, and the way that the slowly unfurling trust between them comes to be so sorely tested. This careful manipulation of human emotion, and finding connections, is a real strength of all of Shaw’s books to date, and I would say that this book is no exception to this real craft in his writing.

In the same way as Scandinavian authors so routinely return to reference the Second World War, Shaw uses the Irish upbringing of his central protagonist, Police¬†Sergeant¬†William South to provide this gravitational axis to conflicts of the past. I’m always interested in the way that the past dictates and shapes¬†our present and future actions, and whether an individual can truly escape darker periods of their life. In the¬†story of South we see an individual¬†who has laboured under this shadow for many years, and Shaw beautifully controls the gradual reveal of the more¬†shadowy and violent previous life. I found it interesting that Shaw had then cast South in the role of¬†protector and policeman, and the sharp contrast this reveals between his younger and older self, which added a certain frisson to the story overall. It goes without saying that this also serves well in manipulating the empathy of the reader, and if, ¬†like me, ¬†the psychological quirks and anomalies¬†of protagonists is a real draw in your crime fiction reading this will serve you well. Once again Shaw has produced, in my opinion, an exceptionally perceptive and sensitive crime novel, that raises as many questions on¬†human nature and redemption¬†as it answers. Intelligent and¬†thought provoking.

(With thanks to Riverrun for the ARC)

 

 

 

 

Guest Post-William Shaw- #TheBirdwatcher

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To mark the release of William Shaw’s new¬†thriller The Birdwatcher, here is a guest post by the very man himself on the rare beauty of Dungeness, a unique and bleak setting indeed…

“I was looking for a house. Not to buy, you understand, but to kill someone in.

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 16_36_55These days, Google Street View is a good place to start. Writers probably use it more than they’d admit to, but where I was looking, there was no Street View. In Dungeness, the roads peter out into tracks and the Google car doesn’t bother with going off road. Maybe it’s too remote. Or maybe it’s because the track runs alongside a nuclear power station, considered a terrorist security risk, and they don’t want you knowing too much about what it looks like there.

It had all started with the location. Quite why I chose Dungeness, I honestly can’t remember. It’s a bleak, ominous landscape. I think the first time I’d gone there was for the ash-scattering ceremony of a friend, which was probably something to do with it. A sense that not everything that happens here is good. But if, as plenty of writers say, location is a character, then Dungeness was a place with plenty of it.

DSCN9674The location began to shape the material. Even though the Met Office classify these 12 square miles of shingle jutting out into the channel as a desert, in fact this apparently desolate place is teeming with wildlife. And birds too. Amongst birdwatchers, this was a legendary location. I discovered that Dungeness Bird Observatory was set up here by a group of enthusiasts in 1952. Nearby among the old pits extracted for gravel and stones, now filled with water, the RSPB established what is their very first bird reserve.

So with the location, my central character became a birdwatcher. As I’m not a birder myself, that wasn’t easy. I researched. I began to like birders. They were dedicated people, patient, with their own way of seeing the world. A plot began to evolve. And now all I needed was my murder house. So, about a year ago, I drove there from Brighton and parked by the pub known as The Pilot Рanother legendary location for birders, it turned out. It’s here they argue about their sightings after a long day on the shingle.

The house was easy to find. Within only a few yards of walking it was there, right next to the barbed-wire fence that reads, ‚ÄėNuclear Installations Act 1965 Licensed Site Boundary‚Äô. A small, weathered bungalow, set apart from all the other clusters of huts and homes. Dungeness is full of these shacks, originally built by outsiders or railway workers. Now a lot of them are owned by millionaires, or wealthy would-be artists. Not this one though. Here the cladding was in need of another coat of paint. Two gables formed a simple M shape. A fishing boat sat on a trailer to the right of the small track that led up to it. The windows were all shuttered or curtained.

Perfect.”

images1Police Sergeant William South has a reason for not wanting to be on the murder investigation. He is a murderer himself. But the victim was his only friend; like him, a passionate birdwatcher. South is warily partnered with the strong-willed Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi, newly recruited to the Kent coast from London. Together they find the body, violently beaten, forced inside a wooden chest. Only rage could kill a man like this. South knows it. But soon – too soon – they find a suspect: Donnie Fraser, a drifter from Northern Ireland. His presence in Kent disturbs William – because he knew him as a boy. If the past is catching up with him, South wants to meet it head on. For even as he desperately investigates the connections, he knows there is no crime, however duplicitous or cruel, that can compare to the great lie of his childhood…

The Birdwatcher is out now- published by Riverrun

Raven`s review to follow…

Raven’s Yearly Round-Up and Top 5 Crime Reads 2015

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)As the end of 2015 approaches, it is time to look back in awe and wonder at some of the books that have thrilled and entertained the Raven over the last twelve months. With approximately¬†125 crime¬†books read, and not far off 100 reviews posted, this year has heralded a bumper crop of exciting crime reads, A slew of brilliant debuts including Oscar de Muriel- The Strings of Murder, Tom Callaghan’s The Killing Winter, Ragnar Jonasson’s Snowblind¬†and David Young’s Stasi Child, and great new offerings from established names such as Mari Hannah, Steve Mosby,¬†William Shaw,¬†Simon Toyne¬†and Malcolm Mackay have been a joy to read.¬†¬†So here¬†are the highlights and lowlights of the year…¬†

THE 40-PAGE RULE

With the constant influx of books I receive as a blogger, full time bookseller, and my day off job as a volunteer in a charity book shop, there is never a shortage of reading material accumulated in the teetering to be read mountain! Hence the need for the 40-page rule. If a book has failed to ignite my interest within this page count, I’m afraid it is discarded, passed on to others, or fulfils it’s charitable duty as a donation to the shop mentioned above. The parameters for a book’s untimely fate vary- clich√©d, overwritten, one-dimensional characters, too much similarity to another book, obvious plot turns or killers, and if anyone mentions someone opening a door in their underwear, all hope is lost. I usually manage to read nearer 200 books in a year so a fairly hefty count of 42 non-starters have impeded my reading. Unusually for someone known for their bluntness, in the good spirit of Christmas I’m naming no names, but rest assured¬†your books have found a good home elsewhere…

THE MOST HYPED CRIME GENRE OF THE YEAR

the-girl-on-the-train-uk-e1420761445402It seems that only by dwelling at the outer reaches of the Arctic Circle could you escape the hype surrounding The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins. And yet the Raven was unmoved by the sheer intensity of the praise heaped upon this book on its release, and the ensuing avalanche of ‘domestic noir’ thrillers that it helped spawn. There again I didn’t like Gone Girl either. I am the domestic noir Grinch. Enough already.

WORDS FAILED ME (BUT IN A GOOD WAY)

litten2As a non-professional reviewer and a casual blogger, sometimes a book utterly defeats any talent for reviewing that you believe you possess! One such book this year was Russ Litten’s Kingdom. Having waxed lyrical about Litten’s previous book¬†Swear Down which was terrific, I was incredibly excited to receive Kingdom to review. I was totally in its thrall from start to finish, but when it came to the depth of this reading experience, the majesty of the language, the emotional intensity, and sheer cleverness of the whole affair, words defeated me. Completely. Too marvellous for words.

TURNING MY BACK ON CRIME (OCCASIONALLY)

It may be hard to believe, but yes, I do quite often read books that are not crime. Yes really. So three stand-out fiction reads for me this year would be Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone, where the voice of the late lamented John Lennon sang from every page, The Reader On The 6.47 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, a beautiful French novel with echoes of Patrick Modiano, and Glenn Taylor’s A Hanging At Cinder Bottom, an American¬†writer who never disappoints in his characterisation and¬†crackling dialogue.

And so¬†to the awards ceremony….cue fanfare….and in a break from tradition not all of these were nominated as books of the month at the time, but have stayed in my head, popping up in unguarded moments…

RAVEN’S TOP 5 BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Click on the book jackets to read the reviews.

5. KARIM MISKE-ARAB JAZZ

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4. DOUG JOHNSTONE-THE JUMP

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3. MATTHEW FRANK-IF I SHOULD DIE

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2. ANTTI TUOMAINEN- DARK AS MY HEART

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1. JAX MILLER- FREEDOM’S CHILD

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In a strange instance¬†of premonition, I ended my review of¬†Freedom’s Child saying¬†that it would possibly be my book of the year. Lean prose, a¬†laconic and rhythmical style¬†and an utterly compelling central character in the shape of the emotionally damaged Freedom.¬†A brilliant and unforgettable¬†debut.

 

 

June 2015 Round-up and Raven’s Book of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)With the twin misfortunes of malfunctioning technology, and a particularly busy month at work, I must apologise for the sporadic content posted this month *hangs head in shame*. With only five reviews posted, I have been a bit slack, but fear not as there are some in the bank, ¬†so to speak, to get July back on course. I have not been idle with my reading, and despite some encroachment on my crime reading with a bit of fiction/non-fiction dabbling, (just to remind myself that I am an all-round bookseller),¬†I have read some terrific books scheduled for release in July, so watch this space. There is one in particular, that I can’t wait to share with you. Intrigued, you will be…¬†There’s also been a quite a¬†few non-starters, but¬†think that says more about how fussy I’m getting than the quality of the writing!¬† Good news is that there are¬†more¬†blog tours on the horizon too, including one for¬†fellow crime blogger Sarah Ward (Crimepieces) with the release of her debut thriller In Bitter Chill,¬†and am also¬†looking forward to a Q&A coming up with Simon Sylvester- author of The Visitors– in advance of the¬† Bloody Scotland crime festival. I’ve also had fun putting together my feature on the 5 books that got me hooked on crime, which will be appearing soon over at Crime Fiction Lover, so watch out for that too. With the feeling that finally summer has arrived, hope you all find some thrilling summer reads- July’s going to be a hot one…

Books Reviewed:

William Shaw- A Book of Scars

 Joe Ricker- Walkin’ After Midnight

Gunnar Staalesen- We Shall Inherit The Wind

Anya Lipska- A Devil Under The Skin

Tim J. Lebbon- The Hunt (www.crimefictionlover.com)

Raven’s Book of the Month:

51fHJXVRc-L_SX316¬†Sometimes I regret¬†having set myself up to nominate a book of the month, as Anya Lipska and Gunnar Staalesen both provided me with two brilliant reads *round of applause*, and on any other day could have pipped the venerable Mr Shaw and A Book of Scars¬†to the post. However, Breen and Tozer¬†have fought off the competition once again, in the altogether darker, but no less compelling, addition to Shaw’s brilliant series. The sights and sounds of 60’s Britain, and in this case further afield, compounded by the sympathetic and engaging central protagonists, kept those pages a-turning, and emotions running high. A good cliffhanger too, so more to come. Hurrah!

 

 

 

 

William Shaw- A Book of Scars- Guest Post and Review

 

3116815To celebrate the release of¬†A Book of Scars– the third outing for William Shaw’s sixties based detective series featuring Cathal Breen and Helen Tozer, (see my reviews of¬† A Song From Dead Lips and A House of Knives ) I am delighted to be¬†hosting a guest post, in which William discusses the role of¬†the¬†woman in a man’s world and how this applies to his writing. My review of¬†A Book of Scars follows…¬†

#1 Women in a Man’s World?

“I was recently on one of those panels where crime writers discuss issues around the genre; It was called Women in a A Man’s World. Obviously I’m interested in the role of women in crime fiction. In Helen Tozer I hope I’ve written a character who is idiosyncratic and whose 60s proto-feminist insight is a crucial part of the books. She is the young, clumsy, brusque woman in her early 20s; someone who grew up with The Beatles and who rubs the older generation up the wrong way.

But thinking about the idea of women in a man’s world, I realised I was less interested in the “women” bit than I was in the “man’s world.”

Strong women are nothing new in crime fiction. From V I Warshawski to Jane Tennison onwards, we’ve had many brilliant, female characters overcoming the realities of the men’s world. Women don’t have to behave like stereotypes.

In fact the real challenge is that the “feisty female” has herself become a clich√© in the hands of many male writers. That’s the point my fellow panellist Ray Celestin made when discussing how he created ¬†the character Ida for his wonderful debut The Axeman’s Jazz; overcompensating for years of sultry but ineffectual noire femme fatales, you can end up with characters that make Lisbeth Salander look like a wallflower.

But what of men? Are there as many interesting men in crime? Do we rely too much of the tropes of men being emotionally repressed, monosyllabic and lonely (often with the wreckage of a family life strewn behind them). Is that all men are now? Or is that meme starting to look increasingly ridiculous too?

In my male lead, Cathal Breen I realised I was trying to write a man who’s brilliance comes not from his manliness, but from his lack of it. Years looking after a dying father have meant that he couldn’t go out with the lads, didn’t sink pints with them, didn’t share life in a Police Section House, and had lost the knack of being part of police canteen culture. Emotionally raw after his father’s death, he has become over-sensitive and fearsome. He is no longer One of Them.

This isn’t to everyone’s taste. One American Amazon reviewer called Breen “a simpering little wimp”. Bad reviews on Amazon, I tell myself, let you know much more about what you’re doing right than the good ones – but I’m lucky to get very few. The point is, having an unstereotypical point of view, male or female, allows your protagonist to see the world differently.

Men are almost always much more than the 20th stereotype of them. I think that’s worth exploring. I don’t want to give too much away, but by the very violent end of the third book, A Book of Scars, a kind of healing has taken place. A domestic future beckons – something Breen has never had, and something that he’s really wishing for. I’m hoping that things work out for him.

But, of course, I’m almost certain they won’t. This is crime fiction, after all.”

Before becoming a crime writer, William Shaw was an award-winning music journalist and the author of several non-fiction books including s the author of several non-fiction books including Westsiders: Stories of the Boys in the Hood, about a year spent with the young men of South Central Los Angeles, and A Superhero For Hire, a compilation of columns in the Observer Magazine. Starting out as assistant editor of the post-punk magazine ZigZag, he has been a journalist for The Observer, The New York Times, Wired, Arena and The Face and was Amazon UK Music Journalist of the Year in 2003. Visit his website here and follow on Twitter @william1shaw

Raven reviews A Book of Scars

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Following the violent denouement of the previous book, A Book of Scars sees our erstwhile hero detective Cathal Breen taking an enforced¬†spell of R&R at the family farm in Devon of his feisty former police colleague Helen Tozer, who has recently left the Met. Inevitably though, the long shadow cast by the unsolved murder of Tozer’s sister, Alexandra, five years previously, comes back to haunt them in this much darker instalment of William Shaw’s superb 1960’s set series. As the book opens in the closing year of this influential and tumultuous decade, Breen and Tozer have many obstacles, both personal and professional, to overcome to solve this perplexing murder, which leads to others,¬†and to lay the ghosts of the past to rest.

Even if this is your first foray into Shaw’s series, you will soon catch up with the highs and lows of Breen and Tozer’s relationship, accrued through their previous cases, and their frustrating personal relationship. Endeavouring to avoid spoilers, I will simply say that events move on apace, and there is more than one surprise in store for the hapless Breen on the emotional front, as he becomes inveigled in Tozer’s personal strife with the murder of her sister, and the maelstrom of emotions that arise in the wake of this. The ups and downs of their relationship, with Breen being slightly more introverted, and Tozer a real speak-as-you-find kinda gal, makes for an entertaining, yet emotionally tense partnership, and the interplay between their very different investigative styles is as accomplished as in previous books. Breen is methodical, courteous and focussed, but Tozer rather less so, with her tough-as-nails demeanour accrued by living in the shadow of her lost sister, and her forthright decision to join the police, in an era where women were only just making their mark in the force, and barely tolerated in this bastion of masculinity. Hence, throughout the course of the book, there are some lovely incidents of Tozer going all heart of darkness, and Breen attempting to pick up the pieces. However, this is unerringly balanced by how Shaw writes both characters with a real sense of tenderness and poignancy when the need arises, and he doesn’t shy away from putting their individual frailties up for scrutiny. So, for my money, easily one of the most entertaining investigative duos in the world of crime fiction.

As with the previous books, Shaw’s attention to the sights, sounds and socio-political detail of the period never falters. With perfectly placed references to products, fashion, drugs and music interspersed seemingly casually throughout, Shaw firmly roots us in the decade, and as Breen and Tozer dig deeper into Alexandra’s murder, Shaw also goes global, weaving in the uncompromising violence that was brought to the world’s attention through the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya in the 60’s. Using the less than honourable exploits of some of Breen and Tozer’s suspects, during their residence in Kenya, Shaw reveals a well-researched, and eye-opening account of these events in Africa, whilst seamlessly incorporating them into the central plot of the novel. This dark diversion added another real layer of interest to the book, and an unflinching portrayal of this age of revolt, revolution and political corruption. Equally, Shaw leads us off the beaten path several times during the course of our intrepid duo’s investigation, to neatly conceal the perpetrator of Alexandra’s murder and the related deaths that occur as the plot progresses.

As much as I enjoyed the first two books, I think this one resonated more strongly with me, purely because of the emotional intensity that Shaw has injected into A Book of Scars. Not only in the sphere of personal relationships and the reverberation of murder on a family, but also by the inclusion of the dramatic and violent events spawned by the Kenyan uprising. Reading this in a contemporary age, the book gains an added gravitas as we see the events of the past not just in a vacuum, and you read this with a horrible feeling of us not having learnt anything at all in terms of global conflict. However, this more serious side to the book is tempered by Shaw’s lively depiction of his central protagonists (who sometimes you just want to give a good shake) and beautifully placed moments of teasing humour, that lighten the darker corners of the book. A fitting end to a trilogy, or is it, as there’s more than a whiff of a cliffhanger on the closing page….. Good. More please.

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)