FictionFan Awards 2019 – Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

A round of applause…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2019.

For the benefit of new readers, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2018 and October 2019 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2019

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

MODERN CRIME FICTION/ THRILLER

This has been my worst year for modern crime fiction ever. I’m simply out of tune with what’s being produced now and I’ve pretty much given up the attempt to find the occasional one I enjoy. I suspect this may be the last time it appears as an award category unless something changes dramatically in the genre, and I’m seeing no signs that it will. In total, I only gave four books the full five stars, while in comparison I abandoned eleven, including several by authors I’ve previously enjoyed. So a very short and rather uninspired shortlist this time, I’m afraid…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

Clare Cassidy is writing a biography of the writer RM Holland, who was best known for his terrifying ghost story, The Stranger. So she’s happy to be teaching at Talgarth Academy, a school in Sussex which was once Holland’s home and where his study is still intact, giving Clare access to his papers. Clare uses The Stranger as part of her lessons, both for her school pupils and for the adults who attend her creative writing classes in school holidays. But when one of her colleagues is brutally murdered, Clare is shocked to learn that a piece of paper was found by her body containing a line from Holland’s story. And soon, as the plot thickens, it becomes clear that somehow the story holds the clue to the case…

I loved the way Griffiths gradually fed us the story of The Stranger, which in itself is a pretty good pastiche of a real Victorian ghost story. But the spookiness doesn’t stop with it – the main story has some seriously goose-pimply moments, and at least two where I gasped out loud! Lovely Gothic stuff, with the old house and all the diary-writing and mysterious messages and other things I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. Even the investigation has a rather old-fashioned feel to it, with the emphasis on suspects, motives and clues rather than on forensics.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Man with No Face by Peter May

When a new editor takes over at The Edinburgh Post and begins to dumb it down in an attempt to increase circulation, top investigative journalist Neil Bannerman makes his feelings only too clear. So he is swiftly banished to Brussels, to the headquarters of the EEC (as the EU was called back then), tasked with digging up some stories in the run-up to the forthcoming British Parliamentary elections. No-one is expecting quite such a big story though. Bannerman’s fellow journalist, Tim Slater, is murdered along with a rising man in British politics, Robert Gryffe. When the story is quickly hushed up on orders from on high, Bannerman’s journalist interest is only more heightened, and he sets out to discover who carried out the killings and, perhaps more importantly, why.

This is actually a re-issue of a book first published in 1981, so only barely counts as “modern”. I wouldn’t describe the book as full-on noir, but there’s certainly a noirish feel to it with lots of damaged characters and corrupt politicians. But May doesn’t overplay his hand, and allows at least some of his characters some hope of redemption, all of which prevents the tone from becoming too bleak. A very good thriller and the EEC setting gives it an added layer of interest.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Cruel Acts by Jane Casey

Leo Stone was convicted of killing two women and sentenced to life imprisonment. But now one of the jurors has revealed that the jury broke the rules and as a result his conviction is certain to be overturned when it comes before the Appeals Court. There will be a retrial, but Superintendent Godley wants to make certain that he’s convicted again, so Detective Sergeant Maeve Kerrigan and Detective Inspector Josh Derwent are assigned to reinvestigate the case and to find more evidence if they can. In the midst of the investigation, after Stone has been released, another woman goes missing…

The eighth in the Maeve Kerrigan series, one of very few contemporary series I’m still following. In general, I’m not wild about serial killer stories and helpless females being tortured and killed, but Casey handles it with her usual sensitivity and good taste. While Maeve’s personal life might be a bit complicated, she’s no angst-ridden maverick. The same goes for her colleagues, in fact – they’re probably the most realistic police team I can think of, and while there are petty jealousies and squabbles, they behave overall like the kind of professional force I’d like to think we actually have.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2019

for

BEST MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

Deadland by William Shaw

When a severed limb turns up inside an urn on loan to the local art gallery, DS Alex Cupidi and the team have a real mystery on their hands. First they have to try to work out to whom it belonged and if the owner is dead, and why it was left in a place where it was bound to be discovered, all before they can even begin to investigate who put it there. At the same time, two local lads, Sloth and Tap, are starting out on a life of petty crime. They decide to steal a mobile phone, but unfortunately for them they pick the wrong victim, and soon find themselves being hunted by someone who seems willing to go to any lengths to recover his property, so they run off into hiding. While Alex is tied up in the possible murder investigation, she can’t help being worried for the safety of the boys – criminals they may be, but they’re also victims, of difficult homes, of substandard schools, of a society that doesn’t seem to care. And they’re the same age as Alex’ own daughter, Zoe…

This is part police procedural, part fast-paced thriller. Alex is another detective who avoids being angst-ridden and her relationship with her daughter is very credible. The two boys, Tap and Sloth, are great characters – Shaw makes us care so deeply about them that the tension level ramps ever higher as the story unfolds, with some real heart-thumping moments along the way. And there’s no cosiness about it, so that there’s a real feeling of fear that one or both of them may pay the ultimate price for their stupid crime. But equally their story is not too grim or gritty to be enjoyable.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Literary Fiction

TBR Thursday 210…

Episode 210

And… down again! After going up by 2 last week, the TBR has fallen by 2 this week – down to 223 again. It’s enough to make a girl seasick…

Here are a few more that will be cruising my way soon…

Fiction

Mother of Pearl by Angela Savage

Angela is a blogging friend of mine who has previously written three crime novels starring her Thailand-based Australian detective, Jayne Keeney. She’s been working on this latest novel for the last couple of years and it’s something of a departure for her, taking her into the field of mainstream, rather than genre, fiction. It has just been published in Australia but doesn’t yet have a date for a UK release, so Angela has very kindly sent me a copy, which I’m delighted about, being far too impatient to read it to want to wait!

The Blurb says: A luminous and courageous story about the hopes and dreams we all have for our lives and relationships, and the often fraught and unexpected ways they may be realised.

Angela Savage draws us masterfully into the lives of Anna, an aid worker trying to settle back into life in Australia after more than a decade in Southeast Asia; Meg, Anna’s sister, who holds out hope for a child despite seven fruitless years of IVF; Meg’s husband Nate, and Mukda, a single mother in provincial Thailand who wants to do the right thing by her son and parents.

The women and their families’ lives become intimately intertwined in the unsettling and extraordinary process of trying to bring a child into the world across borders of class, culture and nationality. Rich in characterisation and feeling, Mother of Pearl, and the timely issues it raises, will generate discussion amongst readers everywhere.

* * * * *

Thriller

The Noble Path by Peter May

Courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. Another reissue of one of May’s very early novels from back before he became a star and I became a fan. I thoroughly enjoyed the last one they put out, The Man with No Face, so am intrigued to read this one, although I must admit the subject matter isn’t something that would normally appeal to me. However, May is one of the best thriller writers out there, so if anyone can win me over, he can…

The Blurb says: THE EVIL WRATH

Cambodia, 1978: Amid the Khmer Rouge’s crazed genocide, soldier-of-fortune Jack Elliott is given the impossible task of rescuing a family from the regime.

THE PAINFUL TRUTH

Eighteen-year-old orphan and budding journalist Lisa Robinson has received the impossible news that her father is, in fact, alive. His name is Jack Elliott.

THE NOBLE PATH

As Jack tracks the hostages and Lisa traces her heritage, each intent on reuniting a family. Yet to succeed, they each must run a dangerous gauntlet of bullets and betrayal.

* * * * *

Political Memoir on Audio

Kind of Blue by Kenneth Clarke narrated by himself

To say Ken Clarke is on the opposite side of the political divide to me would be an exaggeration. He is the most centrist of right-wingers while I am more centrist than left-wing these days, so there’s a small rivulet between us rather than a wide gulf. Plus he’s amusing, intelligent and has a lovely, soothing, smoky voice that conjures up visions of comfortable armchairs, panelled walls, wood fires and an excellent vintage…

The Blurb says: Ken Clarke needs no introduction. One of the genuine ‘Big Beasts’ of the political scene, during his 46 years as the Member of Parliament for Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire he has been at the very heart of government under three prime ministers. He is a political obsessive with a personal hinterland, as well known as a Tory Wet with Europhile views as for his love of cricket, Nottingham Forest Football Club and jazz.

In Kind of Blue, Clarke charts his remarkable progress from working-class scholarship boy in Nottinghamshire to high political office and the upper echelons of both his party and of government. But Clarke is not a straightforward Conservative politician. His position on the left of the party, often led Margaret Thatcher to question his true blue credentials and his passionate commitment to the European project, has led many fellow Conservatives to regard him with suspicion – and cost him the leadership on no less than three occasions.

Clarke has had a ringside seat in British politics for four decades, and his trenchant observations and candid account of life both in and out of government will enthral listeners of all political persuasions. Vivid, witty and forthright, and taking its title not only from his politics but from his beloved Miles Davis, Kind of Blue is political memoir at its very best.

* * * * *

Queen of Crime

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

Courtesy of HarperCollins. This new edition popped through my letterbox unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago and, as regulars know, I don’t ever need much of an excuse to revisit Ms Christie! This was always one of my (many) favourites so I know the story very well, but oddly it never matters to me in Christie novels if I already know whodunit. I can read them again and again anyway. Isn’t the cover great? The colours are even more vibrant in real life.

The Blurb says: A sun-drenched story of desire and murder with a conclusion you’ll never see coming…

‘The best Agatha Christie since And Then There Were None’―Observer

The moment Arlena Stuart steps through the door, every eye in the resort is on her.

She is beautiful. She is famous. And in less than 72 hours she will be dead.

On this luxury retreat, cut off from the outside world, everyone is a suspect. The wandering husband. The jealous wife. The bitter step-daughter.

They all had a reason to kill Arlena Stuart. But who hated her enough to do it?

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

The Man With No Face by Peter May

Hold the front page…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a new editor takes over at The Edinburgh Post and begins to dumb it down in an attempt to increase circulation, top investigative journalist Neil Bannerman makes his feelings only too clear. So he is swiftly banished to Brussels, to the headquarters of the EEC (as the EU was called back then), tasked with digging up some stories in the run-up to the forthcoming British Parliamentary elections. No-one is expecting quite such a big story though. Bannerman’s fellow journalist, Tim Slater, is murdered along with a rising man in British politics, Robert Gryffe. When the story is quickly hushed up on orders from on high, Bannerman’s journalist interest is only more heightened, and he sets out to discover who carried out the killings and, perhaps more importantly, why.

This is one of Peter May’s earliest books, first published in 1981 and now being republished. In the introduction, May says he carried out a “light revision” of the text, but made only minor changes. When I learned it was such an early novel and long out of print, I lowered my expectations going in, but was intrigued to see how one of my long-term favourite authors started out. Well! No need to make allowances – this is a great thriller, right up there with the best he’s ever done!

Mostly we see the story from Bannerman’s perspective though in the third person, but there are also chapters throughout where the perspective shifts to Kale, the hired assassin who carries out the killings. This doesn’t in any way diminish the mystery, since Kale doesn’t know who has hired him or why – he’s simply doing a job. These chapters give an extra edge of darkness to the story. Kale is a damaged man, unsurprisingly given his profession, and a cold, clinical killer who doesn’t make mistakes. Until this time. Unknown to him, Slater’s young autistic daughter, Tania, has witnessed the killings, but her condition makes her unable to speak. She can draw however, and she draws a detailed picture of the killer, with just one thing missing… his face.

Bannerman is an excellent protagonist – hard, uncompromising, relentless when he’s on the track of a story, but with his own vulnerabilities and troubled past. He is drawn towards Tania, and she, sensitive to others’ feelings and starved of affection, finds herself equally drawn to him. So when it seems she might be in danger because of witnessing the crime, Bannerman has an extra reason to find the killer. Tania has a regular babysitter, Sally, who provides a love interest for Bannerman, but she of course also has a troubled past! I wouldn’t describe the book as full-on noir, but there’s certainly a noirish feel to it with all these damaged characters and corrupt politicians. But May doesn’t overplay his hand, and allows at least some of his characters some hope of redemption, all of which prevents the tone from becoming too bleak.

In the introduction again, May says that the portrayal of Tania’s autism is “a reflection of prevailing opinion at the time”. I must say I think it’s stood the test of time very well, and still reads to me as far more authentic and less sensationalised or mawkish than many of the more recent fictional portrayals of people with autism. The reader is occasionally allowed inside Tania’s mind where we see her frustration at her inability to express herself, and that helps to explain her sometimes extreme behaviour. It’s a sympathetic and somewhat understated picture, and I found her entirely credible.

Peter May

The plot is complex and Bannerman’s search for the truth is again very credible, well within the realism of investigative journalism. May, of course, was a journalist himself back in the day, so it’s hardly surprising that the aspects surrounding the newspaper business ring true. The book is set in 1979, so no internet or mobile phones, and it reminded me how much I preferred thrillers back in the days when the protagonist was a real old-fashioned gumshoe, always on the move, dealing with people face to face. There is some violence, but nothing that felt overly graphic or out of place, and there’s a real and increasing sense of danger as the story unfolds, all leading up to an excellent thriller climax.

I must say I loved this as much as any of his later books, and am now hoping that Quercus dig out his other early thrillers and dust them off. A special treat for fans, but would work just as well for newcomers to his work. Highly recommended! It’s left me wanting to go back and re-read all his China thrillers, too…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….“It’s a bit of a climb from this side,” said Parker.
….“It is. He stood here in the ditch, and put one foot into this place where the paling’s broken away and one hand on the top, and hauled himself up. No. 10 must have been a man of exceptional height, strength and agility. I couldn’t get my foot up, let alone reaching the top with my hand, I’m five foot nine. Could you?”
….Parker was six foot, and could just touch the top of the wall with his hand.
….“I might do it – on one of my best days,” he said, “for an adequate object, or after adequate stimulant.”
….“Just so,” said Lord Peter. “Hence we deduce No. 10’s exceptional height and strength.”
….“Yes,” said Parker. “It’s a bit unfortunate that we had to deduce his exceptional shortness and weakness just now, isn’t it?”
….“Oh!” said Peter. “Well – well, as you so rightly say, that is a bit unfortunate.”

* * * * *

In truth I sometimes lost track of where Buddy’s thoughts ended and mine began. For years I couldn’t tell if I liked a movie or a book or a New Yorker short story without consulting him first. Then later I disagreed for the sake of disagreeing, failing to see how much I was still in his sway. In later years on the show I learned to write lines for his monologues in his voice and to come up with the sort of questions he’d be likely to ask in his interviews. He told me once that I’d become the other half of him, which he meant as a compliment but made me feel weird, like his soul had subsumed mine. One reason I left New York for the Peace Corps was a desire to silence his voice within my thoughts

* * * * *

“Let them go,” he said – “let them go, Catharine, those gallants, with their capering horses, their jingling spurs, their plumed bonnets, and their trim mustachios: they are not of our class, nor will we aim at pairing with them. Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird chooses her mate; but you will not see the linnet pair with the sparrow hawk, nor the Robin Redbreast with the kite. My father was an honest burgher of Perth, and could use his needle as well as I can. Did there come war to the gates of our fair burgh, down went needles, thread, and shamoy leather, and out came the good head piece and target from the dark nook, and the long lance from above the chimney. Show me a day that either he or I was absent when the provost made his musters! Thus we have led our lives, my girl, working to win our bread, and fighting to defend it. I will have no son in law that thinks himself better than me; and for these lords and knights, I trust thou wilt always remember thou art too low to be their lawful love, and too high to be their unlawful loon. And now lay by thy work, lass, for it is holytide eve, and it becomes us to go to the evening service, and pray that Heaven may send thee a good Valentine tomorrow.”

* * * * *

….The Osage had been assured by the U.S. government that their Kansas territory would remain their home forever, but before long they were under siege from settlers. Among them was the family of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who later wrote Little House on the Prairie based on her experiences. “Why don’t you like Indians, Ma?” Laura asks her mother in one scene.
….“I just don’t like them; and don’t lick your fingers, Laura.”
….“This is Indian country, isn’t it?” Laura said. “What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?”
….One evening, Laura’s father explains to her that the government will soon make the Osage move away: “That’s why we’re here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick.”

* * * * *

….Bannerman remembered a cartoon he had seen once in an old Punch magazine. Two crocodiles basking in a jungle swamp, heads facing each other above the muddy waters. One of them saying, ‘You know, I keep thinking today is Thursday.’ Bannerman smiled. It had amused him then, as it amused him now. What bloody difference did it make . . . today, tomorrow, yesterday, Thursday? It was ironic that later he would look back on this day as the day it all began. The day after which nothing would ever be quite the same again.
….But at the moment, so far as Bannerman knew, it was just a day like any other. He gazed reflectively from the window a while longer, out across Princes Street, the gardens beyond, and the Castle brooding darkly atop the rain-blackened cliffs. Even when it rained Edinburgh was a beautiful city. Against all odds it had retained its essential character in the face of centuries of change. There was something almost medieval about it; in the crooked hidden alleyways, the cobbled closes, the tall leaning tenements. And, of course, the formidable shape of the Castle itself, stark and powerful against the skyline.

* * * * *

So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 188…

Episode 188

I’m in a bit of a reading slump at the moment, but fortunately I appear to be in a book-acquiring slump too, so the TBR has increased by just one to 226.

Maybe these will help pull me out of the doldrums…

Quotes

A gift from my brother. A little bit of Dickens sounds like a wonderful way to brighten every day of the year, doesn’t it? 

The Blurb says: A charming memento of the Victorian era’s literary colossus, The Daily Charles Dickens is a literary almanac for the ages. Tenderly and irreverently anthologized by Dickens scholar James R. Kincaid, this collection mines the British author’s beloved novels and Christmas stories as well as his lesser-known sketches and letters for “an around-the-calendar set of jolts, soothings, blandishments, and soarings.”

A bedside companion to dip into year round, this book introduces each month with a longer seasonal quote, while concise bits of wisdom and whimsy mark each day. Hopping gleefully from Esther Summerson’s abandonment by her mother in Bleak House to a meditation on the difficult posture of letter-writing in The Pickwick Papers, this anthology displays the wide range of Dickens’s stylistic virtuosity—his humour and his deep tragic sense, his ear for repetition, and his genius at all sorts of voices.

* * * * *

Fiction

Courtesy of Scribner. I thoroughly enjoyed Tom Barbash’s writing in his short story collection, Stay Up With Me, although, as with a lot of modern short stories, I found some of them rather too fragmentary for my taste. I’ve been waiting patiently for a long time for his next production and am delighted that he’s chosen the novel form this time. Sounds good…

The Blurb says: An evocative and wildly absorbing novel about the Winters, a family living in New York City’s famed Dakota apartment building in the year leading up to John Lennon’s assassination.

It’s the fall of 1979 in New York City when twenty-three-year-old Anton Winter, back from the Peace Corps and on the mend from a nasty bout of malaria, returns to his childhood home in the Dakota. Anton’s father, the famous late-night host Buddy Winter, is there to greet him, himself recovering from a breakdown. Before long, Anton is swept up in an effort to reignite Buddy’s stalled career, a mission that takes him from the gritty streets of New York, to the slopes of the Lake Placid Olympics, to the Hollywood Hills, to the blue waters of the Bermuda Triangle, and brings him into close quarters with the likes of Johnny Carson, Ted and Joan Kennedy, and a seagoing John Lennon.

But the more Anton finds himself enmeshed in his father’s professional and spiritual reinvention, the more he questions his own path, and fissures in the Winter family begin to threaten their close bond. By turns hilarious and poignant, The Dakota Winters is a family saga, a page-turning social novel, and a tale of a critical moment in the history of New York City and the country at large.

* * * * *

Classic Thriller

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. One for my Classics Club list. I don’t know anything about this other than the blurb and the fact that it’s considered a classic of espionage fiction. It sounds good, though, and I’ll know a lot more once I read the OWC introduction… and the book, of course!

The Blurb says: One of the first great spy novels, The Riddle of the Sands is set during the long suspicious years leading up to the First World War. Bored with his life in London, a young man accepts an invitation to join a friend on a sailing holiday in the North Sea. A vivid exploration of the mysteries of seamanship, the story builds in excitement as these two young adventurers discover a German plot to invade England.

* * * * *

Thriller

Courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. I didn’t realise when I requested this one that it’s not actually a new novel from May – it’s a re-publication from way back in his first incarnation as a novelist, long before he rose to the bestseller lists. I’ve always wanted to see how he started out, but the early books have been out of print since before I became a fan – he had a pause in novel writing when he spent several years writing and producing dramas for Scottish television. So I’m intrigued, but have lowered my expectations a little to allow for the fact that he was still learning his craft…

The Blurb says: There are two men on their way to Brussels from the UK: Neil Bannerman, an iconoclastic journalist for Scotland’s Daily Standard whose irate editor wants him out of the way, and Kale–a professional assassin.

Expecting to find only a difficult, dreary political investigation in Belgium, Bannerman has barely settled in when tragedy strikes. His host, a fellow journalist, along with a British Cabinet minister, are discovered dead in the minister’s elegant Brussels townhouse. It appears that they have shot each other. But the dead journalist’s young autistic daughter, Tania, was hidden in a closet during the killings, and when she draws a chilling picture of a third party–a man with no face–Bannerman suddenly finds himself a reluctant participant in a desperate murder investigation.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

I’ll Keep You Safe by Peter May

Back to the island…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane are the owners of Ranish Tweed, a successful cloth manufacturer. They are in Paris for a trade show, when Niamh receives an anonymous email accusing her beloved husband Ruairidh of having an affair. She finds herself torn. Part of her can’t believe it, but when she sees Ruairidh with the woman, Irina, she follows them. Suddenly to her shock and horror the car they are in explodes, killing both occupants instantly. The police quickly determine that this is no act of random terrorism, but premeditated murder. Niamh returns to her home on the Isle of Lewis, grief-stricken and lost. Who could have had a serious enough grudge against Ruairidh to commit this awful crime? The answer must lie somewhere in the past…

Beginning of Lengthy and Completely Unnecessary Digression on May’s Work
 (Readers are respectfully advised that they may want to skip ahead… 😉 )

I have been a fan of Peter May’s writing for more decades than I care to remember. But for all that I love his books in general and think he’s one of the best thriller writers of his time, I have found in recent years that when he writes about his home country of Scotland and particularly the islands of the Hebrides, his writing takes on a beauty and depth that transcends any of his other work. His language is wonderfully descriptive, filled with colour and texture, so that the reader sees the harsh loveliness of the landscape, feels the never-ending rain and wind, knows the towns and harbours and the people who live and work in them.

As May has reached his middle years, I’ve found that some of his books have taken on a reflective tone, a kind of nostalgic retelling of what feels very much like fictionalised autobiography. This was perhaps most evident in Runaway, which May based around an incident in his own early life. But I felt it strongly again in this one, though I have no way of knowing whether I’m correct in that assumption. When he does this, it seems to me it has two results – the books are deeper, more emotional, with the feel of contemporary or literary fiction, and contain his truest characterisations; and, conversely, the crime story is weaker, less important and feels rather tacked on. I can understand why some readers might find that a little frustrating but, since what I love most about him is his superb descriptive writing and his ability to create a rich sense of place, the relative downplaying of the crime aspect doesn’t bother me too much. Part of me wishes he’d go the whole hog sometime and write a William Boyd-style literary novel.

I’m sure partly my reaction is because when May is writing about his own country, his own people and his own past, he’s also writing about mine. There’s a profound Scottishness in these Lewis books. Though his style is very different to William McIlvanney’s, I find the same kind of clear-sighted truthfulness in them – he doesn’t gloss over the darker aspects of our society but writes with a warm affection for both place and people. There is a tendency amongst some writers to show life in Scotland as either tartan and twee, or all drugs, drunks and foul-mouthed violence – both aspects that exist on the edges, for sure. But May instead shows what life is like for the majority of us – a mix of old and new, the modern emerging, more slowly, perhaps, in these remote island communities, from the restrictions and harsh traditions of the past.

End of Lengthy Digression

Old Loom – New Tweed. Weaver Kenny Maclennan from Breaseclete treading the Hattersley loom at the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, Isle of Lewis

Anyway, enough of these musings! To the book! It’s written mostly in the third person, past tense, with some sections in the past told in Niamh’s first-person voice, also past tense. (Regulars will know how happy I am not to be forced to read present tense, even if May does do it better than most.) The bulk of the book is telling us the long history of Niamh’s and Ruairidh’s relationship, from their early childhood through to the present day. We know that some incident happened that has led their families to be at odds with each other, but we don’t find out what till late on. Once married, they set up Ranish Tweed – a variation on the real Harris Tweed which is woven exclusively on the island. Again, May’s research and descriptive skill come into play here, never info-dumping, but showing how this old traditional industry has had new life breathed into it in recent years through clever marketing, becoming a niche couture item for the rich. Through this strand we also get a look at the fashion industry in general and how designers and manufacturers are crucial to each other’s success or failure.

Meantime, the crime is being investigated by Sylvie Braque of the French police, and we learn a little of her life as she struggles to balance single parenthood with the demands of the job. When she comes to Lewis as part of her investigation, she is assisted by local Sergeant George Gunn, who is becoming something of a regular feature in May’s various Lewis novels, making them feel loosely tied together and reminding us that each of the stories form one part that together make up the whole of this community. I’m a big fan of Sergeant Gunn, so was delighted that he got a rather larger role than usual in this one. For the most part, the story is a relatively slow meander through Niamh’s life, but it builds up to a typical May thriller ending which, though I’d guessed part of the solution, still managed to shock me.

As a crime novel, I might only have rated this as 4 stars – there’s no doubt it loses focus on the crime for a long section in the middle. But frankly, I’ll happily ramble round Lewis for as long as May is willing to be my guide, so I was in no hurry to get to the solution. If you haven’t already guessed, highly recommended!

Peter May

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus, via MidasPR.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

“I shall not withdraw,” he said slowly, with a dull, dogged evenness of tone. “I shall not withdraw in any circumstance. I have gone too far,” he went on, raising his hand to check Falmouth’s appeal. “I have got beyond fear, I have even got beyond resentment; it is now to me a question of justice. Am I right in introducing a law that will remove from this country colonies of dangerously intelligent criminals, who, whilst enjoying immunity from arrest, urge ignorant men forward to commit acts of violence and treason? If I am right, the Four Just Men are wrong. Or are they right: is this measure an unjust thing, an act of tyranny, a piece of barbarism dropped into the very centre of twentieth-century thought, an anachronism? If these men are right, then I am wrong. So it has come to this, that I have to satisfy my mind as to the standard of right and wrong that I must accept – and I accept my own.”

* * * * * * * * *

The order to abandon ship was given at 5 P.M. For most of the men, however, no order was needed because by then everybody knew that the ship was done and that it was time to give up trying to save her. There was no show of fear or even apprehension. They had fought unceasingly for three days and they had lost. They accepted their defeat almost apathetically. They were simply too tired to care…

She was being crushed. Not all at once, but slowly, a little at a time. The pressure of ten million tons of ice was driving in against her sides. And dying as she was, she cried in agony. Her frames and planking, her immense timbers, many of them almost a foot thick, screamed as the killing pressure mounted. And when her timbers could no longer stand the strain, they broke with a report like artillery fire.

* * * * * * * * *

Niamh saw the lights change to green and the Mercedes start to turn left across the flow of traffic. And then she was blinded. A searing, burning light that obliterated all else, just a fraction of a second before the shockwave from the blast knocked her off her feet. As she hit the ground, sight returned. She saw glass flying from the broken windows of the [Café] Fluctuat Nec Mergitur, tables and chairs spinning away across the square. As she rolled over, the Mercedes was still in the air. Later she would remember it as being ten feet or more off the ground. But in fact it was probably no more than eighteen or twenty inches. Flaming debris showered down across the Place de la République as the car slammed back on to the road, a ball of flame.

* * * * * * * * *

But the pupils – the young noblemen! How the last faint traces of hope, the remotest glimmering of any good to be derived from his efforts in this den, faded from the mind of Nicholas as he looked in dismay around! Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot, and every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young lives which, from the earliest dawn of infancy, had been one horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect. There were little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen, dogged suffering; there was childhood with the light of its eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining; there were vicious-faced boys, brooding, with leaden eyes, like malefactors in a jail; and there were young creatures on whom the sins of their frail parents had descended, weeping even for the mercenary nurses they had known, and lonesome even in their loneliness. With every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth, with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down, with every revengeful passion that can fester in swollen hearts, eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient Hell was breeding here!

* * * * * * * * *

From the Archives…

“I don’t drink…” Archy said, and stopped. He hated how this sounded whenever he found himself obliged to say it. Lord knew he would not relish the prospective company of some mope-ass m*********** who flew that grim motto from his flagpole. “…alcohol,” he added. Only making it worse, the stickler for detail, ready to come out with a complete list of beverages he was willing to consume. Next came the weak effort to redeem himself by offering a suggestion of past indulgence: “Anymore.” Finally, the slide into unwanted medical disclosure: “Bad belly.”

(Click for full review)

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

The Ghost Marriage by Peter May

Take this woman…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This short novella is a new follow-up to Peter May’s China Thrillers. This was the series that originally turned me into a May fan, long before the Lewis Trilogy made him a major star in the firmament of crime fiction. So it was a pleasure to revisit Margaret, the American forensic pathologist, and her Chinese partner, Li Yan of the Beijing police.

Margaret and Li Yan are still living together, now with the addition of their young son, when Margaret is approached by an elderly woman who tells her that her granddaughter has gone missing, and begs Margaret to use her influence with Li Yan to get him to investigate. As Li Yan gradually finds out what happened to the girl, the story takes us into a mysterious and macabre aspect of Chinese tradition, and into the secrets and lies that can exist in families.

Because the story is so short, I won’t say any more about the plot for fear of spoiling it. What has always attracted me most to May’s writing is that he chooses interesting settings for his crimes and his impeccable research allows him to create a great sense of place. This was always particularly true of the China Thrillers, especially since he began the series way back when the idea of visiting China still seemed like an exotic dream for most of us. The length of this one doesn’t allow for much description of Beijing itself, but the plot gives an insight into some of the strange superstitions and rituals that still exist in the country, while also touching on some of the issues thrown up by China’s long-standing but now abandoned one-child policy.

From the South China Morning Post: Dolls represent the happy couple in a Chinese-style “ghost wedding”

With Margaret being a pathologist, the China Thrillers also contained some rather gruesome autopsy scenes, and that tradition continues in this one. There isn’t room for a huge amount of detection – really we just see the story unfold along with Li Yan as he gradually uncovers the truth. I enjoyed it as a way to catch up with two characters who feel like old friends, but I think it would work equally well as a brief introduction to the style of the series for people who haven’t tried it yet. There was never much doubt that Margaret and Li Yan would stay together as a couple so although this takes place after the other books, it’s otherwise spoiler free.

Peter May

I listened to the Audible audiobook version, narrated by Peter Forbes who, I believe, has been the narrator for May’s books for a long time now. I thought his narration was very good – I have no way of knowing whether his pronunciations of Chinese words and names is accurate, but I certainly found them convincing. The decision to give the Chinese characters Chinese accents didn’t really work for me, I admit – I feel that if characters are supposed to be speaking their own language, then they shouldn’t be made to sound ‘foreign’. I listened to a Maigret novel immediately following this, where the narrator gave all the French characters English accents appropriate to their class and position in society, and I must say that felt much more natural and authentic. However, it’s a debatable point, and some people may prefer the ‘foreign’-sounding accents.

Overall, a short but enjoyable return to the world of Beijing. I’m now wondering whether this is a kind of coda to the series, or whether it’s to whet our appetites for a future new novel? I hope it’s the latter…

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK via MidasPR. The story is also available as an e-book.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link
Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

.Sweet though it was, the perfume of the incense could not disguise the odour of putrefying flesh. And the summer heat was not helping.

.The cadavers were at the back of the room on a long table, surrounded by bowls of fresh fruit, boiled eggs in bowls of rice, dim sum still warm from the steamer, buns, a bottle of chilled white wine running with condensation.

.The guests assembled at the far side of the room, near the door, and the window with a view on to the siheyuan courtyard. In the hutong beyond, children played unaware of the bizarre marriage taking place behind high walls.

* * * * * * * * *

.Whether it was our warmth, and freedom, and our harmless love of God, and trust in one another; or whether it were our air, and water, and the pea-fed bacon; anyhow my Lorna grew richer and more lovely, more perfect and more firm of figure, and more light and buoyant, with every passing day that laid its tribute on her cheeks and lips. I was allowed one kiss a day; only one for manners’ sake, because she was our visitor; and I might have it before breakfast, or else when I came to say ‘good-night!’ according as I decided. And I decided every night, not to take it in the morning, but put it off till the evening time, and have the pleasure to think about, through all the day of working. But when my darling came up to me in the early daylight, fresher than the daystar, and with no one looking; only her bright eyes smiling, and sweet lips quite ready, was it likely I could wait, and think all day about it? For she wore a frock of Annie’s, nicely made to fit her, taken in at the waist and curved – I never could explain it, not being a mantua-maker; but I know how her figure looked in it, and how it came towards me.

* * * * * * * * *

.What did he fancy eating? Because he was on his own, because he could go anywhere at all, he seriously asked himself that question, thinking about the different restaurants that might be able to tempt him, as if he were about to celebrate. First he took a few steps towards Place de la Concorde, and that made him feel a little guilty, because he was pointlessly going further and further away from home. In the window of a butchers’ shop he saw some prepared snails, swimming in parsley butter, which looked as if it had been painted.

.His wife didn’t like snails. He himself seldom ate them. He decided to have some this evening, to ‘take advantage’, and he turned on his heels to make towards a restaurant near Bastille, where they are a speciality.

* * * * * * * * *

.‘I didn’t know the darkness could be so beautiful,’ said Kit, aiming his lens at the horizon.
.As if he had summoned it, at that moment, a hole was torn lengthways through the cloud and the sun was partly visible, a sooty black disc surrounded by a ring of pure light. Kit’s camera clicked and reloaded next to my ear. An ecstatic cheer carried on the strange winds from all around us. There were none of the phenomena I’d hoped for: no shooting corona, no sun leaking through the moon’s craters to create the diamond ring effect, and in a few seconds it was gone, but still I felt changed, as if a giant hand had reached down from the sky and touched me. I was torn between wanting it to be over so that we could talk about it and never wanting it to end. But it did end; the veil pushed east and the colours came back.

* * * * * * * * *

.Chkheidze, the Soviet chairman, was sitting next to the hysterical worker. He calmly leaned across and placed a piece of paper into his hand. It was a manifesto, printed the evening before, in which it was said that the demonstrators should go home, or be condemned as traitors to the revolution. ‘Here, please take this, Comrade,’ Chkheidze said to him in an imperious tone. ‘It says here what you and your Putilov comrades should do. Please read it carefully and don’t interrupt our business.’ The confused worker, not knowing what he should do, took the manifesto and left the hall with the rest of the Putilovites. No doubt he was fuming with anger and frustration at his profound humiliation; and yet he was powerless to resist, not because he lacked the guns, but because he lacked the will. Centuries of serfdom and subservience had not prepared him to stand up to his political masters – and in that lay the tragedy of the Russian people as a whole. This was one of the finest scenes of the whole revolution – one of those rare moments in history when the hidden relations of power are flashed up on to the surface of events and the broader course of developments becomes clear.

* * * * * * * * *

.“So you’re up and about, are you?” she boomed. “I thought you’d be in bed snoring your head off!”
.“It is a little unusual for me to be in circulation at this hour,” I agreed, “but I rose today with the lark and, I think, the snail. Jeeves?”
.“Sir?”
.“Didn’t you tell me once that snails were early risers?”
.“Yes, sir. The poet Browning in his Pippa Passes, having established that the hour is 7 a.m., goes on to say ‘The lark’s on the wing, the snail’s on the thorn.’”
.“Thank you, Jeeves. I was right, Aunt Dahlia. When I slid from between the sheets, the lark was on the wing, the snail on the thorn.”
.“What the devil are you babbling about?”
.“Don’t ask me, ask the poet Browning!”

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 117…

Episode 117…

And still I have managed to avoid the Big 200! I seem to be working on a one in, one out basis at the moment, since for nearly a month now the TBR has remained stable at 196. There is some progress though – the number of outstanding review copies has dropped 2 to 35 – woohoo! That’s a good enough excuse for reward chocolate for me!!

Here are a few that I should get to soon…

Crime

Courtesy of Amazon Vine. I never got around to reading Laline Paull’s acclaimed first book, The Bees, though I really wanted to – still do. So I was pleased to be offered a copy of her new one – this time I have no excuse…

The Blurb says: It’s the day after tomorrow and the Arctic sea ice has melted. While global business carves up the new frontier, cruise ships race each other to ever-rarer wildlife sightings. The passengers of the Vanir have come seeking a polar bear. What they find is even more astonishing: a dead body.

It is Tom Harding, lost in an accident three years ago and now revealed by the melting ice of Midgard glacier. Tom had come to Midgard to help launch the new venture of his best friend of thirty years, Sean Cawson, a man whose business relies on discretion and powerful connections – and who was the last person to see him alive. Their friendship had been forged by a shared obsession with Arctic exploration. And although Tom’s need to save the world often clashed with Sean’s desire to conquer it, Sean has always believed that underneath it all, they shared the same goals.

But as the inquest into Tom’s death begins, the choices made by both men – in love and in life – are put on the stand. And when cracks appear in the foundations of Sean’s glamorous world, he is forced to question what price he has really paid for a seat at the establishment’s table. Just how deep do the lies go?

* * * * *

Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. I always love Tóibín’s Irish-set novels, but the book that introduced me to him was the wonderful The Testament of Mary. So I’m delighted to see him go back into antiquity again for this one…

The Blurb says: “I have been acquainted with the smell of death.” So begins Clytemnestra’s tale of her own life in ancient Mycenae, the legendary Greek city from which her husband King Agamemnon left when he set sail with his army for Troy. Clytemnestra rules Mycenae now, along with her new lover Aegisthus, and together they plot the bloody murder of Agamemnon on the day of his return after nine years at war.

In House of Names, Colm Tóibín brings a modern sensibility and language to an ancient classic, and gives this extraordinary character new life, so that we not only believe Clytemnestra’s thirst for revenge, but applaud it. He brilliantly inhabits the mind of one of Greek myth’s most powerful villains to reveal the love, lust, and pain she feels. Told in fours parts, this is a fiercely dramatic portrait of a murderess, who will herself be murdered by her own son, Orestes. It is Orestes’ story, too: his capture by the forces of his mother’s lover Aegisthus, his escape and his exile. And it is the story of the vengeful Electra, who watches over her mother and Aegisthus with cold anger and slow calculation, until, on the return of her brother, she has the fates of both of them in her hands.

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley again! I loved Erin Kelly’s The Ties That Bind, so despite my legendary iron willpower I couldn’t resist her new one, especially after reading Cleo’s fabulous review

The Blurb says: In the summer of 1999, Kit and Laura travel to a festival in Cornwall to see a total eclipse of the sun. Kit is an eclipse chaser; Laura has never seen one before. Young and in love, they are certain this will be the first of many they’ll share. But in the hushed moments after the shadow passes, Laura interrupts a man and a woman. She knows that she saw something terrible. The man denies it. It is her word against his.

The victim seems grateful. Months later, she turns up on their doorstep like a lonely stray. But as her gratitude takes a twisted turn, Laura begins to wonder—did she trust the wrong person?

15 years later, Kit and Laura are living under assumed names and completely off the digital grid: no Facebook, only rudimentary cell phones, not in any directories. But as the truth catches up to them, they realize they can no longer keep the past in the past.

* * * * *

Crime on Audio

Courtesy of Audible via MidasPR. This falls somewhere between a short story and a novella in length – just over an hour in terms of listening. It’s been many years since I read the China Thrillers, so I’m intrigued to see Peter May resurrect the characters…

The Blurb says: Li Yan and Margaret Campbell return in a new story, years after the dramatic conclusion of Chinese Whispers.

‘I saw your missing girl at a ghost wedding last week. She was the bride.’

It has been a whirlwind few years for Li Yan and Margaret Campbell. Nowadays, both are busy juggling their huge professional workloads – Li as the newly promoted chief of Beijing’s serious crime squad and Campbell as lecturer at the University of Public Security – with the day-to-day raising of their young son, Li Jon.

When a desperate mother appeals to Campbell’s own maternal instincts, Li agrees to look into the disappearance of a 17-year-old Beijing girl, Jiang Meilin. Yet Li’s investigation soon turns from a favour into a full-scale murder enquiry. And when he receives an anonymous note, he learns Jiang Meilin’s death is tied to a dangerous underground trade and a dark marital rite from China’s past.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

* * * * *

Cast Iron (Enzo Files 6) by Peter May

Secrets of the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀

cast-ironBack in book 1 of the Enzo Files series, Scottish forensic expert Enzo Macleod, now living in Toulouse, took on a bet that he could use modern forensic techniques to solve the seven unsolved murders that were described in a true crime book written by Parisian journalist Roger Raffin. A few years on, he is now beginning his investigation into the sixth murder, of a young girl, Lucie Martin. Lucie disappeared one day back in 1989, and no trace of her was found until the great heatwave of 2003 when her skeleton showed up in the dried-out shore of the lake near her home. Her parents believe she was murdered by a notorious serial killer who was active at that time, but he had a cast-iron alibi for the time she disappeared. Enzo has very little to go on as he reopens the case, but it soon becomes clear someone is out to stop him from finding out the truth…

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I’m a big fan of Peter May’s work, going all the way back to his China thrillers. I admit, however, that the Enzo Files is the one series of his to which I’ve never really taken. In fact, I haven’t read them all – just the first two, then this one. But this is really due to a matter of personal preference than any real criticism of the books. May’s usual protagonists tend to be unencumbered by family ties, or to develop relationships as the series progress. But Enzo comes with a lot of family baggage, which gets added to in each book. Having left his first wife and their daughter, he moved to France with his new love, who then died giving birth to another daughter. So in the early books there’s a lot of working out of resentments with his first, abandoned daughter, Kirsty, and by the time of this book, both daughters have acquired lovers who featured in earlier cases.

Enzo meantime picks up women at a rate that would make George Clooney jealous, so that by the time of this book he has tense relationships with more than one ex. And in each story, some or all of his extended family get involved in the investigation. May does it very well, and keeps all the various personal storylines ticking over, but it’s just not my kind of thing – I find all the relationship stuff takes away from the focus on the plot (and I frankly don’t see what it is about Enzo that apparently makes him so irresistible to women). But I wouldn’t want to put other readers off – what I don’t like about this series may well make it particularly appealing to people who like their protagonists to have a ‘real’ life beyond the immediate plot.

As Enzo begins his investigation by visiting the victim’s family, he is unaware that his daughter Sophie and her boyfriend Bertrand have been abducted, until he receives a warning to stop if he wants to get them back safely. Naturally, this only makes him redouble his efforts! The strand involving Sophie and Bertrand’s imprisonment and attempts to escape is my favourite bit of the book. It takes us into traditional thriller territory with plenty of action and mounting tension, and May excels at this type of writing.

Peter May
Peter May

The main plot regarding Lucie’s murder is also excellent, showing all May’s usual skill at creating strong characters and interesting settings, and managing to have some credible emotional content to offset the action thriller side of the book. However, there is also an overarching plot to the series which comes to a climax in this one, and I felt there was perhaps a little too much going on and too many coincidental crossovers between the various strands. But May’s writing is a pleasure to read as always, and he manages to bring all the threads together well in the end. Some aspects of this work as a standalone, but because it reveals so much about the background plot, I would strongly suggest this is a series that should be read in order. Reading this one first would undoubtedly spoil the earlier books in a significant way. The first book in the series seems to be known as Extraordinary People now, though it was originally published under the title Dry Bones.

I hope my relatively lukewarm review won’t deter people from trying this series. Even with favourite authors, we all prefer some of their stuff to others, but any Peter May book is still head and shoulders above most of the competition. And this is as well-written and strongly plotted as always, while the French setting gives it an added level of interest. So, despite my personal reservations, I still recommend the series, especially if the complicated family relationships aspect appeals to you.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus, via MidasPR.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 105…

Episode 105…

My persistent attempt at exercising willpower is finally showing results, with another week where my TBR has remained stable – at 176! Happily, the review copy backlog has dropped 4 to 32, of which only 18 are overdue – the best it’s been for a long time. Feeling good about being able to get off the review copy treadmill in the new year, and having time to read some of the books I’ve been stockpiling for far too long.

Of course, I’m still looking forward to getting review copies of books from favourite authors and there’s a couple of those here, specially scheduled to ensure some great reading over the festive season. A bumper edition this week, since this will be the last TBR post till 2017…

Factual

how-shakespeare-put-politics-on-the-stageCourtesy of NetGalley. Shakespeare, politics, a bit of history and Yale University Press – how could it go wrong? Hmm… early reviews, including one from a reviewer I know and trust on this kind of book, suggest it could be way too academic and dry for my dilettante mind… but we’ll see…

The Blurb says: With an ageing, childless monarch, lingering divisions due to the Reformation, and the threat of foreign enemies, Shakespeare’s England was fraught with unparalleled anxiety and complicated problems. In this monumental work, Peter Lake reveals, more than any previous critic, the extent to which Shakespeare’s plays speak to the depth and sophistication of Elizabethan political culture and the Elizabethan imagination. Lake reveals the complex ways in which Shakespeare’s major plays engaged with the events of his day, particularly regarding the uncertain royal succession, theological and doctrinal debates, and virtue and virtù in politics. Through his plays, Lake demonstrates, Shakespeare was boldly in conversation with his audience about a range of contemporary issues. This remarkable literary and historical analysis pulls the curtain back on what Shakespeare was really telling his audience and what his plays tell us today about the times in which they were written.

* * * * *

Crime

the-beautiful-deadCourtesy of NetGalley. I have no doubts about this one though! A new Belinda Bauer is always a major treat…

The Blurb says:  In her latest, The Beautiful Dead, Bauer turns the trope of the media-attention-hungry killer on its head, with a riveting narrative centered on a down-on-her-luck crime reporter and a serial killer desperate for the spotlight.

Crime reporter Eve Singer’s career is on the downward slope when a spate of bizarre murders—each carefully orchestrated and advertised like performance art—begin in her territory. Covering these very public crimes revives her byline, and when the killer contacts Eve to discuss her coverage of his crimes, she is suddenly on the inside of the biggest murder investigation of the decade. But as the killer becomes increasingly obsessed with her, Eve realizes there’s a thin line between inside information and becoming an accomplice to murder—possibly her own.

A seamlessly-plotted thriller that will keep readers breathless until the very end, The Beautiful Dead cements Belinda Bauer’s reputation as a master of heart-stopping suspense..

* * * * *

Crime

cast-ironCourtesy of Quercus via MidasPR. The new Peter May has become part of my festive tradition in recent years. I’m going to whisper a little secret though – the Enzo Files series, of which this is #6, isn’t my favourite May series. In fact, I’ve only read a couple of them. The earlier ones were written several years ago, before the Lewis series, and I do think he’s been at his peak for the last few years, so will he be able to change my mind? Exciting… and even May’s less good books are still way ahead of most of the competition…

The Blurb says: West of France, 1989. A weeping killer deposits the unconscious body of nineteen year old Lucie Martin, her head wrapped in a blue plastic bag, into the water of a picturesque lake.

Lot-et-Garonne, 2003. Fourteen years later a summer heatwave parches the earth, killing trees and bushes and drying out streams. In the scorched mud and desiccated slime of the lake a fisherman finds a skeleton wearing a bag over its skull.

Paris, October 2011. In an elegant apartment in Paris, forensic expert Enzo Macleod pores over the scant evidence of this, the sixth cold case he has been challenged to solve. In taking on this old and seemingly impossible task he will put everything and everyone he holds dear in a peril he could never have imagined.

* * * * *

Fiction

our-mutual-friendMy major festive reading tradition is to read Dickens (hence why there are five Dickens novels on my Classics Club list, including this one). For some incomprehensible reason, I’ve never read this one before – an omission I can’t wait to rectify…

The Blurb says: A satiric masterpiece about the allure and peril of money, Our Mutual Friend revolves around the inheritance of a dust-heap where the rich throw their trash. When the body of John Harmon, the dust-heap’s expected heir, is found in the Thames, fortunes change hands surprisingly, raising to new heights “Noddy” Boffin, a low-born but kindly clerk who becomes “the Golden Dustman.” Charles Dickens’s last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend encompasses the great themes of his earlier works: the pretensions of the nouveaux riches, the ingenuousness of the aspiring poor, and the unfailing power of wealth to corrupt all who crave it. With its flavorful cast of characters and numerous subplots, Our Mutual Friend is one of Dickens’s most complex—and satisfying—novels.

* * * * *

Horror

dark-talesCourtesy of NetGalley. Horror stories are an essential part of the Christmas season – the perfect antidote to all that excess goodwill floating around. Bah, humbug! And who better than Shirley Jackson to shiver the spine…

The Blurb says: There’s something nasty in suburbia. In these deliciously dark tales, the daily commute turns into a nightmarish game of hide and seek, the loving wife hides homicidal thoughts and the concerned citizen might just be an infamous serial killer. In the haunting world of Shirley Jackson, nothing is as it seems and nowhere is safe, from the city streets to the country manor, and from the small-town apartment to the dark, dark woods…

* * * * *

Crime

maigret-and-the-tall-womanCourtesy of NetGalley. I’ve been enjoying reading some older crime fiction recently, so this should fit in nicely. I did read some Maigret in my youth, but that’s soooo long ago, he feels like a new-to-me author…

The Blurb says: A visit from a tall, thin woman he arrested many years ago—now married to a hapless burglar—leads Maigret on a tortuous investigation in which he struggles with a formidable suspect. The thirty-eighth book in the new Penguin Maigret series.

A face from Maigret’s past reappears to tell him about the misadventures of her husband, a safecracker nicknamed “Sad Freddie” who discovered a dead body while committing a burglary and fled the scene in a panic. In a race against the clock, Maigret must use his full arsenal of investigative methods to solve the crime.

* * * * *

Fiction

el-doctorowCourtesy of NetGalley again! Some more short stories to fill in those short gaps that happen around this time of year, when there’s just not enough time to get properly stuck into a longer novel. And my first introduction to EL Doctorow…

The Blurb says: A superb collection of fifteen great stories by an American master, E. L. Doctorow—the author of Ragtime, The March, The Book of Daniel, and Billy Bathgate.

In A House on the Plains, a mother has a plan for financial independence, which may include murder. In Walter John Harmon, a man starts a cult using subterfuge and seduction. Jolene: A Life follows a teenager who escapes her home for Hollywood on a perilous quest for success. Heist, the account of an Episcopal priest coping with a crisis of faith, was expanded into the bestseller City of God. The Water Works, about the underbelly of 1870s New York, grew into a brilliant novel. Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate is a corollary to the renowned novel and includes Doctorow’s revisions.

These fifteen brilliant stories, written from the 1960s to the early twenty-first century, and selected, revised, and placed in order by the author himself shortly before he died in 2015, are a testament to the genius of E. L. Doctorow.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think?
Doesn’t this just look like a fab festive reading list?

* * * * *

Coffin Road by Peter May

coffin roadBack to the islands…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A man is washed ashore, exhausted and with no idea of how he got there, or indeed where ‘there’ is. He has lost his memory, but is filled with a sense of dread as if something terrible has happened. As he staggers up the road, he is met by a neighbour who calls him by his name – Neal Maclean – and helps him to the cottage that is apparently his home. But when Neal begins to look for indications of who he is and what he’s doing in this remote cottage on a Hebridean island, he can find no information about himself – even his computer seems to contain no history. But his dog Bran is happy to have him back, and when his other neighbours, Sally and Jon, turn up for a prearranged drink, it appears Sally in particular is a close friend…

This book sees May returning to the Hebrides, this time on Harris rather than Lewis (same island – different ends). However there’s a different feel to this one – Neal is an incomer to the island and doesn’t really get involved much with the local community. The landscape, or rather seascape, plays a huge part though and, as always, May’s sense of place and descriptive writing bring it to life. The bulk of the book is written from Neal’s perspective as he struggles to work out what has happened to him. His sections are in first person present tense which, though still not to my taste, makes some kind of sense here, since Neal is effectively a man without a past, and happily May is skilled enough to avoid the clunkiness that often afflicts present tense writing. The rest of it is written in third person past.

Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris
Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris

From things that Sally and Jon tell him, Neal discovers he’s apparently writing a book on the story of three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously disappeared many years ago from the otherwise uninhabited Flannan Isles. But he can find no trace of the book, so takes a boat out to the Flannans to see if it triggers any memories. What he finds there shocks him – is it possible he has done something so dreadful that his mind just can’t accept it?

Meantime young Karen Fleming is in Edinburgh, still brooding over the unexplained suicide of her scientist father two years earlier. Carrying a load of guilt because the last words she said to him were angry and untrue, she is becoming determined to learn more about what caused him to end his life. But what she discovers will turn everything she thought she knew on its head, and put both her and Neal Maclean in deadly danger…

Peter May on Lewis
Peter May on Lewis

The writing is up to May’s usual excellent standard and both Neal and Karen are very well drawn, each flawed but likeable in their own way. Neal’s frustration at his memory loss gets even stronger when he fears he might have something to hide and he soon discovers that he’s in danger, but doesn’t know why or from whom. The only thing he has found in his cottage is a map of the island with the old Coffin Road highlighted – the road the islanders used to use to bring their dead for burial amongst the machair. Karen is an intelligent young girl, but headstrong and with the self-centredness of the adolescent. The more people tell her that looking for information about her father could be dangerous, the more determined she becomes. May handles her grief for her father well, letting us see how it has affected her without wallowing mawkishly in it. As the two strands come together towards an explosive finale, we also get to see the action from the perspective of Detective Sergeant George Gunn, whom dedicated fans will doubtless remember with affection from the Lewis trilogy.

The Coffin Road
The Coffin Road

This has much more of a standard thriller format than the last few of May’s books and reminded me in many ways of his early China thrillers. There’s a strong eco-message in the book, a theme May has addressed before, of the dangers of science being exploited for profit untempered by ethics. The plotting is very strong and it’s paced perfectly to keep it gripping all the way through. A couple of times when I thought it was pretty obvious what was about to happen, May showed me that I should know by now never to take him for granted. As always, May’s feel for this Hebridean landscape adds a great deal to the story, and in this one he uses the sea and wild weather of the islands to great effect. (I also enjoyed his brief detour to Balornock in Glasgow – revived happy memories of spending time there in my teen years!) Another great read from May that I think will please the newer fans who came to his work via the Lewis trilogy, while reminding the older fans of just what a good thriller writer he is. Highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus, via MidasPR.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
JUNE

SMILEYS

Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it.

So here are my favourite June reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

The BlackhouseI’ve been a long-term fan of Peter May’s since back in his China Thrillers days, but I felt that with the Lewis Trilogy he took a real step up to take his place as one of the very top crime writers in Britain today. The Blackhouse is the first book in the trilogy introducing us to DS Fin MacLeod, who is sent back to Lewis to investigate a murder that resembles one that took place earlier in his Edinburgh patch. Returning home after 20 years away, Fin is thrown into remembering and re-assessing his difficult childhood and adolescence. The book alternates between the present day and Fin’s past and it gradually emerges that the shadow of that past may be involved in the current investigation. This was one of the earlier examples of the double timeline that has now become almost obligatory in crime fiction, but it’s done much better than most, with both the current story and the past equally strong and coming together to a dark but satisfying conclusion. And the rest of the trilogy is even better…

 

2012

 

secret life of william shakespeareThis is a beautifully written novel, each word carefully crafted to draw the reader in to a world full of poetry and drama. Morgan fills the gaps in our knowledge about Shakespeare’s life by creating a character who is completely convincing and compelling – a man who questions his own existence except as he lives through his work. But much though I loved the story of Shakespeare and his London life, for me the standout feature of the book was the character of Anne Hathaway – her love for Will, her fear of losing him, her strength to let him follow his driven path despite the cost to herself. We see Anne grow and develop as she tries to reconcile her pride in Will’s accomplishments with her sense of abandonment. She has to provide the strength that can make their relationship survive his absence, that gives him the freedom to be something she never fully understands. A wonderful book that will appeal not only to Shakespeare fans but also to anyone who appreciates a superbly crafted tale filled with poetry, humanity and tenderness.

 

2013

 

feral“Rewilding recognises that nature consists not just of a collection of species but also of their ever-shifting relationships with each other and with the physical environment. It understands that to keep an ecosystem in a state of arrested development, to preserve it as if it were a jar of pickles, is to protect something which bears little relationship to the natural world.”

This book is a call for us to step back from nature conservation as we know it and give nature space to recover on her own. Monbiot suggests that humanity has lost something precious by its disconnect with the wild world and that we in the UK have taken that disconnect to further extremes than most. He isn’t arguing for a return to the world of hunter/gatherer, but for the return of at least parts of the country to true, unmanaged wilderness status and for the reintroduction of some of the top predators we have driven to extinction in our islands. A cogently argued and inspiring book that made me look with fresh eyes at what our landscape has become, and imagine what it could be if we have the courage to hand back the controls to nature herself. Although he talks specifically about the UK, much of what he says is relevant to the whole ‘first world’.

 

2014

 

oxcrimesYou only have to look at the cover of this book to see some of the huge names who have contributed stories to this anthology in aid of Oxfam. In total, there are twenty-seven stories, most of them original, and the overall quality is exceptionally high. There are a few that are really quite short, but most of them are pretty substantial and a few of them star the detective for whom the author is famous. As well as straightforward crime/detection, there are examples of both horror and sci-fi with a crime element, and black humour puts in more than one appearance. Anthony Horowitz, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Neil Gaiman, Mark Billingham, Peter James… need I say more? To be honest, you’d need to be pretty much impossible to please if you didn’t enjoy at least some of these stories. Imaginative tales and great writing from top authors – the fact that it’s for a good cause is just an added bonus.

 

2015

 

the grapes of wrathFirst published in 1939, this is a fairly contemporaneous account of the devastation wrought on Oklahoma farming communities during the Depression. Driven by poverty and lack of work, many of the farmers are uprooting their families to go to California, their own promised land, where, they are told, the country is filled with fruit ripe for picking, and there is work for all. Starkly political, overly polemical, emotionally manipulative and tending towards bathos… but also hugely powerful, brilliantly written, immensely moving and just as relevant to today as to the time of writing. I can’t remember the last time a book made me this angry, both at the subject matter and at the author’s manipulation of the reader. Made me think, made me cry, made me want to throw my Kindle at the wall, bored me silly at some points, and left me so enraged it took me weeks to be able to write a (reasonably) coherent review. Not an easy read, or an enjoyable one… but a book that deserves to be read.

 * * * * *

If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for June, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…

Post Script: Runaway by Penn and May…

…the video!

 

Haha! If you read my post on Peter May’s new book, Runaway, you’ll know I poked a little fun at his music video. Be sure your sins will find you out! Mrs May, aka writer Janice Hally, tweeted me to say that there is now indeed a video for the title track.

This one tells the story of the real episode in Peter’s life when he ran away to London, and apparently Stephen Penn was part of that. Seriously, I think this is a good song well performed and filmed, and happily (or sadly, depending on how you look at it) no bikini-clad damsels…

 

Enjoy!

 

Runaway by Peter May

runawayHit the road, Jack…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Jack Mackay is expelled from school, he decides to run away to London. He tells his friends, the other four members of the band he plays in, and they decide to go with him – partly to get away from problems in their own lives, and partly to seek fame and fortune. It’s 1965, and London is swinging – the place to be for all aspiring musicians. But it’s also a place where young people can find themselves manipulated and used, and caught up in events they can’t control. And Jack’s London adventure ends with a killing. Fifty years on, one of the band members, Maurie, now terminally ill with cancer, reveals that the person everyone thought was the killer was innocent, and that he knows who really did it. He persuades Jack and Dave, the two remaining band members still living in Glasgow, to go back with him to London to put things right while there’s still time.

The publicity blurb for the book tells us that parts of the story are based on May’s own experiences of running away to London as a teenager. As with his last few books, this one has a double timeline. The story of the ’60s London trip is told by Jack in the first-person, while the present day section is third person, though still very firmly from Jack’s perspective, and both sections are written in the past tense. Though we know from the beginning that someone is murdered, we don’t know who or why until near the end, so this has more of the feel of thriller than a mystery. We also know that Maurie knows whodunit, so there’s no investigation element. Instead what we have are two linked but very different stories of the characters heading to London, and the gradual revelation of what happened to the boys in the earlier storyline once they got there.

Both timelines have a great feeling of authenticity and, as always with May, the sense of place is done superbly. I hadn’t realised May grew up in the Southside of Glasgow (as did I), but the accuracy with which he describes it suggests he must have done. Although he’s writing about a somewhat earlier era than my own, the places, attitudes, language and lifestyle are all spot-on. Spookily so, in fact – I kept finding parts of my own life mirrored in the story and spent much of the early part of the book being reminded of events and places in my own past.

The Pond in Queen's Park on Glasgow's Southside...
The Pond in Queen’s Park on Glasgow’s Southside…

The two journeys, 50 years apart, allow May to show the changes across the country in that time, and he does so very well. Both journeys take the form of road-trips, punctuated by accident and disaster, but lifted by a healthy dose of humour. Along the way, the boys rescue Maurie’s cousin from her drug-dealing boyfriend and she becomes one of the gang as they finally arrive in London and start looking round for the streets paved with gold. And at first, when they are given lodgings and a job by a man who promises them a chance to cut a demo disc, it looks as though they have landed on their feet. But it’s not long before things go wrong and start to spiral out of control.

The trip undertaken by the older version of the men in the present day is filled with a mixture of nostalgia and humour. It’s through Jack’s reminiscences during this trip that we see the earlier story unfold, and see him reassessing with the eyes of experience the risks to which his younger self laid himself open. Gradually we see how his whole life has been affected by the things that happened back then, with this trip giving him a chance for some kind of resolution and even redemption.

Peter May
Peter May

The one weakness of the book for me was the crime element itself. The murder and motive for it weren’t quite strong enough to justify the lengthy lead-up – in fact, it felt a little as if it had been tacked on to justify the book being classed as a crime novel. The strength of the book is in the relationships between the boys as they face up to the realities of life; and later between the men as they come to terms with the events that had such an impact on each of their lives. The ending felt a little contrived to bring the whole thing to a neat conclusion.

Overall, though, this is an excellent read that convinces me again that May is at his strongest when he’s writing about his own native country – his instinctive feel for the places and people is far more convincing than even his best researched books set elsewhere. But perhaps I’m biased…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

* * * * *

Interesting little note…

Apparently May and his old friend Stephen Penn have released an album, also entitled Runaway. Sadly there’s no video for the title track on youtube but here is Peter May singing Big Bad Wolf

 

(I don’t do music reviews so shall leave you to judge it for yourself. But you just gotta love the bikini-clad dollybirds! Ah, middle-aged men and their little fantasies – what would we do without them? 😉 )

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Crime/Thriller Category – Standalones & Book of the Year 2014

Please rise…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014 in the Crime Fiction/Thriller Category – Standalones.

The last reminder of the rules for this year…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2013 and October 2014 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Factual – click to see awards

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers – Books in a Series

Crime Fiction/Thrillers – Standalone Novels

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

 

CRIME FICTION/THRILLERS

 

And here we go for the final category (hurrah!) for this year. It’s been a great year for original and well-written standalones, many of them with more than a touch of humour, black or otherwise. To be honest, any of these would make a fine winner, but only one can get the prize. So here goes…

STANDALONES

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

life or deathLife or Death by Michael Robotham

One of the finds of the year for me, I’ve been loving Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin series, and this standalone is equally good. Audie Palmer has been in prison for ten years for an armed robbery that went wrong. Although two of the gang died and Audie was arrested, the stolen $7 million has never been found. Since Audie’s brother is suspected of being the fourth gang member, everyone assumes he’s living a life of luxury somewhere and that Audie will get his share when he gets out. So why would Audie suddenly choose to escape, just one day before he’s due to be released? It seems he has made a promise that he must keep – but there are people who want to stop him. So not only is Audie running from the law, he’s in a race to fulfil his mission before he loses his life…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

moriartyA brilliant ‘follow-on’ novel. There’s no sign of Holmes or Watson in this one but it’s set perfectly in the Holmesian world we know so well. It is the year 1891, just after Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty have fought their final battle at Reichenbach Falls. Our narrator is Frederick Chase, a Pinkerton man, in Europe on the trail of a criminal mastermind, one Clarence Devereux, who he believes is responsible for killing one of his colleagues.There’s constant excitement, terrifying peril, touches of horror, brilliant descriptions of London and enough humour to keep the tone light. The writing is superb, totally within character and as good as Conan Doyle’s own. The tone feels completely right for a Holmes book and the world of the book is absolutely the one in which Holmes lived and worked. And the only word I can find for the climax is awesome! So clever I read the last part of the book with a huge grin on my face, out of sheer pleasure and admiration.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

little liesLittle Lies by Liane Moriarty (aka Big Little Lies)

Trivia Night at Pirriwee Public Primary School in New South Wales doesn’t turn out quite as planned. We learn in Chapter 1 that the evening ends with a murder, but we don’t know the victim, the murderer or the motive. We are then whisked back six months to meet the various characters and follow the events leading up to the murder. It all begins on the day the mothers bring their five-year-olds along to the Kindergarten ‘Let’s Get Ready’ Orientation Day…

I loved this book. The mothers are brilliantly observed, completely believable – people most of us have met. They each have quirks and flaws, they can be annoying, but they’re also intensely likeable – you can’t help but feel that it would be so much fun to spend time with them. The writing is great, and the author keeps a perfect balance between the serious side of the story and the humour – like in real life, she allows her characters to have both happy and sad times, rather than burying them under a blanket of angst. So nearly the winner…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

Summer HouseAs the book begins we learn that Marc is being investigated for malpractice by the Board of Medical Examiners over the death of one of his patients, successful actor Ralph Maier. As he waits to learn the outcome, Marc tells the story of how Ralph became his patient and of how their families gradually became acquainted, culminating with Marc taking his wife and two young daughters to stay with Ralph’s family in his summer house, complete with swimming pool. Sexual attraction turns the house-party into a bubbling cauldron of hidden and not-so-hidden emotions, gradually coming to a boil as we move towards the shocking incident that’s at the heart of the story. Dark, funny and thought-provoking, in the end this is as much about the diseases of the soul as of the body, the two somehow tangled together in Marc’s mind. The pacing is perfect, the writing and translation are superb, and Marc is an unforgettable monster of a character. Brilliant!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

a pleasure and a callingA Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan

William Heming has always been fascinated by the lives of the people around him. Some might call him a stalker, but he wouldn’t call himself that. He just likes to find out all about people…without them knowing. So when he is given a job as an estate agent, what joy! The ability to poke and pry round other people’s houses; and better yet, to be able to copy the keys of the houses so that he can pop back when the owners are out – or even when they’re in…

If I had an award category for character of the year, Mr Heming would win hands down! This is a hugely entertaining read, both creepy and humorous. Twisty and turny all the way through, it kept me guessing right up to the end. It’s all handled with huge skill and a lot of humour so that the reader ends up completely ambivalent about the awful Mr Heming – laughing along with his wicked sense of humour even while condemning his ever-more extreme behaviour. Oh, it’s hard not to let this one win…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST CRIME FICTION/THRILLER – STANDALONE

 

 Entry_Island_JK (2)

Entry Island by Peter May

In the tiny community of Entry Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence, a man has been brutally murdered. The local police don’t have the expertise to investigate such a serious crime, so the Quebec Sûreté send a team to the island. Unusually for this French-speaking province, the islanders are English-speaking, so his Scottish descent means that Detective Sime Mackenzie is included in the team to carry out interviews. But when Sime (pronounced Sheem) meets Kirsty Cowell, the wife of the victim and the chief suspect, he is struck with an unshakeable feeling that he knows her…although they have never met.

Like the Lewis Trilogy, Entry Island has a double time-line – the present day investigation set in Canada, and a historical storyline set on Lewis. May’s books are always meticulously researched with a very strong sense of place. But since he started writing about Lewis this strength has taken on an extra layer – it feels as if he is really now writing with his heart as well as his head. He spent a good deal of time on Lewis while producing a Gaelic-language drama serial, Machair, and he seems to have absorbed the landscape and the community of this remote and weather-beaten island until it has become an integral part of him. In my opinion, this is the best book May has ever written and one of the best crime novels I have read – with an authenticity and depth of emotion that reduced this sentimental lowland Scot to tears on more than one occasion. A great book and a worthy winner.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

 

 

FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2014

 

THE WINNER

 

Factual...
Factual…

 

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson
by S.C. Gwynne

The first time a factual book has ever been my book of the year, but this is an outstanding biography, as readable as the best fiction. Well researched and clearly structured, the book balances the history and the personal perfectly, but what really made it stand out for me so much is the sheer quality of the writing and storytelling. Gwynne’s great use of language and truly elegant grammar bring both clarity and richness to the complexities of the campaigns, while the extensive quotes from contemporaneous sources, particularly Jackson’s own men, help to give the reader a real understanding of the trust and loyalty that he inspired. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for anyone to interest me in the minutiae of military campaigns, but I became absorbed by the descriptions of artillery and troop movements, supply chains and battle plans. Gwynne’s brilliance at contrasting the beauty of the landscape with the horrors of the battlefield is matched by his ability to show the contrast between Jackson’s public and private personas. If only all history were written like this – a superb book, and one that gets my highest recommendation – truly the book of the year.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * *

Thanks to all of you who’ve stuck with me through this mammoth awards feature – I may try to streamline it a bit in future years. I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed your company!

Waterstones Event: Peter May – Entry Island

Londoners, a date for your diary…

 

Entry_Island_JK (2)

 

Peter May will be attending Waterstones Piccadilly in London next Tuesday evening, 21st January 2014, to discuss his new book, Entry Island.

Entry Island is the best yet from Peter May in my opinion and, considering how good the Lewis Trilogy is, that’s saying something! You can see my full review here. (I assume it’s my gushing enthusiasm for the book that led the publishers to let me know about the Waterstones Event! 😉 )

 

Peter May

 

Although it’s too far away for me to attend, unfortunately, I’ve heard May talk about his work before and he is an interesting and amusing speaker; so if you enjoy his books and are in the area, you might want to put this one in your diary. Details of the event are here.

If you attend the event, enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Entry Island by Peter May

“The blood is strong.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

He crouches down to touch the earth, and in doing so feels a direct connection with history, communing with ghosts, a ghost himself haunting his own past. And yet not his past. He closes his eyes and imagines how it was, how it felt, knowing that this is where it all began, in another age, in someone else’s life.

entry islandIn the tiny community of Entry Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence, a man has been brutally murdered. The local police don’t have the expertise to investigate such a serious crime, so the Quebec Sûreté send a team to the island. Unusually for this French-speaking province, the islanders are English-speaking, so his Scottish descent means that Detective Sime Mackenzie is included in the team to carry out interviews. But when Sime (pronounced Sheem) meets Kirsty Cowell, the wife of the victim and the chief suspect, he is struck with an unshakeable feeling that he knows her…although they have never met.

Peter May has been a long-term favourite of mine. As scriptwriter and producer, he was involved in some of the best television produced in Scotland during the ‘80s and ‘90s, before returning to his original sphere as a novelist. He has produced three main series of novels since then – his China thrillers, the Enzo Files set in France and most recently the Lewis Trilogy. Always with a steady following, he rocketed into the limelight when the Richard and Judy Bookclub (the UK equivalent of Oprah) picked The Blackhouse, the first of the Lewis books. (An overnight success story that only took half a lifetime to achieve!)

May’s books are always meticulously researched with a very strong sense of place. But since he started writing about Lewis this strength has taken on an extra layer – it feels as if he is really now writing with his heart as well as his head. He spent a good deal of time on Lewis while producing a Gaelic-language drama serial, Machair, and he seems to have absorbed the landscape and the community of this remote and weather-beaten island until it has become an integral part of him. As a result, the Lewis Trilogy stood head and shoulders above his previous work, adding a feeling of emotional connection that had perhaps been absent in the previous series. I have been saying for the last few years that the trilogy was his best work. Until now…

Blackhouse, Isle of Lewis Photo credit: Robert Harding
Blackhouse, Isle of Lewis
Photo credit: Robert Harding

Like the Lewis Trilogy, Entry Island has a double time-line – the present day investigation set in Canada, and a historical storyline set on Lewis. Sime, struggling with severe insomnia after the break-up of his marriage, begins to have vivid dreams about stories he was told as a child, of the life of his ancestor, also called Sime, on Lewis – dreams that seem to be connected in some way with his feelings of recognition for Kirsty. Through the original Sime’s stories, we are given an account of the hand-to-mouth existence of the crofters, fishing and farming their tiny plots of land with barely enough to sustain their families. We see the very different life lived by the landlords – English-speakers in these Gaelic communities. And Sime tells us about the Highland Clearances – the barbarous and brutal dispossession of crofters already weakened by the potato famine to make way for more profitable sheep-farming. There is a feeling of biting anger in May’s writing as he allows Sime to describe the inhumanity of this scar on British history – a history that led to the destruction of communities and a whole way of life, and to the involuntary exile of thousands of Highland Scots to the North American colonies, sent with nothing, to fend as best they could in the New World, if they survived the horrors of the voyage.

“And then I catch sight of the pitiful figure of old blind Calum staggering about, his Glengarry trampled in the mud, arms raised to shield himself from blows he cannot see. A man who once fought for Britain at the Battle of Waterloo. Struck down now by a vicious blow from a young man not even born when Calum was fighting for his freedom.”

Peter May
Peter May

As the book progresses, we discover why these childhood memories have been awakened for the present-day Sime and gradually the links between the two time-lines become clearer. The present-day story provides some contrast and relief from the bleakness of the past, and for me present-day Sime is the most filled-out and believable character May has written. The quality of the descriptive writing is first-class and, though by coincidence both the quotes I have chosen are present tense, most of the book is in fact written in the past tense. The plotting of the murder and investigation is well done and it wasn’t till near the end that I began to get an inkling of the solution – a solution that I found satisfying on every level.

In my opinion, this is the best book May has ever written and one of the best crime novels I have read – with an authenticity and depth of emotion that reduced this sentimental lowland Scot to tears on more than one occasion. Hard for me to be completely objective about it, but I believe it will be just as effective for non-Scots, who are perhaps not familiar with this small part of history, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it gets reviewed elsewhere. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 7…

Episode 7

 

Since I can’t possibly add any more to the heaving, tottering pile of books waiting to be read, there will be no TBR Thursday winner this week. So instead here’s a few of the books that I’m looking forward to reading over the next couple of months…

Courtesy of NetGalley:

 

the cave and the lightThis falls into the ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’ category, also known as the ‘what was I thinking?’ genre. However it’ll either be great or I will simply remind myself that suffering is good for the soul…apparently…

“Arthur Herman has now written the definitive sequel to his New York Times bestseller, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, and extends the themes of the book—which sold half a million copies worldwide—back to the ancient Greeks and forward to the age of the Internet. The Cave and the Light is a magisterial account of how the two greatest thinkers of the ancient world, Plato and Aristotle, laid the foundations of Western culture—and how their rivalry shaped the essential features of our culture down to the present day.”

*****

identicalAlready out in the US, but not yet published in the UK. I’ve been a fan of Scott Turow from way back when, although he is variable. But when he’s good, he’s very, very good…

“The Gianis’s and the Kronons. Two families entangled in a long and complex history of love and deceit . . . Twenty five years ago, after a society picnic held by businessman and politician Zeus Kronon, Zeus’ headstrong daughter Dita was found murdered. Her boyfriend, Cass Gianis, confessed to the crime. Now Cass has been released from prison into the care of his twin, Mayoral candidate Paul Gianis, who is in the middle of a high profile political campaign. But Dita’s brother Hal is convinced there is information surrounding his sister’s death that remains buried – and he won’t rest until he’s discovered the truth. A gripping masterpiece of dark family rivalries, shadowy politics and hidden secrets, Identical is the stunning new thriller from bestselling author Scott Turow, writing at the height of his powers.”

*****

smithAlthough this is nominally a children’s book, I first read it as a youngish adult and thought it was great. Now being republished as a ‘modern classic’ (gulp! am I really that old? – NB That’s a rhetorical question!) I’m interested to see whether it lives up to my memory of it…

“Twelve-year-old Smith is a denizen of the mean streets of eighteenth-century London, living hand to mouth by virtue of wit and pluck. One day he trails an old gentleman with a bulging pocket, deftly picks it, and as footsteps ring out from the alley by which he had planned to make his escape, finds himself in a tough spot. Taking refuge in a doorway, he sees two men emerge to murder the man who was his mark. They rifle the dead man’s pockets and finding them empty, depart in a rage. Smith, terrified, flees the scene of the crime. What has he stolen that is worth the life of a man?”

*****

Pre-orders:

 

sycamore rowA new Grisham is always a must-read – never less than good (except when he does one of his dreadful sports books) and often great. Unfortunately, it will be necessary to read A Time to Kill in preparation – so two for the TBR…

“For almost a quarter of a century, John Grisham’s A Time to Kill has captivated readers with its raw exploration of race, retribution, and justice. Now, its hero, Jake Brigance, returns to the courtroom in a dramatic showdown as Ford County again confronts its tortured history. Filled with the intrigue, suspense and plot twists that are the hallmarks of the world’s favourite storyteller, Sycamore Row is the thrilling story of the elusive search for justice in a small American town.”

*****


the goldfinchLike many other people I loved The Secret History and was disappointed by The Little Friend, so intrigued to see whether this will be a return to form…

“It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle. “

*****

entry islandAnd finally, following his triumphant Lewis Trilogy, Peter May moves on to pastures new. As someone who has followed May through his China thrillers, his French series and the Lewis books (not to mention his career as scriptwriter/producer on Scottish Television), I felt the Lewis books were his best work. How will the new series compare?

“When Detective Sime Mackenzie boards a light aircraft at Montreal’s St. Hubert airfield, he does so without looking back. For Sime, the 850-mile journey ahead represents an opportunity to escape the bitter blend of loneliness and regret that has come to characterise his life in the city.

Travelling as part of an eight-officer investigation team, Sime’s destination lies in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Only two kilometres wide and three long, Entry Island is home to a population of around 130 inhabitants – the wealthiest of which has just been discovered murdered in his home.

The investigation itself appears little more than a formality. The evidence points to a crime of passion: the victim’s wife the vengeful culprit. But for Sime the investigation is turned on its head when he comes face to face with the prime suspect, and is convinced that he knows her – even though they have never met.

Haunted by this certainty his insomnia becomes punctuated by dreams of a distant past on a Scottish island 3,000 miles away. Dreams in which the widow plays a leading role. Sime’s conviction becomes an obsession. And in spite of mounting evidence of her guilt he finds himself convinced of her innocence, leading to a conflict between the professonal duty he must fulfil, and the personal destiny that awaits him.”

*****

All blurbs are taken from either Amazon or NetGalley.

What do you think? Any of these that you’re looking forward to too? Or are there other new releases you’re impatiently awaiting?