FictionFan Awards 2018 – Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 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

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

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!

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

MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

I’m still struggling with the obsession with identikit so-called psychological thrillers that is dominating modern crime fiction at the moment, so have read fewer books in this category this year than every before in my adult life, I think. I can’t help thinking that the astonishing rise in popularity of vintage crime over the last few years suggests I’m not alone in this. However, happily I’ve still managed to find a few great reads, none of which have the ubiquitous and terminally unoriginal woman in red/yellow coat on the cover, you’ll note…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Hal (Harriet) Westaway is struggling to keep her head above water. The bills keep pouring in and in these winter months she doesn’t get enough custom at her kiosk on Brighton’s West Pier to pay them all. Things are reaching a crisis. So when she receives a letter from a solicitor informing her that she has been left a legacy by her grandmother it seems like the answer to a prayer. There’s only one problem – Hal knows there’s been a mistake. Her real grandmother died years ago… 

All I ask for in crime fiction is a good story well told; some characters I can like, hate, worry about, mistrust; enough uncertainty about how it will play out to keep me turning pages; a minimum of unnecessary padding; and told in the past tense, preferably third person. And that’s exactly what Ruth Ware has given me in this hugely enjoyable thriller. Add in a dark and dusty old house full of attics and cellars and narrow little staircases, the shade of a wicked old woman who tyrannised over her family, a bunch of squabbling siblings, and a scary old housekeeper who knows more than she’s telling, and I’m pretty much in modern-Gothic heaven!

Click to see the full review

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Broken Ground by Val McDermid

DCI Karen Pirie of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit is in the middle of re-investigating a series of rapes when she is diverted to a crime scene in the Highlands. A woman and her husband are on a kind of treasure hunt, looking for something that the woman’s grandfather buried in a peat bog long ago. They find the spot, but when they dig down into the peat, they are shocked to discover not only the looted items but the body of a man, almost perfectly preserved…

Now that a national police force has taken the place of the old regional forces in Scotland in real life, it gives fiction writers the ability to have their detectives travel all over the country, and McDermid is as comfortable writing about the Highlands as she is her hometown of Edinburgh. She gives an amazingly good sense of place and a wholly authentic feel to contemporary Scottish life and to a professional police force where dysfunctional drunken mavericks wouldn’t be tolerated. The fifth book in the Karen Pirie series and an excellent addition.

Click to see the full review

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Sweet William by Iain Maitland

A man escapes from a secure psychiatric hospital to find his little son, sweet William, and run off to a new life, just the two of them, in the south of France. This is the story of the next forty-eight hours…

And what a story! A complete roller-coaster during most of which we’re stuck inside the head of Orrey, the father, whose frequent assertions that he’s not mad somehow fail to convince us! Dark and disturbing doesn’t even begin to describe it. By all rights, I should have hated it – I’ve bored on often enough about my dislike of using children to up the tension in crime fiction. But it’s a tour de force piece of writing with one of the most brilliantly drawn disturbed central characters I’ve read in a long time – think Mr Heming or The Dinner or Zoran Drvenkar. Then add in relentless pacing that drives the book forward at a speed to leave you gasping – the definitive page-turner! 

Click to see the full review

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Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

Roused from a drug-addled stupor in an opium den in the backstreets of Calcutta, Sam Wyndham, Captain in the Calcutta police, discovers the place is being raided. Discovery of his addiction will finish his career so he flees, only to stumble across the body of a horribly mutilated Chinaman. Or did he? Next day, when no report of the murder comes in, Sam is left wondering if he hallucinated the whole thing. That is, until he is called out to another murder, where the body has been mutilated in exactly the same way…

This series goes from strength to strength with each new instalment – this is the third. Set in the early 1920s, the dying days of the Raj when the Indian Independence movement was well under way, Mukherjee always manages to work the political situation into his stories without allowing it to overwhelm them or feeling like a history lesson. As always, though, the plot is founded much more on human nature than on politics. I feel this is his strongest plot so far, which takes us into some dark episodes in the dealings between the Raj and their subjects. There’s a good deal of moral ambiguity in there, and some excellently complex characterisation to carry it off. And it all builds to a first-rate, entirely credible thriller finale that I found fully satisfying.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Since I couldn’t find a single thing to criticise about this book, it was the only possible choice to be this year’s winner.

When Bertrand Barthelme runs his car off the A35 into a tree one evening and dies, Inspector Georges Gorski has no reason to think it was anything other than an unfortunate accident. But Barthelme’s widow thinks there’s something odd about her husband having been at that spot at that time and asks Gorski to look into it a bit more. Mme Barthelme is an attractive 40-something with more than a touch of the femme fatale in this first meeting, so Gorski finds himself agreeing. Meantime, Barthelme’s 17-year-old son Raymond starts a kind of investigation of his own, in an attempt to learn more about the father with whom he had always had a rather cold, distant relationship. Both investigations will head off in unexpected directions.

This is on the face of it a crime novel, but the quality of the writing, the depth of the characterisation, the creation of place and time and the intelligence of the game the author plays with the reader all raise it so that it sits easily into the literary fiction category, in my opinion at the highest level. The setting – the small town of Saint-Louis, in the corner of France that borders Germany and Switzerland, some time in the 1970s – is brilliantly drawn, but it’s the human characters who make it such an absorbing story.  Not a word is wasted – with the briefest of descriptions, Burnet can create a person who feels real, solid, entire, as if they might be a neighbour we’ve known all our life. I loved every lean and beautifully placed word of this slim book, and was wholly absorbed from beginning to end. Superb!

Click to see the full review

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Next Week: Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

Broken Ground (Karen Pirie 5) by Val McDermid

Peat bogs are dangerous places…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

DCI Karen Pirie of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit is in the middle of re-investigating a series of rapes when she is diverted to a crime scene in the Highlands. A woman and her husband are on a kind of treasure hunt, looking for something that the woman’s grandfather buried in a peat bog long ago. They find the spot, but when they dig down into the peat, they are shocked to discover not only the looted items but the body of a man, almost perfectly preserved. The body only dates back to the 1990s, though, so Karen must unravel the mystery of who killed the man and why. And Karen also finds herself involved almost by accident in the investigation of another crime, one that she hoped she’d prevented. Meantime her new boss has given her an extra team member, a thing Karen would be grateful for if only she felt there wasn’t an ulterior motive behind it…

I’m thoroughly enjoying the Karen Pirie books and this is another excellent addition to the series. Now that a national police force has taken the place of the old regional forces in Scotland in real life, it gives fiction writers the ability to have their detectives travel all over the country, and McDermid is as comfortable writing about the Highlands as she is her hometown of Edinburgh. I’m biased, I know, but I love that McDermid has set this series back in Scotland after too long away. She gives an amazingly good sense of place and a wholly authentic feel to contemporary Scottish life. Forget the unrealistic gun-totin’ gang wars of so much “Tartan Noir” or the tartan twee of the cosier side of Scottish crime fiction (usually written by nostalgic Canadians or Americans). This is modern Scotland: warts and all, for sure, but also with a vibrant, well educated population and a professional police force where dysfunctional drunken mavericks wouldn’t be tolerated.

This falls very much under the category of police procedural rather than mystery or thriller. Karen and her team identify their suspect fairly early on and most of the book is about how they go about finding the evidence to make a case that would stand up in court. It’s an intriguing and realistic look at how policing is done, but could perhaps be a little dull in the wrong hands. McDermid, however, spices the whole thing up by having the HCU working on other cases alongside the main one, by throwing in some office politics, and by having some great characterisation of Karen herself, her young sidekick Jason, her friends and colleagues, not to mention the suspects and witnesses they deal with along the way. Karen is well into recovery from her grief now (deliberately vague, in case people haven’t read the earlier books) and McDermid has handled that whole storyline superbly, I feel – never letting it be forgotten or glossed over, but not making either Karen or the reader wallow endlessly.

Downsides – there’s some swearing, though less than in most Scottish crime fiction, and bits of it, especially relating to the office politics, triggered my over-sensitive credibility monitor. Also, one of the problems of living in such a small country is that all our successful people tend to know each other, and it was very obvious throughout that McDermid thinks of our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, as a friend. There’s a little too much rather sycophantic praise of her and the Scottish Government in general for my taste – most of us, like the people in most democracies, have a rather higher level of healthy scepticism when it comes to our leaders.

Val McDermid

But these were minor issues that didn’t spoil my absorption in the story. I loved wandering the streets of Edinburgh with Karen, travelling north with her, meeting up with her friends again, and seeing how Jason is maturing and growing in confidence in each book. I enjoyed Karen’s visit to Glasgow and McDermid’s tongue-in-cheek nods to the old rivalry between the citizens of Scotland’s two biggest cities. The pacing is excellent so that, although it’s a longish read, I never found it dragging. The main storyline of the murder is intriguing, with parts of it going back to the war, though most of the book is firmly set in the present day. I even learned a small piece of Scotland’s history I didn’t know before. Third person, past tense, of course, as all the best books are.

It would work fine as a standalone. I have read a couple of these out of order and actually missed one or two of the earlier ones, but I haven’t felt that’s left me struggling in any way. In short, highly recommended – I hope McDermid sticks with this series for a long time to come.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 168…

Episode 168…

Another major fall this week – the TBR is down 2 to 224! I’ve really got the hang of this now! In fact, I’m enjoying it so much I think I’ll do it again…

Here are a few more that should slide off soon…

Classic Scottish Fiction

From my Classics Club list. The book is a collection of several of Willa Muir’s works but the one I’ll be reading first is Imagined Corners. I know nothing about either author or book, other than that it appears regularly on lists of great Scottish novels…

The Blurb says: Imagined Corners, Muir’s first novel, is set in a provincial Scottish town unwilling and unready for change. Ensnared by stifling religious and moral codes and adrift in her marriage, Elizabeth Shand feels increasingly isolated in Calderwick. However, the arrival of the charismatic and bohemian Elise begins to unravel the knots that bond and bind the townsfolk, offering a glimmer of hope for Elizabeth.

The story of Elizabeth’s evolving independence bears a stark contrast to Muir’s role as colleague and devoted wife to the poet Edwin Muir, giving insight into the mind of one of Scotland’s finest yet often overlooked writers.

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Crime

Courtesy of the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group. I’ve been enjoying Val McDermid’s return to a Scottish setting in her Karen Pirie series, so am looking forward to this latest installment…

The Blurb says: When a body is discovered in the remote depths of the Highlands, DCI Karen Pirie finds herself in the right place at the right time. Unearthed with someone’s long-buried inheritance, the victim seems to belong to the distant past – until new evidence suggests otherwise, and Karen is called in to unravel a case where nothing is as it seems.

It’s not long before an overheard conversation draws Karen into the heart of a different case, however – a shocking crime she thought she’d already prevented. As she inches closer to the twisted truths at the centre of these murders, it becomes clear that she’s dealing with a version of justice terrifyingly different to her own . . .

Number one bestseller and queen of crime Val McDermid returns with her most breathtakingly atmospheric and exhilarating novel yet.

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Factual

Courtesy of Yale University Press. This rather massive tome is the winner of the 2018 Wolfson History Prize. I’m pretty sure it’ll exercise my brain and absolutely certain it’ll exercise my biceps..

The Blurb says: Centuries on, what the Reformation was and what it accomplished remain deeply contentious. Peter Marshall’s sweeping new history—the first major overview for general readers in a generation—argues that sixteenth-century England was a society neither desperate for nor allergic to change, but one open to ideas of “reform” in various competing guises. King Henry VIII wanted an orderly, uniform Reformation, but his actions opened a Pandora’s Box from which pluralism and diversity flowed and rooted themselves in English life.

With sensitivity to individual experience as well as masterfully synthesizing historical and institutional developments, Marshall frames the perceptions and actions of people great and small, from monarchs and bishops to ordinary families and ecclesiastics, against a backdrop of profound change that altered the meanings of “religion” itself. This engaging history reveals what was really at stake in the overthrow of Catholic culture and the reshaping of the English Church.

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Crime

Courtesy of Canongate via NetGalley. Ambrose Parry is a nom-de-plume for the writing partnership of husband-and-wife team, Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. I find that idea as intriguing as the blurb…

The Blurb says: Edinburgh, 1847. City of Medicine, Money, Murder.

Young women are being discovered dead across the Old Town, all having suffered similarly gruesome ends. In the New Town, medical student Will Raven is about to start his apprenticeship with the brilliant and renowned Dr Simpson.

Simpson’s patients range from the richest to the poorest of this divided city. His house is like no other, full of visiting luminaries and daring experiments in the new medical frontier of anaesthesia. It is here that Raven meets housemaid Sarah Fisher, who recognises trouble when she sees it and takes an immediate dislike to him. She has all of his intelligence but none of his privileges, in particular his medical education.

With each having their own motive to look deeper into these deaths, Raven and Sarah find themselves propelled headlong into the darkest shadows of Edinburgh’s underworld, where they will have to overcome their differences if they are to make it out alive.

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

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

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Resistance – A BBC Radio Drama by Val McDermid

Public health warning…

🙂 🙂 😐

It’s summer festival season, and a crowd of thousands has descended on a farmer’s field for an open-air rock concert celebrating the solstice. There are all the usual food vendors offering varying degrees of quality and hygiene so it’s not too surprising when there’s an outbreak of what appears to be food poisoning. But although sufferers seem to recover within twenty-four hours, days or weeks later they begin to have relapses, developing skin lesions and eventually dying. And in the meantime, they’ve dispersed all over Britain and the world, spreading the infection…

The story is told by Zoe Meadows (Gina McKee), a journalist who happened to be on the spot at the concert when the first outbreak occurred. Though not infected herself, she sniffs a story and sets out to investigate how the infection began. Soon she begins to suspect a factory farm which uses particularly inhumane methods of housing its animals may be the source. Meantime, scientists are working round the clock to find a cure. Zoe makes contact with one of them, Aasmah, who explains that existing antibiotics aren’t strong enough to fight this disease. It has mutated to a point of being resistant to everything scientists have to throw at it.

Isn’t it odd how something that should work sometimes simply doesn’t? This has a great cast who all turn in top class performances, many of them with lovely, authentic Geordie accents (though not broad enough to be hard to understand). It’s written by Val McDermid which means that the script flows and sounds natural – the dialogue never feels stilted. The production values are great – listening through headphones made me feel I was in the middle of it as the sound shifted around me, the incidental music is suitably ominous and threatening, and the sound effects – dogs barking, street noises, etc. – are so convincing I several times found myself checking they were coming from the disc and not the real world. The science is totally credible and so is the eventual outcome – horrific but believable.

Gina McKee

And therein lies the problem. Perhaps there’s somebody out there who’s not aware that overuse of antibiotics has led to a situation where some bacteria have mutated to the point where they’ve developed resistance, leading to a cycle of ever stronger drugs, more mutations, and round and round we go, with no certainty that humanity will be the eventual winner. Maybe some people don’t know that they should stop pestering their doctors for antibiotics every time they have a sniffle. Maybe there are some doctors who are still too wimpy to say no to such patients. But, a little like this paragraph, this drama feels more like a public health warning than anything else. A well written and well performed public health warning, but still…

When it said at the end that it was “developed through the Wellcome Trust Experimental Stories scheme”, my suspicions were further aroused, since the Wellcome Trust is a scientific research charity. I donned my deerstalker, lit my pipe and turned to Google. And indeed – this is a series in which they encourage writers to dramatise matters of scientific concern in an attempt to inform and engage the public. Very worthy, but unfortunately that’s what it sounds like in the end. Because the basic plan is to show us how, if we don’t start behaving, we will all die. Die! Die, I tell you! True, but hardly entertaining.

An extract from the BBC’s webpage on the drama says:

Programme consultant Christopher Dowson, who is Professor of Microbiology at the University of Warwick and Trustee for the charity Antibiotic Research UK says: “This fantastic production presents in an emotionally engaging manner some of the important issues that have given rise to our current predicament – ever rising resistance and fewer effective antibiotics. My hope is that listeners will go on to ask ‘what can I do to be part of the solution?’.”

OK, fine, Professor Dowson, but just two points. Firstly, it started emotionally engaging but rapidly descended into being simply downright depressing. And secondly, it would have been great if it had suggested answers to the question “what can I do to be part of the solution?” rather than implying that there is no solution and no hope and that we’re all going to die. Die! Die, I tell you! And if that’s not bad enough, apparently we’re all going to come out in purple spots first!

Val McDermid

Maybe I’m being unfair. I did work in health care for many years, so maybe the antibiotics issue isn’t as widely known amongst the general public as I think. But even so, I suspect what most people will say at the end is “Well, that was depressing!” and head for the cake tin rather than becoming activists. Perhaps when it appeared on the radio it was accompanied by discussion programmes that may have answered the “what can I do?” question but as a standalone on disc it preaches without advising, offering despair unleavened by hope. A missed opportunity and, frankly, a bit of a waste of a great writer and an excellent cast.

NB This CD set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK. It’s a three disc set with a running time of 2 hours 30 minutes. It’s also available on Audible.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 121…

Episode 121…

The TBR has been hit by a mysterious mystery this week! My spreadsheet tells me it’s gone down 2 to 195, and yet I’ve only finished one book – how can this be?? Has some kind of hideous book-eating virus escaped from the laboratory of a crazed scientist? Well, if it goes on like this there’s only one solution – I shall have to go on a book-buying spree…

Here are a few that should legitimately leave the TBR soon…

Factual

Courtesy of Princeton University Press. A little break from the USSR. My current knowledge of Fibonacci consists of knowing that Fibonacci Numbers are called after him. Of course, I don’t know what they actually are. Or who he was. Or why he was important. Hopefully I’ll be better informed once I’ve read it…

The Blurb says: In 2000, Keith Devlin set out to research the life and legacy of the medieval mathematician Leonardo of Pisa, popularly known as Fibonacci, whose book Liber abbaci has quite literally affected the lives of everyone alive today. Although he is most famous for the Fibonacci numbers—which, it so happens, he didn’t invent—Fibonacci’s greatest contribution was as an expositor of mathematical ideas at a level ordinary people could understand. In 1202, Liber abbaci—the “Book of Calculation”—introduced modern arithmetic to the Western world. Yet Fibonacci was long forgotten after his death, and it was not until the 1960s that his true achievements were finally recognized.

Finding Fibonacci is Devlin’s compelling firsthand account of his ten-year quest to tell Fibonacci’s story. Devlin, a math expositor himself, kept a diary of the undertaking, which he draws on here to describe the project’s highs and lows, its false starts and disappointments, the tragedies and unexpected turns, some hilarious episodes, and the occasional lucky breaks. You will also meet the unique individuals Devlin encountered along the way, people who, each for their own reasons, became fascinated by Fibonacci, from the Yale professor who traced modern finance back to Fibonacci to the Italian historian who made the crucial archival discovery that brought together all the threads of Fibonacci’s astonishing story.

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Fiction?

Courtesy of NetGalley. This one sounds rather weird and I’m not at all sure whether it’s fiction or crime. The blurb only tells half the tale – in fact the narrator and protagonist is the author herself, and there seems to be a blurred line between reality and fiction. It’s getting mixed reviews and I reckon it’s about 50/50 as to whether I’ll love or hate it…

 The Blurb says: Today I know that L. is the sole reason for my powerlessness. And that the two years that we were friends almost made me stop writing for ever.” Overwhelmed by the huge success of her latest novel, exhausted and unable to begin writing her next book, Delphine meets L. L. is the kind of impeccable, sophisticated woman who fascinates Delphine; a woman with smooth hair and perfectly filed nails, and a gift for saying the right thing. Delphine finds herself irresistibly drawn to her, their friendship growing as their meetings, notes and texts increase. But as L. begins to dress like Delphine, and, in the face of Delphine’s crippling inability to write, L. even offers to answer her emails, and their relationship rapidly intensifies. L. becomes more and more involved in Delphine’s life until she patiently takes control and turns it upside down: slowly, surely, insidiously. Based on a True Story is a chilling novel of suspense that will leave you questioning the truth and its significance long after you have turned the final page.

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Radio Drama…

Courtesy of Amazon Vine UK. OK, it’s not a book, it’s a radio play. But it’s written by Val McDermid so I couldn’t resist. Doesn’t sound like her normal type of thing either… intriguing!

The Blurb says: Gina McKee stars in this chilling apocalyptic radio drama by award-winning writer Val McDermid.

It’s the Summer Solstice weekend, and 150,000 people have descended on a farm in the North East of England for an open-air music festival. Reporting on the event is journalist Zoe Meadows, who files her copy from a food van run by her friends Sam and Lisa. When some of Sam’s customers get sick, it looks like food poisoning, and it’s exacerbated by the mud, rain and inadequate sanitary facilities. It’s assumed to be a 24-hour thing, until people get home and discover strange skin lesions, which ulcerate and turn septic. More people start getting ill – and dying. What looked like a minor bug is clearly much more serious: a mystery illness that’s spreading fast and seems resistant to all antibiotics. Zoe teams up with Sam to track the outbreak to its source; meanwhile, can a cure be found before the disease becomes a pandemic?

From a No 1 bestselling author, this original drama envisages a nightmare scenario that seems only too credible in our modern age. Duration: 2 hours 30 mins approx.

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Fiction?

Courtesy of NetGalley. Again, I have no idea how to classify this one – it’s listed on Amazon as both crime and horror, but I suspect with Kehlmann there will be “literary” fictional aspects too. It’s also being marketed and listed (and priced) as if it’s a novel but the Kindle length suggests it’s a short story or at most a short novella…all very odd. But again intriguing…

The Blurb says: “It is fitting that I’m beginning a new notebook up here. New surroundings and new ideas, a new beginning. Fresh air.”

These are the opening lines of the journal kept by the narrator of Daniel Kehlmann’s spellbinding new novel: the record of the seven days that he, his wife, and his four-year-old daughter spend in a house they have rented in the mountains of Germany—a house that thwarts the expectations of his recollection and seems to defy the very laws of physics. The narrator is eager to finish a screenplay, entitled Marriage, for a sequel to the movie that launched his career, but something he cannot explain is undermining his convictions and confidence, a process he is recording in this account of the uncanny events that unfold as he tries to understand what, exactly, is happening around him—and in himself.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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

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Out of Bounds (Karen Pirie 4) by Val McDermid

Murder in the family…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

out of boundsWhen some drunken lads steal a Land Rover and then crash it, a blood sample is taken from the driver and routinely checked for DNA matches. The results show a familial match to the perpetrator of a horrific unsolved rape and murder from 1996, so DCI Karen Pirie and her cold case team, consisting of herself and one DC, reopen the case. However it becomes more complicated when they discover the car crash victim was adopted, so they will have to seek the Court’s permission to access his birth records. Meantime, a young man called Gabriel Abbott is found dead from a gunshot wound in a park, a death that the investigating officer is eager to call suicide and close the case. Karen’s not so sure, and when she discovers that Gabriel’s mother was herself murdered over 20 years earlier, she finds herself drawn to try to solve the older case and see if it impacted in any way on Gabriel’s death.

I really like this new series of McDermid’s. She has always been one of my favourite crime writers, but I tired eventually of the Tony Hill series, so I’m delighted she’s gone off in a new direction. These books are strictly police procedurals, told in a straightforward linear fashion with no flashy gimmicks or unbelievable twists. I’ve only read one other in the series, The Skeleton Road, which had a plot-line that took us back to the Serbo-Croatian war and was as much about the horrors of that as about the crime under investigation. While I enjoyed it very much, in truth I prefer to get my history from history books, so preferred this one which is more traditional in style – a crime or crimes, suspects, motives, clues, red herrings, etc., but all set firmly in the present and with a totally authentic feel to the investigation.

Karen Pirie is an excellent character, perhaps my favourite of all the various lead characters McDermid has created over the years. She is refreshingly non-maverick, working within the rules and procedures of contemporary policing, and getting on with her colleagues on the whole. Somewhat tediously, she has the usual useless boss who’s always trying to do her down, but she gets round him with a combination of wit and manipulation, instead of the rather unbelievable outright defiance and belligerence that so many fictional detectives seem able to get away with. She thinks her young assistant Jason is “thick”, but is nevertheless a good, supportive boss to him, and during the course of this book, as he matures into the role, she finds she’s beginning to appreciate him more. And again unlike many of the loner detectives of today, she has a few good friends and a normal social life outside work.

In this book she is still grieving after the events at the end of the last one. (I’m leaving that deliberately vague to avoid spoilers – the books work perfectly as standalones and don’t have much of a continuing story arc, but like most series they’re probably best read in order.) But her grief is shown believably, without wallowing. It recurs from time to time but lessens as time goes on, and Karen handles it without taking to drink or beating people up or all the other things our dysfunctional detectives usually do.

Val McDermid
Val McDermid

There’s also a strand in the book about some of the Syrian refugees who have come to Scotland fleeing from the horrors in their own country. McDermid handles this very well, showing them not as potential terrorists, rapists, murderers or religious fanatics, but as normal people who have seen and experienced terrible things, but survived, and who now want to find a way to build new lives for themselves and their families in a safer place.

The plotting is great, with enough complexity to keep the reader guessing but without ever straying far over the credibility line. Although there are two separate cases on the go, McDermid juggles them well, never letting one be forgotten at the expense of the other. And personally, I’m delighted to see her set a series in her native Scotland. She doesn’t shine a light on the political zeitgeist in quite the way Rankin often does, but she creates a clear and authentic picture of contemporary Scotland, particularly with regards to policing and justice systems.

All-in-all, an excellent read which I highly recommend. I’m hoping this series will have a long run.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

 

TBR Thursday 95…

Episode 95…

The TBR has gone up 4 to a new high of 184!! But the additions are all books that were on the wishlist so overall the situation remains stable. Oh, for goodness sake, at least try and look as if you believe me!

Here are a few that will be rising to the top of the pile soon…

Factual

murder incCourtesy of NetGalley, this one sounds like it might be fun. A perfect excuse to dig out old Cagney and Edward G Robinson films…

The Blurb says: Murder, Inc. and the Moral Life: Gangsters and Gangbusters in La Guardia’s New York focuses on the dramatic trials of a group of Brooklyn gangsters in 1940 and 1941. The media nicknamed the gangsters “Murder, Inc.,” and that nickname quickly became a kind of free-floating “meme,” linked at various times to criminals in general; to a record label; and even to a Bruce Springsteen song. The 1940-1941 trials inspired a wave of media coverage, several books and memoirs, and a sub-genre of the gangster film. The trials concluded with a notorious and unsolved murder mystery. Murder, Inc. narrates the life and times of the Brooklyn gang, and also relates their lives both to New York’s Roaring Twenties and Depression era gangs and to the wider “gangster” culture expressed especially in the film. At the same time, Murder, Inc., is a moral reflection on the gangsters; the gangbusters, like Fiorello La Guardia and Thomas Dewey, who opposed them; and popular culture’s fascination with “gangsterism.” It is especially this combination of crime story and moral reflection that makes Murder, Inc. unique.

* * * * *

Fiction

moby dickWell, I’ve put it off for as long as possible… or have I? Will I find another excuse to stick it back to the bottom of the heap? It’s on both my GAN Quest list and my Classics Club list, so I have to read it sometime. I suppose. Can you tell I’m just thrilled at the thought…?

The Blurb says:  “It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.”

So Melville wrote of his masterpiece, one of the greatest works of imaginations in literary history. In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author’s lifelong meditation on America. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is also a profound inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.

* * * * *

Crime

out of boundsCourtesy of NetGalley. I enjoyed McDermid’s last outing for DCI Karen Pirie, The Skeleton Road, especially since it’s good to see her setting a series in her native Scotland. So I have high hopes for this one…

The Blurb says: When a teenage joyrider crashes a stolen car and ends up in a coma, a routine DNA test reveals a connection to an unsolved murder from twenty-two years before. Finding the answer to the cold case should be straightforward. But it’s as twisted as the DNA helix itself.

Meanwhile, Karen finds herself irresistibly drawn to another mystery that she has no business investigating, a mystery that has its roots in a terrorist bombing two decades ago. And again, she finds that nothing is as it seems.

An enthralling, twisty read, Out of Bounds reaffirms Val McDermid’s place as one of the most dependable professionals in the mystery and thriller business.

* * * * *

Horror

thin airCourtesy of NetGalley – I suspect I may have an addiction problem. Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter was deliciously scary so I’m hoping she can do it again… it’ll soon be time to wake the fretful porpentine from hibernation for the spooky season…

The Blurb says: In 1935, young medic Stephen Pearce travels to India to join an expedition with his brother, Kits. The elite team of five will climb Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain and one of mountaineering’s biggest killers. No one has scaled it before, and they are, quite literally, following in the footsteps of one of the most famous mountain disasters of all time – the 1907 Lyell Expedition.

Five men lost their lives back then, overcome by the atrocious weather, misfortune and ‘mountain sickness’ at such high altitudes. Lyell became a classic British hero when he published his memoir, Bloody, But Unbowed, which regaled his heroism in the face of extreme odds. It is this book that will guide this new group to get to the very top.

As the team prepare for the epic climb, Pearce’s unease about the expedition deepens. The only other survivor of the 1907 expedition, Charles Tennant, warns him off. He hints of dark things ahead and tells Pearce that, while five men lost their lives on the mountain, only four were laid to rest…

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon.

* * * * *

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

The Skeleton Road by Val McDermid

the skeleton roadA welcome return to form…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

When a long-dead body is found on the roof of a derelict Edinburgh school, the case is handed to Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie of the Historic Cases Unit. Calling on her friend and colleague, forensic anthropologist Dr River Wilde, for help in identifying the body, Karen soon finds that the victim is of Eastern European origin. So begins a case that is as much about the history of the Serbo-Croatian war of the 1990s as it is about a murder investigation.

When Val McDermid is on form she’s one of the best of the current crime writers, and I’m pleased to say that she’s on form in this one. Personally I’m glad to see her getting away from the Tony Hill series, which in my opinion has gone on too long and has lost its way over the last few books. (In fact, I haven’t even been able to bring myself to read the last couple.) And, unlike her last foray into standalone thriller territory with the truly bad The Vanishing Point, this one is a return to her strengths as a police procedural with an intriguing and believable plot. Although much of the action takes place in Oxford and Croatia, Karen Pirie is based in Scotland and I enjoyed seeing McDermid return to her roots (which she also did very successfully recently in her take on Austen’s Northanger Abbey.) Karen is a likeable detective – neither drunken nor angst-ridden, she is in a stable supportive relationship with a man she loves, and seems to get on well with her colleagues, all of which is nicely refreshing.

The new Scottish Crime Campus - McDermid tells us it's in the shape of a human chromosome and the barcode effect is meant to represent DNA. Hmm!
The new Scottish Crime Campus – McDermid tells us it’s in the shape of a human chromosome and the barcode effect is meant to represent DNA. Hmm!

As the investigation advances, Karen contacts an Oxford University professor, Maggie Blake, who was involved in a scheme to bring ‘underground universities’ to Croatia just before the war began. While there, Maggie had fallen in love with a Croatian army officer, so stayed on once the war began. Karen hopes she will be able to shed some light on the country at that time, and perhaps more specifically on why the Edinburgh victim may have been murdered. The book is told mainly in the third-person past-tense from Karen’s viewpoint, but there are sections between the chapters where Maggie tells the story of her time in Croatia and her return to Oxford after the war. There is another strand which links through the book of two detectives from the International War Crimes Tribunal, who are investigating a string of murders of suspected war criminals. Oddly, it’s these characters who provide a bit of much-needed humour to lift the book, despite their task – they are an ill-matched couple, fighting to keep their jobs, and their rather bumbling interactions with each other and Karen stop the book from becoming too oppressively dark.

Val McDermid
Val McDermid

But the main story is very dark indeed, as we are told of some of the atrocities that happened during that period. McDermid has clearly done her research thoroughly and, although obviously the events in the book are mainly fictional, they have a horrific ring of truth about them. While we’re mainly seeing the story from the Croatian viewpoint, McDermid briefly gives the Serbian side of the story too and, while she doesn’t attempt to justify, she makes sure the reader is aware of how complex the situation was – not quite as black and white as it is sometimes portrayed. Living through this period as I did, I must say I’m much clearer about what went on after reading this book than I ever was at the time.

The book isn’t without its flaws, the main one being that there is too small a cast of suspects and it’s therefore pretty easy to spot the solution fairly early on. This seems to be becoming a frequent problem in current crime-writing – the authors seem to be so concerned with cramming in a great deal of research sometimes at the expense of creating a complex mystery. However, taking the book as a whole, the quality of the writing and the depth of the story more than compensate for the weaknesses, and overall I found this an absorbing and satisfying read.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 37…

Episode 37

 

There seems to be a growing gap between the number of books going on to the TBR and the number coming off at the moment. The terrifying total is currently…117! But on this occasion I’m not going to blame my fellow bloggers. The villains this week are:

The Booker committee who this week announced the shortlist.

NetGalley who promptly provided me with copies of three of the Booker shortlist (see how they gang up on me?).

America – whose selfish insistence on having a different time-zone from us Scots meant that I was up till dawn several nights watching the US Open Tennis – not conducive to reading, I assure you (though very conducive to mid-afternoon napping).

Rafa wasn't playing...
Rafa wasn’t playing…

Politicians – of all persuasions, plus polling organisations, TV commentators etc., who have all kept me glued to the Scotland debate for weeks now. I’m wondering if it’s too late to emigrate…

So, here’s a few of the ones that I’ll be reading…sometime…

Crime

 

the skeleton roadCourtesy of NetGalley. About 80% of the time, I love Val McDermid…and then there’s the other 20%. Here’s hoping for this one…

The Blurb saysWhen a skeleton is discovered hidden at the top of a crumbling, gothic building in Edinburgh, Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie is faced with the unenviable task of identifying the bones. As Karen’s investigation gathers momentum, she is drawn deeper into a world of intrigue and betrayal, spanning the dark days of the Balkan Wars.

Karen’s search for answers brings her to a small village in Croatia, a place scarred by fear, where people have endured unspeakable acts of violence. Meanwhile, someone is taking the law into their own hands in the name of justice and revenge, but when present resentment collides with secrets of the past, the truth is more shocking than anyone could have imagined…”

 * * * * *

 

the monogram murdersA brand new Poirot mystery, from the pen of Sophie Hannah. As a huge Christie fan I’m apprehensive, but couldn’t resist. I’m about a quarter of the way through it and so far…well, I haven’t decided yet…

The Blurb saysHercule Poirot’s quiet supper in a London coffeehouse is interrupted when a young woman confides to him that she is about to be murdered.  She is terrified – but begs Poirot not to find and punish her killer. Once she is dead, she insists, justice will have been done.

Later that night, Poirot learns that three guests at a fashionable London Hotel have been murdered, and a cufflink has been placed in each one’s mouth. Could there be a connection with the frightened woman? While Poirot struggles to put together the bizarre pieces of the puzzle, the murderer prepares another hotel bedroom for a fourth victim…”

* * * * *

Fiction

 

the lives of otherThe first of this year’s Booker shortlist and the one that most appeals to me. The size of a brick, of course! Thanks to NetGalley. Sounds like it might be the book last year’s contender The Lowland should have been…but wasn’t.

The Blurb saysCalcutta, 1967. Unnoticed by his family, Supratik has become dangerously involved in extremist political activism. Compelled by an idealistic desire to change his life and the world around him, all he leaves behind before disappearing is this note …

The ageing patriarch and matriarch of his family, the Ghoshes, preside over their large household, unaware that beneath the barely ruffled surface of their lives the sands are shifting. More than poisonous rivalries among sisters-in-law, destructive secrets, and the implosion of the family business, this is a family unravelling as the society around it fractures. For this is a moment of turbulence, of inevitable and unstoppable change: the chasm between the generations, and between those who have and those who have not, has never been wider.”

* * * * *

Factual

 

scottish history for dummies(Don’t you dare laugh!) My dear friends at Amazon Vine supposedly target the things they offer us for review. So I find it somewhat unflattering that barely a month goes by without them offering me a …For Dummies book. I’ve been offered everything from Basic Maths For Dummies to Ukelele For Dummies. Finally, they found one that I couldn’t resist. Scotland from the Stone Age to today in 300 pages – hmm! I wish they’d offer me chocolate sometimes…

From its turbulent past to the present day, this informative guide sheds a new and timely light on the story of Scotland and its people. Dig into a wealth of fascinating facts on the Stone, Bronze and Iron ages. Get to know how Scotland was built into an industrial economy by inventors, explorers and missionaries. Discover the impact of the world wars on Scotland and how the country has responded to challenges created by them. Find up-to-the-minute information on Scotland’s referendum on independence.” (Oops! I guess that means it’ll be out of date by next Thursday then…)

 * * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

* * * * *

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

 

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

Almost totes amazeballs!

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

northanger abbey mcdermidThis may be the most disappointing thing I will read this year. After the abomination that was Joanna Trollope’s version of Sense and Sensibility, I was confident – oh, so confident – about the inevitable direness of Val McDermid’s entry for the Austen Project –  Northanger Abbey. There I was – poison pen at the ready, sarcasm ready to drip like venom, scalpel sharpened to rip the very heart out of it – and dang me if it doesn’t turn out the book’s not too bad at all! In fact – and you’ll never know how much it hurts me to say this – it’s actually quite good fun.

To be fair, McDermid’s task was always going to be easier than Trollope’s. While Austen’s Sense & Sensibility is a serious book which casts a penetrating light on aspects of the society of her time that no longer exist in ours, Northanger Abbey is a much lighter concoction that deals with the eternal subjects of true and false love, and obsession with literary trends. So, while I remain unconvinced of the need or merit of updating Austen at all, this is probably the one that lends itself most easily to updating.

After an hour of being whirled and birled, of Gay Gordons and Dashing White Sergeants, of pas de bahs and dos a dos, they broke for refreshments. Cat was uncomfortably aware that she was sweating like an ill-conditioned pony and that Henry seemed positively cool by comparison.

Edinburgh Book Festival - in sunshine!
Edinburgh Book Festival – in sunshine!

Our heroine Cat Morland is fairly inexperienced in the ways of the world, having been home-schooled by her mother in a Devon rectory. So when her well-off arty neighbours Andrew and Susie Allen invite her to come with them to the Edinburgh Festival, Cat is thrilled. And, as in the original, she’s even more thrilled when she is befriended by Bella Thorpe, never thinking that Bella may see her only as a way to get closer to Cat’s brother James. When tickets arrive for a Ball, Susie sends Cat off to get lessons in Scottish country dancing, where she meets the handsome, charming, mysterious and slightly exotic Henry Tilney, who also happens to be a superb dancer (slight pause while we all swoon, girls). All it would take for Henry to be perfect would be if he happened to live in a Gothic Abbey in the Borders and had some mysterious secret in his family…and what a coincidence! He does! And soon Cat is invited for a visit to Northanger Abbey, where she can indulge her romantic imagination to the full…

Before she could open the book, there was a clap of thunder so loud and so close that Cat cried out in terror. The room was abruptly plunged into darkness and a second deafening thunderclap vibrated through the air. Cat curled into a ball and moaned softly. What terrible powers had her discovery unleashed?

Sir Walter Scott's Abbotsford House seems like a good likeness for Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey
Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford House seems like a good likeness for Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey

McDermid has stuck pretty closely to the original story but has made some changes to the characters and plot to make it fit better in a modern world. Cat isn’t quite as hero-worshipping as Catherine from the original – she’s very taken with Henry and ready to learn from him but she’s got plenty of character of her own. McDermid has solved the problem of modern technology by siting the Abbey in a reception blackspot, and has used the current obsession for vampire novels very amusingly as a replacement for the ‘horrid novels’ of the original. (I hoped they might be real books – Poltergeist Plague of Pabbay, Vampires on Vatersay – but alas! It appears not.) McDermid is a Scottish author, of course, so gives an authentic and wryly humorous flavour of the hugely popular Edinburgh Festival, often as noted for the peculiarity of some of the productions as for their quality. Naturally Cat is mainly interested in the Book Festival and I doubt there is anyone better qualified to write about that event than Val McDermid.

Cat had convinced herself that in spite of Henry Tilney’s failure to appear at the Book Festival grounds, he would surely attend the dramatic adaptation of last year’s best-selling novel about love, zombies and patisserie, Cupcakes to Die For. Had they not touched on the subject of the fluency of women’s writing at Mrs Alexander’s dance class? Was this not the most sought-after ticket of the Fringe? And was not the Botanic Gardens the coolest of venues?

Royal Botanical Gardens dressed up for the Festival
Royal Botanical Gardens dressed up for the Festival

The book isn’t perfect and there are a few things that grated a bit. John Thorpe, a money-grasping buffoon in the original, appears to have turned into some kind of anti-Semitic fascist in this one, which seemed a little odd. The updating of the language has replaced Austen’s deliciously light wit with a heavy blunt instrument in too many places. And the big reveal at the end, as to why Henry’s father should suddenly have changed towards Cat, is the main disappointment of the book – McDermid’s choice of reason was sadly very typical of her and not at all within the spirit of the book, I felt – old or new version.

Val McDermid
Val McDermid

However, overall I have to admit that I enjoyed this quite a lot and, while it will never compete with the original for any true Austen fan, it is a light, fun read with enough of an edge to avoid being just throwaway chick-lit. So this grumpy and disappointed reviewer is left with nothing to do but congratulate Val McDermid on achieving the impossible – making me give a positive review to one of these hideous Austen Project books. I shall now go off into a dark corner and pout.

PS Do trendy young things really say things are ‘Totes amazeballs’? Both Trollope and McDermid seem to think so. It’s rare for me to be glad I’m no longer groovy…

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 18…

Episode 18

 

A massive leap up to 105 for the TBR this week. So much for all my good intentions! The problem is some books are just irresistible…

Courtesy of NetGalley:

the quickPraised to the skies by Hilary Mantel and Kate Atkinson apparently – so either it’s brilliant or they share a publisher… 😉

You are about to discover the secrets of The Quick –

But first you must travel to Victorian Yorkshire, and there, on a remote country estate, meet a brother and sister alone in the world and bound by tragedy. In time, you will enter the rooms of London’s mysterious Aegolius Club – a society of some of the richest, most powerful men in fin-de-siecle England. And at some point – we cannot say when – these worlds will collide. It is then, and only then, that a new world emerges, one of romance, adventure and the most delicious of horrors – and the secrets of The Quick are revealed.

*****

that dark remembered dayI loved Tom Vowler’s first book What Lies Within. Can he do it again…?

When Stephen gets a phone call to say his mother isn’t well, he knows he must go to her straight away. But he dreads going back there. He has never been able to understand why his mother chose to stay in the town he grew up in, after everything that happened. One day’s tragic events years before had left no one living there untouched. Stephen’s own dark memories are still poisoning his life, as well as his marriage. Perhaps now is the time to go back and confront the place and the people of his shattered childhood. But will he ever be able to understand the crime that punctured their lives so brutally? How can a community move on from such a terrible legacy?

*****

A re-read in preparation:

 

northanger abbeyJane Austen’s most humorous book takes a sly look at Gothic literature…

Decrepit castles, locked rooms, mysterious chests, cryptic notes, and tyrannical fathers give the story an uncanny air, but one with a decidedly satirical twist. The story’s unlikely heroine is Catherine Morland, a remarkably innocent seventeen-year-old woman from a country parsonage. While spending a few weeks in Bath with a family friend, Catherine meets and falls in love with Henry Tilney, who invites her to visit his family estate, Northanger Abbey. Once there, Catherine, a great reader of Gothic thrillers, lets the shadowy atmosphere of the old mansion fill her mind with terrible suspicions. What is the mystery surrounding the death of Henry’s mother? Is the family concealing a terrible secret within the elegant rooms of the Abbey?

*****

Courtesy of Amazon Vine:

 

northanger abbey mcdermidI couldn’t resist! It can’t possibly be worse than Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility…can it…?

Cat Morland is ready to grow up. A homeschooled minister’s daughter in the quaint, sheltered Piddle Valley in Dorset, she loses herself in novels and is sure there is a glamorous adventure awaiting her beyond the valley’s narrow horizon. So imagine her delight when the Allens, neighbors and friends of her parents, invite her to attend the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh as their guest. With a sunny personality, tickets every night and a few key wardrobe additions courtesy of Susie Allen, Cat quickly begins to take Edinburgh by storm and is taken into the bosom of the Thorpe family, particularly by eldest daughter Bella. And then there’s the handsome Henry Tilney, an up-and-coming lawyer whose family home is the beautiful and forbidding Northanger Abbey. Cat is entranced by Henry and his charming sister Eleanor, but she can’t help wondering if everything about them is as perfect as it seems. Or has she just been reading too many novels?

*****

All blurbs are taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

At least I’m sure to enjoy the Austen! Will you be reading any of these?

PS Due to life interfering with my reading time, I will be having a short bloggie break. Apologies in advance if I also don’t get around to visiting your blogs as often as usual for a short while. Back soon!