Friday, 14 May 2021

The Trawlerman - William Shaw


I will admit to being a recent convert to William Shaw’s books. My first was a Breen and Tozer story and on the strength of that the lovely Ana McLaughlin at riverrun books gifted me a copy of not just The TrawlerMan but Grave’s End too! I’ve just finished the former and subsequently ordered the rest of the Alexandra Cupidi series.

So, when there are so many good crime writers out there what is it about this author that has had me impatiently adding to my overloaded TBR shelves? Sit back, settle down and I’ll tell you.

A sense of place for one. The depiction of London in the sixties in A Song From Dead Lips was palpable and I’m old enough to remember it! The bleak, the unique properties of Dungeness sent me hurtling back to my childhood for I will never forget driving across the shingle, seeing those incredible huts and houses and the feeling that I’d entered another civilisation and wishing I could live there. I remain fascinated by the place so to see it as a location for The Trawlerman was exciting and urged me to read on from the opening pages. Mentions of Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch, all places from childhood, simply evoked, not just a flood of memories but emotion too.

Complex, yet plausible plotting with a satisfying attention to detail. Pieces of a jigsaw; where you manage to get all the edge bits first and then start working on the inner part of the puzzle searching for those elusive pieces so it all makes sense. Clever, precise. As a reader you admire the connections. It isn’t necessarily a book of twists and turns, it’s far more a cerebral, rational and logical dissection of a chain of interlinked events.

Character driven; the heart of this book is Alex. One of the reasons I’m so anxious to read the previous books is to find out what exactly she’s been through to render her in the extreme state of stress she suffers in The Trawlerman. Flawed yet human. But she’s so bright and perceptive, an intuitive police officer, vocational, weighing up the right and wrongs. Using that sixth sense to try and put her finger on what isn’t quite right about a person or a situation. As a reader you start to trust her instincts rather than trust your own.

An easy to read narrative. That always seems like a paradox to me when you’re grappling with a complex plot. But I read this book in one day. That’s partly because it belongs to that exciting genre of fiction that I call ‘The UnPutDownAbles’ and also because the writing is so crisp and assured. It flows along like a fast flowing river carrying the reader with it.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have another William Shaw book I want to read before the others arrive through my letterbox.

Thursday, 13 May 2021

The Perfect Lie - Jo Spain


A new Jo Spain book is always a treat. She is sublime mistress of the plot twist so the anticipation is high and that can be a dangerous thing if there is a failure to deliver. Fortunately Ms. Spain DOES deliver. And how.

Five years ago, Erin Kennedy moved to New York following a family tragedy. She now lives happily with her detective husband in the scenic seaside town of Newport, Long Island. When Erin answers the door to Danny's police colleagues one morning, it's the start of an ordinary day. But behind her, Danny walks to the window of their fourth-floor apartment and jumps to his death.

Eighteen months later, Erin is in court, charged with her husband's murder. Over that year and a half, Erin has learned things about Danny she could never have imagined. She thought he was perfect. She thought their life was perfect.

Geographically a departure from her previous books there is also a sense of departure from the tried and tested crime/thriller formula of offering a tantalising prologue that may or may not be littered with dead bodies or the confessions of flawed psychopaths. Here we begin with a happy, loving couple but before you’re barely ten pages in one of them is no more. And the other is in prison charged with murder! No mucking about then?!

I always like to call Jo’s books ‘onion’ books. Layer after layer is peeled off as the truths emerge. It’s almost a ménage à trois between reader, writer and plot! I often have the sense, as a reader, of being skilfully manipulated to arrive at certain conclusions only to be thwarted by a plot twist that can have you chuckling at the audacity and berating yourself for not seeing it. It was happening here a lot. Now there were things that I successfully figured out. Is that because I have developed an affinity with Jo Spain’s style and plotting? Or was it simply because I was allowed to by the writer?!

After the first two ‘bombshells’  the book then concentrates on unpeeling the layers of the past and allowing us to piece the jigsaw together. At times it was like a drip feed, slow and steady, yet the reader frenziedly turns the pages in a desperate sprint to find exactly what has happened. The title gives you a clue. A lie? One lie? Only one? Or is it to be - which one?

Considering their complex plots Jo’s books are easy to read. I think. I’m never quite sure!  Is it because I am just racing through to find the answers?
Her characters are often difficult to fully warm to but I think a reader needs to stay objective. We learn that Erin is flawed by events of the past and I found myself feeling so sorry that she was so far away from home when tragedy strikes. And as we get to know Danny posthumously we realise he has his demons. So although on the surface this is ‘just’ a crime novel there were some deeper considerations of family and distance, truth, friendship, inherited wealth, the perception of women in certain situations, (I’m trying to hard not to give too much away here!) and even the political situation in the USA.

I’ve enjoyed all the Jo Spain books I’ve read so far. This is the fourth. And I’ll  await the next eagerly.

My thanks to New Books Magazine for a gifted proof.

Saturday, 8 May 2021

White Eye of the Needle - Chris Campbell Illustrated by Sandra Evans - Blog Tour

 This is an engaging collection of poems that includes lockdown thoughts in amongst  - non-lockdown thoughts! I found it interesting because it serves to place the events of this last year into one’s life space as if it were something expected, almost, not some unique and unprecedented event that threw us all off balance! Somehow putting it into words achieves a precarious balance, cerebrally,  and so you read of holidays in Italy, city farms, skiing and honeymoons alongside poems that speak of self isolation, social distancing and digital connections. 

There’s some insightful observations. I particularly liked;

Middle aged partners, singletons, drink
In one hand, experience in the other-

Time doesn’t slow down to save me,
So why should I speed up to save time

I found the style and structure quite refreshing in these days of convention defiance and obsession with being different and experimental (not that those are necessarily bad things) to see rhyme used almost effortlessly, although I’m sure it was not effortless! I especially enjoyed Synchronised Buskers where the end of one rhyming couplet led thematically into the next. Hit the Slopes is a great example of concrete poetry which I can remember from the olden days, when I was a student, being hailed as innovative and almost risqué in terms of defying poetry convention!

I liked Mr Cat for it mirrored my own observation of flora and fauna evading the impositions of lockdown with an almost blissful unawareness.

No one will disrupt your kingdom, Mr. Cat…..

I loved Illustration which compared ones hunger for books and reading to a meal of several courses.

The cover,
your placemat,
bookmark like cutlery,
an illustration to savour
like dessert’

Illustration? That brings me nicely to the art work in the collection. I’d like to say a word about the delightful illustrations by Sandra Evans. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook such things when you are programmed to focus on the etymology! But these drawing are a perfect complement to the poems. Understated - not attempting to dominate or drive attention away from the poetry. They reminded me a little of those adult colouring books that were all the rage a few years back. I could even picture myself at some in the future colouring in as I re read the poems!

My thanks to Isabelle Kenyon for inviting me to the blog tour and to Chris for a gifted copy of the book with a treasured personal post it note message. 

Thursday, 6 May 2021

Featherweight - Mick Kitson

This was one of those delightful books where I had no preconceived notions nor expectations. The writer was unfamiliar to me but there was something about the book which appealed - what I like to call a ‘je ne sais quoi’ book.

It was an absorbing, easy to read, historical fiction tale of a female pugilist which I understand is based on real characters and events. And, anorak that I am, I did some googling and I now have an adequate knowledge of William Perry, aka Bill Perry, aka The Tipton Slasher. There is a statue of him in Tilston and The Champion of England pub was in West Bromwich, Spon Lane to be exact. But I digress. I am supposed to be writing about the book! But I do believe it is a mark of a good historical fiction that motivates the reader to find out more.

Here’s some blurb.

Annie Perry is born beside the coal-muddied canals of the Black Country, at the height of the industrial revolution. The youngest in a large Romani family who cannot afford to keep her, when she is eight years old Annie is sold as a servant to the famous and feared bare-knuckle boxer Bill Perry, The Tipton Slasher.

Bill is starting to lose his strength, but refuses to give up his crown. When it looks like a fight might become Bill’s last, Annie steps into the ring, fists raised in his defence. From that moment she is determined to train and follow in Bill’s footsteps, to learn to fight for herself. But Annie has been doing this all along.

A whole new world opens up for Annie, one of love, fortune, family and education, but also with danger. One wrong move, one misstep, and her life will be changed for ever.

Featherweight offers the reader an exacting view of Victorian life in the Black Country, where the population seems accepting of their situation for the most part with occasional resistance in the form of the politically motivated Chartist movement and the financially motivated highwaymen movement!! I hope those aren’t spoilers.

You can’t help warming to Annie, her pragmatism and practical intelligence balanced with the loving side of her her nature. You admire, too, the spirit of someone  who seems to understand her situation from a young age and complies without objection. Her ability to manage Bill could be described as her ‘aBILLity’! She dominates the story and carries the reader with her all the way. Her decisions are our decisions.

Despite the harshness of the depicted life there is a warmth that runs through the book. The loyalty of the characters towards one another is somehow refreshing and the sense of community is strong.

The book opens with an enigmatic prologue which I confess I forgot all about as I became so thoroughly immersed in the story ‘proper’. When I reached the Epilogue it was a jolt that had me feverishly turning the pages back to the beginning and smiling at the symmetry of the tale. There is a dual narrative with Annie as narrator in some parts and a straightforward third person story telling in the rest. It works quite well. The historical research is thorough and convincing. The class divide is clear without the need for emphasis or exaggeration. But Annie transcends it all to overcome life obstacles and pitfalls.

My thanks to Canongate Books for a gifted proof. 

Thursday, 29 April 2021

Love in Five Acts - Daniela Krien translated by Jamie Bulloch

 This elegant, beautifully nuanced suite of stories is so cleverly constructed with a lesser character from one story becoming the main character in the next. They almost had a Matryoshka doll feel to them although the stories did not diminish in size in any way. There was a pleasing cohesion to the work as a whole.

Five women, five very different women, inhabit these intersecting stories. Each woman had some kind of connection to the others. Thematically the book seeks to explore what it is to be a woman, examining their roles as daughters, mothers, wives, friends, partners, sisters, colleagues, and states associated with those roles and what remains when and if those roles are fulfilled.

The book is translated from the german by Jamie Bulloch who has done a sterling job. Interestingly, though, the german title ‘Die Liebe im Ernstfall’ translates literally as ‘Love in an Emergency’ which does capture the essence of the womens’ love experiences to a degree. It explores the balance between fulfilling the ‘accepted’ roles of woman hood and becoming or remaining your own person, retaining your individuality which, of course, poses some unenviable challenges.

It’s a very pertinent read with a contemporary feel and opens up many considerations of feminism in our 21st century world. The dynamic of being yourself whilst maintaining your place with family, friends and lovers is treated with a subtle sympathy that renders the stories very poignant.

Although there are five stories  I never saw this as a book of short stories. I saw it as a complete entity of intertwined lives. There are relatable characters, some easier to like than others. I had a sense of the inevitable frequently as I read, almost that there were no satisfactory solutions to the dilemmas faced by the women. The concept of a freedom becomes a nebulous one and suggests that freedom almost become a prison when decisions are required that might threaten that freedom.

It’s a compelling read, evenly paced, palpably described and a book of thought rather than action. A book for our times, without a doubt.  A thoughtful book that seems almost understated which somehow renders it all the more powerful.

My thanks to NB magazine for a gifted copy.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Trap for Cinderella - Sebastien Japrisot translated by Helen Weaver


This is the third Japrisot book I’ve read now, thanks to Gallic books, and I am constantly amazed at how much he managed to convey in relatively slender volumes when compared with books of similar genre. He seems to achieve as much, if not more, the economy of his language gives the reader all they need. If I compare all three books his diversity, too, is to be admired. Yet all three books are firmly stamped with his inimitable style. A style that has not been compromised by the translation work of Helen Weaver.

Trap for Cinderella falls very much into the psychological thriller genre and possibly has more in common with The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun than The Sleeping Car Murders which is more of a straightforward crime story,.I use the term “‘straightforward’ loosely! This book messes with your head! It’s fairly unique I think and elicited in me a strange surreal, edginess as I read. The description of an amnesiac is one of the best I’ve experienced, I think, as you can really begin to feel the mist in the memory and the struggle to piece together what has happened. But the sense that something is off centre pervades the entire narrative contributing to the unease and unravelling of exactly what happened.

The opening - fairy tale like, fable like -  incredulously titled ‘I would Have Murdered’  is crucial to what follows and cements the Cinderella theme firmly in the reader’s mind inviting the traditional concept but the concluding sentence of the book is a masterstroke as you realise the intention was not as traditional as you thought! No character is exactly who they seem.Suspicion and mistrust build up within the reader to a crescendo as the book reaches its conclusion.

Japrisot’s economy of language demands you pay attention, failure to do so will leave you lost and floundering. That’s not to say that your faultless attention will answer all questions, no! There are twists and turns here to give your intellectual cerebellum a major workout. Enigmas and innuendo punctuate the narrative. I’m still not sure I’ve worked it all out! Identity, deceit, questionable motives and intentions, it’s all a tad far fetched on the surface but it never feels that way while you’re reading it!

I enjoyed it immensely. It’s entertaining yet remains intelligently plotted and executed. Thanks, Gallic Books, for my gifted copy.

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

The Final Revival of Opal and Nev - Dawnie Walton

 I believe that this narrative style is called oral history in the literary biz. A debut novel that demonstrates a detailed knowledge of the myriad workings of the rock music industry. And a story that has race relations and civil rights as a theme running through the entire story.

Our two protagonists are an unlikely pairing on paper but the suggestion of a sustained connection is a dynamic that runs through the entire book. It’s almost tantalising as you sometimes feel that neither of them really get off the fence and say how they feel about each other.

But it is Opal who dominates the entire book. And in a sense it is more Opal’s story than Nev’s. Through the very clever technique of listening to what everybody else says about her we are treated to a portrait of this unusual lady. She is larger than life in some ways but not in a brash, pointless way. You get the feeling there is much consideration behind her actions that somehow balances out with a passionate spontaneity. How she looks, how she behaves has thought and depth behind them.  But that’s not to say she doesn’t have her own voice. She does. And she tells it like it is.

The novel spends several decades looking at the genesis of Opal and Nev through to what is their “final revival“. A pivotal event occurs in the early days of their career that has far reaching effects and conclusions on the rest of their lives, let alone their careers. And the narrator is a subtle part,  certainly, of Opal’s history.  It’s a clever technique which gives us a subplot almost, someone else’s life story that has a connection to Opal and Nev and it is this narrator who manages to expose a revelation that changes perception. I’m unwilling to give too much away.

The book comes at a time when it is pertinent and relevant within the context of #BlackLivesMatter but it also examines the place of black women in a creative industry that seems dominated by both money and men. But throughout Opal shines as a woman of passion and dignity, true to herself.

It’s an absorbing read on several levels. You can enjoy it as “just“ a story but you can dig a little deeper and look at some of the issues explored in the book which certainly give you food for thought long after you’ve reached the final full stop.

Stylistically it’s a intelligent and clever book. Character expositions are created purely from a kind of documentary type approach where the characters talk about themselves. And other people talk about the characters! Apart from the narrator. Another subtle move. For you learn about the narrator from the narrator herself. 

It’s an impressive debut novel. As a reader your emotions seesaw, for there are some very moving moments but there’s also some subtle humour. Dawnie Walton is a name to watch. And I shall be watching. My thanks to Quercus books for a gifted proof of the story.