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The Constant Soldier – William Ryan

416hB6-rgfLTitle – The Constant Soldier

Author – William Ryan

Published – 25 August 2016

Genre – Historical

This a departure from William Ryan’s Stalinist Russia set police procedural series but it shares Ryan’s polished prose and evocative depiction of historical fiction.

The story is set in the last months of the Second World War and German soldier Paul Brandt has been sent back home from the Eastern Front after being seriously injured in a Soviet attack. On returning to his village he finds that the SS have built a rest hut on the outskirts of his village, a luxurious a retreat for those who manage the nearby concentration camp or need to convalesce before returning to the front.

Drawn by a glimpse of someone he thinks is familiar, Brandt takes on the role of Steward at the hut, offering him a brief insight into the lives of the men who make use of the hut or are stationed there. This is a great opportunity to see a whole range of perspectives – from the Commandant who is haunted by the past, the vindictive Scharführer guarding the women prisoners, to the visitors from the camp and of course, the women prisoners themselves.

The main plot is driven by Brandt’s efforts to make amends for a wrong he believes he did and all that he does is to that end. Brandt is wary of sharing his own trepidation and doubts but occasionally he is drawn out to say more than he should, adding an extra layer of tension to the plot. The story has quite a slow pace but this is balanced with action scenes which come from a young Russian woman who is driving a tank which is heading towards Germany. Brandt’s return home also shows the impact that the war has had on his village and the family he left behind, and how his father and sister have fared while has been away. Divisions have opened up and whilst some people have had to go into hiding others are still pursuing victory and are keen to uphold the defence of the Reich to the last.

Ryan effortlessly creates the mood and atmosphere of the last days of the war and makes the book completely absorbing. I’m not sure that I’ve read a book that’s taken this perspective on the war, disillusioned characters who have an inkling of what their future may hold.  It made me pause to consider the people in this situation, forced along with the atrocities they knew were taking place with little chance of making any difference. How did people react when the conclusion of the war (not just this war but any war) became inevitable and they were going to be on the losing side, complicit in what had taken place? It speaks volumes for a novel when it makes you consider the reality of the situation it depicts.

As a departure from the Korolev series this may find Ryan a whole new swathe of fans – if you enjoy books like Atonement and Birdsong this will be right up your street. Beautifully written, thought-provoking and emotionally compelling, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Many  thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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Daisy in Chains – Sharon Bolton

8175tf2T71LTitle – Daisy in Chains

Author – Sharon Bolton

Published – 2 June 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

One of my favourite reads from 2015 was Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton and she is quickly becoming one of my favourite current authors, so I was keen to get my hands on her latest title. I can say straight away that this didn’t disappoint and is certain to be one of my favourite books of 2016.

The premise of the book is that Hamish Wolfe has been convicted of the abduction and murder of a number of young women. He’s good looking and charismatic and while this might have helped him gain the trust of his victims, it also means that he attracts the attention of women who are drawn to men behind bars. These admirers are convinced of his innocence and a small group forms, led by his own mother, to do whatever they can to get him freed.

This is where Maggie Rose comes in – a lawyer who is renowned for her true-crime investigations and her success at getting convictions overturned on appeal, Wolfe’s supporters set out to persuade her to champion his case. Reclusive and enigmatic she is reluctant to become involved – she only takes on cases that she can win.

I don’t like to give ‘spoilers’ in reviews and when I started the book all I knew was the title and the author but I probably can’t do much of a review without saying that Maggie does agree to consider Wolfe’s case. In doing so Maggie also attracts the attention of the local police force who were responsible for Wolfe’s arrest. Her initial dealings are with DS Pete Weston, the man who caught Wolfe, and they strike up an unlikely friendship – because if Maggie takes up Wolfe’s cause she will be trying to prove that Weston did something wrong.

The background to much of the story comes from letters, newspaper articles, reports and documents as well as Maggie’s own writing about how she has influenced other appeals, and some of her thought’s on Wolfe’s case. In fact the case against him does seem to have room for some doubt and as I read I was constantly changing my mind as to whether I thought he was or wasn’t guilty. When Maggie agrees to visit Wolfe in prison another dynamic is added to the story – will she be taken in, will she become one of his admirers?

The story explores some themes (like the women who fall for men behind bars) that I’ve not really come across in other crime fiction before. The ‘miscarriage of justice’ premise is not new but Maggie’s perspective and character certainly are. There is also something unusual and quite topical about the victims of Wolfe’s crimes in that they were all ‘larger’ women. While that links back to a time in Wolfe’s days as a student when he and his friends were involved in some unscrupulous activities, the reports and articles about the deaths reflect some of the issues around prejudice and social media.

The book is filled with a chilling atmosphere that Bolton weaves into the story (including an out of season fairground!!) and there are plenty of changes of pace with a mix of tension and action that kept me turning the pages. I was drawn in by the characters – Wolfe the charming killer, Maggie the petite, eccentric investigator, Weston the dependable and slightly downtrodden policeman. All of them with something at stake.

From the gripping opening to the action-packed climax this is a read that I can’t recommend highly enough. Twisty and devious this is bound to be a top read for lovers of crime fiction and psychological thrillers. It’s also a book that I want to go back and read again just so that I can see how Bolton managed to keep me guessing.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy. You can see another point of view on Kate’s blog at For Winter Nights.

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The Birdwatcher – William Shaw

51c4B126sqLTitle – The Birdwatcher

Author – William Shaw

Published – 19 May 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

William Shaw is a Brighton-based writer who is no stranger to crime fiction, having written a trilogy of books set in the 1960s  featuring ‘Breen and Tozer’. I came across him, however, when he was at Deal Noir talking about his new standalone, The Birdwatcher, and I was intrigued by it. The connection with Deal is that the book is set nearby, on the bleak and desolate coastline at Dungeness. Missing out on a copy at the event I was lucky enough to get approved for a Netgalley (thank you Netgalley Gods!).

The main character is William South – he’s a local Police Sergeant drawn into a murder investigation when a new DS from London, Alexandra Cupidi, needs some local knowledge. We know two things from the start about South – he’s a birdwatcher and, by his own admission, a murderer. He is also a pretty grumpy character. He doesn’t want to be involved in a murder investigation and he takes a pretty critical view of Cupidi. In fact all he wants to do is be left alone to watch the birds and catch up on his paperwork. But the brutally murdered man turns out to be his neighbour and friend, and that means South won’t leave the investigation alone, even when perhaps he should.

South quite quickly becomes involved in the lives of Cupidi and her daughter Zoë, perhaps seeing some similarities between his younger self and Zoë. She was reluctant to move from London and is struggling to settle into her school and it is with her that South shows a more sympathetic side (although still a bit grumpy).

The story switches between the present and South’s childhood in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. He grew up in a time when violence was commonplace and he saw more than his fair share.  As the two storylines unfold South’s past informs on his present. While South isn’t a completely likeable character he is certainly one that I was able to empathise with; his backstory provides some of the explanation for his outlook on life and his choices.

So now to try to explain why I thought this was such a brilliant read. Before I started blogging about books I would never have thought about what specific sub genre of crime fiction I like but I’ve come to realise that it’s the police procedural that I’d put at the top of the list. So one box ticked! While The Birdwatcher isn’t heavy on the detail of the investigation it manages the right mix for me, balancing this with the personal stories of the characters, and these are some well-drawn and credible characters. This is all within the framework of a plausible plot which has some changes in pace and manages to weave around in some unexpected ways. The story is focused on a very narrow location and Shaw uses this to great effect, the whole of the story really reflects the bleak and desolate setting and I was really immersed in the atmosphere Shaw created. When I got off the train at the end of my commute I kept being surprised that I wasn’t arriving on a wind and rainswept coast!

Although the story and themes are quite dark, and there are only a few more lighthearted moments, this was a book and a character that really gripped me.

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Exposure – Helen Dunmore

91qtjDrIqsLTitle – Exposure

Author – Helen Dunmore

Published – January 2016

Genre – Historical fiction

This is one of those situations where I don’t have much to say about this book for a review but that’s because I loved it so much; it’s a simple story beautifully told.

The story is set in 1960s London, a time of Cold War spies and the accompanying sensational headlines. The main characters are husband and wife, Simon and Lily, and Giles – Simon’s colleague and old university friend. All of them have something to hide. When Giles suffers an accident he calls on Simon to help him and sets in train a series of events which affects them all. While this is a story of espionage and has its fair share of tension it’s told in an understated way – focussing on the characters and their domestic lives rather than thrills.

Lily is at the heart of the story and what a marvellous character she is. Shaped by her experience as a child she is strong, reserved, determined and pragmatic. She puts her family first and has an unwavering faith in her husband. I could have read on and on about her!

The title is well chosen, there are multiple levels of potential ‘exposure’ in the story and the fear of it drives the plot. A change of pace from conventional spy thrillers this was a real treat to read.

I read this as a Net Galley.

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Dead Pretty – David Mark

Dead PrettyTitle – Dead Pretty

Author – David Mark

Published – 28 January 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

I’ve been enjoying Mark’s Aector McAvoy series, and I made sure to get a review copy (well Netgalley) of this fifth outing for McAvoy.

The story centres around a missing girl and some slightly bizarre behaviour concerning body hair and specifically armpits! McAvoy becomes too personally involved in the hunt for the missing girl (taking his young family picnicking close to where she was last seen) which, as we’ve come to expect to from Mark, has consequences for the detective.

There are always multiple threads in this series of books and in Dead Pretty the spotlight shines on McAvoy’s boss Trish Pharaoh who is in trouble on a number of fronts. There is the matter of some ‘muscle’ sent to collect on a long-outstanding debt and a man Pharaoh had arrested for murder has been released on appeal due to the failings of her own team. While she is dealing with her own battles, McAvoy is leading the search to find a missing young woman and the violent killer of a second.

The constant here is McAvoy, the gentle giant and family man, he is the heart of this series.  However it feels to me as if Mark has gone above and beyond what you expect in a detective series in the way he has developed the other characters. There is a small cast who make a regular appearance but each book shifts the emphasis, drawing more detail out in turn and filling in the backstories. In this case it’s Pharaoh who we learn more about and see behind her tough exterior, including some revelations about her feelings towards her DS.

Mark blends a gritty police procedural with a cast of strong characters and some lyrical prose. The result is a series that seems to get better and better. I notice that in my review for Sorrow Bound I was debating over the number of stars and I’ve gone for 5 here. In fairness to other books & authors this as much about the way the series has developed as this title on its own. If you enjoy police procedurals this is a series you mustn’t miss.

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The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

91hZMZoX53LTitle – The Miniaturist

Author – Jessie Burton

Published – 2014

Genre – Historical fiction

I was lucky enough to be invited to the launch of The Miniaturist but having a signed hardback that wouldn’t benefit from being crammed in my bag for my commute means that I left it a long time until picking it up to read. Although with its setting between October 1636 and the following January, reading it in dark and gloomy December felt appropriate.

As someone recently pointed out – when a book becomes so ubiquitous as this one, or an author as well known as Stephen King or John Connolly, what value is there in a blog post / review. So this isn’t really a review – the book won amongst others the Specsavers National Book Award 2014, Waterstones Book of the Year 2014 and Jessie won Books are my Bag New Writer of the Year – what can I possibly add!

What I can do is say something about what to expect from the book – even having heard Jessie read from the opening I still wasn’t sure what it would be about.

Told in the present tense it’s the story of Nella, eighteen years old and arriving at her new home in Amsterdam, to live with the man she recently married. She’s an inexperienced country girl thrown into the heart of Amsterdam and the new husband she expected to greet her isn’t even at home. From this inauspicious start Nella has to learn to live in this strange household – with her sea-faring husband, his brusque sister and their two servants. Although maintaining his distance from her, Nella receives a gift of a miniature house, a replica of their own home, from her husband and in turn that leads her to find the Miniaturist who can help to furnish it. It is this Miniaturist who by turn baffles and inspires Nella – something between a spy, a prophet and a guide. In a house full of secrets and cut off from her family Nella needs all the help she can get.

A beautifully written book that immerses the reader in 17th century Amsterdam this was an absorbing, atmospheric and moving read.

Life or Death – Michael Robotham

41VFuCadhWLTitle – Life or Death

Author – Michael Robotham

Published – 2015 (paperback)

Genre –  Thriller

Why is it easy to ramble on about books that you’re not so taken with but when it comes to one you love it’s really hard to articulate the reasons? Or perhaps it’s just me… So this has probably tipped you off that I really enjoyed Life or Death and that I probably won’t be able to get across what it was that made it such a great read.

The premise of the book is a simple but intriguing one, although at first glance it would be tempting to think it’s one that, after a bit of explanation, would be come a run of the mill thriller. The day before he is due to be released after a decade in prison Audie Palmer escapes.

The book opens with Audie making his escape and keeps up the pace as it switches between a number of points of view. He has always been something of an enigma to his fellow inmates, although he has drawn considerable attention as his sentence was related to a heist on an armoured truck carrying $7 million which are still missing. Investigations at the prison focus on Moss, the guy who’s been in the next cell to Audie and the closest thing he has to a friend. But Audie has kept his plans to himself and no-one can shed any light on the reasons for his escape or what he might intend doing on the outside. The points of view include Moss – who becomes more involved in the hunt for Audie than he could have anticipated, and Special Agent Desiree Furness, a diminutive FBI agent, but the story is very much Audie’s. In crime fiction I prefer a single point of view but thrillers work much better when you can follow the hunt as well as the hunted!

As Audie is tracked down by a number of different people his backstory comes out and Robotham is skilful in keeping the reasons for the jailbreak and the story behind the heist under wraps until a pretty long way into the book – which makes it even more of a page turner! The writing has a very visual quality and brings the action vividly alive. There’s also an attention to detail which made me think of the series by David Mark that I so enjoy.

Audie is a great central character, in some ways not a typical criminal or the usual hero for a thriller. He’s been unlucky but has maintained his dignity. The other characters are equally well drawn, especially the FBI Agent (I would have liked to have seen more of her) but Audie is the heart of the story in more ways than one. Although I figured out some aspects of the plot sooner rather than later, there were plenty of aspects that surprised me and plenty of thrills, but it’s a thriller with lots of heart.

You can see another point of view on Fair Dinkum Crime. Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy of the book.

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