Review: K T Medina – White Crocodile

White-Crocodile-cover1For a debut novel to stand out, it has to offer something special to the reader. I’ve read few crime books set in Cambodia and it’s not a country that has ever tempted me to visit. However, in the tradition of the best reading, I was completely pulled into the world created by K T Medina. White Crocodile is a story of violence and revenge against the backdrop of mine clearance in a country still recovering from conflict.

The white crocodile of the title refers to the symbol of fear and death according to a Cambodian myth. Its legend is evoked by locals in response to a series of fatalities in an area which is being cleared of mines by a humanitarian charity. Tess Hardy has taken a job with the organisation in order to investigate the death of her ex-husband, Luke. Although her marriage was characterised by violence, in her last conversation with her ex she could hear fear in his voice. When she arrives in Cambodia, she discovers that teenage mothers are disappearing from local villages and are later found mutilated and killed.

White Crocodile has a compelling narrative that grabs you right from the start of the book. At the outset there is a suspicious explosion that maims one of the other mine clearers and it’s not clear if Johnny is a victim or implicated in the conspiracy that surrounds all the killings. As the plot develops, Tess’s personal history, the killing of the outcast women and a murder investigation in Manchester are interweaved into a compelling narrative.

Medina cleverly makes sure that Tess Hardy is on equal footing with the other protagonists. She is a mine clearer in her own right and saves the life of Johnny using a mix of bravery and knowledge of  land mines. This means that in a setting of vulnerable women, despite Tess’s abusive past, she seems an intrepid and determined seeker of truth.

White Crocodile is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Thanks to Faber for my review copy.

Review: Sarah Hilary – Someone Else’s Skin

imageThe misery of domestic violence has occasionally been depicted in crime fiction but it’s a subject that’s difficult to read about. There’s enough violence, intimidation and hatred in the situation that victims find themselves in without adding a murder investigation into the mix. But Sarah Hilary has done very well to do just that; set a killing in a home for victims of domestic violence without it seeming gratuitous or exploitative.

Detective Inspector Marnie Rome is in charge of an investigation to discover why a man has been wounded in a women’s refuge. Although it initially looks like a case of lackadaisical security in a place for those looking to escape violence in the home, Marnie soon discovers more complex relationships exploiting the stresses of vulnerable people.

This is a difficult book to review as to go into the plot in any depth would give away too many spoilers. There are a number of twists and turns, one of which I saw coming, which in no way spoilt my enjoyment of the book. There narrative is multi-layered and, like the best crime novels, the lines between victim and villain are often unclear.

This is a debut novel for Sarah Hilary and the first in a series featuring Marnie Rome. She has managed to give us something new with her detective inspector. Marnie has her own secrets which she partially gives up towards the end of the novel. I suspect there are more to come.

Thanks to Headline for my review copy.

Review: Paul Doiron – The Poacher’s Son

Every now and then I pick up a book that I have absolutely no expectations of whatsoever. I’ve not read any reviews, never heardThe Poacher's Son of the writer nor the book, and I’m reading it solely because of the novel’s premise. Of course this can be a mixed blessing as reading is such a subjective experience. However you can come across some gems this way and my latest find was The Poacher’s Son by Paul Doiron, a writer who I will be reading more of in the future.

Mike Bowditch is a game warden in Maine who returns home one evening to find a rambling message on his answer machine from his estranged father. Hard-drinking and violent, Jack Bowditch left Mike’s mother when he was small and despite a couple of attempts  by Mike to bond with his father, he now keeps a distance from the man who makes a living from illegal game poaching. However, when he discovers that Jack is on the run from the police, accused of shooting a local cop, Mike is torn between his instinctive loyalty to his father and the demands of his job. When it becomes clear that Jack is being set-up, Mike gambles his career and his life to discover the true versions of events.

I think this is the first book I’ve read set in Maine, a US state that I know little about and whose location I had to look up. However the setting was a major attraction of the book and like the novels of CJ Box and Nevada Barr, we see the landscape through the eyes of a professional worker. However, Mike Bowditch has an off-hand attitude towards his employment and his loyalty is stretched even further when familial ties prove strong. The book gave a persuasive portrayal of the complexity of relationships and how superficial alliances can hide deeper attachments.  All the characters were well drawn particularly Mike’s mother who has escaped from her trailer park upbringing and and is enjoying suburban life with her lawyer second-husband.

For a first novel, it was paced very well and with a genuine surprise towards the conclusion. It was also well written with an engaging narrative voice. A very accomplished début by Paul Doiron who I can see  has gone on to write two further books. Hopefully these we will see these published in the UK in the near future.

I received my copy of this book from the publisher, Constable and Robinson. Other reviews can be found at Raven Crime Reads and The Lighthearted Librarian. The author’s website is here.

Review: Tanya Byrne – Heart Shaped Bruise

I’ve noticed recently the growing popularity of crime books aimed at young adults but read by a wide variety of ages. I don’t set out to read YA fiction, mainly as I prefer books written for an adult audience but very occasionally I read a book that clearly crosses the genre and explores issues that have a universal appeal.

Heart Shaped Bruise by debut author Tanya Byrne  is written in the form of a notebook that is found on top of a wardrobe when Archway Young Offenders Institution is closed. It tells the story of Emily Knoll, who is infamous inside the institution and beyond its walls for the heinous crime she committed. Much of the book records the interactions that take place in sessions with Doctor Gilyard, her psychiatrist. We learn that Emily assumed a false identity to befriend a girl whose actions caused Emily’s father to end up in prison and that she is now awaiting trial. The book moves at a swift pace towards the book’s climax and leaves the reader with some interesting questions.

Heart Shaped Bruise was an enjoyable read full of compelling characters. The narrative of Emily, and her alter ego Rose, dominates the book and although we perhaps don’t get that much insight into why she is as she is, we are drawn into her desire for vengeance against Juliet. The relationship between Juliet and her boyfriend Sid is perhaps where we see why the book has been targeted to a young adult audience. Exams, parties, pressures of nurturing friendships and relationships are explored alongside the jealousies that can build up in a stressful environment. The narrative moves well between the past and present, highlighting Emily’s freedoms before her crime and the restrictions of her present incarceration.

The ending was satisfactorily oblique and my only gripe would be with a couple of blurbs comments which suggested a ‘twist’ in the ending which, to my mind at least, wasn’t there. Judging by the Q & A section with the author at the end of the book it seems that Byrne’s next novel is firmly aimed at a young adult audience so it may well be the only book that I read by this writer. But it was an enjoyable, easy read on a subject that will appeal to all ages.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Tom Grieves – Sleepwalkers

Sometimes it’s useful to be reminded why I started reading crime fiction in the first place. Over the years, as I’ve read more books and discovered new writers and sub-genres, I’ve come to appreciate the subtleties of crime novels. Characterisation and location play an important role in what I choose to read, as does plot which I’ve noticed has become more and more complex, away from the traditional whodunnits of the classic crime era. However, what I once loved about crime novels when I started reading them as a teenager, was their sheer readability. I used to pick up a book and read it all the way through and look up and a couple of hours had gone by. Now that is no longer possible with the demands of home and work, and also, I thought, because books have increased in length so significantly. However, last week I read three books in a row that had that ‘unputdownable’ factor and one book, in particular, I read straight through (with a couple of tea stops). This was Tom Grieves excellent début novel Sleepwalkers.

Ben is an ordinary family man who keep experiencing violent dreams and has unexplained gaps in his childhood and more recent memories. His wife, Carrie, is supportive and reassuring but he is plagued by the conviction that something is wrong in his psyche. As his paranoia increases he is forced to confront the veracity of his own identity. Toby is a schoolboy also experiencing violent dreams and missing pieces of his memory. His parents repeatedly change his school rather than confront his problems. However in his latest school, his teacher, Anna, decides to take an interest in his case and the complicated lives of Ben and Toby suddenly converge.

The book starts out in traditional thriller mode, with a strong sense of the sinister and the dream and memory elements of Ben and Toby possibly having a supernatural cause. Happily (without giving too much of the plot away) this doesn’t turn out to be the case and the book explores instead the idea of a society within a society where a mixture of Orwellian forces and medical advances make it possible for a smoke and mirrors deception on a grand scale. It’s a very difficult book to review in detail without giving essentials of the plot away. However, I can say that although I’m not up on scientific processes I thought the whole concept fascinating and compelling.

The book is predicated on the idea that no-one is really who they seem. The writing and narrative style reminded me of the books of Michael Marshall (Smith) and I think this novel would appeal to his fans. Grieves, according to his biography, has worked in television as a script editor and producer and this novel started out as a script for TV that he couldn’t sell. A quick scan through Goodreads and Amazon reviews reveal that many people, as I did, picked up the book and couldn’t put it down which gives an idea of the compelling nature of the story. I hope that  this will be the start of a successful novel writing career for Grieves.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher, Quercus. The book has also been reviewed at Bookbag and Book Geeks.

Review: Elizabeth Haynes – Into the Darkest Corner

There has been plenty of news coverage in recent years of that most modern of phenomena – stalking. It is a crime that is often (but not always) perpetrated by men against women and occasionally it results in violence and death. It’s not a theme that I’ve particularly noticed in my crime fiction reading. I tend to avoid psychological thrillers and I also find the whole idea of obsession to be very upsetting. However I recently read Elizabeth Haynes’s excellent Into the Darkest Corner which I found to be a thoughtful and gripping thriller.

The book opens with the notes of a court case taking place in May 2005 and the interrogation of a Lee Brightman by the prosecuting counsel. Lee has clearly been stalking a woman called Catherine Bailey, and the questioning implies that Lee is either a policeman or a man in a position of authority. The book then alternates between the events of 2003/4 when Catherine meets and enters a relationship with Lee, and the present day where Cathy is attempting to rebuild her life. She clearly fears for her safety and has developed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which causes her to check and re-check her flat every morning and evening. She meets a tenant in the flat upstairs, Stuart, who urges her to see a doctor friend of his and relationship between Stuart and Cathy slowly develops. However, the past and present are about to meet…

The  most successful aspect of this book was how some of the clichés of the psychological thriller genre were slightly skewed. Lee is revealed to be a policeman and therefore we as readers, as well as Catherine/Cathy, are forced to reconsider where places of safety can be found. The parallel narratives work well because although Cathy clearly considers herself to be under threat, she is also attempting a new relationship which is developed alongside the unfolding of the older abusive one. Again, as a reader we scrutinise the gentle Stuart more because of the way Lee duped Cathy.

Haynes is also very good at showing how Catherine changed from an outgoing, sexually active young woman to someone desperate to avoid human contact. Some parts are difficult to read. I found Lee repulsive from the very beginning and although I could see how he would be attractive to a girl like Catherine, I was mentally imploring her to stay well away from him. There is also an interesting take on female friendship which  I found to be entirely realistic and added an extra dimension to the book.

The fractured nature of the writing, moving between different periods perfectly suited this style of book and I’m looking forward to reading more of this author.

I bought my copy of this book. Other reviews can be found at Petrona, Eurocrime and It’s A Crime.

Review: SJ Watson – Before I Go to Sleep

If August has been designated my ‘catch-up’ month, then this is a book I really should have read before now. Before I Go to Sleep, the début novel by S J Watson won numerous plaudits when it was published last year, including the 2011 CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger, and became a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller. Perhaps inevitably for a book that was so hyped it also failed to impress some reviewers and a quick glance at the Goodreads site shows a bewildering mix of one to five star reviews. So after being lent a copy by a friend, it was with some trepidation that I opened the book.

The story is fairly well known, but in summary the female protagonist, Christine, wakes up every morning and has to begin her life all over again. She suffers from a condition that means every time she goes to sleep she forgets the last twenty years or so. She is unaware that she has had an accident, that she is married to a man called Ben or has had a son who was killed in Afghanistan. The book is narrated through Christine’s eyes so we as readers see her dislocation every morning when she wakes up and has to rediscover her life afresh.

However Christine discovers that she has been seeing a doctor who has encouraged her to keep a notebook of her daily life. By picking up this notebook every morning, at first because of reminders from Doctor Nash and then through instinct or a gradual recovery of her memory, Christine discovers that  Ben has deliberately been withholding information about her life. As Christine tries to piece her life together, Ben suggests they go away for the week-end….

The greatest strength of this book was its ability to draw you into Christine’s story. It’s a great idea, a plot where the potential victim has to rediscover the menaces in her life every day. I think in relation to Christine’s illness you really do have to suspend your disbelief. I find it difficult to believe that someone who has had that level of care over the past twenty years is suddenly released into her home life without any involvement of the social services and that her husband Ben has found it so easy to repel doctors from contacting Christine.

I found it a page turner up to the point where Christine goes away with her husband and the writer is very good at keeping enough suspense to make you want to continue reading. Perhaps inevitably the denouement was slightly disappointing and again required you to suspend reality. But overall I thought it a good idea, and for a début book well executed.

The book has been reviewed by scores of publications including The Guardian and The Independent. Blogger’s reviews include Eurocrime, Mysteries in Paradise, Petrona and Crimesquad.