Containment by Vanda Symon

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Reading Vanda Symon has been a little like getting into a hot bath. I tentatively dipped my toe into the water of The Ringmaster, testing the temperature. Gradually I lowered the rest of my body in, taking time to adapt to this new environment. Now, with Containment I have reclined fully, leaning comfortably against the back of the bath, fully immersed into the water and enjoying its embrace.

This is the third in the Sam Shephard series and it feels like the author and character are fully finding their stride. Sam is becoming not only a talented detective but also a wiser operator in a station that still does not fully accept her. She understands where she sits in the hierarchy and her actions are a little more thought through and deliberate. She is maturing into a professional investigator.

In a crime fiction world that is perhaps dominated by Noir, Vanda Symon brings us something that is now refreshingly different. There is a lighter feel to her work, as opposed to the dark, twisted criminal minds that have now become the norm. The characters are relatable and recognisable, as are their everyday motives, and the location is small, local and contained. It is crime entertainment, that doesn’t require you to go into recovery after reading it.

Containment begins with a container ship running aground off the New Zealand coast. Several containers wash up on the beach and the local residents and weekenders of Aramoana seize the opportunity to bag themselves some booty. Thus begins a chain of events that results in a brutal murder and Sam walks a procedural tightrope, sometimes putting a foot down on the wrong side of the rules, to piece together what has happened.

During the recent Orenda Roadshow, Vanda Symon revealed that originally Sam Shephard had been a male character but something just wasn’t working with the writing until she became a woman. It is hard to imagine that first drafting of the character as so much of Sam’s appeal comes from her feminine viewpoint and the shape that gives to both her professional and social relationships. Sam’s voice is central to the books and the nice thing about author events is the opportunity to understand how these key elements develop.

This is another well-paced investigation with an enjoyable blend of appealing, rounded characters and a setting that is becoming engagingly familiar. I like that this series is not only revealing more about Sam Shephard and her immediate circle, but also introducing me to a city half a world away from where I am reading. It takes time to get to know a person and a place and I feel that having read two of Symon’s books now (I still need to get hold of Overkill) I am seeing the rewards of investing in this particular crime series and getting a flavour of a country that has long had a siren call for me.

Synopsis

Chaos reigns in the sleepy village of Aramoana on the New Zealand
coast, when a series of shipping containers wash up on the beach and
looting begins.
Detective Constable Sam Shephard experiences the desperation of the
scavengers first-hand, and ends up in an ambulance, nursing her wounds
and puzzling over an assault that left her assailant for dead.
What appears to be a clear-cut case of a cargo ship running aground
soon takes a more sinister turn when a skull is found in the sand, and the
body of a diver is pulled from the sea … a diver who didn’t die of
drowning…
As first officer at the scene, Sam is handed the case, much to the
displeasure of her superiors, and she must put together an increasingly
confusing series of clues to get to the bottom of a mystery that may still
have more victims…

The Author

Vanda Symon is a crime writer, TV presenter and radio host from
Dunedin, New Zealand, and the chair of the Otago Southland branch of
the New Zealand Society of Authors. The Sam Shephard series has
climbed to number one on the New Zealand bestseller list, and also been
shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for best crime novel. She currently
lives in Dunedin, with her husband and two sons.

The Blog Tour

Containment was published by Orenda Books on 5th March 2020 and you can catch up on the whole tour using the poster below.

Mexico Street by Simone Buchholz

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There are a flurry of leading female crime fighters at the moment, especially from Orenda Books, all of them with different voices, personalities and settings, all brilliant. Hamburg’s Chastity Riley written by Simone Buchholz may not be the best of them, but she’s in the top one.

This is the third in the Riley series and the writing is even more accomplished. It’s a police procedural in the same vein as Ed McBain but up to date and relevant to a modern Europe. Cars are burning, families are at war and the Hamburg police and their nearest and dearest are struggling on. None of them is capable of saving any of the others but if they all lean into the middle together then they can stay on their feet, just.

The people are one of the great strengths of the books. They don’t hide their faults or their pain, they just try to cope and be whatever they can be to each other, to keep them all going. Along the way they’re surprisingly effective at their jobs. Every day is a battle, pushing through the sleepless nights before, but they make it work. The coffee, the cigarettes, the shoulder to sleep on during an interrogation, the love that still survives amongst those who feel unable to love.

The other big appeal for me is the location that allows me to inhabit St Pauli, an area of Hamburg that fascinates me with its strong identity and values, in a way I likely never will in person. I’m much more the mild mannered janitor than Hong Kong Phooey, but Chas provides the disguise that means I can walk those streets, hang out in their bars and fight crime like I belong.

Ironically a fair portion of Mexico Street actually takes place in Bremen amongst the Mhallami, a tribe used to existing between established worlds and whose tightly knit clans live brutally alongside and in opposition to each other. Cars are burning across Germany but Chas couldn’t care less about burning cars, no one’s asking why the cars burn, no one’s dealing with the real issues so why should she worry about cleaning them up? Until one of the burning cars contains a body and then Riley gets involved.

Inside the car is Nouri Saroukhan, a member of the Saroukhan crime family of Bremen but now exiled from his family. So, what led him from Bremen to Hamburg? Who has decided that now he not only needs to be ex-communicated but dead too? And who is the red head who seems to be watching Riley and her colleagues as they investigate the crime scene?

The action shifts between Hamburg and Bremen as the team brings together old and new faces, old and new hang ups and foibles to both grate and reassure. That’s where a series like this comes into its own, great individual crime stories beautifully told but all tied together by a common strand of Riley, Stepanovic, Faller, Carla, Rocco, Calabretta, Klatsche. Oh and the Turkish Travolta is back in town too.

The writing doesn’t waste a word and the short sharp chapters squeezed into a little over 200 pages make it a quick but also deeply satisfying read. This is a character led series of crime novels that has me waiting on tenterhooks for each new instalment. Mexico Street was published on 5th March 2020 and you really should go get your copy now.

Synopsis

Hamburg state prosecutor Chastity Riley investigates a series of arson attacks on cars across the city, which leads her to a startling and life-threatening discovery involving criminal gangs and a very illicit love story…

Night after night, cars are set alight across the German city of Hamburg, with no obvious pattern, no explanation and no suspect.
Until, one night, on Mexico Street, a ghetto of high-rise blocks in the north of the city, a Fiat is torched. Only this car isn’t empty. The body of Nouri Saroukhan – prodigal son of the Bremen clan – is soon discovered, and the case becomes a homicide.

Public prosecutor Chastity Riley is handed the investigation, which takes her deep into a criminal underground that snakes beneath the whole of Germany. And as details of Nouri’s background, including an illicit relationship with the mysterious Aliza, emerge, it becomes clear that these are not random attacks, and there are more on the cards…

Simone Buchholz

Simone Buchholz was born in Hanau in 1972. At university, she studied Philosophy and Literature, worked as a waitress and a columnist, and trained to be a journalist at the prestigious Henri-Nannen-School in Hamburg. In 2016, Simone Buchholz was awarded the Crime Cologne Award, and second place in the German Crime Fiction Prize, for Blue Night, which was number one on the KrimiZEIT Best of Crime List for months. The next in the Chastity Riley series, Beton Rouge, won the Radio Bremen Crime Fiction Award and Best Economic Crime Novel 2017. She lives in Sankt Pauli, in the heart of Hamburg, with her husband and son.

The blog tour has been running all of this month and continues right through to the end of it, catch up with all the stops using the poster below.

Things I Learned From Falling by Claire Nelson

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Claire Nelson’s memoir is a classic scenario of escaping from a busy life that appears to have lost direction and undertaking a journey of self-discovery in the wilderness, interrupted by a life threatening accident that brings that journey into sharp focus. It is well written and mixes the jeopardy of being stranded in a desert facing a lonely and drawn out death with reflections on the unravelling of an outwardly successful and exciting life. For some reason though I didn’t quite manage to connect to it in the way I had anticipated and I’m not quite sure why.

It is quite an exceptional story after all. Claire spends time house sitting for friends in the Joshua Tree National Park, taking the opportunity to hike in the wild, take a break from the busy London lifestyle of her career in fashion and food writing and connecting with nature. On one of her hikes, she loses her way on the trail to the Lost Palms Oasis and falls 25 feet landing on the rocks with a smashed pelvis. Unable to move and with no signal on her phone to communicate with the outside world she waits, trying to survive as long as possible in the hope that someone will notice she has gone and somehow find her despite being miles from the trail.

The narrative moves between the individual days that Claire remains stranded in the desert and reflections on different parts of her life to now. She explores her anxiety, depression and the loneliness she has always felt despite being surrounded by people in one of the world’s great cities. It is a very personal reflection in the face of a deeply traumatic experience that certainly connects with the reader, to the extent that there is a physical reaction of relief when the rescue finally comes, which makes it all the more surprising that I didn’t really feel connected to the author at the end of the book.

I wonder whether it is simply a case that I didn’t really relate to the life that Claire was seeking to escape or enlightened by the way that she felt changed by her experiences. The overarching takeaway that we should try to live a more connected, deliberate life rather than the busily distracted one that often prevails in our culture that equates being busy with being productive, is certainly a good one but I didn’t necessarily see it being applied in this particular memoir. The fact that I feel bad saying that perhaps shows that I was engaged by the person and the somewhat miraculous story of her escape, but that I didn’t feel I learned much from the falling is maybe a fault with my expectations.

Not As Nature Intended by Rich Hardy

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It seems strange to be giving a positive review to a book that made me feel physically sick while reading it. Sometimes though you have to do difficult things, as Rich Hardy has done, and read difficult things, like this collection of disturbing stories from his work as an activist and campaigner on behalf of animals. Ignorance might in this case be bliss for the human but it certainly isn’t for the chickens, rabbits, elephants, lions and all the other animals that Hardy uncovers in a range of states of torture and maltreatment.

I suppose that this might not be selling the book to many people but I would plead with you to read it all the same. This is an important book for us all to understand, it tells us so much about where we have got to as a species by exposing our everyday destructive relationship with other animals. It expresses our greed, our capacity for cruelty, our disconnection from the rest of nature, our broken systems of both food and economics, but it also gives us an opportunity to face up to all these things and do something about it. An opportunity to save our fellow creatures from the misery we inflict and perhaps also in doing so to save ourselves.

That might sound over the top but is it really? What damage are we doing to ourselves physically and mentally by treating other living things with such grotesque violence? It is striking that in all the industries that Hardy investigates there is a desire for secrecy. The facilities are hidden away out of the sight and mind of the public. They are tightly controlled in an attempt to keep what happens inside out of the public domain. If the consumer followed an animal’s journey to their plate or their wardrobe they might not want to buy that meal or item of clothing after all and we can’t be having that.

If we are going to live in a way that requires us to use animals, whether that be to work for us, entertain us or feed us, then the very least that we can do is be aware of how those animals are treated and ensure that it is in a way that recognises and respects their inherent value as fellow sentient beings. Not As Nature Intended is a good starting point for understanding what the situation is now and, as with all good writing, it is also an opportunity and invitation to reflect on how animals support our own lifestyles and whether that is appropriate and respectful.

It is not right for us to simply hand over responsibility for the way the things that we consume are produced. We have to understand how our own actions impact not just the animals, but also the land, the rivers and seas, the air, the flora and other people around the world, and then consider whether it is right for us to carry on in that action or not. So read Rich Hardy’s book, understand how animals are treated in order to meet the demands of the consumer, and think about how animals are currently supporting your own lifestyle. Is that role really necessary and if it is what actions can you take to make sure that it honours the animal involved?

Book Journal – Localism

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In amongst various books that I have promised to review I am also dipping into another one that I have borrowed from the library, Real England by Paul Kingsnorth. I find Kingsnorth to be a very engaging and challenging writer and have been meaning to read this one for a whole, partly because it seems to sit within a place of tension within my own thinking. I have been developing a philosophy within my life that I see as a radical localism with a global outlook.

This poses challenges to the different elements of my thinking and personality. I believe that a really radical localism is a way to both reduce my footprint on the planet, that humans have been putting too great a pressure on now for several decades, and also to support my own well-being as I live a manageable and hopefully fruitful life within sensible boundaries. At the same time I am a liberal and also believe in the value of connectivity across the globe, as afforded now more easily through technology.

In a quick exchange of views these things can appear to be in conflict, but when you dig into them I don’t think that they are in reality. I am very nervous at the moment of the rise of a nationalism that is divisive and destructive, but I do feel my own sense of connection and indeed love for my local environment. These apparently similar emotions, a love for the place in which you live, have very different driving forces.

Nationalism derives its energy from the somewhat false and ambiguous nature of nationhood, a man-made concept that clumps people together largely around a common mythology of historical lies told by tyrants. The patriotism which I feel is from a care for the actual land and its inhabitants which supports me and my family and within which I spend the vast majority of my time and energy.

This starts with the small town in which I live, then stretches to the county in which I work and the island which I occasionally explore on holiday. In the end it encapsulates the whole world but my own attachment and care logically sits strongest near to me with other parts of the world cared for by those who live locally there. What value is there to me interfering with the other side of the world when I have my own place to care about on my doorstep?

At the same time I have a great respect for the other people and cultures that exist around the world and indeed that manifests itself in a desire to see all of these cultures retained rather than homogenised as has been the tendency of globalisation. Our distinct cultures can learn and grow from each other, but they should retain their own essence that is relevant to the place in which they exist. A way of life that is absolutely appropriate to one place in the world, with its own geography, geology, climate and so on, can and will be wholly wrong for another place without either of those ways of life being invalidated.

It doesn’t take long to see the tension between the elements of my thinking and wider political environment at the moment, but my localism is not about building walls and excluding others and my global outlook is not about meddling with other people’s lives or seeking to homogenise them. The aim is to care for the place and the people that I know and live among every day and allow others around the world to do the same, while sharing knowledge and experience as appropriate and celebrating both our common humanity and our regional difference.

It’s taken a long time to get here and there is a long way to go, but this is where I am right now.

Book Journal – Beginning

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Recently I have been finding the cycle of read and review a little relentless and am wondering whether it is really helping me to get the most from my reading. This is what has led me to look at the format of what I am doing on this blog and moving towards a journal style. I still intend to join blog tours and do full reviews of any ARC books that I request and receive, but alongside that I also intend to do regular journal updates about what I am reading and what I am taking away from those books.

I am hoping that in this way I will be able to share important themes about what I am reading and to do so as those themes impact me and my thinking. Rather than having to wait to get to the end of a book I can share what I am learning from it as I go and feel like I can take my time to absorb what a book has to say rather than needing to rush to the end to review it as a whole. All being well this will improve the quality of my reading and also my writing here and it should also prevent big gaps in posting.

I’m not promising that this will be a daily journal but it should be regular and relatively frequent. The posts should also be shorter, easier reads that can fit easily into gaps in a day. I hope that it is a style that readers will enjoy and get something from so please feel free to give feedback in the comments to posts.

Deep Dark Night by Steph Broadribb

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Lori Anderson rocks. Simple as.

She has a great voice, a turn of phrase that I really enjoy and gives her an authentic personality. She feels real. She kicks ass but she’s also human. The relationship with JT that has to work for the sake of both their lives, but remains awkward because you can’t solve the big problems with the flick of a switch. The thread that will always pull her back to Dakota, absolutely a bounty hunter who uses everything at her disposal to get the job done, but also a mother.

This novel follows straight on from the last one, Deep Dirty Truth. You don’t have to read the whole series to enjoy each book as a one off, but it would be a shame not to, why miss out? We’ve moved away from the chase that brought Lori into the middle of a gunfight between warring mob factions and the FBI. Deep Dark Night is more of a closed room thriller as a big stakes poker game holds the key to freedom from gangsters and government agents alike.

Lori owes Special Agent Monroe and he’s determined that she pays her debt immediately by helping him bring down a Chicago mob boss. It’s a convoluted plan involving a stolen chess set and a game of poker and Lori isn’t quite sure how it all adds up. She doesn’t have a choice though, if she refuses to help Monroe he has enough to put her and JT in prison and leave ten year old Dakota to fend for herself. She’s got to get it done and free herself from Monroe’s grasp.

The plan quickly starts to unravel though and before long no one knows who is in the driving seat. All that is left to do is to try to keep moving forwards and be ready to act when the end game becomes clear. The tension is palpable. Single minded people all focused on their own outcome, but who is going to finish up with what they want? Steph Broadribb has delivered another high octane thriller that hits all the right spots. Perfectly paced Deep Dark Night grabs hold of you and never lets go as Lori once again risks everything for the job and the people she believes in.

Deep Dark Night is published on 5th March 2020.

 

Synopsis

The fourth book in the award-winning Lori Anderson
series, Deep Dark Night sees daring bounty hunter and
single mother Lori Anderson journey from Florida to
Chicago to take down a notorious crime family.

Working off the books for FBI Special Agent Alex Monroe,
Florida bounty hunter Lori Anderson and her partner, JT,
head to Chicago. Their mission: to entrap the head of the
Cabressa crime family. The bait: a priceless chess set that
Cabressa is determined to add to his collection.

An exclusive high-stakes poker game is arranged in the
penthouse suite of one of the city’s tallest buildings, with
Lori holding the cards in an agreed arrangement to hand
over the pieces, one by one. But, as night falls and the
game plays out, stakes rise and tempers flare.

When a power failure plunges the city into darkness, the
building goes into lockdown. But this isn’t an ordinary
blackout, and the men around the poker table aren’t all
who they say they are. Hostages are taken, old scores
resurface and the players start to die.
And that’s just the beginning…

 

About the Author

Steph Broadribb was born in Birmingham and grew up in Buckinghamshire.
Most of her working life has been spent between the UK and USA. As her alterego – Crime Thriller Girl – she indulges in her love of all things crime fiction
by blogging at crimethrillergirl.com, where she interviews authors and reviews
the latest releases. She is also a member of the crime-themed girl band The
Splice Girls. Steph is an alumni of the MA Creative Writing (Crime Fiction) at
City University London, and she trained as a bounty hunter in California, which
inspired her Lori Anderson thrilliers, She lives in Buckinghamshire surrounded
by horses, cows and chickens. Her debut thriller, Deep Down Dead, was
shortlisted for the Dead Good Reader Awards in two categories, and hit number
one on the UK and AU kindle charts. My Little Eye, her first novel under her
pseudonym, Stephanie Marland was published by Trapeze Books in April 2018.

You can catch up with yesterday’s stops and follow the whole of the blog tour for Deep Dark Night using the tour poster below. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Book Journal – Independence

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The Orenda Roadshow has been in full swing this week as a host of international authors were led on a tour of the country by independent publisher Karen Sullivan. On their way they shared their latest books and insights into their writing as well as supporting independent booksellers who hosted several of the events. I went along to the Thursday evening even at Southwell Library hosted by Lowdham bookseller The Bookcase and came away enthused, energised and determined to do what I could to support the independents.

It was fantastic to be able to talk to the dozen authors who came along to Southwell, many of whom I have read for years but also some I have yet to read at all. I was able to talk about the differences between writing alone and with a partner with Thomas Enger, whose new book Death Deserved is the first in a series written in collaboration with Jorn Lier Horst. I chatted with West Camel, the Orenda editor turned author, about his novel Attend which I acquired on the night and now cannot wait to read, especially now knowing that another book is in the pipeline.

It was also great to be able to talk in person with Simone Buchholz whose fabulous Chas Riley series has been a conversation on social media and to talk to Johanna Gustawsson about her grandfather’s influence on two of her novels, the incredibly moving Block 46 and most recent release Blood Song. Of course it was also a chance to meet with old favourites like Louise Beech and Michael Malone, enjoy the performance reading talents of Matt Wesolowski, discuss the menopause with Helen Fitzgerald and meet the surprisingly well balanced children of the guy who signs his books “So you want to know about evil…”.

All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and coming away from it with an inevitable pile of new books I felt all the more desire to support Orenda Books, Karen and the authors of Orenda personally and my local independent bookshops, The Bookcase in Lowdham and Five Leaves in Nottingham. Whilst I struggle with our consumerist society and the over consumption that is rife in our culture, supporting these independents as a conscious placing of resources into small scale, hardworking people and businesses feels like a meaningful and balanced way of enjoying my love of reading and supporting the creative people without whom it would have no fuel.

 

Book Journal – Nature

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I have finished Dara McAnulty’s book this week. There is so much to it. Is it about our relationship with nature, our destruction of the natural environment, autism, growing up, families, the education system? Well of course it is about all of these things, because Dara is, or is experiencing, all of these things. We aren’t defined by one facet of our personality or one of our passions. We are a complex mix of feelings, experiences, relationships and beliefs and so is Dara’s book.

In a way I am sad to be leaving his story behind but that is how it should be. He has given something to the world in his words and I am sure he will give more in the future, but he also needs space to live and to grow, as we all do. Just because he has put into words something important about the way that we all live we do not own him, his journey or his voice. It is noticeable as he moves to the conclusions of his book that he has begun to understand that too and that is important, as others will undoubtedly try to claim, tame or defame him.

It has been a privilege to share some of his journey through his insightful, mature and poetic journal and I wish him well with the rest of it. I will post a full review of the book which Little Toller kindly sent me an uncorrected proof copy of in due course. Now though, it is time to respond.

The Nanny State Made Me by Stuart Maconie

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Stories are important. We saw that in the whole Brexit debacle, a compelling narrative developed over time can move masses. In Britain the narrative has shifted disturbingly towards the destruction of the State, a refusal to accept the principle of community and a shared common good and the elevation of the individual in a competitive, every man for himself culture.

In The Nanny State Made Me Stuart Maconie starts to describe a different narrative for our country and it is an inspiring one that can hopefully take hold. Maconie reflects on his own life and the provisions that the now derided Nanny State gave him at different stages of life to nurture and sustain him. It’s a story of healthcare, education, public assets such as libraries, leisure centres and parks and a willingness to bridge the different stages of our lives through the Welfare State.

To do this the author visits key examples of the different institutions and services of the State. The first NHS hospital, the first comprehensive school, a library that remains at the heart of its community thanks to the time and energy, partly paid and considerably volunteered, by its librarian. It’s a history lesson in the greatest civic achievements of the country alongside personal memories of Maconie himself and others he meets along the way. A shared story of a better way of life.

As we sit now in the aftermath of a General Election that appears to have rejected the civic society there are surely lessons to be learned for those of us who value community and have an empathy with our common man. Too many of the attempts to counter catchy right wing soundbites have been negative, playing on fear of what might happen if things change, rather than positive stories about a shared, inclusive country in which we can all play a part and all reap the benefits.

Those who know Maconie’s other books will recognise the readable, conversational style that makes his writing very accessible. It’s a style suited to the messages he is putting across, not a lecture or a political rally but a fireside conversation with family and friends. There is a certainly a place for the Bevins and Benns to rally the crowds, but there is a need too for a gentler revolution, a change of heart away from the stinginess of the current political debate that seeks to disqualify the meeting of genuine need as “sponging” towards a common kindness.

We are being shaped by our politicians and media into a miserly country built on the worst facets of our history, but The Nanny State Made Me shows that we are at our best when we turn our innovation to a common cause that leaves no one behind. Stuart Maconie has written a timely book that gives those of us bereft at the election of a divisive government a glimmer of hope. It is time to take stock, to understand the past, recharge our batteries and reach out to our communities in the spirit of the post war consensus that made us.