Stone Cold Trouble by Amer Anwar

Stone Cold Trouble by Amer Anwar

Stone Cold Trouble is the long-awaited sequel to Brothers in Blood (still called Western Fringes when I reviewed it), and continues the story of Zaq and Jags. They don’t go looking for trouble, but it always seems to find them anyway.  

Initially, Jags’s uncle asks them to help him retrieve a necklace, a family heirloom, he lost in a card game. This seems straightforward enough until they meet the man responsible, and he refuses to give it back. Uncle Lucky then has to explain why he can’t go to the police for help, and things take a darker turn.

Meanwhile, Zaq’s brother, Tariq, has been subjected to a brutal beating that has left him in a coma. Not knowing if he will recover, Zaq spends the next few nights at his bedside to allow his parents to go home and rest. By doing this, he is trying to build bridges with his family and win back their trust as he knows he has been a big disappointment to them. These scenes are repetitive, and slow down the narrative, but provide a bit of respite from the tension and full-on action of the rest of the book.

Part of the attraction of Stone Cold Trouble is that it gives the reader a glimpse into a world few of us will ever experience. There are brutal fight scenes, graphic violence and strong themes of loyalty and revenge. Zaq is intelligent and resourceful, and his strong moral code stops him sinking too far into this world of gratuitous violence.

At the heart of the novel is the friendship between Zaq and Jags; they have each other’s backs and their witty banter lightens what could have been a much darker tale. Once again Amer Anwar brings this vibrant area of London to life, although at times there was a bit too much repetitive detail.

Stone Cold Trouble depicts a predominantly male world; there are very few female characters, and the ones there are are underdeveloped. It will be interesting to see if Nina and Rita have larger roles in the next book – I certainly hope so.

Thanks to Dialogue Books and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.

The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt

The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt

I don’t read many non-fiction books, but the attractive cover art of The Seafarers drew me in. In order to escape the frantic pace of life in London, Stephen Rutt heads off to North Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands to study the seabirds, and find some welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The Seafarers is a wonderfully evocative celebration of the seabirds that visit our shores, and the beauty of the remote islands and coastline where they can be observed. Some of these places (and birds) are familiar to me, others not, but the atmospheric prose brings it all vividly to life, and I felt as if I was there.

The birds are described in fascinating detail, with lots of anecdotes from those who have studied them both recently and in the past. This unique book is a mixture of memoir, travel, science and natural history and, while not strictly necessary, some illustrations would have made it even better. I have not read anything by Stephen Rutt before, but I will definitely look and see what else he has written.

Thanks to Elliott & Thompson and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.

The Less Dead by Denise Mina

The Less Dead by Denise Mina

The Less Dead is a stand-alone novel from award-winning Scottish crime writer Denise Mina.  Following the death of her foster mother, GP Margo goes in search of her birth mother. She is shocked to discover that her real mother, Susan, was a drug addict and a sex worker; she was also brutally murdered, only months after Margo’s birth, and her body dumped at a bus stop in Easterhouse. She arranges to meet Susan’s sister, Nikki, and enters a world so outside of her comfort zone that she is not sure if she wants to go any further.

The story is split between the 1980s and present day, and highlights the contrasting attitudes between then and now; it also makes it obvious that some things have not improved. The title refers to those, like Susan, whose deaths are not considered to be important enough to warrant a thorough investigation, and, unsurprisingly, the killer has never been brought to justice.

Mina brings Glasgow to life – warts and all – in this gripping tale, and shines a light on the dark side of masculinity. The story is mostly told from Margo’s point of view, but there is another voice, anonymous, in the shadows, full of poison and hatred. Both Nikki and now Margo receive letters – taunting them – alleging that they are from the killer. It is unclear where the threat is coming from, and this makes for a very tense and unsettling read.

The characters are well written and thoroughly believable. At the beginning of the book, I found Margo unlikeable and hard to empathize with, but by the end she has changed and become stronger. I did find her treatment of her boyfriend Joe a bit puzzling though. In contrast, Nikki has sorted herself out but still no one will listen to her; all she wants is Margo’s help in catching her sister’s killer.

The Less Dead is not a police procedural, but an intelligent and gripping crime thriller that shines a sympathetic spotlight on attitudes to sex workers, drug addiction and deprivation in the dark underbelly of Glasgow. Full of menace and dark humour, this unusual book will definitely make you stop and think.

Thanks to Vintage and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

Jack is the fourth volume in the ‘Gilead’ series by prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson, which I did not know when I requested it, and started reading. Having said that, I have no desire to read any of the earlier books as most of the religious content does not interest me. I was drawn to the developing relationship between Jack and Della, and the difficulties they encounter.

Jack is just out of prison for a crime he did not commit, though there were many others he was guilty of. He helps Della when she drops some papers and, mistaking him for a man of the cloth, she invites him home for tea. Jack is portrayed as the black sheep of the family – not having read the other books I have only this story to go on. He does not seem to be a bad man – just down on his luck – but then we are seeing everything through his eyes.

I found the racial discrimination described in this story deeply upsetting. Despite knowing the history, and that segregation existed, reading about Jack and Della’s struggles made it all so much more vivid and real. What surprised me most was why Della’s family objected to their relationship.

Despite their obvious differences, they have things in common; both come from religious families with a preacher for a father, and they are united by their love of literature and poetry.

Almost the first third of the book consists of one long scene in a graveyard; Della is locked in overnight, and Jack is planning to sleep there as he has rented out his room to make some money. This is a bold move by the author, and contains some witty dialogue, but could have been shorter without losing its impact.

Despite believing that the only way he can ‘do no harm’ to other people is to isolate himself, he is repeatedly drawn to Della, even knowing that she has much more to lose than he does.  We are not privy to Della’s thoughts, but she stands to lose her home, job and reputation and so is not entering into this relationship lightly.

Marilynne Robinson writes beautiful, lyrical prose that deals with a myriad of themes: racial prejudice, religious faith, family relationships, alcohol dependence to name but a few. Take away all the religious dogma, and it’s an almost timeless story of love and redemption.  It is overlong with a bit too much of Jack’s repetitive introspection, but it gives us a fascinating portrayal of life in the segregated southern states of the US in the 1950s.

Thanks to Little, Brown Group and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.

My Hands Are Tied by Sean Campbell

My Hands Are Tied by Sean Campbell

In My Hands Are Tied, DCI David Morton and his wife, Sarah, are invited at the last minute – only a fortnight before – to their son’s wedding, and find themselves at Terra Farm; home to the Collective, and now to Stephen and Abigail, the future daughter-in-law they have yet to meet. The entrance is hidden behind high hedges and a security gate where they are asked to surrender their mobile phones. This level of security all seems a bit much to DCI Morton, but he goes along with it, not wishing to rock the boat. His relationship with his son is difficult enough already without him ruining the ceremony that is about to take place.

When they eventually get inside, Terra Farm is not what they were expecting. It is more like a small village tucked away in a valley, hidden from sight, but actually very close to civilization in SW London. At the centre is the barn, where the ceremony is due to take place, surrounded by eight bungalows, most of which are a bit ramshackle and rundown.

What follows is a bit of a homage to classic detective stories and the ‘country house’ mystery where all the characters are trapped inside, and the detective has his work cut out discovering who the killer is. Here it is a gated commune, dedicated to living an alternative lifestyle, where everyone has something to hide.

Having had a few too many beers after the ceremony, DCI Morton is forced to stay the night. He is woken in the morning by the sound of gunshots; one of the commune members, Guy Rosenberg, has been murdered. Worried that his son might end up being wrongly charged with the crime, he goes against protocol and carries on investigating, when he should have handed the case over to another officer, hoping to find the killer before the weekend is over. Losing his job doesn’t seem to bother him as he was near retirement anyway, but I thought his lack of concern over losing his pension, if found out, was a bit unbelievable.

The story is well written and the characters fleshed out and believable, even though some of them are decidedly weird, but something about this book just does not work for me. This is number seven in a series, but the police officers working on the case did not convince me that they were part of a team. One striking omission is the lack of humorous banter usually found in crime novels.  

I have not read any of the other books in this series, but, while the story worked perfectly well as a standalone, perhaps I would have gained some insight into why this team were not convincing if I had read the series from the beginning.

Thanks to Sean Campbell for a digital copy that I review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team #RBRT

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