Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Mina, Russell, McSorley and Morrison: 2023 McIlvanney finalists revealed


This morning the finalists for the 2023 McIlvanney Prize have been announced, with the following four books emerging from a very strong longlist of contenders for Scotland's prestigious annual crime writing award, named in memory of the 'Godfather of Tartan Noir', the great William McIlvanney: 

SQUEAKY CLEAN by Callum McSorley (Pushkin): the judges said: "A wonderfully rich and funny new voice in Scottish crime. McSorley has created characters you invest in and plot that keeps you hooked right from the start."
THE SECOND MURDERER by Denise Mina (Vintage): the judges said: "Seriously stylish and oozing with attitude, this Philip Marlowe mystery is an exquisite read."
CAST A COLD EYE by Robbie Morrison (Macmillan): the judges said: "A story inhabited by brilliantly drawn characters. Not just a crime novel but a vivid and immersive account of life in Glasgow in the 1930s."
THE DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND by Craig Russell (Little, Brown): the judges said: "Mesmerising from the start. Devilishly dark and dripping with menace. A breath-taking masterclass in twisty crime writing."

The judges for the 2023 McIlvanney Prize 2023, being BBC Scotland presenter Bryan Burnett, former editor of The Sunday Times Scotland Jason Allardyce, and Category Manager for Waterstones, Angie Crawford, were unanimous in their praise for all four finalists. 

The quartet includes two previous winners, Craig Russell and Denise Mina, a previous winner of the Bloody Scotland Debut Prize, Robbie Morrison, and debut author Callum McSorley.
The four finalists, along with the authors shortlisted for the Bloody Scotland Debut Prize, will lead a torchlit procession from Stirling Castle to the Albert Halls on Friday 15 September where the winners of both prizes will be revealed and interviewed on stage by BBC Radio Scotland’s Janice Forsyth. 

These events are part of a three-day annual showcase of crime writing at Bloody Scotland, which is Scotland's international crime writing festival. Both prizes are again sponsored by The Glencairn Glass, Kirsty Nicholson, Design and Marketing Manager at Glencairn Crystal, said: 
"Now in our third year of sponsoring these prestigious awards with the Glencairn Glass, we’re very proud to be a part of this amazing Scottish annual event in the world of crime fiction. We continue to be impressed and enthralled by the talented authors who enter and we wish everyone the very best of luck."
The 2023 Bloody Scotland festival begins at 1.30pm on Friday, 15 September, with the final event concluding at 2pm on Sunday 17 September. It takes place at various venues in the historic centre of Stirling, including the Albert Halls, Trinity Church, and the Golden Lion Hotel. 

Legendary Scottish authors Val McDermid, Liam McIlvanney, and Denise Mina
at the torchlit parade at a past Bloody Scotland

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Review: PROM MOM

PROM MOM by Laura Lippman (Faber, 2023)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

New York Times bestseller Laura Lippman tells the story of Amber Glass, desperately trying to get away from her tabloid past but compulsively drawn back to the city of her youth and the prom date who destroyed everything she was reaching for.

After establishing herself as terrific, award-winning voice in modern crime writing with her excellent, long-running series starring Baltimore reporter turned private eye Tess Monaghan, in recent years New York Times bestseller Laura Lippman has continually challenged herself and delighted readers and critics with a string of very different standalones. From multi-layered Wilde Lake exploring family secrets, changing smalltown mores and stories we tell ourselves, to the extraordinary, multi-narrated Lady in the Lake exploring racial tensions and many forms of bigotry in 1960s Baltimore, to 2021’s claustrophobic suspense Dream Girl, with its nod to Stephen King, Lippman’s been masterful.

Now, she plunges us into a slow-burn thriller that digs into a ‘whatever happened to?’ scenario, decades after a tabloid headlines style scandal. Amber Glass desperately wants to escape her tragic past but is compulsively drawn back to her hometown and Joe, the now-middle-aged man who was Amber’s prom date one fateful night that changed her life forever, destroying her teenage dreams.

Amber fears she’ll always wear the tabloid moniker ‘Prom Mom’ like a scarlet letter – the teenager who gave birth on Prom night then allegedly killed her newborn after her date abandoned her for another girl. So Baltimore is the last place she wants to be, until circumstances draw her home. Could she have a second chance? Regardless, she really should avoid Joe, now a successful commercial real estate developer married to a plastic surgeon, but it’s a small city, and there still seems a strange connection between them. As the world plunges into uncertainty, Amber and Joe find themselves circling each other before crossing lines – but how much will Amber sacrifice?

Lippman lures readers in and takes us on a suspenseful ride that flows so smoothly it perhaps obscures her mastery. Like watching a talented musician onstage – or perhaps a special athlete on the field of play – Lippman makes things that are difficult look so deceptively easy that we perhaps underappreciate the brilliance on show. There’s a fluidity, flow, and ease; mastery at a high level. 

Prom Mom is another jewel in the crown of a modern-day Empress of the crime genre. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer, editor, podcast host, and event chair. He's the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, author of Macavity and HRF Keating Award-shortlisted non-fiction work SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, series editor of the DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER anthology, and writes about books for magazines and newspapers in several countries.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

History and humanity: 2023 Ngaio Marsh Awards finalists revealed


History and humanity: 2023 Ngaio Marsh Awards finalists plunge readers into page-turning tales about who we are

From heart-wrenching tales of families torn apart by disappearance or deportation to examinations of historic crimes, swindles, and injustices to page-whirring novels about former cops and former convicts, the finalists for the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Awards offer a diverse array of storytelling excellence

“When we first launched New Zealand’s own annual prizes for crime, mystery, and thriller writing in 2010, we modelled our Ngaio Marsh Awards on the Hammett Prize in North America, which celebrates literary excellence in crime writing,” says Ngaio Marsh Awards founder Craig Sisterson. “The Ngaios have never been solely about detective fiction; instead highlighting and celebrating outstanding Kiwi storytellers whose tales, fictional and factual, explore the investigation of crime or the impact or effects of crime on people and society.” 

The 2023 Ngaios finalists announced today across three categories, like many previous years, says Sisterson, underline that original ethos. This year’s finalists range across an array of styles, settings, and stories, exploring important topics from radical empathy and redemption in one of the world’s most notorious psychiatric facilities to familial grief, dealing with dementia, mass surveillance, and the ongoing impact of colonisation and the Dawn Raids. 

“The consistent thread throughout this diverse array of Kiwi books is quality storytelling that struck a chord with our international judging panels of crime writing experts from several countries,” says Sisterson. “As the likes of Val McDermid have said, if you want to better understand a place, read its crime fiction. Crime writing is a broad church nowadays, including but going far beyond the traditional puzzling mysteries of Dames Ngaio and Agatha Christie, and can deliver insights about society and humanity alongside rollicking reads. Many of our finalists showcase something about who we are, as people and a nation.” 

The finalists for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Non-Fiction, a biennial prize previously won by filmmaker Michael Bennett (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Whakaue) for IN DARK PLACES, a book about the wrongful conviction of Teina Pora, by Kelly Dennett for THE SHORT LIFE AND MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF JANE FURLONG, and most recently by Martin van Beynen for BLACK HANDS:

  • A NEW DAWN by Emeli Sione (Mila’s Books)
  • THE DEVIL YOU KNOW by Dr Gwen Adshead & Eileen Horne (Faber)
  • DOWNFALL: THE DESTRUCTION OF CHARLES MACKAY by Paul Diamond (Massey University Press)
  • THE FIX by Scott Bainbridge (Bateman Books)
  • MISSING PERSONS by Steve Braunias (HarperCollins)

Each of this year’s non-fiction finalists delivered compelling stories that immersed readers in a variety of subject matters, from historical figures and crimes to deeply personal stories. 

“There were some stellar non-fiction reads this year,” said the international judging panel of Scottish journalist and true crime writer turned novelist Douglas Skelton, Auckland lawyer Darise Bennington, and Ngaios founder Craig Sisterson. “From well-researched and fascinating dissections of historic events to deeply informed and personal tales, to disturbing yet engrossing accounts of the humanity behind shocking acts, we have terrific finalists.” 

The finalists for the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel are:

  • ONE HEART ONE SPADE by Alistair Luke
  • TOO FAR FROM ANTIBES by Bede Scott (Penguin SEA)
  • BETTER THE BLOOD by Michael Bennett (Simon & Schuster)
  • SURVEILLANCE by Riley Chance (CopyPress Books)
  • THE SLOW ROLL by Simon Lendrum (Upstart Press)
  • PAPER CAGE by Tom Baragwanath (Text Publishing)

“There is no shortage of fresh ideas in New Zealand crime fiction, nor in breadth of style, with this year's entrants running from chilling thrillers to the cosier end of the spectrum,” says British journalist and book reviewer Louise Fairbairn, the Chair of an international judging panel for the Best First Novel category that also included South African writer Sonja van der Westhuizen, British reviewer and longtime CWA Daggers judge Ayo Onatade, and Australian podcaster and author Dani Vee. “Those debuts that particularly caught our attention were unafraid to explore difficult real-life issues and embed themselves in an authentic New Zealand of rough edges and grey areas, rather than glossy make-believe.”

Lastly, the finalists for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel are:

  • EXIT .45 by Ben Sanders (Allen & Unwin)
  • BLUE HOTEL by Chad Taylor (Brio Books)
  • REMEMBER ME by Charity Norman (Allen & Unwin)
  • THE DOCTOR’S WIFE by Fiona Sussman (Bateman Books)
  • BETTER THE BLOOD by Michael Bennett (Simon & Schuster)
  • BLOOD MATTERS by Renée (The Cuba Press)
  • THE SLOW ROLL by Simon Lendrum (Upstart Press)

“It’s a very strong group of finalists to emerge from a dazzlingly varied longlist,” says Sisterson. “This year’s entrants gave our international judging panels lots to chew over, and plenty of books judges enjoyed and loved didn’t become finalists. ‘Yeahnoir’, our local spin on some of the world’s most popular storytelling forms, is certainly in fine health.”

The winners of the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Awards will be announced at a special event held in association with WORD Christchurch in Spring, details and date to be confirmed soon. 

For more information on any or all of our 2023 Ngaio Marsh Awards finalists, or the Ngaios in general, please contact ngaiomarshaward@gmail.com, or founder Craig Sisterson, craigsisterson@hotmail.com   

Friday, June 30, 2023

Poker, poverty, and the power of storytelling: 2023 Ngaio Marsh Award longlist revealed

Poker, poverty, and the power of storytelling: 2023 Ngaio Marsh Award longlist revealed

A poker-playing sleuth, a poet’s gritty take on life on Aotearoa’s poverty line, a rural mystery entwined with heart-wrenching exploration of dementia, and the long-awaited return of a master of neo-noir are among the diverse tales named today on the longlist for the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel.

Now in their fourteenth season, the Ngaio Marsh Awards celebrate excellence in New Zealand crime, mystery, and thriller writing. They are named for Dame Ngaio Marsh, one of the Queens of Crime of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, who penned bestselling mysteries that entertained millions of global readers from her home in the Cashmere Hills.

“I’d like to think Dame Ngaio would be proud of how our modern Kiwi storytellers are continuing her literary legacy, bringing fresh perspectives and a cool mix of fascinating tales to one of the world’s most popular storytelling forms,” says awards founder Craig Sisterson. “In recent years we seem to be going through our own golden age, with our local writers offering a treasure trove of terrific stories for readers at home and all over the world.”

The longlist for the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel includes a mix of past winners and finalists, several first-time entrants and new voices, and the long-awaited return of one of the leading lights of the early 2000s New Zealand literary scene. 

“In crime and thriller writing it’s natural for authors to make it really tough on their characters,” says Sisterson, “but our entrants made it tough on our judges too. This year’s longlist is a wonderful showcase of Kiwi creativity, with a great range of stories that explore some deep and very important issues in among the page-turning intrigue and thrills.”

The Ngaio Marsh Awards have celebrated the best New Zealand crime, mystery, thriller, and suspense writing since 2010. The longlist for this year’s Best Novel prize is: 
  • TOO FAR FROM ANTIBES by Bede Scott (Penguin SEA)
  • EXIT .45 by Ben Sanders (Allen & Unwin)
  • REMEMBER ME by Charity Norman (Allen & Unwin)
  • BLUE HOTEL by Chad Taylor (Brio Books)
  • POOR PEOPLE WITH MONEY by Dominic Hoey (Penguin)
  • THE DARKEST SIN by DV Bishop (Macmillan)
  • THE DOCTOR’S WIFE by Fiona Sussman (Bateman Books)
  • MIRACLE by Jennifer Lane (Cloud Ink Press)
  • BETTER THE BLOOD by Michael Bennett (Simon & Schuster)
  • IN HER BLOOD by Nikki Crutchley (HarperCollins)
  • THE PAIN TOURIST by Paul Cleave (Upstart Press)
  • BLOOD MATTERS by Renée (The Cuba Press)
  • THE SLOW ROLL by Simon Lendrum (Upstart Press)
  • PAPER CAGE by Tom Baragwanath (Text Publishing)

The longlist is currently being considered by an international judging panel of crime and thriller writing experts from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Finalists for Best Novel, Best First Novel, and Best Non-Fiction will be announced in August, with the finalists celebrated and the winners announced as part of a special event held in association with WORD Christchurch later in the year.

For more information on this year’s Best Novel longlist, or the Ngaio Marsh Awards in general, please contact ngaiomarshaward@gmail.com, or founder and judging convenor Craig Sisterson, craigsisterson@hotmail.com  

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Murder in Merton: Crime in the Library

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a fun crime writing event at one of the libraries in my local London borough, Merton, with the Crime in the Library author panel at Wimbledon Library, held in association with National Crime Reading Month, Wimbledon BookFest, and Murder in Merton.

Having organised 80+ library events in New Zealand (plus Tasmania, Melbourne, and Reyjavik) in recent years that I haven't attended in person, it was nice to go to a library crime fiction panel nearby. More often any crime fiction events are held in central London, at Waterstones Piccadilly and the like.

Kudos to local Merton author Joy Kluver for setting up Murder in Merton to encourage more events in SW London. Joy chaired last night's event, which featured Putney author Robert Gold, journalist turned crime writer Saima Mir, and Irish author Olivia Kiernan, who'd set her most recent book THE END OF US in Wimbledon. It grew into a really fun event, with lots of interesting discussion about characterisation, the importance of setting, each of the authors' approach to crime writing, and more.

It was great to see a big (120+) audience in attendance, with people enjoying the discussion, buying drinks and books and getting them signed (thanks Waterstones Wimbledon for supporting the event), which will hopefully encourage the Library and others to host more crime writing events locally. 

The Wimbledon Crime in the Library panel showcasing each others' books:
Joy with Liv's book, Robert with Joy's, Liv with Saima's and Saima with Robert's. 

Hopefully there will plenty more crime writing events held in future. It's lovely to mix in these local library (and bookshop) evenings among all the festivals large and small and numerous book launches over spring-autumn. We're blessed with a cornucopia of great crime writing nowadays, and it's great to see writers and readers (and libraries) connecting in a variety of ways. 

Friday, June 9, 2023

"Flows smoothly and easily": LIFE AND DEATH IN BIRKENHEAD review

LIFE AND DEATH IN BIRKENHEAD (Mary Egan Publishing, 2022)

Reviewed by TJ Ramsay

Within the small suburb of Birkenhead lurks a monster, one the local residents entrust with their recently departed loved ones. He has been inflicting his depraved atrocities unnoticed. But what happens when he turns his attentions to the living? 

Maisie Manson lives a typical kiwi life: she works hard at school, enjoys the outdoors, and finally takes off for her big OE. She is having the best time, until a tragic event back home shatters her world and sets off a chain reaction of decisions which lead her on a frightening collision course with the man responsible. 

Once the mortuary’s secrets are revealed, life and death in Birkenhead will never be the same. 

This is a debut novel by Tarrant about a New Zealand serial killer and it’s a good one. Her characters are strong, her plot line well defined. 

Detective Tipene Patrick deserves another case to solve. I found him sympathetic, intelligent and down-to-earth. Tarrant’s people live believable lives and have sincere back stories which nicely explain why people end up on dangerous paths. There is plenty of hopelessness and sadness yet, through it, her people are trying their best, coping how they may. For me, Jazz came across as the most layered character, good side/bad side in a constant moving flux which made him easily the most interesting character.

Tarrant is writing about work she knows and she is able to make the practical work of the back-stage of a funeral home interesting, actually without bogging the reader down in unnecessary details. Always nice to go, ‘I didn’t know that. Cool.’

The plot is linear. Nothing to discover. There are no surprises for the reader. The bad guy is named from the start and we are just following along his gruesome path until he gets his comeuppance. 

Gerald had no lights and shades. Being bad to the bone from the get-go leaves no room for slow revealing or shocks. I found Maisie’s life-path such a huge fore-shadowing and knew from that moment how things would pan out. If I would have preferred more challenge in the story and the read, that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I did and read it in one sitting. 

Tarrant has a nice, believable touch with dialogue and it all flowed smoothly and easily. Life and Death in Birkenhead is a debut novel Tarrant should be proud of. I hope to read more from her in the future.

This review was first published in FlaxFlower reviews, which focuses on in-depth reviews of New Zealand books of all kinds, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Flaxflower founder and editor Bronwyn Elsmore. 

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

"Social inequality, blurry line between right and wrong": POOR PEOPLE WITH MONEY review

POOR PEOPLE WITH MONEY by Dominic Hoey (Penguin, 2022)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Monday Woolridge is a fighter with a face covered in scars and life full of debt. Her Avondale flat has no furniture, her father’s dead, her catatonic mother’s in an expensive nursing home and her kickboxing gym is going to Thailand.

Monday's shitty bartending job pays fifty cents over minimum wage, and she desperately needs another way to generate income. Dealing drugs off the dark web with her flatmate JJ looks like it's working – until it really doesn’t, and the pair have to flee Tamaki Makaurau to escape the gangsters, the vampires and the ghosts of Monday’s past.

This is a pacy, heart-twisting, punch-in-the-guts, darkly comic novel that captures life on the poverty line in Aotearoa now.

Monday Wooldridge is talking to her little brother, Eddy, who disappeared and never returned 15 years ago. She tells him about her life since he left. Their father decided to depart, their mother sort of did too. Monday became a fighter: “Fighting was the only thing I was ever good at”. She fights for money, to hurt other people to vent her anger, to hurt herself to numb her guilt. It isn’t a pretty story. The reader constantly wonders if it would have been a different story had Eddy been a part of it.

Poor People With Money is in three sections. In the first section Monday manages a bar in Auckland, and she fights. She takes on a roommate, JJ. JJ “understood what the universe was made of, but used to act like leaving the house was climbing Everest”. He is a recluse, spending most of his time on his computer, researching the science of ghosts. Monday doesn’t co-exist with rich people; people like her and JJ live in a parallel dimension from “people with so much money it was like a disability”.

When Monday needs more money than she can raise at the bar and from fighting, she comes up with a scheme and drags a reluctant JJ in as an accomplice. Things go well, things don’t go so well. “Everyone believes things will be as they are forever. The good and the bad. As if time is a rock pool rather than a fucking tidal wave”. When events get beyond Monday fighting her way out, she and JJ take off.

The second section of Poor People With Money is set in the tiny village that was once home for JJ. A place “where time moved slow and nobody gave a fuck about anything except what they loved”. Monday and JJ move into a shack on the property of JJ’s dad Tahi, his partner Frances, JJ’s sister Hope and his half-sister Aroha. Hope wants to be the next Parris Goebel. Aroha has visions of the future. Monday keeps finding out she hasn’t yet witnessed the deepest level of poverty.

“We never talked about you, Eddy. Dad wasn’t that kind of man, Mum was never awake, and I kept myself busy with violence.” Monday can never really relax, it’s hard to know who to trust, she’d trust Eddy, but he’s long gone. You know people better once they’ve gone “So much easier to figure someone out when they’re standing still in your memories”. A small mistake increases the sense of impending doom: “Black clouds were rolling in. I lay on my back for a while watching them spread over the blue sky, like blood over lino”.

The third section of the novel has growing momentum as Monday’s story plays out. The telling is tense and cruel, but you can’t help but root for Monday. There is a clarity to the writing that doesn’t allow judgement, the characters are just what they are, because of who they are and their histories. The reader wonders how different they might have been in a different timeline, but is also acutely aware that their lives are the only one they’ve got: “Being smart without opportunity is fucking cruel”.

When an extreme storm hits the village, it destroys homes of those with money as well as of those without. The reader feels everyone is locked into their roles, and escape is managed by a very few. Poor People With Money is a stark and compelling read. It deals with social inequality and the blurry line between right and wrong, and touches on the effects of land disputes, pollution, and climate change on rural communities. But mostly it’s about Monday Wooldridge, and I could happily have carried on reading and reading, until things turned out right for her and she could relax for a bit. Highly recommended.

Alyson Baker is a crime-loving former librarian in Nelson. This review first appeared on her blog, which you can check out here

Friday, June 2, 2023

"Trusting the reader": A VIRTUOUS LIE review

A VIRTUOUS LIE by Christina O'Reilly (2022)

Reviewed by TJ Ramsay

Hidden in the dense bush of the Manawatu, a tiny skeleton lies overgrown with weeds. DSS Archie Baldrick and DC Ben Travers discover that the victim is a young child who went missing from a rural skate park  twenty years earlier. Who could possibly have abducted Lukas Branson and kept him hidden for over two years?

This is the third of the DSS Archie Baldrick and DC Ben Travers books – Into the Void, Retribution and now A Virtuous Lie. I happily took the task of reviewing this, knowing how much I’d enjoyed O’Reilly’s first two books. This is her best yet. A fully rounded detective fiction with great characters throughout, believable plotlines and great development of Baldrick and Travers.

A Virtuous Lie is a less linear storyline than Retribution and is all the better for it. Interweaving histories and personalities with a great twist – in fact more than one great twist. Also a step up from Retribution, are the personal story lines of both detectives. Nicely complex and well written lives interwoven within the overarching framework of their intense careers. The complications of their personal lives give added drama to the whole book while offering Baldrick and Travers greater depth for personal development.

As with the first two books in this series, O’Reilly is a dab hand with dialogue and she brings the scenes alive with great visual clarity. I read the wind as a metaphor and almost a character in itself, sweeping through the town and people, clearing heads and providing relief and clarity, or blowing chilly and cold, adding to shivery moments.

It’s difficult to review the storyline without spoilers so I avoid going into details about the plot. Rest assured it takes personal histories and reviews them in the context of this terrible discovery as new connections are made, past mistakes highlighted with a sincere understanding of how people react, how people are betrayed, how lives are rewritten and not always for the best. Also, O’Reilly continues to trust the reader to remember evidence and never does us the disservice of rehashing unless it sits well within the day-to-day policing process and she never lets it become boring or repetitive.

This review was first published in FlaxFlower reviews, which focuses on in-depth reviews of New Zealand books of all kinds, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Flaxflower founder and editor Bronwyn Elsmore.