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4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
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King Crow by Michael Stewart is the story of a lonely, neglected boy, dragged from one Salford estate (and consequently school) to another by his mother, who, since the departure of his father, has lurched between numerous failed relationships, all with women, and appears to suffer from clinical depression. Clearly an intelligent boy, Paul doesn't make friends easily: he's only really interested in birds, relates all people to them, and struggles to understand why everyone else wouldn't be interested in them too. His social awkwardness and atypical thought processes mean he doesn't do well at school, and his unstable home life doesn't help - so he's a serial truant and spends lessons drawing pictures: he's worked out that in most of his schools, under-achieving isn't a problem if you're quiet and keep your pen on the paper.

Paul is an obvious target for bullies then, and his saviour in this regard is Ashley O'Keefe. Good-looking, tough and charismatic, Ashley is everything that Paul isn't - but he's also a runner for a local criminal gang. A chain of events straight from a gritty urban thriller means that Paul and Ashley are soon driving a stolen car to Cumbria, where Paul's beloved ravens circle above Helvellyn and where matters are complicated by Becky, a middle-class raver who spurns streetwise Ashley for shy, awkward Paul. The catalytic effect that Becky has on Paul and Ashley's relationship and their foolish decision to accept hospitality from a former violent bank robber with a fondness for skunk, turn Paul's life upside-down.

Much of the book takes place in rural Cumbria, but the details of Paul's life in Salford, first introduced in the early chapters and recurring throughout in flashback as Paul recalls them, are exceptionally well-observed. The locations named in the book are all real and well-known to me, but it's not just the urban landscapes that are perfectly depicted: it's the harsh realities of life within them for those, like Paul, who have slipped through society's net.

Paul, who tells the story, frequently diverges from the narrative to give the reader a detailed ornithology lesson, and it becomes increasingly clear that his obsessive and wholly unsentimental interest in birds is his way of trying to maintain a thread of order through the chaos of his life. Also casually scattered throughout the story are incidental anecdotes about Paul's childhood. There was the time a couple tried to abduct him when he was lost at the park, for instance, and his friendship with a man who could have been either a rapist or a vigilante; there's the brief period he spent in care when his mother was sectioned, and the Christmas when he watched her cry uncontrollably through Dr Who while they ate a Christmas dinner of sausage rolls. A fine example of an unreliable narrator, Paul could easily have been a whiny, angst-ridden Holden Caulfield, but his remarkable lack of self-pity and his detached pragmatism make him far more interesting than that. I did see occasional echoes of Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but King Crow is a much darker and more complicated book, and there are far fewer certainties in Paul's character.

I read King Crow in one sitting, turning the pages with increasing urgency. Bleak and unsettling at times, even disturbing, it's also oddly uplifting and often touching. If you read this book and think some of the plot seems a little improbable, or a few things don't seem to quite add up, stick with it: it's worth it, and suddenly everything will make an odd, bittersweet kind of sense.

King Crow is published by Blue Moose, an independent Arts Council-supported publisher based in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, whose website states that the founders were 'tired of all the formulaic publishing that was on offer in the high street'. Certainly, there's not much that's formulaic about King Crow, and the novel has many hallmarks of a future cult classic - but equally, it fully deserves to become a bestseller.
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on 19 January 2011
King CrowIf it's an innovative story you're after, then this is certainly the book to choose. Beautifully written - with a twist which, upon second reading, seems so effortlessly woven into the plot, you'll understand exactly why you missed it - this is a fast moving, gripping tale from the perspective of a damaged teenager with an unusual way of coping. Informative, exciting, and, at times, intense!
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on 14 June 2011
My mother picked up this book to give me as it was set in Salford, where she still lives and I grew up. Stewart creates a good sense of place as well as a sympathetic portrait of Cooper, who has issues - and a good line in deadpan humour. The bird motif is beautifully done, and with a light touch. It's a gripping and original tale (even the more far-fetched plot twists are believable as you read them) and it certainly lingers with you. The ending - which I did not see coming - gave me a sleepless night. I rarely re-read a book, but King Crow may be the exception.
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on 30 April 2013
This is a first novel and as such, a brave mix of topics. First we have the "fantastic" story of the young boy's school life and adventures outside. The story's heavily interspersed with beautifully written passages describing the physical and personality aspects of various birds,the young boy's passionate hobby. I found myself wondering what sort of person these two very different parts old the novel would appeal to. My view is that the fantasy element is aimed at adolescents, but how many of those share a deep love of ornithology?
I not especially interested in birds. Although I appreciated the descriptive passages, they were lengthy and I found myself skimming them. The fantasy element was not my taste .
Whilst I don't wish to dismiss the book out of hand (I read it as a reading club exercise, therefore not my choice) I did find myself wondering just what audience he was aiming for . I didn't work for me.
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on 11 September 2012
I should start by saying that I enjoyed reading this book. It is my style of literature and, knowing the areas of Salford mentionned, I was able to feel like I was inside the head of the main character & able to imagine myself in his shoes.
In light of this, 3 stars may seem a bit stingey but my reason for doing so was that the "amazing twist" spoken about by other reviewers was glaringly obvious to me from very, very early in the book and so when it was revealed it left me with a sense of "Right, well I knew that so what else happens?" and then the book ends.
Therefore I feel that the author could have disguised the twist somewhat better & dealt with it's aftermath in more detail as opposed to the "I was doing this, somebody told me not to, so now I don't" way that it felt to me.
I would recommend the book to people & I would certainly read another book by the same author but I wouldn;t read this one again
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on 2 July 2012
I was hipped to this book by a pamphlet on New North-West Writing in NW libraries picked up from my local library. It's set in Salford which I'm fairly familiar with, however I was kind of freaked out towards the end when the plot led me to my actual place of work some 200 miles away from where Paul Cooper starts his journey.

I came out of this book feeling like I'd learned a lot about both animal and human behaviour. Michael Stewart's philosophical wit and beautifully drawn characters kept me wanting to know more.

I read a book a couple of month ago called Tollesbury Time Forever by Stuart Ayris. That book and King Crow together have helped me understand how fragile the mind can be and how I should never judge a book by it's cover. They are the standout books of my reading year so far, brilliant!
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on 22 June 2012
This was recommended by a friend and from the first page the pitch perfect prose kept me going. Each sentence cannot be faulted. Stewart achieves the distance needed to replicate the alienation of Paul Cooper, the main character, who we learn has had a hard time of it, growing up with a mother who has her own demons, and a father who has fled the nest. The information on birds was revelatory to me, too, proving the notion that readers (and film viewers) also like to learn something new.

I'm guessing Bluemoose is a small publisher - good for them for recognising this story's well crafted brilliance. It's worthy of winning a cabinet full of prizes - and should!
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on 20 January 2011
Out of the 10 books I have read in the last six months, Brighton Rock and this are my top two. I felt this book got more and more interesting as the story developed. Being Northern I definitely felt affinity with the areas and descriptions, but this is a book for all who want good page turning intelligent literature
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on 25 May 2012
Story of an obviously intelligent young boy from a rather dysfunctional background. Engagingly-written, but not as compelling as I'd hoped. And there is a twist, but not so knock-down as you might be led to believe reading other reviews. There are many positives in the tale, but the writing is sometimes matter-of-fact and I can't help but feeling that the bird-spotting parts got a better treatment than the main characters.

I'd encourange to you read it - I enjoyed it, but won't be re-reading.
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on 12 May 2011
I have just finished reading this novel and found it to be refreshingly original, both in terms of the written structure and also the approach, in which Paul Cooper retreats from a lonely, dysfunctional life into a world dominated by birds. His entire sense of identity is linked so strongly to the birds he loves and the narrative structures so much of the plot around his appreciation and knowledge of the subject matter.
I don't want to drop any spoilers in here but this is also a damn good story with a satisfying twist. Michael Stewart gives Cooper a believable voice, one that whilst sometimes desperate in its loneliness, is never prone to self pity and avoids the possible pitfall of relying too heavily on the bird angle and making the adolescent Cooper too off the wall to relate to. I was intrigued and touched by the narrative and as the plot threads come together the climax was unexpected until it unfolded and yet the clues had been skilfully woven in such a way that no reader could feel suddenly cheated.
I imagine that this title will build a steady and loyal fan base as time passes.
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