Blog Tour: Breakers by Doug Johnstone

From the PR: “Seventeen-year-old Tyler lives in one of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas. Whilst trying to care for his little sister and his drug-addicted mother, he’s also coerced into robbing rich people’s homes by his bullying older siblings. One night whilst on a job, his brother Barry stabs a homeowner and leaves her for dead. And that ’s just the beginning of their nightmare, because they soon discover the woman is the wife of Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord, Deke Holt.

With the police and the Holts closing in, and his shattered family in terrible danger, Tyler is running out of options, until he meets posh girl Flick in another stranger ’s house. Could she be his salvation? Or will he end up dragging her down with him? ”

Breakers is the second Doug Johnstone novel I’ve read this year and it’s another belter. I reckon I must have torn through this book in two or three frenzied ‘sittings’ – it  rips along at a cracking pace and packs a huge amount in to its 230 addictive pages.

Johnstone has created that rare thing – a novel that’s punchy and gritty yet also full of heart and capable of being deeply moving, grim and yet optimistic. Tyler’s life is portrayed in dark, harrowing detail and yet his character’s soul and light mean it’s impossible not to root for him – this diamond managing to shine in the very roughest of environs.

Breakers gets dark, unflinchingly so at times – that Tyler is only 17 and exposed to a life of such violence, crime and narcotics makes it all the more so. Johnstone is unflinching in his film-like description of Edinburgh’s roughest of parts and the lives of Tyler and his family. Tyler’s brother, Barry, is one of the most objectionable and hateful characters I’ve read in a while- that’s a compliment to Johnstone’s writing, by the way, as he writes such vivid and convincing characters – and there are some shocking moments before Breakers reaches its bloody conclusion. I mean, for ffs, the description of Barry and his dogs forever barking and probing with their noses and the constant threat of his casual and unpredictable violence and willingness to nearly kill to ensure obedience had me on edge on Tyler’s behalf.

But it’s not all dark – that’s the thing: Breakers is shot through with a sense of optimism and hope in Tyler as he tries desperately to find a way to protect and keep his little sister, Bean, safe and find a way out of the mess. His relationship with Flick is both charming and amusing and serves well as a counterpoint to the hell that awaits back in the squalid family flat. The hope that, even if it’s just once and despite the fact that terror is closing in from all angles, something good will happen to the kid that deserves it (it’s not like he voluntarily become a house breaker) will keep you hanging on to the end – and it’s worth doing so.

I very much enjoyed Breakers and highly recommend getting your hands on a copy. I’ve moved my pruning shears from my shed into the my more secure garage as a result, too.

Thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy of the book and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this Blogtour.

Blog Tour: Turbulent Wake by Paul E. Hardisty

From the PR: “A bewitching, powerful and deeply moving story of love, loss and grief. This extraordinary departure from the critically acclaimed thriller writer Paul E Hardisty explores the indelible damage we can do to those closest to us, the tragedy of history repeating itself and ultimately, the power of redemption in a time of change. Paul drew on his own experiences of travelling around
the world as an engineer, from the dangerous deserts of Yemen, the oil rigs of Texas, the wild rivers of Africa, to the stunning coral cays of the Caribbean.

Ethan Scofield returns to the place of his birth to bury his father, with whom he had a difficult relationship. Whilst clearing out the old man’s house, he finds a strange manuscript, a collection of vignettes and stories that cover the whole of his father ’s turbulent and restless life.

As his own life unravels before him, Ethan works his way through the manuscript, searching for answers to the mysteries that have plagued him since he was a child. What happened to his little brother? Why was his mother taken from him? And why, in the end, when there was no one left for him, did his own father push him away? ”

I’m in at the start here… first on the BlogTour for Paul E. Hardisty’s new novel Turbulent Wake. This means I’m gonna be the first to dish out the superlatives for this astoudingly affective and brilliantly written story. Let’s get to it then…

Taking a step away from the Clay Straker series, Paul E. Hardisty has delivered a richly detailed, evocative journey of a novel that was an absolute joy to read.

In my review for Hardisty’s The Evolution of Fear I stated that  what “elevates Hardisty above the pack is the sheer quality of his writing, the intelligence and complexity of the plot” along with his ability to draw on his own experiences and historical knowledge and render them as important elements in his stories, more than just setting. That still holds true: Hardisty finds the poetry in fact and transforms it into compelling and moving prose, finding its home in literary fiction with Turbulent Wake.

Hardisty has drawn on many elements of his life and knowledge to deliver a  masterpiece. Turbulent Wake threads a compelling, multi-layered story that’s enthused by vivid evocations of both time and place and told with a rich prose and narrative. As much as the world-tour of locations are masterfully detailed and bought to life and add to the story, it’s the characters that really make Turbulent Wake such a great read – their personal journeys as much as their geographical. It’s impossible not to be caught up in the life of ‘the engineer’ or his son,  to feel for their losses and root for their ‘happy’ ending as Ethan begins to understand more about his father’s life and what made him and, as a result, Ethan, end up as he did. We’re talking about a real talent here.

I really don’t want to drop any spoilers here so I’ll try and talk in broad brush strokes… but there were moments of quiet devastation in Turbulent Wake that cut me as much as those of, say Juame Cabré’s Confesssions or even recent de Bernières novels; such is the quiet grace and unassuming power that enthuses Hardisty’s prose.

Other people on this BlogTour (do check out those other stops) will, without a shadow of doubt, pour further much-deserved praise on this book and tell you that you really should read it. So let me take the position afforded to me as the first on those stops to say: Turbulent Wake is a serious contender for book of the year, it’s a novel of intense power and soul and is definitely worth getting your hands on.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the BlogTour.

Blog Tour: Welcome to The Heady Heights by David F. Ross

From the PR: “It ’s the year punk rock was born, Concorde entered commercial service and a tiny Romanian gymnast changed the sport forever…

Archie Blunt is a man with big ideas. He just needs a break for them to be realised. In a bizarre brush with the light entertainment business, Archie unwittingly saves the life of the UK’s top showbiz star, Hank ‘Heady’ Hendricks, and immediately seizes the opportunity to aim for the big time. With dreams of becoming a musical impresario, he creates a new singing group called The High Five with five unruly working-class kids from Glasgow’s East End. The plan? Make it to the final of Heady’s Saturday night talent show, where fame and fortune awaits…

But there’s a complication. Archie’s made a fairly major misstep in his pursuit of fame and fortune, and now a trail of irate Glaswegian bookies, corrupt politicians and a determined Scottish WPC are all on his tail…

A hilarious, poignant nod to the elusiveness of stardom, in an age when ‘making it’ was ‘having it all’, Welcome to the Heady Heights is also a dark, laugh-out-loud comedy, a poignant tribute to a bygone age and a delicious drama about desperate men, connected by secrets and lies, by accidents of time and, most of all, the city they live in.”

Four novels in and news of a new David F Ross book is guaranteed to be “yes please!” from me.  Why? Well, first off: he’s bloody funny. Many is the time I’ve had to stifle a laugh while reading one of his previous novels while others either sleep or for fear of being looked at as if I’ve farted in church. Welcome to The Heady Heights is one of the funniest books I’ve read this year, a natural and effortless humour that balances a warm, tender humour with some wickedly dark laughs and is stuffed with some real cracking lines (“Heady Hendricks sucked ma boaby!” had me laughing for a long time). The humour in Welcome to The Heady Heights serves as both pure comedy and relief at some of the novel’s bleaker moments – it’s like a literary “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life”, singing ‘life’s a piece of shit’ as fate kicks you in the scrot’.

Which brings me on to the ‘secondly’ – Mr Ross has a real talent for portraying the bittersweet of life’s underdogs. Those characters like Archie Blunt who know their own limitations, have calmly accepted the blows life has dealt them, but still aims to try and make a break for a better life. It makes reading the Welcome to The Heady Heights a real pleasure and if you’re not rooting for Archie then there’s something wrong with you. David F. Ross peoples his novel with characters that live and breath so vividly within its pages that it makes  Welcome to The Heady Heights a thoroughly engaging and compelling read.

Of course, given that my own record collection (which includes a 45 from the Miraculous Vespas) is once again challenging the confines of practical storage, it would be remiss of me not to point out that one of the delights of reading Ross’ work is the way in which he blends music into his stories. Like Scorsese using soundtracks to place and pace his movies, David F. Ross uses music in his novels to wonderful effect and I’ll admit openly that for the last three of his novels I’ve headed first to the playlist at the back of each to see what’s going to get a spin during the narrative. Ross’ record collection is one I’d like to flick through for sure.

Now, all of these factors alone would make Welcome to The Heady Heights worth reading. What makes it an absolute belter of a book is that David F. Ross takes these elements and marries them to a fucking brilliant story line – the depths and scope of Welcome to The Heady Heights is phenomenal. From the aspirations of Archie Blunt to a ‘holy crap’ plot that takes in a secretive, dark and disturbing society, murder, extortion and crooks both small time and big, Ross spins a story with so many different facets and so many well realised and engrossing narratives that his place as a master storyteller can never be doubted.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blogtour- reading Welcome to The Heady Heights is well recommended. If I were in the habit of dropping stars there’d be five right here.

Blog Tour: Inborn by Thomas Enger

From the PR: “When a teenager is accused of a high-school murder, he finds himself subject to trial by social media … and in the dock. A taut, moving and chilling thriller by one of Nordic Noir’s finest writers.

When the high school in the small Norwegian village of Fredheim becomes a murder scene, the finger is soon pointed at seventeen-year-old Even. As the investigation closes in, social media is ablaze with accusations, rumours and even threats, and Even finds himself the subject of an online trial as well as being in the dock … for murder?

Even pores over his memories of the months leading up to the crime, and it becomes clear that more than one villager was acting suspiciously … and secrets are simmering beneath the calm surface of this close-knit community. As events from the past play tag with the present, he’s forced to question everything he thought he knew. Was the death of his father in a car crash a decade earlier really accidental? Has his relationship stirred up something that someone is prepared to kill to protect?

It seems that there may be no one that Even can trust.

But can we trust him?

A taut, moving and chilling thriller, Inborn examines the very nature of evil, and asks the questions: How well do we really know our families? How well do we know ourselves?”

CAUTION: A tiny whiff of a spoiler is contained within..

Thomas Enger’s Inborn has a fantastic opening. By this I really don’t mean the rest of it isn’t worth the trees it’s printed on, far from it.. but that opening murder, bloody hell. Johannes Eklund is a teenager with a bright future who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. His attempt to flee and his final moments make for as powerful an opener as I’ve read this year: a vividly brutal murder where you feel the fear and panic as it consumes Johannes, made all the more powerful as, beyond being a particularly violent end, it’s happening to a kid in his teens.

After the initial hook and shock Inborn is a real slow burner at first as Enger lines up all the pieces – aided by nicely employing different narratives- and then there’s a moment about a third of the way in where it caught me and I wasn’t able to put it down until the early hours of the morning when I’d finished the whole thing with each of my “ah so he/she’s the killer” assumptions blown apart as soon as they’d formed.

Thomas Enger, as anyone who’s read his Henning Juul books will agree, has a real knack for writing parents dealing with the murder of their child in a way that’ll punch you right in the guts and those scenes in Inborn – parents rendered numb and desperate with grief – are particularly affecting.

Much as with his Henning Juul series, Inborn slowly but surely unravels a compelling and intricate web of lies that have been lurking beneath the surface of this small town. I was thoroughly gripped as the reason Mari Lindgren ended her relationship with Even was revealed – even if (here’s that SPOILER), in the end, it had nothing to do with her murder after all.

The characters that populate Inborn are richly detailed and the fact that they made me feel old shows how well written the teen characters are. The gits. As great as the Even narrative and character is, the stand out for me is Yngve Mork. The local policeman, barely coming to terms with the recent death of his wife is a beautifully written character that I could happily go through a series of novels.

Inborn is a thoroughly engrossing and rewarding read with plenty of sharp turns and surprises to ensure you stay hooked to the end. Exceedingly well written, brilliantly plotted and wholeheartedly recommended.

My thanks, always, to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part in this blog tour.

Book Review: Fault Lines by Doug Johnstone

From the PR: “A little lie … a seismic secret … and the cracks are beginning to show…

In a re-imagined contemporary Edinburgh, where a tectonic fault has opened up to produce a new volcano in the Firth of Forth, and where tremors are an everyday occurrence, volcanologist Surtsey makes a shocking discovery.

On a clandestine trip to new volcanic island The Inch, to meet Tom, her lover and her boss, she finds his lifeless body, and makes the fatal decision to keep their affair, and her discovery, a secret. Desperate to know how he died, but also terrified she’ll be exposed, Surtsey’s life quickly spirals into a nightmare when someone makes contact – someone who claims to know what she’s done…”

I finished Fault Lines right at the end of last year and it’s still been occupying space in my head; it’s so bloody captivating and stuffed with lots of those ‘ahhhaaa’ moments.

I really like the premise for Fault Lines  – a new Volcanic island off the coast of Edinburgh birthed following the opening of a tectonic plate – and Doug Johnstone uses it as the dramatic centerpiece of one hell of a gripping thriller.

Not to mention the use of the Inch as a metaphor of what can happen when things rumbling away in secret explode into the light and rips things apart, as Surtsey finds out after the discovery of Tom’s body. Things only gets worse for her – someone knows she was there. Not only that but they seem to know an awful lot more about her secrets and begin to ratchet up both the pressure and the body count as Fault Lines tears along at a gripping pace as those revelations are thrown into the light and she’s left to deal with the fall out from them all the while trying to discover who killed Tom – something for which she is the main suspect.

Fault Lines is a tightly plotted little gem with more twists and turns in its 200-or-so pages than many twice its length. Doug Johnston also manages to pack in a richly portrayed group of characters, a compelling emotional story for Surtsey and her family and a good amount of humour and charm. Not a singly blood word is wasted and there are moments of genuine ‘what the hell?!’ and as for the final couple of twists; brilliant. Did not see the contents of that letter coming!

Fault Lines by Doug Johnston is a compelling thriller with a unique and imaginative premise and impressive plot that’s definitely worth a read.

My thanks, again, to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy.

Book Review: The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl

From the PR: “In 1942, Jewish courier Ester is betrayed, narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo. In a great haste, she escapes to Sweden, saving herself. Her family in Oslo, however, is deported to Auschwitz.

In Stockholm, Ester meets the resistance hero, Gerhard Falkum, who has left his little daughter and fled both the Germans and allegations that he murdered his wife, Åse, who helped Ester get to Sweden. Their burgeoning relationship ends abruptly when Falkum dies in a fire.

And yet, twenty-five years later, Falkum shows up in Oslo. He wants to reconnect with his daughter. But where has he been, and what is the real reason for his return? Ester stumbles across information that forces her to look closely at her past, and to revisit her war-time training to stay alive…

Written with Dahl’s trademark characterization and elegant plotting, The Courier sees the hugely respected godfather of Nordic Noir at his best, as he takes on one of the most horrific periods of modern history, in a exceptional, shocking thriller.”

First read of 2019 and, while it’s really early days to be making such statements given we’ve just passed the halfway point of January; The Courier is going to take some beating in the best read of 2019 stakes.

An instant classic, The Courier contains everything I look for in a book – it’s set in WW2 and uses that time period’s underlying menace and drama, it’s got a deep, involved plot that spans across different periods in time, there’s mystery and espionage everywhere, it’s populated by great characters that you actually care about and it’s written in the formidable style of the master that is Kjell Ola Dahl. It almost feels like it was tailor made for my bookshelves.

There’s a great many well-read books  on WW2 in my library yet, aside from David Howarth’s We Die Alone (recommended if you’re after some non-fiction on the subject) and summaries in overview works, life in Norway during its occupation is an area I was fairly unaware of – certainly when you factor in the persecution of the country’s Jewish population at the hands of both Nazi intruder and Norway’s own collaborative government and STAPO. The Courier details this period in a manner that is both authoritative and realistic as a result of the author’s research / knowledge without being heavy handed in its portrayal and it’s that which makes it a great piece of historical fiction – as well as adding an additional level of underlying menace to the tension of the mystery in those chapters set in 1942.

What am I trying to say here? I’ve often toyed with setting a story against the backdrop of global conflict and the possibilities but it’s full of pitfalls. Using a period as well documented and broad as the Second World War can go either way – it takes a gifted writer to frame a story against such a vast backdrop and not throw the kitchen sink at it. For every Winter in Madrid or All The Light We Cannot See there’s a dozen City of Thieves –  that overdo it and try to hit try every emotional and historical touch point whether it’s relevant or not.

Kjell Ola Dahl is an exceptionally talented writer and manages to set a gripping story against a backdrop of global menace and terror that perfectly blends the historical with the thrill of fiction in an authoritative manner.  The Courier sits up there with my favourites of the historical fiction genre like Fatherland and Gorky Park and the aforementioned All The Light We Cannot See.

The Courier is peopled with characters that really hook you in and a mystery that will keep you glued until its, frankly, shocking reveal. Kjell Ola Dahl, best known for his Oslo Detectives novels, has here created a deep, slow-burning thriller that’s not only one of the best reads of the year but one of the best reads of the genre.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy – it really was right up my alley .

Turning Pages: 50 Great Reads

So we’ve entered that time of the year known as ‘List Season’.

I don’t think I can honestly drop a ‘Best of 2018’ list this year as I’ve only given a handful of new albums a real deep listen and most of my reads this year were not published in 2018 so it would be a case of shuffling those into an arbitrary order. Plus – who gives a flip.

However… an ALL TIME list… now that’s something that’s always worth sitting up and paying attention to in between wrapping up gifts and eating your own body weight in Christmas dinner, right?

Well, William over at a1000mistakes recently dropped two such lists – 50 Great Reads and a Top 50 Movies. I don’t think I could get a list of 50 films together but books… that I can do.

So, without further preamble, here are my 50 favourite books /reads in no order other than alphabetical – though if it’s in bold it’s in the Top 10. This is also limited to fiction or I’d have been here all day:

Wasted Morning – Gabriela Adameșteanu

How to Be Brave – Louise Beech 

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin-  Louis de Bernières

Birds Without Wings – Louis de Bernières

Heart of a Dog – Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov*

Confessions – Jaume Cabré

The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

White Noise – Don DeLillo

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

LA Confidential – James Ellroy

Perfidia  – James Ellroy

Alone In Berlin – Hans Fallada

Iron Gustav – Hans Fallada

Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks 

Hell at the Breach – Tom Franklin

The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

The Diary of a Nobody – George & Wheedon Grossmith

Epiphany Jones – Michael Grothaus

The Good Soldier Svejk – Jaroslav Hašek

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway

Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes

The President’s Last Love – Andrey Kurkov

Death and the Penguin – Andrey Kurkov

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

The Life of Pi – Yann Martell

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Dr Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

Pyramids – Terry Pratchett

Men at Arms – Terry Pratchett

See You Tomorrow – Tore Renberg

The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

For Two Thousand Years – Mihail Sebastian

Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith

Perfume – Patrick Süskind

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 

Where Roses Never Die – Gunnar Staalesen

Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

Pereira Maintains – Antonio Tabucchi

The Little Friend – Donna Tartt

A Fraction of the Whole – Steve Toltz

Jihadi: A Love Story – Yusuf Toropov

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

The Man Who Died – Antti Tuomainen 

Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Jules Verne

Mother Night – Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughter House 5 – Kurt Vonnegut

Memoirs of Hadrian – Marguerite Yourcenar

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

*Master and Margarita is, in all likelihood, my favourite read full stop. However, as with all translated fiction, finding the translation is crucial and can make or break a book. The Penguin edition published in 2006 with the blue cover is the best I’ve found and the fact that this was the version given to me as a gift by my wife one day in Oxford after she expressed disbelief that I’d not yet read it only helps ensure it’ll not be toppled from the top of this list.