Blog Tour: The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith

From the PR: “Decades of spiralling drug resistance have unleashed a global antibiotic crisis. Ordinary infections are untreatable, and a scratch from a pet can kill. A sacrifice is required to keep the majority safe: no one over seventy is allowed new antibiotics. The elderly are sent to hospitals nicknamed ‘The Waiting Rooms’ … hospitals where no one ever gets well.

Twenty years after the crisis takes hold, Kate begins a search for her birth mother, armed only with her name and her age. As Kate unearths disturbing facts about her mother’s past, she puts her family in danger and risks losing everything. Because Kate is not the only secret that her mother is hiding. Someone else is looking for her, too.

Sweeping from an all-too-real modern Britain to a pre-crisis South Africa, The Waiting Rooms is epic in scope, richly populated with unforgettable characters, and a tense, haunting vision of a future that is only a few mutations away.”

Crikey, where to start with this one… talk about timing; Eve Smith’s addictive novel The Waiting Rooms is set in a not too distant future in which antibiotics are no longer effective and everyone is required to take extreme measures to prevent infections and outbreaks. Hitting a little close to home for the start of 2020 however, as prescient as it may seem, I’m sure this this book would have had an impact regardless.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Waiting Rooms, it makes for an engrossing read that delivers on multiple levels. While there’s plenty take in, as it were, in the world Eve Smith presents here it’s all well threaded together and natural – the world post antibiotics seems pretty disorientating but then I’m pretty sure it would / will be and it has the suitable effect of making you feel a bit “what the f.. is going on?” – not wanting to harp on about it but reading this in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic, where you can’t go out without eyeing people up from ten feet away and wondering if they’re harbouring an invisible killer, gives it that extra wallop too.

(Caution: whiff of a spoiler ahead) The story of Lily / Mary was a real gripper for me. While the narrative of Kate and the window into the post-crisis world it offers is good stuff too, the exploration of Mary’s being swayed from her intended course by the harsh reality of a TB ward and the far-reaching impact of that one decision is the stuff that kept me hooked – not to mention that the race (albeit it at shuffle speed) for her to find out how this is all catching up to her in what she thought was a safe and secure environment was great. It could be that I’ve been alarmed by the proximity of a post-antibiotic world for some time (don’t get me started on what’s being fed to cows) so it found a pretty primed reader, or that it then sent me off into an eye-opening exploration of the TB epidemic in Africa…  but it’s chiefly down to the fact that Eve Smith crafted a bloody compelling story line with the clout of some hard-edged ‘this is some real shit’ oomph to back it up.

Eve Smith has a real gift for setting her scenes too. Whether it’s a retirement home where the residents fear the slightest scratch, the reserves of South Africa amidst a poaching encroachment, a TB ward as the disease runs rampant or even during the ‘crisis’ itself, The Waiting Rooms’ environs are painted vividly and convincing and make for a book that’s hard to put down. Very much worth a read.

My thanks to Orenda Books for my copy of The Waiting Rooms and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part in this BlogTour.

Blog Tour: Call Me Joe by Martin Van Es and Andrew Croft

From the PR: “The world is on the brink of disaster.

The environment, society and mankind itself are facing extreme challenges in a world that is both more connected, and yet more divided than ever before. Fear and confusion seep into all parts of everyday life now, more than ever, the world needs one voice, one guide…

One day the Earth is plunged into darkness and when light appears again so does a man – call him Joe – claiming to be the son of God.

Can Joe bring the world’s most creative thinkers and leaders together to tackle the ills of mankind?

Can he convince us all to follow him before it’s too late?

In this compelling and prescient novel, Martin van Es and Andrew Crofts highlight the key concerns of our time and imagines a future where we, at last, all work together to ensure the future of our world and all the life that calls it home.”

There must be something in the water. This isn’t the first time this year I’ve been presented with the question – but what would it be like if Jesus came back? When the year was new, what seems like a lot longer than a couple of months ago now, my wife and I binged our way through Netflix’ Messiah and, now, I’ve just finished reading Call Me Joe by Martin Van Es and Andrew Crofts. TV and Netflix being the medium that it is, Messiah is very much a ‘thriller’ of a take, looking for high-stakes drama and thriller hooks. For Call Me Joe the focus is more on what could be achieved and why.

Let’s face it – the world is in a pretty sorry state at the moment. Aside from what you see when you turn on the news or fire up social media right now, as a long-standing Green voter I’ve spent a lot of time pointing out just how much irrevocable damage we’re doing to the planet we’re lucky to call home.

For the Jesus, or Joe, of Call Me Joe it’s that damage we’re doing to our planet, the levels of greed and inequality of the world that have prompted his return after two thousand years or so. Essentially – keep going as we’re going and mankind will be extinct. Quite what he’s been doing since isn’t really covered though there’s an amusing suggestion that he’s been exploring life on other planets.

But how would the son of the Big Man be met upon arrival these days? I’ve read a few takes on this over the years and, for someone who believes that Jesus was merely a marketing construct (yes, I’m that cynical), Call Me Joe offers a very interesting take. There is, of course, incredulity but if you’re capable of genuine miracles and switching off the sun, even the most sceptical will have to listen to you. Thankfully, Joe’s message isn’t about pushing a religious creed, it’s a more harmonious approach and the actions we need to take to make this world a better place – the flock having lost its way without its number one shepherd, as it were.

One of the interesting elements of Call Me Joe is the multiple view points – from the convinced to the hardened naysayers – and how each arrive at the same conclusion; that this “hippy healer” is the real deal.  In fact, what I enjoyed most about the reaction to Joe’s arrival wasn’t so much the crowds flocking to prostrate themselves at his feet, but the well crafted and extremely convincing response and interplay between the world’s political leaders, especially the nuanced take on the Russian president and team.

Of course, the idea of Jesus returning to the modern world is one thing but what makes a novel and a plot work is characters. Call Me Joe focuses primarily on Joe, of course, and Sophie – an atheist teaching at the school at which Joe first appears. Call Me Joe‘s Jesus is a more ‘human’ take on divinity and his relationship with his first ‘follower’ as well as Sophie’s arc keeps the reader invested. It’s these characters – along with the well thought out and that make Call Me Joe work as a novel as well as in its efforts to get across a few important and how these might be approached. Very much worth a read.

My thanks to Red Door Press for my copy.

Blog Tour: Mexico Street by Simone Buchholz

From the PR: “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…”

OK – so I have a feeling I missed Simone Buchholz’ last book, Beton Rouge, which is something I need to rectify quickly as her first Blue Night was great and Mexico Street is, frankly, fucking awesome – easily one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

It also means that I can say that you don’t need to have read it to thoroughly enjoy Mexico Street as Simone Buchholz does a great job of keeping things salient in terms of background filling without ever resorting to that “previously in the series” style narrative.

Everything about this book gets a massive thumbs-up from me – it ticks every box. Slow burning plot with the ability to kick you in the pills with a surprise? Yep – the plot of this one is just such a deep dive into the disturbing and fascinating Mhallami culture, the sleazy drugs-and-money slime of insurance… all the while trying to piece together a murder while the team themselves buckle and fray under pressures both professional and personal.

And what about the team; great characters? Check and check. Mexico Street – as with Blue Night before it – is populated with a crew of grippingly well portrayed characters that walk off the pages and are just as addictive as the story line. I could read a novel about these characters just interacting while driving round a ring road, let alone when they’re in the midst of an investigation as taxing as this one.

What about prose: thumbs up there? Oh fuck, yes! Buchholz’ writing style is a real blast of the good stuff (and a tip of the hat to Rachel Ward for a great job of keeping the style and rhythm so vital in the translation) -like an updated take on Ellroy’s telegraph style at times with a suggestion of Staalesen in the ability to paint these great scenes with the most minimal of brush strokes but with that unique element that is Simone Buchholz’ own voice – there’s nothing else on my shelves like this, it’s bloody brilliant.

In case you couldn’t tell I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend Mexico Street. Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour – they’re like buses; you don’t do one for nearly a year then three come along at once 😀. Nobody’s really gonna be going out for a bit so while there’s plenty of reading time to be had get your teeth into Mexico Street and check out the other stops on the blog tour:

Blog Tour: Deep Dark Night by Steph Broadribb

From the PR: “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 lock down. 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…”

Well, if reviewing a book called Containment wasn’t fitting enough… let’s get into a review for a bloody awesome locked-room style thriller: Deep Dark Night by Steph Broadribb where the bulk of action takes place in a building with a panic room on lock down and revels in claustrophobic tension…  pretty well timed huh?

I’m gonna put my hands up here and say I’m out of touch with Steph Broadribb’s Lori Anderson series – I really enjoyed the first entry Deep Down Dead but I’ve missed the two following entries and here I am on book four, revelling in every taught and well written page and wondering how / why the hell I missed Deep Blue Troube and Deep Dirty Truth and when I can catch up – because Deep Dark Night is one of best thrillers I’ve read in a while.

This also gives me plenty of justification in saying that while this is the fourth in the Lori Anderson series, it’s not necessary to have read the previous (though I get a feeling it might add a little more) and this works as cracking stand alone too. Lori Anderson, on a pretty dicey job of her own , is caught up by pure dumb luck in the midst of someone else’s elaborate and ultimately violent and bloody revenge plan and the combination of two independent attempts to wreak a form of justice against the same target(s) is beyond explosive in its action.

Steph Broadribb has a real gift for pulling you in from the off and then smacking you face on with enough action, intrigue and twists to keep you hooked in throughout – and a great story to boot. The revenge story that Lori gets herself caught up in is the ultimate of reveals – unexpected and massively rewarding.

From the confines of the locked down ‘panic’ to hanging from fire escapes dozens of stories from the ground to the chaos-ridden streets of Chicago in the aftermath of a mass black out, Deep Dark Night sets the action against an expertly depicted series of increasingly tense environments that help ratchet up the pace and excitement – if this were on the screen only the edges of seats would be used.

I’m not usually a big locked-room thriller fan, but this is an absolute belter with plenty of original takes on the idea too. I was genuinely caught up in the whole ‘who is Herron?’ element and the effect the increasing pressure has on the characters makes for a powerful read. Oh, and it’s bloody addictive too – once the (poker) game is a foot in this one there’s no real opportunity to put it down.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour, check out the other stops:

“This isn’t the Koskenkorva. This is fate.” Book Review: Little Siberia by Antti Tuomainen

From the PR: “A man with dark thoughts on his mind is racing along the remote snowy roads of Hurmevaara in Finland, when there is flash in the sky and something crashes into the car.

That something turns about to be a highly valuable meteorite. With euro signs lighting up the eyes of the locals, the unexpected treasure is temporarily placed in a neighbourhood museum, under the watchful eye of a priest named Joel.

But Joel has a lot more on his mind than simply protecting the riches that have apparently rained down from heaven. His wife has just revealed that she is pregnant. Unfortunately Joel has strong reason to think the baby isn’t his.

As Joel tries to fend off repeated and bungled attempts to steal the meteorite, he must also come to terms with his own situation, and discover who the father of the baby really is.

Transporting the reader to the culture, landscape and mores of northern Finland Little Siberia is both a crime novel and a hilarious, blacker-than-black comedy about faith and disbelief, love and death, and what to do when bolts from the blue – both literal and figurative – turn your life upside down.”

Antti Tuomainen is rapidly becoming one of my favourite writers. 2017’s The Man Who Died sits in my list of 50 Great Reads for a reason, Palm Beach, Finland was one of 2018’s finest – absurd, hilarious and thoroughly compelling – and now here I am finally getting round to reviewing last years’ Little Siberia and, let me tell you, it’s fucking brilliant too.

Packed with dark humour that is often uproariously funny, like a Nordic Noir directed by the Coen Brothers, like Fargo after a few shots of Finish vodka, Little Siberia is a delicious read that should sit well toward the top of the Best of 2019 lists – it does on mine.

Tuomainen has a real skill for creating worlds stuffed with fascinating and addictive characters and Little Siberia’s Hurmevaara abounds with just a population  – throw a museum piece around and you’re bound to hit at least two characters that deserve a book each.

The scene in which Joel pursues the would-be meteorite thieves though the snow to their hideout had me weeping with laughter at the delicious comic absurdity of it, not to mention rally driving with a dead body…. Wickedly funny, dripping with dark humour and hugely addictive, Little Siberia cracks along at a staggering pace from one scene to another before reaching its brilliant conclusion and manages to throw plenty of curve balls into the plot to keep you sufficiently hooked as well as laughing throughout.

Easily one of 2019’s best books, Little Siberia is highly recommended. Given that I’m a little late in reviewing this I really hope there’s another slice of gold from Antti Tuomainen arriving in 2020 too.

Blog Tour: Johnny Ruin by Dan Dalton

From the PR: “If a tree falls in a forest and Jon Bon Jovi is with you when it happens, is it still a figment of your imagination?

Depression can be hell.

Heartbroken and lonely, the narrator has made an attempt on his own life. Whether he meant to or not he can’t say. But now he’s stuck in his own head, and time is running out.

To save himself, he embarks on a journey across an imagined America, one haunted by his doomed relationship and the memory of a road trip that ended in tragedy. Help arrives in the guise of Jon Bon Jovi, rock star and childhood hero. An unlikely spirit guide, perhaps, but he’s going to give it a shot…”

There’s a review quote that’s on the PR flyer for this book that ponders who, if you find yourself in a dark wood in your life, you’d want to lead you out: “Virgil or Jon Bon Jovi?” To be fair, ‘these days’ I’d say JBJ. Not, as this book is keen to point out from the get go, Jon Bon Jovi of ‘Livin On A Prayer’ or even today’s grey-haired purveyor of faff, specifically the JBJ of ’94 vintage who “circa Cross Road had the shorter hair, the Henley shirt, the Lennon sunglasses. Gone was the poodle perm, the floor-length leather coat. 1994 Jon Bon Jovi was the coolest man I’d ever seen. This is that Jon Bon Jovi. The same one who’s urinating off the top of the tree trunk, his stream of hot piss narrowly missing me.”

Johnny Ruin has an original premise. Depressed and broken following the end of a relationship and some pretty horrific events that are gradually revealed as the book progresses, the narrator has taken a hefty wallop of pills and alcohol and has five ‘days’ to fix himself via a journey through his mind with, yes, Jon Bon Jovi as his guide / companion.

What starts as a funny and original idea with handling a quarter-life crisis via a trip through your own consciousness with one of New Jersey’s most famous soon grows into a more powerful and moving novel that gets pretty dark as the narrator desperately tries to ‘fix’ his mind even as his worst enemy – himself, of course – works to undermine his efforts.

There’s a stream of consciousness element to the writing which suits the idea that we’re travelling through the narrator’s mind, with key memories and thoughts punched up as billboards. Punchy and witty, the story gets pretty raw as we learn it’s not just a rough breakup that the narrator is struggling to move past as Johnny Ruin becomes a compelling and provoking story about loss, guilt and, of course, depression – there’s also plenty of music references and wit in the mix to keep it zipping along and ensure you’re rooting for the narrator too as he realises what a colossal arsehole he’s been at times. Let’s hope he gets a chance to make another go at it.

I thoroughly enjoyed Johnny Ruin – it’s a quick read but one that’s definitely worth picking up. Thanks to Anne Cater for my copy and asking me to take part in this Blog Tour.

 

I wake up in the morning, just glad my boots are on: Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

I read a line this morning that said “Springsteen sounds like an episode of Home Improvement if it was a song” and it’s thrown me off somewhat… I came here to work on a couple of the Bruce posts that are in the works and now all I can hear is Tim Allen going “uuuuuuuuAH?”

I will persevere though and talk about The Boss, specifically about his first new album in seven years, Western Stars.

I’ll be honest – at first I was nervous, apprehensive. Springsteen had been talking about his new ‘solo’ album* before he began his Broadway residency and the idea of an album that had been long-laboured over as with Human Touch made me wonder if it was ever going to see the light of day. Throw in producer Ron Aniello** and lack of E Street band…

I was wrong. Very fucking wrong. Western Stars is Springsteen’s strongest in a long time. Where it sits in terms of my Least to Most is still tbc but the songs on here are far and away some of his best story tunes to date.

Now a lot was said in the run up to the album’s launch, and still is being said, about the sound. How this album is supposed to be influenced by the southern-California  pop sound of the 70’s championed by Burt Bacharach or Glenn Campbell…. I don’t know a lot about that because, well; frankly it’s not something I’m all that familiar with. It is a different sound to what you might expect from Springsteen – there’s no snarling guitar or stomp on here. But… at the same time….. it’s not. Some of Springsteen’s later career highlights such as ‘Paradise’, ‘The Last Carnival’ or ‘The Devil’s Arcade’ found Bruce moving into more contemplative tunes with strings vs screaming guitars and the sounds on Working on a Dream had already hinted at a taste for the lush.

It was only a matter of time before he ditched the rock and tried the orchestra and there’s also a progression in his ‘solo’ album sounds, from Nebraska to Ghost of Tom Joad to Devils and Dust there were increasing embellishments on the sound from the initial ‘one man, a guitar and a four-track’ approach. Here we have the ‘solo’ album that is, in fact, one man, a producer, multiple guest musicians, former band members and several orchestras…

Yet it takes a little getting used to, this approach. Exactly one and two-thirds of a song, in fact. Opener ‘Hitch Hikin’ isn’t a success. From a lyrical point of view we’re good, it’s standard Bruce travelling-tune fare complete with reference to a ‘souped-up ’72’. Yet for a song with little weight to it, the production is way over the top – I’m looking at you Aniello – with strings and slobbered over it as though building to some cinematic climax that simply isn’t there. It’s jarring.

‘Wayfarer’ suffers a similar fate, at first. Lyrically we’re fine – love the line “Some folks are inspired sitting by the fire, slippers tucked under the bed, but when I go to sleep I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head” – but the orchestral accompaniment here sounds as fake and appropriate as the tits on ‘Baywatch’. It doesn’t work. Until 02:30 that is. Bruce pushes his voice a little too hard and, instead of collapsing, everything comes together behind him – horns, strings and melody complete and, suddenly, it’s working together in a, yes, Burt Bacharach soundtrack style.

From here on in it gets good. Really good. Where this album works so very well is when the strings and music is minimal – used more as a graceful backdrop to what are some of Springsteen’s finest character and story songs with gentle sweeps of string and lap steel to move between verses and time as on the title track:

The tex-mex flavour of ‘Sleepy Joe’s Cafe’ lifts the pace a little while there’s a cadence to Bruce’s lyrical delivery that almost brings to mind the upbeat numbers on The River. Lead ‘singles’*** ‘Tuscon Train’ and ‘Hello Sunshine’ differ the least from Springsteen’s songwriting and sound – hell, one of them is a bloody ‘train’ song complete with steam train sounds at the end – but are nonetheless strong tunes.

The real highlights for me, though are songs like ‘Drive Fast (the Stuntman)’ – a deceptively simple gentle guitar strum and piano accompany the first lines before the orchestra joins gently to rise and fall with the story in gorgeous surges and rolling out like the soundtrack to a gritty short film****.  When the instrumental passages and orchestral accompaniment blend with – rather than being the focus – Springsteen’s lyrics and initial melody as they does with so many songs on here, Western Stars is a triumph.

Western Stars has met with near unanimous acclaim including critics that usually scoff at Springsteen and with good reason. It manages to be both a move in a different direction and familiar at the same time. The sheer strength of Springsteen’s songwriting on this album means that his songs are both immediate and reveal more on each listen as the sounds unfold beneath them – sounds which, while initially unexpected, suddenly make sense and you end up wondering why he hadn’t tried this earlier.

Whether we get to hear any of these live is another question – there’s no tour for Western Stars – after performing twelve million shows on Broadway the man’s entitled to a break I guess. Plus there’s now talk of a new E Street Band album being written and worked on at the end of the year. Then there’s the Tracks 2 and second Seeger Sessions album and….

We’ll see…

*only live releases have been credited to anything other than ‘Bruce Springsteen’

**case in point: High Hopes and Wrecking Ball are among Springsteen’s low points in terms of production and sound IMHO

***does anybody really do singles anymore?

****one of which is apparently due in autumn.

Blog Tour: A Modern Family by Helga Flatland

From the PR: “When Liv, Ellen and Håkon, along with their partners and children, arrive in Rome to celebrate their father’s seventieth birthday, a quiet earthquake occurs: their parents have decided to divorce.

Shocked and disbelieving, the siblings try to come to terms with their parents’ decision as it echoes through the homes they have built for
themselves, and forces them to reconstruct the shared narrative of their childhood and family history.

A bittersweet novel of regret, relationships and rare psychological insights, A Modern Family encourages us to look at the people closest to
us a little more carefully, and ultimately reveals that it’s never too late for change…”

This post is late. A lesson in writing down passwords before you change computers, not a reflection on my enjoyment of this novel.

A literary exploration of family and personal relationships in a style and narrative that brings to mind Jonathan Franzen’s mighty The Corrections, with a unique and charming Norwegian flavour, Helga Flatland’s A Modern Family is a real accomplishment of a novel.

Unassuming and quietly powerful, Flatand’s prose is very much of the to-be-savoured type, a real delight. Take the opening paragraph as an example: “The Alpine peaks resemble shark’s teeth, jutting upwards through the dense layer of cloud that enshrouds Central Europe as if the creature’s jaws are eternally prepared to clamp down. The mountaintops force the wind in various directions, pulling at the plane from all angles, and we’re so small here, all in a row, the backs of heads in front of me shuddering in unison.”

Praise too should go to Rosie Hedger for her translation work here and capturing the poetry in Flatland’s prose.

There’s a real power in this poetry, though, as A Modern Family tackles some heavy subject matter – our own sense of identity in a relationship, the importance of family and connection, the nature and importance of commitment  and how we cope when our perspective of the world is changed by means outside of our own control.

On a personal level, I was nearing the end of my teens when my parents divorced and, even when viewed some two decades on,  I found a real sense of truth in Liv’s narratives as she struggles to find her place in a world where the reliable and fixed is no longer – has everything to this point been a lie?

As the eldest of my siblings, I also very much appreciated the split-narrative approach employed by Helga Flatland – extremely effective in highlighting both the complexities of family relationships and just how easy it is to get lost in your own point of view own a matter given how one event can be seen and felt in several different ways. And, of course, the warm humour that runs throughout.

Yet I’m pretty sure that you don’t need to have any personal frame of reference to appreciate A Modern Family – Helga Flatland’s novel is a compelling and nuanced peek into modern family life and drama that manages to focus on some important questions without ever feeling like it’s trying to push an agenda. A snapshot that could be of any family – much like Ibsen’s doll house, the clue is very much in the indefinite article – this novel serves as a peak at a modern family tackling some universal dilemmas and is most definitely worth a read or two.

My thanks, and apologies for lateness, to Karen at Orenda for my copy of A Modern Family and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part in this BlogTour.

Blog Tour: Wolves at the Door by Gunnar Staalesen

From the PR:“One dark January night a car drives at high speed towards PI Varg Veum, and comes very close to killing him. Veum is certain this is no accident, following so soon after the deaths of two jailed men who were convicted for their participation in a case of child pornography and sexual assault … crimes that Veum himself once stood wrongly accused of committing.

While the guilty men were apparently killed accidentally, Varg suspects that there is something more sinister at play … and that he’s on the death list of someone still at large.

Fearing for his life, Veum begins to investigate the old case, interviewing the victims of abuse and delving deeper into the brutal crimes, with shocking results. The wolves are no longer in the dark … they are at his door. And they want vengeance.”

How do I begin to review the latest novel from one of my favourite authors? It’s not easy – I’ve been staring at the screen wondering how to kick this off for a while now. It’s tricky to find a way to sum up just how bloody good a writer Gunnar Staalesen is while at the same time pointing out that Wolves At The Door finds him still at the top of his game. I can’t pour further superlatives on Staalesen than I already have, and I really don’t want to give away too much of the plot of this one – it needs to be read and savoured.

I’ve often compared reading Staalesen to enjoying a good coffee. You don’t throw it back like an espresso and get all hopped-up like an airport-thriller. You savour it, enjoy it and let it ease into your system in an enveloping warmth before you realise you’re hooked and something has got your heart moving a little faster.

I suppose that’s a pretty good way to get going, right? It’s true: Gunnar Staalesen is among the top-tier of writers and the latest Varg Veum novel continues a hot streak that’s about forty years long now.

One of the many joys of reading Staalesen’s work is the precision and warmth of his prose. While there’s not an excess word there’s never a sense of rush; the plot unfolds with expert precision and timing rather than bounding along at a thrill-a-minute pace, even when Varg is both hunter and prey. There’s something deeply satisfying and rewarding in the way the plot of Staalesen’s novels, Wolves At The Door included, comes together, piece by piece as Veum slowly pulls at threads and finds links between the past and present and makes his discoveries by putting in the hard work rather than kicking in doors and heads – not to mention the fact that Veum is, almost despite himself, an endearing character.

Speaking of threads – Wolves At The Door picks up the thread from Wolves In The Dark – with a few vital character developments from Big Sister touched upon too – and it’s a heavy subject matter: the horrendous offences Varg was accused of in that novel and several others were guilty of don’t make for light reading. Yet Staalesen handles the subject matter with care and without exploitation. There are too many third-rate writers out there that would use child abuse and pornography for shock value and handle it like turd in a pool. Staalesen is a writer who knows how to find the heart in a story rather than the shock and that’s infinitely more affective.

I’m now seven novels in to my discovery of the Varg Veuem series. Prior to Wolves At The Door I’d not long finished Yours Until Death, Staalesen’s second from 1979. There’s a steadfastness about Veum that runs through the entire series – he’s an honest, yet flawed character driven by all the right motivations no matter the cost. Yet, forty-plus years in, Staalesen is still able to make his detective a compelling character with enough mystery and development (there’s a big one right at the end of Wolves at the Door) to keep readers wanting more, all the while delivering original and heavy-hitting stories – I don’t think there’s many writers that make that claim, regardless of genre.

If there’s a standard for Nordic Noir then it’s Staalesen who sets it and he sets it bloody high.

My thanks, as always, to Karen at Orenda for both introducing me to Staalesen’s work and keeping my addiction fed, and to Anne Cater for invtiting me to take part in this blogtour.

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.