Book Review: The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech

From the PR: “Be careful what you wish for…  Long ago, Andrew made a childhood wish, and kept it in a silver box. When it finally comes true, he wishes he hadn’t… Long ago, Ben made a promise and he had a dream: to travel to Africa to volunteer at a lion reserve.

When he finally makes it, it isn’t for the reasons he imagined… Ben and Andrew keep meeting in unexpected places, and the intense relationship that develops seems to be guided by fate. Or is it? What if the very thing that draws them together is tainted by past secrets that threaten everything?

A dark, consuming drama that shifts from Zimbabwe to England, and then back into the past, The Lion Tamer Who Lost is also a devastatingly beautiful love story, with a tragic heart…”

Hmmm… once again I find myself sitting here wondering how to review a book and how to review one as enjoyable and brilliantly written as The Lion Tamer Who Lost without giving away any spoilers.

I think I’ll start by saying that Louise Beech is a sod. I’ve used the analogy before but reading one of Louise’s novels is akin to watching a Pixar film: you know (or you bloody well should by now) that there’s gonna be an emotional punch to the gut coming up and you start with your guard up but she’s so good at pulling you into the story and the characters that you’re so immersed in it that you forget and then it really flaws you. Only this time she does it twice!!

This is not a bad thing. In fact, there is not a single bad thing about The Lion Tamer Who Lost. I thoroughly enjoyed every page and, once again, Louise Beech refuses to shy away from subject matters that other writers may fear to touch.

For a non-thriller (I have no idea what ‘genre’ most novels are these days nor do I care to) there’s a huge amount of mystery and suspense in The Lion Tamer Who Lost and it really keeps you gripped  – from the moment it’s hinted at – “He came here for the now. For this. He surveys again the new and beautiful land. Every day, every moment, he tries to hard not to think about…” – in the opening pages it’s a case of “what? what is it???” and a real desire to find out exactly what Ben escaped in England even as you’re drawn into the ongoing drama unfolding in Zimbabwe.

As to how Louise Beech reveals ‘it’… it’s clear she’s really hit her stride as a writer now. The narrative ducks and dives between moments of drama and revelation in the past and present and across different character voices as fragments become whole and viewpoints become fully rounded and the whole story is woven masterfully together.

Oh and it’s bloody funny too and charming and warm throughout, written with real attention to character detail and little nuances that make these more than just entries on a page (or Kindle or whatever you substitute print, binding and bookshops for 😉 ) and really helps you get pulled in to the story and root for a positive outcome for them – lookout: here comes that Pixar Punch from Mrs Beach!

Put simply, The Lion Tamer Who Lost is a bloody brilliant, absorbing and compelling read that will knock you sideways with its emotional honesty and power. I genuinely look forward to the next novel from Louise.

My thanks, as always, to Karen at Orenda Books – a purveyor  of nothing but the finest fiction – for my copy.

Pages turning, 2018 Part Deux

It’s been a while since I put one of these review wrap ups together. To be honest I’ve barely read anything. I’ve been so busy watching the E! Network, protesting against the EU and for a hard Brex… nah I can’t. I’ve read a shite load this year. We’re halfway through the year and I’m pretty much on track to complete the (not seriously so) challenge I set of 40 books again.

Given that it’s been a while since I’ve done a wrap-up of my recent reads this is something of a ‘bumper’ edition, grab a coffee….

Forest of the Hanged by Liviu Rebreanu. was gifted to me by my wife and is a book I read in two hits: I needed to take a break as the first half was very intense and perhaps caught me at the wrong time… an echo of the black dog means I’m not always able to process books that deal with certain themes. However, once I got back to it I was hooked. Liviu Rebreanu based, at least partly, this First World War novel on the experience of his brother who was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army but was hanged for espionage and desertion in 1917. What starts as a very heavy exploration of a reaction to death becomes an insanely good exploration on the themes of identity, faith and, of course, how ordinary people change in the face of the extraordinary.A

At the start of the year I read Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith and loved every page. I was keen to read more of his Arkady novels but, for some reason, they don’t seem as readily available – at least not the second, Polar Star, and I don’t want to read out of sequence. But The Girl From Venice is a ‘stand alone’ novel from Martin Cruz Smith that seemed right up my alley: a tense, literary thriller set in the Second World War as the German army pulls out of Italy? Sign me up. This is a great little novel – I say ‘little’, it’s about 300 pages depending on your format but I powered through this – that’s definitely worth a read.

Håkan Nesser was among the first ‘nordic noir’ authors I read, a few years ago now, and The Inspector and the Silence is only the second of his that I’ve read – though, in sequence, it places before the only other in the Van Veeteren series, The Unlucky Lottery. That’s not because I didn’t enjoy that novel – far from it – more a case that Nesser’s novels don’t seem to be as widely distributed, nor do they pop up so often in the used book stores whose shelves I rummage. A little of a tougher and more disturbing subject matter sits at the heart of the deceptively calm The Inspector and the Silence than my previous outing with Van Veeteren (who barely appeared in The Unlucky Lotter) yet there’s something compelling and satisfying about reading these slower-paced and intricately plotted thrillers – much like the work of Gunnar Staalesen – that means I do need to keep an eye out for more by Nesser. Thankfully, I’ve got one sitting on my shelf waiting its turn.

Of course, when it comes to complex and intricately plotted beasts, there’s nothing like a slab of James Ellroy. Thankfully it’s been so long since I saw the film that the entire plot of L.A Confidential was new to me when I picked up the novel – I’m trying to make my way through Ellroy’s works in semi-order with the L.A Quartet then the Underworld USA trilogy, hopefully before the next in his Second L.A Quartet, This Storm, is published in paperback. There really is nobody that can write anything as hard-hitting, absorbing and thorough as Ellroy. There was a point, about a third of the way in that I was still inclined to think that The Big Nowhere had a couple of inches on this one but then it kicked up a notch – and that’s the thing about Ellroy, he writes these massive novels that keep ratcheting it up and blowing everything wide open when other authors would be looking to stitch it all up for conclusion. This series keeps getting better, on to White Jazz.

Of course; I don’t only read books that are part of a series, but… while we’re on the subject of crime novels and series that keep getting better…  I’m now almost up to date with the Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series (I think he took a few years off) having also demolished Police. While it’s often considered in line with the airport boilers, Nesbo’s writing and, in particular, the Harry Hole series has been continually evolving and moving in broader strokes with every novel – bringing in political turpitude, social commentary and further-reaching character arcs along into each ‘stand alone’ novel in the series.

I’m also continuing to grow my Terry Pratchett collection and re-read the Discworld series, with recent additions Wyrd Sisters and Jingo having scratched that itch in the best way possible.

Blog Tour: Dead of Night by Michael Stanley

From the PR: “When freelance journalist, Crystal Nguyen, heads to South Africa, she thinks she’ll be researching an article on rhino-horn smuggling for National Geographic, but within a week she’s been hunting poachers, hunted by their bosses, and then arrested in connection with a murder. And everyone is after a briefcase full of money that she doesn’t want, but can’t get rid of…

Fleeing South Africa, she goes undercover in Vietnam, trying to discover the truth before she’s exposed by the local mafia. Discovering the plot behind the money is only half the battle. Now she must convince the South African authorities to take action before it’s too late, both for the rhinos and for her. She has a powerful story to tell, if she survives long enough to tell it…

Fast-paced, relevant and chilling, Dead of Night is a stunning new thriller from Michael Stanley, author of the award-winning Detective Kubu series, introducing an intriguing new protagonist, while exposing one of the most vicious conflicts on the African continent…”

This is not the novel I was expecting when I ripped open the padded envelope and found the new Michael Stanley (writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip) book inside. For, you see, Michael Stanley are the authors behind Detective Kubu – one of my favourite characters – and I was honestly expecting another in that series.

In a recent guest post on Have Books Will Read as part of this blogtour, the authors explained that the “features that make a series rich – the history and backstory of the main character – also constrain what one can do and where one can go…. We wanted to try something different – a different style of book with a completely different protagonist.”

So, what about Dead of Night? Well, put simply, it’s fucking awesome. It’s a hard-hitting, thoroughly engrossing thriller that rips along at a pace and rhythm completely different to the aforementioned Kubu series and demonstrates just how talented a writing team and adept at different writing styles messers Sears and Trollip are.

The novel’s protagonist, Crystal Nguyen – or Crys – makes for a compelling lead – tough and determined yet vulnerable and relatable. The story is one of my favourite of the year so far – what starts of as a search for a missing journalist and a story on rhino poaching soon becomes a fast paced thriller that delves into political corruption, social issues in South Africa and human morality with a volley of fast-paced and occasionally brutal action scenes.

The levels of complexity and connections in the plot and the fact that such a strong story is rooted in a very real and believable situation make for a real page turner. For me, it’s that combination of fact – rhino hunting and the fight against the poachers is a very violent and deadly fight – and, strong, engrossing fiction that ensures that Dead of Night is compelling and lends it some real clout.

I thoroughly recommend Dead of Night – thanks again to Orenda for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blogtour, check out the other stops below.

 

Blog Tour: Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen

From the PR: “PI Varg Veum receives a surprise visit in his office from a woman who introduces herself as his half-sister, and she has a job for him. Her god-daughter, a nineteen-year-old trainee nurse from Haugesund, moved from her bedsit in Bergen two weeks ago. Since then no one has heard anything from her. She didn’t leave an address. She doesn’t answer her phone. And the police refuse to take her case seriously.

Veum’s investigation uncovers a series of carefully covered-up crimes and pent-up hatreds, and the trail leads to a gang of extreme bikers and to a shadowy group, whose dark actions are hidden by the anonymity of the Internet. And then things get personal…

Chilling, shocking and exceptionally gripping, Big Sister reaffirms Gunnar Staalesen as one of the world’s foremost thriller writers.”

When it comes to reading there is no greater pleasure than getting stuck into a new Gunnar Staalesen book.

The problem, mind, is how to review a book like Big Sister without a) simply repeating ‘amazing’ emphatically and b) giving anything away. So I’ll talk, in general terms, about just how much I loved this book.

There is something just so fantastically absorbing about Staalesen’s work that I’m always longing to read more. To me it’s like enjoying a good mug full of coffee, you have to take your time with it and savour every moment before you get the kick. It’s not a fast-paced thriller; Staalesen’s prose is a much calmer affair that lures you in and immerses you in its mystery. A real slow-build but with not a single spare word – it’s the writing of a master at play, really. Richly detailed yet concise, tightly-plotted fiction that effortlessly packs more punch and weight than novels three times its page count.

One of the things I really enjoy about Staalesen’s narrative style is the way in which he – and Veum – casts a wide net out at the start of the story and slowly hauls it in, revealing little ideas and avenues of intrigue, some which lead nowhere but others which lead off into some fascinating places before Veum discovers the particular line of investigation which brings them together and solves the case. As Veum himself says: “when I stumble over some peripheral information during a case, an investigation I’m doing, my experience is that it might well end up having some significance.”

Big Sister is no exception to this – some of the leads he follows reveal some really dark stuff this time round, mind (though anyone familiar with the last three novels would argue that that’s nothing new), but it all slowly and deliberately creates a huge web of connections between the lives of the characters that manages to show just how far-reaching and devastating events that were thought long-since buried can become. It means that when the truth is realised it hits you like a tonne of bricks.

Reading a new Staalesen novel is like catching up with an old friend, getting a glimpse into Varg’s life for a few weeks at a time to see how life is treating Bergen’s almost-only PI. Veum is a refreshingly human character in the genre, flawed (though I don’t think he touched a drop of aquavit in this one) and – particularly as his age advances – vulnerable. It’s impossible not to root for him. It’s great that Big Sister really managed – as the 18th novel in the series – to reveal something new about such an established character and his past and I thoroughly look forward to seeing if that particular thread is picked up on in the next book.

It’s impossible to do a novel like Big Sister justice in a review. I fucking loved it but, then, I’ve loved every novel I’ve read thus far by Staalesen and I really need to get my hands on those novels pre We Shall Inherit The Wind that have been translated into English too. Every time I think I’ve read the best book I will in a year, Orenda drops a new Gunnar Staalesen that jumps straight to the top of the list. As such, my thanks to Karen at Orenda both for my copy and continuing to publish such wonderful fiction and to Anne for inviting me to take part in this blogtour. Always a pleasure, never a chore 😀

 

 

 

Blog Tour: The Louisiana Republic by Maxim Jakubowski

From the PR: “New York, and the world, have been transformed by an unexplained global catastrophe now known as ‘the Dark’.

Once a modest researcher, (don’t recall if I gave character an actual name; if so, please insert) has now become an involuntary detective.

When he is recruited by her elder sister to find the missing daughter of a local gangster in a city in chaos where anarchy and violence are just a step away, he soon discovers the case is anything but straightforward and compellingly close to home.

Compromising photographs and the ambiguous assistance of a young woman with ties to the criminal gangs lead him to New Orleans, which has seceded from the rest of America in the wake of the Dark.

A perilous journey down the Mississippi river, murderous hit women and sidekicks, and the magic and dangerous glamour of the French Quarter become a perilous road to nowhere and to madness in his quest for the amoral daughter, his own lost love and his sanity.

Will he find the missing women or lose himself?”

Crikey. Where to start with a review on this one.. perhaps I should proffer up the ‘warning’ that accompanied the description of The Louisiana Republic when I was invited to read and review it:

“Please be aware! The novel is quite ‘harsh’ and should be avoided if you are more into the ‘cozy’ area. If you enjoyed Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus, this may be for you! There are strong erotic elements”

Now initially I only got as far as ‘if you enjoyed Epiphany Jones‘ before replying in the positive. I loved that book and I love a book that challenges and takes me out of my comfort zone so I was, of course, interested – it wasn’t the ‘erotic elements’ that got me. Especially when I read the note from the author that he “published 10 novels under a pen name in another genre during the last five years, many of which ended up on the Sunday Times Top 10, but under a female pseudonym (as imposed on the publishers by supermarkets and chains!), so this book is quite important to me, and have a lot to say about it.”

So: does The Louisiana Republic deliver such an intriguing sell? In short: yes, very much so.

In not so short: oh, fuck yes! The Louisiana Republic is a massively addictive book which delivers on so many levels. While there is certainly some heavy and strong stuff in here that would warrant a ‘not for the weak of knee’ it’s not there for shock factor alone and  serves to add both punch and horror in all the right places.

The story itself is set to a familiar narrative – a PI on the search for an elusive truth if only for self-satisfaction – yet Jakubowski throws in plenty of twists and counters to keep you glued as it becomes increasingly complex and multifaceted. There are so many different elements at play that it’s a real delight as things start to come together. In fact I’d go so far as to say that the ploy of using a familiar trope is a very clever sleight of hand on the writer’s part, for what really sets The Louisiana Republic apart and makes it so compelling is setting just that trope against a backdrop as jarring as that created by ‘the Dark’.

Jakubowski’s portrayal of a dystopian near-future, a decade after  the world had been deprived of technology, the internet and electronic data is fantastic. There’s no didactic, heavy-handed or soap-opera style explanations, The Louisiana Republic pulls you into its world and gradually reveals a very realistic, convincing and shocking world where, post-technology, society has nearly (that’s what makes it so believable, I think – the blending of the retained ‘norms’ with the dystopian) broken down – cities divided into different fiefdoms, violence and primitive, base urges satisfied at whim.

It would be impossible to pigeonhole The Louisiana Republic into one genre – it’s got elements of noir, there’s some hard-boiled Chandler-esque grit, deliciously dark humour, plenty of and some mysticism that made me think of Eliade and then there’s the dystopian future element thrown in to add more to the mi along with plenty of boxes ticked in the ‘thriller’ category…. so; shocking thriller? urban noir? dark comedy? dystopian road trip novel?  Brutal gut-punch commentary? It’s all of these and it’s very very bloody good.

My thanks to Anne Cater for inviting me take part in this blogtour and for my copy of The Louisiana Republic – published by Caffeine Nights.

Blog Tour: Absolution by Paul E. Hardistry

From the PR: “It is 1997, eight months since vigilante justice-seeker Claymore Straker fled South Africa after his explosive testimony to Desmond Tutu’s Truth and
Reconciliation Commission. In Paris, Rania LaTour, journalist, comes home to find that her son and her husband, a celebrated human rights lawyer, have
disappeared. On an isolated island off the coast of East Africa, the family that Clay has befriended is murdered as he watches.

So begins the fourth installment in the Claymore Straker series, a breakneck journey through the darkest reaches of the human soul, as Clay and Rania fight to uncover the mystery behind the disappearances and murders, and find
those responsible. Events lead them both inexorably to Egypt, where an act of
the most shocking terrorist brutality will reveal not only why those they loved
were sacrificed, but how they were both, indirectly, responsible.

Relentlessly pursued by those who want them dead, they must work together
to uncover the truth, and to find a way to survive in a world gone crazy. At
times brutal, often lyrical, but always gripping, Absolution is a thriller that will
leave you breathless and questioning the very basis of how we live and why
we love.”

It’s a very strange thing to be sitting here trying to put together a review for the fourth Clay Straker novel from Paul E Hardistry. It seems like only yesterday that I tore through The Abrupt Physics of Dying – not three and a half years ago. Yet, here I am having just torn through Absolution in record time and wanting more.

It’s exceedingly hard to review any book without giving away too much and I’d hate to do so here especially if this is the last installment in the series. I will say that Absolution is a fantastic read – Hardistry has, over the course of the series, created characters that live and breath and continues to place them in the most gripping and compelling of dramas – in this instance travelling from Zanzibar to Egypt via Sudan, throwing historical events into the mix to add a real sense of gravity and (at times) horror to proceedings.

Clearly a writer of talent, Paul E. Hardistry manages to combine historical fact and technical details with action and plot in a manner that adds weight and validity to events without ever slowing the pace or risking attention drifting during ‘the science bit’. It’s a rare skill and one that Hardistry flexes with the same ease as Clay does a weapon.

While we’re on the subject of Clay – Hardistry’s hero is a refreshingly real and vulnerable lead for such a punchy thriller; while very capable in a ruck, Straker is vulnerable physically (there’s very few thrillers who’s lead doles out such punishment with a stump) and psychologically.  Watching him overcome significant odds is always a pleasure.

I’ve been peppering my reading with a lot of thrillers over the last few years, from the hard-boiled and vast-in-scope Ellroys to the hard-nosed airport thrillers of Jo Nesbø and Lee Child, and Hardistry’s Clay Straker series sits up there with them in quality. The series manages to combine the quite-loud-LOUDER punch of a Reacher scale-up with the depth and complexity of plot normally reserved for literary fiction.

Absolution (which I genuinely hope is not the last in the series) is a real heavy-hitter. A taut, explosive thriller with intelligence that tears along at whip-crack pace and delivers in spades.

Thanks to Karen at Orenda, once again, for my copy of Absolution and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

 

Blog Tour: Keeper by Johana Gustawsson

From the PR: Whitechapel, 1888: London is bowed under Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror.

London 2015: actress Julianne Bell is abducted in a case similar to the terrible Tower Hamlets murders of some ten years earlier, and harking back to the Ripper killings of a century before.

Falkenberg, Sweden, 2015: a woman’s body is found mutilated in a forest, her wounds identical to those of the Tower Hamlets victims. With the man arrested for the Tower Hamlets crimes already locked up, do the new killings mean he has a dangerous accomplice, or is a copy-cat serial killer on the loose?

Profiler Emily Roy and true-crime writer Alexis Castells again find themselves drawn into an intriguing case, with personal links that turn their world upside down. Following the highly acclaimed Block 46 and guaranteed to disturb and enthral, Keeper is a breathless thriller from the new queen of French Noir.”

Blimey: I don’t think I’ve read a book as quickly as I read Keeper. This review is probably as fresh as it gets from turning the final page to hitting ‘new post’. So let’s see if I can stop saying “holy shit” to myself over an ending I did not see coming enough to start this review properly. Where to start….

Let’s start with last year. More specifically, Keeper‘s predecessor Block 46. It’s one of those books that stays with you long after turning the final page – it really left me contemplating the nature of evil and just how dark humanity can get. It was also bloody good. Otherwise it wouldn’t have a) stayed in my mind of so long and b) made me so keen to read Keeper when the opportunity arose.

Keeper find us back with the Roy and Castells and many of the ‘supporting’ cast of Block 46 but turns everything up a notch or twenty as Johana Gustawsson has clearly hit her stride with the characters and can really let things loose. Rather than just a follow-up Keeper feels like a real evolution for both characters and writer and I get the distinctly satisfying feeling that I’m in on the ground floor at the beginning of what will hopefully be a very long and fulfilling series.

As with Block 46Keeper combines past and present – in this instance the Jack The Ripper murders form the grisly historical pull – and it’s this blurring of known fact with fictional which makes Keeper so thoroughly gripping and raises it above the standard thriller fare. The odd thing is that this is an area of crime / history which – thanks to a random song – I’ve recently been fascinated by and exploring (timing, eh?)… the crimes themselves, the myriad of suspects and possibilities and the ‘letters’ from the Ripper that did the rounds. Keeper details the Whitechapel murders and the period in a way that’s both accurate enough to be convincing yet fresh and vital enough to keep the reader hooked.

Keeper is also not for the faint of heart. Johana Gustawsson writes with an absorbing prose and her pacing is so perfectly poised that there’s no chance of not being lured in  – and credit goes to translator Maxim Jakubowski as this book flows so perfectly you’d never know it was translated – so that when those revelations and shockers come they really hit hard.

Gustawsson has a really great knack for setting out her pieces early in the game, setting different, seemingly unrelated, narratives in motion across disparate locations and time and slowly, methodically, expertly weaving them together in a compellingly complex and taught plot that’s massively addictive and, once again, thought provoking. Keeper is a superbly written novel with great characters, a brilliantly conceived and delivered plot and more than enough to keep you thinking and hooked.

I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend Keeper – published by Orenda Books – and my thanks again to Karen and Anne for my copy and inviting me to take part on this blogtour, do check out the other stops.