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.

Blog Tour: We Were the Salt of the Sea by Roxanne Bouchard

From the PR: “As Montrealer Catherine Day sets foot in a remote fishing village and starts asking around about her birth mother, the body of a woman dredges up in a fisherman’s nets. Not just any woman, though: Marie Garant, an elusive, nomadic sailor and unbridled beauty who once tied many a man’s heart in knots. Detective Sergeant Joaquin Morales, newly drafted to the area from the suburbs of Montreal, barely has time to unpack his suitcase before he’s thrown into the deep end of the investigation.

On Quebec’s outlying Gaspé Peninsula, the truth can be slippery, especially down on the fishermen’s wharves. Interviews drift into idle chit-chat, evidence floats off with the tide and the truth lingers in murky waters. It’s enough to make DS Morales reach straight for a large whisky… ”

When I was sent the above description for We Were the Salt of the Sea (big thanks to Anne Cater) and asked if I’d like to take part in the blog tour, I leapt at the chance. There was something about it – aside from it having the unimpeachable Orenda logo on its spine – that suggested I’d love it.

So, let’s cut to the chase: did I love it? Oh hell yes! We Were the Salt of the Sea is an absolute, slow-burning masterpiece. A thoroughly absorbing and mesmerising read that draws you into both its story and setting and leaves you wanting to linger long after the last page.

It could be because I’ve always had a fondness for the sea and for harbours but it’s also a case that Roxanne Bouchard writes so compellingly of the Gaspé Peninsula, its people and environs that I found myself wondering about heading out to that remote spot. Though, as Bouchard conveys with almost poetic grace, the sea is far from calm and what it gives it takes. There were times when reading We Were the Salt of the Sea that I was left stunned by the tragedies and hardships many of this novel’s characters have borne with such stoic acceptance. It’s in the detailing of these lives and the slow unfolding of these stories and it’s characters’ lives that We Were the Salt of the Sea stands out – this is more exceedingly well crafted literary fiction than fast paced thriller.

But there is very much a mystery at the heart of We Were the Salt of the Sea,  and with a narrative that – as the blurb says – sees interviews and leads into Marie Garant’s death fade “into idle chit-chat” and events and eccentricities overtake avenues of investigation, the reader is in a unique position: on the one hand you’re after more of the insights into the lives of, say, Vital Bujold (who’s back story damn near broke my heart) but then, on the other, you also share the frustrations of DS Joaquin Morales as an outsider trying to break through just those distractions and find the truth.

It’s a very cleverly and beautifully written book and one with a reveal which, I don’t mind admitting, I did not see coming. Without dropping any spoilers I can honestly say that I did not for one moment suspect either the correct person or scenario, and it’s not all that often that that occurs. I was just too bloody happily caught up and entranced by everything We Were the Salt of the Sea has to offer – fantastic, deeply compelling characters, a great story and brilliant prose. Very highly recommended.

My utmost thanks, again, to Anne Cater and Orenda Books for my copy of We Were the Salt of the Sea and do check out the other stops on this blogtour.

Blog Tour: Blue Night by Simone Buchholz

From the PR: “After convicting a superior for corruption and shooting off a gangster’s crown jewels, the career of Hamburg’s most hard-bitten state prosecutor, Chastity Riley, has taken a nose dive: she has been transferred to the tedium of witness protection to prevent her making any more trouble. However, when she is assigned to the case of an anonymous man lying under police guard in hospital, Chastity’s instinct for the big, exciting case kicks in.

Using all her powers of persuasion, she soon gains her charge’s confidence, and finds herself on the trail to Leipzig, a new ally, and a whole heap of lethal synthetic drugs. When she discovers that a friend and former colleague is trying to bring down Hamburg’s Albanian mafia kingpin single-handedly, it looks like Chas Riley’s dull lifeon witness protection really has been short-lived…”

Aside from a tiny bit of wear on the cover, my copy of Blue Night is pretty much pristine. There are no pages with creased corners from place marking and no cracks in the spine. Why? Because this book did not spend long in my hands. I tore through Simone Buchholz’ novel so fast as to not to leave a mark on a book that left plenty of impression on its reader. So hungrily did I rip through these 180 pages or so of tightly packed, immensely well plotted fiction that I found myself carried forward by such momentum as to be disappointed when it finished.  Not disappointed by the contents in any way whatsoever! No: disappointed that there wasn’t immediately more, more and more!

Blue Night is also deceptive – it might be a short read and require fewer trees than many but it packs in way more into its pages than many a pulp-and-ink-hungrier book manages. Between the covers (another tip of the hat to Orenda – has anyone mentioned just how many great covers come out of this publisher?) is a rich, tightly woven plot that’s brimming with intrigue and with plenty of back story woven in, compelling characters and a great approach to narrative… oh, and it all rips along at one hell of a pace.

As I’m a) an early stop on this tour and b) pretty out of touch with social media of late I haven’t seen all too many reviews for Blue Night just yet (I’m fortunate enough to have been sent a proof copy) but aside from expecting to see unanimous praise for Simone Buchholz I imagine there’ll be plenty of comparisons to other authors as time progresses so I’ll get in there early and say that I won’t draw any: Buchholz’ writing style is original and she delivers a fantastic story in a unique voice that’s a welcome blast of fresh air and a great start to the year’s reading.

I thoroughly recommend Blue Night – thanks, again, to Karen for my copy and do check out the other stops on the blogtour.

38, 39, 40…. 41! Pages Turned

I thought it was going to come down to the wire but I managed to hit my, strictly self-imposed, challenge of reading 40 books in 2017 and even managed to squeeze in an extra for added bonus points.

Oddly, aware of the looming ‘deadline’ I still pulled the hefty Phantom by Jo Nesbo from the the TBR pile to kick off the final stretch. Continuing the Harry Hole saga in chronological progression from The Snowman  I’m enjoying every instalment more than the last and Phantom was a real gripper for every one of its 550 or so pages, taking every element of the Hole saga to date and turning them up to 11. As he develops as a writer, Nesbo manages to take an almost literary-fiction style approach to the thriller genre, layering in so many different sub-plots and factors as to really mark his work out as a leader in the field.

Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Girl Who Wasn’t There is very much a book of two halves, so very distinctly different in terms of narrative style that I had to double check it was still the same story. It had been on the shelves for a year or so after my wife read it with my occasionally eyeballing it and I’m very much glad I decided to read it, if only based on the thinking that it’s slightness would enable me to reach my goal. Instead I discovered that it’s one of those deceptive short-novels, with so much packed in as to feel like a larger read. A beguiling an beautiful slow-burn of a first half coupled to a completely bat-shit crazy, what the fuck is going on, fast paced thriller of a conclusion.

With two weeks remaining in the year I thought I’d round out the 40 with the only non-fiction of the year (something of a rarity in itself) – Robert Leckie’s Helmet for my Pillow. As a big fan of HBO’s Band of Brothers and having read the material that informed that show too, I thought I’d do the same with 2010’s The Pacific. While not as absorbing, to me at least, as Band of Brothers there was an intensity about The Pacific which meant I quickly bought the books that had informed it…. and let them sit on my shelf as I never got round to them. Having been left aghast at the perception of his war by South Pacific – Robert Leckie put pen to paper to give an unflinchingly honest and occasionally harrowing description of his experience as a Marine during the Second World War. What I look for in such a book isn’t the “guts and glory” – that sort of thing doesn’t appeal to my near-pacifist mentality – it’s the accounts of normal people who find themselves in an extraordinary situations unimaginable to those of us who live in a sheltered, comfortable world (due, thinking about it, to their actions).

Helmet For My Pillow, clearly the work of a literary man, makes for a shocking read at times but I found it compelling throughout and deeply human. It certainly ranks up high in the list of those memoirs of this era I’ve read*. Leckie manages to find the humanity in what were deeply dehumanising circumstances. Particularly striking for me was this passage:

But, with the festive break from work affording more reading time I managed to clear Leckie’s book with time to spare and got started on book 41 of 2017, a gift from my wife, The Book of Mirrors by EO Chirovici, a Romanian author. Turns out this one was something of a big deal in the publishing world back in 2015 – this is Chirovici’s first novel in English and was snapped up by publishers in 23 countries, landing him a likely seven-figure sum just in publishing deals ahead of its actual publication in 2017. After all that hype is it any good? Yes, in short. I thoroughly enjoyed it even if, for the first session or two with it I was still feverish and ended up with it going round in circles in my head. It’s a simple enough whodunit that explores the reliability of memory but Chirovici delivers it with a lot of narrative play, a lot of psychological twisting and turning and a nice leaning on good old mystery and thrill.

I’ve hedged my bets for 2018 and not extended my aim beyond trying for 40 again.

 

*Iron Coffins by Herbert A. Werner ranks as my favourite and Alan Deere’s Nine Lives probably rubs shoulders with the U-Boat commander’s account.