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.

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 .

Blog Tour: The Luckiest Thirteen by Brian W. Lavery

From the PR: “A true-life drama of an intense battle for survival on the high seas.

The Luckiest Thirteen is the story of an incredible two-day battle to save the super trawler St Finbarr, and of those who tried to rescue her heroic crew in surging, frozen seas.

It was also a backdrop for the powerful stories of families ashore, dumbstruck by fear and grief, as well as a love story of a teenage deckhand and his girl that ended with a heart-rending twist. From her hi-tech hold to her modern wheelhouse she was every inch the super ship the great hope for the future built to save the fleet at a record-breaking price but a heart-breaking cost.

On the thirteenth trip after her maiden voyage, the St Finbarr met with catastrophe off the Newfoundland coast. On Christmas Day 1966, twenty-five families in the northern English fishing port of Hull were thrown into a dreadful suspense not knowing if their loved ones were dead or alive after the disaster that befell The Perfect Trawler. Complete with 16 pages of dramatic and poignant photographs from the period.”

I’ve long held a fascination with the sea and am at my most relaxed when I’m by the water. Yet, as much as it has a calming effect on me and I’ve often looked at the small fishing boats in harbour bobbing up and down on the tide and fancied taking a go out to sea, the realities of the deep and the dangers of the sea outside of the safety of the harbour walls means there’s no real chance of my swapping my comfy desk-bound career for that of the life of the trawlerman –  especially the life of the deep-sea fishermen. Even with a lot of naval history in my family.

Yet, despite my interest, it’s not a subject I’ve read too much around so when I was offered the chance to review “a true-life drama of an intense battle for survival on the high seas” there was no chance I’d say no. I’d never heard of the St Finbarr or its fate but, then again – why would I? I was born over a decade after the fact and never really ventured further north than Coventry.

The Luckiest Thirteen is a startlingly vivid and detailed account of an oft-forgotten tragedy at sea – the fate of the St Finbarr and her crew and the devastating loss experienced by their families back in Hull. As laid out in cold hard fact in the opening pages: “On Christmas Day, 1966, a fireball explosion ripped through the super-modern Hull trawler St Finbarr in wild Arctic waters on Newfoundlands’ Grand Banks. Ten men from a crew of twenty-five died instantly. Two more perished in the subsequent desperate rescue bid”.

What makes The Luckiest Thirteen a strong addition to any bookshelf and so compelling is Laverly’s style. Non-fiction can prove a dry genre at times and even the most fascinating of subjects rendered somniferous by bad telling,  but Brian W. Lavery – who refers to this book as ‘creative non-fiction’ – combines an authoritative level of knowledge that can only come from dedicated research with the personal and human stories to create a heady mix.

It’s in the recreating of the crews personal stories, the lives they left – and in many cases never returned to – when they set out to sea in the St Finbarr that makes the events that befell the vessel so much more devastating. Laverly’s research and dedication to telling the stories of the people involved means The Luckiest Thirteen is more moving tribute than just plain fact.

I was gripped by the events as they unfolded on the St Finbarr and stunned by the speed at which everything went so spectacularly wrong – Laverly’s account is so detailed as to render events as if they were unfolding there and then rather than retold from decades-old memory. I had no idea just how perilously hard and near-impossible rescue from such situations is – the fact that two 1,000 tonne vessels could be thrown together by mountainous seas and thus unable to get close enough to each other for the ‘movie-style’ rescue imagined by those as previously clueless as I, for example – and, thus, how miraculous it was that so many were saved.

Yet perhaps most affecting of all is the impact the events had on those that survived. They were all left scarred in some way and the story of Walt Collier, in particular, has stayed with me long after finishing the book.

A thoroughly informative and yet uniquely personal and moving book, The Luckiest Thirteen is both gripping and highly recommended . My thanks to Anne Cater for my copy and inviting me to take part on this blogtour.

Book Review: Dear Mr Pop Star by Derek & Dave Philpott

From the PR: “For more than a decade, Derek Philpott and his son, Dave, have been writing deliberately deranged letters to pop stars from the 1960s to the 90s to take issue with the lyrics of some of their best-known songs. They miss the point as often as they hit it.

But then, to their great surprise, the pop stars started writing back…

Dear Mr Pop Star contains 100 of Derek and Dave’s greatest hits, including correspondence with Katrina and the Waves, Tears for Fears, Squeeze, The Housemartins, Suzi Quatro, Devo, Deep Purple, Nik Kershaw, T’Pau, Human League, Eurythmics, Wang Chung, EMF, Mott the Hoople, Heaven 17, Jesus Jones, Johnny Hates Jazz, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, Chesney Hawkes and many, many more.”

Derek Philpott – and his son Dave – have clearly got too much time on their hands. Let’s face it: who hasn’t listened to a song with a questionable lyric or message and wanted to ask, say, just how much of Summer of ’69 was feasible given that Mr Adams would only have been 9 years old at the time. But it’s not like any of us have actually taken the time to take any pop stars to task on the matter.

Well, Derek and Dave Philpott have taken the time to do so. Obviously not all of them have responded but many did.

In amongst the sarcastic “thank you for your observation” openers – like Carol Decker’s “I recently found your letter. It had got lost in the substantial
fan mail I still receive along with requests for my underwear” –  there are some exceedingly funny and genuinely interesting responses from the artists ‘Mr Philpott’ writes too. Take the fact the response from Mott the Hoople’s Verden Allen as an example in which he responds to the request to “clarify how, oh, man, you may question the need for TV when you got T.Rex.” – its nothing to do with Marc Bolan.

Of course, it’s not just the letters back from the musicians that make for great reading but – questions surrounding the lyrics and songs aside – the letters from Messrs Philpott are bloody funny too with many an obscure and surreal story causing a good coffee splutter. And, in that way, Dear Mr Pop Star makes for an ideal coffee table book for anyone who loves either a good laugh or music and especially both.

My thanks to the authors – whoever they may really be – for taking the time out from questioning Del Amitri to ask me to read their book, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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.