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.

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.

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.

Pages turned

I seem to have become a lapsed blogger again. It’s what happens when life gets busy and spare time either shrinks or becomes more important. In this instance a new role has kept me busier and lunchtimes have not lent themselves to composing updates.

However – I’m now done for the year so let’s catch up, shall we?

I’m pretty much on-track to hit my self-imposed target of 40 books this year with the last one well underway with a week and change left of 2017. I managed quite a bit of progress this last month or two though with a book like The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy there’s no way to read it quickly.

Ellroy’s writing has been praised by many before and better than I’m sure I could. I will say that his is a unique and powerful voice that envelops a reader and sucks you into the seedy underbelly of 1950’s LA with a knack for the ‘big’ storylines that cross and weave into something huge. If I’m forced to I’d rate The Big Nowhere over The Black Dahlia – a much wider ranging story – and am anxious to move on to LA Confidential in the New Year.

I’ve yet to write that post I keep meaning to on Terry Pratchett. In the meantime my rebuilding of my Pratchett collection is going well. I’d say that of the 41 Discworld novels there’s what I consider a ‘golden’ period where Sir Terry hit his stride and get his style on the nose. For my money it’s from 1989’s Pyramids through to Monstrous Regiment in 2003. That’s a hell of a time frame for quality output  that recent re-reads Reaper Man and Feet of Clay both fall within. It had easily been 15 years since I’d read Reaper Man and I’d remembered nothing of it aside from ‘Death takes a holiday’ so I loved every page. The same could also be said of Feet of Clay though my memory of that one was clearer so I knew almost exactly where it was going – that being said it was still a pleasure to re-read. The Dark Side of the Sun, that being said, is pre-Discworld Pratchett and his voice was not yet found. It’s a very heavy-sci-fi book and feels, for the most part, as though Pratchett is trying too hard to force himself into a style that’s not his. There’s a brief section where the humour and narrative that would make him one of the UK’s biggest-selling authors makes an appearance but, for the most part, the 158 pages of The Dark Side of the Sun felt like a slog through three times as many.

Thinking of my need to clear a few more books by the end of the year I played a ‘cheat’ card and read 61 Hours by Lee Child – because reading a Reacher book never takes more than a couple of sittings. After being disappointed by the recent Night School I was very surprised by 61 Hours and would say it ranks up the top of those ten or so Reacher novels I’ve read to date. A great concept and plot setup and the countdown really pushes you on. The fact that Lee Child took Reacher out of his comfort zone and stuck him in an inhospitable location that often handicapped him really helped and I get the feeling Child himself was trying to shake the format up too – especially as he left Reacher’s fate unknown at the end.

Blog Tour: Whiteout by Ragnar Jónasson

WhiteoutFrom the PR: “Two days before Christmas, a young woman is found dead beneath the cliffs of the deserted village of Kalfshamarvik. Did she jump, or did something more sinister take place beneath the lighthouse and the abandoned old house on the remote rocky outcrop?

With winter closing in and the snow falling relentlessly, Ari Thór Arason discovers that the victim’s mother and young sister also lost their lives in this same spot, twenty-five years earlier. As the dark history and the secrets of the village are unveiled, and the death toll begins to rise, the Siglufjörður detectives must race against the clock to find the killer, before another tragedy takes place.”

With Whiteout, the fifth of his Dark Iceland novels published into English by Orenda Books (though, I think, the fourth chronologically?), Ragnar Jónasson seems to have set himself a challenge – a remote and isolated location, a small (and dwindling) number of witnesses / suspects and a limited time window for the investigation. Throw in the possibility that there was foul play afoot in the deaths of the victims mother and sister years previously in the same location and Mr Jónasson has created a belter of a read.

Taking  characters and events out of Siglufjörður removes both the characters and the reader from the relative comfort zone of the former instalments of the series and adds a real edge to proceedings, heightened further by both the remoteness of Kalfshamavík and the chilling nature of all three deaths under investigation. Setting such a chilling (and, come the reveal, thoroughly disturbing) series of events against the backdrop of the build up to Christmas and its festivities doesn’t hurt either: in place of festive cheer and celebrations there’s deaths and secrets being dragged up.

As this is part of a series – though would certainly work just as brilliantly as a stand alone – I’ll restrain myself from dropping any spoilers.

Having translated some fourteen Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic before embarking on his own writing career, Ragnar Jónasson was no stranger to the genre but while I’m sure there will be comparisons drawn (I’ve never read a Christie novel but am familiar enough with the style, certainly thanks to the numerous television adaptations), it’s Jónasson’s skill as a writer that makes the Dark Iceland series so addictive. With Whiteout he expertly weaves a deep and intricatly plotted mystery  that’s genuinely compelling with calm and deliberate pacing that slowly builds to a dramatic reveal. That he does this against the challenges of both the closed setting and ticking clock without making it feel rushed is even more impressive.

One of the other compelling aspects of the Dark Iceland series has been the life and development of Ari Thór. While the pacing and time pressure of the main narrative of Whiteout don’t necessarily allow for too much insight into Ari, what there is still enough to ensure the reader remains plenty interested in this Icelandic copper and most certainly lays the groundwork for some revelations to come.

In a way, the location and focus of Whiteout make it an unusual instalment in the Dark Iceland series though Ragnar Jónasson’s skill as a writer ensures it remains an essential one.

Thanks to  Orenda Books and Anne Cater for my copy and inviting me to take part in this blogtour.

Blog Tour: The Man Who Died by Antti Tuomainen

From the PR: “A successful entrepreneur in the mushroom industry, Jaakko Kaunismaa is a man in his prime. At just 37 years of age, he is shocked when his doctor tells him that he’s dying. What is more, the cause is discovered to be prolonged exposure to toxins; in other words, someone has slowly but surely been poisoning him. Determined to find out who wants him dead, Jaakko embarks on a suspenseful rollercoaster journey full of unusual characters, bizarre situations and unexpected twists.

With a nod to Fargo and the best elements of the Scandinavian noir tradition, The Man Who Died is a page-turning thriller brimming with the blackest comedy surrounding life and death, and love and betrayal, marking a stunning new departure for the King of Helsinki Noir.”

I was not expecting this book to be the book it is, if that makes sense. See, last year I read The Mine – a complex and intelligent thriller that was at times very dark and dealt with some pretty heavy issues. As such I was kind of expecting a read of a similar nature, not that that would be a bad thing. That’s certainly not what The Man Who Died is. The best way to explain this is quote from the Acknowledgements: “After writing five very dark books… I started to feel that I needed to change things up a bit. More than a bit, to be honest. I told my agent this. I think I also told him I needed a laugh a bit.”

The Man Who Died reads like a Finnish Kurkov novel. It’s ridiculously good; brilliantly conceived and plotted, fantastically treads the line between laugh out loud and wickedly dark, surreal humour and has so much going that it’s pretty much impossible to put down. One of the best books I’ve read this year.

From the moment Jaakko receives his diagnosis and starts ‘waking up’ it’s an absolute ripper of a story as he discovers just how much has been going on around him while he’s been blissfully unaware. It would be impossible to point out exact specifics without giving away any plot – and I really don’t want to do that because I sincerely urge all to read this book – but there are so many moments that are so deliciously absurd that I found myself laughing aloud.

Every word in this book is vital and well placed, it takes real skill to get the pacing just right – especially when told first-person narrative – and Antti Tuomainen has it spades. It cracks along at a sizzling pace and it’s hard to believe that so much takes place in such a short space of time sorry wise yet there’s not a moment of bloat as the story builds to its er… explosive finale. A really gifted writer at work here.

The Man Who Died is easily one of my favourite reads of the year. A real treat and one can only hope Antti Tuomainen feels the need to laugh in his writing again.

My thanks again to Karen at Orenda for my copy and inviting me to review and take part in the blogtour.