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.

Blog Tour: Inborn by Thomas Enger

From the PR: “When a teenager is accused of a high-school murder, he finds himself subject to trial by social media … and in the dock. A taut, moving and chilling thriller by one of Nordic Noir’s finest writers.

When the high school in the small Norwegian village of Fredheim becomes a murder scene, the finger is soon pointed at seventeen-year-old Even. As the investigation closes in, social media is ablaze with accusations, rumours and even threats, and Even finds himself the subject of an online trial as well as being in the dock … for murder?

Even pores over his memories of the months leading up to the crime, and it becomes clear that more than one villager was acting suspiciously … and secrets are simmering beneath the calm surface of this close-knit community. As events from the past play tag with the present, he’s forced to question everything he thought he knew. Was the death of his father in a car crash a decade earlier really accidental? Has his relationship stirred up something that someone is prepared to kill to protect?

It seems that there may be no one that Even can trust.

But can we trust him?

A taut, moving and chilling thriller, Inborn examines the very nature of evil, and asks the questions: How well do we really know our families? How well do we know ourselves?”

CAUTION: A tiny whiff of a spoiler is contained within..

Thomas Enger’s Inborn has a fantastic opening. By this I really don’t mean the rest of it isn’t worth the trees it’s printed on, far from it.. but that opening murder, bloody hell. Johannes Eklund is a teenager with a bright future who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. His attempt to flee and his final moments make for as powerful an opener as I’ve read this year: a vividly brutal murder where you feel the fear and panic as it consumes Johannes, made all the more powerful as, beyond being a particularly violent end, it’s happening to a kid in his teens.

After the initial hook and shock Inborn is a real slow burner at first as Enger lines up all the pieces – aided by nicely employing different narratives- and then there’s a moment about a third of the way in where it caught me and I wasn’t able to put it down until the early hours of the morning when I’d finished the whole thing with each of my “ah so he/she’s the killer” assumptions blown apart as soon as they’d formed.

Thomas Enger, as anyone who’s read his Henning Juul books will agree, has a real knack for writing parents dealing with the murder of their child in a way that’ll punch you right in the guts and those scenes in Inborn – parents rendered numb and desperate with grief – are particularly affecting.

Much as with his Henning Juul series, Inborn slowly but surely unravels a compelling and intricate web of lies that have been lurking beneath the surface of this small town. I was thoroughly gripped as the reason Mari Lindgren ended her relationship with Even was revealed – even if (here’s that SPOILER), in the end, it had nothing to do with her murder after all.

The characters that populate Inborn are richly detailed and the fact that they made me feel old shows how well written the teen characters are. The gits. As great as the Even narrative and character is, the stand out for me is Yngve Mork. The local policeman, barely coming to terms with the recent death of his wife is a beautifully written character that I could happily go through a series of novels.

Inborn is a thoroughly engrossing and rewarding read with plenty of sharp turns and surprises to ensure you stay hooked to the end. Exceedingly well written, brilliantly plotted and wholeheartedly recommended.

My thanks, always, to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part in this blog tour.

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 .

Turning Pages: 50 Great Reads

So we’ve entered that time of the year known as ‘List Season’.

I don’t think I can honestly drop a ‘Best of 2018’ list this year as I’ve only given a handful of new albums a real deep listen and most of my reads this year were not published in 2018 so it would be a case of shuffling those into an arbitrary order. Plus – who gives a flip.

However… an ALL TIME list… now that’s something that’s always worth sitting up and paying attention to in between wrapping up gifts and eating your own body weight in Christmas dinner, right?

Well, William over at a1000mistakes recently dropped two such lists – 50 Great Reads and a Top 50 Movies. I don’t think I could get a list of 50 films together but books… that I can do.

So, without further preamble, here are my 50 favourite books /reads in no order other than alphabetical – though if it’s in bold it’s in the Top 10. This is also limited to fiction or I’d have been here all day:

Wasted Morning – Gabriela Adameșteanu

How to Be Brave – Louise Beech 

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin-  Louis de Bernières

Birds Without Wings – Louis de Bernières

Heart of a Dog – Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov*

Confessions – Jaume Cabré

The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

White Noise – Don DeLillo

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

LA Confidential – James Ellroy

Perfidia  – James Ellroy

Alone In Berlin – Hans Fallada

Iron Gustav – Hans Fallada

Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks 

Hell at the Breach – Tom Franklin

The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

The Diary of a Nobody – George & Wheedon Grossmith

Epiphany Jones – Michael Grothaus

The Good Soldier Svejk – Jaroslav Hašek

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway

Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes

The President’s Last Love – Andrey Kurkov

Death and the Penguin – Andrey Kurkov

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

The Life of Pi – Yann Martell

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Dr Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

Pyramids – Terry Pratchett

Men at Arms – Terry Pratchett

See You Tomorrow – Tore Renberg

The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

For Two Thousand Years – Mihail Sebastian

Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith

Perfume – Patrick Süskind

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 

Where Roses Never Die – Gunnar Staalesen

Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

Pereira Maintains – Antonio Tabucchi

The Little Friend – Donna Tartt

A Fraction of the Whole – Steve Toltz

Jihadi: A Love Story – Yusuf Toropov

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

The Man Who Died – Antti Tuomainen 

Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Jules Verne

Mother Night – Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughter House 5 – Kurt Vonnegut

Memoirs of Hadrian – Marguerite Yourcenar

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

*Master and Margarita is, in all likelihood, my favourite read full stop. However, as with all translated fiction, finding the translation is crucial and can make or break a book. The Penguin edition published in 2006 with the blue cover is the best I’ve found and the fact that this was the version given to me as a gift by my wife one day in Oxford after she expressed disbelief that I’d not yet read it only helps ensure it’ll not be toppled from the top of this list.

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.

Blog Tour: Palm Beach, Finland by Antti Tuomainen

From the PR: “Sex, lies and ill-fitting swimwear … Sun Protection Factor 100

Jan Nyman, the ace detective of the covert operations unit of the National Central Police, is sent to a sleepy seaside town to investigate a mysterious death. Nyman arrives in the town dominated by a bizarre holiday village – the ‘hottest beach in Finland’.

The suspect: Olivia Koski, who has only recently returned to her old hometown. The mission: find out what happened, by any means necessary. With a nod to Fargo, and dark noir, Palm Beach, Finland is both a page-turning thriller and a black comedy about lust for money, fleeing dreams and people struggling at turning points in their lives – chasing their fantasies regardless of reason.”

I’m gonna put my hands up at the start; It’s tricky to write this review. Not because I have any issue with the book but, in a style that wouldn’t be at all out of place in Palm Beach, Finland, I managed to misjudge the alignment of saw blade and protector and put some deep new grooves into the the tips of fingers and thumb of my right  hand. As such typing is a little hit and miss so you’ll have to excuse any typos I miss while editing.

Palm Beach, Finland is a ridiculously good book. Combining dark and slapstick humour with a bit of Scandinavian Noir for what is easily one of my favourite reads of the year -much as The Man Who Died was one of last year’s top five reads.

It’s kind of like a whodunnit in reverse, really. We, as readers, learn both the motive and guilty parties within the opening pages. The fact of the matter is, though, that the murder and circumstance are so bizarre that the rest of the town – and the National Central Police – can’t solve the case and the rest of the novel follows their exploits in doing so. Oh and the continued exploits of the guilty parties as, in their efforts to carry out the simplest of crimes, only cause further hilarity and confusion. It also helps that the victim of the murder is revealed, in retrospect, to have been every bit as hapless as his accidental killers.

Such an approach could make for a very quick story but Tuomainen keeps things interesting by throwing in a burgeoning, albeit every bit as hilariously clumsy as the crime, romance and another far more dangerous character who’s trying to get to the bottom of the murder; the victim’s brother. Who happens to be a professional hit man.

Tuomainen is clearly an author who knows how to write characters. This is the third of his novels I’ve had the pleasure to read and each has been populated with characters that convince and ring true. That he peoples Palm Beach, Finland with characters so earthed in reality – including the failed rock-star dreams of Chico to Jorma Leivo’s desperate hatred of humidity that drives him to create the most absurd of holiday resorts – makes it all the more brilliant and its humour even more darkly delicious.

The book is also dripping with fantastic secondary characters each with their moments of hilarity. My favourite, though is Nyman’s boss – Muurla. Every scene with Muurla made it tricky for me to contain my laughter and the story – to which Nyman pays zero attention – that ended with “The toilet door is ajar too. Teija is in there. She’s got short cropped hair and there she is having a piss standing up. I leave the box of chocolates on the table and wander off into the Old Town in Stockholm. Charming place, lots of history and good food” cost me a mouthful of good coffee.

A big crime in a small town and, in the case of some of the characters, small minds. Palm Beach, Finland is every bit as funny and obscure as the holiday resort around which the plot revolves. Absurd, hilarious and thoroughly compelling, Antti Tuomainen has given us another fantastic slice of Finnish fiction that should be at home on as many book shelves as possible. It also deals very heavily in Bruce Springsteen references which is always going to get a thumbs up from this reader.

My thanks, always, to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and Anne Cater for inviting me to take part on this blogtour.

Blog Tour: Trap by Lilja Sigurdardottir

From the PR: “Happily settled in Florida, Sonja believes she’s finally escaped the trap set by unscrupulous drug lords. But when her son Tomas is taken, she’s back to square one … and Iceland.

Her lover, Agla, is awaiting sentencing for financial misconduct after the banking crash, and Sonja refuses to see her. And that’s not all … Agla owes money to some extremely powerful men, and they’ll stop at nothing to get it back.

With her former nemesis, customs officer Bragi, on her side, Sonja puts her own plan into motion, to bring down the drug barons and her scheming ex-husband, and get Tomas back safely. But things aren’t as straightforward as they seem, and Sonja finds herself caught in the centre of a trap that will put all of their lives at risk…

Set in a Reykjavík still covered in the dust of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption, and with a dark, fast-paced and chilling plot and intriguing characters, Trap is an outstandingly original and sexy Nordic crime thriller, from one of the most exciting new names in crime fiction.”

OK: once again I’m at the point of wondering how the hell to review a book without giving away any spoilers. I’ll start at the beginning – the beginning of the trilogy of which Trap is the second part, that is. Last year’s Snare was a thoroughly clever thriller that managed to mix a fiendishly complex web of subplots with a real  emotional punch thanks to a cast of characters that made you question the lines between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Trap takes everything that was great about Snare – which was plenty – and ratchets it up a level… or five.

While Snare was definitely a compelling read, it was very much a laying of foundations and, as such, reading it is kind of a perquisite for fully understanding Trap as it’s here that everything really kicks off and in the second installment in Lilja Sigurdardottir’s Reykjavik Noir Trilogy it’s on from the word go and doesn’t let up until the last page. Hugely compelling and addictive (I spent many a late night glue to this one), Trap does not pull any punches and blends the tenderness of its characters’ emotional motivations with the brutal reality of the world of drug smuggling to staggering affect. Throw in the white-collar crimes and corruption of the Icelandic financial crash and you’ve got a real page-turner on your hands that delivers on all levels.

Lilja Sigurdardottir has a real talent and manages to weave some fantastically complex plots together without losing any of the momentum and populates them with characters so well written as to generate a genuine emotional investment in them from the reader – especially, of course, when it comes to Sonja and Tomas. Which was an odd one for me as for the vast majority of Snare I found it hard to develop any sympathy for her given her actions. Again I’m really trying not to give anything away but  as the plot of this trilogy deepens and increasing levels of deception and back stabbing are revealed along with the reality of other characters’ actions and just how much of a, pardon the pun, trap Sonja was lead into,  it’s impossible not to get hooked and caught up in the web of lies and emotional manipulation. And as for Bragi and his motivations… well, it’s a need to read.

Trap is a powerful follow-up to Snare and I’m really looking forward to the final chapter of the trilogy.  My thanks as always to Orenda Books for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blogtour.