Turning Pages: 2022 thus far

A strange thing happened at the start of this year – after years of blazing through books at a tremendous lick, I found myself struggling to get into anything. Moving beyond the first few chapters was a challenge, let alone finishing anything.

Given the degree to which I love a good read, this was a concern. Had I burnt out on books? Was this a byproduct of wrestling with the black dog? Either, rather than persevere and force the issue I took a break, did the rare thing (for me) of indulging in episodic television. Then, when the itch to read began to build up to the point of being impossible to ignore again I picked up the first book on my ‘to read’ pile which happed to be Antti Tuomainen’s The Rabbit Factor.

That did the job. Since then I’ve been pretty much back to business as usual so it feels as good a time as any to summarise the highlights of those collections of words I’ve been consuming over the last six months.

One of my growing joys when it comes to reading, and a mainstay even when I couldn’t get into anything for myself, has been the fact that my son is now of the age where we’ll sit and read through fuller stories and novels over bedtimes. This has meant that, alongside those Terry Pratchett collections like The Witches Vacuum Cleaner, I got to enjoy Journey to the Centre of the Earth again and marvel at the ageless wonder of Jules Verne’s writing. It’s one of those classics that’s been sat on my shelf waiting to be re-read since my days at uni and I couldn’t think of a better reason to have done so.

Rather than set an arbitrary number of books as a target for my reading lately I’ve instead made it a point to read one ‘big Russian classic’ a year. This year that happened to be Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It’s one of those books that I’d put off reading due to some misconception but am glad to have done so – it’s a joyous read (probably depending on your translation) that’s one to cherish – even if I found the the main plot (and character) of Anna herself bloody irritating. Much more the stories of Prince Stepan and Kostya for me.

Keeping on the classics theme momentarily, the Ernest Hemmingway section on my shelves has seen more than its fair share of action lately as I seek to consume more first-person narrative references. Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises was the first to be torn through and (as it, too had been sitting awaiting re-read since uni) just how bloody strong a first novel it is. While his mother may have been disappointed that he should squander his gifts writing about a social set she considered ghastly and, like To Have and Have Not which I read shortly thereafter, there are a few racist comments that grate a touch in 2022, there’s a lot to enjoy here. To Have and Have Not was one I hadn’t read before and while it felt like a disjointed story of three different and gradually weaker parts the first part alone is worth the price of admission and it would be followed by one of his finest and I’m sure I’ll be going back that end of the ‘H’ section soon.

It’s not often that I tend to read multiple books by the same author in one year and yet, along with Hemmingway, I’ve double up on Amor Towles this year. Much has been said of A Gentleman In Moscow and it remains one of my favourite novels to date so I was happy to get hold of The Lincoln Highway at the end of last year though it remained unread for some time. Before I got around to it I went back, as it were, with Mr Towles’ first – The Rules of Civility. Set in New York during the ‘jazz age’ and telling the story, in retrospect, of an eventful 1938 this was such an absolute belter of a read that it was a) clear that Towles is one of those astoundingly talented writers b) an immediate push to pick up The Lincoln Highway again – which turned out to be pretty good timing as having the former fresh in my mind allowed me to really appreciate the connection between the two, making some elements all the more poignant. While it may not have been the most practical of books to take to the beach (the hardback pulls in just under 600 pages) it, too, is a masterpiece of both storytelling and narrative (of which there are several) and highly recommended.

Gunnar Staalesen, since my introduction via Orenda Books published We Shall Inherit The Wind back in 2015, has become one of my favourite authors and I’ve made a point of working my way through as many of his extensive older novels that have been published in English as possible while eagerly awaiting new instalments in the Varg Veum series. I was delighted, then, to find a couple of his books – one new, complete with my review, and one old, The Writing on the Wall – in a bookshop earlier this year. The Writing on the Wall was originally written in 1994 (the English translation arriving in 2004) and is easily a highlight of this year’s reading. I always liken to reading to Staalesen as enjoying a good mug of coffee – it’s to be savoured as is gently kicks in. Once again dealing with some particularly dark subject matter (teenage prostitution and addiction) with quiet power, this is a bloody strong entry in a series that doesn’t have a weak point.

I’d seen Danny Goldberg‘s Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain about for some time but hadn’t felt compelled to get a hold of it before – was there anything more to be said about Kurt Cobain. Well, turns out there is / was, a few insights to be gained. Goldberg become Nirvana’s manager ahead of Smells Like Teen Spirit and here compiles a series of insights from his own memories and unique insider perspective as well as reaching out to others both in the industry and inner circle including Courtney Love and Krist Novoselic for clarification (though Dave Grohl seems notably absent in input) on a few details. Some of these insights are at times painful – particularly on Cobain’s mental health – some refreshingly human given how much Kurt has been turned into a myth, and others fascinating (the examination of the Vanity Fair article that essentially deprived Cobain and Love access to their child is a real eye-opener). All of which mean that this is actually pretty essential reading for a fuller picture into Nirvana’s rise and Kurt Cobain’s tragic end.

As has been the prevailing approach of recent months I’m currently steaming through two books: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez – which is proving to be another beautiful novel I wish I’d read sooner – and, as I’ve recently been exploring more of Neil Young‘s music, Waging Heavy Peace is turning out to be a much better read and less about his model trains than I’d been given to believe.

The Quiet People by Paul Cleave

From the PR: “Cameron and Lisa Murdoch are successful New Zealand crime writers, happily married and topping bestseller lists worldwide. They have been on the promotional circuit for years, joking that no one knows how to get away with crime like they do. After all, they write about it for a living.

So when their challenging seven-year-old son Zach disappears, the police and the public naturally wonder if they have finally decided to prove what they have been saying all this time… Are they trying
to show how they can commit the perfect crime?

Multi-award winning bestseller Paul Cleave returns with an electrifying and chilling thriller about family, public outrage and what a person might be capable of under pressure, that will keep you guessing until the final page”

Okay, so we all know the adage that you’re not supposed to judge a book by it’s cover – a thoroughly bogus claim anyway – but it would be remiss of me to even think of reviewing Paul Cleave’s The Quiet People without mentioning how bloody awesome its cover art is. It’s also a pretty cracking proposition; many is the time I’ve mentioned that I wouldn’t like to play chess with a few crime writers given how many moves ahead they seem to think. Of course there are also some where you have to wonder if they need to lie back on a couch and talk to someone at a large hourly rate. Obviously reality and a controlled, fictional world over which a writer reigns omnipotent are two different things, but could someone who spends their time coming up with tricky, hard to solve murders, actually get away with murder?

Which leads us to another question, the gist of this review; does Paul Cleave’s The Quiet People deliver on that premise? Does a cracking cover design grace a cracking novel? Oh hell yes.

Paul Cleave has delivered a novel that ‘gripping’ doesn’t do justice to. He kicks it off strong: getting the tension going with a chill-inducing prologue then darts into an equally nerve-wracking scenario as Cameron loses track of his son Zach at a fair. He doesn’t let off that hammer throughout – there’s no way of saying ‘just one more chapter’ with this bad boy, it’s intense in a delicious way.

As a parent of a seven year old son, I found this to have a whole lot of edge-of-the-seat moments and tore through with baited breath just hoping…. but then I can’t talk too much about plot because I don’t want to give this away – I’ve made enough ‘Bruce Willis was dead the whole time’ comments in these reviews. Without trotting out that chess metaphor for the second time in one review, I will say that Paul Cleave has crafted a brilliantly plotted and paced story here with some real vivid scenes. It has the expected twists and turns of a great thriller and a conclusion that might just floor you and it’s told with a masterful narrative and style and, yes, you may wonder if Paul Cleave might be capable of pulling of an unsolvable crime himself it’s so fiendishly clever in its storyline.

The characters push the tension along and Cleave paints them both fully and complex. There’s a real joy to be had seeing how they interact – particularly Cameron and Lisa – as the plot unfolds and the nuances in their behaviour sneak out and cracks appear, the same of which can be applied when the narrative switches to DI Rebecca Kent and her relationship with DI Ben Thompson. The narrative switch, and getting an alternative view of Cameron and his wife to that presented by his narrative is another brilliant element of Cleave’s craft.

Cleave’s prose is precise and wielded like only an expert can. He keeps it taught, powerful and it packs a sharp punch. Ridiculously compelling, tightly plotted and massively rewarding; The Quiet People is another shot of the bloody good stuff from Orenda Books.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to review as part of the blogtour.

Psychopaths Anonymous by Will Carver

From the PR: “When AA meetings make her want to drink more, alcoholic murderess Maeve sets up a group for psychopaths.

Maeve has everything. A high-powered job, a beautiful home, a string of uncomplicated one-night encounters. She’s also an addict: a functioning alcoholic with a dependence on sex and an insatiable appetite for killing men. When she can’t find a support group to share her obsession, she creates her own. And Psychopaths Anonymous is born. Friends of Maeve.

Now in a serious relationship, Maeve wants to keep the group a secret. But not everyone in the group adheres to the rules, and when a reckless member raises suspicions with the police, Maeve’s drinking spirals out of control. She needs to stop killing. She needs to close the group. But Maeve can’t seem to quit the things that are bad for her, including her new man…”

“I mean there’s obviously no God, and if there was, He’s not sitting around thinking ‘I need to make Jill quit the booze because the red wine turns her into such a cunt.’ That can’t be right. Even if you are everywhere and see everyone and know everything and know everything, you don’t give a fuck about Jill, she’s so annoying.”

This is not your standard thriller, but then Will Carver’s novels are anything but standard, he continues to carve a unique space in the genre with novels that sharply tongued and plotted, deliciously dark in humour and bite and meticulously crafted. Psychopaths Anonymous is another slice of the very good stuff from an exceedingly talented writer – reading a Will Carver you know that not only is this the work of a skilled wordsmith but one who clearly bloody loves it too, it means there’s really no way to read his work and not revel in the joy of doing so.

Yes; Psychopaths Anonymous paints with the darker colours on the palette – there’s murder, very bloody murder in fact, a lot of sex, murdered gangsters with genitalia stuffed into their mouth and plenty of scathing takes on humanity – but it does so with a decidedly insightful voice and a wicked sense of glee and wit that is, if you’ll pardon the pun, addictive. There is a theory that if you’re only exposed to one narrative voice – be it in literature, film, television etc – for a certain amount of time you will inevitably find elements of it in which you identify similarities to yourself. It’s why novels where the protagonist is far from a match for the reader still work, even if they’re capable of the most horrific acts.

How many people watched ‘Dexter’ and still enjoyed watching the character’s breakfast routine with each new episode’s credits as if they were watching an old friend, even if he’d spent the previous episode cutting people into small pieces and dumping them in the ocean? Will Carver’s novels are often populated and narrated by some of the most unpleasant characters guilty of the most heinous acts – one of his former novels was narrated by evil ‘itself’ – and yet his skill lies in a superb ability to find a way in which we can not only find an element to relate to but even agree with some of their most scathing of commentary.

Take Maeve for example. Maeve, as a character and narrative voice is massively compelling – a woman who, on the face of it, has it all and has it all nailed down. Yet it’s a facade – beneath that surface, not particularly too far beneath, is a dangerous whirlwind of a psychopath with a very well managed alcohol addiction and an itch to kill.

And yet… for a supposed ‘psychopath’ – someone lacking in empathy – her actions seem fuelled by a sense of injustice or righting wrongs, whether to her or not, and there are more than a few signs of compassion that peek through the cracks – enough, at least, to ensure you’re ‘with’ this narrative voice rather than feeling your reading the rantings of a Jeffrey Dahmer, say. Is she acting out of a sense of righting wrongs inflicted on those who have penetrated her facade and actually connected to her in some off-kilter way or are is it merely an excuse to indulge in another addiction, like that ‘well nothing important happened today but it is Friday’ excuse for an extra drink? It’ll all depend on your take on Maeve really, how much you’ve already found yourself identifying with in her or her reliability as a narrator.

She’s got no time for dickhead clients – I failed to supress my laughter at her comments during a meeting – or phonies and those that would force either themselves or their beliefs on others and Carver get’s these across in a darkly humours and spot on commentary that you can’t help but agree with. Of course, the difference is that Maeve tackles it in a more ‘hands-on’ way and ends up with a head in her fridge and the reader doesn’t.

It all makes for fucking brilliant fiction and a book that’s hard to put down as you tear from page to page like every other Will Carver novel to date, in fact. A wicked, not-at-all guilty pleasure that’s a joy to read and another great book from an outstanding talent.

My thanks as always to Karen at Orenda for feeding my particular addiction and to Anne Cater for inviting me to review as part of the blogtour.

Sergeant Salinger by Jerome Charyn

From the PR: “J.D. Salinger, mysterious author of The Catcher in the Rye, is remembered today as a reclusive misanthrope.

Jerome Charyn’s Salinger is a young American WWII draftee assigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps, a band of secret soldiers who trained with the British. A rifleman and an interrogator, he witnessed all the horrors of the war – from the landing on D-Day to the relentless hand-to-hand combat in the hedgerows of Normandy, to the Battle of the Bulge, and finally to the first Allied entry into a Bavarian death camp, where corpses were piled like cordwood.

After the war, interned in a Nuremberg psychiatric clinic, Salinger became enchanted with a suspected Nazi informant. They married, but not long after he brought her home to New York, the marriage collapsed. Maladjusted to civilian life, he lived like a ‘spook,’ with invisible stripes on his shoulder, the ghosts of the murdered inside his head, and stories to tell.”

There’s a massive difference between the “Sonny” Salinger of this novel’s prologue – an aspiring short story writer chasing his romantic infatuation with Oona O’Neill in the Stork Club and meeting Hemmingway for the first time – and that of the Sergeant Salinger of the coda – drifting through his memories as he tumbles down an escalator at Bloomingdales in 1947 (a point at which part of his famous novel had already appeared in a serialised form) struggling to come to terms with his experiences in the years in between.

Sergeant Salinger by Jerome Charyn explores Salinger’s war years, how the horrors and tumult of emotions witnessed and experienced shifted and formed the young writer’s mind and outlook to the point where the naive romantic of 1942 could, less than a decade later, deliver a defining novel oozing in edginess and scathing critique of modern society.

Salinger’s war years are richly imagined, blurring lines between fiction and reality – there was a lot here that sent me to check ‘did that actually happen’ and with so much of it genuinely having taken place (Exercise Tiger really was the horrific cock up it’s described as here and more).

We view the horrors and brutality through Salinger’s experiences whether it’s coming ashore with the second wave on Utah beech and spending hours wading through water, the green hell of Hürtgen Forest or the liberation of Kaufering IV in a way that’s at times reminiscent of Catch-22 with its mix of the absurdity and tragedy of war and the increasingly detached state “Sonny” begins to inhabit – Salinger was hospitalised for ‘combat stress reaction’ after the defeat of Germany. We see a writer being shaped by both events and a growing disillusionment with those around him – be it the Hemingway he again encounters in Paris or his own superiors.

Taking a known figure and carving a fictional version of them with a bit of artistic licensing can often go awry in the wrong hands. But with more than fifty works of fiction and nonfiction to his name, Jerome Charyn’s hands are safe ones to be in – here Salinger’s biological facts mix with another talented writer’s imagination to bring the young “Sonny” to life in a way that more straight ahead biographies wouldn’t.

Most importantly, though, even if you’re not familiar with or interested in J.D and his “Holden Caulfield novel” and short stories, Sergeant Salinger works bloody well as a novel in its own right and one very much worth reading.

My thanks to No Exit Press for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to review as part of the blog tour.

The Beresford by Will Carver

From the PR: “Just outside the city – any city, every city – is a grand, spacious but affordable apartment building called The Beresford.

There’s a routine at The Beresford.

For Mrs May, every day’s the same: a cup of cold, black coffee in the morning, pruning roses, checking on her tenants, wine, prayer and an afternoon nap. She never leaves the building.

Abe Schwartz also lives at The Beresford. His housemate Smythe no longer does. Because Abe just killed him.

In exactly sixty seconds, Blair Conroy will ring the doorbell to her new home and Abe will answer the door. They will become friends. Perhaps lovers. And, when the time comes for one of them to die, as is always the case at The Beresford, there will be sixty seconds to move the body before the next unknowing soul arrives at the door.

Because nothing changes at The Beresford, until the doorbell rings…”

How to review a novel as devilishly brilliant as The Beresford… that’s the question. I’m still not sure that I have the answer.

Four books in now and I’m never sure what to expect from a new Will Carver novel. Hang on, that’s not entirely true as Carver has well established prior in creating ridiculously well-crafted novels that are wickedly sharp in both style and dark humour, hugely addictive and filled with his own incisive takes on human nature and perceived reality.

What I mean is that I open a new Will Carver novel with anticipation to discover what new twist awaits and it’s always something unexpected and brilliant. The Beresford doesn’t disappoint on that level – or any level in fact.

Will Carver has a very distinctive style and narrative that’s a real joy to read. It’s deceptive; with seemingly little effort he’s able to slip in a huge amount, a wealth of details being slipped in little by little until you’re deep into it and haven’t realised you’ve been holding your breath for the last few chapters.

The Beresford absolutely rocks along at a great pace and every page manages to deliver something fiendishly clever and another hook that propels you on to the next.

Yes, you could say The Beresford is a dark, and at times very dark, thriller / horror and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong but it’s done in way that almost takes delight in the absurdity – Abe searching for ways to dispose of a dead body only to kick himself for forgetting to use private mode – of the situations rather than the gore or shock. It’s a very intelligent dark thriller, then, told with a knowing wink and grin that makes for a wickedly good read that I didn’t want to end.

My thanks as always to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy of The Beresford and to Anne Cater for inviting me to review as part of the blog tour.

Girls Who Lie by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir

From the PR: “When single mother Maríanna disappears from her home, leaving an apologetic note on the kitchen table, it is assumed that she’s taken her own life – until her body is found on the Grábrók lava fields seven months later, clearly the victim of murder.

Her neglected fifteen-year-old daughter Hekla has been placed in foster care, but is her perfect new life hiding something sinister?

Fifteen years earlier, a desperate new mother lies in a maternity ward, unable to look at her own child, the start of an odd and broken relationship that leads to tragedy.

Police officer Elma and her colleagues take on the case, which becomes increasingly complex, as the list of suspects grows ever longer and new light is shed on Maríanna’s past – and the childhood of a girl who never was like the others…”

Girls Who Lie is the second book in the ‘Forbidden Iceland’ series but having not read the first I can tell you not only that it works brilliantly as a stand alone but that this right here is an ice-cold slab of the good stuff; a brilliant helping of Nordic Noir that hits the spot from the word go!

Eva Björg Ægisdóttir is a seriously talented author to keep an eye on. Her prose is succinct yet evocative, superbly portraying both those glorious Icelandic locations and the subtlety of human emotion in her characters.

Girls Who Lie is fantastically well plotted and is one of those practically delicious mysteries where picking at a thread reveals a massively complex story that spans years and generates plenty of twists and turns that keep you rooted to the spot.

The split narrative serves as a great device for both ratcheting up the tension and painting the story with a much broader stroke. Eva Björg Ægisdóttir creates compelling and genuine characters and has a real skill when it comes to portraying their interactions that’s a real joy to read.

At times dark and harrowing while managing to keep the balance with humour and humanity, Girls Who Lie is a massively rewarding, rich and detailed thriller that I enjoyed every page of.

My thanks again to Karen at Orenda for my copy Girls Who Lie and to Anne Cater for inviting me to review as part of the blog tour.

One Last Time by Helga Flatland

From the PR: “Anne’s life is rushing to an unexpected and untimely end. But her diagnosis of terminal cancer isn’t just a shock for her – and for her daughter Sigrid and granddaughter Mia – it shines a spotlight onto their fractured and uncomfortable relationships.

A spur-of-the moment trip to France acts as a catalyst for the three generations of women to reveal harboured secrets, long-held frustrations and suppressed desires – and to learn humbling and heartwarming lessons about how life should be lived when death is so close.

With all of Helga Flatland’s trademark insight, sharp yet warm wit and deep empathy, One Last Time examines the great dramas that can be found in ordinary lives, asks the questions that matter to us all – and ultimately celebrates the resilience of the human spirit. An enchantingly beautiful novel that urges us to treasure what we have and rethink how we live our lives, from one of Norway’s most distinguished literary novelists.”

It seems like only yesterday but almost two years ago to the day I read and loved Helga Flatland’s Modern Family so I was itching to get my hands on her latest. Then let’s get straight to the point here: One Last Time is an astoundingly good novel and Helga Flatland is a writer of tremendous talent. A touching and skilfully written literary examination of family relationships and the fragility of life, this really is a slab of the good stuff.

I recently read an old interview with Jonathan Franzen wherein he pointed out that he was initially “deeply ashamed, cripplingly ashamed” of having, in The Corrections, written a book about family – thinking nobody still cared enough about family. I mention this here for, in a way that brings that novel to mind, Helga Flatland has delivered a brilliant literary exploration of family and the relationships within that’s beyond ‘a novel about family’ – examining the psychological connections and baggage we carry, the dynamics between generations and how these shift in the face of upheaval and, of course, grief and how we cope in the face of approaching death, all within a gloriously packed 240 pages.

This is a wonderfully insightful, moving and engrossing novel and reading it is like reading a master of the written word at play.

Flatland has a narrative style to be savoured, it’s both warm and witty and, in its economy of words, quietly powerful and allows her to tackle heavy subject matter in a way that’s poetic and affecting, the ending moved me beyond words it was rendered so beautifully.

An absorbing and thoroughly rewarding novel, One Last Time deserves a place on as many bookshelves as possible. My thanks as always to Karen at Orenda for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to review the novel as part of the blog tour.

This Is How We Are Human by Louise Beech

From the PR: “Sebastian James Murphy is twenty years, six months and two days old. He loves swimming, fried eggs and Billy Ocean. Sebastian is autistic. And lonely. Veronica wants her son Sebastian to be happy, and she wants the world to accept him for who he is. She is also thinking about paying a professional to give him what he desperately wants.

Violetta is a high-class escort, who steps out into the night thinking only of money. Of her nursing degree. Paying for her dad’s care. Getting through the dark.

When these three lives collide, and intertwine in unexpected ways,
everything changes. For everyone.

Both heartbreaking and heartwarming, This Is How We Are Human is a powerful, moving and thoughtful drama about a mother’s love for her son, about getting it wrong when we think we know what’s best, about the lengths we go to care for family and to survive.”

Louise Beech recently shared Strong Words Magazine’s review of This Is How We Are Human with its three word summary of “Autism / prostitution interface.” That’s gotta be a pretty unique description but then this is a pretty unique – and bloody great – novel.

In fact, This Is How We Are Human might just be Louise Beech’s best novel yet – it’s just so deliciously engrossing and nigh on impossible to put down. The characters are so beautifully rendered and compelling, their voices so vital and genuine. Louise Beech has a way of nailing emotions that puts her work on a different level, it infuses her characters and gets you invested in them real early on.

This is How We Are Human is Louise Beech’s seventh book, and with each of the previous five I’ve had the pleasure to read I’ve ascertained that reading one of Louise’s novels is akin to watching a Pixar film: you know that there’s gonna be an emotional punch to the delicates but you get so lost in the story and characters that you forget and then it really flaws you. This one is no exception. The emotional gamut run through the final few chapters – from edge of seat, ‘holy crap, no!’ to the heart tugging end – is her best yet.

But I’m skipping ahead a bit here… while the novel starts at the almost-end, I’d be remiss to talk about the emotional kick-in-the-pills of the ending without saying that getting there is an absolute sodding joy.

Yes it’s a bloody emotional read, tackles some heavyweight subject matter head on and with genuine skill but, perhaps most importantly, This is How We Are Human has a brilliantly compelling story line with a split narrative style that adds more punch and hook, told as it is through three key character povs, the most masterfully written of course being that of Sebastian. With this narrative Louise has given an authentic and powerful voice to someone who’s voice is often not even considered let alone heard.

There are some shocking moments in This Is How We Are Human, there are some tender moments, some painful emotional reveals and, this being a Louise Beech novel after all, some wickedly sharp and funny moments. But then that, appropriately, is the human experience and, novel after novel, Louise Beech just gets better and better at chronicling it. I’m already looking forward to her next book.

My thanks once again to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy of This is How We Are Human and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

Bound by Vanda Symon

From the PR: “The passionate, young police officer Sam Shephard returns in a taut, atmospheric and compelling police procedural, which sees her take matters into her own hands when the official investigation into the murder of a local businessman fails to add up…

The New Zealand city of Dunedin is rocked when a wealthy and apparently respectable businessman is murdered in his luxurious home while his wife is bound and gagged, and forced to watch. But when Detective Sam Shephard and her team start investigating the case, they discover that the victim had links with some dubious characters. The case seems cut and dried, but Sam has other ideas.

Weighed down by her dad’s terminal cancer diagnosis, and by complications in her relationship with Paul, she needs a distraction, and launches her own investigation. And when another murder throws the official case into chaos, it ’s up to Sam to prove that the killer is someone no one could ever suspect.”

It’s hard to start a review of a Vanda Symon book chiefly because her cold openers are so astoundingly good – I can’t think of many authors that have such an ability with those immediate hooks. Not just that but the rest of Bound is also bloody good too, delivering on that opening with an addictive and brilliantly written story.

It’s one of those where ‘just one more chapter’ is impossible. It’s no mean feat – to deliver such a powerful opening scene and keep the reader consistently hooked throughout yet Bound does just that.

This is a wonderfully plotted novel with characters that live, breath and walk off the pages so well portrayed are they. There’s a lot going on within Bound‘s 260 or so pages – a brutal execution, drug trafficking and organised crime, a policeman hell bent on revenge and Sam’s own personal and professional turmoil – yet at no point does it feel like there’s too much; Vanda Symon’s prose style one of calm and gentle build that pulls you in deep.

Bound isn’t a “rip along at 100mph and kick down every door to find the truth, damn it” novel (though there is a cracking car chase scene), it’s a more intelligent and slow burn of a plot with a whopper of a reveal that’ll leave you thinking for some time after finishing. Just what would you do in the name of ‘love’? There seems to be a lot of extreme answers in this one. A compelling and hugely satisfying read.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy of Bound and to Anne Cater for inviting me take part in the blog tour for this cracking book.

A Long Way from Douala by Max Lobe

From the PR: “On the trail of Roger, a brother who has gone north in search of football fame in Europe, Choupi, the narrator, takes with him the older Simon, a neighbourhood friend. The bus trip north nearly ends in disaster when, at a pit stop, Simon goes wandering in search of grilled caterpillars. At the police station in Yaoundé, the local cop tells them that a feckless ‘boza’ – a loser who wants to go to Europe is not worth police effort and their mother should go and pleasure the police chief if she wants help!

Through a series of joyful sparky vignettes, Cameroon life is revealed in all its ups and downs. Issues of life and death are raised but the tone remains light and edgy. Important issues of violence, terrorism, homosexuality and migration feature in A Long Way from Douala.”

I’m delighted to not only be taking part in the blog tour for A Long Way From Douala but to also be the first port of call. So let’s start off with a quick statement: this is a hell of a good book. In fact it’s bloody brilliant.

I went into A Long Way From Douala with no expectations and a whole lot of curiosity, never having read a novel by an author from or set in Cameroon. I was blown away by this deceptively slim book and loved every second of it.

Through a series of vignettes and flashbacks that are at times both brilliantly funny and immensely touching and evocative, A Long Way From Douala is a richly detailed story that delivers a real insight into life in Cameroon.

There are so many little details and moments in Choupi and Simon’s journey that left me agog that I know I’ll be going back to this one for another read. Whether it’s the dealings with local police, unexplained train stops punctuated by the sound of gunshots in the dark of night, or even the local ‘red light district’ there’s so many of these nuggets of Cameroonian life that it really immerses the reader in its world.

Max Lobe describes both the boys’ journey, his characters and their environs with a genuine warmth and lightness of tone that makes sure the narrative moves along at a brilliant pace that manages to bound along while never feeling rushed – even if the boys are trying to catch Roger.

Beyond the humour and warmth in the narrative though, A Long Way From Douala touches on many serious and issues that face Cameroonians on a daily basis from corruption and violence to the threat of increasing Boko Harum raids from across the border and, of course, the danger so many face in their pursuit of a better life by leaving Cameroon as they – like Roger – seek ‘Boza’; an expression used by central and West African migrants attempting to reach Europe when the cross the border. A genuinely eye-opening read.

This is a brilliant little novel full of life, humour and heart and, like all great small novels, I really wish there was more of it.

My thanks to Hope Road Publishing for my copy of A Long Way From Douala and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.