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.

Deadly Harvest

Last month I found myself engrossed in an article about an albino who was forced to flee his home in Cameroon because his albinism made him a target – a target for those who believe they have special powers. It means that across Africa, in countries like Cameroon, Tanzania, Malawi and others, Albinos are killed and mutilated for the parts of their body. It’s an eye-opening article, not least because, from my sheltered seat and lifestyle, I found it so shocking to believe that, in other parts of the world, people still genuinely believe in the power of the Witch Doctors and that people run the risk of being abducted and killed for muti.

IMG_9187Then Karen at Orenda Books sent me a new novel to read- Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley. Set in Botwsana, it tackles just that subject.

A young girl on her way home gets into a car with a mysterious man – she’s never seen again. Months later Samantha Khama – a new recruit to Botwsana’s Criminal Investigation Department – picks up the ‘cold case’, suspecting the girl was killed for muti. Then another girl disappears in similar circumstances. Witness, her devastated father, is just getting over the loss of his wife and the loss of his daughter, too, proves too much and pushes him down a dark path in search for revenge – it’s a path that leads him to accidentally and unknowingly blowing open a much larger case which brings corruption, politics and the plight of AIDS into the novel’s scope . When the investigation gets personal, Samantha enlists opera-loving wine connoisseur Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu to help her dig into the past. As they begin to discover a pattern to the disappearances, there is another victim – an albino man – and Kubu and Samantha are thrust into a harrowing race to uncover the true identity of the man behind the killings and bring the murders to an end.

Don’t let me mislead – I’m eager to point out here that muti in itself is not such an evil thing. It, more often than not, is nothing more than traditional herbal medicines (and, occasionally, the odd animal product) which is likely no more offensive than something you might pick up in Holland & Barrett (perhaps even less so). Sometimes though, it does get darker and can contain human elements. That darkness runs through Deadly Harvest like a potent undercurrent. Botswana is a modern country yet here amongst those living their daily lives are many who are still in thrall to Witch Doctors, the old ways and superstition – serving as a shackle as the country tries to progress and issuing a genuine, palpable threat to so many. Without repeating myself, it’s hard to conceive of such a world from the sheltered seat of the reader yet Deadly Harvest does a great job of bringing that terror, that monster in the dark, to life. Make sure your door is locked before reading this one at night.

It is a fantastic book. That it’s rooted in a disturbing reality makes it all the more powerful and important. Events unfold at a relatively leisurely pace but are interspersed with moments of palpable tension and a sense of foreboding as the Witch Doctor tightens his grip on those in his thrall as the police begin closing in. There’s plenty of humour in here too and events in Kubu’s own family life make for a great read.

I like Detective Kubu (not just because there’s usually a pack of cookies in my desk too, which reminds me….) – he’s a genuinely warm character with a stable, loving family life that’s almost an oddity in the world of crime novels. It’s nice to see a character who is fighting a battle with his waist line rather than one with alcohol / self-destructive habits and makes him an immediately more relatable character and one I very look forward to reading more of. In fact, all characters in Deadly Harvest are well written and convincing, many of which have back stories and character arcs that you know are going to make for intriguing stories as the Detective Kubu series continues (Deadly Harvest is the fourth and the fifth – A Death In The Family – is due soon).

The writer, Michael Stanley is, in fact, the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Both Sears and Trollip were born in South Africa and on a flying trip to Botswana, they watched a pack of hyenas hunt, kill, and devour a wildebeest, eating both flesh and bones. That gave them the premise for their first mystery, A Carrion Death, which introduced Detective ‘Kubu’ Bengu of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department. I’ve read books set in many a location but never one set in Botswana. It meant that this was one of those books that sent me off to that search engine beginning with G to discover more – always a good thing. Messrs Sears and Trollip write of Botswana with an authority that places the reader firmly in the location. They do a great job of weaving in genuine social concerns both in terms of the country’s political climate, the divide between wealthy and poor and the growing threat of AIDS and its devastating impact on families. The writers have a clear gift both for story-telling and hooking a reader – I was asking myself throughout as to just how the killer had lured the girls into his car so easily and the final reveal left me going back through wondering how I’d missed those clues that Kubu had put together. A genuinely intriguing and rewarding read.

Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for continuing to send me such high-quality novels and inviting me to be a part of this blog tour for Deadly Harvest. Do get a hold of the book if my review has any sway and check out the other stops below:

Deadly Harvest Blog tour

 

Night Blind

Ragnar Jónasson knows how to get a reader hooked. The first chapter of Night Blind finds police inspector Herjólfur following up a tip off at a house on the edge of town. It’s got all the classic ingredients in place for one hell of an opening- the house itself is not only remote and isolated but it practically hangs over a cliff, even its walls are “leaden and foreboding”, it’s dark and the rain is pouring, beams of torchlight peer out from inside. Only the edge of your seat will be needed before the chapter’s finished and it’s all too late for the inspector; “that was when he heard the shot, deafening and deadly.”

IMG_7059I’d been gripped by this opening chapter for close to a year before I got to read any further. It was included at the end of Jónasson’s first class début Snow Blind. The next instalment in the Dark Iceland series, Night Blind takes the reader back to the remote Siglufjörður, catching up with Ari Thór Arason five years on from the events of the first book. While it’s not essential to have done so before picking up Night Blind, I’m aware that not everyone will have read Snow Blind (and why not?!) so I’ll do my utmost not to drop any spoilers.

Ari Thór has settled somewhat since last we met- he and his girlfriend Kristín now have a young son – yet Siglufjörðu still holds plenty of discoveries for him. Preparing to return from an extended paternity leave and a battle with the flu, Ari Thór receives a concerned call from the new Inspector’s wife and soon discovers the likely-fatally wounded Herjólfur. Finding himself alone in the police department and unable to investigate the attempted murder of his boss, assistance soon arrives in the form of Ari’s former boss Tómas and we’re very quickly back into a taut, gripping and beautifully crafted murder investigation.

All the ingredients are in place for a great detective story. Yet Night Blind goes beyond the confines of any simple whodunnit. Layered within the mystery are sub-plots involving local political corruption, drug dealing, the opening up of a small community to the outside world (and its increase in crime), relationship challenges, a decades-old mystery and domestic assault; all of which Jónasson handles brilliantly, creating some genuinely memorable and affecting scenes that go beyond the slow-burning detective story of Snow Blind and show a talent that can cross genres.

The issue of domestic assault in itself is a tricky one, in a lesser-writer’s hands this could be so easily clumsily written and riddled with clichés. Not here though. Jónasson handles the subject deftly and manages to show a real ability when it comes to victim psychology. He can also write a bloody good action piece – the climatic scene between Elín and her ex had me gripped like a Jack Reacher action sequence yet with a genuine concern and sense of fear for the outcome.

Just as Snow Blind was interwoven with a narrative from the past and the question of how it connects to the present, Night Blind is interspersed with the diary entries of a young man held in a psychiatric hospital against their will for a seemingly violent incident – who is this young man and how does this relate to the shooting of  Herjólfur?

The final reveal and the connection between the two is, as with Snow Blind, a gob-smacker. The number of times I thought I’d sussed the answer out only to be shut down by the next chapter is too many to count, the reveal catching me so off-guard I had to go back and wonder how I’d missed the breadcrumbs. I’m not sure I’d like to play Mr Jónasson at chess, clearly a man who thinks more moves ahead than I.

One of the most wonderful things about Night Blind to me is just how many doors are so subtly opened, how many potential focus points for other stories are gently hinted at, but leave enough of a question mark, a hook in your interest as to leave you wanting more, much more of the Dark Iceland series. There’s the “wait, what?” moments of revelations including why the Siglufjörður police department is now under-staffed, the opening up of political influences on the department – and the interfering of shady locals, characters that are begging for larger roles in scenes to come and, of course, the thought that Ari Thór does his best to ignore; with Herjólfur shot, does this mean he’ll now be in line to become Inspector?

It’s here in these sly peeks at the depth of potential in the Dark Iceland series and the sheer number of elements at play in Night Blind that Jónasson excels; the subtle crafting of the story, with it’s intricate and overlapping plotlines and detailed characters coupled with a slow and genuinely surprising, out of left-field-reveal demonstrate a supremely confident and talented writer clearly revelling in his art.

It’s rare that I get quite so invested in the personal lives of characters in crime stories (often times they’re painted almost as side-shows and cursory / obligatory scene padding) but I was genuinely gutted (perhaps as my own son is still so young), though not entirely surprised, by the departure of Kristín  – yet even here Jónasson lays teasing ground-work for future developments. It’s also testament to Jónasson’s ability to create such genuine and fully-realised characters – it helps not only in keeping the reader hooked but adds a real depth and sense of community to these fictitious inhabitants of Siglufjörðu.

Snow Blind was one of my favourite reads of last year and Night Blind, an even stronger novel, will no doubt sit high atop the list of 2016’s best reads. To expand a little upon my original summary…..

Capture231

….. Night Blind is a compelling, multi-layered masterpiece that breathes fresh life into the genre. Breaking beyond the confines of the traditional whodunnit, Ragnar Jónasson has delivered an intriguing, intelligent crime novel that leaves the reader open-mouthed wanting more (well, this one at least). Clearly an author to follow, he seems to have pulled off the not-so-easy task of creating a series that only gets deeper and more interesting as it goes.

A translation can make or break a book and here the translation is, again, in the very capable hands of Quentin Bates. There is no point at which Night Blind feels like it was written in anything other than English; the flow, pace and charm of the book are all captured perfectly. A cracking job.

I was delighted to take part in this Blog Tour for Night Blind and my thanks again go to Karen at Orenda Books (which has nothing but quality bearing it’s logo on the spine). Do check out the rest of the tour and today’s other, eye-opening, instalment at Mrs Peabody Investigates.

Nightblind Blog tour

 

The black mares in free gallop

Twisted crowd barriers. Lads lugging makeshift stretchers across a pitch strewn with the injured and bewildered. The dead lined up in rows on the turf. Twisted minutes. Twisted metal. Twisted news reports. Everything twisted.

Fan has been described as a must-read for anyone that started watching football after Hillsborough. I’ve not watched football before or after. It’s not my cup of coffee. Good literature, though, is. And Fan most definitely is good literature.

Bxy6VQRCAAAU296With some books of late I’ve felt that some holes in my knowledge have hampered my full understanding and enjoyment of a book. Most particularly this is down to certain Russian novels and my knowing barely anything of that country’s revolution. With Fan, this is not the case. While I have only the vaguest of idea who Brian Clough was, Danny Rhodes writes with such informed and heart-felt passion that I understood. The same is true for football fandom. It’s something that I’ve never grasped, a spell I’ve never been under. Yet Fan expresses the love felt for the game by its protagonist – John Finch – and so many with a clarity and firmness of belief anyone with a passion for something would understand and get on board with.

I knew little of Hillsborough before reading Fan, only what was occasionally mentioned in the news since. Danny Rhodes was there. He writes of it with an alarming clarity, bringing the horror into full focus as is his right.  John Finch was there. He never really left. To say it screwed him up would be an understatement.

Finch cannot move forward. He’s moved away but he can’t move forward. He’s moved from Grantham and its bleak oppression to the South where he finds himself equally oppressed – by the pressures of his relationship and the pressure of the past, reaching forward and pulling him under. Unable to operate in any gear other than neutral for the fear of his terror – the black mares – pulverising him. He’s gotten to the point of no return, clearly suffering PTSD, his job is now on the line and his relationship is crumbling around him.

When word reaches him that one of those friends with him at Hillsborough has “gone and done himself”, Finch realises the only way he can break free, prevent the same fate befalling himself and move forward is to go back. Back to Grantham, back to his old stomping ground, his old circle of friends and search for the closure denied to him those years ago.

Jumping between 2004 and the past, Rhodes deals masterfully with the portrayal of a man hunting for closure, wanting to do the right thing but left helpless and weak by his demons. It’s both immediate and raw and told with an increasing sense of urgency underwritten by the unnerving sensation that we’re dealing with a whole lot of fact in this fiction.

Tackling the effects of trauma, social injustice, the pain and cost of change – both personal and sociological, and, of course, the devotion of football fans, Fan works well both taken at face value and when looking at the subtext.

While football is at the heart of the story, Fan is about more, much more than the game. The subjects tackled will resonate with a much wider audience than any one team’s fans.  Danny Rhodes has delivered a compelling read, full of brilliant narrative and insights.

A big thanks, again, to Arcadia Books for sending me this book.

I love anyone who wants to phone home

Bt0VZ8AIUAAxmMJ

This is a house of horror. A house of metal and country music. That Coldplay stuff isn’t even funny. It just makes for a bad atmosphere.

Not too long ago I came home from holiday to find two boxes waiting for me from Arcadia Books. One of those contained See You Tomorrow by Norwegian author Tore Renberg. The other contained Fan by Danny Rhodes (which I’ve just finished).

I was caught up in finishing two other books (The Goldfinch and Overlord) prior to picking up See You Tomorrow. I wanted to give it a clear run, the attention a glance at its first pages showed it clearly deserved. I knew nothing of Mr Renberg – first published in ’95 and widely known in Norway for his Mannen som elsket Yngve (The Man Who Loved Yngve) series (upwards of 400,000 copies sold).

This is the first novel from a Norwegian author I’ve read and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s set in Stavanger – a city I’ve been lucky enough to visit. That being said, the Stavanger within these pages is so far from the tourist’s snapshot I got of the city on my visit that were it not for the mention of a few landmarks and one character visiting Platekompaniet (a music store I shopped in during my own visit), I’d not be able to bring the two versions together in my mind.

There’s a great few articles to read around this, on the use of music within the novel (link) and a great interview (link).

Even now, two books on, I still feel under the spell of those red-edged pages. To review it was hard. I needed to review it, I wanted to review it but how to find the words when I hadn’t come across something this (and I don’t often use this word) groundbreaking for a long time.

How was the question I was faced with, how….

How do you review a book like See You Tomorrow; a book that deftly defies classification by mere genre yet incorporates elements from each, creating a compelling tapestry of a novel that satisfies every criteria for great fiction?

I suppose that’s a start. At least it’s a start that doesn’t – deservedly – lay every superlative possible on it.

See You Tomorrow captures the events of three days in which Stavanger is treated to unexpected, unseasonable warmth and sun as the lives of eleven characters cross paths with violent results.

Tore Renberg has said that it took six years to write See You Tomorrow. That he created playlists for each of the principle characters from whose perspectives the story is told (all eleven of them) in order to get into their skin. It shows. Each of the characters live and breath in these 600 pages with such an alarming vitality – very alarming in the case of Tong – that I hated putting this book down for fear something would happen while I wasn’t immersed in its world. It’s just that gripping.

Yes, there are 600 pages but there’s not a spare word amongst them. The narratives are so densely written and the events of the story’s three days so closely examined from every angle that the story rips along at a breakneck pace.

Themes abound – from broken families, social criticism, criminal undercurrents and the destructive power of secrecy to the frustrating catchiness of Coldplay – all served with dark humour and a quest to find the light in such a world.

And there’s the key. For all the damage the characters in See You Tomorrow carry with them and into the lives of others, this novel is ultimately uplifting. Whether it’s Pål’s desperate measures to end his financial burdens, Daniel’s ‘life-plan’ to mute the horror of his past to Tiril’s singing Evanescence to a crowd… even the delightfully unhinged petty criminal Rudi is a self-declared man of love. All are looking for the ray of light in these dark times, a way out, a release from their secret. In most cases, though at no small cost and in ways previously undreamed of, they find just that by the end of the three days.

Three days of unexpected warmth and light when least expected.

I cannot imagine just how tricky this book must have been to translate yet Sean Kinsella deserves praise for managing to do just that while retaining Renberg’s mastery of prose and wit.

See You Tomorrow is not only one of the best books I’ve read this year but is in serious contention for one of the best I’ve ever read. It would be a struggle to find such an original and compelling book as this. That Tore Renberg has a sequel to unleash upon us can only be good news.