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.

Blog Tour: Maria in the Moon by Louise Beech

From the PR:‘Long ago my beloved Nanny Eve chose my name. Then one day she stopped calling me it. I try now to remember why, but I just can’t.’

Thirty-two-year-old Catherine Hope has a great memory. But she can’t remember everything. She can’t remember her ninth year. She can’t remember when her insomnia started. And she can’t remember why everyone stopped calling her Catherine-Maria.
With a promiscuous past, and licking her wounds after a painful breakup, Catherine wonders why she resists anything approaching real love. But when she loses her home to the devastating deluge of 2007 and volunteers at Flood Crisis, a devastating memory emerges … and changes everything.

Dark, poignant and deeply moving, Maria in the Moon is an examination of the nature of memory and truth, and the defences we build to protect ourselves, when we can no longer hide…”

Ok, I’m starting to think the best way to approach Louise Beech’s novels is with the same level of trepidation with which I watch a Pixar film; just when you’re settled in with the characters and plot she manages to completely sucker punch you emotionally. This is certainly true of last year’s The Mountain In My Shoe and it’s most definitely true of Maria In The Moon, Louise Beech’s latest novel and one which – on the strength of her previous two efforts (well, published efforts as this was written first) – I’d looked forward too with eager anticipation. Of course she managed to completely wreck me again.

Hang on, that sounds almost like a conclusion – let’s back up a bit. How does Louise Beech manage to leave me – and, from what I’ve seen of other reviews for this book – her readers feeling like they’ve been watching the opening ten minutes of Up? Well, first she creates characters that live and breath within the pages of her novels. This isn’t a crime thriller or one waiting to be turned into a Tom Cruise movie – Louise Beech deals in real people battling against circumstance and struggle that few should have to face (I say this because each of her three novels to date has done so so brilliantly). This means that Catherine Hope (great surname choice, considering) becomes an immediately relatable and human figure for whom we as readers almost immediately begin to feel empathy. She’s funny, kind and plagued with doubt and has a gaping hole in her life thanks to her father’s early death. Yeah, it’s impossible not to let your heart go out to Catherine – especially as a parent – when Louise so effectively portrays the grief and turmoil that entered Catherine’s life at a young age.

But Catherine has another gap in her life. There’s a vast period of her life that she can’t remember that becomes apparent – because how do you know you’ve forgotten something if you’ve forgotten it? – when she’s asked to recall what happened when she was nine. Of course, nobody puts up a mental block because something amazing happened and we need to forget just how happy we were so we know that there’s a trauma at the centre of Catherine’s memory block but, given that her father had died before that period, we too are at a loss for a) what it could be and b) just how bad it has to be that the death of her father remains in her memory but this doesn’t.

Of course, Louise Beech knows how to write a story so we’re not about to get the answer immediately – besides, suppressed memories don’t just return to you because you file a reveal request with yourself. Catherine’s journey to discovery takes us on one hell of a ride and by the time the reveal comes slamming home like a wrecking ball, I doubt any reader will not be desperate for both answers and for Catherine to catch a break.

And, yes, that reveal is a wrecking ball. It was hard to read and will alter your breathing, this isn’t a bad thing; I’ve said before that a writer that’s scared to challenge shouldn’t be writing and Louise Beech is not scared to do so. Yes, it’s something that’s been dealt with in fiction before and no doubt will gain but few writers manage to handle this subject and its impact as well as this. I’m not going to give a spoiler here but I will say that it did leave me feeling gutted and bare and that’s because of both the subject matter and Louise’s skill at both leading the way to the reveal and unfolding it at exactly the right moment – she doesn’t go overboard, there’s no hacky dramatics or cheap-movie moments, just genuine honest and true emotion and deftness of hand, allowing events and characters to play out. This – as I’ve said before – is where Louise Beech stands apart, writing with an emotional bravery and honesty that few others can or do and delivers something that, because you’re so caught up in the character and because it’s written so honestly, hits fucking hard.

Again; don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a book that’s all emotional wreckage. Maria In The Moon is also very funny, immensely charming, engrossing and bloody well written and will stay with you for some time. So, yes, in a way, my opening summary still holds and, in the same way I still check out a Pixar film I’ll do the same with the next novel to be penned by Louise Beech and recommend doing the same.

Thanks again to Karen and Orenda Books for my copy, no-thanks to “sorry not sorry” Louise Beech for wrecking me again and do check out the previous stops on the BlogTour.

Blog Tour: House of Spines by Michael J Malone

From the PR: “Ran McGhie’s world has been turned upside down. A young, lonely and frustrated writer, and suffering from mental-health problems, he
discovers that his long-dead mother was related to one of Glasgow’s oldest merchant families. Not only that, but Ran has inherited Newton Hall, a vast mansion that belonged to his great-uncle, who it seems has been watching from afar as his estranged great-nephew has grown up.

Entering his new-found home, it seems Great-Uncle Fitzpatrick has turned it into a temple to the written word – the perfect place for poet Ran. But everything is not as it seems. As he explores the Hall’s endless corridors, Ran’s grasp on reality appears to be loosening. And then he comes across an ancient lift; and in that lift a mirror. And in the mirror … the reflection of a woman…

A terrifying psychological thriller with more than a hint of the Gothic, House of Spines is a love letter to the power of books, and an exploration of how lust and betrayal can be deadly…”

So, here we are with the latest novel from Michael J Malone and, I’ll be honest, after getting into House of Spines I did have to double check that this is the same Michael J Malone who wrote last year’s A Suitable Lie for Malone – as one glance at the man’s ‘cv’ will attest – is a very talented chameleonic writer clearly with “over 200 published poems, two poetry collections, six novels, countless articles and one work of non-fiction” to his name.

Whereas A Suitable Lie was something of a domestic-noir thriller with a twist on spousal abuse, House of Spines is very much a psychological thriller with heavy horror overtones and mystery that brings to mind the likes of Rebecca. Its setting in an old, practically empty and isolated manor really upping the opportunity to give Ran and the reader a real sense of the willies with the jarring jolts between Ran’s seclusion in the house and visits back to the modern world in the local village lending a further sense of disconnect between the ‘real world’ and the events back at Newtown Hall.

It’s a brilliantly conceived and well played mystery by Malone too, so thoroughly absorbing that’s impossible not to get caught up in and it’s impossible to express how so without given away a tiny bit of the plot so I’m gonna have to say that the next paragraph contains a SPOILER ALERT.

They say that if you’re only exposed to one narrative for so long you’ll eventually try and find ways to identify with it and find a sort of kinship (a sort of literary Stockholm perhaps) and this is true of House of Spines and Ranald. You get completely caught up in his viewpoint (even though it’s not told first-person) and, thus, in his struggles between distinguishing reality from fantasy and feeling completely in the dark on so many key points. For in the same way that his cousin has lead him a merry dance and played on Ran’s mental state so, too, is the reader left uncertain as to what is reality and what is the effect of Ran’s own mental state with so many puzzle pieces kept from view or merely hinted at with other characters holding on to key facts or leaving me exasperatingly frustrated at their seeming vow of silence on them. I can’t tell you the number of times I wanted to take a character and shake em by the lapels and scream “just sodding well tell him what the hell you know!”

I didn’t seen the final reveal coming, any of them for this is a mystery of many facets, and that’s always a good thing and the final sentence – in true horror style, managed to give me a chill. But then there’s so much going on for such a relatively novel it’s a wonder that it does all get resolved. From Ran’s own parental background, Newtown Hall and his Great-Uncle Fitzpatrick’s history to the current cousin-related concerns and it’s to Malone’s credit that the novel never feels over-stretched and these story lines are not only given all the space and to breath and come to fruition but are so ably wrapped up within the novel’s pages without feeling in the least bit rushed.

House of Spines is a cracking read that combines a real mystery with a genuinely touching and emotionally affecting story that, at times, makes you really feel for Ranald (and others without wanting to give anything else away) and one that I thoroughly recommend.

My thanks again to Orenda Books for my copy and inviting me to take part in this blogtour.

 

 

 

Page Turning – Another Three

Crikey, here we are already with September under way and autumn barrelling down on us with the onset of cold mornings and the tug of breezes forgotten.

I’m currently 26 books down on my 40 Books challenge for 2017 and the 27th underway. As has become the norm, here’s a few of those that have been read of late – a couple of which took a little longer than the usual week / week and a half that I can usually pace for reasons that will be discussed.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

There is no way of reading Ellroy without fully immersing yourself in his rich, enveloping and truly unique prose. I finally discovered the wonder of Ellroy’s writing in 2015 with Perfidia and it formed part of the first of these Turning Pages posts. Knowing that Perfidia was a prequel of sorts to Ellroy’s ‘LA Quartet’ I was keen to read more but read them in order and The Black Dahlia did not disappoint. As CB over at Cincinnati Babyhead points out; Ellroy “nails the whole under belly L.A. thing” and there’s nothing like wallowing in his world. My habit of sticking my nose in charity bookshops has borne fruit and I now have a copy of The Big Nowhere sat on the TBR list so I can continue walking those mean LA streets.

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo

A Christmas or two ago my wife gave me Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman to feed my growing appetite for Nordic Noir. I found it insanely addictive and chilling (I have zero faith the upcoming film will do it any justice) and have sought out other Harry Hole (pronounced: HOO-LEH so not quite one letter away from a real cultural hiccup) novels since though – as I was going back in the timeline and Nesbø’s career I didn’t find them quite as rewarding.

So I was happy to grab a copy of The Leopard at good second-hand price as it’s the next instalment in the series. I get the impression that it’s around this time in his writing career that Nesbø perfected his style. The earlier novels are bloody good, mind, but all the elements really seem to have come together; the writing is tight and focused, the plot is intricate and well weaved and the suspense and mystery are genuinely gripping.

The back-story of police corruption that was found in novels leading up to Nemesis has faded more into the background and the focus – aside from the murders – is firmly on Harry as he tries to overcome his own scars and wounds from the events of both a long and hard career and those of The Snowman – in this instance I’d say that readers would be at a loss if they hadn’t read that novel first. With both Phantom and Police sitting on my TBR pile I very much look forward to reading more of Harry Hole’s adventures.

A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles

For all the hype that surrounds it I found, in my first year of membership, Amazon’s PrimeDay to be something of a disappointment. While my son occasionally (as is the whim of toddlers) takes delight in his LED flashing shoes, precious little else interested me. With the exception, that is, of the cover of A Gentleman in Moscow. I mean, I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by such things but… it’s a hell of a great looking book jacket. Not only that but the description:

“On 21 June 1922 Count Alexander Rostov – recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt – is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol.

But instead of being taken to his usual suite, he is led to an attic room with a window the size of a chessboard. Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely.

While Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval, the Count, stripped of the trappings that defined his life, is forced to question what makes us who we are. And with the assistance of a glamorous actress, a cantankerous chef and a very serious child, Rostov unexpectedly discovers a new understanding of both pleasure and purpose.”

It was practically begging me to read it! Well, turns out it’s one of the best things I’ve read all year. Ridiculously well written, every single page was a delight to read and a lesson in craft and style. Rostov is a character for real literature lovers and the level of storytelling and sub plots are surprisingly complex given the initial premise and form a deliciously rich and vital background, giving real weight, humanity and warmth to a novel that could so easily have been the slightest of things.

A Gentleman in Moscow works as both a fantastic novel full of humour, charm and heart as well as a deviously funny allegorical take on Russia’s not too distant past. Reading this novel I had to keep reminding myself that it was published just this year – with its classic style, insightful observations and supporting cast of characters and the impact of historical occurrence, it genuinely felt at times as though discovering a well-loved classic and the ending…. is just sublime. Much in the same vein as Antony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (another novel I picked up based on the cover and hook of the blurb), A Gentleman in Moscow is easily one of the best novels published in recent years and much deserving of a place on a discerning bookshelf.

Blog Tour; Dying To Live by Michael Stanley

From the PR: “The body of a Bushman is discovered near the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, and the death is written off as an accident. But all is not as it seems. An autopsy reveals that although he’s clearly very old, his internal organs are puzzlingly young. What’s more, an old bullet is lodged in one of his muscles … but where is the entry wound?
When the body is stolen from the morgue and a local witch doctor is reported missing, Detective ‘Kubu’ Bengu gets involved. As Kubu and his brilliant young colleague, Detective Samantha Khama, follow the twisting trail through a confusion of rhino-horn smugglers, foreign gangsters and drugs manufacturers, the wider and more dangerous the case becomes… A fresh, new slice of ‘Sunshine Noir’, Dying to Live is a classic tale of greed, corruption and ruthless thuggery, set in one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes, and featuring one of crime fiction’s most endearing and humane detectives.”

When a new Detective Kubu book arrives on my shelves I know for a fact that I’m going to love every second of it. Reading the work of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip (writing as Michael Stanley) is never anything short of a delight. Detective Kubu is, three books in, one of my favourite characters and there’s always a grin on my face when he’s on the page. In Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu, Sears and Trollip have created a character I could read all day every day and never get bored. I’ve said it before but it’s impossible not to say it again but in a genre stuffed to the bindings with great characters he’s a real stand out, even if I’ve now abandoned the snacks and keeping cookies in my own desk draw, it’s a delight to read a character so wonderfully human and warm who’s only ‘flaws’ are his dietary indulgences. It makes the subplot concerning his family worries all the more affecting too.

But, of course, a good character does not make a good book alone. Dying To Live is a great read for so many other reasons as well. The portrayal of Botswana and it’s clashing of cultures both in terms of those embracing the new vs traditional ways (the ongoing import placed on witch doctors and traditional healing that played such a key role in Deadly Harvest) and place of the Bushmen in that society along with the inclusion of those colloquial words from South African languages amongst the English add, as intended by the authors, a real sense of authenticity and make for an immersive experience.

Nor is Kubu the only character in the novel, obviously. The supporting cast are made up of faces familiar and new and Messrs Sears and Trollip possess a real knack of creating a compelling ensemble each of whom could carry a story on their own, I’m sure. It’s great to see Samantha Khama developing as a strong female member of Botswana’s CID and it’s clear that Constable Ixau is a character that’s got legs and I look forward to more of his involvement in the series. At least I hope there’s more to come.

So… what of the plot? Well; it’s a real gripper. What seems like a routine call out for an unimpressed detective soon escalates into a story that reaches across continents. A fantastically written slow burner of a plot that builds into a complex mix of corruption and greed with plenty of red herrings and sucker punches to keep you hooked to the very end  with a mystery that throws smuggling, organ theft, murder and political turpitude into one ridiculously rewarding brew. Dying To Live firmly marks the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip as one to very quickly get addicted to and demonstrates that the northern climes have got nothing on ‘Sunshine Noir’ when it comes to compelling, blockbuster intrigue and action.

If you’ve not been lured into exploring the Detective Bengu series then Dying To Live is a great place to start and, if you have, you’ll love every page.

Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for my copy and do check out the other stops on the blogtour.

Page Turning – Three More

According to Goodreads I’m pretty much on track for my 40 books challenge this year – two days into July I finished reading the 21st book I’d started in 2017.

So with a longer review for one of those four cleared since I last dropped any summary, here are those other three rounding out the list of those completed.

Night School by Lee Child

The most recent in the Jack Reacher series and one which – perhaps as Child didn’t know where to take his one man army immediately  after Make Me – hurtles us back in time to the mid-90’s (I wouldn’t mind getting on that time machine) to a time when Reacher was still actively serving in the army.

I’m now up to nine of the twenty-one Reacher novels and I’m beginning to be able to form an impression as to which ones are strong and which ones are merely ok. For my money this one sits in the latter category.  Make Me was a real strong entry after the relative water tread of Personal and took Reacher in a direction that showed growth and potential. By heading back into the past Child removes any real sense of jeopardy and it becomes more of a “Reacher gets into fights in Germany” read than anything else. The closeness of events to those of Killing Floor mean there’s nothing revelatory about Reacher’s past offered up and Child’s method of writing without knowing where events are going is too often on display when it comes to the ‘mystery’ at the centre of events.

Let’s hope The Midnight Line is another step forward rather than more standing still. Not bad but I’d be disappointed if I’d paid anything more than the £2 this one cost me.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (some spoiler)

This one had been sat on the Want-To and then the TBR list and pile for a while now. My wife got to it first and praised it and there’s no denying the regard it’s held in. I’d be gobsmacked if somebody hadn’t heard of it; its infamy probably known more than its contents.

So… do I rave about this book? Well, nobody can write like Nabokov, that’s for sure. I’d not read a line by him before now but even the first sentence is pure brilliance: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

The dark comedy is sublime, the character of Humbert is one for the archives and so brilliantly painted and there are times when one can’t help but feel for him and, yes, so much of this misperceived (by those who haven’t read it) novel is less about Humbert’s pursuit of his nymphet as it is about Lolita’s absolute playing and exploitation of his sickness.

BUT, here’s what stops me wanting to read this again and again in the same way I do about a book like The Master and Margarita* and maybe I am a prude, or over-thinking this but a large part of this novel is essentially Humbert on a cross-country tour of America having sex with a very under-age girl. It makes for a very uncomfortable read – especially when he points out her crying herself to sleep every night – and, yes, this is intended, yes Lo is “seduces” him and yes his revelling in such activities makes the downfall so much more dramatic  but the lengthy segues that detail the realisation of Humbert’s desires (no matter their forming and Lo’s scheming) are still just too visceral to make an enjoyable read for my tastes.

But – while I won’t necessarily read this one again – it is a hugely well written and brilliantly told story that underlines Nabokov’s importance in the literary cannon and should be read at least once but any such student of the form.

 

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Pretty much impossible to review any of Sir Pterry’s novels in anything other than adoration. I’ve mentioned before both that it would be tricky to overestimate the  importance of Terry Pratchett in my library and literary explorations  and my desire to gradually re-read the Discworld series.

I think Pyramids often slips through the cracks when people talk about Discworld novels, I might be wrong. It’s not one that features any of the recurring characters – there’s no Rincewind or Nanny Ogg, for example – but it’s an important one. Sitting seventh in the published order it marked Terry’s first move away from the Wizzards and Witches that had dominated thus far. Prior to re-reading this one I’d done the same with Sourcery and couldn’t help feeling that perhaps even the writer was getting a little tired of the theme. Pyramids was one of the first in what’s now called the ‘cultures’ series as well as the exploration of belief on the Discworld.

Like many of those pre, say, Men At Arms, I had only vague recollections of Pyramids having read it originally some two decades ago and not since. Of course I remembered Pteppic and You Bastard, the Disc’s greatest living mathematician and – as with all of those I’ve revisited in the last couple of years – reading this one again was a real joy. Preatchett really was in a league of his own and to sit there chuckling away at this one served just to remind how much of a loss it is to no longer receive the joy of a new Discworld novel every year or so.

 

 

 

*I cannot recommend this one enough, just make sure you get a good translation as I’ve seen far too many bland ones on the shelf that seem to suck the passion and charm out of the prose.

Blog Tour: Wolves In The Dark by Gunnar Staalesen

From the PR: “Reeling from the death of his great love, Karin, Varg Veum’s life has descended into a self-destructive spiral of alcohol, lust, grief and blackouts. When traces of child pornography are found on his computer, he’s accused of being part of a paedophile ring and thrown into a prison cell. There, he struggles to sift through his past to work out who is responsible for planting the material … and who is seeking the ultimate revenge.

When a chance to escape presents itself, Varg finds himself on the run in his hometown of Bergen. With the clock ticking and the police on his tail, Varg takes on his hardest – and most personal – case yet. Chilling, shocking and exceptionally gripping, Wolves in the Dark reaffirms Gunnar Staalesen as one of the world’s foremost thriller writers.”

Right now I don’t think there is a writer whose new novels I look forward to as much as Gunnar Staalesen. And I’ll probably say this every year with every new novel; Wolves In The Dark is the best Varg yet! It’s just so fucking good I never wanted it to end.

I cannot recommend the Varg Veum series enough, Staalesen is the sitting King of Nordic Noir and this, the 21st (!) in the series puts Bergen’s finest into his most challenging and dangerous case to date.

Woken up by the police knocking on his door, Veum is shocked to find himself arrested and lead out to a waiting police car for the worst crime imaginable; possessing, sharing and even creating child pornography “of the must repugnant kind.” Having spent a number of the almost-four years previous lost in grief and his alcoholic coping method following the events of We Shall Inherit The Wind, Varg begins slowly pulling together threads of memory and seemingly random cases he’d worked on in the ‘fog’ of those years to try and work out just who might have sufficient a grudge (and ability) to put him in the frame – turns out it’s a pretty long list. When a chance presents itself Veum escapes from the police and sets about investigating for himself.

I read a news story not so long ago about a man whose life was completely ruined after a mistake (an error in one police force’s writing down an IP address) led to him being arrested under child pornography charges and placed on the sex offender’s list. A devastating account of a life turned upside down – his job was lost, he was traumatised, his relationships and family suffered – all because of an error. Turns out there’s a few of these. It seemed stranger than fiction and fascinating – where would you even begin, how could you hope to fight such a case?

I’d like to believe I’d be incensed and able to fight enough to clear my name. But then what about the impact on your life, on your person? To know that so many people – including, in some cases, those near and dear believe you capable of such horrors? Will people ever look at you the same? And these are innocent people. Rendered criminal and untrustworthy, monstrous even, by a mistake.

In Varg’s case it’s not a mistake – the material is on his computer but who put it there? Who has deliberately thrown him to the wolves to be shredded in public? The more he investigates the more he uncovers, the more he shakes the tree the more potential enemies fall out each baring him ill and each with the ability to implicated him via his computer.

The chase, as Varg tears through Bergen as both hunter and prey (to his increasing list of enemies as well as the police) is the most thrilling and gripping in pace as I’ve read from Staalesen; Veum is very much against the clock and working within strict confines of both geography and tool set as he has to evade detection. In previous Staaleson novels I’ve loved the almost leisurely, calm and confident manner in which Veum slowly and methodically pieces together his cases – like a Zen master who knows his craft. Here, though, as much as he knows his craft the shattered state of his memory almost leaves him clutching at straws with thoughts and fragments coming back out of the ether and it’s an absolute joy to read as Veum is forced to work as frantically as possible against the odds.

But what about the human element? The effect of being accused of such horrendous and unspeakable crimes? Well, I’ve said this before and I’ll save it again: Staalesen is the master. He paints an intelligent, detailed and thoroughly convincing portrait of a man on the edge, plagued and sickened (physically) by both the accusation and the crimes themselves (let’s not forget Varg was a Social Services man before a PI) and torn at the prospect people believe him capable of such inhuman crimes.

The underworld of Norway never fails to prove a complex and riveting backdrop in Nordic Noir and Staalesen spins a delightfully well plotted story that delivers a hugely satisfying read as all the strands come together toward a denouement that left this reader gobsmacked.

Again: I cannot recommend Staalesen enough and even though it’s only June, Wolves In The Dark may well be the best book I read this year.

Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for my copy, do check out the other stops on the blogtour and get your hands on a copy of Wolves In The Dark.

 

Page Turning – Quick Reviews

So I set myself the target of reading forty books this year. I’m still on track with seventeen cleared already and another three or four en route for completion by the end of this month.

I’m getting through some great books,  and while the population of my bookshelves has continued to grow as my to-read list builds I haven’t yet dropped full whack on a book -some I’ve been lucky enough to be sent in exchange for a review, others were gifts and many the result of second-hand book shop hauls. I’m very keen to expand my collection of works by several authors like James Ellroy and my Discworld collection is growing but I don’t like, and this is purely an aesthetic comment, so seek out their older versions.

Anywho. A few of those read so far include…

Iron Gustav by Hans Fallada

I, like many others, discovered and fell in love with the writing of Hans Fallada when  Alone In Berlin was published in English, so many decades after his death. Since then I’ve been devouring whatever Fallada book I can get my hands on, if only the publisher – aware of the demand for this particular German writer – wouldn’t price them so highly for a standard paperback.

Reading Iron Gustav is like reading a master-class in fiction. Fallada was not only an astoundingly talented writer – creating hugely intricate and tightly woven portraits of everyday people and their struggles – but also witness to some of history’s most fascinating and shocking events. Written in 1938 Iron Gustav portrays the hardships bought upon a Berlin family – as a microcosm of Germany itself – following World War One. Forced by the Nazi regime to extend its timeline to include that party’s rise and rewrite chapter, Fallada was left with little choice but to acquiesce and also rewrote the ending. This version gets as close as possible – 70 years after the author’s death –  to Fallada’s original story and is an absolute joy to read. A hugely powerful and important novel restored from the dark past. I simply cannot get enough of Fallada’s writing.

 Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut 

Another writer of whom I simply can’t get enough is Kurt Vonnegut. It was a while before I picked up Slaughterhouse 5 but once I’d had my first sip of this master’s work I wanted the whole bloody goblet. Galapgos, another very apt satirical take on mankind’s failings, is the story of a handful of people who, stranded on the island of Santa Rosalita, become mankind’s last hope after a superbly funny series of events lead to the collapse of the World’s economy, a mass conflict and all of the planet’s women becoming infertile.  

While it’s not my favourite of Vonnegut’s work on my shelves – at this point I’d give that to Mother Night – it’s another fine addition and a real blast to read.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

Last year I read and thoroughly enjoyed Joseph Kannon’s Leaving Berlin. The combination of spy thrill and the Cold War fascinated me and I wanted more so I thought – after constantly seeing references to his work – it was time to give John le Carré a go. I read the first few paragraphs of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold a read online, was hooked so ordered the whole thing and… well…. meh.

I really, really wanted to enjoy this book. I did. The opening is a real hook and the plot itself is certainly a classic in terms of its intricacy and espionage but… I don’t know. This took me far too long to get through and at times it felt like a slog. Maybe it’s down to the main character simply not being all that much of a draw, maybe it’s the writing style feeling a little too dated or just the fact that (spoiler alert) I so dislike an ending that renders having spent the previous 300 pages becoming invested in the characters so bloody pointless that it actually made me angry. The same could be said for Dominion and that bastard was 700+ pages of drudgery.

Still, I’m not completely turned off the idea of John le Carré so may try another in time to come. Plus the Cold War still proves a fascinating era and a very potent backdrop for fiction….

Stasi Child by David Young

I was seeing this book all over the place last year – social media, book shops etc and finally got around to picking a copy up this year. And, given the statement above, and the premise how could I not; “East Berlin, 1975. When Oberleutnant Karin Müller is called to investigate a teenage girl’s body at the foot of the Wall, she imagines she’s seen it all before. But when she arrives she realises this is a death like no other. It seems the girl was trying to escape – but from the West.

Stasi Child is a very well plotted and gripping thriller. It bounds along and it’s sense of place and time is very carefully and skilfully woven in without being heavy handed with the contrast between life in the East and West very convincingly portrayed without resorting to tired cliché and tropes. Almost perfect and I’m very much looking to more from David Young – I see Stasi Wolf was published this year – and the series.

Blog Tour: Block 46 by Johana Gustawsson

From the PR: “Evil remembers

Falkenberg, Sweden. The mutilated body of talented young jewellery designer, Linnea Blix, is found in a snow-swept marina. Hampstead Heath, London. The body of a young boy is discovered with similar wounds to Linnea’s. Buchenwald Concentration Camp, 1944. In the midst of the hell of the Holocaust, Erich Hebner will do anything to see himself as a human again. Are the two murders the work of a serial killer, and how are they connected to shocking events at Buchenwald? Emily Roy, a profiler on loan to Scotland Yard from the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, joins up with Linnea’s friend, French truecrime writer Alexis Castells, to investigate the puzzling case. They travel between Sweden and London, and then deep into the past, as a startling and terrifying connection comes to light. Plumbing the darkness and the horrific evidence of the nature of evil, Block 46 is a multi-layered, sweeping and evocative thriller that heralds a stunning new voice in French Noir.”

Writing this review proved to be a real head scratcher as it’s hard to find the words to describe just how bloody good this book is.

Block 46 is a hugely affective and intense novel. A thriller that combines a gripping and chilling series of modern day murders with a backstory that delves, unflinchingly, down some of the darkest avenues mankind has walked down with action set in modern day Sweden and London and 1944 Buchenwald.

The splitting of both narratives and settings help develop  a complex and absorbing plot that slowly builds to a fantastic finale with one hell of a twist – I’m doing my utmost to avoid spoilers.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; a book or author that is afraid to challenge the reader is one I don’t want to read. Writing about a subject as genuinely dark and terrifying in its actual barbarity as what occurred at Nazi concentration camps is a very bold move – it’s hard to cover such horror in a way that manages to neither shy away and thus diminish the events while at the same time portray them effectively and still deliver something that a reader can still actually bear to read. Gustawsson treads that line deftly, clearly an exceedingly talented writer. Her portrayal of Buchanwald and its prisoners never shys away from their ordeals but, instead, focuses more on the humanity of those treated like animals and is all the more affecting for it.

That sense of humanity in the face of horror shines through – thanks to Roy and Castells – in the modern day part of the story too. There were times (again I’m being careful to avoid spoilers) where I had to put the book down and take a breather. Not because the thriller element was so fast paced – and don’t get me wrong it’s an absolute ripper in that respect too – but because, in the midst of such intensity Gustawsson has placed characters so real with backstories so very moving.

In Roy and Castells Johanna Gustawsson has created two compelling leads I can’t wait to read more of. In Block 46 she has created a fantastic novel. A thoughtful and tightly plotted book that’s both moving and thrilling, an absolute page turner that delivers in spades.
Thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy and do check out the previous stops on the blogtour.

 

 

Blog Tour: Reconciliation for the Dead by Paul E Hardisty

From the PR: “Fresh from events in Yemen and Cyprus, vigilante justice-seeker Claymore Straker returns to South Africa, seeking absolution for the sins of his past. Over four days, he testifies to Desmond Tutu’s newly established Truth and Reconciliation Commission, recounting the shattering events that led to his dishonourable discharge and exile, fifteen years earlier.

It was 1980. The height of the Cold War. Clay is a young paratrooper in the South African Army, fighting in Angola against the Communist insurgency that threatens to topple the White Apartheid regime. On a patrol deep inside Angola, Clay, and his best friend, Eben Barstow, find themselves enmeshed in a tangled conspiracy that threatens everything they have been taught to believe about war, and the sacrifices that they, and their brothers in arms, are expected to make.

Witness and unwitting accomplice to an act of shocking brutality, Clay changes allegiance and finds himself labelled a deserter and accused of high treason, setting him on a journey into the dark, twisted heart of institutionalised hatred, from which no one will emerge unscathed.”

Here we are with the third volume in Hardisty’s Straker series and let’s get this out of the way now; they just keep getting better – Reconciliation for the Dead is a massive leap forward and the best of the three and I do hope there’s more to come. Don’t misunderstand; I thoroughly enjoyed both The Abrupt Physics of Dying and The Evolution of Fear but Reconciliation for the Dead is something else both as part of the Clay Straker family and as a novel.

At this point in time we’re a little ahead of the book’s publication date so I’ll be wary of giving away too much in terms of plot or spoiler. Instead I’ll say that Reconciliation for the Dead is a real genre-defier; at times action thriller, at times political intrigue, at others social commentary and at times literary fiction but BRILLIANT throughout. Hugely gripping, deeply moving, highly intelligent, and – as is a real hallmark of Hardisty’s work – a story with heart and conscience.

As detailed in the PR, this novel sees Clay return to his native South Africa to testify in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – not so much for personal absolution but to lay out the truth on behalf of those unable to tell their stories. This isn’t one for the faint of heart; there are some intense scenes involved, bold and powerful revelations  from which Hardisty does not flinch. It’s practically impossible to run through just which atrocities we’re talking about here but we’re looking at the real nadir of human behaviour that’s let loose at times of war.  That so much of it is based on real events makes it all the more affecting.

The action scenes – into which you’re thrust pretty much from the get-go – are hugely immediate and crack along at a dizzying pace while retaining an intelligence that’s not all that common in the genre. For those who have read the previous novels Clay and Crowbar are both familiar characters – the events of Reconciliation for the Dead allow a far greater an understanding, filling in the gaps of a troubled and tortured history merely hinted at before.

This is a novel of actions and their consequences, of the past and its long shadow, the importance and cost of conscience and of the weight of regret. It makes for a gripping and compelling read. Hardisty’s writing, already accomplished – in my review of his first book I wondered if he hadn’t secretly been penning thrillers for years under an assumed name – is at it’s finest here; insightful, nuanced and intelligent and courageous; asking us all to examine our humanity and the cost of our actions.

Reconciliation for the Dead is as intense, thought provoking and hugely rewarding a read as it gets. Easily one of the best books of 2017. My thanks, as always, to Karen at Orenda for my copy of this book and do check out the other stops on the blogtour.