Blog Tour: Wolves at the Door by Gunnar Staalesen

From the PR:“One dark January night a car drives at high speed towards PI Varg Veum, and comes very close to killing him. Veum is certain this is no accident, following so soon after the deaths of two jailed men who were convicted for their participation in a case of child pornography and sexual assault … crimes that Veum himself once stood wrongly accused of committing.

While the guilty men were apparently killed accidentally, Varg suspects that there is something more sinister at play … and that he’s on the death list of someone still at large.

Fearing for his life, Veum begins to investigate the old case, interviewing the victims of abuse and delving deeper into the brutal crimes, with shocking results. The wolves are no longer in the dark … they are at his door. And they want vengeance.”

How do I begin to review the latest novel from one of my favourite authors? It’s not easy – I’ve been staring at the screen wondering how to kick this off for a while now. It’s tricky to find a way to sum up just how bloody good a writer Gunnar Staalesen is while at the same time pointing out that Wolves At The Door finds him still at the top of his game. I can’t pour further superlatives on Staalesen than I already have, and I really don’t want to give away too much of the plot of this one – it needs to be read and savoured.

I’ve often compared reading Staalesen to enjoying a good coffee. You don’t throw it back like an espresso and get all hopped-up like an airport-thriller. You savour it, enjoy it and let it ease into your system in an enveloping warmth before you realise you’re hooked and something has got your heart moving a little faster.

I suppose that’s a pretty good way to get going, right? It’s true: Gunnar Staalesen is among the top-tier of writers and the latest Varg Veum novel continues a hot streak that’s about forty years long now.

One of the many joys of reading Staalesen’s work is the precision and warmth of his prose. While there’s not an excess word there’s never a sense of rush; the plot unfolds with expert precision and timing rather than bounding along at a thrill-a-minute pace, even when Varg is both hunter and prey. There’s something deeply satisfying and rewarding in the way the plot of Staalesen’s novels, Wolves At The Door included, comes together, piece by piece as Veum slowly pulls at threads and finds links between the past and present and makes his discoveries by putting in the hard work rather than kicking in doors and heads – not to mention the fact that Veum is, almost despite himself, an endearing character.

Speaking of threads – Wolves At The Door picks up the thread from Wolves In The Dark – with a few vital character developments from Big Sister touched upon too – and it’s a heavy subject matter: the horrendous offences Varg was accused of in that novel and several others were guilty of don’t make for light reading. Yet Staalesen handles the subject matter with care and without exploitation. There are too many third-rate writers out there that would use child abuse and pornography for shock value and handle it like turd in a pool. Staalesen is a writer who knows how to find the heart in a story rather than the shock and that’s infinitely more affective.

I’m now seven novels in to my discovery of the Varg Veuem series. Prior to Wolves At The Door I’d not long finished Yours Until Death, Staalesen’s second from 1979. There’s a steadfastness about Veum that runs through the entire series – he’s an honest, yet flawed character driven by all the right motivations no matter the cost. Yet, forty-plus years in, Staalesen is still able to make his detective a compelling character with enough mystery and development (there’s a big one right at the end of Wolves at the Door) to keep readers wanting more, all the while delivering original and heavy-hitting stories – I don’t think there’s many writers that make that claim, regardless of genre.

If there’s a standard for Nordic Noir then it’s Staalesen who sets it and he sets it bloody high.

My thanks, as always, to Karen at Orenda for both introducing me to Staalesen’s work and keeping my addiction fed, and to Anne Cater for invtiting me to take part in this blogtour.

Blog Tour: Inborn by Thomas Enger

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

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

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

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

But can we trust him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Tour: Trap by Lilja Sigurdardottir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Tour: Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen

From the PR: “PI Varg Veum receives a surprise visit in his office from a woman who introduces herself as his half-sister, and she has a job for him. Her god-daughter, a nineteen-year-old trainee nurse from Haugesund, moved from her bedsit in Bergen two weeks ago. Since then no one has heard anything from her. She didn’t leave an address. She doesn’t answer her phone. And the police refuse to take her case seriously.

Veum’s investigation uncovers a series of carefully covered-up crimes and pent-up hatreds, and the trail leads to a gang of extreme bikers and to a shadowy group, whose dark actions are hidden by the anonymity of the Internet. And then things get personal…

Chilling, shocking and exceptionally gripping, Big Sister reaffirms Gunnar Staalesen as one of the world’s foremost thriller writers.”

When it comes to reading there is no greater pleasure than getting stuck into a new Gunnar Staalesen book.

The problem, mind, is how to review a book like Big Sister without a) simply repeating ‘amazing’ emphatically and b) giving anything away. So I’ll talk, in general terms, about just how much I loved this book.

There is something just so fantastically absorbing about Staalesen’s work that I’m always longing to read more. To me it’s like enjoying a good mug full of coffee, you have to take your time with it and savour every moment before you get the kick. It’s not a fast-paced thriller; Staalesen’s prose is a much calmer affair that lures you in and immerses you in its mystery. A real slow-build but with not a single spare word – it’s the writing of a master at play, really. Richly detailed yet concise, tightly-plotted fiction that effortlessly packs more punch and weight than novels three times its page count.

One of the things I really enjoy about Staalesen’s narrative style is the way in which he – and Veum – casts a wide net out at the start of the story and slowly hauls it in, revealing little ideas and avenues of intrigue, some which lead nowhere but others which lead off into some fascinating places before Veum discovers the particular line of investigation which brings them together and solves the case. As Veum himself says: “when I stumble over some peripheral information during a case, an investigation I’m doing, my experience is that it might well end up having some significance.”

Big Sister is no exception to this – some of the leads he follows reveal some really dark stuff this time round, mind (though anyone familiar with the last three novels would argue that that’s nothing new), but it all slowly and deliberately creates a huge web of connections between the lives of the characters that manages to show just how far-reaching and devastating events that were thought long-since buried can become. It means that when the truth is realised it hits you like a tonne of bricks.

Reading a new Staalesen novel is like catching up with an old friend, getting a glimpse into Varg’s life for a few weeks at a time to see how life is treating Bergen’s almost-only PI. Veum is a refreshingly human character in the genre, flawed (though I don’t think he touched a drop of aquavit in this one) and – particularly as his age advances – vulnerable. It’s impossible not to root for him. It’s great that Big Sister really managed – as the 18th novel in the series – to reveal something new about such an established character and his past and I thoroughly look forward to seeing if that particular thread is picked up on in the next book.

It’s impossible to do a novel like Big Sister justice in a review. I fucking loved it but, then, I’ve loved every novel I’ve read thus far by Staalesen and I really need to get my hands on those novels pre We Shall Inherit The Wind that have been translated into English too. Every time I think I’ve read the best book I will in a year, Orenda drops a new Gunnar Staalesen that jumps straight to the top of the list. As such, my thanks to Karen at Orenda both for my copy and continuing to publish such wonderful fiction and to Anne for inviting me to take part in this blogtour. Always a pleasure, never a chore 😀

 

 

 

Blog Tour: The Ice Swimmer by Kjell Ola Dahl – Guest Post

Like any avid reader and devourer of the written word I carry a continually evolving ‘wish list’ with me (it’s on my phone) to refer to whenever I find myself in a bookshop. At the top of that list are a couple of authors represented by name only. These are authors where it’s a case of wanting to get hold of anything they’ve written.

Kjell Ola Dahl is amongst those authors. He’s one of the godfathers of the Nordic Noir genre and since I was introduced to his Oslo Detectives series with last year’s Faithless I’ve been anxious to read my way though his back catalogue. This year’s The Ice Swimmer (review to follow) is another ridiculously good installment in the series – absorbing and masterfully written.

As such I’m delighted, as part of the blogtour for The Ice Swimmer (out on ebook now and paperback April 30th via the wonderful Orenda Books) to host a guest post from the author himself. So I’ll shut up and get out of the way…


My first novel was a police procedural, and I didn’t reflect much on the implications of this choice at that time. I was inspired by writers like Ed McBain, who wrote about Steve Carella and a collective of police officers solving crimes in the 87th precinct in a fictive city called Isola. One thing I liked about those books was that McBain wrote about the full collective. The readers got to know many of the police officers. And when McBain changed the main protagonist in some books, Steve Carella was always there, although not always at the front of the action. McBain even chose criminals for protagonists in some of his books.

After publishing Lethal Investments I did not stay with my police officers, and I went on to write other things. The second book in the Oslo Detectives series was published years after the first one. But then I said to myself, you cannot stop at two: A trilogy is the thing. So I was quick this time and published the third book in the series a year later. But after that novel – The Man in the Window – I returned to my old sins, writing other things.

This year in Norway, I will publish the ninth book in the Oslo detectives series. I still write other things in between – fiction, non-fiction, short stories, crime fiction – and I always write under my own name. Ed McBain used a lot of pseudonyms: Richard Marsten, Hunt Collins, Curt Cannon, Ezra Hannon and more, and not one of these names was his own! Privately he called himself Evan Hunter. And even the name Evan Hunter was a pseudonym: his Christian name was Salvatore Albert Lombino. It is like one of those Russian dolls. Inside every name, new ones would pop up. I guess Mr Hunter/Lombino himself had some sort of system for the use of names. His production was huge.

The use of pseudonyms is a widespread habit among writers – especially writers of crime fiction. Even Georges Simenon used a lot of them. And the truth is, I don’t really understand why.

Many of my fellow writers use their series to explore their one and only protagonist. I stick to the method of Ed McBain. I explore my collective. The protagonist in the Ice Swimmer is Lena Stigersand, a female police officer in her mid-thirties. She was not present in the first book in the series, and first appeared with minor roles in the two novels previous to the Ice Swimmer. Even if she is the protagonist in The Ice Swimmer, there is one super protagonist in the series – Mr Gunnarstranda. In fact, everything in the series rotates around him, and he has developed over the years. He is no longer as grumpy as he was in the first book. And these days he is more into jazz music than he was to begin with. I think it is because I know him better now. But he is still a widower. And he still doesn’t have a first name. That is a fact. I have never dared to suggest a first name for him. I fear he won’t like my suggestions very much. Personally, I think that shows how strong he is as a character. He is still mysterious to me, which means that he will still be able to surprise me. It also tells me that I will write more about him. I am still curious about his whereabouts and especially curious about his first name. But I doubt I will ever find out what it is.

 

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: Whiteout by Ragnar Jónasson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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