Pages Turned

It occurs to me that, as we head into the final quarter of the year, I haven’t really talked much about what I’ve been reading this year outside of the larger reviews.

While I set myself a target of 40 books again this year (currently reading number 31), I really wanted to get a specific couple of books off of the ‘to read’ list and absorbed, I think I’ve done that.

First such book on the wish list was finishing James Ellroy’s LA Quartet. White Jazz differs somewhat from its predecessors as it’s very much a single-thread narrative in the style of Black Dahlia. Massively rewarding and full of Ellroy guts and power as Lieutenant David Klein unravels the biggest of puzzles – some real heavy stuff even for Ellroy. I loved every fucking page of this book and the entirety of the LA Quartet. I find it strange to think it came out in 1992 – Ellroy’s take on late 50’s LA is so vital. It also introduced Pete Bondurant who is one of main narratives in American Tabloid – which was another tick on the list as I wanted to go from the LA Quartet to Ellroy’s Underwold USA Trilogy. American Tabloid makes a smooth transition from the LA focus to a fuller, corrupt take on American History (with a fair few artistic licenses) right up to the gun shots in Texas. I’d like to get to The Cold Six Thousand but there’s a few more on the list first..

Another tick on my reading goals for the year was to catch up with Arkady Renko – the Russian detective from Gorky Park, one of my favourite historical fiction / thrillers. Took a while to find – not often kept in stock new and I went the ebay route for a used copy – but worth it; Polar Star takes place pretty much completely at sea. Renko is basically in exile and hiding from the state and finds himself thrust into solving a murder  on board a fish processing ship in the Bering Sea. I really have a thing for this cold war stuff and Martin Cruz Smith does a faultless job of making a thriller a literary work and combining a genuine mystery with enough genuine historical and political framing to tick all my boxes.

Speaking of historical references… I’ve fancied reading Maus for longer than I can remember not wanting to.  My wife has a copy of it but my reading of French isn’t up to it so I was happy to pick up an English version at a good price not too long ago. I don’t usually get on with the graphic novel thing but this one is staggering in both its power and its honesty. Well worthy of the acclaim it still receives and an important read.

I also picked up with that bloke called Reacher again but The Midnight Line didn’t really do it for me. Much like Personal it almost feels like Child is treading water here, the formula isn’t anything new and there’s no real stakes here – just ticking the boxes: Reacher gets intrigued about something, follows a trial, cracks a few skulls, things still make no sense, cracks a few more, solves a minor riddle, goes on his way.  A couple of years ago I enthused about All The Light You Cannot See by Anthoy Doerr… I still do; it’s a great book. I’d had his About Grace on the shelf for a while and finally go to it at the tail end of summer. It’s… not bad. There’s a couple of really good chunks in there but it’s not on the same level.

A few years further back I similarly enthused about Louis De Bernieres’ The Dust That Falls From Dreams,  the first in a planned trilogy. I read the second this year: So Much Life Left OverA little more focused in terms of characters, predominantly following the arc of Rosie and Daniel’s life, this slightly slimmer book is no less grand in terms of its reach or impact. De Bernieres one of those few writers with the ability to genuinely hit every emotion in the space of a few chapters. It takes a little adjusting each time as De Bernieres’ previous trilogy and novels took place in more exotic and poetic locations than this series but I really look forward to the final novel which will probably be no earlier than late 2020 at my guess.

Non-fiction wise there’s only been two hits on the list, one of which – Mark Blake’s Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd – has already been touched on. The other was a reread of one of my favourite non-fiction books: Herbert A. Werner’s Iron Coffins: A U-Boart Commander’s War, 1939-1945 which I’d first read some ten years ago, lent out and never got back. I managed to find a copy at a recent air show and it’s always worth reading and will no doubt feature in an upcoming Top Ten Non-Fiction post.

This seems like a good place to leave it for now… back to that Springsteen series.

 

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: Breakers by Doug Johnstone

From the PR: “Seventeen-year-old Tyler lives in one of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas. Whilst trying to care for his little sister and his drug-addicted mother, he’s also coerced into robbing rich people’s homes by his bullying older siblings. One night whilst on a job, his brother Barry stabs a homeowner and leaves her for dead. And that ’s just the beginning of their nightmare, because they soon discover the woman is the wife of Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord, Deke Holt.

With the police and the Holts closing in, and his shattered family in terrible danger, Tyler is running out of options, until he meets posh girl Flick in another stranger ’s house. Could she be his salvation? Or will he end up dragging her down with him? ”

Breakers is the second Doug Johnstone novel I’ve read this year and it’s another belter. I reckon I must have torn through this book in two or three frenzied ‘sittings’ – it  rips along at a cracking pace and packs a huge amount in to its 230 addictive pages.

Johnstone has created that rare thing – a novel that’s punchy and gritty yet also full of heart and capable of being deeply moving, grim and yet optimistic. Tyler’s life is portrayed in dark, harrowing detail and yet his character’s soul and light mean it’s impossible not to root for him – this diamond managing to shine in the very roughest of environs.

Breakers gets dark, unflinchingly so at times – that Tyler is only 17 and exposed to a life of such violence, crime and narcotics makes it all the more so. Johnstone is unflinching in his film-like description of Edinburgh’s roughest of parts and the lives of Tyler and his family. Tyler’s brother, Barry, is one of the most objectionable and hateful characters I’ve read in a while- that’s a compliment to Johnstone’s writing, by the way, as he writes such vivid and convincing characters – and there are some shocking moments before Breakers reaches its bloody conclusion. I mean, for ffs, the description of Barry and his dogs forever barking and probing with their noses and the constant threat of his casual and unpredictable violence and willingness to nearly kill to ensure obedience had me on edge on Tyler’s behalf.

But it’s not all dark – that’s the thing: Breakers is shot through with a sense of optimism and hope in Tyler as he tries desperately to find a way to protect and keep his little sister, Bean, safe and find a way out of the mess. His relationship with Flick is both charming and amusing and serves well as a counterpoint to the hell that awaits back in the squalid family flat. The hope that, even if it’s just once and despite the fact that terror is closing in from all angles, something good will happen to the kid that deserves it (it’s not like he voluntarily become a house breaker) will keep you hanging on to the end – and it’s worth doing so.

I very much enjoyed Breakers and highly recommend getting your hands on a copy. I’ve moved my pruning shears from my shed into the my more secure garage as a result, too.

Thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy of the book and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this Blogtour.

Blog Tour: Welcome to The Heady Heights by David F. Ross

From the PR: “It ’s the year punk rock was born, Concorde entered commercial service and a tiny Romanian gymnast changed the sport forever…

Archie Blunt is a man with big ideas. He just needs a break for them to be realised. In a bizarre brush with the light entertainment business, Archie unwittingly saves the life of the UK’s top showbiz star, Hank ‘Heady’ Hendricks, and immediately seizes the opportunity to aim for the big time. With dreams of becoming a musical impresario, he creates a new singing group called The High Five with five unruly working-class kids from Glasgow’s East End. The plan? Make it to the final of Heady’s Saturday night talent show, where fame and fortune awaits…

But there’s a complication. Archie’s made a fairly major misstep in his pursuit of fame and fortune, and now a trail of irate Glaswegian bookies, corrupt politicians and a determined Scottish WPC are all on his tail…

A hilarious, poignant nod to the elusiveness of stardom, in an age when ‘making it’ was ‘having it all’, Welcome to the Heady Heights is also a dark, laugh-out-loud comedy, a poignant tribute to a bygone age and a delicious drama about desperate men, connected by secrets and lies, by accidents of time and, most of all, the city they live in.”

Four novels in and news of a new David F Ross book is guaranteed to be “yes please!” from me.  Why? Well, first off: he’s bloody funny. Many is the time I’ve had to stifle a laugh while reading one of his previous novels while others either sleep or for fear of being looked at as if I’ve farted in church. Welcome to The Heady Heights is one of the funniest books I’ve read this year, a natural and effortless humour that balances a warm, tender humour with some wickedly dark laughs and is stuffed with some real cracking lines (“Heady Hendricks sucked ma boaby!” had me laughing for a long time). The humour in Welcome to The Heady Heights serves as both pure comedy and relief at some of the novel’s bleaker moments – it’s like a literary “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life”, singing ‘life’s a piece of shit’ as fate kicks you in the scrot’.

Which brings me on to the ‘secondly’ – Mr Ross has a real talent for portraying the bittersweet of life’s underdogs. Those characters like Archie Blunt who know their own limitations, have calmly accepted the blows life has dealt them, but still aims to try and make a break for a better life. It makes reading the Welcome to The Heady Heights a real pleasure and if you’re not rooting for Archie then there’s something wrong with you. David F. Ross peoples his novel with characters that live and breath so vividly within its pages that it makes  Welcome to The Heady Heights a thoroughly engaging and compelling read.

Of course, given that my own record collection (which includes a 45 from the Miraculous Vespas) is once again challenging the confines of practical storage, it would be remiss of me not to point out that one of the delights of reading Ross’ work is the way in which he blends music into his stories. Like Scorsese using soundtracks to place and pace his movies, David F. Ross uses music in his novels to wonderful effect and I’ll admit openly that for the last three of his novels I’ve headed first to the playlist at the back of each to see what’s going to get a spin during the narrative. Ross’ record collection is one I’d like to flick through for sure.

Now, all of these factors alone would make Welcome to The Heady Heights worth reading. What makes it an absolute belter of a book is that David F. Ross takes these elements and marries them to a fucking brilliant story line – the depths and scope of Welcome to The Heady Heights is phenomenal. From the aspirations of Archie Blunt to a ‘holy crap’ plot that takes in a secretive, dark and disturbing society, murder, extortion and crooks both small time and big, Ross spins a story with so many different facets and so many well realised and engrossing narratives that his place as a master storyteller can never be doubted.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blogtour- reading Welcome to The Heady Heights is well recommended. If I were in the habit of dropping stars there’d be five right here.

Blog Tour: Inborn by Thomas Enger

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

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

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

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

But can we trust him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning Pages: 50 Great Reads

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

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

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

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

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

Wasted Morning – Gabriela Adameșteanu

How to Be Brave – Louise Beech 

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin-  Louis de Bernières

Birds Without Wings – Louis de Bernières

Heart of a Dog – Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov*

Confessions – Jaume Cabré

The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

White Noise – Don DeLillo

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

LA Confidential – James Ellroy

Perfidia  – James Ellroy

Alone In Berlin – Hans Fallada

Iron Gustav – Hans Fallada

Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks 

Hell at the Breach – Tom Franklin

The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

The Diary of a Nobody – George & Wheedon Grossmith

Epiphany Jones – Michael Grothaus

The Good Soldier Svejk – Jaroslav Hašek

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway

Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes

The President’s Last Love – Andrey Kurkov

Death and the Penguin – Andrey Kurkov

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

The Life of Pi – Yann Martell

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Dr Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

Pyramids – Terry Pratchett

Men at Arms – Terry Pratchett

See You Tomorrow – Tore Renberg

The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

For Two Thousand Years – Mihail Sebastian

Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith

Perfume – Patrick Süskind

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 

Where Roses Never Die – Gunnar Staalesen

Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

Pereira Maintains – Antonio Tabucchi

The Little Friend – Donna Tartt

A Fraction of the Whole – Steve Toltz

Jihadi: A Love Story – Yusuf Toropov

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

The Man Who Died – Antti Tuomainen 

Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Jules Verne

Mother Night – Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughter House 5 – Kurt Vonnegut

Memoirs of Hadrian – Marguerite Yourcenar

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

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

Blog Tour: Palm Beach, Finland by Antti Tuomainen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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