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.

 

Blog Tour: Faithless by Kjell Ola Dahl

From the PR: “Oslo detectives Gunnarstranda and Frølich are back … and this time, it’s personal…

When the body of a woman turns up in a dumpster, scalded and wrapped in plastic, Inspector Frank Frølich is shocked to discover that he knows her … and their recent meetings may hold the clue to her murder. As he begins to look deeper into the tragic events surrounding her death, Frølich’s colleague Gunnarstranda finds another body, and things take a more sinister turn. With a cold case involving the murder of a young girl in northern Norway casting a shadow, and an unsettling number of coincidences clouding the plot, Frølich is forced to look into his own past to find the answers – and the killer – before he strikes again.”

Caution- a whiff of slight spoiler may be ahead…

So… today is my stop on the BlogTour for Kjell Ola Dahl’s Faithless and I’m not really sure where or how to start with a review for this one because it is so fucking good.

I suppose I could start by pointing out that I have zero prior familiarity with Kjell Ola Dahl’s work or the Oslo Detectives series into which this novel slots but it’s safe to say it’s not required. At no point while reading did I feel as though I was missing out on something vital in terms of plot or character arcs as Faithless has been so ridiculously well crafted as to work not only, I assume, as a fantastic continuation of a series but as a bloody strong stand alone novel too.

As for the plot… gripping and so brilliantly pieced together as to leave no question that this book would be put down until finish. Frølich, tired after an all-night surveillance pulls over a person of interest and discovers she’s carrying cocaine. She’s booked, reveals nothing, pays a fine and is set free. Frølich then meets her again when it turns out she’s engaged to an estranged friend with whom he’s recently reconnected. When she’s murdered just days later it’s all a little to close to home. The disarmingly calm and methodical investigations reveal a complex web that may or may not connect it to a decades-old murder and comes with plenty of surprises and twists.

The stately prose and style is that of a master (expertly translated by Don Bartlett); precise and clinical without a spare word and packing plenty of punch.

When it comes to the characters… as I said – I have no prior knowledge of this series (something I desperately need to fix) but in no way felt I was missing anything; Frølich, Gunnarstranda and all are perfectly rendered and genuine characters for whom any reader will root and find common ground.

To say Karen at Orenda has impeccable taste would be an understatement right now. A couple of years ago she introduced me to the work of Gunnar Staalesen, “one of the fathers of Nordic Noir” , and now here we are with yet another master of the genre on her list. Unbelievable amount of talent and beautiful prose. A real must read that I cannot enthuse enough about. Many thanks, again, to Karen for my copy and do check out the other blogs on the tour:

Blog Tour: Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski

From The PR: “1997. Scarclaw Fell. The body of teenager Tom Jeffries is found at an outward bound centre. Verdict? Misadventure. But not everyone is convinced. And the truth of what happened in the beautiful but eerie fell is locked in the memories of the tight-knit group of friends who took that fateful trip, and the flimsy testimony of those living nearby.
2017.

Enter elusive investigative journalist Scott King, whose podcast examinations of complicated cases have rivalled the success of Serial, with his concealed identity making him a cult internet figure. In a series of six interviews, King attempts to work out how the dynamics of a group of idle teenagers conspired with the sinister legends surrounding the fell to result in Jeffries’ mysterious death. And who’s to blame…

As every interview unveils a new revelation, you’ll be forced to work out for yourself how Tom Jeffries died, and who is telling the truth.”

Right then, here we are with Six Stories, one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a while with something of a unique narrative approach – like a contemporary take on The Moonstone‘s multi-character narrative. One unsolved crime, six key stories as told, judgement free, to Scott King on his podcast  with listeners being left to form their own views on what happened – that’s the premise of ‘Six Stories’.  Six Stories, told as though an episode of said podcast, unravels the mystery of what happened to 15 year old Tom Jeffries who went missing one night on Scarclaw Fell before his body was discovered a year later.

Twenty years ago the death Jeffries had been ruled as ‘misadventure’ – his body having been eventually discovered in the mud of the Fell one night by Harry Saint Clemeny- Ramsay (who also adds a narrative thread in between the Six Stories) and his friends’ dogs  – but then what were Harry and his friends really doing out in the wild with their dogs, lamps and guns? Hunting? For what? Why had the body been missing for so long despite thorough searches at the time?

As each of the six stories unfolds we’re treated to more questions and intrigue, more revelations and head scratchers – thankfully ‘Scott King’ provides plenty of recaps and additional voices, corroborations from those outside the ‘six’ – for Six Stories is most definitely a very meticulously plotted and tightly wrapped story. Deeply engrossing and one that cost plenty of sleep – there’s so much here that made me flip back in the book to re-read earlier threads and some genuinely chilling moments that are capable of raising the odd goosebump or three and once you’ve gotten into the swing of the style it’s impossible to finish reading one ‘story’ and not want to plough straight into the next one to see what that character brings to the mix.

Those characters are all brilliantly written and their stories all so comprehensively well delivered – the multi-angle and narrator approach really keeps things rocking and gives adage to the notion that not every story is one-sided and events become increasingly detailed and multi-faceted with every witness’ version of events, though I will say these were either a pretty precocious bunch of 15-year-olds or I lived a sheltered existence. It’s strange but after you get into it – the first two ‘stories’ are not from any of the then-teenagers –  you really want to see how the Rangers have aged, what they’re like now after reading so much of what they were like then.

It’s hard to talk too much about Six Stories and its narrative style and how it goes on to deliver in spades without dropping an almighty spoiler but I will say that the final story and its revelation is an absolute belter and written / handled in such an accomplished manner as to leave the reader in no doubt that Matt Wesolowski is a  very much a  talent to keep an eye on.

Six Stories is a compelling and rewarding read with enough intrigue and mystery to keep you glued to the end. Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for my copy and do check out the other stops on the Blog Tour:

Blog Tour: Cursed by Thomas Enger

img_2005From the PR: “When Hedda Hellberg fails to return from a retreat in Italy, where she has been grieving for her recently dead father, her husband discovers that his wife’s life is tangled in mystery. Hedda never left Oslo, the retreat has no record of her and, what’s more, she appears to be connected to the death of an old man, gunned down on the first day of the hunting season in the depths of the Swedish forests. Henning Juul becomes involved in the case when his ex-­‐wife joins in the search for the missing woman, and the estranged pair find themselves enmeshed both in the murky secrets of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families, and in the painful truths surrounding the death of their own son. With the loss of his son to deal with, as well as threats to his own life and to that of his ex-­‐wife, Juul is prepared to risk everything to uncover a sinister maze of secrets that ultimately leads to the dark heart of European history. ”

“It’s like having a gun to your head”, being a dad, according to Henning Juul: “You go around being frightened the whole time. Frightened that something might happen… And you think that all the awful stuff you read about in the papers – it won’t happen to you and your child; it only happens to other people’s kids.” Juul, you see, is living every parent’s nightmare – his son was killed. As Henning and his son slept the apartment they were in was set alight as a warning – Juul’s investigations having come too close to some presumably powerful and truly nasty people. All of which, I understand (and please correct me if I’m wrong) happened before the events of the first Henning Juul novel, Burned.

So here we are with Cursed, the fourth entry in the Henning Juul series and it’s an absolute belter that cost me a fair bit of sleep in my reluctance to put it down. I’ve not read the previous novels in this series but I never felt that I was lost or missing anything for having not yet done so (only that I now need to go back and start at the beginning as this was such a good read) as Thomas Enger does a great job of bringing you up to speed without being heavy handed.

As Juul continues to search for the man who set alight his apartment and delve deeper into Oslo’s dark underbelly with some memorable scenes and characters, his ex-wife Nora is asked to investigate the disappearance of Hedda Helberg.

Having discovered the motivations and back story behind Juul’s investigations I honesty didn’t expect Nora’s case to be able to compete in terms of either drama or grip, but then I do like to be surprised by a book and the supposed missing-person case of Hedda Helberg soon becomes just as demanding of attention as slowly but surely a web of deceit and lies surrounding one of Norway’s wealthiest families is pulled apart.

Both of these investigations and narratives have the slow-burning, intricate and meticulous plotting that I so enjoy in a good thriller and that the two gradually become linked as they gather both pace and intrigue mean there’s zero chance of putting it down. The switch between narrative focuses proving a great device as it allows for a fuller view of each of the characters.

It’s hard to read Cursed and not be moved by the loss that Nora and Henning have endured while also noticing the difference between the two characters and how the death of their son has affected them both. Nora slowly but surely moving forward in life, back to work and in a new relationship, all the while carrying a ball that their son played with in her bag. Juul – presumably blaming himself in many a way – is  driven by nothing but finding justice for his son, his entire being devoted to the cause. The tragic and heartbreaking (seriously where is the Orenda Gut Check warning on this one?) back story makes this novel all the more compelling.

Cursed just about has the lot; intrigue from the off,  tightly weaved plots that pull you right in, plenty of twists, gritty and scarred lead characters and enough emotional heft and resonance to floor come the final reveal – all underpinned by a back story and over-riding story arc that ensures the Henning Juul series demands attention.

A complex, taught and thoroughly gripping read, Thomas Enger’s Cursed is a first-rate character-driven thriller that doesn’t disappoint.

Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy and do check out the other stops on the Cursed Blog Tour.

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Blog Tour: Deep Down Dead by Steph Broadribb

From the PR: “Lori Anderson is as tough as they come, managing to keep her career as a fearless Florida bounty hunter separate from her role as single mother to nine-year-old Dakota, who suffers from leukaemia. But when the hospital bills start to rack up, she has no choice but to take her daughter along on a job that will make her a fast buck. And that’s when things start to go wrong.

The fugitive she’s assigned to haul back to court is none other than JT, Lori’s former mentor – the man who taught her everything she knows … the man who also knows the secrets of her murky past. Not only is JT fighting a child exploitation racket operating out of one of Florida’s biggest theme parks, Winter Wonderland, a place where ‘bad things never happen’, but he’s also mixed up with the powerful Miami Mob. With two fearsome foes on their tails, just three days to get JT back to Florida, and her daughter to protect, Lori has her work cut out for her. When they’re ambushed at a gas station, the stakes go from high to stratospheric, and things become personal.

Breathtakingly fast-paced, both hard-boiled and heart-breaking, Deep Down Dead is a simply stunning debut from one of the most exciting new voices in crime fiction.”

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This book cost me some sleep; once it gets going Deep Down Dead is an addictive read and one any fan of a good thriller will love. 

Now I look at the book on my shelves I’m surprised that it’s over 330 pages – it rips along with such a pace but then there’s an awful lot of good stuff packed into Deep Down Dead: a gritty female lead with more punch than a Klitschko brother and a back story that ensures you’re hanging to each page rooting for her while the plot has more twists and excitement than a ride at Winter Wonderland. That this is Steph Broadribb’s first novel makes that all the more impressive. 

A thoroughly enjoyable read with enough grip and twists to keep the reader hooked through to the end. A strong debut and I’m looking forward to the next chapter.

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

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