#BlogTour Helga Flatland- A Modern Family

When Liv, Ellen and Håkon, along with their partners and children, arrive in Rome to celebrate their father’s seventieth birthday, a quiet earthquake occurs: their parents have decided to divorce.

Shocked and disbelieving, the siblings try to come to terms with their parents’ decision as it echoes through the homes they have built for themselves, and forces them to reconstruct the shared narrative of their childhood and family history…

A slight diversion from my normal crime fare in the shape of this one, A Modern Family from Helga Flatland, dubbed the Norwegian Anne Tyler. The machinations of family life has been a rich seam for Scandinavian fiction and film for many years, instantly bringing to mind Festen and the Danish TV series The Legacy, both structured around the pressure points that arise, and relationships that become strained in families. Although the events of Flatland are probably less driven by greed and competitiveness, Flatland constructs a story that really delves beneath the veneer of this particular family, and the seismic implications of an unexpected announcement…

I think it’s fair to say that this is a book driven by character, as this nuclear family of mother and father, their two daughters, Liv and Ellen and their son, Hakon, their respective partners, and their children are put so much under the microscope, after the announcement that their parents, in their twilight years, are seeking a divorce. What Flatland does is raise this book above a rather humdrum premise, to an incisive and probing exploration of family life; what makes them tick, the underlying alliances, the individual members’ weaknesses, strengths and their own personal issues. Speaking from the viewpoint of an only child from a small family, I found this particularly interesting, never having to navigate the general stresses that this particular family seem to have in droves!

As the story unfolds between the split narratives of Liv, Ellen and Hakon, we not only bear witness to their own assimilation of the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, but also a detailed insight into their own lives with issues of infertility, marital strain, fear of commitment and so on, swirling around the central motif of the unsettling effect of their parents’ break up. Flatland also pays particular attention to the changing dynamics of the relationship between Liv, Ellen and Hakon themselves, as in the wake of their parents proceeding boldly on the course of their new lives untethered to each other, it seems that their children find the whole scenario just a tad more difficult to cope with themselves. In fact, as the story progresses my admiration for their parents’ growing fearless attitude was one of the highlights of the book. As Liv and Ellen get sucked into a increasingly gloomy narrative arising from the emotional fissures in their lives, and Hakon, who comes across as a teenager in adult clothing, seems entirely confused by how the whole world of relationships works, it serves to put them on a different emotional plain entirely to their increasingly stoical and pragmatic parents.

Although A Modern Family obviously has its foundations firmly rooted in this family unit, Flatland also punctuates the book with some interesting observations on a whole array of subjects from publishing to politics, from green issues to female equality, some of which brought a wry smile to this reader, as the characters mount their soapboxes and let fly with their observations. I think this is done extremely well, rooting the reader in a fixed space and time in the characters’ lives, but also adhering to the Scandinavian reputation, both in fiction and crime, of giving their readers a broader and balanced view of the world against which their narratives play out, and I enjoyed Flatland’s realisation of this very much. I will confess that this is not normally the type of book I would naturally seek out, but I did enjoy this modern saga of a family in a period of change, crisis and renewal, and the points of stress, high emotion and the process of acceptance that Flatland explores within her characters. Recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

 

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

Orlando Ortega-Medina- The Death of Baseball

Former Little League champion Kimitake “Clyde” Koba finds strength in the belief that he is the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe as he struggles to escape the ghost of his brother and his alcoholic father. Born on Yom Kippur, teen prodigy Raphael Dweck has been told his whole life that he has a special purpose in God’s plan. The only problem is, he can’t shake off his doubts, his urges, or the trail of trouble and ruin that follow in his wake.

A decade later, Raphael and ‘Marilyn’ find each other wandering the plastic-bright streets of Hollywood and set out to make a documentary about the transmigration of souls. But when the roleplaying goes too far, they find themselves past the point of no return in their quest to prove who and what they are to their families, God, the world, and themselves…

I first encountered the work of Orlando Ortega-Medina through his brilliant, emotionally charged and meditative short story collection Jerusalem Ablaze etched into my memory as one of the trickiest reviews I have ever had to write. Now having read Ortega-Medina’s full length novel, The Death of Baseball I feel that my reviewing skills will be put to the test once again, as I try and communicate to you all how necessary, heartfelt, thought-provoking and sublimely perfect this book is. Oh yes. I did say perfect…

When I began reading this book, I somewhat intuitively avoided reading the full synopsis, as I had a vibe from the outset, that I very much just wanted to be taken wherever this book wished to take me. Aside from the sway of the beautifully retro cover, I felt from a very early stage of reading that this was a book that would consume me completely, and consequently this was one of the rare occasions where this was the only book I was reading at the time. I think this was also influenced by the fact that Ortega-Medina’s two main protagonists, Raphael, and Marilyn are so singularly deserving of the reader’s full attention, as the drama, tragedy, and human frailty plays out against a backdrop of changing decades and social mores, America and Israel, conflict and peace, and the underlying need of both to form a lasting emotional connection. I am only going to give you a silhouette of the characters and the plot, as I think this is a book that needs to be discovered in an almost neutral vacuum, to fully appreciate its emotional depth, and to open yourself up to some extremely accomplished and sublime storytelling.

To say that these characters’  lives are troubled and tempestuous would be an understatement, and as the author highlights the crisis of conscience, faith and loyalty, he weighs them down with, I can guarantee you will be held completely in their thrall. I can honestly say that I did have a sustained emotional response to this book, which is incredibly unusual, as books rarely achieve this for me.  I think the emotional heft, moments of extreme poignancy, frustration and anger that we bear witness to in the lives of these characters, is so beautifully realised and communicated that you do become completely immersed in the powerful positivity and destructing negativity, that Raphael and Marilyn seem to take it in turns to display. These conflicting traits lead on occasion to impetuous, ill-judged acts, tempered by moments of extreme tenderness and self realisation as they battle with issues of faith, identity and the instances of wretched tragedy that blight their lives. However, despite the incredibly visceral humanity of this book, I did feel that a certain sense of equanimity was achieved in the life of one character, and that their struggle for acceptance and recognition did come to fruition, which lifted the book to a more life affirming plain.

Tied up with the superlative characterisation of Raphael, Marilyn and the social, religious and familial crisis they suffer, I would also draw attention to two other strengths of the narrative of this book. One is location and period detail, firmly rooting us in the changing decades from the 60s through the 80s, and the way that Ortega-Medina subtly places us in the grip of each decade, using the recognisable markers of each decade, and certain tumultuous events both in America and Israel. The section of the book set in Israel was particularly compulsive reading, as Ortega-Medina places Raphael in a largely unfamiliar setting, under pressure with the weight of certain aspects of his family history, clinging to his faith, pushing the boundaries of his sexuality, and tentatively feeling his way to love. The threat of war with Egypt plays out in the background, and this sojourn in Israel also provides an incredibly interesting reappraisal and exploration of Raphael’s faith, and the seismic effect on his own character that events in Israel cause.

When I’ve been talking about this book to friends and colleagues, another aspect I keep drawing attention to is the sheer cleverness of the structure. Every chapter, and yes, it is every chapter, can be read in isolation to the others as a completely self contained short story, whilst not disrupting the momentum and continuity of the story in any way. Once I stumbled upon this notion and blown away by the skill of this, I actually went back through the book at random picking certain chapters to re-read, particularly those in Israel, and those set in a certain location towards to the end of the book. When I reviewed Jerusalem Ablaze, I drew attention to the fact that this author so quickly enables the reader to connect on an emotional level with his characters, and this sustained use of structuring his chapters like this, adds even more to the intensity with which he enveigles us in his character’s lives. The Death of Baseball is a glorious miasma of contradictions and conflicts, the need to love, the need for acceptance and recognition, fame, faith, abuse, identity and hope. I found it thought provoking and powerfully emotional, and I loved the way it immersed me so fully in these two lives with their unique voices. This book has such a strong message at its core, clearly illustrating how we are all the same in our desire to achieve contentment and an equilibrium in our lives, however we choose to live and with whomever we choose to love. Highly, highly recommended.

(With thanks to Cloud Lodge Books for the ARC)

#20BooksOfSummer 2019 – A game of two halves!

Have been a little under the weather of late, so am a little late on posting my list for the #20BooksOfSummer challenge hosted by the brilliant Cathy746Books.

The aim of the challenge is, as always, to cut a bit of a swathe through our toppling TBRs, or to simply catch up on those books we have been meaning to get to… So by simply selecting to read 5, 10, 15 or 20 books between 3June and 2 September, you too can join in the fun by clicking the link here…

Knowing how woefully disorganised I am at this challenge, I have selected 10 books initially, and have a subs bench of 10 titles too, depending on how my reading pans out.

So here are the first ten books I have selected:

Marie-Else Bragg- Towards Mellbreak

Anna Burns- Milkman

Sam Byers- Perfidious Albion

William Gay- The Lost Country

Georgina Harding- The Gun Room

Michael Hughes- Country

Gabino Iglesias- Coyote Songs

Martin MacInnes- Infinite Ground

Max Porter- Lanny

Mark Thompson- Dust

Enjoy the challenge everyone, and good luck!

Doug Johnstone- Breakers

Seventeen-year-old Tyler lives in one of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas. Coerced into robbing rich people’s homes by his bullying older siblings, he’s also trying to care for his little sister and his drug-addict mum. On a job, his brother Barry stabs a homeowner and leaves her for dead, but that’s just the beginning of their nightmare, because 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 devastating danger, Tyler meets posh girl Flick in another stranger’s house, and he thinks she may just be his salvation, unless he drags her down too…

About three years ago I reviewed a book by Doug Johnstone called The Jump , a book that remains as one of the best books I have ever read. In my original review I said that, “When people decry genre fiction as somehow not being as worthy or the compare of ‘literary fiction’,  I have no hesitation in drawing their attention to books such as this, which possesses an emotional intensity and sensitivity that is rarely encountered in any genre, harnessing emotional, and by their very nature, contentious issues that many writers in the ‘literary’ field would struggle to address in such an affecting way as Johnstone achieves.” So it will come as no real surprise to hear that in this intensely compelling read, and in my ever so humble opinion, Doug Johnstone has more than achieved this again…

Let’s start with Tyler, the central protagonist, balancing his role as protector, provider, and accomplice, at a relatively tender age, and with an over enhanced sense of responsibility and some times misplaced loyalty in his familial role. Juggling the role of caregiver and protector of his younger sister ‘Bean’, but finding himself at the behest and control of his aggressive and borderline psychopathic step brother, Tyler navigates a tense and ominously threatening path through life. Desperate to keep the equilibrium of his home life, but with his mum’s instability and dependence on drink and drugs, casting a shadow over the stability of this, one impulsive criminal act places Tyler and Bean in extreme danger. What Johnstone captures so perfectly in the character of Tyler, is that of a young man propelled into adulthood and maturity due to the extreme behaviour of others. He’s bright, resourceful, and emotionally intuitive, and a wonderful caregiver for Bean, but there’s also there’s always this sense of the child about him, dominated by his stepbrother, his tentative handling of his relationship with spiky posh girl Flick, and his unflinching acceptance of his mum’s emotional and physical weakness. He is the epitome of a young man who’s had to grow up a startling fast rate, but not to the detriment of his own strong moral code, his integrity and compulsion to protect others.

As we have come to expect of this author, Johnstone himself is also unflinching in this portrayal of a family in meltdown. The particular angst, borderline poverty and issues of abuse and anger, that all too many families encounter lay at the very heart of this book, but tangentially Johnstone also shows through the home life of Flick that this emotional paucity is equally relevant to her life, with the emotional neglect of her parents, her mother’s alcohol abuse, and the coldness of her father. She seeks attention in destructive ways and she’s financially rich, but only attains an emotional richness through her growing attachment to Tyler, and by extension, Bean too. Through this relationship we also see her bravery and resourcefulness, and the sense of her yin to Tyler’s yang that begins to become apparent as her involvement in these dark events escalates.

The authenticity of Johnstone’s characters is due in no small part to his intensely realistic portrayal of the world that Tyler and his family exist in. The book is peppered with sudden outbreaks of violence and abuse, with the overriding control of his sadistic stepbrother Barry, and the ramifications of entering the dangerous world of a hardened criminal that Barry’s foolish and impulsive actions, catapult them into. At one point Tyler berates Flick for embarking on her own ‘poverty safari’ as their life experience appear to be so markedly different, and Tyler’s world is a stark contrast socio-economically- harsh and poor, with the threat of violence a norm. As much as the book is brutally realistic, it is also tinged with sensitivity and compassion, with a strong message that a less than promising start in life is not necessarily proof of a moral deficiency, and that a good nature can overrule bad nurture. Despite the anger and tension so in evidence in these characters’ lives, I found this book tremendously life affirming, and as Tyler grows in stature and strength, he very much takes the reader with him. You’re rooting for him, and it doesn’t feel that your belief in him is misplaced. Breakers is a superb read (with an equally excellent soundtrack woven into the narrative) and once more I would heartily encourage you that, if you haven’t read this author before, you really should do so.

It would be rude not too…

Highly recommended.

 

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

 

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Helen Fitzgerald- Worst Case Scenario

Mary Shields is a moody, acerbic probation offer, dealing with some of Glasgow’s worst cases, and her job is on the line. Liam Macdowall was imprisoned for murdering his wife, and he’s published a series of letters to the dead woman, in a book that makes him an unlikely hero – and a poster boy for Men’s Rights activists.

Liam is released on licence into Mary’s care, but things are far from simple. Mary develops a poisonous obsession with Liam and his world, and when her son and Liam’s daughter form a relationship, Mary will stop at nothing to impose her own brand of justice with devastating consequences…

I don’t know about any other bookseller but I am just waiting for the day when someone says, “You wouldn’t by any chance have any books where Irvine Welsh is channelled through the madcap world of a slightly unhinged menopausal woman would you?” To which I could triumphantly declare that yes, I have the very thing. Having read and reviewed Helen Fitzgerald’s books before, I think it really is fair to say that there are few contemporary writers that display the natural versatility and scope that she so confidently displays from book to book. For this reason alone, her books are unerringly readable, and as she turns her acerbic and probing gaze on, in this case, a woman under extreme pressure for a whole variety of reasons, you are never quite sure where she is going to take you…

Throughout Worst Case Scenario we become fully immersed in the world of Mary, an ageing criminal-justice social worker, grappling with a host of unpleasant clients, the daily struggle with petty bureaucracy, an over-reliance on illegal, and legal stimulants, and the nefarious onset of intense menopausal symptoms. Oh, and her perceived involvement in the suicide of one of her clients, an entanglement with the #MeToo movement, and attracting the hatred of pretty much every ‘cuckolded’ man the length and breadth of the nation. All told there’s quite a lot going on in Mary’s life, which becomes increasingly difficult with her son’s involvement with the daughter of said suicide victim, and the growing strain on her relationship with her husband Roddie. It’s all here: misogyny, misandry, perversion, hot flashes, and a pervading feel at times of a woman drowning, not waving.

As totally unhinged as this all sounds, Fitzgerald absolutely takes the reader through this strange and almost hallucinogenic world, where depravity and constant self doubt plague Mary’s life, but where Mary meets each challenge with all the subtlety of a blunt instrument, and with all the tact of the aforementioned too. She is a real force of nature, and despite her numerous flaws and the frustration she arouses in the reader, I liked her very much. Would I want her job? No. Would I want her ballsiness? Absolutely.

I’ve never had cause to refer to Greek mythology in a review before, but there’s a first time for everything, but Fitzgerald really does summon up the Muses of comedy, Thalia  and tragedy, Melpomene  in this book. Cut through with dark humour, moments of excruciating discomfort, Fitzgerald balances her razor-sharp comic touch, with moments of extreme pathos and heartbreak, carefully harnessing the incidences of psycho-drama with the inherent need for the pace and suspense of any compelling psychological thriller. Taking a diversion from Greek mythology to the film Jumpin’ Jack Flash (yeah, stay with me), Whoopi Goldberg declares that she has the face of a woman on the edge, and that’s how I saw Mary, and I loved her all the more for it.

Worst Case Scenario is one of Fitzgerald’s best books to date, in its relevancy and very unique spin on a whole host of social, criminal and women’s issues. Would absolutely recommend this one…

Missed a date? Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

#BlogTour- Chris Carter- Hunting Evil

As roommates, they met for the first time in college. Two of the brightest minds ever to graduate from Stamford Psychology University. As adversaries, they met again in Quantico, Virginia. Robert Hunter had become the head of the LAPD’s Ultra Violent Crimes Unit. Lucien Folter had become the most prolific and dangerous serial killer the FBI had ever encountered.

Now, after spending three and a half years locked in solitary confinement, Lucien has finally managed to break free. And he’s angry. For the past three and a half years, Lucien has thought of nothing else but vengeance. The person responsible for locking him away has to pay, he has to suffer.
That person … is Robert Hunter.
And now it is finally time to execute the plan…

After boom shabang of a cliff hanger at the end of The Gallery of the Dead Chris Carter has reintroduced us to the devil incarnate in the shape of strangely charismatic serial killer, Lucien Folter from An Evil Mind. Having escaped incarceration he is on a revenge mission, and has our erstwhile hero Detective Robert Hunter of the LAPD Ultra Violent Crimes Unit firmly in his sights.

Let the terror begin.

If ever the question was put to me of what would be my ‘treacle’ read, I would plump for Mr Carter every time.  I have a real sense of just sitting back and relaxing with these books, allowing them to take me on a flight of fear and excitement, with characters I’m familiar and comfortable with, and the nifty way that Carter has of plumbing the depths of real evil, offering up a host of ghoulish surprises along the way. I see that the jacket for this one is emblazoned with the message, “As addictive as a TV boxset,” and that is in no way wide of the mark for the sheer entertainment value of his books. In the same way as Stephen King, Carter very much plays up to the notion that his readers like to be unnerved, startled and genuinely scared at points, and I always enjoy the way his killers come crashing into the lives of ordinary people like you and I which always adds another level of tension to his books. Ten books in and Carter is showing no let up in the depths of depravity his books deliciously reveal to us. Mwahaha…

As I think I have now read all ten books in the series, I am still delighted by his two central police characters, Detectives Hunter and Garcia, the cerebral Batman and Robin as I refer to them. Throughout the course of the books, Carter uses the character of Garcia to filter information to the reader, as he observes and questions the more intuitive impulses of Hunter, during their investigations. What is noticeable in this book is that as much as Hunter is caught out by the sheer deviousness of Folter, especially when the case takes a more personal turn, there seems to be a slight growing in stature of Garcia. Although he still questions, he is much more forthcoming with his challenges to Hunter’s suppositions, and makes some significant breakthroughs of his own, as Hunter becomes so immersed in his battle of wills with Folter.  As much as Hunter takes centre stage, and rightfully so given his personal history with Folter, I very much enjoyed seeing Garcia blossom, equally so, as he as he had missed out on their previous showdown in An Evil Mind, but perhaps this worked significantly in his favour, giving him an unsullied take on this most pernicious of adversaries. Being reluctant to reveal any of the details on this tussle between Hunter and Folter, suffice to say there are some interesting blurred lines between them, and as clichéd as it may be, Folter possesses all the twisted charm, cerebral flexibility, and extreme wickedness of a certain Mr Lecter, as he embarks on his devilish game of cat and mouse with Hunter, the US Marshall service, and the FBI. I quite like him, although he is one evil dude.

I think Chris Carter should be afforded some major kudos for maintaining such consistency over a relatively long series of books, still unleashing some surprising twists and tricks along the way, and for this reason Hunting Evil is no exception. He seems to have an infinite trove of heinous murderous techniques, and a bottomless pit of nasty, violent killers to scare the bejesus out of us with. This I applaud, and for this reason too, I will be a constant reader of this author. Bring on the nasty…

(With thanks to Simon & Schuster for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

 

#BlogTour- William Shaw- Deadland

The two boys never fitted in. Seventeen, the worst age, nothing to do but smoke weed; at least they have each other. The day they speed off on a moped with a stolen mobile, they’re ready to celebrate their luck at last. Until their victim comes looking for what’s his – and ready to kill for it.

On the other side of Kent’s wealth divide, DS Alexandra Cupidi faces the strangest murder investigation of her career. A severed limb, hidden inside a modern sculpture in Margate’s Turner Contemporary. No one takes it seriously – not even the artwork’s owners, celebrity dealers who act like they’re above the law. However,  as Cupidi’s case becomes ever more sinister, as she wrangles with police politics and personal dilemmas, she can’t help worrying about those runaway boys. Seventeen, the same age as her own headstrong daughter. Alone, on the marshes, they’re pawns in someone else’s game. Two worlds are about to collide… 

The latest addition to William Shaw’s superlative DS Alexandra Cupidi series following The Birdwatcher and Salt Lane, Deadland returns us to the haunting coastal area of Dungeness, and two compelling investigations for Cupidi and her colleagues…

It’s no secret that I think William Shaw is one of the most accomplished, and consistently good crime authors at work in Britain today, and I always embark on his new books with a slight nervous tingle, hoping that each will be as satisfying as the previous. Which brings us to Deadland which was everything I hoped it would be (massive sigh of relief). What I love with this series (and his previous trilogy featuring DS Cathal Breen and PC Helen Tozer) is the way that Shaw, in common with his coastal location, ebbs and flows with his characters, moving them around like chess pieces bringing them back and forwards to the centre of the storyline with Capaldi being at the rooted centre. Consequently, this book reintroduces us to disgraced ex-police officer William South from The Birdwatcher, and where Salt Lane was very much involved with the generational differences of Capaldi, her mother and her daughter, this book switches the focus more onto Capaldi’s colleagues, alongside the central investigations.

I think it’s worth drawing attention to this, to emphasize the sheer quality of Shaw’s characterisation, and how roundly and believably drawn his characters are. Capaldi is a professional working mother with a recalcitrant teenage daughter, South is a man obviously tarnished by his prison experience, constable Jill Ferriter experiencing professional and personal difficulties, a diversion into the weird and wonderful inhabitants of the ‘art’ world and, at the heart of the book two wayward teenage boys, Tap and Sloth, with their own trials and tribulations. Without a doubt, each and every one of these characters are brimming with realism, so that you feel totally part of their contrasting experiences and world views. The narrative voice of each is precise, and authentic, and this is particularly true of Tap and Sloth, and the changes we see in their brash teenage bravado as the book progresses. With subtle changes in rhythm and syntax, Shaw brings all these voices to life, and with it an even greater connection to them for the reader.

Another element of this book that I enjoyed was the striking juxtaposition of the two investigations that Capaldi and her colleagues are tasked with. Throughout his books Shaw has always tackled difficult social issues be they of the 1960s or now, and the fact that this book straddled two very economically and materially different worlds was an interesting facet of the book. From the dripping wealth and pretentiousness of the art world, to the very different world inhabited by the teenage protagonists, Shaw retains the tension of both, and how crime bridges all social strata and class. It’s also interesting to observe the changes of attitude in the police characters between both investigations, and where their sympathies lie, and how their own attitudes reveal themselves. Indeed, the fears and frustrations at play in this book, in both their professional and personal lives too, are as finely balanced with the arc of the plot, holding the whole book in balance, as Shaw assuredly takes us between these contrasting worlds and characters. Sometimes with two storylines playing out there is a tension in the reader to return to one more swiftly than the other, but I think this was neatly avoided with both strands of the story having their own particular pace and moments of peril. I must confess that my former blissful ignorance of the art world kept me wholly engaged as the book progressed, and admittedly none of my preconceptions about the inhabitants of this world were largely disproved. Which was nice.

So a glowing review for Deadland and another heartfelt plea to discover this author for yourselves. With pitch perfect characterisation, immersive storylines, a striking use of location, and accomplished writing and plotting, there is so much to enjoy in this series. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Riverrun for the ARC)