Blog Tour- Gunnar Staalesen- Big Sister

Varg Veum receives a surprise visit in his office. A woman introduces herself as his half-sister, and she has a job for him. Her god-daughter, a 19-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 on the hunt for a group of people whose dark deeds are hidden by the anonymity of the Internet. And then things get personal…

Just when you thought that wily private investigator Varg Veum’s personal life couldn’t get any more complicated, Staalesen illustrates once again his ability to stretch his character to almost breaking point. Grappling with ghosts of the past, and a particularly emotional and troublesome missing person case, Veum is tested to the limit in the course of this all too personal investigation…

It goes without saying that Staalesen consistently produces crime thrillers to the highest standard, and considering how many books have featured the mercurial Varg Veum it is a remarkable achievement to keep a main protagonist so fresh and interesting after so many encounters. And yet this is what Staalesen does, and Big Sister is no exception. From the nod to Chandler in the title of the book itself, Staalesen once again engages us completely with Veum in his now trademark drily witty and hardboiled style. It’s almost as if Staalesen treats Veum as a metaphorical onion, peeling back layer after layer to reveal other aspects of Veum’s character, and unerringly placing him in difficult physical and emotional situations, which are all the more entertaining for us. I think the thing I enjoy most though is the very palpable sense of Veum getting older, and how he reacts differently to situations he’s placed in, as opposed to his younger self, whilst retaining that slightly gung-ho impetuousness and then realising his physical limitations as an older man. The deadpan humour, and cynical world view are in evidence as normal, but Staalesen tempers this beautifully with Veum’s realisation that his life to this point has not been all that it appears, and weighs him down beautifully as to how far he should pursue the truth of his family history. I loved the unfolding of this particular part of the plot, as Veum tries to reconcile his own character with what he knows of where his true parentage lies, and his sudden inclusion in a family and community as the truth of the past is revealed. Staalesen handles this arc of the story sensitively, and fully conveys the emotional confusion that Veum experiences, whilst tempering it to perfection with Veum’s naturally stoical personality.

In the main plot of the missing person investigation, Staalesen again weaves a complex connectivity between Veum and those he encounters, as they seek to evade and conceal their involvement with the victim. This book again takes us to some very dark places dealing with weighty issues such as sexual abuse, suicide, organised crime and addiction, and as always Veum’s gritty determination to solve the case, leads him and those closest to him into physical danger. I always enjoy Veum’s interactions with those he questions, chipping away at them until they either give up what the know, or punch him on the nose. Staalesen’s fluid dialogue, so resonant of the hardboiled masters, is here in spades, and complimented by a twisting and testing plot,  and with no exceedingly obvious guilty party there was, as always, much to enjoy here. With pithy references to the ills of contemporary society, the habitual strong sense of place, and a beautifully weighted translation again by Don Bartlett,  Big Sister is a brilliant addition to one of the most consistent and enjoyable European crime thriller series. Just what will Staalesen put Veum through next I wonder…. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

Kerensa Jennings- Seas of Snow

1950s England. Five-year-old Gracie Scott lives with her Mam and next door to her best friend Billy. An only child, she has never known her Da. When her Uncle Joe moves in, his physical abuse of Gracie’s mother starts almost immediately. But when his attentions wander to Gracie, an even more sinister pattern of behaviour begins.

As Gracie grows older, she finds solace and liberation in books, poetry and her enduring friendship with Billy. Together they escape into the poetic fairy-tale worlds of their imaginations. But will fairy tales be enough to save Gracie from Uncle Joe’s psychopathic behaviour – and how far will it go?

I must confess that when I started reading Seas of Snow, I was entirely unsure of what to expect, hoping that this would go far beyond a simple, linear tale of family misery. My fears were very quickly dispelled, and to be honest, this was one of the most emotive, thought-provoking, and beautifully characterised novels I have read for some time…

For the purposes of this review I will studiously avoid the words crime novel, as to my mind what Kerensa Jennings has produced with aplomb is much more akin to literary fiction, in terms of emotional depth and narrative tone. With the use of the dual narrative structure, where the past is seamlessly intertwined with the contemporary timeline,  the reader finds themselves  gently pivoted back and forth. To avoid any unwitting spoilers, the contemporary aspect of the book involves two characters looking back on childhood events with their knowing adult perspective, but so as not to reveal a hugely surprising twist in the tale I can say no more. Suffice to say this part of this story was incredibly moving, and sees these characters wrestling with the emotional consequences of the events so many years previously. It is emotionally uplifting yet perturbing in equal measure, as Jennings’ explores the themes of redemption and blame in relation to their actions, leading to some exceptionally moving revelations.

Instead, what I will focus on is Jennings’ absolute mastery of the language and thought of both Grace and Billy as children. I do tend to avoid reading books with a child’s narrative, as I am so often disappointed by the lack of realism, and how many authors slip into the attribution of adult reasoning that then undermines the credibility of the young narrator. Jennings’ portrayal of her child protagonists is never less than perfectly realised. Gracie’s dialogue, thoughts and child’s reasoning is absolutely authentic throughout, and as a reader, when the dark events unfold, you are genuinely terrified for her. Jennings’ depiction of the abuse that Gracie suffers is totally unflinching, so much so that at times I had to physically take a breath when reading these scenes. I admired the bravery and realism with which Jennings’ approaches this hugely emotive subject matter, be it the sheer physical fear that Gracie experiences, or in the uncompromising and brutally graphic depiction of the psyche of her abuser. Jennings’ neatly circumvents the clichéd  bogeyman images of paedophilia, but instead, presents a much more frightening depiction by the way she explores so fearlessly and thoroughly the mind-set of this deeply disturbed individual who brings fear and havoc to Gracie’s childhood. It takes the reader into the darkest recesses of psychopathy, and Jennings’ intuitive exploration of the conundrum of nature vs nurture is both deeply chilling, and strangely fascinating. The writing is emotionally intense, graphic and unceasingly honest.

As much as the novel focuses on the violence of Gracie’s childhood, Jennings’ harmonises this throughout with the simple pleasures of childhood friendships,  and increasing perception that both Gracie and Billy begin to experience of the world around them. There are childhood stories of make-believe, adventure, and Gracie’s flourishing interest in the world of books and poetry, that in tandem with her friendship with Billy, sustains her mental equilibrium, as the dark events of her household play out. It brings a beautifully weighted lightness, and emotional relief to the novel, that keeps the reader balanced and engaged, before the next plunge into the darker aspects of the book, and Jennings’ cleverly uses this part of Gracie’s development to change the nature of her narrative voice, and the images she ascribes to her tormentor’s presence. This is the only point where you can quite clearly hear a resonance of Jennings’ own authorial voice, as Gracie’s increasing appreciation of books and poetry, reflect what I believe is the author’s own joy and emotional succour afforded to us all by literature and verse. I found the scenes reflecting Gracie’s growing appreciation of this world of words and images strangely reminiscent of my own, and I’m sure many other readers too, and it was a delight.

This was without doubt an emotionally intense, but extremely rewarding reading experience, despite the harsh and quite often unpalatable depiction of a childhood destroyed. The language, imagery and controlled nature of Jennings’ writing was at times deeply unsettling in the portrayal of the darkness of Gracie’s experiences, and the psyche of her abuser,  but then uplifting in the purity and simplicity she attributes to Gracie’s discovery of the pleasures of storytelling and poetry that becomes her coping strategy. At times, an incredibly discomforting read, with a shockingly powerful denouement, but equally a brave, truthful, and thought-provoking novel. Highly recommended.

(With much thanks to the author for the ARC)

 

 

 

 

 

Brian Freeman- Goodbye To The Dead- Review and Extract

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It is almost a decade since Duluth said goodbye to its innocence. The city creeps ever closer to the anniversary of the year in which it found itself both gripped by murder and united in terror; and during which the pillar of its community, Detective Jonathan Stride, had his home and heart torn to ribbons by the claws of cancer. Cat Mateo, an orphan with a knack of landing on her feet, has bid farewell to a life on the streets. This once-stray teenager owes her rescue to Stride, the father figure she holds close to her heart. But Cat holds something else to her chest – a secret: the sheer power of which she could not possibly comprehend. A secret that, once out of the bag, will not just viciously scratch at Duluth’s still-healing wounds, but will make Stride wave goodbye to his convictions about the events nine years before, and say hello to his darkest fears…

Aside from Michael Connelly and Jack Kerley, there are few American thriller series where I have committed myself to reading each new book as it arrives. However, having been hooked by Brian Freeman’s Immoral  years ago, I am always happy to be drawn back to downtown Duluth, and to the trials and tribulations of Freeman’s stalwart homicide detective Jonathan Stride and his firecracker police partner Maggie Bei…

Despite my own familiarity with the series, and the characters contained within it, I love Freeman’s ability to so easily hook any new reader in, and this book would be a great place to start. The reason I say that is, that Freeman segues between two timelines, taking us back to the period immediately before the death of Stride’s wife, and how a particularly testing murder case will so resolutely intrude on the present. The balance between both narratives is perfect throughout, providing the reader with not only a more introspective examination of what makes Stride the man he is, but how criminal investigations are not always as clear cut as they seem, and how the sins of the past cannot always stay buried there. Also with the action pivoting between two timelines, Freeman sows small but pertinent details of his characters’ emotional weaknesses and strengths, and how they impact on their personal and professional relationships when put into focus nine years later.

With the police protagonists Stride and Bei being such well-realised characters and so integral to the thrust of the story , I did experience a little irritation at the antics of Cat, and the tendency to slightly simpering neediness of Stride’s current squeeze Serena. Although both these characters have experienced similar problems in the upbringing, I didn’t altogether believe in them, and did find them showing signs of stereotypical behaviour that I have seen oft repeated in fiction writing. However, Freeman’s depiction of Stride’s incredibly touching relationship with his late wife, Cindy, and the characterisation of Cindy herself, helped redress the balance in the female characterisation, and then of course, there’s Maggie Bei who totally dominates every scene she appears in. She is a brilliant character, small in stature, but in possession of a general ballsiness and frankness that will delight and entertain you throughout. And she’s got a soft side too. But not too soft…

I had a few misgivings about the plot, in terms of the use of coincidence as to Cat’s involvement in the whole affair, and the ending was a little contrived, but this can probably be attributed again to too much crime reading on my part. However, there were some nice touches including an ice-cold scheming woman whose character I loved, possibly guilty of mariticide  and her besotted sad act stalker, and the suspicion that arises in the reader as to her guilt or innocence. Did she? Or didn’t she? It’s fun playing detective and trying to work her out, amongst the smoke and mirrors that Freeman employs the way.

So a wee bit of a mixed affair for me personally, but I think the good aspects of this one, more than outweigh the little niggles it produced in me, and I would certainly recommend this as a series that warrants further investigation. Here’s an extract to tempt you in…

PROLOGUE

The Present

Serena spotted the Grand Am parked half a block from the

Duluth bar. Someone was waiting inside the car.

Mosquitoes clouded in front of the headlights. The trumpets

of a Russian symphony – something loud and mournful

by Shostakovich

blared through its open windows. Serena

smelled acrid, roll-your-own cigarette smoke drifting toward

her with the spitting rain. Beyond the car, through the haze,

she saw the milky lights of the Superior bridge arching across

the harbor.

There were just the two of them in the late-night darkness of

the summer street. Herself and the stranger behind the wheel of

the Grand Am. She couldn’t see the driver, but it didn’t matter

who was inside. Not yet.

She was here for someone else.

This was an industrial area, on the east end of Raleigh Street,

not far from the coal docks and the paper mill. Power lines sizzled

overhead. The ground under her feet shook with the passage

of a southbound train. She made sure her Mustang was locked,

with her Glock securely inside the glove compartment, and then

she crossed the wet street to the Grizzly Bear Bar. It was a dive

with no windows and an apartment overhead for the owner.

Cat was inside.

Serena felt guilty putting tracking software on the teenager’s phone, but she’d learned

quickly that Cat’s sweet face didn’t mean she could be trusted.

When she pulled open the door of the bar, a sweaty, beery

smell tumbled outside. She heard drunken voices shouting in

languages she didn’t understand and the twang of a George Strait

song on the jukebox. Big men lined up two-deep at the bar and

played poker at wooden tables.

Inside, she scanned the faces, looking for Cat. She spied her

near the wall, standing shoulder to shoulder with an older girl,

both of them head-down over smartphones. The two made an

unlikely pair. Cat was a classic beauty with tumbling chestnut

hair and a sculpted Hispanic face. Her skinny companion had

dyed orange spikes peeking out under a wool cap, and her ivory

face was studded with piercings.

Serena keyed a text into her own phone and sent it. Look up.

Cat’s face shot upward as she got the message. Her eyes widened,

and Serena read the girl’s lips. ‘Oh, shit.

Cat whispered urgently in her friend’s ear. Serena saw the

other girl study her like a scientist peering into the business end

of a microscope. The skinny girl wore a low-cut mesh shirt over

a black bra and a jean skirt that ended mid-thigh. She picked up

a drinks tray – she was a waitress – and gave Serena a smirk as

she strolled to the bar, leaving Cat by herself.

Serena joined Cat at the cocktail table where she was standing.

The girl’s smile had vanished, and so had all of her adultness.

Teenagers drifted so easily between maturity and innocence. She

was a child again, but Cat was also a child who was five months

pregnant.

I’m really sorry’ Cat began, but Serena cut her off.

Save it. I’m not interested in apologies.’

She stopped herself before saying anything more that she’d regret. She was too angry even to look at Cat.

Instead, by habit, she surveyed the people in the bar.

It was a rough crowd, not a hangout for college kids and middle-class tourists like the bars in Canal Park.

Hardened sailors came to the Grizzly Bear off the

cargo boats, making up for dry days on the lake with plenty of

booze. She heard raspy laughter and arguments that would spill

over into fights. The bare, muscled forearms of the men were

covered in cuts and scars, and they left greasy fingerprints on

dozens of empty beer bottles.

In the opposite corner of the bar, Serena noticed a woman

who didn’t fit in with the others. The woman sat by herself, a

nervous smile on her round face. Her long blond hair, parted

in the middle, hung down like limp spaghetti. She had an all-American

look, with blue eyes and young skin, like a cheerleader

plucked from a college yearbook. Maybe twenty-two. She kept

checking a phone on the table in front of her, and her stare shot

to the bar door every time it opened.

Something about the woman set off alarm bells in Serena’s

head. This was a bad place for her. She wanted to go over and

ask: Why are you here?

She didn’t, because that was the question she needed to ask

Cat.

Why are you here, Cat?’

I wanted to go somewhere. I’m bored.’

That’s not an answer.’

Anna works here,’ Cat said. ‘She and I know the owner.’

Cat nodded at the waitress who’d been with her at the table.

Anna was playing with her phone as she waited for the bartender

at the taps. One of the sailors made a grab for the girl’s ass, and

Anna intercepted his hand without so much as a glance at the

man’s face.

She used to live on the streets, like me,’ Cat told Serena. ‘We’d

hang out together. If she found a place to sleep, she let me crash

there, too.’

I get it, but that’s not your world anymore.’

I’m entitled to have friends,’ Cat insisted, her lower lip bulging

with defiance.

You are, but no one from your old life is a friend.’

Serena knew the struggle the girl faced. Not even three months

ago, Cat Mateo had been a runaway. A teenage prostitute. When

someone began stalking her in the city’s graffiti graveyard, she’d

gone to Duluth police lieutenant Jonathan Stride for help. Serena

and Stride had been lovers for four years, and she knew he had

a weakness for a woman in trouble. They’d helped capture the

man who’d been targeting Cat, and when the girl was safe, Stride

made a decision that surprised Serena. He suggested that the

teenager live with them, have her baby there, and grow up in a

house with adults who cared about her.

Serena said yes, but she’d never believed that it would be easy

for any of them. And it wasn’t.

You’re a sight for sore eyes in this place,’ a male voice

announced.

A man in a rumpled blue dress shirt and loosely knotted tie

stopped at their table. His eyes darted between Serena’s face and

the full breasts swelling under her rain-damp T-shirt. He wiped

his hands on a Budweiser bar towel.

This is Fred,’ Cat interjected. ‘He owns the bar.’

The man shot out a hand, which Serena shook. His fingers

were sticky from sugar and limes. ‘Fred Sissel,’ he said cheerfully.

Sissel was around fifty years old, with slicked-back graying

hair and a trimmed mustache. He wore the over-eager grin of a

man who’d tried to smile his way out of everything bad in life.

Fights. Debts. Drunk driving. His cuffs were frayed, and his shirt

and tie were dotted with old food stains. His face had the mottled

brown of too many visits to a tanning salon.

So what’s your name, and where have you been all my life?’

Sissel asked. The teeth behind his smile were unnaturally white.

Serena slid her badge out of her jeans pocket. ‘My name’s

Serena Dial. I’m with the Itasca County Sheriff’s Office.’

Sissel’s mustache drooped like a worm on a fishing hook. The

sailors at the other tables had a radar for the gold glint of a badge,

and the tenor in the bar changed immediately.

Sorry, officer, is there a problem?’ Sissel asked, losing the

fake grin.

Do you know this girl?’

Sure, she’s a friend of Anna’s.’

Do you know she’s seventeen years old?’

Sissel swore under his breath. ‘Hey, I don’t want any trouble,’

he said.

You’ve already got trouble, and if I find her in this place again,

you’ll have even more.’

Yeah. Understood. Whatever you say.’

The bar owner raised his arms in surrender and backed away.

Serena saw emotions skipping like beach stones across Cat’s face.

Shame. Guilt. Embarrassment. Anger.

Fred’s a nice guy,’ the girl said finally. ‘You didn’t have to be

mean to him.’

Does he serve you alcohol?’

No,’ Cat said, but Serena didn’t trust her face. She leaned

closer to the girl, and although there was no booze on her breath,

she smelled cigarette smoke like stale perfume on her beautiful

hair.

You’ve been smoking.’

Just one.’

Serena wanted to scream at the girl, but she held her voice

in check. ‘You’re pregnant. You can’t smoke. You can’t drink.’

I told you, it was just one.’

Serena didn’t answer. She couldn’t fight teenage logic. As a

cop, she’d seen good girls make bad choices her entire life. She

knew how easy it was to cross the line. At Cat’s age, she’d been

a runaway herself, living with a girlfriend in Las Vegas after

escaping the grip of a Phoenix drug dealer. Not a month had

gone by in Vegas where she hadn’t fended off the temptation

to gamble, buy drugs, steal, or sell herself for the money she

needed. She felt lucky that the only serious vice she carried from

those days was being a recovering alcoholic. But luck was all it

was. A bad choice on a bad day, and her life would have taken

a different turn.

Across the bar, Serena saw the young blond woman – the

school cheerleader type – grab her phone suddenly and get to

her feet. She was nervous and excited and couldn’t control her

smile. She smoothed her long straight hair and moistened her

lips. If there was a mirror, she would have checked her reflection

in it. She took a breath, and her chest swelled. She headed for

the bar door, but backtracked to retrieve a baby-blue suitcase

from behind her table.

To Serena, it felt wrong. Visitors didn’t come to Duluth and

wind up in this bar on their first night. Her instincts told her to

stop the woman and ask questions. To intervene. To protect her.

Are you going to tell Stride?’ Cat asked.

Serena focused on the teenager again. She knew that Cat was

afraid of Stride’s disapproval more than anything else in her

life. He was like a father to her, and she was terrified of disappointing

him.

Yes,’ Serena said. ‘You know I have to tell him.’

Cat’s eyes filled with tears. She was a typical teenage girl,

using tears to get her way, and Serena worked hard to keep her

own face as stern as stone. Meanwhile, the bar door opened and

closed, letting in the patter of rain from outside.

The blond woman was gone.

It doesn’t matter what you tell him,’ Cat said, rubbing her

nose on her sleeve. ‘He’s going to kick me out sooner or later.’

Her voice was choked with self-pity. She was smart and beautiful

and eager to believe the worst about herself. She looked

for any reason to believe that her life wasn’t worth saving. To

sabotage the second chance she’d been given. That was part of

her guilt over who she’d been.

It has nothing to do with that,’ Serena told her calmly, ‘and

you know it.’

When he was married to Cindy, Stride didn’t want kids,’ Cat

protested. ‘So why would he want me now?’

You’re wrong about that, but even if it were true, it doesn’t

matter. He took you in, Cat. He wants you there. We both do.

What happened in the past, what happened with Cindy, has

nothing to do with who he is today.’

You wish,’ the girl snapped.

The words shot out of her like a poisoned arrow. Funny how

teenagers could always find your weak spot and apply pressure.

If there was anything in Serena’s life that made her feel like an

insecure child, it was the thought of Cindy Stride. It was the suspicion

that Jonny was still in love with his wife.

Still in love with the wife who died of cancer eight years ago.

Cat knew what she’d done. She looked upset now. ‘I’m sorry.

I didn’t mean that.’

But she did. And she was right.

Come on,’ Serena said, shoving down her own emotions. ‘Let’s

get out of here.’

She took Cat’s arm in a tight grip, but then something made

her freeze. A woman screamed. It came from the street, muffled

by the clamor of the bar. She almost missed it. The cry stopped as

quickly as it started, cutting off like the slamming of a window,

but Serena knew exactly who it was. She cursed herself for not

listening to her instincts when she had the chance.

Serena told Cat to stay where she was. She shoved through

the crowd and broke out into the street. Outside, the drizzle had

become a downpour, blown sideways by the wind. The Grand

Am she’d spotted earlier was still parked half a block away, its

headlights white and bright, steaming in the rain. Immediately

in front of the sedan was the woman from the bar, her body

flailing as she fought to free herself from a man who held her

in a headlock.

Serena shouted, and the woman saw her. Soundlessly, in panic,

she pleaded for rescue. Serena marched toward them to break

up the assault, but she’d barely taken a step when a gun blew up

the night. One shot. Loud and lethal. The blond woman’s pretty

face, twisted in panic, became a spray of bone, brain, blood, and

skin. Her knees buckled; her body slumped to the wet pavement.

In shock, Serena threw herself sideways toward the outer wall

of the bar.

The bar door opened, and Cat called out curiously, ‘What was

that? What’s going on?’

Serena yelled with the protective fury of a mother. ‘Cat, get

back inside right now!

Then she was running. She saw a tall man in a hooded sweatshirt,

his back to her as he escaped. The killer. She didn’t stop

for the woman lying in the street. There was nothing she could

do to help her. She charged after the man, struggling to match

his steps, but the pain of the effort weighed on her chest. Rain

soaked her black hair and blurred her eyes. The asphalt was slick.

The man sped into the darkness of a side street that ended in

dense trees, with Serena ten feet behind in pursuit. Matchbox

houses on both sides bloomed with light as people crept to their

windows.

Serena closed on the man when he slipped and lost a step.

The woods loomed directly ahead of them. She knew where she

was; the street ended in sharp steps that led down over a creek

into the grassy fields of Irving Park. She took a chance, and she

jumped. Her body hit the man in the square of the back, kicking

him forward, bringing both of them down. He slid onto the mossslick

concrete steps. She scrambled to her feet and dove for him,

but he was ready for her. He spun around in the blackness and

hammered a fist into her stomach. He grabbed her head. His

fingers drove her chin into the rusty railing bordering the steps,

where bone struck metal. Her teeth rattled as if driven upward

into her mouth. She collapsed to her knees.

He skidded on his heels and jumped down the rest of the steps.

She heard his footsteps splashing into the creek below them. He

was gone, breaking free into the wide-open land of the park. She

hadn’t seen his face.

People from the bar ran toward her, shouting. Somewhere

among them, Cat called her name over and over in fear. Serena

tried to stand, but she was too dizzy, and she fell forward, tasting

blood on her tongue. She was on all fours now. Her hands pushed

blindly around the muddy steps, hunting for the railing to use

as leverage as she stood up. She felt rocks and tree branches

and bug-eaten leaves beneath her fingers, and then, finally, she

brushed against the iron of the railing.

Except – no.

What she felt under the wet skin of her hand wasn’t the railing

mounted beside the steps. It was something else. Something

metal and lethal and still hot to the touch.

When her brain righted itself, she realized it was a gun…

 

Blog Tour- Doug Johnstone- The Jump

 

Welcome to the next stop on the Doug Johnstone blog tour, coinciding with the release of his latest book The Jump. Raven is quite the fan of Mr J.  and have previously had the pleasure of reviewing both Gone Again and The Dead Beat , so what did The Jump hold in store…

The Jump, immediately draws us into the world of Ellie, a middle-aged woman struggling to come to terms with the seemingly inexplicable suicide of her teenage son, Logan, and the fractured relationship this has caused within her marriage to Ben. Living in the shadow of the Forth Bridge, where Logan ended his life, and succeeding in talking down another suicidal teenager, Sam, Ellie finds herself with a second chance in helping Sam, and gaining some kind of redemption from the sadness that defines her life. However, in becoming so closely involved with him, and his younger sister, Libby, Ellie becomes enmeshed in a family that is filled with secrets, far darker and more dangerous than she can possibly imagine…

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. The Jump 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. Obviously, the book is very much centred on the theme of suicide, both the causes of, and the aftermath for,  those left behind by this devastating act, and in the character of Ellie, Johnstone personifies all the linked emotions, doubts and blame that those left behind have to process. I loved the marked difference that Ellie and her husband exhibit in their reactions to the loss of their son, and the way that they too are faced with a leap of faith to restore their relationship to what it once was. Also with the interaction between Ellie and troubled teenager Sam, Johnstone blurs the lines between Ellie’s response to him as a mother, and a strange sense of sensuality, not sexuality, that seems to permeate their relationship. As we discover more about Sam, and his family (no spoilers from me), Ellie seems to undergo a marked change, and discovers a real inner core of strength that has been suppressed by her grief, and her journey back to her former resilience is moving throughout. With so much of the weight of the plot and the emotional issues therein on her shoulders, there was always a chance that Johnstone may have strayed down the route of mawkish sentimentality. He doesn’t, and must be applauded for his very sensitive, and most importantly, utterly real characterisation that Ellie embodies. As the plot unfolds into a very dark tale indeed, this sense of brutal reality persists, and is both shocking and redemptive in equal measure.

Another facet of the book that I enjoyed greatly was the absolute attention to sense of place, that Johnstone consistently shows in the book. With the incredibly visual depiction of this small riverside community, dwarfed by the architectural scale of the bridge itself, and the threatening power of this mass of water, Johnstone also draws a contrast of the smallness of our lives in the face of nature. His description of the life of the river and its environs, and man’s attempts to harness it, raises some interesting questions on our place within the natural world, but equally how the power of nature can provide succour in times of emotional uncertainty. I thought the description of Ellie’s wild swimming, where she sheds her land-bound skin, almost like a folkloric Selkie, to calm her restless spirit, was incredibly effective, and how this physical and, at times, perilous act brought her a closer connection with her son. It was beautifully done, and further ingrained in the reader’s sensibility the inescapable link that the water holds for Ellie in all spheres of her life.

You know how you sometimes encounter a book that just swirls around your consciousness in the wake of its reading, and pops back into your head at odd moments- well, this is most definitely one of those. The Jump is one of the most emotive and intense books it’s been my pleasure to read, and despite the weighty issues it explores, and the inherent sadness within its pages, ultimately one of the most satisfying. A brave, yet sometimes difficult, subject wonderfully handled. Prepare to be moved.