Getting That Blogging Groove Back (2)…Myers, Hirvonen, Tuomainen, Jonasson, and Sigurdardottir.

Right, eyes down and here we go again with the next instalment of my sorely neglected reviews. These are short, sweet, and to the point, as my propensity for rambling will return in the fullness of time, I’m sure…

 

First up one of my favourite deliciously dark authors, Benjamin Myers with These Darkening Days. Taking as his inspiration a real life crime case from the north of England, Myers once again lures us into the deepest disturbing psychological realms of his characters, delivering more than a few grim sucker punches along the way. A series of women become victims of a vicious assailant, plunging this close knit community into a miasma of suspicion and accusation.

I absolutely loved it. 

From the cynical world weariness of embittered reporter Roddy Mace, fighting off the temptation of the demon drink, to the reappearance of fastidious, OCD suffering detective James Brindle, and a cornucopia of dislikeable victims and suspects along the way, Myers (as in previous books) draws us in, shakes us up, and then spits us out the other end slightly soiled by our reading experience, but guiltily satisfied by it too. As always the book is suffused by Myers strange mix of sometimes lyrical, oftentimes unerringly brutal imagery of the natural environment against which his characters roil, fight, and will to survive.

Perfection. 

____________________________________________________________

Next we go the quirky, dry-humoured latest offering from Finnish author, Antti Tuomainen in the shape of The Man Who Died, a marked diversion in style from the intensely emotive, and lyrically profound psychological novels that we normally associate him with. Other reviewers have drawn comparison with Fargo, but I was strongly propelled back in time to the devilish Tales of The Unexpected by Roald Dahl, coupled with the brilliantly black humour of one of my favourite books ever, ever, Beyond The Great Indoors by Ingvar Ambjornsen. Tuomainen’s unlikely protagonist, Jaako Kaunismaa takes us on a surreal journey in rural Finland of tracking down his murderer whilst fighting the clutches of death by poisoning, to the sheer cutthroat mentality of competing mushroom harvesting businesses, instances of potential death by samurai sword, and exceptionally scheming women.

It’s all a bit mad, but in a good way, and with Tuomainen’s natural propensity to draw his reader into his exploration of the essence of humanity, just from a slightly different angle, his lightness of touch, and manipulation of absurdity work a treat. Who could possibly know that the world of mushroom growing was such a hotbed of evil intentions? Highly recommended. 

_______________________________________________________________

Staying with Finland, I can confidently say that When Time Runs Out by Elina Hirvonen is champing for a place in my top five of the year. I was absolutely mesmerised by the pure intensity and sensitivity of one family’s turmoil in the wake of a mass shooting. With shades of We Need To Talk About Kevin, Hirvonen meticulously and stealthily portrays the increasing emotional dislocation of a family, over a period of time, to the devastating effects of this inability for them to communicate and connect on an emotional level.

Hirvonen broadens the sweep of the book even further with incisive comment on global human crises, and the ravaging of the environment which really engaged me and enraged me, but was wonderfully unflinching and truthful in its depiction. I am already recommending this left, right and centre, thrilled by its power as both a clear sighted narrative of familial breakdown, but also of the larger issues it encompasses in a comparatively condensed read.

Superb.   

____________________________________________________________

We’ll go for an Icelandic head-to-head now with Ragnar Jonasson- Whiteout and Lilja Sigurdardottir- Snare, the former being a continuation of the very successful series featuring policeman Ari Thor, and the latter the starting point of the Reykjavik Noir Trilogy.

Ragnar Jonasson’s quality as a crime writer need no further commendation from me, but truthfully, I would say that this has been my favourite of the series to date. I found the writing wonderfully understated, and the whole book exuded an air of English Gothic fiction, with women hurling themselves from cliffs, and the sinister backdrop of the all-seeing lighthouse, compounded by the revelations of very dark pernicious behaviour indeed. I found it tense, involving, and as usual there was a great harmony between the intensity of the criminal investigation itself, and the playing out of Ari’s domestic situation, and his eagerness to progress in his police career.   

Snare proved a curious mix for me, as my overriding feeling that this was almost two books running parallel to each other, with a gripping story of drug running, running alongside a slower Borgen-esque feeling of financial impropriety, and double dealing. I’ll be honest, and say that I didn’t take to the latter thread as much as the former, finding it a little turgid against the relative excitement of the drug smuggling narrative, and although I was slightly questioning of the veracity of single parent Sonja’s involvement in drug running, this was certainly the more compelling of the two storylines, and led to some real heart in the mouth moments. I also enjoyed playing witness to the touchingly sentimental ‘other’ life of customs officer Bragi, whose game of cat and mouse with Sonja was another enjoyable strand of the book. However, the emotional handwringing of Sonja’s romantic involvement with Agla, the bank executive under investigation, became increasingly tiresome, but cleverly the seemingly anodyne ending of the book must signpost further developments for the second part of the trilogy. A little unsure, but curious, and intrigued to see how the story progresses in the next instalment.  

 

(With thanks to Moth Publishing for These Darkening Days, Bonnier Zaffre for When Time Runs Out, and Orenda Books for The Man Who Died, Whiteout and Snare

 

Raven’s Yearly Round-Up and Top 5 Crime Reads 2015

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)As the end of 2015 approaches, it is time to look back in awe and wonder at some of the books that have thrilled and entertained the Raven over the last twelve months. With approximately 125 crime books read, and not far off 100 reviews posted, this year has heralded a bumper crop of exciting crime reads, A slew of brilliant debuts including Oscar de Muriel- The Strings of Murder, Tom Callaghan’s The Killing Winter, Ragnar Jonasson’s Snowblind and David Young’s Stasi Child, and great new offerings from established names such as Mari Hannah, Steve Mosby, William Shaw, Simon Toyne and Malcolm Mackay have been a joy to read.  So here are the highlights and lowlights of the year… 

THE 40-PAGE RULE

With the constant influx of books I receive as a blogger, full time bookseller, and my day off job as a volunteer in a charity book shop, there is never a shortage of reading material accumulated in the teetering to be read mountain! Hence the need for the 40-page rule. If a book has failed to ignite my interest within this page count, I’m afraid it is discarded, passed on to others, or fulfils it’s charitable duty as a donation to the shop mentioned above. The parameters for a book’s untimely fate vary- clichéd, overwritten, one-dimensional characters, too much similarity to another book, obvious plot turns or killers, and if anyone mentions someone opening a door in their underwear, all hope is lost. I usually manage to read nearer 200 books in a year so a fairly hefty count of 42 non-starters have impeded my reading. Unusually for someone known for their bluntness, in the good spirit of Christmas I’m naming no names, but rest assured your books have found a good home elsewhere…

THE MOST HYPED CRIME GENRE OF THE YEAR

the-girl-on-the-train-uk-e1420761445402It seems that only by dwelling at the outer reaches of the Arctic Circle could you escape the hype surrounding The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins. And yet the Raven was unmoved by the sheer intensity of the praise heaped upon this book on its release, and the ensuing avalanche of ‘domestic noir’ thrillers that it helped spawn. There again I didn’t like Gone Girl either. I am the domestic noir Grinch. Enough already.

WORDS FAILED ME (BUT IN A GOOD WAY)

litten2As a non-professional reviewer and a casual blogger, sometimes a book utterly defeats any talent for reviewing that you believe you possess! One such book this year was Russ Litten’s Kingdom. Having waxed lyrical about Litten’s previous book Swear Down which was terrific, I was incredibly excited to receive Kingdom to review. I was totally in its thrall from start to finish, but when it came to the depth of this reading experience, the majesty of the language, the emotional intensity, and sheer cleverness of the whole affair, words defeated me. Completely. Too marvellous for words.

TURNING MY BACK ON CRIME (OCCASIONALLY)

It may be hard to believe, but yes, I do quite often read books that are not crime. Yes really. So three stand-out fiction reads for me this year would be Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone, where the voice of the late lamented John Lennon sang from every page, The Reader On The 6.47 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, a beautiful French novel with echoes of Patrick Modiano, and Glenn Taylor’s A Hanging At Cinder Bottom, an American writer who never disappoints in his characterisation and crackling dialogue.

And so to the awards ceremony….cue fanfare….and in a break from tradition not all of these were nominated as books of the month at the time, but have stayed in my head, popping up in unguarded moments…

RAVEN’S TOP 5 BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Click on the book jackets to read the reviews.

5. KARIM MISKE-ARAB JAZZ

arab1

4. DOUG JOHNSTONE-THE JUMP

The-Jump-Doug-Johnstone

3. MATTHEW FRANK-IF I SHOULD DIE

mf

2. ANTTI TUOMAINEN- DARK AS MY HEART

antti

1. JAX MILLER- FREEDOM’S CHILD

28052350

In a strange instance of premonition, I ended my review of Freedom’s Child saying that it would possibly be my book of the year. Lean prose, a laconic and rhythmical style and an utterly compelling central character in the shape of the emotionally damaged Freedom. A brilliant and unforgettable debut.

 

 

October 2015 Round-Up and Raven’s Book of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Well wasn’t that just an incredibly frustrating month? Thwarted by an exceptionally busy work month, a heavy reading schedule of fiction,  and my continuing battles with technology- now hopefully fixed by an investment in a new laptop- I only managed to bring you a fairly paltry five reviews. Slapped wrists for me I think. Just glad I managed to squeeze in my blog tours with Luca Veste, David Young, and James Nally on various borrowed devices!

It’s also been a disappointing month with the much-lauded arrival of some new crime dramas on our screens, heralding a sense of extreme dissatisfaction in this feathered one. With a viewing time of one episode for From Darkness (twenty minutes of plot and dialogue punctuated by winsome staring out of a car window, kitchen window, out to sea) , one episode of Unforgotten (predictable fodder), and the heady heights of an episode and a half for River (which was the one I was really looking forward to- Stellan Skarsgard [over]acting weird + ghost) it was all very vexing. Roll on the new series of Luther and the return of The Bridge…

Anyway, on a brighter note, I have a slew of unposted reviews which I will start posting today to try and catch-up, and there’s a few little treats in there for you so keep ’em peeled. Here’s to a more productive November…

Books reviewed this month:

Brian Freeman- Goodbye To The Dead

James Nally- Alone With The Dead

Shawn Kobb- Collection: A Rocket Malone Mystery

David Young- Stasi Child

Antti Tuomainen- Dark As My Heart

Raven’s Book(s) of the Month

StasiChild_firstlook_540Absolutely no contest this month, and a genuinely impossible anttidecision between these two stellar reads! Step forward David Young- Stasi Child, and Antti Tuomainen Dark As My Heart, for two exceptionally compelling reads set in East Berlin and Finland respectively. I can’t choose between you, nor would I want to, so everyone read both! You won’t be disappointed. Promise…

Antti Tuomainen- Dark As My Heart

anttiAleksi lost his mother on a rainy October day when he was thirteen years old. Twenty years later, he is certain that he knows who’s responsible. Everything points to millionaire Henrik Saarinen. The police don’t agree. Aleksi has only one option: to get close to Henrik Saarinen and find out the truth about his mother’s fate on his own. But as Aleksi soon discovers, delving into Saarinen and his beautiful daughter’s family secrets is a confusing and dangerous enterprise…

I must confess that aside from Matti Joensuu and Kati Hiekkapelto my knowledge of Finnish crime fiction is a little underdeveloped, so was intrigued to discover a new-to me-writer in this sub-genre of the Scandinavian stable. So how did Dark As My Heart fare? Will I be seeking out Tuomainen’s The Healer as well?

If the fact that I read this book in one night can be testament to how much I enjoyed this one is any gauge, I think we can all safely say that this book was a real hit with me. Dark As My Heart, drew me in from the start with the mournful clarity and simplicity of its prose, and the underlying power of the emotion that Tuomainen expresses in deceptively understated prose. Discovering afterwards that Tuomainen is an established poet reinforced my initial impressions of the lyrical and sensual quality of both the dialogue and imagery that Tuomainen employs throughout. From the inherent appreciation of the natural world, to the intensity of expression that the author affords the gradual unveiling of Aleksi’s turbulent and emotional upbringing in the wake of the loss of his mother, the prose style that Tuomainen adopts is mesmerising. I rarely revisit passages of a crime book after reading, but did on this occasion mainly to marvel at the fluid and lyrical style of Tuomainen’s writing style, from the brevity (though no less affecting) use of dialogue, to particular descriptions of the setting of Saarinen’s rural estate. It was just so satisfying to see such a seamless blend of beautiful language, and well-structured plot working in harmony, which is something that European crime writers seem to excel at. What was also clever was how at times the book also assumed the feel of a stage play with many double-handed scenes that again added to the claustrophobic and emotionally intense feel of the book. Hence, what the reader encounters is a well-balanced blend of poetry, prose and drama which was exceptionally engaging from start to finish.

Aleksi is viewed throughout the book with an overriding compunction to uncover the truth behind his mother’s disappearance, fuelled by a long period of gestation formulating a plan to confront the man he believes responsible. In the case of his character, still waters run deep, with the face he displays to the world masking a deep inner life driven by revenge, and it’s fascinating how Tuomainen so beautifully reveals the dark details of Aleksi’s formative years. Equally accomplished is how Tuomainen sustains such a pitch of intigue and secrecy using a comparatively small cast of characters, and Aleksi’s interaction with them. He is a completely empathetic character, and I’m sure like many readers to come I was completely rooting for him throughout the book, in the face of the deception and manipulation at the hands of the Saarinens. In much the same way as Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or Steffen Jacobsen’s Trophy, Tuomainen uses the character of millionaire businessman Henrik Saarinen, as a foil for his detached authorial view of the impunity with which the rich and powerful ride roughshod over the normal laws of decent behaviour, and Saarinen is the epitomy of this, eemingly untouchable by established means. His daughter assumes the role of the femme fatale of the piece, using her feminine wiles and sensuality to influence and blindside Aleksi, with a particularly unsavoury reveal about her character along the way. The world that Aleksi has infiltrated is morally bankrupt and Tuomainen provides an intriguing study of the base motivations and jealousies that drive human behaviour.

I found Dark As My Heart one of the most compelling, emotionally satisfying and beautifully realised crime thrillers that I have encountered this year. The clarity and deceptively simple style of Tuomainen’s prose is utterly compelling, underlined by his assured use of more than one literary form, and yet with this clever manipulation and lyricism of the language and form of the book, Tuomainen never loses sight of keeping the reader engaged by the central mystery that drives the plot. Wonderful.

(With thanks to Vintage/Harvill Secker for the ARC)