#BlogTour- Gunnar Staalesen- Fallen Angels “I liked the dark brooding tone to this one, with the growing self awareness Veum gains from revisiting his formative years.” @orendabooks

Fallen Angels (Varg Veum)

When Bergen PI Varg Veum finds himself at the funeral of a former classmate on a sleet-grey December afternoon, he’s unexpectedly reunited with his old friend Jakob guitarist of the once-famous 1960s rock band The Harpers and his estranged wife, Rebecca, Veum’s first love. Their rekindled friendship is thrown into jeopardy by the discovery of a horrific murder, and Veum is forced to dig deep into his own adolescence and his darkest memories, to find a motive and a killer…

Few things in life are as satisfying than immersing yourself in a new book by the godfather of Norwegian crime writing, Gunnar Staalesen, and once again Fallen Angels, the latest in the Varg Veum investigations, brings a whole host of new delights, and something different to this long running series…

I am in total admiration of writers who undertake to sustain writing an established series featuring the same central character, and particularly Staalesen who always seems to be able to expose different facets to Veum’s character, which are always plausible and gratifying for the follower of this series. What is noticeable about this book, compared to the previous books, is the more noticeable meditative tone, and the feeling of a greater degree of introspection. There are significantly less of the cynical and wryly humorous asides that this character so often employs, and instead there seems to be a greater degree of digging down into his life and motivations, and an incredibly dark denouement that is both full of pathos and very disturbing. This book gives Veum a chance to ruminate on his life more, as individuals he has known since childhood and his formative years begin to have untimely deaths, forcing Veum to reassess incidents from the past, and how they could have led to these current events.

In one noteworthy passage Veum sums up these exact thoughts, “Childhood is a wound that never heals; your youth a poster someone has tried in vain to tear down. All the years you have lived are here, like dirty footprints in the snow behind you. You have left your own chalk-marks on most of the walls in this town and no charlady has bleach strong enough to wash them off completely. And the child you once were, you will never be again.” Consequently, childhood, life, death, love, friendship, loyalty and betrayal are key themes throughout the book, as Veum attempts to track a determined and vengeful killer, but finds himself immersed in loves lost and betrayals uncovered and exposed in this very personal case. There is a much more sombre tone to this book as a whole, and quite intense examinations of the public vs the private in terms of the character’s lives, and the role of the spiritual and religious as time marches on, and age begins to become a greater concern in Veum’s mind, intensified in the series of murders of his peers, a couple of misjudged entanglements, and also as an important connection is rekindled from the past.

Once again, Staalesen works wonders for the Norwegian tourist board with his precise and descriptive portrayal of Bergen- both the good and the not so good- and its surrounding landscapes, so as he traverses the country in search of vital clues, the visual representation of these locales is always imbued with clarity and atmosphere. Likewise, there is an almost complete bibliography of the Norwegian music scene from the 1960s onwards, which adds an other layer of interest to the book, and perhaps more starkly as he charts the musical journey of the fictional band, The Harpers, shows the highs and lows of life in the spotlight, the drugs, the groupies, and more brutally how some continue to try and hold on to fame beyond the time they should, when the glory years are indeed well behind them. The central investigation is very deeply imbedded in the events from this period of the band’s success, and like water circling a drain, Veum slowly closes in on the disturbing goings-on before their parting of the ways.

As I said, there is a much more meditative tone to Fallen Angels overall, although Staalesen does seem to get an inordinate amount of pleasure from putting Veum through the emotional wringer fairly consistently in the series. I liked the dark brooding tone to this one, with the growing self awareness Veum gains from revisiting his formative years, his appreciation of his own upbringing, and how this has shaped him on a moral and spiritual level, in contrast to the morally dubious and in some cases, really dislikeable figures from his past. Another satisfying addition to this already excellent series and who knows what awaits Varg Veum in his next investigation… Recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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Doug Johnstone- A Dark Matter #BlogTour

Meet the Skelfs: well-known Edinburgh family, proprietors of a long-established funeral-home business, and private investigators. When patriarch Jim dies, it’s left to his wife Dorothy, daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah to take charge of both businesses, kicking off an unexpected series of events. Dorothy discovers mysterious payments to another woman, suggesting that Jim wasn’t the husband she thought he was. Hannah’s best friend Mel has vanished from university, and the simple adultery case that Jenny takes on leads to something stranger and far darker than any of them could have imagined. As the women struggle to come to terms with their grief and the demands of the business threaten to overwhelm them, secrets from the past emerge, which change everything…

So, where to begin with A Dark Matter,  as Doug Johnstone once again shows the complexity and diversity of his writing, making him one of the most accomplished writers in the crime genre at the moment. You genuinely never know where his writing is going to lead you, and always has the power to surprise…

I must confess to not knowing where to start with this one, as this is the book which has come closest to rivalling The Jump my favourite of Johnstone’s books to date. I think for my review I could easily just concentrate on the intuitive, realistic and pretty near flawless characterisation that Johnstone creates with this triumvirate of forthright and engaging dynasty of women. From matriarch, to daughter, to granddaughter, there is a real sense of the reader being utterly drawn into their world, coming to terms with the loss of their husband, father and grandfather Jim, and using their combined emotional strength and survival instincts to overcome grief, and emotional dislocation. It’s a rare thing indeed for a male author to so capture the real essence of what it is to be female, how we navigate life and relationships and the particular bonds that we form be it with those closest to us, and those that we encounter in other spheres of our lives.

I felt the characterisation was incredibly intuitive and truthful, and completely drew me into these women from the outset, reeling from grief, but with an innate sense of the will to do good, and to right wrongs.  I liked the way that although for much of the book they are following their own paths, there was a real strength and spirit of understanding that arose as the story progressed as we see them navigating the stages of grief and abandonment, before a dawning realisation that their sum of the parts was an altogether more powerful thing indeed. By following this path with the characters, this a wonderfully structured and multi-layered narrative, as we pivot from one woman to the other and the varying strands of investigation they all embark on to keep both sides of the family business ticking over. I also enjoyed the way that Johnstone also puts them under an incredible amount of stress throughout, strengthening their ingenuity and forcing them into courses of action that only heighten their resilience and repairing the tears in their previous relationships with one another.

From the first unusual, but singularly life affirming scene, which so brilliantly undermines the solemnity and overblown ritual of traditional funereal rites, to Johnstone’s ingrained exploration of the inseparable relation of death to life the book addresses some weighty themes indeed. The author’s own background in science imbues the book with some interesting digressions into the world of science and one paragraph in particular regarding dark matter being the glue of the universe, also sparked in me the feeling that in this book there was a parallel feeling of love and family loyalty, particularly in the female characters, of being the glue that held them together, albeit with a few bumps and challenges along the way. Obviously, with the central location of the book, there is much about life and death to muse on along the way, and teamed with the diversions into science there is a real sense of continuity and circularity in Johnstone’s observations on mortality and our place in an endless universe which is fascinating. 

As I mentioned in my introduction there is such a diversity in Johnstone’s writing that each book is like a present waiting to be unwrapped. The only consistent theme I can detect in his work is the love of Edinburgh, the good and the bad, and the attention to its landscape and environs is a constant presence in this book and others. He is a genuinely surprising writer, and I always look forward to what he will produce next, and what dark and twisting explorations of the human spirit he will take us on next. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda for the ARC)

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#BlogTour- Orlando Ortega-Medina- Jerusalem Ablaze

image001In Jerusalem’s Old City a young priest and a dominatrix converse in the dying light; on Oregon’s windswept coast a fragile woman discovers a body washed up on the beach after a storm; and in Postwar Japan a young protege watches his master’s corpse burn, with bitter thoughts blazing in his mind. An eclectic collection of thirteen short stories…

I do love it when I am approached by publishers offering me books that take me outside of my comfort zone, as they so often provide some magical reading experiences. Jerusalem Ablaze is one such example, as I rarely read short stories of any description. So it was with a wonderfully blank mental slate that I dived into this intriguing collection…

Orlando Ortega-Medina has produced a remarkable volume of stories that are not only far reaching in terms of location, but also in the very recognisable aspects of human emotion he weaves into his character’s individual experiences. Across the stories, he addresses the themes of love, death, ageing, sexuality, family conflict and obsession with an intuitive and engaging style, that at times brings the reader up short to truly sit up, and think about what they have just read. For the purposes of this review, and so as not to mar your discovery of all the stories in this collection, I just wanted to write a few words on a couple of the stories that made me sit up and think too.

In a guest post at Reader Dad, Ortega- Medina talks about his experience of writing short stories, and makes reference to After The Storm, my particular favourite in the book, and the number of revisions he made to it, right up until the point of submission to his publisher. This story runs to about 18.5 pages, but to me encompassed the emotional breadth and detail of a book many times this length. Focussing on a woman’s chance discovery of something on a beach (no spoilers here), Ortega-Medina constructs a story that is heart-rending and thought provoking, on the breaks in communication, and loss of awareness that occurs in many personal relationships. The story is darkly strange but underscored by an innate feeling of truth and observation that takes hold of the reader, and even in the aftermath of reading reoccurs in one’s thoughts. Susan’s actions seem so totally alien and discomforting at first, but when seen through the eyes of others, are imbued with a real sense of poignancy. Also, the author’s depiction of this wild coastline where Susan and her husband dwell in their secluded lighthouse, is described with such clarity that you can sense the thrashing sea spray, the keening of the gulls, and the smell of the seaweed. Perfect compacted prose that reveals a world of emotion.

The intensity of Susan’s experience set against the broad, unending landscape of the natural world is mirrored in  Star Party, where the theme of human relationships is played out beneath a huge expanse of sky where people have gathered to star watch. I like the way that Ortega-Medina transposes the small but intense insecurities and problems of his protagonists against this broad canvas, which puts our relative importance in the universe in perspective, but never lessening the real concerns of his characters’ lives. Equally, in The Shovelist, the financial security of an old man and his wife is seen to be dependent on the coming of the snow, and his neighbour’s willingness to pay him to shovel their driveway, a fairly humdrum problem you would think, but one that in the author’s hands, explores community and the realisation of, and sympathy for,  other’s troubles.

As much as every story works in this collection as a self contained tale, the two part story of An Israel State of Mind had me wanting more. Narrating the events of a young man and his girlfriend’s trip to a kibbutz, I loved this tale of pent up emotion and unresolved love,  the exploration of difference and misunderstanding, all within the framework of a shared, and what should be a life affirming experience. I think it’s a real feat of Ortega-Medina’s writing that he so quickly enables the reader to connect on an emotional level with his characters in this story and others, when whole books can pass you by without this essential connection as a reader. I still want to know what happens to these characters beyond what is written here.

So as a non-widely read short story reader, I gained much from Jerusalem Ablaze, and it has honestly awakened an appreciation of the form for me. An alternately dark, emotional, tender, and violent contemporary collection that I enjoyed greatly. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Cloud Ledge Books for the ARC)

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