#BlogTour- Helen Fitzgerald- Ash Mountain @OrendaBooks

Fran hates Ash Mountain, and she thought she’d escaped. But her father is ill, and needs care. Her relationship is over, and she hates her dead-end job in the city, anyway. She returns to her hometown to nurse her dying father, her distant teenage daughter in tow for the weekends. There, in the sleepy town of Ash Mountain, childhood memories prick at her fragile self-esteem, she falls in love for the first time, and her demanding dad tests her patience, all in the unbearable heat of an Australian summer. As old friendships and rivalries are renewed, and new ones forged, Fran’s tumultuous home life is the least of her worries, when old crimes rear their heads and a devastating bushfire ravages the town and all of its inhabitants…

Welcome to the one of the final stops on the Orenda Books blog tour for Ash Mountain, and be prepared once again to be surprised and entertained by this, the latest book from the excellent Helen Fitzgerald. To wildly misquote Forrest Gump, “Helen Fitzgerald is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get,” and it is a testament to the breadth and quality of her writing that she is undoubtedly one of the most versatile writers I have encountered. Ash Mountain only confirms this further, being a heartfelt and honest account of a fractured family and community who find themselves in a physical and emotional melting pot…

This is an intensely character driven read, set in a small outback community, and the depiction of the relationships between them and their experiences, past and present, lay at the heart of my enjoyment of this book. Fran, in particular, is a mesmeric character, returning to her hometown and seeking to re-establish the bonds and former attachments of her younger years. Fitzgerald is equally adept at shining a light on the intensity of Fran’s teenage experiences, the gaucheness and foolishness of youth. the crippling self-doubt, and then transposing this with her as an adult. There is no question that Fran’s whole life has been overshadowed by the folly of her youthful actions, which were entirely relatable, and I really liked the metamorphosis of her character when the past raises ugly its head once again. Her tiger mother instincts are strong for both her teenage daughter, despite the inevitable ups and downs, and her older son who remained in Ash Mountain, and whose conception by Fran as a teenager, becomes a focal point of the book. As she encounters ghosts of her past and the ramifications of this, and also seeks to move on romantically in the present, Fitzgerald’s portrayal of this woman is never less than rounded and completely authentic. Fran is every woman,

As the narrative is so effectively shaped by the lives of the inhabitants of this claustrophobic community, Fitzgerald has the opportunity to explore a variety of people and experiences, across age, occupation and experience. It’s like a really condensed telenovela, with all the moments of joy, humour, sadness and darkness, reaching a powerful and tense denouement as a shocking crime is exposed and avenged, and the physical threat of a raging bushfire causes death and destruction. Fitzgerald carefully builds the pace between the ramping up of personal emotions, alongside the approaching fire by splitting the narrative into different timelines, and carrying us smoothly between them. As the strands and past and present interweave, this works extremely effectively in heightening the sense of tension and danger. The scenes where the bushfire rage uncontrollably are exceptionally well realised, and Fitzgerald bombs our senses so we can literally feel the intensity and rage of it, the threat it poses, and the havoc it wreaks.

With the versatility and scope of characterisation, that Fitzgerald always seems to achieve, the underlying tensions of this small rural community with its buried shameful secrets, a fluid continuity of timelines past and present, and its dramatic depiction of a seismic natural disaster, Ash Mountain is a compelling and gripping read. Always surprising and always enjoyable Helen Fitzgerald’s books should be a definite addition to your bookshelves. Recommended.

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(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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#BlogTour- Iain Maitland- The Scribbler “A compelling and incredibly satisfying crime read.” @IainMaitland @SarabandBooks @RKbookpublicist

DI Gayther and his rookie colleague DC Carrie have been assigned a new caseload. Or rather, an old one: cold cases of LGBTQ+ murders dating back to the 1980s and beyond. Georgia Carrie wasn’t even born when the notorious serial killer began his reign of terror across the East of England. Roger Gayther was on the force that failed to catch him and remembers every chilling detail. Now, after all these years, there’s a sudden death featuring The Scribbler’s tell-tale modus operandi. Can Gayther and Carrie track the murderer down and bring him to justice before the slaughter starts again?

I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing two of Iain Maitland’s previous books, Sweet William and Mr Todd’s Reckoning, both of which impressed me greatly with Maitland’s ability to draw the reader into seemingly ordinary lives with a real darkness lurking beneath. Consequently, being offered the chance to review The Scribbler, the first of a projected series was hard to resist…

Aside from the darker content of the book, which I will come to later, the real hook with this one is how character driven it is. Maitland establishes the relationships between his main police protagonists incredibly quickly, instantly drawing the reader into the working relationship of the older and greyer DI Roger Gayther and his younger colleague DC Georgia Carrie. It was hugely satisfying to feel an instant camararderie between them, and the teasing nature of their interactions, denoted by the tendency of both to slightly mock the other afforded by their relevant age and experience. Hence, Gayther at times seems somewhat of a dinosaur when it comes to technology and youth culture, but with a wealth of knowledge, and Carrie is humorously immune to his outdated showbiz references, a little naïve with her keenness and her slightly gung-ho attitude, but also incisive. It was incredibly refreshing to encounter a detective duo not driven solely by emotional trauma, and there was a lightness of touch about Maitland’s depiction of them, that leads to a real sense of reader empathy with them as the plot progresses. Hold that thought, as there is real trouble ahead. Bolstered by a couple of wet-behind-the-ears trainee detectives, who Maitland hints will have a greater role as the series progresses, Gayther and Carrie were absolutely central to my enjoyment of the book.

Just dwelling on character a little bit longer, I was also impressed by the roundness and depth that Maitland affords to his bad guy of the piece, the serial killer himself. Whilst trying desperately to avoid any spoilers, what I will say is that the author avoids those terribly cliched black and white depictions of a monster in human form, and instead builds up a picture of a damaged soul with deep psychological disturbance, that makes his actions as clear to us, as plainly as his own damaging motivation. There is a core of morality at his centre, and as we gain insight into his familial connections and his upbringing, we find our perception of him changing and, dare I say, softened. In common with Maitland’s previous books, his characters are exceptionally well-defined with surprising undercurrents and reveals that cause us to assess and reassess them as the story unfolds.

With the book centring on cold cases, and more specifically murder cases and disappearances involving LGBTQ+ victims, Maitland has successfully ploughed a new furrow. I have certainly read crime novels involving LGBTQ+ victims and detectives, but none that combine these additional elements. As we bear witness to a catalogue of failings and oversights on the original cases, where crimes of this sort were invariably not afforded the same time and resources as others, we begin to appreciate the small steps that the police have made since then to rectify these prejudices. Gayther and Carrie hold no such prejudice, and despite some internal pressure begin to unravel the complexities of these cases, the poignant secrecy and shame of the victims, and the detectives’ progress towards the apprehension of the perpetrator himself. The Scribbler is well-paced, engaging and punctuated by both episodes of extreme pathos, and by turns, unexpected humour, leading to a compelling and incredibly satisfying crime read. Watch out for that ending which will bite you on the nether regions… Highly recommended.

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(With thanks to Saraband Books for the ARC)

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Marion Brunet- Summer of Reckoning #BlogTour

A psychological thriller set in the Luberon, a French region that evokes holidays in magnificent pool-adorned villas. For those who live there year-round, it often means stifling poverty and boredom. Sixteen-year-old Céline and her sister Jo, fifteen, dream of escaping to somewhere far from their daily routine, far from their surly, alcoholic father and uncaring mother, both struggling to make ends meet. That summer Celine falls pregnant, devastating news that reopens deep family wounds. Those of the mother Severine whose adolescence was destroyed by her early pregnancy and subsequent marriage with Manuel. Those of the father Manuel, grandson of Spanish immigrants, who takes refuge in alcoholism to escape the open disdain of his in-laws. Faced with Celine’s refusal to name the father of her child, Manuel needs a guilty party and Saïd, a friend of the girls from an Arab family, fits Manuel’s bigoted racial stereotype. In the suffocating heat of summer he embarks on a drunken mission of revenge…

Now onto a slice of French psychological crime from author Marion Brunet, translated by Katherine Gregor set amidst the machinations of a very disturbed family. Brunet is probably better known for her prize winning YA novels, so this is her first adult novel and the first translated into English…

In no way, shape or form could this be described as a comfortable read if you are seeking some respite from the current global events, so prepare yourself for a story of unrelenting misery, peopled by a cast of unrelentingly miserable characters. Without exception, well maybe Celine as she is quite shallow and charmingly dense, this is a family fuelled by anger, suspicion and violence, where everyone is caught up in a self destructive cycle of familial despair. Their torturous interactions and stilted communication is an incredibly powerful central theme of the book, and apart from the daughters, Celine and Jo who have some semblance of a sisterly bond, despite their seemingly different characters, there’s not a whole lot of love and understanding permeating this family. Their father resents his father, his Spanish heritage and Said, the girls’ Arabic friend with violent consequences.Their mother seems to resent pretty much everyone too, including her husband and daughters, in this claustrophobic and oppressive atmosphere of home.  Little wonder that both teenage girls long for escape and adventure in their differing ways, but cruelly seem to find the opposite is true…

I did rather like the character of Jo, the younger daughter, who is sharp and quick witted, and although as physically attractive as her fatuous older sister. uses her intelligence and slightly teasing nature to expand her life out beyond the simmering pot of resentment she calls home, “Jo drinks the poison of a landscape that’s too familiar. Her nonchalance is just a façade; inside, there’s a clash between love and revulsion for these paths travelled thousands of times…Jo is looking for a way out”  She is heartily bored by her surroundings (although she does seem to have more of a connection to nature), her circle of schoolfriends, the company of her sister, and her irritating parents, and anticipates that as her sister’s due time approaches and she still refuses to name the father, things will get a whole more uncomfortable. As clever as she is though, she is still undone at times by her naivety and impetuosity, and at the close of the book, despite interludes of ‘freedom’ we all have call to question how far she has escaped at all from the domestic familiarity she seem to so resent.

Despite the relative slimness of the novel, there are some quite weighty themes addressed in this book, from internal and external racism, jealousy, unfaithfulness, sexuality, murder and domestic violence. As is so typical of French crime fiction, there is a maelstrom of heated emotion in some characters perfectly balanced with the brooding surliness of others, all within the familiar trope of loaded miscommunications, and petty jealousies escalating into more destructive events. I think if I had been reading this in happier times I would have probably being enveloped in this blanket of misery a bit more as I quite like a bit of angst and sadness in my crime reading, but overall it was a solid read with some interesting observations on family cohesion, loyalty and jealousy. Recommended.

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(With thanks to Bitter Lemon Press for the ARC)

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Amy Engel- The Familiar Dark #BlogTour

Eve Taggert’s life has been spent steadily climbing away from her roots. Her mother, a hard and cruel woman who dragged her up in a rundown trailer park, was not who she wanted to be to her own daughter, Junie. But 12-year old Junie is now dead. Found next to the body of her best friend in the park of their small, broken town. Eve has nothing left but who she used to be. Despite the corrupt police force that patrol her dirt-poor town deep in the Missouri Ozarks, Eve is going to find what happened to her daughter. Even if it means using her own mother’s cruel brand of strength to unearth secrets that don’t want to be discovered and face truths it might be better not to know…

I must admit I am rather partial to a journey into the redneck heartlands of America, so it was pretty much a dead cert that The Familiar Dark would be tailor made for this reader. Also every so often a book comes along with such an understated, but breathtakingly powerful, writing style that knocks your socks off, and yes folks, you guessed it, this box is firmly ticked too. Focussing on the character of Eve Taggert, a weary and careworn but devoted mother whose world is shattered by the seemingly unexplainable murder of her young daughter, Engel weaves a tale of simmering violence and deceit that absolutely grabs you by the throat, and at times heart and refuses to ease its grip. As the story unfolds I couldn’t help but think of the quote, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when at first we start to deceive” as Eve edges ever closer to the truth of this senseless crime, and shocking secrets come to the surface.

I absolutely adored the character of Eve, scarred by the physical and mental claustrophobia of a childhood with an abusive mother, and by a series of similarly abusive interactions with men, “here it was still the same old merry-go-round of drugs and poverty and women being chewed up and spit out by men,” in the small town of Barren Springs.  She exhibits a fortitude and strength that belies her previous state of victimhood, and like her hometown itself, whose residents have a “sheer, stubborn wilfulness that kept people breathing when it might have been easier to give up,” so she embarks on an increasingly dangerous, and emotionally testing path to uncover the truth behind her daughter’s murder. What I found incredibly affecting in the book was the way that Engels dissects the very nature of womanhood, and a woman’s part in this incredibly controlling patriarchal community. In one passage the author refers to the fact that women were expected to show weakness and conformity, but anger and any form of challenge to the accepted norms was not acceptable. Hence, as Eve, fuelled by anger and a sense of injustice, begins to routinely challenge the notions of how she should be behaving, and the posturing masculinity she encounters, and as a consequence our respect for, and empathy with her is heightened. Although she cannot evade the pernicious grip entirely of some of the male figures in her life, inch by inch she begins to garner the strength to chew them up and spit them out herself…

I found her relationship with her previously estranged mother, a real lynchpin of the book, as Eve had so effectively distanced herself from this less than stellar influence in her formative years. Where Eve has on the surface of it effectively turned her back on, and grown away from her poor and abusive roots, her mother has stayed rooted in a destructive and criminal life. What becomes increasingly interesting in the book is the enforced return of Eve to her mother’s influence, and what this means in terms of her relationship with her. There’s some surprises in store from our initial perception of this relationship, and none more so than closing chapters of the book. Eve’s relationships with others (aside from her work colleagues) are guarded and defensive, but like her increasing interactions with her mother, Eve, and the reader, make some interesting discoveries along the way. It’s so hard to review this without spoilers…

Engel has a laconic, lean and incredibly rhythmical cadence to her writing style, where the brevity of her prose works to increase every word and image used. Little wonder that I read this in pretty much one sitting, and really appreciated the book as not only a fully formed and compelling murder mystery, but also as the exposure of one woman’s harsh and emotionally isolated existence, outside of the fullness of love for her daughter. As we learn more about Eve, both good and bad, we care increasingly more about her, and her search for justice, however this is to be meted out.

Amy Engel is a new-to-me author, and if The Familiar Dark is anything to go by, one whose previous books are going to be investigated. From its heart-in-the-mouth and visceral opening, to its superb characterisation and beautiful writing style, this book is one that will stay with me for a long time, and I will most certainly read again. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Hodder 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- A. A. Dhand- One Way Out

A bomb detonates in Bradford’s City Park. When the alert sounds, DCI Harry Virdee has just enough time to get his son and his mother to safety before the bomb blows. But this is merely a stunt.

The worst is yet to come. A new and aggressive nationalist group, the Patriots, have hidden a second device under one of the city’s mosques. In exchange for the safe release of those at Friday prayers, the Patriots want custody of the leaders of radical Islamist group Almukhtaroon – the chosen ones. The government does not negotiate with terrorists. Even when thousands of lives are at risk.

There is only one way out. But Harry’s wife is in one of those mosques. Left with no choice, Harry must find the Almukhtaroon, to offer the Patriots his own deal.  Because sometimes the only way to save lives, is to take them…

Of late there have been a couple of “completely unputdownable, the only thriller you need to read this year, blah…” action thrillers, hyped to buggery that sadly have actually been quite disappointing. Oh no, you say, surely there must be a book that combines the pace of a high octane thriller, underscored by an incisive commentary on the nature of radicalism, with a thought provoking and touching meditation on family conflict and forgiveness. Well, funny you should say that. Having read the first three of Dhand’s DI Harry Virdee series, this being the fourth, I can honestly say that these books have quickly secured their grip on me, and boy, does this one ratchet up the action, with a backdrop of a terrorist atrocity in Bradford, and a race against time to prevent a further one.  Also, where the first three books are intrinsically caught up with Harry and his criminal brother Ronnie (the devil and the angel of Bradford with a nice blurring of these seemingly straightforward definitions), this book sees Ronnie absent, and Harry, his wife Saima and Harry’s parents, Ranjit and Joyti, firmly in the spotlight. So, let the fun begin…

Right let’s start with the pow, kaboom aspect of this book, and that is quite clearly, the energy, pace and tension that Dhand so assuredly weaves into the tick-tock race to foil another terrorist attack in Bradford. This is proper high-octane thriller writing as the clock ticks down towards a potential attack that could cost the lives of many people. I must admit throughout the entirety of this book, I was astounded by Harry’s mental flexibility, and physical prowess, as he is tasked by the Home Secretary, Tariq Islam, to round up a group of terrorists, before disaster strikes. Harry is nothing if not tenacious, quick thinking and seems to be able to absorb a fair amount of physical punishment along the way too, and I can totally guarantee that as each twist in the plot hits home, you will be reading breathlessly throughout. It’s fast and furious, compounded by some sublime plotting, and yet moments of solemn pause for thought, as Dhand explores the theme of radicalism, in all its guises, be it through religion, right-wing prejudice, or for the manipulation of society by political chicanery. This is definitely a plot filled with thrills, spills and compelling action, that, to use a well worn adage, will keep you on the edge of your seat, but also with some beautifully weighted moments of reflection on the greater forces at work behind this abominable course of events.

Having been on the periphery of the opening attack with his mum, Joyti and young son, Aaron, Dhand uses this as a recurrent motif in the book, that being the fundamental impulse of Harry as a husband, father and son, to protect his family, and something that not only influences his actions in the book, but also, importantly distracts him periodically from the task in hand. The theme of family, as in previous books, sounds loud as having Harry and his wife Saima so deeply involved in the main thrust of the action, Dhand dedicates an equal part of the book to the ongoing familial conflict that Harry has experienced through his marriage as a Sikh to his Muslim wife Saima and the seemingly unbridgeable gap this has caused in his relationship with his parents, and most significantly with his father Ranjit. Tasked with caring for Harry and Saima’s young son Aaron as events unfold, Harry’s parents Ranjit and Joyti provide perhaps the most emotionally charged element of the book, as Ranjit tries to come to terms with his prejudice and dislike of Harry’s involvement with a Muslim woman. There is an incredibly enlightening account of Ranjit’s experiences as a child which shines a light on his fear and prejudices, and what we witness is a man in a huge amount of emotional turmoil, where hatred and love clash so deeply in his psyche, particularly in such close proximity to his grandson. Dhand depicts this beautifully, putting both his characters, and us as readers, through an emotional wringer, and I felt myself increasingly moved by Ranjit’s struggle to come to terms with his ingrained prejudice, with some truly heart wrenching and poignant writing in this part of the narrative.

So, as you’ve probably gathered this was a superb read, and demonstrates once again, how Dhand excels in particular with the issues that surround family conflict, and how relationships flounder and stall when prejudice raises its ugly head. Equally, this is a terrific thriller, with a verve and energy that sits as a wonderful counterpoint to the more soul searching dilemmas that arise as a consequence of the unfolding terrorist plot, so relevant to the increasing grip of radicalism across the world today. What I love about Dhand as a writer is the obvious pressure that he puts himself under as an author, and there is a real sense of him pushing himself a little bit further with every book, that is leading to some absolutely superlative writing. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Transworld/Bantam for the ARC)

 

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#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)

 

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#BlogTour- Iain Maitland- Mr Todd’s Reckoning

Behind the normal door of a normal house, in a normal street, two men are slowly driving each other insane. One of them is a psychopath.

The father- Mr Todd is at his wits’ end. He’s been robbed of his job as a tax inspector and is now stuck at home… with him. Frustrated. Lonely. Angry. Really angry.

The son- Adrian has no job, no friends. He is at home all day, obsessively chopping vegetables and tap-tap-tapping on his computer. And he’s getting worse, disappearing for hours at a time, sneaking off to who-knows-where?

The unholy spirit in the safety of suburbia, one man has developed a taste for killing. And he’ll kill again…

Last year I had the pleasure of reviewing Iain Maitland’s previous book Sweet William which I thoroughly enjoyed, so jumped at the chance to read Mr Todd’s Reckoning and participate in this blog tour, for what looked to be a deliciously dark and disturbing read. I was not disappointed…

When I was a child, I had the very good fortune of an open-minded mum who allowed me to watch programmes not entirely suited to my young age, Tales of the Unexpected being a good example of this. Perhaps because of this my taste in crime fiction has always swayed to the darker content, and from the outset this book provoked in me a strong remembrance of the brilliant and unsettling twisted tales of Mr Dahl, where a situation that appears to be fairly normal and ordinary is slowly revealed to be something much more disturbing indeed. As I entered the world of disgraced ex-tax inspector Malcolm Todd and that of his troubled son Adrian, my antennae were twitching and for good reason, as Maitland constructs a particularly chilling tale of murder and sexual obsession from the most commonplace beginning…

Once again, this review presents its own serious dilemmas in what to reveal and withhold, but suffice to say as the character of Malcolm Todd is stripped down and exposed to the world, what comes to light is not only the chagrin of a middle aged man consigned to the employment scrapheap, but a man who harbours some incredibly dark secrets indeed, and an incredible aptitude for dealing with life’s awkward or inconvenient episodes in his own inimitable style. He is possessed of a wonderful narcissism that disabuses him of any perception of how his words or actions may be received, and I found the incredibly dry wit with which Maitland recounts these episodes through his character was uncomfortably hilarious. Which is a good thing.

Throughout the book there is an incredibly matter of fact tone to Todd, who confronts any inconvenience head-on, quick to justify his actions, as he little or no self-awareness of how this affects others, and with an incredibly measured acceptance that it’s all for the good. Despite what is slowly revealed throughout the book, I experienced a considerable amount of reading pleasure from this character, as his solipsistic behaviour becomes more and more extreme as the book progresses, and the narrative builds up the claustrophobic relationship between us and him, as we bear witness to his increasingly erratic and dangerous behaviour. I think it’s fair to say that he is dislikeable in the extreme, and as the general air of threat and violence unfolds, our antagonism towards him increases steadily, until the wholly satisfying conclusion.

This book is dark to the nth degree, dealing with a broad compass of human frailties, from jealousy to obsession to perversion to revenge, and there is a good deal of fairly graphic violence too, and speaking from experience, perhaps best avoided on your lunch break. However, I think that this level of uncompromising violence worked extremely effectively, as the day to day humdrum of Todd’s suburban life is increasingly interrupted, by situations and people that need to be dealt with, for real or imagined transgressions. Maitland is so adept at portraying the finer details of this dull and down-at-heel household, with it’s shabby furnishings and peeling wallpaper, that by stressing the ordinariness of the Todds’ existence, the reader is so adroitly unsettled when particular incidents occur.  I admit that the darker aspects of this book were wonderfully surprising, and with a couple of real gasp-out-loud incidents, I loved being drawn into a seemingly normal life that was anything but, and the sheer depth of evil that was lurking behind the grubby net curtains.

Recommended…if you’re brave enough…

(With thanks to Saraband for the ARC)

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Pierre Lemaitre- Inhuman Resources

Alain Delambre is a 57-year-old former HR executive, drained by four years of hopeless unemployment. All he is offered are small, demoralizing jobs. He has reached his very lowest ebb, and can see no way out. So when a major company finally invites him to an interview, Alain Delambre is ready to do anything, borrow money, shame his wife and his daughters and even participate in the ultimate recruitment test: a role-playing game that involves hostage-taking. Alain Delambre commits body and soul in this struggle to regain his dignity.  But if he suddenly realised that the dice had been loaded against him from the start, his fury would be limitless. And what began as a role-play game could quickly become a bloodbath…

As well as producing one of the finest crime series, and a collection of unique standalones, Lemaitre once again demonstrates the reach and depth of his literary skill in this dark, cynical and twisted tale, which provides a perfect allegory of the daily struggle of the downtrodden individual against the power of the few…

Quickly, I was struck by how Lemaitre’s use of the absurd in the book, mirroring in style the venerable Pascal Garnier, becomes a powerful literary tool to cast an unflinching glare on the world of work, business and exploitation in French society, but by extension in every culture. By focussing on an older protagonist such as Alain Delambre, we feel the frustration and subjugation that he experiences, nearing the twilight years of his working life, and the disempowerment he rages against as he is unceremoniously thrown on the employment scrapheap. This is the cue for Lemaitre himself to rail against the exclusion of older workers, and the hugely depressing statistics concerning employees and unemployment, which pepper the book. Delambre is an angry man and incensed by the demeaning of his worth, so he formulates a plan: a plan that has severe implications for himself and his loving family. The extreme measures that Delambre undertakes, that dishonour both him and his family are shown to be symptomatic of a larger problem in society and Lemaitre addresses these with a razor sharp and cynical eye.

However, before you begin to think that this sounds like a fairly linear tale of a desperate man taking desperate measures to gain a foothold back in the world of employment, Lemaitre turns the tables on us, and in no short order we have a hostage crisis, embezzlement, computer fraud, a seriously ticked off security operative, violence, a family in disarray, a car chase, a court case and more. Taken in its entirety, Lemaitre beautifully paces moments of extreme pathos, and a general headshaking at the world of big business, with episodes of such verve and tension that add an energy and vigour to this seemingly mundane tale of the little man’s struggle in the face of unrelenting financial and emotional pressure. I loved the increasing confidence of Delambre as he formulates his plan to turn the tables, and the gradual shedding of his previously held morality to achieve his aim, despite the extraordinary sense of betrayal experienced by his wife and daughters. He proves with every fibre of his being that you can teach an old dog new tricks, and if these tricks happen to land him in a whole heap of trouble, he proves himself unafraid to take the chance, despite some unwelcome consequences.

Once again the seamless translation by Sam Gordon, picks up all the elasticity of Lemaitre’s manipulation and use of language, and heightens the perfect structuring and narrative pace that builds tension, and ratchets up the sense of human frailty and newly acquired resilience that Delambre embodies. I found this a hugely satisfying read, for not only the cynical yet pertinent appraisal of the exploitative world of business and its effect on older workers, but also as a genuinely pacey and endlessly surprising thriller as Delambre’s life appears to descend into violent freefall. Smartly done, and as a thriller with a difference, highly recommended,

(With thanks to Maclehose Press for the ARC)

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#BlogTour- Kerensa Jennings- Seas of Snow

To mark the paperback release of Kerensa Jennings’  Seas of Snow, here is a revisit of my original review. Remember to check out the other stops on this special blog tour, to discover more about this emotive and beautifully written novel…

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)