#BlogTour Kjell Ola Dahl- The Courier

In 1942, Jewish courier Ester is betrayed, narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo. In a great haste, she escapes to Sweden, saving herself. Her family in Oslo, however, is deported to Auschwitz. In Stockholm, Ester meets the resistance hero, Gerhard Falkum, who has left his little daughter and fled both the Germans and allegations that he murdered his wife, Åse, who helped Ester get to Sweden. Their burgeoning relationship ends abruptly when Falkum dies in a fire. And yet, twenty-five years later, Falkum shows up in Oslo. He wants to reconnect with his daughter. But where has he been, and what is the real reason for his return? Ester stumbles across information that forces her to look closely at her past, and to revisit her war-time training to stay alive…

Once again the spectre of WWII, familiar in Scandinavian fiction, looms large in this latest thriller from the always compelling Kjell Ola Dahl. With it’s triple timeline narrative, and an overriding air of conspiracy, lies and betrayal, this is certainly on a par with some of the finest proponents of the espionage genre.

I think the stand out feature for me of this particular book, was the real resonance it had of one of my favourite fiction writers, William Boyd, and this is high praise indeed. In much the same way as Boyd has defined his place in the spy genre with his particular attention to and always authentic female protagonists, so Dahl achieves the same thing with Ester. I found her character absolutely mesmerising throughout as she seeks to unravel the crimes of the past, as the story unfolds through 1940s Norway, to 1960s Sweden and then to the contemporary period. I loved that Dahl imbued her character with an equal share of vulnerability, stubborn minded and tenacious invincibility, truly making her character for the reader to become invested in. From the traumatic loss of her family in Auschwitz, to the murder of her closest friend, and then her conflicting hard headedness and attraction to the man she believed responsible of this crime, Dahl puts her through an emotional wringer, which instead of breaking her, just makes her grow in stature among her peers, and allows her to navigate the disturbing vibrations of the past in the present. I must confess, that such was my interest in her character, the male protagonists of the book became shadowy conduits for Ester’s self realisation, but without their attempted manipulations, and seeming duplicity in relation to her, this made for an interesting journey as she navigates her way to the truth.

What I also admired greatly was the way that Dahl so fixedly entrenches us  in each contrasting time period, as the book does alternate quickly at times between the two. This real sense of time and place keeps us rooted in Ester’s story across the years, and adds contrasting feelings of tension in each era. Obviously, in the Nazi occupied Norway of 1940s and the severe escalation of the Final Solution, the feeling of fear and threat of violence is palpable in these sections of the book. This is further heightened by the illicit activities that Ester herself is involved in. However, Dahl manages to manipulate our sense of tension, which is no less discomfiting, in the 1960s narrative too, as Ester tries to unravel the enigma that is Falkum. This ebb and flow of their interactions, and the veil of secrecy that Dahl manages to cast over events up until the latter stages of the book is effectively done, all leading to an emotional and devastatingly poignant denouement.

In much the same way as Arnaldur Indridason has recently explored the Icelandic experience of WWII, adjusting the focus away from the linear murder mystery form to something far more searching and emotionally driven, so Dahl achieves the same in this intelligent and absorbing standalone. As a fan of Dahl’s regular crime series, I was more than satisfied with this perceptive, and at times, incredibly moving exploration of Scandinavian history. It pirouettes so neatly between changing times, cultural norms (through Dahl’s precise insertion of music and film references) and the growing self awareness and belief of a truly memorable female protagonist. Highly recommended.  

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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Quentin Bates- Cold Breath #BlogTour

Gunnhildur reluctantly allows herself to be taken off police duties to act as bodyguard to a man with a price on his head. Hidden away in a secure house outside Reykjavík, Gunna and the high-profile stranger, a guest of the interiors minister, are thrown together – too close for comfort. They soon find they are neither as safe nor as carefully hidden as Gunna and her boss had thought. Conflicting glimpses of the man’s past start to emerge as the press begin to sniff him out, as does another group with their own reasons for locating him. Gunna struggles to come to terms with protecting the life of a man who may have the lives of many on his conscience – or indeed may be the philanthropist he claims to be.
Isolated together, the friction grows between Gunna and the foreign visitor, and she realises they are out of their depth as the trails lead from the house outside Reykjavík to Brussels, Russia and the Middle East…

As well as being an accomplished translator of Scandinavian crime, Quentin Bates is also more than a bit nifty at this crime writing lark too! I am a staunch admirer of his Gunnhildur series, and, pardon the pun, Cold Breath once again proves to be a (cold) breath of fresh air…

I think where Bates excels is in his central character of Gunna Gunnhildur herself, and the different facets he reveals to her character with each book. Although most of the series to date have dwelt to a larger or lesser extent on her private life, and that of her sometimes wayward offspring, this book puts her firmly centre stage. Bates places her in an isolated position, where her conduits for conversation are either with the man she is tasked with protecting, or her police colleagues, shifting the focus of the book entirely onto how she copes with this new assignment. Suffice to say she proves herself more than up to the task, and with her refresher firearms training, a limited supply of clean underwear, and a steely determination she throws herself into this tricky assignment with a sense of purpose, determination and her customary dry humour.   Fending off those who would seek to harm her slippery protectee, and avoiding the equally slippery advances of said protectee, Gunnhildur finds herself involved in a tangled and disturbing global conspiracy, forcing her into a situation that calls on all her training and level headedness.

I thought this was a sophisticated and perfectly paced conspiracy thriller, touching on some large and controversial themes, with an even handed and focussed approach. Certain aspects of the conspiracy were very concerning, particularly in relation to the European migration issues, and the way that not all those involved in the charitable aspect of rescue and assimilation may be all that they seem. I enjoyed the political hornet’s nest that Osman’s, the erstwhile philanthropist, sojourn to Iceland stirs up, and the controversial fleeting visit of a gauche right wing American, in addition to the central plot itself. There is a real sense of evasion and coercion throughout, and with four murders in close succession, Gunnhildur and her colleagues find themselves in a fraught and frustrating investigation, stretching from the lowlife of Reykjavik to the harbingers of power.

Once again, Bates has produced a really enjoyable, and compelling read packed to the brim with energy, suspense, violence and humour, powered by his own knowledge of and perspective on Iceland. This really is a superb series, and if you haven’t dipped your toe as yet, I would highly recommend them. Gunnhildur is great!

(With thanks to Constable for the ARC)

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Blog Tour- Kjell Ola Dahl- Faithless

Oslo detectives Gunnarstranda and Frølich are back and this time, it’s personal… When the body of a woman turns up in a dumpster, scalded and wrapped in plastic, Inspector Frank Frølich is shocked to discover that he knows her, and their recent meetings may hold the clue to her murder. As he ponders the tragic events surrounding her death, Frølich’s colleague Gunnarstranda investigates a disturbingly similar cold case involving the murder of a young girl in northern Norway and Frølich is forced to look into his own past to find the answers – and the killer – before he strikes again…

I don’t think I’m too wrong in my opinion that the reason we love our Scandinavian crime fiction is its aura of unrelenting darkness, be it literally or metaphorically. Kjell Ola Dahl (author The Fourth Man, The Man in the Window, The Last Fix, and Lethal Investments) has been a long time favourite of mine, simply because he has a penchant for wholly embracing this psychological blackness, and taking his readers to some very dark places indeed…

Series regular detective Frank Frolich finds himself immersed in two difficult cases, with one of them being personally too close for comfort.  Embracing both investigations in his normal resilient, but nevertheless emotionally intense style, Dahl uses Frohlich to expose a visceral tale of drugs, sexual exploitation, and the testing of the bonds of family and friendship. Although the product of a Norwegian writer, Frohlich, always reminds me of Arnaldur Indradason’s tortured detective Erlendur, whose black psyche so consumes the reader.  Frohlich always has the tendency to be on the brink of his life unravelling around him, and in Faithless, Dahl takes great delight in using him as a doomed marionette like figure, thwarted in love, betrayed in friendship, and driven to the utmost extreme of behaviour, which cannot help but have serious ramifications. Prepare for some serious sharp intakes of breath as the book progresses.

In common with the depiction of Frohlich, Dahl’s characterisation of police and criminal alike is always flawless. There is a wonderful sense to his characters that none are wholly good or wholly bad, and I like the way that most of the characters exhibit at least one component of the seven deadly sins. His police protagonists range display a wide range of characteristics from the straight-laced and po-faced, to the loud and boorish, to the sexually confused, giving the reader much to chew on before Dahl even starts to deal with the criminal fraternity, or those suspected of heinous deeds. The idiosyncrasies and inherent madness of the society and criminals they investigate is embraced in their natural cynicism, and the ways they depressurise from their unrelenting nastiness of their day job. Dahl seems to wholeheartedly embrace the notion of life’s rich tapestry when drawing his characters and their personal foibles, which toys significantly with the reader’s empathies, and plays with our notions of natural justice,  and the acceptable degrees of guilt and punishment.

Once again, the book is flawlessly plotted, with a beautifully nuanced translation by Don Bartlett ( a Raven favourite due to his wonderful translations of Per Petterson and Karl Ove Knausgaard) which strikes exactly the right chord throughout. With the Scandinavian crime market positively bursting at the seams, the quality of its runners and riders is becoming more obvious with a greater pool of authors to choose from. Dahl firmly remains one of the front runners for this reader, and if you haven’t read him before, start right here. Highly recommended.

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#BlogTour- Thomas Enger- Cursed

515ppmic7ol-_sx324_bo1204203200_What secret would you kill to protect? When Hedda Hellberg fails to return from a retreat in Italy, where she has been grieving for her recently dead father, her husband discovers that his wife’s life is tangled in mystery. Hedda never left Oslo, the retreat has no record of her and, what’s more, she appears to be connected to the death of an old man, gunned down on the first day of the hunting season in the depths of the Swedish forests. Henning Juul becomes involved in the case when his ex-wife joins in the search for the missing woman, and the estranged pair find themselves enmeshed both in the murky secrets of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families, and in the painful truths surrounding the death of their own son. With the loss of his son to deal with, as well as threats to his own life and to that of his ex-wife, Juul is prepared to risk everything to uncover a sinister maze of secrets that ultimately leads to the dark heart of European history…

So we’ve been  Burned, Pierced  and  Scarred  so now prepare to be Cursed by the latest instalment in Thomas Enger’s superlative Henning Juul series. Focussing on our dogged, emotionally and physically damaged reporter, Juul, Enger has carved out an exceptional niche in the current Scandinavian crime fiction market. Juul is still endeavouring to find those responsible for the fire which led to the death of his young son, and the physical injuries to himself. This continues to lead him to some  dark places, and into the crosshairs of some very dangerous people indeed. Coupled with this are the concerns raised by his changing relationship with his ex-wife, and fellow journalist, Nora and her involvement in a missing persons case at great danger to herself, which sees both their investigations become inextricably linked.

Hennning Juul himself, is a compelling character, in whom Enger balances an equal amount of empathy and exasperation on the part of the reader. We can sit back and admire his dogged determination to avenge himself on his son’s killers, and his integrity and professionalism as a reporter. However, I am increasingly struck by the fact that Juul never gives himself an emotional break, and lives his life in a constant state of maudlin despair. He is understandably grieving for the loss of his child and seeking emotional closure for this, but is in a state of denial that Nora will return to his warm embrace, particularly as she is now involved with another man. Indeed, I fear that such is his closed off state that he will fail to feel a warm embrace from any quarter. Like Enger’s assured characterisation of Juul’s estranged sister Trine in previous books, Nora is a well formed and believable character. Torn between two lovers as it were, and not without personal flaws, she possesses  a steely glint in her eye when it comes to uncovering the events surrounding the mysterious disappearance of her former friend. She has an equanimity of character that allows her to drift between different social worlds, nagging away at the truth, although there is one exceptionally foolhardy action she takes that had me sighing in despair, the only kink in an otherwise perfect narrative.

Having favourably reviewed Enger’s previous three books, I am always struck with the control of pace and plot that is a standout feature of his writing. There is a real feel of storytelling in its purest form, and his books are always plainly delineated into a balanced beginning, middle and end, so consequently the reader is quickly drawn into the storyline, and carried along at a smooth and satisfying pace to the final denouement. There is always an element of surprise and wrongfooting in Enger’s plots, and a feeling of darkness as to what leads people to act and think in such malignant ways, played out against Enger’s pitch perfect use of socio-historical detail. I will issue my normal proviso that even if you are joining this series at this later point, Enger roundly and concisely brings the reader up to speed with previous events in Juul’s tortured personal history. Being a bit  fly by night, and sometimes a sporadic follower of series, I have been totally consistent with Enger’s series to date, and by working a little bit of teasing magic at the very close of this one, I’m pretty darn sure that the next one will be a bit of a must read too. All in all another fine example of engaging Scandinavian crime fiction that ticks all the boxes for this reader. Recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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Travels With The TBR #3- Neil Broadfoot-Falling Fast, Paddy Magrane-Denial, Stefan Ahnhem- Victim Without A Face

In the thick of the Christmas rush, as a retail drone currently battling with the lurgy too, time for reviewing has been a bit limited this month. Here’s the last little flurry of books that have made it to the top of the TBR mountain, before my end of year round-up,  and hopefully this little feature will continue next year *eyeing the Eiger sized pile of books yet to be read*….

1Story-hungry journalist Doug McGregor is out to track down a convicted rapist, on the run after being hounded out of his home by a lynch mob. But a grisly suicide in the heart of tourist Edinburgh piques Doug’s curiosity and diverts his attention – especially once his police contact and occasional drinking partner, DS Susie Drummond, reveals that the victim is connected to a high-profile and controversial politician. Together, they find themselves unravelling a story of secrets, drug abuse, violence, murder…and the ultimate taboo.

Having been meaning to catch up with this author, having seen him at CrimeFest this year and instantly purchasing the first two of this series. It was a wise decision, as I have now discovered a great author to add to my Scottish favourites! I was instantly drawn to the two main protagonists, Doug McGregor- dogged reporter, and his police contact DS Susie Drummond, and the relationship that exists between them. I loved the underlying feeling of them both being slightly square pegs in round holes, with McGregor’s incredible self reliance which tends to alienate others, and Drummond’s former misguided fling with a senior officer which has marked her out as an outsider to her police colleagues. However, although their professional relationship alternates beautifully between frustration and spikiness, there is a mutual respect underpinning everything, leading to some intense scenes that alternate between danger, humour and high emotion, thanks to their razor sharp characterisation.

I thought the plot was superb, and am always gratified by the exposure of political corruption, and this book takes some incredibly dark turns as the truth behind a young woman’s death at the outset of the book comes to light. Broadfoot captures perfectly the nature of family bonds with their sometimes misguided loyalty, and explores the issue of parental responsibility in both its good and worst forms. Equally, the author uses both the location of Edinburgh, and his own background as a journalist, to add further layers of realism to what is altogether a completely absorbing thriller. Highly recommended.

2A riot breaks out at Creech Hill Immigration Detention Centre. Zahra Idris, a terrified Eritrean detainee suffering with amnesia, escapes. That evening, Zahra’s psychotherapist, Sam Keddie, finds his girlfriend lying unconscious in their home – the victim of a brutal attack. When Zahra’s solicitor is found dead, drowned in the waters of the Regent’s Canal, Sam becomes convinced that his connection with Zahra is significant – and that someone wants them both dead. He tracks down a frightened, confused Zahra in Amsterdam. But their pursuers are close behind, and Sam and Zahra are soon on the run. As they’re hunted through Europe, Sam races against time to piece together Zahra’s fragile memories and discover why she and those close to her are being picked off – one by one.

Having really enjoyed Disorder , the first of Paddy Magrane’s series featuring psychotherapist Sam Keddie, I’m glad the hiatus has ended and another has appeared! This is real breakneck, edge of your seat thrilling stuff, chockfull of danger, excitement and some very bad men indeed, but tempered by an innate sensitivity to the very contemporary issue of immigration. The character of Zahra, in particular, who has experienced the very worst of human behaviour during her passage to supposed safety in Europe, is mesmeric from the very start, and she holds the reader in the palm of her hand with her mix of,  at times, extreme vulnerability underscored by a steely resolve and bravery to overcome the evil that pursues her. I adored her character, and the way that Magrane uses her so effectively to explore important issues, and bring to the fore elements of corruption, greed and expose those that trade in human exploitation. I also liked the little areas of grey that Magrane employs in relation to one of the men pursuing Zahra, which leads us to reassess our feeling towards him as the tale unfolds.

Despite the more serious issues that the book encompasses, Magrane balances this perfectly with the ‘thriller’ aspect, as Keddie and Zahra are caught up in a  desperate game of cat and mouse across a series of European locations, with all the pace and energy one would expect of the genre. There are some real heart in the mouth moments along the way, and Magrane moves us effortlessly from one impending moment of peril to the next, with a flowing and unbroken narrative. Yes, there are a couple of plot turns which may raise a mildly quizzical eyebrow, but fear not, you are so quickly moved on to more dangerous ground, that these will not deter you. Thrilling, thought-provoking and highly entertaining. What more could you possibly want? Highly recommended.

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Two men are dead. Both had been bullies at school. A single clue has been found at the scene: a class photo from 1982, with two faces neatly crossed out.

Fabian Risk is the lead detective on the case. He’s also one of the children in the photograph. He thought he’d left his schooldays behind. Now his classmates are dying for the sins of their childhood…

You and I both know that you can’t whack a good old slice of Scandinavian noir, so here’s another author to add to your Scandi wish list. Ahnhem has produced a meaty, compelling and impeccably plotted thriller, with a sizeable body count, and increasingly imaginative ways of having despatching the victims, straying into Chris Carter territory with the sheer ghoulishness of some of their deaths. Which was nice.

Fabian Risk proves himself a feisty, and lone wolfish investigator, having recently relocated to his childhood town, after an ‘incident’, putting him perfectly in place to try and outwit a demented killer targeting his school chums. With numerous twists and turns along the way, too convoluted to try and explore here, inevitably Risk finds himself at well, risk, and experiencing an isolation from his police cohorts as the plot thickens.The plot culminates in a slightly clunky and predictable endgame involving a kidnap, but can be slightly forgiven as the story up until that point, and other reveals at the tail end of the book, did diffuse my sense of annoyance somewhat. Certainly enough here to make me seek out the next in the series, and a good recommendation for you Scandi fans out there…

 

Travels with the TBR #1-Samuel Bjork- I’m Travelling Alone, Helen Cadbury- To Catch A Rabbit, Owen Sheers-I Saw A Man

With the new frustration of a lengthy bus journey now extending my working day, I realised that this actually presents a great opportunity to catch up on some of the 150+ books in my to-be-read pile, alongside new releases. Here are the first three books in a regular series of posts…

bjorkWhen the body of a young girl is found hanging from a tree, the only clue the police have is an airline tag around her neck. It reads ‘I’m travelling alone’. In response, police investigator Holger Munch is immediately charged with assembling a special homicide unit. But to complete the team, he must track down his former partner, Mia Krüger – a brilliant but troubled detective – who has retreated to a solitary island with plans to kill herself. Reviewing the file, Mia finds something new – a thin line carved into the dead girl’s fingernail: the number 1. She knows that this is only the beginning. To save other children from the same fate, she must find a way to cast aside her own demons and stop this murderer from becoming a serial killer…

To be honest, I usually have a slight aversion to thrillers that are constructed so whole-heartedly on the use of coincidence, and moments of sheer implausibility but I’m Travelling Alone managed effectively to keep me in its thrall from start to finish, despite my reservations…

Starting with the characterisation of detective Mia Kruger, the archetypal troubled individual, seemingly intent on ending her life and existing on a toxic cocktail of prescription drugs, that would keep most stout-hearted folks from functioning on any kind of level, she proves herself an empathetic and multi-faceted character. Having so roundly criticised other authors for using this foil before, Kruger’s journey from intense psychological bleakness to her reluctant involvement in a particularly dark murder investigation,  Bjork manages to overcome the reader’s initial scepticism regarding her character, and she was, for me, the reason to keep those pages turning. Likewise, her boss, the shuffling and put-upon Holger Munch, with his nefarious familial problems, conforms to some stereotypical character traits, and the coincidence of him being the father of a six-year old daughter, the age of the murder victims, did toy with the credibility of the reader too. However, for the necessity of the final denouement of the plot, it was understandable that Bjork had to travel this path, and Munch and Kruger, prove themselves an effective team despite their vastly different approaches to their work, and this particular investigation.

I thought the central murder investigation with the trademark Scandinavian darkness was well played out, drawing in themes of religious fanaticism, and I always enjoy a book that points the finger at the supposedly superior state of grace that accompanies those who hold religion dear. In the rural backwoods there are shown to be dark forces at work, leading to a pacey and gripping conclusion to what is a convoluted but nonetheless intriguing investigation for Munch and Kruger, despite a rather clumsy plot twist involving Kruger herself. I’m Travelling Alone is not without fault, but has enough hooks and tricks to hold its appeal throughout, and to entice this reader to read the next in the series. Recommended.

new-rabbitTwo young boys stumble on a dead prostitute. She’s on Sean Denton’s patch. As Doncaster’s youngest community support officer, he’s already way out of his depth, but soon he’s uncovering more than he’s supposed to know. Meanwhile Karen Friedman, professional mother of two, learns her brother has disappeared. She desperately needs to know he’s safe, but once she starts looking, she discovers unexpected things about her own needs and desires. Played out against a gritty landscape on the edge of a Northern town, Karen and Sean risk losing all they hold precious…

First of all, big kudos to Helen Cadbury, for introducing us in to the world of the Police Community Support Officer, a role oft neglected in the consciousness of not only the British public, but also in the world of crime writing. I immediately liked Sean Denton, with his charming mix of at times wide-eyed innocence, underscored by his strong sense of morality and his determination to see justice served for the victim. This combination of traits that Cadbury instils in his character is absolutely central to the manipulation of the reader’s empathies throughout, and also gives Cadbury scope to show how far Denton progresses professionally in the course of this thorny and sensitive investigation. I also liked the comparison we see in Denton’s character between his professionalism and intuitiveness when donning the uniform, and his hesitant and quite frankly clumsy efforts in matters of the heart. By so effectively balancing these two sides of her central protagonist, you feel as a reader a truthfulness and authenticity to the character, which enhances your reading pleasure. Similarly with the character of Karen Friedman, we encounter a woman who is doggedly searching for answers regarding her brother’s disappearance, and Cadbury takes time to push the boundaries of Karen’s character, drawing her into a criminal world, and testing her resolve as a professional, working at a migrant’s advice centre, and as a wife and mother. Cadbury really puts Karen through the wringer, but never to the point of incredulity, and I found her a particularly likeable character. Her husband, though, has less to recommend him…snake in the grass.

Drawing on the sensitive subject of immigration in the UK , Cadbury keeps a balance and fairness in her portrayal of this subject throughout, without the mealy-mouthed hand-wringing liberalism, that tends to afflict modern British fiction. Cadbury presents the desperation and exploitation of the immigrant community with an almost detached air of realism, that makes their plight all the more affecting, and allows her readers to be gently drawn into to the salient plot-lines that focus on this, while keeping solidly within the bounds of objectivity. This thought-provoking, and extremely well delineated plot carries the book along to a gripping conclusion, with many moments of tension along its way.

Hence, To Catch A Rabbit neatly straddles the bounds of crime thriller and police procedural punctuated by the  feel of contemporary social fiction. Am already eyeing up the second instalment, Bones In The Nest, in my to-be-read pile. Highly recommended.

sheersAfter the sudden loss of his wife, Michael Turner moves to London to start again. Living on a quiet street in Hampstead, he develops a close bond with the Nelson family next door: Josh, Samantha and their two young daughters. The friendship at first seems to offer the prospect of healing, but then a devastating event changes all their lives, and Michael finds himself bearing the burden of grief and a terrible secret.

Okay so not strictly speaking a crime book, but is billed to possess ‘a dark psychological edge’ and have heard comments glowingly positive, and exceedingly negative about this one. I will concede that  the first half of this book held me firmly in its tentacles, and flipping the action from the leafy London suburbs to heat scorched America and the military storyline, I Saw A Man was shaping up to be a terrific read. I was genuinely drawn into the grief-filled world of Michael, and the pernicious military action that had caused his wife’s death. I was also enjoying the intriguing build up of tension as Michael made his way through a neighbour’s house one hot summer’s day, and had even mange to overcome my working class aversion to posh people who do fencing, and my dislike of the name Josh.  And then within two pages it lost me. Totally. With one of the weakest plot contrivances I have encountered for many a year, this formerly well-written and engaging book, waved goodbye to the Raven, as the writing became overwhelmingly overwritten, and any previously held empathy disappeared in a flurry of florid prose. I read the last two chapters to confirm my suspicions at how this tortured storyline would play out. And it did. Oh dear…

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

Blog Tour- Agnes Ravatn- The Bird Tribunal

birdTV presenter Allis Hagtorn leaves her partner and her job to take voluntary exile in a remote house on an isolated fjord. But her new job as housekeeper and gardener is not all that it seems, and her silent, surly employer, 44-year-old Sigurd Bagge, is not the old man she expected. As they await the return of his wife from her travels, their silent, uneasy encounters develop into a chilling, obsessive relationship, and it becomes clear that atonement for past sins may not be enough…

Aside from my fixation on crime fiction, my other reading pleasure comes from the lure of bijou contemporary fiction in translation, so was pretty sure that Agnes Ravatn’s compact Norwegian thriller would tick many boxes…

From the outset we are completely immersed in the suffocating claustrophobia and changes of tension that exist in the relationship between Allis Hagtorn and her new employer, the mercurial and distant Sigurd Bagge. Almost instantly I was reminded of one of my favourite books, Embers by Sandor Marai, that is built on the discourse between two characters, and the revelations from the past that come to light. To sustain the reader’s interest with such a compressed cast of characters is always a difficult task, and having read other books that have spectacularly failed in this respect, Ravatn stood tall. Using the dual protagonist structure, with only the intermittent appearance of a local shopkeeper, the reader is anchored firmly in the lives of both Allis and Sigurd, and witness to the unfolding details and changing parameters of their relationship, as if viewing them on a stage with the reader as the single audience member. It’s beautifully done.

As Ravatn slowly reveals the emotionally charged and turbulent details of both character’s back stories, where we are, in common with Allis, slightly on the back foot, she weaves a story laden with myth, guilt and undulating emotions. By incorporating the essence of myth, and the consistent references to the changeability of nature, our sense of reality is manipulated, and sometimes the writing attains a dreamlike quality, affecting our perception of Allis and Sigurd and their true natures and intentions. In common with Patricia Highsmith, and early Ruth Rendell, Ravatn ramps up the psychological tension and underlying menace, and I liked the allusion to another seminal work of English fiction, which would act as too much of a spoiler if I was to mention it here. The writing, and the dialogue, in particular is clipped and measured, and every sentence seems to exist under the weight of precise authorial intention. No word or image is wasted.

When you encounter a book like this with its unique intensity, it does return to your thoughts now and again. That to me is a sign of a good book and The Bird Tribunal more than fits the description. It’s dark, psychologically tense and packed full of emotion both overt or deliberately disguised, with the reader invited to fill the spaces between. Not forgetting the flawless translation by Rosie Hedger too. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda for the ARC)

Catch up with, or continue to follow the blog tour at these excellent sites:

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