#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)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

 

 

 

Elizabeth H. Winthrop- The Mercy Seat/ Michelle Sacks- You Were Made For This/ Elena Varvello- Can You Hear Me?

As the sun begins to set over Louisiana one October day in 1943, a young black man faces the final hours of his life: at midnight, eighteen-year-old Willie Jones will be executed by electric chair for raping a white girl – a crime some believe he did not commit.

In a tale taut with tension, events unfold hour by hour from the perspectives of nine people involved. They include Willie himself, who knows what really happened, and his father, desperately trying to reach the town jail to see his son one last time; the prosecuting lawyer, haunted by being forced to seek the death penalty against his convictions, and his wife, who believes Willie to be innocent; the priest who has become a friend to Willie; and a mother whose only son is fighting in the Pacific, bent on befriending her black neighbours in defiance of her husband…

Billed as having a kaleidoscopic narrative, The Mercy Seat, Winthrop’s tale of racial and social division is a measured and emotive story from beginning to end. As the hours tick by we bear witness to a young man’s progression to the electric chair, after a false accusation of rape, and Winthrop uses a myriad of voices throughout the book, changing the reader’s perception of events along the way. Weighing in with some big, meaty issues revolving around crime and punishment, justice and injustice, and condemnation and mercy, there is no denying the emotional heft of the book, and the raw human emotion that Winthrop pours into the novel. Cleverly, she integrates the shadow of WW2, and the bloodbath events of war in the Pacific, as a juxtaposition to the incredibly moving faltering journey of the condemned man’s father. The exposition of the loss of a mother of her son to war, and the loss of a son to a father through America’s racial war is beautifully rendered, and for me these two narratives were the real emotional lynchpin of the narrative.

With nine characters voices echoing throughout the book, I did feel there was a slight weakness to the clear identification of them, and some blurriness to their own morality or perception of the events unfolding. Interestingly, I came away from the book feeling that I had not read a contiguous tale, but more that these alternating chapters had taken the shape of a short story collection in my mind, as some chapters seemed less related, and a little less relevant to the whole. So I had a slight issue with the structure, preferring to absorb these as connecting stories, moving towards the same end. I was left a little unsettled by the ending too, as the clarion call of mercy was dealt with in a strangely weak denouement, that rather left the reader hanging in the balance at the end. Consequently, although I admired greatly some aspects of the novel in terms of the rendition of time and place, and the strong emotional resonance of some of the characters’ voices, I felt that Winthrop had maybe cast the net a little too wide, and so some sections of the book felt  a little disjointed, and were less satisfactory than others. Would still recommend though despite, in my own opinion, some minor flaws.

(With thanks to Sceptre for the ARC)

Doting wife, devoted husband, cherished child. Merry, Sam and Conor are the perfect family in the perfect place. Merry adores baking, gardening, and caring for her infant son, while Sam pursues a new career in film. In their idyllic house in the Swedish woods, they can hardly believe how lucky they are. What perfect new lives they’ve built for themselves, away from New York and the events that overshadowed their happiness there. Then Merry’s closest friend Frank comes to stay. All their lives, the two women have been more like sisters than best friends. And that’s why Frank sees things that others might miss. Treacherous things that unfold behind closed doors. But soon it’s clear that everyone inside the house has something to hide. And as the truth begins to show through the cracks, Merry, Frank, and Sam grow all the more desperate to keep their picture-perfect lives intact...

With the creeping unease of recent domestic noir thrillers like Gone Girl, but tinged with the emotional darkness of the brilliant Monster Love by Carol Topolski, I rather enjoyed this twisted tale of marital bliss gone sour, and the more than dysfunctional relationship that we suddenly start to observe.

I found the first half of this book in particular, a fine example of pot-boiling suspense, as one couple’s new life in rural Sweden begins to show cracks and fissures, that Sacks exposes in a beautifully controlled fashion. The sudden sinister shocks that she surprises the reader with, and which may unsettle those of a more nervous disposition, become darker and darker as the plot progresses. Structured in alternating chapters, both Merry and Sam begin to have aspects of their characters exposed which become just a little more distasteful and disturbing in their words and deeds, but Sacks unashamedly brings the darkest compulsions of Merry front and centre, in her fraught relationship with her child. I think Sacks walks a very thin line here between voyeurism and objectivism with the issue of abuse she raises, and unlike the aforementioned Monster Love , I felt a certain disconnectedness with the intent of choosing this narrative, and the response it seeks to spark in the reader.

I think it appealed to me at first, that these are two of the most dislikeable and smug characters that I have encountered for some time, and although initially finding myself unable to look away from their solipsism, self absorption and fake morality, I did begin to grow weary of their naval gazing self justification for their eminently disturbing behaviour. With the advent of the arrival of Merry’s friend Frank, further scope was given to the author to explore the formative years of this trinity of more than a little screwed up protagonists, and give the reader time to see the strange dynamic between them begin to evolve. However, with this introduction of a new character, I felt the plot begin to crawl to a more sedentary drawn out pace, sparking a feeling of frustrated boredom, and just a muted eyebrow raise at some of the revelations. I felt that the story seemed to start circling itself only inching the narrative forward, after the assured pace and reveals of the first half of the book, and a strange propensity for overwritten truisms began to become increasingly more evident towards the end of the book, as opposed to the clarity of statement and intent from the characters at the beginning. Definitely a book of two halves for this reader.

(With thanks to HQ HarperCollins for the ARC)

1978.
Ponte, a small community in Northern Italy. An unbearably hot summer like many others.
Elia Furenti is sixteen, living an unremarkable life of moderate unhappiness, until the day the beautiful, damaged Anna returns to Ponte and firmly propels Elia to the edge of adulthood.
But then everything starts to unravel.
Elia’s father, Ettore, is let go from his job and loses himself in the darkest corners of his mind.
A young boy is murdered. And a girl climbs into a van and vanishes in the deep, dark woods…

I experienced a mild sense of excitement that I would have to talk about this book for a whole month wearing my bookseller hat, so I started reading with a heightened sense of anticipation. Now I love a translated slow-burner as much as the next person, but for some reason or other this one just didn’t hit the spot. Unlike undoubtedly hundreds of others, I was unerringly frustrated by this obvious hybrid of autobiography and fiction, at odds with my usual enjoyment for the genre- for example Karl Ove Knausgard or Edward St Aubyn. I felt for the most part I was just an incidental passenger to the author’s cathartic writing exercise, which revealed itself quickly to be what I perceived to be an exploration of her own father’s mental disturbance. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but I felt it was to the detriment of what could have been an infinitely more engaging experience for the reader.

Sometimes as a bookseller, I recommend books to people with the words, “Well, nothing really happens, but things don’t happen in a beautifully written way”, and this is what I was longing for in this book. There was a real feeling of deferred happenings in this book, and at times a notable compulsion by the author to pull back from events that could have given some substance and interest to the whole affair. Yes there’s a tangible thread of violence running through the book, and a not altogether convincing seduction, but the weirdly overemotional tone that reveals itself in the words and deeds of some characters, does begin to feel like some kind of therapy group literature, and a real lost the feel of dramatic tension to what cites itself as a thriller. As I said, I was looking forward to this one immensely, but feel I must go elsewhere for my Italian fiction fix, where nothing can happen, as long as it doesn’t not happen beautifully.

(I bought this copy)

 

 

 

 

A Global Round-Up- Jane Harper, Arnaldur Indridason, Snorri Kristjansson, Walter Mosley

Just been grappling with a bout of flu, and realising I am a gazillion reviews behind, am bringing you a compact little round up. Luckily, some of you prefer this format anyway so it’s a win-win! 

When five colleagues are forced to go on a corporate retreat in the wilderness, they reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking down the muddy path. But one of the women doesn’t come out of the woods. And each of her companions tells a slightly different story about what happened. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing hiker. In an investigation that takes him deep into isolated forest, Falk discovers secrets lurking in the mountains, and a tangled web of personal and professional friendship, suspicion, and betrayal among the hikers. But did that lead to murder?

A follow up to the bestselling The Dry featuring Police Agent Aaron Falk, and smattered with references to the aforementioned if you are one of, what seems to be, the only people on the planet not to have read Harper’s debut. I immediately liked the premise of this one, being no big fan of these tedious teambuilding exercises where you have to achieve miracles worthy of JC himself to navigate your team across a pond with a pair of tights and a tea-tray. The fact that Harper also has her group of work colleagues simmering with resentment, unavenged slights, and general testiness endeared me even more, as the group becomes increasingly fractured, leading to the disappearance of one member, Alice. Using a split narrative, so we are pivoted back and forth from the events of the weekend, to the real-time investigation, Harper handles the pacing of the plot perfectly, and by slowly decreasing the spacing between the events of then and now, urges the reader on to read quicker, and step up the pace generally. There is also a neat little side story, referencing a notorious killer, and the continuing search for one of his victims, which adds another frisson of murderous intent to the proceedings. I thought the depiction of the characters, both within the group of women, and of Harper’s detectives, Falk and Carmen Cooper, was engaging, and there was a good mix of rivalry, tension, and stretched loyalties among them. Although I was a little disappointed by the ending, in terms of how realistically it played out in relation to how the story had been constructed, I found this a satisfying enough read, although it does pale in comparison slightly  to The Dry.


Now to two books by the undisputed king of Icelandic crime, Arnaldur Indridason, The Shadow District, and The Shadow Killer, which I read back to back, and both set in wartime Reykjavik. My only slight annoyance with doing this, was that the first book is set in 1944, and the second in 1941, and as the first book ties up what happens to the two main protagonists in subsequent years, I was frustrated by going back in time in the second with this knowledge of the future in my head. On a more positive note, however, I thought both books were pretty flawless in their period detail, dramatic tension, and with a thoroughly likeable pair of investigators, Flovent, a police detective, and Thorsen, a military policeman with Icelandic and Canadian roots. There was a good sense of equanimity in the structure of their working relationship, and both characters had pleasing emotional depth and quirks to their personalities. As both are young men, Indridason not only builds into their characters a slight sense of impetuousness, but balances this with moments of mature emotional clarity, as they seek to track down murderers, with the opposing weight of the police force and the military sometimes seeking to thwart their progress.

Although both books focus on fairly linear murder plots, both are superbly enhanced by the wealth of detail that Indridason weaves into the stories, focussing on the country’s gaining of independence and, the role of Iceland in supporting the allied war mission, and the social implications, particularly on families, women and personal wealth, by this massive influx of British and American military personnel. Prior to reading these books I had no awareness whatsoever of the singularly important part that Iceland played in WWII, and certainly for me I found the military detail fascinating, and I was utterly intrigued by the whole concept of ‘the Situation‘- the sense of judgement meted out by families and society alike on young women fraternising with the allied personnel. This is pertinent to both books, and by the incorporation of a creepy subplot based on equally creepy totems of Icelandic folklore, the role of women and their subjugation plays heavily throughout. I found these different themes of home, family, folklore, war and society work in perfect tandem with each other, leading to a real multi faceted reading experience, with the characters of Flovent and Thorsen holding the whole narrative together. I would highly recommend both books but maybe read them in date order!

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He can deny it all he likes, but everyone knows Viking warlord Unnthor Reginsson brought home a great chest of gold when he retired from the longboats and settled down with Hildigunnur in a remote valley. Now, in the summer of 970, adopted daughter Helga is awaiting the arrival of her unknown siblings: dark, dangerous Karl, lithe, clever Jorunn, gentle Aslak, henpecked by his shrewish wife, and the giant Bjorn, made bitter by Volund, his idiot son.
And they’re coming with darkness in their hearts.The siblings gather, bad blood simmers and old feuds resurface as Unnthor’s heirs make their moves on the old man’s treasure – until one morning Helga is awakened by screams. Blood has been shed: kin has been slain. No one confesses, but all the clues point to one person – who cannot possibly be the murderer, at least in Helga’s eyes. But if she’s going to save the innocent from the axe and prevent more bloodshed, she’s got to solve the mystery – fast . . .

I will tarry a wee bit longer in Iceland with Kin by Snorri Kristjansson, the first of the Helga Finnsdottir mystery series, and what holds the unique position of being the first Viking murder mystery, apart from the great sagas themselves, that I have read. I thoroughly enjoy Kristjansson’s normal historical fare having read all three of his Valhalla series, but I had a curious reading experience with this one. At first, I didn’t feel that the opening of the book really reflected the time period it is set in, and this just felt like a small rural community on the cusp of some forthcoming upset. It was only as the family members began to arrive that I felt Kristjansson really settled us in to the timeline, exemplified by the sons’ tales of plundering and fighting. I also felt like it took an absolute age for the actual ‘crime’ to happen, as the story packed to the gills with all the necessary conflict, jealousies and infidelities essential to an Icelandic soap opera, which eventually results in murder. I was rather enjoying this mash up of the Icelandic sagas, Shakespearean treachery, and Viking ‘It’s A Knockout’ , when it was punctuated by a rather unexciting, but completely predictable murder, and then another, which led to young Helga ‘Nancy Drew’ Finnsdottir becoming a rather unconvincing super sleuth. So a thumbs up from me for the familial conflict, and the generally entertaining conniving women and wonderfully Neanderthal male characters, but as a murder mystery in a conventional sense I felt it was a little loose fitting and awkward, and less than convincing overall. Shame.

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Joe King Oliver was one of the NYPD’s finest investigators until, dispatched to arrest a well-heeled car thief, he is framed for assault, a charge that lands him in the notorious Rikers Island prison. A decade later, King is a private detective, running his agency with the help of his teenage daughter, Aja-Denise. When he receives a card in the mail from the woman who admits she was paid by someone in the NYPD to frame him all those years ago, King realises that he has no choice but to take his own case: figuring out who on the force wanted him disposed of – and why. At the same time, King must investigate the case of black radical journalist Leonard Compton, aka A Free Man, accused of killing two on-duty police offices who had been abusing their badges to traffic drugs and women into the city’s poorest neighbourhoods.In pursuit of justice, our hero must beat dirty cops and even dirtier bankers. All the while, two lives hang in the balance: Compton’s, and King’s own…

Although he ranks alongside James Lee Burke and James Ellroy in Raven’s trinity of favourite contemporary American crime authors, it is highly unusual for me to post a review of his work, as he is always read in a vacuum of serenity outside of critical reading, and imminent reviewing- my hygge zone if you will. So I’ll keep this review of Down The River Unto The Sea as brief, and as objective as I can, but frankly Mr Mosley probably writes more interesting post-its than a substantial swathe of self published tosh, we as readers, are assailed with. Every word, image, theme and plot contrivance are perfectly done, and as the first book in a new series, I can only salivate with anticipation as to what is to come for Oliver in future books.

I don’t know if there is any technical term for this, beyond him being a supreme practitioner of observation, but every description of a character imprints a visual image of that person on the reader’s mind. I love the way he shapes and draws his characters, from their way of dressing, to their gait, to the timbre of their speech, underpinned by wit, pure sassiness and razor sharp dialogue. I love the way his characters always seem to walk that line between doubt and certainty, morality and immorality, strength and vulnerability, and the blurring of these credos that always underscore his protagonists, most notably in Oliver himself. In true Mosley fashion the book hums and sings with a rough-edged lyrical intensity, and encompasses all those big powerful themes of racism, political and police corruption, and subjugation that are so redolent of Mosley’s oeuvre to date.

Objectivity is overrated. I totally loved this and cannot fault it.

Mosley is a master. End of.

Highly recommended.

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( With thanks for the ARCs to Little Brown for Force of Nature, Harvill Secker for the Indridason Reykjavik mysteries, Quercus for Kin, W&N for Down To The River Unto To The Sea, which I also bought in hardback)


 

 

Rory Clements- Nucleus

June 1939. England is partying like there is no tomorrow, gas masks at the ready. In Cambridge the May Balls are played out with a frantic intensity – but the good times won’t last… In Europe, the Nazis have invaded Czechoslovakia, and in Germany the persecution of the Jews is now so widespread that desperate Jewish parents send their children to safety in Britain aboard the Kindertransport. Closer to home, the IRA’s S-Plan bombing campaign has resulted in more than 100 terrorist outrages around England. But perhaps the most far-reaching event of all goes largely unreported: in Germany, Otto Hahn has produced the first man-made fission and an atomic device is now a very real possibility. The Nazis set up the Uranverein group of physicists: its task is to build a superbomb. The German High Command is aware that British and US scientists are working on similar line. Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory is where the atom was split in 1932. Might the Cambridge men now win the race for a nuclear bomb? Hitler’s generals need to be sure they know all the Cavendish’s secrets. Only then will it be safe for Germany to wage war.
When one of the Cavendish’s finest brains is murdered, Professor Tom Wilde is once more drawn into an intrigue from which there seems no escape. In a conspiracy that stretches from Cambridge to Berlin and from Washington DC to the west coast of Ireland, he faces deadly forces that threaten the fate of the world…

Brace yourselves for more conspiracy, subterfuge and a good dose of derring-do in Nucleus, an accomplished follow up to the brilliant Corpus , which first introduced us to dashing American academic Tom Wilde. Must admit I was on tenterhooks waiting for this next book after the explosive and captivating events of the first outing…

Rory Clements could not have picked a better era as the backdrop for these books, with Europe on the cusp of war, the reluctance of America to be drawn into the crossfire, the race for the harnessing of atomic power, and the hotbed of Cambridge academia where the security services plucked the finest and the best for a life of espionage. Throw into the mix a missing young German boy, the son of a prominent scientist, the increasing occurrence of IRA activity, and a smattering of Hollywood glamour, and the scene is set for a rich reading experience indeed. As in Corpus, Clements is incredibly proficient at drawing on the salient historical detail of the period, and the subtleties of the underlying political and racial conflicts, without compromising the tautness and tension of the plot itself. I think when I reviewed the previous book, I made a similar point that as I was fairly unfamiliar with this period, I came out of the book with an enriched and enhanced knowledge of the era, as Clements is so good with this balance of detail and narrative. I was fascinated by not only the background to the race for atomic supremacy, but also the Quaker involvement in shepherding so many Jewish children to safety from the increasing persecution of their families in Germany. This latter theme of the book is incredibly important in one character’s foray to Berlin, at an incredibly dangerous time, and I thought this aspect of the book was very well executed indeed, with a palpable sense of peril. I was also impressed with Clements’ handling of each branch of his storyline, as referenced above, and the balance that he keeps between them, pivoting the readers’ attention between them effortlessly, but maintaining the harmony overall, and never to the detriment of our engagement with his cast of characters.

After a hiatus in reading Corpus and Nucleus appearing, I was drawn back instantly into the world of Tom Wilde, a character that has obviously stayed in my mind since, and equally with Lydia Morris, whose personal involvement with Tom has moved on apace in the meanwhile- admittedly with some tribulations along the way. Although they are the real lynchpin to both books, Clements surrounds them again with an interesting, and broad ranging supporting cast, who enliven and colour the story further, and arouse in the reader a mixture of empathy, revulsion or distrust depending on their interactions with Tom and Lydia themselves. By carefully manipulating the foibles, duplicity or amiability of this surrounding cast, Clements has the opportunity to produce a couple of real sucker punch moments, which surprise and unsettle the reader. I thoroughly enjoyed being drawn into this world of contrasting nationalities, social standing and their guiding beliefs, some abhorrent, some not. It’s a rich mix, and carries the book along with aplomb.

All in all, Nucleus is a very satisfying thriller that captures the spirit of the era perfectly, enlightens the reader with its intelligent, but never overpowering, use of historical and social detail, and provides a wide ranging and engaging group of characters, who perfectly fit the model of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Believe me, you’ll be consistently changing your mind as to who belongs to each category…

(With thanks to Zaffre Books for the ARC)

 

 

#BlogTour- Johana Gustawsson- Block 46

Falkenberg, Sweden. The mutilated body of talented young jewellery designer, Linnea Blix, is found in a snow-swept marina. Hampstead Heath, London. The body of a young boy is discovered with similar wounds to Linnea’s. Buchenwald Concentration Camp, 1944. In the midst of the hell of the Holocaust, Erich Hebner will do anything to see himself as a human again. Are the two murders the work of a serial killer, and how are they connected to shocking events at Buchenwald? Emily Roy, a profiler on loan to Scotland Yard from the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, joins up with Linnea’s friend, French true crime writer Alexis Castells, to investigate the puzzling case. They travel between Sweden and London, and then deep into the past, as a startling and terrifying connection comes to light…

Carefully weaving together the feel of Nordic noir, the heightened emotional sensitivity of French fiction, an unflinching reprisal of the darkest days of WW2, and the hunt for a serial killer, Block 46 proves itself an utterly compelling and harrowing read. Already the recipient of two prestigious writing prizes, Johana Gustawsson artfully balances these contrasting strands throughout, taking the reader on a journey to the darkest recesses of the human psyche…

For the purposes of my review, I will not dwell too extensively on the plot, for as readers this will unfold and immerse you with its beautifully connecting strands at a more than satisfying pace. What held me totally in its thrall, and exhibits so perfectly Gustawsson’s craft as a writer is her placing of her characters under extreme pressure, and their will to survive, and their resilience in these conditions. Obviously drawing on her own personal, familial history, the scenes centred on the  Buchenwald camp in the midst of the Holocaust, are perhaps the most conscious example of this with the focus on the story of Erich Ebner. As he navigates the fragile line between life and death in the inhumane and brutal conditions of Buchenwald, we observe a man who seeks to keep his humanity, and survive this torturous daily existence. He becomes inveigled with Doktor Fleischer in Block 46 ‘the antechamber to death’ a place of grim experimentation , where the reader is confronted with the harsh realities of Fleischer’s madness, but allows Ebner some safe passage through the unrelenting cruelty of life in Buchenwald. These sections of the book, and how they resonate in the contemporary timeline,  more than any other cause us to question not only Ebner’s motivations for survival, but to a degree if we could make the same decisions, and denial of our own moral compass to survive. I like the way that Gustawsson keeps this deliberately ambiguous, allowing her readers to step into this space, and to question themselves in the light of Ebner’s actions.  For me this unflinching portrayal of life in Buchenwald, and how it impacts so dramatically on the contemporary plot was exceptional in both its composition and description, testing the reader, and daring us to both look away, but also to question ourselves. The writing is never less than powerfully understated and intuitive, drawing us into a moral maze of psychological darkness.

This theme of survival and resilience is also played out to a lesser extent certainly, but as effectively, in Gustawsson’s contemporary female protagonists, criminal profiler Emily Roy and true crime writer Alexis Castells. Both women have lives touched by events or personal traits that have hampered their connection with others, with both exhibiting coping strategies to navigate the worlds they move in. Castells has been subject to a personal loss, which has sparked her career delving into the lives of people touched by brutal crime themselves, and as much as she inhabits this world so professionally and objectively, has found herself closed down from emotional personal relationships. Emily Roy, on the other hand is as removed from others by her single-mindedness and unique character traits which fit her chosen profession as a criminal profiler perfectly, but again sees her isolation from responding to others on a more emotional level. I liked the way that Gustawsson ascribed these women with this equal feeling of isolation, and how their seeming points of difference, are in fact so strikingly similar, and greatly enjoyed how these were explored in the course of this testing investigation.

There is a real feeling of all things to all people about Block 46, particularly for readers who like to be challenged and confronted with the less than unpalatable truths of human morality. The subtle weaving of powerful emotion, murderous intent and the tracking of a deranged killer, all underscored by Gustawsson’s influence of French and Scandinavian fiction, all co-exists and blends perfectly into a brave and beautifully realised book. Disturbing and compelling, Block 46 is an intensely unique read. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda for the ARC)

 

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

William Ryan- The Constant Soldier

constant1944. Paul Brandt, a soldier in the German army, returns wounded and ashamed from the bloody chaos of the Eastern front to find his village home much changed and existing in the dark shadow of an SS rest hut – a luxurious retreat for those who manage the concentration camps, run with the help of a small group of female prisoners who – against all odds – have so far survived the war. When, by chance, Brandt glimpses one of these prisoners, he realizes that he must find a way to access the hut. For inside is the woman to whom his fate has been tied since their arrest five years before, and now he must do all he can to protect her. But as the Russian offensive moves ever closer, the days of this rest hut and its SS inhabitants are numbered. And while hope – for Brandt and the female prisoners – grows tantalizingly close, the danger too is now greater than ever. And, in a forest to the east, a young female Soviet tank driver awaits her orders to advance . . .

Already established as a crime writer of some repute with the Captain Korolev series set in the shadow of Stalinist Russia, William Ryan has now produced a fiction novel with huge gravitas, The Constant Soldier. Using as a starting point, the photographs taken by Karl Höcker, the adjutant to the final camp commandant at Auschwitz, Richard Baer, depicting the “social life” of the SS officers who were responsible for the mass murder at Auschwitz, Ryan has constructed a novel that is not only unerringly poignant and harrowing, but one that will stay in your thoughts for some time after reading…

This is one of those of those books that somehow proves difficult to review, quite simply because the ham-fisted meanderings of an amateur reviewer can in no way do full justice to the essential emotional strength and intelligence of this novel. What struck me the most about the book was Ryan’s ability to load the most simple of images with such a powerful emotional resonance from the steam rising from a bowl of freshly cooked potatoes on a family table while a miasma of emotional turbulence plays out around it, to the simple naturalistic images of the serenity of the landscape surrounding the SS encampment, and the ever present shadow of the Auschwitz death camp within its radius. The horrific images of human cruelty that we know are being played out at some remove from us as readers, are made all the more tangible amongst this natural serenity. The claustrophobic intensity of the SS camp and the dark deeds that occur within also acts as a harsh counterpoint, with its pollution of moral decency and the subjugation of those outside the existing regime, particularly in relation to the treatment of the women prisoners. There is the overriding chill of evil permeating the book, but at times dispelled by Ryan’s main protagonist Paul Brandt, and the humanity that he has retained in a world where humanity is largely absent.

Brandt is a mesmerising character, physically and mentally wounded by his experiences within the Nazi regime, and now finding himself working in the dark, sadistic atmosphere of the SS encampment. Deeply affected by his war experience, he attains the role of the moral ‘everyman’ in the novel, working at the behest of those he despises, and charged with an emotional impetus to liberate one of the female prisoners, whose story is so closely entwined with his own. Through his eyes and experience, we consistently witness the sadism ingrained in the SS officers around him, but also the moments of weakness and fear they experience as the war grinds towards its end, and the impending arrival of Soviet troops. The balance that Ryan ingrains in Brandt’s character of certitude and doubt is exceptionally well-handled, and poses a larger question as to why men such as he would seek to endanger his own survival, and use his staunch moral imperative to help others. In tandem with such a compelling central protagonist, Ryan has also confidently created a strong surrounding cast of characters from Brandt’s taskmasters at the camp, to his touching interaction with the headstrong Agneta, and the righting of a wrong he believes he has committed using his relationship with her as a conduit for this. There is also an interesting co-existing narrative focussing on the approach of the Soviet forces seen through the eyes of Polya Kolanka, a young woman who co-operates one of the approaching Soviet tanks. This alternative viewpoint of the events of the war co-exists beautifully with the central narrative, and her tale is as equally grim as Brandt’s but serves to a larger purpose to reinforce the theme of the futility of war, and the harsh reality of those caught up within it.

As Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong has defined the First World War narrative, so The Constant Soldier achieves this for World War II, with its understated but hugely powerful emotional and moral examination of one of the darkest periods of world history. It is harrowing and emotionally charged, but I would defy any reader not to be utterly moved by the story that plays out before them, such is the intensity and deceptively simple brilliance of Ryan’s writing. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Mantle for the ARC)

 

 

A Weekend Round Up- Hewitt, Sylvester, Williams, Walsh and Hunt- the good, the bad and the ugly…

As I am so woefully behind with my reviews, and am nervously aware of further reviewing commitments this month, I am going to unashamedly nick a fellow blogger’s idea for digested reads. Here then, for your reading pleasure, and in the curtailed style of internet reading, are five reads from recent weeks- the good and the bad…

dyJASON HEWITT- THE DYNAMITE ROOM: July 1940. Eleven-year-old Lydia walks through a village in rural Suffolk on a baking hot day. She is wearing a gas mask. The shops and houses are empty, windows boarded up and sandbags green with mildew, the village seemingly deserted. Leaving it behind, she strikes off down a country lane through the salt marshes to a large Edwardian house – the house she grew up in. Lydia finds it empty too, the windows covered in black-out blinds. Her family is gone. Late that night he comes, a soldier, gun in hand and heralding a full-blown German invasion. There are, he explains to her, certain rules she must now abide by. He won’t hurt Lydia, but she cannot leave the house. Is he telling the truth? What is he looking for? Why is he so familiar? And how does he already know Lydia’s name? 

Not strictly, strictly, a crime book I know, but contains more than enough thought-provoking psychological suspense to keep any reader satisfied. With the claustrophobic setting of two completely contrasting characters confined within a contained space for the majority of the book, Hewitt completely immerses us in the issues of morality and loyalty that come into play in times of conflict. By using the setting of Lydia’s home, but carefully interweaving details of the background of both characters, there is much mileage to be had in manipulating and changing the reader’s empathy as piece by piece certain details are revealed- particularly in the case of Heiden’s former experiences. In the characterisation of both, Hewitt more than demonstrates his authorial control, and the pace of this meditative and at times lyrically written plot, carries the reader along effortlessly. With his background in acting, there is a very visual quality to his description, and Lydia’s home in particular is tangible and real, taking on a character of its own. I have one small grievance. I wish that the book had been concluded at the end of the penultimate chapter which was mighty powerful and caused more than a sharp inhalation of breath, as I do have a personal aversion to ‘wrap-up’ final chapters. However, the prose style of the book, which I found very reminiscent of the Irish literary style ( a la Toibin, Trevor etc), the depth of research, and beautifully drawn characters, were completely satisfying. Excellent.

 

visitors1SIMON SYLVESTER- THE VISITORS: The island has always seemed such a safe place, such a friendly community. Now the possibility of a killer on Bancree is dangerously close to home.
Nobody moves to the remote Scottish island of Bancree, and few leave – but leaving is exactly what seventeen-year-old Flora intends to do. So when a mysterious man and his daughter move into isolated Dog Cottage, Flo is curious. What could have brought these strangers to the island? The man is seductively handsome but radiates menace; and there’s something about his daughter Ailsa that Flo can’t help but feel drawn towards. People aren’t only arriving on Bancree – they are disappearing too. Reports of missing islanders fill the press and unnerve the community. When a body washes ashore, suspicion turns to the strange newcomers on Dog Rock. Convinced of their innocence, Flo is fiercely determined to protect her friend Ailsa. Could the answer to the disappearances, and to the pull of her own heart, lie out there, beyond the waves? 

There’s something about crime fiction set in small town communities that is endlessly compelling, and if these communities are set on remote Scottish islands, so much the better! Again, another crime book that is much more allayed to the style of contemporary fiction, The Visitors  is an intriguing tale, steeped in myth, murder and a nifty reworking of the familiar locked room mystery, where there are only a finite group of suspects, but where the guilty party is well-concealed. This book is atmospheric, mysterious, and is imbued with a beautiful dream-like quality, incorporating as it does mythical tales from the tradition of oral storytelling. By fusing so completely the superstitions of the past, with an essentially modern murder mystery focussed around  two young female protagonists, Sylvester has really brought something quite different to the genre. Being fascinated personally by the Icelandic sagas and Norse myth, I thoroughly enjoyed the tales of the Shennachie but also how this was counterbalanced throughout by attention to the very particular problems of modern island existence in the contemporary age. Although I found the actual murder mystery a less satisfying aspect of the book, this was of little consequence when taking the character, atmosphere and the rendering of the mythical tales into account. Enjoyed and recommend.

 

tuesS. WILLIAMS- TUESDAY FALLING: You’ve never met anyone like Tuesday. She has suffered extreme cruelty at the hands of men, and so has taken it upon herself to seek vengeance. She wants to protect and help others like her, to ease their suffering. A force to be reckoned with, she lives beneath the streets of London in the hidden network of forgotten tunnels that honeycomb the city – and this is her preferred hunting ground. When Tuesday is connected to a series of brutal attacks on gang members, DI Loss takes on the investigation. A burned-out detective still suffering the devastating effects of the unsolved murder of his daughter three years earlier, the case starts to hit close to home. Because soon Loss will discover that Tuesday could hold the key to uncovering the truth about what happened to his daughter…

Fresh, unique and exciting would be just three of the words I would use to describe this wholly original debut crime thriller. Set underground, over-ground (not Womble-ing free) in London, this  thriller combines the technological savvy age and cut and thrust of the teeming life of the metropolis, whilst bringing to the reader’s attention the historical underbelly of this great city. I adored the delicious and surprising detail of the life below the city streets, that Peter Ackroyd, would be envious of, and the interesting and archaic weapons that Tuesday uses to accomplish her mission. The characterisation was also absolutely top-notch with Tuesday revealing herself as a glorious amalgamation of Lisbeth Salander and Katniss Everdene, with her outward appearance of strength undercut by a heart-rending sense of frailty. Likewise, D.I. Loss and his female police partner, D. S. Stone made for a terrific partnership with his damaged and world weary persona, working in absolute balance with her streetwise nouse and natural humour. The story was clever, full of tricks and totally engrossing. Loved it. Loved it. Loved it.

imagesQRS0CTBCM. O. WALSH- MY SUNSHINE AWAY: Welcome to Woodland Hills, Louisiana: a place of lush, sweltering summers, neighbourhood cookouts in every backyard and vats of chilled beer under the crepe myrtles. One day Lindy Simpson cycles home from school and straight into a trap: someone is lying in wait for her, a wire strung between lampposts blocking the path. She is raped just yards from her front door. No one sees a thing and the perpetrator is not caught. Her fourteen year old neighbour has cherished a crush on Lindy, the ultimate girl next door, since they were kids. After her assault he becomes determined to solve the crime, investigating each suspect in the neighbourhood. But before this long, hot summer is out, it will become clear that the friendly community of Woodland Hills has much to hide. Behind every white picket fence in suburbia lies a tangled web of darkness. In his zeal to solve the mystery, the teenage detective stumbles across a sinister world he doesn’t recognise, drawing ever closer to a terrifying denouement…

On paper, I should have absolutely loved this, as it appeared to tick the boxes of what I most enjoy reading, but it didn’t. This is always one of those tricky ones to review, as  I can appreciate what the author was aiming for, relocating the traditional rural backwoods setting of the Southern Gothic into a suburban setting, but it really didn’t gel for me. On the positive side, I liked the sultry and suffocating atmosphere of Louisiana, and being a native of the state, Walsh made a strong impact with the rendition of place. I was intrigued at the start by the premise of the crime, the infatuation of Lindy’s neighbour, and his angst-ridden musings as to the identity of the guilty party, both as child and adult,  but I soon got tired by the endless circles the plot seemed to go in as it slowly staggered to its conclusion. I just found it all a bit tedious and I was more than a little relieved to get to the end. Think I will remain loyal to my beloved Southern Gothic in its traditional setting. Disappointing.

catherine-hunt-someone-out-thereCATHERINE HUNT- SOMEONE OUT THERE: Laura Maxwell appears to have it all – perfect career, perfect husband, perfect life. But how well do you really know the people around you? All it takes is one tiny crack to shatter the whole façade. A series of accidents causes Laura to believe that someone out there is deliberately targeting her, trying to harm her. The fear starts to pervade every part of her life, affecting her work and her marriage. Increasingly, she feels that no one believes her story, and she must face down her attacker alone…

Another addition to the completely saturated domestic noir market and let’s roll it out again- “perfect for fans of Girl On The Train and Gone Girl”. Aaargh *runs away screaming*.  As a bookseller and a reader I am so over this genre, but in the spirit of being a dedicated reviewer I gave this one a look. Laura was your typical middle class – look at my lovely life- type of woman, destined for a fall (actually there’s a nasty episode with a horse that demonstrates this), and this book was so reminiscent of Sabine Durrant’s  Under Your Skin that my antenna of doom were twitching quite early.  I had my first whiff of a clue on page 9. Had it completely sussed by page 50. And was treading water from there on in. Okay- I skipped to the end. I was correct in my assumptions. Oh well. Lots and lots of people love this book as is testified by the Amazon reviews. Just not me. Sorry.