One wet and misty weekend in October, the Niemann family find a stranger in their garden. He is armed and tries to force his way into the house, but disappears as soon as the police are alerted. That night he’s back with an impossible ultimatum . . .
Freiburg detective Louise Boni and her colleagues are put under enormous pressure. Traces of evidence lead her to a no-man’s-land, and to a ruthless criminal who brings with him the trauma of conflict in the Balkans…
And so to the third of Oliver Bottini’s Black Forest Investigation series, The Dance of Death, which sees stalwart investigator Louise Boni, drawn into a case of retribution precipitated by the turbulent history of the Balkan states…
Whilst confessing to the fact that I did find the first of the series, Zen and the Art of Murder a tad ponderous for my tastes, and having read and enjoyed the second A Summer of Murder, I have come to appreciate the more meandering and slow moving pace of Bottini’s writing. Veering very much more towards literary fiction than crime thriller per se, I found myself adjusting to the pace and style of it the further into the book I read. This more measured feel to Bottini’s prose does rather dilute the feeling of this being a crime thriller, but interestingly does give a platform for the author to really get beneath the skin of his characters, and to thoroughly interrogate the actions of the main antagonist, Antun Loncar, threatening retribution on one man’s family for the perceived sins of the past. We become as intimately involved with the motivations and history of this perpetrator as the police investigation team, and as his turbulent, unsettled and ultimately tragic story is slowly revealed, Bottini poses some interesting questions as to the balance between justice, revenge and compassion. As a reader it is good to feel conflicted about a character, where the boundaries of black and white merge into a mysterious grey, and this was an incredibly interesting facet of the book as a whole.
Talking of conflicted, police investigator Louise Boni, is a mass of contradictions, being a quixotic, emotionally challenged and a sometimes slightly unfathomable protagonist. I still can’t quite decide if I like her or not, as her compassion and clear-sightedness, is so often blurred by her own self absorption, with a messy and unsettled private life, and her recovery as an alcoholic. At times, more often in her professional life, she shows a huge clarity of thought and sense of action, underscored by compassion and determination, but all too often in her private life be it due to drink or relationships there’s an overarching feeling of indecision and naval gazing that makes you want to grab her by the shoulders, and give her a good shake. She proves to be a consistently complicated character, sometimes overwhelmed by her own feelings of guilt in relation to events of the past, and I still don’t know quite what to make of her.
The Dance of Death is not an easy read as there is a huge weight of historical factual detail, that although entirely necessary to the plot, does slow the pace of the book considerably, but it is difficult to see how this information could be imparted to the reader in any other way, tracing the history of war and resettlement between the Balkan states and Germany post Second World War. Although at times somewhat dense, and a little overwhelming, I did find the historical aspect fascinating, looking at the history of conflict and resettlement in the Balkans, from a new and interesting angle- special mention to translator Jamie Bulloch for the singular challenge this presented. Overall, I actually enjoyed the final part of the book more, as Boni physically retraces Loncar’s past, and takes her own journey through the Balkans, and although it did feel rather truncated in comparison to what had proceeded it, this section of the book had a real vividness and verve as Boni encounters the strange environs of Loncar’s home state. This is also quite possibly a journey for Boni that will take her life in an entirely new direction, so will be interested to see where Bottini takes her, and us, as readers…
When journalist Veronica Rosenthal hears about the suicide of a local train driver who has jumped off the roof of a block of flats, leaving a suicide note confessing to four mortal ‘accidents’ on the train tracks, she decides to investigate. For the police the case is closed (suicide is suicide), for Veronica it is the beginning of a journey that takes her into an unfamiliar world of grinding poverty, junkie infested neighborhoods, and train drivers on commuter lines haunted by the memory of bodies hit at speed by their locomotives in the middle of the night. Aided by a train driver informant, a junkie in rehab and two street kids willing to risk everything for a can of Coke, she uncovers a group of men involved in betting on working-class youngsters convinced to play Russian roulette by standing in front of oncoming trains to see who endures the longest. With bodies of children crushed under tons of steel, those of adults yielding to relentless desire, the resolution of the investigation reveals the deep bonds which unite desire and death…
Right, where on earth do I begin, to get across to everyone how intensely, sublimely brilliant The Fragility of Bodies is? A book shot through with painful truths and gritty realism, and with the ability to put its reader through a whole gamut of emotions with its pared down prose, perceptive exploration of the human compulsion to make connections, and larger themes of trust, exploitation and social injustice. This is a huge, important book hiding behind the deceptively simple label of an Argentine noir thriller, but has much to say about the nature of human relationships, and the power and exploitation of the few on the lives of the many…
With such a self assured, dogged, yet emotionally turbulent central character as journalist, Veronica Rosenthal, I was instantly entranced by her. She sets about her investigation into the worrying trend of suicides on local railway lines, with verve and energy; a verve and energy that also extends to the more base needs of her character, and the mutual seduction that occurs in the course of her investigation. She is flighty and independent, in relation to her friends and siblings, but she has a real strength of character and essence of self control, that her peers can only aspire to. Not only does Olguin put his readers through the emotional mangle, but Veronica is tested constantly in her pursuit of the truth behind the pattern of suicides occurring on train tracks of late, sucking her into a world of bribery and exploitation that will prove dangerous in the extreme. I can truthfully say that she is one of the most well-realised, compelling and authentic female characters that I have encountered for a long time, and this mix of tenacity and bravery, is beautifully tempered by the more impulsive, reckless and passionate side of her nature, be it in her professional or personal life.
The breadth of crime fiction set in South America has been a recent revelation to me, and Olguin naturally captures the grinding poverty, misplaced optimism, and dangerous existence of the lower classes of Buenos Aires society. Young boys believe that football is their ticket out of the slums and the path to riches, but putting them squarely into the path of those that would exploit them, and such is their desperation to escape the clutches of poverty and to help their families, or just to feel valued that they are easily coerced into the dark activities of the adults in whom they trust. Olguin perfectly captures the conflicts that arise in these young boys, lured into a dangerous form of ‘chicken’ to satisfy the men who place bets on these youngster’s bravery and ultimately survival, with the lure of a hundred pesos.
The world of these boys is unflinchingly depicted by Olguin, capturing the deprivation of the neighbourhoods they live in, the struggles of their families, and the thin line that exists between survival and criminality in the dangerous world of the favelas. Olguin’s depiction of this world is written with sharp clarity appealing to the reader’s senses, and which cannot fail to move the reader’s emotions too, but what is also detectible is the thin veneer of hope that lies behind the most meagre of lives, the feeling that not all is lost, and that a sense of morality can breach the divides Olguin so truthfully depicts. As long as journalists like Veronica, and honest citizens seek to expose the morally bankrupt despite the risks, there can always be hope, despite the inherent danger in society of those in positions of power.
The Fragility of Bodies has rocketed into my best books of the year, and all I can say to Sergio Olguin and his wonderful translator Miranda France, is that I am already salivating for the next in the series to be translated. This book shocked, moved and completely absorbed me from beginning to end, and think this will leave a few of my future reads trailing in its wake. Gritty, beautifully prosaic, and intensely moving, I cannot do justice to the power of this book, which moves the emotions, sparks the social conscience, but pays heed to the need of a thriller to excite and entertain us too, with a truly compelling central character. Highly recommended.
(With thanks to Bitter Lemon Press for the ARC)
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To mark the publication of Trance by Adam Southward, I am delighted to be hosting an exclusive extract of this very book. Billed as an edge-of-your-seat psychological thriller, with a speculative twist, Trance is, according to crime writer John Marrs, “A tense, original thriller that perfectly blends the nail-biting suspense and shocks of Silence of the Lambs and Shutter Island.”
So what’s it about?
Three university scientists are found dead in a gruesome murder-suicide, and the only suspect in the case, Victor Lazar, is quickly captured. When the spate of violent suicides follows him to prison he is moved to solitary confinement, reserved for the highest-risk inmates. And then his assigned psychologist inexplicably takes his own life. Alex Madison, a former forensic psychologist turned private therapist, is brought in to interview Victor. He suspects that Victor is controlling his victims, somehow coaxing them into a suggestive trance. It seems like science fiction, but as Alex digs deeper he uncovers a frightening reality of secret research and cruel experimentation—and the perpetrators are closer to home than he could ever have imagined. Too late, Alex learns the true extent of what Victor is capable of—and who he’s after. With everything he holds dear at risk, can Alex take control of a dangerous mind—before it takes control of him?
So here for your enjoyment, is an extract of the book, just to whet your appetites a little more…
Sophie kept glancing at Alex as they descended the stairs to the guard station. He noticed it and wondered what was bothering her.
‘Will you be assessing him?’ she said, after several steps.
‘Him. Thirteen. Victor Lazar.’
Alex slowed and turned to her. ‘Mr Lazar is why I’m here. Thirteen?’
Sophie’s eyes narrowed. ‘It’s what he called himself when he arrived. Thirteen. So that’s a yes?’
Alex was surprised at her reaction. ‘What do you know about him?’
Sophie bit her lip. ‘Not much,’ she said. ‘His case is sensitive. Robert has access to the full case file. I don’t.’ She shrugged and walked faster.
Alex hadn’t seen the full case file yet either. He’d had a summary history emailed to him by the CPS but was told the full information would be available once he was on site.
As well as the unusual circumstances surrounding Victor Lazar’s arrest, there was the headline mystery, which was that Victor’s previous psychologist had committed suicide while treating him. Dr Henry Farrell, an experienced clinician close to retirement, had interviewed Victor alone in his cell for an hour. He’d left the cell complaining of a headache and driven home to call his wife, who was out of town. He’d made various nonsense statements over the phone, which his wife couldn’t accurately recollect, then jumped out of a third-floor window, landing on the concrete driveway. He was pronounced dead by paramedics at the scene.
Alex could no doubt suggest several theories why a sane and intelligent man would take his own life, but the association with Victor was bizarre and curious. Victor appeared to be special – a potentially untreatable psychopath if the initial report was anything to go by. But that didn’t explain Dr Farrell’s behaviour. Connected or not, Alex intended to find out.
One dark January night a car drives at high speed towards PI Varg Veum, and comes very close to killing him. Veum is certain this is no accident, following so soon after the deaths of two jailed men who were convicted for their participation in a case of child pornography and sexual assault, crimes that Veum himself once stood wrongly accused of committing. While the guilty men were apparently killed accidentally, Varg suspects that there is something more sinister at play, and that he’s on the death list of someone still at large. Fearing for his life, Veum begins to investigate the old case, interviewing the victims of abuse and delving deeper into the brutal crimes, with shocking results. The wolves are no longer in the dark, they are at his door. And they want vengeance…
I think it’s no exaggeration to say that Gunnar Staalesen is singularly the most difficult author I have to review, as his books are just so consistently superb, and beautifully translated by Don Bartlett. To this end, each new instalment of the Varg Veum series just puts an increasing strain on the scope of my vocabulary and my stash of superlatives, so apologies for any noticeable repetition detected of previous reviews for We Shall Inherit The Wind , Where Roses Never Die, Wolves In The Dark, and Big Sister. So now we come to Wolves At The Door, where the shadow of the misdemeanours of Veum’s past, both real and imagined come back to haunt this most tenacious of private investigators in the streets of his beloved Bergen and beyond…
This book is closely linked to the catastrophic events of Wolves In The Dark, but as ever with Staalesen, each of these books can be read in isolation, with the precise, and concise use of back story always contained within the books. Consequently, the reader can quickly get a handle on why Veum is once again under threat, and the dangerous lengths he needs to go to in order to discover why. As is usual, the slightly gung-ho actions of Veum, also have ramifications for those he is closest too, and places a maybe unbridgeable strain on his most personal relationships. Staalesen always exhibits a sublime skill in his plotting, with a smooth, assured grip on the tension, pace and use of reveals in particular, so we experience the same level of frustration as Veum as his lines of investigation are consistently blurred by a web of lies, deception and interludes of violence.
I thought this plot was exceptionally well realised, bringing to the fore the age old hypothesis of nature vs nurture, the issues of familial dysfunction and how this manifests itself in the victims and survivors of abuse, and is natural justice more warranted in some cases than the grinding wheels of legal justice. Staalesen explores these themes with an intensity and clear sightedness through his conduit Veum, a former social worker illustrating once again, that alongside his innate ability to draw the reader in to an extremely well-structured and compelling thriller, these additional levels of societal and behavioural exploration serves to raise his books above the depressingly familiar norm of thrillers exploring the world of domestic abuse and family conflict.
Aside from Veum being such a vivid, slightly flawed and genuinely likeable character, with his tenacious attitude, his companionable relationship with aquavit, and his sometimes foolhardy denial of not being the spring chicken he was, these books always appeal to my own love of language and taut dialogue. I have never reached the end of one of Staalesen’s books without noting down several pages containing sharp and snappy exchanges, or just brilliant punchy little observations such as “On the way up to the house I passed a thawing snowman bent at the hip, an arthritic terpsichorean,” Staalesen has an elasticity of phrase, and what I perceive to be a general love of, and skill for, honing his language to compress a visual panorama into a pared down image, or short, taut description which reveals so much to the reader by saying relatively little. I also get a large amount of enjoyment from Veum’s perfectly delivered cynical asides in the face of other people’s stupidity- an admirable quality that dissipates the general irritation that the sometimes crotchety Veum experiences pretty much every day in his interactions with pretty much everybody. There are exceptions to this rule of course revealing an assuring soft-centeredness to him, which then quickly dissipates yet again, bringing a welcome return to cynicism and irritation as the idiots raise their ugly heads again.
So, once again, Wolves At The Door accrues a five star rating for a five star book from a five star author, and a five star translator Don Bartlett. There is little more to say, apart from a personal note to Gunnar Staalesen in the light of the ending this book, you might want to rethink the beekeeping idea for both Veum’s sanity and ours…
(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)
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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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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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Former Little League champion Kimitake “Clyde” Koba finds strength in the belief that he is the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe as he struggles to escape the ghost of his brother and his alcoholic father. Born on Yom Kippur, teen prodigy Raphael Dweck has been told his whole life that he has a special purpose in God’s plan. The only problem is, he can’t shake off his doubts, his urges, or the trail of trouble and ruin that follow in his wake.
A decade later, Raphael and ‘Marilyn’ find each other wandering the plastic-bright streets of Hollywood and set out to make a documentary about the transmigration of souls. But when the roleplaying goes too far, they find themselves past the point of no return in their quest to prove who and what they are to their families, God, the world, and themselves…
I first encountered the work of Orlando Ortega-Medina through his brilliant, emotionally charged and meditative short story collection Jerusalem Ablaze etched into my memory as one of the trickiest reviews I have ever had to write. Now having read Ortega-Medina’s full length novel, The Death of Baseball I feel that my reviewing skills will be put to the test once again, as I try and communicate to you all how necessary, heartfelt, thought-provoking and sublimely perfect this book is. Oh yes. I did say perfect…
When I began reading this book, I somewhat intuitively avoided reading the full synopsis, as I had a vibe from the outset, that I very much just wanted to be taken wherever this book wished to take me. Aside from the sway of the beautifully retro cover, I felt from a very early stage of reading that this was a book that would consume me completely, and consequently this was one of the rare occasions where this was the only book I was reading at the time. I think this was also influenced by the fact that Ortega-Medina’s two main protagonists, Raphael, and Marilyn are so singularly deserving of the reader’s full attention, as the drama, tragedy, and human frailty plays out against a backdrop of changing decades and social mores, America and Israel, conflict and peace, and the underlying need of both to form a lasting emotional connection. I am only going to give you a silhouette of the characters and the plot, as I think this is a book that needs to be discovered in an almost neutral vacuum, to fully appreciate its emotional depth, and to open yourself up to some extremely accomplished and sublime storytelling.
To say that these characters’ lives are troubled and tempestuous would be an understatement, and as the author highlights the crisis of conscience, faith and loyalty, he weighs them down with, I can guarantee you will be held completely in their thrall. I can honestly say that I did have a sustained emotional response to this book, which is incredibly unusual, as books rarely achieve this for me. I think the emotional heft, moments of extreme poignancy, frustration and anger that we bear witness to in the lives of these characters, is so beautifully realised and communicated that you do become completely immersed in the powerful positivity and destructing negativity, that Raphael and Marilyn seem to take it in turns to display. These conflicting traits lead on occasion to impetuous, ill-judged acts, tempered by moments of extreme tenderness and self realisation as they battle with issues of faith, identity and the instances of wretched tragedy that blight their lives. However, despite the incredibly visceral humanity of this book, I did feel that a certain sense of equanimity was achieved in the life of one character, and that their struggle for acceptance and recognition did come to fruition, which lifted the book to a more life affirming plain.
Tied up with the superlative characterisation of Raphael, Marilyn and the social, religious and familial crisis they suffer, I would also draw attention to two other strengths of the narrative of this book. One is location and period detail, firmly rooting us in the changing decades from the 60s through the 80s, and the way that Ortega-Medina subtly places us in the grip of each decade, using the recognisable markers of each decade, and certain tumultuous events both in America and Israel. The section of the book set in Israel was particularly compulsive reading, as Ortega-Medina places Raphael in a largely unfamiliar setting, under pressure with the weight of certain aspects of his family history, clinging to his faith, pushing the boundaries of his sexuality, and tentatively feeling his way to love. The threat of war with Egypt plays out in the background, and this sojourn in Israel also provides an incredibly interesting reappraisal and exploration of Raphael’s faith, and the seismic effect on his own character that events in Israel cause.
When I’ve been talking about this book to friends and colleagues, another aspect I keep drawing attention to is the sheer cleverness of the structure. Every chapter, and yes, it is every chapter, can be read in isolation to the others as a completely self contained short story, whilst not disrupting the momentum and continuity of the story in any way. Once I stumbled upon this notion and blown away by the skill of this, I actually went back through the book at random picking certain chapters to re-read, particularly those in Israel, and those set in a certain location towards to the end of the book. When I reviewedJerusalem Ablaze, I drew attention to the fact that this author so quickly enables the reader to connect on an emotional level with his characters, and this sustained use of structuring his chapters like this, adds even more to the intensity with which he enveigles us in his character’s lives. The Death of Baseball is a glorious miasma of contradictions and conflicts, the need to love, the need for acceptance and recognition, fame, faith, abuse, identity and hope. I found it thought provoking and powerfully emotional, and I loved the way it immersed me so fully in these two lives with their unique voices. This book has such a strong message at its core, clearly illustrating how we are all the same in our desire to achieve contentment and an equilibrium in our lives, however we choose to live and with whomever we choose to love. Highly, highly recommended.
Have been a little under the weather of late, so am a little late on posting my list for the #20BooksOfSummer challenge hosted by the brilliant Cathy746Books.
The aim of the challenge is, as always, to cut a bit of a swathe through our toppling TBRs, or to simply catch up on those books we have been meaning to get to… So by simply selecting to read 5, 10, 15 or 20 books between 3June and 2 September, you too can join in the fun by clicking the link here…
Knowing how woefully disorganised I am at this challenge, I have selected 10 books initially, and have a subs bench of 10 titles too, depending on how my reading pans out.
Seventeen-year-old Tyler lives in one of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas. Coerced into robbing rich people’s homes by his bullying older siblings, he’s also trying to care for his little sister and his drug-addict mum. On a job, his brother Barry stabs a homeowner and leaves her for dead, but that’s just the beginning of their nightmare, because the woman is the wife of Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord, Deke Holt. With the police and the Holts closing in, and his shattered family in devastating danger, Tyler meets posh girl Flick in another stranger’s house, and he thinks she may just be his salvation, unless he drags her down too…
About three years ago I reviewed a book by Doug Johnstone called The Jump, a book that remains as one of the best books I have ever read. In my original review I said that, “When people decry genre fiction as somehow not being as worthy or the compare of ‘literary fiction’, I have no hesitation in drawing their attention to books such as this, which possesses an emotional intensity and sensitivity that is rarely encountered in any genre, harnessing emotional, and by their very nature, contentious issues that many writers in the ‘literary’ field would struggle to address in such an affecting way as Johnstone achieves.” So it will come as no real surprise to hear that in this intensely compelling read, and in my ever so humble opinion, Doug Johnstone has more than achieved this again…
Let’s start with Tyler, the central protagonist, balancing his role as protector, provider, and accomplice, at a relatively tender age, and with an over enhanced sense of responsibility and some times misplaced loyalty in his familial role. Juggling the role of caregiver and protector of his younger sister ‘Bean’, but finding himself at the behest and control of his aggressive and borderline psychopathic step brother, Tyler navigates a tense and ominously threatening path through life. Desperate to keep the equilibrium of his home life, but with his mum’s instability and dependence on drink and drugs, casting a shadow over the stability of this, one impulsive criminal act places Tyler and Bean in extreme danger. What Johnstone captures so perfectly in the character of Tyler, is that of a young man propelled into adulthood and maturity due to the extreme behaviour of others. He’s bright, resourceful, and emotionally intuitive, and a wonderful caregiver for Bean, but there’s also there’s always this sense of the child about him, dominated by his stepbrother, his tentative handling of his relationship with spiky posh girl Flick, and his unflinching acceptance of his mum’s emotional and physical weakness. He is the epitome of a young man who’s had to grow up a startling fast rate, but not to the detriment of his own strong moral code, his integrity and compulsion to protect others.
As we have come to expect of this author, Johnstone himself is also unflinching in this portrayal of a family in meltdown. The particular angst, borderline poverty and issues of abuse and anger, that all too many families encounter lay at the very heart of this book, but tangentially Johnstone also shows through the home life of Flick that this emotional paucity is equally relevant to her life, with the emotional neglect of her parents, her mother’s alcohol abuse, and the coldness of her father. She seeks attention in destructive ways and she’s financially rich, but only attains an emotional richness through her growing attachment to Tyler, and by extension, Bean too. Through this relationship we also see her bravery and resourcefulness, and the sense of her yin to Tyler’s yang that begins to become apparent as her involvement in these dark events escalates.
The authenticity of Johnstone’s characters is due in no small part to his intensely realistic portrayal of the world that Tyler and his family exist in. The book is peppered with sudden outbreaks of violence and abuse, with the overriding control of his sadistic stepbrother Barry, and the ramifications of entering the dangerous world of a hardened criminal that Barry’s foolish and impulsive actions, catapult them into. At one point Tyler berates Flick for embarking on her own ‘poverty safari’ as their life experience appear to be so markedly different, and Tyler’s world is a stark contrast socio-economically- harsh and poor, with the threat of violence a norm. As much as the book is brutally realistic, it is also tinged with sensitivity and compassion, with a strong message that a less than promising start in life is not necessarily proof of a moral deficiency, and that a good nature can overrule bad nurture. Despite the anger and tension so in evidence in these characters’ lives, I found this book tremendously life affirming, and as Tyler grows in stature and strength, he very much takes the reader with him. You’re rooting for him, and it doesn’t feel that your belief in him is misplaced. Breakers is a superb read (with an equally excellent soundtrack woven into the narrative) and once more I would heartily encourage you that, if you haven’t read this author before, you really should do so.
It would be rude not too…
(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)
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Mary Shields is a moody, acerbic probation offer, dealing with some of Glasgow’s worst cases, and her job is on the line. Liam Macdowall was imprisoned for murdering his wife, and he’s published a series of letters to the dead woman, in a book that makes him an unlikely hero – and a poster boy for Men’s Rights activists.
Liam is released on licence into Mary’s care, but things are far from simple. Mary develops a poisonous obsession with Liam and his world, and when her son and Liam’s daughter form a relationship, Mary will stop at nothing to impose her own brand of justice with devastating consequences…
I don’t know about any other bookseller but I am just waiting for the day when someone says, “You wouldn’t by any chance have any books where Irvine Welsh is channelled through the madcap world of a slightly unhinged menopausal woman would you?” To which I could triumphantly declare that yes, I have the very thing. Having read and reviewed Helen Fitzgerald’s books before, I think it really is fair to say that there are few contemporary writers that display the natural versatility and scope that she so confidently displays from book to book. For this reason alone, her books are unerringly readable, and as she turns her acerbic and probing gaze on, in this case, a woman under extreme pressure for a whole variety of reasons, you are never quite sure where she is going to take you…
Throughout Worst Case Scenario we become fully immersed in the world of Mary, an ageing criminal-justice social worker, grappling with a host of unpleasant clients, the daily struggle with petty bureaucracy, an over-reliance on illegal, and legal stimulants, and the nefarious onset of intense menopausal symptoms. Oh, and her perceived involvement in the suicide of one of her clients, an entanglement with the #MeToo movement, and attracting the hatred of pretty much every ‘cuckolded’ man the length and breadth of the nation. All told there’s quite a lot going on in Mary’s life, which becomes increasingly difficult with her son’s involvement with the daughter of said suicide victim, and the growing strain on her relationship with her husband Roddie. It’s all here: misogyny, misandry, perversion, hot flashes, and a pervading feel at times of a woman drowning, not waving.
As totally unhinged as this all sounds, Fitzgerald absolutely takes the reader through this strange and almost hallucinogenic world, where depravity and constant self doubt plague Mary’s life, but where Mary meets each challenge with all the subtlety of a blunt instrument, and with all the tact of the aforementioned too. She is a real force of nature, and despite her numerous flaws and the frustration she arouses in the reader, I liked her very much. Would I want her job? No. Would I want her ballsiness? Absolutely.
I’ve never had cause to refer to Greek mythology in a review before, but there’s a first time for everything, but Fitzgerald really does summon up the Muses of comedy, Thalia and tragedy, Melpomene in this book. Cut through with dark humour, moments of excruciating discomfort, Fitzgerald balances her razor-sharp comic touch, with moments of extreme pathos and heartbreak, carefully harnessing the moments of psycho-drama with the inherent need for the pace and suspense of any compelling psychological thriller. Taking a diversion from Greek mythology to the film Jumpin’ Jack Flash (yeah, stay with me), Whoopi Goldberg declares that she has the face of a woman on the edge, and that’s how I saw Mary, and I loved her all the more for it.
Worst Case Scenario is one of Fitzgerald’s best books to date, in its relevancy and very unique spin on a whole host of social, criminal and women’s issues. Would absolutely recommend this one…
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