Blog Tours · Reviews · Uncategorized

BLOG TOUR!! Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen

BIG_SISTER_AW.inddPI Varg Veum receives a surprise visit from a woman who introduces herself as his half-sister, and she has a job for him. Her god-daughter, a nineteen-year old trainee nurse from Haugesund, moved from her bedsit in Bergen two weeks ago. Since then no one has heard anything from her. She didn’t leave an address. She doesn’t answer her phone. And the police refuse to take the case seriously.

Veum’s investigation uncovers a series of carefully covered-up crimes and pent-up hatreds, and the trail leads to a gang of extreme bikers and to a shadowy group, whose dark intent is hidden by the anonymity of the internet. And then things get personal…

One of the nicest things about being a book blogger is discovering new voices. But all the focus on the new can sometimes drown out established masters and I do feel that sometimes we overlook the ‘new to me’ books and authors that are out there and awaiting discovery.

I say this because Gunnar Staalesen most definitely isn’t a ‘new’ author – he has written over twenty titles, been published in 24 countries and there have been twelve film adaptations of his novels in his native Norway. By any standards he’s incredibly popular and successful but, despite reading a lot of crime fiction, not a name I would have recognised before being invited onto the blog tour for his latest Varg Veum novel, Big Sister.

So on realising this was the twentieth book in the Varg Veum series I did feel a little behind the times and was worried there would just be too much backstory from the series to allow me to engage with the book. Those fears proved groundless however as Big Sister easily reads as a standalone and, whilst some of Varg’s earlier cases are referenced in passing, there are no spoilers (quite the achievement!) and the glimpses of them that we get serve only to encourage the reader to go back and read about some of Varg’s earlier cases.

Varg himself is also very easy to get to know as a character. A PI of the old-school, his world-weary attitude and sarcastic humour chime with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Unlike Marlowe however, Veum’s background is in social work; an interesting history that I felt added a compassionate edge to his character, something that isn’t always seen in PI fiction. He does however have the PI’s classic unflappability. Whether it’s having his unknown half-sister walk into his office with a case, having a series of doors slammed in his face during the course of a single afternoon, or being physically threatened by a biker gang, Varg’s stoicism and personal morality see him in a dogged pursuit of his goal.

And that goal takes Varg to some very dark places. From a seemingly simple missing person’s case, the narrative of Big Sister reaches back into the past and to a single, horrifying act, the repercussions of which now threaten a new generation. It’s a masterful use of the butterfly effect, with Staalesen pulling each character into the orbit of this one resonating event without ever tipping the balance of plausibility. Not a novel that relies on set-pieces, the tone is muted, filled with claustrophobic menace and slow-build suspense. I didn’t find it a page-turner in the traditional sense but there’s definitely a compulsion there – a slow inter-weaving of Staalesen’s various strands that pulled me into the narrative until the final, heart-stopping conclusion.

Chandler-esque PI novels aren’t always my cup of tea – I often find the detectives too sardonic and the plots too convoluted – but Big Sister was an enjoyable read, in as much as a dark Nordic crime thriller ever can be! An accomplished and confident novel that has been ably translated by Don Bartlett, Big Sister combines a suspenseful, finely-tuned narrative with a social conscience and a empathetic, strong-willed protagonist. The end result is a sharp and intelligent thriller that will delight noir fans and no doubt introduce many new readers to the name Gunnar Staalesen.

Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen, translated by Don Bartlett, is published by Orenda Books and is available now as a paperback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including HiveAmazon and Waterstones. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, as well as to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me to take part in this tour. The tour continues until 30 June so please do check out the other stops along the way! 

Big Sister blog poster 2018

 

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Books of the Year · Reviews

REVIEW! The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

SevenDeaths‘Somebody’s going to be murdered at the ball tonight. It won’t appear to be a murder and so the murderer won’t be caught. Rectify that injustice and I’ll show you the way out.’

It is meant to be a celebration but it ends in tragedy. As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed.

But Evelyn will not die just once. Until Aiden – one of the guests summoned to Blackheath for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again. Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot. 

The only way to break this cycle is to identify the killer. But each time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is determined to prevent him ever escaping Blackheath…

This last week, my reading life can best be described as sluggish, listless and lethargic . And I am entirely blaming Stuart Turton for that. His magnificent debut, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle has left me with one heck of a book hangover. I’d pegged Seven Deaths as a possible 2018 favourite in my New Year, New Books Tag back in January, so my expectations for the book were high but it exceeded every single one and then some!

As you can probably tell from the blurb, the premise is somewhere between a Agatha Christie country house mystery and Quantum Leap, with a dash of Groundhog Day for good measure. Its a high concept idea and; with all the body-hopping, time-looping shenanigans, it would be really easy for the book to lose its way and become mired in plot holes and confusion. So it is massively to Stuart Turton’s credit that Seven Deaths, whilst complex, never feels confusing. Instead the plot is gripping, with plenty of twists and turns to keep both Aiden – and the reader – on their toes.

The 1920s country house setting is fabulously realised, With a house full of waspish bright young things, a family falling apart at the seems, and a kitchen full of gossiping servants, the novel is a real tribute to  the golden age of crime fiction – there’s even a butler who might have done it! As a huge fan of classic crime, I loved these nods to the genre and was, initially somewhat concerned about the way that the more science-fiction elements of the story might be incorporated. The body-swapping, time-bending elements were brilliantly interwoven however, adding an extra layer of mystery and intrigue that takes the classic country house mystery to the next level.

Because you see, body-hopping protagonist Aiden is not the only person out of place at Blackheath. Two other people are trapped within the house’s walls and competing to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle – the mysterious Anna, and the psychopathic, knife-wielding Footman. Their inclusion, and the fact that they’re competitors as opposed to allies, really ratchets up the tension as Aiden must deal with the capabilities and limitations of each of his hosts, establish the relationships and movements of the Blackheath household, gather clues to protect the endangered Evelyn and avoid being murdered by one of his rivals – all whilst remembering who he’s meant to be and why he’s even trapped in Blackheath in the first place. You really have to feel for Aiden – he has a rough ride over the novel’s 512 pages and it’s to Turton’s credit again that he manages to imbue all of his characters, including Adrian’s varied hosts, with a real sense of individuality, intention and motivation.

You might be getting the sense by now that there’s a lot going on here and it’s true – the blurb barely does justice to the ingenuity of Turton’s plotting, which manages to be intricate without ever feeling mind-boggling. It would have been so easy to fall back on a deus ex machina, or to use the complexity of the narrative to skim over the finer details of the resolution, but Turton is never that lazy. Instead the denouement is emotionally engaging, utterly thrilling and a test of the reader’s little grey cells!

Brilliantly conceived and utterly original, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle has headed straight into my ‘Best Books of 2018’ list. Crime fans will love the whodunit elements, sci fi aficionados can really get their teeth into all the quirks, and literature lovers will find a startling debut from a talented new voice. Unique in concept and flawless in execution, Seven Deaths is a must read for anyone who enjoys exercising their brain and being left breathless when they’ve turned the final page.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton is published by Raven Books and is available now in hardback and is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon

Random Bookish Things · Reading Digest · Upcoming Books

A Reading Digest

After a recent run of blog tours, I’ve spent the last week treating myself to some freestyle reading so I thought it might be nice to do chatty round-up post about what I have read, what I’m currently reading and what I’m hoping to read next – a sort of reading digest of my recent bookish life. If you guys like it, I might do them more regularly so do let me know in the comments what you think.

Recent Reads

SevenDeathsIf you follow me on Twitter (@amyinstaffs), you’ll have probably seen me raving about Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which I’ve just finished as part of Simon Savidge’s second Big Book Weekender. It’s a unique novel that defies easy categorisation and, as such, is difficult to summarise without spoiling – the best I’ve been able to come up with so far is Agatha Christie country house mystery meets Quantum Leap body-hopping – but I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Definitely one of my favourite reads of 2018 so far, I shall be doing a full review in due course and wouldn’t be at all surprised if it makes my Books of the Year list.

On the non-fiction front, I’ve also just finished The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration England by Ian Mortimer. I made slow progress on this one – not because it wasn’t interesting, but because it was my bedtime book so I was generally only reading a few pages a night before turning the light out. The Restoration has never been one of my favourite historical periods but Ian Mortimer is brilliant at making history relatable and this latest Time Traveller’s Guide is no different – it’s the perfect blend of accessible, interesting and educating, making it perfect for the armchair enthusiast keen to fill gaps in their knowledge of British history.

Currently Reading

The SparrowAfter much gentle cajoling from my best friend (who thinks it’s amazing), I’ve finally picked up The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell which is about – and I kind you not – Jesuits in space. There is, of course, a bit more too it than that – the book involves a doomed scientific mission seeking to establish first contact with an extraterrestrial culture. I’m still pretty early on in the novel (Evelyn Hardcastle a bit took over my life for 3 days) but it’s already apparent that the mission has gone badly wrong so I’m eager to find out what has happened and why.

Following much love for it on Twitter and BookTube, I’ve also just started The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey. I’ve had this medieval mystery story on my shelf since listening to a brilliant interview with the author on the Vintage Books podcast. I’m intending to return to a study of medieval literature when I start my MA in September so the period of the novel – the late 15th century – is of great interest to me, as is the central conceit that examines the certainty of belief amidst an event that causes doubt and mistrust. So far I’m finding the book rather glacial in pace but richly lyrical in tone so I suspect it will be one that rewards patient weekend reading as opposed to snatched chapters on busy weekdays.

On the non-fiction (and bedtime book) front, I’ve now picked up The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards, which is a look at the golden age detective authors and their formation of the illustrious detection club. It’s a library book so I’ll have to crack on in order to get through it’s 500 or so pages during my loan period but, so far, the subject matter is proving interesting and the book is broken down into easily digestible chapters focusing on each author.

On the audiobook front, I’m currently listening to Text Me When You Get Home by Kayleen Schaefer. Subtitled ‘The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship’, this is both a personal and a sociological examination of female friendships in the modern era. I’ve been really enjoying listening to it so far – there’s been so many “that’s me and my girl friends!” moments throughout, plus plenty of touchstones to friendship focused fiction, films and TV shows.

Upcoming Books

ButterflyRanchI’m back on blog tour with a couple of titles next month so will shortly need to get cracking on both Gunnar Staalsen’s Big Sister, a Chandleresque PI novel by one of the fathers of Nordic Noir, and R K Salters Butterfly Ranch, a debut novel set in Belize that examines the aftermath of a popular author’s attempted suicide.

I’m also hoping to finally get round to Charlie Laidlaw’s The Things We Learn When We’re Dead, which I was kindly sent by the author. Aside from the brilliant title, the novel sounds like a lot of fun; with a unique take on heaven as a lost, dysfunctional spaceship. If that sounds like your sort of thing too, Charlie has advised that the novel will be free to download on BookBub for a limited period between 13 and 27 June 2018.

And last, but by no means least, I do really need to read Exit West by Mohsin Hamid as that’s my book club’s next pick. So plenty to keep me busy over the next few weeks!

Do let me know what you’ve been reading lately, what you’re currently reading and what you’re looking forward to reading next – you can say hi in the comments below or over on Twitter @amyinstaffs. I’d really like to know if you’ve read any of the above titles – or if you’re interested in picking them up. In the meantime, I hope you all have an excellent week and, until next time….

Happy Reading! x

 

 

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! The Old You by Louise Voss

The Old YouLynn Naismith gave up the job she loved when she married Ed, the love of her life, but it was worth the happy years they enjoyed together. Now, ten years on, Ed has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and things start to happen; things more sinister than lost keys and missing words. As some memories are forgotten, others, long buried, begin to surface…and Lynn’s perfect world begins to crumble. But is it Ed’s mind playing tricks, or hers…?

Head into any bookstore, or the book aisle of any supermarket, and chances are that you’ll see myriad psychological thrillers gracing the tables and shelves. The pacy plots, shocking twists and heart-pounding tension have made the genre increasingly popular with readers – which in turn has made it increasingly popular with publishers, eager to give those readers more of what they want. How then, to stand out in an increasingly saturated market, where a good twist comes as standard and unreliable narrators are ten a penny? Enter Louise Voss with The Old You – a true domestic noir with a unique take on the genre, more twists that a bag of pretzels and a subtlety of style that’s unusual for the genre.

The key to the novel is Ed’s diagnosis with a Pick’s Disease, a rare form of early onset dementia. A cruel illness, it’s easy to sympathise with Louise as she watches her beloved husband – a man she has sacrificed her career and her friendships for – rapidly deteriorate, going from a loving, confident and intellectual husband to a confused, angry shell of his former self. But then, things start to happen. Strange noises at night, Ed’s voice on the radio taking part in a debate he couldn’t possibly have the capacity to engage in – all small things but things that make Lynn question and that lead her back to the sinister events that bought her and Ed together all those years ago.

To say any more about the plot would be to spoil the novel, which lays out a number of shocking revelations, dramatic twists and unexpected turns for the reader, providing a delicious series of dramas and pulling you breathlessly through until the end. Page-turner is an adage thrown at many a thriller but it really is applicable here – there’s a compulsion to the plot that propels the reader forwards and I wouldn’t be surprised if many readers found this to be a one-sitting read.

I also found there to be a subtlety to The Old You that was refreshing. At first, the book seems to proceed down fairly linear lines but then Voss throws in doubt when it transpires Lynn has secrets of her own. Add in more doubt with a mysterious death and the cloudiness that Ed’s diagnosis brings to his memories and his behaviour, and you’re dealing with a book that’s just packed to the rafters with slow reveals and tantalising glimpses of the dark revelations that follow.

That isn’t to say the book is perfect by any means. Personally I felt Ed came across as a little selfish and domineering from the off and I had to work quite hard to understand why Lynn would sacrifice so much for him and trust him so implicitly, even with the sections of backstory that Louise Voss includes. Lynn and Ed are both very complex characters – and this largely works in the book’s favour – but there were definitely points where they both wobbled into unlikability and, for me, this made it hard for me to connect with them at some points.

I also found one of the revelations at the end to be stretching the bounds of plausibility just a tad, which was a great shame in a book that, for the most part, succeeded in keeping its twists and turns on the believable side of jaw-dropping. I hasten to add that these are extremely minor niggles however  and they didn’t impact my overall enjoyment of The Old You or the engagement I had with it’s myriad deceptions and revelations.

Original and compelling, The Old You is one the book equivalent of a matryoshka doll – you open up one element of the plot and out another one pops, gradually descending layer by layer and twist by twist until you reach its dark and shocking heart. It’s a real rollercoaster of a book, filled with deception and doubt, that will have you turning the pages and staying up well past your bedtime – all of which makes it a great addition to any domestic or psychological thriller fan’s bookshelf!

The Old You by Louise Voss is published by Orenda Books and is available now as a paperback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Amazon and Waterstones. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, as well as to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me to take part in this tour. 

FINAL Old You blog poster 2018 copy

Reviews

REVIEW! The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

35103171One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee houses, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on…and a courtesan of great accomplishment. The meeting will steer both their lives on a dangerous new course.  

What will be the cost of their ambitions? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?

Does anyone else ever get that thing where you deliberately don’t read a book because you know it’s going to be amazing and then you’ll never get an opportunity to experience it for the very first time again? Sort of like a ‘saving it for best’ book that you’re waiting for the right moment to be spellbound by? And then you put off reading it for a few months and then you’re not reading it just in case it doesn’t live up to all the expectation and hype you’ve created in your head? Yeah, book nerds are crazy….

Anyhoo, this is exactly what happened with The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock which I have finally finished reading. I’d had it on the shelves since early February when I spent a delightful evening at the wonderful Booka Bookshop listening to Imogen herself introduce the novel and the glittering period of English history in which it is set. I was all intent on reading it straight away but weeks turned into months and then the fear that maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be quite as good as I expected crept in. Mr Hancock and his mystical mermaid languished unread on the shelf for months – and would have stayed there for even longer if it hadn’t been for in Simon Savidge’s Big Book Weekender (thanks Simon!) giving me that push banish my fears, pick it up and dive straight in.

And the verdict? I was being completely and utterly daft because THIS BOOK IS AMAZING!

Seriously, why did I wait so long to read this?!?! It was an utter joy from start to finish, packed with a rich, evocative sense of time and place, a spell-binding cast of larger than life characters and a mesmerising use of language. An utter romp from the first page to the last that, despite a sedate pace and a plot that’s inclined to meander, led to me tearing through the 484 pages in a matter of days (and it would have been even faster if pesky real-life work hadn’t gotten in the way).

For me, the setting is the real triumph here. I was immersed in the world of Georgian London, particularly the opulent yet secretive world of the nunneries – the high end brothels that catered to the rich and famous of Georgian society; where the courtesans were skilled in both social graces and the art of pleasing the clientele. The unexpected arrival of his ‘mermaid’ plunges the gentle, considerate merchant Jonah Hancock straight into this glittering world of pleasure and debauchery – and straight into the path of Angelica Neal, my second favourite thing about this book.

Angelica is an absolute delight. Accomplished in every sense of the word, she’s smart, sassy and a devilish delight. Her sharp wit, sense of fun and sheer unbridled vivacity instantly earned her a place at my imaginary ‘fictional characters dinner party’ (I can see her cackling in a corner with Elizabeth Bennet, much to the despair of other guests). Yes, she’s petty and petulant and spoilt but she’s just so much fun. And I loved the way she developed as a character throughout the course of the book whilst retaining all the traits that made her so fascinating to begin with.

And the language – oh, the language. This is a novel told in such a rich, layered way. It’s the literary equivalent of really good chocolate fudge cake – dark and delicious, but without ever becoming sickly. I enjoyed every sentence and the quality of Imogen Hermes Gowar’s research seeps through on every page, from the cadence of the characters’ spoken words to the evocative descriptions of London’s bustling street.

So the setting is amazing, the characters are vivid, the language is mesmerising; what about the plot? Well, it’s perfectly solid. Now if that sounds like damning with faint praise it really isn’t meant to be – it’s just that I’m not sure this is a book that’s reliant on plot to provide its core reading experience. The plot, such as it is, is the perfect backdrop to allow these characters and this world to tell their story but the joy, for me anyway, lay in the way the story was being told. It’s a novel of characterisation – so anyone coming to The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock expecting magical mermaids and upstairs/downstairs high-jinks would probably end up slightly disappointed. In this way, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock very much reminded me of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, another book with an apparently mythical creature at its heart that absolutely captivated me, but also focused on small interactions, subtle developments of character and an evocative sense of time and place to tell its intricately woven tale.

So if you’re looking for a book where something happens to move the story forwards on every page, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock might not be for you. But if you want a richly textured historical novel that will suck you into the heart of Georgian London with its atmospheric writing, sharp intelligence and warm humour, then The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock will keep you spellbound in its grasp.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower is published by Harvill Secker and is available in hardback now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! What You Want to See by Kristen Lepionka

What You Want to SeeShaken by the outcome of her last big case, PI Roxane Weary is keeping a low profile. When she takes on a new client who suspects his fiancee is cheating on him, Roxane is happy to have landed what seems to be a straightforward surveillance job.

For Roxane however, there’s no such thing as the quiet life: her on-off girlfriend is playing games, her ex-boyfriend seems to be moving on just a little too fast and then Marin Strasser, the woman she’s meant to be tailing, turns up dead.

The police are convinced her client is the one who pulled the trigger, but certain – and scared – that things aren’t so straightforward, Roxane starts to follow a paper trail that gets more dangerous the farther it goes…

There are those glorious moments as a reader when you pick up a book and you just know that you’re going to be friends. I got this immediately when introduced to Kristen Lepionka’s world-weary private investigator Roxane Weary, bemoaning the gradual gentrification of her neighbourhood on page one of Lepionka’s latest novel, What You Want to See:

“Urban renewal was in the air of Bryden Road. The dilapidated house across the street from my apartment had been condemned, foreclosed, and eventually purchased by a fighty grad-student couple who appeared to be using the renovation process as experimental marriage counselling. The my upstairs neighbors moved out and were replaced by a twentyish hipster with a name I could never remember and dreams of starting a farming collective in the building’s narrow backyard. I knew this because she had long, loud phone conversations about it all day long.”

First person isn’t my favourite narrative style but being inside Roxane’s head is just a joy. She’s so full of snark – a mixture of funny, self-deprecating and downright ballsy that I really appreciated. And despite the somewhat cliche world-weary, hard-drinking element – combined, of course, with a remarkable set of poor decision-making skills, that are inherent in many a classic PI protagonist, Roxanne feels sharp, edgy and up to the minute. In short, she feels like a real person and her character whose humanity comes across on the page; and this definitely elevates What You Want to See from amidst the sea of thrillers currently gracing bookstore tables.

The plot is sufficiently intriguing too of course. From what seems to be a run-of-the-mill surveillance job, the pace quickly ratchets up to include a murder, a drive-by shooting, a second dead body and the involvement of organised crime. So there’s plenty going on to keep Roxane busy – and that’s before you throw in her personal life which includes an ex-boyfriend who just happens to be working the official side of the investigation and an ex-girlfriend who won’t quit with sending mysterious text messages.

Not having read the first book in the series, The Last Place You Look, I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to pick up the threads of Roxane’s somewhat complex life and tangled web of relationships in this second book and can attest that What You Want to See reads absolutely fine as a standalone novel. The events of The Last Place You Look are alluded to in the novel but Lepionka does a great job of introducing key characters and summarising the previous book’s events without spoiling the plot for anyone who wants to go back and read Roxane’s previous outing.

Released just in time for holiday season, What You Want to See would make a great sun-lounger read. The fast pace, whip-sharp dialogue and rollercoaster twists and turns make it the perfect book to devour in one or two sittings whilst sipping a glass of something chilled in the sunshine. And even if you’re not heading for sunnier shores this summer, with an intriguing mystery, a sassy lead, a layered cast of support characters, and clever, confident writing that never loses its sense of humour; What You Want to See is an addition to the genre that definitely deserves a slice of any crime fiction fan’s time.

What You Want to See by Kristen Lepionka is published by Faber & Faber and is available now in paperback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

WHAT YOU WANT TO SEE_Blog tour graphic_Kristen Lepionka

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! Keeper by Johana Gustawsson

KEEPER COVER AW 2.inddWhitechapel, 1888: London is bowed under Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror.

London, 2015: actress Julianne Bell is abducted in a case similar to the terrible Tower Hamlets murders of some ten years earlier, and harking back to the Ripper killings of a century before.

Falkenberg, Sweden, 2015: a woman’s body is found mutilated in a forest, her wounds identical to those of the Tower Hamlets victims. With the man arrested for the Tower Hamlets crimes already locked up, do the new killings mean he has a dangerous accomplice, or is a copy-cat serial killer on the loose? 

Dual timelines are tricky to pull off in any novel but especially in crime fiction. Too much detail and the narrative loses it’s tension, too little and the plot gets lost in the haze. Despite adding an international cast and fair bit of country hopping into the mix however, Johana Gustawsson handles the various strands of Keeper’s complex plot like a pro, ratcheting up the tension with every turn of the page and delivering a multi-layered mystery that combines nordic noir with psychological compulsion.

Keeper is the second in Gustawsson’s Roy and Castells series and sees the return of Canadian profiler Emily Roy, now working for as a Behavioural Investigative Advisor for the Metropolitan Police and French true-crime writer Alexis Castells, whose personal connection to the Tower Hamlets killings could jeopardise their new investigation. The two ladies make engaging leads, with Roy’s icy genius contrasting nicely to Alexis’ more emotional, instinct based approach.

With chapters told from a number of different viewpoints and a large cast, it would be easy for characters to become redundant but Gustawsson manages to make each person feel distinct – from the suave and capable DCS Jack Pearce to the Alexis’ scene-stealing mother Mado. Aliénor Lindbergh, an intern on the Swedish side of the investigation with Asperger Syndrome, was a favourite for me. I have limited knowledge of the disorder but the author credits the president of the Étoile d’Asperger association with assisting in crafting the character and Aliénor certainly comes across as a well-rounded individual, with determined attention to detail and a frank ‘say what you see’ attitude to communication, making a valuable addition to the investigative team. I very much hope she returns in future books.

The mystery itself is also incredibly detailed, with plot strands weaving through from 1888 to 2015 and moving between London and Sweden throughout. There are, admittedly, times when the rip-roaring pace left me losing one of the threads, necessitating a quick flick back a page or two to pick up on the key piece of information I’d sped past  – but these were few and far between which is a real achievement for a book that features a celebrity abduction, two identical murders in two different countries, a series of high profile historic crimes and a killer whose origins may all link back to Jack the Ripper. Make no mistake, there’s a lot going on in this novel but, for the most part, Gustawsson pulls it off.

As you’d probably expect from a novel that mixes Nordic noir with Jack the Ripper, the book isn’t for the faint-hearted. From descriptions of the gory mutilations on a victim’s body to the claustrophobic atmosphere of poverty-stricken Victorian Whitechapel, Gustawsson doesn’t shy away from the gritty detail. So if you like your crime cosy, this one probably isn’t going to be for you. That said, Keeper never feels gratuitous in its violence – if it’s depicted on the page it’s there for a reason.

And the ending? Well, we’re spoiler free here at The Shelf but it doesn’t disappoint providing a number of satisfying twists and turns before revealing the truth behind the whole affair with its plausibility still intact.

And having not read Gustawsson’s first Roy and Castell’s thriller, Block 46 (something I intend to remedy in the very near future), I can also attest that the book loses absolutely nothing when read as a standalone – although you’ll probably want to pick up the first books as soon as you finish this one!

Dark and disturbing but beautifully crafted, with mesmerising twists and turns and astute attention to detail, Keeper is a fast-paced read that will leave crime thriller fans breathless and gives noir fans a fantastic new voice from which to anticipate more.

Keeper by Johana Gustawsson (translated by Maxim Jakubowski) is published by Orenda Books and is available now as a paperback and ebook from all good bookseller and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, as well as to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me to take part in this tour. 

Keeper Blog Tour

 

 

 

Author Q&A

Q&A with Kendra Olson: Author of ‘The Forest King’s Daughter’

TFKD book cover[426]The year is 1886 and Swedish teenager, Ingrid Andersdotter, is about to face a series of life-changing events.

When Ingrid forgets to close the barn door one freezing cold night, there will be dire consequences for her family. To make matters worse, her attraction to the new school teacher leads to ostracism and shame. Ingrid’s strong opinions and the pressure of the powerful village church to conform to ideas she doesn’t believe in put her at odds with her traditional community.

Her only option is to leave her home and family. But is she brave enough to make an ocean crossing to a strange new land on her own, leaving everything she knows far behind? And will she find the freedom she dreams of if she takes such a risk?

I am delighted to welcome Kendra Olson to The Shelf today to talk historical fiction, folklore and new beginnings and to tell us a little more about her debut novel, The Forest King’s Daughter.

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Kendra Olson, copyright B MossopWelcome to The Shelf of Unread Books Kendra! The Forest King’s Daughter is your first novel. Can you tell readers a little about the book and what happens in the story?

Yes, certainly. The Forest King’s Daughter is a coming of age, historical novel with a hint of folklore in it. The story takes place in 19th century rural Sweden and follows the journey of teenager Ingrid Andersdotter as she faces a series of life-changing events. Ingrid battles against the effects of poverty and injustice in her life only to bring about consequences she can’t ignore. It’s how she deals with these consequences that will make all the difference.

The novel begins in Sweden in 1886 before moving to America. Did you always intend to write a historical novel and what drew you to that particular time and those places?

I’m American but moved to England almost fourteen years ago. My novel was inspired by my interest in my great-great-grandmother who, I discovered, emigrated from rural Sweden to America as a young woman back in the late 1800s. She interested me as she’d left Europe never to return and here I was returning over 100 years later, as a young woman. It was a family connection I had forgotten about.

As travel was so much more expensive and dangerous at the time (for steerage passengers anyway) I wondered what might have gone into such a decision. I became interested in Swedish history and started reading about the social conditions of the period. What I learned was that many single young women emigrated to America and that some people were very dissatisfied with the social climate in Sweden. I then started imagining what it might have been like to be a young woman back then—what might your life look like?

This led me to come up with my protagonist, Ingrid Andersdotter, who lives deep in the forest of Värmland (where my grandmother came from). Ingrid is courageous and wilful. She comes up against both her parents and the local church authorities (who functioned like the law at this time). I wondered where her battles might take her and how this would play out. I decided that she’d need to leave her village, but that her journey wouldn’t automatically take her directly to America (that would be too easy!) so she’s first taken to Stockholm where she works as a maid, before getting into trouble again and taking the final step—emigrating to America.

Readers get a real sense of the traditions, expectations and constraints of living in a rural community during the 1880s when reading The Forest King’s Daughter. How did you begin to research the novel? And did any of that research change the story in any way?

Thank you, I’m pleased that you think so. I started by exploring my own genealogy, which was fairly easy as one of my uncles had already done a lot of research, tracing our family all the way back to 17th century Norway. He’d also written up short descriptions of the relatives he knew something about, be that from personal experience, anecdote or family letters. Part of my research involved visiting my existing family in Sweden—the descendants of those who stayed and continue to reside in the same community. This was interesting and a lot of fun. They showed me the house my grandmother grew up in and talked me through what life was like back then. It was an amazing experience!

From there I explored the mythology of Swedish emigrants, reading novels that had been written about them, such as Vilhelm Moberg’s Emigrants trilogy and some of Selma Lagerlöf’s stories. This was in addition to reading Swedish history and biographies and visiting museums, such as the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool where I saw replicas of the ships the emigrants travelled to America on.

While writing I tried to completely immerse myself in the story and time, so besides reading about the history and customs of Sweden and Swedish Americans, I tried to replicate what small experiences I could. For example, I visited the old dock in Liverpool where the emigrant ships departed from, which is no longer in use and difficult to find. It was exciting to sit on that old dock and imagine what it must have been like all those years ago. I rode the ferry to get a feeling for being in those waters—they were very choppy! I also learned how to make some traditional Swedish recipes, such as pepparkakor, which are like gingersnaps and baked every Christmas. I even listened to some old Swedish folk music. These experiences certainly fed my imagination while writing the story!

In terms of the research changing the story, I think it functioned more to direct the writing and to help me develop it. After deciding that I wanted to write about this time period, I began reading about it. It was only after I’d done some initial research that I was able to come up with story events, character details etc.

You incorporate some very interesting – and little known (in the UK at least) – folklore into the story. Was this always your intention or did you weave that in as the story progressed? What drew you to tell Ingrid’s story through the lens of a fairy tale?

When hearing stories and reading about the Swedish-American experience, I was struck by how different life was in Sweden in the 19th century. To an emigrant it must have felt almost like another world. Having loved the idea of fairies as a child, it reminded me that fairies inhabit a world just on the edge of our consciousness, in a place where the normal rules don’t apply. In the legends the fairy world sometimes manifests as a fairy circle whereby the person observing it is, quite literally, on the brink of two worlds. It struck me that this is similar to the experience of emigrants who have one foot in the country and culture they grew up in and another in their new country and culture. I thought this could serve as a useful metaphor in the story for Ingrid’s experience.

Then, when I read The Saga of Gösta Berling by Selma Lagerlöf, a native of Värmland, Sweden, I was struck by her magical depiction of Värmland in winter and the forest people, who were the torpare or crofters—the very same people I’m descended from. As a country’s folklore also reflects something of that culture’s worldview, I thought that incorporating a mythical element might also help me to become better acquainted with my characters and setting.

I should also say that while many of the myths depicted in the story are based on real folklore, the main myth—that of the Forest King’s daughter herself—is actually made up. While the elk are seen as the kings of Sweden’s forest, I have yet to read anything that mythologises them in this way.

The book is very much a coming of age story for young heroine Ingrid. Did you always intend Ingrid to be the focus of the novel? And how did she develop as you were writing her?

I always wanted the story to revolve around a central female protagonist. As I read more about the history of Sweden, particularly women’s history, her character grew from my reading. However, I also wanted her character to be accessible to modern day readers. While there’s a lot of commonality to human experience both past and present, there are elements to her character that I consciously tried to make more modern (her interest in education, for example).

Are there any books that you would recommend to readers who love The Forest King’s Daughter? Any that particularly inspired you or aided in your research?

This is a difficult question to answer as so many different books inspired me and aided me in my research! On the Swedish fiction side, Hanna’s Daughters by Marianne Fredriksson was both inspiring and helpful. Also, Vilhelm Moberg’s Emigrants trilogy and the stories of Selma Lagerlöf, which I’ve already mentioned. On the non-Swedish fiction side, I enjoyed The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, which is of course very different but incorporates a mythological element about the narrator’s past as well as Balkan folklore. I also love how Amy Tan weaves myth and magic into her family stories and her novels certainly inspired me. On the non-fiction side, I Go to America, Swedish American Women and the Life of Mina Anderson by Joy K. Lintelman helped me a great deal, as did the biographies of immigrant and refugee women more generally.

Do you have any tips for any would be historical novelists out there? The task of writing about a completely different time and place seems very daunting to me – where on earth do you begin?

It’s tricky to give advice as every writer approaches the creative process differently. While I usually start with a vague idea and then do some research to expand upon it, another writer might start writing, and only then begin researching. Also, as historical fiction can contain varying levels of fact, that too will play a part in how a writer approaches their subject. There are as many different ways to write about history as there are to write about contemporary times.

What I would say is that it’s important to do at least some research—the more the better—as readers need to believe in the world you’ve created for your characters. The more known a period/place is, the more likely readers will be to question the story should a detail be incorrect. But don’t go overboard with the detail. Instead, focus on what readers need to know so as not to lose them along the way.

Try to immerse yourself in your chosen setting. This will give you a greater understanding of your characters and help to make them feel credible to readers.  Readers want to be able to empathise with a character. This stands whatever your time period. In fact, the more distant the past the story is set in, the more important this is—it’s the reader’s ability to relate to the characters that will help connect them to that particular period of history.  Historical fiction is about bringing the past to life, so focus on ways to connect modern day readers to their historical counterparts.

Finally, are you working on anything else now that The Forest King’s Daughter is out in the world? Will this be in a similar vein or are you going for something completely different?

Well, after I wrote The Forest King’s Daughter I wrote another novel, also set in the past, albeit the much less distant past. That story takes place on a Navajo reservation in Arizona in the early 1980s. It contains similarities to The Forest King’s Daughter in that there’s an element of myth to it, but otherwise the story is very different. However that novel isn’t yet published. Much of it was written during my Masters in Creative Writing and it needs more attention and research. Since then I’ve focused on writing literary short stories, both contemporary and historical. I’m hoping to release a collection at some point.

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The Forest Kings Daughter is available now. Fans of historical fiction with an added dash of folklore will find much to enjoy here, as will anyone who enjoys a coming of age story with a strong-willed female protagonist.

A big thank you to Kendra for taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly – it’s been a pleasure to have you visit The Shelf.

The Forest King’s Daughter is published by Pilrig Press and is available now as an ebook from Amazon UK, Amazon US and the iBook store. 

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Discussion Time

DISCUSSION TIME! Literary And/Or Commercial Fiction

Hello! It’s been a while so how have you all been? Firstly, apologies for the lack of recent posts – after a busy March on the book/blog front, April has been busy on the real life/adulting front (no prizes for guessing which one was more fun…) so neither much blogging nor, indeed, much reading has been going on in my household for a few weeks.

In lieu therefore of any book reviews, I’ve thought a discussion post might be interesting and, prompted by this excellent video from Simon over at Savidge Reads, wanted to examine the literary vs commercial fiction debate that seems to be have risen it’s little head again in some corners of the book world. So, what defines a literary novel? What makes a book commercial? And, most importantly, does it matter anyway?

The short answer to that question is, of course, no.

But for some reason, every time there’s a book prize shortlist announcement or when a Writer of Great Literature announces that their new novel is set on an alien planet and could therefore be considered as sci-fi (*gasp!*), the literary vs commercial debate starts up again.

Take, for example, Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done, a novel about Lizzie Borden. The Guardian’s favourable review called it ‘an outstanding debut novel about love, death and the lifelong repercussions of unresolved grief’ but, crucially, did not categorise it as a crime novel. And it most definitely IS a crime novel – it’s about a woman who may have stoved her parents’ heads in with an axe after all. Why then is it considered somehow different to Sarah Ward’s most recent novel A Patient Fury, in which a woman may or may not have murdered her entire family? That was also favourably reviewed in The Guardian but, interesting, was described as a ‘classic police procedural’ – clearly labelling it as crime fiction. Now I’m not saying that Schmidt and Ward write in the same way – or that the two books are identical – but, given that they have similar themes and ideas, I do find it interesting that one is considered ‘literary’ whereas the other seems to be treated as more ‘commercial’.

It was the same when Nobel prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Buried Giant. With elements of myth including dragons and ogres, the book could be – shock horror – considered a fantasy novel. Literary critics at the time of publication took great pleasure in debating whether a ‘literary’ author should be involving himself with the stuff of such a commercial genre and, most literary types agreed, it was a departure from the norm for the writer. Really? Isn’t Never Let Me Go science-fiction? Or dystopian? The Remains of the Day could most definitely be classed as historical fiction couldn’t it? And couldn’t you say that When We Were Orphans is a crime novel? Ishiguro’s been cherry-picking from genre fiction for years – it’s one of the things that, for me anyway, makes him such an interesting writer.

So is it about ‘literary merit’ then? The lasting quality of the works, the allure of the writing, the use of inventive structure and experimental form? For me, this suggests that commercial and genre fiction doesn’t have the same resonance or impact as literary fiction and I just don’t think that’s the case. I recently read and reviewed Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie, longlisted for The Women’s Prize for Fiction and considered by some to be one of the more ‘commercial’ titles on the list. I found it to be a deeply affecting and highly intelligent novel about friendship, loss, memory and old age and I’m currently forcing copies into the hands of my family and friends at every opportunity.

Plus the ‘literary merit’ argument completely ignores the fact that many of our now beloved classic authors – Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens to name but a few – were most definitely writing commercial fiction back in the day. Dickens’ and Collins were both paid per instalment so deliberately wrote as lengthily as possible – and anyone who claims that Austen didn’t have her eyes on the prize has clearly never read any of her letters. And all three were highly successful authors in their day so it’s not about popularity or commercial success either.

Personally I think the terms ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ aren’t all that helpful for the majority of readers. For publishing types, they’re a useful way of distinguishing an author’s potential market and choosing how to promote that particular book. For academics and reviewers, they’re catch-all terms that can distinguish certain types of writing and style. But for readers? Well, they’re something for us to argue about I suppose!

Going back to the start of this post, I’m with Simon all the way when he says about books being accessible to everyone and that it wouldn’t do for us all to like the same things. So what if the only books you read last year were by E L James? The fact that I think Fifty Shades is suitable only for using as kindling in no way diminishes the enjoyment that many others may have gotten from the trilogy. One of my favourite contemporary novels is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History yet my Mum thought it was pretentious twaddle about a privileged elite. My best friend adores The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry but I found it so saccharine that I swear that I lost three teeth just picking it up. Having a choice in what we read and how we engage with that is one of the primary joys of being a reader. What does it matter what label a book comes with if it brings you joy?

So there you have it – literary, commercial – they’re just labels and, personally, I don’t think they should be used to define, praise or belittle anyone’s reading. Read what you want, share the book love and let me know in the comments what you think about literary and commercial fiction. I’m also thinking of making Discussion Time a more regular feature on the blog so if you enjoyed the post (or didn’t!), or if you have any bookish topics you think would be good to discuss, do let me know. And, as always, until the next time…

Happy Reading!!

Reviews

REVIEW: Dear Mrs Bird by A. J. Pearce

Mrs BirdSometimes a book comes along at just the right moment in life. This was the case with Dear Mrs Bird, a spirited wartime romp that I read back in cold, wet November when my spirits needed A Jolly Good Talking To (as Mrs Bird herself would advise).

Set in 1940s London and with the Luftwaffe making nightly raids overhead, Emmeline (Emmy) Lake dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent. So when she seeks a job advertised at an impressive newspaper, she promptly quits her existing job and applies. Only it turns out the job isn’t for the newspaper at all but as secretary to the fearsome Henrietta Bird, acting editoress and redoubtable agony aunt at failing women’s magazine Woman’s Friend.

Mrs Bird’s requirements are very clear: letters containing any form of Unpleasantness must go straight in the bin. And Mrs Bird’s list of Unpleasantness is very long indeed. As Emmy finds herself dismissing letters from love-lorn, grief-stricken and morally confused readers in favour of those asking for a good rationing recipe or help with unsightly ankles, she decides the only thing to do is to write back to the conflicted readers herself.

Make no mistake, this book is a romp through and through. To start with, I even wondered if it was a pastiche because there’s just so much sugar in Emmy – she’s the epitome of the Blitz spirit and, as a result, her narrative voice is very Famous Five jolly hockey sticks and lashings of ginger beer. Stick with it though because, behind all the mustn’t grumble stiff-upper lip is an irresistibly funny and very moving novel about friendship, growing pains and the importance of being kind.

I loved Emmy as a character – she’s spirited and funny and a little bit daft. There’s also an eclectic supporting cast from Emmy’s sarcastic boss to her sensible best friend Bunty – and not forgetting the formidable Mrs Bird herself of course, who never speaks when she can shout and never shouts when she can bellow.

Underneath all the high-jinks though, there’s a real sense of daily life in wartime London, both from Emmy’s own experiences and the letters of the readers she responds to. As the book progresses, Emmy begins to realise that you can’t always rely on Keeping Your Chin Up and Carrying On Regardless. There’s some particularly evocative descriptions of the blitz that, for me, are only rivaled by those I read in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. And there’s definitely sections of the book that made me cry just as much as other parts made me laugh out loud – the deft lightness of touch that allows the story to work on so many levels is a real compliment to the author, especially as this is a debut.

Overall though, this is a heart-warming and spirited read that would be perfect for anyone who enjoyed Eva Rice’s The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. Yes, at times it’s so quirky that it verges on the twee but some books you read for pure pleasure and this is most definitely one of them. Heart-warming and irresistible, this is a warm hug of a book that’s perfect for cheering dull spirits and brightening a wet, cold afternoon.

Dear Mrs Bird by A. J. Pearce is published by Picador Books on 05 April 2018 in hardback and ebook. My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley for providing an advanced eproof in return for an honest and unbiased review.