Book Review: Whiteout

Whiteout, by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates), is the fifth book in the author’s Dark Iceland series of crime novels to be published in English by Orenda Books. At the beginning of this instalment the protagonist, policeman Ari Thór Arason, is once again working in the small fishing town of Siglufjörður in northern Iceland. His former boss, Tómas, has moved to Reykjavik where he has joined the city force’s Serious Crimes Department. Neither is completely happy in their roles.

When the body of a young woman, Ásta Káradóttir, is discovered beneath cliffs near the deserted village of Kálfshamarsvík, Tómas feels he must prove himself to his new colleagues by uncovering how she came to die. He eschews their offers of help preferring to call on Ari Thór for assistance. Together they travel to the scene of the investigation, in a remote, northern location which has a chequered history and harbours many secrets. Ásta’s mother and sister were found dead at the same spot more than twenty years before. The policemen question if each of these deaths could have been accident, suicide or something more sinister.

In many ways this felt like a country house murder mystery with chilling, nordic noir undercurrents. The cliffs are located by a large house, a lighthouse and a nearby farm, with little else close by. The residents of these properties have barely changed in the decades over which the story is set. Parents have died, their children grown, but few have moved on.  Although Ásta was sent to live with a distant aunt when she was seven years old, shortly after her sister’s death, those who knew her as a child remain.

Ari Thór and Tómas set about questioning their potential witnesses and suspects. An elderly brother and sister, Oskar and Thora, live in the basement of the big house and work as housekeeper and caretaker. The house is owned by Reynir who inherited the property and a successful business from his father and spends time there regularly. Living on the nearby farm is Arnor who looks after Reynir’s horses and helps Oskar with his duties at the lighthouse. All were close by at the times of each of the three tragic deaths.

Post-mortem examination shows that Ásta had sex shortly before she died yet the men deny involvement. Her body was found on rocks but there is a possible head injury from another cause. Her mother and sister’s deaths were officially regarded as suicide and accident. Rumours float to the surface that Ásta, when a child, may have witnessed more than has been acknowledged. The policemen’s questions bring to light historic behaviours that those involved sought to suppress. Then another body is discovered within the big house.

The story is set in the days leading up to Christmas which everyone is eager to celebrate for a variety of reasons. To avoid problems encountered in previous years, Ari Thór has brought his heavily pregnant girlfriend, Kristin, along with him to the hotel where they are staying. The author does not introduce plot threads without reason. Knowing this adds to the tension.

I was eager to review this book as I have followed Ari Thór through each of his adventures to date and grown fond of this young man trying so desperately to do something worthwhile with his life alongside creating the happy family of his imagination. He resents having missed out on this himself. His flaws are not of excess but rather a struggle to deal with his past and accept Kristen’s individuality. The ghosts haunting all the characters are the secrets they have tried to bury.

The writing is effortlessly captivating with a brooding quality that ensures plot direction remains actively unsettling. The reader’s eagerness to understand how and why is gradually rewarded. The denouement is accomplished yet retains a degree of ambiguity.

An entertaining read from a master storyteller that is crime fiction yet avoids the genres sometimes cliched predictability. I hope this is not the final book in what is a fabulous series. Highly recommended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher. 

This post is a stop on the Whiteout Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.  

Whiteout is published by Orenda Books.

 

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Book Review: Fair of Face

Fair of Face, by Christina James, is the sixth novel in the author’s DI Yates series of crime thrillers. Set in contemporary Lincolnshire it first introduces the reader to Tristram Arkwright, an inmate of HMP Wakefield who, as a reward for good behaviour, works in the prison library. He strikes up an illicit correspondence with Jennifer Dove, a city analyst turned bookseller who supplies the maximum-security jail with its reading material. Bored with the ‘honest intentions and humdrum goals’ of the local citizens, Jennifer considers her secret correspondence with the incarcerated librarian an exciting diversion. Both are attempting to play mind games believing they can retain the upper hand.

The action moves to Spalding where the bodies of a mother and her infant daughter have been discovered in their beds. The house is run-down and in one of the roughest streets in town where everyone knows everyone else’e business and few men seem to stick around. The murder house had been checked after the postman found the front door wide open early in the morning on his rounds. The dead woman’s foster daughter, Grace, is missing.

DI Tim Yates and DS Juliet Armstrong are called in to investigate. When Grace reappears with a friend, Chloe, both girls are acting strangely. These ten year olds are gently questionned but do not seem able to account for their whereabouts over the weekend just past with any consistency. Chloe seems more upset about the two deaths than Grace.

Due to the girls’ ages social services become involved. Marie Krakowski is a big hearted woman who DI Yates resents for her determination to protect her young charges. Her persistent interference during formal interviews makes getting the truth from the two children a challenge. Another social worker, Tom Tarrant, is held in higher esteem. Both social workers are familiar not just with the girls and their chequered backgrounds but also their troublesome wider families, details of which they are reluctant to share citing client confidentiality.

The murder investigation keeps coming back to these youngsters, one of whom is a survivor from a previous violent attack on her family. Although the perpetrator of this atrocity was apprehended there are secrets to uncover that could potentially have a bearing on the more recent case.

There are a number of links between characters which I found somewhat challenging to follow – uncles, nephews, siblings, partners, employees and social workers had multiple interactions and a variety of roles. The point of view kept switching between chapters which interrupted my concentration as I worked out who was narrating and their relationships. Having a Tim and a Tom didn’t help my attempts to retain a coherent overview. I wondered if some of this would have been clearer had I read previous books in the series.

There are many detailed descriptions of clothes, some of which seemed unnecessarily acerbic:

“Marie was wearing a floor-length red cotton tartan skirt and a jacket with a nipped-in waist (insofar as it was possible to nip in Marie’s waist)”

One of the characters plays a role that subsequently appears superfluous to the plot.

Despite these minor criticisms the writing remains engaging. I had guessed many of the reveals early on but had by no means worked out them all. Introducing two ten year old girls as potential witnesses or even suspects to murder was a plot driver I haven’t encountered before. The difficulties this presented to the police investigation added food for thought.

A crime novel that held my attention and offered sufficient originality to make it worth the read. Where I am sensitive to what I regard as over emphasis on looks and dress, others will likely find this helps picture each scene.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

This post is a stop on the Fair of Face Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Book Review: Rocco and the Nightingale

Rocco and the Nightingale, by Adrian Magson, is the fifth novel in the author’s Inspector Lucas Rocco series of crime thrillers. It is the first to be published by The Dome Press. Set mainly in rural France in the 1960s, the protagonist is a competent and diligent police officer. It is refreshing to read a crime novel with a main character whose work is not affected by troubling personal issues.

The story opens with a murder on a lonely back road near Picardie in 1964. Rocco and his team are called to investigate but can find little evidence other than the body. Just as it looks as though the victim may be identified, Rocco is taken off the case and assigned to protect a senior government minister ousted from the Gabon Republic in central Africa. Unhappy with this new role Rocco can’t quite let the murder investigation go.

Using trusted contacts in Paris, links with a criminal gang and the recent murder of a former police officer come under Rocco’s scrutiny. It would appear that an assassin may have been hired for a series of vengeance killings and Rocco himself could be a target. Although willing to take additional precautions, Rocco does not let this potential threat affect his work. When fellow policemen are gunned down where he should have been the extent of the danger is brought home.

Rocco risks the wrath of his superiors by travelling to other jurisdictions to investigate further. With a far reaching case to solve involving a vicious gang leader out to prove himself and a killer who appears to believe he is fireproof, Rocco’s willingness to follow procedure will only stretch so far. He suspects his superiors of ulterior motives.

Having cut back on the number of crime and thriller books I am willing to read, as so many merged into each other, this story proved worth making an exception for. It is comfortably paced with a good mix of interesting characters. The plot concentrates on solving the crimes without veering into unnecessary subplots such as romance. It is deftly written with enough humour and warmth to balance the gruesome detail of much of the action. Despite being part of a series it reads well standalone.

An engaging police procedural set before many modern methods of crime detection and communication became available. Rocco may enjoy more than his fair share of luck in garnering relevent information and in survival, but this is a well put together, entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dome Press.

 

Book Review: Earthly Remains

Earthly Remains, by Donna Leon, is the twenty-sixth instalment in the author’s Brunetti series of crime fiction novels. It is the first that I have read and can easily be enjoyed standalone. Set in and around the Venetian Lagoon, the islands and waterways play an important role. Refreshingly for crime fiction the protagonist, Commissario Guido Brunetti, is happily married with children and an apparently stable past. He drinks but not to excess, confides in his wife, and is pragmatic in his approach to people and work.

The story opens with a police interview during which Brunetti takes drastic measures to prevent a junior colleague risking his career when goaded by the arrogance of the wealthy lawyer they are questioning. As a result of his actions Brunetti is signed off work sick and decides he would benefit from some time away from home. Thanks to his wife’s family connections he secures a stay at a villa on one of the more rural local islands where he can spend time rowing, an activity he enjoyed as a boy. The property is cared for by Davide Casati who Brunetti discovers was a friend of his father, a connection that breaks down the barriers of formality between strangers.

The two men spend their days out on the water taking Casati’s puparin between small islands where he keeps beehives. They find that, in some of the hives, the bees are dying. Casati gathers samples to be tested in an attempt to discover why. He is greatly upset by what is happening, more than Brunetti would have expected. Casati mutters darkly about being to blame for this and his wife’s death. She died from cancer four years previously and he has never recovered from his loss.

Brunetti pays little heed to these outbursts until one weekend, after a storm, Casati fails to return to the home he shares with his daughter. Naturally she is concerned voicing a fear that her father, a competent boatman, may have succumbed to his continuing grief and chosen to join his wife in death. With time on his hands and unease about his new found friend, Brunetti decides to investigate.

There is an almost languorous feel to the prose yet somehow this seems apt given the setting. Brunetti shows awareness and appreciation of his surroundings alongside skill in reading and manipulating the people he meets. He notes the irony of the gratitude he feels when offered small services by strangers, tasks he takes for granted when performed quietly by his wife. He recognises the foolishness of his desire to appear ‘manly’ and the concessions he allows women over men.

A rich tapestry of a novel that explores many facets of wrong-doing and the reasons they are too often overlooked. The sense of place evoked is inspiring, even if locals do regard tourists as an infestation. This is an enjoyable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, William Heinemann. 

Random Musings: Reader Fatigue

To be clear…

If you wish to read a book, any book, then you should read it. If you enjoy reading a certain genre – and genre is simply a means of classification – then you should read it. No reader should be shamed for their choices. Sometimes it is good to switch off from life’s stresses by indulging in easy entertainment.

As for me…

I like to read an eclectic mix of books. As a book blogger I am fortunate in being sent a generous quantity of books to review. Other than romance, which I am unlikely to enjoy, I accept most genres.

Over the past few years this has resulted in me reading a large number of crime and thriller novels. Recently I have become aware of them merging. The means by which they grab my attention, maintain the tension, throw out a few red herrings, offer a twist at the denouement, has appeared uniform. I believe I am suffering reader fatigue with these popular genres.

There are, of course, exceptions. Authors such as Sarah Hilary, Mick Herron, AA Dhand, Adam Hamdy, Paul E. Hardisty and Ragnar Jónasson have produced books in the last year that have sufficient depth and character development to stand out – and this is by no means an exhaustive list.

What I have become aware of though is that I am seeking out more literary fiction. I crave the variety of structure, the experimentation, the lyricism. Beautifully crafted prose delights me more than clever plot twists. I seek characters who challenge my preconceptions.

 

I find the books I currently enjoy reading bubbling up from the small presses. It is not that I wish to fall off the radar of the bigger publishing houses who still produce much fine work – Gather the Daughters and Tin Man come to mind as recent reads I would not have wanted to miss.

Still though, the market feels crowded and I am not simply after the next big thing. For me, a standout read must do more than mimic. Rather than the next, I seek the original.

 

 

Book Review: Dying to Live

Dying to Live, by Michael Stanley, is the third book in the authors’ Detective Kubu series to be published by Orenda (you may read my reviews of the first two here and here). As with the previous instalments the imagery takes the reader into the heat and heart of Botswana where the books are set. Kubu masters his volatility better than before and less is made of his girth, although he continues to enjoy good food. His character, and that of his colleagues, add interest and depth but their varying foibles do not distract from the twists and turns in the plot. Witch doctor’s and their muti – alternative medicines that require belief to have any effect – continue to play a significant role.

The story opens with the death of a Bushman in a remote region of the country. He was a very old man who had been of interest to various foreigners due to his longevity. A prominent witch doctor is then reported missing in the town of Gaborone. There is nothing to link the two investigations until the names of the foreigners are found in the witch doctor’s appointments book.

Many in the police force despise the Bushmen and witch doctor’s, although the latter are still widely feared. The investigations are not therefore approached with much enthusiasm, deaths of such people regarded as of no great loss. When a body is stolen from a morgue it is assumed the parts were wanted for muti. Kubu is unconvinced as that of a young girl, which would have been considered more valuable by practitioners of such dark hocus pocus, is left untouched.

With so many aspects of the two cases remaining shrouded in secrecy by those potentially involved, Kubu is determined to get to the bottom of whatever is going on. What he uncovers goes beyond Botswana, and officials from abroad are not always willing to trust the integrity of their African counterparts.

The integrity of all concerned is key. Backhanders are common and the desire for health and wealth, whatever the cost to others, widespread. When Kubu’s daughter, Nono, reacts against her HIV medication and becomes seriously ill even his staunch belief in scientifically proven medication over muti is tested.

The pace feels gentle despite the dark events unfolding but reader engagement is retained throughout. This was a complex but enjoyable read; my favourite Kubu adventure thus far.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This post is a stop on the Dying to Live Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Dying to Live is published by Orenda Books.

Book Review: Western Fringes

Western Fringes, by Amer Anwar, is a crime thriller set within the Asian community of West London. There is a strong sense of place in an area of the city not normally portrayed in popular fiction. It is this which gives the story its edge.

The protagonist is Zaq Khan, recently released from a five year prison sentence, now trying to keep his head down and put his life back together. With his criminal record he struggled to find work so is eager to hold on to his job as delivery driver at a builder’s yard. When his boss, the volatile Mr Brar, needs someone to do a private job for him quickly and discreetly, he threatens Zaq with false accusations of theft in order to bend his employee to his will.

Mr Brar’s daughter, Rita, was to be forced into an arranged marriage so has run away from home. Mr Brar suspects she is with Kasim, a Muslim man her brothers claim she was dating. Such would be the alleged dishonour to Brar’s Sikh family if this became known, he requires Zaq to discover Rita’s whereabouts before the community realise what has happened, that she may be brought back and dealt with in a manner that her father deems appropriate. His strong armed sons, Parm and Raj, are eager to get to their sister first.

Zaq has dubious skills and contacts from prison, and also good friends he can call on for help. The Brar brothers are well known in these circles for their violence, although they are not the only ones keeping an eye on Zaq’s movements. The closer he gets to Rita, the more criminal activity he uncovers. He also finds himself ambushed and beaten on a regular basis, the details of which are graphically described.

The plot is engaging although at times the writing explained more than I felt necessary. The window into a culture I am unfamiliar with was interesting even if it was depicted in a largely negative light. The men seemed intent on gaining the upper hand in every situation through violence and intimidation. The only woman of note appeared to be victims despite their supposed intelligence.

There is tension and intrigue but I was not fully drawn into the tale. I could empathise with Zaq’s predicament but there was what I regard as a bleakness to so many of the lives. This may be a story more appealing to those who gain a vicarious thrill at comeuppance served through fighting. I prefer my princesses to save themselves with bravery and wit rather than relying on the arrival of a sword wielding knight.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.