Book Review: Magnus

Magnus, by Mark Carew, is mostly set on a remote island in northern Norway. Five students are spending a week studying the mosses that grow there for a project that will enable them to complete their studies. The professor overseeing their work owns the island and is nearing retirement. It is he who agreed to accept the outsider, Magnus, despite the man’s infamy putting others off attending. The group is small for what is usually a popular placement.

Magnus is older than the other students as he has struggled to graduate. His many health and behavioural issues have led to the university extending the time he is allowed to continue at the institution. This week, however, is his final chance to attain a degree. Magnus’s contempt for other people verges on the dangerous but the professor considers himself capable of managing whatever situations develop.

The island has no phone or internet connection. Power comes from a generator. Food and drinking water must be brought in. The residents are all but cut off from the world for the week they stay.

Parallel to the story of the island group is a tale of a young, English tourist, Alexander Clearly, who is travelling through Norway is search of adventure. He buys a wolf skin that he wears as a cloak and carries few other possessions. There are hints as to his relevance to the main plot and this is eventually revealed.

The arrogance of these two characters puts their lives in danger as they are determined to survive alone, on their wits, by whatever means. Along the way they encounter kindnesses that are rarely appreciated as most would expect. They are loners who only seem to regard their mothers with any sort of fondness. They wish to mate with women but lack social skills.

The dormitory accommodation on the island leads to issues when Magnus goes out of his way to be unpleasant. The group rejects him and he plots his revenge.

The writing is raw in places, which suits the animalistic behaviour of the protagonists. There is much dialogue but once the pace picks up the tale becomes compelling. I was reminded of Scandinavian Noir in translation despite this being an English work. The sense of place is strong throughout. The rituals described are evocative with the undercurrent of unease building well.

The denouement is tightly woven if disturbing. Magnus is really quite a terrifying creation when considered clearly. The reader, like the professor, will be challenged by the desire to give even dysfunctional people a chance, and the dangers this can lead to. A thought-provoking story that is well worth reading.

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

Book Review: A Modern Family

“Family members are never truly able to see another completely clearly, only ever through the veil that their relationship draws over things”

A Modern Family, by Helga Flatland (translated by Rosie Hedger), tells the story of three grown-up and independent siblings whose lives are thrown off kilter when their elderly parents announce they plan to divorce. Set mostly in Norway, it offers a window into the rivalry, resentment and jealousy that exists within the framework of an otherwise loving family. It depicts love, familial and romantic, as inherently selfish.

Liv is the eldest child and believes her siblings rely on her to provide leadership and stability. Now in her forties, she married Olaf in her twenties and they have two children. Her sister, Ellen, is two years younger and in a relationship with Simen. Håkon, their brother, is a decade younger and single. The tale opens with this group flying to Italy with their parents for a holiday to celebrate the father’s seventieth birthday.

The bombshell announcement reverberates through each of the siblings’ lives on their return home. Initially, Liv is the most affected as the foundations she has built her life on are swept away. In her anger she distances herself from her parents, the fallout affecting Olaf and their children. Liv believes her siblings feel as she does and resents that they, once again, expect her to sort out the mess.

Ellen has other things on her mind. Unbeknown to everyone, she and Simen are trying for a baby and struggling. The job that has given her pride and satisfaction becomes a secondary concern. She feels a failure and, as such, will not seek support from those she looks to for praise and validation. Initially surprised by Liv’s take on events, she comes to empathise.

“the whole thing draws a veil of insincerity over every memory and experience and belief I have relating to family life, with Mum and Dad clearly able to brush off forty years of marriage, to abandon so easily the union that created us.”

Håkon’s views on the situation are not revealed until close to the denouement. His sisters have only recently begun to regard him as an adult and do not always share with him their personal concerns. In some ways more accepting of individual decisions, he is nevertheless shaken by what inevitably comes next.

Told from the points of view of each of the siblings in turn, the story unfolds over a two year period. Much changes, as in life it always will.

What comes to the fore in the tale are the assumptions each family member makes about the others’ observations and feelings. Despite being close, understanding is flawed. Shared memories are shown to be at variance as are perceived roles. The siblings vie for approval and attention, viewing the others primarily in relation to themselves.

The cosy semblance of family values is challenged with each recalibration emotionally painful, especially when what proves false is the centre around which an individual has built their self-esteem.

The writing is clear and concise with structure and flow well balanced making this an engaging read. It is character driven with sub-plots that resonate.

An incisive look at family with all its fictions and flaws. A reminder that people are never static entities and are viewed through a reflecting lens.

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

Book Review: Wolves in the Dark

Wolves in the Dark, by Gunnar Staalesen (translated by Don Bartlett), is the third book in the author’s Varg Veum series of crime thrillers to be translated into English by Orenda Books (you may read my reviews of the first two here and here). Four years after the death of his beloved Karin, Veum is slowly dragging himself from the mire into which his grief took him. He is now in a relationship with Sølvi, although her faith in him is about to be tested.

The book opens with Veum being arrested for accessing child pornography on line. He is accused of being part of an international operation supplying images and videos of such content. Incriminating evidence is found on his office computer and personal laptop. Veum vehemently denies the charges but the investigating officers do not believe his claim that he had no idea the files were there. When his lawyer requests information about potential contacts from his past who may be seeking revenge, Veum is forced to admit to alcohol induced gaps in his memory since Karin’s death.

As a private investigator of many years standing Veum has accumulated a bank of enemies. He delves his patchy recollections but realises that the evidence against him and the understandable revulsion felt by those who are convinced of his guilt undermine his protestations of innocence. When an opportunity to escape incarceration unexpectedly presents itself he goes on the run. He must solve his own case before being recaptured or face a prison term where he would likely be punished by inmates as the worst possible type of offender.

The plot is tightly constructed and written with a droll humour that offers relief from the sickening subject matter and page turning tension. Veum deploys a direct approach to people of interest in his investigations, a tactic that further angers those he interrogates but which builds the intrigue for the reader. There are the requisite twists and turns with blind alleys and dubious characters. Few of those he encounters emerge untainted in some way.

This challenging topic is tackled with empathy and skill, characters rising from the pages fully formed, grotesquely believable. Veum may not be entirely likable but it is hard not to confer a degree of sympathy for his predicament.

A dark thriller that uses its setting in Norway to fine affect. This is a gritty, gripping read.

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

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

Wolves in the Dark is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

Book Review: Faithless

Faithless, by Kjell Ola Dahl (translated by Don Bartlett), is a tenebrous and intense crime thriller offering classic Nordic Noir. Set in Oslo it features a team of detectives investigating a suspected thief, one of whose contacts leads them to a series of murders. There is a potential conflict of interest when an old friend of one of the detectives becomes a suspect. Alongside is the case of a missing international student who arrived in Norway and almost immediately disappeared.

Detective Frølich and Inspector Gunnarstranda have appeared in four previous English translations of the author’s novels but this was my introduction to his writing. The story worked well standalone.

When the tale opens Frølich is on a stakeout. A woman visits the subject of his surveillance and he is instructed to apprehend her when she leaves. The woman, Veronika Unset, is arrested but subsequently released. This sets in motion a series of incidents which culminate in a death.

Frølich discovers that Unset is engaged to be married to an old schoolfriend he had once been close to but hasn’t seen in many years. He is wary of renewing the acquaintance but decides that enough time has passed and attends a party the man invites him to. Here he meets and is attracted to Janne Smith, who complicates his ability to do his job impartially even further.

Lena, another member of the team, is investigating the missing student. Lena is in a destructive relationship with a colleague which she is struggling to maintain. The recent murder forces Frølich to put this missing persons case on the back burner, until he discovers that there are common elements and is drawn to become involved against orders.

The personal lives of the detectives, victims and suspects are intertwined with these investigations. A potential link to an historic murder in another part of the country provides new leads but also further complications. The detectives suspect they may be dealing with a serial killer, and to secure proof they are willing to put themselves in danger.

The writing throughout is intense and controlled with the many threads providing the reader with a wide range of suspicions before the final reveals. A darkly entertaining thriller that kept me guessing to the end.

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

This review is a stop on the Faithless Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below.

Faithless is published by Orenda Books.

Book Review: The Owl Always Hunts at Night

owlhunts

The Owl Always Hunts at Night, by Samuel Bjork (translated by Charlotte Barslund), is the second book in the author’s Holger Munch and Mia Krüger series which started with I’m Travelling Alone (reviewed here). Although the protagonists retain the quirks that irritated me in the first book – Munch’s chain smoking, Krüger’s lozenge eating and both constantly in need of sleep – the writing is tighter and I was sufficiently drawn into the plot that these idiosyncrasies proved less of a distraction.

In this book a young woman is found dead in remote woodland. She is naked and posed amongst what look to be ritual objects. Disturbing as this is, the condition of the body suggests that this was not just a murder but that she may have been held for some time before her death. There is little forensic evidence at the scene and those she lived with can offer no suggestions as to why she would have been taken.

Krüger is still suspended from work but Munch is determined to have her back on his crack team at the Norwegian police department’s Violent Crimes Unit. His boss still has concerns about her mental fitness but reluctantly agrees to her return. Throughout the investigation Krüger struggles with depression which at times threatens to overwhelm her and risks compromising her innate ability to spot the clues and associations that others miss.

Other important members of the team include the computer whizz Gabriel Mørk whose hacker friend, Skunk, offers a breakthrough despite his mistrust of the police. Krüger’s treatment of them both is unlikely to encourage future cooperation.

The murder victim had been living in a home for damaged young people. Their provenance adds to the difficulties faced by the investigating team as they try to guess the killer’s identity and modus operandi. There are many potential leads to follow but little proof.

Munch’s daughter, Miriam, also ends up in trouble when she considers indulging in the excitement of an affair, her comfortable existence with her partner now regarded as dull. She seems content to allow her ever willing mother to take on the burden of caring for her child while she contemplates returning to the rebellions of her youth.

Despite struggling to empathise with many of the characters I was drawn into the investigation. The plot has many intriguing twists and turns offering a puzzle that was enjoyable to try to solve. The build up of tension was skilfully managed, the final threads keeping the reader engaged through to the final page.

An entertaining crime thriller even if I didn’t warm to the protagonists. The cold and darkness of the setting were well evoked and the killer, once revealed, was as chilling as they come.

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

Book Review: The Bird Tribunal

the-bird-tribunal-a_w-v4

The Bird Tribunal, by Agnes Ravatn (translated by Rosie Hedger), is a psychological thriller set on the edge of a remote fjord in Norway. The two main characters, Sigurd Bagge and Allis Hagtorn, each have secrets they are struggling to escape. They seek solace in seclusion, hoping for eventual redemption. Their pasts hover over and haunt each action they take.

Sigurd lives alone in the traditional wooden villa where he has spent his entire life. Allis arrives to take up an advertised position helping to bring order to his neglected garden. She prepares his meals and carries out simple housekeeping tasks. He tells her that his wife, Nor, is away, giving no indication when she will return. Despite their proximity he maintains a distant, steely silence. He gives instructions but shares little else.

Allis has run away from a scandal and initially finds the solitude of her new position a balm. She is content with the detachment her employer insists on, but over time curiosity and loneliness make her long for a greater connection. She works hard at the tasks assigned to her, learning as she goes along. Eventually she becomes frustrated at Sigurd’s refusal to share anything of himself.

As if realising she may leave him, Sigurd starts to share wine, time and, eventually, conversation. Fuelled by alcohol and darkness they reveal aspects of their pasts. Morning often as not brings regrets although rarely acknowledged. The advance and retreat of Sigmund’s willingness to share further vexes Allis, as does her awkwardness in his presence.

There remains a brittleness in their relationship that fractures under the slightest pressure. I wondered at the characters, their desolation and potential for psychosis.

The short, precise chapters weave a web of foreboding from the off. Each plot thread offers further detail whilst in the dark corners lurk unseen threats. As Allis tiptoes around the taciturn Sigurd there is the sense of an ominous reveal biding its time. The journey thrums with unease as it spirals towards a menacing denouement.

The setting is used to great effect as are the seasons. Locked rooms in the house are opened, the forest is both a blanket from the world and a threat. Allis is given use of many of Nor’s possessions. Although absent, her presence is felt.

I ponder still who was the spider and who the fly. This tale left me chilled, but in the best possible way. The author has taken familiar activities and shrouded them in intrigue. This is a captivating, atmospheric read.

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

This review is a stop on The Bird Tribunal Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

bird-tribunal-blog-tour-poster

The Bird Tribunal is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now. 

image001

Book Review: I’m Travelling Alone

travellingalone

I’m Travelling Alone, by Samuel Bjork (translated by Charlotte Barslund), introduces the reader to Holger Munch and Mia Krüger, former members of a special unit in the Norwegian police department’s Violent Crimes Section. When the story opens Krüger is living alone on a remote island property and planning to take her own life. Munch has been dispatched to try to talk her into rejoining the unit following the disturbing murder of a child, an investigation that he hopes will also facilitate his return from the backwater he was banished to following an as yet undisclosed incident in their past.

Krüger is skilled at spotting clues that others miss, forming theories and associations that have enabled her to solve many complex crimes. When she notes that the murdered child has the number 1 scratched onto a finger nail she suggests that further murders will follow. This proves to be correct. A game of cat and mouse ensues as the reformed team race against time to work out motive and find suspects. Just as they are finally beginning to make headway it gets personal. Concerns are raised that neither Krüger nor Munch will be capable of the impartiality required to bring the perpetrator to justice.

The plot offers many threads for the reader to ponder: pre-school children washed and dressed as dolls found hanging from trees; a mysterious religious retreat created in woodland; potential clues presented as codes and riddles. It is not just children who are murdered but also animals. There is a possible link to a care home for the elderly.

I found the story telling slow to start. The background offered was of interest but the measured pace lacked the tension I have come to expect from crime thrillers. I wondered if the tale would work better on television where the brooding, Norwegian landscapes could add to the suspense.

The characters were as I would expect in Nordic fiction although the protagonists had irritating quirks that were repeatedly mentioned. Krüger was forever taking a lozenge, Munch lighting another cigarette. When the pace finally picked up these mentions ceased, as did the persistant reminder that they were functioning on too little sleep. My attention was not sufficiently diverted by what action there was to ignore this manner of writing.

The final hundred or so pages pulled together all of the carefully crafted threads and it was then a thrilling race to the denouement. There were twists that I had not guessed and satisfying endings. The members of the crime team had become three dimensional and I cared about how things would pan out for several of the supporting cast.

Although newly released in English translation, the book is already an international bestseller in at least half a dozen European countries. This is the proposed first in a sequence of novels featuring Krüger and Munch. Perhaps the slower opening pace was felt necessary as a stage setter for the series.

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

Book Review: Where Roses Never Die

Where Roses Never Die cover Vis copy 2

Where Roses Never Die, by Gunner Staalsen (translated by Don Bartlett), is set three years after the first of the Varg Veum series to be translated into English, We Shall Inherit the Wind, which I review here.

At the start of the story Private Investigator Veum is in a bad way. He gets through each day by drinking and has been funding his habit by taking on the cases he would prefer to shun. The arrival in his office of Maja Misvaer, whose three year old daughter, Mette, disappeared from outside their home almost twenty-five years ago, offers him a chink of light in a life that has been overcome by the darkness of memory and loss.

The book opens with a robbery in a jewellery store during which an apparently random passer by is shot and subsequently dies. The robbers make their getaway by boat and, three months later, with no leads to follow, the police have all but given up on solving the crime. Veum followed the case in the papers but pays it little attention until he discovers that the murdered man had lived in the same housing complex as the little girl, whose wherabouts he has been commissioned to find, at the time she disappeared.

Veum interviews the police officers who investigated the initial disappearance as well as all those who lived in the five houses built around the courtyard where Mette was last seen playing. He discovers that these families were close in an unexpected way. With dogged determination he circumvents their reluctance to talk and digs into their pasts, unearthing secrets they had held close for decades.

The writing makes much use of narrative alongside Veum’s musings on the case. The voice I was hearing in my head brought to mind TV cops from the 70s with the use of similes and Veum’s moralistic stance, somewhat hypocritical given his own past behaviour. The feminist in me bristled at some of the attitudes but they realistically evoke the time and place. Norway, with its dark weather and uncompromising landscape, reflect the protagonist.

The plot twists and turns around each new revelation offering the reader much to ponder. The events leading up to the denouement had me dreading what was to be revealed. Despite my apprehension I could not look away.

A tense, starkly captivating read this is a must for fans of Nordic Noir. Highly recommended to all who look for depth and tenebrosity in their crime fiction.

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

Book Review: We Shall Inherit the Wind

We Shall Inherit the Wind BF AW.indd

We Shall Inherit the Wind, by Gunnar Staalesen (translated by Don Bartlett) is a dark and brooding crime thriller which transports the reader to the wind swept islands of western Norway. The voice of the protagonist is distinctly male and Scandinavian but the female characters are no mere adornments. This is a story populated with a strong and often hostile cast as befits the environment in which they play their parts.

The opening chapter sees Varg Veum, a fifty-five year old private investigator, sitting by the hospital bedside of his girlfriend Karin who is in a coma with life threatening injuries. Verg blames himself for her condition and what follows is the story of how they ended up in this place.

Varg reminds me of the investigators from television series of old yet this story is contemporary in nature. At its heart is a controversial wind farm development on a remote island and the clash between business interests, religious fundamentalists, the economic prospects for locals and a variety of environmental concerns. It is rarely made clear who the good or the bad guys are. The reader is not unduly led to take sides in the various arguments, a nebulosity which adds to the strength of the tale.

Travelling around the fjords and islands the bleakly beautiful landscape dominates the narrative. As the various characters fight for their corners the reader is shown the transience of individuals when placed against a backdrop of unforgiving weather and mighty sea.

There are detailed descriptions of the people Varg meets, their physical appearance and the clothes they wear. Houses are also fully presented: surroundings, building style, colour schemes, furniture, ornaments, the pictures on the walls.

I enjoyed some of the similes used:

An unknown face in an out of the way place “like a flower arrangement in a garage workshop”

A female character “like a perfumed glacier”

I will ever after think of the old library at Trinity College, Dublin as “the place where all books went when they died”

The plot is compelling with new intrigues unfolding as each page is turned. I had not anticipated the denouement. Although somewhat shocking in nature it was a satisfying conclusion.

This book is already an international bestseller and it is easy to see why. A distinctive and welcome addition to the crime fiction genre, I look forward to reading more of Varg Vaum’s adventures which the publisher has promised will be released over the next couple of years.

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