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: Maria In The Moon

Maria In The Moon, by Louise Beech, is a story that explores the lasting effects of childhood trauma. Set in Hull following the devastating floods of 1997, the protagonist is a young woman named Catherine-Maria who works the night shift in a care home and volunteers at a telephone crisis helpline by day. She struggles to sleep, suffers nightmares, and pushes anyone who tries to get close to her away. She is awkward, clumsy and acerbic, struggling with memory loss, particularly from childhood where time frames have become muddled or vanished completely.

Catherine is living in a small flat with a friend, Fern, while her home, damaged by the floods, is dried out and repaired. She has recently separated from her boyfriend, another disappointment for her mother to bear. Mother and Catherine suffer a fraught relationship; words have been spoken in anger that are hard to forgive.

Old photographs, terms of endearment from strangers, and experiences at the helpline trigger vague recollections that Catherine’s family are unwilling to adequately explain. Eventually Catherine faces her own crisis and, overnight, the lost memories flood back. What she chooses to do with her newfound knowledge will define where she takes her life from here. This personal damage will be harder to repair.

Grief creates a sense of isolation resulting in blinkered understanding of other’s needs. Reactions to Catherine’s memories risk further rifts with family and friends. These relationships are astutely depicted, providing wit alongside the pain. Catherine’s life is raw and messy but the portrayal is compelling if heartbreaking.

The writing achieves an impressive balance between dark humour and a sympathetic yet honest depiction of the most shocking family betrayal. Expressive and affecting this is a story rich in humanity; traumatic yet somehow uplifting.

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

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

Maria In The Moon is published by Orenda Books.

Book Review: House of Spines

House of Spines, by Michael J Malone, is a ghost story. Set in present day Glasgow its protagonist is Ranald McGhie, a bipolar writer whose parents died when he was eighteen and whose marriage fell apart after his wife had him sectioned. Now living alone in a small rented flat he is surprised to be summoned to a lawyers office for the reading of a will. Here he discovers that his mother’s estranged family were wealthy and that he has inherited a large house, Newton Hall, on condition he retain it and the many books therein.

The house comes with a housekeeper and gardener along with funds left in trust for its upkeep. Ran’s Great-Uncle Alexander had been preparing this bequest for some time. Ran finds quality clothes in his size along with new bedding and other essentials. What he also discovers is that the old property has a resident ghost, but is it real or a construct of his long disturbed mind?

Ran is not the only relative still alive and two cousins, Marcus and Rebecca, soon put in an appearance. The lawyer had assured Ran that Newton Hall was not wanted by anyone else, that his cousins were well provided for in the will. This turns out not to have been enough for the unpleasant siblings who have lucrative plans for the hall’s sale and redevelopment. Marcus tries to persuade Ran that it would be in his best interests to move away, sharing the proceeds, but Ran has developed an affinity for his great-uncle and is reluctant to agree.

The shock of his changed circumstances and the loneliness of this vast new home affect Ran’s mental wellbeing. He hears noises, sees shadows, discovers notebooks and letters in desks that affect his subconscious. The only places he feels truly comfortable are in the library or newly installed fitness suite. His uneasiness manifests in vivid dreams, activities he does not remember, and episodes of sleepwalking. He is continually drawn to a broken lift that his housekeeper had kept locked, advising him to stay away.

The writing is sharp, intense, and deliciously chilling until the last hundred or so pages. By this stage Marcus has become immured by the evolving situation, understandable given his illness and stuttered medication but a tad irritating to read. I guessed where the plot was going and wondered why his concerned friends had not checked in on him. Perhaps I have unrealistic expectations of those he pushed away, and the impact of his trust issues.

The gothic elements of the tale are masterfully written; Newton Hall a fabulous creation. Ran’s reluctance to face up to his illness, his disavowal of the management strategies prescribed by professionals, added an interesting layer to the more usual fear of the dark, shadows behind curtains and monsters under the bed tropes of haunted houses.

This is an enjoyable read even if I did find the structuring of the conclusion weaker than the beginning and middle sections. I am, however, left pondering what will happen to Ran next, if perhaps this is a circular tale.

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

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

House of Spines is published by Orenda Books.

Book Review: The Other Twin

The Other Twin, by LV Hay, is a thriller set in Brighton about families and the dark secrets they keep from each other and their friends. The protagonist, Poppy, is living in a rundown flat in London when she receives a phone call informing her that her estranged sister, India, is dead. Still reeling from shock, Poppy abandons her chaotic city lifestyle and returns to the family home. Her step-father is trying to hold the threads of their lives together while her mum falls apart. India fell to her death from a nearby bridge, into the path of a moving train. A post on her blog could be a suicide note, but Poppy cannot believe that the sister she once knew well would have chosen to die.

Childhood friends attend the funeral including Matthew, a boyfriend Poppy left behind when she moved away. Matthew’s twin sister, Ana, treats Poppy with disdain. Ana is in a struggling relationship with Jayden, the playboy son of wealthy hotel owners. Their two families are well known in the area, valuing the image they project alongside their reputations.

Poppy determines to find out more about her sister’s death and soon comes across a name on line, Jenny, of whom everyone she asks denies knowledge. Through India’s blog she tracks the girl down but learns only that there is a secret Jenny will not share. She is wary and elusive but had obviously been close to India. Poppy begins to suspect each of her old friends in turn, that they know more about her sister’s death than they are willing to tell.

As Poppy persists in her somewhat haphazard investigations, Matthew and she feel a rekindling of desire. Poppy also realises that since they were last together, the Matthew she thought she knew so well has changed.

This is a competently put together thriller but I struggled to engage with the plot progression or to empathise with Poppy’s singular mission. Clues are dropped in plain site and not pursued with the determination she grants nebulous suspicions. Her mother is struggling yet Poppy appears largely unsupportive, concentrating on what happened to the sister she had not been in touch with for many years.

An enjoyable enough tale but not one that resonated with me as it has for others. With the work required to create, it is a shame that we cannot adore every book we read.

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

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

The Other Twin is published by Orenda Books.

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: 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: Exquisite

Exquisite, by Sarah Stovell, is a deliciously disturbing psychological thriller centring around two women. It employs familiar tropes such as troubled childhoods, the unreliable narrator, and an ill advised affair. Yet it rises, indeed it soars, with a use of language that matches the title. Beneath the beauty of the descriptions, the subtlety of the prose, an undercurrent of menace pervades every twist in the tale.

Bo Luxton is an established author of best selling books. She is married to Gus, twenty-two years her senior and retired from his successful city career. They have two young daughters and live in a beautiful house near Grasmere in the Lake District. Bo has worked diligently to achieve this settled life after a difficult childhood from which she ran away when she was fifteen years old.

Alice Dark is a twenty-five year old English graduate whose life has stalled. She is living in a damp and dreary bedsit, or at her boyfriend’s equally squalid shared house, in Brighton. When she is accepted onto a residential creative writing course in Northumberland, to be run by the famous author Bo Luxton, she is inspired to seek change.

Bo likes to take waifs and strays under her wing. She sees something of her younger self in Alice who spent part of her childhood in care and whose latent talent Bo now wishes to nurture. With the older woman’s encouragement, Alice starts to believe she could write the book she has dreamed of creating.

Bo and Alice form a connection on the writing course which they continue to develop via email when they return to their respective homes. Then Bo invites Alice to visit her in Grasmere. Gus is wary of their burgeoning friendship and voices his concerns but to no avail. Bo tells Alice he becomes jealous when she offers her loving care to anyone but him.

Each section of the book opens with an update from a woman serving time in prison. The reader knows that the story being told is leading to this. The subsequent short chapters are written from either Alice or Bo’s point of view. Overlaps create doubt as to whose version may be complete and true.

The tension builds as the protagonists find themselves backed into corners. The final page provides a memorable end to what is a satisfying, chilling denouement.

A tightly constructed, beautifully written, impressively unsettling psychological thriller. For fans of the genre this is a must read.

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

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

Exquisite is published by Orenda Books and will be available to buy from 15 June 2017.