Book Review: The Orange Grove

The Orange Grove, by Larry Tremblay (translated by Sheila Fischman), is the second book in the publisher’s 2017 East and West: Looking Both Ways series. The story opens in an Arabic country wracked by war, where nine year old twin boys, Ahmed and Aziz, live with their parents in the shade of the family orange grove. Their grandparent’s house has just been destroyed by a missile fired from nearby mountains, killing the elderly couple. Insurgents appear at their door demanding that the family seek revenge.

The boys’ father, Zahed, is persuaded that he must choose one of his sons to become a martyr for the cause, a suicide bomber who will destroy an arsenal of weapons held by the enemy. His choice and the reasoning he presents will tear the family apart. The surviving son must somehow learn to live with what has been done.

The spare yet poignantly articulate prose conveys a challenging depth of emotion. It is difficult to comprehend how a parent could ever be so convinced of the worth of their country or religion to willingly sacrifice their own child to the cause, and how this would make those considered expendable feel. In presenting this as a story of family rather than a particular conflict, and from the young boys’ point of view, the reader is left to consider the day to day nature of extremism. It is a story of the cost of war but also of belief, and how little difference exists between those who define themselves as enemies.

The reveals in the denouement are shocking yet the last line brings hope. An understanding is reached on how little those who have not directly experienced war can understand its lasting effects, and how those who have suffered yet survived must seek their own absolution. All of this is told in writing that oozes lyricism and an engrossing sense of place. Despite the distressing subject matter this remains a beautiful read.

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

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: Cursed

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Cursed, by Thomas Enger (translated by Kari Dickson), is the fourth book in the author’s Henning Juul series of crime thrillers. In this instalment the protagonist is still reeling from the death of his six year old son following an arson attack on his flat. Henning is on leave from his job as a journalist and is using the time to do what he can to track down the perpetrators. There is a lot of backstory here which I assume is covered in more detail in the earlier books.

Henning’s ex-partner, Nora Klemetsen, is approached by the husband of an old college friend who has gone missing. Helga Hellberg failed to return from a three week retreat in Italy which her husband subsequently discovered she didn’t attend. Nora, another journalist, agrees to investigate and is drawn into a web of intrigue surrounding the wealthy Hellberg family which goes back decades.

Nora has personal issues to contend with. Her new partner, Iver Gundersen, who is a colleague of Henning’s, has not responded well to recent revelations. Nora and Henning still have feelings for each other, not least an understanding of their shared grief. When Nora approaches Henning and then Iver for support she finds they both remain distant, struggling with what she has shared. As a result she opts to approach the Hellbergs alone.

Henning’s state of mind leads him to take serious risks in his quest for information. He discovers that his life is still threatened although he is unsure why. The widow of Tore Pulli, a supposed criminal who died in prison just as Henning proved he was not guilty of the crimes for which he was incarcerated, may be able to offer some clues. Tore may also have had links to the Hellbergs although the murky details are unlikely to be willingly shared by any of his acquaintances.

The action alternates between the investigations being carried out by Nora and Henning. When they eventually share findings, and potential overlaps are recognised, progress is made. This puts them both in danger leading to a dramatic denouement.

Unusually for such a taut thriller there are many detailed descriptions of people and street scenes which do not always appear relevent to the plot but do help place the reader in the various settings. Typically of Nordic Noir the characters’ personal lives are as changeable and dark as the weather. Partnerships are distant and children, even when loved, grow up feeling resentful.

The writing is engaging and the varied cast of characters well presented although I was somewhat surprised at how willing some were to talk to journalists who are more usually presented in fiction as vultures. There is good in the bad and bad in the good which adds to the intrigue and unprectability. The short chapters encouraged me to keep reading just one more.

A tightly written thriller that had me puzzling the clues throughout as the plot threads were untangled and then woven into place. This is an entertaining and supenseful read.

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

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

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Cursed is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: The Last Summer

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The Last Summer, by Ricarda Huch (translated by Jamie Bulloch), is an epistolary thriller set in early twentieth century Russia. It is Peirene Title No 22 and the first offering in the publisher’s new East and West Series.

A challenge to the status quo by students has resulted in the governor of St Petersburg, Yegor von Rasimkara, closing the university. This controversial action has been countered by a threat to the governor’s life.

Yegor has withdrawn to his summer residence with his wife, the always anxious Lusinya, and their three children – Velya, their son, who is described as a handsome and droll young chap studying law in the hope of one day pursuing a diplomatic career; their two daughters, Jessika and Katya, are ‘sweet, blonde creatures’, although Katya retains a mind of her own.

“There is something childishly harmless about the family overall […] deep down they feel themselves to be alone in a world that belongs to them.”

The loyal servents are described as old-school Russians who still feel like serfs. They are joined by a new addition, Lyu, who is taken on as a bodyguard and secretary to Yegor in an attempt to mitigate Lusinya’s worries following the death threat. Unbeknown to them, Lyu is the rebel student’s chosen assassin.

Lyu is welcomed by the family adding depth and diversion to their daily discussions. The letters each writes to friends and wider family tell of first impressions, love interests and then growing disquiet at the developing situation. It is a fascinating study of how people react and their opinions change as experience colours perceptions.

Lyu gets to know the family and considers several means by which he may carry out his quest. Where his reconnaissance risks raising suspicion he finds the trusting family jump to conclusions he could not have predicted.

The novelty of a new mind to probe soon wanes and the family resume their own pursuits which Lyu seeks to influence. The audacious plan he settles on is not without risk. The family become caught up in the younger members’ attempt to further their education despite the university’s closure. They talk of aiding other students who do not enjoy their privileges which vexes their father.

The writing is taut and insightful laying bare how selfish individual outlooks tend to be. Other than Lyu, whose actions some may consider a necessary means to an end, the cast at first appears benign. Their actions, however, will have repercussions on the less fortunate. They think of helping only when it was of little trouble to them.

Despite the historical setting this story remains pertinent. It is also beautifully written, its points raised more powerful for their subtlety. The polite interactions tremble with undercurrents of suppressed emotion. In reading I became a part of the time and place.

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

Book Review: Moonstone

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Moonstone: the boy who never was, by Sjón (translated by Victoria Cribb), is a book that, had I known more about it in advance, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read. Despite this I am glad that I did. Written in sparse, vivid prose it regularly took me outside of my comfort zone with its graphic descriptions. Whilst key to the plot and indicative of the main character’s detachment from society much more than this was explored. These other elements, particularly the insights into Icelandic history, were sufficiently strong to keep me engaged.

The protagonist is sixteen year old Máni Steinn who lives in Reykjavík with his great-grandmother’s sister. He earns his money by performing consensual sex acts with men. Homosexuality is outlawed so he has no shortage of customers for his services. Máni has always been a loner spending much of his free time watching films at the two cinemas in the town. He also studies people, particularly a young woman he refers to as Sóla G—. He appears content living within his thoughts and imagination.

The story opens in October 1918 when the Katla volcano erupts. The Great War is in its final throes far away and the devastation wrought by the Spanish flu is about to arrive. In the next few months Iceland, and Máni’s life, will undergo radical change.

There is a stark beauty to the writing despite the dark subject matter. Máni maintains his signature detachment as he watches the townspeople react to trauma and tragedy. Families mourn their many dead. Iceland is granted its freedom as a nation state. Máni cannot remain a mere spectator to events forever.

The final chapters are set ten years later. Despite several rereads I failed to understood the denouement and feel frustrated that I have missed what I expected to offer some nugget of clarity.

At less than 150 pages this is a short work of fiction but not one that will be quickly forgotten. Where it not that open discussion may spoil the reveal for future readers I would be seeking other’s interpretation of those final pages.

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

Book Review: Rupture

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Rupture, by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates), is the fourth book in the author’s Dark Iceland series to be published in English. Chronologically it sits between Blackout and Nightblind.

In this instalment Siglufjörður, the small fishing town on the northern coast of Iceland where much of the series is set, has been quarantined due to a deadly virus. Policeman Ari Thór Arason uses the opportunity this creates to look into an old case from the 1950s. Two couples had moved to nearby Héðinsfjörður, an uninhabited and isolated fjord. Whilst there a child was born, Hédinn, and one of the woman apparently committed suicide. A photograph has recently come to light depicting an unknown young man alongside the two couples. Hédinn, who now lives in Siglufjörður, asks Ari Thór to investigate as some believed the death may have been murder.

Further south an aspiring musician is involved in a hit and run. He was estranged from his parents, high ranking politicians forced to step aside from public life due to their son’s drink and drug fuelled behaviour. Ísrún, a young journalist, is tasked with investigating the incident alongside her work reporting on the virus in Siglufjörður. With little new to report on either story she is amenable to assisting Ari Thór in seeking more information on his 1950s case.

Meanwhile another young man is disturbed when he discovers that his home is being targeted by an intruder. A series of events unfolds threatening all he holds dear.

Each thread of the story is enticingly presented offering the reader potential clues that are then woven together. Ari Thór has matured but remains vulnerable to the claustrophobia of his adopted home. The atmospheric darkness of Iceland alongside the isolation and introspection of its people are beautifully evoked.

A crime thriller that uses setting to full effect whilst presenting each character as fully rounded individuals. The writing effortlessly winds the reader in before revealing a satisfying denouement. This whole series is a chilling delight to read. To my mind Rupture is the most skilfully constructed yet.

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

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

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Rupture is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: The Owl Always Hunts at Night

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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.