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: Blue Self-Portrait

Blue Self-Portrait, by Noémi Lefebvre (translated by Sophie Lewis), is an introspective inner monologue that flits around the narrator’s angst ridden thoughts. Travelling home on a flight between Berlin and Paris with her sister there is time for such self reflection. She is suffering ‘the wrath of grapes’ (possibly the best description of a hangover I have read) and dislikes air travel, attempting yet failing to distract herself with the books she balances on her lap. Her sibling expresses excitement at the mode of transport although is sensitive to her companion’s disquiet. They have a close relationship and mutual understanding. Thay are both well educated in ‘cultural integration’. The narrator, whilst outwardly composed, is bellowing in silence following her behaviour during dalliances with a pianist-composer in Berlin. She berates herself for having talked too much,

‘dizzying the pianist with a flood of verbiage’

The couple met in a popular intellectual cafe, the setting offering a model of restraint and good taste. Clientele would typically sip their coffee whilst leafing through a newspaper in a relaxed, cultured way. The narrator’s body language she describes as wired, feeling shame afterwards for her indecorious behaviour whilst the pianist remained calm and collected. Her thought processes travel in tangents as she recalls the time spent with this man. She ruminates on her prejudices at his choice of drink and her inability not to pause and consider before she shares her learned conceits. She says of herself:

“I disturb, I’ve never done other than disturb”

She believes that, after some time, the pianist was no longer listening to her many words. They visit a cinema where the narrator feels deliberately silenced.

There are reflections from their conversations on inspirations which the pianist believes may be found by following in the footsteps of the greats, including to their graves – composition amongst decomposition. There are scenes in cafes, in a modern, soulless building as well as those steeped in history.

Pivotal is a visit to the Brandenburgian castle of Neuhardenberg after which the pianist was moved to create a new composition following his discovery of the German composer Arnold Schoenberg’s Blue Self-Portrait. Its gloomy palette is displayed amongst what he regards as hateful depictions of Aryan collective happiness promoted by the Nazi regime. The narrator muses that the pianist

“felt incapable of talking about the music but also dying to give it a good talking about”

She herself is haunted by the portrait, and by her behaviour.

The pianist’s appearance is described as:

“the difference between style and affectation not only in the artistry of his playing, in particular, but also in his art of life, in general, the art of living”

The narrator considers herself to be outwardly socially acceptable, although jittery and appearing underfed.

“looking after yourself means aligning your mind to be in tune with your body”

Her mind is anxious amidst her embarrassed reflections.

There are thoughts on resistance, collaboration, shame and the meaning of moral existence. The effect of the portrait is woven throughout with music and the relationship between artists, composers and a genocide in which they may be complicit.

The writing is insightful although at times opaque. This is a book that will likely benefit from considered rereading.

Schoenberg’s Blue Self-Portrait

(image: nationalgallery.org.uk)

 

Book Review: Block 46

Block 46, by Johana Gustawsson (translated by Maxim Jakubowski), is the first book in a proposed new series of crime thrillers featuring protagonists Emily Roy, a Canadian profiler working for Scotland Yard, and Alexis Castells, a French true-crime writer living in London. Dealing as it does with a suspected serial killer who preys on young boys, and with a backstory that graphically details the horrors of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, the tale is dark and raw in places. It studies circumstances that can allow for the normalisation of evil.

The story opens with a group of high-end friends coming together for a launch in London of a bespoke jewellery line created by Linnéa Blix, who is one of their number. When she does not show up for the event they are gravely concerned as this was a much anticipated highlight in her career. Three of the group – her partner Peter, and old friends Alba and Alexis, opt to fly to Sweden where Linnéa had been on retreat. As they arrive they are informed by the local police that Linnéa’s mutilated body has been found on a small marina near her holiday home.

The short chapters jump around in time and place which took me some time to engage with. A body is being buried in a wood in 2013; a German medical student is experiencing dehumanising treatment in a crowded train on his way to Buchenwald in 1944; the Swedish police call in a talented profiler to assist with their investigation into Linnéa’s murder in 2014. The London based friends experience intense grief at their loss and I was somewhat perplexed by how emotionally invested they appeared to be. Perhaps this is simply that I struggle to empathise with such relationships.

Of the key protagonists, I found Alexis weak initially but enjoyed the way Emily’s character was being developed from the off. Both harbour tragedies from their pasts that are gradually revealed. This promises to be an interesting literary pairing.

The presentation of the thought processes of the killers, both contemporary and at Buchenwald – the pleasure they derived from their actions and the way they justified what they were doing – is chillingly portrayed.

The tension picks up as the threads are expanded and the murder investigation progresses. The twists and turns ensure that the reader cannot easily guess the next reveal or where it may be leading. The denouement was deftly handled although not all my questions were answered. I am left wondering if I missed clues along the way.

I enjoyed the reactions of the characters to each other. For example: the policeman Olofsson generates annoyance amongst colleagues with his actions and attitudes yet is genuinely trying to fit in; Emily changes persona when she deals with interviewees as she has been advised what manner can be effective, something that perplexes the more emotional Alexis who has only previously experienced Emily’s natural brusqueness. I was drawn to Emily, her innate abilities, honesty and social distancing.

The author has based the Buchenwald sections on the experiences of her grandfather and these are a strong if disturbing addition to the story. In weaving a contemporary plot around how certain inmates may have been affected long term by interactions within the camp, and the cost of their survival, the reader is challenged to consider personal actions and justifications.

Despite a lingering degree of ambivalence there is much to ponder from this tale. It developed into a gripping if sometimes harrowing read. I will look with interest for the next book in this series. The author’s astute and uncompromising style suggests she is one to watch.

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

This post is a stop on the Block 46 Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Block 46 is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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.

cursed-blog-tour

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.