Season of the Witch – Árni Þórarinsson

season of the witchTitle – Season of the Witch

Author Árni Þórarinsson  (translated by Anna Yates)

Published - 2005 (2012 in translation)

Genre – Crime fiction

We met Arni Thorarinsson when we attended Iceland Noir in 2013 and I’ve managed to get to his book before we head back again later this month. He is an experienced Icelandic journalist and has published a number of screenplays and crime novels – this novel was nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize and I believe it’s the only one currently available in English.

The story is told in the first person by Einar, a journalist (specifically a crime reporter) who has recently been transferred from Reykjavik to the small town of Akureyi.  His transfer is the result of a change in management at the newspaper and due to some personal issues he seems to have had with alcohol. In fact this novel is the fourth in the series featuring Einar so Icelandic readers probably have a better idea of the background than those of us reading only this title. Einar is pretty disgruntled at the move, not only is he missing the more exciting buzz of the capital city, he’s also missing his daughter who has stayed behind and this is compounded by the fact that he doesn’t get on with the only other permanent employee at the Akureyi office.

As the lone reporter Einar is required to cover all sorts of stories and these include the death of a woman on a rafting trip, a local school production of an Icelandic folktale and a missing dog. However, he can’t put his investigative skills behind him and he soon becomes involved in a police investigation when the leading actor from the play disappears. Assisted by Jóa, the photographer temporarily assigned to the paper, he pursues the stories to the bitter end.

The book offers much of what you would expect from Nordic fiction. There’s a thread that deals with local politics and the subject of immigration, one that I think most people will recognise wherever they live. There’s a sprinkling of folklore as well as more contemporary issues like drugs.  Thorarinsson gives you a feel for the country and its people without spending a lot of time on long descriptive passages. It has a steady pace and a likeable lead character, a few twists and turns and the odd humorous moment to lighten the mood.

I try not to look at other reviews of books before I write mine, but when I updated Goodreads I couldn’t help but notice that it has a fairly low rating and I really can’t see why. Personally I hope more titles are translated.

You can see another review on the Petrona blog.

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Falling – Emma Kavanagh

FallingTitle – Falling

Author - Emma Kavanagh

Published - 2014

Genre – Crime fiction

This is an interesting debut by an author who knows something of the ins and outs of those involved in major incidents, having worked as a psychologist with the police. This isn’t a run-of-the-mill police procedural, however, but follows four people in the aftermath of a plane crash.

The first of these, and for me she felt like the main character, is Cecelia. An air hostess on the doomed plane, she is a wife and mother but is in the process of walking out on that life. The other female character is Freya, who has to cope with the grief of losing her father and in doing so she begins to find out more about him and her parent’s relationship.

There are also two male characters. Tom is Cecelia’s husband and a policeman  – he has to deal with the aftermath of the crash, the breakdown of the relationship with his wife and a murder investigation. Finally there is Jim, a retired police officer who believes that something dreadful has happened to his daughter.

I was quite caught up in the opening scenes of the story, when the disaster is unfolding (I wouldn’t recommend reading this on a plane) and was intrigued with the introduction to the characters and wondering how they would fit together (as surely they must). Although covering a relatively short period – just a couple of weeks – things then move quite slowly. I would have preferred less time given over to the individual narrative of each of the characters – far too much introspection for me. This provided the opportunity to provide backstory for the characters, but its effect was to slow down the story.

I would be curious to know if my perception of the split between the four characters is borne out by the proportion of pages in which they feature, but this certainly felt for me that it was more Cecelia’s story than anyone else’s. This was unfortunate for me as I didn’t really take to her character. She is someone who has a secret in her past which is eating away at her and destroying the relationships she has tried to build. What she really needed was therapy! I found her frustrating and would have preferred that more time had been given to the police investigation.

It will be interesting to see the direction Kavanagh takes with her future novels. Many thanks to the publisher for my review copy. You can see a different point of view on Rebecca Bradley’s blog.

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Moon Over Soho – Ben Aaronovitch

moon-over-sohoTitle – Rivers of London

Author - Ben Aaronovitch

Published - 2011

Genre – Fantasy crime fiction

This is the second in the series by Aaronovitch featuring the Police Constable and apprentice magician Peter Grant. The first thing I would say is if you haven’t read Rivers of London (book 1) then do so!

When jazz musician Cyrus Wilkinson suddenly  dies and there is a hint of magic about the corpse, Peter is handed the case. His first step in the investigation introduces him to the whirlwind that is Simone, the dead man’s lover and someone who is soon to be a huge distraction for Peter. Suspecting that the jazz element of Wilkinson’s life is particularly relevant to his demise, Peter uncovers a string of similar deaths amongst musicians. This leads us to find out a bit more about Peter’s background, especially his relationship with his jazz musician father.

This book shares the same mix of action and humour as its predecessor, and as you would expect from the second in a series it allows the characters to develop further. (It also has more adult themes.) The story takes place just a short time after the end of Rivers of London and there are a lot of aspects of the story, especially the characters’ personal lives, which are carried on – so I say again – read book 1 first.

To be honest, in coming to write the review I can remember a lot of aspects of the book – it’s packed with huge array of different elements, but I also struggle to remember how they all fit together. It’s a busy plot with lots of different threads, and of course the magic aspects add another dimension which is absent from more conventional police procedurals. An enjoyable book – but pay attention!

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Blink of an Eye – Cath Staincliffe

blinkofaneyeTitle – Blink of an Eye

Author - Cath Staincliffe

Published - April 2013

Genre – Fiction

After reading a stack of books which deal with the investigation of crimes it’s refreshing to look at things from another angle. In Blink of an Eye we follow the impact of an accident that changes the lives of those involved ‘in the blink of an eye’.

The story is told from the viewpoint of two main characters - Naomi and her mother Carmel. After leaving a summer barbecue at her sister’s house Naomi is involved in a horrific accident. In that moment her life and the lives of those closest to her are irrevocably changed. The story is about the emotional fallout from this event and the impact it has on the relationships of Naomi and her family.

There is also something of a crime fiction element to the book. Naomi seemingly can’t remember the details of the accident and a remark made by her sister prompts their mother to try to piece together what happened. Despite the fact that Carmel is a social worker she is unable to deal with the crisis in the way that she knows she should, so she begins to try to piece together what happened to Naomi – quizzing those who were at the barbecue.

The stresses and strains that the accident puts on the family and particularly Naomi are very credible and it brings to the fore some of the tensions within the family and Carmel’s reminiscences fill in the background.

I have to confess that I didn’t find Naomi a completely likeable character but I did feel for Carmel and her husband. And it’s all too easy to imagine yourself in the shoes of someone who makes a small error which has such devastating consequences. I was really drawn into the story and like the Nicci French books the characters’ lives are rich in detail, which really brings them to life.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy. You can see another point of view at Reviewing the Evidence.

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Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

station elevenTitle – Station Eleven

Author - Emily St. John Mandel

Published - 10 September 2014

Genre – Fiction

There are some books that you see getting a lot of mentions on social media without ever knowing what they are about, and this was the case with Station Eleven. So when the publisher offered people a chance to request the book on NetGalley I didn’t want to miss out, which means that when I started reading the book I really had no idea to expect.

The first thing to say is that this is one of the exceptions to my ‘crime-focused’ blog.  And having said what it isn’t, it’s quite difficult to say what it is. The bulk of the story takes place in post-apocalyptic America, in fact twenty years after a strain of flu decimates the human population. The focus of the story is The Travelling Symphony – a group of actors and musicians touring a small area, bringing Shakespeare and concerts to the settlements that survive. Without dwelling too much on the details of how the Symphony came together the participants have all seen their share of  misfortune before joining the ensemble. The timeline moves around between the present and the past, including prior to the outbreak of the flu. In the present the troupe are faced with a sinister mystery when two members of their group are not at the settlement at which they expect to meet them.

Kirsten, a young actor with the troupe, is the main character, and is all that you would want from a female lead. She’s confident, independent, brave and very believable. In some ways the book feels like her story, in fact the different characters and threads are linked by another Shakespearean actor, but one who died before the flu took hold. Normally I find stories with separate threads and timelines can be difficult to follow but that wasn’t the case here, rather it was fascinating to see glimpses of different characters and how the past and present were woven together.

Oddly this isn’t a book about the apocalypse, although you do get what seems like a very credible view of how civilisation might deal with such a crisis, but  it’s more about the ability of people to adapt to adversity. I’ve seen a few bloggers say that they’re struggling to do the book justice in their review, and I know how they feel.

Mandel has a writing style that makes the story very easy to read with great characterisation (I was especially fond of Clark). She manages to capture something about the essence of human nature as well as what it means to be alive in the twenty first century and she reminds us not to take for granted the simplest of everyday items. Something quite unusual in this book is the part played by a more visual medium (a comic book) and it was interesting to see that there are some real  life images which now support the book.

I haven’t seen anything that suggests that this is more than a standalone book, but I really want to find out what happens to the group in the future and how humanity fares. Thanks to the publisher for the netgalley-  you can see another point of view at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.

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The Hidden Girl – Louise Millar

HiddenGirlTitle – The Hidden Girl

Author - Louise Millar

Published - May 2014

Genre – Psychological thriller

Louise Millar isn’t an author that I have come across before, a journalist for publications such as Marie Claire and Red,  this is her third psychological thriller.

The story centres around Will and Hannah, a young couple who have left London to make a new start in a rundown house in a remote area of Suffolk. Pretty standard fare for a thriller.

The couple have underlying relationship problems, some are the reason for their move and some seem to be caused by it. The situation isn’t helped when Will is stuck back at his work in London leaving Hannah to stress about the house on her own. The forced separation has a divisive effect and leads Hannah to rely on some of the locals for support.

Hannah has had an unusual and demanding job but seems to crumble when faced with a more domestic setting. Part of the plot, which is only alluded to in the early part of the book, explains the importance of the move to her and is the explanation for this sudden loss of confidence.  She seems unable to make the right decision for any and every situation, despite having a well-developed sense of right and wrong.

There are mysterious goings on and I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that there are some recognisable scenes – mobile phones with no signal, inexplicable footprints in the snow and sinister locals. The plot built to quite an action packed climax and it did keep me guessing.

For me the thriller aspect didn’t really work and the tension never quite ramped up in the way that I thought it would. This left the book feeling more like a story about the couple and their relationship where the mystery was less central to the plot.

Millar’s background shows through in her writing style which is easy to read and on the popular rather than literary end of the scale, and in some places it made me think of chick-lit but without the laughs (which is meant to be in no way derogatory!).

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for the review copy.

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Bitter Remedy – Conor Fitzgerald

BitterRemedyTitle – Bitter Remedy

Author - Conor Fitzgerald

Published – August 2014

Genre – Crime fiction

I’m obviously a little late to this series as this is the fifth in the books featuring Commissario Alec Blume.  He is heading for a retreat in the Italian countryside, partly as he has some health issues and partly, it seems, to escape from his partner and their small daughter. When he arrives at the villa for his break he discovers that the course he planned to attend has been cancelled, but while in the villa’s garden he manages to be taken ill. So severe is his sudden illness that he wakes up in hospital, and any chance of anonymity is lost thanks to a busybody doctor. Once the local people find out that he is a police officer there is an assumption that he is there to find a missing girl and eventually Blume’s interest is piqued and he begins to investigate the disappearance.

Alongside the plot featuring Blume we also follow a thread about two girls from Romania who have been the subject of trafficking. This follows them from their home to periods of prostitution as they’re moved across Europe. I found the female characters difficult to like and to sympathise or empathise with, which made these passages less engaging for me.

Blume is quite an irascible character, although it’s hard to know if that’s normally the case or if this side of his personality comes to the fore because of his personal issues in this book. His cantankerous nature does lead to some more humorous moments in the book.

The book a very easy read, especially once the plotlines came together around halfway through and the investigation by Blume got underway. Did I feel I’d missed out by starting in the middle of a series? While there was some background that I felt I was missing out on I don’t think that there was anything that really detracted from my enjoyment of the book. Although Fitgerald isn’t Italian himself (and in fact it seems Blume was born in the US) the book would sit comfortably alongside the likes of Camilleri.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy of this book.

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