Wolf Winter – Cecilia Ekbäck

Title – Wolf Winter

Author - Cecilia Ekbäck

Published - February 2015

Genre – Crime fiction

This is a debut which is getting a lot of praise (and rightly so) on twitter from shivering readers who are suffering from the chilling effects of Ekbäck’s atmospheric writing. Although Swedish by birth it is written in English and set in Swedish Lapland of 1717. It has the setting of a great scandi or nordic drama, but the writing flows in a way that would be unusual in a translation.

The story is that of a family who have moved to a remote settlement in the shadow of Blackasen Mountain. They are Finns who have traded their home with that of their uncle in the hope of a fresh start. Soon after their arrival the elder daughter, fourteen-year-old Frederika, discovers a body in a glade when she’s taking their goats to graze. The body has been mutilated and the settlers are quick to blame wolves for the death, but Frederika’s mother, Maija, believes it was murder.

The premise is one of an amateur detective (initially Maija) and a small pool of suspects (the other settlers in the community) but the story is so much more than that. Maija is new to the country and is an outsider in a time where suspicion, especially of the supernatural, can have dire consequences. The other outsiders are the Lapps, forced to toe the line by the government, they are unwilling neighbours who have had to suppress their traditions. The area is controlled by the Church and the local priest has his own agenda, but is ordered by his Bishop to resolve the death as quickly as possible.

There are some explanations about Maija and her family’s past and some things that are only hinted at, but they aren’t the only ones looking to escape and soon it seems that all their neighbours have something to hide.  Early on in the book a simple solution seems to become apparent, but the story has a multitude of layers.

The story is told using several voices, mostly divided between Maija and Frederika. For me Maija is the star – intelligent, pragmatic, determined, and tough on the outside, but internally she’s conflicted. She has no-one to rely on but herself and there is an aspect of the book that makes this a story about her survival.

I know nothing of the period and Ekbäck draws the background in bold strokes, but puts her efforts into the detailed description of the conditions in which the settlers must survive. It’s beautifully written and it was impossible to read the evocative descriptions of the conditions without shivering in sympathy with the characters. There are some supernatural elements, which I’m not normally a fan of, but in this remote and harsh location, and in this period, it feels more credible. These elements help to move the story along but also help to raise the tension.

It’s easy to draw parallels between this and Burial Rites (which I also loved) and this left me feeling equally sad at the end. Many thanks to the publisher for the copy via bookbridgr. You can see other points of view on Northern Crime and For Winter Nights.

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The Death House – Sarah Pinborough

Title – The Death House

Author - Sarah Pinborough

Published - 26 February 2015

Genre – Fiction deathhouse_thumb

It’s funny how coincidences happen between the books you read – I picked this up after finishing Runaway and found quite a few similarities (as well as contrasts) between the two. Both feature lead characters who have unexpectedly changed direction in their teens, both facing difficulties in making the most of the situation. But where Runaway is perhaps a story of missed opportunity The Death House offers something different.

Horror works best when the ‘monster’ is left to your imagination, and this is a perfect example. It’s not quite a conventional horror, but I’m not sure how else to describe this book – perhaps a sort of “YA sci-fi horror” and a good example of how you can’t really categorise books. In fact the story is most reminiscent for me of Never Let Me Go, but with something darker lurking in the attic.

The story is sixteen-year old Toby’s. Toby is taken from his home following a blood test and put in a communal home with other children, both older and younger, who are all similarly afflicted. Initially Toby is careful to keep himself to himself and maintain some distance from the others. They have all seen at first hand what happens if they show any sign of sickness and there is an atmosphere of dread permeating the home. Then some new ‘Defectives’ arrive, disturbing the balance in the home, and Toby finds himself re-joining life, despite the potential emotional consequences.

Echoing the form of Runaway, the story is told using flashbacks (in Toby’s case back to his forced removal from his home and the early days at “the home”) although in this case the present day is told in the first person.

One neat touch I liked was the books the children were reading – Lord of the Flies and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It’s easy to see these as two alternative outcomes when children are left to their own devices. You’re left to see how things will pan out for the Defectives.

In contrast to Runaway, which is very firmly fixed in place and time, The Death House is a set in a time and a place that are never quite made clear – the time is at least a hundred years from now, the place an island somewhere off the English coast. None of this matters, and the things that are hidden only serve to pique your interest.

It’s difficult to describe this as an enjoyable read, but is certainly moving and absorbing, and it’s hard to shake off the sense of foreboding and dread that permeates the book – it’s one that lingers long after the last page.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy –  you can see another point of view at Reader Dad.

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Runaway – Peter May

RunawayTitle – Runaway

Author - Peter May

Published - January 2015

Genre – Crime fiction

Confession time from me – this is my first Peter May book. He may be an award-winning author and have a string of successful crime books & thrillers to his name, but I’ve never picked one up before. I certainly have no regrets about reading this one and I will make an effort to out some more titles.

I have to say that Runaway wasn’t at all what I expected. Described as a ‘gripping crime novel’ I would say that the crime element was not the most prominent thread in the book. While the plot is driven by a crime, the story is more about regret and growing old, the phrase ‘youth is wasted on the young’ springs to mind.

In 1965 a group of teenage boys from Glasgow ran away from home to find fame and fortune in London. In 2015 the murder of an old man draws three of the men together and they retrace their journey back to the capital city.

I was kept guessing by a number of mysteries – who murdered the old man at the start of the book, what happened to the other members of the group, what happened between them all in London, and the author kept his cards close to his chest until the very end.

This isn’t an action packed crime story, but more a coming of age (if you can do that on a pension). It’s also quite life-affirming and moving. The story builds slowly, swapping backwards and forwards between the two timelines, as the main character, Jack, tells the story of the boys’ escapades in the sixties. Jack himself was a likeable character, it’s more his story than it is the others in the group, and he brings a sense of humour and pragmatic approach to the situations in which they find themselves.

The book has a nostalgic feel about it and despite the misfortunes of the group it did seem as if there was an element of ‘it was better in the old days’, even if that wasn’t necessarily what the author intended. In fact the story is based on May’s own experience of running away as a teen, so perhaps there’s something of an autobiographical element too.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy. You can see another point of view on Raven’s blog.

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Mathew’s Tale – Quintin Jardine

MathewTitle – Mathew’s Tale

Author - Quintin Jardine

Published - 2014

Genre – Historical fiction

Mathew’s Tale is the 40th book by Quintin Jardine and his first historical one. I’d like to say that I’m a fan of his but I’m not sure I really qualify – I’ve only read 4 of his 23 Bob Skinner books so far, but I’m working on it! I do like to read series in order and it’s not easy to walk into a bookshop and pick up number 5 or 6 in a series, but I had no qualms about reading this standalone – and who could resist that cover?

The book starts with Mathew’s return to his village in Scotland after seven years away fighting in the Napoleonic Wars, including participating in the Battle of Waterloo. Marked by his experiences but still a young man he is apprehensive about making the journey home and what will have become of the family and friends he left behind.

The early part of Mathew’s Tale charts his efforts to make something of himself and despite coming from a country background he manages to capitalise on the burgeoning growth in industry and shows some moderate success. A chance event puts a close friend of his in peril and Mathew steps up to do what he can to save his friend. The story then takes a change in direction as it moves from the country to the city of Edinburgh and becomes more of a legal drama. Mathew finds himself at the mercy of a corrupt legal system that seems determined to thwart him at every turn, but his background as a soldier has given him a steel and determination that those in power have failed to credit. There was a lot of intrigue and a surprising amount of tension in this part of the plot.

It’s a while since I read any historical fiction and I really enjoyed this story. It has quite a gentle pace although time moves along quite quickly and while I was immersed in 19th century Scotland the historical detail was provided in broad brushstrokes, rather than getting into the minutiae of the period. The lead character is very likeable, his character has been shaped by his experience of war, but it doesn’t dwell on his backstory and surprisingly there are no real battle scenes, in fact the whole book is quite light on sex and violence (this is a good thing!). The story is also something of a romance and there’s a nice balance between the story of Mathew’s life and the skulduggery of the legal aspects.

A very enjoyable read – this might be the first historical novel by Jardine but I hope it won’t be the last! Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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The Mistake – Grant Nicol

Title – The Mistake

Author - Grant Nicol

Published - 13 January 2015

Genre – Crime fiction

Number Thirteen Press is an e-publishing company with plans to publish a list of 13 original pulp crime novellas at the rate of 1 per month for 13 months. Their debut title was launched on 13th November 2014, making The Mistake the third novella in the set.

Nicol is a New Zealand author living in Iceland and it is in Reykjavik that he has set this story. A young woman’s mutilated body is found on a Reykjavik street by a man who can’t remember whether or not he is responsible for her death. The injuries are horrific and Detective Grímur Karlsson is relieved to get his man at the scene of the crime. But life in crime fiction is never that simple. The suspect manages to end up in a hospital rather than a prison cell and as the case against him weakens things don’t seem to be going Grímur’s way.

The victim disappeared from her home some months before and when her father arrives in the city to identify her body he is determined that he won’t leave until the person responsible has been brought to justice. Lacking faith in the police he takes matters into his own hands and his efforts run in parallel to those of the professionals.

There are certain constraints with the novella format which mean that Nicol is succinct in drawing the characters and landscape, leaving plenty of scope for a complex plot that moves along at a brisk pace. The story starts as conventional crime fiction but as the action heads towards a dramatic conclusion it becomes darker, more graphic and increasingly violent.

There are multiple points of view which keep the action moving and as the story unfolds the parts the different characters play becomes clearer. The strands are neatly fitted together and the resulting climax is worthy of the description ‘Iceland Noir’. Despite the conventional start the story has a dark heart and a bleak ending.

I’m not used to reading novellas, but with my dislike of lengthy modern books I should try to read them more often! It’s interesting to note that Detective Grímur Karlsson also features in Nicol’s crime novel “On a Small Island“, published in 2014 (and a review of that is to follow).  Thank you to the publisher for the advance copy.

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Debuts to look out for in 2015

One of the really exciting things about having this blog is that I’ve been introduced to many new authors, a high proportion of whom have been making their crime fiction debut. These usually crop us during the year from publishers, or as purchases when I’ve had recommendations from other bloggers. Unusually I already have a list of ‘must reads’ for 2015.

My list must start with a number of friends that I’ve made through my blog & twitter who will be seeing their debuts published this year. Taking them in alphabetical order:

black-woodSJI Holliday – Black Wood – out 19 March and published by Black & White

Although Susi has already had a number of short stories published in anthologies this is her first novel.

The blurb says: “Something happened to Claire and Jo in Black Wood: something that left Claire paralysed and Jo with deep mental scars. But with Claire suffering memory loss and no evidence to be found, nobody believes Jo’s story. Twenty-three years later, a familiar face walks into the bookshop where Jo works, dredging up painful memories and rekindling her desire for vengeance. And at the same time, Sergeant Davie Gray is investigating a balaclava-clad man who is attacking women on a disused railway, shocking the sleepy village of Banktoun. But what is the connection between Jo’s visitor and the masked man? To catch the assailant, and to give Jo her long-awaited justice, Gray must unravel a tangled web of past secrets, broken friendship and tainted love. But can he crack the case before Jo finds herself with blood on her hands?”

James Law – Tenacity – out late 2015 and published by Headline

The publication date for this one is a way off – but with a particularly unusual premise I am really looking forward to seeing how he will draw on his own experience to create crime fiction.

From The Bookseller in October 2014:

“The first novel is called Tenacity, and introduces Lieutenant Danielle ‘Dan’ Lewis, a female investigator in the Royal Navy’s Special Investigation Branch, who is looking into the suicide of a Chief Petty Officer stationed aboard a naval submarine.

Law served in the British Submarine Service for 21 years and recently completed the Portsmouth University MA Creative Writing Course.”

WhatSheLeftTR Richmond – What She Left – out 23 April and published by Michael Joseph (Penguin)

TR Richmond is an award-wining journalist who’s written for local, regional and national newspapers, magazines and websites. The strapline is “Everyone’s life leaves a trace behind. But it’s never the whole story.”

The blurb on the agent’s website is: “February 2012: 25-year-old Alice Salmon returns to her university town for a night out with friends. Seven years ago in this same spot she was on the brink of adulthood – wide-eyed, curious, insatiable. Seven years on and Alice is about to unravel a secret that pulls that past into dangerously sharp focus – but it’s too late. The next morning her body is found washed up by the river and it’s someone else who is intent on picking up the pieces.

Professor Jeremy Cooke’s career is over and the prospect of long, empty days terrifies him. Alone in his office he embarks on a research project that will bring him back into contact with his students and focus his dwindling mind. Jeremy is documenting Alice’s life. He pores over the internet, diaries, letters; he talks to friends, family, boyfriends and bit by bit he unravels a deeply disturbing version of a girl he actually knows better than anyone.

A modern day epistolary novel exposing dark obsessions and painful secrets that date back generations, offering a fresh twist on the contemporary unreliable narrator. In this haunting coming-of-age novel our methods of communication are brought under sharp scrutiny as the distinction between our personal and digital identities become ever more blurred.”

in-bitter-chillSarah Ward – In Bitter Chill – out in July and published by Faber and Faber

No blurb as yet but the strapline is “Family comes first … always” and Sarah’s own brief description is “the story of the kidnapping of two young girls in the late 1970s and the legacy it leaves for one of the children who is later found alive.”

If you follow Sarah’s blog you will know that she’s an exceptionally well-respected crime fiction reviewer so it will be interesting to read her own work.

Since mentioning the above on twitter I’ve had a few suggestions to add to my list. The first was really an oversight on my part as I really did mean to include Ragnar – I’ve been waiting to be able to read one of his books for a while!

SNOWBLINDRagnar Jónasson – Snowblind – out in English (translated by Quentin Bates) on 15 June and published by Orenda Books.

Ragnar is an Icelandic author, fan of Agatha Christie and one of the founders of Iceland Noir. He is the author of the Dark Icealnd series which currently stands at 5 books – Snowblind was the fist in the series and this will be the first English translation.

The blurb: Siglufjörður: an idyllically quiet fishing village in Northern Iceland, where no one locks their doors – accessible only via a small mountain tunnel. Ari Thór Arason: a rookie policeman on his first posting, far from his girlfriend in Reykjavik – with a past that he’s unable to leave behind. When a young woman is found lying half-naked in the snow, bleeding and unconscious, and a highly esteemed, elderly writer falls to his death in the local theatre, Ari is dragged straight into the heart of a community where he can trust no one, and secrets and lies are a way of life. An avalanche and unremitting snowstorms close the mountain pass, and the 24-hour darkness threatens to push Ari over the edge, as curtains begin to twitch, and his investigation becomes increasingly complex, chilling and personal. Past plays tag with the present and the claustrophobic tension mounts, while Ari is thrust ever deeper into his own darkness – blinded by snow, and with a killer on the loose. Taut and terrifying,

The other suggestions were:

Paula Hawkins – The Girl on the Train – published in January by Transworld

This is a debut which reviewers have filled my timeline on twitter raving about and I hate to feel as if I’m missing out!

The blurb says: “Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. She’s even started to feel like she knows the people who live in one of the houses. ‘Jess and Jason’, she calls them. Their life – as she sees it – is perfect. If only Rachel could be that happy.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough.

Now everything’s changed. Now Rachel has a chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar.

Now they’ll see; she’s much more than just the girl on the train…”

The final title is Alice and the Fly by James Rice, which is due for publication later this month by Hodder and Stoughton. Although not strictly speaking a crime novel, has also garnered a lot of positive comments on twitter / blogs and I must see what all the fuss is about!

So are there any debuts you’ve heard about that you are looking forward to reading?

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Did you #bookadayuk?

When Borough Press launched an intiative on Twitter in June to encourage people to share their love of books on social media it’s hard to believe the phenomenon that they were unleashing. The simple idea was to provide a set of prompts, one for each day of the month, which would elicit tweets from readers using the hashtag #bookadayuk.

According to The Future Book in July the hashtag in June had 68,904 twitter mentions, across 32,553 users, with 474 blogs written. No small feat! It seems that the idea was already set to continue with other publishers but by the end of 2014 it had months curated by Doubleday, Siobhan Dowd Trust, We Love This Book, Books Are My Bag, Headline and lastly Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

It was virtually impossible to be on Twitter and not see tweets with the hashtag. But somehow I never got involved. I kept meaning to but never quite got round to it – I think I was concerned that I should give the best answer and that wouldn’t necessarily be my first response. Day 1 month 1 and the question was ‘Favourite book from childhood’ – I’m still thinking! It was fascinating to see the different responses, especially to questions like ‘I pretend to have read it’ – so many guilty people in my timeline. There was also a surprising amount of agreement on some of the topics, and books that cropped up which must go on the TBR list. I still feel guilty that I read the tweets and didn’t contribute – but did you? Did you manage to keep up every day? What did you like about it?

BoroughPressYou may be interested to know that in response to requests for the theme this month (I’m writing this on New Year’s Day) Borough Press are telling people that they will have to wait for February for the next instalment. But a quick search using the hashtag shows that people are using it regardless…

PS – If you want to see all the themes for the 7 months have a look at the images below.

BookadayJune

Borough Press – June

bookadayJuly

Doubleday – July

bookadayAugust

Siobhan Dowd Trust – August

bookadayseptember

We Love This Book – September

bookadayOctober

Books Are My Bag – October

bookadayNovember

Headline – November

BookadayDecember

Bailey’s Women’s Prize For Fiction – December

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