Debut

The Silver Road – Stina Jackson

Title – The Silver Road

Author Stina Jackson (translated by Susan Beard)

Published – 2019

Genre – Crime fiction

This is a compelling and darkly atmospheric debut with a seamless translation by Susan Beard.

In a remote part of Northern Sweden middle-aged teacher Lelle spends the long summer nights searching The Silver Road – the main road linking the remote villages – for his teenage daughter. Three years ago he left her at a bus stop early one morning and she hasn’t been seen since, he makes the most of the midnight sun to explore the fringes of the road for any trace of her.

While he is doing this, teenage Meja moves to the area with her mother, Silje. They have come to live with a man her mother met online and Meja hopes that this will finally be the relationship her mother has been looking for.  It quickly becomes apparent that Silje has a whole host of problems, which may explain their previously rootless life. The isolation of the location is something new for Meja, who is keen to escape from her mother’s way of life, but nevertheless she manages to make friends with some young men who work on a nearby farm.

The two threads connect when autumn arrives and the school year begins, Lelle has to stop his search and return to teaching at the school where Meja is now a pupil.

It’s a slow burn of a book, but that is something you should expect from Nordic Noir. Lelle’s desperation is captured through the slow nights of his search and the seemingly futile efforts of the police. The setting is atmospheric and there is a dark intensity to the story that keeps you reading despite the lack of action. I liked the characters of Lelle and Meja, and as a flawed lead Lelle might have fitted into some recognisable stereotypes but there was nothing formulaic about him.

An unusual and compelling read. Many thanks to the publisher for the Netgalley.

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Blood & Sugar – Laura Shepherd-Robinson

81+E4V5p1LLTitle – Blood & Sugar

Author – Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Published – January 2019

Genre – Historical Fiction

This is a debut by Laura Shepherd-Robinson,  a murder mystery set within the landscape of the slavery trade.

In June 1781 an unidentified and mutilated body is found hanging at Deptford Dock, branded with a slaver’s mark. When Captain Harry Corsham is asked to investigate the disappearance of old friend and committed abolitionist Tad Archer he is drawn into the dangerous world of Britain’s slaving industry.

What follows is an atmospheric and immersive mystery that plunges Corsham into the dark heart of the slaving port of Deptford – a place that bears little resemblance to the modern day area of London. As he tries to uncover what became of his old friend he enters a community keen to protect its secrets and profits.

One interesting approach within the story is the shades of grey that lie between the slavers and the slaves and abolitionists, not all matters are as cut and dried as they might appear. And as ‘freedom’ is a theme in the story, Corsham has his own secrets and has something in common with those who have made an ‘accommodation’ to get by.

In starting the book I did wonder if I’ve read anything else set in the same period and wondered why not – is it me that’s missed a swathe of historical fiction or is it not seen as being suitable fictional setting?

In a way this is quite a topical book, it would be difficult to watch the TV news and not notice the language used by some politicians to describe groups of people. While we might not be about to embark on a new era of slavery it does make it easy to see how the treatment of groups of people, to their detriment, can be sanctioned by those in power.  It’s also timely as people rethink the modern day links to those who pursued and profited from slavery.

It’s disturbing to find that the incident at the heart of the investigation is based on real events and it’s perhaps easier to take in the horrors of the trade in reading this mystery than in trying to read a more objective non-fiction telling. It’s always a positive to learn from the fiction you read!

A fascinating, dark and atmospheric read with a convoluted mystery at its heart. Many thanks to the publisher for the NetGalley.

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Blood Orange – Harriet Tyce

Title – Blood Orange

Author – Harriet Tyce

Published – Feb 2019

Genre – Crime fiction

This is one of the few review copies I’ve picked up this year (good news for my TBR), one of the books I picked up at the Headline New Voices event in Bristol.

I’ve categorised it as ‘crime fiction’ but it’s a gripping mix of domestic noir and legal, and unusually for me I read it in just one day.

Alison is one of those women who seem to be commonplace in crime fiction at present – a woman who appears to have it all (career, husband, daughter, illicit boyfriend) but treats it all quite carelessly. A self-destructive barrister, she realises that she drinks too much but despite swearing off the booze and being given her first murder case she fails to get her excesses under control.

The murder case isn’t the main plot but provides an interesting additional thread. The case means working with her boyfriend, a man who treats her abhorrently but seems to be another vice that she can’t give up. They are to defend an alleged murderer, Miranda, who is accused of stabbing her husband to death while he slept. Initially there seems to be little doubt that the accused woman murdered her husband but as they prise the details of their relationship out of her it becomes clear that the relationship was an abusive one, and Alison begins to see some similarities between Miranda’s experience and her own.

Against the backdrop of the case Alison’s home life begins to deteriorate and neither her husband nor her boyfriend seem to have a positive influence on her. She is frustrating when you know that she is making a bad decision (there are a lot) or she gets herself into  an unpleasant situation (there are some real ‘eww’ moments) but there is something about her that makes you want to stick with her despite the frustration.

As is often the case where the main character is drinking too much they and those around them all become unreliable narrators and this gives an underlying tension to the plot and to all Alison’s interactions. She perhaps doesn’t realise that people around her are untrustworthy but the reader certainly sees the possibility, even if it isn’t the case.

As Alison’s relationships fail her domestic issues reach a climax and the case against Miranda heads to court. Things didn’t pan out as I expected which I was pleasantly surprised by but they do take a dark turn.

I’m not a fan of books where you’re supposed to dislike the main character but there is something about Alison, perhaps a vulnerability that the writer has given her, that made me want to not only stick with the book but also made me want to root for her. I can’t say that this was an enjoyable read but it did have me gripped. Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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The Chalk Man – C J Tudor

Title – The Chalk Man

Author – C J Tudor

Published – Jan 2018

Genre – Crime fiction

I had heard so many plaudits for this debut that I treated myself to a copy. It’s marketed heavily on similarities to Stephen King but to me it didn’t feel like ‘horror’, which is how most people think of King, it’s more like ‘Stand By Me’ – a coming of age story.

In the 1980s a group of friends are kicking their heels during the school holidays in a small town on the south coast of England. Eddie is one of the friends, now a 42 year old teacher still living in his parents’ house but with the addition of a young female lodger, and is the narrator of the events that took place thirty years previously. He’s received a mysterious letter (and if I’m honest I can’t remember if we ever found out what was in it) which sends ripples through the present and brings to the fore the events that took place thirty years ago. The events took the group from spending their pocket money at fairgrounds, building dens and riding their bikes, to a fractured group who mistrust each other.

Switching between the two timelines we have events unfolding in the 1980s where there is a surprisingly high body count and the present where Eddie is forced to face, and try to unravel, things that the friends hoped they could put behind them.

It’s an interesting way of telling the story, as a reader you wonder at each event ‘is this the one?’ and there are several possible candidates for being the ‘Chalk Man’ so it makes for an intriguing read. Eddie has some problems of his own and you realise fairly early on that he may not be the most reliable of narrators, he certainly is choosy about what he shares with the reader and when. The time slip aspect also gives an interesting feeling about the differences in perception that somewhat naive teens have versus more worldly wise adults. If all this isn’t enough there is also a more touching side of the story as Eddie describes his father’s decline with dementia. As is often the way with debuts, there are a lot of different things packed into the one book.

I liked the characters, you could see how the group would exist as friends and how the personalities fitted together. It’s also interesting to read about them in their school years and then jump ahead to find out what became of them as adults. It all felt very credible and authentic.

I enjoyed the writing and read the book over just a few days but I think there are some aspects where I got swept along with the writing and events may have seemed implausible if they had been given more scrutiny.

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Dark Pines – Will Dean

Title – Dark Pines

Author – Will Dean

Published – Feb 2018

Genre – Crime fiction

This may be an unpopular point of view so I should say now that if you are one of the huge number of fans of Dark Pines and its hero Tuva then you probably won’t want read my review.

I bought this book for two main reasons, the first being that so many people on social media have raved about how good it is (I should know to manage my expectations better when this happens) and secondly I saw Will Dean on a panel at Crimefest and he was an engaging speaker and made his book sound like one I would enjoy.

Set in Sweden the premise is that a murdered body has been found deep in the snowy forest with its eyes removed – something that harks back to a series of unsolved murders some twenty years ago. Tuva is the (deaf) reporter for the Gavrik Posten, she’s recently moved to the small town from London in order to be closer to her seriously ill mother. For Tuva successful investigative reporting on the murder could be a step up the ladder for her and she drops the more mundane stories that are the usual content for the paper to spend her time investigating the murder.

The occupants of the small group of houses closest to the discovery of the body seem to be the natural suspects for the murder – and what a mixed bunch they are! Tuva concentrates her efforts on these few characters despite the fact that this means travelling into the forest – a struggle for her as she is terrified of nature.

As a character driven crime thriller I wasn’t too keen on Tuva. She is definitely different from other lead characters although she’s playing the recognisable role of an outsider coming into a close-knit community. One of the important distinctions about Tuva over protagonists in other books is that she’s deaf, which didn’t perhaps have as much impact on the story as I would have expected – I thought the author would have made more use of it in, for example, being able to lip read. The downside to the deafness was a seeming fixation in making sure that the reader didn’t forget and one of the few occasions where the deafness gave her an extra insight (the possible impact on a young boy of a noise others can’t hear) she did nothing.

The repetitive nature of the care of her hearing aids, the repetitive descriptions of driving up and down the same piece of road and some of the extraneous parts of the story that didn’t really seem to go anywhere, things that could have been red herrings but were never explained, all made me think this was more an attempt to write ‘literary’ crime fiction rather than ‘thrilling’ crime fiction. While I like my crime fiction to be well written I do want it to thrill!

Told in the first person the story was atmospheric and tense but there was also a lot of Tuva’s angst which I didn’t feel much sympathy for. She makes some poor choices that put her at greater risk than she needs to be and there a number of moments where, as a reader, I found her actions very frustrating. She’s been driven to live where she does, somewhere she doesn’t like, because of her intention to be on hand for her mother but when push comes to shove she puts her job first which felt like an inconsistency.

While this is an atmospheric thriller with the feel and pace of ‘nordic noir’ there were too many things I didn’t like about it and without spoiling the story for anyone who hasn’t yet read it I think there is at least one plot hole that detracted from the story.

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The House on Foster Hill – Jaime Jo Wright

Title – The House on Foster Hill

Author – Jaime Jo Wright

Published – 2017

Genre – Historical fiction

This is a novel told over two timelines, connecting two women through Foster Hill House. In the present day Kaine is hoping for a new start by moving to an old house, sight unseen, in her grandfather’s Wisconsin hometown. Two years ago her husband died in a car accident and her pleas for the death to be treated as something more serious fell on deaf ears, since then she’s believed that she has been tormented by his killer. When she arrives at the house she finds that it’s long-neglected and needs a lot of work, which she is ill-equipped to do on her own. Feeling very fragile she is quickly befriended by a local woman and through her meets a ‘knight in shining armour’ (who also just happens to be a grief counsellor).

In 1906 Ivy Thorpe is the daughter of the local doctor (who also carries out postmortems) and helps him with the examination of the body of a young woman who has been found dead, her body hidden in the trunk of a tree. Ivy is a bit of an amateur sleuth and is drawn to help in the investigation into the woman’s death which becomes more urgent when it’s discovered that there may be a missing baby. The two timelines connect when Ivy’s search for the baby leads her to the abandoned and menacing Foster Hill House.

The two timelines are told in alternating sections, both with their own mix of tension and conflict. As Kaine’s story develops it becomes clear that there is a stronger connection to Ivy’s story than just the building she is renovating.

One of the first indications that this wasn’t for me was early on when Ivy insists that the unidentified corpse is given a name and she calls her ‘Gabriella’ on the basis that she was now an angel… And that was probably the first sign that religion was going to be a strong theme in this book (I later saw someone describe it as ‘Christian historical and contemporary suspense’). I’ve no problem reading any genre of book where one or some of the characters have a faith and find it important to them but the religious aspects of this book were much stronger than that. This, combined with some quite predictable turns and character developments made for a disappointing read.

Thank you to the publisher for the NetGalley.

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Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Title – Swan Song

Author – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Published – June 2018

Genre – Historical fiction

Although this is a bit of a change from my normal crime fiction reads I was intrigued by a book about Truman Capote, being the much revered author of ‘In Cold Blood’. I read In Cold Blood some time ago and also ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’, both without knowing anything about Capote himself, but then caught the film ‘Capote’ on a flight. This filled me in on some of his, let’s say ‘quirks’ (and proved what a chameleon actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was), but didn’t particularly touch on the celebrity circles in which he moved. In a similar vein to ‘Mrs Hemingway’ this is a fictional account of real characters, and it is completely enthralling.

The timeline jumps about a bit (I was reading a netgalley which may have made it more difficult to know when I was) but the book opens in 1975, as the first chapter of Capote’s ‘Answered Prayers’ is published in Esquire magazine. After decades of sharing the most intimate secrets with his ‘Swans’ – a group of women from the highest ranks of American society – he publishes a thinly disguised story washing their dirty linen in the most public way. The Swans close ranks and Capote is shunned. While the story is the aftermath of the publication, the changes in timeline fill in some of the stories Capote has been told.

Truman Capote by Jack Mitchell

In the preceding years Capote has travelled the world with these woman and listened to their stories, in fact all of the women he surrounded himself with had stories to tell, often, like Capote himself, they were of their rise from rags to riches. But some, like Caroline Lee Radziwiłł (née Bouvier), Jaqueline Kennedy’s sister, were always high up the social ladder but still captivated him.

He’s also told a few stories of his own, and as with the arguments over how ‘nonfiction’ In Cold Blood truly was the book illustrates his manipulation of the truth (or ‘truth-flexing’) to suit his audience. Towards the end of the book we find out the truth behind the publication of the story that shattered his friendship with his greatest love. But this is Capote – who knows what to believe. Once we get to the final chapters and his increased reliance on drink and drugs the narrative becomes less coherent as Capote starts to see visions of the people he  wronged.

The narrative voice is unusually ‘we’ the voice of the swans together. They also refer to Capote as ‘the boy’ – which does tally with his often infantile behaviour. The writing style is unusual, it’s very easy to read with lots of showing rather than telling but I assume that some aspects are echoing the type of prose which might have been associated with Capote.

As with any fictionalised account I found myself a little frustrated not knowing where the line was between truth and fiction. I also found, as much was made of the Swans’ appearance, that I needed to google for photographs of them all. I even came across photographs of his infamous Black and White Ball before I reached it in the book, the ball in the book lived up to the expectations raised by the images. There are a few TV interviews which take place in the book that I would like to track down though…

This was a really fascinating book, I just have to remind myself that it’s a fictionalised story! Many thanks to the publisher for the NetGalley.

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