18 May 2021

#Blogtour #Review - The Assistant by Kjel Ola Dahl

The Assistant
Kjell Ola Dahl (tras Don Bartlett)
Orenda Books, 13 May 2021
Available as: PB, 293pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 9781913193652

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for an advance review copy of The Assistant and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in this blogtour.

The Assistant takes the reader to a fascinating epoch - Norway, on the brink of the Second World War, where former smuggler, Jack Rivers, and ex-cop, Ludvig Paaske, run a detective agency together. (Rivers is the "Assistant" of the title). In the best traditions of noir, a woman turns up one morning at their offices and inevitably, trouble follows...

Actually The Assistant goes to two fascinating periods - alongside the 1930s story, other chapters hark back to the 20s, a world of Prohibition, speedboats, hideaways in remote fiords and gangsters' molls. This was an aspect of Norway's history I was totally unfamiliar with but am now obsessed by! Hard drink, banned from sale, is being brought in under the noses of the authorities and distributed from flatbed lorries and via corner shops and village groceries. The police (led by Paaske) and Customs are relentless in their pursuit (at one point Jack's boat gets fired on by a naval vessel) and we're witness to daring escapes, stake-outs and betrayals. 

Jump forward again to 1938, and that young woman in the detectives' office dangles an apparently simple job - she thinks her husband in unfaithful, and wants him followed. But this will lead the pair into a fiendishly complex affair involving Nazi spies, Communist saboteurs intent on stopping arms exports to the Spanish insurgent forces - and some old scores. Of course we know, even if Jack, Ludvig, Amalie, Julie and Bjerke don't, that all this is taking place in a looming shadow of war, invasion and occupation. 

I loved the way that, in this book, Kjell Ola Dahl juggles the personal and the national, even the international. Everyone we follow here was involved in the chases and chicanery in the 20s which were deadly serious at the time but now, looking back, seem rather like games. However, things were done - promises made and broken, betrayals carried out and accepted - that left faultiness, faultiness which persist to the later 30s, reasons for suspicion, regret and revenge. In 1938 it's as though the wars and rumours of wars have brought all that back to the surface, injected a new sense of jeopardy, of higher stakes but also - for some - an open door to opportunity. 

The characterisation here is excellent. Paaske, a bit of a fusspot, a man with routines, obsessed with the state of his shoes (and judging others by theirs) but also a man missing his daughter, lost somewhere in the European maelstrom. Jack, still a bit Devil-may-care (though less so than we saw in his 20s escapades) but someone with regrets, especially about his mother's death which he missed, being in jail. Julie, a femme fatale if ever there was one. Amalie, distinctly ambiguous, a woman who has come far, clearly has secrets, and who moves in many different circles - but who nevertheless still cares for her brother, now committed to an asylum. There's a sense they have all been waiting fifteen years to begin the dance that starts now. Despite that, though, the moves are uncertain, intentions conflicted and - it seems at times - the outcomes all bad.

I really enjoyed The Assistant. (Can you tell?) There are some familiar themes and tropes but they are given new life and force and expressed in a totally different milieu from what you might expect. Yes, guns, girls, smoky clubs and spies. But also, political idealism and cold-eyed men (and women) with a lightning calculus of guilt, innocence and motivation. So much of the action is about who is second guessing who and where that will lead. Who is bluffing, and what they'll do if called. It's really, really intoxicating and often very visual: a couple of episodes take place in a villa with large, lit up windows so that key events are seen by other characters as though on a theatre stage or the silver screen itself, pointing up the theatricality, the film-like quality of the whole series of events that plays out - with the drama maintained at high pitch till the last moment of the last reel.

Don Bartlett's translation feels classic noir, falling into an easy, raconteur's style that yet points up the atmosphere of a foggy morning in Oslo or a dark night out on the fjord. 

An intoxicating read, best enjoyed, perhaps, late at night with a glass of the hard stuff to hand and rain pouring down outside...

For more about The Assistant, see any of the stops on the tour (listed on the poster below) or visit the Orenda website here. You can also follow links from there to buy the book, or else get it from your local hughstreet bookshop, or online from Bookshop dot org, from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

15 May 2021

#Review - The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The Inheritance Games (The Inheritance Games, 1)
Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Penguin, 3 September 2020
Available as: PB, 384pp, e, audio
Source: Audio, and advance e-copy via NetGalley.
ISBN: 9780241476178

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Inheritance Games via NetGalley.

The Inheritance Games is a catchy, read-another-chapter novel with a great premise. I did feel however that it slightly let itself down by the use it makes of its central character.

Avery Kylie Grambs is a bright young woman in a difficult situation. Her mother has died and left her in the care of her half-sister and dodgy boyfriend, she's poor, and her father is nowhere to be seen. In the opening chapters, however, Jennifer Lynn Barnes establishes Avery as very much on top of things: juggling home, school and various part time jobs, Avery budgets her time carefully, knowing just how much effort to put in, for example to get acceptable grades (she has clear career plans) and how much to spend earning money (supplemented by poker games after school). As we meet her she's coping with the school's suspicion that she cheated in a physics test (she didn't: for once, she allowed herself to go all out on the revision, and scored 100%). She has this in hand though, and coolly offers to resit the test.

But we never learn the outcome of that, because instead Avery is whisked away as the apparent heiress to the Tobias Hawthorne fortune (forty-six billion dollars - or was it forty two? As the man said, a billion here, a billion there and soon you're talking real money).

Required to live in the Hawthorne house, among a bunched of p****d-off Hawthornes who regard her (with some reason) as an interloper who has scooped their fortune, Avery has to face a rather different set of challenges. It's not only the Hawthornes - of whom there are so many that it took me a little while to sort them out - but the house itself is the epitome of creepy gothic. Modern it may be, but it rambles, with innumerable wings, facilities (solarium, cinema, bowling alley...) and also secret passageways and tunnels. And set against this background, it's clear that Old Man Hawthorne left a surprise behind: a puzzle to be solved. Teaming up with first one and then another of the resentful Hawthorne brothers, Avery seeks to solve the mystery - and find out why she was chosen to inherit.

While always looking over her shoulder, in case somebody decides she would be better off out of the picture...

It is, as I have said, a fun setup and the story trots along at a brisk pace with a steady flow of revelations, twists and reversals, many of them involving a mysterious young woman called Emily - a mysterious, dead young woman - and her relations with the Hawthorne boys. The story is never less than enjoyable, and especially well suited as an audio, the shortish chapters moving from one cliff hanger to the next. (Christie Moreau's narration is excellent, although the - I assume - Texas accents she assumes need a little checking against the text: I didn't realise till late on that one of the brothers was calling Avery "Heiress", I thought to my puzzlement he'd invited the name "Arris" for her).

But - and this isn't a big "but" - I really felt that Avery lost much of her initiative, and was considerably less interesting, once she arrived at Hawthorne House. There are many books, I know, which use the trope of "character suddenly whisked into different circumstances" and this shift can be difficult to get right. As a reader, I generally want the character to begin exploring and testing the new situation they're in, rather than being generally boggled by it. It's understandable and natural for them to be floored by learning that their life is to be transformed, but I felt that Avery didn't live up the promise she showed in the first few chapters by doing this. 

She has, admittedly, some immediate and personal problems that knock her back. Avery would normally discuss things with her best friend Max, but Max is half a country away and her parents apparently live in the 19th century and don't approve of telephones (or swearing - Max is continually making up coy euphemisms like "fax"). And Avery's sister Libby, who Avery might also rely on, has that no-good boyfriend, who is clearly after a cut of the estate, so relations are tricky there. So Avery's basically alone. Yet - allowing for all this - Avery still came over to me as quite passive and reactive. Yes, she's brave and determined and won't take any nonsense, but this comes over in verbal jousting with Hawthorne brothers rather than in, say, assessing her position and making plans, and the consequence is that the book is a bit "one thing after another".

Add to that, that the final reveal at the end of the puzzle is - a bit flat, and I felt that this book rather disappointed. I can see that further books in this series are planned, so perhaps it's understandable that the climax here couldn't be too much of a bang, but still, I think it's a pity.

So overall, great fun, very readable, but it could have been so much more.

For more information about The Inheritance Games, see the publisher's website here.

13 May 2021

#Review - Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses by Kristen O'Neal

Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses
Kristen O'Neill
Quirk Books, 27 April 2021
Available as: HB, 384pp, e
Read as: ARC
ISBN(HB): 9781683692348
More info: On the Quirk website 

I'm grateful to Jamie and Stephen at Black Crow PR for an advance copy of this book.

Priya has worked hard to get into the pre-med course at Stanford, but it looks as though all her dreams will turn to dust. Infected by Lyme disease, she's forced to return home as she struggles to cope with chronic symptoms which make the simplest tasks into major challenges. While her parents are loving and sympathetic, and her younger brother and sister put yup with her, she doesn't want sympathy, she wants her life back.

The only thing that makes things tolerable is the online support forum she joins ("off ouch my bones") and in particular, Brigid ("bigforkhands") who shares about the monthly affliction from which she suffers. Then one night Brigid stops answering the chats...

This is a warm, life affirming book in which Kristen O'Neal brings together (virtually, of course - they're spread round the globe) a disparate but welcoming group of mostly young (one is 26, is that young any more?) people. Their chats are rendered visually, creating a fast moving story that allows each to explain their challenges, share their high moments and receive support in their low points. 

But you can only do so much online and when Brigid enters her crisis, Priya decides rot test just what she can do, pinches her mum's car, and heads over to help out...

There are then two main threads of story. the evolving relationship between the two young women which is great to follow. Their experiences have left both of them vulnerable and simply "having been in a bad place" isn't, it really isn't, enough for them to get everything about each other. "I understand", one may say, to someone else, but can you, can you really? O'Neal's too wise to simply say "these two people help each other and everything is fine from then on". It isn't. it can't be. But you do sense that they are trying.

The other thread - and the two cross of course - is the Thing that is Brigid's problem. What can I say here? I don't want to spoil anyone, but the book's title... and that cover... may be pretty big clues. Let's just say, Brigid has problems with a part of herself that she doesn't welcome. That's also true for the other members of the group, of course, but there are... aspects... of Brigid's situation that mark her as different. Dangers that her situation poses, to others. And risks she runs, if the truth becomes known. So the story follows a roller coaster of peril, rescue and risk, comedic at times (once Spencer comes on the scene, he, Brigid and Priya make a fun triple act), scary at others and always, always, providing a thoughtful commentary on difference, acceptance and growth.

It's often not easy. There are some furious flare-ups and some hard truths to face.

But it's, in the best sense, a story of change and discovery.

Overall a really fun book, one with real heart. I'd recommend. (In a time when many are enduring and coping with the still poorly understood long covid, I think a bit of representation of those living with chronic illness may be rather timely).

11 May 2021

#Review - Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer

Design by Jo Thomson

Hummingbird Salamander
Jeff VanderMeer
4th Estate, 15 April 2021
Available as: HB, 349pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy, and audio
ISBN(HB): 9780008299316

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Hummingbird Salamander via NetGalley. I also listened to the audiobook, which is excellently narrated by Lisa Flanagan.

In Hummingbird Salamander, Jeff VanderMeer has written both a taut, twisty thriller (which has fun with some of the conventions of that genre) and a spot-on exploration of climate change and environmental degradation.

In, I think, a near future, but one very close to our now (anyone remembering the last eighteen months will recognise the background chatter and rising fear caused by a novel pandemic). The narrator is Jane - she tells us that's not her real name - telling her story after the catastrophe that it represents for her and family. That's catastrophe at a personal level, on top of the pollution laden skies, societal breakdown and spreading chaos that occasionally intrude.

Jane has a husband and daughter, although we never learn their names. She has a safe, well-paid middle class job in the security industry. She also has a sense of detachment from all this - again, there are passing mentions of one-night stands while she's away at conferences ('Never knew the last names.') That detachment seems to be rooted in her distinctly strange childhood, growing up on a farm with an abusive grandfather ("Shot"), a feeble dad and a mother who had mental health issues. And then there's the brother. As the story proceeds, Jane interrogates her past, matching up moments, memories and bits of her current experience with it. Notably she tells us much more about this, and in particular her experience with Shots - who seems to have beaten her and her brother, but also taught her to wrestle - than she does about that husband and daughter: as to the latter, it's really a series of missed opportunities and disengagement and indeed, a reckless attitude to whether what she's doing might get them into danger.

What she's doing... well, in the best thriller/ noir style, that all begins with a mysterious message, leading to a trail of breadcrumbs. Exactly why the message is for Jane, and why she is so drawn to follow it up - with many, later, regretful comments about how things would have been different if she'd turned aside at that moment - well, that's rather unclear for most of the story. 

The message is from Silvina Vilcapampa, a rebellious but recently deceased member of a South American family which has becomes rich, basically, from environmental destruction: mining, logging, trafficking in endangered species, you name it. They are not only rich but scary, responding to Jane's interest with guns, muscle and threats. But this is a thriller, and the Vilcapampas are not the only players here, VanderMeer weaving together a delightfully baffling and tense array of subplots as Jane attempts to discern the truth, find out if any of the actors here are potential allies, and solve the riddle that Silvina has set. Whether she's motivated by insatiable curiosity, boredom with her middle-class, middle-aged life, or a desire to fill in gaps in her own history, was something I mused on right the way through this book. Jane seems obsessed with Silvina, and the taxidermied hummingbird that forms the first message form her, obsessed to the point of of researching Silvina's life and following her travels as set out in her journal. The overt reason for this would be to discover a secret she suspects has been hidden - and presumably that's also the reason the Vilcapampas are so keen to stop her - but she knows so little of what it might be that there must, surely, be more going on than that.

Either way, the story Silvina tells, and Jane's lived experience - especially her comparisons between the wild world she exploited as a child on the farm and the tame, habitat-sterilised land that has replaced it - are intimately bound up with what we are losing as the planet is degraded: the book calmly describes extinctions, environmental stress and climate change, treading a narrow line between discounting them and portraying a future that is completely without hope. As the last words, addressed to a time one hundred year in the future, have it: 'Is there a hummingbird, a salamander? Is there a you?'

Above all, despite the temptation to identify Big Business as the Big Villains in all this (and the Vilcapampas in particular are clearly no angels), the confusion and complexity of the world is acknowledged. The book notes the damage done by those who see themselves as on the right side, by the most unexpected people, the seductiveness of the "means to an end" argument, the sheer ambiguity of living - as well as the inertia of living, the way that catastrophe does not, on the whole, come about overnight. The societal breakdown portrayed here is real and certain (and encapsulated in those closing words, I think) but it's something that the privileged are able to ignore for most of the time even so.

Hummingbird Salamander is not, at times, an easy book but it is a rewarding one and it's one I'd recommend. As a listener to the audio, I found Lisa Flanagan's dry, slightly insinuating tones always  absorbing and at times chilling, brilliantly animating Jane's reserved affect: here is a woman with secrets, are you really sure you want to know them? It might change you...

For more information about Hummingbird Salamander, see the publisher's website here.

7 May 2021

#Review - The Mask of Mirrors by M A Carrick

Cover design
by Lauren Panepinto

The Mask of Mirrors (Rook and Rose, Book 1)
MA Carrick
Orbit, 21 January 2021
Available as: PB, 630pp, audio, e
Source: PB and audio
ISBN(PB): 9780356515175

I'm grateful to the publisher for a paperback copy of The Mask of Mirrors to consider for review. 

I actually "read" most of this book listening to it on audio, because my reading and scheduling is all over the place right now (and when I say "now" I means "always") and that way I can access a few more books. It might seem not the best choice because The Mask of Mirrors is more than 25 hours on audio, and so took a couple of months to finish. (Of course once I got within sniffing distance of the end I switched to the paperback because EXCITING FINISH).

In other ways it was a good choice because audio suits this story exactly. I generally find the experience of listening to a book more immediately immersive but it especially fits the complex, intricate world that M A Carrick (Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms writing together) creates.

We are in the city - the city state - of Nadežra, a merchant enclave with something of a feel of Renaissance Venice: Nadežra is a place founded on inlets and islands, a sort -of Republic run by noble houses with trading interests who govern though a council, the Cinquerat. A great deal of the background to the story is rooted in this hierarchy - we're particularly interested in one of the noble houses, House Traementis, whose fortunes have rather fallen, and there is a great deal of business with charters and commerce, involving a long-lost member of the family, Renata, who shows a singular ability to get things done and who may just be what Traementis needs to reclaim some of their lustre.

The only problem is... Alta Renata is actually Ren, a skilled con artist and former thief from the gutters of Nadežra, set on liberating some of that Traementis wealth and diverting it to more deserving causes (Ren, and her sister, Tess, who poses as Ren's maid). We only learn Ren's story gradually, in patches and from different points of view, but it is a sad one, evoking sympathy. I couldn't but admire Ren's and Tess's planning and audacity. In particular, Carrick makes clear how the whole thing depends on appearances: the right dress for the right occasion, with Tess continually stitching, ripping and reworking, all on a budget since the pair have no money. The styles and choices are described, and how they reflect or exploit the current fashions in Nadežra - all serving to make the city very, very real, almost tangible.

Gradually, as Ren becomes genuinely friendly with the serving members of House Traementis, her motives become cloudier and she seems less inclined to do them for every last coin she can and more to use her remarkable talents for mutual gain. She is, though, always in danger if her secret is revealed - imitating a noble is seen as a dreadful crime, and the penalty one of being trafficked in the slave ships. So throughout this story Ren (and to some degree Tess) are changing perspective and developing as characters.  

Through them, Carrick also explores a whole dimension of colonialism and class inequality in Nadežra, whose ruling nobles actually derive from Liganti invaders, the indigenous poeople of the region being Vraszanians like Ren and Tess. In the audio, this is marked by the switch Alta Renata's cool, very Standard English, accent compared with the thicker, foreign inflected accent used as Ren's 'own' speech. Ren uses this same voice when she's playing the part of a fortune teller, something she does quite often since the use of cards to divine the past, present and future is an obsession among the Vraszanians, a way to earn a little money and also a means the author uses to hint at where the story is going. This was where the audio was slightly frustrating because the system of cards as developed by Carrick is understandably very visual, and without following the words on the page that describe what's happening in the various readings (some of them real, some faked by Ren or other characters as the need arises) it can be hard to keep track of what's happening.

That in no way reduces the delight of this story, though, which simply teems with life. Carrick introduces us variously to police, haughty nobles, a dashing and daring Robin Hood style outlaw, 'the Rook', a faction of Vraszanian rebels, rival mobsters with their own street gangs and trading interests, and a couple of magicians (magic - numinatria - is a Thing here, although seen more as an offshoot of sacred geometry than an occult art). The conception of all this, the different viewpoints, the manoeuvring and skullduggery between the houses and the skin-of-her-teeth efforts of Ren to keep her true identity secret and present herself as the wealthy and privileged Alta Renata, give the first half of the book something of the air of a Dickens novel. There is simply so much going on, yet it's all so skilfully depicted that one never feels swamped. 

Above all it feels real.

The city and its residents established, with the second half, Carrick swerves hard in other directions. It's impossible to say much about this without some spoilers about certain shocking events, but what I will say is, Carrick is BRUTAL with some of what happens and, like Ren, she's playing a shell game. I certainly never suspected where the book was going and if the minutiae of the first half didn't suit you, well, the second part is very different (magic may be involved, is all I will say) and, as it were, scratches quite a different itch. There are more plots than Ren's at work and compared to some of what's revealed, she is pretty much an innocent.

I'd wholeheartedly recommend The Mask of Mirrors if you love a well worked out, immersive fantasy world peopled by a gallery of obstreperous characters who may make temporary alliances but are, mostly, never going to get on.

And it's only the first 'Rook and Rose' book - the title suggests that the focus will be slightly different again from what we might expect based only on this one...

For more information about The Mask of Mirrors, see the publisher's website here.

4 May 2021

#Review - Silenced by Sólveig Pálsdóttir

Silenced (Ice and Crime Book 2)
Sólveig Pálsdóttir (trans by Quentin Bates)
Corylus Books, 15 April 2021
Available as: e-book
Source e: Advance e-copy provided by the publisher

I'm grateful to Corylus Books for providing me with a free advance copy of Silenced to consider for review - and for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

Silenced follows The Fox, in which we met Guðgeir Fransson, a detective with the Reykjavík police who was under a cloud and waiting for a decision on the future of his career (and also, his marriage). Now Guðgeir is back in Reykjavík and while he's not got his old job back (that role is held by his former protégé Særós) he is playing a useful part in investigations, at the same time as he and his wife move from a house that clearly holds painful memories.

That move brings Guðgeir across the path of Andrea Eythórsdóttir, a young social media influencer (I really enjoyed seeing Guðgeir grapple with that idea!) whose brother vanished twenty years before. Andrea is pretty traumatised by the whole thing and taking to the bottle, and Guðgeir begins to look into the case. He has barely got started however when he's called away to investigate the apparent suicide, in prison, of another young woman - swiftly followed by the first in a series of particularly brutal rapes.

Silenced has, as you'll have gathered, some dark themes. Like The Fox, it exposes patriarchal violence against, and control of, women and a content warning would be in order for the book since there are some frank (though not gratuitous) accounts of what happens. Pálsdóttir expertly weaves together a number of strands: Andrea, who as I have said, is herself troubled; her somewhat haughty family; Kristín, the young woman who died in prison and whose earlier life is seen both in flashbacks and in the words of a friend; and Guðgeir's own life, back on track but about to be upset when his student daughter announces that she is pregnant. I liked the way that Pálsdóttir then has Guðgeir reflect on that - on the extent to which the boyfriend may or may not become involved in parenting, on the childhoods and life chances of the people he meets as part of the investigation, especially the Eythórsdóttir children, and on his own earlier life. There's a sense of Iceland being a small place where paths cross often with different characters having attended the same college at different times, for example, as well as that closeness still allowing goodness knows what to happen in some families, unsuspected by those outside.

In contrast to all this exploration of human nature, I also enjoyed the sense of Guðgeir settling back into a familiar place, in contrast to his life as seen in The Fox where he was out of his element. 

Which only makes it all the more disturbing, of course, when the attacks on women begin to mount and the team need to react and track down the perpetrator. That procedural aspect of the story makes this also an excellent book if seen primarily as a mystery (I did work out what was happening before the end) and I like the fact that, while dealing with very serious crimes, neither this book nor its predecessor give the centrality to murder that one so often finds in crime.  

The translation by Quentin Bates is clear and strikes a good balance between keeping the setting and atmosphere clear - this is obviously Iceland! - and leaving the reader to puzzle over details or references with which they may be unfamiliar. 

An excellent addition to a series that I am looking forward to following.

About the Author

Sólveig Pálsdóttir trained as an actor and has a background in the theatre, television and radio. In a second career she studied for degrees in literature and education, and has taught literature and linguistics, drama and public speaking, and has produced both radio programming and managed cultural events.

Her first novel appeared in Iceland in 2012 and went straight to the country’s bestseller list. She has written five novels featuring Reykjavík detective Guðgeir Fransson and a memoir, Klettaborgin, which was a 2020 hit in Iceland.

Silenced (Fjötrar) received the 2020 Drop of Blood award for the best Icelandic novel of the year and is Iceland’s nomination for the 2021 Glass key award for the best Nordic crime novel of the year.

Sólveig lives in Reykjavík.

For more information about Silenced, see the publisher's website here (including buy links) and the stops on the blogtour, listed on the poster below.

You can also buy Silenced from your local bookshop, or online from Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones or Amazon