Monday, 27 August 2018

The Wanderer - Michael Ridpath

Michael Ridpath has written umpteen books about policeman Magnus Jonson but this is my first one. There seemed to be several references to a past that might be worth exploring in previous books since Magnus seems to be a likeable, if ever so slightly flawed, character, personable and zealous in the execution of his duty. 

Since I don’t believe in coincidences and having very recently read The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson I’m wondering if this is the year of the Icelandic novel for me?! Certainly the tale does credit to the country, aside from the crime of course! The writer conveys a real sense of Iceland; what it is to live, work and travel to and from a country deemed to be the most sparsely populated in Europe.  Clearly he loves the country. The book is rich, too, in the history and legends of Iceland and it is that which provides the catalyst for the fiction. Yet the book has a truly international flavour. An Italian tourist is murdered close to a location where a documentary film crew are making a film about Gudrid The Wanderer. When there is a second murder it becomes clear that this is far from being a ‘simple’ crime. 

What follows struck me sometimes as a cross between Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson, Icelandic style!! It’s a myriad spider web of blurred lines and half truths, tangled relationships, red herrings and twos and twos making fives. But as with most crime stories you know as you are reading that the perpetrator is there right in front of your eyes. But can you make the right connections? Can you get there before the police do? I found the plot enjoyable and thought provoking but I can’t say why or I’d have to indulge in a spoiler and I’m just not in the mood!!

But in fact there was more than one plot at play in this engrossing story which bulked it out a bit. But if I’m honest I’m not sure exactly what it added to the book as a whole other than allow some character development for Magnus. 

Although blurbed as a thriller I feel that is a little misleading it’s more an historically flavoured crime fiction. It’s easy to read with a comfortable narrative style from an experienced writer. It must surely satisfy fans of Ridpath and Magnus and gain some new ones in the process. 

Many thanks to Readers First and Corvus books for the opportunity to read this. Michael Ridpath is now definitely on my radar. 

Friday, 24 August 2018

Murder on the Left Bank - Cara Black

This is the eighteenth Aimee Leduc mystery!! It’s my first. Whether it will be my last or not I’m not sure yet. Did I enjoy it? Yes, I did. The sights, sounds and smells of Paris were ably conjured as the backdrop for some unpleasant murders investigated by the stubborn and intrepid Aimee.
Clearly much of what has transpired in the previous books are referenced here but overall it doesn’t detract from this one as a standalone tale.  But my guess is the experience of reading its antecedents might well have enhanced the experience. 

It’s a fast paced, twisty story with plenty of action and plenty of brain work too as you try to figure out the conundrum of the missing notebook and the havoc it causes. I suspect many of the characters have already appeared in previous volumes and are old friends to loyal readers. I certainly got that impression and I will admit to being just a little curious as to the various roles these characters have played previously,  from Aimee’s mum to Aimee’s partner.

It’s an easy read with the narrative flowing fast and confidently, the work of a writer comfortable with her genre and her characters. The plot is sufficiently twisty and turny to keep you guessing and wondering who is who and who can actually be trusted. There are some nail biting moments too where you fear for the characters safety. 

What I found curious is that despite some of the gory bits and angsty bits it remains what I would call a light read in comparison with other books of this genre. It’s a paradox I know but there you are!! That’s what I felt. And my thanks to Nudge books for introducing me to this Gallic gumshoe! 

Thursday, 9 August 2018

The Division Bell Mystery - Ellen Wilkinson

Originally published in 1932 this novel is written by the Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson famed for her role in the Jarrow Marches. It’s a mystery set in the Houses of Parliament where a prominent financier is found dead. A handsome young parliamentary secretary, Robert West, finds himself playing the detective alongside the police and some friends and colleagues in an attempt to unearth what really happened.

Clearly Ms Wilkinson was well placed to write from first hand knowledge of the workings of the parliamentary machine. Her characters must surely be observed from people she knew and worked with. Most come across as very believable although there did seem to be some caricatures and I wasn’t sure if that was intentional or simply my contemporary response to a past culture. Although this is a mystery novel I felt it had much to say about the place of women in government and society at that time. 

The mystery itself is quite enjoyable although even given the lack of forensic and digital tools that we have today I think the police might have solved things a little quicker than they actually did but we wouldn’t have had a  story. It’s very much a locked room crime tale that unravels alongside some observations of the state of `British politics and the politicians of the time. There is a sub plot that threatened to cloud the main issue but in fact fleshed out the text quite cleverly anad hinted of the more dubious activities of government representatives.

The writing itself is crisp and faintly satirical, implicit rather than obvious, but it all flows along effortlessly. It’s pretty well plotted. The only time I’d ever heard of a Division Bell before was the Pink Floyd album!! I told you I wasn’t political! I did suspect the ultimate perpetrator but not the finer points of the crime. 

I’ve yet to come across any of the British Library Crime classics that I haven’t enjoyed and this is no exception. 

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

The Sealwoman's Gift - Sally Magnusson

What an absolute privilege and delight to read this book. An original fictional story based on a true life historical event that I certainly knew nothing about and I am grateful to have my awareness raised. 
Iceland in the seventeenth century -  Turkish pirates abduct four hundred people into slavery. Among those taken include a pastor, Olafur and his wife Asta and their children. The story is Asta’s.

What struck me about this book was how fresh and alive the writing is which almost belied the fact that it is an historical novel. It was possible almost to forget the darker, historical aspects and see it as a contemporary view of love, morality and endurance. And maybe that is the point, these qualities alter little over the passage of time.

The descriptions and atmospheres created are palpable, from the odours of the slave ship to the fragrances of Algiers. The characters are believable and accessible, their strengths and frailties forging a precarious balance through the dilemmas and heartbreaks they face. Asta dominates as indeed she should do as the main character and much of what we experience is through her eyes. But tugging at our hearts too is Olafur. The story is almost as much his as it is Asta’s. He never quite leaves the periphery of our reading. All the characters, whether major or minor have a voice, in this imaginative story and that includes the titular Sealwoman who invokes a spiritual and ethereal quality to the tale. 

Interesting to note that Olafur, the real life Olafur, did write a memoir of the events depicted in the book from his perspective which seems readily available to purchase.  Quite captivating too are the many Icelandic legends and myths liberally peppered throughout the novel elevating the book to a celebration of that almost mystical of countries  - Iceland.

I would like to thank Two Roads and Bookbridgr for the opportunity to read this book.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Night Driver - Marcelle Perks

Hmmmm. Difficult to say I enjoyed this book because much of it was so unpleasant in its violence and aggression. It’s a very dark tale with little light relief. But I was compelled to continue reading because the writing is, largely, very good with a well paced narrative that flows like the traffic on the Autobahn so vividly described it’s like another character. 

All things blurbish -

‘Heavily pregnant Frannie is such a nervous driver she only feels safe driving at night.

Lars is a truck-driving serial killer who hunts his victims on the open road’

Lars doesn't kill for killing’s sake. He just can’t control his urges. And then he isn’t responsible for what happens…….’

Apart from one the male characters are without redemption. Unpleasant is a mild understatement. How about brutal, evil, controlling? Yep. Thats more like it. The female characters on the other hand are the good guys!! Poor Frannie, an Englishwoman abroad, struggling with language and cultures. Sometimes you want to shout at her, No! Don’t! But she does!

I include this YouTube video where the author explains some background to the book. To put it in context it’s also an appeal for crowdfunding to assist publication, obviously before Urbane Publications took it on. Ms Perks also expresses how it feels to write about serial killers. and if you watch the video you will understand why I cannot express too much negativity about this story as I really don’t want to get on the wrong side of her! ;-)

I also include a link to a recent interview which I think redresses the balance between the older video.

If you like your thrillers to be a literary white knuckle ride then this is for you. If you are of fainter heart I’d give it a miss!! My thanks to Urbane Publications for an advance proof of this tale. 

Thursday, 2 August 2018

An Interview with Kim Sherwood - Author of Testament

Having read and been blown away by Testament I was thrilled when Ana McLaughlin at Quercus and riverrun books gave me the opportunity to interview Kim Sherwood. 

My thanks go to Kim for this frank and absorbing interview.


I have just read Testament and at the risk of sounding sycophantic I was blown away! I couldn’t believe such an accomplished book was the work of a debut novelist. Could you tell us a little about your journey into writing?

Thank you so much, that’s really kind. I’ve been writing all of my life – like most people, probably, it started with books I’d stick together and illustrate in masterful crayon. I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I studied Creative Writing to undergraduate and postgraduate levels at the University of East Anglia. When my grandfather died, I turned to writing – as I always had – to help me articulate my feelings and sense of loss, and that’s where Testament began. I was fortunate enough to win the Bath Novel Award in 2016, an international prize for best unpublished manuscript. The judge, Sue Armstrong at C&W, became my literary agent, and then I signed with riverrun. I’m really lucky to have an incredible group of people around me. 

The Holocaust is an emotive subject. And, I believe, a brave one for novelists to tackle. It’s all too easy to ‘get it wrong”. Did you find the book difficult to write, emotionally?

Exceptionally difficult, to be honest. Testament took six years to write, and that was six years of thinking about the Holocaust, reading about the Holocaust, writing about the Holocaust, dreaming about the Holocaust. There’s a T.S. Eliot poem, ‘Marina’, where the same words appear four times in a stanza: meaning death, meaning death, meaning death, meaning death. That’s how I felt. After a while, everything I looked at it seemed coloured by all I was learning in my research – history always seemed to be erupting into the present. Writing about it gave me a space to articulate and, in a way, contain those feelings. 

I’ve read a great many books about the Holocaust and what impressed me so much about Testament was that it looked at the continuing effects and attitudes in today’s world. Where you wrote ‘We are here because history doesn’t happen in the past tense’ just made me should out loud with a resounding ‘Yes!’!  Was that your intention from the outset, not to make me shout yes (!), but to contextualise that time in history to now?

Thank you, that’s really quite the compliment! Yes, it was my intention from the outset. I saw J√≥szef Zyyad – a young Hungarian Jewish man trying to survive, yet to become the artist Joseph Silk – and his granddaughter Eva, a documentary filmmaker, standing either side of a dividing line, looking each other in the eye across the decades. And, in that look, making time shake. I wanted to explore how our histories rupture into the present, whether in family narratives, or today’s politics. 

I was also surprised to find a sense of upliftment and optimism at the book’s conclusion which is paradoxical given the harrowing events. Was that a goal or does it surprise you to find someone saying that?

It does surprise me, in a way, because I wasn’t writing intentionally towards a hopeful ending, but a lot of people have told me how hopeful the book is for them. I didn’t actually know how the book would end. Eva has to make a decision – whether or not to make public a witness statement her grandfather made in 1945, or whether to keep it secret, as he would have wanted, after a lifetime of trying to remove this trauma from his identity. I didn’t know what she’d decide until very near the end of the first draft, or how Eva’s relationship with her father would resolve itself, or not. I’m glad what happens reads as uplifting, because I think that’s what Silk would have wanted for his granddaughter. 

My understanding is that the book is, in part, based on your grandmother’s memories?  But I imagine you needed to delve further into the subject. Can you tell us a little about the historical research you did for the book?

I was careful not to write my grandmother’s story, because of course that’s her story to tell if she wishes, or not, as she wishes. But her story was absolutely the seed for Testament, because when she broke what had been a kind of family silence, and told me about her experiences as a child, I started researching the Holocaust in Hungary in order to try and understand all she was telling me. The novel grew from my research, and my horror at all I was learning. A lot of my research took place in archives and libraries – the Weiner Library, the British Library, the Open Society Archives, the Whitechapel Art Gallery Archive. I’d then try and follow my research into the real world, following the route of the death march through Hungary, for example, that Silk is forced to take. I spent a lot of time in Berlin, Budapest, Belgrade, Prague, the Lake District, London, trying to get myself into the skin of the places I was writing about. 

I visited Auschwitz a few years ago and it reduced me to tears several times and many times since then.  Did you visit any locations to support your research? If so, what effect did it have on your writing? 

It felt important to me to visit the sites I was writing about, and to try and experience them through my characters’ eyes and bodies – not that I can know what the people who were interned in such places felt, but in order to try and better understand my characters’ experiences. I went to Sajmiste, the site of the former camp on the edges of Belgrade, where people now live in the wreckage of the administration and torture buildings in makeshift homes. I visited two mass graves in Hungary, one at the Great Synagogue in Budapest, and one an anonymous forest in Sopron. I visited Theresienstadt, a fortress town that was turned into a ghetto and camp outside of Prague. 

Possibly a little contentious but do you have anything to say to the deniers of the Holocaust? (You can say nothing, I would totally understand!).

This is a hard thing to tackle. Recently in the States, some teenagers turned a family’s menorah – which was out in the front garden – into a swastika. Part of their sentence was to sit down and talk with a Survivor. I think people who deny the Holocaust are usually doing so because for some reason it is too difficult to accept as truth – because it clashes (rather paradoxically) with their own belief in fascism, or because it makes them view the other in a new way. In teaching we talk about threshold concepts – how challenging it can be to move people through a barrier into new understanding. I think it could be of value to put Holocaust deniers in conversation with Survivors. However, Survivors shouldn’t be called on to repeat their stories in order to persuade people of their suffering. I think it would require the kind of structure Nelson Mandela gave reconciliatory conversations between victims and persecutors after Apartheid. All of that said, I think our main responsibility as a society is to ensure that sympathisers or deniers aren’t allowed into power – that they are kept away from school curriculums – because education is often the foundation to these issues.

How do you approach your writing? By that I am wondering if you have a special place, special time, any special routines and rituals? 

I don’t know if you’ve read the 1960’s Peter O’Donnell crime caper series, Modesty Blaise? Modesty always says it’s important to sleep whenever you can, because you don’t know when the opportunity will next come up. I approach my writing like that: I write whenever I can, in snatched moments or free afternoons, and try not to worry about habit or ritual, because they’re too hard to maintain in the face of everything else, for me. I do like to have a cup of tea when I start writing. That’s a ritual.

I know that being an avid reader is almost compulsory for a writer so a question I always ask is if you can remember the first book you read that moved you to tears, if any?

It’s very hard to make me cry with a book or a film, I don’t know why, but on a rare occasion it does happen. I do remember the first time. Funnily enough, it was the last Modesty Blaise story. I won’t spoil it, but I remember a steel trap falling down over my heart in an effort not to cry, and crying anyway! The first book to make me cry properly was Primo Levi’s If This is a Man – for what he’d been through, and what he revealed about humanity.

 And finally having enjoyed this novel so much I am bound to ask when we can expect another new one! And is there anything you can tell us about it? 

I am about two thirds of the way through a first draft of my second novel. It’s about the literary and maritime history of the South West, and explores issues of gender and genre. I’m really enjoying writing it. 

Thanks so much for these thoughtful questions, I’ve really enjoyed this interview.