Category Archives: Hodder & Stoughton

A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks, and indeed last week, I will be sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one winner per week. This week it is Lavie Tidhar’s pulp meets alternate history tale A Man Lies Dreaming, which manages to be both a fast paced thriller and a confronting and thought provoking discussion on the prejudice suffered by Jews in the anti-Semitic movement that may still have happened whoever won the Second World War.

Hodder Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 288 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

As A Man Lies Dreaming opens we are greeted by the diary entries of a private detective named Wolf in London, November 1939 as he describes his latest mission to find a missing woman given to him by, as he says in the very first line, a woman with the face of an intelligent Jewess. Yes, from the off we are given a lead character who is a bit of a bigot, to put it mildly. We are then thrown all the more as we realise that not only is Wolf a rather alternative version of any detective we would want to meet (let alone hire, but his client is desperate) but the London we find ourselves in is a completely alternate one. For a start Oswald Mosley is standing for election and overseas the Nazi’s are not the ruling power, Germany is now a communist country, though still a threat in a very different way.

As we follow Wolf as he takes on the case we are taken deeper and deeper into and under these mean and grimy streets into a world of prostitution and a world where all those who dreamt of dictatorship of Germany, and the world, have now fled and are ruling mini domains in the streets of Soho where not only are people going missing, someone is starting to murder prostitutes and carving swastikas into their bodies; a case which will soon get closer and closer to the one Wolf is looking into.

In Berwick Street the whores were busy at their trade. The watcher in the dark had seen the detective exit his office and speak to the young German whore and to the coloured one, and seen him leave, but he remained behind. He had time. All the time in the world. He eyed the whores.

Yet this is not the only strand of A Man Lies Dreaming for after every few chapters of Wolf’s journey we are sent to somewhere quite different and somewhere horrendously real, Auschwitz. Here in one of the biggest concentration camps during the Second World War, where we know thousands of atrocities were committed, we join Shomer. Shomer was a writer of pulp and noir crimes before he found himself encamped in his horrific surrounds with hundreds of other people. When the world for him there gets too much, which as we read on we get the full comprehension of, he retreats to his slumber and a tale of a villainous dictator who has become a detective on the streets of London. This is both his coping mechanism and way of surviving from day to day no idea if today or tomorrow could be his last.

There is only now, no past, no future, there is only Auschwitz, an island floating on the Polish ground. The dead rise in black ash into the sky, day and night the ovens burn, day and night the trains come laden. And Shomer’s mind retreats into itself, the way it had when he was still a man. For he had been a writer of shund, of pulp, for Haynt and other publishers. He had made his living with his hands, at his desk, writing lies for money.

I found this construction of the novel interesting and also incredibly effective. Firstly there is this sense that Shomer is in the real world dreaming of another world where he can wreak revenge on those who have put him here. Wolf gets sexually abused in an S&M club, tortured not long later and (much worse for his ego) publically humiliated at several social events both over the failure his political and writing careers, the latter seeming to wound him most as many feel he was a one hit wonder. Yet at the same time there is a sense that the alternate Communist lead west could be the ‘reality’ and that horrifyingly Auschwitz is still happening somewhere else just not run by the regime we know. This creates a whole onslaught of concerning if fascinating thoughts in our heads.

The other way in which this is so effective is that, without this sounding weird or offensive, he makes The Holocaust more bite size and digestible while all this other noir adventure and goes on around it. This may sound like it is diluting those holocaust sections or making light of them, it is quite the opposite. Yes there is an irony throughout the novel, yet irony can be quite powerful, as can some of the humour in the utterly horrific – though to clarify this doesn’t happen in the holocaust sections but in the London ones the dark and disturbing can have some darkly funny moments especially as Wolf gets put through the ringer which Tidhar does with quite some zeal. I also think humour can often be used in a very effective way in order to highlight the darkest moments and provide contrast (and some light relief when things get very grim) and heighten the effect which I think A Man Lies Dreaming is a prime example of.

In creating an alternate version of the past, and indeed using many well known names and faces of the day not only do we feel slightly clever for recognising them (when we do, the Mitford’s, Ian Fleming etc) we also see how things could have been horrific in different ways. This again doesn’t detract from how awful things were in the Second World War, rather it highlights the fact that prejudice can poison all forms of society all over the world regardless, and sometimes because of or in spite of, of political agenda’s or historical acts. This is one of the novels lasting thoughts, or at least it was for me.

Not looking he bumped into something soft and full that smelled of expensive perfume. A squeal of delight followed and a familiar female voice said, ‘Wolfy!’
He raised his head and found himself staring directly into the adoring eyes of Unity Mitford.
‘Valkyrie?’ he said. He had always used her middle name.
‘Don’t you recognise me?’ she said, laughing.
Wolf winced. He found he could not draw away from her, his eyes kept searching that sweet, smooth face, the full red lips, the mischievous eyes. She had not changed. Her delicate perfume tickled his nostrils. ‘You haven’t aged a day,’ he said.

What I think Lavie Tidhar does with A Man Lies Dreaming is make an immensely readable book about the unreadable. He mixes hardboiled noir; dystopia and magical realism to create a dark and thought provoking novel, sure to compel the reader whilst making them face the darker sides of humanity. It is a book about war, power, politics, sex and religion whilst being a page turning thriller which gives a new and usual twist on tales of World War II and The Holocaust which manages to entertain and then slap you round the face with reality. I think it is one of the most visceral novels I have read in some time and one which weeks and months later I am still thinking about with a thrill and a shudder, it is quite brilliant. I urge you to read it.

You can hear Lavie and I talking about A Man Lies Dreaming on the Fiction Uncovered FM catch up shows here. I would love to hear from other people who have read A Man Lies Dreaming and what you thought of it. I would also love to know if you have read any of his other novels such as Osama or The Violent Century, or indeed any of his other works – lots to discover from an author who I think we should all be reading much more of.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Hodder & Stoughton, Lavie Tidhar, Review

Us – David Nicholls

David Nicholls’ One Day is one of the biggest selling books of recent years, it was one of those books that you saw people reading absolutely everywhere. Interestingly it is my second most viewed review on this blog ever, with well over ten thousand views only a few thousand behind Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog so there is some additional trivia for you. It is a book I really, really enjoyed (even if it left me a wreck) and so, like many readers, I was very excited about Us when it came out last year, especially after a five year wait.

Hodder Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 416 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

One night Douglas Petersen is woken by his wife Connie, automatically he thinks that either their house is being burgled or something awful is happening to her or their son Albie. As it happens there isn’t something wrong with Connie, though she decides to tell him that she feels that their marriage of over twenty years is finished and that once Albie is safely off to University after the summer she is going to leave Douglas and get a divorce. This is devastating news to Douglas who is still completely in love with Connie and also, though admittedly it hasn’t been all fireworks in the last few years, he thought they were happy enough, settled and happy.

On a slightly smaller scale, though not insignificant Douglas, he remembers that they have booked a huge summer holiday as a family, thinking it would be the last with Albie not the last with all of them, on a grand tour of Europe. As this dawns on Douglas so does the idea that maybe this holiday could be what cements them once again as a family and win back Connie’s heart and her love for him. What follows is both what comes after Connie’s sudden revelation and the holiday in questions, which we know is going to be a rollercoaster before we even start on it with them, and also the story of how Douglas and Connie met, fell in love, married and then ended up in the situation they are in.

The device of going back and forth in time from the opening of a novel is, admittedly, hardly anything new or earth shattering in the world of literature. Sometimes these well used tropes in writing can, when done well and by the right writer, can be what makes a novel work so well and I personally really, really liked Nicholls’ use of it in Us. I don’t know about all of you but I am someone who always wants to know the ins and outs of a relationship; how people met, the funny stories of years of a relationship, the highs and the lows etc. With Us, Nicholls’ gives us theses in abundance from the moments a couple will tell you on any night out like how they met (see below) but also and often more fascinatingly the ones they keep just between each other.

I hadn’t spoken this much for years. I hoped, from Connie’s silence, that she was finding me fantastically interesting, but when I looked her eyes were rolled far back into her head.
‘Are you alright?’
‘I’m sorry. I’m just rushing my tits off.’
‘Oh. Okay. Should I stop talking?’
‘No, I love it. You’re bringing me down, but in a good way. Wow. Your eyes look massive, Douglas. They’re taking up your whole face.’
‘Okay. So… should I keep talking then?’
‘Yes, please. I like listening to your voice. It’s like listening to the Shipping Forecast.’

Nicholls is brilliant at characters and their relationships. He can build a character in a sentence using the oddest yet most realistic and human of quirks, like them being described as the shipping forecast by others etc. He is particularly good at relationships, be they platonic friendships (which we see less in this novel), those between a couple and those between a parent and a child, which is really the second biggest theme in the book alongside middle age. Us is very much about the relationship between a father and their son, something which was particularly close to Nicholls when he wrote the book. This comes up particularly on the trip away, which reminded me quite a lot of one of the strands in David Park’s The Light of Amsterdam which if you loved this you should most definitely read.

Douglas himself makes for an interesting narrator. He is a quirky ‘nice guy’, someone safe, someone inoffensive and someone who sometimes doesn’t quite get or click with the world around him. That isn’t to make him a victim, though sometimes I did think he was the cruel butt of some of Nicholls jokes, he is just someone that you initially find a bit odd and then warm to him. Like many of us with our unusual quirks. His distance to the world, which is how I saw it, did occasionally make me feel a little distanced from him and therefore occasionally less sympathetic or empathetic to his plight. I also wondered sometimes if Nicholls was using this device to hold back a little and I wasn’t sure why. That said even in holding back, and indeed with distance, Nicholls is still very funny and as always human.

Other people’s sex lives are a little like other people’s holidays: you’re glad that they had fun but you weren’t there and you don’t necessarily want to see the photos. At our age too much detail leads to a certain amount of mental whistling and staring at shoes, and there’s also the problem of vocabulary. Scientific terms, though clinically accurate, don’t really convey the heady dark intensity, etc., etc. and I’d like to avid a simile or a metaphor – valley, orchid, garden, that kind of thing. Certainly I have no intention of using a whole load of swear words. So I won’t go into detail, except to say that it worked out pretty well for all concerned, with a pleasant sense of self-satisfaction, as if we’d discovered that we were still capable of performing a forward roll. Afterwards we lay in a tangle of limbs.

I have to admit I had a few niggles with the book. Occasionally the father/son stuff and Douglas being so try hard got a little bit much for me, having thought about it I think this might be that as I had no relationship with my dad, then a very difficult one before going back to no relationship, I wonder if this is just something I don’t connect with. Nicholls won me back over with family dynamics and mishaps with them as a whole on the holiday though, again because we have all been in those situations. I was reminded by my mother not long ago of the time she accidentally booked us into a brothel in Greece thinking it was a hotel, the ladies were lovely to us though – I was about eleven before that gets misconstrued, and isn’t far off what happens to the Petersen’s.

My biggest quibble was the lack of Connie’s voice in the story which occasionally I would have really liked to counteract Douglas’. Nicholls makes much of how they are polar opposites, he is a scientist and she is an art curator, so it would have been interesting to hear that voice as well as seeing what made her fall for Douglas, something Douglas himself doesn’t get, filling in a couple of the blanks I felt were occasionally left. Maybe Nicholls thought that would be too like One Day though, I wish I had asked him now, anyway… Again this was countered by the fact that Nicholls does, albeit through Douglas, look at the huge question of the sciences vs the arts (Douglas isn’t bookish, Connie devours them) which gives the book additional layers and depth. So all my niggles were flattened by the positives.

All in all, Us is another very good Nicholls novel indeed. It is a story of falling in and out and in and out of love, it is a coming of middle age novel and also a family drama, with an emphasis on comical drama, all rolled into one. I think it is also a novel that looks at marriage in modern times and how once upon a time we would fall in love with people we might grow apart from and have to put up with them, now we don’t but what does it mean for us all? I expected a novel that would leave me broken again; instead I got one that had hope.

If you would like to David talking about Us further, you can hear him chatting to me on You Wrote The Book here. I should also add that both my mother and step father have read it and were raving about it this very weekend just gone and they are much tougher critics than me (my mother even said I was being tough on it, I think this may have been that a) it was described as a divorce comedy which when you’re going through a divorce is anything but comical b) I loved One Day so much anything that followed it would have to super impress c) I did like this book a lot so get off my case mum, ha) so there is some extra impetus to read it! What about any of you, have you read it and what did you think?

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The Devil in the Marshalsea – Antonia Hodgson

I don’t read enough historical fiction, something I was mulling over recently, so when my lovely pal Barbara chose Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea as her choice for our newly formed book club I was intrigued. I find historical fiction, unless it’s set in the Victorian period, a tricky beast yet as this was a crime novel set in one of London’s most infamous debtors prisons I thought this would be an interesting way to give the genre another whirl especially with a novel that won the CWA Historical Dagger.

Hodder books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 400 pages, bought by myself for book group

Currently loans and debts are something most of us deal with in some way, be it credit cards or mortgages. Yet in times gone by you couldn’t get away with a court summons and paying something off in instalments or having the bailiffs round, you had something much scarier and dangerous, a debtor’s prison. It is in such a place, the Marshalsea in London, which Tom Hawkins finds himself after owing his landlord ten pounds in rent in 1727 penniless and ex communicated from his father.

Not only was a debtors prison somewhere you wouldn’t want to end up, it wasn’t somewhere you would want to get stuck in, only too easy in a place like Marshalsea where everything has a price, or indeed another debt attached. The only way it looks like it he might be able to get out again is to solve the murder of Captain Roberts, which someone tried to make look like a suicide as much as they could. What could make his mission all the easier, or more realistically all the more dangerous and terrifying is that somehow Hawkins has accidentally ended up in debt to and in the same room as the prime suspect, Samuel Fleet.

‘A roaring lion?’ Mrs Bradshaw sniffed. ‘A hissing snake’s more like it, slithering about the place, studying you with those nasty black eyes of his.’
Samuel Fleet. It had to be. I shifted uneasily in my chair.
‘Mrs Bradshaw,’ Woodburn tutted. ‘You cannot accuse a man of murder just because —’
‘He’s not a man,’ she cried. ‘He’s a demon.’
‘What’s this?’ Kitty called from across the room. ‘Do you speak of Mr Fleet?’
‘Mr Woodburn,’ I said quietly. ‘Do you believe it?’
He sighed and shook his head. ‘I cannot say, sir. But I fear he is capable of the very worst crimes.’ He held my gaze. ‘The very worst.’

From the start Hodgson had me with the novels tension and in particular with Samuel Fleet himself, who we initially see as the devil of the title, and his possible involvement in the murder (I am one of those annoying guessers who will instantly think what meets the eye cannot possibly be the case, you will have to read the book to see if I am wrong or not) of Captain Roberts. I was also hooked by the prison itself, especially the fact there were two sides and prisoners did all they could to avoid ending up in the poorer side where sickness and death were almost your only way out, well if your family could afford to pay to get your body removed.

Hodgson also creates a very good lead character with Hawkins. From the off she had me in sympathy with our protagonist’s predicament despite the fact he is quite clearly a bit of a rascal. We soon learn that despite his father’s intention that he becomes a man of the cloth Hawkins instead becomes a man who like to gamble and while away his time with the ladies or in the taverns of London’s West End, like Moll King’s coffee house. This is something else I liked about the book overall, it is a book about the cheeky, slightly scandalous and rather criminal people of London at that time and how both they, and indeed the richer echelons of society, would try and make as much money as they could out of any poor man in any unfortunate situation.

Grace had – no doubt with a good deal of pride and effort – managed to find me a bed in the meanest room in the filthiest ward in the worst building on the Master’s Side. The landings were filled with rubbish, full chamber pots still waiting to be collected by each door, fouling the air. As we passed one room I heard the familiar sound of a bed slamming against a wall, followed by a long guttural grunt of release. Grace’s mouth tightened to a thin line. ‘O’Rourke. Nine pounds, twelve shillings.’ A final grunt. ‘And tuppence.’

As fascinating as I found the Marshalsea, occasionally I couldn’t quite envisage it or understand it. For example I loved discovering how prisoners made businesses within the prison but I couldn’t understand why some people would gladly live there after their sentencing and not want to leave. Nor could I understand why when some of them were allowed to go out during the day they didn’t just scarper. I felt like I needed more of this additional detail, yet with all the characters and the crime and Hawkins background this would have made the book into an epic and as it was occasionally I felt it could lose the odd paragraph in each chapter, the pace was really fast for the first third, then seemed to really slow down until the final few chapters when it cranked up dramatically again.

Overall I thought it was a good solid twisty thriller, if a touch overly long, and found the historical elements of it really fascinating. Hodgson does that thing I really respect in clearly having researched the era and the prison, without hitting us over the head with a reference book. I thoroughly enjoyed the characters and the insight into the naughty, saucy and dark underbelly of London. I think my underlying issue was that every so often found I was less interested in Hawkins, and indeed the crime, as the novel went on and was actually hankering after the tale of Samuel Fleet and indeed the plight of those on the common side. So I guess I would call The Devil in the Marshalsea a bit of a mixed bag for me.

Interestingly most of my book group felt the same, we enjoyed it as an escapist read yet occasionally found ourselves confused by it and that Samuel Fleet was  the story within the story that we were actually the most drawn to. What I found fascinating was that the one member who doesn’t like crime novels absolutely loved it and did not want it to end. So as you can imagine we had a blinking good natter about it though, so an ideal book group choice. Who else has read it and what did you make of it?

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Filed under Antonia Hodgson, Hodder & Stoughton, Review

I Remember You – Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Yrsa Sigurdardottir has become one of my favourite thriller writers after just two of her detective novels. There is something about the way she can write the grimly fascinating with such humour that really works for me. So when it came to a spooky choice for The Readers Book Club, now Hear… Read This!, I decided to choose her first foray into horror, I Remember You, as a choice of this month’s episode as I thought it would be just the chilling read for this time of year.

Hodder & Stoughton, 2012, trade paperback, fiction, translated by Philip Roughton, 400 pages, kindly sent by publisher

I Remember You is told through two alternating tales both set in Iceland. Out over the water on the Westfjords three friends head to an isolated village where they have bought a ramshackle old house to do up as a future guest house and investment. They are remote, the weather is turning and many, including one of their number, think that they are crazy for heading out there. As the trio start to try and make the place habitable strange things start to happen and it becomes apparent that someone or something wants them to leave.

Back on the mainland a school has been vandalised and an elderly woman has committed suicide, nothing seems to connect these two or does it? A young psychiatric doctor, Freyr, is called to both cases and soon learns that what has happened to the school has happened before in the past and, more shockingly, the woman who killed herself seemed to be obsessed by his son who vanished a few years ago. Soon enough strange things also start happening to Freyr and make him start to question his own scepticism and look back on the case of his missing son.

I really enjoyed being chilled and thrilled by Yrsa and I genuinely did get creeped out by the book as Yrsa, as with her crime novels, slowly creates a sense of unease and toys with the reader. Admittedly the first time I had a genuine moment of fear was because I was reading it and had forgotten that some of my lights are on a timer and so when they went out I royally jumped out of my skin. That said, even when I was reading the book with the lights on there were several times when I thought that something was moving just out the corner of my eye. It was quite unnerving, but a sign the book was definitely doing what it set out to. It is all done very deftly with a nice sense of pacing about it too; sometimes there is a small sensation of fear, others more of a sudden bang.

Freyr started slightly when a click suggested that someone had grabbed the doorknob. Again the door opened as slowly as before, and stopped once there was a small gap. The fluorescent bulb could be heard clicking once more, now with apparently greater frequency.
‘Hello?’ Freyr leaned over the desk to try to see through the gap. There was nothing but the blinking of the faulty ceiling light. ‘Hello?’ A chill passed over him when a familiar voice whispered in response to his call. A voice that had always been lively, contented and joyful, but that now sounded cold and lifeless. A voice that seemed so near, yet at the same time so infinitely far away.
‘Daddy.’

Iceland is a perfect setting for a ghost story too. Having been last year I discovered just how ‘other worldly’ the place is. In the remotest parts there is little to see bar some trees, rocks and snow for miles and miles around. There is also the real sense of the mythical there and whether you have been or not Yrsa nicely winds in elements of folklore and superstition still thriving in Iceland along with more topical items like its economy, particularly in Freyr’s narrative which seemed much more bedded in the modern world as we know it, the friends on the island less so, that seemed to be a place time had forgotten – a place of little electricity and no phone signals, making it easier to be creepy whilst in a modern setting, something I think is very hard to do.

I will admit I had a small wobble or two with the book. Firstly, I missed Yrsa’s humour and wit, which Last Rituals and My Soul To Take are so brimming with thanks to their protagonist Thora. That said has there been any laughs then I would imagine a lot of the tension would have been lost, yet it is Yrsa’s dark humour that is such an important aspect of her writing. What I did like very much was how the supernatural tale had to encompass a crime procedural as the police get involved with Freyr’s case. This felt very real, as I mentioned before Iceland is a place where myth and folklore still linger and people are open to all sorts of ideas. It also reminded me of a reversal of My Soul To Take where Yrsa takes a crime novel and gives it a hint of the supernatural, I think I liked that one a little bit more

 Secondly, with any alternating tale there is the possible danger that the reader will like one more than the other. Whilst I was enjoying the thrills and spills as Katrin, Gardar and Lif built the house in the haunting wilderness, I found that I was so gripped by Freyr’s story across the water that sometimes I really wanted to get back to that. The trio’s tale was interesting, and indeed has most of the scare in it because of the setting, yet Freyr’s situation with his son just had that added emotional depth and was out of the norm of a normal ghostly tale than the other which felt more familiar within the ghostly drama. I also had a slight issue with how the two separate tales intertwined. Whilst the twists and turns as it went on were brilliant, the tension getting tighter and tighter and me getting more freaked out, when I got to the last few chapters I thought ‘oh is that it’ mixed with ‘well honestly, how were we meant to guess that’. Saying that though, I thought the last paragraph was utter genius and pleased me no end.

I think I Remember You is a very good modern ghost story with an unusual crime thriller twist. It is a tale that will make you feel very uneasy and give you the desired chills you will be looking for picking up a book of this genre. I am also fascinated by the fact that it is partly based on a true tale, I just wonder which bit? You can see a piece by Yrsa on visiting the abandoned town of Hesteyri, where the book is based, here. I would recommend you give this a read if you are an Yrsa fan, and Iceland fan or just fancy reading something chilling, I very much enjoyed it.

Oh and if you want to hear even more about the book you can here Kate, Rob, Gavin and myself talking about it on the latest episode of Hear… Read This! where we have a whole spectrum of thoughts on the book.

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Filed under Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Yrsa Sigurdardottir

My Soul to Take – Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Sometimes there are books that you read at just the right time, sometimes there are books that you read in just the right place. It is very rare that you read something at just the right time and in just the right place, however with ‘My Soul to Take’ by Yrsa Sigurdardottir I think I just managed to get both spot on as I read it in Iceland, where it is set, and during the dark autumn nights, perfect for a chilling murder mystery with a slightly supernatural twist.

Hodder Books, paperback, 2010, fiction, 456 pages, translated by Bernard Scudder & Anna Yates, kindly sent by the publishers

In 2006, heroine of ‘Last Rituals’, Thóra is in the middle of a very boring dispute over letter boxes in her work life and having to deal with her children, one who has got his equally teenage girlfriend pregnant, her difficult ex husband and the fact that her finances are in tatters.

So when a client of hers, a bit of a hippy, Jonas Juliusson invites her to come to his New Age Health Spa as he believes it is haunted by a young woman and a young girl and so wants to sue the sellers whilst offering some free respite she can’t turn him down. No sooner has Thóra arrived the body of Jonas’ architect is discovered having been mutilated and raped and Jonas becomes the prime suspect but Thora suspects there is much more going on than meets the eye and, of course, there is.

So how does this link with the story from the beginning in 1945? Well I am not going to tell you that am I as I want you to run out and get the book because it’s so good. I can say that I had no idea what the link was or indeed who the villain of the whole novel was until very close to the end because Yrsa fills this book with so many characters motives and twists and turns you are always second guessing and you second guess is invariably always wrong. I will say that the period of history, and this doesn’t give anything away, and the role of Iceland and the Nazi’s in WWII was a really interesting part of the plot, and therefore the book, because I had no idea about any of that at all and found it grimly fascinating.

I will say that I do think that Yrsa Sigurdardottir is swiftly becoming one of my favourite voices in crime at the moment.  With ‘My Soul to Take’ she does all the things I loved in ‘Last Rituals’ that I loved all over again but keeps it feeling fresh and new. There is the supernatural element, is there a ghost or not, the folklore of the country, the rather grisly murders (made all the worse by the fact you do feel you have an emotional connection to the victims which I always think makes everything more heightened), the sense of atmosphere of Iceland and, equally importantly, a dark and wry sense of humour running through it. It’s rather like its protagonist Thóra in many ways actually. There was one scene that made me laugh and laugh but I worry if I shared it with you I would be judged and you may never come back to this blog again. Let us move on shall we and have a nice picture of the lake I sat reading this by in Iceland…

A beautiful lake in Iceland, possibly inspiration for the first murder scene in ‘My Soul to Take’?

If you are looking for an intelligent crime novel that has an original gutsy heroine, victims you empathise with, clever crimes and more red herrings than, erm, a red herring factory then I would highly recommend ‘My Soul to Take’. I should add here that while it is the second in the series it would stand alone, however if you are like me and you have to read a series from the start then do pick up ‘Last Rituals’ as soon as you can, go on, get it now. I am certainly looking forward to the third instalment of Thóra, though before I turn to that I am going to read Yrsa’s latest novel ‘I Remember You’ which is a standalone horror, perfect for this time of year and arrived just this morning.

Who else has read any of Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s novels? What did you think? Do they get better and better? What are your thoughts on the humour in these novels? Have you been completely flummoxed by the killer the whole way through too?

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Filed under Books of 2012, Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Yrsa Sigurdardottir

The Poison Tree – Erin Kelly

I always watch each Richard and Judy, or TV Book Club, announcement of novels with interest. Some will instantly grab me; some leave me needing a little coaxing. ‘The Poison Tree’ by Erin Kelly was one of the latter cases when I saw it on the list last year. It looked like it could be an interesting thriller but I wasn’t sure it would be anything out of the ordinary. Twitter changed all that. You see though it may not prove to be the best form of picking an author, if I have a bit of banter with one on twitter, and they don’t try to sell me their book, I invariably want to read it because they seem lovely. Erin Kelly was one such author. I’d never met her but we have chattered about books, the weather and music and got on, so I thought I would probably like her book.

Hodder Books, paperback, 2011, fiction, 368 pages, from my personal TBR

I really like a good crime novel and I really like a good thriller, I tend to forget that sometimes they don’t need to have any police involved (or rather on the periphery rather than as a lead character) and ‘The Poison Tree’ is one of those novels. The story centres on Karen Clarke and her time studying languages in a university in London in 1997 where she meets Biba. Biba isn’t quite like anyone that Karen has ever met before; she’s a young rather bohemian aspiring actress who spends most of her life partying quite the antithesis of Karen who is rather prim, proper and studious. This of course is all set to change as she befriends Biba when teaching her how to pronounce German authentically for a part. We know from the very start that somewhere in this particular summer something awful is going to happen, what that is we aren’t quite sure, but we know that it’s bad, life changing and involves Karen, Biba and Biba’s brother Rex (as there is an alternating storyline in the present which alludes to things that could have happened).

I don’t tend to get on with ‘student’ books set in those ‘wonderful university years’, this may possibly be because I didn’t experience them myself as I went into work rather than studying. However I found myself really enjoying ‘The Poison Tree’ and I think that is because Erin Kelly really focuses on characters. Biba in particular is incredibly readable, if rather annoying, because of her nature, she is mysterious and flighty and (possibly due to the past we discover she and Rex have) rather on the edge a lot of the time, she has a sense of darkness. The first hundred and fifty or so pages flew by, and then I had a mini wobble. Biba goes off the rails and it seemed a little unoriginal, she dates a druggy and starts living a rather dubious life all in the name of ‘role research’, that and her first role in a play seemed a little over drawn but I carried on and the pace came back.

I am not going to say what ‘the event’, which I what I shall call it, that we are leading up to is because I don’t want to spoil it, but I do need to mention it because it had an interesting affect on me as a reader. For when ‘the event’ happened I was rather non plussed. In part this was because it wasn’t what I was expecting and so completely wrong footed me, but also because I had this strange feeling of ‘oh… is that it?’ and I stopped reading to mull over my reaction. I wasn’t disappointed exactly, because Erin Kelly does so wrong foot you it is impressive, it just didn’t seem to gel for me. I should be honest and say this could be because I had felt so clever guessing what was coming or expecting some massive heightened event that this left me feeling a bit cheated, or less clever. I almost sulked. Yet I read on and soon Erin Kelly saved it again (though I wonder if she ever lost it and with the alternating present storyline was actually wanting the reader to have the complete wrong idea) as in the last 50 or so pages she throws in some twists one of which I had hazarded at and was proved right (and so felt clever again) and two which genuinely threw me and, to coin a cliché, thrilled me. I actually had to speed read the last twenty pages in a panic simply desperate to know how it would all unfold.

So overall I liked ‘The Poison Tree’ and I am glad I gave it a whirl. I want to add the clichéd review comment of ‘this shows a promising new voice’ because a) it does and b) when this novel had me gripped it really had me gripped. I liked the evocation of 1990’s London, the mention of the Spice Girls took me right back, and the fact that Kelly’s characters are so well drawn that when things do have a small lull in the middle you read on because you want to know more about them. In a way that’s why you read on after ‘the event’ and get those final surprising twists and turns. I was an enjoyable and escapist read and at some point I will try her follow up novel, this isn’t a series by the way, ‘The Sick Rose’ (and I am not just saying that as she is a good chatting companion on Twitter, i don’t even think she knows I read the book).

Has anyone else read ‘The Poison Tree’? If so what did you think? What about ‘The Sick Rose’?

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Filed under Erin Kelly, Hodder & Stoughton, Review

Last Rituals – Yrsa Sigurdardottir

I always feel a bit bad when I say that I enjoy crime fiction, not because I don’t rate the genre (quite the opposite in fact) but because there is always that worry that if you say you enjoy crime novels and a good murder then you might be a secret homicidal psychopath. Not the image you want to be putting out there really is it. Yrsa Sigurdardottir has stopped me feeling strange about saying this both having met her at The Manchester Literature Festival (you can hear me interview her here) and having read her first crime novel ‘Last Rituals’ which you may have already guessed by now I thoroughly enjoyed.

Hodder Books, paperback, 2008, fiction, 432 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

I have to admit I do like books that are rather dark and brooding and that is just the atmosphere that Yrsa Sigurdardottir sets with her debut crime novel ‘Last Rituals’. After a student, Harald Guntlieb, is found dead (well he falls out of a cupboard onto his professor) at the University of Iceland, lawyer Thora Guttmondsottir is asked by his family to look into the case, she initially isn’t sure she wants the case but is won over by the amount of money it will earn her. A man has been arrested for the crime however the Guntlied family think different and so want her and another investigator they have hired, Matthew Reich, to find out what really happened.  

So far, so typical crime set up. Yet this is by no means a run of the mill crme novel, it is the character of Thora and the landscape of Iceland and its past that will have you hooked and gives the novel a real edge. Thora is not perfect, but she is very real and she shows real back bone both in her personal life when dealing with her ex-husband and in her professional life when wryly taking on Matthew who seems to believe he is the one in control. She also has a wonderful humour about her, rather deadpan and cynical which really made me laugh out loud on several occasions, mainly in her dealings with Matthew but really in anyone who she meets, especially her receptionist/PA/secretary Bella who, to put it mildly, is utterly inept.

‘Someone phoned’ Bella mumbled, glued to her computer screen.
Thora looked up in surprise from hanging up her anorak. ‘Really?’ she said, adding in forlorn hope: ‘Do you have any idea who it was?’
‘No. Spoke German, I think. I couldn’t understand him anyway.’
‘Is he going to call back perhaps?’
‘I don’t know. I cut him off. By accident.’
‘In the unlikely event that he does ring back, even though you cut him off, would you mind putting the call through to me? I studied German and I speak German.’
‘Hmph,’ Bella grunted. She shrugged. ‘Maybe it wasn’t German. It could have been Russian. And it was a woman. I think. Or a man.’
‘Bella, whoever calls – a woman from Russia or a man from Germany, even a dog from Greece that speaks in tongues – put them through to me. Okay?’ Thora did not wait for a reply, not expecting one anyway, but walked straight into her modest office. 

Laughing out loud at a murder mystery, unless a cosy crime maybe which believe me this isn’t – far from it, is not something I was expecting and I found it really refreshing. Having been lucky enough to have met the author and chatting with her I can see where it comes from but I must also praise Bernard Scudder who has clearly translated this wonderfully. The dry sense of humour of the book wasn’t the only thing which set it apart, I loved the fact Yrsa also brings in Iceland’s history.

I cannot really say how without giving anything away (the plot is a good one and makes the reader do lots of second guessing whilst turning the pages), but one of ‘Last Rituals’ strands involves the tales of medieval witchcraft and witches. Yrsa has clearly researched all of this heavily and yet it never came across as showing off, it just fascinated me. This is a side of Iceland I had never heard of (not that I know mc=uch about Iceland apart from the fact I have always wanted to go) so between the joys of spending time with Thora and then having the unexpected added bonus of learning about a macabre and unsettling historical and religious period of Iceland’s history made this an almost perfect read. I was gripped, entertained and horrified – brilliant!

I like books where the dark, and sometimes horrific, is merged with a sense of humour, ‘Last Rituals’ is a book that nailed this for me. It is a rather disturbingly graphic crime novel; it is also one which has a real sense of humour about it thanks to its protagonist the delightfully imperfect Thora. I cannot wait to read the rest of this series so far; with great writing and such a great main character it looks set to become a firm favourite. If you love crime and haven’t read Yrsa Sigurdardottir then you really must (and in fact you can as part of today’s Savidge Reads Advent Calendar). I have already taken the next in the series ‘My Soul to Take’ off the shelves and will be reading it in the next few weeks.

Have you dipped your toes into this series? If so what did you think? Have you found any other crime novels that are dark and yet darkly funny (I have just thought of the Kate Atkinson books actually) that you would recommend? Have you discovered a wonderful new crime series this year and if so what was it?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Yrsa Sigurdardottir