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I may have bought a few books recently...

I'm trying to collect old Agatha Christie novels. I got chatting to a volunteer in my local charity shop on Monday who said she had about 20 she would bring in. Yesterday I went down for them and they said they had some old Enid Blyton books as well. I bought them all without looking at them

 

I was also in London a couple of weeks ago so had to visit Persephone Books. And a couple of second hand bookshops. And Foyles on Charing Cross Road. It's a good job I was travelling a few hundred miles back on the train otherwise I'd have bought more!

 

Perfect Prey - Helen Fields

A young man is murdered in front of a crowd of thousands, though no one sees the killer. A nurse is brutally murdered in her own home. DI Luc Callanach and DI Ava Turner soon find that their separate cases are linked. It appears the murderer is announcing their next victim and as more murders occur Luc and Ava are on a race to decipher the clues before the next person is killed.

 

This is not a slow build novel. It opens with an unusual and somewhat barbaric murder at a music festival and soon more bodies are piling up. The murders are gruesome, the kind nature of the victims making the reader perhaps feel even more sorry for them that they met such untimely and grisly ends.

 

The characters are beginning to develop more in this novel. There are flashes of humour from Ava Turner, which lighten the tone to just the right amount. The more I read of the novel, the more I liked Ava. Luc still has his issues, tied over from an incident from his past whilst working at Interpol. This lead him to move to Scotland and has had a somewhat physical effect on him. I’m going to sound very unsympathetic but his issues began to grate on me again, as they did with the first book. It seemed as if the issue was a little laboured. I was glad to see that a little peccadillo of his from the last novel didn’t emerge in this one. I was able to be a little bit more sympathetic towards him as a result. (I know this sounds a little vague but I don’t want to give too much away and spoil the story).

 

Despite my issues with Luc I still enjoyed the story. The dark web features heavily and it made the story feel all the more oppressive and gritty (in a good way) for it. It also made me glad that I really don’t know much about the dark web! The motive for the murders was dealt with in a clever way. I also love the setting of Edinburgh. The story, and back stories kept me engaged, so much so that I went to check my bookshelves to see if I had the next book in the series.

 

An entertaining, dark, interesting second installment in the Callanach series. I look forward to reading more Callanach and Turner stories in the future.

Candra's Freedom - A.J. Nuest

Rowena still cannot remember anything after she lost all of her memories, which were wiped when she crossed the veil from her world into Caedmon’s. Caedmon, the only person who can help her regain those memories has been held prisoner in Seviere, the enemy of Austiere.

However, Rowena has been busy whilst Caedmon has been away. Determined to win her freedom and flee the her castle prison Rowena has been training to fight it out it in the Gautlet, a physical battle of wills where the winner receives land and the means to pay for a life away from court.

The story details Rowena’s hardships, how she has gained the respect of the guards through her fairness and her fighting skills. Whilst she cannot recall how she arrived at the castle, she is determined not to be curtailed by it.

Caedmon, on being released, finds out how badly she has been treated and is determined to protect her. Rowena, still believing Caedmon is her enemy, wants nothing to do with him and fights her growing attraction to the prince.

She has become a warrior in their time apart and will fight for her freedom, he will do whatever it takes to keep her near him and safe.

I enjoyed this second instalment greatly. Rowena’s character has developed in such a positive way. She shows how she has become a determined fighter, not just a woman who is bound by the term sorceress. She has faced fear and violence and is determined to be a free woman, rather than give into the pressures of court. She is also determined not to rely on a man and fights the attraction to Caedmon which confuses her.

This is less of a love story and more of a tale of empowerment and determination, the search for freedom and ultimately being able to trust once more.

I couldn’t wait for part 3, Caedmon’s Curse, so I read this straight after.

Fever at Dawn - Gárdos Péter, Elizabeth Szász

Miklos is looking for a wife. Having suffered horrific suffering in Belsen concentration camp, he finds himself taken to Sweden for medical care. Whilst in his hospital bed he decides to write to the women from his home village who are also convalescing in Sweden, all 117 of them. He intends to find a wife. And he’s not going to let the fact that he’s just been told he has six months to live get in his way.

 

This story is based on the author’s parents and how they met so you can guess how it ends. This isn’t a spoiler though as the story is more about the story of how they get together, than whether they get together.

 

There are times in this book when it’s charm takes over and you almost forget it sets set against the backdrop of one of the worst times in human history. Peter Gardos weaves the romance of how Miklos and Lili meet and fall in love, in with the glimpses of the darker story of what led them to be convalescing in Sweden. The horrors of the war and their separate internment in Belsen is almost too much for them to talk about, and indeed when they do meet, one of the scenes mentions the things that they don’t discuss.

 

Miklos is a very strong willed character. He refuses to believe that he has only months to live and refuses to believe that he won’t be able to meet the woman who will become his wife. He writes to a number of women who responded to his first letter but has his sights on Lili and is determined to meet her, not concerned with the fact that he is in ill health and that Lili is at the other side of the country. He has socialist ideals, which he tries to explain in his letters to Lili.

 

It is a romantic story, though not overtly so. Miklos’ gifts show more thought and care than flowers or chocolates could and they give each other the gift of hope, something which had been sorely lacking from their lives in the previous years. Their romance is one of letters, falling for each other from a distance, indeed, falling in love with an idea rather than reality at first. But it is a love that once formed stands the test of time for the real Miklos and Lili remained together until Miklos’ death decades later.

 

This is a lovely, moving tale, made all the more so by the fact it is based on a true story. Fever at Dawn is a simply told story but this is as it should be. Whilst artistic licence has been taken, Peter Gardos has written a beautiful tribute to his parents and shows that even in the shadow of great tragedy and adversity, hope and love can still shine through.

Deadly Harvest  - Michael Stanley

A young girl goes missing on her way home from shopping. The police do little to find her and she vanishes without a trace. Months later another girl disappears, her father taking it upon himself to find out what happened to her. New detective Samatha Khama is dealing with the cases and believes the girls were taken to be used in muti, African traditional medicine. Calling on the help of Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu, Samantha is soon on the trail of a serial killer shrouded in magic and mystery.

The storyline dealing with muti was fascinating. Whilst I had heard of the traditional medicines of witch doctors I had little knowledge of this area. The basis of the witch doctors, both those who dealt with traditional herbal medicines and those who dabbled in the darker aspects of the trade was a major theme of the story. It was extremely interesting to find out more about this little known aspect of African culture.

 

The mystery itself was engaging, made more emotional as the view points of the victims were shown at various times throughout the novel. Whilst I’d guessed the culprit before the reveal there were plenty of red herrings and potential conspiracies, especially as the belief in muti is widespread and encompasses a variety of people, including those in power and in positions of responsibility.

 

There is an eclectic cast of characters, some of them easy to envisage, such as Big Mama who runs the local pub and Joy, Kubu’s wife. I particularly liked Kubu. He was both jovial and serious, a man used to thinking carefully and using intellect to help solve cases. I wasn’t as sure about Samantha who seemed to have a sense of perpetual anger, understood to a point in that she is one of the few female detectives. However, she did seem to take her stance to an extreme, being overly confrontational in some respects when perhaps you would have expected some deference in consideration of her rank compared to Kubu. This is the first novel I have read featuring Kubu and his world and I hope that the characters are expanded upon more in future books.

 

I loved the setting of the novel. Botswana is a place I am not familiar with and I found myself searching for pictures of the places mentioned so I could see if my imagination was close to reality. The location was very much a character in itself and I believe shaped the nature and style of the story. I could easily imagine the people and locations, the mix of the relaxed nature of the inhabitants who were at the same time obviously hard working. The culture of how women as perceived and the tradition of big families was often mentioned as was the tragic situation with HIV and the treatment of lack thereof.

 

All in all a good mystery. I’m looking forward to reading more about the adventures of Kubu in future novels.

Shatila Stories - Various

The Shatila refugee camp in Beruit is not how one may imagine a camp. Instead of tents there are buildings, tightly packed together, some perpetually unfinished as they grow to accommodate the rising population. There are cafes, schools, community centres and bakers. It is populated by people who have escaped oppression and violence in the countries they were born in, and by those who have only ever known the camp. Nine of its residents have worked together to create Shatila Stories.

 

The novella follows Adam and his family, as they arrive in the camp. A series of interlinked stories follow Adam as he comes to term with his new home. His sister looks back at her marriage and re-evaluates her life. A father, not known for his kindness to his family, makes a drastic decision to save his only daughter and a drug dealer makes his mark on the camp. One day Adam walks into the community centre and meets Shatha. His life is changed irrevocably.

 

This is a short novel, only 120 pages, but nonetheless impacting. There is a sense that the reader is walking down the narrow alleyways of the camp. The sights and smells are almost within touching distance. The faint buzz of the live electricity cables can almost be heard overhead.  All of the authenticity is brought about by the fact that the various authors all reside in Shatila. It is eye-opening to read about a refugee camp that, I’ll admit, I didn’t know existed. And it has existed for years. The sense of limbo, perpetual estrangement with the rest of the country they reside in is inherent in the book.

This book is an informative, first person glimpse into a little known world and a worthy one.

 

There is tragedy in Shatila Stories. But there is also resilience, love, tenacity and hope. All of which are a necessary part of humanity. And if they can be found in the most trying of circumstances there is hope after all.

Night Moves - Jonathan Kellerman

A family come home from an evening out to find a body in the study, the man’s face destroyed and his hands removed. Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis must figure out who the man is and how he came to be in the house of people who deny knowing him. Are the family hiding something or does the “creepy” neighbour next door have anything to do with the murder?

 

As always, I find it difficult to review the latest book in a favourite series. There are flaws, as in any novel, but I tend to be blind to them, intent as I am on enjoying the brief, welcome return of old friends. But that in itself says something. The fact is that I’m still eager, some 33 books later, to read more of the investigative adventures of Alex and Milo, despite any issues I may have if I looked more closely at the book.

There is perhaps the staccato, sparse way of narrating that Alex has that could grate. It is, possibly, one that grows on you. Coming back to the series a year after the last novel this style is more obvious to begin with, but becomes the norm as the story develops.

 

Alex Delaware has his quirks, including the said narrative style. Almost surreptitiously, the reader learns more about the characters around Alex than the man himself. We know his girlfriend Robin has red hair and penchant for dungarees, his sidekick and best friend Lieutenant Milo Sturgis strains the buttons of his often clashing shirts and will, invariably at some point be referred to by Alex as ‘Big Guy’. What we don’t find out is what Alex looks like, or even what he wears.

 

The story itself was clever and pulls the reader along. There are a limited number of suspects and crime scenes and as such the story feels more contained and has that ‘locked-room’ feel to it. As with most of the books in the series there are a few clues here and there but not all of the information is revealed so  the reader finds out who the culprit is around the same time as the characters. The suspects and characters involved are not particularly likeable. The Corvins have issues that go back further than the odd dead body in the library and the neighbour is at first portrayed as someone who could potentially be on a watch list. The story is well-paced, with few big action scenes, though those aren’t required. I was soon wrapped up in the book and eager to find out who had done it and why.

 

The Alex Delaware series is one I can always rely on to entertain me. I relish diving into the latest installment and have remained a consistent favourite for many years. It was with a resigned sigh that I turned the last page, knowing I have to wait until next year for the next novel. An enjoyable, entertaining read. Recommended.

Young Anne - Dorothy Whipple

Young Anne follows the life of Anne Pritchard from a young girl of five to a grown woman in her early twenties. The story shows Anne’s early years, her time at school, falling in love and her first job. There are highs and lows dealt with compassionately and with a deftness of hand that makes the story feel all the more true. This is a story about a life. There are no great reveals, action scenes or taut moments. It could be said that nothing much happens but Dorothy Whipple wrote in such a way that she made the reader invested in the characters. She wrote about growing up, about finding your feet, about first love and relationship issues in such an engaging, often lively, way that the reader can’t help but be drawn into the story. Anne’s life has a similar arc to Dorothy’s and the tone of the novel shows that sometime Anne and Dorothy  are almost one person. This sense of connection between creator and creation adds a weight to the story, making the reader all the more invested in the story.

 

Anne starts out as a simple character but as the story progresses the reader sees a more complex persona, one who is coming to terms with the changes in her circumstances. She doesn’t have a particularly loving upbringing, with a strict father and a rather uninterested mother. The love she finds in the family maid, Emily, who remains a constant throughout the novel. We see that Anne has flashes of frustration at her position in society, for example she wonders at one point why she must be the one to fold laundry and pick up after her brothers, why it was perceived as women’s work, as it was at that time. Later there are moments of quiet, understated romance, of expressions of feelings that could almost pass the young protagonist by, but which are told by an older, perhaps wiser woman in a way that shows the underlying intentions of the person behind those acts. They have weight to the story, one which becomes more apparent as the tale progresses.

 

Anne is not always a likeable character. There are times when her actions show her naivety, an impetuous nature that has laid dormant for a long time. It is as she gets older that we see more growth from Anne, and the pains that go with it.

 

There are flashes of humour throughout, with some standout lines of prose that hint at the strength of work that could still be expected after this debut novel. Some of the text is so brilliant in its simplicity of manner that it requires an immediate re-reading to take in the insight and wit at work, and which resonate still today.

 

The story is filled with simple, yet not simplistic prose, a character study of people and of a time which are still relevant and interesting today. Young Anne was my first foray into the writing of Dorothy Whipple.  It will not be my last.

 

Highly recommended.

Norma - Sofi Oksanen

Norma has magical hair. It grows metres each day, can detect illness and can read the moods of people around her. But she is no Rapunzel. Her hair is her secret, a burden to bear with just her mother. But now her mother is dead, an apparent suicide. And then she meets a man who knew her mother. Her hair tells her he’s dangerous and that her mother’s death may not have been a suicide. Norma has to overcome her grief, and her fear of exposure to find out what really happened to her mother.

 

To be honest, at first I found myself unsure of what the story was about. The information given to the reader appears sporadic. I felt at times that I had started reading half way through the story. Eventually however things became clearer.

 

This is not a usual mystery story. It is more an exploration into the role of women in society, how they are used, how people work around systems and rules to benefit from them. It shows the control of men, and women and the roles they play in exploitation of women, be it directly or indirectly through silence and lack of drive to find out the truth behind a product or a service. This is all told through the allegories of hair extensions and surrogacy, a strange combination that works and makes the reader think.

 

The book is very easy to read. Short chapters lend themselves to allowing the reader to read ‘just one more’. The translation is also very well done. The sign for me of a good translation is the inability to spot that the book has been translated. That was the case with Norma. It never really occurred to me that the novel’s first incarnation was not in English, I read the novel as Sofi Oksanen’s words, not those of the translator, Owen F. Witesman.

 

Norma is a mixed character. Rebelling in her youth, in her own way, spending money she didn’t have, sleeping with people she probably shouldn’t have, she is now facing being alone as the only person she could be her true self with is gone. Controlled by the moods her hair inflicts, she has to self medicate with a number of anti nausea drugs, vitamins and other items to get through each day. She is taken out of her comfort zone and has to examine all she has ever known, when she decides to look into the truth of her mother’s death.

 

There is a surreal quality to the novel, lent obviously by the magical qualities of Norma’s hair, but also by the prose and by the way the story of the surrogacy business and the almost clandestine and criminal hair weave business is laid out. There’s a hint of a fairy tale to the story, but one with a darker core, and ultimately with a dénouement that allows the heroine to realise things about herself. I spent a lot of the time wondering if I was enjoying this novel, then the rest of the time realising I was.

 

An interesting, thought-provoking read. I’ll be keen to read more by Sofi Oksanen in the future.

The Fortnight in September - R.C. Sherriff

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to go on holiday you’ll be able to remember the excitement such a trip entails. There is the planning, the packing, the mad rush to leave, the mild panic that you won’t get to your transportation on time or leave a vital piece of the holiday paraphernalia behind. You may look forward to the unknown, the discovery of new countries and cultures. You may, like the Stevens family, seek the familiar, look forward to returning to a home away from home, where you can relax fora week or two.

 

In The Fortnight in September we follow the Stevens family on their annual trip to Bognor Regis. They have stayed at the same guest house for 20 years and have the holiday routine down to a fine art. It all starts with Marching Orders, the list of tasks to be completed before the holiday begins. Though those tasks themselves are now so integrated into the routine they are part of the holiday themselves. There’s the excitement of travel, the slight risk of not getting a carriage in the train, and the joy of finally having that carriage to themselves. There is the routine to come, but one that is lifted from the everyday monotony because it is part of the break from the norm, a routine that ensures every last drop of enjoyment can be squeezed from two short weeks.

 

For Mr Stevens, his holiday allows him to escape the confines of his office job. Like most of us, he resents his work intruding on his holiday time, especially when he suddenly finds himself reminded of the everyday.  Both he and his wife understand that Mary and Dick, their older children, will soon no longer want to come on holiday with their parents. To them, this trip is almost a final one as a family, making it all the more dear to them. The holiday brings enlightenment for Dick, struggling as he is with his first year in employment. The fortnight gives him chance to assess his life, and brings with it an epiphany that allows him to no longer dread the return to the everyday. Mary too takes the next steps towards adulthood, moving further away from the comfort of her family but with the safety net of them being around allowing her to make decisions for herself.

 

If someone tells you that a book where nothing happens is boring, then show them this book and tell them they are wrong. Everything happens in this book because it is about life and its simple pleasures. It is about the joys of family, of the familiar. It is about acceptance that things will inevitably change, that that which has always brought enjoyment will, like everything, have a finite lifespan. It shows how breaks from the norm allow for introspection, reassessment, a chance for growth and change and a chance to simply enjoy life in that moment.

 

By taking a step back from reality and placing the family on holiday RC Sheriff allows the reader to examine the everyday in a new light. The sense of excitement a holiday brings, the counting of days when there, the regret that time seems to pass at an inordinate speed are all encapsulated in this delightful novel. It’s refreshing to read that the magic of a vacation hasn’t diminished over the last 80 years.

 

A charming, warm, encompassing read, it has become one of my new favourite Persephone books (though each Persephone book I read becomes a favourite). Highly recommended.

You, Me, Everything - Catherine Isaac

Jess has raised her son William on her own for the last ten years. His father, Adam, hasn’t really been around and Jess is fine with that. But then Adam invites William and Jess to his hotel in France. Whilst there Jess will have to assess her true feelings for Adam and deal with a tragic secret of her own.

 

This book arrived on a day when I was due to choose a new read. I picked it up to see what it was about and then barely put it down until I finished the final page.

There’s just the right balance between humour and sadness, the prose being both moving and funny in equal measure. The novel deals with issues not always raised in literature. The issues discussed were things I had heard of but this book will be a welcome way of providing the exposure needed. And no, I won’t mention what those issues were as I don’t want to spoil the novel.

 

All of the characters are well drawn, each of them adding to the story. William is a loveable character, clever, mature and yet also retaining the childlike quality of someone on the cusp of adolescence. The relationship between him and Jess is a well-developed, believable one, and makes the story more effecting because of it. Adam is a charming man, it is easy to see why Jess fell for him. It is also apparent there is more to him than Jess believes. Both he and Jess complement each other, more so than they perhaps realise. The other characters all add to the story, none of them jarring with the narrative.

 

Film rights have been optioned for You, Me, Everything and it’s easy to see why. This book is one you can envisage as a film as you read, the descriptions of the location so vivid it made me want to visit the Dordogne and the story arc one which flows well, keeping the reader engaged throughout.

 

This is an entertaining, absorbing, moving novel, one in which I read all 419 pages in one day. I’ll be sure to look out for more books from Catherine Isaac in the future.

Out of Thin Air - Anthony Adeane

One cold January night in 1974 a young man leaves a nightclub and is never seen again. Months later another man receives a telephone call late at night and leaves his home. He too never returns. One murder in Iceland is unexpected, two in short succession almost unheard of. Police are quick to arrest suspects. Confessions are obtained and convictions followed. But those confessions may not have been as they seem.

 

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Iceland. It is a wonderful country, with a close-knit feel. There is beauty in its stark landscape and a wonderful sense of history permeates it. This essence of Iceland leaps from the pages of Out of Thin Air. There is something mysterious and slightly magical about the country and the book echoes that. (It was also great to read a book where I recognise the places and have actually been to them).

 

As well as being a fascinating look into Icelandic life, Out of Thin Air is a study in how criminal investigations shouldn’t take place. Forty something years ago investigative methods were different to today’s policing. Unfortunately violence was rife, as was the use of more persuasive tactics to elicit confessions. Add into the mix a police force unused to dealing with major investigations such as murder and it was a recipe for disaster.

 

Many of those who were involved in the case, including those convicted, remain in Iceland. They have had to live under the shadows of events from over forty years ago, each one dealing with it in their own way. I found myself searching the internet for more information on the six suspects. It was truly fascinating to read about what they went through, and how they dealt with the fallout of the case. The book looks into investigative methods, of both the Icelandic police and the German investigator sent to assist. It is a study in detection at the time, and the limits placed by lack of experience. It is also a study in the phenomenon of false confessions, of suggested memory and the effect that solitary confinement can have on the human mind.

 

The book reads very much like a documentary, which is apt given the author, Anthony Adeane was researching the case for a documentary. Interviews with those involved form the bedrock of the book, bringing the cases even more to life. As with most non-fiction crime books there is a sense of unease in that the complete truth will never be fully known. But such is life.

 

It’s hard to not go into too much detail without giving anything away, so I will leave it there.

 

The cases of Guðmundur and Geirfinnur still causes much discussion in Iceland today. And it’s easy to see why. A fascinating look into a dark part of the country where the Northern Lights shine.

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse

Bertie Wooster is visited at his club by his old friend Stinker Pinker. Stinker it would seem, is worried that his amour, Stiffy is going off him, so asks Bertie, who wouldn’t seem like anyone’s first choice to dabble in relationship counselling, to help. At first he refuses, given Stiffy is staying at her uncle’s house at Totleigh Towers, where Bertie is persona non grata following a misunderstanding with a stolen object d’art. However, circumstances conspire to find Bertie at the Towers. And soon things start to go in such a direction that only Jeeves can fix.

 

This is the first P.G. Wodehouse I have read. I picked it up with the intention of just reading a few pages to get a feel for the novel. I soon found myself chuckling away to Bertie’s narrative, the idiosyncracies of his relationship with Jeeves a joy to read.

Behind the steely, subdued exterior of Jeeves there lurks a sharp brain and an even sharper tongue. His job is less man-servant, more babysitter in some respects. He is there to ensure Bertie doesn’t dig himself into too deep a hole, and does an admirable job of hiding his master’s ineptness from the man himself.

 

This time Bertie is endeavouring to help an old friend save his engagement. What Bertie doesn’t foresee is that he will be accused of being a thief, again, and have to dodge a betrothal of his own, not to mention a dog who attacks first and asks questions later.

 

There are a rag-tag assortment of characters, all wonderfully villanous, inept, conniving and madcap in turn. There are also some wonderful turns of phrase and word play that make the reader laugh out loud. It’s apparent that Wodehouse had fun when he wrote these novels.

 

It’s farcical, frenetic at some point and highly entertaining, I’ll be turning to Jeeves and Wooster again when I need to escape the real world for a while.

The Blood-Dimmed Tide - Anthony Quinn

1918. Britain and her allies are still fighting in the final stages of World War One. William Butler Yeats, Ireland’s renowned poet, resides in London. There he spends his days immersed in the other world ghosts and the occult. Convinced he is haunted by the ghost of a young murdered Irish girl he sends his friend Charles Adams to investigate, though Yeats is more interested in catching a ghost than a murderer. As Adams investigates he becomes embroiled in Irish politics and finds his own life in danger.

 

I always find fictional books that contain real characters fascinating. Artistic licence based on fact produces a surreal but compelling text and as I often do when reading such work, I found myself reading a little more about Yeats and the facts that the fiction was based upon, as soon as I had finished the book.

 

This was an atmospheric read. The foggy, wind-swept stormy lands described set the tone for the novel. It felt like there was a perpetual night time, which added to the haunted quality of the narration. Adams is an adept narrator and it is interesting to see his views on ghosts, the after-life, politics and Yeats alter as his investigation progresses.

 

At first it is difficult to see if this is a ghost story or a murder mystery, or piece on political history but really it is all of these. It was an engaging, enjoyable read. There are a host of interesting characters, from Yeats himself to Georgie, his wife, and Maud, his muse and the woman who rejected Yeats. It also provided me with an brief but interesting insight into Yeats and the Irish Separatist movement. I’ll be interested to read more by Anthony Quinn in the future.

Cursed (Henning Juul) - Thomas Enger, Kari Dickson

Cursed opens with a bang when Daniel Schyman is shot dead in his own forest in Sweden. In Norway Hedda Hellberg has failed to return from a retreat and her husband enlists her old friend Nora, a journalist, to help track her down. Nora’s husband Henning Juul is soon embroiled in the search. As the pair investigate, they discover a murky past to the Hellberg family and Juul finds clues as to the instigator of the fire that killed his son two years earlier.

 

Whist this is the fourth book in the series it is the first to be published by Orenda and can certainly be read out of sequence as all the novels can be read as standalone books.

 

I loved the setting of the novel. It gave a glimpse into life in Norway, a fascinating country that made me want to read more. The location itself is a character in the story. I felt it gave the book a darker edge, as if the narration was preparing for a lengthy Norwegian winter.

 

There is an edge, an undercurrent of darkness and tragedy to the novel, lent by the storyline following the murder of Juul’s young son. Juul was the intended target and this alone torment him. As he digs deeper into the circumstances he becomes more involved with the criminal underbelly of Oslo. This storyline is central to the novel and will follow through into the next in the series.

 

Juul and Nora are complex characters. The reader gets the impression that the Nora and Henning we see are just shadows of their real selves. Irrevocably changed by the death of their child, the trauma of such a loss has impacted them as people. There is a sadness that pervades them, yet it also allows Juul’s steely determination to spur him on to discover the truth, with a lack of self preservation at the heart of it.

The mystery surrounding the Hellbergs is compelling, and flows well with the other storyline. By having the story focus around one family and a handful of people the story gains an almost closed room feel to it. I also liked the fact that both protagonists were not law enforcement, allowing them to work outside the usual legal confines to delve deeper into the truth.

 

Short chapters lend itself to the ‘just one more chapter’ mentality and this meant I flew through the novel. It wasn’t until half way through that I thought to myself that I was really enjoying it. That’s not to say the first half isn’t good, far from it. It was just that this realisation that I was wrapped up in the story, so much so that I couldn’t wait to find out what had happened, snuck up on me as the story weaved itself into my subconscious. Put simply, the more I read, the more I wanted to read.

 

A note on the translation. Without obviously reading the original Norwegian I did feel that the story I read was close to that originally written and that Kari Dickson had retained the voice of Thomas Enger. If you forget that you are reading translated fiction then the translator has done their job well and that’s the case with this book.

 

This is the first book by Thomas Enger I have read but it certainly won’t be my last.  I look forward to catching up with Henning Juul soon.

City of Masks - S. D. Sykes

Oswald de Lacy and his mother are in Venice, waiting for a ship to take them to the Holy Land. However the Venetians and Hungarians are at a standoff so Oswald finds himself trapped for a while in the floating city. The black cloak of depression he had hoped to leave behind has followed him from England. The gambling he had hoped would stave off dark moods has become an addiction that could cost him everything. Then he finds a body, and he is drawn into the dark calles of Venice in the hopes of finding a killer, and saving himself in the process.

 

I’ll admit I didn’t like Oswald as much in this novel. He seemed more mean-spirited than normal. His mother was more sensitive, or at least as sensitive as she could be, and needed Oswald more. I found myself liking her more, even her cantankerous side grew on me.  His reaction to situations was one that seemed out of character. There were reasons for his actions, for his depression and whilst I knew that those would be revealed I did find myself lacking in sympathy for him. Instead of appearing older, as this story was set a few years after the last, he came across as younger. This sometimes manifested as him needing guidance that was sadly lacking or that was ignored when received. His stubbornness appeared more in this novel, traits he unknowingly would have obtained from his mother and sister.

 

The mystery itself was engaging and I loved the setting of Venice. The city and its own laws and rules, the fearsome Signori di Notte and the horror of the leper colony, together with the vivid descriptions of the cacophony of life on the calles and canals conjured up a full picture of medieval Venice. A lot of research would have gone into this novel and it shows. The atmosphere, the sights, sounds and fear of those in charge rise up from the pages. It was interesting to compare this with the setting of the other novels. There is a darkness, or perhaps a grimy film, that covers the stories set in England, one which enforces the bleakness of the landscape and the lives of those who work the land. In City of Masks that darkness is shown in a different light. There is the impression of colour, of festival and merriment but that too has an undercurrent of something deeper, when the hidden poverty of the city is shown.

 

The investigation brought a return of the old Oswald. It was also good to see Oswald’s mother more involved in this investigation. It is always interesting to read a novel where the crime can’t be deduced from DNA or fingerprint evidence, it’s one of the reasons I enjoy good historical crime fiction. City of Masks is an example of good historical crime fiction.

 

I’ll be interested to see what adventures Oswald gets up to next, particularly after the ending in this one.