Medusa – Torkil Damhaug

Sometimes as a reader I find that my main problem is, when I find an author I enjoy, that they can’t write them as fast as I can read them. Now, I could just say that authors should write faster (and I know quite a few George R R Martin fans who’d agree with me there) but I know it is not as simple as that. I have author friends and I know how hard they have to work to get a book written – research, writing, editing, more editing, a brief period of despair filled with cake and/or alcohol and, finally, a book. Which then leads to more work promoting said book. Honestly, just reading and selling them is so much easier….Sometimes when you discover a new author you find them fully fledged, with a nice big backlist to keep you going, but on other occasions you stumble over a writer at the start of a series and realise you’ll have to wait for ages until their next book.This is the case with Torkil Damhaug. medusaMedusa came out at the end of October and the next in the Oslo Crime Files series isn’t due until May next year. Which is a long time to wait when there are so many other books to snare your attention. On the evidence of this first novel, however, it could very well be worth the wait – particularly for fans of Jo Nesbo, Camilla Lackberg and other Nordic Noir authors.

The plot is fairly typical of the genre – murders of a fairly grisly nature, a police force with enough quirks and issues to keep an entire conference of psychiatrists busy and a central character who keeps you guessing. The murders appear to involve bear attacks but occur in relatively urban areas with no bears; the police are not characters you warm to and their main role seems to be to hound the central character, their main suspect, Doctor Axel Glenne. Throughout you are teased by Axel’s references to his disturbed twin brother Brede and yet, like the police, you start to worry about the fact that this elusive brother hasn’t been in touch for years. So long, in fact, that Axel’s wife and children have never met him. What I enjoyed most about the book was the way you are drawn to sympathise with the central character but find, as you progress through the book, that you, like the police, begin to suspect that things are not as they seem in the Glenne family.

Worth a read then. And, hopefully, like me you will be guessing who the killer is most of the way through (and be wrong for a large amount of the time). And, if you are a fan of dark Scandinavian crime fiction it is always worth adding another author to the list to fill in those pesky gaps in the publishing schedules…


Bryant & May London’s Glory – Christopher Fowler

I am learning to love short stories. They can be unsatisfying if done poorly – no real plot, no depth to characters – but when handled well they are a perfect format. Personally, I can get through at least a couple on the bus journey home without the risk of missing my stop. And sometimes a couple of stories by Connie Willis, Andy Knighton or Margaret Atwood, to name a few I’ve enjoyed recently, is just what you need on a crowded bus after a long day at work. And now I have added a new author to my list of fairly foolproof short stories and some new favourite characters in the shape of Bryant & May, stalwarts of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit.

Bryant & May

Arthur Bryant and John May are described by their creator, Christopher Fowler, as ‘Golden Age detectives in a modern world’. They are also a brilliantly depicted pair of curmudgeonly old fusspots with a fairly Wodehousian turn of phrase who are only ever, it seems, temporarily stumped by the cases that land on their desks at the PCU. I don’t know if they would thank me for it but I found them quite endearing. In fact, oddly, the combination of their old world methods and the references to modern-day technology like emails and mobile phones makes me think of these stories as a kind of reverse steampunk.

The stories in this collection are cases which hark back to other Bryant & May novels. This means that they do exactly what short stories of this nature are meant to do and tempt you into delving into the longer works – my only issue with this is the usual one. When am I going to find the time!


Boy 23 – Jim Carrington

Now I do like a good dystopia but I seem to have avoided some of the big name teen/young adult worlds (Hunger Games, Divergent and Maze Runner for example). In fact I reckon that the only actual teen dystopias I have read would be Matt Haig’s Echo Boy and Francesca Haig’s Fire Sermon so it was fun to read something in the genre not written by an author with the surname ‘Haig’! If fun is the right word for a dystopia…

9781408822777Boy 23 is Jim Carrington’s fourth YA novel and seems to be a slight departure (in a post-apocalyptic direction) from the first three. They were all stories of fairly normal, if troubled, teens set in a recognisable Britain coping with issues which many young people can identify with – anger, bullying, boredom and relationships – so this book has quite a few differences. For a start the setting is somewhere in a future Germany and Jesper, the main character, is fairly obviously not normal. As the book opens he is abandoned in a forest, which would be traumatic enough for any boy of his age, but Jepser has previously known nowhere other than ‘My Place’ – a room where he has shelter, warmth, regular food and some kind of computer access but has no physical contact with any other person. In fact his only human contact at all is with The Voice who has mentored his education and then dumped him with the instruction to head north-west to escape those who would want to kill him.

This book is fast-paced and gripping – I read its 350 or so pages in just over a day – with plenty of suspense. The three main characters – Jesper, Carina and Blake (the Voice) – take it in turns to narrate events and there is enough difference in their tone to make each of them stand out. Jesper sometimes sounds rather childish with his talk of squawks and hoppers (birds and rabbits) but this must just reflect his emotional immaturity. The forces who are trying to harm Jesper, as well as the sinister organisation running this society, are proper ‘baddies’ – the obvious German influence and the name New Dawn add chilling overtones of fascism both neo- and old school.

There is a fairly big plot twist towards the end of the novel which I certainly didn’t expect and an ending which does not rule out a sequel. Although I’m not sure if the story isn’t better left as it is – after all, there are enough dystopian series out there for everyone, surely…


Carrying Albert Home – Homer Hickam

It seems likely to me that there are two different sorts of people in this world. Those who would rather read the book and those who prefer to watch the film. Now, I’m not saying one is better than the other but I am a book person through and through – I enjoy films based on books but the only ones I’ve ever seen that were as good for me as the reading experience (so far) are The Martian and Princess Bride. I spend a lot of my time in conversation with various friends repeating the phrase ‘I haven’t seen that’ when the discussion turns to film – I’ve never even seen Citizen Kane… So, it should come as no surprise to me that I had never previously heard of Homer Hickam (played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film of his first book, October Sky) until he was presented to me in book form.

albertCarrying Albert Home is a wonderful, warm novel. It is also downright odd but I don’t hold that against it since I positively enjoy the quirkier side of reading. I’ve worked my way through the Hundred Year Old Man, The Museum of Things Left Behind, a novel about a moose by Erland Loe and The Rabbit Back Literature Society and enjoyed them all. Add in Harold Fry (and the wonderful Queenie Hennessy) and I’m thinking of inventing a new genre. I’m going to call it ‘books with charm’. It isn’t just about being quirky or unusual but about stories that leave you smiling, feeling positive about the human race and with a major dose of the warm fuzzies. There’s plot going on, there could even be tragic things happening, but, in the end you are happy. In film terms I’m talking about O Brother, Where Art Thou I reckon.

And the plot here has plenty in common with O Brother since, like the Coen brothers’ film, the setting is 1930s America.  Both are concerned with epic journeys, although only one heavily involves an alligator and a rooster, and both offer their heroes a shot at All-American fame and fortune.  Carrying Albert Home is, basically, about a trip which Homer Hickam and his wife Elsie undertake to return Albert, the alligator, to his birthplace in Florida. So far, so good. But the story is about far more than that: without being preachy it is also about how Homer and Elsie find each other and create a marriage that lasts them a lifetime. It is full of incident and humour and characters you want to get to know – if they make a film of this a) I hope they get someone like the Coen brothers to make it and b) I’m going to go and see it anyway…


The Grownup – Gillian Flynn

From time to time books come along which, it seems, everyone is talking about. Think Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Fifty Shades of Grey or Wool – books which spread by word of mouth and have continued to sell long after the media stopped featuring them. These books come up in every genre but, it seems, more turn up in the crime/thriller section than elsewhere.  Recently we’ve had Kolymsky Heights, Girl on the Train and Gone Girl and it is this last one which, so far, has had the most success (both as a book and film). My relationship towards these word-of-mouth bestsellers is a bit mixed – I loved Wool, quite enjoyed Captain Corelli but hated the ending and still haven’t read any E. L. James – but I did thoroughly enjoy Gone Girl.

grownupThe Grownup is the latest from Gillian Flynn – it is only a short story but it certainly packs a punch which many a 600 page blockbuster would give their best review for. The main character is a young woman working as a psychic after having to give up her career as a sex worker due to repetitive strain injury – she is a grifter and a charlatan but, on the positive side, she loves to read. It turns out being a fake psychic isn’t much different from being a successful beggar: you earn money by telling people what they want to hear. And the story really gets going when she meets a client who wants her to, effectively, exorcise an evil spirit from her elegant town house which also appears to be influencing her 15-year-old stepson.

Like Gone Girl The Grownup has a tendency to start by leading you down one narrative pathway and then, abruptly, switching tracks on you. And even if you are fairly sure that it is going to happen you just don’t see it coming. Flynn also seems to specialise in unsympathetic female characters (although, to be honest, in this story nobody comes out looking good) which I quite enjoy. Lets face it, if we want equality with men it should be in all things – wages, opportunities and the chance to be twisted and evil. This book comes out a little after Hallowe’en but that’s okay – it is more about human psychology than the supernatural – but would be a perfect read for a dark and stormy night.


Gin – Aaron Knoll

So. From time to time publishers like to tease us a little bit and recently the people at Jacqui Small offered booksellers the chance to receive a rather splendid looking book about the history (and continuing rise) of gin. The first ten responses would get a copy of the book to review and the first three would also get a free gin tasting set. Well, let’s say I’m quick off the mark….but not that quick. I’m going to have to review this book purely on its own merits (and my own personal gin stash) as I was, at best, responder number 4 :-(

ginBack in the 90s I was sure I didn’t like gin and then I moved to Stockport for a year, living in a shared house in Edgeley. Let’s just say by the time I left my housemates had converted me and a long and happy relationship with gin had begun – at the moment I have four different gins in the house (more if you count the sloe gins which a couple of my friends make each year and give me samples of…) and some of my favourite pubs have a gin list as well as a wine list. Liking gin is probably the coolest thing I do because, it seems, gin is in! And I know this because this book not only tells us all about the ‘global artisan gin revolution’ but has pictures of a lot of young men with fashionable beards enjoying gin – and a drawing of Pliny the Elder to boot.

This isn’t to mock young men with fashionable beards (or Pliny the Elder) but I think the photos are part of the campaign to rescue gin from the image it had of being a rather old-fashioned drink, favoured by ladies of a certain age and refined accents. And this is, pretty much, what this book does. Starting with the history of the drink – which is a long one, there is evidence that juniper has been used by man since the days of the Lascaux cave paintings in approximately 10,000 BC – and its medicinal uses (the Egyptians used juniper to cure headaches and tapeworms so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that when monks were experimenting with distillation in the 11th century they added juniper to the wine they distilled) we move on to the development of modern gins and then, hurrah, to all the lovely varieties available.

This is a substantial book with lots of information – the history, the botanicals used in distillation, tasting notes for 300 different gins, suggestions for the best gin joints in the world and cocktail ideas – but it is an entertaining read. The perfect gift for the gin-lover in your life this Christmas, perhaps? And for the non gin-drinker? Well, lets just say with this number of different tastes if you give gin a chance you may well find one that suits you!


In Darkling Wood & Snow Sister – Emma Carroll

It has beenin-darkling-wood a while since I was a ten year old girl but I think I can remember enough to see that Emma Carroll’s stories are ideal for that age group. You are still a child so there is an awful lot going on which you are aware of but can’t quite understand – in In Darkling Wood the heroine Alice, possibly like any child with a very sick sibling, knows far more about heart transplants than a girl her age ought to but she can’t quite understand why she can’t stay home alone when her little brother is rushed into hospital. And you just know, like Alice, that you are too old for silly fairy stories.

Luckily this is not that kind of fairy story. These fairies are not cute and sparkly – Daisy Meadows would not recognise them at all – and they will do anything to save their home. The book alternates between plans to save Darkling Wood, which Alice’s grandmother wants to cut down, and a series of letters written at the end of the First World War. There are some nice parallels too as the letters are from a young girl to her soldier brother which contrasts nicely with Alice’s concerns for her own brother, Theo. The fairies, if you want to be all grown up about it, could probably be seen as a metaphor for something but to me they just seem to be something which helps a young girl make good decisions during a very stressful time.

That said this book is not preachy. Everybody makes mistakes and bad choices at some point, tempers are lost and harsh words are spoken. Alice resists the idea of fairies – she is, after all, a sensible and modern girl – but she does fall under the spell of the wood and joins in local plans to save it from destruction at the hands of her grandmother. At the end of the book family tensions are largely resolved (but the characters don’t suddenly become perfect, which is a relief) and throughout there is humour. There is, obviously, a certain amount of tension over Theo’s health – at some points you really doubt if he will make it – but nothing to make it unsuitable for readers over about nine years old looking for a story with mystery and real-life perils.

snow sisterI also read a novella which is being published this week called The Snow Sister (think Giovanna Fletcher’s Christmas with Billy and Me for pre-teens) which would fit nicely into any Christmas holiday reading plans. This time we are in a Victorian setting but again the main character Pearl is a sensible girl who worries about her family, their sadness at losing her little sister Agnes and their worries about money. In the long tradition of Christmas stories there is snow, ghosts and a will but, unlike Dickens, I really enjoyed it. It was, for me, a very quick read but that could make it ideal for 9-12s looking for a quick read in between family visits, present-opening and the post-dinner blockbuster family film.  The ending is slightly schmaltzy but if you can’t do that at Christmas when can you?