Review: These Dividing Walls, by Fran Cooper

One Parisian summer
A building of separate lives
All that divides them will soon collapse… 

In a forgotten corner of Paris stands a building.

Within its walls, people talk and kiss, laugh and cry; some are glad to sit alone, while others wish they did not. A woman with silver-blonde hair opens her bookshop downstairs, an old man feeds the sparrows on his windowsill, and a young mother wills the morning to hold itself at bay. Though each of their walls touches someone else’s, the neighbours they pass in the courtyard remain strangers.

Into this courtyard arrives Edward. Still bearing the sweat of a channel crossing, he takes his place in an attic room to wait out his grief.

But in distant corners of the city, as Paris is pulled taut with summer heat, there are those who meet with a darker purpose. As the feverish metropolis is brought to boiling point, secrets will rise and walls will crumble both within and without Number 37…

 

These Dividing Walls is the debut novel from Fran Cooper. The story follows the inter-woven stories of the residents of Number 37, on a street in the suburbs of Paris.

What’s The Story?

Edward arrives at number 37 a grieving, lost Englishman. In an attempt to get past the sudden death of his sister, a friend has loaned him use of her apartment in Paris. As he settles into life in the apartment block, he comes to meet many other residents, each dealing with their own personal issues and hiding their own secrets.

The Review

I found this book very refreshing in that it portrays the good, the bad, and the ugly of Parisian society (and indeed society the world over). When you pick up a book set in Paris; you instinctively expect shiny arrondissements, la rive gauche, sophisticated and put-together protagonists and a rosy sheen on the French capital. What the reader actually gets in These Dividing Walls is a presentation of the normal, everyday Parisians on the outskirts of the city; away from the dazzling lights of the Eiffel Tower and the Champs Elysées.

Between them, the residents of Number 37 represent a cross-section of the sentiments, struggles and everyday trials of husbands and wives, parents and children. There are some very likeable characters, like Frédérique, the aunt of Edward’s apartment-owning friend who lives in a stunning and spacious ground floor home in the same building; working every so often in her art book shop. She brings Edward out of his solitude, recognising in him the same loss she feels in her own soul; and together they help each other to heal. In young mum Anaïs, Cooper sensitively but accurately depicts the overwhelming sea of emotions that accompanies postnatal depression; as she struggles through a life with three small children, a shell of her former self.

The underlying theme which runs throughout the book, affecting all of the characters; is that of xenophobia in an age of increased immigration, and the way this affects lives. An air of fear and anger sits over the Paris of These Dividing Walls, fuelled and exploited by far-right dissidents; denied and ignored by the richer arrondissements; and we see the characters deal with this situation in different ways. Some of the residents, who have arrived bitter and twisted into their older age; ooze spite and venom in the face of that which is different to them, others beat them down with open-minded acceptance that yes; bad things happen, but no; the actions of the few do not represent the beliefs of the many.

The rumbling undercurrent of rebellion comes to a head at the end of the book, when all the residents find themselves drawn in some way into the events taking over the city.

There is no neat wrap-up at the end of These Dividing Walls, which is another point I very much liked about this book. The final message is that, through grief, betrayal, terror; life continues forward – for the residents, as well as for us.

 

These Dividing Walls is a fantastic and contemporary debut from Fran Cooper, due for publication on 4th May.

With thanks to NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton for the ARC.

_20170418_214901

 

 

Review: The President’s Gardens, by Muhsin Al-Ramli

Today, I am reviewing The President’s Gardens, by Muhsin Al-Ramli (translated by Luke Leafgren). It’s a stunning and moving portrait of 3 friends and their lives through the Iraqi conflicts of the 1980s to early 2000s.

What’s it about?

Here is the publisher’s blurb for the book:

On the third day of Ramadan, the village wakes to find the severed heads of nine of its sons stacked in banana crates by the bus stop. One of them belonged to one of the most wanted men in Iraq, known to his friends as Ibrahim the Fated. How did this good and humble man earn the enmity of so many? What did he do to deserve such a death? 

The answer lies in his lifelong friendship with Abdullah Kafka and Tariq the Befuddled, who each have their own remarkable stories to tell.

It lies on the scarred, irradiated battlefields of the Gulf War and in the ashes of a revolution strangled in its cradle. 

It lies in the steadfast love of his wife and the festering scorn of his daughter. 

And, above all, it lies behind the locked gates of The President’s Gardens, buried alongside the countless victims of a pitiless reign of terror.

The Story                                                                                               

The President’s Gardens follows the lives of three friends from childhood, through conflict and war, up to the Iraq War from 2003. Ibrahim ‘The Fated’, Abdullah ‘Kafka’ and Tariq ‘The Befuddled’ meet as toddlers and become the best of friends, always together; until they are separated by the Iraq-Iran war of 1980. When they are finally all brought together once again, the impact of the years of conflict have changed them forever.

The book opens with an early morning scene in which a shepherd, Isma’il, discovers the heads of 9 of the village men in banana crates in the main street; one of these men being Ibrahim. From that point, the book returns back to the three friends’ childhood, and tracks the story back to that day.

The Review

There is a LOT to love about The President’s Gardens. It is a powerful, powerful book.

Lots of details, characters and events are thrown at the reader over the first few chapters, which are then re-visited and explained over the course of the book. I did find it difficult to keep track for a while – to the point that I wished I had written myself notes on who was who – but after a while the story settles down into an easier to follow narrative.

Al-Ramli’s descriptions and portrayals of Iraqi life are detailed and intricate. The closeness and havoc of village life and relationships are presented in sharp contrast to the opulent, indulgent grandeur of Baghdad and the Presidential palaces of the second half of the book. There is an obvious scorning of the excessive wealth of the President and those in power around him; with a whole pages dedicated to a monologue describing the vast palaces with golden taps and door handles, cars, gardens, swimming pools and portraits.

The overwhelming and all-destroying spectre of war is a constant in this book, and shapes the characters of the 3 protagonists in different ways. Al-Ramli does not shy away from graphic depictions of the treatment of enemy soldiers and prisoners of war, and there were several points where I had to look away from the page for a moment before I could continue reading. However, there are also some truly beautiful moments in the book – Ibrahim’s final day with his wife, for example; is incredibly emotive and reminiscent of a couple in the first throes of love, as opposed to a long-married husband and wife.

The characters of the three protagonists are all very different. The backbone of the story; Ibrahim accepts everything that happens around him – the war, his losses, the turn of events that brings him to his death – as fate, and the way things must be. This is how he gets through his life, and the cruel twists of his fate that it continually throws at him.

Abdullah is given to seeing the worst in every situation, and after his time in the war loses all interest in everyday life, longing only for peace.

Tariq, spared the horrors of battle as a religious leader and teacher, becomes adept at working situations to his own advantage. Although of the three he has the least presence in the book, he is the catalyst for more than one significant event or turning point, which has major implications for his friends.

The book brings itself back to the events of the opening chapter to finish, picking up with Tariq, Abdullah, and Ibrahim’s daughter Quisma; and their actions following Ibrahim’s death. The story ends with a ‘to be continued’ which I was not expecting and not at all ready for – the reader’s investment in the characters becomes absolute, and I was really hoping to know how things ended up for the 2 remaining friends. Here’s hoping that the sequel can follow very very soon.

The President’s Gardens is published on April 20th by Quercus Books, and is available to order on Amazon now.

Many thanks to Quercus Books / MacLehose Press and Net Galley for the ARC.

the presidents gardens book cover

About the Author

Muhsin Al-Ramli is an Iraqi writer, poet, academic and translator, born in the village of Sudara in northern Iraq in 1967. He has lived in Madrid since 1995. The President’s Gardens was longlisted for the I.P.A.F. (known as the ‘Arabic Booker’) in 2010. Al-Ramli was a tank commander in the Iraqi army during the Gulf War, a period of life which has greatly informed his writing. His brother, the writer Hassan Mutlak, was hanged in 1990 for an attempted coup d’état.

Blog Tour: Faithless by Kjell Ola Dahl

Hello and welcome to day 4 of the #Faithless blog tour! Today, it’s my turn 🙂

The latest book in the Oslo Detective Series by Kjell Ola Dahl, Faithless is published by Orenda Books, and translated by Don Bartlett.

I’ve never read anything of Dahl’s before, but as a father of Nordic Noir I thought perhaps I had better acquaint myself before I wrote this review! First published in 1993, Dahl has written 11 novels, the most successful being the books of the Oslo Detective Series, of which Faithless is the fifth instalment.

DSC_0962.JPG

The Blurb

Here’s the publisher’s blurb on the book:

Oslo Detectives Gunnarstranda and Frølich are back… and this time, it’s personal…

When the body of a woman turns up in a dumpster, scalded and wrapped in plastic, Inspector Frank Frølich is shocked to discover that he knows her… and their recent meetings may hold the clue to her murder. As he begins to look deeper into the tragic events surrounding her death, Frølich’s colleague Gunnarstranda finds another body, and things take a more sinister turn. With a cold case involving the murder of a young girl in northern Norway casting a shadow, and an unsettling number of coincidences clouding the plot, Frølich is forced to look into his own past to find the answers – and the killer – before he strikes again.

Dark, brooding and utterly chilling, Faithless is a breath-taking and atmospheric page-turner that marks the return of an internationally renowned and award-winning series, from one of the fathers of Nordic Noir.

The Story

With this being the fifth book in the series, I was wondering if I would be at a bit of a disadvantage having not read the first four, but I wasn’t at all. Faithless opens with a stake-out that introduces two of the main characters: Frank Frølich, our detective; and Veronika Undset, whose murdered body is shortly to be found wrapped in plastic in a skip. The investigation into Veronika’s murder is just one part of a spider’s web of stories which run alongside each other towards the grand finale.

I did feel that the story was a little slow in parts, but there are tense sections scattered throughout that more than make up for this. In the second half of the book events start to speed up, and all of the loose ends which you’ve been wondering about come together in some truly gripping narrative.

I found the translation for the most part very good; although there were a couple of phrases in there that you don’t often find in written English – the one which stuck out most for me was ‘to the nth degree/for the nth time’.

The Characters

I wasn’t sure what to make of the characters to begin with – they are a bit of an eclectic bunch! Frølich is an individual who is personally involved with the investigation, and often seems morally challenged through the course of the book. His approach to his work is passionate but impatient, often bordering on reckless. A past which he tries so hard to avoid comes out of the shadows to haunt him, brought to life by the reappearance of an old friend.

Gunnarstranda seems to have more of a regard for the rules, but we see even him bend them from time to time. Lena, a younger police officer with a questionable choice of romantic relationships, is full of confidence and belief in her own opinions and abilities – a sound outlook to have, but not if it gets you in above your head and into a tricky situation, like the one Lena finds herself in towards the end of the book. I get the feeling she will come into her own in the next book.

There is a sense of rapport between the characters that you would expect to find in a group of people who’ve worked together for a while; and the book is peppered with humorous moments alongside the drama. Gunnarstranda wondering why on earth people insisted on changing into gym gear in the office was one of my favourite points, as I am guilty of this all the time!

The story is told through the eyes of all three of these characters, which means we get to see lots of different events and viewpoints, but it does mean that you sometimes have to remind yourself where one character’s story ended up last time you saw them…. That’s a standard issue for me though, to be fair 🙂

So what did I think?

Overall, I found this an enjoyable read – there are some serious twists in here, and though it took me a little while to get into it I was gripped by the end (what an end!). The only thing I felt this book lacked was more of a sense of place. Perhaps it’s because I have come to associate Scandi Noir with rolling, detailed descriptions of forest, lake and sea; or perhaps it’s because the last book of this kind I read was very heavy on setting-the-scene descriptions; but Faithless just didn’t have enough of it for my liking. I want more of beautiful Norway! Really though, that’s my only gripe.

Big thanks must go to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books and blog tour maestro Anne Cater for providing me with this review copy and inviting me to my very first blog tour! Faithless is published on 15th April. Keep your eyes peeled for more blog tour reviews coming up:

faithless blog tour poster jpeg

About the Author 

One of the fathers of the Nordic Noir genre, Kjell Ola Dahl was born in 1958 in Gjøvik. He made his debut in 1993, and has since published eleven novels, the most prominent of which is a series of police procedurals cum psychological thrillers featuring investigators Gunnarstranda and Frølich. In 2000 he won the Riverton Prize for The Last Fix and he won both the prestigious Brage and Riverton Prizes for The Courier in 2015. His work has been published in 14 countries. He lives near Oslo.

Dahl-Kjell-Ola_Foto-Rolf-M-Aagaard

Planning a Literary-Themed Wedding

This Saturday (yes, April Fools Day – yes, it was deliberate!), myself and Mr Knox celebrated our 1st wedding anniversary – madness! One year on from the most amazing, fun day. With that in mind, I thought I would put together a short post on integrating a love of books into your big day.

We are both huge bookworms (although I will confess that my shopping habits are making the bookshelves creak a lot more than his!) and so we decided very early on that we wanted this to be one of the ‘themes’ for the wedding. As we are also very into our running, this was the other theme for the day. I was a little bit worried that they might not run very well together (no pun intended) but it actually worked out really well – the invites and table numbers were in the style of running bibs, and the decor and favours were all bookish goodies 🙂

Here are a few tips for bringing the written word to the wedding table.

The Ceremony Reading 

There are so many beautiful passages from all kinds of books which would make perfect readings for during the wedding ceremony. We got married at our venue, and the ceremony itself was pretty short, but this was a lovely interlude. A quick search on Pinterest or Google should yield lots of results; wedding blogs like Love My Dress also offers some good ideas. We went for the below extract from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, one of the most beautiful pieces in the book; in my opinion… I’d say it made me cry, but I’d already cried so much during the ceremony that I’m not sure it would be 100% accurate 🙂

“Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides.  And when it subsides you have to make a decision.  You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part.  Because this is what love is.

Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion.That is just being in love, which any fool can do.  Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.

Those that truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground, and, when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two.”

Decorations 

If you grew up in a house that was anything like my childhood home; there are piles of hardback Reader’s Digest books scattered everywhere, with a few other classics for good measure. This was great when it came to planning the table decor, as it meant I could just borrow all of these to make some central table displays, and had minimal need to buy any. Thanks Mam and Dad!

We also had some book bunting left over which the girls had made for my hen do (must have taken forever – there was so much of it!) so we used this to decorate the edges of the room/mantlepieces etc.

S&J423

S&J426.jpg

Second Hand Book Favours 

On one of my Pinterest binges looking for wedding inspiration, I came across lots of photos of second-hand books being given as favours for wedding guests. We loved this idea and decided to go for it – for all 120 guests! Thankfully we were very lucky in that the best man’s mam donated lots of books from the library she worked at. For the rest, I scoured the charity bookshop on Gosforth High Street, where I was able to pick up a lot of books in near-perfect condition for £2-£3 each. Result.

S&J411.jpg

Book Confetti 

Perhaps not suitable for all venues – a lot have rules about the kind of confetti that can be thrown on their grounds – but if you can bring yourself to sit with a heart punch and deface a paperback then this looks lovely scattered on tables, or on display in jars around the hall and corridors.

I hope that gives a few ideas 🙂 There’s so much that could be done to create a ‘bookish’ wedding – I saw one couple who had made a ceremony arch entirely out of books! Now that’s dedication! If you’re planning a wedding currently, good luck and ENJOY! 🙂

P.S. The images in this post are by our lovely wedding photographer Katie Byram.

Review: Me Before You, By Jojo Moyes

I am pretty sure that this is a book that needs little introduction. Despite all the hype around the book and the film – or perhaps because of it – Me Before You was never really on my reading list. When my husband bought me After You (the sequel) as last year’s Jolabokaflod book; I thought I’d better get hold of the original first and see what all the fuss was about.

The Story

Me Before You is the story of Louisa Clark, a 26-year old, recently redundant ex-waitress who accepts the position of carer for a young quadriplegic man, Will Traynor. What starts off as a somewhat rocky relationship gradually develops into something that will change both their lives.

The book opens with a snapshot of Will’s life before the motorbike accident which has left him paralysed, and completely dependent on other people. It is abrupt, over within a few pages; and creates a poignant point of comparison for what follows. Throughout the whole of the book, this is the only piece of narrative which is depicted from his point of view, and adds to the portrayal of his dependence on other people; as well as alluding to his experience of the general public in regards to disability and their attitude towards him in presuming that, because he is in a wheelchair, he no longer has a voice.

“…I had observed a few basic routines, as far as Will was concerned. Most would stare, a few might smile sympathetically, express sympathy, or ask me in a kind of stage whisper what had happened. I was often tempted to respond ‘Unfortunate falling out with MI6,’ just to see their reaction, but I never did.”

The Review

Me Before You elegantly and emotionally portrays the development of Will and Louisa’s relationship; from a state of mutual animosity to a strong and overwhelming love. The relationship presented between Louisa and Will is in sharp relief with the relationship between Louisa and Patrick, her boyfriend: a fitness fanatic who is obsessed with completing the Xtreme Viking, an intense triathlon in Norway. At times, Patrick is portrayed as almost comical; while their relationship gradually reduces to Louisa watching him run in circles around a running track, or listening to him talking about the merits of Japanese balancing trainers.

A favourite scene of mine occurs at Louisa’s birthday party; where Patrick and Will meet for the first time over dinner and, it is fair to say, do not get on so well. Louisa’s muted thanks for Patrick’s gift – jewellery – is thrown out of the water when she opens her gift from Will, a pair of yellow and black striped tights, just like a pair she used to have when she was young. This thoughtful action seems to be a turning point in the book; where we really see Will’s attitude begin to change.

The depiction of the two families – the Traynors and the Clarks – could not have been more different. The Traynors are rich and want for nothing; the Clarks in comparison are financially insecure and very dependent upon Louisa’s income to get by. However, when it comes to family bonds and closeness, the equation is completely reversed; the Traynors’ cold and distant attitudes and home in stark relief to the bubbly, noisy and loving Clark household.

While Louisa cares for Will, anticipating his every physical need as well as encouraging him to leave the house and start to see more of the world; Will in turn draws Louisa slowly out of her shell, encouraging her to read, watch foreign films, and embrace classical music and new foods. We learn that Louisa also carries secrets and scars, which Will helps to heal.

“I just… want to be a man who has been to a concert with a girl in a red dress. Just for a few minutes more.”

Jojo Moyes pulls you into this story so well that, before you know what’s going on, you are completely invested in the lives of these two people and the affect they have on each other. As the book progresses there are revelations on both sides, laughs, sadness and scares; as Louisa and Will fall in love. Because we only ever get to see the story from Louisa’s side, we are completely immersed in her plans, her beliefs and her hopes… and as such, completely floored by the way things unfurl towards the end of the book. I’m sure I was not alone in crying at the last few chapters. This was one of those books that left me hollowed out and a little bit numb once I turned the last page and closed the covers. For a few moments I am pretty sure I just sat staring at the blurb on the back of the book and wondering why on earth it had taken me so long to read it. This beautiful book will remind you, unashamedly and unequivocally, to just live. 

“You are scored on my heart, Clark. You were from the first day you walked in.”

After I’d finished Me Before You I picked up After You, the sequel I had been gifted… and stayed up until 12.30a.m this morning finishing it (it has taken 3 coffees to get me through today. Whoops). But that review, my friends, is a story for another day.

IMG_20170314_230950

Review: The Little Breton Bistro by Nina George

The Overview

The Little Breton Bistro (released 2nd March) is the latest offering from Nina George. Having devoured The Little Paris Bookshop on honeymoon last year, I couldn’t not request this ARC when I spotted it on NetGalley, and was pretty chuffed when my approval email came through!

The Little Breton Bistro follows protagonist Marianne on a quest to rediscover life. The book opens in Paris, on the banks of the Seine, as she prepares to take her own life. Stuck in an unhappy and loveless marriage to a dull and controlling man, Lothar; she just can’t see the point of going on living.

Her plan is thwarted by a homeless man who pulls her from the river, and she is whisked off to hospital for treatment. While she is in the hospital, she finds a small tile painted with the image of a beautiful port town, Kerdruc, in Britanny. She decides to escape the hospital, fully intending to complete what she started in Paris in this beautiful little port town.

The journey from the hospital in Paris to Kerdruc is full of quirky coincidences, and when Marianne finally arrives in Kerdruc, she is mistaken for the new chef at Ar Mor bistro. This is the turning point in Marianne’s story; and from this point we see her rediscover the joys in life, and help guide the people around her too.

The Review

Part of what really made the story for me were the descriptions of the landscape that flow throughout – George’s words paint a stunning image of the Breton coast, from sights, smells, to colours, and emotion.

As is her signature style, The Little Breton Bistro flows with an engaging and easy to follow storyline. A host of characters grace the pages, each of them contributing a different theme to the book; and contributing to Marianne’s transformation – we watch her turn from suffocated and timid to powerful and confident in herself. Her husband Lothar, by contrast, does exactly the opposite – although for the vast majority of the book he is only present in Marianne’s guilt; by the end of the story he has been stripped of the control he once had over her. This book is about love – new, enduring, unrequited – as well as birth, death and friendship. As her life changes from everything she once knew, Marianne arrives at a point where she must decide to hold on to the past; or embrace the future.

George’s writing style and stories always remind me of the film Amélie – colourful, full of life, with a sprinkle of the eccentric. French-ness. It is a winning combination.

I was surprised to learn that Nina George has written 26 books, as well as over 100 short stories – a quick Amazon search suggests that The Little Paris Bookshop and The Little Breton Bistro are the only ones to have made it across the continent to our bookshelves. Hopefully there are many more to come!

With thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK for the ARC.

the little breton bistro

Review: Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

stay-with-me

Stay With Me is the debut novel from Ayobami Adebayo.

The story is narrated by Yejide, the protagonist; and Akin, her husband. It opens with Yejide looking back on the past she left behind, the story she does not tell behind the simple statement ‘I was barren and my husband took another wife.’

Yejide and Akin are desperate for a child, as are their families. One day, her stepmother turns up with a new wife for her husband, to ‘help draw Yejide’s baby into the world’. This action kick-starts the unravelling of Yejide and Akin’s relationship. Her longing for a baby; the maliciousness of Funmi, the second wife; and the pressure placed on them by Akin’s mother; and the unearthing of many secrets; pushes them both over the edge in different ways.

Stay With Me is a well-written novel. The rhythm of the language used often reflects the mood of the protagonists; be that anger, sorrow, hope, or the languid acceptance characterising Yejide’s opening chapter. It is a gripping story, frequently emotional and raw. I enjoyed the way that the book changes between one narrator to the other – often Adebayo will use a switch in the narrative voice to break a secret to the reader, or introduce a plot twist. We get an insight into Nigerian culture; which is both interesting and, at times, shocking. Although the book is set against a period of political unrest; I didn’t feel like this played a huge part in the story – it was more a background rumbling, aside from a couple of brief points where it is brought to the fore. This is the only element of the book which I feel could have been explored/involved a little further.

Stay With Me is a tale of how the pressures of family and society can push a person to breaking point; as well as a story of betrayal, and the lies we tell each other – and ourselves.

Although Adebayo has had various short stories published previously; this is her first novel. I look forward to reading many more!

Stay With Me is published on 2nd March by Canongate. Thanks to NetGalley and Canongate for the ARC.

Review: Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

I’m going to put it out there, straight up: I have never read any of Jodi Picoult’s books before. I have a small collection of them on the bookshelf, hidden among my TBRs and old favourites, and obviously went along and cried to My Sister’s Keeper when the film was released; but nothing more. So, when a friend, a massive Picoult fan, got in touch to say she was holding a reading from her new book at the Sage Gateshead (and that the tickets included a copy of the book!) I jumped at the chance to go along.

Picoult was at the Sage as part of the tour to promote Small Great Things, her latest book. The evening consisted of a reading from the book followed by a Q&A session with the audience.

I knew from the reading that this was going to be a book quite unlike anything I’ve read before, and so I spent a little time mentally preparing myself before picking up Small Great Things towards the end of January.

DSC_0874.JPG

The book tells the story of Ruth Jefferson, an African American Maternity nurse with over 20 years’ experience in looking after new mothers and their babies. One day, at the start of her shift, she takes over the care of a newly-born baby boy, Davis Bauer. His parents, two white supremacists, lodge a complaint with the hospital and insist that no African American personnel are to touch their son. The hospital complies with their request and Ruth is taken off the case. However, as a result of a staff shortage, a colleague asks her to keep watch over the baby while she deals with another delivery – and he dies.

What follows is the story of Ruth’s journey through the American justice system, leading up to her trial. The narrative is split between the views of Ruth; Turk, the white supremacist father; and Ruth’s attorney Kennedy. The ever-changing narrative allows us to see into each of our protagonists’ lives, away from the trial – their history, their beliefs, and how they came to be in the position they are in currently. I found this to be a very effective way of telling the story, and thought it added a great amount of depth. This way, nothing the reader sees is clear cut. You cannot help but feel for Turk, as he mourns the loss of his first child; even while at the same time you are filled with disgust and horror at his behaviour and the way he lives his life. Similarly, while you feel shock and horror at Ruth’s tale and the everyday discrimination she experiences purely as a result of her skin colour; you can’t help but be angry with her when she holds back information from Kennedy. Over the course of the book, we see Kennedy assess the way she approaches and deals with racism, and the way this changes, as a result of her relationship with Ruth.

Whilst I may have gotten a flavour of the book at the reading, I was absolutely not prepared for how completely uncomfortable this book would make me feel. All. The. Time. I don’t think I’ve ever read another book which created such an ambience of anticipative tension. It drags out those elements of society that it’s all too easy to look away from and try to ignore; and sits them right in front of you across 494 pages of unapologetic rawness. Picoult is without doubt an accomplished and skillful storyteller, and the tale is made all the more impactful by the fact that both Turk and Ruth are based on real people, with similar stories, who she met with and spoke to over the course of her research. Small Great Things is great indeed, and I certainly look forward to reading more of Picoult in the near future.

dsc_0872

Review: Blackout by Ragnar Jonasson

Once I finished reading Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson, I immediately started on the second book of his Dark Iceland Series – Blackout.

Blackout picks up in Siglufjordur around 1 ½ years after the events of Snowblind, in which we were first introduced to policeman Ari Thor. Still based in Siglufjordur, we are greeted with a different character to the man who graced the pages in book one: he is no longer a rookie, but a more mature, confident and assured member of the police force.

The book opens with the discovery of a body, beaten and unrecognisable; on a building site near Akureyri. The book follows the developments of the case over the space of around 48 hours. As well as following the ‘real time’ investigation, the story is supplemented with flashbacks to months and years prior to the current events.

As the investigation develops, we are drawn into a much darker and more sinister world than that which was inhabited by the characters of Snowblind; and are given a glimpse of a societal undercurrent which echoes modern day’s threats and crises.

We are introduced to Isrún, a journalist with a back story of her own, who plays a large part in the developments of the book. Hlynur, Ari Thor’s colleague who we saw only from the side lines in Snowblind, has his own tale to tell in this book; and this runs parallel to the main story, telling us more about his past and troubling present.

We also get to pick up with Kristin, Ari Thor’s ex-girlfriend who has moved to Akureyri to take up the doctor’s post she accepted before she and Ari Thor separated. We have a window into her life as she tries to move on from their relationship.

Blackout moves at a fast pace, with Jonasson’s skilled writing pulling the reader through the story with ease. The looming darkness of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, coupled with his trademark descriptions of the wild beauty of Iceland creating the perfect backdrop to this murder mystery.

dsc_0670

Review: Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson

I have not come across a huge number of books which can hook you on the first page; even fewer that can do so in the first paragraph. But the rawness of the opening sentence of Snowblind sets the tone for what is a very clever crime story and an outstanding first novel:

The red stain was like a scream in the silence.

The first book in Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series, Snowblind follows Ari Thor Arason, a young police recruit about to finish his training. He is offered a job with the police force in Siglufjordur, a small town he doesn’t know much about except that:

…one could hardly travel further north in Iceland; a place probably closer to the Arctic Circle than to Reykjavik.

He accepts, leaving his girlfriend and their apartment behind in Reykjavik and moving to the town where nobody locks their doors and, in the words of his sergeant, nothing ever happens.

Except when it does.

Installed in Siglufjordur, Ari Thor tries to settle into life in a small town surrounded by mountains. He takes piano lessons with Ugla, a young woman who has also recently moved to the town and understands his feelings of entrapment and claustrophobia. On Christmas Eve, alone on the evening shift, Ari Thor receives a phone call which marks the beginning of an investigation that will chill the town to its bones. When a young woman is found seriously injured in the snow and an elderly, famous writer meets his death in the local theatre, Ari Thor must battle community secrets, heavy snowfall, and the avalanches which block off the only route in or out of the town.

Snowblind is an excellent novel, and an impressive debut from Jonasson. The characters are skilfully interwoven using a variety of narrative viewpoints, and there is a large enough quantity of these to tax your brain into trying to piece them all together; while not being so overwhelming that it’s impossible to keep up with what’s going on.

Jonasson’s description of the wild, raw beauty of Iceland and its small, isolated towns paints a picture of the country in the reader’s mind which is both impressive and intimidating, at the complete mercy of the elements. His writing evokes the sense of absolute claustrophobia that Ari Thor feels at being surrounded by snow and unable to escape, and the reader feels all of this with our protagonist. The book keeps you guessing until the end, culminating in a twist that I, for one, most definitely did not see coming.

This sophisticated piece of Icelandic Noir is perfect for curling up against a cold, dark evening. I’m looking forward to getting started on book 2 – Nightblind!

dsc_0476