Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Knife, by Jo Nesbo

            It’s hard to imagine how dedicated thriller readers survived before the advent of Scandy Noir, the genre created by Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, and continued with varying degrees of talent by any aspiring author with a Scandinavian-sounding name.  Until author and ex-muso Jo Nesbo came on the scene, launching his burnt-out, alcoholic detective Harry Hole on an unsuspecting public:  we have never been the same since, begging like addicts for each new episode of Harry’s adventures on the Dark Side – and we always, always get our fix.           
            This time round, the Dark Side is largely of Harry’s own making:  his beloved wife Rakel has thrown him out;  he is drinking himself unconscious every night and his work has become slipshod – well, who can produce results when remorse and alcohol overwhelm everything?
            And worse is yet to come:  rapist and murderer Svein Finne is finally out of prison where Harry put him so long ago, and is swearing vengeance, especially as Harry also killed his son (read ‘The Thirst’!).  Harry’s past is rapidly catching up with him and he has never been so ill-equipped to defend himself.  Only a further tragedy of cataclysmic proportions can drag him back onto the straight and narrow – temporarily, at least –for he MUST solve the heinous crime of his wife’s murder, which surely would never have happened if he had been there, drunk or not, to protect her.  When he has found the murderer and killed him, then he’ll drink himself to death.  
He’s officially too close to the victim in the investigation, and therefore required to leave the investigating to his colleagues.  And officially, he’s on bereavement leave.  Well.
            Since when has officialdom ever stopped Harry Hole and his rat-trap mind from deducing information from the slimmest of leads, the mere breath of suspicion – and always coming up with the right conclusion?  Hopefully.
            Red Herrings (it’s Norway, folks!) constantly fool Harry and the readers;  Nesbo convincingly casts suspicion on absolutely everyone as well as the obviously evil Svein Finne, but once again I have to say that I never suspected Whodunnit when all was revealed.  And more shocks are to come:  we are kept guessing about everything – including Harry’s fate – until the very last page, and that is surely the mark of a storyteller par excellence, a master of characterisation, suspense – and human failings.  FIVE STARS.        

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

The River, by Peter Heller.

           Dartmouth College best friends Jack and Wynn decide to take two semesters off to experience the adventure of a lifetime:  canoeing the Maskwa river in Northern Canada.  They are young Renaissance Men, sharing a love of arts and literature as well as finely developed skills in surviving in the great outdoors, and a great love and respect for the natural world.  This trip will be unforgettable, just for its beauty alone.
            And it is, but for none of the above reasons.
            The first few days after setting out they have seen no-one else apart from plenty of wild-life – but are becoming increasingly concerned by the smell of smoke in air that should be pristine.  When they climb a tree to view the horizon, they are horror-struck to see an enormous wildfire coming their way.  Suddenly the idea of no electronic contact with the outside world doesn’t sound so great after all, and when they finally meet two other canoeists further upriver and warn them of what’s ahead they are disgusted with their couldn’t-care-less attitude, fuelled by fifths of bourbon.  Well, they’ve done the right thing:  what the drunks do about it is their own business.           
            Jack and Wynn press on, determined to try to outrun the fire (oh, for a sat phone to call in a copter!) and reel from the next shock:  through the gathering smoke and mist a couple are having a knock-down-drag-‘em-out fight on a river beach – about what is unclear.  Should they warn them of the danger?  Nah.  Can’t even see them! 
Hours later, yeah.  Conscientious Wynn and Jack paddle back but find  no-one – until the husband finds them, saying he has lost his wife in the mist:  he’s distraught, but Jack feels his story is suspicious.  Nevertheless, he and Wynn decide to mount a search for the lady who, when they eventually find her, is still alive but has injuries consistent with a terrible beating. Attempted murder?  Jack and Wynn are duty-bound to try to save her and themselves, first from the fire, then from her husband who obviously wants her dead.
            Peter Heller has a prodigious talent for transporting his readers right into the thick of things, be it the roiling horror of a vast wildfire and the terrible destruction of everything before it, or the great and awe-inspiring beauty of the wild;  it’s all here in beautiful language for us to marvel or lament over, and proves yet again that greedy and rapacious humans are indeed lower forms of animal life.  SIX STARS.   

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Queenie, by Candice Carty-Williams.

          Londoner Queenie Jenkins, eponymous heroine of Ms Carty-Williams first novel, is a troubled soul:  troubled by the fact that her white boyfriend (she is black, of Jamaican ancestry) has demanded a break from their relationship:  what kind of break?  A month?  Three months?  Permanently?  Surely not, for Queenie loves her Tom, even though she realises she has been more than a bit on edge lately.  Well, some of his relatives are frankly racist, and she is against Police Brutality and into Black Lives Matter in a really big way.  Well, she has to be, innit?  (as her African Bestie would say):  when you’re black, the right-white people regard you as a bit suss anyway.  You have to stick up for yourself, and Queenie never lets an opportunity go by to do so.  Now Tom has had enough, and wants a breather.
            Oh, please God (Queenie never prays, and never goes to the family’s local Catholic church unless dragged there by her grandmother and Aunty) please may this break just be a breather?  Please may she not lose her funny, kind, loyal partner of three years because she is a damaged person, and it shows in a myriad different ways.  Please, God.
            Meantime, she has to find a new place to live – which she does and it’s definitely substandard – and new ways to pass her spare time – which she does, and has more questionable sexual encounters than she expects, some of them so rough that she is forced to visit the local sexual health clinic, accompanied by her lovely white bestie from work (where she is on a final warning) for moral support:  Queenie’s life is starting to unravel at an alarming rate, but she still clings to the hope that Tom will eventually make contact. 
You think?
            Ms Carty-Williams chronicles Queenie’s fall from grace and eventual redemption in ruthless detail, all the while using Queenie’s family as a Greek Chorus, especially when Queenie reaches rock-bottom, shifts in with her Grandparents, then decides on psychotherapy. 
            ‘ “Psychotherapy?  PSYCHOTHERAPY??!  You trying to shame all ah we?  You tink you are the only one with problems?” ‘ – Oh, granny lets her have it, before eventually conceding (because her husband said so!) that maybe that’s what young ones do these days.  Her generation just got on with it. 
            As a counter to the Greek Chorus, Queenie is constantly buoyed by the texts of the Corgis (the Queen’s corgis:  get it?), her close friends and staunch allies, all of whom provide loving and hilarious support when she most needs it.  Queenie is blessed indeed and so are we, to be part of her tragicomic journey to wellness.  This is a great story, innit?  FIVE STARS