28 May 2015

Review: FROZEN OUT, Quentin Bates

  • author website Graskeggur
  • #1 in the Gunnhildur series
  • source: my local library
  • ISBN 978-1-84901-360-4
  • 330 pages
  • This edition published by Robinson 2011
Synopsis ( from author website Graskeggur)

Frozen Out is set in the months leading up to the collapse of the banks in Iceland that paralysed the country’s economy at a time when this little society was already polarised by a whole raft of issues.

Gunnhildur, a sergeant at a police station in a rural area in southern Iceland has to investigate the identity of a man found drowned in the harbour of the fishing village of Hvalvík. Although the man appears to have been the victim of an accident, she feels that there is more to this than meets the eye and finds out that this was certainly the case as she follows the trail in spite of being discouraged from pursuing it.

Frozen Out was published in January 2011 in the UK by Constable & Robinson and by Soho Crime (as Frozen Assets) in the US.

My take

"She's a big fat lass with a face that frightens horses."
That is the description Skuli is given when he asks how he will recognize Gunnhilda.

I did wonder how much she would have in common with Ann Cleeves' Vera Stanhope or even Big Marge, Aline Templeton's raw-boned Scot.

FROZEN ASSETS is the debut novel in the Gunnhildur serieswhich has now grown to four published titles. Essentially it is a police procedural with a middle aged female police sergeant operating in rural Iceland. As it is the first in the series there is a lot of background material to introduce Gunna and her colleagues to us, so it feels as if it will be best to read the titles in order (see the list below).

Gunna is a single parent with a 13 year old daughter so she tries essentially to work a 9 to 5 job, and usually nothing very exciting happens in Hvalvik, and so it is mainly possible. Of course she is constantly on call and locals visit her at home out of hours if they need anything. But the discovery of a body in the Hvalvik harbour changes all that, particularly since there does not seem to be any explanation of how he actually got there.

Gunna is pulled into a team based in Reyjavik, and is put in charge of the investigation which seems to have nation-wide implications. A new energy plant is being built at Hvalvik but the company behind it was once government-owned, and it seems that all sort of people, including government ministers are profiting. In addition an anonymously published blog with "inside" sources is highlighting both corruption and sexual pecadilloes happening in high society. Add to that the fact that Iceland's banks are just beginning to feel the financial crisis, and overseas investors are withdrawing from the scheme.

I like Gunna's strong character, her persistence, her comprehensive grasp of what needs to be done, and also the different view of Iceland this novel gives. I think I'll definitely be looking into another title in the series.

My rating: 4.5

About the author
Gráskeggur means ‘Greybeard.’ 
Quentin Bates dates back to the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis and was brought up in the south of England. In the year that Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s Prime Minister, he was offered the opportunity to spend a gap year working in Iceland and jumped at the chance of escape.

The gap year turned into a gap decade, during which he worked as a netmaker, factory hand and trawlerman, started a family and generally went native.  

Gunnhildur and the book that became Frozen Out (Frozen Assets in the US) grew out of a university writing course that enabled him to take an afternoon off work once a week.

1. Frozen Out (2011)
     aka Frozen Assets
2. Cold Comfort (2012)
2.5. Winterlude (2013)
3. Chilled to the Bone (2013)
4. Cold Steal (2014)
5. Thin Ice (2016)
Summerchill (2015)

25 May 2015

Review: OBLIVION, Arnaldur Indridason

  • review e-book supplied by Harvill Secker, Random House UK through NetGalley
  • publication date 9 July 2015
  • ISBN 9781473522015
  • Translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
Synopsis (from NetGalley)

A woman swims in a remote, milky-blue lagoon. Steam rises from the water and as it clears, a body is revealed in the ghostly light.


Miles away, a vast aircraft hangar rises behind the perimeter fence of the US military base. A sickening thud is heard as a man’s body falls from a high platform.


Many years before, a schoolgirl went missing. The world has forgotten her. But Erlendur has not.

Erlendur Sveinsson is a newly promoted detective with a battered body, a rogue CIA operative and America’s troublesome presence in Iceland to contend with. In his spare time he investigates a cold case. He is only starting out but he is already up to his neck.

My Take

In  4.6. STRANGE SHORES, #11 in the Erlendur series, published in 2011, we thought we had farewelled Erlendur, who seemed to be becoming increasingly troubled in the later novels in the series.

But now Indridason has begun publishing "prequel" novels which tell stories from before JAR CITY, the first Erlendur novel published in English in 2004. Erlendur has recently joined CID and already comes across as preoccupied with people who have been lost in Iceland's severe weather.

I'm not sure whether the author thinks that readers new to his novels will read these books first or whether he is mainly catering for those who have already followed Erlendur through the published series. I brought to OBLIVION a knowledge of what happened in the later series, and so already knew some of Erlendur's background. I rather think he is exploiting what he sees as a ready market created by the series published in English 2004-2011.

The Erlendur of OBLIVION is without doubt the same detective that filled the pages of the original series, and picks up on themes that surface in that series. But for me there was just something slightly "thin" about the story. Creating prequels must create continuity problems of a unique kind.

It does explore the ramifications of Iceland allowing itself to be used as a military base for US army and navy, and how that affects Icelandic sovereignty.

My rating: 4.4

I've also reviewed

21 May 2015

Review: CROSS FINGERS, Paddy Richardson

  • this edition published by Hachette New Zealand 2013
  • 286 pages
  • ISBN 978-1-96971-307-2
  • source: my local library

Synopsis (Booktopia)

Television journalist Rebecca Thorne is working on a documentary project exposing a crooked ex-cop property developer. Much to her chagrin she is removed from the project to work on another documentary about the notorious 1981 South African rugby team's tour of New Zealand.

At the same, Rebecca breaks up with boyfriend Rolly. Strange things start to happen: is someone stalking her, breaking into her house and moving things? Or is she just being paranoid?

As she learns more about the '81 tour, Rebecca becomes fascinated by the Lambs, two anonymous protesters who mocked the police and entertained the crowds, and by the disappearance of one of them on the night of the Wellington test.

As sinister events in Rebecca's life increase, she gets closer and closer to finding out what happened to the Black Lamb...

My Take

As well as being a murder mystery, this story is a study of how the government of New Zealand became almost indistinguishable from a totalitarian regime as it saw to it that the Springbok tour of New Zealand went ahead. How a sport divided the people along political lines and brought confrontation to the streets of New Zealand cities where Springbok rugby matches were held.

Most of the novel takes the form of scripts of video interviews that Rebecca Thorne conducts with people from both sides, the rugby supporters and the police, and those protesting against the tour. Despite the violence perpetrated in the name of crowd control many of the police saw the protesters as dangerous and subversive, while the protesters saw the police as turning into faceless Gestapo-like troops. There are certainly political overtones running through the novel.

Thorne is seeking to give the television documentary, due to screen for the 30 year anniversary of the tour, a different twist to those that were produced for previous anniversaries. And she thinks she has found the slant she needs with the Lambs, two anonymous protesters disguised in woolly costumes,detested by the police and by some of the protesters too. On the night of the Wellington test one of them is murdered, and the other disappears.

But then Thorne becomes the target of heavy breathing on the phone, and she feels stalked, so convinced that someone has broken into her house that she has the locks changed.

A well constructed and engrossing story. And you will learn a lot about the Springbok Tour of 1981.

My rating:4.5

I've also reviewed

17 May 2015

Review: THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND, Stuart Neville

  • review copy from publisher Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, through NetGalley
  • publication date June 26, 2015
  • ISBN 9781448138517
Synopsis (NetGalley)

They’d used the same picture in the Sunday red top she’d read at the weekend. SCHOOLBOY KILLER TO BE RELEASED, the headline had screamed above a half-page story.'

DCI Serena Flanagan, newly returned to work after undergoing treatment for cancer, is forced to confront a troubling case from her past: the murder conviction of a 12-year-old-boy who has just been released back into the community.
When 12-year-old Ciaran Devine confessed to murdering his foster father it sent shock waves through the nation.

DCI Serena Flanagan, then an ambitious Detective Sergeant, took Ciaran's confession after days spent earning his trust. He hasn’t forgotten the kindness she showed him – in fact, she hasn't left his thoughts in the seven years he’s been locked away.

Probation officer Paula Cunningham, now tasked with helping Ciaran re-enter society, suspects there was more to this case than the police uncovered. Ciaran’s confession saved his brother Thomas from a far lengthier sentence, and Cunningham can see the unnatural hold Thomas still has over his vulnerable younger brother.

When she brings her fears to DCI Flanagan, the years of lies begin to unravel, setting a deadly chain of events in motion.

My Take

Set in Belfast, really a police procedural, this was a difficult plot structure to pull off successfully: three main strands and two time frames seven years apart. I think Neville has done it very well.

Life has moved on since 12 year old Ciaran Devine confessed to murdering his foster father. His brother Thomas has served five years for his role in the murder and has been "out" two years waiting for his younger brother's release. Ciaran is nearly twenty but in many ways still immature, a child who relies on his older brother for advice, and even for permission to speak. Flanagan is a mother of two, and recently returned to work after a bout of breast cancer and is a member of a breast cancer support group. . She remembers Ciaran Devine very well. Paula Cunningham too remembers Ciaran Devine and his older brother Thomas.

An excellent read.

My rating: 4.8

I've also reviewed THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST

About Stuart Neville's work: The Twelve won the prestigious LA Times Book Prize and was longlisted for the Theakston's Best Crime Book of the Year. Stolen Souls was shortlisted for the Theakstons Best Crime Book of the Year, Ratlines was shortlisted for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger award and The Final Silence was longlisted for the Theakston's Best Crime Book of the Year.

13 May 2015

Review: THE LAUGHING MONSTERS, Denis Johnson

  • review copy provided by Random House UK, through NetGalley
  • ISBN 9781473520363
  • published in 2014.
Synopsis (NetGalley)

In Sierra Leone, suspicion has become the law. A contemporary spy thriller from the great American writer Denis Johnson, author of Train Dreams and Tree of Smoke
"In this land of chaos and despair, all I can do is wish for magic armour and the power to disappear."

Freetown, Sierra Leone. A city of heat and dirt, of guns and militia. Alone in its crowded streets, Captain Roland Nair has been given a single assignment. He must find Michael Adriko - maverick, warrior, and the man who has saved Nair's life three times and risked it many more.

The two men have schemed, fought and profited together in the most hostile regions of the world. But on this new level - espionage, state secrets, treason - their loyalties will be tested to the limit.

This is a brutal journey through a land abandoned by the future - a journey that will lead them to meet themselves not in a new light, but in a new darkness.

My Take

Perhaps this book was just too far out of my comfort zone, but I have to admit that I didn't finish it. According to my Kindle I got to 90%, but that's when I decided I couldn't go any further. I no longer knew what was going on. In fact, it was worse than that. I no longer cared.

I know others who would not bother to write about a DNF, but for a while there, I thought it had some good things going for it. I thought I knew what the central characters were trying to do, although I must admit to some confusing moments. I thought the description of the squalid state of things in Sierra Leone and the Congo rang true, but then I simply didn't recognise the protagonists as the book drew to the end.

I'm sorry.

My rating: 2.0

9 May 2015

Review: THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, Paula Hawkins - audio book

Synopsis  (Audible)

Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. She's even started to feel like she knows the people who live in one of the houses. 'Jess and Jason', she calls them. Their life - as she sees it - is perfect. If only Rachel could be that happy.

And then she sees something shocking. It's only a minute until the train moves on, but it's enough. Now everything's changed. Now Rachel has a chance to become a part of the lives she's only watched from afar. Now they'll see; she's much more than just the girl on the train...

My Take:

This story is told by three narrators who identify themselves at the beginning of a chapter by just saying their name. The producer of the audio version has replicated these narrators by using three  readers with distinct voices. That means "reading" it as an audio novel is probably not the best strategy, particularly as the time frame zig zags, with some narrators playing "catch up", so the reader is really never sure when events occurred, in relation to each other. With an audio novel you don't have the opportunity that a hard copy gives you of being able to flip back a few pages to check on a date or who is speaking. I suspect that if I had been reading a hard copy I might even have been tempted to write dates down and group events around them.

Add to that the fact that the principal narrator, Rachel, who is the "girl on the train", is an alcoholic and is frequently drunk. The police sum it up when they say that her evidence is unreliable. Rachel herself is the first to admit this because there are great holes in her memory. She has flashbacks in the form of dreams, and she is never sure whether they are things she has actually seen or whether it is her imagination at work. However as she begins to "dry out" bits of her memory returns. All she has to do is work out which memories to trust.

Rachel has lost her job in London because she came back from lunch drunk, having insulted one of her firm's biggest clients. She has been keeping up the pretence of going to work on the train so her flatmate will not know that she has no income.  She desperately wants to be accepted by people, and to overcome her feelings of rejection by her ex-husband. At night when she is drunk she tends to ring him in the middle of the night and even turns up at his house, where she also used to live, and frightens his new wife by taking their baby out of the bassinet. Just coincidentally their house is just a few doors down from the house where "Jess and Jason" live.

And then she sees something from the train which changes all their lives forever.

So it is a novel that really makes the reader work alongside Rachel at solving the mystery.
A number of reviewers have remarked on what a remarkable accomplishment the novel is, and I tend to agree. I have to list it among my best reads for this year.

My rating: 4.9

About the author
Paula Hawkins worked as a journalist for fifteen years before turning her hand to fiction.
Born and brought up in Zimbabwe, Paula moved to London in 1989 and has lived there ever since. The Girl on the Train is her first thriller.

    Review: ODDFELLOWS, Nicholas Shakespeare - a novella

    Synopsis ( author website)

    On 1 January 1915, ramifications from the First World War, raging half a world away, were felt in Broken Hill, Australia, when in a guerrilla-style military operation, four citizens were killed and seven wounded. It was the annual picnic day in Broken Hill and a thousand citizens were dressed for fun when the only enemy attack to occur on Australian soil during World War I, took them by surprise. Nicholas Shakespeare has turned this little known piece of Australian history into a story for our time.

    My Take

    A riveting novella published on the centenary of the event in Broken Hill when two Afghan cameleers, long resident in Australia, decided to stand up for Turkey with whom Australia was soon to be at war, and attack the New Year's Day picnic. This is the author's fictionalised version of the event, in which he describes how "Australians" felt about the long standing Islamic camp that existed in their town, and surmises what pushed the perpetrators to such drastic action.

    It is a quick read that gives you a lot to think about.

    My rating: 4.4

    About the author: 
    Nicholas Shakespeare was born in 1957. The son of a diplomat, much of his youth was spent in the Far East and South America. His books have been translated into 20 languages. They include The Vision of Elena Silves (winner of the Somerset Maugham Award), Snowleg, The Dancer Upstairs, Secrets of the Sea, Inheritance and Priscilla. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He currently lives in Oxford.
    Author Lives In: Oxford, England
    See Wikipedia for factual details about the event.


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