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review 2019-02-08 23:06
Dark, scary, and gripping.
The Nowhere Child - Christian White

Thanks to NetGalley and to Harper Collins for providing me an ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

I’ve read quite a few books by Australian writers recently (Liane Moriarty, Jane Harper, Liza Perrat), and although very different, I enjoyed all of them and could not resist when I saw this novel, especially as it had won an award Harper’s first novel The Dry also won.

Although part of this novel is set in Australia, it is not the largest or the most important part of it. This novel is set in two time frames and in two places, and the distance in time and space seems abysmal at times. The novel starts with a bang. Kim, the main protagonist, an Australian photographer in her late twenties, receives an unexpected visit and some even more unexpected news. This part of the story, the “now”, is narrated in the first person from Kim’s point of view, and that has the effect of putting the readers in her place and making them wonder what they would do and how they would feel if suddenly their lives were turned on their heads, and they discovered everything they thought they knew about themselves, their families, and their identities, was a lie. She is a quiet woman, and although she gets on well with her stepfather and her half-sister, and she badly misses her mother, who died a little while back, she’s always been quite different to the rest of the members of her family, and enjoys her own company more than socialising. There are also strange dreams that bother her from time to time. So, although she does not want to believe it when the stranger tells her she was abducted from a small town in Kentucky as a little girl, she is not as surprised as she should be. At this point, we seem to be in the presence of a domestic drama, one where family secrets are perhaps a bit darker than we are used to, but the plot seems in keeping with the genre. And most of the “now” section of the book is closer in tone and atmosphere to that genre.

But we have the other part. The “then”, written in the third person, from a variety of characters’ points of view. Readers who dislike head-hopping don’t need to worry, though, because each chapter in the “past” section is told from only one character’s point of view, and it is quite clear who that is, avoiding any possible confusion. The story of the background to the kidnapping, and the investigation that followed, is told from the point of view of members of little Sammy’s family, the sheriff (I really liked him), neighbours of the town, and other characters that at first we might not grasp how they are related to the story, but it all ends up making sense eventually. This part of the novel feels much more gripping and dynamic than the other, and although we don’t always follow the characters for very long, the author manages to create credible and sympathetic (or not so sympathetic) individuals, some that we get to feel for and care, and even when they do some pretty horrible things, most of them feel realistic and understandable. And the story of what happened in the past makes for a pretty dark combination of thriller and mystery, well-paced and gripping.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I must say the town of Manson of the novel is a place that seems right out of a dark fairy tale, and I kept thinking of the opening titles of the TV series True Blood (not because of any supernatural thing, but because of some of the images that appear there). While some of the scenes seem typical of a small town in the middle of nowhere, others reminded me of Southern Gothic novels, and, a word of warning: there is violence, and there are scenes that can be terrifying to some readers (although no, this is not a horror novel, the author is not lying when he says he admires and has learned a lot from Stephen King). The story is full of secrets, red-herrings and confusing information, clues that seem clear but are not, and Kim/Sammy is a woman who keeps her emotions to herself, understandably so considering the circumstances. I am not sure many readers will connect with Kim straight away because of her personality, but I understand the author’s choice. If she was an emotional wreck all the time, it would be impossible for her to do what she does and to learn the truth, and the novel would be unbearable to read, more of a melodrama than a thriller or a dark mystery. The part of the story that deals with the present helps reduce the tension somewhat while keeping the intrigue ticking, and although it feels slow and sedate compared to the other part, it does ramp up as they dig into the past and the two stories advance towards their resolution.

Without going into detail, I can say that I enjoyed the ending, and although I suspected what was coming, I only realised what was likely to happen very late in the story. Despite this being the author’s first novel, his screenwriting experience is evident, and he has a knack for creating unforgettable scenes. This is a novel destined to become a movie, for sure, and I’d be surprised if it doesn’t.

This is not a typical mystery or thriller, and although it has elements of the domestic noir, it is perhaps more extreme and darker than others I have read in that genre. We have a very young child being kidnapped; we have murder, extreme religious beliefs, prejudice, postnatal depression, a dysfunctional family, snakes, secrets, lies, child abuse, and more. If you are looking for an intriguing read, don’t mind different timelines and narrators, and are not put off by difficult subjects and scary scenes, you must read this one.

 

 

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review 2019-01-24 20:39
Down for the Count - Martin Holmén
Down For the Count (Pushkin Vertigo) - Martin Holmen,Henning Koch

Kvisten in love.

 

The year is 1935, and ex-boxer gone private eye Harry Kvist has just been released from prison. He's also fallen in love with another prisoner whom he calls Doughboy. Doughboy will be released in seven days. Seven days to wait, and little does Kvist know that it will be one hell of a week.

 

This is the successor to Clinch, and just like the first part of the Stockholm trilogy it pulls no punches. An old friend of Kvisten's has been murdered, her disabled son is the prime suspect. Kvist believes the man to be innocent and starts an investigation of his own. 

 

So, is it Harry Kvisten Kvist in a magnificent comeback?

At least as far as the quality of the book is concerned, the answer is a resounding "yes". Down for the Count reads more smoothly than its predecessor, what's partly due to either the translator or an editor sticking to British English, and partly due to the author having finally stopped to reiterate every bloody streetname in the whole city of Stockholm. The attention to detail is still there, but it serves the story well. Holmén knows how to create atmosphere: This is the sooty, sweaty world of hard physical labour, a world of going paycheck to paycheck, hand to mouth, always hoping there's enough coin left to feed your family tomorrow. It's also a world where facism gains more and more ground; swastikas appear throughout the city, Nazis march, and the anti-semitism gets more blatant.

 

The brutally is still there, too. Harry's fists are still quicker than his head, and his opponents aren't exactly choir boys either. But this time our ex-boxer has company: Elin, the murder victim's estranged daughter, takes an interest in the case. She is the wits to Harry's fists, smart and graced with good people-skills. She's also the better detective. Maybe because she doesn't knock people out before they can answer her questions. She and Harry make a good team.

 

Just like in Clinch, the investigation moves at snail's pace, something I wasn't much bothered by because every thing else was so good. With all the delightful banter, Kvist's lovelorn longing, improper dog food, and the ever important question of waistcoat or no waistcoat, solving the case was just a bonus.

 

Highlight of the book is once again Harry Kvist himself, the epitome of a tough guy who thankfully has too much depth to become a stereotype. He's a brute raised by brutal circumstances, a survivor, someone who's been to the ground but never down for the count. Unschooled but street smart, violent but not cruel, with a big heart for underdogs like himself, he's the perfect anti-hero for hardboiled noir like this. He's also the kind of guy I respond to on a hormonal level. Yes, I'm asexual, but I still have a body, and that body goes for ueber-macho alpha-males. (There's also a kinda nurturing and caring side to Kvist, so maybe my body isn't all that mistaken).

 

There are some thoughts to be had on how these books deal with queerness, but I'll leave that for the third and last installment. 

 

Soundtrack: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, I Let Love In

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text 2019-01-17 20:03
Down for the Count - Reading progress update: I've read 22%.
Down For the Count (Pushkin Vertigo) - Martin Holmen,Henning Koch

Hey, the slang changed to proper British. Reads a lot smoother.

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review 2019-01-14 16:31
Clinch by Martin Holmén
Clinch - Martin Holmen,Henning Koch

Anybody can knock out an opponent, but only a technician can take a bloke's heart away from him.

 

Historic Scandinavian noir, set in Stockholm 1932, following a bisexual ex-boxer: how could I say no?

 

Harry Kvist is a former boxer who was quite popular at his time, but never quite made it to pro-status. December 1932 sees him working as a debt collector in Stockholm, a task that lets him put his fists to good use. His next assignment seems promising: rough up a debtor, collect the debt, get a lot of dough. The first part goes quite well – for Harry at least, not so much for the debtor – but then it‘s down the drain with no up in sight. When Harry returns the next day, the debtor‘s dead and he is framed for murder. Two people could attest to his innocence. The boy is out of the question, because Harry has already been sentenced for violation of paragraph 18 („indecency“) twice, and anyway, he punched him afterwards, so not the ideal situation to ask for a favour. The whore Harry chatted with is nowhere to be found. When a third witness leads to his release, Harry goes looking for the prostitute – and tries to find the real murderer as well.

 

noir rain

 

Clinch came to my attention 2016, when members of both the GR m/m group and the Pulp Fiction group started to read and review this book simultaneously – and seemed equally satisfied. There isn‘t that much overlap between those two groups (except when you count my presence in both of them as overlap; which I guess you can), so I was instantly intrigued. Yet I was hesitant to get my own copy: I planned to wait for a German translation, as Swedish translates better into German than into English, and I have a somewhat easier time with 1st person present tense in German to boot. But none seems to be forthcoming, and I finally ran out of patience. I‘m glad I did get over myself, because Clinch is certainly worth it.

 

My old trainer once said that boxing, at its best, makes you feel properly alive. This is wrong. Boxing is at its best when you’re completely empty inside, pressing on like some kind of automatic doll. One movement is not more than a natural extension of another. The body is abandoned to answer in a certain way to a given situation, hardened through thousands of hours of training. The fight turns into a physical self-examination, a receipt for the time that’s been invested. Street fighting is really no different; it just lacks a system of rules.

 

As far as noir goes, Clinch is firmly on the grittier, pulpier side of things. It’s a very physical story. The violence is as graphic as are the sex scenes, which end in not entirely consensual violence as well. But sensuous as those scenes are, Clinch isn’t celebrating violence; things aren’t prettied up or glorified. Amongst breaking bones and flowing blood there are few instances of tenderness, presented in a way that always make you question how genuine they actually are.

Holmén also adds some really nice touches: “The meat thermometer in his throat shows thirty-three degrees but I don’t know how long I’ve been out.”

 

The author plays some well known noir tropes to good effect and offers some top-notch character work. Harry Kvist has an intensity to him that I find hard to resist. He’s just as intense in his needs and in his longings as he is in his propensity towards violence. He’s not easy to decipher, but as his backstory is presented in little nuggets throughout the book, you get a pretty good idea about the man. I especially liked the fact that he isn’t a good detective. His fights have left him with an impaired memory, not the best prerequisite for detective work, and he often solely relies on his fists. But there’s no success to justify his brutality, which makes this character all the more tragic.

 

Although gritty and brutal, this is not a fast-paced story. Holmén seems more interested in atmosphere and character than in a fast-moving series of events. He’s also a historian and it shows. The first part is a bit in danger of reading like a Swedish street directory. The second half more than makes up for it. The book is at its best when it zooms in on Harry and his relationships, be it his companionship with his landlord, the undertaker Lundin, his distaste for a certain ex-lover, or his relation to the femme fatale of this story, an ageing film star.

 

Bisexual characters in genre-fiction are still rare. Unapologetic bisexual men like Kvist even more so. I read a lot of SFF, and when we get trad-published SFF stories with queer characters, they often fall into the trap of either a) concentrating on the character's queerness, b) being so busy with being “diverse” that they forget to tell a story or c) giving the character no personality apart from being queer. The books churned out by Tor are the worst offenders in all of these regards, Indies and Angry Robot do somewhat better. As usual, crime fiction seems to be a bit ahead of the game. I keep asking for stories with queer characters that are simply good stories with good, believable characters who happen to be queer, and Clinch certainly fits that bill. This being the 1930's, Kvist’s bisexuality is cause for conflict, and the book buries quite a few gays, but that’s to be expected. Most importantly, Holmén gives you people, in all their complexity, with all their flaws. And that’s all I’m really asking for.

 

Henning Koch’s English translation flows quite well, although, as a GR reviewer has already remarked, he mixes British English and American English vernacular, and I’d wished for a bit more consistency.

 

Clinch is the first part in a trilogy, and now my hesitancy has one advantage: The two other parts are already published and I can read them right away (well, almost, I have a longish buddy read coming up).

 

Bonus points for avoiding the phrase “letting go of the breath one wasn’t aware one was holding”, and instead saying: “I notice that I’ve been holding my breath, then straining for air.” See, authors, there are variations you can use!

 

Soundtrack: Nick Cave's extra-sultry version of Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man"

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text 2019-01-11 10:59
Clinch - Reading progress update: I've read 50%.
Clinch - Martin Holmen,Henning Koch

Lookie there - it took almost half the book for the femme fatale to arrive, but now she's there, and of course she's got a long, slim cigarette holder *lol*

 

Yes, this is a bit stereotypical at times, and the plot moves with glacial pace - but there are also moments of brilliance, and Harry Kvist is a strangely addictive character. Im glad I got over my distaste for 1st person present tense and picked this up.

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