Unrelenting Tension Reels the Reader In

10:43 PM 16 JUNE 2019

Excellent novels coming out of Scandinavia continue to enjoy international popularity at the moment and this terrific debut by Joakim Zander (2013) is further testament as to why. An unashamed spy thriller, “The Swimmer” exploits for the reader a dynamic plot, which links strong characters across a complex web of time and place, grappling with circumstances typically not of their making. Certainly there are echoes of the ‘Nordic noir’, particularly when a key character (Klara Walldéen) heads home to St. Anna’s Outer Archipelago in Northern Sweden, but the tale spins effortlessly between contemporary Europe and the USA, taking in historical, interlinked events in Afghanistan, Syria and Kurdistan along the way. Clearly the author has utilised his experience as a former lawyer working in the European Union to create vividly convincing scenes within the corridors of power in Brussels, where the reader finds Klara employed as assistant to an ambitious MEP. However, the involvement of a lobbyist and unidentified security services develops a wonderfully clandestine backdrop where ‘the truth’ is continuously manipulated to maintain a plausible public narrative. Indeed it is the grinding of tectonic political forces, which threaten to engulf relatively powerless individuals and discard them as tolerable collateral damage.


Unknown to her, Klara’s childhood spent in happy, obscure isolation with her grandparents was intended to shield her from the loss of her Swedish mother and the absence of her anonymous American father. Moreover, it was calculated to put her beyond the reach of those with a vested interest in silencing witnesses to war-time atrocities. But, after completing her studies abroad at the LSE, as Klara starts out on a promising career, new and present dangers begin to surface and an unseen guardian begins to stir. Aside from the thrilling action and the growing body count, the book offers an interesting take on Klara’s past and present relationships, some apparently disposable, others intense and enduring and the testing of those ties amid life-threatening chaos.


The swimmer has lapsed into an uneasy retirement and sought to protect his daughter’s life chances from the taint of his secretive past. The fervent desire of forces wanting to shine a light on the barbarous activities committed in war must overcome those equally intent on burying the past, to maintain the current fragile peace, albeit perpetrators walk free. For those caught up in the ongoing aftermath, is it better to occupy the moral high ground, or to fashion a means to survive?


Joakim Zander has created a compelling book, threaded with tough female characters, hardened by life in the far north and an unexpected challenge for the macho professional groundlings. The author also poses subtle moral dilemmas, which permeate the book. However, though the twisting plot deliberately frays the nerves, it also delivers a satisfying denouement and a thoughtful afterburn, which is so often the hallmark of an exceptional read.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

It takes a whole village…

1:06 AM 2 JANUARY 2018

Using a novel to highlight invisible social issues, such as runaway teenagers, taking flight as a consequence of factors such as domestic violence, gang culture and parental rejection is a tricky business. For example, who knew “one in ten run away from home before they reach the age of sixteen, a massive 100,000 every year”? It’s a fairly damning statistic, which says much about British society and an apparent incapacity to protect vulnerable young people. Moreover, “two thirds of children who run away are not reported to the police.” Still, against this rather bleak backdrop, Jane Davis has constructed a subtle plot, which does far more than merely generate pathos. Indeed, JD has also sought to establish that this is not a problem solely besetting some poverty-stricken underclass, but rather an issue that crosses mundane social boundaries and ‘runaways’ might therefore be seen as victims of an extreme degree of family separation.


‘A Funeral for an Owl’ centres on history teacher, Jim Stevens, who works at an inner city high school, but originates from the nearby council estate and though the vagaries of social mobility have enabled Jim to move literally to the other side of the railway tracks, he has not strayed far from his roots. When a violent incident at school sees Jim hospitalised, colleague (‘Ayisha’) is drawn into the clandestine support he has been providing to one of his pupils (‘Shamayal’) and Ayisha’s own integrity, in the face of strict policies and procedures, is challenged.


Ayisha has benefitted from a stable family upbringing and though struggling with the expectations of a distant and demanding mother, she has little insight into the profound hardships experienced by some of her disadvantaged pupils, away from school. And so, while Jim languishes in a hospital bed, the story alternates between examining Jim’s past experience, which culminated in his being stabbed and the very pressing present, which finds Ayisha discovering that doing the ‘right thing’ can take courage and a sense of bewildering isolation.


In spite of his inner city upbringing, ten year-old Jim is into birdwatching and this egregious pastime enables the boy to connect with the troubled Aimee White. Two years his senior, Aimee is destined to attend the all-girls school designated by her wealthy parents, but for the intervening six weeks of the summer holidays, the pair fashion a poignant relationship, which bridges their respective worlds. Almost spookily prescient, Aimee observes that “Indian tribes believe owls carry the souls of living people and that, if an owl is killed, the person whose soul they’re carrying will also die.”


Later, the geekiness of Jim’s birdwatching also captures Shamayal’s imagination and there is symmetry too, in Jim’s burgeoning relationship with Ayisha.


However, what stood out most for me in this book was the crafted writing, in which JD changes gear so smoothly that the journey was simply a pleasure and over all too quickly. The plot was deceptively simple and yet the characterization of the protagonists was insightful and interesting (I especially enjoyed ‘Bins’ the estate eccentric, who is curiously invisible) and made the story eminently plausible and readable. Clearly the book is not targeted solely at young adults and as with a lot of good fiction, the food-for-thought it provides is rightly taxing. As a social worker myself, it would be easy to criticize the rather neat conclusion, which perhaps sanitizes the ‘messiness’ that attends typical family life, but that would be churlish and miss the point. The adage that ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’ is at the heart of this book and we all need to do our bit…

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Sebastian Faulks takes some P.G tips

6:44 PM 19 FEBRUARY 2017

Sub-titled “a homage to P.G. Wodehouse”, as a lifelong fan of the late,great man one can imagine that it must have been both an honour and a distinct challenge for Sebastian Faulks, to be invited by the Wodehouse estate to write a new Jeeves and Wooster novel. No pressure….though given that Faulks has similarly delivered a new James Bond novel (see my review of “Devil May Care”) in the style of Ian Fleming, one cannot doubt the chameleonic qualities of this fine contemporary writer. Still, as a longstanding fan of Wodehouse myself, I also came at this book with a certain degree of trepidation and a wistful hope for more than a pale imitation of a Wodehouse original. I needn’t have worried. Faulks has successfully woven the classic ingredients into a wonderfully comic plot, which sees Bertie and Jeeves revisit a glorious heyday. Indeed, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there can be no finer accolade than to suggest this belated addition to the catalogue of J&W stories sits very comfortably alongside the originals, with deft brushstrokes that so clearly simulate the master. 

Since the TV series, in my imagination, Stephen Fry and Hugh Lawrie inevitably play the starring roles and the dialogue is crafted to fit their honeyed tones seamlessly. However, it is the quintessentially English nature of the farce, threaded through the frailties of the upper classes, which provides such a familiar platform for the many slapstick moments. The affable Bertie Wooster, big of heart, but none too bright, chaperoned by his patient, cerebrally-gifted manservant, who navigates through the choppy waters his master instinctively seems to steer towards. This book is stuffed with laugh-out-loud moments, which draw unashamedly on the antics of the Drones Club and references to familiar friends of old (Stinker Pinker, Boko Fittleworth, Bingo Little, Aunt Agatha, etc). Only the role swap at the core of this new tale breaks new ground with predictably hilarious consequences. If ever there was a book to brighten the cold winter evenings, this is it. Full credit to Mr Faulks for doing P.G. fans proud!

This book definitely is one for my ‘favourites’ shelf and one I expect to return to.  

Rating: 4 out of 5.