The Stone Tide – Gareth E Rees

Another intriguing work from an excellent author, which is as much an exploration of himself as of Hastings and the limits of reality.

Rees and his wife and two kids move to a creaking old house in the town, and quickly his wife sets to doing up the house, and he begins his daily walks of the area, discovering its history and eccentrics like occultist Alistair Crowley and inventor John Baird.

There’s no particular structure to the book, which is a reflection of how Hastings unravels for Rees, and how he himself seems to be unravelling. Like much psychogeographic writing, it’s about the discovery of surprising things whilst on ‘derives’, or undirected walks, and this is where he stumbles across caves or old buildings and weirdnesses.

Like other psychogeographic writing, too, it blends the minutiae of place, the intricate historical details and people, with big questions. In some psychogeography its big political questions like the privatisation of space. In this book it is more the question of what reality is, and how our current reality is so thoroughly shaped by things that can’t be seen or touched, like history or magic or ghosts.

What elevates Rees’s writings, I think, though are its constant moves to fictionalisation and memoir.

The fictionalisation comes regularly through the book, with Rees essentially riffing on the real-life historical discoveries he makes and creating short stories – something he did regularly in his book Marshland too, but is more random and haphazard in The Stone Tide, so much that you don’t know where reality ends and fiction starts. The stories are often just a few pages along, and border on the surreal, though don’t maybe have the elements of horror and weird fiction that were more apparent in Marshland.

The memoir comes regularly too, and is probably the most captivating part of the book. There’s a few bits to it – his struggle to keep hold of reality and recognise what’s happening outside himself is a big part of it, and one that becomes increasingly important.

There was the death of his friend Mike twenty years earlier, in St Andrews, which continually haunts Rees as he explores the coast of Hastings; the sense that he hasn’t dealt with the death or what he thinks he ought to have done to prevent it happening, is really powerful and moving.

And there’s his relationship with his wife Emily, which gradually falls apart over the course of the book, in part because of obsessive wanderings and his focus on the ghosts of his life and Hastings.

As with Marshland, I’m not entirely sure whether this memoir is fictionalised or not, but that’s beside the point – in fact, the thin veil separating fiction and fact, history and the present, and life and death, are what this book is all about, and so it makes sense that its hard to know.

“My daily walking was essential. It was how I got my ideas and my sense of place. Without walking I was the blinking curser on a blank computer screen. A writer without a story. A father with nothing to tell his daughters. A husband who talked of taxes and efficient methods of dishwasher stacking while enduring a constant, silent worry about bacteria gnawing him to death from the genitals upwards.”

Gareth E Rees, The Stone Tide

The Snowman – Jo Nesbo

This is a classic work of Scandinavian crime fiction and an absolutely gripping page turner; the words, the events and twists pass at astonishing speed.

It features Harry Hole, the troubled and slightly narcissistic detective, who is on the pursuit of an apparent serial killer – ‘the snowman’ – who kills women around Norway and leaves a sinister snowman as a motif.

It sees Hole pursuing a series of leads that take him from suspect to suspect, as the murder count racks up. There are time jumps over long decades to help explain the motives of different people and their actions, and although the voice of the author doesn’t change it moves between characters very few pages – part of its gripping allure.

I won’t go into the plot other than to say that there are range of characters and suspects, including colleagues and people close to Harry – Katrine Blatt, Mathias, Arve Stopp among others. In fact, as is often the case in this genre, the gruesome ending involves the people closest to Harry, embodying that idea of the link between the serial killer and the star detective that is often mythologised in fiction, and of course in Harry’s mind.

The Snowman is a great read but something bugged me throughout, and it’s the portrayal of women. All the victims are women, they are accused of being whores, and the non-victim women are generally weak characters – interesting but without any real independence from their circumstances. It’s true that the men in the book are hardly beacons of autonomy but what they do generally have is some element of power over their own actions and over others; something which the female characters lack. So the book perpetuates exactly the stereotypes that we need to fight.

On the cover are comparisons to Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series, but precisely because of this treatment of women I think that’s wrong. Larsson’s books are all about the abuse that men do and the way women resist, whereas Nesbo lacks any portrayal of resistance. So, you know, a good book, a page turner, but too cliched to be more.

The Girl in the Spiders Web – David Lagercrantz

The fourth in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series, written by a different person, but as good if not better than the previous three. This is just great thriller writing.

It’s another complexly plotted story of espionage and secrecy that highlights the corrupt networks that span government, business and criminal enterprises.

The story kicks off with the murder of Frans Balder, an AI specialist who is apparently killed for what he knew about corruption at the heart of the machine. His son, August, witnesses it, but is a highly autistic savant who can’t speak but, it gradually transpires, can draw with a photographic memory as well as do ludicrously complex equations.

Cue Salander and Blomkvist to the rescue. Salander heroically saving and protecting the boy, coaxing him out of his silence. Blomkvist gradually unravelling the complex mix of Swedish and US intelligence agencies, tech firms and Russian gangsters to discover the truth.
We also get plenty more Salander back story, in particular her beautiful but dangerous sister Camilla who is heavily involved in the attacks on Balder, Salander and Zander, a young journalist at Millenium.

Despite being written by Lagercratz rather than Larsson it’s entirely in keeping with the original style – descriptive, matter of fact, with unbelievable but compelling characters. In fact, the style is sharper than the original, with the whole book written in short bursts of pages on each of the many, many characters in the novel, all of them gradually moving to the dramatic conclusion.