Indie Book Reviews (4)

This week Evie Woolmore reviews the second in Tahlia Newland’s Diamond Peak series, and a cold war thriller by Helena Halme.

Stalking Shadows by Tahlia Newland (Amazon UK and Amazon US)

This second volume in Tahlia Newland’s YA series picks up just where the first volume, A Lethal Inheritance, finishes. Ariel has barely begun her journey to rescue her mother and she has already faced both the darkest of foes and her own internal doubts and fears. Following a fierce battle, she has barely time to regroup before she and Nick, her companion and would-be boyfriend must set off again on this, the next stage of their journey.

The will-they-won’t-they of Nick and Ariel’s relationship is well written, and we see the situation from both sides. Ariel worries, as many girls her age do, that having a boyfriend will distract her from what she needs to do to succeed, but will also turn her into someone who is less able to focus on what’s important because they are always worrying about how they look. In Ariel’s case, Newland makes it easy to sympathise with her worry about being distracted – rescuing their mother is the most important goal anyone might have – but she also shows well how contradictory our feelings can be, when we are inching into a new relationship. Nick himself is confused about how he feels, managing the conflict in his own feelings and his life before Ariel with the tension she brings. He wants to impress her, protect her, look after, but he also is overwhelmed at times by how she makes him feel. Often YA fiction sees things from only the girl’s point of view, so this is a welcome addition to the novel.

This novel has a much stronger romantic element to it than the first volume but it doesn’t overshadow what is, once again, a well-driven, well-plotted voyage through well-drawn, well-imagined worlds. Twitchet, the talking cat, is wonderfully expressed, and although the sage Walnut is absent for the first part of the novel, Twitchet more than makes up for his absence in his cleverness and his mischief. There are new friends and enemies made, and some whose allegiance is not clear. Tension is steadily built as the novel progresses and we also learn more of the metaphysical vision of this world, of how infectious darkness and self-doubt can be, and how compelling and difficult to escape too. It is impossible to talk in any detail about the plot without giving it away, but suffice to say after a steady beginning, life gets increasingly more complicated and Ariel must test herself again and again and again.

If you enjoyed the first volume of the series then this will not disappoint and will leave you eagerly anticipating the next stage of their journey.

****

The Red King of Helsinki by Helena Halme (Amazon UK and Amazon US)

Finnish author Helena Halme has lived in the UK for many years, and it is that fluency with both cultures which makes this cold war thriller so readable. With the current fascination for Nordic noir, this is a novel which does not rely on a good translation into English but, written in that tongue, shows enormous facility in the language and social mores of both the Finns and the British.

Set in the 1970s, in a Finland that was characterised by its geographical closeness to Russia as much by its European aspirations, former British naval officer Iain becomes quickly embroiled in an undercover investigation sanctioned by British Intelligence. His lover’s daughter Pia is participating in a gymnastics competition, but her gym teacher Leena is too infatuated with the mysterious Russian Vadi to ask too many questions about what is clearly a peculiar set up: for Pia is not a very good gymnast at all. Set in several strikingly described locations – apartments, the school, the British Council, and the trams and streets of Helsinki, the winter infuses every aspect of this story, its chill sending a ripple up the reader’s spine as the multi point of view story spins its complex web. It’s a very effective way to build tension but this is no standard action thriller in the style of Clancy. It relies on loyalties and deceptions in equal measure to raise the stakes: is Pia’s boyfriend Heikki the dropout he seems? Is Pia’s mother as blissfully ignorant as Iain hopes? And what has happened to Pia’s best friend and her diplomat father?

A surprising aspect of this book is that it would also make a good YA read, although the occasional use of obscenities might preclude making this book a YA recommendation. Nonetheless, the teenage characters are sympathetic and well-drawn and as they frame the novel’s structure it might make the book engaging to an older YA reader. My only criticism is that from time to time the story somewhat to accommodate some significant chunks of backstory, but otherwise this is a well-paced, engrossing novel. The reader will find that this Helsinki winter chills them right to the climax of the book.

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