Book bingeing #2 – fantasy, detectives and Nordic noir

Like most book addicts, I’m a sucker for a good series. There’s something entirely satisfying about seeing a set of covers on your shelf and waiting impatiently for the next title to be published. Getting to know a group of characters; recognising the location of the stories; that reassuring familiarity when you start the new one in the series – it can be really addictive.

In terms of selling books it’s no surprise to know that publishers are always on the look-out for new novels forming part of a series. It’s a great way to hook readers and, no doubt, hope that the books end up being filmed or televised. Look at the success of Inspector Morse, Game of Thrones and, of course, the most famous and successful series of them all – Harry Potter.

Here I want to talk about some of my favourite book series I’ve discovered as an adult; all very different but equally interesting in their own way.

I’ll start with the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake – the perfect example of how easy it is to prejudge books by their covers and by the blurb on the back. Initially I thought these looked and sounded weird! I saw them in a second hand bookshop with my then husband who picked one up, saying: ‘Have you read these? They’re amazing.’

I was put off not only by the line drawings on the front but also by the blurb which talked about ‘Gothic imagination’ and ‘fantasy’. Really not my scene – and I was also deterred by the title of the first book, Titus Groan. Nothing could have seemed less like my cup of tea, but I bought the books out of loyalty to my husband who’d enjoyed the trilogy so much when he was younger.

One of the many quirky illustrations inside Gormenghast

To my surprise, I loved them. The ‘alternative universe’ of Gormenghast enthralled me and the intricate storytelling – reminiscent of Harry Potter in parts – is so cleverly carried out that the reader is swept along in a dream land populated by characters with exotic names such as Flay, Fuchsia and Prunesquallor. Genuinely unique and incredibly creative.

Then there are the Wallander detective novels by Henning Mankell – one of the first examples of the Nordic noir genre – written in the 1990s and popularised in the UK when they were televised with Kenneth Branagh as the eponymous detective Kurt Wallander. I’ve never watched it, preferring to keep the character as I imagine him rather than seeing Ken pretending to be Swedish.

I got into this series when I lived in France and would swap books with a friend on a regular basis. It was cheaper and more fun than buying them on Amazon; rather like a mini book group for the two of us. She suggested I might enjoy the first Wallander novel and I looked doubtful – a detective novel set in Sweden didn’t sound my scene – but agreed out of politeness to try it.

A few days later I was back at her house begging to borrow the next in the series, and that continued until I’d finished them all. The sense of loss when I finished the last one was palpable: I’d enjoyed them so much, and so totally absorbed the bleak Swedish countryside evoked by Mankell, that I was loath to accept there were no more to read.

Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander

These final two series are similar in that they’re more recent; in fact, both had new books added to them last year (much to mine and many other people’s delight). One is Susan Hill’s superb Simon Serrailler series about a detective living in a fictional town called Lafferton, and the other is Kate Atkinson’s wonderful Jackson Brodie collection.

Both authors are masters of their craft and I’ve read plenty of other books by them – but these two series are, in my opinion, tours de force for different reasons.

Starting with the Simon Serrailler novels – there are ten now – I can virtually read one of these books in a single sitting; that’s how gripped I am by the stories and the atmosphere Hill creates. We get to know all about Simon, his failed relationships and his slightly odd family, as well as vicariously experiencing the gruesome crimes he’s investigating (at least one per story).

Despite the fact that an unfortunate number of major mishaps seem to befall the Serrailler clan, the books are beautifully written and extraordinarily atmospheric. An air of menace flows through each story, yet they never seem overdone or repetitive. Already I’m looking forward to the eleventh in the series and hope I won’t have to wait too long.

And then there are the Jackson Brodie stories, which followers of my instagram will know I’ve mentioned before. For me, this series is based around a perfect piece of characterisation: Jackson, the worn ex-cop – who becomes a private detective and makes bad choices about women – is totally believable in his reactions and private musings.

The books are shot through with word play, jokes and telling relationship insights but then the author shocks the reader with graphic bursts of violence which are integral to the plot but come as a surprise each time. The books are equally funny, moving and scary – a hard combination to pull off – and all I can say is that I wish I could write like Kate Atkinson. I shall keep trying.

In the meantime, I thoroughly recommend all four of these collections and would love to hear suggestions of other well written and entertaining book series.

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