Book review: Blind Goddess, by Anne Holt

7 12 2016

Anne Holt is a Norwegian crime novelist whose previous occupations include stints as a journalist, as a policewoman, and (briefly, before her resignation for health reasons) as Norway’s Minister of Justice. She’s written numerous books, more than a dozen of which have been translated into English.

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(The) Blind Goddess (Blind Gudinne, 1993, translated by Tom Geddes)—the definite article in the title appears optional, and my edition doesn’t have it—is Holt’s first novel, and the first in her long-running ‘Hanne Wilhelmsen’ series, following the exploits of a lesbian police officer within the Oslo police force. This first book, though, seems not so much Wilhelmsen’s as it does Håkon Sand’s. Sand, a police attorney who provides the link between Karen Borg, the corporate lawyer who stumbles upon the brutally-mutilated body of drug dealer Ludvig Sandersen on a riverbank, and Hanne, the detective responsible for investigating Sandersen’s death alongside that of shady criminal lawyer Hans Olsen in a mafia-style hit a few days later. Karen Borg’s involvement in the case is not just as a witness—she’s hired as the defence attorney for Sandersen’s confessed killer, though she has no experience in the practice of criminal law—and Håkon Sand’s involvement becomes entangled with the romantic attachment that has developed between him and Borg. There’s little to go on in building a case, and the police’s efforts appear thwarted due to the interventions of celebrated defence lawyer Peter Straub, who seems determined to play a spoiling role. A connection is eventually discovered between Sandersen and Olsen, but the police are convinced the two victims are merely part of a substantially larger, and quite sophisticated, drugs ring that remains at large.

The attention to detail in Holt’s evocation of the various policing, legal, and journalistic considerations is impressive, and doubtless owes something to her own personal experience in those areas. The crime, too, is very well-constructed, and the interpersonal interactions between Borg, Sand, and Wilhelmsen, as well as between Wilhelmsen and her partner Cecilie, are plausible and robustly drawn. There is, though, rather too much head-hopping for my liking—Holt’s perspective veers very close to eye-of-God in some places—and I didn’t feel completely convinced by the characters’ expressed body language. It also seemed to me that some of the characters—Håkon Sand prime among them, but with plenty of company—appeared rather too clumsy or bumbling for their own good. (Of course, perfect characters are very boring, but I think this first novel of Holt’s overdoes the imperfections to a degree.) That said, the mystery did keep me hooked, and Holt also managed some highly effective misdirection as the tale played out.





Book review: Paradox Resolution, by K A Bedford

29 11 2016

K A Bedford is an Australian SF writer whose novels have twice won the Aurealis Award. (As it happens, I was one of the five panellists who selected Bedford’s fourth novel, Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait, for the award in 2009).

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Paradox Resolution, published in 2012, is a sequel to Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait. It continues the twisted and time-crossing adventures of Spider Webb, former police officer and now down-on-his-luck time machine repairman. Spider is co-opted into minding house (and goldfish) for his estranged wife Molly while she seeks fame, fortune, and artistic recognition in the still-fashionable but hazardous urban battlefield of New York. It’s a simple enough task, but three things happen to throw Spider’s plans into disarray: the time machine repair business’s new owner, J K Patel, hires him to rescue his son Vijay, who has taken Patel’s hotrodded time machine Kali (and girlfriend Phoebe) on a temporal joyride many thousands of years into the future, and has not returned; Spider loses his job; and the briefly-communicative severed head of the business’s former owner, the bossy and dangerously persuasive Dickhead McMahon, turns up in the work fridge, with a piece of urgent advice for Spider. (The events don’t necessarily happen in that order, but with time travel, ‘order’ is a malleable concept, and ‘chaos’ may be a more useful guiding principle.) The severed head sees Spider’s former police colleague Inspector Iris Street, of WAPOL’s Time Crime Unit, called in, and Street rapidly realises that Dickhead’s upper section is only one of several highly-troubling developments which all seem to revolve around Spider.

The writing is suffused with elements of humour and, for the most part, a clear mastery of tension. (I baulked at some of the longer-than-a-page paragraphs, but that just seems to be Bedford’s style.) There are comparatively few characters—the novel centres on Spider, Patel, Molly, Street, Dickhead and a couple of others—but these are drawn in convincing detail, as are the more-or-less contemporary settings. (The far-future passages—spoiler alert, this is a time-travel novel; there is time travel involved—are somewhat sketchier, but then, as Niels Bohr may or may not have noted, ‘prediction is very difficult, especially about the future’.) The storyline is, as one might expected, rather complicated, and unavoidably crosses over itself at several points; the action builds to a tense and well-sustained final act that sees many of the loose ends tied up, but leaves plenty of scope—and, indeed, some initial impetus—for a subsequent, as-yet-unwritten, addition to the series.

I don’t fully accept Bedford’s ‘get-out-of-jail-free card’ approach to the avoidance of temporal paradox, but I’ll concede that it’s logically consistent, and the imagined technology that makes time travel possible is well-conceived: it all sounds plausible. The background theory, too, is presented in just sufficient detail to usefully inform the story, without becoming a distraction.

Though Paradox Resolution could, at a pinch, be read as a standalone, it would make much more sense to begin with Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait, since the earlier novel backgrounds much of the characterisation and some of the story presented in PR. The second book builds appropriately on the first (though I would have liked to see more, this time around, of Spider’s colleague Malaria, and don’t really consider the obsequious workplace coffee-droid a sufficient substitute), but is probably more of interest for the character development, which is both clever and somewhat moving, than for the storyline, which turns against the oncoming traffic at several points (as, indeed, did TMRW-U-W). I have also identified at least one hazardous activity associated with the book: if one were to play a drinking game whereby one downed a shot at each mention of the word ‘coffee’, one would be pie-eyed long before reaching the book’s final third. Webb must be one of the most highly-caffeinated individuals in all of time and space.





Book review: Unspoken, by Mari Jungstedt

26 11 2016

Mari Jungstedt is a Swedish journalist and writer whose ‘Anders Knutas’ police procedurals have placed the large island of Gotland, a favoured summer-holiday location for Swedish mainlanders, firmly on the map as a locus of Scandinavian crime fiction. I’ve previously reviewed Jungstedt’s accomplished debut, Unseen, here.

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Unspoken (I den stilla natt, 2007, translated by Tiina Nunnally) is the second in Jungstedt’s long-running Anders Knutas series. It opens with a piece of very good fortune for alcoholic photographer Henry Dahlström (an eighty-thousand-kronor haul at the last trotting meet of the season, from a lucky sequence of bets), followed a day or so later by a piece of exceptionally bad fortune (an unexpected encounter with a brutally-wielded blunt instrument at the door to his basement darkroom). It’s several days before Dahlström’s decomposing body is found by one of his drinker mates, and Knutas’s team initially has very little to go on in the hunt for the killer. Nor is it possible to determine whether it’s premeditated murder, or merely the disastrous inadvertent outcome of a spontaneous drunken brawl. But then a horse-obsessed adolescent loner schoolgirl, Fanny Jansson, goes missing on her way home from the racing stables. Is there some kind of trackside connection between Henry’s murder and Fanny’s disappearance?

While the book naturally devotes the bulk of its narrative attention to the Dahlström and Jansson investigations (in which the most fully-fledged and interesting protagonists are Chief Inspector Knutas and his offsider Karin Jacobsson), a subsidiary thread focusses on the continuation of the adulterous relationship between Stockholm-based journalist Johan Berg and local housewife-and-mother Emma Wingarve. This isn’t entirely a gratuitous addition to the storyline—Berg is covering the crimes in Gotland, after all, and even makes his own active contribution to the investigation—but it’s not as intimately interwoven with the detectives’ efforts as was the case in Unseen, nor does it occupy such a substantial portion of the book. Still, it adds both colour and emotional depth to the novel, with the affair’s highs and lows expertly documented; and it cuts out at exactly the right point, setting matters up brilliantly for the sub-plot’s expected continuance in the third book. (On the evidence presented here, I’d say that Jungstedt could also turn her hand to romance writing, to very good effect, if she ever tired of crime.)

There are, perhaps, a few too many red herrings in Unspoken, but Jungstedt’s prose is beautifully smooth and expressive, and the crime that unfolds is unexpected yet fully plausible. It’s a wonderfully readable example of Swedish crime fiction, with which my only genuine quibble is a structural one: while the organisation of the book into chapters, each detailing the course of a day’s unfolding investigation into the crimes, is logical and sensible, the intercalation into some chapters of passages headed ‘Several months previously’, detailing elements of the backstory relating to Fanny Jansson’s disappearance, does seem clunky and a bit arbitrary. Otherwise, the book holds up as a finely-crafted and detailed depiction of the brutality that can lurk within the most tranquil, most civilised setting.





Book review: Stockholm Noir, ed. Nathan Larson & Carl-Michael Edenborg

25 11 2016

Akashic Books’ ‘noir’ anthology series now numbers several dozen volumes, each employing as a backdrop a different city, each edited by someone who knows that city and its writers well.

stockholm-noir

There are thirteen stories in Stockholm Noir. I’ll provide brief commentary on each of them before offering a summation.

Åke Edwardson’s Stairway from Heaven is shot through (pun unintended) with noir tones, as a wealthy woman, Rebekah, offers the narrator (‘Peter Kampinsky’) a substantial sum of money to find a friend of hers, John. Kampinsky takes the assignment—money is always useful in his line of work—but Rebekah grows impatient with his methods, and things go pear-shaped. Edwardson has several crime novels to his name, none of which I’ve yet read. I’m impressed with Stairway, though, which opens the anthology very effectively.

Still in Kallhäll, by Johan Theorin (whose The Darkest Room I quite enjoyed), sets in play an inheritance ruse, as Klas manoeuvres to knock off his ditzy girlfriend’s grandfather, who owns an enviably-central apartment which, really, all things considered, is more-or-less going to waste. This one didn’t work so well for me: Theorin seems to be pushing for comic effect with the brash, somewhat cartoonish characterisation, and the result lacks the depths his more serious work is able to attain.

Martin Holmén’s The Smugglers features characters from his debut novel Clinch, as a young man waits at a pub’s table for what he feels certain is his doom. This is a powerfully atmospheric historical piece which tells just enough to leave the reader distinctly unsettled.

The Splendors and Miseries of a Swedish Crime Writer, by Malte Persson, is another somewhat tongue-in-cheek (not to say self-referential) piece, as the narrator, a struggling crime writer, is contacted by his high-achieving ex-girlfriend who wants to meet up. Things go bad, of course. This one works, more or less, and offers some good-natured digs at the genre for good measure.

Anna-Karin Selberg’s Horse is mysterious and primal, as a woman (orphaned as a child in a drugland slaying) intercepts a heroin kingpin. It’s effective, though I can’t be sure that it isn’t a fragment of a larger piece.

From the Remains, by Inger Edelfeldt, is paranormal / urban fantasy, in which the narrator, a writer, finds a teenage girl living in her intolerably-cold summer cottage. It told too much, didn’t show enough, for my liking, nor did it hew to the core of noir.

Northbound, by Lena Wolff, is a nicely-written but rather disturbing report of a dating-site liaison, as the narrator decides to travel north from her Malmö home to hook up with the frankly revolting Caliban. If it’s true that some matches are made in Heaven, the opposite must also be true.

Torbjörn Elensky’s Kim has the narrator at a loose end in Gamla Stan on a summer evening, when he (or she: the narrator’s gender isn’t revealed) receives a phone call from an androgynous stranger, Kim, who’s being held captive and abused at an undisclosed nearby location. Kim begs for the narrator’s help …

In Black Ice, by Inger Frimansson, elderly widow Maj is alone in her large hilltop house when she hears someone moving around in the basement garage. There’s nobody there, of course, but when she returns upstairs some of her belongings are not as she’d left them. This story has a good sense of atmosphere, though it didn’t fully convince.

The Wahlberg Disease, by Carl Johan De Geer, refers to the migraines suffered by the photographer Arne Walhberg, whose Drottninggatan workspace and ailment the narrator has inherited. This doesn’t seem a deeply noirish story, and it rambles somewhat, but it also provides perhaps the most sharply-visual sense of place of any of the anthology’s contributions.

In Nineteen Pieces, by co-editor Carl-Michael Edenborg, Agneta Bengtsson is a middle-aged policewoman with a substance abuse problem and, it seems, a postal delivery problem: someone has begun sending her, on a daily basis, parcels containing amateurishly-butchered meat. The story is certainly appropriately dark, but it didn’t really work for me.

Unni Drougge’s Death Star traces the awkward interaction between Berit, who witnesses a young woman falling to her death from a building in the derelict canal district, and Rafel, a welder who works in one of the district’s businesses. This is a visceral and fairly effective piece.

Co-editor Nathan Larson’s 10/09/03 follows its jaded protagonist through the planning and execution of a savage political assassination in Stockholm’s NK department store. The writing is admirably propulsive, the story carries a sharp edge, but the narrator’s hyperworldly cynicism felt overdone. A dash of moderation would, I felt, have resulted in a stronger ending, both for the story and the book.

Anthologies are always a mixed bag, one way or another: there will be pieces which resonate more with the reader, others which seem somehow misplaced, or perhaps unfinished. This is true of Stockholm Noir (as is the habitual disclaimer that those stories I preferred might not be so much to another’s taste), but it does seem as though the overall compilation is a fairly solid sampler, with the highlights (for my money) being the stories by Edwardson, Holmén, Selberg, Wolff, and De Geer, in which the characterisation, the setting, and the ever-present sense of impending disaster transcend the gritty shock-and-awe affrontery that appears to mark the editors’ preferences.





Two Dimension6-flavoured announcements

23 11 2016

My procrastinative tendencies have, on this occasion, ensured that I have not only (1) a general but also (2) a specific item of news regarding Keith Stevenson’s Dimension6 project, which I shall reveal without further delay:

(1) The latest annual collection of fiction from the e-pages of Dimension6, which would, naturally enough, be the 2016 annual collection, has been out since around the start of this month. It can be purchased, in epub and mobi formats, for 99c (AUD) from the coeur de lion website, but if you would prefer to obtain it from Apple, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or Kobo, that’s possible too. The collection includes my novelette ‘All the Colours of the Tomato’ alongside the work of nine other specfic writers.

dimension6_annual_2016

(Spoiler alert: it’s also eminently possible to download the three individual issues of D6 for this year, comprising exactly the same set of stories, at zero cost; but purchasing the collection does that useful ‘supporting the creators’ thing which helps to ensure that Keith is motivated to keep the zine going. Your call.)

(2) I’m tickled pink, or at least very happy, to be able to announce that my abduction-by-flying-car novelette ‘November 31st is World Peace Day’ has been accepted for Dimension6‘s July 2017 issue. (Which means, among other things, that I’d better see about writing some more fiction, or the cupboard will be bare …)





Book review: On a Red Station, Drifting, by Aliette de Bodard

23 11 2016

Aliette de Bodard is a software engineer and Nebula-, Locus-, and BSFA-award-winning speculative fiction writer of Vietnamese / French heritage. She has several published novels and numerous short stories to her name (to one of which, ‘Dragon Feasts’, I can lay editorial claim, since it appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine 35, my first ASIM issue).

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On a Red Station, Drifting focusses on the culturally-prescribed enmity between Lê Thi Linh, an erudite former magistrate, and Lê Thi Quyen, the operations manager of Prosper space station to which Linh has fled, seeking asylum, after her home planet falls under attack. The interplanetary society within which the novella is set is one with an inflexible and strongly hierarchical code of conduct, buttressed by ancestor veneration, literary allusion, and the ties of blood. Quyen is obliged to offer sanctuary to her distant cousin Linh, but she is mistrustful of Linh and accordingly assigns her a role, that of tutor, which ensures the former magistrate has negligible opportunity to usurp the operations manager’s role. Linh, in turn, is deeply resentful of Quyen’s heavy-handed power games: her loss of status rankles. Throw in some petty crime—the theft of a headful of memory cubes containing the stored personalities of some treasured ancestors—and the development of a troubling glitchiness in the station’s overarching artificial mind, and the stage is set for a slow-burn confrontation between the two women.

I’m sure there are allusions within OaRS,D which elude me—the story appears steeped in Vietnamese culture, of which I’m largely ignorant—but the novella is impressive for the depth and consistency of the worldbuilding, and it doesn’t take too long before the rather constrained behavioural palette feels innate and natural. It’s well done and rather moving, though the dominance of socialisation over personality did, for me, have a somewhat distancing effect: it’s a strong story, but it’s not a warm story. The story requires its austerity of characterisation, but this isn’t something that endears the reader. (At least, that was my experience of it.)

The book is, in many ways, a tragedy of manners first and a SF novella second. (Which is not to say that the SF components are bolted on as an afterthought—rather, they’re fairly tightly woven into the worldbuilding—but that it would be possible to envisage, and to construct, a variant on the story in which broadly the same outcome ensued in the absence of any SFnal furniture.) Beyond this, it’s a well-executed piece of fiction exploring a setting very different to the mainstays of SF (which is, in itself, a very science-fictional approach to adopt), and de Bodard’s writing is precise and expressive.





Book review: The Mine, by Antti Tuomainen

15 11 2016

Antti Tuomainen is a Finnish crime fiction writer and journalist who has previously worked in advertising. I’ve reviewed an earlier book of Tuomainen’s, The Healer here.

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In The Mine (Kaivos, 2015, translated by David Hackston), reporter Janne Vuori receives an anonymous tipoff about problems at the Suomalahti mine in northern Finland. His editor agrees it’s a story worth investigating, but when Janne visits the mine, hoping to get some answers, he is rebuffed by the mine’s security staff. The townspeople have nothing negative to say about the mine, and the official documentation surrounding the venture points to its state-of-the-art environmental credentials. It’s a success story, surely? As it transpires, though, this is rather difficult to substantiate: Janne would like to get some commentary from the mine’s directors, but two of them refuse to comment … and the other two are dead.

Emil is a hired killer who is very good at what he does … and his path is about to cross Janne’s.

The Mine further cements Tuomainen’s reputation as a creator of gritty, up-to-the-minute fiction, with every word precisely placed. The book reads (in tone, more than in subject matter or storyline) like a crazy blend of Richard Morgan’s Market Forces and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep: the prose is wonderful, the violence spare and matter-of-fact. Tuomainen is able to worm his way so thoroughly into the heads of his protagonists that they develop a sense of life quite independent of the page. It’s apparent, too, that the book has been well-researched: the ore extraction technique mentioned, bioleaching, has indeed been trialled in Finnish mining in recent years, and has proven problematic in at least one mine (though the problems presented in The Mine do not appear to match, exactly, those that have occurred in real life, and naturally the book’s body count is fictional).

The Mine has no characters in common with The Healer: Tuomainen does not appear, yet, to have locked himself in a series, and I suspect the standalone format of each book allows him to play more freely with the characters. There is, nonetheless, a commonality of theme, in the sense that both The Mine and The Healer are grounded in environmental awareness. This isn’t, I hasten to add, anything preachy: it’s more that Tuomainen has elected to explore the scope offered by environmental degradation as a basis for crime fiction, and this does set these books apart, to some degree, from the conventional murder-mystery narrative. (I’ve mentioned previously that Tuomainen’s recourse to environmental subject matter is broadly analogous to Kati Hiekkapelto’s exploration of social justice and immigration issues in her crime fiction: these are, I think, two of the most exciting voices in Finnish crime today.)

The characterisation, and the gradually-revealed backstory, is a definite strength of the book. So too are the occasional glimpses of black humour: for example, hitman Emil describes his vocation as ‘human resources’. I’m not sure that I completely buy into the evolution of the story on an interpersonal level, but it is surprising and it is memorable and it is, ultimately, touching.

Oh, and Janne Vuori is certainly not Philip Marlowe; but if there’s a better channeling of Chandler, anywhere, than the understated scene in which The Mine‘s sequence of crimes is explicated, I haven’t read it yet.