Book review: The Ice Beneath Her, by Camilla Grebe

26 09 2017

Camilla Grebe is a Swedish economist, audiobook publisher, and crime fiction writer. She has co-written four novels (featuring psychologist Siri Bergman) with her sister Åsa Träff, the first two of which (also available in English translation) were shortlisted for Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year; another three novels (the ‘Moscow Noir’ trilogy, as yet unavailable in English) were coauthored with Paul Leander-Engström.


The Ice Beneath Her (Älskaren från huvudkontoret, 2015, translated by Elizabeth Clark Wessel) is Grebe’s first solo novel. It concerns the discovery, in the basement of clothing-store magnate Jesper Orre’s well-appointed home, of a young woman’s body, her severed head placed upright on the floor some distance from the rest of her corpse. The police’s suspicion is that it’s an extreme case of domestic violence; but Orre, who is missing, has long been secretive about his love life (due to hostile media attention) and the woman’s identity cannot be established. The story is narrated in alternating chapters by Peter Lindgren, one of the detectives on the case; Hanne Lagerlind-Schön, a behavioural psychologist who has previously worked with the police on several investigations, and is brought in as an adviser; and (in a sequence occurring along an earlier timeline, in the months before the murder) Emma Bohman, a young sales clerk at one of Orre’s Clothes&More stores, whom Orre has impregnated and then dumped.

Grebe’s evocation of the lives of her troubled protagonists—Peter badly handled an affair with Hanne, some years ago, and now exhibits considerable difficulty working with her; Hanne also struggles with this baggage, and with the further need to disguise from her colleagues the early-onset dementia with which she’s now afflicted; Emma is a survivor of a childhood shared with a suicidal father and an alcoholic, emotionally abusive mother, and punctuated by a schoolyard sexual assault—is impressively detailed. The story, which is studded with unanticipated pivots into new directions, takes some time to properly establish itself, but becomes progressively more engrossing as the questions mount up and the answers remain elusive. There’s a sense in which the entire novel is a long-form thimble-and-shell game, with a few key aspects of the central murder (for example, the particulars of its ritualism, the provenance of the murder weapon) that I felt weren’t adequately addressed in the rush to climax; but overall, there’s a pleasing solidity to the story and a plausibly gritty depth to the characterisation.


Book review: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, by Dorthe Nors

25 09 2017

Dorthe Nors is a Danish author with several novels and novellas to her name as well as a short fiction collection. She has also worked as a translator, mostly of the works of Swedish crime novelist Johan Theorin. Her publishing credits include The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Boston Review; she has won the P O Enquist Literary Prize and, with her novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, was a finalist in the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.


Mirror, Shoulder, Signal (Spejl, skulder, blink, 2016, translated by Misha Hoekstra) is an episodic novel exploring the minutiae of translator and misfit Sonja Hansen’s life as she negotiates driving lessons with Jytte, an overbearing, distractable and short-tempered instructor; massage sessions with Ellen, aura reader and interpreter of muscular anxiety; translating the works of pretentious, misogynistic Swedish crime novelist Gösta Svensson; and painful and unsatisfying interactions with a family who, after four-and-a-bit decades, still pointedly refuse to understand her. This could be a recipe for tedium, but Nors’ comic timing is note-perfect, her ability to extract tension and pathos from the smallest detail is enviable, and the book engages almost from the first sentence.

Nors’ characters (notably Sonja herself, who prefers solitude to human interaction, suffers from otolithic vertigo (BPPV—a condition which ensures that if she bends over, she experiences extreme dizziness), and is haunted by an adolescent fortune-telling session, the gist of which she can no longer remember) are idosyncratic yet fully credible. In both the subtle complexity of its characterisation and its focus on a minutely-observed existence, the book is reminiscent of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book: in her dogged determination to follow her own track and to ignore societal expectations, Sonja could well be considered a weighted average of the two principal characters from Jansson’s book, and the bone-dry humour of Nors’ writing—chiefly her sudden, distracting, and yet strongly informative changes of topic—also carries a somewhat Janssonian flavour. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is an appealing book that impresses with its quiet depths: it conveys considerably more than, at first, it lets on.

Book review: Tainaron (Mail from Another City), by Leena Krohn

24 09 2017

Leena Krohn is a prolific Finnish speculative fiction writer, and one of the pioneers of the ‘Finnish Weird’ subgenre, whose work has been shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award and the International Horror Guild Award; she’s also the recipient of the Finlandia Prize. I’ve previously reviewed her (high recommended) pittoresque novel Datura (or a delusion we all see) here.


Tainaron: Mail from Another City (Tainaron. Postia toisesta kaupungista, 1985, translated by Hildi Hawkins) is an epistolary novel exploring the strange city of Tainaron and the unnamed narrator’s solitude as he / she composes a series of letters to a former lover who opts not to respond.

Tainaron’s inhabitants are insects—many of them recognisable, some of them mysterious—who have shaped a society that is in places individualistic, in places anarchistic, and in places strictly hierarchical, with rites and rules enforcing an often-inflexible social structure. The narrator (whom one presumes to be human, though this is never explicit) frequently falls afoul of the city’s numerous taboos and idiosyncracies, much to the chagrin of his / her long-suffering local guide Longhorn. The book is thronged with fantastical invention and description, but there’s an underlying coldness to it that makes it a difficult work with which to engage; considerably more so than Krohn’s similarly-episodic though more wryly whimsical Datura. There are a few places in which the fancy truly takes flight, and the prose is beautiful (as is much of the imagery) but it seemed to me that too much of the book is given over to an extended societal metaphor with few points of obvious human connection.

Book review: Pet Shop Girls, by Anja Snellman

23 09 2017

Anja Snellman is a Finnish journalist, poet, and novelist with over twenty books to her name. Though some of these have been translated into several languages, to date only one of her novels has been translated into English. She was awarded the Pro Finlandia Medal (a civic honour bestowed upon distinguished Finnish artists and writers) in 2007.


Pet Shop Girls (Lemmikkikaupan tytöt, 2007, translated by Scott Kaukonen and Helena Halmari) concerns the disappearance of teenagers Jasmin Martin and Linda Rossi, Jasmin’s mother Sara’s quest to come to grips with her daughter’s ongoing absence (especially after Linda’s body is discovered, some months later, in the remains of a warehouse following a fire), and pathways into prostitution and sexual slavery. It’s a mosaic novel comprising the adult Jasmin’s reflections on events leading up to the death, fifteen years after her abduction, of her wealthy ‘owner’; extracts from the book Monday, written by Sara and exploring her experiences as a suddenly-childless mother; and a recounting of the developing involvement of immigrant Randi Suraweera in, first, the titular ‘pet shop’ and, later, the underage-prostitution racket (the ‘Wet Pet Club’) for which the pet shop serves as a front business. The content at the book’s core is undeniably confronting (and, I suspect, triggering for some), though the writing is far from lurid: the focus is predominantly on the emotional journey of daughter and mother and their sometimes-inexplicable inability to connect as each copes in her own way with the circumstances of Jasmin’s abduction and its lingering aftermath. Shorn of its specifics (and the text is consistently careful never to identify its locations), it’s a book more about loss, hazard, and quiet fury than about anything else. And although it’s presented as a ‘crime’ novel (by a publisher specialising in English translations of Finnish crime fiction), it’s really more a novel of injustice.

The book’s scrapbook composition and fifteen-year span doesn’t permit as much tension (nor, it seems, as many answered questions) as might be expected from the subject matter, but the characterisation of Jasmin and Sara is a strength, and a lengthy historical epilogue provides a context that, in some measure, is lacking from the novel’s sometimes-disjointed narrative fragments.

On the filmography of the late Cyrano de Bergerac, astronaut-prévaricateur

23 09 2017

(Signal-boostery follows:)


Adam Browne, whose The Tame Animals of Saturn was published last year by Peggy Bright Books, is looking to produce a short (ten minute) film based on his deliciously-idiosyncratic debut novel Pyrotechnicon: being a True Account of Cyrano de Bergerac’s further adventures among the States and Empires of the Stars. But even shoestring budgets can add up, so he’s holding a Pozible fundraiser to raise $2000(AUD) to provide a special-effects budget for the film.

If you’ve read Pyrotechnicon, you’ll likely remember it as a masterwork of gloriously weird spacegoing-ness, brimming with invention, speculation, and wordplay. If you haven’t read it, it’s still available from the coeur de lion website, in both print and ebook formats; I can wholeheartedly recommend it. And if you’d like to help make a film version possible, please throw a few pennies into the hat.

Book review: Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

22 09 2017

John Scalzi is an American SF author with multiple Hugo nominations: his novel Redshirts won a Hugo in 2013. I’ve previously reviewed his novella The Dispatcher, here.


Old Man’s War—published in 2005 (and subsequently Hugo-nominated) but serialised on his blog Whatever two years earlier—is Scalzi’s debut novel, and the first in a sequence of mil-SF novels. Its narrator is the seventy-five-year-old John Perry, a widower and retired advertising copywriter from Ohio, who fulfils a pledge made with his late wife Kathy to enlist in the Earth-defending, alien-fighting Colonial Defense Force on his 75th birthday. The incentive for enlistment is the offer of rejuvenation, a powerful drawcard that ensures the CDF is inundated with willing recruits with a lifetime of valuable experience … and no idea, whatever, of what they’re getting into. The Galaxy, it seems, is a considerably more dangerous place than Earth’s citizens would tend to believe, and the CDF’s attrition rate is horrendously high as its soldiers take on a bewildering range of bloodthirsty alien races, each of them eager to lay claim to more and yet more of the desirable real estate in Earth’s neighbourhood. It’s an affectionately pulpy, unashamedly Heinlein-inspired perspective on the Universe; its saving grace is that it’s also sufficiently self-aware to critique and even lampoon the precepts upon which it’s constructed. The dialogue is sharp, the humour (for the most part) unforced, the changes in pace sometimes dizzying … it’s a story which doesn’t really transcend the limitations of the mil-SF subgenre, but I don’t think that’s its intent. There are flaws to it: the US-centric tone doesn’t really make sense in view of the underlying future history (there seems to be no satisfactory reason why the CDF intakes would be drawn entirely from the elderly of the United States, but they are), the body count is horrific, the combat sometimes seems more than a little gratuitous, and Perry conveys, overall, as rather too much of a ‘Mary Sue’. But there is some inventive play with the book’s familiar SF furniture and some well-drawn poignancy in the novel’s characterisation; and just enough uncertainty about the merit of combat sneaks through to avoid echoing the recruitment-poster sentiments of, say, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

Book review: Three Dog Night, by Elsebeth Egholm

21 09 2017

Elsebeth Egholm is a Danish journalist and crime fiction writer whose work has spawned at least two Danish-language TV series. She’s arguably best known for her nine-novel sequence featuring journalist Dicte Svendsen, though only two of these novels have been translated into English. Her most recent novels feature reformed ex-convict Peter Boutrup.


Three Dog Night (Tre Hundes Nat, 2011, translated by Charlotte Barslund and Don Bartlett) is the first in Egholm’s ‘Peter Boutrup’ series and starts with the New Year’s Day discovery, at the base of the cliff near Boutrup’s home in Grenå, of his fellow former convict Ramses’s body, adorned with a bullet hole to the chest. Peter, who’s interviewed at the scene alongside his reclusive neighbour Felicia (‘Felix’) Gomez, lies to the police about his dealings with Ramses Bilal, but the police are also busy with the search for a missing New Year’s Eve reveller, Nina Bjerre, and the disappearance of the local woman initially takes precedence over the murder of an ex-con. It gradually becomes apparent, however, that there may be a connection between the two events …

Three Dog Night is a little slow to start, since Egholm gives precedence to establishing the personalities of the novel’s principal viewpoint characters: Peter, Felix, local police chief Mark Bille Hansen, and mine clearance diver Kirsten (‘Kir’) Røjel, all of them dealing, in various ways, with a backlog of substantial personal trauma upon which the unfolding sequence of crimes is unceremoniously heaped. This depth (and breadth) of characterisation, and the nuanced emotional subtext through which the novel’s events are filtered, is rather reminiscent of the writing of Swedish crime novelist Karin Alvtegen, though 3DN has rather more grit and brutality than do those of Alvtegen’s novels with which I’m familiar. I might have wished for a slightly less busy plot, all up, but the interpersonal dynamics are well-drawn, the background research seems solid, and the tension is nicely ratcheted without ever truly going into overdrive. It’s a highly promising start to what looks like an intriguing series.