Book review: Call Me Princess by Sara Blædel

25 07 2017

Sara Blædel is a Danish crime novelist with experience in journalism and publishing, best known for her award-winning series of novels featuring Detective Inspector Louise Rick.

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Call Me Princess (Kald mig prinsesse, 2005, translated by Erik J Macki and Tara F Chace), also published in the UK as Blue Blood, is the second of Blædel’s Louise Rick novels and the first of the half-dozen which have thus far seen English translation. (It’s also the first book I’ve experienced as an audiobook, which went somewhat more straightforwardly than I’d anticipated.)

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When a romantic encounter with a man met through online dating goes wrong, Susanne Hansson becomes the victim of a savage rape. DI Rick is assigned Hansson’s case, but struggles to make headway against the psychological trauma which Susanne experiences following the attack. The assailant has taken particular care to avoid leaving anything which might constitute forensic evidence, and all that Rick and her team have to go on is a very vague description of a young man whom Hansson would very much wish to forget. But when a second, similar attack occurs a few days later, with fatal consequences, it underscores the urgency of identifying and apprehending the rapist before any more women suffer at his hands.

The book’s subject matter is clearly emotionally charged, and this intensity comes through starkly in Blædel’s spare and insightful prose. There’s an admirable depth to the characterisation of the flawed but empathetic Rick, who identifies strongly with Hansson’s vulnerability following the attack, and there’s sufficient variety to the identities of the supporting cast, and sufficient exploration of the main characters’ home lives, that the book’s telling of the investigation feels credible and thorough, with a disturbing degree of gritty detail in the descriptions of sexual assault and its physical, psychological, and social aftermath. There is, almost inevitably, an aspect of needless in-harm’s-wayism in the direction Rick takes to solve the case, but this is plausibly accounted for in the minutiae of the investigation, and the book never sashays into sensationalism or overreach. It’s notable, also, that for a book first published over a decade ago, its description of the online dating environment still feels current: almost the only thing that dates it is a reference to the poor quality of images generally obtained from mobile phones.

This is a tense, moderate, and quite deeply moving police procedural, well-constructed and vividly written, and Rick is an interesting character well worth encountering again.





Book review: Lotus Blue, by Cat Sparks

21 07 2017

Cat Sparks is an Australian speculative fiction writer, editor, graphic designer and publisher whose short fiction has won numerous Aurealis and Ditmar awards, and whose Agog! anthologies (as editor and publisher) remain an important representation of Australian specfic writing of the previous decade. Lotus Blue is her debut novel.

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Star is a seventeen-year-old orphan travelling the Sand Road with her older sister, medic Nene, on the motorised caravan of Benhadeer. It’s a trek they’ve done often enough before, trading at the various settlements they pass through, but the journey this time takes an unexpected turn when an Angel—an old-tech combat satellite—crashes to earth not far from their route. The satellite’s re-entry is not in itself exceptional, there are thought to be hundreds of such Angels remaining in orbit, and they do occasionally fall through accident or misadventure, but a cascade of such events and the onset of some truly apocalyptic weather—semiautonomous ‘polyp storms’ which shred pretty much everything in their path—signals that something disturbing and potentially catastrophic is underfoot. There are rumours that a Lotus Blue, an ancient war machine of legendarily overwhelming power, has awoken somewhere out beyond the Obsidian Sea, beneath the desert sands of the Dead Red Heart.

Sparks’ vision of a far-future Australia ravaged by long-past global wars and by ongoing environmental degredation is a grim but surprisingly colourful exercise in post-apocalyptic fiction. The caravan’s bustle and the impressive detail in Sparks’ worldbuilding is captured in muscular prose that pulses from one confrontation or crisis to the next. This is a world in which Sparks has been writing for at least the past decade (there are several of her short stories published over that span which clearly reference the tech and the future geography on display here), and it shows—there’s an assuredness to the descriptions of place, lifestyle, and attitude that greatly promotes suspension of disbelief. It helps, too, that so many of the characters are sufficiently complex to encourage reader engagement and immersion.

I’m not particularly well-read in post-apocalyptic fiction, so there are almost certainly closer subgenre references that I’m missing, but it seems to me that, despite the numerous SF trappings, Lotus Blue hews closer in structure to orthodox quest fantasy than to straightforward SF. (I have difficulty, too, in reconciling some of the more out-there props, such as the polyp storm, with SF credibility, but the whole thing moves along so swiftly that such concerns don’t really derail it.) The book has an endearingly busy grittiness to it, rather similar in tone, structure, and degree of detail to Richard Morgan’s fantasy work, though Sparks’ characters are distinctly less potty-mouthed than are Morgan’s.

Overall, it’s an inventive and kinetic piece of post-apocalyptic fiction, with the first half in particular dazzling in its scope and variety. In the second half, the winnowing of viewpoint characters accelerates the pace but doesn’t, I think, show off the worldbuilding in quite such a splendid rush. (This is, in part, a consequence of the geography, with the action shifting into regions progressively more arid, more austere, less populated.) Nonetheless, the story arc is satisfying and complete in itself, and the book closes with just enough questions to leave the reader wondering what happens next.





Book review: The Gingerbread House, by Carin Gerhardsen

20 07 2017

Carin Gerhardsen is a Swedish crime novelist and former mathematician and IT consultant, best known for her ‘Hammarby series’ of murder mysteries set in the Stockholm suburb of that name and featuring Detective Chief Inspector Conny Sjöberg. The series now stands at eight books in the original Swedish (and, I think, in German translation); currently only the first three have been translated into English.

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The Gingerbread House (Pepparkakshuset, 2008, translated by Paul Norlen) marks the first instalment in the Hammarby series. It opens with a carefully-etched depiction of childhood cruelty and segues into a brutal murder which, from the outset, is plainly retributive. Sjöberg and his team begin the investigation with no connection apparent between the victim and the site of the assault, and no apparent motive for the slaying of someone undemonstrably successful and lacking in known enemies. Over the next fortnight, three more deadly attacks occur, by various methods and scattered around central Sweden, but they are not immediately connected by the police to the initial slaying of Hans Vannerberg. (That connection is made, for the reader, by the inclusion of the killer’s diary which establishes the common motive for the assaults.)

I enjoyed the characterisation in The Gingerbread House. The principal viewpoint characters employed are senior officer Sjöberg, junior team member Petra Westman, and the murderer. Conny Sjöberg would appear to be a rarity in Scandinavian crime fiction—a happily married police officer—but there’s enough complexity to his character to ensure his is an interesting perspective, as too is Westman’s. The murderer’s diary entries, while providing an undeniably hard edge to what could otherwise be a tidy police procedural, actually have the effect of slowing the story somewhat, and I felt while reading that this material could either have been abridged or excised completely—we alreday know, from the outset, why the murders are occurring. Having finished the book, I think I see the reason for their inclusion.

Gerhardsen’s writing is evocative and engaging, with considerable emphasis placed on portraying the murderer as a tragic figure whose motivation is understandable, almost inescapable. In tone, the book has certain similarities to the work of Norwegian crime novelist Karin Fossum—DCI Sjöberg could well be Fossum’s Konrad Sejer with a happier homelife—and also Karin Alvtegen, for whom the psychology of the perpetrator is a primary focus. There is, in fact, an intriguing connection between The Gingerbread House (2008) and Alvtegen’s Shadow (2007), with both books relaying an identical anecdote involving the dilemma faced by a woman seeking to gain boat passage across a crocodile-infested river to visit her boyfriend. In each case, the anecdote, relayed at a social gathering, is presented as an ethics test designed to provide an insight into the psychological makeup of principal characters. (A bit of Google-based research will show that the anecdote in question is fairly widely known in social-science circles as ‘The Alligator River Story’, which asks the participant to rate the behaviour of the five characters in the story from best to worst.) I suspect the inclusion of the anecdote in both books is more an example of convergent evolution than of anything more sinister—given the evident interest of both Gerhardsen and Alvtegen in the detailed exploration of criminal psychology and the backstory to criminality, it’s understandable that the same widely-known ethics exercise might find its way into two different stories, but it does give the reader momentary pause on encountering it in a second book.

This is, overall, a promising first instalment to what would seem to be an interesting series, and one of which I hope we see more in English translation than merely the three books currently available.





Matters up for review

18 07 2017

First, a quick reminder that Peggy Bright Books is continuing to offer free review e-copies of Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body and of Edwina Harvey’s An Eclectic Collection of Stuff and Things …

which observation segues nimbly into an anouncement that a review of Matters Arising has been reviewed by tireless book-blogger (and author and editor) Tsana Dolichva. The complete review is now up at Tsana’s Reads and Reviews, but I’ll quote a brief sample here:

‘I highly recommend Matters Arising From the Identification of the Body to fans of science fiction and mystery/crime stories.’

In other publication-related news, my not-exactly-serious SF flash fiction piece ‘Good Intentions’ has been accepted by AntipodeanSF and will appear in issue 232 (November 2017).

In other other news, I’m currently reading Cat Sparks’ Lotus Blue, and it is marvellous. More details when I review it.





Book review: The Ninth Grave, by Stefan Ahnhem

17 07 2017

Stefan Ahnhem is a Swedish crime fiction writer with a background in screenwriting, having produced several screenplays for Scandinavian film and TV adaptations of the works of writers such as Karin Fossum and Henning Mankell. His own crime fiction novels, featuring investigator Fabian Risk, have been shortlisted for several European awards, and he has won Sweden’s Crimetime Specsavers Award and Germany’s MIMI Award.

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The Ninth Grave (Den Nionde Graven, 2015, translated by Paul Norlen) starts with a gruesome surgical intervention, the disappearance of the Swedish justice minister, and a vicious home invasion in the home of a Danish TV host. Fabian Risk is brought in, alongside his supervisor Edelman, as a police representative in a preliminary meeting with officers from SäPo, the Swedish Security Service, to apprise them of the politician’s disappearance. Risk and Edelman are left in no doubt that it’s merely a courtesy briefing, and that police involvement in the case is not sought, but Edelman subsequently decides, for obscure motives, to direct Risk to run his own parallel investigation while not doing anything to alert SäPo’s attention. Evolving in parallel, the Danish investigation involves detective Dunja Hougaard  and other members of the Copenhagen police force’s homicide unit, who quickly learn that they are dealing with a double murder. The Swedish and Danish crime trails appear not to connect, but it becomes independently apparent to both Risk and Hougaard, as the body count grows, that something very strange is happening …

I have mixed feelings about this novel. The characterisation is effective and broadly plausible, the viewpoint characters (principally Risk, Hougaard, and Risk’s heavily-pregnant colleague Malin Rehnberg) are well fleshed out with engaging, relatable, and not exactly untroubled home lives—thus providing the basis for the social commentary typical of Scandinavian crime fiction—and the plot has been intricately crafted, seemingly with accurate attention to detail. And yet … it’s all a bit too full-on, in some respects. There’s a fair bit of unnecessary in-harm’s-waying on the part of the investigating officers, a bit too much gonzo zeal displayed those responsible for the crimes … it all hangs together, it has a pleasing logical consistency to it, and yet it doesn’t entirely convince, because it’s too much the bloodbath. It’s a pity—I feel as though there’s a good story here, told well, but I just wish Ahnhem hadn’t turned it up to 11 to tell it.





Book review: The Big Jump, by Leigh Brackett

15 07 2017

Leigh Brackett was an American novelist and screenwriter, whose movie credits include The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and The Empire Strikes Back (although her ultimate influence on the latter screenplay, revised after her death in 1978, remains contentious). A noted SF writer herself (at at time when women were notably underrepresented amongst SF novelists), she was married to fellow SF notable Edmond Hamilton and collaborated with (among others) William Faulkner and Ray Bradbury.

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In Brackett’s short novel The Big Jump, first published in 1955, Arch Comyn strives to uncover the truth behind mankind’s technically-successful-yet-unfortunately-fatal first jump through hyperspace, after he breaks into a heavily-guarded hospital on Mars to hear the dying words of Ballantyne, the flight’s last surviving crewmember. Comyn finds a mystery; he finds trouble; he finds Sydna, the femme-fatalesque dranddaughter of tycoon Jonas Cochrane, the entrepreneur who bankrolled the first ‘jump’ mission. Comyn also finds an unnerving indication of something life-transcending, something sinister that waits on the planet around Barnard’s Star to which the first mission travelled, and where his childhood friend Paul Rogers ostensibly met his death. Given the dangers exposed by the mission, it’s out of the question that a follow-up should even be countenanced; given human greed and the lure of the distant planet’s wealth of transuranic ores, it’s inevitable that a second mission will occur. Readers will presumably not be too surprised to learn that Comyn succeeds in getting a berth on that mission …

It would be an exceptional work of space opera which, after six decades, managed not to appear dated in any fashion, and The Big Jump could not be called exceptional. It’s very much a product of its time, with social attitudes steeped in the hard-drinking, guns-and-fisticuffs approach to problem-solving typical of the era’s male-oriented genre fiction. There’s a lot of emoting, a lot of posturing, a lot of chauvinism inherent in the treatment and depiction of female characters (who are rather thin on the ground). This may well be an indication of the type of hoops which female SF writers of the time were forced to jump through—one wonders how many of Brackett’s readers would have known she was female—but it is something that dates the text by today’s standards. Moving beyond this, though, the story does make a reasonable fist of its scientific content: while there’s a little too much handwavium in the treatment of interplanetary and interstellar travel for the book to qualify as hard SF, it’s reasonably well-informed on the rudiments of the periodic table, and its extrapolations on the biochemistry of the transuranic elements are intriguing if distinctly fanciful. If the reader is not too averse to some sometimes highly purpled prose—and fifties SF arguably did pulpy purple prose better than anyone else—then this is an interesting and sometimes even thought-provoking encapsulation of the genre in which one can see, for example, prescient echoes of characters such as Star Trek‘s James T Kirk and Star Wars’ Han Solo.





Book review: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, by Peter Høeg

11 07 2017

Peter Høeg is an award-winning Danish author whose eight books to date, written in a variety of literary styles, have appeared across a thirty-year span.

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In Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (Froken Smillas Fornemelse for Sne, 1992, translated by F David), known in the US and in an associated movie production as Smilla’s Sense of Snow, the titular Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen is an acerbic and gifted loner, of mixed Danish and Greenlandic heritage, who cannot determine exactly where, if anywhere, she fits within society and has therefore made a habit of excluding herself from it as much as possible. Isaiah, the young son of Smilla’s alcoholic neighbour Juliette, has been an exception, begrudgingly allowed into Smilla’s solitude, but when Isaiah falls to his death from the snow-covered rooftop of the apartment building in which they live, Smilla is spurred into action by the inadequacy of a cursory police investigation which soon determines Isaiah’s death to be a suicide. Smilla is convinced there is something much more sinister involved.

It’s difficult to reliably characterise MSFfS, which often seems to be heading in so many directions at once that it’s unsettlingly kaleidoscopic. In a plot that references (among many other things) jazz, ice-fishing, tropical parasitology, accounting practices, industrial espionage, navigation, the extinction of the dinosaurs and the correct form of artificial lighting for the photography of snow, Høeg also finds space for a steady undercurrent of black humour. Much of this is conveyed through Smilla’s voice, or her unvoiced thoughts: first-person-present-tense can be a difficult style in which to relate a tale effectively, but Smilla’s character is sufficiently well-versed in a breadth of subject matter, so strongly individual and innately rebellious that her viewpoint frequently surprises. An example from the text may illustrate this better than any analysis I might offer:

“I hate lies,” I say. “If any lying has to be done, I’ll do it myself.”
“Then you should have told him that. Instead of hugging him.”
I can’t believe my ears, but I see that I’ve heard correctly. In his eyes there is the gleam of pure, unadulterated, idiotic jealousy.
“I didn’t hug him,” I say. “I helped him into his coat. For three reasons. First, because it’s a courtesy you ought to show towards a fragile, elderly man. Second, because he presumably risked his position and pension to come here.”
“And the third?”
“Third,” I say, “because it gave me the chance to steal his wallet.”

This conveys, I hope, a sense of the book’s flavour, though it’s just one small facet of an unusually complicated tale. The prose is finely chiselled, patient, playful. I felt in a couple of places that Høeg’s set-pieces were slightly overwrought—Smilla gets away with a lot, largely on moxie, the curiosity of her opponents, and hellish good luck—but overall this is a quite beautifully rewarding book, busy with invention, full of delicate detail; a book that is best read slowly. (I started and finished several other titles in the time taken to percolate my way through MSFfS.) It’s rare, I think, to find a single book which so encapsulates a complicated protagonist that the telling is utterly complete in itself, and yet leaves so much around the margins that the world is seen to be much larger than the tale it contains—it’s a trick managed, I think, in The Summer Book, and also in Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite, two books which otherwise have almost nothing in common with it or with each otherbut this is true of Smilla too, while also toeing a fine line in narrative indeterminacy. It’s one of my favourite reads of the year to date.