Book review: Karate Chop, by Dorthe Nors

23 11 2017

Dorthe Nors is a Danish writer (and former translator of Swedish crime novels) who has been awarded the P O Enqvist Literary Prize and was this year a finalist in the Man Booker International Prize. I’ve previously reviewed her novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal here.


Karate Chop (Kantslag, 2008, translated by Martin Aitken) is a collection of fifteen of Nors’ short stories, previously published in magazines like Harper’s, Boston Review, and The New Yorker. They are pithy, quirky, and often unsettling. There is, overall, less of the situational humour here that I found so appealing in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, but there is the same sense of closely-observed subterfuge, expressed here in a wide variety of scenarios. I’ll highlight a few:

In ‘The Buddhist’, a government official declares himself to be a Buddhist, so as to be a better person, and armed with a resultant sense of moral invulnerability, seeks to misrepresent himself into the position of CEO for a respected charity organisation. It’s whimsical, self-mocking, and sharp-edged.

In the cleverly-symbolic ‘The Big Tomato’, the narrator is working as a cleaner and home help for the wealthy Bangs. When the grocery delivery to their upscale New York apartment includes an unreasonably-large tomato, Mr Bang demands that the grocery send someone to take the tomato back, but the cleaner is the only person in the apartment when the delivery boy calls to collect it.

‘Karate Chop’ itself is a tale of an abusive relationship that is in its portrayal at once disturbingly intimate and clinically detached. Annelise is a special-needs teacher whose insight into human behaviour is not able to protect her from a string of doomed relationships with flawed men such as the bullying Carl Erik, father of one of the boys in her class.

‘Duckling’, one of the shortest pieces in the collection, is a getting-of-wisdom piece that catalogues a young girl’s awareness of the centrality of injustice as revealed through her duck-farmer father’s casual infidelity.

‘Hair Salon’, another vignette, engages principally by virtue of its close observation and offbeat introspection.

In several ways, Nors’ collection is reminiscent of another Scandinavian short-fiction collection I reviewed recently, Knots, by the Norwegian writer Gunnhild Øyehaug. Both of them are filled with acerbic, concise stories edged with absurdity and with a cynicism for human motives. Nors’ fiction is, I would say, less barbed, more polished, less allegorical, though there is certainly some common ground.

Ultimately, I didn’t find Karate Chop quite as fulfilling as her Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, but it nonetheless contains some wonderful short-story writing, which I can certainly recommend to students of the form.


Book review: Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

19 11 2017

Seanan McGuire is a prolific US speculative fiction writer who’s achieved considerable prominence in the subgenres of urban fantasy, YA, and horror. She is the first author ever to have received five Hugo nominations in the one year (2013); two of those were under the pen name Mira Grant which she has used for her ‘Newsflesh’ thriller / zombie series. She has won numerous awards including the John W Campbell, the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Pegasus, and has been shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award.


Every Heart A Doorway is the first volume in McGuire’s ‘Wayward Children’ novella series, and centres on events unfolding at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children in the wake of seventeen-year-old Nancy’s arrival. It reads like a Twin Peaks / YA mashup of Hogwarts, Roke Island, and the Narnia magic portal idea: the Home’s (predominantly female) teenage charges are all veterans of accidental Otherland travel, having previously found portals into a spectrum of magically chaotic or highly ritualistic realms from which they’ve subsequently been expelled, estranged, or otherwise dispatched, and they are often desperate to find a way back to their particular adoptive homelands. In many cases, the hidden doors to such wonderlands remain irrevocably closed, but Miss Eleanor’s boarding school is a much more palatable ‘halfway house’ for them than their own misunderstanding families.

Nancy has been sent back from the Halls of the Dead, where she acquired the skills of silence and stillness, and a taste for pomegranates and black-and-white attire. In a school full of those who don’t fit neatly into society—think of a school populated entirely by Moomin characters in teenage human form, and you’ll get some idea—Nancy is instantly an introverted outlier, but she’s thrown together with exuberant roommate Sumi, chalk-and-cheese twin sisters Jack and Jill, and boy-whose-parents-desperately-wanted-a-girl Kade, and slowly starts accommodating herself to the particularities of Miss Eleanor’s tutelage.

The characterisation in Every Heart is impressively vivid and individualistic, and Nancy is a very sympathetic protagonist despite her aloofness and death-obsession. Although she is the novella’s clear mainstay, there’s ample depth and shade provided to ensure that those around her, too, are very clearly drawn … which adds to the impact once the gruesome deaths commence. The murderer can realistically only be one of their number, but which of them has any motive for the death and dismemberment visited upon the victims? Suspicion naturally falls on morbid new girl Nancy and those closest to her: she knows she didn’t do these things, but will anybody believe her?

The worldbuilding is also very engaging. Miss Eleanor classifies realms along axes of Nonsense and Logic; Virtue and Wickedness; Rhyme, Whimsy, and whatnot, and though this cartography is never explicitly depicted anywhere, it makes perfect taxonomic sense within the novella’s construction. The undeniable strength of the story, though, is in the sympathetic depiction of the highly variegated cast of students, many of whom achieve memorability within the book’s comparatively compact frame.

Book review: Whiteout, by Ragnar Jónasson

16 11 2017

Ragnar Jónasson is an Icelandic lawyer, university lecturer, TV journalist and crime fiction writer with eight books to his name, five of which (the ‘Dark Iceland’ series featuring young police officer Ari Thór Arason) have been translated into English. I’ve previously reviewed two of these: Snowblind and Nightblind.


Whiteout (Andköf, 2013, translated by Quentin Bates) is the fourth of the Ari Thór novels (albeit presented in English translation only after the fifth novel, Nightblind). It starts with the fatal cliffside fall of Ásta, a young woman whose mother Seiunn and younger sister Tinna also perished, a couple of decades earlier, at the same Kálfshamarvík cliff. It’s a few days before Christmas; the rocks on the point are slippery; there’s nothing intrinsically suspicious about Ásta’s death, in isolation. But the family history of near-identical tragedies leads the police to believe an investigation is warranted, and Ari Thór’s erstwhile commanding officer Tómas is despatched from Reykjavík to head up the investigation. Faced with personnel shortages in the lead-up to the holidays, Tómas calls on Ari Thór to assist him. The timing’s doubly poor for Ari Thór: not only does the investigation impinge on his upcoming holidays, but he and girlfriend Kristín are imminently expecting their first child. And hopes of a rapid resolution to the case are dashed when clear traces of foul play are unearthed …

There’s a sparseness at the core of Whiteout which is, I think, quintessentially Icelandic. (It is, at least in tone, strongly reminiscent of the work of fellow Icelandic crime novelist Arnaldur Indridason, whose writing often has a similar ‘pared-back’ feel to it.) The setting is isolated and somewhat bleak, the suspect list is short, comprising only elderly brother and sister Óskar and Thóra, wealthy landowner and businessman Reynir, and neighbouring farmer Arnór, the detectives’ methods of inquiry fairly rudimentary. It’s also sufficiently slow that it takes a good long time to get its hooks into the reader. But Ragnar is skilled at evoking personality in characters who are often intrinsically very taciturn and insular, and the setup of three similar deaths, decades apart, becomes steadily more intriguing as the story progresses and as various family skeletons are unearthed. All up, it’s another understated but effective procedural in a very impressive and stylish series.






Book review: The Memoirist, by Neil Williamson

9 11 2017

Neil Williamson is a British speculative fiction writer whose work has been shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award, the British Science Fiction Award, and the World Fantasy Award.


The Memoirist is a novella set in a future England in which surveillance (by miniaturised camera-drones called ‘bees’) has become so pervasive as to almost completely nullify the concept of personal privacy. Its protagonist, Rhian Fitzgerald (‘Fizz’), is a compiler of memoirs (using, for the most part, material in the vast public domain which has arisen from such surveillance) for those who wish to codify, to celebrate, or to whitewash their past achievements. She takes on an assignment for Elodie Eagles, the frontperson for controversial and long-disbanded electrorock outfit The HitMEBritneys, whose final, undocumented concert, fifty years past, has become the stuff of legends; but when she seeks to obtain background information about this concert, her life is thrown into turmoil. Why are the police so keen to stop her from investigating this particular gig?

Omnipresent surveillance is generally seen as a trope within dystopian fiction—exhibit A, Orwell’s 1984—and yet the world of The Memoirist doesn’t convey as purely dystopian: while there’s much to be unsettled by within Williamson’s posited gamification of social interaction through surveillance, there is also a suggestion of comfortable societal adaptation to such conditions (which, of course, is itself grounds for further unsettlement on the reader’s part). In its blend of social-SF extrapolation and high-concept quantum speculation, it’s rather reminiscent of Greg Egan’s writing, and also rather good. I’m not completely convinced that the trope of ‘mysteriously epochal rock band performance’ (as featured in, for example, Howard Waldrop’s ‘Do Ya, Do Ya Wanna Dance’ and George R R Martin’s The Armageddon Rag) is ever applied with full success in speculative fiction, and The Memoirist doesn’t change my opinion on that score, but it’s nonetheless a detailed, plausible, and intriguing riff on where we could be heading.






Dimension6 annual collection, out now

8 11 2017

The collected fiction from Dimension6‘s issues for 2017 has now been released by coeur de lion publishing, in epub and mobi, for less than one of your Earth dollars. That’s less than the price of … well, something that costs more than one Earth dollar.


The issue features my flying-car-time-travel-dinosaur novelette ‘November 31st is World Peace Day’, as well as nine other stories by more talented writers. All fabulously edited, as always, by Keith Stevenson. Check it out today! (Or, with a time machine, yesterday!)


Book review: Below the Surface, by Leena Lehtolainen

7 11 2017

Leena Lehtolainen is a prolific Finnish crime novelist who has won several awards and has been shortlisted for the Glass Key award. She’s most widely known for her long-running series of ‘Maria Kallio’ police procedurals, of which I’ve previously reviewed Copper Heart and Before I Go.


Below the Surface (Veren vimma, 2003, translated by Owen T Witesman) is the eighth in the Maria Kallio series, and only recently released in English translation. It opens with the execution-style killing of Annukka Hackman, a journalist / biographer whose project at the time of her death was the upcoming unauthorised biography of Finnish rally-driving superstar Sasha Smeds. Those around Smeds and Hackman—his parents, wife, and brother; his manager; her husband, stepdaughter, and jilted lover—certainly have reason enough between them to see the book quashed, or to stop its author from probing further; but who could have committed the act? Maria and her team climb on what seems like an endless merry-go-round of interrogation, analysis, and second-guessing, complicated by internal divisions, divided loyalties, and an accusation of sexual harrassment between those under Lieutenant Kallio’s command.

I’ve been a little slow to warm to Lehtolainen’s series, but I strongly enjoyed this one. There’s a kind of kitchen-sink clutter to the interplay between the daily complications of Maria’s home life (and those of colleagues, witnesses, and suspects) and the imperatives of investigation, similar in some ways to the writing of Henning Mankell (although Kallio is much less of a grumpy bugger than Wallander): Lehtolainen is very good at ‘busying-up’ a story in a way that feels natural and credible. The characters, too, are a strongly-drawn mix of personalities, and the pretext for the murder, while unexpected, is not exactly left-field-unexpected. While I’ve previously felt that her novels have sometimes been too obviously ‘themed’, that isn’t the case with Below the Surface, and I finished the book with a continuing interest in the characters’ varied lives (which, I think, is the mark of a good series novel). All up, this is a solid and intriguing procedural, and I hope we see these translations continuing.

Book review: Welcome to Orphancorp, by Marlee Jane Ward

5 11 2017

Marlee Jane Ward is an Australian speculative fiction writer whose short stories and novellas have been shortlisted for several awards. She’s a winner of the Ditmar Award for Best New Talent, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and the Seizure ‘Viva la Novella’ competition.


Welcome to Orphancorp is the first novella in a trilogy following the travails of Miriiyanan Mahoney, an orphan just seven days away from Age Release the gulag-for-profit franchised servitude of Orphancorp. It’s a visceral, intimate portrayal of a bleak near-future that seems all too plausible.

Mirii is feisty, big-mouthed, and skilled with her hands: she earns credits from the ‘corp for her skills in repairing and repurposing electronics, and perks from her fellow inmates for her abilities as a tattoo artist. She knows the ropes at Orphancorp: she’s been transferred across the country, from House to House, for over a decade—because too long in any one spot could start to get comfortable, and the system is not designed for comfort—but when she arrives at Verity House with just a week to run, all she has to do to secure her release (and avoid transfer to Orphancorp’s brutal older brother, Prisoncorp) is to keep her nose clean. It shouldn’t be a difficult task; and yet, thanks to the troubled renegade Freya’s malevolence, Mirii’s quick-forged attraction to fellow inmate Vu, and the institutionalised bastardry visited on the children by Warden Kyle and by the ‘Aunts’ and ‘Uncles’ who are Verity House’s footsoldiers, it becomes a raw and bruising ordeal.

Ward’s characterisation is vivid, her orphans animated with flawed yet hopeful humanity and the Aunts and Uncles who serve, for the most part, as the villains of the piece are also shown to be victims, of a sort, within a system which is expressly designed not to produce winners. It’s an unsettling and effective piece within which the reader, much like Mirii herself, grabs at uncertain hope wherever it can be found.