Book review: Bad Intentions, by Karin Fossum

19 06 2017

Karin Fossum is a Norwegian crime novelist, most widely known (in English translation, at least) for her series of novels featuring the widowed Inspector Konrad Sejer. I’ve previously reviewed other books in this series here and here.


Bad Intentions (Den onde viljen, 2008, translated by Charlotte Barslund) is nominally the ninth in Fossum’s ‘Inspector Sejer’ series, but it seems only peripherally to concern itself with Sejer per se, who gets point-of-view priority in only a handful of chapters. Instead, the narrative is most closely concerned with the mindset of Philip Reilly, a drug-addicted young hospital porter and sidekick to amoral, overconfident alpha male Axel Frimann, following the drowning of Reilly’s and Frimann’s troubled friend Jon Moreno in a late-night boating accident on a small lake. Frimann decides it’s too much bother to report the accident accurately, and persuades Reilly to conspire with him on a version of events which omits any mention of the three of them in the small rowboat and instead has Moreno suicidal and intent on drowning himself. It’s an act Frimann can carry off without qualms, but Reilly has a more difficult time of it, and is wracked with a worse sense of guilt than he carried before the accident. Moreno’s girlfriend, mother, and psychiatrist all know something is wrong with the story Frimann and Reilly present, as do the police, but there seems no way of knowing what dark secret the three men had held before Jon’s death … until another body turns up.

While I would have liked to see more of Sejer in this novel, I can’t really fault Fossum for the psychological depth of Reilly’s portrayal, nor of the other principal characters in this work. Fossum’s background in institutional work and in drug-addict rehabilitation shows through in her handling of Jon Moreno’s mental-health issues, though I couldn’t help but feel that the character of Hanna Wigert, Jon’s psychiatrist, was a fairly close copy of Dr Sara Struel, the psychiatrist in Fossum’s earlier novel He Who Fears The Wolf, even down to the discussion, with Sejer, of the importance of props such as dolls and toys as a means of encouraging inpatients to open up about deep-seated anxieties they might be experiencing. In other aspects, though, Bad Intentions is a satisfyingly different story than the others of the Sejer series with which I’m familiar. And Fossum’s characterisation and subtly subversive plotting is always a strength of her work, which darkens so gently and with so little fuss that one doesn’t notice, until it’s too late, the depths to which the reader has descended …

Book review: Crossroads of Canopy, by Thoraiya Dyer

13 06 2017

Thoraiya Dyer is a Sydney-based speculative fiction writer whose short fiction has thus far won four Aurealis Awards and three Ditmar Awards. Her previous publications include the short fiction collection Asymmetry and the novella The Company Articles of Edward Teach.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should state that I’ve edited (or co-edited) two of Thoraiya’s stories: her novella ‘The Bird, the Bees, and the Thylacine’ in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine issue 51 and her short story ‘Faet’s Fire’ in Light Touch Paper Stand Clear, co-edited with Edwina Harvey. I also consider her a friend. I’ll endeavour, nonetheless, to offer an unbiased assessment of the work reviewed here.


Crossroads of Canopy is Dyer’s first published novel, and the first of the ‘Titan’s Forest’ trilogy. It’s a work of high fantasy set within a complex and fully-arboreal society in which some individuals are born to godhood and some eke out the most abject existence, trapped within the caste-niches of (predominantly upper-class) Canopy, muddling Understorey, and struggling Floor, where the layers each span (as I read it) a good several hundred metres. Travel between the layers is magically restricted, but it is always possible to fall … often, to one’s death.

Unar’s baby sister Isin has fallen. The tragedy affects her damaged, difficult family in several ways; it causes the preteen Unar to seek sanctuary in service to her region’s aging goddess Audblayin, the goddess of new growth. Unar’s ambition, to reach fruition when Audblayin is reincarnated as a baby boy (for she has been female for the last three incarnations), is to serve as the young god’s bodyguard, a role always given to one of the opposite gender to the deity. In the meantime, Unar will bide her time as a gardener, one of several for the kingdom’s sacred garden. But service requires adherence to the rules, and blind obedience is not one of Unar’s strengths: her tendency is to act when she witnesses injustice … and Canopy is riven with injustice. Unar’s friends and fellow gardeners, Oos and Aoun, can more-or-less subjugate their scruples to the demands of the deity, but Unar cannot, and the breach that forms between herself and her friends is a deep one. Circumstances force her hand, and she finds herself flung into the mysterious and dangerous realm of Understorey, thirsting to return to the sunlit heights but knowing she cannot abide the societal strictures that hold sway there. And all the time, the quest to learn what she can of her fallen baby sister’s fate burns like a furnace within her …

I’ve made this sound as though it’s a work with few characters, but that’s not a true representation at all. The book is busy with the interactions, arguments, conflicts and cooperations of many individuals, and the several principals (though events are always viewed through Unar’s eyes) are strongly differentiated and fully three-dimensional. There’s a lot of detail, too, to the worldbuilding; though I never felt entirely sure how magically tall these trees were, it was obvious that they’re immense, both verdant and vertigo-inducing (just because you cannot see the ground does not mean it won’t kill you if you fall). And there’s considerable fantastic invention, both in terms of the methods used for moving from tree to tree at dizzying heights and in terms of the varieties, complexities, limitations and costs of magic, all of which is conveyed in Dyer’s richly descriptive and strongly evocative language.

It’s an unusual setting: there are some tangential and presumably unintentional commonalities with Mary Victoria’s similarly arboreal fantasy trilogy ‘The Chronicles of the Tree’, but Dyer’s world is its own thing, and it’s quite enthralling. I look forward to the subsequent instalments.

Book review: The Mars Girl, by Joe Haldeman / As Big As The Ritz, by Gregory Benford

4 06 2017

This is a review of two SF novellas, published tête-bêche (i.e., back-to-back) in the style of the old Ace Doubles. (My own experience of tête-bêche typesetting—on Flight 404 / The Hunt for Red Leicester—is that it’s simpler to set the longer work ‘right-side-up and right-way-around’ and the shorter work ‘upside-down and back-to-front’ and, indeed, this is the way it’s done here, so Haldeman is nominally first cab off the rank.)

Joe Haldeman is an American SF writer, and veteran of the Vietnam War, whose fiction has won numerous awards, including multiple Hugo and Nebula awards. His best-known work is probably The Forever War.


In The Mars Girl, Carmen Dula is a teenager who has newly arrived, with her parents and brother, at the fledgling Martian base, part of a conscious push to shift the demographic of the slowly-growing human colony on Mars to something more genuinely representative of Earth. Carmen has brilliant parents—she wouldn’t be on Mars with her family if she didn’t—and Carmen herself is quite accomplished, though not everyone in the base is appreciative of her skills. She’s unfairly cast as as a troublemaker by the base’s administrator, Dargo Solingen, who doesn’t believe Mars is any place for children. For her part, Carmen doesn’t believe Mars is any place for fuddy-duddy administrators like Dargo, and she accordingly brings her full powers of teenage rebelliousness into action against the base’s seemingly arbitrary and unfair regulations. All well and good, until a (strongly forbidden) solo nighttime ramble in her Mars suit lands her in deadly danger …

While there were elements to the storyline of Haldeman’s novella that I found unsatisfying (there’s a significant plot twist almost halfway through that substantially alters the direction of the story, in a way I would personally have avoided), it has a lot of credible detail in the worldbuilding of the Mars base, and Carmen is a plausible and relatable narrator. The story hangs together despite, at times, feeling like a weirdly-spliced hybrid of two quite dissimilar themes, with clear tones of near-future space exploration jammed up against (to my mind, misplaced) elements of golden-age SF.

Gregory Benford is an American SF writer and astrophysicist whose work—principally hard SF—has received numerous awards including the Nebula Award, the John W Campbell Memorial Award, and the Asimov Prize.


In As Big As The Ritz, Clayton Donner is the son of asteroid belt prospectors, sent to Earth to finish his education. Pursuing a major in astrophysics, he takes up with Sylvia, the daughter of Dr Rollan, a reclusive magnate whose own asteroid-mining operation, involving a large habitat (known as ‘The Hoop’, a sort of mini-Ringworld orbiting a small captive black hole) in which he conducts his own social-engineering experiment. Rollan’s ‘Brotherland’ is populated (with the sole exception of Rollan himself, and any infrequent visitors) by a large number of male and female clones fashioned from a genotype specifically chosen for its docility and unexceptionality. Clayton has adopted the subterfuge that he is interested in the habitat for his sociology (he is pursuing a social-science minor), and is keeping his expertise in astrophysics tightly under wraps: Rollan guards his technical secrets zealously. The submerged tension between Clayton, Rollan, and Sylvia (who’s also ignorant of her boyfriend’s true interests in her family) provides the requisite clash of personalities while Benford shows off his worldbuilding.

Beyond the commonality of protagonist initials and the categorisability of both novellas as, after a fashion, coming-of-age stories, there’s no particularly apparent thematic connection between the two works. Haldeman’s protagonist is distinctly more likeable than Benford’s: Clayton Donner is a bit of a piece of work, while Carmen Dula’s principal character flaw is impetuosity and a tendency to get in over her depth. While both novellas are definitely interesting, as much for their worldbuilding as for their characterisation, I found ABATR somewhat more rewarding than TMG, both for the ingenuity of the setting and for the concealed problem inherent in ABATR‘s resolution.

Book review: Final Curtain, by Kjersti Scheen

31 05 2017

Kjersti Scheen is a Norwegian journalist, illustrator, and author. She has won several national literary awards for her children’s fiction. She’s also achieved some success as a crime fiction writer, with at least five novels featuring private detective (and former actor, former police officer) Margaret Moss, though only one of these appears to have seen translation into English.


Final Curtain (Teppefall, 1994, translated by Louis Muinzer) bears no apparent relation to Ngaio Marsh’s novel of the same name, though both revolve around actors, infidelity, and murder. It’s the first of the Margaret Moss novels, in which Margaret is hired by her friend Rosa to investigate the disappearance of Rosa’s sister Rakel, an actor of some acclaim, on a train journey between Oslo and Bergen. There’s no motive discernible for Rakel’s disappearance, nor anything substantial by way of clues, so Margaret simply starts out by interviewing those of her acquaintances who have also known Rakel. But it’s not until her life is threatened that Margaret realises she may indeed be onto something …

The writing is staccato and rather choppy. I’m not sure how much of this is authorial style and how much might represent infidelities in the translation: I did find it notable that several of the characters were not consistently named. Georg is occasionally George, Karlsen is sometimes Karlesen, Rosa is Rose in some circumstances, and Cecelie makes at least one appearance as Cecilia, all of which does leave one wondering how much of the rest of the text is reliable. (Of course, Scheen wouldn’t be the first author to not be sure how her characters’ names were spelt, and I must concede some uncertainty, in my mid-20s, as to the spelling of my own middle name …) But though the prose sometimes muddles through in much the same way that Margaret muddles through the process of detection, the story does have enough of a pulse to it, particularly once it hits the second half, that the reader’s interest is maintained. And Margaret is an interesting character in her own right: there are the almost-obligatory problems with alcohol, but her relationship with her teenage daughter is well-drawn, her past is plausibly cluttered, her love life is haphazard and a trifle reckless, her dependence on a car and a dwelling that are each in significant need of repair causes problems and frustrations which add, in subtle ways, to the difficulty of her case as well as, on occasion, providing opportunities for understated humour. (I’m also inclined to view favourably any detective who sports a Moomin lapel badge: Moss’s is of ‘the little chap in a pointed cap who likes to travel’.)

The cover of the edition I read makes a direct comparison between Scheen’s writing and that of fellow Norwegian crime novelist Pernille Rygg: it’s an appropriate analogy, given the quirky characterisation (and unnecessary risk-taking by amateur-sleuth protagonists) in the works of both writers, though Rygg’s Igi Heitmann is a rather more cerebral creation than Scheen’s Margaret Moss, who seems to operate almost purely on instinct (and an aptitude for the lucky break just when she needs it most).

Ultimately, the explanation for Rakel’s disappearance is sufficiently involved, sufficiently unpredictable, and sufficiently plausible to justify the novel’s length, and Moss is a sufficiently intriguing character that it would be good to see rather more of her in English translation than just this one book.

Book review: The Scent of Almonds and other stories, by Camilla Läckberg

29 05 2017

Camilla Läckberg is a Swedish crime writer whose novels, set in and around the fishing villa of Fjällbacka and featuring the investigative duo of Erica Falck (writer) and Patrik Hedström (police officer), have become one of the country’s most successful fictional exports. I’ve previously reviewed Läckberg’s first novel, The Ice Princess, here.


The Scent of Almonds and other stories (Mord och mandeldoft, 2013, translated by Tiina Nunnally) is built, as its title hints, around Läckberg’s novella The Scent of Almonds, to which three much shorter stories have been appended so as to yield a slightly less slim volume.

In the title novella, police officer Martin Molin (a colleague of Patrik Hedström) is trapped for a storm-wracked weekend in a boutique resort on an island off the mainland. It’s a weekend from hell, spent with the family from hell: not his own, but that of Lisette Liljecrona, to whom he has rather unwittingly found himself classed as ‘boyfriend’. The family dynamics are so appallingly awful that it’s almost a relief when wealthy patriarch Ruben, Lisette’s grandfather, is fatally poisoned during dinner—at least now Martin has a role to fall back on, that of investigating officer, to distance himself from the argumentative clan. But Martin is a reluctant Poirot, who lacks the ability to secure the crime scene, to dust for fingerprints, or to communicate with his superiors; how will he pinpoint the murderer?

The novella has a distinctly old-fashioned feel about it, which is not solely due to the isolated setting and the lack of cellphone reception: the range of possible suspects are introduced in the opening scenes, and it rolls from there, in a story that seems to channel both Conan Doyle and Christie. Läckberg revels in her descriptions of the storm’s severity and in her depictions of the Liljecrona family’s utter lack of redeeming features: one almost wants them all to be guilty. Martin isn’t a particularly engaging protagonist (which I think is a conscious decision on the author’s part, so as to provide contrast with the absent Patrik), but the story’s atmosphere more-or-less carries it.

The three short stories are all also rather old-fashioned, in that each one pretty much revolves around a single point or idea—which, I suppose, is the classical definition of the short story form. In ‘An Elegant Death’, heiress Lisbeth has been bashed to death by an unknown assailant in her second-hand clothes shop; in ‘Dreaming of Elisabeth’, Malin’s suspicions of her partner Lars’ behaviour grow with premonitions that she is about to suffer the same fate—drowning at sea—which befell Lars’ first partner Elisabeth; in ‘The Widows’ Café’, Marianne provides a special, and not exactly legal, service for the community’s domestic abuse victims. These stories all fulfil the requirements—the setup, the fulcrum, the twist—and yet they feel too constrained by their artifice: they’re too short to properly unsettle the reader in the manner that Läckberg’s longer fiction can, wherein she can get thoroughly stuck into the genuine horrors of domestic life.

Book review: The Hotel Under the Sand, by Kage Baker

28 05 2017

Kage Baker was an American SF / fantasy author whose work, principally her ‘Company’ series of time-travel novels, was shortlisted for Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, and won the Theodore Sturgeon Award and (posthumously) the Nebula.


The Hotel Under the Sand is a short novel, primarily for children, that describes the adventures of castaway orphan Emma following her discovery of the fabled time-distorting Grand Wenlocke Hotel, newly re-emerged from the sand dunes beneath which it had been buried in an equinox storm. At first, her only companion is the (friendly) ghost of the hotel’s late Bell Captain, but as the days go on others make their way to the Grand Wenlocke: a cook, a sailor who insists he’s not a pirate, an heir, miscellaneous guests. The adventures that follow are ingenious and not too intense, and the book reaches a measured and satisfying conclusion.

The story seems much more strongly reminiscent of British children’s fiction than of any US tradition with which I’m familiar; the setting and the sense of boisterous whimsy show echoes, I think, of Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark as well as, say, Mervyn Peake’s Captain Slaughterboard. Baker’s worldbuilding is intriguing and sprinkled with random bits of fascinating invention, while her gentle characterisation still admits of human foibles: the central character set feels somewhat restrained, but they’re well fleshed-out.

The book is fairly obviously aimed at a young audience, but it’s sufficiently fast-paced, quirky, and subtle that it also works reasonably well as reading matter for adults. It would have been interesting to see where Baker next took the series, but the book, like its protagonist, is an orphan, alone in its world: Baker died several months after its publication.

Now available for e-delivery throughout the inner solar system …

27 05 2017

Without wishing to be too annoyingly persistent on the subject of The Author’s Latest Work, a quick PSA seems appropriate. The e-book versions (epub, mobi, pdf) of my Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body and Edwina Harvey’s An Eclectic Collection of Stuff and Things are, for a limited time (i.e., up until the launch) available from the Peggy Bright Books website at the discounted price of $1.99AUD each.

Quick PSA ends. You may go about your business. Move along.