Book review: The Night Women, by Sara Blædel

16 01 2018

Sara Blædel is a Danish crime novelist, publisher, and former journalist, best known for her ‘Louise Rick’ series of police procedurals which have enjoyed considerable popularity, for some time, in her native Denmark. Until very recently, only a minority of these have been available in English translation (the first book, Grønt støv (Green Dust), has never been released in English), and the task of the English-language reader is complicated by the different titles given to several of the books in UK versus US editions. I’ve previously reviewed Blædel’s ‘English-language debut’ (i.e., book 2 in the Louise Rick series), Blue Blood / Call Me Princess, here.

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The Night Women (Aldrig mere fri, 2012, translated by Erik J Macki and Tara F Chace), previously published as Farewell to Freedom, is the fourth in the series. (It’s technically the first I’ve read, since my prior encounter with Call Me PrincessBlue Blood was as an audiobook.) Louise is called in as an investigator on the murder of an unidentified woman in Copenhagen’s red light district. There’s speculation that the victim, whose throat has been slashed, may have been a prostitute; it’s subsequently found that she’s an Eastern European woman who has indeed been working the streets, though not out of choice, following her abduction in the Czech Republic and subsequent forced relocation. When other attacks occur in the same vicinity, the police’s determination to catch those responsible becomes more intense, even as other cases deplete their available manpower. Rick and her longstanding journalist friend Camilla Lind investigate various factors around the woman’s murder, to some extent at cross purposes, and it’s only as events threaten to spiral out of control that the true motivation for the spate of attacks becomes apparent.

Blædel’s work fits solidly into the ‘nordic noir’ paradigm of socially-aware crime fiction, and is equally at home with domesticity as with brutality. There’s a strong sense here that her characters, on all sides of the law, have a life and are not merely actors for the purposes of the plot. This, obviously, is one of the requirements of a good procedural, but there is nonetheless a balancing act between maintaining intrigue, conveying topicality, and retaining a reasonable degree of realism. The Night Women does just fine on this score, and the central mystery is sufficiently layered to defy simple second-guessing. This is a well-researched and well-realised crime novel which ends with a thump.

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Book review: Forest of Memory, by Mary Robinette Kowal

13 01 2018

Mary Robinette Kowal is an American SF / fantasy writer, voice actor, and puppeteer. Her work has been nominated for Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards, and she has won the John W Campbell award, and three Hugo awards, for her fiction.

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Forest of Memory is a novella set in a mid-22nd century future so digitally enmeshed that the grid is omnipresent and ever-watchful. So when Authenticity & Capture specialist Katya—who deals, essentially, in the provenance of pre-grid artefacts and digitised memories—experiences disconnection enroute to an important meeting in another town, during a bike ride through an Oregon forest park, it’s an unsettling experience. Particularly because the disconnection has occured simultaneously with—indeed, may even have been initiated by—an enigmatic and seemingly-ruthless deer-hunter. Ambushed, tranquilised, abducted, there’s nothing Katya can manage that will allow her to escape from the mysterious and anonymous figure, and even her efforts to obtain an explanation for whatever he’s doing with the forest’s deer—which apparently requires them to be anaesthetised for an hour or more—are met with confident denial. All she can do is keep watch, and hope that an opportunity for escape, back to the grid’s security, presents itself.

The novella claims to have been typed by Katya on an antique typewriter she has purchased (and which she has in her bike trailer at the time of the encounter with the hunter), and the story therefore contains intentional misspellings, crossings out, and misplaced word spaces. It also doesn’t explain things a reader of the 22nd century would already know, which does mean that some aspects of the story remain obscure. But Katya and her interactions with her eerily-efficient abductor are drawn with admirable clarity, which gives the narrative a sense of grounding that compensates for the absence of detail in some parts of the setting. This is an intriguing, atmospheric piece that indirectly provokes questioning as to how much interconnectedness is desirable, and leaves me keen to check out more of Kowal’s writing.

 





Book review: Wolves in the Dark, by Gunnar Staalesen

11 01 2018

Gunnar Staalesen is a Norwegian crime novelist best known for his long-running series of ‘Varg Veum’ novels, featuring a sporadically heavy-drinking Bergen-based private investigator. The first Veum novel was published in 1979 and Staalesen has now written around twenty titles in the series, though only a minority have yet been translated into English. I’ve previously reviewed one of them, Where Roses Never Die, here.

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Wolves in the Dark (Ingen er så trygg i fare, 2014, translated by Don Bartlett) opens with Veum’s arrest on charges of possession of child pornography. Veum knows himself to be innocent, but the evidence on his computer professes otherwise. And when compromising photographs emerge in which Veum himself features, the police’s conviction that they’ve arrested a significant participant in an international online child porn ring only becomes more substantial. Nonetheless, the PI’s defence lawyer maintains that they should be able to determine whether the offending material has been placed on Veum’s computer by another user, given sufficient time. It’s probably not the smartest move, therefore, for Veum to do a runner when the opportunity suddenly presents itself, but he’s determined to demonstrate his innocence by following the more hands-on approach he’s accustomed to in his investigations. The trouble is that (aside from the slight problem that the police are now scouring the city for him) he presumes that he must have done something over the past few years to have made enemies determined enough to have framed him for one of the most unspeakable categories of crime … and he’s spent an inconvenient proportion of those past few years in an alcoholic haze and has therefore forgotten more than he can remember.

Veum is, at times, a highly frustrating protagonist, but he’s nonetheless a strongly sympathetic character overall: deeply flawed, not always functional, but fiercely determined and unafraid to take risks which, often, he gets away with. The book is dense with complication—it’s a fairly elaborate setup—but there’s enough space, within the interstices of an intricate and quite heavily-populated plot, for sufficient detail in setting and depth of characterisation to satisfy the reader. I did find myself wondering whether the book’s busyness and pace was well-suited to the gravity of the subject matter: I think a slower, more reflective tale might have provided more scope to properly explore what is, after all, a highly fraught (and sadly perenially topical) issue. But that wouldn’t, I think, be Staalesen’s style. Here, he concerns himself with first unravelling and then tying up a myriad of loose ends in a stylish story heavy on intrigue and menace. It’s not, perhaps, the equal of its highly impressive immediate predecessor, Where Roses Never Die, but it’s a rewarding enough addition to the series.





Book review: Shortcuts, Track 1, edited by Marie Hodgkinson

7 01 2018

Shortcuts is an anthologisation of the first six novelettes and novellas released under Paper Road Press’s novella project of the same name. The anthology encompasses some of NZ speculative fiction’s most notable authors. I’ll comment briefly on each story, then do a wrap.

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‘Landfall’, by Tim Jones, is a well-realised climate-dystopia piece that posits a future New Zealand with a ruthless, militarised ‘solution’ to the climate refugee problem. Nasimul, the apparent sole survivor of the deliberate NZ Navy sinking of an overloaded Bangladeshi river ferry off the coast of Auckland, must swim for his life in order to reach shore. Once he makes terra firma, fate decrees that his life depends on the actions of disaffected young Home Guard reservist Donna. This is a gritty, chilling, uncomfortable piece somewhat in the spirit of Greg Egan’s ‘Lost Continent’.

In A C Buchanan’s ‘Bree’s Dinosaur’, Cam is a Vietnamese business student taking an English For Business Purposes course and homestaying with a local couple, Sue and Martin, and their teenage daughter Bree. There’s more than a decade between Cam and Bree, plus a hefty bundle of cultural difference, but Bree’s parents seem to hope that their houseguest can forge a connection with their sometimes-shy, sometimes-abrupt daughter whose time home seems principally to be spent in building a titanosaur in her bedroom. While I’m a big fan of saurian plotlines in general, I found the dinosaur aspect to this story to be something of a hindrance, appearing tacked on to a story which really did not need it. The plot here seems slightly confused, but the characterisation is excellent, strongly immersive and pleasantly detailed.

‘The Last’, by Grant Stone, sees seasoned British rock journo Rachel Mackenzie travel to a backblocks NZ farm to conduct the sole interview that legendarily reclusive singer-songwriter Katherine St John has agreed to offer in connection with her upcoming final album. Rachel has known from the outset of St John’s mysterious past—as an eleven-year-old, Katherine went missing for a week or more in Kent’s Bedgebury Forest during a camping trip with her parents, and was the subject of a major manhunt until she turned up clean, unharmed, and with no recollection of where she had been all that time—but it quickly becomes apparent that the strangeness that surrounded her childhood has taken root, somehow, on the ground of the farm she now calls her home. This is a decidedly eerie tale that draws the reader into its mystery.

In ‘Mika’, by Lee Murray and Piper Mejia, the titular character is an adventurer who’s journeyed from Aotearoa to New York’s Ellis Island in an amphibious vehicle, determined to reach the Las Vegas biotechnology company where, twenty-four years ago, her late father had been working on a gene-therapy treatment for the diabetes that now threatens her pregnant sister Huia. Along the way she acquires as companions a young girl, Bree (no relation to the A C Buchanan character) and a renegade paramedic, Steve. This is a fast-paced, sometimes sketchy story that I felt sought to cram too much in—though I enjoyed the immediacy, the mythological and cultural grace notes, and the crash-through-or-crash enthusiasm, it could probably have benefited from a little more length so as to flesh out its characters and its worldbuilding somewhat more.

In ‘Pocket Wife’, by I K Paterson-Harkness, grandparents Carl and Jenny are half a world away from each other—he’s in Montreal, she’s in Auckland—but they stay connected through their Tinys, miniature simulacra with some kind of optical / neural connection to the brain. So Carl has a miniature Jenny with him, while she has a diminutive Carl. Carl’s infidelity is something he definitely doesn’t want Jenny to know about, but when the little Jenny in his pocket won’t power down and disconnect the way it’s supposed to, it all goes to pot. I couldn’t quite decide how much sympathy to feel for Carl: he is very much a bastard, but it also seems as though he doesn’t manage to do anything right, and that level of failure is always painful to witness. Particularly, one imagines, if you’re his poor always-on spouse.

Octavia Cade’s ‘The Ghost of Matter’ sloshes between pivotal moments in the life and career of physicist Ernest Rutherford. The story’s bookended by the disappearance at sea of his younger brothers Charles and Herbert, in 1886, and by the death, shortly after the birth of her fourth child, of Rutherford’s lone daughter Eileen, in 1930. These events, as much as the struggle to understand the atomic structure hinted at by his laboratory studies, trouble Rutherford across the years, heightened by repeated manifestations—seawater, a girl in a blue dress—that his rational mind cannot account for. Cade is very good at this evocation of the private lives of scientists (I recollect reading her story ‘Eating With Ghosts’ in a recent issue of Asimov’s), and this is an eerily powerful piece with which to close the anthology.

I’ll avoid invidious comparisons in giving a summation on the anthology: the stories, really, are each too different to effectively compare and contrast. The volume does give an effective overview of the range of NZ speculative fiction talent, and for that reason it’s well worth seeking out for those interested. It would also be interesting to see further volumes in the series, though since as I understand it the ‘Shortcuts’ programme is currently in abeyance, that’s probably some distance off.

 

 





Book review: The Arc of the Swallow, by Sissel-Jo Gazan

5 01 2018

Sissel-Jo Gazan is a Danish biologist and author, now living in Germany. She has written two crime novels featuring police officer Søren Marhauge and palaeobiologist Anna Bella Nor, the first of which, The Dinosaur Feather (which I’ve reviewed here) was named Danish Novel of the Decade.

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The Arc of the Swallow (Svalens graf, 2013, translated by Charlotte Barslund) deals, as did its predecessor The Dinosaur Feather, with the suspicious death of an academic at the University of Copenhagen. This time around, the deceased is noted immunologist Kristian Storm, whose research focus upon non-specific effects of vaccines has for several years been a controversial matter. When a colleague finds Storm hanging in his office, the police are quick to assess the death as a suicide; but Marhauge, who has been promoted beyond frontline investigation into an administrative position, becomes convinced that something’s awry.

Gazan’s characters are sometimes distinctly too given to monologuing: there are some very lengthy tracks of verbal exposition, which sometimes too nakedly appear to be taking the form of necessary backstory. Against that, her characterisation is strong, and the mystery presented in Arc is both meticulously constructed (common enough, I suppose, in crime fiction) and intriguingly backgrounded by well-informed scientific speculation (distinctly less common). The story is as much told through the eyes of breast-cancer patient Marie Skov, Storm’s research student, as it is from principal investigator Søren Marhauge’s perspective, and it’s to Gazan’s credit that she makes the work and home life of both characters sufficiently detailed and compelling that there’s never a sense of disappointment in having to switch from one protagonist to the other.

The scientific content of the book bears comment. Its central thesis—that one of the widely-administered vaccines used by the WHO is effective in immunising against the infections it targets, but has undesirable side effects—would at first glance appear to echo the complaints of anti-vaxxers. However, the detail within the storyline, emphasised repeatedly, is that this is best remedied through a better vaccine. To clarify this too much would be to risk spoiling aspects of the mystery, so I’ll simply note that the book does an excellent job of carefully detailing nontrivial immunological concepts in a way that doesn’t detract from the impetus of the story. If you’re in favour of cerebrality in your fiction, it’s worth a read.





Book review: Genrenauts episode 2 (The Absconded Ambassador), by Michael R Underwood

4 01 2018

Michael R Underwood (whose portrait Google unhelpfully pairs with the bio of another, now demised Michael Underwood)

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is a still-living American SF author, publishing manager, and SF podcast co-host. His books include Shield and Crocus, The Younger Gods, and Geekomancy.

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Underwood’s Genrenauts novella series is premised on the conceit that the ‘real world’ (Earth Prime) is metaphysically connected to a number of alternate worlds, in each of which the tropes of a given fiction genre (western, romance, SF, etc.) hold sway, and that travel to these genre worlds is possible—indeed, necessary on occasion, so as to restore ‘balance’ on Earth Prime when a ‘breach’ occurs. As a consequence, each volume (‘episode’) of Genrenauts plays with the literary furniture of its chosen genre. Episode 2, The Absconded Ambassador, deals with SF.

The book’s plot is reasonably straightforward: the Terran ambassador to Ahura-3, a large multi-species space station and trading hub nestled in the ‘space opera’ zone of the SF realm, has apparently been kidnapped, on the eve of the planned signing of an important treaty which would cement peaceful relations between most of the known spacefaring species. A four-person Genrenauts team—essentially, three seasoned professionals and rookie ex-Improv performer Leah Tang—is dispatched from Earth Prime to rescue the ambassador and restore order to the Galaxy. The book’s tone is light, moderately tongue-in-cheek, and reasonably fast-paced; it edges more towards the side of inter-character banter than significant action or high-tension suspense. It’s entertaining, and the trope-acknowledging fourth-wall-breaking is generally amusing, but I felt in some places that its carefully constructed veneer of genericity robbed it of some of the pathos that a more sharply specific work would have had. (On the other hand, that same genericity probably makes the story more accessible to out-of-genre readers, which seems appropriate for the concept behind the series.)





Book review: The Black Path, by Åsa Larsson

1 01 2018

Åsa Larsson is a Swedish crime fiction writer and former tax lawyer. She has twice won the Best Swedish Crime Novel Award and has written approximately a dozen books; she’s best known for her five ‘Rebecka Martinsson’ crime novels, the first two of which, The Savage Altar and The Blood Spilt, I’ve reviewed previously.

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The Black Path (Svart stig, 2006, translated by either (!) Marlaine Delargy (title page) or Laurie Thompson (back cover)) opens with the discovery of a woman’s frozen body in an ice-fishing hut on Torneträsk. The woman is soon identified as Inna Wattrang, a financier for the strongly-performing Kallis Mining concern; she’s been electrocuted and stabbed through the heart. Kiruna police detective Anna-Maria Mella is put in charge of the investigation, and she enlists the help of Rebecka Martinsson (now in self-imposed exile from her position as a Stockholm tax lawyer, following the traumatic events of the preceding two books) to sift through the financial details of Wattrang’s recent past in the hope of finding a motive for her killing. It’s less a Martinsson book than a Mella procedural, but it arguably focusses most closely on the life stories of Inna and of those who, one way or another, are connected to her death.

Larsson works with a lot of viewpoint characters, chops unpredictably between backstory told in present tense (and sometimes first person) and unfolding action told in past tense: this, it has to be said, has every potential to go catastrophically wrong. And yet the writing is superb. Larsson is fully in command of the story, which is gripping from the outset: her ability to drill into the innermost thoughts and motivations of an extremely wide range of characters is astonishingly good, and the ease with which the narrative flicks from introspection to graphic and gritty activity is decidedly disconcerting. It helps, too, that The Black Path‘s scenario is divergent from the previous two books: a third successive novel exploring gruesome murder among the clerics of Northern Sweden would, I think, have typecast the series rather too tightly.

The thing I find most appealing about Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson novels is that they function both as full-blown crime novels and as serious literature which happens to be peppered with unflinching brutality. (It’s a trick reminiscent in some ways of Iain Banks’ work, though their writing styles are very different.) The least appealing thing is the notion that, three books in, I now only have two more Åsa Larsson novels to go (in English translation, at least). If you’re looking for a gateway into Scandinavian crime fiction, this is one of the best.