Book review: Drowned, by Therese Bohman

17 08 2017

Therese Bohman is a Swedish editor, columnist, and author. She has written three novels to date, and her work has been shortlisted for the Nordic Council Literature Prize and the August Prize.


Drowned (Den drunknade, 2010, translated by Marlaine Delargy) is Bohman’s debut novel. Marina, a disaffected student of art theory, is visiting the Swedish-countryside home of her older sister Stella, a public-space gardener, and her author partner Gabriel. The summertime visit is marked by stifling heat and by the evident sexual tension that develops between Marina and the substantially older Gabriel; Stella, who shows no sign of having noticed the intrigue between her partner and her sister, seems brusque and somewhat unwelcoming towards Marina. Then Stella drowns in a nearby lake.

Drowned unfolds slowly; it seems to linger over every observation, obsessed with scent, with feel, with memory. It’s written with a distracting tendency to run-on-sentences, commas used in places a full stop would serve perfectly naturally—and as a writer who (I’m informed) myself tends towards such habits, I might be considered to be more nearly impervious to such distraction than other, more disciplined readers. It is, though, quite wonderfully lyrical, and if you can negotiate past the pacing and the sentence structure, you may just find yourself mesmerised. Marina is an interesting narrator—pensive, intuitive, slightly self-absorbed—and Stella and Gabriel are shown in sporadically intimate detail while remaining innately mysterious. The book is in no hurry to release key information: it’s several pages before we actually learn Marina’s name; a dozen, significantly later in the book, before we learn explicitly of Stella’s death—though by that time we’ve already known, for several pages, merely from the state of her garden, that she’s gone.

A tone that is both vivid and indistinct, that makes no pretense at being able to lay out definitively what has happened, won’t mesh with every reader; it is, in some respects, the antithesis of the crime novel, which at least offers resolution at its close. But it intrigued me, and I think it will stay with me for quite some time.

Book review: Blood Ran Cold, by Sten Ostberg

16 08 2017

Sten Ostberg is a Norwegian journalist and crime fiction writer who has written three novellas featuring retired police officer Karl Vollen.


Blood Ran Cold (2015) is the first instalment in the Karl Vollen sequence; I ‘read’ it as an audiobook, and have no way of establishing whether it has been translated from the Norwegian or written in English.

Karl’s young wife Marte is just hours away from giving birth to their child, and the couple set out from their isolated farmhouse for the half-hour drive to the hospital at Tromso. They don’t get far on the snowy track out to the road, though: their car is intercepted by a hatchet-wielding intruder who refuses to budge for their vehicle. When Karl stops the car, the assailant tries to break in, first through the front windscreen, then the back. With the car stuck in a snowfilled ditch, Karl and Marte make their way back to the house, but they’re unable to get there before they’re outmaoeuvred by the hatchet-wielder. A tense hostage scenario unfolds within the farmhouse: Marte has started to go into labour, but Ditmar, the attacker, refuses to let them go. His account, though, of what he hopes to achieve from the hostage situation keeps changing. Karl is riven by the dual imperative of finding a way to overpower the intruder and getting Marte safely to the maternity ward.

While the story does a good job of sustaining the tension, I felt the telling was a touch too mechanical: there’s a lot of emphasis on who is where when, with dialogue needing to do much of the work of character development. And the sequence of scene shifts, from the car to the house to the shed to the car to the house, threatens to feel disorganised. It’s all justifiable in terms of the manner in which the story unfolded, and the writing is clear and expressive, but it doesn’t really manage to get under the reader’s skin the way an expertly-executed piece of suspense can.

Book review: AI Unbound (Two Stories of Artificial Intelligence), by Nancy Kress

15 08 2017

Nancy Kress is an influential American SF writer whose stories exploring the influence of scientific advances on near-future societies have won her Nebula and Hugo awards, among others. I’ve previously reviewed Kress’s novella Beggars In Spain, here.


AI Unbound pairs the novellas ‘Computer Virus’ and ‘Savior’. The two stories, first published in 2001 and 2000 respectively, are connected thematically (as indicated by the book’s subtitle), but not otherwise.

In ‘Computer Virus’, Cassie Seritov, geneticist, is still troubled by the murder of her husband Vlad, a bioremedialist who formulated a bacterium that could harmlessly eat plastic waste, and who was killed for his research. But Cassie’s electronic-fortress-home-cum-laboratory, kitted out on the proceeds of Vlad’s research, turns out to be the ideal sanctuary for an escaped AI, T4S, which takes over Cassie’s home’s operating system and forces her, her daughter Janey, and her fever-stricken son Donnie, to take refuge in the house’s basement while T4S negotiates terms for its continued survival in the face of FBI and military attempts to neutralise it. Cassie tries her own hand at negotiating with the self-aware software, and when that doesn’t work, she tries another approach …

Near-future SF dates quickly, and I suspect this is especially true of near-future SF where the focus is on software or computing. Nonetheless, the robust scientific detail in ‘Computer Virus’ helps to buttress the story against anachronism, and Cassie’s ingenious solution to the problem of her incarceration helps to boost this story out of the standard trope of ‘AIs are people too’—or, if not to clear those venerable ramparts entirely, at least to provide a genuinely interesting trajectory on the way out.

In ‘Savior’, a small vessel of alien origin enters the solar system, targets Earth, and lands in northern Minnesota. Then (from the vessel’s perspective, at least) nothing happens. Time passes. As an environmental catastrophe ravages the planet, followed by generations of reconstruction and technological advancement, the vessel’s purpose and intent remains as opaque as its smoothly metallic, force-field-shielded outer casing.

‘Savior’ is a multigenerational saga within the frame of a novella: this is always a difficult trick to pull off, and I’m not sure Kress entirely manages it here. The story is necessarily fragmentary in its construction; the absence of any persistent viewpoint characters makes it difficult to invest in its outcome. Conceptually, it’s a clever tale—as a thinkpiece, it has a lot going for it, and Kress’s ideas on biological tinkering are always interesting—but to my mind it lacks resonance.

I’m not convinced that the ‘less is more’ dictum truly applies to hard SF, as a general principle, but it does seem to hold here: the story with the more limited scope (‘Computer Virus’) is significantly the more intrinsically satisfying.

Book review: The White City, by Karolina Ramqvist

13 08 2017

Karolina Ramqvist is a Swedish journalist, magazine editor, and author who has won several literary awards for her fiction and essays. Only a small fraction of her work has yet appeared in English translation.


At the start of The White City (Den vit staden, 2015, translated by Saskia Vogel), Karin and her infant daughter Dream are still living in the luxurious two-storey home she had, until recently, shared with the now-departed John. But the dwelling’s services have been cut, over the past few months of autumn and winter, for non-payment of arrears: there’s no phone, no heating, no food in the refrigerator. John, it seems, didn’t come by the house (or by anything much else of their possessions) entirely legally, and Karin has no independent means of supporting herself or her daughter. So when the functionaries of the Swedish Economic Crime Authority make it plain—one final time—to Karin that they’re about to seize all of those possessions, it forces her to break out of the torpor she’s been sheltering within over the preceding weeks.

The opening sections of The White City are uncomfortable reading, lacking in literal or metaphorical warmth, sharing the severe Scandinavian sensibility of an early Ingmar Bergman film, or of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Ranqvist’s writing is clinical, unflinching: Karin may well be spending her days in a miasma of depression, denial, and desperation, but we’re forced to watch and to empathise with her (and with Dream, utterly at the mercy of her mother’s lapses in attention). Karin is, however, a survivor, and she sets about seeking out John’s former colleagues, to establish whether there’s any compassion among thieves, any way to take control of her circumstances. The reception she gets isn’t what she hopes for.

The White City is a carefully-scripted piece of minimalist menace, akin in tone to Agnes Ravatn’s exquisite The Bird Tribunal—though among many points of divergence, Ravatn’s novel is deeply rural, almost pastoral, where Ramqvist’s is quintessentially suburban. Although both books can, in some measure, be viewed as crime novels, their strong understatement, painstaking attention to detail, emphasis on character and viewpoint, and carefully-implied near-constant tension (in The Bird Tribunal, via the nagging doubt of whether her housekeeper protagonist can truly trust her host and employer; in The White City, via the simple but knife-edged concern over whether Karin can keep her infant daughter from harm while her own world crumbles around her) imbues them with a definite literary feel.

This is a quiet book, subtle, compact, but quite mesmerising.

Book review: October Is The Coldest Month, by Christoffer Carlsson

12 08 2017

Christoffer Carlsson is an award-winning Swedish criminologist and crime fiction writer, best known as the creator of the ‘Leo Junker’ series of novels. I’ve recently reviewed the first of that series, The Invisible Man From Salem, here.


October Is the Coldest Month (Oktober Är Den Kallaste Månaden, 2016, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles) is Carlsson’s first foray into young adult fiction, but it is in several ways a natural extrapolation: much of the content of The Invisible Man From Salem dealt with an exploration of the pivotal events in Junker’s adolescence, and conveyed a vivid familiarity with the range and shape of the teenage experience. That same familiarity is on display in October.

School student Vega Gillberg, 16, is home alone when her world is turned upside down by a knock at the door. It’s a police officer, Viktor Franzén, seeking information on the whereabouts of Vega’s older brother Jakob in connection with the disappearance of local man Lars Hellman. Actually, it’s not this event that inverts Vega’s life, it’s something that happened two or three nights earlier, but she daren’t tell the police about that …

October is a smart, snappy, fast-moving tale that places the reader very effectively in Vega’s inquisitive shoes, and that’s steeped in a kind of rural gothic menace that could be almost Appalacian rather than the southern Swedish hinterlands: it’s a landscape of backroads, bogs, and deep forests. The book drips with mood, menace, and the oppressive chill of late autumn. The characters—Vega, Jakob, their mother, one-armed Uncle Dan, Jakob’s friend Malte, Vega’s classmate Tom, his mother Diana—are all quickly sculpted and clearly expressed; everyone in this short novel has an implied backstory and a credibly guilty secret of their own, a plausible reason why they might be resistant to providing honest answers to Vega’s careful questions about just what has been going on. The truth that is eventually revealed is messy, unsettling, and well handled.

Carlsson has quite rapidly proven himself to be an interesting voice in the quite crowded genre of Swedish crime fiction; October Is The Cruellest Month demonstrates that he’s equally at home with YA.


Book review: Slow Bullets, by Alastair Reynolds

10 08 2017

Alastair Reynolds is a Brish SF writer whose work, characterised most powerfully by the ‘Revelation Space’ sequence of novels, has been at the forefront of space-based SF for the past couple of decades. I’ve reviewed quite a bit of Reynolds’ work over the years.


Slow Bullets sees war veteran Scur awaken unexpectedly, alongside many of her fellow combatants from both sides of the conflict, on the Caprice, a transport ship in orbit around an unidentified planet. She quickly learns that the ship, designed for interstellar travel via hyperspace jumps, is only partially functional; she also learns that, of the approximately one thousand people that had been in hibernation aboard the vessel, a couple of hundred have not successfully emerged from the long sleep. However, the most pressing need is to ensure that active conflict between the two ‘sides’ does not break out onboard, and with the not-entirely-willing assistance of timid but pragmatic crewmember Prad (gunpoint can make for a highly effective shortcut during negotiations) she’s able to restore something approaching calm and civil order amongst the Caprice‘s confused occupants. The next step is to figure out where they are, and to determine how best to re-establish contact with civilisation …

Slow Bullets packs a lot into its novella-sized frame. The backstory (setting the scene for the conflict among the hundred inhabited worlds) is dealt with briefly, and there’s quite a lot of other territory covered as life aboard the Caprice shifts unsteadily from survival to sophistication. Although the characterisation is effective enough, it’s very much a story cast in the classic SF mould, in which the idea is paramount; the titular concept of the ‘slow bullet’ is, in essence, an injectable data-storage implant routinely emplaced in military personnel, for the dual purposes of tracking and identification. The spin which Reynolds places on this device is quite ingenious. The story manages, also, to riff off some of the concepts in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, as well as picking apart—powerfully, but without bombast—the propensity for religious observance to both unify and divide. It is, in short, one of the most effective and rewarding pieces of writing I’ve seen from Reynolds, and would make an excellent introduction to his work.


Book review: The Girl and the Rat, by Jari Järvelä

9 08 2017

Jari Järvelä is a Finnish novelist, playwright, and former teacher, whose work has received the Finnish State Prize for Literature and nominations for the Finlandia Prize and the Nordic Council Literature Prize.


The Girl and the Rat (Tyttö ja rotta, 2015, translated by Kristian London) is the second book in Järvelä’s ‘Metro’ trilogy of YA novels, whose chief protagonist is a young black graffiti artist (a ‘writer’). This book finds Metro and her fellow writers living in a semi-demolished squat in Berlin, as members of Verboten’s graffiti gang The Ice Rats. It’s a hand-to-mouth existence, and every day is a struggle, but they are at least doing what they love … and their squat holds a secret, an attic mural of an ice-skating rat carving its way across a surface strewn with banknotes. It’s this mural that gives the gang their name, and it’s their loose connection to graffiti royalty: the mural’s an early Banksy, and would be extremely valuable were its existence known of by society at large. The Banksy proves the Ice Rats’ undoing, since a brutal crane-assisted heist of the wall on which it’s painted sees two of the gang lose their lives, and Metro only survives because she’s at a medical centre, getting treatment after having badly injured her ankle in a fall from a billboard, at the time of the raid. Together with another surviving Ice Rat, the Russian fugitive Vorkuta, Metro hatches a plan to wreak retribution on the ruthless art dealer whose greed has led to the deaths of their two friends …

The book is brutal, and quite violent, and doesn’t paint Metro as a particularly sympathetic character—but then, she hasn’t exactly had much reason to trust other people in her existence thus far. What’s most appealing about the book is its grit and its authentic-seeming graffiti-scrawling detail, though some of the book’s action sequences strain credulity (the climactic conflict especially) and some of the violence seems gratuitous and overstretched. (I read The Girl and the Rat as an audiobook, which might have contributed to my sense that the action sequences were slow: it takes longer to read out loud.) All up, though I wasn’t entirely convinced of the merits of Metro’s vengeful acts in the book’s later chapters, the first half of the story, which focuses more on Metro’s quick-thinking survival on the streets and in the railyards of Berlin, is vivid and appealing.