Book review: Calling Out For You, by Karin Fossum

13 08 2018

Karin Fossum is a Norwegian crime novelist who has established a significant international reputation, most notably for her ongoing series of insightful and nuanced police procedurals featuring Inspector Konrad Sejer. Among other honours, she has received the Riverton Prize, the Glass Key Award, the Martin Beck Award, and the Gumshoe Award for best European crime novel. I’ve previously reviewed several other titles in Fossum’s ‘Inspector Sejer’ series.


Calling Out For You (Elskede Poona, 2001, translated by Charlotte Barslund) is the fifth novel in the Sejer sequence; it was published under the alternative title of The Indian Bride for US release, in which form it won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the Mystery / Thriller category and was also shortlisted for the Gold Dagger Award.

The life of Gunder Jomann, an outwardly unremarkable fiftyish sales representative for an agricultural euipment supplier in the small Norwegian town of Elvestad, takes a surprising but welcome turn when he decides, in a completely uncharacteristic fashion, to travel to India—specifically, to Mumbai—with the express though undisclosed aim of finding a woman to marry and to share his life with. As it happens, he need look no further than the first—indeed, the only—Tandoori restaurant into which he wanders during his stay in India’s heat. Over two weeks, a quiet rapport builds between Gunder and the waitress, Poona Bai, who attends him each day; and when he diffidently reveals to her the matrimonial motive for his travel to India, she is genuinely and favourably responsive. The overt courtship, beyond that point, is brief; they marry, in Mumbai, a few days before he must return to Norway and to his work. She is to follow him a couple of weeks later, having resolved certain matters relating to her employment and the like. The day of her expected arrival is one, for Jomann, of intense expectation, but two unrelated tragedies wreck its promise for him. First, his sister Marie—Gunder’s sole living relative—is involved in an accident that leaves her comatose and the other driver dead; and second, while Gunder Jomann is waiting by his sister’s hospital bed, not knowing when or even if she might regain consciousness, the taxi which he despatches to Gardemoen Airport in his stead fails to intercept the incoming Poona and returns to Elvestad without her. For the next twelve hours, the whereabouts of Poona Bai Jomann are a complete mystery, until a woman of foreign appearance is found, brutally bashed and murdered, in a meadow a kilometre away from Gunder’s home…

The attribute which most sets apart Fossum’s procedurals is the evident humanity which she imbues within all her characters, be they central or recurrent figures like Sejer and his associates Jacob Skarre and Bardy Snorrason, or minor characters such as Kalle Moe, the minicab driver with which Gunder unsuccessfully entrusts Poona’s collection from the airport, and Einar Sunde, the village’s cafe owner, and therefore proprietor of the establishment where many of the locals gather to speculate on the progress (or evident lack of it) of the police investigation headed up by Sejer. This warmth (and depth) of characterisation confers on even the grimmest act a kind of calm and gentle plausibility that is at once completely distinct from the grittier or more sensational shades of Scandicrime while also not permitting the slightest suggestion of ‘cosy crime’. It means that Fossum’s novels are consistently rewarding examples of the genre; here she produces a mystery that remains compelling (and, in fact, provocative) all the way through to the story’s close.


Book review: Rogue Protocol, by Martha Wells

12 08 2018

Martha Wells is an American fantasy and science fiction author best known, until recently, as the author of the ‘Ile-Rien’ and ‘Books of the Raksura’ fantasy series. For the past year or so, her ongoing SF novella series ‘The Murderbot Diaries’ has been receiving considerable acclaim, with the first ‘Murderbot’ novella All Systems Red having won the Nebula and Locus Awards and in contention for the Hugo and Philip K Dick Awards. I’ve reviewed the two earlier ‘Murderbot’ novels here and here.


In Rogue Protocol, Murderbot hitches a ride on a personnel shuttle from Milu to a derelict orbital terraforming station, once the property of Murderbot’s former owners GrayCris Corporation and now in the hands of GoodNightLander Independent (GI), a research / resource exploitation group. GI believes the terraforming station to be of sufficient interest to place a group of researchers aboard, and of sufficient hazard to have those researchers accompanied by a two-person security detail, Wilken and Gerth. Murderbot has its own reasons for wanting to get onto the station: it believes GrayCris’s activities on the station to have been dubious, at best, and probably illegal from the standpoint of handling of alien artefacts. In seeking evidence of this illegality, Murderbot (itself, of course, a fugitive from the corporate ‘justice’ which sees it solely as a potentially-dangerous item of escaped property) hopes to make sufficient trouble for the corporation that any ongoing media speculation regarding the fugitive SecUnit and its former mentor Dr Mensah is tamped down. It’s a reasonable plan, if somewhat sketchy on the details, but it doesn’t really allow for the complications that flare up once all involved are on the terraforming station…

Murderbot is one of those characters who, on first principles, shouldn’t engage an empathetic response from the reader—the SecUnit is a naïve misanthrope with a media addiction and an unwarranted reliance on sarcasm and sardonism—and yet, perhaps because it as a narrator is so upfront about these attributes of its personality, and so open about its reliance on ongoing deception, it comes across as an utterly charming creation. With each novella, also, Wells appears to be growing more comfortable with Murderbot’s voice, and more effective at integrating tension, action, and compelling character interaction. The results are superlatively readable; the series is already identifiable as a modern classic. It’s a deserved reputation.

Book review: Chasing New Horizons, by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon

9 08 2018


I’ll open this review—of a book which details the history, accomplishments, and tribulations of New Horizons, the first mission to explore Pluto and its satellites—with an anecdote illustrating how the book’s backstory touches on events which were personally influential to me:

The Voyager missions of the 1970s were intended as a thorough exploration of the Solar System’s outer planets—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto—taking advantage of a transiently optimal arrangement of these planets which would permit successive gravitational assists at each planet to boost the onrushing probes towards their next target. The original intention was that Voyager 1 would perform flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, and Pluto, while Voyager 2 would pass close by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. This, with one important exception, is how the missions progressed. The exception, of course, is that Voyager 1 did not reach Pluto, because (as Chasing New Horizons explains) a decision was made to prioritise a close flyby of Saturn’s haze-shrouded moon Titan instead, on a trajectory that rendered a subsequent trek towards Pluto nonviable. Had this flyby of Titan not occurred, my doctoral research (on ion/molecule reactions of relevance to interstellar cloud chemistry) would very probably not have incorporated studies on dicyanogen, NCCN—not a known interstellar molecule but identified, thanks to IR spectroscopy measurements undertaken by Voyager 1 as a constituent of Titan’s atmosphere—and had this seed of tangentially Titan-related research not been planted back then by my PhD supervisor, I probably would not have gone on to my own later independent research into Titanian atmospheric chemistry, nor to a fixation with fiction set on Titan. So in sum, I’m rather glad that Voyager 1 didn’t get to make it to Pluto. (From the wingbeats of such butterflies are lives unexpectedly influenced.)

I’m also very glad that New Horizons did reach Pluto. This book—co-authored by the mission’s Principal Investigator (Stern) and by an astrobiologist (Grinspoon) who was one of the many hundreds of other researchers working on the mission—is a detailed account of how it very nearly didn’t. (A natural pessimist, I was one of those who expected the mission would probably be ruined by some unforeseen glitch, as have so many other robot probe missions before it. Stern in particular deserves a lot of credit for ensuring that things went as smoothly as they did, though the book emphasises that it was also very much a team effort, with a team at times numbering in the hundreds.)

The focus in Chasing New Horizons is primarily on the struggle—technical, financial, and bureaucratic—to assemble a viable space probe to hurtle past what was, in Voyager’s day, the Solar System’s smallest and outermost planet. It makes for surprisingly tense reading, and is an excellent illustration of the many challenges to outer Solar System exploration. (It’s an interesting counterpoint, in many ways, to Mary Robinette Kowal’s ‘Lady Astronaut’ novel The Calculating Stars, which I’ve recently reviewed: both are loaded with details of the bureaucracy, procedures, hazards, and acronyms surrounding spaceflight, as well as the dedication of those working to achieve the goal of a successful launch.) In some ways, it is this extended delineation of arguably prefatory material—taking up, in total, more than half the text—that is the book’s finest section; a comparatively short sequence of chapters detailing the nine years between launch and Pluto flyby does, in contrast, flag in some stretches, seeming to me to be too deeply bogged down in outlining the long series of overlapping meetings deemed necessary to ensure the New Horizons spacecraft was thoroughly ready and perfectly programmed for its one shot at Pluto-exploring glory. (The work described in those post-launch chapters was clearly vital to the health of the mission, so its inclusion is undeniably warranted, but this part of the book does not really shine in the way seen in those earlier chapters, which were more redolent with low-level conflict between teams of scientists, and between scientists and administrators or politicians.) The final few chapters, detailing the flyby itself and the continuing mission (to Ultima Thule) beyond that, ensure that the book does conclude on a high note, but I do feel that the description of the dramatic sequence of events leading to the mission’s eventual approval, and the vessel’s subsequent construction and testing prior to launch, is what most justifies the book’s purchase, by showing us the submerged 90% of the space-mission iceberg.

A transcribed item of correspondence

9 08 2018

As I write this, it is now the 9th of August here, though it’s still the 8th across most of the world. My point in mentioning the date is that the 9th of August is the birthday of Tove Jansson, Finnish author, artist, illustrator and cartoonist, born that day in 1914. Those who know me reasonably well will know that I’m something of a Jansson tragic, and have in previous years marked the day with Jansson-related posts on this site. And so:

I wrote to Tove Jansson once, in January or February of 1982. (My uncertainty about the date is a reflection of the fact that, although I studiously made a transcript of the two-page letter I sent off, that transcript has been lost in the intervening decades.) My memory of the letter is that it was an earnest and somewhat clumsy expression of readerly admiration to a favourite author—you can probably imagine the sort of thing that a socially-awkward, overly-formal nineteen-year-old would write. I sent it without any real expectation of receiving a reply: Jansson was a world-famous writer with innumerable competing demands on her time, and was surely too busy to respond to every piece of fanmail she received. But I did get a reply.

Tove Jansson’s letter to me was written, in fountain pen, in English, on both sides of what I believe to be her standard stationery item for responses to fan letters: a landscape-format folded card showing a panoramic black-and-white image of Haru, the small island in the Gulf of Finland on which she spent her summers with her partner Tuulikki Pietilä. The letter was written sometime in May 1982 and my recollection is that it began on the side bearing the island’s photograph, concluding on the card’s blank back. I’m providing these details about its appearance because, although it instantly became one of my most treasured possessions, it has been—and readers may be sensing a theme here—lost in the intervening decades. But I did make a transcript, typed up on my white Olympia portable typewriter—my twenty-year-old self could be, on occasion, very organised about such things—and that has not yet been lost.

Here it is:



The context of the letter, at least in part, is that this was pre-internet correspondence, and so some items of information which would nowadays be provided very straightforwardly by Google and Wikipedia had back then required diligent investigation by me of the Canterbury Public Library’s reference section, letters written to (as it turned out) an out-of-date publishers’ address provided to me in an earlier response received from Australia’s Finnish Embassy (for NZ was, at the time, without a Finnish Embassy or Consulate of its own) which in turn had been preceded by my correspondence with Australia’s Swedish Embassy (for NZ was, at the time, without a Swedish Embassy or Consulate of its own) because my library-sourced information back then had been that the Swedish-speaking Jansson’s primary publisher was based in Stockholm. The entire cascade of correspondence which preceded my letter to Tove Jansson took months, even by airmail; nowadays such an email chain might be completed within days, or a diligent internet search within hours. Life has accelerated, in some measure. And Jansson’s books to which I referred in my letter, then unavailable in English translation, are now all freely available, even her first (but technically her second) book Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen (The Moomins and the Great Flood) which she refused to allow republication of during her lifetime. Lyssnerskan (The Listener) has become probably my favourite of her short story collections (I’ve reviewed it here), and is an excellent gateway into her fiction for adults who might only know of Jansson through her Moomin books (which themselves, nonetheless, thoroughly reward adult re-reading).

Tove Jansson is gone (and so, it seems, is a precious item of correspondence), but the writing remains. That’s something, at least.


Book review: Fantasy, by Malte Persson

8 08 2018

Malte Persson is a Swedish novelist, poet, and literary critic. His work has received several awards and has been nominated for the August Prize. Fantasy would appear to be his only work to have yet seen English translation.


Fantasy (Fantasy, 2013. translated by Saskia Vogel) is a short story (or novelette: I can’t be completely sure which side of the 7.5K word boundary it falls on) in a broadly-similar vein to Amanda Svensson’s Where the Hollyhocks Come From, which I reviewed recently—at least, the two have been published as parts of the same series. Fantasy is, however, a distinctly more metafictional work than Hollyhocks, presented as the narrations of a young yet already jaded documentary-maker who is ostensibly concerned with investigating the reasons for the failure of an ambitious Swedish fantasy movie to survive production. The narrator makes contact with the discarded project’s director, writer, principal cast members and producer, a sequence that constitutes what plot the story has, but the chief focus appears to be on deconstructing the somewhat-dubious distinction between ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality’, by demonstrating that the various characters each inhabit their own distorted version of reality. The narrator’s view of each of these characters—which, naturally, is itself a distortion—is generally unflattering, stopping just short of curmudgeonly; and yet enough of the narrator’s own character leaks through to convey the strong impression that she is also a target (perhaps even the main one) of the overlying authorial character assessment. (It’s perhaps telling that, just as the mooted movie is abandoned before completion, so too is the subsequent documentary about that abandonment.) The story makes some interesting (and amusing) points—though not, for the most part, on ‘Fantasy’ as practitioners of the genre would understand it, except in the most mass-market sense—but in toto I found it somewhat too distant and cerebral in tone to be truly rewarding.

Sundry publication news

31 07 2018

By way of finishing the month with a spot of updatery, I can report (1) that my unthemed short fiction collection, 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess, now has a cover:


The photography on the 80k TSP cover is by Lewis P Morley, as is the modelwork depicted. (Among his other talents, Lewis is a skilled modelmaker and has seen a fair bit of work as a propmaker for locally-produced movies, including some big name ones. I understand the unit depicted is also to serve as a spaceship console in a home-produced short Supermarionation-style movie of his own, which should be well worth seeing.)

(2) My upcoming Gordon Mamon space-elevator-murder-mysteries-with-puns collection, Murder on the Zenith Express, has taken its first steps towards physicality: I’ve received copies of the printed proofs. (There’s still a longish lead time before its release, on the first of October, but it is on its way.)

(3) The perspicacious Mark Webb has released a review of Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body. As always, you can click on the link for the full review, but here’s a snippet:

Matters Arising packs a lot into the novella length. As well as setting a good pace, Petrie uses the extra space of a novella to flesh out the main character nicely, showing glimpses of family and other background information which creates a much stronger connection between reader and protagonist.


(4) The number of local bookshops now stocking my books has doubled, with Bookface (in Gungahlin Marketplace) carrying copies of Matters Arising, Wide Brown Land, and Flight 404. So you can now find them in the wild there as well as at Harry Hartog’s in Woden. (They’re also, of course, fairly widely available from online stores, but sometimes it’s nice to make purchases face-to-face with an actual human…)

Book review: Where the Hollyhocks Come From, by Amanda Svensson

25 07 2018

Amanda Svensson is a Swedish cultural journalist and writer. Her second book, Välkommen till den här världen (‘Welcome to this World‘, 2011 and, so far as I can establish, not as yet translated into English) was a finalist for the August Prize.


Where the Hollyhocks Come From (Jag vill veta var stockrosorna kommer ifrån, 2014, translated by Saskia Vogel) is probably more accurately described as a small-format perfect-bound booklet, containing just the one short story (which might just squeak into novelette territory), rather than a book per se. Its narrative compass is similarly compact, populated only by the unnamed narrator (whom, it seems, is male, though I don’t believe that’s ever specified explicitly), his dying grandmother, and the strange, wild, unkempt young woman he encounters on the southern Swedish coastline while waiting for an opportunity to visit his grandmother’s hospice. The woman—obsessed by the mystery of the hollyhocks’ origin, and possessed of a secret she will not tell until it no longer exists—is plainly seeking something from the narrator, who is a largely reluctant participant in the interaction which he nonetheless allows to proceed. He sees the grandmother one final time—isn’t there to witness her death, but learns something of the clannish bitterness that exists between two ancestral sides of the family—and has a second awkward encounter with the mysterious woman (he does, at least learn her sad secret). But their interaction is never going to go anywhere, and it doesn’t.

I think the best word to describe this one would be ‘elliptical’ principally because of the lack of background detail required to properly assess the book’s sequence of events. Is the woman (she is named, but you won’t hear it from me) mentally ill? Is she fae? Is she, perhaps, merely just unremittingly bohemian and idiosyncratic? The book leaves these questions unanswered, but it does inhabit the minds of its principal characters vividly enough, and the sense of stream-of-consciousness mystery it conveys is at the very least intriguing. A curiosity, but worth the (brief) time required to immerse oneself.