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: 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.

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.

Book review: The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

21 07 2018

Mary Robinette Kowal is an American speculative fiction writer, puppeteer, and voice actor who has won two Hugo awards for her short fiction. I’ve previously reviewed her novella Forest of Memory, here.


The Calculating Stars is the first volume in the ‘Lady Astronaut’ duology, written as a prequel to her 2013 novella The Lady Astronaut of Mars.

Elma York, mathematician and former WASP, is out of town in the Poconos on March 3, 1952 for a romantic weekend with her engineer husband Nathaniel when, in about the most literal sense possible, disaster strikes. An asteroid impacts the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Maryland, obliterating a fair chunk of the eastern seaboard as well as the seat of government (and, it also transpires, Elma’s parents). The Yorks’ Cessna is sheltered in a nearby barn from the impact’s blast front, enabling Elma and Nathaniel to make a beeline for Charleston and the home of Elma’s grandmother, but the meteorite’s ejecta damages the plane and Elma makes an emergency landing at a military airbase in Kansas. The Government has been wiped out (they eventually find an intact cabinet member), hundreds of thousands—if not millions—have been killed in the asteroid strike, but that’s not the worst of it. It becomes apparent that, alongside a considerable quantity of ash and dust (which will lead, for the next few years, to substantial cooling), the oceanside strike has pushed so much water vapour into the atmosphere to presage the uncontrolled warming of a runaway greenhouse effect for the decades that follow. US experimentation with rocketry is in its infancy, but there is suddenly a pressing need for a space program—if the Earth becomes uninhabitable, colonies in orbit or on the Moon may provide some sanctuary for human life. With Elma’s mathematical expertise and flight experience, and Nathaniel’s familiarity with propulsion technologyand other aspects of rocketry, the Yorks soon become an integral part of the International Aerospace Coalition’s Kansas-based plans to make manned spaceflight possible (a decade or more before, in an alternate universe, Apollo 11 would reach the Moon); but Elma wants more. She wants to become an astronaut herself. The Calculating Stars is the story of her struggles towards that end.

This is a richly imagined book, carefully detailed, artfully paced. Any comparison is going to be misleading, in some measure, but with its blend of scientific detail, political detail, social analysis and character drama it reads like one of Jack McDevitt’s contemporary SF novels (Ancient Shores, The Hercules Text) infused, perhaps, with the optimism of David Brin’s SF and the expertise in characterisation of Amy Thomson’s. But this makes it sound like a patchwork or chimaera, and it is most definitely its own thing. It’s a remarkably warm and generous example of character-driven hard SF—Elma’s thwarted ambitions become a lodestone for the challenges, not just of the sexism that would (in the eyes of the IAC hierarchy) see her grounded, but also of the racism that sees eminently-capable black candidates (of any gender) deliberately excluded through carefully-designed rules—and Kowal has taken considerable pains (as detailed in a five-page ‘Historical Note’ appended after the story) to get the details right. Furthermore, the novel’s dozens of recognisable characters are all treated as individuals with depth and with various strengths and weaknesses: if Nathaniel at times seems like an impossibly idealised supportive husband, the incredibly accomplished mathematician/pilot Elma is riven by an anxiety disorder so debilitating in times of stress (mostly, of unwanted public attention, a problem exacerbated by her growing visibility as a space-program figurehead) that the medication prescribed for this stress could well see her ejected from the program even if her gender doesn’t. And plenty of the other characters, most notably the veteran pilot Stetson Parker who seems for the most part to cultivate a personal enmity towards Elma, serve as both opponents and sounding boards, with redemptive features present in even the most infuriating characters. There’s plenty of character conflict, but it’s ultimately a story without any absolute villain except circumstance, and it’s a refreshing read because of that. I might complain that, in parts, it seems idealised—I’m not convinced that the advances in civil liberties presented here would occur with so little bloodshed, even in an alternate version of 1950s America; and that, in other parts, it appears to take shortcuts—there’s comparatively little narrative attention focussed on the changing climate, given the centrality of this as a modus operandi for the race to orbit and beyond, though this is a possibly-unavoidable consequence of how much of the novel is played out within the closed (and, one presumes, climate-controlled) confines of the IAC offices and control rooms; but overall, it’s a highly-impressive piece of hard SF, and I am looking forward to the imminent release of its successor, The Fated Sky.

(This is the fifteenth in my occasional ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)

Book review: Big Sister, by Gunnar Staalesen

7 07 2018

Gunnar Staalesen is a Norwegian writer best known for his series of crime novels detailing the investigations of Varg Veum, a Bergen PI and former social worker. It’s a notably long-running series: the first of the Veum books, the still-untranslated Bukken till havresekken, was published in 1977, just two years after the last of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s ‘Martin Beck’ novels. I’ve previously reviewed Where Roses Never Die (which won last year’s Petrona Award) and Wolves in the Dark.


Big Sister (Storesøster, 2016, translated by Don Bartlett) is approximately the twentieth in the Varg Veum sequence. It opens, as is appropriate for a novel with a title that may well nod towards Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, with a meeting between the PI and a mysterious woman who has a matter she wants investigated. But the woman, Norma Bakkevik, is no femme fatale: she’s Veum’s long-lost older half-sister. The case with which she wants his help is the disappearance of her goddaughter Emma, a nineteen-year-old trainee nurse for whom the trail ends at the Bergen apartment which Emma shared with two other students, and which she quit without notice. Veum sets about interviewing the flatmates, their landlord, Emma’s estranged parents, and anyone else who might conceivably know something about the missing young woman; while none of them appear to know anything useful, it soon emerges that Emma’s backstory is a notably troubled one, with a few big skeletons in the family closet. When Veum starts investigating these skeletons, things take a distinctly menacing turn …

The central mystery is well-framed, and accompanied by a couple of other intertwined conundrums, one of which concerns Veum’s own origins. The book nicely plays off the personal against the occupational, and the characters—several of whom are notably hard-edged and defensive—are clearly and distinctly drawn, ensuring that the slowly-unfolding investigation remains both interesting and surprising.

Staalesen deserves to be more widely read than he is: the Veum books are masterpieces in tension and intrigue, and the writing and plotting is as assured as you’d expect from a series now rounding out its fourth decade. The books are both classically noirish (the fearlessly inquisitive Veum, whose tipple of choice is akvavit, is as much the hard-drinking PI as the best of them, though in Big Sister he’s comparatively abstemious) and innately Scandinavian, with a strong sense of place and a deep concern for the exploration of societal issues; and Veum’s background as a social worker gives him an edge that, if not necessarily more compassionate than Philip Marlowe, is at least more informed. I suspect, though, that none of the above really captures the vitality of the work, of which the best sense would, of course, be gained by reading the books themselves. You can take that as a hint, if you wish.

Book review: Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells

20 06 2018

Martha Wells is an American speculative fiction writer, with a number of fantasy and SF novel series and tie-in novels for Star Wars and Stargate: Atlantis. She has received numerous nominations and awards, including a recent Nebula ‘Best Novella’ award for All Systems Red, the first instalment in the ‘Murderbot Diaries’ series (which, as it happens, I have reviewed here).


Artificial Condition is the second ‘Murderbot’ novella. It sees the newly-liberated security cyborg seeking to make its way back to RaviHyral, a mining installation on a world set aside for minerals exploitation; in its former existence, Murderbot was one of several SecUnits charged with defending the human workers in one of RaviHyral’s corporate mines… until a mishap leads to an all-humans-have-been-killed situation. Murderbot’s involvement in this incident is unknown—its memories of the tragedy, and indeed, of its entire time at the mine, have been wiped—but it has always understood that it simply went rogue, slaughtering the humans because of some hardware or software glitch. Now, Murderbot has decided, it’s time to learn the truth of the incident. But human society is rather skittish on the subject of autonomous SecUnits—you know, the whole killing-machines-running-amok thing, as hyped up by the entertainment and news media—and so it’s important that Murderbot is able to travel incognito and unrecognised, and for that it’s going to require help…

The Murderbot series is not really as bloodthirsty as the name suggests. A large part of this novella is concerned with the cyborg’s exploration of issues such as trust and responsibility, and its attempts to define its own moral core. In the process, it learns (and illuminates) aspects of human behaviour. This perhaps makes the series sound dry and instructional, which it is not: it’s moderately-paced (because Murderbot, though notably paranoid in some respects, is not really prone to panic in any demonstrable fashion), intriguing in several ways, and quietly addictive. It helps, too, that Murderbot has a discrete personality (somewhere near the intersection of Star Trek: TNG‘s Data and Altered Carbon‘s Takeshi Kovacs, if that helps to clarify matters at all). If anything, I think I enjoyed this novella somewhat more than its Nebula-winning predecessor, which I felt was slightly let down by an overly-complicated and awkwardly-choreographed combat sequence. This time around, things are more pared back, and the story flows more assuredly. I’m not sure what comes next, but I’m looking forward to it.

Does it count as hard SF? I’m inclined to assess that it does: while there seems to be some nebulosity on the vexatious subject of interstellar propulsion, the laws of physics are otherwise treated with appropriate seriousness, and the processes of data transfer by which Murderbot communicates with other artificial intelligences and bots (and, on occasion, hacks into security systems) are credibly detailed. It’s thoughtful, it’s fun, and it’s serious: what more could you want?

(This is the fourteenth in my occasional ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)

Book review: What My Body Remembers, by Agnete Friis

17 06 2018

Agnete Friis is a Danish writer and journalist, best known as co-author (with Lene Kaaberbøl) of the ‘Nina Borg’ crime fiction series, of which I’ve reviewed the first book, The Boy in the Suitcase, here.


What My Body Remembers (Blitz, 2015, translated by Lindy Falk van Rooyen) would appear to be Friis’ crime-novel debut as a solo author, though I gather she has previously written children’s fiction and possibly other adult novels. WMBR is marketed as crime fiction—and in that capacity it was one of the six finalists in this years Petrona Award—but it’s as much a closely-observed study of privation, institutional care, and life on the margins as it is a mystery. Central to the story is Ella, a deeply-troubled single mother whose occasional unpredictable seizures are connected to childhood trauma: at age eight, she lost her mother, Anna, to a gunshot inflicted, the investigators decided, by her father, Helgi, who was found holding the gun. Ella has never seen fit to query this history, but has sought instead to escape it through every method available to her. It’s only when it appears likely that she’s about to lose her eleven-year-old son Alex for good, to a ‘respite’ care appointment that the authorities wish to make permanent, that she’s thrown back into the past with all its secrets: she needs a safe haven, beyond the authorities’ immediate reach, and the only bolthole available is her grandmother’s abandoned house on the outskirts of the North Sea fishing / tourist village Klitmøller, close by Ella’s own childhood home. She’s hoping for solitude for herself and her son—Ella’s coping strategy is to shut the world out (through abrasiveness and evasion) and lick her wounds in private, and to turn to vodka for its temporary amnesiac properties—but those in the area have long memories and curiosity, particularly about the two-decades-old murder that played out on the local dunes, and Ella’s habit of shoplifting from the few local merchants doesn’t do her any favours in an attempt to keep a low profile. Alone of those with whom she reluctantly has contact, her paternal grandmother still believes her son Helgi to be innocent of Anna’s death—but then, she would, wouldn’t she?

Still, what if the old woman is right?

What My Body Remembers is slow to unfold: possibly too slow, although the seamy details of Ella’s circumstances, her upbringing, and her underdog refusal to stay beaten by life (even as she attempts, as far as possible, to hold it at bay with alcohol and self-seclusion) are all impressively catalogued and sketched with far greater flair than that shown by Barbara, the aging hippie-artist who insinuates herself in Ella’s return to Klitmøller and who seeks to provide a buffer between Ella and the world while also covering the walls of her guest bedroom with bad art. There’s a clarity and an emotional depth to the text which make it a rewarding read: minor-key, and more accretive than eventful, but overall a highly effective example of character-driven crime fiction.