And just for a change, a book review

18 02 2017

I don’t seem to receive many reviews nowadays, so it’s always a bit of an occasion when I encounter a review of my work in the wild. This week, a review of my first collection (Rare Unsigned Copy) popped up on Suz’s Space, the booksite of reader/bookseller Suzie Eisfelder. Here’s a snippet (I’ll refrain from reposting the whole thing, but if you’re curious you can read it at the link above):

Good writing, sometimes very funny writing and sometimes not funny. The first story, The Day of the Carrot, had me in fits … if you like science fiction and puns then this book is for you.

 





Book review: Hour of the Wolf, by Håkan Nesser

18 02 2017

Håkan Nesser is a Swedish author and teacher who is most well known (in English translation at least) for his ‘Inspector Van Veeteren’ series of crime novels set in the geographically nebulous city of Maardam. The series has won several awards, including the Glass Key award in 2000.

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Hour of the Wolf (Carambole, 1999, translated by Laurie Thompson) opens with a hit-and-run: late one night, a drunk driver hits, and kills, a teenager walking home along a poorly-lit street. The driver stops, but there’s nothing he can do for the boy … and so he does nothing.

But somebody witnessed the incident; two days later, the driver receives a blackmail letter. It’s not the sum of money that concerns him so much as the absence of any guarantee that this will be the end of the matter.

As it transpires, his concerns are justified; less so his methods.

We don’t get to meet Van Veeteren until quite some way into the story, and although he is in a sense the fulcrum on which the novel is balanced, he’s not truly the main character: most of the ‘head time’ in the story is devoted to the drunk driver (whose innermost thoughts the reader is privy to, but whose identity is not revealed until such time as the police uncover it) and to Reinhart and Moreno, two of the police officers central to the investigation. By see-sawing between the perspectives of the perpetrator and the police, the book treads a very effective line in … not exactly ‘moral ambiguity’, but more what might be termed ‘conflicted empathy’.This depth of perspective brings the story to a resolution that is at once deliberately hollow—there’s no sense of victory, of achievement, just of having attained some kind of end—and yet also satisfying, in its realistic portrayal of the emotions involved.

The book’s fictional setting (the nonexistent city of Maardam) initially feels incongruous, but its depiction is so patiently detailed that it takes on the attributes of somewhere real, even if it’s not possible to determine whether it’s in Sweden (as one might expect given the author’s nationality), or in the Netherlands (as would be in keeping with the names given to streets and parks, and to many of its inhabitants), or someplace else. Ultimately, it feels credible, and that’s what really matters, isn’t it?

Hour of the Wolf is a muscular, deeply-drawn story, well-plotted and with some memorable characterisation (although I did feel, as seems reasonably often to be the case with the Scandicrime I’ve sampled thus far, that the characterisation of the offbeat and deliberately abrasive officer among the supporting cast—in this series, he has the name Rooth—tended to detract from, rather than add colour to, the story). Ultimately, though, even the irritating Rooth can’t derail the story, which moves with a sort of locomotive purposefulness through its various waystations on its way to the terminus.





Book review: The Blood Spilt, by Åsa Larsson

2 02 2017

Åsa Larsson is a Swedish crime novelist whose background as a tax lawyer, and upbringing in Kiruna prior to employment in Stockholm, have substantially informed her fiction: the heroine of her novels, Stockholm-based tax lawyer Rebecka Martinsson, also grew up in Kiruna. This adherence to the ‘write what you know’ philosophy has served Larsson well: she’s won the Swedish Crime Writers’ Association prize for best first novel, while subsequent novels have twice won the Best Swedish Crime Novel award. I’ve previously reviewed her debut novel The Savage Altar here.

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The Blood Spilt (Det blod som spillts, 2004, translated by Marlaine Delargy) is Rebecka’s second outing. She’s not travelling well: she gives every appearance, following the events of The Savage Altar, of suffering PTSD. Various of her more solicitous work colleagues try to help, but their well-meaning interventions only serve to make things worse. And so she finds herself, quite against her will, dragged back to the communities around Kiruna where her law firm is hoping to finalise a business arrangement with the church council. But there’s something beyond mere business in the wings, because Rebecka belatedly learns about the brutal murder, three months previously, of Mildred Nilsson, one of the local priests … Rebecka decides to stay on in one of the local villages when her colleague drives back to Stockholm. She’s not looking to solve the case, she’s just trying to come to terms with her past, but the case keeps confronting her.

Several of the supporting characters important to The Savage Altar also feature prominently in The Blood Spilt, notably the police officers Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke, Rebecka’s colleague Maria Taube and her flinty, socially-awkward supervisor Måns Wenngren. The perspective can jump quite suddenly, from one sentence to the next, between these characters or a good many others introduced in this novel. Larsson’s characters are clearly drawn, admirably varied, and richly imagined, but I do wish she didn’t head-hop to quite the extent that she does, because it can at times get disorienting. (There are several apparently-missed scene breaks in the final few chapters that certainly don’t help in this regard.) If you can cope with the perspective-shuffling, there’s a lot to like in Larsson’s clean, smooth, deep prose which sets the scenes exquisitely while layering on the mystery and the tension. I will confess to substantial misgivings, based on the book’s back-cover blurb, that Larsson was emulating too closely the storyline of The Savage Altar—both books are, after all, about the savage slaying of a Kiruna-area priest, an event in which Martinsson somehow becomes entangled from the initial remove of Stockholm, hundreds of kilometres away—and yet, while there is undeniably a loose commonality of theme, the stories are quite distinct in detail, in mood, and in structure. The Blood Spilt is, I would say, a more complex story than its predecessor: it lacks the full-on desperation of the last third of The Savage Altar, but it’s quite its match for barbarity, and some of the atrocity revealed is only tenuously foreshadowed (if that); as a result, it’s all the more confronting. (Larsson does not treat her characters with kid gloves.)

It’s probably inappropriate to describe a book which is (in parts) this bleak as a ‘triumph’, but it’s certainly a tour de force. The emotional depth and the empathy on display here, even in the most grim of contexts, is what makes Larsson’s writing work.





Book review: Roseanna, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

28 01 2017

The series of ten ‘Martin Beck’ police procedurals written, in the sixties and seventies, by Swedish duo Sjöwall and (the late) Wahlöö is their most widely-known and influential creation; these works have a reputation as the wellspring from which every subsequent Scandinavian crime novel (and many a non-Scandinavian one also) has either directly or indirectly drawn inspiration. They’ve also given rise to an enviable total of 46 movies, with the role of Beck taken by actors including Derek Jacobi and Walter Matthau.

The books are known for their careful construction, for their deliberate social realism, and for the quantity of preparation with which the series was planned: published one per year from 1965, each novel progresses the circumstances of Beck and those around him by one year, so the series maps out—in background—a decade of social development in Sweden.

Both Sjöwall and Wahlöö also wrote separately (indeed, I think Sjöwall is still active as a writer, as well as a translator), though little of their individual output has seen English translation. There are a few Wahlöö titles in English (I’ve reviewed Murder on the Thirty-First Floor here), but I’m not aware of any of Sjöwall’s work (including Danish Incident, coauthored with Bjarne Nielsen, and The Woman Who Resembled Greta Garbo, coauthored with Tomas Ross) that has yet appeared in English.

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Roseanna (Roseanna, 1965, translated by Lois Roth) is the first book in the Martin Beck series. It opens with the discovery, during dredging of the Göta Canal at Borenshult in the summer of 1964, of the waterlogged, unclothed body of a young woman, dead some two or three days. The local police in Motala open an investigation into the woman’s death, but after two weeks no headway has been made by Gunnar Ahlberg and his associates, and the assistance of the Stockholm homicide bureau is sought. When Detective Inspector Martin Beck and his colleagues Kollberg and Mellander arrive on the scene, the woman’s identity remains unknown; there are no suspects; there are no clues as to any motive for her death; all that is known, beyond the contents of her last meal and the approximate time of death, is that she had been sexually assaulted and strangled. The practical, dyspeptic Beck sets about attempting to elucidate further information about a murder for which, it seems, no clues exist. Very gradually, during the next half year, the crime emerges from a fog of near-total uncertainty.

The pacing of this crime novel is, by more modern standards, somewhat slow, but this shouldn’t be seen as a negative: it allows space for the calm, undemonstrative characterisation to take hold as the story unfolds. And though the novel does not conceal the sense of often-directionless ennui that must accompany a six-month-long investigation, it also provides definite flashes of humour and of heightening tension along the way. The prose has the same sense of quietly ironic detachment as is a feature of Wahlöö’s Murder on the Thirty-First Floor, though Roseanna feels richer, busier, more sharply defined by place (because it is, after all, a novel inhabiting a specified and recognisable set of localities within Sweden rather than within an effectively-allegorical futuristic mid-European state). And the pacing and plotting also make plain, by comparison with a society now half a century newer, just how much difference is made by the technological furniture of the time. This is an investigation conducted by typewriter and mail delivery, at a time before the fax machine, a time when telephones were inevitably-deskbound devices for the sole purpose of verbal communication. (The past is a different country, etc.)

This is an effective, ingenious, and detailed novel; it’ll be interesting to see how its nine successors compare with it.





Book review: The Bird Tribunal, by Agnes Ravatn

18 01 2017

Agnes Ravatn is a prize-winning Norwegian journalist, columnist, and author. She’s published several non-fiction titles, including three collections of essays, and two novels.

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The Bird Tribunal (Fugletribunalet, 2013, translated by Rosie Hedger) is Ravatn’s second short novel. So far as I can establish, it’s the first of Ravatn’s work to have seen English translation, in which form it has gained an English PEN Award; in its native Norwegian, it has received the NRK P2 Listener’s Novel Prize and the Youth Critic’s Award; it’s also seen adaptation as a stage play and appears to be in film production.

Allis Hagtorn, a woman wracked by self-doubt, has fled her partner and her public career under a substantial cloud. She winds up as housekeeper and gardener for Sigurd Bagge, a taciturn and almost irredemiably difficult man twelve years her senior, who lives alone, awaiting his wife’s return, in an isolated house at the tip of fjord. The interaction between the two starts as something purely hierarchical—he is her employer, almost her owner—but subtly shifts with time as details of the pair’s pasts awkwardly emerge from their shared silence. The book is built on undercurrents, and there’s an ever-present sense of cloaked menace beneath the mostly-unexceptional, closely-observed pattern of their days, with Bagge’s wife Nor a continually present absence in their midst. It’s a deft, remarkably quiet book, and distinctly unsettling.

With such a sparse palette—Allis with her neuroses and her deep-ingrained guilt, Bagge with his fiery, sullen, unexplained rigidity, interacting within the confines of the house, the garden, or down at the jetty—it would be easy for the story to lose its hold on the reader. But Ravatn maintains the tension, all the while describing some minutely distinct seasonal shift, or reporting some on-the-face-of-it bland and unexceptional dialogue. The writing is lyrical, wonderful, precisely chiselled. But it’s what is not said (until the end, so well set up) that underpins this deeply impressive story.





Book review: Strange Bird, by Anna Jansson

15 01 2017

Anna Jansson is a Swedish crime writer (and lung clinic nurse) who has written over twenty novels featuring Detective Inspector Maria Wern. The series—originally set on the Swedish mainland, but subsequently relocated to the island of Gotland (where Jansson was born)—appears to be well-regarded in Sweden, and has seen a spin-off TV series as well as movie adaptations of several of the novels; while several of the books have been translated into German, Polish, Dutch, French, and Italian, only two have yet seen English translation.

strangebird

Strange Bird (Främmande fågel, 2006, translated by Paul Norlén) is Jansson’s eighth book in the Maria Wern series, though the first to have been translated into English. It opens on an idyllic summer evening, with pigeon-fancier Ruben Nilsson reminiscing about his distant past while he waits for his pigeons to return to their rooftop cote. They bring a friend: a bird from Belarus (according to its leg-ring) that appears to have been exhausted by its flight. Ruben takes the new bird under his wing (so to speak) until it’s nursed back to health. But the bird deteriorates, and Ruben starts feeling under the weather, to the concern of his busybody neighbour, Berit Hoas, who brings care packages for the ailing Ruben and who agrees also to check on his birds for him.

Readers are advised not to grow too attached to Ruben, nor to Berit, nor, indeed, to the bird from Belarus.

As the Gotland authorities grow aware of the H5N1 bird flu epidemic unfolding in their midst, panic sets in among the island’s inhabitants. Wern is personally involved in the crisis: her 11-year-old son Emil is one of eighty children at a soccer camp, all of whom are quarantined as a precaution when Berit Hoas (who has been assisting with their lunches) falls ill. Maria is caught between concern at her son’s predicament and her police duties, which involve investigating the circumstances of an unregistered migrant’s murder. The investigation takes the back seat to the escalating medical crisis, until questions start to surface regarding how the bird flu outbreak erupted …

The book is carefully plotted, the (substantial) medical detail seems authentic—which is not, I suppose, surprising given Jansson’s considerable nursing experience—as does the pigeon-racing content. The characters, too, are well drawn: Maria is a likeable blend of impulse and duty, other characters cover a reasonable range of traits, although I did have a little difficulty keeping two or three of the ‘persons of interest’ entirely distinct from each other. I also felt, in a couple of passages within the book, as though I was being infodumped on: there are a few conversations where the purpose seems too obviously to convey information for the benefit of the reader. The prose, also, is sometimes lacking in fluidity. But the story is an intriguing one, and clever, and plausible, and disconcerting. (If you believe yourself to have hypochondriac tendencies, you might find the book triggering.) As it was, I often found myself washing my hands after having read a chapter or two: the book’s subject matter can have that sort of effect on one.

The book (and, by extension, Jansson’s entire Maria Wern series) almost inevitably invites comparison with Mari Jungstedt’s ‘Inspector Knutas‘ series that is similarly set on Gotland. I’ll shy such comparison, because I think Jansson and Jungstedt are rather different kinds of authors (and, in any case, Gotland appears comfortably large enough, at a shade over three thousand square kilometres, to sustain the fictional-murder rate required for both series). I think a more natural similarity with Jansson’s style, based on what I’ve read so far, can be found in the work of Helene Tursten, or perhaps Finland’s Leena Lehtolainen.

While it is probably too much to hope that the entire Maria Wern backlist might find its way into English translation in the near future—my spidey-sense tells me that the international market for English-language translation of Scandinavian crime fiction is possibly starting to taper—it would nonetheless be good to see a few more of Jansson’s titles available in English. (Currently the only other one available is Killer’s Island.)





Book review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, by Lois McMaster Bujold

14 01 2017

Lois McMaster Bujold’s long-running Vorkosigan saga most often centres on the exploits of Miles Vorkosigan, the onetime spy, spacefleet admiral, hyperactive strategist, trouble magnet, and most recently Count of one of planet Barrayar’s most noteworthy noble families, although the saga is significantly bigger than any of its protagonists. The Vorkosigan books should be required reading for any student of space opera, since they range from epic improvised interplanetary gallantry to closely-observed comedies of manners, with well-nigh every conceivable intervening shade represented somewhere within their pages.

Oh, and they’re great fun.

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Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Bujold’s umpteenth (and most recent) book in the sequence, does indeed feature the irrepressible Miles, but the principal characters in this one are his recently-widowed mother Cordelia, currently vicereine of the Barrayaran colony planet Sergyar, and Admiral Oliver Jole, Sergyar’s military commander. There’s a long (and mainly previously untold) history between these two: Jole served as both aide-de-camp and love interest for Vicereine Vorkosigan’s late husband Aral. Yet their history is not as rivals for Aral’s affection, but as co-conspirators who were primarily motivated by a desire to moderate Aral’s most risk-attracting excesses.

If your preference among the Vorkosigan books is for the taut-plotted mayhem of the early adventures of Miles’ mercenary fleet, such as The Warrior’s Apprentice and The Vor Game, you might find GJ&tRQ a little on the slow side. But there’s a wealth of character-driven observation here, alongside Bujold’s evident affection for the series’ ever-expanding list of participants. One of the highlights of this book is the opportunity to view the series’ lynchpin, Miles through his mother’s eyes, a deft reversal of the saga’s more usual perspective. (Indeed, Miles in this book is treated almost as an adversary, and certainly at least an obstacle to the ambitions of the two main protagonists: this, I would suggest, is the kind of play which just would not work were the series not focussed as much on breadth of character as on depth.) And the scene where Cordelia explains to Miles her relationship with Jole is a classic, a note-perfect exercise in choreographed discomfiture.

Jole, the junior partner in at least three senses, is arguably a less-fully-realised character than Cordelia, but that’s likely because the Vorkosigan matriarch already has several thousand pages of backstory under her belt at the book’s outset, whereas Jole, if he’s mentioned at all in the earlier canon (and I’ve no recollection of it, but it’s a couple of decades since I read some of those books) must pop up only fleetingly, and never has a pivotal role before this one. He’s an intriguing enough character, but it’s arguably the minor characters that add the story’s main zest—Lieutenant Kaya Vorinnis, Admiral Jole’s politically-innocent new aide, and her attempts to combine romance with intelligence-gathering through a dalliance with a junior member of the Cetagandan consular staff; Cordelia’s bodyguard / chauffeur Armsman Rykov, whose powers of discretion get a fairly substantial workout in these pages; Cordelia’s office staff Ivy and Blaise, one an old hand, the other on training wheels—as events play out. It is, as I’ve noted, a little on the uneventful side, uncharacteristically so for something that Miles has even the smallest hand in. But I don’t see that as a negative: Bujold’s narrative, here, requires the space to move freely, so as to give effective play to the characters of Cordelia and Oliver; too much plot would simply get in the way.

And besides, how can I possibly cavil against an author who closes one chapter with the sentence “And then his world turned into a pelting rain of burning snot,” thereby provoking a reaction from the reader, not of the puerile sniggering one might expect, but of genuine, informed concern for an important character?

Bujold can wring pathos from the most unlikely places, and it’s always rewarding to see how she does it.