Forty-something psychotherapist Jessica Mayhew has a successful practice in Cardiff, Wales; a handsome husband, Bob; and two beautiful daughters, Nell...moreForty-something psychotherapist Jessica Mayhew has a successful practice in Cardiff, Wales; a handsome husband, Bob; and two beautiful daughters, Nella and Rose. But appearances can be deceiving. At fifteen, Nella is at a difficult age and Jessica is finding it hard to keep the lines of communication open between them. And she's still trying to recover from learning that Bob had a one-night stand with a much younger woman while on a business trip in Europe a month ago.
On the day Jess's story starts, she meets a potential new client on his first appointment. Gwydion Morgan is a young and extremely handsome local actor, whose best known for his on-going role in a popular Welsh TV soap. His father is the renowned stage director, Evan Morgan, who is equally famous for his numerous affairs and dalliances with other women, while his wife, Arianrhod, once a beautiful actress, wastes away at the family home, a forbidding stone mansion on the rocky Welsh coast. Gwydion has no love for his father but is close to his mother, and no other siblings.
Gwydion comes to Jessica with a fairly typical button phobia, which is a concern now that he's been picked to star in a new costume-drama (the costume he'll have to wear will have numerous buttons). Then he opens up to her about a recurring nightmare he's been having, in which he's a terrified little boy trapped in a dark box. Each time he returns to her office, he recounts the dream as it progresses, and each time, Jessica is sure she thinks she knows where it is going.
As much as she tries, she can't quite keep her own, very human, sense of curiosity out of Gwydion's case. Her friend, an actress called Mari, once had an affair with Evan and imparts some random bits of gossip about the family. And when Jess agrees, against her own rules, to visit the Morgan home in person when Gwydion falls into a deep depression, she is taken on a tour of the cliff-top garden by Arianrhod. At the edge of the cliff, at the top of a steep flight of stairs cut into the rockface, she sees a plaque, written in Swedish, memorialising the death of a young, pretty Swedish backpacker who drowned there.
As the Morgan family's secrets come bubbling to the surface, Jess gets more and more deeply involved in uncovering the truth in the hope of helping Gwydion recover and move on. But all is not as it seems with the Morgans, and Jess is not as in-control of the case as she believes.
I'm a bit torn over this one. While it had many qualities of good writing: swift, smooth, consistent pacing, a well-developed protagonist, some atmosphere and enough details to keep me interested, it was a bit predictable and a bit thin, plot-wise.
The setting - the Welsh coast, in particular - was a good one, and lively for the imagination. There was some atmosphere, but not as much as I would have liked; not as much as would have added tension and real suspense to the story.
Jessica was an interesting character, intelligent and honourable but flawed in the sense that she's a bit over-confident in her own analytical abilities and her own sense of righteousness, and she makes mistakes. She can be a bit unlikeable at times, which actually made me like her more because it made her feel more human. She could be surprisingly slow on the uptake at times, despite being intelligent overall, and she came across as rather cold and unfriendly. The reasons why Bob had a brief affair are hinted at, and as much as it doesn't excuse it, Jess has something to do with it. Her analysis of her own marital difficulties is patchy, and no wonder: it's all very well to look deep into someone else's problems while they sit on your couch, and discreetly guide them to the answers buried in their own minds, but quite another thing to accurately and honestly reflect on yourself. It takes Jess quite a while to realise that, and in the meantime - I can hardly believe it - I actually felt slightly sorry for Bob. Sorry for him in that he's a bit of a pathetic figure (anytime a 50+ year old man shags a 20-something woman, it's a bit sad, really. Mid-life crisis and all that), but also sorry for him because he could use a therapist himself, no doubt.
I am always very fascinated by the descriptions of therapy. Never having attended any kind of therapy session myself, I feel like a real voyeur, peeping in on someone else's. And it speaks to our all-too-human curiosity as to what's going on in other people's lives, partly to see what we can learn about coping techniques for ourselves. I studied some Freud at uni, in a couple of English courses, and was not impressed, but while his ideas were a bit ludicrous at times, I can see the merit in the principals of psychotherapy for some people, at least in the way Jessica works with her clients. As in Liane Moriarty's excellent novel, The Hypnotist’s Love Story, I love getting that intimate access to a therapist's room, and hearing about the processes behind it.
But the plot, oh dear the plot. It really was rather predictable, and Jessica's family drama with Nella was more interesting to me than the murder mystery. It just felt a bit too contrived, a bit too convenient, and a bit too flawed. The concept for the set-up - which I don't want to explain as it would spoil the story, and I don't like giving spoilers if I can help it - seemed flimsy to me, and too obvious. After all, Jessica's dealing with a whole family of actors here, which she notes in the beginning and then forgets, so dazzled is she by Gwydion's beautiful face. (Was it just me or was the flirtation between them just plain creepy?)
As far as a quick mystery read goes, this was certainly quick. As far as a satisfying, suspenseful thriller goes, it was decidedly lacking. I didn't wholly dislike it, for the reasons mentioned above, but by the time I got to the ending I had rather lost interest in the whole family-secret-murder-mystery plot, and just wanted to hear more about human nature and Jessica's internal analysis.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours. (less)
Detective Erlendur is a stout man of fifty, divorced twenty years ago from a woman who still loathes him, a smoker of long habit who eats badly and li...moreDetective Erlendur is a stout man of fifty, divorced twenty years ago from a woman who still loathes him, a smoker of long habit who eats badly and lives alone. He's estranged from his two children - his son is in rehab for drug addiction, and his daughter, Eva Lind, only comes around to ask for more money for her own drugs. At work in Reykjavík, he sees the worst of humanity, but murders are rare, and generally clumsily done. The day he starts investigating a new, puzzling murder case turns out to be the same day Eva Lind decides to move in with him. The dead man, Holberg, was sixty-nine, never married and lived alone in a basement apartment. He was bashed in the head with a glass ashtray. But the perplexing thing is the mysterious note left on the body that says: I Am Him.
As Erlendur starts to dig into Holberg's past he discovers that the dead man was once accused of rape, a crime that the police officer who took the victim's statement completely dismissed and actually made the victim, Kolbrún, feel completely humiliated, so nothing ever came of it. But there is a link somewhere there, because Holberg had, hidden in his desk, a photo of a child's grave: his child, a girl called Audur, by Kolbrún, who died aged four. And Kolbrún killed herself just a few years later. So who killed Holberg, and why?
I really enjoyed this, and I don't say that lightly because I generally don't read crime fiction, murder mysteries, detective fiction, generic thrillers, all those. I don't mind the occasional literary one, though, like Stieg Larsson, and I loved The Boy in the Suitcase that I read a few months ago. I need a lot of character development and a sense of realism, or I get bored very easily. This story seemed deceptively simple, but it played out so well and became really interesting - and it was a very human story, toying with bigger issues much like The Boy in the Suitcase which touched on people trafficking and illegal refugees. I can't tell you what this one delved into without giving it away, but outside of the main mystery the story touches on social issues prevalent in Iceland, on the seedier side of a beautiful-looking place, not in a melodramatic way but a smooth blend of factual "this is how it is" combined with a kind of poignant humanism. The characters all felt very real, no matter how thinly they were described.
Set in 2001, a year in the future (it was first published in 2000), it tackles some key Icelandic issues that became prominent years later - paternity, genetics and the DNA database. I don't know much about it all, but Jar City provides a really good intro and understanding into what it's like in Iceland, where there's such a small population and very little immigration, so the gene pool is fairly small and dates back a long time. As well as that, it opens the secret vault on organ and body acquisition for medical and scientific research purposes - donations the families know nothing about. That's where the title "Jar City" comes from: hundreds and hundreds of organs floating in jars in big rooms. Now, with the genetic database, there is a new kind of Jar City, with just as big ethical problems.
Erlendur himself is the quiet type, a man who takes his time to contemplate things and tries to employ a filter, especially around his daughter, though no matter what he says, she'll react badly. I loved seeing their relationship change and develop, especially after Erlendur blows his top and says what's really on his mind. This particular case really throws into sharp relief his daughter's life and his fears for her.
"...Sorry if I've been nasty to you [Eva Lind]. I didn't intend to, but when I see the way you live, when I see your careless attitude and your lack of self-respect, when I see the destruction, everything you do to yourself and then I watch the little coffin coming up out of the ground, then I can't understand anything any more. I can't understand what's happening and I want to ..." Erlendur fell silent. "Beat the shit out of me," Eva Lind finished the sentence for him. Erlendur shrugged. "I don't know what I want to do. Maybe the best thing is to do nothing. Maybe it's best to let life run its course. Forget the whole business. Start doing something sensible. Why should I want to get involved in all this? All this filth. Talking to people like [convicted felon] Ellidi. Doing deals with shits like [drug dealer] Eddi. Seeing how people like Holberg get their kicks. Reading rape reports. Digging up the foundations of a house full of bugs and shit. Digging up little coffins." Erlendur stroked his chest even harder. "You think it won't affect you. You reckon you're strong enough to withstand that sort of thing. You think you can put on armour against it over the years and can watch all the filth from a distance as if it's none of your business, and try to keep your senses. But there isn't any distance. And there's no armour. No-one's strong enough. The repulsion haunts you like an evil spirit that burrows into your mind and doesn't leave you in peace until you believe that the filth is life itself because you've forgotten how ordinary people live. This case is like that. Like an evil spirit that's been unleashed to run riot in your mind and ends up leaving you crippled." [pp.230-1]
That's the most eloquent he gets, and it's rather amazing to have him come out with all this, for throughout the third-person omniscient narration, you feel both very close to Erlendur and yet completely - not estranged, no, but he's a man who keeps his own counsel. You get to know him through how he interacts with other people, the decisions he makes, things like that. Not for being told anything much by the author, and I liked that. It meant that, this being the first Erlendur book I've read, I had to piece together the detective as much as the crime. Though to be sure, there isn't much more to Erlendur than you see - only these glimpses into a tortured soul, and his impressions of other people, which are very interesting and add that human dimension to the overall story that I appreciated so much.
In fact, this is a very human novel is so many ways. Perhaps that's true of all crime fiction, I couldn't say, but for all the prose was simple and straight-forward, and the story unfolded without pretension or extravagance, it was deeply nuanced, without being over-the-top. Never contrived, but seemingly effortlessly reflecting life in Iceland with stark, brutal honesty. Perhaps it doesn't paint a pretty picture of Iceland, but I suspect it paints an honest one, of a kind.
This is a story that's more sad and tragic than scary or thrilling. It doesn't have any car cashes or shoot-outs or grisly shock tactics. Again, that sense of realism at play, rather than cheap dramatic effects. But it did often give me chills, and effect me emotionally, and Indriđason likes to employ that trick of skipping over the graphic details, showing only people's reactions to hearing them, that make them so much worse - you can't be apathetic or desensitised to something when your imagination is being engaged in filling in the blanks.
There's a great sense of atmosphere here - it's constantly raining, and I pictured it as incredibly grey and overcast (rather like Tasmania in winter, minus all the mud and frost perhaps). Aside from the urban landscape that's given sparse detail yet comes across strongly, there's also the human landscape, the sense of Reykjavĺk and its surroundings (and there are some good maps at the beginning) as being small, confined, isolated, homogeneous and a bit stir-crazy. As Erlendur's colleague, Sigurdur Óli, sums up "your typical Icelandic murder" as "Squalid, pointless and committed without any attempt to hide it, change the clues or conceal the evidence" [p.8], you get a pretty clear idea of what crime is like in Iceland.
This was a fast read that I read in a day over the Christmas holidays, and a great book to snuggle up with, as unlikely as that sounds. I couldn't go to bed until I'd finished it! I don't know if I'll read more of the series - and it wasn't at all a problem, reading the third book as a standalone like this (according to Goodreads, the first two books haven't been translated into English, so for English-language purposes, this is the first book in the series) - but if I ever do feel in the mood for gritty crime fiction, I'll know who to turn to. (As a side note, this book has been made into a film.) (less)
Nina Borg is a Red Cross nurse who works at a clinic by day and by night helps hundreds of illegal immigrants hiding across Denmark. With a history of...moreNina Borg is a Red Cross nurse who works at a clinic by day and by night helps hundreds of illegal immigrants hiding across Denmark. With a history of abruptly leaving her husband Morten and their two young kids for stints in refugee camps in Africa, Nina is passionate, caring and driven to help the unfortunate. When her old friend Karin calls her with an urgent request one day, Nina doesn't say no. Karin gives her a key for a locker at the Copenhagen train station which contains a suitcase. And inside the suitcase is an unconscious, naked three year old boy.
Nina's first thought is child trafficking, and she has little faith in the police actually being able to help; still, she goes back to the train station to report it. But while there she witnesses a large man violently attacking the very locker she found the suitcase in - and he notices her, the way she was looking at him, like she knew. But Nina doesn't really believe the man is after her and the boy until she arranges to meet Karin at her family's lake house, and instead finds her brutally murdered.
Now on the run with a boy who doesn't speak her language and with no one to help her, Nina must try to figure out the boy's origins in the hopes of reuniting him with his family, before the man finds them and she ends up like Karin.
Such a summary as that only tells part of the story, and there's so much more to it than that. The cast of characters, aside from Nina, includes her husband Morten; a wealthy businessman called Jan Marquart who lives in a fortress-like house on the coast with his wife Anne and son Aleksander; the man who abducted the boy, Jučas, and his older girlfriend Barbara; and the boy, Mikas, and his single mother, Sigita Ramoškienė, from Lithuania. The story moves between Nina's side of the story and Sigita's on two different planes of time until they meet at the end, with Jan and Jučas appearing when required. There are other, more minor characters, and as the story progresses we learn more about Nina and her personality, and why her husband sometimes talks to her like she's irresponsible and incompetent. It also gives Sigita's backstory, and truly, it's all put together so beautifully, like a very clever jigsaw puzzle - and I love jigsaw puzzles.
I'm not a big crime reader, I only occasionally read novels like this, and I almost never read pop fiction thrillers and murder mysteries - Tess Gerritson, Tana French, Kathy Reichs etc. - I had to read some for a course at uni and I found them very boring and poorly written, so, not for me. But these "literary" crime novels, I often enjoy these. There's so much more emphasis on character development, the plots are more interesting and they often speak to social issues, economics and politics. With all of those ingredients present, they're more likely to engage me and get me emotionally invested. Which is exactly what happened here, and why I loved this so much.
First of all, now that I have a child of my own, I'm even more deeply affected by stories involved bad things happening to children and mothers than I was before, which is saying a lot. Sigita's story almost made me sick with fear and panic, though it's never reduced to corny melodrama. Sigita keeps her head, and while she struggles to be taken seriously by the police and feels the crush of hopelessness, the threat of panic - her boy could be anywhere, anything could have been done to him - she is also possessed of that unique drive that comes over women when their children are threatened, that single-minded determination. Even just recalling it while I type this, makes those emotions zing through me. She was a strong, well-developed character, young and isolated and too aware that, after long enough, her son won't even remember who she is.
In contrast, Nina was a less familiar, more unique character, but one who becomes familiar and understandable. When her first baby, Ida, is only five months old, she suddenly leaves her family for Liberia, only telling Morten when she was already at the airport. To have a woman just abandon her husband and baby like that, it seems so cruel and selfish, but throughout the novel we get the pieces to better understand Nina, who has an almost psychological problem, like a mental illness.
Only much later had she succeeded in explaining herself to [Morten], at least to some extent. He had noticed that she was finding it harder to sleep, that she was constantly watching Ida, day and night, that she seemed to be afraid of disasters, real or imagined. He had tried to calm her fears, but facts and rationality didn't seem to have much effect on her conviction that something horrible could happen to the child.
... She led a remarkably efficient one-woman crusade to save the world. It was only her own family who could reduce her to abject helplessness. [pp.169-170]
Perhaps because Nina was caring for this little abducted boy, but I never saw her as a bad mother. Just different, and struggling to not let the horrible things that happen in the world completely overwhelm her. She helps the illegal refugees in Denmark as a way of actively doing something, lest her sense of disaster destroy her sanity. It made sense.
The interesting thing about Jan Marquart, is that when we first meet him at the very beginning, the hints or clues indicate that maybe his son has been kidnapped, and he's being blackmailed. I'm sure that's deliberate. We only gradually, bit by bit, learn more and rearrange our impression of Jan, until it comes somewhat full circle. I went through several hypotheses and didn't quite hit on the right one, though I was close. Truly, it's very cleverly written, and a remarkable achievement considering this is the first crime novel the duo of Kaaberbøl and Friis have written - one a fantasy author, the other a children's writer. I can never really imagine how it works, writing a book together, and this one is so seamless, you can't tell that there are two authors. And with Kaaberbøl writing the English translations, you know that nothing's really being lost in translation, either. The writing is gripping, quietly suspenseful, emotionally engaging and sometimes violent.
Karin is dead, she thought, gripping the steering wheel still harder. She had tried to wipe her hands on a crumbled, jellybean-sticky tissue she had found in the glove compartment, but the blood had had time to dry and lay like a thin rust-colored film over her palm and fingertips.
Unbidden, the feel of Karin's skull came back to her. Like one of those big, luxurious, foil-wrapped Easter eggs Morten's parents always bought for Ida and Anton, and which always got dropped on the floor somehow. The shell under the foil would feel flattened and frail, just like Karin's head. She had ben able to feel individual fragments of bone moving under the scalp as she probed. [p.125]
The novel presents a very urban, European Denmark, a country hiding its flaws and ineffective police force. Through Nina we get her scepticism, her distrust of the system and the camps provided for orphaned or homeless children. We meet prostitutes and foreign women trapped in abusive relationships. It's nothing unique to Denmark, and a crime novel is never going to paint a pretty picture of a place. It is the individual characters - some of them - who shine through with their own moral integrity and compassion. Same in Lithuania, with Sigita. The ex-Communist bloc country is a mix of modern Europe and bleak poverty; makes you want to learn more.
And overall, as someone from an island country which shares no borders with anyone, the politics and social justice issues associated with all the refugees and people trafficking, is something that feels so foreign to me - not because we don't have illegal refugees or, perhaps, people trafficking in Australia, but because, without borders you can just drive across, they're not issues, people, that are an accepted part of everyday life, the social fabric. They're still Big Topics, things to be debated about publicly, discovered, uncovered, and punished (the traffickers, not the refugees, though the politicians don't agree). It's hard to explain, but there is a different way of thinking about your place, depending on the landscape - the political landscape as much as anything else. It just seems so easy, for someone to be abducted and sold in another country, within Europe. It's scary.
Probably my one disappointment with this book was the ending. After the climax, the real ending. The tidying-up. I really wanted to know what Nina told the police, especially since she hadn't reported Karin's death and they'd been looking for her, too. I wanted to know how Jan was explained. It just felt like there were some loose ends left hanging. The tidying-up wasn't very tidy, really. Emotionally, yes, sort of, but not plot-wise.
I will definitely be reading more Nina Borg stories, but I'm also interested in reading some of Lene Kaaberbøl's fantasy fiction, and Agnete Friis's children's books, if they're available in English. If you want a really solid, original and unpredictable crime novel, I heartily recommend The Boy in the Suitcase.(less)
I had initially picked this up to read because of the 1930s Mini-Challenge a few months back, but didn't get around to it at the time. It's the first...moreI had initially picked this up to read because of the 1930s Mini-Challenge a few months back, but didn't get around to it at the time. It's the first Hammett book I've read, though I did watch (and study) The Maltese Falcon for a course on Film Noir at uni. With that story and main character in mind, The Thin Man was both what I expected, and quite different.
The blurb describes the set-up thusly: "Nick and Nora Charles are Dashiell Hammett's most enchanting creations, a rich, glamorous couple who solve homicides in between wisecracks and martinis." How could you resist that? And how different a set-up is that from the classic noir detective of The Maltese Falcon? Not only is Nick affable, but he's married! To a beautiful young woman who's smart and elegant and behaves sensibly. Though, Nora isn't very involved in the investigation: Nick tells her everything, and she notices things and passes them on to him, but the spotlight is Nick's alone.
In this story, he comes into contact with a family he used to know, the Wynants: old Clyde Wynant is a reclusive, paranoid inventor, divorced from the mother of his two children, Mimi, a rather violent woman who thinks she's clever and who has married a beautiful younger man, Christian Jorgensen. The two children, now grown into young adults, are Dorothy and Gilbert. None of the people in this family are at all likeable, and they're all rather off. So when Clyde's secretary is murdered just when Mimi happens to be visiting (to see if she can get more money out of her ex), the whole family begins to look suspect.
However, the chief suspect is Clyde himself. Because Nick was a former detective and everyone involved knows him, he becomes involved in the case despite wanting nothing to do with it. The biggest hurdle is trying to work his way through all the lies - it seems like no one can say an honest thing, especially Mimi, who is always trying to work every situation to her advantage.
It's not often - in fact, I can't think of another example quite like this - that I read a book that's almost wholly dialogue-driven. It's rather like a play, or a screenplay perhaps, but definitely like a play. Every scene is an interaction between key players, with very little fleshing out beyond what comes across in speech. I actually found it harder to read, or I should say slow-going. It took me about two months to read this because it couldn't hold my attention for very long at any one time -which made it hard to keep track of who they were talking about, or the point of a conversation.
When it's not dialogue, it's pure narrative, or description: I went here, I did this, I got in the taxi, she poured the drinks etc. No embellishment. No adjectives. If I was more into the story, I would have appreciated it more I'm sure (I'm pointing this out because it's interesting to me, not because it's a negative). It's been years since I read an older detective story - like Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler, for example - so I'm not sure if it's common to the noir genre or not; but it is a style well suited to it. I tried to read a PD James novel a few years ago that a friend leant me, and I couldn't get into it at all. It was the same kind of thing, just introducing characters without embellishment, dry conversations which you presume will have import later on, a mapping out of people's movements ... I find it very boring. So yes, this is definitely not the genre of story I read, though I have enjoyed the older ones before.
I want to reiterate: this isn't a bad book, it isn't badly written, there's honestly nothing wrong with it - I just didn't enjoy it much. I couldn't get into the story or the characters or their conversations, which left me nothing to go with. I was bored. I didn't care very much who killed Julia Wolf, and it was such a close-mouthed case that very little in terms of revelations happen until close to the end (and they're all irrelevant in the end anyway). I don't make any effort to predict a "whodunnit", so I was nicely surprised by the real crime and the perpetrator. At the end, it's pretty impressive just how turned around Hammett made me, by throwing the Wynant family in my face (and boy, are they an hysterical handful!).
Nick Charles is a funny sort, quite the alcoholic - Nora too probably. My reading of the novel was too disjointed to get a very clear idea of them; but then again, I'm not sure that if I'd read it in one sitting I'd have got a better feel for them. I also didn't find them as clever as I felt I should, though there were some nice nuances going on beneath things - like when Dorothy Wynant was always throwing herself at Nick - as was her mother Mimi - and Nora is rather bemused by it all. I liked Nora quite a bit, and was disappointed she wasn't in it more (and when she was, she was always pouring Nick a drink or taking Dorothy into a bedroom - nothing kinky of course; Dorothy was always distraught, drunk, weepy or psychotic. The entire family was weird, which was rather fun).
Overall I'd say, if you like detective fiction and especially the older sort, you'll probably enjoy this. As for me, it didn't encourage me to read more Hammett, though I'm glad I read one to get a taste of his work. (less)
When I was at uni I took a course called Film Noir, in which we studied the film noir genre of films - from The Maltese Falcon to Vertigo. One of the...moreWhen I was at uni I took a course called Film Noir, in which we studied the film noir genre of films - from The Maltese Falcon to Vertigo. One of the movies we watched was Double Indemnity (from 1944 with Barbara Stanwyck), hard to get at the time (our lecturer had to get the VHS from the States - we're talking the year 2000 here). It was a great film that stuck in my head, so I was thrilled to find the book.
Walter Neff is an insurance salesman in Los Angeles - a very good salesman. When he goes to the home of Mr Nirdlinger to renew his automobile insurance, he meets instead the man's second wife, Phyllis. Phyllis is a sexy woman who plays it almost innocent, drawing Walter in without him realising how he's being played. She wants to take out accident insurance on her husband without him knowing about it - which is a big no-no, for obvious reasons. But Walter sees a way of doing it, and he willingly offers to help her off her husband for fifty thousand dollars (which would probably be about five hundred thousand these days). The fifty thou is "double indemnity" on the usual twenty-five, and you can only get double indemnity on train accidents. That is, death by train is worth fifty thousand dollars.
Together, they carry it off. It's flawless. But by then, Walter is repulsed by Phyllis, and the insurance company he works for has no intention of paying out the money - his bosses are sure the accident was either suicide or very clever murder. And as Walter gets to know Mr Nirdlinger's daughter Lola, guilt crushes him. He sees only one way out: to kill Phyllis. But he's not the only one with nefarious intentions, and he's up against a woman with a dark and bloody past.
This is a tight, intense crime drama, narrated by Walter with an economy of words and a fast, clipped pace that creates suspense and tension.
She made another bunch of pleats. Then, after a long time, here it came. "Mr Huff, would it be possible for me to take out a policy for him, without bothering him about it at all? I have a little allowance of my own. I could pay you for it, and he wouldn't know, but just the same all the worry would be over."
I couldn't be mistaken about what she meant, not after fifteen years in the insurance business. I mashed out my cigarette, so I could get up and go. I was going to get out of there, and drop those renewals and everything else about her like a red-hot poker. But I didn't do it. She looked at me, a little surprised, and her face was about six inches away. What I did do was put my arm around her, pull her face up against mine, and kiss her on the mouth, hard. I was trembling like a leaf. She gave it a cold stare, and then she closed her eyes, pulled me to her, and kissed back. (pp. 12-13)
For the entire novel, I felt like I was there in the dark streets (it always felt like night-time, even when it wasn't). It was a tangible, visceral thing, conjured by such a superb and precise use of words. There's no filler, no padding; at only 115 pages you get a tight, tense, suspenseful story.
I raised up, put my hand over his mouth, and pulled his head back. He grabbed my hand in both of his. The cigar was still in his fingers. I took it with my free hand and handed it to her. She took it. I took one of the crutches and hooked it under his chin. I won't tell you what I did then. But in two seconds he was curled down on the seat with a broken neck, and not a mark on him except a crease right over his nose, from the crosspiece of the crutch.
We were right up with it, the moment of audacity that has to be part of any successful murder. For the next twenty minutes, we were in the jaws of death, not for what would happen now, but for how it would go together later. (pp. 44-45)
I have a vague memory of how the movie ended, which was rather different from how it ends in the book. The ending in the novel was bleak, almost gothic, yet just. It was a nice surprise - although "nice" isn't the word for it. The book and the film both offer the story in their own ways, making each a great story in its own right.(less)
I have to thank my friend Maria (of Bogormen) again for sending me the UK edition of the third book, which arri...moreContains spoilers for the end of book 2
I have to thank my friend Maria (of Bogormen) again for sending me the UK edition of the third book, which arrived on about the same day as it was released in hefty and expensive hardcover here - I love the book-blogging community; we're all so keen for each other to read our favourite books we'll happily supply the drugs books for each others' habit! This edition doesn't match the elongated mass market paperbacks of the previous two that I have, but that's okay. One detail I noticed just yesterday though: the UK edition uses hornets', while the US uses hornet's. Since the direct English translation of the original Swedish title is The Castle in the Cloud that got Blown Up (thanks again, Maria!), it must come down to a simple preference on the part of the publishers. Still, I can't help but be interested in these little details.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest picks up exactly where The Girl Who Played With Fire left us, with Lisbeth Salander riddled with bullets, Zalachenko the ex-Russian spy with half his face hacked off, the blonde giant Niedermann on the run, and Mikael Blomkvist, journalist and co-ownder of Millennium magazine, trying to explain to the police the true story of Lisbeth's past.
With a bullet in her brain, Lisbeth and Zalachenko are both taken to the same hospital. The secret select club within the Security Police - Säpo - that ran the whole Zala operation and saw to it that Lisbeth was locked up in a mental institution, will do everything they can to make sure the truth doesn't come to light, and that Lisbeth gets up away for good this time. Their old leader, Evan Gullberg, comes out of retirement to sort things out. But Mikael starts his own investigation and begins spying on the spies, creating a head-to-head race to save or damn Lisbeth Salander.
This one started out rather slowly, like the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo did, and I stuttered in my reading of it after the first 100 pages because by the end of book 2 we know who did it and why, so it's like there's no mystery anymore and hence no motivation to keep reading. After a while, though, the pace picked up and it got interesting again. Yes, we know they what and the why and the who, but not how Lisbeth is going to win her court case, or oust the Section (the group within Säpo that wants her locked up), and there's a few little side-plots to flesh things out further, like Erika Berger's new job.
You might not like Larsson's penchant for details, or for detailing people's movements (I do), but you've gotta hand it to him: he's consistent. Or was. The poor bloke died of a heart attack in 2004, at only fifty years old, before being able to complete the fourth book. Turns out he had plans for a 10 book series. Either way, at least this trilogy is complete in itself - not to mention a publishing boon. I also read that in 2008 he was the second-biggest selling author in the world, behind Khaled Hosseini (I didn't know that about Hosseini either). But I digress.
There's not as much of Salander in this third outing, but there's more Blomkvist than in book 2. The characters don't particularly grow any further than they did by the end of the last book, but by now we know them, are familiar with their habits and feel comfortable with them - and sympathy for them. There are new characters, lots of them, and I find that Larsson's repetition of key little facts here and there really helps you keep up with them all. Especially considering the size of these books. I think book 2 is still my favourite, but I really enjoyed them all - not just for the personal stories, the stories of the characters, but for what the novels say about politics, corruption, freedom of the press and other relevant issues.(less)
My friend Maria from Denmark got me onto these books and I'm so so glad she did. I read the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, last year,...moreMy friend Maria from Denmark got me onto these books and I'm so so glad she did. I read the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, last year, and as soon as book two came out in paperback a couple of months ago I grabbed a copy (I did pay for it). Then she told me it has a real cliffhanger ending, and that she'd send me book 3 (which wasn't even out here at the time). I waited till it arrived and then last weekend I took this one up to the cottage. It's perfect sunny day, waterside reading.
The main events are set about a year after the end of the first book, and aren't directly related to the mystery of that book. Lisbeth Salander, twenty-five, less than five feet tall and a skilled computer hacker, has broken off all communication with Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist she helped and had a relationship with in the first book. She has her stolen billions from the corporate criminal Wennerström and takes a year off, travelling around the world. When she returns to Stockholm, she makes some changes in her life. She buys an expensive condo and a car, reconnects with her friend Mimmi, and checks up on her state-appointed guardian, Bjurman.
She can't resist hacking into Blomkvist's computers and seeing what's he's working on: a feature and a book written by another journalist, Dag Svensson, on sex trafficking. Dag's partner, Mia Johansson, is doing her PhD on the same topic, though from a different angle. It's an absorbing project that Mikael is editing, and Salander doesn't become really interested until a name turns up in the research: Zala.
On the same night Lisbeth visits Dag and Mia to find out what they know about Zala, the couple are murdered. The murder weapon is a gun owned by Bjurman with Lisbeth's fingerprints on it.
Suddenly Salander is a fugitive, wanted for mass murders. Her history - or choice parts of it - are splashed across the papers and embellished. Only Blomkvist is sure of her innocence - and he intends to prove it. Of course Salander has her own plans, and everything centres on the mysterious unknown figure of Zala.
This is one very tight novel. While book 1 started off slow and had some even slower patches to get through, this second book is fast-paced and never dull. I was deeply engrossed and read most of the hefty book in one day (it helped to be lazing around at the cottage with few distractions!). From the beginning it held my absolute attention. The characters, established in the first book, become so much real here. Lisbeth in particular becomes the main attraction, and even reading about what she buys from IKEA for her new apartment engrossed me. (For readers who complain about "irrelevant" details in books, they'll no doubt hate this. Larsson's style is very detail-oriented at times.)
We learn about Lisbeth's past, and get her side of the story - as well as the psychiatrist's. Continuing the theme from book one of "men who hate women", The Girl Who Played With Fire has several note-worthy bigots, chauvinists, misogynists and downright arrogant bastards (the original Swedish title of book 1, Maria told me, translates directly into English as "men who hate women". But I can see why they changed it and went with "the girl who..."). It's interesting, men like these populate a lot of fiction, TV shows and movies, and we just accept them. They tend to be clichés, true to type, and familiar. But we never really see the damage they do, the bigger context such attitudes creates, how they really affect women - as a gender. That's what's really highlighted in The Girl Who Played With Fire. It threads its way through the entire novel, not front-and-centre but consistently present. And it helps you see just how far we haven't come.
The maths references were beyond me, and I could only vaguely get the metaphors at the beginning of each part. Frankly it was like reading another language. I was still interested in Salander's mathematical hobby, but at the end where she suddenly figures out Fermat's equation, I'm impressed at her skill but have no idea if it was meant to be clear to me as well. I don't even understand what the puzzle was! (and please don't bother trying to explain it to me. I just don't have a mathematical background to follow.)
I was glued to this book - for someone who doesn't read and doesn't care for crime fiction, detective stories etc (unless they're literary, which sounds so snobby, but just means that I need better character development and greater detail than you get from the actual genre), it seems like a big deal to me. This isn't just a crime to be solved, a mystery to puzzle out, a whodunnit. It touches on deeper social issues, is dark and gritty and unabashedly violent but never, I think, gratuitous; and every character is one that becomes tangible. It's like those rare TV shows where the characters become so familiar they're like an extended family - which is what every network hopes to achieve with every show, don't they? I'd say Larsson succeeded exceptionally well with the Millennium books. As soon as I'd finished this one, I picked up the third, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Let's just say that my challenge-required reading has been, ah, delayed!(less)
Nayir ash-Sharqi is a Palestinian desert guide living in Saudi Arabia who is often mistaken as a Bedouin. His best friend, Othman Shrawi, is the adopt...moreNayir ash-Sharqi is a Palestinian desert guide living in Saudi Arabia who is often mistaken as a Bedouin. His best friend, Othman Shrawi, is the adopted son of a wealthy and influential Saudi family. When Othman's sixteen-year-old sister Nouf goes missing, along with a camel and a ute, Nayir is called upon to help search for her in the desert.
Her body is found ten days later, in a wadi - a dry rivulet that floods when the rains come. Cause of death: drowning. But there are defensive wounds on her wrists and dirt that is not from the desert, and why did she run away when she was about to be married and was happy? Her family has kept the situation quiet and doesn't want a police investigation, but Othman asks Nayir to find out what happened. Nayir is equally troubled by the mystery of Nouf's disappearance and death, especially when he sees how she was buried: with her belly facing Meccah. Only when a woman is pregnant is she buried that way, but Nouf wasn't even married.
Assistance comes from an unlikely and, at first, unwanted source: Katya Hijazi, a medical examiner at the morgue and Othman's fiancee. A determined young woman, she makes the pious and very single Nayir uncomfortable with every glimpse of her face, but as the two uncover more about Nouf's secret life and draw closer to the truth, these two amateur detectives are drawn closer together in friendship, understanding and mutual respect - and something more hopeful and long-lasting.
Finding Nouf was a joy to read. Ferraris' debut novel successfully takes you into the inner world behind the veils and etiquette of Saudi society, dances tightly but gracefully around a sensitive mystery and the intricate workings of this deeply religious culture. I am always wary of western authors tackling a society and religion like Islam and the Middle East, especially from the perspective of a non-white non-Westerner. By making the main character a deeply religious Islamic man who is both shy and terrified around women, and balancing him with a woman who "merely" wants the freedom of choice - a sentiment that women everywhere can sympathise with and understand - Ferraris manages to present both the familiar and the new, treat her characters and their culture with deep respect, and touch upon the changing dynamics, needs and wants of the people there.
I learnt a lot about the inner workings of Saudi culture, especially the family unit. Explanations and insight were offered when needed without jarring the narrative or sounding at all patronising. While written with a non-Middle Eastern, non-Islamic audience in mind, I didn't find it laced with that condescending colonial voice that can undermine similar books, where a trace of smugness permeates. Ferraris lived in Saudi Arabia with her then-husband's extended Bedouin family, which explains her knowledge and first-hand experience - what I'm grateful for in particular is the way she has managed to let us foreign heathens into a very private realm without making us feel like interlopers, or feeding our superiority complex. I'd like to say Finding Nouf would be a great book for Muslim Westerners to read as well, but I can't assume. I think my Muslim friends would enjoy it though (although none of them are Saudi).
I rarely read mysteries, especially the pulp kind, mostly because I get bored, I find the writing to be pretty poor, the characters underdeveloped and the plots either confusing or predictable - but always plodding. This is technically a "literary detective novel" and is not as plot-dependent as the pulp kind. The setting is beautifully resurrected, the heat and the marble and the finer details, the countless bored men driving round and round the roundabout while thinking up names for the huge sculptures in the middle, the subtle little etiquette details. It'd be challenging, writing a mystery set in a land and culture largely unfamiliar to us - so many of the plot points would lose their significance and relevance because we don't get the context. Never once did I have a dumb moment, a moment of feeling excluded or that the characters were placing heavy emphasis on a point without explaining why it was important - Ferraris always managed to get across context and relevance without belabouring the point.
At first the mystery seemed obvious - I thought, oh it must be an honour-killing, the family probably drowned her in the swimming pool for dishonouring them. Well I was wrong, and I'm glad of it. It's much more complex than that. Elements of it I guessed early on, but there are still layers to it that aren't revealed until the end - that aren't pieced together until the end. The structure of the mystery and the piecing together of the puzzle was very well done. Another testament to Ferraris' writing is how Nouf comes alive as they piece together her secret life. She's a vivid character and it's important that we care about her, whether we like her or not, or there's no need to stick around to find out whodunnit.
The beginning was a tad slow, and I was unsure about it - especially as Nouf turns up dead early on and I thought her family had killed her. But it does pick up and the final chapters are engrossing, especially as by then you're comfortable in this world, you feel like you get it, and you care what happens. It's also promising that the ending seemed to set up or allow the possibility for a second novel featuring Nayir and Katya (Nayir, by the way, definitely needs to get laid). I'd love to read it. It was refreshing, to say the least, to have the opportunity to read such a delicate novel set in such a different (than usual) place, and I definitely want to revisit it.(less)
In 1966 sixteen-year-old Harriet Vanger, daughter of the CEO of the large family-run Vanger Corporation, goes missing from her family's island communi...moreIn 1966 sixteen-year-old Harriet Vanger, daughter of the CEO of the large family-run Vanger Corporation, goes missing from her family's island community and is never seen again. Not even a body is found, and her great uncle, Henrik Vanger, has explored every possible lead to discover what happened to his one and only favourite family member.
Over the last forty years her disappearance has become Henrik's obsession, and he's positive someone in the family murdered her - but they never found a motive, and without one he doesn't know who to suspect. Now, in 2005, Henrik has little time left as he grows old and plenty of money to indulge in his obsession one last time.
Mikael Blomkvist is a forty-something financial journalist and editor of Millennium magazine, a magazine he co-founded which prides itself on investigative journalism. But Blomkvist and the magazine have just suffered their first big blow: he's been convicted of libel against one of the biggest business entrepreneurs in Sweden, Hans-Erik Wennerström.
Wanting to keep a low profile and pretend he's been fired from the magazine in order to try and save it from further attack by Wennerström, Henrik Vanger's proposition comes at an ideal time. Mikael's father once worked for the Vanger Corporation, and Harriet herself had babysat little Mikael a few times. Henrik offers Blomkvist a year-long contract with the pretext of writing a history of the family - an autobiography of Henrik - while his real mission is to discover what happened to Harriet.
After some convincing, Blomkvist takes the job - but when he discovers the first new evidence since the tragedy occurred, he realises he needs help - and who better to go to than the private investigator who did such a good job on Blomkvist when Henrik hired her?
Lisbeth Salander is a quiet, secretive young woman who excels at what she does because she's also a genius hacker. With a troubled past and a dicey present, her trust in Blomkvist takes her by surprise. The two team up to discover the truth about Harriet, and to take Wennerström down.
Thanks to a friend of mine, who also recommended this to me, I knew the English translation of the original title before I started reading this, which is Men Who Hate Women. This is actually very interesting and worth mentioning. It's certainly an apt title; perhaps not obvious at first, after a while it becomes a very clear theme. It may also give it away a bit. But I can also understand why they went with a very different title for the English translation. Lisbeth is "the girl with the dragon tattoo" - among other tattoos and piercings - and she is one of two main characters. The second book's English title is "The girl who played with fire", so you can see they're going with their own theme here.
More importantly, though, such a title is more appealing to an English-language audience. Titles, like covers, that feature girls or women - or wives - are popular and sell well. This is an intriguing title, and doesn't give away the genre. When this book first came out, the hardcover was marketed to a literary crowd. This is the mass market paperback edition, and with a quote from Harlan Coben on the cover along with the style of cover itself (and the long, narrow format), it is more clearly pitched at the Mystery mob (hence why both my parents-in-law read this before I did).
It is a mystery, and a thriller at times, and a detective book - but it's also a political and economic commentary, has one of the more original and daring heroines of the genre, and is invigorating in its details. I don't read many mystery novels, because (ironically), I find them boring. Aside from a quiet patch at about the two-quarter mark, I never found this book boring, even though not a whole lot happens until the last third.
Both Blomkvist and Salander are engaging protagonists, for very different reasons. Things happen to them that will make you upset and angry, especially Salander, whose side story holds you enthralled and revolted at the same time, as does the truth about Harriet - but there's nothing gratuitous here, or unnecessarily included or described: it's all relevant.
The pacing is superb (yes, even with that "quiet patch"), and the plotting cleverly controlled. The cold of Sweden - at times down to -35F (which makes the 44F of Shiver seem somewhat laughable) - was vividly realised, as was the setting of Hedeby Island. I would have liked to "see" more of Sweden - everything was terribly familiar - but a mystery book isn't really the place for that.
This is a very mature book, with themes that make you despair yet are handled so compassionately that you are never alienated. I also enjoyed the economic side of the other plot line, and Blomkvist's words towards the end were very apt considering the recent problems with the American stock exchange and subsequent recession, when he's asked by a TV host about "the fact that Sweden's economy was now headed for a crash." He calls it nonsense, and goes on to explain something which I think we all tend to forget:
"You have to distinguish between two things - the Swedish economy and the Swedish stock market. The Swedish economy is the sum of all the goods and services that are produced in this country every day. There are telephones from Ericsson, cars from Volvo, chickens from Scan, and shipments from Kiruna to Skövde. That's the Swedish economy, and it's just as strong or weak today as it was a week ago. ... The Stock Exchange is something very different. There is no economy and no production of goods and services. There are only fantasies in which people from one hour to the next decide that this or that company is worth so many billions, more or less. It doesn't have a thing to do with reality or with the Swedish economy." (p819)
Sure that's a simplistic way of putting it, but his description of the Stock Exchange pretty neatly sums up the way I've always perceived it - and scorned it. So I enjoyed this exchange, and the whole Wennerström sub plot, as much as the mystery about Harriet itself.
The other side of the commentary that's strong and interesting is the issue of journalistic responsibility, and ethics. Decisions are made at the end that are highly questionable, but there are no easy answers - Blomkvist is the voice of our conscience here, and yet you can see the other side too. I don't envy him his position!
I have no complaints with this book, but I have one to the publisher: I really hate the new, narrow format of mass market paperbacks. (Thankfully, only a few books get printed like this.) They're just so tall and ... skinny. It certainly doesn't save any paper, and makes me feel like I'm falling off the edge of the page at the end of each line, which barely fits five words. I don't care for the larger typeface and roomy layout either - I like tighter lines and smaller fonts, personally. That would have saved paper!(less)
Chicago cop Ryan Daire is gifted an empty old mansion by his university professor under somewhat strange circumstances. Inspecting the house with his...moreChicago cop Ryan Daire is gifted an empty old mansion by his university professor under somewhat strange circumstances. Inspecting the house with his partner Ramirez one night, Ryan is startled to see a beautiful woman in the ballroom – who vanishes. Upstairs, in the bedroom which contains only the frame for a brass bed and an old wardrobe with a gilt mirror on the inside of the door, he sees her again, in the mirror, wearing a flimsy scrap of a see-through nightie. It’s clear she sees him as well, and is startled, but she’s definitely not there in the room with him. Ramirez thinks he’s seeing a ghost, but Ryan’s sure she’s not. What she is, he doesn’t know.
More encounters with the mysterious, beautiful young woman within the mansion lead to a startling discovery: Ryan is seeing Hope Stillwater, who lived in the house with her minister father, Jacob, in the 1900s. As a cop, he accesses the archives and learns that Hope disappeared in 1906 and her mutilated body was found three days later. He’s determined to breach the mirror and go back to 1906 to save her – and explore the exploding chemistry and passion that rises between them.
Beth Kery set a high standard with her excellent previous novel, Wicked Burn; with Daring Time, she’s proven she’s no one-hit wonder. If this is a taste of Kery to come, we’re in for a real treat. It’s a powerful, explosive novel of intensely erotic sexual hunger, cleverly constructed time travel, and two wonderfully developed and very real characters.
The city of Chicago in the 1900s came alive for me – I’ve never been, but I could feel and taste it even though Kery doesn’t overburden her prose with long descriptions. There’s a slightly gothic flavour to the story, especially the scenes within the mansion, as if the house is a character in and of itself.
Any book with time travel is prey to plot holes and loose threads when poorly handled. Beth Kery has deftly woven this tale with no holes in sight. It’s not a head-spinning read like The Time Traveler’s Wife, for example, so you don’t get lost in the shifts in time. Everything comes together at the end and the resolution is in perfect keeping with the characters and their time periods: a natural ending, not a forced one. Or should I say “beginning”, as it feels to me that Hope and Ryan are out there, living their life together and being true to themselves, at some point in time, so real did they seem to me.
Daring Time is a smooth blend of fantasy, crime and erotic romance that keeps you on your toes, breathless, with your heart in your mouth. Even though, as a romance, I’m confident it will have a happy ending, the suspense and tension and uncertainty is often so strong that suddenly nothing is obvious at all. A magical book. My only complaint is how long I’ll have to wait for Kery’s next book.
There's something decidedly off, combining erotic romance with a serial rapist-killer. Just putting those words in the same sentence together makes me...moreThere's something decidedly off, combining erotic romance with a serial rapist-killer. Just putting those words in the same sentence together makes me cringe. It seemed ... tasteless, to me.
It's a suspense-thriller with so-called erotic sex and it fails miserably. Nikki is a surgeon with a high-stress career and secretly wants to be dominated in bed; her search for fulfilment leads her to exchange emails with a man who likes to dominate, Richard. After a few weeks of exchanging emails that get more and more explicit, she agrees to meet him. There's something wrong though, and before anything happens she's rescued by Detective Thomas Cavanagh, who's after a serial killer who rapes and tortures women before removing their hearts.
Thomas has read all Nikki's correspondence with Richard and wants to be the man to dominate her - forced to live together for her protection at a safe house, he gets his wish but does she really mean it? And who is the Amy he talks to in his sleep, saying he loves her, that makes Nikki jealous? There's plenty of miscommunication or lack of entirely that strings out their relationship, but ultimately the juxtaposition of sexual play alongside grisly murders just turned me off. I confess I skimmed a lot of it, something I very rarely do. I've read one short story by Black and liked her style, and hoped this would be good. But I should have looked more closely into it before picking it up, because if I'd known it would have been about this I wouldn't have bothered.(less)