All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Beartown (Beartown #1)
Fredrik Backman
Translated by Neil Smith
Atria Books
2017, 418p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever-encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded town. And that rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior hockey team is about to compete in the national championships, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of the town now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys. 

A victory would send star player Kevin onto a brilliant professional future in the NHL. It would mean everything to Amat, a scrawny fifteen-year-old treated like an outcast everywhere but on the ice. And it would justify the choice that Peter, the team’s general manager, and his wife, Kira, made to return to his hometown and raise their children in this beautiful but isolated place. 

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semifinal match is the catalyst for a violent act that leaves a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Hers is a story no one wants to believe since the truth would mean the end of the dream. Accusations are made, and like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

I have been meaning to read a book by Fredrik Backman for so long, I’ve seen and heard so many good things about them. Randomly there was one on the display shelf at my library and when I looked at the blurb, it was about ice hockey so I had to grab it. That book was Us Against You which is the second in the Beartown series so I had to order this in from another branch.

I’m a new ice hockey fan, I’ve been following the NHL somewhat loosely for about four years. Living in Australia, it’s not particularly popular here although there does seem to be a growing number of fans. We don’t see many games here and the ones shown are rarely even the conference my team plays in, let alone my actual team so this year for my birthday, my husband paid for an NHL subscription, whereby you can watch every single game. It’s been really good, even if my team are playing particularly bad this year! It’s made me feel much more connected to the sport.

I loved this book. And the ice hockey is only a small part of it, it’s just the catalyst, it could honestly have been any sport really. It’s about human nature and relationships and a small, dying down that desperately needs something to rejuvenate it, to make it relevant again. That something is an ice hockey team that threatens to win the national championships and it’s really down to just two players: Kevin, who has it all. He’s been dedicated to the sport from a young age and he has the talent to go all the way, to make his way to the NHL draft. And his best friend Benjy, an enforcer who makes sure that no one takes Kevin out, that he’s free to glide through and do what he does best.

This is such an insightful story, there’s so much in here about the insular nature of small towns, their view of outsiders, the ways in which they latch onto things. The team has seen success in the past – now General Manager of the Beartown facility, Kevin Andersson was one of those promising kids two decades ago and he found himself with a contract in Canada. Injuries meant it didn’t work out and he dragged his wife and kids back to Beartown to “give back” to the community in a mostly thankless job that means he’s stuck between the Board, who demand success and results, and the ageing coach they want to force out. The coach who has made this club, devoted his whole life to it, nurtured players in ways that went far beyond just teaching them plays on the ice.

The cast of characters is so wonderful, I loved so many of them. Especially Amat, son of a widow, born in a place that doesn’t even see snow. Amat’s mother works as a cleaner at the ice hockey rink and he faces bullying and ridicule from those in the team above him – until someone notices that the 15yo’s speed is what the junior team lacks and soon he’s playing with kids 2 years older than him and for the first time he’s part of it, part of the team, included. It’s a huge rush…..but that comes at a price and Amat has to decide if he wants to pay it.

There is an incident that occurs at a party in this book – it’s something we’ve all heard about, maybe even we know someone that it happened to. If not, we’ve certainly read about similar stories in the news and this book examines the way people view the story, how it’s always a “one person’s word against the other” but the words are not given equal weight – there’s always a tilt towards one side, especially when that person is an incredibly highly promising athlete. This is a snapshot of a societal response, especially when something is threatened as a result of it.

I just really loved the writing and the way this story was told. Every now and then the author would toss in this one liner about marriage or relationships or some sort of observation about human nature and it was so insightful. There’s also a lot of foreshadowing – the book opens with a declaration of an event and then shows how everyone got there and also, towards the end, there are snapshots of the future as well, how the events that played out, shaped the characters after it.

I’m so glad this is a series. I honestly cannot wait to read the second book and I want to own and read everything Fredrik Backman has ever written.

9/10

Book #61 of 2021

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Review: Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Earthlings 
Sayaca Murata (translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
Granta
2020, 247p
Copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Mind-blowing, dark and wild, the new novel from Sayaka Murata – author of bestseller Convenience Store Woman – asks: how far would you go just to be yourself?

Natsuki isn’t like the other girls. She has a wand and a transformation mirror. She might be a witch, or an alien from another planet. Together with her cousin Yuu, Natsuki spends her summers in the wild mountains of Nagano, dreaming of other worlds. When a terrible sequence of events threatens to part the two children forever, they make a promise: survive, no matter what.

Now Natsuki is grown. She lives a quiet life with her asexual husband, surviving as best she can by pretending to be normal. But the demands of Natsuki’s family are increasing, her friends wonder why she’s still not pregnant, and dark shadows from Natsuki’s childhood are pursuing her. Fleeing the suburbs for the mountains of her childhood, Natsuki prepares herself with a reunion with Yuu. Will he still remember their promise? And will he help her keep it?

Yikes, where to start with this.

Firstly (and I don’t often do this but I feel this book warrants it) – trigger/content warning for: child abuse, physical and mental abuse, child sex abuse, graphic content, horror, gore, cannibalism.

This book starts off simply enough – Natsuki is a young girl who spends each summer at the home of her grandparents deep in the mountains. She loves this time, she gets to see all her relatives, especially her cousins and her favourite cousin, Yuu. Natsuki and Yuu are quite close (bonding over a shared view that they are aliens who do not belong) and I think Natsuki’s desire to ‘marry’ Yuu reflects a longing to escape her life. Her mother is incredibly abusive towards Natsuki, both emotionally and physically. She’s very concerned with Natsuki’s sister’s fragile health and that child is given priority. Summer at the family house is Natsuki’s dream, she longs for it each year. There’s a lot happening to her, she’s also being preyed upon by a teacher at her school, which, when she tries to tell her mother, results in being beaten and screamed at for lying. I found that stuff really hard to read as it all takes place from Natsuki’s point of view and she’s very young, she doesn’t really understand what is happening. She comes up with this plan to basically take back her body but it ends badly when the adults discover it.

The book skips forward then, to when Natsuki is now 34 and married in a marriage of convenience. It’s all to maintain appearances, to be part of what Natsuki calls ‘the Factory’ – where you are born, you grow up and get married, have a child or children to contribute and then the cycle repeats all over again. Anyone who doesn’t conform is questioned relentlessly and Natsuki experiences this to a degree as she and her husband are yet to produce a child for ‘the Factory’.

It’s during this section when things take…..a bit of a turn. There’s some earlier magical realism, where Natsuki has a small hedgehog toy as a child that she believes is from a different planet, which actually seems to be a coping mechanism for her life as this ostracised child who doesn’t feel she fits in or belongs. And I suppose a lot of what follows could be the result of the deep trauma she experienced during that childhood but let’s just say the book definitely goes places that I did not expect it to go. I’ve read Sayaka Murata’s first novel, Convenience Store Woman and I really enjoyed it. I only read it this year and I see similarities between that book and this one: both have main characters in their thirties who do not really conform to the expected views of society. Both are in marriages of a convenience. There’s a lot about the ‘system’ in Japan and how women’s bodies aren’t really their own and how they are all cogs in a machine to drive society forward, to keep things moving.

This book gets dark, very dark. There was a lot of content that I felt uncomfortable reading, because I don’t generally choose to read books of this type and it wasn’t something I expected, going in. It’s toward the end though, so I had already read most of the book so I finished it, so I’d find out what happened. A lot of the latter part of the book feels quite unhinged, referencing Natsuki’s mental state, as her and her companions further descend into this belief that they’re really aliens from another planet who are just inhabiting Earthly vessels and doing what Earthlings do.

I felt like this book started off really well. The feeling of ostracisation that Natsuki experienced within her own family, her desire to escape, even the toy hedgehog being from another planet, I could understand it as a child’s desire to believe in something better for themselves. The sexual abuse is disturbing (and I was concerned how dismissive everyone was of it) but I felt it gave Natsuki reasons for her desire to escape the life she was living. But the deeper I got, honestly, the less I enjoyed it. I found the ending really gratuitous and I’m not even entirely sure how much was real and how much might’ve been a mental psychosis induced fever dream. Maybe it was all real and all of them descended into madness together at the same rate as a result of the different traumas they experienced as children, as people who didn’t fit into neat boxes as adults. Maybe none of it was. I honestly don’t even know. Reading it as it was presented, I didn’t enjoy it.

4/10

Book #203 of 2020

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Review: The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun

The Disaster Tourist
Yun Ko-eun (translated from Korean by Lizzie Buehler)
Serpent’s Tail
2020, 192p
Read via my local library/Borrow Box

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Yona has been stuck behind a desk for years working as a programming coordinator for Jungle, a travel company specialising in package holidays to destinations ravaged by disaster. When a senior colleague touches her inappropriately she tries to complain, and in an attempt to bury her allegations, the company make her an attractive proposition: a free ticket for one of their most sought-after trips, to the desert island of Mui.

She accepts the offer and travels to the remote island, where the major attraction is a supposedly-dramatic sinkhole. When the customers who’ve paid a premium for the trip begin to get frustrated, Yona realises that the company has dangerous plans to fabricate an environmental catastrophe to make the trip more interesting, but when she tries to raise the alarm, she discovers she has put her own life in danger.

It got to almost the end of August and I realised that I had not read anything that contributed to my Reading Women Challenge in a while and that I was probably falling behind. I’ve read 13 books out of the 26 prompts (not including this one) and so I thought I’d better find something that would count. Because I can’t request titles from my library anymore due to this Stage 4 lockdown, my ability to find relevant titles has diminished a bit. I’m restricted to what I already have or what the library has available on one of their electronic borrowing platforms. There’s a good selection but it can be quite random. I’d spotted this a few times and in the end, rearranged a book I’d already used to tick off translated from an Asian language to a book set in Japan instead so that I could use this book for the Asian language. Sometimes you just have to get creative!

Yona is a woman in her early 30s working as a programming coordinator for Jungle, a company that puts together “disaster” holiday tours. Think visiting volcanoes, areas devastated by tsunamis etc. She’s very successful but such success is a precarious thing because Yona has seen colleagues before, suddenly disappear. They all live in fear of a mysterious yellow card which designates some sort of strike. Yona’s boss also starts touching her inappropriately and rumour has it he only targets those who are about to receive the yellow card. When she wants to quit, he instead convinces her to take a fully paid business trip to one of their tours that is not cutting it in terms of profit and analyse it undercover, making a report as to whether or not it should continue to be offered. Yona picks the most expensive tour, one of an island named Mui off the coast of Vietnam which boasts a sinkhole.

This starts off relatively straight forward. Yona is overworked – it seems that vacations aren’t really a thing at Jungle until you’re almost due a nervous breakdown. She’s been a consistently high performer and I’m not sure why she seems to feel like she’s about to be targeted for a mysterious yellow card. But when her boss starts sexually harassing her, it seems like it’s almost a foregone conclusion. There are others that he has targeted and they seek her out as well, wanting her to stand in solidarity with them as they protest his behaviour. When Yona tries to quit, she is instead urged to ‘take a break’ but that break is essentially work as well, as she will be assessing a tour for whether or not it should continue to go ahead.

Then, about maybe 2/3 of the way into this book, things take a rather sharp, unexpected turn. After realising that the tour is not particularly worth keeping, Yona is separated from her group at the end of the tour and forced to return to the resort on Mui where they all stayed. Whilst there, she uncovers a plot by some sort of mysterious owner of a company to fabricate a large disaster, to bring those who thrive on ‘disaster tourism’ flooding back to the island. And it was here things definitely started to get a little….unusual. Whilst Yona thinks she’s involved in the plan and has a role to play, she suddenly discovers that her role is not what she thought – actually, no one’s is.

I thought this had some interesting things to say on the popularity of ‘disaster tourism’ – visiting places where awful things had occurred, whether it be to pay respects to those lost or to marvel at nature’s fury or even just be a little glad that it was something that someone escaped. People visit areas of disaster (be they man made or natural) all the time and there’s a sort of macabre glee – like in this when a 5yo along for the tour is given paper and pen to draw and after hearing a story of a massacre, starts drawing the tour group as victims, severed heads and all. On the island, Yona and the tour are treated to a reenactment of the massacre that is said to have taken place there and spend a night living as those from the story would have. But when Yona returns to the resort, she discovers that nothing is as it seems and she’s stumbled onto several very unexpected plots, some where her discovery threatens others and one where it directly impacts on herself. I have to admit, the last third of this book was very interesting – kept me invested as the plan to fabricate the disaster was unveiled and there were a lot of things that happened which I did not expect. However, there was still quite a lot in the story that I found unsatisfying or not addressed. I don’t read a lot of fiction translated from Asian languages so that stripped back, more bare style might be something that’s quite common in these stories.

This had a lot of interesting ideas and some unexpected twists but I was still found somewhat wanting in the end.

6/10

Book #172 of 2020

The Disaster Tourist is book #14 of my participation in the Reading Women Challenge, hosted by The Reading Women Podcast, for 2020. I’m a little behind….. There’s only four months in the year to go and I need to read 12 titles in order to complete it so I’m definitely going to have to lift my game. I have a clear 2 books on my September TBR that will count towards this (By an Arab woman and also over 500p) but I want to find a third book as well, to not fall further behind. One of the prompts is frequently recommended to you, so I need people to start recommending me things! Lol.

The prompts I still need to check off are:

  • Nonfiction by a woman historian
  • Afrofuturism or Africanfuturism
  • Inspired by folklore
  • About a woman artist
  • Read and watch book to movie adaptation
  • By an Arab woman
  • Over 500p
  • Frequently recommended to you
  • A feel good/happy book
  • By a favourite or new-to-you publisher
  • Bonus: Book by Toni Morrison
  • Bonus: Book by Isabel Allende

 

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Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Convenience Store Woman
Sayaca Murata (translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takamori)
Portobello Books
2018, 163p
Read from my local libary

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Keiko Furukura had always been considered a strange child, and her parents always worried how she would get on in the real world, so when she takes on a job in a convenience store while at university, they are delighted for her. For her part, in the convenience store she finds a predictable world mandated by the store manual, which dictates how the workers should act and what they should say, and she copies her coworkers’ style of dress and speech patterns so she can play the part of a normal person.

However, eighteen years later, at age 36, she is still in the same job, has never had a boyfriend, and has only few friends. She feels comfortable in her life but is aware that she is not living up to society’s expectations and causing her family to worry about her. When a similarly alienated but cynical and bitter young man comes to work in the store, he will upset Keiko’s contented stasis—but will it be for the better?

Sayaka Murata brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the familiar convenience store that is so much part of life in Japan. With some laugh-out-loud moments prompted by the disconnect between Keiko’s thoughts and those of the people around her, she provides a sharp look at Japanese society and the pressure to conform, as well as penetrating insights into the female mind.

I remember seeing quite a bit about this book when it first came out and seeing people I follow reading it. However I never got around to checking it out myself even though I really liked the cover – even just seeing a picture of it, I keep wanting to touch the clip for the badge and lift it up. When it was suggested as a title for a prompt in my Reading Women Challenge (read a book translated from an Asian language) I decided immediately it would be my choice, considering I’d been curious about it for a while.

Keiko works at a convenience store in Japan, which suits her very much. She as an unusual child, seeing things in the ways that others did not. Her attempts at problem solving often caused issues, issues that Keiko could not foresee (or even see afterward). The job however, means that she always knows the appropriate way to act. There’s a manual, which details specifically how workers should greet customers, how they should promote the specials. The store is always laid out in a way that is familiar and makes sense. Keiko has a sense of pride in working there, in being a cog in the machine that keeps the convenience store going. Many have come and gone since she got a job there as an 18yo. She’s now 36 and still there. But for her family and the few friends she has, Keiko’s life couldn’t possibly be satisfying. She isn’t conforming to the societal expectations – she doesn’t have a “real job”, she isn’t married, doesn’t have children. She’s never even had a boyfriend. Keiko feels the expectation to change her life and when the opportunity comes, she decides to try it and see. At first, it’s wonderful. People are pleased for her. But soon Keiko realises that everyone else’s happiness might just be coming at the cost of her own.

I really enjoyed this. Keiko is a very appealing main character. She leads a relatively stress free life – she works her shifts, she’s always early, she knows precisely how much sleep she needs at night in order to be at maximum health for her next shift. She often mimics the others around her and uses them to choose what clothes she should wear, what shoes she should buy, even how to speak and react to things. For Keiko doesn’t have these reactions herself naturally- things that concern other people often don’t bother her. But people notice when she acts different, so she does the best she can to fit in and woking at the store helps her with that. She seems satisfied with her life, it feels fulfilling for her. It’s everyone else that doesn’t seem to feel that Keiko should still be at the convenience store. That job is fine for those out of school or working through college or maybe even mothers who want to step back into the workforce in a small way after having children.

I’ve never been to Japan and can’t speak for how strong the pressure is there for advancement as an adult, only what I’ve heard or read etc. But this book does such a good job of showing how others project their own wants and desires onto other people without stopping to consider whether or not that would be beneficial for them. Keiko doesn’t think like a lot of other people, she doesn’t process things the same way. The job she has is one that suits her – I’m not sure if I’d say she enjoys it but she certainly seems to feel very positive about her role in the organisation she works for and it gives her a sense of purpose. She earns enough to live on and doesn’t seem to want for anything else. She refers to eating meals as “feeding” as one would a pet, something done out of responsibility and doesn’t appear to be interested in the way food tastes or is prepared as long as it meets simple nutritional requirements. The life she has seems to be the one she feels she was made for, but the life other people seem to want for her is something much different. And they don’t really seem to think about how Keiko might feel, having to change up everything she’s known for nearly 20 years. I think they mean well, as most people do when they want others to advance, or marry, or have children, or whatever but it’s more about what they want or what they think people should be doing, rather than what would make that person happy or what their true desires are. It’s a regimented social structure that doesn’t seem to leave much wiggle room for those who might want something different, whether that be more or less, than what society wants for them. Keiko had found a life that suited her, she was perfectly content, it was only others and their questions, comments and sniggers that made her feel as though she would have to do more, to satisfy them, make them pleased, make them stop asking her about getting a ‘real job’ and getting married, having children, etc.

Convenience Store Woman is a short but powerful story and I’m hoping I can find some of the author’s other work translated into English.

8/10

Book #25 of 2020

I read this book as part of my participation in the 2020 Reading Women Challenge, hosted by the Reading Women Podcast. This ticks off the prompt of ‘set in Japan/by a Japanese author’. Convenience Store Woman covers both parts of that. This is the 2nd book I’ve completed for the challenge.

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Review: Happy People Read & Drink Coffee by Agnes Martin-Lugand

9781760291549Happy People Read & Drink Coffee
Agnes Martin-Lugand (translated from the French by Sandra Smith)
Allen & Unwin
2016 (originally 2013), 272p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Diane has a charmed life as a wife, a mother and the owner of a literary café in Paris called Happy People Read and Drink Coffee. But when Diane suddenly loses her beloved husband and daughter in a car accident her perfect world is shattered. Trapped and haunted by her memories, Diane withdraws from friends and family, unable and unwilling to move forward.

One year on, Diane shocks her loved ones by leaving Paris to move to a small town on the Irish coast to rebuild her life alone. There she meets Edward, a brooding, handsome photographer who lives next door. Initially Edward resents Diane’s intrusion into his solitary life, but before long they find themselves drawn to each other . . .

At once heartbreaking and uplifting, Happy People Read and Drink Coffee is the inspirational story of a woman finding new meaning-and love-in the wake of devastating loss. The bestselling French phenomenon is now also being made into a Hollywood movie.

Winter is slowly arriving here and last week I had about an hour and a bit to spare before I had to leave to pick up my son. It was a sunny day so inside it was lovely and warm and I had a recliner perfectly positioned to catch the most sun and I picked up this book to help pass the time before I needed to leave. To my surprise, I finished it in that hour – it’s an engrossing read, equal parts fascinating and sad.

Diane is a year past losing her family – her husband and young daughter and she hasn’t made much progress, if any, in the grieving process. She rarely leaves their flat, she doesn’t go to work. She hasn’t changed the bedsheets since her husband died, still hoping to catch the scent of him on their sheets. When her best friend threatens a holiday, she knows it will be somewhere filled with bright sun, cocktails and oiled men. That isn’t what she wants, instead she decides to visit a place her husband expressed interest in. Ireland.

She rents a cottage on the Irish coast in County Mayo from a friendly couple but all Diane really wants is to be left alone. When she meets her neighbour Edward, he is so incredibly rude that they clash immediately. He makes no secret of the fact he wants Diane to leave, preferably immediately and the two have several vicious clashes before a horrible action on Diane’s part begins a strange truce…..that slowly evolves.

This book packs a very emotional punch. I found it very easy to identify with Diane, to imagine how I might react in her situation. Diane hasn’t managed to even begin to pull herself up to ‘functional’ even one year on – she spends most days drinking and smoking or sleeping and if it wasn’t for a friend bringing her food and tidying up, she would be living in a hovel. Her grief is so raw, so visceral that it seems almost insurmountable. She can’t really bring herself to care about anything, not even the bookstore/cafe that she was so proud of when she opened it. A deep sense of grief and loss settled over me when I read this book, so well portrayed was Diane’s despair. When she makes the decision to go to Ireland, I thought she might be improving but she pretty much settles into the same sort of life as at home, the only differences being sparring with Edward.

Edward. Hmm. I have to admit, I was in two minds about him. I really should’ve disliked him – well I did dislike him. At first. He’s very, very rude, so rude in fact that it’s difficult to begin to see him as anything else. What he says to Diane in the heat of the moment is so utterly horrible (he could’ve had no idea that he’d hit somewhat close to the mark, but still. The fact that he uttered it is bad enough really) and he’s so abrupt that he’s almost irredeemable. Diane isn’t perfect either obviously, there are times when she pretty much seems to lose the plot and flips out on Edward, or storms over demanding he do something or other when she’d be best to just leave it be but Edward is a very difficult character. I’m a sucker for a broody man though….. So I started to get behind their changing relationship after the considerate way he treated her during a difficult moment and the two of them did begin to develop something really interesting. Then it went a bit odd again – Edward’s ex turns up and she was almost like a caricature. Actually, no. She wasn’t ‘almost’ like, she was. That shark-eating female who has a radar for when their man might be moving on, etc. It didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the story, nor really with Edward himself, that he would be involved in that particular type of relationship.

I don’t know why, but none of that was enough to deter me. I still was invested in this and I really wanted Edward and Diane to end up together, so that each of them could heal. Deep down I think they’re well suited and I enjoyed the way in which this was slowly teased, even though I had some issues along the way. The ending surprised me, but in a good way. I feel as though Diane has made the right decision for herself for now and that the book did end with some progress for her personally. She finally begins not only putting her life back together and accepting that there are some changes, but also moving on. Not just merely existing, but living again.

Happily for me, there’s a sequel to this called Don’t Worry, Life is Easy and basically I want it yesterday! I really need to find out what happens.

8/10

Book #120 of 2016

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Redemption – Jussi Adler-Olsen

RedemptionRedemption (Department Q #3)
Jussi Adler-Olsen (Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken)
Penguin Books Aus
2013, 632p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Somewhere in Scandinavia, two brothers are being held hostage in a boathouse on a lake. They are chained to the walls, unable to escape and their cries for help go unheard.

Years later in Copenhagen’s cold case division Department Q, the head of the division Detective Inspector Carl Mørck receives a glass bottle that has been smashed to pieces. Inside was a slip of paper holding a message written in blood. The bottle was found some years ago but was left sitting on a windowsill and the subsequent condensation has destroyed a lot of the message. What they have been able to decipher doesn’t sound good. Is it real or just some message-in-a-bottle prank? And if it’s real, how do they go about tracking down the author of the letter when they don’t have a name, a timeframe, a location or even a crime yet? This is going to take some careful analysis and deciphering to see if they can piece the information together.

Carl and his team persevere and eventually the pieces of the puzzle and the letter start to come together. They look to have stumbled on a highly organised one man operation kidnapping scheme, where children of wealthy religious families are kidnapped and held to ransom. Carl has to track down other families that might’ve fallen victim to this scheme but that’s also not easy: most are from insular religious sects who don’t associate with the outside world very much and also, they’re scared as well. Somehow, the kidnapper still holds something over them, even years later.

Carl despairs of ever being able to find the culprit. After all, the message in the bottle is from long ago. Is this still going on? And the more they dig, the more the kidnapper proves utterly gifted at hiding his true identity.

But Department Q isn’t the cold cases division for nothing…they excel at putting the small things together to find the bigger picture.

The two previous books in this series, Mercy and Disgrace proved to be some of my favourite reads from 2012. The main character Carl Mørck survived an ambush that left one of his colleagues dead and the other paralysed from the neck down. He was shuffled to a new department named Department Q, charged with dealing with cold cases. It was a way to both get him out of the way and secure a huge amount of new funding, supposedly for the new division, but most of it is funneled elsewhere. Carl and his two colleagues, the mysterious Syrian refugee Assad and their temperamental secretary Rose rarely see any of the budget. Carl and Assad have already solved several impossible cases and their model is being studied and analysed by policing departments from other European countries.

In this novel, Carl has been away and when he returns, he finds himself dealing with Occupational Health & Safety who want to inspect the basement that has become his office for asbestos and the fact that Rose, his secretary has gone awol and sent her even odder sister Yrsa in her place. Only the intrigue of a new case, a new puzzle, occupies him when he receives a smashed glass bottle that contained a note written in blood in Danish. Carl first has to determine if the note is serious or a prank and then set about attempting to solve it.

In reviewing these books, I have to talk about the relationship between Carl and Assad again because it is brilliant. Author Jussi Adler-Olsen has long given the hint that Assad is more than he seems and although Carl has fleeting thoughts, he often overlooks Assad’s investigative skills and his ability to get himself out of trouble and hold his own in a fight or interrogation. In this novel, Carl finally begins to attempt to sort out just what Assad might be hiding – he realises that Assad doesn’t live where he claims (and perhaps hasn’t ever lived there) and all attempts to find Assad’s correct address fail. I absolutely love Assad. His amusing grasp on the foreign language, his hidden talents, the way in which he both irks and also endears himself to Carl is all so well done. I want to know more about him – always.

The mystery in this one is good. Seriously good. We are treated to lots of different points of view in order to build up the whole picture while Carl does the hard yards attempting to work it out. We gain an insight into the kidnapper’s motives, methods and victims, including how he keeps them quiet, even years later. We meet his wife and understand his home life and even see his childhood. It all pulls together to craft a chilling crime and I found myself so invested in the fates of some characters while I waited for the police to put together everything I already knew. It’s definitely a page turner and doesn’t feel like a 650+ page book at all!

We also get a bit more about Carl’s private life in this book: he has moved his friend and former colleague Hardy Henningsen in with him from the hospital. Hardy was paralysed in the same shooting that Carl was in and Carl deals with the guilt that he wasn’t as seriously injured (or killed) most days. He clearly wants to help his friend, because his friend has told him in no uncertain terms that he will die if he has to stay in hospital. However at the same time it’s a big responsibility and upheaval for him and those who live with him, including his stepson Jesper. Add in to the mix the fact that Carl’s ex-wife wants to return to his home and perhaps make another go of things (as she’s currently without a man) and his troubled sort-of romance with Mona, a department psychologist, there’s quite a lot going on in Carl’s life outside of work, to stress him out. What I like is that Carl isn’t obviously a mess on the outside – but dig a bit deeper and you find the scars and the uncertainty and the problems.

This installment has definitely maintained the standard and skill of the previous two and I’m super grateful that as of this time, there are two more to be translated into English (with hopefully more to come!)

9/10

Book #247 of 2013

**Please note that in some English markets this book may go by the title A Conspiracy of Faith.

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21:37 – Mariusz Czubaj

213721:37
Mariusz Czubaj (translated from the Polish by Anna Hyde)
Stork Press
2013, 300p
Copy courtesy of Tony’s Reading List

A homeless man collecting cans finds the bodies of two young men in a park, their heads wrapped in plastic bags. They have been ruthlessly suffocated and marked with the numbers 21 and 37. Also, both have been marked with pink lipstick.

Rudolf Heinz is a profiler who works in Katowice. A single father, he has a steadily worsening relationship with his teenage son – it has now reached the point where he rarely sees him, the two can go for days and days without crossing paths. When Heinz gets the instruction from his boss to head to Warsaw to help assist the investigation into the two murdered boys, he has to leave his son a note on the fridge on a post-it note to let him know what is going on.

Heinz isn’t sure why he’s been called in to assist with this case but steadily the details come. The two murdered young men are seminaries, studying at a nearby theological college. The pink lipstick mark dates back to the Nazi days – it was what the Nazi’s used to indicate a homosexual. And the numbers 21:37 are believed to reference the time of death of the Pope.

Heinz is a bit of an oddity – nicknamed “Hippie” he plays in a band and listens constantly to classic rock, he cannot sleep without it. Some years ago, Heinz made a near-fatal mistake in a case. He was confronted by a killer and tortured, nearly burned alive. He bears the heavy scars, both physical and mental of this traumatic experience. Heinz is considered the best criminal profiler in Poland but he is especially referenced for cases that appear to carry some sort of religious context. It is for these reasons that he has been summoned to Warsaw to help “oversee”. The powers that be demand a result in this case, one way or another.

This is the first novel featuring profiler Rudolf Heinz and thankfully it’s also the first one translated into English. It’s a pet peeve of mine when English translations begin part of the way through the series, leaving English-speaking readers ignorant to background information. It’s also the first Polish crime novel I’ve ever read – translated crime fiction is very big business these days and I was interested to try a book from a new country. To be honest though, the setting is mostly irrelevant. I didn’t get a sense of Polish history, culture or life other than some vague religious references. Heinz (like the ketchup, as he says every time he introduces himself) is in his mid 40’s, living a stilted life with his teenage son. I’m not sure what happened to his former wife – whether she died or simply left, this is never made clear. But it’s clear that his relationship with his son is disintegrating at the beginning of the novel – he has no idea where he is or what he’s doing. They do manage to connect in some way later on, but it’s a tenuous thing. Heinz keeps his horrific scars hidden, preferring to overdress presumably to avoid stares, flinching, questions, judgement and possibly sympathy and pity. He still has questions for his torturer who is incarcerated in a place for the mentally insane. I really liked his devotion to classic rock and the references to bands and songs.

I’ll readily admit to knowing nothing about religion because it doesn’t interest me at all.  I know that Poland is a pretty Roman Catholic country (close to 90% of the population I think). A lot of the religious references went over my head, as did the quoted bible passages. The sections where Heinz goes to visit the theological college I did really struggle with. The narrative is very dry at times and it suffers from an excess of information. Everything is described and at times I felt like I was reading pages and pages but the plot wasn’t advancing at all. I also really wasn’t sure what the second case Heinz is sort-of investigating, a vicious stabbing murder in his hometown, served at all. It was mostly forgotten for nearly the entire novel then Heinz scribbles a few things down on some paper and basically figures everything out even though he’s not even there. I understand that he’s supposed to be brilliant but I want to be able to understand how/why that brilliance works.

With translated fiction, so much of it comes down to how smoothly it converts into the new language. A good translator can keep the essence of the story, the flow but I’m not entirely sure this worked for me here. As I mentioned, I did feel very bogged down at times. Endless conversations and information that I didn’t really need that didn’t seem to actually do anything to further the story. Heinz often made random decisions or leaps of logic – he was right true, but how? The core story is quite bleak and it seems that there is a good exploration of themes but the ending (both the Warsaw crime and the local one) felt undeniably weak. However it was a promising start to a series and Heinz is a character I would revisit. Perhaps I’m used to more commercialised crime fiction, gorier and bolder, rather than informative and subtle.

6/10

Book #185 of 2013

 

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The Dinner – Herman Koch

The Dinner
Herman Koch (translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett)
Atlantic Books
2012 (originally 2009), 309p
Read from my TBR pile

Paul Lohman and his wife Claire are about to have dinner with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette. Serge is a politician, the leader of the opposition party and strongly tipped to win the up and coming election and become Prime Minister. Paul, by contrast, is a high school teacher on leave and the two brothers have very different lifestyles.

Serge has picked the restaurant, a place where it normally requires waiting 3 months to get a table. However they ‘know Serge there’ and Paul knows that the evening will be a strain – the food will consist of small serves, overly described ingredients and be overpriced. Serge will be boorish and Paul will have to rein in his temper.

But he cannot get out of the dinner.

Paul, Claire, Serge and Babette are meeting to discuss the fact that their two sons have been captured on a security camera doing something that could utterly ruin not only their bright futures, but also the futures of their parents, including the one tipped to be the next Prime Minister.

The Dinner is a critically acclaimed Dutch novel which was published in the original language in 2009 and has now been translated into 21 different languages. In the beginning we meet Paul, our narrator who comes across as a simple middle-class family man, married to Claire and father of a teenage boy named Michel. Paul is on his way to dinner with his brother Serge and Serge’s wife Babette. In contrast, Serge is wealthy, successful and arrogant – he and Paul seem to not particularly get along beneath a surface of thinly constructed civility. Paul is not looking forward to the evening, but he knows that there are things the four of them must discuss in order to prevent the ruin of their two teenage boys.

The Dinner is a masterfully crafted novel that strips away every thought and opinion you might form about the four characters that meet for dinner. You begin expecting something from one side, only to be forcefully shot down. This is a novel of morally bankrupt parents, willing to turn a blind eye (actually, willing to force others to turn a blind eye) to the heinous act their two sons have committed.

I have to say, I think what the boys are captured on camera doing turned out to be the biggest surprise of the novel. I had a few ideas going in, but nothing like what it actually was that they were doing. The idea that teenage boys could do this and find it acceptable and go out and do it again is horrifying but what really stood out as being horrifying to me were the fact that parents, role models, those responsible for raising citizens to determine the difference between right and wrong, were also going to sweep this under the rug. Even though they continued doing it, to some degree. I’m a parent of two boys, although they’re only 4 and 1 presently and the idea that they might ever do something like this makes me, quite honestly, sick. I could never cover it up, I could never allow them to think that it was okay, that what they did was alright because it was deserved. That kind of justification goes way beyond any parent’s right to protect their children, because these boys were not children. They are on the cusp of adulthood, old enough to distinguish right from wrong, old enough to fully grasp what they were doing.

But as the story unfolds, the reader begins to learn more of Paul and what lies behind the facade of patiently kind middle-class man. The anger, the issues, the strangeness. The jealousy he has towards his brother Serge leads you to expect a certain result when it seems  like Serge isn’t going to tow the cover-up line and the fact that Paul wasn’t the one who took it upon themselves to ‘force’ Serge into agreement with how to handle things, is all the more shocking. In fact I think this book never stopped shocking me, from beginning to end. What’s even more interesting is the juxtaposition between the shocking events being revealed in the narrative by Paul and occasionally, through the conversation of the others, with the mundane setting that they are in. An expensive, exclusive restaurant where the head waiter describes each meal for each course in exquisite detail, descriptions for organic herbs and the like breaking up the setting the scene where you find out what the teenagers did and how the parents found out about it and also about Paul’s past.

The Dinner is a gripping story with some truly deeply disturbing characters that are even more unsettling by their banal simplicity. Paul and Claire could be anyone you know, could be anyone that you’re friends with. I couldn’t put this book down and had to read it in one sitting.

8/10

Book #254 of 2012

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Unwanted – Kristina Ohlsson

Unwanted
Kristina Ohlsson (translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death)
Simon & Schuster UK
2011, 480p
Read from my local library

On a crowded train in Sweden, a young girl is abducted. Her mother had briefly stepped off the train at a stop to make a phone call and a series of events led to the train leaving the station without her back on board. Although the staff were aware of this and kept an eye on the girl, a disturbance in another carriage as the train pulled in to Stockholm meant that she was briefly unobserved and that was when she was taken.

Despite the crowds, there are no real witnesses and the police investigating the crime are at a bit of a loss. They discover that the girl’s mother and her husband, the young girl’s father, have recently separated and there are allegations of abuse but nothing has been proven. The police immediately focus on him, attempting to locate his whereabouts believing that if they can find him, they can find the young girl.

The investigation is turned on its head when the body of the young girl is dumped outside a hospital in Sweden’s north, the word UNWANTED written boldly across her forehead. Now the police are forced to search for another motive – from all their investigation although it is believed her father was abusive to her mother, there’s no evidence to suggest the young girl was being either abused or neglected and her mother is utterly devastated by her death.

Then the police get word that another child has gone missing, this time the young adopted baby of a couple. There seems to be absolutely no common denominator between the baby and the young girl from the train but there is no doubt that it is the same perpetrator. And now that the police have a timeline of sorts, for events, they know that the clock is ticking and if they are not fast, things will go exactly the same way as the first kidnapping.

Unwanted is the first novel in Swedish writer Kristina Ohlsson’s Alex Reht police procedural crime series. Inspector Alex Reht has been a police officer for about thirty-five years and he has a certain reputation among the ranks. He’s fabulous at his job, the opportunity to work with him as part of his team and coveted and younger detective Peder is very proud to have been chosen. The third member of their team is Investigation Analyst Frederika Bergman, an academic who applied to the force to further her experience and boost her resume. She doesn’t think she will stay with the force when her contract is up and Reht doesn’t really think that she has the intuition that he believes is necessary for the job. Frederika and Peder also clash, Peder has an active dislike for her and especially does not like when she has ideas, or is praised or receives attention from Alex Reht.

Scandinavian crime is big at the moment – Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø, Camilla Läckberg, Jussi Adler-Olsen and more are all topping the best seller lists. I received the second novel in this series from the wonderful people at Simon & Schuster AU for review so I immediately grabbed this one from the library to get familiar with the main characters. Although this is a crime novel and is very much plot driven, it seems that just from this installment, the series is going to be a very character driven one too. At the open of the novel, Frederika is quite isolated from her colleagues, something that she perhaps even cultivates. She’s very intelligent, an academic with significant study behind her and Alex and Peder seem skeptical of her position within the force – there seem to be positions given to people with degrees rather than policing experience and it doesn’t sit well with the hardened cops who worked the uniformed beats in their early days. Alex also questions Frederika’s instincts, her ‘nose’ for good policing. It seems that this team is not really so much a team in the beginning – Alex is in charge. He has the experience, he has the ability. Peder is the young up and coming detective, determined to prove himself to Alex, whom he admires and respects, but he’s held down by problems at home and distractions at work. Frederika seems on the sidelines, on the outside looking in and part of the fun of this novel was watching the three of them come together to form a more cohesive unit, a trio of people working together rather than just 3 individuals who happen to be working on the same case.

I liked this book a lot but if it had one weakness it was that the connection between the kidnappings was quite honestly, easy to figure out and I feel that the police in charge were a bit slow to pick up on it. I know we’re privy to more as a reader as such, but I felt like the dots were there to be connected and the police just didn’t quite seem to be able to figure it out until it was pretty glaringly obvious. And then it seemed like it was really just one of them – but I did like the way in which they sat down towards the end, particularly Frederika and Peder, who had had some severe differences, and put what they had together and used each other’s information to piece everything together. I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in to the next book so that I can see where the character relationships and the work dynamics go from here.

8/10

Book #168 of 2012

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Disgrace – Jussi Adler-Olsen

Disgrace
Jussi Adler-Olsen (translated from the Danish by K.E. Semmel)
Penguin AU
2012, 503p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Please note this review will contain some ***SPOILERS*** of the first book in this series, Mercy/The Keeper Of Lost Causes

Detective Carl Mørck is something of a celebrity at the moment – not only is he popular in Denmark after he solved what was deemed to be an unsolvable case, but now delegates from other countries are coming to visit. They want to get a look at Department Q, to find out how it works, what makes it so efficient so that they can implement those methods in new departments in their own countries for solving cold cases.

Carl can’t worry too much about visiting Norwegians and the questions they have though – another case has caught his eye. A file has appeared on his desk and no one seems to know how it got there as it wasn’t referred to them through the usual channels. But it isn’t long before Carl and his sidekick, the “Syrian” Assad, are intrigued by the case. A group of boarding school students were suspected of a brutal murder of a brother and sister some 20 years ago – one of them confessed and is currently serving a prison sentence. Most of the others have gone onto huge successes in finance and business, the sort of people that everyone recognises from seeing them in the media. And one of them has disappeared far, far underground, living on the streets, stealing to survive, becoming a chameleon to keep herself out of sight, to keep herself from being noticed.

Carl wants to talk to Kimmie, believing that within her lies all the answers to this case. If someone is serving time, why has the case been referred to them? What secrets are powerful people keeping that they would be willing to do anything at all to stop them from getting out? And what secret is Kimmie keeping that drives her, keeps her alive and determined to wreak her revenge?

Disgrace is the second novel in the Department Q series by Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen and this series is fast becoming one of my favourites of the crime variety. In this installment, Carl and Assad find a file of a case that has been seemingly already solved – a vicious and brutal murder of teen siblings some twenty years ago. It’s even more curious when they realise that no one in any official position has passed the file on. Carl and Assad see that they’ve been given this file for a reason, someone wants them to look into this case and see if there’s something that doesn’t add up. And the further they look into it, the more they find.

Kimmie was a part of a group of teenagers at a boarding school that were the top of the tree. They were popular, they were insular and they were feared. They brought about the destruction of more than one student and the odd teacher or two. When we meet Kimmie she’s living on the street, very few possessions to her name, staying out of the way of people who might harm her. She’s a pathetic character but as the story unfolds, she turns into a chillingly cruel character, a disturbed young woman who sought violence and enjoyed it. A disturbed product of a terrible upbringing, it was still possible to find sympathy for her, to understand that she had most likely been made this way, not born to it. Her secret, the thing that drove her in her revenge was so sad, it obviously unbalanced an already fragile mind to the point of no repair.

I found no such redeemable qualities in Kimmie’s former cohorts – rich, powerful men who clearly believed they could behave in any way that they wished as long as they had enough money to establish alibis and make inquiries go away. But what they did not reckon on was Carl Mørck and the fact that he cannot be made go away, nor can he be bought. The mystery in this novel is similar to the first in which the reader can guess along with the detectives what happened and how it happened but the real issue is in how exactly Mørck is going to ‘get his man’ and prove the theory he has to close the investigation.

Disgrace is a fabulous follow up to Mercy, but I did feel as though this book had a slightly different tone to it, which was perhaps from the fact that there was a different translator working on this one. It certainly wasn’t a negative thing, it just read a little differently to me. I still really enjoyed Carl and especially Assad – I think he could well be my favourite character in this series. I’m really interested in the developments that occurred in this novel surrounding Carl’s shooting and the murder scene attack that killed a fellow officer and left another one bedridden for what will probably be the rest of his life. It seems as though that will be slowly unfolding, a bit at a time through each book and I can’t wait to find out more! I also really enjoyed the subplot with the visiting Norwegians, there to observe Department Q and their methods. It was all conducted so seriously, his boss on tenterhooks that Mørck would do or say something to discredit their department or organisation, because as the reader well knows, the methods and structure of the department are unorthodox in the extreme! It added a nice touch of humour to what is otherwise a story containing some very bleak aspects of human nature.

I can’t wait for book 3 – please get it translated into English soon!

9/10

Book #157 of 2012

 

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