fiction

Scandinavian crime: Camilla Läckberg

As with Karin Fossum, Camilla Läckberg was on my dad’s useful list of Scandinavian women who write crime, and I was fortunate to find her first three novels in one ebook from the library (though I only read 2 before the loan expired). The Ice Princess and The Preacher were both gripping novels set in and around the small Swedish coastal town of Fjällbacka. Again, as in Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, there is that sense of small-town interconnectedness, the potential for gossip and everyone knowing everyone else’s family background. However, there is no isolation here: Fjällbacka is a summer tourist destination, there are residents who’ve moved to the city (and some who’ve returned), and we occasionally follow characters to Gothenburg or Stockholm.

Having, as I said, only read the first two novels from a dozen or so years ago (and synopses of some more recent ones) it seems that the first volume, The Ice Princess, follows a different format. While the series as a whole seems to be referred to as the Patrik Hedström books, it’s hard to say who is the central character in The Ice Princess, and Patrik doesn’t appear for quite a while. We mainly follow the amateur investigations of Erica, a moderately successful non-fiction author who is temporarily in town sorting out her parents’ house after their recent deaths. When her childhood friend Alex’s body is found, apparently as the result of suicide, Alex’s parents ask Erica to write an article about Alex’s life. Speaking to Alex’s friends and family, and dredging up her own memories and photographs, Erica begins to feel that something isn’t right.

In The Preacher, the murder of a tourist seems to be connected to two twenty-five year old disappearances, and a divided local family. With the fresh death occurring at the height of the tourist season that most of the town depends on, the police are under pressure to clear it up as quickly as they can. If they don’t melt in the heatwave, first.

With The Preacher, there is an explicit connection to 1979 (including flashbacks to events of that time), but the death in The Ice Princess also has its roots in past events, and according to my dad the third novel, The Stone Cutter, delves into the 1920s. This put me in mind of Robert Goddard and his novels based around family secrets, with the key to the present being obtainable only by solving a puzzle from the past, so the series may appeal to his readers.

Camilla Läckberg draws out the human side of the Tanumshede police force, whether it’s Mellberg (the chief) with his comb-over, or young Martin’s disastrous love life, we’re reminded that they are people too. Patrik has his doubts and insecurities, mistakes are made and laziness creeps in with the summer heat. Because of that human side, there is a degree of natural humour in the books (in a similar way to Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels) and though there are descriptions of gruesome situations, the books are by no means bloody and grim.

Perhaps one of the things that initially drew me in to The Ice Princess when I began to read it was the herring connection. The book I’d finished reading the day before was Herring Girl by Debbie Taylor, set in North Shields and partly about the decline of the herring catch. In the early part of The Ice Princess, Läckberg talks about the decline of the herring catch in Fjällbacka (which I was delighted to discover is a real place) and how that changed the town, so it was interesting to see that mirrored on both sides of the North Sea. While I appreciate that not everyone will have such a niche interest, I think this series will have wide appeal with its engaging characters and well thought out thriller plots.

Scandinavian crime: Don’t Look Back by Karin Fossum

The joy of libraries in the digital age, eh? Just before my May Day holiday my dad emailed me a list of Scandinavian women whose crime novels he’d recently read courtesy of the e-book loans from his county library service. My nearest Kobo-friendly library service had a few of them too, so the night before I left I was able to load up with half a dozen crime novels by unfamiliar authors without bulking out my rucksack. I won’t say I picked them on the recommendation of my dad, because in his usual style he said he couldn’t remember which ones were any good.

I tried a couple of chapters of an Anne Holt novel (according to the blurb she’s a former minister in the Norwegian government) and found the style a bit too lyrical for murder, so I picked Don’t Look Back by Karin Fossum at random from the remainder of my list. I was hooked by about page 2.

The central thread concerns the body of a girl found by a tarn, but it ends up being about so much more than that. The setting is a small village at the foot of a mountain where everyone knows each other, rumours spread fast, and yet somehow everyone has secrets. Some of them might even be worth killing for. The connections between the residents are complex, and once you start untangling a trail, who knows where it might lead.

The sense of place in this Norwegian novel was wonderful – admittedly I’ve never been to Norway but the isolation, stillness and beauty were conjured vividly. Refreshingly the police detective, Konrad Sejer, instead of being jaded, hard-drinking and divorced, was a reasonably contented grandfather, albeit still mourning for his late wife, and his sidekick Skarre seemed like a nice chap, full of boyish enthusiasm. There was a small amount of violence in the novel but nothing particularly graphic or out of place; if you like your detectives full of action like Harry Bosch or Elvis Cole, you’ll be disappointed here.

Fossum wrong-footed me constantly with this novel, and it’s hard to say much about the plot without letting a spoiler slip, but I raced through, desperate to find out where it was going next. The frequently switching point of view (at least once to a dog) might be disconcerting if you prefer a tight focus, but I know I’ll be reading more from Karin Fossum before long. If you like the more thoughtful end of crime fiction (Ross Macdonald, say) I recommend you do too.

A Little Dust on the Eyes by Minoli Salgado

Cover of A Little Dust on the Eyes by Minoli SalgadoMinoli Salgado’s debut novel A Little Dust on the Eyes takes as its trigger a family wedding in Sri Lanka in late December 2004, which the reader knows is about to be disrupted by the Boxing Day tsunami. In the couple of weeks of calm beforehand, lonely PhD student Savi takes the opportunity to escape an English winter and try to reconnect with the family she left behind years ago.

The story is told with gentle insistence, and the vivid images juxtapose and mingle grey Britain with colourful, exotic Sri Lanka. We shuttle back and forth in time and place, from the south coast of England to the south coast of Sri Lanka, from the present day to points in Savi’s childhood or the more recent past. Revisiting a place you remember doesn’t necessarily match up with revisiting the memory, and if you’ve been away for long enough are you a visitor or going home? Memories, stories and truth – how closely are they connected, really?

Savi’s struggling thesis has her studying her native land from afar, through literature. Her cousin Renu on the other hand, whose formal education was interrupted by the civil war, is studying recent history through the gaps and inconsistencies in what people say when they talk about relatives who disappeared during the war. The core of the novel is the connection and contrast between these two women, practically sisters in childhood, whose lives have then been so different. One sent to an English boarding school, out of harm’s way but also out of family life, the other growing up in a community turning against itself, where everyone turns a blind eye and no-one wants to know the truth, just in case.

Dr Salgado lectures in English at the University of Sussex, and this academic background comes through via technicalities in Savi’s research, as well as the list of references at the end of the novel. Interestingly I felt almost cheated when she acknowledged the real source of a couple of quotes she puts in characters’ mouths, yet I assume (and probably expect) novelists in general are poaching dialogue left, right and centre, from a choice phrase at a bus stop to a neat summary sentence on the news. I know I do it now and then.

A minor niggle for me was the lack of a sense of timescale in the book – I wasn’t altogether sure how long it had been since Savi last visited Sri Lanka, or had seen her cousin, how long she’d lived in England or even how long Renu had been unofficially working with the NGO investigating abductions. That aside, I was captivated by A Little Dust on the Eyes and I imagine anyone who liked Romesh Gunesekera’s Noontide Toll (see my review here) would also enjoy it.

A Blink of the Screen, short fiction by Terry Pratchett

I might not have read this collection if my dad hadn’t recommended it then lent me it, which just goes to show something or other. Years ago, near the height of my Pratchett-fandom, I read a couple of pre-Discworld novels (The Dark Side of the Sun, and Strata) and my boat, as it were, remained distinctly unafloat. I haven’t fancied reading his recent sci-fi collaboration with Stephen Baxter, though I did enjoy a radio adaptation of Nation, and I don’t recall reading any of Terry Pratchett’s short stories. So a whole book of them, well over half of which was non-Discworld output, didn’t sound like I needed to rush out and read it (as indeed I haven’t, it came out in 2012). Occasionally (whisper it) I can be wrong, a little hasty in my judgement, for not only did A Blink of the Screen turn out to be most entertaining, the Discworld offerings on the whole were the weakest of the lot.

The non-Discworld stories in the book cover the period 1963-2010 (Discworld 1992-2009), some serious but most with his trademark humour to the fore, and mostly within the broad spectrum of speculative fiction (horror, fantasy, science fiction or some blend thereof). Each one has a short (or not so short) introduction by Pratchett, setting it in context or adding a relevant anecdote. Twenty-four pages of colour illustrations are slotted in, mostly by Josh Kirby, quite a few you probably haven’t seen before. There is also a foreword by AS Byatt which gives an unexpected glimpse into her life – I love the thought of her curling up with a Discworld novel after a long day writing Literature.

I can’t quite decide whether this is a fan’s book or not. There are definitely some parts of the Discworld section that are strictly for the fans (football cards tied in to Unseen Academicals, for instance), and a deleted extract from a Granny Weatherwax/Nanny Ogg story called The Sea and Little Fishes. However, even some of the Discworld parts should have wider appeal, like the story for The Times Higher Education Supplement in 2005 in which various senior members of the Unseen University discuss the ludicrous idea of inspecting and somehow measuring the productivity of a university, which any academic subject to the REF will surely raise a weary smile at. Among the non-Discworld gems are the character who turns up to meet his author, the time-traveller called Mervin who ends up somehow in Camelot mistaken for Merlin, and the computer who believes in Father Christmas. All in all, as long as you’re comfortable at the comic fantasy end of SF, I imagine there will be plenty in this collection to keep you entertained for a while.

I wrote this review a week or two before Terry Pratchett died, then put it aside for later as I often do. It meant that at the time of his death I’d recently been reminded just how good a writer he was, which I’m very glad about.

Popular authors, some vague musings

Looking at the top 10 list of fiction borrowed most often from Leeds Libraries in 2014, a few thoughts scudded across my mind (nothing too deep, I’m sleepy and full of cold right now). One was that they’re mostly authors who’ve been around for a long time (John Grisham, JK Rowling, Ian Rankin), another was that there’s a hefty dose of crime and thrillers on there, and the third was that there are a couple of authors with a Yorkshire background (Kate Atkinson, Peter Robinson). Which got me wondering how this sort of list varies across the UK – do crime novels with a local link prove popular everywhere? Are there places where you can see the influence of the Richard and Judy Book Club, for instance, or where it’s all Booker Prize longlisters and recommendations from the Guardian review section? How does it match up with book-buying habits (are we getting the Hmm, not sure but let’s see what all the hype’s about out of the library, and buying the ones we think we’ll treasure)?

As I don’t have the answers to any of that (though I’d be interested if anyone else does – have I missed a similar top 10 list from Dorset library service this week?) I’ll merely note that I did read 3 of those authors last year (Peter Robinson, Kate Atkinson, and Michael Connelly) though not the books mentioned, and all borrowed from the Library of Mum and Dad rather than Leeds.

My most-read authors of 2014 are (and this will tell you more than you need to know about me, I’m sure):

New Grub Street by George Gissing

One of the nineteenth century novels I read in 2014 and am now trying to get away from, New Grub Street was a book I’d heard of but knew very little about, except some vague connection to the Radio 4 comedy Ed Reardon’s Week. I have a feeling it was a Guardian article that finally nudged me into downloading the ebook and diving in.

As an entertaining character study, Jasper the ambitious carefree hack (he will essentially write anything for anyone as long as they pay him well and/or provide useful connections) is amusing in a thoughtless, I’m alright Jack sort of a way. Edwin Reardon, his contrasting best friend, is a wonderful caricature of the moody, introspective, ‘artistic’ writer, waiting for his muse and harping back to a critically-acclaimed novel or two that he wrote in his youth. Beyond that, however, lies just another Victorian romance, and I felt it descended rather towards melodrama as it neared the end.

There is, naturally, the loyal girl who gets thrown over – a doormat of the first order who exasperated me quite early on. There is also Edwin’s heartless, selfish, entirely unsympathetic wife (can you tell I wasn’t keen on her either?), though she at least was interestingly modern in her musings on the idea of a woman leaving her husband and starting a new life. There is noble poverty, and desperate illness, and the odd death and wedding.

If you are a writer, or live among writers, New Grub Street will amuse you with its observations about tit-for-tat reviewing, the triumph of luck and networking over talent, and various other features of the life that every generation of writers seems to think it’s the first to experience. If you’re looking for a good Victorian romance, however, you’d do better to pick yourself a random Anthony Trollope instead.

Welcome to the future

How can it possibly be 2015? We’re so far into the realms of sci-fi settings that life seems perpetually surreal in its mundanity. And yet I’m still reading nineteenth-century novels.

Totting up my list of books read in 2014, I realised more than a quarter of them were old enough to be available as public-domain ebooks (mostly 19th century but a couple of early PG Wodehouse). Only 4 books I read last year were first published last year, and one of those was non-fiction. No surprises then that my unofficial resolution for this year is to read more newly-published fiction. Of course, I’m already failing in that regard by reading a graphic novel from 2010 at the moment, and having 1 novel and 1 story collection from 2014 left over on the To Read shelf, not to mention the 2004 novel I just bought as an ebook. But once I’ve read all them, I’ll get right down to the 2015 newbies.