Two Scandi Noir DNFs

>> Thursday, June 21, 2018

What with the move to Finland, I find myself attracted to books set in the Nordic countries, and there's plenty of Scandi noir to choose from (and yes, I do know that Finland is not considered to be in Scandinavia -close enough, though). Here's two which were not successful tries.

TITLE: I'm Traveling Alone
AUTHOR: Samuel Bjørk

The first I chose was this one, the first book in a series following two Norwegian detectives called Holger Munch and Mia Krüger. Kruger is the veteran in the pair, a man who's been sort of exiled recently after a case went to hell. The reason the case went to hell was because of the actions of his then partner, the brilliant but troubled Mia Krüger. Mia has since left the force, and is living in an isolated island. She's planning to kill herself soon and follow her twin sister, whose death led to her screwing up that last case.

And then a little girl is found dead hanging from a tree in the woods, with a sign reading "I'm travelling alone" round her neck. Holger is brought back and asked to take the case, and his first step is to bring back Mia. There's something about the case he can't put his finger on, and he's confident that Mia's brilliant mind will find the clue. And she does. And it's clear that these girl is just the first of many.

It's an intriguing (if gruesome) case, and I was interested in the detectives. Their investigation shows promise as well. But oh, the writing. The writing just killed this book dead. The book felt so painstaking and slow that I was bored out of my mind. I expect the translation didn't help, but I'd say the responsibility for this being such a dull slog is mostly on the writer. I think I particularly struggled with the constant sections taking attention away from the investigation, which bogged things down even more. I gave it several days, but it was one of those where reading another chapter feels like a hardship, and where there's zero compulsion to pick the book up again once you've put it down. I don't have time for this.


TITLE: Unwanted
AUTHOR: Kristina Ohlsson

For the second book, we move eastwards into Sweden. The detectives here are Inspector Alex Recht and Fredrika Bergman. Alex is the experienced investigator, while Fredrika is newer. She's facing mistrust from her team, since she didn't come up through the ranks and was a university-educated civilian till she was "parachuted in", as some in the team would see it.

The case concerns another little girl in peril. This one has been abducted from a crowded train. Her mother had briefly stepped off the train when it was delayed at one of the stations, leaving her sleeping child behind as she didn't want to wake her up. She was then detained by a woman with a dog who asked her for help, and before she noticed, the train had departed. She did the obvious thing and called the train company, which alerted the crew. They were supposed to keep an eye on the little girl, but due to some confusion, by the time the train got into Stockholm the little girl had disappeared.

The main problem with this one was that, other than Fredrika, the police felt pretty incompetent, even Alex. They don't think critically and cotton onto things that feel quite obvious, and they seem weirdly relaxed about the case. They take it very easy, just do a couple of pointless things, and don't even consider doing the obvious things (like an identikit of the fucking woman with the dog that detained the mother while the train left!).

The writing was also not great. It felt simplistic and too on-the-nose. Part of that might be the translation, but part of it is the characterisation. We’re told so-and-so is like this and that, and then they say something that is like the stereotype of what that kind of person would say (like, we're told the sexist colleague is sexist, and then he immediately thinks that clearly Fredrika has no man to give her a proper seeing-to).

MY GRADE: This one was frustrating, rather than boring, but that also means a DNF.


Shelter in Place, by Nora Roberts

>> Sunday, June 17, 2018

TITLE: Shelter in Place
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

PAGES: 438
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic Suspense

It was a typical evening at a mall outside Portland, Maine. Three teenage friends waited for the movie to start. A boy flirted with the girl selling sunglasses. Mothers and children shopped together, and the manager at video game store tended to customers. Then the shooters arrived.

The chaos and carnage lasted only eight minutes before the killers were taken down. But for those who lived through it, the effects would last forever. In the years that followed, one would dedicate himself to a law enforcement career. Another would close herself off, trying to bury the memory of huddling in a ladies' room, helplessly clutching her cell phone--until she finally found a way to pour her emotions into her art.

But one person wasn't satisfied with the shockingly high death toll at the DownEast Mall. And as the survivors slowly heal, find shelter, and rebuild, they will discover that another conspirator is lying in wait--and this time, there might be nowhere safe to hide.
Shelter in Place starts with a truly horrific scene. A packed shopping mall and cinema, full of teenagers and kids and their parents. Three young men armed to the teeth. When they're done, many, many people are dead, including the three gunmen.

Our protagonists were amongst the many people caught up in the shooting. Sixteen-year-old Simone Knox was at the cinema with her two best friends, while Reed Quartermaine was taking a quick break from his job at a restaurant in the mall. After the shooting, they try to rebuild their lives and move on from the tragedy, as do many others.

Except for one person, for whom the shooting was not quite enough. And they are determined to finish the job that, as far as they're concerned, the gunmen botched.

So, this was a bit of a strange one. It started out as something that felt quite different to other Nora Roberts romantic suspense. Not just the subject matter, but the way it felt. Given that the first book in her latest trilogy (Year One, which I hope to review soon) was quite a departure for her, I thought we might be getting another new direction. And, much as I do like the "usual" NR, I got quite excited about that.

But then the book soon returned to familiar patterns. There's the rest of the first half, where we see both Reed and Simone grow up, while the villain does their thing in the background. That felt very reminiscent of books like Blue Smoke, for instance. And then the present-day second half is a bit like Northern Lights, with Reed moving to an isolated small community to become Chief of Police. And there was a lot of time spent with the villain, following along as they killed more and more people, which Nora has done quite a few times (e.g. the first one I thought about, Thankless in Death).

So it turned out to be all pretty familiar. Which is no bad thing, really! I liked the romance quite a bit, with Reed and Simone feeling very well-suited to each other. There's not a hell of a lot of internal tension there, as they seem to click fine from the start and are clearly both on the same page on their relationship throughout, but their low-conflict relationship still managed to keep my attention engaged.

I also liked the family elements, particularly Simone's difficult relationship with her parents and sister and her almost sisterly relationship with her grandma, Cici. Cici was fun, even if, to be honest, in real life she'd probably annoy me as much as she would delight me (the fact that she always smells faintly of weed made me laugh, but euww, I hate that smell!).

The suspense was not awful, but really not great, either. The villain is of the crazy psycho variety, and I just find it hard to work up too much interest in that sort of character. And they seemed unrealistically good at getting away with mayhem. There seemed to be nothing they couldn't do, nobody they couldn't get to. Meh.

I also did wonder why Reed had not tried warning potential victims much, much earlier... years earlier, really, even before he knew who the culprit was. He knew who these people were and they were few enough in number that he could set up an alert to be notified whenever something police-related went down with any of them. So surely he could have contacted them and told them to be on their guard? Yes, it would be hard to be on their guard about everything, all the time, but even when he knew about the culprit, he did not make sure to let the potential victims know either. (Actually, something else that felt a bit off was that the entire country was not completely obsessed by the case when it became clear what was going on.)

Finally, the other thing that felt a bit weird was that there was no mention at all of gun control. It's all down to the shooters and the crazy-psycho villain. That feels quite tone-deaf at the moment. I suppose this will have been written a while ago, but still, that discussion has been going on for quite a long time. I get that wading into the whole gun control issue would likely offend quite a few readers, but at this point, not acknowledging the issue at all with a plot like this doesn't feel like the author being neutral, it feels like taking a particular side (and one which I'm not sure Roberts supports, given her vision of the future in the In Death series).

So, an enjoyable book, but nowhere near prime Nora.

MY GRADE: A B, I guess.


Broken Verses, by Kamila Shamsie

>> Friday, June 15, 2018

TITLE: Broken Verses
AUTHOR: Kamila Shamsie

PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Mariner Books

SETTING: Pakistan, early 2000s
TYPE: Fiction

Fourteen years ago, famous Pakistani activist Samina Akram disappeared. Two years earlier, her lover, Pakistan's greatest poet, was beaten to death by government thugs. In present-day Karachi, her daughter Aasmaani has just discovered a letter in the couple's private code—a letter that could only have been written recently.

Aasmaani is thirty, single, drifting from job to job. Always left behind whenever Samina followed the Poet into exile, she had assumed that her mother's disappearance was simply another abandonment. Then, while working at Pakistan's first independent TV station, Aasmaani runs into an old friend of Samina's who gives her the first letter, then many more. Where could the letters have come from? And will they lead her to her mother?

Merging the personal with the political, Broken Verses is at once a sharp, thrilling journey through modern-day Pakistan, a carefully coded mystery, and an intimate mother-daughter story that asks how we forgive a mother who leaves.
Oops, I timed my last post badly, as immediately afterwards I had visitors staying at mine, so all plans to post reviews went out the window! But ready now.  Anyway, I was a bit too busy to do a top reads of 2017 post at the end of last year, but if I'd done one, Kamila Shamsie's latest, Home Fire, would have been right at the top. So obviously, I went and bought all her backlist. It's not a hugely long list, but it's satisfyingly substantial and there's a fair bit of variety there. Her books go all over the world and several of them are historical novels. But having loved Home Fire so much, I fancied something a bit closer to that experience, so I chose to start with the one that seemed more like it.

Broken Verses is set in Karachi, Pakistan in the early 2000s. Aasmani is a young woman who grew up in the midst of much drama. Her mother, Samina, was a famous feminist activist. Not long after Aasmani's birth she left her husband, Aasmani's father, to live with her lover. He was just as famous as she was, a man considered to be Pakistan's greatest poet (and that's what he's often called all through the novel: 'The Poet').

Aasmani grew up as a bit of a fifth wheel in their tempestuous love affair and lives which were made even more chaotic by external events. Both Samina and the Poet were seen as troublesome by successive governments, and there was a constant cycle of prison and exile, both of which resulted in Aasmani being left behind and then reunited with her mother and stepfather. And then, as a teenager, she's left behind for good. The Poet is killed by the government, and a couple of years later, her mother disappears.

As the book starts, Aasmani is 30 and still living an unsettled life. When she leaves a cushy job at the state oil company to start working at a trendy and hip new TV company, she comes across an old friend of her mother and stepfather's. This woman is just as famous as they were, Pakistan's greatest actress, who retired many years ago and is now making a comeback in a series for Aasmina's TV company. This is mostly as a result of her son working there, and he pays as much attention to Aasmina as his mother does.

And then, through them, Aasmina receives a mysterious letter. It's written in code, but it's one she happens to know. It's a private code that her mother and the Poet used to use when writing to each other. Between that and some of the very private things mentioned in the letter, Aasmina is sure that the letters must be written by the Poet. But the shocking thing is that some of the content makes it clear the letters must have been written after the Poet's supposed death.

I enjoyed this. Aasmina was a bit of a non-entity as a character, but that was the whole point. This is a woman who always felt she came second to others, that she wasn't enough for her mother to want to stay, or even to want to live. She has allowed herself to be defined by that. To herself, she's a person who gets abandoned, and that's pretty much all there is to it. On one hand, this made for a character I wasn't that interested in, but on the other, it is an understandable reaction and I liked seeing her grow out of her passive role. And it made it all the sweeter when the focus moved to the loving relationship between Aasmani and her father and stepmother. They were always the unexciting, dependable ones (anyone would, compared to Samina and the Poet), so it was nice to see their steadfastness appreciated.

The mystery at the heart of the plot regarding the mysterious letters was well done. It kept me interested, and I thought the resolution made sense. Also, I really liked the letters themselves. They are written in a very strong, distinct voice, and they succeeded in making me understand why Aasmani loved the Poet, a man one would forgive her for resenting.

I also really enjoyed the setting, particularly the look back at the tumultous 80s and what was going on in Pakistan then. It was something I really knew very little about. But you know what? I also really liked seeing Pakistan in the present-day sections. I've seen reviews where people complain about this not being "the real Pakistan", meaning, I'm guessing, that it's about upper-middle/upper class people, so too similar to a Western lifestyle and therefore not authentic. Well, it worked for me, maybe because it's one of the very few times where I've read about an experience that seems familiar from my childhood. I too grew up in an upper-middle class family in a developing country, and most of what I read is either about many different social classes in developed countries, or about poor people in developing countries. I enjoy reading all of that, but there's a special pleasure in seeing your own personal experience reflected. I don't need it that often, but a little bit more often than this would be fun. The last book where I identified with the experience was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, and that was quite a while ago!



Hi again!

>> Friday, June 08, 2018

Well, it's been a while! I do hope some of you are still out there, after so many months. It's been a busy time, but I now feel things are settled enough that I should be able to blog somewhat regularly.

The move to Helsinki has gone really well. I optimistically gave myself a month after I arrived to find a place and move in, and it worked! I think it helped that I'd booked an airbnb studio flat for that first month, so while I was comfortable enough, I was started to feel cooped up and really needed a bit more space! I actually applied some techniques for the flat search from a book I'm planning to review soon which I read on my holidays in Uruguay, and that was super helpful. So I was all moved in and unpacked by early March.

My new neighbourhood in the winter, taken from a little island right across.

It's taken a bit longer to settle into the new job, but it's all good. I actually started the day after I arrived (no point moping around the house being miserable and missing my friends, best to keep busy), and it was a bit more challenging than I expected. The work itself was not a problem, as it's stuff I know I'm good at doing and have plenty of experience at. It was more that it was a shock to go from being the expert (I'd been at my previous organisation for almost 10 years), to being the newbie who knows very little about how things work. I still know very little, but a bit more than I did before, and I've made my peace with having to ask many questions :)

Helsinki itself has been fab. I was lucky enough to already have a good friend who lives here, and she's been wonderful at helping me settle and introducing me to people. I also joined one of those social groups online, which has lots of expat members but also quite a few Finns, so between my friend and her friends and my online group stuff, I've been able to start building a fun social life. There's plenty to do, and I try to do it all.

And I've thrown myself into exploring my new country and its culture. I try all the foods (the pastries are particularly to-die-for), I use the sauna in my building every week, and I have even gone ice swimming! I've also started learning Finnish, which I'm loving. It's a super hard language, but I'm enjoying the challenge. I didn't remember how much fun it was to do language classes, as I hadn't done it since I was in my early teens. It's going to take me a long while to be able to have a real conversation with anyone (good think almost all Finns speak excellent English!), but I'm making progress and starting to understand what's around me.

Two of my favourite Finnish pastries. The one on the right (called a laskiaispulla) is unfortunately available only for a limited time in the winter. The other one is the classic cinnamon roll called korvapuusti (which, strangely, translates literally as slapped ear -maybe that's what you got from the baker if you tried to eat them straight out of the oven?)

Ice swimming. That's me on the right in the grey woolly hat diving in!

I've been quite lucky with the weather, too, which was one of the things I was most worried about, given how people complain about it. It had apparently been a bit of a crap, dark winter up until February, but right on the day after I arrived, the snow came. I opened the door to leave for my first day of work and got hit in the face by a massive blizzard (and I have no experience with snow, so hadn't thought to wear waterproof mascara. I introduced myself to HR that morning with racoon eyes). There was a lot of it, and it settled, and from then on, we had a lovely white winter. It did get super cold for about a week:-20+ degrees C and it "felt like" -30 with the Siberian wind. That is about 0F to -20F, which is probably nothing to some of you if you're in Northern North America ('not too bad', according to the girl from Wisconsin in my Finnish class), but pretty damn cold to me. But it was fine. I'd bought the appropriate clothes and shoes, so I was warm enough when outside. And then the temp settled just a few degrees below freezing point, which was lovely and crisp. Mostly, it was all blue skies and plenty of sunshine, and that has continued now, when we've had the warmest May in a very long time. We even had about a week of 30C temperatures (85F or so?). I was not expecting that, and I'll try not to be disappointed next year when it's probably going to be a lot colder. The best thing about the weather, though, is the lack of rain. I have had to use an umbrella exactly once, and that was just drizzle. I got used to always carrying a little one in my handbag when I was in Liverpool, even when the weather seemed fine, but I've broken that habit. I might have to pick it up again in the autumn, which is supposed to be a lot wetter, but hey, I'm enjoying it all for now!

My neighbourhood in the summery spring!

So anyway, that's what's been going on lately. Book reviews next!


Back from holiday!

>> Saturday, January 20, 2018

Hi everyone, I'm back in Liverpool for a couple of weeks to finish sorting out all the million little details still outstanding before I move to Helsinki at the end of the month. My holiday in Uruguay was exactly what I needed: lots of family time, and days and days of sitting by the pool reading.

There really was a lot of reading. The non fiction was the highlight. I finally read David France's How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS, which I've had at the top of my TBR for a few months. It reminded me a bit of one of my favourite books last year,  East West Street, by Philippe Sands, in that it beautifully combined the personal and the factual, and it had a narrator with a stake in the story. Both books also made me cry. Turns out both books have won the Baillie Gifford prize for non fiction, one in 2016 and the other in 2017, so that's one prize I'll be keeping an eye on.

The other really great non fiction was Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths, which examines the way computer science looks at certain problems, and how that can illuminate the way we think about real-life issues.

On the fiction side, it was mostly solid but few books really wowed me. I loved rereading The Curse of Chalion (Bujold is always amazing), and Becky Chambers' A Closed and Common Orbit was as great as her first, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. I also enjoyed visiting 1990s Pakistan in Kamila Shamsie's Broken Verses, a TB Hospital in 1950s England in The Dark Circle, by Linda Grant, and the hidden areas of the Vatican with Robert Harris' Conclave (which I haven't quite finished listening to, but I'm enjoying immensely).

There were a few disappointments, books I'd been saving and really looking forward to, but that didn't deliver. The biggest one was Kristin Cashore's Jane Unlimited. It was really weird, but not in a good way, and full of characters that were psychologically unbelievable. It was a DNF for me, which I wasn't expecting. I was also disappointed in The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K Le Guin. The big idea of people who can move from being male to female to gender-neutral is not that revolutionary now (to be fair, possibly helped by this book!) and the plot outside of that was a bit meh. I still liked it, just not as much as I was hoping. I was also disappointed by the couple of Nordic Noir books I tried to read, both of which ended up being DNFs.

Here's a list of everything I read:


Big changes!

>> Monday, December 04, 2017

Not in the blog, but in my life. After just over 10 years in the UK, the time has come for a new adventure. At the end of January I will be moving to Helsinki (yes, in the middle of winter!) to start a new job. It's all a little bit scary and the amount of stuff to be done before I leave is kind of overwhelming, but mostly I'm really excited and can't wait to see what the future will bring (in the short term, probably a fair bit of snow, I imagine).

So the blog will probably continue to be a bit of a quiet zone for the next few months, but I absolutely intend to keep it going once I get settled in. I found it really nice to have that continuity 10 years ago, when I moved from Uruguay to the UK, and I expect it will also be a help this time.

So wish me luck, and any tips from those of you used to colder climates would be much appreciated!


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