Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Month: January 2011 (page 1 of 3)

Dogged & Determined Detective Work

Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, translated by Lois Roth

Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö are the Swedish couple that more than any other authors really defined the police procedural crime novel in their ten book sequence of Martin Beck novels, of which Roseanna is the first.  Writing in the mid-1960s onwards and influenced by Ed McBain’s 87th precinct novels (which I’ve still yet to read), they were determined to illustrate real Swedish life in their novels.  In real life, crimes are not usually solved in a matter of days or even a couple of weeks; in real life the search for evidence is a painstaking business – things rarely come together as neatly as pictured in most crime novels.

This might make it seem rather boring, but by chronicling the more mundane parts of a police detective’s role they do make it seem real, and what’s more they really breathe life into their characters who are strongly drawn. Martin Beck (he’s rarely referred to as just Martin) is approaching middle age, henpecked at home and a rather absent type of father. He also has a nervous stomach that reacts badly to the endless coffees it is subjected to and smokes too much.  He’s diligent, eager almost, to escape having to go home and brave the awful subway.

When the body of a young woman is pulled out of a lock on the river, the local police call in the National Homicide Bureau and Martin Beck has a new case to occupy his mind.   At first they find it impossible to identify the body – no-one has reported her missing; it’s definitely murder though, she was violently assaulted before she died.

It is some time before it becomes clear that she is a foreigner who was on one of the river-cruises that ply the area, and it must have been someone on board the boat that did it.  Here, over weeks and months, the detectives ply away doggedly at tracking down the passengers and crew to get their recollections of the murdered girl. Eventually they will get their man in a thrilling finish,  but it takes an awful lot of hard work to get there.

Opening with a long and detailed description of a dredger maneuvering  into position to do some work at the locks, this book took a while to get into.  However once we’d met Martin Beck and his team, they were easy to warm to and I began to enjoy the book thoroughly. A pleasant surprise was that all the policemen were human and largely unstereotyped – no shouty super who’d been promoted above his station here.  They got on with their jobs and seemed fulfilled by their work.

Much is always made of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s communism, and their intention with this decalogue of novels to expose the bourgeois underbelly of Swedish society, which to us was always made out to be very hip and liberal during that period.  This edition of the book is introduced by Henning Mankell who has been very influenced by the series, and also has an interview with Maj Sjöwall at the end too – both of these are interesting extras that are well worth reading.

While each book in the series stands alone as a crime novel, there is character progression which goes right from the start so I’m told, so this is a series which is best to start at the beginning.  In summary, a slightly slow start, but a good introduction to the characters and times.  (7.5/10)

I’m looking forward to the subsequent volumes – The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966) is next.  This was one of my Mum’s books.

To buy from Amazon, click below:
The Martin Beck series – Roseanna
The Martin Beck series – The Man Who Went Up in Smoke
Cop Hater (Crime Essentials) by Ed McBain – the 1st 87th Precinct novel (1956)

Happy Birthday to David Lodge

Just doing some updating in Librarything I noticed on a sidebar that it’s David Lodge’s birthday, so I thought I’d highlight this quintessentially British author who is 75 today.

Lodge is a fellow South Londoner, but these days lives and works in Birmingham which he has immortalised in his fictional university city of Rummidge, indeed the halls of academe loom large in much of his work, and that’s where the first book I read by him was set…

Changing Places is a tale of two campuses, Rummidge and Plotinus (modelled on Berkeley, CA), and two lecturers both forty, (as was Lodge when it was published in 1975) do a job-swap.  Brit, Philip Swallow is very conventional – the exact opposite of the loud and snobbish Maurice Zapp, but they gradually find themselves fitting in, especially with each other’s wives!  It’s very much a novel of its time – takes me right back to the 1970s.  It makes a Rummidge trilogy along with Small World which explores the academic gravy train, and 1984’s Nice Work; Swallow and Zapp appear in both.  The latter two were both televised, and Lodge adapted Nice Work himself.

The last Lodge book I read, which was a couple of years ago, was The British Museum is Falling Down – one of his 60s novels, set in swinging London and about Catholics, contraception and procrastination.  It was funny, but it wasn’t until I got to the end and read the afterword, that I realised it contained a whole series of literary pastiches in from Joyce’s Ulysses to Kafka – only having read one of the spoofed texts I could be forgiven this though.

I’ve got around four other Lodge novels in the TBR plus his book about how literature works The Art of Fiction; in particular I have been meaning to read Deaf Sentence (2008) for ages, so I shall go and  ‘rummidge ‘ around for it …

HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAVID LODGE

To check out books on Amazon UK, click below:
Deaf Sentence, The British Museum is Falling Down, Changing Places, Small World, Nice Work, The Art of Fiction

Will this hustle live up to the mark …

Fall Girl by Toni Jordan

After my previous post, another second novel.  But first a few words about its predecessor.

Australian author Toni Jordan’s first novel Addition (which I reviewed here) was a quirky and witty romance, in which the main character Grace had a form of OCD which led to her counting everything and hero-worshiping Nikola Tesla.  It was a super debut of intelligent chick-lit that made me laugh; it got a lot of attention too, being picked for the Richard & Judy bookclub back in 2008 in the UK. Now on to Fall Girl

As always with second novels, the follow-up to a successful debut always has a lot to live up to.  Fall Girl didn’t have the spark of genius in the counting that set Addition apart, but it does have strong lead characters that make it sizzle, and a lively plot full of little twists that made it a great pageturner.

Della is part of an amazing family of grifters – con-artists all.  Now in her mid-twenties, she’s ready to start leading some cons, and she’s found a mark.  Daniel Metcalf is a millionaire playboy with a charitable trust that funds scientific projects.  They plan to play him for a good sum, with Della posing as an evolutionary biologist, searching for evidence of a species that is meant to have become extinct. It should have been easy, but the stakes get raised and the short-con becomes a long one – someone could be heading for a fall!

Anyone who’s seen any episodes of the BBC TV show Hustle will broadly know what to expect.  Family members all have parts to play in the con to ensure everything appears totally hunky-dory. Everything is honed to give the expected result, but Della has never met anyone like Daniel before.

You couldn’t help but like Della and her family. They have you rooting for them right from the start – like the guys in Hustle, they only take from the rich and greedy – modern day Robin Hoods without the giving to the poor bit.  In a book of this sort you’re also looking for some romance, and this has girl meets boy action with twists.  Della and Daniel are a sparky pair of leads (ooh – do excuse that unintended pun), akin to Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant – their dialogue was great, and it was fun all the way.  This book also managed to make me feel summery (if but briefly) in the depths of winter which is an added benefit.  A light-hearted and definitely entertaining romance – I enjoyed it and believe Fall Girl should do well.  (8/10)

To buy items from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
Fall Girl & Addition – both by Toni Jordan.
Hustle – Series 1-6 [DVD]
Book chosen from a list sent to review by Amazon Vine.

‘Guantanamo UK’ & the Hotel California

The Facility by Simon Lelic

Simon Lelic’s first novel, Rupture, was such a breath of fresh air last year that when I was able to get my hands on an advance copy of his second, I could hardly wait to read it and for the publication date to get near.  Would it be as innovative as his stunning debut, Rupture, (which I reviewed here), or would it be a ‘difficult second novel’ ?

I’m please to report that it’s rather good. While lacking its predecessor’s way of interleaving a good police procedural with striking first person statements from those involved, The Facility is instead a thriller, and it does have a style all of its own…

As the book opens a prisoner called Arthur is being interrogated in violent fashion immersing us in strong language, torture and crudity on the part of the questioners. Immediately you are aware that reading the book will require a degree of stamina to cope with it. Chapter two switches to a secret government establishment; the Governor, Graves, is showing the a minister from the home office around the as yet unoccupied building…

Jenkins jabs his chin towards the centrepiece of the quad: a fountain, depicting Neptune in a chariot  behind three horses. ‘A touch extravagant, would you not say?”
‘It is hideous, I know.  The whole building, really, is an architectural chimera. His Majesty, for one, would not approve. There’s Gothic here, Romanesque there, Palladian  and Tudor in the outbuildings. None of it original, of course. Except for the staff quarters, which were  built in the fifties.’
‘You got it working, though. You left the damp but fixed the fountain.’
‘It was no great expense, minister. We felt it would be beneficial. The sound of running water, a place for the men and women to gather. You understand, I’m sure.’
‘They are prisoners, Graves.’
‘They will be imprisoned, minister. It is perhaps not quite the same thing.
‘Guff,’ says Jenkins. ‘Of course it’s the same thing.’

The scene is set, we’re in the near future – King Charles would appear to be on the throne.  The government du jour have put in place ‘The Unified Security Act’ which was designed for terrorists, but in practice let’s them do whatever they want to whomever they want.  ‘Guantanamo UK’ as a newspaper headline says in the book.

We’ve still one more thread to pick up – Arthur’s wife visits an investigative journalist, Tom, convinced her husband has been ‘disappeared’ wrongly by the police. They’re not telling, so Julia implores Tom to take up the case, and against his editor’s better judgement of it all being a conspiracy theory, he does.

The thriller then works out through these three voices – Arthur, the wrongly imprisoned man; Graves, the former prison Governor who is not happy being involved in this top-secret work; and Tom, searching for answers.   It soon becomes clear that most of the inmates are sick, but that Arthur is not. Government doctors arrive talking of trials for a cure, Graves finds himself overruled, largely impotent to help and essentially trapped – ‘you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave’ as the Eagles sang in Hotel California. I found Graves the most interesting character by far as he comes to realise his own guilt at being part of this plan.

‘What if’ novels always have big questions at their heart.  For all we know, we could already have a dormant ‘plague-hospital’ in a sparsely populated area of the country. The author shows some anger at the way people who have not been charged with anything can be treated; at homophobia and racism; political double-speak; and so on. For the most part, he doesn’t attempt to answer any of the questions, leaving them hanging, keeping you thinking about them. In this way he subverts the thriller genre with this pessimistic view of the near future.

This is a bleak and unsettling book which I really enjoyed reading.  Rupture was a ‘Whydunnit'; The Facility is a ‘What if’ – I wonder which question his third book will pose? (8/10)

I picked up this book as my Quizmaster’s perks last autumn. For some other reviews, visit Farm Lane Books and Follow the Thread.

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To purchase from Amazon UK, click below:
The Facility
Rupture
Hotel California by The Eagles

Incoming …

A box arrived yesterday, and it turned out to be full of books – yes I actually won a prize (I think!) – a set of bestsellers from Hodder. Thank you very much!

Now there’s some good stuff in this pile, and I know I’m currently engaged in the TBR Dare, but one of these books in particular is just itching to be picked up by me – Can you guess which one it is?

To buy any of these from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
Before I Fall One Day Al Murray the Pub Landlord Says Think Yourself British House Rules The Elephant to Hollywood Full Dark, No Stars The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet Kirstie’s Homemade Home

Becoming human

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

This book has won the top awards for children’s fiction going – the US Newbery, the UK Carnegie, plus a Hugo for SF/Fantasy amongst many other awards and nominations. The Graveyard Book is Gaiman’s first full length novel for children since Coraline, (which I loved and reviewed here). Would it live up to my expectations and the hype, as it had been sitting on my bedside pile for long enough…?

The story of Nobody Owens, a boy whose family were all murdered one night in the first few pages of the book.   He was just a toddler then, but somehow evaded the killer by toddling into the adjacent graveyard, where a pair of kindly ghosts adopt him and give him his name. They bring him up with the help of the mysterious Silas who becomes his mentor – a rather vampirical character; all the other spectral inhabitants of the graveyard help out of course.  Young ‘Bod’, as they call him, gets a rather fantastical education from all of these phantoms, many of whom died centuries ago.  As he grows up he has many adventures in the graveyard with the ghosts, also venturing into some of the other portals within. As he nears adolescence though, he yearns to find out what lies outside – but the murderer is still looking for him.  Bod has to find the perfect balance and manage not to draw attention to himself, but he is a caring boy and when he stands up for a bullied child he puts himself in danger …

I’d defy older children and frankly anyone else not to enjoy this book.  The various adventures of Bod as he grows up read like short stories, with the linked background and threat of murder all the way through. Gaiman wrote with Kipling’s Jungle Book as inspiration for the tale of an orphan brought up by non-humans, and then puts his own macabre and spooky twists on the orphan’s tale.   The Graveyard itself has a ‘Highgate Cemetery’ feel to it with its old stones and its very own Egyptian Avenue – Highgate enthusiast Audrey Niffenegger took Gaiman on the tour.

What I liked about the graveyard was that during the daytime it is a haven, a tranquil place for reflection, yet one where you wouldn’t be surprised to find children happily playing among the headstones.  Step outside the consecrated ground into the big, bad world beyond though, and its powers and inhabitants can no longer help you. This is where one of the other great characters in the book was helpful – Liza Hempstock, a young witch who died in the ducking stool was buried outside, and has a wonderful devil may care attitude, but Bod befriends her and she comes to his aid.

Gaiman’s imagination is fantastic, and aided by Chris Riddell’s wonderfully quirky illustrations (I’m a huge fan of Riddell), this book leapt off the page.  Also published in a YA/adult crossover edition with illustrations by Dave McKean too.

The Graveyard Book is much less of a horror story than Coraline, this book is more of a coming of age tale, and has positively wistful moments too – I loved it. (9/10)

I bought this book (with the Riddell illustrations). For another recent review read what Simon S thought about it.

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To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
The Graveyard Book
Coraline

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