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The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel

July 1, 2014 2 comments

The Murder Farm by Schenkel

The moment you pick up The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel (Quercus, 2014) translated by Anthea Bell, your eyes are assaulted by a wall of praise. It starts with the usual deathless prose from The Times of London, “Like, wow man! Far out!” or words to that effect, closely followed by the pack of British critics snapping at the heels of what they unanimously declare to be an international bestseller sans pareil. It makes the likes of me, Johnnies-come-lately viewing this as a prospective launch into the US market, feel somewhat redundant. Indeed, I’m briefly seized by a moment of reverse psychology, predisposing myself to find the British establishment favoring elitist prose and literary fiction to the detriment of mass appeal. With a heavy heart, I pick this up, relieved it’s relatively short.

The book is based on the Hinterkaifeck murders which took place in 1922, but relocates the killing in time to 1955. We’re set in Tannöd, a West German village still struggling to adjust to life after the end of the war. So many of the men have been killed or returned “damaged”. Farming has always been a hard life and not suited to men coming newly to the land. This leaves many of the older farmers under serious pressure until a new generation can grow to an age where they can take over responsibility for keeping the family inheritance as a going commercial concern. The problem, of course, is the lure of the cities. Manufacturing is beginning to reestablish itself and this lures many of the younger people away. They fear the drudgery of farming and find the idea of better paid factory work more attractive.

Andrea Maria Schenkel

Andrea Maria Schenkel

Against this background, there’s a terrible murder at a remote farmhouse. An entire family and the newly arrived maid are battered to death with a pickaxe handle. A visiting journalist collates interviews and rumours gleaned during his visit to the village. People are inclined to talk unguardedly with a man they do not know and who will not stay. The resulting patchwork of information is elegantly structured to take us into the heart of the mystery of who would commit this terrible crime while interweaving a third-person narrative from the only person who can say what actually happened. The result is grimly fascinating as the picture of the family killed slowly comes into focus. It’s not a pretty picture and some may prefer not to read a story which catalogues such systematic abuse. The fact such behaviour was tolerated in a small community says a great deal about the times and the tendency of small groups of people under severe economic pressure to worry more about their own affairs than interfere in the troubles of others.

Putting all this together, I arrive at a slightly equivocal conclusion. Because the structure is a collage of fragments, there’s no chance to get to know or empathise with any of the people whom we meet on this journalistic excavation into the past. Rather, as Michel Foucault suggests, we see the contents of documents as having no more significance than the silences revealed by what the documents do not say. Indeed, it’s the lacunae that, in the end, speak the most eloquently through inference. So The Murder Farm is a short book one admires for its cleverness and its ability to so carefully disclose the psychology of all the interested parties. But it’s not a book one reads as a mystery or thriller offering a white-knuckle ride. On that basis, I recommend it for those interested in dispassionately deconstructing criminal motivations in a historical setting. Indeed, the themes are probably sufficiently universal to transcend time. We still turn a blind eye to domestic abuse and prefer not to interfere in the lives of our neighbours, no matter how awful they are. There may be lessons in this book for all of us.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Garden of Burning Sand by Corban Addison

May 18, 2014 1 comment

The Garden of Burning Sand by Corban Addison

The Garden of Burning Sand by Corban Addison (Quercus/, 2014) sees us in sunny Zambia with Zoe Fleming, an idealistic American lawyer and all-round do-gooder. She becomes involved in the case of Kuyeya Mizinga—a fifteen-year-old girl with Down’s syndrome who is raped and dumped in a poor part of Lusaka. Our heroine teams up with local policeman Joseph Kabuta and, before you can say Jack Robinson, they are hot on the trail of a very high-profile suspect with all the right political connections to be able to avoid prosecution and/or conviction. So this is part legal thriller as our duo try to accumulate enough evidence to trigger a prosecution, part political drama in two countries (obviously the Zambian prosecutors are not overjoyed at the possibility of trying someone this senior and our heroine is the daughter of a US presidential candidate) and part thriller as a faintly menacing thug tracks our investigative duo and, well, threatens them (is that a snake? Oooh how scary). There’s a surprising amount of information about HIV and the strange set of attitudes that seems to pervade the response of those in Africa to this particular disease. Although the book does not offer any particular explanation for this denialist approach to the disease and treatments, it does at least highlight the dramatic effect it has on the populations in the different states, and the one or two key individuals caught up in this human rights plot. There’s also discussion of the general reluctance to use DNA evidence to prosecute for sexual offences in general and child abuse in particular. The way in which this culture relates to children with physical and mental disabilities will be distressing to some readers, i.e. there are a number of superstitions that such children are born disabled as a result of curses or the general application of witchcraft. There’s also the mandatory romance which, for reasons you may be able to predict, does not run as smoothly as you might expect.

Corban Addison

Corban Addison

I think the best way to characterise this heroine is as crusading saint. She’s a modern Mother Teresa with taekwondo skills should she meet nonbelievers. Because her father is a senior senator, she has the status to command the powers-that-be in Washington. This gives her a platform from which she can preach a sermon about the essential capacity of the human being for nobility of spirit. Yes, once the need is perceived, the human being will instinctively be generous, put petty prejudices and dogmatism to one side, and either give the money or do whatever is necessary to rescue poor people from their abject state of neediness and elevate them to a state where they can, for once, be treated with respect.

I found the tone of the book rather tiresome with everyone divided into the noble lot, the despicable lot, and the lot that might be pushed into doing the right thing if they get protection from the consequences. This is not to say I’m against message books per se, but I prefer my reading to have some connection to the real world. If this situation actually occurred, the politically powerful family would simply order their paid thugs to disappear the inconvenient investigators and their witnesses. The idea they would sit there and allow a foreign woman and a local policeman to embarrass them is ludicrous. The cover-up would be swift and not wholly hidden. Such a family would want to send a deterrent message to anyone else who might be tempted to threaten their interests in the future.

So, sadly, this is a book determined to sell a completely unrealistic message of hope. The corrupt families in these foreign countries can be brought down by American-inspired interventionism based on the rule of law. Medical knowledge can be allowed to help those currently oppressed by the bigoted and prejudiced. And, back in America, political extremists can be shamed into helping the scroungers and freeloaders they despise. And pigs may soon be equipped with wings. In other words, The Garden of Burning Sand will only be of interest to those who inhabit a bubble in which wish-fulfillment is the norm.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Detainee by Peter Liney

May 16, 2014 1 comment

The Detainee by Peter Liney

It’s always good to begin with an irreverent thought — it gets such ideas out of your system before starting on the serious business of writing the review. Anyway, back in 1965, I remember paying to see The Bed-Sitting Room, a hilariously absurd play about a man who, as a result of exposure to radiation during World War III, turned into a bed-sitting room. He was then occupied by the doctor treating him. This bodily invasion was justified by the doctor’s thought it was easier to treat his patient when he had somewhere comfortable to sit. This made a more amusing play than Becket’s Happy Days which has one character buried in a mound of earth. But the theme of both plays revolves around people who survive after a catastrophe of some kind. Back in the sixties, we were all somewhat obsessed by the different ways in which we might be terminated (apologies to daleks) in a nuclear holocaust. Today, we get to think about different types of apocalypse.

The Detainee by Peter Liney (Quercus/Jo Fletcher Books, 2013) has a financial meltdown which leads to a somewhat clichéd dystopia in which all the scroungers and useless people are sent to camps (in this case on an island) where they are expected to die. I didn’t have a problem with the logic of the trigger for this process of social winnowing, but I did wonder how it was managed in the cities. Equally, I wondered how the people arrived on this island. Do boats come across from the city on a regular schedule with people unloaded by goons with cattle prods? There doesn’t seem to be any system for meeting and greeting newcomers — old worthless people this way, Lord of the Flies wannabes follow me, collect your machetes after health screening for organ donation (it is an island after all and Logan’s Run rules apply).

Peter Liney

Peter Liney

And I wasn’t entirely clear how the old people survived. There doesn’t seem to be any routine of foraging in the rubbish dump for food, clothing or any other essentials. And how do they cook whatever food they find? No electricity, no running water, no obvious way in which to make fire assuming safely combustible material could be found. Or are we just to assume there’s enough in the garbage for them to snack on whenever the mood takes them? And then what happens during winter? The attrition rate must be phenomenal without having all the killer kids rampaging whenever the mists come down. Which makes it all the more surprising there’s no apparent system for collecting more victims from the disembarkation point and settling them into their lean-to hovels before execution or death through starvation. In other words, I couldn’t work out how the island was supposed to function as a place to live. The only explanation for the older arrivals was as a place to die quickly, the young more slowly (although whether anyone would want their organs if they were malnourished and addicted to drugs is not considered). These problems always arise with first-person narration because if our protagonist doesn’t see or think about the relevant information, we readers remain in the dark.

Our first-person narrator is sixty-three-year old “Big Guy” Clancy. Before the crash, he was muscle for a gangster. Think of him as the strong, silent type who would loom over people and intimidate them into doing what was required. He’s not overly endowed in the brain department, but equally not stupid. Physically, he’s in decline as you would expect of a man of his age who doesn’t work out. Even though he’s still physically impressive when compared to most of the other old folk, he’s disinclined to get involved when the killers come. He waits patiently for death, seeing no reason to shorten his life by attempting to defend those attacked. This leaves him somewhat disliked with only Jimmy and Delilah prepared to see any good in him. Then one day he has the good fortune to be saved from attack by an unexpected person. Over time, this leads to his rehabilitation as a person. We then go through the obligatory stage to recruit allies (there do prove to be quite a lot prepared to fight against the established order) and it’s into the climactic battle to end book one in this trilogy.

Now you might think because I’ve been finding fault with some aspects of the book that it’s unenjoyable. This is not the case. Some aspects of the plot are quite rigorously worked out and although the precise mechanism for the ending depends on one of these coincidences and is slightly deus ex machina, the whole is a fascinating preface to what I take to be the real story which begins in book 2 (or at least I hope it starts in book 2). Whereas what happens on the island is fairly well-trodden ground, what’s happening in the city could be the salvation of the trilogy when the books are read together. I’m actually interested to see what happens next.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Cold Nowhere by Brian Freeman

The-Cold-Nowhere-505003-00c4dc6a2df8b4be8a57

As a general proposition let’s assume there’s no such thing as a set formula for each of the genre classifications dreamed up by the marketing departments. No matter what the label, the quality of the book comes down to the virtue of the storytelling. The protagonist has one or more problems which he or she tries to solve as the book progresses. Unfortunately, instead of things getting better, they get worse as tension emerges with other members of the cast and, when he or she is known, the antagonist ratchets up the pressure. As we approach the end, the tensions become more severe and lead to a resolution, often violent in mysteries, thrillers and adventure stories. The Cold Nowhere by Brian Freeman (Quercus, 2013) is the eighth book the marketers have decided is a thriller and the sixth to feature Lieutenant Jonathan Stride. The reality is rather more complex. In practical terms, it’s a police procedural set in Duluth, Minnesota. Because there’s considerable uncertainty as to whether there’s a threat to Catalina “Cat” Mateo, daughter of Michaela Mateo and Marty Gamble, the set-up might be considered the opening scenes of either a thriller or a mystery.

 

The problem is that sixteen-year-old Cat appears psychologically disturbed, afflicted by nightmares and displaying other symptoms of trauma. This is not surprising. When she was six, she hid under the house when her father stabbed her mother to death and then committed suicide. Given such a disturbing event, time is often not a healer. So it’s possible she’s delusional, or she’s playing a game to get close to our protagonist for some reason. So this is a mystery thriller, with psychological elements, set in a police procedural. But that’s not enough to satisfy the ambition of our author. Jonathan Stride himself was in a happy marriage but his wife died. His second marriage was a disaster but, until fairly recently, he’s had a good relationship with a female police officer called Serena Dial. Unfortunately, Stride is one of the “strong silent types” who bottles difficult emotional issues inside himself and never talks with anyone, including Serena. Although she’s not naive, Serena is equally not prepared to sit and wait for Stride to open up and deal with his problems. She leaves. In a moment of vulnerability, Stride then has a six week fling with Maggie Bei, the partner he works with. As everyone has secrets and no-one likes to be honest, that’s a recipe for considerable difficulty in a smallish city like Duluth — a city famous for low ambient temperatures, the lake and a certain coldness in relationships.

Brian Freeman

Brian Freeman

 

At this point, I might step back and appear to praise the book by saying the characterisation is rich and complex, or I could be disparaging and wonder why all series characters have to come from broken marriages and have an inability to talk about their problems. Now I’m not going to say this book is serious art, that it has a quality of tragedy about it that lifts it out of the ordinary. That would be pretentious. But I am going to note one rather pleasing use of a literary device. In some classic novels and films, there’s a conscious parallelism between the characters and their setting. It may be the inner turmoil of the protagonist is mirrored by the approaching storm and, when the thunder crashes and lightning bolts strike down from the leaden sky, there’s an emotional crisis in the gothic house on the blasted heath. Well here we have a city that has reached an accommodation with the cold. People have adjusted the pace of their lives to the wind chill and snow crunching under foot. Their houses are designed to stay warm — small castles to stand against the storms or small prisons where they can be kept apart from their neighbours. In theory, these people drive more carefully given the risk of black ice. When there are problems, there’s a sense of community. Some will rally round to help each other, banding together in the face of the weather as a common enemy. Others will see political opportunities to take credit when things go well or deflect blame on to the less wary. Yes, politics in Duluth can be cold and dirty, and it represents a serious problem to the progress of any investigation that might involve the city’s elite, e.g. hints of prostitution and corruption must always be handled sensitively.

 

Put all this together and The Cold Nowhere proves to be a completely engrossing read. There’s both strength and vulnerability from the key characters on display and although I think one aspect of the resolution unlikely, it does produce a socially interesting point at which to leave the characters at the end. Should there be another book in this series, it would be fascinating to see how it all works out. However, the primary appeal of the book lies in the strength of mystery to untangle. This is genuinely well-constructed and it’s beautifully paced through the book to produce an exciting climax. Thematically, even though it’s fairly obvious what the motive is, the precise way in which it’s embedded into the plot is particularly pleasing. Connecting all the dots is a real challenge to the reader but the effort is worth it, making this one of the best mystery-thriller-police-procedural-psychological drama books I’ve read in a long while. You should read it too.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Irenicon by Aidan Harte

February 15, 2014 1 comment

Irenicon_JK

As all those who read these reviews will know, I’m a bear of little brain, frequently prone to error and misthinging. It’s a miracle I actually navigate from the start to the end of each day without killing myself or being killed by provoked authors, film directors or television producers. When books come in for review, I unpack them from their boxes and, in that order, copy their titles and authors into a list which then, somewhat arbitrarily, becomes the reading order. When I picked up this book and looked at the jacket, I wrote down Frenicon, taking the initial letter to be a gothic “f”. Imagine my surprise when later opening the book and finding the f to be an i. This does not exactly strike the right note (or letter for that matter) when it comes to communicating with the buying public.

So as to the review itself: Irenicon by Aidan Harte (Quercus/Jo Fletcher Books, 2012) is the first book in the Wave Trilogy and sees us flirting with genre boundaries. In broad definitional terms, we could be looking at an alternate history book which takes as its premise that Herod acted in time to kill the infant Jesus before he could be spirited out of harm’s way. This left the Virgin Mary with the task of introducing the elements of the Christianity that would otherwise have conquered the word of faith in the West. But without her son to show his divinity, the resulting belief system is rather different from the version we had in the fourteenth century when this book is set. Hence, if we take books like Pavane by Keith Roberts as our exemplars, this book is outside the definitional boundary because it does not accept the limits of the real world. It treats the supernatural as real. So for all it poses a classical “what if”, we’re actually pitched into a mediaeval Italian environment where a form of magic works. In broad narrative terms, the Concordian northern alliance is actively pursuing expansion into Europe, but is cautious of the independent city states to the south. To avoid vulnerability from the rear, it’s therefore using one of its twelve legions to suppress dissent.

The culture has been through a Re-Formation. Natural Philosophy has applied mathematics and observational physics to the real world. Initially ignored by the pervasive religion, a new breed of engineer arose and established sufficient power to be able to displace both religious power-brokers and the nobility. The result is theoretically a more meritocratic society, but one which proves equally open to abuse by a self-appointed elite. Underpinning the rise to power is the development of Wave technology. Essentially this uses water for military purposes. As a demonstration of its destructiveness, the engineers physically divide the southern city of Rasenna by creating a river. The waters of what’s later named the Irenicon smash through the city walls, devastate the central area, and become a permanent feature of the landscape. It would be just like any other river except that, surprisingly, it runs uphill and it’s also full of spirits which seem intent on grabbing any human who comes too close to the water. Death by drowning is the result. This city gives us the central metaphor for the book to explore.

Aidan Harte

Aidan Harte

Following its division, two feuding families assert control over their half. The Morellos rule the north, the Bardinis the south, albeit both are beholden to the Concord. The only person who might reunite the city is Contessa Sofia, the last surviving member of the Scaglieri family. When she reaches the age of seventeen, she could be allowed to become the ruler. Until then, she’s being trained in “leadership skills” by The Doctor, the head of the Bardini family. One day, Captain Giovanni, a young engineer from the Concord, arrives. He’s been sent to build a bridge across the river. The symbolism is transparent. This is a city divided against itself. Following the model of feuding clans, the socalisation process inducts the young into militias who develop fighting styles using banners designating their families and clan allegiances. The poor and emergent middle class are relatively powerless, depending on local “gangs” for protection. A bridge allowing all to move from one side to the other could end the feuds and reunite Rasenna. So those who are in power see the engineer as a threat. The poor see him as a figure of hope, a force for change.

Change management is challenging at the best of times. In a fourteenth century Italy, the first step is an undermining of the control of the two families and their retainers, quickly followed by the empowerment of the poor and middle class. In an ideal world, there would also be some degree of democratisation but that’s never going to be an easy sell to anyone who’s spent generations under the control of local families and clans. The book therefore explores a perennial problem where entrenched power structures confront the possibility of change. In modern times, we might be looking at the Troubles where relatively small groups of warring paramilitaries disputed which of the adjacent sovereign states should have the right of local control. As in the real world, so in this book, everything depends on the history and context for events. Aidan Harte nicely introduces illuminating insights into the process which Re-Formed the northern part of Italy and consolidated power in the engineers. How and why the science as magic (or vice versa) came into being is deliberately left unspoken. It’s going to be necessary to carve out positions for science and faith, and then support dialogue to understand the relationship and potential synergy between the belief and knowledge-based systems.

This leaves me seriously impressed both by the quality of the ideas and the ingenuity with which they are explored in the text. In simplistic terms, it’s a coming-of-age story as Sofia chafes against the control of The Doctor and begins to form a relationship with Giovanni. But this is rather more substantial than the traditional amor vincit omnia fantasy plot as our two protagonists come into mutual obit but then have choices to make. I could make disparaging noises about the clichéd necessity for Sofia to develop “powers” by overcoming her fear, but this would be to miss the point. Returning for a moment to the religious context, Mary did not ask to become mother to Jesus. She was chosen and had to make the best of it. In short, Irenicon is completely fascinating, leaving us poised on a wholly unexpected note as a new temporary balance in the power structures is achieved.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Here’s an interview with Aidan Harte.

The Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan

November 8, 2013 Leave a comment

DINOSAUR-FEATHER_L

One of the more interesting developments in the marketing field has been the increasing use of quotes on the front and back covers, and on the front end papers. Bilbo Baggins (author of There and Back Again) says this is the best fantasy book to reach the Shires! There seems to be an assumption both that all the readers will know who this Baggins person is and are likely to be influenced by his opinion. In this, I note with considerable amusement that my own words have occasionally been used as part of the quoted praise. While naturally being convinced of my own ability to judge the worth of books, I seriously doubt many people agree with the generality of my opinions (particularly those who know who I am). The reason for starting in this way is the words on the back cover of The Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan (Quercus, 2013) Dinosaurens fjer translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund. The headline is, “Danish crime novel of the decade!” Not that I take any notice, but it does seem to me to trespass closer on to the territory of hectoring, intimidation and bullying. This is not just the book of the year, you see. It’s the book of the decade. Disagree with this informed judgement at your peril! Although in the defence of the British publisher, Denmark voted and knows what it likes. Yet, in the wider scheme of things, the fact the country only has 5.6 million population means their opinion counts for even less than mine (or so I believe when the book is translated into English and gets judged by wider criteria).

So what do we actually get in this package? Well, the first and most obvious element is the number of words. This tome weighs in at a chunky 448 pages, so it’s suitable for one of those long Scandinavian nights when the snow falls and the sun refuses to shine. I’m not against longer books per se, but if I’m going to wade through more than four-hundred pages, it has to prove worth the effort when the dust has settled. To make us feel there’s a big reward at the end, the author sets up the narrative with three major threads. Obviously, we start with the murder mystery with the first of three deaths the result of a rather gruesome method. So, if you’re of a weak disposition, you might want to skip over the detailed discussions. The second and third deaths are routine and not something that will disturb. The second element is an exploration of a manufactured scientific dispute as to the origin of birds. It seems some people refuse to accept birds evolved from dinosaurs. This could have been impenetrable but, as a biologist, the author makes the essence of the debate eminently accessible. The third and by far the most substantial part of the book is an exploration of the major characters and how they relate to each other.

Sissel-Jo Gazan

Sissel-Jo Gazan

Looking back on this, I’m quite surprised it all manages to fit into only 448 pages. We learn whodunnit, which side of the dinosaur debate is right, and what has predisposed the major characters to end up in this state. No mean achievement. To get us to the end, we have three points of view: Anna Bella Nor has written her PhD thesis and is awaiting adjudication when one of her two supervisors is murdered, Soren Marhauge is a police detective who has one of the best track records for solving crimes, and Clive Freeman is the Canadian end of the biological dispute. The thread that ties these POVs together is the dinosaur issue. The murdered supervisor and Freeman were the primary protagonists in the international dispute over the evolutionary origin of birds. The topic for Anna Bella’s thesis is this occasionally violent disagreement. She’s expected to side with her own supervisor and demolish the views advanced by Freeman. From this, you’ll understand that this obscure evolutionary spat could be the motive for the first murder. Indeed, if this is the reason for the demise of the eminent professor, Anna Bella may be next in line (assuming her thesis reaches the same scientific conclusion).

It would be fair to say almost all the people who feature in this book are damaged in some way. They have mostly had very unfortunate experiences as children and/or tragedy has supervened to leave real scars. To that extent, this preoccupation with the reasons for everyone’s psychological damage enables the book to satisfy the criterion for acceptance as Scandinavian noir. We are exploring some very painful emotional issues. Parents died when the children were young, or the father was psychologically abusive, or the mother had severe postpartum depression, and so on. This leads me to a gentle aside. This is not a warning as such. But you should not read this book with the expectation of a classic murder mystery. Rather three deaths occur while all the major characters are resolving their personal issues. Obviously, neither Anna Bella nor Soren Marhauge know whodunnit but, despite her erratic and angry behavior, she manages to gain the confidence of the three people who can give her the pieces of the jigsaw. The answer proves to be one of these immensely sad stories which, by virtue of the detail we’ve been given in the opening section of the book, resonates with real power at the end when Anna Bella is able to telephone Soren Marhauge and tell him who to arrest.

So now it comes down the the time when I get magisterial. The opening takes its time to set the scene. You need a little patience. Be reassured. Literally everything that comes through the first two-hundred pages becomes increasingly relevant in the second half of the book. By the time you finish, you understand why two of the three POV characters end up better adjusted people. They have all looked into the past and understand the forces that shaped them. Two can begin a healing process. One is trapped in the past and can never recover. Having reached the end, I feel a sense of rightness about the character development. You leave feeling you have actually met these people and spent a little time getting to know them. You can see hope for two of them which lifts the pervading sense of gloom in the first two-thirds of the book. I’m not convinced The Dinosaur Feather is the book of the decade in the international ranking order, but it’s certainly a very impressive piece of writing and is well worth reading!

A copy of this book was sent to me to review.

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