Quicksand: Malin Persson Giolito

School shootings have become a sickening reality, and in Quicksand, Swedish author Malin Persson Giolito explores such an incident through the eyes of Maya, an 18-year-old girl who’s accused of aiding and abetting her boyfriend murder several people. The novel opens in the aftermath of the crime with Maya cradling the dead body of boyfriend, Sebastian Fagerman amidst the corpses of her friends. Then the story moves to the trial.

At issue here is the subject of complicity. Did Maya plot with Sebastian? How much did she know of his intentions? Maya admits shooting her boyfriend Sebastian and her best friend, Amanda. How could Maya have murdered her best friend, and yet did she really like Amanda?

Amanda was spoiled, of course, she was–by her mom, her dad, her therapist, and the person who took care of her horse. But it wasn’t just about clothes and gadgets. It was something else. She had the same attitude towards her parents, her teacher–all authorities, including god–that she did toward people in the service industry, like they were all concierges at a luxury hotel. 

As the trial opens and Maya is prepped by her lawyers, we see the events unfold in the courtroom through Maya’s eyes. This is a teenage girl who is largely disaffected and who views the adult world with disdain. Maya’s affluent parents have hired the best defense lawyer money can buy, and Maya has nothing but scorn for the two “helper attorney[s],” secretly mocking them in her head.

Quicksand

While the trial unfolds, Maya goes back in time to the beginnings of her relationship with Sebastian Fagerman, the son of “the richest man in Sweden.” Sebastian held wild parties with limitless drugs at his home, and indeed Sebastian’s life, complete with yachts and private jets is not enviable but a gilded nightmare of instability–a fact that Maya inevitably struggles with.

Quicksand effectively shows how a teenage girl got into a situation that she was unable to deal with. Maya’s parents are too awed by the Fagerman reputation to be other than delighted that Sebastian is dating their daughter. When things turn sour, Maya is so isolated and immature, she is unable to connect with anyone outside of her nightmare situation. Her disaffectedness makes her seem tough, but breakthrough that, and she’s actually quite brittle. In Maya, author Mallin Persson Giolito creates a not-particularly-likable teenage girl who thinks she knows all the answers and who feels superior to all adults. While most of her thoughts seemed to fit with those of an arrogant 18 year old privileged girl, occasionally, very occasionally, some of her thoughts did not. Maya has the habit of latching onto the words of adults as an inauthentic, meaningless ‘speak.’ Everyone, according to Maya, “has such a difficult time saying what they mean in plain language,” and yet isn’t she guilty of the same thing?

What a typical teacher answer: “that’s an excellent question …” “I hear what you’re saying…” “It’s not black and white…” “It’s not that simple …” Those kinds of answers all mean the same thing: they have no idea what they’re talking about.

But fine, If it’s difficult to know what’s true and who’s lying, if you can’t be sure, then what do you do?

While the setting, mood and atmosphere are excellent here, the details of the past bog down the narrative–say for example when Maya presents (in her head) 4 alternative ‘after the party’ scenarios. I went back and forth feeling sympathy and dislike for Maya. At times, it’s easy to see how this teenager was forced to cope with scenarios that were way beyond her maturity level, but at other times I was out of patience with her. Underlying the plot there’s a strong undercurrent of privilege. How do parents who raise their children to think they’re ‘special’ and above the herd, manage to eradicate arrogance and superficiality? How do you teach the children of the cossetted ultra-rich? How to teach the degradation of poverty? The humiliation of need?

Review copy

Translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles

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Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly: Adrian McKinty

“I’ve stirred up something strange, something deep.”

Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly, the sixth entry in the Sean Duffy series from author Adrian McKinty bears an unwieldy title,  but don’t let that stand in the way of picking up this well-crafted crime novel. Set in 1988, during The Troubles, this latest book from the consistently reliable McKinty, is an explosive police procedural set against the violence of the times.

Detective Inspector Sean Duffy, now in middle-age, a father with a live-in girlfriend wonders just how long his career will last. On one hand he’s a Catholic officer in the almost entirely protestant Carrickfergus RUC–that means as a catholic officer, there’s a IRA bounty on his head, and due to his past decisions, he knows he’ll never be promoted. In this novel, Duffy’s old habits, combined with the endless stress of the job find him out-of-shape and struggling with asthma. Can he give up the smokes, the booze and the other recreational habits he’s acquired in order to cope with his efforts to stay alive, solve cases and maintain some degree of integrity?

police at the station

The novel’s powerful opening finds Duffy marched off by masked men (and one woman) to a remote area to dig his own grave, and then the novel backtracks to the incidents that led Sean to this point. Backtracking from a moment of great tension is a risky venture for some novelists (my next review will cover that topic) but in McKinty’s capable hands, the action, with just a touch of humour, never stops, and as a result, the intense page-turning backstory maintains momentum.

Duffy is called to investigate a murder–the weapon of choice in this case is a crossbow, and the victim was a lowly drug dealer. There’s pressure from above to close the case, and Duffy is told in no uncertain words to ‘move on.’ When Duffy keeps digging, bad things begin to happen, and Duffy along with two trusted members of the force: Crabbie and Lawson in effect, lead a secret investigation that tunnels back to the past.

Series novels always include details about the characters’ personal lives. In this novel, Duffy, now a father, has deeper concerns than he’s had in the past. Plus Duffy’s live-in Protestant girlfriend isn’t happy living in a Catholic neighborhood and she isn’t sure she wants to raise a child in Northern Ireland. Duffy juggles pressures from his superiors with domestic strife and very real threats to his life. Plus thanks to health issues, he may be tagged as unfit for duty.

Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly is possibly the best entry in the series so far. Once again, McKinty places us squarely in the murky times by dropping in mention of real events: the Gibraltar terrorism, and the murder of two British army corporals. Curious, I looked up the RUC on Wikipedia and the article states that “at its peak” the force had 8500 officers and that “during the Troubles 319 RUC officers were killed and 9,000 injured in paramilitary assassinations or attacks.”

It would be fairly predictable to place a character in these times and show how things are never black and white, but McKinty does something entirely different. The Sean Duffy novels at all about identity and primary loyalties. In Duffy’s case, he’s a Catholic from working class roots, but he is not an ideologue; he’s first and foremost a policeman who is going to get the job done. Now if he rubs up against Catholics, Protestants or the wealthy along the way to solving his case, these labels are all white noise to Duffy. Being primarily a policeman has carried Duffy so far but now he’s a father and these two labels: father and policeman have their own magnetic pulls.

As I said, this is the sixth in the series, and while some brief references to the past are dropped in the plot, you can jump in with Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly--although it’s better to start at the beginning in order to follow Duffy’s career trajectory. The end of the novel finds Duffy at an interesting place in his career, and now I’m really looking forward to seeing how this plays out.

Reading Ireland Month

This is my entry for Reading Ireland Month held by Cathy 746 and Niall at The Fluff is Raging

Review copy

 

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A Private View: Anita Brookner

“The girl possessed an unusual gift:she brought everyone to the brink of bad behaviour.”

After a string of Anita Brookner novels from the female perspective, it was a change of pace to come across A Private View. The protagonist of this novel is 65-year-old, freshly retired George Bland. When the novel opens, he’s having a boring time in Nice. There’s too much time on his hands and too much time to think, and so he returns to his London flat to resume his retirement. But shortly upon his return, his life is disrupted by the arrival of a young woman, Katy Gibb who commandeers the opposite flat. George finds that his life of orderly calm is now subject to disturbing thoughts and longings. Will the man who’s spent his whole life with caution as the dominant force, now suddenly become impulsive and throw caution to the winds?

a private view

Thematically, A Private View has the most in common with Visitors (of the ones I’ve read so far). Visitors is the story of a widow who temporarily houses a young man, and his presence forces the widow to question her life and her choices. Katy Gibb has the same impact on George, but in George’s case, Katy wheedles and manipulates her way into George’s life against his better judgement, flagrantly dangling herself rather like a piece of ripe fruit.

George, to outsiders, and certainly to Katy, seems to be mundane and boring. He loves his routine, goes to bed early and never overindulges. The reader, however, is privy to George’s inner thoughts and concerns that perhaps he’s been too cautious in his life. Born into poverty, and used to a life of modest means, he put off marriage to his teenage sweetheart, Louise, until she got fed up waiting and left George to marry someone else. And then there’s the memory of George’s dearest friend Putnam, who died before he could retire, before Putnam and George could put all of their retirement travel plans into reality:

They had waited for too long, and the result was this hiatus, and the reflection that time and patience may bring poor rewards, that time itself, if not confronted at the appropriate juncture, can play sly tricks, and, more significantly, that those who do not act are not infrequently acted upon.  

It takes George a while to see Katy for what she is, and even though he’s onto her game, he’s still torn by desire and even pity. For George, Katy represents everything he isn’t, everything he didn’t do with his life. Her presence unearths the question of regret, and offers George, devilishly, the opportunity to indulge in behaviour he’s always cautiously avoided.

While Brookner uncovers George’s private thoughts, he still (in complete privacy) isn’t entirely honest with himself, cloaking his desire with denial and excuses.

He knew that he was not being quite honest with himself: he had been stimulated by the sight of the girl’s appetites (for there had been more than one in evidence) and intrigued by her, as if she were a puzzle sent to beguile him in these bewildering days of leisure, this life so free of incident and adventure

Overall, George was far too easy on Katy, who had an over inflated opinion of herself and could have done with a swift kick in the bum.

On another level, I was mildly irritated by George’s thoughts that he never spent money. He eats out about twice a day, just returned from Nice, and I lost count of the number of taxis he took. But these are symptoms of Brookner’s rarefied world. In most of the other Brookners I’ve read, the female protagonists have some sort of bookish employment but also have independent means. George, who stayed at the same job for decades, has a pension which was added to when Putnam made George his beneficiary, so again no money worries. It’s interesting to note that while the protagonist of Visitors had a deeply rooted fear of having her home taken away by nefarious means, Katy doesn’t hide her designs on George’s flat.

order of preference so far:

Hotel du Lac

Look at Me 

Dolly

Visitors

Friends and Family

Undue Influence

A Private View (bottom of the list because Katy was so repellent)

 

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A Climate of Fear: Fred Vargas

“You don’t just go killing people left and right, for want of anything better to do.”

In A Climate of Fear from Fred Vargas, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg returns to investigate a series of connected murders. Adamsberg is dragged into the death of an older, terminally ill woman who appears to be a suicide. It seems to be an open and shut case, but there are some niggling problems that gnaw at the edges of Adamsberg’s mind: Why was the woman so determined to post a letter shortly before her death? Who was the letter to and what did it contain? Finally what is the relevance of a sign drawn at the scene of the woman’s death? Then a helpful citizen steps forward with information about the letter, and Adamsberg goes to talk to the recipient only to find a second ‘suicide’ and the same sign left next to the dead man.

At the scene of the second ‘suicide,’ Adamsberg is told a strange, chilling story about a trip made to Iceland more than ten years earlier. The trip went horribly wrong and ended up like some frozen version of Lord of the Flies. The two ‘suicides’ were both people on the trip, and it seems that those former tourists are being bumped off one by one.

a climate of fear

While attempting to puzzle through the Iceland Tourists murders in his own inimitable way, Adamsberg begins investigating a second series of murders occurring within the secretive “Association for the Study of the Writings of Maximilien Robespierre.” It turns out that Danglard, a walking encyclopedia, who “knows things that you won’t learn in thirty lifetimes,” is very familiar with the writings and speeches of Robespierre, and Danglard looks like a natural dressed in an elegant 18th century purple frock coat.

With two parallel investigations, Adamsberg’s team is stretched to the limit, and when the investigations stall, Adamsberg comes under criticism from some squad members–including the ever-faithful Danglard. Vargas shows most effectively that thought processes, which are unique to each individual (especially Adamsberg who tends to approach crime in an intuitive way,) isolate and in this case, frustrates many of Adamsberg’s fellow officers.

At 415 pages this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a tightly plotted crime novel, but I loved every page. For example, there’s a long section with Adamsberg and Danglard interviewing the woman who picked by a letter dropped by the first victim. This woman, Marie-France, has a dreamy, yet very specific thought process which Adamsberg relates to:

‘After that I thought it over, seven times, not any more.’

‘Seven times,’ Adamsberg murmured,

How could you count the number of times you thought something over?

‘Not five and not twenty. My father always said you should think something over seven times in your head, before you act, not less, because you might do something silly, but especially not more, or you’d go around and around in circles. And end up corkscrewed into the ground. Then you’re stuck. So I thought: this lady went out on her own to post this letter. So it must have been important, don’t you think?’

Vargas takes her time developing the crimes, the solutions and the dynamics of each crime milieu–in particular the Robespierre society. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: crime fiction, for its focus on the transgressive,  is a great way to infiltrate a foreign culture, and in A Climate of Fear, we are cast back into the French Revolution. I had no idea that Robespierre was such a controversial figure, and Vargas explores the nuances of Robespierre’s character and why some people worship him and why others find him an object of hate.  The psychology of historical reenactments as “an arena for people’s fantasies” is explored very well, and there are plenty of details about Robespierre, his downfall and death in this rich crime novel.

A Climate of Fear is the eighth in the Commissaire Adamsberg series (if you don’t count the graphic novel). It’s possible to jump in with this one if you feel so inclined as there’s not a great deal of information about Adamsberg’s personal life, and the relationships he has with his squad members is fairly self-explanatory. A couple of mentions are made of the past, and there are returning characters, but there’s not much that should interfere with enjoying this crime novel on its own.

Thanks to Emma for turning me onto Vargas in the first place

Translated by Siân Reynolds

Review copy

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Armand: Emmanuel Bove

I read a collection of stories from Emmanuel Bove: Henri Duchemin and His Shadows  and thought I’d try one of his out-of-print novellas. Thematically and stylistically, I can see the link between the stories and the novellas, but for this reader, the stories were much more successful.

 armand

Armand is another of Bove’s lost, desperate isolated characters, but when the novella begins, Armand isn’t so desperate any more. The reason: Armand lives with Jeanne rather comfortably these days. But all the barriers Armand has placed between himself and poverty come tumbling down when he runs into an old friend, Lucien; it’s been a year since they met, and frankly Armand doesn’t seem thrilled to have met this old friend. Politeness takes over, and after an initial jolt, Armand invites Lucien to a nearby cafe.

How you have changed, Armand! You must be rich now. You could not come to our restaurant any more. Do you remember last year?

The soda-water was still bubbling in my aperitif. I held my cigarette where it was dry to throw it away. I took a fresh one. It was so sunny I did not know if my match would alight or not.

Indeed I could remember my past life. That was finished now. But I guessed that Lucien himself still took his meals in the same restaurants and lived in the same room.

The meeting is awkward and ends with Armand inviting Lucien to lunch the next day, and this meeting is even more awkward. It’s clear that Lucien doesn’t want to leave, and Jeanne is offended by Lucien’s remarks.  Armand’s present and past cannot mingle, but Armand promises to visit Lucien the next day.

From this point, Armand’s life begins to unravel. He seems ashamed of his cushy life with Jeanne. But what exactly is Armand? A gigolo? A cross-dresser? These are all terms that came to mind as I read Emmanuel Bove’s Armand and puzzled through the title character’s relationships.

I wondered briefly if I should put on one of Jeanne’s dresses. She liked me to dress as she did and pretend to be a woman.

I could, if I felt like it, describe this novel in a few sentences that would make it sound much more interesting than it really was: cross-dressing gigolo Armand, who has formerly lived in poverty and who is now kept by a woman, runs into an old friend. Mortified by shame, he engages in self-sabotage.

But for this reader, the execution of what could have been a really great novella, fell short, and instead Armand felt like a good start, a skeleton, of something else. Some of the more intriguing aspects of the plot: Armand’s feelings towards Jeanne for example, are largely absent, yet there are hints that he doesn’t like her touch. There were times when the relationship between Armand and Lucien contained overtones–almost as though Lucien is Armand’s doppelgänger, but again there are just hints. The incident with Lucien’s sister seemed rushed and created for plot development. The style grated at times, and I could imagine a creative writing teacher harping on about expository writing:

We sat outside where heating was provided by three silver braziers. We crushed pistachio nuts under our feet. The siphons were enclosed in wire to stop them exploding. 

Translated by Janet Louth

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Friends and Family: Anita Brookner

Back to Anita Brookner, and with Friends and Family, this wonderful author gives us a look at a wealthy Jewish family who live in London. The book is set between the world wars and so there are hints of shadows in the past and in the future. The book begins and ends with someone looking at old photographs and identifying various family members–a rather poignant activity as there’s the feeling that all these people, whose images are captured at a moment in time, are now dead.

The family matriarch is the widow Sofka Dorn. Her husband is long out of the picture, and there are hints given about his “little weakness,” which was, of course, women. Sofka has four children, and “named her sons after kings and emperors and her daughters as if they were characters in a musical comedy.”  Frederick and Albert are the sons and Mireille (Mimi) and Babette (Betty) are the daughters.  The novel charts the fortunes of these four children, with Sofka in the background as the years pass, and since we begin with a photograph the prevailing undercurrent here is how character determines destiny.

friends and family

Frederick as the eldest son is the first one to come under scrutiny. He “is so charming and so attractive that women forgive him his little treacheries.” He’s surrounded by women who have marriage aspirations, and there’s a constant merry-go-round of females who visit Sofka’s house where Sofka makes it clear with barbed comments and marzipan cake that each woman is one of many. Some wonderful passages show how Sofka aids and abets her son’s bad behaviour–although she denies it strenuously.

When the telephone rings, and Frederick fears an importunate voice, he signals to his mother, and she gets up from her chair with the most extraordinary expression of girlish glee on her face. “I’m afraid Frederick is out,” she will say in her soft grave voice, one hand up to her mouth to subdue her smile. The voice continues in her ear, becoming plangent, and clearly audible to Frederick on the other side of the room, one hand wearily marking time to the reproaches. Sometimes when Sofka is unable to terminate the conversation as briefly as decency tells her is necessary, Frederick sets his metronome going and his mother is obliged to bring her handkerchief up to her mouth to stifle a little laugh.

Sofka imagines that her sons will marry “replicas” of their mother, and of course, one day a woman claims Frederick.

Youngest son Alfred is the polar opposite of Frederick. He’s serious–too serious, and devotes himself to the family business. He has a dream of owning a country house where he believes he will “find his true centre.”

Sometimes Alfred has a dream in which he is running through a dark wood; at his heels there are two beautiful golden dogs, his familiars, and with them he is running through the dark wood of his pilgrimage towards the golden dawn of his reward. It is this strange dream that has determined Alfred to look for his real home.

He launches on the quest to find the country house of his dreams, but when that fantasy proves impossible, he finally buys a house that does not fit his dream, installs grumpy housekeeper Muriel who rather takes advantage of her employer, and fills the place with furniture which “give[s] the place the look of a hotel.” Wren House is full of guests every weekend, and Alfred, who has denied himself for years, indulges in an affair with a married, spoiled “greedy woman of fickle appetites”

Now to the sisters: again polar opposites. Mimi is gentle and retiring whereas Betty, peaks at 16, fanangles her way to Paris and eventually moves to New York and then Hollywood. Both Frederick and Betty, who both seem to possess a ‘wild card’ are “stranded” and “adrift” in middle age. They were the most selfish of the four siblings and yet somehow they both become subsumed by the desires and destinies of others.

The novel shows how siblings do not grow up in a vacuum but are impacted by one another. Mimi, for example, is overshadowed by Betty’s selfishness and boldness and never recovers while Albert, left by Frederick to be the responsible son, dreams of escape to … somewhere … something.

I loved Friends and Family and marvel in the way Brookner created an elegant, lost world peopled with the extensive Dorn family and various hangers on and servants all neatly detailed in under 200 pages. Many of the Brookner novels set in the last decades of the 20th century felt as though they could have been set in the 50s. Family and Friends, set between the two world wars, had the feel of the late 19th century at times.

 

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All Grown Up: Jami Attenberg

I really enjoyed Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins–the very funny story of how one woman’s overeating impacts her family. It’s a serious subject treated in a very readable light-hearted manner, and that brings me to All Grown Up, the story of a single 40- year-old woman, a New Yorker, a former artist, whose meaningless relationships and a job that serves to pay the bills have left Andrea Bern adrift in her own life. Ultimately this is the story of a woman whose life didn’t end up the way she planned and how she needs to come to terms with this.

As Andrea falls further into the void of meaninglessness, the years pass, her friends move, marry, have children, and seem to slip into gilded adulthoods:

Other people you know seem to change quite easily. They have no problem at all with succeeding at their careers and buying apartments and moving to other cities and falling in love and getting married and hyphenating their names and adopting rescue cats and, finally, having children, and then documenting all of this meticulously on the internet. Really, it appears to be effortless on their part. Their lives are constructed like buildings, each precious but totally unsurprising block stacked before your eyes.

While Andrea’s employment started out as simply a means to an end, somehow temporary turns into permanent. She’s offered a promotion but after realizing that means “more responsibility,” she steps away from the opportunity. She still sees the job as a temporary situation–a stop gap in her life as an artist. And yet the years are running away from her …

you are moved to a new cube, which you must share with a freshly hired coworker who is thirteen years younger than you and is hilarious and loud and pretty and probably making half of what you make but still spends it on tight dresses. 

The years pass for Andrea relentlessly as the chapters move back and forward in time. Andrea’s brother and sister-in-law have a child, a baby girl who is born with a heart defect. This is a child who will never have the chance to grow up, and just as Andrea sidesteps responsibilities, she also avoids becoming involved with the brief life this child will have.

all grown up

The chapters read like interconnecting short stories. We see the trajectory of the life of one of Andrea’s best friends, Indigo, as she marries and has a child. Indigo, who lives in a two million dollar Tribeca loft has a seemingly perfect, envious life–even if Indigo becomes a living breathing cliche (yes she’s a yoga instructor) in order to achieve this state of Nirvana. I loved the character of Indigo–most of us know someone like her–so perfect, you want to vomit. One of the funniest chapters in the book occurs when Andrea attends Indigo’s wedding and finds herself sitting at the ‘singles’ table.

I sit at the singles table under a nest of twinkling lights and grape leaves. There are four other single women at the table: two of them are lesbians, who are best friends with each other and seem invested in gossiping about everyone they went to college with; one of them is a retired nun, whose story remains mysterious throughout the night; and the fourth woman is Karen, a real career gal. I say this not to make fun of her but because she described herself as such, which means it is doubly true. 

There are two gay men at the table, who used to date and are using the evening to hash out a few things, and there are two straight men: a newly divorced uncle of the groom named Warren, and a tall, broad, masculine man named Kurt. 

All Grown Up is a very funny, lively look at one woman’s messy life. Andrea careens from disaster to disaster in a life she didn’t plan and doesn’t acknowledge as her own. We get glimpses of Andrea’s youth, her chaotic upbringing, her drinking, her drug use and her eccentric activist mother. For potential readers: in adulthood, Andrea has numerous pointless sexual relationships, and while the sex isn’t explicit, it’s there. Also I would say that if you don’t like the ‘f’ word, then move on. This is very much a New York novel, grounded in its unique environment, so it should appeal to fans of Tana Janowitz. I really liked All Grown Up; it’s a book that made me laugh even as I shook my head over Andrea’s actions and mistakes.

Review copy

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The Trophy Child: Paula Daly

“One of life’s great taboos: comparing one’s current wife to one’s last.”

I really enjoyed Paula Daly’s novel The Mistake I Made (even if the ending was a bit over the top) for its wonderful voice, and so I turned to The Trophy Child for more of the same.  The two novels are nothing alike, and The Trophy Child which features the return of DS Joanne Aspinallleans more towards the police procedural rather than the female-in-peril category.

The Trophy Child is set in the Lake District and centres on the Bloom family. To outsiders, they seem to have it all: a beautiful home with father, MD Noel Bloom and attractive wife Karen, but scratch the surface and you find a very unhappy blended family. Verity, Noel’s 16-year-old daughter from his first marriage hates her stepmother but is forced to live with her as Noel’s first wife, who has MS, lives in a residential care home. Then there’s Ewan, a son from Karen’s relationship with a mystery man. Ewan lives above the garage and smokes marijuana to his stoned heart’s content. Finally, there’s poor Bronte, a sweet but not particularly bright ten-year-old, the trophy child of the title, who is pushed to the limit by her mother’s extreme parenting.

the-trophy-child

I can’t reveal much about the plot without tossing out spoilers right and left, so I’ll just say that something bad happens, and this rips off the lid of the supposedly happy home. Consequently, the twisted lives of the Blooms become a matter of public knowledge.

I liked the premise of The Trophy Child a lot, but something went wrong in its execution. Although I know people like Karen, I’d never even heard the term trophy child before reading the book, and author Paula Daly certainly nails this type of “extreme parenting.” It’s clear that Bronte’s life isn’t about Bronte; it’s about Karen–a woman who drives her poor daughter from harp lessons to piano lessons to tap dancing while avoiding basics like … cooking…

Karen liked to say she didn’t cook; she ‘arranged food’.  And that’s what she was doing right now: sliding cold, roasted chicken thighs on to plates, along with a sad-looking salad, and some cheese and onion crisps.

Karen Bloom is clearly the arch-enemy here–neurotic, demanding, inflexible, she rules the Bloom family making life impossible for everyone, and no one dares cross or question her. And yet… while I can’t argue that Karen is really a revolting person, she is dealing with a pot-head son and a husband I found incredibly self-centered. Yes life at the Bloom house sucks, so while I can’t blame Noel for hitting the bottle, I found the behaviour of this weak man appalling. He likes to take off on Sundays by himself and go and find a nice quiet pub to drink in. This leaves HIS CHILDREN at the unadulterated mercy of Karen. I felt as though the plot set up Karen as this blight on the Bloom family when really she’s just part of it. That’s not to say that she’s not a frightening person: think Mommie Dearest on steroids, but that said, the plot went too lightly on others in the household who are not blameless, and this gave the plot a simplicity that didn’t do the novel any favours.

The novel has info padding on the subject of MS and also there’s hint of a lecture when it comes to “British parents […] sneakily adopting the Chinese model of parenting. “ The sections regarding DS Joanne Aspinall’s private life were excellent: her breast reduction, her life as a sad single, her ex-pat mother living in Spain. Capturing the inflammatory nuances of today’s world Daly shows the way in which big-mouth Karen escalates the situation using social media. Hint: if you’re involved in a scandal, keep off the internet!

Here’s Cleo’s review

Review copy

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Snowblind: Ragnar Jónasson

“There’s something about a murder in a small community that’s disturbing, especially at a time like this-the middle of winter.”

Ragnar Jónasson’s novel Snowblind is a perfect example of how a crime novel grants the reader an opportunity to worm a way into a foreign culture. Set during the Icelandic financial crisis, the book is the first in a series featuring rookie policeman Ari Thor. When the novel opens, twenty-five-year old Ari is living in Reykjavik with his girlfriend Kristin. Former theology student Ari turned to a career in the police and he’s on the last leg of his studies when he sends out job applications. This is a bad time to be seeking work, but then he gets a call from Tómas, the police chief in far-way Siglufjördur. Without consulting Kristin, who’s finishing up her medical studies, he takes the job, and leaves for this remote northern town.

snowblind

The book contains two maps: one of Iceland and one of Siglufjördur. The first map shows just how remote Siglufjördur and goes a long way to explaining Kristin’s attitude towards Ari’s relocation. But Siglufjördur is an interesting town and a perfect setting for a series. Once the town flourished, but now is shrinking with the loss of the herring industry, yet while Reykjavik is in chaos, the economic crisis somehow bypasses Siglufjördur. I looked up photos of the town, and it really is spectacular in a postcard sort of way. Author Ragnar Jónasson’s relatives hail from the town, and because of its geographical isolation it must indeed be a unique place. The town is accessible by a long tunnel and windy mountain roads, and at one point in the novel, due to heavy snow fall, the town is completely cut off. The book explores this uniqueness through the town’s residents: people move there and never leave, retirees return, and some people go there to disconnect with the rest of the world.

He started the day with cereal, ice-cold milk and yesterday’s newspaper. He had started to get used to seeing the papers late, as the morning editions didn’t reach this far-flung fjord until at least midday. Not that it mattered. The rhythm of life was different here, time passed more slowly and there was less bustling hurry than in the city. The papers would be here when they were here.

Ari’s new job would seem on one hand to be a cushy deal. There’s relatively little crime (no one locks their doors) and he’s given a large house to live in. For the first few days, he’s bored–after all he trained for the police as he was looking for a job “with a little excitement to it.” Just as he’s thinking he’s made a horrible mistake moving to this peaceful town, a death occurs. Hrólfur, now in his 90s, the author of one of Iceland’s most famous books, falls and dies during a rehearsal at the local theatrical group. Tómas is certain it’s an accident, but Ari isn’t ready to jump to that conclusion. Then a woman is found injured in the snow. Could the two events be related?

The plot follows these two events and Ari’s investigation. As always in a series novel, the life of the series character comes under scrutiny, and in this case Ari finds himself torn between Kristin and Ugla, a young woman who’s moved to Siglufjördur to escape her past.

Snowblind is an extremely strong first entry in the series. Not only does the book contain a strong sense of place, the ups and downs of small town life, but elements of  Icelandic culture are very subtly woven into the plot–traditional Christmas dinner is smoked pork, for example. At one point, Ari finds himself alone working on Xmas Eve. He takes Christmas ale, smoked pork wrapped in foil, a white candle and a new book to work his solo vigil at the police station.

The Icelandic tradition of reading a new book on Christmas Eve, and into the early hours of the morning, had been important in his family’s home.

What a great tradition.

I read some reviews that complained the book had the old cliché of the rookie policeman solving the crimes. While I understand where the complaint comes from, Snowblind is the launch of the new Dark Iceland series, and what better way to start than with a rookie? Plus it’s easy to accept Ari’s desire to ‘see’ crimes where his boss does not as Ari is beginning to think that he’s made a terrible mistake leaving Reykjavik behind. At one point during the plot, the author keeps Ari’s thoughts about one of the crimes (there are several) off the page, but the clues were there thrown out very subtly throughout the story. Plus we see Ari developing  a professional persona that he hopes will work with the locals. There are a few loose ends to follow in book 2, and I’m looking forward to it. Marina and Crimeworm are enjoying the series too.

Translated by Quentin Bates

Review copy

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Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin (Part I)

2016 saw the publication of Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin in a translation from those rock-star translators: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. This is a HUGE book–literally and metaphorically,  and so a review morphed into reviews.

There’s a short intro from Richard Pevear which outlines Pushkin’s life and his importance to Russian literature, noting that Pushkin is “Russia’s greatest poet,” and also “the true originator of Russian prose.” For those who don’t know, Pushkin died in a duel at age 37, and there’s the sense in the introduction of Pushkin as a restless soul who left his work mostly unfinished as he moved from project to project. This collection shows Pushkin’s “experiments in various forms, borrowing from and parodying well-known European models, consciously trying out the possibilities of Russian prose.”

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The first piece in this collection is “The Moor of Peter the Great.” Again for those who don’t know, Pushkin’s great-grandfather was African, and the intro gives  a bit of the cloudy background here which helps in understanding the story. It’s a good story which was intended as a historical novel in the “Waverley manner“–one of the many unfinished pieces abandoned by Pushkin.

The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin are marvelous and they begin with a frame–a note from the (fictional) publisher who is trying to track down information about the Ivan Belkin, the author of these stories. The publisher receives a letter from Belkin’s neighbour which, while it announces Belkin’s death, still manages to be very funny in a bleak Russian way. The elaborate frame structure introducing the stories reminded me of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. But onto Pushkin and the first story, The Shot which I absolutely loved, but then who doesn’t love a story about a crazy duelist?

The Shot is set in a small town and concerns a group of men who gather together to drink and play cards. One of the men, called Silvio, by the narrator, is not an officer.

Some mysteriousness surrounded his fate; he seemed Russian, but had a foreign name.  He had once served in the hussars, and even successfully; no one knew what motive had prompted him to retire and settle in a poor little town, where he lived both poorly and extravagantly: he always went about on foot, in a shabby frock coat, yet he kept an open house for all the officers of our regiment. True, his dinners consisted of two or three dishes prepared by a retired soldier, but then the champagne flowed in streams. No one knew his fortune, or his income, and no one dared to ask him about it. He had some books, mostly military, but also novels. He willingly lent them out, and never asked for them back; then, too, he never returned a borrowed book to its owner. His main exercise consisted in shooting pistols. The walls of his room were all riddled with bullet holes like a honeycomb. A fine collection of pistols was the only luxury in the poor clay-and-wattle hovel he lived in. The skill he had achieved was unbelievable, and if he had volunteered to knock a pear off of somebody’s cap with a bullet, no one in our regiment would have hesitated to offer him his head. 

During a game of cards at Silvio’s house, an argument erupts. Everyone expects a duel to take place, and when it doesn’t occur, Silvio explains some of his history to the narrator. Years later, the narrator unexpectedly has news of Silvio. …  The Shot explores the value of life, the deliciousness of revenge upon one’s enemies, and the etiquette of dueling–an activity in which sangfroid is opposed to the passion and anger of the perceived insult.

Lack of courage is least excusable of all for young people, who usually see bravery as the height of human virtue and the excuse for all possible vices. 

The images of Silvio’s bullet riddled walls and Silvio “planting bullet after bullet into an ace glued to the gate”  will remain in my mind for a long time.

 

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Filed under Fiction, Pushkin