Tag Archives: series novel

Nightblind: Ragnar Jónasson

Ragnar Jónasson’s Nightblind is the second novel in the Dark Iceland series. Nightblind takes place about five years after the wonderfully atmospheric  Snowblind. The third book in the series is Blackout which apparently “picks up the story directly after the events of  Snowblind.” Glad there’s an explanation of the time line in the intro. At the end of Snowblind, we left our series character, rookie policeman Ari Thor up in far-way Siglufjördur. I looked up the town on the map, and it is spectacularly beautiful but so remote. It’s easy to see that if you moved there, you’d either love it or hate it. It’s the sort of place that you cannot easily replicate, but the weather is going to dictate your lifestyle.

Nightblind finds Ari still working in Siglufjördur, but now he has a new boss after his old one left and Ari’s bid for promotion was turned down. Ari is living with his girlfriend Kristin, now a doctor, and they have a child together, so at least that past of Ari’s life has resolved. Or has it?

Nightblind

The novel opens with the shotgun shooting of a Siglufjördur policeman, and then follows the investigation as Ari’s old boss, Tómas, returns to head the hunt for the killer. The shooting takes place at an abandoned building at the edge of town near the new tunnel.  The building, which already has a tragic, mysterious history, is rumoured to be a liaison spot for drugs, so it may be that the shooting was drug related. The story weaves together threads involving the new mayor and his assistant, Elín while other sections of the novel are narrated by an unidentified mental patient. With Ari distracted by the murder case, Kristin rather calculating weighs her options. The strain of the investigation pushes Ari’s relationship with Kristin to the limit, but perhaps her limit has shrunk since she met a divorced doctor at work.

As in Snowblind, the weather has a huge role in creating atmosphere. While the town, during the summer is beautiful, winter descends along with an accompanying sense of claustrophobia heightened by the reality that there’s one way in and one way out. Storms and snow hammer down on Siglufjördur, forcing people indoors and yet…. there’s still time for violence and murder.

She had been told that soon, around the middle of November, the sun would disappear behind the mountains for its long winter break and it wouldn’t return until late January, when the town would celebrate with solar coffee and pancakes. Elín still found it odd to contemplate complete, round-the-clock darkness. 

There’s something almost subversive about the Dark Iceland series. Perhaps it’s because all these dire deeds take place over the holiday season (November-January) and the idyllic location which conjures imagined Christmas card scenes meshes with the dark side of human nature.

No violence in Iceland? That’s bullshit. Sure it all looks quiet and friendly on the surface, but behind closed doors there’s an uncomfortable secret. 

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Translated by Quentin Bates

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The End of the Web: George Sims (1976)

The End of the Web from author George Sims (1923-1999) is an entry in the British Library Classic Thrillers series. This short novel has the feel of a  WWII spy thriller, but the plot takes us into the world of 1970s London antique dealers.

When married, philandering antique dealer Leo Selver is found dead of a heart attack next to the bludgeoned body of his latest conquest, Judy Latimer, the police assume it’s a crime of passion. But Leo’s wife, Beatrice isn’t convinced. She knows that Leo was chronically unfaithful, but refuses to believe that he was capable of murder. Instead she clings to the idea that an alternate scenario is possible: a jealous lover killed Judy.

The police dismiss Beatrice’s concerns in what seems to be an ugly, open-and-shut case, so she contacts former policeman, ex-race car driver Ed Buchanan, recently returned from Greece and currently unemployed.

The End of the Web

When Ed first hears the story of Leo’s death from Beatrice, he too isn’t convinced that there’s anything inconclusive about the case, but then again, there are a few niggling issues. Leo had recently become more involved with fellow antique dealer, Sydney Chard who seems to have vanished, and a third, overly anxious, dealer has phoned Beatrice a few times from Amsterdam.

Ed, with nothing more pressing to do, and with his eye on Leo’s young female assistant, takes the case.

While all of this is going on, we readers know that yes, Leo’s death was not as it seemed, and we also know Sydney’s fate. Of course, Ed is in the dark, but he soon realises that Leo was involved in something he could not control.

There’s very little down time in this book, and the plot never really goes into anything too fantastical. Underneath the plot, there’s the sense that life is ephemeral. Most of our characters have been struck with tragedy in some way: the Selvers lost their son, and Ed’s parents were killed in a senseless accident. When the novel begins, we have the very interesting Leo Selver chasing a young woman and wondering why he bothers when he’d so much prefer to be home with his wife.  The End of the Web is an entertaining tightly-written read that touches on bigger issues, without being preachy, such as the meaning we put to our lives and using our time wisely.  This depth, along with the idea that people are complex multi-layered beings, adds a nice touch to a book from the thriller genre.

Dichotomy: division or distribution into two parts; hence, a cutting into two; a division. He did contain two selves, dissimilar but complementary characters. There was the more obvious extrovert, call him Leo for short, a typical Sun subject, born in August, romantic, impulsive, greedy, vain, a man who made money quickly and lost it, philandered, played the fool, got into trouble. Then there was the subtler character, sober old Selver who had second thoughts, watched everything and everybody including Leo, made sly comments and criticized, saw the absurdity of Leo’s behaviour, tried to take evasive action whenever possible. 

(The novel includes Ed’s homo phobia which also apparently appears in another George Sims book: The Last Best Friend)

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The Last Hack: Christopher Brookmyre

“Who I really am is the person that exists online.”

Last year I arrived late to the Jack Parlabane series from Christopher Brookmyre with Black Widow, the seventh in the series. The series has followed the trials and tribulations of investigative reporter Parlabane, and in Black Widow Parlabane’s career is in the toilet. In The Last Hack, Parlabane, whose personal life is non existent, is hoping to revive his career. This thriller/crime novel presciently tackles hacktivism and corporate malfeasance.

The Last Hack

The Last Hack is partly the story of a young girl named Samantha Morpeth who, following the incarceration of her mother, is forced by circumstances to care for and support her sister, Lilly, who has Down’s Syndrome. Samantha is a powerless young girl whose life-path has been dictated by her drug addicted mother. Living in poverty,  bullied at school, rejected by the government agencies that are supposed to help her, Samantha is prey to her mother’s dealers who loot her home to make up for lost payment. It’s no wonder that Samantha, who is so powerless in life should turn to the internet to reverse her lowly position.

After Parlabane comes up with a story on hacktivism of a major bank, he is hired by Broadwave, “a burgeoning cross-media entity that has evolved from a completely new perspective upon news and technology.” Chances are he would have been passed over for the job were it not for his inside scoop from a hacktivist named Buzzkill. But when Buzzkill ends up in trouble, the hacker turns to Parlabane for help.  The job with Broadwave offers Parlabane a chance to get his career back on track but helping the hacker may jeopardize everything he stands to gain.

Unfortunately the plot of The Last Hack is quite convoluted. The book starts with a short prologue in which someone is “suffering the after-effects” of an electroshock device, and then the novel shifts to Samantha Morpeth who is sitting in a waiting room of a government agency. Then comes a section with someone calling around to a few different employees at the RSGN Bank. Then we switch back to Parlabane interviewing with Broadwave, and then it’s an internet chat between hackers. This is a group of hackvists known as Uninvited, and their next hack, against a major bank, is organised over chat. The chat is difficult to follow–not only the abbreviated computer-speak exchanges but again it’s a handful of characters who exist in cyberspace and have no other grounding. These strands connect, of course, but it takes an overly long time to connect the dots.

Free-floating prologues seem popular these days but when they’re followed by other seemingly unconnected strands, the book, instead of pulling the reader in, keeps the reader dancing on the periphery wondering what the hell is going on.  With the various strands packing the beginning of the book, it took me about 1/5 of the way through before I had a handle on what was happening. Once I got through the first 1/5, the plot took off. Of the two Parlabane novels I’ve read, I much preferred Black Widow.

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The Road to Ithaca: Ben Pastor

Ben Pastor’s novel, The Road to Ithaca, from Bitter Lemon Press is the 5th novel in the Martin Bora series (Goodreads lists it as number 10). This book finds Wehrmacht officer Martin Bora in Moscow in June 1941 (the period of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression pact is about to dissolve), hobnobbing (somewhat nervously) with the likes of Stalin, Beria and Erskine Caldwell, when he is ordered to Crete to pick up 60 bottles of “choice Cretan wine” for the monstrous Beria. It seems like a fool’s errand–a lot of bother just to curry favour with a Russian ally  but once Bora arrives in Crete, he’s diverted to the investigation of the murder of a Red Cross representative who was a friend of Himmler’s. With the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau fearing the “potential repercussions,” Bora is assigned to investigate and solve the “grave incident involving the illustrious citizen of a neutral country.” 

On one hand, it looks like an open-and-shut case. During the recent German invasion of Crete, German paratroopers apparently approached the home of Swiss national Dr Professor Alois Villiger and murdered everyone inside–the professor, his housekeeper and other employees. This was observed and photographed by British Sgt Major Powell whose whereabouts are currently unknown as he’s hiding in the mountains. POW Lt Patrick Sinclair is in possession of the camera. Sinclair subsequently reported the incident to the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau.

the road to ithaca

Accompanied by a coerced American woman as a guide and a local police inspector, Bora approaches the crime knowing that “the conquest of the island had been a bloodbath,” with the German paratroopers hostile to the combative Greek civilians. Bora is under pressure to close the case “before the International Red Cross intervenes or Reichskommisar Himmler sends someone,” and he’s given just one week to come up with answers. …

Martin Bora is a morally complex character who is shown to be caught in a knotty labyrinth of treacherous shifting political allegiances, and unbeknownst to Bora, the war is about to take a dramatic turn. Bora is torn between duty, honour, integrity and loyalty, and in order to survive “the habit of hiding his thoughts had become second nature.” This explains why Bora’s ruminations are not vocalised, so we read this character’s internal dialogue. Bora possesses a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and, as the title suggests, many of Bora’s thoughts centre on Greek mythology. Part of the interest I felt was in knowing that the things Bora struggles with will shortly overwhelm him. To paraphrase Robert Frost, ‘he has miles to go….’

This is a crime novel, and one that captures a tragic moment in human history:

More and more, the street resembled a funnel of liquid sunlight; its narrowness crowded with litter and vehicles dissolved, human shapes malted into it. Purgatory must be something like this, Bora thought, a cramped pass that is we only slide through it leads to the Throne of God. But there’ll be no stench of death there. 

I’ll admit that I had a bit of a problem feeling sympathy for Bora, but I did feel interest. On another note, Wikipedia has an interesting page on the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau.

Note: Although this is Book 5, other translated books in the series take Bora farther ahead in the war. Tin Sky is set in 1943, Liar Moon is set in 1943, A Dark Song of Blood is set in 1944. At some point, I’d like to go back and read these books in order. (Lumen is set in 1939)

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Black Widow: Christopher Brookmyre

“Just because you’re a psychopath doesn’t mean you can’t have emotional intelligence.”

Black Widow is the page-turning story of a talented, female surgeon who falls into disgrace through social media, only to recoup her life with a whirlwind romance with the seemingly perfect man. But six months later, he’s dead and she’s accused of his murder. …

black-widow

Diane Jager once had a job as a surgeon in a prestigious hospital, but she led another life, online, as Scapelgirl, running a blog in which she revealed the sexism she endured as a female surgeon and the difficulty of balancing personal and work lives. The problem is, when anonymity is used to push a personal agenda, well sometimes people go overboard, and that is certainly the case with Diane. Her blog became a cause celebre amongst other female doctors, for Scalpelgirl as an anonymous agent tackled issues (and people) she would not have wrestled in person. The rage of the blog took over, and Scapelgirl becomes known as Bladebitch by her detractors, her identity was revealed (along with some of her sleazier moves) and she was forced to resign. She takes a job at Inverness, her “penitential northern gulag.”

Despite the baggage she brought, she was too valuable a prospect for them to pass up, like a provincial football team happy to take on a flawed talent who had fallen from grace at one of the major clubs.

At her new place of employment, Diane meets IT tech, Peter, and against all the odds, they hit it off, rapidly becoming absorbed in each other. With Diane’s biological clock ticking away,  there seems no need to slow down.

Six months later, Peter’s car is pulled out of a freezing river. Peter’s sister Lucy contacts investigate reporter, Jack Parlabane, and tells him that she thinks her brother may have been murdered.

Black Widow is a very cleverly structured tale which begins in a courtroom and then goes back over time through several points-of-view. We see events through the eyes of two constables: Ali Kazmi and Ruben Rodriguez who are the first on the scene of Peter’s accident–the ones who break the news to Peter’s not-so-grieving widow. Then there’s Parlabane’s view. He’s still bruised from his divorce and a catastrophic dip in his career, so the Bladebitch case offers not only distraction but also possible career redemption. The third viewpoint comes from Diane aka Bladebitch herself; there’s a lot to like there (she’s driven, talented, extremely intelligent) but there’s also a lot to dislike: she’s cold, unapproachable and prickly.

This is someone you do not want to fuck with. This is a woman who will make it her purpose in life to settle the score. They say payback’s a bitch? Then believe me: you don’t want payback from the Bladebitch.

The novel’s clever structure (which is just a teensy bit manipulative but forgivable and within the realms of acceptability–unlike Gone Girl which crossed the line IMO) is bolstered by a certain synchronicity, so we see PC Ali Kazam concerned about a possible pregnancy while Diane longs for a child. We see PC Rodriguez leaving London for exile in Inverness (echoing Diane’s trajectory), and one chapter in which Diane comes to an important revelation is immediately followed by Parlabane experiencing a realization of sorts. The portions narrated by Diane are the strongest and the most compelling in the book; she’s a terrific character, and over the course of her narration, we begin to see exactly how her character became crafted by experience.

I guessed the book’s solution and that’s probably due to all my crime reading, but I still enjoyed the book very much indeed. Work-life balance, sexism in medicine, the mirages often encountered in relationships, all these issues are tackled rather well here, so combine that with a page-turning crime novel, and you have an excellent read.

Black Widow is the seventh in the Jack Parlabane series, and in spite of the fact that this is the first one (so far) that I’ve read, I had no problem reading this as a stand-alone.

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Open Wounds: Douglas Skelton

“Maybe he’s reached the end of his shelf life.”

Open Wounds, the fourth and final book in the Davie McCall Scottish crime series, finds the series protagonist, now 38 years old, still leading  ‘The Life,’ ten years since a prison sentence. McCall works for “Glasgow Godfather” Big Rab McClymont but wants out of the violence, something he confides to childhood friend, Bobby, a former crim who now owns a decorating store and leads a quiet family life. McCall, who was brought up in an incredibly violent home, stepped into The Life seamlessly, but now some of his past actions chew away at the dark reaches of his consciousness; he’s beginning to question his actions, and in the type of work he’s in, where loyalty is premium, conscience and questioning orders are both luxuries he can’t afford.

A violent job with explosive sidekick, Jimsie, a man who enjoys inflicting physical punishment and has a “tendency to go over the top,” leaves McCall with the definite feeling that he no longer has the stomach for the work.

open wounds

When McCall’s boss tells McCall to ‘fix’ freshly released Jerry O’Neill who’s talking to The Criminal Case Review Commission, the object is to shut the man up, but O’Neill claims he was framed by McClymont, and with McClymont seizing O’Neill’s former business concerns, there’s something about O’Neill’s story that rings true. McCall starts digging into the case on his own assisted by former cop, Donovan, now private detective. On the other end of the spectrum, McClymont leans on bent cop, Jimmy Knight, aka The Black Night for help.

“It happens,” Knight went on. “Guy gets older, slows down, doesn’t have the heart for things he used to. Man like McCall, without the ambition or the brain to be anything other than what he is, well, he can outlive his usefulness. Time to be put out to pasture, maybe.”

A complication in McCall’s life occurs when he becomes involved with a woman who lives in the same apartment complex. In his line of work, McCall can’t afford personal relationships, but the desire for a normal life proves to be a testing point.

The author presents an interesting portrait of a much-feared enforcer whose reputation causes those he visits to quiver at the knees, and yet, through the narrative, we see a man, in early middle age, developing doubts about the world he embraced, unquestioningly, decades earlier. There’s an edge of humour in the novel that lightens this dark, violent tale, and McCall’s deep attachment to his dog wins this character a lot of points.

Blood City, Crow Bait, and Devil’s Knock are the first three books in the series, and although it was no problem to read and enjoy Open Wounds as a standalone (the backstory and past events are woven in well), I feel as though I’ve missed some excellent books and that I should have read the series from the beginning for maximum enjoyment. Other reviews across the internet express the same sentiment.

Special thanks to Crimeworm for pointing me to this book.

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Honky Tonk Samurai: Joe R. Lansdale

the front windshield collapsed like a Baptist deacon’s morals at a strip club.”

Honky Tonk Samurai is the eleventh book in author Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series. For those who are unfamiliar with this excellent series, Hap and Leonard are an East Texas pair, who live surrounded by rednecks and racism, are unlikely friends and consider themselves brothers. While the two aren’t exactly itinerants, they are content to live outside of mainstream culture by scraping a living at menial jobs as field hands or day laborers. Their close friendship substitutes for other familial relationships, and while these two men are the best of friends, blood brothers if you will, at other times, especially during humorous bantering sessions, they seem like an old married couple.

Honky Tonk samurai

Hap Collins is white, Leonard Pine is gay, black, a Vietnam vet. Digging back in Hap and Leonard history, Hap, who was a member of the counter-culture, refused to go to Vietnam, and served time for his opinions. The two men operate as a team, with Hap as our narrator, so the novels clearly lean towards the Hap side of things. Hap is often troubled about acts of violence that take place while Leonard isn’t troubled by moral questions. In all the Hap and Leonard books, somehow or another they are dragged into crime–not that they go looking for trouble; somehow trouble always looks for them. Sometimes it’s a returning ex that heralds trouble (Savage Season), and sometimes it begins with a friend asking for help.

I don’t think we ask for trouble, me and Leonard. It just finds us. It often starts casually, and then something comes loose and starts to rattle, like an unscrewed bolt on a carnival ride. No big thing at first, just a loose, rattling bolt, then the bolt slips completely free and flies out of place, the carnival ride groans and screeches, and it jags and tumbles into a messy mass of jagged parts and twisted metal and wads of bleeding human flesh.

Honky Tonk Samurai finds Hap and Leonard aging and working part-time for a detective agency. Not far into the tale, Hap’s long-term girlfriend, Brett, decides to give up nursing and takes over the company, and the first case appears in the shape of a crotchety, foul-mouthed, sinewy old woman who looks like a “retired hooker.

“You’re Hap Collins, aren’t you?”

“I am,” I said. “Do we know each other?”

“No, but when I was forty I’d like to have. You and me could have burned a hole in a mattress then. Course, you may not have been born. But you might want to lose a few pounds, honey. You’re beginning to chub up.”

“He’s taken,” Brett said, “Pounds and all.”

The old lady studied Brett. “Aren’t you the Southern belle? I bet you could earn a pretty penny on a Louisiana shrimp boat and never have to cast a net.”

“Listen, you old bag,” Brett said.
“Either say what you want or I’m going to stick that cane up your ass and throw you down the stairs so hard the dye will come out of your hair.”

Turns out the old lady, Lilly Buckner, is the first client of the Brett Sawyer Detective Agency, and she wants Hap to find her missing granddaughter Sandy. Sandy, who graduated with a journalism degree and “found that the newspapers and magazines that did hard news had gone the way of the dodo bird and drive-in theaters” ended up working at a “high-end” used car dealership, but one day she just disappeared. Five years have passed and the case is cold. Hap and Leonard go undercover as potential car buyers at the high-end dealership and discover that the business is selling more than just cars….

On the hunt for Sandy, Hap and Leonard stir up trouble in the form of a biker gang and a mysterious hitman known as the Canceler who has a habit of collecting trophy testicles. Cheap hustlers, petty cons, thugs and psychos populate Hap and Leonard’s colorful world, so expect some old familiar faces (including Jim Bob and his car, the Red Bitch), and some new weirdos. I haven’t read the entire Hap and Leonard series; I read a few of the early books and a couple of the later books, so I’d recommend that if you come to Honky Tonk Samurai you should also have at least Vanilla Ride under your belt.

As always with series characters, the adventure/case runs parallel to developments in the personal lives of the main players. In this instance, Leonard, who never baulks at using violence, is deeply torn over the behaviour of his lover, John who’s struggling with guilt for being homosexual. Hap and Brett face a surprise development when Hap’s past arrives on his doorstep.

It was a pleasure to read Hap and Leonard’s latest adventure. Author Joe R. Lansdale is clearly fond of these characters, and it shows. This is another excellent entry in an excellent series. It’s no surprise that someone finally saw the sense of picking up this unlikely crime fighting duo for a TV series, and I’m certain that this will brings Lansdale a new audience of fans.

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The Travel Writer by Jeff Soloway

“I’m a travel writer, and corrupt as they come. I’d sell my journalistic principles for two nights at the Four Seasons with a free meal and a massage.”

Jeff Solway’s debut novel, The Travel Writer, the first in a new series, is for those who enjoy reading mysteries set in exotic locations. This is a modest little book, and as I write this, it’s being offered for the modest sum of $2.99 on Amazon US. I’m mentioning this because The Travel Writer probably won’t get a great deal of attention when compared to the GIANT blockbuster novel I just read: Joel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair–a novel which overreached and failed. The Travel Writer, in comparison, is a novel that accomplished what it set out to achieve, but that shouldn’t be too surprising as the author was an editor and writer for travel guides.

the travel writerThe self-imagined hero and narrator of The Travel Writer is Jacob Smalls, a man who scrapes together, barely, a marginal living as a travel writer. This isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds–at least not at Jacob’s bargain basement level. He has a matchbox sized studio apartment in Queens which he shares with an amphibian turtle. If you think about it, both Jacob and his turtle live in their own tanks:

At home in my tiny studio apartment in Queens I cook massive meatless stews and freeze the leftovers or, when I’m feeling flush, order pan-Asian takeout by the pint. But when I’m working I live like a vacationing CEO, eating for free at multi-Michelin star restaurants and staying for free at hotels that charge two months of my rent per night. Some travel writers call themselves journalists; I refuse to debase the term. Just that morning I’d been trying to book another fact-finding trip for my yet hypothetical Ritziest Ritz series. Whether or not I could sell the thing hardly mattered.

The novel begins with a press conference given by a Bolivian luxury hotel’s PR agent, Pilar Rojas. The press conference is supposed to help satisfy the media frenzy surrounding the disappearance of New York based travel editor, Hilary Pearson. Hilary, young and attractive, vanished without a trace from the prestigious Hotel Matamoros, “the Xanadu of the Andes, the super resort that had risen up like Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome.”  Local police, and even the FBI have failed to find even the smallest clue about Hilary, and it’s feared that she’s been kidnapped and murdered. Pilar, who has a past romantic history with Jacob, asks him to come to Peru and help her find the missing woman. There’s a great deal at stake here as Bolivia’s entire tourist industry is threatened by Hilary’s disappearance. Pilar offers Jacob free plane tickets and a week’s stay at the Hotel Matamoros, and she hints that she’s in danger.

Jacob, who after all, lives for free trips, takes the bait, and under the guise of writing a puff piece for the Hotel Matamoros, flies to La Paz. Stringing along is the uninvited 26 year-old Kenny, another work acquaintance of Hilary who’s nursing a giant crush for the missing woman.

I read The Travel Writer before knowing that it’s the first in an intended series of novels. As the first of a series, this is a good start, so if you like light-hearted mysteries with a touch of humor, set in exotic locations, this series should appeal. Jacob Smalls makes a humble interesting hero. He leaves New York with images of being a prize winning journalist, saving Hilary (a woman he’s never met but knows through e-mails), and winning back Pilar, and while those are all, perhaps, fairly predictable daydreams, the author injects a fresh aspect to the storyline by sticking Jacob with Kenny. Jacob has a tendency to patronize and pity Kenny, and once down in Bolivia, Jacob, who’s a seasoned traveler, can very easily dominate the relationship. But there are a couple of moments when, through his relationship with Kenny, Jacob realizes that he’s being unkind, and there’s not such a huge difference between the two men after all. Since he views Kenny as a pathetic loser, it’s an uncomfortable realisation for Jacob, and one that makes him a better human being.

As for the location, readers get a tourist’s view of La Paz and its marketplace as well as the hungry tourist industry desperate for an injection of foreign money. The magnificent Hotel Matamoros, which will be to expanded with new branches deeper in the jungle, is a vital concern for Bolivia’s tourist industry, and the fact that an American travel writer has gone missing while staying there just isn’t good for business. According to another hotel owner, “Matamoros was all built on narcotrafficking money,” and Jacob discovers that Hilary’s disappearance is a topic of concern for a Bolivian political group.

The novel, built on the idea of tourism, takes a insider’s skeptical view of the industry, and while the issue is never overworked, the idea of a ‘genuine’ tourist experience is lampooned through scenes with the Kallawaya and mention of the “handful of Amazonian medicine men” hired by the hotel for a “splash of color.” The novel takes the position that tourism is a artificial construct, and that by its very nature has built in voyeurism and paranoia. There are moments of shameful self-revelation for Jacob when he realizes his life of privilege is based on freebies from Bolivians who live on pennies a day. Jacob’s character was a little fuzzy at times–a little too Walter Mittyish at the beginning with his fantasies of heroism, but I liked the framework of a small-time travel writer leveraging freebies through hints about glowing articles.

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The Guts by Roddy Doyle

For fans of the much-loved book and film,  The Commitments, Jimmy Rabbitte, the man who managed the Dublin soul band, is back, but Roddy Doyle’s latest novel finds Jimmy Rabbitte, in his late forties, leading a middle class life and facing a recent diagnosis of bowel cancer. The novel opens with Jimmy at the pub breaking the news to his dad. Doyle cleverly constructs this scene so that Jimmy’s dramatic announcement is meshed with Jimmy Sr’s attempting to catch up with the modern world–more specifically to grasp the concept behind Facebook.

-D’yeh do the Facebook thing?

-What d’yeh mean?

-They were in the pub, in their corner. It wasn’t unusual anymore, having a pint with his father. In the early evening, before he went home after work. he’d phone, or his da would phone. It wasn’t an organized, regular thing.

It had started the day his da got his first mobile. His first call was to Jimmy.

-How’s it going’?

-Da?

-Yeah, me.

-How are yeh?

-Not too bad. I’m after gettin’ one o’ the mobiles.

-Great. I’m usin’ it now, like.

-Congratulations.

-Will we go for a pint? To celebrate.

-Grand. Good. yeah.

In between Jimmy Sr trying to understand exactly how someone “gets off with older women on Facebook,” his son drops the bomb of the cancer diagnosis. Jimmy has told his dad first and from that moment he has to break it to the rest of his family–his wife Aoife and their four children, and his business partner,  Noeleene.  Along the way with his battle with cancer (which includes chemo and surgery) he reconnects with back-up vocalist from The Commitments, Imelda Quirk  (“a few kilos heavier“), Outspan (another character from The Commitments) who’s even worse off than Jimmy, finds his long-estranged brother Leslie, decides to take trumpet lessons, and begins a project to track down some Irish songs from 1932.

the gutsThe Guts is essentially a mid-life crisis novel with the twist being a serious life-threatening (and altering0 experience instead of just the standard affair which grows from ennui, and in spite of the subject matter, the book manages to keep light and positive. It’s all in the attitude, Jimmy seems to think, which probably explains why he keeps telling everyone he’s “grand.” But of course he really isn’t, and Doyle depicts the swings that occur within Jimmy–the bitter and the sweet moments of life as he tries to carry everyone through his experience.

While the novel drifts into sentimentality at times, I’d argue that this is also an aspect of facing one’s own mortality–it’s a bitch to grasp, and the effort comes with understandable self-pity and a little teariness. Doyle was spot on to include sentimentality here, and it serves to reinforce the situation. Jimmy’s search for distractions and goals also seems real–a serious diagnosis leads to a self evaluation and a determination to re-direct one’s life, and we see that force here through Jimmy whose life was drifting along pleasantly enough until the diagnosis. But more than sentimentality, the novel is a nostalgic trip for fans of Doyle’s earlier work. Our hero, Jimmy has managed to surf the boom, the bust and internet commerce through his company, which sells old punk songs for download, and while the book may ostensibly be about disease and aging, on the flip side, it’s also concerned with showing the importance of living every wonderful moment given to us.

Roddy Doyle originally wrote The Commitments as the first part of The Barrytown Trilogy. The Snapper, and The Van (also both turned into film) form the rest of the trilogy. Doyle’s addition to the series now makes this a 4-parter.

review copy

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The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas

I’d intended to read Fred Vargas ever since Emma first mentioned this French crime writer, so when she announced that The Chalk Circle Man was one of my Virtual Gift Exchange books, I had no more excuses. Well here it is, almost 6 months later, and I finally read the book–the first of a series featuring Commissaire Adamsberg.

The book begins with Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg freshly transferred as the new commissaire to the 5th Arrondissement in Paris. Adamsberg is originally from the Pyrenees and there’s the general impression from those he works with that he’s more than a bit strange and “primitive,”  but in reality it’s truer to say that he’s not exactly the most socially competent person on the planet. He certainly hasn’t been promoted due to any glibness or ability to swing office politics in his favour. No, he’s been promoted thanks to a wonderful reputation gained through the solution of four murders.

The Chalk Circle ManIn some ways, The Chalk Circle Man doesn’t feel as though it’s the first book in a series. There’s a definite sensation that we’ve slipped into a certain time slot of Adamsberg’s life. He’s 45,  in love with Camille, a free-spirited woman who has disappeared by choice, and even though Adamsberg had casual affairs, Camille is always in the back of his mind. The book begins with Adamsberg solving the murder of a textile merchant in his own inimitable fashion. It’s the conclusion to this case that begins to build respect for Adamsberg from his skeptical colleagues.

Adamsberg’s next case involves the appearance of blue chalk circles drawn in the wee hours in various sections of Paris. Items, seemingly random items, are placed within these circles, and while it’s the general consensus that the circles, accompanied by a cryptic message, are the work of some harmless nutcase, Adamsberg is clearly disturbed by them, and he fears the worse. With the discovery of a body inside one of the blue circles, Adamsberg’s predictions are realized. Adamsberg has a serial killer on his hands.

Series books rely on a main character strong enough and interesting enough to pull in a repeat audience. I’ve always seen the appeal of a series character–after all, if you, the writer create a really interesting character–a police inspector let’s say or a PI, why drop them once the last page is turned? The most successful series balance the crime solving with the main character’s personal life, so we readers buy the next book–not because we want to read about the next crime, necessarily, but because we want to hang out with the main character again. And again. Adamsberg is a very appealing character, and his unique approach to crime struck a chord for this reader. There’s a scene early on between Adamsberg and Inspector Danglard (who incidentally is the perfect foil for Adamsberg) in which the two men discuss the subject of murder, and Adamsberg brings up a story from his past, concerning a dog, and he tells this story to illustrate some fundamental beliefs:

“The point of this story, Danglard, is the evidence of cruelty in that little kid. I’d known for a long time before this happened that there was something wrong with him, and that was what it was: cruelty. But I can assure you that his face was quite normal, he didn’t have wicked features at all. On the contrary, he was a nice-looking boy, but he oozed cruelty. Just don’t ask me any more, I can’t tell you any more. But eight years later, he pushed a grandfather clock over on top of an old woman and killed her. And most premeditated murders require the murderer not only to feel exasperation or humiliation, or to have some neurosis, or whatever, but also cruelty, pleasure in inflicting suffering, pleasure in the victim’s agony and pleas for mercy, pleasure in tearing the victim apart. It’s true, it doesn’t always appear obvious in a person, but you feel at least that there’s something wrong, that something else is gathering underneath, a kind of growth. And sometimes that turns out to be cruelty–do you see what I’m saying? A kind of growth.”

“That’s against my principles,” said Danglard, a bit stiffly. “I don’t claim my principles are the only ones, but I don’t believe there are people marked out for this or that, like cows with tags on their ears, or that you can pick out murderers by intuition. I know, I’m saying something boring and unexciting, but what we do is we proceed by following clues, and we arrest when we’ve got proof. Gut feelings about ‘growths’ scare me stiff. That way you start off following hunches, and end up with arbitrary sentences and miscarriages of justice.”

Both men have stories to illustrate their theories about crime and murderers, and these stories, which involved early cases in their respective careers, shaped their thinking. Adamsberg has a level of intuition about crime, so for example, he immediately intuits that there’s something sinister about the blue chalk circles while everyone else think they’re just the work of some harmless nut. Adamsberg, however, does not rely on intuition alone. There were several times in the novel when one small detail doesn’t quite fit with the established narrative of crime, and even though other people are satisfied with the solution, Adamsberg is not.

The crimes in The Chalk Circle Man are conducted by a somewhat implausibly adaptable and clever killer, and the best parts of the novel are the refreshingly bizarre characters connected to the story.  Adamsberg has his own unique approach to solving crimes (which involves a great deal of solitary rumination and scribbling), and his sidekick, the melancholy Danglard, who doesn’t quite know what to think of his new boss, is a single parent swamped with children–including one dumped on him by his ex and her lover. There’s also unpredictable oceanographer Mathilde Forestier who has temporarily given up watching fish to watch humans, including the Chalk Circle Man. She believes in salvaging lost souls–not by charity or pity, but with her warm personality and  generous nature. She has already salvaged seventy year-old Clémence, a creepy spinster who obsesses over the personal ads, now employed to do a little work for Mathilde. Mathilde meets a blind man, Charles Reyer, seemingly by accident, who’s struggling with bitterness at his condition, and she rents a room to him while refusing to allow him to wallow in self-pity.  All these characters are somehow or another connected to the case, and the characters are so much fun, that they lighten the darkness of the crimes.

Lucky for me, there are 8 Commissaire Adamsberg novels in English from Vargas (including one graphic novel & the eighth in the series to appear this year). I have some catching up to do. So many thanks to Emma for choosing The Chalk Circle Man.

Translated by Siân Reynolds.

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Filed under Fiction, Vargas Fred