Books

The Legacy by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Having recently read and enjoyed The Absolution, the third in the ‘Freyja and Huldur’ series, I returned to the first book – The Legacy – in my ongoing Icelandic crime fiction reading marathon.

A prologue begins with three children being split up by social services – something that will clearly have ramifications later. And indeed, when we move forward to current-day Reykjavik, a woman named Elisa suffers a particularly grisly fate.

Huldur is sent to investigate along with members of his team. Finding a motive for the crime seems to be key, but there doesn’t appear to be one. There is a witness in Elisa’s daughter, Margrét – but the child is understandably traumatised. So the police need to work with ‘Children’s House’ where we meet Freyja.

Iceland is a small place, and it’s particularly unfortunate that Huldar and Freyja had a one night stand that ended with Huldur running away in the morning. Things are going to be a little frosty.

One key component of this tautly told tale is a shortwave numbers station, which unusually is broadcasting in Icelandic. What could it mean? And how is it linked to the case?

A good start to the series, with a few sharp barbs along the way.

The Island by Ragnar Jónasson

It’s 1988, many years before the events recounted in the first of the Hidden Iceland trilogy, The Darkness. A pair of teenagers have headed out to a remote summer house for a weekend of passion – but things don’t go quite the way they’d planned. Next thing, the girl’s father has been arrested and charged with the murder of his daughter.

We fast forward another ten years, and Hulda Hermannsdottir is in America, trying to track down her father. Her mother never told her who he was, but he was stationed in a US base in Iceland and she has a first name.

Meanwhile, back in Iceland, the friends of the girl who’d died ten years earlier have gathered together to celebrate her – this time on a remote island. Again, things don’t quite go as planned.

It’s into this mess that Hulda returns from America, looking to work out whether a new death was an accident or murder. And how are two events related?

It’s not uncommon in crime novel series for the individual titles to be relatively standalone for new readers, but in this case, I’d strongly recommend going back to The Darkness and reading these titles in order.

We know from the earlier book that Hulda is someone who’s a bit of a loner, and feels as though her career is stagnating. Once more, it feels as though there’s been sloppy detective work –  Jónasson does not portray the Icelandic police service in glowing light in these books. And as ever, there are lots of hidden things below the surface, brooding away.

What’s absolutely certain is that the story is another real page-turner, and the remote settings provide a distinct flavour. My only frustration is that we’ll need to wait until 2020 to learn the conclusion to this series!

Thanks to Penguin UK, Michael Joseph and Netgalley for the ARC. The Island is published in hardback on 4 April 2019.

The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson

Following on from the latest Yrsa Sigurðardóttir novel, I thought I’d stay in Iceland and catch up with Ragnar Jónasson who I’ve been meaning to read for a while. His latest series of books are the Hidden Iceland trilogy, and The Darkness is the first of the three novels.

Hulda Hermannsdottir is approaching her retirement, and isn’t really sure what she’s going to do. She lives alone, her daughter and husband both having died years earlier. A friend in a rambling club has shown a little interest in her, but she’s disappointed that her career spluttered and others have long passed her by getting promotions in Reykjavik’s CID.

Suddenly, even her final retirement is upon her, a new younger guy being able to start in just a couple of weeks. Her cases are removed from her and she has nothing to do. She persuades her boss to let her look at one cold case before retirement finally arrives, and she re-opens a case of a Russian refugee who was found dead at the foot of some remote cliffs. The case had been called a suicide and swiftly closed.

Has she got enough time to get to the bottom of what really happened? What will her colleagues make of her reopening something they thought they’d already dealt with? And then there are her actions involving a hit and run that the book opens with.

As the book’s title implies, this is a darker tone of crime novel. We learn more about Hulda’s own circumstances; her frustrations and lack of willingness to work with others. But a sexist police environment is also there – slapdash work done to get cases closed.

This is a fine opening to a new trilogy, and it keeps you turning the pages until the gripping conclusion, about which I will say nothing.

The Absolution by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

The Absolution is the third in the “Children’s House” series of books from one if Iceland’s leading crime writers. 

A teenager has been brutally murdered, with the perpetrator first capturing some kind of apology and then sharing the video to victim’s friends on Snapchat. The police race to capture the video while it’s still there and to try to understand why a seemingly popular girl should have been targeted. 

Police detective Huldur is tasked with some responsibilities in the case, although he feels ostracised. A brief affair with his boss has gone wrong, and office politics are getting in the way. Freyja from child services gets involved because the police need a liaison when interviewing kids. Between them, the two begin to suspect that bullying might be involved. 

Bullying is a very relevant theme, and given the magnitude of what can be done digitally, it’s not such a stretch to believe that it might be a rationale for murder.  

I came to this series fresh, not having read either of the other books in the series, although I have read several of her Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series. Sigurðardóttir conveys enough backstory to get newer readers quickly up to speed, and ongoing storylines properly developed.

Icelandic crime writers do have plenty of challenges specific to that country to keep readers engaged. Collectively writers have created vastly more murder victims than the country actually has in 2017 there were a total of four murders, which was twice the usual rate. The country’s population is less than 340,000 which means that while everyone doesn’t literally know everyone else, it’s not far off. And then there’s the deCODE database, which famously featured in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City, which has DNA profile of a large proportion of the Icelandic population. As such, it’s a bit like mobile phones in horror films – you have to work around the problems that they can present. 

This book is thoroughly engaging, and I shall go back to the previous two titles in the series. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Hodder & Stoughton for my ARC. The Absolution is out in hardback on 18 April 2019.

Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe

It’s the early 1980s and our narrator, Lizzie Vogel, is about to leave home for the first time, and move from her village into the city of Leicester. Her first fulltime job is to be a dental assistant working for the awful JP and his partner Tammy. The job comes with its own flat, and initially reluctantly, Lizzie leaves the family home and moves in.

There is much humour to be had early 1980s dentistry, the introduction of McCain’s Oven Chips and freemasonry.

This is the third book in Nina Stibbe’s wonderful series about Lizzie, although they all work as standalone novels. It follows Man at the Helm, when Lizzie and her sister tried to find a partner for their newly single mother, and Paradise Lodge where Lizzie worked part time in an old people’s home while still at school.

The details are as ever pitch perfect. Lizzie devours waiting room copies of magazines like Women’s Own, tells horror stories of meals in Fenwick’s department store, and notes that a local accountant has built his own nuclear bunker, but it’s supposed to be secret.

As well as moving out, Lizzie is dealing with having her first proper boyfriend and learning to drive. But Lizzie moving out has meant that her mother is able to get on with a novel, a science fiction epic that she is determined will be published by Faber & Faber.

Stibbe handles all this masterfully, and it’s the eye to detail that absolutely convinces you.  

Thanks to Penguin Books (UK), Viking and Netgalley for my ARC. Reasons to be Cheerful is published on 28 March 2019. And no, this book is nothing to do with the excellent Geoff Lloyd/Ed Miliband podcast of the same name!

Walking in Berlin by Franz Hessel

I picked up a copy of Walking in Berlin over Christmas having become fascinated by the period after reading the first couple of Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath novels and watching the superb TV dramatisation Babylon Berlin. A recent trip to Berlin also got me even more interested in the period.

This book, newly translated by Amanda DeMarco, was first published in Germany in 1929. In it, Franz Hessel goes for walks (and a drive or two) around the Berlin of the era. In that respect, this is the same Berlin that Kutscher’s detective is solving crimes in. We’re in the latter part of the Weimar Republic and the depression is probably about to hit. The National Socialists – aka Nazis – are beginning their rise to power, although we’re not quite there yet. There’s a lot of building work going on in Berlin too.

Hessel captures more of the feel of the place rather than the politics. You get only briefest mentions here and there – such as when he visits a six day cycle race, the same venue later to be used for a National Socialist rally.

Hessel mostly writes about the buildings, their history and the things that happen there. He tells stories about their past, and seems to drift through, rarely reporting any conversations he’s having. In some respects this can be quite full-on, and it might have been more useful to have read the book with a map from the period to help me locate myself.

One very long section takes the form of joining a tourist bus, but for the most part he explores different areas one at a time, we assume on foot, but mentioning the growth of motor cars. He notes that while he has no ideas about different models, small children can identify the differences very easily. They do the same with planes.

The thing that is very definitely missing is a lack of social commentary. Hessel claimed to be avowedly apolitical and therefore he doesn’t really criticise. Were it not for the often quite explanatory footnotes, things that he infers would probably be missed by readers.

Berlin has obviously changed a lot since this book was written, so it definitely captures the city at a fascinating time, and if you want to capture that feeling, this very much does it.

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

This book lays out the horrifying facts about climate change in a compelling and urgent way. 

In The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells takes a comprehensive stroll through the very real perils that the world is facing from climate change. He opens with a devastating picture of just how quickly we’re going to see real suffering and destruction, running through a number of scenarios of varying magnitudes. He references recent weather events that were incredibly disruptive, and goes on to explain how the scale of these pales into insignificance in comparison with what is coming. 

Then he dives more deeply into separate areas: heat death, hunger, drowning and so on. Each of these chapters again forcibly makes its point over and over as Wallace-Wells presents the unassailable research that backs all of this up.  

The prospects for a time as close as 2100 seem truly awful. If that seems distant then think about a child born today. They might comfortably expect to still be alive in 2100, aged just 81. 

The horrors compound on each other. All of the evidence is detailed in well over a hundred pages of very comprehensive notes, where arguments are often developed further. The interested reader has no end of further exploration available to them. 

The book does grapple a bit with the fact that even though we sort-of know a lot of this, political will is rarely there to do anything about it. From the Paris accord to the rapid industrialisation of countries like China or India. We live for the now and not for tomorrow.  

There’s also an interesting argument about how climate change rarely features as a “villain” in popular culture. The Day After Tomorrow aside, we prefer to see our climate villains as big business chiefs who don’t care about pollution or oil company executives. We need a person rather than a thing to blame.  

And it’s to the author’s credit that he also explores the extremists who posit that humanity is going to end in the very near future. As ever, deep within YouTube and the internet, there are those who make these claims which aren’t supported by proper science. This kind of over-claiming doesn’t help, because one of the challenges climate scientists face is getting outright dismissal of everything if anything they ever say doesn’t come true. Wallace-Wells argues that this has led to scientists painting a sometimes brighter picture than they really should. 

My only real complaints are the book are the sections that consider life elsewhere in the universe. While he rightly poo-poos thoughts that we can just build a colony on Mars or somewhere – places that have vastly more extreme weather than even the worst outcomes we might get on earth in the foreseeable future – discussions about life elsewhere aren’t really extensive enough. Paul Davies’ 2010 The Eerie Silence is probably a better bet. 

My other issue is do with mixed units of measurement. Units of temperature are usually Celsius, but because the author is American, we will sometimes jump to Fahrenheit. Similarly, measurements of height will switch between metres and feet, seemingly depending on where the science originated. The book should be consistently metric. 

But overall, this is powerful book and the urgency is real. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Penguin-UK Allen Lane for my ARC. The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future is out now.

My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing

A twisted thriller about a couple who are not all they seem. 

The set-up for My Lovely Wife is intriguing and it’s hard to avoid giving away too much in the way of spoilers. ‘Tobias’ narrates this story. He’s married to Millicent and they live together in an idyllic gated community in Florida with their two kids Jenna and Rory.  

But the book opens up with Tobias claiming to be deaf and trying to pick up a woman in a bar. He’s scouting out a potential victim. And his wife is in on it. 

This a dark page-turner, with young married couple who have some seriously unusual tendencies. Tobias is a tennis coach in the local country club. Millicent is a real estate agent who has sold numerous properties in and around their exclusive community.  

But murder isn’t straightforward, and although Tobias and Millicent are in it together, they have their own separate roles – not always asking precisely what the other is doing. Things begin to unravel when to cover their tracks, they decide to construct a way to cover their tracks and keep investigators away from what’s really happening. Inevitably, this has unintended consequences.  

The obvious comparison here would be the Dexter novels, but unlike those, the victims are mostly blameless. These are clearly twisted people. 

The book is a rip-roaring read, and while I suspect that you could poke holes at some elements of the plot, the story is tightly constructed and makes internal sense. You’re certainly never sure how things will resolve themselves by the end, and the final act is tense as a consequence. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Penguin-UK Michael Joseph for my ARC. My Lovely Wife is published on 2 May 2019 in hardback and 26 March 2019 on the Kindle. 

Tangerine by Christine Langan

The cover of the paperback edition of Tangerine has a quote from The Times claiming that the book is like a cross between Girl on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley.

This was one of those books that I absolutely did pick up based on the cover – but that strapline also sold it to me. Tangerine is Waterstones’ fiction book of the month, and it was in my local branch that I picked up a copy, finding the premise intriguing.

Alice Shipley has moved to Tangiers to be with her new husband John. But Alice is crippled with a kind of agoraphobia that means that she spends most of her time in her flat, and really has only the vaguest notion of what her husband does.

Then Lucy arrives. Lucy and Alice went to a female-only college in the US, where something happened. Lucy showing up is not something Alice expected.

The book flips the narrative back and forth from each of the two women’s perspectives and we begin to learn more about what has happened, and what is now happening.

The comparisons with Patricia Highsmith’s most famed character are fair, although there aren’t quite the shocks and surprises that Tom Ripley gave us.

The book definitely gives us a sense of place – with its 1950s Moroccan setting, and the characters’ motivations are definitely well drawn. I suppose I thought it was just missing that extra bit.

One thing I would say is that Abacus share slightly too much of the plot on the back of the book, revealing something that doesn’t happen until close to the novel’s denouement. This same publisher’s blurb appears on the Amazon website, so I would avoid reading any more about the plot than I have already given here.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

When a book receives as much hype as Sally Rooney’s Booker longlisted, Costa winning and Waterstones winning novel, it can have a reverse reaction for me. The book sounds like it’s being over-hyped. I begin to think that it can’t possibly live up to expectations. I tend to actively avoid such titles.

But then, I heard an interview with Rooney, and thought I should give it a go. I picked up a copy over Christmas to add to my teetering pile(s) of unread books, and this week settled down to it.

I confess that I really enjoyed it.

The novel is the story of Connell and Marianne, following them from their school days in a small Irish town, through to their time in Trinity College Dublin.

Connell is one of the cool kids – centre forward for his school’s football team and hanging out with the similar types. He’s also smart, doing well in his exams. He has been brought up by his single mother who earns a living as a cleaner at Marianne’s house. Marianne goes to the same school as Connell and is also very smart. But she’s not one of the cool kids. She’s alone at school – perhaps even aloof. Her family has money, but that doesn’t matter – and she’s not part of scene.

Connell and Marianne develop a secret relationship; a relationship that Connell is unwilling to make public for fear of humiliation in front of his peers.

Later, when they’re at university, the tables are turned. Marianne is much more in her element, and it’s Connell who has become more of an outsider.

The novel is told is short fragmentary pieces; we jump a few weeks here – a few months there. Marianne and Connell’s relationship is complex, and their intentions don’t always make sense. But that’s real life, and their story does feel “real.”

I’ve seen some reviews suggest more of this tale

Is the book over-hyped? Quite probably. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a good book. I enjoyed it enormously, and it had a very satisfactory conclusion.