Friday, March 23, 2018

Dying FlamesDying Flames by Robert Barnard

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Beside this grave, in the gathering twilight, they had made love."

Dying Flames (2005) is my sixteenth book by Robert Barnard whose mystery novels I have rated with a wide range of rankings, from nearly outstanding as A Scandal in Belgravia to failures like The Killings on Jubilee Terrace. This novel places somewhere in between, perhaps a bit closer to the lower mark. It has a very rare distinction, though: it gets better and better as we progress towards the end, which is the exact opposite of the absolute majority of mystery genre bestsellers.

Graham Broadbent, in his mid-forties, a quite popular writer of fiction, visits Colchester for the high-school reunion. Christa, a young woman, still a teenager in fact, comes to see Graham and announces that she is his daughter, which she had learned from her mother, Peggy. While Graham denies paternity he indeed did have an affair with Peggy. She had been a star in a high-school play and a target of romantic interests of many young men. But their liaison happened twenty-five years ago the idea of him being Christa's father is simply inconceivable! (a neat pun!)

Now that he has met Christa, Graham is interested in tracking Peggy, perhaps to confront her about her lies, but maybe also just to see how she is a quarter of century later. Yet Graham also has another motive to maintain contact with Christa: he is on the verge of falling in love with her, despite the rather major age difference. He conducts an investigation, which is the lamest part of the novel. There is a scene in a pub in the town where Peggy lived in her youth: every drinking patron in the pub seems to know everything about Peggy, her family, her lovers, etc. The horrible "word on the street" literary cliché strikes again!

The reader learns more and more about the momentous events from the past. The plot further thickens when a dead body is discovered and the local police have to investigate a case of murder. For a brief while the action even moves to near Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The last third of the book is highly readable, almost compulsively. It also seems to be much better written then the earlier parts, overlong, and frankly boring. I like the clever and rather unexpected denouement. So, all in all, while this is quite a forgettable novel, it is not a particularly unpleasant way of spending few hours of one's time.

Two and a quarter stars.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

PulsePulse by Julian Barnes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"For some, the sunlight catches on the telescope out there in the lagoon; for others, not. We choose, we are chosen, we are unchosen."

This striking quote comes from Carcassonne, one of the stories in Julian Barnes' collection titled Pulse (2011), an unusually diverse set of literary pieces. Some pieces are proper stories, others are vignettes, impressions, or just captured dialogue. What unites the pieces is the outstanding prose and the author's wisdom about all things human. I had a great time reading the book and being unable to offer any synthetic or summarizing observations, I will comment on some of my favorite pieces.

East Wind, the first piece in the collection, is in fact a proper story. A divorced real-estate agent meets an Eastern European waitress in a British coastal town. They enter a relationship and the story ends with a major twist that has political undertones.

At Phil and Joanna's is a four-part account of a conversation between a group of six friends: they have dinner together and they talk freely on various topics: love, sex, drinking, the essence of Europeanness, immigration, economy, well, even Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The conversation is slightly boozy and at places it reminds one of a "thought diarrhea" but - at least to me - it is compulsively readable. It is also quite "meta": there are metaphors about metaphors and puns about puns. A choice piece for anyone who is or aspires to be an intellectual.

My other favorite is the short, sad, and lyrical piece called Marriage Lines: a recently widowed man comes back to an island where he an his wife had been happy together:
"He had thought he could recapture, and begin to say farewell. He had thought that grief might be assuaged [...] But he was not in charge of grief. Grief was in charge of him."
Mr. Barnes is a particularly astute observer of relationships in couples: the story Trespass and the wonderful vignette Complicity are studies in the dynamic of building, sustaining, and ending relationships.

Harmony is a story that will likely stay in the reader's mind. Set in the 18th century it is an account of a noted physician, named by the author only as M---------, who uses magnetic therapy to cure blindness in a young and gifted pianist, Maria Theresia von P----------. The story refers to actual historical events: Franz Mesmer was famous in the second half of the 18th century as a Vienna-based physician who studied the so-called animal magnetism and tried to use magnets in the therapy. Obviously, the author is less interested in the story and more in its psychological and sociological dimensions.

Three and three quarter stars.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Bad Intentions (Inspector Konrad Sejer, #9)Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"It might be good to let yourself sink, he thought, stop the fear flowing through your body for good. An explosion in his head, a burning sensation in his lungs and it would be all over."

I am very sad as I have just read the third Karin Fossum's book in a row that I really do not like that much. About two months ago I was singing utter praise for the Norwegian author and in my review of Hell Fire I even wrote " Of hundreds of authors [...] that I have read in over 50 years, Ms. Fossum joins only Nicolas Freeling and Denise Mina in the select trio of mystery writers for whom I feel a deep, total, and virtually uncritical admiration." and explained in detail why I love Ms. Fossum's books so much. Well, the blind fascination is over. I need to acknowledge the truth. Some of her books are great. Not all! Bad Intentions (2008) appears to me the least favorite of all her books.

Jon, a young man, a boy really, is away from a psychiatric hospital where he is treated for anxiety and depression. His two best friends, Axel and Philip, take him camping on the shores of the Dead Water Lake. When they decide to go out on the lake in a rowing boat Jon has an anxiety attack, falls over the side of the boat, and drowns.

Inspectors Sejer and Skarre arrive at the scene; they interrogate Axel and Philip as well as Jon's mother. They also learn that all three boys had been routinely questioned in a missing person's case the year before. We meet some interesting people in the course of the investigation: Sejer's conversation with Dr. Wigert, the psychiatrist who was in care of Jon, is, to me, the highpoint of the entire novel. The reader is also offered hints that Jon was heavily burdened with a secret: something traumatic must have happened in his recent past.

About mid-novel the author begins offering fragments of Jon's diary, which - from the purely literary point of view - feels rather a clumsy and mechanical way of divulging the secrets. I do not particularly care for the characterization of Axel, one of the main characters, a sociopath always trying to be in control. His character reads more like a textbook case than a real person. I am also quite curious about the role of long passages involving his toothache; maybe I am just too obtuse to get the point. The character of Philip, a druggie and slacker, is shown more convincingly.

I used to praise Ms. Fossum for avoiding cheap sentimentality and overt didacticism in her novels. Well, yet another generalization of mine proves to be wrong: in this book several passages are far from stellar, for instance, the conversation between two mothers reads maudlin rather than deep. I feel that the author is a bit too intent on conveying her message and the layers of fiction that envelop the moral are just too flimsy. At least Ms. Fossum's writing is recognizable, and her short, clear sentences are still abound. The translation reads fine, which not always has been the case.

Well, I would have never expected not being able to recommend a Karin Fossum's novel. Learning something new every day...

Two stars.

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Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Uncommon ReaderThe Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"'[...] briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading it opens it up.'"

A short review of a very short and uncommonly charming book about the pleasures of reading. Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader (2007), a novella which illustrates the transformative power of reading, could serve as a symbol what Goodreads is all about.

The Queen of the United Kingdom (the author clearly refers to the actual Queen), when looking for a stray dog of hers, happens upon a travelling library. She feels like checking a book out and so begins her love affair with reading, the affair that first amuses and then annoys the royal circles and particularly her numerous handlers. During that first encounter with the mobile library the Queen also meets another patron, Norman, a lowly kitchen worker in her Majesty's service. Norman, whom the Queen has promoted to the position of a page, becomes her literary guide, and she even takes to calling him her "amanuensis." Gradually, the high-level members of the Queen's entourage begin trying to channel the Queen's new passion into more "productive" domains or to discourage her from reading, which, inevitably, leads to a dramatic conclusion with a superb twist on the last page.

The Uncommon Reader is a feather-light book with wonderfully feather-light prose. It is also strongly inspiring, particularly to all of us here on Goodreads as it validates our love for books and reading. It is also hilarious and the reader will often giggle or laugh out loud as I did upon reading, for instance, the following sentence:
"Men (and this included Mrs Thatcher) wanted show."
A fabulous read!

Four stars.

I have a language question related to the book and addressed to native British English speakers. I had learned British English as my second language before I began using the U.S. version, so the impersonal form "one should" instead of "you should" or "people should" sounds natural to me. However in the novella the Queen uses the impersonal "one" particularly often when referring to herself: "One is relieved to hear it," "Are you suggesting one rations one's reading?" Is it a convention that a British monarch refers to herself or himself as "one"? Google has not helped me with finding an answer.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

When the Devil Holds the Candle (Inspector Konrad Sejer, #4)When the Devil Holds the Candle by Karin Fossum

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"He slipped his arm around her waist and held on tight, lifting her from the chair. She squealed with glee, but he noted with satisfaction the tiny hint of panic as he carried her across the room."

Karin Fossum, one of my most favorite writers manages to surprise me in three different ways with her When the Devil Holds the Candle (1998). First of all, I am surprised that this is again not a great book, not even - I am afraid - a very good one. It is far below the level of Ms. Fossum's best work like her masterpiece Black Seconds and below the beautifully sad Indian Bride .

Further, the novel has surprised me in that I like the thread about Chief Inspector Sejer's personal life. I have never warmed to his persona, seemingly aloof and cold, but here the author humanizes the detective through the presence of his girlfriend. Also, the whole thread is quite well written: many scenes between Sejer and Sara ring true. Ms. Fossum does a great job writing about love between mature people - not an easy thing to do. One can even find a short passage that is quite erotically charged - I have never seen it before in the author's works even if I have read almost all her novels that have been translated into English.

Alas, the last surprise is again of an unpleasant kind. The partial solution of the mystery thread is based on a rather cheap literary device, used and abused by many authors before, authors not as talented as Ms. Fossum. The mystery thread also greatly stretches the bounds of plausibility but then one does not read this author's books for the mystery component but rather for the characters' psychology.

The mystery thread is based on the disappearance of a young man. An elderly woman accosts Sejer's assistant, Skarre, during his appearance in court. The woman - who cryptically tells Skarre that the missing person does not have long to live - seems confused and the detective even suspects mental illness. The rest of the novel alternates between four threads: an internal monologue of one of the central characters, a thread that focuses on adventures, some of criminal nature, of two young men, Andreas and Zipp. The third thread, a procedural one, follows the investigation, and the last one is the "love story" of Sejer and Sara. While the chronological order of events is not kept strict the author manages to build mystery and suspense.

Other than the sweet and well-written passages about the Sejer-Sara relationship the best thing in the novel is the character of Andreas. I find him a full-bodied person rather than a paper-thin template. Andreas "saunters through life" (a great phrase!) with no ambition, no interests, no enthusiasm for anything. As many other characters in the novel he carries a secret, which distorts his life.

I very much like the slight ambiguity of the ending since it validates my belief that no one ever knows what really is going on around them. A good, readable, engrossing novel, just not an extraordinary one.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Noise of TimeThe Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"In Galileo's day, a fellow scientist
Was no more stupid than Galileo.
He was well aware that the Earth revolved,
But he also had a large family to feed."
(From Y. Yevtushenko's poem, translated by G. Reavey and quoted by Julian Barnes)

Another outstanding book from Julian Barnes. The Noise of Time (2016), a set of vignettes and impressions rather than a novel, would probably be best categorized as a fictionalized biography of the famous Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. The emphasis is on the word 'fictionalized' as the readers who reach for this book to learn the "actual facts" from the life of the composer may be disappointed. First of all, one of the author's main points is that it is not really possible to know the exact truth about the past. So-called "facts" are in fact memories or "versions" of events and the past exists only as a set of interpretations. Secondly, recounting events from the composer's life is not the author's goal. Mr. Barnes assembles Shostakovich's persona by constructing beliefs, motives, attributes, and even behaviors that fit his artistic vision.

What the reader does get from the book is a realistic portrayal of the hard-to-imagine horrors of Soviet life and death under Stalin. I was lucky to be born in the waning years of Stalin's life: the Soviet-installed regime in Poland killed and tortured "only" a tiny fraction of the millions of ideology victims who perished in the Soviet-dominated part of Europe; the horrors did not touch me directly. But I know enough about these times from my family and friends to recognize how sharp and accurate Mr. Barnes' depiction of the horrors of human depravity, enslavement, humiliation and pain is.

In those dark times of humanity any citizen could expect to be arrested without any reason at any time, locked in a cell, tortured for days and days, until that citizen decided to confess to non-existing crimes, possibly denounce many other innocent people, and only then be shot. Quick execution was for lucky people. The worst was having to collaborate with the murderers if one wanted to save their family. The worst was having to denounce your friends and betray your ideals in order to save your wife and children.

One of the two most moving passages in the book is about Shostakovich's nightly ritual of preparing for the arrest and trying the spare his family from humiliation:
"Each night he followed the same routine: he evacuated his bowels, kissed his sleeping daughter, kissed his wakeful wife, took the small case from her hands. [...] And then he stood and waited."
Another touching fragment recounts the composer's dramatic visit, with a "peacemaking" mission to New York where - in the "greatest humiliation of his life" - he denounced Igor Stravinsky, his musical idol, a composer whom he greatly admired. Mr. Barnes skillfully shows Shostakovich's two faces: one of a public supporter of the Communist party and - at the same time - the other, of an "enemy of the people" waiting for arrest and wondering why he has been spared.

American readers often do not have any notion of how a system governed by ideology (any ideology!) works and how anyone can be forced to commit the vilest acts to spare their family. I strongly recommend this book. For a wider and deeper panorama of the Soviet-era horrors I recommend Anne Applebaum's Gulag or The Crushing of Eastern Europe .

Four stars.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

He Who Fears the Wolf (Inspector Konrad Sejer, #3)He Who Fears the Wolf by Karin Fossum

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"He wasn't made like other people, though this wasn't plain to see. [...] He had always moved in a different space, seeing the world through a murky veil that took the sting out of the light and the sounds coming from outside. He held the veil in place by concentrating hard."

It comes to me as a shock that I have just read a Karin Fossum's novel that I am a little hesitant to recommend. She is one of my absolutely favorite authors and I have rated two of her novels ( Black Seconds and The Murder of Harriet Krohn ) with rare five stars. Yet now comes He Who Fears the Wolf (2003, English translation), a psychological thriller that I do not believe is strong on psychology.

I have to offer a disclaimer though: readers who enjoy Ms. Fossum's books because of the characters of Chief Inspector Sejer and officer Skarre may like the novel a lot. But since I am not in the least interested in Sejer/Skarre but instead look for Ms. Fossum's trademark acute observations of human behavior, I am a bit disappointed.

After a "teaser" with hints of supernatural the story begins with an elderly, widowed woman found brutally murdered on her farm in a remote rural area of Norway. Kannick, a 12-year-old boy from a "boys' home" who has found the body saw Erkki near the woman's farm. Erkki is a convenient suspect: not only is he a Finn but also he has escaped from a psychiatric institution.

Inspector Sejer who is investigating the case notices a suspiciously looking man walking towards a bank in a nearby town. He follows him but nothing happens for quite some time. When the inspector leaves the bank he hears shots and screams. Witnesses say that the bank robber has kidnapped a woman. The two cases become intertwined in a rather unexpected way.

The book is not a police procedural, though. The major part of the novel focuses on Kannick, Erkki, and another young man. Their behaviors and the dynamics of relationships between them are observed in minute detail, which would normally be the strongest aspect of a novel by Ms. Fossum's. Alas, I am unable to find the portraits of the characters psychologically plausible. They feel custom-made by the author to illustrate her theses about people unable to adjust to life in society. The author also seems to be inattentive to detail: for instance, the bottle of whisky from which the three main characters partake for quite some time would have to be really huge.

On the positive side, I like the somewhat ambiguous ending, and I love one of the most oddball sentences I have ever seen in prose, which may be the author's joke or the translator's clumsiness:
"[he] was not a hamster. He was a father!"
And, of course, the sarcastic take on American police is worth noting:
"It's better in the U.S. The police just shoot them dead, and show a lot more consideration for the community."
Despite the good bits I am rounding my low rating down.

Two and a half stars

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