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Reading the World: ‘The Mind’s Eye’ by Hakan Nesser ***

I borrowed Hakan Nesser’s The Mind’s Eye from the library for inclusion in my year-long Reading the World project.  I hadn’t heard of it before, but I count myself as a fan of Nordic Noir, and thought it might be just the thing to read on a cold winter’s night.  This volume has been translated from its original Swedish by Laurie Thompson, and was first published in Sweden in 1993; the author was victorious in the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy Prize for it, and subsequently won other prestigious awards for his later work.

9780330492782The Mind’s Eye is the first Inspector van Veeteren mystery, in which a history and philosophy teacher named Janek Mitter awakes to find that he cannot remember who he is.  He then discovers the body of his beautiful young wife, Eva, floating in the bath after an attack.  Even during the trial which follows, he has no memory of attacking his wife, or any idea as to how he could have killed her; indeed, ‘Only when he is sentenced and locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane does he have a snatch of insight.  He scribbles something in his Bible, but is murdered before the clue can be uncovered’.

The novel’s opening passage is quite striking: ‘It’s like being born, he thought.  I’m not a person.  Merely a mass of suffering’.  In this manner, Nesser gets straight into the story.  He continues thus when the body is discovered, using short, snappy sentences to capture the mood: ‘He entered the room and, just as he switched on the light, he became quite clear about who he was. / He could also identify the woman lying in the bath. / Her name was Eva Ringmar and she was his wife of three months. / Her body was strangely twisted…  Her dark hair was floating on the water.  Her head was face-down, and as the bath was full to the brim there could be no doubt that she was dead.’

The Mind’s Eye is rather a quick read, and a page-turner, at least.  It isn’t the most gripping mystery, nor the most memorable slice of Scandicrime; in fact, it lacks the darkness and the often twisted, gory killings of many of its contemporaries.  There are far more grisly whodunnits out there, and part of me wishes I’d selected one such instead.  Nesser’s effort is well plotted, and the plot points do keep one interested in the story.  I cannot help but feel that the blurb of the novel gives a little too much away, however.  There is nothing overly special about the translation, sadly; the way in which it is rendered takes away any memorable prose, and it uses many paragraphs made of short sentences to further push different points home.  Needless to say, it is not a series which I will be continuing with.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Girl on the Train’ by Paula Hawkins ****

Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on The Train is a number one bestseller, which has been incredibly well reviewed.  S.J. Watson, author of the incredibly clever Before I Go To Sleep, calls it ‘a top-notch thriller and a compulsive read’, and Stephen King says that it kept him up for ‘most of the night’. 9780857522313

The premise of The Girl on the Train is both simple and clever; Rachel Watson, our protagonist, ‘catches the same commuter train every morning.’  Each time, a signal stops it in exactly the same place, allowing her a view of a row of suburban back gardens.  One morning, ‘she sees something shocking.  It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough.  Now everything’s changed.  Now Rachel has the chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar…  She’s much more than just the girl on the train’.

The book’s opening passage – a prologue of sorts – is so intriguing, and definitely makes one want to read on: ‘She’s buried beneath a silver bitch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn…  I didn’t want to draw attention to her resting place, but I couldn’t leave her without remembrance.  She’ll sleep peacefully there, no one to disturb her, no sounds but birdsong and the rumble of passing trains’.

Rachel’s is the first perspective which is made use of, with the starting point of July 2013.  Of her daily journey, she tells us: ‘Twice a day, I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment.  There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home’.  We learn, rather early on, that the street which the train stops at is Blenheim Road – the place in which she used to live, in her first self-owned home with her ex-husband, Tom.  There, she was both ‘blissfully happy and utterly wretched’.  It is clear from the outset that Rachel is troubled; an untold event seems to be overshadowing everything for her, and she has turned to alcohol to seek solace.  She is a complex narrator; whilst she is lonely and, some would say, untrustworthy, there is a feisty side to her which beats its way to the fore when it is warranted: ‘Who was it said that following your heart is a good thing?  It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all.  Hatred floods me.  If I saw that woman now… I would spit in her face.  I would scratch her eyes out’.

Some of the events which Rachel participates in are obscured by her alcoholism, so the story often appears fragmented.  This is an intelligent plot device, and one which piques the interest of the reader: ‘It comes over me like a wave, black dread.  Something happened, I know it did.  I can’t picture it, but I can feel it…  I’m frightened, but I’m not sure what I’m afraid of, which just exacerbates the fear’.  She then goes on to candidly say, ‘I feel like I am part of this mystery.  I’m connected.  I am no longer just a girl on the train, going back and forth without point or purpose’.

The rest of the book uses the alternating perspectives of Rachel, Megan and Anna, whose paths intersect at times.  Their voices are all relatively distinctive.  The differing vantage points and times in which these narrative voices are set add depth to the whole, and allow Hawkins to tell a story within a story within a story.  The pivotal plot points come at perfect moments, and the pieces cleverly slot into place as the novel goes on.  The mysteries deepen, and complexities give the whole a wonderfully layered texture.  Hawkins’ structure is effective; a relatively short entry is given for each day, morning and evening, for each of the perspectives.

The Girl on The Train is Hawkins’ first thriller; this is surprising, in many ways, as it feels as though she is incredibly comfortable writing within the genre.  There is nothing about the novel which does not strike one as polished and well crafted.  The Girl on The Train is gripping and difficult to put down.  If you are looking for a fast-paced thriller with depth, look no further.

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Mini Reviews: ‘Fantastic Night’ and ‘The Lightkeepers’

Fantastic Night by Stefan Zweig ****
9781782271482I purchased Fantastic Night as part of Oxfam’s wonderful 2016 Scorching Summer Reads campaign.  I was already familiar with Zweig’s work, and remember how enraptured I was when reading the excellent The Post Office Girl some years ago.  Fantastic Night provides a mixture of novellas and short stories, many of which I hadn’t come across before.

As with all of the Pushkin Press titles which I have had the pleasure of reading thus far, the translation here is seamless. There were a couple of tales I wasn’t that enamoured with, but those which I loved or very much admired greatly outweighed these. Zweig is a masterfully perceptive author, and there was such a difference to every one of the stories here. ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ is stunning. Fantastic Night is a real joy to read.

 

The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni ***** 9781619026001
Before gushing uncontrollably about Abby Geni’s masterful The Lightkeepers, I shall just copy the blurb so that you get some context about the story: ‘In The Lightkeepers, we follow Miranda, a nature photographer who travels to the Farallon Islands, an exotic and dangerous archipelago off the coast of California, for a one-year residency capturing the landscape. Her only companions are the scientists studying there, odd and quirky refugees from the mainland living in rustic conditions; they document the fish populations around the island, the bold trio of sharks called the Sisters that hunt the surrounding waters, and the overwhelming bird population who, at times, create the need to wear hard hats as protection from their attacks. Shortly after her arrival, Miranda is assaulted by one of the inhabitants of the islands. A few days later, her assailant is found dead, perhaps the result of an accident. As the novel unfolds, Miranda gives witness to the natural wonders of this special place as she grapples with what has happened to her and deepens her connection (and her suspicions) to her companions, while falling under the thrall of the legends of the place nicknamed “the Islands of the Dead.” And when more violence occurs, each member of this strange community falls under suspicion. The Lightkeepers upends the traditional structure of a mystery novel –an isolated environment, a limited group of characters who might not be trustworthy, a death that may or may not have been accidental, a balance of discovery and action –while also exploring wider themes of the natural world, the power of loss, and the nature of recovery.’

I very much enjoyed Geni’s short story collection, The Last Animal, and couldn’t wait to read her debut novel.  My parents scoured The Strand for me on a recent trip to New York, and I couldn’t have been happier when they presented me with it (and three other equally wonderful tomes).  Geni’s novel explores similar themes to those in her story collection – nature, humans, and the effects of one upon the other.

Geni’s writing is electric.  Such emphasis has been placed upon every single sense that the whole springs to life immediately.  You can almost smell the salt on the breeze, taste the stale crackers and tuna macaroni, and, despite living on an isolated island with just a few others, feel their eyes on you as you read.  Geni uses both the first and third person perspectives effortlessly, and even the more simplistic or mundane elements of life on the Farallon Islands feel extremely creative due to the way in which she presents them.  Everything here feels original.  The Lightkeepers has been so well researched, particularly with regard to the nature around Miranda, and the photography techniques which she utilises.  The Lightkeepers is exquisite.

 

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‘One of Us: The Story of a Massacre and Its Aftermath’ by Asne Seierstad ****

For the purposes of background to this review, I have copied the original blurb: ‘On 22 July 2011 Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 of his fellow Norwegians in a terrorist atrocity that shocked the world. One of Us is the definitive account of the massacres and the subsequent trial. But more than that, it is the compelling story of Anders Breivik and a select group of his victims. As we follow the path to their inevitable collision, it becomes clear just what was lost in that one day.’

9781844089185It’s always going to be difficult to review a book about such a sickening and notorious crime as the massacre which happened on the island of Utoya in July 2011, and the bomb attack which happened in central Oslo just beforehand.  Norway is one of my favourite countries, and Oslo is certainly one of the most peaceful and friendly places I have ever visited.  I was even more shocked, therefore, when I learnt about Breivik’s crime.  What occurred was reported in the British media, but relatively few details emerged about the trial. When I spotted One of Us in Fopp, I decided to pick it up to learn as much as I could.  The fact that it is written by Asne Seierstad also swayed me, as I very much enjoyed her fascinating The Bookseller of Kabul when I read it a few years ago.

One of Us is the very pinnacle of excellent journalism.  Seierstad has taken her subject and written about his entire life, as well as taking into account elements of his parents’ lives to see what, if anything, rubbed off on Breivik and caused him to have the views which he so firmly holds.  Seierstad is thorough, but this will surprise nobody who is familiar with her work.  I have read several reviews which stated that One of Us is far too drawn out in places.  I did not get this impression at all; rather, the very depth of the details which she included, and the scope of her study, was of the utmost importance to try and understand Breivik and his motivations.  (I still do not, but that is by the by).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I learnt far more than I did throughout the original media coverage, and in retrospect, I feel that One of Us is one of the most important books I have ever read.  I admire Seierstad and the amount of scholarship which has gone into every single page of this book.  She gives such weight to the victims, picking out several of them and giving their backstories, which again was such an important element of the whole for me.  One of Us is a masterful work, which has been fluidly translated into English.  It is a book which I would – and will – recommend to everyone.

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Flash Reviews: ‘Ox Crimes’, ‘Black Eyed Susans’, and ‘Vinegar Girl’

Time for three more mini reviews!

Ox Crimes by Various Authors *** 9781781250648
I purchased Ox Crimes whilst seeking out my Scorching Summer Reads pile because it sounded wonderful. I love the idea behind it; twenty seven crime writers donating a story apiece to Oxfam. As with the majority of anthologies, there were a few stories which didn’t really interest me – the more hardboiled detective ones in this case – but on a high note, I have also (finally) discovered Stella Duffy.

I very much enjoyed how quirky a lot of these stories were; there were unusual elements to them for the most part, and not one could be termed run-of-the-mill. A mixed bag of crime stories, let’s face it, but literature for a good cause is always worth buying.

 

9781405921275Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin ***
I have been trying to read more thrillers of late, and Black Eyed Susans has undoubtedly been hyped. Whilst travelling to my early morning lectures, I must have seen a dozen posters with that eye-catching field of flowers, featuring the slightly ambiguous naked woman, dotted around the underground.

My thoughts about the novel are a mixed bag, as I had a feeling they might be. The storyline is intriguing; it has elements of the general thriller, but there are a few twists to it in places that I wasn’t quite expecting. Heaberlin’s writing didn’t blow me away, but the pacing was strong. The merging of past and present stories worked well, but the tenses were undoubtedly confused at times (and I say this as a proofreader). Black Eyed Susans felt, to me, rather drawn out in places, and whilst it kept me entertained, I don’t think I’d rush to pick up another of Heaberlin’s novels.

 

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler * 9781781090190
This had so much potential. WHY WAS IT SO DULL!?

I love Shakespeare. I love The Taming of the Shrew. I love the Hogarth Shakespeare series. I greatly admire what the authors have done. I had hoped that this would suck me in as Jeannette Winterson’s book did, but alas. There are nowhere near enough echoes of the original here; if you were not aware that this was a rewriting of Shakespeare, I’m not entirely sure you’d be able to guess.

I’ve not had the best experience with Anne Tyler’s novels in the past; I have begun three, and abandoned three. I think I’m going to give her up as a bad job. Thoroughly disappointing, and hopefully not a precursor of the rest of the series!

 

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One From the Archive: ‘The Devil at Saxon Wall’ and ‘Here Comes a Chopper’ by Gladys Mitchell ****

First published in May 2014.

The Devil at Saxon Wall and Here Comes a Chopper, published in 1935 and 1946 respectively,are two more of Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley mysteries which have been recently republished by Vintage.

In The Devil at Saxon Wall, Hannibal Jones, a friend of part-time detective and psychoanalyst Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, travels to the ‘perfect rural retreat’ of Saxon Wall in Hampshire, in order to focus upon his writing.  He becomes quickly interested in the mystery which surrounds local Neot House, in which a young couple died after their first child was born.

The second thread of the story comes when a man is found bludgeoned to death after ‘disagreements between the villagers and their vicar grow more malevolent’.  Throughout, Mitchell focuses upon different characters – here, the book opens with Constance, a resident of Neot House, who has been ‘royally happy’ since her marriage to Hanley Middleton.  The third person perspective which has been used throughout suits the story, and Mitchell’s writing feels rather thoughtful.  She continually considers events from more than one perspective, which makes the reader feel as though she is a wonder at her craft.  The plot in The Devil at Saxon Wall is clever, and whilst the book is quite a light read, it is sure to be a great holiday companion, whose plot will linger in the mind for a long time after the last page has been read.

Here Comes a Chopper is, predictably, named after the rhyme.  Its plot begins when a pair of lost ramblers – Roger Hoskyn and Dorothy Woodcote – stop at a country house: ‘The sun had almost set, and it occurred to both the walkers that the common was desolate and that they were becoming uncomfortably hungry’.  They are surprised when they are invited in to dinner with little hesitation.  Their host, ‘the superstitious lady of the house’, has invited them ‘as a necessity… to avoid thirteen guests sitting down to dinner’.

The thirteenth guest, however, does not turn up.  His headless body is found in woodland the following day.  As with all of the other Mrs Bradley novels, this is when Beatrice Bradley comes to the forefront of the novel, intent as she is upon catching the murderer.  The story in Here Comes a Chopper is clever, and it has been both written well and considered marvellously.  Mitchell certainly deserves as wide a readership as Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, her contemporaries, already enjoy.  It is with high hopes that these Vintage reprints – and the promise of many other Mrs Bradley mysteries forming part of their print-on-demand service – will make her a household name once more.

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