Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Boxes – Pascal Garnier

Contemporary Fiction 4*s
Contemporary Fiction
4*s

I chose this book principally because this author came to my attention through Guy Savage’s fascinating blog where he has reviewed a number of this author’s books. As they sounded dark and different I was delighted when Boxes appeared on NetGalley.

From what I’ve gathered Pascal Garnier’s book Boxes was published posthumously following his death in 2010, also little birds have indicated that this probably isn’t the best example of his work, but I found plenty to enjoy, if enjoy is indeed the right word for such a grim and gloomy book.

Brice is moving to the country from the apartment he shared with his wife Emma in Lyon to the countryside, hence the title, all their lives are packed into labelled boxes ready for the removal men to arrive:

Perhaps it was an occupational hazard, but they were all reminiscent of a piece of furniture: the one called Jean-Jean, a Louis-Phillippe chest of drawers; Ludo, a Normandy wardrobe; and the tall, shifty looking one affectionately known as The Eel, a grandfather clock. This outfit of rascals with bulging muscles and smiles baring wolf-like teeth made short work of surveying the flat.

But despite the efficient way his life is hauled from Lyon to a small village there is something missing, Emma. At first Brice makes a stab at unpacking his boxes but not for long, he wants it to be right for Emma, his younger wife, a woman he isn’t entirely sure he deserves.

But women’s hearts are unfathomable and full of oddities as the bottom of their handbags.

And then we learn that she isn’t just away, she’s missing presumed dead in a terrorist attack in Egypt, while working as a journalist. Brice knows no-one in the small village although he gets adopted by a cat but his isolation from other humans aids his descent into depression, and worse, as he fails to accept the loss of his wife or to carry on with his illustration work for a children’s book. Illustrating Mabel Hirsch’s books about Sabine had been his bread and butter but Brice dislikes Mabel, Sabine and children.

The little brat, whose face he riddled with freckles for sport, was seriously taking over his life. As for her creator, he must have killed her at least a hundred times in the course of troubled dreams. He would throttle her until her big frogspawn eyes burst out of their sockets and then tear off all her jewellery. She could no longer move her poor arthritic fingers, they were so weighed down with gold and diamonds. Strings of pearls disappeared into the soft fleshy folds of her double chin. Old, ugly and nasty with it! Al that emerged from her scar of a mouth, slathered in bloodred honey, were barbed compliments which would themselves around your neck, the better to jab you in the back.

With Emma’s parents concern is spurned and it looks like Brice’s life can’t get any worse he meets Blanche, who is at best a little eccentric and constantly impresses on Brice how much he looks like her father who was also an artists. Let’s just say the story becomes even more weird!

This is a short book, easily read with wonderful language, especially considering that it is a work of translation which evokes many feelings, most of which are, admittedly at the grimmer end of the scale. I am absolutely sure I will be seeking out more of Pascal Garnier’s books as this evoked memories of the dark short stories written by the late Roald Dahl, that I loved in my teens.

I’d like to thank the publishers Gallic Books for my copy of this book in return for this honest review. Boxes was published in English in May 2015.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Drowned Boy – Karin Fossum

Crime Fiction 3*s
Psychological Thriller
3*s

This is my second read in the Inspector Sejer series of which this is the eleventh in the series and after reading The Murder of Harriet Krohn last year, I had high hopes.

The story starts strongly with Inspector Sejer visiting a young couple whose sixteen month old son Tommy has drowned in a pond at the bottom of their garden. Tommy had been sat naked, one hot August day. His nineteen year old mother Carmen was busy preparing lunch and attending to household chores while his twenty year old father Nikolai was in the basement fixing bicycle. While Carmen was rinsing socks in the bathroom Tommy used his new-found walking skill and toddled to the water’s edge, by the time Carman located him he was in the water and despite the couple’s best efforts to revive him, he was dead.

Inspector Sejer relies on his intuition and although the mother, Carmen, weeps copiously and her husband Nikolai is in shock, much quieter, but clearly devastated, he suspects there is more to the accident than Carmen is letting on and is determined to find the truth.

I’m not sure whether it was the translation or the original writing but this story felt a bit flat to me with the limited outcomes to the story being obvious from the start and the characterisation simply didn’t shine through as they had in her previous novel (the translator’s for each book were different.) This wouldn’t have been a problem, as I think this author’s style is far more of the ‘slow burn’ variety but with no real depth to the characters, I felt that the powerful nature of the story didn’t come through as strongly as it could have.

The underlying premise of the book examines the ripple effect of a tragic incident. Not only for the parents, Carmen’s devoted father Marian, the police and to some extent everyone who crossed the path of this family were touched by the tragedy. It also examines our expectation of parenthood. Tommy had been born with Down’s syndrome and part of Sejer’s investigation led him to question himself and his Christian colleague Skarre on whether they would want a pregnancy to continue if tests indicated this before birth. These are huge questions and uncomfortable ones. The discomfort only gets worse when we witness through the words of her diary Carmen’s own reaction to her son’s disability, making this a difficult read.

The book is set over a number of months following the incident with the focus being on a court case where Carmen’s account will be judged to see if she was negligent or perhaps worse that day or will the outcome be as she expects and she is exonerated of any wrong-doing on that bright sunny August morning.

For those of you like me that haven’t followed this series from the beginning, don’t worry, this book can be enjoyed in its own right as a stand-alone read.

I’d like to say a big thank you to Random House Vintage imprint for allowing me to read a copy of this book for review purposes ahead of publication on 4 June 2015.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Murder of Harriet Krohn – Karin Fossum

Crime Fiction 4*'s
Crime Fiction
4*’s

Charlo Olav Torp is in debt, actively hunted by his creditors to pay back the money he owes. Following the death of his wife Inga Lill he has become estranged from his teenage daughter Julie, their only contact reduced to long letters from father to daughter, one of which sets the tone for this novel.

So Charlo comes up with a plan to solve his biggest problems; pay off his debts and to persuade Julie that he is a changed man now that he has stopped gambling which is why on 7 November he is out in the cold weather, feet cold from the falling sleet putting his plan into action and this plan leads him to Harriet Krohn’s front door.

This book is one of the Inspector Sejer series written by Karin Fossum although this is the first book I’ve read by this author. I was surprised at how little exposure the Inspector gets in this outing. The first quarter of the book details in minute detail the night of the murder and its immediate aftermath and I have to be honest, I nearly put this book aside, irritated at the pace and feeling very little of any emotion for Charlo, but I read a few more pages and became hooked. The realisation dawned that this clever author had persuaded me to sympathise to an extent, with a man who had done a terrible deed. When Inspector Sejer makes an appearance it soon becomes apparent that he is of a very different mould to many British detectives, very thoughtful, compassionate but incredibly tenacious.

An unusual reading experience, on the one hand the start was too slow but without the layering of the details of that cold night and the self-pity of Charlo to appreciate the story of a man who is living with guilt. There is a scene where he moves coffee beans into piles to try to work out if he can ever make up enough good deeds to balance out the bad that was done that night, which led me to think about the larger philosophical questions, not bad for a detective story!

I will definitely be looking out for more by this author, I enjoyed the sensitivity of the writing, the way the author elicited not just sympathy, a part of me wanted Charlos to do well, to atone for his terrible actions and have a long and loving relationship with his daughter.

I would like to thank the publishers Random House Vintage for allowing me to have a copy of this book ahead of publication on 5 June 2014 in return for this honest review.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Summer House with Swimming Pool – Herman Koch

Contemporary Fiction 4*'s
Contemporary Fiction
4*’s

To avoid spoiling this book for anyone who hasn’t read I am unable to tell you very much about the plot at all as this is one of those books which needs to be discovered page by page.

Dr. Marc Schlosser, a GP is the narrator, our main protagonist and at the very beginning of the book we find out that he is about to face the Board of Medical Examiners. We know this is connected to the death of Ralph Meier, a famous actor and his wife is accusing the doctor of murder. The only thing we know what connects these two men is that the root of this death went back to a consultation by the doctor eighteen months previously.

The structure of the book takes us back from the present and builds up to a vacation taken at a Summer House with Swimming Pool then moves up the arc the other side back to the present. This works incredibly well, giving a feeling that Herman Koch is inviting the reader to make a judgment on the characters. The characters in this book are not as inherently as dislikeable as those in The Dinner but their actions are just as questionable, not least, our narrator Dr. Marc Shlosser whose thoughts on his patients alone made me wince (and make me wonder about my own doctor). However when we see Marc in a domestic setting, a different side of him shines through.

Herman Koch is exceptionally good at managing the pace in this book. I really needed to keep reading, I had to know what had happened to lead Marc to the Board of Medical Examiners and I desperately wanted to know what the outcome would be; but ultimately, this is a book about morality. What you as a reader find sympathy with and what you find abhorrent will potentially be different to my views. In my opinion this is one of the reasons why I liked reading this book, despite the feeling that this was almost a train crash in slow motion. I love the darkness to the writing, Marc’s views are imposed on the reader and these range from his patients, the arts, certain types of people and virtually anything that makes his life uncomfortable are astute if at times almost intolerably objectionable.

Like The Dinner it is hard for me to state I enjoyed this book, for the same types of reasons at times I had to squint at the page because as much I needed to know what happened next, I almost didn’t want to get drawn any further into the murky depths of horror, so much more repulsive for what wasn’t said.

I found myself thinking about Marc at odd times long after I’d left the book. If that isn’t the sign of a book that makes you think, question where you stand on the line of morality, I don’t know what is.

I’d like to thank the publishers Crown Publishing for a copy of this book prior to the publication date of 3 June 2014 in return for this honest review.

My review of The Dinner

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Dinner – Herman Koch

Contemporary Fiction 4*'s
Contemporary Fiction
4*’s

When I have mentioned that I was going to read this book I received a number of comments that made me think I wasn’t going to like it – that wasn’t strictly true, it was a good read but not enjoyable due to the horrific actions recounted.

Set across the course of a dinner in a Dutch restaurant two men sit down to discuss their sons. Paul and Serge, and their wives, Claire and Babette, meet for dinner in a swanky restaurant in Amsterdam. Each of the couples has a 15-year-old son and, we discover, the dinner has been arranged to discuss a horrifying act perpetrated by the two boys.

What follows is a shocking tale, and I don’t use that phrase lightly.  This is not a simple tale of the boy’s transgressions but a journey back through time showing how earlier actions led to the need to have the dinner.

I found this book thought-provoking although it wasn’t what you could call an entirely enjoyable read.  In short there were moments when I was genuinely shocked at the revelations on the page in front of me.  I found it disturbing how my sympathy for the various characters changed totally with each piece of information casually revealed.

The root of this tale of how far should a parent go to protect their child? A ‘What would you do?’ sort of story.   A look at what happens when certainties of middle-class are shattered. Don’t be deceived though, it is also more than that, an example of how the surface of a family can hide much darker undertones.  I found the way that the truth of what has happened and why  coming out over the course of a dinner a great setting.  To then realise that I felt totally differently about the four diners at the end than I had at the beginning the mark of a clever author it’s just a shame that his characters were morally deficient.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

House of Evidence – Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson

Mystery 3*'s
Mystery
3*’s

Blurb

On a cold January morning in 1973, inside a stately old house in Reykjavik, blood pools around Jacob Kieler Junior from a fatal gunshot wound to his chest. Detective Jóhann Pálsson, an expert in the emerging field of forensics, is called to the scene and soon discovers something more unsettling than the murder itself: the deceased’s father, Jacob Kieler Senior, a railroad engineer, was shot to death in the same living room nearly thirty years earlier. The case was officially closed as a botched robbery.

Pálsson soon uncovers diaries that portray Kieler Senior as an ambitious man dedicated to bringing the railroad to Iceland no matter the cost. Sensing a deeper and darker mystery afoot, the detective and his colleagues piece together through the elder Kieler’s diaries a family history rich with deceit…

I love books with an element of recent history and those with a diary to read are even better! This book has a diary, Iceland (I’ve never read a book set in Iceland before), World War II and family secrets which is why it caught my eye.

When the police turn up at a house in Iceland they find the body of Jacob Kieler Junior on the floor having been shot. The only thing that appears to be out of place is a single chair. Detective Jóhann Pálsson soon discovers that Jacob Kieler the father of the deceased was found in remarkably similar circumstances in 1946 nearly 30 years previously. The police try desperately to work out the link between the two deaths with the help of Jacob’s (the father) diaries which span from 1910 to 1946.

I love stories with diaries and this one is well managed, the reader often knows what to look out for in the brief diary entries following revelations in the present (well 1973 but present as far as the book is concerned). Jacob trains to be an engineer and has a life goal to build a railway in Iceland. This may sound a bit dry, but despite not being a train-spotter of any description, the explanations of various problems with the railway were easy to follow and quite informative without overpowering the mystery of who shot the two men.

The policemen although leading the search aren’t particularly strong character-wise apart from the female detective Hrefna who is in charge of reading the diaries. There is also an incompetent one Egill, who has a penchant for dealing roughly with his suspects. It is the mystery that carries this story along especially the bit that spans World War II with interesting political and social opinions from an Icelandic perspective. An interesting book that had me intrigued throughout it’s 460 pages.

I received this book from Amazon Vine as it was one of their amazon crossing books from December last year. The translation is good, not too clumsy which is good as this can be quite a dense book in parts.