Archive for June 23rd, 2007

This novel, which won the Best Nordic Crime Award in the year it was published, is a worthy successor to the magnificent “Jar City” (now republished as Tainted Blood). In it Indridason tells three tales in parallel: the investigation into the identity of the bodies found in a shallow grave and two tales featuring domestic violence from the days of WWII.


To be honest, the strength of this novel doesn’t actually lie in the traditional murder mystery but in the depth of the social commentary. Abused wives and children still exist, but the behaviour of the abuser is no longer tolerated and social mechanisms are in place to protect the vulnerable. 60 years ago this was not the case and the portrait Indridason paints of a wife-batterer and his  family is powerful and harrowing, yet never voyeuristic. He is more concerned with the psychological destruction of the soul rather than the physical breaking of bones.

The other strength of this novel is his downtrodden detective, Erlendur, whose family life is as traumatic as that of the people he investigates. Is Erlendur, who is portraited realistically, warts and all, partly to blame? This mystery is offered alongside the traditional murder and it is one for which there is no open and shut case.

I read this novel in 2 sittings. It’s fabulous. Indridason is a phemonenon.  During one week in the summer of 2003, his crime novels occupied the top five spots in the Icelandic bestseller list.  This novel deservingly won the CWA Gold Dagger in the year before they founded the Duncan Lawrie Dagger (for works originally published in English) and the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger (for those translated into English). Three of his novels have now been published in English.  The fourth is due in August 2007.  I, for one, can’t wait!

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Theodor Storm (1817-1888) began his career as a lyric poet. He eventually turned to prose and the novella became his preferred medium. His poetic gift lent itself well to the form, enabling him to evoke mood, landscape and character with simple yet lyric majesty. He is the prime artisan of poetic realism.

Many of his novella are set in the past yet the tales are often enclosed within the framework of his own contemporary times. This simple yet effective technique enables Storm to explore the often conflicting viewpoints of the narrator with the main characters of his tale, to examine shifting historical perspectives and, ultimately the transcience of life. 

Der Schimmelreiter (The Dykemaster) is recognised as his masterpiece and is definitely one of the cornerstones of 19th Century German Literature. I have just indulged myself reading the wonderful translation by Denis Jackson, published by Angel Clasics. It’s a translation which does justice to Storm’s prose – it reads as though it were an original English text.

Quoting from the blurb on the cover:

“The Dykemaster is a tale of a visionary young north Friesian Deichgraf of the 18th centruy, creator of a new form of dyke. The short-sighted and self-seeking community with which he is at odds turns him into a phantom, seen riding his grey along the dyke whenever the sea threatens to break through. The rationalistic storyteller, in a highly sophisticated narrative structure, belongs to a later age, and what he relates is a veiled critique of the dyke officials of his own day.

The eerie west Schleswig-Holstein coast, with its vast, hallucinatory tidal flats, hushed polders and terrifying North Sea, is the setting for a tale which grips from first page to last with its dynamic tensions and shifts of focus, mood and pace. Storm’s dense narrative further invites the reader to ask whether progress is possible, how the historical record is established , what parts are played by the rational and the irrational in human existence.”

All that in just 117 pages! Simply magnificent. ( )

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This volume contains 3 tales; Immensee, The Journey to the Hallig and Hans and Heinz Kirch.

Immensee, the nostalgic love story I remember fondly, is so much more, as allegorical in its way as The Great Gatsby. Storm lived in a time of political upheaval, a time when ownership of his home state of Schleswig-Holstein was disputed between Denmark and the German Republic. What happens when people sit back and let things take their course without seeking to influence them? Read Immensee to find out.

The Journey to a Hallig – In this tale Storm’s political opinions regarding Prussia and the middle-classes are vocalised quite stridently (for Storm) by an old man, who has chosen to exile himself on a hallig (an undyked island). The strength of this novelle lies in its depiction of the landscape; the dykes, the polders, the shoreline as well as the power of the sea which threatens to destroy everything without a moment’s notice.

Hans and Heinz Kirch – This is the longest novelle in this collection and it is the most powerful. There’s a tragedy in the making from the first section with the unnecessary alienation between father and son becoming all too inevitable and irredeemable with each page that passes. Gut-wrenching. I was reading this with my hands over my face – the story leaps from the page and, at times, I just couldn’t watch. Recognised as one of Storm’s masterpieces, amazingly it appears in translation for the first time.

( )

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Tash Aw is the latest graduate from the East Anglian School of Creative Writing to walk away with a major honour – The Whitbread Debut Novel of the Year. 

Unfortunately, this is another novel written to the modern formula of style over substance. Elements of said formula are:

1) Disguise the fact that you have very little plot by narrating the same events from different perspectives
2) Perfume your offering with excessive and overwrought symbolism
3) Deepen the superficiality of the central mystery by refusing to answer questions you raise

All of the above are frustratingly abundant in this novel – marvellous if you love this kind of writing; deeply dissatisfying if you do not.

The biggest sin ( and as the novel contains allusions to the Garden of Eden, let’s talk in those terms) is that the underlying theme of the novel is based on a cliché: the enigmatic unknowability of the East. Johnny, the focal point of the three narratives and symbol of the East, is as unknown at the end as at the beginning of the novel.

My message to the author is: if you have a story to tell, tell it. Or, if you want to write a the-real-story-is-under-the-surface novel, strive for the perfection of The Great Gatsby. Keep it short. Don’t sacrifice narrative drive for the sake of symbolism. ( )

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Reading Vargas in January is becoming a habit. For the third year running, I have plucked a freshly translated Vargas from the shelves and suspended all activity until it is read.

This year’s offering “Wash this Blood Clean from My Hands” (the 4th translated Vargas) is obviously a successor of “Have Mercy on Us All” (the 1st translated story). We find Adamsberg back in Paris revisiting some of the contacts made in the previous novel. Yet the story stands alone.

It is in many ways a story of Adamsberg’s personal development. Threatened by ghosts from the past and present emotional complications, he is very much a lost soul, vulnerable and on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

In typical Vargas fashion there is a quirkiness surrounding the central premise. Adamsberg has been hunting the serial killer, known as The Trident, for 30 years.

***** SPOILER *****

Adamsberg is still hunting him, despite the fact that he has been dead for 16.

***** END OF SPOILER *****

You just have to accept this during the first third of the novel, which is slow and irritating if you don’t.

The paces picks up slowing during the second third which sees Adamsberg and his team visit Canada and the Mounties for a course in DNA profiling …

***** SPOILER:

and Adamsberg accused of the horrific murder of his lover.

We don’t know if he did it and, due to drink-induced amnesia, neither does he.


The final third whizzes by as Adamsberg seeks to discover the truth / save his skin. The denouement is excellent, very inventive, Vargas at her best making up for the deficiencies of the first section.

On the Vargas scale, I would say this is a middling ***1/2. “The Three Evangelists” remains my favourite containing all the Vargas signatures; an inventive plot, intriguing characters and a goodly dash of humour – something sadly lacking from this current effort.

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There aren’t enough adjectives to describe this glorious novel. However, here are 3 for starters: intelligent, informative, ingenious.

It is the story of the love, courtship and marriage of Robert and Clara Schumann. Clara, a young naive girl, musical prodigy in her own right, falls for Robert Schumann. Her bullying father opposes the union but, this is the height of the Romantic Era, and true love prevails. Robert and Clara marry but Clara escapes from one prision to another. Robert is beset with mental illness and Clara is beset by no less than 10 pregnancies! Yet, forced to be the breadwinner, she must stay strong and successful …..

Drawing on many details that must have been included in the Schumanns’ marriage diary, Janice Galloway paints a detailed picture of the tensions and the ofttimes present bleakness and desperation in Clara’s life. The narrative style is extraordinary. The action is presented from the viewpoint of the 3 main protagonists: Clara, her father and Robert Schumann himself. The reader feels as though s/he is inside their heads, following their thought processes (stream of consciousness?) yet, at the same time, s/he is slightly distanced because this is a 3rd person narrative with the feel of a biography. The style does take time to get used to but it is well-worth the effort.

The structure of the novel is also extraordinary. An enforced separation during their courtship sees Robert Schumann set over 100 lyrical poems to music. One of these cycles – Frauenliebe und -leben by Adalbert von Chamisso – Schumann’s Opus 42 – consists of 8 poems. The book is structured around these poems, starting with “Seit ich ihn gesehen” (Since I saw him ….), the section in which Clara meets Schumann to “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan” (Now you have hurt me for the first time) in which Schumann dies and leaves Clara a widow with 8 children to feed. I found this an ingenious device for interweaving the music into the structure of the novel, demonstrating the fundamental role it played in Clara Schumann’s life.

The backdrop of the novel is extremely colourful, littered as it is with the great composers of the C19th – Mendelssohn, Chopin, Paganini, Lizst and Brahms, each with their own distinctive ways and characters. There’s plenty on musical theory and lots of interesting detail regarding piano teaching methods of the time. Yet, while the music is intrinsic to the story, it never overwhelms the main narrative. While musicians will appreciate the knowing details (Galloway is herself a trained musician, I believe), you do not need to be a musician to appreciate this novel. Augmenting the reading with a recording of Clara’s compositions and a recital of Chamisso’s lyrical poetry turned the book group discussion into a real evening of culture.

A worthy Scottish Saltire Book of Year 2002 and my personal Book of the Year 2006.

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Ah! That’s better.  It may have taken 36 hours but I eventually got onto the servers and reserved my seats.  Amazingly I got tickets to everything on my wishlist.  So now I can sit back and start reading in preparation.  I do like to be knowledgeable when talking to the authors at book signings, you know.

Here’s the first batch i.e books currently in my possession.  There are a number of other titles to be acquired on publication and read (if possible) before then.  But more of these later.  For now, let’s be content with the birds in hand.                      

From the bottom up:

K O Dahl – The Fourth  Man
Jo Nesbo – The Redbreast (voted Best Norwegian Crime Novel Ever)
Karen Connelly – The Lizard Cage (Winner of the Orange Prize for Debut Fiction 2007)
Jim Crace –  The Pesthouse
Matthew Kneale – When We Were Romans
Alexander McCall-Smith – Love Over Scotland
Daniel Kehlmann – Measuring the World / Die Vermessung der Welt  (The German copy my souvenir from my recent trip to Munich.  I read and review the English version on publication.)
Jo Nesbo – The Devil’s Star

I shall be starting with the Matthew Kneale.  Why? Because it’s a library book, borrowed in haste I’ve been hearing lots of good things about it.  If it’s as good as reported, I’ll buy myself a copy for signing.

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