the last book I read in 2014

the Silkworm by J.K. Rowling (2014)
(Cormoran Strike  #2 , as Robert Galbraith)

Owen Quine, the author of one best selling novel and a lot of mediocre ones,  has disappeared. And his wife asks Cormoran to find him. Quine’s just finished a new novel which makes fun of a lot of people in the publishing industry. Could that be a motive for his disappearance? And then Cormoran finds Quine’s body. The body is arranged the exact way as Quine’s described his own death in the unpublished novel.

Rowling, as always, is spot on with her characters and descriptions. And the plot was never boring either. I was racing the clock to finish this on New Year’s Eve as I desperately had to read 50 books before the year was up. It was the perfect book for the job, but I’m afraid I don’t remember much of the plot afterwards, although the characters are still very vivid nearly three weeks after. I really like Cormoran and his secretary, Robin, and I hope Rowling continues writing about them. But I’d rather have more of Harry Potter’s universe and books like the Casual Vacancy, of course. 

Another Shetland mystery.

Thin Air by Ann Cleeves (2014)
Shetland #6

Four friends have come up from London, to the island Unst to celebrate a friend’s wedding. The wedding is lovely, and the friend stay up late in the white night, drinking and talking. One of the things they talk about is Perrie Lizzie, a local ghost story. When the rest of the group goes to bed, Rebecca decides to stay outside for a little longer. In the morning she is gone, and Polly receives an e-mail with the suicide note. The body is found in a small loch. But is it suicide or murder? Perez and his team take the case.
The 6th Shetland books is just like the rest. Perez and his team, a murder or more, and the beautiful nature of Shetland. The plot is good, the story exciting and the ending very happy. I’m still torn about the fact that the series continued after the 4th book, which was the perfect ending, and I’m actually hoping that this is the last.  But Ann Cleeves should definitely continue to write crime novels. I’ll read them.

Poets on the run.

the Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño (1998)

“There is a time for reciting poems and a time for fists.” 
Juan Gárcia is a 17 year old, who through his diary tells the story about his meeting with the Visceral Realists, a gang of poets living in Mexico City. They usually hang around in bars, drinking and discussing books. He also falls in love with one of them, María Font, and stops attending classes at the university. Two of the most famous Visceral Realists, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, along with a prostitute, Lupe, and Juan Gárcia,  have to leave Mexico City on New Year’s Eve 1975 because Lupe’s pimp has found them.

The second part of the book are eyewitness accounts from around the world, spanning from 1976 to 1996. Here we learn what Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano are up to in Mexico, Europe, Israel, USA and Africa and all the interesting characters they meet on their way.  It took some time to get used to the jumping from one eyewitness to another and piecing together the story, but once I got used to it, it became addictive.

The story is interesting, but I think you have to be really into poetry, and especially Mexican, to get everything out of this book. I usually skimmed the very detailed poetry part of the book. The rest of the book was right up my alley. Arturo Belano is the alter ego of Roberto Bolaño, and most of the characters are based on real persons (Wikipedia has a nice who’s who).

I read the book as a part of a book originally written in Spanish in Bjørg’s off the shelf challenge, temporarily being supervised by Hedda. I’m about a month late for the challenge as I have been a super slow reader this summer. the Savage Detectives has been on my shelf since 2011, so about time.

“Everything that begins as a comedy ends as tragedy.”

twenty.

Forty Days Without Shadow by Olivier Truc (2012)
 An ancient Sami drum is stolen from a gallery in Kautokeino and a reindeer herder is found murdered out on the vidde. And with a UN conference on indigenous peoples coming up, the drum needs to be found as fast as possible. Kenneth Nango and Nina Nansen from the reindeer police are asked to help out on the cases. 
Kenneth, a local Sami, who has been in the police for decades has admirers and enemies, even within the police. He knows most of the people in Kautokeino. Nina Nansen has just started working in the reindeer police and as she is from the south of Norway, she is not used to the conditions and cultures of the north. And she is especially fascinated by the sun coming back on the horizon.

As the plot thickens, a Frenchman with a taste for young girls and metals, makes his presence known in Kautokeino. It also seems that corrupt politicians and police are involved in the case. And then there is an old map indicating a gold mine.

It is always interesting to read books about Norway written by foreign authors. Olivier Truc is a French journalist who has worked mainly in Sweden and he definitely has a lot of knowledge about the Northern Scandinavia. The atmosphere of Kautokeino is spot on at times, and I especially think he explained the political climate well.  As this is fiction, some things are made up, such as the transnational structure of the reindeer police, but I think that is necessary for the story. I found the beginning of the book slow, probably because of too much information which didn’t really fit in with the story. But as the story progressed, the information became more integrated. The end came too fast and I was confused when there were no pages left on the Kindle. I would really like to know how Kenneth and Nina reacted to what had happened.

A good read which made me homesick for the Arctic and longing for snow and darkness while being in sunny Edinburgh. 

eighteen.

the Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (1984)
 Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.” 
 Francis and his father are the only residents on a small Scottish island. Francis’ father never registered him as a new born, so he doesn’t officially exist and has therefore only been home schooled. He spends his days running around the island, blowing up his dams and killing animals. His older brother, Eric, who has spent the last years in jail for killing dogs and scaring children, has escaped and is on his way home, which worries Francis. In addition to have killed three young kids, Francis has many other secrets. The Wasp Factory is a huge machine which gives him the answers in the times of need, and he uses this machine to figure out what to do about Eric. 

I think the Cauldhame family just won the award for creepiest family ever. Two brothers, where one kills dogs and the other children with a mad scientist as a father. I haven’t come across any worse in my time of reading. And the funniest thing is that despite all the awful stuff Francis does, I manage to feel sorry for him. Because after all, he is a product of his father. 

The book is both wonderful and awful at the same time. There was one scene, involving the brain of child, that made me sick to the stomach because it was so easy to picture the scene. It is definitely a book you should read if you can stomach it. And Iain Banks is making his way onto my favourite author list, such a shame that it happens after his death.  

eleven, thirteen, sixteen: george smiley

by John le Carré (1961-1963)

 George Smiley was a British agent during the war. When a man he had interviewed for the agency is found murdered and the agency doesn’t do anything about it, he decides to leave. Before he leaves, he is determined to solve the case. The case is a tricky one and involves German agents on British solved, and one of them manages to run off to Germany.

After leaving the agency, he is asked to look into a murder at a religious private school. The wife of one of the professors was found murdered after she had written to a Christian newspaper’s advisory column about fearing for her life. The victim believes that her husband will kill her, but he has an alibi for the time of the murder.

A spy should always be out in the cold, because that means that no one takes notice of him.  When the circle of Leamas’ agents is killed one by one in East Germany, all signs lead to the leader of the East Germany’s secret agency. As it turns out, he is the one who ran the operation in Britain a few years earlier. Leamas decides to infiltrate the East German agency, but first he must make himself interesting enough for them to recruit him.

I have spent the previous month reading about George Smiley, one of the most famous character in crime and mystery novels. Even after three books, it is hard to paint a picture of George, except that he is peculiar looking and his wife left him. He is definitely a character that manages to go unnoticed. And in the Spy Who Came in from the Cold he is only mentioned, and it is hard to understand which role he played in the infiltration of the East German agency.

I have yet to discover why John le Carré is such a popular writer. I found the first book incredibly hard to read because of the language. I wanted to find my red pen and rewrite a lot of the sentences. The plot didn’t make the reading easier and in all three books it seems like too much is left out for us readers who haven’t spent time working as a secret agent. Luckily the language improved in the second book and I hardly had no complaints when I came to the third book, and I guess it will continue to improve in the rest of his work.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold must have been a great read when it was published in the height of the Cold War drama. It gives a good picture of the Cold War, and I really liked the British Communist Elizabeth Gold and how brainwashed the East German Communists were. I’m fortunate because I have just taught the kids about the Cold War and especially Berlin, so I had no problems with the setting and background. If you are interested in reading this, you should at least read about the Cold War on Wikipedia at some point so you understand the background of the book.

What I really cannot fathom is that not only one, but three of the George Smiley novels have made it onto the 1001 books you must read before you die list (insert some rant about male experts and male readers and their thirst for action here). Surely there must be better books to put on the list. Because I need to read books in a chronological order, I must endure all the George Smiley books in order to cross off Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. Let’s hope that Smiley grows on me.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was March’s read in Line’s 1001 books reading circle

ten.

the Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955)
“They were not friends. They didn’t know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them, and the worst was that there would always be the illusion, for a time, that he did know them, and that he and they were completely in harmony and alike. For an instant the wordless shock of his realization seemed more than he could bear.”
Tom Ripley is a man with no purpose and he takes whatever he can get. When he gets an invitation to go to Italy to try persuading an acquaintance to go back home, he immediately says yes. But the man, Dickie Greenleaf doesn’t want to go home, so Tom decides to stay as well in Mongibello, and eventually moves in with Dickie. Tom is a sociopath and he is insanely jealous of Dickie. He then murders Dickie and pretends to be Dickie, but Dickie’s friends are suspicious. Will they find out the truth?

 Highsmith has made the impossible possible, and I actually rooted for the murderer, even if he has nothing likeable about him. It was fascinating to read about how he fooled everyone and just kept spinning his net of lies. The book made me yearn for a time I have never known and travelling around Europe. I think she captures the mood of Americans in Europe at that time and the book reminded me both of Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. I became hooked on Mr Ripley, and I’m glad that there are 4 more books to look forward to.

This was February’s book in Line’s 1001 books reading circle, and although I read it in February, I just have been too busy to write about it until now. Which is bad because I have forgotten what I wanted to say.

nine.

Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves (2014)
Vera Stanhope #6 
 On their way home on the Metro, Detective Joe Ashworth and his daughter Jess discover a dead woman in their carriage. The woman is running a small B&B on Harbour Street. The police has a hard time finding a motive for the killing as the victim seemed to have lived a quiet life. But even the quiet ones have their secrets.

The sixth Vera Stanhope novel, and this is the one I liked the least. I just didn’t get as sucked in as I normally have when reading Ann Cleeves’ novels. This novel was more narrated by others than Vera, and although it was nice to finally get into Holly’s mind, it didn’t do anything for the story. And the plot didn’t convince me at all.

Hopefully the next one will be better, and I have really enjoyed the other Vera Stanhope novels, so read them! And also watch the series. 

eight.

Harvest by Jim Crace (2013)

“Any hawk looking down on the orchard’s cloistered square, hoping for the titbit of a beetle or a mouse, would see a patterned canopy of trees, line on line, the orchard’s melancholy solitude, the jewellery of leaves. It would see the backs of horses, the russet, apple-dotted grass, the saltire of two crossing paths worn smooth by centuries of feet, and two grey heads, swirling in a lover’s dance, like blown seed husks caught up in an impish and exacting wind and with no telling when or where they’ll come to ground again.” 

The Village is just a few houses inhabited by the families who work at the estate owned by Master Kent. When three strangers arrive, Walter Thirsk sees it as an ominous sign. The same night, a barn burns down, and the strangers are accused of the fire. The week following the fire sees dramatic and unforgivable changes in the Village.

A dark tale with the beautiful and rhythmic language. You get pulled right in and you are just waiting for disaster to strike. I learnt so many new words while reading this. I could probably have quoted the entire book. And as with every good book I read, I have trouble praising it. You just have to take my words for its greatness. Needless to say that Jim Crace is an author I will read more of.  

“I am excused, I think, for wondering if I am the only one alive this afternoon with no other living soul who wants to cling to me, no other soul who’ll let me dampen her. The day has ended and the light has snuffed. I’m left to trudge into the final evening with nobody to loop their soaking hands through mine.” 

six.

the Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1860)
 Walter Hartright has got the job as a drawing master to two young girls, Ms. Laura Fairlie and her half-sister, Marion Halcombe. On his way there, he helps a woman dressed in white to escape from her followers. When he finally met Laura, he is struck by how she looks like the Woman in White. He (as all good heroes) falls in love with Laura, but she is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde and decides to marry him. Sir Percival Glyde is a terrible man with a terrible plan along with his Italian accomplice Count Fosco.

The book is narrated by the person who has most insight at that time, and the best is that the narrations are different. I was laughing hard when reading Laura’s hypochondriac uncle’s narrative.

Based on the cover and the title I thought this would be a ghost story, but instead it is one of the first sensations novel; a mix of Gothic literature and the psychological realism of the domestic novel. It is also said to be one of the first crime novels. It is entertaining, as all Gothic novels are, and one can write pages about the female portraits. Marion is the smart spinster, completely devoted to her Laura. And Laura is the stereotypical weak blonde who cannot see danger when it’s in her face. But Count Fosco is definitely my favourite character, despite being the villain.

I think it’s a tie between the Moonstone and the Woman in White as my favourite Wilkie Collins novel. I just downloaded about 7 more of his works to my Kindle and I hope they are as good as his famous works.