Monthly Archives: December 2013

POLICE by Jo Nesbo

police by jo nesbo

Harry Hole is back, having survived the cliff hanger at the end of PHANTOM and having made a deal with himself that lecturing about police work is the best way to keep his demons at bay. When his former colleagues ask for help with a series of murders targeting police officers who have failed to solve previous crimes though, it’s only a matter of time  before Harry agrees to rejoin his old team. The decision is triggered by one specific shocking event in a novel that’s packed full of them, as well as Nesbo’s characteristic twists, turns and red herrings. I saw through some of his attempts to lead the reader up the garden path but fell for many more and POLICE keeps you guessing and on tenterhooks right up to the final page. There are some gruesome crimes and some truly chilling moments but the horror never feels gratuitous or voyeuristic, and Harry’s methodology of focusing in on motive helps hugely in this respect, such as an interesting exploration here of murder inspired by love rather than hatred.

What Nesbo’s done so well throughout the Harry Hole series is give us compelling plots alongside a consistent and credible hero. In this book, we see a new – more sober – side to Harry but one that’s just as intriguing and I really enjoyed the way we get more insight into his mental and emotional landscape.  The pace of POLICE is a bit slower than some of the other Hole books, but the heat is all the more intense for the slow burn and it kept me under the duvet over Xmas for a perfect quiet day inside whilst the rain came down at the window.

I’d recommend reading alongside PHANTOM in order to fully understand some of the story line, especially that revolving around Oslo’s corrupt police chief, but if you don’t the book does work as a stand alone as well. It ends with a disturbing glimpse of what no doubt will become the next installment in the series – I can’t wait.

 

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THE HOPE FACTORY by Lavanya Sankaran

Two narrators tell this story, offering very different perspectives on life in India in the 21st century. The first is factory owner Anand, a successful businessman looking to expand into new overseas markets and keen to buy enough land to build a second factory. This quest brings him into contact with Bangalore’s murky and corrupt political world, a world he’s so far avoided and where bribes, the right contacts and respecting a rigid hierarchy of power is the secret to survival. When everything Anand has strived for so long to build up threatens to crumble around his ears, he must choose whether to play by the rules of old India or take a massive gamble that risks everything. Our second narrator, Kamala, faces similarly difficult choices. A maid in Anand’s household, she is fiercely independent,  living hand to mouth and desperate to see her clever but wayward son make something of himself. So when Anand offers to help with the costs of the boy’s education, Kamala is overjoyed. Yet the fragile balance of her life is upset when her landlord decides to sell to property developers and Kamala’s ensuing anxiety brings her into conflict with Anand’s wife. Faced with losing her home and her job, Kamala must decide how best to protect her son’s future, even if it means risking her own.

There are clear parallels between the two characters’ stories. Both narrators struggle to ask for help when they need it and reflect on the nature of their pride, especially how difficult it is to know when the line between virtue and vice has been crossed. Both are straddling two worlds, determined to stand strong despite being buffeted by the tempestuous winds thrown up as old India and new India collide. And both are exposed because of their deep belief in love and in duty.

There’s an unflinching honesty about Sankaran’s writing, that I really like. It would be all too easy for her characters to become clichés but she avoids that pitfall, even with secondary figures like Anand’s father-in law, Kamala’s brother, the other house staff who work alongside Kamala and the landbroker Anand employs. My favourite is Anand’s wife, Vidya, beautiful, spoilt and confused. Restless with life in general and dissatisfied in particular with her husband – who develops a crush on her new best friend – Vidya reinvents herself over and again, epitomising in many ways the country she inhabits, as both seek to carve a path through the changes going on around them.

In books like CAPITAL, London looms bigger than the stories it births, and the same is true here – the lasting impression is one of India and Indian culture, in all its richness and its poverty. But a key difference is that Kamala and Anand are very much a product of their country, their destinies intertwined, their tales told in unison. Just as they are on the brink of something life changing, so too is their world, a world in which any future is possible, and in which hope can be found in factories, in kitchens and in people’s hearts. That we as readers are swept away and uplifted is thanks to Sankaran skilful handling of what’s actually a story filled with as much dark as it is light, as well as to her obvious belief in “satyameva jayate”, a phrase she translates for the reader as “truth conquers all”.

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GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING by Tracy Chevalier

A few years ago it seemed that everyone was reading this book so, because I am contrary, I gave it a swerve. However, enough time has now passed that when I saw a copy in a second hand book shop not long ago I thought I’d give it a go. I am glad I did. I don’t tend to read much historical fiction but in my experience the best of it reaches across the years and is more about human behaviour and relationships than a particular period in time. GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING is such a book. Whilst ostensibly the seventeenth century story of Griet, the wide eyed maid who inspires Vermeer’s painting and loses her job as a result, this is also a beautifully told tale of a young girl’s struggle to make the right choices, both for herself and for her family, of unrequited love and of the power that the rich and famous exert over others.

Chevalier’s attention to detail is exquisite, yet her writing is simple, unfussy and incredibly evocative. She explores the connection between Griet and Vermeer, their unusual way of looking at the world, of seeing light and darkness, with real sensitivity and I was left as confused as Griet about the painter’s true feelings for his maid and muse. The intensity of their exchanges contrast sharply with the almost brutal relationship between Griet and the son of one of the local butchers. His blood stained fingers are a million miles away from Vermeer’s fastidiousness, whilst he lays claim to her body in a way that we cannot help but compare with the way Vermeer searches out her very essence and commits it to canvas.

As  a portrait of life in Delft almost 400 years ago, the novel is uncompromising and the hardships faced by every character are clear. Chevalier is also incredibly clever at providing us with an insight into how a painter thinks and works, although I don’t know enough to be sure how accurate she is. But what I enjoyed most about GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING is the strong human story that completely drew me in, made me care deeply about Griet’s fate and haunted me for days after I turned the last page.

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ALLEGIANT by Veronica Roth

This is the final book in the DIVERGENT trilogy and I had great hopes of it – sadly I was left disappointed. It picks up where the middle book, INSURGENT, left off and sets about answering the many questions raised when central character Tris risked everything to reveal a message from the past to the warring factions in the city where she has grown up. Tris and her friends determine to leave the city and venture into the world beyond – a world they have only just learned exists – in a bid to bring about peace, but they soon learn it’s not that simple. Roth’s premise is that the city was created by revisionists who think genetic damage unleashed by an experiment is responsible for all the conflict and violence that plagues society. They have created a number of closed off cities designed to nurture genetic purity in response, and have been closely watching, monitoring and interfering in the lives of the city’s inhabitants. This book rages with the debate about nature vs nurture and there’s some interesting attempts to explore the real causes of conflict, including inequality and poverty, but somehow Roth’s answers are just a bit too pat for my liking. The narrative this time is divided between Tris and Four but I didn’t find his voice quite as convincing as her’s, whilst several of the plot devices are just that – and therefore not very convincing. Forgiveness is a strong theme here too and whereas in previous books I never felt that Roth’s own religious beliefs were intruding, in ALLEGIANT I think they do, especially at the end when a key characters dies. The result is individuals behaving out of characters, questions being glossed over (is there really a difference between sacrifice and suicide if both are motivated by selflessness?) and a number of wholly unsatisfactory events.

There’s so many good examples of this kind of teen fiction out there, that this book really suffers by comparison. It’s a shame, because the world Roth conjured in DIVERGENT had real potential and I’d have liked to have seen it fully realised.  Needless to say Hollywood has snapped the series up anyway and DIVERGENT is coming soon to a screen near you.

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A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING by Ruth Ozeki

Ruth is a novelist who discovers the diary of a Japanese teenager and some other papers washed up on the beach inside a Hello Kitty lunch box. She becomes totally absorbed by what she reads and the fate of the diary’s author, Nao, who it seems likely was caught up in the tsunami that led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Ruth decides to read the diaries in real time ie at the pace they were written, living Nao’s present along with her, whilst also conscious that the events are in the past. Her discovery on the beach intrigues others in the tight knit island community, many of whom have their own theories about the source of the diary and what it’s journey across the Pacific might mean. Somewhat less interested is Ruth’s partner, Oliver, the character in the book who most embodies the future rather than the past. But it’s Oliver who guides Ruth in her search for answers to the questions raised by Nao’s story and who helps her move on when the last page has been turned.

Nao is a Japanese teenager struggling to fit in after spending most of her childhood in America and returning home in disgrace after her father loses his job when the dot.com bubble bursts. The cruelty of her classmates and her father’s failed suicide attempts have a profound effect on Nao, who is herself planning to “drop out of time” just as soon as she has written the story of her great grandmother, the 105 year old anarchist Zen nun Jiko. She is using her diary to record her last days, as well as Jiko’s stories about the son who died during the second world war  and all that the nun has taught Nao about the importance of time being. Her diary is also a window onto contemporary Japanese culture – where manga and youtube clash with seemingly ancient values.

The real achievement of this novel is how Ruth and Nao’s two worlds connect and contrast, how the vastness of the distance between them is contained in something as small as the words that bring them together. It was lent to me by a good friend who described it as completely beautiful – she was quite right.

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