Strange Norwegian traditions and a book review

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In my native country of Norway we have a weird tradition called “Easter crime”, in which we read/watch/listen to crime stories during Easter. Looking it up, it apparently began with a very successful ad campaign for a crime novel around Easter time in 1923 which lead Norwegians to start expecting crime thrillers for Easter and we’ve not looked back since.

Easter crime is a tradition I like to uphold not just because I love a good crime thriller but because I have many good memories associated with watching Poirot or Inspector Morse (yes I have also pulled out my Inspector Morse DVDs this Easter) with my mum or reading Nancy Drew mysteries with my friends.

I have (as previously mentioned) a very active and vivid imagination and even now at the age of 35 should not really be reading crime novels right before bed or when home alone, but my sensitivity was even more pronounced as a child and teen. So I loved the adrenaline kick I got out of scaring myself by reading or watching crime stories and I also loved the challenge of trying to puzzle out the whodunit (which, admittedly I’ve always been terrible at!)

I remember listening to an Easter crime radio play with mum one year (I must’ve been 11 or 12) and being particularly terrified. I suddenly realised who the bad guy was because of his tone of voice when he said to the hero, “you have something on your shoulder”, and I was like “no, don’t look, don’t turn around, it’s a trap!!” – and indeed it was. But regardless of how terrified I was in the moment, it was a relatively safe way to “get your kicks” as at least back in those days the crime thrillers always ended well, and there were usually not the sort of grisly murders you get these days.

So, mostly because I have such fond memories of Easters past, snuggled up on the sofa with an exciting book and a mug of cocoa (or as is more often the case these days: a glass of red wine), I turn to crime fiction during Easter. Though it’s increasingly starting to feel like one of those you can never go home again type of things.

Obviously I’m not as easily startled as I was at age 12 – someone saying (no matter how creepy their voice is) “you have something on your shoulder” is not going to make me bat an eye. But… that doesn’t mean I prefer or even like the other extreme which seems to be trending the past 10 years or so, wherein crime fiction writers are in competition over who can write the most vulgar, tasteless, gross and shocking story, where the gratuitous torture and violence seem to have little bearing on the story and is simply there to shock. I’m looking at guys like Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø (and this is coming from someone who was a huuuuuuge fan, like the biggest, of Jo Nesbø for the first 7-8 Harry Hole books, because back then I found him a brilliant writer and although some pretty horrible things happened they didn’t seem to happen just for shock value – sadly I feel he’s gone over to the dark side since then) as well as some of the “Scandinavian noir” shows that are so popular on Netflix.

What I enjoy is a suspenseful and cleverly crafted whodunit mystery (a little gratuitous violence is OK!) that has me sitting on the edge of my seat unable to put down the book until the very end. I’d like to go “oh of course [person] is the killer, now everything falls into place”, but preferably not until the very end.

So do they still write books like this?? I’d do it myself but I’m not clever enough to come up with a good plot and subtly hint at the solution under way without giving away too much.

Anyway, the first crime novel I picked up this Easter was a pretty decent effort but nothing spectacular.

Book review: The Girl in the Ice by Robert Bryndza

3/5 stars.

So, I love Robert Bryndza from his Coco Pinchard series, and this book gets pretty good reviews so I thought I’d give it a try. And I did like it, but there are a few things that drag it down from “great” to “OK plus” for me:

  • There’s too much superfluous description of surroundings, clothes etc. For instance it doesn’t really add anything to setting/scene/character description that the forensic pathologist has a phone in a leather cover in his lab coat pocket. It doesn’t ring, it’s not hot pink, it’s superfluous (for whatever reason this is the one example that stuck with me..). He also seems to have a thing about people’s weight, at least if they’re big. The book is full of “dumpy” people spilling over the back of their chair or pouring themselves into their skinny jeans. Maybe it’s just me?
  • Erika is way too confrontational and rude without any proper reason. Sure, it’s reasonable to suspect that she’s suffering from PTSD, but that’s never really given as an explanation or excuse for her behaviour. And she’s not confrontational in the arrogantly charming way of say Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock or John Thaw’s Inspector Morse – no she’s just plain rude. Which also makes it hard to see why most of her new colleagues seem to have some loyalty towards her from very early on.
  • While the solution to the mystery is perfectly adequate and plausible, I don’t feel like there were any specific clues laid up towards the killer being the killer – it wasn’t one of those moments (as referenced in part one of this blog) where you went “oh, of course it was [person] all along!”

That being said, Bryndza is still an excellent writer overall, and the story was exciting and at times hard to put down. And though there were superfluous descriptions I also very much enjoyed the descriptions of the different areas of London, which made me feel as if the writer is a local – it came across as convincing even though he may have made half of it up. I classify this as a solid first effort and I’ll give the second one a go soon as I think there’s definite potential here. And bonus points for not being over-the-top grisly or morbid. I’d also like to learn more about Erika’s background, and found the conversations with her father-in-law surprisingly heart-wrenching.

Book review: The Sea and the Silence by Peter Cunningham

4/5 stars.

Another book in the series of “Sarah reads books she downloaded to her Kindle on a whim for cheap or free”. In this case the title really appealed to me – there are few things I like more than the sea and silence, and I have resolved to read more books by Irish writers.

This was a very unusual book, written unlike any other I’ve read.

Roughly the first half of the book is the story of Ismay – Iz for short, who struggles with her marriage and being a good mother for her son. The second half of the book is about Ismay’s younger years, before she got married. It was a very clever way to tell the story. In the first half you are aware that something must have happened – something dramatic probably, but you only really get to see how the two parts of the story fit together right at the very end of the second half, and then everything falls tragically and beautifully into place.

I must admit that although I grew to love the writing, I found it hard to get into at first. I felt as if Iz was relating stories from her life as if they were peripheral to her and of no interest or consequence. But at some point after the 30% mark I was completely drawn in and captivated, and actually ended up really liking the writing style once I’d gotten used to it.

There’s also a nice (and understandable) juxtaposition in the first half being related in a more distant manner, and the second half more passionately. Between Ismay the realist and Ismay the lover and idealist.

It’s a slow burn, but becomes totally engaging. And heart breaking. Spoiler alert: it does not end well. (Not that much of a spoiler as that’s kind of apparent from early on.)

The language is at times really poetic. I love the highlight function on Kindle but I sadly forget to use it. The quote that I did manage to highlight is possibly slightly spoilerish, but really illustrates what I love about the writing style:

I craved that speck of time between his life and death so that I could ease myself into it and remain there forever.

I find it so relatable and understandable and yet poetic.

Now that I’ve finished the whole story I’m kind of tempted to go back and read the first half again just to see how exactly everything fits together – kind of like at the end of the Sixth Sense you want to rewind the movie and watch it all over again, because surely they messed something up? (Other spoiler alert: they didn’t.)

I would recommend this to anyone interested in family sagas and Irish history that has a little bit of patience and doesn’t always need a happy ending. This kind of storytelling is maybe not for everyone, but I ended up being very pleasantly surprised.

 

 

 

 

Book review: Library of Souls

3/5 stars

This is the third and final instalment in Ransom Riggs’ tales of Peculiardom. The story in the first book was based around old, mysterious photographs that the writer had collected, which also feature throughout the series. This way of telling a story worked very well in the first book, less so in the second and third – I’ll get back to that.

When I look at my review for book two in this series I could honestly have written almost the same thing for book 3.

When I picked up the first book it was full of magic and marvel and it was something completely new. The pictures were fascinating and added a lot to the story, the world and the characters were intriguing.

It sort of.. fizzled out a bit. I mean, Ransom Riggs remains a good writer, and the world he has built is still really intriguing, and it all hangs together. But.. there was just too much drudgery and chasing and fighting in the third book (and to a lesser degree in the second). I want to read more about peculiar people, their world and their abilities. Sure, it’s described along the way, but it’s by no means a main focus anymore. Plus many of the characters we’ve gotten to know in the first two books are not present for much of the third instalment. I don’t mind new characters being introduced, but it seems a little like they’re being introduced “for the sake of it”, or because there were pictures that roughly fit their description. Notable exceptions being Sharon, Bentham and Mother Dust (and of course grimbears!)

Like in the second book I didn’t feel as if the pictures added much to the story. Sometimes it feels as if unnecessary  bits are added in in order to use a certain photo, and other times I feel as if the description preceding the photo just doesn’t match it very well – which pulls me out of the story as it forces me to think “that’s not how I imagined it”.

I LOVE the panloopticon – such a fun and clever idea. I also found the idea of the library of souls very interesting, but in the end I don’t think that storyline really reaches its full potential. It’s a bunch more fighting and escaping again.

I’m close to giving it four stars because I liked how it ended, but there’s just too much slogging through stuff that wasn’t terribly interesting before I got to that point.

Book review: Beatless

Preamble:

Confession time: I have literally dozens of books on my Kindle that I downloaded on a whim because they seemed kind of interesting and were really cheap or in some cases even free. I’m honestly a little overwhelmed with the sheer volume of books available for Kindle. It’s a good thing, but it also makes it hard to parse all the information and find something that’s exactly what you’re looking for.

I often find with these free or cheap Kindle books that they end up being disappointing in one way or another. Mostly they seem to be badly edited, sometimes the writing is poor, and sometimes it’s just plain not a very good story. I keep buying them though, for the rare gem I find amongst them once in a while. Few things delight me more than discovering a great book I would normally not have come across.

Anyway, I’ve told myself that I’m not allowed to buy any more books until I’ve read at least a few of the ones I downloaded over the last year or so. Beatless was one of those.

***

4/5 stars

This is a story about a teenage girl who is afraid to live her life, and then begins to. Nothing remarkable in that, perhaps, but it’s a well written story with plenty of warmth and humour. The story of being young and insecure, of being afraid to stand out and afraid to not stand out, feeling like an outsider, feeling like nobody cares, is probably recognisable to most.

I loved seeing Mallory develop and gain confidence and friends – take charge of her life. Both she and Tucker are properly fleshed out characters that I started to care about.

It’s easy to read and easy to get into – I was so absorbed that I almost missed my train stop.

I like the way music is woven throughout the story, and is something that helps Mallory both literally and figuratively find her voice. I feel like the writer has some music knowledge or at least a passion for music.

But, there were some bits that didn’t quite work for me…

I would have loved some more background story. Why were her parents shitty? Had they always been like that? Why was she so afraid and why did she not have any real friends (I mean I had my share – and then some – of teenage angst, but I still had friends)?

The secondary characters seem to only be there for filler. I remember that Berkley is a girl because it sounds like a boy’s name to me, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything about her. This was also the case for Mal’s parents – I mean I understand that part of the theme is being left behind by absent parents, but they could still have been given some identity, maybe by her thoughts or memories.

The secondary character problem is even the case to some extent for aunt Sam. When she came on the scene she was full of love, warmth and humour – encouraging Mal to go out and do stuff – she was basically the adult presence that Mal so sorely needed. Someone who saw her and cared about her. But quite quickly she melted into the background and became just an element in the plot. Again from the perspective of the story I understand why she lost her vibrancy etc., but it’s still unsatisfying as you don’t get a proper feel for the character.

The letters… Just didn’t work IMO. They were awkwardly placed at the end of each chapter, I guess as a way to still show some of Sam’s charater, but it honestly didn’t really. They seemed rushed, and filled with “generic life wisdom” from someone who is older and philosophises about these darn youngsters with their internets and their instagrams.

All that being said, I still really enjoyed this book and the writing. It feels like a very real portrait of being a teenager – where you’re angsty and self-absorbed but underneath all that actually a good person.

On a side-note: I find it really impressive that the author apparently has a full-time job, is a mother and still manages to write a damn book! I work part time, have no kids and can barely get it together enough to write a review of a book.. 😉

 

 

Book review: Hyperbole and a half

5/5 stars

I re-read this book to see if it would be a good gift for a  friend of mine. And I had only just sat down and opened the book when I found myself half way through (or so it felt), and wondering why I do not read this book every week.

I must touch on the comics about depression  especially. I’ve never known anyone to write so poignantly about something so serious and heart-breaking (except maybe Sarah Kane) – which may surprise you if you look at the cover of the book. But you know what they say about that… And in this case it’s infinitely true.

If anyone ever asks me what it’s like to be depressed I’d refer to this. And if you’ve never been depressed, it probably seems completely absurd that you’d not return a video for 35 days, or that you’d be overcome by apathy on your way to the washing machine and end up sitting on a pile of dirty laundry for weeks. But to someone who has suffered from depression it is absurdly relatable. Towards the end of my relationship with my ex, 12 odd years ago, there was a layer of crap (dirty laundry, books, CDs, swords, plates and cups you name it) about half a metre deep across our entire bedroom floor. I find this extremely shameful to relate and crazy to think about, but it happened. And at the time I didn’t even really have the impulse to do something about it. I would just wade through it to get to my closet, like that was a totally normal thing to do. I don’t know if my ex was also depressed or if he was just too far gone from me, from us, to even notice.

When we finally managed to break up and I moved out, I made the decision to NOT leave half a metre of clothes, books, CDs  and plates and cups (the swords naturally belonged to my ex) on the floor of my new flat. It was however one of the very few decisions I was capable of making for a long time.

I remember all too well feeling nothing, and I remember all too well feeling absolutely everything at  the same time – a relentless tide of feelings. I am still searching for that happy middle.

I am extremely grateful to Allie Brosh for being able to write so openly and honestly about depression, and when I read these comics I am overwhelmed with feelings of love and tenderness for this stranger who seems so much like a friend, like a kindred spirit. Which seems a little invasive to her privacy. But I don’t care: I LOVE YOU ALLIE BROSH!

Even if you don’t give two figs about depression you should still read this book. Even if you don’t care about dogs, or cake, and even if you love spiders or geese, you should read this book. It’s absurdly hilarious from the first page to the last, and between the deceptively simplistic drawings there is a wealth of compassion, humour and perceptive observations about life.

The only small criticism I have is that she does tend to go on a bit. Especially the last two comics about identity could have probably been cut in half and been equally funny and gotten the point across equally well or perhaps better.

I was alot excited (yes that was intentional) when browsing Amazon to buy this book for everyone I didn’t already give it to, to see that there will be a new Allie Brosh book coming out this September, and you can bet your sweet behind that I already pre-ordered it. All hail Allie!

Book review: Pride and Prejudice

5/5 stars.

Clearly this book is so well known as to not require further reviews, but it’s one of my favourites so I’d still like to say a few words about it.

To my mind, this is one of the greatest love stories ever told. It’s a slow burn. It’s not ridiculously unbelievable head-over-heels crazy romance. The careful development of plot and feelings makes sense. Darcy’s initial unflattering proposal and his later change in demeanour, Lizzy’s vehement dislike that grows to love as she starts to see the real Darcy and understands all that he has done and is willing to do for the people close to him – it makes total sense. And yet it’s sweet, romantic – and let’s not forget really funny, and brings tears to my eyes.

It’s solid. The dialogue driven plot is carefully puzzled together, without much extraneous detail or information. It’s self-contained and seems from all accounts to give a good (albeit idealised in the sense that most of the characters get a happy ending) representation of a certain historical time and class of society.

It’s full of humour and sarcastic wit. Austen is a shrewd observer of human nature, and the writing flourishes in her descriptions of our dramatis personae and their interactions with each other.

She also seems to realise one truth: that people do not change much, in essence. The changes in the characters of Lizzy and Darcy are mainly due to them being misrepresented in the first place or the characters themselves gaining new information. They remain in essentials the same. Wickham and Lydia do not learn anything from their scandalous adventure, because they are in essence frivolous and self-absorbed people, and remain so. Mr. Bennet has a temporary period of serious regret and self-reproof after the Lydia and Wickham debacle, but soon returns to his old self.

It is no little compliment to the text that the acclaimed 1995 BBC miniseries adaptation keeps the story and indeed the dialogue almost completely unchanged. Which of course I know because I am obsessed with the BBC miniseries and remember it almost verbatim, and  – yes – am now watching it again. There, I said it. And perhaps it is indeed so well loved not only due to the impeccable acting by all, but because it is such a faithful representation of the original text.

It stands the test of time. It remains not only a favourite of mine, but of millions of other readers as well as critics and literary scholars both.

And now if you’ll excuse me I have some more swooning over Colin Firth to do. Important business such as this can no longer be postponed.

Book review: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Preamble: I’ve been gone a while…

I’ve not finished a book in a while and I’ve not felt inspired to write in a while. I’ve been low on energy after a busy period and I’ve been flirting with depression. I had a week off now and haven’t done all that much. I’ve also made myself a cosy little reading corner in our bedroom. So I’m hoping I’ll be refreshed and motivated both to read and write more going forward.

***

5/5 stars

Warning: unapologetically sentimental review incoming…

Cheryl’s journey and her struggles resonated deeply with me – perhaps because I recently lost a parent. I’m older than Cheryl was, and I was not as close to my father as she was to her mother or I am to mine, yet the loss was big and overwhelming.

I see a lot of criticism of Cheryl for 1) going on a 3 month hike pretty much unprepared and 2) being whiny and self-indulgent.

To address the second point first: it’s her story so she gets to tell it how she wants to – if it’s not your cup of tea, fair enough. I do think a lot of people don’t really realise the impact that a loss of a parent you are so close to, and at a relatively young age still, has. Cheryl’s life basically disintegrates when her mother dies and her family falls apart. And I get it. Yes, she definitely made mistakes and definitely could have handled things better, but she’s human. She’s flawed. She was grieving. Which brings me back round to point 1 again: I agree 100% that she had no idea what she was getting into and that she was completely unprepared. But that’s part of what makes it an interesting story. If this had been the story of someone emotionally well balanced who had planned every detail of their trip it would probably have gone something like this: “I went on a long hike. My feet got sore. I saw some nature and some animals and met a few people. Some days it rained. The end.”

Instead we get to travel both with and inside Cheryl as she thinks about her past and tries to come to terms with it and with the loss of her mother, and we have our hearts in our throats when she runs out of water or traverses treacherous snow, and breathe a sigh of relief when she makes it safely to her next checkpoint.

I am not a free spirit. I am way too afraid to do something like this hike, even if I prepared it properly. I get scared when I go for a morning run by myself. I need safety and guarantees, even though I know in the back of my head that there really are none. Cheryl and I are very different people. I could only wish I had the strength and bravery to do something like this – though perhaps I am strong in other ways. I admire and respect her journey. And I truly believe in it’s healing power.

I also think the story is beautifully told. Sometimes heartbreaking (and there’s a part about her mother’s horse that I barely managed to get through), often suspenseful and also funny and insightful.

I am no big lover of poetry, but it just so happens that one of my all time favourite lines of poetry is quoted in this book – from Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

This is basically my mantra. This is what I tell myself, what I ask myself when I get too bogged down in routine, when I feel like I’m losing my way. It’s a reminder to me that life is a precious gift, and in a very real way it’s up to me what I make of it. Cheryl did something beautiful and courageous with her one wild and precious life, and I hope to do so too.

Thank you for sharing your story with me Cheryl, and for letting me walk alongside you for a while.

Side note: I do wish I hadn’t had the Oprah’s book club edition of this, with her personal notes. I’m sure Oprah is a lovely lady, but I frankly don’t care two figs about her thoughts on life, love or literature. And I kept accidentally clicking the little icon and going to the “footnotes”. Ah well.