Fishing in Utopia by Andrew Brown

The last book I have read (completed) in 2010 is a non-fiction book about journalist Andrew Brown’s relationship with Sweden (the book’s subtitle is “Sweden and the future that disappeared.”). It is part travelogue, part socio-economic commentary, part autobiography and part fishing saga (the man is obsessed with the sport, or is it hobby?) The book is told in chapters divided by theme, so for the first half is not chronological. At the start, Brown is in Sweden with his girlfriend Anita, staying with her father in the 1970s/80s. He spends a lot of time fishing as he’s a non-national and can’t be employed. Soon, he and Anita marry and move to a satellite “town”, she is a nursing auxilliary and he works in a factory making wooden pallets to support Volvo parts. The descriptions of their life and work are quite compelling, as are Brown’s observations of Swedish society at that time, though he has the irritating habit throughout of extrapolating his own (necessarily limited) experience to the whole country, and he isn’t reluctant to make sweeping generalisations about the country and its people. (The Sweden of Abba, Ikea, Bergman or tennis, for example, is not mentioned in this section, but these elements were all there, even dominant, at that time).

Soon it emerges via “flashback” chapters that Brown is a public-school dropout who spent part of his childhood living in the very rich part of Stockholm when his parents were in the diplomatic service. As an aimless young man, Brown became a volunteer nursing auxilliary in a Leonard Cheshire home where he met Anita: this section is compelling to read.

After a few years, Brown gets bored with his menial job and sparse existence (understandably) and begins to write journalistic pieces, selling them to the Spectator (a British establishment current-affairs and opinion magazine). Eventually, his marriage disintegrates and he gets a job as religious affairs correspondent for a new UK national newspaper, The Independent.

Because of his son, Brown does not lose his Swedish connections, and many years later returns to try to write a novel, staying in the far north. His descriptions of the remote farm annexe where he lived for a summer, and the lifestyle of the local people, is engaging, although I personally could have done without the fishing. After this, he decides to tour round the country, visiting all the people who were his family and friends 20 years ago, to see what happened to them and their country. He finds a land full of immigrants, who in his opinion are forming the region’s new life-blood. He tells the reader that Sweden as a nation is no longer fruitlessly aspiring for everyone to be equal, as was the general assumption when he was a young man there, but because of the collapsed manufacturing and service sectors, is now accepting of a “two-tier” society in common with many other Western countries, in which full employment is an alien concept to many young people, and in which drug abuse and obesity (Macdonalds comes in for considerable stick) are prevalent.

I found this book to be a curate’s egg. Some of it is really fascinating to me, as I’ve read so many Swedish novels in translation and I enjoyed the perspective and context provided here about the routine ways of life of the people. The sweeping opinions expressed so confidently can be both grating and interesting – there are two long passages about the Martin Beck novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo which are articulate criticisms, but only tell part of the story of these superb but, in retrospect, politically naive novels. As another example of the lack of perspective shown in this book, no other Swedish novelists (crime or literary) are mentioned, as if Sjowall/Wahloo speak for the whole country at that time.

Brown’s fascinating account of Olaf Palme’s life, rise to power, assassination and its aftermath again seems only to tell one side of the story. Perhaps the most successful chapters are Brown’s descriptions of the various older Swedes he meets, where he lets them and their various traditional ways of life emerge from the page. As for his socioeconomic assessment, the fact that Sweden (in common with other northern European countries) is currently doing very well economically after weathering some hard years (as I read in the Times business pages today, for example) goes to show that one should not be too confident in condemning a philosophy of government or the viability of a whole country.

I purchased my copy of this book. It was originally published by Granta in 2008. It was reviewed in The Guardian (by Jeremy Paxman), The Sunday Times (by John Carey) and, of course, The Spectator.

Andrew Brown has a blog at The Guardian, which seems to be mostly about religion and ethics and another one (less frequently updated and on more scientific topics, heavily featuring science/religion spats) called Helmintholog (presumably after C. elegans, the nematode, about which Brown wrote a book).

Andrew Brown at Wikipedia.

The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve

Originally published in 1997 (Abacus), The Weight of Water is a novel about a crime – not that I was expecting it to be when I picked it up, long-neglected, from a bookshelf. The crime in question is a real one from the nineteenth century, in which two Norwegian women were killed on the island of Smuttynose, one of the tiny Shoal islands off the coast of New Hampshire. One element of Anita Shreve’s novel is her account of this crime (from historical records) as well as her own (fictional) reinterpretation of what actually happened. The other element is a modern story – that of Jean, a photojournalist, who is sent on assignment to Smuttynose to record the site of the terrible historical events, and through whose eyes we learn the author’s alternative history of events. Jean embarks on her task via a boat owned by her brother-in-law Rich, together with her husband Thomas and 5-year-old daughter Billie, and Rich’s attractive but slightly sinister girlfriend Adaline. There are masses of unspoken tensions between all these enigmatically presented adults; as their claustrophobic voyage continues, we realise that some kind of tragedy is going to ensue, in parallel with Jean’s research into the old crime.

As usual with Anita Shreve, the book is well written and therefore rewarding to read. However, I found myself somewhat in a “so what” mode at the end of it all. I had little patience with the modern, unlikeable collection of adults, who seemed selfish in their materially comfortable lives as well as overly keen on keeping all their tensions and moods hidden, when a few conversations would have cleared the air (and probably averted future drama). Thomas in particular is unpleasant, and though the author does a reasonable job at showing why Jean might have married him (and, because of Billie, stayed with him?), I find it hard to see why she’d put up with his weaknesses and lies. The older story is most interesting in its account of the privations of existence among the impoverished fisher-families of Norway, and their attempts to emigrate to America in search of a better lot. Similarly, the accounts of the lives of these people, particularly the central character, Maren, on the bleak, tiny island of Smuttynose really do come alive. The stories of the murders, both true and fictional, are standard fare – one is presented with a fait accompli in both accounts, rather than being left with much insight. And the tragic ending of the modern story is both too contrived and too abrupt.

The novel was apparently very successful, having been shortlisted for the Orange prize that year and, in 2000, being made into a film directed by Kathryn Bigelow. (See Wikipedia.) I see that the film is distinguished by the presence of Elizabeth Hurley in the role of Adaline!

Read reviews of the novel at: Mostly Fiction (with some fascinating local detail), The Book Haven,, and Brothers Judd.

I had evidently purchased this book from a sale or bargain bin (from its cover price sticker), too many years ago to remember for sure.

The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn

The second novel (Penguin, 2010) by this extremely talented author is once again set in Birmingham, the scene of her wonderful debut, What Was Lost. The News Where You Are most obviously refers to a local TV news programme and its main presenter, Frank, who is in his 40s. Frank was previously a journalist so has a thorough attitude to his job, spending time researching and contributing to the news stories he presents rather than simply reading them out from a script. He has some years ago taken over the presenting job from Phil, an older man who made it onto mainstream TV and became a household name presenting reality TV and talent shows. At the start of the book, Phil is killed by a hit and run driver, but the novel is not a murder mystery or a crime novel.

Rather, it is a story about how we live our lives. Frank is married to Andrea and they have one daughter, Mo, who is about 12. Frank’s mother, Maureen, lives in an assisted living facility and Frank and his family visit her often. Maureen is always in low spirits, refusing to have any possessions in her room and always looking on the dark side of everything. Throughout the book, Frank remembers his childhood – he and his mother got on very well and played many games of imagination and fun together when Frank was very young. His father, however, was remote. It turns out that he was one of the main architects responsible for the post-war regeneration of Birmingham and its environs – a time during which Victorian buildings were ripped down and concrete monstrosities, as well as a plethora of roads, replaced them in the “era of the future”. Frank’s father was fixated on this future, and totally incapable of relating to his son or wife, who react to this emotional absence in different ways as time goes on.

This sad novel has many themes running through it – Frank’s relationships with Phil and his parents, as well as his newsreading, form the main part of the book. As an anchor for a local news station, Frank often has to present stories about people who have died alone, and he’s become more interested in these sad victims, often attending their funerals and, in the case of one man during this novel, helping the local council to try to find relatives of the deceased. This quest leads Frank inexorably to some truths about the outwardly successful Phil, and to some recognition in of what the news really is all about. There are some chinks of light and optimism both for Frank’s mother and for his own family at the end of the book, but overall this is a poignant novel about ordinary lives, the waste of trends in mass culture (whether media or architecture) and mundane sadnesses – how we live and how we find the enthusiasm for living. I loved this beautifully observed novel, and highly recommend it.

I purchased a Kindle edition of this book.

Catherine O’Flynn at Wikipedia.

You can read an extract from the novel at the publisher’s website.

Read other reviews of The News Where You Are at: The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent and The Black Sheep Dances.

Happy Christmas

A very happy Christmas and warm holiday greetings to readers of Petrona.

The Other Family; Brother and Sister by Joanna Trollope

I countinued my Joanna Trollope fest by reading another novel of hers that has been on my shelf for ages (I think a free copy via a book club), Brother and Sister, and a newer one purchased via Amazon Kindle, The Other Family. I enjoyed both novels: the characterisations are in sharp focus and the pacing is faultless. There is too much wish-fulfilment which stretches credibility towards the end of both novels (The Other Family in particular), but on the whole these are very good dissections of contemporary emotional dilemmas. They are both extremely readable, which is more praiseworthy than sometimes admitted by reviewers.

The Other Family is about the aftermath of the death of Richie Rossiter, a successful popular singer, composer and entertainer. His partner Chrissie and their three daughters (in their early twenties and late teens) are devastated as well as adrift, as all four women have mainly existed as beautiful adjuncts to Richie rather than learning to stand on their own two feet. Richie was from the north of England and was first known when married to Margaret, now in her mid-sixties and living on her own, though close to her and Richie’s son, Scott. Chrissie, an agent, had met Richie 20-odd years ago when he was well-known on the northern circuit, and launched his career in London and the south, the couple in the process falling in love and setting up home together. Although Richie had abandoned Tyneside and Margaret, he had not ever divorced her.

The novel is told alternately from the point of view of Chrissie, Margaret, Scott and the youngest sibling, Amy, as well as occasionally by other characters. I particularly liked Margaret, perhaps the strongest (and strongest-drawn) character in the novel – she has lived through many changes in society, and her own circumstances have changed from an impoverished childhood to relative wealth when managing Richie in his early career and subsequently running her own small business looking after other local performers. The dynamics between her and her son Scott, another well-drawn character, are particularly telling in terms of their shared abandonment and their adaptations to it. The “other family” of Chrissie and daughters are harder to like, as they are mostly spoilt and sulky. The adversity they face owing to Richie’s death and subsequent revelations about his will, force them all to rethink their lives in different ways and become more independent (and hence nicer!). The final part of the book is the least successful for me, concerning how two of the half-siblings break the literal and metaphorical north-south divide in rather too much of a fairy-tale style.

Brother and Sister is another novel about strong emotions. Nathalie and David are siblings and extremely close; Nathalie is the partner of Steve who has his own design firm. They have a five-year old (insufferably cute) daughter Polly, who is slightly hard of hearing and needs an operation to remove some excess cartilage in her inner ear. This triggers a determination in Nathalie, who is adopted, to find her birth mother. Not only that, but she enrolls David, who owns a landscape gardening business and is father to three children, to do the same. The rest of the novel focuses on the fallout of Nathalie’s and David’s search – first of all the effects on their adoptive mother and on their partners, then on more people as the ramifications ripple outwards, and finally on the two birth mothers and their current families.

The reviews of this novel are not that kind, but I enjoyed it. Even though some of the dynamics and characters are somewhat irritating (for example, Marnie, David’s wife, and all of Steve’s work-based colleagues and connections), the central premise is a good one, and the interactions between the adult David and Nathalie with their respective birth mothers are very well done, with convincing emotional honesty and realism.

Read reviews of The Other Family at The Telegraph, The Sunday Times, and The Independent.

Read reviews of Brother and Sister at The Guardian, The Independent, and (much more positive) The Washington Post.

Second Honeymoon by Joanna Trollope

In a change of pace, I read a book by an old reliable favourite, Joanna Trollope. I have no recollection of how I acquired this book which has probably been on my shelf since it was publshed (and set) in 2006, but I suspect it was a free offer of some kind. It is a very English novel, concerning Russell and Edie whose children are in their 20s and all leaving home. Matt works in the city, Rosa temps and the youngest, Ben, does not a lot, but it is he who kick-starts the action by going to live with his girlfriend Naomi in her mother’s flat in Walthamstow.
Edie, an actress, is devastated at her loss, but Russell, an agent, is looking forward to spending time alone with her and recreating their early married, pre-children, life. Edie does not feel at all the same way, and attempts to confide in her sister Vivien with whom she has an edgy relationship, inbetween going to auditions. We see events from the point of view of most of the characters in rotation, the author perceptively showing us the differences between people’s inner concerns, and others’ assumptions about them.
I enjoyed this book very much – it’s a light read but the author makes you interested in everyone she portrays, even those that seem at first rather callow and unsympathetic. There are plenty of opportunities for cliche, but the experienced author is able to skirt them pretty well. And she certainly knows a thing or two about plotting and pacing.

Read other reviews of this novel at: The Observer, The Independent, The Telegraph, and The Seattle Times.

Author’s website. Joanna Trollope at Wikipedia.

The worst Christmas TV merchandise

The worst Christmas TV merchandise | Television & radio |

I don’t have much energy for blogging just now so I am taking advantage of WordPress’s little “press this” feature to highlight one or two articles of interest via my RSS reader. This one is a seasonally pertinent question: what is your worst nightmare for a Christmas (or alternative celebration) present? The Guardian article suggests:

“It is surely one of the last things you’d hope to find in your Christmas stocking. Matt Cardle: My Story – presumably told by someone else given the mere eight-day gap between his X Factor triumph and the book’s release – is a 224-page tome that tells the story of Matt’s meteoric rise from painter and decorator to global pop sensation.”

What’s worse is that some people will actually be receiving this book – as well as similar tomes by comedians, cartoon furry animals and “celebrities” famous for “getting ready to go out” (as Victoria Beckham’s claim to notoriety was once described to me).
Anyway, there are lots of useful (useless) suggestions with links (!) at the Guardian article, eg roaring, vibrating pencil sharpeners; sex-and-the-city pink/gold foldable shoes, Coronation Street cross-stitch kit; plus some not very funny suggestions in the comment section.

What would be your worst themed present? A commemorative tea towel? A 1970s kipper tie with a picture of Gene Hunt on it? A “prism” or an “urbon” drink bottle from the Apprentice? A TV tie-in novel by James Patterson?

Carte Blanche by Carlo Lucarelli, tr. Michael Reynolds

Weighing in at under 92 pages (there is a blank page after chapters that end on a right), Carte Blanche (Europa Editions, 2006) is a “quick read” in the literal sense of the word. It is an intense and convincing novel about the mess that was Italy in the last phase of the Second World War, after the Allied invasion of Sicily but before the North and Mussolini had given up. The background to the novel is the plethora of confusing yet deadly coalitions of political alliances, military factions (German as well as Italian SS) and others, all desperate to keep in with the ruling elite yet positioning themselves for a post-war future.
Into this melee comes Comissario De Luca, who has managed to leave the army with his life and career intact and who is now in the police, a job he enjoys and in which he intends to survive. He is asked to investigate the murder of a man who has been found stabbed in his apartment. As expected from the brevity of this book, the action speeds ahead, as De Luca tracks down the many visitors received by the dead man, as well as the “servants” (porter, his wife, the cleaner) who may be useful witnesses. He finds himself strangely encouraged in his investigation by his boss, rather than being told (as expected) to cover up the murder. Soon, the reasoning becomes apparent.
Carte Blanche is a very readable book, a complete tale despite its length. It’s pretty cynical about the Allies as well as everybody else – not least De Luca himself in his lack of ethics in his interrogations of females. The black setting is so convincing that it is hard to believe the author was not there. This is the first novel of a trilogy, the second two titles being The Damned Season and Villa del Oche. The author has also written another series, set in Bologna, about Ispettore Grazia Negro – Lupo Manarro (not translated), Almost Blue, Day after Day and Un giorno dopo l’altro (not translated).

Read other reviews of Carte Blanche by: Karen Meek at Euro Crime and by Norman Price at Crime Scraps. The Crime Scraps blog specialises in Italian crime fiction and you’ll find many an interesting post about Lucarelli and other Italian authors by browsing its archives.

I purchased my copy of this novel via Amazon marketplace. I did not pay the cover price of $14.95 or £8.99. I appreciate that for a publisher a short book is not that much cheaper to produce than a long one, but for 92 pages I think the stated cover price too high.

New-to-me authors in 2010

Following on from posts at Reactions to Reading, View from the Blue House, The Game’s Afoot* and some other blogs, I have had a look over the books I’ve reviewed in 2010 to see how many of them are by authors new to me. I make the total 70. (I have read more books than I’ve reviewed, including several that I could not finish, so my total below is an underestimate.)
*Update: Other selections are now up at Crime Scraps and Euro Crime.

Many of these books are very enjoyable. I have made a ranking of:

A (bold) – Absolutely spot-on
B (italic) – Bravo
C – Creditable
D – Doubtful
E – Erroneous

I apologise for not providing links to my reviews in the list below, a casualty of my export of this blog to the new platform is that I have lost many links. I hope that if you want to read any of my reviews, you can use the excellent Euro Crime database or, for those posted here at Petrona, the date archive to the right of the post.

E – The Girl with the Crystal Eyes by Barbara Baraldi (Euro Crime, November) Italy.
B – Blacklands by Belinda Bauer (Petrona, October) England.
C – Badfellas by Tonino Benacquista (Petrona, April) France.
E – The Library of Shadows by Mikkel Birkegaard (Petrona, May) Denmark.
C – Sacrifice by S. J. Bolton (Petrona, January) England.
C – Cambridge Blue by Alison Bruce (Euro Crime, July) England.
B – The Guards by Ken Bruen (Petrona, October) Ireland.
A – Poisonville by Massimo Carlotto and Marco Videtta (Petrona, April) Italy.
C – The Missing by Jane Casey (Petrona, November) England.
C – Chinatown Beat by Henry Chang (Petrona, August) USA.
D – Cemetery Lake by Paul Cleave (Petrona, October) New Zealand.
C – Kind of Blue by Miles Corwin (Petrona, November) USA.
A – The Last Fix by K. O. Dahl (Petrona, April) Norway.
D – American Visa by Juan de Recacoechea (Petrona, August) Bolivia.
A – Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai (Euro Crime, August) India.
A – The Dragon Man by Garry Disher (Petrona, August) Australia.
A – The Screaming of the Innocent by Unity Dow (Petrona, November) Botswana.
C – The Woman Before Me by Ruth Dugdall (Petrona, September) England.
C – In the Wind by Barbara Fister (Petrona, June) USA.
B – At Close Quarters by Eugenio Fuentes (Euro Crime, April) Spain.
B – The Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza (Petrona, August) Brazil.
C – Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin (Petrona, January) USA (setting: Slovakia).
C – Vodka Doesn’t Freeze by Leah Giarratano (Petrona, July) Australia.
A – Winterland by Alan Glynn (Euro Crime, July) Ireland.
C – Murder on Page Three by Ella Griffiths (Petrona, January) Norway.
A – The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths (Petrona, February) England.
B – Inspector Cataldo’s Criminal Summer by Luigi Guicciaradi (Petrona, April) Italy.
A – The Build Up by Phillip Gwynne (Petrona, October) Australia.
C – The Last Child by John Hart (Petrona, June) USA.
E – Tell Tale by Sam Hayes (Petrona, September) England.
C – Blood Sunset by Jarad Henry (Petrona, January) Australia.
A – The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist (Petrona, May) Sweden.
C – Silent Counsel by Ken Isaacson (Petrona, September) USA.
D – Acts of Violence by Ryan David Jahn (Petrona, August) USA.
C – The Pull of the Moon by Diane Janes (Euro Crime, May) England.
C – The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly (Euro Crime, June) England.
A – Rupture (aka 1000 Cuts) by Simon Lelic (Euro Crime, April) England.
C – Black Water Rising by Attica Locke (Petrona, July) USA.
C – Almost Blue by Carlo Lucarelli (Petrona, June) Italy.
C – Sister by Rosamund Lupton (Petrona, October) England.
D – The Marx Sisters by Barry Maitland (Petrona, June) Australia.
A – Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo (Petrona, August) Argentina.
B – Che Committed Suicide by Petros Markaris (Euro Crime, May) Greece.
C – All The Colours of the Town by Liam McIlvanney (Petrona, Sept) NZ (set Scotland).
A – Entanglement by Zygmunt Miloszewski (Petrona, July) Poland.
B – All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe (Petrona, June) Japan.
E – Hit by Tara Moss (Euro Crime, August) Australia.
D – Audition by Ryu Murakami (Petrona, October) Japan.
D – The Twelve by Stuart Neville (Petrona, July) Ireland.
C – Twisted Wing by Ruth Newman (Petrona, May) England.
B – Midnight Cab by James W. Nichol (Petrona, September) Canada.
B – A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn (Petrona, August) South Africa.
C – Raid and the Blackest Sheep by Harri Nykanen (Petrona, November) Finland.
D – Like Clockwork by Margie Orford (Petrona, January) South Africa.
B – No-one Loves a Policeman by Guillermo Orsi (Petrona, June) Argentina.
D – Havana Red by Leonardo Padura (Petrona, August) Cuba.
B – Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pinerio (Petrona, February) Argentina.
C – Peepshow by Leigh Redhead (Petrona, December) Australia.
C – Experimental Heart by Jennifer L Rohn (Petrona, October) USA (setting England).
B – The Vault (Box 21) by Roslund-Hellstrom (Petrona, January) Sweden.
C – Last Light by Alex Scarrow (Petrona, February) England.
C – Snow Angels by James Thompson (Petrona, March) USA (Finland setting).
B – The Reunion by Simone van der Vlugt (Petrona, January) The Netherlands.
C – River of Shadows by Valerio Varesi (Euro Crime, September) Italy.
A – Water-blue Eyes by Domingo Villar (Petrona, May) Spain.
C – The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang (Petrona, March) China.
A – The Lying Tongue by Andrew Wilson (Euro Crime, March) England/Italy.
D – Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong (Petrona, March) China.
C – A Certain Malice by Felicity Young (Petrona, April) Australia.
D – Dark Matter by Juli Zeh (Euro Crime, April) Germany.

Peepshow by Leigh Redhead

Bernadette, of the excellent Reactions to Reading blog, recently sent me a book which I very much enjoyed, and can recommend to anyone who needs cheering up — but who is also broad-minded ;-). The book is engagingly written, being an attractive mix of pragmatism, pace and optimism as Simone, the main character (whose work name is Vivien Leigh), and other females throughout the book, are trapped in an industry that exploits them, yet treat their situation with wry good humour. Simone in particular has obtained a hard-won PI’s licence so is determined to use the discovery of the body of a sex-club owner as an excuse to hone her skills in a more interesting direction than being a dancer in a peepshow “club”. I won’t provide a review of the book here, though this synopsis will give you an idea:

About the book on the author’s website: “Simone Kirsch, private eye with a difference, always wanted to join the police force. She’s smart, fit and wants to do good. But she has a problem. She has worked as a stripper for the last three years and the service won’t let her in. Instead, she enrols in an enquiry agent’s course at a security college, tops the class and it looks like she might have some surveillance work coming up. It’s all going to plan. But then her best friend Chloe – a fellow stripper who works at Melbourne’s notorious The Red Room – is kidnapped by gangsters after its owner is murdered and Simone has two weeks to find the culprit and save Chloe’s life.”

I very much agree with the quotation on the cover of the novel which favourably compares Leigh Redhead with Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels. I’ve long since given up reading Janet Evanovich but Redhead’s book is like a breath of fresh air, striking that very difficult balance between humour and realism. I liked it a lot and highly recommend it the next time you are looking for a lighter read that at the same time pulls no punches about the seamier side of Melbourne life. I think I probably would not read another in the series – my experience of light novels is that they are better as a single dose than as a series – but as a one-off, this was a highly enjoyable read.

Thank you, Bernadette!

More about Simone Kirsch, P.I.

Read reviews of this novel at: January Magazine, Spinetingler, and Reviewers Choice Reviews.