Thursday, August 31, 2023

IN THE SHADOW OF POWER and IN THE NAME OF TRUTH, books 7 & 8 in the Sandhamn Murders series

IN THE SHADOW OF POWER (Sandhamn Murders #7)
VIVECA STEN (tr. Marlaine Delargy)
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: What do the new arrivals on Sandhamn Island have to fear? Their own secrets—in this gripping novel of suspense by the bestselling author of In the Heat of the Moment.

The new summer house on Sandhamn Island is an architectural dream for its owner, Carsten Jonsson. It’s a nightmare for the locals. The venture capitalist has flouted local traditions, property lines, and the natural beauty of the coastline. He’s also too wealthy and arrogant to heed the anonymous warnings to leave.

The threats escalate when his guest lodge is burned to the ground and an unidentifiable corpse is found in the charred ruins. Detective Inspector Thomas Andreasson isn’t sure if it’s murder or a tragic accident. Until his friend attorney Nora Linde is drawn into the investigation.

Nora’s emotional investment in Carsten’s fragile and fearful wife, Celia, is yielding a new level of that the Jonssons are hiding more than anyone can imagine. Now Thomas and Nora must sift through the ashes of a puzzling crime and step into the shadows of a powerful family, whose deadly secrets are coming to light on Sandhamn.


My Review
: This entry in the series is a major shake-up of the Seriesverse. Everything I say now forward is a HUGE SPOILER. You've been warned.

Nora, previously a bank-lawyer, has switched gears and become a public prosecutor in the Economic Crimes investigations unit. This makes a lot of sense as the stories need to include her more organically. Thomas being a police inspector will, quite naturally, need to interact with her more often and on less flimsy pretexts. Given the scumminess of her boss's behavior towards her in the last book, it's a good thing she's left that bank...and even better that she's left banking.

Jonas is, four years after the last book's events, her partner and the father of her first daughter. Take that, Henrik! Of course this means she's got Wilma, Jonas's daughter the teenager, to contend with, though that's a treat for another book as she's entirely absent from this one. As her own two sons with Henrik (in this book, they're vacationing with him) enter their teens...poor lamb, she's really walked into a buzzsaw with this...she's going to face some troubles! Heaven only knows the blended-family issues this presents are fertile, if well-trodden, fictional grounds. They call these tropes "evergreens" for a reason.

On the Thomas end, the Scoobygroup's changed. Margit's been promoted and is no longer his loyal sidekick. Aram, whose foolishness in the last book earned my snorts and eyerolls, is now in Margit's spot. His Iranian ancestry sould let Author Sten do some serious soul-searching about Swedishness. Erik, another Scoobygroup character that I myownself never found interesting, has gone into the private sector and is tempting Thomas to follow him with better pay and easier working conditions. Will Thomas leave the police just as Nora joins them? Stay tuned...not in this book, though.

THIS story, the mystery we're here to watch unfold, is about Carsten Jonsson, a bigfootin' vulture capitalist whose finances are teetering, also with no taste and no class, violating Sandhamn's cultural norms. He builds his family a gigantic McMansion that's aesthetically out of place (shades of book one!) and might be legally questionable regarding property rights...but there's a suspicious fire as he invites the whole island over to "welcome" him and his family...and, of course, there's a dead body in the mix. Thomas must investigate, since it's a murder not an arson case. Nora is involved because a) prosecutor who used to work in banking, 2) longtime Sandhamner thus included in the party invitation, iii) woman whose spidey-senses have gone off at the ménage chez Jonsson because wife-component's behavior is making her very, very edgy. Was the Sandhamn neighbor who's made it his mission to oust Jonsson and family from the neighborhood guilty of setting the fire? Was the dead body killed in the fire, or dead before it? And who, exactly, was it who died?

Nora's change of career makes her involvement in the case so much more logical. It's also good that so much hinges on her banking background, where she was driven off by the shadiness of the banking business's deals with criminals. Here's a victim whose involvement in that shady, not-quite-illegal but clearly immoral world of Russian big money has led to consequences.

Things are resolved, of course, and ugly secrets kept by both the Jonssons are aired. Sandhamn's pretty surface is again revealed to be draped over the usual human ugliness. Thomas does something stupid again, but it made more sense to me this time. Or I'm just getting inured to it....

The themes of environmental change and related business turpitude are, as expected, much to my taste. I've really only got one really big "do what now" moment in this read: WHO THE HELL IS EVA?!


IN THE NAME OF TRUTH (Sandhamn Murders #8)
VIVECA STEN (tr. Marlaine Delargy)
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A shocking abduction rocks idyllic Sandhamn Island in an enthralling novel of suspense by Viveca Sten, bestselling author of In the Heat of the Moment.

With the summer season on Sandhamn comes an unsettling mystery for Detective Inspector Thomas Andreasson. A bullied young boy has vanished from a sailing camp on neighboring Lökholmen Island. Has the terrorized eleven-year-old run away? Or, in this isolated vacation spot where strangers lurk, is it something more ominous?

The disappearance has also captured the interest of Thomas’s longtime friend, attorney Nora Linde. The missing child happens to be the son of her latest client, Christian Dufva. He is a key witness against his partner in a high-profile embezzlement trial, and Dufva’s testimony could be devastating. It’ll also be Nora’s biggest win—the next step toward a position as chief prosecutor. But with every anonymous threat against Dufva, the stakes get higher.

When new evidence surfaces in their respective cases, new questions and fears arise for Thomas and Nora. Time is running out to resolve them. So is hope of finding the boy alive. Because on Sandhamn Island, the truth is buried as deep as the secrets.


My Review
: Continuing our exploration of "what was that again?" moments in this series, we have stalking, bullying, pedophilia, one runaway kid and a missing one, embezzlement, gambling, gangsters from Lithuania, relationship woes, and a wedding.


Jonas and Nora are getting hitched! Why, I am unsure, since their daughter Julia's school age now. And Jonas's fitness isn't, IMO, really top-notch, since he accepts a job flying to Thailand on the eve of the ceremony. Yet Nora seems not to see this as the red flag I do...though of course she's not exactly thrilled with his swanning off at that moment. Her angry repsonse felt muted and disproportionately absent the larger sense of questioning I expected. Only he could take this job? He couldn't buy a ticket on another airline to get home on time? ...???... Probably the biggest surprise to me, apart from the fact that it's happening at all, is Wilma's inclusion in the ceremony. Clearly skipping over her adolescence has let us have the nice-person end product without the factually inevitable angst.

Thomas, meanwhile, is discovering what I've thought all along: Elin's wonderful but Pernilla's a pill and rejoining his life to hers was a major goof-up. After succumbing to Erik's blandishments to leave the police, Thomas found out this didn't make Pernilla one bit less awful. Now he's back to his meaningful if lower-paying job (to Pernilla's disgust), repartnered with Aram, and his energies are focused on the summer-camp issues. As readers with any experience of series mysteries already know, there's a connection between Nora's court case over embezzlement and her star witness's son Benjamin's disappearance from said camp; what it is turned out to be a surprise to me. My original theory about what the thread was turned out to be wrong. That actually made me enjoy the read more because being surprised eight books into a series is a good thing.

The usual problem I have with these books is that Thomas or someone else police-y does something deeply stupid that risks his this time so much, instead there are decisions made in investigating the camp-problems that seem particularly lunkheaded...there's a search for the missing boy that's badly mishandled...but nothing that's going to get Thomas killed. The anonymous threatening calls made to the witness and to Nora are overdetailed. Knowing they're happening is enough and there's only so many ways to threaten someone without becoming repetitive, which they do.

Possibly the biggest disappointment to me was the fact that, in pursuit of their respective crimes, Thomas and Nora really don't interact much. It makes sense given the nature of the events, but I found that I missed them spending friend-time together.

The sailing camp that Benjamin's been coerced into attending by his father is nightmarish reading, with some Lord of the Flies-level bullying that's not downplayed and a camp counselor whose mental-health struggles mislead and complicate the police investigation into Benjamin's disappearance. There's a great deal of information about sailing and its culture in Sweden that was interesting enough but might slow things down a bit for thriller readers. The local pedophile gets a look-in, of course he would since he's been put in the book, in what ends up as a truly unnecessary red herring. Oops, that's a spoiler. Well, that's life boys and girls, when reviewing book eight of a series there will be some. I expect longtime readers of the series are going to be a bit testy about the complete absence of a murder in this installment. I myownself think the evolution that's underway could be great...depending on what Author Sten does with it.

A long read with short chapters that stay on point is a good thing for most modern readers. I doubt most will see what's coming at the end. If you do see it...kudos. But don't talk about it!

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

IN THE HEAT OF THE MOMENT and IN HARM'S WAY, books 5 & 6 of the Sandhamn Murders

IN THE HEAT OF THE MOMENT(Sandhamn Murders #5)
VIVECA STEN (tr. Marlaine Delargy)
$5.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.25* of five

The Publisher Says: What’s a lie among friends? It’s murder—in this riveting thriller by Viveca Sten, bestselling author of Tonight You’re Dead…

It’s Midsummer’s Eve, the celebration of the longest day of the year, and on Sandhamn it’s the longest party of the year. But the fun comes to a dead halt when a young reveler is murdered, a teenage girl is found drugged and dazed on the beach, and other young women vanish. So far, what links the victims is a mystery. For Nora Linde and her new boyfriend, Jonas Sköld, the crimes are personal: one of the missing girls is Wilma, Jonas’s daughter. And her disappearance could test Nora and Jonas’s relationship in ways they never expected.

Thrust into the investigation, they soon discover that it’s more than a case of bad blood between friends. But the truth, which has receded into a haze of carousing, drugs, and liquor, is getting harder to see. If Nora and Jonas are going to find out what happened to Wilma, they’d better do it fast—before the ebbing tides sweep away all the terrible secrets of that night on Sandhamn Island.


My Review
: Another more Thomas-centered book, therefore more police procedural-like than the cozy-er Nora-centric ones...but only slightly. Thomas and Pernilla have a new daughter, and experience the stresses of parenthood all over again (remembering this is their second child together, and their long separation came after the first child's death). Thomas is the lead investigator on the murder-and-disappearance case that involves Nora's new boyfriend through his daughter being among the girls who've vanished from the high-octane Midsummer's Night revelries. Given that he was really not happy about saying yes to her badgering pleas to be allowed to party with the cool kids, he's an absolute wreck.

Wilma, Nora's boyfriend's daughter, is part of a crowd that Nora finds troubling. They're privileged, spoiled brats who use lovely Sandhamn and its close-knit community as a backdrop for irresponsible chemical-fueled partying. Nora's ex-husband and his milieu of privilege come forcefully to mind as she tries to assist Thomas in his attempts to bring a young man's murderer to justice and return the missing young women to their insanely anxious families. Her worries for her own young sons and their futures enter into the story as well. The awful ex is, unsurprisingly given that he's in the social milieu of the dead boy's parents, sticking his oar in. It seems life sans Nora isn't the fun that life with her was. She, unlike Thomas vis-a-vis Pernilla, isn't having it. This gets all the yay from me after his abusive behavior in an earlier book.

The main thread of the story, though, is Thomas and policing partner Margit methodically working to solve the case without significant details. These are all locked in the heads of the spoiled, drunk, high kids whose reactions to a dead guy and some missing gal-pals is basically to whine about being asked questions by old farts in uniforms instead of being allowed to get away from all this boring shit on Papa's yacht.

Ick ptui.

Thomas, in spite of needing to be focused on the case, is of course just as eager as the brats are to get the whole thing over with so he can go home and play with his new daughter. (I'm still deeply conflicted about this rapprochement with Pernilla, whose presentation of self makes me suspicious.) So the detective, his sidekick, and the witnesses are all conflicted and not clearly focused on the tragedy that's occurred. That presents a problem for me as a reader.

The dead boy's father, the young hellions doing the partying, and to an extent Nora's stepdaughter-adjacent person Wilma, are all really unsympathetic characters. Their collective story is woven of multiple strands of neglect and indifference coupled with overaffluence and its deleterious effect on the moral compasses of the privileged. Where this led me as a reader was into a lot of "Thomas should be home with his new baby and Margit ought to slap all of 'em" eyerolling. The author seems in a funny way to share my impatience because the end of the book feels like a rush to wrap up the threads, so isn't all that satisfying. I can assure my ma'at-lovin' readers that there's resolution to the death and the disappearances too. There will be no black armbands in the Linde ménage. I'm hopeful that Jonas, with Nora, won't repeat his mistakes and Nora will continue to shun her vile ex-husband.

This book is very much not my favorite in the series to date, and skated perilously close to becoming a DNF on several occasions. The power of Thomas and Nora as people I believe could exist and whose flaws I can invest in as I watch them overcoming, or trying to, their effects powered my drive through the read.

YMMV, of course.


IN HARM'S WAY (Sandhamn Murders #6)
VIVECA STEN (tr. Marlaine Delargy)
$5.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: A woman’s dangerous career comes to a chilling end in this spellbinding thriller by Viveca Sten, bestselling author of In the Heat of the Moment

The body of world-famous journalist Jeanette Thiels is discovered the day after Christmas, frozen in a snow-spotted garden just steps from her hotel on Sandhamn Island. Detective Thomas Andreasson finds it highly unlikely that it was some bizarre accident. After all, the relentless war-zone correspondent was no stranger to conflict and controversy—both professional, and of late, very personal. Who would want to see her dead is another story.

Enlisting the help of attorney Nora Linde, his longtime friend on holiday, Thomas is anxious for the answers. But he and Nora don’t have to look far. The clues are leading them closer to home than they imagined. Jeannette may have made a career out of exposing corruption at the highest levels of world power, but she was also a woman with secrets of her own and they’re coming to light on Sandhamn. But for Thomas and Nora, unearthing the deeply rooted deceptions behind Jeanette’s death could now put those closest to her in harm’s way, too.


My Review
: I now know more than I ever knew there was to know about pickled herring.

This is not an approving statement.

Again, we're police-proceduraling with Thomas and Margit. She's coalesced into more of a presence than I ever expected her to do, has our Margit; but I'm still not distracted from the mains by her involvement in investigations so I call the author's level of detail in limning her character good. The immigration issues facing Europe, the backlash from "cultural purity" proponents, the unbelievable, incredible hatred that some are consumed by for those not just like them all concatenate at the same time as Nora's Yule festivities on Sandhamn. (Why she includes the vile ex-husband is beyond me.)

After Iranian immigrant journalist Juliette dies in the snow outside her hotel on the island (you know, I love cozies and their settings, but the logical part of me says "the Swedes ain't idiots and this place would glow like Chernobyl on any statistical map of Swedish crime" like Midsomer would in England); it's not a horrible accident, of course. Juliette's work is digging into some unnerving and clearly unsavory stuff that the Powers That Be did not want exposed. Then Juliette's controlling Swedish ex-husband comes into the suspect frame; even his pre-adolescent daughter thinks he probably had some hand in her mother's death.

Enter Thomas and Margit as the lead investigators, and the police Scoobygroup we've seen before starts the interesting ferreting among the fallen leaves of this dogged, but hapless, woman's life. The work she'd been doing about the burgeoning nativist group that hates non-Nordic Swedes was reaching a critical mass and that's a reason to kill in that sick, twisted worldview. The issues between her and her ex keep the focus on the police's work in solving her poisoning; thus off the Nora parts of the plot. For those hooked in by Nora from the off, this story will feel frustrating. Her involvement in Thomas's case is pretty much nil; her plot strands are lawyering related, as her company is enmeshed in the colonial remnants of Sweden's centuries-old Baltic empire. This leads to some unpleasant, though legal, ways of making money, to Nora's deep disgust; her firm's head and she are due for a showdown over this shady, unethical entanglement (among other things, like misogyny and borderline harassment). As this echoes the main case's focus on the role of History in forming a place for better or ill, it wasn't a waste to include Nora. She doesn't play a role in the crime investigation but her moral musings and decisions do offer depth of field to the main idea behind the murder.

I am not a fan of the dithering "will-she-won't-she" style of storytelling I see all too much of in series reads. Why women should be presented as so weak as to constantly question their decisions about men is something I do not think we question as a trope nearly hard enough. Nora's ex shouldn't be up for rehabilitation after his emotional abuse of her. (Let's not even bring up The Slap. Might bring up my lunch wth it.) She's decided several books ago that the affair she discovered him having is the bridge too far. That should be allowed to be that. Her efforts not to estrange her ex-husband from their sons is admirable. But let's leave it as focused on the EX part and not so much the HUSBAND part.

That ongoing snark aside, the role of ethnicity in this story is very much the catalyst for some trademark idiotic behaviors among the investigators. Thomas in particular is, every book, doing something that unnecessarily endangers his life...and while I'm really not on board with his reunion with Pernilla, he DOES have an infant daughter to consider before haring off without backup to Get The Perp. And this time he's very much not alone, since one of the investigative Scoobygroup is an Iranian-born Swede whose dander gets up as facts of the case come to light. He decides, like his colleagues Thomas and Margit, to say "screw it" to rule-following and puts himself (and, one would think, any hope of bringing a successful prosecution) in danger.

Well, fiction ain't fact, and at least in the latter case I really got why the response was what it was.

I do want to offer one very major content warning: There is, in this entry, animal abuse that I found very upsetting. It is the reason that I rated this read lower than the one before it, when before this occurred, I was set to give it a solid four stars. I am, it's true, very averse to this subject matter, and others might not find the event portrayed as upsetting as I did. For my fellows in feeling that children and animals being harmed are not welcome events in my entertainment, be aware this occurs.

Snowy, Yule-y streets in the sweetly intimate island community of Sandhamn. The expected death. The inevitable successful resolution of the crime. The ongoing lives of characters I've come to care about. All the elements of damned fine read. And so it was.

Until the content warning stuff happened. I'll be continuing with the series but some luster got lost off my pleasure.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

GUILTLESS and TONIGHT YOU'RE DEAD, books 3 & 4 of the Sandhamn Murders

GUILTLESS (Sandhamn Murders #3)
VIVECA STEN (tr. Marlaine Delargy)
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The tiny Swedish island of Sandhamn has always been a haven for lawyer Nora Linde. With trouble brewing in her marriage, she finds its comforts more welcome than ever, even in the depths of winter. That is, until her two young sons trip across a severed arm in the woods.

The boys’ gruesome discovery will once again connect Nora with her childhood friend Thomas Andreasson, now a local police detective. When the limb is identified as belonging to a twenty-year-old woman who disappeared without a trace months earlier, what had been a missing persons case takes on a whole new urgency.

Nora and Thomas delve deeply into the woman’s final hours, each of them wrestling not only with the case but with the private demons it awakens in them. As they do, they’ll find themselves drawn into the history of Sandhamn and the tensions that have been simmering just below the surface for more than a hundred years.


My Review
: ScandiCozy all over again...the novel, which is to say the ongoing series part of the read, is about the familial misadventures and vicissitudes of the main characters. This part of the read worked very well for me. Thomas's life as a cop is complicated enough to scare off an understanding and caring partner, let alone a self-centered one like Thomas's ex-wife. Nora the lawyer's finally bumped into the immutable reality that her snobbish doctor husband is a complete waste of her time and emotion when his ongoing infidelity is revealed (to no one's shock except Nora's). Now she needs to find a way to co-parent with someone she quite rightly despises after learning of his betrayal of her.

Thomas is at a different crossroads. His future is as unclear as his friend Nora's is, but he needs to reckon with a past that he's mostly dealt with by running from what he can't bury. His pain, that of a grieving father for his dead child, is so deep he can't let go of it. His ex-wife, Pernilla, who gets his blame for the death, is by the end of the book less shibboleth and more a flawed and also grieving person. Maybe, now that he's got some perspective, he can let go of his raw pain and move forward...we shall see. And that, right there, is the genius of this series: I care, and I want to see. I'm really invested in the characters.

The murder of a young girl, and its ties to Sandhamn's past, wasn't as successful for me. In part this is down to the fact that, while I am perfectly happy to suspend disbelief, the interrelationship of the modern crime with Nora's house and, by extension, her already troubled idea of her long-ago found family, strained the relevant emotional muscles too far. That, plus a fair-play violation in the form of a crucial interrelationship of past and present being completely withheld, left me feeling less kindly toward that aspect of the read.

I am also really discomfited by Nora's too-easy acceptance of some very shady "explanations" of a new character's deeply creeper-y behaviors. It could simply be the author felt they were sufficient...this all takes place pre-#MeToo...but they read as troubling to me because Nora doesn't seem to question the man's motives more than superficially. It's kind-of of a piece with the spoilery problem I had with book 2. This ain't, to my old-man eyes, any kind of a message I think should sit well with anyone in the 2020s.

Don't start here, but don't skip the story in its turn. It might not be my favorite of them so far, but it's got a lot going for it.


TONIGHT YOU'RE DEAD (Sandhamn Murders #4)
VIVECA STEN (tr. Marlaine Delargy)
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Soon to be divorced, attorney Nora Linde is finding her way as a single mother, and even falling in love again, when she’s asked by her childhood friend Detective Thomas Andreasson to help in a disturbing investigation. Marcus Nielsen, a university student, has apparently committed suicide, but it’s what he’s left behind that’s so suspicious and damning: his research into the Coastal Rangers, an elite military group where, in 1976, a young cadet died under questionable circumstances, a sadistic sergeant went free, and a case went cold.

When two of Nielsen’s contacts are also found dead—and diaries of their torturous training turn up missing—Thomas and Nora are certain that whatever happened three decades ago is unforgivable. And for someone who wants to keep those secrets buried—unforgettable. Now they must fight against time to expose a cover-up that hasn’t yet claimed its last victim.


My Review
: Much more Thomas-centered than the previous book. The crime here, in the present day, is deceptively simple...a suicide by hanging that a grieving mother cannot bring herself to imagine is what it seems.

Surprise! It isn't what it seems.

Nora's main involvement is to be asked by Thomas to look into the some aspects of the modern case as there's a personal connection to her. As her divorce approaches finalization, she's still playing nice with the family she's almost escaped from when her son's got a birthday party coming up. On the plus side she's got someone new in her life (who's actually also her tenant). The main item that contains what we all need to know about this tragedy's historical roots is, again, a found diary with deeply relevant clues. This repetitive trope would normally be grounds for a whole-star deduction in my rating schema. The reason it isn't? The sociology of military service subplot grabbed me hard. Not incidentally, in this entry Thomas and his partner Margit come more together as a detecting team for me, relying more on each other than in the last book. I'm not all the way sure why it happened now, but their previously slightly tenuous working relationship became more solidly grounded in pursuing the sadistic, evil killer.

Thomas's last-book accidental dousing, to undersell its seriousness, and subsequent loss of toes, his stint in rehab after the accident, and his reunion with self-centered Pernilla-the-ex, all make this entry in the series much more in his focus than last time. I'm still in the camp of thinking these are more Scandicozy than Nordic Noir stories, though the awful, sadistic murderer...serial killer, matched for ferocity by the "unexpected" addition of another guilty party. I won't at all say the existence or identity of the second party was surprising. It was believable, inasmuch as any mystery story's believable.

What beggared my belief was Thomas, near the end of the book (though not the story, see below), doing something that NO rational person would do who had all the information he possessed. It was stupid of him to risk so much for no commensurate possibility of gain. As it turned out, the result of his risk-taking was...tidy...but only for now, or I miss my guess. (In other words, I don't really believe it is what I read on these pages.)

The end of the book isn't an ending so much as a stopping place. There's obviously a lot more to the life-stories I'm invested in; but I am also reasonably sure there's more of the entanglements that came to light in this book to come in future entries. They're just too temptingly dangling loose for those strands not to lead somewhere new.

Again, don't start here but don't skip this one...Thomas and Pernilla have a BIG surprise for us that you won't want to miss out on.

Monday, August 28, 2023

HISTORY OF ASH, debut novel from Moroccan civil rights campaigner and literature professor via American University in Cairo Press

(tr. Alexander E. Elinson)
Hoopoe Fiction
$18.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: An unforgettable and eviscerating novel of human frailty, brutality, and resistance as told through the first-person prison narratives of a man and a woman

History of Ash is a fictional prison account narrated by Mouline and Leila, who have been imprisoned for their political activities during the so-called Lead Years of the 1970s and 1980s in Morocco, a period that was characterized by heavy state repression.

Moving between past and present, between experiences lived inside the prison cell and outside it, in the torture chamber and the judicial system, and the challenges they faced upon their release, Mouline and Leila describe their strategies for survival and resistance in lucid, often searing detail, and reassess their political engagements and the movements in which they are involved.

Written with compassion and insight, History of Ash speaks to human brutality, resilience, and the power of the human spirit. It succeeds in both documenting the prison experience and humanizing it, while ultimately holding out the promise of redemption through a new generation.


My Review
: Kafka meets de Sade in Morocco.

Cruelty is such a defining trait of human beings that I really don't understand why it still shocks me to what depths the forces of social control will sink to enforce hegemony, specifically in this case the hegemony of Morocco's royal government. It was a desire to experience the chaotic good of democracy and cultural self-determination that motivated the narrators of these separate prison stories to resist, at long last, control from above. Morocco lived with this both as a colony of France then as an autocracy. Generations of pent-up frustration on the parts of millions whose lives weren't in significant ways their own led to a repressive response. It's now called The Years of Lead, and the details of it events and abuses are stomach-churning.

What most histories forego is the personal costs of repressive regimes to their victims. As History is supposed to be academic and impartial, not immediate and visceral, this makes some sense...the issue is that history is never impartial and "academic" is coded language now for sanitized and watered down, attenuated enough to avoid letting real experiences in. This, then, is why historical novels must exist, why we must read them, and why they ought not be held to an artifical standard of "impartiality" like historiography is.

The role of fiction by academics is often a marginal one, one not centered in the commercial world for many reasons. One of them is very clear here. While Leila, an academic, relates her torture a bit more viscerally than does Mouline (the male narrator), she also uses more allusions to the vast literature of imprisonment, resistance, and injustice than does the younger, but still culturally very literate Mouline. This presupposes either familiarity with or curiosity about this body of literature in the reader. Commercially oriented publishers on the order of Simon & Schuster, to take an example much in the business news of late, can't trust this interest to exist and are certain their consumers haven't read those kinds of books. While I am not at all sure that's a reasonable thing to be certain of, I'm aware that the economics under which publicly-traded companies operate demand aiming for the lowest common denominator. Luckily this is not the only avenue for readers with either familiarity or curiosity or both to get their fix of enriching, exciting, challenging works like this one.

Hoopoe Fiction is a line of works, mainly in translation, centering Maghrebi and African more broadly voices. The American University in Cairo Press does us a great service by bringing these works to market. August being Women In Translation Month, I've centered works like this by women, and/or translated by women. My purpose is to alert the audience for book reviews that I'm grateful to say continue to find me here in their hundreds about. The Press offers great opportunities for discovery of reads that expand and furnish one's mind with viewpoints we don't come across with any regularity in US capitalist culture.

This book's deeply personal take on the prison narrative is based in the author's generational identification with the Years of Lead. She's also personally acquainted with resistance figures and prisoners of conscience, and has included details of the experiences she's learned about in this work. It is, as one can readily imagine, very hard to read the accounts of torture. It's far more difficult for me personally because I know the author isn't inventing them but transmuting the real experiences of people she's met into fiction. This is not a story for the faint of heart's amusement and delectation. It is a very hard read but one that is, in so many ways, urgent for the complacently comfortable to discover. This is what totalitarians do. Heed the warnings implicit in the existence of these two characters' narratives. They're fictional and based on fact; resist with EVERY FIBER the increasing possibility of experiencing, or knowing someone who experiences, these horrors. Learn the stakes you're risking when you don't believe political rhetoric coming from those you might agree with about some things. They mean it. And somoene will be paying an awful price for your mistake.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

August 2023's Burgoine Reviews & Pearl Rule Reviews

Author 'Nathan Burgoine posted this simple, direct method of not getting paralyzed by the prospect of having to write reviews. The Three-Sentence Review is, as he notes, very helpful and also simple to achieve. I get completely unmanned at the idea of saying something trenchant about each book I read, when there often just isn't that much to I can use this structure to say what I think is the most important idea I took away from the read and not try to dig for more.

Think about using it yourselves!


The Library at the Edge of the World (Finfarran Peninsula #1) by Felicity Hayes-McCoy

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: In the bestselling tradition of Fannie Flagg and Jenny Colgan comes Felicity Hayes-McCoy’s U.S. debut about a local librarian who must find a way to rebuild her community and her own life in this touching, enchanting novel set on Ireland’s stunning West Coast.

As she drives her mobile library van between villages of Ireland’s West Coast, Hanna Casey tries not to think about a lot of things. Like the sophisticated lifestyle she abandoned after finding her English barrister husband in bed with another woman. Or that she’s back in Lissbeg, the rural Irish town she walked away from in her teens, living in the back bedroom of her overbearing mother’s retirement bungalow. Or, worse yet, her nagging fear that, as the local librarian and a prominent figure in the community, her failed marriage and ignominious return have made her a focus of gossip.

With her teenage daughter, Jazz, off travelling the world and her relationship with her own mother growing increasingly tense, Hanna is determined to reclaim her independence by restoring a derelict cottage left to her by her great-aunt. But when the threatened closure of the Lissbeg Library puts her personal plans in jeopardy, Hanna finds herself leading a battle to restore the heart and soul of the Finfarran Peninsula’s fragmented community. And she’s about to discover that the neighbors she’d always kept at a distance have come to mean more to her than she ever could have imagined.

Told with heart and abundant charm, The Library at the Edge of the World is a joyous story about the meaning of home and the importance of finding a place where you truly belong.


My Review
: The thing is, when I read a book about a librarian, I'm set up to expect I'll hear about her relationship to and love of books. Absent from this read, for the most part, as we get her life's events surrounding family and community and the ever-tightening grip of the dead hand of The Market on social services like libraries.

The prose is adequate to the task of giving me a sense of the landscape she's traveling around in, as well as her complicated relationship to aging. Parents not being kind and supportive, childresn being their needy, solipsistic selves, exes hurting her by simply continuing to breathe...nothing ground-breaking, nothing badly handled. The publisher's comps above are accurate, so you know what you're getting.

HarperPerennial (their trade paperback imprint) will vend one to you for $16.99, but I'd use the library if I were you.


Calypso's Guest: A Short Story by Andrew Sean Greer

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: A bargain with the gods throws two men together in a timeless short story of adventure and unrequited love inspired by The Odyssey by Andrew Sean Greer, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Less . A man in exile, banished to a planet far from home and cursed with immortality, discovers that a ship has crash-landed near his settlement. After two hundred years, his heart’s desire has come true. A visitor has finally arrived on his lonely little speck in the stars. He’ll have companionship again. Someone he could love forever. As the weary traveler heals, the two men form a tender bond. But all they’ve come to share may not be enough to curb the visitor’s irrepressible wanderlust. Now the exile, who thought nothing in his endless life would ever change, must make a decision that will change everything.


My Review
: First, read this:
You saved him. Surely you should have been the one to send him {away}.

What is a person except this heap of loss? Otherwise—what wasted breath.

The Odyssey's Calypso passage, between two men and in outer space instead of among Greece's islands. Beware of asking the gods for favors because the answer might be yes. Few things in life hurt more than getting what you ask for because no thing, not a person a place a thought a feeling, no thing is fully knowable. And it's what you don't know about a thing that will stab you and leave you to bleed slowly, weaker with every loss, yet never granted the gift of oblivion.

Like everything of Author Greer's I've read, it does a fine job of filling time agreeably in terms of writing. The way it ends is in the myth it retells and is exactly what one would expect from a man of later middle years whose life is accelerating the process of takings-away that aging represents. If you already like his stuff, this will not disappoint.

It's free to read for Amazon Prime members, or $1.99 to buy (non-affiliate Amazon link).


This World Does Not Belong to Us by Natalia García Freire (tr. Victor Meadowcroft)

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A journey to the bowels of the earth

After years away, Lucas returns uninvited to the home he was expelled from as a child. The garden has been conquered by weeds, which blanket his mother’s beloved flowerbeds and his father’s grave alike. A lot has changed since Eloy and Felisberto were invited into the family home to work for Lucas’s father, long ago. The two hulking strangers have brought the land and everyone on it under their control—and removed nuisances like Lucas. Now everything rots.

Lucas, a hardened young man, turns to a world that thrives in dirt and darkness: the world of insects. In raw, lyrical prose, García Freire portrays a world brought low by human greed, while hinting at glimmers of hope in the unlikeliest places.


My Review
: A very short, relatively dense novella-length story of the eternal balancing act between fathers and sons that never ends, never changes, and can't be resolved.

What makes this book unique is its fairly unpleasant fascination with rot, rotting, rottenness, and the hugely productive life the inarguable primacy of this process sustains. The role of the strongmen who take over this deeply rotten family system play is the first among those battening on the rot. The inevitable fall of the father from his position of control is prefigured in the title. What makes it a good read is its attentive eye on the metaphor of rotting...nothing in the story is even slightly out of sync with that central spine of meaning.

It's a $17.99 trade paperback and comes in at 200ish pages, but feels like a much more substantial literary meal. World Editions sells them direct to you.


Urgent Matters by Paula Rodríguez (tr. Sarah Moses)

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: An electric Argentinian thriller featuring a deadly train crash, two unidentified bodies, and a missing murder suspect—perfect for fans of Attica Locke and Steph Cha

The Americans are more astute when it comes to matters like these. They say “not guilty”. They don’t say “innocent”. Because as far as innocence goes, no one can make that claim.

A train crashes in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, leaving forty-three fatalities, two of which have not been identified. A prayer card of Saint Expeditus, the patron saint of urgent matters, flutters above the wreckage.

Hugo, a criminal on the run for murder, is on the train. He seizes his chance to sneak out of the wreckage unsuspected, abandoning his possessions—and, he hopes, his identity—among bodies mangled beyond recognition.

As the police descend on the scene, only grizzled Detective Domínguez sees a link between the crash and his murder case. Soon, he’s on Hugo’s tail. But he hasn’t banked on everything from the media to his mother-in-law getting in the way.


My Review
: Fast, fun, mordantly funny...I hope the publisher's comps of Cha and Locke are resonating with you, because I think they're spot-on. There's little to mark this very entertaining read out of a crowded field, though, except some they-work-for-you or don't hints of hilariously implied Heavenly intercession. As foreshadowed in the synopsis, guilt and/or innocence really aren't the point here, so the ma'at-oriented mystery reader might not be well-served by this read...more, to me, of a Highsmith/gray hero vibe.

An $11.99 Kindle purchase later (non-affiliate Amazon link), a late-summer/early fall travel read doesn't get much more fun than this.


This space is dedicated to Nancy Pearl's Rule of 50, or "the Pearl Rule" as I've always called it. After realizing five times in December 2021 alone that I'd already Pearl-Ruled a book I picked up on a whim, I realized how close my Half-heimer's is getting to the full-on article. Hence my decision to track my Pearls!

As she says:
People frequently ask me how many pages they should give a book before they give up on it. In response to that question, I came up with my “rule of fifty,” which is based on the shortness of time and the immensity of the world of books. If you’re fifty years of age or younger, give a book fifty pages before you decide to commit to reading it or give it up. If you’re over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100—the result is the number of pages you should read before making your decision to stay with it or quit.

So this space will be each month's listing of Pearl-Ruled books. Earlier Pearl-Rule posts will be linked below the current month's crop.



The Bridge (Detective Louise Blackwell #6) by Matt Brolly

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Accident? Dangerous game gone wrong? Or murder? DI Blackwell faces her toughest case yet.

When the body of a young woman is discovered in a shipping container in Bristol, the police suspect she was an illegal immigrant whose death was a tragic accident. But their theory is shot down by two pieces of evidence: the container was due to ship out, not in; and, even more sinister, a video camera with a live feed was filming her from a hidden compartment.

Someone watched her die. Slowly.

DI Louise Blackwell is ten weeks pregnant, a fact she has largely kept to herself, and between bouts of morning sickness she now has a murder to investigate. While the docks offer few other clues, the discovery of more live feeds convinces Blackwell that there are other trapped women…and that some of them are still alive.


My Review
: At the end of chapter seventeen, I realized I could not justify the expenditure of eyeblinks on this story any more. It isn't bad, or poorly written. It's just indistinguishable from many, many other women-in-sexual-jeopardy books and I don't like reading those all that much. This is #6 in a series but, I say this without a trace of malice, it's enough like so many books that it doesn't matter. The main character is newly pregnant and facing an uncertain future in the police...the boyfriend's a brick who wants more than she's interested in giving...her family's pretty crappy, but have hearts of gold...need I say more? It's okay.

I'm not okay with that anymore.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

MY MEN, #WITMonth translation of Norwegian novel about first known US female serial killer

(tr. Damion Searls)
Astra House
$25.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Based on the true story of Norwegian maid turned Midwestern farmwife Belle Gunness, the first female serial killer in American history. My Men is a fictional account of one broken woman's descent into inescapable madness.

Among thousands of other Norwegian immigrants seeking freedom, Brynhild Størset emigrated to the American Upper Midwest in the late nineteenth century, changing her name and her life. As Bella, later Belle Gunness, she came in search of not only fortune and true faith but, most of all, love.

From Victoria Kielland, a rising star of Norwegian literature, comes My Men , a literary reimagining of the harrowing true story of Belle Gunness, who slowly but irreversibly turned to senseless murder for release from her pain, becoming America’s first known female serial killer. In pursuit of her American Dream, Kielland’s Belle grows increasingly alienated, ruthless, and perversely compelling.

Raw, visceral, and altogether hypnotic, My Men is a brutal yet radically empathetic glimpse into the world of a woman consumed by desire.


My Review
: When a writer sets their talent to the task of fictionalizing evil, there are choices to make that will determine the level of suspension of disbelief the reader's being asked to invest. Is the evil inherent (readily believable), evoked (sympathetically believable), or situational (tough to justify or invest in)? Is the perpetrator the victim lashing out, taking power back, or simply looking to survive in hard conditions? All of these ask us, as readers, to put aside our judgments of the bad actor to some extent and to come to a fuller understanding of what really happened (in the cases where evil is factually based, as this one is).

I'll say that I understood Belle Gunness a lot differently after this read than before it.

A more-or-less stream of consciousness, loosely structured narrative style suits the apparent purpose of humanizing a murdering, remorseless killer of many people. What the author seems to want me to do is to think of Belle as a person, in hard circumstances, not as just a killing machine. That didn't happen. As I followed her increasingly disordered thoughts and feelings, as I saw what she saw and worked back from there to her probable outside stimulus, I felt sympathy drain away from me. This is the situationally evil character, one who just does what she (in this case) does because she can. This person was a killer who liked killing for the power it conferred on her. The inner thoughts of such a person, as ficionalized, left me thinking how very easy it seemed to be for her to untether her blunted, stunted moral sense from anything that was outside her own mind. I'd assumed Gunness was existentially threatened herself and then enacted that on others. Before this read, what I saw was a need to redress her powerless victim state. After, she came through these pages as a narcissistic bundle of insecurities with a grossly overblown sense of what the world owed her.

If, like me, you thought we'd get a retelling of the life Belle Gunness led that made her what she was, get that out of your head. We're inside Belle's mind, arguably a more interesting place to be. It's going to put some readers off, because it's 100% conjecture. You're not tethered to the facts of Belle's life. You're asked to put aside that readerly need. Your disbelief buys you, however, the strange and deeply interesting view of a murdering sociopath's thought processes.

I hope like hell someone at the publisher's end made more than a cursory check on the author's background because she's very, very good...chillingly making this horrifying person's inner life accessible to a casual reader.

I don't think everyone will appreciate this read. I know I expected something other than what I got. I liked the actual book better than the one I thought I'd be reading in the end.

Monday, August 21, 2023

RUMENA BUŽAROVSKA'S PAGE: Macedonian tale-teller new to the Anglophone reader

(tr. Steve Bradbury)
Dalkey Archive
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Razor-sharp social commentary, Jane Austen for contemporary feminists unafraid to confront a dark world

In her latest translated volume of collected short fiction, Rumena Bužarovska delivers more of what established her as “one of the most interesting writers working in Europe today.” Already a bestseller across her native Macedonia, I’m Not Going Anywhere is an unsentimental and hyperrealist collection in which Macedonians leave their country of origin to escape bleakness—only to find, in other locales, new kinds of desolation in these dark, biting, and utterly absorbing stories.


My Review
: Seven stories, all centering women and their feelings; few socially acceptable, none positive.

Not having participted in heterosexuality for quite some time now, I am left utterly verschmeckeled by its continued existence. Exactly no women whose writing gets attention write of happiness connected to men. In romantic fiction, after the couple is established, the story ends; and none of them start with happy straight people. Of my own personal knowledge, there are almost no women really happy in their state of making eternal compromises and settlings they make to maintain relationships to their men. Why are y'all bothering? It's not great for anyone involved to be in what amounts to prison with a cellmate you condescendingly tolerate at best, despise and detest at worst. one's makin' me do it, so my only interest is an outsider's appalled fascination. Self-inflicted harm seems so wasteful. Not one of these stories is going to challenge my observation's validity; that Author Bužarovska is a multi-award-winning chronicler of straight women's experience suggests to me that she's on to something or the kudos wouldn't flow.

Strap in...we're headin' into the venerable institution of the Bryce Method to examine a little of what she is talking about in this collection.

The Vase reminds me of the drunken fights, the rage and hatred of being Stuck, stuck with-stuck in-stuck under, that there bursts out the sudden overpowering need to break shit just to make the world hurt a little bit like you are. That time in my own life was hellish. It's all right here in a few pages.
With every drink I am getting more and more pissed at him, and at his mother for not dying. The idea that she is sitting there all sick and hideous in her living room like a neglected houseplant, watching stupid soap operas all day, enrages me.

The poison of disappointment and the rage of thwarted entitlement eat caustically away until they spill out, paradoxically, as acid recrimination. 4 unhappy stars

Blackberries charts the course of a passive, purposeless thirty-three year old as she aimlessly moves towards the scene of a dreamlike past to test whether she was even real as a child. Her memories of the place guide her in opening the old cottage her grandparents had. The scenes of domestic contentment shining in front of her dingy present include memories of a vivid friend from that past; these seem to conjure the now-woman from the stones, summon her back to this crumbling haunt from her passionate intense life in the US. A tiny flicker of life, a spark of connection, then the fog descends again.

Was it even real? Does it matter if it isn't? She is never going to burst into glorious flower, like her childhood friend. There is no mass in her to go critical. 4 stars
I flick on the living room light: it works. I flick on all the light switches: everything is working; nothing is amiss. But it can't be, I say to myself. Nothing is ever right. That's just how it looks.

Tsi-Tse brings the cost of settling instead of settling down to the diametric opposite of the earlier stories' impoverished as well as unhappy lives. Elena thought she escaped Macedonia's grinding poverty by marrying an American man with a good job and moving to New Mexico. She found loneliness, isolation, and motherhood's endless unmeetable demands. She also failed to disentangle herself from her ill, needy father. Returning to Skopje when he has a stroke, she's in the eternally tempting path of cheating because her high-school crush Jovan has been in email contact...ain't the twenty-first century grand?...and the lure of Home is so deep...dreams are, after all, deepest when one is dreaming. Pesky reality has no chance to screw things up in dreams. Pity dreams can't last. 4 stars

I'm Not Going Anywhere is Riste-the-incel's humiliated homecoming to his Mama in Skopje after his hottie wife and teenaged daughter finally work up the nous to trade up men. The escape to Australia that he participated in gave them the scope to do better than his bitter, furious, abusive self. Now he's unloading all his pent-up anger on his mother, a portly, poor, elderly woman whose life has clearly been spent as some man or another's dogsbody.

After throwing a tantrum about his mother's goulash being inferior, he storms off to get some veal and show her how it's done. This leads ro a reckoning with his past that he clearly expected to go differently than it did. I found spending time in Riste's company thoroughly unpleasant. 3.5 stars

Medusa pilots us to what, from the off, I was certain was going to be a grisly cocktail party with a pair of Balkan academics visiting some very, very nouveau riche fellow-countrymen in that couple's ever-so-new-money new-build mansion. It doesn't help that the guest's husband is in the sights of the host's wife....

We've been to that party, or at least those of us over a certain age have, and it's a grim, brutal evening. In this telling of it, it very much is that awful, brutal evening for all concerned. 4 stars

Cherokee Red brutalizes a gay kid with a homophobic father whose immigrant status marks the whole family out in ever-so-sunny, ever-so-hot Phoenix...about as far from Macedonia geographically and culturally as a place on Earth can get.

You never know what words will fall where they can do the most damage, do you, and yet there most people are spouting the most revolting kind of hatred and ignorance without a care in the world. Bitter anger, hatred, self-loathing all wound up in a bloated, bombastic, shouting boozehound's nightmarish effusion demonstrating his nithingness. 4 stars

The 8th of March plunged me back into the bad memories of being in alcoholic relationships. The utter, appalling humiliation of Vesna-the-drunk stirred up bad old days, and brought a giant rush of anxiety my way. Horrifyingly cruel, this portrait of self-pity and utter, abject, appallingly public humiliation is easily the most perfectly realized of the whole collection. No alcoholic needs any help destroying their life, but sometimes Life provides them a stage. Harrowing. 5 stars


(tr. Paul Filev)
Dalkey Archive
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Adulterers, cheats, hypocrites, bad seeds—in My Husband, Rumena Bužarovska turns her wry and razor-sharp gaze on men, and on the lives of the women who suffer them.

In these eleven devastatingly precise and psychologically unsettling stories, we follow the female protagonists’ thwarted attempts at intimacy, ranging from pretense, to denial, to violent and ultimately self-destructive acts. This smart, funny, provocative collection demonstrates the profound skills that have made Rumena Bužarovska one of the finest contemporary writers of short fiction in Macedonia. This story collection Mojot Maž in Croatian, (My Husband in English), won the Edo Budiša Award for Best Short Story Collection.


My Review
: At eight or nine pages apiece, these stories can't be subjects of my usual Bryce method of synopsizing each one individually. That way spoilers lie, and y'all're very likely to go nuts about them spoilers. In a certain way, though, no matter what I say it'll be a spoiler because in eleven stories nothing changes. Women marry cads and bounders and abusive jackasses who treat them like dirt. Much of a muchness, then.

The reason I finished the book was that the author's voice, as translated by Paul Filev, is raw, blunt, almost brutally rageful; never less than seethingly aware of the injustice of "belonging" to a man and being subject to his will and whims. I cartainly won't re-read it. I'm glad I did read it in the first place. It's the first work translated from Macedonian that I've read. The author seems to be, based on the limited biographical information I can find in English, a big literary light in Macedonia.

Based on this first collection of hers to appear in English, I can see why. Her sort of caustic honesty isn't going to be to everyone's taste, but I found it to be to mine.

Monday, August 14, 2023

WHALE, the precarious lot of Korea's powerless through a family's life

(tr. Chi-Young Kim)
Archipelago Books
$22.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five


A sweeping, multi-generational tale blending fable, farce, and fantasy—a masterpiece of modern fiction perfect for fans of One Hundred Years of Solitude

Whale is the English-language debut of a beloved and bestselling South Korean author, a born storyteller with a cinematic, darkly humorous, and thoroughly original perspective.

A woman sells her daughter to a passing beekeeper for two jars of honey. A baby weighing fifteen pounds is born in the depths of winter but named “Girl of Spring.” A storm brings down the roof of a ramshackle restaurant to reveal a hidden fortune. These are just a few of the events that set Myeong-kwan Cheon’s beautifully crafted, wild world in motion.

Whale, set in a remote village in South Korea, follows the lives of three linked characters: Geumbok, an extremely ambitious woman who has been chasing an indescribable thrill ever since she first saw a whale crest in the ocean; her mute daughter, Chunhui, who communicates with elephants; and a one-eyed woman who controls honeybees with a whistle. Brimming with surprises and wicked humor, Whale is an adventure-satire of epic proportions by one of the most original voices in South Korea.


My Review
: First, read this:
While the man with the scar—the renowned con artist, notorious smuggler, superb butcher, rake, pimp of all the prostitutes on the wharf, and hot-tempered broker—was a taciturn man, he was gregarious with Geumbok, telling her everything about himself. The stories he told her were frightening and cruel, about murder and kidnapping, conspiracy and betrayal—how he was born to an old prostitute who worked along the wharf and was raised by other prostitutes when she died during childbirth, how he grew up without knowing his father, how a smuggler who claimed to be his father appeared in his life, how he stowed away to Japan with this man, how a typhoon came upon them during the journey, how the ship capsized, how the smuggler didn’t know how to swim and flailed in the waves before sinking into the water, how he, who thankfully knew how to swim, drifted onto a beach and lost consciousness, where he was discovered by the yakuza, how he lived with them and learned to use a knife, how he killed for the first time, how he met the geisha who was his first love, how he parted ways with her, how he returned home and consolidated power in this city—but she remained enthralled, as though she were watching a movie.

It really amazed me how very violent this read was. Women, queer people, and children are assaulted in every way you can conceive of on practically every page. This is not to say the women are never the woman grooms and sexually assaults a young boy.

Korea, once a backwater place only marginally present in the world's mind, was never expected to be more than the setting of a future war between the US and China. The huge existential dread of living in a place known only as the scene of a war that hasn't happened yet and only a few years away from being the colony of a brutal imperial power that was determined to extirpate its history and culture made all the modern cultural and economic flowering of Korea inconceivable. That has given the worst, most predatory actors free rein to design the socioeconomic climate to empower the lowest, most venal people to excel. (Does this sound familiar, Westerners?) The present-day creators working in Korea are shouting their "NO MORE"s and "NEVER AGAIN"s into excellent, internationally important artworks. This short novel is definitely one of those.

There is a dark, bitter gallows humor in the recounting of the many and various forms of violence in the story. The fact is, there are many very uncomfortable line-crossings of every sort in this family's trip through modernizing Korea. What I understood from this is that the author, who presents, eg, sexual assault as a fact of life, was not sensationalizing the existence of it, or trying to invalidate the experience of it; but was instead making the awful aftermath, the survival of its brutalizing horror, the point of her story...not the acts themselves but the aftermath of quotidian sameness that every victim of violence must, in fact, return to. Dinner still needs to be made, the garden still needs to be weeded, there are bricks to be made and laid, your tedious humdrum existence chugs right along...and that, my spoiled fellow Westerners, is how life is.

Not sensationalized. Not minimized. Lived over, through, shoved into a dark closet and sealed as tightly as is possible. No, it's never going away; yes, it bursts out in strange places in one's post-traumatic life that often cause more trauma; most of the world calls that "getting on with it." We're conditioned to condemn this pragmatism as being less than ideal. It is, in fact, the best and only way poor people all over the planet cope. It is a very privileged response to decry this kind of humor masking awful untold, untellable agony as perpetuating a system that is entrenched.

Not everyone is equipped to rebel, to spark change, and those people deserve our respectful attention, too.

That doesn't make this an easy read but I think it makes this an important read.
By its very nature, a story contains adjustments and embellishments depending on the perspective of the person telling it, depending on the listener’s convenience, depending on the storyteller’s skills. Reader, you will believe what you want to believe.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

THE DETAILS, malarial dreams of Love, Swedish Style

(tr. Kira Josefsson)
$22.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: An acclaimed Swedish author makes her English language debut with this intoxicating novel in the vein of Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti, about a woman in the throes of a fever remembering the important people in her past, her memories laid bare in vivid detail as her body temperature rises.

A woman lies bedridden from a high fever. Suddenly she is struck with an urge to revisit a novel from her past. Inside the book is an inscription: a get-well-soon message from Johanna, an ex-girlfriend who is now a famous television host. As she flips through the book, pages from the woman's own past begin to come alive, scenes of events and people she cannot forget.

There are moments with Johanna, and Niki, the friend who disappeared years ago without a phone number or an address and with no online footprint. There is Alejandro, who gleefully campaigns for a baby even though he knows their love has no future. And Brigitte, whose elusive qualities mask a painful secret.

The Details is a novel built around four portraits; the small details that, pieced together, comprise a life. Can a loved one really disappear? Who is the real subject of the portrait, the person being painted or the one holding the brush? Do we fully become ourselves through our connections to others? This exhilarating, provocative tale raises profound questions about the nature of relationships, and how we tell our stories. The result is an intimate and illuminating study of what it means to be human.


My Review
: Ecru silk damask, if it were a novel.

Fine sentences, trenchant observations, but all a bit samey. The nature of Love is, I guess, pretty much to be variations on a theme for most all of us. Like the damask I opened with, it's details that change not the shape of the central concerns of the lover. Her apparent life-long bisexuality simply is, from beginning to end; there's zero mention of coming out, except a tiny nod at the very end when her father's calm reaction to it in the past gets a sentence fragment. Nor is there a single soul whose response to her bisxeuality is...well, to be honest, even present.

This being the way I think things should be, I got no kick with that.

What doesn't excite me then? I have the sneaking suspicion that there's not more than meets the eye here, that the meanings are all present and accounted for, that one's meant to be exactly where we're left. I'm perfectly ready to stipulate that this could be my failure to dig deeper. Honestly the prose and the story don't invite me to do so...Nor do I, a lifelong US citizen, feel I'm led to see and feel the map coordinates throughout the text. Because I'm not Swedish nor am I familiar with them, the towns and neighborhoods of Stockholm that are named gave me no extra information, no deepened shadows or illuminated spots from their mentions.

The events of her life of love coming to her as fragments in a malarial fever gets little enough play that I never had a chance to develop a response to it. It's merely a framing device and no more. I found that to be a good thing because it didn't require a lot to use it effectively. Mentions here and there. No more than might occur in a letter one sends to a friend recalling shared moments from the past.

If your present mood calls for something meditative, something thoughtful without being stressful, here's a short, pleasant trip to Sweden with an honest hearted companion. Let her tell you some of her secrets. Your day might be enriched even more than mine was by my bisexual sibling. One small tic in the corner of my eye was caused by Alejandro,in the blurb above, campaigning for the narrator to have a baby with him. It is Kristian, whom Alejandro displaced in the narrtor's love, that wanted to have babies with the narrator. *tsk* on the copywriter!

Monday, August 7, 2023

1794: The City Between the Bridges , second The Wolf and the Watchman tale, translated by Ebba Segerberg

1794: The City Between the Bridges (The Wolf and the Watchman #2)
(tr. Ebba Segerberg)
Atria Books
$28.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A #1 international bestseller, this atmospheric and breathtaking sequel to the “cerebral, immersive page-turner” (The Washington Post) The Wolf and the Watchman explores the darkness hidden beneath the splendor of 18th-century Stockholm.

Stockholm, 1794: A young nobleman, Eric Three Roses, languishes in a hospital as the rest of the city claims that he belongs in a madhouse. Riddled with guilt, he writes down the memories of his lost love—his beautiful wife who died on their wedding night.

The young woman’s mother also mourns her death and, desperate for justice, begs for help from the only person who will listen to her: Jean Mickel Cardell, the one-armed watchman. But she isn’t the only person seeking him out.

Emil, younger brother to the brilliant lawyer and detective Cecil Winge, finds the watchman to demand his late brother’s pocket watch back. Instead, Cardell enlists Emil’s help to discover what really happened at the Three Roses estate that dreaded wedding night.

The City Between the Bridges: 1794 is a suspenseful race for the truth before it’s too late from an author with a “thrilling, unnerving, clever, and beautiful” (Fredrik Backman, #1 New York Times bestselling author) voice.


My Review
: Splendidly grim; staggeringly brutal.

Really, I could stop typing right there. What you need to know is: The first book isn't a necessity to read before this one, but I recommend it. If that book's truly dreadful crimes don't cause you to blench, this one's won't either plus you'll already know Mickel Cardell...he's central to the point of view of Enlightenment-era Stockholm from below our usual ten-thousand-foot aerie of aristocracy of the mind or the law. History glosses over so much.

The author and the translator must have worked closely together on this series to maintain such a clear sense of the language being used with great exactness and concision. The way the imagery unfolds is gripping, especially in the more awful parts...and there are plenty of them! I'm not going to spend a lot of keystrokes specifying the CWs. Trust me, if you need a content warning, you might shouldn't pick this series up. Bodies and minds are abused, ground down, commodified. No one in this book has a shred of a chance at happiness.

If that matters to you, shop elsewhere.

What you'll get in this shop is a very trenchant take on the role of power in corrupting the powerful's souls. What happens when no one can say no to you is never pretty. What happens to others is downright horrifying. It behooves the reader willing to come down the fetid alleys and swim across the reeking canals to realize what dehumanizing and Othering costs the Othered, but also those passively complicit in it.

The manner in which the story is constructed, multiple apparently disconnected viewpoints, isn't at first obviously going to lead us to Stockholm and Mickel. Be will. But that polyphony that feels so alienating early on is, in the end, an effective tool for conveying the reality of the story to the observing eye of the reader.

I don't for a second think too many will see the ending coming. That is praise, coming from me. I can't honestly say I felt ma'at upheld in the resolution. Because nothing on this wide green Earth can redress the balance of horror and misery unleashed on the people in it. But it doesn't stop being worth the trip.

So no happy happy, joy joy. But a lot of seriously good points being made in prose more than up to the task of delivering the burden of the tale in unforgettable ways.

Friday, August 4, 2023

SECRET POWER: WikiLeaks and Its Enemies, investigative journalism from the other side of the WikiLeaks issue

SECRET POWER: WikiLeaks and Its Enemies
(tr. Lesli Cavanaugh-Bardelli), Foreword by Ken Loach
Pluto Press
$19.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: An uncovering of the terrifying depths of authoritarian power that hide behind the infamous story of WikiLeaks.

*Winner of the European Award for Investigative And Judicial Journalism in 2021 and Premio Alessandro Leogrande Award 2022*

'I want to live in a society where secret power is accountable to the law and to public opinion for its atrocities, where it is the war criminals who go to jail, not those who have the conscience and courage to expose them.'

It is 2008, and Stefania Maurizi, an investigative journalist with a growing interest in cryptography, starts looking into the little-known organisation WikiLeaks. Through hushed meetings, encrypted files and explosive documents, what she discovers sets her on a life-long journey that takes her deep into the realm of secret power.

Working closely with WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange and his organisation for her newspaper, Maurizi has spent over a decade investigating state criminality protected by thick layers of secrecy, while also embarking on a solitary trench warfare to unearth the facts underpinning the cruel persecution of Assange and WikiLeaks.

With complex and disturbing insights, Maurizi's tireless journalism exposes atrocities, the shameful treatment of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, on up to the present persecution of WikiLeaks: a terrifying web of impunity and cover-ups.

At the heart of the book is the brutality of secret power and the unbearable price paid by Julian Assange, WikiLeaks and truthtellers.


My Review
: I dislike what I know of Julian Assange as a human being. That doesn't make what's been happening to him acceptable, still less justifiable. WikiLeaks has been a force internationally for sixteen years now; it's got a pretty spotty record, but that's not a huge surprise given its antipathy to Authority...that kind of puritanism leads the best-intentioned and most honestly passionate defenders of individual liberty down some deep, dark rabbit holes. This is not accidental, or without outside baiting. The use of agents provocateurs and disinformation is an old, effective means to hide actual, factual embarrassments in loud, distracting noise (see: the lives and work of Paul Linebarger and Edward Bernays).

The author is an established investigative journalist. She's won major European awards for her work in this often thankless, always risky role. All this as well as her undeniable personal drive to take on Power on behalf of the ordinary person's right to dictate what they will and won't tolerate from their governing institutions is what made this retelling of the events surrounding the scandals they've caused trustworthy to me. The mass media have, at best, glossed over and/or slanted their coverage uniformly negatively against Assange and WikiLeaks. Books like this are welcome correctives to that kind of Authority-supporting heavily biased coverage.

What matters in the world at large is that people like Assange and Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and Reality Winner are punished, not for being bad people, but for refusing to be silent and complicit in crimes committed by terrible people for vile aims and in service of reprehensible purposes. Author Maurizi makes this crystal clear, which is why the book appeared via Pluto Press not, eg, Random House. Big Business and Big Government are symbiotes.

I still think Assange, the man, is a creep. After eading this book, I am more convinced than ever that he will be made to pay and pay and pay for daring to reveal what the blandly evil rulers are really getting up to. As will, eventually, Author Maurizi and Bill Browder and Jessikka Aro the other people who hold the powerful's crimes up for the public to see clearly and judge.