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Sunday, 30 June 2013

If you like Stieg Larsson, you'll love this blog post

Now, I read Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy a few years back and really enjoyed it. However, it really irritates me that he seems to have become the yardstick by which all other thrillers are judged. You can barely set foot into the crime section of a bookshop without seeing his name emblazoned across the shelves - "If you like Stieg Larsson, you'll love this!" "For fans of Stieg Larsson!". It smacks of lazy marketing to me. This month I have read two books with similar quotes shouting at me from the front cover, and they were both very different from one another.

"The Next Stieg Larsson"
The Devil's Star by Jo Nesbo
The only Jo Nesbo book I have previously read is The Snowman, which I thought was really great and got completely immersed in. I wasn't overly enamoured with Harry Hole as a character but enjoyed the twists and turns of the plot. Unfortunately this one didn't quite match up to my previous experience of Jo Nesbo's work.

A young woman is found murdered in her flat with no apparent motive or suspects, and bizarrely, a tiny, red, star-shaped diamond is found planted behind one of her eyelids. Harry Hole is lying at home in a drunken stupor in a puddle of his own self-loathing and vomit, having to all intents and purposes lost his job - he's just waiting for the big boss to sign his dismissal papers on the dotted line. However, it's the summer holidays and the department is short-staffed, so his Chief Inspector gives him a ring and orders him to take on the case (!) until his expulsion from the force is a done deal.

This one wasn't for me, I'm afraid. There were too many implausible details and I couldn't find myself invested in the plot. The fact that Harry's boss would have him working in such a state, that his stunning girlfriend would take him back and place such a loose cannon in charge of her little boy - it just didn't ring true. At one particularly charged moment, during a face-off with the perpetrator, Harry actually falls asleep (that is, if I understood the scene properly, which I think I did)! He's just in a really bad place and isn't a particularly fun protagonist to spend time with.

So now that's one real winner of a thriller from Jo Nesbo and one that didn't hit the mark for me. I'll definitely be trying another to see what I make of it. What's your favourite of the Harry Hole series?

"The Japanese Stieg Larsson"
The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

Yasuko is a single mother living a quiet yet happy life since escaping from an abusive relationship some years ago. But when her ex-husband turns up on her doorstep without warning, her peace is shattered. She is forced to defend herself and her daughter, and the situation escalates and takes a terrible turn. Assistance unexpectedly arrives in the form of Yasuko's neighbour Ishigami, a reserved maths professor who provides her with an alibi and helps her to hide the body. It seems his genius logic has got them out of some very hot water indeed. Unfortunately, Ishigami doesn't realise that the police have a very useful friend on their side - Manabu Yukawa, outstanding physicist, and at one time the only student in their class who could match Ishigami's intellect.

This book can be summed up by a question Yukawa asks Ishigami over a discussion about their love of maths and puzzles:
"Which is harder; devising an unsolvable problem, or solving that problem?"
This is the essence of the story - we know that Ishigami has come up with some ingenious way of covering his tracks but have no idea how he could possibly have done it. The excitement comes in watching the police stumble in ever decreasing circles around their suspects and wondering if they will ever be able to work out the solution. It's a howdunnit rather than a whodunnit or even a whydunnit. I had no idea how it would end and didn't even know how I wanted it to end or whose side I should be on. Ishigami is such a complex character - I had such admiration for his amazing mind but at the same time his cold detachment from the crime and his intense feelings towards Yasuko were very sinister.

I found this book to be similar to Stieg Larsson's work in almost no way at all! The only comparison I can draw is that they have both apparently sold huge numbers of copies in their countries of origin. The Devotion of Suspect X is deliciously slow-paced and very much a police procedural, concentrating almost entirely on the intricacies of problem-solving rather than thrills and action. I believe this is part of a 'Detective Galileo' series featuring Professor Yukawa, which I would be interested to read, however, for me Ishigami was definitely the star of this show.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Literary Giveaway Blog Hop - The winner!

And the winner of a copy of Rivers Of London by Ben Aaronovitch is...

Nikki Ooi!

Congratulations Nikki, I'll send you an e-mail to confirm your postal details. Thank you so much to everybody who dropped by the blog over the past week to take part, and big thanks also go to Judith at Leeswammes blog for organising the hop once again!

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Literary Giveaway Blog Hop (June 22-26)

It's time for another round of the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop! This is an event organised by Judith over at Leeswammes' Blog and it takes place three times a year. Judith noticed that there seem to be awful lot of blog hops and giveaways around for romance and YA novels, but not so much for more literary choices:

"if you’re giving away a book, that it should have some literary merit. It does not have to be the most difficult classic ever, but please no romance, urban fiction or YA. Quality thrillers, poetry and non-fiction are fine, as are contemporary fiction, literary fiction and any other genres not in the categories above"

This time around I have decided to give away a copy of any one of the Rivers Of London series by Ben Aaronovitch to one winner. For those who haven't already discovered these books, Rivers Of London is such a great read whether or not you usually like to read fantasy. And if you're already partway through the series and would like to win the second or third books, please let me know in a comment. You can read my review of Rivers Of London here.

The giveaway is open to any country that The Book Depository ships to. The rules for entry are as follows:

1. Comment on this post telling me which of the books you'd like to win. One comment equals one entry.
2. For an extra entry, follow me on Twitter @marieemonaghan and mention your Twitter handle in your comment.
3. For an extra entry, follow me on Goodreads and let me know your Goodreads ID in your comment.
4. Please remember to leave some way for me to contact you if you win - an e-mail address or Twitter ID.
5. The giveaway will remain open until the end of the day on 26th June.

Good luck and remember to visit the other blogs participating in the hop!

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Wool by Hugh Howey


Back when I started this challenge in January, I was all set on what my post-apocalyptic choice was going to be. I read and loved Justin Cronin's The Passage last year, so the sequel The Twelve seemed an obvious choice. But as we all know, us book bloggers are a fickle bunch and it's easy to get distracted by something new. I had heard lots of murmurings about Wool, another post-apocalyptic read, and it sounded very appealing. And when I recently took the plunge and signed up to NetGalley (oh! how that site is going to challenge my self-restraint) this was the first book kindly sent to me by Random House.
Life is good in the silo. The people are friendly, food is plentiful, healthcare is readily available when needed. Those in charge are democratically elected and take their office on the top floor. A skilled IT department keeps channels of communication open throughout. And the whole silo is kept ticking over by the engineers in Mechanical, deep in the belly of the Earth. Just one look at the screens projecting video images of the bleak, uninhabitable landscape outside, and the inhabitants of the silo know how good they've got it. There are always some crazy folk who question this from time to time. How did the silo get here? What exactly is out there, out of view of the lens? These ungrateful dissenters are punished by being cast out with a woolen cloth to clean the cameras so that everyone else can continue to enjoy the view - fated to certain death. But one day sheriff Holston, the sensible and much-respected warden of the silo, joins the dissident ranks and chooses to go outside. This sets in motion a chain of events that shake the foundations of the entire community.

Wool is actually an omnibus of five short stories that were originally published separately. It's still great to read them all together, though, and you can barely see the joins. I can see how books one and two worked as standalone novellas, but by the time you hit book three everything merges seamlessly. And it's a good job, too, because had I been reading this at the time of publication I don't think I would have been able to bear sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to find out what happens in the next installment! It's so gripping and completely understandable that those first readers urged Howey to keep writing more and more. He spins a hell of a yarn. There are so many twists and turns that you are never quite sure who is pulling the wool over whose eyes.

Howey has created such a unique and intricate setting in the silo. It's fascinating to have the whole world condensed into one single underground warren. He clearly has a good understanding of sociology and politics, and deftly illustrates both the physical and social hierarchies that exist between the different cliques of inhabitants. The 'down-deeps' are acutely aware of the 'up-tops', working tirelessly to provide for them, while the 'up-tops' are barely even aware of their existence half the time. The technical detail is done well too; for example, I found the descriptions of subterranean hydroponic farming completely plausible. It's detail like this that makes you really believe that the silo could exist and function as an active community for many years.

I also particularly appreciated the effort put into characterisation. Howey flits between different points of view but each individual is so well-developed that I was reluctant to leave them behind when it came to the next chapter. So many favourites - Holston, heartbroken after the death of his wife. The wise Mayor Jahns. Feisty mechanic Juliette. Old Walker, the reclusive electrician who's a secret genius. I think the fact that Wool is actually a series works very well in this way as you thoroughly get to know each character individually and spend time with them before moving on to meet the next. It feels almost like a good TV series or soap opera. In fact, I'll be interested to see how 20th Century Fox treat the cinematic adaptation as for me it would feel more intuitive to serialise the story (similar to, say, Game Of Thrones). Either way, I imagine it's going to be a visual treat and one of those rare books that works just as well on screen as in print.

I'm so glad I picked this up as it's a really satisying tale to get tangled up in. This week I discovered that there's a prequel, called Shift, so that is one that I'll definitely be picking up soon. I certainly feel that Wool deserves the great reviews it has received and would be enjoyed by many readers, even those who aren't usually attracted to sci-fi/dystopian fiction.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Triple Choice Tuesday

Just a heads-up to let you know I'm over at Reading Matters today choosing some of my favourite books for Kim's Triple Choice Tuesday feature. Pop over and have a read! Let me know what you think of my choices.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Alif The Unseen by G Willow Wilson

I read this book about six weeks ago and have been struggling to get a review down since then. I've typed a rough draft on multiple occasions and then deleted it all. I wonder why some books pose so much more of a problem than others? In this case I think it's because there is so much going on between the pages that it's been difficult to know where to start. I picked this book as my fantasy choice for the Literary Exploration Challenge, but it has so much more than fantasy to get your teeth into.
Before we start, can we just pause to take a look at that cover? It's one of the most beautiful books I've read in ages!

Alif* is a young hacker working from his home in an unidentified Middle Eastern city. His work is highly controversial, providing internet security to prevent illegal websites from being infiltrated and shut down by the State. His clients include all manner of political and religious dissidents. What's more, he is having a secret affair with an aristocratic young woman who is engaged to be married to a powerful State figure. So it's no surprise when the authorities finally track him down and will stop at nothing to catch him. But just before he goes on the run, his lover sends him a mysterious old book containing stories of jinn and folklore. Alif begins to realise that the supernatural world may be closer entwined with his own world than he has ever known, and that it just might hold the key to his escape.

Sounds mad, right? And it is a bit mad, and that was exactly what made me want to read it. And I have to be honest and say that while I was reading this book I didn't entirely adore it. I wasn't gripped. But weeks after finishing it, my mind still keeps going back to Alif The Unseen and musing over the words. It's a book that gives you loads to think about - a definite grower.

Wilson spends much of the book addressing the interplay between religion, the supernatural, and modern culture. She challenges Western stereotypes about life in the Middle East. Alif's city is one where cyber caf├ęs and Western music are as much of a part of daily life as the call to prayer is. At the same time, religion retains its strong influence on the way the city is governed. For example, State security personnel are not permitted to breach the sanctity of a mosque in order to search for a fugitive. All of the main characters follow Islam to some degree but have their own personal interpretations of their beliefs, which makes for some interesting conversations, particularly between Alif and his local Imam. There's some good stuff about marrying theoretical computer science and coding with philosophical concepts and metaphor, which I have to admit went over my head a little and verged on implausible in the context of the plot, but was really interesting and unique to think about. You don't particularly need any background knowledge of either computing or Islam to fully understand the novel but I bet it would enhance the reading experience to no end.

I also found the portrayal of women in this novel to be pretty interesting. The main female character, Dina, is Alif's childhood friend and neighbour. She chooses to veil her face for religious reasons, much to the disgust of Alif and her parents who don't respect her choice, murmuring about oppression and the prejudices of the various Arab subcultures in their community. She is extremely devout, she is modest, and at the same time she is independent and intelligent, getting Alif and herself out of sticky situations thanks to her quick thinking. We also encounter an American academic who has converted to Islam and provides yet another perspective. Sure, it's not perfect - Dina certainly has one or two damsel-in-distress moments and acts as a token love interest, and I'm pretty sure the book doesn't pass the Bechdel test, more's the pity - but it certainly made me ponder the common Western stereotypes that prevail towards Muslim women and whether I'm guilty of any such lazy prejudice.

This is making Alif The Unseen sound pretty heavy-going, which it isn't. There's a lot of humour and fun there too, particularly when the group venture into the supernatural world of the jinn. It reminded me of Rivers Of London in the way that fantastical beings live so closely alongside our normal world and all have such lively characters.

All in all, Alif The Unseen is such an incredibly ambitious novel. I can certainly forgive it for being a bit clunky and not 100% cohesive. It's one of the first books in ages that I want to take the time to re-read soon. Both fun and thought-provoking.


* not his real name.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Strangers On A Train by Patricia Highsmith

Way back in January when I started my Literary Exploration Challenge I read Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled classic, The Maltese Falcon. I enjoyed the book but remarked upon it's overwhelming air of masculinity, and frankly, misogyny. Looking forward to my noir choice I thought it would be interesting to choose something by a female author for contrast, but had no idea who to choose. Then a few weeks ago the perfect name popped into my head. Who better than Patricia Highsmith? The Talented Mr Ripley is one of my all-time favourite novels. I adore her writing and have been meaning to read something else by Highsmith for ages.

I haven't seen the famous Hitchcock adaptation of this book (who knows why, because I love Hitchcock films) but I always thought I knew exactly what the story was about. Two strangers meet on a train and agree to 'swap' victims, allowing each of them to get away with the perfect murder, right? But actually, the novel runs much deeper than that.

Guy Haines finds himself in a situation that any regular user of public transport will be familiar with. He is on a train going to visit his estranged wife in order to plan their divorce, wanting a quiet journey to be alone with his thoughts, and an irritating stranger in the same carriage persists in trying to make small talk. The present-day solution would be to jam your iPod headphones in place and pretend to be asleep, but unfortunately back then this wasn't an option and so our mild-mannered, polite protagonist is forced to engage Charles Bruno in conversation. As the train makes its way across the country it becomes clear that Bruno is a bit of an oddball, to say the least, and when he proposes his crazy scheme Guy dismisses it as a tasteless joke:

"What an idea! We murder for each other, see? I kill your wife and you kill my father! We meet on a train, see, and nobody knows we know each other! Perfect alibis! Catch?"

But a few weeks later when he hears of his wife's death at the hands of an unidentified strangler, Guy's mind goes back to that throwaway conversation. Surely this weirdo wouldn't have gone through with his plan?

I find it strange that Patricia Highsmith is often labelled as an author of crime thrillers or mystery novels. While I love crime fiction and believe that there are few literary achievements greater than plotting a perfect mystery novel, I feel that this is doing her a disservice somehow. The crime itself often takes a back seat in her writing. What Strangers On A Train really focuses on is the inner turmoil of the two main characters - her understanding of psychology is second to none. I can think of few novelists who do madness anywhere near as well as Highsmith. I love the way her tight, precise prose can depict such a disordered mental state. And in this book we see two quite distinct types of madness. On one hand you have Bruno, the obsessive stalker, the psychopath, the misogynist, quite probably schizophrenic:

“But there were too many points at which the other self could invade the self he wanted to preserve, and there were too many forms of invasion: certain words, sounds, lights, actions his hands or feet performed, and if he did nothing at all, heard and saw nothing, the shouting of some triumphant inner voice that shocked him and cowed him.” 

And on the other hand there is Guy, the ordinary man on the street who is pulled into a web of deceit and ends up incessantly tormented by remorse and shame. You can't help feeling for him and pleading him to move on and be happy with his new wife. It is clear to the reader that his own emotions will be the cause of his undoing if he can't keep them in check. You are left feeling like anybody at all could be manipulated into commiting murder under the right circumstances.

I have read a few reviews on Goodreads that compare this book to the Hitchcock film and do so unfavourably, saying that the novel lacks the suspense and thrill of the movie and meanders too much. Now as I said earlier, I haven't seen the film and while I fully expect Hitchcock to have done a sterling job, I imagine he must have had to make a multitude of changes from the original text. There's an awful lot in this book that just wouldn't transfer very well to the big screen. So much of its power comes from inner dialogue. I think that to compare the two versions too closely is to miss the point a bit. Look at Strangers On A Train as a psychological thriller rather than a straight mystery and you will appreciate it much more.

So now I'm off into town on the bus. Bag on the seat next to me, headphones in ears, nose in a book - don't think I'll be in the mood for chatting with fellow passengers for a while now!