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Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

I seem to have spent this month finally getting round to some of the "books EVERY other blogger has already read" from the last year or two. You know how it goes, you read the reviews, believe the hype, need to buy yourself a copy right now this minute and then leave it languishing for months in the middle of Mount TBR in favour of newer, more exciting reads. So I apologise in advance if this blog seems to be sooooo last year for the next few weeks. I just can't resist offering my own two cents on top of everyone else's!
The year is 1914 and for Grace Winter it's a time for new beginnings as she and her new husband, Henry, are making a trip on board the Empress Alexandra after their honeymoon period in Europe. The voyage is a tense one for numerous reasons. Whisperings of war murmur around the Captain's table, but Grace is preoccupied with worries closer to home as she prepares to meet Henry's well-to-do family for the first time. These anxieties are eclipsed when the ship runs into trouble and she finds herself stranded on an overloaded lifeboat with 38 near-strangers. Little does she know that she will soon be on trial for her life.

I must start by praising Charlotte Rogan's lyrical writing in The Lifeboat which is a pleasure to read. The descriptions of the sea are beautiful and at times I found myself re-reading sentences to savour every word. I really appreciated the way she conveys the majestic and terrifying power of the waves.

This novel raises some meaty ethical and philosophical questions. It is interesting to consider the way in which the different characters react under pressure and to what extent that influences their survival. Some turn to God, some (such as the seaman Hardie) adopt a more practical approach, some become hysterical, others keep their cool. The high-pressure, claustrophobic setting reminded me in some ways of Lord Of The Flies. Like that book, it made me think about my own character and how I cope in emergency situations. I don't think I am naturally extrovert, but do I stand my ground or am I easily influenced by others who are more forthright? It is difficult to imagine what we might be capable of in such an extreme scenario when the survival instinct is in overdrive.

The aftermath of the incident also gave me plenty to muse over. The victims of the shipwreck will forever be revered and remembered as angels, even martyrs, despite the fact that several of them may have been absolute scoundrels in life. Hints are dropped that Henry, Hardie and some of the other passengers may have been plotting some underhanded schemes. But it is the survivors, Grace and the other women, who are given a hard time. The jury, the public, the press - all are quick to judge these ladies, though none can even begin to imagine the physical and psychological hardship they faced during their ordeal at sea.

"What is this? A witch trial? Is the only way we can prove our innocence by drowning?’ I replied that perhaps there was a more profound point to be made about innocence, that perhaps a person could not be both alive and innocent"

It is true that their innocence is questionable, but as I said above - it is difficult to know where to draw the line when judging a person's actions taken in the name of self-preservation, when their natural fight-or-flight instincts have kicked in. Given the historical setting, I also wondered if the accused had been treated differently because they were women.

Unfortunately, despite its strengths I could only give this novel a fairly average overall rating simply because I just could not muster up any feelings for any of the characters. I felt disengaged from their plight and didn't care who lived, who died, who was guilty or otherwise. I think for a book of this nature it is essential for the reader to really care about the characters involved and I just didn't. Something about it felt a bit half-done and there could have been much more detail. There are lots of funny looks exchanged between characters that were probably loaded with meaning that I just didn't understand. I wanted more to convince me that Grace truly is an unreliable narrator, more on Hardie's mysterious agenda and his dispute with Blake, more on Henry and his wheeling and dealing. Subtlety and ambiguity can be great and I'm not saying that I necessarily wanted every single plot strand tied up in a neat bow, but a bit more tidying up at the end would have been perfect.

Lots (lots and lots!) of others have read this book and absolutely adored it, so it's a shame it didn't quite wow me in the same way. While the story didn't win me over, it certainly sparked lots of contemplation and reflection and for that reason I think it would be an excellent book club choice - I bet it would create loads of discussion. I'll be interested in whatever Rogan works on next as I really enjoyed taking the time to read her prose.


Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Catching up with Department Q

I absolutely loved the first book in Jussi Adler-Olsen's Department Q series, Mercy. It was an extremely gripping mystery that introduced some great characters. I bought my Dad the second one for Christmas and was trying to wait for a polite interval to pass before borrowing it back from him to read myself. And as the third book, Redemption, has recently been published (I was lucky to receive a copy for review from Penguin Books via NetGalley), now seemed like the perfect time to pick up where I left off.

Disgrace (also published as The Absent One)

After solving the Merete Lyngaard case we read about in Mercy, Department Q are firmly in the force’s good books. The downside of this is that their offices are full to bursting with closed and unsolved cases for their perusal. How do they choose which one to devote their attention to? When a folder appears on Carl Morck’s desk out of the blue he is somewhat bemused – nobody will own up to bringing it to his attention, and besides, the case is closed and resulted in a conviction for murder of a pair of siblings twenty years ago. But the more he looks into the matter, the more he agrees that some digging into the past is needed. Unfortunately, the one woman who can help him most is living on the street and will do whatever it takes to make sure nobody can contact her. 

Now from the beginning it is clear that this represents a departure from Mercy in a significant way - that is, we find out very early on who the wrong’uns are, making Disgrace more of a howdunnit or a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit. I don't often find this to be the most gripping kind of mystery novel and wasn't looking forward to spending a lot of time reading as Carl works out what the reader already knows. But it's well-written and very enjoyable on the whole with plenty of twists and turns to satisfy the seasoned crime fiction fan. The characters shine and we get a really good insight into the psyche of the criminals.

In Mercy, Department Q essentially just consisted of the dynamic duo of Carl and Assad. In Disgrace we see them become a trio with the addition of an eccentric new assistant, Rose. I found her really annoying at first but over the course of the book her quirks became more endearing to me and she seems like a character with promise. I am looking forward to see how her role is developed as the series progresses. 

When dealing with series, sometimes it's so difficult to review a book it in its own right rather than making lazy comparisons to its prequels. With this one I couldn't help it even though I enjoyed it and it captured my attention. The main take-home thought I was left with is ‘Well, it isn’t as good as Mercy’. But it's well worth reading for the backstory of the main characters and for continuity in order to get the best out of the series as a whole.

Redemption (also published as A Conspiracy of Faith)

Can you think of anything more romantically mysterious than finding a message in a bottle? That’s how Redemption starts – when an unusual bottle is washed up on the bleak North Scottish coastline. It sits on a shelf gathering dust for years until some bright spark comes to the realisation that it contains a desperate plea for help. And it’s written in Danish, so of course it ends up on the desk of Carl Morck ready for Department Q to look into. He ends up on the trail of a cold-hearted serial killer and master of disguise who has managed to infiltrate some of the country’s most insular and reclusive religious sects. The criminal is still at large and, to make matters worse, is targeting children.

As if Department Q didn't already have enough on its plate, Assad can't help sticking his oar in with one of the cases that is troubling the regular police force upstairs. A spate of arson attacks has plagued the city and the only clue to a possible solution is the bizarre finding of several charred skeletons with severed fifth fingers.

I'm delighted to report that Jussi Adler Olsen is back on top form in this most recent instalment in the series! It’s a really satisfying crime novel, a perfect mix between past and present narratives, action scenes and introspection, a nice sprinkling of humour, boom! I felt like it was very well-researched when it came to the details about the various religious organisations, too.

The best thing about these books is that aside from all the suspense and action you can enjoy some great character development. Rose is gone but not forgotten as her equally odd sister Yrsa stands in to cover her workload. I love the relationship between Carl and Assad and am particularly fond of the teasing hints that are slowly being dropped about secrets in Assad's past, carefully uncovering another side to his personality as we progress through the series. There are times when he feels like a bit of a racial stereotype, but he certainly provides comedy value with his speech that is peppered with bizarre proverbs and misunderstood idioms. It’s a credit to the translator that this language barrier is conveyed in convincing broken English from the original Danish. If I didn't know better I'd be convinced that this novel had originally been written in English.

After Disgrace left me feeling very underwhelmed, I was so pleased to read such a solid follow-up. Redemption has reignited my interest in this series and I will certainly be picking up any further installments. This book would work very nicely as a standalone crime thriller, however, I think for full appreciation the books should be read in order.