Monday, 28 March 2011

I Fiori di Hong Kong by Paola Rondini

I fiori di Hong KongI fiori di Hong Kong by Paola Rondini
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is an unusual Italian thriller in that it is not set in Italy, nor in Europe, but in the far east, and unusual also in the lack of political and social undertones which are rather common to the Italian giallisti.

The architect Vittorio Sarli is called to Hong Kong to identify his late brother Giorgio, who has been found brutally killed in his house. Vittorio is unconvinced by the circumstances and wants to reconstruct the events of the last weeks of his brother's life. He meets Julia, the editor of an ecological magazine, and her ward Lin May, a photographer and ex drug addict who occasionally works for the magazine.

While grieving and reconstructing his brother’s life, Giorgio and the local investigator Leung find worrying and dangerous connections to the Russian and international mafia.

The descriptions and sense of place are what I most liked about this book: even the dampness of the weather in Hong Kong comes across in the writing of an author who has clearly lived in those places. The diversity between different attitudes, the western and the Chinese, is also rather aptly described. However, I missed a more engrossing description, which could have supported more strongly and in more detail the framework of the plot.

The characters also have an interesting underpinning, but are not developed quite as much as I would have liked: i like the original idea of the victim's brother trying to find closure by investigating the last weeks of the victim's life, but feeling and events seem to be described almost incidentally. Vittorio’s relationship with the Chinese investigator, Leung, is something between professional and friendly - and neither seems to be very realistic.

Another interesting idea in the book which I think is not quite treated in sufficient depth is the cultural divide between east and west: we read a lot about Leung's daughter, who is a troubled teenager, but this doesn't quite contribute to the picture of the Asian culture and I am not sure how it fits with the main story of the book.

All in all, a book with decidedly interesting ideas, which if had been unravelled sufficiently would have made a very good, fast-paced thriller exploring different cultures.

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Monday, 21 March 2011

The Inspector and Silence, by Hakan Nesser

The Inspector and SilenceThe Inspector and Silence by Håkan Nesser

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although a crime fiction reader knows that a fiction book is just that, fiction, there still are some topics which are more disturbing than others. One of which is violence on children: and we know that this is going to be the theme of the book from the quote at the beginning.

When a teenage girl disappears from the Pure Life camp, run by a religious fanatic and his feeble-minded acolytes, inspector Van Veeteren is called in, despite the lack of evidence of a murder, even after the girl’s body is found. Then a second body is found in the wood and rumours start to emerge about the oddness of the sect and its members, and the goings-on at the camp.

Van Veeteren tries to interrogate various people at the camp but the young girls have been brainwashed and the adult women refuse to make any comments except to support their leader unconditionally. After extending the investigation further, Van Veeteren finally discovers an uncomfortable and disturbing truth.

Despite the grimness of the topic, Inspector and Silence is extremely discerning in the descriptions and this is not a violent book – descriptive violence not necessarily being a requirement of crime fiction, indeed in my opinion often detracting from the quality of the writing.

The description of the environment is extremely suggestive and as already mentioned, the difficult topic is dealt with very judiciously. The translation by Laurie Thomson manages to convert excellently a large number of idioms and the unusual expressions of Van Veeteren, achieving a good measure of fun even within the boundaries of a grim investigation.

Van Veeteren is an older and experienced detective and is looking forward to his retirement, and despite this being a character whose traits are not unique to the crime fiction literature we can’t help but empathise with him and the small pleasures of good food and wine.

I have enjoyed this book very much and am looking forward to reading the others in the series very soon.

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Monday, 14 March 2011

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

Notes on a ScandalNotes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is never a good idea to watch the film version before reading the book, however I felt in this case this was an exception. The 2006 film starred Judy Dench, one of my favourite actresses, and Cate Blanchett, who both fit remarkably well with the characters described in the book.

The story is probably very well known by now and it describes the relationship between two teachers: the sixty-something, single Barbara Covett and the forty-something pretty and naïve Sheba Hart, who has an affair with one of her pupils that is subsequently exposed.

The story is narrated by Barbara in the form of a recollection and diary, and it manages to give Sheba's point of view throughout their friendship remarkably well. Through Barbara, who comes across as manipulative, selfish and haughty, as well as painfully lonely, we learn of the trials and tribulations in Sheba's mind which have led to the affair and its consequences.

I was astounded at how deeply and clearly the author communicated the complexity of both characters and their motivations: Barbara's excruciating solitude and Sheba's lack of assertiveness which leads to terrible consequences. I felt outraged at Barbara's behaviour and at the same time extremely sorry for her loneliness, and found myself debating whether it would explain, if not justify, her actions.

Barbara is painfully critical of anything and anyone which doesn't conform to her own sky-high standards, but this is her own justification for being alone. She doesn't seem to have any friends except for Sheba, and we are told of a previous friendship that ended up badly. Indeed, we can see why: Barbara sees friendships as exclusive, all-encompassing and overwhelming, not leaving anything for the other person to choose for herself without risking the scorn of Barbara herself if the choice is not to her liking.

I also felt outraged at Sheba's behaviour, who felt to me like she was letting her life and her actions being led by chance and by anyone who expressed an interest in her or what she was doing; at the same time I couldn't help but feel sorry for her and what was happening to her, which indeed was more than sufficient punishment for just lack of assertiveness.

Although there aren't many twists and turns in the plot because of the nature of the story, the narration is extremely absorbing and the rhythm comparable to a psychological thriller. I would recommend this book wholeheartedly as one of the best novels I've read in the last few years.

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Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Jo Nesbø at the BBC World Book Club

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the recording of the BBC World Book Club talking about The Redbreast with Jo Nesbø a couple of days ago. It was a great and rare experience being able to share the discussion of a book with none other than its author.

The presenter, Harriett Gilbert, started with the question we all wanted to ask: what is the correct pronunciation of his own and his protagonist’s name? After establishing that the English and Norwegian pronunciations don’t sound anything like each other, it was agreed to use the ‘English’ version, which was a relief!

The discussion started with a very frank recollection of Jo’s youth when his father told him about his own role as a German supporter in the Second World War and his harrowing experiences, which shaped the background of the book, the first in the Harry Hole series which currently runs to eight with the latest The Leopard.

More questions from the audience in the room, as well as on the phone and by email, brought to light an extremely talented and multifarious personality: a former stockbroker, a musician and an undoubtedly talented writer all in one. We also learnt about the origin of the title, the real people behind Harry Hole, and the origin of the 'apple' instrument of torture described in his latest book, The Leopard.

Jo’s thoughts on writing were perhaps the most anticipated of the discussion: we talked about his occasional plot strands left hanging (reflecting real life, where there isn’t closure on everything), about when he started writing, when he realised that the book was becoming a series, and why Scandinavian crime is so popular.

Although Jo doesn’t like to know the personality of the storyteller (for example, he says he doesn’t read his friends’ books) as this ‘stands in the way of the story’, he wasn’t reluctant to tell us more about himself, his experiences of life and of writing The Redbreast: why the Northern European detectives seem to be all gloomy and depressed, what writers influenced him, and the process of working out the plot of the book.

He commented on the possible end of the series but didn’t give away anything to the fans: we’ll just have to keep our eyes peeled for the next book!

The programme will be broadcast on Saturday 2 April for BBC World Book Club. Don’t miss it!

Friday, 4 March 2011

L'allieva by Alessia Gazzola

L'allievaL'allieva by Alessia Gazzola

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

L’allieva, the debut book by medical doctor Alessia Gazzola, has certainly been much anticipated in the Italian publishing world and has so far triggered very different and rather strong reviews (both positive and negative).

The protagonist, Alice Allevi, is a young trainee pathologist who has to struggle against the customary Italian nepotism and patronising macho attitude of her colleagues as well as her own absent-mindedness on the job, which puts her in trouble more than once. She seems to have a rather unfortunate fascination with her young trainer but falls for a charming and exotic young man whom she meets at an art exhibition. All this while trying to follow, against her superiors’ advice, her own hunch on the circumstances of the death of a young girl belonging to the Roman high society, whom she had met by chance in a shop a few days earlier.

Alice has been called a cross between Kay Scarpetta and Bridget Jones and she certainly has elements of both: the book is well written and runs very smoothly and easily, although mixing two genres like Alessia has done here is no mean feat. Crime readers are notoriously very difficult to please, requiring a watertight and complex plot as well as an excellent description of characters and locations, while romance is concentrated on feelings and emotions more than on hard facts. It is a tightrope that Alessia is walking here and credit is due to her for this.

As a crime fiction reader, I would have probably liked her to draw more from her own forensic knowledge and experience which can really make a book gripping, and I hope that the next case will perhaps have a few more twists in the plot and draw a lot more on the forensic detail. As a doctor, she has the capability to do so, and she needs to exploit this fully.

The book is, all in all, a good debut and I am sure the writer will, in the next books, choose to concentrate on only one genre, the crime or the romance: the resulting book will certainly be much stronger.

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