Book Review: Trap

Trap, by Lilja Sigurðardóttir (translated by Quentin Bates), is the second novel in the author’s Reykjavik series of crime thrillers. I have not read the first. While the story holds together as a standalone I wondered if the limited backstory, which brought new readers up to speed, contributed to my inability to sympathise with any of the characters. Perhaps had I better understood how they ended up in the difficulties they must now face I would have felt more concern over their fates. It is hard to care for drug runners and murderers no matter how much they love those dear to them.

Opening in April 2011, in a trailer park in sunny Florida, Sonja wakes from an unplanned nap to realise that her young son, Tómas, is not where she expected. The pair are on the run from Adam, the boy’s father. He is furious that Sonja has thus far evaded him.

Forced to return to Iceland and resume her job as a drugs courier, Sonja contacts her former lover, Agla, for assistance. Neither of the women appear to understand what the other works as. Theirs is an unbalanced relationship based on sexual attraction – a driving lust and its associated jealousies.

Following the financial crash Agla’s money laundering activities are under investigation. What the authorities are unaware of is their size and reach. Needing to clear a large debt she schemes with others working the financial markets to pull off a lucrative deal. She has many associates who will benefit, operating in powerful places.

As both women call on their contacts in an attempt to extricate themselves from official attention and underworld danger, their games of cat and mouse are surveilled by circling predators. Agla’s activities have come under scrutiny from a diligent investigator at the special prosecutor’s office. Sonja finds herself caught between drug barons vying for power on both sides of the Atlantic, including Adam who is using Tómas as leverage. Even when supposed kingpins are taken down there is always another ready to step into the vacated space.

It is not hard to believe that this is how the mega wealthy operate, and that they will always have minions seeking to increase their personal power and influence by whatever means. The observations on the men involved – driven by ego and unwilling to admire any woman’s superior contribution to their business – were familiar.

Sonja’s strength and resilience were sometimes irritatingly erratic – perhaps this was an attempt to make her appear more human by showing occasional weakness.

Agla misunderstands love, associating it with some form of ownership and control, as did Adam. Despite being clear headed and capable in business she too suffers weaknesses – her egocentric attitude to Sonja, and cocaine.

The writing and structure maintain the tension as each character takes risks and encounters danger. The movement of drugs and money is portrayed as beyond the control of authority – above the law due to the influence of the globally wealthy. Although the story held my interest and attention I found this, and the way key characters were willing to behave in extremis, somewhat depressing to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda.

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Book Review: The Man Who Died

“Death only comes round once in a lifetime”

The Man Who Died, by Antti Tuomainen (translated by David Hackston), is a thriller written with a wicked sense of humour. Set in Finland during a sultry summer, it opens with the protagonist, thirty-seven year old Jaakko Kaunismaa, being told by his doctor that he will die soon, possibly within the next few days. Jaakko has been slowly poisoned, irreparably damaging vital organs. This news comes as something of a shock as Jaakko believed he had flu and would be cured with a course of antibiotics. With death imminent he is determined to discover who has done this to him.

Still in shock, Jaakko seeks out his wife, Taina, for advice. He finds her in a compromising position with one of their employees. While digesting this second piece of new and unwelcome information he starts to suspect that she may be behind the poisoning. Taina is a skilled cook and prepares most of what Jaakko eats. If he is to confront her he requires proof.

Jaakko is CEO of a moderately successful mushroom processing and distribution company. Recently, competitors have set up beside his factory. Run by three local thugs they threaten Jaakko and headhunt key members of his staff. With his life close to its end Jaakko decides that he wishes to save the business and ensure it does not all go to his suspected murderer.

From being a comfortable but unexciting boss, Jaakko proposes innovative changes to operations. This sudden switch in personality surprises everyone, not least his wife. The competitors are impatient with Jaakko’s refusal to do as they demand and threaten violence. In a bizarre series of events the police become involved and Jaakko is forced into hiding. He discovers that Taina is planning something to do with the business and is determined to thwart her.

Plans require immediate action as Jaakko may have little time left. He must also battle the symptoms which can, at times, be debilitating. He requires assistance but must be clever in bringing on board those who he previously had little to do with. Imminent death brings into sharp focus what must be achieved when reacting to unfolding events. While there is still life though, there are also typically human vanities and concerns. These are portrayed with sympathy, gently mocking at times but empathetic.

This is a clever and entertaining take on the thriller genre, offering unexpected twists with just a touch of the surreal. Coming face to face with one’s demise may sharpen focus but death is, after all, a prospect anyone living could face on any given day. Deftly written with a satisfying originality this is a warm and witty but still suspenseful read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda.

Book Review: And the Wind Sees All

In a fishing community in the north of Iceland a young woman cycles to the village hall where she is to conduct the local choir in a much anticipated concert. As she passes by the reader is introduced to the characters who briefly observe her, many of whom have lived in the village for most of their lives. The narrative covers just a few minutes in time, like a wind blowing through the streets in which these people are going about their day. Whatever they are doing, minds are wandering. Lifetime memories can be triggered by a moment, before that moment drifts away.

And the Wind Sees All, by Guðmundur Andri Thorsson (translated by Bjørg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery) is a study of the never ending train of thoughts that individuals live with yet rarely share. Snapshots from the past are cherished – their significance is personal, sometimes hurtful to others. A young woman may have sparked feelings in a man that his wife has never generated – feelings he will linger on as he ruminates over what might have been. A wife may despise her husband for his habits but put up with them for the sake of family harmony. It can be wise to avoid drawing attention to that which is better lived with silently.

One group of long time friends is sitting outside enjoying a pre-concert drink and listening to an anecdote, each remembering events from their pasts involving others known to all but significant in differing ways. These personal perspectives interlink but with unacknowledged importance and consequence. There are: loves, betrayals, resentments, regrets.

The reader learns of the lonely and the guilty. Fortunes have been made and lost. Secrets devastatingly shared. Children have been raised and loved before dying or moving away. Events that felt like endings were survived, marking change.

A poet waits patiently for words that continually flutter away. A priest drinks and gambles in privacy. An old man drowns memories of childhood abuse in alcohol before collecting himself and resuming his quiet existence. A sister grows exasperated with her brother and they cease speaking.

The writing is lyrical and poetic, the sharing of hopes and dreams that sparkled and then faded. Life continues beyond disappointments, marking time with occasional small happinesses. The village knows many of these secrets but chooses to accept and look away.

Lives are complex. Words for intimate feelings prove elusive, the feelings themselves fleeting. The metaphor of the wind passing through and observing just a few minutes of individual lives brings to the fore how little people are aware of what is happening to others, even those close by.

This is an affecting approach to portraying the ordinary as personally extraordinary. A poignant yet hopeful read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: The Cake Tree In The Ruins

The Cake Tree In The Ruins, by Akiyuki Nosaka (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), is a collection of twelve short stories set in Japan towards the end of the Second World War. In 1945 the author watched the Allied fire bombing of Kobe kill his adoptive parents. He subsequently witnessed his sister starving to death. These stories are based on his experiences. They are dark and at times savage but this seems apt given the subject matter. Most end on the 15th of August 1945 when Japan surrendered leaving a population numb, subsisting amongst the ruins of the many towns and villages razed.

The collection opens with the tale of a lonely whale that mistakes a submarine for a potential mate. Excited by the thought that he may finally be able to raise a family, he accompanies it as it heads into danger. As with many of the stories this one does not have a happy ending.

The Parrot And The Boy is one of several stories that depicts a human survivor finding solace in an innocent creature. The eight year old protagonist has managed to keep the bird his late father gave him alive despite complaints from neighbours at his use of scarce food. When the town is fire bombed the boy and his parrot find themselves alone in a shelter. The shock of what has happened renders the boy mute, much to the consternation of his talking pet.

Mothers are lost to young children who, unable to grasp what has happened, wait for their return. In My Home Bunker it is a father who comforts a young boy. Before leaving for the front the man had provided his family with a shelter. Here his son goes to remember the work this took and to play out his games of helping defend his country. Unaware of the succour the child derives from this trench under their house, which she had never felt necessary, the mother assumes it is her thoughts and fears that are shared.

The Red Dragonfly and the Cockroach depicts a kamikaze pilot as he faces what will be his final flight. Towards the end of the war Japan was turning anything it could think of into a weapon in an attempt to thwart the evil Allies.

With all the men away fighting, children were required to help with the war effort. A Balloon In August describes how even paper and glue were used to create a device that could carry incendiaries into enemy heartlands.

The lack of food became a serious issue and forced people to take risks, creating bad feeling amongst survivors. The Elephant and its Keeper reminds the reader that humans were not the only creatures affected. As well as the provisions required to keep them alive, there was concern about what would happen if bombs destroyed zoo enclosures and dangerous animals escaped. A decree to kill these innocent yet potential predators became challenging to implement.

The Soldier and the Horse is another story that explores the bond between an animal and the young man tasked with keeping it safe that it may be worked beyond its capabilities for the war effort. Bombs do not just kill people.

The stories are haunting and heart-wrenching but bring to the fore the true horror of war and the effect of propaganda in perpetuating its cruelties. Official bodies talk of heroes and honour while people and other creatures starve or die in brutal circumstances.

As we commemorate the fallen this is a timely reminder of the realities of conflict – one that people in other lands are still living with. There is no glory in enabling such suffering, death and destruction.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Soul of the Border

Soul of the Border, by Matteo Righetto (translated by Howard Curtis), is set in the remote and diminished village of Nevada near the alpine border between Italy and Austria. Here the De Boer family have lived for generations, eking out a living growing tobacco on the steep valley terraces. By the end of the nineteenth century the border has been moved, the land changing from Austrian to Italian rule. The high quality tobacco grown in the area is strictly monitored and purchased by the monopolistic Royal Tobacco Company.

Augusto de Boer is married to Agnese. They have three children: Jole, Antonio and Sergio. Each must work relentlessly to grow the crop that keeps them from starvation. The threat of famine and illness have driven many in the region to abandon their land and seek fortunes elsewhere.

To make life a little easier for his family Augusto has found ways to hide and process small quantities of their crop. Following the main harvest he will traverse the mountains and cross the dangerous border to reach the mining towns in Austria. Here he trades his smuggled tobacco for minerals that the exploited miners sneak out from below ground in their bodies. He brings home the valuable silver and copper that he may trade them for food and livestock. It is a dangerous business as customs officials roam the border lands intent on punishing those they regard as robbing The Crown and their wealthy acolytes.

When Jole turns fifteen Augusto decides that she will accompany him on his dangerous journey that someone else may learn the route through the mountains. Several years later, when he has not returned home from a smuggling trip, she sets out with tobacco to make a trade and find out what happened to her beloved if taciturn father. What she learns on this journey will change her forever.

The book is written in three parts. The first sets the scene and explains how the family lives. The second and longest part covers the journey Jole makes, the dangers encountered and the people she meets. The final section details her attempt to return. The perils encountered at home and away are both natural and man made.

The plot progression is, at times, slow with unremitting dangers described in detail, only some of which are actually encountered. There are depictions of the poverty experienced by those whose harsh and poorly rewarded work ensures the wealthy continue to live in comfort. Balancing this bleak outlook is the beauty of the mountains and their natural inhabitants, although these can, at any moment, become life threatening.

In many ways this is a timeless tale of mass exploitation to generate wealth for elites. By establishing and then strictly enforcing borders and laws, to remove hope of improvement for workers, there will naturally be those who turn to subversion. Augusto and then Jole force themselves to face fear and danger for the love of their family. The risks they take may feel worthwhile but ultimately the personal cost is high.

The writing is well structured with keen portrayals of time and place. The premise of the tale may not not be original but it is vividly told.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: The White Book

“the place I flee to is not so much a city on the other side of the world as further into my own interior”

The White Book, by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith), is prose yet reads with the piercing beauty of poetry. It contains a series of haunting and evocative short studies on the ripples created by loss.

At twenty-two years of age the narrator’s mother gave birth to a premature baby, alone in an isolated house in the countryside. The child lived for less than two hours. The manner in which this firstborn entered and left the world remained as a shadow within the family. As the mother continued to mourn her dead daughter, her subsequent living daughter observed in the knowledge that she would not exist had her sister lived.

Each vignette in the collection is wound around a white object such as: swaddling bands, gauze, snow, a white bird, a shroud. The narrator has travelled to a strange city where she ponders her surroundings and their effect. She remembers aspects of her life thus far, including the stories she was told about her past and before she was born.

The observations are visual, internal and resonant. There is no sound other than the echo of her personal history. The narrator is living with the inevitability of loss, that all will one day die. For birth, marriage and death there are rituals – attempts to slow the erasure of those who have gone.

“there has never been a time when the only comfort lay in the impossibility of forever”

Just as freshly fallen snow adds a cleansing, soft beauty to the world it shrouds, so the writing is breathtaking in the visceral wonder it offers as it wraps itself around moments in time. The words are thoughtful and contemplative – hopeful in their acceptance of what cannot be changed.

“Each moment is a leap forwards from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. We lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far, and take that perilous step out into empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way. Now, in this moment, I feel that vertiginous thrill course through me. As I step recklessly into time I have not yet lived”

This is writing to be savoured. An exquisite yet grounded read.

Book Review: The Peace Machine

The Peace Machine, by Özgür Mumcu (translated by Mark David Wyers), tells the story of an invention designed to bring world peace. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, when citizens around the world were scheming to overthrow their autocratic rulers, a man living in the country now known as Turkey drew up plans to harness electromagnetic technology and create a mind control machine. He believed that a terrible war was looming and that averting such a crisis was more important than free will.

The protagonist of the story is Celal who uses his unusual strength to save the life of a wealthy stranger. The man then takes him in, raising Celal as his son. The boy makes the most of the opportunities this grants him, although chooses to be a writer rather than study law as his adoptive father wished. Celal writes erotic fiction, circumventing the ban on such output by working with an old schoolfriend, Jean, who lives in France. Jean finds a talented illustrator for Celal’s texts. The books prove popular netting them a sizable income.

As a result of a badly judged decision, Celal must leave his home country. He travels to France where he is told that Jean has been murdered and their money stolen. Whilst investigating this tragedy he finds out about the peace machine and becomes involved in a plan to overthrow a king and queen. To play his part he must join a circus along with the young illustrator.

The story zips around between cast and countries. There is a great deal of fighting and many deaths. Much like the circus in which part of the tale is set, each character plays numerous roles utilising disguise, bluff, costume and trickery. Celal and his associates believe in the worth of the peace machine but cannot shake off the strings of their elusive puppet master whose aims shift as the tides of power change.

“we hold the key to world peace. But if it were to be used in the wrong way, the already warped order that humanity has brought into being would be destroyed. Celal, that’s why the people should rule their countries. […] if people were left to decide for themselves whether or not to go to war, the chance of war breaking out would be slight.”

Persuasive words, smoke and mirrors take Celal on dangerous adventures. Despite the intrigue he remains convinced of the potential of the machine.

The plot is fast moving, original and well structured but I found too many of the characters, particularly the women, two dimensional. Females were introduced only to be lusted after. Even Celal’s love interest, despite her supposedly dominating personality, lacked depth.

The story is allegoric in tone with a darkly magical feel, incorporating trickery and sleight with a touch of the surreal. I enjoyed the weaving of history with the variations in achieving mind control by the wealthy and powerful. There is plenty to consider, especially in today’s world. The denouement remains open to interpretation.

There are positives but for me this was not a satisfying read despite its intriguing premise. Those female characters and the weaknesses they highlighted in the men proved too much of an irritation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.