Pen 33 – Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström

First of a series featuring policeman Ewert Grens, this is a no holds barred, graphic, and troubling novel.

At the core, it’s about a pedophile who preys on young girls. Not much is left to the imagination. But the police involvement is only one angle – albeit the main one – as the revenge attempt by the father of one of the victims takes center stage for a fair chunk of the novel.

Set in Sweden, the book does a good job of painting the scene, and making the backdrop believable. Some of the prison scenes, and the politics of it, came across as all too realistic and horrific. The judicial process seems less well rounded. The level of characterization varies, but on the whole is good.

There are times when I think you can see the joins in the book – where the fact it is the work of two authors has had an effect – because there are small unfinished aspects of scenes, and the direction of the story is a bit jerky. However, it’s also possible I am imagining this, and instead what we have is the chaos of real life rendered as fiction.

The plot, such as it is, works well enough, but it is relatively simple and the only major twist is not that much of a surprise. If you cannot see what’s coming, you surely don’t read much crime fiction. On the other hand, the overall story is interesting and did have me thinking about some of the issues after I finished it.

I’m glad I read it, though am not fully convinced. I will probably read the next one to see if it improves, because with the rough edges ironed out, this would have been an excellent book. One for the reserve list.

Incidentally, none of the roughness should be put down to the translator – Elizabeth Clark Wessel – because from that perspective the language was spot on.

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A Legacy of Spies – John Le Carré

Well, the critics really, really loved this.

They gushed and they gushed and they gushed. Then they gushed some more. I thought it was OK, but certainly didn’t mention a first gush, never mind the repetitions…

This is a spy novel where the author’s favorite (or most famous) character, George Smiley, is always in the background. But in the center of the stage is Peter Guillam, an ex spy, retired and living in France. One day, he is dragged back to the establishment by litigation from family members of some who died in the Cold War. Guillam and others are blamed, and the Secret Service is trying to cover its backside. Just what was going on between Guillam and Smiley, and the other spooks? All will be revealed.

The narrative flits from past to present, in nice flowing language which manages to glide over the death and tragedy unfolding in its pages. Then you realize what has happened, and you go back and read it again. Chilling.

The lead character is a good one: likeable, a bit of a rogue, and with his own (flawed) moral compass.

The atmosphere, especially when the book touches on the Cold War events, is terrific. The modern perspective is best when the author shows us the hard edge of the sneaky civil service, and a different type of dicing with death.

A Legacy of Spies is good, but not this author’s best work. Oh, and for the avoidance of doubt, it is still absolutely worth reading. Just don’t let all that gushing get in your way.

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Two from Stav Sherez

These two novels, starting with A Dark Redemption, are police murder mysteries featuring DI Jack Carrigan and DS Geneva Miller.

The first book is about the dreadful slaying of a Ugandan student, the second about a horrific fire in which several nuns die. In both, the author does an excellent job of sprinkling a veritable shoal of (credible) red herring clues about the place to keep the reader off balance. However, as a seasoned crime fiction reader, I spotted the solution in Eleven Days as soon as a particular family relationship was exposed. Regardless, the plots are very well put together.

So far as the characters are concerned, A Dark Redemption is largely about Carrigan’s background, with Miller more up front in Eleven Days. They are both well rounded characters, but Miller could do with a bit more padding out, some of which may come to the fore in the third of the series.

The rest of the police squad are cardboard cut outs with a clear notion to tick the diversity box.

The backdrop that is consistent in both is London, and the author presents it well, with enough fresh perspective and nice language to make it more than just a familiar set of place names.

These books reflect a mountain of research and hard slog, which the author has put in so as to deliver fine examples of the crime writer’s craft. Not up with the best, but getting there. Recommended.

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All Systems Red – Martha Wells

This is a science fiction story about a robot/android who hacks his way into sentient independence, but doesn’t reveal this to his human owners. Murderbot – as he calls himself – is a SecUnit, deployed as a security guard with a team of scientists working on a planet to see what is there and what might be the best way of developing it. There is another team working on a different part of the planet with their own SecUnits.

This is a universe of mega corporations, where everything must be approved and supplied by corporate masters. And, since contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, quality and safety are not high on the list of priorities. Meantime, Murderbot secretly watches soap operas, hoping the humans will leave him alone so he can work out what exactly he is.

Our hero has a bit of a black mark in his employment record: he slaughtered a team of miners he was working for. His memory of that is incomplete, but it lingers at the edge of his consciousness as he interacts with his current team members. Do they know? What do they think, if they do?

Events take a turn for the worse, and Murderbot becomes the only thing standing between the scientists and their demise. The action that follows is a mix of shoot-em-up and clever maneuvering, with a fairly relentless cranking up of the tension.

This novella is good fun, and it led to me looking for more of the same. I have refrained from buying any others because, although all of novella length, they are priced the same as full length novels, and there is that creeping sensation of ripoff. I’ll maintain a watching brief.

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Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore – Matthew Sullivan

This gets the prize for quirkiest murder mystery I have read in a while. As you will guess from the title, it is set primarily in a bookstore. Lydia Smith, the bookseller with a social conscience, tends to and is sympathetic to the homeless and the oddball characters who are regularly present there as a refuge from the outside world.

One such regular is Joey Molina. His death triggers an investigation into his life and the connections he had, all delivered by messages fashioned by him from books in the store. Lydia has to track down the books, decode the messages, and work on what these clues mean, and what part they play in explaining Joey’s life and death, and Lydia’s role in his world.

This is a touching, lovingly told tale, with some nice characterization, and a gentle style that eases you along despite the death and tragedy that underpin the investigation and search for the truth.

This is one to be savored, especially by book lovers.

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Earthly Remains – Donna Leon

A fine addition to the Commissario Guido Brunetti series, being an adventure built around our hero’s partially enforced break from the Venetian Questura, on one of the islands in the laguna. With his contacts, accommodation is available, complete with caretaker, one Davide Casati. Brunetti bonds with Casati, and becomes a witness to the man’s environmental concerns.

What happens next is that Brunetti reverts to his role as a policeman, investigating the disappearance of his new found friend after a terrible storm.

There are secrets to be unearthed, and much disruption to be introduced into the lives of some who thought they were safe and secure from the forces of law and order. Brunetti digs away until he gets, inevitably, to the shocking truth.

As usual, the book is packed with the details of life in that part of the world that make the backdrop as much of a character as Brunetti. The supporting characters are generally enough to get the action moving, though Casati is a wee bit more roundly presented.

The plot is easy enough to unravel, but for best entertainment it is best to let the author tell it in her own way, with a smooth, peaceful narrative that holds back the righteous anger deserved of the baddies. The journey, with Leon, is beautifully presented, restrained, and ever thought provoking.

Although there are many books in the series, you can read this on its own. But, if you want my recommendation, start with the first – Death at La Fenice – and continue in order. You won’t regret it.

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The Berlin Project – Gregory Benford

This book sets out to tell what could have happened had the Allies been able to put together a working atom bomb by June 1944. The central scientific idea is that there was a quicker way to create the uranium isotope needed for the bomb, although in reality a combination of factors saw the scientists go down a different, slower route.

Be warned – spoilers ahead!

The main character for our purposes is Karl Cohen, the scientist with the key to making the bomb that much faster. As part of the Manhattan Project, he deals with a slew of scientific talent, many with their own foibles. The book lets us meet greats such as Einstein, Oppenheimer, Teller, Fermi and more. Unfortunately, from an entertainment perspective, some of this nuclear development is turgid and boring. The book sags. It’s full of strange asides that don’t make sense until later, when you discover that Cohen was not only a real person, but was the author’s father-in-law! (Indeed, much of the historical details, like documents, are real items appropriated by Benford to stiffen his book with authenticity.) When you have the connection, it does not make the pace that much faster, but at least you understand the author’s perspective. File it under interesting rather than enthralling. And if you are not a history buff, it might not even be interesting.

The second half of the book improves, as the bomb is used and the hell that is war – up to now kept well away from the scientists and their research – is brought up front and center. Cohen becomes involved almost at the sharp end, and the full thrust of the alternate history is let loose. This is where the book is at its best.

This is a fascinating novel for the way the author has built something out of his own family history. I get the impression this was his love letter to his family, and that wonderful appreciation fired his imagination enough to want to tell a story. The trouble, from my perspective, is that the story does not have the same impact or attraction as might have been expected. Perhaps this occurred because Benford chose to stick as close to the truth as he could, and made no concessions for the sake of dramatic effect.

To mix a metaphor or two, this was not a dud, but more of a near thing; a failed experiment that I am glad I read, if only to momentarily to bring back to life the (largely unsung) heroes who toiled to advance the cause of freedom in the face of great evil.

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The Way of Kings (Part One) – Brandon Sanderson

Highly regarded sword and sorcery fantasy novel, this left me cold, cold, cold.

The book runs several narrative threads, with a diverse range of characters each apparently on their own plot line.

There’s a lot of invention, but that hopeful indication is let down by one dimensional characters – ie good or bad – and page after page after page of nothingness delivered by way of overwritten, under-edited prose. Sanderson can write, but not always to the required level of quality. And the lack of action dropped the pace so much i nearly fell asleep reading it. The plot is OK, but while it doubtless took some work to construct, it neither drew me in, nor convinced me of its plausibility. Partly that was because the characters also failed to entice me.

In summary, this was like watching an animated cartoon that had been slowed down so much, you wondered if you were ever going to be able to see any action. Nice colors, though.

Overall, this gets a “D” for disappointing.

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Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

This is the book on which Spielberg’s film of the same name is based. It’s a post environmental apocalyptic world where the poor are poorer and the rich and richer. Most people escape reality by spending all their time in a virtual reality. One of the founders of that virtual reality (VR) has died, and left a will that passes on control of the VR and immense wealth to the first to find their way to where he has hidden a series of three keys and one door. Our hero is one of the many trying to secure that prize against big corporate baddies.

The book is jam packed of 70s and 80s cultural references – pop music, TV, and – of course – video games. You don’t need to get these references, but for sure it helps.

The writing doesn’t get in the way of the story, and there are enough twists and turns to keep your interest up. In short, very enjoyable, but not everyone’s cup of tea.

Incidentally, I have read the book and seen the film. Thankfully, I read the book first. Why? The film is awful. I would never have bothered with the book based on the film.

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