Under the Skin is Michel Faber’s debut novel. I borrowed it from a friend after watching the film of the same title, directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson. I’m glad that I read the book after the film, because there is only a loose connection between the two. I love the film, but I wonder whether I would feel the same if I’d read the book first and seen the film as an adaptation of the book.Continue reading
Kōbō Abe is a writer I struggled with when I read his most famous book, The Woman in the Dunes. His dreamlike, psychological horror bent my brain. The Box Man promised a similar trip, as it follows a man who chooses to live inside a cardboard box, rejecting the normality of his previous existence in favour of the tenuous reality contained within his mind.
I’ve had the book on my To Read pile for almost 5 years, so I decided to add it to my 10 Books of Summer reading list. It turns out that its claustrophobic setting fitted well with the unusually oppressive sweltering heat of July in the UK.Continue reading
Rating 3 stars
Blood Wedding is a psychological crime novel by French writer Pierre Lemaitre. It concerns Sophie, a woman with severe memory loss who, at the start of the book, is looking after a young boy on the days and nights that his busy parents can’t be there. When we meet Sophie, disaster has struck. Continue reading
Rating 5 stars
The Shape of the Ruins is the story of the writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez and his involvement with two men who are obsessed by the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948. Gaitán is real. Vásquez is real. I don’t know whether Carlos Carballo or Dr Francisco Benavides, the man who introduces Vásquez to Carballo, are real. It’s a novel about truth and the multiple truths of history. It’s a novel about how politically charged events can have decades of reverberation, affecting the lives of those who are unaware of the origin moment. It’s a novel of connections obscured by the twists and turns in their paths. Ultimately, it’s a novel about power and its influence over truth. Continue reading
Rating 4 stars
What do you do when your sister keeps killing her boyfriends? You become her Cleaner. This is the situation Korede finds herself in when her sister Ayoola kills three of her boyfriends on the trot. Continue reading
Rating: 2 stars
Touch is the second novel by Claire North, one of the pen names of Catherine Webb. I hadn’t heard of her in any of her guises, but a colleague saw me reading one of the Wayfarer series of books and thought I might like Claire North.
Its 423 pages took longer to read than they deserved. It was a grind at times. The central character has the sort of transient existence that makes it hard for them to have anything they care about, and the things North decided they would care about didn’t grab my attention. Continue reading
Rating: 4 stars
This time two years ago I read Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood’s collection of short stories that describe life in Berlin in the years leading up to Hitler seizing power. Mr Norris Changes Trains is an earlier novel that deals with the same period. It’s part comedy of manners, part espionage thriller. Continue reading
Rating: 5 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room European Backpacking Challenge.
Years ago my friend Sharon lent me Peter Høeg’s novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. I loved it.
I read Borderliners as well. I didn’t love it as much as Miss Smilla but it was still good.
I haven’t read anything by Peter Høeg since then. I needed a book set in Denmark or written by someone Danish for the reading challenge I’ve been doing this summer. Looking around online I discovered that Høeg’s latest book was out in paperback. I read the blurb and it sounded like fun. Continue reading
Rating: 4 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room European Backpacking Challenge
The Girl Who Played with Fire is the second book in the Millennium Trilogy (shut up, that ghost written fourth book and its followup is not part of the series) by Stieg Larsson. After my forays into Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s and Jo Nesbø’s writing, it was a relief to be back in Larsson’s safe hands. Continue reading
Rating: 2 stars
The first in Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series of crime novels, Last Rituals is an exploration of modern witchcraft set in Iceland. I’ve wanted to start this series for a while, but held off because I have so many other books to read. The Reader’s Room European Backpacking Challenge gave me the opportunity, as I skipped from Scotland to Iceland, to borrow Last Rituals from the library.
The story begins on 31 October 2005. Hallowe’en. Or, as it’s also known in our house, my birthday. It also begins with a bit of thinly veiled anti-immigration bigotry from the head caretaker of an Icelandic university who likens his workplace to Bangkok. That’s not the kind of thing I want to read about on my virtual past birthday. There’s more than enough of that in the news at present.
I’d picked up on Yrsa Sigurdardóttir as an Icelandic crime writer after I completed the Detective Erlandur series by Arnaldur Indridason. Bernard Scudder, who translated the fourth Detective Erlandur novel, Silence of the Grave, also translated Last Rituals. This made me think that I’d enjoy the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir books.
Shame, then, that Sigurdardóttir writes almost exclusively in clichés. I don’t mind a cliché here and there, crime as a genre is built on clichés after all, but when they are unhelpful clichés then I get annoyed. Sigurdardóttir, as well as the anti-immigration bigotry which doesn’t take long to look at itself honestly in the mirror and accept that it’s racism, also likes to define women by their appearance. Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is a lawyer. She doesn’t wear makeup, just moisturiser and mascara, apart from those times when she needed to feel confident. Then she puts on lipstick. She doesn’t like to judge people on their appearance, because character is what matters, and yet her inner monologue fat shames her secretary and she prides herself on always keeping herself slim.
Internally she endlessly cursed their secretarial problems. They had doubtless cost their firm business. Thóra could not think of any customer who had not complained about the girl. She was not only rude but also exceptionally unattractive. It was not being in the super-heavyweight bracket that was the big issue, but her general carelessness about her appearance.
It made me feel tired. And this was after less than twenty pages. I ploughed on regardless.
In terms of the story, about a group of university friends who form an interest in occult ritual (hello, The Secret History), it got better. There was a decent plot that unfolded gradually, keeping me engaged if not exactly guessing. The writing, though, continued to be mediocre. I don’t know any Icelandic people, so maybe they do speak the way Sigurdardóttir suggests, with lots of frost and a bleak kind of joy, but her dialogue wasn’t convincing nor the characters sympathetic. I read all of the Erlandur series and felt the humanity of the characters and didn’t notice anything stilted about their communication. One thing in particular irritated me about the dialogue in this book, and that was the way Sigurdardóttir used conversation to fill in backstory. I have never begun a conversation with someone by reminding them of a previous encounter first, because I don’t feel the need to provide people with their own backstory. Sigurdardóttir’s characters do.
Another thing that irritated me was the Mills and Boon style romantic undercurrent. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good Mills and Boon romance. I just don’t like it when a crime thriller tries to turn into a romantic pot boiler.
There were moments that could have been funny. Sigurdardóttir demonstrates flashes of dark wit. Unfortunately, that wit gets drowned out by the clunkiness of her writing.
The subject matter interested me. Ancient folklore and the clash of superstition with the rapidly modernising world of the 16th and 17th centuries are fascinating subjects. I’d hazard that a fair amount of research went into the plot and its historical details. There were glimpses of a much better book if Sigurdardóttir had found the courage to cut away the dross. I like most things set on a university campus that involves ancient manuscripts and researchers who get a bit carried away with their topic, and Last Rituals could have risen to a similar standard to Inspector Morse (I’ve only seen the TV adaptations, haven’t read any of the books yet). It’s a shame that it didn’t quite make it.