The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen (translation by K.E. Semmel)

Crime thrillers.  They’re tricky.  When kidnapping, murder, torture and rape are common plot elements there’s a definite risk of taking things too far.  I mean, by definition things have already gone farther than they should when those words are introduced.  Suffice it to say they’re not my favorite genre category.

Set in Copenhagen, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Absent One is the second book in his Department Q series.  Police detective Carl Mørck heads Department Q.  His specialty:  cold cases.  But the latest file, which appears mysteriously on his desk, qualifies as frost-bitten.  A 20-year old double murder, connections to some of the most powerful men in Denmark, AND the confessed murderer already in prison – this is one investigation he should walk away from.  But before he realizes it Mørck and his team are pulled into a dangerous game of cat and mouse that has been going on for decades.

The antagonists are a gang of sociopaths who met as students at an exclusive boarding school.  The male members are for the most part interchangeable: a sadist, a masochist, one who likes to hurt animals, another who likes to demean women.  It’s the one female member of the group – a troubled girl named “Kimmie” – whose mind and motives Adler-Olsen is intent on exploring.   Interestingly, just because she’s troubled doesn’t mean she’s a victim.

It might seem like I’m revealing a major plot spoiler.  Don’t worry, who the murderers are isn’t in question.  You’ll know their identities within the first few chapters.  The plot of The Absent One is propelled, instead, by revelations –  each more twisted than the last – moving the reader towards one final, bloody confrontation. This type of book is ultimately about revenge and justice.  The reader expects to be told (preferably in lurid detail) what the villains have done to deserve their fates.  And when it arrives their punishment must be as gruesome and inventive as their crimes.

Nordic authors know how to crank up the horror.  And Jussi Adler-Olsen isn’t new to this game.  In his part of the world he’s as famous as Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø and Peter Høeg.  In Denmark he’s the #1 crime writer.  He writes like a #1 author.  What does that mean?  It means I couldn’t stop turning the pages.  Even with my reservations, and I had many, I still wanted to know what happened next.

About those reservations:  I’d like to give Adler-Olsen the benefit of the doubt.  Perhaps he went over-the-top on purpose in order to make the violence more palatable – consciously made the scenarios appear unlikely.  Some of his characters and settings are almost comically overdone. One member of the gang even has, for all intents and purposes, a lair. There he keeps a menagerie of exotic animals in a state-of-the-art facility tended by a village of transplanted African workers.  He holds infamous hunting parties with endangered species as the game for his equally rich, and equally detestable, cronies.  And before a hunt he has a little ritual.  A topless Somali women brings him four chicken hearts for breakfast.  It seems like a parody.

On the opposite end of the narrative are Mørck, his Iranian assistant Assad and his new secretary Rose.  All have mysteries in their pasts which I expect will be revealed little by little in subsequent books of the series.  Yet it’s the seemingly trivial aspects of their daily lives and relationships that I want to learn more about. My worry is that they won’t be given the attention they deserve, spread too thin over too many books and always assigned the B-plotline.  Of course, it’s a moot point.  Translation is slow.  Three of those books have already been written.

Publisher:  Dutton, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 525 95289 3

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Audio)

It may seem redundant to post a review after taking part in The Readers Summer Book Club discussion of Half-Blood Blues, but I decided to do just that.  Mainly to share my *spoiler free* thoughts on Esi Edugyan’s novel with readers who still haven’t read the book and needed a bit of a nudge.   If you enjoy history and are looking for a good beach read – one with more depth than your average Summer paperback –  then this is probably the novel for you.

Half-Blood Blues initially interested me because of the setting and subject matter.  It’s a Jazz novel set in 1940’s Berlin & Paris. Sid, the narrator of Half-Blood Blues was the bass player for the jazz band The Hot-Time Swingers.  A combo made up of Americans and Germans, they took Berlin by storm in the 30’s.  Sid and his best friend Chip – a drummer who will later rise to stardom as one of the foremost jazz musicians of his generation – have been playing music together since their shared childhood in Baltimore.  Their relationship is one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel.  While neither man is a saint, their commitment to each other and longtime friendship puts a likeable polish on both characters. (I’d go so far to say that the most sympathetic component of each man is his relationship with the other).

When the book opens Chip, now in his 80’s, is trying to convince Sid to attend a festival celebrating their late friend and band mate Hieronymus ‘Hero’ Falk.  Falk was a gifted, Afro-German trumpet player whose reputation (in the vein of  Robert Johnson’s) rests on just a few recordings.  Both Chip & Sid were interviewed for a documentary on Falk’s life.  Both men were a part of the legendary recording of Half-Blood Blues, a disc which only survived because Sid snuck it out of their recording session before it was destroyed. Both men escaped Hitler’s Berlin and Nazi occupied Paris, while Hero did not.  Sid develops into a tragic character who may or may not have committed a despicable act and then compounded it with a terrible lie.  Chip stays reassuringly consistent throughout, a boy who Sid’s mother once described as having “no light” in his eyes.

Edugyan alternates timelines – jumping forward to Sid & Chip’s modern day pilgrimage to Berlin for the festival and then back to the events of 1940.  Sid narrates, by turns brutally honest and suspiciously unreliable. His story is full of red herrings, shocking reveals, suspense, betrayal, nail-digging-ly slow pacing and one of the most beautifully written endings I’ve ever encountered.  It’s written in a voice laden with slang and Southern dialectic tics that reminded me of the work of Zora Neale Hurston.  On almost all levels Half-Blood Blues is an engaging and satisfying Summer read – falling somewhere between the categories of literary and genre fiction.

It’s not without its flaws.  Among the disappointments of this Booker nominated novel is  Edugyan’s decisions regarding how far to take the historical component.  To my mind not far enough.  The Hot-Time Swingers consisted of an Aryan German, a Jewish piano player, the African-Americans Chip and Sid (we’re told Sid could ‘pass’ for white & Chip could not) and Hero – an Afro German.   Keep in mind that the jazz scene in Berlin and Paris was HUGE prior to the Nazi crackdown (Check out the album Hot Club de France which collects some of the best recordings of that period).  The band’s manager is a member of the German elite, from a family of Fascists, a young man who turned his back on his family’s values and sacrificed everything for the love of jazz.  While their stories are here to greater and lesser extent, the sense of time and place wasn’t strong enough for me.  I never felt immersed in either city – Berlin or Paris.  Other critics have expressed that they’d like to have seen the history of Afro Germans more fully explored.  I agree.  The reasons I believe readers come to this novel – the history & the music – take a back seat in the book’s middle where Edugyan focuses on a strange and frustratingly juvenile love triangle which develops between Sid, Hero and a woman named Delilah (Louis Armstrong’s protegé and singer).

While I enjoyed Esi Edugyan writing, I’m not as enthusiastic about her plotting.  Without revealing spoilers I’ll just say that the two pivotal plot points – the ones on which the entire novel’s motivations are based – are inauthentic.  They don’t make sense.  It was as if they were inserted as a matter of convenience.  As a means for the writer to get to where she wanted to go, rather than carefully placed components of a well thought out narrative.  As I’ve already said:  I still enjoyed Half-Blood Blues and would recommend it for an entertaining Summer read.  But it fell short of the expectations I have for a novel that’s been shortlisted for an award as prestigious as the Man Booker (regardless how quirky the year’s list).

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (2012)
Time:  11 hours, 12 minutes

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KINO by Jürgen Fauth

KINO.  The title was the first thing I loved about Jürgen Fauth’s debut novel.  Short for Kinematographie (German for cinematography), it’s the nickname of the story’s tragic hero.  But more importantly, it embodies the glamour of Berlin between two World Wars – a town of cabarets, never-ending parties, sex, cocaine (Zement), a new and prospering film industry and an economy teetering on a highwire… DAMN! what’s not to love?!

There was one lie that made me seem more interesting than all the others.  Everyone wanted to drink with me, get  high with me, and sleep with me when we told them I was a movie director.  It was a lie that turned me into the center of attention and opened the tightest twat.  One night over dinner, Joachim Ringelnatz – the whimsical poet who wore a sailor’s uniform wherever he went – eyed me funny and asked if I wasn’t a bit young to be working for the cinema, “für’s Kino.”

I had my mouth full of lamb stew, so Steffen came to my defense. “Don’t you read the papers?  Klaus is a prodigy! The youngest director in Neubabelsberg!”

I put down my fork, swallowed, and pointed a finger.  “Joachim,” I said.  “I don’t work für’s Kino.  I am Kino!”

When two German film canisters appear on Mina “Wilhemina” Koblitz’s doorstep she puts her life on hold to track down where they came from and what they mean.  Her grandfather was Klaus Koblitz –  the enigmatic German filmmaker of the 1930’s known as Kino.  A wunderkind whose entire oeuvre, with the exception of a Hollywood B-Movie, was lost in the war.  That missing work attained a legendary/cult status among serious film buffs.  And Mina quickly learns that the reels of film in the canisters hold what many believe to be his masterpiece – Tulpendiebe (The Tulip Thief). 

Jürgen Fauth has written a wild adventure full of intrigue, conspiracy theories and family history.  Who to trust?  What is the truth? Whose side are you on?  That last question might be the most difficult to answer.  As the book progresses we are introduced to the entire Koblitz clan – and a more miserable bunch of Arschlöcher I’ve never encountered.  Or a more fascinating. Tolstoy, apparently, was right.  Over the top, extreme in every way, the Koblitz’ motivations and responses are always realistic.  Fauth has accomplished something which I think can be very difficult for a novelist.  His characters hang together like a family.  You can read the Koblitz genetic code in each of them.  They resemble one another yet retain their individual personalities.

As the convoluted narrative unfolds we see Kino in 3-D.  He’s dissected in journal entries, friend’s and family members’ memories and – of course – the films themselves.  All interpreted through the 21st Century eyes of Mina.

I don’t know what I expected, honestly.  Something ponderous and silent, German expressionism or whatever.  It started with a logo I’d already sort of seen in our apartment, holding the film up to the kitchen lights.  Then, a pair of huge eyes:  a close-up of a little girl, staring straight into the camera.  Her father, whose face we don’t see, Peanuts-style, is reading her a bedtime story.  The cover of the book he’s reading from supplies the title credit:  Tulpendiebe.

Right away, Dr. Hanno started to whisper to me like a real-life DVD commentary track.  How back in the twenties, farming devices were all the rage, Dr. Caligari being the most obvious example.  He translated all the intertitles, even the one that said “Holland, Anno 1636.”

The main part of the movie is set in a picturesque Dutch seaside town, canals and fields and windmills and so on, but it’s all done in the studio with painted backdrops, making it looked stylized, like a kid’s book, with extras in clogs and bonnets and pantaloons.  Fake, but sort of charming.  Would have been better in color.

Fauth has created in his portrait of a man something reminiscent of The Real Life of Sebastian KnightKINO is densely packed with ideas.  The story plays out against the backdrop of Mina’s life, the year 2003 and the Iraq war.  Obsession, an undeniable part of an artist’s make-up, is a major theme KINO explores.  How much is an artist willing to sacrifice for his or her art?  And still remain within the bounds of what society deems acceptable?  What, as a reader, do you find tolerable?

And then there is the history.

I’d guess there have been thousands, if not tens-of-thousands of books, fiction & non-, written about WWII and the Holocaust.  KINO is also a part of that tradition, giving a thoughtful portrait of the toll Nazi Germany took on its own people.  The shattered hopes, dreams and lives – broken friendships & communities.  There is a hint of it in Daniel Stein, Interpreter.  Viktor Frankl touches on it briefly in Mans Search for Meaning. I thought of the musical Cabaret a few times while reading the novel (in a good way that I don’t usually associate with musicals).   But KINO hones in – forcing the reader to pause and consider what this man might have become if the rise of Hitler could have been removed from the equation.   From there it’s not so hard to make the leap as to how we might behave if the same situation was inserted into our own lives.

Yeah, Fauth has written a novel crowded with ideas. 

KINO challenged me all the way to its final, fabulous last sentence.  It is absolutely flawless.

Publisher:  Atticus Books, Kensington Maryland (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 9832080 7 5

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Iambik.com Gets Hard Boiled

Iambik.com is back with a new collection of audio books.  Crimes, murders, heists…  10 new recordings in all.

I’ll be downloading The Tattoo Murder Case by Japanese author Akimitsu Takagi.  Set in Tokyo in the aftermath of WWII, a girl is found brutally murdered – her full-body tattoo taken,  only her head and limbs are left at the scene.  A detective and his brother, a naive young doctor,  investigate.   It all sounds very Silence of the Lambs meets Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson (though that’s my initial reaction based on the blurbs and nothing more).

I’m also leaning towards Death of a Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel… another murder mystery.  This time set in pre-war Franco’s Spain.  Ever since seeing the film  Pan’s Labyrinth this period has been on my radar.

Both books are, entirely coincidentally as relates to my choosing them, published by Soho Press.

As I’ve said before – I like Iambik because its audio library is built around books from small, independent presses.  Books that were overlooked by the audio book industry.   Iambik takes their service one step further – offering these audio books at remarkably good prices ($6.99 each or $44.99 for the whole lot).   If you enjoy the indie presses and listening to audio books, it’s still a difficult deal to beat.

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FEED by Mira Grant

Milk & Cookies. Chocolate & Peanut Butter. Zombies & Bloggers. The best things in life come in pairs. Mira Grant’s Newsflash Trilogy takes her readers into a world where the people no longer trust the conventional news media, we’ve cured cancer and the common cold… and side effects include lots of moaning and attempting to eat your neighbors after you die.

Georgia (George) & Shaun Mason are brother & sister bloggers. The year is 2039 and they’ve just hit the big time. One of the lead presidential candidates has made an unprecedented decision – to include bloggers as part of his media team. Senator Peter Ryman is the first person to run for president who was under the age of 18 when “The Rising” occurred, and that means he remembers the suffering that occurred when the traditional news outlets lied and only the bloggers were left to tell the truth. He’s chosen the Mason siblings – and their friend Buffy – to report on his campaign.

FEED introduces the reader to a new blogger world order. George is a Newsie – she reports straight, un-doctored truth and her reputation is impeccable. Shaun is an Irwin – thrill seekers (think Steve “the Crocodile Hunter” Irwin and the guys from Jackass) who provide valuable survival tips spiked with a heavy dose of suspense. Buffy, a “Fictional” – author and poet, as well as a techie extraordinaire – rounds out the trio.

“…We’re the all-purpose opiate of the new millennium: We report the news, we make the news, and we give you a way to escape when the news becomes too much to handle.” – Georgia Mason

Grant has created a brave new world, and if she’d stopped there I’d still want to read FEED just to explore it. But of course she gives us more than that. The story really gets going when tragedy (and zombies) strike on the campaign trail. And then strike again. And again…

Mira Grant is a pen name of Seanan McGuire. If you read BookSexy you know I’m a huge fan of her October Daye novels.  This new series has all the same strengths and weaknesses. I’m an acolyte of the Robin McKinley school of world building – throw the reader into the deep end and let them learn to swim. McGuire’s…um, I mean Grant’s… technique is the exact opposite. She explains everything and she explains it more than once. It annoys the hell out of me – Because, really, who is George (the narrator for most of the book) explaining all this stuff to? In the October Daye books the explanations can be justified because Toby describes a world that theoretically exists parallel to our own but is hidden. But Georgia would logically assume that anyone she’s talking to is a contemporary and would already have a handle on the zombie situation. This inexplicable need to dumb down the narrative keeps a really good genre novel from becoming a great one.

But, even with its flaws, FEED is still fantastic – better than most zombie movies. The characters are people readers believe in and care about. You can’t help yourself. And, I’m warning you now, when McGuire’s holding the pen anything can happen and no one is safe. The story twists, turns and ties you up in emotional knots. I laughed. I cried. (Seriously, I really did cry). O.K., it’s not going to win a National Book Award… but who cares?

“Zombies are pretty harmless as long as you treat them with respect. Some people say you should pity the zombie, empathize with the zombie, but I think they are likely to become the zombie, if you get my meaning. Don’t feel sorry for the zombie. The zombie’s not going to feel sorry for you when he starts gnawing on your head…

If you want to deal with zombies, stay away from the teeth, don’t let them scratch you, keep your hair short, and don’t wear loose clothes. It’s that simple. Making it more complicated would be boring, and who wants that? We have what basically amounts to walking corpses, dude.

Don’t suck all the fun out of it”. – Shaun Mason

Publisher:  Orbit, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 316 12246 7

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