Archive | August 2014

Santa Evita

santa evitaThis is an odd book. It was buried on book mountain and I can’t remember what prompted me to buy it. Perhaps it was one of those sent to me by a book club that I never bothered to send back. Santa Evita by Tomás Eloy Martínez (trans. Helen Lane) is a story about what happened to the body of Eva Peron after she died.

It’s based on some fact, the papers of various people involved, some parts are fiction, and some parts are the ruminations of the author on the process of writing the book. Which parts are which are isn’t always clear, fact and fiction are smoothly blended. Apparently the germination of the story was over many years and it was a difficult book to write.

After Eva Peron died of cancer her body was embalmed. The Argentine Secret Service had been spying on her for years and after the Peron government fell, they took charge of the body. Three copies were made. The government didn’t want Eva’s burial place to become a shrine and the cult of Evita to have a focal point for the opposition. Care of the body was entrusted to a colonel in the Secret Service. Mysterious events seem to happen around Evita and she has a strange impact on those to whom her care is entrusted.

Santa Evita is a strange book. The story itself is a weird one, encompassing the need of people to have heroes, and how fame and grief interact. However, it’s not really about Evita. Most of it focuses on the Colonel who spied on her while she was alive and took care of her embalmed body when she was dead. It’s an exploration of secrecy and madness. It’s a beautifully written (and translated) book, mystical and surreal, and proving reality makes much less sense than fiction. I found the parts about Martínez’ writing process fascinating. It made me really think about the structure of the novel and how that might be more flexible than commercial fiction often allows. This is a strange and wonderful book.

Headhunter

headhunterIn Headhunters by Jo Nesbo, Roger Brown is a top recruiter who finances his lifestyle by art theft. He arranges interviews for executives who own expensive art and steals it while they’re occupied. He’s a successful recruiter with a reputation for never failing to place his candidate, but it doesn’t make enough money to pay for the house and his wife’s art gallery.

Unfortunately for him, a psychotic ex-CEO of a defence company wants a job with another defence company and is willing to go to any lengths to get it. Through a series of misunderstandings and bad decisions, Brown ends up being hunted through Oslo.

I saw the film of this book a few years ago and it’s what prompted me to read Jo Nesbo’s books. I actually read quite a few of his Harry Hole series before I got onto Headhunters, and I enjoyed them a lot. This is even better. I think this is the best of his that I’ve read. It’s written in first person from the point of view of Roger Brown and the voice is engaging and compelling. The plot tension is handled well and a couple of key twists are held back to the very end. Pacing is fast but not breathless. At least half the book is spent on the set up and you’re completely caught up in Roger’s world. He’s not the nicest guy but he’s smart and ingenious and not above doing whatever he has to. I liked it a lot.

The Treatment

200px-ThetreatmentThe Treatment is the second in Mo Hayder’s Jack Caffrey series. Caffrey is still obsessed with the paedophile next door and the mystery of what happened to his brother all those years ago.

Caffrey gets a case that seems a little too close for comfort. A family is held prisoner in their own home for a weekend. No one notices because they were supposed to be going on holiday. Instead, the mother is restrained and locked in a cupboard, the father is restrained on the landing while the son is abused. Then the perpetrator takes the child out of the house and is seen by a passerby. The police sweep the area but can’t find anything.

Whilst investigating this case, Caffrey is also trying to work out what happened to his brother. The cases are linked and Caffrey gets information that takes him out to a remote farm in Suffolk. Some of his actions are ill-advised and Caffrey is risking his job to pursue his obsession.

An extra complication is that Caffrey is dating one of the women that was a victim in the last book, Birdman, and she’s dealing with her experiences in a very public way. His secrecy and obsession with his brother isn’t making things between them better.

The plot twists and turns and the killer is hidden in plain sight. There are a few plausible candidates and Hayder shows how easy it can be to miss what is really going on. I wasn’t keen on the heavy-handed use of dialect for the character of Caffrey’s boss but that was the only thing that spoilt my enjoyment of the book. The resolution of all the plot lines was brutal and I found it very affecting.

Death of Kings

death-of-kingsDeath of Kings by Bernard Cornwell is the sixth book in the Making of England series. Or The Warrior Chronicles, or the Saxon Stories, as it’s also known.  There are at least two more to go.

Uhtred of Bebbanburg is forty-five and broke. All the money he’s ever made has been spent on keeping is oath to Alfred. There have been times when he’s been rich but this isn’t one of them. He still harbours dreams of returning to Northumbria to reclaim Bebbanburg but he doesn’t have the resources and he’s running out of time. Forty-five is old for a warrior. And then there’s the pesky problem of the promises he’s made to Alfred and Aethelflead.

This installment of the series does feel very much like a mid-series book. It’s a bit slow and not much seems to happen. Alfred dies, his nephew tries to steal Wessex from his son, and the Danes combine forces to attack. There’s the threat of betrayal from an ally and lots of riding around the countryside looking for people to fight.

As always, the writing is excellent, and Cornwell provides a masterclass in simple yet effective prose. The characters are vivid and Aethelflead had a particularly good part in this book.

Birdman

birdman-re-issue-november-21Birdman is Mo Hayder’s debut novel and the first to feature Jack Caffrey, a handsome yet troubled detective. I enjoy a thriller and Mo Hayder is easy to read. Which should not be confused with easy to write.

Someone is murdering women and sewing live birds into their chests. Disturbingly, Hayder is able to present several plausible suspects. There’s a lot going on in the book aside from the investigation; there’s Caffrey’s struggle with the unresolved disappearance of his brother, and his overlapping romantic relationships. The plot is handled well and the real murderer is introduced early and hidden in plain sight.

Caffrey’s resolution of the crimes opens up some questions for the reader. Caffrey takes a personal path that might feel very satisfying of a need for retribution, for terrible crimes to receive terrible punishment. Birdman is a blend of horror and thriller and it is the horror ending we’re presented with; the evil that has risen is wiped out of existence. Only then can we sleep safe in our beds. But Caffrey is an officer of the law; he’s meant to serve it, not take it in his own hands. It’s an uncomfortable presentation of what a person might do when their sense of right and wrong is complicated. On reflection, this is a more thoughtful book that it appears, and I enjoyed it a lot.

 

The Point is to Change It

150px-The_point_is_to_change_itI have always bought more books than I read, which has resulted in a bookshelf of unread books that I call book mountain. It is currently the smallest it’s ever been. Still some of the books on there have been in my possession for some time. Such as The Point is to Change It which I must have bought fifteen years ago.

Compiled from essays and articles first published in Living Marxism, this book examines trends in political life in the aftermath of the death of history. With the Berlin Wall down and the Soviet Block collapsed, how does the left respond to capitalism? The book was published in 1996 and, twenty years on, the world it talks about is depressingly similar to the one we currently live in. I can’t help but agree that the world needs to change.

The tone of the book and some of the things that are conflated with social ills didn’t sit well with me. It’s presented as progressive and as suggesting solutions to the problems of capitalism. It doesn’t really do that. There’s a thick seam of nostalgia for some idyllic past when we didn’t waste our time with the women and blacks getting upset about trivial things, when we weren’t so soft, and valued self-confidence over victimhood. There’s a lot of privilege and entitlement in that kind of nostalgia. The values extolled are very much those attributed to white, straight men and denied to others. And there are no real solutions to speak of. There’s a manifesto at the back. It’s two pages out of two hundred and seventeen. It is mostly a rehash of the problems and lacks any call to action. Even if you did agree with the analysis (and there’s much in there that I do agree with once you detach it from the whining), you’d be hard pressed to know what to do about it.

The Viking Gods

the-viking-gods-114-pI went to the British Museum’s Viking exhibition and I’m minded to read the Edda at some point. However it’s a big, heavy book and I’m putting it off on the basis that I don’t want to carry it back and forth to work. In the meantime, I also bought The Viking Gods, a small, lightweight book of snippets from the Edda, translated by Jean I. Young and accompanied by illustrations by Lorenz Frӧlich and Eggert Pétursson.

It’s a beautifully presented book. I liked the illustrations and enjoyed the stories. There’s not much depth but there’s a little bit of origin myth, a page for each of the main gods and some stories of life in Valhalla. It was lovely, and whetted my appetite for the Edda itself. When I’m feeling strong.