Friday, 27 August 2010


Title: Unspoken

Author: Mari Jungstedt

Number of pages: 363

Started: 21 August 2010

Finished: 27 August 2010

Opening words:

For the first time in a week the sky cleared. The wan rays of November sunshine found their way through the clouds, and the spectators at the Visby trotting track turned their faces with yearning up toward the sun. It was the last race of the season, and there was a sense of anticipation in the air, mixed with a touch of melancholy. A chilly but enthusiastic crowd had gathered in the grandstands. They were drinking beer and hot coffee from plastic cups, eating hot dogs, and making notes in their track programs.

Henry “Flash” Dahlström got out his hip flask and took a good swig of his home-brewed liquor. It made him grimace, but it also warmed him nicely. With him in the stands sat the whole gang: Bengan, Gunsan, Monica, and Kjelle. All of them were rapidly advancing toward various states of intoxication.

The procession had just started. The snorting standardbreds, glossy with sweat, were lined up and prancing forward as the music blared from the loudspeakers. The drivers, with their legs wide apart, were firmly seated in their lightweight sulkies.

The odds were posted on a black tote board out near the track, with the numbers ticking past.

Read a longer excerpt here

Plot summary:

The dead man man was a drunk; a regular on the park benches of Gotland's city centre. He had been celebrating winning 80,000 Krona at the races. His body is discovered by one of his drinking buddies: he is drenched in blood and someone or something has left a hole the size of a fist in the back of his head.

It's winter on the island of Gotland. The tourists have returned home. The tree branches are bare, the sky is sleet grey and the days are getting shorter and darker. Winter is a quiet time for Chief Inspector Anders Knutas and Detective Karin Jacobsson; the tourists tend to take the violent crimes with them back to the mainland. To keep their lives simple, they are tempted to assume that the victim died as a result of a drunken brawl over money. But all of the clues point to something far more sinister.

Then 14-year old Fanny Jansson, a volunteer at the local stables, vanishes. At first Knutas and Jacobsson find it hard to believe that the two cases are linked: one is a violent murder, the other, the disappearance of a lonely and isolated child who has probably run away. Painstakingly, they work the clues, assisted by ambitious TV reporter Johan Berg. But what none of them realise is that truth is much closer to home than they'd ever imagine.

What I thought:

I took a while to warm to this book, but I think that was more of a reflection on me than the book itself. It was another good Scandinavian mystery and as the pages turned I enjoyed it more.

This book was based in the run up to Christmas and would make a good crime novel to read on a dark December Sunday afternoon. I seem to find that about Swedish books – that they are suited to reading at particular times of the year, and this is a good winter book.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Coming Up for Air

Title: Coming Up for Air

Author: George Orwell

Number of pages: 256

Started: 17 August 2010

Finished: 20 August 2010

Opening words:

The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.

I remember the morning well. At about a quarter to eight I’d nipped out of bed and got into the bathroom just in time to shut the kids out. It was a beastly January morning, with a dirty yellowish-grey sky. Down below, out of the little square of bathroom window, I could see the ten yards by five of grass, with a privet hedge round it and a bare patch in the middle, that we call the back garden. There’s the same back garden, some privets, and same grass, behind every house in Ellesmere Road. Only difference – where there are no kids there’s no bare patch in the middle.

I was trying to shave with a bluntish razor-blade while the water ran into the bath. My face looked back at me out of the mirror, and underneath, in a tumbler of water on the little shelf over the washbasin, the teeth that belonged in the face. It was the temporary set that Warner, my dentist, had given me to wear while the new ones were being made. I haven’t such a bad face, really. It’s one of those bricky-red faces that go with butter-coloured hair and pale-blue eyes. I’ve never gone grey or bald, thank God, and when I’ve got my teeth in I probably don’t look my age, which is forty-five.

Making a mental note to buy razor-blades, I got into the bath and started soaping. I soaped my arms (I’ve got those kind of pudgy arms that are freckled up to the elbow) and then took the back-brush and soaped my shoulder-blades, which in the ordinary way I can’t reach. It’s a nuisance, but there are several parts of my body that I can’t reach nowadays. The truth is that I’m inclined to be a little bit on the fat side.

Plot summary:

Years in insurance and marriage to the joyless Hilda have been no more than death in life to George Bowling. This and fear of another war take his mind back to the peace of his childhood in a small country town. But his return journey to Lower Binfield brings complete disillusionment.

What I thought:

This is the fifth of Orwell’s books that I have read and it was a decent read. It was published in 1939, just before the outbreak of World War 2 and that is the backdrop to the novel – people’s fears about what the future might hold.

It was a well written book and had some of the biting insight that Orwell is known for, mixed in with some decent humour. It was a bit like reading a shorter and less repetitive version of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist and touched on some of the socialist issues that Orwell was concerned about.

It was not as memorable or as clever as some of his other books, but it was an interesting look at 1930s life and the themes that Orwell would later touch on in books such as Nineteen Eighty Four begin to emerge in this book.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Operation Mincemeat

Title: Operation Mincemeat

Author: Ben Macintyre

Number of pages: 416

Started: 11 August 2010

Finished: 17 August 2010

Opening words:

"In the early hours of 10 July 1943, British, Commonwealth and American troops stormed ashore on the coast of Sicily in the first assault against Hitler’s “Fortress Europe”. With hindsight, the invasion of the Italian island was a triumph, a pivotal moment in the war, and a vital stepping stone on the way to victory in Europe."

Plot summary:

One April morning in 1943, a sardine fisherman spotted the corpse of a British soldier floating in the sea off the coast of Spain and set in train a course of events that would change the course of the Second World War. Operation Mincemeat was the most successful wartime deception ever attempted, and certainly the strangest. It hoodwinked the Nazi espionage chiefs, sent German troops hurtling in the wrong direction, and saved thousands of lives by deploying a secret agent who was different, in one crucial respect, from any spy before or since: he was dead. His mission: to convince the Germans that instead of attacking Sicily, the Allied armies planned to invade Greece. The brainchild of an eccentric RAF officer and a brilliant Jewish barrister, the great hoax involved an extraordinary cast of characters including a famous forensic pathologist, a gold-prospector, an inventor, a beautiful secret service secretary, a submarine captain, three novelists, a transvestite English spymaster, an irascible admiral who loved fly-fishing, and a dead Welsh tramp. Using fraud, imagination and seduction, Churchill's team of spies spun a web of deceit so elaborate and so convincing that they began to believe it themselves. The deception started in a windowless basement beneath Whitehall. It travelled from London to Scotland to Spain to Germany. And it ended up on Hitler's desk. Ben Macintyre, bestselling author of "Agent Zigzag", weaves together private documents, photographs, memories, letters and diaries, as well as newly released material from the intelligence files of MI5 and Naval Intelligence, to tell for the first time the full story of Operation Mincemeat.

What I thought:

I wanted to read this book because I saw a TV programme a while ago about this World War 2 hoax carried out by the Allies on the Axis powers. I found the idea of such a hoax, sanctioned at the highest level, fascinating.

This was a well written and interesting account of what took place. It was very readable and didn’t assume that you knew all the terminology, but equally didn’t patronise. I found some of the information in the book fascinating. For instance, apparently there were no German agents operating in Britain during the war. They were all caught and dealt with. That in itself was interesting enough. However, the Germans believed there was a network operating here because the British ran hundreds of fictitious German agents that they used to feed (false) intelligence back.

The hoax that this book unfolds was a really fascinating account of a major deception that helped to shape the outcome of the war. I really liked that people were able to come up with such elaborate plots and if they could persuade the right people, they could put it into action.

This story has been told in other ways primarily under the title of The Man Who Never Was, but this was a more extensive account than any of those previously because a number of parts of the story could not be revealed until relatively recently.

It’s possibly a bit more of a book for men, but I thought it was a book that showed British ingenuity under pressure at its best.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010


Title: Invisible

Author: Paul Auster

Number of pages: 320

Started: 5 August 2010

Finished: 10 August 2010

Opening words:

“I shook his hand for the first time in the spring of 1967. I was a second-year student at Columbia then, a know-nothing boy with an appetite for books and a belief (or delusion) that one day I would become good enough to call myself a poet, and because I read poetry, I had already met his namesake in Dante’s hell, a dead man shuffling through the final verses of the twenty-eighth canto of the Inferno. Bertran de Born, the twelfth-century Provencal poet, carrying his severed head by the hair as it sways back and forth like a lantern — surely one of the most grotesque images in that book-length catalogue of hallucinations and torments. Dante was a staunch defender of de Born's writing, but he condemned him to eternal damnation for having counseled Prince Henry to rebel against his father, King Henry II, and because de Born caused division between father and son and turned them into enemies, Dante's ingenious punishment was to divide de Born from himself. Hence the decapitated body wailing in the underworld, asking the Florentine traveler if any pain could be more terrible than his.”.

Read a longer extract here

Plot summary:

New York City, Spring 1967: Twenty-year-old Adam Walker, an aspiring poet and student at Columbia University, meets the enigmatic Frenchman Rudolf Born, and his silent and seductive girlfriend Margot. Falling into a passionate affair with Margot, Walker soon finds himself caught in a perverse triangle that leads to a sudden, shocking act of violence that will alter the course of his life.

What I thought:

This is Paul Auster’s latest book and it follows some of his normal themes and styles, such as the every-changing role of the narrator and how the story is told.

It was a good story, although difficult to describe without giving away too much of the plot. It is a tale of how particular acts can change our lives, and whether w can believe the stories that we are told.

I am a big fan of Paul Auster, but I don’t think this is one of his best. It was a good story, but perhaps not quite as gripping as some of his others, and it covers some uncomfortable themes, which perhaps make it harder to say that you enjoyed it. Nonetheless it was a good book and I am looking forward to his new book which is due out later this year.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The True Deceiver

Title: The True Deceiver

Author: Tove Jansson

Number of pages: 202

Started: 3 August 2010

Finished: 5 August 2010

Opening words:

It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling. No window in the village showed a light. Katri screened the lamp so she wouldn't wake her brother while she made coffee and put the Thermos beside his bed. The room was very cold. The big dog lay by the door and looked at her with his nose between his paws, waiting for her to take him out.

Read the first chapter here.

Plot summary:

In the deep winter snows of a Swedish hamlet, a strange young woman fakes a break-in at the house of an elderly artist in order to persuade her that she needs companionship. But what does she hope to gain by doing this? And who ultimately is deceiving whom? In this portrayal of two women encircling each other with truth and lies, nothing can be taken for granted. By the time the snow thaws, both their lives will have changed irrevocably.

What I thought:

This was a marvellous book and I so enjoyed reading it. It has the qualities of a fable in some ways, and the tone seems very light, but there is a dark undertone beneath that. I thought it was a well written story that essentially was about the relationship between an old woman who sees the good in the world and a young woman who sees the bad. The book is set in a very snowy winter and would make a great dark December afternoon read, and I plan to re-read it at a suitable time.

It was a nicely observed story that was very engaging and the pages just flew by. You can probably read this book in less than three hours. When I got to the end, I just had to find someone (anyone!) to tell them how much I had enjoyed the book, and fortunately found a colleague who I often discuss books with. A delightful, and yet dark read.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Preacher

Title: The Preacher

Author: Camilla Lackberg

Number of pages: 422

Started: 28 July 2010

Finished: 3 August 2010

Opening words:

The day was off to a promising start. He woke up early, before the rest of the family, put on clothes as quietly as possible, and managed to sneak out unnoticed. He took along his knight’s helmet and wooden sword, which he swung happily as he ran the hundred yards from the house down to the mouth of the King’s Cleft. He stopped for a moment and peered in awe into the sheer crevice through the rocky outcrop. The sides of the rock were six or seven feet apart, and it towered up over thirty feet into the sky, into which the summer sun had just begun to climb. Three huge boulders were solidly wedged in the middle of the cleft, and it was an imposing sight. The place had a magical attraction for a six year old. The fact that the King’s Cleft was forbidden ground made it all the moiré tempting.

Plot summary:

In the fishing community of Fjallbacka, life is remote, peaceful – and for some, tragically short.

Foul play was always suspected in the disappearance twenty years ago of two young holidaymakers in the area. Now a young boy out playing has confirmed this grim truth. Their remains, discovered with those of a fresh victim, send the town into shock.

Local detective Patrik Hedstrom, expecting a baby with his girlfriend Erica, can only imagine what it is like to lose a child. When a second young girl goes missing, Hedstrom's attention focuses on the Hults, a feuding clan of misfits, relgious fanatics and criminals. The suspect list is long but time is short – which of this family's dark secrets will provide the vital clue?

What I thought:

This was a decent read. The plot was perhaps rather convoluted in places, and I thought the translation (or perhaps the original drafting in Swedish) was a touch clunky in places, primarily in some of the dialogue, but it was a good read regardless. I wasn’t 100% convinced by a couple of the sub-plots in it either, in particular then ones involving Erica Falck (the girlfriend of the main detective in the book). In many ways the stories were a bit of an aside and reached no conclusion. The one about Erica’s sister in particular. It rather felt as though it was a minor sub-plot (about something rather serious) that was never really developed, but presumably is going to feature in future books as well.

That said, it was another good Swedish thriller, although I think I probably preferred her first book The Ice Princess better.