Sunday, 23 October 2011

Punishment


Title: Punishment

Author: Anne Holt

Number of pages: 344

Started: 23 October 2011

Finished: 28 October 2011

Opening words:

She was walking home from school. It was nearly National Day. It would be the first 17th of May without Mommy. Her national costume was too short. Mommy had already let the hem down twice.
Last night, Emilie had been woken by a bad dream. Daddy was fast asleep ; she could hear him snoring gently through the wall as she held her nation costume up against her body. The red border had crept up to her knees. She was growing too fast. Daddy often said, “You’re growing as fast as a wed, love.” Emilie stroked the woolen material with her hand and tried to shrink at the knees and neck. Gran was in the habit of saying, “it’s not surprising the child is shooting up, Grete was always a beanpole.


Plot summary:

A serial killer is on the loose in Norway - a killer of the worst kind. He is abducting children and murdering them - in an undetectable way that confounds the police. He then returns the child's body to the mother with a desperately cruel note: You Got What You Deserved. It is a perplexing and terrible case, and Police Superintendent Yngvar Stubo is the unlucky man in charge of finding the killer before he strikes again. There doesn't seem to be any clear connection between the victims, and with the mode of death so obscure, his job seems impossible. In desperation he decides to recruit legal researcher Inger Johanne Vik, a woman with an extensive knowledge and understanding of criminal history. So far the killer has abducted three children, but one child has not yet been returned to her mother. Is there a chance she is still alive...?


What I thought:

I had high hopes of this book, but was fairly non-plussed by it. I never really felt the story really engaged and the plot didn’t really take off. I got to the end of the book and just never really felt that the book had made much of an impact or had terribly much that was memorable about it.

Friday, 21 October 2011

The Psychopath Test


Title: The Psychopath Test

Author: Jon Ronson

Number of pages: 292

Started: 14 October 2011

Finished: 21October 2011

Opening words:

This is a story about madness. It begins with a curious encounter at a Costa Coffee shop in Bloomsbury, Central London.

It was the Costa where the neurologists tended to go, the University College London School of Neurology being just around the corner. And here was one now, turning onto Southampton Row, waving a little self-consciously at me. Her name was Deborah Talmi. She looked like someone who spent her days in laboratories and wasn’t used to peculiar rendezvous with journalists in cafes and finding herself at the heart of baffling mysteries. She had brought someone with her. He was a tall, unshaven, academic-looking young man. They sat down.

‘I’m Deborah,’ she said.
‘I’m Jon,’ I said.
‘I’m James,’ he said.
‘So,’ I asked. ‘Did you bring it?’

Deborah nodded. She silently slid a package across the table. I opened it and turned it over in my hands.

‘It’s quite beautiful,’ I said.


Read the first chapter here.

Plot summary:

This is a story about madness. It all starts when journalist Jon Ronson is contacted by a leading neurologist. She and several colleagues have recently received a cryptically puzzling book in the mail, and Jon is challenged to solve the mystery behind it. As he searches for the answer, Jon soon finds himself, unexpectedly, on an utterly compelling and often unbelievable adventure into the world of madness.

Jon meets a Broadmoor inmate who swears he faked a mental disorder to get a lighter sentence but is now stuck there, with nobody believing he’s sane. He meets some of the people who catalogue mental illness, and those who vehemently oppose them. He meets the influential psychologist who developed the industry standard Psychopath Test and who is convinced that many important CEOs and politicians are in fact psychopaths. Jon learns from him how to ferret out these high-flying psychopaths and, armed with his new psychopath-spotting abilities, heads into the corridors of power...


Find out more about the book here.

What I thought:

I was interested to see what this book had to say about psychopathy. I knew it wasn’t an academic text, but anecdote and a form of investigative journalism can be a more accessible route into getting an understanding of such things if you are a lay reader.

The book had potential, and the tale of people such as “Ton” a prisoner in Broadmoor, was intriguing. But I did end up wondering what the purpose of this book was, and I wasn’t entirely that the author knew the answer to this question himself. The main bulk of the book was about psychopathy, but the second half of the book rather drifted from topic to topic and didn’t seem to be very coherent. There felt like there was some crow-barring of subjects into the overall premise of the book. Seeing where David Shayler has ended up is interesting, but I am not sure I necessarily saw a direct connection to the main subject. He appears to be someone suffering from some form of delusion, but not really a psychopath. Then there was a discussion about how a million children in the US are on bipolar medication. A concerning statistic and possibly based on inaccurate diagnosis, but not really relevant to the main topic. I thought the book rambled towards the end and lacked direction. An interesting read, but not a very coherent book.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Death Sentence


Title: Death Sentence

Author: Mikkel Birkegaard

Number of pages: 398

Started: 7 October 2011

Finished: 13 October 2011

Opening words:

Until recently I had only killed people on paper.

As it happened, I was good at it. Good enough to make a living from it and so experienced that I could refer to it as my job. Being able to write full-time in a country the size of Denmark is something of a privilege, but there are some who will argue I am not a “proper writer” or what I wrote aren’t “proper books”.


Plot summary:

A murder committed on paper, safely within the confines of a novel, is one thing. To see that same crime in the real world, is something else entirely. . .

Frank F√łns is a very successful crime writer. His novels, famed for their visceral descriptions of violent death, have made him a household name. But now someone is copying his crimes. For Frank what once seemed a clever, intriguing plot twist, has suddenly become a terrifying, blood-spattered reality.

In the novel, a redhead who was scared of water is drowned. In the mirror-image of the real world, she has become an ex-girlfriend chained and left to die at the bottom of the harbour. A corrupt police-officer tortured to death becomes a contact who dies with fear in his eyes. Someone is taking Franks’ fiction and using it to destroy his life. The writer must become the detective.

In fiction, the bad guy always gets caught, but in real life there is no such guarantee. Fear becomes real. The knife cut hurts like hell. Our narrator may not survive. No-one is promising you a happy ending. For Frank what had once been a game is now a matter of life and death.

What I thought:

I read Mikkel Birkegaard’s first book over the summer, and really enjoyed that despite some slightly melodramatic plot devices. I was therefore looking forward to reading his second novel. The book started well and it was a good opening line. The idea of the novel was also good, and carried on Birkegaard’s theme that emerged in his first novel – the power of the novel to influence the world around us.

I have read some reviews of this book that comment on how violent the book is. I am quite squeamish and I wouldn’t say the book is all that violent. That is until you get to the final chapter. I did read the whole book, but I had to slightly skim the end of it because it is rather gruesome.

This was a decent thriller. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the afterword, but can’t really comment on that further without giving away some of the plot. It was an interesting idea for a novel, and whilst I did quite enjoy it, I think I had hoped for a bit more from it.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Enigma


Title: Enigma

Author: Robert Harris

Number of pages: 452

Started: 3 October 2011

Finished: 7 October 2011

Opening words:

CAMBRIDGE IN THE fourth winter of the war: a ghost town.

A ceaseless Siberian wind with nothing to blunt its edge for a thousand miles whipped off the North Sea and swept low across the Fens. It rattled the signs to the air-raid shelters in Trinity New Court and battered on the boarded-up windows of King's College Chapel. It prowled through the quadrangles and staircases, confining the few dons and students still in residence to their rooms. By mid-afternoon the narrow cobbled streets were deserted. By nightfall, with not a light to be seen, the university was returned to a darkness it hadn't known since the Middle Ages. A procession of monks shuffling over Magdalene Bridge on their way to Vespers would scarcely have seemed out of place.

In the wartime blackout the centuries had dissolved.

It was to this bleak spot in the flatlands of eastern England that there came, in the middle of February 1943, a young mathematician named Thomas Jericho. The authorities of his college, King's, were given less than a day's notice of his arrival – scarcely enough time to reopen his rooms, put sheets on his bed, and have more than three years' worth of dust swept from his shelves and carpets. And they would not have gone to even that much trouble, it being wartime and servants so scarce – had not the Provost himself been telephoned at the Master's Lodge by an obscure but very senior official of His Majesty's Foreign Office, with a request that 'Mr Jericho be looked after until he is well enough to return to his duties'.

'Of course,' replied the Provost, who couldn't for the life of him put a face to the name of Jericho. 'Of course. A pleasure to welcome him back.'

As he spoke, he opened the college register and flicked through it until he came to: Jericho, T. R. G.; matriculated, 1935; Senior Wrangler, Mathematics Tripos, 1938; Junior Research Fellow at two hundred pounds a year; not seen in the university since the outbreak of war.


Read more (possibly the whole book) on a Russian website

Plot summary:

March 1943, the war hangs in the balance, and at Bletchley Park a brilliant young codebreaker is facing a double nightmare. The Germans have unaccountably changed their U-boat Enigma code, threatening a massive Allied defeat. And as suspicion grows that there may be a spy inside Bletchley, Jericho's girlfriend, the beautiful and mysterious Claire Romilly suddenly disappears.

What I thought:

This was another easy and engaging read from Robert Harris. He picked an interesting part of World War 2 history, the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, and wove a fictional tale around them. It was a good page turner and given that I have been in a phase of late (following the Bookers) of reading books that are undemanding of the brain, this fitted the bill. That might sound a bit of a put down of the book, but it isn’t meant to be. It is a decent plot and a good commuter or Sunday afternoon read. Enjoyable.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Travels with My Aunt


Title: Travels with My Aunt

Author: Graham Greene

Number of pages: 272

Started: 27 September 2011

Finished: 1 October 2011

Opening words:

I met my Aunt Augusta for the first time in more than half a century at my mother’s funeral. My mother was approaching eighty-six when she died, and my aunt was some eleven or twelve years younger. I had retired from the bank two years before with an adequate pension and a silver handshake. There had been a take-over by the Westminster and my branch was considered redundant. Everyone thought me lucky, but I found it difficult to occupy my time. I have never married, I have always lived quietly, and, apart from my interest in dahlias, I have no hobby. For those reasons I found myself agreeably excited by my mother’s funeral.
Plot summary:

Henry Pulling, a retired bank manager, meets his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta for the first time in over fifty years at what he supposes to be his mother's funeral. Soon after, she persuades Henry to abandon Southwood, his dahlias and the Major next door to travel her way, Brighton, Paris, Istanbul, Paraguay. Through Aunt Augusta, a veteran of Europe's hotel bedrooms, Henry joins a shiftless, twilight society: mixing with hippies, war criminals, CIA men; smoking pot, breaking all the currency regulations and eventually coming alive after a dull suburban life.

What I thought:

This book started well, and had me chuckling almost straight away.

This was despite the setting being a cremation. You are introduced to Aunt Augusta, a larger than life figure who clearly is not interested in complying with social norms or the demands of society. She also has no sense of discretion and without even the bat of an eyelid tells Henry that the woman whose funeral they were at was not in fact his mother, which he had believed to be the case until that moment, but his step-mother. Henry took the news remarkably well, but is then promptly led astray, and all over the world, by his aunt.

It was a well –written book and is another good example of Graham Greene at his best. I usually prefer his “Catholic” novels, which this was not. However, by the end of the book, I thought the joke had worn a bit thin.