BROADRIBB GOES FROM CRITIC TO CRITIQUED TO BURY THE OPPOSITION DEEP DOWN IN A KNOCK EM’ DEAD DEBUT.

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deep-down-dd-cvrI was in the UK’s second city recently at an event in the NEC, when I was informed by a sign on the wall of some of the well known people who have come from Birmingham. The likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Leona Lewis were mentioned, while the literary world wasn’t referenced. The West Midland’s capital has produced such luminaries as J.R. Tolkien, James Barlow, Bill Odie and Barbara Cartland. When it comes to bounty hunters though… They’re a bit thin on the ground, until now. This month’s book is written by a former bounty hunter, who’s a Brummie. The book is Deep Down Dead by Steph Broadribb and was published in January by Orenda books www.orendabooks.com .

Our heroine Lori Anderson is a single mother working as a bounty hunter in Florida. When the medical bills for her nine – year old daughter’s treatment start to stack up, along with the rent, she’s forced to take an out of state skip trace worth enough to cover her mounting bills. But there’s a deadline, she must have him back in court in three days. The ‘him’ turns out to be her mentor, JT, whom she hasn’t seen in ten years. Getting him back from West Virginia in three days should be a cake walk. But then things start to go downhill,  her child minder goes  away early to see relatives out of state, thus forcing her to take Dakota on a “Ride-Along”. JT is being held by another bounty hunter in the hills awaiting Lori’s arrival.  At the hand-over she’s ambushed and just about manages to get away with JT, then Dakota is kidnapped by a theme park owner running a pornography ring from one of his parks ,who wants incriminating evidence JT has on him. Meanwhile the mob also want a piece of JT.  Will she get Dakota back? Will she manage to return JT to Florida without letting her past with him get in the way?

The first thing that strikes me about this book is that it’s full of the usual bog standard storyline building blocks of your average half decent American tv drama. A kid, a bounty hunter playing fast and loose with the law, the mob and the two main characters bumping off each other or having done so in the past with the usual results…. But add to that Broadribb’s tense and moving writing style we are presented with a steadfast page turner of a first novel and if she can keep this up for the next couple of books she’ll set herself up as a force to be reckoned with in this genre.

The child pornography ring being run out of a Winter Wonderland theme park was original, but in parts reminded me of the plot of Beverly Hills Cop 3, when Axel investigates a money laundering racket in a theme park. Also, the link between the three main characters is a bit predictable but again it doesn’t take away from the self-assured, fresh – in your face writing style of this new kid on the block.

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Steph Broadribb

Broadribb’s life reads almost like my own, I was born in London grew up in Chesham in Buckinghamshire and then moved to Dublin where I write this blog. Ok, so I haven’t trained as a Bounty hunter but I often thought about it while growing up watching “The Fall Guy”.

This is the first foray into becoming a crime fiction writer for the Birmingham born debutant, but not her first time writing about crime fiction, as she’s been writing the book blog www.crimethrillergirl.com for several years now. She trained as bounty Hunter in California, studied creative writing at the City University London and now lives and writes surrounded by horses and cows in the English home county of Buckinghamshire.

Steph is planning to make this into a series set around the exploits of her heroine Lori Anderson,

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Duane “Dog” Chapman

who comes across as very likeable and far more interesting character than the real-life Duane “Dog” Chapman and his cohort of hanger-on’s in the reality TV series “Dog”.  The methodical way Lori goes about things and the style of writing shows experience and sufficient knowledge of Broadribb’s field of expertise, means she is to this sub-genre what Kathy Reich’s is to the Medical Examiner sub-genre.

So without further ado download this book or hot foot it to your local book store and snap up a copy and get in at the start of what looks set to be an enthralling series.

SIJIE’S LITTLE SEAMSTRESS MAKES A FLUFFY SILK PURSE OUT OF A VERY UGLY MAO’S FOUR YEARS

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balzac-cvrIn a little over 6 weeks time, one of the smallest countries in the world, with the largest diaspora celebrates its annual holiday. I am of course referring to Ireland and St. Patrick’s day, which is celebrated almost the world over. While this weekend sees one of the largest countries in the world with an equally wide spread diaspora celebrate its New Year, four weeks after the rest of the world. That is China and the arrival of the year of the rooster. This month’s second book  is  written by a Chinese writer, something I wouldn’t normally get much chance to experience, unless of course, like me  you’re in a book group, which is how I came to read this. The book is Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, published by Vintage publishing in 2002 (www.vintage-books.co.uk).

The book tells the story of two teenage boys Ma Jianling and Luo Min  – sons of doctors, who as part of Chairman Mao’s re-education program, are sent to the wilds of rural china to knock the elitist well educated corners off them. Here they are put to work in the paddy fields, down mines, doing back breaking hard labour and other menial tasks. They are treated with disdain by the town elders and their poor and uneducated subjects but from the outset the two boys prove they can offer more than just cheap easy labour. One of them plays a violin, while the other is a fantastic story teller and they are soon given the additional task of going to the local city to watch the films and re-enact them to the locals. During their first couple of weeks traipsing back and forth across the foothills to and from the their daily back breaking chores, they meet a local travelling tailor and his beautiful daughter – whom Lou starts to court. Shortly after that  they discover a friend known as “Four Eyes,”  has a stash of forbidden 19th century European novels in a suitcase under his bed. They borrow one of the books and as they educate the young seamstress in the writing of Balzac, they realize she wants to hear more and so they set about planning to liberate the suitcase and its contents from under Four Eye’s bed. Will they succeed? Will the elders discover the books and burn them, or will their re-education program come to an end sooner? Will Lou and the little seamstress – end up happily married.

I didn’t know anything about Mao’s “Re-Education” program. Not until I opened the book and started reading, did  I realize it was part of the Cultural Revolution and was more commonly known as the “Up To The Mountains, Down To The Countryside Movement”. Through this program the People’s Party under Mao set about ridding the country of capitalist influences, by sending an estimated 17 million young people from the large cities to rural hard labour camps between 1966 – 76.

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The book is very short. At only one hundred and seventy pages it is a classical novella, so theoretically there is no reason this can’t be read in one sitting. Of the two main characters, we only really get to know the name of one Lou – the other one never reveals his name and if he does it is a fleeting reference (it was only through research of the film did I find his name in the credits). The story is educational and well written and documents perfectly the coming of age and re-education or widening of every character’s knowledge from the little seamstress’s exposure to literature to the boy’s introduction hard labour and the joys of romance as well as sex.

Dai Sijie was born in china, the only child of two medical professors under the Re-Education program he was sent to rural Sichuan. Although, as an only child he would have

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Dai Sijie

been exempt, but he went any way to experience the spartan lifestyle. On his return after 4 years, he became a lecturer in art in 1974. In 1984 he moved to France on scholarship where he still lives today. There he developed a liking for writing and  directing films. Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress ( Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise) was the first of two books he’s written and his experiences in the re-education camp are the inspiration for the book. His second book Mr Mouch’s Travelling Couch ( Le Complexe de Di)  was published in 2003. It was translated into English in 2005. He made Balzac And the Little Chinese Seamstress into a movie in 2002, he has made five other films since.

Sijie does for the Cultural Revolution through this book, what the likes of Schindler’s List, The Boy In The Stripped Pyjamas and The Book Thief for example did for the brutality of the Nazi regime. Lift a small stone and shed a very big light on it. Although compared to Schindler’s List – Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress is a laugh out loud comedy. Though, this is not to denigrate the experiences of those who survived the Re-Education camps. Sidjie has put a rather fluffy feel on a very arduous and harrowing period in Chinese history.

So buy or download a copy of this book, then as you decide what’s for dinner, maybe opt for Chinese take away with  traditional New Year’s Moon Cake, and settle down for both an educational and hugely enjoyable romp through the Cultural Revolution. Xinjian Kuaile…

 

WILSON HAS ME YEARNING TO GO ‘BACK TO BLACK’ GIVEN THE OPTION…

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comfrt-of-blk-cvrMy husband  works in the hospitality sector – or to be more precise publishes an Irish Hospitality trade magazine. Although in the past he’s held  a number of roles in the hospitality field, from reservations team member for a chain of five star London hotels to reservations account manager with the second largest car hire company in the world and as an account manager with one of the leading car-hire websites. In his spare time, as you may already have seen from being a regular visitor, he writes and edits this site. So, as they often say, there’s a book inside all of us and I have no doubt he will write one in the future. But till then we’ll  have to be contented with  some one else in the hospitality industry making it as a successful writer.  That person is Carter Wilson and this month’s book is his third novel “The Comfort of Black” published by Oceanview Publishing (www.oceanviewpub.com) .

Hannah and her tech start up owner husband, Dallin have it all. They live in Seattle, in an Condo overlooking the city. They are on the verge of taking the next step in their marriage by starting a family but over the recent months Dallin has become distant and then one night in his sleep he starts talking aggressively to another woman. A couple of days later when Hannah Confronts him about it he attacks her. She manages to escape to the safety of her sisters house but when she agrees to meet him on neutral ground to talk things over, Dalinn tries to have her kidnapped. Only the intervention of a mild mannered stranger she met in a coffee shop moments before the abduction thwarts Dalinn’s plan. Who is Black Morrow? what is Dallin up to and what does it have to do with her past? The past that she and her sister had thought they’d left behind?

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We are initially introduced the Hannah, The Comfort of Black’s main character by visiting a traumatic event in her childhood. I found this captured my interest immediately and built some empathy for a character who, if I wasn’t aware of her background, I would have had little initial enthusiasm for. I must admit I found a couple of the character names preposterous. Maybe that’s my northern English roots rebelling. Or maybe it was part of Wilson’s design , to delineate so clearly between the working class folk of Kansas and the Hollywood like glamour of Dallin and Black Morrow. I mean, surely his surname could have been Black! However, Hannah’s back story and the immediate sense of secrets and mystery prevented me from dropping the book with snort of derision.  Hannah finds her life with successful technology entrepreneur, Dallin isn’t all as happy and contented as she thought. Already concerned that he has grown distant she is horrified when he reveals a startling dark side whist talking in his sleep. Hannah decides to investigate. Is the man she married who she thinks he is? As she tries to find the truth, her whole life is turned upside down and abduction, violence and even murder ensue. Who can Hannah trust?  Who is the architect of her nightmare situation?

Carter Wilson (www.carterwilson.com) was born in New Mexico and grew up In LA. He studied at Cornell and is now a consultant and lecturer in the hospitality industry. His other books are Final Crossing (2012), The Boy In The Woods (2014) and his latest, Revelation, just published at the end of 2016. One wonders if this rather dull sounding persona is merely a blind for an exciting double life as a spy or mercenary because he certainly seems to be extremely familiar with a murky underworld of fixers and criminals. As for my husband, the jury is still out…

Whilst all his books are thrillers, Carter cannot be easily categorized within the thriller genre. His novel ‘The Boy in The Woods’ is about a young boy who witnesses a murder and

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Carter Wilson

is unable to put the memory out of his mind. Later as a thriller writer he recounts the story, representing it as fiction. He is contacted by the person he believes is the killer and a deadly game ensues.’ Final Crossing’, his other novel is about a religiously motivated serial killer being pursued by an ex ranger and a psychic detective. There seems to be no common denominator here. I feel it’s kind of refreshing that the settings and plots are so different. Certainly not predictable! His influences appear wide ranging as Dan Brown, Gillian Flynn, Dennis Lehane, Lee child, Ian Fleming and Stephen King all sprang to mind whilst looking at synopses of his work. As these are some of the best thriller writers, he is in good company.

It’s actually a very difficult book to put down at all. Wilson keeps you guessing with every twist and turn and ratchets up the tension continuously. Even a regular reader of thrillers, like myself, was left giddy with each revelation. Every time I thought I had it sussed, there I was, wrong again! There was even romance in the mix. I won’t spoil the conclusion which tied everything up nicely but I must admit to being a little disappointed at the loss of a main character with more to give.

This is certainly a book I shall recommend to male and female friends alike. A great holiday read. I look forward to finding more of Carter Wilson’s enthralling and hopefully crazily named characters in his previous and future works..

 

Reviewed by  Georgina Murphy

FEARS FOR MY FUTURE HEALTH LEAVE ME MISSING OUT HEALEY’S DEBUT

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ezbth-missng-cvrIn 2015 The world Alzheimer’s report stated there are currently 46 million people worldwide suffering from some sort of dementia related illness and that figure will double each year going forward. Like cancer or any other large global illness, we all know someone with dementia and to be honest with those figures, it’s a scary thought that anyone of us reading this piece could fall victim to it. That brings me onto this month’s second book, its Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey, published by Penguin in 2015 (www.penguin.co.uk).

Maud forgets things, the cup of tea she made earlier, what she went to the shops for. Even where she lives and her own family, are at times, strangers too her. But one thing Maud does know is that her friend Elizabeth is missing. How? Because there’s a note in her pocket. No matter who she tells, even the police – no one believes her and they just tell her to forget it. Whatever else she may mentally let go of, Elizabeth’s disappearance isn’t one of them. Maud is in her eighties. So, she isn’t just pushing against everyone else in her search for the truth about her friend’s whereabouts, she’s also trying overcome the cloying effects of her illness. On top of that, there’s the mystery surrounding what happened to her sister 60 years ago, can Maud work out the clues in her rolling ship of a memory? Is Elizabeth even missing? Did her sister ever return?

I read a lot of books, as you can gather and if you’ve read most of these reviews you’ll be aware that I have a fifty-page rule. If the book doesn’t get me by fifty pages then I put it down, as life’s too short to read bad books. This book, I had to put down not before fifty pages but at one hundred and eighty-six!!!! Why? Because the writing and storytelling was so compelling, I got upset. Maybe I was at a low time in the year, this was strange because when I picked it up and started reading it, I was on a week’s holiday in the Algarve with my new wife, enjoying blue skies and temperatures of 30 degrees in late September. But for some reason I got all worked up about dementia and started to wonder what would happen if I got dementia and how I would cope with it? Silly isn’t it?

I’ve read other books that have upset me in the past and as I said then, I’ll say now. It’s not a sign of failure, but of success on the authors part and here Emma Healy has

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Miss Marple – aka Joan Hickson

succeeded in getting the reader into the shoes, or more appropriately, the disheveled mind of Maud. If Agatha Christie had given Miss Marple Alzheimer’s, herself and Maud would be almost alike.

In those one hundred and eighty-six pages that I read and from what I ascertained from friends and acquaintances who have read the full two hundred seventy-five. Healey keeps you on the edge of your seat and at times your heart in your mouth, with worry and concern for our heroine as she goes about trying to solve the two mysteries.

This is British writer Emma Healey’s (www.emmahealey.co.uk)  first novel and was inspired by her grandmother. She grew up in London and studied art in college. In a recent interview in The Times, she admitted that at sixteen she contemplated suicide, but that art saved her. After working in libraries, universities and bookshops around the UK she eventually settled in Norwich in 2010, to complete her MA in Creative Writing and never left.  Elizabeth Is Missing won the Costa First Novel Award in 2014 and was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize in 2015, there is currently no news on her next book.

The only bad mark against this book is that there is a lot of jumping back and forth between present day and post world war II Britain as Maud tries retrace the final movements of her sister and recount run-ins with her shifty brother-in-law. Mixed with the constant disruption caused by her faltering and decimated memory it can get a bit confusing. Maybe it’s planned that way? As well as that, there is a rather dark comedic element to Maud’s predicament which at times serves to lighten the mood of the book.

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Emma Healey

I never apologise for wearing my heart on my sleeve and letting my emotions get the better of me. I’m not alone in letting thoughts of our own mortality rise to the surface, but to quote James Shirley in Death The Leveller “There is no amour against fate…”. We must just get on and enjoy life as best we can.

What I read of it, this was a lovely book and as other reviewers such as Debra Moggach and Emma Donoghue have claimed, it is a haunting and unsettling read that will stir and shake you. So, if you can lock your fears of mortality and the future in a metaphorical steel casket for a while, then go out and buy or download a copy of this book.

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From myself and the other contributors to the Library Door, we’d like to take this opportunity to again thank you for visiting the site over the past year and hope you’ve enjoyed reading the reviews as much as we have writing them. Thank you to the publishers who keep my postman busy – especially Karen in Orenda books who continually surprises us with regular parcels. If you are an author or publisher and you’d like to send us copies of your latest releases you can contact me  on twitter @apaulmurphy  or by email at apaulmurphy@gmail.com . We hope you had a great Christmas and wish you a very happy New Year.

Adrian Murphy

RAVATN’S TRIBUNAL IS A TINDERBOX OF SEXUAL TENSION AND INTRIGUE

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thebirdtribunalcvrThere are numerous collective nouns used to describe a gathering of birds that have rather sinister inferences. Take a parliament of owls, a murder of crows or an unkindness of ravens for example. Then there are the animals associated with the judiciary, I’m referring to a kangaroo court and until recently having lived in Ireland for the past 38 years or so I thought I’d seen every tribunal conceivable, until I read this month’s book. It’s The Bird Tribunal written by Agnes Ravatn and published in 2016 by Orenda Books (www.orendabook.co.uk)

After a scandal involving her and a superior, TV presenter Allis Hagtorn tries to rebuild her life by going into exile as a home help and gardener for the mysterious and brooding Sigurd Bagge, working and living in his house on a remote Norwegian fjord. Everything about this new life seems like a jump from the frying pan into fire as she contends with his almost teenage like moodiness and the caustic remarks and stares of the neighbours, especially the woman in the local village shop. Also, what of his wife, who is mysteriously absent. Is she away working? Travelling? Dead? or has she left him? If she’s dead, did he murder her and if so, will Aliss be next? Add to that the question of what Sigurd is doing inside his off-limits bedroom all day and how long will her exile last?

In these ever time starved lives we lead it gets harder and harder to find space to read a book. Usually it’s on the commute to and from work if you use public transport.  Maybe you snatch a couple of minutes at bed time before your body succumbs to fatigue and drags you under for 6-8 hours? There’s always audio books too. So, normal sized books which have on average about 300 pages really have to be very good to compete with everything else in your life. Smaller books which just about get above the Novella moniker are great finds and if well written pure gold… That where we find The Bird Tribunal. At one hundred and eighty-five pages Ravatn and her translator Rosie Hedger deliver a fantastic page turner inside what is basically a literary matchbox.

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Agnes Ravatn

From the moment you turn the first page till you close the back cover, Ravatn slowly cranks up the momentum in this brilliantly written psychological thriller to where the book is positively exuding mystery and sexual tension, something I haven’t found in a Scandi Noir book in a while. If this is 50 Shades in Scandinavia, then the desperate housewives and yummy mummies of the rest of the world who almost beat each other black and blue to gobble up as much of the virile Mr Grey, in his almost 900 plus pages over three books, have seriously missed out.

As for the characters, both are rather sketchy. They come across as being merely thrown together. Little is said of Aliss’s application process,  whether this was by way of a card in a supermarket noticeboard or some obscure online discovery. Maybe a friend of a friend mentioned Sigurd was looking for help. This adds to the style and pace of the book, the less one knows the more the reader can use their imagination to suggest how these two found out about each other. Again, this adds to the overall mystery of the book along with the fantastic descriptions of the isolated but beautiful location.

While the Bird Tribunal of the title is basically a kangaroo court which is shown in flash back when Sigurd is abducted by a group of people at night who are all wearing bird masks. They want him to atone for something that happened in the past. The book also delves heavily in to Norse folklore with the main characters discovering their liking for Norse history and gods.

This is 33-year-old Ravatn’s fifth book, the Norwegian born author is also a columnist onbbc-book-at-bedtime the weekly Nynorsk newspaper Dag Og Tid. Her other books were Week 53 (Veke 53)2007, Standingstill (Stillstand) 2011, Popular Reading (Folkelesnad) 2011 and Operation Self-Discipline (Operasjon Sjisiplinold) 2014. the Bird Tribunal was made into a successful stage play in 2015 and is also being made into a film. On top of that it was announced at the beginning of December the book will be BBC Radio 4’s Book At Bedtime  between January 23rd – 29th.

It is often a complaint of the book group that the average sized books we read are missing the touch of an excellent editor. Here we are shown by another great Norwegian writer that great stories don’t need to be hidden inside a plethora of padding in large tomes.  So, if you are looking for something to read by the fire over Christmas or during your precious reading time over the dark winter months pull on your best Scandinavian jumper and get into this cracking and little read from Agnes Ratvn.

DARK, SMOULDERING AND CHILLING IT MAYBE. BUT JONASSONS THIRD BOOK SETS OFF MY LITERARY AQUAPHOBIA

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black-out-cvrCan you remember where you were between the 15th-21st April 2010, yes I know its a long time ago, but go on try to remember…If I said Eyjafjallajokull… No, I’m not swearing at you, but that word or similar sounding expletives were on the tip of quite a few European tongues that week in 2010.  That was when a little known Icelandic volcano, until then that is, decided to erupt and the ensuing ash cloud grounded the European air traffic system, stranding over 10 million people worldwide and costing the airline industry $1.7 billion in lost revenue. That volcano, yes the one no one with out a large bottle Brennivin inside them can pronounce, plays a central role in this months second  book, titled Black Out by  Ragnar Jònasson  published by Orenda Books (www.orendabooks.co.uk) in July 2016.

When  man is killed at a remote cottage in Northern Iceland.  Detective Ari Thór Arason a troubled and complex small town policemen  and his colleagues start to investigate the crime. Was the man the intended victim? What kind of man was he? Why was he killed? Throw into the mix a reporter with secrets of her own, along with the convoluted lives of the investigating officers, their relatives and former lovers and you have a complex plot that’s even murkier without the added bonus of the ever present ash cloud.

This was my first foray into the series and almost my first exposure to Nordic Noir. Noir is certainly the word. As a lover of thrillers both crime and psychological since my early teens, somewhat foolishly I took this book as holiday reading on a sunny beach holiday. Not a good choice. This book needs a dark winter evening, in front of a roaring fire, with something stronger than cocoa, maybe Brennivin, the Icelandic Schnapps often referred to as the Black death.

Set during the 24 hour light of an Arctic summer you might think this book would inspire

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Eyjafjallajokull erupting in 2010

you with wonderful descriptions of the Icelandic scenery. However, this is the period of the volcanic eruption and ash cloud . The cloud is shutting out the sun in Reykjavik and making life depressingly claustrophobic for the Icelanders who have endured the dark winter. I found this coloured the whole book. It was unremittingly dark and depressing. Not surprising for crime fiction you might say but even the parallel character plots were depressing. The most interesting character for me was Isrun, a young reporter. Her character is pivotal to moving the plot forwards and the representation of the cutthroat world of TV news, whilst not original, seemed realistic.

Everyone was miserable, suicidal or just downright nasty. When I say ‘everyone’, there were a lot of characters and a lot of threads, at least one of which, seemed to me unnecessary.  However as this is the second of a series of linked novels, I appreciate some characters and storylines may be revisited and fleshing out of characters and laying the base of future plots could be required. I lost patience with the book several times but picked it up again and was eventually rewarded with the ‘hook’ which finally ignited my interest half way into the book. For myself, a hint of this or the reveal itself coming a little earlier would have invested me much more.  Maybe Noir fans prefer the slow burn? I certainly found it confusing, having to turn back or reread to work out who people were etc. Not a book I’d recommend for the Kindle so!

 

This is Ragnar Jónasson’s (www.ragnar-jonasson.squarespace.com) 3rd book to be translated into English, his  debut novel Snowblind was published to crital aclaim in 2015 followed closely by Nightblind in the same year. There are two more english translations scheduled for publication in 2017, they atre Breathless and Ruptiure.

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Ragnor Jonasson

 

Before beginning to write his own stories,  Jónnason translated Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic and founded  a crime writers festival in Iceland. I was hoping for some hint of Christie here. Reviews of ‘Snowblind’ referenced Jonasson as a modern Christie.  He has obviously spent a long time honing his characters and plot lines for a series of books. I could also easily see a TV series. I was hoping to dip my toe into Nordic Noir with this book but in the end I found it too cold and bleak to take the plunge into the whole Fjord.

But if series like Fortitude (which didn’t get me either) are your thing, then get your togs or thermal swimsuit on and dive right in.

 

Reviewed by Georgina Murphy

WE LOSE A LOT MORE THAN THE MAIN CHARACTER IN SEMPLE’S SECOND BOOK

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whered-you-go-bernadette-cvrThere’s a lot to be said for the quirkiness of the residents of Seattle, hey look at Frasier Crane.  Lets not forget that in real life Jimi Hendrix was born there.  It might also have something to do with the amount of coffee they consume, thanks to it being the birthplace of Starbucks. Add to that, each year they have an annual No Pants Light Rail Ride day, where they are encouraged to take off trousers and skirts and show off their underwear on the daily commute, and we thought mum’s doing the school run in their  PJ’s was OTT.

Seattle is also home to one of the largest IT hubs outside of Silicon Valley, being where the Amazon and Microsoft Head Quarters are situated. The MS facility alone has something in the region of 40,000 staff working there, spread over 17 buildings on a campus covering 500 acres, so much so it needs its on private bus network called the Microsft Connector to enable it’s staff to get to and from work. Its on board these buses and this campus as well as the Seattle environs that most of this months book take place, its Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple (www.mariasemple.com), published by Little Brown & Company (www.littlebrown.com) in 2012.

Now, I like my humour witty – quick, incisive and accurately honed to the unexpected target. And I like my satire served with an undertone of viciousness.

Maria Semple’s  humour (she wrote for “Arrested Development”) is very much in the tradition of farce: slapstick, ‘wacky’ and laid on thick.  Her satire relies on over-the-top rants and exaggerated caricature that have as much bite as a soggy cracker.

So I HATED this book! I could – and probably should – stop there. But I feel the need to explain this extreme reaction. Actually, that’s not true. The real reason is that, having read the book, I want to have a good rant to get it out of my system!

When we first meet the book’s protagonist, Bernadette, she’s living the life of a semi-recluse with her daughter and husband in an almost derelict house on an overgrown lot in Seattle. An architect by profession, Bernadette has forsaken work to devote herself to her daughter, Bee, who was born with a heart defect. Bee is now fifteen, a straight-A student and more than capable of looking after herself. She has to. Bernadette, poor pet, is incapable of doing anything. For 75c/hr she has outsourced virtually all every-day activity to an Indian online personal assistant, to whom she gives personal and family information, including banking details. Bernadette’s husband is a Microsoft ‘guru’ – a level 8 corporate VP – with a commensurate large salary. Her daughter is “a pure delight. Her love of learning is infectious, as are her kindness and good humour”. Both of them love Bernadette dearly.

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So Bernadette’s life is hell.  She has to put up with ordinary people.  She even has to interact with some of them. She disparagingly refers to other mothers at Bee’s private school as ‘gnats’ and treats them accordingly – swotting them out of her way. One of the main reasons Bernadette doesn’t like leaving the house is “because I might find myself face-to-face with a Canadian………..to Canadians everyone is equal ………..The thing Canadians don’t understand is that some people are extraordinary and should be treated as such”. Other reasons for Bernadette not leaving the house include infuriating 5-way street junctions, having to wait at traffic lights, having to step over “runaways, drug addicts and bums” on the way to shop in Nordstrum. What an imposition! How dare they BE there!

Bernadette is, of course, a genius. (We know this because she’s won a genius prize!!). And her genius is being suffocated in the mediocre, social-climbing, Microsoft shallows of rain-sodden Seattle.

What’s my problem? This is a fantastic set up for brilliant biting satire! And it could be. Except that Semple wants us to IDENTIFY with Bernadette!! To empathise with the trials and tribulations she endures by having to stoop to doing anything mundane – like living a life. We’re expected to applaud Bernadette’s oh-so-superior dismissal of the pretentiousness of the ‘gnats’, her ridicule of her husband’s granola-eating, bicycle-riding lifestyle, her disparaging of Microsoft, the people of Seattle and – well, everything.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I enjoy ridicule of middle class pretentiousness, social climbing and the ‘dairy-free, gluten-free, whatever-comes-into-my-head-free’ attention seekers. Some of Semple’s pithy lines even generated a smile or two. But derision of these traits is so much a part of the ‘look-how-smart-and-different-I-am’ supercilious pretentiousness of the exact same social-climbing middle class that it packs as much satirical punch as a dairy-free wheatgrass smoothie does taste.

There is a point about halfway through the book where Bernadette’s long-suffering husband gets so alarmed and pissed-off by her behaviour that he arranges to have her committed to a psychiatric institution (or ‘loony bin’ as Bernadette herself describes it).  It’s then that Bernadette disappears. What a pity! The ‘I-am-so-exceptional-that-it’s-the-world’s-responsibility-to-do-what-I-want’ Bernadette in a loony bin? Now THAT would have been worth reading.

But, no, Bernadette evades her persecutors, travels to the Antarctic and ‘finds herself’ in a project to build a station at the South Pole – a place she particularly likes because she could put her hand “on the South Pole marker and declare that the world literally revolved around me”. Bee and her much-derided husband, Elgie, track her down and they all live happily ever after. Time for me to reach for the sick-bag.

OK, rant over. I, unlike Bernadette, must return to the real world where not everyone shares my tastes or opinions. And in this instance, very few do. Even in my own bookclub I was in a small minority. Most thoroughly enjoyed it. Hilarious, entertaining, clever, quirky and touching were some of the adjectives they used to describe it.  A scan through Goodreads reviews (and there are lots of them) shows an abundance of four and five-star ratings with only a small sprinkling of one-stars from cranks like myself. Not for the first time, I have to acknowledge that my funny bone is in a different place to many others. If you enjoy “Arrested Development” – and I understand that quite a lot of people do – you will likely also enjoy this book. So go for it!

But I retain a small personal fantasy. At the same time as Bernadette escapes to the

maria-semple-ralphey

Maria Semple & Ralphy

Antarctic, avoiding committal to the looney bin, Semple’s writing style changes. Up to Bernadette’s disappearance the plot-line is presented at a fast ‘rat-at-tat’ pace in the form of emails, notes and texts. After her disappearance it changes abruptly to a descriptive presentation of Bee & Elgie’s sleuthing.  The tone also shifts from ranting diatribe to warm-fuzzy emotion.  Even those in my bookclub who thoroughly enjoyed the book found this unexpected shift disconcerting – and liked the first part considerably better than the second.

So, my fantasy. Could it possibly be that Semple wrote the first half with the intention of putting Bernadette in the loony bin, but did an abrupt swerve to avoid alienating a large swathe of her target market?

Total fantasy, I’m afraid. Semple is a pro. She cut her teeth as an LA comedy writer in the ‘90s and noughties. As well as Arrested Development, she also wrote for the other highly successful comedies Ellen, and Mad about you and for Saturday Night Live.  Her writing resonates with a large audience. Where’d You Go Berenadette  is her second book her first was This Ones Mine published in 2008, while her third novel, another comedy also set in Seattle called Today Will Be Different, has just been published.

Bernadette was a year on the New York Times Bestseller List and a feature film – rumoured to star Cate Blanchett as Bernadette – is in the pipeline. No stars for guessing that I’m unlikely to be heading to see the movie. Unless… (fantasy alert)…. there’s a change of script … Bernadette ends up in the loony bin… Please!!

Reviewed by Clare O’Connor