Scandi-crime time…

Spring Tide by Cilla & Rolf Börjlind

spring-tideOn Thursday 23rd April, it is World Book Night. Once again, I applied to be a ‘giver’. I picked a book from the list, and wrote my case for being awarded a batch of copies to give out. I was delighted to be accepted and even more pleased to get my first choice of book – Spring Tide – the first in a Scandi-crime series by the husband and wife scriptwriting team behind some of Swedish TV’s biggest hits (including adaptations of Martin Beck, Arne Dahl and Wallander).

I had the immense pleasure of meeting Cilla & Rolf Börjlind last summer at an event hosted by their UK publisher Hesperus, and somehow I didn’t get round to writing about it at the time. Cilla & Rolf were absolutely charming and despite my not having watched much of their TV work, they chatted about how they work together – if I remember correctly, they alternate chapters writing and editing, but also one of them will take the lead on a particular character.

Spring Tide is their first novel together and a second featuring the same team, Third Voice, was published last month and is waiting its turn to be read on my bedside table.

Needless to say, given the Börjlinds’ pedigree, Spring Tide arrives fully formed with a fascinating plot full of twists and turns and a pair of investigators that are totally original. But before we get to them, the novel begins back in 1987 with the spectacularly gruesome murder of a pregnant woman, who is buried up to her neck on a beach on the night of the spring tide – she essentially drowns. It’s witnessed by a boy hiding behind the rocks up the beach. It’s a bold start!

We then return to the present and meet Olivia Rönning. Olivia is a police student in Stockholm; her supervisor gives them all a project – to examine a cold case and report back. Olivia chooses the beach-murder – a case her late father had been in charge of; her supervisor isn’t surprised at her choice. It’s hard to get anywhere on the case though, as most of those involved are gone, dead or disappeared. If only Olivia could find Tom Stilton, her father’s colleague, a policeman who dropped out.Meanwhile, there has been spate of attacks on homeless people in Stockholm. The attacks are filmed and posted online. In the latest, they go too far and their victim, known as One-eyed Vera, dies. Her friend Jelle, a homeless man, vows to uncover her killers. Is there a link with Olivia’s case? Olivia, as you might expect, gets totally emotionally involved in the case and begins to investigate it, at great personal risk and we are taken on a roller-coaster ride through the less acceptable sides of Swedish life – from high-class prostitution and corrupt businessmen to the fate of the homeless.

There are certainly echoes of the Martin Beck books by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö (my review of the first, Roseanna, here). The Martin Beck books are famed for their emphasis on justice and exposing the bourgeois underbelly of Swedish society. However, whereas Sjöwall & Wahlöö get their cases solved by dogged detective work the Börjlinds, with Olivia and Stilton (once she finds him) being outside the formal police system, are not bound by procedure and consequently the action moves at a greater speed and in a more exciting way, although being over 450 pages long. Rönning and Stilton make a fascinating coupling as an investigating team. Both are damaged in their own ways but are totally different to the usual maverick cops – very refreshing indeed.

Spring Tide was translated by Rod Bradbury who is well-known for translating the best-selling  The 100 year old man… and there was no jarring – I was hooked on this novel from the outset with the result that Spring Tide is probably the best Scandicrime novel I’ve read. I’m looking forward to reading the next in the series, and I can hand out my copies on World Book Night knowing that I loved reading it. (10/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
Spring Tide by Cilla & Rolf Börjlind. Hesperus, 2014. Paperback, 476 pages.
Third Voice (Ronning & Stilton 2) – Hesperus, March 2015. Paperback, 464 pages.

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‘Get Lost – Get Found’

Paper Towns by John Green

PAPER-TOWNS-POSTER-570I still haven’t read John Green’s best-selling The Fault in Our Stars – but I did see the film. I enjoyed it and predictably, I cried. My daughter lapped up book and film, and is forever quoting ‘it’s a metaphor’ at me; she surely wants to go to Amsterdam and sit on that bench. (We will do that someday, OK?) Anyway, Green’s previous novels are now getting the big screen treatment, with films of his 2008 novel Paper Towns coming out this summer and Looking for Alaska in 2016. I decided to get ahead of the game this year, and appropriated Paper Towns from my daughter’s TBR pile…

paper townsPaper Towns is set in a suburb of Orlando, Florida – it’s not just a holiday destination, people do live there and the action takes place during the last couple of weeks of High School following a group of friends who will be graduating and going off to college in the autumn.  It begins:

The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. Like, I will probably never be struck by lightning, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust. But if you consider all the unlikely things together, a least one of them will probably happen to each of us. I could have seen it rain frogs. I could have stepped foot on Mars. I could have been eaten by a whale. I could have married the queen of England or survived months at sea. But my miracly was different. My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.

Our narrator is Quentin, he has known Margo since they were kids. Despite moving in different circles, they have a shared experience that will link them forever – as children they found a dead body in a park together!

Q, as he is mostly known, tells us this in the prologue. Q is best friends with the oversexed Ben and geeky Radar. The prom looms and the key thing in most of the students’ minds is getting a date. Relationships between the graduating students are being redrawn daily it seems. Q doesn’t have a girlfriend, and seems resigned to not going.

Then one night, at midnight, Margo appears at his window and tells Q that he needs to get the keys to his mum’s car and that they are going out. He can’t refuse… they sneak out and Q is driving following Margo’s directions:

“I love driving under streetlights.”
“Light,” I said, “the visible reminder of Invisible Light.”
“That’s beautiful,” she said.
“T.S.Eliot,” I said. “You read it, too. In English last year.” I hadn’t actually ever read the whole poem that line was from, but a couple of the parts I did read got stuck in my head.
“Oh, it’s a quote,” she said, a little disappointed. …

I’m glad Green signposts the quotes, for I wouldn’t have recognised it (further research leads me to a chorus in The Rock – a pageant play with words by T.S.Eliot, published 1934).

Anyway, Margo and Q spend the night playing pranks on all those who have slighted Margo, putting fish in places where they’ll stink, shaving off a bully’s eyebrow as he snores – that kind of thing. It’s slightly dangerous and a real thrill for Q and even when they get caught later, trying to sneak into Seaworld, Margo can talk her way out. Q is besotted with Margo, and hopes that it will lead to something.

The next day Margo doesn’t turn up at school. She’s run away – something she’s done many times before. She always leaves a convoluted trail of cryptic clues, but as she has just turned 18, her parents are at the end of their tether, her little sister needs them. So it’s up to Q, with his friends to decipher her plans and find Margo before graduation – they only have a few days. Quentin begins the tortuous procedure of deciphering the clues. He has an increasing worry that she’s done something more ‘final’? Will they find her in time?

I must admit that I’m rather glad that the American High School culture of ‘Prom’ wasn’t around when I was at school, the pressure they all put themselves under – to get a date, to lose their virginity, to conform – I always end up thinking of Carrie!  There will always be those who get left out, and also those who choose not to participate – like Q and Margo respectively. Quentin is a lovely young lad, and I felt confident that he would blossom at college later. Margo though, the girl of mystery, wild-child, with an independent streak a mile-wide, really just wants to be loved. Why else would she always leave clues?

It’s on their night out before she runs away that Margo talks about ‘paper towns’ first – likening Orlando’s bland expanse of white roofs viewed from a high-rise to a sheet of paper you could fold up into a plane and throw away.  That’s a nice metaphor, but the reality of the ‘paper towns’ is fascinating. The term refers to copyright traps – ficticious towns placed on maps, so publishers know if their map has been plagiarised. This concept will be very important in finding Margo.

I am so behind on John Green, the phenomenon, that I didn’t know about his Youtube channel – the vlogbrothers in which he and his brother Hank talk about all sorts of things – and style themselves as ‘nerdfighters’. I’ve watched a few of the videos and it’s lovely to see these men in their 30s championing nerds and nerdish pursuits, talking at nineteen to the dozen like overgrown teenagers, offering good advice and having fun. I’ve subscribed!

One thing is clear – John Green reads a lot – and he has a mission to sneak as many literature references as he can into his books. Apart from the Eliot quote above, we get Moby Dick and Emily Dickinson in Paper Towns, and I’m sure I’ve missed many others. The Fault in Our Stars, of course, is itself a mashed up quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’  This referencing to literature in American High School novels is not just limited to Green though – Meg Wolitzer’s recent novel Belzhar (my review here) is entirely based on The Bell Jar by Plath and there are others which I can’t recall at the moment. I don’t recall British YA novels mentioning A-level set texts in the same way though!

I can see why John Green has become so popular though. His text is literally full of great one-liners – both comic and serious, that are just crying out to be put on a T-shirt, or made into a poster. If you google John Green quotes and look at the images, you’ll see thousands and thousands of fans’ artworks featuring his words. One thing I did pick up on from Paper Towns though, is that he is a big fan of using the word ‘metaphor’ – but if I hadn’t know about the ‘It’s a metaphor’ quote from The Fault in Our Stars, it may not have stuck out quite so much…  This was a really enjoyable novel, and I really want to explore his others now.  (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon (affiliate link) please click below:
Paper Towns by John Green, Bloomsbury childrens books paperback, 320 pages.

Keywords: Thriller, Vatican, Relics!

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

fifth gospel

No! This isn’t a lost thriller by Dan Brown! Far from it (although at times I wish it had had a bit of Brown’s rip-roaring pace). The Fifth Gospel comes from the co-author of a best-selling religious thriller of ten years ago – The Rule of Four, and has taken author Ian Caldwell that ten years in the writing.

The Fifth Gospel is set in the Vatican City during the twilight of the pontificate of John Paul II, who has a starring cameo to play in the closing stages of the novel. An historical note, without which I’d have been completely lost, sets the scene for the relationship between the original Green and Roman branches of Christianity who split around 1000 yrs ago (the Great Schism of 1054 I learned later) becoming Orthodox and Catholic churches. This division was further reinforced by the Crusades in 1204.  Importantly though, one group, known as Eastern Catholics decided to sit in the middle following Eastern traditions but obeying the Pope. John Paul II wished to reunite the two churches.

So we have a pair of brothers, both priests – Simon and Andreou, who come from an Eastern Catholic family, but Simon had converted to become a full Catholic and has risen up the Vatican ladder. Andrew has remained a ‘Greek’ and thus was married, and has a young son, Peter. I didn’t know that there are types of Catholicism where celibacy is not compulsory. Ironically, Andreou’s wife Mona has left him!

To cut a long story short, the Vatican Museum is to mount an exhibit which is being curated by Ugolino Nogara. Its absolutely top secret and there is not long to go before the exhibit’s opening. When Andrew gets a call from his brother who is in trouble, he leaps in the car to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence half an hour’s drive from Rome, to rescue him. Upon arrival he finds Simon and the body of Ugo.

Both brothers had been working, unknown to each other, on different aspects of Ugo’s project. Simon travelling in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Andreou helping Ugo to understand the differences between the New Testament Gospels – how the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke are more factual and sometimes copy each other, while John is more theological and philosophical in its intent – changing some of the details to fit. Before this novel is over, we will become quite familiar with many of the differences and similarities in the four gospels – particularly in relation to the crucifixion – because… you’d guessed it – that old fake relic the Turin Shroud is to be one of the key features in this exhibit.

Shroud_of_Turin_001

The Turin Shroud (detail, plus negative image) Wikimedia Commons

As Ugo said:

“Yet even now,” Nogara continued, “when we exhibit the Shroud, it attracts millions of pilgrims. At a recent exhibition it drew two millions people in eight weeks. Eight weeks. All to see a relic that has allegedly been disproved. Put that in perspective: the Shroud draws five times as many visitors as the most popular museum exhibit in the world. So imagine how many will come once I prove that the radiocarbon dating of the Turin Shroud was wrong.”

Did Ugo find new evidence about the shroud? Was he killed for it?

Simon is arrested for his murder, and refuses to say anything. Andreou is thrown into turmoil – he suspects that Ugo had discovered something in the Diatesseron, the ‘Fifth Gospel’ their copy of which has gone missing. The Diatesseron was (really) created by an Assyrian Christian called Tatian around 160AD – in it, he attempted to pull together all the four gospels into one single narrative, reordering, getting rid of duplication, adding bridging passages etc.

The next bombshell to hit Father Andreou is that his home is broken into, he gets sent ‘we know who you are’ type threats etc – and from that point on, he moves himself and his son around a variety of ‘safe’ locations within the Vatican’s walls. Cue next bombshell: Simon is to be tried, starting tomorrow, under Canonical Law. The ultimate punishment being to be stripped of his priesthood and have his Vatican passport taken away. We are thrown into an extremely complicated trial, full of twists and turns, discoveries, betrayals, and more before it is time for the exhibit to open, and we discover the full extent of what happened!

Somewhere inside this sprawling novel which runs to 427 pages, was a good thriller trying to get out. However, due to it being based upon real artefacts and the intricacies of Canonical Law in the Vatican, both of which need a lot of explanation, the thiller had to play second-fiddle to the artefacts and theological discussion. Indeed, by the end I was more interested in whether this book considered the Turin Shroud to be real or fake than in Ugo’s murder (something they are still disagreeing about!). I also got rather fed up with Andreou the devoted father, passing his son around all his friends while he wrestled with the trial and the facts – this aspect of emphasising the differences between the Eastern and Western Catholics was quite heavy-handed (although I agree that relaxing the celibacy restrictions would be a good thing).

So as a murder mystery, this book doesn’t quite pass muster; as a theological mystery it was rather more exciting. I learned masses (pun!), and cross-checking some of the facts against Wikipedia for this review, could appreciate the amount of research that went into this book. As a non-believer, for a book to get me reading up about the last days of Jesus and his crucifixion, at Easter-time, must mean something.  (6.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, (affiliate link), please click below:

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell. Published March 2015 by Simon & Schuster. Hardback 448 pages.