The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye by David Lagercrantz

I remember when I first devoured the Millennium Trilogy, simultaneously learning about the death of the author (that sounds so Barthes), I was stunned – by both the octane-pace of the writing, its depth and complexity, and by the notion Steig Larsson would not be around to write any more.

Well, the man they passed the Millennium torch to, David Lagercrantz, has not only breathed life back into Larsson’s fantastic characters, but he’s maintained the extraordinary level of excitement in terms of plot and pace as well. His The Girl in the Spider’s Web (book #4) was fabulous and this, the fifth book in the Millennium series, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, is another stellar instalment.

In this novel, Lisbeth Salander returns with a vengeance (I don’t think she knows any other kind), and the reader finds her serving a brief sentence in a women’s prison for saving the life of a young boy (from the previous book). Refusing to defend herself, Lisbeth is more concerned about protecting innocents from grave injustice – both within the prison and from without.

Utilising her technical skills and strength as well as her connections outside the prison, including journalist, Mikael Blomkivst, not only does Lisbeth start to uncover facts about her traumatic childhood and the role she and her twin played in a sinister experiment, but due to her determination to play fair for others, incurs the wrath of extremists.

It’s only when she unites with her friend and one of the only people she trusts, Blomkivst, that Lisbeth can not only set a great wrong right, but also find her own kind of justice – an eye for an eye.

A little slow to start as the novel sets up the prison system and the characters within it, once it takes off, it moves swiftly. Required to suspend your disbelief a few times, it’s easy to do within the world created by Larsson and Lagercrantz and just go along for the wild, Salander-inspired ride. What this book does offer is some of Lisbeth’s back story, a tale which goes a long way to explaining the type of strong and capable woman she becomes.

A terrific, easy read that enriches an already iconic crime series.

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Force of Nature by Jane Harper

When I read Jane Harper’s debut, The Dry, I hadn’t been so impressed by a crime novel since I first read Katherine Howell. I really looked forward to losing myself in Harper’s next instalment in the Aaron Falk series and really hoped she could maintain this incredible standard she’d set.

Well, I was not disappointed.

Force of Nature is a complete cracker of a read. Whereas, The Dry took the reader into a hot, drought-stricken country community, replete with its reticence and suspicion of strangers and revenants, its haunting secrets and ghosts of Christmases past, Force of Nature explores not only the dense, formidably beautiful and haunting ranges that make up Victoria’s Grampians (they’re called the Giralang ranges in the book), but the toxic politics, suffocation and desperation of workplace and family relations.

When a group of colleagues who work for a family firm are taken into the bush for a three-day hike designed to forge and build relationships outside the office, one of the bush-walkers goes missing. Is it a co-incidence that the missing person also happens to be a whistle-blower, whose evidence was set to tear the company apart and whose last telephone call was to agent Aaron Falk and whose final words were “hurt her”?

Summoned to the Giralang Ranges to aid in whatever way he can, Aaron and his partner, Carmen find a traumatised group who, nonetheless, are hiding something.

The Grampians, upon which the Giralang Ranges are based.

Like the bush into which their colleague has disappeared and they brutally emerge, the co-workers conceal and reveal aspects of their story which is told in a series of flashbacks from different points of view. Slowly, a picture of what may have happened and the whereabouts of the missing person builds, yet like the bush which has swallowed her, the stories are incomplete and it’s up to Aaron, Carmen and the rescuers to coerce the humans and nature itself to yield these.

The rugged, dangerous and yet beautiful bush, with it unrelenting moisture, unrecognisable sounds and confounding geography is as much as character as the humans that populate the tale.

What I really loved about this book (which I found difficult to put down) apart from the family dynamics that were explored as well as the office politics, was why and how the crime at its heart occurred. Like The Dry, the tragedy at the centre isn’t sensationalised or exaggerated: it feels so very real, so believable. In a way, that makes this book even more haunting and memorable as you can not only relate to the events that unfolded and the people involved, but in a worrying twist, understand how it could have happened to almost anyone…. Just sensational.

 

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The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

I have long been a fan of Horowitz’s work – from his screen plays in Midsomer Murders to Foyle’s War, his Sherlock Holmes books and Magpie Murders, so was very excited to read his latest, The Word is Murder.

What an unusual and gripping book it is. Opening with a woman, Diana Cowper who, after planning her own funeral, is found dead hours later, this is not the most captivating element of this engrossing book. The most unusual and fascinating aspect is that Horowitz inserts himself as both narrator and a character into the story.

Drawn into the investigation of Cowper’s murder when it’s used to bait him into writing a book about the lead investigator, a curmudgeonly fellow named Hawthorne, Horowitz finds himself playing reluctant second-fiddle to the irascible and narcissistic ex-copper. Thrown out of the Met some years earlier for something he refuses to discuss with Horowitz, Hawthorne is nonetheless employed on a consultancy basis to run parallel investigations – the murder of Diana Cowper being one such instance. His policing talents, he informs Horowitz, being formidable.

Horowitz finds the story surrounding the murder too compelling and reluctantly agrees to write the book, shadowing the detective who, as the novel progresses, slowly reveals he is more than first impressions indicate.

When another body turns up after Diana’s actual funeral, Horowitz is not only hooked, but finds himself desiring to play detective as well. Only, he’s a far better writer than he is a gum-shoe investigator, and he finds himself putting his foot in it on more than one occasion.

Often self-deprecating, Horowitz’s unreliable narrator-writer-would-be-detective is also highly amusing. Not afraid to name-drop, the reader l

earns of meetings with the likes of Spielberg and Peter Jackson, his agonies over Foyle’s War and his Alex Jackson series of YA novels among many others. His relationship with his agent is woven into the story as are his writerly doubts, ego and undoubted joy in what he does – well, the agony and the ecstasy.

Playing with the genres of autobiography, biography, crime and mystery, Horowitz writes and is written into a book that celebrates and defies all of these. The main plot is intriguing enough to satisfy any crime buff, but what is delightful and extraordinary about this book is Horowitz’s role and the relationship between truth and fiction, characters and their creators, the art of writing versus the business and so much in-between.

A terrific page-turner of a novel that once you start, you’ll find impossible to put down.

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Origin by Dan Brown

If there’s one thing I really enjoy, it’s a page-turner of a book and, Dan Brown’s latest Robert Langdon mystery, Origin, is certainly that. Park your bottom, pour a coffee, wine or beverage of choice, put on the lamp, and begin…

Once again, the quiet, Mickey-Mouse watch-wearing Professor of Symbology, Robert Langdon (and now I always picture the wonderful Tom Hanks), is in the wrong place at the right time – the right time to thrust him into the middle of a murder investigation with potentially catastrophic, future-of-humanity-is-at-stake, life-changing consequences.

Attending the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, to hear a former student of his, Edmond Kirsch, deliver a speech he claims “will change the face of science forever”, by delivering the answers to two fundamental questions that have perplexed scientists, religious minds and philosophers for centuries, what Langdon doesn’t expect is the murder and mayhem that unfolds. Though, really, on past experiences (I’m thinking Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol and Inferno) maybe he should.

After all, Edmond, a computer and high-tech genius who has made dazzling and accurate predictions for over twenty years that have gained him a global cult following, is no stranger to controversy. Not afraid to poke a religious hornet’s nest, the book opens with Edmond baiting three religious leaders by allowing them a preview of what he intends to release. For such a smart man, this seems like a dumb move as there are those among the faithful who will do anything to ensure his discovery is never revealed.

When the presentation to the world goes horribly wrong, it becomes a race against time as Professor Langdon (and his trusty watch), a beautiful female side-kick (is there any other kind?) and a very sophisticated piece of technology, work to ensure Edmond’s discovery is made public. As much as the good Professor and his helpers seek to do what they believe is right, there are those working against them who believe the same thing and will stop at nothing to ensure they fail, even if it means more bloodshed.

In the meantime, all eyes are turned to Spain – as conspiracy theories and theorists, a growing media pack, denizens of the internet and a digital and real audience simultaneously commentate upon what is happening.

Gaudi’s, Sagrada Familia

There’s no doubt, Brown has perfected the art of making sure his reader is hooked. Fast-paced, filled with didactic speeches (that are nevertheless interesting and entertaining), that reveal religion and science to be both juxtaposed and yet, not as polemically situated as one might think, Langdon’s mission is, indeed, an ideological game-changer… or is it? Tapping into the zeitgeist, Brown ensures that the questions tormenting many in the world at present such as the role of religion and faith in a technologically-savvy, rational world that constantly seeks proof and wonders can these two oppositional ways of thinking ever find common ground, are asked. Required to suspend your disbelief (which is fine), there are some strange plot points that frustrate rather than illuminate, and so impact upon the overall believability, even within this genre, of the sometimes OTT actions and consequences. Mind you, the glorious descriptions of Antoni Gaudi’s works does go someway to compensating.

As is often the case, the journey to uncover answers is often more exciting and revealing than the destination. Still, there is much to enjoy about a book that excites the mind and the mind’s eye, turns an academic into, if not a super-hero, then certainly a hero and, it seems, religious authorities into villains while concurrently overturning a great many expectations. There’s also a satisfying twist that many might see coming, but that doesn’t reduce the impact.

Overall, another fun, well-paced, Robert Langdon adventure, replete with groans, dad-jokes, and some fabulous facts. I hope he takes us on a few more.

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Beauty in Thorns by Kate Forsyth

If any confirmation was needed that Kate Forsyth is one of the finest writers working today, who not only brings history alive with her words, gives voice to those often neglected or silenced and readers pause to ponder, then surely, her latest novel, Beauty in Thorns, is it.

Set in the era when the Pre-Raphaelites, with their love of beauty, art, poetry and breaking all manner of social conventions and boundaries reigned, this book explores the lives and loves of some of the major influencers of the time – primarily Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris – only, it’s told from the point of view of the amazing women who loved, needed, and were alternately a source of inspiration for, as well as exploited and hurt by these men.

The reader is introduced to Lizzie Siddal, a young woman from an impoverished family who becomes a model for the passionate and avant-garde Rossetti, falling for not just his eccentricity and talent, but how he makes her feel – beautiful, able to break the bonds that bind her to a particular life and explore her own creativity, despite what society and the class into which she is born dictates her role should be.

Artistic in her own right, Lizzie is never quite able to soar in the way the men who love and use her do. Her story is both heart-wrenching and familiar and the way in which Forsyth delves into the psychology under-pinning Lizzie’s choices – both poor and wise – is riveting and persuasive.

Likewise, we meet tall, striking Janey Burden. Illiterate, poverty-stricken and burdened like her name with a family destined never to rise above their grim conditions, her meeting with William Morris and the rest of the group is transformative. Perceiving Janey as both beautiful and able, the Pre-Raphaelites engender in Janey a desire to rise above her birth and circumstances and embrace what they offer as well as the means to do so. Becoming literate, discovering her hidden talents, what’s also awakened in Janey is a love for who she is when she views herself through others’ eyes, only those are not always her husband’s.

Experiencing and causing heart-ache, Janey is a revelation – someone who embraces what the Pre-Raphaelites represent in terms of defying tradition and conventions, but she’s also someone who, as a woman, is also damaged by them.

The reader also comes to understand and appreciate Georgie Macdonald, the long-suffering wife of Ned Burne-Jones. Like Lizzie, Georgie makes great sacrifices to ensure her husband’s career soars, repressing her own creative desires and ensuring her husband’s needs are met, no matter the heart-wrenching cost.

When Ned finally paints his daughter as the lovely, doomed Briar Rose, a young woman who is awakened to love, the metaphor which frames the entire book reaches its epiphany.

While the title of the novel gestures to the fabulous quartet of paintings inspired by the Sleeping Beauty tale, and created by Edward Burne-Jones, as well as the fairy-tale itself, the way Forsyth imagines how the women lived and encountered the men and how these encounters changed everyone irrevocably, is anything but fairy-tale-esque or romantic.

All the women portrayed are, essentially, sleeping beauties trapped by thorns. “Asleep” to their potential because that’s what culture and the epoch demands of their sex, the thorns are sometimes the men, but mostly they’re the pain and tribulations, the strangling limitations and reductive choices that life metes out. Whether it be their class, education or lack thereof, the opportunities denied to them and how the accident of their sex and thus gender, imposes restrictions, snags them early in life, they are imprisoned in a variety of plant-bound castles from which there is no escape. Not even the “princes” of the Pre-Raphaelites, with all their wild ideas and cherished notions of a different society can (or, arguably, want to) free these women. They are all bound by rules. Admittedly, the men do enable these women a glimmer of life and hope in varying degrees, especially in allowing them to recognise their own inner and outer beauty and using them as aspirational and allegorical figures in their works, but in the end, the liberties granted to them as figures in widely appreciated poetry and art, as muses to the men, is as illusory as the Arcadian and mythic settings the poems and paintings evoke.

Sadly, no-one can really “awaken” these beauties in the manner they deserve or want.

While the characters are wonderfully realised, so too is the era. Victorian England, the social and industrial changes, the politics, the varying landscapes through which the characters move, the food they eat, clothes they wear, are all gorgeously rendered. You can see the flowers dotting gardens, smell the soot-tainted air, feel the clammy fingers of fog-bounds streets and the claustrophobic rooms of different houses. Other well-known figures that strode through history such as George Bernard Shaw and Rudyard Kipling also make an appearance, adding even more authenticity to the novel and a sense of the enormous creative contribution yet to be unleashed by this period and which we still enjoy to this day.

Beautifully, hauntingly written, often languorous and also melancholy, this book lingered in my mind and heart for months after. It still does. I think that’s why I’ve taken so long to review it. I found I cannot stop thinking about it. If that’s not indicative that a reader is in the hands of a masterful story teller, I don’t know what is.

Upon travelling to the UK in the wake of finishing, I was continuously drawn to the works of the pre-Raphaelites which live on in so many different ways. I even brought some William Morris cushion covers, based on prints he designed. But pondering this novel more, I wish it was the work of the women who also occupied spaces in my home – or maybe not. For, what I’ve realised Kate Forsyth has given these women is a space in my head and in my heart and for that, I am very grateful.

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The Lost Order by Steve Berry

The Lost Order is the twelfth book in Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone series and, once again, we find the former Magellan Billet agent immersed in conspiracies and doing his utmost to save America and those he loves from greedy, power-hungry people.

This instalment features characters we’ve come to know and love, including former President, Danny Daniels, the head of the Magellan Billet and Malone’s friend, Stephanie Nelle as well as the marvellous Cassiopeia Vitt. There’s even a strange historical sect, described as a terrorist organisation, called the Knights of the Golden Circle to either ally with or defeat, depending on whom Malone, Nelle, Daniels of Vitt believes.

There is a map to follow (well, it has to be pieced together first), a key, dysfunctional relationships, betrayal, murder and ambition aplenty. There are tight situations, gun fights, collapsing buildings, dynamite, implausible escapes and some really dumb moves by people who should know better. There are also huge doses of history.

I really appreciate the history and effort that goes into a Berry book. I don’t even mind the predictable and sometimes repetitive action, after all, this is Malone’s schtick. He’d hardly be a super, secret agent if he didn’t haveto shoot himself out of a quandry, have split-second decisions to make and people to kill/rescue. It’s the history and the way that it’s woven into the novels lately that’s becoming a bit hard to take. Well, it’s not exactly woven – and that’s the problem. You seem to get an information dump between a chase sequence or some dramatic revelation that leads to action. While Berry does action very well, the history is often too didactic and, frankly, overdone. His books didn’t always feel that way, but I found The Lost Order a bit too like a lesson in US Constitutional Law and American political history interspersed with some scenes with Malone et al, than a rootin’ tootin’ action thriller like his earlier novels.

Then, there’s the women. While Cassiopeia and Stephanie (who is out of action for a great deal of the book) are drawn quite well, I found the female “villain” of this book very two dimensional and her motivation so vaudevillian, it became improbable. I am all for suspending my disbelief, and I love that Berry takes the reader on a ride where we can, but this woman, Diane, was just too much. Cruella De Ville minus the hounds but on steroids. I couldn’t even accept the man she’d been married to was one of Daniels’ good friends. Daniels is a nice guy and you get the sense Diane’s husband is too – if so, then what on earth was he doing married to that cow? She needed to have even one redeeming quality… she did not.

Likewise, a couple of the male “baddies” (and there’s no other word to really describe them) aren’t fleshed out either. They are just insanely (often literally) committed to a cause and don’t seem to have accepted times have changed. Thus, they will kill whoever to get whatever they want: money, power, or to ensure no-one else has it. They are a bit predictable – they run on one emotion, one idea, and we always know they’re going to kill or be killed…

Fortunately, over all, the book has many ideas and I did enjoy reading about Cotton and crew again.

I just think that next time, I’d like a little more adventure and a little less of a lesson.

 

 

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