March 28, 2011

I Fiori di Hong Kong by Paola Rondini

Hersilia Press @ 10:59 am

I fiori di Hong KongI fiori di Hong Kong by Paola Rondini
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is an unusual Italian thriller in that it is not set in Italy, nor in Europe, but in the far east, and unusual also in the lack of political and social undertones which are rather common to the Italian giallisti.

The architect Vittorio Sarli is called to Hong Kong to identify his late brother Giorgio, who has been found brutally killed in his house. Vittorio is unconvinced by the circumstances and wants to reconstruct the events of the last weeks of his brother’s life. He meets Julia, the editor of an ecological magazine, and her ward Lin May, a photographer and ex drug addict who occasionally works for the magazine.

While grieving and reconstructing his brother’s life, Giorgio and the local investigator Leung find worrying and dangerous connections to the Russian and international mafia.

The descriptions and sense of place are what I most liked about this book: even the dampness of the weather in Hong Kong comes across in the writing of an author who has clearly lived in those places. The diversity between different attitudes, the western and the Chinese, is also rather aptly described. However, I missed a more engrossing description, which could have supported more strongly and in more detail the framework of the plot.

The characters also have an interesting underpinning, but are not developed quite as much as I would have liked: i like the original idea of the victim’s brother trying to find closure by investigating the last weeks of the victim’s life, but feeling and events seem to be described almost incidentally. Vittorio’s relationship with the Chinese investigator, Leung, is something between professional and friendly – and neither seems to be very realistic.

Another interesting idea in the book which I think is not quite treated in sufficient depth is the cultural divide between east and west: we read a lot about Leung’s daughter, who is a troubled teenager, but this doesn’t quite contribute to the picture of the Asian culture and I am not sure how it fits with the main story of the book.

All in all, a book with decidedly interesting ideas, which if had been unravelled sufficiently would have made a very good, fast-paced thriller exploring different cultures.

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March 21, 2011

The Inspector and Silence, by Hakan Nesser

Hersilia Press @ 11:02 am

The Inspector and SilenceThe Inspector and Silence by Håkan Nesser

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although a crime fiction reader knows that a fiction book is just that, fiction, there still are some topics which are more disturbing than others. One of which is violence on children: and we know that this is going to be the theme of the book from the quote at the beginning.

When a teenage girl disappears from the Pure Life camp, run by a religious fanatic and his feeble-minded acolytes, inspector Van Veeteren is called in, despite the lack of evidence of a murder, even after the girl’s body is found. Then a second body is found in the wood and rumours start to emerge about the oddness of the sect and its members, and the goings-on at the camp.

Van Veeteren tries to interrogate various people at the camp but the young girls have been brainwashed and the adult women refuse to make any comments except to support their leader unconditionally. After extending the investigation further, Van Veeteren finally discovers an uncomfortable and disturbing truth.

Despite the grimness of the topic, Inspector and Silence is extremely discerning in the descriptions and this is not a violent book – descriptive violence not necessarily being a requirement of crime fiction, indeed in my opinion often detracting from the quality of the writing.

The description of the environment is extremely suggestive and as already mentioned, the difficult topic is dealt with very judiciously. The translation by Laurie Thomson manages to convert excellently a large number of idioms and the unusual expressions of Van Veeteren, achieving a good measure of fun even within the boundaries of a grim investigation.

Van Veeteren is an older and experienced detective and is looking forward to his retirement, and despite this being a character whose traits are not unique to the crime fiction literature we can’t help but empathise with him and the small pleasures of good food and wine.

I have enjoyed this book very much and am looking forward to reading the others in the series very soon.

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March 14, 2011

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

Hersilia Press @ 12:28 pm

Notes on a ScandalNotes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is never a good idea to watch the film version before reading the book, however I felt in this case this was an exception. The 2006 film starred Judy Dench, one of my favourite actresses, and Cate Blanchett, who both fit remarkably well with the characters described in the book.

The story is probably very well known by now and it describes the relationship between two teachers: the sixty-something, single Barbara Covett and the forty-something pretty and naïve Sheba Hart, who has an affair with one of her pupils that is subsequently exposed.

The story is narrated by Barbara in the form of a recollection and diary, and it manages to give Sheba’s point of view throughout their friendship remarkably well. Through Barbara, who comes across as manipulative, selfish and haughty, as well as painfully lonely, we learn of the trials and tribulations in Sheba’s mind which have led to the affair and its consequences.

I was astounded at how deeply and clearly the author communicated the complexity of both characters and their motivations: Barbara’s excruciating solitude and Sheba’s lack of assertiveness which leads to terrible consequences. I felt outraged at Barbara’s behaviour and at the same time extremely sorry for her loneliness, and found myself debating whether it would explain, if not justify, her actions.

Barbara is painfully critical of anything and anyone which doesn’t conform to her own sky-high standards, but this is her own justification for being alone. She doesn’t seem to have any friends except for Sheba, and we are told of a previous friendship that ended up badly. Indeed, we can see why: Barbara sees friendships as exclusive, all-encompassing and overwhelming, not leaving anything for the other person to choose for herself without risking the scorn of Barbara herself if the choice is not to her liking.

I also felt outraged at Sheba’s behaviour, who felt to me like she was letting her life and her actions being led by chance and by anyone who expressed an interest in her or what she was doing; at the same time I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her and what was happening to her, which indeed was more than sufficient punishment for just lack of assertiveness.

Although there aren’t many twists and turns in the plot because of the nature of the story, the narration is extremely absorbing and the rhythm comparable to a psychological thriller. I would recommend this book wholeheartedly as one of the best novels I’ve read in the last few years.

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Filed under: book reviews,Zoe Heller
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