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VINE VOICEon December 28, 2011
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Hallgrimur Helgason is a writer that I will have to put on my list of authors to look out for.

"The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning" is the first book that I have ever read from this Icelandic writer. I made sure to see who did the translation and it appears that Helgason did his own translation which makes this story about a Croatian hitman who makes the wrong hit even more remarkable to me.

The story's premise is simple enough. Tomislav "Toxic" Boksic is a hitman for the Croatian mob in NYC. He has a girlfriend. He has a job that he is good at. He likes his life well enough.

Then he's given an assignment that goes wrong in that his target is FBI. And that makes him an instant target. As such, he flees by assuming the identity of a man he kills in an airport bathroom and he is off to Iceland where there are no guns or prostitution and a very small population.

Even more worrisome, the identity of the man he has assumed is an evangelical preacher who was on his way to make an appearance on television for a local group of evangelical Icelanders.

But if you think that this is just an action/crime thriller. It isn't. Helgason has a gift for the darkly humorous and compassion in odd places. Toxic isn't a good guy but he isn't a guy you want to give up on. He is a weirdly trustworthy narrator and while it seems clear where he is headed, you can't help but hope that maybe it'll end differently. That his sins will be washed away and he can find peace.

The people he meets in his exile are interesting in their quirks and affectations. Sigrudor (or as Toxic calls him 'Sickreader') is the pastor who picks him up. His daughter Grunhilder (or Gunholder) is rebellious but not obnoxious. In between his present, you meet the people in his past. From his childhood, from the war after Yugoslavia broke up, from the mob. It is several stories that make up this one man's life and it is funny and melancholy and bittersweet.

Again, you know, as a reader, where this is all headed but the journey getting there is dark but with flashes of unexpected light that make it strangely beautiful.
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At least the man knows how to clean and how to straighten up a room. I'll give him that much credit, despite the fact his tidying up is only a way to kill time, waiting on a woman who may end up a victim. Vacuum expertise aside, however, it's difficult to find much else of interest in this arrogant and chatty assassin nicknamed "Toxic," the main character of the novel The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning, who continually reminds us just how skilled he is at murder. Immediately, we start to wonder how this will play out: is he going to turn into a valiant hero, or will he maintain his tragic vision and become the rarely seen, fully fledged anti-hero?
"...I'm really proud of my hitman work. I always try to do a good job. `Victim first' is my motto."
Determined to come across as a fully-accredited badass, the protagonist narrates his every thought and action as he flees the U.S. after a hit goes wrong. Seeing the FBI on his tail, he quickly changes his plans, kills another stranger, and steals his identity. He awakes on a plane bound for Reykjavik, Iceland. The odds are good his escape plan will work, except that his new identity is that of a well-known fundamental Christian leader with a schedule of appearances awaiting him. Deciding to play along with the ruse, he manages to record some disturbing radio sermons and manipulate his somewhat confused hosts, all while looking for a way out of Iceland.

Author Hallgrimur Helgason often channels Quentin Tarantino with action similar to the film director's style: fast-paced violence, pop culture references, saturated with sarcasm. This is completely intentional, as Tarantino gets mentioned (as do Beyonce and Creed) several times in the storyline. The frenetic pace makes it difficult to absorb just how despicable the character is, and I found myself grasping for some quality to make him likable, some redeeming quality that would explain his often disturbing actions.
"Usually I don't want to know anything about my victims. It's like back in the war. I kill strangers. I don't feel for them. They're just another head to swamp my bullet into...Usually they have refused to pay their tithe, failed to deliver for Dikan, or they show up with the same tie as he at the Mafia Oscars."
See that? He manages to radiate disinterest and boredom, while at the same time making a really bad joke. Unfortunately, that becomes the theme of this novel. When hiding in an attic looking himself up on Google, he jokes, "I'm Anne Frank online." Upon remembering a group of beautiful women, he shares his wishes for "mass rape." He is endlessly amused at the low murder rates in the country, and spends his time remembering the better days in the States where he celebrated each kill with glee.

It becomes clear at the midpoint of the novel that there is a source of his internal conflict and external bravado: he served in the Balkan war, and with his father and brother, saw and participated in terrible atrocities. Helgason inserts the details slowly, and it's possible to feel a tiny bit of pity for the protagonist. But it doesn't last, as experiences of war don't seem sufficient to mitigate his present behavior. If anything, the arc of the Balkan storyline appears so far into the novel that it feels too late to make up for his actions. Of course, mindlessly killing a small dog doesn't exactly make him appealing. And yet his self-awareness grows, likely because he's out of his element and who he had been can't exist anymore. In one brief moment, he admits, "everybody must have figured out I am the monster who lives under the bridge."

On the surface, the premise of The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning is very clever, but the delivery is so unsavory that it is neither tragic nor comic. The sarcasm and humor feels forced, almost like a joke told by a comedian who is trying far too hard to get a laugh. I get the feeling that Helgason is trying to reinforce just what a "monster" Toxic is due to his past experiences, yet there's no evidence that he's left the past behind. The other characters he encounters seem flat, as if they are only tools to further reveal Toxic's depravity.

Perhaps this can be attributed to the Stieg Larsson effect. Scandinavian crime novels boomed with his "Girl" trilogy, but the dark mystery novels were nothing new. Other authors, such as Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell, Karin Alvtegen and Arnaldur Indridason have created suspenseful and imaginative crime stories in the same setting for years before the region became comparatively "hot" in the literary world. While those authors don't often present characters quite as colorful as Toxic, they usually succeed in developing deeper characters with a more compelling warmth.

(My review was originally published in The Quivering Pen website, and then on my personal blog.)
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on March 26, 2012
I read some of the online reviews before purchasing this book, thought I understood what I would be reading, was intrigued by the prospect, and even looking forward to, some dark hitman humor. However, I found this book to be disgusting, worthless garbage. There is nothing redeeming at all, let alone funny about any of it, even though I patiently stuck with it for 80-something pages, after which I finally admitted it had absolutely no entertainment value, was merely disturbing and revolting, and deleted it from my Kindle. What's amusing about reminiscing about a victim who was forced to cut off his wife's breasts and eat them? I hope I saved myself from other similar mental images. Beyond the Sopranos. Way beyond The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Do we need this for its sick shock value? Please don't put this in your brain -- I wish I hadn't. This book makes me believe in censorship, or at least warning labels on books.
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VINE VOICEon January 1, 2012
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It is reasonable to assume that a guy called "Toxic" is probably not the nicest guy on the planet and you would be right. In fact, Tomislav Boksic, aka Toxic, is a hitman for the mob in New York City. He claims to have killed 120 something people, some of them in the Bosnian war but 60 something of them as a hitman for the mob. He is on the job and kills the man he is assigned to but to come to find out this guy is an FBI agent and things quickly go downhill from there. He is forced into exile and by unforeseen circumstances winds up killing a TV evangelist, who he looks like, in the bathroom at JFK airport and assuming his identity and winds up in Iceland.

Iceland is unlike anywhere he has ever been before. It has endless days and endless nights, is never truly warm, and has an average zero homicide rate. Further he can't buy a handgun in this country which he desperately misses carrying. He has a lot of difficulty pronouncing the names of the Icelandic citizens so he just turns them into American sounding instead, for example, there's Thordur who he calls Torture, and Guomundur is called Goodmoondoor. He describes the Icelandic national face as "round, with a small nose, like a snowball with a peeble in it" (46).

Needless to say Toxic's past catches up to him in Iceland and he must leave Goodmoondoor's house and go on the run. I won't ruin the book for you but I will tell you that the preacher Goodmoondoor and his fellow preacher Torture decide to save Toxic's soul instead of turning him into the police. The book is pretty funny at times and moves very quickly. The problem I had with it was that I could never really identify with the main character or any of the characters for that matter. It was hard to sympathize with them but I did find myself at the end of the book pulling for Toxic.
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on March 6, 2012
While I found "The Hitman" quirky and a bit interesting, it lacked the sharpness to hold my attention. I had to keep coming back to the story rather than pushing through. It was a bit too disjointed to keep me focused and yet had promise in spots. I would give the author another try.
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on March 22, 2013
The writing style and humor wears off by the 4th chapter and you're stuck a one way ticket to boredom, and then the question creeps in soon after as to whether it's worth putting up with to the end. I cannot believe someone called this good, refreshing, or anything else not negative in their review...truly, this book isn't good enough for my garbage can I'll use it start fires with next time I go camping. This is NOT the fun novel Amazon made it out to be, I wish I'd bought bricks instead and hit myself in the head with them I'd have saved more brain cells than this trash stripped from me.

UPDATE - A year later and I'm still hoping Doc shows up in the Delorean to take me back to the time I put into this book...GREAT SCOTT!!!
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on December 30, 2011
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason

I loved this story. I only put the book down when I had to. I am a sucker for gangster stories. The main character in this book points out hypocritical people like me who wouldn't think of crossing on a red light but love watching Tony Soprano. I also enjoy reading about living in cold climate areas and Iceland is a place I don't often get to visit in books or movies. The story is irreverent, funny, disturbing, location driven and maybe the smallest bit political if you'd want to take it that way. Maybe antiestablishment might be a better description.

The main character is currently in the Croatian Mafia. Previously he fought the Serbs in the Croatian war for independence. The entire story is from his POV and he has an internal story for everything. So you spend time with him remembering the war. He is a killer by trade so his tolerance is higher than the readers and there are times when I found myself laughing and liking him and then was shocked in the next moment by something he did or remembered.

I have been reading a lot of Scandinavian authors lately but I never really get used to all the long names and spellings that are out of my comfort zone. The Croatian main character in this book helps the reader with all the Icelandic words by giving them phonetic like substitutes that also partly describe the character. So Gunnhildur becomes Gunholder and so forth. The book is never a chore to read and by the end I was very comfortable with the occasional Croatian, Icelandic, Russian, Serbian, Polish or Lithuanian word.

I loved the way the main character processes his thoughts on women. That mechanism right there is reason enough to read this book.

There is vulgarity, murder, a little sex, organized crime, war, religion and the bible. Then that is all mixed within this tiny peaceful cold nation with very few people. It's quirky and maybe off-putting to some but I loved every page.
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on March 18, 2012
I read "The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning" because it appeared on a list of items available for review and the synopsis provided sounded interesting, made more interesting by the fact it was the author's first book in English, his own translation no less. I was foolish, however, and chose another book in it's stead.

The story follows Tomislav Boksi', a New York resident, Croatian-born hitman with 60 odd successful jobs, who is very comfortable with his work, and his girlfriend Munita. After his last kill is uncovered as a FBI agent, "Toxic", as he is better known, finds himself in hiding in Iceland, boarding with a born-again Christian couple, having taken the life, and identity of Father Friendly at JFK airport when his assigned alternate identity became known by the authorities and he was threatened with capture.

"The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning" is narrated in first person by Toxic, a rude, crude, blunt (Croatian mafia) man whose language is riddled with four-letter words, and other profanities, often employed in interesting combinations - English being his second (or is that third) language. Toxic's spoken language, edited through his own social filter, is marginally better than his uncensored thoughts. Toxic redeems himself though in providing a different point of view from the average man in his perception, and description of his environment. Then again, Toxic's life is very different from your average novel reader: he is living under an assumed name, in a foreign country, because he chose to be in the homicide business but made, one, big mistake. As much as it is can be hard to like Toxic, or the opinions he expresses of certain people, his arrangement of English words to describe his situation, his surroundings and his interactions with others is inspired, and lends him (or rather his thoughts) a certain appeal. Toxic certainly has a quirky view of Iceland as a tourist, a fugitive and a man in hiding.

[I found it hard to empathise with Toxic, but I certainly enjoyed his own narration of his life. ]

Yes, "The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning" is dark, and the use of profanities is frequent, but this is all part of its charm. The clash between Toxic's world and that of his born-again Christian hosts only adds to the humour as he tries to suppress his natural language and behaviour in order to project the image of Father Friendly; his randomly chosen alias. Most of the characters pop from the book, and can be encountered in the real, everyday, if not mundane world. Well, maybe it would be a unique experience to notice a Croatian hitman out and about on the streets, but the other characters certainly. In this way, the story felt far-fetched and grounded at the same time.

It is astonishing that this is Hallgrímur Helgason`s first book in English, and if I had not read this as part of the blurb, I would never have guessed. It's marvellous writing, at least in audio format.

The narration by Luke Daniels is wonderful. I cannot be sure of the accuracy of the accents, but the speaking patterns Mr. Daniels chose to use for certain characters just added to the charm of the overall story. Mr. Daniels also employed some clever, comic timing, too. The overall audio was clear and there were no problems whatsoever with the format provided by Audible.

What I didn't like was the ending. The last few minutes of this book were so disappointing. All the while I was listening, I was wondering where it would all end. What I didn't expect was to get there and think? "Huh? That's it?".

Despite the let down at the finale, I would recommend "The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning" to others; however, I would do so with the following caveats: (1) I am not joking when I say Toxic uses a lot of profanity, though often in a unique way. That said, it is nothing you cannot hear out on the streets (yoof culture, etc.). It will offend certain people though. (2) Toxic's domain is the criminal world, and the violent side at that. Do expect violence and cruelty in the book, delivered with a line which might be used by James Bond to take the edge off, but which may also seem cold and callous.

"The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning" is funny, offensive, charming, amusing, and it's a damn good read, or listen from a new (to English) writer. I'll be listening again.
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on March 19, 2013
I should have really looked closer at the publisher before falling for Amazon's recommendation of the book. The first 70 or so pages live up to the promise that Amazon gave it about being quirky. After that, the book degenerates rapidly. The plot becomes unreal and so far off anythnig approaching reality that I really had a hard time staying with it to the end. It is like watching a bad movie. You keep watching to hope it gets better. But it doesn't. I kept wondering where the plot was going and where it was going to end, but like the rest of the book, even the ending was an absolute disappointment. It is only the first 70 pages that keep me from giving the book a one star review.
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on March 8, 2012
I didn't know what to make of this book when I started it. Curiosity how he was going to make a character and story pay off when the protagonist was an unrepentant killer. But I fell victim to the killer when the author took him to Iceland. Zany things happened with zany people and it was just delicious. When I couldn't see how he could possibly end it, once again I was surprised.

This is a terrific book, inventive, off the wall, looney--and I loved it.
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