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After more than seventeen years reviewing books on Amazon .com, I am now devoting most of my time to my own website (the link is above). I give 5 stars for "outstanding," 4 stars for "good," 3 stars for "fair," 2 stars for poor, and 1 star for total failure. Because life is short (and I am getting old), I don't finish dull books, and if I don't finish a book, I do not review it; hence, the preponderance of 4 and 5 star ratings here! In addition, most of the books I review are international fiction, which is very difficult for a foreign author to get published in the US. Obviously, most of these books have already gone through a rigid vetting process by the American publisher, who wants to sell those books here!
In recent years I have reviewed fiction written by authors from Algeria to Zanzibar, an interest stimulated by my job as an international student advisor and English teacher at a Massachusetts college. Longer versions of my reviews, and graphics which illustrate the books I review, are posted on my website, SEEING THE WORLD THROUGH BOOKS, with link above.
(3.5 stars) A coming-of-age novel, A Long Way from Verona is also Jane Gardam’s first novel, originally published in 1971. Here, the as-yet-unpublished author examines the growth of a writer from her days as a thirteen-year-old schoolchild in a small British village during World War II to the publication of her first poem, providing insights into the “mania” of writing, what impels it, and the frequent agonies which accompany it, especially when the writer is an enthusiastic adolescent. Like many other debut novels, it is often sparkling and original, though not perfect, and while it will not completely satisfy every reader, especially some fans of her later, more mature and fully developed novels, it becomes especially significant because one recognizes how much of the novel must be autobiographical.
Jessica Vye, the richly described main character, tells her own story, filled with the confusions of a thirteen-year-old who is trying to figure out who she is. “I am not, I am glad to say, mad,” she informs us, but she does see herself as set apart from other girls her age as a result of an experience she had when she was nine. “A man came to our school…to talk to us about becoming writers,” and to her surprise he is “absolutely marvelous,” reading from many classic books, poems, stories, conversations, and bits of plays, all in different voices. Best of all, he tells her, after seeing her writings, that she is “a writer beyond all doubt.”
Dividing the novel into three parts – “The Maniac,” “The Boy,” and “The Poem” – Jane Gardam tells Jessica Vye’s story, emphasizing the three most important influences in Jessica’s life during that one emotionally volatile year when she is thirteen. Jessica is in many ways typical of young teens, with mood swings, teary outbursts, and difficulties with peers and parents, and though this characterization rings true, some readers may find all the teenage angst wearisome. At the halfway mark, however, the action becomes far more dramatic and far more reflective of some of Gardam’s later themes – alienation, religious doubt, and one’s responsibilities to those less fortunate. When Jessica becomes friendly with a handsome fourteen-year-old boy who seems as alienated as she is, the young man decides to show Jessica “real life” around the slums and docks, and that revelation does not reflect the glories which her church suggests is awaiting all who love God. Disaster strikes while Jessica and her young man are visiting, and Jessica eventually she puts all her feelings into a poem, the first one she regards as completely “finished.”
Throughout the novel, Jane Gardam shows her now well known-wit and her ability to choose exactly the right words and images to covey Jessica’s feelings and her seemingly psychic insights into the people around her. In the later part of the novel, Gardam also creates strong feelings in the reader, many of these feelings related to insights she gives into the creative process and into the themes which persist throughout her later novels. Younger readers (including Young Adult readers) may especially relate to Jessica’s personal quandaries and her learning curve, while older readers will appreciate Gardam’s style and her insights into all styles of the writing discussed here.
(4.5 stars) Commissario Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi deals with his personal ghosts at the same time that he also works to solve murders in the Department of Public Safety in Naples during the rule of Benito Mussolini in 1931. Ricciardi, a compulsively private man who shares nothing about his life with those he works with, is the orphaned only child of aristocratic parents. For the past year his one real enjoyment has been looking out his bedroom window across the way to the sitting room of a young woman, Enrica Colombo, who sits there patiently embroidering every night. Enrica and Ricciardi have quietly begun exchanging shy waves to each other from their respective windows.
Neapolitan author Maurizio de Giovanni, exceptionally sensitive to his characters and their stories, so clearly identifies with his “people” that he never hits a false note as he develops the action and shows their reactions to what life has in store. Horrific murders take place, and his characters show their weaknesses and personal traumas, but this novel, like the others in the series, is more of a “people novel” than the usual “noir” or “hard case crime.” De Giovanni is clearly having fun as he writes, and while there is little obvious humor here, there are moments that are almost farcical, especially with some of the subplots involving love. Throughout, the author’s smile is easy to hear in his “voice” as he tells the stories within the stories here.
The novel’s subtitle, “The Summer of Commissario Ricciardi,” suggests that the Commissario himself may finally open up to life’s pleasures during this especially hot summer, perhaps allowing himself to feel the blossoming of love. The Commissario, however, is cursed with a unique, supernatural ability which makes him reluctant to involve a lover in his private torments. If he spends a few moments alone with a murder victim immediately after his/her death, he can hear the victim’s last thought, the one which comes at the very moment when the victim knows that the angel of death has arrived. As the summer gets hotter and hotter, the conflicts become more and more intense and lead to murder associated with the theme of love. Characters from the two previous novels in the series reappear.
With the murder of Adriana Musso, the Duchess of Camparino, Ricciardi and his assistant, Brigadier Maione, investigate all aspects of her life. Adriana, her bedridden and dying husband Matteo, and her stepson Ettore, who hates her, have lived separate lives for almost a decade. When Ricciardi is warned by his superiors to beware of alienating “important people” as he investigates the Duchess's affairs, the different standards for the elite and the common folk become clear.
Emphasizing the effects of Benito Mussolini’s philosophy on the populace in 1931, the characters here represent different social backgrounds and confirm the importance of everyone staying in “their place,” if fascism is to succeed. The servants in the household of the Duke of Camparino have no choice but to stay in their “places” if they want to survive and keep their jobs, but even the aristocratic Ricciardi must be careful. Author Maurizio de Giovanni keeps the tone light as he explores murder and the most serious aspects of Italian social and political history in 1931, and the reader, carried along by his attitude, is swept along, too.
Set in Chechnya between 1994 and 2004, and moving back and forth through history and the lives of the main characters, Anthony Marra's brilliant debut novel focuses on the threats to the life of an eight-year-old child, the daughter of a man seized and forcibly "disappeared," and those who are determined to protect her, even at the cost of their own lives. In 2004, Haava, around whom the action revolves, is ordered by Dokka, her father, to run with her suitcase of "souvenirs" into the woods and hide, as soon as he sees soldiers coming toward their house. The house and all its contents are then burned by soldiers, and Dokka is taken and "disappeared."
Rescued from the woods by Akhmed, a neighbor and failed physician (who would rather be an artist), Haava leaves the village of Eldar that night with Akhmed, hoping to reach the hospital in Volchansk, miles away. There Akhmed hopes to persuade Sonja, a doctor he has heard of, to care for Haava. Though Akhmed had planned to return home to his sick wife, Sonja learns that he is a physician, and though he finished at the bottom of his class, she makes a deal with him that she will let Haava stay with her if he will work in the hospital - all the other physicians have fled. Soon Akhmed is amputating limbs and caring for the dying. Sonja, the doctor, recently returned to Chechnya, desperate to find her missing sister Natasha.
Gradually, the reader comes to know almost a dozen characters so well drawn that it is impossible not to care about them. Stoic to the point of coldness, at times, these are the survivors of two grisly wars, the First and Second Chechen wars between Russia and rebels from Chechnya, originally a war by rebels for independence from Russia following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, but now a war with religious overtones for the rebels, and desperation for the Russians who need the resources - and oil pipeline - through Chechnya. People are starving, cold, and without any resources of their own.
It is through the characters that the book achieves almost epic status in its depiction of life in Chechnya and its past history. The novel's opening suggests this will be a story of parents and children and the sacrifices they are willing to make for each other, but that is only the introduction to many, much broader themes. The flashbacks each of the characters makes to a past life show the importance of memory as a way of understanding and/or making peace with the reality of the present. As the various characters react differently to their memories and their desires to be remembered by others, they remind us of the effects of guilt and innocence in determining our own desires to remain alive in the memories of others. For all the characters, however, the idea of what is right connects with the theme of what they are willing or not willing to do to ensure their own survival during times of war, and how effective they may be in accepting their sometimes selfish actions, both in the short-term and in terms of the memories others may have of them after their deaths. A memorable novel of war and peace.
As the novel opens, six-year-old Jean-Marie Charles d’Aumout sits beside a dung heap, happily crunching on a beetle and wiping its juice from his chin, hoping to find another - and this is just the beginning. As he grows up, he becomes obsessed with tasting every possible flavor in the world, no matter where it might be found, and no matter how repugnant the “food” might be to others. At the same time, however, Jean-Marie d’Aumout’s everyday life in eighteenth century France is so fascinating for other reasons – historical, cultural, and political – that even the most squeamish reader is likely to become caught up in his story, as the food-tasting becomes merely one more aspect of his unusual life.
The child happily eating stag beetles in 1723, the son of a noble, has just been found by His Highness “le Regent,” also known as the duc d’Orleans, former guardian of young Louis XV, and two aides. When an aide confirms le Regent’s suspicion that the boy’s parents are dead inside the chateau, they depart with the boy, while dozens of peasants are hanged for looting the family’s property. Clearly establishing the mores and absolute privileges of the nobility, and contrasting them with the lives of the often starving peasants, the author lays the groundwork for the later ideas of the Enlightenment and sets up, in a very immediate way, the background for the eventual French Revolution.
Attending a school for the children of nobility, which is shown to be a microcosm of the French state itself, and later moving to a military academy, Jean-Marie comes to life as a real boy living in an almost surreal atmosphere, described so vividly that no reader will question the accuracy of the descriptions. As the novel progresses, the author recreates the growing economic disasters in France in the mid-1730s, though everyday life remains relatively unchanged for Jean-Marie and his friends. Years pass as the author fills the novel with Jean-Marie’s picaresque personal adventures, his boldly described sexual experiences, his intellectual curiosity (and his limitations), and his willingness to experiment with new inventions.
Lively, exciting, and often astonishing in its originality, the novel has something for everyone—history, adventure, high excitement, several love stories and their complications, and the growth of new ideas. The historical detail (including descriptions of a Versailles filled with filth) keeps the setting and time period lively and intriguing, and Jean-Marie’s appointment as Master of the Menagerie at Versailles, provides colorful new twists to the plot. His trip to Corsica and its aftermath provide insights into other, broader aspects of European history, while his correspondence with Voltaire and the Marquis de Sade, and his meetings with Benjamin Franklin, add depth to the intellectual framework.
I have deliberately omitted discussing the bizarre tastes which obsess Jean-Marie d’Aumout – and he tastes absolutely everything – until now. That aspect of the book will preoccupy (and undoubtedly repel) many readers and reviewers, but it is less the focus than it might seem initially. Pickled wolf’s heart, flamingo tongue, and tiger meat, among many other such recipes, most of which “taste like chicken,” take the novel out of the ordinary and add a whole new dimension to the sensual focus of the novel and its times. The author’s creativity and his immense gifts for description are astonishing on all levels, and the novel itself, while sometimes bizarre, gives new life and a new kind of reality to some tired genres.
In the fourth of his recent string of successful mysteries, Irish author Gene Kerrigan depicts the hopelessness among those in contemporary Dublin whose chances to escape their dreary lives vanished when the Irish economic "bubble" burst. Now, anyone living on the fringes and wanting to better his life must make compromises with crooks of all types - developers, real estate moguls, extortionists, drug dealers, hired thugs, organized crime, and even the police. Danny Callahan is having a particularly hard time. Convicted ten years ago of manslaughter in the death of mob leader Big Brendan Tucker, Danny has been out of prison for only seven months, staying clean and working as a driver for his friend Novak, who runs a pub. Then his life changes.
When two armed assassins enter the pub and attack Walter Bennett, Bennett pleads with Danny Callahan to help him. Callahan instinctively hits the assassin with a barstool, saving Walter Bennett but making a permanent enemy of the mob boss who ordered the hit. From this point on, the author focuses on this initial event as a symptom of the much larger crime scene in Dublin. Lar Mackendrick, one of the two major mob bosses, who has ordered the hit on Walter, is now looking for Callahan, wondering how much he knows. The police want Callahan for questioning about events in the pub, and the other major mob boss, Frank Turner, brother of the man Callahan killed, wants Callahan dead for his past sins. The two foiled assassins are determined to do whatever is necessary to get back into the good graces of Lar Mackendrick, and they are ready to kill Callahan for his interference.
What makes Kerrigan's noir mysteries particularly memorable is his focus on the human side of his characters. Even in the midst of horrific violence, some characters, even assassins, are shown to be caring and personable in their private lives, the beatings and killings saved for their jobs with organized crime. Lar Mackendrick, for example, has a caring and sensitive relationship with his wife Mary. Karl Prowse, hired to be the killer of Walter Bennett, takes the time to cheer up his unhappy two-year-old daughter, the morning after the assassination attempt, hunching down with her and playing "A Sailor Went to Sea-Sea-Sea" until she starts laughing. Novak, owner of the pub and other businesses, describes his Polish background, his admiration for his father, and his experience in thwarting an attempt by thugs to force him to pay protection money.
Kerrigan's clean, precise prose style allows the action to move quickly and clearly, but at the same time Kerrigan shows his characters' sensitivity to nature and the world around them. In an opening scene, a frightened old man tries to protect his nineteen-year-old grandson from a gang demanding repayment of a debt. Though terrified, the old man still takes the time to notice his hilltop surroundings: "The lights of the city glowed like countless grains of luminous sand strewn carelessly in a shallow bowl. There were random patterns in the glitter - silvery lights bunched together, clusters of tall buildings, cranes topped by red hazard lights." Lyrical passages like this one, scattered throughout the violence, keep the reader hoping for possible good outcomes even as his main characters are gasping their last breaths. The darkness never abates.
Many readers will argue that this work is not a "novel" at all. Certainly it does not adhere to the traditional expectations of a novel, no matter how flexible the reader is with definitions. Begun at the end of the 1980s and still unfinished at the time of author Roberto Bolano's death in 2003, at the age of fifty, The Woes of the True Policeman was always a work in progress, one on which the author continued to work for fifteen years. Many parts of it, including some of the characters, eventually found their way into other works by Bolano, specifically, The Savage Detectives and his monumental 2666.
This book's "plot," such as it is, begins after the first chapter, which is a commentary about literature in general and categories of poetry in particular. In Chapter Two, Bolano gives the background for Padilla, a Barcelona student who has seduced his fifty-year-old professor, Amalfitano, the widowed father of a teenaged daughter and around whom the novel revolves. Padilla's childhood, his relationship with his father, his tendency to violence, the writing of his first book of poetry, and a film which Padilla plans to make about Leopardi, the Italian poet/philosopher, are all discussed in detail. When a whispering campaign regarding Professor Amalfitano and Padilla endangers Amalfitano's job at the University of Barcelona, Amalfitano must find another place to teach, this time going to the University of Santa Teresa, a town modeled on Ciudad Juarez, on the border of Mexico and Texas. Padilla stays on in Barcelona, writing a novel.
The action swirls back and forth and around in time, gradually filling in, at random, details about Amalfitano's marriage and fatherhood, his various jobs in other countries, his changing political points of view, and his favorite poets and novelists. Though Amalfitano maintains a correspondence with former lover Padilla in Barcelona, much of the action in Santa Teresa centers on his new relationship with another young man, Castillo. Unlike Padilla, who is a writer, Castillo is a painter - or, rather, a forger of paintings by other, well-known painters, especially the pop artist Larry Rivers. Much later in the novel, amidst many other digressions, Amalfitano's life with former lover Padillo takes on new importance and leads to philosophical discussions about reality and what one may expect to gain from a long life of introspection.
If all this seems wandering, diffuse, and lacking in focus, it is. Bolano leaves it to the reader - his "true policeman" of the title - to put it all together. Through additional digressions about the Mexican Revolution and Pancho Villa; the fighting of the Mexicans against the French and Belgians; the love story of Amalfitano's daughter Rosa; five generations of women named Maria Exposito; identical twins named Pedro and Pablo Negrete, one of whom becomes chief of police and the other of whom becomes a philosophy student; the investigation of Amalfitano by the police; and the succession of political leaders in Santa Teresa, Bolano keeps the reader intrigued, though puzzled. The disconnection, not only in our lives, but also in our expectations regarding writing and the other arts is apparently the objective of the author. "Look over there, dig over there, over there lie traces of truth," he says. "In the Great Wilderness... It's with the pariahs that you'll find some justification, if not vindication."
Lisbon, 1940, provides a temporary safe haven and hope for emigrating citizens from every country in Europe as they try to secure visas for passage by ship - any ship - out of Europe and away from the Nazis. For Americans with valid passports, life is more secure. The U.S. government has commandeered the S. S. Manhattan to transport stranded Americans in Lisbon back to New York. For these people, the biggest challenge is to kill time till the ship sails, and many of them combat their boredom in extravagant fashion. Author David Leavitt, in describing life in Lisbon in these crucial weeks before war engulfs all of Europe, examines four characters - three of them Americans - as they reveal their attitudes toward Europe, toward the United States, and ultimately toward each other.
By using Lisbon primarily as an incidental setting for the characters, not as the primary focus of the novel itself, Leavitt provides an unusual vantage point from which to approach the horrors of the war and its psychological effects on those trying to escape it. Two couples, Pete and Julia Winters, and Edward and Iris Freleng, meet for the first time at the Café Suica, when (in a symbolic moment) Edward Freleng inadvertently crushes Pete's eyeglasses as they fall to the pavement. The couples, both in their early forties, become friendly, though they have little in common. Pete, from Indianapolis, has been working most of his life as a car salesman, while his Jewish wife Julia, from New York, has always dreamed of having an apartment in Paris. Edward and his British wife Iris come from more privileged backgrounds, with Edward admitting that he has "never had a job in [his] life." Together he Frelengs write mystery novels for fun.
The two couples have far more in common in their secret lives than they do in the superficial lives which initially bring them together. Before fifteen pages have elapsed, Edward is flirting with Pete, and Pete is not discouraging him. The women, too, have secrets which are revealed in the course of the novel, and as the time for the departure of the Manhattan gets closer, their behavior becomes more and more frantic, with Julia insisting that she cannot possibly return to New York, and Iris manipulating Pete and Edward in order to maintain her sanity and her own sense of power. Soon tensions within all the relationships approach the breaking point.
Intriguing in its focus, the novel maintains its pace and keeps the reader entertained and interested throughout, despite the fact that the characters are not as fully developed as one might wish for. What we learn about them is based primarily on their superficial, outward behavior and upon secrets from the past which the author sometimes withholds until the conclusion, preventing the reader from fully understanding the characters' motivations throughout. None of the characters can be considered "heroes," nor are they even very likeable. Obvious symbols abound - from the title to Julia's constant playing of solitaire, and the meeting between Pete and Edward at the crumbling Lisbon Castle with its ubiquitous peacocks. The conclusion, a tour de force, with its artificial commentary on the writing process itself, will intrigue (and perhaps amuse) lovers of literary fiction. Leavitt creates an unusual treatment of a tension-filled time and place with characters whom he manipulates effectively to illustrate his themes.
(3.5 stars) In this Dickensian melodrama, set outside of Norfolk, England, in 1867, twenty-one-year-old Eliza Caine decides to leave the family home in London to accept the position of governess for a family she does not know in a city she has never seen. Just the previous week, her father had ignored her pleas that he remain at home to nurse a bad cold and had, instead, attended a reading by Charles Dickens on a miserable, rainy night. He succumbed to fever shortly afterward. Eliza then learns that the family home is not, in fact, owned by the family, and that she will have to vacate it. Seeing an advertisement in the newspaper for a governess, signed by "H. Bennet," which reminds her of the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice, she immediately leaves her current teaching job at a girls' school and moves to Norfolk.
From the beginning of the novel, Irish author John Boyne draws parallels between Dickens' work and his own. The Dickens reading, which Eliza and her father attend, is of a ghost story Dickens wrote for a mazazine, "a most terrifying tale...of the paranormal, of the undead, of those pitiful creatures who wander the afterlife in search of eternal reconciliation," according to Dickens. Eliza, vulnerable to suggestion, has recently seen another face just below her own in her mirror, a face resembling that of her deceased mother and which she sees again as she walks to hear Dickens.
Boyne's story about the inhabitants of Gaudlin Hall, the estate to which Eliza is traveling, directly parallels much of what Charles Dickens has included in the story he has read to his audience, and many clichés of spooky Victorian novels are repeated here. Eliza arrives by train during a dense fog. Upon arrival in Norfolk, she collides with the "H.Bennet" who advertised for the governess position that she has accepted and who is now racing to catch the train back to London. She also learns that there is no Master of the house. Two children, Isabella Westerley, a twelve-year-old with a "mistress-of-the-house expression on her face," and Eustace, her innocent eight-year-old brother, are the children she will teach, and except for a mean-spirited gardener; a Mrs. Livermore who arrives every day, presumably with food, and who then vanishes; and Mr. Raison, the Westerley family lawyer (whose secretary is named Mr. Cratchett), Eliza is the only other adult at Gaudlin Hall. She soon discovers, however, that there are "presences" at Gaudlin which are trying to kill her, just as they also did with her five predecessors during the past year.
Boyne's goal here is pure entertainment, and he matches his prose style to that of Dickens effectively, though in one case, after a question, one finds the forced archaism, "Answer came there none." All the clichés of Victorian plot appear here, and the dramatic and inexplicable actions by "presences" create an atmosphere of doom which will keep a smile on the face of readers familiar with the novels of the period. The characters are vehicles for the plot, rather than compelling personalities in their own right, and the lack of realism throughout is exactly what one expects of a Victorian ghost story. Only a dark twist in the conclusion takes this novel into more modern times, stylistically.
In this well-developed novel of family relationships, which is also a love story and a story of betrayal on several levels, author Jhumpa Lahiri introduces four generations of one family whose history begins in Tollygunge, outside of Calcutta, and then moves off in many different directions before settling finally in Rhode Island. Traveling back and forth in time, with points of view shifting among several different but interrelated characters, the novel creates an impressionistic picture of events which begin in 1967 with a political uprising in India, the family effects of which continue into the present. Two brothers, only fifteen months apart in age, become linchpins of the novel. Subhash, the older, more cautious brother, is far more apt to watch any action, even as a child, than his brother Udayan, the more adventuresome brother, who is always participating in the action and testing limits.
When, in 1967, an uprising in Naxalbari, four hundred miles from Calcutta, presages the beginning of a larger revolution of peasants against wealthy landowners, Udayan sees this as an impetus for wider change as a member of a Soviet-style Marxist organization, and after that, as a member of the Naxalites. While Subhash is studying out of town, Udayan is painting slogans and stimulating revolution, and when he meets Gauri, a philosopher who seems to share his point of view, he suddenly marries her, without seeking permission from his family and foregoing all the usual traditions. When Subhash soon after that receives a telegram to return home to Tollygunge, however, he knows that some family disaster has occurred. Ultimately, he returns to his PhD program in Rhode Island, but this time he is joined by his new bride, pregnant with a child which is not his.
Thematically, the novel considers all aspects of what constitutes a family, what responsibilities of family life can (or should) supersede one's personal desires, and how, if at all, love can flourish under circumstances in which two people decide to adhere to a set of traditions and responsibilities not necessarily of their own choice. "You can't go home again," physically or emotionally, the novel seems to say, at the same time that it also expands on the idea that we are who we are and must accept that. The characters' interactions, responsibilities, and the consequences are particularly fraught as the novel moves through nearly fifty years of personal and social change within one family through several generations, the novel focusing on the academic Subhash and his family in the United States for most of the novel.
Lahiri's prose is often elegant, and her descriptions of settings are perfect for the uses she makes of them. Rhode Island, along the coast, is true-to-life in its damp response to changing seasons and its glorious flourishing of life in the estuaries and marshes. The novel is somewhat less successful in its depictions of some characters, especially those of the mothers, both the mother of Subhash and Udayan and of the mother of Bela, whose career decision appears to be cruel. Because she is not fully developed, her actions are, unfortunately, less understandable to the reader than they might have been. The author does a remarkable job of straddling the line between realism and melodrama on an almost epic scale, however, a saving grace which keeps the reader actively involved and enthusiastic as Subhash and his family develop over three generations.
Written by Anna Jansson, candidate for the Glass Key Award for Best Scandinavian Novel in 2012 for this story involving a pandemic of bird flu on an island off the Swedish coast, Strange Bird will undoubtedly captivate new readers, sweeping them up with the provocative opening chapters, as the action begins on Gotland, a sparsely inhabited island in the Baltic, sixty miles off the coast of Sweden. As the novel opens, Ruben Nilsson, a man in his seventies, has been reminiscing about Angela Stern, the love of his life, though fifty years have passed since he missed his chance to tell her how much he loved her. His only family now is the pigeons he raises and races, and he is surprised when a new pigeon perches on his roof - a foreign bird from Belarus. The next day the bird is dead.
Alternating memories from the past with circumstances in the present, Jansson creates initial scenes in which Ruben Nilsson becomes a kind of everyman, a carpenter with some skills as a mason but little education, less ability to understand how others think and feel, and no ability to understand himself. His neighbor, Berit Hoas, helps him out the next day when he feels ill, feeding his pigeons and providing him with some morels for his supper. She then goes off to work in the cafeteria at a soccer camp for children. Within hours, she, too, is seriously ill. In the meantime, a jogger discovers the body of a man, his throat slit, in a small pup tent at an abandoned farm.
It is not until fifty pages into the novel that the author finally introduces main character Maria Wern, a Detective Inspector with the police who becomes a fully developed and sympathetic character, far different from the usual alcoholic loner so common to Nordic noir. Her life, presented so naturally that she feels "familiar" to the reader from the outset, makes the challenges she faces with this case even more intense and personal than one would expect.
Soon dozens of people are sick or dead. The action keeps going and going and going, with one surprise after another as many more characters and plot complexities involve the reader. The hospital has set up an observation ward and keeps sick people isolated. The children at soccer camp are quarantined, and those who develop flu are transported elsewhere. The shortage of Tamiflu, is kept a secret from the population, and the availability of some medications on the internet - for a large fee - highlights "entrepreneurs" who are willing to exploit life-or-death emergencies for big profit. The medieval history of the island contributes to the morbid atmosphere with tales of the Black Death which occurred there. Additional murders occur.
Although the novel has a few too many complications and characters within a story that is already inherently terrifying, the author does keep the interest high and the tempo of the novel moving quickly. Her unusually good characterizations of people who are fairly "typical," rather than unique in oddball ways, makes them memorable - people the reader feels s/he can "know." With this strong start in the Maria Wern series, it is easy to imagine a long series of successful new Scandinavian crime novels from this intriguing author and unusual publisher.