Monday, May 30, 2011

Jo Nesbo: The next Stieg Larsson?

I interviewed Stieg Larsson – author of The Leopard, which I wrote about last week – while he was in Canada a few weeks ago. My profile of the Norwegian author is in today's National Post. Here's a teaser:
Apples are not generally regarded as an inspiration for terror, but then, not everyone has Jo Nesbø’s imagination. 
Nesbø has been called “the next Stieg Larsson,” which seems a bit unfair since the two writers come from different countries, have different styles and The Leopard, Nesbø’s latest novel, is the eighth in his Harry Hole series — Nesbø has been writing and winning awards since 1997, long enough to not be the next anybody. 
Still, “Nordic Noir” — that moody, intricate and emotion-tangled style of crime writing made famous in North America by such writers as Henning Mankell and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Larsson — is having an extended cultural moment, and Nesbø brings his own flavour to the genre, starting with his own hard-boiled detective.
Read the rest on The Afterword.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Leopard

When I was a kid I went through a big mystery faze. I read all the Nancy Drew novels, quite a few Hardy Boys ones and pretty much any other YA mystery story I could get my hands on. Then I stopped reading mysteries for a while until I got old enough to read novels by John Grisham and James Patterson, which I devoured for a few years in high school before once again calling it quits. I discovered, as you do, that most of these novels had a pretty clear formula, and once I figured each one out I was okay with it for a while – sometimes formulas can be comfortable – and then I got bored. It turns out I probably just needed to start reading mystery and detective fiction from other countries. I may have missed the Stieg Larsson frenzy of last summer, but I feel pretty good about Jo Nesbo, a Norwegian crime writer, who's novel The Leopard had me in its clutches for days.

To be fair, I started a bit backwards, because The Leopard is actually the eighth novel in Nesbo's series following Detective Harry Hole of the Oslo police Crime Squad. Harry is one of those characters that you don't like immediately (or, at least I didn't like him immediately), but he kind of convinces you to come around because he's just so interesting. I'm not sure I'd describe Harry as likable, exactly, but he is a character you want to spend time with, which in detective fiction is almost better. He is not jovial or even a hard-ass, he's a full-blown alcoholic caught in a battle between indifference about the job and the desire to catch and punish bad people – in this case, a serial killer.

The novel actually starts out with a murder, and it is one of the most graphic scenes in the entire book (the other comes much later and does not result in death). But Nesbo isn't writing about a twisted sexual predator, so it it isn't that kind of violence. Rather, it's a kind of torture that is primarily psychological. The Leopard is about fear, really, and the kind of people who can stand behind the scenes and watch these murders happen with glee, or perhaps even worse, without caring. The murders are brutal, but Nesbo doesn't dwell on them and we don't spend much time in the head of the killer.

Instead, we follow Harry as he works out the details of the case. Nesbo has created a pretty intricate puzzle in this novel, and the various elements, locations and false starts and dead ends make it very satisfying read. Truly, Harry is the detective here, and you are not four steps ahead of him, which is what I find most maddening in a lot of detective novels – if I can figure out, why can't they? But no, things come nicely together by the end, with only a few intentionally jagged bits remaining.

Some of what makes The Leopard such a compelling story is probably the setting. This is not an inner-city detective story. Half the novel takes place in the mountains and various countryside towns around Oslo, and at least another third takes place overseas in either Hong Kong or Congo. Because, as Nesbo reminds us, there are other things going on in the world besides just this one case. There is, for example, a war going on in Congo that is horrific in scale, and there is poverty, and there are parents and families  of the characters that also need attention. The novel is driven by the mystery at its core, but the issues and the personalities and the asides that surround it are what keep it grounded and all the more interesting.

The Leopard is a big book written at a fast pace. The dialogue flows well and, for the most part, Nesbo's choices of Norwegian names and places translate well to English – it seems like a small thing, but being able to pronounce a word in your head as you read means you connect with it better than one you simply look at and skim past. But most importantly, Harry is a detective you believe in. Not in the fairy tale "hero cop" kind of way, but rather in the realistic, proud sort of way. Without giving too much away, you know that he's going to figure things out in the end, it's just a question of at what cost.

The Leopard
by Jo Nesbo
First published in English in 2011 (cover image shown from Random House Canada edition)

Thursday, May 19, 2011


When I was a kid, I loved stories about "girls with spirit." I liked to think that in real life, these characters and I would be friends and get up to all kinds of not-too-dangerous mischief. Some of these girls' stories ended while they were still children, so I've outgrown them. Others, though, like Bernice Thurman Hunter's Booky, grew up in the stories and, in a lot of ways, I'm only now catching up to them age-wise. It's strange to think that I'm now the age (or older) of the grown-up versions of some of my childhood heroines, but I suppose that's just how it works when they're on the page and you carry the book with you.

There are actually three Booky books – That Scatterbrain Booky, With Love from Booky, and As Ever, Booky – and they follow the titular character through her misadventures growing up in Depression-era Toronto. Hunter based the Booky stories on her own childhood, and the books are filled with photos of her and her family, which gives the story a kind of historical depth and context I didn't really appreciate as a young reader. What I did appreciate, though, was the way Hunter's writing opens up an era that her readers have probably learned about, but obviously never experienced. And, because the stories focus on a child (who ages as the trilogy progresses), the kinds of details you get are different than those that show up in text books or in TV shows and movies.

One scene from the books that has always stuck with me is about Booky and her mum going to buy new shoes. There's a big sale and the family really has no money, so when Booky sees a pair of beautiful and stylish shoes, she knows she wants them (she is maybe 9 here). Anyway, the shoes don't really fit properly; they're too small and they pinch her feet, but she doesn't say anything. Of course, she can't wear them because the pain is too excruciating, which leads to a spanking (but with a belt) and her utter disappointment over having her first really pretty pair of shoes and not being able to wear them. 

Being just a kid, she doesn't really understand what's at stake here (the family moves a few times because they don't have the money for rent), but that sense of wanting something just out of reach is so strong. Despite her hindsight, Hunter doesn't give Booky knowledge she wouldn't have had, and the story is much better for it. Later in the series, Booky meets Lucy Maude Montgomery, who encourages her to become a writer. Of course, Booky has grown up a lot by this point and her Toronto is familiar and her concerns are more mature. But, her personality is still fresh and mischievous and her dreams seem so achievable that you can't help but hold your breath during her encounter with her idol. 

Reading Booky as a kid was amazing because it was like meeting a good friend through a book. She was interesting and flawed and so genuine that you couldn't help but be captivated by her. Going back to the novels now, though, is almost more exciting because it allows you to reconnect with a version of your younger self and get caught up in a story just the way you did when you were a kid. There are a lot of pieces – events, places, people – that I glossed over when I read it before that now pop out at me, too, and those extra elements act as another way for me to connect with the story. Booky is a character who got into my head when I was really young, and well over a decade later she is still in there, buying shoes that don't fit and smiling all the time.

by Bernice Thurman Hunter
First published in 1981 (cover image shown from Scholastic edition)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Philip Roth wins the Man Booker International Prize

The fourth edition of the Man Booker International Prize – it's given out only every two years – was awarded to Philip Roth last night. The prize is worth £60,000 and honours a writer's body of work. Roth, and American novelist, has been writing since the 1960s and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his novel American Pastoral, among other big awards.

That sort of literary pedigree may make him sound like an good choice for the award, but Man Booker judge Carmen Callil has withdrawn from the panel because of it. Callil, an author and publisher, said "he goes on and on about almost the same subject in every single book." Not having read any Roth, I can't weigh in, but it is interesting to see some of the controversy that exists on a judging panel come to light.
Image shown a photo of Philip Roth from The Telegraph.

Thursday, May 12, 2011


Whenever I dip in to thinking about getting an e-reader, I get stuck on the problem of how to share a book that way. Besides just being a book person and liking to have books around (evidenced by my need for yet more bookshelves), I like to share books. Lending books out and/or borrowing books in return is one of the best ways to find new things to read, and I'm not sure how that would work without physical books. Case in point: two weeks ago a package arrived for me from a friend in Montreal. He had read and loved Nicolas Dickner's Nikolski and thought I would enjoy it too. Inside the front cover he had included the address for the next person who wanted to read it, like an old-fashioned chain letter, but with a book. 

Of all books to do this with, Nikolski is the may be the perfect one. The novel tells the story of three young people, all about 18 when the story begins in 18 in 1989, who all move from their disparate birthplaces to Montreal. They are all related, but have never met and have no idea. Their stories all intertwine though, not in the 'they all become friends at the end' sort of way (that isn't meant as a spoiler), but more so in the kinds of lives they lead and also in the way that, if you live in more or less the same neighbourhood as someone for long enough, your lives will intersect, even if you don't realize it.

The narrator, who is unnamed, is the only child of a single mother. His father was only briefly in her life and kind of a vagabond, although that might not be fair. He was a sailor and, on land, he lacked a base so he traveled around. He ended up in the village of Nikolski, up north on an island in the Aleutians. At the beginning of the story, the narrator's mother has just died, and he is cleaning out her house so he can sell it. He works at a used bookstore in the city, a job he keeps for the rest of the novel. We really don't know much about him. He only talks about himself a few times, being far more interested in Joyce and Noah, the main characters.

Joyce Doucet is from the tiny, remote village of Tête-à-la-Baleine on the St. Lawrence. It is a settlement only accessible by boat and therefore populated mostly by fishermen, which is her father's occupation. Her mother is dead (or maybe not) and Joyce spends her childhood listening to her maternal grandfather tell stories about the family's pirate history, which began with Acadian relatives in Nova Scotia and, with the expulsion, spread all over the East Coast of North America, a trait that became ingrained in the family, who couldn't stay in one place for long. Joyce is fascinated and vows to become a female pirate – the first in her family, maybe. After seeing a newspaper clipping about a Leslie Lynn Doucette who was caught for piracy (over the newly available Internet), Joyce decides her destiny is calling and runs away to Montreal. She gets a job at a poissonerie and starts dumpster diving for computer parts, which she uses to build her own little pirate empire.

Noah was born somewhere in the prairies. His mother is a nomad of sorts, so he grew up living in a trailer and moving from town to town in a more-or-less predictable way, crisscrossing the prairies. His father, a sailor, was almost dead on land because of land sickness before being picked up by Noah's mother, whos' car rocked just enough to help him find his land legs. They parted ways after she became pregnant, so Noah never knew him. Noah, ready to settle down, moves to Montreal to study archaeology at university. He is probably the most present character in the novel, and between taking part in a dig on Stevenson Island and moving to Venezuela for a while, it's fair to say he's the least rooted to the city, although he does return there.

Although the characters do all eventually meet, Nikolski isn't a novel about tying up three distinct story lines with a convenient ending. Instead, it's about the way the characters stay distinct and, while all following their own paths, manage to miss out on each other. Dickner is a very observant and funny writer, and although Noah gets the most face-time in the novel, each character feels like they're at the centre of it. And, of course, it's just fun to see a familiar city depicted with such intricacy, although Dickner is almost casual about it – he doesn't explain it to the reader, it just is, which is nice. 

Nikolski won Canada Reads two years ago and can definitely see why. It ties together aspects of Canada's history, from First Nations issues to the Acadian expulsion to the Oka Crisis, as the background of the characters' lives. It's a refreshingly Canadian story in that way, and the narrator, Joyce and Noah all feel like people you could bump into on the street by the time the novel is finished. And it will make you wonder about the chance encounters you've had over the years – how many people have you managed to miss who might hold a key to part of your own life story? If Nikolski is any indication, it probably happens more often than you think.

by Nicolas Dickner, translated by Lazer Lederhendler
First published in 2005 (cover image shown from Alfred A. Knopf edition)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Authors and their typewriters

The Guardian published a slideshow of authors working on typewriters today and it made me wonder how much the method of writing affects the content. On the one hand, typewriters make working kind of cumbersome; editing is an annoying process and if you decide you want to move things around you have to either get out the scissors and the glue, or rewrite everything. On the other hand, typewriters slow you down and, theoretically, force you to think about what you're writing. Computers are fine, but they lack the aesthetic qualities of a typewriter.

Also on The Guardian this morning, a novelist laments the upcoming closure of Godrej and Boyce, one of the few typewriter manufacturers left. They will switch to making refrigerators once they've sold the 500 typewriters they still have in stock. It's the end of an era, writing-instrument-wise, and it's both lovely and a little sad to look back on some great writers who embraced ink ribbons and clacking keys.

Image shown Agatha Christie with her typewriter and many, many books. Taken from The Guardian slideshow.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Pigeon English

Rereading books I loved as a kid is something I do on a semi-regular basis. The way YA novels age is interesting, and all the characters' actions and predicaments take on a whole new context. It's also a kind of escapism, to remember what it felt like to read the story five or ten or fifteen years ago. Reading books about children, but not for children, on the other hand, is an interesting experience in a different way. Obviously, we were all children once, so the author can pull from his or her memories when constructing the voice of their character, but if they don't get it quite ring, it can sound too precious or too precocious – like an adult speaking through a child. Those pitfalls are what make Harri's voice in Pigeon English so astounding. 

I'm not sure what reservoir of knowledge or experience Stephen Kelman tapped into to write the novel, but right from the get-go, Pigeon English floored me. Harri is a Ghanaian boy (11 years old) who has recently moved to London, England, with his mother and old sister Lydia. His father, grandmother, and baby sister Agnes are still in Ghana, waiting to raise enough money to join the rest of the family. The reasons for leaving aren't made explicitly clear, but it seems driven by a mother's desire to give her children a better life. They live in an apartment building in a rough part of town, and because their mother is a nurse and working shifts, Harri and Lydia are frequently on their own.

The entire novel is told from Harri's perspective, in his voice. Just by listening – and really, this is a novel  that is more about listening than reading – to the way he uses London slang all mixed in with his Ghanaian expressions tells you how new he is to the country. Sometimes he even lists all the new words he's learned, with explanations of what they mean. This novel is about being completely in Harri's world, and that perspective is so complete and consuming that, like Harry, the very real danger presented by the neighbourhood seems at arm's length – dangerous to others, but not to you. 

Besides tell the story of Harri and his family's first while in London, the novel has another, more pulsing plot line. At the beginning of the story, a boy has been stabbed to death in the neighbourhood. Harri new the boy, although he was older, and after it seems clear that no one feels safe telling the police anything, Harri and his friend Dean decide to become detectives on the sly. They start by collecting fingerprints of people they know using Scotch tape and keeping surveillance for suspicious-looking people. It all seems like a game, really, just a way to pass the time, until they find a wallet with a picture of the dead boy inside. Events spiral from there, but Harri isn't really paying attention, so he doesn't notice when the stakes of the game get changed.

Harri's voice is so utterly convincing that this entire novel reads as though he is talking to you. His use of language is kind of funny to read sometimes, but Kelman knows how to use slang the way a newcomer does, and he seems to really understand the kinds of details that preoccupy a kid. There are lots of things that Harri doesn't notice, and as a reader, like Harri, you don't realize that until it's too late. The end of the novel is so jarring – I read the last page, turned it, expecting more, and only found the glossary – because you become so embedded in Harri that it's hard to let go. Reading Pigeon English opens a door to a place you may never go to or think about otherwise, but with a guide like Harri, there's no excuse not to go.

Pigeon English
by Stephen Kelman
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from House of Anansi Press edition)
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