science fiction, new weird, old weird, very weird - and everything else. often, though not always, discussed in relation to gender identity and (a)sexuality.
Anybody can knock out an opponent, but only a technician can take a bloke's heart away from him.
Historic Scandinavian noir, set in Stockholm 1932, following a bisexual ex-boxer: how could I say no?
Harry Kvist is a former boxer who was quite popular at his time, but never quite made it to pro-status. December 1932 sees him working as a debt collector in Stockholm, a task that lets him put his fists to good use. His next assignment seems promising: rough up a debtor, collect the debt, get a lot of dough. The first part goes quite well – for Harry at least, not so much for the debtor – but then it‘s down the drain with no up in sight. When Harry returns the next day, the debtor‘s dead and he is framed for murder. Two people could attest to his innocence. The boy is out of the question, because Harry has already been sentenced for violation of paragraph 18 („indecency“) twice, and anyway, he punched him afterwards, so not the ideal situation to ask for a favour. The whore Harry chatted with is nowhere to be found. When a third witness leads to his release, Harry goes looking for the prostitute – and tries to find the real murderer as well.
Clinch came to my attention 2016, when members of both the GR m/m group and the Pulp Fiction group started to read and review this book simultaneously – and seemed equally satisfied. There isn‘t that much overlap between those two groups (except when you count my presence in both of them as overlap; which I guess you can), so I was instantly intrigued. Yet I was hesitant to get my own copy: I planned to wait for a German translation, as Swedish translates better into German than into English, and I have a somewhat easier time with 1st person present tense in German to boot. But none seems to be forthcoming, and I finally ran out of patience. I‘m glad I did get over myself, because Clinch is certainly worth it.
My old trainer once said that boxing, at its best, makes you feel properly alive. This is wrong. Boxing is at its best when you’re completely empty inside, pressing on like some kind of automatic doll. One movement is not more than a natural extension of another. The body is abandoned to answer in a certain way to a given situation, hardened through thousands of hours of training. The fight turns into a physical self-examination, a receipt for the time that’s been invested. Street fighting is really no different; it just lacks a system of rules.
As far as noir goes, Clinch is firmly on the grittier, pulpier side of things. It’s a very physical story. The violence is as graphic as are the sex scenes, which end in not entirely consensual violence as well. But sensuous as those scenes are, Clinch isn’t celebrating violence; things aren’t prettied up or glorified. Amongst breaking bones and flowing blood there are few instances of tenderness, presented in a way that always make you question how genuine they actually are.
Holmén also adds some really nice touches: “The meat thermometer in his throat shows thirty-three degrees but I don’t know how long I’ve been out.”
The author plays some well known noir tropes to good effect and offers some top-notch character work. Harry Kvist has an intensity to him that I find hard to resist. He’s just as intense in his needs and in his longings as he is in his propensity towards violence. He’s not easy to decipher, but as his backstory is presented in little nuggets throughout the book, you get a pretty good idea about the man. I especially liked the fact that he isn’t a good detective. His fights have left him with an impaired memory, not the best prerequisite for detective work, and he often solely relies on his fists. But there’s no success to justify his brutality, which makes this character all the more tragic.
Although gritty and brutal, this is not a fast-paced story. Holmén seems more interested in atmosphere and character than in a fast-moving series of events. He’s also a historian and it shows. The first part is a bit in danger of reading like a Swedish street directory. The second half more than makes up for it. The book is at its best when it zooms in on Harry and his relationships, be it his companionship with his landlord, the undertaker Lundin, his distaste for a certain ex-lover, or his relation to the femme fatale of this story, an ageing film star.
Bisexual characters in genre-fiction are still rare. Unapologetic bisexual men like Kvist even more so. I read a lot of SFF, and when we get trad-published SFF stories with queer characters, they often fall into the trap of either a) concentrating on the character's queerness, b) being so busy with being “diverse” that they forget to tell a story or c) giving the character no personality apart from being queer. The books churned out by Tor are the worst offenders in all of these regards, Indies and Angry Robot do somewhat better. As usual, crime fiction seems to be a bit ahead of the game. I keep asking for stories with queer characters that are simply good stories with good, believable characters who happen to be queer, and Clinch certainly fits that bill. This being the 1930's, Kvist’s bisexuality is cause for conflict, and the book buries quite a few gays, but that’s to be expected. Most importantly, Holmén gives you people, in all their complexity, with all their flaws. And that’s all I’m really asking for.
Henning Koch’s English translation flows quite well, although, as a GR reviewer has already remarked, he mixes British English and American English vernacular, and I’d wished for a bit more consistency.
Clinch is the first part in a trilogy, and now my hesitancy has one advantage: The two other parts are already published and I can read them right away (well, almost, I have a longish buddy read coming up).
Bonus points for avoiding the phrase “letting go of the breath one wasn’t aware one was holding”, and instead saying: “I notice that I’ve been holding my breath, then straining for air.” See, authors, there are variations you can use!
Lookie there - it took almost half the book for the femme fatale to arrive, but now she's there, and of course she's got a long, slim cigarette holder *lol*
Yes, this is a bit stereotypical at times, and the plot moves with glacial pace - but there are also moments of brilliance, and Harry Kvist is a strangely addictive character. Im glad I got over my distaste for 1st person present tense and picked this up.
I didn't have any New Year resolutions, but I did plan to read more hopeful, positive books this year.
Accordingly, I picked up dark and gritty Scandinavian noir set in the 1930s.
Consistency - I don't have it.
(German review only so far, sorry.)
Das Leid des weißen Mannes.
Es ist der Erste Erste Zweitausendundachtzehn und Henning fährt Rad. Er fährt auf Lanzarote, den Steilanstieg nach Femés hinauf. In Hennings Leben ist so weit alles in Ordnung. Er ist verheiratet, hat zwei Kinder, teilt sich mit seiner Frau Theresa Erziehungs- und Hausarbeit. Theresa macht, Henning funktioniert. Nur, dass natürlich gar nichts in Ordnung ist. Denn in der Nacht hebt ES seinen Kopf und beschert Henning Panikattacken. In einem Landhaus über Femés befällt ihn schließlich die Erinnerung an ein verdrängtes Kindheitsereignis.
Ich schicke mal voraus, dass mich das Thema des Buches schon beim Lesen des Klappentextes nicht sonderlich interessiert hat. Wäre es von jemand anderem als Juli Zeh geschrieben, hätte ich es nicht gelesen. Ich hätte es auch so nicht gekauft, es war ein Geschenk (über das ich mich auch sehr gefreut habe). Es ging dann auch komplett an meinem Geschmack vorbei.
Meiner letzter Roman von Juli Zeh war „Nullzeit“, der auch schon auf Lanzarote spielt. Im Vergleich mit ihren früheren Werken fiel mir als erstes auf, dass sie ihre Sprache extrem eingedampft hat. Diese Änderung im Stil machte sich schon in „Nullzeit“ bemerkbar, in „Neujahr“ bleibt sie noch wesentlich simpler. Verschwunden sind die überzogenen sprachlichen Bilder, die manchmal an die Grenzen des guten Geschmacks stoßenden Metaphern. Man kann das als „klare Sprache“ loben. Dieser Stil tut niemandem weh, stört nicht beim Bügeln – und langweilt mich zu Tode. Im zweiten Teil versucht Zeh dann, aus der Sicht eines Kindes zu schreiben, ein Kniff, den ich immer etwas bemüht finde, und der auch hier eher Fremdschämen als Begeisterung auslöst.
Immerhin versteht sich es noch, mit der Wahl ihres Personals zu irritieren. Ihre Charaktere waren nie Sympathieträger, Henning reiht sich da nahtlos ein: Ein alberner Hampelmann mit fragilem Ego, der sich von seiner gleichberechtigten Beziehung mit einer besserverdienenden Ehefrau, von Arbeit und Kindern überfordert fühlt, der kein wirklicher Ernährer sein kann und sich in seine Rolle als Vater nicht einfindet. Armer Henning.
Die weiblichen Figuren des Romans sind keinen Deut sympathischer.
Wie alle Romane von Juli Zeh ist auch dieser arg konstruiert, Steigung, Plateau mit Erinnerung, Abfahrt, und basiert auf mehr als erstaunlichen Zufällen. Das ist zu ertragen, wenn mich der Inhalt anspricht, nur war das hier leider nicht der Fall. Ich könnte jetzt analysieren, wie Hennings Kindheitserlebnisse sein Männlichkeitsbild und seine Selbstzweifel geprägt haben, wie sich das auf seine Beziehung zu Mutter, Schwester und Theresa auswirkt - aber so ganz habe ich nicht herausgefunden, was dieses Buch von mir will. Ich verstehe einfach nicht, warum das Leiden der Kinder auf fast 100 Seiten ausgewalzt werden muss. Derart platte emotionale Manipulation kenne ich von Juli Zeh nicht und sie hat mich weder unterhalten, noch brachte sie Erkenntnisgewinn.
Ich interessiere mich halt nicht für das Geschichten, die das Unglück mittelalter, weißer Männer in den Fokus rücken, und ergötze mich auch nicht gern am Leiden von Kindern. Ich kann mit dem Buch einfach nichts anfangen.
(Spider counter: already a lot)
There are four types of stories I cannot resist: caper stories, Gothic horror in space, stories about boxing, and gangster dramas. Those stories don‘t have to be all that original; as long as they work well with all the known ingredients, they will make me happy.
Jade City is an extraordinarily good example of the gangster drama. Inspired by Mafia- and kung fu-films, set in a world were jade is magic, it tells a story about family, honour, and rivalling clans clashing in a bloody war.
The book requires a bit of patience. Fonda Lee takes her time to introduce readers to the world of Kekon and to her main characters. The story really kicks into gear about 30% in, and at the halfway point, all bets are off. Even then, it‘s not all action either: a lot of the clan warfare consists of politicking and strategy meetings. But when the action starts, it‘s epic.
The worldbuilding is thorough. Kekon is a small island, the world‘s only resource of bioenergetic jade. Jade lends heightened senses and strength to its wearers, but just Kekonese with special training have the ability to wield those powers. Other people will be consumed and destroyed. Now a new drug is hitting the streets, SN1, reducing the negative side effects of wearing jade, giving more people the ability to wear the precious stones – including Kekon‘s enemies.
The reader learns a lot about the culture, religion and history of Kekon, a little less about it‘s rivalling states Espenia (which I kept reading as Españia, but I think it‘s supposed to be either Britain or the USA) and Ygutan. The story is set in an alternative 1960s, and Kekon, especially the clans, is still pretty much a man‘s world; it‘s a patriarchal, somewhat racist and deeply superstitious society. The patriarchal structure is addressed head-on; I‘d wished for a bit more direct engagement with Kekonese racism, but maybe that‘s to come in the sequels.
The real highlight of this book are the characters. We follow the Kaul family of the No Peak clan, one of the two most powerful clans of Kekon. Lan is No Peak‘s leader, a kind and reasonable man, but maybe a bit to hesitant to lead his clan into war; Hilo is his younger, charismatic and hot-headed brother, heading the military side of the clan; Shae is the youngest sibling, returning to Kekon after she‘s left the island with her lover. Young Anden is their cousin, still training to once become a powerful jade worrier, a Green Bone. Their rivals are the Mountain, a clan that‘s getting into the business of producing and selling SN1. All characters, protagonists and antagonists alike, are compelling, their relationships feel real. I couldn‘t even really pick a favourite, a rare thing when reading stories with multiple POVs. Although the book is certainly violent (it's a gangster drama about clan warfare, after all; people are mutilated and die!), there's no explicit sexual violence; Lee wisely didn't fall into the trap of replacing sexual assault for character development, which is sadly still a thing, especially in fantasy that tries to be "edgy".
I liked the Kauls almost as much as I like a certain Shelby family; and considering how close the Peaky fucking Blinders are to my heart, you can take this as high praise.
The writing is serviceable, if a bit artless. The action scenes are great, the dialogue rings true most of the time, descriptions are sensual and vivid. But Lee also uses some clichés I could‘ve done without: characters are releasing „the breath they didn‘t even know they were holding“, every emotion shows in the characters‘ eyes (something I‘ve never seen happen in real life), and she has the odd habit of opening a sequence of dialogue with an adjective: „Coldly: ‚I have done so.‘“.
But that‘s a minor quibble. While the writing could improve a bit, and the story is at times a tad predictable, the worldbuilding and characters are simply a lot of fun. One element of the epic showdown even managed to surprise me.
The story is set up to be a trilogy, but this works well as a standalone. Nevertheless, I‘m looking forward to the sequel and another meeting with the Kauls. I hope to see more of Anden and Wen, Hilo's wife. I hope to get to know what's up with that unopened letter. And I hope for a few more surprises along the way.
So, riddle me this: How can the narrator tell this story in 1st person past tense(show spoiler)
That makes absolutely no fucking sense.
Well, this was a filler book if there ever was one. The story needed about half the book to get going and what little plot there was served only to set up one "twist" I already knew about, so it wasn't all that exciting. Once the investigation proper actually started, it got more interesting, I liked the architectural asides - not the least because they're inspired by Bruno Taut, who's left his ideas of how the working class should live all over Berlin - and the showdown was great even. But getting there was a chore.
So much this!
Jakob Nolte is a young German playwright and author. ALFF is his debut novel, published 2015. A hideous crime has been committed at the High & Low High School of Beetaville, New England: a student was found dead, sewn into a fence. Soon a second body follows. FBI agent Donna Jones is called to investigate. But the murderer is elusive, the investigation seems fruitless, and Donna reaches the edge of his sanity.
Put like this, the plot sounds clear-cut - but it isn't. With Nolte, form comes before function, and so he's less concerned with telling a crime-story, and much more with a danse macabre on the grave of US High School comedies from the 1990s. Nolte, who's born 1988 and has never been to the US, spins a post-modern, absurdist yarn with little regard for reality, but sometimes touching pretty close to the truth: the truth of being a teenager in the 1990s, the time of Grunge and Silence of the Lambs and S7ven, without ubiquitous mobile phones or even ubiquitous internet. It's a bit like Twin Peaks meets Heathers, but more, well, more 90s.
I didn't like ALFF as much as I liked Nolte's second novel, the German Book Award-nominated Schreckliche Gewalten, one of my favourite German novels of the last ten years. ALFF felt a bit too long and could've been more punchy. I still enjoyed it a lot. If you want to see somebody using the German language as a playing field, with a sense for style and little respect for convention, Nolte's your guy.
Fergus Fletcher is a hit man. For five thousand pounds, he’ll kill anyone you want. For seven, he’ll frame someone else. Pretending to kill someone is a first, but Alex Pennan has stolen from the mob and needs to fake his own death.
Fergus is looking for love. So is Sam Ireland, a private investigator and part-time bike messenger. But she’s got her hands on a very important package and is in a world of trouble with the mob. Joe Pepper, pillar of society and corrupt gangland fixer, will stop at nothing—nothing at all—to intercept the package and protect his reputation.
Can Alex stay dead while his widow dances on his grave? Can Joe save himself before his stomach ulcer explodes? Can Fergus and Sam make it to a second date before Joe hires him to kill her?
Welcome to Glasgow. It’s a love story.
Unfortunately, this one didn't work for me. I've enjoyed Stringer's previous books, including the first part of the Sam Ireland mysteries, but this was like re-heated coffee - more of the same, but worse.
Too much talking, jokes that weren't funny, and I don't think Stringer is particularly good at writing convincing romance subplots. And, for whatever reason, there's far less Joe Pepper than the blurb would let you believe.
This feels a lot slower than the first part. All the POV characters go on wild tangents, giving us their backstory, their friends' and family's backstory, the backstory of their fathers' goldfish... (Literally. Okay, it was a Koi, but that's just big goldfish.) I sometimes wish they would just stop talking and get the fuck on with the action.
Well, I'm not so sure about this claim - I know a few of you have at least read Mongrels.
I have read Repo Shark (yes, it's weird), five others are already on mount TBR: Mongrels, Embry, Destroy All Monsters, The Killings and I Miss the World.
Boystown: SVU edition
This one hits hard. Not so much because of the crimes being investigated, but because the Boystown series takes the reader back to 1980‘s gay Chicago – and that means, back to the advent of the AIDS crisis. A time of confusion and fear and so, so many people lost. I know that some people of my generation and younger think it‘s time to let the AIDS-stories rest, to give us queer stories with happier outcomes. I can only partly agree with that. Yes, we deserve happy stories with happy endings. But for many, the pain of the 1980‘s and 1990‘s is still fresh. And their stories deserve to be told, too.
Anyway, to the book: Grumpy PI Nick Nowak is even a bit more grumpy than usual; the last installment ended with him being shot and he‘s still recovering from a busted shoulder blade. Which also impairs his sex life. But he can‘t grumble like he‘d like to, because he still has to care about his best friend Ross, who‘s slowly dying of AIDS, and about Mrs. Harker, his late lover‘s mother, who‘s slowly dying of cancer. Although he should be resting, Nick takes a case helping a bipolar woman who‘s convinced she had witnessed a murder. No evidence of said murder can be found and Nick his hired by the woman‘s sister to either prove or disprove her claim. At the same time, Nick has to deal with a law suit concerning his ward Terry, a teenager who‘s supposed to testify against his abusive former deacon. The church wants to cover the abuse, and Nick wants to prevent that.
The murder mystery is pretty much only background to show how events in Nick‘s life enfold. And look at Nick: He‘s all grown-up now! Past grief, present fear and anger, but also his commitment to his relationship with Joseph, have changed him a lot. But at the core he stays the gruff guy with a big heart, a rock for his circle of friends and found family, someone people can rely on, although he probably doesn‘t see himself that way.
In my review for the last installment, I have complained about too little Joseph and Ross. Both get considerable more on-page time here, and it‘s for the better. Joseph‘s allowed to show his sweet, helpful character again, and his psychological knowledge and good-people-skills come in handy in Nick‘s latest employment. Spending more time with Ross is bittersweet: it‘s painful to watch him slowly fade away. On the other hand his interactions with Nick are just so lovely to read. Those two just click naturally.
Although the subject matter is rather grim, Thornton has given Nick enough sense of irony and sarcasm to put a smile onto the readers face every once in a while. This won‘t be the last we see of Nick Nowak. There are some tearful Goodbyes to come, but I hope there will also be some happiness in Nick‘s life.
Something's really bugging me here: Nick's got shot in the shoulder in the last installment. His shoulderblade is still healing, so he's carrying his right arm in a sling. And he's driving all around Chicago like that, with only his left arm free. I mean, that could actually work with an automatic? Never driven an automatic in my life. Never seen one from the inside, come to think of it. But it still seems rather unsafe.
Then nothing happened for five weeks.
That‘s how reading this book felt like; except that actually a lot of things happen, but they just go on and on and on…
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was confined to English offices and the British soil. In The Honourable Schoolboy, le Carré sends his readers and the „schoolboy“ in question, fieldman Jerry Westerby, on a tour de force through Southeast Asia. A mysterious trail of money leads from Hong Kong back to Smiley‘s nemesis Karla, and to another of his moles somewhere in mainland China. It‘s Jerry‘s task to shake the tree, cause some panic, and draw out the mole. At least I think that’s what happens, because the plot fades into the background here, building the mere canvas on which le Carré paints his picture of the British colonies during the Empire's dying breath, during the last days of the Vietnam war.
That‘s all very interesting and riveting, but goes on for about 200 pages too long, and is spoiled by two of the Most Insufferable Protagonists of Spy Fiction Ever: Peter Guillam and the Honourable Gerald Westerby. Guillam, the 40-year-old man showing all the maturity of a 20-year-old boy, with his fawning over Smiley and his spurned-lover‘s act when George doesn‘t let him in on his secrets, quickly got on my nerves. And Jerry Westerby – well, le Carré‘s characters share a certain pathetic quality, but Westerby sure wins the coconut. Right at the beginning of the book we meet him when he contemplates having sex with a woman because she reminds him of his estranged daughter. Err – yeah, not exactly the kind of guy I want to spend 600 pages with. This Jerry Westerby, this failure on all levels, this dilapidated fieldman, a newshound who owes his job to his influential father, a guy who can‘t keep a marriage running for more than a few month, this absolute Loser with a capital L – is actually a fitting character to carry the second half of the book. Because he‘s an idiot. A smart man would have done the job and gone home, leaving us with only half the story. Unfortunately, le Carré seems so in love with his creation that he keeps Westerby bumbling around for much longer than necessary. Nevertheless, and although the ending was quite inevitable, I felt a bit sorry for him at long least. Well plaid, le Carré, well plaid.
Although being spy-fiction, not noir, this was quite a fitting start for Noirvember; Jerry's fate carries a certain noir-quality, femme fatale and all. It also contains one of my favourite character descriptions: a tweedy and opinionated Scot.
"It's the Cousins," Guillam said gently. "About Brother Ricardo, your favourite pilot. They want to meet with you at the Annexe as soon as possible. I'm to ring back by yesterday."
"They want what?"
"To meet you. But they use the preposition."
"Do they? Do they really? Good Lord. I suppose it's the German influence. Or it is old English? Meet with. Well I must say." And he lumbered off to his bathroom to shave.