Wednesday, 4 March 2009

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

ARCTIC CHILL by Arnaldur Indridason Harvill Secker pbk
I’m an Indridason bore and proud of it. Anyone who comes anywhere near me to talk about books very soon hears the name spoken in my totally ridiculous and fake Icelandic accent, in which I think I try to mimic the cadences I remember from Ingmar Bergman movies, and they course were in Swedish and therefore not much help.

This novel is the fifth in the series and you would be well-advised to read the books in order, even though each one does stand on its own perfectly well. The hero in all of them is a policeman called Erlendur. He’s a complex character and in common with Wallender and other detectives in the genre known as Nordic noir, he’s not a chap you’d go to for a rollicking laugh. He has problems of all kinds, both in the present and most importantly in the past. When he was ten, he and his younger brother went out with their father and while they were on the mountain, a snowstorm of the kind that we never see in this country came down. Erlendur, who was holding his little brother’s hand, let go for a second and that was the last he saw of the boy. When the storm abated, a huge search began but his younger brother wasn’t found and the loss of this child and Erlendur’s responsibility for that....the letting go of the hand, even though he was completely unable to keep hold of haunts the detective and recurs as a motif in all five books.

In this one, because it is about the murder of a child, the story of his brother comes even more to the fore. The boy found dead in the shadow of a block of flats is the son of an immigrant mother and Indrisason, without being at all heavy or preachy about it, is fascinating about the problems faced by a woman from Thailand and other immigrants to this most chilly and forbidding of landscapes. A recent movie of Indridason’s first novel, Jar City, gives a clear picture of just how strange and other-worldly Iceland looks: in some places positively lunar. (It also, incidentally, shows Erlendur eating some really unspeakable things, but don’t let that put you off the film.)

All sorts of other themes feed into this story. There’s a racist teacher at the school. There’s the question of bullying among the pupils. Is that racist or simply bullying and who is responsible? The story is told plainly but the language (in translation at least) has heft and solidity and a bleak kind of poetry about it. As always with this writer, you can feel history in the background and his characters, especially Erlendur’s fellow police, are very well drawn. I’m not even recommending this writer: I’m nagging. If you like crime fiction, do read him as soon as you can.

FORTUNE COOKIE by Jean Ure. Collins pbk.
Jean Ure has written more books than most people have had hot dinners. She started when she was sixteen and since then has been no slouch when it comes to the publication of stories of all kinds. Readers may remember some of the highlights of her writing career, like A Proper Little Nooryeff , (which Billy Elliott either copied or made a hommage to, depending on your point of view) See You Thursday and Plague and my own favourite, Play Nimrod for Him.

For the last few years, she’s been very successful with a series of novels for slightly younger readers which deal with ordinary situations that affect her heroines’/heroes’ daily lives. She wrote about child leukemia in Becky Bananas, and has also described many child dilemmas of a far less serious nature.
Anyone who knows her realizes that animals are her passion and in this book, there’s an adorable beagle puppy at the centre of the story. It’s narrated in the first person by Fudge (reason for the name becomes clear, don’t worry) and it’s about her and her friend the Cupcake Kid and Cupcake’s little brother Joey who is disabled and who desperately longs for a puppy. The real fun starts when the puppy needs medical
treatment costing a fortune and Fudge and Cupcake turn to their ‘life of crime.’

There are very poignant moments in this story but generally speaking, as ever, Ure’s style is upbeat and humorous and easy to read without being either silly or vapid. I can’t imagine a child of eight or so not loving this book and wanting to read others by this author...and as I say, there are plenty of those.

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