MORE GREAT READS FOR JANUARY, 2016
Midnight Sun, by Jo Nesbo
Jon Hansen is on the run. He is a fixer, a reluctant hitman for The Fisherman, premier Norwegian drug dealer; (see May review below) sadly, for someone who is supposed to be a ruthless assassin, Jon doesn’t have the killer instinct, still less the complete lack of remorse associated with ending the lives of those who don’t pay their debts.
His problem is hesitation: once he looks at the intended victim all his murderous resolve flies out the window, particularly when he is offered a split of the money rightly owed to The Fisherman, and a cast-iron alibi for disposal of the ‘corpse’. And he needs the money, for he has a young daughter who needs urgent medical treatment. Despite his dissolute lifestyle (he sells hash by the tonne) he loves his little girl and would do anything to help her get well; unfortunately The Fisherman is not interested in giving him a loan; instead Jon must earn money as a hitman, whether he wants to or not.
The inevitable happens: Jon’s precious daughter dies; he betrays The Fisherman and escapes Oslo with a horde of drugs and wads of cash, this time pursued by real, more reliable hitmen dispatched by his vengeful boss. He has no clear destination except to go as far north as possible – into the Land of the Midnight Sun. Perpetual sunlight, guaranteed to drive a callow Southener like himself totally mad, especially one who depends heavily on Valium and alcohol.
And the local inhabitants of Kåsund, the village he fetches up in, are a pretty rum lot: either deeply religious or wildly pagan – and the local plonk could strip paint off the wall, not to mention what it could do to his digestive system. Still, he is alive, and until his murderers find out where he is he intends to make the best of an impossible situation, and the very finite time left to him on earth.
With an ease born of great skill, Jo Nesbo recounts Jon Hansen’s misadventures, miss-steps and mistakes as he attempts to make sense of and eventually alter the course of his sorry destiny, especially when he makes contact with a good Christian woman and her enormously engaging son: there may be a future worth striving for after all, if only he can thwart those who want him dead.
Mr Nesbo is a consistently reliable author: the reader knows that a high standard of plot and characterisation will always be maintained, and the action will never flag. He justifiably deserves to be called ‘A writer at the top of his game’ (what an awful expression, but it is true!); what a pleasure it is to welcome each new title from this great storyteller. FIVE STARS
Blood on Snow, by Jo Nesbo
Olav Johansen is dyslexic. He has had trouble reading all his life, but it hasn’t stopped him trying. His memory for what he so painstakingly absorbs is razor-sharp, as he reveals in his first-person narrative – except that he is self-deprecating whenever he shares with the reader a little morsel of his vast knowledge on myriad subjects – ‘but what do I know?’ He is also a romantic, and inclined to donate money anonymously to down-and-outers; he falls in love with fallen women – and he is also a hit man, a ‘fixer’ for one of Oslo’s bigtime gangsters.
He sees nothing incongruous in his coldblooded dispatching of whoever his boss tells him to remove, and the soft side of his nature which exhorts him to care for the exploited prostitutes his boss employs, particularly Maria, a deaf-mute with a limp: he still can’t understand why Maria works as a prostitute, until he finds out that she is paying off her junkie boyfriend’s drug debt.
Olav’s life is fairly predictable, and he doesn’t expect it to change in any dramatic way – until his boss tells him that his next ‘assignment’ is to remove the boss’s faithless wife. Olav feels a sense of awful forboding with regard to this new task, especially when he stakes out the rich apartment in which Mrs Boss spends her ineffectual days and learns that she has a young man who visits her every day at the same time to beat and rape her. True to form, Olav’s warped sense of chivalry rears its mutant head and he decides to rescue Mrs Boss – and ‘fix’ her tormentor.
And that is just the start of Olav’s life-threatening problems. Life goes pear-shaped and remains so, despite his best attempts to resolve his situation so that he may be the White Knight for Mrs Boss. Maria has been entirely forgotten and while many people will die because of his actions, he will learn yet again that the people he most trusts are capable of the worst betrayal.
Once again, Jo Nesbo has created an anti-hero that every reader backs to the hilt. As always Mr Nesbo makes each sentence do the work of ten, giving this story a huge impact in relation to its size, and the bloody imagery of the title is never more appropriate than in the final pages. FIVE STARS
Something to Hide, by Deborah Moggach
It is said that there are only six degrees of separation between each of us in life, and Ms Moggach’s latest book amply demonstrates this theory as she tells the story of a group of seemingly disparate characters on opposite sides of the world who, through circumstance and machination find themselves very closely connected indeed.
Petra is sixtyish: she has a posh background, posh job and posh house in Pimlico; she is the envy of many when in reality she is long-divorced, has no success at relationships, is achingly lonely (even her two children when they left the nest, established nests in other countries) and detests with a purple passion the round-robin computer letter she receives each year from West Africa, written by her best friend -
Bev, who has known Petra since their school days. She has come from an ‘unfortunate’ background, but tenacity and a very thick skin has enabled her to gain reluctant acceptance into the higher levels of society – and win Jeremy, her husband, subject of the ecstatic letters she dispatches to all and sundry from West Africa, where Jeremy works for a big chemical company. Oh, what a life they both have! They are still after all those years, lovers and very best friends – and they laugh, oh, how they laugh together! According to Bev, life with Jem is just one long perfect funny idyll. And Petra hates her for it. Bev has the kind of life that Petra thinks she will never have, and she wishes Bev and her deliriously happy, detestable bulletins would disappear from the face of the earth – until Jeremy makes a business trip to London and looks her up. And guess what happens??
The inevitable hot and entirely spontaneous affair, that’s what, catapulting them both into plans for a future together that obviously does not include Bev.
Meanwhile, Lorrie, a Texan housewife, is in a state of abject despair: she has just lost her family’s entire savings to a computer phishing scam, the savings that would have seen her and her army husband able to move out of their cheap and nasty rental into a much better new housing estate on the good side of town. She has no idea how to break the news to her husband, who fortunately will be deployed overseas soon, and thank God he doesn’t check their finances, preferring her to handle all of that. She is in an absolute turmoil until her friend across the street presents her with a solution: become a surrogate mother! Carry someone else’s baby for nine months and be paid for it! Oh, could this happen? Can Lorrie achieve this deception while her husband is away? She’s overweight anyway, so no-one will notice more poundage for a while. Heart in mouth, she agrees to be impregnated with the semen of Mr Wang, an enormously wealthy businessman from Beijing, whose wife is unable to have children, and he himself has a perilously low sperm count, thanks to Beijing’s high levels of pollution.
Li Jing, Mr Wang’s wife, is kept in the dark about most of his plans, including the source of his wealth, but this time he has appraised her of her impending motherhood. She is ecstatic, but still would like to know more about the mysterious life he leads on his frequent trips out of China – to West Africa, to the little country where Bev and Jeremy live ‘as lovers and best friends’.
Ms Moggach skilfully weaves the many colourful strands of her story into a shocking tapestry of deceit (and I’m not talking about Lorrie here - she’s small potatoes compared to the rest of them!) and murder, where seemingly ordinary people will go to any lengths to keep what they regard as theirs, and where anyone will do anything for the right reward. This was a great read. FIVE STARS.