By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times
Deon Meyer (Hodder & Stoughton)
***** (five stars)
It’s not done, surely, to bark with laughter when reading a crime novel, but Deon Meyer’s latest book Icarus has many moments of sheer comedy. The reek of cauliflower from Major Mbali Kaleni’s office, for example, now that she’s Banting. Followers of the Benny Griessel books know her, fondly, for her furtive gobbling of chocolate and KFC, so when she embraces “Prof Tim’s” philosophy, and frowns on Vaughn Cupido’s Speckled Eggs, it is splutteringly funny. Cupido is not amused by her new zeal, but, “He let it go, because an argument with Mbali was like a Sumo wrestling match – you could never get a decent grip, and afterwards, it left you all sweaty and unsatisfied.”
There’s the deadpanning duo from Forensics, a sort of Laurel and Hardy of the lab known as Thick and Thin, “the tortoises to the Hawks’ hares”, and Benny in a session with the psychotherapist: “‘We must explore whether that is causing your depression and drinking habits.’ Must explore. Fok. As if he were some kind of wilderness.”
Benny is drinking again, shoved off the wagon by a colleague’s killing of his family and himself. For most of the book we witness his sweating, racking struggle to conquer the booze again, his pockets clinking with miniatures of Jack Daniels. Cupido is desperately covering up for him and steps up to the plate as the leader of the investigation into a new murder.
Meyer has a knack for the zeitgeist, for plugging in to the topical, and in Icarus this knack is prescient.
The body discovered in the dunes of Blouberg is that of Ernst Richter, young MD of an audacious startup called Alibi. The motto of the company is “All Pleasure. No Stress” and it delivers what it promises: alibis. Need cover for a dirty weekend or a few hours of passion? Alibi will provide false appointments, receipts and phone calls at a price. And, with the threat of an Ashley Madison-like client reveal looming, there are many people who want Richter dead.
Meyer has perfected structure and pace, reveals and red herrings, chapter beats, plot and subplot but he enriches the story with fascinating detail. In his last book Cobra, for instance, we learned of the Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme and the shadowy world of the professional assassin. He salts Icarus with Tinder and other social media, and introduces us to “zero-day vulnerabilities”, the hidden back doors in computer software that hackers can use to hijack data. He lays bare the racket of the old KWV, “the narrow-minded, strict, conservative, prescriptive, rule-bound, Broederbond-controlled wine farmer’s co-operative, which at that time was merely an extension of the apartheid government.” He also draws aside the curtain on the international wine trade. In latter books Meyer has deepened his characterisation. Here he brings in a golden boy who is a psychopath and another young man on the autistic spectrum, a brilliant computer programmer who has “social interaction issues”.
We learn more about the other Hawks: Major Bones Bashigo, the newly-married forensic finance wizard, and George Clooney lookalike Mooiwillem Liebenberg. Best of all, he beckons Captain Vaughn Cupido to the foreground. He fleshes him out, has him fall in love, endearingly, and examines the relationship between the two men. Cupido implores Benny to stop drinking: “The heart of the matter is, I can’t be Vaughn the Terrible, if you aren’t Benny the Sober. It’s like that line in the movies – you complete me.” Benny snorts, “And now you’re going to kiss me.”
Will Cupido’s love be requited? We’ll have to wait and see.
Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood
By Bron Sibree for the Sunday Times
The Girl in the Spider’s Web
David Lagercrantz (Quercus)
David Lagercrantz has a long history of taking risks. “It makes me write better,” says the Swedish journalist and author of nine diverse, risk-taking works including Fall of Man in Wilmslow, I Am Zlatan and The Angels of Amsele. But as risks go, nothing equals that of writing the fourth installment in the fabled Millennium series, which was created by his fellow countryman and now deceased journalist Stieg Larsson and became a global publishing phenomenon after Larsson’s death in 2004, selling 80 million copies worldwide.
“I was terrified,” admits Lagercrantz. “But I couldn’t resist it. I knew the whole world wants to read it and so it was important that I write a good book otherwise people will kill me,” he laughs. “And I knew I would regret it my whole life if I said ‘no’.”
There’s a frankness about Lagercrantz that seems at odds with the extreme secrecy that has shrouded his writing of The Girl in the Spider’s Web – or perhaps his natural candour is part of the reason that Swedish publishing house, Norsdetds, have maintained “a ring of steel” around the book ever since they contracted him to write it in 2013. Not that his frankness extends to divulging the plot of The Girl In The Spider’s Web, which is entirely his own creation and not based on Larsson’s unfinished manuscript.
But he admits to having “a sort of fever in me” while writing it. “I felt a passion that I haven’t felt in years. I would wake up at 4 AM and work because I knew that I had to have a complex intrigue. That’s part of the brilliance of Stieg Larsson’s books, that they are so complex, so many different facets coming together. Maybe part of my passion for this project was the magnitude of it.”
But what ignited his passion most was Larsson’s characters, not least Larsson’s female protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, the brilliant hacker with a photographic memory and a thirst for revenge. “Every century a couple of characters are created that really live, and Lisbeth Salander is one of them … she was such a brilliant invention of Stieg Larsson. And not only Lisbeth, but journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who in one way is her Dr Watson. There are so many other interesting characters in Larsson’s world; it’s a universe that I instantly loved.”
It’s no whim that Lagercrantz was chosen by Norstedts – with the blessing of Larsson’s father and brother – to keep the Millennium universe alive. He has an uncanny ability to get inside the skin of savant or genius-like characters who are out of step with – and often ostracised by – mainstream society in his books. His biography of Swedish inventor Hakan Lans has been reprinted seven times while the 2013 memoir of football virtuoso Zlatan Ibrahimović he ghosted, I Am Zlatan, turned the entire genre on its head, selling 500 000 copies in Sweden within two months and millions of copies worldwide.
He likens the task of understanding Larsson’s heroine to that of comprehending the mathematical genius of Alan Turing in his acclaimed 2015 novel, Fall of Man in Wilmslow. “When I found out all of the sadness of Turing’s life and all of what he achieved, I just had to write it, but I had problems getting inside his head just as I had with Lisbeth Salander. It’s a good thing that she is so crazy brilliant. In Larsson’s book she even solved Fermat’s Last Theorem so in this book I let her be fascinated in black holes and quantum mechanics and those kind of nerdy things that interest me. Maybe I have too much science in the book, but I couldn’t write if I couldn’t put in ideas that I’m fascinated with.”
In writing The Girl in the Spider’s Web too, he says: “I‘ve tried to make people understand Lisbeth Salander more but she has to remain a riddle. All great characters, great icons in literature are a bit of a riddle, and that’s the reason we go back to them over and over.” As for whether Largrantz will himself return to the riddle that is Lisbeth Salander in another book, he says “That’s what I am asking myself.” Besieged with publishing offers and with a raft of his own book ideas crowding his over-active mind, he adds “I really want to collide with different worlds. Maybe next time I‘ll do something even more crazy.”
Read an excerpt from The Girl in the Spider’s Web
Follow Bron Sibree on Twitter @BronSibree
Photo: Caroline Andersson
The Death House
Sarah Pinsborough (Orion)
This gripping YA novel answers the question of what the world would be like if there was to be no more illness. In a dystopian future those who make it past 18 without being tested positive for the Defective gene get to live their lives pain free. Those who aren’t so lucky are sent to the Death House. Pinborough shows how these kids, deal with this new life and ultimately death. With the two main characters, and the other inhabitants of the house, she paints a beautiful, haunting picture of innocence and what happens when it is lost. Despite a few unanswered questions and minor gaps in the plot, the novel remains with the reader long after it has been put down.
- Helené Prinsloo @helenayp
Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the power of democracy in the New India
Simon Denyer (Bloomsbury)
India may be a software super-hub and home to four of the world’s 10 richest billionaires but that doesn’t mean it is a rich nation, says Denyer: its phenomenal economic growth is undermined by social inequality, corruption and dynastic politics. Washington Post China bureau chief Denyer, formerly the India bureau chief, sketches what went wrong. Though he rigorously provides the facts, it’s the anecdotal content that is riveting: the everyman stories behind the crooked business deals and the protests that have brought change. The biggest weapon India has is its democracy – the rogue elephant of the title – “magical in the way it binds this vast and varied nation together, and offering its best help for salvation”.
- Yvonne Fontyn @YvonneFontyn
What She Left
TR Richmond (Penguin)
Be careful what you reveal online. Anyone could be watching. When we die we leave something of ourselves behind: Facebook profiles, Twitter feeds, diaries, photographs. When journalist Alice Salmon dies, university professor Jeremy Cooke endeavours to recreate her life through these fragments and what emerges is a portrait of a woman who was a beloved friend and daughter, a campaigner for women’s rights, a fearless journalist. But soon the obituaries and platitudes thin and a deeper, more sinister narrative emerges. What She Left is a taut thriller set in a digital world where our every moment is shared.
- Sally Partridge @sapartridge
Elizabeth Knox (Corsair)
This is not your average zombie/Under-The-Dome tale, it’s a chilling and thoughtful supernatural horror set in Tasman Bay in New Zealand. An indescribable force cuts of the little village of Kahukura and causes the residents to turn into a murderous rage. The gore and violence of people eating, beating and killing everyone around them is only in the beginning of the book. After that, it’s all about the 14 survivors and how they cope. Knox says in her blog: “I guess maybe I’m more interested in trying to talk about the evil people endure.” And boy the stuff they have to endure. The rotting stench of death pervades all of them as they try to live normal lives – cook, eat, clean, fall in love, have sex. But they find that it’s the everyday fears that eventually get to them.
- Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt
1. The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante – extract
From The Guardian: The conclusion to the wildly acclaimed Neapolitan novel sequence is arriving in English next month. Here is a taste of the intense, lifelong friendship at the story’s centre.
2. Tolkien’s fascination with Finland
From the BBC: On Thursday JRR Tolkien’s early story The Story of Kullervo will be published for the first time. The dark tale reveals that Tolkien’s Middle Earth was inspired not only by England and Wales … but also by Finland.
3. The Mystery of Patrick Modiano
4. Stephen King: Can a Novelist Be Too Productive?
From The New Republic: Who, then, is Patrick Modiano? His memoir Pedigree, originally published in France in 2005, is brief and sharp, a pointillist interpretation of personal history, a chronicle that resembles a mere list of names and places and dates that emphasises, yet again, the question of pre-history. As its title suggests, the book is in part an homage to Georges Simenon’s Pedigree, the Belgian writer’s 1948 autobiographical novel “in which everything is true but nothing is accurate,” a natural inspiration for Modiano’s project. “I’m a dog who pretends to have a pedigree,” Modiano writes.
5. How The Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive
From The New York Times: As with most postulates dealing with subjective perceptions, the idea that prolific writing equals bad writing must be treated with caution.
6. Haruki Murakami, The Art of Fiction No. 182
From The Atlantic: The ballpoint’s universal success has changed how most people experience ink.
From the Paris Review: Haruki Murakami is not only arguably the most experimental Japanese novelist to have been translated into English, he is also the most popular, with sales in the millions worldwide.
7. Gay Talese, The Art of Nonfiction No. 2
From the Paris Review: Now seventy-seven years old, Talese occupies the strange position of being both legendary and misunderstood. His innovation was to apply techniques from the craft of fiction to his newspaper and magazine stories, giving them the shape and life of short stories—a style, later referred to as New Journalism, which he originated in his days as a New York Times reporter in the fifties.
- Ballpoint: A Tale of Genius and Grit, Perilous Times, and the Invention That Changed the Way We Write by David Evans, Gyoergy Moldova
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Entertainment Weekly has shared an exclusive extract from the new novel in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series – The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz.
The sequel to Larsson’s trilogy – Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest – will hit shelves in September this year. Hacker heroin Lisbeth Salander is back and once again teams up with journalist Mikael Blomkvist to solve the murder of Professor Balder, with the help of his autistic son.
The Economist reports that Lagercrantz was “terrified” of taking over from the Swedish writer and journalist who died in 2004 and whose bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published posthumously in 2005.
Read the article:
Mr Lagercrantz admitted to feeling the strain: “I’ve been terrified,” he told reporters in Stockholm. “I used to say that I was bipolar, manic depressive all the time, and I think it was kind of a good thing to write in this condition … I’m scared to death that I won’t live up to Stieg.” But for those who do not speak Swedish, the translated versions of the novels—which were also heavily edited in their English editions—have already accustomed the reader to an intermediary.
Lagercrantz also told The New York Times that he is “anxious” about how millions of readers will receive the novel.
However, not everyone is as happy about the publication of the new book. Steven Erlanger writes that Larsson’s long-time partner Eva Gabrielsson has expressed her concern over the ethics of the publication, even likening it to the mystery shrouding Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.
Read the article, in which Lagercrantz says, “I’m scared to death that I won’t live up to Stieg”:
“At night my head burns,” he said, explaining that he had tried to get Mr. Larsson’s characters “into my blood system” when writing. Asked about the biggest liberty he took, he laughed a little and said, “Doing it.”
A tall, handsome, slightly twitchy man in a T-shirt and plaid trousers, he acknowledged that “I’m scared to death that I won’t live up to Stieg.” But “I couldn’t resist,” he said. “I would have regretted it my whole life.”
Mr. Larsson’s legacy is certainly formidable, even intimidating. After he died in 2004 of a sudden heart attack at 50, his three books, beginning with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” went on to sell some 80 million copies in more than 50 languages.
In the extract from Chapter 9 of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Salander wakes up with a terrible headache and ghost images of a dream about her father, a lanky man with dark sunglasses breaks into Balder’s house and Blomkvist is about to get a scoop that might save his job at Millennium.
Read the excerpt:
Salander woke up lying straight across the king-size bed and realized that she had been dreaming about her father. A feeling of menace swept over her like a cloak. But then she remembered the start of the evening and concluded that it could as easily be a chemical reaction in her body. She had a terrible hangover. She got up on wobbly legs and went into the large bathroom—with the jacuzzi and the marble and all the idiotic luxuries—to be sick. But nothing happened, she just sank to the floor, breathing heavily.
Then she stood up and looked at herself in the mirror, which was not particularly encouraging either. Her eyes were red. On the other hand it was not long after midnight. She must have slept for only a few hours. She took a glass from the bathroom cupboard and filled it with water. But at the same moment the details of her dream came flooding back and she crushed the glass in her hand. Blood dripped to the floor, and she swore and realized that she was unlikely to be going back to sleep.
Should she try to crack the encrypted NSA file she had downloaded? No, that would be pointless, at least for now. Instead she wound a towel around her hand and took from her bookshelves a new study by Princeton physicist Julie Tammet, which described how a big star collapses into a black hole. She lay down on the sofa by the windows overlooking Slussen and Riddarfjärden.
In a two-part interview with EW, Lagercrantz talks about Salander’s strong moral compass, her anger and her urge to avenge all the cruelty she experienced in her childhood. “She’s tougher than all of us,” he says.
Watch the videos:
What do the critics think of The Girl in the Spider’s Web? Writing for The Guardian, Mark Lawson calls it a “respectful and affectionate homage”:
Salander, one of the most original inventions in popular fiction, remains a vengeful, homicidal, self-destructive love rat, and yet surprisingly admirable because of Larsson’s careful attribution of her psychological wiring to survival instincts developed during a terrifying early life. Blomkvist is still a shabby amoralist whose professional standing, as the new story starts, has been diminished by two ancient threats to print journalism – drink and sloth – and a modern one: online competition.
A skilled novelist in his own right – his books include Fall of Man in Wilmslow, about the tragic British computer pioneer, Alan Turing – Lagercrantz has constructed an elegant plot around different concepts of intelligence.
Michiko Kakutani writes in The New York Times that Lagercrantz has channelled Larsson’s narrative style rather well:
In “Spider’s Web,” Mr. Lagercrantz demonstrates an instinctive feel for the world Larsson created and for his two unconventional gumshoes: Blomkvist, the dedicated, mensch-y reporter (and unlikely middle-aged girl-magnet); and Salander, the fierce, damaged girl who looks like an angry, punked-out version of Audrey Hepburn (if you can imagine Holly Golightly rocking tattoos and piercings, instead of a tiara) and who fights with the kick-ass video game skills of Lara Croft.
Are you looking forward to The Girl in the Spider’s Web? Tell us on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments below:
Image courtesy of arts
This Fiction Friday, read an excerpt from Tsitsi Dangarembga’s forthcoming novel, Chronicle of an Indomitable Daughter, the third in the “Tambudzai Trilogy” that began with Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not.
Dangarembga was born in Zimbabwe in 1959. She studied medicine at Cambridge University in the UK, but returned to Zimbabwe the year it was recognised as an independent nation, in 1980. She was 25 when Nervous Conditions – the first English-language novel by a black Zimbabwean woman – was published.
Nervous Conditions won the 1989 Commonwealth Writers Prize and was named in the top 12 in a project to establish Africa’s 100 best books of the 20th Century. But fans had a while to wait for Dangarembga’s second novel, which was published 18 years later. In the intervening years Dangarembga turned to theatre and film, and founded the International Images Film Festival for Women in Zimbabwe.
According to Dangarembga’s 2015 BEYOND Film Festival author biography, Chronicle of an Indomitable Daughter is to be published “shortly”.
Last year, Dangarembga shared an excerpt from the book on TriQuarterly:
You know you have made the wrong decision when you move in and the room smells worse.
Your landlady hovers around. She says to your wrinkled nose, “Yes, Ms. Sigauke, your God is good to you. You are home now, and see what I have done for you!”
A leak in the roof has dripped onto the mattress, causing fungus to grow on the cloth and over the ceiling.
“It is nice and fresh now,” observes the widow expansively, stepping enthusiastically past the clothes rail. She puts out a finger and pulls down the remains of the spider webs.
“There was just a little hole, one like that up there in the roof. Just tiles that had moved like that because of the wind, but as soon as I decided and I knew someone was coming to sleep in this room, you can see I fixed it.
“You know, Miss Sigauke,” she goes on, “I am still looking for a decent girl to help me. There were some things I didn’t do, over there in my cottage, that I wanted to, because I have been saying tomorrow and tomorrow for so long! But that’s my cottage! Here I aired this room and opened the windows every day myself since you stood in this doorway with me. And I came in to close them myself at night, because you know when you have something that is good, all the time people are thinking of robbing!”
Your landlady details removing the satin curtains and washing them herself.
“I did that for you, to make sure you feel at home!” she smiles under her headdress of pink and yellow, and flinging a hand out toward the window.
“You can see, can’t you, everything is much better, is beautiful and ready for you, Miss Sigauke!
“You can take them to the dry cleaners or do them by hand if you want them cleaned henceforth, but if you spoil them, the value will be added to your debit,” she concludes.
Your lack of choices confronts you angrily. But once more you tell yourself on oath you will not succumb to more bad energy than you already have.
You spend most of the time in your new room. You venture out for air in the garden or to sit under the jacaranda by the gate infrequently. You are still against bad energy when you do, so you nod to passers-by, volunteering, “Hello, how has your day been! How is everything, is it all right where you are from!”
This is how you go on. When your housemates go off to catch combis to work after distant cocks from rougher yards have stopped crowing, you cannot sleep anymore. Their preparations wake you up. Your brain is foamy and slippery like sisal thrashed on rocks. You torture it to a gel-like consistency by making lists and plans.
Once a week you go shopping. You walk to the little shopping center down the road. You force yourself to walk jauntily, while you are out. Returning, you look, discouraged, at the bag swinging by your thigh. Mealie meal. Salt. Cooking oil. Candles and matches in case of a blackout.
From this bag, which you keep in a corner of the cupboard below the counter, away from the other residents, you prepare your breakfast, a slush of mealie meal cooked on the stove that neither simmers nor boils dishes properly because of the area’s low but sometimes surging voltages.
Your second meal is the same mealie meal stirred thicker. You need what has gradually come to be called relish. You begin, a few leaves at a time, picking what is necessary from the widow’s neglected garden.
The rest of the time you sit by your window, staring through the drooping and yellowing pink net over your landlady’s brown lawn, and over the slab she and VaManyanga put down to assist the students. You do not think of death, because on the Sunday after your arrival a squat, battered blue Toyota crunches up the drive. With a puff of exhaust, it stops in front of the empty carport in precisely the spot to prevent any other vehicle from entering.
You look up from the magazine you brought with you from the advertising agency. You are reading it for the hundredth time. You see a long, muscular arm snake out of the back passenger window and open the door.
Half a dozen children leap out of the vehicle, hollering, “Mbuya! Mbuya!”
They dance over the earth. They do their utmost to avoid trampling the widow’s vegetable garden. Ridges crumble. Vines snap. Ripe tomatoes explode. You observe the children with a smile that is almost gentle.
“Watch it! Hey, just watch out! Wait until somebody sees that!” the driver puts his head out of the window and yells.
He goes on, “You’ll get the thrashing of your life! If your grandmother doesn’t want to, be sure I will be the one to do it!”
This makes the children giggle and shriek as they charge off to hammer on the widow’s cottage door.
A weight as heavy as lead, as unassailable as poison, pulls you down. You wonder again whether you should be ashamed of anything. You decide you should not, for one man threatening to abuse a carload of children is not your story. Your only disgrace has been to end up in your predicament. But the new lodging is a gift from somewhere. You are moving forward. And now there is also a new gift of gentlemen.
Image courtesy of Freitag