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37. The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell

38. The Killing Room by Richard Montanari

I'm writing these two up together because I ended up reading them at the same time and although both are compelling reading, they're incredibly different, and it was an interesting contrast.

The Mankell is a Wallander book. I know where I am with these - well written, well observed slices of Swedish life with an intelligent mystery and an incredibly gloomy main detective who is surrounded by impossibly competent colleagues.

I've been looking at Montanari's books in the library for years but never got around to reading them. This just happens to be the 2012 instalment. While it's nowhere near as literary as Mankell, it's nevertheless hard to put down. Set in Philadelphia (with a sense of place that reminds me of Baltimore as portrayed in The Wire, but look at a map and it's probably a fair assessment), it's a gruesome ritual-element serial killer work. He has all the hooks (short chapters, cliffhangers) that keep you reading. The end was disappoitning - the strands didn't all fit together for me, and the solution was nowhere near as interesting as the set-up. Having said that, I will probably read more of the series if I come across them in the library. The conveyance of the sense of place is good, and the detectives are just interesting enough.

The ending of the Wallander is a bit of a let-down too, but with him you conclude that he's making a statement about the banality of evil.
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71. Sidetracked by Henning Mankell

Another book in the Wallander series. This was one of the first, if not the first, of the ones that Kenneth Branagh dramatised in English. I've also seen the Swedish TV adaptation.

I started it and was going to put it aside because I thought I wasn't in the mood to deal with Wallander's pessimism, but then realised that I'd read 100 pages on the first day...really absorbing stuff, even though I knew who did it.
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42.  The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell

The fourth Wallander book.  (I've read the third, The White Lioness, before).  I'm not intentionally reading them in order, but the library has been especially obliging - I'm just going with whatever's on the shelf when I'm there.

This one starts out a bit slow, with Wallander on long term sick leave after having to kill someone in self defence at the end of the last book, and contemplating giving up the police altogether.  But then an old acquaintance is killed, after having come to Wallander to ask for help investigating his father's suspect "suicide", and he just can't resist.  The last 2/3 are un-put-downable.


43. Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War 1937-1948 by Madeleine Albright

She was on The Daily Show promoting this, and I'd had a few drinks so instead of sensibly sticking it on my wish list, I ordered it as soon as the closing credits rolled.

Albright is Czech by birth, and her father was in the Czechoslovakian government in exile in London during WWII.  He was the voice of the government in exile, and the Resistance, broadcasting regularly on the BBC.  Before and after the war he was the Czechoslovak ambassador to Yugoslavia.  She herself was a child at the time, but when he died she inherited a garage full of his papers, plus as US Secretary of State she had made a lot of contacts in modern Czechoslovakia, such as Vaclav Havel.

This is in part a potted history of Czechoslovakia in the period 1937-1948, and part a memoir of her family's experiences in that time, not only her own immediate family in exile in London, but also those who stayed behind, who mostly died in Terezin and in the deportations to points east.

(Albright did not know until she was nearly 60 that her family was Jewish.  Before the war, in England, her parents, who were completely non-religious, converted to Roman Catholicism for reasons she is never able to get to grips with, but comments interestingly that such an act would have been unthinkable after the war).

Unfortunately I got halfway through the book but it was too heavy to take on holiday with me, so my experience of it was kind of disjointed.  While it wasn't as completely awesome as she made it sound - from the interview, I'd been expecting a lot more of her own commentary on events described in the book from the point of view of someone who had been in difficult political situations herself - I still found it interesting.  I knew very little about Czechoslovakia in that period and she tells the story well.  A lot of the reviewers on Amazon (I know, don't read the comments.  Anywhere.  Ever.) were put off by the personal stuff, but I found that added to the story rather than detracting from it. 

Definitely worthwhile.

44. In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World by Tom Holland

I've only got round to reading one of Holland's books before, Persian Fire, and although I can't recall a think about it, I remembered that it had been informative and good reading, so when I heard about this one I ordered it from the library right away.

Holland explains the rise of Islam in the context of the two empires bordering Arabia at the time - the late Roman (Byzantine) and the Sasanian Persians.  He demonstrates that Islam did not arise in a vacuum (the Koran demonstrably was not written in or near Mecca, but somewhere much nearer Palestine).  There's some really fascinating parallels between the first two centuries of Christianity and the first two centuries of Islam.

Most of the material about the late Roman world is not news to me, what with my Masters being in the early medieval period, but the stuff about the Sasanians was new and fascinating.

Basically, both empires imploded because of the bubonic plague pandemic that started in 540 and had recurrent outbreaks for the next 150 years, so there is an argument that this is what made the spread of militant Islam possible.

I did know that the first major outbreak of plague that we know about was in late antiquity, but somehow, in all my reading about the Black Death, didn't know any more than that.  The effects were similar to the 14th century in that labour became scarce, causing social mobility and rising wages, but even more political instability than the late medieval version.

I'm no longer in a position to know how accurate this all is, but I found it fascinating and raided the bibliography in a big way.  I am regretting getting it from the library and will probably buy a copy when it comes out in paperback (I assume it will, his stuff is generally popular enough that it does). 

July reading

7 books, 2 non-fiction, 5 fiction - about par for the course.
All but 2 came from the library, and I acquired 2 books in that time, so not helping with the to-read pile at all.
Which is threatening to take over the bedroom.
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35. The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell

Set in 1991, The bodies of some Eastern European gangsters wash up on the shore in Ystad, a Latvian police offcer comes over to help with the investigation, and is murdered as soon as he gets back to Riga.  Wallander is sent over to assist.  As it's the dying days of the Soviet empire, it all goes a bit John Le Carré, with people spying on each other and nobody trusting anyone else.

I didn't love it quite as much as Faceless Killers, and it's quite different from the rest of the series, but it's very good indeed.

It's one of the very few Wallander stories which has never been filmed, either in English or Swedish.  I wondered if that was because it's no good, but I think it's because it's set in a very specific time and place which would be difficult to re-create (Riga, late 1991), but remove it from that context and it would become meaningless.
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22. Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

The first Wallander book, but the third that I've read.

I loved this a lot more than the other two[1]; whether because it's shorter and more tightly plotted, or because it's a different translator (I checked - the Wallander books have been translated by different people in random order at random dates), I'm not sure.  I think the latter, because I really enjoyed the language and flow of this one.

It's heartening to read that a lot of Swedes hate winter as much as I do.

I will be moving the rest of the series up my list of priorities.

[1] For the record, The White Lionness and Firewall.
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8. The White Lioness by Henning Mankel

Another one from the Wallander series about the adventures of a small-town Swedish detective. Although the style is very similar to Firewall, I liked this book a lot more. It's stretching credibility a bit that in both books I've read a crime in rural Sweden is tied into something much bigger and international, but this is what makes it interesting. In this case the assassination of Nelson Mandela (this is 1992) is being organised from a farmhouse outside Ystad. Wallander and his detective chums are as gloomy as ever, but quite a lot of this book is based in South Africa, focusing on both the criminals and the South African investigation. The suspense is tight right up to the very end.

Probably only one for people who like detective novels, but pretty good for what it is.

9. The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

This month's Bibliogoths selection. Still one of my favourite adventure stories ever, but apparently I'm in the minority.

So I've finally finished the big pile of library books I took out in December, which means I can get stuck into my own pile, and finally tackle the books that [livejournal.com profile] techbint has lent me.
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1. Firewall by Henning Mankell

I was really impressed by the recent Hollander stories on the TV, both the original Swedish and the English versions, so I promptly went to the library and grabbed a couple of the books.

This is one of the books that Ken adapted; it is different enough from the book that it is not a complete waste of time to read the book, but enough like it that it does not feel as though the story has been violated.

The style is very sparse and somewhat morose and grim - just like the television adaptations and, quite possibly, very Swedish. I think it's the original style rather than a result of the translation, but as I don't speak Swedish I couldn't say for sure.

Despite the coldness of the style, I got sucked in very rapidly and greatly enjoyed it. Recommended.

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