The Birthday Girl by Stephen Leather: Not Just an Arms Race

My local library has gotten a whole load of Stephen Leather and Jo Nesbo books in at the moment so I’m having to “switch hit” as it were between the two. So it looks like a Leather and Nesbo winter read by the metaphorical fireplace.

I had hoped to read some more of Leather’s more vintage material, to get a feeling of how each story matured in the way of content and presentation. After reading The Birthday Girl though, which is still fairly early in his writing career being published in 1995, I think that plan has been circumvented by the fact that all Leather’s stories thus far have been rich in detail.

The book starts with Tony Freeman who works for an arms development company. He is outside of the Sarajevo Holiday Inn when he is kidnapped by Bosnian rebels and held for ransom. While in captivity he meets the leader of the rebels and his 13-year-old sister Merisha.

Back home, Tony’s partner Maury Anderson has made a deal with a Russian Mobster and his psychopathic brother to pay the ransom and to get some mercenaries to free Tony. As the mercenaries attack the rebels and start to kill Merisha, Tony throws himself over the young girl and is shot in the legs as a result.

While he is recovering, he demands to see Merisha (he had built up a rapport with the girl while he was being held for ransom). When he sees that she has been put in with male adult prisoners and is being mistreated, he demands her release and states that he will adopt the girl and that he and his wife will raise her.

In one of the less believable plot twists of the book, the authorities agree to this proposition and allow Katherine and Tony Freeman to adopt the little rebel.

Fast forward four years and it is Merisha’s 16th birthday. Besides the traditional celebrations all Maury Anderson’s “chickens” have come home to roost. His Russian buddies now want the entire arms company and he has a cocaine habit the size of an elephant riding on his back.

Katherine, we find out, is a bit of a nymphomaniac and is busily shagging anything with a snake in their trousers. Merisha is seeing a ‘shrink’ for therapy and Katherine is seeing him for other reasons. When Merisha finds out that Katherine is shagging the good doctor, she decides to pay him a visit and demand that he stop. She adores her father and will do anything to make sure he is happy.

It is another thriller and it is the usual fast paced, action packed read. I did enjoy the book, but, I spent a lot of time “skip reading” it. I found that I literally hated Katherine and Maury and really could not get behind their characters at all. So when a sentence would start with Katherine getting ready to have another extramarital shag or Maury begging the Russian gangsters for a little more leniency, I read one or two sentences and then would “skip” to the Tony/Merisha part of the story.

But to be truthful, I did not really like Tony that much either. He is a staunch Scotsman who sticks by his principles, but damn it, the man is as bland as Melba toast. Apart from standing up to Katherine’s bullying father so he could marry her and “saving” Merisha, he is devoid of any real personality.

The only character I had any interest in was Merisha. Leather’s description of her healing process after being taken away from the Bosnian/Serbia war was interesting and fairly truthful, I felt. I have had dealings with a teen Bosnian refugee from that horrible time.

He has seen his immediate family murdered and watched his mother and sisters being repeatedly raped. This young man was anything but normal. He had, not unsurprisingly, started off a life of crime and violence. His extended family (distant relatives who had taken him in) could not control or understand this tortured young man.

So Leather’s story of Merisha’s childhood and the horrible atrocities against her family and the other Bosnian families had a solid ring of truth. It is this fact alone that made the book worth reading. I have read other books that made reference to the ethnic cleansing that the Serb‘s were involved in, but they have been from a military or mercenary point of view.

It was very interesting to see it from a surviving victim’s point of view, despite the fact that I felt the initial opening of the adoption was a bit hard to digest.

I wouldn’t recommend that you rush out to read this book, but it is well worth a look. It is standard Leather reading but without the usual characters that you can really root for. You will have to suspend your disbelief quite a lot for this one, but I’d still give it three and a half stars out of five for entertainment value.

Stephen Leather.

Scars and Diapers…

Today I had the thrill of getting a cyst removed from my back. The excitement level of this minor operation was minimal, so I didn’t have to worry about a jolt of high blood pressure kicking me off. Apart from a “slight scratch” as the doctor described it and some “prodding around” he removed something so small that an ant would have turned up his nose at it. (If an ant had a nose that is)

Two stitches later and I was released into the world once again. One more scar to add to my ever-growing collection. The joke around the Smith house is that I’ve got enough scars, impressive and not-so-impressive that I could change my name to Colonel Quaritch, the suitably nasty alpha male in Avatar.

For the record I do have a few. I have a scar on my right knee that I got (along with either 16 or 32 stitches. My memory says 32, but since it tends to exaggerate, it’s probably 16 or even six) from being scared silly by an old man who couldn’t see me on the path or even hear me, let alone harm me. But he scared the hell out of me and I ran like the Devil was chasing my ass. I tripped and opened my knee to the bone (or cap I guess).

What was funny was how I came to be on the path to town that day and my discovery of my injury.

Back in the old days when I was a wee lad of 7 women used old-fashioned cloth diapers (nappies, if you’re English) with diaper pins. *Just a side note about diaper pins. I think that these self-injuring giant clothes pins were the main reason that “throw away” diapers became the rage. Every time you went to thread the pin through the diaper to close it, your fingers automatically got skewered. There were a few folks who never stuck their fingers with the damned things, but no one I knew ever changed a diaper unharmed.*

My brother who had made his entrance into the world just a short time before was doing what every baby does when they first arrive. He was going through diapers at a rapid rate. Our mother had run out of, not diapers, but pins. I was sent to run the half mile or so to the town centre and get a pack. In those day’s you could even walk outside by yourself at 7 years of age in the dark. (Though not likely, we had curfews back then, by God!)

This task was deemed urgent, no pins no diaper for my baby brother, I left in what I was wearing. I don’t remember the shirt I had on, but I do remember I was wearing white blue jeans. I even seem to remember that they were Levis. I scarpered out the front door and headed off at a pretty good pace to town. As I walked in front of the now deserted High School (it was summer) I spied the “old man.”

All the town kids were terrified of him. He wore a black fedora hat and a long black coat, even in blazing heat of the summer. He wore black “clodhopper” boots and used a cane to walk. He rarely looked up when he walked and he mumbled to himself. I was scared of him because he kicked my dog. Scamper got in his way once, tail wagging and trying to be friendly. The old chap immediately kicked the dog a good yard down the path. Scamper squealed with pain and hi-tailed it back to the house. I yelled at the old man for kicking my dog, but he never paused or even looked at me. He just continued down the path looking at the ground.

My dad said that the old man was half blind and pretty much completely deaf. He said that Scamper probably frightened him and that was why he kicked the dog. I remember dad had a talk with him later the same day about the incident and the old fellow spoke in a very loud tone and said, “I didn’t kick your damn dog sonny, now get out of my way.”

Dad came back shaking his head and chuckling. He told me to make sure that Scamper stayed away from the old man. I didn’t think it was amusing or forgivable. I thought the old man was mean and would probably kick me if he got the chance.

That’s why I ran away from him yelling (no words but if I was to translate, it was a YAAAAAAAAH sound). Just as I started to slow myself down, I tripped and did a face plant in the rock and dirt path I’d been sprinting on. I got back up and brushed the dirt off as I ran.

I didn’t slow down till I got to the old general store (Boy, I sure do miss those). I found a packet of diaper pins and brought them up to the counter. I handed them to the lady at the till and gave her my quarter for them and as she handed me my change she nodded her head towards my jeans and asked, “Have you been painting?”

“No,” I replied, “Why?”

She pointed to my right knee and said, “It looks like you got some red paint on your knee. It looks pretty fresh too. Did you brush against something on the way here?”

I looked down at my white jeans and found that from the knee down they were red. My knee was pumping out freshets of blood.

“No, I fell.” I put the change in my pocket. “I’d better get home, these pins are an emergency.”

The lady smiled and said, “You’d better get your mom to look at your knee.”

I thanked her and told her that I would.

I took the back way home so I wouldn’t run into the scary old man. I ran into the house with the diaper pins held out to my mom. She noticed the red jeans right away. As she was a bit harassed, she wasn’t too pleased to see that I’d injured my knee, “Running away from a harmless deaf and blind old man.”

With the sigh of overworked mothers everywhere she then declared that we would have to go see our GP and see if it needed stitches. “You’d better hope you need stitches, buster. I really don’t have time for this.”

Of course I did need stitches so I never found out what would have happened if I didn’t. Not a lot I don’t imagine. My mother to this day remembers the incident and feels guilty that she’d made the, “You’d better hope you need stitches,” remark. On the day, she felt so bad about it that she stopped and got us both a fudgesicle –my favourite.

Not all my scars have such a “quaint” back story. Nor do they hold much in the way of pleasant memory. A lot of them didn’t even get stitches although I’ll wager they probably should have. But what every scar I have does is show that my life has quite often been exciting, scary, painful and for a couple of them at least, fun.

The Unlucky Lottery by Hakan Nesser: Swedish Secrets

Four old men win the lottery. They don’t win millions, but for at least two of the old boys, death is their pay off.

Touted as a part of the Van Veeteren Series, The Unlucky Lottery is the first of this series I’ve read and the man himself is running a bookshop whilst on an open ended sabbatical.

I enjoyed the Swedish detectives (known as Intendent‘s) struggles as they attempted to solve the case of the two old men. The first, stabbed to death in his bed and the second missing. Unfortunately I didn’t know enough about either character at the beginning of the book to care. It also took me quite a while to “warm” to the detectives.

I have no idea if the detectives are regulars in the series and as Van Veeteren himself only has a cameo in this book, I did not get much of a chance to “bond” with his character either.

Nesser takes great pains to show the less glamorous side of police work. He shows us the boring and often unproductive side of the work that detectives have to do in order to solve a crime. Unfortunately, this boring side of police work almost put me off the book. The victim and his immediate family, and their neighbours, were so boring and nondescript that I found myself having to “force” read the book.

If I had not been so stubborn, I would have missed the brilliant way that Nesser ties up the wandering strands of the investigation at the end of the book.

The detectives on the case were perhaps a bit too real. They had problems and issues that plagued them to the extent that it took them away from effectively investigating the crime. That was Nesser’s point I believe. But it was off putting and distracting until, again, all was explained towards the end of the book.

I have no idea if Nesser’s style of writing is to point out the mendacity of crime solving in every book, but in this one the suspects and witnesses were so unprepossessing I almost gave up on the book several times. The family of the stabbing victim were dysfunctional and completely uninvolved with the crime. Uninvolved in a clinical sense, they did not care or want to care about murder, even though the victim was their father.

The family’s low key and resentful existence all makes sense later in the book, but for the vast majority of the story it is merely annoying. I found my attention wandering every time a detective questioned the family and witnesses. In this story, no one was helpful, either because they did not see anything or because they did not know anything.

The victim Waldemar Leverkuhn and his family were so insular that no one seemed to be on overly friendly terms with them. This should have started warning bells with me as a reader but, because of the agonisingly slow pace of the investigation, I didn’t notice until the detective’s noticed.

I suppose that despite the fact that Nesser has “over 10 million books sold worldwide” his style is very different from the other Scandinavian authors I have read so far. Rather than writing about larger than life characters, he chooses to write about people that would not attract attention from anyone. Even in death, these people are so nondescript that any secrets that they may harbour will remain secrets because no one cares.

It could be said that Nesser is being clever in his choice of characters and I guess to an extent he is. But he almost lost me several times during the book because of the nature of his main players. As I mentioned before though, he ties up the investigation very nicely and cleverly at the end of the book, but if I hadn’t been too stubborn to stop reading the thing, I would never have learned the secrets or the motives unearthed.

So my verdict is that the vast majority of the book was hard to care about and the ending was almost a case of “too little, too late.” Overall, I would have to say I won’t be rushing to read any more of the Van Veeteren books, even though his ending for this one impressed me.

A book recommended for only the most stubborn of readers.

Hakan Nesser.

Rearranging

High quality ostrich feather duster

Over the last couple of days we’ve been doing a bit of decorating and deep cleaning. We’ve also rearranged the downstairs, something I’ve wanted to do for a couple of months now. It’s amazing how moving a bit of furniture around can make a room or a home feel completely different and new. It seems to revitalise everything.

Now that we’ve done the house I think it’s about time to do a little ‘life’ rearranging. Move some of my furniture about. Sometimes we all have to do some deep cleaning and decorating of a more personal nature. Get out the feather duster and sweep away some of those mental cobwebs that tend to hang around the nooks and crannies of our mind.

Maybe slap a coat of paint over the whole mess. Or maybe just the odd room or two. Sometimes we just need a little tidy up and things feel fresher and newer.  And perhaps change the room layout or swap rooms around.

Sometimes we need to get rid of all the clutter. Have a mental car boot sale or yard sale and put up the placard that says. “Everything must go!” Or trade our old furniture for new and get a ‘new look’ on life.

And speaking of life, it may well be that our life is what needs rearranging and not our mental state at all. No cobwebs or clutter or dust kitties to be swept away. Just our life’s direction or location.

Are we headed in the right direction? Should we be going south instead of north? Should we stay where we’re at or go some place completely different? Should we be moving at all?

It could be that we are in need of a fresh new start. That the road we are travelling down has turned into a mud-filled rut. If that is the case, do we just tighten our shoelaces and trudge that little bit harder or do we jump up and out of the rut we are in.  I think we all find ourselves in ruts of one kind or another it’s just up to us to figure out what to do.

I have ‘started over’ more times than I care to think about. And really friends and neighbours, ‘starting over’ is the same thing as a fresh start. Both of these phrases starting over, fresh start mean the same thing. They are both acts of rearranging your life.

It can get to be addictive, this rearranging lark. You start wondering whether or not you are going a bit stale, a bit sour, or a bit too lackadaisical. Everything starts feeling the same, as though you’re caught in a grey and featureless world. One that is devoid of colour and the contrast is too fuzzy to see anything clearly.

Does this addiction to change of mind and attitude equal a change of location? Or are you so caught in that rut that you’re overlooking what you need. A sort of forest and trees scenario.

If you are suffering from an almost irresistible urge to decorate, clean and rearrange; start small. It could just be that all you need to do is re-think. It could be that simple. But if it’s not?

Well, it’s probably time to hold that yard sale and pack the things you want to keep. Your ‘new’ life changing experience is just over that next hill.

Garage Sales
Garage Sales (Photo credit: Ecstatic Mark)

 

Burned by Thomas Enger – A Norwegian Phoenix

Touted on the back of the book as Enger‘s debut novel, Burned is a brilliant jig saw puzzle of a mystery/thriller. Debut novel it may well be, but if you take the time to look up Thomas Enger’s biography on Goodreads, you’ll find that he has been writing professionally for quite a while.

It shows.

I could wax lyrical about this book for hours. But since I don’t have the time to do that, I will limit myself to what I can put in a blog-post.

The ‘hero’ of the book (it appears that this is the beginning of a series) is Henning Juul.  Henning is a journalist who works for an internet news channel. Juul is veteran news reporter and he is going through a very traumatic time in his life.

Henning is a burns survivor .  He  lost his son in the fire that nearly killed him, his wife divorced him and he is plagued by bad dreams about the fire and his son. He is also, understandably, very OCD about smoke alarms.

Juul compulsively checks and changes the batteries in his many smoke alarms in his flat. He instantly checks for smoke alarms when he enters any room or building. He has been under therapy to help him ‘move on’ and how to deal with the stress attacks that he was prone to.

At the start of the book, we get to witness the dream that plagues Henning nightly. We also are privy to his return to work and his daily fight to get back to ‘normal.’

Burned is a tightly woven mystery/thriller novel. He has made his main protagonist a very interesting person, one we empathize with immediately. Henning  Juul was a man with a strong drive before he became a burns victim and it is this obvious drive that allows him to overcome his ‘disability’ and get on with his life.

Although this is a “mystery/thriller, Juul is no Miss Marple. He was and still is an investigative journalist, a crime reporter and a man with a questioning mind who was shown the ropes by a veteran newsman.

A girl is found murdered, stoned to death and one hand cut off, her body is in a tent on a city park site.  The police believe it is a Islamic Honour killing and arrest the dead girl’s boyfriend. Juul reports on the killing on his first day back at work. His inquisitive mind sees the murder scene and to him it doesn’t add up.

Henning decides to follow up his initial news story and help to catch the killer.

As a hero Henning Juul is as flawed we are.  He is not a muscle bound action man. He is not a marksman or a pugilist of rapid reflexes and killer punches. He is not a martial arts expert. He is a ‘wounded’ man recovering from horrific injuries. Both physical and mental. Henning’s biggest assets are his need for independence and his sharp questioning mind.

This looks to be the start of a great mystery series. I am glad I found Thomas Enger’s book and I can’t wait for his next Henning Juul novel.