The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag****

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“From a collection of parts all individually worthless, a clockwork is formed that functions anew.”

This guy can write. Many thanks go to Atria Books for the two invitations to read and review as well as the gorgeous hardcover book for review. Happy publication day; this book is available to the public now.

We find ourselves in Stockholm at the end of the eighteenth century; it’s a tense time, with a political backlash resulting from the French Revolution and the fears it excites among those in power. The poor lead miserable lives, and life itself is cheap. There are very few protections in place for the vulnerable.

Mickel Cardell, the one-armed watchman, pulls a corpse—or what’s left of it–out of the Larder Lake. He sends the children that found it to get a cop. One thing leads to another, and then the chief of police, Johan Gustaf Norlin, sends for Cecil Winge.  The two men know one another well.

Winge is the most tragic hero I’ve seen in a long time. He’s dying of consumption (typhus), and he has left his wife because he doesn’t want her to have to watch him die; also, he’s impotent, and it’s painful to walk in on her with another man. Not that he blames her; he’d just prefer not to watch or hear it. He’s an attorney and has all the money he needs, but this is one time that money doesn’t help all that much. His illness prevents him from sleeping well, and he’s inclined to seek a challenge here or there when he can in order to distract himself from his own condition. Norlin has a distraction for him now. Winge reminds him that the last time he helped him with a case, Norlin had promised not to ask again; but Norlin is asking anyway.

The title comes into it when Winge interviews the textile merchant that recognizes the distinctive shroud in which the body was wrapped. The merchant is financially ruined and plans to climb aboard the ship bound for his home and then jump off into cold deep water and die. Before he boards, he points out that man is a lupine hunter, and that Winge himself is well on the way:

“No one can run with the wolf pack without accepting its terms. You have both the fangs and the glint of the predator in your eye…one day your teeth will be stained red and then you’ll know with certainty how right I was. Your bite will be deep. Maybe you will prove the better wolf, Mr. Winge, and on that note I bid you good night.”

The historical setting and characters here are beautifully drawn; for some reason, I like the moments when a character reaches up and yanks his wig off because it’s itchy and it’s driving him nuts. A number of characters are resonant, but Winge—who is perfect for the reader that needs an excuse to just sit down and cry—and Cardell, who holds his own in a fight surprisingly well, even with one arm—are my favorites. It is they, imperfect individually, that together make up the clockwork that functions anew.

Those of us that read a lot of books within the mystery genre (and its many offshoots) see a lot of the same settings and plots almost often enough to create a mystery story using MadLibs. Just fill in the blanks. In contrast, the unique setting, well-developed characters, and bad ass word smithery in this one are a potent combination.

And now I have to admit that for me, it is too potent. There is a great deal of detail about the corpse’s mutilation, and once I pushed my way past it, it came up again and again, because it’s right at the center of the case they are solving. So although for some this mystery will be, as the promotional blurb promises, “deliciously dark,” for me it is far too dark. In fact, I cannot remember ever using the word “shocking” as a descriptor within a review, but I’ll use it now. There are some things that cannot be unread once you have read them. I haven’t had my gut turn over in this way in several years, and I don’t ever want to go there again.

But that’s me. My daughter is not as easily horrified as I am; she may love this book.

Those contemplating purchasing this well-scribed novel should do one thing, and that is to carefully read the promotional description. It does warn the reader. The first time I saw it, I read that blurb and decided not to read it; then I was invited to read and review, and I accepted the widget but declined to sign up for a blog tour in case I couldn’t stand it; but then I was offered a hard copy, and I saw that other reviewers loved it, and my resistance worn down, I caved. Once I had it, I felt like I had to read it even when it was beyond the point of not being a fun read. But if you can read that blurb and are still game, then by all means you should get it, because all of the technical skills that make up an award winning novel are here in spades and the urgency never lets up. Highly recommended for those that are not even a tiny bit squeamish and have strong literacy skills.

Us Against You, by Fredrik Backman****

“The first time Peter realized that the tiny person was sleeping soundly in his arms. What are we prepared to do for our children at that moment? What aren’t we prepared to do?”

UsAgainstYouUs Against You is the second in book in the Beartown trilogy. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the invitation to read and review. This book will be available to the public tomorrow.

Beartown is in crisis. The hockey team has been undone by the arrest of their star player for rape, and Maya, his victim, has been harassed endlessly as if she were the perpetrator. Resentments simmer. There are anonymous callers. A new coach is hired, not only a woman—but a lesbian. Chins wag. New owners roll into town, friendly and treacherous, generous and oily. Violence hums beneath the surface as the town polarizes between the hometown hockey team and that in the neighboring town, to which some Beartown citizens have decamped.

Fredrik Backman, who is possibly the finest male feminist novelist in the world, is on a roll here. It’s interesting to note that although the hockey players in this story are men and boys, the best developed, most complex characters are the women. I like reading about Peter, Leo, Amat, Benji, and Teemu, but the characters that keep me coming back are Kira and Maya, Ana and Ramona. More than anything I want Kira to pack her bags and seize the opportunities presented to her, with or without Peter. Just go, woman, go. But it’s always easy to suggest that someone else should leave a troubled marriage behind, and the way that she deals with this problem—and the role that her daughter plays in the decision—is thought-provoking.

Meanwhile there are about a dozen other small threads here, and again, Backman is among the best writers when it comes to developing a large cast of town members without dropping anyone’s story or letting the pace flag. His use of repetition as figurative language is brilliant, and he is unquestionably the king of the literary head fake. If I taught creative writing to adults, I would assign my students to read his work.

I have some relatively minor quibbles here, although I know so little of Swedish culture that they may or may not be valid within that framework. I would dial the sentimentality and drama down twenty to twenty-five percent; clearly most readers love this aspect of these novels, but I would argue for a smidge more subtlety. There are occasional exaggerations that remind me that the characters are fictional. When the entire town is economically depressed, and yet everyone shows support for something by showing up in matching jackets, and when a preposterous amount of spare change goes begging in the kitty at the local bar, I wince. But then I am quickly drawn back in by the complex, compelling characterizations.

If you’re a fan of Backman’s, you won’t be disappointed. If you have never read his work before, don’t start here. Read one of his excellent stand-alone novels, or begin with Beartown, the first in this series. Recommended to those that love fiction that features excellent, complex characters, particularly female characters.

Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrik Backman*****

BrittmariewashereOh hey, today is Seattle Book Mama’s second birthday! Break open a bottle of sparkling water and toast my humble blog. I’ve done a lot of reading, and so much more is to come.

Britt-Marie is starting a new life after 40 years of marriage, and while she is driving with no destination in particular other than not-home, her car breaks down in a little burg called—wait for it—Borg. While  it’s being repaired, she becomes enmeshed in the life of this small, down-at-the-heels, economically depressed town. It sounds like a lot of stories, but oh, it isn’t. And I was really lucky to score this, a new one favorite, free of charge from Net Galley and Atria Books, in exchange for a fair review.

The beginning didn’t grab me. I incorrectly suspected that there was only one central point to the narrative and we were being hit over the head with it far more than was necessary. But I was fooled, because Backman is a sneaky-smart writer with a wicked sense of humor and a surprisingly philosophical bent. I was amazed at the depths this seemingly simple tale plumbed.

I don’t want to give you too much, and I could easily do it, having once again been carried away with my notes, which number over 300 in my kindle. I kept finding moments that were hilarious, or fascinating, or that just made me think. But here are some broad contours to start: Britt-Marie has lived at home all her life, first with her mother and later with husband Kent, who moved into her flat when they married, and so she has not even changed residence over the course of her life. When she was young she took classes and worked up a resume, but each time she got close to finding employment, Kent persuaded her that she was needed more at home, and so she has never had a job. Not once.

So after decades of marriage she decided not to notice the perfume on his shirt collar when she did the laundry, even though she herself does not wear scent of any kind. But when the woman phoned her home to tell her that her husband had had a heart attack, it became too obvious, too humiliating, and once she knew he was going to recover she tossed some things in a bag and got herself gone.

Now she wants a job, because she is afraid that otherwise she will die alone and no one will miss her. When you don’t show up for work, people notice, and she doesn’t want to pass from the Earth unnoticed and unmourned.

In the beginning some of the most hilarious passages involve socially clumsy, rude, or outrageous things that Britt-Marie does or says without intending harm. She’s clueless, but the further into the story we delve, the more we see more. We see that she is angry, too; she’s afraid of her own anger.

Although she has been taught through lifelong experience that her own needs should come last and that others should occupy the limelight, the residents of Borg, many of whom have plenty of quirks of their own, teach her that she has more value than she had previously realized.

They like her.

As the story progresses, all sorts of unforeseen twists and turns present themselves, and our formerly obnoxious protagonist turns out to have a tremendous amount of heart. I was watching to see whether the plot would become cloying or formulaic, but it never happened. And although the ending seemed a tiny bit contrived, at the same time I liked what it represented.

To learn more, you have to get the book and read it. And here there is great news: this book is available to the public, just released May 3, 2016. Highly recommended to all readers that are female or have women in their lives that mean anything at all to them. Seriously.