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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten

Nobels testamente

Nobels testamente - Marklund,  Liza You'll be hearing more about this hitherto unknown Swedish thriller: Yellow Bird, who made the three Millenium movies (Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, etc), are apparently going to film it. Remember you read it here first.

But back to the book. It's harder than I expected to review Nobels Testamente, #6 in the Annika Bengtzon series, because it's really three books in one. The surface story is a fairly conventional thriller set in the world of Swedish biotech research. The chairwoman of the Nobel Prize committee has been spectacularly murdered while she's dancing at the Nobel Dinner; Annika, as usual, just happens to be a couple of metres away, and becomes involved in the case. This part of the story is fun, but I had a hard time suspending disbelief. I have worked at several research institutes and visited many more, and to say that Marklund is exaggerating doesn't begin to cover it. But if you're not another researcher, you may be happy to buy her version of the research world.

The second thread is about Alfred Nobel's life. I didn't know that much about Nobel, and found it very interesting. Some bits of it seemed so unlikely that I was sure she had to be making them up: in fact, I quickly found out that it was all true. I don't want to give any of this away, since it's important to the plot, but I assure you that you'll be startled as well. There's considerably more to this guy than inventing dynamite and establishing the Nobel Prize.

So... the thriller and the history were OK, but, as usual in the Annika Bengtzon books, the thing that really grabs you is her descriptions of everyday life, in particular the heartbreak of being a working mother. The only author I can think of who is better at voicing women's frustration and anger is Fay Weldon, and Marklund runs her close. Let me tell you the sequence I liked best.

Annika's come into some money, and has just moved from Kungsholmen, a friendly but moderately downmarket part of Stockholm, to Djursholm, an expensive suburb. She feels out of place and the kids are having problems at their playgroup. It becomes clear that Kalle, her six year old, is being bullied by the bigger kids in his class. Her marriage is also in trouble. She knows that Thomas was seeing someone else, but he doesn't know that she's found out. Neither of them will admit what's going on and they're barely talking to each other. Thomas starts working longer and longer days, concentrating on his new career at the Justice Department. He feels he's headed for great things.

Everything explodes the day that Thomas is due to make his key presentation to the Minister and his associates. He's been preparing it for over a year, and is in agony of anticipation when the phone rings. It's the playgroup. Kalle has fallen from the climbing-frame and hit his head. They think it's a concussion. How soon can Thomas get there?

Thomas tells them to call Annika, who's supposed to be free that day, but her mobile is switched off. The woman at the playgroup is starting to sound seriously angry. He doesn't know what to do. In the end, he runs through his presentation as quickly as he can, then hightails it back to Djursholm. To make things even more complicated, he's invited his boss and some other important people to dinner that evening.

Annika, who's been out sleuthing, suddenly remembers her mobile is off. She turns it on again, and gets eight increasingly frantic messages. She's overcome with shame and guilt. For a moment, it crosses her mind that this is insane, surely she ought to be able to leave her mobile switched off for four hours without the sky falling? But, in fact, that exactly how things are if you're a working mother in the early 21st century. She left her mobile off, and the sky is about to fall. She makes it home, and finds a tearful Kalle and a stony-faced Thomas. Annika's heart is bursting. The only good bit of news is that the hospital ran a PET scan, and Kalle definitely doesn't have a cerebral hemorrhage. They'd thought for a few minutes that maybe he did.

She spends the rest of the afternoon fussing over Kalle and feeling terrible. Dinner, which has originally been intended as an elaborate gourmet experience, is drastically curtailed. Thomas is unimpressed with her food. Towards the end of the evening, there's an unpleasant scene with their neighbor, who's been consistently harassing them since they moved in. Thomas feels Annika has let him down there too.

Next afternoon, when she goes to pick up Kalle from school, she has a word with his teacher. She assumes that Lotta has had a serious talk with the bullies' parents? The teacher looks uncomfortable. They took the line that boys will be boys, she says. It was difficult to get them to understand that this was not a trivial incident.

Without quite knowing how she got there, Annika is truly desperate. Things are difficult at work. Her busband doesn't love her any more. The kids at school could have fatally injured her son, and might try it again. She feels she has nothing to lose. The following morning, she takes Kalle to school again. She can see the two boys who regularly pick on him playing in the sandbox. She goes over to the bigger one and put her face really close to his.

"Benjamin," she says quietly, "you're never, ever to hurt Kalle again. If you do, I'm going to come to your house when you're asleep, and I'm going to kill you."

She knows it's completely wrong, that an adult should not say such a terrible thing to a small child, that there will certainly be consequences, but she does it anyway. And there are terrible consequences, more terrible in fact even than Annika has been expecting.

For everyone else who's in post-Millennium withdrawal, help is approaching. The better Liza Marklunds are an acceptable substitute, and according to several Swedish sources they will start filming this one at the beginning of 2011. Annika is being played by Malin Crépin:


A moment's search on GIS will turn up several rather hotter pictures, if that's what you're after.

It's been released! The Swedish premiere was yesterday. You can see a trailer here.