Review 1555: The Voices Beyond

I have been reading Johan Theorin’s novels for years, ever since I picked up The Darkest Room. The Voices Beyond is one of his atmospheric thrillers set on the Swedish island of Öland in the Baltic Sea. In the case of The Darkest Room, at least, there was also an element of the supernatural. This makes an appropriate book as we’re leading up to Halloween and is also an entry for RIPXV.

The novel begins in 1930, when Gerlof (who appears in all these books) is a young man helping out as a gravedigger. The man being buried is Edvard Kloss, of a family of wealthy farmers, and the rumor is that his two brothers killed him by toppling a wall on him. Also helping the burial that day is a teenager named Aron Fredh, rumored to be a bastard son of Edvard. When the coffin is put in the ground and they begin to cover it, everyone at the graveside hears three distinct raps, apparently coming from the coffin. The men haul the coffin back up and open it, but Edvard is definitely dead. However, his brother Gilbert falls over dead from the shock.

Sixty years later, Gerlof is a retired sea captain staying for the summer in his cottage on the beach in Stevnik. One night when he is sleeping in the boathouse, he is awakened by a terrified boy, Jonas Kloss. Jonas tells him that he was floating on a rubber dinghy when a large ghost ship nearly ran him over. He saved himself by grabbing a dangling rope and was able to get aboard. There he saw dead sailors on the deck and a young man chasing another sailor with an ax. Up in the wheelhouse was an old man. Jonas thinks he has seen the young man before.

Gerlof helps Jonas figure out that the young man sold him movie tickets the year before, so they are able to identify him as Pecka. Although Gerlof asks the boy not to tell anyone this, Jonas confides in his Uncle Kent. Soon Pecka is dead.

Intermittently, we learn the story of Aron Fredh, whose stepfather Sven reportedly took him away to America in 1930, and they were never heard from again. But Sven, a dedicated socialist, actually took him to the Soviet Union, where they lived a brutal life and Aron managed to survive the Great Purge.

Eventually, Gerlof realizes that the old man is Aron Fredh, pursuing some kind of vendetta against the Klosses. But how to find him?

Theorin does something really interesting with these characters that I don’t want to reveal. Let me just say that everything is not what it seems.

Although none of Theorin’s books has been quite as memorable as The Darkest Room, they have all been good, and I think this one is more memorable than the last couple.

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Review 1520: I’ll Never Be Young Again

Richard is a young man who has always felt his famous poet father disdained him. He is about to throw himself into the Thames when he is stopped by an older man named Jake. With Jake, he sets out as a common seaman on a Norwegian barque.

Richard is a very changeable, touchy, and selfish young man, but Jake says he will be all right, he’s just young. The pair go off traveling among the fjords and see Stockholm, with Richard changing how he feels about their experiences almost minute by minute. Ultimately, an accident sends Richard on alone to Paris, where he begins writing and meets a girl, Hesta.

I thought I had read just about everything by du Maurier, but I hadn’t come across this novel before. It is her second, and it certainly shows immaturity. Although du Maurier is good at description, this novel depends upon it too much, so that it is slow moving. In addition, the dialogue is quite crude. Du Maurier believed she had a male side that eventually led to an ability to write effectively from a male point of view, but I don’t think she’s quite there yet. She overdoes it.

Finally, Richard is so self-centered that its hard to find any sympathy for him, which made it difficult for me to finish the book. When he meets Hesta, for example, she is an independent young woman studying music. He manages to strip everything away from her so that she is totally dependent upon him. Then he takes her for granted.

So, I didn’t really enjoy this novel, although the ending lessened my dislike of it. I have to say, though, that Richard as a character is all too believable.

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Review 1483: Sun Storm

Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson is called home to Kirina by her ex-housemate and girlfriend, Sanna Strandgård. Sanna’s brother, Viktor, was found viciously slaughtered in the Source of All Strength church, which he helped build. Sanna discovered the body, and she wants Rebecka with her when she is questioned by the police.

The atmosphere of Kirina, the freezing northernmost town in Sweden, is strong in this book. Rebecka is not eager to return to Kirina, because years ago she was a member of the church, and she was ousted under shameful conditions. Now, as she looks into the church, finding the members are all stonewalling the investigators instead of helping them, she begins to believe the truth lies within the church itself.

Meanwhile, Inspector Anna-Maria Mella, supposedly on desk duty while she is hugely pregnant, has been helping her colleague Sven-Erik Stålnacke. They not only are getting nowhere with the church members but are being hindered in their work by Prosecutor Carl Von Post, who is throwing his weight around.

I found this mystery interesting as it examines the psyches of religious zealots and corrupt leaders. The killer is revealed before the end of the book, but that adds to the suspense.

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Day 1103: A Man Called Ove

Cover for A Man Called OveI avoided reading A Man Called Ove for some time, because I had a feeling about what kind of book it would be. But my curiosity won out. Sadly, I was right the first time.

This is another one of those novels I put under the “heartfelt” category. Not that there is anything wrong with something that is truly heartfelt. But I think there is a rash of novels like this lately that manipulate us into sentiment.

Ove is a sad man with many tragedies in his life, which he handles by presenting a curmudgeonly exterior. Most recently, he has been given early retirement six months after his beloved wife Sonja died. He decides his life has no purpose.

The plot of this novel is predictable, as Ove gets pulled out of his self-absorption by the troubles of various neighbors and acquaintances. All of these characters are stick figures, and Ove himself only has two sides to his character. In fact, he is really just a caricature of a grumpy old man, as I can’t imagine there is actually anyone on earth this extreme.

The novel is supposed to be funny, but the humor is forced and cumbersome. And we’re supposed to find it funny that Ove’s repeated attempts at suicide are always interrupted by his neighbors. Ha ha. As you can tell, this one was not for me.

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Day 1027: In the Month of the Midnight Sun

Cover for In the Month of the Midnight SunI enjoyed Cecilia Ekbäck’s first novel, Wolf Winter, very much, so I was delighted to hear that her second was out and ordered it right away. This novel is also set in the Lapland area of Sweden, near the fictional Blackåsen Mountain, but it takes place about 75 years later, in 1856.

Magnus Stille is an administrator at the Bergskollegium, the Swedish Board of Mines. His father-in-law, who is also the state minister of justice, asks him to travel north to investigate a situation that has developed. Three men have been murdered, apparently by a Lapp. The minister wants to make sure the murder is not related to a Lapp uprising, which could put a huge mining agreement in jeopardy.

At the last minute before Magnus leaves, the minister asks him to take along his sister-in-law, Louisa. Louisa has gotten into some kind of trouble, and her father is apparently throwing her out of the house.

These two characters act as narrators of the novel, along with Büjá, an older Lapp woman who is grieving for her husband. Also speaking at times is Nila, Büjá’s dead husband.

Magnus has not been asked to go all the way to Blackåsen Mountain, but when he meets the Lapp, he is not sure he believes he is the murderer. So, he decides to walk all the way to the remote village. Once he gets there, he feels there is something terribly wrong at the foot of the mountain.

Like Wolf Winter, In the Month of the Midnight Sun features tension between the native ways of the Lapp and the settlers’ Christianity. It also has a supernatural element to it. The unusual setting makes these novels really interesting, as does Ekbäck’s talent for depicting her characters.

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Day 1022: The Girl Who Played with Fire

Cover for The Girl Who Played with FireHaving started this series with the last book, I am finally finishing it with the second. As with the original Larsson trilogy, this graphic novel begins to get into the conspiracy by SAPO to criminalize Lisbeth Salander.

Lisbeth is on vacation on a tropical island after the events of the first novel. Mikael Blomkvist and his magazine are working on an issue about human trafficking with Dag Svensson. Meanwhile, Mr. Bjurman, Lisbeth’s guardian, is trying to figure out a way to control her.

Lisbeth has returned home when Dag Svensson and his girlfriend are found murdered. Also dead is Bjurman, and evidence links Lisbeth to the murders. Lisbeth realizes that all this is pointing back to her past, and she must follow clues while a huge manhunt is going on for her.

Despite being the transitional second novel, this one is engaging, with a lot going on. The art is just excellent. Even though the graphic novels are taken from a hefty series, these writers and artists have managed to condense the Millenium trilogy into an effective series.

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Day 986: The Lost Boy

Cover for The Lost BoyI’ve been inconsistent in reading Camilla Läckberg’s Fjällbacka series, mostly because I realize they are not actually very well written. Läckberg still has trouble producing anything resembling snappy dialogue, and her writing is cliché-ridden. (At least her characters have stopped slapping their foreheads.) Still, she manages to come up with some fairly inventive plots, and her main characters, Patrik Hedström and his wife Erica Falck, are likable and appealing.

I liked The Lost Boy a little less than I have some of Läckberg’s other novels, even though it features ghosts, which is usually a plus. I think one reason is that a major plot point is telegraphed by the title. What is supposed to be a big surprise at the end was something I guessed very early on.

Nathalie has undergone some traumatic experience. We don’t know what it is, but it involves blood. She has fled with her son Sam to an island off Fjällbacka that is owned by her family. It is called Gräskär, but the locals call it Ghost Island.

Nathalie’s high school boyfriend Matte has also returned to the area. When he hears Nathalie is there, he takes a trip out to the island. Nathalie feels reassured by his presence, and they spend the night together. When she awakens, he is gone. A few days later, he’s found shot to death in his apartment.

Patrik is back to work after health problems and the funeral of Erica’s sister Anne’s baby. Erica is coping with newborn twins, Anne’s own children, and Anne’s depressed withdrawal.

In Denmark a woman is in hiding from her abusive husband. Slowly, the police discover possible links between Matte’s previous work for a women’s refuge and his murder. But then, why is a bag of cocaine in the trash outside his apartment?

link to NetgalleyAlso, there is a huge new spa soon opening in town. There is some sort of scam surrounding this project. Matte was the project economist and had some questions about the finances.

Again, I liked this novel more than I wanted to, especially as the lives of several of the regular characters seem to be descending into soap opera. Still, Läckberg hid the identity of the murderer from me until late in the novel.

This book has strong themes about the abuse of women. In fact, that has been a theme since early in the series, when Anne was married to an abusive husband, but it is even stronger here.

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Day 801: Wolf Winter

Cover for Wolf WinterBest Book of the Week!
It is 1717. A few days earlier, Maija and her family arrived at their new home on the side of Blackåsen Mountain in the Lapland area of Sweden. They moved away from Finland because Maija’s husband Paavo, formerly a fisherman, began to see dead men in the water. But here on the mountain he is ineffective and frightened.

Maija’s daughters Fredericka and Dorothea are out with the goats when they find the body of a man. Although the nearby settlers are quick to claim an animal attack, it is clear to Maija that the man, Eriksson, was killed by a person using a lance. She has already felt an unease on the mountain and believes they must find the murderer. Unfortunately for the search, Eriksson seems to have been disliked by all.

Maija’s family has had some experience with the older ways, even though they are forbidden by the church. Fredericka, however, was being instructed in them by her grandmother without her mother’s knowledge. Fredericka finds herself being haunted by Eriksson, who wants her to find his murderer, and tries to seek help in the supernatural from the Lapps.

Another important character is the new priest for the region. He comes to visit the area and tries to help with the investigation. At first, he seems cold and unready for a position in such a wilderness. But he is actually bewildered. He was a court priest and a friend to the king until he was abruptly sent away from court.

When the snow comes early and kills the harvest, Paavo decides to travel to the coast to earn some money. Maija is left to struggle through a particularly harsh winter with the girls. There are wolves on the mountain, and some of the settlers believe the mountain itself is evil. No one has found Eriksson’s killer, but Maija is still looking.

link to NetgalleyThis novel creates an atmospheric, fully realized world that captured me from the first words. Although it is centered around a mystery, it is just as successful as a historical novel, with a touch of the mystical, set in an unusual place and time. You can easily imagine the cold and hardships. This novel is excellent.

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Day 768: The Asylum

Cover for The AsylumJohan Theorin takes a step away from the island of Öland, the setting of his previous novels, to present this even darker thriller. Its main character is Jan Hauger, a young man whose version of events isn’t always to be trusted.

Jan is  a child care worker who takes a job at a preschool attached to a mental asylum. The preschool is for the children of the inmates, to allow the children to see their parents regularly. Although Jon cares about the welfare of the children, it is clear early on that he has other reasons for being there.

One thing we soon find out about Jan is that as a young man he kept a little boy captive for several hours. We don’t learn why for some time.

Jan has an interest in getting into the asylum, for he believes a woman he once knew as a girl is inside. He has been captivated by thoughts of her for years. Soon, he finds there are ways into the asylum from the preschool.

The asylum has some famous inmates, the most renowned of whom is the serial killer Ivan Rössell. When Jan accepts an unauthorized but seemingly harmless task of secretly delivering mail into the asylum so that the guards can distribute it to the inmates, he finds that Rössell gets the bulk of this mail. But Jan also sees a way to get a message to his friend.

As Jan’s story emerges in three different time streams, we begin to feel his judgment may be impaired. There is something dangerous going on that he is unaware of. As usual, Theorin’s book is atmospheric and compelling.

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Day 750: The Quarry

Cover for The QuarryThe Quarry is the third of Johan Theorin’s dark novels set on Öland, an island off the coast of Sweden. The Quarry is more of a traditional mystery than my favorite of these novels, The Darkest Room, but it does have uncanny overtones.

Gerlof is an old man who has talked his family into releasing him from a retirement home so that he can return to his cottage in Stenvik near the quarry. Nearby, in the house that belonged to his friend Ernst, is Per Mörner, who inherited the house from Ernst.

Per has just had a run-in with another neighbor, Max Larsson, who almost hit Per’s son Jesper with his car. But Per has much more to worry about. His 13-year-old daughter Nilla is in the hospital with an aggressive cancer.

Per is trying to visit the hospital, but his father Jerry keeps calling him. Although Per has kept his distance from his father, who is a notorious pornographer, he has had to help him sometimes lately since he had a stroke. Jerry has difficulty talking and no use of one arm. When Per finds his father at his studio, he has been stabbed. Upstairs the house is on fire, and he realizes there are people in the rooms that he can’t get to. He is just able to get his father and himself out and thinks he sees a man leave the property.

The police find two bodies in the house—that of Hans Bremer, Jerry’s partner, and a woman. When Per asks Jerry who stabbed him, he answers “Bremer,” which doesn’t seem possible as Bremer died upstairs in the fire. Soon, both Jerry and Per begin receiving anonymous phone calls.

As new neighbors, Max and Vendela Larsson decide to throw a party for the little enclave above the quarry. Vendela is actually a local girl whose family held some secrets, one to do with the quarry.

The mystery concerns why someone is going after people associated with Jerry’s old porn business, which Per begins to investigate. But the diaries Gerloff’s wife left behind also help solve a mystery about Vendela’s family.

If you decide to read any of Theorin’s novels, I think you’ll find them difficult to put down. He has a way of building atmosphere around the history and landscape of the island, and his characters are interesting. These novels are worth searching out.

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