Book Review: Buzz Aldrin, What Happened To You In All the Confusion by Johan Harstad

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened To You In All the Confusion? by Johan HarstadThis is the second book I’ve read by the Norwegian writer Johan Harstad. My review of Hässelby, his other book, is also on my blog. Both books deal with a young man trying to find a way to live their life as they want it.

Buzz Aldrin is out in the English translation this month, but I read the Dutch translation earlier this year.

Buzz Aldrin: What it is about

In this book, Mattias, in his early thirties, loses his job at the garden center ánd his girlfriend almost at the same time. When his friend Jørn has to go to the Faroe islands with his band, he asks Mattias to come along as sound man.

He does, but after getting onto the ferry, the next thing he knows is that he’s laying in the middle of a desolate road in the rain with a lot of money in his pocket. He’s taken in by a man called Havstein.

Mattias great example is Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon. Mattias was born the night of that great event in 1969. Aldrin never got to be as well known as Neil Armstrong, who was the first person ever to walk on the moon.

Mattias has been trying all his life to be one of a crowd, not to stand out, to be second, never first. In the Faroe Islands, he hopes to be an unimportant person in an unimportant place. However, in the book he realizes that for some people, who care for him, he will be first, no matter what.

This book is reasonably realistic, unlike Hässelby, in which events take place that are decidedly surrealistic. However, the plans that are made (and carried out) at the end of the book are rather odd (but possible). They are more likely to happen in a children’s book than in a contemporary fiction novel for adults. An intelligent adult would immediately doubt the feasibility of the plans.

Buzz Aldrin: What I thought

The book is the story of Mattias, first person, from just before he loses his job until the events at the end. There are few flashbacks, most is “live”, happening while we read. There are some parts that resemble stream of consciousness, sentences that go on for a whole paragraph. Most of the time, the book is easy to read.

Any book that takes place in a Nordic country has a bit of an advantage in my opinion as a reader. I’m biased. I love stories taking place in Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and, when I think about it, the Faroe islands and Svalbard too.

In case you’re not sure, the Faroe islands are situated between Iceland and the Shetland Islands, which in their turn are a group of islands above the Orkney Islands, which are situated just North of Scotland.

Mattias is having a difficult time while on the Faroe islands and this is described well. The story is slow-going but we learn a lot about Mattias and the people around him in the mean time.

Mattias himself wasn’t the most interesting person in the book (how could he be, if he wants to blend into the background) but sometimes he surprised me. There were a few other characters that livened the book up, too.

In all, I enjoyed reading the book and I liked the fact it was set in an unusual place.

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad

Rating: 4/5

I got this book: from the library

I read this in: Dutch, the original language is Norwegian (Buzz Aldrin, hvor ble det av deg i alt mylderet?)

Number of pages: 480

The Nordic Challenge

First book read for the Nordic Challenge

First published: 2005, English edition June 2011

Genre: contemporary fiction

Book Review: Hash by Torgny Lindgren

Hash by Torgny Lindgren

I read Light by the Swedish writer Torgny Lindgren last year, which I enjoyed a lot. So, when I saw this book in a book swap last year, I was keen to pick it up and try it.

Hash: What it is about

The story is a story inside another story. The outer story is a contemporary story of an 107 year old man who writes about events that happened over 50 years ago. Unless… he’s making it all up. He’s living in an old people’s home and has to accept whatever whim the management comes up with to save money. Only in his story writing he can be in control.

He writes about a village in North Sweden in the 1950s which gets two new inhabitants within a few weeks. One is a teacher, who is there to replace the previous teacher who died of tuberculosis. Many people in the village are infected too, but the new teacher, Högström, is immune because he had the illness years ago.

Also new is a man who might be German, Maser, who the 107 year writer hints could well be the missing nazi and war criminal Martin Bormann. Maser travels around with his van full of textiles and also settles in the village for a while.

Both newcomers soon find out they share two passions. One is for singing, which they do together many a night. The other is hash. Hash (in my Dutch copy: balkenbrij) is a meat dish made by cooking the head of a pig, or lamb, or even reindeer, and add intestines and all kinds of other things that I, as a vegetarian, try not to think of too hard. It’s a bit like haggis, according to wikipedia.

The men enjoy the hash that their landlady makes, but eventually go around the villages to find the best hash ever. Meanwhile, another character, Bertil, the homeless village idiot (although not stupid) keeps a good eye on what is going on and reports back to the landlady.

Hash: What I thought

I liked the background of why the 107 year old man started to write the story at his age (which I won’t reveal). There was a bit of magic realism in the book, as the man considered himself to have “survived old age” and he actually was getting younger again: more healthy, more and thicker hair, fewer aches and pains, etc. I thought it was a very interesting notion.

Also, his carer in the old people’s home wants to find back the place (a mountain) that he describes in his story. She comes back several times saying she must have been close, but somehow missed it. This made the story a little magical, which was interesting too.

The story was fun to read and quite original. I could not imagine anyone wanting to eat hash, and it seems that on some occasions, the men were actually quite repulsed by the meal they were getting (but wouldn’t show it to each other or their host, of course).

If you liked Light by the same author, then this will be for you, too. And if this author is new to you, give him a try. The writing is not overly difficult and the story is original and uplifting.

Confession: as a girl in the Netherlands, I did eat hash (balkenbrij) on several occasions. I remember it as a greyish slab that we’d eat on our bread. Moderately edible – but I wasn’t told what was in it!

Rating: 4/5

I got this book: from a book swap

I read this in: Dutch (Het ultieme recept), the original language is Swedish (Pölsan)

Number of pages: 223

First published: 2002

Genre: contemporary fiction, magic realism

Book Review: Your Presence is Required at Suvanto by Maile Chapman

Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto by Maile ChapmanI was at Waterstone’s in Nottingham (UK), not knowing whether to buy any books (given my TBR pile) and if I did, what it should be. There were at least 20 that I could pick up and gladly take home, but I was determined that two or three should be all I buy.

Then, as sometimes happens, I ended up buying a totally different book. One that I had never heard of. My husband pointed it out to me, while I was deciding between Solar, A Week in December (which I did buy as well), Wolf Hall, Room, and many more.

Such is the human psyche, that if we can’t choose between a number of options, we choose something that was not included as an option. Has that happened to you?

Your Presence is Required at Suvanto: What it is about

It’s the 1920s, a convalescent hospital (Suvanto) in the Finnish woods. Besides a large amount of “real” patients, mainly local people, there is also an upper floor with privileged women from abroad, whose husbands work in the timber industry in Finland.

These are women with which not much is wrong, physically. Some come back each winter, and treat the place as a hotel. Most have a dysfunctional relationship with their husbands and use their “illness” as a reason to stay away for months.

The protagonist of the book is Sunny, an American nurse, who has her own reasons to be so far away from home (in the 1920s, it wasn’t a quick plane flight to Finland!). She takes it upon her to look after a new patient, Julia Dey, Danish, who is difficult and uncooperative.

There is a clear picking order amongst the women, with Pearl being the most popular. They are all very sensitive of change and are upset over the smallest thing (one woman cried because her lettuce was cut the wrong way).

But when something happens to Julia, all women, including Sunny, fear for the continuity of their peaceful existence.

Your Presence is Required at Suvanto: What I thought

The book is written in the present tense. All the way through. This can be very tricky, but in this novel, I think it worked. I felt very close to the action (as far as there was any) but it also created a feeling of melancholy.

The writing was beautiful and the story very atmospheric. Chapman knows how to write in a beautiful, literary way. It did make for slow reading, which, as you know, I’m not always keen on. In this case, it didn’t matter.

What mattered more was that the story itself was slow. Very little was happening. I am tempted to say that most of the action happened in the last 30 or so pages. In hindsight, all that was described before this worked towards the dramatic ending. However, at the time of reading, the story doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

The writing is beautiful, the location and the people and their interactions are interesting, but the purpose of the story was lost on me for most of the book.

The end made up for it, although it was very hard to understand what exactly happened.

I read this book with my local face-to-face book group. Only four of us ended up reading and discussing it. We all found the book very atmospheric and well-written, although one or two found it too slow-going. Together, we worked out most of the story, why this, why that. This book is ideal for a book group discussion, provided your book group likes literary novels.

If you enjoy literary fiction set in a unusual location, dealing with spoiled, rich women in the 1920s, you will enjoy this book.  If you insist on a story that is compelling from beginning to end, then you should look elsewhere.

I got this book: bought it in a book shop

I read this in: English, the original language

Number of pages: 263

First published: 2010

Genre: literary fiction, historical fiction

Book Review: Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin

Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin

This was my last (of three) books from the Great Transworld Crime Capers event. It is the first in a series of four books by the Swedish writer Johan Theorin. The books all take place on Öland, an island off the Swedish east coast. From what I read about the second book, it does not seem to be related to the first, so you can read them independently.

Echoes from the Dead: What it is about

Julia Davidsson has been grieving for her missing son for 20 years. He disappeared from his grandparents’ house on the Swedish island of Öland.

She lives in Gothenburg and has been taking time off sick as a nurse of and on for a long time now. She also drinks too much. Her husband left her not long after the disappearance.

Her father still lives on Öland, in an old people’s home. When he receives a childrens’ shoe in the post, he asks Julia to come and see if it could be Jens’, her son.

Together (and separately) they go around the island talking to people they think may know more about what happened 20 years ago. Is the island’s most notorious man, Nils Kant, who was buried 30 years ago, still alive after all?

Echoes from the Dead: What I thought

Rating: 4/5 Initially, I thought Julia was a little unbelievable, to be actively mourning for her son after so many years. I can’t say what I would do in her situation, and I don’t want to know, but it seems Julia had put her life on hold for the last 20 years, just until she would find out what happened to her son.

The book had a great sense of place. The island and, in places, its very few inhabitants, the sea, the wilderness, I could visualise it all very clearly.

Both Julia and her father become stronger people during their search. Gerlof, the father, manages long trips outside the old people’s home and Julia manages to stay away from the wine and pills and slowly starts to deal with her son’s likely death. These were great character developments, especially Julia’s.

The book wasn’t a exactly a thriller, but more than a mystery. Someone dies, under circumstances which are not immediately suspicious, but the idea that Nils Kant may still be around is frightening and makes the book suspenseful.

The book was also about family, family relationships, grieving and coping. Recommended.

I got this book: free from Transworld Publishers as part of their Great Transworld Crime Capers

I read this in: English, the original language is Swedish

Number of pages: 480

First published: 2007

Genre: mystery

Extra: Also read my review of The Quarry by Johan Theorin

Great Transworld Crime Caper event

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