‘Deathly Wind,’ by Keith Moray

Deathly Wind

Inspector Torquil McKinnon is on holiday at the beginning of Deathly Wind, the second in the Torquil McKinnon mystery series, set on the fictional Hebrides island of West Uist. Constable Ewan McPhee, his friend and subordinate, is supposed to be watching the store while he’s gone. But Ewan goes missing. People frequently go missing on this island, and it usually means they’ve drowned. That leaves Constable Megan Munro to police the place alone. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be impossible, as crime is low in these communities. But just now there’s rising unrest, as a new Laird has inherited the big estate, and is implementing a plan to dispossess long-time crofters and put up wind turbines on their property. Also, people are suddenly getting killed. Quite a few of them.

Torquil does return to take things in hand, but he’s not sure he can handle the pressure either – as his superior on the mainland keeps reminding him over the phone. But with his knowledge of the community, and the help of his uncle Lachlan, the old priest, he starts uncovering the secrets of people he thought he knew, and unraveling a vicious revenge scheme.

Keith Moray’s Torquil McKinnon series is not at the top of my must-read list – the writing is not particularly distinguished (I thought the plot of this one a little far-fletched). But the books are entertaining and readable, the characters are appealing, and no shots are taken at Christianity. I don’t recall much bad language either. There were some sexual situations. I’ll continue with the series. Recommended.

April 9, 1940

Invasion Oslo
German troops march into Oslo, April 9, 1940

Today is a grim anniversary. It was on April 9, 1940, that Operation Weserübung (the Weser Exercise) was implemented by the German army against Norway and Denmark. There was resistance, some of it heroic, but it was no contest in the long run. For the rest of the war, Norway and Denmark would be occupied territory.

If you see the movie The King’s Choice, which I reviewed a few days back, you’ll get the gist of the story of how the government and the royal family fled Oslo and eventually went into exile. One element of the movie that hasn’t aroused much notice is the general fecklessness of the parliamentary leaders in response to the attack. There’s no surprise there; we don’t often look to politicians for valor and sacrifice. But there’s another element, not suggested in the film.

The parliamentary leaders weren’t entirely sure Hitler was the enemy.

The Norwegian government in the spring of 1940 was led by the Labor (Arbeider) Party. The Labor Party was by and large a wholly owned subsidiary of Josef Stalin’s Kremlin, which had been bankrolling it for years. Labor leaders in those days didn’t go to the loo without checking with their Russian handlers first.

During spring of 1940, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was in force, making Hitler and Stalin allies. So when the Germans marched in, the Labor leaders were inclined to greet them as friends. The only thing that prevented them from enthusiastically joining in the “Heil!” salutes was the Germans’ incredibly ham-handed conduct.

It wouldn’t be until June 1941 that Hitler would break the pact by launching Operation Barbarossa against Russian possessions. At that point Labor became solidly anti-Nazi, going carefully into denial about their earlier collaborationist sentiments. And so it remains, even unto this day.

The shadow of death

Had a strange phone conversation last night. It wasn’t as grim as that summary might suggest – it just had a sort of black humor quality.

One of my cousins died recently – much too young; sad story. Shortly after her death, I had a call from her brother, who wanted to talk, and I was happy to offer a shoulder. He was also concerned that he hadn’t been able to reach our last surviving mutual uncle. Uncle O_____ has had some health problems recently, and my cousin couldn’t find a number for him that worked. I promised I’d call him myself, since I’ve been in pretty regular communication with him, until recently.

I tried calling, and the numbers I had didn’t work.

After the funeral, my cousin called again, and I told him about my failure. My cousin suggested I go through Facebook (which he doesn’t use anymore), messaging O____’s grandchildren. I tried that and broke through. They said they’d pass the news on.

So last night O____ and his wife called me. Apologized for losing touch – they’ve been going through a difficult time of selling a house and relocating, on top of health issues.

Then we started catching up. There was a lot of catching up to do. Continue reading The shadow of death

‘I’ll Keep You Safe,’ by Peter May

I'll Keep You Safe

Sometimes a book can be less than optimal in certain respects, but make up for it wonderfully in the sheer reading experience. For me, Peter May’s I’ll Keep You Safe is one of this sort.

Niamh and Ruairidh McFarlane are childhood sweethearts who grew up together on the island of Harris in the Hebrides. As a married couple, they took over ownership of “Ranish Tweed,” a small operation producing a cloth that’s similar to Harris Tweed, but softer and lighter. To their amazement, their tweed was discovered by a rising young designer, who made it the center of his whole collection that year, and before long they were running a large and profitable operation.

But there are shadows in their lives. Their parents still disapprove of their marriage, due to old injuries that the book reveals in stages. There are professional enemies, and false friends.

When the story begins, they’re in Paris for a fabric fair, and Niamh is suspicious, for the first time in her life, that Ruairidh might be having an affair. Then he enters a cab with the woman she suspects is his mistress, and the cab explodes. Suddenly a widow, wracked with guilt and doubts, she must return to her home and face the continued hostility of her in-laws, the suspicions of the police, and a growing recognition that the killing is not over. Someone wants her dead too.

I was not surprised by the final revelation of the killer in I’ll Keep You Safe. And there was an earlier plot surprise that also didn’t surprise much. But I didn’t care, because the ride itself was the reward. Author May, as he has shown many times before, excels in painting evocative descriptions of Hebridean geography and nature. It might be the next best thing to visiting the place.

Minor cautions for grown-up stuff, but I highly recommend I’ll Keep You Safe as splendid reading entertainment.

The snows of April

Shoveling snow
Photo credit: Filip Mroz

If you’ve had your head oriented in the right direction today, you probably caught the sound of Midwesterners bewailing yesterday’s snow storm. These April storms, though hardly unprecedented, always seem (as T. S. Eliot noted) “cruel.” The vernal equinox passes. Easter has been celebrated. Now what’s left of the snow is supposed to decently fade away, like old soldiers. Instead we got a nice big container load of it, and the drive to work this morning was a white-knuckler (coming home was fine. The April sun was strong enough to clear the streets and dry them off too).

But I looked at it all, and I thought of my ancestors (you do that when you have no offspring, I guess). And I thought, “A spring like this might have meant starvation to those folks. By this time of year those old peasants had nearly eaten through their stored winter food. The dried cod was running low, the flatbread was moldy and mouse-nibbled, the barley porridge was getting to be more water than meal. If you couldn’t hunt something or catch some fish soon, the pickings would be lean. You might have to eat the seed grain, or slaughter one of the pigs you’d planned to breed.

So I really haven’t got any cause to complain. My food problem is eating too much of it. Continue reading The snows of April

‘Jonathon Fairfax Must Be Destroyed,’ by Christopher Shevlin

I was a little disappointed with this sequel to Christopher Shevlin’s The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax, which I reviewed favorably a few days back. But I’m not sure I’m being fair.

When last we saw our shy, ineffectual hero, he had survived great dangers and won the girl of his dreams.

At the beginning of Jonathon Fairfax Must Be Destroyed (set five years later), the girl of his dreams is completely out of the picture. He is living with a different girlfriend, and he’s working at a job he hates, as a temp at Fylofax, the most powerful corporation on earth. Jonathon isn’t quite sure what Fylofax does, but then nobody else is, either. In fact, the company’s unprecedented growth is the result of blatant fraud on the part of one of its top managers, an American who is on the verge of taking it over completely. He will do anything to succeed, including cold-blooded murder. By chance he becomes aware of Jonathon’s existence, and grows convinced that he’s a corporate spy. Therefore, Jonathon must be eliminated – from the face of the earth.

Meanwhile, Jonathon experiences unemployment, a breakup with his girlfriend, homelessness, and falling in love with another girl of his dreams. As in the previous book (and I didn’t really make this clear when reviewing it), Jonathon is more a maguffin than a hero, a calm, somewhat stagnant center for the story, and most of the real action revolves around his handsome, elegant friend Lance Ferman, who is Jonathon’s exact opposite, except for the fact that they’re both men of good will.

I had the impression that this book was less funny than its predecessor, but that may just be my prejudice. I took almost personal offense to the author’s writing out Rachel, the love interest in The Perpetual Astonishment… Her disappearance was explained, but I didn’t really buy it, and I think it embittered me. There were a lot of funny moments, and I laughed, but it wasn’t the same (for me). Brief, not too biting, jabs were taken at Christianity and at capitalism (though to be fair that was mostly at Ayn Rand, whom I don’t like either).

So you may want to ignore my jaundiced viewpoint. Jonathon Fairfax Must Be Destroyed is still funnier than most books around. Cautions for language and sexual situations. Also (once again) semi-comic murder.

Film review: ‘The King’s Choice’

The King's Choice

Fair warning: I’ll probably be reviewing a few more Scandinavian movies and TV shows than usual in the future. Or not; maybe I’ll get tired of them. Since I’ve become (peripherally) associated with the Norwegian film industry, I figure I ought to have some familiarity with the field.

The film The King’s Choice, released in 2016, is probably the most acclaimed recent movie out of Norway. It is not one of those that “my” company worked on, but I decided to see it, so I’d be able to discuss it at all those industry cocktail parties I expect I’ll be invited to soon.

The film concerns Norway’s King Haakon VII (played by a Danish actor, Jesper Christensen. This makes sense, as King Haakon began life as a Danish prince. I was delighted to find that I could identify his Danish accent when he spoke). When he became king of Norway in 1905, he changed his name to Haakon and his son Alexander’s to Olav, because those were the names of the last two kings of the old royal line in the 14th Century. Thus, he symbolically picked up the dynasty where it had broken off – and by and large the Norwegians loved him for it (except for a few stubborn republicans).

At the beginning of the movie, it’s 1940, and Haakon is an arthritic old man with a purely ceremonial job, mostly occupied with playing with his grandchildren. But word comes suddenly that the Germans have invaded, and he, his family, and the government flee northward, sometimes under enemy fire, beginning what will come to be a long exile. Eventually he will be approached individually by the German ambassador, and faced with a very hard decision. Continue reading Film review: ‘The King’s Choice’

The Offensive Cross

World News Group has a good read for the Saturday between, an excerpt from Brett McCracken’s book, Uncomfortable.

One of the most offensive things about the cross of Christ has always been its leveling aspect, giving “insider” access to prostitutes, tax collectors, and the pariahs of society just as much as to religious and cultural elites; to Gentiles just as much as to Jews. The wretched thief on the cross didn’t and couldn’t do anything “good” to save himself, but Jesus still welcomed him into his kingdom.

This is offensive.

He follows this with a recounting of a marvelous scene of forgiveness. “Our pride makes it hard for us to stomach the notion that ‘earning’ or ‘deserving’ are not words that exist in God’s vocabulary of grace.”

‘The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax,’ by Christopher Shevlin

The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax

Occasionally you run into a book that doesn’t fit neatly into any of your existing mental categories. Then there’s a temptation to pan it because it’s not the kind of book you think it ought to be.

But that’s unjust. The author should be judged on the basis of what he accomplished, not what you were expecting.

Christopher Shevlin is a pretty Wodehousian writer. And because of that, it’s a little jarring when actual murder enters the stage of his book. In a Wodehouse novel, the worst thing you’ll see is the abstraction of a silver cow creamer, or the purloining of a prize pig, or the alienation of a French cook’s services.

But The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax begins with the murder of a fairly innocent middle-aged woman. And it’s played for laughs.

That kind of threw me for a loop.

But I stayed with it, because it was a very funny, very well written book.

Jonathon Fairfax is an ineffectual young man with deep insecurities, living in London. So he’s none the wiser when he (inadvertently) helps a murderer to find his victim’s address, then makes friends with two fashionable people in a disreputable café, and finally meets “the most deeply and woundingly beautiful girl [he] had ever seen,” all in a single day. He stumbles his way through an improbable courtship while getting unintentionally involved in the exposure of a massive government conspiracy. Continue reading ‘The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax,’ by Christopher Shevlin

The Westfjords of Iceland

From Atlas Obscura, a nice article, with several impressive photos, about a photographer’s trip to Iceland.

“The Westfjords suffer from extreme weather during the winter months, and after the global financial crash of 2008, many of the properties have been abandoned,” Emmett says. “These structures are often small and empty but amazingly atmospheric, full of the strange sense of other-worldliness you often find in derelict buildings, but that strange feeling is matched by the landscapes that surround them, so you get a double dose of magic. I was totally in my element.”

It doesn’t appear in the photos, but many buildings in Iceland are covered in corrugated steel. It holds up well against the constant high winds.

‘The Secret Knowledge,’ by David Mamet

The Secret Knowledge

David Mamet is, of course, one of America’s foremost dramatists. He was highly respected by critics until he came out as a conservative a few years back. Since then many have discovered that he has no talent at all.

Still, he perseveres, and he has written a book about Politics, The Secret Knowledge, to explain how his mind has changed on a number of issues and to provide a few glimpses into his personal pilgrimage. I don’t agree with all his opinions, but the book was fascinating to read.

The title is paradoxical. There is no secret knowledge, Mamet informs us. The basic truths of life are widely known by all people, even (or especially) the extremely unsophisticated. It is the intellectuals and the avant garde who reject obvious truth and embrace nonsense, to which they cling desperately, because their adherence marks them as among the Enlightened.

Any review is likely to devolve into commentary on Mamet’s actual beliefs, either approving or condemning them. So I’ll content myself with providing a few choice quotes – of which there are many. I think I may have highlighted about a third of the text.

Writers are asked, “how could you know so much about (fill in the profession)?” The answer, if the writing satisfies, is that one makes it up. And the job, my job, as a dramatist, was not to write accurately, but to write persuasively. If and when I do my job well, subsequent cowboys, as it were, will talk like me.

Continue reading ‘The Secret Knowledge,’ by David Mamet

‘The Gathering Murders,’ by Keith Moray

The Gathering Murders

Not bad. That’s my verdict on The Gathering Murders: Dead Men Tell No Tales, by Keith Moray.

West Uist is a fictional island off the west of Scotland. Each year it hosts “The Gathering,” a Gaelic festival and book festival, subsidized by “the Laird,” the owner of a string of cut-rate book shops.

The chief law enforcement officer is Torquil McKinnon, newly promoted to Inspector. He is the nephew of the local priest, Lachlan McKinnon, and his nickname is “Piper.” In fact he has high hopes for winning first prize in this year’s bagpipes competition.

The big star at this year’s book festival is a native daughter, Fiona Cullen, a mystery writer and once upon a time Torquil’s sweetheart. She greets him with the promise of renewed affections, but she also seems determined to cause a lot of trouble. And trouble there is, beginning with the suspicious murder of a noted local poet and bootlegger. The deaths don’t stop there, and Torquil finds he may be over his head investigating this kind of crime spree.

I liked The Gathering Murders. I thought the writing a little unpolished, but the story kept my interest and the characters engaged me. If, like me, you like a Scottish setting, this is a pretty good one, well brought to life.

Cautions for mature material, mostly language and sexual suggestions (though nothing explicit). Christianity comes out pretty well, especially because Father Lachlan is a very sympathetic character.

It’s pronounced “nee-norsk.”

Ivar Aasen
Ivar Aasen, creator of Nynorsk

From Literary Hub, via Dave Lull: An article on why Norway has two official languages.

Still, no one is talking about getting rid of Nynorsk entirely; and if you live in Western Norway, it’s the majority style. While the idea of teaching just one writing standard circulates in the media every few years, it’s always kicked back because it would probably be the nail in the coffin for Nynorsk. So students reluctantly continue sitting double exams every year, and the Norwegian Language Council requires 25 percent of all government documents to be in Nynorsk, although diversity compliance is poor. The idea of Samnorsk—a common Norwegian—is intriguing: that we could merge these two styles together and create something that represents everyone. It’s a nice notion, but at the rate that Nynorsk is dwindling from use, the problem may well solve itself soon enough.

The last time I visited family in Norway, my cousins gifted me with a book of Nynorsk word endings.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture