They Eat Horses Don’t They: or Seeing Iceland in a Game of Thrones Kind of Way

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‘This’, our Icelandic tour guide tells us as he lunges at a hapless American with a sword, ‘is how you stab someone and make it look real’. We’re somewhere near the end of a nine hour Game of Thrones bus tour and things have begun to loosen up. Our tour guide is in full flow, along with his beard, his shaggy locks, and his fur collared cloak. Having been an extra on four seasons of the show, he’s really into it now. Only the fawn socks and worn sneakers don’t quite look the part. But we don’t care.

As a Canadian fellow traveller here for the Icelandic film festival tells me, he chose this tour because of the expectation that it would abandon the beaten track and take him to the places other tourists don’t go. This is a tough call since tourists are everywhere. Three years ago, Iceland had 800,000 tourists, last year there were two million and they are apparently aiming for a turnover of five. Reykjavik is a forest of cranes and craters as an overstretched workforce struggles to beat the weather and construct the hotels that will hopefully house them all.

Having just about recovered from the scandalous collapse of the Icelandic economy in 2008 (at least their bankers went to prison), followed by the eruption of the volcano Eyafjallayokull in 2010 which effectively shut down air traffic over Europe for a number of weeks, Iceland is now reconstructing itself as a theme park with built-in illuminations.

In the lift of my hotel I encounter a Chinese couple, dressed head to snow-booted foot in the kind of expensive outdoor gear that would get them to the Arctic and back. They are off to see the Northern Lights on yet another bus tour. Meanwhile, my Icelandic friends arrive to pick me up for a family dinner in jeans, sneakers and the kind of jacket that would not be amiss in Sydney on a Spring morning. Cold means something different here.

‘It’s a beautiful day’ our Game of Thrones guide tells us as the fog lifts, the barometer hits nine, and the sun peeks through the lowering clouds. Immediately the hills burst into a heart-stopping array of shifting colours, red, yellow, blue and deep purple. We’re heading towards our first ‘scene’, an Icelandic horse farm. There we discover about 140 pocket size woolly steeds stoutly waiting in a muddy field. ‘Go pat them’, the chief wrangler urges. ‘They are very tame. We eat the bad ones’.

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This is a pragmatic move on the part of the unsentimental Icelanders, since not only does it ensures the survival of the most amenable stock, but also provides the population with an on-going supply of meat in a country where pasture is limited, the growing season is short and food supplies can be scarce. While my Icelandic hosts offer me smoked dried fish smothered in butter and an Icelandic sheep stew for dinner, a restaurant in the main drag is promising smoked puffin and whale steaks. I’m quietly appalled, but as a failed vegetarian, caught out in my hypocrisy.

‘I hate tourists’ our tour guide cheerfully announces early on with a frankness that indicates just how ambivalent Icelanders are about the endless tour buses and hire cars clogging up the two lane highways that circle the island or lie crashed on the side of the road. The latter is hardly surprising. Iceland has an idiosyncratic set of rules relating to roundabouts, a bit like Melbourne’s hook turns.

Almost every major roundabout near Reykjavik is haunted by a mournful tourist on a mobile phone, desperately trying to summon a tow truck. It would help, one thinks, if the Icelanders changed the road rules. But this may be all part of a cunning plan to stimulate the economy, especially when it comes to tow-trucks and crash repairers.

Stop number two and we’re on the site of that Game of Thrones scene in which a dragon stole a goat. I vaguely remember it, but to help us visualise the moment, our guide holds up the slightly grubby and well worn photographs that illustrate the action. Appraising the view, we note the complete absence of dragons, but are compensated by the presence of an outstanding waterfall and rushing river. It’s spectacular and moving. The landscape is beginning to get to me.

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Stop three involves a winding road along the shore of Iceland’s largest lake. To our right are the kinds of expansive summer houses in wood and soaring glass you see on Grand Designs. To our left, sits a modest and traditional wooden house with a yellow roof. ‘That’s Bjork’s place’ our tour guide tells us. Icelanders are remarkably laid back about celebrities, even Justin Bieber was able to wander unmolested in Reykjavik. This does not surprise me.

For the next ‘scene’, we have to get off the bus, climb a relatively unchallenging peak and stand on the place where the Hound and the Amazonian Brienne of Tarth had their hand to hand combat. The photographic images come out again, but now there’s a freezing wind blowing up the canyon and I wander off to find some shelter noting that the actors in the screen shots look as cold as I feel.   Maybe those Asian tourists in the lift had a point.

It’s no wonder the actors looked frozen. The GoT costumes, we learn, were designed and made by a team of South Africans. So while they might look effective on screen, they were less than effective on location being largely constructed of cotton. Everybody was cold, our guide tells us, who we now discover, is currently doing an MA about Viking swords, when he’s not tour-guiding, that is.

Our guide, aka Swordbiter, is just a bit miffed by some of the reviews that have come his way.   “I didn’t go to Tourist Guide School’, he confesses. ‘And I never shut up’. This has been clear from the start but there’s a randomness to his delivery that is endearing. We learn a lot about the political economy of being an extra, as well as a bit about his ex girlfriends and how not to wash when you are getting into character as a member of the Night Watch.

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Given the Vikings ‘discovered’ Iceland sometime around the ninth century, they are everywhere, still. And so we visit Thingvellir, that remarkable site of early democracy where the clans congregated at the Althing to sort out their problems, feast, make laws and make merry. This is followed by a visit to a recently reconstructed Viking long house. Both locations are again the site of memorable scenes in Game of Thrones, including a nasty family massacre.  And it’s here that the sword play gets real in a fake kind of a way.

One more spectacular double waterfall later, which has nothing to do with Game of Thrones but is just there, and we are on our way home. Swordbiter is still talking, although most of the passengers up the back are asleep and the microphone appears to be switched off. We’ve entered a wild stream of consciousness phase now. It’s like listening to a late night chat show host on regional radio.

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One of his stories includes the tale of a local ice-cream producer who specialised in unusual flavours, including breast milk (‘so wrong and yet so right’). And I’m watching the stalwart female bus driver who has  been crashing the gears all the way. Does she, I wonder, have to listen to the same stories, the same jokes, day after day?

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The Icelanders are stoic. They have to be to cope with a largely hostile environment that frequently turns on them, whether this be bad weather or a volcanic eruption.   It’s a fragile environment too, and one not particularly helped by the massive influx of tourists who are trampling all over it in search of The Game of Thrones experience or something other. Otherness, of course, is exactly what Iceland offers and why it continues to exert a powerful pull.

Back in Reykjavik, it has started to rain. Swordbiter is all business now, making sure we are all dropped off at our hotels. The show is over, but on the long haul back to Australia, I rewatch Game of Thrones in a completely new way, my eyes firmly fixed on the faces in the background.   And there, yes, it is.  There’s Swordbiter, standing resolutely in the background in his cotton cape looking seriously cold. Only now I know how Game of Thrones really feels.

  • My thanks to Mark Allard for his companionship and superb images captured on our memorable tour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Doors (and Windows) Blowing Off

(This review of Adrian McKinty’s latest crime novel, ‘I Hear the Sirens in the Street’ published by Serpent’s Tail originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 6, 2013).

According to Ian Rankin’s blurb for ‘I Hear the Sirens in the Street’, this crime novel ‘blew’ his ‘doors off’. To which I might add, ‘and it rattled my windows too’.  Given the context, Northern Ireland in the 1980s, the explosive metaphors are apt.

 Adrian McKinty has a way with words. Try this selection of bons mots from the first twelve pages: entropic, simulacrum, ostinato, glissando, dissonance and kakistocracy.  I had to look that last one up. It means  ‘government by the worst of men’.  I am now deeply indebted to McKinty for introducing this useful noun into my repertoire.  I intend to use it on a daily basis as the occasion demands.

 Now sample some of McKinty’s cultural references from Chapter One, bearing in mind the period setting: Chopin, Saint-Saens, Arvo Pärt, Paul Weller, The Bay City Rollers, Jackson Pollock, Dallas the TV series, The Outlaw of Gor and Willy Loman (the salesman who ‘died’ in Arthur Miller’s play) – or rather think  ‘Willy Lomanesque’ since with a deft suffix, McKinty turns a character into an adjective.  Inventiveness is part of the McKinty repertoire too.

 While the eclectic vocabulary and the cultural allusions are diverting in themselves, they are there in the service of a plot, and it’s not a bad one at that.   Detective Inspector Sean Duffy of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Detective Constable McCrabbin have been called to a deserted factory where an overzealous, superannuated security guard opens fire on them despite their protestations:

 ‘We’re the police!!’

‘The what?’

‘The police!’

‘I’ll call the police!’

‘We are the police!

‘You are?’

 Note, McKinty has an ear for dialogue.

 Duffy and McCrabbin are tracking a blood trail, as reported by the nightwatchman, which leads them to dumpster containing a suitcase into which the torso of a well-preserved man in his 60s has been stuffed.

 As the security guard dry heaves behind them, the two professionals conduct their initial assessment of the corpse with the cool detachment of those only too familiar with dismembered bodies. But then this is bomb-blasted Northern Ireland, several years into a civil war.  The shops and cafes are boarded up, the parks and playgrounds are vandalised while ‘bored ragamuffin children of the type you often saw in Pulitzer-Prize-winning books of photography’ are sitting ‘glumly on the wall over the railway lines waiting to drop objects down onto the Belfast train’.  Forget the Pulizer-Prize winning photographer, McKinty has the ability to capture an image in words which say it all.

 Duffy’s daily routine is a grim one. Coffee and a quick check under his BMW for any ‘mercury tilt’ explosives before he heads off on the job of identifying the torso in the suitcase:  a task which is repeatedly diverted by other emergencies including, for  example, a ‘half hearted sort of riot’ on a depressed housing estate fuelled by petrol-filled milk bottles. It’s hard to get things done in the midst of an on-going battle.

 Throughout it all, Duffy keeps his cool – and for the most part, his sense of humour. Despite the shenanigans of civil war, this is a funny book which benefits from a knowledge of recent history. Take the fictional Duffy’s visit to the ‘real’ American DeLorean car factory in West Belfast based on convenient waste ground. The fact that John DeLorean went bankrupt in 1982 casts an ironic glow over an encounter which ends with Duffy seducing his secretary armed with a few nifty Starsky and Hutch moves and a bowl of spaghetti carbonara. 

 I Hear the Sirens in the Streets concludes with a teaser for the next in the series, And in the Morning I’ll be Gone.  Expect more doors to be effectively blown off.

 

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The Holiday Murders by Robert Gott

(This review appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 March 2013)

Three historical crime books down, and Robert Gott has changed tack. The period is still the 1940s, but Gott’s series character, the would-be Shakespearian actor and wanna-be private eye, William Powers, is no longer mis-directing the action. Gone too is much of the sly humour which bubbled up in the gaps between the Powers self-aggrandising lines and the reader’s recognition of just what a twit he was.

The Holiday Murders started out as William Powers adventure, but following the advice of his publisher, Gott was encouraged to blow off the froth and treat the topic of murder more seriously. This meant abandoning the first person voice of a nitwit narrator, and opting instead for a more sober tone and a range of different perspectives.

And so we are introduced to Inspector Titus Lambert, head of the newly formed Homicide Unit, who is called out on Christmas Eve to what appears to be a particularly gruesome murder suicide. One man is nailed to the floor and the other dead in the bathroom of a palatial family home in East Melbourne. Titus is not entirely adverse to taking the call: he’s not that keen on Christmas or the prospect of listening to a new radio serial on 3UZ with his wife.

Already at the scene is Sergeant Joe Sable whose nagging self-doubt and Jewish ancestry soon become critical to a story which will encompass the anti-semitic undercurrents in the Australia First party and its fascist sympathisers. To illustrate the tenor of the times, Gott makes strategic use of references to, and quotations from, The Publicist, The Paper Loyal to Australia First which was indeed a real publication.

Following Sulari Gentill’s recent historical crime novel Paving the New Road which also dealt with pro-fascist movements in Australia around the time of World War II, it is tempting to speculate that Australian crime fiction, like a great deal of recent Scandinavian crime fiction, might be looking in the rear view mirror of a guilty past as the nation tries to come to terms with unsettling racist tendencies in the present. Would that as a crime fiction wave the Australian turn might be both so successful, especially since there is a prominent role for a smart female character – the redoubtable policewoman, Helen Lord, a modern woman if ever there was one.

Helen likes being a policewoman despite the fact that she is not allowed to wear a uniform and has to put up with rather a lot from the men with whom she works who see her as a novelty, ‘useful to them only occasionally in dealing with hysterical tarts and with wives who’d been beaten up by their hopeless, drunken husbands’. Joe thinks Helen looks a bit like Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Both are therefore very happy to go undercover as a clumsy couple of skaters on the Galciarium: an ice rink constructed on what is now the site of Southgate.

Lest this sound like too much spiffing fun, there’s a serial killer at work whose fascist sympathies are simply a cover for his pathological desire to hurt and maim. Joe has to get close, but a lot of innocent people are going to get badly hurt in the process.

What works best in The Holiday Murders are the characters and their nicely judged relationships. Titus, Joe and Helen are keepers. More please Mr Gott.

 

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Gone Girl – the crime book of the year?

(This review was published in the Sydney Morning Herald in July last year.  However, I’ve noted how many people have included it in their ‘best’ crime fiction lists of 2012 and thought I would include my review here after the book had just been published in Australia).

Gone Girl might be THE crime fiction book of the year. It’s already gone to Number One in the Amazon Top Twenty, suggesting someone else out there has noticed.  Be warned though, it may not be good for your health. I started it early morning in a hospital waiting room, eventually staggering across the finishing line one-eyed at 1 a.m. after a cataract op. This is book that resists anaesthesia.

Genrewise, Gone Girl is a hard to pin down:  part psycho-thriller, part literary tour de force, but is it really crime? There is a murder and there are two detectives, one rangy and thin ‘with a face that tapered severely into a dribble of a chin’; and the other ‘surprisingly ugly’ with ‘long lank hair the colour of a dust bunny’. But these characters hardly figure once they’ve been nailed in Flynn’s merciless prose. It’s what’s going on between the two main protagonists that commands the focus.  Labels soon become irrelevant.

Part One, ‘Boy Loses Girl’, opens with the handsome and affable Nick Dunne describing his wife Amy on ‘the day of’ her disappearance.  Blood on the kitchen floor and a deranged living room suggest Amy has been ‘snatched’ after a violent struggle from their McMansion.  It’s a soulless house they both hate on an estate of similar half-empty mausoleums post US mortgage meltdown in North Carthage, Missouri:  the kind of Mid Western town which doesn’t feature in the movies.  It’s where Nick grew up, where his twin sister and senile father still reside, and it’s hell on earth for the urbane Amy.

Nick wants us to like him, and he’s a likeable kind of guy with a canny way with words.   Not surprising since (like author Flynn herself), Nick was once a popular entertainment reviewer for a New York magazine ‘back in the days when the Internet was still some exotic pet kept in the corner of the publishing world’ he observes wryly post redundancy.

New York is where Nick met Amy whose diary entries recording their first encounter and blissful, wacky marriage interleave Nick’s account of her disappearance and the aftermath.  Amy wants us to like her too.  And again, what’s not to like. Amy is as beautiful as Nick is handsome, just as witty, and very rich, thanks to a series of books by her psychologist parents about a ‘fictional’ little girl called Amazing Amy who somehow always manages to do one better than the real Amy, if that were possible.

Beautiful Amy and handsome Nick would seem to be a perfectly matched pair. But this is where Flynn gets dark and dirty, since both are also consummate liars with dark secrets they are keeping from each other and the reader.   So when Amy disappears and Nick is suspected of her murder (it’s always the husband, right?), it’s game on. Prepare to be well and truly hornswoggled.

Flynn has suggested that one of her inspirations was Who’s Afraid of Viriginia Woolf, a play by Edward Albee about power games in a toxic marriage performed on film by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor who ripped into each other with such gusto it was hard to watch.  Gone Girl ups the ante in the ‘he said’ ‘she said’ stakes ‘til we really don’t know who or what to believe.

None of what has gone before will quite prepare you for the most outrageous conclusion to any crime or other fiction I have ever encountered.  This is genre-busting work by a writer who clearly knows the rules but doesn’t want to play by them. Bravo.

Gone Girl,  Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pp. 399

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Jo Nesbo, The Bat and Terra Nullius

For both Harry Hole and Craig Gisto, the protagonists of Norwegian Jo Nesbo and American James Patterson’s crime novels set in Australia, it all begins in the international arrivals hall of Sydney airport where so many first impressions are formed.

While Harry Hole (pronounced Hool-leh in Norwegian but mispronounced Holy by every Australian he meets), is greeted with a cheery ‘How are ya mate’ by a fiercely egalitarian female passport official, Gisto is there to meet a ‘beautiful’ American woman in his Ferrari 458 Spider which he drives out of the airport and onto the ‘sun-drenched freeway’ to the city. This is about as much local colour as we get in Private Oz, presumably courtesy of co-author Michael White, former UK popstar and now Australian resident.

Bar the street addresses, Private Oz is a book which could be set anywhere in the fantasy world of private detectives driving fast cars, underworld crime, vicious Triad gangs and a crazed serial killer targeting ‘yummy mummys’.

The Bat was Nesbo’s first crime novel, the character of Harry Hole apparently conceived during the long-haul flight to Australia. On arrival, Nesbo did some exploring and then bunkered down in a hotel room, writing a frenetic 18 hours a day accompanied by a volume of indigenous myths and legends discovered in the museum bookshop.

The result was Flaggermusmannen (literally The Batman) first published in 1997 which won a number of awards, including the Scandinavian Glass Key for Best Nordic Crime Novel of the Year. It’s therefore just a tad puzzling why it has taken so long for The Bat to be translated into English. Perhaps the publishers didn’t want to take a punt on an Australian setting for a Scandinavian crime novel? And it is all about the setting.

Nesbo describes Australia with the clear-sighted precision of the jet-lagged tourist for whom everything is both strange and disorienting. Hole is in Australia to investigate the death of a young Norwegian woman who has been found raped and strangled at The Gap. His guide is an indigenous detective called Andrew who takes the precaution of wearing a suit before steering Harry towards lunch at Doyle’s on Watson’s Bay where he begins to educate Harry on the politics of race in Australia. As Andrew tells him: ‘If you’re aboriginal the chances of ending up in prison are twenty-six times greater than for any other Australian. Chew on that, Harry Holy’.

Chew on it Harry does, as he encounters other indigenous characters, all of whom regale him with their myths, including that of the Narahdarn, the Bat, the aboriginal symbol of death. Harry’s steep learning curve continues as he encounters the concept of Terra Nullius on a journey which will take him from the red lamps and black mascara of Kings Cross into the flamboyant drag scene that is Oxford Street and back to the future that is Nimbin by way of the agricultural showgrounds of Lithgow and Jim Chivers travelling boxing troupe.

What we also get, and which will be of interest to those who have followed the subsequent adventures of Harry Hole, is more about Harry’s backstory: his always doomed love affairs, and the incipient alcoholism which overtakes him about half way through, precipitating a shift from the relatively up-beat and sunny into the depths of Nordic gloom which dominate the later books.

The Bat is not a great crime novel but it is an interesting one, providing a vivid snapshot of Australia at the time, with all that a snapshot captures and leaves out.

As for Private Oz, on the very last page there is a ‘signed’ letter from James Patterson describing his ‘proud’ support of the National Literacy Trust in the UK which is ‘dedicated to delivering exciting initiatives to encourage people to read and to help raise literacy levels’. With its short chapters (some of only one page – some stretching to three), its staccato style and telegraphic prose, I rapidly came to the conclusion that this is a book written for people who don’t read much, and as such, is highly successful.

It moves fast, there are four simultaneous plots and a plethora of briefly sketched characters. Here’s Gisto describing his right hand woman, Mary Clarke, who usually dresses Tomb Raider style in a sleeveless tee shirt and cargo pants ‘She’s a big muscly girl but has the reaction time of Usain Bolt off the blocks’, or his ‘tech guru’ Darlene in a red cocktail dress ‘that accentuated her incredible curves’. And there you have it: action, violence and spectacle. Private Oz is a blockbuster movie of a book.

This review was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald (December 29, 2012)

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Yarn-bombing and other Misdemeanours

[I review crime fiction for The Sydney Morning Herald. My editor has kindly given me permission to repost these here – in their original form, I might add. This one appeared on Saturday February 25, 2012]

Yearning for a virtual vacation? What about contemporary Byron Bay from the perspective of a diabetic freelance journalist or the former Kingdom of Laos circa 1978 with a septuagenarian coroner?

In Mad Men, Bad Girls and the Guerilla Knitters’ Institute, Maggie Groff has sly fun at the expense of ’Bonking Bay’: a place that hardly needs more tourists in the all too solid flesh clogging up the byways. And yet who would not be attracted to a town ‘already full of industrial-grade lunatics’, as it is described on the first page, albeit by someone who doesn’t live there.

Scout has a sister called Harper, a Russian Blue cat called Chairman Meow, a boyfriend on extended tour in Afghanistan for Reuters, and the hots for a local cop called Rafe. She is also a fully paid up member of the Guerilla Knitters’ Institute whose activities involve enlivening public spaces with unlikely knitted artworks.. Given our local post office has what looks like a knitted teacosy adorning the nearby junction box, I’m inclined to think ‘yarnbombing’ is about to go viral on the Eastern seaboard.

Apart from the adventures of the guerilla knitters, there are two other plot lines on the go. The first involves the arrival of a suspicious (is there any other kind) American cult headed by the kind of dodgy sexual predator any right-thinking woman would spot a mile off. But then right-thinking women are hardly ever the victims of such enterprises as Scout discovers as she goes undercover to get the lowdown on her story.

The second involves Scout’s sister Harper (onomastic codes courtesy of Miss Lee), who needs assistance sorting out some nasty bullying at the posh coeducational school where she teaches gymnastics.

It’s all a bit chick-litty, Janet Evanovichy and perilously close to cute – but fun, especially the knitting.

Also fun, in the South Asian tradition of Shamini Flint’s clever Inspector Singh series, or Nury Vittachi’s Feng Shui detective, is Colin Cotterill’s Slash and Burn which had me googling Laos to find out more about this extraordinary country – the economy of which now depends on tourism of the more embodied kind.

This is the eighth book in what has been a successful and critically acclaimed series for British born, Australian citizen, Cotterill, who lives in Thailand where he writes, cartoons and is involved in child protection.

The book opens in 1968 as a stoned American helicopter pilot flying a secret mission over Laos finds himself heading for a collision with the earth. Cut to ten years later and Dr Siri Paiboun and his wife, Madame Daeng (she of the luscious noodles), are contemplating the bloated body of the retired American Major leading their expedition to recover afore-mentioned pilot’s remains. It’s not a pretty sight – the Major’s lipstick is too red and his lingerie too tight. Cut to five weeks earlier and the back story.

Cotterill’s complicated time line obliges the reader to keep up, but the effort is well worth it. Dr Siri and his astute Laotian fellow travelers eventually emerge as ascerbic wits as they exchange plaisantries via an interpreter with an American delegation who understands neither their culture nor their language.

Inevitably, the reader is positioned on the side of Siri and Co., as they wend their way North across a countryside littered with unexploded cluster bombs: relics of the American/Vietnamese conflict during which Laos as the neutral intermediary, was more heavily bombed than anywhere else. Cotterill doesn’t labour the politics, but his comedy is always to the point.

Take the intellectual Siri whose efforts to understand the Americans involve reading Henry James in French. This exercise is soon abandoned when Siri decides that James appears to have learned his craft writing radio scripts for Thai soap operas. Not just an astute coroner, Siri may also be a keen literary critic.

He is also an unconvincing member of the ruling communist party who believes in the spirit world and the essential goodness of all human beings, with the exception of those in power. This is just as well since the spirit world proves to be an unlikely ally when dealing with corruption at the top. If you haven’t already, put Laos and Dr Siri high on your itinerary.

The books:

Slash and Burn
By Colin Cotterill
Quercus, pp. 374 $24.99
Mad Men, Bad Girls and the Guerilla Knitters’ Institute
By Maggie Groff
Macmillan, $24.99

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