Monthly Archives: December 2012

Review – The Expats by Chris Pavone

Like many a debut novel, The Expats is not without its flaws.  It gets off to a slow start, so slow in fact that had I not got this for 20p on Kindle, I may well have given up.

As a serial expat myself and someone who has worked helping other expats readjust to their new life, Kate comes across as a relocation consultant’s worst nightmare – a whiny, trailing spouse with way too much time on her hands. 

I found the characters very unlikeable and I couldn’t understand why Kate just didn’t call it a day with Dexter, children or no children.  Theirs is a loveless marriage so what was she doing playing along with the move to Europe for so long? Julia and Bill come across as two-dimensional and I don’t really care what happens to them.

If you can stick with it and suspend your disbelief, in the end the book does have something useful to say about marriage and relationships – that we all hide secrets from each other. 

The action and pace picks up in the second half and it becomes a tightly plotted (if somewhat implausible) read.  There’s an over reliance on character exposition in last part of the book which is a little irritating but given the complex nature of the plot may be the only way that readers of commercial fiction will understand what it is that is supposed to have gone on. 

The Expats has been skilfully marketed and managed to gain an impressive number of press reviews, some of which raved about it.  The most accurate to my mind was the one written in The Washington Post, which calls it, ” a sometimes silly spy tale.”

Tragic Heroine: Giovanna, the Princess Diana of her generation

Giovanna di Tornabuoni was the Princess Diana of her generation. And like Diana, she was a tragic heroine, whose life was cruelly cut short. Diana was still a teenager when she took those slow, fateful steps in Westminster Abbey, to be joined in marriage to Charles, Prince of Wales.  But at the same age, Giovanna had not only united the two most important dynasties of her generation, but had produced a male heir.  Not bad going for a 19-year-old. But all the money and nobility in the world failed to prevent Giovanna’s early death.  She died, most probably of a complication related to pregnancy, and unlike Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge, who recently suffered from a pregnancy related illness, Giovanna had none of the medical facilities available to young women in the modern era.

Giovanna’s brief life was over by 1488, but she is immortalised in two portrait paintings, one of which appears in a fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel (Cappella Tornabuoni) in the church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy. It was created by the Renaissance master, Domenico Ghirlandaio, who employed many young up and coming artists in his workshop, one of whom you may have heard of: Michelangelo Buonarotti, better known as Michelangelo.

Ghirlandaio was perhaps the most skilled portrait artist of the fifteenth century, and it is a mystery to me why such a fine portrait as the one he did of Giovanna, which hangs in the Thyssen-ImageBornemisza gallery in Madrid, Spain, seems relatively little known by the general public, when the portrait created by Ghirlandaio’s contemporary, Leonardo, is the best known painting in the world.  The portrait of La Giocanda, (Mona Lisa) is an inferior portrait, yet is fawned over, gawped at and continues to attract tourists by the thousands to the Louvre in Paris.

At any time of the year you’d be lucky to catch as much of a glimpse of the Mona Lisa: there are always people crowding around the portrait, eager to experience first-hand what all the fuss is about.  Yes, there is the hype about the enigmatic smile and the mystery of who the sitter was.  But for me at least, the Mona Lisa fails to live up to the hype and if you want to see the most beautiful woman of her generation, then the idealised beauty as exemplified in Giovanna’s portrait wins hands down.

There’s a sadness to the portrait which makes it all the more poignant as by 1488, when Ghirlandaio painted it, Giovanna was already dead.  The artist had to create her portrait posthumously from a death mask, which wasn’t uncommon in those days when life was all too brief.  There is a fragility to Giovanna’s beauty, her face shown in profile, illuminated by otherworldly light.  She has blonde hair and a tiny nose and is portrayed with such poise and grace that she is surely the idealised vision of fragile beauty.  Perhaps it was because on the day in December, when I had Giovanna practically all to myself, that I too was feeling like death warmed up, from a bout of the ‘flu, that I found it hard to tear myself away from the tale of this particular tragic heroine.

The Cliff-hanger Ending – Episode 10 The Killing

Last night on BBC 4 fans of Forbrydelsen (The Killing) watched the cliff-hanger to end all cliff-hanger endings in the final episode of Season 3 as Sarah Lund took the decision to sacrifice her own happiness in order to honour a promise she had made to bring a killer to justice.

And no, I wouldn’t be so mean as to divulge the details in case you haven’t had a chance to see it – but suffice to say that Sarah, despite having one disaster after another heaped upon her at work, was, for the first time in her life, finally starting to achieve a semblance of a home life.  In her own clumsy way she was trying to fix things with her damaged son Mark. She had admitted her failings as a mother and persuaded Mark that just because he was damaged and had been badly parented, it didn’t mean that it was inevitable that he would repeat the same negative pattern of behaviour with his new-born baby.

And unlikely as it may sound, she had, at last, found a man who not only loved her for who she was but who she knew well enough that he wouldn’t be likely to want to try to change her.  They were even talking about moving in together, with Borch grumbling that her place was too small for the both of them.  “We’ll build an extension, then,” was Sarah’s reply.  I don’t know about you but as soon as a character as emotionless and socially awkward as Sarah Lund starts behaving as though she is about to organise a bridal shower, there is something in me that goes, uh oh, one of them is for the chop.

Even though the writer Soren Sveistrup and the actor, Sofie Gråbøl, have been quoted in the press as saying that they have had enough of The Killing and want to move on to other projects, the decision to leave the audience with an open ending, was rather an afterthought.  For all of us fans out there, this was a relief as even three seasons was never going to be enough.  Even though The Killing is unlikely to come back again soon and although Sarah doesn’t seem to be looking forward to much of a life – I do hope the producers are able to resurrect her again.  After all she still has to prove that Louise’s killer had struck before and was in fact a serial killer.  And I for one, am burning to know if she and Borch will ever get to live together in the house with the extension.  It seems unlikely though, doesn’t it?

Homeland: Season 2: Characters Who Fight Their Corner

Spoiler Alert: This blog post is for those of you watching Season 2 of Homeland.  It’s taken me nine episodes of this second series to decide whether or not I can swallow the premise of Homeland:  Take two damaged flakes – make one a CIA agent and the other, a soon to be vice-president.  The way Carrie and Brody behave, they’d be lucky to hold down a job in a call-centre – so how these two ended up in the nerve centre of the US government security service and the highest office in the land, is beyond belief.

Then there is Brody’s daughter Dana who is just an annoying sulky teenager – with her monosyllabic, inarticulate delivery. Doesn’t she go to an eye-wateringly expensive school?  Because if I was Jessica, I’d be asking some questions about what sort of education that child is getting.  Along with the Vice-President’s son, Finn, these two are going to go down in history as the two kids who make Mr Bean seem like a fine orator.

There’s Dana asking her father if he is a spy, then there is Jessica asking what they’re going to do next and whether or not they can go home.  She tells him that the kids are going stir crazy and so is she.  Here she goes again, trying to guilt-trip him.  Brody has spent eight years locked up by a terrorist group and all Jessica can do is be mean and sleep with his friend Mike.

Perhaps I stuck with Homeland because Sunday night telly was so dire that there really wasn’t much to choose between a soap where the best character was a dumb blonde Labrador/retriever called Pharoah, (Downton Abbey ) or a soapy drama with another blonde character, brighter than Pharoah, but who spends all her time disobeying her boss, Saul.

But in Episode 10, “Broken Hearts” something changed: I began to feel sorry for Brody and Carrie.  There was Brody, shaking with fear and disbelief, when he saw that Nazir had kidnapped the terrified Carrie.  And then there was Nazir – who, for the first time, is allowed to reveal what drives him to commit acts of terrorism. For Nazir is perhaps the most dangerous of all – as his motivation is personal and political.  His beloved child, an innocent boy, was killed in a drone strike ordered by the Vice President and Nazir is prepared to die to avenge that death.  And all Carrie can do is call him a terrorist – when Nazir is so much more.  He though, scoffs at the vacuous, empty lifestyles in the west that Carrie is so desperate to defend – the sort of corrupt lives that the Vice President’s son, Finn, leads – where two drunken teenagers kill an innocent woman in a hit-and-run and the woman’s family are paid off to keep quiet.  In a corrupt world of greed and power, nothing gets in the way of ambition.

Series 3 The Killing – Plot Tension

If you haven’t seen Episodes 5 and 6 of Season 3 of Danish noir series The Killing– look away now.  I don’t want to spoil it for you.  If you aren’t planning on watching or have caught up – the storylines in this series, which I’ll call the A, B and C stories are: the kidnap of a little girl, a prime minister seeking re-election and the relationships within the police force.  It is the latter that I want to focus upon – particularly the relationship triangle of Sarah Lund and Mathias Borch – a former colleague and love interest when they were training at the police academy. Borch is now a senior officer with special branch in their national security division.  The third character in the triangle is newly minted CID officer Asbjørn Juncker.

In Episode 6 Lund lets her guard down and risks putting the operation in jeapordy by getting far too close to Borch.  While her heart is ruling her head, Juncker sows the seeds of doubt in Lund’s mind.  He warns her that Borch questioned a suspect earlier and pumped him for information – and Lund can’t help but question what Borch knows about the murder of a young teenage girl some years before.  The two cases are linked as the kidnapper had family ties to the murdered teenage girl.

What is Borch trying to hide?  There’s a moment in the episode where Lund seems to be asking herself whether there is any possibility that Borch may have killed that first girl – or alternatively be covering up for the killer.  Juncker calls Lund on her phone to warn her as he seems convinced that Borch does know more about the first murder than hes letting on.

Lund though faces the problem head on and demands answers from Borch – about what he does know about the first murder.  Borch turns it into a domestic and accuses Lund of being emotionally repressed – that she just won’t let anyone get close to her.  And all the while they’re bickering like an old married couple, they seem to have forgotten that what they’re meant to be doing is trying to track a serial killer on the loose.  The serial killer hasn’t suffered from the same amnesia and the end of episode hook is that he seizes the opportunity to lock Borch and Lund inside the workshop of an abandoned shipyard in the middle of nowhere.

It would be sad for Lund if Borch did turn out to be the bad guy, the way that her police partner and love interest in Series 2 did.  It’s no wonder that Lund is such an emotional cripple. Lund is damaged goods, for sure but in her line of work the men she meets aren’t exactly well-balanced either.

What this does for the plot is to create another layer of almost unbearable tension – which only adds to the cat-and-mouse game currently being played out by the killer.  And to up the ante even further, what does Lund really know about the background of Juncker, the young detective.  What if he’s lying, trying to pin the blame on Borch.  Sadly we have t wait another nail-biting week to find out.

Just in case you were wondering how to up the tension in your thriller plot, do whatever it takes to bag yourself the box set of Series 1 or 2 and marvel at the way that series creator and lead writer Søren Sveistrup manages to so grippingly hold our attention.