Review catch-up: Van Pelt & Gustawsson

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt – Book Group review

We’ve moved onto an animal/plant A-Z theme for picking our books for a while, but our opener was an animal free choice, and Alex’s pick about an ageing and clever octopus kept in a Seattle aquarium came out of the hat. It is now well documented that octopuses are immensely clever animals and it makes me glad to have been squeamish enough never to have eaten them. They can escape their tanks and climb into others, surviving outside water for some minutes, I’m sure they would recognise their handlers too, we felt that collecting dropped things in a little treasure corner wasn’t beyond their remit either, but whether they can understand English as Marcellus does in this novel is probably one step too far. However, we accepted it as he was the star of the show.

Tova should be retiring soon, but for thirty years she has been the night cleaner at the aquarium, ever since her son Erik vanished on a boat. Marcellus watches Tova, and one night he interacts, grasping her arm as she cleans the glass of his tank. The two become friends, and Tova will help him back into his tank when he escapes (in search of his favourite food sea cucumbers), and Marcellus becomes determined to help solve the mystery of her son, especially once she has a fall and can’t work, and the temporary replacement, Cameron, also has a mystery of his own.

It gets quite complicated, but all is resolved eventually, and the ageing octopus can live out his days happily. Told with humour and pathos, this was a heartwarming comfort read of a commercial novel that you could immerse yourself in with pages speeding by. No-one hated it, some loved it, we all wanted more of the octopus though!

Source: Own copy. Bloomsbury paperback, 362 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s or Amazon (cheaper) via my affiliate links.

Yule Island by Johana Gustawsson

Translated by David Warriner

The Villa Kassman, Storholmen, 1930

My first encounter with Sweden-based French author Johana Gustawsson was her Gothic thriller The Bleeding last year which had a blend of dark crime and black magic, mixing a three time-lined horror story in with a police procedural very successfully. Now she’s back with Yule Island, billed as the first in a new series – The Lidingö Mysteries. Lidingö is an affluent island off the east of Stockholm, and Storholmen, where the action happens in this novel is another island just off the north of Lidingö. When the author was told about a supposedly haunted villa on Storholmen, the location for this novel was found. It had been built in 1930 by a banker, Gunnar Kassman, who controlled the island, sold off in 1945, then reclaimed by the family. In recent decades it was resold in the 60s and gradually fell into disrepair – a developer snapped it up recently!

Emma Lindahl is an art expert, formerly of Christies, now with a Swedish auction house. She has been assigned to catalogue and value the private collection of the wealthy Gassman family at their villa on Storholmen. Apart from meeting Niklaus Gassman at the start of her work there, she is given strict hours at the villa, where she will meet no-one bar the housekeeper. Why will the Gassmans not engage? Do they have secrets? (Of course they do, as does Emma herself!) Frustrated by her limited hours in the mansion, Emma ends up in the island’s only cafe, run by Anneli, with whom Emma strikes up a strong friendship, ultimately in more senses than one.

Nine years earlier, a young woman was killed on the island, her murderer never found. When another young woman’s corpse is found in the water Detective Karl Rosen who investigated the first murder is called in. There are some similarities. Ultimately Karl and Emma must work together to solve the case, but it will expose them to danger and ancient Viking rites as they delve into the past.

As you might expect, given the island setting and timing of the novel in the off-season for tourists, the pool of suspects is limited, and once the ferry/water taxis stop their service you’re trapped on the island until the next day. The reveal of the secrets that Emma is living with and how all the threads come together is done gradually, leading us to a dramatic conclusion. At first I questioned Emma’s motives for taking on the valuation job once we learned some of her history, but she is a highly rated professional, and believed she could put aside personal influences to get the job done. Likewise, Karl is haunted by his failure to solve the first murder. The pacing is excellent and Warriner’s translation is clear and seamless.

I’m certainly looking forward to Gustawsson’s next Lidingö Mystery – it’s a brave author that sets their books where they live. Yule Island was a great start to a new series, and introduction to Detective Karl Rosen, who I hope will make future appearances.

Source: Review copy – Thank you. Orenda hardback, 243 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s or Amazon via my affiliate links.

4 thoughts on “Review catch-up: Van Pelt & Gustawsson

  1. Calmgrove says:

    The Gustawsson would appeal to me more than the Van Pelt: even though your bool group judged the latter a comfort read I’m not I could suspend disbelief sufficiently to believe a cephalopod is capable of understanding human speech! Odd that, considering I’m happy to read Pratchett or other fantasy writers who wouldn’t blink once to feature talking animals . . .

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      After meeting Tova and seeing the octopus ‘listening’ to her as she chatted away it was easier to believe he could understand! It was an undemanding novel, but good to read for a change.

  2. Rebecca Foster says:

    I got Remarkably Bright Creatures from my wish list for Christmas. I read two lacklustre octopus novels last year (by Gina Chung and Claire Fuller), so I’m keen to read a better one! I actually found another two on my shelves to try to make it a Three on a Theme sometime later in the year.

    My book club had a string of unsuccessful reads recently. Hoping to turn that around soon. Howards End, our latest, was a very good discussion.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was a sweet read, if totally forgettable apart from the octopus and Tova once finished. I still haven’t read the Claire Fuller yet.

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