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July Reads and Crime Fiction Pick of the Month

A good month of reading, despite holidays and other distractions. 17 books, of which 4 translations, 2 in foreign languages, 2 poetry collections and 10 crime novels (or psychological/political thrillers).

Crime/thriller

Miyuki Miyabe: All She Was Worth

BlackHousePeter May: The Blackhouse

This was a reread for the virtual Crime Book Club.  I love the atmosphere Peter May has created of the very harsh, rather alien way of life on the Isle of Lewis. The description of the two-week guga hunting trip on the rock is not for those of a squeamish disposition like me. Although, interestingly, the animal rights activists are not presented in a particularly sympathetic light either. An uncompromising look at believable rather than ‘nice’ characters, with lots of back story, but they are all complex and ring true.

Dominique Manotti: Escape

Anna Jaquiery: The Lying-Down Room

Eugenio Fuentes: The Depths of the Forest

Harriet Lane: Her

Julia Crouch: The Long Fall

Maurizio de Giovanni: The Crocodile – review forthcoming on Crime Fiction Lover

Michael Arditti: The Breath of Night

An incendiary political thriller and a hunt for clues about a dead missionary who is going to be canonised as a saint.  This book is about the Philippines during the Marcos regime and after, with very vivid, harsh and poignant descriptions of daily life and the contrast between rich and poor, expats and local people. The constant shift between time frames work well, as it shows so clearly ‘plus ça change plus c’est la meme chose ‘ and the afterword is a masterpiece in apologetics.

playdateLouise Millar: The Playdate

Believable tale of motherly angst and struggle to balance work and childcare, a social life and relationships with the other sex, all in an anonymous big city. Three main female characters are all plausible and there is much to sympathise with in each one… until you discover that each one of them has some unsavoury secrets.

Poetry:

101 Sonnets

Adam Wyeth: Silent Music – my poetry tutor and a very talented poet indeed (no, he doesn’t read my blog, so I can praise him without hoping for leniency on the next module). More detailed review will be coming up shortly.

 

Gossip/Groupie Fanfiction

bowieAngela Bowie: Backstage Passes

Pamela Des Barres: I’m With the Band

It was interesting to read these two in quick succession, as they are so similar in subject matter, and yet so different in tone. Angela Bowie’s account is quite bitter and all about point-scoring (perhaps understandably so, as Bowie’s super-stardom and drug-taking in the 1970s cannot have been easy to live with, although it sounds like Angela was keen to give as good as she got). She also sounds extremely self-centered and takes herself far too seriously. Meanwhile, Pamela comes across as very needy and rather silly at times, but also self-deprecating and humorous. Not the kind of life I would recommend as aspirational for young women: gain fame by being linked to famous people. The endless recitals of drug-taking and sex scenes become terribly dull and repetitive after a while, rather than titillating.

German:

Hilde Spiel: Ruckkehr nach Wien

French:

Martin Vidberg: Le Journal d’un remplacant  – wise, wry and funny observations (in cartoon format) about life as a supply teacher at a school for children with special emotional needs.

Other:

Courtney Maum: I’m Having So Much Fun Here Without You

And my Crime Fiction Pick of the Month (a meme hosted by Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise) was a tough choice, as I enjoyed most of the crime I read this month very much. But in the end, I think the political thriller of Dominique Manotti wins out, as it taught me a lot of new things about the Red Brigades, Italian exiles in France and the pomposity of the French literary world. Besides, who can resist this gorgeous cover?

Manotti

 

 

Recent Reading: Comfort Fiction

I’ve felt the need for some comfort reading lately. I’d embarked on rather more difficult reads (in translation), but found myself floundering, struggling to finish them. Personal circumstances made it hard for me to concentrate, so I turned to what I correctly perceived to be comfortable offerings from women writers.

Far be it from me to suggest that women’s fiction is comfort fiction. Besides, I’ve never quite understood what ‘women’s fiction’ means. Written by women? For women? Discussing women’s topics such as menstruation, childbirth and abortions? Because all of the other subjects in the world belong to both genders and are of general human value and interest.

Nor is my comfort fiction the light-hearted banter of Wooster and Jeeves, although I have been known to turn to Enid Blyton and other childhood favourites when I have a bad migraine.

No, what I mean by comfort fiction is familiar tropes, fiction from a culture where I know the rules. Fiction which does not surprise or challenge me excessively, which does not make me work hard. If novels were food, this kind of fiction overall would be a ham-and-cheese sandwich: nourishing, enjoyable and, above all, safe. [For individual food comparisons, see below.] These are not books that will haunt me and get me thinking long after I’ve finished them. They are perfect holiday fodder (set in England, Greece, France): books to enjoy, whizz through quickly and then pass on to others.

HerHarriet Lane: Her

This book is like a bag of crisps: easy to read/eat, pleasant taste in your mouth and you can’t stop until you finish the packet. Hugely relatable account of motherhood overwhelm, mourning a promising career and the small delights but also pressures of babies and toddlers… So yes, it is the account of privileged, well-educated, Guardian-reading middle classes (and I might as well stand tall and proud and acknowledge myself to be one of them… most of the time). Emma aspires to something more than her mundane domestic tangles and is starting to question if this is all there is to life. She is a little envious of the self-contained, wealthy, aspirational lifestyle that her new friend Nina seems to offer. Nina has suddenly materialised on her doorstep, ever watchful, ever helpful, unaccountably attracted to the boring company which Emma fears she is providing. Of course, we as readers know more, because we get to see the story from the two different points of view. Clever device, but it does get a bit repetitive: one or two instance of it would have been enough to give us that sense of ominous, impending doom. The devil (or horror) is in the detail here: the quiet chill, the small-scale escalation of fears. Cleverly done, if somewhat implausible.

LongFallJulia Crouch: The Long Fall

A great description of the hedonism of backpacking holidays back in 1980, when Greek island hopping still seemed quite adventurous. The author is good at capturing that sense of vulnerability, loneliness and need for camaraderie that we all have in youth, especially single young women travellers, and she also shows how easily things can spin out of control. The present-day Kate, with her glossy lifestyle and attempt to create and maintain the illusion of perfection, was rather more irritating. I am not sure what the anorexia added to the story, other than perhaps blocking her ability to think straight. The rapid switches between time frames are of course a well-known device to get you to turn the pages more and more quickly, to find out what happened and how they are going to deal with the outfall. The ending did feel a little contrived and predictable, but it was well-paced enough to keep me engaged till the end, even if not entirely satisfied. A meat and potato sort of dish, with some of the spices getting lost in the cooking.

Courtney Maum: I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You

HavingFunRichard is a former avant-garde artist who is starting to taste commercial success in Paris but suspects he may have sold out. His French wife Anne-Laure is gorgeous, a successful lawyer, impeccably put-together and keeps a spotless house/cooks divinely. Yet he has been cheating on her with an American journalist, who has now left him to get married. His wife finds out about the affair and all hell breaks loose. Richard mopes and whines for most of the book, but finally sees the error of his ways and, after some self-flagellation and heart-to-heart talks with his parents and remembrance of things past, finds his way back to the marital berth. (That’s not a spoiler, surely – it is evident from the outset what the outcome will be: this is ‘Notting Hill’ or some other British rom-com film territory, after all.)

The descriptions of the boredom and routine that a marriage can fall into are cleverly done, the feeling of being brother and sister, the pit crew mentality of tending to your child: these are all well enough done. But, for heaven’s sake, they’ve only been married for seven years and have just the one child: when did that suffocating routine have time to set in? And why does Anne-Laure have to be quite so perfect to make her husband appreciate her again? She should be angry and slobbish, take to drink and sluttish housekeeping, become irrational and demanding instead of incredibly mature and wise. That would be a proper test of commitment! But you can see that this book was written by a woman and that it therefore contains a huge amount of wish-fulfillment: the erring husband who has to be exhaustively humiliated and come crawling back to his wife begging for forgiveness and attempting many pathetic but well-meant romantic gestures.

There are quite a few enjoyable things about this book which elevate it above run-of-the-mill soap opera type fiction. There are genuinely funny moments, such as the couple to whom Richard sells a painting of real sentimental value, or when his attempt to woo back his wife by drawing graffiti on the pavement outside their house results in his arrest. I enjoyed the often astute observations about the differences between American and French customs, families and lifestyles, even though it sometimes feels like they are coming straight from a magazine article.

In America, wealth is dedicated to elevating the individual experience. If you’re a spoiled child, you get a car, or a horse. You go to summer camps that cost as much as college. And everything is monogrammed, personalized, and stamped, to make it that much easier for other people to recognize your net worth. In France, great wealth is spent within the family, on thefamily. It’s not shown off, but rather spread about to make the lucky feel comfortable and safe. The French bourgeois don’t pine for yachts or garages with multiple cars. They don’t build homes with bowling alleys or spend their weekends trying to meet the quarterly food and beverage limit at their country clubs: they put their savings into a vacation home that all their family can enjoy, and usually it’s in France. They buy nice food, they serve nice wine, and they wear the same cashmere sweaters over and over for years.

Overall, I cannot help feeling that the moments of insight have been toned down, the sharp edges carefully rounded to make this book more appealing to a mass audience. Charming confectionery, but I would have preferred something a little more truthful and substantial.

 

 

 

 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Ms. Adler?

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There is no mystery to what book blogger and literature student Elena likes. Her Books and Reviews blog states quite clearly that it’s ‘crime fiction, women’s representation and feminism’ which rock her boat. I love the fact that she reads and reviews so-called serious literary fiction but finds crime fiction equally riveting and worthy of recognition. It’s thanks to Twitter once again that I got to know Elena – where she is better known as Ms. Adler (see the Sherlock reference below to understand why). I’m delighted to welcome Ms. Adler to my blog to answer some questions about her reading passions.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

When I was 12, I was at that awkward reading stage where children’s books were not enough and adult books were too grown-up for my taste. I was given three anthologies of classical novels adapted as comics and The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle quickly became my favorite. After reading it a few times, I asked my parents to buy the novel for me and I have been a crime fiction fan ever since.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I love reading contemporary crime fiction because the authors are still alive. It thrills me to know that such works of art are being written right now, while I am writing my own academic articles or watching TV. I find it very inspiring! Also, I get to talk to them about their writing, their inspiration and their characters… I think that is a luxury.

I also have a more than a soft spot for women investigators. Actually, I am pursuing a PhD on women investigators. It is very easy to see them working long hours and suffering from everyday sexism, which is something that, as a young woman, one can very easily relate to.

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

I loved Someone Else’s Skin by Sarah Hilary. I think crime fiction is about much more than merely solving crimes and Hilary nailed the social criticism part. I am a huge Kate Atkinson fan as well, because even though Life After Life is not typical crime fiction, it overlaps with the social criticism. Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly has a delightful psychopath as a main character.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

I think the Jackson Brodie series by Kate Atkinson would be in competition with the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell. Two very different styles, but equally good. Atkinson is much more philosophical and explores psychology, while Cornwell has been exploring forensic science since 1990. I grew up with CSI on TV, so reading about how DNA and mobile phones were once not part of crime-solving amazes me.

girlonthetrainWhat are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

I have been hearing about a new novel, Girl on the Train published by Transworld that I can’t wait to read. Mind you, I usually spend two hours a day commuting by train, so I think it could very interesting to see how someone like me would fit on a crime novel. Of course, my To-Be-Read pile is huge. My lovely boyfriend is in charge of buying me all the Scarpetta books in the series as I read them, so I have two Scarpetta there. Mason Cross’s The Killing Season is there as well; he created a kick-ass FBI female detective! (Could you name another FBI female agent? I could not).  [Clarice Starling is the only one I can think of.]

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

I am a die-hard fan of Kate Atkinson and Margaret Atwood. Anything they will ever write will be a favorite of mine. Alias Grace and Life After Life might be the best books that I have ever read; I never get tired of recommending them to others.

I am an English literature graduate, so I love postcolonial literature (produced in territories that were once part of the British empire), because it deals with very complex constructions of identity, especially for women. My latest discovery, and one I had the pleasure to meet in person, is Australian author Simone Lazaroo. She writes about moving to Australia from South Asia and how her looks did not fit into “Australianess”. These works usually remind you that racism and prejudices are still part of people’s lives.

Philosophy comes high on my list for everytfeministsundays2hing: personal interest, reading, classes that I dream of attending… So I try to incorporate as much philosophy as I can to my reading. My latest was Gender Trouble by Judith Butler and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the construction of gender in our society (and how to defy it).

Finally, I’m all for empowering contemporary women writers, so I try to read as much works written by women as I can. I think there is still a gap in the industry even though I mostly talk to female publicists, publishers and authors. I think the stories women have to tell are still considered “by women, for women” and it is not fair at all. I am so excited for the initiative #ReadWomen2014! It really tries to fight bookish sexism by creating an online community that reads, reviews and recommends women writers. We have the power to change things and initiatives like this one gives us back the power to do so.

 

Thank you very much, Ms. Adler, for your very interesting self-portrait as a reader. Incidentally, for those of you who share a passion for women writers and feminist literature, Elena has created a weekly meme, Feminist Sundays, a place of tolerance and mutual respect in which to discuss feminist issues (and sometimes just downright funny things in advertising!).

For previous participants in the series, just follow this link. As usual, if you would like to take part, please let me know via the comments or on Twitter – we always love to hear about other people’s criminal passions! I will be taking a break with the series during August, because of holidays and other commitments, but that just means you have a longer time to ponder these questions. 

 

 

 

The Saga of ‘The Lying-Down Room’ by Anna Jaquiery

the-lying-down-roomWhen reviewing for the Crime Fiction Lover website, I tend to get a little possessive about all the books by French authors or set in France. Since I live in this country for the time being, I feel like all of the books remotely connected with France (and its neighbouring countries – my desire for conquest knows no bounds: Germany, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Spain) are mine by rights! So you can imagine my disappointment when someone else nabbed the debut novel set in Paris that everybody had been talking about, The Lying-Down Room by Anna Jaquiery. Of course Raven did a fantastic job of reviewing it, but this could have been me!

So I sensibly did the next best thing. The book was said to be French crime fiction, so I would read it in French – so there! Unfortunately, I could not find it listed in any French bookshop or library in the area or even online on Fnac. I did some further digging and discovered that, although the author was of French origin, she actually has lived all over the world and writes in English. So I bought the book in its original English, read it, was intrigued by its perfect blend of French sensibilities and English crime fiction conventions, and got in touch with the author to beg her to take part in my series on ‘What Got You Hooked on Crime‘.

So you’ll have guessed that I liked the book, but here’s a proper review of it now.

Serial killer tropes have been so overdone in crime fiction, but in this book it’s a little different. The serial killer seems to be targeting inoffensive, somewhat lonely old ladies, who have been a little neglected by their families. What is odd and frightening is these women are laid out and displayed after death in an almost grotesque ritual arrangement. Inspector Serge Morel, himself a complex character with unresolved issues, is looking into these crimes. Struggling with a Paris sweltering in the August heat, understaffed because of holiday season, he and his team – particularly the feisty, bright Lila Markov – struggle to find a motive for these murders and a connection between the women.

The investigative part of the book follows fairly traditional police procedural lines, albeit with strong characterisations. Yes, the Inspector has his problems: the requisite insensitive, media-hungry boss, a father descending into the chaos of Alzheimer’s, and a secret yearning for his first love Mathilde, which crosses the line into stalking. Yes, he has the obligatory strange hobby or quirky trait that fictional detectives need to have nowadays to stand out from the crowd: in this case, it’s origami. Yet none of it feels forced or formulaic – there is a natural flow to his personal story. Morel’s French/Cambodian mixed heritage is only briefly addressed, but will be more prominent in the next book. But I do hope the next book doesn’t lose Lila Markov, who is bristly, smart and utterly no-nonsense, making up for her boss’s occasional fey-ness.

Where the book then differs from standard police procedural is in offering us alternative points of view, including those of the pair who emerge as possible suspects. The middle-aged teacher Armand has a terrible secret from his own youth, while his protegé César is a mute young boy adopted from a Russian state orphanage. There is so much sadness and veracity in this part of the story – it is not at all sensationalised, but rather suffused with a profound melancholy and sense of helplessness. So different from another book I recently read (to be reviewed very shortly for CFL) about religious cults and the children who survive them.

And then there is all the local colour – the small asides and descriptions which place you in Paris and rural France – all done with the insider knowledge of a local, without the sometimes excessive showing-0ff for the sake of the literary tourists. And although it is not exactly French, it is an excellent book to introduce you gently into the world of French crime fiction for those who are unfamiliar with it and put off by its relentless ‘noir’ attitude or quirkiness.

 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Crime Thriller Girl?

CrimeThrillerGirlIf you haven’t yet discovered the wonderful blog of Crime Thriller Girl, you are in for a treat.  She not only provides you with thoughtful reviews of the latest crime fiction releases, she also does author interviews and is fully up-to-date with any crime festivals or other literary events. She seemed like an obvious candidate for my ‘Life of Crime’ series, so I hope you enjoy the revelations about her reading passions as much as I did.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

As a kid I loved reading the Famous Five, and later Sherlock Holmes – usually read by torchlight under the covers when I was staying at my grandparents’ house, as they had a wonderful bookcase packed full of mystery books which I loved browsing through. The Hound of the Baskervilles was (and still is) my favourite Sherlock book, and I guess you could say Sherlock is how I first got hooked into the genre. I can still remember the image on the cover of the first copy of Hound of the Baskervilles I read – a terrifyingly huge hound with a green glow around it. I don’t think I slept for a week!

As a teenager I was addicted to old re-runs of Columbo and The Saint, and read John Grisham’s legal thrillers at a rapid pace. Then I discovered the novels of the great, late Michael Crichton, and read every one of them – what a master of creative story-telling he was! I think it’s from reading his books that my love of thrillers was born.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I love a great action thriller. Something fast-paced, with lots of twists and an emotional hook thrown in always grabs my attention. There are some fantastic series in the subgenre – Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Zoe Sharp’s Charlie Fox, and Jeff Abbott’s Sam Capra to name a few.

DistanceWhat is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

Gosh, that’s a tough one, there’ve been so many! But, sticking true to my love of thrillers, there are two debuts I’ve read recently that are really stunning: ‘The Killing Season’ by Mason Cross, which is the first book in his Carter Blake series about a mysterious American gun for hire, and ‘The Distance’ by Helen Giltrow – the first book in her Charlotte Alton series set in the UK with a wonderfully strong female lead who navigates skilfully on both sides of the law.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

I’d have to say Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. It has everything I love about thrillers. Besides, each book is set in a different location and sees Reacher face a different kind of problem, so even if it’s the only set of books I have on the island, I’ll still have quite a lot of variety!

That said, if my rucksack was big enough, I’d also sneak in the Charlie Fox series by Zoe Sharp, and the Tom Thorne series by Mark Billingham onto the island! Both are awesome.

What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

I’m really looking forward to reading Steve Mosby’s new book ‘The Nightmare Place’, which has just been released. Also Jessie Keane’s new novel  ‘Lawless’, that’s coming out later this month, and the new thriller from Simon Kernick ‘Stay Alive’, which is already out and about which I’ve heard great things.

jillycooperbooksOutside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

To be honest, I mainly read crime and thrillers. Outside of the genre, I’ve read everything by Stephen Fry and would recommend all his books, they’re brilliant. Aside from that, it’s whatever might catch my eye when I’m browsing in a bookstore. Oh, and I suppose perhaps I should admit my guilty pleasure – Jilly Cooper – I’ve been a fan of hers since I sneaked a read of my Mum’s copy of ‘Riders’ back when I was a teenager!

Well, well, Jilly Cooper – who’d have thought that of a hardened thriller fan! There’s nothing like a little variety after all. Thank you very much for sharing your reading pleasures with us, Crime Thriller Girl, and enjoy yourself at Theakston’s Crime Festival in Harrogate later this week!

For previous replies in this series about reading passions, see here.  And if you would like to participate in the series, please let me know either in comments below or on Twitter.

 

Vive la France! Some Reading for Bastille Day

What better way to celebrate 14th of July, the Day of the Fall of the Bastille, than with some French fiction? I’ve picked three very different French writers for you, who are perhaps not quite household names (yet), especially outside their home country.  Each one has a very different style and approach to literature and life in general. Their books have been translated into English, but there are many more I could have recommended who are not yet available in translation. More’s the pity!

DelphineEng1) Delphine de Vigan: Nothing Holds Back the Night – Bloomsbury (transl. George Miller)

This is perhaps the closest to what you might expect from French fiction – moody, complex, eloquent and philosophical. It is somewhere between memoir and fiction: the autobiographical account (with embellishments and multiple interpretations) of the author’s childhood and, in particular, a portrait of her beautiful, fragile and troubled mother. A book that explores not just mental health issues and depression, family history and myth-making, but also whether we can ever truly help someone, as well as a meditation on the nature of memory, of how we construct our lives, our truths and semi-truths. Infused with some of Colette’s lyricism, yet analytical and even clinical at times, it is a book which startled, shocked and moved me deeply. I’ve reviewed it in the context of ‘bad mothers’ earlier this year. Currently available as an e-book, the paperback version will be published on the 31st of July.

Nicolas2) Goscinny (text) and Sempé (illustrator): Nicholas (Le petit Nicolas) – Phaidon (transl. Anthea Bell)

Absolutely enchanting, nostalgic trip down memory lane, when classrooms still had blackboards and chalk and children were allowed to play outside on a vacant lot. Goscinny( of Asterix and Obelix fame) captures the voice of a seven-year-old with great accuracy and charm. Nicolas and his merry band of friends set out with the best of intentions, but somehow always end up doing something naughty. A mix of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Just William, set in 1950/60s France, there are plenty of witty subtleties which will appeal particularly to adult readers. However, my children loved the books too, as well as the cartoon series and films. Unpretentious, laugh-out-loud fun with a minimum of moralizing, the books in the original language are also great for improving your French.

 

3) DaviBielberg-Project_cover_200x300d Khara: The Bleiberg Project – Le French Book (transl. Simon John)

Are you afraid that French literature is too ornate stylistically, too obscure or quirky in subject matter? Here is something refreshingly punchy and action-filled, but thought-provoking, to whet your appetite. It’s hard to do justice to the complex storyline, but this thriller blends memories of World War II atrocities with an account of a present day menace and manhunt. Many of the usual elements of international conspiracy are added in: an all-powerful global team, ruthless killers, betrayal of the principles of science… there are even sci-fi elements and biological experiments.  Yet the cocktail is served in a fresh and exciting way. I’ve written a review of this book on the Crime Fiction Lover website, as well as conducted  an interview with this popular young writer. The book will now be available in paperback from the 15th of July, courtesy of the hard-working independent publisher Le French Book. Since this is the first book in a trilogy, we hope that the next two translations are on their way soon

 

As for me, after a rain-soaked first week of the holidays, I just hope this weekend stays dry for the multiple planned fireworks displays! Bonne fête!

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Louis?

Louis-Bravos-300x300The aptly-named Louis Bravos is a Japanese to English translator, blogger and writer, living in Melbourne, Australia. After three university degrees and three years spent in rural Japan, he is now working on his first novel and also writing short stories. He is a fellow contributor to the Crime Fiction Lover website and would love to see more Asian crime books translated. You can follow Louis on Twitter but will find he sadly neglects his own blog.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

I grew up reading a lot of genre fiction – Stephen King was my favourite author as a child – but for some reason that stopped during high school. After I finished university I went to live in Japan for a while, and my range of reading material was pretty limited. I found a book store with a small English language section, and one of the books I picked up there was The Long Goodbye. In the next few months I read everything Raymond Chandler wrote (except Poodle Springs, which I still haven’t read. I don’t know if I ever will…) and from there moved on to Golden Age detective fiction, also readily available in Japan. Since then I haven’t looked back.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I’ve been reading a lot of espionage lately.  I tend to find an author I like and read everything they’ve written. Now I’m reading through Alan Furst’s WW2 spy novels, but before that I was reading noir, or police procedurals. Previously, I’ve devoured Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series, and Andrey Kurkov’s surreal novels – almost crime fiction, in a way. Next up I think might be David Downing’s John Russell series, or Derek Raymond’s factory series of British noir novels.

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

PM Newton’s Beams Falling, set in the early 90s in a Vietnamese immigrant community in Sydney’s western suburbs. It tells the story of a community torn apart by drugs and racism. I hadn’t heard of the author before, but picked this book up because of a great review I read online from the blog of an independent bookstore I really trust. And I have to say I was not disappointed.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

Of course, if I was going to a deserted island I would pack accordingly. Thinking strategically, I’d have to take an author who has written several books, but whose works I’ve only read one or two of. I’d probably go with James Ellroy, Lawrence Block or Ed McBain, authors I’ve always been thinking I should read more.

What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

I still haven’t read the latest Alan Furst. I’ve been putting off finishing the series, because then it will be over and I’ll have to wait for the next one to be published. I had the same problem with the Martin Beck series, although at least this time there’s a chance that more will be published.

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

I enjoy a good epic – the Russian classics, or Moby Dick. I’m not sure if others share my belief that Anna Karenina is a really fun novel. I like to try anything that’s translated, and I often find myself in bookstores buying books based on their covers.

Thank you, Louis, for sharing your reading passions with us. I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who nearly cried when the Martin Beck series was over, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Anna Karenina described as ‘fun’ before.

For previous revelations of reading passions, see here. And if you would like to participate in the series, please let me know either in comments below or on Twitter.

And Now for Something Completely Different…

Two very different books for a change (and a break from my usual crime or other gruelling subjects): memoirs and poetry.

Hilde Spiel was a highly versatile Austrian writer and journalist (from a highly integrated Jewish family), who fled to London in 1936 (after the assassination of her beloved university lecturer Moritz Schlick). Her diary of her trip to Vienna in 1946 as a correspondent for the British Armed Forces was originally written in English but was later edited and published in German as ‘Rückkehr nach Wien (Return to Vienna).

This is a very poignant and thoughtful report of a city changed beyond recognition by bombs and defeat… and yet unchanged in many ways (some good, some bad). [All translations my own.]

I must learn everything anew. The cold mouldy stone smell of Viennese houses… the unrelenting stare of the housekeeper… the suspicious, unfriendly smile that was there before the Nazis and will always be there.

hilde spielSpiel refrains from sentimentality. She is clear-sighted and precise in her description of everyday heroism and cowardice, of opportunism and the complicated relationship between the victorious Allies and the local population. She talks to a Count and Countess, who now live in their crumbling little palace in the Russian Sector. They tell her about the day the Russian army descended upon their property, camped in their garden with fifty horses, shattered all their crystal and raped their female servants. The author understands their feeling of helplessness, but cannot help thinking:

Nevertheless, the two of them have lived for seven years side by side with barbarians. Only… their own barbarians were smooth-tongued, able to converse politely about Goethe and Mozart, with good table manners, agreeable hosts and guests, polished, elegant and thoroughly European. Yet they did far worse things behind prison walls and camp fences than the rape of helpless women. It’s only when the barbarians take on their eastern, unvarnished and shameless form that the Count and Countess realise the degeneration of the present day.

This trip is of course also an opportunity for self-reflection. To what extent can we ever go home to that place where we have been happy in the past, when we have changed and the place too has changed in a different way? Who wins in the battle between heart and mind? How much of our true selves do we have to hide or abandon when we become immigrants and have to abide by the rules and cultural mores of our adopted country?

 

I fear that my centre of gravity is somewhere above the skies of Europe, drifting in a cloud above England, Austria, Italy, France, simultaneously attracted and repelled, never really coming down in any of these places… I will have to test again and again where my true home is.

returnViennaSpiel once said that she could never have worked without England, but she couldn’t live without Vienna. Yet, even as she enjoys a few musical performances at the temporarily re-housed Vienna Opera, she wonders:

Is there anything in this city still alive and contemporary, something I can admire unreservedly, that is not soaked up in the past like a sponge …?

Bonus tidbit of information that I discovered while reading the book is that Hilde Spiel spent the first ten years of her childhood on the street next to the one where I spent mine and had a similar near-Catholic experience in the very same little parish church (which is featured on the cover of the English language edition of her book).

For an additional book review and information on how to get hold of this fascinating book, see here.

 

 

sonnetsThe second book is a collection of 101 Sonnets published by Faber and Faber.  Poet, writer and musician Don Paterson curates this eclectic collection of one of the best-loved and most popular verse forms in the Western world, often with witty asides about each poem. For instance, about Elizabeth Daryush’s Still Life:

The best breakfast every described, though the end of the poem you want to go at it with a cricket bat. It’s hard to know exactly where the poet stand on all this, but we can perhaps sense her disapproval in the pampered insularity of the scene. I hope.

I had no idea there were so much breadth and variety of modern sonnets, from Seamus Heaney’s beautifully controlled ‘The Skylight’ to Elizabeth Bishop’s unconventional two-stress lines to Douglas Dunn’s blissful description of a summer of ‘Modern Love’. A volume to treasure and dip into, again and again. (And yes, that explains my own two recent sonnet attempts.)

Two for Sorrow, Two for Joy

There are four books I’ve recently read which were particularly memorable. Two cheery, two rather darker. One was A. saddening and frightening, one was B. shrewdly observational and uncomfortable, one was C. full of acerbic wit yet charming , while the last was D. energising and taking-no-prisoners forthright. I’ll leave you to match the numbers to the letters.

1) Summer Pierre: The Artist in the Office

summerpierreDay after day, this is how it goes: You get up, go to work – and save your ‘real’ self for the cracks and corners of your off time. Even worse when you have family, children, elderly relatives, pets, associations, voluntary work and all the fanfare of the parade on Main Street to contend with.  Where does your capacity for wonder go? For how much longer are you going to postpone your creative urges?

Writer, musician and illustrator Summer Pierre – you can find examples of her comics on her blog – has wise words of advice on how to combine bread-winning with your passion. And, although she doesn’t quite tell you how to deal with all the family priorities too (this may change now that she has a child of her own), there is much to reflect upon in her no-nonsense approach to artistry. This book is about ‘waking up in the life we inhabit now instead of putting off life for later’. There are lots of little tips, suggestions and prompts how to make your working life more fun and meaningful (dancing with a co-worker, little creative projects, lunchtime adventures, using your commute in productive ways). But the real clincher for me was about being honest with myself about my priorities.

There are plenty of reasons to blow up your life: You want adventure; you hate your job; you are bored with your town, your relationship, and/or your whole life. The basic desire: YOU WANT CHANGE. This is all understandable, but ask yourself this before making any huge choices in the name of your creative life: What will be different? What will change besides circumstance?

It took me years to realize that I could do all kinds of drastic acts like quitting jobs, relationships, towns (or all of the above), but what showed up at the next job, relationship and town was still me. In all creative lives, risk is important, but ask yourself, how does it feel to do your art in the life you have right now? If it seems impossible to do now, what will really change with where you are later? If you can’t do your art – even a little – in the life you have now, with the person you are right this second, YOU MAY NEVER DO IT.

As usual, not everything will be applicable to every reader, but it’s a funny and quick read. It’s a slim, slight volume, and the variations in script may make it sometimes feel childish. The thoughts contained therein may be simple but they’re profound. I’d heard all those things before, even coached others about many of the issues, but when it’s someone else forcing you to stop and think, it’s much more powerful.

Broken2) Tamar Cohen: The Broken

How do you cope when you are a couple with children and your best friends (with children of a similar age) go through an acrimonious divorce? How can you avoid taking sides, how can you protect your own life and family when you’re being engulfed by the flames of dispute and revenge? This is the dilemma faced by the very average (yet refreshingly normal) couple Hannah and Josh, when their rather wealthier and more glamorous friends Dan and Sasha separate. Dan is leaving his wife for a younger woman and Sasha seems to fall apart in front of our eyes, with disastrous consequences for all. This makes for some deeply disturbing reading of squirmingly uncomfortable social and family situations, which the author analyses with razor-sharp precision and sly observations about friendships and parenting, gender differences, nurseries, marriage. Great characters, which all seemed perfectly plausible in context, although in retrospect you kept wondering at their passivity or inability to grab the bull by the horns and spell out the truth. (Perhaps a rather English trait.)

It all starts out as a domestic psychological drama of the unravelling of a family and a friendship, which would have been enough excitement in itself. However, there is more tension, with childhood flashbacks which only start to make sense much later in the book and a sinister build-up towards the end. All in all, a really captivating read, which I finished in one go while waiting for my plane.

AllMyPuny3) Miriam Toews: All My Puny Sorrows

It is so hard to avoid melodrama and mawkishness when you are talking about depression, assisted suicide and family members. Yet Toews manages to steer clear of sentimentality in this fiercely honest semi-autobiographical novel. It’s the story of two sisters, who’ve lived through a Mennonite childhood and their father’s suicide. Outwardly, Elf is the successful one: the fêted concert pianist, married to a tremendously supportive husband, well-off… yet suicidal. Meanwhile, Yoli seems to be blundering through life, unable to hold down a steady job or a relationship, not having much authority over her children, always keenly aware of her mother’s disappointment in her. Yet it is Yoli who consistently picks up the pieces, who mediates, who moves between the stubborn, deaf and blind, between the desperate and the angry. She has to deal with her own frustration and fears, while also dealing with everyone else’s demands.

The style is disconcerting to start off with: a lack of clear speech marks, meandering through different time frames and the introduction of so many characters both major and minor. But it’s worth persevering, because it’s in the accumulation of detail that this book reveals its full poignancy. And if I’ve made it sound like an unbearably depressing read, there are actually many funny anecdotes from childhood and witty observations scattered throughout the book.  This is ultimately a story of the power and limitations of sisterly love, as well as surviving grief and loss, coming to terms with the things we have and haven’t done, the paths not taken, a story of forgiveness (of self and others).

4) Lena Divani: Seven Lives and One Great Love (trans. Konstantine Matsoukas)

These are the memoirs of Sugar Zach, a cat who is now in his seventh (and last) life. Yes, in our part of the world in the Balkans, cats only have seven instead of nine lives, which I’m sure posed some challenges for the translator and editor. Admittedly, I may not be the most objective reviewer of this book, since, as regular readers may know, I’ve recently adopted a cat and am completely smitten by it. So of course I loved this blend of humour, wry observation of humans and feline suavery.

Sugar Zach is a beautiful white fluffy cat, a born schemer and social climber who is disparaging about his birth family. He is cunning, selfish and acts cool at all times, peppering his story with his numbered Meows – general observations about human frailty and absurdity. He also prides himself on his literary knowledge (gleaned from previous lives). He can be very harsh about his humans. Hear him describe the partner of his new owner, a writer:

He loved to waste time. In the mornings, he made his coffee, turned on the PC and played Tetris for about an hour, as a warm-up. After that, he played a few games of patience for good luck, answered his emails, made some more coffee because he was done with the first one and then he started thinking about how on earth to begin the first chapter of his first novel. Just as he became lost in contemplation, the rival thought would occur to him that he had a deadline to meet for his first script which meant he needed to stop thinking about his novel at once and start thinking about the script. He experienced a significant bout of stress. To counter that, he played another game of Tetris.

Yet, as the book progresses, as both Sugar and his owners grow older, change, separate, fall ill, the book settles down from its initial sarcastic tone and becomes a touching tribute to the love between cats and humans. Short and sweet, but ironic rather than sentimental – a delight!

It’s Grim Ooop North…*

While I was working in the north of England, it just seemed appropriate to be reading crime novels set in the north (Northumberland, upstate New York and Canada’s Northern Territories). Each of these novels has a strong sense of place, and there’s desolate rural wind blowing through their very different landscapes (as well as the usual village gossip).

CarnalSam Alexander: Carnal Acts

I have to admit I struggled with this one, because it was almost unbearably graphic and misogynistic (not the author, but many of the characters). I suppose it was bound to be a disturbing read, with topics such as sex trade, Albanian mafia and both traditional and modern slavery. Fiercely independent former London cop Joni Pax is an interesting character, but I found her ditsy hippy Mum a bit overdone, while her detecting partner Heck Rutherford promises to be intriguing but does not yet quite stand out sufficiently for me. It’s a thrilling enough read, but I found the story a tad predictable yet not quite fully plausible. Stylistically, also, it feels lazy, with abundant clichés, as if the author is on holiday and allowing him or herself a bit of downtime with this book.  However, I have to admit I admire Arcadia’s clever marketing ploy to discover the real writer beneath the pseudonym. And, like everyone else, I’m dying to find out #WhoIsSamAlexander. [And won't I be biting back my words if I discover it's one of my favourite crime authors?]

Linwood Barclay: Trust Your Eyes

TrustEyesWhat if you committed a crime and thought you’d got away with it, but discover a few months later that anyone with an internet connection could have witnessed it? A brilliant premise for a novel which reminded me of Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’. Linwood Barclay is the poor man’s Harlan Coben – and I mean this in the best possible way. In his breathtakingly exciting novels, all of which start with some kind of paradox, it’s not people with superhuman abilities or international spies who have all the adventures. No, it’s the average Joes, modest citizens like you and me, who find themselves suddenly in an impossible situation, completely out of their depth. In that respect, he reminds me more of Sophie Hannah or Nicci French… and there is a strong family component to his writing as well. This is an author who really ‘gets’ complex family dynamics. This tale of two dissimilar brothers (Ray the successful illustrator and his schizophrenic, housebound, obsessive brother Thomas who sees something he shouldn’t have online) goes much deeper than just a crime story – and there is quite a thrilling, multi-stranded plot here, make no mistake about that. Not surprisingly, I discovered that Barclay himself has a brother with mental health problems, and although he says the character of Thomas is not based on his brother, the frustrated love the two brothers have for each other rings very true indeed.

BoneSeekerM. J. McGrath: The Bone Seeker

I absolutely loved the near-anthropological descriptions of life in the Inuk community of Ellesmere Island in Canada in ‘White Heat’, McGrath’s debut novel featuring Arctic hunter and unwilling detective Edie Kiglatuk. Anybody talking about strong women should take Edie as a role model: diminutive yet tough as nails, caring yet unsentimental, thoughtful yet able to whip up a good bowl of seal blood soup. In this second novel the author has corrected some of the weaknesses of the previous novel: this one has more diverse characters, is faster-paced and avoids over-long nature descriptions. Yet somehow I enjoyed it slightly less than the first, perhaps because there is a whole government conspiracy to unravel as well as a crime to solve. (I’m not a huge fan of conspiracy theories.) The description of young Martha, however, the girl who hopes to escape from her community and see the wider world, is very poignant and memorable indeed.

 

* Nobody is quite sure of the origin of this phrase, but it seems to have been fairly well established as a trope in British culture since Victorian times at least. The North stood for all that was sooty, industrial, coal-miney and dark. Funnily enough, for us Southern Europeans or those in the Balkans, the North always stood for prosperity, non-corrupt democracy, fair-mindedness and social progress.

 

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