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Archive for the category “Reviews”

Review/Giveaway for Crossing the Line by Frederique Molay

 

Crossing The Line banner

You know I very seldom participate in blog tours – perhaps once a year. However, I feel strongly about making French books more widely known to the English-speaking public, so I share the same enthusiasm and values as Emma from the blog Words and Peace and the independent publisher Le French Book. So, for them, and for the writer Frédérique Molay, I make an exception.  I read and reviewed the first book in the series featuring Nico Sirsky just over a year ago and was looking forward to reading more by this author. For other reviews and Q&A with the author, please visit France Book Tour

Crossing the Line cover

Crossing The Line

[police procedural / thriller]

(translated by Anne TRAGER)

 Release date: September 23, 2014 at Le French Book

224 pages

ISBN: 978-1939474148

Website | Goodreads

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SYNOPSIS

It’s Christmas in Paris and Chief of Police Nico Sirsky has an uneasy feeling that something is very wrong with the case he’s investigating. He and his team of crack homicide detectives follow the clues from an apparent suicide, to an apparent accident, to an all-out murder as an intricate machination starts breaking down. Just how far can despair push a man? How clear is the line between good and evil? [provided by the publisher]

Crossing The Line- Frederique MolayABOUT THE AUTHOR

Called, “the French Michael Connelly,” Frédérique Molay graduated from France’s prestigious Science Po
and began her career in politics and the French administration. She worked as chief of staff for the deputy mayor of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and then was elected to the local government in Saône-et-Loire.
Meanwhile, she spent her nights pursing a passion for writing she had nourished since she wrote her first novel at the age of eleven. The first in the Paris Homicide series, The 7th Woman, won France’s most prestigious crime fiction award and went on to become an international bestseller, allowing Molay to dedicate her life to writing and raising her three children.

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ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR

Anne Trager loves France so much she has lived there for 27 years and just can’t seem to leave. What keeps her there is a uniquely French mix of pleasure seeking and creativity. Well, that and the wine. In 2011, she woke up one morning and said, “I just can’t stand it anymore. There are way too many good books being written in France not reaching a broader audience.” That’s when she founded Le French Book to translate some of those books into English. The company’s motto is “If we love it, we translate it,” and Anne loves crime fiction, mysteries and detective novels.

My Review:

In the run-up to Christmas, Parisian detective Nico Sirsky’s personal and professional life seems to be going well, although he is still recovering from the bullet wound he received at the end of the previous book. But then something unexpected happens: the head of a cadaver being used for study by medical students contains a disquieting message. Could it be a student prank? The verdict for the death of the man who bequeathed his body to science was suicide, but many details about his last few weeks before dying seem to indicate something far more sinister. Soon, the case becomes complicated, involving and I love the way the author takes us step by step through the investigation, following promising leads which lead to blind alleys, showing all the effort and rewards of good teamwork.

This is no ‘lone ranger’ type of investigator miraculously solving impossible puzzles, whilst watching his private life go to pot. What we have here is a true police procedural in the 87th Precinct tradition, showing just how much work is involved in finding clues, filtering through the data, making connections… and still having a satisfying home life. Sirsky’s family situation takes a back seat in this story and the book is all the better for it.

There is far less graphic description of violence or dead bodies (well, if you exclude the cadavers in a university lab), but the story is a sad one. Interesting twists and bizarre clues along the way will make you want to devour the book as quickly as possible, but this is no superficial action-filled thriller. If you like crime fiction with heart and more subtle thought (and not always a fully wrapped-up parcel of an ending), Frédérique Molay is an author you will enjoy.

 

If you would like to participate in the giveaway draw for a chance to win one of 5 digital copies of ‘Crossing the Line’ (open internationally), plus a further 5 copies open for US readers only, please enter your details by clicking below. The winners will be announced on the website and individually on the 7th of October. Good luck and enjoy your read!

Fiction About Cross-Cultural Relationships

I’ve just read in quick succession two books about cross-cultural relationships and misunderstandings, about overcoming prejudices and making sense of things in a world where everything is unfamiliar. This is my specialist subject in the so-called ‘real world’ (although there are no end of surreal elements to the corporate business world), so these books are always going to tempt me. But my expectations are high, so it’s not easy for a book to meet them. The first I liked, the second I was more ambiguous about.

Kerry Hudson: Thirst

ThirstThis is a simple love story between Dave, a young man from a run-down estate in London, and Alena, a young woman from Siberia who has ended up in London, a victim a human trafficking. Except that there is nothing simple about this story – and, at first, not even much love. Alena is caught shoplifting in a fancy Bond Street store, where Dave is a security guard. At first it’s pity and self-interest which brings them together, but slowly, gradually, these two very hurt and lonely people find a way to relate to each other, although both of them are reluctant to divulge their secrets and profound emotional wounds. It’s by no means certain that they will be able to build a future together – the book does not end on a ‘happily ever after’ note, although it is not pessimistic either. There are no easy answers, no sentimental sweetness about the relationship. Instead, we get a lot of good intentions, cynical self-protection, childish reactions and lying. Yet, in spite of all that, the tale is truly heart-warming and the two main characters are endearing.

What was so enjoyable about the book is that it took well-worn clichés about Eastern and Western Europe and turned them on its head. Yes, prostitution and violent Ukrainian gangs are involved, but are they ultimately that different to the drunks and thugs that Dave sees on the council estate? Poverty is equally demeaning at both ends of Europe – and the author brings to life (pitch-perfect, as far as I can tell) the world of those with little education and few options. The exact opposite of privilege. Yet these people too have dreams, a thirst for life, a desire to improve their lot and find something that takes them out of the urine-soaked grey concrete of their surroundings.

Kerry Hudson has a clear-eyed approach which eschews tales of maudlin misery, although there are hints there of anger at social injustices. Her fresh, direct style injects a note of humour even in the bleakest moments, but it’s not the right read for you if you are looking for something light-hearted at the moment.

NorwegianDerek B. Miller: Norwegian By Night

I did want to fall in love with this one and most of the reviewers I know and trust did indeed like it. So maybe I am just ‘faulty’ and missing something, but I found it less than satisfying. In fact, it was slightly irritating and I dragged myself back to reading it with a dutiful rather than a joyous heart (we are discussing it this week at the Virtual Crime Book Club).

It’s a shame, because the book is well written stylistically and the premise is of the zany, intriguing and implausible that I usually like. Sheldon is an 82-year-old, ever so possibly senile American Jewish widower, who comes to Norway to live with his granddaughter, witnesses a crime involving the next-door neighbour and goes on the run with the neighbour’s traumatised little boy, outwitting the Norwegian police, the family and some tough Kosovan criminals along the way.

Sheldon is a former US Marine, you see, so he can hide, stalk, shoot, improvise along with the best, even if his body is no longer quite so reliable. Despite the occasional funny moments, I found the lone ranger attitude rather tiresome in the long run, too reminiscent of the American imperialism and assumption of cultural superiority which Sheldon spends most of the book dissociating from and condemning. The old man himself was far too grumpy and culturally insensitive rather than endearing, as well as brooding too much on his past, his feeling of guilt over the death of his son and on anti-semitic slights he has endured along the way. The secondary characters felt rather hastily sketched in: the little boy was a strange blank blob, partly because of his mutism, and I would have liked to see more of policewoman Sigrid and of Sheldon’s granddaughter and her partner. It just didn’t all quite gel for me, but I’m in a real minority here. I heard some reviewers say that it is not the right read if you are expecting a conventional thriller – but for me, it was too much of a thriller!

To my surprise, I discovered the author is an international affairs expert and married to a Norwegian, so I am probably reading too much negative comment into the book which betrays the main character’s flawed attitude. I will be curious, however, to see what Derek B. Miller comes up with next.

Showcase Sunday: Added to my Teetering TBR Pile

This post is linked up to the Showcase Sunday meme hosted by Vicky at Book, Biscuits and Tea. A great chance for us to discuss our latest pride and joys in acquired books, whether begged, borrowed, bought or stolen (?!).

SSsmall

Yes, I know that every week I promise there will be no further books added to the leaning towers of Pisa piles of books I have placed in various strategic points around the house (and hidden well on my tablet). But who can resist a good bargain (in the case of Netgalley, even free books)? However, one of my resolutions for 2015 is to stop being so dependent on Amazon and falling for all of its promotions. It’s hard to resist its lure when it’s often the only reliable source of English-language books in our part of France. And even buying French books is tricky, if you want to avoid going over the border to Switzerland. In the town created by Voltaire, our local bookshop has closed down, although thankfully we still have a shop specialising in bandes dessinées (graphic novels and comic books), which has expanded to include board games and has introduced a café-style gaming afternoon every week to ensure it remains open.

Review copies from Netgalley (I’m trying to extend beyond my usual crime fiction fare on this medium):

1) Gregory Sherl: The Future for Curious People

If you could see your love life in ten or twenty years’ time, would you still pick the same person to marry? Intriguing premise for a novel which promises to be funny as well as thought-provoking.

2) Katri Lipson: The Ice Cream Man

In the years just following WW2, a Finnish film director makes a film a little too close to reality, about a young couple on the run during the Nazi occupation. The Secret Police starts to believe he may know some uncomfortable truths. I’ve always been intrigued by Finnish literature and worldview (blame that to early exposure to the Moomins).

3) Matthew Thomas: We Are Not Ourselves

A family breaking down under the weight of mental health problems, set in the 1960s-1970s in Queens.

Purchased on a whim:

4) Stuart Kaminsky: Dancing in the Dark

Who can resist a mystery set in the Golden Age of Hollywood movies in the 1930s-1940s, featuring Fred Astaire? Kaminsky’s long-running Toby Peters series is a delightfully frothy, escapist creation.

5) Roger Smith: Sacrifices

I have Margot Kinberg to thank for this one. She mentioned Cape Town, one of my favourite cities in the world, as a setting for crime fiction and I remembered this very dark, very disquieting novel and its author, so I had to make it mine.

From the library:

6) Susan Hill: The Pure in Heart

The second in the Simon Serrailler series, which I have read in such disorder that I cannot remember which ones I’ve read and which I’ve missed out. Once again, it was fellow reviewers’ mention of Susan Hill which reminded me that I haven’t read her in ages and whetted my appetite for her complex psychological constructs.

 

And now for my dilemma: in the above-mentioned BD bookshop, I saw today a bee-yoo-tiful gleaming new graphic representation of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s novel ‘Fatale’, illustrated by famous BD artist Max Cabanes. It costs, however, 22 euros, which is steep even by BD standards. Should I get it or not?

From Bedetheque.com

From Bdgest.com

Fatale2

Bedetheque.com

Or am I better off getting the collected ‘romans noirs’ of Manchette for 31 euros?

Gallimard

 

 

 

 

Friday Fun: Three Quick Reads by Women Writers

I alternate the heavier tomes with more fun or thrilling reads (not that thought-provoking bookys aren’t fun or thrilling, but you know what I mean…), so here are some recommended books for this weekend. They slide oh so smoothly down your reading chords in just a matter of hours! And I’ve even associate some drinks for each one of them (because it’s the weekend!).

PaulaDalyPaula Daly: Keep Your Friends Close

Natty and Sean married young but have a good marriage and a hotel business they have worked very hard to build. Natty is perhaps getting a little too absorbed in running the business and the family, but Sean seems to understand. Or does he? When their daughter suffers an accident on a school trip and Natty rushes to her side, her friend Eve steps in to help the family back home. But Eve turns out to be a femme fatale in the guise of a friend, who manages to make Sean fall in love with her and drives a wedge between Natty and her family. Daly is so good at creating situations we can all somehow relate to, even if her characters are not all that sympathetic. Despite some elements which strain credibility, the odd plot-hole and an ending I did not quite agree with, this was a real page-turner and a tense, if somewhat cynical lesson in psychology.

Drink: Campari Orange, refreshing and initially sweet, but with a tinge of bitter

Cathy Ace: The Corpse with the Platinum Hair

prweb.com

prweb.com

A fourth outing for criminologist Cait Morgan, this time in that temple of decadence known as Las Vegas. Invited for birthday celebrations at a private members’ club, Cait and her boyfriend Bud become embroiled in a classic locked room mystery when there is a power cut, a murder and a security meltdown meaning that they and ten possible suspects are all locked for 12 hours in a luxurious but deadly restaurant. A detailed review will be coming up on Crime Fiction Lover.

Drink: The theme of the night is Russian and plenty of caviar is being served, so what else can we team that up with but ice-cold vodka?

Anne Fine: Taking the Devil’s Advice

AnneFineFine does more than just Killer Cat children’s books. Her books for grown-ups shed an uncompromising light into the flaws and dark recesses of the human psyche. This story of a marriage and a divorce – alternating between ‘his and her’ version of events – is brutally funny and mercilessly analytic, although none of the characters emerge unscathed.

[I discovered this one thanks to Sophie Hannah on Twitter. I owe quite a few reads to her, Stav Sherez and Eva Dolan. It pays to follow good writers, you see, because they are always, invariably, good readers as well!]

Drink: Tequila shots, with plenty of salt to rub into the wounds

 

 

Japanese Women Writers: Fumiko Enchi ‘The Waiting Years’

The-Waiting-YearsFumiko Enchi was a very interesting and iconoclastic woman writer in 1950s-1970s Japan. Her background was quite conventional for the time and place. She was the daughter of a distinguished scholar and was mostly home-schooled. She had some early success as a playwright, married a journalist, had children. Her health, however, had always been frail and it deteriorated during the Second World War, round about the time she lost all of her property in air raids. There are speculations that her domestic life was not entirely happy (certainly in her novels there are a lot of oppressed, unhappy or revengeful women). Perhaps all of this put together enabled Enchi to abandon all caution and become one of the most verbal and realistic writers about the plight of women in a patriarchal society.

This is a book I read in August but left too late to review for ‘Women in Translation’ month. However, in my opinion, ‘Women in Translation’ works equally well all year round! ‘The Waiting Years’ could also have been included in my post about bad marriages, as it’s the very grim and sad story of a Japanese wife at the turn of the 20th century. Tomo Shirakawa is the wife of an ambitious government official who has been tasked to find:

‘… a maid  to take back with me. Aged somewhere between fifteen and, say, seventeen or eighteen. From a respectable family, if possible… but she must be good-looking.’

In other words, a concubine. Tomo is still in love with her womanising husband, but she feels she has no choice but to accept his request to have a live-in mistress. She was born in a low-ranking samurai family, was married off early and had no proper education or social accomplishments, but ‘all the love and wisdom of which she was capable were devoted to the daily lives of her husband and the rest of the Shirakawa family.’ So she finds Suga, brings her home, has to endure her husband’s infatuation with her. Then, a few years later, her husband demands a second concubine and eventually even starts an affair with his daughter-in-law. Under this domestic tyrant, the women in the house have to find a way to accommodate each other, to hide their feelings, not to let the simmering resentments explode. None of them feel they have a choice and the wife’s story is not the only sad one. In fact, over time, Tomo – who has maintained an amazing self-control and stiff upper lip throughout-  begins to feel that the other women are to be pitied rather than envied or resented.

Written over a period of eight years, this novel covers 30-40 years of marriage during one of the most dramatic periods of modernisation and Westernisation in Japanese history. Yet those dramatic external changes do not seem to impact family life as much as one might hope. The author uses a telescopic effect in her narrative: leaping over years, even a decade, between chapter, but then stopping to examine the minutiae of daily life, the barely perceptible gestures and nuanced conversations, where more is left unsaid rather than said.

Unafraid to explore the need for sensuality in the older woman, or sexual manipulation as a weapon of the downtrodden, Enchi is a brave author who continues to feel very modern. This book was a reread – but I’d previously read it when I was 19 and unmarried, so it is with very different eyes that I return to it now. The translator is John Bester – who also translated Black Rain by Ibuse Masuji, one of my favourite Japanese books about the WW2 –   and my copy is a Kodansha International edition from 1980 (bought second-hand). Two other books by Enchi have been translated into English: the bizarre tale of female manipulation and revenge ‘Masks’ and an alternative version of an eleventh century historical romance ‘A Tale of False Fortunes’.

Reading with a Theme: Thorny Marriages

A while ago I happened to read a whole series of books about mothers. Since my return from holiday I seem to have been on a roll with books about marriages – I was going to say ‘difficult marriages’, but at least one of them is about a happy marriage… interrupted by death. Incidentally, it also seems to have been a bit of a catch-up with North American writers, as Anne Carson, Louise Penny and Maxime-Olivier Moutier are all Canadians, while two of the remaining authors are American.

Joan Didion and her family in Malibu in 1976. From back cover of the book.

Joan Didion and her family in Malibu in 1976. From back cover of the book.

Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The portrait of a 40 year marriage of true minds. Didion’s husband died of a heart-attack in 2003, and this is the searing memoir of her befuddlement, grief, sense of guilt and sheer madness of the year following her sudden loss. (At the same time, her daughter was in and out of hospital, in and out of a coma, so it was probably the hardest year of the writer’s life.) This may not be her most polished work stylistically, but it has a rawness and honesty about it which is very moving.

I’m not sure why this has been branded as pretentious or whining or self-pitying rants of a rich bitch. It shows how grief can drive us all mad, whether privileged or not, whether calm and collected or dramatic and hysterical. The author has also been accused of coldness, because she tries to present things in a detached way. This feels to me more like a deliberate strategy to remain calm, to try and understand, to analyse oneself. The polar vortex of memory that she tries to avoid by not going to places that were familiar to them: how can that be described as cold and unfeeling?

Anne Carson: The Beauty of the Husband

beautyhusband

By contrast, Carson’s collection of poems all add up to an essay on beauty and truth, our search for perfection but our paradoxical human ability to put up with imperfection for a very long time. All in all, it presents the picture of a toxic marriage, a destructive relationship captured with true poetic flourish. Based on Keat’s assertion that beauty is truth, the poet then shows us just why the husband was anything but truthful, no matter how beautiful he was (and remained) in the eyes of the wronged wife.

 

Louise Penny: The Long Way Home

LongWayHome

I’m already a confirmed Louise Penny fan, but this 10th book in the Armand Gamache/ Three Pines series is less crime fiction and more the story of a Quest: for a missing husband, for inspiration, for one’s true self, for the Holy Grail almost. I wrote a full review of it for Crime Fiction Lover, but from the perspective of marriage, it is the sad story of the dissolution of a loving long-term partnership when the insidious three-headed serpent of jealousy, envy and inadequacy makes its appearance. Clara and Peter Morrow are both artists, who met in college. Peter has always been the more successful artist with his carefully controlled, intricate paintings, while Clara was the wild and messy experimentalist. But when Clara’s star begins to rise, Peter finds it impossible to rejoice for her, as he becomes aware of his own artistic stagnation.

 

louise douglas your beautiful liesLouise Douglas: Your Beautiful Lies

Set against the backdrop of the miners’ strikes in Yorkshire in the 1980s, this is the story of Annie, a woman who is feeling trapped in a very correct but rather dry marriage of convenience, which has provided her with a comfortable lifestyle but has also isolated her from the rest of the community. When her old boyfriend (who had been convicted of manslaughter) is released from prison and shows up on her doorstep, trying to protest his innocence, she is at first reluctant to engage with him. But then she unravels rather spectacularly and becomes very reckless indeed… This book has an old-fashioned feel about it, as if it were set in the 1950s rather than the 1980s, and I struggled to empathise with Annie.

And, just in case you thought that only women can write about marriage, here is the most depressing one of all, written by a man but from a woman’s perspective.

scelleplombeMaxime-Olivier Moutier: Scellé plombé

The title roughly translates as ‘sealed with lead’, which was apparently an old method for food preservation – until the poisonous qualities of lead were discovered. This hints at the poisonous conjugal relationship and what an odd, unsettling story it is. The husband is struck by lightning on a golf course and is buried by his wife and children in secret.  Told entirely from the point of view of the wife, but addressed to her husband in a tone designed to humiliate and provoke, we then discover the story of their marriage, the rising ennui, the many daily cruelties and sarcasms, the lack of communication, the secret lives each partner found refuge in. A chilling disregard for the children emerges from this novel: it appears it’s not the marriage, but the hearts themselves which have turned to lead.

 

Finally, I almost hesitate to include Ann Patchett’s ‘This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage’ in this post, not because of the word ‘happy’ in the title, but because this collection of essays is about so much more than marriage: it is about creativity, travelling, a beloved dog, a burgeoning interest in opera music, family, friendships and, above all, writing. It also talks about the author’s first marriage and divorce, which led to many years of avoiding commitment to her second husband. In her characteristic clear-eyed, fluid style, she describes the compassion and understanding that she developed for all women who suffered in their marriages, whether they were able to get away from them or not.

My mother had divorced my father when I was four. Two years later she remarried. My mother and stepfather spent the next twenty years trying to decide whether or not they should stay together. While growing up I had never faulted her for the divorce, but I hated what I thought was her weakness. My mother didn’t want to be wrong a second time. She wanted to believe in a person’s ability to change, and so she went back and back, every resolution broken by some long talk they had that made things suddenly clear for a while. I wanted her to make her decision and stick to it. In or out, I ultimately didn’t care, just make up your mind. But the mind isn’t so easily made up. My mother used to say the more lost you are, the later it got, the more you had invested in not being lost. That’s why people who are lost so often keep heading in the same direction. It took my own divorce to really understand… I understood how we long to believe in goodness, especially in the person we promised to love and honor. It isn’t just about them, it is how we want to see ourselves…

 

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 – also reviewed on CFL

Julia Crouch: The Long Fall – also reviewed on CFL

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.

 

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