If there’s one upside to being ill (and having that illness drag out so long that you can no longer find anything amusing to tweet about!), it’s that you are forced to lie in bed and do nothing more strenuous than read. So I am ahead of myself in all of my reading goals, although not quite up to date with the reviews. Or with any other interesting blog post themes which I had planned.
Anyway, on to some simple arithmetic (my brain is still not able to cope with anything more strenuous).
I have read 10 books so far in February, all but two of them while I was ill:
1) Linda Gruchy: Death in Spiggs’s Wood – have reviewed it for Crime Fiction Lover
2, 3 and 4 I wrote about in my review of four women writers (I read the remaining one back in December)
5) Birgit Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast – I will review in more depth for the Translation Challenge
6) Fred Vargas: The Ghost Riders of Ordebec – I have been a Fred Vargas fan for years and finally got to read and review one in translation (review will be up shortly on the Crime Fiction Lover website)
This is one complicated, angsty, nihilistic and multitalented writer (and also jazz musician, songwriter, playwright, journalist, inventor) – the kind that France seemed to produce so many good exemplars of in the early to mid twentieth century. Troubled by his lack of financial success or critical recognition as a writer, he wrote a series of potboilers under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan, in which his love of American crime fiction is evident. In this book he is both celebrating and subverting the ‘hardboiled’ genre of writing. It’s the story of Dan, a nightclub bouncer, who has kept his black roots well hidden and passes for white in a racist society. When his (black) brother Richard appears out of the blue to threaten his happy little status quo, the life he has built together with his blonde wife Sheila and their son, Dan goes on a rampage to protect himself and his lifestyle. A disturbing and violent book, it nevertheless raises questions about identity, how we choose to define ourselves and how we respond to social pressures.
8) Franck Thilliez: Fractures
A psychological thriller by one of France’s most popular up-and-coming writers of ‘polar’ (crime fiction). He specialises in thrillers with a medical slant to them (either mental health issues or deadly viruses or bio-experiments) and is set to become better known in English-speaking countries too, as one of his books ‘Syndrome E’ has just been translated and optioned for film rights in the US. ‘Fractures’ is perhaps not one of his best, but a riveting read nevertheless (despite quite a few gruesome scenes) and with an interesting subject: multiple personality disorder.
This is a debut novel, a madcap chase through most of Scotland’s cityscapes. It starts out with a simple enough mistake: Lucy Kennedy stops for a coffee at a service station just outside Dundee and leaves her car unlocked. Two opportunistic thieves steal something from her car. So far, so normal. Except that Lucy is a drug mule for a very unpleasant Scottish crime lord and his even less scrupulous fixer, Vince. And they will stop at nothing to get back their stolen goods: 2 kilos of pure cocaine. Detective Inspector Ronnie Buchanan of the Grampian police in Aberdeen is soon engaged in the man-hunt of his life, following the trail of Vince’s devastation and mind-games all over Scotland.
The plot twists and turns relentlessly, with lots of violent scenes, narrow escapes and tricks that the two main protagonists play on each other. Perhaps there is almost too much plot in here, a natural mistake for many first-time novelists, and this can be at the expense of the characters. All in all, an amusing read (reminiscent of Colin Bateman’s ‘Divorcing Jack’), but could have done with some more judicious editing.
10) Arthur W. Upfield: Murder Down Under
My contribution to the Global Reading Challenge for Australia, this classic crime novel introduced me to the philosophical, patient and methodical half-caste Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte of the Queensland Police. The inspector uses his holiday to help out one of his protegés from the Western Australia Police and investigate the disappearance of a farmer whose car is found abandoned near the rabbit fence of the large government wheat farm. Bony goes undercover as a farm labourer, to encourage people to talk freely to him, and soon finds himself involved in a second mystery, that of the enigmatic Mr. Jelly and his lovely daughters. The claustrophobia of a small farming community is perfectly rendered, although I found the casual description of pervasive racism of the 1930s and of the death penalty a bit shocking.
I had never heard of Bony before, but he completely charmed and captivated me. The author does tend to raise him to almost mythical status and give him all the virtues of both races: the wisdom, patience and close observation of nature (tracking skills) of the Aborigines, as well as the analytical abilities and eloquence of a highly-educated white man. Yet the story still feels fresh today, proving that you don’t have to use ‘heart in your mouth’ moments on every page, but can instead take time to build well-rounded characters.
One final thought to conclude this rather rambling post: does the way we feel (physically and mentally) have an impact on how we read books? I found, for instance, that I had enough fever and wild imaginings in my head, and so had no desire to encounter any more hectic pacing and convoluted plot lines. Instead, I was drawn to humour, well-drawn characters and a more cosy atmosphere. Comfort read, perhaps?