What Makes a Book Emotionally Gripping?

I’ve just read two books that left my guts in a tangle, so emotionally wrenching were they. The third, in comparison, although perfectly competent and also in the same ‘genre’, was comparatively easier to read, process and distance myself from. So I started wondering what kind of book gives me more of a vertiginous emotional ride?

The Incredible Hulk rollercoaster, Florida. From culturaltravelguide.com
The Incredible Hulk rollercoaster, Florida. From culturaltravelguide.com

In no particular order, this is what comes to mind instantly:

1) Plot: I like my fair share of twists, but I’m not talking unputdownable five thrills a page plotting here. I’ve read books like that in one night and then forgotten about them the next day. Rather, it’s the subject: something about children suffering will always punch me hard in the stomach. I also commiserate with women going through emotional turmoil, depression, betrayal, isolation and revenge. I always find the plight of immigrants disturbing and fascinating: people who have lost everything or who are willing to risk anything to start over again in a country that doesn’t really want them.

2) Style: There is something about the first person POV and being inside a character’s head which is very compelling. Especially if that person clearly has a lot of ‘issues’ and you’re not sure if they are a reliable narrator or not – but then, who is? We all create our own versions of the story. I also like a more reticent writing style, where not everything is spelled out for you (sometimes several times within a chapter), where you have to read between the lines. I like paragraphs where every single sentence counts, sentences in which each word has its part to play. Nothing is wasted and you are forced to pay attention. I’m not offended by frankness, violence, swearing or sex if it serves the purpose of the story. I really dislike gratuitous and repetitive violence (and all of the above if it serves little purpose).

3) Character: I’ve said before that ‘likeability’ is not my main condition for appreciating a character. I always plump for ’roundness’, being believable, memorable, a world unto themselves, and having a coherent and unique voice. In real life we meet far too many boring, bland people who all merge into the background after a while. In fiction I want to meet those larger than life characters that will stay with me for years.

So, after this intro, which three books am I talking about? Here they are, in order of emotional dizziness (from strongest to most neutral reaction):

thewomanwhofedKristien Hemmerechts: The Woman Who Fed the Dogs (transl. Paul Vincent)

Based on the real-life story of Michelle Martin, the wife and accomplice of notorious Belgian serial killer and rapist of the 1990s Marc Dutroux, this is a fictional recreation of her possible thought processes while in prison (with her release date approaching). This is the kind of book that you cannot really ‘like’ – the word is too weak to describe the powerful feeling of repulsion and pity that it evokes in you.

Gritty and sexually explicit (the CleanReader would have a field day with the text), told in the first person entirely from the woman’s point of view (here renamed Odette) it repulsed and attracted me in equal measure. Which is probably the writer’s intention, as it helps to put us inside the mind of a woman locked in a very disturbing relationship. The title comes from a well-known and disturbing fact in the case: while her husband was imprisoned for a minor offence, Martin fed the dogs at his home, but not the two girls he had locked in his cellar. Was she not aware of their existence, did she believe they were already dead or was she too afraid to go down in the cellar, as she later claimed? And if that is the case, does this woman deserve a second chance or is she an irredeemable monster? The real Michelle Martin was released a couple of years ago (she lives in a convent under close supervision of the nuns), a fact which provoked outrage and bitter recriminations in Belgium.

The Flemish author is known for her provocative writing and this book is no exception. It addresses all our prejudices and facile judgements head on. It does not sugarcoat or excuse behaviour, but it provides an alternative explanation which humanises someone whom it is perhaps too easy to label a monster. Odette becomes obsessed with another case of a female murderer: Genevieve Lhermitte, who killed all her five children with premeditation. Yet Lhermitte was labelled mentally unstable and was greeted with pity rather than being demonised.  Nor has Lhermitte been labelled the ‘most hated woman in Belgium’. This comparison becomes very demoralising throughout the book. In fact, generally I would advise to embark upon this book only when you are in a very strong and resilient mental state.

Little sidenote: World Editions has produced a beautiful edition here, with those rounded corners a particularly nice touch.

letyougoClare Mackintosh: I Let You Go

The first chapter already had me close to tears: a mother walking home from school with her child only to watch him being hit by a car just outside their home, with the driver then speeding away. The police investigation starts and those chapters seemed very authentic, especially regarding timelines and how long it takes to solve cases (I then discovered the author has worked in the police previously). The stresses and external temptations in a policeman’s (or woman’s) marriage were also well described.

But this is also the story of Jenna Gray, who has fled to a remote beach in Wales to recover from the trauma of the accident and try to rebuild her life. These chapters puzzled me: I thought I was reading a romance novel, there was just not enough threat or strangeness there initially, except that Jenna tends to be very secretive and overreact in certain instances. Everybody has admired and talked about the big twist that occurs about halfway through, and there are also subsequent twists to the tale. But that wasn’t what made the book compelling to my mind (although I enjoyed them). This story is more about the menacing atmosphere, the claustrophobia, the psychology of power in relationships. There are a couple of improbable elements though, which detracted slightly from my reading pleasure, but overall an emotionally draining read (in a good way).

veranoDaniel Quirós: Eté rouge (Red Summer) (transl. into French by Roland Faye)

Interesting insight into the complicated and inter-related politics of Central and Latin America, with Nicaragua, Argentina and Costa Rica all making an appearance here. Don Chepe is a former guerilla fighter who ‘helped out’ the Sandinistas in Nicaragua but has now retired to a tropical paradise on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Except the remote fishing village is beset by the relentless heat and dust of the summer… and by the discovery of the body of an Argentinian woman who runs the local bar. She has bequeathed some mysterious documents to her friend Don Chepe and he follows the trail of those documents to discover her murderer.

This is more of a political thriller rather than a straightforward crime fiction, although it starts with a dead body. It is based on real-life events, albeit heavily fictionalised. The suspense element is perhaps less sustained, but it provided me with a window into a country I know very little about. The heat of the dusty summer is almost the main hero of this book, the theme is constantly recurring, and this perhaps creates a certain distance and distaste for politics. Or perhaps it’s because the author (and Don Chepe) refer to the victim as ‘the Argentine’ throughout the entire book, or because Don Chepe himself feels old and disillusioned with politics, or perhaps because it all refers to events which took place a while ago. There is a sense of being a step removed from the action, so ultimately I found it less involving. Perhaps just as well, after the two books above.

What makes a book truly gripping for you? What keeps you turning the pages all night or remember a book long after you finish reading it? What makes you cry (if you do cry at books – I admit ‘The Little Prince’ still gets me every time)?

 

 

 

New TBR Reading Challenge – and Rereading

I’ve been following Jacqui’s recent deep-digging into her TBR pile with interest. Her latest blog post, reflecting on the experience of her #TBR20 challenge, was particularly enticing. Writer Eva Stalker launched the idea, and some of my blogging friends, such as Emma and Max, have also been persuaded to join in. So I plan to follow suit, while allowing some wriggle room for those inevitable review copies.

The principle is very simple. With so many books double and triple stacked on my shelves (not to mention stashed away on my e-reader), I really need to stop collecting and start reading some of them. So I plan to reduce the pile by at least 20, for however long it takes, and during this period I will refrain from buying any new books (other than those I am sent for urgent reviewing purposes). You are probably laughing, remembering how disastrous my TBR Double Dare challenge ended up… But this feels more manageable – or perhaps it’s just the right time of year to be doing it.

I do have an initial list of 20 in mind, but will allow myself to be open to the fickleness of moods and interests. I also want to incorporate a good selection of ebooks and real books, French and German books, poetry and non-fiction, crime and translated fiction etc. My Global Reading Challenge seems to be suffering a little here, so I may have to make some changes. I will probably need to do a serious cull of my ebooks at some point in addition to this.

So here are my first thoughts on the topic (the ones marked with denote crime fiction titles, is for woman writer)

1) Books in French:

P1030248All about the challenges and disappointments of everyday life in modern France – quite a contrast to the more luscious depiction of France in fiction written by foreigners.

Marcus Malte: Cannisses – small-town residential area C

Jérémie Guez: Paris la nuit – the alienated youngsters of the Parisian balieues  C

Emmanuel Grand: Terminus Belz – Ukrainian refugee in Breton village, aiming to cross over to Britain  C

Fouad Laroui: L’etrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine – Morocco meets France in this collection of bittersweet and often very funny short stories

Dominique Sylvain: Ombres et soleil – finally, a woman writer too! The world of international corporations, dirty money and arms trade – plus the charming humour of the detecting duo Lola and Ingrid.   C W

2) Books in German: 

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Jakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord  – third case for Kayankaya, the Turkish-born detective with a very Frankfurt attitude   C

Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs – stories from small-town Switzerland

Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe – the dying of the light in East Germany, a biology teacher who proves to be the last of her species  W

Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch – this wasn’t much liked by the IFFP shadow jury, but I was attracted by its Berlin setting and thought it could be the Christiane F. for the new generation  W

Friederike Schmöe: Fliehganzleis – 2nd case for ghostwriter Kea Laverde: I’ve read others in the series and this one is again about East vs. West Germany and some traumatic historical events   C  W

3) Books on ereader

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Ever Yours – The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – one of my favourite painters, need I say more?

Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – an allegorical tale

John Enright: Blood Jungle Ballet – the return of detective Apelu Soifa and his fight against crime on Samoa  C

Sara Novic: Girl at War – child survivor of Yugoslav war returns to Zagreb ten years later  W

Ansel Elkins: Blue Yodel – debut collection of poetry, winner of the 2014 Yale Series of the Younger Poets prize  W

4) Other:

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Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts – Romanian writer who died of tuberculosis of the spine at the age of 29 in 1938 (perhaps fortunately so, since he was Jewish)

Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills – shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award this year, but written back in 1983, it’s all about Mother Russia, the artist’s life and living under censorship

Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night – the first in the Simran Singh series and always very topical about controversial subjects in India C W

Ariel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart – a younger person’s version of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ (which I didn’t like much), a teenager’s journey of self-discovery and running away from America  W

Wendy Cope: The Funny Side – 101 Humorous Poems (selected and introduced by Cope)  W

Have you read any of these? Are there any you would particularly recommend starting with, or should I swap some over for something else? (They do strike me, on the whole, as a rather sombre pile of books).

The other idea that Jacqui planted into my head was to have a bit of a rereading challenge. I carry my favourite books with me in every place I’ve ever lived in and I look up certain pages, but I never get a chance anymore to reread them properly. (Where, oh where are the days when I used to reread all of the novels of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen every year or two?) So who would like to join me and Jacqui on a #reread challenge? Perhaps of 6 books in a year, roughly one every 2 months? Would that be feasible?

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Here are some instant favourites that spring to mind: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender Is the Night'; Virginia Woolf’s ‘Between the Acts’ (her last novel); Jean Rhys’ ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie'; Muriel Spark’s ‘Loitering with Intent’ and Tillie Olsen’s brilliant collection of essays about life getting in the way of creating ‘Silences’. What would you reread, if you could and would?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three Quick Reads by Women Writers

After a series of gruelling (though riveting) reads in April, I opted for the comfort factor and chose some lighter reads this month, all by women writers.

committeeJulie Schumacher: Dear Committee Members

Jason Fitger is a professor of creative writing at a small, second-rate college, who feels he is spending most of his time writing references rather than getting any real work done. His department is facing serious cuts, he’s made a mess of his personal life, his literary ambitions have been thwarted and his views on his students’ abilities, their job prospects and future are painfully funny. Written as a series of letters (and the occasional online form) of recommendation, this will bring a broad smile of recognition (and an occasional pang) to anyone who has ever worked in academia (or anyone involved with writers). A short, satirical book, with a narrator full of pompous self-justification and whingeing, who is unintentionally funny – a delightful way to pass a lazy afternoon. I read it in one sitting, because, having been a victim of endless bureaucracy myself, I kept saying: ‘Just one more letter…’

bloodywomenHelen Fitzgerald: Bloody Women

Another early Fitzgerald book, this one was recommended by fellow bloggers and writers Hollyanne, Cleopatra and Kate Evans.

Despite the macabre and serious subject matter, this was such a zany, fun read. Fitzgerald has a deceptively easy, free-flowing style that makes you think ‘chick-lit’ at first glance. But no chick lit would feature a storyline in which the main protagonist, Catriona, ties up loose ends before her wedding by contacting each one of her former boyfriends, having one last farewell bout of sex with them (usually while being completely drunk) and then discovering their mutilated bodies shortly afterwards. Needless to say, Catriona is the prime suspect and, in an interesting reversal of timeline expectations, we get to hear most of the story in retrospective, while she is in jail on remand. A journalist wants to write a trashy biography of her, hilariously misinterpreting or cherry-picking from interviews with former friends and family. Catriona contrasts the biography with her own recollection of events, but we suspect her own interpretations are sometimes unreliable, while her memory of her last encounters with her exes are hazy, to say the least.

I did guess the final plot twist, but to me this book is not about the twists and turns of a criminal investigation, but about the fresh, original voice.The frank, no holds barred language and messed-up characters, the deft characterisation and sly asides: this seems a stormy assault on British restraint (Fitzgerald comes from Australia originally, but has now settled in Scotland), yet at the same time has a lot of self-deprecating humour that is forever British to me.

Penny2Louise Penny: How the Light Gets In

This doesn’t quite qualify as light reading, as it’s full of tension and drama. I’ve read the Armand Gamache series out of order and this was one I’d missed out on. There are two murder mysteries involved, plus a larger conspiracy involving Gamache’s boss (building on from previous books in the series). The conspiracy element did perhaps feel exaggerated, leading to the very top of Quebecois politics (not sure how well-received this particular book was in Quebec).  However, it certainly led to some very tense moments and real sadness when we realised how a wedge has been driven between Gamache and his former sidekick Beauvoir. The ‘proper’ investigation took second place to this drama, but had an additional poignant word to say about what goes on under the ‘happy families’ façade.

The reason why I have included it in my ‘escapism’ fiction is because it is such a delight to revisit the village of Three Pines in the company of Louise Penny and her fictional characters: the grumpy poet and her duck, the artist, the wise bookseller, the big-mouthed but warm-hearted gay couple running the B&B… these are not types, but over the course of many books have become our friends. We know their quirks intimately, yet they always manage to surprise us a little. I want to live in Three Pines, as do most of Louise Penny’s faithful readers, although I may have to give up on the Internet forever (no signal).

Have you read any of these books and what did you think of them? And do you like to alternate harder reads with more light-hearted or escapist ones? What comfort reads do you turn to?

 

Reading/Writing Summary for April

I could almost claim 14 books for April – except that one of them has been so massive that I am still reading it, and will be reading it for many months to come! That is, of course, Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji), which I’m reading along with brave Akylina.

greatwarOf the remaining thirteen, I had another epic doorstop of a book: The Great War by Aleksandar Gatalica. You will find the full review on Necessary Fiction website shortly. This website, incidentally, is well worth a look for its thoughtful reviews of lesser-known authors and short story collections, its research and translation notes, and writer-in-residence feature. For now, let me just say this book is an ambitious, sprawling, almost encylopedic collection of stories and characters, from all the different sides fighting the First World War. Touching, humorous and ever so slightly surreal.

Six books were in my preferred genre, crime fiction. If you’ve missed any of the reviews, they are linked below (all except Cry Wolf, which I was not sufficiently enthusiastic about).

Attica Locke: Pleasantville

Rebecca Whitney: The Liar’s Chair

Michael Gregorio: Cry Wolf (Ndrangheta clans penetrating the peaceful areas of Umbria in Italy)

Karin Alvtegen: Betrayal

Tom Rob Smith: Child 44

Sarah Hilary: No Other Darkness

Child44My Crime Fiction Pick of the Month, as hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, is very, very tough, as Child 44, No Other Darkness and Pleasantville are all jostling for position. So this time I think I’ll go for the one that kept me awake all night to finish it, which was Child 44. I saw the film as well this weekend, which simplifies some of the story lines and emphasises perhaps different aspects than I would have (if I’d written the screenplay – the author was not involved in it either). But I enjoyed it, and the actors were really impressive. If you want to see an interesting discussion of book vs. film adaptations, check out Margot’s latest blog post.

Meanwhile, Pleasantville fulfills my North American requirement for the Global Reading Challenge – I don’t often get to read something set in Houston, Texas.

A lot of online poetry this month (after all, it is National Poetry Month for the Americans) and I’ve also started a poetry course organised by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But, surprisingly, I haven’t read any poetry collection.

However, I did read a non-fiction book, the funny yet thoughtful essay collection with the irresistible title 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write.

Three of the books I read this month fit into the historical fiction category, but the one I want to highlight is Fire Flowers by Ben Byrne, which gives such a poignant description of post-war Japan, something few of us know about.

Alongside the two translated books (from Swedish and classical Japanese), I also read four books in French (well above my monthly target of 1-2). These were Yasmina Khadra’s L’attentat, Philippe Besson’s La maison atlantique and Virginie Despentes’ Teen Spirit (which I’ve reviewed all together here). I also read Metin Arditi’s rather chilling description of a Swiss boarding-school for boys Loin des bras.

So, all in all, a good month of reading. Although some books felt a bit average, there were quite a few that impressed me. At least I no longer feel obliged to write lengthy book reviews about those I didn’t quite gel with (or even finish them). And I’m pleased that I am spending some time in Genji’s company again. It helps to slow down my world and see things from a very different angle.

In terms of writing, I’ve been less successful. School holidays and business travel have wreaked their usual havoc. I have, however, solved outstanding plot holes and know very clearly where everything is heading now. I have the post-it note wall to prove it! Although I’m still open to allowing my characters to surprise me a little…

WIP

So, how has your April been in terms of reading and writing? Any must-read books (dare I ask that question, dare I be tempted)? Anything you felt was overrated or overhyped? Let me know below!

 

 

 

 

Review: No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary

nootherdarknessSarah Hilary has a talent for revisiting a topical theme and making something very unexpected out of it. In her debut crime fiction novel Someone Else’s Skin, it was about domestic violence. In this book it is about parenting and child protection. Let me be perfectly honest: this is not an easy book to read as a parent of young children. I had to put it aside at certain moments, to regain my composure.

DI Marnie Rome faces that most disturbing of cases: two dead children, buried for several years in an abandoned bunker, with a new development built on top. There are no clues to help identify the children – no one of similar age was reported missing in the area five years ago. How can a child simply fall through the cracks of the social system?

This is a solid police procedural, as well as a tense psychological thriller, so there is a lot of steady legwork and realistic step-by-step detecting involved. However, is Marnie allowing her own experience of foster siblings to colour her judgement of the family who lives in the house on the site where the bodies were found? We have a limited cast of characters (and suspects) and a fairly well-defined geographical location, which all add to the claustrophobia of the story.

You can imagine the emotional effect on me of the opening chapter describing the two little boys imprisoned in what will become their underground tomb, gradually realising that no one is coming to rescue them. I had a lump in my throat. This is writing which really pulls at your heartstrings, without sentimentality or cheap gimmicks. There have been recent debates about crime fiction focusing too much on graphic violence and sensationalism, to the detriment of compassion, but this book is full of deep caring for the victims and the people around them.

Bunker
Swiss bunker, from Inhabitat.com

There are some other intriguing elements here as well, such as the ‘preppers’ (people who believe in impeding apocalypse and therefore prepare themselves for it by sheltering in underground bunkers). I knew these people existed in the US, but was not aware they had arrived on British shores too. Of course, they would probably do best in Switzerland, where (by law) ‘every inhabitant must have a protected place (a bunker) that can be reached quickly from his place of residence”.

Well-written, well-observed, never simplistic or obvious, this is a strong follow-up from a writer I will certainly be keeping an eye on.

Quick Reviews of Foreign-Language Fiction

I’ve fallen very far behind on my reviews, so will write brief ones for four books I’ve recently read in a vain attempt to catch up. Besides, although they are all good books, they did not quite bowl me over. I suspect that may be because I wasn’t reading the best efforts by these authors. I do want to revisit each one of them in future.

AttentatYasmina Khadra: L’Attentat (The Attack)

Absolutely terrifying and intriguing premise for this book. A suicide bomber attacks a Tel Aviv restaurant. Dr. Amine, a respected surgeon of Arab origin (but now an Israeli citizen) is working in a nearby hospital and spends all night trying to save the lives of the victims of the ensuing carnage. Then he is called in by the police: the suicide bomber turns out to be none other than his wife. Devastated by his loss and apparent blindness to his wife’s real feelings, he tries to understand what could have driven her to such a terrible action. There is no real final message from his wife, except for the one question about how we can enjoy personal happiness when the whole community is suffering. There are many descriptions of the humiliations of daily life for Palestinians living in Israel, but the book offers no simple answers, it merely raises more and more questions. I liked the even-handedness of the depiction of both Israelis and Palestinians – there are good and bad people in each group, there are friends and enemies that the narrator makes in both camps. It’s a powerful book in its depiction of the sources of anger amongst the Arabs in Israel, even though the points are sometimes made in a rather heavy-handed way.

TeenSpiritVirginie Despentes: Teen Spirit

A French author recommended by Emma, although for a different book. But this was the only novel I could find at the local library. She has a very natural internal monologue style and a great ear for dialogue. Bruno is a failed writer, sponging off his girlfriend. He believes he suffers from agoraphobia and has been unwilling to venture outside for well over two years. But then one of his first girlfriends from high-school contacts him and tells him that they have a thirteen year old daughter, Nancy, who wants to get to know him. This is the bittersweet, often funny story of how father and daughter find each other – in a way that is not at all sentimental. The story is not terribly original and the ending felt a bit abrupt, but the characterisation was very good. The teenager Nancy is suitably stroppy and impressionable, but also touching and naive at times, while her father Bruno is lazy, contradictory, selfish but increasingly protective and paternal. A quick and fun read, with perhaps some more profound messages about self-absorbed parents.

BetrayalKarin Alvtegen: Betrayal (transl. Steven T. Murray)

This was an author that both John Grant and Margot Kinberg had mentioned recently, so I followed their recommendations. The book was a bit of a surprise, not quite what I expected. It started out relatively conventionally, with the discovery of a husband’s infidelity. Eva’s feeling of betrayal and hurt turns into a desire for revenge. But then it took a darker twist, not just because the characters were for the most part unlikeable and unreliable as narrators, but also because they were making some very bad choices. Most people have said they did not like the ending and I could say things about it feeling unjust, undeserved – like real life, I suppose. It was a cleverly constructed book, that took well-worn tropes and managed to inject a note of freshness in them – as well as constant creepy menace. But there was something about the style which did not quite appeal to me; it felt too cold, detached, perhaps a reflection of Eva’s own desire to cope. Something did not ring quite genuine. But I’ll be looking out for more novels by this author.

MaisonatlantiquePhilippe Besson: La maison atlantique (The House on the Atlantic Coast)

Another author recommended by Emma (again, not this particular book). This was a rather predictable story, but the author did make the most of it. He has a limpid, clear style, very pleasant, elegant and easy to read, although with more internal musing of the first person narrator than one might expect. It’s a coming of age story, a son thwarted by his father at every turn, with predictably tragic consequences (that we’re alerted to from the very beginning, although without giving away any of the details). It would have been interesting to hear alternative points of view (and I don’t often say that about books), as it all seems to be speculation and self-justification.

So four foreign writers, three of them French-speaking, two women, two men. Luckily, they’ve all been translated to some extent.

Karin Alvtegen has had 5 psychological thrillers translated into English, all with snappy one-word titles. The best known is perhaps ‘Shame’. Yasmina Khadra’s so-called ‘extremist trilogy’ has been translated and is very thought-provoking: ‘The Attack’, ‘The Swallows of Kabul’ and ‘The Sirens of Baghdad’. Two rather controversial books by Virginie Despentes are available in English: ‘Baise-Moi’ and ‘Apocalypse Baby’. I’ve only found two Philippe Besson books in English: ‘In the Absence of Men’ and ‘His Brother’.

 

 

 

What Was I Expecting? Beep-beep, Fashion!

I try to stay away from books that are being hyped and fussed over by publishers, reviewers, readers and most especially the media. Yet sometimes I succumb to fashion (turn to the left), fashion (turn to the right)… I nearly always end up a little underwhelmed, as I’ve been by four books in a row that I’ve read over the past two or three weeks. So I was wondering why that’s the case. I suppose it’s because my expectations are being piled up to skyscraper proportions, so it becomes impossible for any book to satisfy my hunger.

So, just to be perfectly clear, all of the books below are good books, just not great books. Like an overly demanding parent with a child who doesn’t quite achieve the stunning results they expect, I love them nevertheless, but can’t help feeling a little disappointed. And, of course, this is just my opinion, there are plenty of other readers who loved these books, etc. etc.

thefarmTom Rob Smith: The Farm

The premise is irresistible: the over-protected child (now grown up and trying to protect his parents from the truth about his sexuality) has to choose between his father’s and his mother’s account of events. Whom to believe? What is really going on? Marketed as a thriller, this feels to me more like a family saga, and makes excellent use of its remote Swedish farmhouse scenario. But I do wish there had been more uncertainty, more of the father’s side of the story and, even though I usually like a clear chronology and straightforward storytelling, in this case I would have liked more complexity, more conflicting perspectives. For a very different take on this, see the review on Crime Fiction Lover.

StationElevenEmily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

This is going to make me a lot of enemies, as nearly everyone I know who’s read it has loved this book. I did find it beautifully written, with a glossiness and thoughtfulness of language which is very appealing to the poet in me. But when I reached the end, I did feel a bit: ‘Ho-hum, is that it?’ It pains me to say this, as I saw the author in Lyon and loved everything she said.

There were some memorable scenes and a few intriguing characters, not necessarily the main protagonists (I preferred Miranda, Clark, Javeen). However, because of the constantly shifting points of view, I felt I didn’t quite come to grips with any of them. More could have been made of the Prophet, as well, and his troupe.

I enjoyed the Shakespeare references (more The Tempest than King Lear to my mind, but perhaps that just shows my own preconceptions), the sarcasm about Hollywood and fame, the description of life after the pandemic. I’m not a huge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, and thankfully the book did not go too much into the horror mode of graphic descriptions of dying.

Ultimately, it’s a story about human relationships and the longing for connection and for the comfort of the past, set against the backdrop of a threatening, uncertain world. But it’s not as moving and tender as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and a little too tame. If you want to see a writer who really goes out on a limb in an alternative world, try the much less hyped Ioanna Bourazopoulou’s What Lot’s Wife Saw. I did an interview with Ioanna for Crime Fiction Lover for New Talent November.

For much more enthusiastic appraisals of Station Eleven, see The Little Reader Library, Janet Emson and Naomi Frisby.

liarschairRebecca Whitney: The Liar’s Chair

I’m rather a fan of so-called domestic noir, perhaps because of the ‘happy’ families I’ve known throughout my life. I do get fatigued by the inevitable comparisons to ‘Gone Girl’, as if that was the first of the domestic noir genre (Patricia Highsmith, Daphne du Maurier and Nicci French had been writing them way before the current batch). Furthermore, I don’t need likable characters to enjoy a book, so I thought I would be fine with the deceits and lies of the toxic marriage depicted here. In fact, my current WIP falls broadly under this same category.

The atmosphere of menace was very well done, particularly in the first half of the book, but it was a little hard to sustain throughout. At some point it felt like the author was piling on nasty gestures by either one of the couple, for no other purpose than to up the ante. Perhaps that was necessary, because there was no great moment of ultimate danger or huge revelation: the outcomes were somewhat predictable.

However, this is a talented author, with a great turn of phrase, whose future novels will almost certainly become even more intense and suspenseful. For more reviews, see Cleopatra Loves Books and Susan White for Euro Crime.

loindesbrasMetin Arditi: Loin des bras (Far from human arms)

Far from the arms of others, who can provide comfort and love, this metaphorical title describes not just the schoolboys in this book, who’ve been sent away to an expensive Swiss boarding school by their wealthy and indifferent parents, but also the teachers at this school. Each character is flawed and vulnerable in a different way: we have gamblers, homosexuals, former Nazi sympathisers (the book is set in the 1950s), people who have lost countries, languages or loved ones. A bit of everything in short, all longing for some human connection, for a sense of community, which this school provides in some way, while heading for bankruptcy. It was an enjoyable read, with short chapters and a sense of world-weariness very fitting with the landscape and the omnipresent subtle changes of the lake’s surface. The storylines are somewhat predictable, and some of the characters feel a bit cliché, but what disappointed me most was the bare, unadorned style.

The reason for that is again false expectations on my part. Metin Arditi is an intriguing person in his own right: born in Turkey, he moved to Switzerland as a child, became a professor of physics at EPFL Lausanne, and is also a very active promoter of culture and especially music in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Given his background, I expected a more flowery language, perhaps something in the style of Orhan Pamuk, but he dissects instead with incisive, cold precision, much more like a scientist. If you want to try reading him in English, one of his books has been translated The Conductor of Illusions

Perhaps next time I’ll do a post on the hyped books which did not disappoint me – there are a few that lived up to my expectations or even surpassed them. How about you? Do you read or avoid the buzz books of the moment? And do you ever feel that ‘is that all’ sigh?