October Reading Round-Up and Picks of the Month

Strange month of business trips, sleepless nights, work deadlines – all of which tend to spur me on to greater reading heights (anything to avoid having to deal with work). But this time I read rather less than in previous months. As for the writing – forget it, I don’t think I’ve written anything new since the 10th of August.

Back to reading, however. 9 books, of which 7 by men (to counterbalance the feminine July and August). 5 crime novels (arguably, Richard Beard’s biblical thriller could have fit into this category as well), plus one very unusual read out of my comfort zone – namely, a YA dystopian fantasy novel. I even managed to reread one book, an old favourite of mine, Jean Rhys. 3 of the books were translations or in another language. Finally, my trip to Canada did bear fruit, as I read two Canadian writers this month.

Crime fiction:

Gunnar Staalesen: We Shall Inherit the Wind

John Harvey: Cold in Hand

Jeremie Guez: Eyes Full of Empty (to be reviewed on CFL, together with an interview with the author)

Bernard Minier: The Circle (Le Cercle)

Alan Bradley: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (to be reviewed on CFL)

YA fantasy:

wastelandersNicholas Grey: The Wastelanders

Since this is not my usual reading material, I lack the context and the comparisons to be able to say: this is good or this could have been better. I enjoyed the storytelling ability of the author, and it ends on a cliff-hanger, being the first in a trilogy. I believe it is in the Hunger Games mould, featuring children struggling to survive in a ruthless post-apocalyptic society headed by a dictator and inciting them to fight against the ‘monstrous outsiders’. An allegory of ‘otherness’ and abuse of power, written in an accessible, exciting style which is sure to appeal to boys aged 11-14.

Unclassifiable:

Richard Beard: Acts of the Assassins

Women writers:

Heather O’Neill: Lullabies for Little Criminals

mackenzieJean Rhys: After Leaving Mr Mackenzie.

Here’s what I said about it on Goodreads:

I was attracted to its darkness and nihilism as a teenager, but now I can appreciate its understated drama and writing style more. A small masterpiece of descent into hopelessness from which all the current ‘middle-aged woman in a life crisis’ books could benefit.

And here’s an extract which should give you a flavour:

It was the darkness that got you. It was heavy darkness, greasy and compelling. It made walls round you, and shut you in so that you felt you could not breathe. You wanted to beat at the darkness and shriek to be let out. And after a while you got used to it. Of course. And then you stopped believing that there was anything else anywhere.

I want to write a longer feature about Jean Rhys at some point, as she is one of my favourite writers – you know me and my love for the gloomy! I also feel she is still somewhat underrated. I’ve also discovered there are two Jean Rhys biographies to discover (although so much is unknown about her life).

I enjoyed 5 out of my 9 reads very much indeed, and the rest were quite good as well, although I had certain reservations about a couple (as I mentioned in a previous post). My Crime Fiction Pick of the Month is John Harvey’s Cold in Hand, for its unsentimental, fearless yet very moving description of grief. But my top reads are actually the two books by the women writers, both very gripping, realistic and disturbing reads about those living on the edge of what society deems to be ‘nice’ and ‘acceptable’.

 

 

What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime, Dee Kirkby?

2012 smallAt our virtual book club, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Dee Kirkby, writer, runner, midwife lecturer, cake-baker, book patron and voracious reader.

Dee writes using the name D.J. Kirkby (for adults) and Dee Kirkby (for children). Although she does not write crime fiction (yet!), Dee is the author of Without Alice, My Dream of You, Realand, Raffie Island and Queendom (The Portal Series for children), Special Deliveries: Life Changing Moments and My Mini Midwife. She can be found online on Twitter or at her websites for children or grown-ups.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

My first memorable experience in crime fiction was when I read one of Sue Grafton’s novels from her Alphabet series. I then quickly went through the rest she had written in the series to date (up to E I think) and then all of the Jonathan Kellerman novels I could find in the library.

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

I have found that  I am gravitating lately towards the ‘cosy crime’ genre – my reading time is an escape and I no longer want to escape to the life exposed in some of the grittier crime novels.

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

I presume you mean the most memorable crime novel? That would be either ‘Itch’ by Simon Mayo or ‘The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie’ by Alan Bradley, which are both what I would class as YA crime novels. However, like most YA, they are suitable for older readers too.

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

The Dark Tower series by Stephen King – some of the best and most versatile writing that I have had the pleasure of reading throughout my life. Oh, and if I am allowed two authors then anything by Dr. Seuss (yes, really).

Dee's incredibly tidy desk.
Dee’s incredibly tidy desk.

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

I am looking forward to reading The Casual Vacancy by J.K.Rowling (because it has been on my TBR pile for a long time), The Bromeliad Trilogy by Terry Pratchett (because I am a patron of reading and like to read books I can recommend to mid grade readers) and After the Snow by S.D. Crocket (because the title intrigues me).

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

This is too eclectic a mix to answer concisely but I do list all the books I read each year on a dedicated page on my website: http://www.djkirkby.co.uk/my-2014-a-z-reading-list/

 

Thank you, Dee, for your forthright answers and I have to agree with you about the delights of Dr. Seuss and the charming Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley. I look forward to chatting to other passionate readers and reviewers about their criminally good reads over the next few weeks. For previous participants in the series, please click here

 

Who is Flavia de Luce?

As it happens, Flavia is my 7th continent for the Global Reading Challenge hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.  For those unfamiliar with the notion of the seventh continent, this could be crime fiction from or set in Antarctica.  However, since there is remarkably little literature being written there – I suppose all those scientists have got bigger equipment to fry monitor – it can also be defined as: the sea, space, the supernatural, history, the future – or whichever alternative setting you can come up with for this wildcard category.

In my case, following fashion would clearly be a novelty for me.  So I read something about vampires (that was my first contribution to the challenge). My second venture into the realm of trendiness was YA literature.  My children are still too young to read YA, so I haven’t been able to borrow their books yet.  In fact, I am not quite sure what YA is, because when I was 12-18 I was reading all the grown-up books when I wanted to be cool and all the children’s books when I needed comforting.

I still do.

FlaviacoverAnd sure enough, the Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley strikes me as the kind of thing to appeal to grown-ups more than to eleven-year-olds, even such precocious 11-year-olds as Flavia.  This is comfort food at its best.  The book I read was ‘I am Half-Sick of Shadows’ and it’s a perfect escapist read.

Flavia is the youngest daughter of an aristocratic English family, who has fallen on hard times. They are struggling to make ends meet in their crumbling country house, but they still manage to have servants and a laboratory in the east wing.  This is where Flavia, a budding chemist, can recreate her uncle’s experiments.  She is planning something special this Christmas: to entrap Father Christmas with a birdlime resin mixture as he slides down the chimney.

In the meantime, her father is renting out their manor as a film location. Flavia is annoyed that Christmas preparations are suffering as a result of the invasion of the film crew, but her sisters are excited to meet the famous film star Phyllis Wyvern. When Phyllis agrees to stage a charity event at the hall, more than half the village turns up to watch despite forecasts of blizzard.  Everyone is snowed in for the night, and they soon make a shocking discovery: a body, strangled to death with a length of film.  As the local police bumble along in their investigation, it is up to perky little Flavia to uncover the real culprit.

As you can surmise, this book looks back nostalgically at the Golden Age of crime fiction: a typical country-house mystery with a small cast of characters.  What makes it different, of course, is the witty, prickly and mischievous narrator, Flavia herself.  She is an intriguing, beguiling creation – but, let’s be honest, no eleven year old would think, talk or behave like that.

So that’s why I think this book is aimed at an adult audience, who can appreciate all of the puns and cultural or scientific references. Adults who have a nostalgia for their childhood capers and who seem to remember they were far more precocious than they perhaps really were. I’ve reread a few of my ‘young adult’ diaries and there is very little trace of sophistication or wit there, I can assure you.  Luckily, there is in this book, so a good time will be had by all.