This past month has been more diverse than most in terms of reading. I have managed to finish 12 books, of which only 7 were officially crime fiction, 4 were love stories (of a sort) and one was non-fiction but proved to be a more exciting and unbelievable read than any fiction. Two of them were in French, which makes me want to do a little dance of joy. My goal has been to read at least one book in French every month, preferably two, so as to improve my language skills, but I am sure there have been many, many times when I have failed in this mission. Finally, three of them were translations: one from Danish and two from Hebrew.
1) Sophie Hannah: The Carrier. Some of Sophie Hannah’s earlier books gripped me completely: it felt as though the author had been in my head and uncovered my most hidden thoughts. She always seems to set the reader up with an impossible puzzle, yet solves them with flourish, keen psychological finesse and not a little poetic vision. Although this was not my favourite of Hannah’s novels, it is still a good read, although perhaps not at an airport when your flight is delayed… For my full review on Crime Fiction Lover, see here.
2) Joel Dicker: La Verite sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert. Having seen and heard the author at the Lyon Crime Festival, and having seen how many awards and accolades have been heaped upon this book in the French-speaking world, I was naturally curious to read it. Well, it’s an easy-to-read, quite exciting story, with reasonable plot twists along the way, but I am puzzled as to why it has won all those awards, since it feels good but not outstanding to me. The setting is a small town in the United States, and there is nothing remotely French or Swiss about this book. There are a few cliche situations and characters, but the simple, even pedestrian language appealed to me as a non-native speaker of French.
3) Amos Oz: To Know a Woman. Perhaps not my favourite book by Oz, but he still is such a magnificent writer. He takes a widower’s story of loss and grieving, and turns it into a universal tale of love, reassessment of one’s life, trying to truly understand another person, moving on. He piles on detail after detail (about Yoel’s daily routines, his gardening, his cooking, his thoughts, his travels) and each adds a layer, but you feel that the depth really lies in what is unsaid.
Once again, the full review is here, but this is an intriguing insight into the world of Japanese nightlife and host clubs, written by someone who knows Tokyo rather well but still brings an external perspective to things.
5) Alan Glynn: Graveland. Not quite as enthralling as his previous novel Bloodland, perhaps because this one takes place all in the US, rather than Ireland or the Congo. It certainly feels very topical, dealing with unemployment, young protesters and the shadowy world of finance and corporations. I found the excessive amounts of web searching a little tedious, and the investigative journalist Ellen never quite grabbed my attention. However, the character of Frank, former architect now working as a sales assistant in an electronics store, and worried about his daughter in college, was quite moving.
6) Benjamin Tammuz: Minotaur. The principle of the story is similar to Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’: you get to see an unusual love story from multiple points of view, until you are able to discern what really happened and how each player in the drama justifies matters. I read this in one breathless go, but it is actually a book to be savoured slowly. It has so many beautiful passages and philosophical meditations on love, passion in life, music and fear of the unknown. It is a thriller, a love story, a history of Palestine, a hymn to the Levantine spirit, a noir.
7) Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers. This book deserves an entry of its own: it is the book I wish I could have written, as an anthropologist, yet it reads like a novel. Except that all of the events described are real. It is the heartbreaking story of everyday life, hopes, fears and disappointments of slum life in Mumbai. One of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time.
8) Michael Connelly: The Concrete Blonde. A mix of courtroom drama, police procedural and serial killer novel, this is a solid entry in the Harry Bosch series, with an interesting backdrop of LA after the racial riots.
9) Meg Wolitzer: The Uncoupling. I actually left this book behind me (once I finished it) in a hotel room. I was that sure that I would never want to read it again. Although I found this story of disintegrating love and familiarity breeding contempt quite compelling. I think all of us women have experienced some of those sentiments at one time or another. However, the fable element of the story and the supposedly magic spells that descends upon all the women in the New Jersey suburbs was a little annoying and artificial, especially the ending. When it stuck to the mundane, there were many funny moments in the book. It is all at once a sharply observed, witty look at modern life in the suburbs, and a universal statement about the relationship between men and women, the way they misunderstand each other and mistreat each other, even unintentionally.
10) Massimo Carlotto: At the End of a Dull Day – to be reviewed next week
11) Louise Doughty: Apple Tree Yard – to be reviewed next week
12) Jens Christian Grondahl: Piazza Bucarest
This was an impulse loan from the library, as I stumbled across it while searching for something else, and I couldn’t resist the blurb. The narrator tries to find Elena, a young Romanian woman who married his stepfather to escape from Communism and then abandoned him. Sadly, the book was a disappointment, and not just because the woman was unsympathetic (or because we Romanian women cannot take a bit of criticism). I was never quite sure what the author was trying to say or what the point of the whole thing was. Maybe the fact that I read a French translation of the original Danish didn’t help much either – it’s like trying to see a landscape through a doubly opaque window.
My top read of this month (and many other months) is undoubtedly ‘Beyond the Beautiful Forevers’, and my favourite crime fiction pick? Hmmm, that’s a tricky choice, as there were quite a few good ones, although nothing exceptional. I think it’s a tie between ‘The Concrete Blonde’ and ‘At the End of a Dull Day’. Both rather macho reads, though, so I need something more feminine next month to compensate.