I’m never going to catch up on all of my reviewing, so here is a brave and brief snapshot of some recent reading. All of the below are quite engrossing and make for good escapist literature (entertaining but not ‘light and cosy’ reading). Except the last one, as you’ll see.
Anthony Horowitz: Magpie Murders
Horowitz is amazingly prolific (he cites Charles Dickens as an influence, so it’s not surprising), but in this book he gives us a bit of a bargain: two mysteries for the price of one. We start out with a classic Golden Age-type mystery written by recently deceased author Alan Conway but set in sleepy 1950s English villages, featuring his much-loved detective Atticus Pund. Any similarities to a certain Belgian detective with a moustache and hyperactive grey cells are entirely deliberate and Horowitz is clearly having enormous fun playing around with the tropes of the genre (and also showing us the weaknesses of Conway’s writing). However, just as Pund is about to assemble all the suspects and tell them who the murderer is, the manuscript ends and Conway’s editor Susan Ryeland has to find the rest of the story. And of course uncovers much more in the course of things, because it appears that this last manuscript contains many secret codes and messages and point to a real-life murderer. Much mocking of the publishing world and literary egos ensues.
For sheer unadulterated fun, great imagination and verve of storytelling, few can match Horowitz. He’s a great favourite with my boys, of course, but I’ve also enjoyed his versatility as a scriptwriter (Foyle’s War is a particular favourite). I’ve not read his Sherlock Holmes series yet, but I know he can echo and then subvert existing crime fiction styles and themes: James Bond in Alex Rider, Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett in The Diamond Brothers, and now Agatha Christie.
Anja Reich-Osang: The Scholl Case (transl. Imogen Taylor)
For anyone familiar with German history, the name Scholl evokes the brother and sister Scholl who dared to confront Nazi ideology back in the 1930s and were executed for their efforts. This book has nothing to do with them, but it’s what made me request it from Netgalley. Long live misunderstandings and serendipity!
What it does instead is present the real-life case of the 2011 murder of a 67-year-old woman in Ludwigsfelde, a small town just outside Berlin. The victim was Brigitte Scholl, wife of former mayor Heinrich Scholl, regarded as one of the most successful local politicians of East Germany after the reunification. At first, there were rumours that Brigitte was raped and killed by a serial killer, but a few weeks later her husband was arrested, pronounced guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. To this day, he pleads not guilty and German journalist Anja Reich-Osang examines the evidence in this factual recount of events.
There is no miscarriage of justice here, no spectacular revelations, just a chronological examination of two egocentric main characters and a thorough analysis of a long and difficult marriage. Despite the rather dry style and the often conflicting statements from friends and relatives, the events themselves are sensational enough to make this a compelling read. It’s also impossible not to see the sudden rush to a free market economy as a contributing factor in this domestic tragedy.
Sarah Perry: The Essex Serpent
I’ve been keen to read this one ever since it came out and I heard so many reviewers raving about it. I’m not all that keen on historical fiction nowadays, but I was sucked into the story and atmosphere right from the beginning. There is something so beguiling about settling down with a proper, old-fashioned tale of wonder, mystery and subverting of clichés about Victorian life. There are also some great characters to sink your teeth into, each one of them interesting in its own right, none of them two-dimensional, even if they only have the briefest of appearances. I didn’t personally warm too much to Cora and Will, the traumatised widow and the questioning vicar, although I appreciated the complex relationship between them, a marriage of true minds rather than lust. However, I was intrigued by Cora’s son, Will’s wife and the surgeon Luke Garrett. The atmosphere of menace, the sense of doom and waiting for the curse of the serpent to strike the village is so well conveyed.
It felt like a rich medieval tapestry to me (very much in keeping with the beautiful cover): flamboyant, easy on the eye (readable), full of poetry and grace, but not quite providing enough insulation for the bare stone walls. The ending felt as if the author had run out of ideas, rushed and yet repetitive. So, a wonderful premise and world-building in the first half of the book, but a bit of a drag and a disappointment in the last few chapters.
Ali Smith: Public Library and Other Stories
Not really a collection of stories (although it does contain some fiction), more of a love ode to the power of reading and of public libraries. Certainly something with which all book lovers will concur, and she talks with authors and librarians about what reading means to them and why libraries are important. So it does have the feel of a specially commissioned work. Yet the stories are wacky, dream-like, written in an off-kilter tone which will surprise you, interspersed with personal anecdotes. There is the story of a man who can simply not understand his ex-wife’s love of books, until he too falls under the spell of Katherine Mansfield. The life story of an obscure Scottish poet Olive Fraser. What happened to the ashes of DH Lawrence. The woman who starts growing a tree out of her chest. Uneven, odd, but a great book to dip in and out of, and allow oneself to be surprised – much like in a library.
Laura Kasischke: Suspicious River
This was the book I was reading the night I was following the results of the American election and I wouldn’t recommend it as the best escapist fiction. In fact, it shows depressed, hopeless small-town America (a town called Suspicious River) in all its grey drabness, male sexual predatory behaviour and women’s collusion to it in grimly plausible detail. At any other time, perhaps, I would have appreciated the disturbing poetic style (which contrasts so much with the bleak storyline), but on this occasion it went over my head. Admittedly, the poetic descriptions and metaphors did try a bit too hard on occasion, but it’s worth remembering that this was the debut novel by a confirmed poet.
Leila is a young married woman, working as a motel receptionist and dabbling in prostitution with the male clients checking in. Flashbacks to her childhood, her glamorous mother carrying on with her father’s brother behind his back, her mother’s sudden death and all the neglect which followed, explain to a certain extent Leila’s strange apathy and seeking out of painful experiences. A very troubling book, because of its subject matter and the cold way in which Leila seems to depersonalise her experiences and almost invite bad things into her life. So save this one for when you have a very strong stomach, or when you have got over the pain of the American election results.
Still, I enjoy Kasischke’s poetry and was really impressed by her more recent novel Mind of Winter, so I will continue to seek out her work. I will also be attending a poetry masterclass with her this coming weekend, so wish me luck!