Escapist Reading Mini Reviews – and One That’s Not

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.

magpieAnthony 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.

schollAnja 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.

essexSarah 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.

publiclibraryAli 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.

suspiciousLaura 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!

 

Highlights from Quais du Polar 2016: Part 3

As promised, the final instalment of this year’s edition of the Quais du Polar crime festival in Lyon will include some quotes and discussions from the panels I attended. This year, there is also a fabulous innovation: you can find podcasts of practically ALL the debates on this link. Most of them are in French or English or a mix of the two, but there will be occasional Spanish or Icelandic. So you too can listen to all these great events now! [Have I told you how much I love the organisers of this festival?]

  1. Cityscapes in Crime Fiction: Richard Price (NY), Michèle Rowe (Cape Town), Donato Carrisi (Rome), Carlos Zanón (Barcelona), Walter Lucius (Amsterdam)

 

Michele Rowe, author of What Hidden Lies, winner of the Debut Dagger Award in 2011.
Michele Rowe, author of What Hidden Lies, winner of the Debut Dagger Award in 2011.

MR: Cape Town is still a very wild place, dominated by nature and geography. It has seven microclimates from one end of the city to another, it is heavily dependent on weather, and I love describing how the politics of inclusion/exclusion has been partly created by its geography. For example, townships in beautiful areas were eradicated, handed over to the wealthy, and its inhabitants were dumped elsewhere. My husband calls the city ‘crime with a view’. But in fact, the whole country of South Africa is built on crime, looting, pillaging throughout history. Crime is perhaps the only possible narrative. And yet I meet fantastic people, living in very difficult circumstances with great courage and hope, despite the corrupt government, and that makes me dream that things will still work out in the end despite the odds.

Richard Price.
Richard Price.

RP: New York City is all about the violence of real estate. Like water, real estate rises to the top and people get washed away, and places like Harlem have succumbed to greed and are catering only to people who have money. The biggest crime fighter in the city is the crane, but gentrification is like sweeping with a broom but no dustpan. The town centre may be safer, but it just spreads crime and violence further afield. The crooks are not the pickpockets, but the developers in their $4000 suits.

CZ: My latest book ‘I Was Johnny Thunder’ is about a failed musician, who goes back home to live with his father, although he is middle-aged. But what I wanted to show is that the people around him, who played by the rules and believed in economic boom, haven’t really succeeded either. Your neighbourhood can become a prison, because it really marks your identity, but you also have the choice to leave. Sometimes.

From left to right: Donato Carrisi, interpreter, Carlos Zanon, Walter Lucius.
From left to right: Donato Carrisi, interpreter, Carlos Zanon, Walter Lucius.

WL: Amsterdam was a mess 30 years ago. It had a huge crime rate, red light district, junkies, but it also had a genuine sense of community and felt authentic. Now all that has disappeared, it has been sanitized and has become like an open-air museum for tourists. The real old Amsterdam doesn’t exist anymore. I write about immigrants in my books, because I feel that the Dutch don’t really accept that we have become a multicultural society.

DC: Although Rome houses the Vatican City, it is not a sacred city like Jerusalem or Mecca. Rome has multiple souls, including a wicked one. In fact, it is a world headquarters for Satanists – although they may be very different, much more subtle, than the clichés you may have about them. The world’s biggest criminal archives are in the Vatican, because it contains all the sins which people have confessed to their priests. The priests could not absolve them directly, so they sent them to Rome, where they were carefully catalogued. Today, there are profilers helping the police, based on their intimate knowledge of sins and what drives people to commit crimes.

2. Femmes fatalesPhilippe Jaenada (France), Jax Miller, Sara Gran (US), LS Hilton (UK), Dolores Redondo (Spain)

With the exception of L.S. Hilton, who tries to present the POV of a real femme fatale in her book ‘Maestra’, the other panelists were somewhat offended that they were asked to talk about this topic and that the panel was almost entirely female. However, they did their best to say something insightful about this.

From left to right: Gran, Hilton, Redondo struggling with the earphones and the subject.
From left to right: Gran, Hilton, Redondo struggling with the earphones and the subject.

SG: I just write about a female subject, rather than a female object. I write about a human being, so I don’t think at all about stereotypes. The femme fatale is the eternal object of desire, so she has to be distant, she can never be fully rounded.

LSH: I try to describe the POV of the object of desire. She plays around with the codes and deliberately turns herself into an object, but doesn’t end up getting punished. I get a little tired about being asked if I wanted to write a feminist heroine.

Jax Miller at the book signing.
Jax Miller at the book signing.

JM: My protagonist simply refuses to be a victim. She may be flawed, a killer, a drug addict, but she is above all a mother and doesn’t care about her appearance.

DR: I hate that women in noir seem to be reduced to one of three roles: victim, prostitute or traitor. I wanted to write about this very strong community of women I have known in the Baztan valley, who have taken over the household when their men went abroad to work, a real matriarchy.

PJ: I wrote about a real-life criminal, Pauline Dubuisson, who was accused in the 1953 of killing her unfaithful lover in cold blood. She was presented as a femme fatale, but in actual fact she was ‘fatalised’ by society, the last victim of patriarchy perhaps. She was always described as beautiful, but also a slut, but in fact she was just a normal-looking person, who wanted to finish her studies before getting married. She was judged by a jury composed almost entirely of men, and it was probably the one woman on the jury who saved her from the guillotine.

3. Recurring Heroes: British Classics : Sophie Hannah (Poirot), Anthony Horowitz (Bond and Sherlock Holmes), Michel Moatti (Jack the Ripper), Cecil & Brunschwig (Holmes in BD), John Lawton (Cold War spies, à la John Le Carré)

SH: I’ve loved Agatha Christie since I was 12 and always thought she was a genius, but was fully aware I wasn’t like her and couldn’t write like her. So I created the character Catchpool to explain why there would be a slightly different style of presenting Poirot. But I most certainly wanted to respect the rules of the universe I was writing in. The next Poirot novel is called ‘Closed Casket’ and will be out later this year.

HannahHorow
Sophie Hannah and Anthony Horowitz discussing Christie, Bond and Holmes.

AH: I was initially suspicious about accepting to continue the Sherlock Holmes cannon – was it all about the money? But of course it was also a childhood dream come true, because I received the complete Holmes as a birthday present when I was 17 and that’s what made me write crime fiction thereafter. I’d also dreamt of writing a Bond film, but kept getting turned down, which is why I had to invent Alex Rider. Of course, the attitudes of Bond – who hates women, gays and foreigners and kills all of the above – is not acceptable to us today, so I had to give it an ironic nudge.

JL: I came late to Christie, and still haven’t read any Sherlock Holmes, I have to admit. I did rather like Fleming, but also Sayers and Allingham, so I wanted to create the amateur cop but update him within the Cold War context, hence my creation of Frederick Troy.

Cecil: Our inspiration was Arsene Lupin, who has one volume dedicated to his arch-enemy, Herlock Sholmes. We like to stay within the Sherlock Holmes cannon, but exploit the gaps and push the envelope a bit, for instance, we suggest that Moriarty didn’t really exist, that he was just a figment of Holmes’ imagination (his tortured self, perhaps).

At this point I realise that this post is getting terribly long and I still have three debates to summarise, so I will leave the rest for tomorrow. Expect a Part 4 therefore!

 

Highlights of Quais du Polar 2016: Part 1

I will risk boring you this week with no less than three posts about Quais du Polar in Lyon. I’m afraid that if I were to condense all the news and pictures into just one blog post, it would become an EXTREMELY long one. So, Part 1 will focus on the people I met and pictures I took; Part 2 will be about the embarrassingly high book pile I acquired; Part 3 will be about the panel discussions. If you aren’t interested in any of this, I apologise and invite you back to my blog next week, when normal service will resume. You can also find some snippets of information about authors’ secrets and more pictures on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

This year I fell in love with…

  • Craig Johnson with his Stetson.
    Craig Johnson with his Stetson.

    Genial, good-humoured and incredibly productive Craig Johnson, creator of Walt Longmire, who explained what a challenge it was to have enough murders to investigate in the least populated county of the least populated state of the US (Wyoming). Prior to Lyon, he had been in Nantes for a reading and was surprised to find helicopters flying overhead and police in riot gear all around – a far cry from Wyoming, indeed!

 

  • Deon Meyer and his charming spouse.
    Deon Meyer and his charming spouse.

    Big teddy-bear of a man, Deon Meyer, who is cheery and not at all alcoholic and lonely like Benny Griessel. He got a whole auditorium to practise pronouncing Benny’s surname correctly and explained that he had used the name of his favourite high school teacher (now deceased). Because Benny was only intended to be a small side character initially, he didn’t think it would be a big deal. However, his teacher’s son (who also shares the name) told him recently that he is thankful for that, as it’s a great conversation opener when he picks up bikini-clad beauties on the beaches of Cape Town, who are reading Deon Meyer novels.

  • Sara Gran, whose Claire DeWitt novels I had only recently discovered, but who came highly recommended by the likes of Stav Sherez and other crime writers whose opinion I trust. Unruly, unusual, feisty and atmospheric, Claire is a restless soul (much like Gran herself) and moves from New Orleans to San Francisco to Las Vegas in her adventures. Sara herself is from Brooklyn, as is…
  • Jax Miller, whose debut novel I have yet to read but have heard fantastic things about. She was so open, friendly and funny, completely unvarnished in her opinions, but knowing how to make an appearance. I want her as my best friend, Robert de Niro accent and all!
The Brooklyn girls: Jax Miller (on the left) and Sara Gran.
The Brooklyn girls: Jax Miller (on the left) and Sara Gran.
  • John Connolly (not JJ, not Michael)

    Irish charmer John Connolly, who had been seated somewhat unfortunately right next to JJ Connolly, to confuse the festival-goers even more. Luckily, Michael Connelly wasn’t here this year (he was last year), or it would have been like a quick-fire intelligence test for readers. He kindly forgave me for not having any books (in French) for him to sign, but I hope to see him again at crime festivals in the UK, when I can get a book in English.

 

 

David Peace reading.
David Peace reading.
  • David Peace looked like a kindly uncle, slightly bewildered by all the fuss people made of him, and certainly far too gentle-looking to be writing the bleak, trenchant prose of the Red Riding Quartet. But then he got up on stage and read from ‘Red or Dead’, his latest book, about Bill Shankly, the manager who brought F.C. Liverpool out of obscurity to Premier League and European glory. And his rendering of the repetitions and cadences were sheer poetry, with a lovely Yorkshire accent, which he hasn’t lost even after so many years of living in Japan. The backdrop of the Trinity chapel of the Lycée  Ampère was perfect for the reading: both red and for the dead.

 

  • Sophie Hannah in the unfortunate contre-jour of the palatial Town Hall.
    Sophie Hannah in the unfortunate contre-jour of the palatial Town Hall.

    Sophie Hannah was great fun, never one to mince her words, and very serious about her Agatha Christie endeavours and efforts not to step out of the cannon. I was also startled (and flattered) that she actually knew me by name. Of course, we have interacted on Twitter, but I imagine she has had many such interactions with readers and reviewers, so I was expecting nothing more than a polite nod rather than a cheery hug.

 

  • Leye Adenle from Nigeria and Janis Otsiemi from Gabon, perhaps the two best-looking and best-dressed crime authors of the whole Quais du Polar. I must have been so dazzled that I was stupid enough to forget to ask to take a picture of either of them!
Horowitzmin
Second or third attempt at a picture of the ever-patient Anthony Horowitz.
  • Anthony Horowitz, my older son’s favourite writer, wrote him a lovely message in the book he had given me to sign, and was very kind about my rather disastrous initial attempts at taking a picture of him. Recognising my son’s Greek name, he then told me that he spends half the year in Greece, about an hour away from where my son’s godparents live.

 

 

 

Other moments to treasure: thoughtful and friendly encounters with French writers such as Franck Bouysse, Colin Niel, Nairi Nahapetian, the effervescent Caryl Ferey.  Trying to find a mix of Italian and Spanish in the recess of my memory to communicate with Dolores Redondo (another wonderful hug which I shall remember). The new South African revelation Michele Rowe (what a gracious and funny lady). Talking about Japanese cults and yakuza with Jake Adelstein (former Yomiuri Shinbun reporter in Tokyo). Asking for (and receiving) a flattering portrait of myself from BD artist Titwane.

TitwanePortrait

It’s unfair to select just these authors, as practically everyone else we met were delightful and fun. And then, of course, there was the wonderful city of Lyon itself, meeting two of my favourite bloggers, Emma and Catherine, and chatting about our favourite topic (you can guess what that is, right?) and even some cars fit for James Bond. Here’s a little selection of pictures.

venue Lyon Venue2 Venue3 venue4 car

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Fiction Fan?

A Glaswegian by birth and now back living in a small town just outside the city after a detour to the bright lights (and better employment opportunities) of London. Fiction Fan (who prefers to keep her anonymity) started reading when she was four and anticipates still being as enthusiastic about it when she turns 104. Although her tastes in reading are eclectic, crime is how she ends every day. Clearly, one murder before bedtime puts her in the right frame of mind for sleep! She started reviewing on Amazon about 4 years ago in a tiny way, was then invited onto the Amazon Vine programme – at that time a wonderful source of free books – and became addicted to the whole reviewing thing. You can find her discussing books on her wonderful blog or on Twitter.

Tommy and Tuppence.
Tommy and Tuppence.
How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

Very traditionally – via Enid Blyton first, especially George and Timmy in the Famous Five books. Then on to Agatha Christie in my teenage years: she has remained one of my all-time favourites, which explains why my cats are called Tommy and Tuppence. My elder sister was, and still is, a voracious reader of British and American crime, so through her I met up with a huge range of authors in my teens, from PD James to Ed McBain and all points between.

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

I wasn’t really aware of it till I started keeping a record of my reading through reviewing, but I’ve discovered my tastes are incredibly insular. Though I read a wide range of authors from different countries, my favourites always tend to be British and often Scottish. I guess it must be because I feel at home within the cultural setting. In older books, I enjoy the classic mystery style with a private detective, but in modern crime my tastes run very much towards police procedurals with strong central characters – Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan, Sharon Bolton’s Lacey Flint.

Untidy bookshelvesWhat is the most memorable book you have read recently?

Ooh, so many! But I’d have to go with Anthony Horowitz’s Moriarty. Brilliantly situated within Holmes’ world, but Horowitz has avoided the problems of characterisation and tone that so often beset ‘continuation’ novels by omitting Holmes and Watson entirely, except by reference. So well written and with a twist that left me gasping and applauding, it has everything – great descriptions of London, excitement, peril, horror and enough humour to keep the tone from becoming too grim. Wonderful stuff – hope he’s hard at work on the next one!  

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

Ah, that would have to be Reginald Hill! I can’t imagine life without Dalziel – for decades I waited eagerly for publication day for each new one to come out, and there’s not one of them that doesn’t stand up to repeated re-readings. I loved seeing how Hill’s style changed and developed over the series, from fairly standard crime novels at the beginning to almost literary novels by the end, often playing with aspects of some of the classic writers. If I had to choose one favourite crime novel of all time, it would be Hill’s On Beulah Height – superbly written, deeply moving and still with a great crime story at its heart. But I’d want to take his Joe Sixsmith books along too – lighter in tone and great fun. Oh, and his standalones, of course…

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

Peter May’s Runaway, due out in January. I’ve been a long-term fan of May since his China Thrillers days, but his more recent books – The Lewis Trilogy and then Entry Island – have taken his writing to a whole new level, perhaps because he’s writing about his native Scotland and somehow that has given his books a deeper integrity and more of an emotional heart. Runaway is set partly in Glasgow, partly London and is apparently influenced by events in May’s own early life. Can’t wait!

I’m also eagerly awaiting the English translation of Zoran Drvenkar’s You (in January too, I hope, though it’s been put back a couple of times already), having loved his previous very dark Sorry. Just threw that in to prove I do occasionally read non-British authors!

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

Ah, my poor friends and blog followers will be heartily tired of me recommending – nay, evangelising about – Patrick Flanery, the most exciting newish literary author on the block, in my opinion. His first book Absolution is set during and in the aftermath of apartheid, seen from the perspective of the white South Africans. It is a brilliant look at how memories are distorted and conflicting, and how hard it is to distinguish whether motives are personal or political. A book that actually made me re-assess my opinion of the time. And his more recent novel, Fallen Land, is a stunning cross between thriller and literary novel, looking at the state of the American psyche in the post 9/11, post global economic crash world. I somewhat arrogantly declared it The Great American Novel for this decade – and I still stand by that! Oh, and it’s also an absolutely enthralling and rather terrifying read.

Otherwise I fear I incessantly recommend whatever new thing has taken my fancy (which happens on average once a week or so), be it factual, fiction, crime or just plain weird… I actually found myself trying to talk people into reading the manga version of Pride and Prejudice not so long ago! Well, an enthusiasm shared is an enthusiasm doubled, isn’t it? Especially when it’s a book…

I see nothing wrong with manga or BD versions of great literature. I’ve read most of my French classics in this way! And I’m completely in agreement with you about ‘On Beulah Height’ being one of the most remarkable of the Reginald Hill (or perhaps even all British crime fiction) canon.

This will be the last of the ‘What Got You Hooked’ series for this year. Thank you so much to all of my participants for their patience, humour and insights. You’ve added many, many authors to my TBR list! For previous participants in the series, just follow this link. If I have enough people willing to take part, I will continue the series in 2015, so please let me know if you would be prepared to answer these questions, don’t be shy!