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’.

 

 

Were My Expectations Too High?

There are some books that come highly recommended, are reasonably well-written, have an intriguing premise, are enjoyable to read… and yet they still fail to quite live up to my expectations. This could be because my expectations for them are simply unrealistic. Or it could be that dreaded statement (which annoys all authors) ‘it’s not quite how I would have written the story’. Anyway, here are some recent reads that were slightly off-the-mark for me, but which others may find much more to their taste.

lecercleBernard Minier: The Circle (Le Cercle)

I loved the claustrophobic wintry atmosphere of Minier’s first novel¬†The Frozen Dead, although the serial killer locked in an asylum trope did seem a little unoriginal. So I was looking forward to this second novel – perhaps too much so. With a sinking heart, I discovered this book started with a prologue about a woman imprisoned in a cell and abused by her captor and was even more dismayed to discover that the spectre of the serial killer from book 1 (the sinister and far-too-clever Julian Hirtmann) makes a reappearance. It just stretched my suspension of disbelief a little bit too far, and there were many moments (such as the holiday of gendarme Irene in Santorini) that seemed to be mere filling, serving no purpose whatsoever. I suppose it was done to give more depth to the characters, but it just added bulk to the book. The characters of the investigators, I felt, were already fairly well-defined and rounded. Some of the secondary characters, however, were mere archetypes and there were simply too many investigations going on simultaneously.

To be fair, there were many things I did enjoy about the book. The season is early summer and it’s thunderstorms rather than avalanches which threaten the closed-in valleys of the Pyrenees. The setting is a quiet university town called Marsac, the so-called Cambridge of the south-west of France (there is a real Marsac not far from there, but this one appears to be imaginary). The character of the main investigator, Martin Servaz, and his relationship with his teenage daughter Margot; the no-nonsense Chinese-Franco-Moroccan sidekick Samira Cheung; the crime scene with the dolls floating face-up in the swimming pool; the brooding forest on the outskirts of town; the backdrop of the 2010 Football World Cup and France’s dismal performance in it… all of these were vividly described and memorable.

I read this in French, but Minotaur Books has the translation coming out on 27th of October, but I have been unable to find out the name of the translator. Maybe Alison Anderson, who also translated the first in the series.

AssassinsRichard Beard: Acts of the Assassins

Try transposing Jesus’s death and the ulterior fate of his disciples into the present-day. Arm your protagonists with mobile phones, GPS tracking, airplanes and weapons, yet describe a world of gladiators, Roman Empire bureaucracy, simple folk clad in traditional garb. Give it a sceptical but increasingly confused ‘detective’ in the shape of Gallio to track down the remaining disciples and disprove the rumours about Christ’s resurrection. And there you have it: a strange mash-up of ideas and time periods, which raises interesting questions about how to contain a new religion or ideology, predestination and interpretation of events or people’s words.

I really liked the concept and the first half or so of the book felt fresh, different and very funny (whilst also being sad at the same time). However, I felt the ‘joke’ dragged on after a while. I did like the ending, but there was a bit of a sag in the middle, although the ambiguous character of Paul (whom I’ve never felt much traction with) somewhat redeemed matters.

For a more enthusiastic review of this book (which has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction), see here and here. As for me, when it comes to a book blending religion, history and political satire, I prefer The Master and Margarita.

 

 

 

Quais du Polar Crime Festival Lyon – Part 1

Palais du Commerce, main building for events.
Palais du Commerce, main building for events.

A great weekend in sunny Lyon, stuffed to the gills with great food, beautiful sights and above all… crime fiction!

This was the 10th edition of the annual Quais du Polar crime festival, one of France’s biggest crime fiction events, and there were many special events to mark the occasion. Although I forgot my mobile at home and was therefore unable to tweet about the event while I was in the midst of it, here are some of my lasting impressions.

One of the quieter moments in the Great Hall...
One of the quieter moments in the Great Hall…

1) French bookshops and publishers do remarkably well out of this event. The queues at the book signings were very long, while many popular authors or books sold out well before the end of the event (Bernard Minier’s latest novel, for instance).

2) Most crime writers are a friendly bunch, always willing to chat and share a joke with their readers, even if that means that the queue moves rather slowly. The English speaking writers also proved very understanding when I told them that I wouldn’t buy their book in French, since I prefer to read them in English.

The queue to see James Ellroy.
The queue to see James Ellroy.

3) James Ellroy is a consummate showman and held an opera house full of people captive with his sardonic wit and straight talking. Also, he sells 2 1/2 times as many books in France as he does in the US (France’s population is roughly 65 million, that of US 313 million), despite the challenges of translating such an idiosyncratic writer.

4) Most writers agreed that it is most gratifying to be translated into other languages and that each country has a very different approach to publishing, marketing, reading and even interviewing. In France, for instance, journalists and the reading public are much more interested in a novel’s politics or philosophy. In fact, some of the panels had worthy, but rather depressing topics. Still, most of the writers managed to inject a bit of humour into the proceedings.

5) Everything is within walking distance, so it’s a great opportunity to literally bump into celebrities as well as up-and-coming writers. Here are some of the secrets I managed to prise out of them:

Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes is the pretty one on the left.
Lauren Beukes is the pretty one on the left.

Genre is such a misleading and meaningless term. We should be allowed to be promiscuous – read everything and write everything, without worrying about genre. We should be able to have one night stands and long-time love affairs, flirts and serious relationships with books, series, authors and genres.

Cathi Unsworth

‘I have to admit I’m not very au fait with current music. My cut off point is Kurt Cobain’s cut-off point.’ However, she does recommend London-based band The Cesarians. ‘Each of their songs is a little noir masterpiece. I never thought I would feel that passionate about a band as I did in my teens, but I do with them.’

Dominique Sylvain
Dominique Sylvain

Dominique Sylvain

I’ve not abandoned my detecting duo Ingrid and Lola, or my private eye Louise Morvan, but I am currently writing working on a new character, potentially the start of a new series. I wanted to try something fresh, but am struggling with it at the moment. I’ll find a way to make it work, though!

George Pelecanos

For the benefit of my Greek husband, who wanted to know if George speaks Greek, despite having lived in the US all his life: ‘I do speak it. We spoke it at home and I had to go to Greek school, which I really hated as a child. I’m glad of it now though. So when I was asked to join The Wire as a writer to consult on some Greek characters, I did now my stuff. However, when it got a bit more detailed or complicated, I would phone and ask my mother.’

A relaxed Bernard Minier, his latest book all sold out.
A relaxed Bernard Minier, his latest book all sold out. Oh, and that is Camilla Lackberg just behind, signing.

Bernard Minier

I’ve sold the translation rights into English for my second novel, the follow-up to ‘Frozen’, so it should be available soon. And in the meantime, ‘Frozen’ is coming out in the US this summer. My third novel features the same investigators and is also set in the Pyrenees. I grew up in that area and cannot resist its sombre, claustrophobic atmosphere.

I will write more tomorrow about the panels I attended and the new writers I discovered. But for now, let me end with a picture of my treasure horde from Lyon: books, posters and Black Dahlia brooches to add to my memories…

My not-so-secret stash.
My not-so-secret stash.

 

 

 

Crime Fiction Pick of July

Come and join me over at Mysteries in Paradise, led by the very able and well-read Kerrie, to see what everyone has been reading this month.  In my case, fewer books got read this month, for a very simple reason called school holidays!

Even fewer got reviewed, so let me just add a sentence or two about my thoughts for each one:

1) Bernard Minier: The Frozen Dead

A strange tale involving a decapitated  horse, a serial killer and a mental asylum in the Pyrenees. Exciting read to cool off during the hot summer months (it takes place in winter, as you might have guessed from the title).  Full review will be shortly available on Crime Fiction Lover.

2) Frédérique Molay: The 7th Woman

Gokan3) Diniz Galhos:¬†GŇćkan ¬†(in French, no English translation available yet)

Tarantino-like crime caper set in Japan, involving an American assassin, a French professor from the Sorbonne, grumpy yakuza chasing each other and a bottle of saké belonging to (you guessed it!) Quentin Tarantino.  Dynamic, explosive and just a shade incomprehensible.

4) Denise Mina: Garnethill

How did I ever miss this series?  A fantastic narrative voice, plunging you into the gritty world of low-paid jobs, drugs and Glasgow squalour. Not as grim as it sounds: ultimately hopeful and uplifting.

5) Karin Fossum: Calling Out for You (a.k.a. The Indian Bride)

Almost unbearably sad story about settled, peaceful middle-aged Norwegian man Gunder Jomann and his Indian bride, who gets murdered as soon as she arrives in the country.  It was disturbing to see how evil deeds can arise out of nowhere, in the apparently most peaceful little town in one of the safest countries in the world.  Not your average police procedural, and one that will haunt me for weeks to come.

6) Orhan Pamuk: The Museum of Innocence – will get a review of its own for my Works in Translation Challenge.

midas7) Anne Zouroudi: The Taint of Midas

Not as cosy as you might think at first sight, given the idyllic location of the Greek islands, the authoritative presence of the investigator Hermes Diaktoros and the overall charm of the author’s writing style. ¬†The ‘whodunit’ component was not quite compelling enough, but this is a book to savour for its characters, descriptions and telling details. ¬†Perfect holiday read, in the best sense of the word.

8) M.C. Grant: Devil with a Gun

Another great holiday read, this time a would-be noir set in San Francisco, featuring the Russian mafia and starring Dixie Flynn, the most feisty, witty, don’t care-ish female detective (actually, a journalist) since V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone. ¬†Review coming up on Crime Fiction Lover.

9) The PEN/ O. Henry Prize Stories 2012

The quality of the stories is not in doubt, but I was somewhat disappointed by the uniformity of the selection. ¬†All the stories were rather wistful and nostalgic, all a bit oblique – sometimes too much so, to the point where I felt like saying ‘So what?’. ¬†But perhaps that’s just me being obtuse.

FossumHappy to say that half of my reads were by women authors this month, and four of them were originally written in another language. ¬†And my Crime Pick of the Month? ¬†It’s a tie between Denise Mina and Karin Fossum, very hard to choose, ¬†but perhaps the Fossum book will linger in my memory longest.