Fiction Pick for August

The bad news is: I have done no editing whatsoever on my novel and very little new writing during the summer.  The good news is: I have read lots of books (despite my husband’s hogging of the Kindle, where I had many more stored). Which does mean a lot of reviews that I need to catch up on.  For the time being, here is a simple list of what I read this August, plus my top pick for the month, to be aggregated thanks to Mysteries in Paradise‘s efforts. Apologies, not all of my reads were crime fiction.

1. Simenon: Les nouvelles enquêtes de Maigret – for the Classics in September feature on Crime Fiction Lover website

2. David Foster Wallace: Infinite Jest – made it about halfway, not the best beach reading, more on that later

3. Alison Bruce: The Siren – second in the Cambridge crime series, loved the first book even more though

4. Cristian Mihai: Jazz – author interview coming up on my blog shortly

5. J.A. Schneider – Embryo – medical thriller

6. Ben Hatch: Are We Nearly There Yet? – pains and joys of travelling with children, but also a touching family history

7. Kate Hoyland: Ghosts of Geneva: Mary Shelley and the Animatron

8. David Dickinson: Mycroft Holmes and the Murder at the Diogenes Club – one-sitting read, between a short story and a novella

9. Anne Brontë: Agnes Grey – the only book I hadn’t read from that family

10. Leighton Gage: Blood of the Wicked – murder and corruption in Brazil

11. Emily Shaffer: That Time of the Month – light and frothy, sweet as pie

12. Kathleen McCaul: Grave Secrets in Goa

13. Chris Culver: The Abbey

14. Donato Carvisi: The Lost Girls of Rome (these last three are all going to get reviewed sooner rather than later, hopefully within a week or so – see what I mean about falling behind?)

And my top pick is Leighton Gage: Blood of the Wicked.  I am a Brazil fan anyway (should that be a Brazil nut?) and I found the background and local colour very well done, although profoundly unsettling.  I will definitely read more by this author.

Most Underrated Authors (Personal Selection)

Well, of course I owe it to everyone (and myself) to put a more positive spin on things.  It’s easy to vent about overrated books. It’s easy to be harsh with authors, especially when we cannot replicate their success.  But which books deserve a wider audience?  Because this is how I choose to define ‘underrated’ -not in terms of critical appreciation, but which should be better known. I try to stick to books which were either written in English or are easily available in translation. The issue of how little foreign literature is translated into English (although crime fiction seems to be the exception here) is a separate rant, which I will leave for another day.

1) Patricia Highsmith:

Yes, everyone has heard of The Talented Mr. Ripley (or at least lusted over Jude Law at his most gorgeous as Dickie Greenleaf in the Anthony Minghella film).  But Patricia Highsmith has written some of the most chilling psychological thrillers in the world.  So of course she is underrated, because she is usually shunted into the ‘just another crime fiction writer’ category.  What is perhaps most unsettling about her work is that her criminals/murderers are not evil monsters: instead, they are portrayed as confused, vulnerable humans, who find ways to justify even their most vile actions.  Very much like you and me, in fact.

2) Dorothy Parker:

Everybody quotes her witticisms, most people have heard of her ‘Men seldom make passes/at girls who wear glasses’, she was the most acerbic critic.  But how many have read her short stories?  They are funny and brilliantly observed, as you might expect. Her first-person monologues are as true-to-life and fresh (and as good an insight into tortured female psyche) as the day they were written (try ‘The Telephone Call’ or ‘The Little Hours’).  But they are also poignant and terribly painful at times.

3) Jean Rhys:

Speaking of poignant stories of no-hope, grim exploitation and cynicism, nobody does it better than Jean Rhys, especially in her short stories.  Like Barbara Pym (another underrated writer) she was forgotten and out of print for nearly two decades.  She is still largely unknown, with the exception of  ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, the story of Mr. Rochester’s first wife.

4) Tove Jansson:

I adored the Moomins when I was a child, but only now, when I am rereading them with my children, do I realise just how much of a craftswoman the Finnish artist and writer really is.  The books work on many levels – they are absurd, funny, highly imaginative, yet also tinged with melancholy and asking profound questions.  And she has written books for adults too!  ‘The Summer Book’ brings back so many memories of childhood, a beautiful and unsentimental description of the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter.

5) Maj Sjӧwall and Per Wahlӧӧ:

I’ve written about them before but they really are one of the earliest and best, most influential writers of crime fiction (of the police procedural type).  Whether you care for their Marxist leanings or not, you have to appreciate their realism, their deceptively simple prose, their subtlety and their questioning of all the values and treasured beliefs of society.

Looking at this list, I notice that my underrated authors are virtually all female (or a husband-and-wife team).  I wonder if there is something subconscious at work there, that I feel women’s literature (or the so-called women’s topics) are still regarded as somehow second-class.

What is your opinion?  Which authors have I missed out?  Is it easier to neglect women authors?  Thank you all so much for your honest and illuminating comments on the overrated books post.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on books and authors we should know better.

Most Overrated Books (in My World)

The Lovely BonesWhen there is too much of a buzz around a book, I tend to wait for a few years before reading it (I will probably read 50 Shades of Grey when I am a grandmother, at this rate).  I did that with Harry Potter, ‘Life of Pi’ and I am still waiting to read Hilary Mantel’s latest two.  Because, with all due respect to reviewers, online chat forums and book clubs, no one can read a book for you.  Tastes are so different, that only you can make up your own mind! (Thank goodness.)

I finally read Alice Sebold’s ‘The Lovely Bones’ yesterday and was intrigued for the first 50 pages or so, then a bit bored, then finally frustrated.  It’s an interesting premise (the omniscient narrator from heaven) and the adolescent voice is charming, but after a while the archness and sentimentality begin to jar.  It just goes on for too long: a novella-length of about 20,000 would have been more than enough.

So that got me musing about other books that I have found highly overrated.  Please bear in mind this is always a very personal exercise, so don’t be offended if I have included any of your favourites!  However, I would love to hear you defend any of my choices (because I am not Miss Know-It-All), or let me know if there are any others I ought to include.

1) Dan Brown: The Da Vinci Code

And pretty much everything else he has written.  When I first read this, I thought it was a parody of a certain type of thriller.  But alas, no, it’s deadly earnest!

2) Elizabeth Gilbert: Eat Pray Love

Don’t get me wrong: I think she is very brave to share with readers her early-midlife-crisis and search for fulfilment.  I just find the journey a selfish and not that well-written pursuit of personal happiness, with very little attempt to understand or interact deeply with the cultures she encounters.  Some funny observations, but overall too much bellybuttonism for my taste.

3) Stieg Larsson

Yes, I ‘m sorry, the whole Girl with Dragon Tattos and other tormented characteristics left me cold!  It’s not the violence or misogyny that I complain about (the first is widespread in crime fiction, the second is debatable anyway).  No, it’s the fact that it bores me.  Everyone talks about its relentless pace and it being a page-turner, but I have to admit I skipped entire repetitive passages. It feels completely unedited, a real jumble: just spewing out of odd bits of information, plotlines and shifts in narrative voice.

4) Hemingway’s novels

His short stories are brilliant.  I just find his terseness and übermasculinity grates over the length of a novel.  And sometimes I am not sure he is as profound as his critics make him out to be.

5) Paul Coelho: The Alchemist

Possibly because all the people I despised in high school loved it so much.  Or because fable-type narratives always hit my cynical vein, from which then gushes forth pretentious twaddle.  Sometimes beautiful words are poetry that makes us gasp in wonder… and sometimes it’s a rich cake, giving me indigestion.  (On the other hand, I do like some of his other books, for instance ‘Veronika Decides to Die’.)

As I said, don’t take my word for it!  If you haven’t read these, then you may want to ignore my opinion and make up your own mind. Now I would like to know which books you love to hate!  Although I may shoot you if you dare to say ‘The Great Gatsby’ or Jane Austen…

Top Reads for June

Inspired by fellow crime addict Kerrie from the Mysteries in Paradise website, I compiled a list of all the books I had read in June.  Imagine my surprise when I realised I’d actually read a lot more than I expected, probably thanks to Crime Fiction Lover, who keeps sending books my way to review.  Yes, the vast majority of them are crime fiction:

Jo Nesbø: The Snowman

Jo Nesbø: The Redeemer

Jo Nesbø: Headhunters

Camilla Läckberg: The Stonecutter

Pia Juul: The Murder of Halland

Sophie Hannah: A Room Swept White

Victoria Hislop: The Thread

Janet Hubbard: Champagne: The Farewell

Magdalena Nabb: Death of an Englishman

Mari Jungstedt: The Dead of Summer

Anna Jansson: Killer Island

D.A. Serra: Primal

Some of them have already been reviewed on this blog or on the Crime Fiction Lover site. You may notice a certain repetitiveness: Jo Nesbø features a lot, because there will be a special on him on the Crime Fiction Lover website later in July.  But which one was my pick of the month?  Well, it was a close call between ‘Primal’ (review and author interview will be coming up soon) and ‘Headhunters’.  In the end, ‘Headhunters’ won out, because the set-up was so absurd, the humour so wicked, the characters so vile… There was more than a touch of Patricia Highsmith about it, I felt.  Now I can’t wait to see the Morten Tyldum film version (perhaps less so the upcoming American version).

Books I’ve Been Reading

Some of you may know that since mid-February, roughly about the time I started this blog, I’ve been experiencing a bit of a writing renaissance.  Or, let me rephrase this: a rebirth of creative writing, because I was always busy writing articles, talks, research findings, blog posts.  So much so, that I think it left me in a soapy bath of corporate-speak: dozy, inert, unwilling  to step out of its reassuring warmth.

Since that time, however, writing has been pouring out of me like a water out of a burst watermain, and somehow this has survived two school holidays (one is still ongoing), a long bout of flu and a house move.  Any of these factors by itself would have been enough to make me run and hide the manuscript/save the file in some obscure folder/dump it all in a box in the garage in the past. But now…

Now I even have time to read something other than just crime fiction (which I still love to read, but I think I was also using it too much to unwind and switch off my brain, instead of challenging myself with different kinds of writing).  OK, compared with some of you voracious readers and book bloggers out there, I am very small fry indeed.  I’ve calculated that I’ve read about 18 books in 10 weeks, which is 1.8 per week (even though I have more than one on the go at any given time).  That is a very faint and far cry indeed from my teenage self, when I could devour that amount per day (and write extensive reviews of each one).

Anyway, because my nosey self always enjoys looking at other people’s reading lists, here are some of the more memorable books I’ve been reading these past ten weeks:

Fred Vargas: Dans les Bois Eternelles

Sheila Kohler: Becoming Jane Eyre

Chris Pavone: The Expats (I have a review of it here)

Orhan Pamuk: My Name Is Red (which I think I will review at some point)

Bret Lott: The Difference Between Women and Men

Patricia Duncker: The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge

Robert Bly: Silence in the Snowy Fields (poetry)

Stanley Kunitz: The Wild Braid (talking about creativity and gardening)

Twyla Tharp: The Creative Habit (you can read my thoughts on it elsewhere on the blog)

Le Carré: The Constant Gardener

Fred Vargas: Sous les Vents de Neptune

Virginia Woolf’s Diary edited by Anne Olivier Bell (rereading)

Ha Jin: Waiting

Not a very impressive list, I’m sure, in terms of quantity at least. I’ve also been re-reading a couple of other books (poetry and novels), an anthology of short stories and the wonderful stories and poems that appear on so many of your blogs.  With the exception of the last, what is the common trait of all of the above?  That they are nearly all (‘The Expats’ is the sole exception) books that have been out for many years and that I had never got around to reading.  Whether that means I am deeply unfashionable, badly out of date, or just starting to crank up my engine for becoming a good and prolific reader (and writer) once more, I don’t know.

Here’s to hoping…