Flee the Fire

So no, if you scratch me, I will not bleed. If you stab my heart, your knife will splinter on sheer flint. The calamine-soaked bandages sticking to the pus of my burn wounds neither hurt nor soothe me. I’ve been burning since the night I forgot to check on Freddie. Hell is the only place for me and I dare not leave it any time soon.

The forest fires in Canada may no longer be in the news, but they are still raging (although some rain is making the firefighters’ work slightly easier). That will be a post for another day, about the shortlasting visbility of news stories…

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Vanessa Delamare?

VanessaThis time we travel to Canada to meet the delightful Vanessa Delamare and hear how she developed an appetite for a life of crime (fiction). Vanessa is not only bilingual in both her reading and blogging habits (look here for her enthusiastic reviews in both languages), she is also the organiser of QuébeCrime, an unrushed and intimate crime fiction festival set in beautiful Québec City. You can also find Vanessa on Twitter, where she is also busy setting up a new website and Twitter account for QuébeCrime.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

I don’t remember exactly which book got me hooked, but I have clear memories about ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. I couldn’t tell you the story in detail now but I still feel that sense of malaise when I think about that book. It felt good to me as a child, knowing a book can give you such feelings of fear and stress, but at the same time, you’re safe at home. I also remember reading a lot of Agatha Christie’s  books and preferring Miss Marple ! But after a while, I wanted something more modern. It was then that I discovered Patricia Cornwell. At the time, I was working with computers and I could tell that what Lucy was doing was credible. I’ve asked a nurse about the medical stuff and she told me that was accurate too. I loved that accuracy in fiction, unlike in a TV show where the geek presses a button on his keyboard to show pictures when everybody else would use their mouse! So I discovered that I could learn new things whilst also having fun reading. I then moved on to Ellis Peters’ Cadfael. What a pleasure to learn historical things too! I just love the diversity in crime fiction.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?
Yes and no. I do seem to read a lot of noir fiction – I really appreciate tartan noir, nordic noir… all that is noir. But after a few of those novels, I need to read a historical crime fiction book or something more technical, just to change. I’ve even learnt to appreciate spy fiction, which is not really my cup of tea. It might be the only sub-genre that wouldn’t be my first choice, but I really loved Terry Hayes’ ‘I Am Pilgrim’. And now I’m reading David Khara’s ‘The Bleiberg Project’ and it’s really good (about spies and WWII and crazy science…) In fact, as long as a book keeps me on edge or interested, I’ll love it!
What is the most memorable book you have read recently?

In truth, there’s quite a few books I really enjoyed this year (those I gave 5/5 on my blog) but as I must name a single book, I’ll go with Donato Carrisi’s ‘The Whisperer’. It’s Carrisi’s first book and it’s excellent. Quite often, debut novels have a certain clumsiness or lack of confidence, but not in his case. I might be a gullible reader but at one point I just shouted “no way!” and I love that: to be completely led by the nose. 

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, I’m always asking that of writer, so now it’s my turn to not really know how to answer (serves me right I guess!). I could say Maxime Chattam, a French writer I really admire, but I’ve already read all of his books, so it might be a bit annoying to already know the end of each story. It’ll be the same with Chris F. Holm’s ‘The Collector’ series, so I’ll have to go with an author whose books (some of them, at least) I have yet to discover. It could be Ian Rankin or Pierre Lemaitre (and I can’t thank you enough for recommending the latter to me!), but perhaps in the end I’ll take Val McDermid’s numerous books. I really liked the suspense she puts in ‘The Torment of Others’ and what better way to counter the stillness of a desert island than with something thrilling?

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

Well, I’ve bought a lot of Pierre Lemaitre’s books, so I guess that’ll be my next focus! I’ve also just discovered David Khara, a French author that I really enjoyed, so I’ll read his second book in the trilogy featuring Eytan Morgenstern with pleasure. I’m also currently reading Lisa Unger’s ‘The Whispers’, about a newly widowed wife and mother who after a car crash can see/hear people in danger or dead, a kind of psychic who helps the police. It’s a fast and enjoyable read, so I think I’ll love the next book too. In fact, my TBR is so big I don’t know if I’ll be able to read all in the next few months!

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

Fantasy! I’ve tried more ‘noble’ literature but I found it boring (who am I, why am I, etc.). I’ve occasionally tried Goncourt prize winners, but I find them disturbing (in a bad way): too many sickos, too much gloominess. With fantasy, I can travel to other worlds, discover other cultures. I’m really fascinated by the imagination writers must have to be able to make a non-existent world come alive.  My first encounter with the genre was Harry Potter (like a lot of people, I guess). Then I read Game of Thrones (so good!) and even Diana Gabaldon’s series Outlander. Well, it might not be pure fantasy but it’s neither crime nor boring fiction! From time to time, however, I do find a literary book that will spark my interest: I enjoyed ‘Rû’ by Kim Thuy or ‘La main d’Iman’ by Ryad Assani-Razaki. [Sadly, neither of them are available in English yet.]

Thank you, Vanessa, for your refreshing candour and ever-present enthusiasm about books! And a great shout-out for French crime fiction too.  I’m starting to save up money already for a possible future trip to QuébeCrime. What have you read/ loved from Vanessa’s list of authors? 

For previous participants in this series, please look here. And please let me know if you are passionate about crime fiction and if you would like to take part. 

Two Very Different Crime Locations

Yet another sleight of hand and double-entry bookkeeping, to make up for my recent invisibility on the blogging front. Here are two book reviews of crime fiction for my Global Reading Challenge. It’s not just necessity that inspired me to set them alongside each other. I find the comparison fascinating, as it is hard to think of two more diametrically opposed  locations than Cuba and the Northern Territories of Canada. Both books transport you to a different world, where it is nearly impossible to find your bearings, where none of your usual rules apply.

Both books deal with closed societies, where few outsiders venture, as they are viewed with suspicion and find it difficult to integrate.  Both authors are tremendously skilled at conveying the richness of a world few of us can explore or even imagine. And if this means that in both books, the plot is sometimes slowed down a bit by this complete immersion technique, then so be it! There is still much to be gained from exploring these books.

Cover of "Havana Gold: The Havana Quartet...
Cover of Havana Gold: The Havana Quartet

Leonardo Padura: Havana Gold

Perhaps the most unusual fact about Leonardo Padura Fuentes is that he is still living and writing in Cuba, although his novels are quite critical of Cuban society. Political discourse is kept to a minimum in this novel (the second in a quartet featuring detective Mario Conde), but the depiction of the absurdity of a centralised system for everything, the almost casual mention of corruption and preferential treatment of high-ranking Party officials would have been enough to get censored in other Communist countries. Yet there is such passion for life and love in the pages of this novel, so much of the hustling and mingling from the streets of Havana, that the plot is almost secondary. I was intrigued by the initial set-up: a schoolteacher is brutally murdered, but it turns out she was anything but your typical schoolmarm. In fact, she had far too close a relationship with her students. Yet, despite the twisting plotline, I found myself struggling to remember whodunit after finishing the novel. I was far more interested in the evocation of Havana society and of Mario’s developing love interest.

The style is flamboyantly Latin, with lots of noisy chatter, and disconcerting moves from third person to first person narrative, as we go inside characters’ heads.  This is a rich tapestry of double meaning, double dealing, lack of trust and enduring friendship despite growing differences. The truth is slippery, and nothing is quite what it seems.  A metaphor for Cubanese life? Whatever the author intended, it makes for a colourful noirish tale, with plenty of funny moments to alleviate the underlying sadness.

M.J. McGrath: White Heat

mcgrath-m_1844550fI’d been meaning to read this novel for ages, but it was proving elusive here in France. Then I just happened to find a hardback copy for sale at a charity shop in London last week and carried it home in my suitcase. There is something about ice, snow and Northern countries which utterly beguile me.

The author displays an uncanny knowledge of the Inuit world. I cannot tell if it is accurate or not, obviously, but it feels completely believable, so I am completely sucked into that landscape and society. She captures perfectly the vast emptiness of Ellesmere Island, far north of the Arctic Circle, a harsh, dark world, with remarkably resilient people, despite the excessive drinking, the lack of jobs and future of its young people. All this is rendered in a clear-eyed, unsentimental style, taking that lifestyle for granted rather than trying to explain too much of it away to us.

Edie Kiglatuk is an expert Inuit hunter and guide, and she is getting suspicious of the way recent tourist expeditions to the area have ended in accidents and death. When her beloved stepson Joe becomes involved in these tragic events, Edie displays almost super-human cunning and endurance skills to track down the killers and find out the truth. This reminded me of ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’, a book I loved when it first came out.

So pleased I pushed myself to explore new continents, thanks to the Global Reading Challenge. For 2014, I am thinking of going into far more detail with Japanese and Latin American literature.

Review: Dead Cold by Louise Penny

DeadCold‘Dead… what?’ you may well ask, because outside the UK this book was published as ‘A Fatal Grace’.  Somehow, this title was not deemed suitable for the British, but the original title was nowhere to be seen, so I spent quite a bit of time on Goodreads and other sites to find out which book I had just finished reading.  Don’t you love it when that happens?

This is my incursion into Canada for the Global Reading Challenge, that wonderful meme hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.  And a very frosty, atmospheric journey it was too, set around Christmas in the sleepy village of Three Pines in Quebec.  This is the second book in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series and I picked it at random, simply because it was the only one available at my local library. It is perhaps not the strongest in the series, but I enjoyed the atmosphere and the characters so much that I have already ordered a couple more from abroad.

Every now and then you come across a crime series that has a fully developed world of its own, its own language and in-jokes, the interplay of characters, which you only gradually penetrate, book by book.  It is a pleasure to sink into such a complete and satisfying landscape, and I feel about this series much the same as I felt about Lindsey Davis’s ‘Falco’ series set in Ancient Rome. It’s like meeting an old friend.

Yet, at the same time, this is cosy fiction with an unsettling undercurrent, not just an escapist read. Gamache is a complex, thoughtful, sensitive detective, who never once falls into cliché.  The village seems idyllic, but is of course filled with quirky characters, many of them artists and writers who have dropped out of the big city rat-race.  I especially enjoyed big-hearted and insecure Clara, straight-talking poet Ruth and gay couple Olivier and Gabri.  Yet one member of this peaceful community is responsible for the death of CC de Poitiers, a pretentious, unlikeable woman with a murky past, a ruthless streak and an obsession to become the next big lifestyle guru.  Death by electrocution, no less, while watching a curling game.  And what is the connection with the death of a homeless person back in Montreal?

The plot is not the main thing here, however. It’s all about the wintry atmosphere, the humorous descriptions of curling and the bulky attire inevitably linked to the Canadian climate. I also enjoyed the sly observations about the ‘others’, in this case the Anglos with their contained emotions, never quite saying what they mean. (The author herself is just such an Anglo, it should be noted, but she steps seamlessly into the shoes of the French-speaking community in Quebec.)

Carol Shields: Inspirational Quotes

Photography: Christopher Morris, 2001
Photography: Christopher Morris, 2001

I came across an old copy of the Canadian literary journal ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (dedicated to women’s literature) and found a moving tribute to Carol Shields written by her long-time friend and fellow writer Eleanor Wachtel.  Here are some excerpts that I found particularly inspiring.

About women’s literature

I’ve never for a minute doubted the value of women’s experience.  Whenever my books met with critical scorn because of their subject matter, I just shrugged. Other critical comments I listened to, but not that one.

About reading

Reading novels is not an escape; it’s a necessary enlargement of my life.

About living fully

…we have to use the time we’ve got to blurt bravely and get some words on paper and have lots of conversations with lots of people… Being interested.

About growing and developing

I never believed that people were formed at age seven and we’d never escape that inheritance.  I think people are always changing… and what changes them is access to language and their ability to expand their expression of themselves through language.

I think I would have liked to know her as a person. Luckily, we still have her books.