Best of the Year: Sheer Entertainment

I have read quite a lot of escapist fiction this year – escapist in my case means crime fiction that keeps you turning page after page, or a book that immerses you in a particular time and place. A sense of humour also helps – I do like black, absurdist comedy; it must be my ‘living under a dictatorship’ heritage.

The problem with escapist literature is that you have to choose it well: some things sound far better in theory than in practice, or the blurb is misleading, and even the same author is no guarantee of success. See below which ones did not work for me and which I recommend in their stead.

  1. Instead of Sarah Pearse: The Sanatorium – try Allie Reynolds: Shiver

I am a sucker for books featuring winter in the mountains, especially when the setting is France or Switzerland, where the skiing terrain is familiar to me. Although The Sanatorium is atmospheric, the whole story feels implausible and the characters are stilted. I enjoyed Shiver, the tale of snowboarding rivalry, far more and read it in a single sitting. And you don’t need to be a snowboarding fanatic to cope with the terminology.

2. Instead of Catherine Cooper: The Chateau – try Stella Benson: The Swiss Summer

I read a previous book by Catherine Cooper, The Chalet, last year and thought this might be equally fun, especially since it was about an expat couple trying to renovate a dilapidated chateau in France (you all know how obsessed I am with chateaux). However, the plot was so preposterous and the people so awful (and flatly awful at that), that I struggled to finish this. I appreciated Benson’s far more nuanced approach to different types of expats and the relationship between then and the locals in her admittedly not thrillerish at all but enchanting Swiss Summer.

3. Instead of Valerie Perrin: Fresh Water for Flowers – try Margaret Kennedy: The Feast

The French author’s story of loss, grief and unspoken love touched many hearts, I know, so you will be cross with me for admitting that to me it felt kitsch, like wading through treacle. I much preferred the allegorical tale by Margaret Kennedy, which was full of witty social observations, as well as some really entertaining characters.

4. Instead of John Leake: The Vienna Woods Killer – try Catherine Ryan Howard: The Nothing Man

It’s perhaps a little unfair to compare a true crime account with a work of fiction that only purports to include true crime elements, but I really wanted to like the book about the Vienna Woods Killer, because it features one of those hard-to-believe cases about a serial killer who was a darling of the Viennese literary society. It is meticulously researched, but oddly lacking in any Viennese atmosphere (or proper interpretation of Austrian society) unfortunately. The Nothing Man did a much better job at bringing to the fore the trauma suffered by the victims as well as the narcisstic personality of the serial killer.

5. Instead of Tahmima Anam: The Startup Wife – try Nickolas Butler: Godspeed

A novel about a female co-founder of a tech start-up being manipulated and tricked out of her rightful place and a novel about a bunch of construction workers being bullied into delivering on an impossible deadline might not seem to have much in common at first glance, but they both skewer the American dream and its materialistic ambitions. I wanted to like the Start-Up Wife more, but it felt both predictable and lower in stakes, as well as more clunky writing, compared to the downward spiral story of the three male friends building a house – perhaps because a house feels like the solid kind of legacy that we all can understand (and it feels even more of a waste when it fails).

Further recommended reads:

All of these are perfect escapist reads, for whatever mood you might be in:

  • If you’re going on a train journey soon, then Kōtarō Isaka’s Bullet Train is a very entertaining, quite un-Japanese type of thriller, with echoes of Fargo.
  • If you miss theme parks (or adventure parks, rather), then Antti Tuomainen’s The Rabbit Factor, with its unique, darkly humorous take on the Finnish mafia, is perfect.
  • If you like the Brontës or historical crime fiction more generally, then the series by Bella Ellis, starting with The Vanished Bride, featuring the siblings as detectives will warm the cockles of your heart (and also bring a little chill).
  • If you enjoy historical crime fiction set outside England, then Maryla SzymiczkowaKarolina or the Torn Curtain set in late 19th century Krakow was both educational and entertaining.
  • If you enjoy satire about writers and literary festivals, and think the publishing world needs a good hard look at itself, then Dan Rhodes’ Sour Grapes will deliver in spades, although at times the farce is a little too puerile.
  • If you like stories about friendships going off the rails and how one bad choice in your youth can have serious consequences years later, but without the artificial construction of dual timelines and ‘that day that I will not divulge to you until the very end of this thriller’, then I really recommend Sharon Bolton’s The Pact.

Quick Reviews for April – Crime Fiction

I’ve fallen behind with my reviews for this month, so I’m going to do a bit of a brain dump here regarding the crime novels I read recently.

First of all, I was fortunate enough to read five in a row which were really good fun and page-turningly exciting. That doesn’t happen all that often, even to a huge fan of the genre. All too often I have a string of so-so, disappointing or not so memorable ones. But the following are all highly recommended and I read each one of them in 1-2 days at most (sometimes overnight). Plotting is a hugely underestimated skills – far too many disdain it as ‘potboiler’ novels, but they are actually very difficult to write. I often read books where plot is either non-existent or confused with a laundry list of events.

Zhou Haohui: Death Notice, transl. Zac Halusa  – not only a well-paced serial killer novel, but also exotic because it describes the workings of police in China (without going into politics). Inspired by American thrillers, it is full of nail-biting moments and maverick characters (yes, some may be a little two-dimensional, but the plotting and suspense will carry you through). The topic of fighting against a shadowy figure who is killing off those who deserve to be punished is also surprising, given China’s recent history. Full review will be available shortly on CFL.

Philip Kerr: Prussian Blue – Bernie Gunther back in fine fettle as a cynical, world-weary and mouthy Berliner detective, with a dual timeline. I have to admit I was more interested in the 1938 timeline in Bavaria, but Kerr is certainly the master of leaving you on a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter and then moving serenely to the other timeline. Most of the characters really did exist, although Kerr may be giving them different characteristics and motivations. The claustrophobic atmosphere and palpable fear of the Führer and his cronies is impeccably rendered here. The Cold War villains are perhaps slightly less convincing.

Catherine Ryan Howard: The Liar’s Girl – who hasn’t done something foolish as a student, loved the wrong person? For Alison Smith it gets far more serious than that, when her boyfriend Will is convicted of killing several young female students in their first year at an elite Dublin university. Alison has fled abroad and tried to put all that behind her, but when another girl is found in the Grand Canal ten years after those events, the police believe they might have a copycat killer on their hands. And so both she and Will get sucked back into the past. While there are a few predictable places, the author is One of those ‘what if’ novels that leaves you wondering just how blind love can make you.

Rebecca Bradley: Dead Blind – a standalone from Rebecca, whose series books I have mentioned before. I predict this is going to be a breakout novel for her, as it is such an interesting concept. Ray Patrick is a police detective who was injured on duty and now finds himself unable to recognise faces. He doesn’t disclose that condition to his colleagues, for fear of being kicked out. After all, he leads others rather than doing the day-to-day nitty-gritty job, so he should be all right, or so he tells himself. When his team gets involved in a police operation that targets an international trade in human organs, he witnesses a savage murder. He sees the killer’s face – but he will never remember it. Coming out in May, this is both an exciting story and poses a real dilemma around disclosure of disabilities.

Mark Edwards: The Retreat

I’m a sucker for stories about writers, and this one takes place on a writing retreat. So you have all of the funny observations of writers’ egos and intrigues, but also a really creepy house with a tragic past. At times I feared this might be veering too much into the realm of the supernatural but the main protagonist, horror writer Lucas refuses to believe in such things (ironically enough, given he makes money from scaring others). Really suspenseful. I love the fact that Mark Edwards writes standalone novels which are all different from each other and  yet play so well on our psychological quirks. He is very skilled at tackling all of the current horror and crime clichés and subverting our expectations. Full review on CFL soon.

 

 

 

 

Crime Fiction in Holiday Locations

Everyone loves a little crime in holiday places – as long as we are reading about it and dreaming of a beach, rather than directly affected by it. This must be the reason why there are so many crime novels set in popular holiday destinations – or combining popular holiday activities, such as cruise ships. As it so happens, four of the books I’ve recently read take place in various parts of the Mediterranean. All four of them are what I would call ‘enjoyable holiday reads’, with a few disquieting elements to keep you on your toes, but not the kind that you will remember for years to come.

disappearanceAnnabel Kantaria: The Disappearance  – cruise ship

This barely qualifies as crime fiction, although it has a mystery and a missing person at its heart. It is really a book about family secrets and the dangers of allowing them to fester. It is also a loving recreation of India in the 1970s (where the main protagonist, Audrey, went to work after the death of her parent and met her husband) and Greece in the present day, where Audrey has invited her twin children on a cruise around the Greek islands to celebrate her 70th birthday. But then, on the night of her birthday, Audrey goes missing, suspected of falling overboard.

I first encountered the author online as a fellow expat writing about her experiences of living abroad, and there is plenty of flavour and colour to her descriptions of life as an expat in India. Despite some predictable moments, the book as a whole slid down the reading throat like a nice glass of Bailey’s or Amaretto: rich, indulgent, smooth. Perfect summer reading.

distresssignalsCatherine Ryan Howard : Distress Signals – cruise ship

Adam Dunne is a rather self-absorbed 30 year old who still dreams of becoming a great writer. He has said no to a regular job or a painful climb up a career ladder, a mortgage, a family and kids – so far – and has been encouraged and supported (often financially too) by his girlfriend Sarah. Then he finally manages to sell a script to Hollywood (pending some rewrites), but he has no time to celebrate, because his beloved Sarah – who had gone to Barcelona on a business trip – has vanished into thin air. Her phone is switched off, nobody seems to know about her whereabouts and the hotel she was staying at claims she only stayed there one night. Adam initially keeps trying to calm himself (and Sarah’s parents) down with plausible excuses, but becomes frantic when it becomes likely that she disappeared on board a cruise ship. The author knows the holiday industry pretty well and she has found the perfect fertile ground for crime on board a cruise ship. I had never thought about it before, but the murky borders of jurisdiction, the coming together of an international crowd for a short period of time, the sheer size of those ships making it quite easy to ‘disappear’ people… It has certainly made me more determined than ever to never go on a cruise!

ghostrunnerParker Bilal: Ghost Runner – Egypt

Makana is a former police inspector from Sudan, who has found refuge in Cairo. He lives on a rickety houseboat on the Nile and tries to forget the cruel death of his wife and young daughter back home. He makes a living as a private investigator and, as the story opens, he believes he is involved in a routine surveillance job to appease a jealous and suspicious wife. However, it turns out that the ‘errant’ husband is in fact visiting a badly injured girl in hospital, the victim of a horrific arson attack. This leads to a more wide-ranging and unpleasant investigation involving the girl’s father, who was associated with terrorism, and their home town of Siwa, an oasis in the Sahara Desert. Makana discovers the law means little in this frontier town on the edge of the great desert, nor can he count on the local police for help.

In this part of the world, the past is never quite buried, and has a way of rearing its nasty head and influencing the present. Not exactly a cheery holiday read, this novel blends topical events with a solid mystery and a noir atmosphere despite the relentless, blazing sun.

highsmithPatricia Highsmith: The Two Faces of January – Greece

January is not the name of a girl: it is the month in which the novel is set, but it is also an allusion to the two faces of Janus, and to the two main male characters, who in many ways represent two sides of the same coin. Chester MacFarlane is a con man, with many names and identities: he runs pyramid schemes, investment frauds, and disappears with his clients’ money. He is now on the run in Europe with his beautiful young wife Colette. Rydal Keener is a young American who quarreled with his father when he decided to come to Europe and stay there without doing anything much to build a career for himself. He seems to be drifting through life, but has a thirst for adventure which makes him somewhat foolishly rush in to help Chester when a Greek policeman catches up with the glamorous couple. After that fatal moment, they are fated to stay together, even as temptations abound and tempers fray.

This is not top-notch Highsmith, but even in her more average work, she remains the mistress of the innuendo, the slow psychological burn and strange love/hate competitive relationship between men. It’s not top-notch Highsmith, but it’s an interesting playing around with certain tropes and scenes, almost like a dress rehearsal for Ripley. I enjoyed the Greek setting and the unreliability of each one of the characters. Sometimes it’s completely opaque what motivates them – but isn’t real life like that too? Chester and Rydal are the two faces of the same coin, and you can’t quite decide which one of them is more despicable – and yet there is a ‘can’t live with or without each other’ aspect to their relationship which is deliciously subversive, smart, sinister story in its own right, well worth a read.