Incy-Wincy Teeny-Weeny Reviews for End of 2018

Thank goodness for the holidays, which allowed me to read (although not necessarily finish) 15 books in December, including a real humdinger doorstopper like Lamentation. I will be reviewing those that fit into the #EU27Project separately if I haven’t already done so (actually, only Rein Raud fits here) but let me give a very quick review of the rest. Without reminding you too much of yellow polka-dot bikinis in this cold, I promise!

Cathy Ace: Wrong Boy

After glamorous international locations in her Cait Morgan series and a United Sleuths of the UK series, Cathy Ace returns to her home turf of Wales and a closed village community, a tale of family secrets, superstitions and dark folklore. Although I thought the plot a tad predictable and the ending overly dramatic, the tangled relationships and beautiful, if eerie landscapes made this an entertaining read. The book will be out January 9th.

Joan Didion: After Henry

The tribute to their editor (the Henry of the title) was very moving, the rest is a collection of essays, largely political, which were interesting but no longer cutting edge (all referring to the 1980s or thereabouts), so I skimmed through them. Not as good as other Joan Didion things I’ve read.

Petra Hammesfahr: The Sinner, transl. John Brownjohn

Reviewed it on Crime Fiction Lover. Interesting to compare and contrast the original German setting with the Americanization of the setting and the script.

S.J.I. Holliday: The Lingering

I don’t believe in ghosts and am not easily scared, so I suppose this wasn’t quite the book for me. I found the ‘cult’ aspect of it interesting though, and done quite well, without exaggerating the negative aspects.

Elif Batuman: The Idiot

I was an overseas student from a country perceived as backward in the 1990s, so I had such high hopes for this one. But it was dull. A lot of ‘she did this… and then she did this… and then they met… and then they talked.’ I just couldn’t be bothered to finish it, but perhaps it picks up towards the end.

C.J. Sansom: Lamentation

Katherine Parr is probably my favourite wife too (of Henry the VIII’s harem), so I enjoyed this from the point of view of time period and content. It is clearly well researched, and there are so many clever little details which fully immerse you in that period, without being overly stiff and pedantic. I enjoyed the characters, the random changes of politics and the depiction of the cruel and crude justice of that period, but I was not bowled over. It was just too long for my taste.

Antonio Manzini: Black Run, transl. Antony Shugaar

The murder plays second fiddle to the story of fish-out-water detective Rocco Schiavone exiled to Val D’Aosta. I loved the descriptions of mountain and snow and how Rocco struggles with his inadequate footwear, but the atmosphere did not quite make up for the lack of plot, real character depth or social analysis.

Marghanita Laski: The Victorian Chaise Longue

An odd little story of time-travel and the frustration of women’s secondary role in society in Victorian times and the so-called present-time setting of the book (I think it is set in the 1920s-30s, although it was published in 1953). Quite claustrophobic and disturbing, quietly terrifying, reminded me of The Yellow Wallpaper and The Turn of the Screw. But it is far more matter-of-fact and droll, with very sharp dialogue throughout.

Claire Fuller: Bitter Orange

Another book that excelled in terms of atmosphere and beautiful descriptions, but the story felt like something I’d read or seen a hundred times before. Notes on a Scandal and The Woman Upstairs spring to mind, and they both appealed to me more.

Lou Sarabadzic: La Vie verticale

One of the most effective and painful descriptions of what it is like to live with OCD, panic attacks, depression and then to undergo treatment when you are between cultures, between languages. Also an interesting ‘choose your own story’ structure, although it doesn’t really matter utimately, as there is no clear plotline or story arc. The structure is deliberately repetitive and circular, because this situation can reoccur, you are never entirely ‘cured’.

M.B. Vincent: Jess Castle and the Eyeballs of Death

English village cosy, with a dash of romance, although quite a horrific series of murders. It was a very entertaining and quick read, perfectly suited for New Year’s Eve, but not particularly memorable. Like M.C. Beaton but with younger protagonists.

Maybe I’d have been kinder to everyoone if I’d been reading in this armchair.

I realise I sound quite curmudgeonly about nearly all of the books this month. I was quite taken by the two books about the Yugoslav War and The Victorian Chaise Longue, but the rest were mostly popcorn and comfort food. However, 2019 has started strong with Scholastique Mukasonga’s The Barefoot Woman.

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Reading, Writing, Sauntering About in March

I’ve already admitted that I’ve not managed the TBR Double Dare this month of only reading from the books I already own. It doesn’t mean I won’t try again over the coming months, though!

So what else have I been up to this month?

1) Reading:

I’ve read 12 books this month, of which 6 may be classified as crime fiction, 5 are from the TBR pile (hurrah!), but only 2 translations (initially, I thought three of them were, but one turns out to have been written in English by a Polish author). Must try harder…

I did manage to read two books for Stu’s East European Reading Month Challenge:

Vladimir Lorchenkov: The Good Life Elsewhere (also qualifies for Global Reading Challenge – Moldova – Europe)

A.M. Bakalar: Madame Mephisto -this is the one that tricked me into believing it was a translation, set in Poland and England.

FataleI reviewed two books for Crime Fiction Lover, as different as they could possibly be: the start of a cosy crime series set in Wales, The Case of the Dotty Dowager by Cathy Ace, and the very dark, very despairing Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette.

The other crime or psychological thriller type novels I read this month were: Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm (no review yet), Belinda Bauer’s The Shut Eye, Helen Fitzgerald’s Dead Lovely and Laura Kasischke’s Mind of Winter. Of this genre, the two most memorable (and, in this case, haunting) were Fatale and Mind of Winter.

liarjonesI also read Maggie Hannan’s hugely influential debut volume of poetry Liar, Jones (1995). It’s very different from any poetry I’ve recently read: more muscular, more playful, more deliberately obfuscating and difficult. Not quite my type of poetry, but there was a lot of fun and exploration. There were no efforts to be ‘poetic’, pretty or lyrical. I particularly enjoyed the poems addressed to or about Jones and the Diary of Eleni Altamura (a real historical character, an amazing Greek woman who dressed as a man in order to study painting, but tragically lost her children and thenceforth gave up her art).

Finally, I also read two of the buzzed-about books of 2014: Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves (moving but over-long) and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (not reviewed yet). I wonder if the buzz did them more harm than good in my eyes, as both of them were good pieces of fiction, with passages of very beautiful and perceptive writing, yet somehow failed to wow me overall. Perhaps my expectations had been set too high or perhaps I should stop reading reviews beforehand?

2) Writing

I’ve set an ambitious goal for myself for this year: to write my second novel by September and submit it to an agent (which means it’s got to be better than first draft quality, obviously). However, considering that I only started the first page at the end of February (although I had planned most of it out in my head already, bar the ending), and given my chronic inability to find time to write, I thought I would give myself an achievable goal for the first month: one page a day (about 8000-9000 words). May sound like nothing more than  day’s writing for some of you, but to me it was a mountain to climb. I know I need to up my game, though, in terms of quality and quantity, over the months to come.

Lyon13) Flannelling around

I was going to use the term above, based on the French ‘flâneur’, someone who is walking around aimlessly on the grand boulevards, but the English word actually means something very different. Far be it from me to try and flatter or mislead you! What I mean of course is ‘sauntering’ or ‘gallivanting’ about. This means I had a great time in Lyon, at the Quais du Polar, which is the highlight of my year in crime. I’ve just written a thorough round-up of my first impressions for the Crime Fiction Lover website today, but there’ll be a few posts to follow on this blog, with further details, pictures, lessons learnt and some great quotes.

All About that Bass: ‘Feminist’ Songs and Crime Fiction?

Over the past few weeks, there’s been no avoiding the infectious, 50s inspired (musically speaking) song ‘I’m All About that Bass’, sung by the talented singer/songwriter Meghan Trainor. She has made chart history in the UK by being the first act to make the Top 40 based on her internet streaming presence alone. [Just as an aside: this twenty year old has been writing music since she was 11 and has released two albums already, plus worked as a songwriter and producer for others.] I love the witty anti-Barbie doll video and ‘any body is OK’ rhetoric, but it has given rise to some controversy, with some saying that the singer is either ‘thinny bashing’ or that she does not go far enough in her feminism. Anyway, here is the song itself, make up your own mind (but be warned, it is quite addictive, so you may find yourself singing it all day).

The song did get me wondering about whether there is such a thing as ‘feminist crime fiction’. This is a trend which perhaps dates back to Modesty Blaise and the first VI Warshawski novel, and was then continued with characters such as Kinsey Millhone, Lisbeth Salander and Zoe Sharp’s Charlie Fox. Most of these heroines are what is known in American circles as ‘kick-ass’, i.e. they usually pack a revolver and have advanced knowledge of at least one or two martial arts.

But what about those who are more ‘everywoman’ than ‘superwoman’? I’m thinking of women who excel at their jobs (policewomen, forensic pathologists, psychologists, whatever they are) but are also ordinary and vulnerable, one of us, in short: Kay Scarpetta, Ruth Galloway, Jane Rizzoli, Lacey Flint, Geraldine Steel, Kate Daniels. I’m sure you can think of many more from TV series. Has it almost become a cliché to feature the ‘strong female detective’ (or investigator with some links to the police) with a commitment problem and demons from the past constantly haunting her?

Two recently read books highlighted this similarity – and it goes beyond the English-speaking world. Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Hummingbird introduces Anna Fekete, member of the Hungarian minority in former Yugoslavia, whose family came as refugees to Finland when she was a child. She is embarking on her first non-uniform criminal investigation position in the north of Finland and has to contend not just with a violent and seemingly unsolvable case of serial killings, but also sexism, racism and tense relationships with members of her family. Meanwhile, back in London, Kate Rhodes introduces Alice Quentin, psychologist who sometimes works with the Metropolitan police, who has escaped an unhappy and abusive childhood and now seems to have a knack for stumbling upon murder victims. Both women receive threatening messages, both find release in running and both seem somewhat oblivious to personal danger.

I am always excited to encounter a new female investigator, and can even cope with the clichés of lonely single life, damaged childhoods and obsession with the job or case in hand. After all, some of us non-investigators are cat owners who come home to empty fridges on occasion. But it would be a shame if this became the ‘shorthand’ for strong women and, implicitly, of feminist crime fiction. Because these women are not strong – they are still vulnerable, even though they are resilient and have overcome their past (to a certain extent). Strength is also about being content, being happy, having nothing ‘missing’, but ‘all the right junk in all the right places’ and celebrating that! Which is why I am currently in love with Cathy Ace’s middle-aged gourmand no-nonsense Welsh heroine Cait Morgan.

Friday Fun: Three Quick Reads by Women Writers

I alternate the heavier tomes with more fun or thrilling reads (not that thought-provoking bookys aren’t fun or thrilling, but you know what I mean…), so here are some recommended books for this weekend. They slide oh so smoothly down your reading chords in just a matter of hours! And I’ve even associate some drinks for each one of them (because it’s the weekend!).

PaulaDalyPaula Daly: Keep Your Friends Close

Natty and Sean married young but have a good marriage and a hotel business they have worked very hard to build. Natty is perhaps getting a little too absorbed in running the business and the family, but Sean seems to understand. Or does he? When their daughter suffers an accident on a school trip and Natty rushes to her side, her friend Eve steps in to help the family back home. But Eve turns out to be a femme fatale in the guise of a friend, who manages to make Sean fall in love with her and drives a wedge between Natty and her family. Daly is so good at creating situations we can all somehow relate to, even if her characters are not all that sympathetic. Despite some elements which strain credibility, the odd plot-hole and an ending I did not quite agree with, this was a real page-turner and a tense, if somewhat cynical lesson in psychology.

Drink: Campari Orange, refreshing and initially sweet, but with a tinge of bitter

Cathy Ace: The Corpse with the Platinum Hair

prweb.com
prweb.com

A fourth outing for criminologist Cait Morgan, this time in that temple of decadence known as Las Vegas. Invited for birthday celebrations at a private members’ club, Cait and her boyfriend Bud become embroiled in a classic locked room mystery when there is a power cut, a murder and a security meltdown meaning that they and ten possible suspects are all locked for 12 hours in a luxurious but deadly restaurant. A detailed review will be coming up on Crime Fiction Lover.

Drink: The theme of the night is Russian and plenty of caviar is being served, so what else can we team that up with but ice-cold vodka?

Anne Fine: Taking the Devil’s Advice

AnneFineFine does more than just Killer Cat children’s books. Her books for grown-ups shed an uncompromising light into the flaws and dark recesses of the human psyche. This story of a marriage and a divorce – alternating between ‘his and her’ version of events – is brutally funny and mercilessly analytic, although none of the characters emerge unscathed.

[I discovered this one thanks to Sophie Hannah on Twitter. I owe quite a few reads to her, Stav Sherez and Eva Dolan. It pays to follow good writers, you see, because they are always, invariably, good readers as well!]

Drink: Tequila shots, with plenty of salt to rub into the wounds

 

 

No Pictures, But Plenty of Books…

I’m back from the holidays and I haven’t got the pictures to prove it. Suffice it to say that Crete was beautiful, hot but not unbearably so, full of history as well as good food and long beaches… and that it was lovely to spend time with some of my dearest friends. Yet, despite all these distractions, I also managed to get quite a bit of reading done. All with a holiday theme (or, at the very least, a beautiful location suitable for holidays).

  1. ZouroudiAnne Zouroudi: The Bull of Mithros – well, how could you go to Greece and not opt for the mouth-watering, sensuous descriptions of Greek landscape, food and way of life… oh, and crime too?
  2. Paul Johnston: The Black Life – also a Greek setting, but much more sombre subject, dealing with the deportation of Jews from Thessaloniki and its present-day consequences
  3. Takagi Akimitsu: The Tattoo Murder Case – intriguing glimpse of life in post-war Japan in the floating world of kinky-ness, tattoo artists and dubious bars
  4. Murakami Haruki: Kafka on the Shore – reread this novel of magical realism and permanent search set in Shikoku, Japan – this time in translation, hence with a lot more comprehension
  5. Melanie Jones: L’Amour Actually – fun, farcical but not terribly realistic portrayal of the transformation of a Louboutin-touting London gal into a French farming enthusiast
  6. EmeraldCathy Ace: The Corpse with the Emerald Thumb – corruption, death and intrigue in Mexico, with a lesson in tequila-making for an engaging, feisty middle-aged heroine
  7. Nicola Upson: Fear in the Sunlight – another installment in the murder mystery series featuring Josephine Tey, this one is set in the purpose-built fake village of Portmeirion in Wales and also features Alfred Hitchcock – yet it’s much more thoughtful and darker than it sounds
  8. Marissa Stapley: Mating for Life – a mother and her three daughters struggle with love, secrets, family and fidelity in this charming but not quite substantial enough tale set largely in the family vacation home on an unspecified lake in the United States.
  9. KellaGraeme Kent: Devil-Devil – the first novel I’ve ever read set in the Solomon Islands just before independence, this is not just an interesting crime story, but also a lesson in anthropology, featuring the delightfully unlikely detecting duo of Kella, a native policeman with tribal peacemaking responsibilities and Sister Conchita, a Catholic nun with a penchant for breaking the rules.

 

Showcase Sunday: Book Haul

Inspired by Pop Culture Junkie and the Story Siren, the aim of Showcase Sunday is to highlight our newest books or book related swag and to see what everyone else received for review, borrowed from libraries, bought in bookshops and downloaded onto eReaders each week. For more information about how this feature works and how to join in, see the sparkling and fizzy blog of Books, Biscuits and Tea.

This week the theme has been ‘return to old favourites or classics’ rather than new releases, all (new to me) books by authors I’ve already read and enjoyed.

In the postbox

didionJoan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

How can you deal with sudden, unexpected grief and loss? A heartbreakingly honest look at the year following her husband’s sudden death and the illness of her daughter.

Joan Didion: Blue Nights

Just after the previous book was published, Didion lost her daughter too.  A haunting, passionate and almost angry memoir of her daughter and of parenting in general.

I think these two will have me in a flood of tears… so the rest of my picks for this week are very light-hearted and easy to read.

PamelaPamela Des Barres: I’m with the Band. Confessions of a Groupie.

From the woman who hung out with Jim Morrison, turned down a date with Elvis Presley and was best friends with Robert Plant and Frank Zappa, here is a witty and warm-hearted kiss-and-tell account of the rocking and swinging 60s and 70s, without any of the sleaziness or score-settling that ruins other memoirs. Something to which I suspect my good friend Nicky Wells, rockstar romance writer, will relate.

Downloaded on special offer

Anne Zouroudi: The Bull of Mithros

artemisAnne Zouroudi: The Feast of Artemis

Two installments in the delightful series set in the Greek islands and featuring the mysterious, always nattily-dressed Hermes Diaktoros. The taste, smells and sounds of Greece truly come to life in her books – the perfect summer read.

Irving Wallace: The Prize

I saw the film, starring Paul Newman as the rather non-plussed Nobel Prize-winning writer, but have never read the book, which sounds like good, juicy, scandalous fun. Another ideal read for the summer.

Sent for review

corpseCathy Ace: The Corpse with the Platinum Hair

I have previously read and reviewed two books in the series by this Welsh-Canadian writer, featuring the indomitable amateur detective and dedicated foodie Cait Morgan. I’m happy to say that Cathy Ace never forgets to get in touch when she has a new book out to ask me if I’d be interested in reading it. Thank you, Cathy, always a pleasure!

 

July Reads and Pick of the Month

I haven’t read only crime fiction this month (although, as usual, it does form the bulk of my reading).  The reason for that is only partly because there were so many interesting books in other genres on my To Read list.  The other reason, of course, is that I am trying to distance myself a little bit from the genre while I am editing my own crime fiction novel.  Otherwise I risk including every clever plot device or brilliant scene from each novel I read into my own piecemeal effort – making it even more of a dog’s dinner than it already is!  (Can you tell I am going through my ‘down’ phase, where I think every sentence is horrible?)

So here are the books I have read this month.  I have included links if I have already reviewed them, here or elsewhere, and I am also linking to Mysteries in Paradise and their Pick of the Month.

1) So far, so French (or Franco-Swiss), at least in terms of setting.

Sylvie Granotier: The Paris Lawyer

Simenon: Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets

Simenon: Maigret et l’inspecteur Malgracieux (I am planning a special on Maigret for September)

Cathy Ace: The Corpse with the Silver Tongue

Estelle Monbrun: Meurtre chez Colette (I really wanted to like this one, because I am a Colette fan, but it was disappointing)

Anita Brookner: Hotel du Lac. Precise, elegant, poignant.  Midlife crisis handled with English poise – heartbreaking.

2) The holiday locations continue with:

Jeffrey Siger: Murder on Mykonos.  Excellent description of the island, of Greek politics and lifestyle in general, good use of suspense, although the ending did feel a bit random.  I especially loved the idea of the local policemen Googling information about serial killers.

Natsuo Kirino: Out (Japan). A shocker – not for the faint-hearted.  I will write a post in late August or early September about contemporary Japanese fiction, as this is one of my favourite topics.

Carlos Zanón: The Barcelona Brothers  (review of this will appear shortly on the Crime Fiction Lover website)

Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Marina (also set in Barcelona). Mix of genres and stories – this is mystery, ghost story, love story, sci-fi, historical romance. Beautiful imagery and recaptures a vanished world of ruined Barcelona mansions. Reminded me of the nostalgia and luscious detail of ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’.

3) Then we have the familiar stomping ground of London or Cambridge:

Stav Sherez: A Dark Redemption

Robin Webster: The Blues Man. Fast pace, intricate plot, some nice references to blues music and an uncompromising look at the seedy underbelly of London’s drug-dealing and prostitution world.  Promised much but under-delivered, I fear.

Alison Bruce: Cambridge Blue.  Loved the setting, loved the young and atypical detective, loved his grandmother (I hope she continues to appear in the next books of the series).

Barbara Pym: Excellent Women.  Not my favourite Pym novel, but her usual wry humour is evident here.

4) And finally, a few American ladies with no criminal tendencies whatsoever:

Alice Sebold: The Lovely Bones

Barbara Ehrenreich: Smile or Die (I believe it’s called ‘Bright-Sided’ in the US) – non-fiction, about the relentless promotion of positive thinking in the United States

Alice Baudat: The Wooden Bowl – a review and interview with the author will appear on this blog in September

And the winner is: Stav Sherez.  You can find a detailed review here and an author interview with him here (neither written by me – because the question I would have asked is: what on earth is Stav short for?).  As far as my own thoughts go, I found this book very atmospheric: the author captures the heat and dust of Africa just as well as the grime and rain of London (particularly its lesser known and sleazier parts). Well written, evocative yet parsimonious use of language. And I like the way the two main detectives have complicated backgrounds, yet manage to steer clear of clichéed representation.  If the first of the series is so good, I can hardly wait to see what the rest of them will be like!

And what, you may well ask, has that picture got to do with my July reading?  Nothing, except that I felt as snug as a cat because I got the chance to read so many books this month (not likely to happen again any time soon).