It’s been a changeable old month weather-wise, this May, and that has been reflected in my choice of books. I’ve read 12 books, and only 4 of those were by male writers (and two of those were for review). I finally managed to tackle 4 from my Netgalley pile (sinking under the greed there…), 5 from my bookshelves (although two of those may have been VERY recent purchases), plus one random purchase while being stuck at the airport. 7 of the books above may be classified as crime, one was spoken word poetry and there was no non-fiction this month.
Ursula Poznanski: Blinde Vögel – a Facebook poetry group turns deadly in Salzburg – how could I resist?
Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – philosophical fable – I thereby declare this #TBR1
Sara Novic: Girl at War – survivor of the war in Croatia returns ten years later to her home country – #TBR2
These last four were all memorable in quite different ways, so I want to write more thorough reviews of them soon, so watch this space.
Crime fiction pick of the month is going to be a tie between Snowblind and How the Light Gets In. But I also have my eye on this Austrian writer Poznanski now and hope she gets translated more into English (she also writes YA and children’s fiction and is known as Ursula P. Archer in the English-speaking world).
Finally, how has writing fared this month? Some rough handwritten drafting has taken place, but it’s been another tough month, with business trips, lots of holidays and parental visits. Must do better next month (famous last words?)… The good news is that poetry has started to flow again after a long period of feeling stuck.
I’ve just read two books that left my guts in a tangle, so emotionally wrenching were they. The third, in comparison, although perfectly competent and also in the same ‘genre’, was comparatively easier to read, process and distance myself from. So I started wondering what kind of book gives me more of a vertiginous emotional ride?
In no particular order, this is what comes to mind instantly:
1) Plot: I like my fair share of twists, but I’m not talking unputdownable five thrills a page plotting here. I’ve read books like that in one night and then forgotten about them the next day. Rather, it’s the subject: something about children suffering will always punch me hard in the stomach. I also commiserate with women going through emotional turmoil, depression, betrayal, isolation and revenge. I always find the plight of immigrants disturbing and fascinating: people who have lost everything or who are willing to risk anything to start over again in a country that doesn’t really want them.
2) Style: There is something about the first person POV and being inside a character’s head which is very compelling. Especially if that person clearly has a lot of ‘issues’ and you’re not sure if they are a reliable narrator or not – but then, who is? We all create our own versions of the story. I also like a more reticent writing style, where not everything is spelled out for you (sometimes several times within a chapter), where you have to read between the lines. I like paragraphs where every single sentence counts, sentences in which each word has its part to play. Nothing is wasted and you are forced to pay attention. I’m not offended by frankness, violence, swearing or sex if it serves the purpose of the story. I really dislike gratuitous and repetitive violence (and all of the above if it serves little purpose).
3) Character: I’ve said before that ‘likeability’ is not my main condition for appreciating a character. I always plump for ’roundness’, being believable, memorable, a world unto themselves, and having a coherent and unique voice. In real life we meet far too many boring, bland people who all merge into the background after a while. In fiction I want to meet those larger than life characters that will stay with me for years.
So, after this intro, which three books am I talking about? Here they are, in order of emotional dizziness (from strongest to most neutral reaction):
Kristien Hemmerechts: The Woman Who Fed the Dogs (transl. Paul Vincent)
Based on the real-life story of Michelle Martin, the wife and accomplice of notorious Belgian serial killer and rapist of the 1990s Marc Dutroux, this is a fictional recreation of her possible thought processes while in prison (with her release date approaching). This is the kind of book that you cannot really ‘like’ – the word is too weak to describe the powerful feeling of repulsion and pity that it evokes in you.
Gritty and sexually explicit (the CleanReader would have a field day with the text), told in the first person entirely from the woman’s point of view (here renamed Odette) it repulsed and attracted me in equal measure. Which is probably the writer’s intention, as it helps to put us inside the mind of a woman locked in a very disturbing relationship. The title comes from a well-known and disturbing fact in the case: while her husband was imprisoned for a minor offence, Martin fed the dogs at his home, but not the two girls he had locked in his cellar. Was she not aware of their existence, did she believe they were already dead or was she too afraid to go down in the cellar, as she later claimed? And if that is the case, does this woman deserve a second chance or is she an irredeemable monster? The real Michelle Martin was released a couple of years ago (she lives in a convent under close supervision of the nuns), a fact which provoked outrage and bitter recriminations in Belgium.
The Flemish author is known for her provocative writing and this book is no exception. It addresses all our prejudices and facile judgements head on. It does not sugarcoat or excuse behaviour, but it provides an alternative explanation which humanises someone whom it is perhaps too easy to label a monster. Odette becomes obsessed with another case of a female murderer: Genevieve Lhermitte, who killed all her five children with premeditation. Yet Lhermitte was labelled mentally unstable and was greeted with pity rather than being demonised. Nor has Lhermitte been labelled the ‘most hated woman in Belgium’. This comparison becomes very demoralising throughout the book. In fact, generally I would advise to embark upon this book only when you are in a very strong and resilient mental state.
Little sidenote: World Editions has produced a beautiful edition here, with those rounded corners a particularly nice touch.
Clare Mackintosh: I Let You Go
The first chapter already had me close to tears: a mother walking home from school with her child only to watch him being hit by a car just outside their home, with the driver then speeding away. The police investigation starts and those chapters seemed very authentic, especially regarding timelines and how long it takes to solve cases (I then discovered the author has worked in the police previously). The stresses and external temptations in a policeman’s (or woman’s) marriage were also well described.
But this is also the story of Jenna Gray, who has fled to a remote beach in Wales to recover from the trauma of the accident and try to rebuild her life. These chapters puzzled me: I thought I was reading a romance novel, there was just not enough threat or strangeness there initially, except that Jenna tends to be very secretive and overreact in certain instances. Everybody has admired and talked about the big twist that occurs about halfway through, and there are also subsequent twists to the tale. But that wasn’t what made the book compelling to my mind (although I enjoyed them). This story is more about the menacing atmosphere, the claustrophobia, the psychology of power in relationships. There are a couple of improbable elements though, which detracted slightly from my reading pleasure, but overall an emotionally draining read (in a good way).
Daniel Quirós: Eté rouge (Red Summer) (transl. into French by Roland Faye)
Interesting insight into the complicated and inter-related politics of Central and Latin America, with Nicaragua, Argentina and Costa Rica all making an appearance here. Don Chepe is a former guerilla fighter who ‘helped out’ the Sandinistas in Nicaragua but has now retired to a tropical paradise on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Except the remote fishing village is beset by the relentless heat and dust of the summer… and by the discovery of the body of an Argentinian woman who runs the local bar. She has bequeathed some mysterious documents to her friend Don Chepe and he follows the trail of those documents to discover her murderer.
This is more of a political thriller rather than a straightforward crime fiction, although it starts with a dead body. It is based on real-life events, albeit heavily fictionalised. The suspense element is perhaps less sustained, but it provided me with a window into a country I know very little about. The heat of the dusty summer is almost the main hero of this book, the theme is constantly recurring, and this perhaps creates a certain distance and distaste for politics. Or perhaps it’s because the author (and Don Chepe) refer to the victim as ‘the Argentine’ throughout the entire book, or because Don Chepe himself feels old and disillusioned with politics, or perhaps because it all refers to events which took place a while ago. There is a sense of being a step removed from the action, so ultimately I found it less involving. Perhaps just as well, after the two books above.
What makes a book truly gripping for you? What keeps you turning the pages all night or remember a book long after you finish reading it? What makes you cry (if you do cry at books – I admit ‘The Little Prince’ still gets me every time)?
I’ve had such good intentions for this TBR Double Dare challenge and have a whole pile of books lined up on my night-table, ready to be read (not to mention my tablet).
But something always comes up and sidetracks me. I blame mostly myself and my inability to turn down a book. But the following institutions or websites or people or publishers are also partly responsible. Yes, I’m naming and shaming them. And no, they do not pay me for the publicity, but I feel they deserve it when they go above and beyond the call of duty.
1) Eva Dolan: Tell No Tales
Eva Dolan was once a fellow reviewer at Crime Fiction Lover and I always enjoyed her book recommendations (or at least hotly debated them with her). She was going to send me her well-received first novel, but somehow publicists got mixed up, it ended up in the wrong place, others were keen to get their paws on it… so I bought it myself on Kindle. When the second one came out, she was adamant that this time I would get a review copy. As time passed and there were still no signs of it being sent to me, Eva took matters into her own capable hands and posted one to me herself, with a lovely note. And, bless her, I haven’t even got around to reading the first one yet! So of course I’m leaving everything else to one side and will be binge-reading her two books these upcoming holidays.
Will I be slightly biased? You bet! But her topics of immigration and grittiness sound just up my street…
2) Paul Hardisty: The Abrupt Physics of Dying
Some publishers are just so tireless on behalf of their authors that they carry you along with them on the crest of their enthusiasm. Karen Sullivan is such a woman. Previously a managing editor at Arcadia, where she introduced me to Tore Renberg, Jaume Cabre, Dominique Manotti and Domingo Villar, she left the company in 2014 to set up her own publishing house Orenda, following a strategic review which led to a severely slashed 2015 list of books at Arcadia. With a particular fondness for crime thrillers and literature in translation, Karen is a warm, loud and personable defender of each and every one of her titles, and she is great at building a loyal following of book bloggers and reviewers. She sent me a copy of this book, even though I warned her that I would not be able to participate in a blog tour at this moment in time. I may keep this one to read in April, but it looks like an interesting eco-thriller meets big business meets international action (and frighteningly plausible).
3) Charlotte Otter: Balthasar’s Gift
This book was reviewed over at Smithereen’s blog . This is a blog I’ve enjoyed for a couple of years now and, since the author lives in France too, we’ve exchanged a few personal messages. So I mentioned that it looked interesting and, hey presto, she kindly sent a copy to me, saying that she had got two by accident. Such a lovely gesture – and just goes to show what good friendships we can build online. Another one that I will leave until April/May, though!
4) Pierre Lemaitre: Camille
I’ve reviewed both of Lemaitre’s previous novels and interviewed the author for Crime Fiction Lover, so it’s not surprising that the publisher Quercus automatically sent me the final volume in the trilogy. I am really looking forward to this one. I have a weakness for this author: he always manages to surprise me: a consummate storyteller, despite his rather graphic content. I also really enjoyed his WW1 novel. So this one will be read and reviewed before the end of February.
5) Michel Bussi: After the Crash
Michel Bussi is a huge bestseller in France, but I’d never read any of his books. However, when I heard that he would be published for the first time in English by Orion Books in March, and would I like to take a look at this book and perhaps interview the author, how could I refuse? Strictly speaking, it doesn’t count for my TBR challenge, as it’s a review (i.e. ‘work’) book. And besides, I’m always a fan of translated fiction, especially French fiction, especially crime fiction. I’m currently reading this and will review it by the end of February on Crime Fiction Lover.
6) Netgalley and Book Bloggers:
Yes, I apportion the blame equally: on book bloggers such as Lonesome Reader and Crime Reader Blog for making these books sound so enticing, and on Netgalley for making it so easy to access these latest releases. So now I have added SJ Watson’s Second Life and Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go to my TBR pile…
How dare these village libraries stock so many tempting titles, both in French and in English? They have no business enticing me through their doorway under the pretext of returning the children’s books and then whacking me over the head with irresistible stuff such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or Karim Miské’s Arab Jazz. Both books dispell the myth of successful racial and cultural integration (at least on a larger societal level, rather than the individual one) – and they do it with wit, verve and sadness.
After a rather busy start to the New Year, fraught with drama and sadness for my adoptive home France, it’s time to return to an old favourite of mine: being nosy about other people’s reading habits. Time to meet another online friend – welcome, Tracey Walsh! Tracey is one of those people who always seems to have just read those books I have only just heard about – and her recommendations have taken me to many new places. She reads, blogs and tweets tirelessly about crime fiction and has even created a fantastic map of the UK with her personal crime fiction favourites on her Crime Reader Blog. You can also find Tracey on Facebook.
How did you get hooked on crime fiction?
I have happy childhood memories of Enid Blyton’s “The Five Find Outers” as my first mystery series. Then, in my teens, I binge-read dozens of Agatha Christies, with my favourites being the Miss Marple books. Later still, ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne Du Maurier and Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series confirmed me as a lifelong crime fiction addict.
Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?
My preferred genre is psychological thrillers, because I love being immersed in twisty plots that examine the characters’ motives and relationships, the darker the better. Within this genre I have enjoyed several ‘domestic noir’ novels recently, for example Paula Daly’s ‘Keep Your Friends Close’ and Julia Crouch’s ‘Tarnished’.
What is the most memorable book you have read recently?
‘I Let You Go’ by Clare Mackintosh. I absolutely loved this book, which has one of the best twists ever. It was also memorable, because I found myself thinking about the characters even when I wasn’t reading, and imagining what would have happened had they made different choices.
If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?
This would come down, not for the first time, to a toss of a coin between Val McDermid’s Tony Hill/Carol Jordan books and the Roy Grace series by Peter James. And the winner is…Peter James. There are ten books in the series (soon to be eleven) starting with ‘Dead Simple’, which has probably the best opening to a crime book I can remember.
What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?
‘No Other Darkness’ by Sarah Hilary – the follow up to one of the best debuts of last year, ‘Someone Else’s Skin’. Also, ‘Death in the Rainy Season’ by Anna Jaquiery – the follow up to ‘The Lying-Down Room’, a haunting literary crime novel.
Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?
I really only read crime so that’s all I’m likely to recommend. I love recommending new authors to my friends, most recently the debut books by Paula Daly (‘Just What Kind Of Mother Are You?’) and Colette McBeth (‘Precious Thing’). It was particularly rewarding to introduce my Dad to the Roy Grace books by Peter James. I bought him the latest two in the series for his 80th birthday last year.
As a departure from reading the books I’m looking forward to seeing the stage play of ‘Dead Simple’ in Manchester soon.
Thank you, Tracey, I love your unabashed crime addiction and eagerness to explore new writers as well as old favourites. The Dead Simple play sounds like a good reason for planning a trip to Manchester! Excellent choice for a desert island series, as well. I notice that everyone tries to find really long-running series to take with them, for fear of running out of reading matter.
This series depends on your willingness to participate, so please don’t be shy if you would like to tell us about your reading passions. For previous posts in the series, please check out this link.