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.

 

 

 

 

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Reading Summary February 2018

Although February is such a short month, I thought I’d been doing a reasonably good job with my reading, but it’s not quite what I expected. I did read 11 books, but two of those were novellas and four of them were for reviewing purposes. 4 of them are translations, 7 of them are by women writers (one was co-written by a man and a woman) and I have only reviewed two of them on my blog. I think I might have to introduce the pithy weekly reading diary that Elle Thinks has started, otherwise too much is left undigested and unmarked, despite my best intentions.

Crime Fiction

6 of the books I read this month fell into this category and 4 of them have been reviewed or will be reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover.

  1. Michelle McNamara: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark – compassionate rather than voyeuristic true crime; compassion for the victims, I mean, and an excellent recreation of time and place – 1970s/80s California. My favourite of the crimey reads this month, even though I am not usually a true crime fan.
  2. Hari Nykänen: Holy Ceremony, transl. Kristian London. Part of a series about the wonderfully named Finnish-Jewish detective Ariel Kafka.
  3.  Noel Balen & Vanessa Barrot: Minced, Marinated and Murdered, transl. Anne Trager. Enjoyable culinary cosy crime set in one of my favourite cities, Lyon. The mystery is somewhat secondary to the atmosphere and characters.
  4. Johana Gustawsson: Keeper, transl. Maxim Jakubowski. A rather gory and grim follow-up to the hardcore first book in the Anglo-French pair Roy & Castells series. I’ve met Johana in real life and don’t know how such an absolutely lovely lady can invent such terrifying details.
  5. Tammy Cohen: Clean Break – a novella about a couple on the brink of divorce, which takes a stalkerish and sinister turn.
  6. Louise Candlish: Our House – by strange coincidence, I got sent this book just as I was reading Tammy Cohen’s book. It is also about a couple on the brink of divorce and fighting over their house (or at least I thought this was what it was going to be about, but that would have been too boring and common-place – the truth is much more complicated). I read it at once, but it offered me no tips on how to handle negotiations (or even how to murder a spouse).

Reading Recommendations and Challenges

For the David Bowie Book Club: James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time

For the Asymptote Book Club: Aranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay

For the Muriel Spark Centenary: Symposium – a book almost entirely in dialogue form

Modern Classic recommended by many of my favourite book bloggers: J.L. Carr – A Month in the Country – and how right they were!

In fact, all four of these were very worthwhile reads, so perhaps I should stick more to personal recommendations in future.

Following the Herd

Chloe Caldwell: Women – I’d read about this ill-fated lesbian love story and requested it on Netgalley, but I found it rather disappointing. A sort of memoir about a moment of curiosity and madness, or a coming of age story without real maturity at the end. It felt like yet another MFA project designed to be mildly shocking or titillating. Will I never learn not to fall for blurbs or buzz?

 

 

 

 

January 2018 Reading Summary

It’s been a long month, which is reflected in quite a good month of reading. 17 books (18 if I count the book that I read in both French and English), although I have to admit many of them were very short, more like novellas. 10 of those were in translation or another language (representing 9 countries), of which 3 books were by the same author, Cesar Aira. (Bless those rabbit holes…). 7 by men, 10 by women. 1 short story collection, 2 non-fiction, 1 1/2 books of poetry (I’ll explain about the half later). 4 definitely crime fiction, another 2 somewhat crime fiction. I am delighted to see somewhat more variety in my reading.

Bit behind with my reviewing though…

Argentinean fiction

I started off with the first title in the Asymptote Book Club, Cesar Aira’s The Lime TreeI enjoyed that so much, I promptly read another two by the author, The Literary Conference and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. Strange does not even begin to describe the themes and styles of this author: it’s a world away from the magical realism of Marquez which I was never that keen on. Another Argentinean writer with a surrealist metaphorical bent is Ricardo Romero: his novella The President’s Room brought back all sorts of memories of self-censorship, of everyone knowing but no one talking, of not feeling safe even in the bosom of the family.

Crime fiction

Gunnar Staalesen’s Wolves in the Dark tackled the difficult topic of child pornography and abuse, while Nadia Dalbuono’s The Extremist (review forthcoming on Shiny New Books) is a political thriller with a race against the clock hostage situation but also hints at how extremism is born and reborn in the Western world. Mary Anna Barbey’s Swiss Trafic was not cheery either, showing how immigrants are treated in Switzerland and the extent to which human trafficking is hidden in that affluent society. Kate Rhodes’ Hell Bay, meanwhile, is a more typical police procedural, set on a small island, thereby creating a closed room mystery set-up.

The additional two that might very loosely be classed as crime novels are Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd (murders do happen, both in the past and in the present), and Die Stille der Gletscher (The Silence of the Glaciers) by Ulrike Schmitzer, an Austrian author who might be said to be popularising the science of climate change via a crime story and global conspiracy about scarce resources.

Cross-cultural and translated fiction

Tove Jansson’s Letters from Klara contained some very short stories, almost fragments of ideas or flash fiction, from this always interesting, stylistically impeccable author. I had a bit of a French binge with Marie Darrieusecq’s Naissance des fantomes (My Phantom Husband) and Leila Slimani’s Chanson Douce. It is fascinating, if time-consuming, to read books in both languages and see how they compare. I find the English versions a bit colder than the French versions, through no fault of the translators, although I always thought that the English were the masters of the ‘straight to the point, no beating about the bush’ style.

The last one to fit in this category was written in English but depicts a cross-cultural relationship, Leila Abouleli’s The Translator.

Most memorable

It’s been a very good month for reading, with a lot of the books in the above categories vying for the title of ‘Book of the Month’. However, the non-fiction stuck in my mind most this January. I absolutely adored the well-documented biography and sensitive interpretation of Shirley Jackson’s works by Ruth Franklin. I was mowed down and resurrected by the eloquence and clever use of autobiographical detail in Jodie Hollander’s poetry collection My Dark Horses. Last, but not least, I was amazed at the amount of work, passion, dedication and clever detail which went into the creation of the Hamilton musical, as set out in the wonderful book Hamilton: The Revolution, full of lyrics, stage notes, background explanation, mini-bios of cast and creators, and semi-memoir, with great pictures. It offers a brilliant insight into the creative and collaborative process and shows that no genius can operate in isolation.

Glacier on the Grossglockner in Austria. Just because they are receding in worrying fashion.

 

Video Book Reviews: Norway, Switzerland, Scotland and Sudan

Another quick review of Gunnar Staalesen’s Wolves in the Dark set in Norway, Mary Anna Barbey’s Swiss Trafic set in Switzerland, and Leila Aboulela’s The Translator set in Aberdeen and Sudan. Common themes: human trafficking, dark underside of apparently very civilised societies and an outsider’s gaze at mainstream culture in a particular country.

Best Crime Fiction in English 2017

As I started jotting down all the crime fiction novels which I enjoyed reading in 2017, I realised the list was growing too long, so I had to divide it into translated and English-language fiction. So this is the second part of that post, crime fiction written in English. regardless of the origin of the writer or the setting. You might spot a preference among crime authors for a London setting, yet each of these was different.

Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy of a Scandal – London – coming out in January 2018

Political and legal thriller meets domestic drama – a cynical but all too realistic view of politicians and husbands, just right for these times full of sexual harassment cases

Stav Sherez: The Intrusions – London

Another extremely topical police procedural, about online stalking, hacking and spying. There was also something about the transient backpacker population all converging onto London which tugged at my heartstrings.

Eva Dolan: This Is How It Ends – London – coming out in January 2018

Dolan is the queen of weaving in a thrilling story to explore her anger about social injustice. Here it’s property developers vs. ordinary people, political campaigners vs. the police, and betrayals among those you believe to be on your side.

Chris Whitaker: Tall Oaks – US

I read both of Chris Whitaker’s novels this year and this one won by a cat’s whisker (I’m trying to only mention one book per author): that mix of humour, insight and depth of feeling which is quite rare.

Susie Steiner: Missing, Presumed – Cambridge and London

Same thing with Susie Steiner: I read both of her novels featuring the delightful Manon, but the first one in the series just had an additional edge to my mind. Police procedural with characters that you want to get to know better.

Aga Lesiewicz: Exposure – London

Sometimes you just need a high-paced urban thriller set in a Shoreditch which has all the trappings of Manhattan, including spyware, trendy lofts and media types. The glamour of the lifestyle was just so different from my experience that all my voyeuristic tendencies came to the fore: call it my version of ‘Hello’ magazine!

Emma Flint: Little Deaths – New York City

For a change of pace, a meticulous recreation of a period and place (Queens, 1960s) and an alternative interpretation of a notorious true crime. I didn’t read it so much for the plot, however, but for the way it portrays society’s indictment of mothers and women who don’t behave according to general expectations.

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery – Canada, Quebec

Reading a Louise Penny mystery is always a treat, and this one has echoes of another old favourite The Name of the Rose, with its monastic location and thorough examination of human propensity for both good and evil.

Adrian Magson: Rocco and the Nightingale – Picardie, France

Another recreation of time and place, this time one that is close to my heart: France in the 1960s and a detective that I have a bit of a soft spot for: Lucas Rocco. This time an assassin seems to be after Rocco, but of course he doesn’t have the luxury to just go away and hide.

As I finished compiling the list above, I realised that I have personally met (in person or online) six of the nine authors featured, and they are all very charming. But although that might make me eager to read their work, it does not influence my final selection into the ‘best of’ literary canon.

What I Really Read on the Beach – Summer Reads

There was quite a bit of uproar on Twitter about the extremely worthy and ever-so-slightly pretentious beach reading promoted by The Guardian. Why can’t people admit that they crave chick lit or the latest Harlan Coben instead? They don’t have to be trashy airport novels (although most recently I’ve noticed a vast improvement in terms of variety being offered at airports), but they have to be able to withstand great heat, sun cream, the odd splash of water, and fried holiday brain. Can your expensive hardback of Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, written by John Banville, with beautiful photography by Paul Joyce, withstand that? Perhaps one to buy and keep at home as a coffee table book, rather than shlepp to distant beaches…

Of course, I won’t actually be going to any beach this summer, but I hope to get a few nice days of sitting in my deck chair in the garden and worrying about nothing else but reading. And I readily admit that I look forward to a nice dose of escapism to mix in with my literary education. So this is what I would really read if I were on a Greek beach.

Image from olimpia.rs

Crime

Michael Stanley: Dying to Live

I’m a great fan of the Detective ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, and the Kalahari Desert setting fits in perfectly with the beach. Also, it’s a really intriguing tale about the death of a Bushman, who appears to be very old, but his internal organs are puzzlingly young. Could a witch doctor be involved?

Linwood Barclay: Too Close to Home

Another author that I would rather read on the beach than alone at night in a large house, as his nerve-wracking twists are prone to making me jump. The strapline on this one goes: What’s more frightening than your next-door neighbours being murdered? Finding out the killers went to the wrong house…

Helen Cadbury: Bones in the Nest

Like many other crime readers, I was very saddened to hear about the recent death of Helen Cadbury. I had read her debut novel in the Sean Denton series reviewed and marked her out as a talent to watch in 2014 on Crime Fiction Lover. This is the second in a series set in Doncaster, which unfortunately never had the chance to grow to its full potential.

Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy of a Scandal

The perfect novel for those who can’t quite take a break from politics: this is the story of an MP whose affair is made public, his wife who tries to stand by him in spite of her doubts, and the barrister who believes he has been guilty of rape. A searing look at privilege, hypocrisy and the social justice system.

YA literature

Not my usual kind of reading at all, but I like to keep abreast of what my children are reading.

G.P. Taylor: Mariah Mundi – The Midas Box

Mariah is a young orphan, fresh out of school, who is employed to work as an assistant to a magician living in the luxurious Prince Regent Hotel. But the slimy, dripping basement of the hotel hides a dark secret. I’ve heard of the author’s Shadowmancer series, but never read anything by him. Described as the next Harry Potter, this book promises to take the reader into a world of magic and fun.

Paul Gallico: Jennie

Peter wakes up from a serious accident and finds himself transformed into a cat. Life as a street cat is tough and he struggle to survive, but luckily stumbles across the scrawny but kindly tabby cat Jennie, who helps him out. Together they embark on a bit of an adventure.

#EU27Project

This is not only worthy reading, but highly enjoyable into the bargain! Although seeking out translations from some of the countries on the list is not that easy or cheap.

Hungary – Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (transl. Patrick Thursdfiel and Katalin Banffy-Jelen)

Satisfies any cravings for family saga and historical romance, as well as looking at a part of the world which is very close to me (Transylvania). Plus a society bent on self-destruction – what more could one want?

Romania – Ileana Vulpescu: Arta Compromisului (The Art of Compromise)

This author’s earlier book The Art of Conversation was an amazing bestseller in the early 1980s in Romania, partly because it went against all the expectations of ‘socialist realism’ of the time and was quite critical of socialist politics (of an earlier period, admittedly). This book, published in 2009, continues the story of the main character, but this time set in the period after the fall of Communism in 1989. Critics have called it a bit of a soap opera, but at the same time an excellent snapshot of contemporary society. Sounds like delightful light reading, with a social critique, perfect for reconnecting with my native tongue.

Spain – Javier Marias: The Infatuations (transl. Margaret Jull Costa)

Another story with a murderous aside by an author I’ve only recently discovered and whose baroque sentences mesmerise me… Every day, María Dolz stops for breakfast at the same café. And every day she enjoys watching a handsome couple who follow the same routine. Then one day they aren’t there, and she feels obscurely bereft. She discovers that the man was murdered in the street – and Maria gets entangled in a very odd relationship with the widow.

Women in Translation Month

Another project which has the merit of being both worthy and great fun. I plan to read several of the Keshiki project of Strangers Press – beautifully produced slim translations of Japanese short stories and novellas. There are plenty of women writers represented: Misumi Kubo, Yoko Tawada, Kyoko Yoshida, Aoko Matsuda and the improbably named Nao-Cola Yamazaki. I expect the strange, unsettling, disquieting and sexually heated… Phew!

 

 

 

Captivating Criminality Conference 2017

Thanks to fellow blogger and online friend Elena (whom some of you may know as @ms_adler on Twitter), I heard about the Captivating Criminality Network at Bath Spa University (in collaboration with Gdansk University in Poland. When I heard about the 2017 conference taking place on 29th June to 1st July, I was determined to attend for at least half a day. So I drove to the chi-chi Wiltshire village of Corsham on Saturday 1st July and entered the dreamy grounds of Corsham Court, where the conference was taking place. At first, I was expecting Darcy to emerge from the local pond…

Then I was intrigued by the plaintive calls from the true masters of the gardens…

But once I found my way inside The Barn, I attended some fantastic talks. I won’t give an in-depth account, but it is so refreshing to see academia engaging seriously (but not pretentiously) with crime fiction from so many different countries. These were scholars (and audiences) who really enjoyed their reading and analysis, and were experimenting with new ideas and interpretations.

You can find the full programme of the conference here.

The first panel I attended was on Newer Developments in Hard-Boiled Fiction. Arco van Ieperen from the University of Elblag in Poland compared Robert Parker’s Spenser and Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar, and how both of these authors changed and adapted the Chandleresque hard-boiled detective series. Both of them, for instance, evolve violent sidekicks who leave the hero free to have emotions and face ethical dilemmas. Both Spenser and Bolitar are much more respectful of women and have a grudging acceptance of political correctness. Ilse Schrynemakers from City University of New York gave a fascinating paper demonstrating how Ross Macdonald’s dysfunctional families mirrored the fears of a world living in the shadow of nuclear war. She argued convincingly how the obsessive insistence on ‘truth’ and ‘confession’ in the McCarthy era is reflected in Macdonald’s novels, albeit with a darker current. Uncovering the truth and getting the criminal to confess does not lead to remorse or redemption, but is indeed a journey from darkness to darkness.

The second panel was on one of my favourite topics: crime fiction in different geographical locations. We took a trip through Ireland, France, China and Mexico.  Jennifer Schnabel from Ohio State University talked about undercover cops in Tana French’s novels, while Eoin McCarney from Dublin City University made a very powerful comparison between Ireland and Mexico, between bog bodies and bodies dumped in the desert. Both bogs and deserts exist outside the law, outside space and time almost. Finally, Annemarie Lopez from Macquarie University in Australia used psychogeography and Jules Dassin’s Naked City to discuss urban noir. She mentioned two of my favourite authors and the rapidly changing cities they depict: Jean-Claude Izzo and Marseille,  Qiu Xiaolong and Shanghai.

The last talk I was able to attend was Professor Mary Evans from LSE (whose work on gender had been required reading on my anthropology course many years ago). In calm, measured tones, she talked about our eternal fear of loners, of people who seem to be content to be alone, and those who are desperate to belong, to fit in. She based her examples on the Stockholm trilogy by Jens Lapidus, so I found myself adding yet again to my TBR list. Being alone is an essential feature of both criminals and the detectives chasing them, yet there is a crucial difference between being alone and loneliness.

I was reminded once more how fun it is to debate ideas, methodologies and interpretations, and how much I miss these kinds of passionate academic discussions which probably sound over-specialised to others (although crime fiction festivals are a good substitute). I came away brimming with new names, new recommended titles and, above all, new ways of thinking about things. Learning as long as you live, being open to questions, trying out new things: isn’t that what life is all about?

Goodbye, Corsham Court, hope to see you again next year!