January Reading Round-Up

Another busy month of reading, partly because of holidays and children’s illnesses, when I wasn’t able to do much else. Not so much reviewing, although some of the crime novels below will be reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover. A lot of rather dark reading, too, as befits this time of year. I have travelled all over the globe via books.

Crime fiction set in diverse locations

Panorama of Sarajevo, from Wikiwand.
Panorama of Sarajevo, from Wikiwand.
  1. Dan Fesperman: Lie in the Dark – Sarajevo under siege, who cares about a murder when people are dying every day?
  2. Yasmina Khadra: Qu’attendent les singes (What are monkeys waiting for?) – the impossibility of investigating murder honestly and openly in politically corrupt Algeria
  3. Johan Theorin: The Voices Beyond (transl. Marlaine Delargy) – vengeance and deadly rivalry on the island of Öland in Sweden
  4. Margie Orford: Water Music – crimes against young women and children in the beautiful surroundings of Cape Town
  5. Brooke Magnanti: The Turning Tide – London and the Hebrides alternate in this entertaining cross between chick-lit and political thriller
  6. T.R. Richmond: What She Left – suicide or murder of a young student at Southampton University?
  7. Angela Clarke: Follow Me – social media stalking and hashtag murdering in London
  8. Alison Bruce: The Promise – death of a homeless man opens up a can of worms in Cambridge
  9. Ian Rankin: Standing in Another Man’s Grave – Rebus is back and investigating a serial killer along the A9 heading north of Edinburgh
  10. Raphael Montes: Perfect Days – a crazy road trip with your kidnapper through Brazil

Non-Fiction:

Palace Hotel Gstaad, Switzerland, from betterlivingny.wordpress.com
Palace Hotel Gstaad, Switzerland, from betterlivingny.wordpress.com
  1. Padraig Rooney: The Gilded Chalet: Off Piste in Literary Switzerland
  2. Andrew Solomon: The Noonday Demon – a personal account into depression, but also an investigation into how depression is perceived and handled in the US and other parts of the world
  3. Anne Theriault: My Heart Is an Autumn Garage – a memoir of depression and hospitalisation in Canada

Other Fiction:

Dmitry Shostakovich, from allmusic.com
Dmitry Shostakovich, from allmusic.com
  1. Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time – a fictional account of the life and compromises of Shostakovich in the Soviet Union
  2. Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, Ging, Gegangen (Go, Going, Gone) – understanding the challenges of being a refugee in Germany
  3. Christos Tsiolkas: Dead Europe – an Aussie travelling through a rapidly changing Europe which has lost its innocence
  4. Lauren Holmes: Barbara the Slut and Other People – young Americans trying to find a purpose to life
  5. Anthony Anaxagorou: The Blink that Killed the Eye – life, art and death in an impoverished British society

The three crime reads which I most enjoyed were Margie Orford, Ian Rankin and Dan Fesperman, but I would find it difficult to choose between the three of them for a Crime Fiction Pick of the Month. The best book for dipping into was The Gilded Chalet – a real coffee table book if you have any interest in literature or Switzerland. Finally, the most memorable books of the month were by Julian Barnes, Anthony Anaxagorou and Jenny Erpenbeck.

Fiction Set in Dysfunctional Societies

Yasmina Khadra’s Algeria

KhadraSingesThis is the work of an Algerian writer disillusioned with his country. Disguised as a crime novel and a murder investigation, it is actually an indictment of the corruption of Algerian politics, law, police force and journalism.

A young girl is found dead in a forest outside Alger and Nora Bilal, one of the few female officers in the Algerian police, is entrusted with the investigation. Her methods are questioned and she is personally disrespected at every turn, especially when it turns out that some political figures may be involved in a complicated story of prostitution and thirst for power. Brutal, with a high body count and utterly merciless protagonists, as well as some very brave (or foolhardy) police officers, this is not a pleasant story. Khadra can come across as preachy sometimes, but he can also weave an exciting story, which ends in a very unexpected and dramatic fashion.

Other powerful fictional (more or less) representations of Algeria: Yasmina Khadra’s What the Day Owes the Night; Assia Djebar’s Algerian White; Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation.

Dan Fesperman’s Sarajevo

fespermanThe war in Yugoslavia: it’s about 1994/95 and Sarajevo has been under siege for about 2 years now. Vlado Petric has escaped army conscription by being a police officer, but even he has to admit that his job is utter nonsense: what does a domestic murder matter in a city where so many die daily in mortar attacks or shot by snipers?

Yet one night, when he stumbles in the dark upon a victim of shooting, close inspection reveals that this is no sniper incident, but a deliberate murder at close range. The victim is a head of security in the newly formed Bosnian Ministry of Interior, and it appears he trod on many toes: smugglers, black marketeers, local militia and so on. However, Vlado soon becomes convinced that something much bigger was at stake.

How is it possible to investigate in a city ravaged by hunger, corruption and desperation? How is it possible to keep your head and your integrity when all about you there is nothing but darkness and greed? This is an outstanding portrayal of a city and society driven to the utter limits, and you can forgive any plot inconsistencies or the rushed ending for the atmosphere it evokes.

Other books about Sarajevo which have stuck in my mind: Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, Alma Lazarevska’s Death in the Museum of Modern Art and Zlata Filipovic: Zlata’s Diary, for a child’s perspective on war.

barnesJulian Barnes’ Soviet Union

Barnes is a keen Francophile and has lived in France, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has adopted the French habit of a mélange between biography and fiction for his latest novel, an imagining of three key moments in the life of composer Dmitry Shostakovich.

In the first instance, we see a young, anxious Shostakovich waiting with his suitcase beside the lift in his block of flats, fully expecting to be taken in by the KGB for questioning during Stalin’s worst purges in the 1930s. His recent opera was denounced as bourgeois and unpalatable, and he wants to spare his family the pain of being carted away in front of their eyes. The second moment occurs ten years later, when he has survived the war and even emerged as a leading composer, reliable enough to be sent to a congress in the US, but nevertheless very fearful of saying or thinking the wrong thing. Finally, we see him old, resigned and somewhat complicit with the arguably more liberal regime under Khrushchev.

Although the biographical detail is fascinating and probably quite accurate, it’s the human and individual reaction to an oppressive regime, the attempt to create something of lasting artistic value within the constraints of prescribed Communist values, which makes this book really interesting. The daily fears and gradual compromises are described with great insight, candour and compassion. I will be writing a full review of this remarkable (and quite short) work for the next issue of Shiny New Books.

Other unforgettable books about the Soviet regime: Martin Cruz Smith Gorky Park; Tom Rob Smith: Child 44; Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago; Solzhenitsyn: The First Circle.

 

Quick Crime Reviews: One Out of Four

Would it be fair to say that about one in four books being published today constitutes a memorable read? Judging by my current crop of crime reads, I’d say that proportion is roughly right. It may seem ungracious to say that, especially when I have yet to finish my own novel! (So they are all clearly better than me for a start.) So let me qualify this somewhat.

None of them were bad enough to make me want to stop reading them. In fact, they were entertaining and quite accomplished for debut novels. However, after just a few days, I can barely remember the storyline or the characters. I am sure they will all do well in terms of sales, however, probably better so than the last one, which I liked and remembered most. Is that because publishers or the reading public think of crime fiction as a ‘disposable genre’ – easily read, all about a puzzle and a twist and a quick entertainment, and then forgotten? Or am I being too harsh? Many of my fellow bloggers enjoyed them a lot, so why do I always need a ‘bigger theme’, an exotic location or a social context to keep me happy?

disclaimerRenée Knight: Disclaimer

Quick and easy to read, but failed to rise above the run-of-the-mill for me. Another middle-aged woman with a secret alternating with chapters from the POV of an older man who has suffered loss and is seeking revenge. A set-up which is intriguing – what would you do if you found the worst moments of your life story displayed in a novel? –  but the execution doesn’t quite live up to it.

 

whatsheleftT. R. Richmond: What She Left

An interesting concept of reconstituting a person and their last few days through all the documents and detritus of life that they have left behind. You’ll find a good variety of voices, from lecherous middle-aged professor to wide-eyed naivety. However, overall, the story strained belief – so many gathered by the river’s edge on a winter’s night! – and did not quite live up to the premise.

 

followmeAngela Clarke: Follow Me

Once you manage to suspend your disbelief that the police would be so unfamiliar with Twitter and would depend on a 23-year-old freelance journalist to be their social media consultant, this is quite an entertaining and fast-paced read, although the end is a trifle predictable. It raises some interesting issues about online privacy, but I felt that the issue of what Nas and Freddie had done in their teens was deliberately obfuscated and hidden just to create some artificial suspense.

watermusicMargie Orford: Water Music

This is the fifth novel in the series featuring social worker Clare Hart, working with abused and missing minors in Cape Town. So yes, I jumped midway into the story arc about Clare and her boyfriend, the cop Riedwaan Faizal, but I was still captivated by the interactions between the characters and the storyline. South Africa is a place where life is not easy for poor young women and children, and the author reflects that in this emotional story about an abandoned child and a missing young cellist. This is not the touristy Cape Town we like to imagine, although the natural setting is very beautiful, but a gritty story about violence against women and the consequences of poverty. Corruption at the highest levels and the conflict between police and unions in a post-apartheid South Africa are also tangentially addressed. My first Margie Orford, but most certainly not my last.

Crime Fiction You Can Rely On

When it’s holiday season and foggy outside, you want comfort reading. During the Christmas break, I turned to tried and tested crime novelists, whose books I was sure I would enjoy. And I wasn’t disappointed!

afteryoudieEva Dolan: After You Die

A mother stabbed to death, her disabled daughter left to die of starvation upstairs. The family had previously complained of harassment: did the police not take things seriously enough? Not a refugee or immigrant in sight here, in this third crime novel by Eva Dolan looking at life in or near Peterborough.

Investigators Zigic and Ferreira from the Hate Crimes Unit take a break from xenophobia and political corruption to investigate a case of disability-related hate crime. Dolan proves she is equally at home in a village setting as she is in the grimy town centre, and her deliberately restricted domestic canvas conveys a palpable sense of claustrophobia. As always, a tight, well-written story, with a great deal of sadness at its heart. Never one to shy away from topical discussions, this time the author looks at cyberbullying, attitudes towards disabled people and assisted death.

nightblindRagnar Jonasson: Nightblind (trans. Quentin Bates)

After describing Jonasson’s debut novel Snowblind as a ‘charming combination of influences, which feels very fresh and will appeal to those who find cosy crime too twee and Scandinavian Noir too depressing’, I was looking forward to the second book to be translated.

The publisher Orenda Books chose to translate the books out of order, so this one takes us 5 years into the future, with the main character Ari Thor now settled in the isolated town he was nervous about initially. He is back together with his girlfriend, who works at a nearby hospital, and they have a baby boy. Siglufjördur is now less cut off now with the creation of an additional tunnel, but it remains a close-knit community, shattered by the murder of a policeman. Drug-dealers, corrupt politicians, a woman on the run from an abusive partner and a mysterious inmate in a psychiatric hospital all tease us with hints and possibilities. Ari Thor remains an intriguing character, at times naive and obstinate, at other times clear-eyed and thoughtful, trying to do his best by everyone. The great strength of this series is the setting, of course: local landscapes and the quirks of a small community are impeccably described and form an integral part of the action.

silentroomMari Hannah: The Silent Room

A standalone from the creator of the Kate Daniels’ police procedural series. This one has more of a thrillerish feel to it, and of course a new set of characters, but it has the trademark depth of characterisation and good storytelling that we’ve come to expect of Mari Hannah.

The story starts with a bang: DS Matthew Ryan’s disgraced boss Jack Fenwick is ‘sprung’ from a security van hijacked by armed men. Ryan himself is suspected of aiding and abetting the fugitive, but he believes his former boss was being set up and may have been kidnapped. In an effort to prove his own innocence and find out the reasons behind Fenwick’s disappearance, he enlists the help of former colleagues who are prepared to subvert the rules. I particularly enjoyed calm, collected Special Branch officer Grace Ellis, who cannot bear the boredom of early retirement, nor the slandering of her former colleagues.

Although the trail does lead to Norway and beyond, this is not your bog-average international conspiracy thriller or all-action, all-out action man stuff – which is a good thing in my book. I am not often entranced by thrillers, because it’s all plot, fight, shoot, run, improbable coincidence… but this is much subtler and less graphic than that. There are chilling moments of real menace, though, to keep lovers of ‘normal thrillers’ happy, as well as sadness. It’s a bravura mix of action, puzzling motivations, and all of the main (and many of the secondary) characters are so well drawn, the dynamics between them completely believable.

So, if you are looking for exciting, entertaining but also thought-provoking crime fiction reads, I can heartily recommend any one of these three authors. Have you read any of their books? And do you also turn to reliable reads during the holiday season?

Books of the Year 2015

These are not necessarily books published in 2015, but the books I’ve read and enjoyed this year, which is why I’ve held off with this post till long after all the ‘best of’ lists have appeared. I’ve read 170 books this year, so you can imagine that whittling it all down to just 10 favourites is an impossible task. So instead, here are the books that spoke to me most at various points throughout the year.

DSCN6654Best Winter Chill

Not necessarily books set in winter, but which bring a ‘frisson’ or shudder to your soul.

Emmanuel Carrère: L’Adversaire

Gohril Gabrielsen: The Looking Glass Sisters

Leaves You Breathless

Perfect for a holiday escapade, a long flight or train journey, to keep you turning pages until late into the night.

Virginie Despente: Apocalypse Bébé

Jean-Patrick Manchette: Fatale

Tom Rob Smith: Child 44

Best for Cheering Up

Because we all need a little satire and humour in our lives.

Shirley Hazzard: People in Glass Houses

Fouad Laroui: L’étrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine

MontmartreStreetShould Be Dark But Are Really Inspirational

From darkness a light shall spring – and hope.

Sherman Alexie: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Vincent Van Gogh: Letters

Best Criminal Intent

I’m cheating a little bit in this category, as I already have a list of Top Five Crime Reads on the Crime Fiction Lover website, so these are just a few additional books I really wanted to include but did not have place for:

Jakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord

Jari Jarvela: The Girl and the Bomb – will review it in January

P1000921Most Beautiful Style

Prose that sings, to read again and again.

Michelle Bailat-Jones: Fog Island Mountains

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver

Most Interesting Concept

Experimental, unreliable, not sure what is going on but expanding me as a reader in all directions.

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd

Laura Kasischke: Mind of Winter

When I Grow Up, I Want to Be…

Not to copy their style, but to capture something of their fearlessness.

Elena Ferrante: The Days of Abandonment – I probably will have to read more of her at some point, although I’ve resisted the Neapolitan tetralogy so far (because of the hype)

Eva Dolan – I’ve loved all three of her books to date and admire her productivity

P1020030Grim Yet Powerful

Because I’m still naturally drawn to dark themes and underdogs.

Julia Franck: West

Richard Yates: Disturbing the Peace

Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts

Leave Me Unsettled and Thoughtful

Unsure what to think about these – but they certainly will stay with me for quite some time.

Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life

Heather O’Neill: Lullabies for Little Criminals

Challenges Completed:

With creaking bones and feverish mind, I just about completed some challenges – or rather, I did better in terms of reading than reviewing. The Global Reading Challenge saw me hopping across 7 continents (2 options for each one). I failed the TBR Double Dare for the first three months of 2015, but caught up later with a #TBR20 to whittle down my endless To Be Read lists. In January I only read one book for January in Japan – Kanae Minato’s sinister ‘Confessions’. In March I read two books for Stu’s Eastern European challenge, one set in Moldova, the other in Georgia. I took part in a Tale of Genji readalong (my longest book of the year by quite a margin) in April/May/June. I participated in Women in Translation month in August, German Literature Month in November and #DiverseDecember (which speaks for itself). I even managed to reread some old favourites: Tender Is the Night, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys and Tillie Olsen. But the hardest challenge was the Netgalley Reduction one: I managed to read about 9 from my Netgalley shelves between October and December, but promptly replaced them with other books. So I still lag behind at only 61% review rate.

heartsowhiteMy book of the year? So hard to select one, especially one I haven’t reviewed yet.  Books fit in with moods and seasons, with personal experiences and the order you read them in. However, bless the book which got me out of a reading slump – and a new author to discover and devour! Javier Marias’ A Heart So White (translated by Margaret Jull Costa). I will write a full review in the new year, but this book is one to savour in small portions at a time (and not when you have a bad migraine). Just allow yourself to be carried away by his apparently rambling but ultimately very moving, incantatory style.

Hardboiled with a soft core: crime fiction from the North

It’s not just the capital cities in Europe which provide a photogenic noir backdrop to hardboiled crime fiction. Gunnar Staalesen’s lone wolf detective Varg Veum operates in the northern climes of Bergen in Norway, while John Harvey’s DI Charlie Resnick battles increasingly violent incidents in … well, maybe Nottingham is not quite that far north, if I’m to be honest, only about 130 miles north of London. Both of these strong, silent types are now nearing retirement, so they are showing a more sensitive (or perhaps just more vulnerable) side of themselves.

inheritwindGunnar Staalesen: We Shall Inherit the Wind (transl. Don Bartlett)

Who’d have thought that wind farms and ecology can lead to murderous intent? An ageing Varg Veum proposes to his girlfriend but shows no signs of slowing down otherwise. He still seems able to run and fight his way out of trouble along with the rest of them, while his ability to outsmart his adversary, his tendency to make irreverent quips and cheeky retorts, his talent for getting into trouble remain undiminished. But he is also more self-aware, more likely to recognise his mistakes and try to repair them. And he blames himself for the events and actions which led to his girlfriend being in a coma at the start of the book.

However, despite the thrills and plot twists, the novel is not all about action: readers will find thoughtful characterisation and topical social and economic concerns which are so often linked to Scandinavian crime fiction.

vargveumNot all of the Varg Veum novels have been translated into English, and certainly not in the right order, but I remember reading Staalesen a few years back and thinking his stubborn, wisecrack-filled hero reminded me of Arjouni’s Kayankaya or Harry Bosch. A well-paced, thrilling plot, the usual topical social concerns we have come to expect from Staalesen’s confident pen. The author is a classic in his own country: there is even a statue of Varg Veum leaning against a wall and staring moodily into the distance in Bergen. And I can imagine Varg attending the Bergen Jazz Festival, perhaps together with the detective featured below…

CiHandJohn Harvey: Cold in Hand

John Harvey is an immensely prolific writer, and his jazz-influenced Charlie Resnick series has received numerous awards and high critical praise. I am a newcomer to his work, but I could not help admiring his strong, muscular, lean and yet very poetic prose. A detective of Polish origin who loves cats, Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk? Count me in!

Charlie gets pulled back into frontline policing as gang violence with smuggled weapons escalates in Nottingham. Fellow police officer (and lover/nearly fiancée) Lynn tries to break up a street fight and gets caught in a shooting, in which one teenage girl dies. The girl’s father publicly accuses her of putting his daughter’s life at risk and Charlie and Lynn find themselves struggling to reconcile their personal beliefs with their professional lives.

Life happens – sometimes it is cosy and everyday, sometimes it is brutal and painful, just like real life. Harvey is a master at rendering both the comfort of the common-place and the shudder of deep grief. I am full of admiration for the economy of his prose, capable of conveying so much emotion.

I don’t know why it took me so long to discover John Harvey as a crime writer. I was a regular reader of his old blog (now closed) and his poetry, but he still blogs occasionally here about poetry, music and various other book-related themes.

 

September Reading Round-Up

Yes, I know it’s already October, but this is written in-between bouts of work and travel. The list below shows that I spent far too much time in airports, on planes and in hotel rooms this past month, as I got a lot of reading done but far less reviewing.

16 books, of which 5 ‘imposed’ for reviews. 8 crime fiction or psychological thrillers. The ones marked with an asterisk are ‘review still to come (hopefully, at some point, in the fullness of time)’.

  1. Linda Huber: The Attic Room
  2. Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None
  3. Tessa Hadley: Everything Will Be All Right*
  4. Christos Tsiolkas: Barracuda*
  5. Sophie Divry: Quand le diable sortit de la salle de bain
  6. Michelle Bailat-Jones: Fog Island Mountains
  7. Martha Grimes: The Old Silent
  8. Martha Grimes: Foul Matter
  9. Martha Grimes: The Case Has Altered
  10. Martha Grimes: Belle Ruin  (the four above were read/reread for a feature on Martha Grimes for Crime Fiction Lover’s Classics in September)
  11. Fran Pickering: The Cherry Blossom Murder
  12. David Young: Stasi Child
  13. Shirley Hazzard: People in Glass Houses*
  14. Richard Yates: Disturbing the Peace
  15. Matt Haig: Reasons to Live
  16. Nicholas Grey: The Wastelanders*

Although I said I would switch to more male writers this month, to make up for an all-female author list during the summer holidays, I ended up with 11 books written by women (albeit 4 of them by the same woman) and only 5 by men. I have a little more testosterone planned for October, as well as more books from Netgalley (where my reviewing percentage has plummeted).

fogislandMy crime fiction pick of the month is And Then There Were None (still one to beat, and one of my favourite Christies – not just mine, but also one of the world’s favourite Christies), closely followed by Stasi Child. I had some great contenders for literary favourite of the month, with Tessa Hadley, Shirley Hazzard and Tsiolkas all in impressive form, while Richard Yates is one of my old stalwarts. However, Fog Island Mountains beat them all – it really hooked into my heart and dug itself a quiet little place there.