Reading in the Merry Month of May

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.

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Gotta love the cloudy days of May… Lake Geneva from Vevey.

 

Julie Schumacher: Dear Committee Members

Louise Penny: How the Light Gets In – dare I count this as the first of my TBR20?

Helen Fitzgerald: Bloody Women

Clare Mackintosh: I Let You Go

Daniel Quiros: Eté rouge – this one counts for my Global Reading Challenge – Central and South America

Kristien Hemmerechts: The Woman Who Fed the Dogs

Quentin Bates: Summerchill – reviewed on CFL website; you can read my interview with the author here

Ragnar Jonasson: Snowblind – reviewed on CFL website; I’ve also had the pleasure of interviewing Ragnar here 

Megan Beech: When I Grow Up I Want to Be Mary Beard (poetry)

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.

Siglufjordur, location for Snowblind. Picture taken by the author, Ragnar Jonasson (thanks to Twitter).
Siglufjordur, location for Snowblind. Picture taken by the author, Ragnar Jonasson (thanks to Twitter).

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.

 

 

 

 

 

What Makes a Book Emotionally Gripping?

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?

The Incredible Hulk rollercoaster, Florida. From culturaltravelguide.com
The Incredible Hulk rollercoaster, Florida. From culturaltravelguide.com

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):

thewomanwhofedKristien 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.

letyougoClare 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).

veranoDaniel 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)?

 

 

 

TBR Alert! Books Bought at Quais du Polar

No, it’s not an April Fools’ Day joke! My TBR pile has augmented by another 12 books. Other than rebuying the graphic version of Manchette’s Fatale (you can find my review of the reissued translation of it on CFL),  I could not stop myself from acquiring books by favourite authors, as well as allowing plenty of room for discovering new names. Luckily, there was a fairly good selection of books in English this year as well, so I didn’t have to read the French language translations for some of them.

Old favourites:

I tend not to read series in order (partly out of necessity – it’s not easy to find the English series at libraries here in France, and I can’t afford to buy all of them), so there’s always one or two I’ve missed. The problem is that I sometimes forget which one I’ve missed – or else the title of the US and UK editions are different (Louise Penny says her publishers have promised that will stop – hurrah!). So here are the books I bought from writers whose work I already know I like:

GodsBeastsDenise Mina: Gods and Beasts – I’ve read her Garnethill and Paddy Meehan series, but only ‘The Red Road’ from the Alex Morrow series. This one takes place before the events in Red Road and won the Theakstons Old Peculier Award in Harrogate in 2013.

 

PennycoverLouise Penny: How the Light Gets In

Book 9 in the series and it’s winter once more in Three Pines. A famous woman has gone missing and Gamache has to battle with hostile forces within his department. I’ve reviewed ‘Dead Cold’ (aka A Fatal Grace) and ‘The Long Way Home’ and was searching for ‘The Beautiful Mystery’, but it was not available from Decitre’s English language section.

Child44Tom Rob Smith: Child 44

I’ll be honest: I hesitated to read this one because I’m a little traumatised reading about brutal repressive regimes (although I’ve had less dramatic immediate experience of it than other close friends). So I read ‘The Farm’ instead (which is very different, more domestic), but this account of a serial killer in the Soviet society where such crime is apparently unthinkable sounds fascinating. The author spoke about the inspiration behind the story: real-life serial killer Chikatilo, probably one of the worst criminals in history (but who committed those crimes two decades later than the events in this book).

Desai1Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night

A combination of influences made me buy this: Margot Kinberg’s spotlight on the book, reading Desai’s second book (on surrogate mothers – wombs for rent in India), seeing her speak so passionately on her panel and direct conversation with the author. As Margot says: ‘There’s always a risk when a novel addresses a social issue that the author may have an agenda that will overshadow the plot, but if it’s done well, a crime novel can be a very effective forum for a discussion of social issues.’ and Desai does just that. This book also won the Costa First Novel Award.

GranotierbookSylvie Granotier: Personne n’en saura rien (No one will know anything)

Sometimes the name is just enough. I’ve read and loved her ‘The Paris Lawyer’ and other books that have not yet been translated into English. I interviewed her at Quais du Polar two years ago and she is so thoughtful and articulate that I’ve succumbed to her charm. I have no idea what this new book is about, but I’m sure I’ll enjoy it – even though it is a story of revenge, manipulation and yes, a serial killer.

Always meant to read: 

KhadraYasmina Khadra: Qu’attendent les singes (What are the monkeys waiting for)

A former Algerian army officer who uses his wife’s name to publish some of the most ambitious and topical fiction about the Middle East. Some of his work is available in English, especially his trilogy about Islamic fundamentalism: ‘The Swallows of Kabul’ (about Afghanistan), ‘The Attack’ (Palestine) and ‘The Sirens of Baghdad’ (Iraq). However, his latest book returns to Algeria and features a feisty female detective. Khadra said he is an ardent feminist, and admitted it is very difficult to be a woman in any public position in his native country. Khadra also comes highly recommended by Claire McAlpine at Word by Word.

Debut authors who impressed me at panel discussions:

VongozeroYana Vagner: VongoZero

The title is the name of a lake on the border between Finland and Russia, where a group of survivors of an apocalyptic flu epidemic are travelling for their survival. Dystopian psychological thriller written in installments on Yana’s blog, and incorporating feedback from her readers – very Dickensian.

KillinglessonsSaul Black: The Killing Lessons

Strictly speaking, Saul Black is not a debut author, as it’s the crime genre pseudonym for highly regarded author Glen Duncan. He’s always found it hard to allow himself to be contained by just one genre and has written a werewolf trilogy (which would normally be enough to put me off his writing). However, this book is more typical crime fiction fare, set in Colorado, with shades of McCarthy’s ‘No Country for Old Men’.

QuirosDaniel Quirós: Eté rouge (Red Summer) 

Don Chepe, former guerilla fighter in Nicaragua’s bloody civil war, has retired to the paradise of  a fishing village on the Pacific coast in Costa Rica. But the body of an Argentine woman washes up on the beach one day and he becomes involved in a complex investigation which digs deep into his personal and his country’s history.

Recommendations from blogs or bloggers:

BouysseFranck Bouysse: Grossir le ciel (Magnifying/swelling up the sky)

When Catherine from Le Blog du Polar de Velda recommends a new French writer, I sit up and listen. She has a nose for up-and-coming talent – and quite often a similar taste as myself, on the noirish side. This story of two isolated farms in a remote rural area of France  – and the men who inhabit them – sounds intriguing (especially to me, coming as I do from solid farming stock).

GornellBarry Gornell: The Healing of Luther Grove

Gothic tension in the Highlands, where an urban couple relocate, believing they have found their rural paradise. Barry was interviewed by Crime Fiction Lover as part of New Talent November, so his name seemed familiar, and I approached him at the book signing. When I discovered he was a debut author and this was his first participation at an international crime fiction festival, I just had to find his book in English and get it signed. It also got a glowing review by Eva Dolan on CFL.

Impulse Buy

CrystalPalaceFabrice Bourland: Le diable du Crystal Palace (The Devil of Crystal Palace)

Bourland is a great admirer of Poe and Conan-Doyle and he’s written a series of supernatural thrillers set in London, featuring elegant 1930s detectives Singleton and Trelawney. A couple of them have been translated by Gallic Books. This one hasn’t, but has a personal connotation, as it’s set just a stop or two away from the part of London where I used to live.

You may well argue that I overestimate the number of books I can keep on my shelves (even signed books), and that I still haven’t read all of the books I bought at the previous two editions of the festival. [I am in good company there, as I heard several festivalgoers say the very same thing.]

But you know what? I don’t smoke or gamble, I seldom drink or go out on shopping sprees. A girl’s got to have some vices, right? And books are my vice. What do you think? Have you read any of the above and what did you think of them? Are there any which tantalise your taste buds?