February Reading: A Season of Grimness

I was offline for a couple of days and gathering my lists and reviews for February, when I realised that this short, dark month has provided me with quite a lot of grim reading. Not ‘grim’ in terms of the quality of the writing, since pretty much all of them have been very well written indeed. But the subject matter(s) has/have been relentless: child abductions, abuse, alcoholism, serial killers, cannibalism, mental illness, highly dysfunctional families, discrimination against immigrants… and an astronaut stranded on Mars.

Still, I managed to read 16 books this month, which is very good going, although I have fallen far behind in my reviewing.

1 Book Each in German and French:

Irena Brežná: Die undankbare Fremde

Delphine de Vigan: Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit – will be part of a larger post on mothers in fiction

5 Translated Books (and therefore worth knowing the translators’ names)

Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noël Balen: Nightmare in Burgundy, transl. Sally Pane (to be reviewed soon on CFL)

Pascal Garnier: The Front Seat Passenger (to be reviewed), transl. Jane Aitken

Shuichi Yoshida: Parade, transl. Philip Gabriel

Parade

Promising set-up: four young people who share a flat and seem to have nothing in common. Each is slightly off-kilter, dysfunctional, but not in a very obvious way. As a picture of disaffected youth, of the anonymity of city living, of friendships of the ‘chatroom type’ (even when people are living together) and of the darker side to Japanese society, it works perfectly. As a crime novel or even psychological thriller with a coherent story arc, it does not.

Pierre Lemaitre: Irène (to be reviewed), transl. Frank Wynne

Jung-Myung Lee: The Investigation (to be reviewed), transl. Chi-Young Kim

1 Non-Crime Book (More Science than Science Fiction)

Andy Weir: The Martian

Martian

Surprisingly technical, with a high level of scientific precision (and yet manages to keep it thrilling throughout). It really would make an excellent film. Lovely sense of humour of the main protagonist, plus a lot of the politics of NASA, the US and even China, keeps this lively.  Ultimately, however, this one felt just a bit too geeky to me. It didn’t have enough of the human/psychological elements to it.

4 Books from Crime Fiction Series

Elly Griffiths: The Outcast Dead (Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist)

Denise Mina: The Red Road (detective Alex Morrow)

Donna Leon: By Its Cover (Commissario Brunetti) – to be reviewed

Nicci French: Waiting for Wednesday (psychotherapist Frieda Klein)

NicciFrench

I might have known that Nicci French would not do a conventional crime fiction series. Don’t expect a police procedural (although police are involved) and don’t expect a self-contained story, as so many recurrent characters reappear and so many allusions are made to events in the previous two books. Yes, there is a distinct murder, plus an intriguing trail which could mean several more murders, but this is all much more about loss and bereavement, trauma and its psychological consequences.

4 Standalone Crime Novels (although at least 2 of them really stretch the boundaries of crime)

Lucie Whitehouse: Before We Met

Natalie Young: Season to Taste

Paula Daly: Just What Kind of Mother Are You? – will feature in my ‘mothering’ post

Koren Zailckas: Mother Mother – will feature in my ‘mothering’ post

So many fantastic books this month, not a single turkey. A few frightened or even repelled me (The Red Road, Season to Taste, Mother Mother, Irène), most of them saddened me (even Donna Leon and the winemaker series were not so cosy this time round), so it was hard to choose my favourite. In the end, I opted for The Investigation, because it combines so many of my favourite things: poetry and mystery, Japanese history and the triumph of beauty and art over the most inhumane conditions.

I’m linking this to the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme organised by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

Two Books with a Great Sense of Place

REdRoadToday I’m comparing and contrasting two books I’ve recently read, which both have a wonderful sense of local atmosphere.

The first is ‘The Red Road’ by Denise Mina, out in paperback on Feb. 13th, 2014.

Author Denise Mina has an instantly recognisable voice in crime fiction: compassionate yet completely unsentimental. She is the mistress of portraying the lost souls of urban poverty and the tough choices they have to make. Rough areas, with buildings ripe for demolition (the Red Road flats in Glasgow are real and are indeed being gradually demolished), decaying morals, corruption at all levels, contrast between rich and poor, the educated and the deprived. This book falls most certainly within the Tartan noir category. It talks about recent history but observed through two different time frames: the night of Diana’s death (because everyone can remember where they were on that night) and the present day. Mina excels at social commentary without preaching, simply by letting her characters talk. And what well-rounded, plausible characters they are, most of them facing heart-breaking dilemmas. I’ve not read previous books in the Alex Morrow series (although I have read other Denise Mina books), but that did not diminish at all my reading experience.

‘The Outcast Dead’ by Elly Griffiths falls more towards the cosy end of the crime fiction spectrum, although it too deals with the harrowing subject of lost or mistreated children. Griffiths’ local area are the flat, isolated Norfolk broads, very rural, traversed by hidden causeways and visited by regular sinister fogs.

OutcastDead Yet the author introduces us to an ostensibly comfortable and comforting community: middle-class, well-educated population, church towers instead of tower blocks, village pubs instead of orphanages. There is a historical dimension here (of course there would be with a forensic anthropologist as the main protagonist) – even slight tinges of the supernatural – but we are operating squarely within a single time frame. I had read the first book in the Ruth Galloway series, but none since, so it did feel a little as though I had not seen a friend for many years and had too much to catch up on. Ruth, however, remains a lovable, no-nonsense every woman heroine (despite her complicated family dynamic).

There are some similarities between these two books, although they probably do address two quite distinct crime fiction audiences (unless you are a greedy omnivorous reader like myself). Families do not necessarily provide a safe haven, and children are all too often the victims: kidnapped, manipulated, possibly killed by the people in whose care they’ve been placed. Outcasts in both cases. And of course both writers are masterful at giving us enough of the local atmosphere to really drive the story forward: the descriptions are always economic, never overdone, with gradual layering of details.

One quibble I do have: given that the books are so different, why are the covers rather similar in colour, lettering and silhouetted imagery? It seems to be a current trend in crime fiction – similar ones have arrived in my post box for the past year or so, from different publishers and for different authors, ranging from Fred Vargas to Alison Bruce. I actually quite like the moodiness and blue is my favourite colour… but diversity is the mother of originality!