March Reading Summary

The reading mojo is on its way back this month, although it has been quite heavily loaded on the crime fiction side of things. Out of the 15 books I read this month, 10 were by women writers and 12 were crime-related. That is the sort of comfort reading I crave, although I have also ventured into self-help, true crime and historical fiction.

Women on the cliff of change:

Katie Kitamura: A Separation – even this has a mystery at its heart, although of course it is about much more than death.  When the narrator’s husband goes missing in Greece, she does not have the heart to admit to her in-laws that they have been separated for six months, so she travels there to find him… and in the process finds herself.  A full review to come on Shiny New Books.

Rachel Cusk: Transit – Kitamura’s book reminded me very much of Cusk’s Outline, so I moved on to the second in the trilogy. This is also a series of vignettes about the people the narrator encounters as she sets to buy and renovate a property in London. A more subtle, less self-centred book than Kitamura’s.

Marie Darrieussecq: Men – read this one for France in the #EU27Project, about a French actress’s ill-fated passion for a black actor/film director as they prepare to film in the Congo.

Women in crime:

Susie Steiner: Missing, Presumed

Emma Flint: Little Deaths

Andrea Carter: Treacherous Strand – crime solved by a female solicitor on the Inishowen Peninsula in Ireland – review to come on Crime Fiction Lover

Aga Lesiewicz: Exposure – urban thriller set in hipsterland Shoreditch – gulped it down in one night, review to come on CFL

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery

Non-Fiction:

Harriet Lerner: Why Won’t You Apologize?   – Psychologist Lerner examines why it’s so hard to offer a heartfelt apology and how to repair relationships and restore trust. Witty, candid and with some great personal examples, it’s a delight to read even for those who shun self-help books.

Helen Garner: This House of Grief – Deliberate revenge or tragic accident? Garner examines the court case of Robert Farquharson, who in 2005 drove into a dam with his three children. I expected this to be more of an examination of the background and family life which led to the tragic event described, but it really is a detailed account of the trial (plus appeal and retrial) and the reactions of the author and the people around her to the unfolding of procedures. Interesting, because it shows how subjective the law can be in court, how easily swayed public opinion (or the jury’s opinion). A great companion piece to Little Deaths.

Books for Review:

Matt Johnson: Deadly Game

Dylan H. Jones: Anglesey Blue

Antonin Varenne: Retribution Road

Just for fun:

Stephen May: Stronger Than Skin – psychological thriller from the man’s perspective, which makes a nice change. I admit that one of the two time frames, the Cambridge setting of the 1990s, played a big part in my decision, although I did not feel truly transposed into that world. A story of obsessive young love and more mature realisation of responsibilities and limitations. I did enjoy the poke at the pretentiousness of middle-class, middle-aged life, in particular through the unconventional character of Lulu, the photographer girlfriend of a former pupil of the main character Mark Chadwick. Goodness, that sounds complicated – I should have started that sentence elsewhere!

Terry Pratchett: Snuff – even when I pick something amusing from the library, there is still a crime element involved, as Sam Vimes finds a corpse waiting for him when he goes on holiday in the countryside.

 

Punished for Appearances: Emma Flint’s Little Deaths

Little Deaths by Emma Flint is the kind of book which has been buzzing away on the horizon of my consciousness, with many excited tweets, some excellent reviews and then longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize. I finally read it last week but have been waiting to gather my thoughts about it, because it left me feeling rather spent.

It makes for a powerful reading experience, there is no doubt about that. I went into it not knowing much about the Alice Crimmins case upon which it is based. When I googled it afterwards, I was surprised just how many of the real-life details the author had incorporated into her fictionalised version. Another surprise is that the author has never been to that working-class neighbourhood in Queens in New York (and certainly not in the 1960s). She is in fact British and did most of her research of the setting on YouTube and Google Maps. Kudos to her for such an authentic recreation of time and place.

Ruth Malone is a glamorous red-head, separated from her husband, raising two children whom she loves but often finds hard going, working as a cocktail waitress and being overtly unrestrained in her sexual behaviour, too much so for the tastes of that 1960s neighbourhood (regardless of what people might have got up to behind closed doors). She is also in an acrimonious dispute over custody with her estranged husband Frankie. One morning in July she unlatches her children’s bedroom door to find her young children missing. Within days their bodies are found in a dump and a nearby woods, strangled, decomposed, and she becomes the prime suspect in their deaths.

Cover of Front Page Detective from 1968, featuring Alice Crimmmins.

It soon becomes clear that the police are far more interested in Ruth’s sex life than in proper detective work. They do not seriously search for any other suspects, fail to investigate all the clues and possible avenues, focus only on certain aspects of the evidence (the love letters Ruth has received from her admirers) while ignoring all others. Instead, they interrogate Ruth over and over again, in an attempt to ‘break’ her, which only makes her more angry. In her descriptions of the painfully lonely, eternally disappointed and perpetually defiant Ruth, the author brilliantly encapsulates the attitude of the original Alice Crimmins, who said:  ‘They wanted me to grieve—not for the sake of my children, but for them—the police. I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction. They were my kids. Nobody was out looking to see who killed my kids. They were interested in making me break.’

The trial was already prejudged by the time they went to court. While Ruth is hardly an angel, she is not too far removed from the frazzled working single mum of today. The gossipy atmosphere, neighbourly resentments, as well as judgemental attitudes towards what makes a good mother are perfectly captured. How dare she take considerable time to put on makeup before talking to detectives or go out to buy a new dress? Never mind that makeup is Ruth’s suit of armour, a defence against acne and possibly some psychological scars. Interestingly enough, many readers’ reviews on Goodreads claim that they cannot feel any grief from Ruth, that she is too emotionally detached, too blank. So she is being judged all over again.

There are some repetitive moments, especially regarding Ruth’s bodily self-loathing and her ‘yellow smell’ – and that lengthy opening scene of putting on her make-up before and after the event which changed her life. [I thought agents and editors warn us to never start with someone looking at themselves in a mirror.] But overall, those poignant moments of enforced gaiety, going out and picking almost any man to combat her loneliness, successfully convey the despair, temporary madness, strange passivity and feeling of futility which do come with immense grief. Every one of us grieves differently.

Of course, we are encouraged to view Ruth in a more positive light because of Pete Wonicke’s growing sympathy towards her. Pete is a rookie journalist who initially contributes to the anti-Ruth rhetoric in an attempt to sensationalise the story and sell newspapers, but increasingly tries to find out the real person behind the mask. Or so he tells himself, in an attempt to justify his obsessive, almost stalkerish fascination with the case. Marking a clever counterpoint to the story, he is a compromised narrator himself.

Author photo from Jo Unwin Literary Agency website.

In this book, Emma Flint offers an alternative explanation for what happened that night, but the real case has never been solved. What made for more disturbing reading is knowing that this type of ‘trial by media and public opinion’ is still so common today. See for example Karen Matthews, often dubbed ‘Britain’s most despised Mum’, or Casey Anthony in the States. a.k.a. ‘America’s most hated’, who declared ‘People found me guilty long before I had my day in court.’ In an age of internet trolling, public reactions are even more frightening and extreme even in relatively mild cases, as in this example of a mother who took an innocent picture of her Down’s syndrome toddler hiding in a washing-machine.

Less of a suspense novel, more of a depiction of a particular era, so perhaps not one for readers who are looking for a true thriller. What it offers instead is both social commentary and an in-depth character study of two lonely misfits: one of whom tries to fit in by making compromises, the other furiously refusing to make any.

 

WWWednesday 15th March: What Are You Reading?

WWW Wednesday is a meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Currently reading:

Emma Flint: Little Deaths

From the blurb: It’s 1965 in a tight-knit working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York, and Ruth Malone–a single mother who works long hours as a cocktail waitress–wakes to discover her two small children, Frankie Jr. and Cindy, have gone missing. Later that day, Cindy’s body is found in a derelict lot a half mile from her home, strangled. Ten days later, Frankie Jr.’s decomposing body is found. Immediately, all fingers point to Ruth. As police investigate the murders, the detritus of Ruth’s life is exposed. Seen through the eyes of the cops, the empty bourbon bottles and provocative clothing which litter her apartment, the piles of letters from countless men and Ruth’s little black book of phone numbers, make her a drunk, a loose woman–and therefore a bad mother.

Harriet Lerner: Why Won’t You Apologize?

From the blurb: Lerner challenges the popular notion that forgiveness is the only path to peace of mind and helps those who have been injured to resist pressure to forgive too easily. She explains what drives both the non-apologizer and the over-apologizer, and why the people who do the worst things are the least able to own their misdeeds. With her trademark humour and wit, Lerner offers a joyful and sanity-saving guide to setting things right.

Just read:

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery – Gamache and Beauvoir are not in Three Pines this time, but in a remote monastery awash with Gregorian chants. Comfort reading for me, as I love everything that Penny writes.

Antonin Varenne: Retribution Road – rip-roaring adventure, think Taboo with more international travelling and a serial killer. Varenne will be at Quais du Polar in Lyon this year.

Next in line:

Rachel Cusk: Transit – good timing or too close to life?

In the wake of family collapse, a writer and her two young sons move to London. The process of upheaval is the catalyst for a number of transitions—personal, moral, artistic, practical—as she endeavors to construct a new reality for herself and her children.

Thomas Enger: Cursed – now this sounds like perfect escapism, I;ve been saving it up for comfort reading.

When Hedda Hellberg fails to return from a retreat in Italy, where she has been grieving for her recently dead father, her husband discovers that his wife’s life is tangled in mystery. Hedda never left Oslo, the retreat has no record of her and, what’s more, she appears to be connected to the death of an old man, gunned down on the first day of the hunting season in the depths of the Swedish forests. Henning Juul becomes involved in the case when his ex-wife joins in the search for the missing woman, and the estranged pair find themselves enmeshed both in the murky secrets of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families, and in the painful truths surrounding the death of their own son.

So, what are your reading plans for this week? And have you read any of the above?