I have so many annual round-ups and best of lists to share with you, that I’m planning to divide them up by subject matter and bore you to death with posts from now until the New Year! The first topic is Crime Fiction. I have read probably somewhat less crime than in previous years: only 40 of the 127 books I read this year were crime fiction, so somewhat less than a third, while in previous years it would have been more like half. The following titles were particularly appealing and/or memorable.
Simone Buchholz: Mexico Street: Romeo and Juliet against the backdrop of immigrant communities and hardnosed port towns like Hamburg and Bremen, with Buchholz’s unmistakable witty yet also lyrical style.
Elizabeth George: A Banquet of Consequences– I was utterly absorbed by the book while reading it, but can no longer remember a single thing about it now. Don’t know if that says things about how long this year has felt (I read it in February), or about my memory, or about the book itself. I am giving George the benefit of the doubt in memory of the good old days when I adored her work.
Chris Whitaker: We Begin at the End – very intense and moving, more of a character study (and description of a location and a way of life) than a standard procedural. Duchess is firmly in my heart, a truly memorable creation.
Rosamund Lupton: Three Hours – one of our Virtual Crime Book Club reads, this was a heart-stopping, heart-racing race against the clock set against a backdrop of a school shooting.
Barbara Nadel:Incorruptible– a reunion with my old friends Ikmen and Suleyman, and an interesting story of Catholic vs. Muslim heritage in an increasingly totalitarian Turkish state
Eva Dolan: Between Two Evils – another ecstatic reunion with one my favourite recent crime authors and her uncompromising look at contemporary British society
Abir Mukherjee: A Rising Man – an excellent incursion into historical fiction, learning so much about the British Empire in India, another Virtual Crime Club read
Riku Onda: The Aosawa Murders – unusual, puzzling, thought-provoking, my favourite Japanese crime novel of the year
John Vercher: Three Fifths – more of a psychological thriller and moral dilemma, an indictment of perception of race in the US, in equal measure poignant and infuriating
If I was really pushed to give a gold medal to any of the above for this year, I’d say The Aosawa Murders, and here is the Japanese cover of it (in the original, the title is Eugenia).
Above all, I want to thank Rebecca Bradley and her Virtual Crime Book Club for getting me to read sub-genres and books that I might not normally have discovered on my own.
You know I enjoy my crime fiction books, and in these plague-ridden, uncertain times they provide me with more comfort than ever before. Especially the two authors who feature for No. 12 and No. 13 within my #20BooksofSummer. I’m also sneaking in a third book by a new-to-me author, which I read (and greatly enjoyed) for the Virtual Crime Book Club this month. So, I could entitle this post:
A Longterm Love, a Newer Love and a Brand-New Love (let’s see if you can figure out which is which?!)
Barbara Nadel: Incorruptible
I discovered Barbara Nadel’s crime series set in Istanbul about 12 years ago, when a friend who knows me well said that I might enjoy it, given my own passion for intercultural issues. I’ve always kept an eye out for them since, but in the past few years, as my reviewing duties went into overdrive and I started reading fewer books for pleasure, I had missed the last couple of books that came out in the Ikmen and Suleyman series (I am slightly less keen on the London-set crime series by the same author). So I ordered the latest one but started with an older one that I had on my bookshelf, which came out in 2018.
A young woman torn between her Catholic and Muslim mixed background is found brutally murdered, eviscerated. Before her death, she had been tearing apart public opinion with her claim of being miraculously cured of cancer and her visions of the Virgin Mary. Does her murder have a religious motive in a country that is increasingly separated into hostile camps based on faith? Or could the reason be closer to home, with a family equally torn apart by conflicting ideologies?
It was good to catch up with Ikmen as he nears retirement, but is wiser and more empathetic than ever, while I’ve always had a soft spot for the charismatic womaniser that is Mehmet Suleyman (who once again faces women trouble in this book). Meanwhile, their female boss is struggling to keep her police unit independent, free of government interference – and it was this description of descent into nationalism and dictatorship which I found particularly unsettling. The series has become darker and more thoughtful as time goes on, perhaps reflecting what is going on in Turkey currently. I know the author has been having trouble returning there for her research (she used to spend a great deal of the year in Turkey).
Eva Dolan: Between Two Evils
It has been far too long since the last Zigic and Ferreira novel set in Peterborough (although Dolan has written a standalone crime novel in the meantime). The Hate Crime Unit has been disbanded and they are now working with their colleagues in the general murder squad. The action is set in 2018 and both investigators (and the people they are investigating) are starting to feel the hostile post-Brexit environment.
A young doctor who works at the local female detention centre for illegal immigrants is found dead. Is this because he was a whistleblower or because he was one of the participants in the abuse of inmates in the centre (which is more or less like a prison and usually ends up with the inmates being deported).
As the title indicates, this book too shows a clash between two opposing forces and points of view. There is no sugarcoating, no representation of either side as being completely blameless – the protesters against the detention centre come off quite badly, despite their ‘progressive’ views. I like this subtletly in Dolan’s work, this refusal to over-simplify when the situation is so complex and messy. Another great entry in the series and I’m hopeful there will be more.
Abir Mukherjee: A Rising Man
This is the additional title, which was not on my 20 Books of Summer list, but which I read for the Virtual Crime Book Club run by crime writer (and reader) Rebecca Bradley. I’d been meaning to get started on this series, since I know next to nothing about India during that period (1920 onwards), other than that it was a troubled time, so I was delighted that it was the book club choice for July. This book too shows two opposing factions – the behemoth of the British Empire versus the Indian rebels, and once again the author manages to pull off the tricky feat of not resorting to stereotypes or presenting them as unified block.
Sam Wyndham is new to India: he survived the trenches of WW1 only to have his wife dies of the Spanish flu, so he has become world-weary, cynical and slightly addicted to opium. He also feels like an outsider in India – he is not really integrated yet into the colonial community, has a strong sense of fairness and feels uncomfortable with British imperialist attitude. But he is realistically of his time: more progressive than most, but nevertheless not overly modern (what one might call ‘woke’ nowadays). Two other outsiders join him (and will likely play key roles in the next books in the series): the Anglo-Indian secretary Annie Grant and his well-educated, wealthy ‘native’ sergeant nicknamed Surrender-not (which sounds offensive to me, but is accepted by the man in question with weary resignation).
The setting was one of the high points of the book for me, educating me while never becoming too didactic. As with all first books in a series, there is quite a bit of set-up and throat-clearing in this book, but there are sufficient hints of character development to keep me intrigued. I’m looking forward to reading more by this author.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
I am so busy with my two new jobs that I haven’t had time to write any reviews, so I have taken what is laughingly known as the ‘easy way out’ by filming myself talking about some books I have recently read and ones I am currently reading. 5 crime novels, one Israeli apartment block in Tel Aviv, an Argentinian in France and a sweeping Hungarian family saga. Pretty much par for the course…
[I should stop apologising for my awkwardness while filming – static camera and a very movable person do not mix well.]
I love the serendipity of reading two or more books on similar topics in quick succession. It must be the subconscious at work rather than deliberate choice, but through this enforced proximity the books always end up illuminating and enhancing each other.
Eva Dolan: Watch Her Disappear
You know by now how fond I am of Eva Dolan’s work, which is a sophisticated mix of police procedural and social commentary via the Hate Crimes Unit in Peterborough. Her writing style in the first two books was very rich, of such literary quality that almost every sentence begged to be read twice, to become fully aware of all the implications. Since then, perhaps because of editorial pressure, her style has become a little more down-to-earth. Although I miss the earlier style, I have to admit that this does make for much faster reading, without ever becoming pedestrian.
The plot: middle-aged but attractive Corinne Sawyer is attacked and killed while out jogging by the river. At first the police suspect it might be a serial rapist escalating his crimes, but when it turns out that Corinne was Colin until a few years ago, the Hate Crime unit gets called in. Zigic and Ferreira soon discover that she was not the first trans woman who has been violently attacked in the local area. As usual with this hate-crime-fighting duo, they encounter deep-seated prejudice, accusations of being bigoted themselves, and families where resentment and bad feelings rule supreme.
The author has the knack to take on really difficult and topical subjects, and make us question our assumptions about them. We get to see not only the unhappiness and fear of transgender and transvestite people, the lack of understanding and support which they experience, but we also come to see the impact it has on their friends and families. These are complex situation which deserve sensitive treatment and our loyalty is often conflicted, our sympathies lying with both sides. There is just the right balance between compassion and judgement, sadness and justice.
Dolan seems to have covered now nearly all aspects of hate crimes with her series set in Peterborough: migrant labour, white supremacists, disability and now the trans community. There are hints that their unit might be wound up and I wonder if that is because the author fear she may be running out of topics to write about without repeating herself. Sadly, the hate crimes themselves seem to be here to stay.
Saleem Haddad: Guapa
If Dolan’s book makes you think it’s hard being a transvestite or transgender in England, you should try being that – or gay – in a Middle Eastern city (unspecified country, although there were bits which reminded me of Lebanon, Egypt, Syria). A fish out of water regardless of where he goes, both in the US and in his home town, Rasa describes 24 hours of his life after he has been discovered having sex with a man by his grandmother. Politics, hypocrisy, corruption, violence and shame all jostle in a world where nothing is quite what it seems but the truth seems far too dangerous to discuss openly.
Rasa is an interpreter for Western journalists by day, an occasional protestor during the Arab Spring and, at night, he parties at Guapa (which means ‘beautiful’ in Spanish), an underground club catering for the ‘hidden’ LGBT community in the city. He is also desperately in love with Taymour, who is about to get married to a girl in order to please his family. After Rasa’s grandmother makes her shocking discovery, one of Rasa’s friends, the drag queen Majid, is arrested by the police for political protest.
Within the space of 24 hours, the novel gives us a generous slice of Rasa’s world, showing an increasing alienation from both Western culture and his own, as he tries to untangle his own ‘betwixt and between’ identity. The author himself is a mix of Lebanese-Palestinian and Iraqi-German, has grown up in Jordan, Canada and Britain, and worked for Médecins Sans Frontières, so he knows what he is talking about.
The prose is slightly pedestrian at times, and there are occasional instances of information dumping. Some readers might be put off by the polemical discussions between Rasa and his friends about what constitutes eib (shame, unclean), or between Rasa and his fellow students in the US about Islam. It can sound more like a treatise than fiction at times. However, for me it was quite eye-opening: being a double outsider in a world where so much is forbidden, and even more is swept under the carpet. A nuanced insight into a world that to us in the West is often presented as a straightforward dichotomy: black and white, extreme poverty and obscene wealth, inner city rubble or luxurious hotels and oil sheikhs in fast cars.
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!
Eva 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.
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.
Mari 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?
A reading slump, I mean? Only a couple of weeks ago, I was blithely crowing to Rebecca Bradley (whose wonderful blog on all things crime fiction related you really should read if you don’t already) that I didn’t know the meaning of the word, that I never encounter reading slumps because reading is such a perfect escape vehicle for me etc. etc. But pride comes before a fall and I realise I may be experiencing some of those ‘slumpish’ symptoms.
I’ve rated the last 6 books I’ve read at just 3 stars (one is actually a two star) and, while this may seem like just a long round of bad picks as I try to get through my Netgalley books, it could also mean that I am harder to please than usual. So here are the books which I damn with faint praise:
SJ Watson: Second Life – a thriller by numbers, this theme has been better done elsewhere, and the characterisation (and motivation) of the heroine didn’t quite ring true to me.
Gillian Flynn: The Grownup – hardly a novella, more of a short story; great set-up but finishes too abruptly; not terribly original but written with panache.
Alaux & Balen: Montmartre Mysteries – charming, entertaining, something for wine lovers and Fracophiles, but a bit too short and rushed towards the end, not enough robust secondary characters.
Lauren Groff: Fates and Furies – wanted to like this one so badly (and I did like certain scenes, such as the fevered creative collaboration frenzy at the artist’s colony, for instance), but overall found it uneven and pretentious; I enjoyed the ‘revisiting of events’ from another POV in the second part much better than the first.
Maggie Shipstead: Astonish Me – The parts about ballet and the quest for perfection and beauty I loved, but not so much the skipping about in time and fragmented nature of the narrative or the soap opera reveals. Ballet fans will enjoy it, and it was an easy read while suffering from migraine.
Saul Black: The Killing Lessons – really exquisitely written passages of menace and waiting for something to pounce, but the whole serial killer trope was exaggerated to the point where it felt almost like a parody (or was it a post-modern comment on the excesses of the serial killer genre). And a baddy who just refuses to die. It reminded me a little of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘No Country for Old Men’ but mainly in regards to the level of violence.
But I don’t intend this to discourage you from reading the books yourselves. I realised that I was probably in a grumpy reviewing mood when even Eva Dolan – who can do no wrong in my eyes and whose first two books I loved and rated very highly – only got a 4 (maybe 4.5) stars from me for her latest After You Die (my only complaint is that it’s very domestic and contained this time round, while her previous two had a wider social canvas).
So I pity the next author or book who comes within striking distance of my gnashing fangs at the moment. And that’s my point why you can’t trust reviews blindly: because books don’t always find us at the perfect moment, because reading slumps are a reality and everything starts to feel a bit ‘samey’, because we are only human and fallible after all.
I came across this on the Cleopatra Loves Books blog (which is a real treat of a book blog, so do go and pay it a visit if you are not familiar with it already). Cleo was very brave to admit her bookish foibles, and a few of her readers have followed suit. So, in the interests of transparency, it seems only fair to attempt my own form of accounting. I’m sure it will help rein in my book-buying or requesting (yeah, right!). I define TBR as the books I do actually own but haven’t read, rather than my wishlist.
HOW DO YOU KEEP TRACK OF YOUR TBR PILE?
I have’t to date, so this is my opportunity to be a star pupil now. Before, I would scroll down on my e-reader and sigh. Stare at the double or triple pile of books up on the shelves and learn to avoid them when they fall.
IS YOUR TBR MOSTLY PRINT OR E-BOOK?
Let the painful counting begin. 172 currently on my tablet, but another 10 or so in pdf or trickier formats on my laptop (I get sent a lot by author friends). Plus another 15 or so on my husband’s account on Kindle, which I conveniently forget about, books I downloaded back in the days when I had no e-reader of my own and didn’t really like those ‘dang things’. So a total of 200 or so in electronic format.
My collection of physical books is comparatively slender: only 78. Of course, I don’t include any library books in that pile.
HOW DO YOU DETERMINE WHICH BOOK FROM YOUR TBR TO READ NEXT?
As a reviewer for Crime Fiction Lover, I often have deadlines linked to the launch of a book or a broader feature such as ‘Classics in September’ or ‘New Talent November’, so those will take priority. I occasionally take part in reading challenges such as ‘German Literature Month’ or ‘Global Reading Challenge’, so that influences my choices.
Most of the time, however, I just go with my gut instinct, although I do find that one book will lead to another in a mischievous, conspiratorial way. For instance, I will find myself embarking upon a series of reads about bad mothers or male midlife crises, whether French or elsewhere. After such a bout of misery, I will then need to find something funnier, lighter to rinse out the bitter taste from my mouth.
A BOOK THAT’S BEEN ON YOUR TBR THE LONGEST?
This would be amongst the ‘forgotten pile of books’ on the Kindle. I believe it’s a tie between Jutta Profijt’s debut novel ‘Morgue Drawer Four’ (shortlisted for the Glauser Prize in Germany back in 2010 and translated by Erik J. Macki) and Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Solaris’ (I loved the Tarkovsky film, less so the more recent adaptation with George Clooney, but the author apparently didn’t think much of either of them).
A BOOK YOU RECENTLY ADDED TO YOUR TBR?
Just this morning, I made the mistake of going to Netgalley (to post a review) and lingered there… so I ended up downloading Lauren Holmes’ Barbara the Slut and Other People (who can resist a title like that, hope it will give me loads of insights into the younger generation) and Jean Teulé’s The Poisoning Angel, translated by Melanie Florence for Gallic Books. This latter is based on a true story about a 19th century female serial killer.
A BOOK ON YOUR TBR THAT YOU NEVER PLAN ON READING?
I live in hope of reading all of them… but I did discard one or two recently where I thought: ‘Was I drunk when I clicked the “buy” button?’ It’s just too easy to order things on Amazon – one more reason to avoid it.
AN UNPUBLISHED BOOK ON YOUR TBR THAT YOU’RE EXCITED FOR?
I’ve been an admirer of Ann Morgan’s thoughtful reading and reviewing back in the days when she completed her ‘Year of Reading the World‘ challenge. I got to chat with her via Twitter and email, and even got to meet her when she gave a TEDx talk in Geneva. So I was very excited when she told me that she has a book coming out on the 14th of January, 2016. ‘Beside Myself’ is a twisted psychological tale of identical twins who swap places for a day – but then one of them refuses to swap back. Sounds like just my cup of tea!
A BOOK ON YOUR TBR THAT EVERYONE HAS READ BUT YOU?
OK, I’ll stop feeling ashamed and admit that I’ve not read ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak. I’ve read about it, I’ve seen the film, I’m sure it’s the kind of subject I would be interested in… but somehow I never got around to it. I bought a second-hand copy of it this summer at a friend’s house clearance sale, so I finally have a chance.
A BOOK ON YOUR TBR THAT EVERYONE RECOMMENDS TO YOU?
I’m a big Pascal Garnier fan but haven’t read ‘Moon in a Dead Eye’ yet, which is the favourite Garnier for many of my fellow book bloggers. So, if it’s as good as ‘How’s the Pain?’ (which has been my personal favourite to date), I will be delighted!
A BOOK ON YOUR TBR THAT YOU’RE DYING TO READ?
No particular book but there are certain authors whom I really look forward to reading or rereading: Eva Dolan, Clarice Lispector, Virginia Woolf, Neil Gaiman, Simenon, Stefan Zweig.
You may not think so, given that in some cases I have more than a couple of books by them on my TBR pile but haven’t dived into them yet. Life just got in the way… and it’s sometimes easier to keep those ‘sure bets’ in the background for when you need some reading/writing inspiration.
HOW MANY BOOKS ARE IN YOUR GOODREADS TBR SHELF?
785 but that’s a wishlist, so it doesn’t count. I keep adding to it as soon as I read a review of a promising book or someone mentions a new to me author or a topic I’m interested in. (Basically, anything to do with Vienna, Brazil, immigration and expats gets an automatic look-in.)
However, the most amazing fact is that before 2009 or so I did not have any TBR pile or wishlists. I would mainly borrow books from the library and only buy a few books which I read almost immediately. In 2010, however, I started writing again myself, and my reading has increased exponentially (not that I ever was a lazy reader). Plus, my husband’s misguided attempt to cure me of buying physical books by getting me an e-reader has resulted in double the number of books!
So yes, you may have noticed that I have fallen ever so slightly off the TBR Double Dare waggon this month (ahem! five books or so, without counting the ‘official review copies’). I am all for a combination of planning and serendipity, but this is ridiculous! I blame a conspiracy of libraries and reviewers/editors who are far too good at PR. So here is the summary:
Tuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson – Work and Love [Not reviewed because I want to write a feature on her, the Moomins, The Sculptor’s Daughter. She is one of my favourite writers and a great artist as well.]
Sherman Alexie: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
I don’t know why I don’t read YA literature more often – perhaps because a lot of it is derivative and too ready to jump onto bandwagons and second-guess the trends. This one rings so true and is heartbreakingly matter-of-fact. It also fulfills one of my North America slots for Global Reading Challenge, as I’d never looked at Native American culture before in a novel. The pain of living ‘between’ cultures, of never being fully accepted in either of them, the unsentimental view of the flaws of each type of lifestyle, yet plenty of humour and tenderness to temper it all: I loved it!
Twelve books, of which a third were from the TBR pile, a quarter for professional reviews and only a third snuck in unexpectedly… When I put it like that, it doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Seven of the books were by foreign writers, but six of those were by French writers. So perhaps I am swapping the comfort and familiarity of Anglo writers with Gallic ones?
Seven crime fiction novels. My top crime read of the month (which is linked up to the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme hosted by Mysteries in Paradise) was undoubtedly Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. A multi-layered story with real contemporary resonance. But Camille came close for the storytelling momentum, while Arab Jazz was excellent at showing us a less romaticised picture of Paris.
Anyway, next month will bring the huge, huge temptation that is Quais du Polar in Lyon. How can I possibly not impulse buy books and get them signed by so many wonderful authors? Wish me luck…
A rather unusual Monday post for me – as I’ve just come back from completely offline holidays, so have had no time to plan or prepare a thorough post. My ‘What got you hooked’ feature will have to wait until next week, and my more in-depth, ‘impeccably researched’ reviews (at least to my mind, although I inevitably think of the best things AFTER I publish the review) will appear later during the course of this week. Children’s additional week of holidays permitting.
It was great to disconnect completely and to worry only about physical things. Will I be warm enough? Have I forgotten any goggles, gloves, boots, socks, hood, ski-helmets? Will my knees hold out for a full day’s skiing? Can I bear to carry those heavy skis a step further? And I promise you: there is nothing better than the sound of silence when you are the first down a piste, when you can feel the cold air on your face and hear the swoosh-swoosh of your skis turning in the fresh snow.
There may not have been an open fireplace in the evening to savour a hot chocolate with a dash of Chartreuse (the local speciality)… but turning in early in the evening and reading in bed was equally delightful.
My reading matter could hardly have contrasted more with the view outside. I was reading Eva Dolan’s two novels about present-day Peterborough, rife with poverty, immigration problems, prostitution and crime. Eva deftly describes a small town overcome by its social problems, and the resulting picture is grim, dark, with few glimmers of hope. Perhaps best read when you can look up from the page and see a sunny landscape, where the shadows are only picturesque.
You may think this sounds similar to J.K. Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’, which has just been adapted for TV. But it’s far better than that. First of all, both of Dolan’s books are proper crime novels, with suspense, pacing, mystery and enough twisty turns to keep any fan busy guessing. Secondly, they are pitch-perfect in describing the difficult social mix in present-day England: the tensions between the older and newer waves of immigrants; the anxiety about the overburdening of the social services, schools and hospitals; blatant and hidden xenophobia, as well as an increasingly nasty discourse about the undeserving poor and scroungers. It expresses all the fears that are beginning to haunt those of us who have not been born in the UK but have come there because of its reputation for tolerance and fair-mindedness.
Yet the immigrants described by Dolan are by no means all angels or innocent victims. Horrendous things happen to some of them (especially in the first novel ‘The Long Way Home’, which looks at unscrupulous companies employing foreign workers in inhumane conditions). But fear, distrust of the police force, misplaced national loyalties and the sheer desperation of survival makes them all act in dangerous ways, often not helping themselves at all in the process. So the characters are complex and flawed, and their views of the English are often quite funny (and not very complimentary).
The two investigating detectives are fascinating characters as well. Zigic was born and bred in England, but is of Croatian descent. He is usually the rational voice of the enquiry, patient, compassionate, a man sensitive to psychological and cultural nuances. And happily married, even though he wishes his wife weren’t quite so keen on an upwardly mobile lifestyle. His partner is the volatile, sparky Mel Ferreira, who came to the UK aged seven and whose Portuguese family run a pub in the local area. She relies heavily on gut instinct, is quick to flare up and take offence, yet it’s impossible not to fall in love a little with her ardent desire for social justice.
But what I love best about Dolan’s books is the depth of her writing. A multitude of voices – often voices that are never heard in English fiction – are present here. Every sentence is rich with nuance, with multiple layers of meaning. It’s like hearing a complex piece of music with many instruments, after the rather monotonous strumming of simple bands.
One small descriptive passage is enough to set up all the background and contrasts of Peterborough: the cathedral town visited by tourists and the rather more scummy underbelly.
There were pop-up stores selling cheap clothes and pound shops all with the same plastic tat outside them, four different gold-cashing places which would have been based in council flats in Bretton a couple of years ago. Now they were respectable, or near enough, fences with business cards and backstreet accountants, legitimised by austerity.
She turned into the Wheelyard, a few morning drinkers sheltering under the budding cherry blossoms ont he corner, then turned along a cobbled alleyway into the cathedral precincts, high stone walls rising above her, spackled with moss and noxious yellow lichen. A loud woman with a Home Counties accent was leading a group of tourists across the cathedral green…
These two books should be required reading for those who laugh at UKIP and other nationalist parties, believing that they could never come to power today. They should also be read by those who fear the unknown and who find themselves sympathising with hard-core immigration policies. They are not comfort reads, but extremely thought-provoking and realistic, in their unsettling depth and refusal to find easy, neat solutions.
In the last two years, there are only a handful of writers I encountered on the page for the first time got me so excited with their perfect blend of subject matter and style: Stav Sherez, Denise Mina, Louise Penny. Now I can add Eva Dolan to this group. And one more gratuitous picture to remind me of the perfect downhill descent.