Global Challenge? Only Just…

With some dexterous juggling, I can just about claim to have completed the Global Reading Challenge (Medium Level) this year. I had to be a little creative with Mexico and place it in Latin America so that I could sort of claim it was South America. But if you forgive me my geographical inaccuracies and the fact that I still owe you two quick reviews for Africa and the 7th Continent, then I can claim VICTORY!!!

2015global_reading_challengev2

The Medium challenge is about reading two books from (or set in) each continent, regardless of genre. I was initially quite ambitious and planned to visit countries where I’d never been (fictionally) before. But the second half of the year became a mad, disorganised scramble to get books off my Netgalley and TBR shelves, so I had to compromise in the end.

Europe:

Moldova – The Good Life Elsewhere

Poland – Madam Mephisto

Asia:

Israel – Route de Beit Zera

India – Witness the Night

Australasia/Oceania:

Australia – Barracuda

Samoa – Blood Jungle Ballet

North America:

Native American reservation: Sherman Alexie

Houston, Texas – Pleasantville

South America:

Mexico – Faces in the Crowd

Costa Rica – Red Summer

Africa:

Morocco – Fouad Laroui

lastnightLibya – The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra

The author takes us into the warped mind of Ghaddafi as he sits holed up in a secret location, trying to avoid both bombing and the wrath of his own people. There is little here to give you a profound insight into the politics or history of Libya itself, but I found it a precise dissection of a dictator’s mind, how it is possible to become a megalomaniac and lose touch with reality, how power corrupts and idealism can get subverted, how tantrums can turn vicious when you are surrounded by sycophants. I thought it also raised some interesting questions about the appeal of tyrants: how they often play the nationalistic card (us versus the foreign menace, we’re going to make our country great once more etc.), which explains their rise to power and the often confused legacy they leave behind.

7th Continent:

Space – Solaris

voyageCentre of the Earth – Jules Verne

I’d forgotten what fun this classic novel is to read – yes, even when the author enumerates all of the things Axel and his uncle the professor take with them on their expedition. Appeals to the geek in all of us, but also lessons to be learnt about how quickly he gets to the intrigue, how imaginative he is, how endlessly inventive. It’s not even remotely plausible scientifically – that underground sea alone is completely wrong for all sorts of reasons. So it’s not as good as some of his other novels, but still a rollicking read (best discovered in your youth, though).

 

Reading in June

Longest days, shortest nights of the year, so plenty of time for reading in June –  not much time for anything else in fact! It’s the kind of month where I can’t hear myself think, let alone write, we were all so busy with end-of-year stuff. So reading it is, to feed that relentlessly hungry gawp in myself.

#TBR20 Challenge is going well:

#TBR3 Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji (also re-reading challenge)

#TBR4 Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch

#TBR5 Wendy Cope (ed.): The Funny Side

#TBR6 Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night

#TBR7 Liad Shoham: Tel Aviv Suspects

#TBR8 Ever Yours: Essential Van Gogh Letters

#TBR9: Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs

#TBR10: Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills

#TBR11: Jeremie Guez: Paris La Nuit

#TBR12: Muriel Spark: Loitering with Intent (also a rereading challenge)

#TBR13: Friederike Schmoe: Fliehganzleis

#TBR14: Fouad Laroui: L’étrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine

These last two will be reviewed shortly, or as soon as holidays and children allow.

Review copies:

Cath Staincliffe: Half the World Away

Hakan Nesser: The Summer of Kim Novak

Ruth Ware: In a Dark, Dark Wood

Maggie Mitchell: Pretty Is

Pascal Garnier: Boxes

The One That Got Away:

Etienne Davodeau: Les Ignorants

Some other facts and figures:

18 books read in total, of which 7 can be legitimately classified as crime fiction/psychological thriller. My Crime Fiction Pick of the month (a meme initiated by Mysteries in Paradise) is Witness the Night, although I was also very impressed with Tel Aviv Suspects and Paris la Nuit.

3 books in German, 4 in French, 7 translations (from French, Swedish, Russian, Dutch, Hebrew and Japanese). I haven’t done so well in my Global Reading Challenge, with only Kishwar Desai bringing me to a new country, India. I still have to read books set in Africa, Oceania and South America, and find something for the 7th continent. 9 by women authors, 9 by men. And I am only 3 reviews behind!

1 poetry, 1 graphic non-fiction book, 2 rereading challenges, 1 auto-biography/letters.

Doing the #TBR20 challenge is having a very calming effect on me. Although I’ve still been doing a fair share of reviewing, it has felt much more within my control. I’ve felt much more freedom in the selection of my next book, plus there is such satisfaction to be had when you make a dent in your messy book pile!

Having said that, though, I must admit that I’ve cheated slightly and borrowed some books from the library. I haven’t actually started reading them yet, as they are for the duration of the summer holidays. So I will start them once I’ve completed my #TBR20 – that’s still within the rules, right?

Coming up for the #TBR20? A female French writer, for a change – Sylvie Granotier’s latest. One of my favourite German crime writers, Jakob Arjouni, and The Neck of the Giraffe by Judith Schalansky. Blood Jungle Ballet, set in American Samoa. I may have a change of heart for the remaining two books of the challenge, so I’ll allow myself (and you) to be surprised.

And those library books? The latest Vargas Temps Glaciares, a fictionalised biography of Isadora Duncan (one of my childhood heroines) by Caroline Deyns and Carrère’s L’Adversaire (couldn’t resist, after hearing the neighbours’ story of the real-life event which it’s based upon).

Reading Challenges Update

This is a bit early for a monthly reading update, but I seem to be currently stuck in three books which will take me through right to the end of January and beyond, so it is fair to say that the ten books below are the only ones I read through January.

My only New Year’s resolutions have been my reading challenges. I have signed up for three of them – how have I fared this month? Well, it’s a mixed picture, but I’m not quite ready to give up on my resolutions just yet.

2015global_reading_challengev21) Global Reading Challenge hosted by Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise: I’m making it easy on myself this year and opting for the Easy Level – one book from each of the 7 continents (Africa, Asia, Australasia/Oceania, Europe, North America, South America, plus a new continent – Antarctica or a new threshold you are willing to pass – paranormal, historical, space, sea). The reason I have pulled back a little is because I want to choose really brand-new settings/authors, rather than falling back on my usual French/German/Scandinavian/South African staples. So, although I read 3 French books, 1 Japanese book, 1 German book, 1 Irish and 1 Swedish book and 1 ‘vampirish’ novel this month. I am reluctant to put any of them down as my European component. Because none of that would be new to me. Mission not accomplished. Have to do better next month!

2) January in Japan Challenge hosted by Tony Malone at Tony’s Reading List. Not quite good enough. I only managed to finish one book: Kanae Minato’s Confessions and am still in the midst of reading Natsume Sōseki’s last, unfinished novel Light and Dark. As for my ambition to read the new(ish) translation of Tales of Genji (Royall Tyler version): well, this will have to wait, but will hopefully be my epic undertaking for the year.

tbr-dare-20143) TBR Double Dog Dare  hosted by James at James Reads Books. This is a last-ditch attempt to bring some order into the chaos which is my TBR pile – overflowing on shelves, on the floor and threatening to inundate my laptop and tablet as well. The aim is to not buy any new books until I have made a sizeable dent in my pile of ready and waiting books. With a little cheating. i.e. borrowing from libraries just before the holidays and last minute purchasing of books in 2014, I managed to do quite well with this challenge – victory!

The three library books I borrowed were all in French, so they don’t count, because it’s like work (improving my vocabulary, making the most of my current location etc. etc.) They were:

  • Patrick Modiano: L’Herbe des nuits

Given the blurb on the back, I was expecting more of a crime fiction type mystery, but it’s the usual Modiano fare about the reliability of memory, how well we really know people, trying to recapture the past and whether nostalgia really lives up to its name.

  • Jeanne Desaubry: Poubelle’s Girls

poubelles-girls-jeanne-desaubyA touching Thelma and Louise type story of two women living on the margins of French society and the unlikely friendship which arises between them. A depressingly realistic story of the poor and downtrodden, but also quite funny, with fascinating, well-rounded characters and juicy dialogue.

  • Daniel Pennac: Comme un roman

An essay about the joys of reading and how schools, parents, teachers and book snobs are in danger of killing off the joys of reading for young people. Contains the famous Ten Comandments of Reading (or the Rights of the Reader)

1. Le droit de ne pas lire. The right to not read.
2. Le droit de sauter des pages. The right to skip pages
3. Le droit de ne pas finir un livre. The right to not finish a book.
4. Le droit de relire. The right to reread.
5. Le droit de lire n’importe quoi. The right to read whatever you please.
6. Le droit au bovarysme (maladie textuellement transmissible). The right to Bovaryism (textually transmitted disease).
7. Le droit de lire n’importe où. The right to read wherever you please.
8. Le droit de grappiller. The right to dip into books.
9. Le droit de lire à haute voix. The right to read out loud.
10. Le droit de se taire. The right to shut up.

The other books have all been from my existing shelves and most of them have been reviewed elsewhere:

  • Tana French: The Likeness – bought second-hand last year . My first, but certainly not my last Tana French book. Although the plot did seem implausible in places, I really enjoyed the engaging writing, poetic at times, and the genuine sadness of the failure of any idealistic community.
  • Lynn Shepherd: The Pierced Heart  – ebook sent to me by the author in exchange for an honest review (having reviewed a previous book of hers). The vampire story for those who do not like vampire stories (which I don’t).
  • Jonas Karlsson: The Room  – Netgalley ebook sent by publisher way back in November. A perfect modern fable about corporate life and the death of the imagination.
  • Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train – downloaded from Netgalley several months ago. The life of others always seems more attractive when we are making a mess of our own… and when we see them from a distance. A psychological thriller full of unreliable narrators and domestic claustrophobia.
  • girlwhowasntFerdinand von Schirach: The Girl Who Wasn’t There – copy sent by publisher for review on CFL. Not really a crime novel, more of a ‘coming of age’ story, plus a courtroom drama debating issues of justice, art, trial by media and much more – beautifully written.

The final book I read this month was Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which I bought in the last few weeks of 2014 following the review by Jacqui. I had previously read the reviews by Tony and Bibliobio, but kept putting it off as far too depressing a subject. Then Jacqui gave me the final nudge. A very emotional read, engaging all your senses – abandon all rationality ye who enter this maelstrom! Will review in more depth shortly.   

 

 

January Reads

I’ve started the year in style and have done more reading than I would have thought possible. All the rain and darkness is paying off!

23 books – nearly as much as my best ever month, August 2013. Only this time I did have the children around. I must have locked them in a cupboard! (Only kidding: we often spent a cosy moment, all three of us on a sofa reading our separate books.)

Shaugnessy2 Poetry:

Brenda Shaughnessy: Our Andromeda       From playful to profound and moving, this book has it all. Additional claim to fame: had me in floods of tears while queuing at immigration counter in US.

Mahmoud Darwish: A River Dies of Thirst        More of a diary and notebook rather than finished poems, this is one to savour, full of beautiful quotes and thoughts.

Darwish(Why do I not do book reviews of poetry? And why do I read so little poetry in book form? I do read lots of it on the internet, though.)

2 Non Fiction:

Christian McEwen: World Enough and Time      On the importance of slowing down for the creative process – a must-have for my ‘Hurry Up’ and extreme multitasker personality.

Rachel Cusk: A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother      Polemical, brutally honest, perhaps limited First World and middle class experience, but eminently relate-able. And, unexpectedly, very funny!

2 in French: Andrei Makine

Claude Ragon: Du bois pour les cerceuils       To such lows do we sink when we are on holiday and have run out of books! Picked it up because it was set in the Jura mountains (where I live), but it was tedious.

1 in German: Erich Kästner

7 Translations:

Pieter Aspe: The Midas Murders

Sebastian Fitzek: Therapy

deathinthemuseumofmodernartAlma Lazarevska: Death in the Museum of Modern Art  – review forthcoming on Necessary Fiction         Stunning, very moving, economically and impeccably written.

Keigo Higashino: The Devotion of Suspect X

Ryu Murakami: Audition

Hamid Ismailov: The Dead Lake

Shuichi Yoshida: Villain

9 Others (Almost Exclusively Crime Fiction)

Peter Swanson: The Girl with a Clock for a Heart       

Alison Bruce: The Silence      Comfort reading, as I love Gary Goodhew and the Cambridge setting. A little disappointed by this one, though.

Martin Walker: Bruno, Chief of Police      Ditto as for above, except the setting is south-west of France.

Adrian Magson: The Watchman

Sarah Rayne: The Whispering

Simon Brett: The Strangling on Stage

poisonpawnPeggy Blair: The Poisoned Pawn       Review forthcoming on CFL. In one word: characters.

William McIlvaney: Laidlaw

Phil Hogan: A Pleasure and a Calling       Forthcoming. In one word: creepy.

Travelled to Boston, Bruges, the North Sea island of Sylt, Sarajevo, Tokyo, Fukuoka, Cambridge, the Dordogne, Somalia, Russia, Canada and Cuba, Kazakhstan, Glasgow, Palestine and several small fictional towns in South-East England. Oh, and the constellation of Andromeda!

Where will we go next in February? Can’t wait!

Glasgow and Laidlaw: As Tough as It Gets

LaidlawJust in case you thought I was turning away from a life of crime, here is a review of the first book in the Laidlaw trilogy. It took me a while to discover McIlvaney (for a while I mixed him up with his son, also a thriller writer), but I will be reading a lot more by him. Not suprisingly, he writes poetry too!

It’s impossible to read crime fiction in the UK without stumbling across William McIlvaney sooner or later. Crime writers rave about him (readers too, but it’s interesting that he is most appreciated by other writers, a specialist read if you like). He is considered the father of ‘Tartan Noir’ and his Laidlaw trilogy has been described as almost Camus-like in its focus not only on the ills of society but also our inner torments. But there is quite a poignant personal story there too. In spite of his obvious qualities, the author’s novels were out of print just 2-3 years ago. Luckily, publisher Canongate had the vision to see that his novels describe not just the 1970s but also our troubled times perfectly. McIlvaney’s star has risen and risen since they started reissuing his work.

The story is fairly simple: a young girl goes out dancing in the evening and is found raped and murdered in a park. The girl’s father is out for vengeance, Laidlaw and his new partner are out to find the killer, and a bevy of Glasgow tough guys and gangsters are involved either in covering up or in avenging the crime. But I wouldn’t read this book for the plot – it’s all about atmosphere.

It took just one or two paragraphs to establish that I was reading crime fiction quite unlike any other I’ve encountered. McIlvaney has a style all his own: not just noir, but also philosophical and very dense. Laidlaw is the knight errant of the Crime Squad: a hero who can be downright annoying at times, as his newly assigned and fresh-faced young partner Harkness discovers. What he brings to his life and career is constant doubt as to what he is doing, and still trying to do it well. ‘Throw him a question as casual as a snowball and he answered with an avalanche.’  Laidlaw has profound compassion and love for the people in the less salubrious areas of Glasgow. A devoted father, he chides his wife for caring just for her own children, not for all children.

Aside from the striking main character, what I really loved about the book is how it brings to life the contradictions of the city of Glasgow in the 1970s: ”home-made ginger biscuits and Jennifer Lawson dead in the park’, discrimination against Catholics and homosexuals, while hardened criminals preach a culture of violence, lots of drinking and being suspicious of the police. Compassion vs. division is at the heart of this book, us vs. them, dark side vs. light inside us all. We are shown the contrast between Laidlaw’s murky reality and the world of moral certainties and clear black/white divisions of Laidlaw’s colleague Milligan. Laidlaw may hate him, but he is more complex and better than he is given credit for. At some point, he says: ‘I’ve got nothing in common with thieves and con-men and pimps and murderers. Nothing! They’re another species. And we’re at war with them. It’s about survival. What would happen in a war if we didn’t wear different uniforms?’ Laidlaw doesn’t have these certainties to protect him, so he is more compassionate but also more vulnerable.

I did find the Glaswegian dialect rather hard going after a while, but the bits in the author’s own voice (or in Laidlaw’s voice) are superbly written and very quotable.

I’m linking this to the 2014 Global Reading Challenge, for Scotland and Europe, as it’s Tartan Noir at its finest.

How Challenging Were My Challenges?

2013 was the first year I joined in any online challenges and I am very pleased I did so. You sometimes need that extra little push or public commitment to go beyond the borders of your little world (or at least, I do).

 

2013GRC_mediumSo, how did I do?

 

I completed Kerrie’s Global Reading Challenge, which this year was still hosted on her Mysteries in Paradise website. Kerrie herself is a fantastic resource of information about crime fiction not just from Down Under, but worldwide, and I have learnt so much from the enthusiastic fellow participants in the challenge.

 

I completed the Medium Level of the Challenge, which meant two books from each of the six geographical continents, plus a seventh continent which could be a realm of fantasy or Antarctica or something you haven’t tried before.  Here are the books I chose (quite different from the list I had originally planned, subject to availability and mood).

 

Africa

 

Deon Meyer: Thirteen Hours – South Africa

 

Michael Stanley: Death of the Mantis – Botswana

 

Asia

 

Ōsaka Gō: The Red Star of Cadiz – Japan and Spain

 

John Burdett: Bangkok Eight – Thailand

 

Australasia/Oceania

 

Arthur W. Upfield: Murder Down Under – Australia

 

John Enright: Pago Pago Tango – American Samoa

 

Europe

 

Jean-Claude Izzo: The Marseille Trilogy – Southern France

 

Stefan Slupetzky: Lemmings Zorn – Vienna, Austria

 

North America

 

Louise Penny: Dead Cold  – Quebec, Canada

 

M. J. McGrath: White Heat – Northern Territories, Canada

 

Julie Smith: Mean Woman Blues – New Orleans  (because I felt guilty about ignoring the US)

 

South America

 

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza: The Silence of the Rain – Brazil

 

Leonardo Padura: Havana Gold – Cuba

 

Seventh Continent

 

Elizabeth Kostova: The Historian – paranormal, vampire, historical

 

Alan Bradley: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows – Flavia de Luce series, historical, YA

 

All in all, a fantastic challenge: it may sound cliché, but it really opened up a whole new world to me. I’ve always enjoyed travelling and reading about local atmosphere and customs in books, so these took me to places I may not have visited otherwise. There was only one book I really didn’t like (The Historian) and one which I found average (Mean Woman Blues). All of the others were good to excellent. I discovered writers that I am most certainly going to read more of (Louise Penny, John Burdett, Garcia-Roza, Michael Stanley).

 

My favourite discovery was the unparalleled king of the Mediterranean Noir: Jean-Claude Izzo, who completely transported me to the world of Marseille and got me listening to its music.

 

2013transchallenge-3(1)Until recently, I did not believe I had completed the Reading in Translation Challenge – or rather, I felt I had not reviewed enough books for it. Of course, I could have entered the same books for both challenges: Deon Meyer, Ōsaka Gō, Garcia-Roza and Padura would all have qualified. And I did read and review some other excellent works, such as The Mussel Feast, A Man in Love, A Crack in the Wall or Pietr the Latvian. So, in the end, I think I will consider that challenge complete too. Thank you, Curiosity Killed the Bookworm for enticing me to do it!

 

What challenges am I participating in for 2014? I would like to continue with both of the above challenges, but this time limit it to 1 book for each continent for the Global Reading Challenge and 6 books of translated literary fiction (rather than crime fiction, however much I love it). The reason I am being modest in this respect is because I am introducing two major challenges of my own:

 

1) The Clear My Physical and Virtual Bookshelves Challenge (CMPVBC – catchy title!) – as of today, I have 56 books on my Kindle, 21 on my shelves, and 8 on my laptop, all waiting for me. So that brings my target up to 85 before I have even taken a step.

 

2) The ‘My Favourite Countries’ Focus – I used to love reading books in German and Japanese, while Brazil is my favourite country. I want to reignite that passion and catch up with the best of contemporary writing from these countries. I have no upper target, but I would like to read at least 3 books from each of these countries).  I already have a few on my shelves: Arjouni, Zweig, Bernhard Schlink, but am constantly coming up with great new suggestions from outstanding bloggers such as Tony Malone, Simon Savidge, Dolce Bellezza, Words and Peace and Jackie at Farm Lane Books, to name but a few who inspire me.

 

English: Old book bindings at the Merton Colle...
English: Old book bindings at the Merton College library. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Wish me luck – I will let you know how I get on!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Death of the Mantis by Michael Stanley

DeathMantisIf you have become accustomed to the gentle mysteries and charming portrayal of Botswana in Alexander McCall Smith’s series featuring Mma Precious Ramotse, you will find this crime series less comfortable reading. Michael Stanley is the pen-name for the successful collaboration between Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who are not from Botswana but have extensive experience of Southern Africa (one of them lives in Johannesburg). For an anthropologist, this novel is a dream: it not only has a very keen sense of place, but it also describes the conflict between the different ways of life of the ethnic groups in that country.

 

This is the third novel in a series featuring detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu (Kubu is his nickname and means ‘Hippopotamus’, referring to his generous proportions), but it works equally well as a standalone novel or an introduction to the series. Kubu is an absolutely delightful character, a man caught between traditional and Western culture, with an equal love for his job, his parents, his wife and baby daughter, but also thirsting for truth and justice.

 

It starts out simply enough. A park ranger is found dead, with three Bushmen hovering near the body. Are they trying to help or did they commit murder? One local detective believes the latter, but Kubu is not so sure. Especially when he is asked to take on the case by his old school chum, also a Bushman who is now an advocate for the native rights of these people. The Bushmen or Khoisan – both names are used somewhat disparagingly for what is a diverse group of people –  used to roam freely in the Kalahari but are now being increasingly herded into reservations. The lack of evidence forces Kubu to free them, but then more murders take place, leading Kubu deeper into danger and forcing him to make difficult personal choices.

 

The Mantis, with its light brown colour and small proportions, is one of the animals most revered by the Bushmen of the Kalahari, and the double entendre of the title of this book is significant. While there are many deft humorous touches to the story, this is also a serious examination of societal issues and the consequences of modernisation. Yet these issues are addressed lightly, without preaching, in a thrilling and compelling story. I will certainly be reading more in this series and thank you to the book bloggers who have recommended it to me.

 

Sunrise in Botswana
Sunrise in Botswana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

This was the final book (my second Africa entry) for my Global Reading challenge – Medium Level, hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Thank you to Kerrie for encouraging us to step out of our usual cultural comforts and for enabling me to discover so many new settings and authors this year!

 

 

 

 

Two Very Different Crime Locations

Yet another sleight of hand and double-entry bookkeeping, to make up for my recent invisibility on the blogging front. Here are two book reviews of crime fiction for my Global Reading Challenge. It’s not just necessity that inspired me to set them alongside each other. I find the comparison fascinating, as it is hard to think of two more diametrically opposed  locations than Cuba and the Northern Territories of Canada. Both books transport you to a different world, where it is nearly impossible to find your bearings, where none of your usual rules apply.

Both books deal with closed societies, where few outsiders venture, as they are viewed with suspicion and find it difficult to integrate.  Both authors are tremendously skilled at conveying the richness of a world few of us can explore or even imagine. And if this means that in both books, the plot is sometimes slowed down a bit by this complete immersion technique, then so be it! There is still much to be gained from exploring these books.

Cover of "Havana Gold: The Havana Quartet...
Cover of Havana Gold: The Havana Quartet

Leonardo Padura: Havana Gold

Perhaps the most unusual fact about Leonardo Padura Fuentes is that he is still living and writing in Cuba, although his novels are quite critical of Cuban society. Political discourse is kept to a minimum in this novel (the second in a quartet featuring detective Mario Conde), but the depiction of the absurdity of a centralised system for everything, the almost casual mention of corruption and preferential treatment of high-ranking Party officials would have been enough to get censored in other Communist countries. Yet there is such passion for life and love in the pages of this novel, so much of the hustling and mingling from the streets of Havana, that the plot is almost secondary. I was intrigued by the initial set-up: a schoolteacher is brutally murdered, but it turns out she was anything but your typical schoolmarm. In fact, she had far too close a relationship with her students. Yet, despite the twisting plotline, I found myself struggling to remember whodunit after finishing the novel. I was far more interested in the evocation of Havana society and of Mario’s developing love interest.

The style is flamboyantly Latin, with lots of noisy chatter, and disconcerting moves from third person to first person narrative, as we go inside characters’ heads.  This is a rich tapestry of double meaning, double dealing, lack of trust and enduring friendship despite growing differences. The truth is slippery, and nothing is quite what it seems.  A metaphor for Cubanese life? Whatever the author intended, it makes for a colourful noirish tale, with plenty of funny moments to alleviate the underlying sadness.

M.J. McGrath: White Heat

mcgrath-m_1844550fI’d been meaning to read this novel for ages, but it was proving elusive here in France. Then I just happened to find a hardback copy for sale at a charity shop in London last week and carried it home in my suitcase. There is something about ice, snow and Northern countries which utterly beguile me.

The author displays an uncanny knowledge of the Inuit world. I cannot tell if it is accurate or not, obviously, but it feels completely believable, so I am completely sucked into that landscape and society. She captures perfectly the vast emptiness of Ellesmere Island, far north of the Arctic Circle, a harsh, dark world, with remarkably resilient people, despite the excessive drinking, the lack of jobs and future of its young people. All this is rendered in a clear-eyed, unsentimental style, taking that lifestyle for granted rather than trying to explain too much of it away to us.

Edie Kiglatuk is an expert Inuit hunter and guide, and she is getting suspicious of the way recent tourist expeditions to the area have ended in accidents and death. When her beloved stepson Joe becomes involved in these tragic events, Edie displays almost super-human cunning and endurance skills to track down the killers and find out the truth. This reminded me of ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’, a book I loved when it first came out.

So pleased I pushed myself to explore new continents, thanks to the Global Reading Challenge. For 2014, I am thinking of going into far more detail with Japanese and Latin American literature.

Who is Flavia de Luce?

As it happens, Flavia is my 7th continent for the Global Reading Challenge hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.  For those unfamiliar with the notion of the seventh continent, this could be crime fiction from or set in Antarctica.  However, since there is remarkably little literature being written there – I suppose all those scientists have got bigger equipment to fry monitor – it can also be defined as: the sea, space, the supernatural, history, the future – or whichever alternative setting you can come up with for this wildcard category.

In my case, following fashion would clearly be a novelty for me.  So I read something about vampires (that was my first contribution to the challenge). My second venture into the realm of trendiness was YA literature.  My children are still too young to read YA, so I haven’t been able to borrow their books yet.  In fact, I am not quite sure what YA is, because when I was 12-18 I was reading all the grown-up books when I wanted to be cool and all the children’s books when I needed comforting.

I still do.

FlaviacoverAnd sure enough, the Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley strikes me as the kind of thing to appeal to grown-ups more than to eleven-year-olds, even such precocious 11-year-olds as Flavia.  This is comfort food at its best.  The book I read was ‘I am Half-Sick of Shadows’ and it’s a perfect escapist read.

Flavia is the youngest daughter of an aristocratic English family, who has fallen on hard times. They are struggling to make ends meet in their crumbling country house, but they still manage to have servants and a laboratory in the east wing.  This is where Flavia, a budding chemist, can recreate her uncle’s experiments.  She is planning something special this Christmas: to entrap Father Christmas with a birdlime resin mixture as he slides down the chimney.

In the meantime, her father is renting out their manor as a film location. Flavia is annoyed that Christmas preparations are suffering as a result of the invasion of the film crew, but her sisters are excited to meet the famous film star Phyllis Wyvern. When Phyllis agrees to stage a charity event at the hall, more than half the village turns up to watch despite forecasts of blizzard.  Everyone is snowed in for the night, and they soon make a shocking discovery: a body, strangled to death with a length of film.  As the local police bumble along in their investigation, it is up to perky little Flavia to uncover the real culprit.

As you can surmise, this book looks back nostalgically at the Golden Age of crime fiction: a typical country-house mystery with a small cast of characters.  What makes it different, of course, is the witty, prickly and mischievous narrator, Flavia herself.  She is an intriguing, beguiling creation – but, let’s be honest, no eleven year old would think, talk or behave like that.

So that’s why I think this book is aimed at an adult audience, who can appreciate all of the puns and cultural or scientific references. Adults who have a nostalgia for their childhood capers and who seem to remember they were far more precocious than they perhaps really were. I’ve reread a few of my ‘young adult’ diaries and there is very little trace of sophistication or wit there, I can assure you.  Luckily, there is in this book, so a good time will be had by all.

Bangkok Eight by John Burdett

I can finally add to my Global Reading Challenge list, hosted by the ever-suave and encyclopedic Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.  

Bangkok8Welcome to Bangkok – you are in for a rollercoaster ride of thrills, spills and emotional manipulation in the hands of a supremely confident writer, John Burdett.

Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a half-caste cop from Bangkok’s District 8 (hence the title).  He and his childhood friend and partner, Pichai, are probably the only two cops not on the take in the city. In the opening scenes, they are following a US marine in his Mercedes E series, without quite knowing the reason for the close surveillance.  When they finally catch up with the American, they discover he has been trapped in his car and bitten to death by a swarm of cobras and a drugged python. A few minutes later, Pichai too falls victim to one of the snakes.  Sonchai is a devout Buddhist who may be intent on becoming an arhat (living saint), but only after he avenges the death of his soul-brother.

The American Embassy and the FBI get involved, of course, as does Sonchai’s corrupt but somehow likeable boss.  It’s a complicated plot, exposing all of the unsavoury underbelly of the City of the Angels: prostitution, violence against women, drug smuggling, dubious jade trade and desperate poverty.  And yet there is a lot of love and understanding for Thai culture here, albeit seen through the somewhat cynical eyes of an outsider, half-American and half-Thai, who never fits in completely with either culture.

buddhasWhat I most enjoyed about this was the singular, strong voice of the narrator.  He makes you enter a largely unfamiliar world with such aplomb, that you are completely on his side.  I cannot judge how accurate Burdett’s portrayal of Thailand is (I hope it is exaggerated), but while we have Sonchai’s compelling voice haranguing us farangs (foreigners), it is completely believable.  And I can’t get enough of his wily mother Nong, a retired prostitute ready to open a go-go club for the Third Age.

Exotic and quite distressing in places, it is a book best read before and after some calmer, cosier pieces, but I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it for the world.