Best of the Year Books (Crime and Current Releases)

From now on, I will ignore both annoying politicians and ex-husbands, and focus only on books. I still have a few books to review, but I’m also starting my annual round-up. Perhaps I’ll even get around to a decade’s round-up.

I’ve found a very clever way around the limitations of the ‘Top Ten Books of the Year’ list. I will compile my choices by categories. In this first instalment, I’m featuring my favourite crime fiction books and the 2019 releases (never mind that these two lists might overlap, I will ignore that).

Second instalment will contain Non-Fiction and Classics, while the final one will be about new discoveries or new books by authors I already admire. And, since I’m an optimist about still finding memorable books in the 20 days still left of 2019, I will leave the last instalment open for late additions and only publish it on the very last day of the year.

The ones I own; the others were library loans. And Ghost Wall is at a friend’s house currently.

Crime Fiction:

Will Carver: Nothing Important Happened Today – if I say social critique and suicide cults, it will sound incredibly depressing, but this is a very unusual and highly readable mystery

Antti Tuomainen: Little Siberia – action-packed noir with a philosophical slant and surreal, even slapstick humour, this is a story about losing your faith and what it might take to regain it

Doug Johnstone: Breakers – heartbreaking, yet avoids sentimentality, this story of brotherly love and deprived childhoods

Helen Fitzgerald: Worst Case Scenario – at once a condemnation of the stretched resources within our probation services, as well as a menopausal woman’s roar of rebellion

G.D. Abson: Motherland – a fresh and timely setting for this first book in a crime series set in Putin’s Russia

Bogdan Teodorescu: Baieti aproape buni – sharp, scathing critique of political corruption and media cover-up

New Releases:

I notice that all of the below are rather dark, although they also ooze humour (maybe that’s just me and my love of black comedy)

Sarah Moss: Ghost Wall – misplaced nostalgia for a more heroic past and a domestic tyrant you will love to hate

Nicola Barker: I Am Sovereign – an ill-fated house viewing, where everyone seems to shed their multiple masks and either reveal or question their identity

Robert Menasse: The Capital – the almost surreal absurdity of a pan-European organisation and the people within it, a satirical yet also compassionate portrait of contemporary Europe and Brussels

Guy Gunaratne: In Our Mad and Furious City – an angry tribute to a city that devours its children

Anna Burns: Milkman – technically, published in 2018 but became more widely available in 2019 – such an evocative look at the claustrophobia of living in a divided, small-town society

Criminally Good Parallel Reads

No matter how engaged you might be with your current read, when it comes to a complex doorstopper like The Debacle, you need some alternative reads to keep you sane. Happy to report I’ve found, courtesy of Newcastle Noir and CrimeFest, just the remedy with the following crime fiction novels. These may be teeny-mini-reviews, but all the books are worth a look.

Zoe says they are verrrry good reads too.

The first three (incidentally, all Orenda books – I promise I’m not on commission, though!) were the ones that most tugged at my heartstrings, so I suggest you be in a good place emotionally when you read them. They are not entirely depressing – there is hope and humour in each of them – but they are about as gritty as it is possible to get without turning into a sandpit on an abandoned building site. The remaining four are more conventional police procedurals, although there is nothing bland or boring about any of them.

Will Carver: Good Samaritans

Winner of the Description of the Most Dysfunctional Marriage Award, the sorry tale of insomniac Seth and his bored wife Maeve will stay with you. Fiercely funny as well as unbearably sad to read about their inability to communicate with each other, as well as about all the other lonely people out there and their desperate urge for connection, looking for it in all the wrong places. It will leave you reeling, uncomfortable, and wondering about your own life.

Helen FitzGerald: Worst Case Scenario

Another book with deeper messages rippling out as you read it, leaving indelible marks in your psyche. Beneath the humour and the refreshing ‘don’t-give-a-damn’ rebellion of the disillusioned and menopausal probation officer Mary Shields, there is a lot of social critique and an uncompromising portrayal of life at the margins of society, the kind of things we would rather not know about.

Doug Johnstone: Breakers

And, since we are on the subject of heartbreak, let’s move from the mean streets of Glasgow to one of the most deprived areas of Edinburgh, where 17 year old Tyler is trying to somehow hold together his precarious life and profoundly dysfunctional family. Filled to the gills with brutal scenes and characters that no child should have to deal with, it also has moments of tenderness involving puppies, bedtime stories and home cooking that nevertheless manage to steer clear of clichés and sentimentality.

G.D. Abson: Motherland

If you are equally fascinated and repulsed by Putin’s new (same old) Russia, then this is the book for you. Plenty of local colour and an all too believable backdrop of suspicion, corruption and cover-ups, with an engaging and tough heroine who is just trying to make her way as honestly as possible in a society that seems determined to thwart her at every turn. The start of a series that I will definitely be keeping an eye on.

Mari Hannah: The Scandal

I’ve been a huge Mari Hannah fan from her very first series (and still my favourite), the Kate Daniels one, although she has moved on to two other series since then. As a former probation officer, like Helen FitzGerald, she too injects a voice of authenticity and social concern in her writing, most obvious in this book in her description of the lives of those sleeping rough on the streets of Newcastle.

Mick Herron: London Rules

So many people had been recommending the Slough House series by Mick Herron to me, that I could no longer resist and jumped in at the deep end with one of his most recent. This did mean that perhaps the descriptions of some of the characters and their motivations were opaque to me, but I can see the appeal of this satirical, almost absurdist take on spy thrillers. The clumsy, incompetent and woefully mismatched ‘intelligence’ team led by the undiplomatic and uncharismatic Jackson Lamb (who reminds me slightly of Dalziel) are a joy to behold.

Vaseem Khan: Murder at the Grand Raj Palace

The much longed-for relief in a bunch of rather dark crime novels, this is a charming and quirky story about the rather earnest Inspector Chopra, his sweet-tempered and playful baby elephant, his practical wife Poppy… oh, and a murder at a luxury hotel. The author does a great job of balancing light and dark, without it ever descending into an unbearably cosy and unbelievable situation, and there are references to darker elements of Indian history and society.

Crimefest Bristol 2019 (Day One)

I can heartily recommend cavorting at crime festivals when you have got all sorts of worries at home – it really does take your mind of things, and you get to meet some wonderful people. I was at Newcastle Noir the previous weekend and just returned from Bristol’s Crimefest last night, my only two crime festival outings this year (it is an expensive business). Both very good, though very different!

I managed to take a day off work to be at CrimeFest from Friday until Sunday (it runs Thursday to Sunday, so I did miss some good panels on the first day). Although I didn’t stay at the Conference hotel, my Premier Inn was only a short walk away over the bridge and I had a wonderfully spacious room with a chaiselongue on which I could drape myself artistically to read all the many, many books I acquired.

Not that there was much time for reading. CrimeFest is much bigger than Newcastle Noir, so runs parallel sessions all day. Which means that there were, inevitably, clashes of panels I wanted to attend. The crime fiction represented in Bristol is also much broader – not just noir, but also cosies, historical crime fiction, true crime – a little bit of everything. This means that some of the panels didn’t feel that organically put together, with one or the other of the authors (usually my favourite one of the panel) sticking out like a – not a sore thumb, but a seriously glamorous and sparky thumb!

Broad Street, where the Grand Hotel is situated and the CrimeFest took place. The building in the foreground is the Guildhall and the one in the background is St John the Baptist Church and what must have been one of the city gates.

For example, the first panel I attended was the Humour in Crime Fiction panel, featuring Mike Ripley, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Bernadette Strachan from the MB Vincent writing duo and Helen FitzGerald. While the first three write cosyish or satirical crime fiction, the subjects that Helen writes about are incredibly dark; the humour is very black indeed and stems mainly from the characters trying to lighten up a desperate situation. Some general points were made about reality becoming so crazy nowadays that it’s becoming hard to satirise things any longer, which is probably true, but Helen’s work proves almost the opposite: that you can be compassionate, funny and yet still say something profound about the society we live in. I also rather took exception to the assertion of some panel members that humour doesn’t translate well, which sounded to me more like a complaint that their own books haven’t necessarily achieved high overseas sales. I can think of many exceptions to that: Antti Tuomainen, Andrea Camilleri, the Auntie Poldi series and Jakob Arjouni. Fred Vargas’ team has really quite hilarious eccentricities, although the books themselves are not funny. Dare I suggest that maybe the esteemed panel simply does not read enough in translation?

With my love for international settings, the next panel on Worldwide Police Procedurals was just my cup of tea, especially since it was moderated with grace and wit by Vanda Symon, a fantastic crime writer from New Zealand. The best panels for me are the ones where I am familiar and supportive of half of the panel (in this case, Quentin Bates and GD Abson) but also discover two new writers (in this case, Stuart Field and VM Giambanco). Quentin sets his books in Iceland, where he lived for a long time and went completely native. Garry Abson has not lived in St Petersburg but has a policeman friend there, and studied Russian politics at university. His books plug a much-needed gap in terms of international crime fiction, namely contemporary Russia under Putin. Stuart Field is the pseudonym of a former soldier turned writer and he drops his British detective into a New York City setting in his John Steel action thriller series. Last but not least, Valentina Giambanco is Italian but has lived in London for many years. Her setting is Seattle and the wilderness of Washington state, although she initially tried to set her book in London and Scotland.

GD Abson, Stuart Field and Valentina Giambanco.

The authors all had three things in common: strong female protagonists, being Brits writing about foreign locations and a feeling of freedom when setting their stories elsewhere. While they make every effort to do their research and get the details correct, they said that if they were writing a UK police procedural, they would feel too limited by the actual facts, while this way they can let their imaginations run riot a bit more and write a sort of ‘unprocedural’. I asked them if they ever had a hankering for another location – and sure enough, some of them have already embarked upon books set in a different place. Stuart has set his latest novel in Malta, while Valentina is currently writing a standalone set on her very own doorstep in London. Garry admitted he was attracted to dark places and alternative universes scenarios, for example a fascist Britain full of Tommy Robinson types (perhaps too uncomfortably close to possible futures for some). Meanwhile, Quentin is attracted by the possibilities of doing research in a place with a warmer climate and better food than Iceland: e.g. Morocco.

Quentin Bates explaining to Vanda Symon (the shaky picture is entirely my fault) why he might turn to Morocco next.

This perhaps leads me to the question why we prefer to hear from British writers setting their stories abroad rather than from those countries themselves (not the case with the countries represented on this panel, but fitting it well with what I heard elsewhere this weekend)? Readers seem avid for new, exotic locations, so why are publishers encouraging writers to set yet another cosy crime novel in the Cotswolds as opposed to even Wales? I suppose they want to find a successful formula and then stick to it, but as a reader I find it very boring.

Speaking of Wales, I really wanted to go to the Crime Cymru panel, not only because I love Wales, but also to support Cathy Ace, whom I’ve reviewed from her very first novel. Unfortunately, it clashed with the Historical Fiction panel.

Sarah Armstrong moderated the historical fiction panel.

Although I don’t read much historical fiction, I really wanted to support Estonian author Indrek Hargla, whose medieval apothecary series I mentioned a few posts ago – and whom I’d previously met in Lyon. He writes across multiple genres, and if you can read French, the entire series has been translated into French. It appears there are more good Estonian-French translators than there are Estonian-English ones, as well as more French publishers interested in trying something from that part of the world. The other panellists were all new to me but sounded quite interesting. David Penny writes a series set at the end of the 15th century, the chaotic period when Moorish Spain is disappearing and Spain becomes a great naval power instead. L.C. Tyler’s novels are set in the late 17th century, that very disreputable era when they finally got Cromwell out of the way. John Lawton sticks to the 20th century, from the laste 1930s to the late 1960s, because he hated the post-hippy world. Great quote: ‘I was looking the other way when the 1970s happened’.

The final panel I attended on the first day was Sunshine Noir – again, this clashed with the Scandi is Dandy panel that I also wanted to attend (and where I missed the best-dressed Norwegian and Finnish authors convention, see below). I think the authors on the Sunshine Noir panel felt a little competitive about it, since they kept mentioning the Scandis, but to my mind, there is no need to set the two against each other, as they are both equally interesting and readable.

Sunshine Noir Panel: Stanley Trollip, Barbara Nadel, Paul Hardisty, Robert Wilson and Jeff Siger.

However, some of the comparisons made were interesting. Scandinavia is culturally closer to the UK, and there is something inherently cuddly about that sensation of being wrapped up warm and safe and reading about a relentless cold and dangerous climate out there. Meanwhile, the hotter settings offer noise, chaos, insects, heat and sweat, which makes people more irritable. Additionally, these countries do not operate by rules we generally believe in and value in the Western world. Things don’t work out in Africa in the way you want them to, nothing adheres to the organised template that you expect. You have to let go of your expectations and embrace life as it is there, with the good and the bad.

Moderated by Stanley Trollip of Michael Stanley fame, the panel featured Jeffrey Siger’s Mykonos, Paul Hardisty’s Africa (and other dangerous places), Barbara Nadel’s Turkey and Robert Wilson (who has series set in Spain and London as well, but in this case was here for his series set in Benin). Although each of the authors were dismayed by the corruption and political turmoil they saw in their ‘host’ countries, they all displayed a deep affection for the land and its people. They all agreed that the higher up you go, the less nice people become, but the everyday people you meet are wonderful and welcoming, despite their sometimes horrific personal circumstances.

Feast your eyes on these dandy Scands: Antti Tuomainen, Gunnar Staalesen and Jørn Lier Horst. Picture courtesy of Ewa Sherman.

The longlist for the CWA Daggers were announced that evening and added yet more to my TBR pile, but I managed to escape with only four book purchases on my first day: the Sunshine Noir anthology; Inccoruptible, the latest Inspector Ikmen by Barbara Nadel, although a new one is coming out in 2019; Indrek Hargla’s second book in the series (I have the first one in French); and a new author to try out, V.B.Giambanco’s first in the series The Gift of Darkness.

Buckle up, though, because the second day got even busier (and more expensive)! So much so, that I will dedicate a second post to it.

Reading in the Merry Month of May

It’s been a changeable old month weather-wise, this May, and that has been reflected in my choice of books. I’ve read 12 books, and only 4 of those were by male writers (and two of those were for review). I finally managed to tackle 4 from my Netgalley pile (sinking under the greed there…), 5 from my bookshelves (although two of those may have been VERY recent purchases), plus one random purchase while being stuck at the airport. 7 of the books above may be classified as crime, one was spoken word poetry and there was no non-fiction this month.

DSCN6617
Gotta love the cloudy days of May… Lake Geneva from Vevey.

 

Julie Schumacher: Dear Committee Members

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

Helen Fitzgerald: Bloody Women

Clare Mackintosh: I Let You Go

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

Kristien Hemmerechts: The Woman Who Fed the Dogs

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

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

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

Ursula Poznanski: Blinde Vögel – a Facebook poetry group turns deadly in Salzburg – how could I resist?

Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – philosophical fable – I thereby declare this #TBR1

Sara Novic: Girl at War – survivor of the war in Croatia returns ten years later to her home country – #TBR2

These last four were all memorable in quite different ways, so I want to write more thorough reviews of them soon, so watch this space.

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

Crime fiction pick of the month is going to be a tie between Snowblind and How the Light Gets In. But I also have my eye on this Austrian writer Poznanski now and hope she gets translated more into English (she also writes YA and children’s fiction and is known as Ursula P. Archer in the English-speaking world).

Finally, how has writing fared this month? Some rough handwritten drafting has taken place, but it’s been another tough month, with business trips, lots of holidays and parental visits. Must do better next month (famous last words?)… The good news is that poetry has started to flow again after a long period of feeling stuck.

 

 

 

 

 

Three Quick Reads by Women Writers

After a series of gruelling (though riveting) reads in April, I opted for the comfort factor and chose some lighter reads this month, all by women writers.

committeeJulie Schumacher: Dear Committee Members

Jason Fitger is a professor of creative writing at a small, second-rate college, who feels he is spending most of his time writing references rather than getting any real work done. His department is facing serious cuts, he’s made a mess of his personal life, his literary ambitions have been thwarted and his views on his students’ abilities, their job prospects and future are painfully funny. Written as a series of letters (and the occasional online form) of recommendation, this will bring a broad smile of recognition (and an occasional pang) to anyone who has ever worked in academia (or anyone involved with writers). A short, satirical book, with a narrator full of pompous self-justification and whingeing, who is unintentionally funny – a delightful way to pass a lazy afternoon. I read it in one sitting, because, having been a victim of endless bureaucracy myself, I kept saying: ‘Just one more letter…’

bloodywomenHelen Fitzgerald: Bloody Women

Another early Fitzgerald book, this one was recommended by fellow bloggers and writers Hollyanne, Cleopatra and Kate Evans.

Despite the macabre and serious subject matter, this was such a zany, fun read. Fitzgerald has a deceptively easy, free-flowing style that makes you think ‘chick-lit’ at first glance. But no chick lit would feature a storyline in which the main protagonist, Catriona, ties up loose ends before her wedding by contacting each one of her former boyfriends, having one last farewell bout of sex with them (usually while being completely drunk) and then discovering their mutilated bodies shortly afterwards. Needless to say, Catriona is the prime suspect and, in an interesting reversal of timeline expectations, we get to hear most of the story in retrospective, while she is in jail on remand. A journalist wants to write a trashy biography of her, hilariously misinterpreting or cherry-picking from interviews with former friends and family. Catriona contrasts the biography with her own recollection of events, but we suspect her own interpretations are sometimes unreliable, while her memory of her last encounters with her exes are hazy, to say the least.

I did guess the final plot twist, but to me this book is not about the twists and turns of a criminal investigation, but about the fresh, original voice.The frank, no holds barred language and messed-up characters, the deft characterisation and sly asides: this seems a stormy assault on British restraint (Fitzgerald comes from Australia originally, but has now settled in Scotland), yet at the same time has a lot of self-deprecating humour that is forever British to me.

Penny2Louise Penny: How the Light Gets In

This doesn’t quite qualify as light reading, as it’s full of tension and drama. I’ve read the Armand Gamache series out of order and this was one I’d missed out on. There are two murder mysteries involved, plus a larger conspiracy involving Gamache’s boss (building on from previous books in the series). The conspiracy element did perhaps feel exaggerated, leading to the very top of Quebecois politics (not sure how well-received this particular book was in Quebec).  However, it certainly led to some very tense moments and real sadness when we realised how a wedge has been driven between Gamache and his former sidekick Beauvoir. The ‘proper’ investigation took second place to this drama, but had an additional poignant word to say about what goes on under the ‘happy families’ façade.

The reason why I have included it in my ‘escapism’ fiction is because it is such a delight to revisit the village of Three Pines in the company of Louise Penny and her fictional characters: the grumpy poet and her duck, the artist, the wise bookseller, the big-mouthed but warm-hearted gay couple running the B&B… these are not types, but over the course of many books have become our friends. We know their quirks intimately, yet they always manage to surprise us a little. I want to live in Three Pines, as do most of Louise Penny’s faithful readers, although I may have to give up on the Internet forever (no signal).

Have you read any of these books and what did you think of them? And do you like to alternate harder reads with more light-hearted or escapist ones? What comfort reads do you turn to?

 

Reading, Writing, Sauntering About in March

I’ve already admitted that I’ve not managed the TBR Double Dare this month of only reading from the books I already own. It doesn’t mean I won’t try again over the coming months, though!

So what else have I been up to this month?

1) Reading:

I’ve read 12 books this month, of which 6 may be classified as crime fiction, 5 are from the TBR pile (hurrah!), but only 2 translations (initially, I thought three of them were, but one turns out to have been written in English by a Polish author). Must try harder…

I did manage to read two books for Stu’s East European Reading Month Challenge:

Vladimir Lorchenkov: The Good Life Elsewhere (also qualifies for Global Reading Challenge – Moldova – Europe)

A.M. Bakalar: Madame Mephisto -this is the one that tricked me into believing it was a translation, set in Poland and England.

FataleI reviewed two books for Crime Fiction Lover, as different as they could possibly be: the start of a cosy crime series set in Wales, The Case of the Dotty Dowager by Cathy Ace, and the very dark, very despairing Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette.

The other crime or psychological thriller type novels I read this month were: Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm (no review yet), Belinda Bauer’s The Shut Eye, Helen Fitzgerald’s Dead Lovely and Laura Kasischke’s Mind of Winter. Of this genre, the two most memorable (and, in this case, haunting) were Fatale and Mind of Winter.

liarjonesI also read Maggie Hannan’s hugely influential debut volume of poetry Liar, Jones (1995). It’s very different from any poetry I’ve recently read: more muscular, more playful, more deliberately obfuscating and difficult. Not quite my type of poetry, but there was a lot of fun and exploration. There were no efforts to be ‘poetic’, pretty or lyrical. I particularly enjoyed the poems addressed to or about Jones and the Diary of Eleni Altamura (a real historical character, an amazing Greek woman who dressed as a man in order to study painting, but tragically lost her children and thenceforth gave up her art).

Finally, I also read two of the buzzed-about books of 2014: Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves (moving but over-long) and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (not reviewed yet). I wonder if the buzz did them more harm than good in my eyes, as both of them were good pieces of fiction, with passages of very beautiful and perceptive writing, yet somehow failed to wow me overall. Perhaps my expectations had been set too high or perhaps I should stop reading reviews beforehand?

2) Writing

I’ve set an ambitious goal for myself for this year: to write my second novel by September and submit it to an agent (which means it’s got to be better than first draft quality, obviously). However, considering that I only started the first page at the end of February (although I had planned most of it out in my head already, bar the ending), and given my chronic inability to find time to write, I thought I would give myself an achievable goal for the first month: one page a day (about 8000-9000 words). May sound like nothing more than  day’s writing for some of you, but to me it was a mountain to climb. I know I need to up my game, though, in terms of quality and quantity, over the months to come.

Lyon13) Flannelling around

I was going to use the term above, based on the French ‘flâneur’, someone who is walking around aimlessly on the grand boulevards, but the English word actually means something very different. Far be it from me to try and flatter or mislead you! What I mean of course is ‘sauntering’ or ‘gallivanting’ about. This means I had a great time in Lyon, at the Quais du Polar, which is the highlight of my year in crime. I’ve just written a thorough round-up of my first impressions for the Crime Fiction Lover website today, but there’ll be a few posts to follow on this blog, with further details, pictures, lessons learnt and some great quotes.

Falling Off the Wagon (Books, Not Alcohol)

From Pinterest.
From Pinterest.

Something has gone badly wrong. The fear of mortality has struck (so many books, so little time…). The book publishing figures around the world haunts my sleep. The urge to compare and contrast, to reassure myself that mine is not the only flawed writing. The heavy burden of the impossibility of telling a new story. My way of responding to all that: going back to my old acquisitive habits. I’m not the only one: read this post about how the online world has changed our reading habits.

So, yes, this month, this week especially, I have fallen off the TBR Double Dog dare in spectacular fashion. And I reacted in typical addictive personality fashion: if I make one mistake, I might as well go the whole hog (i.e. eat the whole chocolate bar).

I didn’t just buy one or two new books. I added no less than 10 new books to my shelves this week, none of which were ‘professional’ review copies. I name the culprits below. It is interesting how word of mouth recommendation (via blogs or Twitter) from people whose opinion I trust (even though I don’t always concur with them) seems to be the way I acquire most of my books nowadays.

First up, two of the five German books on the IFFP longlist, which I got really interested in thanks to bloggers such as Stu Jallen, Tony Malone, Dolce Bellezza and Emma at Words and Peace. I couldn’t order them all and I ordered them in the original German rather than in translation (German being one of the few languages other than English that I find relatively easy to read):

tigermilch1) Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch (Tiger Milk)

That’s the name of the milk spiced with juice and alcohol that the two 14-year-old girls make and drink, as they set off in a quest to get rid of their virginity. Family conflicts, big-city blues and teenage angst abound in this picture of modern, ethnically mixed Berlin. Berlin is one of my favourite European cities, two of my dearest and oldest friends live there, and cross-cultural topics are my passion: so a no-brainer for me to try this book. Plus I want to compare it with the film/book that defined teenage Berlin life when I was a child ‘Christiane F: Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo’.

schalansky2) Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe (The Neck of the Giraffe)

A shrinking town in East Germany, a school with hardly any pupils left, an old-fashioned biology teacher, who can’t believe that times have moved on… ‘Adaptation is everything’ is her scientific belief but how easily can she accept that principle in her own belief system and behaviour?

Next is the book we will be reading in April for the Online Crime Book Club, an initiative started and organised by Rebecca Bradley.

biggame3) Dan Smith: Big Game

A book described as Percy Jackson in the wilds of Finland’s Arctic circle, saving the American President from wild animals and assassins. Dan Smith was asked to write the book based on a story idea by Jalmary Helander and Petri Jokiranta, which is also being released as a major film starring Samuel L. Jackson. Rebecca has organised a Q&A session with the author for us for April, so exciting! It’s the kind of book that both my older son and I will enjoy reading (and will no doubt have many, many questions).

The next book was prompted by reviews of another book by the same author in The Paris Review and 3 a.m. Magazine, namely Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality.

scarredhearts4) Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts

This young Romanian Jewish writer died at the age of just 28 of tuberculosis and I have to admit I haven’t read anything by him. I’m planning to get hold of the reviewed book in the original Romanian, but I couldn’t resist a second-hand ex-charity shop edition of his first novel. A young man named Emanuel lies ill in a French sanatorium on the sea-coast… and discovers all of human life and nature in his narrow, confined environment. The Magic Mountain meets Emil Cioran is what it sounds like to me…

Then there are all the books I downloaded in the blinking of the eye from Netgalley, Edelweiss, Amazon or other online sources:

actsassassins5) Richard Beard: Acts of the Assassins

When crime writers Eva Dolan and Stav Sherez start waxing lyrical about a book they’ve just read, my ears perk up. I’ve read books recommended by them before, and they’ve never disappointed. Adapted from the blurb: A charismatic cult leader is dead. One by one his followers are being assassinated. Sawn in half, beheaded, skinned alive. Enter Gallio, counter-insurgent and detective of sorts. An alternative view of biblical events set in the present. Sounds mad, intriguing and potentially very entertaining.

whatsheleft6) T. R. Richmond: What She Left

Liz Wilkins and Carlie Lee both reviewed this one enthusiastically. I like the premise of reconstituting someone’s life from the documents they leave behind. From the blurb:

When Alice Salmon died last year, the ripples were felt in the news, on the internet, and in the hearts of those who knew her best. But the person who knows her most intimately isn’t family or a friend. Dr Jeremy Cook is an academic whose life has become about piecing together Alice’s existence in all its flawed and truthful reality. For Cooke, faithfully recreating Alice’s life – through her diaries, emails and anything using her voice – is all-consuming. He does not know how deep his search will take him, or the shocking nature of what he will uncover…

7) Denise Mina: Blood, Salt, Water

Because the latest book by Denise Mina is definitely worth getting your hands on. One of those authors whose voice really stands out and that I’m always keen to read. Doesn’t require more explanation than that, does it?

blackwood8) SJI Holliday: Black Wood

Just came out last week with great reviews. Susi is a cheery, supportive and very active presence on Twitter. So I just had to check out her debut novel, didn’t I? From the blurb:

Something happened to Claire and Jo in Black Wood: something that left Claire paralysed and Jo with deep mental scars. But with Claire suffering memory loss and no evidence to be found, nobody believes Jo’s story. Twenty-three years later, a familiar face walks into the bookshop where Jo works, dredging up painful memories and rekindling her desire for vengeance. And at the same time, Sergeant Davie Gray is investigating a balaclava-clad man who is attacking women on a disused railway, shocking the sleepy village of Banktoun.

9) Karin Alvtegen: Betrayal

Margot Kinberg is to blame for this one, which she casually mentioned in a blog post about pubs and bars in crime fiction. Just earlier that day, John Grant had also mentioned how good this author was. Plus, the subject matter (marital infidelity, dodgy characters and revenge) is close to my own current WIP.

bloodywomen10) Helen Fitzgerald: Bloody Women

When I reviewed three books with ‘unlikeable’ female narrators recently, including Dead Lovely by Helen Fitzgerald, so many commented or tweeted that they had loved Bloody Women by the same author that I had to go out and get it. The blurb, I’ve been told, does not do the book justice, but it does give you an idea of Fitzgerald’s unusual mind and blend of styles:

Returning to Scotland to organise her wedding, Catriona is overcome with the jitters. She decides to tie up loose ends before settling permanently in Tuscany, and seeks out her ex-boyfriends. Only problem is, they’re all dead.

I know for a fact that next weekend it’s going to be impossible to be good at the Crime Festival in Lyon. So in for a penny, in for a pound… How are you doing with your buying bans? Or have you given up on such self-imposed limitations?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recently Read: Three Quirky Women in Fiction

There’s been quite a bit of debate lately about unlikeable characters – especially female characters. [As an aside, if men are boring, middle-aged, navel-gazing and tend to drone on about every little twinge and stirring of desire, that’s literary. Or so it seems at times.] Readers love to hate the main protagonists in Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Personally, I don’t need to like a character to find their story compelling – and if it makes for uncomfortable reading, it’s surely because we can catch in them glimpses of our innermost selves, all those things we dare not admit. Let him/her who is truly flawless cast the first stone!

So I prefer to call the women in the three books that I’ve recently read ‘quirky’ rather than unlikeable. I probably wouldn’t want any of them as my best friend (at least not as they currently behave during the course of the book), but guess what? My best friends would probably make for rather dull reading.

shuteyeBelinda Bauer: The Shut Eye

When Anna Buck’s son Daniel disappears one day, she blames her husband for leaving the front door open and very nearly loses her mind polishing the five little footprints he had left in the wet cement they day he went missing. She clutches at straws and – although initially sceptic about it – she consults a psychic (a shut eye) in an attempt to find out what happened. This psychic is also part of a police investigation into another, older missing child, an investigation which still haunts DCI Marvel and which he refuses to relinquish.

I did find Anna’s grief and anger a bit hard to read about – plausible, well written, but just emotionally draining. I have to admit that the ‘medium’ elements did not work well for me and the police seemed oddly incompetent or blind to things. So I was a bit on the fence about this book. Belinda Bauer is an excellent writer and I’ve enjoyed her previous books very much – she always has a chilling dark side. As a portrayal of bereavement and how grief drives to you obsession and madness, I found it very compelling, but as crime fiction – not so much.

deadlovelyHelen Fitzgerald: Dead Lovely

This is the story of a friendship gone very badly wrong. Wild child Krissie and picture-perfect Sarah have been best friends since childhood. Sarah is respectably married and trying desperately to conceive, while Krissie still dabbles in alcohol, weed and carefree one-night stands. But their friendship suffers a bit of a setback when Krissie accidentally becomes pregnant and then displays a bit of a haphazard attitude to looking after her baby (fuelled in part by post-natal depression). A walking holiday is supposed to bolster up old friendships, but turns instead to betrayal and violence.

Krissie is the main narrator and she often acts thoughtlessly and selfishly. Yet her voice is utterly unforgettable: razor-sharp, unsentimental, very funny and often a complete bitch. There are of course some reasons behind her frankly quite foolish behaviour at times, there are times of poignant lack of self-awareness (about her depression, for instance) and you really will her to succeed. The ending might be over-the-top, some of the description will make even hardened readers queasy – but it is Fitzgerald’s debut novel (she admits herself that ‘she had no idea what she was doing at the time’). A cracker of an outing for a strong fictional voice!

madammephistoA. M. Bakalar: Madame Mephisto 

I’m very proud that I managed to squeeze in a second book for Stu Jallen’s East European Literature Month. This time it’s a Polish author, with sharp and often very witty observations about the differences between Poland and the UK.

Magda is a recent immigrant from Poland who works in a variety of office jobs in London. Her descriptions of asinine corporate life and HR interventions make for great satire, but in fact all of these jobs are nothing more than a cover for Magda’s real career: building a cannabis-growing and dealing empire. Her family back in Poland worry incessantly about her apparent aimlessness, but she knows very well what she is up to. In spite of that, she often acts impulsively, and the author has rendered this divide by using first person for the practical strategist and third person for the angry bitch. It’s a device that doesn’t always work for me, but I did enjoy the sullen, rebellious voice of the main character and the way she tries to protect her family from her shadier dealings.

Some Polish readers have commented that the author is a little too unkind with her depiction of Polish prejudices and religious mindset, but that is typical of recent immigrants. A love/hate relationship develops with the home country. There is so much you are glad to have left behind, you feel alienated from your own culture, so you become hyper-critical of all that you are trying to differentiate yourself from. However, you begin to realise that you never quite fit into your adopted culture either. Magda is told that she is not getting jobs because she doesn’t smile, she is not ‘positive enough’ in the workplace, she refuses to play the silly team building games and speaks her mind too clearly for British politeness. Cultural contrasts and misunderstandings are subjects very dear to my heart, so I enjoyed that aspect of the book immensely.

This book fulfills many of my obligations, not just as an entry to the East European Literature Month canon, (but NOT for #translationthurs, as the author wrote this book in English), part of my TBR Double Dare Challenge (it’s been sitting on my tablet for a while) and for my second European entry for the Global Reading Challenge.

November Reads; Crime Fiction Pick of the Month

What a wonderful month of reads it has been: a promising mix of both quality and quantity, despite lots of business travel and a drop in reviewing capacity. Plus a good representation of women writers, which is not always the case every month!

I have had the pleasure of discovering some debut or nearly-debut authors. By ‘nearly-debut’, I mean authors who are perhaps on their third or fourth book but have yet to be picked up by a publisher or who have only just been translated into English. I have mentioned the first four of these in my feature on 5 Women to Watch Out For in 2014 on Crime Fiction Lover

cover12Helen Cadbury: To Catch a Rabbit   Gritty Northern crime, with a focus on immigrants and community policing – a really promising start. I can’t wait to read more from this author!

Celina Grace: Requiem   Self-published author with a solid police procedural and engaging characters.

Jonelle Patrick: Idolmaker   Celebrity cult and tsunami in Japan – just love the setting of this series.

Cover2Ioanna Bourazopoulou: What Lot’s Wife Saw   Most inventive, genre-bending work I’ve read in a long time. Left me aglow.

Helen Smith: Beyond Belief   Fun escapism (despite the body count), excellent use of humour and irony, gently mocking spiritualism, credulity and conferences everywhere.

Cover5Alex Marwood: The Killer Next Door   So well known by now, that she barely qualifies as a nearly-debut author! This is Alex Marwood’s second book, a psychological thriller with a sad twist about the unmissed and unwanted people of a large city . I’ll be reviewing it shortly in more detail for CFL, but it’s an intriguing story set in a seedy London boarding house (I’ve known a few of those during my student days). I will never feel the same again about blocked drains!

Other Crime Fiction

Georges Simenon: Pietr the Latvian    Going right back to the first Maigret novel in this wonderful initiative of reissuing one novel a month by Penguin Classics. Big, burly, solid and eminently reliable, Maigret is his wonderful laconic self, springing fully-formed from his creator’s mind.

Cover 3Helen Fitzgerald: The Cry    Thank you, Rebecca Bradley and the other Book Club members for inciting me to read this gripping and very emotional read about a couple losing their young baby, and the aftermath in the media, the courts and within the family home.

Marne Davis Kellogg: The Real Thing    Elegant crime caper set in Cary Grant/Grace Kelly territory on the French Riviera.

Non-Crime Reads

Cover9Hanna Krall: Chasing the King of Hearts    Achingly haunting, low-key emotions in a pared-down, but never simplistic language. Almost unbearably sad ending – yet so realistic. A beautiful book. just when you thought nothing more could be written about the Jewish experience during the Second World War.

Sam Riviere: 81 Austerities     A debut collection by a young poet, which I picked up on impulse at Foyle’s in London. By turns prosaic, witty, funny and sad, this is an eclectic collection of glass-clear observations and surprising combinations of words and insights. The pyrotechnics of youth, certainly, but also lots of substance and depth.

Cover1Fouad Laroui: Une année chez les Français   Witty and brave take on cultural differences, as a young Moroccan boy embarks upon a year of study at a French boarding-school in Casablanca. Perfect description of the innocence and cluelessness of the boy from a country village, absolutely charming yet with sharp (sometimes sad) observations about assumptions of cultural superiority. An anthropologist’s dream.

And my Crime Fiction pick of the month, a meme hosted by Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise? Very, very tough choice, as there were at least 4-5 of the above I could have picked. In the end, I opted for ‘The Cry’ by Helen Fitzgerald.