What Was I Expecting? Beep-beep, Fashion!

I try to stay away from books that are being hyped and fussed over by publishers, reviewers, readers and most especially the media. Yet sometimes I succumb to fashion (turn to the left), fashion (turn to the right)… I nearly always end up a little underwhelmed, as I’ve been by four books in a row that I’ve read over the past two or three weeks. So I was wondering why that’s the case. I suppose it’s because my expectations are being piled up to skyscraper proportions, so it becomes impossible for any book to satisfy my hunger.

So, just to be perfectly clear, all of the books below are good books, just not¬†great¬†books. Like an overly demanding parent with a child who doesn’t quite achieve the stunning results they expect, I love them nevertheless, but can’t help feeling a little disappointed. And, of course, this is just my opinion, there are plenty of other readers who loved these books, etc. etc.

thefarmTom Rob Smith: The Farm

The premise is irresistible: the over-protected child (now grown up and trying to protect his parents from the truth about his sexuality) has to choose between his father’s and his mother’s account of events. Whom to believe? What is really going on? Marketed as a thriller, this feels to me more like a family saga, and makes excellent use of its remote Swedish farmhouse scenario. But¬†I do wish there had been more uncertainty, more of the father’s side of the story and, even though I usually like a clear chronology and straightforward storytelling, in this case I would have liked more complexity, more conflicting perspectives. For a very different take on this, see the review on Crime Fiction Lover.

StationElevenEmily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

This is going to make me a lot of enemies, as nearly everyone I know who’s read it has loved this book. I did find it beautifully written, with a glossiness and thoughtfulness of language which is very appealing to the poet in me. But when I reached the end, I did feel a bit: ‘Ho-hum, is that it?’ It pains me to say this, as I saw the author in Lyon and loved everything she said.

There were some memorable scenes and a few intriguing characters, not necessarily the main protagonists¬†(I preferred Miranda, Clark, Javeen). However, because of the constantly shifting points of view, I felt I didn’t quite come to grips with any of them.¬†More could have been made of the Prophet, as well, and his troupe.

I enjoyed the Shakespeare references (more The Tempest than King Lear to my mind, but perhaps that just shows my own preconceptions), the sarcasm about Hollywood and fame, the description of life after the pandemic. I’m not a huge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, and thankfully the book did not go too much into the horror mode of graphic descriptions of dying.

Ultimately, it’s a story about human relationships and the longing for connection and for the comfort of the past, set against the backdrop of a threatening, uncertain world. But it’s not as moving and tender as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and a little too tame.¬†If you want to see a writer who really goes out on a limb in an alternative world, try the much less hyped Ioanna Bourazopoulou’s¬†What Lot’s Wife Saw.¬†I did an interview with Ioanna for Crime Fiction Lover¬†for New Talent November.

For much more enthusiastic appraisals of Station Eleven, see The Little Reader Library, Janet Emson and Naomi Frisby.

liarschairRebecca Whitney: The Liar’s Chair

I’m rather a fan of so-called domestic noir, perhaps because of the ‘happy’ families I’ve known throughout my life. I do get fatigued by the inevitable comparisons to ‘Gone Girl’, as if that was the first of the domestic noir genre (Patricia Highsmith, Daphne du Maurier and Nicci French had been writing them way before the current batch). Furthermore, I don’t need likable characters to enjoy a book, so I thought I would be fine with the deceits and lies of the toxic marriage depicted here. In fact, my current WIP falls broadly under this same category.

The atmosphere of menace was very well done, particularly in the first half of the book, but it was a little hard to sustain throughout. At some point it felt like the author was piling on nasty gestures by either one of the couple, for no other purpose than to up the ante. Perhaps that was necessary, because there was no great moment of ultimate danger or huge revelation: the outcomes were somewhat predictable.

However, this is a talented author, with a great turn of phrase, whose future novels will almost certainly become even more intense and suspenseful. For more reviews, see Cleopatra Loves Books and Susan White for Euro Crime.

loindesbrasMetin Arditi: Loin des bras (Far from human arms)

Far from the arms of others, who can provide comfort and love, this metaphorical title describes not just the schoolboys in this book, who’ve been sent away to an expensive Swiss boarding school by their wealthy and indifferent parents, but also the teachers at this school. Each character is flawed and vulnerable in a different way: we have gamblers, homosexuals, former Nazi sympathisers (the book is set in the 1950s), people who have lost countries, languages or loved ones. A bit of everything in short, all longing for some human connection, for a sense of community, which this school provides in some way, while heading for bankruptcy. It was an enjoyable read, with short chapters and a sense of world-weariness very fitting with the landscape and the omnipresent subtle changes of the lake’s surface. The storylines are somewhat predictable, and some of the characters feel a bit clich√©, but what disappointed me most was the bare, unadorned style.

The reason for that is again false expectations on my part. Metin Arditi is an intriguing person in his own right: born in Turkey, he moved to Switzerland as a child, became a professor of physics at EPFL Lausanne, and is also a very active promoter of culture and especially music in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Given his background, I expected a more flowery language, perhaps something in the style of Orhan Pamuk, but he dissects instead with incisive, cold precision, much more like a scientist. If you want to try reading him in English, one of his books has been translated The Conductor of Illusions. 

Perhaps next time I’ll do a post on the hyped books which did not disappoint me – there are a few that lived up to my expectations or even surpassed them. How about you? Do you read or avoid the buzz books of the moment? And do you ever feel that ‘is that all’ sigh?

 

 

 

 

What I’ll Remember of 2013

In terms of books, of course. I know the year is not quite over, but I am stuck in a huge book, so I don’t think I’ll get to read much else.¬†

I’ve done a summary of my top five crime reads (books published in 2013 and reviewed by me) on the Crime Fiction Lover website. These, however, are more of a motley collection of books I’ve loved, regardless of genre, reviews, whether they were published recently or not. ¬†And they don’t fit neatly into a list of ten.

the harbour of Marseille
The harbour of Marseille (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Elizabeth Haynes: Into the Darkest Corner     The most frightening description of OCD, conveyed with a real sense of menace. Psychological shudders guaranteed.

Jean-Claude Izzo: Marseille Trilogy    Just glorious, despite the darkness Рa symphony for the senses.

Birgit Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast    Damning, elegant prose, as precise as a scalpel, dissecting families and tyranny of all kinds.

Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers      Somewhere between anthropology and fiction lies this utterly moving book, an unflinching look at the everyday life, hopes and horrors in an Indian slum. The book that I wish more than anything I could have written.

Esi Eudgyan: Half Blood Blues     Who cares about accuracy, when it has the most amazing voice and melody, all of the whorls of the best of jazz improvisation?

English: Glasgow Cathedral and Royal Infirmary
English: Glasgow Cathedral and Royal Infirmary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Denise Mina: Garnethill ¬† ¬† ¬† Another book strong on voice and characters, perfectly recreating a Glasgow which I’ve never known but can instantly recognise. Initially depressing but ultimately uplifting.

Karin Fossum: Calling Out for You     Almost elegiac crime fiction, with uncomfortable portrayals of casual racism, the cracks in an almost perfect little society/ This was an eerie and haunting tale, almost like a ghost story.

Ioanna Bourazopoulou: What Lot’s Wife Saw       The most imaginative novel I have read all year, it defies all expectations or genre categories. I felt transposed into an Alice in Wonderland world, where nothing is quite what it seems.

Bangkok
Bangkok (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

John Burdett: Bangkok Eight      Clash of cultures and unsentimental look at the flesh trade in Thailand, this one again has an inimitable voice.

Carlotto: At the End of a Dull Day     If you like your humour as black and brief as an espresso, you will love the tough world of Giorgio Pellegrini. So much more stylish than Tarantino!

Karl Ove Knausgaard: A Man in Love¬† ¬† ¬† Perhaps it’s too soon to add it to the list, as I only read it last week, but it felt to me like an instant classic.

So what strikes me about this list?

1) They are none of them a barrel of laughs, although there are occasional flashes of (rather dark) humour in them.

2) With the exception of the Katherine Boo ethnography, I wouldn’t have expected to be bowled over by any of the above. So keeping an open mind is essential for discovering that next amazing read.

3) There were other books which initially made much more of an impression (the Fireworks Brigade, shall we say), but when I look back on what really stuck with me, what made me think or feel differently as a result of reading them, those are the books I would have to point out.

English: Stockholm panorama. Lithography by Ca...
English: Stockholm panorama. Lithography by Carl Johan Billmark 1868. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4) They are each set in a different city and country: London, Marseille, a dining room in Germany, Mumbai, war-time Paris, Glasgow, Norway, the Dead Sea sometime in the future, Bangkok, Venice and Stockholm.  What can I say? I love to travel!

On that more upbeat note, I’ve discovered many new (to me) writers and series this year. Some of them are gentler, funnier reads, perfect to unwind. Here are a few that I hope to read more of: Louise Penny, Martin Walker, Pierre Lemaitre and Anne Zouroudi.

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 Рjust 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 Рyet 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 ann√©e chez les Fran√ßais ¬† 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.