This Way to Escapist Reading!

Over the past two months I’ve been reading a lot of lighter literature, what one might call holiday or escapist literature – and boy, have I needed it! This was partly because I was on holiday and did not have access to all of my books so I relied on my Kindle. Once I returned from holiday, I was laid up with allsorts of ailments for over two weeks, plus I was increasingly anxious about the health of my darling cat Zoe, which meant that my reading had to be less challenging and grim.

My definition of escapist is usually crime fiction rather than ‘uplifting’ or ‘feel good’ literature, so most of the books fall into that category, although there is some historical fiction in there as well. Overall, 16 books fall into the escapist fiction category: only three of them fit into the Women in Translation month category, although I read a few of the latter two (brief reviews to follow in a separate post).

Bride Price by Barbara Nadel

As always it’s a real pleasure to reconnect with Ikem and Suleyman and the rest of the team. Although Ikmen is retired now and a widower, and although my personal favourite the handsome and irresistible InspectorSsuleyman is about to get married, they still seem to find time to solve quite a few mysteries along the way. You gain most from reading these books in order because the characters grow, develop, get old grow, form all sorts of additional ties, experience loss, make mistakes – in other words, their development over the years is as much part of the story as the crimes they resolve. I had somehow missed the previous two books in the series so was surprised to find Mehmet about to marry his rather wild Roma lover, having left him previously in the arms of a different woman.

The books are always set against a well-defined historical and social backdrop: these are not just tourist descriptions of particular areas of Istanbul, we also get to experience some of the political and social changes that have taken place there over the years. In this book there are a number of things going on, perhaps slightly too many: is somebody trying to curse the upcoming wedding? What terrorist organisation is trying to poison innocent customers with ricin? Is there an international art fraud conspiracy taking place?

I then went immediately back to one of my favourites in the series, Land of the Blind, set against the backdrop of the 2013 Gezi Park protests (brutally quashed), where Mehmet is a bit of an arrogant bastard in the background, while Ikmen proves that he is the perfect and thoughtful husband, father and friend.

Divorce Turkish Style by Esmahan Aykol, transl. from Turkish by Ruth Whitehouse

I stuck to Istanbul for this next one. Kati Herschel is half-German, half-Turkish and completely stubborn. She owns the only crime bookshop in Istanbul, and can’t resist dabbling in amateur crime investigations. This case involves the death of beautiful, well-educated wife of a millionaire – but was she killed because she was about to divorce her husband or because she was an ecological activist?

Set in Stone by Stela Brinzeanu

A trip to Moldova next, back in medieval times, when wealthy boieri commanded full loyalty from their vassal lords, only boys could inherit, Roma were slaves and women had few choices but marriage or the convent – or else be accused of witchcraft. Brinzeanu takes one of the oldest and best-known Romanian myths (the Ballad of Master Craftsman Manole) and gives an alternative interpretation, steeped in injustice, malevolence and superstition. There is also a tender love story between social classes at its heart, but distrust and fear threaten to destroy it. There is a YA feel to this story (just like with the other recent historical novel I read set in Romania, The Book of Perilous Dishes), but that is no bad thing, as it ensures lively pacing, vivid descriptions, as well as strong emotions and often impulsive actions of the main protagonists, rather than endless cerebral agonising.

The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer

Another historical romance with some cross-dressing like the previous book, but with far lower stakes (although perpetually threatened by possible accusations of fraud and treason)/ This is set in Georgian England, after the failed Bonnie Prince Charlie uprising, with two siblings disguised as members of the opposite sex to protect their identity. Aside from the misunderstandings one might expect, mayhem ensues when their con-artist father reappears to claim a vast inheritance. Not my favourite Heyer, but a charming and witty way to spend a lazy summer day.

Rocco and the Price of Lies by Adrian Magson

A combination of the historical and criminal: I love this series featuring Inspector Rocco in 1960s Picardie – I find them much more compelling and culturally true than the more overtly tourist-trap Bruno series by Martin Walker, but they sadly don’t seem to be as popular with readers. A cracking story about local and national interests, cover-ups and eccentric characters.

The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill

I always enjoy a book about writers and this is a very clever, slightly metafictional study of the construction of a crime novel. The conceit is that an Australian writer sends chapters of her work in progress to an American fan because her latest work is set in Boston and she needs someone familiar with the place to correct any mistakes. However, the American acquaintance gets more involved than one might expect in the story and starts making suggestions for altering the plot or the characters. At the same time, we are given to understand that one of the four main characters in the fictional book is a killer but that the author herself has not yet decided which one it will be. As we get caught up in the story, we forget that all exists simply in the fictional author’s head, but there is the additional creepy element of stalking and real crimes starting to take place. A great fun read, easily devoured in half a day.

Hinton Hollow Death Trap by Will Carver – if you want to have your brains twisted and start doubting yourself, this sneaky and clever but dark story written by Evil Himself is sure to do the trick!

The Good Turn by Dervla McTiernan – a solid and gripping police procedural set in Galway and Dublin, with at least two very strong characters investigating, want to read more

The House Share by Kate Helm – I remember quite enjoying this as I was reading it, although the luxury communal living premise seemed rather far-fetched, but like fast food – haven’t got any lingering memory of its taste

Anonima de miercuri by Rodica Ojog Brasoveanu (Romanian) – featuring that suave old lady Melania, freshly out of prison for fraud, this is entertaining enough but feels oddly in misstep with the time in which it is supposed to take place (1980s Romania)

Violet by SJI Holliday – set on the Trans-Siberian express all the way through Beijing, Mongolia and then Moscow, this is an unnerving story with slippery characters, very atmospheric – although goodness, I was a much more cautious traveller at their age (wouldn’t make for a good story, though)

Death on the Trans Siberian Express by C J Farrington – another story where the Trans-Siberian train features, this time set in Roslazny – a sleepy Russian town along its route. Olga Pushkin is the railway engineer who witnesses a body being thrown out of the train and who cannot help getting involved in the investigation. This has the hallmarks of cosy historical crime, although it is set in 21st century Russia, but I love the idealism and resilience of fiery Olga.

Red as Blood by Lilja Sigurdardottir (transl. Quentin Bates) – a puzzling kidnapping and ransom case (with a side serving of tax evasion) – the second book in a new series by this prolific and talented Icelandic author, less action packed than her Reykjavik Noir trilogy, but equally fun

How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie – funny, completely amoral, highly political, this is Kind Hearts and Coronets for the present-day, another book that scores highly while reading it, but loses its fizz soon afterwards

As you can see, no time for lengthier reviews, but I do hope to be able to do a #WIT summary post too.