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.

Best Read of the Month: May

This past month has been  more diverse than most in terms of reading.  I have managed to finish 12 books, of which only 7 were officially crime fiction, 4 were love stories (of a sort) and one was non-fiction but proved to be a more exciting and unbelievable read than any fiction.  Two of them were in French, which makes me want to do a little dance of joy.  My goal has been to read at least one book in French every month, preferably two, so as to improve my language skills, but I am sure there have been many, many times when I have failed in this mission.  Finally, three of them were translations: one from Danish and two from Hebrew.

1) Sophie Hannah: The Carrier.  Some of Sophie Hannah’s earlier books gripped me completely: it felt as though the author had been in my head and uncovered my most hidden thoughts.  She always seems to set the reader up with an impossible puzzle, yet solves them with flourish, keen psychological finesse and not a little poetic vision.  Although this was not my favourite of Hannah’s novels, it is still a good read, although perhaps not at an airport when your flight is delayed…  For my full review on Crime Fiction Lover, see here.

Dicker2) Joel Dicker: La Verite sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert.   Having seen and heard the author at the Lyon Crime Festival, and having seen how many awards and accolades have been heaped upon this book in the French-speaking world, I was naturally curious to read it. Well, it’s an easy-to-read, quite exciting story, with reasonable plot twists along the way, but I am puzzled as to why it has won all those awards, since it feels good but not outstanding to me. The setting is a small town in the United States, and there is nothing remotely French or Swiss about this book.  There are a few cliche situations and characters, but the simple, even pedestrian language appealed to me as a non-native speaker of French.

3) Amos Oz: To Know a Woman.   Perhaps not my favourite book by Oz, but he still is such a magnificent writer. He takes a widower’s story of loss and grieving, and turns it into a universal tale of love, reassessment of one’s life, trying to truly understand another person, moving on. He piles on detail after detail (about Yoel’s daily routines, his gardening, his cooking, his thoughts, his travels) and each adds a layer, but you feel that the depth really lies in what is unsaid.

Tokyo host4) Jonelle Patrick: Fallen Angel: An Only in Tokyo Mystery

Once again, the full review is here, but this is an intriguing insight into the world of Japanese nightlife and host clubs, written by someone who knows Tokyo rather well but still brings an external perspective to things.

5) Alan Glynn: Graveland.    Not quite as enthralling as his previous novel Bloodland, perhaps because this one takes place all in the US, rather than Ireland or the Congo. It certainly feels very topical, dealing with unemployment, young protesters and the shadowy world of finance and corporations. I found the excessive amounts of web searching a little tedious, and the investigative journalist Ellen never quite grabbed my attention.  However, the character of Frank, former architect now working as a sales assistant in an electronics store, and worried about his daughter in college, was quite moving.

6) Benjamin Tammuz: Minotaur.    The principle of the story is similar to Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’: you get to see an unusual love story from multiple points of view, until you are able to discern what really happened and how each player in the drama justifies matters. I read this in one breathless go, but it is actually a book to be savoured slowly. It has so many beautiful passages and philosophical meditations on love, passion in life, music and fear of the unknown. It is a thriller, a love story, a history of Palestine, a hymn to the Levantine spirit, a noir.

7) Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers.     This book deserves an entry of its own: it is the book I wish I could have written, as an anthropologist, yet it reads like a novel.  Except that all of the events described are real.  It is the heartbreaking story of everyday life, hopes, fears and disappointments of slum life in Mumbai.  One of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time.

Cover of "The Concrete Blonde (Harry Bosc...
Cover of The Concrete Blonde (Harry Bosch)

8) Michael Connelly: The Concrete Blonde.      A mix of courtroom drama, police procedural and serial killer novel, this is a solid entry in the Harry Bosch series, with an interesting backdrop of LA after the racial riots.

9) Meg Wolitzer: The Uncoupling.     I actually left this book behind me (once I finished it) in a hotel room.  I was that sure that I would never want to read it again. Although I found this story of disintegrating love and familiarity breeding contempt quite compelling.  I think all of us women have experienced some of those sentiments at one time or another.  However, the fable element of the story and the supposedly magic spells that descends upon all the women in the New Jersey suburbs was a little annoying and artificial, especially the ending. When it stuck to the mundane, there were many funny moments in the book. It is all at once a sharply observed, witty look at modern life in the suburbs, and a universal statement about the relationship between men and women, the way they misunderstand each other and mistreat each other, even unintentionally.

10) Massimo Carlotto: At the End of a Dull Day – to be reviewed next week

11) Louise Doughty: Apple Tree Yard – to be reviewed next week

Français : L'auteur danois Jens Christian Grøn...
Français : L’auteur danois Jens Christian Grøndahl au Salon du livre de Paris lors de la conférence La société, source d’inspiration. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

12) Jens Christian Grondahl: Piazza Bucarest

This was an impulse loan from the library, as I stumbled across it while searching for something else, and I couldn’t resist the blurb.  The narrator tries to find Elena, a young Romanian woman who married his stepfather to escape from Communism and then abandoned him.  Sadly, the book was a disappointment, and not just because the woman was unsympathetic (or because we Romanian women cannot take a bit of criticism).  I was never quite sure what the author was trying to say or what the point of the whole thing was.  Maybe the fact that I read a French translation of the original Danish didn’t help much either – it’s like trying to see a landscape through a doubly opaque window.

My top read of this month (and many other months) is undoubtedly ‘Beyond the Beautiful Forevers’, and my favourite crime fiction pick?  Hmmm, that’s a tricky choice, as there were quite a few good ones, although nothing exceptional.  I think it’s a tie between ‘The Concrete Blonde’ and ‘At the End of a Dull Day’.  Both rather macho reads, though, so I need something more feminine next month to compensate.

So I have covered quite a few of my reading challenge requirements.  Although, don’t you find that, as soon as you near the goalposts of a challenge you set for yourself, you start moving them about? Taking them just a little further? Demanding just a tad more of yourself? Fearful of missing out on something?