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 – a 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.

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?