Best of the Year: Sheer Entertainment

I have read quite a lot of escapist fiction this year – escapist in my case means crime fiction that keeps you turning page after page, or a book that immerses you in a particular time and place. A sense of humour also helps – I do like black, absurdist comedy; it must be my ‘living under a dictatorship’ heritage.

The problem with escapist literature is that you have to choose it well: some things sound far better in theory than in practice, or the blurb is misleading, and even the same author is no guarantee of success. See below which ones did not work for me and which I recommend in their stead.

  1. Instead of Sarah Pearse: The Sanatorium – try Allie Reynolds: Shiver

I am a sucker for books featuring winter in the mountains, especially when the setting is France or Switzerland, where the skiing terrain is familiar to me. Although The Sanatorium is atmospheric, the whole story feels implausible and the characters are stilted. I enjoyed Shiver, the tale of snowboarding rivalry, far more and read it in a single sitting. And you don’t need to be a snowboarding fanatic to cope with the terminology.

2. Instead of Catherine Cooper: The Chateau – try Stella Benson: The Swiss Summer

I read a previous book by Catherine Cooper, The Chalet, last year and thought this might be equally fun, especially since it was about an expat couple trying to renovate a dilapidated chateau in France (you all know how obsessed I am with chateaux). However, the plot was so preposterous and the people so awful (and flatly awful at that), that I struggled to finish this. I appreciated Benson’s far more nuanced approach to different types of expats and the relationship between then and the locals in her admittedly not thrillerish at all but enchanting Swiss Summer.

3. Instead of Valerie Perrin: Fresh Water for Flowers – try Margaret Kennedy: The Feast

The French author’s story of loss, grief and unspoken love touched many hearts, I know, so you will be cross with me for admitting that to me it felt kitsch, like wading through treacle. I much preferred the allegorical tale by Margaret Kennedy, which was full of witty social observations, as well as some really entertaining characters.

4. Instead of John Leake: The Vienna Woods Killer – try Catherine Ryan Howard: The Nothing Man

It’s perhaps a little unfair to compare a true crime account with a work of fiction that only purports to include true crime elements, but I really wanted to like the book about the Vienna Woods Killer, because it features one of those hard-to-believe cases about a serial killer who was a darling of the Viennese literary society. It is meticulously researched, but oddly lacking in any Viennese atmosphere (or proper interpretation of Austrian society) unfortunately. The Nothing Man did a much better job at bringing to the fore the trauma suffered by the victims as well as the narcisstic personality of the serial killer.

5. Instead of Tahmima Anam: The Startup Wife – try Nickolas Butler: Godspeed

A novel about a female co-founder of a tech start-up being manipulated and tricked out of her rightful place and a novel about a bunch of construction workers being bullied into delivering on an impossible deadline might not seem to have much in common at first glance, but they both skewer the American dream and its materialistic ambitions. I wanted to like the Start-Up Wife more, but it felt both predictable and lower in stakes, as well as more clunky writing, compared to the downward spiral story of the three male friends building a house – perhaps because a house feels like the solid kind of legacy that we all can understand (and it feels even more of a waste when it fails).

Further recommended reads:

All of these are perfect escapist reads, for whatever mood you might be in:

  • If you’re going on a train journey soon, then Kōtarō Isaka’s Bullet Train is a very entertaining, quite un-Japanese type of thriller, with echoes of Fargo.
  • If you miss theme parks (or adventure parks, rather), then Antti Tuomainen’s The Rabbit Factor, with its unique, darkly humorous take on the Finnish mafia, is perfect.
  • If you like the Brontës or historical crime fiction more generally, then the series by Bella Ellis, starting with The Vanished Bride, featuring the siblings as detectives will warm the cockles of your heart (and also bring a little chill).
  • If you enjoy historical crime fiction set outside England, then Maryla SzymiczkowaKarolina or the Torn Curtain set in late 19th century Krakow was both educational and entertaining.
  • If you enjoy satire about writers and literary festivals, and think the publishing world needs a good hard look at itself, then Dan Rhodes’ Sour Grapes will deliver in spades, although at times the farce is a little too puerile.
  • If you like stories about friendships going off the rails and how one bad choice in your youth can have serious consequences years later, but without the artificial construction of dual timelines and ‘that day that I will not divulge to you until the very end of this thriller’, then I really recommend Sharon Bolton’s The Pact.

#20Books of Summer: An Entertaining Start

 Kōtarō Isaka: Bullet Train, transl. Sam Malissa

Former assassin Kimura embarks upon the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Morioka (one of the longest direct lines in Japan, over 670 km) with a personal mission of revenge: he wants to shoot schoolboy Satoshi, who bullied his son and made him fall off the rooftop of a building, putting him into a coma in hospital. But the train is full of other paid gangsters, who all seem to be after a suitcase full of money and trying to avoid getting punished by the man mobster boss who hired them. Nanao is the unluckiest criminal in the world, and all too aware of it. Meanwhile, Tangerine and Lemon operate as a pair, look like twins, but are in fact very different, with Tangerine reading serious Russian novels, while Lemon is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine. When things go wrong, they all have to readjust their plans and end up stalking each other.

The plot is utterly ludicrous and the black comedy is over the top, and you can’t help feeling that the book has been written with an eye firmly on a film adaptation (which, sure enough, the filming for an American action thriller based on the book has just wrapped, starring Brad Pitt and creating a few more feminine roles, which the book sadly lacks). At first, I struggled with the translation, which felt too ‘American’, but then I realised that the Japanese original is probably quite Americanised too, heavily influenced by American film-makers such as Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers. Not forgetting, of course, the Thomas the Tank Engine animated series. For those familiar with Japanese popular culture, however, there are also references to the yakuza and to Naoki Urasawa’s manga (later turned into an anime series) Monster, with the angelic-looking teenage master criminal.

With its fast pace and constant switching of points of view, plus a few unexpected twists, this is sheer entertainment, if you don’t examine the far-fetched plot too closely. Perfect for a train ride!

John Boyne: The Echo Chamber

The Cleverleys are privileged and self-obsessed media addicts: George is an Alan Partridge kind of TV chat show host, who has interviewed everyone who is anyone, consider himself a ‘national treasure’ and is angling for a peerage. His wife Beverley writes soppy, predictable bodice-rippers – or rather, she provides the ‘ideas’ and gets ghostwriters to actually write them. Their three children are all still living at home. Nelson (named after Mandela) suffers from social anxiety and only feels slightly more comfortable if he is wearing a uniform. The daughter Elizabeth is an internet troll but dreams of becoming a media influencer. The youngest, Achilles, is still a schoolboy and uses his good looks to seduce and then blackmail older men.

Through this thoroughly unlikable family, there is a lot of satirising of our obsession with media, but Boyne also takes swipes at ‘wokeness’ and ‘anti-wokeness’, implicit and explicit racism, gender identities, fake news and fake outrage, engaging in charity purely as a way to increase your public profile, media pile-ons and cancel culture… and the Ukrainian outlaw and folk hero Ustym Karmaliuk, believe it or not (who is the name of a tortoise consigned into Beverley’s care).

It is all quite hilarious, although the humour is more farce than subtle. It made me snort with laughter a few times, but about halfway in, it starts to feel like a joke that has gone on for too long. Or perhaps the author is trying to hit too many targets at once with his satire, so it ends up looking and sounding like a long Twitter rant or op-ed. Many of the jokes rely on repetition to be funny, and this also gets monotonous (and predictable) after a while. Still, it’s a quick, fun beach read, a great antidote to checking your social media accounts.

In addition to the two above, which were on my planned list of most recent Netgalley reads, I also read an additional (non-list) book with the same sort of dark humour.

Benoit Philippon: Mamie Luger

This French book features an unpredictable 104-year-old woman who is arrested by the police for trying to shoot her neighbour with a Luger dating from the Second World War. In actual fact, she was creating a diversion, to enable a young couple to escape by stealing the neighbour’s car. However, the frail old lady is by no means a saint, as the police inspector discovers while interviewing her. In fact, she turns out to be a serial killer, with a number of corpses buried in her cellar. Of course, she had perfectly good reasons for murdering each of those men, and is not at all filled with remorse. A rollicking feminist yarn, although at times it descends into stereotypical characters or predictable and repetitive situations.

None of the books above are memorable, but they certainly put me in the holiday mood and proved a welcome distraction at a time when work is very, very demanding.