What I Really Read on the Beach – Summer Reads

There was quite a bit of uproar on Twitter about the extremely worthy and ever-so-slightly pretentious beach reading promoted by The Guardian. Why can’t people admit that they crave chick lit or the latest Harlan Coben instead? They don’t have to be trashy airport novels (although most recently I’ve noticed a vast improvement in terms of variety being offered at airports), but they have to be able to withstand great heat, sun cream, the odd splash of water, and fried holiday brain. Can your expensive hardback of Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, written by John Banville, with beautiful photography by Paul Joyce, withstand that? Perhaps one to buy and keep at home as a coffee table book, rather than shlepp to distant beaches…

Of course, I won’t actually be going to any beach this summer, but I hope to get a few nice days of sitting in my deck chair in the garden and worrying about nothing else but reading. And I readily admit that I look forward to a nice dose of escapism to mix in with my literary education. So this is what I would really read if I were on a Greek beach.

Image from olimpia.rs

Crime

Michael Stanley: Dying to Live

I’m a great fan of the Detective ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, and the Kalahari Desert setting fits in perfectly with the beach. Also, it’s a really intriguing tale about the death of a Bushman, who appears to be very old, but his internal organs are puzzlingly young. Could a witch doctor be involved?

Linwood Barclay: Too Close to Home

Another author that I would rather read on the beach than alone at night in a large house, as his nerve-wracking twists are prone to making me jump. The strapline on this one goes: What’s more frightening than your next-door neighbours being murdered? Finding out the killers went to the wrong house…

Helen Cadbury: Bones in the Nest

Like many other crime readers, I was very saddened to hear about the recent death of Helen Cadbury. I had read her debut novel in the Sean Denton series reviewed and marked her out as a talent to watch in 2014 on Crime Fiction Lover. This is the second in a series set in Doncaster, which unfortunately never had the chance to grow to its full potential.

Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy of a Scandal

The perfect novel for those who can’t quite take a break from politics: this is the story of an MP whose affair is made public, his wife who tries to stand by him in spite of her doubts, and the barrister who believes he has been guilty of rape. A searing look at privilege, hypocrisy and the social justice system.

YA literature

Not my usual kind of reading at all, but I like to keep abreast of what my children are reading.

G.P. Taylor: Mariah Mundi – The Midas Box

Mariah is a young orphan, fresh out of school, who is employed to work as an assistant to a magician living in the luxurious Prince Regent Hotel. But the slimy, dripping basement of the hotel hides a dark secret. I’ve heard of the author’s Shadowmancer series, but never read anything by him. Described as the next Harry Potter, this book promises to take the reader into a world of magic and fun.

Paul Gallico: Jennie

Peter wakes up from a serious accident and finds himself transformed into a cat. Life as a street cat is tough and he struggle to survive, but luckily stumbles across the scrawny but kindly tabby cat Jennie, who helps him out. Together they embark on a bit of an adventure.

#EU27Project

This is not only worthy reading, but highly enjoyable into the bargain! Although seeking out translations from some of the countries on the list is not that easy or cheap.

Hungary – Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (transl. Patrick Thursdfiel and Katalin Banffy-Jelen)

Satisfies any cravings for family saga and historical romance, as well as looking at a part of the world which is very close to me (Transylvania). Plus a society bent on self-destruction – what more could one want?

Romania – Ileana Vulpescu: Arta Compromisului (The Art of Compromise)

This author’s earlier book The Art of Conversation was an amazing bestseller in the early 1980s in Romania, partly because it went against all the expectations of ‘socialist realism’ of the time and was quite critical of socialist politics (of an earlier period, admittedly). This book, published in 2009, continues the story of the main character, but this time set in the period after the fall of Communism in 1989. Critics have called it a bit of a soap opera, but at the same time an excellent snapshot of contemporary society. Sounds like delightful light reading, with a social critique, perfect for reconnecting with my native tongue.

Spain – Javier Marias: The Infatuations (transl. Margaret Jull Costa)

Another story with a murderous aside by an author I’ve only recently discovered and whose baroque sentences mesmerise me… Every day, María Dolz stops for breakfast at the same café. And every day she enjoys watching a handsome couple who follow the same routine. Then one day they aren’t there, and she feels obscurely bereft. She discovers that the man was murdered in the street – and Maria gets entangled in a very odd relationship with the widow.

Women in Translation Month

Another project which has the merit of being both worthy and great fun. I plan to read several of the Keshiki project of Strangers Press – beautifully produced slim translations of Japanese short stories and novellas. There are plenty of women writers represented: Misumi Kubo, Yoko Tawada, Kyoko Yoshida, Aoko Matsuda and the improbably named Nao-Cola Yamazaki. I expect the strange, unsettling, disquieting and sexually heated… Phew!

 

 

 

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June Reading & Crime Fiction Pick of the Month

Amazing amounts of reading this month – that’s what business travel does for you! 17 books in total.

6 books in translation or foreign language – 35%

Raymond Queneau: Zazie dans le métro – absurd and fun

Hanne  Ǿrstavik: The Blue Room – sinister and claustrophobic

Domingo Villar: Water-Blue Eyes – atmospheric and world-weary

Lena Divani: Seven Lives and One Great Love – delightful and witty

DorinFrançoise Dorin: Va voir maman, papa travaille

Way ahead of its time – this book was published in 1976 and discusses the ambivalence of motherhood, of gender inequality, of combining career ambitions and work satisfaction with parenting in a way which makes the current crop of domestic goddesses seem self-deluded and vapid. A very honest account, which makes you question your own assumptions.

untitledPaulus Hochgatterer: The Sweetness of Life

Or should that be called the ‘sadness of life’?  Highly unusual crime fiction – more of a meditation on the nature of evil, on mental illness and the darkness inherent in all of life. Perfectly captures the depression and neuralgia of small-town Austria during winter and introduces an interesting detecting duo: psychiatrist Horn and police inspector Kovacs.

1 Non- Fiction:

Summer Pierre: The Artist in the Office  – inspiring and no-nonsense

1 Paranormal Thriller:

Lauren Owen: The Quick – Victorian Gothic with vampires

2 Psychological Rollercoasters:

Tamar Cohen: The Broken – cringingly true-to-life

Miriam Toews: All My Puny Sorrows – emotionally charged

7 Additional Crime Novels (total crime this month: 53%)

DarkestHeartDan Smith: The Darkest Heart – to be reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover website; an ominous journey through the heartland of Brazil, echoes of Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’

Linwood Barclay: Trust Your Eyes – unusual premise, stylish execution

D.S. Nelson: The Blake Hetherington Mysteries – charming cosy series featuring a pedantic hat-maker

Sam Alexander: Carnal Acts – great marketing campaign, still waiting to hear who Sam Alexander is

Edward Wilson: The Whitehall Mandarin – more in the thoughtful Le Carré mould than in the heroic American style, but at some point I will write a blog post about why I find spy thrillers in general a little disappointing

M.J. McGrath: The Boneseeker – unusual characters and locations, lovingly described

Taylor Stevens: The Innocent – a tougher than nails heroine not always acting in strictly legal fashion, trying to save a child abducted by a cult; to be reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover

 

pick of the monthPerhaps it’s inevitable that, when you go through so many books a month, you end up wading through an average books portion – books that are OK but nothing to really get excited about. This has been such a month. There were also a couple of books I really did not enjoy very much (luckily, not that many). My crime fiction pick of the month (if you haven’t yet come across this meme at Mysteries in Paradise, go check it out: a great source of recommended reads to add to your TBR list)  is probably Linwood Barclay’s Trust Your Eyes. I felt from the start that I was in the hands of a competent and elegant storyteller. For a few choice Linwood Barclay quotes from Geneva Book Fair, look here. 

 

 

 

 

It’s Grim Ooop North…*

While I was working in the north of England, it just seemed appropriate to be reading crime novels set in the north (Northumberland, upstate New York and Canada’s Northern Territories). Each of these novels has a strong sense of place, and there’s desolate rural wind blowing through their very different landscapes (as well as the usual village gossip).

CarnalSam Alexander: Carnal Acts

I have to admit I struggled with this one, because it was almost unbearably graphic and misogynistic (not the author, but many of the characters). I suppose it was bound to be a disturbing read, with topics such as sex trade, Albanian mafia and both traditional and modern slavery. Fiercely independent former London cop Joni Pax is an interesting character, but I found her ditsy hippy Mum a bit overdone, while her detecting partner Heck Rutherford promises to be intriguing but does not yet quite stand out sufficiently for me. It’s a thrilling enough read, but I found the story a tad predictable yet not quite fully plausible. Stylistically, also, it feels lazy, with abundant clichés, as if the author is on holiday and allowing him or herself a bit of downtime with this book.  However, I have to admit I admire Arcadia’s clever marketing ploy to discover the real writer beneath the pseudonym. And, like everyone else, I’m dying to find out #WhoIsSamAlexander. [And won’t I be biting back my words if I discover it’s one of my favourite crime authors?]

Linwood Barclay: Trust Your Eyes

TrustEyesWhat if you committed a crime and thought you’d got away with it, but discover a few months later that anyone with an internet connection could have witnessed it? A brilliant premise for a novel which reminded me of Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’. Linwood Barclay is the poor man’s Harlan Coben – and I mean this in the best possible way. In his breathtakingly exciting novels, all of which start with some kind of paradox, it’s not people with superhuman abilities or international spies who have all the adventures. No, it’s the average Joes, modest citizens like you and me, who find themselves suddenly in an impossible situation, completely out of their depth. In that respect, he reminds me more of Sophie Hannah or Nicci French… and there is a strong family component to his writing as well. This is an author who really ‘gets’ complex family dynamics. This tale of two dissimilar brothers (Ray the successful illustrator and his schizophrenic, housebound, obsessive brother Thomas who sees something he shouldn’t have online) goes much deeper than just a crime story – and there is quite a thrilling, multi-stranded plot here, make no mistake about that. Not surprisingly, I discovered that Barclay himself has a brother with mental health problems, and although he says the character of Thomas is not based on his brother, the frustrated love the two brothers have for each other rings very true indeed.

BoneSeekerM. J. McGrath: The Bone Seeker

I absolutely loved the near-anthropological descriptions of life in the Inuk community of Ellesmere Island in Canada in ‘White Heat’, McGrath’s debut novel featuring Arctic hunter and unwilling detective Edie Kiglatuk. Anybody talking about strong women should take Edie as a role model: diminutive yet tough as nails, caring yet unsentimental, thoughtful yet able to whip up a good bowl of seal blood soup. In this second novel the author has corrected some of the weaknesses of the previous novel: this one has more diverse characters, is faster-paced and avoids over-long nature descriptions. Yet somehow I enjoyed it slightly less than the first, perhaps because there is a whole government conspiracy to unravel as well as a crime to solve. (I’m not a huge fan of conspiracy theories.) The description of young Martha, however, the girl who hopes to escape from her community and see the wider world, is very poignant and memorable indeed.

 

* Nobody is quite sure of the origin of this phrase, but it seems to have been fairly well established as a trope in British culture since Victorian times at least. The North stood for all that was sooty, industrial, coal-miney and dark. Funnily enough, for us Southern Europeans or those in the Balkans, the North always stood for prosperity, non-corrupt democracy, fair-mindedness and social progress.

 

Falling Behind on Reviews…

Manchester, Piccadilly Gardens.
Manchester, Piccadilly Gardens.

I’ve been travelling and working (for money rather than love) for the past three weeks. Which, as always, means I get a lot of reading done (dinners for one at hotel restaurants and lonely hotel rooms are conducive to that sort of thing), but my reviewing falls by the wayside. Too tired mentally to string two words together (except perhaps ‘not now’).

I was aiming for entertaining rather than gruelling books, books to divert rather than ravage me. Some have been better than others, some have been slightly disappointing. I will try to do them all justice with longer reviews over the next few days, so this is what you have to look forward to!

Town Hall, Sheffield.
Town Hall, Sheffield.

Better than or as good as expected:

Linwood Barclay: Trust Your Eyes – ‘Rear Window’ suspense with a modern twist

Miriam Toews: All My Puny Sorrows – depression and suicide, not a light read

M.J. McGrath: The Bone Seeker – another fascinating insight into Inuit life

Tamar Cohen: The Broken – captivating if uncomfortable story of marital and friendship breakdown

 

Manchester, up-and-coming urban area.
Manchester, up-and-coming urban area.

Slightly disappointing (perhaps because of the hype):

Sam Alexander: Carnal Acts – too tough and graphic for my taste

Domingo Villar: Water-Blue Eyes – the abrupt ending spoilt an otherwise rather promising book set in Galicia, Spain

Edward Wilson: The Whitehall Mandarin – ambitious and thoughtful spy thriller, but gets a bit silly towards the end

 

More than slightly disappointing:

Lauren Owen: The Quick – an interesting writer stylistically, but stories about vampires are just not, not, NOT my thing (and I really need to read blurbs more attentively in future)

 

Tour de France preparations, Sheffield.
Tour de France preparations, Sheffield.

Charming and quirky reads:

D. S. Nelson: Blake Hetherington Mysteries – middle-aged, finicky hat-maker is an adorable detective, but felt the novella format was too short for the mystery to fully develop and breathe

Lena Divani: Seven Lives and One Great Love – autobiography of a cat – with great observations about life, humans and love – funny but also poignant

And, speaking of places I’ve travelled to, I found that Sheffield surpassed my expectations, while Manchester was a disappointment. I am sure weather, circumstances, time,  having an insider show you around etc. makes all the difference and I am sure that both cities have plenty to offer, but I know which of the two is my favourite. Still, both of them would make good backdrops to crime novels…

Manchester, former fish market.
Manchester, former fish market.
Sheffield, Winter Gardens.
Sheffield, Winter Gardens.

 

 

Geneva Book Fair and Linwood Barclay

P1020280The Geneva Book and Press Fair took place from 30th April to 4th of May at the Palexpo… and to my great delight it was nearly as crowded as the Geneva Motor Show, which also takes place there every year. There was something for everyone at this very family friendly event: from comic books, to a focus on Japan (including learning to draw manga and a demonstration of the tea ceremony), to travel, education, Arab and African literature, to name just a few of the exhibition areas. Needless to say, the ‘stage’ I was most interested in was the Crime Scene, which featured an early morning relaxed Q&A session with bestselling author Linwood Barclay. Here are some words of insight from this hardworking and humorous journalist turned thriller writer:

My recipe for success? It’s when hard work meets luck. There are lots of fabulous authors who go unnoticed, so luck has to play a part as well.

Linwood Barclay
Linwood Barclay

When you write thrillers, both the publishers and the readers have an expectation of one book per year. Luckily, I find it easy to write at this pace. I start a book in January, get the first draft down by end of March, then I spend another 2-3 months to fix it. But there’s also the challenge that you always want your next book to be your best one, and there is more pressure, more scrutiny, so I spend far more time rewriting now than I used to.

I started off writing comic thrillers about a rather anxious and reluctant investigator, Zac Walker, who is really not equipped to deal with bad people. They got nice reviews, but were never big sellers. Comic crime fiction has a small but devoted following. So if I wanted to reach a wider audience, I had to make my stories darker.

P1020266Lots of writers say they don’t want their editors or agents to suggest any changes, that they want to write what they want to write. But I’m not like that. Editors have always made my work better – just like my 2nd or 3rd draft is always better than my first one –  it’s a mistake not to listen to them. Perhaps it’s because I also worked as a newspaper editor and so I understand that, even if the author does a great job, there is a bigger picture, more of an overview which an editor can have.

I’d love to say that I don’t care about negative reviews, but of course I do. I may get 20 fabulous reviews but the one negative one will be the one I focus on and the one that will spoil my day. At some point, I had the idea of writing a novel about an author who goes round the country killing all those reviewers who give him 1 star on Amazon.

 

For much more balanced reviews of Linwood Barclay’s novels, see here and here on the CFL website. I look forward to cracking open my signed copy of Trust Your Eyes now, a story of brotherly love, schizophrenic obsessions and witnessing a murder via Google Earth.

Chi by Konami Kanata
Chi by Konami Kanata

On a complete tangent, at the Japanese stand I discovered the adorable series Chi’s Sweet Home by Konami Kanata, about a curious little tabby kitten. Since our household is currently rather cat-obsessed, I couldn’t resist this manga, nor the assorted cat figurines or key rings.

 

 

 

 

 

The Japan Stand
The Japan Stand