Quick Reviews of Non-Japanese Books

Although I’ve posted mainly reviews of the books I read for January in Japan thus far, I’ve actually read quite a lot of enjoyable books this month.

Lucy Atkins: Magpie Lane – a modern take on The Turn of the Screw, with a very classical feel to it nevertheless because it is set in Oxford and its rather anachronistic college system. A dysfunctional family with a selectively mute child, viewed through the no-nonsense eyes of a nanny who is an outsider to Oxford. Excellent build-up, although I felt slightly ambiguous about the ending.

Lily King: Writers and Lovers – I am probably being a bit unfair on this one when I say it is a very narrow world that is being presented here: the world of writing and publishing, a young woman in search of success and love. I like such subject matter (and probably would have loved it even more in my 20s), but it’s a bit of a disappointment after King’s previous book Euphoria, an excellent and rather revolutionary book about anthropologists, which felt like it was painted on a much larger canvas with bold brushstrokes. This one is a neat little miniature.

Jenny Offill: Weather – I was perhaps the only person in the world who was not smitten with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. It had many witty observations which struck a chord with me, but overall I felt it was a lazy way to tell a story. The fragments just did not seem to build up to a coherent and complex whole (unlike Tokarczuk’s Flights, for example). But I do think she is an interesting writer, so I was willing to give her another chance. This is also a fragmented novel, but the format suits the subject matter better: the musings of a mother trying to navigate the opaque education system in the great American cities, interspersed with her work with a climate activist, her reactions to the 2016 presidential elections and so on. A state of the nation novel, but on a much shorter scale than Ducks, Newburyport (as far as I can tell, not having read the latter).

Simone Buchholz: Mexico Street – the most poetic German crime writer you could ever hope to find, her style is an intriguing mix of noir and jazz and modern sensibilities. I liken it to my own personal Cowboy Bebop (the cool cult anime series of the 1990s). This volume is a sort of Romeo and Juliet story set in the Mhallami community (yes, new to me too, an ethnic minority historically designed to protect the Eastern flank of the Ottoman Empire) in Germany.

Matt Wesolowski: Beast – There are six sides to every story, or so Matt Wesolowski tells us in his series of books imitating true crime podcasts. With every new ‘podcast’ we get a different view on the story, an added layer of complexity, and it really shows us that there is no such thing as an ultimate truth or an easy answer. This one was particularly terrifying, not so much for its links to vampire stories, but because it is about a young girl, Elizabeth Barton, a popular vlogger, who is found frozen to death in a ruined tower on the Northumbrian coast. It depicts how desperate some people are to find online fame and friendships, and it frightened me when I thgouth how this might affect my own children (even though they say it doesn’t).

Neil Blackmore: The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle – Perhaps the weakest of the bunch, because the plot felt rather predictable. Two brothers, sons of a rich tradesman, set off on their European tour in the 1760s. They are well-read but haven’t been able to break into ‘good society’, so this is their chance to impress. But things go awry when they meet the rebellious, cynical, charming and utterly corrupt Mr Lavelle. Although at times it did feel like a philosophy tract (look, I like my dose of Voltaire as much as anyone, but it didn’t have all that much bearing on the story!), it was on the whole great fun to read, quite a lot of description of gay sex, and an excellent rebuttal of British snobbery past and present.

Liz Nugent: Our Little Cruelties – Another book, another dysfunctional family, this time three brothers who have competed all their lives for their mother’s love and admiration. Written from the points of view of each of the brothers, it is clever in the way it shows how easy it is to justify even our ugliest actions to ourselves – and that we never learn from mistakes but merely blame others. Liz Nugent is frighteningly good at depicting male narcissists.

Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost – a last-minute entry for the mini #PersephoneReadathon, deserves a separate review and got it

I am currently reading Square Haunting by Francesca Wade about five formidable women who all lived in Mecklenburgh Square at some point in the 1920s and 30s, and I can already see it will become a firm favourite!

What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime, Cleo Bannister?

Me

It’s a little embarrassing to admit that I can’t remember how I ‘met’ Cleo Bannister online: it just feels like she’s always been there, sharing her thoughts and passion for books (especially crime fiction) on her excellent blog and via Twitter @cleo_bannister. This self-confessed bookaholic lives in the beautiful Channel Islands, thus representing a half-way house between my former and current homes.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

If you go back far enough, Enid Blyton and the Mystery of… series (my favourite was The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat) was my first introduction, with the clues always seemingly  hinging on cigarette butts! As an adult, my crime fiction addiction was properly launched by Ruth Rendell’s books. I then progressed to her writing as Barbara Vine and my love for crime fiction with a psychological twist was firmly in place.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I read quite widely in the overall genre of crime, but my favourite is Psychological Thrillers.  I think this is because I love people watching, and why someone behaves the way they do is fascinating.  There also tends to be less overt violence in this subgenre which, although I’m not particularly squeamish, I’m also not particularly interested in reading page after page of torture. My real interest lies in the thoughts of both victims and perpetrators.

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

A hard question as this year has had me reading more top rated crime fiction than ever before, so I’m going to highlight three of my favourites from different sub-genres. If anyone wants more recommendations please let me know as this was a really hard choice.

Someone Else’s Skin, the debut novel by Sarah Hilary brought real depth of characters and plot to the police procedural. Another debut that deserves a special mention is Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent, whose sociopath protagonist Oliver Ryan is unwrapped chapter by chapter to reveal what made him. Finally, Tom Vowler has written one of those books which you can’t forget with That Dark Remembered Day. Although it features a crime, it is actually about the damage war does, with the Falklands War as the background to the plot.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

That is a really mean question (these questions are tough!).  Crime fiction doesn’t easily lend itself to re-reading because you already know the answers once you’ve read the book, which is half of the fun of reading it. On reflection I would choose Agatha Christie who was so prolific she would keep me going until I was rescued. If it was going to be a short stay though, my choice would be the Lewis Trilogy by Peter May for the fantastic characters and clever plots.

Whole BookshelfWhat are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

I am looking forward to reading Peter James’ latest book in the Roy Grace series, ‘Want You Dead’.  This is the tenth in a series set in Brighton and as a bonus Roy Grace has a relationship with a woman called Cleo!  I have read every one of this series and for me it marks the start of June.  I’m also looking forward to the latest Jane Casey and Sharon Bolton books: both are guaranteed to be excellent reads.

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

When I am not up to my eyes in dastardly deeds or unreliable narrators, I enjoy reading Lisa Jewell whose latest books, although marketed at women, are not by any means a light fluffy read.  Another author I love for her perceptive writing is Jojo Moyes and both these authors have written one historical based fiction book, a genre I enjoy as long as it properly researched.  Lisa Jewell wrote Before I Met You which is dual time novel split between the present day and the London in the 1920’s and Jojo Moyes wrote the amazing The Girl You Left Behind set partly in wartime France, which I’ve repeatedly recommended to friends and family (and anyone else who vaguely indicates that they would like a good book to read).

Thank you very much for sharing your reading passions with us, Cleo. I’ve been taking notes! I look forward to chatting to other great readers and reviewers about their criminally good reads over the next few weeks. In the past month I have featured Margot Kinberg and Rebecca Bradley in this series.