Wrapping Up November 2018

The Romanian holiday has receded in the mists of time, as November proved implacable in terms of work load and ‘fun’ events that involved mainly my older son’s GCSE exams and life after those exams.

All this is the lead-in to explain why my reading has not been hugely varied this month. I managed to finish just 11 books (and others have been dragging on forever). 7 of those were written in English, 8 women authors (well, 7 in fact, for one of those authors featured twice – namely Tana French). I’ve also been very bad about reviewing the books.

Broken Harbour is missing from this selection, but it was a great reread.

Books I Loved

Tana French: Broken Harbour – this was the first book of hers that I read but did not review a few years ago, so this is a reread and it moved me all over again. Possibly my favourite among her books. Those ghost town developments, I wonder if they are beginning to recover as the Dublin property market picks up.

Simone Buchholz: Beton Rouge, transl. Rachel Ward – another writer who takes the crime fiction trope and runs away with it. The crime plays second fiddle to a hugely atmospheric portrayal of Hamburg (and Bavaria), and a cool jazzy riff on language and style.

 Books That Surprised Me

Prabda Yoon: Moving Parts – Surreal, fantastical, sly and witty stories from Thailand, with lots of word play and mind games and lateral thinking. An unusual delight, showing us a very contemporary and urban world, far removed from the exoticism we might associate with that country. Must have been sooo tricky to translate – and you can read an interview with the translator Mui Poopoksakul here.

Kathy Acker: Essential Writings – I’d read short bits and pieces by Kathy Acker before, but never a selection of what the editors consider her best stuff. Not sure if it does justice to the variety of her work, but she certainly still has the power to shock, jolt, anger and make you think!

Ahmet Altan: Like a Sword Wound, transl. Brendan Freely & Yelda Turedi – historical family sagas are not my cup of tea, but the initial soap opera quality of the book soon gives way to a fresco of a society, a certain time and way of life, much like the Transylvanian Trilogy. Another great Asymptote Book Club choice, just like the Prabda Yoon.

Books I Wish I Hadn’t Bothered With

Not necessarily bad, but just not as interesting or scary or crime-fictiony or funny as I expected. Sadly, quite a few of them this month, which perhaps put me off reading a bit.

Hanna Jameson: The Last – can’t make up its mind if it’s a mystery or a dystopian novel

Lucy Foley: The Hunting Party – giving all those who went to Oxford Uni a bad name

Tana French: The Wych Elm – a character who just dragged on and on and on

Noel Langley: There’s a Porpoise Close Behind Us – a few chapters of this could have been charming and funny, a whole book was just too much

Meh

Louise Penny: Kingdom of the Blind – normally this author can do no wrong in my eyes, but although it was nice to revisit Three Pines, I felt this one was a tad repetitive. Maybe it’s time to move on to another subject, another character.

Eva Menasse; Quasikristalle – good in parts, but not quite as clever or innovative as it tried to be

German Literature Month

I only managed to take part with two reviews (although Simone Buchholz fits in this category as well): Eva Menasse and Fred Uhlman’s Reunion, which I read just on the cusp of November. The latter was certainly far more memorable than the former.

Big Plans for Next Few Months

I’ve let my #EU27Project languish for far too long and there are only a few months until they really do become just 27. I was shocked to discover how many French and German books I’ve read, but how few from other countries. So I’ve used my last bit of money to buy some elusive ones, tracked others down from the library and will be focusing mainly on the 13 (thirteen!!!) countries I still have left to read. I’m still searching for books from Cyprus and Luxembourg, so do let me know if you have any recommendations.

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Easy Reading for Dark Days

You know what I hate about winter?  Not the cold, not the snow, but the darkness! It makes me crave comfort food and comfort reading. And, while I agree with the need for difficult books and enjoy experimental reading by and large, with the anxiety-inducing news that seems to be lapping (or do I mean nipping?) at our feet constantly, we all need some soothing. So, for the past couple of week, I’ve gone with the undemanding stuff: favourite authors, lots of crime fiction and perhaps even something funny.

Prabda Yoon: Moving Parts, transl. Mui Poopoksakul

An unusual collection of surreal stories based around body parts, which I probably wouldn’t have come across without the help of the Asymptote Book Club. A finger shouting out ‘yuck’ at inappropriate times, a teenager who gets to keep the hand of the girl he fancies but makes a mess of it, a young woman who fears that her lack of a real human tail will damage her love prospects… You get the point: these are all such unlikely, borderline absurd scenarios that you cannot help but chuckle as you read them. This Thai author has previously been described as ‘virtually untranslatable’ because of the word games and puns, the way he likes to experiment with language. He certainly presents a picture of contemporary Thailand quite far removed from the tourist sights or even the more sleazy settings of crime fiction.

Louise Penny:Kingdom of the Blind

In the afterword to this latest novel set in the almost mythical community of Three Pines, I was very moved to read that the author had seriously thought she had nothing more to write about Armand Gamache, her much loved detective, head of the Sûreté du Québec, and staunch family man. The reason for that was the death of her husband, who had been a partial inspiration for Gamache. Much to the relief of her vast legions of fans, she did come up with a new story involving all of the colourful characters surrounding Gamache, as well as the extreme harshness of a Canadian winter. The storyline of political shenanigans to discredit Gamache is starting to wear a little thin, I thought, but otherwise it is a fun story of family rivalry, a feud about inheritance, and institutional and individual corruption.

Hanna Jameson: The Last

Such a promising premise for this one: what if nuclear war broke out while you were at a conference in a remote location in the Swiss Alps? What if you find a murder has been committed and that one of the survivors camping out with you in that hotel must have done it? Yet this novel, described inevitably as And Then There Were None meets The Road, really doesn’t live up to that promise. There is very little murder mystery in there, much more of an exploration of the psychology of survivors and the minutiae of their daily lives. There is some fun to be had about the differences of opinions between Europeans and Americans, and the ‘hazing’ of someone whom we might consider a Trump supporter, but every theme appears to be mentioned, gone into briefly, and then dropped. Besides, I just couldn’t get over the fact that the Swiss, with their abundance of obligatory bunkers fully equipped with food and other necessities, will be the ones most likely to survive the apocalypse in comfort. And the author doesn’t take this into account at all!

Tana French: The Witch Elm

Another difficult white cover – is there a trend right now that I hadn’t previously noticed? A standalone by one of the best crime authors currently at work – I could hardly wait to read this one. And yet, it was disappointing. Far too much background  – the story only gets going about halfway through, and even then there is too much dithering. While I normally enjoy French’s slow build-up to horrifying conclusions (Broken Harbour is the perfect example of that), in this case I didn’t feel that the build-up was warranted. And although I normally quite like unlikeable characters, I just couldn’t care about the narrator in this instance.

So in the end, easy reading doesn’t always make for the most satisfying reading. Out of the four, I would say the short story collection, i.e. The most unexpected and experimental one, was the one that pleased me most, even if I didn’t love every story and even though I feel it is disloyal to Louise Penny. Onwards and upwards!

Best Crime Fiction in English 2017

As I started jotting down all the crime fiction novels which I enjoyed reading in 2017, I realised the list was growing too long, so I had to divide it into translated and English-language fiction. So this is the second part of that post, crime fiction written in English. regardless of the origin of the writer or the setting. You might spot a preference among crime authors for a London setting, yet each of these was different.

Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy of a Scandal – London – coming out in January 2018

Political and legal thriller meets domestic drama – a cynical but all too realistic view of politicians and husbands, just right for these times full of sexual harassment cases

Stav Sherez: The Intrusions – London

Another extremely topical police procedural, about online stalking, hacking and spying. There was also something about the transient backpacker population all converging onto London which tugged at my heartstrings.

Eva Dolan: This Is How It Ends – London – coming out in January 2018

Dolan is the queen of weaving in a thrilling story to explore her anger about social injustice. Here it’s property developers vs. ordinary people, political campaigners vs. the police, and betrayals among those you believe to be on your side.

Chris Whitaker: Tall Oaks – US

I read both of Chris Whitaker’s novels this year and this one won by a cat’s whisker (I’m trying to only mention one book per author): that mix of humour, insight and depth of feeling which is quite rare.

Susie Steiner: Missing, Presumed – Cambridge and London

Same thing with Susie Steiner: I read both of her novels featuring the delightful Manon, but the first one in the series just had an additional edge to my mind. Police procedural with characters that you want to get to know better.

Aga Lesiewicz: Exposure – London

Sometimes you just need a high-paced urban thriller set in a Shoreditch which has all the trappings of Manhattan, including spyware, trendy lofts and media types. The glamour of the lifestyle was just so different from my experience that all my voyeuristic tendencies came to the fore: call it my version of ‘Hello’ magazine!

Emma Flint: Little Deaths – New York City

For a change of pace, a meticulous recreation of a period and place (Queens, 1960s) and an alternative interpretation of a notorious true crime. I didn’t read it so much for the plot, however, but for the way it portrays society’s indictment of mothers and women who don’t behave according to general expectations.

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery – Canada, Quebec

Reading a Louise Penny mystery is always a treat, and this one has echoes of another old favourite The Name of the Rose, with its monastic location and thorough examination of human propensity for both good and evil.

Adrian Magson: Rocco and the Nightingale – Picardie, France

Another recreation of time and place, this time one that is close to my heart: France in the 1960s and a detective that I have a bit of a soft spot for: Lucas Rocco. This time an assassin seems to be after Rocco, but of course he doesn’t have the luxury to just go away and hide.

As I finished compiling the list above, I realised that I have personally met (in person or online) six of the nine authors featured, and they are all very charming. But although that might make me eager to read their work, it does not influence my final selection into the ‘best of’ literary canon.

March Reading Summary

The reading mojo is on its way back this month, although it has been quite heavily loaded on the crime fiction side of things. Out of the 15 books I read this month, 10 were by women writers and 12 were crime-related. That is the sort of comfort reading I crave, although I have also ventured into self-help, true crime and historical fiction.

Women on the cliff of change:

Katie Kitamura: A Separation – even this has a mystery at its heart, although of course it is about much more than death.  When the narrator’s husband goes missing in Greece, she does not have the heart to admit to her in-laws that they have been separated for six months, so she travels there to find him… and in the process finds herself.  A full review to come on Shiny New Books.

Rachel Cusk: Transit – Kitamura’s book reminded me very much of Cusk’s Outline, so I moved on to the second in the trilogy. This is also a series of vignettes about the people the narrator encounters as she sets to buy and renovate a property in London. A more subtle, less self-centred book than Kitamura’s.

Marie Darrieussecq: Men – read this one for France in the #EU27Project, about a French actress’s ill-fated passion for a black actor/film director as they prepare to film in the Congo.

Women in crime:

Susie Steiner: Missing, Presumed

Emma Flint: Little Deaths

Andrea Carter: Treacherous Strand – crime solved by a female solicitor on the Inishowen Peninsula in Ireland – review to come on Crime Fiction Lover

Aga Lesiewicz: Exposure – urban thriller set in hipsterland Shoreditch – gulped it down in one night, review to come on CFL

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery

Non-Fiction:

Harriet Lerner: Why Won’t You Apologize?   – Psychologist Lerner examines why it’s so hard to offer a heartfelt apology and how to repair relationships and restore trust. Witty, candid and with some great personal examples, it’s a delight to read even for those who shun self-help books.

Helen Garner: This House of Grief – Deliberate revenge or tragic accident? Garner examines the court case of Robert Farquharson, who in 2005 drove into a dam with his three children. I expected this to be more of an examination of the background and family life which led to the tragic event described, but it really is a detailed account of the trial (plus appeal and retrial) and the reactions of the author and the people around her to the unfolding of procedures. Interesting, because it shows how subjective the law can be in court, how easily swayed public opinion (or the jury’s opinion). A great companion piece to Little Deaths.

Books for Review:

Matt Johnson: Deadly Game

Dylan H. Jones: Anglesey Blue

Antonin Varenne: Retribution Road

Just for fun:

Stephen May: Stronger Than Skin – psychological thriller from the man’s perspective, which makes a nice change. I admit that one of the two time frames, the Cambridge setting of the 1990s, played a big part in my decision, although I did not feel truly transposed into that world. A story of obsessive young love and more mature realisation of responsibilities and limitations. I did enjoy the poke at the pretentiousness of middle-class, middle-aged life, in particular through the unconventional character of Lulu, the photographer girlfriend of a former pupil of the main character Mark Chadwick. Goodness, that sounds complicated – I should have started that sentence elsewhere!

Terry Pratchett: Snuff – even when I pick something amusing from the library, there is still a crime element involved, as Sam Vimes finds a corpse waiting for him when he goes on holiday in the countryside.

 

Old World and New: Louise Penny and Antonin Varenne

More escapist comfort reading, which took me to some very strange places indeed. Quite a contrast in style and subject matter, but both proved to be excellent distractions and got me back into the reading groove again.

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery

I am an unabashed Penny fan, cannot get enough of her delightful, gentlemanly, wise and slightly melancholy Armand Gamache. While I quite enjoy closed room mysteries, I couldn’t help but be sceptical of the audacity of setting this book in a secluded monastery, locked away from the outside world, and with no mention at all of our beloved Three Pines, the idyllic Quebecois village that we all want to live in. But I should trust the author: I have followed her before, moving away from the realm of crime fiction in The Long Way Home, and I have continued to enjoy everything she brings to the table.

As always with the Gamache novels, there is a murder to be solved, as well as a personal vendetta and conspiracy within the Sûreté du Québec. I’ve not read the books in order, so I already knew how things had worked out between Gamache and his faithful sidekick Beauvoir once their corrupt and evil boss Francoeur waggled his serpent’s tongue. That took some of the suspense out of the book, but there is still the mystery of who killed the choir director in the tranquil and long-forgotten community of monks, who have recently become famous because of their amazing recording of Gregorian chants. Comparisons to The Name of the Rose are inevitable, given the setting, but Louise Penny makes this her own, with beautifully rounded characters and sensuous details (those chocolate-covered blueberries!). She turns this very much into a meditation on good and evil, the search for the divine vs. seeking fame, the virtues of silence vs. communicating via words.

As for the reason why I find her books so comforting, the author herself describes it best:

My books are about terror. That brooding terror curled deep down inside us. But more than that, more than murder, more than all the rancid emotions and actions, my books are about goodness. And kindness. About choices. About friendship and belonging. And love. Enduring love.  If you take only one thing away from any of my books I’d like it to be this: Goodness exists.

 

Antonin Varenne: Retribution Road (transl. Sam Taylor)

You will love this book if, like me, you were excited by the premise of the recent BBC TV series Taboo, starring Tom Hardy, but somewhat disappointed by its execution (great build-up, but didn’t go very far and let down by its ending, as is so often the case with a story told over several episodes). A damaged but principled individual returning from a traumatic experience abroad, the East India Company as an out-and-out villain, the dirt and miasma of London and its poorest people, the lure of the New World across the Atlantic – both stories have these elements in common. The book is a chunky 500+ pages, but it’s one of those rollicking adventures of the Alexandre Dumas/ Robert Louis Stevenson type, so it didn’t take long to read.

It’s panoramic, epic and historical crime fiction, three epithets which usually put me off a book, but it really works in this case. A further no-no in my book: it’s about a serial killer, and it spreads over three continents and 11 years. It starts in 1852, with an ill-fated mission in Burma organised by the East India Company. The men are captured and tortured; there are only ten survivors, and they come back more like zombies or ghosts rather than men.

Six years later, one of the survivors, former sergeant Arthur Bowman, works as a policeman in a pestilent, drought-ridden London, and continues to battle his demons in a haze of opium and alcohol. Then he discovers a corpse in a sewer, bearing the same mutilations as they experienced in the jungle, and he becomes convinced the killer is one of the ten men. His mission to discover the killer – who does not stop at one victim, of course – takes him to the New World and ultimately to the Wild West, but above all it’s a journey to find himself.

It takes great courage to combine all these different genres together: adventure story, serial killer thriller, Western and character study, so bravo, Monsieur Varenne for this ambitious tour de force! It has all the breadth and variety of RL Stevenson, the darkness of Joseph Conrad and none of the ‘going off on a tangent’ of Moby Dick.

The book was published on 9th March by MacLehose Press.

WWWednesday 15th March: What Are You Reading?

WWW Wednesday is a meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Currently reading:

Emma Flint: Little Deaths

From the blurb: It’s 1965 in a tight-knit working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York, and Ruth Malone–a single mother who works long hours as a cocktail waitress–wakes to discover her two small children, Frankie Jr. and Cindy, have gone missing. Later that day, Cindy’s body is found in a derelict lot a half mile from her home, strangled. Ten days later, Frankie Jr.’s decomposing body is found. Immediately, all fingers point to Ruth. As police investigate the murders, the detritus of Ruth’s life is exposed. Seen through the eyes of the cops, the empty bourbon bottles and provocative clothing which litter her apartment, the piles of letters from countless men and Ruth’s little black book of phone numbers, make her a drunk, a loose woman–and therefore a bad mother.

Harriet Lerner: Why Won’t You Apologize?

From the blurb: Lerner challenges the popular notion that forgiveness is the only path to peace of mind and helps those who have been injured to resist pressure to forgive too easily. She explains what drives both the non-apologizer and the over-apologizer, and why the people who do the worst things are the least able to own their misdeeds. With her trademark humour and wit, Lerner offers a joyful and sanity-saving guide to setting things right.

Just read:

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery – Gamache and Beauvoir are not in Three Pines this time, but in a remote monastery awash with Gregorian chants. Comfort reading for me, as I love everything that Penny writes.

Antonin Varenne: Retribution Road – rip-roaring adventure, think Taboo with more international travelling and a serial killer. Varenne will be at Quais du Polar in Lyon this year.

Next in line:

Rachel Cusk: Transit – good timing or too close to life?

In the wake of family collapse, a writer and her two young sons move to London. The process of upheaval is the catalyst for a number of transitions—personal, moral, artistic, practical—as she endeavors to construct a new reality for herself and her children.

Thomas Enger: Cursed – now this sounds like perfect escapism, I;ve been saving it up for comfort reading.

When Hedda Hellberg fails to return from a retreat in Italy, where she has been grieving for her recently dead father, her husband discovers that his wife’s life is tangled in mystery. Hedda never left Oslo, the retreat has no record of her and, what’s more, she appears to be connected to the death of an old man, gunned down on the first day of the hunting season in the depths of the Swedish forests. Henning Juul becomes involved in the case when his ex-wife joins in the search for the missing woman, and the estranged pair find themselves enmeshed both in the murky secrets of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families, and in the painful truths surrounding the death of their own son.

So, what are your reading plans for this week? And have you read any of the above?

Reading in the Merry Month of May

It’s been a changeable old month weather-wise, this May, and that has been reflected in my choice of books. I’ve read 12 books, and only 4 of those were by male writers (and two of those were for review). I finally managed to tackle 4 from my Netgalley pile (sinking under the greed there…), 5 from my bookshelves (although two of those may have been VERY recent purchases), plus one random purchase while being stuck at the airport. 7 of the books above may be classified as crime, one was spoken word poetry and there was no non-fiction this month.

DSCN6617
Gotta love the cloudy days of May… Lake Geneva from Vevey.

 

Julie Schumacher: Dear Committee Members

Louise Penny: How the Light Gets In – dare I count this as the first of my TBR20?

Helen Fitzgerald: Bloody Women

Clare Mackintosh: I Let You Go

Daniel Quiros: Eté rouge – this one counts for my Global Reading Challenge – Central and South America

Kristien Hemmerechts: The Woman Who Fed the Dogs

Quentin Bates: Summerchill – reviewed on CFL website; you can read my interview with the author here

Ragnar Jonasson: Snowblind – reviewed on CFL website; I’ve also had the pleasure of interviewing Ragnar here 

Megan Beech: When I Grow Up I Want to Be Mary Beard (poetry)

Ursula Poznanski: Blinde Vögel – a Facebook poetry group turns deadly in Salzburg – how could I resist?

Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – philosophical fable – I thereby declare this #TBR1

Sara Novic: Girl at War – survivor of the war in Croatia returns ten years later to her home country – #TBR2

These last four were all memorable in quite different ways, so I want to write more thorough reviews of them soon, so watch this space.

Siglufjordur, location for Snowblind. Picture taken by the author, Ragnar Jonasson (thanks to Twitter).
Siglufjordur, location for Snowblind. Picture taken by the author, Ragnar Jonasson (thanks to Twitter).

Crime fiction pick of the month is going to be a tie between Snowblind and How the Light Gets In. But I also have my eye on this Austrian writer Poznanski now and hope she gets translated more into English (she also writes YA and children’s fiction and is known as Ursula P. Archer in the English-speaking world).

Finally, how has writing fared this month? Some rough handwritten drafting has taken place, but it’s been another tough month, with business trips, lots of holidays and parental visits. Must do better next month (famous last words?)… The good news is that poetry has started to flow again after a long period of feeling stuck.