February Reading: A Season of Grimness

I was offline for a couple of days and gathering my lists and reviews for February, when I realised that this short, dark month has provided me with quite a lot of grim reading. Not ‘grim’ in terms of the quality of the writing, since pretty much all of them have been very well written indeed. But the subject matter(s) has/have been relentless: child abductions, abuse, alcoholism, serial killers, cannibalism, mental illness, highly dysfunctional families, discrimination against immigrants… and an astronaut stranded on Mars.

Still, I managed to read 16 books this month, which is very good going, although I have fallen far behind in my reviewing.

1 Book Each in German and French:

Irena Brežná: Die undankbare Fremde

Delphine de Vigan: Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit – will be part of a larger post on mothers in fiction

5 Translated Books (and therefore worth knowing the translators’ names)

Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noël Balen: Nightmare in Burgundy, transl. Sally Pane (to be reviewed soon on CFL)

Pascal Garnier: The Front Seat Passenger (to be reviewed), transl. Jane Aitken

Shuichi Yoshida: Parade, transl. Philip Gabriel

Parade

Promising set-up: four young people who share a flat and seem to have nothing in common. Each is slightly off-kilter, dysfunctional, but not in a very obvious way. As a picture of disaffected youth, of the anonymity of city living, of friendships of the ‘chatroom type’ (even when people are living together) and of the darker side to Japanese society, it works perfectly. As a crime novel or even psychological thriller with a coherent story arc, it does not.

Pierre Lemaitre: Irène (to be reviewed), transl. Frank Wynne

Jung-Myung Lee: The Investigation (to be reviewed), transl. Chi-Young Kim

1 Non-Crime Book (More Science than Science Fiction)

Andy Weir: The Martian

Martian

Surprisingly technical, with a high level of scientific precision (and yet manages to keep it thrilling throughout). It really would make an excellent film. Lovely sense of humour of the main protagonist, plus a lot of the politics of NASA, the US and even China, keeps this lively.  Ultimately, however, this one felt just a bit too geeky to me. It didn’t have enough of the human/psychological elements to it.

4 Books from Crime Fiction Series

Elly Griffiths: The Outcast Dead (Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist)

Denise Mina: The Red Road (detective Alex Morrow)

Donna Leon: By Its Cover (Commissario Brunetti) – to be reviewed

Nicci French: Waiting for Wednesday (psychotherapist Frieda Klein)

NicciFrench

I might have known that Nicci French would not do a conventional crime fiction series. Don’t expect a police procedural (although police are involved) and don’t expect a self-contained story, as so many recurrent characters reappear and so many allusions are made to events in the previous two books. Yes, there is a distinct murder, plus an intriguing trail which could mean several more murders, but this is all much more about loss and bereavement, trauma and its psychological consequences.

4 Standalone Crime Novels (although at least 2 of them really stretch the boundaries of crime)

Lucie Whitehouse: Before We Met

Natalie Young: Season to Taste

Paula Daly: Just What Kind of Mother Are You? – will feature in my ‘mothering’ post

Koren Zailckas: Mother Mother – will feature in my ‘mothering’ post

So many fantastic books this month, not a single turkey. A few frightened or even repelled me (The Red Road, Season to Taste, Mother Mother, Irène), most of them saddened me (even Donna Leon and the winemaker series were not so cosy this time round), so it was hard to choose my favourite. In the end, I opted for The Investigation, because it combines so many of my favourite things: poetry and mystery, Japanese history and the triumph of beauty and art over the most inhumane conditions.

I’m linking this to the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme organised by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

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Why I Hate the Term Chick Noir

I haven’t been the only one to notice the spate of recently published books with the word ‘wife’ or ‘husband’ in the title. Some have even hastened to call it a new (sub)genre. Rosamund Urwin calls it ‘chick noir’ and claims that readers are attracted to the horror at home, the ultimate unknowability of one’s life partner. Lucie Whitehouse in The Guardian calls it ‘the marriage thriller‘ and argues that it is about the life stage most female readers are in, rather than just trying to copycat the success of Gone Girl.

I really liked Gone Girl, although I wouldn’t necessarily want to read five more books similar to it. However, the reason why I object to the idea of a new genre (let alone the terrible term of ‘chick noir’) is because marriage is not just for women. It is cynical to market such psychological thrillers to female readers, especially when the subject itself is as old as the hills. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Woman in White, Rebecca, even Bleak House could all be called ‘marriage thrillers’, if we like such labels. And that’s just the English language novels.

beforewemetTwo of the books I recently read are usually lumped together under the ‘like Gone Girl’ category, just like any Scandinavian crime writer has been hailed as the next Stieg Larsson. They are quite different from Gillian Flynn’s novel and from each other, and I’d like to consider them on their own terms.

Lucie Whitehouse’s novel Before We Met tells of the perfect marriage which may be hiding some unsavoury secrets. It owes some allegiance to the twisty dark tales of Nicci French and Sophie Hannah (both of whose novels are more about single women than married ones, incidentally!), or films like ‘The Stranger Beside Me’ or ‘Sleeping with the Enemy’.

Hannah is a successful and happily single advertising executive working in New York. She meets charming and even more successful fellow Brit Mark Reilly through mutual friends and very quickly falls in love. Although she is scared of commitment since her parents’ marriage broke down, she decides not just to marry Mark, but also to give up her career to follow him to London. With her job hunt stagnating and her husband not showing up at the airport when she expected him, she becomes increasingly suspicious and forgets about her determination to not turn into her mother, whose jealousy and bitterness (she believes) drove her father away.

This book has a very easy, highly readable style. It slides down your reading gullet like a smooth chocolate mousse… and has perhaps just as much consistency. It is frothy, the gradual reveal works well, and it will while away a rainy afternoon, but I found it a little too predictable for my liking. There is insufficient motivation for the actions of either Hannah or Mark and I found myself not caring very much about them in their rather privileged little world (even if they have had to work quite hard to attain the privilege). In fact, the people I ended up caring most about were their mothers.  Short verdict: Good enough, but not memorable.

seasontotasteNatalie Young’s novel Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband is certainly not easy reading. This will not be a crowd pleaser of a book. Open-minded and eclectic in my reading tastes as I am, I found the initial chapters with the descriptions of cutting up and preparing human flesh for dinner rather nauseating. Perhaps there are a bit too many such descriptions and recipes. Yet, as I read on, I realised that this is a very sly novel, almost surrealistic in its approach. Boris Vian or Roland Topor transposed to the calmer English country-side.

Lizzie Prain is a fifty-something housewife who has never excelled at anything, never been loved, never seemed to have a mind of her own. One day she snaps and hits her husband on the head with a spade while he is out gardening. She feels she has wasted nearly all of her life so far and has no intention of wasting even more of it in prison. So she decides to do away with the evidence by gradually eating every little piece of her husband, which she has preserved in the freezer.

There is something inherently comical about the contrast between the extreme events described in the book and the quiet, middle-aged main character, as well as the matter-of-fact, almost flat way in which the story is told. The author is too subtle to make the husband a monster, but it is nevertheless a study of repressed feelings and almost off-hand bullying in a marriage that has never had any spark. I do feel the author could have gone further, been more ferocious in the blackness of her humour, more satirical or surrealist in her treatment of the couple. An interesting attempt, and the bullet points Lizzie writes to herself are very poignant, but ultimately just a little too timid. Short verdict: memorable, but good enough?

For more reviews of the two books, see here (and can I just point out that neither of the reviewers of Season to Taste are women? So much for that chick tag!)

Simon Savidge  – Season to Taste

Reader Dad – Season to Taste

Daneet Steffens in The Boston Globe – Before We Met

Alice Jones in The Independent – Before We Met