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!

Quick-Fire Reviews: Crime Fiction

I was planning longer reviews for each of these books, but the risk is that the longer I leave it, the less I’ll be in the mood for reviewing them, or the more I’ll have forgotten the first impressions.

So here are some quick-fire reviews of recently read crime novels. Two are by authors I’ve already read and admired, so I know what I’m getting. The remaining two are debut authors. And when I say ‘quick-fire’, it still has somehow added up to a very long post, so I apologise in advance.

BloodSaltDenise Mina: Blood, Salt, Water

A woman suspected by the police of major drug-smuggling and money laundering disappears. Has that got anything to do with the death of a woman, something confused criminal Iain Fraser is struggling with? And why is a middle-aged former Scout leader, Miss Grierson, back in town? Alex Morrow and her team struggle to make sense of all these disparate elements, as do the readers.

I’m a big Denise Mina fan – she always captures a particular Scottish setting¬†impeccably. This time it’s a smaller town and a posh golf course gated environment, as well as the gritty streets of Glasgow. But this is perhaps not the most memorable one in the series: some of the motivations seem a little forced to me.¬†Still, Mina’s ‘good/OK’ is a notch above most other writers, so I’d still recommend this book.There were some characters who had the potential to become interesting but were not given quite enough room to develop. I also missed hearing more about Alex Morrow’s family life ¬†– while I don’t like it to overwhelm the plot, it was just noticeable in its complete absence.

OtherChildLucy Atkins: The Other Child

Tess, single mother to nine-year-old Joe, falls in love with American pediatric surgeon Greg and gets pregnant. When he is offered the job of a lifetime back on the East Coast of the US, they marry and relocate. ¬†But life in an affluent American suburb proves anything but straightforward.¬†Unsettling things keep happening in the large rented house, Joe is distressed, the next-door neighbours are in crisis, and Tess is sure that someone is watching her. Greg’s work is all-consuming and, as the baby’s birth looms, he grows more and more unreachable. Something is very wrong.

Confession: I read this one mostly because of the ‘moving to the US as a trailing spouse’ storyline. I just love those fish out of water suffering culture shock stories!¬†I read this book very quickly, as it had plenty of mystery and some interesting characters to engage me. It does feel slightly d√©j√† vu – the marriage that you jump in all too quickly, the man with secrets, the suspicions and gradual unravelling of relationships, the ‘who can be trusted, who’s telling the truth’ scenario are all well trodden ground. This book certainly won’t stay with me for a very long time. But the author has a fresh, engaging style, it’s got a nice sense of menace to it without getting too gory, it’s an entertaining beach read.

GranotierbookSylvie Granotier: Personne n’en saura rien (No One Will Know a Thing)

Isabelle is the latest in a series of kidnappings and rapes of young girls from the beaches of Normandy. Except that, unlike the other victims, she does not end up dead. Instead, she is taking her aggressor to court on the count of rape. The accused, Jean Chardin, certainly seems to fit the profile of a rapist, but, as we find out more about the background of each of the people involved, we begin to wonder just what revenge Isabelle is planning.

For those who don’t like serial killer tropes or graphic descriptions of women suffering, rest assured there is not much of that here. Instead, it’s a thrilling and psychologically subtle read. Effortlessly moving between points of view and timelines, the author makes us question ourselves about the nature of justice, the ways in which we justify our own behaviour, and the role of families. This hasn’t been translated into English yet, but Le French Book has translated one of Granotier’s other novels, The Paris Lawyer.

BitterChillSarah Ward: In Bitter Chill

The Peak District as winter approaches is a chilling place, especially when a thirty-year-old crime is reopened following a suicide apparently related to it. Back in 1978 two young schoolgirls were abducted by a woman driving a car. One of them, Rachel, made it back home later that day, but could remember little of what had happened. The other girl, Sophie, was never found. It’s Sophie’s mother who has committed suicide in a hotel in the area. But why now, so many years after the event? Another death soon after also seems to be linked to the tragic event in 1978. Rachel and the police are equally committed to finding out the truth about events both past and present, uncovering some very dark secrets in the process.

This is a very promising debut indeed and just the kind of police procedural I enjoy: satisfying, logical, with interesting characters throughout (I especially liked Rachel’s grandma). The writing is of a consistently high quality and very precise, and the location is so well described I felt as if I was there (although I’ve never visited the area myself). But all this does not come at the detriment of the plot. Yes, I guessed part of the solution, but by no means all of the ramifications. I’m really glad that, although Ward intended this to be a standalone crime novel, she will write another novel featuring these detectives, as I got quite attached to ambitious Connie, about-to-get-married Palmer and their boss Sadler.

I’ve also read Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless (which will be reviewed shortly on Crime Fiction Lover), the cracking follow-up to The¬†Hummingbird,¬†and Sophie Hannah’s quirky, unexpected standalone psychological thriller¬†A Game for All the Family.

The remaining four reviews (I hope to have more time to spend on them this coming week, but I’m also trying to write another 20,000 words on my novel, so guess where my priorities lie?) are for:

Max Blecher:¬†Scarred Hearts –¬†a surprisingly modern feel, very candid, not for the squeamish, heartbreaking and yet full of an urgent love of life.
Emmanuel Carr√®re: L’Adversaire¬†– a fascinating study of evil and the power of deception, including self-deception – whether we believe evil exists in all of us, or whether we see some people as being born evil. Particularly heart-wrenching and disturbing since I know the places and some of the people involved.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender Is the Nightno longer quite the ultimate story of marital and individual breakdown that I believed it to be when I was 18 – Rosemary’s age – and fell in love with Dick Diver myself. Still an unsettling portrait of inner demons and dysfunctional families, but this time I particularly admired the locations and descriptions of the expat experience (yes, I have a one-track mind).

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd – ¬†unlike other ‘vignette’ type novels, I really liked this one, although I don’t think it could be sustained over a much longer book. I liked it because it really is experimental, not just pretending to be so, and there is a warm, funny, fearless and erudite imagination at work there, blending fantasy, philosophy, literature and everyday experiences so well together.