CrimeFest Day Two (Meeting Favourite People)

If the first day of the CrimeFest in Bristol was more about dipping the toes into the water, the second day was more about excesses! Not of drink, but of meeting favourite authors and bloggers.

Always favourites of mine – a few of the Orenda authors: Matt Wesolowski, Michael J. Malone, Johana Gustawsson and Louise Beech.

Although the conversations are often quite rushed in-between panels, I always enjoy chatting to knowledgeable and opinionated readers and bloggers such as Kat (aka Mrs P), Karen Meek (aka EuroCrime), Jacqui (aka RavenCrimeReads), Karen Cole (blogging at HairPastAFreckle), Ewa Sherman, Mary Picken, Emma Hamilton (blogging at BuriedUnderBooks), Louise Fairbairn. I can only recommend you seek them out and read their reviews. They know their stuff! Needless to say, I forgot to take pictures with most of them (slightly motivated by the fact that I hate appearing in pictures myself).

Ewa signing a book of poems by her mother which she has translated into English.
The beautiful Lady Hamilton in suitably bookish attire.
A selfie attempt with Cathy Ace.

But you are probably more interested in the panels.

I discovered three new authors in the Tension and Paranoia panel, where I had previously only been aware of Alison Bruce. She is the creator of the Cambridge-based series featuring the endearing Gary Goodhew (I want to be his Mum!), but was here to talk about a standalone psychological thriller entitled I Did It for Us. Every time I think I am over psychological thrillers, I hear authors talking so passionately and relatably about their books and their characters, about the fears that every woman has about stalkers or something bad happening to their children or experiencing gaslighting. I wanted to buy every one of them, but decided to do so on Kindle rather than having to schlep four bags to the railway station. They were: Claire Kendal with a story about a pregnant spy which will be out later this year, real-life Derry Girl Claire Allan’s Apple of My Eye featuring another pregnant main protagonist and Lucy Clarke’s story You Let Me In, which should cure you of any thoughts of renting out your property on Airbnb.

So refreshing to see all-women panels, moderated with gusto by US author CJ Daugherty.

The second panel I attended was on Partners and Sidekicks. Once again, it was about reconnecting with my beloved baby elephant (Vaseem Khan’s Baby Ganesh and Inspector Chopra series), but also about discovering new authors. Lynn Britney writes about a team of both male and female detectives and scientists who investigate crimes in post-WW1 Britain. T.E. Kinsey tackles cosy historical crime fiction with amateur sleuth Lady Hardcastle and her ‘servant’ (actually, friend) Florence, set in Edwardian Britain. Vaseem Khan’s series of course is set in contemporary India and is actually more gritty than cosy, although the baby elephant adds a bit of whimsy to the series (and will have to grow up very, very slowly, as the author admitted, since a grown elephant is not as cute). Meanwhile, M.W. Craven is the creator the curmudgeonly police officer Washington Poe, whom no one else likes, and civilian analyst, the brilliant but socially awkward Tilly Bradshaw, who has three Ph.Ds but doesn’t know how to boil an egg.

As I told you, this was a day of excesses, so no rest for the wicked and I went straight into the third panel about Guilt. Moderated by an Irish writer, Anthony J. Quinn and featuring two further Irish writers (Olivia Kiernan and Jo Spain) plus a lapsed Catholic (Vanda Symon), you can imagine this panel focused quite heavily on feelings of guilt, on being suspicious of other people and on how they feel about writing in a genre that has been called a ‘guilty pleasure’. Sarah Hilary, also on this panel, was let loose on this topic and said: ‘Why are literary authors never asked if they feel guilty about writing yet another story about a white middle-class midlife crisis?’ Olivia Kiernan agreed that genre is nothing more than a label for booksellers or librarians to order things on a shelf, while Jo Spain said that crime is a study of human nature and all great writers address it (Wuthering Heights, for example). Vanda Symon went so far as to say that crime fiction makes us feel safe, because we read about awful things happening to other people, so crime authors are providing a public health service.

Another all-women panel, as it should be, since women dominate the crime fiction genre, both as readers and writers.

The next panel on Secrets that Haunt You had me almost in tears… of laughter. Louise Beech is an absolute wicked riot as a moderator (or, indeed, as a panelist) and she gave her fellow Orenda authors Thomas Enger and Johana Gustawsson a particularly hard time, claiming they worked as a member of the Norwegian Chippendales and as a Tokyo cage-fighter respectively. Also on the panel were: Fran Dorricot, whose debut thriller After the Eclipse about sibling love and guilt was a huge favourite with my Crime Fiction Lover colleagues; and Barnaby (aka BP) Walter, who looks no older than my son, but has in fact written a rather grim psychological thriller A Version of the Truth whose moral is: Don’t ever go looking for things on someone else’s device, you might not like what you find out!

The panelists were divided in terms of plotting. Johana finds plotting one of the most fun parts of writing, like doing a puzzle, but she doesn’t take it quite as far as Barnaby, who does a full cast list and a chapter by chapter outline, otherwise it would unnerve him to start writing. Fran doesn’t plot much, but knows what emotional ending she wants for her characters, and she knows her characters well. Meanwhile, Thomas says he is still struggling to find the perfect methodology, even though he is on his tenth book, because he doesn’t plot and therefore has to do so many rewrites, as many as 18, which takes up far too much time. There were also some emotional moments, when Thomas admitted that his wife is his first and harshest reader. She has a great eye but tears his work apart, so he can only show it to her every 2-3 months, otherwise he would get too depressed. Meanwhile, Johana sends her father a chapter every day and they discuss it on Facetime, it’s a real partnership and she is frightened to think of the day when she will no longer have that support.

I had an indulgent lunch break when I discovered the cake stall in St Nicholas’ Market. Heartily recommended if you ever visit Bristol! The polenta and fruit cake was a dream and I am somewhat of a connoisseur.

After lunch I had a moment of pure hero worship, as John Harvey was being interviewed to mark his 80th birthday. He is in many ways the kind of author I aspire to be: he likes jazz and theatre, he writes poetry and even ran a poetry press for a while (he published Simon Armitage, amongst others). Of course, it would help if I had his work ethic. Before he turned to crime fiction, John used to write Western novellas, publishing as many as 12 a year. I loved what he said about ‘Fiction is a job and pays the mortgage, while poetry is something that gets written in the cracks.’

His Charlie Resnick series is one of my all-time favourites, and it was satisfying to learn that my personal favourite Darkness Darkness is also the author’s favourite. I also had to get his latest book Body and Soul, although I haven’t read any of his Frank Elder series, because John said it was most definitely his last book. He wants to rest, relax, watch afternoon movies in-between Stairlift ads. He still gets plenty of ideas, but he won’t act on them – maybe someone else would like to buy some of his ideas?

The great John Harvey. Meeting him felt a little elegiac; it reminded me of seeing PD James at Quais du Polar. But I hope he gets many more years of movie-watching, walking and listening to jazz.

I was flagging a little by then but the last panel of the day, about Friends, Family and Convoluted Relationships (moderated by C. L. Taylor) cheered me right up. I know and love all four authors on this panel: the irrepressible Amanda Jennings, Antti Tuomainen of the wicked, wry humour, Mel McGrath (whose Edie Kiglatuk series set in Inuit territory I absolutely love) and Paul Burston, Polari Prize and Polari Salon founder. However, I did not know the story that inspired Paul’s latest novel: he was trolled and stalked online and off for a good few months. It kept escalating, until he had to take it to court. Writing the book The Closer I Get from the point of view of the stalker rather than the victim was quite cathartic, but it was understandably very difficult to find the right voice. Meanwhile, Amanda had no problems finding the voice of her teenage self in her book The Cliff House, which took her straight back to the 1980s.

I have remarked before how much I love Antti’s change of tone in his two most recent novels, but he also said that he now has more affection and empathy for his characters, even the villains. They are all rather inept at their jobs, and make even bigger mistakes when they try to compensate for a mistake, something he can identify with. He also claims that it’s harder to write humour than dark fiction, even though he believes that kind of outlook in life feels more natural to him as a person.

I did not attend the Gala Dinner, and my friends who were the judges refused to give me a quick heads-up, so I had to find out on Twitter… but I was delighted to hear that a Norwegian won the Petrona Award for best Scandinavian crime novel. It was the dapper, very smiley Jørn Lier Horst, who looks so much like a former Norwegian classmate of mine from Year 6, that it’s quite disconcerting. Well done to the Petrona Award Committee for reading all the entries and selecting such a worthy winner! I was nearly right in my predictions!

The selection committee with the happy winner and a representative from the Norwegian embassy.

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Mel McKissock?

Melbooks2

Mel McKissock is another fellow crime fiction aficionado that I met via the excellent virtual Crime Book Club organised by Rebecca Bradley. Based in Melbourne, Mel makes almost superhuman efforts to join us at the monthly book clubs, in the early hours of the morning (her time). You can find Mel on Twitter at more sociable hours and she always adds a touch of Australian knowledge to her reading passions.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

Like so many other avid crime fiction fans, it was Agatha Christie who gave me my first taste of crime fiction. My parents had a complete set of her novels, and I steadily worked my way through them in my early teens, starting, I think, with ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.’ I moved on to more of the Golden Age crime writers, such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.

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

These days I enjoy contemporary crime novels. I love learning about new places and cultures, so anything with a strong sense of place is particularly interesting.  I love Scottish noir and Scandi noir, one of my favourite Scandi authors being Karin Fossum, who can bring out the pathos of a crime like no one else. I’ve recently discovered the Jungle Beat series, by John Enright, set in Samoa, and the Edie Kiglatuk series, set in the Arctic Circle, by M.J McGrath. Both of these series have taught me a great deal about their respective settings and I enjoy anything that really immerses me in a whole other world!

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

Only one! Well, it would have to be a prolific author, to keep me occupied. I think it would be a toss up between James L. Burke and his Robicheaux series, set in and around New Orleans, and Louise Penny and the Inspector Gamache series, set in the intriguing Canadian village of Three Pines. Both are a series of long, extremely well-written books with many layers, all of which can stand re-reading.

MelbooksWhat are you forward to reading in the near future?

That’s an easy one to answer, as we have a long weekend coming up here in Melbourne, and I have been keeping a book to savour over the weekend. It’s ‘The Dying Beach’ by Angela Savage, set in Thailand in the 90’s and featuring PI Jayne Keeney. This is the third book so far in this witty and clever series, and I’m really looking forward to reading it over our Cup weekend.

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

One book which made a huge impression on me is ‘Elemental’ by Amanda Curtin, an Australian author. A beautiful, lyrical book, it tells the story of ‘Fish Meggie’, her upbringing at the beginning of the twentieth century in Scotland, and her subsequent move to Australia. As a work of historical fiction, it’s very different to my usual fare of crime novels and I’d encourage anyone reading this blog to take a look at it!

Thank you for your excellent recommendations, Mel! I’m also a fan of exotic settings both north and south. Angela Savage and James Lee Burke are two authors that I am ashamed to say I haven’t read yet, but will certainly follow up with them (you are not the first to highly recommend them). As always, my TBR list is the biggest victim of this interview series. What do you think of Mel’s choices – have you read any or all of them?

For previous participants in this series, please look here. And please, please, please do not hesitate to let me know if you are passionate about crime fiction of any description and would like to take part. 

 

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 m̩tro Рabsurd 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 Рmore in the thoughtful Le Carr̩ 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.

 

 

October Reading but November Prize to Be Won

I have been somewhat missing in action this month, which can only mean the following:  brainpower is being expended on the mechanical rather than the imaginative, and cold hard cash is being earned. However, in terms of reading, it has been a rich month of not very extensive but high quality reading. Mainly crime fiction, but with an angsty French novel thrown in for contrast. Sadly, October has not been a month conducive to detailed book reviews, so here are my top-line thoughts about each of the books.

M.J. McGrath: White Heat

Absolutely loved this tale of the iciest reaches of the Arctic and of the human heart. Edie Kiglatuk is half-Inuit, half-American and the incredibly strong yet vulnerable type of diminutive heroine that I cannot resist. Yes, there were perhaps some overly detailed descriptions of how to build an igloo, but I am an anthropologist at heart, so I was fascinated by all this.

DeadMenSkiPatricia Moyes: Dead Men Don’t Ski

Another wintry tale, but this time a much gentler one: Golden Age detective fiction transposed to South Tyrol. The author is of a later generation than Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie, but she has the same wit, elegance and careful plotting. Thank you to Margot Kinberg for making me aware of this author.

E.F. Benson: The Blotting Book

Charming little oddity, makes a nice change of pace and style to modern crime fiction, but perhaps not quite as intriguing to contemporary palates

Patrick Modiano: La Petite Bijou

Written in a deliberately flat, child-like style, this is the story of a woman’s search for her mother and her attempt to reclaim her past, or find her true identity. A short, moving, rather disquieting piece.

blacklands-by-belinda-bauer-259-pBelinda Bauer: Blacklands

There are some weaknesses and implausibilities here, but what an amazing debut novel this is! I was completely absorbed by the story of a boy and his grandmother, the far-reaching consequences of tragedy and a serial killer who is presented in an almost farcical style. (Sounds difficult to accept or believe, but you will understand if you read it.)

Peggy Blair: Midnight in Havana

An excellent near-impossible set-up which has the readers wondering throughout the story, plus lashings of what seems to me very authentic Cuban atmosphere. A visual, auditive treat, and an engaging Cuban cop who can see dead people.

Anya Lipska: Where the Devil Can’t Go

Where_the_Devil_Can__t_Go_coverI just love books describing the clash of cultures (in this case, between the Polish and the British communities in the East End of London). There is also a communality of sensitivity and historical experience of East European countries which makes me appreciate this novel even more. It does sometimes stretch belief a little that an amateur (even one who speaks the language) would have quite so much clout in an investigation, but all in all an engaging, high-octane read, which I gulped down quite greedily.

However, if you visit this blog tomorrow, 4th November, I will have a more detailed review of ‘The Greenland Breach’ by Bernard Besson for you. The first ecological thriller I have ever read, and what a rollercoaster ride it was!  Moreover, if you leave a comment, you can win a copy of it in e-book format, no matter where you are based in the world.

Two Very Different Crime Locations

Yet another sleight of hand and double-entry bookkeeping, to make up for my recent invisibility on the blogging front. Here are two book reviews of crime fiction for my Global Reading Challenge. It’s not just necessity that inspired me to set them alongside each other. I find the comparison fascinating, as it is hard to think of two more diametrically opposed  locations than Cuba and the Northern Territories of Canada. Both books transport you to a different world, where it is nearly impossible to find your bearings, where none of your usual rules apply.

Both books deal with closed societies, where few outsiders venture, as they are viewed with suspicion and find it difficult to integrate.  Both authors are tremendously skilled at conveying the richness of a world few of us can explore or even imagine. And if this means that in both books, the plot is sometimes slowed down a bit by this complete immersion technique, then so be it! There is still much to be gained from exploring these books.

Cover of "Havana Gold: The Havana Quartet...
Cover of Havana Gold: The Havana Quartet

Leonardo Padura: Havana Gold

Perhaps the most unusual fact about Leonardo Padura Fuentes is that he is still living and writing in Cuba, although his novels are quite critical of Cuban society. Political discourse is kept to a minimum in this novel (the second in a quartet featuring detective Mario Conde), but the depiction of the absurdity of a centralised system for everything, the almost casual mention of corruption and preferential treatment of high-ranking Party officials would have been enough to get censored in other Communist countries. Yet there is such passion for life and love in the pages of this novel, so much of the hustling and mingling from the streets of Havana, that the plot is almost secondary. I was intrigued by the initial set-up: a schoolteacher is brutally murdered, but it turns out she was anything but your typical schoolmarm. In fact, she had far too close a relationship with her students. Yet, despite the twisting plotline, I found myself struggling to remember whodunit after finishing the novel. I was far more interested in the evocation of Havana society and of Mario’s developing love interest.

The style is flamboyantly Latin, with lots of noisy chatter, and disconcerting moves from third person to first person narrative, as we go inside characters’ heads.  This is a rich tapestry of double meaning, double dealing, lack of trust and enduring friendship despite growing differences. The truth is slippery, and nothing is quite what it seems.  A metaphor for Cubanese life? Whatever the author intended, it makes for a colourful noirish tale, with plenty of funny moments to alleviate the underlying sadness.

M.J. McGrath: White Heat

mcgrath-m_1844550fI’d been meaning to read this novel for ages, but it was proving elusive here in France. Then I just happened to find a hardback copy for sale at a charity shop in London last week and carried it home in my suitcase. There is something about ice, snow and Northern countries which utterly beguile me.

The author displays an uncanny knowledge of the Inuit world. I cannot tell if it is accurate or not, obviously, but it feels completely believable, so I am completely sucked into that landscape and society. She captures perfectly the vast emptiness of Ellesmere Island, far north of the Arctic Circle, a harsh, dark world, with remarkably resilient people, despite the excessive drinking, the lack of jobs and future of its young people. All this is rendered in a clear-eyed, unsentimental style, taking that lifestyle for granted rather than trying to explain too much of it away to us.

Edie Kiglatuk is an expert Inuit hunter and guide, and she is getting suspicious of the way recent tourist expeditions to the area have ended in accidents and death. When her beloved stepson Joe becomes involved in these tragic events, Edie displays almost super-human cunning and endurance skills to track down the killers and find out the truth. This reminded me of ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’, a book I loved when it first came out.

So pleased I pushed myself to explore new continents, thanks to the Global Reading Challenge. For 2014, I am thinking of going into far more detail with Japanese and Latin American literature.