Another month has whizzed by and there has been quite a lot of crime reading going on, with a few unexpecteds cropping up on my planned list. 13 books, 6 of them by women writers, 6 of them crime, 5 of them foreign language books. All in all, 11 countries were visited in the course of the reading (if we consider Wales a separate country). Only one that I regretted spending time on and one DNF, but since the latter was short stories, I didn’t feel guilty about it at all.
Victor del Arbol: A Million Drops – moving saga of idealogy, betrayals and survival, set in Spain and Soviet Russia. To be reviewed on Necessary Fiction asap.
Ödön von Horváth: Tales from the Vienna Woods – anything but pretty story of 1920s Vienna, will be taking a closer look at translation on my lbog
Spike Milligan: Puckoon – farce which nowadays doesn’t seem quite so funny (and probably even less so in the 1980s).
Margot Kinberg: Downfall – for fans of academic environments and less violent crime, a rather sad story of young people being let down by private interests
Karin Brynard: Weeping Waters – review coming up on Crime Fiction Lover, but an excellent new series about South Africa, which does not shy away from controversial topics such as race and land ownership
Rebecca Bradley: Fighting Monsters – Hannah is back on form, trying to cope with new boss, new team member and a potential harmful leak within the police force
Iona Whishaw: It Begins in Betrayal – attractive feisty heroine is a retired WW2 spy, with wholesome Canadian characters and unsavoury European ones – great period piece and fun. Review to come on Crime Fiction Lover.
Hanne Ørstavik: Love – excellent build-up of emotion and dread
So, how has your reading been in March, and what are you looking forward to reading in April?
First proper day of Spring, apparently, so I thought I would take part once more in what is in fact a weekly (but to me more like monthly) 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.
It’s nice to have friends who write crime fiction, as you have a never-ending supply of books that you want to read. I always make a point of reading the blog posts of Margot Kinberg and Rebecca Bradley, who are keen crime readers as well as writers, so it is an absolute pleasure to delve into their recent releases.
Rebecca Bradley: Fighting Monsters
This is the third book (plus a novella) in the crime series set in Nottingham and featuring DI Hannah Robbins and it’s fair to say that, as the book opens, Hannah has been through the mill. A colleague was killed in action (something she still blames herself for), she herself was wounded, her relationship with an attractive journalist has ended… and now it appears she may have a leak in her own team. How else would gang leader and cop killer Simon Talbot walk away freely and triumphantly after his trial, and in possession of the name of the witness who spoke out against him?
Margot Kinberg: Downfall
This is the fourth novel featuring ex-cop turned professor of criminal justice Joel Williams. In this book Joel is conducting some research with two friends of his into alternatives to prison for young offenders and come across the organisation Second Chance. In one of their schools a young boy died after sneaking out and climbing up a building on a construction site. But if it was merely an unfortunate accident, why is everyone trying so hard to cover it up?
Two rather emotional but very different reads, one slim and concise, taking place over the course of one night, one long and rangey, taking place over several decades and countries.
Hanne Ørstavik: Love, transl. Martin Aitken
The story of a single mother and her young son, both of them dreamers, both of them slightly naive and wanting to believe the best of people, both of them doomed to be forever disappointed. Over the course of one cold night, they roam around town, and your sense of foreboding gets worse and worse. A book that broke my heart a little.
Victor Del Arbol: A Million Drops, transl. Lisa Dillman
It’s being marketed as a crime novel, but it is more of a historical saga of betrayal and revenge, Fascism and Communism, in both Spain and the Soviet Union, as seen through the eyes of individuals who lived through those troubled times. The atrocious conditions of Nazino Island in Siberia were so vividly described that I thought it must be fiction, only to discover that this place really did exist.
I’ll be going to two countries I like very much (despite their -very different – problems) with my next two books: South Africa and Germany.
Karin Brynard: Weeping Waters, transl. Maya Fowler and Isabel Dixon
A young artist and her adopted daughter are brutally murdered on a farm near the Kalahari. But was this just a typical farm attack, or was it something more personal? Townie Inspector Beeslaar has his hands full trying to get his head around this landscape with its tensions, secrets and hostilities.
Ödön von Horváth: Jugend ohne Gott
I so enjoyed rediscovering Horváth in the German section of the library, that I already have my eye on reading another book by him, this time a novel about a teacher who watches, horrified, as his students become enamoured with racist and Fascist ideology.
Oh, dear, all the subjects seem rather grim as I write them up here. Clearly I’m not much of a believer in uplifting, feel-good literature, right?
My reading speed seems to have gone down over the last few months, despite my endless sleepless nights. I seem to start many books and then spending simply ages not quite getting round to finishing them. I have continued reading and writing poetry, but my unofficial NaNoWriMo did not work out. Still, lack of success on the writing front usually means I find refuge in lots of reading, so it’s puzzling that this has not been the case. I have read just ten books (it may seem a lot, but quite a few of them were rather short), but I’ve been even worse when it comes to reviewing. So, with apologies, here are some very succinct reviews in some cases.
Crime fiction and psychological thrillers:
Michael J. Malone: A Suitable Lie
Not really a conventional domestic thriller, although it does turn the tables on domestic violence. It is more of a character study and very effective in describing the cycle of hope, obligation, guilt, fear, love, a whole rollercoaster of emotions.
Although the theme of sexual harassment in college is very topical and disturbing, this is a welcome change of pace to the darker, grittier type of crime fiction. A civilised campus novel, with most people able to converse elegantly with each other (although they still lie, or exaggerate or omit things).
I’ve loved some Harry Hole novels (The Redbreast, The Snowman) and been less enthusiastic about others, but he is undeniably a page-turner. I took him spontaneously out of the library to see just how he manages to build that sense of dread, foreboding, suspense. This story was perhaps a little too convoluted for my taste, but every time there was someone alone in a venue, searching for something, and they would then hear a noise, I jumped out of my skin.
I expect nothing less from Elizabeth Taylor than this beautifully observed study of the foibles of human nature, our innate selfishness, the stories we tell ourselves and others to justify our behaviour. It is a humorous and very poignant look at ageing and loneliness. What struck me most was the dissolution of family ties, how little we really come to mean to those whom we have been conditioned to think of as the nearest and dearest. There are many characters, each one instantly recognisable, yet carefully avoiding stereotypes.
My book of the month is You Will Not Have My Hate, for the emotional devastation it wreaked on me. My second choice, which also managed to squeeze a tear or two out of me, is Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.
So, cheery Christmas reads next? I don’t really like ‘seasonal books’ but I’d better find something less gloomy or else my insomnia will never improve! And that Netgalley list needs to go down as well!
My days of basking in ample shelf space may be over. I still have to venture into the dark recesses of my loft, but I nevertheless managed to fill in all available gaps buying books as if there were no tomorrow. Att the same time, my boys and I are such a constant fixture at our local library that we think they might start dusting us down together with the furniture.
Since moving back to Britain, I’ve bought 20 books (and I’m not counting the review copies I’ve received). That’s nearly 3 per week on average, but actually works up to more than that, as the first three weeks I was out of action, still travelling and nowhere near a bookshop. So it’s really 20 books in 4 weeks, which (with the most fancy mathematical footwork in the world) still comes to 5 a week. Madness, I tell ye, madness! (But probably to the delight of booksellers in London).
Initially, I thought there were just 14, most of which I bought in Waterstones Piccadilly when I attended a few events there. These include: Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter; The Outrun by Amy Liptrot; How to be Brave by Louise Beech; Breach (Refugee Tales) by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes (Peirene Press), because they are all heart-wrenching and therefore very much suited to my current state of mind. Poetry, of course, because that is not so easy to find abroad: The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy; Bloodaxe Books’ Staying Alive anthology; the winner of the Forward Prize 2016 Vahni Capildeo and the Best First Collection winner Tiphanie Yanique (not so much because they are winners, but because they write about gender and expatriation, two subjects so dear to my heart); and the enigmatic Rosemary Tonks. Finally, to round off my bookshop extravaganza, I also bought Teffi’s Subtly Worded, after so many of my favourite bloggers recommended Teffi.
I’ve always been a Jean Rhys fan and own most of her books in slim Penguin editions from the 1980s, But one can never have too much of a good thing, so, following the #ReadingRhys week, I’ve bought a collected edition of her early novels (Voyage in the Dark, Quartet, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie and Good Morning, Midnight), her letters and a biography by Lilian Pizzichini.
Then there are the random books I bought off Amazon (I try to limit my purchases there, but occasionally get distracted): a collected edition of some of Margaret Millar’s best novels; Super Sushi Ramen Express by Michael Booth, because I love Japan, its food and travelogues in general; Get Published in Literary Magazines by Alison K. Williams because… well, I keep on trying.
Finally, there are the ebooks, which I barely even count anymore, as they are not so ‘visible’. I’ve downloaded two Tana French books (because I’ve only read two of hers and want to try more). I couldn’t resist the offerings of two of my online friends: an escapist love story set in Provence by Patricia Sands and pre-ordering Margot Kinberg’s latest murder mystery.
Let’s not forget the ARCs I’ve received, and my book haul is even greater than the one in Lyon earlier this year. I’m behind with reviewing the atmospheric The Legacy of the Bones by Dolores Redondo, so I hope Harper Collins are patient. Thank you to Orenda Books, who sent me Louise Beech’s The Mountain in My Shoe, Michael J. Malone’s A Suitable Lie and Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal (transl. Rosie Hedger), which all look very promising indeed. And, after quite a deep chat with Zygmunt Miłoszewski earlier this week, I can’t wait to read his book Rage, so thank you Midas PR for providing me with a copy of that!
As Stav Sherez was saying last night at Crime in the Court: Twitter is an expensive habit, as it’s full of book recommendations from people whose opinion you respect. (Yes, I still blame him and Eva Dolan for half of my noirish purchases.)
I dread to add up the exact amount I spent, but if we calculate an (underestimated) average of £5 per book, you realise the full extent of my folly! It takes no great psychologist to realise that there is something deeper at work here beneath my simple and pleasurable book addiction.
You know how quickly I devour crime fiction and that my preference is for the subversive, disturbing and relentlessly noir. However, quite a few my recent reads have been of a gentler persuasion, almost an old-fashioned feel. In descending order of ‘gentility’, may I introduce you to…
Margot Kinberg: B Very Flat
Margot is such a supportive, knowledgeable member of the crime-writing and reading community, plus I have a soft spot for novels with an academic setting, so I’d been planning to get this one for ages. Not easy to order outside the US, but I eventually got my paws on it (and am now waiting to meet Margot in person, so she can sign it for me).
Serena Brinkman is a talented violinist at Tilton University, a small but prestigious college on the East Coast. She truly seems to be the golden girl who has it all – but then death strikes on the night of a major music competition. A former detective, now professor of criminal justice at Tilton University, is asked to investigate the apparently accidental death a little further. We are firmly in Golden Age detective era type of fiction here, although there are all the modern accoutrements of student life nowadays (including PDAs and online gambling). What struck me was how very polite and nice all the characters seem – genteel, in other words (although, obviously, they can’t all be, since one of them at least is a murderer). Even the flawed ones, even when misunderstandings occur. It’s a book for readers who like a puzzle and a minimum of gore.
Frédéric Dard: Bird in a Cage (transl. David Bellos)
Dard was one of the most prolific crime writers in France (and that’s saying something, given that Simenon was also writing there). Best-known for his nearly 180 San-Antonio novels (think a more satirical and realistic Bond), he has also written over 100 standalone novels and shorter series, many of them under various pseudonyms (clearly, the publishers couldn’t keep up with him!).
This is a bittersweet novel with a perfect 1950s setting, which reminded me a little of Pascal Garnier. Albert returns to his old neighbourhood in Paris after his mother’s death (having spent several years in prison) and is captivated by a beautiful woman and her young child, whom he sees eating alone in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. He becomes involved in a very complicated and dubious story with the woman, her husband and the Midnight Mass for Christmas. A clever puzzle and a rather quiet, gentle man who is clearly being manipulated, although we are not quite sure how.
Jo Nesbø: Blood on the Snow (transl. Neil Smith)
I was struck at once by how similar this novel is to Bird in a Cage in terms of premise and feel (rather than style or plot). A professional fixer (with some moral scruples) is asked to ‘fix’ the wife of his boss, but starts to feel sorry for her. Falls a little in love. This is a much more brutal story, far less ambiguous than Dard, and Olav is not as genteel or well-spoken as Albert, but it is a quieter book, with an old-fashioned atmosphere which we’ve not hitherto experienced with Nesbø. Bet you weren’t expecting him to come smack-bang in the middle of this post!
Augusto De Angelis: The Hotel of the Three Roses (transl. Jill Foulston)
Another Pushkin Vertigo release, I had high hopes for this one, set in a boarding-house in Milan in 1919, written in the 1930s and filled to the brim with unreliable characters with a dodgy past. However, I found there were just too many characters, all lying with no compunction and very little concern about plausibility. There were just too many things happening, insufficient clarity and psychological motivation. This was gentility of the cold-nosed, snobbish variety, not even a smidgen of warmth or attempt to make me care about any of the characters. And, as for those creepy china dolls…!
Michael Stanley: Deadly Harvest
This is not the Botswana of endless cups of Redbush tea and astute yet gentle musings of Alexander McCall Smith. But it remains, nevertheless, a polite, traditional society with respect for rank and the elderly, even though we are dealing with some pretty horrible realities. Under the ‘quaint’ umbrella of traditional African medicine, muti, we find a profoundly disturbing superstition and increasing use of human body parts. As young girls go missing and the communities are too scared to talk, our beloved rotund Detective Kubu supports his feisty new recruit, Samantha Khama, who wants to find out just what is going on. Politics, traditions, family ties, AIDS victims and reactions to HIV-infected children, plus strong characterisation all form a delightful and far more believable alternative narrative of modern Africa. The authors scratch beneath the surface of the beauty, charm and nostalgia that the British Empire still has for Africa, yet carefully avoid making the country or its people the villain of the piece. One of my favourite series set in Africa.
It’s ironic, isn’t it? I often complain that people nowadays are incapable of talking to each other without a device to mediate between them. I despise people who bring their phones wherever they go… and actually answer them or check messages while they are having lunch or dinner with you. I can happily live without a single glance online while on holiday, surrounded by my physical books, good food, stunning landscapes – with only a minor urge to immortalise that moment in a photograph. I advocate (or should that be nag?) that families should unplug from the internet and spend more time together.
But then our internet and phone connection fails completely and I go mad with rage. My dear online friend, fellow crime lover, academic and author Margot Kinberg wrote a post about this very recently.
The meltdown is not instant, you understand.
The first day, I’m quite relieved to be untraceable. I happily finish a book (or two) guilt-free, write my WIP with relish. The second day, I even take on additional tasks which have been put off for far too long: tidying out wardrobes and the garage. I bake cakes with my sons and try to keep snails as pets in a glass jar. Yes! Quality time!
By the third day, I miss the companionship of Twitter and blogs, but I can just about live with it. And yes, before you ask, it IS different from being offline during a holiday, because it’s not my own decision. It’s being forced upon me, and I have no idea how long it will last, so cannot make plans.
On the fourth day, I start to feel incredibly isolated and frustrated, especially when the calls on my mobile to the internet service provider Numericable prove fruitless. Did I tell you that mobile reception is rubbish in my house, so I have to either hang halfway out the window in the bedroom upstairs, stand in a corner of the garden where my neighbours can hear every word, or be on hold for 20 minutes with outrageous Swiss roaming charges? (We live on the border, and sometimes the Swiss signal is far stronger than the French one).
Yes, yes, first world problems, I can see you roll your eyes just now. I’ve done it myself in the past. I’ve had to remind myself of others who’ve fled home with no belongings, perhaps no families, only their lives and a few memories. I came across a woman in one of the McDonald’s I found refuge in, who gave me a bit of reality check: left penniless after an acrimonious divorce, living in a part of France with high unemployment, she had made her way to this part of the world, in the hope of finding a job in or near Geneva. She was sleeping in her car, having a shower at the swimming pool and applying for jobs online while nursing a cup of coffee for hours at McDo. Life could be worse.
Of course, my parents live happily without a landline, internet or computer. But they are retired, live in the countryside, walk daily to the marketplace to buy their food and newspapers, and spend most of the day in the garden. They also forget to take their mobile with them into the garden, so I seldom can reach them during the day. They don’t even have a proper aerial for their TV, so can only watch one channel, shaky at that.
So, yes, life like that is possible and undoubtedly very peaceful.
I have it neither so good, nor so bad as some others.
I merely have to move a family, a household full of goods, a cat and some broken pieces of myself back to the UK this summer. All I need to do is ensure a smooth handover of schools, orthodontists, doctors, banks, utilities companies… well, I don’t need to go on about this, you all have experienced a move, and I’ve done it many times before, so I could handle it if I could do my research online and then phone. But I can do neither.
In the meantime, all the usual end of school year craziness is amplified, because it is the LAST one EVER (I am using my teenage son’s emphatic style), and they also want to have farewell parties and birthday parties and do memorable things which you’d always meant to do, as well as return to all their favourite places in the area to say goodbye. No matter how often I repeat to myself: ‘You can’t make everyone happy. You are not chocolate’, I still fall into the trap of trying, partly because of the guilt about disrupting the children’s life by moving again.
Just to add to the mess, there are a couple of deadlines for writing competitions, debut novels or debut poetry chapbooks which I want to make sure that I don’t miss. Besides, I do also have a day job, even if it’s become nearly invisible of late. I’m supposed to facilitate a few courses in mid-June, but so far have been unable to access the (very large) files, because public WiFi does not like Dropbox and other such sharing platforms. Ironically, one of the courses is on working in virtual teams…
In fact, life is full of irony at the moment. I could share such funny stories with you! How I sit in a car outside someone’s house because I know they don’t have a security key on their WiFi (this must be illegal in at least 50 countries). How I buy a cup of coffee (although I don’t really want another one) in a neighbourhood café and sit down with a sigh for an action-packed morning of work, only to discover that their own WiFi isn’t working. How I then rush back to McDonald’s, where the lady at the counter already knows I avoid their coffee and prefer a smoothie (why do they no longer provide their classical strawberry milkshake, for heaven’s sake?). I can never stay for more than an hour there, before it gets too busy and noisy at lunchtime, or all day really, as there are construction sites just outside, cleaning staff mopping underneath your feet in the morning, team meetings in the ‘quiet’ corner in the afternoon. I could share with you strategies for switching on/off/on/off even at these public WiFi spots, so that the simplest cut and paste from a Word document to a website only takes five times longer than it should, instead of ten times.
Why don’t you buy some temporary internet access via your mobile phone? Why don’t you use your neighbours’ networks? I’ve been asked all that. The answer is that you awake each day with renewed belief that today is the day when the problem will be fixed. You are not told from the beginning that it will take 3 weeks (or more?). Unless you are my older son, who had his own meltdown about not being able to use his tablet to search for film reviews or cheat sheets for video games. Now he gloomily predicts that internet will never come back until we go to England.
I can also write a film script for a farce about how my neighbours felt sorry for me and gave me the key to their house to use their WiFi, but forgot to switch off their alarm. To make things worse, the key was for the cellar door, so I looked doubly sneaky, but luckily, I was spotted trying to smuggle a laptop into the house, rather than out of it. The second time I try this, having been told the alarm is most definitely off now, I discover the key doesn’t actually turn in the lock.
I could also tell you the classic tale of Cinderella after everyone went to the ball. How I sat at home all day waiting for the engineer to come and fix this problem, biting my cuticles, not wanting to start any serious writing for fear of being interrupted, popping out the front door at the sound of every car or even bicycle, only to be stood up like a wallflower. Of course, it was then reported back to HQ that he did come to our address, but there was no one home and the phone (yes, the one that hasn’t had a dial tone in 3 weeks) was engaged.
Oh, so many potential sources of Mr. Beanish confusions! Being held up at the border in the UK because I have not filled in the right forms for our cat. The French Tax Office sending a Jean Reno in Leon look-alike professional to shoot me for not filling my tax returns in time (which, from this year on, can only be done online). How I will wing it for the workshops, having never seen the slides before that day: ‘Oh, look, and that’s another thing I should be talking about, but I don’t know what it means!’ Last but not least, a domestic noir brief about a wife murdering a husband who not only doesn’t shoulder any of the burden (other than to murmur supportively that he misses watching BBC iPlayer and Netflix), but actually forwards you (via email) the one and only enquiry you get from posting a few sales items on his company intranet, because you have not had much joy with Facebook sales postings even when you could access them daily. Why? It was in French, of course, and one can’t be expected to speak any French after studying it in high school over twenty years ago and living in France for 8 years in total.
Some day in the distant, rosy horizon of a future where all our thoughts can be uploaded instantly and transmitted to whom we like, when we like and only if we like, without depending on any cables or optic fibres or the people who put them in the ground, and without any ‘oops, wrong button’ moments…
Some day, when Numericable company bosses will have died a slow and agonising death, not before paying out a large compensation to all those unhappy customers who have not been able to do their work or live their lives for so many weeks…
Some day, when this madness will have passed, when your health and sanity will have returned, when husbands will have been buried and courts will have been clement because you had ample provocation…
Some day, this too shall pass and seem hilarious! Until then… ohmmmmm….
I’ve been reading some rather lengthy and serious books lately, so I thought I would unwind with a few lighter reads. Here are three I read in about a couple of hours each, something for every taste.
Gert Loveday: Writing Is Easy
Delightful and frothy like a French dessert, this is a book for and about writers. There are a couple of deaths within its pages, but it’s not crime fiction. Instead, writers’ workshops and retreats are given the satirical treatment. The lively characterisation really makes the story here: washed-out novelist Marcus Goddard, who is afraid he will never live up to the success of his first novel; impenetrable modernist writer and performance poet Lilian Bracegirdle; the wannabe writer of hardboiled detective fiction who gets stuck with too many dames; the fitness fanatic who firmly believes it can’t be that hard to write a book in a week; the downtrodden housewife turning to the world of fantasy fiction for comfort; the serial award-winner who still hasn’t managed to find her own voice. Not forgetting resourceful or greedy assistants, a temperamental chef, tremendous egos and past secrets resurfacing to haunt people. A romp of a novel, just the thing to make you laugh out loud at human absurdity.
Margot Kinberg & Martin Edwards (eds.): In a Word, Murder
This is a labour of love: an anthology to commemorate indomitable blogger and crime fiction specialist Maxine Clarke, aka Petrona. All proceeds from the sale of this anthology go to one of Maxine’s favourite charities, the Princess Alice Hospice. It’s a fun collection of murderous short stories in diverse styles, reflecting the diversity of authors included. There is a lot of humour, as well as darker deeds, in this collection, and quite a few of the stories have a literary bent as well: self-publishing becomes a life-saver (literally), book blogging becomes deadly, changing publishers is a dangerous game… and so on.
Stella Rimington: The Geneva Trap
OK, I’ll admit it: I read this one purely for the location, as I live in the Geneva area and thought it would be fun to see if the author had captured the local flavour well. Needless to say, as with any spy thriller, the locations change and also include Marseille, London, plus some godforsaken rural areas in France and England. Stella Rimington was famously the Director General of MI5 for many years, so she knows her stuff and perhaps her work is more authentic than John Le Carre or the recently read ‘I Am Pilgrim’. But oh, how much more boring authenticity is! A lot of surveillance, meetings on park benches, computer analyses… This is the 7th book in the Liz Carlyle series, so perhaps I missed something by not starting with the first, but it just felt like run-of-the-mill spy fiction to me. There was nothing to lift it above the average. Still, this would work well as a quick airport/airplane read.