Quick Reviews for April – Crime Fiction

I’ve fallen behind with my reviews for this month, so I’m going to do a bit of a brain dump here regarding the crime novels I read recently.

First of all, I was fortunate enough to read five in a row which were really good fun and page-turningly exciting. That doesn’t happen all that often, even to a huge fan of the genre. All too often I have a string of so-so, disappointing or not so memorable ones. But the following are all highly recommended and I read each one of them in 1-2 days at most (sometimes overnight). Plotting is a hugely underestimated skills – far too many disdain it as ‘potboiler’ novels, but they are actually very difficult to write. I often read books where plot is either non-existent or confused with a laundry list of events.

Zhou Haohui: Death Notice, transl. Zac Halusa¬† – not only a well-paced serial killer novel, but also exotic because it describes the workings of police in China (without going into politics). Inspired by American thrillers, it is full of nail-biting moments and maverick characters (yes, some may be a little two-dimensional, but the plotting and suspense will carry you through). The topic of fighting against a shadowy figure who is killing off those who deserve to be punished is also surprising, given China’s recent history. Full review will be available shortly on CFL.

Philip Kerr: Prussian Blue –¬†Bernie Gunther back in fine fettle as a cynical, world-weary and mouthy Berliner detective, with a dual timeline. I have to admit I was more interested in the 1938 timeline in Bavaria, but Kerr is certainly the master of leaving you on a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter and then moving serenely to the other timeline. Most of the characters really did exist, although Kerr may be giving them different characteristics and motivations. The claustrophobic atmosphere and palpable fear of the F√ľhrer and his cronies is impeccably rendered here. The Cold War villains are perhaps slightly less convincing.

Catherine Ryan Howard: The Liar’s Girl –¬†who hasn’t done something foolish as a student, loved the wrong person? For Alison Smith it gets far more serious than that, when her boyfriend Will is convicted of killing several young female students in their first year at an elite Dublin university. Alison has fled abroad and tried to put all that behind her, but when another girl is found in the Grand Canal ten years after those events, the police believe they might have a copycat killer on their hands. And so both she and Will get sucked back into the past. While there are a few predictable places, the author is One of those ‘what if’ novels that leaves you wondering just how blind love can make you.

Rebecca Bradley: Dead Blind –¬†a standalone from Rebecca, whose series books I have mentioned before. I predict this is going to be a breakout novel for her, as it is such an interesting concept.¬†Ray Patrick is a police detective who was injured on duty and now finds himself unable to recognise faces. He doesn’t disclose that condition to his colleagues, for fear of being kicked out. After all, he leads others rather than doing the day-to-day nitty-gritty job, so he should be all right, or so he tells himself. When his team gets involved in a police operation that targets an international trade in human organs, he witnesses a savage murder. He sees the killer’s face – but he will never remember it. Coming out in May, this is both an exciting story and poses a real dilemma around disclosure of disabilities.

Mark Edwards: The Retreat

I’m a sucker for stories about writers, and this one takes place on a writing retreat. So you have all of the funny observations of writers’ egos and intrigues, but also a really creepy house with a tragic past. At times I feared this might be veering too much into the realm of the supernatural but the main protagonist, horror writer Lucas refuses to believe in such things (ironically enough, given he makes money from scaring others). Really suspenseful. I love the fact that Mark Edwards writes standalone novels which are all different from each other and¬† yet play so well on our psychological quirks. He is very skilled at tackling all of the current horror and crime clich√©s and subverting our expectations. Full review on CFL soon.

 

 

 

 

Also Read: Quick Reviews

‘I don‚Äôt want to review everything I read. At least not all of it, and not some of it in great detail,’ says Simon Savidge (and if you haven’t discovered his fabulous book blog yet, please do yourself a favour and go there). I feel the same – and my decision earlier this autumn/winter to neglect the ‘sense of duty’ has been very liberating for my reading and my enjoyment of books.

However, there are still books which I enjoyed reading in-between more ‘serious’ or ‘heavy’ books – much like I enjoy snacking between meals. I don’t want to review them at length, but they do deserve perhaps a little more than just a listing in the end of month line-up. So here are three I read earlier:

AlisonMercerAlison Mercer: After I Left You

Why has Anna been avoiding her friends from university for the past two decades? What happened to her at Oxford that she has run away from any reunion since? Well, it’s not that difficult to guess. I pretty much sussed out who/what/with whom/how about a third of the way through the book, with only a few of the details still left to figure out. I did enjoy the descriptions of student life (within the same time-frame as my Cambridge experience, so it brought on a wave of nostalgia), but I have the same problem with the friendships depicted here as I did with Donna Tartt’s¬†‘The Secret History’. Why on earth would friends treat each other like that, betray each other and not tell the truth for decades? Maybe I’ve been lucky to befriend the right kind of people? Or maybe it is a British thing to not be able to have it all out on the spot? The Latin in me is puzzled.

Not a bad read; once you start, you can’t stop easily. Just not particularly memorable. The snack equivalent would be a packet of ready-salted crisps.

HiddenGirlLouise Millar: The Hidden Girl

There is something about how Louise Millar throws her protagonists to the wolves (I’ve noticed this in previous books like ‘The Playdate’): Mr. and Mrs. Everybody find themselves in sticky situations, which creep up on them almost unawares… Millar is a mistress of the gradual chill and the completely unreasonable main characters. Hannah is obsessed with adopting a baby, so much so that she is prepared to uproot herself and her husband from London, take on a large, dilapidated¬†house in a remote Suffolk village, give up her career, and change her whole behaviour in an attempt to pretend her life is picture-postcard perfect. And, of course, it isn’t… in fact, the move to the countryside seems to unravel everything. The marital discord and obsessive personality sounded very true-to-life, and the house did exude some creepiness, but the donkey story brought it dangerously close to a farce.¬†I also didn’t quite buy the second strand (or should that be the main strand?) of the story – but the author very cleverly kept us wondering if it was a ghost story, a cover-up for murder or a conspiracy possibly involving her own family.

Snack: Liquorice all-sorts – you like some bits more than others.

becauseshelovesMark Edwards: Because She Loves Me

When Andrew meets beautiful, edgy Charlie, he is certain his run of bad luck has finally come to an end. But as the two of them embark on a lusty affair, Andrew wonders if his grasp on reality is slipping. Items go missing in his apartment. Somebody appears to be following him. And, one by one, odd, even tragic things seem to befall his friends and loved ones. Andrew is forced to consider the possibility that Charlie may not be quite the lucky break he thought she was.

It was good fun reading it, with many ‘thank goodness it’s not me’ and ‘how can he not see what’s happening?’ moments. It galloped along at quite a pace, with some moments of genuine insight into jealousy and obsession. But it was a tad predictable and the twist at the end felt overly orchestrated.

Snack: Japanese savoury mix – fun to nibble at, but leaves a bit of a Wasabi aftertaste.

And please bear in mind that I do love all of my snacks, even if they do not sustain me on a long-term basis.

 

 

 

Showcase Sunday: Another Severe Case of Book Acquisition…

I am supposedly on a book buying moratorium, but this week I cracked and completely forgot about it. After the Chateau de Lavigny readings that I attended last Sunday, I could not resist buying  paperback books by at least two of the authors present there.

glowJessica Maria Tuccelli: Glow –¬†five unforgettable voices weaving over a century of Southern life in America; slave plantations have been built adjacent to the glades of a razed Cherokee nation. An epic novel, filled with many personal, intimate stories.

 

 

ChokeChainJason Donald: Choke Chain – Nelson Mandela said: ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ In 1980s apartheid South Africa, bad parenting seems to be rife, as two young boys find out about deceit, violence and petty crime from their volatile father.

 

Then I made the mistake of reading some reviews I trust and following some writers’ Twitter stream… and got excited about the following two books, which I downloaded in electronic format.

¬†Anne Fine: Taking the Devil’s Advice – already read and reviewed¬†here

BecauseSheLovesMeMark Edwards: Because She Loves Me – a psychological thriller, filled with passion, obsession, jealousy and murderous intent. I’ve previously enjoyed the build-up of suspense in Edward’s novel ‘The Magpies’, so am curious to see what he does next.

 

I also borrowed a book in French from the library: Susie Morgenstein: Confession d’une grosse patate – a half-serious, half-humorous look at the plight and self-flagellation of an overweight woman. I later discovered it was not by a French writer at all, so there were no loving descriptions of foie gras and wine…

Finally, yesterday I attended the literature festival ‘Le Livre sur les Quais’ (Books by the Quay) in Morges in Switzerland. I had the pleasure of meeting several writers I know, admire, have read or am currently reading: Louise Doughty, Noami Wood (of ‘Mrs. Hemingway’ fame), Val McDermid, Nathan Filer. I was with a German/Swiss friend who introduced me to some German-speaking writers, while I introduced him to some French and English-speaking ones. So of course I had to buy a few books and get them signed… Sadly, none of them are yet available in English.

FouadLarouiFouad Laroui: L’√©trange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine (The Strange Affair of Dassoukine’s Trousers).

A short story collection which won the Goncourt novella prize last year, this is a wonderful mix of surrealism, absurdity and cross-cultural comparison written with great humour and compassion. I previously read and briefly reviewed this Moroccan-French writer’s wonderful book about a year in the French education system. And doesn’t this one have an irresistable cover?

 

IncardonaJoseph Incardona: 220 Volts

I love the noirish style of this Swiss-Italian writer (who writes in French) and hope he will soon get translated into English. This is the story of writer’s block mixed with marital block – a couple go on holiday in an isolated mountain chalet to try and rekindle both their relationship and their artistic inspiration. Of course, things don’t go according to plan…

 

SwissTrafficMary Anna Barbey: Swiss Traffic

The latest book by this American-turned-Swiss author, it is crime fiction with an extra literary dimension. It also bravely examines human trafficking in this wealthiest, most peaceful of Alpine countries. It is also the book that I saw several French writers reading while they were waiting for their book signings to start: always a good sign!

 

This post is linked up to the Showcase Sunday meme hosted by Vicky at Book, Biscuits and Tea. A great chance for us to oooh and aaah over our latest acquisitions. And remortgage our house to buy some more!

Showcase Sunday banner

Fiction Round-Up for June

Guess which genre I prefer?
Guess which genre I prefer?

Another busy and varied month of reading… reflecting, no doubt, the busy-ness in my so-called professional (i.e. non-writing) life. ¬†I am very far behind on my reviewing, but the holidays are starting soon and I hope to catch up with myself. ¬†However, you will soon get a feel for my reading predilection, simply by looking at the colour of the book covers… ¬†Black dominates! (Even more, possibly, if you also add the books I read in Kindle or pdf format).

So here is a list and quick reviews (with possibly more to follow) or links to reviews elsewhere:

1) Nick Taussig: The Distinguised Assassin Рbrutal tale of betrayal and life under dictatorship in Soviet Russia

2) Martin Walker: The Resistance Man – the latest in the utterly enchanting Bruno Courreges series set in present-day rural France

3) And because one Bruno is never enough, I’ve also read the previous book in the series ‘The Devil’s Cave’.

4) Antonin Varenne: Bed of Nails  Рa disturbing tale of suicides that are more than they first appear to be, set in an almost dystopian Paris, like something in a parallel universe; to be reviewed imminently on the Crime Fiction Lover website

5) Bashir Sakhawarz: Maargir the Snake Charmer – poignant vignettes of life in Afghanistan before and after the Russian invasion, as well as the story of two brothers on opposing sides of the ideological struggle

6) Marius Czubaj: 21:37 – the first Polish crime novel that I have ever read, and a promising one it is too, featuring a police profiler called Heinz (‘like the ketchup’), homophobia and corrupt businessmen and church officials.

7) Louise Penny: The Cruellest Month – I enjoyed my first taste of Inspector Gamache so much, I had to try another book in the series, and this was deeper, darker and overall even better than the previous one.

8) Mark Edwards: The Magpies – a new, subtler take on the neighbours from hell scenario, with psychological torture taken to new extremes (but no blood-soaked daggers of American stalker movies)

9) Rachael Lucas: Sealed with a Kiss. ¬†I’ve been following Rachael’s blog about gardening, writing and living with children for nearly 3 years now, so of course I had to get her first book and read it. I am loyal like that. ¬†The author claims to be a little embarrassed to admit that it is chick lit, but it is delightful, funny, fluffy and sweet. ¬†And set on a remote island off the West Coast of Scotland. ¬†Yes, a little predictable, but what’s not to love?

10) Stav Sherez: The Black Monastery. ¬†Another novel by this author ‘A Dark Redemption’ was one of my crime favourites of the year in 2012, so I wanted to read an earlier one of his, especially since the setting is a Greek island. ¬†Not as good as the other novel I read, though. ¬†The crimes are rather horrendous and the atmosphere is too dark to be truly Greek, but Stav cannot write a bad sentence. ¬†Exciting, touching and more than a shade creepy.

11) Kristina Carlson: Mr. Darwin’s Gardener. ¬†All of the hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness and diversity of the quintessential English village is displayed here, in a work that is both philosophical, liberating and oddly funny.

12) Jack Kerouac: On the Road. ¬†A bit like a rich meal: it’s fine in principle, but too much in one go. ¬†A little of it goes a long way. ¬†After a while, it gets repetitive and unbearably misogynistic.

So a good month of reads, with no major disappointments among them. Eight of the 12 books were crime fiction, three of the 12 were translations. ¬†I would probably say that my crime pick of the month is Louise Penny, while my non-crime pick is ‘Mr. Darwin’s Gardener’.