June has been a funny old month: too busy to engage much in reading, even when I needed it most. So, only 7 books that I read from cover to cover – a record low for me. And, for the first time ever, there were two books I did not finish (in the same month!). But I have made a bit of an inroad into my #20booksofsummer list, although they haven’t been an unalloyed joy so far. So, if you are sitting comfortably, shall we begin?
The DNF stack
Ingrid Desjours: Les Fauves – for its gender stereotypes and mediocre thrillerish treatment of a subject which could have been very interesting
Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star – with apologies to Naomi Frisby, who sent me this one and whose opinions I value extremely highly. Call me shallow, call me comfort-zone reader, but it just required too much effort to follow. The made-up language was very clever (as a linguist, I appreciated the fact it had certain basic rules). I really admired the author’s inventiveness, and the energy and diversity of the young people in the story. However, I’m just not all that fond of post-apocalyptic fiction, and a combination of flu and migraine made it even harder for me to go through with it. I may still go back to it later, when I am fitter and my brains are in less of a jamble.
The #20booksofsummer pile
In addition to Les Fauves (see above), I read four more of the 20 books of summer. At the rate of 5 a month, I may not finish the challenge by September 5th.
Ariel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart – self-absorbed, navel-gazing, travelling to find one’s self instead of get to know other people
Michel Bussi: Black Water Lilies – Monet, gardens, three generations of women, convoluted yawn
Emma Cline: The Girls – teenager looking for meaning and a sense of belonging, MFA writing style with glimmers of real style
Claire Messud: The Emperor’s Children – slightly pretentious, but a sharp, sarcastic portrayal of ‘intellectual’ New York life
Jean-Claude Izzo: Vivre fatigue (Living wears you out) – oh, boy, is he depressing, but oh, boy, does he fit my current mood!
Rebecca Bradley: Made to Be Broken – a friend, but also a talented writer who really knows her police procedures and whose work is getting better and better
Unintentionally, this has been a month of women writers – only two men snuck in. It was also, unusually, an Anglo-French month: one third French, two thirds English-speaking. So not the most varied of months.
Before I leave France, however, I want to make more of an effort to find Romain Gary at the library. And I should leave out some poetry books: poetry is always a wonderful source of comfort and inspiration even in the most insane of moments.
You may not have seen any reviews up yet, but I started diligently on my list of #20booksofsummer on the 2nd of June. Here are the reviews of my first two reads in this category.
First up was Michel Bussi’s Black Water Lilies, but my tablet decided to throw a hissy fit and run down its batteries every 20 minutes or so, then take days to recharge. Then I got sidetracked by writing on my writing retreat (after all, that was the purpose, otherwise it would have been called a ‘reading retreat’). OK, and I admit, some other books on the endless shelves of the beautiful Verger sous les Vignes (Orchard under the Vineyards, which says it all about the location) also caught my attention. I spent a little time with Jean-Claude Izzo’s short stories (mostly set in Marseille, and of a despairing darkness which fits very well with the current news and atmosphere). I enjoyed the linguistic dexterity of Claire Messud and her depiction of New York life in all its pretentiousness but also poverty in The Emperor’s Children. Besides, I was still reading The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman, which requires a deep commitment and power of concentration.
So does that mean that it somehow failed to grab me? Bussi’s novel has, at first sight, all the ingredients that would appeal to me: a picturesque French village setting in Giverny, links with the art world – Monet’s home for the last few decades of his life, a puzzle about a missing painting, a child and a murder, and speculation about artistic heritage. Alas, sadly it does not live up to its premise! I read it to the end in the hope that the last half, third or quarter would redeem it, but that was not the case.
The story takes place over 13 days and starts with the apparently accidental death of Jerome Morval, a successful doctor, whose obsession for art matched his passion for women. It’s also the story of three female figures in the village: the old croon, the beautiful but bored wife, and the young painting prodigy. The team of investigators don’t quite know what to believe and end up duplicating or even triplicating each other in their search for the culprit or to prevent another murder from happening. There is so much foreshadowing it makes your head spin, but it’s not quite justified by the denouement. It’s good enough for a lazy beach read, and more enjoyable (to my mind) than After the Crash, but it doesn’t have me raring to read more by this author.
Ariel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart
Another disappointment, which I struggled to finish. Finish it I did, in the hope of some redeeming insight or grand conclusion, but there was none. Or not enough of one!
This is the author’s memoir of her late teens, aged 16-19, back in the late 1980s, when she drops out of high school in the US and goes travelling around Asia and Europe. Ariel is of a similar age to me, so I was curious to see if this was the story of my generation.
The answer is: no. Perhaps it is the story of that generation on the Pacific West Coast, but I think Europeans will struggle to identify with what she says. Her travels take her to Hong Kong, Beijing, Tibet, Nepal, Amsterdam, London and Tuscany, but in all these places she is adrift, far too preoccupied with herself, far too busy doing drugs, drinks and illegal smuggling, entering into loveless relationships, and never actually seeing or truly understanding other people and other cultures. She expresses concern about a Chinese mentee who was questioned by the police, but it still feels cold and distant. This is Privilege-meets-the-rest-of-the-world and thinks a little bit about it, amusingly and from a ‘look at me’ perspective.
As a personal journey it may have some merit, although I found the narrator (which I acknowledge may not be quite the same as the author) infuriating, but as a travelogue it just seems to be one description of a terrible squat after another. The author has been praised for her candour and brave introspection, but this one seems a little too ‘brave’ and too honest for my liking. The prose is choppy, I remain unsure as to what the ultimate message is (if any), and I would hate to burden my child with this level of detail about how her parents met each other and how she was born.
Of course, we have to remember it is the diary of a teenager (and the author has gone on to write wiser and better things), but I think I prefer the Anne Franks or even the self-absorbed but observant Marie Bashkirtseffs of this world.
Val McDermid wrote an article recently about crime fiction and politics. She argues that quite a lot of modern crime fiction is left-wing (voice of the little people, the poor, the oppressed), while thrillers (with their international conspiracies, nasty foreigners and arrogant governments) are more right-wing. While there are many exceptions to prove her rule, it’s true that most crime fiction is by its very nature political, because ‘crimes are an attack against society and the status quo’ (Michael Connelly). It tends to fall down, however, when the authors sets out too deliberately to make a political statement, when the message obliterates the story.
This has provoked, needless to say, a flurry of controversy, and I’m not going to add to the conversation here, other than to say that in both thrillers and crime fiction, the detecting hero is idealised (has to be!) as caring about ‘everyman’, thinking that ‘everybody counts’ equally… which to me does sound rather leftie. Meanwhile, in countries that have had authoritarian regimes, the police is regarded with fear and distrust – and crime fiction of nearly any stripe becomes unpalatable.
French audiences are quite keen on political thinking in their crime fiction, so there were many questions about this at Quais du Polar. I thought I’d summarise some of the most interesting debates and quotes here. The author pictures are all from the official programme, while additional (wobbly) pictures are my own.
From the Panel: The Americas
Michael Connelly – US: I’ve been lucky to be able to write about Harry Bosch for so many years, as my books show a man evolving in a city that’s evolving (LA). The man has certainly changed much faster than the city has. I don’t set out to make political statements in my books, but invariably, when I look back on them, they are political in some way. I am a ‘reformed journalist’, I’ve left non-fiction behind, because I believe that fiction allows you to uncover a higher degree of truth about life and people.
Emily St. John Mandel – Canada : Because noir novels look at the margins of society, the underbelly, the notion of ‘margin’ itself is a political statement. Not everyone is making it, not everyone is successful – according to society’s definition of success. Illegal immigration, people without papers, economic collapse in 2009 – it’s a shadow world most of us don’t get to see and I felt a strong urge to write about it.
Paulo Lins- Brazil: From the end of the dictatorship in Brazil in 1984, it’s only now that we’re entering a period which bears some resemblance to real democracy. We’ve opened up to the US and Europe, international trade relations have improved, a middle class has emerged and many have moved above the poverty line. But it does mean that criminals have adapted – the very local gang wars in the favelas have now become more organised crime, engulfing all of the country, not just certain neighbourhoods. We like to blame crime on drug dealers, but there’s also plenty of trafficking of weapons, and, sadly Brazil is one of the three most violent countries in South America, alongside Colombia and Venezuela. It’s hard not to feel at times that things are not changing for the better. It’s the regular families that suffer most, those are the people I want to write about. Whenever your child leaves the house, you tremble for his or her safety. Yet, in spite of all that, I do remain positive and have hope for my country.
Paco Ignacio Taibo II – Mexico: Mexico is a blend of third world and first world. There are more cinemas in Mexico City than in Paris, more students than in New York. At the same time, there are 160 people being killed by police every month. There is such urban fear, pressures from poverty, electoral fraud, no moral values, it’s a quagmire. Writing novels is my attempt to make sense of something surreal and absurd. However, reality is so much stranger and less believable than fiction in my country that I can’t help feeling at times that I am like Walt Disney…
Leonardo Padura – Cuba: It’s hard to write crime fiction in Cuba, not because of censorship, but because most of the crime is about pickpocketing, thefts, these small cons to survive, not assassination. It’s simply not worth killing anyone, as people are all equally poor, so I cannot have more than one corpse per novel. It’s clear, however, that Cuba is changing: differences are starting to appear between rich and poor, small businesses are taking off, people are moving to Havana to find their fortune. I’m not sure where all this is heading, but it will be reflected in literature eventually, it just needs a little more time to follow suit.
From the Panel: The Burden of History
Attica Locke – US: The idea for The Cutting Season came to me when I attended a wedding on a plantation in Louisiana. The idea of visiting such a place for fun struck me as incongruous, and I had a visceral reaction of pain and sadness when I got there. Then I saw all the migrants from South America working on this ‘theme park’ and realised that all we’d done was exchanged one shade of brown for another. I don’t have to try to be political, it comes naturally to me. So, instead, I focus on the story. What I want to do is shift the lens a little, get readers to view things through someone else’s eyes.
Yasmina Khadra – Algeria: I come from a family of macho Arab/Berbers and was forced to join the army at the age of 9. I grew up fully expecting to die for my country, fought for eight years against terrorism, collected my colleagues by the spoonful following explosions and felt survivor’s guilt when I finally retired from the army. Why was I the one spared? I started writing to justify my continued existence… and to serve my country in a different way. Books are all about raising awareness, waking people up, while television (advertisements, consumption society etc.) is all about lulling people into a false sense of security, putting them to sleep.
Michel Bussi – France: I have no pedagogical or educational mission. I write to entertain, but in those first couple of books (set in Normandy), I try to convey my love for my native region and its emotional scars dating from the D-Day landings. I am a geographer by profession, so for me it’s all about the setting.
Tom Rob Smith – UK: I’d never have dared to set my books in such an unfamiliar environment as Stalinist Russia, if I’d not had an experience in my youth of writing a soap opera for Cambodian television. I found out that some stories feel truly universal, that they transcend cultural influences and borders. Of course I did a lot of research (mostly based on books and archives, rather than actual travelling), but it’s all about finding that emotional connection.
From the Dialogue between Ian Rankin & Val McDermid: The Passionate Thistle
Val McDermid: Isn’t it funny how we only mention politics in a novel if it is leftwing politics? No one says anything about ‘look what right-wing views Patricia Cornwall displays in her latest book’? I’m naturally a very political creature, so of course it finds its way into my books. But if I were to set out to do it deliberately, that would be dangerous, it needs to service the story and the characters. The best crime novels have politics with a big P and a small p in them (like Sara Paretsky, McIllvaney).
Of course the Scottish Referendum will be reflected in Scottish literature. You can’t live in Scotland and not engage with it in some way. It’s like writing a book about 1914 and not mentioning the First World War. I’m always astonished, however, when people ask my opinion about current affairs. After all, I just sit in my room and write. I don’t have a dog in this fight, though I have an opinion. But so does everyone else, why should my opinion count for anything more than theirs?
Ian Rankin: I naturally gravitated more towards urban problems, so was initially attracted more to American authors (British crime fiction at the time was more cosy, set in picturesque villages or amongst the middle classes, things I couldn’t relate to). I seemed to end up reading a lot of James-es (Ellroy, Lee Burke, Sallis) – they didn’t have to be called James, but it seemed to help.
Traditionally, Edinburgh was viewed as the nice place, while Glasgow was the one beset with social problems. I didn’t grow up in Edinburgh and seldom visited it until I went to university, but I wanted to show something about the city beneath its pretty tourist facade. 30 years later, I’m still trying to discover and understand the complete city, it keeps on changing. Edinburgh is like the Tardis – much bigger on the inside.
As for the referendum, we Scots are cautious people, we weigh things up very carefully, so it was a struggle between heart and head. I tried to show that in my new novel as the difference of opinion between Rebus (who votes No) and Siobhan (who votes Yes). And the debate is continuing, it refuses to go away, a whole generation has now become politicised.
Well, if you’ve made it to the end of this loooong post, you deserve something pretty to help you prepare for the long Easter weekend (if you celebrate Easter): the German tradition of decorating Easter trees.
So yes, you may have noticed that I have fallen ever so slightly off the TBR Double Dare waggon this month (ahem! five books or so, without counting the ‘official review copies’). I am all for a combination of planning and serendipity, but this is ridiculous! I blame a conspiracy of libraries and reviewers/editors who are far too good at PR. So here is the summary:
Tuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson – Work and Love [Not reviewed because I want to write a feature on her, the Moomins, The Sculptor’s Daughter. She is one of my favourite writers and a great artist as well.]
Sherman Alexie: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
I don’t know why I don’t read YA literature more often – perhaps because a lot of it is derivative and too ready to jump onto bandwagons and second-guess the trends. This one rings so true and is heartbreakingly matter-of-fact. It also fulfills one of my North America slots for Global Reading Challenge, as I’d never looked at Native American culture before in a novel. The pain of living ‘between’ cultures, of never being fully accepted in either of them, the unsentimental view of the flaws of each type of lifestyle, yet plenty of humour and tenderness to temper it all: I loved it!
Twelve books, of which a third were from the TBR pile, a quarter for professional reviews and only a third snuck in unexpectedly… When I put it like that, it doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Seven of the books were by foreign writers, but six of those were by French writers. So perhaps I am swapping the comfort and familiarity of Anglo writers with Gallic ones?
Seven crime fiction novels. My top crime read of the month (which is linked up to the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme hosted by Mysteries in Paradise) was undoubtedly Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. A multi-layered story with real contemporary resonance. But Camille came close for the storytelling momentum, while Arab Jazz was excellent at showing us a less romaticised picture of Paris.
Anyway, next month will bring the huge, huge temptation that is Quais du Polar in Lyon. How can I possibly not impulse buy books and get them signed by so many wonderful authors? Wish me luck…
I’ve had such good intentions for this TBR Double Dare challenge and have a whole pile of books lined up on my night-table, ready to be read (not to mention my tablet).
But something always comes up and sidetracks me. I blame mostly myself and my inability to turn down a book. But the following institutions or websites or people or publishers are also partly responsible. Yes, I’m naming and shaming them. And no, they do not pay me for the publicity, but I feel they deserve it when they go above and beyond the call of duty.
1) Eva Dolan: Tell No Tales
Eva Dolan was once a fellow reviewer at Crime Fiction Lover and I always enjoyed her book recommendations (or at least hotly debated them with her). She was going to send me her well-received first novel, but somehow publicists got mixed up, it ended up in the wrong place, others were keen to get their paws on it… so I bought it myself on Kindle. When the second one came out, she was adamant that this time I would get a review copy. As time passed and there were still no signs of it being sent to me, Eva took matters into her own capable hands and posted one to me herself, with a lovely note. And, bless her, I haven’t even got around to reading the first one yet! So of course I’m leaving everything else to one side and will be binge-reading her two books these upcoming holidays.
Will I be slightly biased? You bet! But her topics of immigration and grittiness sound just up my street…
2) Paul Hardisty: The Abrupt Physics of Dying
Some publishers are just so tireless on behalf of their authors that they carry you along with them on the crest of their enthusiasm. Karen Sullivan is such a woman. Previously a managing editor at Arcadia, where she introduced me to Tore Renberg, Jaume Cabre, Dominique Manotti and Domingo Villar, she left the company in 2014 to set up her own publishing house Orenda, following a strategic review which led to a severely slashed 2015 list of books at Arcadia. With a particular fondness for crime thrillers and literature in translation, Karen is a warm, loud and personable defender of each and every one of her titles, and she is great at building a loyal following of book bloggers and reviewers. She sent me a copy of this book, even though I warned her that I would not be able to participate in a blog tour at this moment in time. I may keep this one to read in April, but it looks like an interesting eco-thriller meets big business meets international action (and frighteningly plausible).
3) Charlotte Otter: Balthasar’s Gift
This book was reviewed over at Smithereen’s blog . This is a blog I’ve enjoyed for a couple of years now and, since the author lives in France too, we’ve exchanged a few personal messages. So I mentioned that it looked interesting and, hey presto, she kindly sent a copy to me, saying that she had got two by accident. Such a lovely gesture – and just goes to show what good friendships we can build online. Another one that I will leave until April/May, though!
4) Pierre Lemaitre: Camille
I’ve reviewed both of Lemaitre’s previous novels and interviewed the author for Crime Fiction Lover, so it’s not surprising that the publisher Quercus automatically sent me the final volume in the trilogy. I am really looking forward to this one. I have a weakness for this author: he always manages to surprise me: a consummate storyteller, despite his rather graphic content. I also really enjoyed his WW1 novel. So this one will be read and reviewed before the end of February.
5) Michel Bussi: After the Crash
Michel Bussi is a huge bestseller in France, but I’d never read any of his books. However, when I heard that he would be published for the first time in English by Orion Books in March, and would I like to take a look at this book and perhaps interview the author, how could I refuse? Strictly speaking, it doesn’t count for my TBR challenge, as it’s a review (i.e. ‘work’) book. And besides, I’m always a fan of translated fiction, especially French fiction, especially crime fiction. I’m currently reading this and will review it by the end of February on Crime Fiction Lover.
6) Netgalley and Book Bloggers:
Yes, I apportion the blame equally: on book bloggers such as Lonesome Reader and Crime Reader Blog for making these books sound so enticing, and on Netgalley for making it so easy to access these latest releases. So now I have added SJ Watson’s Second Life and Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go to my TBR pile…
How dare these village libraries stock so many tempting titles, both in French and in English? They have no business enticing me through their doorway under the pretext of returning the children’s books and then whacking me over the head with irresistible stuff such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or Karim Miské’s Arab Jazz. Both books dispell the myth of successful racial and cultural integration (at least on a larger societal level, rather than the individual one) – and they do it with wit, verve and sadness.