Two Recent Orenda Book Titles

It’s hard not to have favourites among publishers, although I primarily choose books and authors rather than from publishers’ catalogues. However, Virago (for women writers), Tuttle (for Japanese writers), Faber & Faber and Penguin Classics were my childhood favourites, and in recent years I have been impressed by Europa Editions, Gallic Books, Peirene Press, World Editions and Istros Books for their commitment to fiction in translation. One publisher who is unabashedly dedicated to genre fiction, especially thrillers and crime fiction, is Orenda Books and I have mentioned before how much I admire founder Karen Sullivan’s drive and energy in finding and promoting writers in the UK and abroad.

What is interesting about Orenda is that their list is made up of books which personally appeal to Karen, so they feature quite a mix of styles and subjects. Not all of them have sparked my interest, but the ones that have been in my ‘preferred genre’ have all been great picks, a surefire combination of commercial appeal and good writing. I will just mention here Nordic noir such as Ragnar Jonasson and Kati Hiekkapelto.

The two most recent titles I’ve read have been somewhat different, something which I would hesitate to label ‘psychological thrillers’, although they have their fair share of thrills and twists. They are stories which rip your heart and make you think long and hard.

jihadiYusuf Toropov: Jihadi – A Love Story

This is not the easiest of books to read, partly because of its themes (terrorism, random savagery, betrayal, misguided ideology – all uncomfortably close to real life and what I perceive the whole ‘war on terror’ to be), but above all because of its structure. The ‘document’ is largely written by a dead man, Thelonious Liddell, an intelligence officer accused of being a traitor, and is interspersed with comments very much like Post-It notes by a psychologist, who we gradually realise is in fact his wife Becky, herself an intelligence officer. ¬†But it’s worth persevering with, because it¬†¬†is unquestionably an important book for our times, a read that plunges you into the icy water of the costs and failures of ‘the war on terror’.

Thelonius’ memoir contains passages recounting significant moments from the point of view of two other characters whom he meets in the course of his assignment: Fatima, the devout interpreter, and the American soldier Mike Mazzoni, a nasty bully. Points of view, of course, which he is guessing at, which he cannot possibly know, but which sound very plausible (although the psychologist’s comments make fun of them). They really add to the story, but it does mean that you need to concentrate and read carefully. There are so many complex layers and allusions, that you probably need to read the book two or three times to get all the nuances.

And a word of warning for those of you who cannot bear cruelty to animals: in addition to descriptions of flechette attacks on civilian population, and some graphic scenes of torture, maiming and killing (on both sides of the divide), there is also a sad moment when Thelonious has to watch his cat Child die.

inherwakeAmanda Jennings: In Her Wake

I read this in one breathless go, just couldn’t stop, the story is such that it takes you along on a voyage full of suspense, sadness, poignancy, drama. It is the story of a family – two families in fact, and the secrets and pressures which nearly tear them apart. When Bella’s mother dies, her father seems quite broken, about to share something with her but then changing his mind. A series of shocking discoveries makes Bella realise that everything she thought she knew about her life was wrong.

Her search for the truth takes her to Cornwall and another deeply damaged family. But reading the book as quickly as I did does not do it justice, because the writing is very subtle and perfectly judged. Throughout, the settings are conveyed with a great sense of atmosphere Рnot just Cornwall, but the Old Vicarage, the Bristol bolthole. The characters are complex and vividly described, behaving consistently but also in surprising ways Рmuch like in real life.  Some scenes very nearly made me cry, both by what was said and what was left unsaid. 

There is also a dream-like, almost supernatural strand to the story Рas enticing and mysterious as the sirens singing to Ulysses. A book which can be read on many levels: a romping good tale of unanswered questions and suspense, but also a poetic, thoughtful piece on the intricacies of human relationships, loss, regrets, identity and lost dreams.

January in Japan: ‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato, trans. Stephen Snyder

ConfessionsJapanese literature has more than its fair share of unsettling tales of dark motivation and devious revenge. This latest addition (new to English, at least – it was originally published in 2008 in Japan, where it became a bestseller and was turned into a film) is particularly horrific, since it deals with the teacher/pupil relationship and the psychology of thirteen year olds in middle school. When I was training to become a teacher, my fellow students and I only half-jokingly referred to the class of 13 year olds as ‘the monsters’. They were too old to believe anything that their teacher said, but too immature to have a clear understanding of the impact of their actions. They were also very vulnerable to peer pressure and herd instinct, something William Golding (himself a former teacher, like Kanae Minato) understood only too well and fully explored in ‘The Lord of the Flies’.

This is a ‘Lord of the Flies’ for the modern age, transposed to Japan and to the supposedly civilised and structured confines of a school.

The story starts with one of the most compelling chapters of 2nd person POV that I’ve read in a long time. Well, not quite 2nd person: it’s a teacher addressing a class on the last day of school, as she announces her retirement and the reasons for it. We find out quite a bit about Moriguchi sensei’s rather sad life: not able to fully pursue her passion for science, she moves into teaching for job security. ¬†When her engagement ends in tragedy (she discovers her fiance has AIDS), she nevertheless goes ahead with her pregnancy and pours all of her love and devotion into her daughter. Life as a single mother is not easy, especially in Japan, and she occasionally has to bring her daughter to school with her because of lack of childcare. One day, when her daughter is on the school grounds, there appears to be a dreadful accident and she is found drowned in the pool. Moriguchi, however, calmly informs the class that she knows it was not an accident and that she believes two of the pupils in her class were to blame. She does not trust the criminal justice system to punish these minors, so she has devised a diabolical revenge plan of her own.

Each chapter that follows gives us an alternative point of view, including that of the two pupils, building layer upon layer of complexity. Although not all of the voices are equally compelling – and some voices are frustratingly missing – the book makes you question all your previous notions about guilt, revenge, innate evil and criminal intent.

This Russian dolls style of narration, stories nesting within stories, shifting points of view which make you wonder if there ever is a single correct interpretation of events, appears quite frequently in Japanese literature (think ‘Rashomon’). ¬†It works well here, showing the profound repercussions of a single event – the tumbling of domino stones – and people’s inability to understand others, while fooling themselves that they do (or expecting them to react in certain ways). Neither adults nor children behave in admirable ways here and you cannot help but feel pity for each one of the protagonists. It has that feeling of ‘inescapable fate’ of Greek tragedy.

Perhaps too dark and crazy for readers who are not used to Japanese literature, its melodrama is toned down by a cool, detached, simple style. On the other hand, fans of crime fiction, horror and psychological thrillers will find it a compelling introduction to contemporary Japanese society.

I read this as part of Tony Malone’s wonderful initiative January in Japan. For more great links, reviews and readalongs, head over there.

 

 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Tracey Walsh?

TraceyAfter a rather busy start to the New Year, fraught with drama and sadness for my adoptive home France, it’s time to return to an old favourite of mine: being nosy about other people’s reading habits. Time to meet another online friend – welcome, Tracey Walsh! Tracey is one of those people who always seems to have just read those books I have only just heard about – and her recommendations have taken me to many new places. She reads, blogs and tweets tirelessly about crime fiction and has even created a fantastic map of the UK with her personal crime fiction favourites on her Crime Reader Blog. ¬†You can also find Tracey on Facebook.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

I have happy childhood memories of Enid Blyton’s “The Five Find Outers” as my first mystery series. Then, in my teens, I binge-read dozens of Agatha Christies, with my favourites being the Miss Marple books. Later still, ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne Du Maurier and Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series confirmed me as a lifelong crime fiction addict.

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

My preferred genre is psychological thrillers, because I love being immersed in twisty plots that examine the characters’ motives and relationships, the darker the better. Within this genre I have enjoyed several ‘domestic noir’ novels recently, for example Paula Daly’s ‘Keep Your Friends Close’ and Julia Crouch’s ‘Tarnished’.

What is the most memorable book you have read recently?

‘I Let You Go’ by Clare Mackintosh. I absolutely loved this book, which has one of the best twists ever. It was also memorable, because I found myself thinking about the characters even when I wasn’t reading, and imagining what would have happened had they made different choices.

bookpileTraceyIf you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?
This would come down, not for the first time, to a toss of a coin between¬†Val McDermid’s Tony Hill/Carol Jordan books and the Roy Grace series by Peter James. And the winner is…Peter James. There are ten books in the series (soon to be eleven) starting with ‘Dead Simple’, which has probably the best opening to a crime book I can remember.
What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

‘No Other Darkness’ by Sarah Hilary – the follow up to one of the best debuts of last year, ‘Someone Else’s Skin’. Also, ‘Death in the Rainy Season’ by Anna Jaquiery – the follow up to ‘The Lying-Down Room’, a haunting literary crime novel.

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?
I really only read crime so that’s all I’m likely to recommend. I love recommending new authors to my friends, most recently the debut books by Paula Daly (‘Just What Kind Of Mother Are You?’) and Colette McBeth (‘Precious Thing’).¬†It was particularly rewarding to introduce my Dad to the Roy Grace books by Peter James. I bought him the latest two in the series for his 80th birthday last year.
As a departure from reading the books I’m looking forward to seeing¬†the stage play of ‘Dead Simple’ in Manchester soon.
Thank you, Tracey, I love your unabashed crime addiction and eagerness to explore new writers as well as old favourites. The Dead Simple play sounds like a good reason for planning a trip to Manchester! Excellent choice for a desert island series, as well. I notice that everyone tries to find really long-running series to take with them, for fear of running out of reading matter.
This series depends on your willingness to participate, so please don’t be shy if you would like to tell us about your reading passions. For previous posts in the series, please check out this link.¬†

 

Strange Narrators, Unusual Minds

This May is my month of eccentric and genre-bending reading. After three mammoth books, I’ve now had the opportunity to read three very unusual ones, in which we are taken into the mind of the narrator so completely, that we are nearly in danger of suffocation. All three books were interesting, although not outstanding, and certainly not the kind I would want to reread.

HarrietKrohnKarin Fossum: The Murder of Harriet Krohn

Karin Fossum and her Inspector Sejer have always been more on the introspective and melancholy side of the Scandinavian crime fiction phenomenon. Her pace is leisurely, she recounts detail after detail, and she always focuses on the psychological drama rather than action scenes. This one is even more extreme than others I’ve read in the series, certainly not¬†your standard crime novel. Sejer barely makes an appearance in the proceedings. It is much more in the vein of ‘Crime and Punishment’, as we see the reasons behind a rather terrible and sad crime, and its consequences on the criminal and his family. Charlo Torp is an average man, flawed, weak, trying to do his best but never quite succeeding. Despite being a loving husband and doting father, he nevertheless gave in to his gambling addiction and now has to resort to a desperate act to pay off his debts and try to regain the affection and respect of his daughter.


Told entirely from Charlo’s point of view, we become privy to all his insecurities, doubts, anxieties, hopes and wishes. We are made to feel sorry for him, but the author never whitewashes his crime, never makes us doubt the criminal justice system. She just shows us that things are never quite black and white, that any one of us can resort to extreme solutions if we are desperate enough.

And who is Harriet Krohn? An inoffensive elderly woman, a victim, a nobody. Fossum is very subtle at showing that victims deserve names and dignity.

FlyTrapFredrik Sjöberg: The Fly Trap

I was sure this one was a novel and kept waiting for something to happen, for a change to occur and the narrator to learn something. But I later found out that it is in fact non-fiction, which would explain why it feels more like a loose collection of thoughts and essays, rather than a coherent whole. It is a meditation on the nature of obsession, on collectors, on explorers, on classification. And just when you think it is all about entomology it suddenly ends with a discussion about art and forgeries. There are some witty and profound observations about life and human nature, and the writing has an almost hypnotic, very restful quality to it. Perhaps a book to dip into while on holiday on an island, whether Scandinavian or not.

affaireEliette Abécassis: Une affaire conjugale 

Hard-hitting story of a divorce, showing just how nasty people can get in the process. Told entirely from the viewpoint of the wronged, downtrodden yet ultimately vengeful wife, you begin to wonder just how reliable a narrator she really is. Depressing but very readable, it does feel at times a bit like a soap opera, and there is an awful lot of Googling and Facebook chat going on, as if to make this timeless tale feel more modern. The main protagonist is a songwriter (lyrics), and she refers to several French chansons to express her pain and anxieties, perhaps to create a little distance. There are also some quite sharp observations about the ‘industry’ of lawyers, helpers, counsellors, financial advisers etc. that has sprung up to fleece people at their most vulnerable moment, i.e. when going through a divorce. ¬†However, there is also genuine poignancy, especially when describing the fears of the negative effects on the children.

Have you come across books recently which were well-written, solid, yet which failed somehow to captivate you entirely? Books which you feel you ought to have liked more, but just didn’t?

Interview with French Writer Sylvie Granotier

SylvieGranotier1Sylvie Granotier is a French actress, screenwriter and novelist, born in Algeria and growing up in Paris and Morocco. After completing her theatrical studies, she spent several years travelling around the world, including the United States, Brazil and Afghanistan. After a successful acting career, she turned to fiction. Fourteen novels and many short stories later, Sylvie Granotier is a major crime fiction author in France; her work has been translated into German, Italian, Russian and Greek. Le French Book brings us the first English translation of her novel The Paris Lawyer. The novel is both a legal procedural and a psychological thriller set in the heart of French countryside, La Creuse, considered by many to be a backward, closed-off rural area full of secrets.

I had the pleasure of meeting Sylvie at the Lyon Crime Festival Quais du Polar and I became an instant fan.  Imagine a taller, more glamorous version of Dame Judi Dench, expressing her thoughts in a carefully modulated voice, in beautiful English with a delightful French accent.

Have you always known you were going to end up writing crime fiction? 

No, it was quite a shock.  I never dared to consider that I would write some day.  I drifted for a few years, had no aims or ambitions.  Then I found myself translating Grace Paley’s short stories РI really admired her style and she had never been translated into French before. When my translation got published, she came to Paris and met me. She told me how she had started writing rather late in life and it was almost like she gave me the permission to write.  She never said it in so many words, but the day she took the plane back home, I started writing my first novel. So the two are not unrelated, I think!

And it was crime fiction that you instinctively turned to?

Yes, there was never any doubt in my mind. I’d enjoyed crime novels so much when I lived in the States.¬† Writing a book that can really grab the reader seemed to me the highest ambition for a writer.¬† Would I be able to do that?¬† It‚Äôs a genre that has given me so much pleasure, so it seemed an honour to be entering that genre.

Which authors inspire you?

Hard to choose, I’m inspired by all sorts of writing, not just crime fiction. I like Dickens, Melville, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Elizabeth George.  I like those crime authors who deal more with the psychology, the human aspects of a crime.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

Each book is a story that needs to be told. It can be a small seed from something I‚Äôve read or seen or heard years before and it takes root and germinates inside.¬† I don‚Äôt start with my characters.¬† I always start with a fragment of a story, a promise, and the characters develop as the story evolves. I want to find out more about them and they often surprise me ‚Äď which, to me, is proof that the story is alive. I have been known to erase a complete book, because I felt I knew too well what was going to happen. It was no longer interesting to me, it had lost its capacity to surprise me.

TheParisLawyerWhat differences (if any) do you notice between American and French crime fiction?

The way the legal system works is very different, of course, and a story is often influenced by the way in which you do your job.¬† Then, the language: French is far more organized, grammatical, constricted, more of a corset, less open to experimentation.¬† Finally, there is something about the way each country views good and evil.¬† American writers are not afraid to deal with huge themes like serial killers and innate evil. They have great faith in the truth emerging triumphant and justice being served.¬† In France ‚Äď perhaps in Europe in general ‚Äď we are more cynical about the truth ever coming out fully in a trial. We are perhaps too morally ambiguous, everything is too grey with us, not black and white. ¬†Perhaps we feel that criminals are not necessarily evil, but simply people like you and me caught up in desperate matters.

What about the way women are portrayed in American vs. French crime fiction?

In my book ‚ÄėThe Paris Lawyer‚Äô I deliberately chose a very modern type of Parisian woman, independent, strong, dealing with men on her own terms.¬† She is sexy, stylish, uninhibited, despite her being haunted by her past.¬† I think she is very different from the kick-ass school of American female investigators, which I do also enjoy very much!¬† But I think there‚Äôs got to be room for both Vic Warshawski and for Catherine Monsigny in crime novels.¬† And we the readers are all the richer for it.

 

For more information on The Paris Lawyer and options for buying this or other crime fiction from France, please go to Le French Book’s Amazon page.¬†For further reviews of the book, see Margot Kinberg¬†, Ms. Wordopolis or Karen¬†.