Belatedly, Newcastle Noir

Although I’ve written three posts about Bristol’s CrimeFest, I wrote a very long and detailed post about Newcastle Noir long before that, which I generously handed over to a different site. Since they still haven’t put it up yet (and may not do so anymore, since it’s out of date), I’ll put it up now. With apologies to the wonderful organisers and all the great people I met there for the delay. If it makes them feel better, I think I liked Newcastle the town (and the festival) even more than Bristol.

I was impressed with Newcastle’s Hanseatic port type architecture.

Newcastle Noir 2019

The 2019 event (3-5 May) was the sixth annual event, and this time it was housed in the City Library. While this did mean that the venue got very crowded at times (it remained a fully functional library and community centre and it was a busy Bank Holiday weekend), it also made it very easy for people to pop in for just one panel if they so wished. And why would they not wish to, since they were very reasonably priced (£4 – eat your heart out, Hay Festival!).

The City Library, the venue.

The timing of the panels was a huge bonus: they each lasted about 45 minutes, which gave attendees sufficient time to regroup, take a comfort break, get their books signed by the authors and then head back in for the next panel. And, while the event remains small enough to avoid parallel sessions, you didn’t face the pain of having to choose between two equally fascinating panels. There were a couple of fringe events (writing workshops or a guided tour of Newcastle’s fictional crime heritage) which coincided with a few panels, but these provided a change of pace and respite for those overdosing on author talks. A bookshop and a bar on site (as well as the library café) also offered small escape areas for when it all gets a bit too intense. However, if I had one small criticism of the event, it would be that there aren’t enough dedicated places to just sitting, resting or gloating over your newly-purchased books.

There were, however, more opportunities to mingle with the authors informally in the evening. Or, as is typical in my case, fangirling over my favourite authors and waylaying them with book signing requests. Thursday night was a pre-festival Noir at the Bar Open Mic session of readings. A great opportunity to hear not only from authors who were present at the festival but also from emerging writers or others (such as Zoe Sharp) who had to leave early. Friday night we all headed over to the Central Bar in Gateshead for a cabaret evening. Crime writers proved themselves to possess enviable talents as singers, songwriter and even stand-up comedians. Last but not least, a silent disco on Saturday night gave everyone the chance to show their best (Dad) dance moves or else catch up on the day’s events without having to shout.

But what about the panels themselves?

They were an intriguing combination of themes, yet managed to avoid that forced feeling or random groupings which are sometimes the bane of literary festivals.

I really liked the mix of the familiar faces and the fresh, emerging talent. There were some obvious suspects there, such as showcases with big hitters such as Yrsa Sigurdardottir, or Gunnar Staalesen and John Harvey, or the finale with two of the most popular female crime writers working in England today, Mari Hannah and Elly Griffiths. But there were plenty of chances to find a new favourite regional author (Femmes Fatales from the NE including Sheila Quigley, Danielle Ramsay and Eileen Wharton; Northern Noir with Mel Sherratt, Caroline England and Robert Parker; Tyneside male authors such as Howard Linskey and Mick Herron; Yorkshire Noir for example Nick Quantrill, June Taylor and AA Dhand; and Welsh crime fiction with Phil Rowlands, John Nicholl and GB Williams) or to discover debut authors such as Adam Peacock, Alison Belsham, GD Abson and Noelle Holten. The international panels gave readers the opportunity to travel further afield and discover new worlds. Alongside the big international names, there were also writers from Romania, Australia and New Zealand who are still relatively unknown (or who, like Helen Fitzgerald, are not necessarily perceived as Australian), as well as fresh Icelandic writers who have not yet been translated into English. Let’s not forget panels that are loosely grouped around a theme but are likely to have a very wide appeal, such as modern gothic and supernatural writing (SJI Holliday, Anna Mazzola and William Ryan), LGBTQ authors (Paul Burston, Derek Farrell and Jonina Leosdottir), historical crime fiction (Lesley Thomson, Oscar de Muriel, Nicola Ford and Fiona Veitch Simon) or writers who have chosen woods as their settings for murder (Antti Tuomainen, Matt Wesolowski, Will Dean and MJ Arlidge).

From BalkanNoir to Bucharest Noir – here come the Romanians!

I was there to support my fellow countryman and women, the Bucharest Noir panel, represented by Anamaria Ionescu, Teodora Matei and their publisher and fellow crime author Bogdan Hrib.

Anamaria Ionescu was introducing her ‘hot off the press’ English translation of Zodiac, part of a trilogy featuring the nearest thing Romania has to James Bond. Sergiu Manta is a trained but reluctant assassin, who has to live apart from his beloved family in order to work for an organisation that is so secretive, it’s not even supposed to exist. The author acknowledged that a real-life person, a biker friend, was the inspiration for the Sergiu Manta character, and that she deliberately made him not quite as feminist as he thinks he is in a still rather traditional macho Romanian society.

Teodora Matei is well-known in her home country for her science fiction and fantasy novels, as well as crime and even (steampunk) romance. Her first novel to be translated into English Living Candles perfectly conveys the less glamorous aspects of urban life in present-day Bucharest. Her husband is NOT the source of inspiration for Toni Iordan, her main detective, although he had high hopes initially that he was. However, Toni does represent Mr. Average in every respect: a little overweight, a little fed up of his wife and kids, a little unfaithful but not quite as much as he dreams of being…

Bogdan Hrib is one of Romania’s most successful contemporary crime writers (and publishers). He has had several novels translated into English, although not necessarily in order of appearance. His series featuring journalist Stelian Munteanu are fast-paced, moving from one European capital to the next, with complex characters who vacillate between cold-bloodedness and sentimentality.

A more relaxed picture of the Awesome Four, with a bit of Newcastle backdrop.

Quentin Bates, himself a respected crime writer and translator, helped edit the English language translations and moderated the panel in Newcastle. He asked the authors what they consider to be special and different about Romanian noir, and why it deserves to be translated into other languages. The answer showed, I believe, that noir is at the very heart of Romanian literature: ‘We have a different way of thinking and living. It’s hard for people to understand what it takes to move from Communism – actually, that wasn’t Communism, it was pure and simply a dictatorship – to Capitalism. We survived against all odds, we’re survivors and fighter, and sometimes we have to fight against ourselves first and foremost.’ However, there was also agreement that the books that do get translated (or even the books that get talked about in the Romanian press) tend to be literary fiction, often very experimental and impenetrable. There is a bit of snobbery about genre fiction in Romania as everywhere else.

Love and crime are closely entwined

Dr Noir introducing the Orenda panel.

One of the liveliest panels despite the early morning start on Saturday was the panel What’s Love Got to Do with It? A feast of Orenda authors, moderated by Mamma Orenda herself, Karen Sullivan, talking about dysfunctional relationships and the crimes that people are ready to commit in the name of love. Lilja Sigurdardottir and Steph Broadribb’s kick-ass heroines both engage in dangerous (and sometimes criminal) pursuits to protect their children, so maternal love is strongly represented. In Doug Johnstone’s latest novel Breakers, it’s brotherly love that drives the narrative, although a Romeo and Juliet burgeoning of adolescent feelings gives some hope to the conflicted main protagonist.

Meanwhile, Will Carver’s insomniac Seth is desperate for love and connection, feeling lonely and trapped in his marriage, so seeks to talk to random people he selects from the phonebook. As the author says, boredom should also be on the list of factors that motivate us to commit a crime – the unbearable dreariness of routines often make us long to do stupid things.

Doug Johnstone agrees that he likes to focus on those split-second stupid decisions that people make. Readers can relate to that: they might think that they would act differently and wisely if they were in the same position, but when we are under pressure, how many of us wouldn’t make a foolish choice?

Lilja Sigurdardottir admitted that one of the most embarrassing things she had done for love was to stalk her partner when she first met her (in pre-internet days), in order to convince her that they were right for each other. 24 years later, they are still together, so the panel agreed that what we might deduce from that is: ‘stalking works’.

And if you have no love life to speak of, maybe this fortune teller to the stars can help.

One of the most surprising moments was when the authors talked about their own favourite reading matter, love related or not. Who would have thought that tough thriller writer Steph Broadribb likes to alternate crime with romance and chick lit type fiction? Doug Johnstone admits he is envious of Sara Gran’s writing, while Will Carver considers The Great Gatsby to be one of the most poignant love stories ever told. Lilja appears to be the most romantic (or possibly the most dysfunctional) of them all, citing Wuthering Heights as her favourite, as well as being a regular re-reader of Shakespeare.

Seen one festival, seen them all?

Literature festivals are a bit like music festivals in the UK at the moment – there seems to be one (or several) taking place every week all across the country. Poetry, regional literature, special interest (children and YA, romance, for aspiring writers etc.), big names and debut authors – there seems to be something catering for every taste. Quite frankly, I don’t know how any writing or reading gets done, as we could just spend three quarters of the year touring from one event to the next.

I was tickled pink to see this Newcastle landmark mentioned in the latest book by Mari Hannah.

Crime festivals seem to be particularly popular. Unsurprising, since crime fiction is consistently one of the most bought and widely-read genres. However, in this crowded landscape, how can you make your event stand out? Well, if you are Dr Jacky Collins (aka Dr Noir) and her organising committee, you pick your lively local town (Newcastle), put together an eclectic but affordable programme of local, national and international writers, with some quirky additional events (more about that later). Above all, don’t forget to create a cosy sense of community around the event, while opening it up to as wide an audience as possible. Newcastle Noir certainly succeeds in having its very own distinct, informal feel.

Crimefest Bristol 2019 (Day One)

I can heartily recommend cavorting at crime festivals when you have got all sorts of worries at home – it really does take your mind of things, and you get to meet some wonderful people. I was at Newcastle Noir the previous weekend and just returned from Bristol’s Crimefest last night, my only two crime festival outings this year (it is an expensive business). Both very good, though very different!

I managed to take a day off work to be at CrimeFest from Friday until Sunday (it runs Thursday to Sunday, so I did miss some good panels on the first day). Although I didn’t stay at the Conference hotel, my Premier Inn was only a short walk away over the bridge and I had a wonderfully spacious room with a chaiselongue on which I could drape myself artistically to read all the many, many books I acquired.

Not that there was much time for reading. CrimeFest is much bigger than Newcastle Noir, so runs parallel sessions all day. Which means that there were, inevitably, clashes of panels I wanted to attend. The crime fiction represented in Bristol is also much broader – not just noir, but also cosies, historical crime fiction, true crime – a little bit of everything. This means that some of the panels didn’t feel that organically put together, with one or the other of the authors (usually my favourite one of the panel) sticking out like a – not a sore thumb, but a seriously glamorous and sparky thumb!

Broad Street, where the Grand Hotel is situated and the CrimeFest took place. The building in the foreground is the Guildhall and the one in the background is St John the Baptist Church and what must have been one of the city gates.

For example, the first panel I attended was the Humour in Crime Fiction panel, featuring Mike Ripley, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Bernadette Strachan from the MB Vincent writing duo and Helen FitzGerald. While the first three write cosyish or satirical crime fiction, the subjects that Helen writes about are incredibly dark; the humour is very black indeed and stems mainly from the characters trying to lighten up a desperate situation. Some general points were made about reality becoming so crazy nowadays that it’s becoming hard to satirise things any longer, which is probably true, but Helen’s work proves almost the opposite: that you can be compassionate, funny and yet still say something profound about the society we live in. I also rather took exception to the assertion of some panel members that humour doesn’t translate well, which sounded to me more like a complaint that their own books haven’t necessarily achieved high overseas sales. I can think of many exceptions to that: Antti Tuomainen, Andrea Camilleri, the Auntie Poldi series and Jakob Arjouni. Fred Vargas’ team has really quite hilarious eccentricities, although the books themselves are not funny. Dare I suggest that maybe the esteemed panel simply does not read enough in translation?

With my love for international settings, the next panel on Worldwide Police Procedurals was just my cup of tea, especially since it was moderated with grace and wit by Vanda Symon, a fantastic crime writer from New Zealand. The best panels for me are the ones where I am familiar and supportive of half of the panel (in this case, Quentin Bates and GD Abson) but also discover two new writers (in this case, Stuart Field and VM Giambanco). Quentin sets his books in Iceland, where he lived for a long time and went completely native. Garry Abson has not lived in St Petersburg but has a policeman friend there, and studied Russian politics at university. His books plug a much-needed gap in terms of international crime fiction, namely contemporary Russia under Putin. Stuart Field is the pseudonym of a former soldier turned writer and he drops his British detective into a New York City setting in his John Steel action thriller series. Last but not least, Valentina Giambanco is Italian but has lived in London for many years. Her setting is Seattle and the wilderness of Washington state, although she initially tried to set her book in London and Scotland.

GD Abson, Stuart Field and Valentina Giambanco.

The authors all had three things in common: strong female protagonists, being Brits writing about foreign locations and a feeling of freedom when setting their stories elsewhere. While they make every effort to do their research and get the details correct, they said that if they were writing a UK police procedural, they would feel too limited by the actual facts, while this way they can let their imaginations run riot a bit more and write a sort of ‘unprocedural’. I asked them if they ever had a hankering for another location – and sure enough, some of them have already embarked upon books set in a different place. Stuart has set his latest novel in Malta, while Valentina is currently writing a standalone set on her very own doorstep in London. Garry admitted he was attracted to dark places and alternative universes scenarios, for example a fascist Britain full of Tommy Robinson types (perhaps too uncomfortably close to possible futures for some). Meanwhile, Quentin is attracted by the possibilities of doing research in a place with a warmer climate and better food than Iceland: e.g. Morocco.

Quentin Bates explaining to Vanda Symon (the shaky picture is entirely my fault) why he might turn to Morocco next.

This perhaps leads me to the question why we prefer to hear from British writers setting their stories abroad rather than from those countries themselves (not the case with the countries represented on this panel, but fitting it well with what I heard elsewhere this weekend)? Readers seem avid for new, exotic locations, so why are publishers encouraging writers to set yet another cosy crime novel in the Cotswolds as opposed to even Wales? I suppose they want to find a successful formula and then stick to it, but as a reader I find it very boring.

Speaking of Wales, I really wanted to go to the Crime Cymru panel, not only because I love Wales, but also to support Cathy Ace, whom I’ve reviewed from her very first novel. Unfortunately, it clashed with the Historical Fiction panel.

Sarah Armstrong moderated the historical fiction panel.

Although I don’t read much historical fiction, I really wanted to support Estonian author Indrek Hargla, whose medieval apothecary series I mentioned a few posts ago – and whom I’d previously met in Lyon. He writes across multiple genres, and if you can read French, the entire series has been translated into French. It appears there are more good Estonian-French translators than there are Estonian-English ones, as well as more French publishers interested in trying something from that part of the world. The other panellists were all new to me but sounded quite interesting. David Penny writes a series set at the end of the 15th century, the chaotic period when Moorish Spain is disappearing and Spain becomes a great naval power instead. L.C. Tyler’s novels are set in the late 17th century, that very disreputable era when they finally got Cromwell out of the way. John Lawton sticks to the 20th century, from the laste 1930s to the late 1960s, because he hated the post-hippy world. Great quote: ‘I was looking the other way when the 1970s happened’.

The final panel I attended on the first day was Sunshine Noir – again, this clashed with the Scandi is Dandy panel that I also wanted to attend (and where I missed the best-dressed Norwegian and Finnish authors convention, see below). I think the authors on the Sunshine Noir panel felt a little competitive about it, since they kept mentioning the Scandis, but to my mind, there is no need to set the two against each other, as they are both equally interesting and readable.

Sunshine Noir Panel: Stanley Trollip, Barbara Nadel, Paul Hardisty, Robert Wilson and Jeff Siger.

However, some of the comparisons made were interesting. Scandinavia is culturally closer to the UK, and there is something inherently cuddly about that sensation of being wrapped up warm and safe and reading about a relentless cold and dangerous climate out there. Meanwhile, the hotter settings offer noise, chaos, insects, heat and sweat, which makes people more irritable. Additionally, these countries do not operate by rules we generally believe in and value in the Western world. Things don’t work out in Africa in the way you want them to, nothing adheres to the organised template that you expect. You have to let go of your expectations and embrace life as it is there, with the good and the bad.

Moderated by Stanley Trollip of Michael Stanley fame, the panel featured Jeffrey Siger’s Mykonos, Paul Hardisty’s Africa (and other dangerous places), Barbara Nadel’s Turkey and Robert Wilson (who has series set in Spain and London as well, but in this case was here for his series set in Benin). Although each of the authors were dismayed by the corruption and political turmoil they saw in their ‘host’ countries, they all displayed a deep affection for the land and its people. They all agreed that the higher up you go, the less nice people become, but the everyday people you meet are wonderful and welcoming, despite their sometimes horrific personal circumstances.

Feast your eyes on these dandy Scands: Antti Tuomainen, Gunnar Staalesen and Jørn Lier Horst. Picture courtesy of Ewa Sherman.

The longlist for the CWA Daggers were announced that evening and added yet more to my TBR pile, but I managed to escape with only four book purchases on my first day: the Sunshine Noir anthology; Inccoruptible, the latest Inspector Ikmen by Barbara Nadel, although a new one is coming out in 2019; Indrek Hargla’s second book in the series (I have the first one in French); and a new author to try out, V.B.Giambanco’s first in the series The Gift of Darkness.

Buckle up, though, because the second day got even busier (and more expensive)! So much so, that I will dedicate a second post to it.

Four Quick Crime Reads

I read the last four crime books at great speed – almost slurping them in (unlike the much slower reading of the meticulously detailed and long Six Four). Each of them was satisfying in very different ways. Yes, none of them are translations, which is a bit of a shame on a #translationthurs, but they take place in Scotland, Iceland, US and …erm… Hampstead. Does that count?

oswaldJames Oswald: The Damage Done

I normally steer well clear of crime fiction which contains supernatural elements, as I feel it ‘doesn’t play fair’ with the readers and solving the case. But in this case (and it was my first Oswald novel, so I wasn’t sure what to expect), I found it woven in so plausibly and to such chilling effect, that I was won over. My full review is over on Crime Fiction Lover and I’ll be seeing the author in Lyon in April.

frasersampsonGuy Fraser-Sampson: Death in Profile

A quick, easy read for lovers of Golden Age type puzzles, this one is quite openly an homage to Dorothy Sayers and her most famous creation Lord Peter Wimsey. Implausible and oddly ‘outside time’ though this tale is, there is a lot of entertainment value in the sheer audacity of its set-up and fun interaction between its witty (and on the whole very well-behaved) characters, reminiscent of an earlier age. One for puzzle fans, although the author doesn’t play entirely fair at one point. I do love the Hampstead/Belsize Park setting too!

thiniceQuentin Bates: Thin Ice

I think that Bates is developing a Nordic comic noir style all his own, almost lampooning at times the seriousness and gloom that we have started to associate with Scandinavian crime fiction. There are touches of Fargo about the set-up of this latest in this Officer Gunnhildur series, which not only has the delightfully down-to-earth, middle-aged Gunna as the main crimebuster (think an Icelandic equivalent to Catherine in ‘Happy Valley’), but also a motley bunch of rogues and their victims hiding out in a boarded-up hotel in the middle of nowhere. A really fun read – for my in-depth review see here.

Layout 1Joe Flanagan: Lesser Evils

Europa Editions is better known for its translated literature (some of it dark, but often simply literary), so this is a bit of a departure for them. Flanagan is an American speechwriter and freelance writer and I believe this is his debut novel. It’s a recreation of Cape Cod of the late 1950s and it’s got a great sense of time and place, as far as I can tell, having lived through neither. But this is a trope that is so familiar to us from film depictions of the US during that time that I could almost imagine Burt Lancaster, Glenn Ford or Charlton Heston brooding on by, under hats pulled low over their foreheads and perhaps laying aside their trench-coats for a minute because it’s summer after all.

The book shows us the darker side of the ‘golden years’ of America, with a detective, Bill Warren, who is well ahead of his time in terms of empathy, compassion, sensitivity and integrity. At times, it does feel a little hard to believe that everyone else in the book seems to be so rotten and corrupt, and that he is the single hero in search of justice and the truth. Too much Lone Ranger perhaps, and the undercurrent of Mafia influence and willingness to look away are overdone. Some readers will be repulsed by the child killings, although the scenes are never overly graphic. What kept me reading were the complex characterisations and motivations of many of the characters. All in all, an absorbing story, revealed in a way that felt fresh despite fitting well within the traditional noir canon.

 

 

Reading in the Merry Month of May

It’s been a changeable old month weather-wise, this May, and that has been reflected in my choice of books. I’ve read 12 books, and only 4 of those were by male writers (and two of those were for review). I finally managed to tackle 4 from my Netgalley pile (sinking under the greed there…), 5 from my bookshelves (although two of those may have been VERY recent purchases), plus one random purchase while being stuck at the airport. 7 of the books above may be classified as crime, one was spoken word poetry and there was no non-fiction this month.

DSCN6617
Gotta love the cloudy days of May… Lake Geneva from Vevey.

 

Julie Schumacher: Dear Committee Members

Louise Penny: How the Light Gets In – dare I count this as the first of my TBR20?

Helen Fitzgerald: Bloody Women

Clare Mackintosh: I Let You Go

Daniel Quiros: Eté rouge – this one counts for my Global Reading Challenge – Central and South America

Kristien Hemmerechts: The Woman Who Fed the Dogs

Quentin Bates: Summerchill – reviewed on CFL website; you can read my interview with the author here

Ragnar Jonasson: Snowblind – reviewed on CFL website; I’ve also had the pleasure of interviewing Ragnar here 

Megan Beech: When I Grow Up I Want to Be Mary Beard (poetry)

Ursula Poznanski: Blinde Vögel – a Facebook poetry group turns deadly in Salzburg – how could I resist?

Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – philosophical fable – I thereby declare this #TBR1

Sara Novic: Girl at War – survivor of the war in Croatia returns ten years later to her home country – #TBR2

These last four were all memorable in quite different ways, so I want to write more thorough reviews of them soon, so watch this space.

Siglufjordur, location for Snowblind. Picture taken by the author, Ragnar Jonasson (thanks to Twitter).
Siglufjordur, location for Snowblind. Picture taken by the author, Ragnar Jonasson (thanks to Twitter).

Crime fiction pick of the month is going to be a tie between Snowblind and How the Light Gets In. But I also have my eye on this Austrian writer Poznanski now and hope she gets translated more into English (she also writes YA and children’s fiction and is known as Ursula P. Archer in the English-speaking world).

Finally, how has writing fared this month? Some rough handwritten drafting has taken place, but it’s been another tough month, with business trips, lots of holidays and parental visits. Must do better next month (famous last words?)… The good news is that poetry has started to flow again after a long period of feeling stuck.

 

 

 

 

 

May Reading/ Halfway Through the Year

farfromtreeThis is a post to wrap up not only my reading for May, but also a half year’s worth of reading. I am happy to report that I’m just over halfway through my Goodreads reading challenge of 150 books for 2014, so this might be a good point to take stock of which books have really astounded or delighted me thus far.

First, the May summary. It’s been a month of very diverse reading and 6 out of 15 have been foreign books.

3 Non-Fiction:

The brilliant ‘Far from the Tree‘ by Andrew Solomon, the puzzling ‘The Fly Trap‘ by Fredrik Sjoberg and the riotous memoir of the 70s and feminism by Michele Roberts ‘Paper Houses’. I have really found a kindred spirit in Michele Roberts and hugely admire her courage and sacrifices in order to focus so single-mindedly on her writing.

1 Poetry Collection:

Father Dirt‘ by Mihaela Moscaliuc – Hard-hitting and heart-breaking

5 Crime Fiction or Thriller:

ColdStealSpy thriller by Stella Rimington ‘The Geneva Trap‘, the short story anthology ‘In a Word, Murder’, ‘Cold Steal‘ by Quentin Bates, the domestic psychological drama of ‘All the Things You Are’ by Declan Hughes and the unputdownable ‘Cry Baby’ by David Jackson.

6 Other Genres:

Frothy satire of writing courses ‘Writing Is Easy‘ by Gert Loveday

Long-winded and ominous, but not as illuminating as a real Greek tragedy ‘The Secret History‘ by Donna Tartt

Satire that seems even more apt and sinister in the wake of the European elections ‘Er ist wieder da’ (Look Who’s Back) by Timur Vermes

Painful depiction of the breakdown of a toxic marriage ‘Une affaire conjugale‘ by Eliette Abecassis

A family saga of post-war Japan – a reinterpretation of Wuthering Heights for the modern world ‘A True Novel‘ by Minae Mizumura

A graphic novel with a rather similar theme of family secrets and growing up in post-war Japan ‘A Distant Neighbourhood’ by Jiro Taniguchi

CryBabyMy favourites this month? ‘Cry Baby’ in crime fiction, because I found it impossible to stop myself from reading it all the way to the end. A rarer quality than one might suppose, even in thrillers. This links to the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme hosted at Mysteries in Paradise.

And, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the stately pace and melancholy of ‘A True Novel’. [I am not including the non-fiction or poetry here, but they deserve a special mention, for they were all outstanding.]

Now for the half-year round-up. I’ve read 79 books this year (yeah, it’s been a slow couple of months at work, so I’ve had more time for reading). If I’ve added up all the numbers correctly, here is the balance of the year so far (some books fit in more than one category, so the totals won’t make sense).

Japanese edition of Volume 2 of A True Novel.
Japanese edition of Volume 2 of A True Novel.

8 books in French, 3 in German and 19 translations – so 38% of my reading has been foreign. Surprising result, I expected it to be much more! Curious to see if this changes by the end of the year. I’m very pleased I managed to stick to my plan of reading at least one book per month in French, though (since I am living in France and need to improve my French).

43 books have been of the crime fiction and thriller persuasion, so about 54% of my reading. This is less than last year, although I have continued reviewing crime for Crime Fiction Lover website. I have also read 5 poetry books, so about one a month, which is essential (and the absolute minimum) for a working poet. I have also read 9 non-fiction books (11%) – one of the highest proportions in a long while. So it would be fair to say that my reading has broadened this year, quite deliberately.

InvestigationAnd which books have truly captured my imagination thus far? I have liked, even loved quite a few of them. I was struck by the almost visceral power of ‘Mother Mother’ by Koren Zailckas and Claire Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs’, fell under the spell of William McIlvanney’s prose and Mahmoud Darwish’s or Brenda Shaughnessy’s poetry. But the five books that really stayed with me are:

Jung-Myung Lee: The Investigation – neither crime nor prison saga, but a tale of the triumph of beauty over despair

Pierre Lemaitre: Au revoir la-haut – moving portrayal of the harshness of post-war society

Minae Mizumura: A True Novel – perhaps because this book encapsulates my love affair with Japan

Mihaela Moscaliuc’s debut poetry collection: Father Dirt – because it’s part of me and gives me power to explore more in my own poems

Andrew Solomon: Far from the Tree – a book that had me thinking and talking about it for days and weeks afterwards, which forever changed certain of my ideas

 

 

 

 

 

Fiction Pick of the Month April 2013

pick of the month 2013I read nine books in April, but am a little behind on the reviews.  It was an interesting and very varied month: I got introduced to new authors, new countries and new points of view.

Louise Penny: Dead Cold

Stefan Slupetzky: Lemmings Zorn (in German)

Mari Hannah: Deadly Deceit – review coming up on Crimefictionlover.com

Marcus Malte: Garden of Love (in French) – troubling, unusual storytelling, playing with your mind and perception

Esi Edugyan: Half-Blood Blues

Martin Walker: The Crowded Grave – beautiful sense of place and an easy, fun read despite the grim subject matter (ETA separatists, terrorist plots etc.)

S.J. Bolton: Dead Scared – thrilling read about a spate of suicides amongst Cambridge students

Quentin Bates: Chilled to the Bone – review coming up on Crimefictionlover.com

Petros Markaris: Liquidations à la grecque (Greek original, read French translation) – veridical, if depressing portrayal of a country and a city in profound crisis

Not a single bad read among them, which is unusual. And my pick of the month is the only not-quite-crime-fiction read of them all: ‘Half Blood Blues’, for the self-assured, inimitable voice of a black jazz musician.  The plot was somewhat predictable and yes, there is a bit of a mystery about it, although perhaps not quite enough to call it crime fiction.  It felt very much like ‘Amadeus’ and Salieri’s jealousy of the seemingly effortless genius of his younger rival, Mozart.  It also very nearly won a Booker Prize, which just proves once more that genre distinctions are meaningless and that crime fiction can be very literary, and literary fiction can be very criminal too!

January Is Good for Thrillers

When the nights are long and cold, what could be better than to snuggle up with very dark, unsettling thrillers?  No? Maybe it’s just me then… And I don’t even feel the compulsion to check that all windows and doors are locked afterwards.  Well, not more than two or three times, anyway!

I will spend more time reviewing the Marseille Trilogy (which is part of my Global Reading Challenge) in a later post, but here are some other suspenseful thrillers I read this month.  My scoring system is perhaps overly strict: 5 star is something that only a handful of books ever, ever get; 4 star means I think you should really, really get your hands on it; 3 stars means it’s a good, solid, enjoyable book; and 2 is OK, average, nothing out of the ordinary.  At least you know you won’t get a waterfall of meaningless 5 stars here! 

Book cover Chris Ewan1) Chris Ewan: Safe House

The only book I have come across so far set on the Isle of Man, it makes good use of its location (the isolation, the village gossip).  It starts with a simple puzzle, which then develops into a very convoluted plot. Plumber and part-time motor racing champion Rob Hale has a bad motorcycle accident.  He is concerned about the fate of his beautiful blonde co-rider, Lena, whom he had just recently met on an emergency boiler repair job in a remote cottage in the forest. However, the paramedics and police assure him that he was the only person found at the scene of the accident.  He is convinced he did not imagine the girl and uncovers a very complex tale of conspiracy.  The twists and turns keep on coming – some of them I guessed fairly early on (I have a bit of a phobia of secret services and can spot them coming from miles away), others did catch me by surprise.  The story does have rather brutal scenes, and the author seems to enjoy giving blow-by-blow accounts of horrific events.  Cleverly done, exciting to read, but a bit too vivid for my squeamishness.  My favourite bits were the more domestic scenes with Rob’s Granddad and dog. 3 stars.

Book Cover2) Quentin Bates: Cold Comfort

This is the second rather than the first book in the series set in Iceland, featuring Sergeant Gunnhildur (a.k.a. Gunna). But that doesn’t matter at all: it’s all about atmosphere and characters in this series.  Gunna is tasked with two cases simultaneously: the manhunt for an escaped convict, and the murder of a gorgeous TV presenter.  She soon begins to suspect that the two events may be related.  Set against a backdrop of the near-total collapse of a country, together with its banking system, the story is a fast-paced, enjoyable read. This is not Scandinavian noir, but has a very tongue-in-cheek English humour about it (the author is English, although he lived for many years in Iceland).  Gunna is a delightful, down-to-earth character, a refreshing change from all the tormented detectives and heavy drinkers populating the northern hemisphere.  The many complicated (and similar-sounding) Icelandic names may pose a bit of a memory challenge, but it was a fun, easy read for an afternoon of similar meteorological conditions to Icelandic winters. 3 stars.

TheA263) Pascal Garnier: The A26

You may remember that Pascal Garnier was one of my major discoveries for 2012.  I completely fell in love with two of his novels translated and published by Gallic Books: ‘The Panda Theory’ and ‘How’s the Pain?’  So I was very much looking forward to the third book that Gallic are just about to launch: they kindly sent me an advance copy. However, this one was a bit of a disappointment.  Although it is still impeccably translated and beautifully presented by the publisher, the story itself did not captivate me as much as the previous two.  Yet, to all intents and purposes, this one fits more neatly into the ‘thriller’ category.  There are more bodies, there are strange characters, there is suspense…  But there is less humour than in his other books and I found myself unable to care deeply for the two main characters, the agoraphobic Yolande and her long-suffering brother Bernard.  Perhaps if I had read this one first, I might have enjoyed it more: it certainly has all of the other Garnier characteristics I enjoy: the noir feel, the effortless and fluid style.  But I suppose my expectations were so high, that this one just could not live up to them. 3 stars.

4) Elizabeth Haynes: Into the Darkest Corner

IntoDarkestCornerThis was the scariest of the thrillers I read this month.  It proves that scary can be done in a much more subtle and chilling way, because the atmosphere turns darker gradually, much like Cathy’s relationship with Lee.  The descriptions of domestic abuse and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are so realistic, so gruelling, yet they never feel gratuitous.  Certainly not a book to read when you are alone in the house!  The multiple  time frames and similarity of set-ups did puzzle me a little at first, but you soon get into the rhythm of things.  A psychological mind-twister and page-turner, I was hooked, even though I kept thinking I knew what would happen next.  It also shows just how complicated abusive relationships can be, and makes us question how we would react ourselves in a similar situation.  Hard to believe this is a debut novel, as it feels very accomplished and self-assured. 4 stars.