Quick Reviews of Non-Japanese Books

Although I’ve posted mainly reviews of the books I read for January in Japan thus far, I’ve actually read quite a lot of enjoyable books this month.

Lucy Atkins: Magpie Lane – a modern take on The Turn of the Screw, with a very classical feel to it nevertheless because it is set in Oxford and its rather anachronistic college system. A dysfunctional family with a selectively mute child, viewed through the no-nonsense eyes of a nanny who is an outsider to Oxford. Excellent build-up, although I felt slightly ambiguous about the ending.

Lily King: Writers and Lovers – I am probably being a bit unfair on this one when I say it is a very narrow world that is being presented here: the world of writing and publishing, a young woman in search of success and love. I like such subject matter (and probably would have loved it even more in my 20s), but it’s a bit of a disappointment after King’s previous book Euphoria, an excellent and rather revolutionary book about anthropologists, which felt like it was painted on a much larger canvas with bold brushstrokes. This one is a neat little miniature.

Jenny Offill: Weather – I was perhaps the only person in the world who was not smitten with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. It had many witty observations which struck a chord with me, but overall I felt it was a lazy way to tell a story. The fragments just did not seem to build up to a coherent and complex whole (unlike Tokarczuk’s Flights, for example). But I do think she is an interesting writer, so I was willing to give her another chance. This is also a fragmented novel, but the format suits the subject matter better: the musings of a mother trying to navigate the opaque education system in the great American cities, interspersed with her work with a climate activist, her reactions to the 2016 presidential elections and so on. A state of the nation novel, but on a much shorter scale than Ducks, Newburyport (as far as I can tell, not having read the latter).

Simone Buchholz: Mexico Street – the most poetic German crime writer you could ever hope to find, her style is an intriguing mix of noir and jazz and modern sensibilities. I liken it to my own personal Cowboy Bebop (the cool cult anime series of the 1990s). This volume is a sort of Romeo and Juliet story set in the Mhallami community (yes, new to me too, an ethnic minority historically designed to protect the Eastern flank of the Ottoman Empire) in Germany.

Matt Wesolowski: Beast – There are six sides to every story, or so Matt Wesolowski tells us in his series of books imitating true crime podcasts. With every new ‘podcast’ we get a different view on the story, an added layer of complexity, and it really shows us that there is no such thing as an ultimate truth or an easy answer. This one was particularly terrifying, not so much for its links to vampire stories, but because it is about a young girl, Elizabeth Barton, a popular vlogger, who is found frozen to death in a ruined tower on the Northumbrian coast. It depicts how desperate some people are to find online fame and friendships, and it frightened me when I thgouth how this might affect my own children (even though they say it doesn’t).

Neil Blackmore: The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle – Perhaps the weakest of the bunch, because the plot felt rather predictable. Two brothers, sons of a rich tradesman, set off on their European tour in the 1760s. They are well-read but haven’t been able to break into ‘good society’, so this is their chance to impress. But things go awry when they meet the rebellious, cynical, charming and utterly corrupt Mr Lavelle. Although at times it did feel like a philosophy tract (look, I like my dose of Voltaire as much as anyone, but it didn’t have all that much bearing on the story!), it was on the whole great fun to read, quite a lot of description of gay sex, and an excellent rebuttal of British snobbery past and present.

Liz Nugent: Our Little Cruelties – Another book, another dysfunctional family, this time three brothers who have competed all their lives for their mother’s love and admiration. Written from the points of view of each of the brothers, it is clever in the way it shows how easy it is to justify even our ugliest actions to ourselves – and that we never learn from mistakes but merely blame others. Liz Nugent is frighteningly good at depicting male narcissists.

Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost – a last-minute entry for the mini #PersephoneReadathon, deserves a separate review and got it

I am currently reading Square Haunting by Francesca Wade about five formidable women who all lived in Mecklenburgh Square at some point in the 1920s and 30s, and I can already see it will become a firm favourite!

Criminally Good Parallel Reads

No matter how engaged you might be with your current read, when it comes to a complex doorstopper like The Debacle, you need some alternative reads to keep you sane. Happy to report I’ve found, courtesy of Newcastle Noir and CrimeFest, just the remedy with the following crime fiction novels. These may be teeny-mini-reviews, but all the books are worth a look.

Zoe says they are verrrry good reads too.

The first three (incidentally, all Orenda books – I promise I’m not on commission, though!) were the ones that most tugged at my heartstrings, so I suggest you be in a good place emotionally when you read them. They are not entirely depressing – there is hope and humour in each of them – but they are about as gritty as it is possible to get without turning into a sandpit on an abandoned building site. The remaining four are more conventional police procedurals, although there is nothing bland or boring about any of them.

Will Carver: Good Samaritans

Winner of the Description of the Most Dysfunctional Marriage Award, the sorry tale of insomniac Seth and his bored wife Maeve will stay with you. Fiercely funny as well as unbearably sad to read about their inability to communicate with each other, as well as about all the other lonely people out there and their desperate urge for connection, looking for it in all the wrong places. It will leave you reeling, uncomfortable, and wondering about your own life.

Helen FitzGerald: Worst Case Scenario

Another book with deeper messages rippling out as you read it, leaving indelible marks in your psyche. Beneath the humour and the refreshing ‘don’t-give-a-damn’ rebellion of the disillusioned and menopausal probation officer Mary Shields, there is a lot of social critique and an uncompromising portrayal of life at the margins of society, the kind of things we would rather not know about.

Doug Johnstone: Breakers

And, since we are on the subject of heartbreak, let’s move from the mean streets of Glasgow to one of the most deprived areas of Edinburgh, where 17 year old Tyler is trying to somehow hold together his precarious life and profoundly dysfunctional family. Filled to the gills with brutal scenes and characters that no child should have to deal with, it also has moments of tenderness involving puppies, bedtime stories and home cooking that nevertheless manage to steer clear of clichés and sentimentality.

G.D. Abson: Motherland

If you are equally fascinated and repulsed by Putin’s new (same old) Russia, then this is the book for you. Plenty of local colour and an all too believable backdrop of suspicion, corruption and cover-ups, with an engaging and tough heroine who is just trying to make her way as honestly as possible in a society that seems determined to thwart her at every turn. The start of a series that I will definitely be keeping an eye on.

Mari Hannah: The Scandal

I’ve been a huge Mari Hannah fan from her very first series (and still my favourite), the Kate Daniels one, although she has moved on to two other series since then. As a former probation officer, like Helen FitzGerald, she too injects a voice of authenticity and social concern in her writing, most obvious in this book in her description of the lives of those sleeping rough on the streets of Newcastle.

Mick Herron: London Rules

So many people had been recommending the Slough House series by Mick Herron to me, that I could no longer resist and jumped in at the deep end with one of his most recent. This did mean that perhaps the descriptions of some of the characters and their motivations were opaque to me, but I can see the appeal of this satirical, almost absurdist take on spy thrillers. The clumsy, incompetent and woefully mismatched ‘intelligence’ team led by the undiplomatic and uncharismatic Jackson Lamb (who reminds me slightly of Dalziel) are a joy to behold.

Vaseem Khan: Murder at the Grand Raj Palace

The much longed-for relief in a bunch of rather dark crime novels, this is a charming and quirky story about the rather earnest Inspector Chopra, his sweet-tempered and playful baby elephant, his practical wife Poppy… oh, and a murder at a luxury hotel. The author does a great job of balancing light and dark, without it ever descending into an unbearably cosy and unbelievable situation, and there are references to darker elements of Indian history and society.

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 Führer 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 clichés and subverting our expectations. Full review on CFL soon.

 

 

 

 

Levels of Gentility in Crime Fiction

You know how quickly I devour crime fiction and that my preference is for the subversive, disturbing and relentlessly noir. However, quite a few my recent reads have been of a gentler persuasion, almost an old-fashioned feel. In descending order of ‘gentility’, may I introduce you to…

BVERYflatMargot Kinberg: B Very Flat

Margot is such a supportive, knowledgeable member of the crime-writing and reading community, plus I have a soft spot for novels with an academic setting, so I’d been planning to get this one for ages. Not easy to order outside the US, but I eventually got my paws on it (and am now waiting to meet Margot in person, so she can sign it for me).

Serena Brinkman is a talented violinist at Tilton University, a small but prestigious college on the East Coast. She truly seems to be the golden girl who has it all – but then death strikes on the night of a major music competition. A former detective, now professor of criminal justice at Tilton University, is asked to investigate the apparently accidental death a little further. We are firmly in Golden Age detective era type of fiction here, although there are all the modern accoutrements of student life nowadays (including PDAs and online gambling). What struck me was how very polite and nice all the characters seem – genteel, in other words (although, obviously, they can’t all be, since one of them at least is a murderer). Even the flawed ones, even when misunderstandings occur.  It’s a book for readers who like a puzzle and a minimum of gore.

BirdCageFrédéric Dard: Bird in a Cage (transl. David Bellos)

Dard was one of the most prolific crime writers in France (and that’s saying something, given that Simenon was also writing there). Best-known for his nearly 180 San-Antonio novels (think a more satirical and realistic Bond), he has also written over 100 standalone novels and shorter series, many of them under various pseudonyms (clearly, the publishers couldn’t keep up with him!).

This is a bittersweet novel with a perfect 1950s setting, which reminded me a little of Pascal Garnier. Albert returns to his old neighbourhood in Paris after his mother’s death (having spent several years in prison) and is captivated by a beautiful woman and her young child, whom he sees eating alone in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. He becomes involved in a very complicated and dubious story with the woman, her husband and the Midnight Mass for Christmas. A clever puzzle and a rather quiet, gentle man who is clearly being manipulated, although we are not quite sure how.

bloodonsnowJo Nesbø: Blood on the Snow (transl. Neil Smith)

I was struck at once by how similar this novel is to Bird in a Cage in terms of premise and feel (rather than style or plot). A professional fixer (with some moral scruples) is asked to ‘fix’ the wife of his boss, but starts to feel sorry for her. Falls a little in love. This is a much more brutal story, far less ambiguous than Dard, and Olav is not as genteel or well-spoken as Albert, but it is a quieter book, with an old-fashioned atmosphere which we’ve not hitherto experienced with Nesbø. Bet you weren’t expecting him to come smack-bang in the middle of this post!

AngelisAugusto De Angelis: The Hotel of the Three Roses (transl. Jill Foulston)

Another Pushkin Vertigo release, I had high hopes for this one, set in a boarding-house in Milan in 1919, written in the 1930s and filled to the brim with unreliable characters with a dodgy past. However, I found there were just too many characters, all lying with no compunction and very little concern about plausibility. There were just too many things happening, insufficient clarity and psychological motivation. This was gentility of the cold-nosed, snobbish variety, not even a smidgen of warmth or attempt to make me care about any of the characters. And, as for those creepy china dolls…!

Deadly-Harvest-Vis-6-copy1Michael Stanley: Deadly Harvest

This is not the Botswana of endless cups of Redbush tea and astute yet gentle musings of Alexander McCall Smith. But it remains, nevertheless, a polite, traditional society with respect for rank and the elderly, even though we are dealing with some pretty horrible realities. Under the ‘quaint’ umbrella of traditional African medicine, muti, we find a profoundly disturbing superstition and increasing use of human body parts. As young girls go missing and the communities are too scared to talk, our beloved rotund Detective Kubu supports his feisty new recruit, Samantha Khama, who wants to find out just what is going on. Politics, traditions, family ties, AIDS victims and reactions to HIV-infected children, plus strong characterisation all form a delightful and far more believable alternative narrative of modern Africa. The authors scratch beneath the surface of the beauty, charm and nostalgia that the British Empire still has for Africa, yet carefully avoid making the country or its people the villain of the piece. One of my favourite series set in Africa.

For a more comprehensive review of the book and an interview with the authors, see Crime Fiction Lover.

 

 

Quick Crime Reviews: One Out of Four

Would it be fair to say that about one in four books being published today constitutes a memorable read? Judging by my current crop of crime reads, I’d say that proportion is roughly right. It may seem ungracious to say that, especially when I have yet to finish my own novel! (So they are all clearly better than me for a start.) So let me qualify this somewhat.

None of them were bad enough to make me want to stop reading them. In fact, they were entertaining and quite accomplished for debut novels. However, after just a few days, I can barely remember the storyline or the characters. I am sure they will all do well in terms of sales, however, probably better so than the last one, which I liked and remembered most. Is that because publishers or the reading public think of crime fiction as a ‘disposable genre’ – easily read, all about a puzzle and a twist and a quick entertainment, and then forgotten? Or am I being too harsh? Many of my fellow bloggers enjoyed them a lot, so why do I always need a ‘bigger theme’, an exotic location or a social context to keep me happy?

disclaimerRenée Knight: Disclaimer

Quick and easy to read, but failed to rise above the run-of-the-mill for me. Another middle-aged woman with a secret alternating with chapters from the POV of an older man who has suffered loss and is seeking revenge. A set-up which is intriguing – what would you do if you found the worst moments of your life story displayed in a novel? –  but the execution doesn’t quite live up to it.

 

whatsheleftT. R. Richmond: What She Left

An interesting concept of reconstituting a person and their last few days through all the documents and detritus of life that they have left behind. You’ll find a good variety of voices, from lecherous middle-aged professor to wide-eyed naivety. However, overall, the story strained belief – so many gathered by the river’s edge on a winter’s night! – and did not quite live up to the premise.

 

followmeAngela Clarke: Follow Me

Once you manage to suspend your disbelief that the police would be so unfamiliar with Twitter and would depend on a 23-year-old freelance journalist to be their social media consultant, this is quite an entertaining and fast-paced read, although the end is a trifle predictable. It raises some interesting issues about online privacy, but I felt that the issue of what Nas and Freddie had done in their teens was deliberately obfuscated and hidden just to create some artificial suspense.

watermusicMargie Orford: Water Music

This is the fifth novel in the series featuring social worker Clare Hart, working with abused and missing minors in Cape Town. So yes, I jumped midway into the story arc about Clare and her boyfriend, the cop Riedwaan Faizal, but I was still captivated by the interactions between the characters and the storyline. South Africa is a place where life is not easy for poor young women and children, and the author reflects that in this emotional story about an abandoned child and a missing young cellist. This is not the touristy Cape Town we like to imagine, although the natural setting is very beautiful, but a gritty story about violence against women and the consequences of poverty. Corruption at the highest levels and the conflict between police and unions in a post-apartheid South Africa are also tangentially addressed. My first Margie Orford, but most certainly not my last.

Crime Fiction You Can Rely On

When it’s holiday season and foggy outside, you want comfort reading. During the Christmas break, I turned to tried and tested crime novelists, whose books I was sure I would enjoy. And I wasn’t disappointed!

afteryoudieEva Dolan: After You Die

A mother stabbed to death, her disabled daughter left to die of starvation upstairs. The family had previously complained of harassment: did the police not take things seriously enough? Not a refugee or immigrant in sight here, in this third crime novel by Eva Dolan looking at life in or near Peterborough.

Investigators Zigic and Ferreira from the Hate Crimes Unit take a break from xenophobia and political corruption to investigate a case of disability-related hate crime. Dolan proves she is equally at home in a village setting as she is in the grimy town centre, and her deliberately restricted domestic canvas conveys a palpable sense of claustrophobia. As always, a tight, well-written story, with a great deal of sadness at its heart. Never one to shy away from topical discussions, this time the author looks at cyberbullying, attitudes towards disabled people and assisted death.

nightblindRagnar Jonasson: Nightblind (trans. Quentin Bates)

After describing Jonasson’s debut novel Snowblind as a ‘charming combination of influences, which feels very fresh and will appeal to those who find cosy crime too twee and Scandinavian Noir too depressing’, I was looking forward to the second book to be translated.

The publisher Orenda Books chose to translate the books out of order, so this one takes us 5 years into the future, with the main character Ari Thor now settled in the isolated town he was nervous about initially. He is back together with his girlfriend, who works at a nearby hospital, and they have a baby boy. Siglufjördur is now less cut off now with the creation of an additional tunnel, but it remains a close-knit community, shattered by the murder of a policeman. Drug-dealers, corrupt politicians, a woman on the run from an abusive partner and a mysterious inmate in a psychiatric hospital all tease us with hints and possibilities. Ari Thor remains an intriguing character, at times naive and obstinate, at other times clear-eyed and thoughtful, trying to do his best by everyone. The great strength of this series is the setting, of course: local landscapes and the quirks of a small community are impeccably described and form an integral part of the action.

silentroomMari Hannah: The Silent Room

A standalone from the creator of the Kate Daniels’ police procedural series. This one has more of a thrillerish feel to it, and of course a new set of characters, but it has the trademark depth of characterisation and good storytelling that we’ve come to expect of Mari Hannah.

The story starts with a bang: DS Matthew Ryan’s disgraced boss Jack Fenwick is ‘sprung’ from a security van hijacked by armed men. Ryan himself is suspected of aiding and abetting the fugitive, but he believes his former boss was being set up and may have been kidnapped. In an effort to prove his own innocence and find out the reasons behind Fenwick’s disappearance, he enlists the help of former colleagues who are prepared to subvert the rules. I particularly enjoyed calm, collected Special Branch officer Grace Ellis, who cannot bear the boredom of early retirement, nor the slandering of her former colleagues.

Although the trail does lead to Norway and beyond, this is not your bog-average international conspiracy thriller or all-action, all-out action man stuff – which is a good thing in my book. I am not often entranced by thrillers, because it’s all plot, fight, shoot, run, improbable coincidence… but this is much subtler and less graphic than that. There are chilling moments of real menace, though, to keep lovers of ‘normal thrillers’ happy, as well as sadness. It’s a bravura mix of action, puzzling motivations, and all of the main (and many of the secondary) characters are so well drawn, the dynamics between them completely believable.

So, if you are looking for exciting, entertaining but also thought-provoking crime fiction reads, I can heartily recommend any one of these three authors. Have you read any of their books? And do you also turn to reliable reads during the holiday season?

A Few Reviews Behind…

The following books all fall into the category: enjoyable but not enough time to review them fully (perhaps not outstandingly ‘different’ and memorable enough to make me find the time for complete reviews).

fallofmanDavid Lagercrantz: Fall of Man in Wilmslow

Alan Turing dies in Wilmslow, just outside Manchester, by eating a cyanide-laced apple. Was it suicide or murder? This odd mix of detective story and spy thriller speculates on his demise. It’s not badly written and evokes that atmosphere of suspicion and one-upmanship of the 1950s Cold War very well, but I don’t quite see the point of it. The Turing story is by now quite well-known, so it’s really more about the interior journey of one man – the policeman Leonard Corell – who becomes fascinated with Turing and saddened by his life and death. He initially recoils from homosexuality but ultimately can relate to Turing’s misfit status. It does read at times like a treatise on maths and computer science, and the ending is a bit of a nonentity. I then saw the film with Cumberbatch as Turing and was a bit disappointed at the portrayal of Turing as a geek. Difficult he may have been, but there was far more to him than an almost autistic devotion to science and a lack of humour.

fridayNicci French: Friday on My Mind

The fifth in the Frieda Klein series and I still enjoy Frieda’s moodiness and the descriptions of hidden London (including its underground rivers). But she does do some reckless and silly things which in real life would lead to her being instantly charged and imprisoned. So it was a welcome addition to the investigative team to have a new female detective to view Frieda a little more objectively (and coldly). Above all, I liked the way the authors tackled head-on the ambiguity of grief and the guilt of losing someone one once loved but no longer does.

Image from Tarkovsky film, from bfi.org.uk
Image from Tarkovsky film, from bfi.org.uk

Stanislaw Lem: Solaris

Not my usual reading matter at all, although I do like the more unusual science fiction of Asimov, John Wyndham, Ursula Le Guin and Iain M. Banks. This is a hypnotic and disturbing book about the limits of human comprehension, the tricks our mind can play on us, about whether it’s ever possible to understand and accept the ‘other’, how misunderstandings can lead to escalation of conflict. So, all worthy themes, but too many didactic bits, physics explanations etc. to really grab me. I think I prefer the Tarkovsky version, which apparently Lem described as ‘got it all wrong – it’s not a Love Story set in Space’.
Glad to see it translated properly and accurately into English now, though, rather than via a French translation.

prettybabyMary Kubica: Pretty Baby

A typical suburban family suddenly finds itself careening out of control as they take in a young runaway girl and her baby. This novel speaks to the fears and contradictions in all of us: wanting a comfortable lifestyle vs. wanting to help, trusting vs. being suspicious, frustrations of parenting vs. frustrations of married life and much more. Clever characterisation, with viewpoints shifting from one character to another, until I felt sorry for all of them. Readers who say that the characters are unsympathetic must score very highly on self-esteem, as I recognise many of the thoughts and anxieties of the people in the book – albeit heightened, of course, that’s why it’s a thriller! I did foresee some but not all of the developments, but more than anything it’s a study in disappointment and frustration rather than a straightforward thriller, despite its explosive finale. I’ve tipped Mary Kubica as a woman author to watch on the CFL website and certainly look forward to reading more by her.