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.

 

 

 

 

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March 2018 Reading Summary

Another month has whizzed by and there has been quite a lot of crime reading going on, with a few unexpecteds cropping up on my planned list. 13 books, 6 of them by women writers, 6 of them crime, 5 of them foreign language books. All in all, 11 countries were visited in the course of the reading (if we consider Wales a separate country). Only one that I regretted spending time on and one DNF, but since the latter was short stories, I didn’t feel guilty about it at all.

Book igloo from Curious Mind Box.

Stuart Turton: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – ambitious, mind-boggling, unexpected

Stuart Evans: The Caves of Alienation – interesting concept, perhaps a bit long in execution, but enjoyable

Katy Mahood: Entanglement – what-if novel, love story over the years, not my cup of tea

Tom Hanks: Uncommon Type – writes better than I expected (better than Sean Penn, for sure), but the stories are slight and feel like ‘so what’. DNF

Dan Lungu: I am an old Communist Biddy – thoughtful humorous appraisal of post-Communist life, wish I could have translated it

Victor del Arbol: A Million Drops – moving saga of idealogy, betrayals and survival, set in Spain and Soviet Russia. To be reviewed on Necessary Fiction asap.

Ödön von Horváth: Tales from the Vienna Woods – anything but pretty story of 1920s Vienna, will be taking a closer look at translation on my lbog

Spike Milligan: Puckoon – farce which nowadays doesn’t seem quite so funny (and probably even less so in the 1980s).

Margot Kinberg: Downfall – for fans of academic environments and less violent crime, a rather sad story of young people being let down by private interests

Karin Brynard: Weeping Waters – review coming up on Crime Fiction Lover, but an excellent new series about South Africa, which does not shy away from controversial topics such as race and land ownership

Rebecca Bradley: Fighting Monsters – Hannah is back on form, trying to cope with new boss, new team member and a potential harmful leak within the police force

Iona Whishaw: It Begins in Betrayal – attractive feisty heroine is a retired  WW2 spy, with wholesome Canadian characters and unsavoury European ones – great period piece and fun. Review to come on Crime Fiction Lover.

Hanne Ørstavik: Love – excellent build-up of emotion and dread

So, how has your reading been in March, and what are you looking forward to reading in April?

 

WWWednesday 21 March 2018

First proper day of Spring, apparently, so I thought I would take part once more in what is in fact a weekly (but to me more like monthly) meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Current:

It’s nice to have friends who write crime fiction, as you have a never-ending supply of books that you want to read. I always make a point of reading the blog posts of Margot Kinberg and Rebecca Bradley, who are keen crime readers as well as writers, so it is an absolute pleasure to delve into their recent releases.

Rebecca Bradley: Fighting Monsters

This is the third book (plus a novella) in the crime series set in Nottingham and featuring DI Hannah Robbins and it’s fair to say that, as the book opens, Hannah has been through the mill. A colleague was killed in action (something she still blames herself for), she herself was wounded, her relationship with an attractive journalist has ended… and now it appears she may have a leak in her own team. How else would gang leader and cop killer Simon Talbot walk away freely and triumphantly after his trial, and in possession of the name of the witness who spoke out against him?

Margot Kinberg: Downfall

This is the fourth novel featuring ex-cop turned professor of criminal justice Joel Williams. In this book Joel is conducting some research with two friends of his into alternatives to prison for young offenders and come across the organisation Second Chance. In one of their schools a young boy died after sneaking out and climbing up a building on a construction site. But if it was merely an unfortunate accident, why is everyone trying so hard to cover it up?

Just read:

Two rather emotional but very different reads, one slim and concise, taking place over the course of one night, one long and rangey, taking place over several decades and countries.

Hanne Ørstavik: Love, transl. Martin Aitken

The story of a single mother and her young son, both of them dreamers, both of them slightly naive and wanting to believe the best of people, both of them doomed to be forever disappointed. Over the course of one cold night, they roam around town, and your sense of foreboding gets worse and worse. A book that broke my heart a little.

Victor Del Arbol: A Million Drops, transl. Lisa Dillman

It’s being marketed as a crime novel, but it is more of a historical saga of betrayal and revenge, Fascism and Communism, in both Spain and the Soviet Union, as seen through the eyes of individuals who lived through those troubled times. The atrocious conditions of Nazino Island in Siberia were so vividly described that I thought it must be fiction, only to discover that this place really did exist.

Next:

I’ll be going to two countries I like very much (despite their -very different – problems) with my next two books: South Africa and Germany.

Karin Brynard: Weeping Waters, transl. Maya Fowler and Isabel Dixon

A young artist and her adopted daughter are brutally murdered on a farm near the Kalahari. But was this just a typical farm attack, or was it something more personal? Townie Inspector Beeslaar has his hands full trying to get his head around this landscape with its tensions, secrets and hostilities.

Ödön von Horváth: Jugend ohne Gott

I so enjoyed rediscovering Horváth in the German section of the library, that I already have my eye on reading another book by him, this time a novel about a teacher who watches, horrified, as his students become enamoured with racist and Fascist ideology.

Oh, dear, all the subjects seem rather grim as I write them up here. Clearly I’m not much of a believer in uplifting, feel-good literature, right?

My June in Reading

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?

Doesn't this look like the path to unimaginable riches and adventures?
Doesn’t this look like the path to unimaginable riches and adventures?

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

Alison Umminger: My Favourite Manson Girl – another lost teenager with a dysfunctional family, strong YA voice

Found on a bookshelf

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!

Review copy

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.

 

Two Crime Novels Written by Women

Only one of these was on my #20booksofsummer list, the other one snuck in because it’s a friend’s book. Now guess which one of them disappointed me?

madetobebrokenFirst, the friend. I’ve previously read and reviewed Rebecca Bradley’s debut novel Shallow Waters  and was curious to read the second in the series. Although I enjoyed the first novel, I have to admit the writing is slicker, stronger, much more confident in this book. DI Hannah Robbins and her team are still struggling to come to terms with the fall-out from their previous major case (described in Shallow Waters). Hannah is not only worried about regaining her professional credibility and enabling her team to work together efficiently once more, but on a personal level, she is not at all sure she can trust her former boyfriend, journalist Ethan.

A spate of severe food poisoning seems to be going around Nottingham – or could it be suicide, even murder? The team is unable to find any connections between the victims: could it really be a case of random poisoning of strangers? And to what purpose?

This is a puzzling and painful case for the team, but slightly more comprehensible for the reader, as there are chapters written from another POV. The author turns the serial killer trope completely and very successfully on its head, allowing us to feel much sympathy for an individual, while not condoning his behaviour in the least. Nor showing that sickly fascination with the convoluted advance planning and almost superhuman cleverness of serial killers which have spoilt the whole subgenre for me.

As before, Bradley is not afraid to tackle difficult subjects, with no easy answers, subjects which may make some readers feel uncomfortable. I admire that bravery. Another thing I really like about this series is that, although it is narrated predominantly by Hannah herself in first person, she is not the star of the show. Instead, both Hannah and her author make it very clear that investigative work is all about teamwork and patience. It’s this attention to detail (without getting bogged down in formalities or over-long explanations) which makes you settle down comfortably in Bradley’s experienced (policing) hands.

One minor point of disgruntlement: that the final denouement comes a bit too quickly after Hannah realises a crucial point from a throwaway remark. Perhaps this was done for the purposes of keeping the book at a manageable length, but I for one wouldn’t have minded a few more pages of investigation and misdirection before we got there.

Made to Be Broken will be released tomorrow and is available for preorder on Amazon UK, Amazon US and all other Amazon stores. There will also be a Facebook party for the launch tomorrow, if you’d like to join in for a bit of fun and support for Rebecca.

lesfauvesThe second book was the one I abandoned. I received it as a freebie when I signed up for Quais du Polar in Lyon. It’s by a French author and screenwriter I’d never heard of before, but she’s been receiving very positive reviews. Ingrid Desjours’ Les Fauves (The Beasts – talk about a controversial title, although it ostensibly refers to the two main characters) is about a young woman, Haiko, who’s heading a charity aimed at preventing young people from becoming jihadists. When her friend and fellow worker is gunned down on the street, she reluctantly hires a bodyguard, ex-military man Lars, whose experiences in Afghanistan may both help and hinder him to do his job properly.

The premise sounds interesting and it’s high time this subject was explored. But this is not the way to do it (for me). It felt like the author jumped upon a bandwagon of topical subjects and produced a sensationalist thriller which could have been about anything else, really, rather than the more thoughtful and in-depth exploration in Jihadi: A Love Story by Yusuf Toropov. At some point I decided I could not read anymore about how Haiko is attracted to the unwashed, hairy masculinity of Lars…

I did not finish it, although this was supposed to be my 5th book of the #20booksofsummer challenge.

 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Janet O’Kane?

JanetOkaneIt’s a real pleasure to welcome another avid crime reader and writer on the blog today: Janet O’Kane. Now happily ensconced on the Scottish Borders, Janet is not only a friendly voice and discerning reviewer on her blog http://janetokane.blogspot.co.uk/  and on Twitter under the handle @JanetOkane, she is also the only writer I know who keeps chicken. I ‘ve had the pleasure of interviewing Janet about her debut novel No Stranger to Death for Crime Fiction Lover. She kindly agreed to answer even more of my questions here today.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

I dedicated No Stranger to Death to the person responsible for my love of crime fiction: my Mum. I remember climbing aboard the mobile library with her when I was small, thrilled to be choosing my books as she chose hers. She read historical and crime fiction and once I’d outgrown children’s books (there being no such thing as Young Adult literature back then), she introduced me to her favourite authors. I read all of Jean Plaidy’s historical novels but it was the so-called Queens of Crime – Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh – whose work captured my imagination. Agatha Christie was still writing at that time; I recall the arguments at home over who got to read her latest book first. Mum’s now in her 80s and still a huge crime fiction fan. When I last visited her, the pile of books next to her bed included ones by Mari Hannah, Denise Mina and Ann Cleeves.

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

Maybe because I cut my teeth on traditional crime, I gravitate more towards police procedurals and psychological crime fiction than action-based thrillers. I can also see from my shelves that I’m biased towards UK writers (though I’ve recently been on a Scandi-crime binge), especially Scottish ones, although this has been a conscious decision because I live north of the Border now. That said, I’m open-minded and will try any author once.

What is the most memorable book you have read recently?

Of all the books I read in 2014, two in particular stand out. The first is Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason. I’d not read any Icelandic literature before and it’s made me keen to try more. I’m a big fan of fictional investigations which delve back into the past to solve a present-day crime, and this is an excellent example of that type of story.

2014 was also the year I started downloading audio books, and I enjoyed another excellent novel this way: A Pleasure and A Calling by Phil Hogan. It’s an unusual tale of an estate agent who keeps the keys to every home he sells, so he can let himself in when the new owners are out. As well as being truly creepy, this novel has some very black humour in it, and I can’t understand why it’s not been hugely successful.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

I think the complete works of Scottish crime-writer Christopher Brookmyre would keep me busy for some time and, very importantly, would make me laugh too. His debut novel Quite Ugly One Morning is among my all-time favourite reads, and I’ve enjoyed plenty of his subsequent books too.

scandicrime pileWhat are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

I’m currently trying a new approach to reading, by choosing a different theme every month. So far I’ve done Scandi-crime and Scottish crime, and next up is books written by friends. I’m particularly looking forward to reading at least one of Dave Sivers’ Archer and Baines novels and Rebecca Bradley’s recently published debut, Shallow Waters.

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

I have a fondness for science fiction, probably because, like crime fiction, it’s a broad genre which embraces many different types of stories. When I was a teenager I read all John Wyndham’s books and they’re still on my shelves. I reread The Chrysalids recently and found myself loving it all over again but for different reasons to when I was younger. I’ve also enjoyed I Am Legend by Richard Matheson and for my recent Open University degree I read several books by Philip K Dick, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

What a delightful personal selection; this is what I love about this series, who’d have guessed that Janet O’Kane is a sci fi fan? So pleased to see that Phil Hogan’s delightfully subversive book gets a mention here – I too thought it deserved much wider recognition.

For previous participants in the series – and there have been some good’uns (only good’uns, to be honest), just follow this link. If you would like to take part, please let me know via the comments or on Twitter – we always love to hear about other people’s criminal passions!

Quick-Fire Reviews for Holiday Period

It’s been a long time since I last posted any reviews, although my reading has continued unashamedly. So I have some wonderful books to share with you. I will post more in-depth reviews of Tove Jansson’s memoirs and Lily King’s ‘Euphoria’, because I am comparing and contrasting two or more books in each case, but here are some quick reviews of the books I have enjoyed during the final days of 2014 and the first few days of 2015.

IslandersPascal Garnier: The Islanders

The ultimate anti-feel-good Christmas story. Olivier reluctantly returns to his home town of Versailles on a frozen December day to prepare for his mother’s funeral. Iced in, unable to leave, he bumps into his childhood sweetheart Jeanne and gets invited to Christmas dinner at her house, where she lives with her malicious blind brother, Rodolphe. Is it the spirit of generosity which makes Rodolphe invite a homeless man to take part in their celebrations, or something more sinister? And just what terrible secret binds Olivier and Jeanne? What I want to know is: how does Garnier manage to deliver, again and again, in such succinct formats, a devastatingly accurate description of people on the margins of society and on the borderline of alcoholism and madness? Once again, it starts innocently enough: a funeral, a claustrophobic and snobbish little town, strained family relationships… and it all ends in confusion and mayhem.

BlueNightsJoan Didion: Blue Nights

The same year that Didion lost her husband, she also lost her daughter after a prolonged battle with illness, coma and hospitals. Another moving book about loss, grief, the guilt of parenthood, the fears of being a parent, and the frailty of human life in general. I haven’t read a better description of the flaws and limitations of the medical system, of the humiliations of growing older, of the doubts, challenges and joys of parenting – elegiac rather than angry, thoughtful rather than didactic. A meditation on the reliability of memory, on multiple interpretations of facts and on what it means to love and be loved.

Time passes. Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.

Perhaps more disconnected and woolly than the Year of Magical Thinking book, more jumping around with seemingly disparate pieces of information, but it still has that vulnerability and depth which made the other book so memorable.

ShallowWatersRebecca Bradley: Shallow Waters

I’m always a little nervous when I read books by friends – what if I don’t like it? Will it destroy our friendship? Dare I be honest? But, luckily, there was no need to worry about that with this book! An in-depth review is forthcoming on Crime Fiction Lover, but for now let me just say that this is a solid police procedural, with an engaging female lead who is not profoundly damaged, drunk or unbearably lonely (what a relief!). The author skilfully hints at quite a back story there, but doesn’t let that overwhelm the investigation. The story revolves around kidnapping, abuse and murder of young girls, so it becomes almost unbearably grim in places, and we see just how much this affects each individual member of the police team too.

The very atmospheric cover, perfect for the genre and fitting so well with the story, has won a gold star from the very demanding Joel Friedlander of The Book Designer fame.

PiercedHeartLynn Shepherd: The Pierced Heart

Lynn Shepherd has created a great niche for herself with novels which may loosely classified as ‘historical crime fiction’, in which she plays with re-imaginings of real historical people and events, full of literary allusions. Her Victorian investigator Charles Maddox was previously involved with the family of the poet Shelley, and with the ambiguous justice system of the time (in a retelling of ‘Bleak House). This time it’s an interesting twist on the original Dracula – the vampire sceptic’s book about vampires, perhaps. Close enough to the original (right down to the names) to please fans of Bram Stoker’s book, but full of healthy human rationality and investigations. If you are sick and tired of YA literature’s obsession with vampires – or if you have family in Transylvania and are tired of factual inaccuracies about the historical precedent of Dracula – this is the book which combines spine-tingling suspense with a good dose of satire about superstitions. Some reviewers have found the end of the book implausible or over-the-top, but that is precisely the point, as far as I can see.