Reading/Writing Summary for April

I could almost claim 14 books for April – except that one of them has been so massive that I am still reading it, and will be reading it for many months to come! That is, of course, Genji Monogatari¬†(Tale of Genji), which I’m reading along with brave Akylina.

greatwarOf the remaining thirteen, I had another epic doorstop of a book: The Great War by Aleksandar Gatalica. You will find the full review on Necessary Fiction website shortly. This website, incidentally, is well worth a look for its thoughtful reviews of lesser-known authors and short story collections, its research and translation notes, and writer-in-residence feature. For now, let me just say this book is an ambitious, sprawling, almost encylopedic collection of stories and characters, from all the different sides fighting the First World War. Touching, humorous and ever so slightly surreal.

Six books were in my preferred genre, crime fiction. If you’ve missed any of the reviews, they are linked below (all except Cry Wolf, which I was not sufficiently enthusiastic about).

Attica Locke: Pleasantville

Rebecca Whitney: The Liar’s Chair

Michael Gregorio: Cry Wolf (Ndrangheta clans penetrating the peaceful areas of Umbria in Italy)

Karin Alvtegen: Betrayal

Tom Rob Smith: Child 44

Sarah Hilary: No Other Darkness

Child44My Crime Fiction Pick of the Month, as hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, is very, very tough, as Child 44, No Other Darkness and¬†Pleasantville are all jostling for position. So this time I think I’ll go for the one that kept me awake all night to finish it, which was¬†Child 44.¬†I saw the film as well this weekend, which simplifies some of the story lines and emphasises perhaps different aspects than I would have (if I’d written the screenplay – the author was not involved in it either). But I enjoyed it, and the actors were really impressive. If you want to see an interesting discussion of book vs. film adaptations, check out Margot’s latest blog post.

Meanwhile,¬†Pleasantville fulfills my North American requirement for the Global Reading Challenge – I don’t often get to read something set in Houston, Texas.

A lot of online poetry this month (after all, it is National Poetry Month for the Americans) and I’ve also started a poetry course organised by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But, surprisingly, I haven’t read any poetry collection.

However, I did read a non-fiction book, the funny yet thoughtful essay collection with the irresistible title¬†100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write.

Three of the books I read this month fit into the historical fiction category, but the one I want to highlight is Fire Flowers by Ben Byrne, which gives such a poignant description of post-war Japan, something few of us know about.

Alongside the two translated books (from Swedish and classical Japanese), I also read four books in French (well above my monthly target of 1-2). These were Yasmina Khadra’s¬†L’attentat, Philippe Besson’s¬†La maison atlantique and Virginie Despentes’¬†Teen Spirit¬†(which I’ve reviewed all together here). I also read Metin Arditi’s rather chilling description of a Swiss boarding-school for boys¬†Loin des bras.

So, all in all, a good month of reading. Although some books felt a bit average, there were quite a few that impressed me. At least I no longer feel obliged to write lengthy book reviews about those I didn’t quite gel with (or even finish them). And I’m pleased that I am spending some time in Genji’s company again. It helps to slow down my world and see things from a very different angle.

In terms of writing, I’ve been less successful. School holidays and business travel have wreaked their usual havoc. I have, however, solved outstanding plot holes and know very clearly where everything is heading now. I have the post-it note wall to prove it! Although I’m still open to allowing my characters to surprise me a little…

WIP

So, how has your April been in terms of reading and writing? Any must-read books (dare I ask that question, dare I be tempted)? Anything you felt was overrated or overhyped? Let me know below!

 

 

 

 

What Was I Expecting? Beep-beep, Fashion!

I try to stay away from books that are being hyped and fussed over by publishers, reviewers, readers and most especially the media. Yet sometimes I succumb to fashion (turn to the left), fashion (turn to the right)… I nearly always end up a little underwhelmed, as I’ve been by four books in a row that I’ve read over the past two or three weeks. So I was wondering why that’s the case. I suppose it’s because my expectations are being piled up to skyscraper proportions, so it becomes impossible for any book to satisfy my hunger.

So, just to be perfectly clear, all of the books below are good books, just not¬†great¬†books. Like an overly demanding parent with a child who doesn’t quite achieve the stunning results they expect, I love them nevertheless, but can’t help feeling a little disappointed. And, of course, this is just my opinion, there are plenty of other readers who loved these books, etc. etc.

thefarmTom Rob Smith: The Farm

The premise is irresistible: the over-protected child (now grown up and trying to protect his parents from the truth about his sexuality) has to choose between his father’s and his mother’s account of events. Whom to believe? What is really going on? Marketed as a thriller, this feels to me more like a family saga, and makes excellent use of its remote Swedish farmhouse scenario. But¬†I do wish there had been more uncertainty, more of the father’s side of the story and, even though I usually like a clear chronology and straightforward storytelling, in this case I would have liked more complexity, more conflicting perspectives. For a very different take on this, see the review on Crime Fiction Lover.

StationElevenEmily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

This is going to make me a lot of enemies, as nearly everyone I know who’s read it has loved this book. I did find it beautifully written, with a glossiness and thoughtfulness of language which is very appealing to the poet in me. But when I reached the end, I did feel a bit: ‘Ho-hum, is that it?’ It pains me to say this, as I saw the author in Lyon and loved everything she said.

There were some memorable scenes and a few intriguing characters, not necessarily the main protagonists¬†(I preferred Miranda, Clark, Javeen). However, because of the constantly shifting points of view, I felt I didn’t quite come to grips with any of them.¬†More could have been made of the Prophet, as well, and his troupe.

I enjoyed the Shakespeare references (more The Tempest than King Lear to my mind, but perhaps that just shows my own preconceptions), the sarcasm about Hollywood and fame, the description of life after the pandemic. I’m not a huge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, and thankfully the book did not go too much into the horror mode of graphic descriptions of dying.

Ultimately, it’s a story about human relationships and the longing for connection and for the comfort of the past, set against the backdrop of a threatening, uncertain world. But it’s not as moving and tender as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and a little too tame.¬†If you want to see a writer who really goes out on a limb in an alternative world, try the much less hyped Ioanna Bourazopoulou’s¬†What Lot’s Wife Saw.¬†I did an interview with Ioanna for Crime Fiction Lover¬†for New Talent November.

For much more enthusiastic appraisals of Station Eleven, see The Little Reader Library, Janet Emson and Naomi Frisby.

liarschairRebecca Whitney: The Liar’s Chair

I’m rather a fan of so-called domestic noir, perhaps because of the ‘happy’ families I’ve known throughout my life. I do get fatigued by the inevitable comparisons to ‘Gone Girl’, as if that was the first of the domestic noir genre (Patricia Highsmith, Daphne du Maurier and Nicci French had been writing them way before the current batch). Furthermore, I don’t need likable characters to enjoy a book, so I thought I would be fine with the deceits and lies of the toxic marriage depicted here. In fact, my current WIP falls broadly under this same category.

The atmosphere of menace was very well done, particularly in the first half of the book, but it was a little hard to sustain throughout. At some point it felt like the author was piling on nasty gestures by either one of the couple, for no other purpose than to up the ante. Perhaps that was necessary, because there was no great moment of ultimate danger or huge revelation: the outcomes were somewhat predictable.

However, this is a talented author, with a great turn of phrase, whose future novels will almost certainly become even more intense and suspenseful. For more reviews, see Cleopatra Loves Books and Susan White for Euro Crime.

loindesbrasMetin Arditi: Loin des bras (Far from human arms)

Far from the arms of others, who can provide comfort and love, this metaphorical title describes not just the schoolboys in this book, who’ve been sent away to an expensive Swiss boarding school by their wealthy and indifferent parents, but also the teachers at this school. Each character is flawed and vulnerable in a different way: we have gamblers, homosexuals, former Nazi sympathisers (the book is set in the 1950s), people who have lost countries, languages or loved ones. A bit of everything in short, all longing for some human connection, for a sense of community, which this school provides in some way, while heading for bankruptcy. It was an enjoyable read, with short chapters and a sense of world-weariness very fitting with the landscape and the omnipresent subtle changes of the lake’s surface. The storylines are somewhat predictable, and some of the characters feel a bit clich√©, but what disappointed me most was the bare, unadorned style.

The reason for that is again false expectations on my part. Metin Arditi is an intriguing person in his own right: born in Turkey, he moved to Switzerland as a child, became a professor of physics at EPFL Lausanne, and is also a very active promoter of culture and especially music in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Given his background, I expected a more flowery language, perhaps something in the style of Orhan Pamuk, but he dissects instead with incisive, cold precision, much more like a scientist. If you want to try reading him in English, one of his books has been translated The Conductor of Illusions. 

Perhaps next time I’ll do a post on the hyped books which did not disappoint me – there are a few that lived up to my expectations or even surpassed them. How about you? Do you read or avoid the buzz books of the moment? And do you ever feel that ‘is that all’ sigh?

 

 

 

 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Anahita Mody?

I have the pleasure of welcoming Anahita Mody today to talk us through her gradual descent into crime fiction addiction. Anahita is a librarian based in West London, a published poet and an avid reader and reviewer on Goodreads and We Love This Book. She studied English and Creative Writing and freely admits to a bit of an obsession with cossack hats, slipper socks and Keanu Reaves – though not necessarily in that order! Anahita is also very active on Twitter, which is how I had the pleasure of making her acquaintance.

AnahitaHow did you get hooked on crime fiction?

When I was younger I started out reading the Point Crime series and the one that really stood out for me was ‘The Smoking Gun’ by Malcolm Rose. However,¬†I got completely¬†hooked on crime fiction when I was nineteen and at university. I read all of Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series, which I loved. Although I’m not a big fan of her last few novels, I think the rest are¬†spectacular¬†and I love her portrayal of Kay Scarpetta as a strong,¬†independent¬†woman but¬†with quite obvious¬†flaws. Since then I’ve read more and more crime fiction and related sub genres. In fact, I try and focus the majority of my reading on it as it’s become my favourite genre.

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

I’m a big fan of ‘Domestic Noir’ and find it fascinating to read. The idea that a relationship can seem so perfect yet behind closed doors it is the very opposite intrigues. Also, a lot of the time with those novels, the reader isn’t sure whose narrative/side of the story they can believe and trust.¬†

I also love captivity crime. ‘The Never List’ by Koethi¬†Zan and ‘Still Missing’ by Chevy Stevens are two of the best books I have read this year. I like the writing technique of using flashbacks as I think it really highlights the change in the character to read them in their original voice and then to read them in their post-captivity¬†voice¬†and the way in which the events in the book have changed them.

Finally, I also love psychological thrillers, particularly Gillian Flynn and Samantha Hayes.

AnahitaShelvesWhat is the most memorable book you have read recently?

It would have to be ‘The Girl On The Train’¬†by Paula Hawkins, a book that is being published in January 2015. The characters are intriguing and I¬† had no clue as to what the ending could turn out to be. I also loved ‘Daughter’ by Jane Shemilt. The story is such a simple premise but so many twists and turns, plus an ending that stayed with me for a very long time.

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

That’s a tough one! I think it would be Claire McGowan’s Paula Maguire series that is set in Ireland. I love Paula Maguire. She’s my favourite female character: again, because she is a strong woman and the books have so many plot points that the endings really are a shocker. I think Irish fiction is very underrated. There are so many amazing Irish crime writers: Jane Casey, Sinead Crowley and Tana French.

What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?
liarschairI’m looking forward to reading more ‘Domestic Noir’: ‘The Liar’s Chair’ by Rebecca Whitney and also the new ‘Stride’ novel by Brian Freeman. Not forgetting the new novels from Sarah Hilary and Clare Donoghue, which sound fantastic. My TBR pile is about to topple over but I keep adding to it! I love reading British crime and Peter James’ Roy Grace series is one of my favourites. The ongoing story of what happened to Grace’s wife, Sandy, is so intriguing and shows us what Grace was like in the years he was married.
Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?
I’m a huge shopaholic and I completely relate to the Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella. I love her main character, Becky Bloomwood, as she’s a complete contrast to what I normally read. Working in a library, I try to¬†recommend a good variety of books to people and often find myself recommending books that have been turned into films.
 

I too have a passion for Irish women writers, so it’s good to hear them mentioned here. As always, my TBR list is the biggest victim of this interview series. What do you think of Mel‚Äôs choices ‚Äď have you read any or all of them? She is very up-to-date with the latest releases, isn’t she?

For previous participants in this series, please look here. And please, please, please do not hesitate to let me know if you are passionate about crime fiction of any description and would like to take part.