October has been a quiet month in terms of reading – both in terms of quantity and quality. Two weeks of holiday (including a trip to Paris and a week of house-guests) have left their mark. Incidentally, I’ve noticed that a day without reading feels really empty and unsatisfactory, no matter how busy I was with other things.
It has also been a month with fewer reviews – or perhaps I am just settling into my new reading principles. I have completed my reading challenge of 150 books this year and am now reading more for pleasure and allowing myself the freedom of NOT reviewing books unless I feel strongly about them.
A good month of reading, despite holidays and other distractions. 17 books, of which 4 translations, 2 in foreign languages, 2 poetry collections and 10 crime novels (or psychological/political thrillers).
This was a reread for the virtual Crime Book Club. I love the atmosphere Peter May has created of the very harsh, rather alien way of life on the Isle of Lewis. The description of the two-week guga hunting trip on the rock is not for those of a squeamish disposition like me. Although, interestingly, the animal rights activists are not presented in a particularly sympathetic light either. An uncompromising look at believable rather than ‘nice’ characters, with lots of back story, but they are all complex and ring true.
Maurizio de Giovanni: The Crocodile – review forthcoming on Crime Fiction Lover
Michael Arditti: The Breath of Night
An incendiary political thriller and a hunt for clues about a dead missionary who is going to be canonised as a saint. This book is about the Philippines during the Marcos regime and after, with very vivid, harsh and poignant descriptions of daily life and the contrast between rich and poor, expats and local people. The constant shift between time frames work well, as it shows so clearly ‘plus ça change plus c’est la meme chose ‘ and the afterword is a masterpiece in apologetics.
Louise Millar: The Playdate
Believable tale of motherly angst and struggle to balance work and childcare, a social life and relationships with the other sex, all in an anonymous big city. Three main female characters are all plausible and there is much to sympathise with in each one… until you discover that each one of them has some unsavoury secrets.
Adam Wyeth: Silent Music – my poetry tutor and a very talented poet indeed (no, he doesn’t read my blog, so I can praise him without hoping for leniency on the next module). More detailed review will be coming up shortly.
Angela Bowie: Backstage Passes
Pamela Des Barres: I’m With the Band
It was interesting to read these two in quick succession, as they are so similar in subject matter, and yet so different in tone. Angela Bowie’s account is quite bitter and all about point-scoring (perhaps understandably so, as Bowie’s super-stardom and drug-taking in the 1970s cannot have been easy to live with, although it sounds like Angela was keen to give as good as she got). She also sounds extremely self-centered and takes herself far too seriously. Meanwhile, Pamela comes across as very needy and rather silly at times, but also self-deprecating and humorous. Not the kind of life I would recommend as aspirational for young women: gain fame by being linked to famous people. The endless recitals of drug-taking and sex scenes become terribly dull and repetitive after a while, rather than titillating.
And my Crime Fiction Pick of the Month (a meme hosted by Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise) was a tough choice, as I enjoyed most of the crime I read this month very much. But in the end, I think the political thriller of Dominique Manotti wins out, as it taught me a lot of new things about the Red Brigades, Italian exiles in France and the pomposity of the French literary world. Besides, who can resist this gorgeous cover?
I’ve been travelling and working (for money rather than love) for the past three weeks. Which, as always, means I get a lot of reading done (dinners for one at hotel restaurants and lonely hotel rooms are conducive to that sort of thing), but my reviewing falls by the wayside. Too tired mentally to string two words together (except perhaps ‘not now’).
I was aiming for entertaining rather than gruelling books, books to divert rather than ravage me. Some have been better than others, some have been slightly disappointing. I will try to do them all justice with longer reviews over the next few days, so this is what you have to look forward to!
Better than or as good as expected:
Linwood Barclay: Trust Your Eyes – ‘Rear Window’ suspense with a modern twist
Miriam Toews: All My Puny Sorrows – depression and suicide, not a light read
M.J. McGrath: The Bone Seeker – another fascinating insight into Inuit life
Tamar Cohen: The Broken – captivating if uncomfortable story of marital and friendship breakdown
Slightly disappointing (perhaps because of the hype):
Sam Alexander: Carnal Acts – too tough and graphic for my taste
Domingo Villar: Water-Blue Eyes – the abrupt ending spoilt an otherwise rather promising book set in Galicia, Spain
Edward Wilson: The Whitehall Mandarin – ambitious and thoughtful spy thriller, but gets a bit silly towards the end
More than slightly disappointing:
Lauren Owen: The Quick – an interesting writer stylistically, but stories about vampires are just not, not, NOT my thing (and I really need to read blurbs more attentively in future)
Charming and quirky reads:
D. S. Nelson: Blake Hetherington Mysteries – middle-aged, finicky hat-maker is an adorable detective, but felt the novella format was too short for the mystery to fully develop and breathe
Lena Divani: Seven Lives and One Great Love – autobiography of a cat – with great observations about life, humans and love – funny but also poignant
And, speaking of places I’ve travelled to, I found that Sheffield surpassed my expectations, while Manchester was a disappointment. I am sure weather, circumstances, time, having an insider show you around etc. makes all the difference and I am sure that both cities have plenty to offer, but I know which of the two is my favourite. Still, both of them would make good backdrops to crime novels…
It’s a little embarrassing to admit that I can’t remember how I ‘met’ Cleo Bannister online: it just feels like she’s always been there, sharing her thoughts and passion for books (especially crime fiction) on her excellent blog and via Twitter @cleo_bannister. This self-confessed bookaholic lives in the beautiful Channel Islands, thus representing a half-way house between my former and current homes.
How did you get hooked on crime fiction?
If you go back far enough, Enid Blyton and the Mystery of… series (my favourite was The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat) was my first introduction, with the clues always seemingly hinging on cigarette butts! As an adult, my crime fiction addiction was properly launched by Ruth Rendell’s books. I then progressed to her writing as Barbara Vine and my love for crime fiction with a psychological twist was firmly in place.
Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?
I read quite widely in the overall genre of crime, but my favourite is Psychological Thrillers. I think this is because I love people watching, and why someone behaves the way they do is fascinating. There also tends to be less overt violence in this subgenre which, although I’m not particularly squeamish, I’m also not particularly interested in reading page after page of torture. My real interest lies in the thoughts of both victims and perpetrators.
What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?
A hard question as this year has had me reading more top rated crime fiction than ever before, so I’m going to highlight three of my favourites from different sub-genres. If anyone wants more recommendations please let me know as this was a really hard choice.
Someone Else’s Skin, the debut novel by Sarah Hilary brought real depth of characters and plot to the police procedural. Another debut that deserves a special mention is Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent, whose sociopath protagonist Oliver Ryan is unwrapped chapter by chapter to reveal what made him. Finally, Tom Vowlerhas written one of those books which you can’t forget with That Dark Remembered Day. Although it features a crime, it is actually about the damage war does, with the Falklands War as the background to the plot.
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 is a really mean question (these questions are tough!). Crime fiction doesn’t easily lend itself to re-reading because you already know the answers once you’ve read the book, which is half of the fun of reading it. On reflection I would choose Agatha Christie who was so prolific she would keep me going until I was rescued. If it was going to be a short stay though, my choice would be the Lewis Trilogy by Peter May for the fantastic characters and clever plots.
What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?
I am looking forward to reading Peter James’ latest book in the Roy Grace series, ‘Want You Dead’. This is the tenth in a series set in Brighton and as a bonus Roy Grace has a relationship with a woman called Cleo! I have read every one of this series and for me it marks the start of June. I’m also looking forward to the latest Jane Casey and Sharon Bolton books: both are guaranteed to be excellent reads.
Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?
When I am not up to my eyes in dastardly deeds or unreliable narrators, I enjoy reading Lisa Jewell whose latest books, although marketed at women, are not by any means a light fluffy read. Another author I love for her perceptive writing is Jojo Moyes and both these authors have written one historical based fiction book, a genre I enjoy as long as it properly researched. Lisa Jewell wrote Before I Met You which is dual time novel split between the present day and the London in the 1920’s and Jojo Moyes wrote the amazing The Girl You Left Behind set partly in wartime France, which I’ve repeatedly recommended to friends and family (and anyone else who vaguely indicates that they would like a good book to read).
Thank you very much for sharing your reading passions with us, Cleo. I’ve been taking notes! I look forward to chatting to other great readers and reviewers about their criminally good reads over the next few weeks. In the past month I have featured Margot Kinberg and Rebecca Bradley in this series.
Last week I gathered up all my unread books and assigned a few of them to each month for the remainder of the year. I tried to balance things out: one in French, one in German, one non-crime, perhaps one non-fiction each months, as well as the more standard fare.
Of course this does not take into account my even larger TBR pile on the Kindle, nor any books which will be sent to me in the future for reviews.
And while it sounds like I’m formidably well-organised, I suspect mood and chance will win the day… and the meticulous plan will go out the window.
This past month has been more diverse than most in terms of reading. I have managed to finish 12 books, of which only 7 were officially crime fiction, 4 were love stories (of a sort) and one was non-fiction but proved to be a more exciting and unbelievable read than any fiction. Two of them were in French, which makes me want to do a little dance of joy. My goal has been to read at least one book in French every month, preferably two, so as to improve my language skills, but I am sure there have been many, many times when I have failed in this mission. Finally, three of them were translations: one from Danish and two from Hebrew.
1) Sophie Hannah: The Carrier. Some of Sophie Hannah’s earlier books gripped me completely: it felt as though the author had been in my head and uncovered my most hidden thoughts. She always seems to set the reader up with an impossible puzzle, yet solves them with flourish, keen psychological finesse and not a little poetic vision. Although this was not my favourite of Hannah’s novels, it is still a good read, although perhaps not at an airport when your flight is delayed… For my full review on Crime Fiction Lover, see here.
2) Joel Dicker: La Verite sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert. Having seen and heard the author at the Lyon Crime Festival, and having seen how many awards and accolades have been heaped upon this book in the French-speaking world, I was naturally curious to read it. Well, it’s an easy-to-read, quite exciting story, with reasonable plot twists along the way, but I am puzzled as to why it has won all those awards, since it feels good but not outstanding to me. The setting is a small town in the United States, and there is nothing remotely French or Swiss about this book. There are a few cliche situations and characters, but the simple, even pedestrian language appealed to me as a non-native speaker of French.
3) Amos Oz: To Know a Woman. Perhaps not my favourite book by Oz, but he still is such a magnificent writer. He takes a widower’s story of loss and grieving, and turns it into a universal tale of love, reassessment of one’s life, trying to truly understand another person, moving on. He piles on detail after detail (about Yoel’s daily routines, his gardening, his cooking, his thoughts, his travels) and each adds a layer, but you feel that the depth really lies in what is unsaid.
4) Jonelle Patrick: Fallen Angel: An Only in Tokyo Mystery
Once again, the full review is here, but this is an intriguing insight into the world of Japanese nightlife and host clubs, written by someone who knows Tokyo rather well but still brings an external perspective to things.
5) Alan Glynn: Graveland. Not quite as enthralling as his previous novel Bloodland, perhaps because this one takes place all in the US, rather than Ireland or the Congo. It certainly feels very topical, dealing with unemployment, young protesters and the shadowy world of finance and corporations. I found the excessive amounts of web searching a little tedious, and the investigative journalist Ellen never quite grabbed my attention. However, the character of Frank, former architect now working as a sales assistant in an electronics store, and worried about his daughter in college, was quite moving.
6) Benjamin Tammuz: Minotaur. The principle of the story is similar to Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’: you get to see an unusual love story from multiple points of view, until you are able to discern what really happened and how each player in the drama justifies matters. I read this in one breathless go, but it is actually a book to be savoured slowly. It has so many beautiful passages and philosophical meditations on love, passion in life, music and fear of the unknown. It is a thriller, a love story, a history of Palestine, a hymn to the Levantine spirit, a noir.
7) Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers. This book deserves an entry of its own: it is the book I wish I could have written, as an anthropologist, yet it reads like a novel. Except that all of the events described are real. It is the heartbreaking story of everyday life, hopes, fears and disappointments of slum life in Mumbai. One of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time.
8) Michael Connelly: The Concrete Blonde. A mix of courtroom drama, police procedural and serial killer novel, this is a solid entry in the Harry Bosch series, with an interesting backdrop of LA after the racial riots.
9) Meg Wolitzer: The Uncoupling. I actually left this book behind me (once I finished it) in a hotel room. I was that sure that I would never want to read it again. Although I found this story of disintegrating love and familiarity breeding contempt quite compelling. I think all of us women have experienced some of those sentiments at one time or another. However, the fable element of the story and the supposedly magic spells that descends upon all the women in the New Jersey suburbs was a little annoying and artificial, especially the ending. When it stuck to the mundane, there were many funny moments in the book. It is all at once a sharply observed, witty look at modern life in the suburbs, and a universal statement about the relationship between men and women, the way they misunderstand each other and mistreat each other, even unintentionally.
11) Louise Doughty: Apple Tree Yard – to be reviewed next week
12) Jens Christian Grondahl: Piazza Bucarest
This was an impulse loan from the library, as I stumbled across it while searching for something else, and I couldn’t resist the blurb. The narrator tries to find Elena, a young Romanian woman who married his stepfather to escape from Communism and then abandoned him. Sadly, the book was a disappointment, and not just because the woman was unsympathetic (or because we Romanian women cannot take a bit of criticism). I was never quite sure what the author was trying to say or what the point of the whole thing was. Maybe the fact that I read a French translation of the original Danish didn’t help much either – it’s like trying to see a landscape through a doubly opaque window.
My top read of this month (and many other months) is undoubtedly ‘Beyond the Beautiful Forevers’, and my favourite crime fiction pick? Hmmm, that’s a tricky choice, as there were quite a few good ones, although nothing exceptional. I think it’s a tie between ‘The Concrete Blonde’ and ‘At the End of a Dull Day’. Both rather macho reads, though, so I need something more feminine next month to compensate.
So I have covered quite a few of my reading challenge requirements. Although, don’t you find that, as soon as you near the goalposts of a challenge you set for yourself, you start moving them about? Taking them just a little further? Demanding just a tad more of yourself? Fearful of missing out on something?
‘Dead… what?’ you may well ask, because outside the UK this book was published as ‘A Fatal Grace’. Somehow, this title was not deemed suitable for the British, but the original title was nowhere to be seen, so I spent quite a bit of time on Goodreads and other sites to find out which book I had just finished reading. Don’t you love it when that happens?
This is my incursion into Canada for the Global Reading Challenge, that wonderful meme hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. And a very frosty, atmospheric journey it was too, set around Christmas in the sleepy village of Three Pines in Quebec. This is the second book in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series and I picked it at random, simply because it was the only one available at my local library. It is perhaps not the strongest in the series, but I enjoyed the atmosphere and the characters so much that I have already ordered a couple more from abroad.
Every now and then you come across a crime series that has a fully developed world of its own, its own language and in-jokes, the interplay of characters, which you only gradually penetrate, book by book. It is a pleasure to sink into such a complete and satisfying landscape, and I feel about this series much the same as I felt about Lindsey Davis’s ‘Falco’ series set in Ancient Rome. It’s like meeting an old friend.
Yet, at the same time, this is cosy fiction with an unsettling undercurrent, not just an escapist read. Gamache is a complex, thoughtful, sensitive detective, who never once falls into cliché. The village seems idyllic, but is of course filled with quirky characters, many of them artists and writers who have dropped out of the big city rat-race. I especially enjoyed big-hearted and insecure Clara, straight-talking poet Ruth and gay couple Olivier and Gabri. Yet one member of this peaceful community is responsible for the death of CC de Poitiers, a pretentious, unlikeable woman with a murky past, a ruthless streak and an obsession to become the next big lifestyle guru. Death by electrocution, no less, while watching a curling game. And what is the connection with the death of a homeless person back in Montreal?
The plot is not the main thing here, however. It’s all about the wintry atmosphere, the humorous descriptions of curling and the bulky attire inevitably linked to the Canadian climate. I also enjoyed the sly observations about the ‘others’, in this case the Anglos with their contained emotions, never quite saying what they mean. (The author herself is just such an Anglo, it should be noted, but she steps seamlessly into the shoes of the French-speaking community in Quebec.)