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.)
Now that the Chinese government has told us in NO UNCERTAIN TERMS that the world is not going to end on the 21st of December, I can safely plan my ‘summary of just 2012’ blog post. Rather than having to summarise the whole history of Earth and human beings.
Out with the old, in with the new is what always comes to mind as the year changes. So I shall follow the good old wedding traditions and find something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue to list as my highlights for the year 2012.
I have rediscovered my pleasure for writing this year, especially for reading and writing poetry, which I haven’t done since high school. Writing is an old passion of mine, but I have been very clever at avoiding it (at least in its fully creative guise) over the past decade or more. So, welcome back, old friend, sit down and tarry a while. It’s such a pleasure to have you here with me!
Joining the online community through blogging and book reviewing and connecting with other, much better writers than myself. There is so much to learn here, so much to enjoy, especially on storytelling sites such as Cowbird, that I am afraid I am spending far too much time reading other people’s work and not concentrating nearly enough on my own. I have also discovered a genuine community and mutual support system here, which was unexpected and moving.
I will borrow my own review of the Top 5 Crime Reads of my year from over at Crime Fiction Lover. But while you’re there, you may want to check some of the other Top 5 picks by my fellow reviewers. They are all very knowledgeable about crime (fiction, of course). I have certainly added substantially to my already formidable TBR mountain.
No, I am not going to finish on a sad note, about what has made me blue this year. Instead, since blue is my favourite colour, I will tell you about some of my best discoveries this year. I was going to do it in images, but this antiquated desktop can’t seem to cope with that.
– The beauties of France: its settings, its history, its (contemporary, rather than what I read in school) literature
– Peirene Press – beautiful editions of world literature in translation (with a pronounced Teutonic flavour), as well as an interesting business model based on subscription and community-building
– There is more to skiing than racing madly downhill – I have also learnt cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing this year
– That maybe I do need a cat to complete my happiness after all. We befriended a friend’s cat at the weekend and now I want one just like her!
– Online reading challenges. I intend to participate in a couple this coming year: Translation Reading Challenge (particularly from cultures that I know next to nothing about) hosted by Curiosity Killed the Bookworm and the Global Reading Challenge, to be hosted by Mysteries in Paradise.
So, what have been your highlights this year? And what do you intend to keep on doing in the New Year, or what do you intend to start afresh?
September was a much slower reading month for me than August. I was travelling most of the time on business and, although hotel rooms are conducive to reading (especially when you don’t know anyone in that location), I was so tired I would fall asleep after just a few pages. I don’t want to pre-empt the book reviews I am going to write soon for some of these books, so I will just put TBR (to be reviewed) after the titles and one brief reaction. As usual, if you do like crime fiction, thanks to the wonderful Mysteries in Paradise you can see what other people have been reading and recommending this past month.
I’ve detected a bit of a French theme in my reading. Not only have I been trying to choose my favourite Maigret novels amongst Simenon’s tremendous output, but I have also engaged with other novels by French writers or set in France. And there is a very ‘noir’ feel to all of them, whether they are classed as crime fiction or not.
1) Pascal Garnier: The Panda Theory – TBR – disquieting
2) Pascal Garnier: How’s the Pain -TBR – my top pick of the month – on general release very soon
3) Veronique Olmi: Beside the Sea. This book has shaken me to the very core: a very powerful book. Do NOT read when you are depressed! The story is predictable, inevitable, yet still shocking and heartbreaking. You suffer alongside the children and the mother (or maybe even more so when you are a mother yourself). The language is almost child-like in its simplicity, yet strangely lyrical. It feels like an Ancient Greek tragedy. Here is an interview with the translator, which I found compelling.
4) Adrian Magson: Death in the Marais -TBR – set-up for a new crime series taking place in 1960s France
5) Adrian Magson: Death on the Rive Nord -TBR – 2nd in the series, dealing with themes such as Algerian independence and immigrants in the North of France
Then I went back to the UK (both physically and in my reading):
6) David Mark: The Dark Winter – Hull as I have never seen it portrayed before, gentle (yet stubborn) giant of a detective (happily married, for once), and a huge ethical dilemma of a storyline – great read! Again, the first in a series, which promises to be a good one.
7) Lucy Dawson: Little Sister -TBR – not sure if this qualifies as a thriller, but it is a fast-paced read nevertheless
8) PD James: Death Comes to Pemberley. Sadly, for someone who is a fan of both PD James and of Jane Austen, this was a bit of a disappointment. The Regency period is lovingly recreated, but the mystery and overall atmosphere are less convincing.
9) John Burnside: The Locust Room. Strange book, this: despite some superficial thriller elements to it, it is actually a meditation on male desire for power, on the ability to form relationships, on identity and the family. Ultimately, it seems to me that the protagonist opts for the easy way out: the ivory tower. I found it hard going in parts and am not quite sure if it was a rewarding read. Parts of it were excellent and thought-provoking, though.
10) Nicci French: Blue Monday. Nicci French (or should I say Nicci Gerrard and Sean French) are finally doing a series and the main characters are a copper with the faux-Scandinavian name of Karlsson – Sean is half-Swedish, it should be pointed out – and a psychotherapist with the rather overtly Freudian name of Frieda Klein. Aside from these rather unlikely names, I enjoyed the novel, although I will probably enjoy the next ones in the series even more (this first one required a bit of a setting of the scene and establishing of the characters, which did at times slow down the narrative pace a little bit). However, Nicci French has a compulsively readable style: it just slides down your throat so nicely, like a well-loved whiskey, and you find yourself turning another page, just one more…
The bad news is: I have done no editing whatsoever on my novel and very little new writing during the summer. The good news is: I have read lots of books (despite my husband’s hogging of the Kindle, where I had many more stored). Which does mean a lot of reviews that I need to catch up on. For the time being, here is a simple list of what I read this August, plus my top pick for the month, to be aggregated thanks to Mysteries in Paradise‘s efforts. Apologies, not all of my reads were crime fiction.
1. Simenon: Les nouvelles enquêtes de Maigret – for the Classics in September feature on Crime Fiction Lover website
2. David Foster Wallace: Infinite Jest – made it about halfway, not the best beach reading, more on that later
3. Alison Bruce: The Siren – second in the Cambridge crime series, loved the first book even more though
4. Cristian Mihai: Jazz – author interview coming up on my blog shortly
14. Donato Carvisi: The Lost Girls of Rome (these last three are all going to get reviewed sooner rather than later, hopefully within a week or so – see what I mean about falling behind?)
And my top pick is Leighton Gage: Blood of the Wicked. I am a Brazil fan anyway (should that be a Brazil nut?) and I found the background and local colour very well done, although profoundly unsettling. I will definitely read more by this author.
Inspired by fellow crime addict Kerrie from the Mysteries in Paradise website, I compiled a list of all the books I had read in June. Imagine my surprise when I realised I’d actually read a lot more than I expected, probably thanks to Crime Fiction Lover, who keeps sending books my way to review. Yes, the vast majority of them are crime fiction:
Jo Nesbø: The Snowman
Jo Nesbø: The Redeemer
Jo Nesbø: Headhunters
Camilla Läckberg: The Stonecutter
Pia Juul: The Murder of Halland
Sophie Hannah: A Room Swept White
Victoria Hislop: The Thread
Janet Hubbard: Champagne: The Farewell
Magdalena Nabb: Death of an Englishman
Mari Jungstedt: The Dead of Summer
Anna Jansson: Killer Island
D.A. Serra: Primal
Some of them have already been reviewed on this blog or on the Crime Fiction Lover site. You may notice a certain repetitiveness: Jo Nesbø features a lot, because there will be a special on him on the Crime Fiction Lover website later in July. But which one was my pick of the month? Well, it was a close call between ‘Primal’ (review and author interview will be coming up soon) and ‘Headhunters’. In the end, ‘Headhunters’ won out, because the set-up was so absurd, the humour so wicked, the characters so vile… There was more than a touch of Patricia Highsmith about it, I felt. Now I can’t wait to see the Morten Tyldum film version (perhaps less so the upcoming American version).