Strange month of business trips, sleepless nights, work deadlines – all of which tend to spur me on to greater reading heights (anything to avoid having to deal with work). But this time I read rather less than in previous months. As for the writing – forget it, I don’t think I’ve written anything new since the 10th of August.
Back to reading, however. 9 books, of which 7 by men (to counterbalance the feminine July and August). 5 crime novels (arguably, Richard Beard’s biblical thriller could have fit into this category as well), plus one very unusual read out of my comfort zone – namely, a YA dystopian fantasy novel. I even managed to reread one book, an old favourite of mine, Jean Rhys. 3 of the books were translations or in another language. Finally, my trip to Canada did bear fruit, as I read two Canadian writers this month.
Alan Bradley: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (to be reviewed on CFL)
Nicholas Grey: The Wastelanders
Since this is not my usual reading material, I lack the context and the comparisons to be able to say: this is good or this could have been better. I enjoyed the storytelling ability of the author, and it ends on a cliff-hanger, being the first in a trilogy. I believe it is in the Hunger Games mould, featuring children struggling to survive in a ruthless post-apocalyptic society headed by a dictator and inciting them to fight against the ‘monstrous outsiders’. An allegory of ‘otherness’ and abuse of power, written in an accessible, exciting style which is sure to appeal to boys aged 11-14.
I was attracted to its darkness and nihilism as a teenager, but now I can appreciate its understated drama and writing style more. A small masterpiece of descent into hopelessness from which all the current ‘middle-aged woman in a life crisis’ books could benefit.
And here’s an extract which should give you a flavour:
It was the darkness that got you. It was heavy darkness, greasy and compelling. It made walls round you, and shut you in so that you felt you could not breathe. You wanted to beat at the darkness and shriek to be let out. And after a while you got used to it. Of course. And then you stopped believing that there was anything else anywhere.
I want to write a longer feature about Jean Rhys at some point, as she is one of my favourite writers – you know me and my love for the gloomy! I also feel she is still somewhat underrated. I’ve also discovered there are two Jean Rhys biographies to discover (although so much is unknown about her life).
I enjoyed 5 out of my 9 reads very much indeed, and the rest were quite good as well, although I had certain reservations about a couple (as I mentioned in a previous post). My Crime Fiction Pick of the Month is John Harvey’s Cold in Hand, for its unsentimental, fearless yet very moving description of grief. But my top reads are actually the two books by the women writers, both very gripping, realistic and disturbing reads about those living on the edge of what society deems to be ‘nice’ and ‘acceptable’.
There are some books that come highly recommended, are reasonably well-written, have an intriguing premise, are enjoyable to read… and yet they still fail to quite live up to my expectations. This could be because my expectations for them are simply unrealistic. Or it could be that dreaded statement (which annoys all authors) ‘it’s not quite how I would have written the story’. Anyway, here are some recent reads that were slightly off-the-mark for me, but which others may find much more to their taste.
Bernard Minier: The Circle (Le Cercle)
I loved the claustrophobic wintry atmosphere of Minier’s first novel The Frozen Dead, although the serial killer locked in an asylum trope did seem a little unoriginal. So I was looking forward to this second novel – perhaps too much so. With a sinking heart, I discovered this book started with a prologue about a woman imprisoned in a cell and abused by her captor and was even more dismayed to discover that the spectre of the serial killer from book 1 (the sinister and far-too-clever Julian Hirtmann) makes a reappearance. It just stretched my suspension of disbelief a little bit too far, and there were many moments (such as the holiday of gendarme Irene in Santorini) that seemed to be mere filling, serving no purpose whatsoever. I suppose it was done to give more depth to the characters, but it just added bulk to the book. The characters of the investigators, I felt, were already fairly well-defined and rounded. Some of the secondary characters, however, were mere archetypes and there were simply too many investigations going on simultaneously.
To be fair, there were many things I did enjoy about the book. The season is early summer and it’s thunderstorms rather than avalanches which threaten the closed-in valleys of the Pyrenees. The setting is a quiet university town called Marsac, the so-called Cambridge of the south-west of France (there is a real Marsac not far from there, but this one appears to be imaginary). The character of the main investigator, Martin Servaz, and his relationship with his teenage daughter Margot; the no-nonsense Chinese-Franco-Moroccan sidekick Samira Cheung; the crime scene with the dolls floating face-up in the swimming pool; the brooding forest on the outskirts of town; the backdrop of the 2010 Football World Cup and France’s dismal performance in it… all of these were vividly described and memorable.
I read this in French, but Minotaur Books has the translation coming out on 27th of October, but I have been unable to find out the name of the translator. Maybe Alison Anderson, who also translated the first in the series.
Richard Beard: Acts of the Assassins
Try transposing Jesus’s death and the ulterior fate of his disciples into the present-day. Arm your protagonists with mobile phones, GPS tracking, airplanes and weapons, yet describe a world of gladiators, Roman Empire bureaucracy, simple folk clad in traditional garb. Give it a sceptical but increasingly confused ‘detective’ in the shape of Gallio to track down the remaining disciples and disprove the rumours about Christ’s resurrection. And there you have it: a strange mash-up of ideas and time periods, which raises interesting questions about how to contain a new religion or ideology, predestination and interpretation of events or people’s words.
I really liked the concept and the first half or so of the book felt fresh, different and very funny (whilst also being sad at the same time). However, I felt the ‘joke’ dragged on after a while. I did like the ending, but there was a bit of a sag in the middle, although the ambiguous character of Paul (whom I’ve never felt much traction with) somewhat redeemed matters.
For a more enthusiastic review of this book (which has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction), see here and here. As for me, when it comes to a book blending religion, history and political satire, I prefer The Master and Margarita.
Something has gone badly wrong. The fear of mortality has struck (so many books, so little time…). The book publishing figures around the world haunts my sleep. The urge to compare and contrast, to reassure myself that mine is not the only flawed writing. The heavy burden of the impossibility of telling a new story. My way of responding to all that: going back to my old acquisitive habits. I’m not the only one: read this post about how the online world has changed our reading habits.
So, yes, this month, this week especially, I have fallen off the TBR Double Dog dare in spectacular fashion. And I reacted in typical addictive personality fashion: if I make one mistake, I might as well go the whole hog (i.e. eat the whole chocolate bar).
I didn’t just buy one or two new books. I added no less than 10 new books to my shelves this week, none of which were ‘professional’ review copies. I name the culprits below. It is interesting how word of mouth recommendation (via blogs or Twitter) from people whose opinion I trust (even though I don’t always concur with them) seems to be the way I acquire most of my books nowadays.
First up, two of the five German books on the IFFP longlist, which I got really interested in thanks to bloggers such as Stu Jallen, Tony Malone, Dolce Bellezza and Emma at Words and Peace. I couldn’t order them all and I ordered them in the original German rather than in translation (German being one of the few languages other than English that I find relatively easy to read):
1) Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch (Tiger Milk)
That’s the name of the milk spiced with juice and alcohol that the two 14-year-old girls make and drink, as they set off in a quest to get rid of their virginity. Family conflicts, big-city blues and teenage angst abound in this picture of modern, ethnically mixed Berlin. Berlin is one of my favourite European cities, two of my dearest and oldest friends live there, and cross-cultural topics are my passion: so a no-brainer for me to try this book. Plus I want to compare it with the film/book that defined teenage Berlin life when I was a child ‘Christiane F: Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo’.
2) Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe (The Neck of the Giraffe)
A shrinking town in East Germany, a school with hardly any pupils left, an old-fashioned biology teacher, who can’t believe that times have moved on… ‘Adaptation is everything’ is her scientific belief but how easily can she accept that principle in her own belief system and behaviour?
Next is the book we will be reading in April for the Online Crime Book Club, an initiative started and organised by Rebecca Bradley.
3) Dan Smith: Big Game
A book described as Percy Jackson in the wilds of Finland’s Arctic circle, saving the American President from wild animals and assassins. Dan Smith was asked to write the book based on a story idea by Jalmary Helander and Petri Jokiranta, which is also being released as a major film starring Samuel L. Jackson. Rebecca has organised a Q&A session with the author for us for April, so exciting! It’s the kind of book that both my older son and I will enjoy reading (and will no doubt have many, many questions).
The next book was prompted by reviews of another book by the same author in The Paris Review and 3 a.m. Magazine, namely Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality.
4) Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts
This young Romanian Jewish writer died at the age of just 28 of tuberculosis and I have to admit I haven’t read anything by him. I’m planning to get hold of the reviewed book in the original Romanian, but I couldn’t resist a second-hand ex-charity shop edition of his first novel. A young man named Emanuel lies ill in a French sanatorium on the sea-coast… and discovers all of human life and nature in his narrow, confined environment. The Magic Mountain meets Emil Cioran is what it sounds like to me…
Then there are all the books I downloaded in the blinking of the eye from Netgalley, Edelweiss, Amazon or other online sources:
5) Richard Beard: Acts of the Assassins
When crime writers Eva Dolan and Stav Sherez start waxing lyrical about a book they’ve just read, my ears perk up. I’ve read books recommended by them before, and they’ve never disappointed. Adapted from the blurb: A charismatic cult leader is dead. One by one his followers are being assassinated. Sawn in half, beheaded, skinned alive. Enter Gallio, counter-insurgent and detective of sorts. An alternative view of biblical events set in the present. Sounds mad, intriguing and potentially very entertaining.
6) T. R. Richmond: What She Left
Liz Wilkins and Carlie Lee both reviewed this one enthusiastically. I like the premise of reconstituting someone’s life from the documents they leave behind. From the blurb:
When Alice Salmon died last year, the ripples were felt in the news, on the internet, and in the hearts of those who knew her best. But the person who knows her most intimately isn’t family or a friend. Dr Jeremy Cook is an academic whose life has become about piecing together Alice’s existence in all its flawed and truthful reality. For Cooke, faithfully recreating Alice’s life – through her diaries, emails and anything using her voice – is all-consuming. He does not know how deep his search will take him, or the shocking nature of what he will uncover…
7) Denise Mina: Blood, Salt, Water
Because the latest book by Denise Mina is definitely worth getting your hands on. One of those authors whose voice really stands out and that I’m always keen to read. Doesn’t require more explanation than that, does it?
8) SJI Holliday: Black Wood
Just came out last week with great reviews. Susi is a cheery, supportive and very active presence on Twitter. So I just had to check out her debut novel, didn’t I? From the blurb:
Something happened to Claire and Jo in Black Wood: something that left Claire paralysed and Jo with deep mental scars. But with Claire suffering memory loss and no evidence to be found, nobody believes Jo’s story. Twenty-three years later, a familiar face walks into the bookshop where Jo works, dredging up painful memories and rekindling her desire for vengeance. And at the same time, Sergeant Davie Gray is investigating a balaclava-clad man who is attacking women on a disused railway, shocking the sleepy village of Banktoun.
9) Karin Alvtegen: Betrayal
Margot Kinberg is to blame for this one, which she casually mentioned in a blog post about pubs and bars in crime fiction. Just earlier that day, John Grant had also mentioned how good this author was. Plus, the subject matter (marital infidelity, dodgy characters and revenge) is close to my own current WIP.
10) Helen Fitzgerald: Bloody Women
When I reviewed three books with ‘unlikeable’ female narrators recently, including Dead Lovely by Helen Fitzgerald, so many commented or tweeted that they had loved Bloody Women by the same author that I had to go out and get it. The blurb, I’ve been told, does not do the book justice, but it does give you an idea of Fitzgerald’s unusual mind and blend of styles:
Returning to Scotland to organise her wedding, Catriona is overcome with the jitters. She decides to tie up loose ends before settling permanently in Tuscany, and seeks out her ex-boyfriends. Only problem is, they’re all dead.
I know for a fact that next weekend it’s going to be impossible to be good at the Crime Festival in Lyon. So in for a penny, in for a pound… How are you doing with your buying bans? Or have you given up on such self-imposed limitations?