Best of the Year: Sheer Entertainment

I have read quite a lot of escapist fiction this year – escapist in my case means crime fiction that keeps you turning page after page, or a book that immerses you in a particular time and place. A sense of humour also helps – I do like black, absurdist comedy; it must be my ‘living under a dictatorship’ heritage.

The problem with escapist literature is that you have to choose it well: some things sound far better in theory than in practice, or the blurb is misleading, and even the same author is no guarantee of success. See below which ones did not work for me and which I recommend in their stead.

  1. Instead of Sarah Pearse: The Sanatorium – try Allie Reynolds: Shiver

I am a sucker for books featuring winter in the mountains, especially when the setting is France or Switzerland, where the skiing terrain is familiar to me. Although The Sanatorium is atmospheric, the whole story feels implausible and the characters are stilted. I enjoyed Shiver, the tale of snowboarding rivalry, far more and read it in a single sitting. And you don’t need to be a snowboarding fanatic to cope with the terminology.

2. Instead of Catherine Cooper: The Chateau – try Stella Benson: The Swiss Summer

I read a previous book by Catherine Cooper, The Chalet, last year and thought this might be equally fun, especially since it was about an expat couple trying to renovate a dilapidated chateau in France (you all know how obsessed I am with chateaux). However, the plot was so preposterous and the people so awful (and flatly awful at that), that I struggled to finish this. I appreciated Benson’s far more nuanced approach to different types of expats and the relationship between then and the locals in her admittedly not thrillerish at all but enchanting Swiss Summer.

3. Instead of Valerie Perrin: Fresh Water for Flowers – try Margaret Kennedy: The Feast

The French author’s story of loss, grief and unspoken love touched many hearts, I know, so you will be cross with me for admitting that to me it felt kitsch, like wading through treacle. I much preferred the allegorical tale by Margaret Kennedy, which was full of witty social observations, as well as some really entertaining characters.

4. Instead of John Leake: The Vienna Woods Killer – try Catherine Ryan Howard: The Nothing Man

It’s perhaps a little unfair to compare a true crime account with a work of fiction that only purports to include true crime elements, but I really wanted to like the book about the Vienna Woods Killer, because it features one of those hard-to-believe cases about a serial killer who was a darling of the Viennese literary society. It is meticulously researched, but oddly lacking in any Viennese atmosphere (or proper interpretation of Austrian society) unfortunately. The Nothing Man did a much better job at bringing to the fore the trauma suffered by the victims as well as the narcisstic personality of the serial killer.

5. Instead of Tahmima Anam: The Startup Wife – try Nickolas Butler: Godspeed

A novel about a female co-founder of a tech start-up being manipulated and tricked out of her rightful place and a novel about a bunch of construction workers being bullied into delivering on an impossible deadline might not seem to have much in common at first glance, but they both skewer the American dream and its materialistic ambitions. I wanted to like the Start-Up Wife more, but it felt both predictable and lower in stakes, as well as more clunky writing, compared to the downward spiral story of the three male friends building a house – perhaps because a house feels like the solid kind of legacy that we all can understand (and it feels even more of a waste when it fails).

Further recommended reads:

All of these are perfect escapist reads, for whatever mood you might be in:

  • If you’re going on a train journey soon, then Kōtarō Isaka’s Bullet Train is a very entertaining, quite un-Japanese type of thriller, with echoes of Fargo.
  • If you miss theme parks (or adventure parks, rather), then Antti Tuomainen’s The Rabbit Factor, with its unique, darkly humorous take on the Finnish mafia, is perfect.
  • If you like the Brontës or historical crime fiction more generally, then the series by Bella Ellis, starting with The Vanished Bride, featuring the siblings as detectives will warm the cockles of your heart (and also bring a little chill).
  • If you enjoy historical crime fiction set outside England, then Maryla SzymiczkowaKarolina or the Torn Curtain set in late 19th century Krakow was both educational and entertaining.
  • If you enjoy satire about writers and literary festivals, and think the publishing world needs a good hard look at itself, then Dan Rhodes’ Sour Grapes will deliver in spades, although at times the farce is a little too puerile.
  • If you like stories about friendships going off the rails and how one bad choice in your youth can have serious consequences years later, but without the artificial construction of dual timelines and ‘that day that I will not divulge to you until the very end of this thriller’, then I really recommend Sharon Bolton’s The Pact.

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Fiction Fan?

A Glaswegian by birth and now back living in a small town just outside the city after a detour to the bright lights (and better employment opportunities) of London. Fiction Fan (who prefers to keep her anonymity) started reading when she was four and anticipates still being as enthusiastic about it when she turns 104. Although her tastes in reading are eclectic, crime is how she ends every day. Clearly, one murder before bedtime puts her in the right frame of mind for sleep! She started reviewing on Amazon about 4 years ago in a tiny way, was then invited onto the Amazon Vine programme – at that time a wonderful source of free books – and became addicted to the whole reviewing thing. You can find her discussing books on her wonderful blog or on Twitter.

Tommy and Tuppence.
Tommy and Tuppence.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

Very traditionally – via Enid Blyton first, especially George and Timmy in the Famous Five books. Then on to Agatha Christie in my teenage years: she has remained one of my all-time favourites, which explains why my cats are called Tommy and Tuppence. My elder sister was, and still is, a voracious reader of British and American crime, so through her I met up with a huge range of authors in my teens, from PD James to Ed McBain and all points between.

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

I wasn’t really aware of it till I started keeping a record of my reading through reviewing, but I’ve discovered my tastes are incredibly insular. Though I read a wide range of authors from different countries, my favourites always tend to be British and often Scottish. I guess it must be because I feel at home within the cultural setting. In older books, I enjoy the classic mystery style with a private detective, but in modern crime my tastes run very much towards police procedurals with strong central characters – Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan, Sharon Bolton’s Lacey Flint.

Untidy bookshelvesWhat is the most memorable book you have read recently?

Ooh, so many! But I’d have to go with Anthony Horowitz’s Moriarty. Brilliantly situated within Holmes’ world, but Horowitz has avoided the problems of characterisation and tone that so often beset ‘continuation’ novels by omitting Holmes and Watson entirely, except by reference. So well written and with a twist that left me gasping and applauding, it has everything – great descriptions of London, excitement, peril, horror and enough humour to keep the tone from becoming too grim. Wonderful stuff – hope he’s hard at work on the next one!  

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

Ah, that would have to be Reginald Hill! I can’t imagine life without Dalziel – for decades I waited eagerly for publication day for each new one to come out, and there’s not one of them that doesn’t stand up to repeated re-readings. I loved seeing how Hill’s style changed and developed over the series, from fairly standard crime novels at the beginning to almost literary novels by the end, often playing with aspects of some of the classic writers. If I had to choose one favourite crime novel of all time, it would be Hill’s On Beulah Height – superbly written, deeply moving and still with a great crime story at its heart. But I’d want to take his Joe Sixsmith books along too – lighter in tone and great fun. Oh, and his standalones, of course…

What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

Peter May’s Runaway, due out in January. I’ve been a long-term fan of May since his China Thrillers days, but his more recent books – The Lewis Trilogy and then Entry Island – have taken his writing to a whole new level, perhaps because he’s writing about his native Scotland and somehow that has given his books a deeper integrity and more of an emotional heart. Runaway is set partly in Glasgow, partly London and is apparently influenced by events in May’s own early life. Can’t wait!

I’m also eagerly awaiting the English translation of Zoran Drvenkar’s You (in January too, I hope, though it’s been put back a couple of times already), having loved his previous very dark Sorry. Just threw that in to prove I do occasionally read non-British authors!

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

Ah, my poor friends and blog followers will be heartily tired of me recommending – nay, evangelising about – Patrick Flanery, the most exciting newish literary author on the block, in my opinion. His first book Absolution is set during and in the aftermath of apartheid, seen from the perspective of the white South Africans. It is a brilliant look at how memories are distorted and conflicting, and how hard it is to distinguish whether motives are personal or political. A book that actually made me re-assess my opinion of the time. And his more recent novel, Fallen Land, is a stunning cross between thriller and literary novel, looking at the state of the American psyche in the post 9/11, post global economic crash world. I somewhat arrogantly declared it The Great American Novel for this decade – and I still stand by that! Oh, and it’s also an absolutely enthralling and rather terrifying read.

Otherwise I fear I incessantly recommend whatever new thing has taken my fancy (which happens on average once a week or so), be it factual, fiction, crime or just plain weird… I actually found myself trying to talk people into reading the manga version of Pride and Prejudice not so long ago! Well, an enthusiasm shared is an enthusiasm doubled, isn’t it? Especially when it’s a book…

I see nothing wrong with manga or BD versions of great literature. I’ve read most of my French classics in this way! And I’m completely in agreement with you about ‘On Beulah Height’ being one of the most remarkable of the Reginald Hill (or perhaps even all British crime fiction) canon.

This will be the last of the ‘What Got You Hooked’ series for this year. Thank you so much to all of my participants for their patience, humour and insights. You’ve added many, many authors to my TBR list! For previous participants in the series, just follow this link. If I have enough people willing to take part, I will continue the series in 2015, so please let me know if you would be prepared to answer these questions, don’t be shy!

 

 

What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime, Stephanie Rothwell?

It’s Monday, the start of a great week for all, I hope, and time to introduce another member of our virtual crime fiction book club. Stephanie Rothwell is an avid and discerning crime fiction reader, and a big fan of long-running series. I convinced her to answer a few questions about her reading pursuits and give us some ideas for our already groaning TBR lists!

StephSteph, how did you get hooked on crime fiction?

I started reading crime fiction when I was a child. Enid Blyton, especially the Adventure Series, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Three Investigators  were all favourites.

I then moved onto Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. From then on, it was Colin Dexter, Ruth Rendell, Elizabeth George. All mainly authors who had a full series of books that I could get from the local library.
Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?
I will try anything. I do prefer a series of books based on the same characters but will read standalones as well. I’m probably more reluctant to read spy thrillers.
What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?
‘Wolf’by Mo Hayder, because it was so believably scary. If I could pick another, it would be ‘The Lying Down Room’ by Anna Jaquiery for its originality.
If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

 

Well, it’s one that some may not class as crime fiction.!It’s called ‘The Quincunx’ by Charles Palliser. [Ostensibly a Dickensian mystery set in 19th century England, but with a modern twist of alternative ending and unreliable narrators.] I have read it two or three times and each time it fascinates me.
ipadWhat are you looking forward to reading in the near future?
I’m looking forward to reading the new books by Sharon Bolton and Peter James. I really want to get stuck into the Jane Casey books as well. I’ve heard so much about them.
Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

Currently it seems to be books about WW1, in particular ‘Wake’ by Anna Hope.

Thank you, Steph, for taking the time to answer my questions (and general nosiness). It seems there are quite a few of us who enjoy series by the same author, although we may be divided over the issue ‘read them in order’ or ‘read whichever is available’.

For more revelations of reading passions, see here. And if you would like to participate in the series, please let me know either in comments below or on Twitter.

What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime, Cleo Bannister?

Me

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 Vowler has 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.

Whole BookshelfWhat 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.