Holiday Reading (and Snowy Pictures)

A rather unusual Monday post for me – as I’ve just come back from completely offline holidays, so have had no time to plan or prepare a thorough post. My ‘What got you hooked’ feature will have to wait until next week, and my more in-depth, ‘impeccably researched’ reviews (at least to my mind, although I inevitably think of the best things AFTER I publish the review) will appear later during the course of this week. Children’s additional week of holidays permitting.

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It was great to disconnect completely and to worry only about physical things. Will I be warm enough? Have I forgotten any goggles, gloves, boots, socks, hood, ski-helmets? Will my knees hold out for a full day’s skiing? Can I bear to carry those heavy skis a step further? And I promise you: there is nothing better than the sound of silence when you are the first down a piste, when you can feel the cold air on your face and hear the swoosh-swoosh of your skis turning in the fresh snow.

 

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There may not have been an open fireplace in the evening to savour a hot chocolate with a dash of Chartreuse (the local speciality)… but turning in early in the evening and reading in bed was equally delightful.

My reading matter could hardly have contrasted more with the view outside. I was reading Eva Dolan’s two novels about present-day Peterborough, rife with poverty, immigration problems, prostitution and crime. Eva deftly describes a small town overcome by its social problems, and the resulting picture is grim, dark, with few glimmers of hope. Perhaps best read when you can look up from the page and see a sunny landscape, where the shadows are only picturesque.

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You may think this sounds similar to J.K. Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’, which has just been adapted for TV. But it’s far better than that. First of all, both of Dolan’s books are proper crime novels, with suspense, pacing, mystery and enough twisty turns to keep any fan busy guessing. Secondly, they are pitch-perfect in describing the difficult social mix in present-day England: the tensions between the older and newer waves of immigrants; the anxiety about the overburdening of the social services, schools and hospitals; blatant and hidden xenophobia, as well as an increasingly nasty discourse about the undeserving poor and scroungers. It expresses all the fears that are beginning to haunt those of us who have not been born in the UK but have come there because of its reputation for tolerance and fair-mindedness.

tellNoTalesYet the immigrants described by Dolan are by no means all angels or innocent victims. Horrendous things happen to some of them (especially in the first novel ‘The Long Way Home’, which looks at unscrupulous companies employing foreign workers in inhumane conditions). But fear, distrust of the police force, misplaced national loyalties and the sheer desperation of survival makes them all act in dangerous ways, often not helping themselves at all in the process. So the characters are complex and flawed, and their views of the English are often quite funny (and not very complimentary).

The two investigating detectives are fascinating characters as well. Zigic was born and bred in England, but is of Croatian descent. He is usually the rational voice of the enquiry, patient, compassionate, a man sensitive to psychological and cultural nuances. And happily married, even though he wishes his wife weren’t quite so keen on an upwardly mobile lifestyle. His partner is the volatile, sparky Mel Ferreira, who came to the UK aged seven and whose Portuguese family run a pub in the local area. She relies heavily on gut instinct, is quick to flare up and take offence, yet it’s impossible not to fall in love a little with her ardent desire for social justice.

 

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But what I love best about Dolan’s books is the depth of her writing. A multitude of voices – often voices that are never heard in English fiction – are present here. Every sentence is rich with nuance, with multiple layers of meaning. It’s like hearing a complex piece of music with many instruments, after the rather monotonous strumming of simple bands.

One small descriptive passage is enough to set up all the background and contrasts of Peterborough: the cathedral town visited by tourists and the rather more scummy underbelly.

There were pop-up stores selling cheap clothes and pound shops all with the same plastic tat outside them, four different gold-cashing places which would have been based in council flats in Bretton a couple of years ago. Now they were respectable, or near enough, fences with business cards and backstreet accountants, legitimised by austerity.

She turned into the Wheelyard, a few morning drinkers sheltering under the budding cherry blossoms ont he corner, then turned along a cobbled alleyway into the cathedral precincts, high stone walls rising above her, spackled with moss and noxious yellow lichen. A loud woman with a Home Counties accent was leading a group of tourists across the cathedral green…

DolanLongThese two books should be required reading for those who laugh at UKIP and other nationalist parties, believing that they could never come to power today. They should also be read by those who fear the unknown and who find themselves sympathising with hard-core immigration policies. They are not comfort reads, but extremely thought-provoking and realistic, in their unsettling depth and refusal to find easy, neat solutions.

In the last two years, there are only a handful of writers I encountered on the page for the first time got me so excited with their perfect blend of subject matter and style: Stav Sherez, Denise Mina, Louise Penny. Now I can add Eva Dolan to this group. And one more gratuitous picture to remind me of the perfect downhill descent.

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Sometimes You Gotta Bend the Rules…

I’ve had such good intentions for this TBR Double Dare challenge and have a whole pile of books lined up on my night-table, ready to be read (not to mention my tablet).

But something always comes up and sidetracks me. I blame mostly myself and my inability to turn down a book. But the following institutions or websites or people or publishers are also partly responsible. Yes, I’m naming and shaming them. And no, they do not pay me for the publicity, but I feel they deserve it when they go above and beyond the call of duty.

Dolan1) Eva Dolan: Tell No Tales

Eva Dolan was once a fellow reviewer at Crime Fiction Lover and I always enjoyed her book recommendations (or at least hotly debated them with her). She was going to send me her well-received first novel, but somehow publicists got mixed up, it ended up in the wrong place, others were keen to get their paws on it… so I bought it myself on Kindle. When the second one came out, she was adamant that this time I would get a review copy. As time passed and there were still no signs of it being sent to me, Eva took matters into her own capable hands and posted one to me herself, with a lovely note. And, bless her, I haven’t even got around to reading the first one yet!¬†So of course I’m leaving everything else to one side and will be binge-reading her two books these upcoming holidays.

Will I be slightly biased? You bet! But her topics of immigration and grittiness sound just up my street…

Hardisty2) Paul Hardisty: The Abrupt Physics of Dying

Some publishers are just so tireless on behalf of their authors that they carry you along with them on the crest of their enthusiasm. Karen Sullivan is such a woman. Previously a managing editor at Arcadia, where she introduced me to Tore Renberg, Jaume Cabre, Dominique Manotti and Domingo Villar, she left the company in 2014 to set up her own publishing house Orenda, following a strategic review which led to a severely slashed 2015 list of books at Arcadia. With a particular fondness for crime thrillers and literature in translation, Karen is a warm, loud and personable defender of each and every one of her titles, and she is great at building a loyal following of book bloggers and reviewers. She sent me a copy of this book, even though I warned her that I would not be able to participate in a blog tour at this moment in time. I may keep this one to read in April, but it looks like an interesting eco-thriller meets big business meets international action (and frighteningly plausible).

3)¬†Charlotte Otter: Balthasar’s Gift

This book was reviewed over at Smithereen’s blog¬†. This is a blog I’ve enjoyed for a couple of years now and, since the author lives in France too, we’ve exchanged a few personal messages. So¬†I mentioned that it looked interesting and, hey presto, she kindly sent a copy to me, saying that she had got two by accident. Such a lovely gesture – and just goes to show what good friendships we can build online. Another one that I will leave until April/May, though!

Camille4) Pierre Lemaitre: Camille

I’ve reviewed both of Lemaitre’s previous novels and interviewed the author for Crime Fiction Lover, so it’s not surprising that the publisher Quercus automatically sent me the final volume in the trilogy. I am really looking forward to this one. I have a weakness for this author: he always manages to surprise me: a consummate storyteller, despite his rather graphic content. I also really enjoyed his WW1 novel. So this one will be read and reviewed before the end of February.

5) Michel Bussi: After the Crash

Michel Bussi is a huge bestseller in France, but I’d never read any of his books. However, when I heard that he would be published for the first time in English by Orion Books in March, and would I like to take a look at this book and perhaps interview the author, how could I refuse? Strictly speaking, it doesn’t count for my TBR challenge, as it’s a review (i.e. ‘work’) book. And besides, I’m always a fan of translated fiction, especially French fiction, especially crime fiction. I’m currently reading this and will review it by the end of February on Crime Fiction Lover.

6) Netgalley and Book Bloggers:

Yes, I apportion the blame equally: on book bloggers such as Lonesome Reader¬†and Crime Reader Blog¬†for making these books sound so enticing, and on Netgalley for making it so easy to access these latest releases. So now I have added SJ Watson’s¬†Second Life and Clare Mackintosh’s¬†I Let You Go¬†to my TBR pile…

One of my local libraries.
One of my local libraries.

7) Library:

How dare these village libraries stock so many tempting titles, both in French and in English? They have no business enticing me through their doorway under the pretext of returning the children’s books and then whacking me over the head with irresistible stuff such as Sherman Alexie’s¬†The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian¬†or Karim Misk√©’s¬†Arab Jazz.¬†Both books dispell the myth of successful racial and cultural integration (at least on a larger societal level, rather than the individual one) – and they do it with wit, verve and sadness.