Highlights from Quais du Polar 2016: Part 3

As promised, the final instalment of this year’s edition of the Quais du Polar crime festival in Lyon will include some quotes and discussions from the panels I attended. This year, there is also a fabulous innovation: you can find podcasts of practically ALL the debates on this link. Most of them are in French or English or a mix of the two, but there will be occasional Spanish or Icelandic. So you too can listen to all these great events now! [Have I told you how much I love the organisers of this festival?]

  1. Cityscapes in Crime Fiction: Richard Price (NY), Michèle Rowe (Cape Town), Donato Carrisi (Rome), Carlos Zanón (Barcelona), Walter Lucius (Amsterdam)

 

Michele Rowe, author of What Hidden Lies, winner of the Debut Dagger Award in 2011.
Michele Rowe, author of What Hidden Lies, winner of the Debut Dagger Award in 2011.

MR: Cape Town is still a very wild place, dominated by nature and geography. It has seven microclimates from one end of the city to another, it is heavily dependent on weather, and I love describing how the politics of inclusion/exclusion has been partly created by its geography. For example, townships in beautiful areas were eradicated, handed over to the wealthy, and its inhabitants were dumped elsewhere. My husband calls the city ‘crime with a view’. But in fact, the whole country of South Africa is built on crime, looting, pillaging throughout history. Crime is perhaps the only possible narrative. And yet I meet fantastic people, living in very difficult circumstances with great courage and hope, despite the corrupt government, and that makes me dream that things will still work out in the end despite the odds.

Richard Price.
Richard Price.

RP: New York City is all about the violence of real estate. Like water, real estate rises to the top and people get washed away, and places like Harlem have succumbed to greed and are catering only to people who have money. The biggest crime fighter in the city is the crane, but gentrification is like sweeping with a broom but no dustpan. The town centre may be safer, but it just spreads crime and violence further afield. The crooks are not the pickpockets, but the developers in their $4000 suits.

CZ: My latest book ‘I Was Johnny Thunder’ is about a failed musician, who goes back home to live with his father, although he is middle-aged. But what I wanted to show is that the people around him, who played by the rules and believed in economic boom, haven’t really succeeded either. Your neighbourhood can become a prison, because it really marks your identity, but you also have the choice to leave. Sometimes.

From left to right: Donato Carrisi, interpreter, Carlos Zanon, Walter Lucius.
From left to right: Donato Carrisi, interpreter, Carlos Zanon, Walter Lucius.

WL: Amsterdam was a mess 30 years ago. It had a huge crime rate, red light district, junkies, but it also had a genuine sense of community and felt authentic. Now all that has disappeared, it has been sanitized and has become like an open-air museum for tourists. The real old Amsterdam doesn’t exist anymore. I write about immigrants in my books, because I feel that the Dutch don’t really accept that we have become a multicultural society.

DC: Although Rome houses the Vatican City, it is not a sacred city like Jerusalem or Mecca. Rome has multiple souls, including a wicked one. In fact, it is a world headquarters for Satanists – although they may be very different, much more subtle, than the clichés you may have about them. The world’s biggest criminal archives are in the Vatican, because it contains all the sins which people have confessed to their priests. The priests could not absolve them directly, so they sent them to Rome, where they were carefully catalogued. Today, there are profilers helping the police, based on their intimate knowledge of sins and what drives people to commit crimes.

2. Femmes fatalesPhilippe Jaenada (France), Jax Miller, Sara Gran (US), LS Hilton (UK), Dolores Redondo (Spain)

With the exception of L.S. Hilton, who tries to present the POV of a real femme fatale in her book ‘Maestra’, the other panelists were somewhat offended that they were asked to talk about this topic and that the panel was almost entirely female. However, they did their best to say something insightful about this.

From left to right: Gran, Hilton, Redondo struggling with the earphones and the subject.
From left to right: Gran, Hilton, Redondo struggling with the earphones and the subject.

SG: I just write about a female subject, rather than a female object. I write about a human being, so I don’t think at all about stereotypes. The femme fatale is the eternal object of desire, so she has to be distant, she can never be fully rounded.

LSH: I try to describe the POV of the object of desire. She plays around with the codes and deliberately turns herself into an object, but doesn’t end up getting punished. I get a little tired about being asked if I wanted to write a feminist heroine.

Jax Miller at the book signing.
Jax Miller at the book signing.

JM: My protagonist simply refuses to be a victim. She may be flawed, a killer, a drug addict, but she is above all a mother and doesn’t care about her appearance.

DR: I hate that women in noir seem to be reduced to one of three roles: victim, prostitute or traitor. I wanted to write about this very strong community of women I have known in the Baztan valley, who have taken over the household when their men went abroad to work, a real matriarchy.

PJ: I wrote about a real-life criminal, Pauline Dubuisson, who was accused in the 1953 of killing her unfaithful lover in cold blood. She was presented as a femme fatale, but in actual fact she was ‘fatalised’ by society, the last victim of patriarchy perhaps. She was always described as beautiful, but also a slut, but in fact she was just a normal-looking person, who wanted to finish her studies before getting married. She was judged by a jury composed almost entirely of men, and it was probably the one woman on the jury who saved her from the guillotine.

3. Recurring Heroes: British Classics : Sophie Hannah (Poirot), Anthony Horowitz (Bond and Sherlock Holmes), Michel Moatti (Jack the Ripper), Cecil & Brunschwig (Holmes in BD), John Lawton (Cold War spies, à la John Le Carré)

SH: I’ve loved Agatha Christie since I was 12 and always thought she was a genius, but was fully aware I wasn’t like her and couldn’t write like her. So I created the character Catchpool to explain why there would be a slightly different style of presenting Poirot. But I most certainly wanted to respect the rules of the universe I was writing in. The next Poirot novel is called ‘Closed Casket’ and will be out later this year.

HannahHorow
Sophie Hannah and Anthony Horowitz discussing Christie, Bond and Holmes.

AH: I was initially suspicious about accepting to continue the Sherlock Holmes cannon – was it all about the money? But of course it was also a childhood dream come true, because I received the complete Holmes as a birthday present when I was 17 and that’s what made me write crime fiction thereafter. I’d also dreamt of writing a Bond film, but kept getting turned down, which is why I had to invent Alex Rider. Of course, the attitudes of Bond – who hates women, gays and foreigners and kills all of the above – is not acceptable to us today, so I had to give it an ironic nudge.

JL: I came late to Christie, and still haven’t read any Sherlock Holmes, I have to admit. I did rather like Fleming, but also Sayers and Allingham, so I wanted to create the amateur cop but update him within the Cold War context, hence my creation of Frederick Troy.

Cecil: Our inspiration was Arsene Lupin, who has one volume dedicated to his arch-enemy, Herlock Sholmes. We like to stay within the Sherlock Holmes cannon, but exploit the gaps and push the envelope a bit, for instance, we suggest that Moriarty didn’t really exist, that he was just a figment of Holmes’ imagination (his tortured self, perhaps).

At this point I realise that this post is getting terribly long and I still have three debates to summarise, so I will leave the rest for tomorrow. Expect a Part 4 therefore!

 

Quick Crime Reviews: One Out of Four

Would it be fair to say that about one in four books being published today constitutes a memorable read? Judging by my current crop of crime reads, I’d say that proportion is roughly right. It may seem ungracious to say that, especially when I have yet to finish my own novel! (So they are all clearly better than me for a start.) So let me qualify this somewhat.

None of them were bad enough to make me want to stop reading them. In fact, they were entertaining and quite accomplished for debut novels. However, after just a few days, I can barely remember the storyline or the characters. I am sure they will all do well in terms of sales, however, probably better so than the last one, which I liked and remembered most. Is that because publishers or the reading public think of crime fiction as a ‘disposable genre’ – easily read, all about a puzzle and a twist and a quick entertainment, and then forgotten? Or am I being too harsh? Many of my fellow bloggers enjoyed them a lot, so why do I always need a ‘bigger theme’, an exotic location or a social context to keep me happy?

disclaimerRenée Knight: Disclaimer

Quick and easy to read, but failed to rise above the run-of-the-mill for me. Another middle-aged woman with a secret alternating with chapters from the POV of an older man who has suffered loss and is seeking revenge. A set-up which is intriguing – what would you do if you found the worst moments of your life story displayed in a novel? –  but the execution doesn’t quite live up to it.

 

whatsheleftT. R. Richmond: What She Left

An interesting concept of reconstituting a person and their last few days through all the documents and detritus of life that they have left behind. You’ll find a good variety of voices, from lecherous middle-aged professor to wide-eyed naivety. However, overall, the story strained belief – so many gathered by the river’s edge on a winter’s night! – and did not quite live up to the premise.

 

followmeAngela Clarke: Follow Me

Once you manage to suspend your disbelief that the police would be so unfamiliar with Twitter and would depend on a 23-year-old freelance journalist to be their social media consultant, this is quite an entertaining and fast-paced read, although the end is a trifle predictable. It raises some interesting issues about online privacy, but I felt that the issue of what Nas and Freddie had done in their teens was deliberately obfuscated and hidden just to create some artificial suspense.

watermusicMargie Orford: Water Music

This is the fifth novel in the series featuring social worker Clare Hart, working with abused and missing minors in Cape Town. So yes, I jumped midway into the story arc about Clare and her boyfriend, the cop Riedwaan Faizal, but I was still captivated by the interactions between the characters and the storyline. South Africa is a place where life is not easy for poor young women and children, and the author reflects that in this emotional story about an abandoned child and a missing young cellist. This is not the touristy Cape Town we like to imagine, although the natural setting is very beautiful, but a gritty story about violence against women and the consequences of poverty. Corruption at the highest levels and the conflict between police and unions in a post-apartheid South Africa are also tangentially addressed. My first Margie Orford, but most certainly not my last.

September Reading Round-Up

Yes, I know it’s already October, but this is written in-between bouts of work and travel. The list below shows that I spent far too much time in airports, on planes and in hotel rooms this past month, as I got a lot of reading done but far less reviewing.

16 books, of which 5 ‘imposed’ for reviews. 8 crime fiction or psychological thrillers. The ones marked with an asterisk are ‘review still to come (hopefully, at some point, in the fullness of time)’.

  1. Linda Huber: The Attic Room
  2. Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None
  3. Tessa Hadley: Everything Will Be All Right*
  4. Christos Tsiolkas: Barracuda*
  5. Sophie Divry: Quand le diable sortit de la salle de bain
  6. Michelle Bailat-Jones: Fog Island Mountains
  7. Martha Grimes: The Old Silent
  8. Martha Grimes: Foul Matter
  9. Martha Grimes: The Case Has Altered
  10. Martha Grimes: Belle Ruin  (the four above were read/reread for a feature on Martha Grimes for Crime Fiction Lover’s Classics in September)
  11. Fran Pickering: The Cherry Blossom Murder
  12. David Young: Stasi Child
  13. Shirley Hazzard: People in Glass Houses*
  14. Richard Yates: Disturbing the Peace
  15. Matt Haig: Reasons to Live
  16. Nicholas Grey: The Wastelanders*

Although I said I would switch to more male writers this month, to make up for an all-female author list during the summer holidays, I ended up with 11 books written by women (albeit 4 of them by the same woman) and only 5 by men. I have a little more testosterone planned for October, as well as more books from Netgalley (where my reviewing percentage has plummeted).

fogislandMy crime fiction pick of the month is And Then There Were None (still one to beat, and one of my favourite Christies – not just mine, but also one of the world’s favourite Christies), closely followed by Stasi Child. I had some great contenders for literary favourite of the month, with Tessa Hadley, Shirley Hazzard and Tsiolkas all in impressive form, while Richard Yates is one of my old stalwarts. However, Fog Island Mountains beat them all – it really hooked into my heart and dug itself a quiet little place there.

Catching Up with Book Reviews: Crime

I’ve fallen far behind with my book reviews, so I will try to remedy that with a quick-fire post containing no less than four reviews of crime novels written by women and set in a variety of locations.

BrasoveanuRodica Ojog-Braşoveanu: Omul de la capătul firului (The Man at the End of the Line)

The ‘grande dame’ of Romanian crime fiction has been compared to Agatha Christie, but in this book at least she shows more similarities to Dorothy Sayers. It features an infuriating, yet charismatic and larger than life main investigator called (appropriately enough) Minerva, who cannot hide her elitism and know-it-all sentiment (she used to be a high-school teacher) this is great fun, though a bit elitist. It was written in the 1970s, so we not only have calls from phone-booths but also Communist censorship in Romania. So, with a topic of espionage and counterespionage, you might expect it to be breast-thumpingly ‘patriotic’ and ideological, but it is quite nuanced and interesting. Not at all what I expected.

atticroomLinda Huber: The Attic Room

Nina’s mother has just died and their content little three-generation-of-women household on the isle of Arran (including Nina’s daughter Naomi) has been disrupted. Then Nina finds out she has received an inheritance just outside London from a man she doesn’t know. Could this really be her long-lost father, as the solicitor seems to believe? But then, why did her mother claim that he died when she was a young child? As Nina gets sucked into her family’s history and dark secrets, the creepy house she has inherited starts to play a big part in her feelings of discomfort and fear.

There is a good story hiding in there somewhere, but I found the plot somewhat predictable and the style a bit long-winded. However, the characterisations are generally strong. I enjoyed the burgeoning relationship between Nina and her solicitor, and her concerns about her daughter.

burntpaperGilly Macmillan: Burnt Paper Sky

Another child in danger, another domestic thriller set-up, but what made this one stand out from the morass of frankly quite average recent surfeit of offerings in this area was the focus on ‘judgement by the press and social media’. Rachel is a single mother, still struggling to come to terms with abandonment and divorce, and she pays dearly for one brief moment of allowing her eight-year-old son to run ahead to the rope-swing in the woods just outside Bristol. She does not live up to the media’s expectations of what a distraught mother should look like or behave, and she is demonised and hounded by strangers and acquaintances alike. Helen Fitzgerald in ‘The Cry’ also touches on this topic, but here it becomes the main focus of the book. We also see the point of view of the investigating team, and how they too struggle to believe the mother.

Strong descriptions, sensitive use of language and great interactions between the characters make this a very promising debut novel for me. Heart-wrenching for any mother, I can promise you, so I had to read it very quickly to find out the worst (or not).

cherryblossomFran Pickering: The Cherry Blossom Murder

The cherry blossom is rather tangential to this story, but the Japanese setting is not, so it was a real pleasure to read it in Japan. It’s the first in a series featuring amateur detective Josie Clark, an Englishwoman trying to survive in the Japanese corporate world in Tokyo. She speaks Japanese and has friends, and she is a fan of the Takarazuka Revue (an all-woman cabaret show with a huge following in Japan). When one of the helpers at the fan club meetings is found dead just outside the theatre, everyone wants to keep a safe distance and let the police investigate. Yet Josie can’t help feeling that the police are just going through the motions, so she uses her Western rebellion and curiosity to dig a little deeper herself. With the help of her wise, if scruffy-looking mentor Tanaka-san, she unravels the mystery in this entertaining ‘cosy in an exotic location’. Perfect for armchair travellers, and reminiscent of Jonelle Patrick’s ‘Only in Tokyo’ series.

So there you have it: travelled to Romania, Scotland, Bedfordshire, Bristol and Japan lately, how about you? Coming up: a physical trip to Quebec, so I can feel another bout of Louise Penny coming on… I’ve been trying to find some Quebecois writers in French at the library here, but no luck so far. Nelly Arcan, Marie-Claire Blais, Elise Turcotte, Gabrielle Roy – there are lots of wonderfully subversive women writers from that province.

 

Summer Reading Round-Up

Back from holidays and sooo much work to catch up on (as well as reviews). Needless to say, I did not get quite as much writing and reading done this past week of ‘real holiday’, because I did not spend all my time on the beaches below (more’s the pity!).

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Luckily for my reading/writing projects, I only had one week ‘off’. This summary represents two months’ worth of reading, because the school holidays here spread over July and August.

Women in Translation Month

In August I spent most of my time reading women in translation, trying to rely on books that I already had. I grouped some of them together for reviewing purposes (lack of time or because I thought they were made for each other), but here they are in the order I read them.

Kati Hiekkapelto: The Defenceless and an interview with the author here

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd

Therese Bohmann: Drowned

Virginie Despentes: Apocalypse Baby

Karin Fossum: The Drowned Boy

Alice Quinn: Queen of the Trailer Park

Judith Schalansky: The Neck of the Giraffe

Adina Rosetti: Ten Times on the Lips

Renate Dorrestein: The Darkness that Divides Us

Gøhril Gabrielsen: The Looking-Glass Sisters

Tove Janssen: The True Deceiver (and other assorted Moomin books) – to catch up on later

Rodica Ojog-Braşoveanu: The Man at the End of the Line (to be reviewed)

Veronika Peters: Was in zwei Koffer passt (All that Fits in 2 Suitcases)

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Other Women Writers

Following the WIT reading, I was in the mood to read more women authors in English as well. Some of them were for CFL reviews, but many were just escapism.

Lucy Atkins: The Other Child

Sophie Hannah: A Game for All the Family

Sarah Ward: In Bitter Chill

Rosamond Lehmann: The Echoing Grove

Anya Lipska: A Devil Under the Skin

Susan M. Tiberghien: Footsteps

Jenny Lawson: Furiously Happy

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And Other Reads:

Review copy: Sebastian Fitzek: The Child

Library book: Emmanuel Carrere: The Adversary

Rereading: F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender Is the Night

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Summary

24 books, 15 in or from other languages, 9 in English, 8 crime fiction.

My best proportion of translated fiction ever, so the WIT initiative clearly works well even for those of us who believe we read a lot of women writers and a lot of translated fiction. I made many wonderful discoveries, and feel I have learnt something from each book, even though I may not have loved them all.

My crime pick of the month/holidays is Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless, because it is such a timely topic (about the way we treat asylum-seekers). My overall favourite read is also Finnish (with a Swedish twist): Tove Jansson. Well, she sets a very high bar… But honourable mentions go to Valeria Luiselli and Gøhril Gabrielsen. (I exclude F. Scott Fitzgerald from the competition.) My disappointment was the Veronika Peters book, which I thought was going to be a more in-depth account of a woman’s search for herself, for God, for inner peace or spirituality. Instead, it was an (entertaining enough) account of everyday life in a convent, with all its rivalries, good and bad bits, but a lot more shallow than I expected – both the book and the narrator.

 

 

 

 

 

Quick Reviews: Women Not in Translation

I have stuck to a diet of women writers for this holiday month. I just felt they spoke more to me in my present situation of juggler-in-chief, squabble-settler-by-default, not-quite-amusing-enough-adult-companion and fleeting-moments-of-inspiration-scribbler.

Despite the foreign-sounding names, the first two women writers are native English speakers (married to ‘those attractive foreigners’), so their books were written in English. Although I do hope they will be translated into other languages.

devilunderskinAnya Lipska: A Devil Under the Skin

This is the third installment in the Kiszka and Kershaw series, which combines police procedural with a detailed knowledge of London and its Polish community. This time, the story is very personal. Kiszka is finally getting close to his dream of convincing his girlfriend Kasia to leave her husband and move in with him. But then she disappears – as does her husband. Reluctant though Kiszka is to have anything to do with the police, he relies on his old friend Natalie Kershaw (who is suspended from active duty pending an investigation) to help him locate and save Kasia.

Of course, Lipska is too clever to make this a simple case of kidnapping, and East End and foreign criminal gangs soon get involved. Running up and down the East End and around Epping Forest, we meet an intriguing mix of characters, from a fake tan obsessed hotel-owner to a cat-loving assassin. This series goes from strength to strength, a successful blend of noir, police procedural and humour. The characters – not just the main ones and their sidekicks – are well rounded and entirely believable. But be warned: it does end on a bit of cliff-hanger…

footstepsSusan Tiberghien: Footsteps: In Love with a Frenchman

Susan is the founder of Geneva Writers’ Group, of which I am a member, and teaches many of the workshops there, so I may be a little biased. However, it’s easy to fall in love with this charming collection of memoir, prose-poems, photos and essays about life as an American expat married to a French husband, travelling all around Europe with six children in tow. There is a home-made (but carefully crafted) quality to this patchwork quilt of a life filled with laughter, tears, children’s voices and recipes.  The writing is poetic, warm, witty and full of subtlety. The chapter on the potato is a masterpiece of humour and comment on cultural differences.

This is a housewife (Susan became a full-time writer only after the children left home) with sharp observational skills and a barbed tongue, even though it be dipped in honey. For example, she describes the tricky preparations for their weekend trip to their chalet in the Alps, trying to fit 6 children, a family dog, and all their food, clothes and bedsheets into their car.

Then there was the carton of food. ‘It’s much easier to arrive with everything ready,’ Pierre said. And, of course, it was no trouble to prepare and pack and take care of the children while the father was busy tidying up his desk at the office downtown.

I’d try to make it all fun. After all, it was the thing to do, to go to the mountains for the weekend. The food went behind the last seat of the car because the skis went on the top, all sixteen of them. Ski boots went close to everyone’s feet, except the driver’s. He needed lots of room. I took his boots at my feet, along with my boots and Daniel’s. I had learned long ago that there was always room.

Finally, for good measure, a book that is by an American author with a very ‘English’ name.

furiouslyhappyJenny Lawson: Furiously Happy

An almost frenetic account of living with depression and anxiety. The author manages to make fun of herself and the people around her who have to deal with her very real problems. While the humour did seem a bit forced to me on occasion, there are passages that ring very true and heartfelt.

I wish someone had told me this simple but confusing truth: Even when everything’s going your way you can still be sad. Or anxious. Or uncomfortably numb. Because you can’t always control your brain or your emotions even when things are perfect… You’re supposed o be sad when things are shitty, but if you’re sad when you have everything you’re ever supposed to want? That’s utterly terrifying… But it gets better… You learn to appreciate the fact that what drives you is very different from what you’re told should make you happy.

Why is it called ‘furiously happy’? The concept here is of going to extremes, making the most of those rare moments of joy as a counterpoint for the extreme lows that life can throw at you. This is not about mindfulness and enjoying the small pleasures of life, but about throwing yourself whole-heartedly into new experiences and breaking the rules.

Although it was funny in parts and I genuinely liked the author’s honesty,  this wasn’t quite what I expected. I was hoping for more insight and relatable moments, something a little more profound. I will be reading Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive and Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon instead.

 

 

Holiday Reading and Women in Translation

Instead of my July round-up, this is more of a July and August holiday reading list. Since August is WIT month, I decided to take it one step further and focus predominantly on women writers for both months. So here are the plans and what I’ve read to date (marked with a bold R at the start of the line). Completely gratuitous holiday pictures from previous years included, just to put myself in the mood. Please don’t mention how far behind I am with the reviews…

Fake beach at Vevey.
Fake beach at Vevey.

Crime fiction:

Kati Hiekkapelto: The Defenceless (Interview with the author and review to come on Crime Fiction Lover)

Fred Vargas: Temps glaciaires – was snatched away from my loving arms by another reader who had requested it at the library (I was overdue, to be fair, should have started reading it earlier), but I’ll try to find it again

Karin Fossum: The Drowned Boy

Ancient plane tree in Crete.
Ancient plane tree in Crete.

Other fiction:

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd

Alice Quinn: Queen of Trailer Park

Therese Bohman: Drowned

Judith Schalansky: The Giraffe’s Neck

Virginie Despentes: Apocalypse Baby

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver

Renate Dorrestein: The Darkness that Divides Us

To complete this diet of women in translation, I’m also adding this category:

Nikki de Saint Phalle sculpture, Paris
Nikki de Saint Phalle sculpture, Paris

English-speaking Women Writers

Sophie Hannah: A Game for all the Family

Lucy Atkins: The Other Child

Denise Mina: Blood Salt Water

Sarah Ward: In Bitter Chill

Rosamond Lehmann: The Echoing Grove

Anya Lipska: A Devil Under the Skin

Men Who Snuck in There:

Reread: F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender Is the Night

Emmanuel Carrere: L’Adversaire

Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts

Botanical Garden, Geneva
Botanical Garden, Geneva

I abandoned the book about Isadora Duncan, as it was flitting about too much from scene to scene, country to country, without a coherent structure or mood.

 

Just to do a brief round-up: I read 14 books, of which only 3 by men, abandoned one. Half of them were in translation or in a different language.

In case you are wondering, my two crime fiction picks for the month of July are: Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill and Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless. For Overall Book of the Month, I’ve read so many good books this month, it is really hard to choose a favourite. One that whacked me on the head and took me for a ride, leaving me slightly breathless and laughing with exhilaration: Apocalypse Baby. But the one that has stayed with me, slightly haunting my dreams, is Valeria Luiselli.

MontmartreView
View from Montmartre, Paris.

After the holiday, I need to focus on getting my Netgalley request shelf in manageable order. I am back up to 31 books now and soooo out of date (not that I care, but the publishers probably do!). Here are some that really tempt me for September:

Simon Unsworth: The Devil’s Detective

Richard Beard: Acts of the Assassins

David Lagercrantz: Fall of Man in Wilmslow

Johan Theorin: The Voices Behind

Don Winslow: The Cartel

Malcolm Mackay: The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter

What do you think, too much testosterone after two months of predominantly female authors or a necessary redressing of the balance?

Three Quick Reads by Women Writers

After a series of gruelling (though riveting) reads in April, I opted for the comfort factor and chose some lighter reads this month, all by women writers.

committeeJulie Schumacher: Dear Committee Members

Jason Fitger is a professor of creative writing at a small, second-rate college, who feels he is spending most of his time writing references rather than getting any real work done. His department is facing serious cuts, he’s made a mess of his personal life, his literary ambitions have been thwarted and his views on his students’ abilities, their job prospects and future are painfully funny. Written as a series of letters (and the occasional online form) of recommendation, this will bring a broad smile of recognition (and an occasional pang) to anyone who has ever worked in academia (or anyone involved with writers). A short, satirical book, with a narrator full of pompous self-justification and whingeing, who is unintentionally funny – a delightful way to pass a lazy afternoon. I read it in one sitting, because, having been a victim of endless bureaucracy myself, I kept saying: ‘Just one more letter…’

bloodywomenHelen Fitzgerald: Bloody Women

Another early Fitzgerald book, this one was recommended by fellow bloggers and writers Hollyanne, Cleopatra and Kate Evans.

Despite the macabre and serious subject matter, this was such a zany, fun read. Fitzgerald has a deceptively easy, free-flowing style that makes you think ‘chick-lit’ at first glance. But no chick lit would feature a storyline in which the main protagonist, Catriona, ties up loose ends before her wedding by contacting each one of her former boyfriends, having one last farewell bout of sex with them (usually while being completely drunk) and then discovering their mutilated bodies shortly afterwards. Needless to say, Catriona is the prime suspect and, in an interesting reversal of timeline expectations, we get to hear most of the story in retrospective, while she is in jail on remand. A journalist wants to write a trashy biography of her, hilariously misinterpreting or cherry-picking from interviews with former friends and family. Catriona contrasts the biography with her own recollection of events, but we suspect her own interpretations are sometimes unreliable, while her memory of her last encounters with her exes are hazy, to say the least.

I did guess the final plot twist, but to me this book is not about the twists and turns of a criminal investigation, but about the fresh, original voice.The frank, no holds barred language and messed-up characters, the deft characterisation and sly asides: this seems a stormy assault on British restraint (Fitzgerald comes from Australia originally, but has now settled in Scotland), yet at the same time has a lot of self-deprecating humour that is forever British to me.

Penny2Louise Penny: How the Light Gets In

This doesn’t quite qualify as light reading, as it’s full of tension and drama. I’ve read the Armand Gamache series out of order and this was one I’d missed out on. There are two murder mysteries involved, plus a larger conspiracy involving Gamache’s boss (building on from previous books in the series). The conspiracy element did perhaps feel exaggerated, leading to the very top of Quebecois politics (not sure how well-received this particular book was in Quebec).  However, it certainly led to some very tense moments and real sadness when we realised how a wedge has been driven between Gamache and his former sidekick Beauvoir. The ‘proper’ investigation took second place to this drama, but had an additional poignant word to say about what goes on under the ‘happy families’ façade.

The reason why I have included it in my ‘escapism’ fiction is because it is such a delight to revisit the village of Three Pines in the company of Louise Penny and her fictional characters: the grumpy poet and her duck, the artist, the wise bookseller, the big-mouthed but warm-hearted gay couple running the B&B… these are not types, but over the course of many books have become our friends. We know their quirks intimately, yet they always manage to surprise us a little. I want to live in Three Pines, as do most of Louise Penny’s faithful readers, although I may have to give up on the Internet forever (no signal).

Have you read any of these books and what did you think of them? And do you like to alternate harder reads with more light-hearted or escapist ones? What comfort reads do you turn to?

 

Points of view (POV) in fiction

My natural preference in fiction is for first or third person point of views, limited but allowing you to build up quite an in-depth picture of your narrator (and even seem some of their own blind spots). If you were to ask me ‘in the abstract’, without any examples, I would say that I don’t like books where the author can hop from one head into another, emit omniscient asides and foreshadow like billy-ho with complete nonchalance. It feels like lazy writing, I’d tell myself, it interrupts the flow and confuses me.

Yet here I am about to extol the virtues of two books which do precisely that. Which goes to show that rules are made to be broken and that I can be won over to just about anything by good writing.

Lauren Beukes: Broken Monsters

LaurenBeukes2

This is marketed as a crime thriller, but, as is so frequently the case with Lauren Beukes, it defies any genre description. It has all the elements of a police procedural, albeit one of unnerving grittiness and despair, but also swerves into YA, horror and fantasy territory. All areas I usually stay away from, but in Beukes’ wildly inventive mind and confident hands, it works. She moves effortlessly from one interpretation of events to another, equally pitch-perfect as a teenager, a stressed female officer, a homeless drifter or journalist despising himself for writing nothing better than lists of Top Tens for second-rate websites, all in a lively, exuberant language on the brink of change.

This is a story revealing all our anxieties about the digital age and urban decay. It’s set in the almost post-apocalyptic landscape of Detroit, now fallen victim to fans of ruin porn and graffiti, hipsters trying to ‘get’ the edginess of the city and to further their careers, scavengers making their way into repossessed houses.

brokenmonsters
South African cover.

Detective Gabi Vesado has seen a lot of bodies in her time with the Detroit police force, even children’s bodies, but this one is shocking even by her standards. A boy cut in half, with deer legs somehow fused to him. Unfortunately, this is but the start of a sinister series of killings, all arranged artistically, as if to mimic contemporary art installations. Beukes is wonderful at mocking the pretensions of much modern art, but she also takes us into the murderer’s mind – which, disconcertingly, is the mind of an artist taken to extreme. An obsession with beauty and creating new paradigms, opening the door to a new consciousness, which sometimes makes him the most relatable character in the book (at least, to a writer/artist/creative person). He may be a monster, but he’s a broken one (I never thought I’d say this about a serial killer).

UK cover.
UK cover.

There are plenty more quirky and very well-drawn characters: Gabi’s teenage daughter Layla, who engages in dangerous games of online pedophile baiting with her friend Cas; Cas herself, who seems cynical beyond her years, perhaps discussing a much deeper vulnerability; the failed journalist Jonno who dreams of going viral with his online videos, helped by his DJ girlfriend with the wild dreadlocks; and homeless TK, who only wants to survive, but cannot sit by idly while his friend is being hurt. Each of these (and a few others I’m not mentioning here for lack of space) have a complete back story, although most of it remains hidden from us like an iceberg.

brokenmonsters
US cover.

I’m a little tired of the serial killer trop, or of graphic descriptions of violence (although, to be fair, in this book it is more about the reaction of the people who get to see the violence), but this book is about so much more than that. Beukes almost crams in too much: psychology of teens and of loners, social commentary about poverty and abandonment of society’s most fragile members, the Internet as a place we can project the myths we tell about ourselves, but also a place where our own stories can be used against us, herd instinct and our love of conspiracy theories, media frenzy about the more sensationalist aspects of crime. Throughout, the author transports us into a vivid yet surreal world, a world of nightmares and hallucinations, where we lose the ability to distinguish fact from fiction.

Just as an aside: I’ve included all three covers for the book – let me know which one you prefer. I think the South African one is the most beautiful, though perhaps a bit too explicit.

BelCanto
UK edition.

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto

The blurb itself promises an unusual book, difficult to pin down in terms of degree of seriousness:

In an unnamed South American country, a world-renowned soprano sings at a birthday party in honor of a visiting Japanese industrial titan. His hosts hope that Mr. Hosokawa can be persuaded to build a factory in their Third World backwater. Alas, in the opening sequence, just as the accompanist kisses the soprano, a ragtag band of 18 terrorists enters the vice-presidential mansion through the air conditioning ducts. Their quarry is the president, who has unfortunately stayed home to watch a favorite soap opera. And thus, from the beginning, things go awry.

From publiclibrariesonline.org
From publiclibrariesonline.org

In this house under siege – and the siege extends to weeks rather than days – a kind of truce develops and the most unlikely of love stories spring up, while hope and despair alternate in rapid succession. Ann Patchett is a delightful mix of 19th century elegance and 21st century knowingness in this book. I loved her brand of suave humour, gracious omniscience and flitting around from one character to another, observing all human foibles but also all human aspiration for something grander, more ennobling – such as music. The opera singer, the Japanese industrialist, the talented translator, the young terrorists who have just left their native village, the idealistic priest, the hardened paramilitary leader who still has a heart hidden somewhere: these are not stereotypes, but beautifully rounded characters described with tenderness but also irony. This ‘mature and knowing narrator’ POV, filled with sly observations, reminds me of Jane Austen. Patchett has an uncanny ability to describe someone (and their way of thinking) in just a few sentences.

The international negotiator, Messner: ‘The Swiss never take sides. We are only on the side of the Swiss.’

belcanto2
US cover.

The doctor who tries not to draw attention to himself and his profession: ‘The conclusion was that no doctors were present. But that wasn’t true. Dr. Gomez was lying in the back… and his wife was stabbing him sharply in the ribs with two red lacquered fingernails. He had given up his practice years ago to become a hospital administrator. When was the last time he had sewn a man up?.. He was probably no more qualified to do a decent job than his wife, who at least kept a canvas of petit point going all the time. Without taking a single stitch he saw how the whole thing would unravel: there would be an infection, certainly; they would not bring in the necessary antibiotics; later the wound would have to opened, drained, resewn… It would not go well. People would blame him.’

The kitchen scene of cooking coq sans vin, without allowing the hostages access to knives, is one of the funniest scenes:

Thibault, the French ambassador, one of the few among the hostages who knows how to cook, is manning the kitchen. He is trying to show the terrorists how to peel an aubergine but has forgotten that he is not allowed to handle knives. (Apologies for hte choppiness and lack of clarity in what follows: I’m skipping big chunks of text here in an effort to convey the flavour of the scene).

Thibault did not understand what he had done. He thought at first Beatriz [one of the captors] was angry that he had corrected the boy on his peeling, He thought the problem was with the eggplant, and so he laid the eggplant down first and then the knife. […]

‘Go ahead,’ Ishmael said, taking out his own gun and pointing it at the Ambassador. ‘I’ll shoot you, too, if I have to. Show me how to peel an eggplant, I’ve shot men over less than an eggplant.’ […]

What would Edith say when she heard he had been shot over an eggplant or turning on the television? If he was going to die he had hoped for a little bit of honor in his death.

‘Well,’ Ruben said, wiping his face with a dishtowel. ‘Nothing around here is a small event.’ […]

‘No one is leaving! Dinner for fifty-eight, is that what they expect? I will not lose one pair of hands, even if the hands belong to the very valuable translator… May I inquire as to the state of the onions or will you threaten to shoot me?’ […]

‘Why does he get to cook the onions?’ Beatriz said. ‘They’re my onions. And I won’t wash the chickens because that does not involve a knife. I was only sent in here to work the knives.’

‘I will kill her,’ Thibault said in weary French.

 

 

 

 

Personal Reading Challenge for December

The year of reading womenIt’s very simple: for December, I’ve resolved to read only books by women authors. This did not start out as an intentional challenge. In fact, the first book I finished in December (which I had started on the last weekend of November) was written by a man. It was Mark Edwards’ stalker thriller ‘Because She Loves Me’.

However, all of the books I had borrowed from the library or that were waiting patiently from me on my Netgalley shelf seemed to be by women writers – or at least the ones that were calling out to me: ‘Read me next! Me!’

So here are the books I have read, am reading and will be reading for this month.

Nina Stibbe: Man at the Helm – I opened this instead of another book and could not stop reading

Françoize Boucher: Le livre qui fait aimer les livres (The Book that Will Make You Love Books: Even If You Hate Reading)

BelCantoAnn Patchett: Bel Canto – because I love her writing and I couldn’t resist the hook: ‘kidnappers storm an international gathering of opera lovers at the Vice President’s residence in a poor Latin American country’

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah – because, given my cross-cultural experience and profession, everyone is surprised that I haven’t read it yet (and it does sound like the sort of thing I would enjoy)

Jacqueline Saphra: The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions – when I first started writing poetry again, the wonderful poet Naomi Shihab Nye said that my (very modest) efforts reminded her of Saphra’s work, so I’ve been reading her work ever since and finally bought the whole first collection

Lauren Beukes: Broken Monsters – because Lauren is a life-force, unpredictable and irrepressible, and boy, can she write!

icecreammanKatri Lipson: The Ice Cream Man – because it’s a Finnish author, although the action takes place largely in Czechoslovakia of the 1940s/50s.

Alison Mercer: After I Left You – because it’s been on my Netgalley shelf for far too long and Cleo recommends it

Lily King: Euphoria – because it’s about anthropologists in the field caught up in a pernicious love triangle (based on Margaret Mead, who is one of the main reasons I studied anthropology)

Look how many varied and wonderful women writers there are just in this small sample!

Am I being a little over-ambitious? Am I not making any allowances for spontaneity? Well, we shall have to wait and see whether the home-made plans bear any semblance to the end result. But I do know that I have plenty more women writers to choose from…