Books of the month: June 2015

Pick of the month

CobraMeyerAudioWe’re all going to politely ignore the fact I never bothered to wrap up my monthly reading for May aren’t we? Not that my reading quantity was much better in June. I’m blaming Leif G.W. Persson’s never-bloody-ending FREE FALLING AS IF IN A DREAM for most of my recent stagnation. It took ages to wade through and put me off the written word in general for some time afterwards. Should just have stopped reading it all together. My pick for June though would be Deon Meyer’s COBRA which was fabulously narrated for me by Saul Reichlin. It’s entertaining and political and touching all at once.

The rest (titles preceded by the ++ symbol are all recommended)

  • ++ THE BANK INSPECTOR by Roger Monk (a new Aussie author writes a gentle tale that doesn’t involve a murder)
  • ++ THE BISHOP’S WIFE by Mette Ivie Harrison (fascinating insights into the Mormon community)
  • ++ THE INVISIBLE GARDEN by Dolores Redondo (introduces a great new character in Spanish crime fiction)
  • THE MYSTERY OF A BUTCHER’S SHOP by Gladys Mitchell (I wasn’t able to participate in the Past Offences Classics challenge in June because I couldn’t get hold of a book for the nominated year so I read this older title from my own collection – I didn’t review it because I couldn’t think of anything to polite to say about it)
  • THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE by Alan Bradley (for me there are much better child narrators than Flavia)

Progress Towards 2015’s Book-ish Goals

Challenge Goal Progress
Australian Women Writers Challenge Read and review 25 eligible books 8*/25
Reading US Fiction Challenge Read 6 books by new to me authors set in different states of the US 2/6
Personal – Outside my comfort zone Read at least 6 books that aren’t crime/mystery/thriller novels 2/6
Personal – Read Globally Read at least 10 books set in countries that aren’t Australia, America or England 22/10
Personal – Reduce TBR Read at least 20 books I owned as at 31 December 2014 12/20
Personal – Buy Australian Buy no physical or eBooks from non-Australian stores 0/0
Personal – Read older books too Participate in at least 6 of the monthly ‘pick a year’ reading challenges hosted at Past Offences 5/6

*have read 10 books but only reviewed 8 of them

I’m in danger of catastrophic failure on a couple of fronts but at least I’m doing well on my global reading, reading older books and buying no printed word books (physical or electronic) from non-Australian sources.

Reading outside my comfort zone is – not surprisingly – the hardest of all. I’ve actually brought several books home from the library that would fit this category and taken them back unread. Naughty I know.

I’m really going to try to find some interesting and new to me male American authors for the last half of the year. I don’t think I’m asking for much: just some decent characters, a noticeable dearth of serial killers and a bit of social or political commentary underpinning a great story.

 Looking ahead

I really must do something about the alarming number of Australian books I have been neglecting (in favour of the Petrona Award and International Dagger Award shortlists). To that end I’ve started July with the latest book by one of my favourite Aussie women writers – Felicity Young. THE INSANITY OF MURDER is officially released on 1 August but I’ve been lucky enough to receive an early copy and I couldn’t think of anything better to do during my street’s planned power outage today than dive in. Not sure what to read next but I’m definitely going to read at least one book from 1987 for this month’s Past Offences Challenge.

What about you? Had any particularly good reads during June? How are your reading goals looking now that we’re half-way through the year? Got something good lined up for July?

Review: COBRA by Deon Meyer

CobraMeyerAudioI regularly grumble that even though I like them I’m going to stop reading thrillers all together because it is too hard to find the good ones and I’m utterly fed up with the deluge of crap offerings that stray across my path. But Deon Meyer’s books are the proverbial exception to the rule and COBRA is yet another masterclass in how it ought to be done.

The Hawks, an elite squad within the South African Police Service, are pitted against a hired assassin who has kidnapped English man on South African soil. In a thread which eventually intertwines we also follow the adventures of a young pickpocket who chooses exactly the wrong target one Tuesday morning. Although more traditionally linear than Meyer’s last couple of books the story here unfolds as compellingly as always and there’s no such thing as a dull moment despite a dearth of the explosions, car chases and preposterous heroics that lesser novels are full of.

There is another layer of storytelling that kind of creeps up on the reader. Meyer is never didactic but through his characters, locations, language and the events he chooses to depict he is telling the story of modern South Africa. One of the characters here makes mention of the fact that the Hawks squad is like a walking United Nations: Benny Griessel is in charge of the case – or cases as they become. He is an Afrikaner and the only member of the squad who was a policeman in the bad old days. A fact which haunts him particularly hard in this novel. The team includes a Zulu woman, Mbali, whose parents were active in the struggle to end the old regime and this heritage plays a significant role in the direction of the novel when the Security Service wants to take over the case. Then there’s Cupido, a mixed race man who grew up in one of the most impoverished areas of Cape Town but is now a snazzy-dressing, tech-savvy cop with an eye for the ladies. There is friction between the disparate group but not always from the direction you might expect and the team manages to function despite it. Or perhaps because of it.

The diversity of characters results in the novel’s dialogue being a mixture of at least four of the country’s 11 official languages which makes it a particularly good choice for audio book lovers. I don’t know if Saul Reichlin is a South African or just plays one brilliantly but I could listen to him read Meyer’s multilingual stories forever.

COBRA is at once fast, funny, dramatic and sweet. Although it is very modern in its subject matter and plot devices (crucial elements hinge on mobile phones for example) it reminded me of the great thrillers of the 70’s like Frederick Forsyth’s THE DAY OF THE JACKAL and more because of the way realistic world politics is woven intricately into the plot than because both novels feature assassins. It’s a ripper of a read and highly recommended.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I’ve reviewed four of Meyer’s earlier books DEVIL’S PEAK, DEAD AT DAYBREAK, THIRTEEN HOURS and TRACKERS. I would easily recommend all of them.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Saul Reichlin
Translator K.L. Seegers
Publisher Hodder & Stoughton [2014]
ASIN B00LLOWZQ6
Length 12 hours 45 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series 4th novel to feature Benny Griessel

Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://reactionstoreading.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Review: THE BISHOP’S WIFE by Mette Ivie Harrison

TheBishopsWifeMetteIvie23233_fIn the acknowledgements at the back of THE BISHOP’S WIFE the author recounts that she was surprised that Soho, an imprint most closely identified with international crime, chose to publish this novel but that the editor explained “It’s like Mormons are a different country. They speak a different language and you’re the interpreter”. Agreed. Whatever else this book may or may not offer crime fiction aficionados it does provide a fascinating insight into what is, at least for me, an unfamiliar religion. Even before I read the editor’s sentiments I had already remarked to a friend that I was reading a book more foreign to me than all the Swedish crime novels I’ve ever read.

The central character and narrator of the novel is Linda Wallheim: mother of five boys, all but one of whom has left home, and wife of the Bishop serving five hundred Mormons in a Utah town. Although bishop’s wife is not an official position Linda, or Sister Wallheim as the community members refer to her, is called upon to help her husband and their flock in all manner of ways. It is therefore not surprising that she becomes involved when the wife of one of the congregation goes missing. Has she left her home – and her small daughter – willingly? Or are her parents right in suspecting Carrie Helm’s husband of foul play? Is there another possible answer?

If one of the jobs of literature is to take readers into different worlds then this book is a success. There simply are not a lot of accessible cultural artifacts that depict Mormonism and even less that do so in normative way. I suspect that’s why THE BISHOP’S WIFE feels like it is jammed with exposition and some of it unnecessary – there are passages reminiscent of TV’s CSI in which two scientists explain things to each other in exactly they way they wouldn’t need to in real life but have to because dolts who don’t know anything are watching.- but as one of the dolts who knows next to nothing about this religion I found myself lapping up all the details. That said, I am naturally curious about the goings on within religious communities, if you aren’t equally absorbed by the subject the book might not be for you.

As is natural for stories told from the first-person perspective we see events unfolding in Draper the way that Linda Wallheim experiences them. Often she is on the fringes, sometimes because she is picking up the pieces when her husband is undertaking the more official religious duties but also because she is a woman. This sense that Linda might be missing out on things can be a bit annoying as a reader – we know she is cut out of some aspects of community life – but this fact is evened out because her gender also enables her to see and be told things that her husband would not have access to. So we see several threads unfold in addition to the main plot about Carrie’s disappearance and together these form a quite nuanced picture of what life is like for a modern Mormon woman.

I’m being a bit vague I suppose because I don’t want to spoil the story for those who choose to read it but THE BISHOP’S WIFE does tackle an important social theme that will resonate with many readers, not only those who’ve spent time in any kind of strict, rule-based community. As crime fiction the book is not traditional: there is only a hint of any professional investigation and even Linda’s amateur efforts do not conform to the tropes of the genre. But the book is compelling in the way it peels back the layers of a world few people would know intimately and there is genuine suspense built up in at least a couple of the threads. In fact Harrison proves herself quite adept at the twisted ending though the resolution is largely devoid of the natural drama more conventional crime novels rely on. THE BISHOP’S WIFE is more of a slow, thoughtful study than dramatic thriller but I found it curiously captivating.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

USAFictionChallengeButtonIn what is turning into the slowest ever virtual tour of the US (I started in January 2014!) this is only the fifth book I’m counting in my quest to complete the Reading USA Fiction Challenge for which I’ll read books set in each of the USA (and one for the District of Columbia). My personal twist is that all the books are by new (to me) authors.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Soho Crime [2014]
ISBN 9781616954765
Length 345 pages
Format Hardcover
Book Series standalone?

Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://reactionstoreading.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Review: THE INVISIBLE GUARDIAN by Dolores Redondo

TheInvisibleGuardianAudioIf you read fiction translated from other languages at least in part because it allows you to virtually visit places and cultures different from your own then THE INVISIBLE GUARDIAN might be just what you’re looking for. Set in northern Spain the book is infused with local customs, culture and geography and it is easy for the reader to imagine themselves in the woods around Elizondo or any of the other exotic locations in which the novel’s action takes place. My personal transportation was ably assisted by the excellent narration of the audio book by Emma Gregory which meant I wasn’t fumbling in my woefully monolingual way with the nomenclature.

The book starts out fairly traditionally for a modern crime novel: bodies of beautiful young girls are found near Elizondo. The bodies have, of course, been tampered with in seemingly ritualistic ways and police are struggling to identify suspects. The deviation from standard fare comes when local mythology is woven into the storyline. Could the deaths be due to the activities of a basajuan (the Basque version of Big Foot)?

The detective assigned to the case is Amaia Salazar. She – and her story – are the standout elements of the novel for me. As with all good fictional detectives Amaia has some personal demons to deal with but Redondo has not chosen the well-worn path of substance abuse and a bad marriage for her leading lady. Indeed she is happily married (to an independently wealthy American artist named James) and only drinks an occasional glass of wine. But Amaia’s childhood was the stuff of nightmares and things come bubbling to the surface when she must return to Elizondo – the town of her birth – to take on this case. In parallel with the unfolding investigation Amaia’s back story and the relationships between her surviving family members are revealed compellingly.

To be honest I found the main plot a bit messy and not all of my incredulity was due to a personal disdain for intelligent adults treating tarot readings seriously. It felt at times as if some decisions for the book’s direction had been made by committee. A committee more interested in potential screen rights and the American market than in pulling together a coherent story. Amaia’s experiences at Quantico, her husband’s fascination for the bull running of Pamplona (just like Hemmingway it is rather obviously pointed out) and some other American friendliness all seemed a bit forced to me. That said, though it wasn’t terribly difficult to predict (given a couple of glaringly obvious early hints) the resolution was a fitting one and ultimately relied at least as much on old-fashioned policing as it did the impossibly speedy forensics Amaia gained access to.

Given serial killers are not really my thing I doubt I’d have read this book if it wasn’t on the shortlist for this year’s International Dagger Award but on balance I’m glad I was prompted to seek it out. The serial killer element is tempered by the inclusion of local mythology and fact that other parts of the storyline (including a sadly believable copycat crime) receive real focus. And I really did enjoy meeting Amaia Salazar and am intrigued enough to find out what happens next for her.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Emma Gregory
Translator Isabelle Kaufeler
Publisher Harper Audio [this edition 2015, original edition 2103]
ASIN B00VUPGCLA
Length 13 hours 11 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #1 Amaia Salazar trilogy

Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://reactionstoreading.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Catching up (the reviews that will never be)

Lately I’ve read a few books that haven’t, for one reason or another, made it to a review post of their very own and I’ve decided to give up pretending they ever will. I have enough impossible backlogs in my working life that I really don’t need to clutter up my leisure life with them too, but I do want to record my impressions so that I have a chance of recollecting these books in the future. And so, in reading order, we have…

DuckSeasonDeathWrightJune Wright’s DUCK SEASON DEATH – A book written in the 1950’s but only published in 2014 this is one of what is now seven published books by a little-known Australian female crime writer. It’s a traditional country house mystery (though in this case the country house is an inn in the Australian countryside) in which a small cast of oddball characters form the suspect pool for the murder (or was it?) of an unpleasant man at the start of the local shooting season. As well as being of the genre the book takes some not-so-gentle digs at classic whodunnits and, for me at least, it wasn’t entirely successful. I thought it was trying a little too hard to be clever. I’ve not yet any of Wright’s novels that were published during her lifetime (though I now have two here on Mount TBR) so I shall possibly have more to say about this author soon.

Reykjavik NightsIndridasonArnaldur Indridason’s REYKJAVIK NIGHTS – During a recent interview at the Sydney Writers’ Festival Michael Connelly intimated that when his famous police detective’s official career is over Connelly might be finally ready to write of Harry Bosh’s time in Vietnam. If so he’ll be joining a growing trend of writers turning to the origin stories of their much-loved characters when age makes their continuation as professional detectives too unbelievable even for fiction. Having allowed his dour, loner Detective Erlendur to end his career in STRANGE SHORES, Indridason takes us to 1974 and introduces us to young Erlendur doing night shift as a relatively new policeman. Car crashes, domestic violence incidents and run-ins with all manner of people who seem only to come out at night form the backdrop to Erlendur’s investigations into the death of a homeless man he had come to know and the disappearance of a young woman. There is much to like about this origin story.

TheHumanFliesHansOlavLa23691_fHans Olav Lahlum’s THE HUMAN FLIES was a delightful surprise. Knowing I was planning to read it myself I avoided all reviews of the book so had no idea I would be delving into a classic whodunit set in late 1960’s Norway. New police detective Kolbjørn Kristiansen is tasked with investigating the seemingly impossible locked room murder of a prominent Norwegian who had been a hero of the resistance during the war. The high profile case threatens to prove unsolvable but Kristiansen is fortunate enough to attract the attentions of an intelligent amateur sleuth who manages to help him unravel this tale of secrets within secrets. A truly entertaining read, with fascinating insight into Norway’s wartime experiences, and evidence (should you need it) that not all Scandi crime fiction is cold and grim.

FallingFreelyAsIfInADrea23678_fLeif G.W. Persson’s FREE FALLING AS IF IN A DREAM – I almost feel like I’m cheating including this because I ended up skipping bits and pieces of this 588 page tome. As the final part of Persson’s Story of a Crime trilogy the book sees several investigators, all of whom we’ve met in Persson’s earlier books, brought together in secret to take another look at Sweden’s greatest unsolved crime: the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986. Amidst all the stultifying detail here there is a good story straining to be heard but honestly by the end of this one I was really cross with modern publishing. This book needed an editor. Very, very badly. My life was not enriched in any way by knowing exactly what fruit DCI Lisa Mattei ate during each day and at what times she ate each piece nor any of the thousands of similar details masquerading as context. This book is virtually inaccessible to anyone who isn’t a die-hard devotee of politically infused European crime and even then I am prepared to wager many wouldn’t bother wading through to the bitter end.

TheSweetnessBottomOfPieBradleyAudioAlan Bradley’s THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE is one of those books I thought I ought to read as so many people love it. In case you’ve been living under a rock it introduces 11 year-old Flavia de Luce, aspiring chemist turned amateur-sleuth who solves the murder that takes place on her family’s country estate in 1950. My chief accolade for the book is that it is blessedly short. I didn’t hate it but nor can I really see what all the fuss is about. For my tastes Flavia is a bit too precocious to be truly engaging and the book has some truly dull passages (descriptions of visual magic tricks are on par with people relaying their dreams on the scale of things I’m not at all interested in). Lest you fear I am just anti books narrated by children I offer Belinda Bauer’s THE FACTS OF LIFE AND DEATH, Mari Strachan’s THE EARTH HUMS IN B-FLAT or Catherine O’Flynn’s WHAT WAS LOST as examples of superior crime stories told by young children.

 

 

Review: THE HUMMINGBIRD by Kati Hiekkapelto

TheHummingbirdKatiHiekkap23799_fTHE HUMMINGBIRD opens by introducing us to Anna Fekete experiencing the first day on her new job as a senior detective in an unnamed town in northern Finland. Initially expecting to ease into her new role instead she must get up to speed suddenly when a young girl’s call to emergency services appears very troubling and then the body of a jogger is found. These two cases, which rarely for crime fiction do not become linked over time, come to haunt the members of the Crime Unit in various ways.

Although very much a procedural novel THE HUMMINGBIRD is at least as interested in its characters as it is in solving the crimes committed within it. And as the centrepiece of the investigative team Anna makes for interesting reading. She is a lifelong outsider. As a child she was part of a minority population – a Hungarian in the former Yugoslavia – and when she moved with her family to Finland she was an immigrant. Even now, despite her having lived in the country since she was seven and served with the Finish military, her immigrant status is the most significant thing about her for many people, even those who view it as a positive thing. Anna’s sense of isolation is depicted very credibly, manifesting itself in numerous ways. Although this theme is not a new one for fiction to explore I thought Hiekkapelto did an above average job of letting the reader really get a sense of what a grind it must be to always feel as if you don’t quite belong.

One of her new colleagues, a middle-aged policeman named Esko, does not attempt to hide his racism from the moment they first meet. This is not an auspicious beginning to a relationship and I was a little wary that it would tread a very predictable path but ultimately it proves to be a highlight of the book when it veers away from the norm. It is certainly a very believable depiction of this kind of tension that is repeated the world over. The team is rounded out by two more colleagues, both of whom are a lot more sympathetic towards Anna and add interesting elements of the story in their own right. Sari is the policewoman who appears to ‘have it all’ – a loving husband and two children on top of the great job – while their male colleague Rauno is struggling to keep his own marriage intact.

Hiekkapelto does not forget to develop a decent plot and the crimes here are both complex; requiring a good deal of investigative shoe leather. Anna becomes somewhat fixated on the case of Bihar: the young Kurdish girl who rang emergency services claiming her father was going to kill her then recanted when police visited the house. Although told to leave the matter alone due to lack of evidence she is convinced that something is wrong and uses what free time she has to keep an eye on the family. It’s not much of a stretch to see that she identifies with Bihar on some level which makes her fixation entirely understandable. Meanwhile the case of the murdered runner proves a difficult one for the team and a couple more bodies have to pile up before there is a satisfactory resolution. n some ways this main plot thread was the least interesting part of the book for me but only because the rest of it was so good.

There are a few wooly elements to this debut novel – such as the unnecessary inclusion of a minor thread in which both Anna and Sari are threatened by mysterious texts – but overall I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Anna and the rest of the team. I liked the way that this was allowed to be a character driven novel that still had a strong plot and explored some interesting themes such as what seems to be a thorny issue in all countries: immigration. I am already looking forward to the next installment of the series which is due to be translated into English this year.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator David Hackston
Publisher Arcadia Books [this translation 2014]
ISBN 9781909807563
Length 363 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #1 in the Anna Fekete series

Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://reactionstoreading.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

 

#1949 Book – Agatha Christie’s CROOKED HOUSE

CrookedHouseAgathaChristi23833_fIt is easy, these days, to think of the classic country house mystery as passé. Trite.  Derivative. But there was a time when this style of story was as fresh and popular as tales of domestic noir are today and the best proponents of the art form could enthrall and surprise even those readers who believed themselves experts in the genre. Agatha Christie penned dozens of variations on this theme but in CROOKED HOUSE, a novel she proclaims a personal favourite in her forward, she has outdone herself.

The setting is, of course, an English country house. When he first encounters Three Gables the book’s narrator, diplomat and son of the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, Charles Hayward describes it as

It was incredible!…it had a strange air of being distorted…a cottage swollen out all proportion. It was like looking at a country cottage through a gigantic magnifying-glass. The slant-wise beams, the half-timbering, the gables, it was a little croooked house that had grown like a mushroom in the night!…It was a Greek restauranteur’s idea of something English.

Charles’ presence in the house is accepted easily as is the way of things in this type of story. I sometimes struggle to imagine any scenario of my own experience in which a virtual stranger would be given the kind of free reign that characters like Charles always receive when arriving on far-flung doorsteps but, as with all storytelling, you have to willingly suspend disbelief on at least some basic points. So, having ‘connections’ with the police and as the friend (and hopeful husband-to-be) of Sophia Leonides, whom he met in Egypt during the war, Charles is able to introduce the cast – or suspect pool if you prefer – to the reader in a surprisingly natural and believable way.

According to Christie she does not know how the Leonides family got into her head but once there “…like Topsy ‘they growed’“. It’s not hard to imagine that these people were with the author for some time before being brought to life on the page because they are more vivid than many of Christie’s characters. Even Aristide Leonides – who, in something of a departure for Christie, dies within the first dozen pages – is a fully-rounded individual. The Greek-immigrant patriarch of a relatively small family and the requisite number of hangers-on is very much a presence throughout the book. Variously loved, liked or respected by those around him, it is universally hoped that if the man has been murdered then ‘the right person’ is the culprit. Here, thankfully, no one seriously suggests the conveniently passing tramp, but most would be content to learn that any murder was committed by the octogenarian’s second, much, much younger, wife. Not that anyone genuinely hates Brenda Leonides but she is the closest thing to an outsider among the potential suspects and so would be the easiest murderer for the rest of the family to accept.

Of course everyone has a motive for wanting the old man dead but these are delicately teased out and some of them at least surprise with their sensitivity. Christie really does seem to have been giving more than her usual thought to the notion of exactly what it might be that would move someone to become a murderer. In some Golden Age puzzlers the reader is left with the sense that it doesn’t take much for the average person to start throwing poison around with abandon, but here Christie really explores the (far more likely) idea that becoming a murderer is not done with ease unless, perhaps, a person is mentally ill.

In the end CROOKED HOUSE is ‘just’ a deliberately puzzling whodunnit with a finite suspect pool and several twists designed to shock the reader. If that style of story is not your thing at all then there is probably nothing about this particular example that will make you change your mind. If, on the other hand, you don’t mind a classic whodunnit as long as it is well done then I highly recommend CROOKED HOUSE. It puts the vast majority of this type of tale, including some of Christie’s own, to shame in the way it is constructed and while it shares may tropes of the genre it does break with a few traditions. Most pleasingly from my perspective there is no awkward and unbelievable denouement (I can never quite buy the way those play out) and I think that even if the identity of the culprit is deduced beforehand, the actual resolution will surprise most readers satisfactorily.

CROOKED HOUSE was first published in 1949 which made it eligible for this month’s challenge in which readers of the Past Offences blog are invited to review a book, film or other cultural artifact from the nominated year.

 

Review: THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins

As a crime fiction fan and the daughter of a railway worker I have a fondness for mysteries that take place around trains and am well-served, with many authors being attracted to the theme. Both Patricia Highsmith (STRANGERS ON A TRAIN) and Agatha Christie (MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS) have produced genre classics that centre on trains. I can think of two detectives who do the majority of their sleuthing on trains: Victor Whitechurch’s vegetarian railway detective Thorpe Hazell, and Robert Craddock who is the hero of Edward Marston’s historical series set in the era in which trains were first making their way through England’s countryside. Stories, like this one, in which people glimpse something momentous through a train window, are especially popular. As far back as 1890 Émile Zola, in LA BÊTE HUMAINE, wrote of a man grappling with his own mental issues who spies a man with a knife through a train window and then finds a body. In Dame Christie’s lesser known train-based novel, 4:50 FROM PADDINGTON, an elderly woman travelling on one train sees a man strangling a woman in a train passing in the other direction.

Alas THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN won’t be joining my collection of great train mysteries. In my head it will be forever known as THE DRUNK I WISH HAD FALLEN UNDER A TRAIN but I guess that’s not a title that speeds off the bookstore shelves with quite the same volume as books with the now almost ubiquitous GIRL title do.

TheGirlOnTheTrainPaula23768_fThe book is told from the first-person perspective of three women. Rachel, our primary whiny narcissist, is the unemployed, alcoholic ex-wife of Tom, a man she remains obsessed with. She is the girl of the book’s title. On her daily train journeys to and from London she looks out the window, focusing most intently on what she can see of the goings on in the street where she used to live with the aforementioned Tom. One day she sees something that angers her which later turns out to, possibly, have some wider significance. Megan is the unemployed, anxious wife of Scott, a man she doesn’t seem able to be faithful to for five minutes. Anna is the new wife of Tom and stay-at-home-mum of baby Evie. She misses being Tom’s mistress, having never felt any guilt over that role (although she pretended to when talking to her friends).

I could quote great swathes of the novel as examples of why I found these dishonest, judgemental, amoral characters so excruciating to read about but we’d be here all day. So I decided to use just one passage, this one from Megan, to illustrate the kind of vapid self-absorption the book is peppered with. She is ruminating on the fact her husband needs reassurance that she is not ‘up to anything’

I can’t really be angry with him because he has good reason to be suspicious. I’ve given him cause in the past and probably will again. I am not a model wife. I can’t be. No matter how much I love him it won’t be enough…I told myself I wouldn’t do it again, not after last time, but then I saw him and I wanted him and I thought ‘why not?’ I don’t see why I should restrict myself. Lots of people don’t. Men don’t. I don’t want to hurt anybody but you have to be true to yourself don’t you?.

If that sounds like the sort of person you want to spend a few hours with then by all means read the book. If it doesn’t, then do yourself a favour and go for a walk.

I know fictional characters do not have to be likeable. But, surely, they are obliged to be interesting. In teeny tiny morsels, amidst the endless self-pity all three women drone on with, some explanations are offered for their respective attitudes and behaviour. But the explanations took far too long to materialise and are too obvious to make the women’s stories compelling. Even Rachel admits drunks like her are boring. And the fact that her narration is a mixture of dreams, drunken half-memories and imaginings just makes her unreliable. Not interesting.

To be clear I found the characterisations quite believable, just not engaging. When I come across such people in real life I take steps to spend as little time as possible in their company. If life is too short to read awful books it is surely too short to spend with dullards. Especially whiny ones whose only interest is themselves and the slights – both real and imagined – life in their first-world bubbles has dealt them.

There isn’t even much of a mystery. One of the women disappears and the other two are, in their way, involved. But I didn’t think it much of a stretch to work out what had gone on. Not that I cared. I mainly read to the end because this is a selection for my book club (I always try to finish those). Plus for a while I held out hope that more of the characters would die. But they weren’t even interesting enough for that.

The overall plot is cleverly constructed – the way the three women’s stories and relationships are unveiled is a genuine accomplishment – but so many individual elements are ham-fisted, such as Rachel’s too-convenient alcoholic blackouts that last only until forward movement demands she remember something more, that I can’t even be positive about the storyline. I thought for a while that the author was making some commentary about transient nature of reality – one person’s truth is not necessarily another’s and so on – but then I decided I was looking for meaning in all the wrong places.

I am baffled by the hype and superlatives that have been heaped upon this novel. Even my fellow book club member loves it (which might make for an interesting discussion when the club gets together this weekend). Sometimes I am able to see what it is that attracts people about a book I haven’t enjoyed but in this instance I feel like I have read a completely different thing. I cannot imagine why anyone who didn’t feel bound by book club ethics would bother reading more than a few pages about the self-indulgent, dull-witted individuals that populated the book I read. Indeed I gave up on the hard copy version of the book supplied by my friendly library and resorted to the audio version for about the last half of the book. At least that way I could wash dishes as I consumed the story so my time wasn’t completely wasted.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrators Clare Corbett, India Fisher, Louise Brealey
Publisher Random House Audio [2015]
ASIN B00S1RD56U
Length 10 hours 57 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone

Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://reactionstoreading.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Best Laid Plans

PetronaShortlist2015I had planned to read all six of the novels shortlisted for this year’s Petrona Award for best Scandinavian crime fiction translated into English before the winner is announced in Bristol this weekend. But real life has gotten in the way of my reading during the past two weeks and I have only finished four and a half of the books and so far only reviewed two of them here on the blog. The contenders are

  • Kati Hiekkapelto’s THE HUMMINGBIRD (am half-way through this)
  • Jørn Lier Horst’s THE HUNTING DOGS
  • Arnaldur Indriðason’s REYKJAVIK NIGHTS (finished it a couple of nights ago but no time to review it yet)
  • Hans Olav Lahlum’s THE HUMAN FILES (awaiting me on the nightstand)
  • Leif G.W. Persson’s FREE FALLING, AS IF IN A DREAM (finished it…finally…but not reviewed because I was quite angry with it by the end and wanted to calm down)
  • Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s THE SILENCE OF THE SEA

Of the ones I’ve finished my preference would be for THE HUNTING DOGS but I am very gripped by THE HUMMINGBIRD at the midway point. For me the Persson book – and the trilogy of which it is the final installment – has some merits but is ultimately too inaccessible to be considered a truly great example of the genre. I can’t imagine recommending it to many crime fans of my acquaintance, let alone those who aren’t ‘die hards’ like myself and for some reason I like award winners that have the potential to attract a wider audience.

Two of my fellow crime lovers have actually finished the shortlist so do head over to THE GAME’S AFOOT and CRIME SCRAPS REVIEW for more well-rounded thoughts and we’ll all await the real winner with interest I’m sure.

Books of the month: April 2015

Pick of the month

TheHuntingDogsHorstThe good thing about having completed only a paltry 4 books for the month is that it made picking a favourite pretty easy, though I think Jørn Lier Horst’s THE HUNTING DOGS would have made the grade even if it encountered more competition. The Norwegian police procedural offers the twist of putting an ethical policeman on the suspect’s side of the ledger for much of the novel and Horst uses this angle to explore the nature of policing in a thoughtful and intelligent way.

The full list (titles preceded by the ++ symbol are all recommended)

Progress Towards 2015’s Book-ish Goals

Challenge Goal Progress
Australian Women Writers Challenge Read and review 25 eligible books 10/25
Reading US Fiction Challenge Read 6 books by new to me authors set in different states of the US 1/6
Personal – Outside my comfort zone Read at least 6 books that aren’t crime/mystery/thriller novels 2/6
Personal – Read Globally Read at least 10 books set in countries that aren’t Australia, America or England 16/10
Personal – Reduce TBR Read at least 20 books I owned as at 31 December 2014 10/20
Personal – Buy Australian Buy no physical or eBooks from non-Australian stores 0/0
Personal – Read older books too Participate in at least 6 of the monthly ‘pick a year’ reading challenges hosted at Past Offences 4/6

I didn’t really make a lot of progress during April. Aside from participating in the Past Offences reading challenge and not buying any books from overseas it was more of a status quo kind of month. I blame a visit by overseas relatives, binge-watching season three of House of Cards and general busy-ness for attending so poorly to my reading in general and my goals in particular. My May mantra will be “must try harder”.

 Looking ahead

A final reason for April’s scant list of books completed was that I spent the last half of the month on one book which I still haven’t finished. I’m about three quarters of the way through Leif G. W. Persson’s FREE FALLING, AS IF IN A DREAM – all 600 pages of it. But I am determined to finish it and the remaining shortlist for this year’s Petrona Award before the winner is announced mid-month. Even if it kills me (seriously, that’s a possibility…the Persson book in the hardback my library loaned me is heavy enough to be a dangerous bloody weapon and I’ve twice fallen asleep and bashed myself in the head with it).

I’m planning to participate in the Past Offences classics challenge to read a 1949 book with Dame Agatha Christie’s CROOKED HOUSE. I don’t recall ever reading it and as lots of people count it among her best I’m looking forward to it.

What about you? Had any particularly good reads during April? How are your reading goals progressing? Got something good lined up for May?