Books of the month: February 2015

Pick of the month

PresentDarknessNunnAudioAlthough I’ve had another month full of great reading experiences I can’t go past the first book I finished as my pick for the month. PRESENT DARKNESS is Malla Nunn’s best book to date (and I’ve loved its three predecessors). In 1950’s South Africa two black students are accused of the murder of a white couple and Nunn does a fantastic job of making the reader feel how skin colour impacts every aspect of life in this time and place. It’s a cracker of a story to boot.

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

Random Thought

Although she died at the end of January I didn’t catch up with The Australian‘s obituary for Colleen McCullough until about a week later. Wish I’d never seen it at all. Although it does a decent job of describing her many achievements and successes it may as well not have bothered given its opening paragraph in which it is her looks (they use the phrase ‘plain of feature’) and weight that get top billing – and the fact that these attributes didn’t stop her attracting men!

At first I was angry and scream-y and rant-y. Now I’m just sad. Why are we bothering with something like the Australian Women Writers Challenge when this country’s so-called national newspaper can write so degradingly about one of our best and most successful writers of either gender? It feels like a lost cause. The same paper’s obituary for another beloved Australian writer a couple of years earlier makes no mention of his looks or weight. But of course he was a he so those things don’t matter.

I did most of my reading of Colleen McCullough before beginning this blog so she doesn’t feature here much but I did post something about my reasons for admiring her when she was included as one of six literary legends for an Australia Day stamp release in 2010.

Progress Towards 2015’s Book-ish Goals

Challenge Goal Progress
Australian Women Writers Challenge Read and review 25 eligible books 6/25
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 11/10
Personal – Reduce TBR Read at least 20 books I owned as at 31 December 2014 8/20
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 2/6

I’m doing well with most of these goals though my progress towards reducing my TBR slowed dramatically in February (only 1 of those 8 books was read during the month). I must do better on that front. But I’m quite pleased that I’ve already read 2 non-crime books (including a romance – which is almost as far from my comfort zone as it’s possible to go) and have another on order from the library. Even though I’ve completed my personal goal to read globally I’m going to keep counting.

Looking ahead

I’ve chosen Australian author Anne Buist’s debut novel MEDEA’S CURSE for my book club to read this month. The author is a perinatal psychiatrist of many years and has drawn on her experiences to write fiction about women who kill children. My library haul includes Eva Dolan’s LONG WAY HOME and Philippe Georget’s AUTUMN, ALL THE CATS RETURN and my ears will be enjoying Katherine Howell’s TELL THE TRUTH to start the month. I’m determined to pick a couple of books from my TBR mountain too.

What about you? Did you have a favourite book for February? Have you got something special lined up for March?

Review: THE ZIG-ZAG GIRL by Elly Griffiths

TheZigZagGirlGriffithsAudioI’m thinking of adding an extra category to my personal reading database for books I wanted to like more than I actually did. Being a huge fan of Elly Griffiths’ series featuring archaeologist Ruth Galloway and being one of those readers always on the lookout for a standalone novel I had high hopes for THE ZIG-ZAG GIRL. Perhaps those expectations were the problem rather than the book itself. Whatever the case, as a historical mystery told in the third person from the perspective of male characters it is a very different type of story to Griffiths’ usual fare and is missing many of the elements I have enjoyed most about Griffiths’ writing.

Set in post-WWII Britain it opens with the gruesome murder of a young woman in Brighton. The circumstances of the murder remind Edgar Stephens, the Detective Inspector in charge of the case, of a magic trick invented by an old friend of his. This prompts him to seek out that friend, Max Mephisto, a magician with whom he worked during the war as part of a secret service team building illusions to fool the enemy into thinking the Allies had more resources than was actually the case. It soon becomes clear to the two men that the murder, and others which follow it, are directly linked to their wartime experiences.

Essentially what a reader has to do with fiction is accept the version of the world that the author has created. Sometimes there is a lot of disbelief to suspend, sometimes only a little. But always some. Otherwise it wouldn’t be fiction. In this case I just couldn’t do it. I never, for example, understood why a brutal murder of a young woman was left to one middle-ranking copper and his civilian friend to solve. Even today such an event would warrant more involvement from authorities than that so surely 65 years ago it would been a higher profile case than is depicted. And when Edgar and Max’s wartime experiences were told in flashback there just seemed to be too many implausibilities and inaccuracies for me to buy into it all. To top it off the secret at the heart of the story seemed blindingly – screamingly – obvious to me so there wasn’t much in the way of suspense.

The characterisations were a little more successful than the plot though somewhat flat and distant. For me it was the difference between hearing a story about a couple of people who are acquaintances of friends rather than being engrossed in a story about people I care about.The main characters are all men of roughly the same age and none of them really stand out from each other. I don’t imagine I’ll be able to remember a single thing about Edgar or Max in a couple of months.

I applaud the author for having a go at something different but it won’t be a series I follow so I hope there is something else on the horizon from Ms Griffiths. This one was just too full of awkward and unlikely coincidences for me and the reality didn’t live up to the promise of the premise.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Daniel Philpott
Publisher Quercus [2014]
ASIN B00N25KGCW
Length 8 hours 2 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series reportedly the first of a new series

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Review: EVERY BITTER THING by Leighton Gage

Every Bitter ThingI tend not to read book blurbs these days (fear of spoilers) and often by the time I get around to reading a specific book from my TBR mountain I’ve long forgotten the review or recommendation that prompted me to choose it. So any impressions I make when starting are based on my knowledge of the author’s previous work and any sensibility generated by the cover or title. Which is why when I saw the title of this book I expected something with a religious theme. Gage has dabbled in the territory before and one of the legacies I carry from 12 years of Catholic school is a memory full of biblical passages so did recall the proverb about the hungry soul for who every bitter thing is sweet. As it happens the book has almost nothing at all to do with religion (it does feature a priest in a minor role). Though the title is still very fitting.

This fourth installment of the Mario Silva series is just as good as its predecessors. I am always impressed when authors can maintain a high quality of writing and storytelling but am particularly chuffed when can do so while making some changes to their style. The most noticeable thing about this book for me is that it is fairly light in its tone. There is some violence (and a pretty high body count) but this book does not take readers into quite such dark subject areas as its predecessors and, because all things are relative, it feels almost jaunty by comparison. This sensibility is aided by the ever-present humour which is always particularly evident in the excellent dialogue. I always think I’d rather like to be a member of Mario Silva’s team.

It is, in short, the story of a series of brutal murders which at first appear unconnected. But, as any crime reader worth their salt would know, even once a connection has been identified a resolution cannot be had until a lot of investigative shoe leather has been expended. Although it would never be mistaken for a cosy novel EVERY BITTER THING definitely has overtones of the old-fashioned whodunnit with its finite cast of suspects that gets smaller as they are murdered one-by-one.

Although this book doesn’t need to reach into the darker corners of Brazilian society it still exudes the strong sense of place that I have come to expect from this series set in Gage’s adopted home. In particular the political environment and connections and rivalries with neighbouring countries let us know this is not a story taking place in one of crime fiction’s more usual haunts.

In the end I suppose this is a book about justice, or the lack of it, and depicts someone dealing with a complicated kind of grief in a way that is understandable if not justifiable. It’s a rollickingly good story to boot and reminded me anew what a loss the crime genre suffered when Leighton Gage passed away two years ago. I’d recommend this book to all but especially if you’ve been wanting to try the author’s novels but were a bit worried about the level of darkness. This book could easily be read without having read the earlier novels (though I do recommend them too).

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I have reviewed the three earlier books in this series BLOOD OF THE WICKED, BURIED STRANGERS and DYING GASP

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Soho Crime [2011]
ISBN 9781569479988
Length 218 pages
Format eBook (ePub)
Book Series #4 in the Mario Silva series

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When a crime reader turns to romance

If my mother’s weekly trips to the library had resulted in a never-ending stream of Georgette Heyer and Catherine Cookson books instead of the mountains of Agatha Christie and Dick Francis novels she adored (and I started devouring at a young age having read all of our small library’s offerings for children), my reading life might have been very different. Perhaps I might even have developed a more romantic kind of personality (although there’s not a lot of evidence for that because a lifetime spent with my nose buried in crime novels hasn’t resulted in any noticeable criminal tendencies). As it happens though I was well into my 20’s before I read a modern romance novel (I had devoured Jane Austen’s canon as a teenager) but by then I think the die was cast. I didn’t by any means hate it but I did wonder where the dead bodies were.

However, when the founder and driving force behind the Australian Women Writers Challenge announced she had secured a deal to publish a romance I knew I would be revisiting the genre. I haven’t yet managed to meet Elizabeth Lheude in the flesh but I’ve spent enough time hanging out with her virtually and admiring her efforts and intellect from afar that I was genuinely pleased for her success and wanted to show my support in a tangible way.

SnowyRiverManLizzyChandl23441_fWhich is a long-winded explanation for how this die-hard mystery reader came to be downloading an Australian romance novel on a blisteringly hot Sunday afternoon. Set in rural New South Wales SNOWY RIVER MAN, by Elizabeth’s alter ego Lizzy Chandler, is the story of a young woman who dreams – or senses – the location of a small boy who has gone missing. Katrina wants to help but nearly baulks when she learns that the boy’s father is the man she had a one night stand with some years earlier. She hasn’t seen Jack since she learned he was engaged to be married, a fact he kept from her during their night together.

Although I decided immediately to read Elizabeth’s book I took longer over the matter of whether or not I would write about it here on the blog. When I discuss crime novels I feel pretty confident that I can not only talk about my personal responses to the book but can also take into consideration where it fits within the genre and its relative merits against other works. But I have absolutely no yard stick by which to measure whether a romance novel is ‘good’ or not and I wasn’t sure I wanted to start attempting to do so with a virtual friend’s novel. But then, I thought, can I really claim to be a reader if I can’t even have a single discussion about a book from an unfamiliar genre? Surely there are basic questions I can answer.

Did the book engage me? Absolutely. I liked Katrina immediately and wanted to learn more about the way in which her apparent connection to the boy would be manifest. I was wary of Jack at first (cheats not being high on my list of top blokes) but intrigued to know his back story and find out if there was a reason I would accept for why he’d behaved in the way he did. And even though I’m normally on the lookout for dead bodies between the pages, even I was hoping to discover the boy would be found safe and well.

Was there a believable world created? Again, a resounding yes. The rural location is evoked very well with Jack’s farm and surroundings being depicted beautifully and the community culture that exists in such settings shining through. Perhaps more importantly the story elements that explain why Jack, his son Nick and Katrina are in the personal circumstances that exist when we meet them make contextual sense too. The reason I read a swag of modern romances in my 20’s was that a friend was writing for one of the Harlequin imprints at the time and she used to have me read her stuff and rate it on an eye-rolling scale. If I rolled my eyes more than once at the contrivances which kept the lovers apart I was duty bound to tell her at what point(s). She also used to ask me what passages I skimmed (usually when the sex scenes ran to more than a couple of paragraphs). I didn’t roll my eyes or skim any passages when reading SNOWY RIVER MAN.

So there you have it. I read and enjoyed my first romance novel in 20 odd years. Even the slightly mystical tone was well within my low tolerances for ‘woo woo’ elements and added a little something extra to the reading experience and I was smiling when it came to the happy ending (I think the one thing I can say with some authority about the genre is that romance novels, traditional ones anyway, do all have a basically happy ending so I don’t think I’ve spoiled anything there).

I won’t pretend this is the start of a major shift in my reading habits but I am glad I was able to read something way outside my usual fare and get something from the experience. It’s nice to know my preferences haven’t permanently blocked off any avenues. I know that most of my regular readers come here for the dead bodies so I won’t try to tempt you to read this particular romance novel but will suggest you make a plan to read something just as random. Something you’d never normally pick up. You might be pleasantly surprised. And if you’ve made your way here looking for something other than crime recommendations then definitely give SNOWY RIVER MAN a go. It’s deliciously short, got great characters whose lives you want to see turn out well and will make even the city-dwellers among you want to head bush. At least for a weekend.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

aww-badge-2015I don’t suppose this qualifies as a review but I’m definitely counting it as the sixth novel I’ve read for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Escape Publishing [2015]
ISBN 9780857992246
Length 163 pages
Format eBook (ePub)
Book Series standalone

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Review: DEATH OF A NIGHTINGALE by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis

DeathOfANightingaleLene23172_fAs with its two predecessors, DEATH OF A NIGHTINGALE once again takes readers into the world of some of Europe’s most marginalised and damaged souls. In this instance focus is on a Ukrainian woman, Natasha Doroshenko, who has been convicted in Denmark of the attempted murder of her fiancé. As the novel opens she escapes police custody and begins the dangerous task of being reunited with her young daughter, Katerina. The girl, a chronic asthmatic, is housed at a nearby refuge under the watchful care of nurse Nina Borg. When there is a murder almost immediately following Natasha’s escape police suspect her and step up their efforts to recapture her but she is also being hunted by people connected to her past. One of whom Natasha only knows as The Witch.

In a way there are three stories being played out across this novel and at times this does become confusing. In addition to the present-day tribulations of Natasha we are introduced early on to a pair of sisters living in Stalinist Russia in the 1930’s. As you might expect this thread does eventually connect with Natasha’s story but not before reminding us all that ‘Uncle’ Stalin’s world was a bloody bleak one. The third narrative element is learning about Natasha’s past which allows us to get some sense of what has led to the development of the fiercely protective and necessarily resourceful mother we meet. I’m not entirely convinced the rapid swapping between time periods and perspectives was the best way to tell this story and there seems to be an unwillingness to allow the natural drama of the events being depicted to carry the story so some implausible and unnecessary plot elements exist.

With character development the authors are on surer ground. Nina Borg can be extremely frustrating but over the course of the three books in the series (so far) they have provided ample insight into why she is the sort of person you want on your side in a crisis even if she might not be the woman you’d want as your own mother. Nina needs to save others with the force of an addiction. And, like addicts, she often can’t put a halt to her behaviour even when she can acknowledge the harm it’s causing to her personal relationships. This makes her an unusual and complex person and compelling to read about. Continuing their tradition of depicting strong, if damaged, female characters Natasha Doroshenko also proves captivating.

It is partly through Natasha, though there are others including a Ukrainian policeman working alongside the Danish police to track her down, that the authors continue one of the themes woven into all of their novels: an exploration of the complicated political and social environment that has developed in Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union. From my little vantage point at the bottom of the world news headlines from the region often seem incomprehensible but Kaaberbøl and Friis do an excellent job of teasing out the complexities that lie behind such headlines in a way that offers explanation if not justification. To me, for example, it seems preposterous that something one’s grandparents did or didn’t do can have any baring on events happening today but this book shows in a very believable way that in some cultures what happened two generations or more ago is as important as what occurred yesterday.

For me the plot of DEATH OF A NIGHTINGALE is a little too manipulated to be entirely credible and there’s some unnecessary confusion but this criticism pales into insignificance when stacked up against the fascinating social context and engaging character development. For those who read crime fiction – or any fiction really – to gain some new perspective on the infinitely complicated world in which we all live I highly recommend this book.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I have reviewed both earlier novels in this series THE BOY IN THE SUITCASE and INVISIBLE MURDER

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Elisabeth Dyssegaard
Publisher Soho Crime [2013]
ISBN 9781616954406
Length 329 pages
Format hardcover
Book Series #3 in the Nina Borg series

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Review: WRITTEN IN STONE by Ellery Adams

WrittenInStoneAdamsElle22768_fMy preference these days is generally for a grittier, more realistic style of crime novel but sometimes, like when the real world is just a bit too gritty in its own right, the situation calls for a story in which you know the good guys will triumph. But because I don’t appreciate being patronised with second-rate writing and gimmick-laden plots it doesn’t feel like there are a lot of choices for me at the cosier end of the crime fiction spectrum anymore.

Happily, Ellery Adams’ Books by the Bay series, set in small town North Carolina, is thoroughly enjoyable and intelligent. In this fourth installment the series heroine, Olivia Limoges, receives a warning of impending death from a local woman known as the witch of Oyster Bay. The warning does prove prophetic in its way and soon Olivia and her friends are on the trail of another murderer.

Aside from having to suspend one’s disbelief regarding the Cabot Cove effect that, by nature, series featuring amateur sleuths must display, WRITTEN IN STONE offers a great story. The backdrop to investigating two suspicious deaths and one attempted murder on this occasion is a fascinating insight into the recent history of the Lumbee Tribe and an exploration of their tribulations in dealing with governments and others not inclined to treat them well. I was particularly intrigued by the story’s incorporation of something called a memory jug which, I now know, is a common form of folk art in the area. Adams weaved this item and its secrets into the story in so compelling a way that I took a break at one point to spend a happy couple of hours learning more about these pieces via my friend Google. I learned precisely nothing about American history during my Australian schooling so I love it when books teach me stuff while entertaining me.

The book also has a terrific cast of characters. I think it would be perfectly possible to read WRITTEN IN STONE without having read its predecessors but for those who have been following Olivia and her burgeoning group of friends from the beginning there’s lots of growth to be seen. The town’s writer’s group provides the core cast, including Olivia’s lover (also the police chief), and they’re a really engaging group. In this outing it’s Millay’s turn to play a larger role than the others as she identifies with a young Lumbee woman who becomes the target of an unknown bad guy’s deadly ire. Without being didactic Adams uses Millay’s development and the novel’s resolution to depict the different ways that a lasting impact often results from the things we experience as children. Series fans will also enjoy learning more about Olivia’s past, the starring role of Haviland (Olivia’s standard poodle) and the fact that her romance with Sawyer seems to be cementing into a sound relationship.

WRITTEN IN STONE is definitely not for those looking for blood and gore or a novel depicting the seedy underbelly of our modern world. If, on the other hand, you like books with a dash of humour, a rollicking plot, the kinds of characters you would choose as your own friends and delicious smidgens of North Carolina history and culture then this is the book for you.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I’ve reviewed the first two books in this series A KILLER PLOT and A DEADLY CLICHÉ

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Berkley [2012]
ISBN 9781101612057
Length 273 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #4 in the Books by the Bay series

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Review: LETTERS TO MY DAUGHTER’S KILLER by Cath Staincliffe

LettersToMyDaughtersKillerStaincliffeAudioCath Staincliffe is fast becoming one of my favourite crime writers who don’t write crime fiction. At least not the traditional kind. If there is a common theme to those of her books that I’ve read (which do not include any of her series-based novels) it is that crimes themselves are not nearly as interesting as their impact. On victims. On perpetrators. On witnesses. Or, as in this case, on a loved one left behind struggling to come to grips with sudden, senseless loss.

As suggested by its title this book offers a series of letters from Ruth Sutton to the person who murdered her adult daughter Lizzie. And just in case you’re under some illusion that these letters are part of some forgiving catharsis for someone who manages to rise above it all let me tell you that the first letter opens with the words “I hate you” and the book doesn’t let up from that moment. As well as telling us the circumstances of Lizzie’s murder and giving us a first-hand account of the subsequent investigation and trial, Ruth’s letters reveal she is consumed by the grief and hatred that the killer’s actions have resulted in.

Before the murder Ruth is entirely normal. Just like us. Divorced. A grandmother. A librarian. An allotment gardener. But when she becomes the mother of a murder victim it is as if she ceases to be anything else. Having listened to the audio version of the book superbly narrated by Julia Franklin I feel like I really was inside Ruth’s head and completely understood her debilitating anger, her misplaced but completely realistic guilt, her lack of willingness to forgive. How could it be any other way? Who are these buffoons who talk of moving on?

The book also offers genuine insight into a subject that needs to be exposed with as much sunlight as we can collectively muster but I shall so no more about that here (I’m still contemplating a further discussion of this novel with clearly labelled spoiler warnings).

LETTERS TO MY DAUGHTER’S KILLER was a tough read for me and I’m not a mother. I imagine if you are, or if you have had some personal experience of the kind of circumstances that surround Lizzie’s murder the book would be doubly harrowing. Still I can’t help but recommend it. Staincliffe is a terrific writer and bringer-to-life of real human beings.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

An earlier novel of Cath Staincliffe’s, SPLIT SECOND, remains one of my very favourite novels of recent years.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Julia Franklin
Publisher Soundings [2014]
ASIN B00KX8E6EU
Length 7 hours 11 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone

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Review: CLAUSTROPHOBIA by Tracy Ryan

ClaustrophobiaRyanFrontDespite its repeated references to the novels of Patricia Highsmith, Agatha Christie and Georges Simenon I wouldn’t call CLAUSTROPHOBIA crime fiction and not just because I set myself a personal challenge to read outside my comfort zone a little more this year and am keen to allocate some reading to a column other than crime. Whatever you call it though CLAUSTROPHOBIA is a rather delicious novel.

It is the story of Pen (not Penny or Penelope) and Derrick Barber. A young couple living in Perth, Western Australia who both work at a private school for boys. Derrick is a teacher, Pen works in administration. Children have not happened for the couple and they have decided to renovate their house in response. Extra bedrooms will not be needed: better to remove them than leave a constant reminder of what might have been. But in the clean up Pen finds a letter that Derrick had written to an old lover which makes her re-think their entire relationship.

I know it’s against the rules but I chose this book because of its cover. I’ve been on a bit of a Mad Men binge lately and the cover reminded me of Betty, one of the key characters from the series. This book is set in modern Australia rather than 1960’s New York but even now that I’ve read it there are actually more similarities between the two women than this single image. They are both in need of something more than being defined by their husbands, though neither of them really understands this or is prepared for the consequences of breaking out.

In addition to living up to the promise of its cover, this novel also embodies its title. The first way it does this is with its limited cast of characters. There are really only three people who have any tangible impact on events and that gives the story its overall claustrophobic sensibility. It is a tight, cloying little world into which the reader is drawn. Relying on so few people can be a risky move but Ryan has made it work well; there is never any sense that something is missing.

Pen, from whose perspective the story unfolds, is living a pretty claustrophobic existence too. In the beginning she is almost entirely defined by her relationship with her husband whom she saw as a means to lift herself out of a life – an upbringing – she did not like. But when she embarks on her…adventure…she is almost immediately drawn into another relationship that soon develops a smothering sensibility. And after the final drama has taken place and Pen realises that she has tied herself inextricably to the whims of another human being I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for her plight, even though I wasn’t overly fond of Pen and had gritted my teeth at some of her choices.

It is a book full of tension and the reader is never lulled with any sense that things will resolve in a certain way. We mistrust everyone, question their motives, their reliability, their veracity. It’s quite a ride. If I were giving points I’d allocate extra for the novel’s length: it is a rare delight to read a complete story told in under 300 pages these days. I recommend this one

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

aww-badge-2015This is the fourth novel I’ve read and reviewed for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Transit Lounge [2014]
ISBN 9781921924729
Length 238 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

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Is 500+ pages ever the right number?

A recent post by an incognito publisher asks us to name a book with more than 500 pages that sustains the reader’s interest for its entire length. Despite my oft-repeated grizzling about the length of books I didn’t think it would be that hard to find one.

The task proved more difficult than I thought not least because I don’t always know how many pages books have. Anything I’ve read within the last 10 years or have owned a copy of – however briefly – within that same time period appears in my database (yes I am nerdy enough to have a database and be cross that it didn’t exist earlier in my life) but I haven’t always noted the page count and for anything read before that I’m using pure guesswork. And of course I read a lot in audio format which doesn’t neatly equate to page counts.

Mechanics aside though it’s still a bloody difficult task.

I always say Stephen King’s THE STAND is one of my favourite books of all time (though I haven’t re-read it for 25 years) despite my belief that if it lost half its page count it would only gain in quality. And that was before King released his Author’s Cut version in which when famous enough to do so he released a version of the novel containing the 400-odd pages his publishers made him take out first time around. That is the precise moment I lost interest in reading Mr King’s work. Talented storyteller he may be but THE STAND was not improved by the addition of 20 highly repetitive pages depicting a schizophrenic pyromaniac mumbling to himself and lighting more fires. Nor by any of its other additions.

I read an enjoyed all three of the Stieg Larsson trilogy installments but all of them could easily have survived with 100+ fewer pages and I recall even suggesting which pages could be cut from THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.

I liked Tana French’s IN THE WOODS but its ponderous length (my version was 608 pages) has put me off reading any more of her books despite owning two of them. Every time I look at them on my TBR shelves I groan at the thought of such length and choose something different to read.

I also liked Jo Nesbo’s THE REDBREAST but could easily have done without all the flashbacks to wartime in the trenches (the repetition was unnecessary) and, as with French, I am put off reading more of his novels because they make it seem like the author is paid by the word.

I’m guessing that Elizabeth George’s CARELESS IN RED is a brick in physical form because it is the second longest of any audio book in my library. Here’s how I opened my review “I struggled through this book primarily because of its length. At 23 hours and 15 minutes it’s a lot longer than the average audio book which in itself wouldn’t be a bad thing but there is not 23 hours and 15 minutes worth of story to be told“. ‘Nuff said. For the record the longest audio book in my library is Anthony Trollope’s CAN YOU FORGIVE HER at 28 hours and 7 minutes. Of course that is way too long also but from memory I bought it specifically because of its length to consume on some long-haul flights.

Some possible winners?

Ariana Franklin’s MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH is eligible for consideration and in my review I said “Although it runs to 502 pages I gobbled up this book in a couple of settings“. I don’t remember any feelings that fewer pages would have made a better reading experience in this instance. I rated Liza Marklund’s RED WOLF (508 pages) and Christos’ Tsiolkas’ BARRACUDA (513 pages) both very highly too and similarly don’t recall any sense that less would have been more on either occasion.

Overall though I can’t vehemently disagree with Agatho’s premise. For me at least 500+ pages is almost always too long.

Whenever I think about book length I am reminded of my favourite history tutor whose first assignment was for us to write a 2000 word essay. After we had all dutifully submitted them he gave us our second assignment: to answer the exact same question but in half the words. I can remember hating him for a while but that assignment, and the others he set that creatively taught us to say more with less, have proven invaluable over the years. I often wish more writers had been taught the same lesson.

What about you? Any thoughts on book length as it pertains to quality? Do you actively avoid books with a high page count? Or do you love them?

 

#1955Book – Alan Hunter’s GENTLY DOES IT

I don’t think I’d ever heard of George Gently until the modern television series starring Martin Shaw in the title role started airing here and though I have warmed to the shows a little they didn’t make me want to rush for the source material. However I had some trouble finding a book first published in 1955 for this month’s classics challenge hosted by Past Offences so when I saw this title, which everyone agreed was definitely published in the right year, available cheaply as an eBook from an Australian store I grabbed it.

GentlyDoesItAlanHunter23308_fGENTLY DOES IT is the first of 48 novels to feature Inspector George Gently: a murder specialist from Central Office CID on holiday in Norchester for this novel. When he reads in the paper of the murder of a prominent local citizen he offers to help with the investigation. Initially his assistance is welcomed by the local constabulary but when it appears the case will be easily solved the locals are keen to remove Gently from proceedings. But Gently, believing in the innocence of the man local police suspect, refuses to be budged.

Perhaps low expectations are a good way to begin any reading experience because I did enjoy the book more than I thought I might, mostly due to the writing. Hunter, an antiquarian bookseller by trade, clearly loves language. Even his use of an adverb, and one not immediately associated with policing, for his protagonist’s surname indicates his love of wordplay. There’s a mild wit pervading the entire novel and the dialogue in particular is often delightful.

As far as introductions to a central character go however there’s something of a scarcity of information. We glean that he’s at least middle-aged, possibly older (in fact I would have thought much older if I hadn’t known there are so many books to come so perhaps he is one of those lucky fictional characters who don’t age at the same pace as the rest of us). He’s experienced and good at his job though quite modest, often attributing his deductive powers and sound reasoning to luck rather than the intelligence it so obviously is. But there is not a word about his personal life, other than a professed liking for fishing and an addiction to peppermint creams, or any details of the years that led to his present circumstances. With respect to looks Hunter gives us precious little to go on bar a throwaway remark that he’s not tall enough to enjoy the terraces at a football match so, inevitability, to me Inspector Gently looks a lot like Martin Shaw.

Via a Gentle Reminder To the Reader – which appears at the beginning of the novel – Alan Hunter tells us exactly what kind of story he thinks this is

This is a detective story, but not a ‘whodunnit’. Its aim is to give a picture of a police investigator slowly building up his knowledge of a crime to a point, not where he knows who did it – both you and he know that at a fairly early stage – but to a point where he can bring a charge which will convince a jury.

I thought it worth mentioning this. I hate being criticized for not doing what I had no intention of doing.

I might argue with him on whether or not it is a whodunnit (as the culprit is not revealed until about 3/4 of the way to the end) but even if it isn’t strictly a whodunnit you’d be hard-pressed to find a more traditional sort of mystery story. It closely follows the style of the Golden Age writers though I suppose it’s a bit too new to officially be classified as such. But other than the absence of a sidekick most of the conventions of the classic mystery are in evidence and well executed.

I don’t mind dabbling at the lighter/cosier end of the crime fiction spectrum (it was welcome in this instance as I’d read three or four particularly harrowing books in a row) but when I do I generally prefer there to be something in addition to the puzzling element of the stories. I follow one of Julie Hyzy’s series because of its setting amidst the goings-on of the White House kitchens for example. Alternatively I like re-visiting great characters who feel like old friends (M. Poirot springs to mind). But while Gently is likeable enough he’s not among the more memorable crime-fighting protagonists I’ve met and nor am I lured by yet another series set in Midsomer-like England.

I fear it’s damning with faint praise but I do think that if you like the classic British whodunnit-cum-procedural style of book then you could do a lot worse than GENTLY DOES IT. The writing is terrific and if it doesn’t leave you rolling on the floor with laughter you’ll at least have a smile on your face for a good portion of your reading time. A word of warning to fans of the TV series though: as far as I can see there is nothing other than the name of the main character that indicates one is the source material for the other though perhaps the later books have more in common with the series (which is set at least a decade or so later than this first novel).