Books of the month: March 2015

Pick of the month

AutumnAllTheCatsReturnGeorgetBoth the quality and quantity of my reading slipped a bit during March, primarily for workload reasons. That pesky day job really does get in the way of a good hobby. Still difficult to pick a favourite though. Intellectually I suspect I should go with the Eva Dolan book which appears in the list below but my heart belongs to AUTUMN ALL THE CATS RETURN by Philippe Georget. There is something intangibly wonderful about it that sets it apart for me. I know it’s counter intuitive for a die-hard crime reader like myself to say so, but I think what I like is that it doesn’t read much like any of the generally accepted sub-genres but is still recognisably a crime novel.

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

I read another two books that failed to generate enough interest for me to write a review. The fourth book in Jussi-Adler Olsen’s Department Q series, GUILT, is a meandering affair in which the bones of a decent story got lost amidst the clutter. Rachel Amphlett’s LOOK CLOSER is a thriller in the ordinary-man-caught-in-a-nightmare tradition. I didn’t hate it but I stared at a blank screen for about an hour before abandoning the attempt to produce a review. Meh would sum up both of these for me.

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 13/10
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 3/6

I need to pick up the pace on my Reading US Fiction challenge. I’ve got a few possibles on hold at the library so hopefully they’ll start trickling in. My reading of non-crime books is not progressing all that well either. Must try harder. There have been several temptations to purchase books from non-Australian stores but so far I have resisted. If the book selling industry in Australia does collapse they won’t be able to blame me :)

 Looking ahead

I’ve got a non fiction book to read over the next couple of weeks. A SHORT HISTORY OF STUPID by two Australian news columnists. I read their columns often and regularly disagree with both of them but was so surprised to see them as joint authors of a book that I brought it home from the library for a look see. On the crime front I’m about to embark on a 50 year old Australian novel that was never published until this year. And then I’m hoping to get stuck into the shortlist for this year’s Petrona Award.

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

Review: AUTUMN ALL THE CATS RETURN by Philippe Georget

AutumnAllTheCatsReturnGeorgetAlthough I don’t really think AUTUMN ALL THE CATS RETURN can comfortably wear the trendy (but misplaced) noir label adorning its cover, there is a noir-ish fatalism to its lead character. Gilles Sebag, a detective with the Perpignan police on Southern France, is jaded. This passage is from the beginning of the book

The last few years, he’d found his work disagreeable. The routine, the violence, the lack of internal recognition, the citizens’ scorn. You had to put up with all that, and for what? When he’d enlisted in the police force, he’d imagined he’d be a kind of physician for a sick society. It took him a while to understand that he was no more than a minor nurse doomed to dress suppurating wounds with outdated ointments. Criminality would never stop, it couldn’t stop, it was part of human nature. The most you could hope to do was bring down the fever a little. But no one had yet invented a reliable thermometer.

And this one from near the end, after the case is wrapped up

A heavy melancholy was numbing his body and his mind. For each investigation, how many lives were broken, how many bodies lay in the cemetery, and how many souls were locked up behind four damp walls in a prison? And how many wounded hears were there among the survivors?

If those passages don’t resonate with you on some level then this book probably isn’t for you. But if they do…if they make you want to learn more about the man pondering those thoughts and the world in which he lives then I highly recommend AUTUMN ALL THE CATS RETURN.

It is the follow up to the delightful SUMMERTIME, ALL THE CATS ARE BORED and it shares something of the first book’s sensibilities. Its setting, a small-ish town in southern France, is vividly brought to life and is a far cry from the gritty urban streets beloved by so many crime writers. But this book is darker than its predecessor, perhaps because it doesn’t take place at the height of summer? If there is a winter book will it be even more grim?

The case at its centre manages to be fascinating despite the fact there isn’t a huge amount of suspense associated with it. An elderly man is killed in his apartment and the letters scrawled on one of his walls suggest to police that the murder might have something to do with the Algerian War of Independence in which, during the 1950’s and early 60’s, Algeria gained its independence from France after an often bloody conflict. Gilles Sebag and his colleagues must investigate within the community of ex-pat French Algerians, known as the Pieds-noirs, many of whom are still grieving the loss associated with being forced from the country of their birth. I’ll admit upfront my level of knowledge of this particular war and its aftermath prior to reading this book was hovering at zero but even so I felt the depictions were credible. Like displaced peoples the world over, some come to terms with their new circumstances while others allow their resentments to flourish and we meet a range of these characters as the story unfolds. Via some well-placed flashbacks we also gain a small insight into the events of the war and a particular group of underground guerrilla fighters.

The book is a long one at 430 pages but, rarely for me, I didn’t find myself wishing someone had taken to it with a red pen. I enjoyed the depictions of the sometimes dull but always necessary police work, not all of which pans out of course. These are interspersed with snippets from Sebag’s home life which is basically sound, despite the fact he believes his wife has recently had an affair and he wrestles internally over whether or not to have her confirm it. At the beginning of the novel a friend of his teenage daughter is killed in an accident and I thought the way in which she asks her father, ‘the hero’, to look into the case very touching. Matched by his desire to live up to his daughter’s expectations of him.

Although he is in many ways not a traditional crime fiction protagonist I find myself feeling quite affectionately towards Gilles Sebag and I have truly enjoyed immersing myself in this latest, languid adventure.  If you like your crime fiction a little out of the ordinary I really do recommend this one and think you could easily pick it up without having read the first novel of the series (though I bet you’ll want to afterwards if you don’t do it beforehand).

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I reviewed the first novel in this series, SUMMERTIME, ALL THE CATS ARE BORED , last year

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Lisa Neal and Steven Rendall
Publisher Europa [2014]
ISBN 9781609452261
Length 430 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #2 in the Gilles Sebag series

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Book vs Adaptation: Twice Shy by Dick Francis

The book

TwiceShyCoverTWICE SHY is the 20th of Francis’ novels and was published in 1981. Following what was by then a tried and true formula it is a fast-paced story of decent chaps up against unscrupulous ones and, as always, there is horse racing at its heart.

In this case the book is broken into two distinct parts. In the first half, physics teacher and former Olympic-level sharp-shooter Jonathan Derry is unwittingly drawn into a battle with a family of violent thugs. A friend of Jonathan’s has been asked to create a computerised gambling system from the notes and ideas of an elderly man who has made a living as a professional gambler. Although he does indeed design the program Jonathan’s friend doesn’t hand it over to the people who wanted it which leads to Jonathan’s involvement and some elaborate attempts to outwit the thugs. The second half of the book takes place 14 years later and Jonathan’s younger brother William, a former jockey and current manager for a wealthy American racing enthusiast, is the main character though the aforementioned computer system is still at the centre of the action.

As is always the case Francis’ research is expertly woven into the story so the early 80’s computing world is depicted well. Though talented in many arenas unfortunately Francis was devoid of predictive powers so the second half of the story – set in Francis’ future – was not quite as successful as technology moved on far more quickly than he could have anticipated. In fact the second half of the novel in its entirety is not, for me, as successful as the first as even the behaviour of the good guys stretches the bounds of credibility to (beyond?) breaking point.

The heart of this story though is an exploration of what happens when people want something so badly it physically hurts but, for some reason beyond their control, they can’t have it. Francis depicts both potential solutions to this problem, either you learn to live with not being able to have the thing or you let your thwarted desires destroy you, thereby making the book more thought provoking than it might first appear. For that reason I rather like it but I’m not sure I’d have earmarked it as ripe for adaptation. Even if I’d been going to do a better job than the people who made TWICE SHY the telemovie.

The adaptation

DickFrancisMysteriesTwice13095_fI doubt that even if you planned to do so meticulously you could make adaptations that are as horribly, excruciatingly bad as the makers of three television movies branded as the Dick Francis Mysteries managed to do. The second of the three movies is, ostensibly, based on TWICE SHY but other than the fact both revolve around a computer system there’s not a great deal of similarity.

The first problem one would encounter in adapting the highly popular and successful Francis canon is that they are, for the most part, standalone novels and therefore do not offer the much-loved central character around whom a TV series might be built. Those responsible for this televisual dreck got around this problem by creating an entirely new character (at least he is not based on any of the protagonists of the three novels chosen for this series of adaptations though I can’t be certain the name is not from one of the other 40-odd novels) called David Cleveland and inserting him willy nilly into three random stories. He apparently works for the British Jockey Club as some kind of security consultant (but only briefly in the third movie actually does any work for his employer) and is not really much like a traditional Francis hero. Where they are usually moral, intelligent and highly skilled at something interesting this character is sleazy, gives no evidence of any particular skills (even his fist-fighting is rubbish) and is more smartarse than smart. Ian McShane probably did the best he could with the script but the performance just made me cringe as his Cleveland spent more time making goo goo eyes at women than doing any kind of detecting or using his innate skills to right wrongs.

A farcical TV villain

A farcical TV villain

By their nature such stories as Francis writes are a bit corny and formulaic but, as the makers of the never-ending Midsomer Murders will attest, if you use decent actors, scriptwriters and so on you can end up with an entertaining product even if it is not a particularly deep or meaningful one. Alas the joint Irish/Canadian production of these horrors apparently didn’t have a large enough budget for any kind of quality resources. TWICE SHY the movie doesn’t have two parts (thereby negating entirely the meaning of the title) and the one part it does have is a farce. The narrative, bearing little resemblance to its source material, jumps around incoherently but viewers are distracted from the giant plot holes by the laughable quality of the filming and the over-the-top acting. Was shooting through transparent matter considered avant-garde in 1989? Because at least a third of the shots here are through car windows or raindrops or via reflections from computer screens so a lot of the action is quite fuzzy (perhaps I should be grateful). And then there is the main villain. He looks and behaves as preposterously as I hope this photo (taken from a screen grab) demonstrates. There is no earthly reason why he is wearing these goggles – they are neither mentioned nor explained and they only appear in the one scene. The rest of the movie makes about as much sense as the brief appearance of this preposterous eye ware.

Presumably the target (indeed only) audience for something entitled Dick Francis Mysteries is the legion of fans of Dick Francis’ work therefore, I would have thought, you’d want to at least have a go at making any adaptations vaguely similar to the books we know and love. But TWICE SHY the adaptation seems to have been made by people whose only connection to the source material is having heard about a Dick Francis novel from their grandmother’s next-door neighbour.

It is, in short, utter pants.

The winner?

You can’t possibly be in any doubt.

If you should happen to notice these movies going cheap at your local purveyor of such goods (as I did) don’t be tempted. If you are, don’t come crying to me. You’ve been warned.

Have you read the book and/or seen the adaptation? Agree or disagree with me? Have I missed something vital?

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Review: LONG WAY HOME by Eva Dolan

LongWayHomeEvaDolan23416_fLONG WAY HOME is one of those crime novels that should be pressed eagerly upon snobs who think only ‘real literature’ can address topical issues of the day with intelligence and insight. Because although its backbone is a police procedural story, the real meat is its exploration of our modern world’s ability to treat entire populations as though they are virtually invisible.

After a prologue in which a man is running for his life the main story opens with police being called to the scene of a small fire in Peterborough, a mid-size UK town where lots of people are doing it tough following the global financial crisis. Someone’s back yard shed has burned down and a charred body is discovered. They soon learn that there was a man – an Eastern European migrant worker – who had been dossing down in the shed, much to the aggravation of the home’s owners. Did the Barlow’s torch their own shed to get rid of the man? Or does this case connect to the area’s wider issues concerning migrant workers?

Due to the nature of the case it is being handled by the town’s small Hate Crimes Unit which is headed by DI Zigic, a second generation immigrant. He and his sergeant, Ferreira who migrated with her family to the UK from Portugal when she was seven, have minimal support from their colleagues in the more traditional parts of the police force. But despite this and the troubles they have in getting people from the local immigrant communities to talk to them they do uncover some truly shocking activities going on in their town.

The story than unfolds will knock your socks off. Partly because of its bare brutality and partly because of its credibility. Even before I had read the author’s account of what led to her writing the book I never for a moment considered that what was being depicted here – the systematic abuse of migrant workers – was entirely made up. It had too much truthiness about it. Dolan depicts a world in which the value of a human life – of some human lives anyway – can be practically zero in the ‘right’ circumstances. It is chillingly depressing.

The characterisations were a bit sparse but basically sound with DI Zigic being, for me, the more interesting of the two detectives. I thought DS Ferreira had a bit too big a chip on her shoulder to be really engaging. She gave the impression that everyone she met who wasn’t a migrant was a racist and that grated after a while. But Zigic seems more well-rounded, even though he does grapple with direct racism from his wife’s family.

While I liked what was in the book I was a bit disappointed by what wasn’t there, though I do acknowledge that I should only be reviewing the book that exists not the book I wish existed. But even so the book basically sidesteps entirely the complex social and economic issues that exist in these kinds of communities; those where people already on the fringes are desperate for someone to blame for their grim circumstances. It’s not as simple as everyone being a racist. Surely. And given that I’m really uncomfortable with the modern notion of hate crimes (punishing people for their thoughts was abhorrent to me when I read 1984 and it’s abhorrent to me now) I would have enjoyed seeing the novel explore some of the nuances of the issue of the existence of the Hate Crimes Unit rather than just imply that anyone opposed to it was probably a racist.

Overall though LONG WAY HOME is a great debut novel that could easily appeal to those who generally shun crime genre fiction. It is a very modern story that sings with credibility and does – or should – make us each consider what is going on out of sight in our respective communities. And ponder what we would do about it if we did discover such goings on.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Harvill Secker [2014]
ISBN 9781846557798
Length 392 pages
Format hardcover
Book Series #1 in the Zigic and Ferreira series

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#1967Book – Ruth Rendell’s A NEW LEASE OF DEATH

I rather glibly suggested 1967 for this month’s Past Offences classics challenge because it is the year of my birth. The disconcerting aspect of having books written the year I was born considered classics didn’t hit me until later. Eh gads but this ageing business is forcing me to confront some horrible truths.

ANewLeaseOfDeathRendellAudioTo be honest an Inspector Wexford novel would not have been my first choice for the challenge. Indeed it was somewhere around my 9th choice. I have written before of my disdain for Wexford because he came into my life when he was a BOWG (boring old white guy) and I was an idealistic young feminist (undoubtedly also boring as zealots generally are). But I don’t own very many classics, there are no second hand bookstores with shelves full of choices ’round here and my local library isn’t exactly replete with 47 year old crime novels. A NEW LEASE OF DEATH (or SINS OF THE FATHER as it is known in the US) was published in the year I was born (at least in the UK) and I could dig up an audiobook copy without incurring any expense.

My one line review is that reading it has not changed my opinion about Wexford. It takes a few more lines for me to have a bit of a rant.

The book’s central premise is that there is a young man (Charles) who wants to marry a young woman (Tess) but Charles’ father (Henry Archery, a vicar) can’t condone the union. Why? Because Tess’ father (Harry Painter) was convicted and hanged for battering his elderly employer to death with an axe some 16 years earlier and he doesn’t want his son marrying a murderer’s daughter. The case was the first one Chief Inspector Wexford had run on his own so Archery approaches him with a plea. A hope really that he has “… just the faintest doubt, the shadow of a doubt of Painter’s guilt.” Wexford remains convinced of Painter’s guilt but is happy enough to give permission (is it needed?) for Archery to conduct a bit of amateur sleuthing.

A NEW LEASE OF DEATH feels much older than 47 years though I do acknowledge that this might be because I’m finding it hard to come to grips with the notion that the attitudes it depicts coincide with my own lifespan. I concur with my fellow blogger who has already wasted her time read this book for the monthly challenge that for a vicar Henry Archery is a very un-Christian chap. He has this to say about Tess

“[she] is just what I would have chosen for him myself. Beautiful, graceful, well-mannered, easy to talk to. Oh she does her best to hide her looks in the uniform they all wear nowadays; long, shaggy hair, trousers, great black duffle-coat, you know the kind of thing, but they all dress like that. The point is she can’t hide them.”

But even so, proclaims

“I’m not in favour of the marriage. No, that’s putting it too coolly….I’m bitterly, bitterly against it”

Wexford asks

“What are you afraid of Mr Archery?”
“Heredity…I shall watch [my grandchildren] from their cradle. Waiting to see them drawn towards objects with sharp edges.”

Eh gads again.

The vicar is not the only one who assumes that criminals beget criminals. Wexford hadn’t given Painter’s daughter a single thought since the case was wrapped up but if he had “…he supposed he would have counted her lucky to have become an anonymous manual worker, with perhaps already a couple of petty convictions” rather than the Oxford scholar she has actually become. Even Tess concurs with the vicar, saying “It would matter if he had done it only he didn’t. I told you why he was hanged. I didn’t mean he’d done it”. Young Charles is the only one I have any time for when he pronounces “People are what they are not what their parents did” but he’s a lone voice in the wilderness here.

This isn’t the only jarring note of the novel. There’s the soppiest of romantic angles. Not the one between Charles and Tess, which is perfectly fine, but the one between the vicar and a woman he meets while sleuthing. I can’t decide whether it is pathetic or sad or completely unbelievable. All three?

Then there’s the fact there is no mystery to speak of. Maybe 1967 readers weren’t as well versed in the twists that might accompany a whodunnit but I thought the resolution screamingly bloody obvious early on. It was like being at a children’s panto where no one was shouting “he’s behind you” but everyone should have been. And even if I hadn’t cottoned on to the twist I would have been bored by the storyline. The sleuthing, such as it is, is very insignificant stuff.

The characters are dull too. Wexford pontificates, his offsider Mike Burden looks down his nose and Archery mopes forlornly and investigates ineffectively. But Tess’ mum takes the cake. She’s not at all proud of the fact her daughter’s made it to Oxford but wants her future husband to know the girl can cook well. Eh gads yet again! This is the year the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper, Barclay’s Bank installed the world’s first ATM, homosexuality was decriminalised in England and abortion was made legal. This is the modern bloody world people and Tess’ bloody mother is only interested in whether her daughter can cook! Eh gads (for the last time, I promise)!

This entire storyline with its pompous people and impossibly stuffy dialogue would have been at home in the middle of an Anthony Trollope novel which is all well and good for a family saga of 1867 but a bit worrying in something from a hundred years later. Is the gulf between now and 1967 that great? Or is it more to do with differences between Australia and the UK? Here it’s a bit difficult to be opposed to the children of criminals given how white settlement of the country began, so perhaps this is just one of those geographical oddities that make the world so interesting (and me so grateful to have been born when and where I was)?

I’d hate anyone to think my lack of enjoyment of the book is an indication of a lack of enjoyment of the challenge at Past Offences where every month a new year is selected and people read books or watch movies from that year. It’s jolly good fun and for those of us more used to modern times it offers a great way to check out some of the genre’s classics. Why not join in?

Review: TALKING TO THE DEAD by Harry Bingham

Talking To The Dead - Bingham,16794fI’m not normally a huge fan of the crime novel in which the detective (be they professional or amateur) is so much a part of the story as to make the crimes – and more importantly the victims – fade into insignificance. But Fiona (Fi) Griffiths offers an engaging and unique voice amongst crime solvers and although TALKING TO THE DEAD really was her story more than it was the story of any of its victims the book didn’t have the same egotism that the more traditional of these kinds of stories suffer from. A combination of Fi’s self-deprecating sense of humour and her genuine feeling for the victims she comes across sets her apart.

As the book opens Fiona is engaged in what I imagine is the fairly realistic, if unexciting, police work of trawling through the paperwork connected with an embezzlement case. However her colleagues are soon working on a major case – the death of a woman, possibly a prostitute, and her six year old daughter. Fiona wangles herself onto that case in the first of what becomes a series of unorthodox activities.

Although I don’t think it’s always true that you have to like a character to enjoy a book I do think that in this case the reader would have to at least appreciate Fiona’s personality, especially as the story is told in a first-person narrative. Happily for me I rather adored her. She is in her mid 20’s, has a philosophy degree from Cambridge and is a relatively new Detective Constable. Although her father has a somewhat shady past she is the product of a loving family but a period of significant illness in her teens has left its mark so that the growing into an adult skin that we all have to do has some particular challenges for Fiona. All of this makes her fascinating but it was her humour and her grand gestures on behalf of victims that made me love her.

Although a bit of judicious editing could have simplified and shortened TALKING TO THE DEAD without taking away any key elements it is, overall, a cracker of a yarn as well as an engaging character study. Aside from the slightly over-the-top ending, the bulk of the policing has a ring of credibility about it with dead ends and boring slog being just as crucial as the dramatic moments. We also meet Fiona’s family and one or two of her friends so there’s always something going on.

I can’t remember whose review it was that prompted me to buy this book more than two years ago but I’m glad I plucked it from the TBR pile and will definitely be seeking out the second book of the series as I am intrigued to see what happens next to Fiona, who reminded me a little of one of my other favourite crime solving heroines, Ruth Galloway.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Orion [2012]
ISBN 9781409140870
Length 378 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #1 in the Fiona Griffiths series

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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]
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

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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.

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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.

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

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