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

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#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

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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?

Review: THE FEW by Nadia Dalbuono

TheFewDalbuonoFrontTHE FEW opens with a Roman detective being asked to look into the death of a young man. He’s not officially assigned to the investigation but the request is on behalf of someone important so Detective Leone Scamarcio inserts himself into things as best as he can. But it’s not long before that investigation languishes – or is set aside at any rate – and the same detective is sent to the island of Elba to look into the disappearance of a child. Most of the novel’s disparate elements eventually get wrangled into a coherent story but there are dangly bits left hanging so it’s not the book for readers who disapprove of loose ends.

Just as I have a kind of unofficial list of things almost guaranteed to make my reading heart swoon, there’s a corresponding list of things that can be relied on to raise my hackles and make me think worse of a book than I otherwise might. One of these is an overabundance of hinting around the edges of things and I’m afraid THE FEW had rather a lot of this going on. For example we learn early on that our protagonist is the son of a mafioso and that “something” happened a year earlier that made Scamarcio’s colleagues look askance at him. The “something” is mentioned multiple times and is clearly defining Scamarcio’s thinking and behaviour but I’d just about given up caring to know what it was by the time we are fed more information. This kind of teasing bores me.

Leone Scarmacio is an interesting character though. The mere fact that someone has turned his back on the family business in a public way is intriguing but he is still struggling with that decision and at least once turns to his old connections for something that official channels can’t provide. The requisite (for a fictional cop) personal demons are a bit different than usual (his drug of choice for example is weed rather than alcohol) and there is potential there for him to become a compelling series star.

For me THE FEW has fallen prey to the tendency for debut novels to cram too much story in between the covers. This is understandable but still annoying and I guess it remains to be seen if the author can reign this in for future installments. Still there are things to like. The author – who is English but has spent time living in Italy – did a good job of depicting the setting (though Scarmacio’s English is peppered with very British slang which jars with someone who learned the language living in the US) and I did enjoy meeting Scarmacio. But ultimately the book was pretty superficial in its handling of any themes it touched upon. Power corrupts. Italian politics is ****ed. You get the idea. Perhaps it was trying to straddle the boundary between outright thriller and something with more of a social commentary but, for me at least, it didn’t fully succeed on either front. I’m undecided about whether or not I will make the effort to catch up with Leone Scarmacio again but if pressed for a decision right now I’d probably say no.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Scribe [2014]
ISBN/ASIN 9781925106121
Length 336 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #1 in the Leone Scamarcio series

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Review: THE HUNTING DOGS by Jorn Lier Horst

TheHuntingDogsHorstThe third novel (which has been translated into English) to feature senior Norwegian policeman William Wisting is, at least on one level, a standard procedural novel with two murder investigations playing out. The first of these is a high-profile murder case Wisting thought he solved 17 years earlier. But a lawyer acting for the man convicted of the crime is able to demonstrate that evidence against his client was fabricated. Wisting is castigated in the national media and immediately suspended from duty, though not before he manages to ‘borrow’ the archived case notes so that he can review the investigation himself. The second investigation is the present-day murder of a middle-aged man that Wisting’s daughter Line, a journalist, becomes involved with.

The idea of the police getting it wrong – either through incompetence or deliberate malice – is pretty bloody terrifying so stories in which such scenarios play out are always compelling. What makes THE HUNTING DOGS stand out is the way the book shows us how such things might happen even when the person leading the investigative team is an ethical man. Horst really does a great job teasing out this theme across the whole novel in which mounting pressure from all sides as well as their own personal demons force investigators to behave like the hunting dogs of the novel’s title. At one point he allows Wisting, now experiencing what it feels like to be interrogated rather than to be the one asking the questions, to observe

Before the law [people] were innocent until the opposite had been proven. As far as investigators were concerned though, it was the opposite. The starting point for them was that the person in the chair was guilty. To solve a case, it was crucial to believe that, to have a firm belief that the person facing you had done what he was charged with…It was like a sports contest. If you did not believe, and believe that the game was worth winning, you lost.

Perhaps this concept should be obvious to someone who has read as much crime fiction as I have but I don’t think I’ve ever really encountered it as thoughtfully depicted as it is in this novel. I especially admire the even-handed way Horst has explored the theme: not giving the police a pass (surely a temptation for a retired policeman) but also not heaping irrational criticism upon them.

The stories themselves are complicated but I found both threads easy enough to follow and enjoyed seeing the similarities and differences in approach taken by the journalist and the policeman. Though I couldn’t help wondering how much artistic license was taken when depicting the surveillance operation towards the end of the novel. I think with the media landscape being what it is these days most of our newspapers would struggle to come up with one chap on a moped for such an exercise, so to read of Line’s paper having 4 or 5 manned vehicles and other people on foot all able to give up many hours to follow one man did stretch the bounds of my credulity.

THE HUNTING DOGS is definitively in the investigator’s camp as far as perspectives are concerned. This is not one of those crime novels that offers a sense of things from the victim’s perspective or the culprit’s so there’s not a huge amount of character development. But Wisting is depicted quite thoughtfully. In addition to the soul searching he does professionally his personal life undergoes a metamorphosis when the issue of living with someone so consumed by their job comes under scrutiny.

My favourite kind of crime novels are the ones that explore interesting political or social themes in a way that makes me think and THE HUNTING DOGS is a winner on that front. Without once giving in to the temptation to lecture or be didactic Horst offers a thoughtful examination of policing and the plausibility of the right thing happening for the wrong reasons. These complex issues – where no person or group is all right or all wrong – are the shades of grey I like to read about and I’ll be eagerly awaiting more translations of this author’s work.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I’ve reviewed this novel’s predecessors, DREGS  and CLOSED FOR WINTER

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Anne Bruce
Publisher Sandstone Press [this translation 2014, original edition 2012]
ISBN 9781908737632
Length 323 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #8 in the William Wisting series (the third translated to English)

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Review: THE SILENCE OF THE SEA by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

TheSilenceOfTheSeaYrsa23616_fA luxury yacht crashes into Rekyavik Harbour one night without a soul on board and no immediate signs of foul play; the three-man crew and family of four who were travelling home from Portugal are just…gone. Lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is hired in desperation by an elderly couple who are looking after their toddler granddaughter. Their son, his wife and twin granddaughters were the family on board the boat and the grandparents need help accessing the family finances and retaining custody of – or at least access to – their remaining granddaughter. Thóra, like everyone else in the town, can’t help but get sucked into the mystery of what on earth could have happened to everyone. Interspersed with this unfolding storyline are chapters that take place on board the boat, before things went horribly awry.

If you head into this book without any expectation of a Larsson-esque Girl Who… book (i.e. ignore the moronic red splash on the cover) chances are you will not be disappointed by this creepy tale of things that go bump in the night at sea. Sigurdardottir does a great job of building the suspense from both ends and, as her books often do, incorporates just enough other-worldliness to ramp up the chill factor without making the storyline seem preposterous to those of us with a low tolerance for ‘woo woo’ elements. As a kind of floating locked-room mystery the plotting here is first rate and guaranteed to keep even seasoned genre fans guessing until the end.

As far as character development goes the novel is a little more prosaic. Thóra is her usual determined self, with a smattering of personal tribulations to deal with and needing to wrangle her office’s ever-useless receptionist, but series stalwarts won’t learn anything new about the heroine. Probably the most well-developed character is Ægir, the father who has taken his family aboard the ill-fated yacht on behalf of his company which is re-possessing it from its now bankrupt celebrity owners. It is from his point of view that half the narrative is revealed and his depiction as an increasingly confused and frightened father who wishes he could go back in time is a good one.

For my tastes this author’s previous novel was slightly superior to this one as I enjoyed the way it explored social themes more interestingly. Here I think that opportunity was largely missed as the potential subjects – such as the modern world’s obsession with celebrity and the fallout from the global financial crisis – were largely ignored. However it’s a top notch plot-driven novel and scores high marks for its chill factor.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I have reviewed all but one of this novel’s predecessors including LAST RITUALS (#1),  MY SOUL TO TAKE (#2), ASHES TO DUST (#3, a mini review) and SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME (#5)

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Victoria Cribb
Publisher Hodder & Stoughton [2014]
ISBN 9781444734461
Length 420 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #6 in the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series

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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).

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

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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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