Dry as bones…

Feeling like a bit of dark crime fiction but slightly over Nordic noir? I have found the DryAntipodean antidote: The Dry by Jane Harper is a really good crime story set in the umpteenth year of Australia’s cruel and unusual drought. The sun is shining all the time, the air is shimmering with heat, the glare hurts your eyes and people are getting fed up. This debut is tightly plotted and compelling, I thought the characters were very believable, and I want to read her next one…

When a young man, the golden boy of his small rural town, breaks and kills his family and himself an already fragile calm is shattered. When the funeral brings a face from the past back to town things and people start to come unstuck as old mysteries are revisited, wounds reopened and secrets revealed.
Harper captures the long-held tensions of life in a small town where everyone pretty much knows everything but no-one speaks about any of it, layered with the merciless drought which threatens lives and livelihoods. The drought hangs over the land and the people like a magnifying glass over ants and the dust covers everything.

So very not Nordic then.

 

Life and death

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer is by Kate Summerscale who wrote the equally fascinating and much-awarded The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House.

Wicked Boy

In this book, Summerscale investigates the true tale of two brothers, Robert Coombes, thirteen and his twelve-year-old brother Nattie, who went on a spending spree in the hot London summer of 1895. They ate out, went to the cricket at Lord’s, and the theater, and pawned various household items. Their father, they said, had gone to sea, their mother had been called away to Liverpool; the boys were looking after themselves. Until an awful smell drifted from their small East End house and the whole creaky edifice of fantasy and lies came down with a thump. Summerscale’s tracing of what happens next is masterly – what she finds is surprising and unexpected. As in Suspicions, there is much that is Whicherunknown about motives but again, there are enough hints about family tensions, sibling loyalties and issues of protection and care to raise some really interesting questions. I like the way Summerscale raises the questions, suggest a possible answer or two but doesn’t try to be definitive or defend a theory, just lets the various versions of the facts (contemporary newspapers and court records providing rich pickings of these) float around with the probable and possible.
Fascinating reading, clever and careful research, clear and elegantly simple writing and a real-life ending that is oddly moving – this is an excellent read.

And I try hard not to talk about books that are not published yet, but can I just say, I finished an advance copy of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (due in June) last night, all 700+ pages of the life, death and times of two families from the late 1600s to 2013, and the timber they love and exploit. It starts with Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, two Frenchmen who go to work the great forests of New France in what becomes Canada. There are stunning passages about the New Zealand Kauri forests and I love the stark and beautiful cover. Her writing is so good, I am slightly jealous you have it ahead of you – do make sure you read it, I bet it will get a trophy case of prizes!

Barkskins1

 

Forward Thinking

The shop is full of people buying books for Christmas presents, an excellent way, we think, of investing one’s hard-earned money! Talk in the staff room, when not about the festive treats and goodies given to us by reps and customers and bookshop friends (thank you!), is all about what we each intend to read in our precious time off.

Leading the pack are the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend, Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and Story of the Lost Child. There are about 4 or 5 of us curious to see what all the fuss Ferrante1is about, what with all theFerrante2 good reviews, and having watched customers come in to buy the first one and come back a couple of days later to buy the rest so that they are all set and ready to go when they finish the first. One of the interesting things we have discussed is how it seems to appeal to pretty much everyone, there is no typical reader. Watching someone reading them is kind of intense and the message is very clear: leave me alone, I have to read this!Ferrante4
Sadly for us though, customers have been Ferrante3buying up all our stock so we can’t buy it until the New Year when more stock arrives… frustrating but something to look forward to, and our booksellers’ hearts are v. pleased so many of our customers will be able to enjoy it…

So I will keep re-reading my way through Sophie Hannah’s Culver Ted HughesValley mystery series. There are 9 books in all and they are some of the best psychological thrillers I’ve ever read. They are utterly engrossing and mystifying – Sophie Hannah would have won all those lateral thinking quizzes at school – and very satisfying. Stuffed full of peculiar but ordinary people behaving strangely and with more than a touch of the gothics.
I also have the new Ted Hughes biography (Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate) to read – I woke in the House rising Sunnight and saw him staring one-eyed out from the cover in the gloom which was startling – and the new James Lee Burke, House of the Rising Sun. He is always lyrical and thought-provoking and I am really looking forward to Empire Cottonreading more of his beautiful writing.

My colleagues are planning on reading a wide range of books they’ve been saving for the break.
One is in the middle of Knausgaard’s fictional/biographical series so intenLittle Lifeds pushing forward with that and is also going to try and finish Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism  by Sven Beckert. Another has Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life lined up, along with Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light pbk.indd.

“everything and anything” by Isabel Allende is on another’s list – she hasn’t read any so wants to read them all, while one of our newest staffers is going to dive into The Kim Jong-Il Production: The
In
Brief Historycredible True Story of North Korea and the Most Audacious Kidnapping in History by Paul Fischer.
Tthis year’s Man Booker prize winner A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James is also on a couple of lists.

Whatever you are reading or planning to read, may your days be merry and bright and your books fabulous!

 

Ghouls, conspiracies and deaths: most appropriate Christmas-time reading

David Mitchell’s Slade House is an odd wee novella, featuring the exploits of two rogue soul-suckers. Rogue in the sense that they don’t follow the rituals and life-ways of the soul-suckers that appear in his other Slade Houseentertaining and brain-tickling books. Jonah and Norah are siblings who live in a house that appears only every nine years on a certain alley way in a small English market town. They entice suitable guests/victims/souls into the nasty house – the evocative creepiness factor is high – and then, well, suck their souls so that the pair can live forever, or at least the next nine years when they’ll require another top up. Clever, very creepy, oddly satisfying, a companion to The Bone Clocks (which features non-rogue, soul-sucker-rule-obeying soul-suckers) which we also liked. Mitchell has said “It’s almost a dessert if you’ve read The Bone Clocks, and a starter if you haven’t, and hopefully a standalone amuse-bouche if you’re not going to, which is fine.” Gob-smacking.

Need a touch of high Italian-farce, featuring great gobbets of conspiracy, and conspiracies about conspiracies, real and invented, leavened with some thoughts on the nature and purpose of journalism and newNumero Zerospapers (its set in 1992), all drenched in the clever whimsy of our favourite Milanese semiotician? Numero Zero, Umberto Eco’s latest novel is the one for you, chasing its tail around the suggestion that Mussolini wasn’t killed at the end of WWII but hived off to an Argentian hacienda to end his days in boredom and frustration. Or does it? Does Colonna, the journo working on the story believe all this or is he just pretending to, in order to create an entirely different conspiracy…

Iceland anyone? I do like the thrillers by UndesiredIcelandic writer Yrsa Sigurdardottir, who is a civil engineer when not concocting chilling and fascinating mysteries set in Iceland’s remarkable landscape. The Undesired investigates the strange deaths of two young men at an isolated farm, a sort of reform school, that occurred 30 years ago. What links do they have to the defenestration of a young mother today and what is her surviving daughter seeing, when she wakes in the night? There are several mysteries in this book and a couple of twists that you just do not see coming. Most excellent. When I’d finished I went and googled images of Iceland…

Chill

What a week of odd reading. It was mostly all good but didn’t have any sense of cohesiveness to it… These are my favourites.

(I have just come back here after writing to the bottom of the post. Scratch the comment above about cohesiveness: these are all slightly chilling, despite the often wonderful writing, full of perma-frosted Siberia, goulies and ghosties, death and its totems… if this is what I liked most this last week, I can see now that I just wasn’t in the mood to be amused by Bill Brysons’s latest jovial travel-writing outing The Road to Little Dribbling)

I kicked off with Kolymsky Heights, a thriller by Lionel Davidson which was first published in 1994 and has just been re-released. The publisher’s rep raved about it, and it has some big names on the cover shouting about how it is the best thriller EVER. And it was really good, all pre-digital spycrafty and ooh! look how much the satellites over the secret Russian science station can see! Which was sort of sweet but the very cool – think a Canadian multi-lingual, hyper-educated First-nations Jack Reacher/James Bond – hero copes admirably with all the challenges thrown his way, and the romance of the journey from Japan over the top of Russia through the rapidly icing Arctic Sea to Murmansk and beyond is fascinating. Very much worth a read, refreshing and fast-paced, and I didn’t really notice the devicelessness of the exercise until afterwards, in fact I think most devices (have you noticed this, the use if the word ‘device’ is now how writers refer to one’s personal technological , um, devices, so that they don’t date the story?) would be utterly useless.

Then I read the new collection of ghost stories from Head of Zeus, Ghost: 100 Stories to Read With the Light On, selected by Louise Welsh. Its a gorgeous big hardback and stuffed full of creepy, unseelie tales from Pliny the Younger through to Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro. I have to admit I ended up skipping the ones written in any version of Scots, mostly from around the 18th century, as it was just too hard to figure out the words and get the sense of the tale, and I felt silly muttering under my breath as I tried to decipher the sounds the marks on the page made. Fun to dip in and out of, and quite a few would make for excellent reading aloud.

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter is utterly remarkable, and so very sad. A woman dies suddenly, one of those everyday falls where you hit your head the wrong way and life is gone. Her two young sons and her Ted Hughes-scholar husband are devastated, almost stopped themselves. Then Crow arrives, black feathers shining, beak clacking, truth-telling and keening, to wrap them in his wings and chivvy the household through the dark times ahead. You should read it, you don’t know when you may need the book’s scratchy, beautiful, squawky creature. It is just new in, a lovely small hardback, we have put it on a table next to the new Hughes biography, where the poet stares out strongly at the world.  Hughes wrote Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, first published in 1970 by Faber & Faber, a collection of poems about the character Crow, which I haven’t read but now feel I must. I cannot wait to see what Max Porter does next.

Grief

Criminal Reads

Several crime writers have recently released new additions to their various series, here is a quick round up (click on the titles to get a blurb about the actual plot)….

Make Me, by Lee Child, is the 20th outing for righter of wrongs, the wandering Jack Reacher. It was very good, better than the last, Personal, I thought, and I quite liked that one. Over 20 books, some are not going to be as good as others, and some are going to be fantastic. In conversation with customers in the shop (when Reacher fans meet we are always surprised by the unliklihood of the other person liking Reacher, so we tend to rave a bit), people have really enjoyed the plot, the wrongs that have been righted, and particularly the opaqueness of the plot and what those wrongs might be. This sounds odd but it means that you experience the same puzzlement as Reacher about quite what is wrong, why things are slightly off with the people of the small town of Mothers Rest.  The further development of Reacher who is, like us all, aging, and is slightly more vulnerable than in the first 10 or 12 books is also interesting, and the female characters are as always strong, capable and kick-ass, only sidekicks to Reacher ‘cos everyone is a sidekick to Reacher.

Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny is another great addition to her Quebec-set Chief Inspector Gamache series. This series is clever, thoughtful and devastatingly psychologically acute. Penny has won almost every crime writing award available, deservedly. They are not psycho thrillers or full of gore but fascinating mysteries with a recurring cast of characters in a small village in the Quebec woods, this is number eleven. The motivations, fears and virtues of the villagers create the mysteries and aid in solving them. Penny, through Gamache, seems to be searching for the switch that  flicks, the straw that breaks, the point where one person feels they have to kill another. The francophone/anglophone aspects of life in Quebec is fascinating for outsiders and I would suggest taking the trouble to read them in order…

Splinter the Silence by Val McDermid is a return to her Tony Hill series. Hill is a profiler who is sort off hopeless at life in many ways and he’s worked with DCI Carol Jordan, who has her own foibles, over eight previous books. McDermid is a clever writer and always throws in some interesting personal and professional ethical twists alongside the mystery proper. I really enjoyed this book and look forward to the next…

Speaking in Bones, by Kathy Reichs, is the 18th in her series about forensic anthropologist Dr Temperance Brennan. As always there is lots of scientific and medico-legal detail, which is very interesting, and we are told more about Tempe’s relationship with her mother. The Canadian detective Ryan, the on-off lover, is back and I’ve got to the point where I could care less about the two of them, although I am always happy to hear about Birdie the cat. This just felt a little bit too samey…

Some of the books I have been reading…

Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase is all that you want if you are in the mood for a touch of coastal British gothic à la du Maurier’s Rebecca. There are precocious, enchanting children, a perfect dead parent, a weak live parent, an unspeakable step-parent, a too attractive step-brother, terrible tragedy, true love, a big, elegantly dilapidated house and an air of mystery. And that is just the bit set in the late 1960s. More than three decades later, Lorna and Jon are on the hunt for a special place to hold their wedding. Lorna is drawn to the now even-more falling down old pile, and starts ferreting about in its secrets and gloomy hallways – which makes all the rabbits run.  I liked it, it was just what I was in the mood for: light fiction with a dark undertow, not silly or stupid, with characters that are all just a bit too intense to be real yet are nonetheless worth caring about. 

The Edible Atlas: Around the World in 39 Cuisines by Mina Holland is very interesting. Holland discusses the history and development of each cuisine’s various stand-out ingredients, techniques and flavours, and follows each chapter up with a suggested larder list and a recipe or two that encapsulate the nature of the cuisine she has just introduced you to. She includes some interesting personal anecdotes and writes amiably and  straightforwardly, demystifying with good humour and sage advice. If you are interested in cooking this is really worth a read.

Rebecca Solnit’s essays are always thought-provoking. A Field Guide to Getting Lost is an excellent selection of prose pieces on various aspects of being lost, losing and loss in its many forms. The writing is beautiful, personal with glimpses of Solnit’s life and memories, meandering backwards and forwards, as from these close and everyday reflections she illuminates certain big truths about humans and the world we have created.

…and finally, I read Liza Marklund’s new Scandi Noir crime novel, Without a Trace, featuring tabloid reporter Annika Bengtzon. You – and the police – think this is about one sort of crime, a well-worn motive, when radical politician Ingemar is found beaten almost to death, his wife missing and their children taken into care. In fact it is about another sort of crime altogether, an unexpected motive, which is a real surprise. This is very good crime writing, with tight plotting and timely political and social observations (the descriptions of working in the new 24-hour digital content news day are really interesting), it is nicely chilling and mysterious until the end.