In which I embrace a life of crime

A long time ago, but right here in this particular galaxy, on this particular blog, I extolled the virtues of reading widely. This was a good and clever thought, and one that, quite correctly, prompted my even gooder and cleverer sibling to point out that for all my wise words, I very rarely read crime fiction.

In order to redress this balance she, and my good friend Holly, prescribed a literary diet of psychological thrills and physiological gore, the opening courses of which I have now consumed and will review forthwith for your blog reading pleasure and enlightenment.

In reverse order my top three recent crime reads were:

 

3. Ruth Dugdall, The Woman Before Me

This novel won the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award prior to being published, and for a first novel, it’s an accomplished book. Dugdall’s main characters are a probation officer tasked with assessing prisoners’ suitability for release, and the prisoner she is assessing, currently incarcerated for killing a friend’s baby.

The idea of prison setting  means that the crime story unfolds in flashback and through diary entries and probation interviews, rather than in present narrative. Generally, this sort of overly complicated narrative structure floats my boat, and the idea of the probation officer as detective, piecing together the past after the whole investigative and judicial process is, apparently, over, is an interesting one.

I have a couple of small quibbles. The book concentrates heavily on the prisoner’s psychological state, which, although well-written, I could have lived with a bit less of. I would also have preferred to see the reveals of what actually happened in the past drip-fed more slowly through the story. There’s one big surprise held back for the ending, but, apart from that , I felt like I knew pretty much what had happened from about a third of the way through. Holding a few more plot details back might have added to the suspense in the story and pushed this book even further up my chart.

 

2. Michael Robotham, Shattered

Joseph O’Loughlin, the detective character in Shattered, is a psychologist who starts the story failing to dissuade a woman from throwing herself off the Clifton Suspension Bridge. This apparent suicide sets the tone for the rest of the story. When is suicide not suicide at all?

For me this book did manage to balance the internal character exploration and the external plot. Joseph is a Parkinson’s Disease sufferer and we see his inability to apply his psychological insight to his own attitude to life, his body and his disease. We also get an, unusually well-handled, take on the traditional detective’s dysfunctional homelife. But what really keeps this story ticking along is the suicide/murder plot itself. It’s well-paced and in places it’s properly scary.

Minor criticism – perhaps the closing couple of chapters when the threat (slightly predictably) moves closer to Joseph’s personal life aren’t as well handled as the rest of the story, but overall, I genuinely enjoyed reading this one.

 

1. Dissolution/Dark Fire, CJ Sansom

So I’m cheating a tiny bit by having a joint number one, but these stories form part of the same series, by the same author, featuring the same lead character, so I think it’s allowed.

This is crime meets historical fiction. The setting is England under the rule of Henry VIII, which makes these book a tough sell for me. I generally avoid historical fiction set in the 16th Century as that was  my specialist subject at university, which leads to a certain tenseness about tiny historical inaccuracies.

However, I loved both these books. The period setting felt real (and feeling real is so much more important than being insanely detailed).  The stories follow a detective plot; in this case our detective is a lawyer under the patronage of Thomas Cromwell. The first novel centres around a murder at a monastery during the process of dissolution. The second entwines the killing of a child of a wealthy family with the political plot to bring down Cromwell. In both Sansom builds engaging plots around known events without completely throwing out the historical reality to accomodate the story.

These are big thick meaty books which you can dive into feeling confident that you’re going to be absorbed into a story. And there are more in the series, so the enjoyment isn’t over yet.

 

Overall, I seem to like crime fiction best when it’s driven by plot, rather than focussing on the psychology of the criminal mind. I also prefer my gore kept under control, but I am known to be a tad squeamish about these things. To put it bluntly I’m a fainter. I’ve fainted at blood tests, at other people getting their ears peirced, and, indeed, at child-friendly Christmas theatre productions. (Yes. All those things are genuinely true.) I don’t really want to add “reading novels” to my list of activities that are high-risk for loss of consciousness.

Come back later in the week when I’ll be getting all Lenten and talking about abstinence (unless something else interests me more in the meantime). And, as ever, comment, subscribe, follow me on twitter, or, if you prefer, just go read something.

Where I get all sci-fi and fantasyish and do a bit of reviewing.

Sometime ago I commented on this very blog that I’m in favour of doing what every teacher I’ve ever had advised and reading widely. I think I said it here. I definitely said it though, and it was definitely right-headed thinking when I did say it.

In that spirit I tend to read a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, and of different genres of fiction. Recently, though, I seem to have been stuck on a bit of a sci-fi/fantasy roll, and so I thought, “Hey!” (Yes, I actually thought “Hey!” with the exclamation mark and everything) “Why don’t I write a sci-fi/fantasy themed book review blogpost?” And I could think of no good reason why not, and there are no responsible adults around to stop me, so here it is.

Generally, I can swing either way on sci-fi and fantasy. I’m properly quite addicted to Terry Pratchett (to the point of wondering whether there’s a boxed set of all the Discworld novels that I could pass off as a single volume if I’m ever on Desert Island Discs). On the opposite end of the scale I don’t think I’d manage to finish Lord of the Rings even if I was marooned on a desert island and it was the only book. Doctor Who, I have adored since Peter Davidson’s incumbency. Star Wars (whisper it quietly so as to avoid actual physical violence) I can pretty much take or leave. Obviously, I’m talking original trilogy here. The prequels serve no purpose at all beyond providing an emergency Ewan McGregor fix and there are better ways to get that (Moulin Rouge, A Life Less Ordinary & Shallow Grave would be my picks). Even with the originals, I see that they’re culturally iconic, but I’ve watched them all, right through once in the cinema. I’d have no actual hard objection to seeing them again, but it wouldn’t obviously enhance my life.

So that’s where I stand on fantasy and sci-fi generally. Love some. Hate some. Tolerate others. Before I descend into separating all fantasy into Howard from Fresh Meat – if you’re not watching it, you should – style Good and Bad lists (Buffy=Good, Heroes series 1=Good, Rest of Heroes=Bad etc.), lets move onto some actual reviewing.

I’ve read three books with a fantasy vibe lately: The Untied Kingdom by Kate Johnson, Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde and American Gods by Neil Gaiman. They’re probably all more fantasy than sci-fi, but I don’t really have the mental energy to debate the difference. I could term them speculative fiction, but that sounds a tad unnecessarily wordy. Let’s just call them books and be done with it.

 

First up – Kate Johnson’s The Untied Kingdom

This novel is essentially a fantasy romance. The plot hangs off a regular girl from contempory Britain slipping through a crack in time and space and finding herself in an alternate version of reality, where the country is economically and technologically backward and in the midst of a civil war.

Judging from the acknowledgements, Johnson’s a bit of a fantasy fan herself, as she credits Terry Pratchett and Joss Whedon amongst her inspirations. There’s certainly more than a little bit of Discworld’s Sam Vimes about her male lead, and a big dollop of Bernard Cornwell’s Napoleonic Wars hero, Richard Sharpe. Nothing wrong with that – both are good templates for the tough working class boy made good character at the centre of this story.

I applaud the writer’s ambition. There’s a lot of advice given to writers about what you can and can’t do within a genre. Romance is a genre seen as being aimed squarely at women. Sci-fi has more of a teenage boy reputation. Putting the two together takes nerve, and it’s a risk which is largely sucessful. If anything I’d have liked a bit more of the alternate reality woven in around the central romance plot, but it’s a good read, and it’s brilliant to find a contemperary romance that feels original and has such an interesting premise. This novel is also one that demands a sequel. Without giving away the ending, I really do want to know what these characters do next.

 

Second up, Jasper Fforde and Shades of Grey.

Fforde is one of the big hitters in the comic fantasy market. He’s the author behind the successful Nursery Crimes and Thursday Next series. Shades of Grey is the first in a potential new series, and is based around the premise that people can only see certain colours, and colour perception is attribute around which society is organised. Good writing should engage a reader’s senses, so writing about characters who don’t perceive the world the way the reader does is hard. Two thumbs way way up to Fforde for absolutely pulling this off. Rather than alienating the reader from the characters, their world feels immediate and real.

In a sense this novel is 1984 with an magnified sense of the absurd. You have a dystopian society, an everyman protagonist who is starting to doubt the society he’s living in, and perhaps the beginnings of a relationship with a more rebellious politically aware woman. It’s intended to be the first in a series, and I think it’s probably the first time since the blessed JK hung up her Hogwarts quill that I’ve finished a book feeling bereft at the wait for the next installment. For me Fforde’s earlier series took a little while to warm up – the later books are much better than the earlier ones. This time he’s hit the ground running. Loved this book.

 

And finally, in my little fantasy reading phase, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Gaiman himself is a bit of a god in the sci-fi/fantasy world, and he’s done some truly fabulous stuff. His Doctor Who ep in the last season was a stand out, and Good Omens (co-written with Sir Terry of Pratchett) is a proper pageturner. The premise of American Gods is intriguing – people from all over the globe populated America, so what happened to the gods they brought with them? Have those gods survived and what has been lost in translation to their new home? And how will they respond to the new “religions” of modern life?

I did struggle to get into this book – it’s not that I wouldn’t recommend it, but it’s a Big Book. I think it is one to take on holiday or on a long train journey – somewhere where you’re going to be able to settle down and read for a couple of hours at a time. It’s one that you need to read your way into. It took me a while to get going with, I think, because I was pushed for time and reading only a few pages at a go.

We do also need to talk about the length. The edition I have is labelled “Author’s Preferred Text” – words which I naturally greet with the same trepidation as the phrase “Director’s Cut.” Sure – it could mean that the evil corporate sales people bowdlerised your work and you’ve now been able to restore the fully glory of your artistic vision. More often I just think that writers and directors need to know when to step away from the thing they’re working on and move on. Anyway. Gaiman acknowledges that this edition is 12000 words longer than the originally published version. I haven’t done a comparison, so I don’t know which words were added, but my feeling is that this book is slightly longer than it needs to be. So, I would recommend this book, but I would probably suggest seeking out the shorter original text and saving it for a day when you can really settle down with it and immerse your brain in Gaiman’s world.

So that is what I have been reading of late. Next up I’m going into a Crime phase (reading, not doing). It was quite rightly pointed out to me, by my very wise senior sibling, that for all my “Read widely” waffle I very rarely read crime fiction. To right this wrong, she has also provided me with a shelf of crime fiction to get my teeth into. CJ Sansom, Minette Walters, Harlan Coben and Michael Rowbotham here I come.

What I read on my holidays…

Ok, so this is two weeks later than planned, but here it is, holiday related blogpost no.2 (if you missed number 1 it’s here: http://wp.me/p1sVoH-T) – What I read on my holidays.

I read 11 books on holiday, which for a 16 night trip is a little slow, but it was a going-out-doing-stuff holiday rather than a sitting-by-the-pool holiday so that’s ok. It was still 3 books more than I packed, so involved scavenging from husband’s bookpile and wandering the streets looking for an English-language book shop (which is now pretty much a traditional part of all our holidays).

The books were, in no particular order:

Unsticky by Sarra Manning

Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Them by Jon Ronson

Funny Valentine by Amy Jenkins

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

This Year It Will Be Different by Maeve Binchy

Mini Shopohlic by Sophie Kinsella

And I can’t even remember what the 11th book was. I know I bought it at the St Richard’s Hospice book shop, but I have no recollection of the title, author or content. Clearly, not one that made a big impression.

So out of the ten that impinged enough for me to recall them two weeks later, what do we think? I’m quite pleased with the mix. A bit of a preponderance of chicklit, but also one collection of short stories, one blokelit, one crime/psychological thriller, a couple of “grown-up” literary prize winners, and two non-fiction (or Real Books as much beloved husband terms them). No sci-fi or fantasy, but I’ve got a Jasper Fforde and a Neil Gaiman on my to-read pile, so I’ll excuse it.

That’s my first reccomendation then. Not a particular book, more an approach to books – read widely. A lot of readers I talk to get quite hung up on particular genres – “I don’t like crime” “I can’t stand romance” “I only read non-fiction. Made up stories are a waste of time”. And I do the same. I’m not a big crime reader. This is silly of me though. There are really only two meaningful genre categories – good books and bad books. Seek out the good books, regardless of genre or amount of blood on the cover. It’s totally cool to have personal preferences and favourites, but if you only read stuff you already know you’re going to like, you never get surprised, and being surprised by a story or a writer is one of the great pleasures of reading. So off you all go and read a book you’re not sure you’re going to like.

Wait. Wait. Come back. You can do the reading thing in a minute. Turns out, I haven’t finished. I have neither the time or the energy to review 10 books in full (only 10 – really bugging me now that I can’t remember no. 11), so I’m just going to give you the edited version.

Happily none of the books I read were terrible, but some were much much better than others, so here’s my top and bottom picks from the list.

The Top Three:

Unsticky by Sarra Manning

This is a great holiday read. Easy to read, funny, fast-paced but doesn’t make you feel like your brain is atrophying while you’re reading it. What Manning has done is taken a classic romance plot – rich, powerful, older guy meets younger slightly lost woman and a whole indecent proposal thing ensues – and made it feel modern. Even more impressively she’s managed to make both characters sympathetic, so her slightly lost heroine never feels pathetic, and her older guy, whilst deeply manipulative and occasionally really unpleasant, is also vulnerable and surprisingly sexy. Probably my personal favourite read of the whole trip.

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

A book to read with your jaw on the floor in incredulity whilst all your worst suspicions about the inner workings of the British media are confirmed and exceeded. A lot of writers and commentators currently do a really good job of satirising and unpicking the worst misrepresentations that crop up in the media. Charlie Brooker and Ben Goldacre both spring immediately to mind, but, for me, this book, with it’s level of detail and specific examples, is the one to read if you are at all concerned about the impact of bad media on society as a whole. I could write a whole blog just about this subject but instead I’ll say read this book or check out the author’s website: www.flatearthnews.net

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

This book won the Booker Prize in 2008 and whilst the Booker judges have a slightly patchy record at picking books that actually qualify as being readable, this is a corker. It’s a a first person narrative, written from the point of view of a Bangalore entrepreneur, who styles himself the White Tiger. He’s a fascinating lead character, full of humour and a good dollop of moral ambiguity, and there’s enough plot in there to make this a character study that also makes the grade as a page-turner.

And two that I didn’t like so much…

Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Hannah started her career as a poet, before moving into crime fiction. I believe this was her first novel, and it’s not a stinker by any means. The story centres around a woman who comes home and realises that the baby in the crib is not her child. You spend most of the book not sure whether her baby really has been abducted, or whether the lead character is insane, or whether there’s another explanation entirely. The story is told in two different timeframes with two narrators and the two narratives converge at the end of the book. It’s structurally interesting. The plot idea is sound and the method of telling is potentially effective. Ultimately, I just wasn’t feeling it. I think for this story to really work you have to engage emotionally with the main character and you have to care about what’s happened to the baby, and the writer just didn’t quite do enough to get me there. Close, but no cigar.

Mini Shopoholic by Sophie Kinsella

This is the latest book in the mega-successful shopoholic series. In a way I can’t complain about it, because you know buying a book in a series like this that you’re going to get exactly what it says on the tin, but actually that’s the source of my first problem. You get exactly what it says on the tin, and nothing more. Even within a series of novels, it’s great to be wrong-footed occasionally. The incomparable Sir Terry of Pratchett has written 38 Discworld novels, with the 39th due later this year, and at their best (see Night Watch or Monstrous Regiment) they can still push the series into new directions. Mini Shopoholic doesn’t seem to have any such ambitions. It is just another shopoholic novel; there’s nothing to make it stand out and sing on it’s own merits. My second qualm follows on from that thought and is about the story itself . There doesn’t seem to be a quite enough plot to sustain a whole book. Luke is quite busy at work. Becki organises a party. Minnie is a bit naughty. That’s pretty much it. The most interesting development, the involvement of Luke’s mum in the story, feels like a preparation for a future book, rather than an intrinsic part of this one. Personally, I think that, even within a series, each novel has to stand up on it’s own as a standalone story, and I’m not quite convinced this one does.

So there you have the books I read on holiday. Some I’d heartily recommend (and for the record Half of a Yellow Sun and Them only narrowly missed out on places in the favourites list), and a couple I wasn’t so taken with. Feel free to comment if you’ve read any of the above, or if you have any book recommendations for me. My to read pile is almost down into single figures and I’m starting to get twitchy!

Come back tomorrow (well, you know, maybe not actually tomorrow…) when I will be attempting to draw a coherent argument about stuff that encompasses Carol Vorderman making recomendations for maths teachers and David Starkey thinking the white kids talk like the black kids. It’s going to be an absolute ball.

And I’ve just remembered book number 11 – Jojo Moyes’ The Peacock Emporium. Pretty good, but not up to the standard of my favourite Moyes’ novel which I reviewed here: http://wp.me/p1sVoH-k  Oh, it’s a relief to have remembered though.

Goodbye.