52 Weeks: 52 Books – April

It’s election day, so after three days of politically oriented blogging (one, two, three), I shall stop wittering on about political nerdery issues and refocus on the important stuff in life: Books. Please stick around and read on. Assuming you’ve already voted. If not, go do that first. I’m now four months into my 52 Weeks: 52 Books challenge, and here’s what I read during April.

Book 13: CJ Samson – Lamentation

Book 14: Alexander McCall Smith – The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Book 15: Alice Peterson – By My Side

And I’m currently stalled on Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man, which is bad, because to stay on target I really should have finished another book by now. All of this month’s books had strengths and weaknesses for me. My favourite was Lamentation. I’m a big CJ Sansom fan, and I particularly like the Shardlake series, to which this is the most recent addition. My only qualm here was that it’s a bit overlong. It’s still a very good book, but a slightly more aggressive edit in the first two thirds wouldn’t have done it any harm at all.

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I’d never read any of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency books until this month. I’m not really sure how I managed that. There are at least 78000 of them, so I’m not at all clear how they managed to pass me by. This one, the first in the series, was exactly as I’d imagined it would be. Gentle, soothing, beautifully written, the book equivalent of slipping into a nice warm bath. Jolly good.

My main reflection for this month though, comes not from the books I read, but from the book I’m stalled on. Again, I’m realising just how much I like story. The Autograph Man is beautifully written, but I’m just gasping for something to happen that propels things forward. I suspect it’s going to be one of those books about how ultimately nothing and nobody ever changes, which is perfectly fine as a philosophical viewpoint, but just a little bit dull as a reader. I don’t think that’s always the case. I think you can go lighter on plot if you have amazing characters – I think some of Zadie Smith’s other work probably demonstrates that – but in this one I’m not finding the main character particularly engaging, so I’m really missing having a riveting plot to drag me along. I suspect that’s partly to do with where my brain is in writing terms. I’m in the first third of writing my next book, so my brain is holding all the potential characters and stories for that book, and I’ve also read my next book for editing again, and read a complete manuscript for a critique client this month. With all of that in my brain I think I do need to books I’m reading to really grab me by the scruff of the neck. So my current quandary is whether to ditch The Autograph Man or whether to plough on. Normally I only ditch a book if I get to page 100 and I’m not feeling it. I’m past page 100 with this one, but it’s slow going. Is it better to read on or to admit defeat? I’m undecided.

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.