Simone Buchholz – Blue Night – Blaue Nacht – German Literature Month Crime Readalong

Blue NightBlaue Nacht is the sixth book in Simone Buchholz’ Chastity Riley series and the first to be translated into English. I discovered the book last year in a book shop, not realizing it was part of a series, or I would have started with book one. Oddly, the English translation has the subtitle “Chastity Riley book 1”. Be it as it may, I’m so glad I finally read it. I love noir and this is noir at its best.

State attorney Chastity Riley has done a few stupid things and so she’s not working in the state attorney’s department anymore but for the witness protection. This bores her no end. Feeling she needs some change, she takes her car and drives to the country. The car breaks down and Chastity is stranded somewhere on the road. Where other people would look for the beauty around them, all she sees is a lack of streets and people. And too much countryside. Yikes. Barely gone for a few minutes, she misses Hamburg, the Reeperbahn, the seedy haunts, her ex-gangster lover Klatsche, and the bars where she drinks until the early hours. This beginning sets the tone and introduces a character who is witty, sarcastic, laconic, lyrical, and always different.

Back in Hamburg, she’s assigned to look after a man who has almost been killed. He’s been beaten up severely and has lost one finger. It looks a lot like retribution. With cunning, kindness, and a lot of beer, Chastity manages to get his trust. While he doesn’t reveal his identity, he gives her enough information to begin investigating a crime ring.

The story is definitely interesting and offers a look into the drug problems big cities with large ports like Hamburg face these days. Cheap, dangerous drugs, produced in the East, are distributed in the West with maximum profit. The people in charge are able to wash their money and while everyone knows it, the law can’t touch them.

As interesting as the story is, it pales in comparison to the cast of characters and the style. Chastity Riley is a loner at heart but one with a crowd of friends. Some were formerly criminals, some are policemen, bar tenders, restaurant owners. A charming element of the book is that they all get a voice. In between the regular chapters are chapters in which each of the protagonists, including the nameless man, the criminals, Chastity and her friends get their say. In some books this type of approach doesn’t work, but here it lifts the book to another level.

I read a lot of crime novels this year, but this is the one I liked the most. The voice is so unique, the style so brilliant that it can keep up with a lot of literary fiction that is published these days. And the mood and tone are reminiscent of some of the best noir I’ve read in recent years.

I read this in German, that’s why there are no quotes. Please visit Pat’s blog (added below) to get an idea of the style

Other reviews:

Pat – South of Paris Books

 

Mechthild Gläser’s The Book Jumper – Die Buchspringer – German Literature Month Readalong

The Book Jumper is a children’s book by German author Mechthild Gläser.

Amy and her mother flee Bochum to take refuge on a forgotten Shetland island. Years ago, when she was pregnant with Amy, her mother left the island just as helter-skelter as they left Bochum now. Amy never knew why. She also never knew her dad. The island, the castle, and Amy’s grandmother are all very mysterious, but not as mysterious as learning that Amy is a book jumper, like everyone in her family. Book jumping is an important ability that gets lost once people get older. Together with two other young people Amy is taught in the art of book jumping. In the beginning book jumping novices have to stick to a favourite book. In Amy’s case that’s The Jungle Book. She is told that it’s important not to stray from the path of the story or to interfere with it. The book jumpers are vital for literature because they have to make sure that the stories remain exactly as they were originally written down.

Among other things, Amy is taught that she can only jump into a book from a specific spot and when she puts the open book on her face. She realizes soon, that this isn’t a necessity for her. She can jump into any book pretty much from wherever she wants. Already on her first jump into the jungle book, she strays from her path and meets Goethe’s Werther. Together with him, she travels in the no-man’s-land between different stories or enters other novels, like Alice in Wonderland. It doesn’t take long until she realizes that there’s something wrong in the land of literature. It seems that a thief is stealing ideas and important story lines get either jumbled or lost. Together with Werther and Will, another book jumper, Amy tries to catch the thief. Unfortunately, the thief is quite dangerous. He kills a beloved literary character and, in the end, even attempts to kill Amy and her grandmother. I can’t really tell much more without spoiling the story.

When Lizzy proposed to read this, I really liked the premise of the book. The idea to jump into your favourite novels, meet favourite characters was so appealing. Sadly, this didn’t work for me. I read it pretty quickly, it had some amusing moments and characters, especially Werther, but it felt quite lifeless. Even the love story between Will and Amy, did only work at first. The solution to the story felt forced. The only thing I liked, was Amy’s back story.

The book is initially amusing, but not exactly a must-read. Something was missing. It may sound weird, but it isn’t fantastical enough. I also didn’t like that Mechthild Gläser spoils a few classic stories by giving away the ending. On top of that, the German blurb is misleading. We’re led to believe Amy will become friends with Elizabeth Bennett, but she only sees her once and very briefly. I hope others enjoyed this more than I did.

Maggie O’Farrell: Instructions For a Heatwave (2013)

I’m so behind with book reviews that it’s highly unlikely, I’ll ever catch up. This would have been one of many I was going to put aside “for later”, but the title’s too fitting to postpone reviewing it. And it was enjoyable.

The heatwave of the title refers to the heatwave of 1976, one of the worst the UK has ever seen. I don’t know anyone who was alive back then, no matter how small, who wouldn’t remember it. While it’s possibly as hot now as it was then, the heat started earlier, I think, in June and there were massive water shortages. Let’s hope that it won’t come to that. Although it looks dire already. “Over here”, where I live, Continental Europe, it’s even hotter. And, just like in the UK, we have no air conditioning. In Switzerland it’s even forbidden to have them in your own home. Small ones, yes, but they don’t help much. Before diving into the review, let me moan some more – yesterday, the thermometer in our flat showed 35°! Only two degrees less than outside. Sleeping, you wonder? Not so much. My poor cats crawl into dark corners, hoping dark means cool and stay there until the evening. Normally, they run around all day. Unfortunately, he’s afraid of the fan, while she enjoys it

Now on to Maggie O’Farrell. As I mentioned already, Instructions For a Heatwave is set in 1976 during the heatwave and tells the story of the Riordan family. One morning, the dad, Robert Riordan, leaves the house and doesn’t come back. His wife Gretta is shocked and flustered. She calls her children hoping they will come and help her. Already the first phone calls show the family dynamics. There are misunderstandings, half-truths, accusations, exaggerations, tensions. And the three children are facing troubles of their own, that are now, through this family emergency, magnified. At the same time, the emergency shows how frail their family bonds are, how dysfunctional. Gretta is a hypochondriac. She changes subjects when she feels she doesn’t want to talk about something and that is often. She pops pills, makes stuff up and has her kids constantly on alert. Some of the reasons for her behaviour will be revealed later.

Michael Francis is the oldest sibling and in the middle of his own family crisis. It may very well be that his wife, who is reinventing herself, will leave him. He’s not entirely without fault though. Monica, the first daughter, married for the second time, is also doubtful about the future of her marriage. And Aoife, the youngest, is in New York, trying desperately to hold on to a life she loves but that is threatened because it’s built on a lie – nobody knows that she’s a functional illiterate.

When they hear of their dad’s disappearance they all return home. At first, the reunion is frosty and awkward. There are too many things that have been left unsaid in the past and too many family secrets. The biggest is the reason for their dads’ disappearance.

It will take them a few days to sort some things out and then they take a family trip to Ireland, where the parents originally come from.

Instructions for a Heatwave is in many ways an astonishing book. It’s so intricately told, the stories are so tightly interwoven that I was constantly wondering – how did she do that? She moves in out of characters’ minds, switches from the present to the past and back again, but it’s never confusing because it’s so well done.

This is the story of a dysfunctional family but one with hope. They do not give up on each other nor on themselves. Gretta was possibly my favourite character although she reminded me of my late mother (minus my mother’s meanness that is). It’s fascinating to see a character description that resonates so much. Just like Gretta, my mother would always change the subject if she didn’t want to talk about something, pretending she hadn’t heard what had been said and then pretending she had an attack of something (cough, sickness, stomach cramps, “nerves”) and urgently needed her pills. Also, like Gretta, she would start chatting with anyone, finding out family stories and other people’s secrets without ever revealing any of her own. Since the Riordan’s are Irish and Catholics, that was something I could relate to as well. Looking back, it was no fun being brought up by a Catholic mother – my dad was anti-clerical, so that balanced things out a bit.

While this book resonated a lot with me because of my own history, I still think anyone who loves complex family stories would like this very much. In the past, I had mixed experiences with Maggie O’Farrell. I loved The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, but didn’t care for another one of her books (I think it was After You’d Gone). This rich and lovely novel has put me in the mood to read more by her. Her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am is already on my piles.

Susan Hill: The Shadows in the Street (2010) Simon Serrailler 5

I read and reviewed several of Susan Hills books; her WWI novel Strange Meeting, the ghost stories The Woman in Black and The Small Hand, the memoir Howard’s End is on the Landing and recently – not reviewed – Jacob’s Room is Full of Books. I enjoyed them all. What I hadn’t tried yet, was her Simon Serrailler crime series. I can’t remember why I didn’t buy the first in the series but the fifth, I only know I bought it when it was published in 2010 – one of many pointless hardback purchases. Luckily, although it took me seven years to get to it, the novel was a very pleasant surprise.

The Shadows in the Street is set in Lafferton, a fiction cathedral town in Southern England. It opens from the point of view of one of the POV characters, Leslie Blade, a single librarian who lives with his elderly mother. In the evenings, Leslie often visists the young prostitutes of Lafferton and brings them tea and sandwiches. From his point of view the book switches to Abi, one of the young prostitutes the book focuses on. When one of Abi’s colleagues is brutally murdered, Leslie’s quickly one of the main suspects. We’re then introduced to Cat, Simon’s sister, who lost her husband. She’s the council doctor and active in the church and the church choir. The next characters we are introduced to are two young police officers, one who is new on the force and only came to Lafferton because of Simon Serrailler. Simon too makes an appearance but not “on the scene”, but in Scotland, where’s he’s on a holiday. After the first young woman is murdered, another one follows and a third, not a prostitute this time, disappears. And finally, Serrailler, returns to Lafferton.

In many ways The Shadows in the Streets is a peculiar crime novel. It’s part of the series featuring DC Simon Serrailler. Naturally, one would expect a police procedural but that’s not really what this is. It’s a mix between that and a psychological thriller. And one would expect that the main protagonist would be present from the beginning, but he’s absent for almost half of the book. There’s good reason for that – he’s on a holiday, recovering from his last case. While that may be different in other novels, I’m pretty sure many of the other elements are not. As crime novels go, this was one of the more diverse ones I’ve read. It’s written from many different POVs, including that of the perpetrator, but never giving away his identity. I like that. It’s become a staple of recent psychological thrillers to switch POV mid-way through the book and thus reveal the identity of the killer, which I hate. So many of my recent reads have been ruined because of that – last case in point Lisa Jewell’s Then She Was Gone. The Shadow in the Street takes time to introduce us to most of the characters, which gives the book a larger scope and transcends the genre. One can read this like a crime novel or a social commentary. It works well both ways. Clearly, Susan Hill felt strongly about the topic of prostitution and what society could or should do to help the women get out of this occupation. Introducing us to different characters, she paints different portraits, shows the despair, the struggle. Sometimes on both sides. There are well-meaning people who want to help – social workers, doctors, clergy – but they mostly fail.

While Simon Serrailler isn’t present in the beginning of the book, we still get to know him  very well. He’s definitely the kind of investigator I like. A bit of a loner, unpredictable, doing things his way, not following strict orders or procedures. In his spare time he paints. He’s so talented that he could become a full-time painter but he loves to do two very different things. I can definitely relate to that.

As far as crime novels go, this isn’t the tightest but I didn’t mind because I enjoyed reading it. There’s suspense and the ending is not obvious, but at the same time it has a leisurely pace and takes a lot of time to show the characters and explore its main theme – prostitution. Susan Hill is famous for her ghost stories. Ghost stories need strong atmosphere and since she excels in the genre, it’s not surprising that this book is atmospheric too.

This isn’t going to be my last Simon Serrailler. I’m very tempted to go back to the beginning and read the first very soon. Susan Hill’s a skilful story-teller and this series is a great addition to the genre.

Some Thoughts on Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things or Should There Be Trigger Warnings on Books?

I finished Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things a couple of days ago and wasn’t sure whether I should review it or not. But then I thought of the many glowing reviews in newspapers and on blogs that made me pick this up and so I decided, while I won’t review it, I will write about my reactions to this book because they are so different from any one else’s. While most people loved it and even put it on their “Best of the Year” list, I truly hated it and wish I hadn’t read it. And, frankly, if I had known what to expect, I wouldn’t have picked it up. But before I write more, I have to emphasize – this isn’t a bad book. It just has elements in it, I wish I’d been made aware of.

I’ve read another Charlotte Wood novel, a few years ago, which made my end of year best of list. It’s a marvelous book and very different from this one. It’s one of the reasons why I continued reading The Natural Way of Things although I disliked it from the beginning. And since I’m bad at putting away books, once I’m halfway through, I finished it. It gave me nightmares and has planted some images in my head, I have a hard time getting rid of.

If you’ve read other reviews, you might be puzzled that it upset me so much and I can tell you, I get it, because nobody mentioned those elements.

The Natural Way of Things is a story about a group of girls who were each involved in a sex scandal. While the men aren’t punished, the girls are sent to a remote place, stripped of their clothes, shaven, barely fed and guarded by two brutal men who hit them and force them to work like slaves. It’s a lot like a concentration camp. Every review I read, mentioned this and how this is a feminist look at the way the media sees women and how women are still mostly the ones blamed when there’s a scandal. I didn’t have a problem with that, I had a problem with what follows. In the middle of the book, the captives and their captors realize they have been abandoned by the outside world. They run out of food and other basic supplies. And that’s when it started to get horrible for me because one of the girls decides to set traps and catch rabbits. Anyone knows that catching animals with traps, especially certain traps, is barbaric. Reading about this made me sick. Reading about the detailed ways the animals were taken apart, skinned, their fur prepared  . . . You get the picture. And there’s a scene towards the end, when a larger animal gets trapped . . . I’m not going to forget that.

I’m not sure why nobody mentioned the traps or those awful scenes linked to that. I wish they had because, as I said, I would have stayed away from this book. It would have worked as a trigger warning.

I suppose, you get why I still had to write about this because I know there are other people who are highly sensitive to anything involving animals.

That said, I don’t think Charlotte Wood should have written this any other way. I guess it works. One of the themes in her book is that of predator and prey and the trapped rabbits are linked to that theme. It’s not a bad book, but I was the wrong reader. If you’re like me and anything harming animals upsets you, you might want to stay away from this book.

The above may give you the impression that there isn’t any explicit violence against women in this book, but there is. I found that hard to stomach as well but I could handle it better.

This brings me to the topic of trigger warnings. I’ve seen debates, where people said that there should be trigger warnings on books. For all sorts of things. Cruelty against animals, kids and women, swearing, explicit sex, violence  . . . The list is as endless as people’s sensibilities. I don’t think that there should be trigger warnings because there’s always the risk that those could, in some countries, lead to the banning of certain books. I’m against book bans and I think that trigger warnings are also problematic because they simplify a complex theme. Let’s take The Natural Way of Things as an example. What should the warning have looked like “Violence against women” – that would have been possible, but the animal topic couldn’t have been covered by a similar concise warning. There’s no gratuitous violence, like in the case of the women. There’s killing, trapping, skinning and slow death. “Warning – animal trapping”. Weird. Some readers who are sensitive to cruelty against animals in books, might not even have found the instances here problematic because they are not gratuitous. You see, it’s tricky.

While I don’t think trigger warnings are the way to go, I still would have wished the one or the other review had made me aware that some of the content could be problematic for me. Nonetheless, it’s my fault I didn’t stop reading. I wish I will finally be able to abandon books that aren’t good for me, even when I’m halfway through.

How do you feel about this? Trigger warning or no trigger warning?

Andrea Camilleri: The Shape of Water – La forma dell’aqua ( 1994) Inspector Montalbano 1

Andrea Camilleri is an Italian crime writer, famous for his long-standing Inspector Montalbano series. Camilleri was born in 1925 in Sicily, where the series is set. I’ve been aware of him for ages, but for some reason, I never felt tempted to read his books. I thought this was a cozy crime series and while I occasionally enjoy them, I’m rarely willing to read a whole series. After reading a few reviews recently, I realized, I was wrong and that this wasn’t a cozy series at all.

Thanks to Stu, who dedicated March to Italian literature, I finally picked up the first in the series,  The Shape of Water – La forma dell’acqua.

The Shape of Water, like all the other novels in the series, is set in the fictional small-town Vigàta, in Sicily, which was inspired by Camilleri’s hometown Porto Empedocle, near Agrigento. On the outskirts of Vigàta, there’s the Mannàra, an open-air brothel. And it’s exactly here that the body of the dead engineer Luparello is found. The verdict is – natural causes – something that’s almost unheard of, in a region where the mafia drops body after body. Luparello was a prominent political figure and a lot of people profit not only from his death but from its unsavoury circumstances. Montalbano who is anything but obedient, demands to conduct an investigation. There are too many things that do not add up. Why would someone like Luparello go to a place like the Mannàra? Who is the woman who lost an incredibly expensive bracelet close to where the body was found? Who did Luparello meet with at his love nest?

Montalbano’s investigation introduces us to many striking and colourful characters. We get to know him, his girlfriend, his boss, his subordinates and friends very well. The book also introduces us to a place where corruption and violence are all too common. A place, where the mafia reigns and the police have a hard time keeping up with the crimes that are committed daily.

In his unorthodox way, Montalbano discovers more than one criminal act. And he decides to “play God” as his girlfriend calls it.

I’m so glad I finally read Camilleri because I enjoyed it so much that I have already started book two. This is such a perfect series for so many reasons. It paints an accurate, if somewhat embellished and exaggerated, picture of Sicily, its people, and customs. And its food. Montalbano enjoys good food, and for many readers, discovering all the dishes he eats in the books, is part of the appeal. While the descriptions of the place and its mores is part of the success of the series, the biggest reasons for loving it, is the character of Montalbano. He’s unorthodox, funny, dry, doesn’t suffer fools but has a big heart when it comes to “little people”. Montalbano’s name is an homage to Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. It’s no surprise then, that the inspector reads one of Montalban’s detective novels in this book.

Another aspect that won me over is that this isn’t the kind of police procedural, that most UK or US authors write. The police in this book are chaotic, a bit useless and the investigation isn’t conducted very rigorously. At times it reads like a satire, which I enjoyed very much.

People often wonder, why an author chooses a fictional town. In an interview Camilleri gave a very good reason. While he used his hometown and its surroundings to make the descriptions in the books more authentic, they aren’t particularly violent places and definitely not places where so many people get killed.

I’m not at my most eloquent today. Possibly because I loved this so much. I often find it difficult to write about favourite books. I’m very fond of Sicily and this brought back memories, but even if this hadn’t been the case, I would still have loved it. It’s so colorful and original and Montalbano is one of the greatest fictional inspectors I know.

The Frozen Woman by Jon Michelet

I found The Frozen Woman at a local book shop and because I was in the mood for crime in translation, I got it. I’d never heard of Norwegian crime writer Jon Michelet before. He seems to be highly popular in Scandinavia, where he’s been publishing for five decades. We all know that this doesn’t guarantee a translation and so it’s not surprising that this is one of the first of his novels that has been translated into English. It’s part of a series and has won the Riverton Prize for best Norwegian crime.

The story can be summarized very quickly. A murdered woman is found frozen in the garden of a notorious lawyer. The police suspect him immediately, although it seems highly unlikely that he killed her. But why was she found in his garden, since she wasn’t killed there but somewhere else? Retribution? It complicates matters that the police can’t find the woman’s identity. Nobody is missing her. She looks foreign, so possibly she’s an illegal immigrant?

That’s as much as I can say about this book without giving away too much.

What a peculiar reading experience. I don’t think that this has happened to me very often. At first I really liked this novel. Then I didn’t. Then I liked it again . . .  And so on and so forth. Funny enough, once I read the last page I thought – hmm . . . I might read another one of his novels after all.

Looking back it’s easy to say why I reacted like this. The plot is rather thin and not very suspenseful. While it starts like an ordinary police procedural, with the point of view of the police, it then suddenly shifts to the POV of possible suspects and from there to a business man, who is somehow linked as well. This made the book uneven but at the same time, it’s also its strength because the characters are so well done. They are complex and quirky, each with a distinctive voice. I especially liked the detectives Stribolt and Vaage. Stribolt is a very cultured, laconic man. A bit sarcastic, very dry but not too hardened. His thoughts made me smile quite often. Vaage, his partner, is equally unusual. The book ends with her and Thygesen getting to know each other better. Since this is a series, these three characters will return in other books or have already been in other books.

If you’re not looking for a crime novel whose main appeal is suspense and if you like crime writing duo Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and your crime to be on the political/social commentary side, this book, or another one of the series, might be for you.