RIP IV Challenge Wrap-Up

1 November, 2009

RIP IV

It’s the end of October which means the end of the chillingly enjoyable RIP IV Challenge. I have to say a big thank you to Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings who hosted this challenge because I have had so much fun participating (and even winning a beautiful set of postcards by the artist Jennifer Gordon who creates the most bewitching prints) and have found a bevy of new titles to add to my looong wish list. And…I put myself down for completing two books at first as I’m not good with pressure, but I ended up reading eight books (some of which also counted for the Japanese Literary Challenge 3) which even surprised me. I knew I read alot, but I didn’t realise I read that much, as these days I don’t tend to have big enough chunks of time put aside just for reading.

Here are the books I read for RIP IV:

The Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert
The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas
The Library of Shadows by Mikkel Birkegaard
The Vein of Deceit by Susanna Gregory
The Boy with the Cuckoo Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu and Sarah Ardizzone
The Risk of Darkness and The Vows of Silence by Susan Hill
Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

I’m already looking forward to next year’s challenge! See you all then!

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

23 October, 2009

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

Groteque by Natsuo Kirino is my 8th (wow, I didn’t realise how many I’ve read!) and final book for Carl’s RIP IV Challenge and the 4th for Bellezza’s Japanese Literary Challenge 3. You can probably tell that my main bookish interest is mysteries. RIV IV Challenge ends on Halloween so this will be my final review for it. The Japanese Literary Challenge 3 continues until January 30th 2010 so I’m hoping to read heaps more including The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki which has been sitting in my TBR pile for donkey’s years.

*I have belatedly decided to join the Hello Japan October challenge hosted by Tanabata at In Spring it is the Dawn as I realised this book would be perfect for it and that I can’t really stay away from anything Japanese. Tanabata has an incredible list of Japanese books she’s read, reading and reviewing, so go and check it out!

Where to begin? I was really looking forward to reading Grotesque after enjoying Kirino’s Out several years ago. To me, Out was a fresh take on the murder mystery genre in which the lead character is a middle-aged housewife. The novel tackled issues of alienation, poverty, immigration and the breakdown of social arrangements in contemporary Japan without any preaching. I was impressed with Kirino’s clean and clear style. And there was an undercurrent of uneasiness, reminiscent of Susan Hill’s crime novels, which added that extra edge. It was shocking, disturbing and very good. I’m not such a huge fan of horror (ok, I’m a wimp and I don’t read any horror) and love my cozies, but I do appreciate a good, dark thriller.

Grotesque begins with the discovery of a dead Kazue Sato, an employee of a prestigious architectural and engineering firm in Tokyo who was moonlighting as a part-time prostitute. A Chinese illegal immigrant named Zhang has been arrested for her death, and also for the murder of another prostitute Yuriko Hirata found under very similar circumstances a few months previously. The first part of the book is narrated by Yuriko’s sister who was also Kazue’s high school classmate. The novel is split into sections narrated first by Yuriko’s sister who sets the background to this tale, from their mixed heritage, of Yuriko’s ‘monstrous’ beauty and the prestigious Q high school in which they enroll and meet Kazue where no matter how hard you try you can never quite join the elite cliques and wash off the stench of poverty. We are then given Zhang’s trial notes and Yuriko and Kazue’s journals as we slowly realise that things are never quite as straightforward as they seem, and narrators are not always reliable.

Compared to Out, Grotesque was something else altogether. Definitely darker, more disturbing and left me very, very uneasy. Because you know that there are areas of Japanese modern life in which reality is exactly how Kirino describes it. Although I couldn’t stop reading the novel, it wasn’t exactly comfortable reading. Kirino’s outlook is bleak, and her characters flawed and ugly. I admire her for articulating the darkest monstrous aspects of humanity in normal people, but after finishing the book I really felt I needed something light and happy to read, and a cleansing shower. Don’t get me wrong, the issues brought up in the book, especially prostitution, is heavy, but Kirino’s writing (and the superb translation) flows easily. It’s just that I didn’t like any of the characters. But then, I don’t think Kirino intends you to like them. She gives you a sharp slice of unhappiness and reminds you that there are many people out there who are not as fortunate as some of us.

I did like the book and was really impressed with her style and the way she totally inhabits her characters, who are layered and have depth. It’s not an easy read, but I recommend it. Just don’t read it when you are feeling down.

The Risk of Darkness by Susan Hill The Vows of Silence by Susan Hill

I first picked up Susan Hill‘s crime series featuring DCI Simon Serrailler purely for it’s beautiful title, The Various Haunts of Men. I think at that time I was going through a phase of reading Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels, so Susan Hill’s book caught me by surprise because it was unlike any other modern crime novel I had ever read. There are some shocking twists and it was definitely more atmospheric and creepier than some of its fellow crime thrillers. I then followed it with The Pure in Heart, the second in the series, which left me disturbed and terrified, although Hill’s book is not a horror. So it took me a few years to go back and get her third in the series The Risk of Darkness. And when I finished it, I went straight out and got her fourth, The Vows of Silence, from the library. They were that good. And also perfect for Carl’s R.I.P. IV Challenge.

I don’t know what it is about her writing, but she does creepy really well. There is a pervading sense of unease underlying all of her novels. Even though they are set in Lafferton, an idealic cathedral town with its choir and friendly neighbours, Hill dots her fictional landscapes with modern problems, sink estates, hoodies and all the other little terrors that modern city dwellers deal with everyday. The cosy clashes with the uneasy, and it’s not a comfortable read.

I like her detective Simon Serrailler too. Of course, he’s handsome, blond and way too attractive to women. But he’s a flawed hero. He can’t commit, he’s a bit of a loner and has a prickly personality with a quick temper. Hill’s books in the Serrailler series are emotive rather than descriptive, psychological rather than physical, and she likes to shock her readers. She is unafraid of voicing dark thoughts which we normally bind tightly deep within ourselves and are too afraid to reveal just in case it lets out something unsightly that we can’t quite control. Hill has said she is interested in exploring the effect of violence and crime on people and society and she does this exceptionally well.

But then she is the acclaimed author of The Woman in Black which has spooked countless fans. I’m still undecided as to whether I should see the play or read the book first.

And I have been reading lots of lovely reviews including those by dovegreyreader scribbles and Stuck in a Book about her latest book Howards End is on the Landing which is Hill’s account of spending a year abstaining from buying books and reading only the ones from her TBR shelf. Sounds like something I need to do.

The Boy with the Cuckoo Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu

A friend of mine gave me this to read a few days ago. She had picked it up because of the cover, and it certainly looked intriguing. She felt it to be a cross between Tim Burton and J.K. Rowling, and I have to agree. I had never come across the author before Mathias Malzieu who is a French musician. But the first thing that struck me about this book was the quality of writing and translation. It gently draws you in by the siren calls of its descriptions. They are just so beautiful. Let me give you a few examples:

Houses resemble steam engines, as the grey smoke exhaled by their chimneys sparkles in the steel sky.

Fountains metamorphose, one by one, into bouquets of ice.

Miraculously, the hoarfrost stitches sequins on to cats’ bodies.

It is so cold that birds freeze in mid-flight before crashing to the ground. The noise as they drop out of the sky is uncannily soft for a corpse.

Her frozen tears bounced off the ground, like beads from a broken necklace.

And that’s just from the first few pages.

The Boy with the Cuckoo Clock Heart is a gothic fairytale set in Victorian Edinburgh, not quite real, which begins with the birth of Little Jack on the coldest day in history. Jack is born with a frozen heart which is put right by Dr. Madeleine, who lives in a pointy house right on top of Arthur’s Seat, ‘this sleeping volcano set in blue quartz‘. She has grafted a cuckoo clock in place of his heart and watches over him as he grows up. Soon he becomes curious of the outside world, and when she takes him down into Edinburgh, he spies Miss Acacia, a beautiful singer with bad eyesight. This sets his heart racing and Dr. Madeleine warns Little Jack not to fall in love. Regardless of her warning, he cannot forget Miss Acacia, and enrols in school to find her where he meets the bully Joe who is also in love with her. After a tragic accident, Jack leaves Edinburgh and everyone he loves behind on a quest to find his one true love.

This is a bittersweet fairytale for adults, and I loved it. Malzieu constructs a beautifully dark world, a glittering jewel, in which he maps out Jack’s life as he goes in search of Miss Acacia and unveils the mystery of Jack and his cuckoo clock heart. You can almost taste the cold chill of Edinburgh’s winter, and the heat of the fiery circus in which Jack finds Miss Acacia. This is a tale of love, passion and revenge beautifully wrapped up in a perfect little book. Perfect for October and the RIP IV Challenge.

A Vein of Deceit by Susanna Gregory

This is my fourth title for the R.I.P. IV Challenge hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings. Although this title may not be as darkly gothic as some of the others on the list and includes splashes of humour, nevertheless it’s a mystery and explores the darker side of human nature.

A Vein of Deceit is the fifteenth chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew, physician and Fellow of Michaelhouse College who together with his friend and colleague Brother Michael, Benedictine monk and Senior Proctor, become embroiled in and solve murders whilst unravelling dastardly deeds in medieval Cambridge. Susanna Gregory’s research and her interesting characters always make for entertaining reading. As well as getting a thrill from the mystery itself, you find yourself immersed in medieval life.

I’ve been a fan for many years and find the characters evolving as the years pass, relationships deepening, new friendships forged and love lost. Except for Matthew Bartholomew, Gregory bases most of her characters on real historical figures and events occurring in Cambridge during that period. Her choice of the fourteenth century is pertinent as it places Bartholomew right in the middle of the Black Death, which decimated the town of Cambridge, and its aftermath in which there was a severe shortage of physicians.

Matthew Bartholomew is an unconventional physician in medieval England, having studied in France under his Arab teacher whose methods are a little more modern than those taught by classical teachers. This often gets him into arguments with other physicians (for example regarding the efficacy of astrological charts versus washing hands in keeping patients alive – this always makes me snort in laughter, even though I know how serious a science astrology was in the medieval world). Amongst the more mysterious elements of the story, Gregory drops nuggets of information about medieval England and the history of medicine which blend seemlessly into the story.

A Vein of Deceit begins with a vicious attack on the Master of Michaelhouse, a suspicious death of a pregnant lady and a missing Michaelhouse student. The Cambridge colleges are under siege by a ruthless brother and sister who cannot by arrested, and Michaelhouse’s college accountant dies exposing a serious lack of funds. Mix in a debate about blood relics, medieval football (camp-ball) and discovery of coal nearby and you get a brilliant tale. Although I seem to have emphasized the historical aspect of this novel, this is foremost a mystery with some truly terrifying villains.

Although you can read the books separately, I feel that you would get a richer understanding of the characters and the period if you start with the first volume, A Plague on Both Your Houses.

Gregory also writes the Thomas Chaloner series starting with A Conspiracy of Violence set in restoration London and the Sir Geoffrey Mappestone series starting with Murder in the Holy See under the nom de plume Simon Beaufort (an interesting link can be found here).

The Library of Shadows by Mikkel Birkegaard

The Library of Shadows by Mikkel Birkegaard is my third title for the R.I.P. IV Challenge hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings which has proved to be an interesting and enjoyable challenge (the other two reviews can be found here and here). I first saw this book in Waterstone’s and, as you can imagine, the title leapt out at me screaming literary thriller and I couldn’t resist snatching it up and reading the blurb. But I was strong and put it back, and was rewarded when I next visited my library. And that evening I found out about the R.I.P. IV Challenge. Coincidence or what?

The Library of Shadows has an extremely clever premise. There are two types of people in this world: ordinary folk and Lectors, divided into transmitters and receivers, who can manipulate the very act of reading to influence people and events. The Bibilophile Society, an ancient and secret sect, keeps watch over the lectors to ensure there is no misuse of power.

The story begins with half Italian, half Danish Jon Campelli, a brilliant lawyer, being given the highly publicised Remer case by his law firm. This is a case which will make or break him, and Remer is a suitably wealthy and shadowy character. At the same time, his estranged father Luca, owner of Libri di Luca, an antiquarian bookshop in the heart of Copenhagen, is found dead of a heart attack. The role of Libri di Luca and the Bibliophile Society coupled with unsettling events surrounding the shop convince Jon and his father’s friends that Luca was murdered. With the help of Katherina, a powerful receiver, Jon is activated into the Bibliophile Society and is soon chasing after his father’s murderer, unravelling events from twenty years ago that split the Bibilophile Society and the painful memory of his mother’s death.

From Denmark to Egypt, Birkegaard’s novel is a fast paced thriller packed with intelligent ideas. You can feel his love of books and everything literary shining through. I so wanted to like this book. I really did. Although I could visualise the story as a film (part X-men, part Indiana Jones), and don’t get me wrong, it was interesting and cleverly written, it didn’t altogether captivate me. I finished it and was just relieved it was over. It left me feeling it could have been so much more.

I’m not exactly sure what the problem is. I don’t usually have issues with translations; even the glaring Americanisms of Haruki Murakami’s translations don’t put me off. Murakami’s story just pulls me back in and I don’t give it another thought. It may be the pacing of the plot, the predictable ending or the one dimensional characters with whom I never fully sympathised. The most interesting person was Luca Campelli and he was dead in the first chapter.

All in all, The Library of Shadows has an intelligent idea at its core and is set in an exciting location, but I struggled to finish it. Maybe your experience might be different. Let me know.

The Three Evangelists The Chalk Circle Man

A year ago I read The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas, partly because I was intrigued by the title. I like my gothic/religious fiction and anything that sounds remotely like it always catches my attention. Also I was planning a trip to Paris and whenever I go abroad I like to read up on the country beforehand to absorb the cultural atmosphere of the place. What really drew my interest was that the three main protagonists were historians. I adore history and would read almost anything to do with history and digging up the past, especially if there was a mystery involved. So the perfect book. And it really was.

So when I heard that Vargas’ first crime novel in which Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg first appears will finally be published in English, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I like to read my series in order, you see, and somehow they published Vargas’ later novels before the first one, so I had to wait. Very strange.

The Chalk Circle Man is only a small book, about 250 pages long. It has everything I love about French fiction: interesting but opaque characters who aren’t your ordinary mtv beautiful types, philosophical musings and drinking during the day. Everyone is eccentric, ugly/beautiful and has their own sorrowful tale to tell. Although some may think her plot improbably, it is certainly different and really kept me guessing until the end. The dénouement wasn’t a thunderbolt (like my earlier experience with Agatha Christie – I’ve read too many murder mysteries and am older and more jaded now) but it was a pleasant surprise and had a clever twist. And it won the 2009 Crime Writers’ Association’s International Dagger Award.

The novel starts with Adamsberg’s promotion to head a Parisian murder squad after twenty years in the police and having picked up a reputation as ‘the wild one’ due to his unconventional, but successful, methods in solving cases. As his colleagues get acquainted with him, so do we. He is an unpretentious man, often silent, doodling in company and talks with a quiet voice. But he has an instinct for spotting cruelty that lurks beneath ordinary people’s facades. Blue chalk circles are making nightly appearances all over Paris and Adamsberg is troubled. They encircle discarded objects but soon progress to dead animals and eventually to a woman with her throat savagely cut. Adamsberg has to deal with this and a host of unruly characters who may or may not be suspects while trying to catch a killer who may kill again. He is aided by Danglard, his inspector, who is intelligent, a father to two sets of twins and is partial to a bottle of white wine after 4pm.

I enjoyed this novel immensely because of it’s setting (Paris!) and the variety of characters that appear. The plot was novel and didn’t disappoint me either. I don’t know what it’s like to read it in French (I wish I could but I doubt I would get beyond the synopsis) but the English translation was smooth and draws you in without a struggle. For my part, I can’t wait to read her other novels.

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