Reading Highlights – February 2014

I managed to get through seven books last month, one more than January. Three were audiobooks which probably explains the extra book. The usual mixture, with three crime novels, three non crime novels and one non fiction book. The non fiction book was one of the audiobooks and was an examination of the life of Cleopatra by American writer Stacy Schiff. Very entertaining to listen to, as she tried to unravel all the myths about Cleopatra. Though as there is not that much original source material, a lot remains conjecture. But at least on this occasion it was conjecture back up by some serious research.

The three crime novels were all by familiar authors. The Bat, by Jo Nesbø, is another good murder mystery featuring Oslo’s top detective Harry Hole. This time he is in Sydney, Australia, trying to help solve the murder of a Norwegian woman. The trail soon leads to the uncovering of a serial killer. The odd bit about this novel is that it was the first in the series, but the last to be translated into English. The Black Rose of Florence by Michele Giuttari, is the fifth in his crime series about detective Michele Ferrara. Some strange murders all point to a secret satanist group at the heart of Florentine society. Not all is resolved and the story continues into the next in the series, Dark Heart of Florence, which is already on my to read list. The final crime novel was Muertos de Papel/Prime Time Suspect, by Alicia Giménez Bartlett, the fourth in her series which features the chalk and cheese pairing of Petra Delicado and her sidekick, Fermín Garzón. The case starts with the murder of a journalist who specializes in exposés of celebrities. Soon the case expands to include other murders and an ever expanding list of possible suspects. This time the case takes the duo away from Barcelona to Madrid, where the initial victim also worked. Another complex case which is as much about exposing the shallow world of celebrities as about solving the crime.

All the books I read last month were very good, but the three non crime fiction novels deserve special mention. I have previously reviewed Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi here. The other two novels were:
4607387This is the first novel by American writer Hillary Jordan. It was the reading group’s choice for February. And a very good choice it turned out to be. Set mainly in 1946 on a cotton farm in the Mississippi delta, this is a very powerful portrayal of the racism that scarred and brutalized just about everyone in that part of the world. Henry McAllan wants to become a successful farmer and moves his city wife, Laura, and their young children to an isolated and decrepit farm in rural Mississippi. Their struggle is burdened not just by the muddy nature of the land but by the deep conservatism and racism of the other white farmers. The return of two war heros, Henry’s younger brother, Jamie, and Ronsel, the son of the black sharecroppers on the farm engenders a complex weave of events which almost tears the family apart. A gripping tale, which is made all the more believable as Hillary Jordan writes each chapter from the perspective of a different character.

Instructions-for-a-HeatwaveThe latest novel by one of my favourite authors, Maggie O’Farrell, is set mainly in London, during the heatwave of summer 1976. The heat serves as a kind of metaphor for the tensions that build up as the novel unfolds. The story begins with the discovery that Mr Riordan has walked out of the family house with his passport and some money. Gretta, his wife, is understandably distraught and calls on her grown up children for help and support. However this is not your usual loving bunch of siblings. And though the three of them, son and two sisters, do come together the underlying secrets and resentments soon come to the boil. Now that they are all together again they are forced to begin the process of lancing these boils. A chance discovery leads them all off to Ireland, from whence the Riordans originally came and. The father it seems has his own secrets and demons to overcome. Maggie O’Farrell cleverly uses the story of the missing father as a framework for an intriguing and sensitive exploration of what binds or unbinds a family.

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