Reading Highlights – June 2015

I surprised myself in June by reading all of nine, yes nine books. Well I read seven and listened to another two. Unlikely to keep this up for long though. Five crime novels and four general fiction. No non fiction this time – again. Though I did manage a book in Spanish. An unusual month for reading in that I managed to fit in two doubles this time. Two books each by two different authors. One was the familiar Jo Nesbø. Now that Harry Hole has gone to rest, Nesbø has turned his hand to some stand alone novels. All featuring the usual quota of murder, mystery and gore. The Son has some features in common with the Harry Hole series – a police detective with his own personal problems and a spate of murders to solve. The difference this time is that the main focus is on the perpetrator of the crimes, The Son of the title. A former drug addict, now escaped from prison, he is on a revenge mission to expose the people who set up his father, a police officer. Fast paced and with an unexpected ending, The Son is another excellent novel from Nesbø. Blood on Snow is a very different reading experience for Nesbø fans. For a start it is much, much shorter, under 200 pages. Secondly the story is told in the first person by the main character, who it turns out is a contract killer. A rather reflective killer as it emerges. His latest commission is to kill the wife of his boss. Can he do it? A typically brutal tale, but fast paced and leavened by some comic touches.

Ferdinand von Schirach is a new author to me and I managed to read the first two of his novels. The first, The Collini Case, has earned a lot of praise from the press, so I wanted to give it a try. It is a very short novel and deals with some real events from Germany’s Nazi past. The Collini of the title is an immigrant Italian worker who after decades of living and working in Germany decides to brutally murder a high ranking German industrialist. He gives himself up and makes no attempt to mount any king of defence. A young lawyer gets the case and eventually uncovers the story behind the murder. Which goes back to the 2nd World War and war crimes committed by German soldiers in Italy. One of the soldiers was, it turns out the German industrialist. This should have been a really interesting read, but I found the style and pace too slow and too matter of fact. The uncovering of what happened all takes place outwit the storyline and is delivered out of the blue during a court hearing. A bit of a disappointment.

Just in case I was mistaken with von Schirach, I immediately went on to read his second novel, The Girl who wasn’t there. This also involves a court case, though the novel is really about Sebastian von Eschburg, the surviving son of a wealthy and irresponsible family. We are taken through his unhappy childhood and his equally unhappy transition into a successful avant guard artist. There is nothing much to like about von Eschburg. Out of the blue he gets charged with the murder of a young girl. The body of the girl of course is not found. The novel then takes a bit of a turn as more secrets about the von Eschburg family are uncovered. A bit too fanciful for me. I think I have exhausted my quota of von Schirach novels for the year.

For our reading group book of the month we had The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman, by French Canadian author Denis Thériault. A strange, lyrical piece about love, loneliness and haiku. Bilodo, the Montreal postman is a very lonely person, who has few friends and basically enjoys his solitude. He has a secret passion though – he opens some of the letters in his bag before he delivers them. Through a series of accidents he ends up taking on the identity of a dead man and carrying on his correspondence with a young woman in Guadeloupe. This correspondence is in the form of exchanging haikus. A peculiar novel, which will fascinate lovers of haiku.

My Spanish language book was Tanta Pasión para Nada, a collection of short stories by Leones author, Julio Llamazares. So much passion over nothing is the English translation and aptly describes the overarching theme of the stories. Life is at bottom a meaningless and often unfathomable experience, so why get so excited about anything? The stories cover a wide range of topics, though all with a grain of hopelessness about them, befitting the nihilism of the author.

Along with Jo Nesbø, I managed to re-acquaint myself with some more old friends.  Yrsa Sigurdardottir is an Icelandic crime writer and Ashes to Dust is the third of her novels featuring lawyer Thora Gudmundsdottir. I love this series and Gudmundsdottir is a well crafted and very interesting creation with a busy life of her own. Ashes to Dust centres on the discovery of some bodies in the cellar of a house. The bodies date back to a volcanic eruption in the Westmann islands in 1973. Who are they and why were they there? The Papers of Tony Vetch by William McIlvanney is the second in his Laidlaw series. Laidlaw is the rough diamond of a Glasgow cop, bitter with life, but in a philosophical way. First published in 1983, I am only now getting to know these novels, and very good they are.

My highlight of the month was a crime novel by another favourite writer of mine. Where the Bodies are Buried is by Chris Brookmeyer. I have read a couple of his previous novels and these were outrageously funny, witty and at the same time brutally gory. Where the Bodies are Buried represents a new departure for Brookmeyer. This is a much more serious piece of writing. Though there is still some of the humour and wise cracking, the predominant tone is darker. The main protagonists are Glasgow detective Catherine McLeod and Jasmine Sharp, a wanna be actress who is temporarily working for her uncle’s private detective agency. The two women end up, somewhat unwillingly, working on the same cases, involving murders and missing people. As fast paced as his other novels, this was a very enjoyable read, with some on the seat of your pants escapades.  Brookmeyer has written more novels featuring this pair. Looking forward to them.

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