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‘The Paper Cell’ by Louise Hutcheson ****

Louise Hutcheson’s debut novel, The Paper Cell, was a highly anticipated read for me, after seeing snippets of reviews sprinkled around the Internet, but not much more. The Paper Cell was published in 2017, and is part of the Contraband Pocket Crime Collection – which provides ‘distinctive diversions for discerning readers’. I received a copy of the lovely miniature Contraband hardback edition for Christmas, and dug in on Boxing Day.

In the London of the 1950s, a publishing assistant named Lewis Carson ‘finds fame when he secretly steals a young woman’s brilliant novel manuscript and publishes it under his own name’. Two days later, the woman’s body is found on Peckham Rye Common; she has been strangled to death. The blurb posits, rather intriguingly, ‘did Lewis purloin the manuscript as an act of callous opportunism, or as the spoils of a calculated murder?’

The Paper Cell begins in 1953, in a London-based publishing house. When Fran Watson, the young author in question, first pays him a visit, Hutcheson immediately sets the scene, showing how manipulative Lewis can be: ‘Lewis shifted behind his desk, aiming to look uncomfortable and achieving it. He affected a grimace as her eyes flitted up, then down. It was a pleasing dynamic, he thought. Though she had arrived when he was at the height of a bad temper, her obvious defects made him feel rather good about himself by comparison.’

At this point in time, Lewis has not read Fran’s manuscript, but rejects it – and her – regardless. After she has left, he then spends the next two hours ‘pored over its pages – once, twice, three times – returning compulsively again and again to the first page with a growing sense of horror.’ In London, Lewis belongs to a ‘ramshackle writers’ group with not one published piece between them and a tendency to get drunk before they get constructive’.

The narrative then shifts forward in time, and we move to Edinburgh. Here, an ageing Lewis is living, and in 1998, he is about to give his first interview for over a decade, to a sharp newspaper journalist. The novel which he stole was published under the title of ‘Victory Lap’, and is highly regarded as a classic of the twentieth century.

One of the real strengths of The Paper Cell is the control which Hutcheson has over her scenes and characters. She showcases a lot of emotions which flash and seethe within her cast. I very much enjoyed the vintage setting, which feels realistic; several period details are signposted throughout the novel, which embed it in time and place. Most of the narrative takes place in 1953, and the portions which occur in 1998 are, of course, heavily concerned with the earlier period. I really enjoyed Hutcheson’s descriptions, many of which are brief, but almost tangible; she writes, for instance, ‘The faintest whisper of daylight was beginning to creep through the drapes, but the room was mostly dark, and heavy with cigarette smoke.’

Hutcheson writes throughout with a practiced hand, and The Paper Cell, in consequence, feels like a very polished debut novel. It is not quite what I was expecting, and takes a lot of wonderful twists and turns as it goes on. The LGBTQ+ element to the plot was well handled too, and the entirety moves along nicely. Despite the brevity of the story, I felt that I really got to know the characters and their world. I was so enthralled by the novel, in fact, that I read it in a single sitting.

I have been careful not to give too much away in this review, as I very much enjoyed coming to The Paper Cell and knowing very little about it, aside from the stolen manuscript element of the plot revealed on its blurb. In my opinion, The Paper Cell is a book best to read without knowing the entire plot; it offers up many surprises in consequence, and there is far more to it than initially meets the eye. I very much look forward to reading more of Hutcheson’s work in future, as it certainly seems as though she has a promising writing career ahead.

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‘Sword’ by Bogdan Teodorescu

Sword, translated from Romanian by Marina Sofia and published by the brand new publishing house Corylus Books, is an innovative political thriller set in modern day Romania.

41tvda1yzRLAt the very beginning of the novel, we are introduced to the mysterious killer who appears to only target the criminals of Bucharest that are of Roma descent. He kills them in one blow using a sword, thus gaining the nickname Sword by the media, who are fast to spread the news (and subsequent panic) about the killer to the wider public.

With the police having trouble finding any clues as to the killer’s identity and whereabouts, and with the media and public putting the blame on the current government, the Sword case quickly spirals out of control. The public opinion about the killer seems to be divided, thus giving birth to an array of political and racial issues as well.

The premise of Teodorescu’s novel sounds utterly fascinating, especially for fans of crime/thriller novels. Although the Roma criminal killings are at the core of the novel’s plot, there is much more emphasis on the political side of the story and how the politicians and journalists are handling and effected by this case. Teodorescu’s clear and concise prose (aided by the excellent translation in English) along with the short chapters that present alternate points of view create a fast paced narrative that keeps the reader at the edge of their seats, longing to know how this mess is going to be resolved.

Although the political figures and the journalists are characters that appear frequently in the narrative, I believe there is no actual main character in this novel. The government, the police and the media are all on the lookout for the elusive Sword killer, while also trying to face the racist outbreaks regarding the Roma community, as well as the general outrage and distaste of the public about the way this case is handled. The Sword killings, then, seem to threaten much more than the public safety, as political interests are also at stake.

I really enjoy books that are not afraid to tackle sensitive topics that are not frequently touched upon, especially when they are interspersed with a gripping and fast-paced plot, and this is exactly what Sword did for me. Teodorescu managed to create a political noir that reads like the Romanian version of House of Cards if a mysterious killer was introduced in the plot. The Roma community is a difficult issue for many South European countries and I really liked the way the author brought this topic into his plot and used it to construct a solid thriller with political implications that seems to  essentially be a depiction of the tumultuous state of his country (even though there is no killer on the loose in real life).

I had never read any Romanian literature before, and I’m very glad that Sword was my introduction to it. I will certainly be looking forward to reading more titles by Corylus Books as well, as I think it’s really important to support new publishers who are trying to bring something new to the English-speaking bookish world.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher, Corylus Books.

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‘A Midsummer’s Equation’ by Keigo Higashino

As I have said in previous posts, Higashino Keigo is one of my favourite contemporary Japanese authors and I will faithfully devour any book of his that falls into my hands. Most of his books combine mystery and crime plots with social issues, and I like how his prose is easy to read and yet really thought provoking. A Midsummer’s Equation is the sixth book in the Detective Galileo series, but only the third one translated into English (the other two being The Devotion of Suspect X and Salvation of Saint, both of which I’ve read and enjoyed).

23847971This novel is set in Hari Cove, a beautiful but rather neglected and now forgotten seaside resort area of Japan, where a conference regarding the town’s underwater mining operations is taking place. Our favourite physicist, Manabu Yukawa, otherwise known as Detective Galileo, has been invited to speak at this conference, which has apparently divided the town into two sides, as some people want to protect and preserve the natural beauty of their town, while the others support that going forward with the mining operation will open up new possibilities for this neglected by tourists town.

On the train to Hari Cove, Yukawa meets a little boy, Kyohei, who has been sent to spend the summer holidays at his uncle and aunt’s hotel, once bustling with tourists and visitors. However, during the very first night there, a body is discovered, that of a former policeman, who also happened to be a guest at Kyohei’s family’s hotel. As investigations around this death begin, many secrets and interreleated events start being uncovered, making this case much more complicated than it initially seems.

Like with Higashino’s other books that I’ve read, I really like how easy and fast to read his writing is, as it sucks the reader right inside the story and keeps them at the edge of their seat for what is still to come. In a way, this novel is very unlike the typical Japanese mystery/crime novels, in the sense that the culprit isn’t given from the outset, but instead we don’t get to know what truly happened until the very last pages.

Although I really enjoyed this intricate mystery and how many characters and events from their past became connected, I have to admit I got a little tired of the scientific talks (being a physicist, Yukawa loves giving those). I understand they were important to piecing together parts of the mystery, but since I can’t say I’m very interested in science itself, those passages were sort of a bore for me.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed how Higashino poses so many environmental questions and whether profit or preserving one’s natural treasures is truly the winner in the end.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book, though it wasn’t one of my favourites by this author. I am really looking forward to reading more of his books in the future (and even in Japanese, as they say his prose isn’t particularly difficult – I can’t even imagine the scientific vocabulary that will be included though!).

I read this book as part of Dolce Belezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 12.

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Two Reviews

2017 might not have been my most productive reading year (in terms of pleasure reading at least), but I did manage to read some wonderful books that will remain with me for a good while. I will talk to you about two of them today, a Japanese “classic” crime novel and an American collection of short stories, both of which I immensely enjoyed and made my 2017 a bit more tolerable.

The Master Key by Togawa Masako **** 36396709

A very well-crafted and quirky mystery novel which hooked me from the very beginning. I really enjoyed how the different stories of each character all came together in the end and the mystery kept being unveiled until the very last page. All the characters were so unique and well-rounded and the story of each individual was also compelling on its own. It was definitely refreshing, a mystery very unlike the usual ones and definitely one which deserves everyone’s attention.

Although there was not a main detective in charge of solving the case and the structure of the novel is vastly different from similar Western crime novels of the time (this one was published in 1962 in Japanese), there is something about this mystery that strongly reminds me of Agatha Christie. I can’t say if Togawa is Christie’s Japanese equivalent, or even if such an assumption is fair, but I enjoyed reading The Master Key tremendously and I will definitely seek out more of her work.

Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks ****

35011288I usually am very cautious and shy away from books written by celebrities – no matter how much I like or admire the celebrity, more often than not the books they publish are yet another publicity stunt to make the number in their bank account even bigger. Needless to say I was taken aback when I heard Tom Hanks, one of my most respected actors, was releasing a short story collection.

Despite my initial skepticism, I have to admit I truly enjoyed this collection. While not all stories were my cup of tea, and some felt rather dull or without a specific point (as it happens with most short story collections), the vast majority were stories that made me smile, brought tears to my eyes and offered me a wonderful experience. Tom Hanks is a truly gifted writer and I didn’t expect his prose to feel so natural and adeptly crafted.

The tone and voice of the stories were inherently American and the characters and plots felt like they jumped out of Tom Hanks’s most successful ’90s films. Although I’m not American, they managed to evoke a feeling of nostalgia for an era well gone and for a certain innocence and naivete of people which is scarcely found today. I also enjoyed the fact that some characters were recurring in later stories, which made them feel even more realistic to the reader, as a different aspect of their lives or perspective was offered in each story they appeared. Overall, a wonderful collection of stories which made me wish there will be more to come.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think about them? ūüôā

Both books were provided to me by their respective publishers via NetGalley.

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Flash Reviews: ‘Ox Crimes’, ‘Black Eyed Susans’, and ‘Vinegar Girl’

Time for three more mini reviews!

Ox Crimes by Various Authors *** 9781781250648
I purchased Ox Crimes whilst seeking out my Scorching Summer Reads pile because it sounded wonderful. I love the idea behind it; twenty seven crime writers donating a story apiece to Oxfam. As with the majority of anthologies, there were a few stories which didn’t really interest me – the more hardboiled detective ones in this case – but on a high note, I have also (finally) discovered Stella Duffy.

I very much enjoyed how quirky a lot of these stories were; there were unusual elements to them for the most part, and not one could be termed run-of-the-mill. A mixed bag of crime stories, let’s face it, but literature for a good cause is always worth buying.

 

9781405921275Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin ***
I have been trying to read more thrillers of late, and Black Eyed Susans has undoubtedly been hyped. Whilst travelling to my early morning lectures, I must have seen a dozen posters with that eye-catching field of flowers, featuring the slightly ambiguous naked woman, dotted around the underground.

My thoughts about the novel are a mixed bag, as I had a feeling they might be. The storyline is intriguing; it has elements of the general thriller, but there are a few twists to it in places that I wasn’t quite expecting. Heaberlin’s writing didn’t blow me away, but the pacing was strong. The merging of past and present stories worked well, but the tenses were undoubtedly confused at times (and I say this as a proofreader). Black Eyed Susans felt, to me, rather drawn out in places, and whilst it kept me entertained, I don’t think I’d rush to pick up another of Heaberlin’s novels.

 

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler * 9781781090190
This had so much potential. WHY WAS IT SO DULL!?

I love Shakespeare. I love The Taming of the Shrew. I love the Hogarth Shakespeare series. I greatly admire what the authors have done. I had hoped that this would suck me in as Jeannette Winterson’s book did, but alas. There are nowhere near enough echoes of the original here; if you were not aware that this was a rewriting of Shakespeare, I’m not entirely sure you’d be able to guess.

I’ve not had the best experience with Anne Tyler’s novels in the past; I have begun three, and abandoned three. I think I’m going to give her up as a bad job. Thoroughly disappointing, and hopefully not a precursor of the rest of the series!

 

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Getting Into Crime Fiction

Crime fiction – particularly of the contemporary period – was a genre which I oddly found myself steering away from in my teenage years, but of late, I have been veering more and more toward it. ¬†I love a good mystery, and whilst I have always been a fan of cosy crime, I am now¬†drawn to more recent releases. ¬†For those of you who don’t classify crime fiction as within your favourite literary genres, I thought it would be a good idea to point out¬†five crime books which I would highly recommend, giving you a springboard from which to dive into some exciting books.

  1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce series #1) by Alan Bradley 9780752883212
    ‘Take one precocious eleven-year-old girl called Flavia. Add an ancient country house somewhere in England in 1950. Then sprinkle with murder, mystery and dark family secrets…For very nearly eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, the discovery of a dead snipe on the doorstep of Buckshaw, the crumbling de Luce country seat, was a marvellous mystery – especially since this particular snipe had a rather rare stamp neatly impaled on its beak. Even more astonishing was the effect of the dead bird on her stamp-collector father, who appeared to be genuinely frightened. Soon Flavia discovers something even more shocking in the cucumber patch, and it’s clear that the snipe was a bird of very ill omen indeed. As the police descend on Buckshaw, Flavia decides it is up to her to piece together the clues and solve the puzzle. Who was the man she heard her father arguing with? What was the snipe doing in England at all? Who or what is the Ulster Avenger? And, most peculiar of all, who took a slice of Mrs Mullet’s unspeakable custard pie that had been cooling by the window…?’
  2. The Secret Adversary (Tommy and Tuppence, #1) by Agatha Christie
    ‘Tommy and Tuppence, two young people short of money and restless for excitement, embark on a daring business scheme – Young Adventurers Ltd. Their advertisement says they are ‘willing to do anything, go anywhere’. But their first assignment, for the sinister Mr Whittington, plunges them into more danger than they ever imagined…’
  3. 9780008124120The Moving Toyshop (Gervase Fen Mysteries) by Edmund Crispin
    ‘As inventive as Agatha Christie, as hilarious as P.G. Wodehouse – discover the delightful detective stories of Edmund Crispin. Crime fiction at its quirkiest and best. Richard Cadogan, poet and would-be bon vivant, arrives for what he thinks will be a relaxing holiday in the city of dreaming spires. Late one night, however, he discovers the dead body of an elderly woman lying in a toyshop and is coshed on the head. When he comes to, he finds that the toyshop has disappeared and been replaced with a grocery store. The police are understandably skeptical of this tale but Richard’s former schoolmate, Gervase Fen (Oxford professor and amateur detective), knows that truth is stranger than fiction (in fiction, at least). Soon the intrepid duo are careening around town in hot pursuit of clues but just when they think they understand what has happened, the disappearing-toyshop mystery takes a sharp turn…Erudite, eccentric and entirely delightful – Before Morse, Oxford’s murders were solved by Gervase Fen, the most unpredictable detective in classic crime fiction.’
  4. In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
    ‘Nora hasn’t seen Clare for ten years. Not since the day Nora walked out of her old life and never looked back. Until, out of the blue, an invitation to Clare’s hen party arrives. A weekend in a remote cottage – the perfect opportunity for Nora to reconnect with her best friend, to put the past behind her. But something goes wrong. Very wrong. And as secrets and lies unravel, out in the dark, dark wood the past will finally catch up with Nora.’
  5. Case Histories (Jackson Brodie, #1) by Kate Atkinson 9780552772433
    ‘Cambridge is sweltering, during an unusually hot summer. To Jackson Brodie, former police inspector turned private investigator, the world consists of one accounting sheet – Lost on the left, Found on the right – and the two never seem to balance. Jackson has never felt at home in Cambridge, and has a failed marriage to prove it. Surrounded by death, intrigue and misfortune, his own life haunted by a family tragedy, he attempts to unravel three disparate case histories and begins to realise that in spite of apparent diversity, everything is connected…’

 

Which are your favourite crime books?  Which would you recommend to someone just starting out with the genre?

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Flash Reviews (14th March 2014)

‘Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe’ by Fannie Flagg (Vintage)

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg ****
I had heard such great things about this novel that when I spotted it in Fopp, I just had to purchase a copy.¬† I am probably one of the few people who has not seen the film, which seems to be very popular, but after reading the book I can definitely see why it is.¬† The novel was first published in 1987, and is the first of Flagg’s works which I have read.¬† Harper Lee (one of my most treasured authors) calls it ‘a richly comic, poignant narrative’, and from the moment at which I spotted this upon the book’s lovely cover, I was almost entirely convinced that I would very much enjoy it.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe begins in Alabama in June 1929, a period and literary setting which I adore. The parallel story which runs alongside it begins in December 1985, in the Rose Terrace Nursing Home in the same state.   Both present and past stories are interspersed with weekly news bulletins from 1929.  This mixed narrative works well; it gives a real feel for the place in which the story is set, and its history, almost immediately.  It is clear that the notion of community is so important to Flagg, and it really comes across in the story which she has created. There was a real sense of warmth within some of the characters, and it was made entirely clear that those like Idgie Рone of the main protagonists, and the co-owner of the Whistle Stop Cafe Рwere both revered and respected within their community.  I loved how headstrong she in particular was.

It looks rather a chunky book – indeed, the Vintage edition which I read runs to just over five hundred pages – but it is a surprisingly quick read.¬†¬† Flagg’s style is very easy to get into, and the novel itself is sweet and rather heartwarming.¬† I would certainly recommend it to fans of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, the novel which I was reminded of throughout.

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The Big Sleep
by Raymond Chandler ***
I decided to read this hardboiled crime novel purely because it is one of Mark Hoppus of Blink 182’s favourites.¬† I can tell why he likes it, as throughout it felt like an incredibly masculine book.¬† The novel, first published in 1939, tells of a detective who often seems rather detached from the cases in which he dabbles.¬† Oddly, I found it devoid of emotion at times, and the behaviour which the characters demonstrated sometimes felt bizarre and inconsistent.¬† The protagonist, Philip Marlowe, reminded me somewhat of Dexter from Jeff Lindsay’s novels.¬† The most interesting aspect of The Big Sleep for me was its storyline.¬† It is quite unlike much of the crime literature which I have been reading of late, so in that respect I am glad that I can add¬† a Chandler novel to my read list.¬† The prose was so sparse throughout, however, that I do not think I will rush to read more of¬† Chandler’s work, but I would like to view the film of the same name to see how it compares.

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One of Gwen Raverat’s illustrations from ‘Period Piece’

Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood by Gwen Raverat ***
Cambridge is my local city, and it is one which I absolutely adore.  I will happily read anything which is set within it.  This was recommended to me by Lucy (thank you, Lucy!), who told me that it was an absolutely lovely book, and one which was well worth a read.

Gwen Raverat is the granddaughter of Charles Darwin, so along with the setting, the anthropological aspect interested me too.  The places which she describes throughout are familiar to me, and I loved being able to picture the scenes exactly as they are and, in most cases, how they have remained for centuries.  Throughout, lovely illustrations can be found, all of them by Raverat herself.

On reflection, Period Piece was not as I had expected before I began it.¬† I thought that it would be quaint and would focus more upon growing up in Cambridge than upon Raverat’s multitudinous collection of relatives, some of whom were wonderfully eccentric, but others whom were rather dull.¬† It was rather more of a familial than a geographical memoir, I suppose.¬† The book is certainly interesting with regard to the scenes which it paints, but I cannot help but feel a little disappointed by it, feeling as it did a tiny bit lacklustre at times.¬† Its charm was not quite consistent enough to make this a stand-out memoir.¬† Period Piece is certainly of worth to the modern reader in the sense that one can see how social attitudes have altered, but not as much more in the case of this reviewer.¬† Still, I certainly did not dislike it, so it receives a wholesome three stars.

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