Ten Best Reads of October, November and December 2019

From the thirty-three books I read in this quarter, I’ve selected the ten I enjoyed the most. All but two of the books were written by women, three of the books have been translated into English and half of them are darkly humorous.

Mainstream Fiction

Two mainstream books delighted me this quarter, Alice Hoffman’s “The River King” and Salley Vickers’ “Grandmothers”. I’d have selected either of them on the quality of the writing alone but both of them have a lot more to offer than that.

“The River King” (2001) by Alice Hoffman is built around the death of two people, decades apart: the wife of the school’s first headmaster and a present-day pupil. Both are deemed to have committed suicide. Both haunt the school, either literally or in the memories of the people who knew them but did not save them, depending on how you read the text.

Yet the story is not a whodunnit. The deaths aren’t these to be solved or avenged. Their function seems to be to present the main characters in the book with choices about how they will react to deaths. What will they take responsibility for? What will they sacrifice? What will they bury and try to live with?

The writing style, a dryly witty, joyfully articulate and completely omniscient narrator curating my journey through the lives of a small group of people entangled in the plot, is new to me and I’m not sure what to call it. Atonal lyricism perhaps? There is a disturbing and compelling duality built in to the style that means the surface of the text is as fixed and calm as ice on a lake but beneath that layer moves a strong current of emotion that the ice somehow amplifies rather than hides.

“Grandmothers” (2019) by Salley Vickers is a beautifully written, acutely observed, thoughtful and honest book that shares moments from the lightly interconnected lives of three grandmothers, initially strangers to each other, as they spend time with their grandchildren and with each other.

Salley Vickers showed a remarkable ability to take me inside the heads of thoroughly imagined women, with very different backgrounds and current circumstances, and keep me interested in each of them.

There are some big themes here about being a mother and a grandmother, about being old, about being alone and about being aware on a daily basis of one’s mortality but the power of the book is that it doesn’t start there. It starts with the people. You feel as though the issues arise only because of who the people are rather than that the people have been created to illuminate the issues. 

Christmas Books

I’m always hungry for good Christmas-themed books but they can be hard to find. This year I was fortunate enough to find three books that I think deserve to be on everybody’s Christmas wishlist: “The Adults”, “A Maigret Christmas” and “The Twelve Clues Of Christmas“.

“The Adults” (2018) by Caroline Hulse is a fun book that mixes humour, real people and the stresses of spending Christmas together.

With humour that was inventive enough to make me laugh aloud and accurate enough to make me cringe, it tells the story of two middle-class English couples spending Christmas together at a cabin in the “Happy Forest” resort in Yorkshire.

The twist is that the party is made up of two people who are divorced from each other, Scarlett, their seven-year-old-daughter, her imaginary friend ( a very tall stuffed rabbit called Posey) and their current partners. What could possibly go wrong?

“A Maigret Christmas” (1951) by Georges Simenon was my first ever Maigret book. I bought it because I loved the cover and hoped it would give me a Christmas-themed crime with a French flavour, meaning something that managed to be nostalgic but avoided saccharine sentimentality. Georges Simenon exceeded my expectations on all counts.

The book contains three short stories: “A Maigret Christmas”“Seven Small Crosses In A Notebook” and “A Little Restaurant Near Place Des Ternes”. I’d expected to find a strong Maigret story to anchor the book and then two “And Other Stories” to pad things out. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the stories got better as the went along, with the final story, a Christmas story for grown-ups which Maigret doesn’t feature in, being my favourite.

“The Twelve Clues Of Christmas” (2012) by Rhy Bowen is a Christmas Cracker of a book where the prize is solving an ingenious set of Christmas-themed murders, the wrapping is a colourful evocation of a 1935 English Country House Party made all the more believable because it’s being constructed for paying guests by gentry who can no longer fund their way of life, and the explosive energy comes from an engaging heroine who is instantly likeable, even though she’s thirty-fifth in line to the throne.

it takes talent to sustain a truly light-hearted tone, especially while delivering a clever and complex plot for multiple murders and making gentle fun of the English class system. Rhys Bowen makes it look easy.

The puzzle of the murders, which seem at first to be accidental deaths, is beautifully constructed. It’s complex, dramatic and feels just a little far-fetched until the moment when all was revealed and I was left slapping my forehead in a “why didn’t I think of that?” way while grinning at the impudence of the idea.

RomCom with A Twist

“The Rosie Project” (2013) by Graeme Simsion is a perfectly formed RomCom which works because the hero is neuroatypical . He, like any other romantic hero, has obstacles to overcome, some of which he creates for himself and some of which are created by the people around him, and we hold our breath to see if he can win through. We cheer for him for being himself. We want him to succeed without having to change anything essential about himself. 

Don Tillman, our hero a tenured associate professor of genetics at an Australian university. He understands that his brain is wired differently from most other people’s and that this is likely to make it harder for him to find a life partner. So he sets up “The Wife Project”, a questionnaire-based search for his perfect match. When he meets Rosie, a self-evidently poor match for his search criteria, he gets involved in “The Father Project”, helping her to identify her biological father.

The plot is beautifully structured as a RomCom quest. It has a number of surprising twists and while I wanted Don to succeed, I was kept guessing about if or how this would be possible.

Sparkling Fantasy Series

“The Strange Case Of The Alchemist’s Daughter” (2017) by Theodora Goss, is a wonderful start to an innovative series.

A clever, fun book that does interesting things with form, “Strange Case Of The Alchemist’s Daughter” provides a ripping yarn starring strong women and evil men and does everything it can to subvert the Patriarchical view of the world.

The narrative style of the books is unique, a collective storytelling by a group of women who dispute and edit as they go. It seeks to present a consensus reached by collaboration which I think it works as a fun thing to read and takes a poke at the mansplaining patriarchy along the way.

This innovative storytelling style, where all the women chip in and comment on the story as its being written, in a way similar to a character in a play breaching the fourth wall, is very engaging. It’s also really a rejection of the traditional style of gothic story-telling which focuses on a single male’s adventures, usually as he strives to achieve an objective or solve a puzzle.

Although all the leading women are “monsters” from classic horror stories, the truly monstrous creatures in the book are Gentlemen. As Catherine explains:

“Ah, Gentlemen. Best avoid them,” said Catherine. “I haven’t known a single one of them that didn’t want to ruin a girl in one way or another.”

The ways these attempts at ruin are wrought and the ways in which the women survive and help each other are the heart of the story. 

Original Crime Stories

Three of my favourite reads this quarter come from writers taking original and sometimes quirky crime stories. “A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder” is a British YA novel that does interesting things with form. “The Awkward Squad” gives a distinctively French satirical view of policing. “An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good” is Scandi-noir with a sense of humour.

“A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder” (2019) by Holly Jackson is a debut Young Adult crime novel with an original premise: bright, independent, highly organised Pippa, in her final year at school and planning to go on to Cambridge, uses her EPQ project to investigate the alleged murder and suicide, five years earlier, of two kids from her school.

She tells her teachers that she wants to explore the impact of social media on how the deaths were understood and how that affected the investigation. Her real motivation is to prove that the boy accused of the murder didn’t do it.

This was an engrossing mystery that kept me guessing and hungry for answers right up to the end, which also managed to do interesting non-pretentious things with form and has a main character who is easy to believe in.

“The Awkard Squad” (2015) by Sophie Hénaff is an entertaining, original, humorous, well-plotted story of a new squad of outcasts in the Paris Police coming together to solve two murders.

The book has a premise that I think is a peculiarly French mix of the logical, the absurd and unacknowledgeable but well-understood reality. The Paris police have set up a new Squad, led by a previously promising but now disgraced Commisar, into which they’ve dumped forty or so failed but unsackable police officers and a collection of unsolved cases. There’s no expectation that the squad members will turn up never mind solve a case. The declared purpose of the Squad is to make the stats of the other Squads better by concentrating all the failure in one place.

This is a great set up or dry humour, eccentric characters and a bit of suspense. To my surprise, it also turned out to include complex investigations into a couple of murders.

What makes “The Awkward Squad” different from Anglo versions of the same kind of story of outcasts working cold cases is the stoicism of the officers who have been branded as not wanted. They don’t throw angry tantrums. They accept where they are and hope that things might get better. They discover that by learning to trust and support each other, they can win back their self-respect.

“An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good” (2018) by Helene Tursten is a collection of Five quietly sinister and entirely plausible tales of a woman in her eighties who discovers she can get away with murder.

This was a delightfully mischievous read, especially at Christmas, when one of the stories is set.

In Maud, Helene Tursten has produced as an intriguing villain: an old lady, happily solitary and financially secure, for whom other people are not entirely real, except in so far as they help or hinder her in taking care of herself. When people become problems, that is they pose a threat to her or those she cares for or disturb her peace or attempt to steal from her, Maud is happy to solve the problem permanently with a little bit of well-managed violence that results in a death the either looks accidental or cannot reasonably be attributed to Maud herself.

The stories area subversive blend of cold-blooded violence and social humour. I particularly liked that Helene Tursten pitted both of her favourite Swedish detectives, Irene Huss and Embla Nyström against Maud to no avail.

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