Summer is Finally Over

Even though I decided to start working on my PhD on the 1st of September, I gave summertime 15 more days to fade away. The reason is that I believe in smooth transitions, so 15 days have been more than enough to say goodbye to the summer and create a new, working-at-home routine. But, I will tell you about how excited I am to be back to work again in another post. Let’s review the best of Summer 2014.

  • In mid-June I posted about the books I wanted to read this summer, knowing that I am not good at planned reading and that I was giving myself freedom enough to drop out of the list any time I wanted. I read for of the books on the list, which gave me quite a satisfaction but also let me room to discover and enjoy unplanned and new readings.
  • You all adored a Top Ten Tuesday post on underrated crime fiction works. I am very glad you did and I hope that if you read any of those books you come back so we can have a little chat.
  • I read two crime fiction classics that I had to read, because otherwise I did not want to call myself a crime fiction fan. The Murder of Roger Acrkoyd by Agatha Christie and Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers.
  • I had the pleasure to host Sarah Hilary once again talking about feminism and crime fiction.
  • I discovered and fell head over hells in love with Elementary. Because Lucy Liu plays Watson.
  • I fell out of my imaginary love for Meg Wollitzer when I read The Interestings. I really wanted to like the book, it just didn’t happen.
  • I was right. It was going to be a long, hot summer.
  • Books & Reviews reached more than 800 followers. THANK YOU :)

And you all, are you all back to work again? What did you do this summer?

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Reading The Silkworm

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers

I have spent the last two weeks reading Murder by the Book by Sally Munt, a book published in the 90’s exploring feminist crime fiction. As you can imagine, there are constant references to classics, so I saw myself stopping my study routine to read two wonderful crime fiction classics that had been on my to-be-read list for quite a long time: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie and Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers.

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From Goodreads:

Mystery novelist Harriet Vane knew all about poisons, and when her fiancé died in the manner prescribed in one of her books, a jury of her peers had a hangman’s noose in mind. But Lord Peter Wimsey was determined to find her innocent as determined as he was to make her his wife.

I have to say, Strong Polson (1930) made me use my e-reader again and this time I did not dread the reading process. Sayers’ mastery of plot and narrative is so excellent that I did not notice I was reading on my device, something that I am still struggling with. Also, Strong Poison is the fifth in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, but I had no problem getting acquainted with the characters in any way, which pretty much tells of Sayers’ ability to create great characters.

As a crime fiction reader, there is nothing that I like most than a meta narrative, and Sayers produces the reader with the perfect story here: a female crime fiction writer that is accused of killing her partner with whom she was illicitly living. I loved reading about a woman crime fiction writer in the 1930’s and all the connotations that it implied. Harriet Vane’s literature is regarded as unimportant and unsuccessful even though she makes a living as a writer and her works were much more well-known that those of her partner, who by the way, wrote better literature, or so the rest of the characters say. It was also very interesting to read about the prejudices that such a woman had to face, one of them being that she was angry at her partner for not wanting to marry her, when it was actually the other way round. Murder by the Book describes Harriet Vane as the first example of a sexually active and independent woman in crime fiction and I cannot but agree. I have to admit I was shocked at how Harriet very much set the tone for the relationship and was the main bread-winner in the family.

As for Lord Peter Wimsey and his family, I fell in love immediately with them. I even pictured his mother as Maggie Smith in her role in Downton Abbey as the dowager. They seemed quite an unusual family for the 1930’s, so I really want to learn more about them. But, Wimsey as a detective was one of a kind. He is an aristocrat, but he is funny and quirky and I loved how direct he was when he confessed Harriet he wanted to marry her. I could not but think of these ladies portrayed in TV shows as crazy for wanting to marry serial killers! At first I was shocked that he would bring up the marriage issue so quickly, but Sayers makes Harriet an independent woman when she lets her ponder her answer. Also, the conversation he and Harriet had about their previous sexual encounters was very sincere and I think Sayers did a great job at making them equals and setting the tone for – I hope – a future relationship based on equality and respect.

Sayers’ books are often accused of being racist and classist. I could see the classist prejudices in the same way I could see them in Christie’s: the servants appear as rough and uncultured. There is also a lack of racial diversity, but taking into account Lord Peter’s social status, this is no surprise. So, as you can see I am actually more willing to let certain things pass in Sayers’ stories that I am not in Christie’s. This only shows how much I loved Strong Poison and I really plan on reading the following installments.

So, I would recommend this crime fiction classic to everyone. As a product of the crime fiction Golden Age, there are not shocking scenes, too many corpses or forensic details. Strong Poison is what I would call a cozy crime novel, and a very good one.

Want another opinion? Keishon from ‘Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog’ also loved Strong Poison. Click here to read her review.

It also made it to Marina Sofia’s post on the best Sayers works at Crime Fiction Lover. Click here to read the post.

Guest Post: Karixia on Barataria by Juan López Bauzá

Please give all a warm welcome to my good friend Karixia, who came to Books & Reviews to talk about the latest literary sensation on her native Puerto Rico: the novel Barataria by Juan López Bauza. I talked to her some time ago about writing this piece for the blog after the wonderful Diversify Your Shelves project. Could you name a Puerto Rican author? I couldn’t before I met her, but Karixia introduced me to this amazing postmodern novel that has captivated her native country:

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The author does not deny it, he reconfirms it*. His novel is based on the great literature piece  ‘Don Quixote de la Mancha’. The Puerto Rican author Juan López Bauzá delights us with this piece that takes us to a Puerto Rico of timeless stories but, above all, as real as life itself. The stories lead the reader to experience from disgust and revulsion for the constant and inevitably crude and painful violence of any nature, to the most profound laughter provoked by the self-reflection of the surrealist experience in the Puerto Rican daily life. In the two volumes of Barataria, the stories and adventures of the two main characters are always intertwined: the veteran, amateur archaeologist and faithful believer of Puerto Rico state 51, Chiquitín Campala; and his travel companion, Margaro Velásquez, who rescues the Puerto Rican popular proverb with particularity. Both characters lead us to explore the contemporary reality of Puerto Rico, where everything and nothing happens at the same time. We walk through an island where the safest thing is the political, social and cultural instability that leads everything to a drift.

However, Barataria invites us to ponder the various discourses of nationalism, politics, culture, and society… it is an exposition of the island without condition. Against the backdrop of the warm south of the island, both characters, mounted on their bicycle “Anacaona,” make us question the origins of the discourses that make up a place and its inhabitants: from the indigenous, native, and origin notions of Puerto Rico, to the most current debates on the future of the island. It is certain that not everything is solved, and that everyone, within their madness or sanity, has a particular way of living, defending and seeing the life that develops in a certain time, place and space.

In my opinion, Barataria, by Juan López Bauzá, becomes an essential book that critically revisits our Puerto Rican history, culture, politics, and society, so as to extrapolate to other realities worldwide. It also invites us to act upon the imagery that portrays as a mirror we cannot stop looking at.

·      * El Nuevo Día, 31 de julio de 2013 http://www.elnuevodia.com/Xstatic/endi/template/imprimir.aspx?id=1562435&t=3

** “Barataria” is nominated for the Real Academia Española Award for Creation in 2014.

Top Ten Underrated Books in Crime Fiction

This Top Ten Tuesday is very special, because it has allowed me to rescue those titles that I have reviewed since I started this blog back in 2011 and that I think, crime fiction fans should read, but that for unknown reasons were not as popular or as well-known as they should. So, let’s begin the crime fiction archeology!

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Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created here at The Broke and the Bookish. This feature was created because we are particularly fond of lists here at The Broke and the Bookish. We’d love to share our lists with other bookish folks and would LOVE to see your top ten lists!

1. The Dinosaur Feather by Sisel-Jo Gazan.- This Danish crime novel takes place in a university and a PhD candidate in paleontology sees herself involved in the solving of a crime. Not your usual setting or your usual main character, but a very interesting book. Review here.

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2. Case Histories by Kate Aktinson.- The first in the Jackson Brodie series, it presents ex-military man turned-detective Jackson Brodie. Since there is an arc in the character development in the series, I think this is the perfect place to start reading Atkinson’s crime fiction. Review here.

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3. One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson.- The second in the Jackson Brodie series, this novel explores what doing good and doing bad means and how, although we have a choice in live, past events dictate how and what we will choose. Review here.

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4. Unwanted by Christina Olsson.- This Swedish crime novel presents the reader with a very dark and twisted case (beware!), but Olsson explores human psychology in-depth and presents us with a young female detective. Review here.

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5. Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly.- I promise to stop raving about this book one day, but not until it becomes a best-seller. Daly takes domestic crime fiction to nowadays England and explores how a mother, wife and working woman does her best to detect. Review here.

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6. Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (ed. Sarah Weinman).- Did you know that there are crime fiction short stories? And did you know that Gillian Flynn did not invent domestic crime fiction with Gone Girl? And that they are ace? Sarah Weinman compiles the best short stories from the mid-20th century. A must-read. Review here.

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7. Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell.- The first in the Kay Scarpetta series, published in 1990 and currently quite out-of-fashion. There was a time DNA in crime solving was a dream. And there were no mobile phones, or IP addresses. And they still solved crimes in a modern setting. Review here.

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8. Chilled to the Bone by Quentin Bates.- I discovered Bates’ detective series last May and I fell in love with its main character, Gunna Gisladottir. It is no longer for a detective to be troubled, depressed, an alcoholic or a freak. Gunna is a working woman, mother and wife that tries to juggle it all together. Review here.

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9. Linda, as in the Linda Murder by Leif G.W Persson.- A victim that was being trained to be a policewoman and a misogynist, middle-age policeman that investigates the crime. But what does ‘investigate’ mean apart from tearing the victim’s life apart, not always leaving gender and social class prejudices behind? Review here.

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10 Little Lies by Liane Moriarty.- This is already a best-seller, but I insist on seeing behind the school and domestic setting and the three female characters. This is a great crime fiction novel, do not let yourself be told otherwise. Review here.

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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Last week I started reading for my PhD and one of the books mentioned and explored Agatha Christie’s classic The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Now, I have to confess I am not a big Golden Age fan regarding crime fiction, so, no, I had never read Roger Ackroyd, but I knew I had to. It is usually referred to as Christie’s most surprising work. I have to say, not so much. The following review contains spoilers.

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From Goodreads:

In the village of King’s Abbot, a widow’s sudden suicide sparks rumors that she murdered her first husband, was being blackmailed, and was carrying on a secret affair with the wealthy Roger Ackroyd. The following evening, Ackroyd is murdered in his locked study–but not before receiving a letter identifying the widow’s blackmailer. King’s Abbot is crawling with suspects, including a nervous butler, Ackroyd’s wayward stepson, and his sister-in-law, Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd, who has taken up residence in the victim’s home. It’s now up to the famous detective Hercule Poirot, who has retired to King’s Abbot to garden, to solve the case of who killed Roger Ackroyd–a task in which he is aided by the village doctor and narrator, James Sheppard, and by Sheppard’s ingenious sister, Caroline.

There are two things that keep me from reading Golden Age detective stories: one is the clear division between good and evil (and how endings are always correct, so that there is no room for negotiation of moral values) and another one is women’s representation. While reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd I encountered both: the narrator – James Sheppard – is a petulant and self-centered middle age man who thinks himself better than his sister, Caroline. All throughout the novel there are constant references to Caroline’s gossip and constant domestic worries, because she is a middle aged woman who has never married and, as a consequence, a ‘spinster’. Her brother, however, is a doctor, a ‘man of science’ whose life and everything that he says, are more valid just because he is both a man and of science. However, Caroline was proved to be a much better detective and have much better intuition and social skills than the narrator. I wonder why Christie planned the story this way, but taking into account the ending, I also wonder whether Caroline’s lifestyle is eventually preferred and considered better than James’. There are also social class and racial issues, but these are not as directly targeted as women’s representation. For example, when talking about a poison, it is suggested to come from South America, so that it is something exotic, something secret and hidden that modern, Western science cannot detect because it is foreign. The servants are also presented as rough people, mere tools for their masters. I have learned, however, that this is typical of Golden Age detectives and one has to leave modern concerns behind to enjoy the story.

Regarding the crime, I still believe the line separating good and evil is too clear for my taste, but I was really happy to see that Christie played with something that would not come into literature studies until the second half of the 20th century as part of the postmodern movement: silences. While Poirot investigates, he questions everyone’s alibis and motives except the narrator. Why is that? Why do readers do not stop and ask themselves about it? It is because we are used to reliable narrators. This silence, however, becomes more and more obvious and it is very easy to figure out who the killer is in the last 60 pages or so. I was shocked at the ending taking into account how suicide is constructed as something illegal and immoral, but it was ‘the right’ and politically correct ending for James after everything blackmailing and killing Roger Ackroyd.

So, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a classic in detective fiction and I am happy that I read it. However, it was not the kind of story that appeals to me. The day I finished it I started Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers – another classic – and that I did enjoy. There is still hope this reader will become a Golden Age fan.

Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

I first heard of Liane Moriarty when her previous novel, The Husband’s Secret, was published. I asked for a review copy but I was offered a digital galley instead, and since I am in a love-hate relationship with my Sony e-reader, I politely declined. But, when I read the news that Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman were on negotiations to adapt Moriarty’s latest novel, Little Lies (Big Little Lies in the USA), I knew I had to read the book before I watched the film. This time I was luckier and was sent a beautiful hardback review copy from Penguin Press. And not only that, but they are sending me a copy of The Husband’s Secret re-printing as well. Thank you!

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From Goodreads:

She could hear men and women shouting. Angry hollers crashed through the soft humid salty summer night. It was somehow hurtful for Mrs Ponder to hear, as if all that rage was directed at her . . . then she heard the wail of a siren in the distance, at the same time as a woman still inside the building began to scream and scream . . .

When a harmless quiz night ends with an act of shocking violence, the parents of Pirriwee Public School can’t seem to stop their secrets from finally spilling out. Rumours ripple through the small town, as truth and lies blur to muddy the story of what really happened on that fateful night .

When reading about Little Lies online, I am afraid some readers will call it “chick-lit”. Because it deals with mothers, schools, children and domestic issues. This is a book written by a woman, about issues that society classifies as women’s issues and that deal with the private and domestic spheres of any family: laundry, food, clothes, image, schedules. So, Little Lies definitely belongs to the recent and very popular subgenre of ‘domestic crime’ or ‘domestic suspense’. I am very pleased that these stories have now room in our shelves and in readers’ minds. Sarah Weinman recently compiled short stories from the 1950’s written by women and belonging to the so-called domestic crime or domestic-suspense in Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, so the ideas are nothing Gillian Flynn invented for Gone Girl. However, I am afraid there will still be those who will quickly discard Little Lies as a ‘chick-lit’ for its setting and its characters. I can only say, their loss.

What first called my attention about the story is that I had no idea where it was set. While I read, I realized it was too sunny to be England, yet they used “mum” instead of “mom”, which completely discarded the USA as a setting. Why did not Australia come to mind? I really do not know, but I am very happy and very excited to have discovered crime fiction set in Australia. It felt really weird to read about Christmas in summertime and how they organize their lives completely different to what I am accustomed to.

Having dealt with the setting, I discovered another joy: Moriarty’s masterful story-telling. The reader knows from the beginning that someone has died because we are told so by many secondary characters who all have a distinct voice and very different opinions on the matter. There are three main characters: Madeleine, Celeste and Jane and the story centers on their lives in relation to the pre-school their children attend. This setting and the worries that come from it give the appearance of little troubles: one kid hitting another one, jealousy, fighting for toys, etc. But the reality behind it is much more complex and Moriarty did a great job at portraying the adult world behind pre-school. I could feel exhausted and troubled when one of the main character was because they were late for the school run, or because they were about to hand some homework late. This is how good Liane Moriarty is.

As you can imagine, Little Lies is a win-win at women’s representation. Pirriwee school is actually a fancy, upper middle-class school, so Liane Moriarty focused specifically on the problems women belonging to this social class have. One of them is image: there is constant talking about diets, exercise and fashion and how all the mothers do their best to look as if they were just out of a runaway show when they are actually exhausted and have a million other worries troubling them. Women who are mothers cannot content themselves with being mothers, housewives (even if they work outside the house) and themselves, but they also have to be fashionable mothers. In this environment it was also easy to portray the famous “Mommy Wars” between stay-at-home mothers and the so-called “working mothers”. Moriarty then shows that everything is constructed and that society has a list of what a mother has to be and what not and how this pressure affects some women and is just another worry to their already busy lives. The book really deconstructs the issue of properness: what is proper of a good mother, of a good wife, of upper-middle class, of good friends, of fashionable women etc. However, I had one little problem with the book and that was its whiteness, but, again, taking into account the setting, one can only deduce that social class and race go tightly hand in hand and Liane Moriarty covertly denounces that.

So, I would recommend Little Lies by Liane Moriarty to everybody. I was about to lose interest in reading for a few days when I decided to give the book I try and it did wonders. Do not let the cover (which I think is beautiful!) or the back description hold you back. Little Lies is a great crime fiction novel. Actually, it is my first and only 5* review this summer. Not convinced yet? Check out these two other fantastic reviews:

Little Lies review at FictionFan Blog

Little Lies review at Cleopatra Loves Books

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

Last year I was lucky enough to get a review copy of The Cuckoo’s Calling barely a month after it was revealed that Robert Galbraith was actually J.K. Rowling. Earlier this year, when news came out that a new installment on the series was due in June, I contacted Little Brown and they kindly added me to their review copies list for The Silkworm. Thank you, Clara, for both review copies.

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From Goodreads:

When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days—as he has done before—and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.

But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine’s disappearance than his wife realizes. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives—meaning that there are a lot of people who might want him silenced.

When Quine is found brutally murdered under bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, a killer unlike any Strike has encountered before…

Once I finished The Cuckoo’s Calling last year, I realized that I had a love-hate relationship with Robert Galbraith, or, to be sincere, with J.K. Rowling as a woman writer. Back then, I wrote:

Why did not Rowling think of a female detective? Neither did Atkinson by the way, and I find it so interesting that such intelligent women could not imagine a female detective, that I am even a little angry at them. But then I pick one of their books and see that they make a quite accurate portrait of society with both men and women – good and bad – are present and I forgive them.

In that paragraph I was talking about Robin, Strike’s sidekick and assistant who spent the novel trying to prove him and herself that she was worthy of becoming Strike’s sidekick. But eventually she does, so I expected her to play a greater role and become a more confident character in The Silkworm. Turns out, I was wrong. One of the things that I cannot stand about Robin is that she subjects herself to male pressure in her life. On the one hand, her fiancé is the quintessential snob, and this translates to his views on gender roles, so that Robin has to be constantly hiding from him that she actually loves her job and that she is not having an affair with Cormoran every day. On the other hand, when she is working, she tries really hard to prove herself worthy of being a detective’s assistant even though Strike – the solitary wolf that he is – does most of the work on his own.  Sometimes he looks at her as if she were a kid playing detective and he thought how cute it was, even though she was key to solve the murder in the previous book and on this one. Meanwhile, Robin remains loyal and stands by both men. It has been a while since women made it into detective fiction as professionals, but non-trained detectives like Robin belong to a different era, a Miss Marple era. So, Galbraith does make a point about women with no detective training going into detective jobs in our technological and militarized era where they seem not to belong. Fair enough I get it, but I do hope that Robin is developed as a character to be more than an accidental sidekick to Cormoran’s traditional masculinity. One great example of Robin’s apparently inadequacy as a woman investigator came when she had to hide her long, strawberry blonde hair into a hat to do some detective job because it was something people would remember and it could compromise the investigation. However, six-foot tall and limping Cormoran allows himself to do the supposedly serious detective work and – it seems – goes unnoticed. As if! What is it with women’s bodies in crime fiction? This could fill in another post, so I will leave it here. However, my rage is not only directed towards Robin, who I hope will become a more a better character in the series. She is not the only woman in the novel – and without giving anything away – I was appalled by the opposite and moralistic representation of caring mothers and single or unfaithful women. Enough said.

Gender issues addressed, let’s deal with the crime. I have to say it was fantastic. It still puzzles me that, taking into account my studies and own personal views on feminism, I can still read and get hooked on a crime fiction novel that flagrantly fails at women’s representation. But I can, and reading The Silkworm was a joy. The crime was much more intense and dark that I had expected, and its connections to the literary and publishing industry make you wonder about that world that Galbraith/Rowling must know so well now and that is quite foreign for many readers. I would not recommend The Silkworm to sensitive readers though, I was shocked at some images, yet it was the kind of light-enough shock to keep me turning the page even at 2 am in the morning. This is the reason why despite all my ranting about women’s representation, I still gave the book 4 stars at Goodreads. The crime side of the novel is THAT good.

So, I would recommend The Silkworm to any crime fiction fan looking for an addictive read. Galbraith’s ability to create the perfect pace and change settings and focus is so masterful that you will not find yourself bored for more than half a page, I promise.