This morning I have the honor of being part of Cathy Brown’s Books That Built the Blogger series talking about my very early start on crime fiction at the age of 2, teenage reading blues, and my addiction to a good (fictional) morgue. You can check the whole post at Cathy’s 746 Books (link on the image):
Before I posted my Dolores Redondo review last week I realised that it had been a month since I had last written anything for the blog. I realised that a few weeks had gone by pretty quickly, mostly reading and writing and trying to read and write a bit more for the blog. However, I just ended up reading lots, and writing lots… for my PhD. My reading patterns have been erratic to say the least, with Saturday afternoon binge-reading sessions, and less than 15 minutes devoted to reading from Monday to Friday. The fact that I love crime fiction but have decided to make a job of my passion is not helping either, as I usually find myself looking for a non-crime read during the evenings. So, here’s what I’ve been trying to do:
I visit my local library every week browsing the Spanish literature section in search for my next read. I am not well-read in Spanish literature. Actually, I’m not well-read in Spanish at all. Even though I have read some feminist classics such as Nada by Carmen Laforet and Las edades de Lulú by Almudena Grandes I can’t really think of more books that I would enjoy (recommendations VERY welcome!). Last week I borrowed Isabel Allende’s La casa de los espíritus (The House of the Spirits) in an attempt to discover Latin American magical realism and I miserably failed at reading the book. Or even opening it. I’m giving it another try in a week.
Also from the local library I am giving a try to best-sellers in English – now translated into Spanish – that I am not sure I would enjoy. After learning a bit about romance from C, a professor that I connect with during my degree, and from Wallace Yovetich from Book Riot, I decided to give romance a try. I thought it would be a good exercise to try to separate what I have been conditioned to enjoy as woman in patriarchal society and my feminist awakening. I borrowed L.S. Hilton’s Maestra and as I write this, I’m considering returning it to the library…
For my PhD I have been reading American crime fiction and crime fiction theory, as well as working on a few articles and projects which I’ll share in due time.
So, this is what’s been going on behind the silence of the blog. I hope I get to reading crime fiction soon, and meanwhile it is lots of TV, walking the Puppy and sleeping in my little free time.
Right after I finished reading The Lecagy of the Bones by Dolores Redondo I knew I had to read the next (and last) installment in the Baztán Trilogy. Keeping on the promise I made to myself to use the public library as much as I can, I borrowed Ofrenda a la Tormenta – ‘Offering to the Storm’, though there is no translation to English available yet – and I got lost in the dense greenery of the Baztán valley one last time.
The story picks up right after The Legacy of the Bones, with D.I Amaia Salazar chasing the network of criminals that has been targeting the families of the Baztán valley for decades, and with her personal struggle with the handsome Judge Marquina. Even though I found the second novel in the series a real page-turner, Ofrenda a la tormeta despite its necessity to give closure to the story, does not equal The Legacy of the Bones in holding the reader’s attention. As Salazar tries to solve the case, her past comes to haunt her one more time in the form of dreams that become an over-used resource by Redondo, making me skip whole paragraphs without having any troubles following the story afterwards.
The novel’s strength lies in the cryptic combination of Amaia’s personal and professional struggles, as her husband James takes a secondary role, and her relationship with her son Ibai no longer plays such a big role in the creation of her own identity, which is to thank after the obsession with motherhood that plagued the previous novel. Instead, Amaia’s relationship with Judge Marquina takes a central role, making Salazar question the decisions that have shaped her life until she met him. However, Redondo does not offer a fresh take on female desire in crime fiction, and Amaia’s infatuation with the Judge takes a darker turn – no spoilers! – that will become the most remarkable struggle of the novel. As for the closure, the Baztán readers will get it as all the events from previous novels – that Redondo wisely brings up again with a few sentences – are tied together.
I was very, very disappointed by Ofrenda a la tormenta as the final installment in the most successful crime series in 21st century Spain. Questioned by a few fellow crime readers here, I had to admit that The Invisible Guardian is a good book, The Legacy of the Bones is a great one, but Ofrenda a la tormenta makes for a very poor ending. I think my main problem relied on how Redondo tells the story, and how Amaia’s issues with her mother, as well as her nightmares became tiring narrative strategies that tried to move the plot forward connecting Salazar’s past and present. However, I had no problem finishing the book, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has read the two previous installments as a way of finding closure.
As a Spanish crime fiction reader, I must say that I am really happy that Redondo’s books are also enjoying some success in more than 30 countries now. The novels have changed the way many people in this country perceive crime fiction, especially written by women. Even though the novels were a bit expensive (20€ each!), the publishers also released cheaper paperback editions and most local and public libraries have them as well. In an effort to expand the series’ success, a film adaptation combining the three novels is to be released the 3rd of March 2017, with Basque actress Marta Etura starring as Amaia. Here’s the trailer in Spanish. No spoilers!
If you have not heard of Dolores Redondo’s Baztán Trilogy, you can find more information here:
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh was one of the most talked-about books of 2016, especially as it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Not only that, but some of my favourite book bloggers kept raving about it, and after Naomi from The Writes of Woman said I would love it, I knew I had to give it a try. On the release of the paperback, I was sent a review copy by Vintage Books. Thank you!
Eileen tells the story of twenty-four year old Eileen Dunlop just before her disappears from her stereotypically New England town in 1964. In the first chapter, we learn that she is telling the story from the present, fifty years after everything happened, and she warns us: ‘I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen’. That Eileen works as a secretary at a boy’s prison while she cares for her alcoholic father. One day, a smart, elegant redhead called Rebecca appears at the prison and disrupts Eileen’s life. By the end of the first chapter, Eileen is clear about what the rest of the story is about: ‘In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared’. The rest of the novel is organised daily, with Eileen and Rebecca’s relationship building up, slowly progressing to the day that, surprisingly for the reader, Eileen will be brave enough to break away with everything she has ever known.
So far, so good. The novel’s structure very much responds to classic crime fiction, with tension building up each day, making the reader wonder what path Eileen and Rebecca’s relationship will take. What will happen to make Eileen run away? Eileen has been widely described as a psychological thriller, and it is. But I was particularly interested in Moshfegh’s statements about the writing, and how they relate to the general perception we have about crime fiction as a highly structured subgenre beloved by the general public. In a very disruptive interview for The Guardian, Moshfegh said:
[I] wanted to write a novel to start a career where I could live off publishing books. That was my prime motivation for writing Eileen. I thought, fine: I’ll play this game. And I still feel like I’m playing it […] Because there are all these morons making millions of dollars, so why not me? I’m smart and talented and motivated and disciplined and … talented: did I say that already? I said: fuck it. Which was also: fuck them. I was pretty hostile. I thought: I’ll show you how easy this is.
Although I am perfectly fine with the author’s desire to make a living off art- a right every artist should have – I was troubled by her implications that thrillers (and/or crime fiction in general) are a game to be played. As in any other subgenre, there are good books and bad books, but my own experience as a reader is that a good crime or mystery novel takes a lot of work, and is not an easy task. Moshfegh’s lack of knowledge about crime fiction was made patent when she continued:
Most people who pick up a book labelled ‘thriller’ or ‘mystery’ may not be expecting to confront troubling ideas about women in society … I couldn’t be like, Here’s my freak book … So I’ve disguised the ugly truth in a kind of spiffy noir package.
I wholeheartedly disagree. Good crime fiction’ raison d’être is to open discussions about gender, race, social class and morality, the very way Eileen does. Because let me make this clear right here right now: Eileen is a good novel, not a fascinating one, especially for crime fiction readers. The whole text feels like a character study of the anti-femme fatale, and that is fine. Gildas no longer run the world. But, going back to the consideration of crime fiction and popular literature, I am afraid Eileen is built on a conservative approach to crime fiction as a minor subgenre that is meant to just sell books in a package. Said package refers to the overused formulas of genre fiction, that, however: ‘ease the transition between old and new ways of expressing things and thus contribute to cultural unity’ (John G. 1976: 35 – 36). After these disruptive statements, Moshfegh was interviewed by the team at Virago, and she admitted she did not like how she came off in her Guardian interview as arrogant (whether or not this was damage control, that is for each of us to judge):
Eileen is plagued with scatological references, as well as vivid descriptions of the main character’s lack of personal hygiene, and her narcissistic personality. There are also references to Eileen’s virginity and her struggle to negotiate her sexual desire with her own body, which she finds disgusting. Moshfegh has admitted she has suffered eating issues since her adolescence, making her main character an informed user of laxatives, enemas and a compulsive control of her eating habits. Unhappy with her life, and unable to escape it, present-day Eileen describes her past self as a prude who wanted to erase her own body and exert control over her only subject: Herself.
All these characteristic definitely make Eileen a different book, as it insists on still necessary conversation of including non-likable female characters in contemporary literature. Instead of a thriller, I would label Eileen as a complex character study about femininity, domestic roles, family duties, morality, institutionalisation, and the importance of empowering women through knowledge of their own bodies and the outside world. I would definitely recommend it, especially after all the blurb. However, if you are an avid crime fiction reader, Moshfegh does not adhere to the tradition as much as she think she does. The main crimes perpetrated in Eileen are the main character’s total subjection to her father, and her desperate desire to escape her miserable life, which, from a feminist perspective, earn the book a recommendation.
As I visited the public library to return Ferrante #4 last December, I stumbled upon Dolores Redondo’s Legado en los huesos (The Legacy of the Bones) in the New Books section. As I eyed the familiar cover – all the Spanish editions share a similar cover, with greenery and a woman – I realised that it had been a year since I had read El guardián invisible (The Invisible Guardian), the first installment in the series. I realised then, it would just be perfect to put an end to 2016 the same way I had started it: By returning to Baztán.
Legado en los huesos takes place as Amaia Salazar gives birth and is forced to return to Elizondo, where a local church has been vandalised. If El guardián invisible was constructed over the greenery and the scenery typical of Navarra and the Northern part of Spain, then Legado en los huesos highlights the unique political environment of the area. Amaia, despite being in charge of the team now, sees herself investigating the desecration of a local church because a high-ranking prelate from the Opus Dei specifically requests her. The right-wing organisation is extremely powerful in Navarra, where they are in charge of the most prestigious Medicine college of the country. Their influence is however greater than that, and the novel is built on Amaia’s struggles to reconcile her job and her new role as a mother, and the Catholic doctrine with the pagan beliefs of Elizondo.
Amaia’s recent maternity and mother-child relationships take again a central role in the narrative as she gives birth to a baby boy, instead of the girl they were expecting, and she struggles to become the mother she has pictured herself to be. Redondo makes an effort to include the difficult task of caring for a newborn, even though Amaia always has James by her side. Post-natal depression, as well as remorse, sleep-deprivation, and the importance of finding time with her husband make up for most of the main character’s personal arch. I found Amaia’s views on motherhood a bit old-fashioned, especially when she tries to put her son’s breastfeeding above everything, and she refuses to let it interfere with her work. However, all her worries disperse throughout the book when she accepts help from James and Engrasi to take care of the baby, and she recovers some personal space and time. Some of that personal space will be clouded by Judge Markina’s interest in Amaia, posting questions about flirting, infidelity, love, and marriage, thus giving adding even more depth to the main character.
It is a bit difficult to describe the crime that sets the plot into motion because everything is directly linked to the events on the previous book. So, if you have not read El guardián invisible, Legado en los huesos is not a good place to start. As Amaia investigates the desecration of a church in Elizondo, Johana Marquez’s father commits suicide in jail, leaving a strange message for Amaia that sends the whole team into a thrilling investigation during the cold, wet and dark winter of Northern Spain. Personally, I was thrilled to see our short and wet days inscribed in popular literature, as we do not get much sun and warmth in the North of Spain, where we share more similarities with England than with Barcelona. The return to her hometown will also help Amaia deal with her traumatic relationship with her mother, as well as with her older sisters, Flora and Ros. Tía Engrasi is always present in the background, taking the role of mother, confident, and now grandmother to Amaia’s kid, as well as facilitator of the family’s return to the town. Without giving anything away, Amaia will discover a dark family secret that will change her forever. All these stories are entwined with the Basque mythology that made El guardián invisible such a distinctive book.
Legado en los huesos is a an even better read than El guardián invisible, though longer and darker. Despite my passion for crime fiction, I found myself agitated and unable to read this book during bedtime due to Redondo’s masterful story-telling skills. The crimes Amaia investigates also take a darker turn, and although I do not want to give anything away, please beware the book contains graphic descriptions of violence against children and teenagers (as did the previous installment), as well as desecration of Catholic places. If you can bear that, then you are in for one of the best books written in Spain in recent years.
2016 has been an interesting year. As I write this we have just heard of Carrie Fisher’s death. Bowie. Prince. Cohen. Brexit. Trump. Aleppo. The ‘alt-right’. George Michael. Spain’s turn to the right, once more. Let’s take a deep breath. 2016 has not been kind to us.
Reading is, for many of us bookworms, a necessity, but also escapism. When I joined the blogging community 6 years ago (!!!!) I discovered that reading for escapism was considered a bad habit. You should read to become a better person, to learn. But, what if escaping our lives makes us better people? What if turning the news off and enjoying a good story will make us happy and more sympathetic human beings? I truly believe in the power of books to change the language we use to describe the world, hence change the world. But it does not have to be a task, or a struggle. Reading for pleasure has always been how I understood reading (except during my degree when I learned the horrible phrases ‘compulsory reading’ and ‘reading with a deadline’), and 2016 has been a year for pleasure because to put it simply, reality sucked a bit too much. It has also been a year of wonderful women, present in my life as authors and as mentors, friends, and colleagues. It has been a #ReadWomen kind of year.
As I got deeper and deeper into my PhD thesis I learned that there is more to reading for pleasure than crime fiction. After reading and writing about Scarpetta and Brennan for hours and hours, I found myself less likely to pick up a crime novel during my free time, and instead binge-watching crime television shows (an addict is an addict, right?). This is why I finally approached the Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child). The four novels, which are an international success, tell the story of Elena ‘Lenú’ and Lina ‘Lila’ from their childhood in the corrupt and violent Naples of 1950’s until our current times. At first I did not understand why the series were so successful, but one page in Ferrante’s writing will make you read the four novels in a row. More on Ferrante soon.
Something similar happened with reading in English. I chose to read Ferrante in Spanish because I thought that the translation from the Italian original would be closer than the English one. So, I decided to begin and end the year reading another series. Dolores Redondo’s Baztán Trilogy (The Invisible Guardian, The Legacy of the Bones, and the upcoming third volume) is taking the English-speaking world by storm. Written by a woman author and with a strong and complex female main character, the series focus on Amaia Salazar’s investigation of serial murders in her native town of Elizondo. The novels offer a different take on Spanish culture by erasing the stereotypical paella and flamenco image and instead making the Northern culture known to international readers. A delight for many natives like myself. Again, more on Redondo to come soon.
But, what I can say? My heart will always belong to forensic doctors. If I was a die-hard fan of the Scarpetta series (I know the quality of the novels decreases with every new installment, just let me enjoy them while I can!), I am now a die-hard fan of Kathy Reich‘s Temperance Brennan series as well. I was already a regular Bones (2005 – 2017) viewer, but the novels offer a different take on Tempe, yet she feels familiar as well. I read the first novel in the series, Dèja Dead (1997) for my thesis, and it takes a huge amount of self-control every day not to purchase Brennan #2. As I analysed it for my thesis, I am not sure I will be reviewing it here, just in case the boundary between my work and this blog becomes more blurred.
2016 was also a year of discoveries. Even though Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist did not appeal to me at all, I was immediately interested in her second novel The Muse. Cleverly mixing art, history and personal narratives, half of the novel takes place in a small Andalusian town months before the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939). The writing was so inspiring and clever that it will remind readers their love for books, language, and art in general. And did I mention that Burton writes about the hardships of being a woman artist? You can check my review here. Going back to Spain, I also discovered my love for Almudena Grandes’ The Ages of Lulu (Las edades de Lulú), which felt like the original 50 Shades, with Spain playing the main female role after decades of fascist dictatorship. Taking into account the current state of affairs, it may be wise to remember that sometimes, rebellion for rebellion’s sake is good (and a bit of erotica never killed anyone). Discover it for yourself here.
I also did some re-readings this year, mainly for my thesis. The one that surprised me the most was Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, which I read for the third time for an upcoming book chapter I wrote, and it amazed me one more time in ways I did not expect. Moriarty’s power relies on her ability to portray everyday life in a critical yet humorous way, while inscribing the traditional female experience of housekeeping and child-rearing in popular literature. I really, really hope to gain an open access license for my book chapter to share it. Meanwhile, here‘s my review (from 2014!), and the trailer for the upcoming HBO adaptation produced and starring my beloved Reese Witherspoon:
And I finally became an adult in 2016, which means that I finally learned to enjoy non-fiction. Even though I had read some non-fiction in previous years, it was not my go-to genre. This year all I could think about was learning about the life experience of other women, mainly writers and feminists. The boyfriend gifted me Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road, which proved to be an enormous source of inspiration to keep travelling and fighting for women’s rights (review here). But I was also reminded of my love for reading, writing and connecting to other women writers’ work by Kate Bolick’s Spinster (review here). Another key read for me was Sarah Knight’s The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck, as I felt I was giving too many f*cks in my life, and it was time for a change. I highly recommend this book to any woman out there who has ever felt guilty when putting herself before others. More here. I hope to read more non-fiction in 2017: I think that my next read will be The Mitfords by Charlotte Mosley, but I have also heard a lot of good things about books revisiting the three Brontë sisters. So, I’ll keep my eyes and ears open for any good recommendations that you may have.
As for contemporary crime fiction, I had the pleasure of exploring diverse takes on the idea of ‘crime’. The first big one was American author Megan Abbott, whose last novel You Will Know Me about a teenager Olympic gymnast has become my recommendation for anyone who asks for more women in crime reads. You thinking about reading it? Click here. I also read After You Die, Eva Dolan‘s Zigic and Ferreira #3, which is contemporary British crime fiction focused on diversity issues, starting with the DS and DI in charge. More here. My taste for diverse British crime fiction does not end there, and Tastes Like Fear, Sarah Hilary‘s new installment in the Marnie Rome series was also a big part of the year. I may nudge her a bit every year regarding the next book in the series, this is how good they are.Finally, for my job at LARB, I was assigned the review of Megan Miranda‘s All the Missing Girls, a crime novel told in reverse, which only shows how crime novels are character studies on human behaviour, rather than mere whodunits. Since the content is all theirs, here‘s a link to my review.
I could not finish this post without mentioning the two more difficult reads of 2016, and the cosiest one. Let’s start with the difficult: I was invited to deliver a paper on the 2012 New Delhi Gang Rape, and the prospect of analysing how rape, rape culture and rape victims were portrayed in the media was something I could not refuse. As I usually do whenever I face anything in life I am not really familiar with, I chose to read fiction. Crime fiction? It felt like it. It felt raw. And cruel. And there were days when I could not utter a kind word to anyone in my house because either I let my feelings build up as rage, or I would burst into tears. Responsible for this almost-breakdown were Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It, and Courtney Summer’s All the Rage. I have not reviewed them yet. I do not know if I ever will. Revisiting Emma’s and Romy’s stories – though fictional – feels a bit too much for the festive season. And to finish this post with some optimism, I loved, loved, loved Sam Baker’s re-telling of The Tenant of Windfell Hall: The Woman Who Ran, which is the perfect mix of contemporary crime fiction and English classic literature. Just check it.
But, as it happens with everything in life, this could not have been possible without the people in my life. From the publishers and editors who kindly send their review copies across the Channel to Spain, I would like to thank you for making this blog possible. Especial thanks are deserved by all the authors who have kindly agreed to be interviewed for Books & Reviews this year: Paula Hawkins, Dolores Redondo (who kindly confided in me for her first blog interview in English!), Megan Abbott, and Helen MacKinven.
And, finally, to every single reader and to the subscribers and followers, more than 2,000 of you who have chosen to support this blog: THANK YOU. Books & Reviews is possible thanks to each of you. I hope you have a wonderful 2017 filled with books and love.
Things have been awfully quiet over here for the last month. Life got in the way of reading and writing, ironically in the form of reading and writing itself for my PhD. But fear not! New reviews will be up before 2016 comes to an end, and I will write my traditional Best Books of The Year List.
Today I would like to wish you all happy holidays and a wonderful bank holiday in the UK. I hope you get to spend these days with your beloved ones, and with lots of books.