Flashbacks by J.E Hall

I borrowed Flashbacks by J.E Hall from a friend from university who, knowing of my passion for crime fiction, thought I would enjoy a thriller by a local author that she is familiar with. Turns out, she was right!

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Meet Adam, a nineteen-year-old about to enjoy his gap year bicycling all the way from his native England to the Middle East. Over-protected by his parents, who insist on safety issues that he, clearly does not need.

Kaylah is doing Business Studies at Southgate University and daughter to Bishop Sam Kone, descendant of Caribbean immigrants and a television star. As any young woman, Kaylah does not agree with her parents’ beliefs, and keeps her mind open to other religious ideas.

Ali has recently given up his engineering studies to join IS because that is what was needed of him. However, after the expansion of the group in late 2014, things are now too quiet for his taste, until he is assigned a very special mission.

Flashbacks tells the story of these three main characters interconnected as they meet, work together, and fight against each other at a time when religious freedom and mobility has defined the UK as a true melting pot. However, the lives of Adam, Kaylah, and Ali are far more complicated, and as they prepare to celebrate Armistice Day, they all have different goals in mind. The novel is an outstanding representation of contemporary diversity in which religion plays a key role. The first in the Adam Taylor trilogy, it presents readers with the main character after whom the series is named, but also with Kaylah, one of the most impressive female characters I have encountered in recent political thrillers.

Written in a style clearly reminiscent of John Le Carré, Flashbacks shows the intimacy and social preoccupations that have characterised British crime fiction during the 20th century instead of just focusing on the action. With each chapter devoted to each of the main characters, the book inscribes the youth in the thriller tradition breaking away with middle-aged secret agents who have been doing their jobs for decades. Instead, Hall gives Millennials access to the Intelligence Services and reminds society that we can do some good work too.

Flashbacks is a thriller that will keep you in the edge of our seat until the very last page while also posting important questions to the reading audience. In current times, when religious extremism has changed the world as we know it, it is important to keep an open mind and go beyond essentialism believes and alt-right propaganda. The introduction of Ali’s IS ideals as a main character is a significant change in contemporary literature, even though, as a thriller, the book keeps a clear line between good and bad, and there is no space left for moral relativism. But, in a fast-paced thriller like this, there is no time for lucubrations, and that is OK.

Ofrenda a la tormenta by Dolores Redondo – Giving Closure to the Baztan Trilogy

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.

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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:

Review: Baztán Trilogy #1 – The Invisible Guardian

Review: Baztán Trilogy # 2 – The Legacy of the Bones

Exclusive Interview with Dolores Redondo for Books & Reviews

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

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!

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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.

Legado en los huesos (The Legacy of the Bones) by Dolores Redondo – Baztan Trilogy #2

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.

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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.

The Lie by C.L. Taylor

I think I must have heard about crime fiction author C.L. Taylor where I usually do, over Twitter. With time, I saw how some fellow bloggers praised her novels, and when I found myself browsing Waterstones Cardiff last year I came upon her novel The Lie and I bought it.

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The reason to choose The Lie among Taylor’s novels was simple and easy: The story involves Jane, a young, female main character who lives in a cottage in rural Wales, works at an animal sanctuary, and has a dark past. As I was spending my last morning in Cardiff, unsure on when I could return to Wales, I decided it would be a great idea to buy something to remind of my good times there. Also if you follow me on Instragram, you know I am an animal lover and my love for The Puppy has him spoilt rotten. At first sight, The Lie seemed the perfect novel for me, and it was.

I could not put the book down from chapter 1 up until the very end. Jane Hughes has a supposedly common life in rural Wales until an anonymous person makes sure she knows her past is not buried. The back of the novel already informs readers of a dark turn in an international escape Jane and her friends embarked on five years earlier. Taylor masterfully tells both stories in first person, shifting between Jane’s present and past and making it easy for readers to follow the change in time and setting.

The present follows Jane as she tries to hide her past and rebuild her life in Wales. But the story about her past was made even more interesting by the dynamics between the four friends who embarked on the trip. As I was reading, their relationships reminded of Lena Durham’s TV show Girls, and how female friendship is achievable in a patriarchal context, yet complex. Meanwhile, the story set in the present keeps the reader interested in the past, but also in Jane’s evolution as a person. Who is she really? And what is she hiding? Is it possible to leave your past behind and start a new life?

The crime(s) in the book are outstanding, since Taylor questions what is a crime and how it should affect the people involved. Is Jane’s new life a crime? Does she have a right to create a new identity and lie to everyone in Wales about who she really is? But, things do not end there, and Taylor makes a magnificent use of crime fiction’s ability to question society by including violence towards animals as a crime that too many times goes unpunished.

The Lie is the first novel that I read by C.L. Taylor, but certainly not the last one. It is a gripping crime novel with a very interesting and complex female main character who engages in a diverse of relationships with other women (friends, mother-daughter, employer-employee). I would recommend The Lie to anyone who is looking for a page-turner and wants to be left wanting more, soon.

Marcella: Troubled Detectives, Green Parkas, and Fringes

Last June I started watching ITV’s new show Marcella after some people on my Twitter timeline mentioned it. Three episodes down the line bad reviews started to appear, with even The Pool criticising how Marcella’s parka was used to turn her into a television icon like Sara Lund and her jumpers. By that time I was travelling a lot and did not have much time to watch and enjoy the series. As I returned to them in my last week of my summer break, I rediscovered a fantastic television show with a defined aesthetic, and a new female detective to join the ranks of my television role models.

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International viewers will probably be surprised at Anna Friel’s performance, since the British actress is not really well-known in other countries. Friel does an amazing job at giving life to Marcella, stay-at-home mum and wife who returns to her job to the Metropolitan Police after her marriage falls apart and her children move to a boarding school. Right from the beginning Marcella identifies a pattern in a series of apparently random killings in the city when a colleague visits her to ask for some information from an old case she worked on in 2005. As the pictures of these new killings pick her interest she decides to return to the Met while her new colleagues question whether Marcella is actually a good detective or someone who cannot leave the past behind.

Rather than present these killings as a procedural series, Marcella‘s season 1 cleverly entwined police work and the characters’ personal lives in ways that sometimes seem confusing and may leave audiences wondering what is really happening. I highly suggest binge-watching this first season, as it is easier to make the connections between the vast number of characters and their sometimes secret lives. I was really happy to see some familiar faces such as Downton Abbey‘s Laura Carmichael in a very different role, as well as prolific television actress Nina Sosanya. The series was originally written in Swedish and later on translated into English by Hans Rosenfeldt, who was also in charge of the Scandi sensation Bron (The Bridge). This Scandi influence is overtly reflected on the night settings and the darkness that generally floods every scene.

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MARCELLA EPISODE 7 Pictured: RAY PANTHAKI as DI Rav Sangha, CHARLIE COVELL as DI Alex Dier, JACK DOOLAN as DC Mark Travis, NINA SOSANYA as DCI Laura Porter and ANNA FRIEL as Marcella.

The first season focuses on a series of murders that resemble one of Marcella’s most challenging cases. As she brings together her past and the present, her team of colleagues will post some very interesting moral questions to the audience with Marcella’s responses being the most extreme. How are can the police go to solve a crime? Is it right to harass a criminal on parole in order to prevent him from doing more harm? In questioning suspects, where is the line between pressure and torture? The feeling of instability and blurred lines is made more intense by Marcella’s blackouts and the stress she is under, both professionally and personally.

In the glimpses we are given into Marcella’s personal life, we get to discover a middle-aged woman, a terrific yet complex DS, and a troubled mother and wife who is dealing with her recent separation. It was refreshing to see a female main character come undone at times yet returning to work with all her strength, because that is what really drives her. Motherhood plays a key role with Marcella’s kids struggling with the separation as well, and blaming their mother for it. One of the most interesting relationships was the attempt at a civil relationship between Marcella, her husband and their kids. Despite her betrayal, Marcella herself recognises her partner’s good parenting and tries to make the situation as easy for the children as she can. However, this does not mean she lets herself be a martyr, and she comes up with the truth when she decides she does not have to carry the weight world on her shoulders.

Marcella’s personal life also includes her house and her closet, full of practical and comfortable clothes with her green parka being an icon. The Pool criticised the way Marcella’s parka is used to construct the character and sell clothes to the series’ female audience. I must disagree after I bought myself one for this winter completely unaware of where I had gotten the idea of replacing my worn out and ragged parka with one that looks uncannily like Marcella’s. Clothes have become iconic in crime fiction, a genre that is more a character study than a mere procedural, with the main characters’ clothes becoming references to the general public: Sherlock’s hat, Sarah Lund’s jumpers, Temperance Brennan’s jewels, Stella Gibson’s blouses. And now Marcella’s green parka, with that wonderful fringe of fur framing the hood, protecting its wearer of the cold London weather.

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The same could be said about Marcella’s deep auburn hair, which comes out with some coppery highlights depending on the light. And her fringe, which I am sure has inspired more than one woman to get that shoulder-length and fringed hairstyle that can so easily become a comfortable ponytail yet look glamorous. I also appreciated how the colour worn out throughout the season, so that by episode 8 Marcella’s roots were easily visible. It is sometimes difficult to connect with female main characters when they have been working for weeks without a break and they still look red carpet perfect. Marcella’s hair is almost always up, trying not to get in her way, and looking dry and not so-done and one would expect on a television show.

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Marcella is a new step forward in crime fiction television shows with a female lead. The dramatic turn of her personal life gives Marcella depth and a story the audience can relate to. Her return to work after her stay-at-home period is also something to highlight, as some of her colleagues openly show their reservations at Marcella’s return. Is she still a good detective? And can she cope with her personal traumas and the new investigation? This first season is a successful attempt at constructing an iconic and troubled female detective with needs and failures and a non-normative morality, with a personal and professional life in which female sexuality comes out as something natural that only Marcella herself can define.

It was recently announced that ITV is producing a second season to be broadcasted in 2017. I cannot wait to see the challenges and moral dilemmas Marcella has to face. If season 1 finished with her admitting ‘I don’t know who I am anymore’, one can only expect season 2 to be yet another character study of a beloved character that, I’m afraid, we haven’t gotten to know at all yet.