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Smoking Kills by Antoine Laurain

smoking kills

For those of you familiar with my blog you may have spotted my new tagline.

I can assure you that there are oodles of books over 200 pages I would love to read but as an adorable new baby boy joined our family 4 months ago I really need to read most of a book in one sitting otherwise I will never reach the end!

I was very lucky to win a copy of Smoking Kills from Silvia at Book After Book and it was the first book I read after son #2 was born which means I’ll probably always remember it.
(Son #1 in 2014 = Burial Rites).

This novel comes in at slightly over the 200 page mark (224 pages) and I think Gallic Books made a wise choice at publishing small-ish and perfectly formed story.

When headhunter Fabrice Valentine faces a smoking ban at work, he decides to undertake a course of hypnotherapy to rid himself of the habit. He eventually finds himself lighting up again – but with none of his previous enjoyment.

Then he discovers something terrible: he accidentally causes a mans death, and needing a cigarette to calm his nerves, he enjoys it more than any other previous smoke. What if he now needs to kill someone every time he wants to properly appreciate his next Benson and Hedges?

This is a very witty (and very French) novel. It had me hooked from the start. The writing is sharp and Fabrice’s distinct and commanding voice also lured my husband in as he flipped through the first few pages.

I thought the bulk of the novel would be about the series of murders Fabrice commits but it is actually about his love affair with smoking. I wouldn’t guess this would be a topic that interests me but it had me smirking and giggling throughout.

It’s hard to share a lot of the plot other than to say it is a story about Fabrice’s journey with cigarettes coming full circle but in it you will find:

  • modern art
  • unusual murders (both impulsive and planned)
  • a charlatan hypnotist
  • a dire workplace team building exercise
  • herpetology, terraniums and rare frog species
  • a former CIA assasin turned blogger in his twilight years
  • the perfect and most fitting end to the story

Perhaps the best ending to a story I’ve come across for a while.

This list may make it sound like a whacky comedy trying to oudo its rivals but it is deadly serious (in cynicism) and cleverly written. Once you reach the end you realise the author has not included one superfluous detail.

I definitely plan to read more of Laurain’s novels. It’s one of those fine moments when I realise I have discovered a new author with a backlist of titles waiting for me.

 

 

 

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Review: The Life to Come (Stella Shortlist)

The Life to Come by [Kretser, Michelle de]

 

The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser

Pippa is a writer who longs for success. Céleste tries to convince herself that her feelings for her married lover are reciprocated. Ash makes strategic use of his childhood in Sri Lanka but blots out the memory of a tragedy from that time. Driven by riveting stories and unforgettable characters, here is a dazzling meditation on intimacy, loneliness and our flawed perception of other people.

I can’t believe I’ve never read any novels by Michelle de Kretser. This is an odd memory, but I remember when I moved to London over 10 years ago de Kretser’s novel The Lost Dog had a lot of shelf space at both Brisbane and Changi airports yet I didn’t buy a copy despite buying a few last minute Australian novels to take with me. Perhaps I’ve always assumed I’d not enjoy de Kretser’s work; perhaps I categorised it as commercial fiction. How wrong I was! After reading The Life to Come I’m a little giddy with excitement that I have all her previous novels waiting there for me to read.

So yes, I really enjoyed this novel, particularly the lovely writing style that I found rather soothing.

The novel is more of a collection of short stories with all the characters loosely linked through Pippa, a self absorbed character rather insensitive to others but you don’t really need to like her to enjoy the stories.

I personally preferred the first two chapters, particularly ‘The Ashfield Tamil’ to the later ones and I did wish that the overall story would keep following Ash and the characters we meet early on.

The novel makes a number of interesting (and probably accurate) observations about Australians and literary culture. For example, I liked it when it was suggested to Pippa that she write about the suburbs of Paris where the metro goes above ground, explore the shops underneath the tracks as that’s the real Paris, to which she replied that’s not the Paris Australians want to read about. True.

Overall, this is a novel I enjoyed reading particularly as I discovered a new author with a reasonable catalogue of books I can work my way though.

The big question is – will it win the Stella Prize? No, I don’t think so. I think it is too big and sprawling in scope and the Stella seems to prefer smart, succinct stories. The Life to Come makes lots of relevant observations about Australia but none are particularly incisive.

This novel was like a nice warm blanket keeping me cosy and comfortable rather than forcing me to join a polar bear swim club on an icy winter day. And that is alright by me!

 

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Review: Terra Nullius (Stella Shortlist)

Terra Nullius by [Coleman, Claire G.]

 

Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman

Jacky was running. There was no thought in his head, only an intense drive to run. There was no sense he was getting anywhere, no plan, no destination, no future.
The Natives of the Colony are restless. The Settlers are eager to have a nation of peace, and to bring the savages into line. Families are torn apart, reeducation is enforced. This rich land will provide for all.
This is not Australia as we know it. This is not the Australia of our history. This TERRA NULLIUS is something new, but all too familiar.

I really enjoyed this novel. I read most of it in one sitting and was excited to blog about my impressions afterwards (a mark of a good book!).

As much as I enjoyed it, there were some things on my mind as I was reading it:

  • I would have preferred a more authentic historical voice from both the author and each of the characters to feel fully immersed in the colonial setting. However, as I sort of knew the twist that was coming (despite avoiding spoilers*) it didn’t bother me as much as it may have done otherwise.
  • It would have also been nice if the epigraphs at the start of each chapter were in distinct voices. However, after reading at the end that the author based these epigraphs on historical writings about her people, I mellowed in this stance!
  • I’m not a huge SF or spec lit reader but did think this element could have been more innovative.

(*Reviews of this novel are perfect examples of how other bloggers are sensitive about spoilers but newspapers and other media outlets seem to jump and take great joy at revealing the twist).

My response to some comments I’ve seen made by other reviewers

  • It was a little repetitive and verbose as others have said. The detail included about the colonisation of natives and subjugation comes under this umbrella. However, I took an overall impression away from the book rather than mulling over each point.
  • The characters were lacking in depth but this didn’t bother me in the context of the story.

So, it is clear that lots of things didn’t bother me and I just enjoyed the story!

After I finished reading this book, I knew I enjoyed it but didn’t know exactly how I felt about it. I went back to read reviews on some trusted blogs I follow and the main thing I took away is that it is commercial speculative fiction which is different to the fiction I usually read. In my mind, this genre makes it a curveball to reach a shortlist. Yet with this this genre in mind, I can easily overlook all the little niggles I mention above and take away that it was an enjoyable read.

Could it win the Stella? Yes, if the prize is as genuinely inclusive of all genres as it claims.

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Literary Award Season: How many shortlists can I read?

The answer to that question, based on my previous 18 months of reading, is ‘not many’.

Having read only 10 books in 2017 and not reading a book since October, I have suddenly had a burst of reading energy and have read 3 books in the last fortnight.

With this renewed enthusiasm for reading (which I hope continues) I am excited about the following book prizes that will take place in the coming months:

Petrona Award

Shortlist: Shortly after 12 April
Winner: Saturday 19 May at Crime Fest

This is by far my favourite book prize and every year I come very close to reading the entire shortlist before the big announcement. This is also the only prize I kept following during my 18 month reading slump!

All shortlisted books are always excellent and each year I discover a new author or two.

Having looked through this year’s eligible books I particularly like the look of the following. Some I have read, others are already on my Kindle and the rest have been added to my TBR list.

Thomas Enger – Cursed tr. Kari Dickson
K O Dahl – Faithless tr. Don Bartlett
Johana Gustawsson – Block 46 tr. Maxim Jakubowski
Jorn Lier Horst – When It Grows Dark tr. Anne Bruce
Hans Olav Lahlum – The Anthill Murders tr. Kari Dickson
Gunnar Staalesen – Wolves in the Dark tr. Don Bartlett
Antti Tuomainen – The Man Who Died tr. David Hackston

A lot of stories from Norway and a lot of books from the wonderful Orenda Publishing!

There are also two more worthy mentions that I don’t think will make the shortlist based on the competition and because they may not be niche enough Scandi crime (the burden of international success!) but I will give them a highly commended:

Jussi Adler-Olsen – The Scarred Woman tr. William Frost
Hakan Nesser – The Darkest Day tr. Sarah Death

Stella Award 

Shortlist – already announced
Winner – 12 April 

For the last two years* I haven’t been too excited by the Stella shortlist but this year it looks fantastic. Most importantly, this is the first year all the titles are available in the UK, mostly in Kindle format.
(*I think the 2015 shortlist has been a hard one to follow). 

I would love to try and read all six books before the big announcement but unfortunately I don’t think I will have the time or tenacity to read Alexis Wright’s 600+ page tome. Instead, I might read Sofie Laguna’s The Choke which appeared on the longlist.

Miles Franklin Award 

Longlist – May 2018
Shortlist – June 2018
Winner – July 2018 

The website for this prize remains perpetually vague about dates and reasonably difficult to navigate. Social media comments last year accurately pointed out it is far from being user friendly for a booklover.

I didn’t follow the prize last year but over the past weekend I looked at the shortlist and realised I want to read a few of the titles, particularly Waiting by Philip Salom. I am now excited for the 2018 prize. Hopefully all titles will be available in the UK as with the Stella Prize.

Women’s Prize 

Longlist – 8 March (announced)
Shortlist – 23 April
Winner – 6 June 

About 10-15 years ago I always used the long and shortlisted titles for this prize as a good addition to my reading list but fell out of doing this when I began to feel bored with stories that seemed too similar, predictable and underwhelming. A range of titles each year also became harder to source. This year there are a number of titles on the longlist I would definitely like to read:

H(A)PPYby Nicola BarkerManhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
Elmet by Fiona Mozley
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

My own shortlist of six! Based on the blurbs from the other books I don’t necessarily think these six will all be shortlisted but the are the ones that have piqued my interest in my quest to read for pleasure.

Man Booker International 

Longlist – 12 March
Shortlist – 12 April
Winner – 22 June 

I’ve read a couple of winners from this prize but have never really followed the prize. If I get time this year I’d love to read the shortlist (to also see how my opinion fares against the Shadow jury whose blog posts I enjoy each year). Reading one or two from the shortlist may end up being wishful thinking but it’s always good to have a plan!

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Review: The Good People

The Good PeopleThe Good People by Hannah Kent

County Kerry, Ireland, 1825.
Nóra, bereft after the sudden death of her beloved husband, finds herself alone and caring for her young grandson Micheál. Micheál cannot speak and cannot walk and Nóra is desperate to know what is wrong with him. Whispers are spreading: the stories of unexplained misfortunes, of illnesses, and the rumours that Micheál is a changeling child who is bringing bad luck to the valley. Nora, along with her maid Kate and the healer Nance, try and use their world of folklore and belief to heal Micheál.
Based on a true story. 

I loved Kent’s first novel Burial Rites and will probably always remember it as the first book I read after my son was born, when I was finally able to concentrate on more than a single page!

I downloaded The Good People in December 2016 on a trip to Australia but only just got around to reading it. I think I had a fear that I wouldn’t enjoy it if the supernatural element was too strong as I hate stories with fairies and magic realism.

Much to my relief, Kent doesn’t go down this path. What she has created is a brilliant setting – an isolated community who live and breathe superstition without it being extraordinary in any way.

It is a bleak novel to match the landscape. This is similar to Burial Rites (I am sure Kent must tire of people comparing the two) but it just feels so much bleaker. Perhaps this is because it is a hard life for all the characters as they all live in rural poverty. It feels as if there’s no glimmer of a pleasant life for anyone in the whole of County Kerry. Due to this pervading bleakness I did sometimes miss when the character changed and had to go back to the start of the paragraph but this may also be due to the Kindle formatting.

I was really curious about the court case at the end and would have loved to see the case through the eyes of the lawyers and townspeople but I know it was not their story. I will have to use my imagination to decide how they felt about these traditional beliefs and healing methods!

I was also curious to know what Micheál’s affliction was but I have since read online that Kent was purposely vague about this so people couldn’t identify his illness.

Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. It was bleak but not depressing – there is a difference! I didn’t necessarily feel an affinity with any of the three main characters but I didn’t need to as it was the story and setting that were paramount to enjoying this novel. I’m surprised it hasn’t been short or long listed for more prizes.

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Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn HardcastleThe Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

‘Somebody’s going to be murdered at the ball tonight. It won’t appear to be a murder and so the murderer won’t be caught. Rectify that injustice and I’ll show you the way out.’ 
As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed. But Evelyn will not die just once. Until Aiden – one of the guests summoned to Blackheath for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself. The only way to break this cycle is to identify the killer. But each time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest.  

I was curious about the hype for this novel and the premise had me intrigued. Would I find it as enjoyable as everyone else or would it leave me feeling flat? I can safely say it is definitely worthy of the many excellent reviews.

Can I elaborate on the plot for you? No, as that would spoil it. And I may still be happily confused with some events and characters.

I paid a lot of attention to the first half of this novel, determined not to be confused by all the detail. By the time I was getting closer to the end I was reading a lot faster, not caring if could follow a final summary of the chronology of events in Aiden’s mind; I was enjoying it too much.

The final surprise ending (there’s more than one surprise!) did catch me out and while it appeared rather close to the end and maybe (to some readers) came out of nowhere, I enjoyed it and found it fitting for such a story.

I only have two minor gripes about this novel.

Firstly, I read it on Kindle which made it harder to flick back to the list of characters. I know there are ways to do this but I am always worried it will take me a long time to find my place again!

Secondly, a few times after I put the book down I did wish the writing was more in the style of a gothic or sensation novel rather than being so contemporary. However, when I was reading the story I was enjoying it so much this didn’t bother me.

Overall – yes, it does live up to the hype and I think I will enjoy reading more from the Raven Books imprint, particularly as they also have the wonderful Eva Dolan’s latest novel and The Silent Companions, another I want to read.

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Sugar Money – A Literary Page Turner

Sugar MoneySugar Money by Jane Harris

Martinique, 1765. Brothers Emile and Lucien are charged by their French master, Father Cleophas, to return to Grenada, the island they once called home, and smuggle back the 42 slaves claimed by English invaders at the hospital plantation in Fort Royal.

I will begin with my opinion of the book so it doesn’t become lost in the body of my review – this is an amazing novel that will be one of my favourites stories this year. A must read from one of my favourite authors.

I originally bought this novel on publication day last year and even started reading it. However, I was very busy at the time and identifying that it would be such a fantastic read, I wanted to save it for a time when I could read it in a couple of sittings.

Fast forward to March this year. After doing some reading on the French Indian Wars (1754-63) for work and then seeing Hamilton I was inspired to pick this novel up again.

Firstly, the historical setting is fantastic and I spent a lot of time looking things up on my Ipad (maps, phrases, locations, landscapes) out of interest.

Most importantly, the story hooks you from the beginning and Lucien’s voice is distinct and authentic. As the mission progresses the book turns into an absolute page turner. I had to force myself to put it down and go to sleep one night.

I can’t rave about this book enough. Thank you, Jane Harris! I think I can credit you with slaying my 18 month reading slump.