SinC25: Progress so far and preparing for the ascent

Pretty soon after starting it, I realise I messed up on this Sisters in Crime 25th anniversary challenge – probably because I don’t really understand these challenges! I’ve completed the easy and the moderate levels, so have the expert challenge left to do:

write ten blog posts about works of crime fiction by women authors. For each, mention three similar women authors whose works you would recommend

I realise that what I should have done was to have started out on the expert challenge, because by completing the easy challenge (one post about one woman author, recommend 5 others) and the moderate challenge (five posts each about a woman author, recommend 1 other in each), I’ve used up a large number of authors already, and it’s a lot to come up with 10 more to post about and 30 others to recommend! But I’ll give it a go.

Before I attempt this Everest, I’ll just recap on my previous SinC25 posts (which are collected here).

I decided that I’d try to write a post about an author from a different country each time. For the easy post, I chose Unity Dow, from Botswana. For the 5 moderate posts, I chose:

Diane Setterfield, US author, setting England.
Similar author/book: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.
Catherine Sampson, English author living in China, setting England (first two novels) and China (second two novels).
Similar authors: Liza Marklund (Sweden) and Diane Wei Lang (China).
Saskia Noort, Dutch author (and setting).
Similar authors: Claudia Pineiro (Argentina) and Simone van der Vlugt (Holland).
Katherine Howell, Australian author (and setting).
Similar author: Sue Grafton (USA).
Miyuke Miyabe, Japanese author (and setting).
Similar author: Dominique Manotti (France).

I’d like to clarify that “similar” author does not mean “always writes the same type of book”; rather it means that there are elements of the books I’ve highlighted in these posts that are also present in some books by the “similar author” chosen. In other aspects, the paired (or tripled) authors are very different.

I wonder how I’ll get on with this 10 plus 30 part of the challenge? I’ll have to drop the concept of writing about an author from a different country each time, as I’m not that well read. Do you think I’ll make it? (Suggestions that might help are very welcome!).

My previous posts in the SinC25 challenge.

The Sisters in Crime 25th anniversary challenge.

SinC25: Miyuke Miyabe, #5 post of “moderate” challenge

Having completed the Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ easy challenge, I am now embarking on the next step, the:

Moderate challenge: write five blog posts about works of crime fiction by women authors. For each, mention another woman author who writes in a similar vein.

For my final post in this part of the challenge, I’ve chosen Miyuke Miyabe, a Japanese author. One of the pleasures of reading crime fiction is its window it provides into countries I’ve never visited and may never visit. The two books I’ve read by Miyabe show the frustrations and desperation of ordinary people, whose dilemmas are the same yet different from those in a similar vein experienced in the UK, and where society has rather different strictures and freedoms compared with those with which I’m familiar.

All She Was Worth concerns a missing young woman, and the search for her conducted by a retired detective and widower. I wrote in my review that the book is “strongly critical social comment of the personal and family devastation caused by the uncontrolled rise in consumer spending and credit of the 1960s, when regulations in Japan were relaxed. For me, this book ticks all the boxes – I learned a lot about attitudes and the ways of life of people in Japan, and about the country, as well as thoroughly enjoying the strong if tragic plot, the social commentary (occasionally digressive but I didn’t mind), and the combination of toughness and humanity that characterise the best crime novels. The title is also apt, as becomes apparent.”

Shadow Family is the other book by this author that I’ve read. On the surface it’s the story of a murder investigation, but a clue to its real subject matter is given by its original title, R.P.G. (role-playing game). First published in 2001, it is an early-ish fable (but far from a sentimental one!) about the depths to which “games” can allow people to plunge. Such games have been more popular in Japan than in most or all other places, and the author here explores, in a metaphorical way, the reasons why – the events described in the novel being as illusory as the game some of the characters are playing. I wrote in my review that the author wants her readers “to experience the psychological stresses of living in a rule-bound, stratified society that makes very high academic demands of its children and that allows little room for the individual to control his or her own life, so some rather awful directions are taken (by one character in particular) in an attempt to break out. Shadow Family is an intriguing and thought-provoking novel – not a warm book or one that fits into any clear definition, but one that leaves an uneasy impression in the mind after its edgy, hallucinatory account is over.”

I haven’t yet read any more novels by this author – she has written a very large number of them (a list is at Wikipedia), but it seems that only seven (including the two mentioned here) have been translated into English. One of the best known of these is Crossfire, about a young woman with psychokinetic powers which has both been made into a film and a mobile-phone manga animation (anime) – I’m not sure if I’ll read it. As well as writing crime novels, Miyabe writes science fiction, historical fiction and books for young adults and children. There is more about the English-language translations of her books at the Simon&Schuster website.

Now I have to think of another woman author who writes similar books! Well, that’s a tall order but I’m going to go a bit left-field and suggest that Dominique Manotti is relatively similar, in her hard-hitting novels that seem to be set in a parallel France where the rules are different to those most people live by or say they live by (Rough Trade and Affairs of State). There are many obvious differences between the two authors, of course, but I think they are both in the same place when it comes to exposing a structured society’s hypocrisies by sometimes rather extreme allegories and actions.

The Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ challenge (SinC25) (At the blog of Barbara Fister, the originator).
All Barbara’s posts and round-ups of contributions to the SinC25 challenge.
All my contributions to this challenge.

SinC25: Katherine Howell, #4 post of “moderate” challenge

Having completed the Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ easy challenge, I am now embarking on the next step, the:

Moderate challenge: write five blog posts about works of crime fiction by women authors. For each, mention another woman author who writes in a similar vein.

Katherine Howell is my fourth choice because she’s (so far) published four books in her excellent series about Sydney police and paramedics. I’ve only read two of these books, but assume the interesting “formula” in those applies to all four. In one sense, the books are police procedurals, as Detective Ella Marconi and her colleagues investigate the crime that forms the basic plot of the book. In another sense, the books are “slice of life” dramas about the city’s paramedics, given great authenticity by the fact that the author was a paramedic before she became a full-time writer. The paramedics are different in each of the two books I’ve read, though there are cross-references. Ella binds the novels together.

What is so enjoyable about Katherine Howell’s books is not just the realism of the paramedics’ jobs as they are called out to many kinds of bizarre, dangerous, sad, repetitive or funny incidents that test the full range of their ingenuity and survival skills, but also the sheer pace and muscle of the stories, which are more common (in my experience) in crime novels by male authors. The author combines well her tough plots, often about personal dilemmas and ethics as well as straight murder mysteries, with the life-situation of Ella, her colleagues and the politics she faces at work. In common with some other cops in crime fiction, Ella has to cope with an intrusive mother who is always trying to get her to settle down, get married and have children rather than single-mindedly pursue a career, which is more to Ella’s own taste.

The first novel in the series is Frantic, which I have not read but which (appropriately) won the 2008 Sisters in Crime Davitt award and was longlisted for the Ned Kelly award. The book introduces Ella, who has to deal with a case in which a police colleague is shot, his daughter abducted, and whose wife (a paramedic) decides to investigate the case herself as she realises her husband is being accused of having been corrupt.

I’ve read the second and third novels, The Darkest Hour and Cold Justice (links go to my reviews), both of which cover similar ground as Ella investigates crimes in which paramedics are involved. Violent Exposure, the fourth book, is not yet out in the UK but was published this year in Australia. You can read a review of it at Fair Dinkum Crime, as well as other articles and reviews of the author’s books.

A fifth book, Silent Fear, will be published in Australia in early 2012.

Another woman author who writes in the same vein? This is quite a hard one, as many “medical” thriller authors, such as Karin Slaughter, Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell, Tess Gerritsen and so on, tend to focus more on medical procedures than does Katherine Howell, whose books are more similar to classic police/PI novels that happen to have a medical setting. Similarly, I’d say that psychological crime authors with women protagonists, such as Nicci French (only half a woman, admittedly!) are not like Katherine Howell who is more interested in social and ethical dilemmas than excessive introspection.

I’d therefore suggest that Sue Grafton, despite the lack of a paramedic angle, is the author among those I’ve read who comes to mind as writing books with a similar-ish tough, professional female protagonist who is somewhat (but not overly) concerned with pressures to conform domestically but essentially happy to exist according to her own mores. In addition, the plots both authors write are brisk and strong, with an emphasis on professionalism rather than mysticism, over-analysing or other psychological aspects. Yet, finally, both authors are interested in addressing social mores and assumptions, with their protagonists having to confront head-on issues of trying to be ethical in a society where many people aren’t, often on an institutionalised scale.

Katherine Howell’s website. Articles by Katherine, and reviews of her books and more, can be found at It’s a Crime! blog – whose author, CrimeFictionReader, first suggested to me that I try a book by Katherine Howell.

The Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ challenge (SinC25) (At the blog of Barbara Fister, the originator).
All Barbara’s posts and round-ups of contributions to the SinC25 challenge.
All my contributions to this challenge.

SinC25: Saskia Noort, #3 post of “moderate” challenge

Having completed the Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ easy challenge, I am now embarking on the next step, the:

Moderate challenge: write five blog posts about works of crime fiction by women authors. For each, mention another woman author who writes in a similar vein.

Two books by my third choice, Dutch author Saskia Noort, have been translated and published in English, by the marvellous Bitter Lemon Press.

Back to the Coast (2009), translated by Laura Vrooman, is an excellent little thriller, an easy read that can be raced through in a couple of hours and that leaves a haunting impression – or as the publisher describes it: “relentless suspense writing: a description of Maria’s hellish descent into a world of induced paranoia.” My full review is at Euro Crime.

The Dinner Club (2007), translated by Paul Vincent, is described by the publisher as “a subversive concoction of greed, lust, and violence set in genteel suburbia. Imagine Desperate Housewives scripted by Patricia Highsmith. That’s The Dinner Club.” See my review at Euro Crime.

These novels are “standalones” but share common themes concerning society’s judgements of women who do not conform to the expected norm of the moment. Maria in Back to the Coast is a rock musician who is punished for aborting her third pregnancy. She is viewed as a feckless and irresponsible person who is not capable of making rational decisions for herself, to the extent that the police and others decide she is “not worth helping” – and she is even punished further for acts of cruelty and violence against her by those who society has charged with helping. The novel describes the consequences of the only action left to Maria, and of her resilience in the face of escalating danger.

The Dinner Club (written before BttC but read by me afterwards) is very different, in its story of aspirational professional couples, mothers jockeying for supremacy in the playground and on the domestic front, fathers earning oodles of money to keep their families in luxury, all the time while everyone is very, very drunk. Nevertheless, there are certainly similarities between the two novels, in the attempt by Karen to break away from the imposed rules of the group, a decision that has increasingly negative consequences. Another theme is town vs country: in both books the countryside is initially presented as a haven, but in fact hides a multitude of sins and threats.

Another woman author who writes in similar vein? The comparison that leaps to mind for The Dinner Club is Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pinerio, an Argentinian novel presenting a strong element of domestic satire and also published by Bitter Lemon. I’d say that The Dinner Club is the darker of the two, though.

Back to the Coast is a little harder to match precisely, but it shares some similarities with a book by another Dutch author, The Reunion by Simone van der Vlugt.

Saskia Noort has written several other novels. Apparently the English rights of one of them, New Neighbours (2006) have been sold (Wikipedia), but I know no further details.

The Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ challenge (SinC25) (At the blog of Barbara Fister, the originator).
All Barbara’s posts and round-ups of contributions to the SinC25 challenge.
All my contributions to this challenge.

SinC25: Catherine Sampson, #2 post of “moderate” challenge

Having completed the Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ easy challenge, I am now embarking on the next step, the:

Moderate challenge: write five blog posts about works of crime fiction by women authors. For each, mention another woman author who writes in a similar vein.

I shall take as my second author Catherine Sampson, who has written four books initially about a TV journalist, Robin Ballantyne and set in London, but increasingly “taken over” by a Chinese ex-policeman and now PI, Song. The author was herself a journalist with the BBC and now lives in China, so her novels have a natural air of authenticity as well as being very good reads. (Her website is here.) A quick summary of the four books to date:

Falling Off Air: Robin is on maternity leave from “the corporation” having given birth to twins but not getting much if any support from the babies’ father. She witnesses what she thinks may be a murder or a suicide. She becomes embroiled in the case as a witness and then a suspect, so has to struggle to clear her name as well as deal with two babies and various family issues. I thought this was a great debut novel, both for its crime plot and its realistic depiction of working in the media as well as what it is like for a woman to adjust from a responsibility-free professional life to cope with tiny babies, complete with society’s and colleagues’ judgements.

Out of Mind, the second book about Robin, was generally less well-received, but I enjoyed this account of her investigation of a missing woman in the context of backstabbing “office politics”, and her continuing struggles to juggle professionalism and domesticity. Strangely to me, women reviewers in particular seem to get quite exasperated with novels about women in this situation, but it is a real issue that I and many others have faced, in the realisation that (unlike many men who seem to have children and carry on regardless with their previous lives!) having children and a professional job is very, very challenging and you can’t just “have it all” as Shirley Conran and co once told us so blithely in their best-selling books.

I read Catherine Sampson’s first two novels before I began regular reviewing, so have not written up my impressions of those. I have, however, reviewed her subsequent books at Euro Crime.

The Pool of Unease. Robin is sent to Beijing to investigate the case of a missing (English) businessman who may have been involved in illegal or shady activities. A new character, Song, is introduced. He’s an ex-policeman who has fallen out of favour with his powerful father-in-law and is struggling to make a living as a PI. He discovers the body of a woman who has been burnt; part of him wants to investigate and part of him wants to flee in case he is implicated. He gradually becomes more important in the novel as his story eventually merges with Robin’s, with the help of Song’s friend Wolf and Robin’s interpreter, Blue. I really enjoyed this book for its perspective of China, as well as for its plot and the character of Song.

The Slaughter Pavilion is almost all set in China and Song is firmly the main character. Song, Wolf and Blue all have their struggles (including Song’s complicated domestic situation); Song becomes embroiled in a dangerous case; and I enjoyed very much the Chinese setting and the many issues raised about life and people’s concerns in various parts of that society. I think this is the strongest book of the four, and very much look forward to the next one, if there is one.

The author wrote a Guardian column in the run-up to the Beijing Olympic games and for a year or so afterwards, which makes interesting reading about social and political issues in China.

Now I have to mention “another woman author who writes in similar vein”. I can’t do this precisely, but will do it in two.

First, Liza Marklund‘s series about journalist Annika Bengtzon, a crime reporter (eventually) at a Swedish newspaper who has a challenging personal life, including (eventually!) having children and juggling the demands of her job with those of domesticity. Annika’s friend Anne works in TV, so the workplace issues that figure in the first two of Catherine Sampson’s books are very much a theme in Liza Marklund’s. (Annika is one of those fictional characters who seems to be disliked by (even women) reviewers for being very dedicated to her job as well as trying to be the best mother she can to her children in difficult personal circumstances and with little sympathy from home or work.) A listing of Marklund’s books, with reviews of some of them, is at Euro Crime. Here is the author’s website.

Second, I have not read very many other books by women set in China, but one is The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Lang, about a young woman who quits a “safe” life and sets up a detective agency. Although the family and social issues are dealt with very well (and hence are an interesting counterpart to Catherine Sampson’s depiction), the crime plot is not very successful (in contrast with Sampson). Nevertheless, Eye of Jade is a good read and a short one. For more information, see Diane Wei Lang’s website.

The Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ challenge (SinC25) (At the blog of Barbara Fister, the originator).
All Barbara’s posts and round-ups of contributions to the SinC25 challenge.
All my contributions to this challenge.

SinC25: Diane Setterfield, #1 post of “moderate” challenge

Having completed the Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ easy challenge, I am now about to embark on the:

Moderate challenge: write five blog posts about works of crime fiction by women authors. For each, mention another woman author who writes in a similar vein.

I shall take as my first author in this pentangled quest Diane Setterfield. So far, this author has published one book, The Thirteenth Tale, first published in 2006, which I reviewed in February 2008.

THE THIRTEENTH TALE is a magnificent, beautifully written and involving story, a modern version of a Victorian novel. Vida Winter is the most respected and widely read living writer, now coming to the end of her life. Throughout her career, she’s been interviewed many times but has always given different and fantastical stories about her life, so that she’s preserved an aura of mystery.
Margaret Lea is a young, repressed woman who lives in a bare room above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. All her life she has loved reading, but has never attempted a contemporary novel. She’s written a few articles on her non-fiction research, one of them having been published in an academic journal. Out of the blue, Margaret receives a letter in terrible handwriting, which she deciphers as being an invitation from Vida Winter, who wants Margaret to write her biography. Curious as to how she has been selected for this honour, and unable to sleep because of her sadness about her life, Margaret begins to read an early book of stories by Vida, entitled “The Thirteenth Tale”. After a paragraph, she is hooked, quickly devours the rest of the author’s output, and accepts the commission.
“The Thirteenth Tale” in itself is a mystery, as there are only twelve tales in the book – haunting and original takes on old fairy stories. Margaret has been reading a rare first edition from her father’s special locked case, but all subsequent editions of the book were given a different title; the fate of the missing tale has remained an enduring puzzle.
(continued here).

Even without having read the comprehensive Wikipedia entry about this novel (which I had not done at the time of writing my review but I have now), I likened the book to Charlotte Bronte‘s Jane Eyre. The Thirteenth Tale is, I think, a modern reworking of the gothic Victorian novel epitomised by the Bronte sisters, and Jane Eyre is probably the book that it most resembles. This is part of what Wikipedia has to say about the comparison:

Jane Eyre is the first title to creep into the book, and once having found its place, never left. Only when the girl in the mist comes to be, is the connection between Miss Winter’s story and that of Jane’s- the outsider in the family. Jane Eyre moves from the beginning as a book that is often discussed, to an important part of the story; the inner furniture of Margaret’s and Miss Winter’s minds. Most conversations between Vida Winter and Margaret centre-point Jane Eyre. Miss Winter’s example with the burning books focuses Jane Eyre as the “only hope” and the last one to burn. Aurelius is found with a torn page from Jane Eyre. The significance of the book in the novel is vital and is a leitmotif; often recurring. It is obvious that Diane Setterfield is paying homage to Jane Eyre and its sisterhood of novels.

The Thirteenth Tale was Diane Setterfield’s first novel and, to date, she has not published a second although there is an Amazon UK entry for “untitled Setterfield” so one might be on its way soonish. I almost did not read her book because of its massive publicity budget, the sort of thing I find off-putting. But I read several good reviews so I changed my mind, and I’m glad I did. Perhaps the best account I have found of the author’s story about the book is this interview at The Guardian (from 2006). To give you an idea of the hype, the standfirst reads: “Until this week, she was a former teacher who lived in Harrogate. Now she has become America’s bestselling writer. Oliver Burkeman meets debut novelist Diane Setterfield.”

The Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ challenge (SinC25) (At the blog of Barbara Fister, the originator).
All Barbara’s posts and round-ups of contributions to the SinC25 challenge.
All my contributions to this challenge.

SinC25: The “easy” [actually not so easy] part

To recap, Sisters in Crime is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, so book bloggers are participating in Barbara Fister‘s three-level challenge to help them celebrate. My introductory post provided the challenge in full, and this is my stab at the “easy” level:

write a blog post about a work of crime fiction by a woman author; list five more women authors who you recommend.

The not so easy part comes in having to make a decision about which writer to choose. After some thought, I have opted for a writer who is not so well known, is from a remote (to most of us) part of the world, and who is published by a small, independent press, not one of the giants. Her name is Unity Dow. As you can see from her Wikipedia entry, this extraordinary Botswanan woman is a writer, a lawyer, a human-rights activist and a high-court judge – yet her mother could not speak English and she grew up in traditional, rural surroundings.Unity Dow has taught and practiced in the USA, and she has won numerous international awards and honours, including the Légion d’honneur de France. As well as the Wikipeida biography to which I have already linked, you can read about Unity Dow at the African Success website.

She has written five novels, of which I have read one, The Screaming of the Innocent (link goes to my review). It is a harrowing and haunting read: in itself the book is a constructive, positive account of the changing values of Botswana and its many new opportunities for women. But also, the novel delves into the dark and ignorant souls of a superstitious community that harbours very evil people – and tells the heartbreaking story of a potential star who never had the chance to shine. If you can bear it, I recommend reading this novel – but it is likely to make you very angry. From the African Success website: ” The Screaming of the Innocent is described thus by Elinor Sisulu: “Unity Dow courageously voyages into uncharted waters in this gripping tale of ritual murder in contemporary Botswana. Strong female protagonists wage battle against the hypocrisy and evil of male abuse as the story moves inexorably towards its horrifying climax.” ” You have been warned, but do not doubt the sincerity and importance of this book. Many Western readers no doubt prefer the cosy, comforting nature of Alexander McCall Smith’s treatment of the same country in his Precious Ramaotse books. Those books are fine, and do address difficult issues in part (including the one forming the main plot of The Screaming of the Innocent), but only scratch the surface of the reality depicted by Unity Dow.

For the most part, Dow’s books are published by a small Australian press, Spinifex. Here are the publisher’s details for: The Screaming of the Innocent, The Heavens may Fall, Juggling Truths and Far and Beyon’. Another book has been published by Harvard. It seems to me very appropriate in the spirit of this particular challenge, to recommend Unity Dow and Spinifex, which describes itself as “an award-winning, independent feminist press, publishing innovative and controversial feminist books with an optimistic edge”.

Now I have to list five more women authors whom I like. In keeping with the tone of this post, I am going to name here five feminist authors who are unafraid to travel into the depths of the tortured soul in their crime novels:

Karin Alvtegen (Sweden) – try Shadow, but they are all very black, in different ways from each other.
Karen Campbell (Scotland) – The Twilight Time is the first of a varied and increasingly dark series.
Karin Fossum (Norway) – I suggest Black Seconds in this context.
Petra Hammesfahr (Germany) – The Sinner is a very black journey indeed. (I don’t recommend her other translated novel, The Lie.)
Asa Larsson (Sweden) Sun Storm is her first, her series is probably best read in order. They are all very gripping.

Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ challenge.

My posts contributing to this challenge.

SinC25 : Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ challenge

As regular reader(s) of this blog will know, I am not very good at challenges, memes and all that. My attention span can’t really deal with the sustained creativity required. Nonetheless, there is one such, The Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ challenge, that I feel almost duty-bound to accept. It is dreamt up by the ever-readable author, librarian, reviewer and Scandinavian book blogger Barbara Fister, who writes:

Given that Sisters in Crime is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year at Bouchercon, it seems a good time to blog about women’s contributions to crime fiction.
Easy challenge: write a blog post about a work of crime fiction by a woman author; list five more women authors who you recommend.
Moderate challenge: write five blog posts about works of crime fiction by women authors. For each, mention another woman author who writes in a similar vein.
Expert challenge: write ten blog posts about works of crime fiction by women authors. For each, mention three similar women authors whose works you would recommend.

The tag for these posts, which Barbara will aggregate at her blog, is SinC25 (#SinC25 for Twitter).

Given my on-record longstanding interest in women crime writers – not from any particular feminist perspective (as I like to read books based on how interesting they seem, not on the basis of the gender or other aspect of their authors) but because of annoyance of too many lazily compiled, all-male lists appearing elsewhere – I am clearly going to have to think about this one, as the “easy” challenge is in fact difficult, in the sense of having to choose five authors from a cornucopia. I’ll think on it and write my post in a couple of days.

In the meantime, you are warmly invited to take the Crime Scraps poll to identify your favourite Nordic woman crime writer. I warn you, it is a difficult choice!

Also in the meantime, you are again warmly invited to read an early post on this very blog, in which we identified many woman crime authors – some of whom I had never heard of then, but which are enduring favourites now.

Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ challenge.