The aim of the 2010 Global Reading Challenge is to encourage participants to read books from (or set in) a wide variety of countries, in the coming year. Participants sign up on the website - here - and then attempt one of three levels of reading challenge over the 12 months of 2010:
- Easy Challenge: read one novel from each of six continents (Africa, Asia, North/Central America, South America, Europe, Australasia) in 2010 - trying to find novels/countries/authors that are new to the reader;
- Medium Challenge: read two novels from each of the six continents, trying to read and review novels from 12 different countries if possible; and
- Expert Challenge: as above, plus two novels set in Antarctica
So here is my rundown of the 14 books I read for the Expert Level of the 2010 Global Reading Challenge. In some cases I have larger reviews of the books still to be published elsewhere, so I will link to those reviews as they become available.
AFRICA: This year I have read two books set in Africa, both from authors that are new-to-me; THE ANUBIS SLAYINGS by PC Doherty (set in Ancient Egypt), and A DEADLY TRADE (set in modern-day Botswana).
PC (or Paul) Doherty is the author of several acclaimed mystery series set in different historical periods, including the Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan, the Hugh Corbett Medieval Mysteries, and the Canterbury Tales of Mystery and Murder. I picked up a copy of THE ANUBIS SLAYINGS, the third book in Doherty's Ancient Egypt series starring Lord Amerotke, while travelling through Egypt in January, from a bookstore in Luxor (ancient Thebes).
In THE ANUBIS SLAYINGS, a series of grisly slayings ignite passions in Pharoah’s Egypt. Then there is a daring theft of Egypt's most valued national treasure. Is it the work of humans or has the god Anubis come to earth intent on sabotaging peace negotiations with the dreaded Mitanni? Only Amerotke, wise and trusted judge of the powerful female Pharaoh, Hatusu, can sort through the tangle of intrigue that surrounds the killings and discover the truth.
I enjoyed this book a lot, and will be looking to read more of Doherty's Ancient Egypt series. I was reading it in Egypt, having just travelled through many of the areas mentioned in the book, and having just learned quite a bit about the Ancient Kingdoms, hieroglyphics, gods, traditions etc - so it was great to see the accuracy in Doherty's work, and they way he wove quite a lot of setting and history in, without overwhelming the reader with detail, or suppressing/slowing what is a well-plotted story. In comparison, I also picked up another Ancient Egypt-set book, THE TREE OF LIFE by Christian Jacq, and found the writing far inferior (I haven't actually finished it yet, putting it aside and not yet getting back to it).
Michael Stanley is the pen name of the crime-writing tag-team of retired South African-born professors Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, and A DEADLY TRADE is their second novel. Set in Botswana, and bringing back their food-loving Detective "Kubu" Bengu, this book is sold as THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU in North America.
A mutilated body found at a tourist camp near the Namibian border becomes even more of a mystery when Kubu and his fellow policeman discover the victim, Goodluck Tinubu, was killed during the Rhodesian war thirty years before. Trying to solve this modern-day murder entwined with the past becomes even more complex for Kubu and his colleagues when hints of international drug-running, horrific war crimes, and political pressure, all arise. Then the criminals turn their attentions to Kubu’s own family, and the rotund detective realises that the stakes are much higher than just closing the case.
I really enjoyed this book, and gave it a 3 1/2 star rating (3 stars is 'enjoyable') for a review that appeared in the April issue of Good Reading magazine. Kubu (nicknamed because his manner and build resembles a hippopotamus - seemingly slow and serene but deadly when roused) is a delightful main character, and I'm looking forward to going back and reading their debut, A CARRION DEATH, when I find the time. In my GR review I said, "Sears and Trollip entice the reader with a well-drawn setting in the heart of Southern Africa, and a fascinating protagonist... while the authors also raise some interesting questions and provide some insights into the history and ongoing tensions of an exotic region."
ASIA: For my first book in the Asian leg of the 2010 Global Reading Challenge, I purchased a copy of John Burdett's BANGKOK EIGHT from the Kuala Lumpur airport, when on a stopover on the way home from Cairo to Auckland in January. I'd been looking for some Malaysian crime, given my location at the time, but Thailand was the best I could do from the airport bookstore.
In the end, I was stoked that I ended up picking up Burdett's debut, which introduces his unique hero, Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a fair-skinned Thai and a devout Buddhist who commutes daily between the sacred precepts of his religion and the profane delights the city has to offer.
In BANGKOK EIGHT, Jitpleecheep's partner and 'soul brother' is killed when the pair come across an African-American marine sergeant locked inside a Mercedes with a maddened python and a swarm of cobras. Sworn to vengeance, Jitpleecheep, works his into the moneyed underbelly of Bangkok, where desire rules and the human body is as custom-designable as a raw hunk of jade - and where Sonchai eventually tracks the killer, a predator of an even more sinister variety.
Quite simply, BANGKOK EIGHT is one of the best debut novels I've read in a long, long time. Even months later, it has stuck with me. The writing is fresh and original, as are the characters, and Burdett does a great job weaving both the halluconigenic and contradictory atmosphere of Bangkok, and some interesting philosophical questions, into the exciting storyline. On returning to New Zealand, I immediately went out and got my hands on some more of Burdett's series featuring Jitpleecheep; BANGKOK TATTOO and BANGKOK HAUNTS. I'm looking forward to reading them, but I didn't use them for my second Asian novel in the 2010 Global Reading Challenge, as I want to use a different country, and different author for the Expert Level.
I had several other 'Asian' options on my bookshelf at home, including: SINGAPORE SLING SHOT by Andrew Grant - a thriller set in Singpore written by a New Zealander who has spent a lot of time in the region; and THE CASE OF THE MISSING SERVANT by Tarquin Hall (India-set detective fiction). However, I chose A BALI CONSPIRACY MOST FOUL as my second Asian book for the Challenge.
In A BALI CONSPIRACY MOST FOUL, her second in a series featuring irascible and portly Sikh detective Inspector Singh, former lawyer Flint sets a murder mystery in the debris and aftermath of the horrific real-life ‘Bali bombings’ that devastated the tourist Mecca several years ago. Although Singh, like Flint herself, is based in Singapore, he finds himself heading around the Asian region to solve crimes (the first in the series is set in Malaysia, the second in Bali/Indonesia, and the third in Singapore).
I quite enjoyed this book, I must say. The characters and setting are fresh and interesting, and Flint writes well. There’s a bit of a dichotomy with Flint’s Inspector Singh novels – the brightly-coloured covers, almost comic or cartoonish main character, and ‘light’ writing style bely the fact that the stories deal with some serious issues, and aren’t in any way bloodless cosys. People are blown up, the detectives examine bits of bullet-holed bone, and not every ‘good guy’ character survives the 292 pages. But it’s still a ‘light’ read, in a good way. Enjoyable, definitely. You can read my full 800wd review of A BALI CONSPIRACY MOST FOUL here.
NORTH/CENTRAL AMERICA: Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have read several North American novels already this year. The two I am using for the challenge are a thriller by Canadian author Linwood Barclay, and a detective tale set on the Navajo reservation, by the legendary Tony Hillerman - my first taste of Hillerman, who I had been meaning to read for a while. I wanted to pick a US setting and author that was new to me, rather than an LA or New York set novel.
In NEVER LOOK AWAY, reporter David Harwood’s wife Jan vanishes from a popular theme park. As if that wasn't bad enough, when the police can’t find any evidence of Jan ever being at the park, the begin to suspect David. A body discovered in a shallow grave increases the pressure, and David must dig into an unclear past to uncover the perhaps unpalatable truth about the sedate life he thought he was living.
I thought NEVER LOOK AWAY was another great 'domestic thriller' from Barclay, who has shown a masterful hand with these 'everyday person gets the rug pulled out from under them' type of tales, over his past few books. You can read a short review I did of this book for Latitude magazine, here.
As I said above, Tony Hillerman's tales (featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee) have been on my 'to read' list for a while. He is one of those modern 'classic' authors that I have been meaning to get around to, in amongst all of the new and recently-released books (others in that category for me include Joseph Wambaugh, Sarah Paretsky, Ed McBain, Walter Mosley, and Sue Grafton).
I picked up a copy of A THIEF OF TIME from a second-hand store in my hometown of Richmond, Nelson, when I was back visiting family in January.
In A THIEF OF TIME, a noted anthropologist vanishes at a moonlit Indian ruin where pot hunters ("thieves of time") ravage sacred ground for profit. When two corpses appear amid stolen goods and bones at an ancient burial site, Navajo Tribal Policemen Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee plunge into the past to unearth the astonishing truth behind a mystifying series of horrific murders.
I really enjoyed A THIEF OF TIME, and was glad I'd finally got around to reading a book by Hillerman. It definitely won't be the last. I've always been interested in Native American culture, and I've travelled through Southwest USA, and visited Monument Valley and some of the surrounding area in Nevada, Arizona, and Utah - so I enjoyed the setting as well as the good mystery storyline. It was my first Hillerman novel, but definitely won't be the last.
Europe: I usually read quite a bit of British crime anyway, and last year I also read novels from Irish, Swedish, and German authors, amongst other Europeans. So I decided to stay away from UK-set stories for my two 'official' entries for the European continent in the 2010 Global Reading Challenge - although no doubt I will read several such books over the course of the year anyway (e.g. Mark Billingham's upcoming FROM THE DEAD, etc)
So, so far this year I have read two books set in continental Europe, both from authors that are new-to-me; SELF'S MURDER by Bernhard Schlink (translated from German, set in Germany), and THE BLACK MONASTERY by Stav Sherez (set in the Greek Islands).
Retired German judge and law professor Bernhard Schlink is an award-winning crime writer, but for the wider public outside of Germany he may be best-known as the author of THE READER, which was of course adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Kate Winslet. His series of crime novels star Gerhard Self, a philosophising senior citizen private detective with a fondness for sweet cigarettes and liqueurs, and a desire to atone for his links to his country's troubled past.
I thought SELF'S MURDER was good, but not great. It was reasonably enjoyable, but at times seemed a little pedestrian. There were aspects I really enjoyed, but overall it was just, for me, 'so-so', which is a shame. You can read a more in-depth review I wrote for EuroCrime, here.
THE BLACK MONASTERY is Stav Sherez's second crime novel, following his debut THE DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND, which was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey Dagger back in 2005 (there was a five-year gap, and a change in publishers, between Sherez's first and second novels).
THE BLACK MONASTERY is Stav Sherez's second crime novel, following his debut THE DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND, which was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey Dagger back in 2005 (there was a five-year gap, and a change in publishers, between Sherez's first and second novels).
Faber & Faber's blurb for THE BLACK MONASTERY says, "People used to come to the small Greek island of Palassos for the historic ruins. Now they come to take drugs and party all night. But the horrific ritual murder of a boy in the grounds of an old monastery brings back memories of two similar deaths in the mid-1970s, and of a mysterious cult who once dwelt in the island’s interior, memories the island has tried hard to forget.
As Nikos, the police chief who has been persuaded back to his home island for the final years of his career, begins his investigation, two Brits arrive on the island: the bestselling crime writer Kitty Carson, on a break from the pressures of work and her strained marriage, and Jason an aspiring writer with a secret of his own. When a second body is discovered - further endangering the island’s lucrative tourist trade - these three characters are thrown together, as the gruesome secrets of the past begin to emerge."
Sherez's style leans towards literary at times, perhaps even becoming over-wordy occasionally, but I really enjoyed the read. He evokes a nice sense of the Greek Island setting, and the changes some such places have endured in the past decades, shifting from history-filled rural getaways to booze and drug-filled party places for yobbish British tourists. It's a book well worth reading for those that like a bit of atmosphere, history, and societal comment or insight woven into their mysteries.
AUSTRALASIA/OCEANIA: I have of course read several New Zealand books this year, including the latest from Paul Cleave and Paddy Richardson, and older tales from the likes of Laurie Mantell, amongst others. I also have several Australian crime novels in my TBR pile, from the likes of Barry Maitland, Tara Moss, Peter Corris, and others.
But in terms of the two 'official' Australasian/Oceanian books for the challenge, I chose Laurie Mantell's A MURDER OR THREE and Leah Giarratano's BLACK ICE, both of whom were new authors to me in 2010.
In A MURDER OR THREE, which was published back in 1980, three women are murdered, each with a pair of pantyhose. Detective Sergeant Steve Arrow knows the first victim, a shy teenager who has already told the police of a flasher seen in nearby bush. The body of the second victim, older, extremely attractive, is found in this same bush, and, later, a flirtatious wife dies in her own home with the tell-tale pantyhose around her throat. Residents are in near panic...
I really enjoyed this book, as I did Mantell's MURDER TO BURN, which I read the week before (another Detective Steve Arrow tale). I probably liked this one a touch more, or perhaps I'd just settled more into Mantell's style - which is of the classic Agatha Christie/Ngaio Marsh 'cosy' style, although its late 1970s/early 1980s New Zealand, rather than mid-war Britain. Mantell writes good 'puzzle' books in the classic sense, and conforms to the 'Malice Domestic' style on the sex/blood front as well. You can read my longer 600-wd review here.
In BLACK ICE, Australian clinical psychologist Leah Giarratano's third crime novel, her recurring heroine Detective Sergeant Jill Jackson is working undercover in Sydney's murky drug world, where glamour and seedy underbelly collide.
From the back cover: "Living in a run down flat and making unlikely friends Jill sees first hand what devastation the illegal drugs scene can wreak. Her sister Cassie has a new boyfriend Christian Worthington. Like her, he is one of the beautiful people of Sydney, rich, good looking, great job, great car and seen in all the right places. He is a high flying lawyer doing pro bono work to keep a drug dealer out of gaol. He is also Cassie's supplier, keeping her supplied with cocaine and ice. When Cassie overdoses and is dumped at the hospital her life begins to spiral out of control. Seren Templeton is just out of Silverwater Women's Correctional Centre. Two years in gaol away from her son for something she didn't do. And now she is ready to get her revenge on the man responsible. Things start to go awry when these worlds collide and Jill and Cassie meet on opposite sides of the law."
I really enjoyed this book, and I found myself enjoying it more and more as it went on. Initially I wasn't that enamoured with Jackson as a main character, but she grew on me throughout, and I liked Giarratano's mix of setting (the scabby urban Australia underbelly), good dialogue, interesting plot, and some unique and memorable characters. You can read my full 700w review here.
SOUTH AMERICA: This was the final continent to finish for me. I found it a little difficult easily getting hold of South American-set crime fiction written by South American writers (I didn't want to use South American-set thrillers written by Northern Hemisphere authors), in translation. However, in the end I came across to great authors, translated from the original Spanish (and Portugese, I'm guessing), allowing me to complete the challenge.
My first South American crime novel (in fact the first crime/thriller novel I've ever read by a South American author) was Brazilian author Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza's SOUTHWESTERLY WIND, which I bought from from Unity Books a few weeks ago.
In SOUTHWESTERLY WIND, Chief of the Copacabana precinct Espinosa is more than happy to interrupt his paperwork when a terrified young man arrives at the station with a bizarre story. A psychic has predicted that he will commit a murder, it seems, and the prediction has become fact in the young man's mind. It's a case more appropriate for a psychiatrist or philosopher, but, rising to the challenge as usual, Espinosa slowly enters the web of a psychologically conflicted man. As the weather changes and the southwesterly wind - always a sign of dramatic change - starts up, what at first seems like paranoia becomes brutal reality. Two violent murders occur and their only link is the lonely, clever man who has sought Espinosa out a few days earlier for help.
I quite enjoyed this book, although it was a little slower-paced than most crime and thriller novels I read. In a way, the plot and story unfolds, unhurriedly - rather than racing along. I enjoyed Garcia-Roza's descriptions of Rio de Janeiro, a city I visited in early 2008, and it was quite an intriguing set-up, with the young man becoming increasingly erratic due to the paranoia and fear brought on by the pyschic's prediction. At times however, it felt like both the reader, and Espinosa himself, were just waiting to see what would eventually happen. The Police Chief, although an intriguing character, was pretty reactive - although that is probably quite authentic in a way. It was a good book, and I would read more of Garcia-Roza, although perhaps not race out and read him ahead of others on the TBR pile.
My 14th and final book for the Expert level of the 2010 Global Reading Challenge (and my second South American crime/thriller novel) was AMERICAN VISA by Juan de Recacoechea, which I just finished earlier this week. I understand it is one of the few Bolivian books ever to be translated into English. A 'noirish' tale set in La Paz, it won the National Book Prize in Bolivia in 1994.
In AMERICAN VISA Mario Alvarez, an English teacher from the provinces of Bolivia, arrives at the zero star Hotel California in La Paz wearing his best suit and clutching a round-trip ticket to the U.S. sent to him by his son. He meets Blanca, a prostitute with cinnamon skin from the tropical part of Bolivia who "had within her the serenity of the great rivers that run through her homeland." Blanca falls for Mario and offers him a more realistic future than the vague promise made by his son, but Mario is obsessed with getting to the US.
When it becomes clear the authorities will investigate his faked documents, Mario needs to "expedite" his visa problem. Coming up with the harebrained idea of robbing a gold buyer for bribe money, he proceeds to land himself in various inglorious situations. He draws on his experience with American crime fiction--Chandler, Hammett, and more--to steal the money any way he can, even if he has to kill to get it.
This book was quite different to the crime/thriller novels I usually read, but I found myself hooked, and really enjoying it. It is reminiscent of that classic mid-20th century American noir, with its dishevelled hero, mean and gritty streets, and situations that unfold into all sorts of unplanned bad places and outcomes. Recacoechea's writing probably shines most in his evocation of La Paz, the highest capital city in the world - a bustling city full of change and history (I visited in late 2007), and the sense of disconnect and desperation felt by the 'hero'. AMERICAN VISA is quite a different book, and won't necessarily be enjoyed by all crime and thriller fans, but there is plenty of merit, interest, and thought-provoking themes to be found within its pages.
ANTARCTICA: I initially thought the seventh continent would prove the most difficult, but in the end I finished this before South America, and had a few back-up choices on the book front as well - although many fell more within the sci-fi/action/or geopolitical thriller category rather than the crime/thriller one I was trying to stay within or close to for the challenge.
My first Antarctica-set book this year was ICE STATION by Australian thriller writer Matthew Reilly. I've actually read a couple of Reilly's books in the past, and enjoyed them. They are a bit mindless, but fun. And Reilly has a fascinating back-story, writing his first novel (CONTEST) while at Law School, he was roundly rejected by all the publishers, so he self-publised, worked hard selling it basically from 'the back of a car', so to speak, it became a hit, he was picked up by a big publisher, and now he's sold truckloads and truckloads of his fast-paced adventure thrillers.
In ICE STATION, after a team of American scientists at Wilkes Ice Station discover what seems to be a spaceship in a four-million-year-old cavern below the ice, two of the divers disappear while checking out the craft. Lt. Shane "Scarecrow" Schofield and his highly trained team of Marines respond to the scientists' distress signal. By the time the leathernecks reach Wilkes, three days later, one of the scientists has killed another, six more members of the Wilkes team have disappeared in the ice cave and eight French scientists from a nearby station are for some reason at the U.S. base. Would the French government kill Americans to capture a frozen UFO?
ICE STATION certainly lived up to it's billing as a thrill-a-minute page turner. I found myself chuckling at some of the cheesy dialogue, or ridiculously over-the-top situations at times, but overall I was pulled along by Reilly's fastpaced storytelling. It's an ideal 'airport read', or for some relatively mindless escapism on a lazy weekend. To be fair, Reilly does actually bring in some interesting geo-political issues and themes, although they can be lost in amongst the high-octane action, and over-the-top-ness of the rest of the book. But if you look, they're there. For those unfamiliar with Reilly, I'd probably describe his books as a less serious and detailed, and more fun, silly, and flat-out exciting type of Tom Clancy story. And even though several of the characters were a little cliched, caricatured or cardboard, I did enjoy the way Reilly brought things together, and I did find myself caring about some of them by the end.
Originally my 13th novel (and second Antarctica-set one) was slated to be Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s THE ICE LIMIT. However, partway through that book I came across a New Zealand author from days gone by who'd written an Antarctica-set novel that was more crime/mystery than Preston and Child's book - which seemed more all-out action leaning to sci-fi type thriller. So I switched.
WHITE FOR DANGER by David Stevens (1979) starts in New Zealand and heads to Antarctica, as renowned writer and adventurer Logan Adams is roped into tagging along with his brother-in-law's Antarctica expedition - his brother-in-law was the sole survivor of a previous mission, and he's determined to go back and find the two men left behind, that he believes are still alive and were taken to a hidden city on the frozen continent. The wealthy backers of the return expeditition aren't worried about finding the men (who they presume are dead), but are very interested in the potential archaeological find. But (of course) there is much more than meets the eye to the motives of those on the expedition, and other outsiders as well. During the perilous journey to the target area a series of disasters which seem like sabotage effects the already strained relationships of the team. Even worse awaits them once they reach their destination.
I found myself really enjoying this book - in part because I think it brought back some nostalgic memories of reading Alistair McLean and Desmond Bagley tales of adventure when I was growing up. WHITE FOR DANGER is very much in that style, and to be honest it does read as of a different era, and as from an age gone by writing-wise, but this doesn't necessarily detract too much. It was fun to read a 1970s-style action/adventure novel set in New Zealand and Antartica, and to see some of the foreign characters thoughts on the New Zealand cities and towns as they were 30-plus years ago.
Stevens writes very much in the Bagley/McLean style, with plenty of interesting action, right from early on, and intrigue throughout. His characters are interesting, although some at times can seem a little cliched (its probably hard not to when they were written 30 years ago) - there are fewer of the moral ambiguities than we are perhaps used to with more modern tales. However, Stevens does a great job with some of the characters, making them 'more than meets the eye' not just from a mystery/intrigue perspective, but from a personality/emotion/human perspective - particularly Adams' brother-in-law. Things build to a head as the team travels to Antarctica and then attempts to survive both the harsh environment, and unknown dangers of a more human kind. I found myself caught up in the story, and would be happy to read more of Stevens' work (if he wrote any more novels after this).
So there you have it - my 14-book rundown of my efforts for the Expert Level of Dorte's excellent 2010 Global Reading Challenge. It was a lot of fun to participate in, and I commend Dorte, Kerrie, and everyone else involved. Long may our interests in crime and thriller fiction from all over the world, be embraced, celebrated, and grown.
Are you participating in the Global Reading Challenge? Do you enjoy reading fiction from a variety of places? What do you think of the books I've read? Thoughts and comments most welcome.