Current reading & quick takes

Life being what it is this year—the pandemic, the bleak uncertainty around work and just about everything else—I’ve been spending much more time reading. Including:

Arab Jazz, by Karim Miské

Book Review: Arab Jazz by Karim Miske (translated by Sam Gordon) | Press and Journal

The opening chapters of this novel are set in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, with a few treks into nearby quartiers. It was published around the time of the Charlie Hebdo murders and Bataclan attack, and brings with it a sense of the sorrows as well as the vibrancy of that part of the city.

The writing, translated from French, is fresh and close to musical. The characters, their interactions, and interior thoughts are all sharply observed and described. Most of the characters are of different religions and continents of origin and include a pair of detectives who are calm, intello types disinclined to jump to conclusions.

The narrator is on medical leave from his nightwatchman job, and he has the heightened awareness of his surroundings that often results from surviving a thoroughly upending experience.

During his leave he’s hardly left his small apartment, which is stacked with books—noir, mysteries, and police procedurals purchased by the pound from a local bookseller. One morning, out on his small balcony, he is snapped out of a meditation session by clear evidence that something has gone badly wrong in the apartment above his. He decides to determine what happened and who did it before anyone tries to pin it on him.

Between the writing and the setting, this book swept me along from its first sentences. It’s an examination not just of a murder, but of the environment and mix of cultures and religions in which it takes place. I found nothing dull or predictable here. I also liked being in Paris with these characters, following their ruminations and observations. A bonus is being reminded of artifacts of life in the French capital. This isn’t high life Paris, it’s working world Paris, which is much more interesting.

The Guardian review ; entretien, author interview (en francais) 3.5 minutes.
Available in French here and in English, translated by Sam Gordon, here.

The Dry, by Jane Harper

A new-to-me author who I hope has a long list of ideas for future novels.

This book also drew me in from the first page. It lets you settle into the landscape without any long blocks of unnecessary information and introduces characters so easily I felt as though I was there on the ground with the main character, Aaron Falk.

It’s set in Australia during the blast furnace heat of a drought and opens with Falk returning to his home town for the funeral of an old friend. You can tell from the glances he gets, and the way he feels them as they land, that there is a lot of history here to be told.

There are many ways to fold backstory into a narrative. In this book, present day events are set in normal text and alternate with flashbacks, often the length of chapters, in italics. Around the middle of the book I began to find this more of a frustrating interruption and stopped reading the flashbacks, although I skimmed a few, and stuck with the present day.

As that hasn’t come up in any of the reviews I’ve read, I think it’s just me. I’m not so fond of frequent jumps back and forth along the timeline.

Whatever your preference for the narrative blending of past and present, if you like an intriguing mystery that’s well told, read this book.

Available here. And the Kirkus review is here.