findingtimetowrite

Thinking, writing, thinking about writing…

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

Gone fishing…

… for pesky adverbs, overemphatic descriptions and stilted dialogues, that is.  I am going away on holiday and will not have access to email, Twitter, Facebook or WordPress.  In short, none of the comforts and distractions of present-day life.  So I can dedicate myself whole-heartedly to the children, the beach and editing my first draft.

Or so I thought.  Then, slowly, slowly, other (professional) obligations started creeping up on me, including a few things that I had promised to do before the holidays but never got around to doing.  And some enjoyable tasks, such as reading my friend Cristian Mihai’s first novel Jazz, and then preparing to grill him in an interview.

So now it looks like I’ll be lucky to get any rest over the next few weeks…

However, you will get a rest.  From me.  And my very prolific (and no, I do not mean proficient) blogging.

Should you be suffering from withdrawal symptoms, however, here are a few that I made earlier:

1) Book review – the one that started it all

‘The Expats’ by Chris Pavone

2) Poetry – two of my personal favourites

Things I Have Lost

Then and Now

3) Flash fiction

Harness

4) Random musing and waffling

Developing the Creative Habit

The Angel and Edna (Part 1)

And if it’s popularity that you are after, this seems to be my most popular blog post of all time.

Thank you for bringing so much joy and understanding to my life, my dear readers. Have a wonderful holiday if you can and hear/read you all again in three weeks’ time!

Gone fishing in the sea…

July Reads and Pick of the Month

I haven’t read only crime fiction this month (although, as usual, it does form the bulk of my reading).  The reason for that is only partly because there were so many interesting books in other genres on my To Read list.  The other reason, of course, is that I am trying to distance myself a little bit from the genre while I am editing my own crime fiction novel.  Otherwise I risk including every clever plot device or brilliant scene from each novel I read into my own piecemeal effort – making it even more of a dog’s dinner than it already is!  (Can you tell I am going through my ‘down’ phase, where I think every sentence is horrible?)

So here are the books I have read this month.  I have included links if I have already reviewed them, here or elsewhere, and I am also linking to Mysteries in Paradise and their Pick of the Month.

1) So far, so French (or Franco-Swiss), at least in terms of setting.

Sylvie Granotier: The Paris Lawyer

Simenon: Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets

Simenon: Maigret et l’inspecteur Malgracieux (I am planning a special on Maigret for September)

Cathy Ace: The Corpse with the Silver Tongue

Estelle Monbrun: Meurtre chez Colette (I really wanted to like this one, because I am a Colette fan, but it was disappointing)

Anita Brookner: Hotel du Lac. Precise, elegant, poignant.  Midlife crisis handled with English poise – heartbreaking.

2) The holiday locations continue with:

Jeffrey Siger: Murder on Mykonos.  Excellent description of the island, of Greek politics and lifestyle in general, good use of suspense, although the ending did feel a bit random.  I especially loved the idea of the local policemen Googling information about serial killers.

Natsuo Kirino: Out (Japan). A shocker – not for the faint-hearted.  I will write a post in late August or early September about contemporary Japanese fiction, as this is one of my favourite topics.

Carlos Zanón: The Barcelona Brothers  (review of this will appear shortly on the Crime Fiction Lover website)

Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Marina (also set in Barcelona). Mix of genres and stories – this is mystery, ghost story, love story, sci-fi, historical romance. Beautiful imagery and recaptures a vanished world of ruined Barcelona mansions. Reminded me of the nostalgia and luscious detail of ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’.

3) Then we have the familiar stomping ground of London or Cambridge:

Stav Sherez: A Dark Redemption

Robin Webster: The Blues Man. Fast pace, intricate plot, some nice references to blues music and an uncompromising look at the seedy underbelly of London’s drug-dealing and prostitution world.  Promised much but under-delivered, I fear.

Alison Bruce: Cambridge Blue.  Loved the setting, loved the young and atypical detective, loved his grandmother (I hope she continues to appear in the next books of the series).

Barbara Pym: Excellent Women.  Not my favourite Pym novel, but her usual wry humour is evident here.

4) And finally, a few American ladies with no criminal tendencies whatsoever:

Alice Sebold: The Lovely Bones

Barbara Ehrenreich: Smile or Die (I believe it’s called ‘Bright-Sided’ in the US) – non-fiction, about the relentless promotion of positive thinking in the United States

Alice Baudat: The Wooden Bowl – a review and interview with the author will appear on this blog in September

And the winner is: Stav Sherez.  You can find a detailed review here and an author interview with him here (neither written by me – because the question I would have asked is: what on earth is Stav short for?).  As far as my own thoughts go, I found this book very atmospheric: the author captures the heat and dust of Africa just as well as the grime and rain of London (particularly its lesser known and sleazier parts). Well written, evocative yet parsimonious use of language. And I like the way the two main detectives have complicated backgrounds, yet manage to steer clear of clichéed representation.  If the first of the series is so good, I can hardly wait to see what the rest of them will be like!

And what, you may well ask, has that picture got to do with my July reading?  Nothing, except that I felt as snug as a cat because I got the chance to read so many books this month (not likely to happen again any time soon).

The Remains

Like little birds startled by crumbs we scatter

for cover when the big words come,

the ones stripped of any art, the ones that singe,

mostly avoided, successfully dodged those lumps of dry bread.

 

Keep truth abay with a light swathe, a gauzy cloak of

half-heard, half-uttered little drones of

nothingness, conventional riffs of jazz, too polite to improvise.

A necklace of platitudes we spin for each other:

barbs disguised in vanilla puddings

to be uncovered by the archaeologists of

our dead love.

 

The Poem of Laughter and Forgetting

How do I forget thee?

Let me count the ways…

 

I forget when I laugh over silly accents, when I flirt

and linger, reflected in others’ eyes.

I forget when I cry over details misremembered, whispers misquoted,

each one erring in your favour, building a love

heroic out of daily fatigue.

I forget how distance each day can edge a wrinkle,

how dust will add each layer, a little more complete.

 

I forget your voice, your smell just after kissing,

the way you wear your hat

and that you never sipped tea with me.

But I can still recall and will forever savour

the feelings you awakened and nourished in me.

And if all else fails…

I was passing through the charming town of Chambéry earlier today and I saw this shop front, so I had to share this with you.  This shop is for a Public/Official Writer.  The shop is called ‘The Ear and the Quill’ and we are assured that the shopowner is a certified Public Writer and a member of the Academy of Public Writers.  Sadly, the shop was closed on a Monday, so I could not go in and ask what precisely he or she writes, and for whom.

So, if all my writing and publishing efforts fail, nice to know there is still a career option available for me.  I just hope it doesn’t involve calligraphy (or too much French grammar)!

Most Underrated Authors (Personal Selection)

Well, of course I owe it to everyone (and myself) to put a more positive spin on things.  It’s easy to vent about overrated books. It’s easy to be harsh with authors, especially when we cannot replicate their success.  But which books deserve a wider audience?  Because this is how I choose to define ‘underrated’ -not in terms of critical appreciation, but which should be better known. I try to stick to books which were either written in English or are easily available in translation. The issue of how little foreign literature is translated into English (although crime fiction seems to be the exception here) is a separate rant, which I will leave for another day.

1) Patricia Highsmith:

Yes, everyone has heard of The Talented Mr. Ripley (or at least lusted over Jude Law at his most gorgeous as Dickie Greenleaf in the Anthony Minghella film).  But Patricia Highsmith has written some of the most chilling psychological thrillers in the world.  So of course she is underrated, because she is usually shunted into the ‘just another crime fiction writer’ category.  What is perhaps most unsettling about her work is that her criminals/murderers are not evil monsters: instead, they are portrayed as confused, vulnerable humans, who find ways to justify even their most vile actions.  Very much like you and me, in fact.

2) Dorothy Parker:

Everybody quotes her witticisms, most people have heard of her ‘Men seldom make passes/at girls who wear glasses’, she was the most acerbic critic.  But how many have read her short stories?  They are funny and brilliantly observed, as you might expect. Her first-person monologues are as true-to-life and fresh (and as good an insight into tortured female psyche) as the day they were written (try ‘The Telephone Call’ or ‘The Little Hours’).  But they are also poignant and terribly painful at times.

3) Jean Rhys:

Speaking of poignant stories of no-hope, grim exploitation and cynicism, nobody does it better than Jean Rhys, especially in her short stories.  Like Barbara Pym (another underrated writer) she was forgotten and out of print for nearly two decades.  She is still largely unknown, with the exception of  ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, the story of Mr. Rochester’s first wife.

4) Tove Jansson:

I adored the Moomins when I was a child, but only now, when I am rereading them with my children, do I realise just how much of a craftswoman the Finnish artist and writer really is.  The books work on many levels – they are absurd, funny, highly imaginative, yet also tinged with melancholy and asking profound questions.  And she has written books for adults too!  ‘The Summer Book’ brings back so many memories of childhood, a beautiful and unsentimental description of the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter.

5) Maj Sjӧwall and Per Wahlӧӧ:

I’ve written about them before but they really are one of the earliest and best, most influential writers of crime fiction (of the police procedural type).  Whether you care for their Marxist leanings or not, you have to appreciate their realism, their deceptively simple prose, their subtlety and their questioning of all the values and treasured beliefs of society.

Looking at this list, I notice that my underrated authors are virtually all female (or a husband-and-wife team).  I wonder if there is something subconscious at work there, that I feel women’s literature (or the so-called women’s topics) are still regarded as somehow second-class.

What is your opinion?  Which authors have I missed out?  Is it easier to neglect women authors?  Thank you all so much for your honest and illuminating comments on the overrated books post.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on books and authors we should know better.

Most Overrated Books (in My World)

The Lovely BonesWhen there is too much of a buzz around a book, I tend to wait for a few years before reading it (I will probably read 50 Shades of Grey when I am a grandmother, at this rate).  I did that with Harry Potter, ‘Life of Pi’ and I am still waiting to read Hilary Mantel’s latest two.  Because, with all due respect to reviewers, online chat forums and book clubs, no one can read a book for you.  Tastes are so different, that only you can make up your own mind! (Thank goodness.)

I finally read Alice Sebold’s ‘The Lovely Bones’ yesterday and was intrigued for the first 50 pages or so, then a bit bored, then finally frustrated.  It’s an interesting premise (the omniscient narrator from heaven) and the adolescent voice is charming, but after a while the archness and sentimentality begin to jar.  It just goes on for too long: a novella-length of about 20,000 would have been more than enough.

So that got me musing about other books that I have found highly overrated.  Please bear in mind this is always a very personal exercise, so don’t be offended if I have included any of your favourites!  However, I would love to hear you defend any of my choices (because I am not Miss Know-It-All), or let me know if there are any others I ought to include.

1) Dan Brown: The Da Vinci Code

And pretty much everything else he has written.  When I first read this, I thought it was a parody of a certain type of thriller.  But alas, no, it’s deadly earnest!

2) Elizabeth Gilbert: Eat Pray Love

Don’t get me wrong: I think she is very brave to share with readers her early-midlife-crisis and search for fulfilment.  I just find the journey a selfish and not that well-written pursuit of personal happiness, with very little attempt to understand or interact deeply with the cultures she encounters.  Some funny observations, but overall too much bellybuttonism for my taste.

3) Stieg Larsson

Yes, I ‘m sorry, the whole Girl with Dragon Tattos and other tormented characteristics left me cold!  It’s not the violence or misogyny that I complain about (the first is widespread in crime fiction, the second is debatable anyway).  No, it’s the fact that it bores me.  Everyone talks about its relentless pace and it being a page-turner, but I have to admit I skipped entire repetitive passages. It feels completely unedited, a real jumble: just spewing out of odd bits of information, plotlines and shifts in narrative voice.

4) Hemingway’s novels

His short stories are brilliant.  I just find his terseness and übermasculinity grates over the length of a novel.  And sometimes I am not sure he is as profound as his critics make him out to be.

5) Paul Coelho: The Alchemist

Possibly because all the people I despised in high school loved it so much.  Or because fable-type narratives always hit my cynical vein, from which then gushes forth pretentious twaddle.  Sometimes beautiful words are poetry that makes us gasp in wonder… and sometimes it’s a rich cake, giving me indigestion.  (On the other hand, I do like some of his other books, for instance ‘Veronika Decides to Die’.)

As I said, don’t take my word for it!  If you haven’t read these, then you may want to ignore my opinion and make up your own mind. Now I would like to know which books you love to hate!  Although I may shoot you if you dare to say ‘The Great Gatsby’ or Jane Austen…

Skipping

When they told you to stop skipping

noisily down corridors and dangerously up the stairs,

did you question your skipping abilities?

Did you wonder if said skip was high enough

impressive enough,

in time, lively, energetic, contained?

Did you ponder in the dark, dawn-questioned hours

in grim solitude, just you and your mind?

Did you compare your skips with those of others?

Did you worry your skip may not find an audience,

interpret each passing smile or twitched eyebrow as snigger

and twitch at every word heading your way?

 

Did you stop skipping?

 

I thought not.

 

The Art of Science

When they uncovered the last of the bones

they placed them so gently

alongside the rest,

and brushed with soft caresses

the mould blooming in cavernous skulls.

 

When they found paths of eerie beauty

where particles had met

and shuddered to a halt,

they held up mirrors of foggy fascination

to conjure up bold dances to music overload.

 

When the lab mice get injected

to thrill to slightest sound,

vibrate in nervous tension,

they travel through synapses at speeds you cannot measure -

those words blushing with excitement at waking up on stage.

Happy Bastille Day!

 

Not far from where I live is the Chateau de Voltaire, where the great man lived for about 20 years, when he was banished from Paris and Geneva for his inability to put up and shut up.  Voltaire was also imprisoned twice in the Bastille, so today’s celebrations of the Fall of the Bastille would have gladdened his heart.  I hope the weather holds and the fireworks, dancing, music and theatre will take place as planned in the grounds of his estate.  He would have rejoiced to see children playing, couples flirting and sipping champagne, poetry being recited down the shadey paths. After all, he is not only the champion of social justice, tolerance and anti-mumbo-jumbo, but also the man who said:

Let us read and let us dance – two amusements that will never do any harm to the world.

 

If you are an admirer of French philosophy and literature and want to celebrate the 14th of July with fiction, here are some recently-released English translations or  novels set in France which you might enjoy. It has often been said that French literature and French films are an acquired taste for English-speaking audiences, but the mix below is a really painless introduction:

1) Sylvie Granotier: The Paris Lawyer

Sylvie Granotier is a former actress now turned full-time writer of thrillers, well-respected in France.  You can find a full review of this interesting, atypical crime fiction novel on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

2) Fred Vargas

This is the pseudonym of a French historian and archaelogist and I have probably mentioned her before (and will do again).  Her crime fiction books are always surprising, unusual, with historical and supernatural element, always unsettling me (in a good way).  She has two series – the Commissaire Adamsberg that more closely resemble police procedurals, and the Three Evangelists, about three friends who share a house. If you don’t mind reading books out of order, then ‘Seeking Whom He May Devour’ and ‘Have Mercy on Us All’ are probably good ones to start with.

 

3) Cathy Ace: The Corpse with the Silver Tongue

A debut novel by a Welsh/Canadian writer but set on the Côte d’Azure, this is a delightful cosy mystery and romp through pâté de foie gras and champagne for breakfast, cross-cultural misunderstandings and glamorous locations.  I will have a full review of it next week on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

4) Janet Hubbard: Champagne- The Farewell

Another one for foodie and drink fans, this is essentially manor house mystery set in the Champagne region of France. When an attractive French magistrate and a dynamic NYPD detective find themselves thrown together to solve a murder at a mutual friend’s wedding, sparks are bound to fly!

5) Muriel Barbery: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

This has been a runaway bestseller in France since it first came out in 2006, but the English translation has not done as well.  It is a controversial book, with not much in the way of plot, except the friendship between the concierge of an apartment building and a twelve-year old girl, both alienated, over-sensitive souls.  It’s the kind of book you either love or you hate, full of literary and philosophical allusions, yet not pretentious.  Definitely worth a try!

 

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