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Archive for the category “Reviews”

Art, Creativity, Poetry (and Prose)

Two quick reviews today of poetry and poetic prose, by two very different but equally gifted young writers. One born in England but living in Ireland. The other is Swiss, but writes (in this book) about China.

seaofink_0_220_330Richard Weihe: Sea of Ink (transl. by Jamie Bulloch)

The author is clearly attracted by exotic (i.e. Eastern) art – he has also written about the Indian woman painter Amrita Sher-Gil. This slim book is also about a real historical figure, the Chinese painter Bada Shanren, descendant of the Ming dynasty. Little is known about his life, however, although his work has been very influential, hugely admired and extensively analysed. So Weihe is free to weave the meagre details of his life into a slow-burning meditation into the meaning of art, where creativity fits into politics and everyday life, and how to capture the essence of nature and reality. The biographical details are perhaps the least interesting elements of the story, although they provide a certain structure upon which the author hangs his narrative: finding refuge in a temple, feigning madness (or perhaps being really mad for a period) to avoid confrontation with the new political rulers, reluctantly achieving fame. His artistic progress is marked through little vignettes describing his thoughts, emotions and brushstrokes as he creates ten of his most famous paintings. It’s like looking over the artist’s shoulder, watching his attempts to capture the spirit of nature, render it on paper and make it look effortless.

A beautiful, hypnotic book, full of the apparent contradictions of Taoist philosophy (exhaustively researched by the author). A book to reread for inspiration, and not just for painters, full of very quotable pages:

When you paint, you do not speak. But when you have painted, your brush should have said everything.

When you dip your paintbrush into the ink, you are dipping it into your soul. And when you guide your paintbrush, it is your spirit guiding it.

When you paint, do not think about painting, but let your wrist dance.

Originality? I am as I am, I paint as I paint. I have no method… I am just me.

You cannot hang onto the beards of the ancients. You must try to be your own life and not the death of another.

How can it be that, from a dismal sky, this bitter world can suddenly show us that we love it, in spite of everything, and that in spite of everything it will be hard to take our leave of it?

He had set himself one final goal. He wanted to paint flowing water.

silentmusicAdam Wyeth: Silent Music

A fine blend between English realism and Irish romanticism, Wyeth’s poetry starts with a small observation of daily life, which is then suddenly subverted and lets you take a deeper dive into something far more profound. Gathering and cooking globe artichokes becomes a moment of intimacy and exploration, a cinema trip with his mother becomes a heartbreaking revelation of a boy’s helplessness when face with the end of his parents’ marriage, a lost umbrella becomes the metaphor for bad memories of which we try to rid ourselves. Divorce, love, lost friendships, a father’s tumour, trips abroad, childhood pranks, child labour, pigs: there is no subject too big or too small for poetry, but there is no bathos here. Just clear-eyed and very precise recollection and wording.

There is plenty of humour and experimentation amidst more serious poems: this is the debut collection of a young, exuberant writer after all.  ‘Bubbly’ is a poem designed to be read from bottom to top, rising like the bubbles in a glass of champagne – yet it works equally well when read from top to bottom.  The poet makes of fun of fake intellectual pretensions (in the title poem ‘Silent Music’), wannabe poets who lament their lives provide them with nothing interesting to write about, naughty schoolchildren with their secret jargon, even the Danish language ‘that is why there are no famous Danish poets’.

poetryinternationalweb.net

poetryinternationalweb.net

Here’s a short poem in its entirety – the title is longer than the poem, almost, yet so much irony and ambiguity is condensed into those three lines. It’s based on the miracle observed in the summer of 1985 at Ballinspittle Grotto, when the statue of the Virgin Mary moved spontaneously, receiving much national and international publicity.

Waiting for the Miracle at Ballinspittle Grotto

Nothing moves but cars.

First one passes, then I see

a second coming.

 

By way of contrast, however, these romantic, inspirational lines at sunrise:

Some say to witness the break of day

is to witness the hand of God

pull back his black mantle

to touch fingers

with our ancestors

and know something of Adam

as the land was revealed fresh,

like seeing a lover undress for the first time.

 

My 150th book: Grégoire Delacourt

lalistedemesenviesToday I reached my reading target for the year: 150 books. So everything else from here on is a bonus. But what a book to finish my challenge on!

It’s the story of a family haunted by coldness, lack of communication, lack of love and overflow of sadness entitled (ironically) ‘On ne voyait que le bonheur’ (All you could see was the happiness) by Grégoire Delacourt, which has just been published this rentrée littéraire (the autumn publishing frenzy in France, just ahead of all the literary prizes). Delacourt is a PR specialist/copywriter who started writing at the age of 50. He achieved considerable success in France with his second novel ‘La Liste de mes envies’ (The List of My Desires) – which has since been adapted for the theatre and film – about a lottery-winner, and some notoriety with his third novel ‘La Premiere chose qu’on regard’, featuring a Scarlett Johansson double, which the American actress did not appreciate and for which she took the French publisher to court.

This fourth book is fiction, but you might be forgiven at first for thinking that it’s a misery memoir. It’s the story of a seemingly boring insurance expert nearing middle age, Antoine, who muses about his unhappy childhood and the impact it has had on his own life and parenting skills. But misery memoirs are miserable only when they are badly written; when deftly handled and improved by the lack of constraints of fiction, they transcend the specific details and allow the reader to identify with the universal emotions and truths expressed therein.

DelacourtIt starts off deceptively low-key. Antoine sounds like a pessimistic sod, but perhaps for good reason. His job is to investigate insurance claims and car accidents, making sure that the payout is minimal for the insurance company he works for. In the process, he has to ignore people’s heartbreak and suffering. He berates himself for being a coward, for not having any integrity, for not standing up for the oppressed little man. Bit by bit, through slivers of pictures and scenes from the more distant and more recent past, we discover his unhappy childhood. His parents were terribly mismatched: a cold, clinical father who never shared his heart or secrets or games with his children. A Madame Bovary type of mother, clinging to her illusions, cigarettes and Sagan novels. Twin sisters five years younger than him, much more his parents’ darling than he ever was – until the day when one of them dies in her sleep. The other twin then develops a strange speech impediment, losing half of her words, while the mother abandons the family, never getting in touch again. Antoine and his little sister cling to each other in a touching story of sibling love and protection.

So far so plausibly grim, you might think. In the first part of the book the first person narrator (Antoine) is addressing his son Leon, trying to explain how he ended up being the kind of father he was, how he met his future wife and Leon’s mother, how they tried to play at happy families for a while. There is a lot in the book about the gap between appearances and reality, between façade and the unhappiness or darkness lurking underneath. But then the book descends into the shocking, the unthinkable, and it becomes deeply disturbing. Especially to a parent. Most especially to a parent who feels not entirely confident that they are always providing their children with all the love, opportunities, attention and balance that they deserve. (So that would be all of us, then.) There are a lot of loving details in the memories Antoine has of his mother and yet:

Un jour, je lui ai demandé si elle m’aimait et elle a repondu à quoi ça sert. Aucun enfant ne devrait entendre ça. Ca m’a tué. Je veux dire, c’est ce qui a commencé à me tuer.

On day I asked her if she loved me and she replied: what’s the use. No child should have to hear that. It killed me. Or rather, that’s what started to kill me. (my translation)

Gregoire-Delacourt_1705The second part of the book is more about Antoine’s gradual redemption abroad, in an isolated and very poor part of the world, while the third part is written by his daughter Josephine. It’s a very powerful story about the fear of loving and the need to feel loved, but also about forgiveness, about understanding the reasons for extreme behaviours which we usually condemn. It was an emotionally wrenching read, but also strangely fascinating. I found myself unable to concentrate on much else until I had finished the book.

One final word on the author’s predilection for list-making. At many points in the book, you find whole pages of phrases or sentences repeating certain rhythms, words or structures. Of the type (my translation and slight cutting):

In the photos,  you can’t see how overcooked the fish was. You can’t see the false compliments: yes, it was perfect. You can see our new car. You can see me, stupidly proud, next to the car. You can see the Barbie tricycle. You can see Josephine and Nathalie in the bathtub. You can see Anna and her husband Thomas in our tiny garden, next to a faded hyacinth. You can’t see my mother. You can’t see the lies. You can’t see the baby that Nathalie hadn’t wanted to keep the year before because she wasn’t sure she loved me anymore. You can’t see my tears at the time. My nights spent on the couch. My insomnia. The beast that was awakening. All you could see was the happiness.

And there are many, many more like that throughout the book. Is Delacourt just being stylistically lazy, or does the gradual piling up of details and the repetitions add to the layering on of emotions? It’s certainly an effective way of presenting the disparate, almost pointillistic thoughts that both Antoine and his daughter have – reminding me of Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness technique.

In summary, a haunting, compelling, gut-squeezing read, an opportunity to end my reading challenge with a bang, not a whimper!

completed

 

 

 

 

 

Best of the September Reading Crop

20140817_140126Well, it’s harvest time, with some of my favourite fruit now in season: grapes, apples, plums, peaches… I am full and replete with the joys of eating, but what about my reading this month?

It’s been a month of heavy English-language domination for some reason. Out of the 10 books I read (I’m not counting the re-reads for the moment), 6 have been written by English-speaking authors, of which 2 Americans, 2 Scottish and 2 English (I am nothing if not fair and neutral about the referendum on Scottish independence). Israel, Egypt, Switzerland and Swiss/China have been my other sources of books.  Unusually, only half (five) of the books I read this month were crime fiction.

1) Anne Fine: Taking the Devil’s Advice - who’d have thought that a writer I knew predominantly for her children’s books can write such dark and humorous fiction for adults too?

Kerry Hudson, photo from The Guardian.

Kerry Hudson, photo from The Guardian.

2) Kerry Hudson: Thirst – love moves in mysterious ways: a very clear-eyed picture of modern London, immigrants and hope in the midst of squalour – highly recommended

3) Derek B. Miller: Norwegian by Night – there is much to like in this book about an octogenarian and a little boy on the run from Kosovan criminals in a country where they don’t speak the language… but I didn’t quite love it as much as other readers

bratfarrar4) Josephine Tey: Brat Farrar – I reread all of Tey’s crime novels for this feature for Classics in September for Crime Fiction Lover (CFL). The Franchise Affair, The Daughter of Time and Miss Pym Disposes are the best known of her novels, but I had not previously read Brat Farrar, the story of a planned scam to defraud a family of an inheritance. Although (in my opinion) it has aged slightly less well than her other novels, it is still a delightful read, excellent characterisation – and, as always with Tey, with much deeper moral dilemmas than is obvious at first sight.

5) D. A. Mishani: A Possibility of Violence – I’ll also be writing a review and conducting an interview with the author for CFL

6) Joan Smith: What Men Say – a reminder that reading tastes change in 20 years: I previously enjoyed Loretta Lawson and her investigations coloured by feminism. I found this book too much ranting and not enough plotting, mystery or suspense.

7) Naguib Mahfouz: The Beginning and the End – essential for understanding a certain period of Egyptian history, this is also a very dramatic family saga

8) M.L. Longworth: Murder on the Ile Sordou – an island off the coast of France, near Marseilles, a newly opened hotel with a disparate group of guests and staff of varying levels of experience (and with the obligatory secrets). A murder occurs and the island is not quite sealed off, but certainly under investigation to find the murderer – a familiar set-up for crime fiction fans. I can never resist a French location and I’ll review this very soon on CFL.

9) Joseph Incardona: Banana Spleen – I’ll post a more detailed review of this perhaps as part of a theme ‘Men Without Their Women’. A downward spiral for the 30+ something male protagonist, showing that despair and aimlessness is possible even in such well-regulated cities as Geneva.

seaofink_0_220_33010) Richard Weihe: Sea of Ink – This is also written by a Swiss author (of German language, while Incardona is Franco-Italian Swiss) and also deserves a more detailed review. Based on the few details known about the life of one of China’s most prominent calligraphers and artists, this is a prose-poem about creativity, inspiration and discipline, mastering the Way of Tao, finding both reality and self in great art.

So what was my top read of the month? Overall, it was Kerry Hudson‘s poignant novel ‘Thirst’ – it really struck a chord with me. My crime fiction pick of the month would be Mishani’s A Possibility of Violence – my first experience of Israeli crime fiction and thus feeling rather fresh and unusual.

 

Changing My Reading Habits (Part 2)

Walk2This continues yesterday’s ruminations about reading: duty versus pleasure, and where blogging/reviewing fits into all of this. How can I hack/cut my own path through the jungle of publishing PR, excited recommendations and friendly requests? How can I bring quality and fun back into reading, rather than making it a race about quantity and deadlines?

I’ve got a list of New School Year Resolutions, but I’ll start with the most obvious remark. I am NOT a professional reviewer. I do not get paid to read, edit, market, hold a writer’s hand or write reviews – not even for the Crime Fiction Lover website. It’s all a labour of love. I may be a fast reader, but I am a slow reviewer. I want my review to be well-balanced, fair, taking into account that different people might find different aspects of the book appealing. I like to think about larger patterns or themes emerging from my reading. I like to compare writers or different cultures. But all of this takes time – at least a couple of hours per review (pure writing time, without counting the reading and researching).

It’s time I cannot afford to spend anymore on blogging. Much as I love reviewing books, participating in challenges, interacting with you all, reading your thoughts and blogs, responding to comments and commenting on your posts, I just cannot sustain this pace whilst also focusing on my family and my day-job. My writing, above all, has suffered in the process. Which is ironic, because the reason I started blogging in the first place was so I could write something everyday, improve my writing skills, track my progress. Call me a wimp, a wuss, a ‘beer glass of reduced volumic capacity’ (good old Romanian saying), but I have days when I am unable to write anything else after I’ve finished a book review. And, since my mission in life is to write poetry and crime fiction (rather than becoming the most revered or feared book reviewer or the blogger with the most followers and freshly pressed articles), it is clear that things need to change.

Walk1Resolutions:

1) Thou shalt not buy, beg or borrow any more books

… until I’ve finished everything I already own. Or give away the books that do not appeal to me. That means: tie up (or otherwise disable) my trigger-happy finger which keeps clicking the ‘buy’ button on online bookshops (and it’s not just Amazon that makes it very easy to order with one click), or the ‘request/send’ button on sites such as Netgalley.

I am very grateful to publishers who send me free books – even more grateful to those who ask me first which ones appeal to me rather than just randomly selecting some of their latest releases. But I also have to be able to say ‘No’, to be clearer about my reading preferences, and not feel obliged to review everything I’ve been sent (when it’s not been requested by me). I also need to give away those ‘scattergun’ books much, much sooner, and stop hoarding them on the ‘off-chance’ that someday I may change my mind. (It can happen, but far too infrequently and I don’t have the space.)

Walk32) Thou can live without all the books you have ever liked or been interested in

I’ve had to move abroad quite a few times and many of my favourite books got left behind in the process. I still have an attic full of books in the UK – and yes, sometimes I would like to re-read a passage which I am sure I have somewhere up there, but on the whole I can live without them or look them up elsewhere. I have to be more selective about keeping only non-negotiable favourites whom I consult all the time, or rare/unusual/hard to find editions. Even if they were expensive.

And I can also learn to wait before reading the ‘latest buzzes’ – which means I am more likely to find them at the library and need not feel guilty about abandoning them half-way through if they do not meet my expectations.

3) Thou shalt have fun with your reading

… and bring serendipity back into the game. Pick up a random title, author, genre on the bookshelf, something just a little beyond your usual line of sight. I want to read lesser known authors, re-read some of my old favourites from school and university, discover little quiet gems instead of the big brash brass-bands of new releases. Not so much for the sake of standing out from the crowd, but because you get to hear all of that hype anyway, in all kinds of media. Do you really need my take on ‘Gone Girl’ when you can read hundreds of reviews elsewhere? There are so many other good books out there deserving a mention, perhaps ones which have been published a while ago but got very little exposure, or authors who have fallen out of favour.

Walk44) Thou shalt be brave and honest

I won’t like all books that I’ve been sent, that I’ve borrowed or bought. A perfectly decent cover, blurb and opening paragraph may suddenly turn into the nightmare read from hell halfway through the book. I know some reviewers who make it a policy to not review a book unless they loved it and can recommend it to others. I can understand this all too well: so much time and effort (blood, sweat, caffeine and tears) has gone into writing and publishing a book that anyone with a writer’s heart will feel uncomfortable criticising it. But if we were all to follow this rule, there would be no warning signs at all on books and we’d soon get very disappointed as a reader, feeling we’d been conned into buying books we simply cannot care about.

This is especially hard when you are reviewing books by people you consider friends (whether you’ve met them in person or only online). I have a huge sense of loyalty to anyone who’s ever been nice to me. When it’s a debut that I did not get on with, I’ve been known to email the author and say: ‘Would you rather I didn’t review it at all, because I can only give it 1-2 stars?’ Because I do believe that debut authors deserve some encouragement, a second chance. I’ve also been known to revert to what the French call the ‘wooden language’ of diplomacy. It’s useful to know perhaps that ‘fast-paced page-turner’ means ‘not much substance’, while ‘an assortment of quirky characters’ usually means ‘far too long cast list of flat stereotypes’.

From now on, I will be honest. Still fair and balanced, still bearing in mind that we are all different and like a huge variety of things, but no more beating around the bush if a book did not appeal to me. Although I may let any author friend know in private rather than posting a scathing review without informing them. And there will be no sarcasm for the sake of showing off my superior critical abilities – when I haven’t even finished writing my first novel!

Walk55) Thou shalt be guided by mood, the colour of the sky and the call of the wild

… but it will not be all aimless wandering. When you reach a certain age, it’s all too easy to turn into a curmudgeon and say ‘I know what I want and like, so that’s what I’ll read’. I want to continue to broaden my reading tastes, in a gentle rather than a forced way. I want to explore new countries, new authors.

So here are some concrete changes you will notice on my blog:

  • I won’t review everything I read, just the books which stand out for me, or which fit into a theme, and probably not more frequently than 1-2 review per week. And that includes the 1-2 books a month which I will be reviewing for other sites.
  • I won’t boast anymore about my latest bookhauls. Although I love hearing what other people are getting and reading, in far too many cases it turns out to be a sort of free book promotion for publishers and authors. I’d rather tweet about that, rather than dedicate a blog post to it.
  • I won’t be jumping on the bandwagon anymore with the latest releases. You may find I review things a couple of years later, after the hoopla has died down. Or talk about authors you’ve only vaguely heard of. Or introduce you to authors I’d like to see translated into English. But rules are made to be broken, so I can’t promise that I won’t fall for a bit of hype from time to time!
  • Post less frequently but more substantially (although I may still succumb to the temptation of pictures of libraries, bookshelves, writers’ studies and interior design). Write more poetry, prose and other posts about writing in general. And sorry, but I cannot stick to a set weekly routine of posts… It will be haphazard as ever, following the call of the wild…

 

Thank you all for your kind tweets and comments on Part 1 of this post yesterday, and for your patience for my long, self-indulgent rant today. It seems that this conundrum resonates with many of you, so please share your own strategies and coping mechanisms.

 

 

Changing My Reading Habits (Part 1)

BookPile2This post follows a few days of intense thinking after reading this very enlightening post by Simon Savidge, a book reviewer I hugely respect. I also realised that this coming weekend I will probably reach my reading target of 150 books for the year – with three months still to go! No, that did not fill me with pride, but with horror, as I expected it to be a stretch goal. It’s all very well to read fast – but does that mean I am perhaps reading too fast, or opting for ‘easy’ reads, not challenging myself, not really spending time with the kind of books I want to be reading? So here are some of my thoughts about how I got into the predicament I am now with my reading, reviewing and writing.

I was never the world’s most disciplined and systematic reader. I would meander through bookshops, libraries, friends’ bookshelves, life in general, picking up whatever I fancied, experimenting, rebelling against the imposed and eager to partake of the forbidden. Many books were censored by the government of the time, so unsurprisingly that made them all the more desirable to the citizens of my country, so we made do with photocopied versions or ancient paperbacks that had been smuggled in and fallen apart in the process. My parents had a good selection of books across all genres and in several languages, all accessible to me from an early age (there was no attempt to guide or force my reading, other than a vague ‘What’s that you’re reading now? Oh, I seem to remember that’s excellent…’). I was always allowed to buy more books, no matter how hard up we were financially (and books were cheap back then), but I always borrowed far more than I bought. From my parents I learnt, above all, a huge respect for books, especially those of good quality, which did not peddle the ‘party line’ in order to get published.

P1020734So my reading habits back in my childhood and teens could be described as ‘omnivorous’ and relying very heavily on ‘happenstance’. I would fall in love with a new author and become mildly obsessed with him/her, reading everything by and about them that I could lay my hands on. Same with historical figures, certain topics or schools of thought. I spent a winter with the Dadaists, a summer with Sylvia Plath (probably just as well, as Sylvia Plath in winter may have driven me to the depths of despair). The main thing is: I read for pleasure, without any care about impressing others or worrying about whether I was learning anything from other writers.

Then I studied Japanese and English at university, so my reading became much more ‘specialist’. Not only did I have a set syllabus (oh, Chomsky’s transformational grammar and Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost! Bane of my life!), but I also discovered competitive reading. All of my classmates were budding writers, literary critics, great readers and often book snobs. So I had to keep up with the herd. I had to be comfortable discussing Saussure, Lacan, Foucault and Barthes, as no essay could be written without at least a passing reference to them and other structuralists. I had to hide away my Agatha Christie and other ‘lighter’ fiction in favour of the classics and ‘trendy’ books of the time. (In our isolated socialist society, we were probably a bit behind the times, but I seem to remember collective obsessions with John Fowles, Bernard Malamud and Mircea Cărtărescu).

Then came the Fall of the Wall and suddenly the whole world was our oyster. So much richness, so much choice! I went a little mad and joined all the foreign libraries and borrowed ten books at a time, went abroad and returned with suitcases full of books (the customs officer could not believe that I had returned from Japan with books instead of electronic gadgets). I recently found a diary of those years and this is a typical example of what I might read in a week:

Beryl Bainbridge: Watson’s Apology; Kafka’s Letters to Milena; Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano; Patrick White: The Burnt Ones; Rosamond Lehmann: Dusty Answer; Natsume Soseki: I Am a Cat; R. Wiggershaus: Die Frankfurter Schule (nope, I don’t remember much about that last one).

And I kept up this eclectic approach when I went abroad, from country to country, reading in the original language where I could,  becoming more and more enamoured with crime fiction and noir, relying heavily on inter-library loans when I found a new writer I could be passionate about. Joy, fun and lack of snobbishness were once again on the agenda. But reading was once more a solitary activity – few of my friends enjoyed the same books I did, and I tried a couple of book clubs without much success. I was too wary of rejoining a herd, listening to received opinions, reading the same books that everyone else was reading. How did Murakami put it so nicely in his book ‘Norwegian Wood’?

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.

I decided I was an eccentric, a rebel, a crime fiction addict with a hard literary core.

Fast forward to 2012 when I started writing seriously once more. Blogging was initially a way to hold myself accountable for writing regularly, rediscovering poetry, experimenting and chronicling my favourite reading. Through this blog and Twitter I connected with some wonderful writers, publishers, reviewers and – after answering a quiz about crime fiction – I became part of the Crime Fiction Lover team. This led to other requests for reviews and I began reading more and more to keep up with demand. It was wonderful to share my bookish delights with others once more… and even more wonderful to receive review copies from publishers for free.

P1020733Yes, I admit I was greedy. Not very discriminating. I just couldn’t say No to a book – even if it wasn’t in my preferred genre, even if I wasn’t the perfect reviewer for that book (not being the target audience). Call it years of deprivation, of having to make do with nearly illegible pirate copies, or having to survive on books that were considered ‘compatible with socialist mores’… Call it the hunger for English language books when you are living in a rural corner of France, where there are next to no bookshops, although thankfully a fair few libraries (the English language section, however, is quite limited)… Call it making friends with fellow authors and wanting to support them by buying and reading their books… Call it reading too many book blogs that make a compelling case for just one more book…  Or just call it plain old avarice.

Anyway, so I have ended up with far, far too many books. Both on my groaning bookshelves and on my Tablet (which my husband bought me in the mistaken belief that it would eliminate our book flow problem). But the worst thing is… that I now have to read with a purpose – usually for reviewing, or for engaging in a dialogue with other bookish people around the world. And, while there is nothing nicer than sharing our love for books, or shouting from the rooftops when we’ve found a book that we believe everyone else MUST read AT ONCE, it has also put pressure on me to read certain books at specific times, just before or after their release dates. I’ve also had to plough through books which have not been quite to my taste, or perhaps I was not in the mood for them just then – but there was no time to set them aside and try again later.

It's all about the meeting of minds.

It’s all about the meeting of minds.

Don’t get me wrong. I am very grateful indeed to all the publishers and PR folk who keep me in the loop with their latest releases. Of course I get a buzz from discovering a new author to love – perhaps ahead of the rest of world. But it has got slightly out of hand. Instead of finding sustenance and sheer joy in books, I sometimes read them with the dagger of duty in my heart. I feel like I am back at university, with a required reading list whether I am in the mood for it or not and seeking to impress my peers. So how can I recover my sense of wonder and delight, how can I continue to explore while still allowing time to think and reread? Am I still a rebel, an eccentric, or am I just a faceless member of the herd?

But this post is already long and rambling enough as it is, so I won’t try your patience any further today. I will continue tomorrow with my thoughts on how to ‘turn over a new page’. [Oh, yes, I've got bookish puns aplenty!] Thanks again to Simon for helping me crystallise my own thinking on this.

Reading Both Sides: Egyptian and Israeli Literature

I’ve recently read my first Egyptian novel and my first Israeli crime novel, although this was coincidence rather than a deliberate attempt to read across both sides of a long-standing conflict in the Middle East. Unlike the works of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, however, neither of the two books were political, although they both paint portraits of rapidly changing societies with many cracks beneath the surface.

mahfouz_postcardNaguib Mahfouz: The Beginning and the End

Mahfouz is the only Arabic-speaking winner of the Nobel Literature Prize (in 1988). He almost single-handedly modernised Egyptian literature, introducing themes such as politics, existentialism, the voice of the dispossessed, as well as cinematic techniques to his storytelling. This novel is the story of the downfall of a Cairo family in the 1930s, an account of their struggle to survive and make ends meet following the death of the father, a petty government bureaucrat. Although the children are almost fully grown, their efforts to earn money and help the rest of them rise from poverty are beset with difficulties every step of the way.

I was not overly impressed with the book, which reads like a soap opera, until I considered how revolutionary it must have been for its period. The author gives us an unvarnished picture of Egyptian society at a particular point in time: the 1930s and 1940s. We see the corruption and machinations of the Egyptian bureaucracy, its education system, the plotting to marry off daughters, the dangers of women losing their virginity. Yet, although all this societal constraints seem to be suffocating the protagonists, Mahfouz makes no bones about laying an equal share of the blame upon them. Their weaknesses, lack of restraint, selfish behaviours, self-justifications all contribute to the tragic outcomes.

I have not read his other books, but I understand that Mahfouz is highly regarded precisely not only for modernising the language of fiction but also for his detailed examination of daily events in the life of middle-class families, in a society which has undergone major changes over the course of a few decades. It’s this translation of major political events into small everyday happenings and interpretations, this fresco of a vanishing way of life, which makes his work so valuable within his own cultural context. But his family sagas of greed, lies, misguided idealism and disappointments also touch universal themes.

MishaniD. A. Mishani: A Possibility of Violence

A bomb planted in a suitcase in present-day Tel Aviv – this has all of the hallmarks of a political thriller, but it turns out to be a much more personal story of revenge, confusion, parental love and fear. The style could not be more different from Mahfouz: almost clinically detached, sober, simple and precise language. Emotion is still there, but well concealed and tightly controlled throughout.

Mishani is a former editor and specialist of crime fiction, and he uses all the usual crime tropes well in his work. This is clearly a book designed to entertain rather than create a polemical debate. Yet this is not a typical police procedural: we catch glimpses of the complex environment that the police have to operate under in Israel today. Apparently, the police are universally reviled by all ethnic groups living within the borders of Israel, even by those citizens who revere the army. Although the author eschews political views in this book, there are echoes of the tensions between different subgroups within society, rumblings about the way in which Filipino care workers are treated and regarded in this country made up almost entirely of immigrants.

 

Sunday Showcase: My Not Quite So Abstinent Haul of Books

I refuse to preface each week’s post with ‘I know I said I would buy no more books but…’. No apologies! It’s my money and I’ll spend it all on books and go bankrupt if I want to. (Besides, I know where my boys’ piggy banks are…)

BookhaulSept19

Bought

So yes, I did splurge on the Manchette collection of noir novels (in French). With that and the Simenon romans dur, I do believe I am sorted for reading in French until about 2020.

I also bought the first two BD in the excellent Cellule Poison series by Laurent Astier – set in the Europol centre in Lyon, so pretty much local.

I’m always keen to read more poetry and support poets by buying their books (anybody feeling sorry for authors in general should stop and consider how much money poets make from selling their books). So I bought Maggie Hannan’s debut collection ‘Liar, Jones’ – I have heard good things about her brave, experimental exploration of feminine sensibilities and experience.

Sent for Review

Also shown in the picture: I got sent a book to review by the Oxford University Press: Hester Vaizey’s ‘Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall’. It talks about the changes the fall of the Berlin Wall brought into the lives of eight formerly East German citizens. One of my best friends is a born and bred East Berliner, so I was curious to see how her experience compares to that of Vaizey’s interviewees. Besides, I come from a former Communist state myself and it’s fascinating to see how those vanished (and once much hated) political states are remembered (often nostalgically) 25 years after.

Library

I am so overdue on some of my library books (because more pressing reads get in the way) that I think my membership will be revoked. However, I still managed to sneak out an additional book, namely Joan Smith: What Men Say.  Smith is a writer,journalist and human rights activist. Her Loretta Lawson novels were popular in the early 1990s (when I first moved to Britain) as a crime fiction writer with a feminist bent, but they seem to have fallen into oblivion since. I look forward to reading (or rereading – I can’t remember which of the 5 books I’ve already read) and seeing if I feel the same about them now as an older (but possibly not wiser) feminist.

Addendum

I had just written all of the above, when the postman rang the doorbell and delivered another beautiful round of parcels. Is there anything better than receiving books? It’s like Christmas every week! Here is the additional haul (apologies for the poor lighting conditions):

BookHaul2

Technically speaking, not mine at all! I just ordered them for the children, so it surely doesn’t count. Did you read any of these when you were a child, or are you reading them to your children now? Aren’t they brilliant? I sometimes think children’s literature is better than literature for adults.

 

Review/Giveaway for Crossing the Line by Frederique Molay

 

Crossing The Line banner

You know I very seldom participate in blog tours – perhaps once a year. However, I feel strongly about making French books more widely known to the English-speaking public, so I share the same enthusiasm and values as Emma from the blog Words and Peace and the independent publisher Le French Book. So, for them, and for the writer Frédérique Molay, I make an exception.  I read and reviewed the first book in the series featuring Nico Sirsky just over a year ago and was looking forward to reading more by this author. For other reviews and Q&A with the author, please visit France Book Tour

Crossing the Line cover

Crossing The Line

[police procedural / thriller]

(translated by Anne TRAGER)

 Release date: September 23, 2014 at Le French Book

224 pages

ISBN: 978-1939474148

Website | Goodreads

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SYNOPSIS

It’s Christmas in Paris and Chief of Police Nico Sirsky has an uneasy feeling that something is very wrong with the case he’s investigating. He and his team of crack homicide detectives follow the clues from an apparent suicide, to an apparent accident, to an all-out murder as an intricate machination starts breaking down. Just how far can despair push a man? How clear is the line between good and evil? [provided by the publisher]

Crossing The Line- Frederique MolayABOUT THE AUTHOR

Called, “the French Michael Connelly,” Frédérique Molay graduated from France’s prestigious Science Po
and began her career in politics and the French administration. She worked as chief of staff for the deputy mayor of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and then was elected to the local government in Saône-et-Loire.
Meanwhile, she spent her nights pursing a passion for writing she had nourished since she wrote her first novel at the age of eleven. The first in the Paris Homicide series, The 7th Woman, won France’s most prestigious crime fiction award and went on to become an international bestseller, allowing Molay to dedicate her life to writing and raising her three children.

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ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR

Anne Trager loves France so much she has lived there for 27 years and just can’t seem to leave. What keeps her there is a uniquely French mix of pleasure seeking and creativity. Well, that and the wine. In 2011, she woke up one morning and said, “I just can’t stand it anymore. There are way too many good books being written in France not reaching a broader audience.” That’s when she founded Le French Book to translate some of those books into English. The company’s motto is “If we love it, we translate it,” and Anne loves crime fiction, mysteries and detective novels.

My Review:

In the run-up to Christmas, Parisian detective Nico Sirsky’s personal and professional life seems to be going well, although he is still recovering from the bullet wound he received at the end of the previous book. But then something unexpected happens: the head of a cadaver being used for study by medical students contains a disquieting message. Could it be a student prank? The verdict for the death of the man who bequeathed his body to science was suicide, but many details about his last few weeks before dying seem to indicate something far more sinister. Soon, the case becomes complicated, involving and I love the way the author takes us step by step through the investigation, following promising leads which lead to blind alleys, showing all the effort and rewards of good teamwork.

This is no ‘lone ranger’ type of investigator miraculously solving impossible puzzles, whilst watching his private life go to pot. What we have here is a true police procedural in the 87th Precinct tradition, showing just how much work is involved in finding clues, filtering through the data, making connections… and still having a satisfying home life. Sirsky’s family situation takes a back seat in this story and the book is all the better for it.

There is far less graphic description of violence or dead bodies (well, if you exclude the cadavers in a university lab), but the story is a sad one. Interesting twists and bizarre clues along the way will make you want to devour the book as quickly as possible, but this is no superficial action-filled thriller. If you like crime fiction with heart and more subtle thought (and not always a fully wrapped-up parcel of an ending), Frédérique Molay is an author you will enjoy.

 

If you would like to participate in the giveaway draw for a chance to win one of 5 digital copies of ‘Crossing the Line’ (open internationally), plus a further 5 copies open for US readers only, please enter your details by clicking below. The winners will be announced on the website and individually on the 7th of October. Good luck and enjoy your read!

Fiction About Cross-Cultural Relationships

I’ve just read in quick succession two books about cross-cultural relationships and misunderstandings, about overcoming prejudices and making sense of things in a world where everything is unfamiliar. This is my specialist subject in the so-called ‘real world’ (although there are no end of surreal elements to the corporate business world), so these books are always going to tempt me. But my expectations are high, so it’s not easy for a book to meet them. The first I liked, the second I was more ambiguous about.

Kerry Hudson: Thirst

ThirstThis is a simple love story between Dave, a young man from a run-down estate in London, and Alena, a young woman from Siberia who has ended up in London, a victim a human trafficking. Except that there is nothing simple about this story – and, at first, not even much love. Alena is caught shoplifting in a fancy Bond Street store, where Dave is a security guard. At first it’s pity and self-interest which brings them together, but slowly, gradually, these two very hurt and lonely people find a way to relate to each other, although both of them are reluctant to divulge their secrets and profound emotional wounds. It’s by no means certain that they will be able to build a future together – the book does not end on a ‘happily ever after’ note, although it is not pessimistic either. There are no easy answers, no sentimental sweetness about the relationship. Instead, we get a lot of good intentions, cynical self-protection, childish reactions and lying. Yet, in spite of all that, the tale is truly heart-warming and the two main characters are endearing.

What was so enjoyable about the book is that it took well-worn clichés about Eastern and Western Europe and turned them on its head. Yes, prostitution and violent Ukrainian gangs are involved, but are they ultimately that different to the drunks and thugs that Dave sees on the council estate? Poverty is equally demeaning at both ends of Europe – and the author brings to life (pitch-perfect, as far as I can tell) the world of those with little education and few options. The exact opposite of privilege. Yet these people too have dreams, a thirst for life, a desire to improve their lot and find something that takes them out of the urine-soaked grey concrete of their surroundings.

Kerry Hudson has a clear-eyed approach which eschews tales of maudlin misery, although there are hints there of anger at social injustices. Her fresh, direct style injects a note of humour even in the bleakest moments, but it’s not the right read for you if you are looking for something light-hearted at the moment.

NorwegianDerek B. Miller: Norwegian By Night

I did want to fall in love with this one and most of the reviewers I know and trust did indeed like it. So maybe I am just ‘faulty’ and missing something, but I found it less than satisfying. In fact, it was slightly irritating and I dragged myself back to reading it with a dutiful rather than a joyous heart (we are discussing it this week at the Virtual Crime Book Club).

It’s a shame, because the book is well written stylistically and the premise is of the zany, intriguing and implausible that I usually like. Sheldon is an 82-year-old, ever so possibly senile American Jewish widower, who comes to Norway to live with his granddaughter, witnesses a crime involving the next-door neighbour and goes on the run with the neighbour’s traumatised little boy, outwitting the Norwegian police, the family and some tough Kosovan criminals along the way.

Sheldon is a former US Marine, you see, so he can hide, stalk, shoot, improvise along with the best, even if his body is no longer quite so reliable. Despite the occasional funny moments, I found the lone ranger attitude rather tiresome in the long run, too reminiscent of the American imperialism and assumption of cultural superiority which Sheldon spends most of the book dissociating from and condemning. The old man himself was far too grumpy and culturally insensitive rather than endearing, as well as brooding too much on his past, his feeling of guilt over the death of his son and on anti-semitic slights he has endured along the way. The secondary characters felt rather hastily sketched in: the little boy was a strange blank blob, partly because of his mutism, and I would have liked to see more of policewoman Sigrid and of Sheldon’s granddaughter and her partner. It just didn’t all quite gel for me, but I’m in a real minority here. I heard some reviewers say that it is not the right read if you are expecting a conventional thriller – but for me, it was too much of a thriller!

To my surprise, I discovered the author is an international affairs expert and married to a Norwegian, so I am probably reading too much negative comment into the book which betrays the main character’s flawed attitude. I will be curious, however, to see what Derek B. Miller comes up with next.

Showcase Sunday: Added to my Teetering TBR Pile

This post is linked up to the Showcase Sunday meme hosted by Vicky at Book, Biscuits and Tea. A great chance for us to discuss our latest pride and joys in acquired books, whether begged, borrowed, bought or stolen (?!).

SSsmall

Yes, I know that every week I promise there will be no further books added to the leaning towers of Pisa piles of books I have placed in various strategic points around the house (and hidden well on my tablet). But who can resist a good bargain (in the case of Netgalley, even free books)? However, one of my resolutions for 2015 is to stop being so dependent on Amazon and falling for all of its promotions. It’s hard to resist its lure when it’s often the only reliable source of English-language books in our part of France. And even buying French books is tricky, if you want to avoid going over the border to Switzerland. In the town created by Voltaire, our local bookshop has closed down, although thankfully we still have a shop specialising in bandes dessinées (graphic novels and comic books), which has expanded to include board games and has introduced a café-style gaming afternoon every week to ensure it remains open.

Review copies from Netgalley (I’m trying to extend beyond my usual crime fiction fare on this medium):

1) Gregory Sherl: The Future for Curious People

If you could see your love life in ten or twenty years’ time, would you still pick the same person to marry? Intriguing premise for a novel which promises to be funny as well as thought-provoking.

2) Katri Lipson: The Ice Cream Man

In the years just following WW2, a Finnish film director makes a film a little too close to reality, about a young couple on the run during the Nazi occupation. The Secret Police starts to believe he may know some uncomfortable truths. I’ve always been intrigued by Finnish literature and worldview (blame that to early exposure to the Moomins).

3) Matthew Thomas: We Are Not Ourselves

A family breaking down under the weight of mental health problems, set in the 1960s-1970s in Queens.

Purchased on a whim:

4) Stuart Kaminsky: Dancing in the Dark

Who can resist a mystery set in the Golden Age of Hollywood movies in the 1930s-1940s, featuring Fred Astaire? Kaminsky’s long-running Toby Peters series is a delightfully frothy, escapist creation.

5) Roger Smith: Sacrifices

I have Margot Kinberg to thank for this one. She mentioned Cape Town, one of my favourite cities in the world, as a setting for crime fiction and I remembered this very dark, very disquieting novel and its author, so I had to make it mine.

From the library:

6) Susan Hill: The Pure in Heart

The second in the Simon Serrailler series, which I have read in such disorder that I cannot remember which ones I’ve read and which I’ve missed out. Once again, it was fellow reviewers’ mention of Susan Hill which reminded me that I haven’t read her in ages and whetted my appetite for her complex psychological constructs.

 

And now for my dilemma: in the above-mentioned BD bookshop, I saw today a bee-yoo-tiful gleaming new graphic representation of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s novel ‘Fatale’, illustrated by famous BD artist Max Cabanes. It costs, however, 22 euros, which is steep even by BD standards. Should I get it or not?

From Bedetheque.com

From Bdgest.com

Fatale2

Bedetheque.com

Or am I better off getting the collected ‘romans noirs’ of Manchette for 31 euros?

Gallimard

 

 

 

 

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