findingtimetowrite

Thinking, writing, thinking about writing…

Archive for the tag “book review”

Glasgow and Laidlaw: As Tough as It Gets

LaidlawJust in case you thought I was turning away from a life of crime, here is a review of the first book in the Laidlaw trilogy. It took me a while to discover McIlvaney (for a while I mixed him up with his son, also a thriller writer), but I will be reading a lot more by him. Not suprisingly, he writes poetry too!

It’s impossible to read crime fiction in the UK without stumbling across William McIlvaney sooner or later. Crime writers rave about him (readers too, but it’s interesting that he is most appreciated by other writers, a specialist read if you like). He is considered the father of ‘Tartan Noir’ and his Laidlaw trilogy has been described as almost Camus-like in its focus not only on the ills of society but also our inner torments. But there is quite a poignant personal story there too. In spite of his obvious qualities, the author’s novels were out of print just 2-3 years ago. Luckily, publisher Canongate had the vision to see that his novels describe not just the 1970s but also our troubled times perfectly. McIlvaney’s star has risen and risen since they started reissuing his work.

The story is fairly simple: a young girl goes out dancing in the evening and is found raped and murdered in a park. The girl’s father is out for vengeance, Laidlaw and his new partner are out to find the killer, and a bevy of Glasgow tough guys and gangsters are involved either in covering up or in avenging the crime. But I wouldn’t read this book for the plot – it’s all about atmosphere.

It took just one or two paragraphs to establish that I was reading crime fiction quite unlike any other I’ve encountered. McIlvaney has a style all his own: not just noir, but also philosophical and very dense. Laidlaw is the knight errant of the Crime Squad: a hero who can be downright annoying at times, as his newly assigned and fresh-faced young partner Harkness discovers. What he brings to his life and career is constant doubt as to what he is doing, and still trying to do it well. ‘Throw him a question as casual as a snowball and he answered with an avalanche.’  Laidlaw has profound compassion and love for the people in the less salubrious areas of Glasgow. A devoted father, he chides his wife for caring just for her own children, not for all children.

Aside from the striking main character, what I really loved about the book is how it brings to life the contradictions of the city of Glasgow in the 1970s: ”home-made ginger biscuits and Jennifer Lawson dead in the park’, discrimination against Catholics and homosexuals, while hardened criminals preach a culture of violence, lots of drinking and being suspicious of the police. Compassion vs. division is at the heart of this book, us vs. them, dark side vs. light inside us all. We are shown the contrast between Laidlaw’s murky reality and the world of moral certainties and clear black/white divisions of Laidlaw’s colleague Milligan. Laidlaw may hate him, but he is more complex and better than he is given credit for. At some point, he says: ‘I’ve got nothing in common with thieves and con-men and pimps and murderers. Nothing! They’re another species. And we’re at war with them. It’s about survival. What would happen in a war if we didn’t wear different uniforms?’ Laidlaw doesn’t have these certainties to protect him, so he is more compassionate but also more vulnerable.

I did find the Glaswegian dialect rather hard going after a while, but the bits in the author’s own voice (or in Laidlaw’s voice) are superbly written and very quotable.

I’m linking this to the 2014 Global Reading Challenge, for Scotland and Europe, as it’s Tartan Noir at its finest.

Modern German Classic: The Mussel Feast

MusselFeastWritten just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this book by Birgit Vanderbeke is both domestic and allegorical, examining how all revolutions start with one small act of insubordination.

The story is deceptively simple. A brother and sister and their mother are waiting for the head of the family to show up for supper.  They are having mussels, a food none of them like very much, but which is their father’s favourite meal.  It is a special occasion, they tell each other, father is having a business meeting which may well end in a promotion. As they sit and wait, we find out more and more about this apparently ordinary German family, about the parents’ escape from East Germany and the back-breaking menial jobs their mother had to endure in order to support their father’s studying.  The author does an excellent job of describing the public charm and private horror of an inflexible, tyrannical man, but she doesn’t spare the mother either.  From the daughter-narrator’s point of view, her mother has colluded with her oppressor, switching to ‘wifey mode’ to appease and soothe him.  Yet only a few pages further, we discover that the daughter herself likes to be thought of as ‘Daddy’s girl’ and takes sides with her father to mock the other two members of the family.  The dictator’s policy of divide and conquer seeps in gradually, poisoning everything in sight. The more we find out, the more we discover this is a family reigned by fear and despair.

Presented as an ongoing interior monologue (much of it in just one paragraph), the book is an easy read, partly because of its brevity, but also because of its subtle humour and contradictory statements.  Yet for anyone who has lived in a non-democratic society or in an abusive family, it is a painful read.  It works perfectly well on both levels, describing the gradual descent from praiseworthy public ideals  to subverted, selfish interpretations. Thus, the father’s vision of  ‘a proper family’ ends in constant criticism and disappointment that his flesh-and-blood children do not live up to his ideal. His desire to be ‘doing things together’ ends in him spoiling the atmosphere and blaming everyone else when things are not quite perfect.  And ‘investing in the children’s future’ becomes a pointless exercise involving an expensive stamp collection that no one is interested in.

Communism failed not because it didn’t have inspirational ideas, but because it refused to take into account human nature when putting them into practice.  Marriages and families fail because we cannot allow the others to be themselves.  A valuable lesson, presented in an intriguing way, with an ending that is stunning in its shocking simplicity.

I read this as part of my 2013 Translation Challenge and on that note, let me make one small aside. I was sharing this book and my delight that Peirene Press is making such work more available to an English-speaking audience with a group of aspiring or even published writers based here in the Geneva area. I bemoaned the fact that there have been few translations into English of world literature so far, and commented how pleased I was to see some new initiatives.

Their reaction surprised me a little.  OK, a lot!

They said that no wonder that German and French publishers translate so much literature from the UK and the US, because that’s where the best work is produced. (Never mind that they also translate from many other languages.) And that they themselves cannot be bothered to read literature from other countries, because the style is too different ‘from our own’.  Bear in mind that this is not a random group of expats, but keen readers and aspiring writers, who have been living in the local area for many years and usually speak the language very well.  The lack of curiosity and insularity perhaps explains why so little contemporary fiction is being translated into English.  It saddens me, because it feels like people are deliberately limiting their horizons, but what do you think?

English: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. Th...

English: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. The photo shows a part of a public photo documentation wall at Former Check Point Charlie, Berlin. The photo documentation is permanently placed in the public. Türkçe: Berlin Duvarı, 1989 sonbaharı (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Four Women Writers

I was afraid that too many of my reading challenge choices were by male authors, so I made a point of introducing a female quota.  So here are four very different women authors, showing the variety and richness of what is sometimes disparaged as ‘women’s literature’. As it happens, I personally know three out of the four women writers whose books I feature below.  However, this has not influenced my reviews of their books – although I have refrained from giving stars on this occasion.  Sadly, the first two are only available in the original (Romanian and French, respectively).

Claudia Golea Sumiya:  În numele câinelui (In the name of the dog)

Not really a novel, more of a straightforward account of the true but surprising story of a man called Takeshi Koizumi, currently facing the death penalty in a high-security prison in Tokyo.  Back in 2008, the 46 year old unemployed man admitted his involvement in fatally stabbing a former vice welfare minister and his wife, and also wounding the wife of another former health and welfare minister in a separate incident. The reason for his crime?  Punishing the people who had ordered the detention and extermination of his pet dog, his childhood friend, in a local dog pound.  In Japan, these dog pounds are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health and Welfare.  An animal lover herself, the author began corresponding with Koizumi in prison and  this book combines his letters with her own impressions of the man and her growing understanding of (if not condoning) his actions.  There are probably good (legal) reasons why the story could not have been written in any other way, but I cannot help feeling that it would have been so much more powerful as fiction.

Hélèna Villovitch: Petites soups froides (Little Cold Soups)

Artist, filmmaker and writer, Villovitch experiments with form, style and content in this collection of short stories.  The title story is written as vignettes in the shape of the ‘little cold soups’ which serve as nibbles at cocktail parties nowadays, a commentary on the inability to connect to others and the separate conversations going on in people’s heads.  Other stories capture celebrity culture and obsession with appearance, cross-cultural misunderstandings and little cruelties or envies between friends.  The author has a dry humour and unsentimental style which really suits the everyday subject matter. Although the stories were rather uneven overall, I admire this author for being brave and trying out new ideas.  Sometimes it feels like there is too little ‘radical newness’ in literature nowadays.

Carmen Bugan: Burying the Typewriter

This is a poignant memoir of a family very nearly torn apart by the secret police of the Communist regime in Romania.  The first part describes the near-idyllic childhood in the countryside, surrounded by friends and grandparents.  The author is a poet, and this is obvious from the rich visual imagery and melodic phrases to describe the passing of the seasons, village life and its traditions.  Then her father buys a ‘secret’ typewriter (i.e. one that has not been recorded by the secret police and traced to its owner) and starts writing and distributing pamphlets with the rather modest basic requests: “We ask for human rights. We ask for freedom of opinion. We ask for hot water and electricity. We ask for freedom to assemble.”  The safe, happy childhood is shattered as the author’s father is imprisoned, her mother is forced to divorce him, and they become subjected to constant surveillance and harassment.  The horrors of the regime are not fully revealed, as it is all presented through the eyes of a child: far more shocking to her is the sudden loss of friends or having neighbours inform against them.  A book that moved me not just for its shared cultural language and memories, but because it brings compassion, warmth and understanding to an area and a time which is usually so bleak and unforgiving; its ghosts and echoes are still haunting Romania today. What remains after reading this book is the clear picture of the luminous, redeeming power of love, of family and of literature.

Nicky Wells: Sophie’s Run

Just what the doctor ordered, when I was running hot and cold during the night and couldn’t sleep.  An engaging heroine who never quite falls into the ditziness which can sometimes plague chick lit, mostly adorable men (despite the odd rat or two) and a story line filled with surprises and humour.  In fact, my main point of contention with the story is just how caring and supportive the men seem to be – could this qualify as fantasy?  The story opens two years after the end of ‘Sophie’s Turn’ and the characters have matured a little.  The story too has become a little deeper and darker, with topics such as depression, loneliness and forgiveness all being addressed.  I also like the travelling theme which seems to feature heavily in the Sophie novels: in this book we can undertake vicarious trips to Berlin, Scotland and a remote German island in the North Sea, as well as spend a day sightseeing in London.  Escapist literature, yes, but what is wrong with that?

 

More Scandinavian Crime Scenes

I am delighted to be a book reviewer for that very informative and fun website Crime Fiction Lover, not least because it helps me to be more focused and thoughtful about my reading. I do tend to read a lot of crime fiction anyway, but sometimes it is just swallowed down whole, undigested.  I have even have been known to read the same book twice (having forgotten it) and only realised halfway through that I know who the killer is!

Suitably overcast image of Visby

For Crime Fiction Lover, I am the ‘exotic settings’ specialist, which fits in well with my peripatetic (not pathetic!) existence, and also exposes me to authors who are perhaps less well-known in the English-speaking world. At the moment, there seems to be an endless appetite for all things Scandinavian.  I recently reviewed a new (to the English audience) Swedish writer Anna Jansson for the website.  You can read the full review here, but on this blog I want to compare her work with that of another Swedish author who uses the same location.

Welcome to the pretty medieval town of Visby on the island of Gotland, just off the coast of Sweden in the Baltic Sea.  Full-time population: 20,000.  Number of summer visitors: 800,000. The perfect place to celebrate Swedish Midsummer, let down your hair and get away from it all.  Or the perfect place to commit a murder and get away with it?

This year, it’s not just one, but two Swedish thriller writers who introduce us to this ostensibly idyllic world, making Gotland the backdrop of their crime series. Both of them are well-known in Scandinavia, and both series have been adapted for Swedish and German television, but they are only just beginning to find an audience in the English-speaking world, thanks to the translations now available from Stockholm Text. However, neither of the two books are the first in the series (Jansson has written 13 so far and Jungstedt 9) , so there may be some character developments and allusions that I am missing out on.  However, that shouldn’t impact on your enjoyment and understanding of the stories.

‘Killer’s Island’ introduces the feisty detective Maria Wern, who, on her way home from an evening out with her best friend, intervenes to rescue a young boy who is being beaten up by a gang.  In return for her efforts, she herself is beaten and stabbed with a syringe filled with blood, thus spending much of the rest of the book worrying about whether or not she has been contaminated with the AIDS virus. The same gang also assaults a tired, insomniac nurse, Linn Bogren, who is facing personal and professional turmoil of her own.  Linn is saved on this occasion by the timely intervention of her neighbour Harry, but not long after she is found dead, bloodless, dressed in white, with a bridal bouquet of lilies of the valley in her hand.  Someone is trying to draw their attention to the myth of the White Lady of the Sea, who lures men to their doom in the dark undercurrents surrounding the island.

Maria and her colleagues at Visby Police Station, including her rather suicidal boyfriend Per and afore-mentioned best friend and forensic scientist Erika, are confronted with further attacks and murders, providing an increasingly complex case.  The only link between these apparently unrelated crimes seems to be Erika’s new lover, Dr. Anders Ahlstrӧm.  But how can such a compassionate man, who always finds time to listen to his patients and is such a loving single Dad to his 11-year-old daughter, be involved in such a sordid series of murders?  And what is the connection between a hypochondriac, sleepwalking and a jealous daughter?

It becomes a race against time, as it becomes clear that the detectives themselves are also being closely observed by a highly intelligent and manipulative killer, able to taunt and provoke the police through superior computing skills.

Meanwhile, in ‘The Dead of Summer’, Visby’s finest sleuthing team consists of DS Anders Knutas (reasonably happily married), his glamorous sidekick Karin Jacobsson and the rather interfering journalist Johan Berg. They are investigating an execution-type murder on the beach just outside a campsite. The victim, Peter Bovide, was a happily married co-owner of a successful construction company.  At first, the police suspect he and his partner may have been using illegal Estonian labour. The murder weapon, however, is unusual: an 80 year old Russian pistol, so suspicion turns to vodka smugglers aboard Russian coal ships. At the same time, flashbacks to 1985 suggest an alternative storyline, with a German family coming to explore the wildlife off the coast of Sweden.  I found these flashbacks a little too intrusive and heavy-handed, providing clues that gave away the ending rather early on.  I also found Johan’s on-and-off relationship with the drippy Emma a little wearisome, without adding much value to the story. Perhaps if you read these books in order (the four previous ones in the series are available in English), you might care more about their future together.

I couldn’t help comparing the two books while reading them, and not just because of the location.  Both are police procedurals at heart, albeit with an extensive focus on the private lives of the members of the investigating team.  Both are stylistically quite similar, with short scenes, moving quite rapidly from one viewpoint to the next, the pace quickening all the while to a dramatic climax. Anna Jansson is a practising nurse as well as a writer, so unsurprisingly both characters and clues are closely linked to the medical profession.  Mari Jungstedt is a former journalist, so there are lots of realistic details about both local and national TV stations and reporters.

Of the two, I would say that Jungstedt makes better use of the atmospheric island setting, the isolation, the lovely long stretches of beach, while Jansson offers more rounded characters, a less predictable storyline and a more confident narrative voice.  Both are less bleak than some of the typical Scandinavian fare, so perhaps a good alternative for those who prefer their crimes less graphic and their detectives less moody.  Both are enjoyable fast-paced narratives to while away an evening or two.  The next Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson?  I think not. Which, given how I feel about Stieg Larsson’s literary abilities, is perhaps not such a bad thing.  I look forward to seeing how these series evolve.

 

Rereading ‘The Great Gatsby’

I blithely said at some point that I would write regularly about the writers who have most inspired me.  Well, not only have I not been ‘regular’ about it, but – with some ‘dare you to’ from Marilyn McCottrell over at the very funny and wry Memos from the Middle blog – I will also now break my promise about sticking to the less obvious suspects.  Yes, I will brazenly talk about that much-praised, over-analysed book called ‘The Great Gatsby’, a.k.a. ‘The Great American Novel’ by some.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read this and it does seem to get better and better with age.  I suspect that my infatuation with it in my youth probably had something to do with the image of Robert Redford at the swimming pool, waiting for Daisy’s phone call, pouting beautifully and moodily in the mid-distance.  This was the movie adaptation of it, of course, sumptuously clothed and filmed (quite a bit of it in England, incidentally), but ultimately not considered a triumph by the critics.  The upcoming adaptation of it, with Leonardo Di Caprio in the title role… well, I beg to reserve judgement, but suspect he cannot quite replace Redford in my mind.

Yet, no matter how much I love it, I’ve been surprised that it’s considered the ‘Great American novel’, because it seems so far removed from the confidence, language and bluster that much of the American literature has. Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Hemingway – there are so many contenders for the title of the Great American Novel, but this one seems atypical.   It certainly talks about the dangers and the failure of the American dream, which is perhaps why it has grasped the public’s imagination for so long (and why it is being remade as a film and also currently onstage as a musical these days). The long sentences, the tentative statements, the moral ambiguity make the novel feel European in many ways.

There are some things that struck me instantly when first reading the novel and that have stayed with me since: the description of Daisy’s thrilling ‘money’ voice, the green light at the end of the pier, Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes towering on a billboard above the grey badlands.  Oh, yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald is clever with his symbolism, foreshadowing of tragedy, the recurrence of the eye image, all of that.  I remembered that clearly from my previous readings.

But here are some things that I did not quite remember, or maybe only just now noticed:

1) Although it’s such a short novel, it does not feel rushed.  The pace is leisurely, gentlemanly.  For heaven’s sake, it does not even plunge straight into the story, but opens instead with a statement by the narrator, Nick Carraway, of just how uncritical and non-judgemental he has taught himself to be (thus breaking all the rules given to fledgling writers).  And the novel does not end with Gatsby’s death or pathetic funeral, but with the author painstakingly tying up all the loose ends, while the narrator muses cynically and at length about all of the characters in the drama.

Book cover for the Great Gatsby2)I had forgotten just how long and complicated his sentences are, abounding with semi-colons, commas,  adjectives, piling of details – accumulation which works wonderfully in the chapter describing Gatsby’s extravagant parties.

‘By seven o’clock the orchestra has arrived, no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums…. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there, among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the centre of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and colour under the constantly changing light.’

Occasionally, this can lead to some meandering but intriguing side alleys, which just adds to the unhurried pace of the narration.  And yet each details feels perfectly placed and not all superfluous.

3) I had also forgotten that Nick Carraway is such an unreliable narrator, despite his initial exhortation that ‘I’m inclined to reserve all judgements’.  I had initially taken his character assessments at face value: ridiculed silly Myrtle, condemned brutish Tom Buchanan, despised shady Wolfsheim, was wary of the golfing Jordan Baker.  My perception was coloured first by Gatsby’s naive dream, then by Nick’s cynicism.  Now I have begun to distrust Nick’s version of events, his critical and often far too self-righteous tone, his tone of omniscient interpreter of events.  I feel more pity and empathy for all of the characters, even Daisy, who ultimately fails not because she is a horrible, weak, selfish and self-centred person (although she is all of that too), but because she is human, not the goddess that Gatsby had built her up to be in his memory.

4) There are layers beneath layers beneath layers in this rich book – which is why I never tire of it.  There is no simple answer or explanation or solution.  There have been so many interpretations of it: a condemnation of wealth and excesses, the hollowness of materialism and the American Dream built upon it, the impossibility of replicating the past… yes, it is about all of that and more.  It triggers something within the readers, puts all sorts of ideas in their heads and feelings in their hearts, which cannot be easily summarised.  There is one instance when Nick says ‘Life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all’.  And supposedly we are looking at this story though a single window, Nick’s window of insight.  Yet Fitzgerald has the skill to hint at multiple windows and to reveal the complexity and ambiguity of something far deeper.  There is something here we can barely explain but can only feel, like an image half-glimpsed, half-imagined in the moonlight.  There is always that hint of something ‘almost remembered’, an ‘elusive rhythm’, which we have to believe in to get through the everyday.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on ‘The Great Gatsby': did you love it or hate it, especially if you had to read it at school? And do classics get better when you reread them?  What have you recently discovered upon rereading an old favourite?

 

Book Review: ‘The Expats’ by Chris Pavone

As a serial expat myself and a big fan of thrillers, I had high expectations of Chris Pavone’s debut novel ‘The Expats’ and it did not disappoint.

The story in a nutshell: Katherine is a typical American expat in Luxembourg, dissatisfied with her life, missing her sense of purpose and past career, but unsure what she wants.  Or is she? Her husband Dexter is a good-natured computer geek working on security issues for banks.  Or is he?  They meet an attractive, yet strangely mismatched childless American couple, who seem keen to befriend them. Or are they?  Well, as it turns out, no one is quite what they seem in this page-turner, with more plot twists than I have had coffees.  I woke up during the night and adjourned to the guestroom to finish reading it, which is unusual behaviour indeed. Read more…

Post Navigation