findingtimetowrite

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Archive for the tag “books”

Things That Made Me Happy in March

Holidays!

Yes, I know I complained they were a bit too long and that the children drove me crazy, but we did finally go skiing every day. Always better in retrospect than when you are living through it!

March1 March2

A Cat

A very well-behaved, affectionate and quiet friend.

With her friend Hedgehog.

With her friend Hedgehog.

The first signs of Spring in my garden

March4 March5

Reading

More varied and fun reading this month, although, surprisingly, not as many translations.

3 non-fiction books:

Ben Hatch: Road to Rouen

A hilarious travel journal from hell, France in a car with two small children in tow: a great fun read, perhaps just a little unfair to the French, but also hugely revealing about the English abroad.

Rachel Cusk: Aftermath. On Marriage and Separation.

Brigid Schulte:  Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time

Although this book does feel culturally specific (US working culture and time-poverty mindset is perhaps the most extreme example in the world), there was much here I could relate to: the confetti of minuscule leisure time slots, the mind pollution of endless to-do-lists that do not allow us to get into the flow, the ideal worker vs. the ideal mother, competitive parenting, gender division of labour. The author backs up her thesis with both research findings and personal anecdotes. This book deserves a review of its own, especially given that it is the ‘theme’ (if there is one) of my blog: not  finding time to write.

2 foreign books:

Fuminori Nakamura: The Thief

Another book that deserves its own review. I found it moving, nuanced, slightly disturbing and surprisingly lyrical, given the subject matter.

Daniel Bardet: Le Boche (first 5 volumes of BD – graphic novel)

Fascinating insight into war-time France, from the perspective of an Alsatian man, hounded everywhere because he is neither German nor French enough.

1 poetry collection:

Michael Symmons Roberts: Drysalter

1 literary novel:

Claire King: The Night Rainbow – beautifully lyrical recreation of a French countryside childhood – with deep shadows.

6 crime fiction novels (all in English in the original – how very unusual!)

Cara Black: Murder in Pigalle

Sarah Caudwell: Thus Was Adonis Murdered

I was looking for a change of pace this month and I got it with this novel: charmingly old-fashioned, with most of the action taking place ‘off-stage’ and being disclosed to Hilary Tamar and his/her team of barristers via letters. It’s a nice set puzzle, and there is plenty of witty dialogue and banter to liven things up, but I can see how this book might be accused of elitism, it does feel like an extended Oxbridge joke.

Liam McIlvanney: Where the Dead Men Go

Sarah Hilary: Someone Else’s Skin

Harry Bingham: Talking to the Dead

WolfMo Hayder: Wolf

I started this latest Mo Hayder on Saturday, not really expecting it to make it into this month’s reading. But I had to finish it overnight, it was so compelling (after a rather slow start, admittedly). A family being held hostage in their holiday home, a psychopathic killer who may or may not have been released from prison and Jack Caffery trying to figure out what a tiny message on a lost dog could possibly mean. Hayder’s trademark creepiness and nearly unbearable suspense, very chilling, completely mesmerising. Not for the faint of heart!

 

 

 

 

Something for the Weekend: Art Walls Instead of Books?

For a bit of Friday fun, I am throwing out the question whether art walls can ever replace books as decorations. I do love art – in galleries or museums. I can certainly dream of having that grown-up kind of house where art blends in effortlessly, unpretentiously and… is worth more than just sentimental memories of the children’s early scribbles.

It’s all in the presentation… (courtesy of some of my favourite interior design websites).

beauseimaddicted.net

beauseimaddicted.net

fromtherightbank.com

fromtherightbank.com

 

Domainehome.com

Domainehome.com

 

fromtherightbank.com

fromtherightbank.com

Still, there’s nothing quite so decorative as a gentleman’s club-like library atmosphere where you can hide away from the rest of the world, lost in a book. Right? [Cat not included, but can be a real bonus.]

homesandbargains.co.uk

homesandbargains.co.uk

 

 

Beautiful Day in London Town

One free day in London after a rather tricky session with a difficult client.

1 bright clear sunny day.

2 pairs of shoes to try on – and bought one.

3 Pudsey bear bracelets.

4 bookshops to go in.

6 books to buy (3 second-hand, 3 poetry).

A favourite cousin to meet for lunch.

Crumpets, Devon custard and breakfast cereal all packed into suitcase to take back to feed hungry little mouths into the wilds of rural France.

Which all equals a much revived, happy Marina. Bring on Round Two in the boxing rink!

Neither Fish Nor Fowl

Books

Books (Photo credit: henry…)

 

I am being naughty. I am sitting on the sofa, snacking on almonds, drinking my nth coffee of the day.  Which would be all fine and good, if I were doing it to fuel my work. My day job: because I have a squeaky-new, hot-off-the-press course to prepare and learn so that I can deliver it on Monday. Instead, I mooch around, resenting the work I have to do, leaving it once again until it is far too late, so that panic, sleepless nights and last-minute palpitations have to set in. Not exactly setting myself up for roaring professional success!

 

What I would like to do is finish my novel, finesse some poems, try out some new ideas I’ve been getting on and off (mostly off).  However, turning my back on what I ought to be doing for the sake of what I would enjoy induces too much guilt. So I end up doing neither. Instead, I read about how others are working on their books, going through the final edits, combining their day job with creative genius.  I vacillate between inspiration and desperation. End up feeling even more guilty, of course, and with nothing to show for my efforts at the end of the day.

 

I read somewhere that having a day job nourishes and enhances your writing. Or, at the very least, it makes you appreciate each little window of time opening up to you. So what is wrong with me that I find it harder and harder to appreciate the interplay between the two?

 

I remind myself how much T. S. Eliot despised his banking job and how his Bloomsbury friends (‘poor Tom’ crops up repeatedly in Virginia Woolf’s diaries) tried to drum up some money for him so he could dedicate himself to his writing. In the end, he found his work-life balance at Faber, but I do wonder if he might have been more prolific if circumstances had been kinder.

 

Creating ‘in spite of’ rather than ‘inspired by’. Hmmm, I wonder… Do adverse circumstances help to distill your work and bring out the truly essential? Or do they just lock you down mid-flow and mid-sentence?

 

A plaque at SOAS's Faber Building, 24 Russell ...

A plaque at SOAS’s Faber Building, 24 Russell Square, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Interview with French Writer Sylvie Granotier

SylvieGranotier1Sylvie Granotier is a French actress, screenwriter and novelist, born in Algeria and growing up in Paris and Morocco. After completing her theatrical studies, she spent several years travelling around the world, including the United States, Brazil and Afghanistan. After a successful acting career, she turned to fiction. Fourteen novels and many short stories later, Sylvie Granotier is a major crime fiction author in France; her work has been translated into German, Italian, Russian and Greek. Le French Book brings us the first English translation of her novel The Paris Lawyer. The novel is both a legal procedural and a psychological thriller set in the heart of French countryside, La Creuse, considered by many to be a backward, closed-off rural area full of secrets.

I had the pleasure of meeting Sylvie at the Lyon Crime Festival Quais du Polar and I became an instant fan.  Imagine a taller, more glamorous version of Dame Judi Dench, expressing her thoughts in a carefully modulated voice, in beautiful English with a delightful French accent.

Have you always known you were going to end up writing crime fiction? 

No, it was quite a shock.  I never dared to consider that I would write some day.  I drifted for a few years, had no aims or ambitions.  Then I found myself translating Grace Paley’s short stories – I really admired her style and she had never been translated into French before. When my translation got published, she came to Paris and met me. She told me how she had started writing rather late in life and it was almost like she gave me the permission to write.  She never said it in so many words, but the day she took the plane back home, I started writing my first novel. So the two are not unrelated, I think!

And it was crime fiction that you instinctively turned to?

Yes, there was never any doubt in my mind. I’d enjoyed crime novels so much when I lived in the States.  Writing a book that can really grab the reader seemed to me the highest ambition for a writer.  Would I be able to do that?  It’s a genre that has given me so much pleasure, so it seemed an honour to be entering that genre.

Which authors inspire you?

Hard to choose, I’m inspired by all sorts of writing, not just crime fiction. I like Dickens, Melville, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Elizabeth George.  I like those crime authors who deal more with the psychology, the human aspects of a crime.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

Each book is a story that needs to be told. It can be a small seed from something I’ve read or seen or heard years before and it takes root and germinates inside.  I don’t start with my characters.  I always start with a fragment of a story, a promise, and the characters develop as the story evolves. I want to find out more about them and they often surprise me – which, to me, is proof that the story is alive. I have been known to erase a complete book, because I felt I knew too well what was going to happen. It was no longer interesting to me, it had lost its capacity to surprise me.

TheParisLawyerWhat differences (if any) do you notice between American and French crime fiction?

The way the legal system works is very different, of course, and a story is often influenced by the way in which you do your job.  Then, the language: French is far more organized, grammatical, constricted, more of a corset, less open to experimentation.  Finally, there is something about the way each country views good and evil.  American writers are not afraid to deal with huge themes like serial killers and innate evil. They have great faith in the truth emerging triumphant and justice being served.  In France – perhaps in Europe in general – we are more cynical about the truth ever coming out fully in a trial. We are perhaps too morally ambiguous, everything is too grey with us, not black and white.  Perhaps we feel that criminals are not necessarily evil, but simply people like you and me caught up in desperate matters.

What about the way women are portrayed in American vs. French crime fiction?

In my book ‘The Paris Lawyer’ I deliberately chose a very modern type of Parisian woman, independent, strong, dealing with men on her own terms.  She is sexy, stylish, uninhibited, despite her being haunted by her past.  I think she is very different from the kick-ass school of American female investigators, which I do also enjoy very much!  But I think there’s got to be room for both Vic Warshawski and for Catherine Monsigny in crime novels.  And we the readers are all the richer for it.

 

For more information on The Paris Lawyer and options for buying this or other crime fiction from France, please go to Le French Book’s Amazon page. For further reviews of the book, see Margot Kinberg , Ms. Wordopolis or Karen .

Why Writers’ Retreats Work (Mostly)

Chateau+Lavigny+016-590x393Last night I discovered one of the great treasures literary life in the Lake Geneva area.

I had the great pleasure to attend  a reading of poetry and prose at the coquette Chateau de Lavigny near Lausanne.  This beautiful manor house set amidst vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva is home to the Ledig-Rowohlt foundation and has been hosting for two decades retreats for both emerging and established writers from all over the world. Once a month in the summer, the resident writers share their thoughts and works with a small public, in both English and French – and also, very often, their native languages.

Last night’s friendly and talented group of writers included: novelist and children’s author Ousmane Diarra (from Mali); poet Janet McAdams from the United States; fiction writer and translator Alexander Markin (from Russia); novelist and essayist Tatiana Salem Levy from Brazil; writer of Gothic novels Leonora Christina Skov from Denmark.

View from the Terrace.

View from the Terrace.

The Readings

Ousmane kicked off with an extract from his novella ‘La Revelation’.  It is the story of a child who discovers that his real mother is dead. He asks the local priest what death means and is told that his mother is now with ‘le bon Dieu’ (the good Lord). From now on he will wage war with the good Lord, in an effort to gain back his mother.  With his resonant voice and brilliant insights into a child’s confused thoughts,  the author gathered us around an imaginary campfire to hear this moving, thrilling and often funny tale.

Janet’s poetry was about finding and losing one’s identity, about moving on, about moving to other countries and about being observed and scrutinised. Haunting, thought-provoking poems, which struck a deep chord in me, although she seemed to fear that she was too serious and said at one point, apologetically: ‘It doesn’t get any more cheerful.’

Alexander read fragments from his semi-fictional diaries depicting the life of an artist in present-day Russia, a mix of minute details and philosophical reflections, anecdotes about artistry and repression, acute observations of everyday absurdity and a healthy dose of satire.

Tatiana read the opening of her first novel ‘A chave de casa’, an exploration of her family’s past, from Smyrna to Rio. She was lyrical, funny, tender, with richly sensuous details and an air of sepia-coloured nostalgia.

Last but not least, Leonora very bravely read out her own translation into English from a rough draft of her current work in progress.  This is a novel inspired by Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ and is set in a writer’s colony on a lonely Danish island.  Murderous writers, tongue-in-cheek and witty style, mordant characterisations: I can hardly wait to read this!

So, as you can see, a remarkable diversity of styles and subject matters, but all equally talented and passionate about writing.  Can you just imagine the dinner table conversations there? This is one of the beauties of writers’ residencies.  While conferences within your own genre are very useful and huge fun,  the best ideas often come from this diversity of visions and ideas. It’s the difference of approaches and the cross-pollination that ultimately leads to the most interesting experiments, that will make a writer venture out of their comfort zone.

Steamboat on Lake Geneva, near Lausanne (Switz...

Steamboat on Lake Geneva, near Lausanne (Switzerland) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Availability of English Translations

Or, rather, the lack of availability. In our post-reading chat over drinks, every one of the writers (except for Janet McAdams, who writes in English, obviously) emphasised how difficult it was to get translated into English and published in either the UK or the US.  This rather reinforces the point I made earlier about reaching a wider public if you are writing in English.

Although Tatiana Salem Levy is featured in Granta 121: Best of Young Brazilian Novelists, her work is not otherwise available to the English-speaking world. How is it that her first novel has been translated into French, Italian, Romanian, Spanish and Turkish, but not in English? Alexander’s diaries are being translated into German – everyone there agreed that German publishers are so good at discovering new talent abroad, that they are the fastest with their translations.  Yet the Germans themselves are just as worried about the demise of the publishing industry as anyone else.

To my mind, Leonora Christina Skov has all of the qualities to appeal to an American or British audience: she has that sly dark humour, she writes quirky Gothic tales and she is a Scandinavian bordering on crime fiction, for heaven’s sake!  What more has that woman got to do to be noticed?  It seems to me infinitely sad that she is seriously considering switching to English in her writing.

The Future of Writer’s Colonies

I don’t think there is a writer on earth who has not dreamt of going to a writers’ colony for a month or so, in a idyllic location, and having nothing else to worry about but writing.  Not even laundry, cooking and cleaning, let alone earning a living.  Most would agree that it is very conducive to writing, even if the company you find there may be challenging at times.

Of course, as foundation pots and art funds dwindle, it’s becoming harder and harder to fund these programmes.  Last night I heard rumours about initiatives like these closing down in Spain and Greece. Smaller profit-making initiatives are springing up, offering no stipends, but instead comfortable surroundings in which a paying visitor can get away from it all and be creative.   Not quite the same, is it, if you are still worrying about money and the taxman?

The group of volunteers from the steering committee at Lavigny are worried about the future.  They can’t get any funding from the Swiss state or local canton, because they have an international rather than a local remit. Meanwhile, PEN or other international art foundations are overwhelmed with applications on a daily basis.  Above all, they are reluctant to reduce the residency programme from its current 3-4 weeks to just one week, because they feel that is too short to get the creative juices really flowing.  I do hope the magic of Lavigny will be able to exert its influence on writers worldwide for a while longer.

Nothing like an inappropriate picture to end the article!

 Typical Swiss landscape, photo credit: Wink Lorch,http://www.jurawine.co.uk

 

 

Best Read of the Month: May

This past month has been  more diverse than most in terms of reading.  I have managed to finish 12 books, of which only 7 were officially crime fiction, 4 were love stories (of a sort) and one was non-fiction but proved to be a more exciting and unbelievable read than any fiction.  Two of them were in French, which makes me want to do a little dance of joy.  My goal has been to read at least one book in French every month, preferably two, so as to improve my language skills, but I am sure there have been many, many times when I have failed in this mission.  Finally, three of them were translations: one from Danish and two from Hebrew.

1) Sophie Hannah: The Carrier.  Some of Sophie Hannah’s earlier books gripped me completely: it felt as though the author had been in my head and uncovered my most hidden thoughts.  She always seems to set the reader up with an impossible puzzle, yet solves them with flourish, keen psychological finesse and not a little poetic vision.  Although this was not my favourite of Hannah’s novels, it is still a good read, although perhaps not at an airport when your flight is delayed…  For my full review on Crime Fiction Lover, see here.

Dicker2) Joel Dicker: La Verite sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert.   Having seen and heard the author at the Lyon Crime Festival, and having seen how many awards and accolades have been heaped upon this book in the French-speaking world, I was naturally curious to read it. Well, it’s an easy-to-read, quite exciting story, with reasonable plot twists along the way, but I am puzzled as to why it has won all those awards, since it feels good but not outstanding to me. The setting is a small town in the United States, and there is nothing remotely French or Swiss about this book.  There are a few cliche situations and characters, but the simple, even pedestrian language appealed to me as a non-native speaker of French.

3) Amos Oz: To Know a Woman.   Perhaps not my favourite book by Oz, but he still is such a magnificent writer. He takes a widower’s story of loss and grieving, and turns it into a universal tale of love, reassessment of one’s life, trying to truly understand another person, moving on. He piles on detail after detail (about Yoel’s daily routines, his gardening, his cooking, his thoughts, his travels) and each adds a layer, but you feel that the depth really lies in what is unsaid.

Tokyo host4) Jonelle Patrick: Fallen Angel: An Only in Tokyo Mystery

Once again, the full review is here, but this is an intriguing insight into the world of Japanese nightlife and host clubs, written by someone who knows Tokyo rather well but still brings an external perspective to things.

5) Alan Glynn: Graveland.    Not quite as enthralling as his previous novel Bloodland, perhaps because this one takes place all in the US, rather than Ireland or the Congo. It certainly feels very topical, dealing with unemployment, young protesters and the shadowy world of finance and corporations. I found the excessive amounts of web searching a little tedious, and the investigative journalist Ellen never quite grabbed my attention.  However, the character of Frank, former architect now working as a sales assistant in an electronics store, and worried about his daughter in college, was quite moving.

6) Benjamin Tammuz: Minotaur.    The principle of the story is similar to Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’: you get to see an unusual love story from multiple points of view, until you are able to discern what really happened and how each player in the drama justifies matters. I read this in one breathless go, but it is actually a book to be savoured slowly. It has so many beautiful passages and philosophical meditations on love, passion in life, music and fear of the unknown. It is a thriller, a love story, a history of Palestine, a hymn to the Levantine spirit, a noir.

7) Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers.     This book deserves an entry of its own: it is the book I wish I could have written, as an anthropologist, yet it reads like a novel.  Except that all of the events described are real.  It is the heartbreaking story of everyday life, hopes, fears and disappointments of slum life in Mumbai.  One of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time.

Cover of "The Concrete Blonde (Harry Bosc...

Cover of The Concrete Blonde (Harry Bosch)

8) Michael Connelly: The Concrete Blonde.      A mix of courtroom drama, police procedural and serial killer novel, this is a solid entry in the Harry Bosch series, with an interesting backdrop of LA after the racial riots.

9) Meg Wolitzer: The Uncoupling.     I actually left this book behind me (once I finished it) in a hotel room.  I was that sure that I would never want to read it again. Although I found this story of disintegrating love and familiarity breeding contempt quite compelling.  I think all of us women have experienced some of those sentiments at one time or another.  However, the fable element of the story and the supposedly magic spells that descends upon all the women in the New Jersey suburbs was a little annoying and artificial, especially the ending. When it stuck to the mundane, there were many funny moments in the book. It is all at once a sharply observed, witty look at modern life in the suburbs, and a universal statement about the relationship between men and women, the way they misunderstand each other and mistreat each other, even unintentionally.

10) Massimo Carlotto: At the End of a Dull Day – to be reviewed next week

11) Louise Doughty: Apple Tree Yard – to be reviewed next week

Français : L'auteur danois Jens Christian Grøn...

Français : L’auteur danois Jens Christian Grøndahl au Salon du livre de Paris lors de la conférence La société, source d’inspiration. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

12) Jens Christian Grondahl: Piazza Bucarest

This was an impulse loan from the library, as I stumbled across it while searching for something else, and I couldn’t resist the blurb.  The narrator tries to find Elena, a young Romanian woman who married his stepfather to escape from Communism and then abandoned him.  Sadly, the book was a disappointment, and not just because the woman was unsympathetic (or because we Romanian women cannot take a bit of criticism).  I was never quite sure what the author was trying to say or what the point of the whole thing was.  Maybe the fact that I read a French translation of the original Danish didn’t help much either – it’s like trying to see a landscape through a doubly opaque window.

My top read of this month (and many other months) is undoubtedly ‘Beyond the Beautiful Forevers’, and my favourite crime fiction pick?  Hmmm, that’s a tricky choice, as there were quite a few good ones, although nothing exceptional.  I think it’s a tie between ‘The Concrete Blonde’ and ‘At the End of a Dull Day’.  Both rather macho reads, though, so I need something more feminine next month to compensate.

So I have covered quite a few of my reading challenge requirements.  Although, don’t you find that, as soon as you near the goalposts of a challenge you set for yourself, you start moving them about? Taking them just a little further? Demanding just a tad more of yourself? Fearful of missing out on something?  

Review of ‘The Historian’ by Elizabeth Kostova

Poenari Castle, Romania

Poenari Castle, Romania

This was always going to be a hard sell for me.  Not only do I not like vampire fiction or film series, all of which tend to take themselves far too seriously (with the exception of the tongue-in-cheek British series ‘Being Human’), but I also am tired of being associated with vampires simply because I originally come from the Carpathian mountains.  To be precise, my father comes from the place where the so-called Dracula’s castle stands in ruins, Cetatea Poenari.

I’ve become somewhat tired of explaining that the vampire myth has always been far stronger in Bulgaria and Serbia, even in Greece, rather than in Romania.  That Vlad Ţepeş the Impaler was indeed a historical figure but has nothing to do with the pale Count imagined by Bram Stoker, and indeed, very little to do with Transylvania.  That the bad press Vlad received during his life and especially after his death was deliberately promoted by political rivals. Yes, he was a bit of a tyrant, creative in his cruelty and ruthless in meting out punishment – your everyday despot of the Middle Ages, then!

Vlad Ţepeş, the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia (...

Vlad Ţepeş, the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia (1456-1462) (died 1477) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, I tried to set all of that aside and read Elizabeth Kostova’s book about the search for Vlad the Impaler’s real grave with an open mind.  It is a novel where the real hero is historical research itself.  It owes much to the original ‘Dracula’  novel by Bram Stoker, and it is all about a story within a story within a story, with letters and stories by different characters in different periods (some historical, some more recent) creating a sense of time-travel.

The unnamed main narrator was a sixteen year old girl when she discovered an ancient volume and a secret stash of letters addressed to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. Gradually, despite her father’s reluctance and fear, she uncovers the innermost secrets and horrors of her family’s past, including how her mother and father first met.  Narrators past and present travel all over Europe, finding emblematic documents in obscure libraries and taking in many eerie sights on and off the beaten tourist track.  Along the way, they encounter strange characters, dangerous librarians and the living dead.  They also find corpses, missing friends and each other in the process.  All in all, it makes a change from the vampire type novels aimed at the Young Adult market, but some may find the insistence on documentary detail and the lengthy descriptions slow down the action.

I quite enjoyed the first few chapters, the gradual quickening of horror, the Victorian style and atmosphere (although it is set in the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s). But it just felt too long and repetitive after a while and yes, there were inaccuracies. The characters all seem to have the same voice, regardless of their period, culture or sex.  If you want examples of thrilling research and discovery combined with love story or complicated action, A.S. Byatt’s ‘Posession’ or Umberto Eco’s ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ are much better.  I have to admit that from about page 300 onwards (only half-way through), I skimmed through the chapters, simply because I did not want to admit defeat and abandon the novel.

book cover 3 the historianI read this book as part of my Global Reading Challenge, aided and abetted by Kerrie from Mysteries in Paradise.  It is my contribution to the wildcard category – the Seventh Continent – an alternative setting you might not normally consider for crime fiction.

Real Viennese Crime Fiction

This is not really a book review, more of a declaration of love for its setting, and it fits into my Global Reading Challenge, the meme launched by the incomparable Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise.

Ah, Vienna!  City of my heart – no matter how many places I live in, this is the place that feels closest to home, perhaps because I spent most of my childhood there.  Yet it’s not just gold-tinged nostalgia.  I will forever be regarded as an outsider there: no matter how fond how I am of Grinzing and the wooded hills extending beyond it, no matter how familiar I am with every element of the Viennese cuisine, no matter how easily I slip into the lazy lengthened vowels of the Viennese accent.

Viennese Souvenirs

Viennese Souvenirs

Yet still I thrill to the slightest mention of the city, and I cannot resist any novel that is set there.  Yet somehow, until recently, crime fiction set in Vienna seems to have been written largely by foreign authors. The obvious one to mention is Graham Greene’s ‘The Third Man’.  Both the book and the film are excellent at conveying the disquieting atmosphere of a city on the very border of the Cold War. Frank Tallis has series of novels featuring a psychonalytical detective in early 20th century Vienna, but I found it a bit too rich, like a Sachertorte.  J. Sydney Jones also addresses the same period in Austrian history, introducing real-life literary celebrities, musicians and artists such as Gustav Klimt and Gustav Mahler with his Viennese Mysteries series.

However, in recent years, there has been a surge of native crime writers telling us of their love/hate relationship with their capital city.  [Because you aren't a real Viennese until you learn to complain about the city and its inhabitants.] Some of them rather obviously cater for the tourist market, much like the Mozartkugeln confectionery.  Some of them are intended for the domestic market (which includes Germany and Switzerland, of course).  None of them have been translated into English yet, as far as I am aware, but I will keep my eyes open for Wolf Haas (many of his books have been filmed for Austrian TV),  Edith Kneifl’s evocations of the Prater fun fair, Andreas Pittler’s novels set in the tumultuous 1930s, Marcus Rafaelsberger who changed his name to Marc Elsberg and now lives in Hamburg, and Alfred Komarek’s melancholy detective Polt, who lives just outside Vienna amidst beautiful vineyards.

But every now and then you find the genuine thing: a book that conveys all of the contradictory atmosphere of this city, everything that charms and frustrates you about it. This author is Stefan Slupetzky and his crime series is about Poldi Wallisch, a.k.a the Lemming for his tendency to engage in self-destructive behaviour.

LemmingThe book I read, ‘Lemmings Zorn’ (Lemming’s Rage) is the fourth in the series, but I don’t think this is a series you need to read in chronological order.  Not surprisingly, it’s about rage and frustration, about average people trying to make a life for themselves in the city of endless construction sites, unapproachable neighbours and high noise levels. It is also about powerlessness and revenge, about shame and shamelessness.

It starts out as a humorous family saga. It’s a lovely May Day holiday and the streets of Vienna are empty, save for Lemming and his heavily pregnant life partner, Klara. Suddenly, Klara’s waters break, the ambulance fails to arrive and panic sets in.  Until the couple are saved by a stranger, Angela, who helps them with the birth, names the baby and becomes a family friend.  A few months later, however, on Christmas Eve, Lemming has to leave the baby with Angela for a few hours.  When he goes to pick up his son, he makes a gruesome discovery which changes their lives forever.

Macabre humour mixed with slapstick, surrealist dream sequences, philosophical asides and tongue-in-cheek observations, this is a crime novel unlike any other you have read.  I absolutely loved it and laughed out loud throughout.  Whether it would appeal to anyone who doesn’t know Vienna or the black humour of its inhabitants, we won’t know until it’s been translated into English. I do hope someone hurries up and does just that!

Memorable Moments from Lyon Crime Festival

DSCN6589Did you know that 70% of crime fiction editors in France are women?  That is just one of the surprising facts that I found out at the Quais du Polar in Lyon this last weekend.

What I also found there: a great intimacy between readers and writers, a fun-filled atmosphere, resilience to stand in the queue despite the rain and cold, and plenty of memorable quotes and valuable nuggets of information such as:

1) The Festival in Figures: 4 days, 70 authors, 35 panel discussions, 5 live recordings of radio programmes, 5 literary prizes (less to do with money, more to do with prestige and a spike in sales), 10 films introduced by authors, 10 theatre performances and an estimated 60,000 visitors.

ClaudeMespledeClaude Mesplède was the President of the Readers’ Jury and the true beating heart of the Festival.  Passionate about crime fiction since the age of 10, he has edited anthologies of crime fiction, written the definitive Dictionary of Crime Literature and been instrumental in setting up the Toulouse Crime Festival.

UrbanPanel2) The Urban Panel: The urban landscape as a scene of desolation, poverty and deprivation, with petty crime and trivial, sensationalised news items. This is crime fiction at its grittiest, providing rich social commentary. Young writers Rachid Santaki and Jérémie Guez write about the Parisian ghettos from personal experience, Petros Markaris mourns the amnesia and almost casual descent into violence and indifference of Athens, John Burdett shows a side of Bangkok that the Thai Tourist Board would undoubtedly not approve of.  It is left to Swiss writer Joël Dicker to round it off with a critique of the American media reporting on crimes in his runaway success of a debut novel ‘The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair’. (Oddly enough, Dicker has become a bit of a media buzz himself – however, in the picture I took of the panel he is not visible, so you cannot judge for yourselves if he is indeed as good-looking and boyish looking as he is hyped to be).

3) Quotes about writing, sources of inspiration and the joys of being read:

It’s not about faith or inspiration, it’s about work. (David Khara)

I never wanted to write anything else but crime fiction. Writing a story that grips people, with strong characters, seems to me such an art and an achievement. (Sylvie Granotier)

When a community and a society is starting to lose its conscience, perhaps a writer has a duty to act as the collective memory. (Petros Markaris)

PetrosMarkaris

Petros Markaris

The banality of evil is what makes crime fiction so interesting.  We are always surprised to find a killer in our midst, which is why we always say ‘Who could have imagined X doing such a thing?’ But we never know people well enough to see what lurks beneath the surface. We seldom dare to look deep enough within ourselves even. (Joël Dicker)

I started out with crime fiction because it was something I liked reading and I thought I might be able to do it. But I didn’t think I would stay with it for so long. That’s because it is a genre that also allows you to say something true about men and women, and about the society in which we live. (P.D. James)

Amateurs wait for inspiration, the rest of us go to work.  You can’t be in it just for the money – I don’t chase the money (although it’s nice when I get it), but the readers’ hearts. However, Dickens, Shakespeare, Dumas all wrote for money.  The idea that a writer has to be   lofty and above commerce is a very modern one.  All I want to do is entertain.  If a reader takes my book to bed with them for 15 minutes and is still reading it at 5 in the morning, I have more than accomplished my mission. (Harlan Coben)

Diniz Galhoz

Diniz Galhos

Us younger French writers feel more like global citizens: we can write about America, about Japan, about anywhere in the world. A good story remains a good story, no matter where it is located. (Diniz Galhos)

The authors of obscure literary fiction who say ‘You have readers, but I have my dignity’ are kidding themselves if they think that their notion of success is any different from my notion of success.  Everyone wants more readers. (Jeff Abbott)

ElsaMarpeau

Elsa Marpeau

90% of present-day French crime writers have been influenced by American fiction, especially Elmore Leonard.  I am not sure that all those traditional differences between Anglo-Saxon and French literature still apply. (Elsa Marpeau)

Only bad writers think they are good, all others are insecure.  Your book is never quite what you want it to be. That’s what motivates you to write the next one. (Harlan Coben)

But above all, I found ornate, sumptuous and unusual locations, just right to celebrate literary delights!

Hotel de Ville, Lyon

Hotel de Ville, Lyon

MainHall
Main Hall

And here is my book haul from the festival.  I really made an effort to restrain myself.

DSCN6594

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