findingtimetowrite

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Archive for the tag “travel”

What I’ll Remember of 2013

In terms of books, of course. I know the year is not quite over, but I am stuck in a huge book, so I don’t think I’ll get to read much else. 

I’ve done a summary of my top five crime reads (books published in 2013 and reviewed by me) on the Crime Fiction Lover website. These, however, are more of a motley collection of books I’ve loved, regardless of genre, reviews, whether they were published recently or not.  And they don’t fit neatly into a list of ten.

the harbour of Marseille

The harbour of Marseille (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Elizabeth Haynes: Into the Darkest Corner     The most frightening description of OCD, conveyed with a real sense of menace. Psychological shudders guaranteed.

Jean-Claude Izzo: Marseille Trilogy    Just glorious, despite the darkness – a symphony for the senses.

Birgit Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast    Damning, elegant prose, as precise as a scalpel, dissecting families and tyranny of all kinds.

Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers      Somewhere between anthropology and fiction lies this utterly moving book, an unflinching look at the everyday life, hopes and horrors in an Indian slum. The book that I wish more than anything I could have written.

Esi Eudgyan: Half Blood Blues     Who cares about accuracy, when it has the most amazing voice and melody, all of the whorls of the best of jazz improvisation?

English: Glasgow Cathedral and Royal Infirmary

English: Glasgow Cathedral and Royal Infirmary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Denise Mina: Garnethill       Another book strong on voice and characters, perfectly recreating a Glasgow which I’ve never known but can instantly recognise. Initially depressing but ultimately uplifting.

Karin Fossum: Calling Out for You     Almost elegiac crime fiction, with uncomfortable portrayals of casual racism, the cracks in an almost perfect little society/ This was an eerie and haunting tale, almost like a ghost story.

Ioanna Bourazopoulou: What Lot’s Wife Saw       The most imaginative novel I have read all year, it defies all expectations or genre categories. I felt transposed into an Alice in Wonderland world, where nothing is quite what it seems.

Bangkok

Bangkok (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

John Burdett: Bangkok Eight      Clash of cultures and unsentimental look at the flesh trade in Thailand, this one again has an inimitable voice.

Carlotto: At the End of a Dull Day     If you like your humour as black and brief as an espresso, you will love the tough world of Giorgio Pellegrini. So much more stylish than Tarantino!

Karl Ove Knausgaard: A Man in Love      Perhaps it’s too soon to add it to the list, as I only read it last week, but it felt to me like an instant classic.

So what strikes me about this list?

1) They are none of them a barrel of laughs, although there are occasional flashes of (rather dark) humour in them.

2) With the exception of the Katherine Boo ethnography, I wouldn’t have expected to be bowled over by any of the above. So keeping an open mind is essential for discovering that next amazing read.

3) There were other books which initially made much more of an impression (the Fireworks Brigade, shall we say), but when I look back on what really stuck with me, what made me think or feel differently as a result of reading them, those are the books I would have to point out.

English: Stockholm panorama. Lithography by Ca...

English: Stockholm panorama. Lithography by Carl Johan Billmark 1868. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4) They are each set in a different city and country: London, Marseille, a dining room in Germany, Mumbai, war-time Paris, Glasgow, Norway, the Dead Sea sometime in the future, Bangkok, Venice and Stockholm.  What can I say? I love to travel!

On that more upbeat note, I’ve discovered many new (to me) writers and series this year. Some of them are gentler, funnier reads, perfect to unwind. Here are a few that I hope to read more of: Louise Penny, Martin Walker, Pierre Lemaitre and Anne Zouroudi.

Commuter Paradise

Credit: freedigitalphotos.net

Newspapers and gadgets are props

covering the hollowed glaze of non-looks.

How to avoid searching too deep,

meaning best left formulated by others,

through shopping sprees and TV,

in front of which you fall asleep.

 

With pendulous lids and bags dangling on hips

they shuffle along, spilling on platforms,

thundering the footbridges with their cadences of resignation.

Sleep-flushed faces in the dank reek of stations at dawn,

they come and go,

and in their tread I detect fear

of letting down,

of being let go.

Fiction Pick for August

The bad news is: I have done no editing whatsoever on my novel and very little new writing during the summer.  The good news is: I have read lots of books (despite my husband’s hogging of the Kindle, where I had many more stored). Which does mean a lot of reviews that I need to catch up on.  For the time being, here is a simple list of what I read this August, plus my top pick for the month, to be aggregated thanks to Mysteries in Paradise‘s efforts. Apologies, not all of my reads were crime fiction.

1. Simenon: Les nouvelles enquêtes de Maigret – for the Classics in September feature on Crime Fiction Lover website

2. David Foster Wallace: Infinite Jest – made it about halfway, not the best beach reading, more on that later

3. Alison Bruce: The Siren – second in the Cambridge crime series, loved the first book even more though

4. Cristian Mihai: Jazz – author interview coming up on my blog shortly

5. J.A. Schneider – Embryo – medical thriller

6. Ben Hatch: Are We Nearly There Yet? – pains and joys of travelling with children, but also a touching family history

7. Kate Hoyland: Ghosts of Geneva: Mary Shelley and the Animatron

8. David Dickinson: Mycroft Holmes and the Murder at the Diogenes Club – one-sitting read, between a short story and a novella

9. Anne Brontë: Agnes Grey – the only book I hadn’t read from that family

10. Leighton Gage: Blood of the Wicked – murder and corruption in Brazil

11. Emily Shaffer: That Time of the Month – light and frothy, sweet as pie

12. Kathleen McCaul: Grave Secrets in Goa

13. Chris Culver: The Abbey

14. Donato Carvisi: The Lost Girls of Rome (these last three are all going to get reviewed sooner rather than later, hopefully within a week or so – see what I mean about falling behind?)

And my top pick is Leighton Gage: Blood of the Wicked.  I am a Brazil fan anyway (should that be a Brazil nut?) and I found the background and local colour very well done, although profoundly unsettling.  I will definitely read more by this author.

Gone fishing…

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

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

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

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

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

1) Book review – the one that started it all

‘The Expats’ by Chris Pavone

2) Poetry – two of my personal favourites

Things I Have Lost

Then and Now

3) Flash fiction

Harness

4) Random musing and waffling

Developing the Creative Habit

The Angel and Edna (Part 1)

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

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

Gone fishing in the sea…

And if all else fails…

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

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

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.

 

A Year’s Worth of Haikus

A light-hearted read for the weekend: haikus for every season, and a good excuse to upload some favourite pictures.

 

January

Perfect crunch on ice

Spiked boots and burning muscle

Welcome warmth of soup

 

February

Where are friendships now?

The chalet sighs for Christmas

Lights buried in snow

 

March

How much hope, what joy,

When stubborn hardy rootling

Gushes forth from sod!

 

April

Long before the fall

The camellia’s head hung low

Blushing memory

 

May

Scented white lilac –

However brief its glory

There is no contest

 

June

No cherries this year.

I wonder if this season

Will greet me again.

 

July

So much life and hope

Drinks and laughter lighten

On long summer days

 

August

Annual body roast.

Not a second on the beach

To savour salt air.

 

September

Back! Back! They twitter.

Settling nicely in the groove,

Keeping tan well creamed.

 

October

Demented squash shapes

Stretch out arms imploring, catch

Chill hush in the air.

 

November

So it closes in:

Each year a little harder

To bear the long-streaked rain.

 

December

Not naughty, not nice –

Can it be time already

To freeze our desires?

 

Fragment from the First Draft

This is taking me waaaay out of my comfort zone, sharing a small fragment (something more than seven lines) from the first draft of my novel. The usual disclaimers (rough, unedited, only a snippet etc.) apply. The only reason I am considering it is because some of you, dear readers, kindly asked to see some of it, and because it is part of the 15 day writing challenge devised by Jeff Goins.

By way of background to the story: it is a crime novel which takes place in Romania in 1995.  This woman is a secondary character, the wife of the policeman who is helping my hero (who is English) and heroine (Romanian) in their crime-solving mission.  Gina plays a small but crucial part in destroying the evidence.  The fragment below describes her motivation for it to a certain extent.  Any comments or suggestions would be much appreciated.  Don’t be afraid to be cruel in order to be kind!

To her surprise, Gina had not found married life and parenthood as rewarding as she had been led to believe.  She had been herded by her mother into the expectation that motherhood would confer new meaning to her life.  But now she often found herself wondering: ‘Is this all?  Is that all I have to look forward to in life from now to evermore?’  Oh, she loved the little blighter well enough, but she had to admit that she often did not like him much.  He was selfish, prone to tantrums, overly spoilt by his dad and grandparents, and he took all of that out on her.  As if she didn’t have enough troubles of her own!

All she had ever learnt about bookkeeping was out of date in the new market economy and had to be relearnt.  There were other, younger accountants snapping at her heels, with their new-fangled degrees from private universities (luckily, still not officially recognised) and their mastery of foreign languages.  She had been told she should learn some English or French too, that it would help further her career. What if their enterprise is privatised and sold off to foreigners: then where would she be, out on the streets?  Whereas if she could chat with her would-be bosses in their own language, that might make a difference.

But when was she supposed to have the time to learn a foreign language?  With the child still not sleeping through the night and Dinu often away on night-shift, or else dead to the world when he did get to sleep at home.  She also had her mother-in-law to look after, who was not necessarily getting more decrepit every week, but certainly more demanding.  Plus trying to maintain the fruit and vegetables weed-free and unbitten by pests on their small plot of land.  She had been told that keeping a few chicken would be no trouble, and that having freshly laid eggs would be such a bonus to her son’s health.  So now she had to feed and clean after those stinky, cackling nuisances.

And, to top it all, Dinu had now taken it into his head to build a house behind his parents’ old one.  True, their current house was small, dark and old-fashioned, with only an electric plate in the kitchen. The running water was barely running, since the pipes had burst last winter.  But now they had a building site to contend with as well.  Dirt everywhere and drudgery from morning till bedtime!  If Dinu ever took it into his dim little brain to mention having another child again, she would punch him right between his eyes!

Her only pleasure was spending her money on foreign chocolate.  When she got her salary (in ever-increasing mounds of cash, which were actually worth very little in the current inflation), she would stop at a kiosk on the high street on the way back from work.  She would buy pretty much the entire stock and hide it at the back of her wardrobe, trying to resist the temptation to have more than one entire tablet a day.  She was beyond caring what her body might look like if she gained too much weight.  She had no feeling of guilt at spending so much money on chocolate that she never shared with anyone else.  After all, her husband was willing to spend every last leu of his on that child: it had to be all foreign nappies and toys for him, oh, yes!  But he didn’t want to spend anything at all on her, his wife.

And now he was getting far too involved in this stupid case, all because a posh bird from Bucharest had batted her eyelashes at him.  Well, she would teach him what Gina was capable of, that she would!

The men had been nicely suited, with those fashionable pastel-coloured broad ties that she wished her husband could wear instead of that sweaty police uniform.  They had descended as a synchronised pair from their Dacia with tinted windows.  They had been well-spoken, polite, not at all like the security forces of the olden days.  Yet she had no doubt that was what they were.  Any Romanian worth his or her salt could sniff out these people a mile off, no matter how many manners they might have acquired in the meantime.

They had expressed their concern at Dinu’s over-involvement in this case, which she fully agreed with.  In fact, she hadn’t quite realised quite how many extra enquiries he had made in Pitesti and Bucharest on behalf of the posh bird until these gentlemen made her aware of them.  They asked her if he kept any paperwork at home (she didn’t think so), if he had confided in her any details of the case. He hadn’t and she wasn’t interested anyway, as if she did not have enough worries of her own.

Upon hearing that, they expressed their sympathy. Delighted that someone was finally listening to her, she poured out much more of her daily anxieties than she had intended, even more than she had shared with her girlfriends.  Not that she had many of them here, in this godforsaken little town.  And the men had nodded and taken her seriously, instead of trying to laugh off her concerns.  They had promised… well, she wasn’t quite sure what, but it sounded a relief, a solution to her problems.  Nor was she quite sure if they actually promised anything.  But, at any rate, they painted a picture of future possibilities.  Lifetime employment for herself, a promotion for her husband, most likely a move to a more happening part of the country, a big city.   Where her son could grow up in a civilised fashion, away from the dirt of the crumbling old house and animal shit. An escape from the clutches of her mother-in-law and the building site.  A chance to put herself first, instead of slaving away for others.  A chance to make that life for herself that she had hoped for, but which had somehow passed her by.  Until now.

And all they asked in return was to find out where he kept his notes and evidence from the case, and to hand it over to them, or, failing that, to destroy them.  Sink this nasty little story, which had nothing to do with them.

What could be simpler, more natural?  If (or rather, when) Dinu found out, he would be furious at first, but surely it was time he realised he was not Colombo or whichever of those American detectives were his heroes.  He would thank her once he realised how much they could gain from simply letting things rest.  Leave things be.  It wasn’t like they were hiding something, it was more about not wanting to dig any deeper and uncover unpleasantness.

So, if her husband wasn’t exactly forthcoming with the details, then she would have to snuffle  them out herself.  But she would have to be clever and resourceful, for there was no way that she could access any of his documents at work.   That much was clear. Although she had little respect for the coffee-swilling, nail-painting and endlessly chatting ladies at the police station, she was sure that they had enough basic police training to know not to share any documents with outsiders.  Even outsiders who were married to a police officer.

So what other solution was there?  She would have to convince Dinu to bring his paperwork home.

Mal-Entendu

OK, last poem for a while, I promise.  I will be back with some prose and some reviews or discussions of writerly influences next week. 

Almost immediately after I write that, I ask myself: why do I feel apologetic about writing ‘only’ poems?  I am not implying that writing poems is the easy or lesser option.  Just that, in my case, it is very often compensation activity for not finishing that b***** novel.  Come on, lass, only 2 chapters to go (or so I believe). 

Anyway, this poem is about the challenges of a normally chatty, even glib person becoming tongue-tied in a new country with a language she only half-speaks.  Yep, this time it is personal!

BreadOne might say the magic faraway tree

is walking away and not toward me,

Always almost, but never quite there.

Haunted by failure, aware of the dangers,

I navigate, anxious, between the extremes.

All blandness in word choice,

accents raining in all directions,

avoiding the telephone for fear of rapid riposte.

My jokes are more plodding,

some meaning eludes me.

I snigger along even when I am lost.

Distracted by how I pronounce the word ‘pain’,

the baker hands me the wrong kind of bread.

I think I’ll stick to baguette in future.



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