Short Stories for Short Attention Spans

I’m sure I’m not the only one whose attention span seems to be shrinking in the last few weeks. Although I’ve embarked upon The American by Henry James and am finding it quite humorous and easy reading, on the whole I seem to spend more time on interruptions rather than on reading. So short story collections are ideal. I can always squeeze one story in between a team meeting and starting to cook supper, or between a Barney/Zoe socialisation project and a game of Cluedo with the boys. (Sadly, that last one is becoming infrequent, as they keep reminding me that they have left such childish pursuits well and truly behind them.) And these two short story collections by women and about women are truly magnificent, highly recommended. Just don’t expect very lengthy, profoundly analytical reviews of them – my writing attention span is likewise very much reduced.

Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women

Everyone was buzzing about it a few years back, and I even bought it for a friend who I was sure would love it, but I somehow never got around to reading more than 1-2 stories from it. I am so glad that I discovered it now. It is so, so good. An instantly recognisable, unique voice, regardless of whether the story is in first person or third person. She reminds me of Jean Rhys, but in a different setting and a few decades later, a working woman rather than a kept one, with not just herself but four boys to look after as well.

Many of her biographical details match with what she shares in the stories, and there is something of the ‘confessional writer’ about her. (She also reminds me of Anne Sexton, with a cool, unflappable veneer hiding tormented depths.) But she twists and exaggerates memories and events, so that they can best serve the story she wants to tell. As one of her sons said: ‘Our family stories… have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.’

Her stories are never boring, and they are surprisingly humorous (unlike Rhys). Some are brief, mere glimpses into someone’s life, you can’t help feeling like a voyeur at times. Others are longer, building up to… well, sometimes there is a climax, but often the stories are not crescendo all the way. Something seems to be about to happen, and then something far less dramatic happens, and life is just that one shade clearer or foggier, heavier or lighter. But nothing has really changed, you always knew it was going to be this way.

Matsuda Aoko: Where the Wild Ladies Are, transl. Polly Barton

I read this one for the online reading group of literature in translation, organised by Peirene and other independent publishers. Unfortunately, I lost the connection after the first 20 minutes or so and was unable to log back on, but I did enjoy hearing the translator Polly Barton and the publisher Tilted Axis talk about what attracted them to these stories.

Ghost stories are very popular in Japan – I’ve recently reread and reviewed Ugetsu Monogatari – and I certainly spotted that ‘story within a story’ narrative framework in some of the stories in this collection, as well as rakugo, Kabuki and other folktales used as inspiration. But the author does a brilliant job of turning those traditional stories on their head. In Japanese tradition, the vengeful spirit is nearly always a woman (who has been severely wronged, admittedly, but nevertheless seems vengeful beyond any reason). In Matsuda’s stories, the women are free agents, surprising, mainge unexpected choices or comments. The stories are set in the present-day, with modern, often eccentric flourishes, and they often end on an inconclusive note.

They have been hailed as ‘feminist retelling’ of folk tales, but the feminism is often subtle rather than screaming out loudly. The stories have all the joyful creativity, wilful darkness and inventiveness of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber or Anne Sexton herself in her little-known retellings of Grimm’s fairytales Transformations.

 

 

 

Quais du Polar 3 #QDP2020: Five Years of Loyalty

Today I was going to read and review a third book by an author I met at Quais du Polar, but I simply ran out of time. The author was Craig Johnson, and the book is one in his popular Longmire series (and features a dinosaur, which made it absolutely irresistible). In 2016, Craig Johnson was also part of what some people called the ‘dream panel’, also including Sara Gran, Arnaldur Indridason, Jo Nesbo and Deon Meyer, as well as a French author who was only just starting out back then, Olivier Norek.

So instead I will link back to some of my favourite write-ups about this event from other years.

I first went to the Quais du Polar in 2013 together with my family. And, while they did the murder mystery treasure hunt all over the city and gorged on the food at the Bocuse brasseries, I instantly fell in love with the festival atmosphere, the beautiful venues, the authors and the bookshops. That first year I was quite restrained in my purchases and spoke mainly to French authors – and to the lovely chronicler of Greek society Petros Markaris. This was also the year that I got to see the wonderful late P.D. James, who was presented with the Medal of Honour of the City of Lyon, I got to interview David Khara and Sylvie Granotier, and I reported on the whole event for Crime Fiction Lover.

In 2014 I was much bolder about chatting to authors such as George Pelecanos and Lauren Beukes, heard Anne Landois talk about Engrenages and met fellow bloggers, and got to know many new to me authors. Incidentally, I found most authors very sweet and friendly, even when they are severely beset by fans. The only one who disappointed me in real life was Jo Nesbo.

2015 was a fantastic year – I met Emma for the first time at Quais du Polar (we then attended it together twice more) and I had my portrait drawn by Max Cabanes.  The panels (and perhaps I myself) got more political and my niece, who was studying in Annecy at the time, joined me for the festival, we stayed at a superb little boutique hotel on the Quais, ate at all the boucherons we could find and went to a crime festival ball.

2016 was tinged with sadness, for I knew that I would be leaving France soon and that it might be my last Quais du Polar, so I bought a LOT of books, my biggest haul ever. I got to meet some strong, bubbly, fun-loving women writers that year (and one whose book I did not like – and who seemed to live up to the expectations I had of her after reading her book).

Luckily, although I had returned to the UK by the time Quais du Polar 2017 rolled along, I found that it was still cheaper flying there and staying at a hotel than going to Harrogate. I got to meet Romanian author and publisher Bogdan Hrib there (who has now become my business partner) and heard Bogdan Teodorescu talk about his novel Sword (Spada), which had just been translated into French. I got to watch the first episode of Spiral (Engrenages) Series 6 before its release and see the actors in the flesh (they look much more glamorous in real life). Plus I attended panels on German crime fiction and got to meet and hear Ron Rash (whose novel Serena I will be reading and reviewing shortly).

After five years of faithful attendance, I had to stop going there for financial and other reasons. But I make the firm promise right here and now: next year, by hook or by crook, I’ll be there!

 

Quais du Polar 2 #QDP2020: Ayerdhal – Transparences

I attended Quais du Polar in Lyon in 2016, which was my last year in France. I knew I was going to miss both the festival and the French authors, so I asked one of the booksellers at the festival for a book recommendation. I wanted a book set in Lyon but one that was not too twee, not too much of a ‘cosy crime with lots of recipes’ (although I love that city’s gastronomic culture). They recommended this thriller by an author I’d never heard of, born and bred in Lyon, who had died all too prematurely in 2015.

I later found out that Yal Ayerdhal (born Marc Soulier, but commonly known by the surname of his pseudonym alone) was predominantly a science fiction writer, winner of multiple literary prizes, as well as an eloquent activist for protection of authors’ rights. Transparences was published in 2004 and was the author’s first incursion into thriller territory, although there are some sci-fi elements to it which purists may find disturbing. The action starts off in Lyon (with its Interpol headquarters), but the murders are on a global scale and soon we are traipsing off to the south of France, the US, to Greece, Canada and so on. 

Stephen Ballanger is a criminal profiler working for Interpol in Lyon, originally from Quebec (and therefore perfectly bilingual, which is an important plot point). He becomes obsessed with the case of Ann X, a young girl who was abused by her parents (and their best friends) and murdered all four of them at the age of twelve. She was put in a psychiatric institution but eventually killed someone there and tried to escape across the border. Although over the course of 12-13 years she seems to have engaged in a veritable murder spree (mostly people who tried to sexually abuse her or curtail her freedom in any way), nobody has been able to catch her… or indeed, even remember what she looked like. Details of her name or personal history have been redacted from her case file. Stephen’s collaborators believe she may have been recruited as a professional assassin by various spy agencies, but she also seems to be acting on her own.

So, just like in the Deon Meyer book I reviewed yesterday, we have a case of international spying and assassination, but this time we have a young, attractive female serial killer and a dysfunctional international team attempting to catch her (and none of the members of the team seem to trust each other, unlike Benny’s team). The sci-fi element of this book is that Ann X seems to be ‘perfectly transparent’, i.e. merge into the background, which means no one really knows what she looks like. Of course, she is a mistress of disguises, changing her hair and eye colour, her clothes and posture at will. But it seems that even CCTV and cameras are unable to capture her – and that seems far less plausible.

The book displays signs of what generally irks me about spy thrillers – the repetition. One killing after another, one chase after another, one near miss and then another. It’s only the location or the weapon that changes. I’m also not a great fan of complicated conspiracy theories, which seem to assume that governments and intelligence agencies are really competent. Yet there are some redeeming features, for example, the psychological manipulation between Stephen and Ann X towards the end of the book. Overall though, the book feels like it took on a theme that was a little too ambitious and didn’t quite do it justice. 

Emma and I are blogging every day that this year’s Quais du Polar (our favourite crime festival) was due to take place, 3-5 April. Join us if you like! Emma’s billet for today also is Lyon specific – have a read here.

Quais du Polar 1 #QDP2020: Deon Meyer’s Cobra, transl. K. L. Seegers

I’ve seen Deon Meyer at Quais du Polar a couple of times and he is a larger than life teddy bear of a man, so it’s quite surprising to see how hard-hitting and suspenseful his thrillers are. He once said that he regretted making his detective Benny Griessel an alcoholic loner, as he sometimes felt trapped by this portrayal. However, in this book, first published in English in 2014, Benny works very closely with his whole team, ‘a splendid representation of the Rainbow Nation’, as one of the characters remarks at one point. And he is almost completely happy with the new love of his life, singer/songwriter Alexa. That’s probably as good as it gets.

But not for long. Benny and his team soon get into hot water and have to use subterfuge to conduct their investigations. A British citizen goes missing from a top secret, luxury guesthouse on a wine farm not far from Cape Town. His bodyguards are shot dead. But was Paul Morris an innocent victim: his passport is brand new, as are his suitcase and clothes. The shell casings at the murder scene have a spitting cobra engraved on them – could that be the sign of an elite international assassin? And why are so many foreign intelligence agencies interested in this possible kidnapping?

At the lower end of the crime spectrum, Tyrone is a young pickpocket who is trying to fund his younger sister’s medical studies. It’s a typical case of the wrong place (or picking the wrong pocket) at the wrong time and soon Tyrone finds himself on the run, fearing for his sister’s life. The story culminates in a nerve-wracking chase on the metrorail between Cape Town and Bellville.

What I really like about Deon Meyer’s books is that they are always exciting, not at all preachy, but all the while providing an ample picture of life in post-apartheid South Africa, warts and all. Among all the breathless action, Benny is given to meditating about the place of law and order in society, and his own career in the police force during a time of tumultuous changes

…when you worked at Murder & Robbery, your role was spelled with a capital letter. What you did mattered. Part of his smugness was because he had started to run with the big dogs then. The living legends, the guys whose investigations, breakthroughs, interrogation techniques, and witticisms were passed on in seminars, tearooms and bars, with an awed shake of the head… But the longer he worked with them… the more he realised they had feet of clay.

It was a depressing process. He had tried to fight against it, rationalise it and suppress it. Later he realised that it was partly out of fear of the greater, inevitable disillusionment: if they were fallible, so was he. And so was the system.

Deon Meyer writes in Afrikaans (although he speaks English fluently) and the translation has a lot of Afrikaans expressions, including Cape Flats vernacular. So much so that there is a glossary at the back. (Fortunately, if you speak English and German – or Dutch, many of the expressions will sound familiar and you can deduce them from the context)

March 2020 Summary

Miserable. That’s it. The one word summary.

In fact, I should be grateful, because for me it hasn’t been too bad. I am not one of the brave and dedicated frontline key workers that I so much admire and whom we all depend on for what semblance of a normal life we still have: medical staff, pharmacists, supermarket workers, delivery drivers, public transport, utilities providers and of course teachers.

All I had to worry about, for the three weeks until the actual lockdown was my children still going to school (one of them on the train), and me bringing the disease back into the house, with my commute to London and having my office in a very public building which only closed down on the 20th of March. Of course, I also worry about my parents right at the other end of Europe, stuck in the capital city rather than in their house in the countryside (on the other hand, the hospitals are closer and better equipped in Bucharest), both with underlying health conditions and both approaching 80 very soon. Like any recently divorced parent with a very acrimonious financial settlement that is still hugely resented by the ex, I do worry about the possible practical consequences of me falling seriously ill. I may need to get in touch with a solicitor friend of mine and make a will.

Other than that: I’m used to food shortages, to curtailment of liberties, to being essentially under house arrest… it brings back memories of my childhood. Not fond ones, no: I have no ‘stiff upper lip and carry on’ nostalgia. But I know that we survived those times (some less gloriously than others), so I’m hopeful we can survive this. My boys are fortunately old enough to keep themselves occupied whether the school assigns a lot of work or not. We have adopted a new feline member of the family, sweet, elderly Barney, and we are busy trying to get our ‘only child’ Zoe to accept him.

However, my reading and writing have both dwindled considerably. Not only because I am extremely busy with work during the week and feel exhausted all the time. Not only because of the bouts of insomnia which continue to plague me (and probably everybody else at the moment). Almost certainly because I am scrolling helplessly and fruitlessly on my phone for far too long, but also because I find it difficult to concentrate on anything for longer than half an hour. Add to that the fact that WordPress has decided now is the right time to make changes to their writing and formatting of blog posts and a general sense of feeling ‘what’s the point’, and you can understand why I’ve not even updated my blog regularly.

If I look back at March, however, there have been some lovely moments which seem to be as far away now as if we were seeing them through the wrong end of a telescope. On the 1st of March, I was fortunate enough to see the kimono exhibition at the V&A and on the 11th of March the exhibition on the portrayal of pregnancy in art at the Foundling Museum. I also attended an immersive adaptation of The Time Machine on the beautiful premises of the London Library and reviewed the show just a week or so before it shut down. I’d probably have delayed going to see all of these if I hadn’t been jolted by others. Moral of the story: never put off things you enjoy doing because you ‘don’t have time right now’.

The London Book Fair was cancelled, but I had a meeting on the 11th with my fellow Corylus Books founders and we discussed plans for publishing and promoting books this year and the next. It is possibly the worst time to launch a new publishing house and bring out books in translation by authors that nobody has heard of (yet). We also have problems with the actual printing and distribution of physical copies. So, much as I hate having to link to Amazon, this is the only way to find the two books we already have out now. Perhaps later in the year we will be able to attend all those crime festivals and organise all those book launches that we had planned.

Zodiac by Anamaria Ionescu
Living Candles by Teodora Matei

 

Last but not least, I did read eleven books, and most of them have been of the lighter, more escapist variety, with quite a bit of armchair travelling.

Crime fiction:

Will Dean: Black River Tuva Moodyson is back in forlorn Gavrik in the north of Sweden at the height of Midsommar madness to try and find her missing friend. With a full cast of dodgy characters, including snakes, the author proves that the Swedish forests can be creepy regardless of the season.

Graeme Macrae Burnet: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau Set in a sleepy provincial town on the Franco-Swiss border, not far from Strasbourg, this too is a creepy tale of loners, outsiders and personal obsessions.

David Young: Stasi 77 A series that I’ve really enjoyed, but somehow missed reading this particular book. The links to the end of the Second World War and hidden Nazis operating within the East German state were particularly harrowing (and historically accurate, although I wasn’t previously aware of it). Perhaps my favourite of the series thus far.

Murder in Midsummer  A collection of stories set in holiday locations (not always in summer, despite the title). Mostly famous authors, with lesser known stories. As always with such a collection, some of the stories are better than others, but overall a fun book to dip into.

Rebecca Bradley: A Deeper Song  DI Hannah Roberts is back with a bang and a sharp squeal of the brakes. Preoccupied by family problems, she nearly runs over a young man who darts out in front of her car. He is covered in someone else’s blood but cannot tell them anything, as the accident has provoked a temporary (?) amnesia. Soon Hannah herself is in danger and her team need to gather all of their wits and collaborative skills to find her.

Margot Kinberg: A Matter of Motive  A start of a new series by American author Margot Kinberg, featuring rookie murder investigator Patricia Stanley. A man is slumped over the steering wheel of his car, apparently the victim of a heart attack. Or was it? Both family and co-workers seem to have plenty of things to hide, although they keep emphasising what a nice guy Ron Clemons was.

Other:

Debbie Harry: Face It  She does not mince her words, does she? The beautiful, rebellious, cool as anything singer reveals as much as she damn well pleases in this memoir, including her vulnerabilities. Still an icon.

Malorie Blackman: Knife Edge  Second book in the Noughts and Crosses series, which I read to coincide with the TV adaptation. Such an interesting concept, although I did find the writing aimed at a younger audience than me.

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust  I was smitten with the original trilogy but only got a chance to read this prequel now. An exciting story, even if we know the final outcome (that baby Lyra did end up safely at Jordan College). Above all, I like the rich descriptive, yet never dull style, which offers something for both adults and younger readers.

Tiffany Tsao: The Majesties  The story of a rich Indonesian family of Chinese descent, with a mass murder from the outset and a smidgen of science-fiction added into the mix. A wonderful book – about families, the lies we tell each other and tell ourselves, the differences between perceptions of the Chinese in the east and in the west… and about insects.

David Foenkinos: The Mystery of Henri Pick  An unexpectedly light and humorous offering by Foenkinos, satirizing the pretentiousness of the Parisian literary society. Could a pizza maker who never was seen reading a book truly have written an almost perfect novel? Erudite, charming, delightful.

Meanwhile, if you find my reading concentration anywhere, do let me know, won’t you? As you can see, I have a whole pile of books planned for April!

 

 

 

Making Up for a Lost Crime Festival #QDP2020

The Quais du Polar in Lyon was the highlight of my year back when I was living in France (and even afterwards). However, everything is different this year and of course it been cancelled, as have so many other excellent literary festivals. So Emma and I, who spent many a pleasant moment there together, have decided to post a crime fiction review on each day when the festival would have taken place – the 3rd, 4th and 5th of April 2020.

We aim to include either books by authors who would have been present at the current edition of the festival or else books that we bought – and got signed – at that festival (you may remember I splurged quite a lot back in those days).

It would be lovely if you decided to join us reading and reviewing crime fiction books by authors with links to Quais du Polar on those days. A virtual celebration of the wonderful city of Lyon, its rich cultural and gastronomic heritage. You can find a full list of authors (in English) who’ve attended the festival in the past on this page. And you can even listen to recordings of panels from previous years.

#6Degrees of Separation: From Wolfe Island…

Spring is in the air and another opportunity to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Of course, it does help if you know the starting book, but once again this month I do not! The book is Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar and the blurb states: For years Kitty Hawke has lived alone on Wolfe Island, witness to the island’s erosion and clinging to the ghosts of her past. Her work as a sculptor and her wolfdog Girl are enough. News of mainland turmoil is as distant as myth until refugees from that world arrive: her granddaughter Cat, and Luis and Alejandra, a brother and sister escaping persecution. When threats from the mainland draw closer, they are forced to flee for their lives. They travel north through winter, a journey during which Kitty must decide what she will do to protect the people she loves.

I want to move away from end-of-the-world narratives, as they feel a bit too topical at the moment. So instead I will focus on the fact that Lucy Treloar is an Australian writer. I have to admit I only very seldom get to read writers from Australia, especially women writers. One Australian author I particularly admire (although she travelled so much, she must surely have considered herself a global nomad author) is Shirley Hazzard. One book of hers I always, always recommend is the collection of linked short stories People in Glass Houses, which is a brilliant satire of the United Nations in particular (but really of all international organisations).

There are far too few good novels about office life, especially considering we spend so much of our time there. Perhaps publishers assume we all seek escapism rather than to be reminded of our deadly everyday? Another book about office life which I greatly enjoyed is Jonas Karlsson’s The Room, translated by Neil Smith. A narrator who evades all description and manages to find that secret escape room that I’m sure we’ve all longed for at the office at times. When I read it five years ago, I said: Very sharp, painfully funny but also ouch-harsh observations of office politics and recognisable office characters. Plus the lovely corporate jargon we all love to espouse at times. A short, unusual book which tests our own capacity for tolerance and imagination.

Turns out, there are a lot of novels with ‘room’ in their title, so I will opt for quite a well-known one next, one that I would like to re-read, as I was in my late teens or early 20s when I read it. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is a classic of gay literature, a story evoking all the giddiness of falling in love, but ultimately all the sadness and suffering of a failed love.

The book is set in Paris, so of course I couldn’t resist picking another novel set in Paris for my next link. I saw it recently on the library shelves at university and was very tempted to pick it up for a re-read. Zola’s The Masterpiece is the tragic story of Claude Lantier, an ambitious and talented young artist who has come from the provinces to conquer Paris but is conquered instead by the flaws of his own genius. Another young man seduced but ultimately undone by the bright lights of Paris!

One book about art and artists that I was obsessed with in my childhood, so much so that I took it with me on a family trip to Florence and insisted that we walk through the streets as described in its pages, was Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, a fictional biography of Michelangelo. I don’t know if it’s well regarded nowadays, or if it’s perceived as somewhat dated, but at the time I loved the descriptions of Florence and Rome, but above all, how the author managed to enter Michelangelo’s mind (via his notebooks, if I am not mistaken) and described the creative process.

My final link is via the word ‘ecstasy’ to a book that was part of my anthropological training. Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy was written in the 1950s but remains one of the key texts in the anthropology of religion. Needless to say, I’ve always been fascinated by this strange phenomenon of the Shaman, both healer and threat, revered and feared, the madman and the poet who does not subscribe to society’s rules.

So this month we have travelled from Australia to the United States to Sweden and Paris, to Florence and, in the last book, from Siberia to South America to Tibet and China and pretty much everywhere in-between. I’ve also noticed that I’ve mentioned mainly male authors this month, so will endeavour to change the proportion next month. Where will your six links take you?