Holiday Reading and Women in Translation

Instead of my July round-up, this is more of a July and August holiday reading list. Since August is WIT month, I decided to take it one step further and focus predominantly on women writers for both months. So here are the plans and what I’ve read to date (marked with a bold R at the start of the line). Completely gratuitous holiday pictures from previous years included, just to put myself in the mood. Please don’t mention how far behind I am with the reviews…

Fake beach at Vevey.
Fake beach at Vevey.

Crime fiction:

Kati Hiekkapelto: The Defenceless (Interview with the author and review to come on Crime Fiction Lover)

Fred Vargas: Temps glaciaires – was snatched away from my loving arms by another reader who had requested it at the library (I was overdue, to be fair, should have started reading it earlier), but I’ll try to find it again

Karin Fossum: The Drowned Boy

Ancient plane tree in Crete.
Ancient plane tree in Crete.

Other fiction:

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd

Alice Quinn: Queen of Trailer Park

Therese Bohman: Drowned

Judith Schalansky: The Giraffe’s Neck

Virginie Despentes: Apocalypse Baby

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver

Renate Dorrestein: The Darkness that Divides Us

To complete this diet of women in translation, I’m also adding this category:

Nikki de Saint Phalle sculpture, Paris
Nikki de Saint Phalle sculpture, Paris

English-speaking Women Writers

Sophie Hannah: A Game for all the Family

Lucy Atkins: The Other Child

Denise Mina: Blood Salt Water

Sarah Ward: In Bitter Chill

Rosamond Lehmann: The Echoing Grove

Anya Lipska: A Devil Under the Skin

Men Who Snuck in There:

Reread: F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender Is the Night

Emmanuel Carrere: L’Adversaire

Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts

Botanical Garden, Geneva
Botanical Garden, Geneva

I abandoned the book about Isadora Duncan, as it was flitting about too much from scene to scene, country to country, without a coherent structure or mood.


Just to do a brief round-up: I read 14 books, of which only 3 by men, abandoned one. Half of them were in translation or in a different language.

In case you are wondering, my two crime fiction picks for the month of July are: Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill and Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless. For Overall Book of the Month, I’ve read so many good books this month, it is really hard to choose a favourite. One that whacked me on the head and took me for a ride, leaving me slightly breathless and laughing with exhilaration: Apocalypse Baby. But the one that has stayed with me, slightly haunting my dreams, is Valeria Luiselli.

View from Montmartre, Paris.

After the holiday, I need to focus on getting my Netgalley request shelf in manageable order. I am back up to 31 books now and soooo out of date (not that I care, but the publishers probably do!). Here are some that really tempt me for September:

Simon Unsworth: The Devil’s Detective

Richard Beard: Acts of the Assassins

David Lagercrantz: Fall of Man in Wilmslow

Johan Theorin: The Voices Behind

Don Winslow: The Cartel

Malcolm Mackay: The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter

What do you think, too much testosterone after two months of predominantly female authors or a necessary redressing of the balance?

Friday Fun: Writer’s Rooms

So busy writing at the moment, that all I can think about are the most comfortable writing rooms or sheds possible, anything that will add to your ability to stick that bum on the chair and keep those fingers or pens moving (or that brain thinking).

First up, two American beauties:

Siri Hustvedt's desk, from The Guardian.
Siri Hustvedt’s desk, from The Guardian.
Laura Silverman's writing terrace, from An Afternoon With.
Laura Silverman’s writing terrace, from An Afternoon With.

The British contingent prefers history and a lived-in look:

Ian Rankin's study, from The Guardian.
Ian Rankin’s study, from The Guardian. I like the handcuffs!

You can keep any mess far away from the house, of course, with a shed. Luxury version first.

HIgh spec garden shed, from Garden Room Studio.
HIgh spec garden shed, from Garden Room Studio.

And the version that might actually fit into your garden:

More modest version, also from Garden Room Studio.
More modest version, also from Garden Room Studio.

And, finally, below is one that I came across on a walk through the forest yesterday. Adorable caravan conversion, wouldn’t you agree?


For more peeks into writers’ rooms, I can recommend the website I try not to indulge too frequently, but writers I’ve ‘stalked’ there include: Joanne Harris, Jenny Eclaire, Val McDermid, Clare Mackintosh, Jodi Picault, Linwood Barclay, Mark Billingham and – yes – Ian Rankin again.



The Style of Emily Dickinson

Our lives are Swiss, so still, so cool –
Nothing ever happens –
‘Till Sun sets on our Afternoon,
And tree too far from apple.

‘Till frosts return to broken bones
We do not stop to wonder.
In heat of midday, flowered gaze,
We hear no Sign of Thunder.

This is my sad, sad attempt to channel Emily Dickinson and use the common meter and some of her other stylistic quirks in response to the dVerse Poets prompt tonight. The first line (the only good one here) is indeed from one of her poems, which you can read here. I think this proves that trying to imitate poets you admire is not the sincerest form of flattery but – in my case, at least – sheer insanity!

Reading with a Theme: Loyalty Between Sisters

Serendipity is a wondrous thing. I had no intention of reading about adultery and love triangles involving two sisters, but I somehow ended up with two books on the topic and a TV adaptation of the life and loves of the Bloomsbury Group.


Rosamond Lehmann: The Echoing Grove

Rosamond Lehmann in her youth, from the Frances Partridge archive, The Guardian.
Rosamond Lehmann in her youth, from the Frances Partridge archive, The Guardian.

Rosamond herself was linked to the Bloomsbury Group, part of the younger generation gravitating around it. Her brother John managed the Woolf’s Hogarth Press for many years, Virginia Woolf rather admired her books and invited her to dinner, so it’s not surprising that she later published a photographic memoir of many of her illustrious friends (including Cecil Day-Lewis. This is what Woolf has to say about Lehmann’s second novel A Note in Music

I am reading Lehmann with some interest and admiration – she has a clear, hard mind, beating up now and again into poetry… She has all the gifts that I lack: can give story & development & character & so on.

This book was originally published in 1953 and is most likely based on the unhappy love triangle with the married poet Cecil Day Lewis (who then left both Rosamond and his wife for the actress Jill Balcon who became his second wife – and continued to have many other affairs). Even more tragically, Lehmann lost her own daughter in 1958 (after this novel was published), so this brings an added poignancy to the description of the grief at the death of a child within its pages.

echoinggroveIt is the story of two sisters, Madeleine and Dinah, who love the same man, Rickie Masters (talk about a heavy metaphorical surname!) Madeleine is married to him, Dinah was his lover for a time.

It is not an easy book to read, not just because of the strong emotions evoked (with illnesses, threats, suicide attempts and melodrama galore), but because of the shifting timeframes. Such a contrast to the timelines alternating so neatly nowadays, marked with dates to avoid any possible confusion to the reader!

This novel moves from one POV to another, one moment in time to another with no qualms and no apologies. Yes, it does get confusing at times and I had to keep turning back to see what had been referenced earlier and when it took place.  But after a while I just surrendered myself to the cascade of destructive emotions and guilt trips. It’s a deliberate device, mirroring the jumble of memories and feelings we carry with us at all times, but it also gives us a fully rounded picture of a love triangle (or more than a triangle at times). We see each character through the eyes of everyone else and therefore end up condemning no one. This is a story that leaves no one happy or unscarred and where no one is an out-and-out scoundrel, merely weak.

However, it’s also a very English tale of passion, so we see very little of the drama happening in ‘real time’ or ‘onstage’. Most often, it is being recounted by the characters in (often endless) conversations. An interesting choice, which brings a running commentary to each of the events. The conversations themselves are more like monologues – telling the reader so much, but not really helping the characters to communicate. There’s a deadening of the soul at work there, which comes both as a relief and a regret.

For an excellent additional review of the book, see here.

drownedTherese Bohman: Drowned (transl. by Marlaine Delargy)

By contrast, this book set in rural Sweden, and has a very clear timeline: summer and late autumn, before and after a tragic event. The storyline is so simple, the reader may feel like it’s been done before, but it’s all about the telling.

Marina is spending the summer with her sister Stella, who lives with her older partner, successful writer Gabriel, in a romantic ramshackle old house in rural Sweden. Marina is entranced by the surroundings and falls for the charms of the charismatic but unpredictable Gabriel. This has predictably dire consequences, but the full extent is only gradually revealed.

The language is lush, as are the descriptions of landscapes and plants and of the old house they all live in. It all creates a dream-like atmosphere, almost soporific, which is perhaps what both Stella and Marina are doing – curiously passive, lulling themselves to sleep, deliberately closing their eyes to what they don’t want to see.

Those expecting a suspense novel or pyschological thriller will be disappointed at the slow pace and lengthy descriptions, but it is really all about close observation, pathetic fallacy (allowing nature and the weather to mirror our emotions) and the spaces between words. And if you want likeable characters, be warned that this is about the innate selfishness of all humans.

Virginia Woolf and Clive Bell on the beach in 1909, from
Virginia Woolf and Clive Bell on the beach in 1909, from

Life in Squares’ 3 part TV series on BBC 2

After the birth of Vanessa and Clive Bell’s first son, it is true that there was a flirtation between Virginia Wool and her brother-in-law. It was more prolonged and hurtful to all concerned than we were shown in the TV mini-series, but it began out of love towards Nessa. Both Virginia and Clive felt neglected by their beloved Nessa, who was one of those radiant and devoted Earth Mothers. Their flirtation was initially designed to get her attention back, but Virginia also felt flattered by Clive’s interest in her writing. As for Clive, he clearly wanted to take it further physically, but Virginia was never too keen. Their Bloomsbury friends disapproved of this turn of events – free love was all very fine, but some things went just too far. And it changed the relationship between the two sisters forever. But the great power of ‘Bloomsbury’ was that all could be forgiven, if not forgotten, that most things could be discussed (‘to death’ even) and that their friendship endured through affairs, marriages, deaths and heartbreak.

I can understand in a way what attracts men to the sisters of the women they have married. They seemingly offer them a second chance at happiness. They bear enough resemblance to their wives that it reminds them of those traits once considered lovable, but they are different enough that it makes the men feel that with that new person they could be happy, they could be understood, they could be their best version of themselves.

What attracts the sisters to these husbands is unfathomable to me, as I have no sister myself and know nothing of sibling rivalry. However, I can imagine that the betrayal by your sister (your flesh and blood) must feel even worse than being betrayed by a partner (essentially, a stranger, no matter how much-loved).

Stop waxing the stairs with the bird on the pillar!

Rooted and resigned
waiting at bus-stops
she flies off the handle
like a bird in a stairwell
a pillar of deepest longing
amidst tidy smell of wax.
Bird trapped in rust-cage
wax coating beak and wings
he comes to a glottal stop
watching her turn to pillar of salt.

This was written in response to a prompt after drawing five random words out of a hat. My words were: wax, bird, pillar, stairs, stop. The resulting poem fits in well with the books I am currently reading about love triangles: Therese Bohman’s ‘Drowned’ (for WIT Month) and Rosamond Lehmann’s ‘The Echoing Grove’.

Quick-Fire Reviews: Crime Fiction

I was planning longer reviews for each of these books, but the risk is that the longer I leave it, the less I’ll be in the mood for reviewing them, or the more I’ll have forgotten the first impressions.

So here are some quick-fire reviews of recently read crime novels. Two are by authors I’ve already read and admired, so I know what I’m getting. The remaining two are debut authors. And when I say ‘quick-fire’, it still has somehow added up to a very long post, so I apologise in advance.

BloodSaltDenise Mina: Blood, Salt, Water

A woman suspected by the police of major drug-smuggling and money laundering disappears. Has that got anything to do with the death of a woman, something confused criminal Iain Fraser is struggling with? And why is a middle-aged former Scout leader, Miss Grierson, back in town? Alex Morrow and her team struggle to make sense of all these disparate elements, as do the readers.

I’m a big Denise Mina fan – she always captures a particular Scottish setting impeccably. This time it’s a smaller town and a posh golf course gated environment, as well as the gritty streets of Glasgow. But this is perhaps not the most memorable one in the series: some of the motivations seem a little forced to me. Still, Mina’s ‘good/OK’ is a notch above most other writers, so I’d still recommend this book.There were some characters who had the potential to become interesting but were not given quite enough room to develop. I also missed hearing more about Alex Morrow’s family life  – while I don’t like it to overwhelm the plot, it was just noticeable in its complete absence.

OtherChildLucy Atkins: The Other Child

Tess, single mother to nine-year-old Joe, falls in love with American pediatric surgeon Greg and gets pregnant. When he is offered the job of a lifetime back on the East Coast of the US, they marry and relocate.  But life in an affluent American suburb proves anything but straightforward. Unsettling things keep happening in the large rented house, Joe is distressed, the next-door neighbours are in crisis, and Tess is sure that someone is watching her. Greg’s work is all-consuming and, as the baby’s birth looms, he grows more and more unreachable. Something is very wrong.

Confession: I read this one mostly because of the ‘moving to the US as a trailing spouse’ storyline. I just love those fish out of water suffering culture shock stories! I read this book very quickly, as it had plenty of mystery and some interesting characters to engage me. It does feel slightly déjà vu – the marriage that you jump in all too quickly, the man with secrets, the suspicions and gradual unravelling of relationships, the ‘who can be trusted, who’s telling the truth’ scenario are all well trodden ground. This book certainly won’t stay with me for a very long time. But the author has a fresh, engaging style, it’s got a nice sense of menace to it without getting too gory, it’s an entertaining beach read.

GranotierbookSylvie Granotier: Personne n’en saura rien (No One Will Know a Thing)

Isabelle is the latest in a series of kidnappings and rapes of young girls from the beaches of Normandy. Except that, unlike the other victims, she does not end up dead. Instead, she is taking her aggressor to court on the count of rape. The accused, Jean Chardin, certainly seems to fit the profile of a rapist, but, as we find out more about the background of each of the people involved, we begin to wonder just what revenge Isabelle is planning.

For those who don’t like serial killer tropes or graphic descriptions of women suffering, rest assured there is not much of that here. Instead, it’s a thrilling and psychologically subtle read. Effortlessly moving between points of view and timelines, the author makes us question ourselves about the nature of justice, the ways in which we justify our own behaviour, and the role of families. This hasn’t been translated into English yet, but Le French Book has translated one of Granotier’s other novels, The Paris Lawyer.

BitterChillSarah Ward: In Bitter Chill

The Peak District as winter approaches is a chilling place, especially when a thirty-year-old crime is reopened following a suicide apparently related to it. Back in 1978 two young schoolgirls were abducted by a woman driving a car. One of them, Rachel, made it back home later that day, but could remember little of what had happened. The other girl, Sophie, was never found. It’s Sophie’s mother who has committed suicide in a hotel in the area. But why now, so many years after the event? Another death soon after also seems to be linked to the tragic event in 1978. Rachel and the police are equally committed to finding out the truth about events both past and present, uncovering some very dark secrets in the process.

This is a very promising debut indeed and just the kind of police procedural I enjoy: satisfying, logical, with interesting characters throughout (I especially liked Rachel’s grandma). The writing is of a consistently high quality and very precise, and the location is so well described I felt as if I was there (although I’ve never visited the area myself). But all this does not come at the detriment of the plot. Yes, I guessed part of the solution, but by no means all of the ramifications. I’m really glad that, although Ward intended this to be a standalone crime novel, she will write another novel featuring these detectives, as I got quite attached to ambitious Connie, about-to-get-married Palmer and their boss Sadler.

I’ve also read Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless (which will be reviewed shortly on Crime Fiction Lover), the cracking follow-up to The Hummingbird, and Sophie Hannah’s quirky, unexpected standalone psychological thriller A Game for All the Family.

The remaining four reviews (I hope to have more time to spend on them this coming week, but I’m also trying to write another 20,000 words on my novel, so guess where my priorities lie?) are for:

Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts – a surprisingly modern feel, very candid, not for the squeamish, heartbreaking and yet full of an urgent love of life.
Emmanuel Carrère: L’Adversaire – a fascinating study of evil and the power of deception, including self-deception – whether we believe evil exists in all of us, or whether we see some people as being born evil. Particularly heart-wrenching and disturbing since I know the places and some of the people involved.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender Is the Nightno longer quite the ultimate story of marital and individual breakdown that I believed it to be when I was 18 – Rosemary’s age – and fell in love with Dick Diver myself. Still an unsettling portrait of inner demons and dysfunctional families, but this time I particularly admired the locations and descriptions of the expat experience (yes, I have a one-track mind).

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd –  unlike other ‘vignette’ type novels, I really liked this one, although I don’t think it could be sustained over a much longer book. I liked it because it really is experimental, not just pretending to be so, and there is a warm, funny, fearless and erudite imagination at work there, blending fantasy, philosophy, literature and everyday experiences so well together.

Friday Fun: Villas with a View

It’s that silly time of the week. Especially when you’ve been writing all week in a heatwave with no air conditioning. So let’s escape to dreamier places.

Let me start off with a few from the area I currently live in. If you lived in a house like this, you would feel permanently on vacation, wouldn’t you?

Manor house near Montreux, from

And here’s the view from the terrace:



Here is a more modern house also on that side of the lake:

Wine cellar of a villa on Lake Geneva, from
Wine cellar of a villa on Lake Geneva, from

And the view outside:



You might remember I raved about those waterfall-type Amanzi villas in Phuket before?


Well, here’s the view towards the sea:


Finally, how could I not mention Greece, particularly the Cyclades islands? The interior is typically modest, white-washed stone.


But the view from the terrace…