Friday Fun: Bring the Outdoors In

It’s now officially autumn but I can’t quite hunker down, close the shutters and light the fire (that I don’t have). So let’s try to bring some nature and light indoors and maybe even go out on the terrace on a mild day.

Always love the French country-house style. From maisonsdecampagne.fr
Big windows and indoor plants, a lovely combination, from 9gag.com
Sitting under the grapevines – nothing more pleasant at this time of the year, from Town’n’Country Living.
Even if you’re on the first floor, you can still have the windows overlooking greenery, from homeadore.com
Comfy chairs for reading are always welcome, although I would have them facing the window (fewer interruptions), from NorthernCalStyle.com
French windows yet again, from ruemag.com

Bloody Scotland? Bloody Good!

It was my first time at the Bloody Scotland crime fiction festival, held in the beautiful ancient Scottish capital of Stirling, and what a festival it was, in its tenth anniversary year and its first full reincarnation since the start of the Covid pandemic. Thus far, I’ve attended literary festivals mostly as an avid reader, occasionally as a ‘correspondent’ for Crime Fiction Lover, but this time I was also there as a publisher, Corylus Books, since one of our Icelandic authors, Ă“skar GuĂ°mundsson, had been invited to join the panel Fair Cops and Foul.

But before I describe the panels I attended, including of course our ‘own’, I should describe two hugely embarrassing moments.

The first is that Oskar’s book The Commandments had not arrived (Waterstones is still experiencing supply problems with their changed software), so people had to make do with getting the bookmarks signed instead (and hopefully buying the book online afterwards). Lesson learnt: next time I will carry books to any event in my own suitcase, just to be sure, injured arm or no injured arm.

The second is that I had never met Oskar in person, so I only had his author photo to guide me. I ended up that first day approaching all the tall men with white hair and asking: ‘Are you Oskar?’ I must have become so notorious and obnoxious that when a group of people met Oskar in the bar later, they immediately said: ‘Ah, you’re the Oskar that woman kept looking for!’

This was the Oskar I was looking for – and someone brought their own copy of The Commandments from home to get it signed, so at least I saw ONE copy!

Filthy Rich: Jo Spain, Ellery Lloyd and Julie Mayhew

I came late to this panel on Friday, because of my missing book woes, so imagine my surprise when I walked in and I saw four people rather than the three that I was expecting and Steph Broadribb on the panel, whom I wasn’t expecting! I very nearly thought I had gone to the wrong event. It turns out that Steph was replacing Julie at the last minute, and that Ellery Lloyd is a husband and wife writing team. They didn’t talk that much about the rich and privileged (at least not the second half of the session, which was all I managed to catch), but I did get quite envious hearing about the way that the writing duo worked together, brainstorming plot points and each one writing one of the different POVs in the book.

Truth and Lies: Lisa Unger, Ruth Ware, Jane Casey

This was one of the best panels I’ve attended in recent memory, moderated in such a supportive and fun way by Jacky Collins of Dr Noir fame. The three authors clearly enjoyed each other’s work and built upon each other’s answers. A good discussion was had about strong heroines having to overcome the often peculiar challenges of the modern world: cyberstalkers, online dating, running away and creating a new identity etc. I enjoyed it all so much that I bought their books immediately afterwards and got them signed: clearly, I am the ideal target audience of such festivals.

Vaseem and Abir’s Red Hot Night of a Million Games

Mick Herron, Helen Fitzgerald and Luca Veste facing the barrage of questions from Vaseem Khan.

Vaseem Khan and Abir Mukherjee are not only very talented (and likeable and mischievous) writers and excellent podcasters, they clearly are destined to become spectacular gameshow hosts (out-Osmaning Richard Osman in reverse?). They somehow managed to persuade or coerce six crime writers to be on their quiz show. They were such good sports, miming, singing, acting, answering questions and occasionally simply collapsing in helpless giggles, as we all did in the audience.

Martyn Waites as Hannibal Lector, CL Taylor as a librarian and Elly Griffiths as (obviously!) Boris Johnson.

Cosy Makes a Comeback: Martin Edwards, Jonathan Whitelaw, SJ Bennett

Martin Edwards is not only a walking encyclopedia when it comes to Golden Age crime (he is also the consultant to the British Library Classic Crime series), but also a prolific crime writer himself, but he is not very keen on the term ‘cosy crime’. Ultimately, the subjects are all quite dark (murder, punishment, despair), and there is quite a bit of variety within the genre itself. Although the panel argued that cosy crime never really went away, it is currently experiencing even more of a boom, perhaps as a result of the beautiful British Library series, or the new attempts at cosy crime of Richard Osman, Rev Coles and others. In fact, Jonathan Whitelaw said he deliberately chose to write in this style with his Bingo Hall Detective, featuring a son-in-law and mother-in-law detecting duo, because of Osman’s success. Meanwhile, SJ Bennet, who writes a series featuring the Queen as an amateur detective, managed to escape the obvious question: will she continue writing this series now that the Queen is dead?

Moderated by the new MC Beaton, RW Green.

Fair Cops and Foul: Mari Hannah, Ă“skar GuĂ°mundsson and James Oswald

We missed the Scotland/England football match, sadly, but it was worth it for this thoughtful and entertaining panel, ably moderated by artist and journalist Frankie Burr. The trio talked about a sense of social justice and other common sensibilities in Scotland, Northern England and Scandinavia, about portraying strong, stubborn women in their fiction, and whether they feel like police apologists after some recent events.

But there is so much more to Bloody Scotland than just the panels – although I did feel that they were particularly well chosen and carefully put together (I have attended some fairly random ones at other crime festivals in the past). There is the football match (Scotland won 6-4 this year, and both sides the bruises to show for it the next day), the Torch Procession (which I didn’t catch this year, as it was on Thursday night), music and whisky love at the Curly Coo bar (some surprisingly talented musicians among the crime writers). And, of course, the beautiful setting of Stirling itself. Well worth spending a few extra days!

The view from the castle.

The St Rude Kirkyard from the other side of the castle.

Robert the Bruce statute in front of the castle. By way of contrast, the Rob Roy statue near the Albert Halls was awful – looked like he had a nasty skin condition.

Above all, I enjoyed meeting old friends and making new ones.

With Ayo Onatade of Shotsmag.

With Dr Noir Jacky Collins

With Marcia of Lizzy Siddal blog fame, who kindly took many of the pictures I have included here today.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that, unless you are a huge publisher who can spend massive amounts of marketing money, or a celebrity author, the only way to raise your profile within the crime fiction community is by word of mouth and by attending these kind of events and networking. You may well see me next at Capital Crime and Iceland Noir!

Friday Fun: Writing Retreats

I may be out and about hobnobbing with the crime writing community at Bloody Scotland this weekend, but it’s that time of year when I start to think about retiring to a cabin in the woods (or mountains or on the coast, I’m not fussy) and writing non-stop until spring. Easy enough to do with these gorgeous places!

Even better if it’s in a tropical climate, so you don’t need to worry about the heating. From Pinterest.
But there is something so irresistibly romantic about a snow-covered cabin, from cabindiary.com

This cabin in Tennessee looks suitable for year-round living, from PfefferTorode.com
You can rent these holiday cabins in Pennsylvania, from TerritorySupply.com
This one straddles a waterfall – wildly adventurous, but it would make me want to pee all the time! From designdecors.com

If you don’t like the idea of living in remote places, you can always build a cabin in your backyard – if it’s big enough. From Country Living.
This actually is a writer’s cabin, belonging to Canadian writer Ann Voskamp (from her blog)
This one in Alabama is less cabin, more like a miniature Versailles, from Onekindesign.com
Who needs to get away from home when your back garden has such an amazing view and shed (although I may not want to open the bar until I finish writing). From Onekindesign.com

Two German-Language Books About Womens’ Rage

Mareike Fallwickl: Die Wut, die bleibt (The Lasting Rage)

Anke Stelling: Schäfchen im Trockenen (Keeping Your Sheep Safe – translated as ‘Higher Ground’ by Lucy Jones, Scribe)

Back in 2014, I read Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs and encountered a woman’s raw, unfiltered anger for the first time. I loved it, although it divided readers and led to an upsurge in debate about ‘unlikeable’ characters (which seems to be even more of a no-no when it comes to female characters). There have been other books since which explore what might happen when women refuse to go along with the script handed to them, live up to people’s expectations, be meek, silent people-pleasers: Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. Generally, these women are condemned, viewed as unnatural, earn a bad reputation that lingers on for centuries (Medea, anyone?). No one likes a loud shriek of rage, too shrill, too hysterical, right?

Yet I can’t help but be fascinated by these books, where women are suddenly allowed to enact those fantasies of verbal (and in some cases physical) revenge that we daren’t let ourselves think about. I think I have a natural predisposition to be very gentle and kind, but I occasionally wonder if my tendency to be so forgiving is merely cowardice and conflict avoidance.

The two German-language novels I recently read both start with women being perceived as victims and then transform into women as avenging creatures (angels or demons? up to you to decide). Both Germany and Austria are more conservative when it comes to women’s place in society, so it is refreshing to see that this literary trend is making its way there too.

Austrian writer Fallwickl’s novel is set in Salzburg and at the very start, Helene, a mother overwhelmed by family demands during Covid lockdown, commits suicide by jumping from the balcony while the family is having dinner. Her best friend Sarah, a childless writer, used to slightly envy but mostly pity Helene, but she steps in to help out with the children, thereby making the widower’s life far too easy, as Helene’s teenage feminist daughter Lola keeps scolding her. Lola and her friend are assaulted by some boys at the skatepark and the two girls resolve to learn how to fight to protect themselves… and soon become part of a group who call themselves #WeAreKarma, taking revenge on the men who have wronged women. It’s an interesting glance at generational differences in interpretation of feminism, and how the desire for stability or family makes us compromise our most treasured principles and values as we grow older.

Unlike Lola, who seems more concerned with the wider social oppression of women, from domestic violence issues to abuse of minors, from body shaming to gender fluidity, Sarah is discovering how motherhood in a society where the political and domestic issues mirror each other, and that doesn’t offer much support for mothers, often spells the end of self-realisation:

‘You can’t imagine how bitter you can become about the father of your children… motherhood is a ship and at some point you realise that you are sitting in it all on your own. You are surrounded by dark currents, you have no oars, no compass.’

‘But who is steering the ship?’ asks Sarah.

‘You realise that only later,’ replies Helene, ‘It’s the men. The politicians, society. We mothers have no power. We have the entire burden, but no power.’

The moment of awakening, when Sarah chooses to replace the rhetoric of self-pity and doubts with a fighting spirit, comes when she is called into school because Lola pushed her PE teacher, who was insulting her and another classmate about their body weight. Sarah’s initial reaction is to apologise, to smooth things over, but suddenly the resentment that has been building up over the years spills out of her and she stands up for Lola, even threatens to create a scandal for the school.

When they were told back then that it wouldn’t hurt to give in, to apologise, to not kick up a fuss, to keep your head down, how did they know that it wouldn’t hurt? Maybe it did hurt them. Maybe it hurt them greatly.

German writer Stelling’s novel is set in Berlin, against the backdrop of the city’s increasingly problematic housing situation but has some similarities with Fallwickl’s story: an angry woman in her forties trying to explain things to a teenage daughter – except in Stelling’s case we don’t get to hear much of the daughter talking back and educating the mother.

Resi is an author, married to an artist; they have four children but not all that much disposable income, and are subletting from one of Resi’s old schoolfriends. However, Resi’s latest book took a swipe at her friends, for their bourgeois attitudes and love of material comforts, upon which she is served an eviction notice and, unsurprisingly, her friendships unravel. The novel is in fact the narrative she writes for her teenage daughter, reminiscing about the past, how she always felt less accepted by the group because of her social background. It is a howl of disappointment, self-justification and social critique, entertaining, relatable, but also quite revealing of a stubborn character with a chip on her shoulder, keen to emphasise her ‘higher moral ground’.

Just like in Fallwickl’s novel, we can understand the frustrations of the character up to a certain point, but we might question some of her choices or her interpretation of events. Resi recognises that she has fallen victim to society’s expectations of what a happy family should look like and what they should do, but she cannot help building up her expectations every weekend, and then being bitterly disappointed. The description of the Saturday breakfast is funny – but the laughter is painful, because so recognisable. Nobody wants to come to the table, nobody cares about the fresh pastries from the bakery, they sit silently and glumly, or complain about the food, or they make noises while eating.

I’ve fallen for the Weekend Lie again: the one that says it’s nice to have breakfast together on Saturday, when no one has to rush off anywhere, with fresh pastries and smiling faces, with Nutella and love and fruit…

The Weekend Lie is powerful indeed.

It operates on the basis of a ruthless causality: If I’m not sitting with you, it means I don’t like you.

It operates on the basis of simple contrasts: If it’s stressful during the week, the weekend will be blissful at last.

It operates with dogged obstinancy: reappears every five days, all year round, come sun, come rain.

Two interesting though problematic books, with flawed characters but relatable rants. I’ve seen some readers say that these women are speaking from a position of privilege and entitlement that they don’t even recognise – and it is true that compared to women in other parts of the world (or in other generations), their lives are not that hard. But they are, quite rightly, comparing themselves to others closer to them in their own society: rich or childless women, or simply men. Perhaps they also feel a sense of betrayal that earlier feminists told them that once they were working, earning their own money, once employment legislation stopped discriminating against them, they would have it all and be able to do it all. If only they would lean in more… Meanwhile, they’ve leaned in so far that they are toppling off balconies, yet structural problems in society and other people’s attitudes are still not changing enough.

Coincidentally, some of the themes also resonated with a film I’ve recently watched Everything Everywhere All at Once: what happens once women stop being overwhelmed victims or hankering after lost, often illusory possibilities? Can anger be used in constructive as well as destructive ways? I enjoyed the chaotic energy and genre mash-up of the film, as described by the title. This sense of overwhelm and general assault on the senses, thoughts, feelings, memories is what we are all perhaps feeling at the moment, although the film’s resolution was understandably (for we all desire some clarity and simplification) a little too pat. In real life, there are far too many people, including mothers, who never achieve any insight into themselves, and never have a fully-developed character arc. As for using rage constructively, well… we’ve seen how bad we humans tend to be at that.

Friday Fun: Hiding Places

It’s autumn, we are starting to get cosy indoors, so here are some lovely places to run and hide when the world gets too loud and noisy, so that we can get on with the important things in life, such as reading.

The classic under-the-stairs nook, from BookBub. This is where Zoe’s litter tray used to be, but once I clean it up, I might consider something like this (but darker, no windows)

Even cosier if you have a landing and more than one floor, from House Beautiful.

Just imagine having a round window to read by, from Homedit.com

Of course I’m a big fan of window-seats, especially when they are in a blue and white colour scheme, from House Beautiful.

A more rustic window seat, or should that be a window bed? From Good Housekeeping.

The chalet style – or the bed in Wuthering Heights? From HomeDesignLover.com

But if you mention chalet, I am already dreaming of winter landscapes and a burning stove, and this perfect chair for reading and snoozing. From HomeDesigning.com

Brimful of Zoe

It’s been a week since that last very sad day with Zoe, and I finally feel able to pay tribute to her and celebrate her short life by sharing a few anecdotes. I suspect many people will think this is too much grief for a pet (I probably felt the same way before having her), but she was much more than that to me. I apologise to those who read my Twitter thread, for I will be repeating many of the same things, but Twitter is transient and I wanted a slightly more permanent way to commemorate her uniqueness.

She was my first pet and I had to wait over 40 years to get her. I had always loved cats, but my parents refused to allow any pets in the house. I would wander forlornly in the vacant lots behind our house and feed stray cats there in secret. When my friends got me a kitten for my 18th birthday, they made me return her to the owners of the mother cat. Once I left my parents’ house, I was either too broke, or living in student accommodation/ private rentals, moving every 6-12 months, often in-between countries, to even contemplate getting a pet. Once I got married and had children, I kept being told by parents, in-laws and husband how unhealthy it would be for babies to grow up in a house with cat hair and excrement. Plus, I was travelling a lot for work, my husband made it clear he would not look after an animal in my absence, and moving abroad continued to happen.

In the conservatory.

She became my symbol of ‘breaking free’ and not caring what other people thought. In January 2014 we were living in France and I had just ended an extremely busy year of travelling for work. I was cutting back on my professional obligations, partly for my own sanity, partly to spend more time with the children, but most of all because my husband had issued an ultimatum that he couldn’t bear to take over the childcare and household responsibilities any longer (needless to say, I was still doing most of these whenever I was at home, and organising with other mums and after-school clubs for the rest of the time). I was also starting to feel very lonely, resentful and sad in my marriage, but my husband kept telling me there were no problems, no need to do any counselling, and I should just snap out of my totally unjustified depression.

I decided it was now or never to get a cat and visited the local shelter, where I saw a shy tabby trying to avoid all the other cats. The people at the shelter told me her sad backstory and it took me just a couple of days to complete all the paperwork and adopt her on the 4th of February. As soon as I brought her home, my husband (who had hitherto served his usual ‘you do as you please, dear’ response) started complaining (this was his typical MO). He claimed he was allergic to cat hair, but luckily he was incapable of going for a doctor’s appointment without me in tow to translate for him, so we soon debunked this. He never fed or stroked her, but the boys were by now old enough to help and they fell as much in love with her as I did. In fact, they immediately composed a lullaby for her, which they used to sing till she fell asleep (it didn’t take too long, she loved napping). It always seemed to calm her down (maybe she just loved hearing her name repeated a lot), so I sang this song to her a lot during her final few days.

For the past eight years, our Christmas pictures have always featured all three ‘children’.

She knew exactly when to come onto my lap. For the first six months or so, she was friendly but cautious and slightly aloof. She took a while to sit on the sofa, and always only on a little green blanket that we put there for her. She allowed herself to be stroked, but hated being picked up and never came onto our laps.

All this changed on a single day. In mid-July, we took the boys to the airport to fly as unaccompanied minors to their grandparents in Greece. We paid quite a high sum for this service (we had done it before with other airlines/airports and it had worked beautifully), only to find that the Swiss made us queue with them (no Fast Access lane), take them through security, take them to the gate, wait there until their flight was airborne etc. I went to complain about this lack of service, which clearly embarrassed my husband, as he then proceeded to complain about me in the car on the way home, saying I was impossible to live with, and no wonder he had been having an affair for the past year.

I was so shocked and hurt by this sudden news, especially from someone claiming that my unhappiness in the marriage was illusory and everything was just fine, that I ran into the guest room (which was Zoe’s domain, as she was not allowed in our bedroom) and threw myself onto the bed, sobbing uncontrollably. After a while, I felt a little paw on my back. I turned, sat up and Zoe crawled onto my lap, and she has been there ever since. It was her favourite spot, but she seemed to have knack for knowing when I was especially sad or upset or ill in the many tricky years that followed, and she was always there for me.

I don’t have many pictures of the two of us together, but this one shows her doing ‘sucky-sucky’, i.e. kneading on my lap while also sucking her blanket. She would sometimes meow at me impatiently to get into position for her to do that

She was the best-behaved darling. The day after I brought her home, I already let her roam all over the house. I went cross-country skiing on the 5th of February with some friends, and they told me: ‘Oh, no, you’ll come back and all your furniture will be scratched, she’ll have peed on the sofa, jumped up on the counters, smashed your vases etc.’ But she didn’t do it that day – or ever. The most she ever did was climb up occasionally to sleep in my younger son’s bunkbed, and she would always jump down from it guiltily when we intoned: ‘Zoe? Are you being naughty again?’ That didn’t stop the boys or me, of course, from blaming her whenever something was missing in the house: ‘Zoe must have taken the nail clipper or my school tie or left the door to the garage open.’

She was starting to get a bit cheekier in the last year or so: jumping up on the kitchen counter if we forgot any food there. We would hear a telltale loud thump when we were in the living room, watching TV.

She was a bit of a hunter back in France, and would explore the garden and all the way to the end of the close. Once we moved to England, however, she became far more cautious (possibly because of the loud road at the back of our garden) and never again troubled the wildlife. In fact, she rejected the advances of two of our neighbours’ tomcats, who competed for her French demoiselle graces by bringing mice as offerings on our drive for the first few weeks after we returned to the UK.

She was Mummy’s Girl but also had a delightful complicity with the boys. Her preference for me was so marked that even the boys had to admit that it might be about more than just me feeding her. The boys often spoke in ‘her voice’, saying: ‘Maman est la meilleure.’ She even forgave me within a couple of minutes when I had to give her worming and tick liquids, or take her to the vet. As for when I had to put her in a cattery once when we went on holiday, she was utterly miserable there, and when we got back home, she brought in two mice, a bird and two lizards that day, as if to tell me: ‘See what a good provider I am? Please don’t put me in that awful place again.’ [It was the most expensive and exclusive Swiss cattery you can imagine, but hey- ho…].

She was a bit of a celebrity, since she was included in a colouring book Forty Real Cats From Around the World by Pamela Hodges, where she represented France, with her stripey pattern, a beret and chasing butterflies (she never caught on that it was impossible to catch them).

Watching TV – or should that be my eyes while watching TV.

In France, we would take the shortcut through a neighbour’s garden and an orchard to walk to school, and Zoe would often follow us there, but stop short of the road. She liked to pretend to be spying on us, but she was rubbish at hiding, so we could see her when we came back from school too, waiting just by the horses in the field. Aside from pretending to be James Bond, she also liked to pretend to be a dog: she would dash after the bouncy miniature toys that we threw, but just sat beside them instead of bringing them back.

Back in England, she knew what time the boys would be back from school and jump on the windowsill in my study, which overlooks the front door, to wait for them about five minutes before they arrived. She would then run downstairs to chat to them about her day, and try to trick them into feeding her: ‘Maman hasn’t fed me in years, look how skinny I am!’ [She was a plump little girl, who sometimes got stuck on her back like a beetle while rolling, and had to be put on a diet. Which made the last couple of months, when she lost more than half her body weight, particularly heartbreaking.]

She was a gifted linguist, an excellent reading companion and perfect for exam revision. Although she seemed to respond best to the French language, over the years she picked up English, Greek, German, Romanian, Japanese, Spanish and Italian as we either learnt or spoke those languages or during Family TV Time. She loved me reading to her in bed, I don’t think she’d have minded me sitting there all day. And she was always there to help the boys revise for their GCSEs and A Levels. Her particular areas of expertise were the Weimar Republic, Stalinist Russia and hot deserts, although she was starting to differentiate between Sartre and Camus recently.

My favourite example of her French bias came when we were watching Casablanca. She was (for once) not on my lap, but on the windowsill next to the TV and when the Marseillaise was sung, she jumped down and stood to attention in front of the TV. Alas, not captured on camera! She also tended to prefer the team dressed in blue whenever we watched football: ‘Allez les Bleues!’

And in case you are wondering where the title of the post comes from, it’s from this song by Cornershop, which was everywhere around the time I came to live in London and is a homage to the things you love and that made you what you are today (in this case the music from Bollywood films).

International Booker Winner: Tomb of Sand

After hearing the author Geetanjali Shree and the translator Daisy Rockwell speak about this book at the Southbank Centre a few days before the International Booker Prize was announced, I immediately bought it. It sounded really different, unexpected and fun. Now that I have finally read it (for the London Reads the World Book Club), I can confirm that it was surprising, not at all what I expected, and funny in parts, although ultimately a serious and sad novel.

The cover was designed by translator Daisy Rockwell, who is also a painter and a descendant of American painter Norman Rockwell

It is a shapeshifter of a novel. Just when you think you have grasped in what direction it is going, it suddenly chops and changes. It’s a family saga, a story of friendship, a political novel, a mystery, a quest for freedom, a parable about ageing and loneliness, all of the above and none of them. To me, it seems to be predominantly about storytelling. What is the border between fiction and non-fiction, between tradition and modernity, between Western and Eastern literary paradigms? Is there ever one single way to tell a story? How can we incorporate all of the additional variants and interpretations?

A tale tells itself. It can be complete, but also incomplete, the way all tales are… Women are stories in themselves, full of stirrings an dwhisperings that float on the wind, that bend with each blade of grass… The story’s path unfurls, not knowing where it will stop, tacking to the right and left, twisting and turning, allowing anything and everything to join in the narration.

Although the tale has no need for a single stream. It is free to run, flow into rivers and lakes, into fresh new waters. But for now, we must insist on not straying, so for the time being we simply won’t.

This approach to the story – as a living being, who can always surprise us, take us on diversions, refuse to budge at certain points – is so different from what we expect of a novel in the Western literary tradition – or at least not in the present-day (I can think of some 18th and 19th-century novels that are all about the digressions). It is also full of cultural and linguistic references (including untranslated terms) which probably went completely over my head. This maximalist approach to storytelling won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. At times, it defies close reading, and I will need to return to some passages to grasp their full meaning.

It takes 190 pages for Amma, the beloved grandmother mourning the death of her husband, to leave her bed, as one of our book club members pointed out indignantly. I enjoyed the family visits, contradictory opinions, squabbles and rivalries, which reminded me so much of Romanian families too, but I can see how many readers might feel the story is taking too long to get started.

The middle part is told more from the point of view of Amma/Ma’s daughter, Beti, who prides herself on her modern, tolerant, bohemian attitudes and lifestyle, but finds herself occasionally at odds with her mother, especially when her friend Rosie starts having what she considers a disproportionate amount of influence on her. Rose is a hijra (third gender) person and is yet another example of Ma (and the author, probably) protesting against the artificial, destructive, small-minded erection of borders where none existed before.

The final part is about a road trip to Pakistan, perhaps the most mysterious, brutally unexpected, but also satisfying section of the book. It also features butterflies and a crow, but it’s extremely hard to explain how it all hangs together. The prose throughout the book is vivacious, funny, perfect at capturing different voices, but in the last part it becomes very poetical, colourful, imbued with the qualities of a fairytale or legend. And throughout, we have the political engagement of Ma (and the author, I believe), although this could apply to the distance between two people too. As someone who was once living in a closed-in country, this passage on borders was particularly meaningful to me (it goes on for a few pages, but I will just quote from the first couple of paragraphs):

A border does not enclose, it opens out. It creates a shape. It adorns an edge… It enhances a personality. It gives strength. It doesn’t tear apart. A border increases recognition. Where two sides meet and both flourish… A border stops nothing. It is a bridge between two connected parts. Between night and day. Life and death. Finding and losing… A border is a horizon. Where two worlds meet. And embrace.

I’m still not quite sure how this book ended up nearly twice as long in English as it is in the original Hindi, but it is an amazing and unforgettable book, one that challenges all our preconceived notions of ageing, Indian families, Partition history and, above all, what makes for compelling storytelling.

By complete coincidence, I finally read Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner this weekend and realised that the premise reminded me a lot of Tomb of Sand. That too is about an older woman (was 47 in the 1920s the equivalent of 80 nowadays?) who turns her back on her family and decides to pursue her own interests and find new friendships and passions.

Even though it is a much shorter book, it has a similar structure: the first part might be perceived as boring and stultifying by some readers, as it describes the dull, prescribed and circumscribed life that Laura leads, losing her own name (becoming Aunt Lolly, just like the main protagonist in Tomb of Sand becomes Amma or Ma), having the family talk about her rather than addressing her directly, making decisions on her behalf. The second part describes the move to the village of Great Mop, an unsuccessful attempt at freedom initially, when her much-loved but stifling nephew Titus shows up. This is very similar to the occasionally pleasurable but often tense living together of Ma and her daughter. The third part describes the release at last, in what should perhaps be as dramatic a moment as in the Indian book (after all, what could be more dramatic than making a pact with the devil? Goethe got lots of mileage out of that!), but is dealt with in such a matter-of-fact, even amusing way, yet you sense real passion lurking underneath (Laura’s speech about women being active yet invisible, sticks of dynamite ready to ignite). I felt the same hair rising on the back of my neck moment there as I did when reading the scene where Ma asks the soldiers to hit her so she can learn how to fall – and then realise why she is doing that.

I am perhaps too prone to see parallels here, but these two books worked perfectly in tandem for me, and both left me with an explosion of joy but also a deep sadness that freedom has come so late for these women, and that for many it does not come at all:

In vain she had tried to escape, transient and delusive had been her ecstasies of relief. She had thrown away twenty years of her life like a handful of old rags, but the wind had blown them back again, and dressed her in the old uniform… They had let her run a little way – that was all – for they knew they could get her back when they chose.

#6Degrees of Separation September: Wildcard Pick

I missed last month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme, since I was away on holiday, but it is one of my favourites and a good way to ease myself back into blogging after quite a hiatus. Here’s how it works: hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. No need to have an overarching theme, although some do, or connect the book to all of the titles on the list, just let your mind have a wander and see where it take you.

This month is Wildcard month, no set starting point, but Kate suggests we start with the last in the chain that we last completed or else with the last book we read. Well, the last chain I completed in July ended with the rather depressing Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter and I’ve had enough of illness and death, so I will opt for the second version.

The last book I read was Jennie by Paul Gallico, a children’s story about an eight-year-old boy, feeling rather lonely and unloved by his upper-class ‘colonial style’ parents, who suddenly turns into a cat. It was the only book I could read during the last few days with my beloved Zoe, and it is clearly written by someone who loved and completely understood cats. Full of adventures but also gentle moments, not at all preachy, simply a beautiful tribute to friendship and love.

Another book written by a cat connoisseur is Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, which shows that the very cerebral and earnest poet also had a humorous and tender side. Famously turned into a musical (and a rather horrid film). I love this edition illustrated by Axel Scheffler.

I don’t think T. S. Eliot’s book is necessarily aimed at children, but it relies heavily on wordplay and subverting expectations, which is certainly the MO for Dr Seuss and his famous (or should that be infamous) Cat in the Hat. I certainly could have done with a cat or other pet to blame (I was an only child) when there was mess in the house after one of my ‘pretend’ games.

I will stick to the cat theme and move to Japan, where of course cats are much loved and often feature in their literature, art, anime and manga. The classic book is Soseki Natsume’s I Am a Cat, which is most certainly NOT aimed at children, but a satire about a rapidly changing Japanese society during the Meiji and Taisho period (turn of the 19th to 20th century), seen from the no-nonsense point of view of a cat.

Another Japanese novel where the cat is a pretext for the examination of adult themes, in this case a relationship turned sour, is Tanizaki Junichiro’s A Cat, a Man and Two Women, which once again is all about loneliness, tenderness and love in the most unexpected places.

When it comes to love triangles, of course the French could teach the world a thing or two, even when one of the corners of the triangle is a cat. My go-to book in that respect is Colette’s La Chatte (The Female Cat), about a marriage founded on jealousy of a cat, and although it features some deliberate cruelty towards the cat, you know that Colette would never allow a beautiful Chartreux to die (she herself had a succession of them, who followed her around everywhere).

My final cat-themed link is to that most formidable, shape-shifting, ill-mannered, incorrigible and evil cat of them all, Behemoth, the Devil’s sidekick, from The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. Who can resist the immortal line, which always makes me burst into laughter, as the troublesome duo try to enter the literary club:

“You’re not Dostoevsky,” said the citizeness, who was getting muddled by Koroviev.
“Well, who knows, who knows,” he replied.
“Dostoevsky’s dead,” said the citizeness, but somehow not very confidently.
“I protest!” Behemoth exclaimed hotly. “Dostoevsky is immortal!”

I have a T-shirt with Behemoth looming above the city (see picture), which I love to bits.

So my cat-shaped travels have taken us to London and Glasgow, the United States, Japan, Paris and Moscow. Let me know where your Six Degrees take you!

All the Summer Reading Challenges

I’ve come to the conclusion that, despite three weeks of ‘holidays’, it’s been a difficult summer personally, and this has been reflected in my reading. I have failed in virtually all my reading challenges (not that I take the word ‘failure’ terribly seriously in this context). I’ve read more than #20BooksofSummer, but few of them were on my original list. I read a couple of books in July for Stu’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month, but never got around to reviewing them. I’ve also read quite a few #WomeninTranlation books in August (and generally – this is probably one of my favourite themes in reading) but I have no intention to provide carefully considered, deep reviews of any of them.

I just can’t. I don’t have the mental or physical capacity at the moment. It’s a shame, there will be a gap when I look back on my reading and wish I’d done more. In the meantime, here are some very brief and hopefully pithy remarks (I hesitate to call them reviews) about each of them. I have already shared my escapist reading with you, here are the more ‘serious’ reads.

July Reading

I read 12 books that month, of which three escapist crime novels and four for work purposes (two books in German and two translations from the Catalan). I skimmed through two very interesting but simply far too long ones (for my levels of concentration and busy-ness that month): The Shadowy Third about one of Elizabeth Bowen’s love affairs and the letters exchanged and Devil-Land about 17th century Britain. Which leaves only three books, two of which fit into the Spanish/Portuguese language reading challenge.

Maria Judite de Carvalho: Empty Wardrobes, transl. Margaret Jull Costa, Two Lines Press, 2021.

I interpret the title as the emptiness that many women feel when they realise that the people or the love that they held dear have let them down, that sentiments and trust were illusory, and that they have no one but themselves to rely on. It’s a sombre yet depressingly accurate view of heterosexual relationships, shared by three generations of women in the same family, although not necessarily from a position of solidarity. Written in 1966, in a very Catholic and patriarchal Portugal where women had few choices outside the domestic sphere, there is nevertheless much that is still recognisable today. It also reminds me of Enchi Fumiko’s work, particularly The Waiting Years, although that refers to even more demeaning conditions for women in Meiji Japan.

He would arrive home, give me a peck on the cheek, drink his usual glass of whisky, then tell me all about his day in great detail, and so I thought he really loved and needed me. In fact, I was merely a convenient body beside him, an ever-attentive audience always ready to express unconditional admiration when he told me of yet another professional triumph… he needed that applause at home as well, in order to feel he was lord of a little tailor-made world all his own.

For far more detailed and sensitive reading of this book, do read Jacqui’s blog.

Gabriela Cabezón Cámara: Slum Virgin, transl. Frances Riddle, Charco Press, 2017.

This one is the exact opposite of the quieter, more restrained style of Empty Wardrobes. It is a riot of events, characters, stories and style, with elements of tragedy, melodrama, comedy and farce all jostling for attention within its pages. Cleopatra is a trans prostitute in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, but renounces her work once she has a revelation from the Virgin Mary. Quity is an ambitious journalist keen to cover the story, but ends up falling for Cleo instead. Told in short chapters alternating between the highly individualistic voices of these two characters, filled with colourful slang, replete with religious references and superstition, we encounter a seamy, corrupt but energetic world reminiscent of Jorge Amado’s The War of the Saints.

In the extract below, Cleo is receiving all sorts of gifts from people in the flooded slum who are hoping for miracle cures:

Then with a practicality that surprised me and continues to surprise me in a person who speaks with celestial beings, Cleo told us that God loved us, that through God we could love each other, and that we should have breakfast. It was time and it was freezing cold, and first things first. We could always pray later.

Shirley Jackson: The Sundial, Penguin Modern Classics (first published in 1958)

No one can portray the suffocating qualities of a family and a house better than Shirley Jackson, a real antithesis to the wholesome image of home and hearth projected in the United States in the 1950s. This novel portrays a very strange family, all living in a sinister home with surrealist traits (like being in an Escher drawing), an ‘end of the world’ prophecy which binds them and excludes everyone outside their property. But are the dangers truly in the outside world or within their ‘safe’ house and ‘in-group’? We know that Jackson was agoraphobic at various points in her life, but we also know that she considered the family home to be the most perilous and vicious place too. I don’t want to put you off by the rather serious subject matter and the magical realism style – it is also very sharp, witty and downright funny.

Shirley Jackson is one of my favourite authors, and occupies pride of place on my bedside table: go and read her, pronto, if you haven’t already done so, whether you start with this or with her more famous (but less funny) novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle or The Haunting of Hill House.

August Reading

This month was less busy but far worse in terms of health, worries and need for distraction. Of the 16 books I read, 13 were escapist literature. Two of the crime novels fitted into the #WITMonth category (one from Turkey, one from Romania), as did two of the more ‘serious’ reads. One was a chunkster, the International Booker Prize Winner Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated (and perhaps annotated/interpreted, as she freely admits) by Daisy Rockwell. I still hope to give it a proper review at some point, and we have a Book Club meeting about it next Monday, so I will leave it for later.

Kawakami Mieko: Ms Ice Sandwich, transl. Louise Heal Kawai, Pushkin Press, 2013.

This is an early work by Kawakami, a slight novella about an adolescent boy starting to learn more about life and people and empathy, through his harmless crush on the unusual looking lady who makes and sells sandwiches at the local supermarket. It is an understated story of loneliness, being ‘different’, feeling unable to stand by your convictions or support the people you love. Far more restrained than Heaven, but conveys a lot in just a few pages. And, it’s a personal preference, but I really like the way Louise Heal Kawai translates Kawakami and wish that we had more of her books featuring this translator! For a more thorough review, please see Tony’s. I do love the cover, though!

Tanya Shadrick: The Cure for Sleep

I picked this one rather randomly, after some recommendations on Twitter. It is the memoir of a woman who nearly died after the birth of her son and resolved thereafter to lead a braver and more creative life, to stop shrinking away from opportunity and hide in routine. It is the most devastatingly honest memoir I have read that does not feature any descriptions of addiction or debilitating health issues. It lays bare all the ambiguities of married life and motherhood, and the eternal conflict between the anchored ‘real’ life and the creative life. I don’t think I could ever be so frank, but that is why I prefer to write fiction rather than memoir.

As someone who constantly feels that I have buried myself too much in domesticity and looking after others, I found this book quite inspiring, although just a tad overwritten at times.

20 Books of Summer

So how did I do in my fabled (and very flexible) 20 Books of Summer challenge? Thanks to my discipline in June, I managed to read 13 books overall (8 in French in June, 2 Spanish/Portuguese ones in July, 3 from the random choices in August). I am currently reading the 14th one from the list, the Berlin-set Schäfchen im Trockenen, but I doubt I will finish it by the 1st of September. Not quite as bad as I expected!

This Way to Escapist Reading!

Over the past two months I’ve been reading a lot of lighter literature, what one might call holiday or escapist literature – and boy, have I needed it! This was partly because I was on holiday and did not have access to all of my books so I relied on my Kindle. Once I returned from holiday, I was laid up with allsorts of ailments for over two weeks, plus I was increasingly anxious about the health of my darling cat Zoe, which meant that my reading had to be less challenging and grim.

My definition of escapist is usually crime fiction rather than ‘uplifting’ or ‘feel good’ literature, so most of the books fall into that category, although there is some historical fiction in there as well. Overall, 16 books fall into the escapist fiction category: only three of them fit into the Women in Translation month category, although I read a few of the latter two (brief reviews to follow in a separate post).

Bride Price by Barbara Nadel

As always it’s a real pleasure to reconnect with Ikem and Suleyman and the rest of the team. Although Ikmen is retired now and a widower, and although my personal favourite the handsome and irresistible InspectorSsuleyman is about to get married, they still seem to find time to solve quite a few mysteries along the way. You gain most from reading these books in order because the characters grow, develop, get old grow, form all sorts of additional ties, experience loss, make mistakes – in other words, their development over the years is as much part of the story as the crimes they resolve. I had somehow missed the previous two books in the series so was surprised to find Mehmet about to marry his rather wild Roma lover, having left him previously in the arms of a different woman.

The books are always set against a well-defined historical and social backdrop: these are not just tourist descriptions of particular areas of Istanbul, we also get to experience some of the political and social changes that have taken place there over the years. In this book there are a number of things going on, perhaps slightly too many: is somebody trying to curse the upcoming wedding? What terrorist organisation is trying to poison innocent customers with ricin? Is there an international art fraud conspiracy taking place?

I then went immediately back to one of my favourites in the series, Land of the Blind, set against the backdrop of the 2013 Gezi Park protests (brutally quashed), where Mehmet is a bit of an arrogant bastard in the background, while Ikmen proves that he is the perfect and thoughtful husband, father and friend.

Divorce Turkish Style by Esmahan Aykol, transl. from Turkish by Ruth Whitehouse

I stuck to Istanbul for this next one. Kati Herschel is half-German, half-Turkish and completely stubborn. She owns the only crime bookshop in Istanbul, and can’t resist dabbling in amateur crime investigations. This case involves the death of beautiful, well-educated wife of a millionaire – but was she killed because she was about to divorce her husband or because she was an ecological activist?

Set in Stone by Stela Brinzeanu

A trip to Moldova next, back in medieval times, when wealthy boieri commanded full loyalty from their vassal lords, only boys could inherit, Roma were slaves and women had few choices but marriage or the convent – or else be accused of witchcraft. Brinzeanu takes one of the oldest and best-known Romanian myths (the Ballad of Master Craftsman Manole) and gives an alternative interpretation, steeped in injustice, malevolence and superstition. There is also a tender love story between social classes at its heart, but distrust and fear threaten to destroy it. There is a YA feel to this story (just like with the other recent historical novel I read set in Romania, The Book of Perilous Dishes), but that is no bad thing, as it ensures lively pacing, vivid descriptions, as well as strong emotions and often impulsive actions of the main protagonists, rather than endless cerebral agonising.

The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer

Another historical romance with some cross-dressing like the previous book, but with far lower stakes (although perpetually threatened by possible accusations of fraud and treason)/ This is set in Georgian England, after the failed Bonnie Prince Charlie uprising, with two siblings disguised as members of the opposite sex to protect their identity. Aside from the misunderstandings one might expect, mayhem ensues when their con-artist father reappears to claim a vast inheritance. Not my favourite Heyer, but a charming and witty way to spend a lazy summer day.

Rocco and the Price of Lies by Adrian Magson

A combination of the historical and criminal: I love this series featuring Inspector Rocco in 1960s Picardie – I find them much more compelling and culturally true than the more overtly tourist-trap Bruno series by Martin Walker, but they sadly don’t seem to be as popular with readers. A cracking story about local and national interests, cover-ups and eccentric characters.

The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill

I always enjoy a book about writers and this is a very clever, slightly metafictional study of the construction of a crime novel. The conceit is that an Australian writer sends chapters of her work in progress to an American fan because her latest work is set in Boston and she needs someone familiar with the place to correct any mistakes. However, the American acquaintance gets more involved than one might expect in the story and starts making suggestions for altering the plot or the characters. At the same time, we are given to understand that one of the four main characters in the fictional book is a killer but that the author herself has not yet decided which one it will be. As we get caught up in the story, we forget that all exists simply in the fictional author’s head, but there is the additional creepy element of stalking and real crimes starting to take place. A great fun read, easily devoured in half a day.

Hinton Hollow Death Trap by Will Carver – if you want to have your brains twisted and start doubting yourself, this sneaky and clever but dark story written by Evil Himself is sure to do the trick!

The Good Turn by Dervla McTiernan – a solid and gripping police procedural set in Galway and Dublin, with at least two very strong characters investigating, want to read more

The House Share by Kate Helm – I remember quite enjoying this as I was reading it, although the luxury communal living premise seemed rather far-fetched, but like fast food – haven’t got any lingering memory of its taste

Anonima de miercuri by Rodica Ojog Brasoveanu (Romanian) – featuring that suave old lady Melania, freshly out of prison for fraud, this is entertaining enough but feels oddly in misstep with the time in which it is supposed to take place (1980s Romania)

Violet by SJI Holliday – set on the Trans-Siberian express all the way through Beijing, Mongolia and then Moscow, this is an unnerving story with slippery characters, very atmospheric – although goodness, I was a much more cautious traveller at their age (wouldn’t make for a good story, though)

Death on the Trans Siberian Express by C J Farrington – another story where the Trans-Siberian train features, this time set in Roslazny – a sleepy Russian town along its route. Olga Pushkin is the railway engineer who witnesses a body being thrown out of the train and who cannot help getting involved in the investigation. This has the hallmarks of cosy historical crime, although it is set in 21st century Russia, but I love the idealism and resilience of fiery Olga.

Red as Blood by Lilja Sigurdardottir (transl. Quentin Bates) – a puzzling kidnapping and ransom case (with a side serving of tax evasion) – the second book in a new series by this prolific and talented Icelandic author, less action packed than her Reykjavik Noir trilogy, but equally fun

How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie – funny, completely amoral, highly political, this is Kind Hearts and Coronets for the present-day, another book that scores highly while reading it, but loses its fizz soon afterwards

As you can see, no time for lengthier reviews, but I do hope to be able to do a #WIT summary post too.