All of us readers are on the look-out for that perfect comfy chair where you can have plenty of books within easy reach, and perhaps a place to put a snack, a coffee, a glass of wine, a bookmark or notebook. None of the ones I’ve found so far quite answer all of my needs.
So, in the end, the best solution is clearly a window seat which combines comfort with storage and pretty views.
I tried to resist it, but first I saw Cleo doing it, then Emma at Book Around the Corner, then Lisa Hall at ANZ Litlovers blog. Yes, I am weak-willed and have the mentality of a herd of sheep, but I enjoyed reading theirs so much that, in spite of my guilt at spending far too much time on it, I couldn’t think of a nicer way to spend an afternoon (and escape writing Christmas cards this weekend). I did this last year too, and it’s one of the funnest ways to spend this time of year. Then, Emma made the fatal remark: ‘Bet you could fill in more than one for each category!’ So here is how I spent a whole day…
More than 500 pages
Knausgård: Some Rain Must Fall – self-absorbed, egotistic and utterly recognisable: the narrator/novelist at the start of his career
Jaume Cabré: Confessions – a mammoth of imagination and introspection, slippery characters and narrations overlapping
Eizabeth Taylor: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont – perfect poise and wry, self-effacing humour: all that I love about the English style
Jean Rhys: Smile Please – the darker side to English poise and elegance, with the tinge of obsessions, depression and ‘alienness’.
I read a lot of these, usually for Crime Fiction Lover reviews or Shiny New Books or Necessary Fiction. So I picked two more unusual choices:
Katharina Hall (ed.): Crime Fiction in German – an encylopaedic reference book which will answer all of your questions about crime in the German language
Péter Gárdos: Fever at Dawn – charming, quirky, loving, a feel-good book for a messed-up world, and now I want to see the film too
Number in Its Title
Initially thought I had no books in this category, but then I found two:
David Peace: 1974 – which could also have fitted into the first book by a favourite author category, despite its unrelenting grimness
Olivier Norek: Code 93 – the most notorious département of France, with the highest crime rates, in an entertaining and realistic debut by a former policeman
Written by Someone Under 30
A bit of a depressing category, this one, making me wonder what on earth I have done with my life! Maybe the free square should be ‘Oldest Debut Author’ category.
Lisa Owens: Not Working – I think Lisa was just about under 30 when the book was published, so certainly younger when she wrote it. The narrator sounds like she is in her early 20s.
Tatiana Salem Levy: The House in Smyrna – published in 2008 in Brazil, when the author was 29, but only translated into English in 2015
I will interpret this very widely, as I don’t have anything else to offer: books that contain some human characters and some ‘supernatural’ presence
Patrick Ness: A Monster Calls – incidentally, there’s a film of this coming out too – not sure if I can bear to see it, as the book made me weep buckets!
Elizabeth Knox: Wake – something like a zombie apocalypse for grown-ups, a strange book, difficult to label
You can tell the kind of reader I am when I tell you I had real trouble finding any funny books whatsoever in my 163+ books of the year. In fact, the second one is a crime novel with a humorous style, but a very grim subject matter. So not all that funny, then…
David Sedaris: Me Talk Pretty One Day – the joys and challenges of cultural misunderstandings between the French and the Americans
Wolf Haas: Komm, süßer Tod – a paramedic and ex-cop with a world-weary, typically Viennese view of the world, investigates some odd deaths in the ambulance service
I think more than half of my reading has been by women authors this year – I have felt the need to surround myself with their themes and words. Here are two books which haven’t been talked about as much as I would have liked or expected.
Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen Ging Gegangen – the ‘refugee problem’ in Germany gets a name and a face in this thoughtful, non-sentimental book
Elizabeth Brundage: All Things Cease to Appear – rural noir meets Gothic horror meets crime fiction, yet transcends all of these in a remarkable yet quiet novel of great depth
My preferred reading matter, of course, so I’ve tried to look at two real ‘mysteries’ (puzzles), which force the reader to work things out from the clues.
Anthony Horowitz: Magpie Murders – vivacious remix of Golden Age crime elements, without descending into pastiche, as well as a satire of the publishing world
Frédéric Dard: Bird in a Cage – the ‘impossible situation’ mystery, with lashings of film noir atmosphere, a stylish French stunner
One Word Title
Eleanor Wasserberg: Foxlowe – disquieting fictional look at growing up in a cult
Isabel Huggan: Belonging – warm and loving like a mother’s hug, but also a thought-provoking meditation on what home means
Sarah Hall & Peter Hobbs (eds): Sex and Death anthology – the two constant preoccupations of humankind and a rich variety of stories for all tastes
Anthony Anaxagorou: The Blink that Killed the Eye – poetic yet never overwrought, grimly realistic, it’s the darker side of life in London as a millenial
Free Square – Book that didn’t work for me at all
L.S. Hilton: Maestra – 50 Shades of Grey meets online shopping catalogue and serial killer tropes; messy, gratuitous and clearly chasing bandwaggons.
Set on a Different Continent
Sarah Moss: Signs for Lost Children – Truro and Japan and never the twain shall meet – or will they? A new author discovery for me this year, one that I want to read much more of.
Raphael Montes: Perfect Days – set in Brazil, we travel the country but also inside the mind of a delusional young man, which makes for an uncomfortable, yet often also funny and exciting experience
Åsne Seierstad: One of Us – close factual examination of Anders Breivik and the staggering massacre of young people in Norway, frightening reconstruction of events
Olivia Laing: Lonely City – a very interesting mix of memoir and research, art and literary criticism, to explore the idea of loneliness in big cities
1st Book by Favourite Author
Tiphanie Yanique: Wife – debut poetry collection, but I am completely won over and will read anything that this talented Caribbean poet and fiction writer puts in front of me.
Stav Sherez: The Devil’s Playground – while waiting for his latest novel to come out, I went back to his debut novel (not part of the Carrigan and Miller series), originally published in 20014 and set in Amsterdam
Heard About Online
This is a bit of a false category, as I seem to find out about most books nowadays via personal recommendations on Twitter. However, both of the authors below I got to ‘meet’ via Twitter, before they had even published the books described/
Amanda Jennings: In Her Wake – a genre-busting, mysterious, ethereally beautiful tale, with strong female characters, set in Cornwall
Isabel Costello: Paris Mon Amour – set in Paris, a book defying age and sex conventions, without being prurient or irrelevant (unlike Maestra)
Ha! I realised I had no idea if any of the books I’d read this year were bestsellers (from what number of copies sold can you consider them to be that?), but I assume Fred Vargas always sells a ton in both French and English, while Andrew McMillan’s debut collection of poetry has won many awards and done so well for poetry standards.
Andrew McMillan: Physical – see Naomi Frisby’s excellent review here
It’s the style that I loved in both of these, the simplicity, lack of artifice, just letting the words speak for themselves. The fact that they were both rooted in reality was almost the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I bought both of these books around 3-4 years ago, in an elan of wanting to read more East European literature, but then forgot about them. One sat on the shelf, the other on my e-reader. I wanted to like them so badly, but when I did get around to them, they were each rather disappointing.
Romain Gary: La promesse de l’aube – pressed into my hands as a parting gift by Emma herself, I have finally fallen in love with this author and bought more of his books. At some point I want to write a proper in-depth study of his work but I need to read more.
Elena Ferrante: Neapolitan series – so many people recommended this one to me, but I was wary of the hype, although I’d liked other books by this author. I did enjoy it, although it did not quite blow my socks off.
Liz Jensen: The Uninvited – chilling, filling your heart with gradual dread, magnificent handling of suspense and atmosphere, a book that will make you look at your children in a different way
Michelle Paver: Thin Air – another atmospheric ride – everything is hinted at, nothing is quite seen
10+ Years Old
Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone – it doesn’t get older than this, one of the world’s first proper detective novels
Dolores Redondo: The Legacy of the Bones – 2nd in the unusual, slightly supernaturally tinged series set in the damp, foggy, superstitious region of Baztan in Spain
Margot Kinberg: B-Very Flat – 2nd in the Joel Williams series, set in a small-town university campus in the US, cosy yet not twee, civilised crime fiction
I love my blue covers, even if there does seem to be a super-abundance of them lately, so here are two non-fiction books with gorgeous covers.
Elif Shafak: Black Milk – the most imaginative way of speaking about post-partum depression and the challenge of being an intellectual, a woman and a mother in this century
Melissa Harrison: Rain (Four Walks in English Weather) – a bit of a ramble through landscapes, nature observations, literature and what not else – a book to dip in and out, very enjoyable. If Inuits can have so many words for snow, you can imagine there are more than four kinds of English rain…
So, dear friends, far be it from me to lead you into temptation, but what would your reading bingo list of the year be?
When I thought about the different effect that prose and poetry have on me, and how I feel about writing both, it surprised me to discover that I used the pronouns ‘she’ for prose and ‘he’ for poetry. At this moment in real life, I seek out female companionship, which I find more nurturing, but in writing I seem to find a home in poetry when I am unable to write prose. I wonder what Jung would make of that?
Prose taunts and haunts me – she blows hot and cold. Sometimes I love her to bits, sometimes I feel close to strangling her. I can never approach her unprepared. She requires, nay, she demands a lot of love and attention; I often don’t have the time to give her all that she deserves. Then she neglects me, slams the door in my face, throws a tantrum. I spend weeks, even months, trying to woo her back, but there is no sign of life from her capricious majesty.
She is also the mistress of comparisons. She has no qualms about telling me that her other suitors are better, tidier, more organised, more romantic, more dashing, more, more, more…
I have tried to flirt with her younger sister, Short Story, or her niece, Flash Fiction, but it’s Prose the Novel whom I love best. She knows it, I know it. No amount of success with the others would ever make up for the loss of her.
Poetry is my refuge when Prose refuses to cooperate.
When I cannot find the words, Poetry takes over like an old chum. Knows me best, understands the unspoken, the wildest metaphors and similes. I say a carrot is like a star and Poetry smiles in his gentle, light-filled way and only ever replies: ‘Why not?’
Poetry is the one who soothes my nightmares, unknots the wrinkles on my face and in my mind. He encourages me to discover myself, and if I don’t come back with answers… well, so what? He’ll still be there for me.
Although I have a business webinar to run later on today, my thoughts are very much focused on a selection of poems I will be submitting for a competition. So here are some poems which will not make the grade, but which suit the season.
My reading speed seems to have gone down over the last few months, despite my endless sleepless nights. I seem to start many books and then spending simply ages not quite getting round to finishing them. I have continued reading and writing poetry, but my unofficial NaNoWriMo did not work out. Still, lack of success on the writing front usually means I find refuge in lots of reading, so it’s puzzling that this has not been the case. I have read just ten books (it may seem a lot, but quite a few of them were rather short), but I’ve been even worse when it comes to reviewing. So, with apologies, here are some very succinct reviews in some cases.
Crime fiction and psychological thrillers:
Michael J. Malone: A Suitable Lie
Not really a conventional domestic thriller, although it does turn the tables on domestic violence. It is more of a character study and very effective in describing the cycle of hope, obligation, guilt, fear, love, a whole rollercoaster of emotions.
Although the theme of sexual harassment in college is very topical and disturbing, this is a welcome change of pace to the darker, grittier type of crime fiction. A civilised campus novel, with most people able to converse elegantly with each other (although they still lie, or exaggerate or omit things).
I’ve loved some Harry Hole novels (The Redbreast, The Snowman) and been less enthusiastic about others, but he is undeniably a page-turner. I took him spontaneously out of the library to see just how he manages to build that sense of dread, foreboding, suspense. This story was perhaps a little too convoluted for my taste, but every time there was someone alone in a venue, searching for something, and they would then hear a noise, I jumped out of my skin.
I expect nothing less from Elizabeth Taylor than this beautifully observed study of the foibles of human nature, our innate selfishness, the stories we tell ourselves and others to justify our behaviour. It is a humorous and very poignant look at ageing and loneliness. What struck me most was the dissolution of family ties, how little we really come to mean to those whom we have been conditioned to think of as the nearest and dearest. There are many characters, each one instantly recognisable, yet carefully avoiding stereotypes.
My book of the month is You Will Not Have My Hate, for the emotional devastation it wreaked on me. My second choice, which also managed to squeeze a tear or two out of me, is Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.
So, cheery Christmas reads next? I don’t really like ‘seasonal books’ but I’d better find something less gloomy or else my insomnia will never improve! And that Netgalley list needs to go down as well!
Yes, I know I said there were some beautiful palaces all over Europe (and I haven’t even gone to other continents – that’s a thought for future posts!). But I still dream of that perfect little chateau somewhere in France… Perhaps because there are so many of them to choose from, something for every taste.
This was a very good companion on a sleepless night. It’s a police procedural (a nice change to psychological thrillers, which seem to be mushrooming all over the crime fiction landscape at the moment). Yet it also introduces readers to the lesser known world of K&R (kidnap and ransom) specialists, a growth industry in various parts of the world. People are kidnapped for profit, the insurance brokers and corporates step in and hire experts who will negotiate a good price and a speedy (sometimes not all that speedy) release.
Selena Cole and her husband own such a boutique business, but after her husband’s death in a bomb blast in Brazil a year ago, she has stepped back a little from the helm, leaving her sister-in-law and her husband to take care of affairs. But then one day she simply disappears from the playground, leaving her young daughters to fend for themselves. Very uncharacteristic of her, so friends and family fear the worst. She is found twenty hours later, but has no memory of what happened during those ‘missing hours’. A murder occurred during this period: is it possible that Selena was involved in any way?
Another innovation in this novel is that the investigating team feature a brother and sister couple of detectives, which allows us to see events and the people involved from two distinct but sympathetic points of view. Leah Mackay, mother of twin girls, identifies almost too much with Selena and starts to see links to the case everywhere she goes. Meanwhile, her younger brother Finn is more interested in the murder case, but sometimes allows his own emotions and judgements to take over. The interaction between the two siblings was fun and realistic: it was refreshing to see two partners who are supportive rather than antagonistic, but still able to laugh at each other, without a trace of forelock-tugging.
The author is a trained psychologist, but she does not drown the reader in excessive detail. Instead, she has developed an elegant, pared down way of describing thought processes and reactions, telescoping them over a long period of time.
And then life moved on, and somehow, without me knowing it, I got whipped into pregnancy and babies and a family and home, and yet still I am held hostage, there on that cold kitchen floor, holding a bottle of Rioja, wanting to die.
Some readers have objected to the introduction of the kidnap and ransom case files which are interspersed throughout the book. They felt that they interrupted the flow of the story. I actually quite liked them, it felt a bit more experimental and a nice change from the ‘perspective of the serial killer’ chapter so prevalent in many recent books. They introduced a matter of fact, non-emotional reporting element, which upped the ante, making us aware of the globalisation of crime.