Quick Video Reviews: Crime Fiction

This was filmed a few days ago, so in the meantime I can report that I have finished reading the Miklos Banffy book – and by now am so fully immersed in that world that I have to procure myself and read the whole trilogy. Outstanding chronicle of a certain place and time!

The others I mention below (with a lot of stuttering and pausing – maybe next time I should prepare a script) are: Ragnar Jonasson, Oliver Bottini, Thomas Willmann and the Murder on Christmas Eve anthology. You can find my full reviews of two of these on Crime Fiction Lover: Whiteout and Christmas mysteries.

I’m not signing off for the year yet, and over the coming weeks will be presenting my Top Reading Choices for 2017 and beyond. Oh, and I borrowed my younger s son’s inverted strawberry hat again – quite seasonal with the snowfall we’ve had pretty much all day here!

 

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Reading Bingo 2017

Thank you to Cleo for reminding me about this, one of my favourite annual memes – the Reading Bingo. It’s always a mad scramble to see if I can fit any of my haphazard reading into the categories at the end of the year, but I was very ambitious last year and did two of each. I’d struggle to do that this year: in fact, I may not be able to fill in the whole sheet!

More than 500 Pages

Retribution Road by Antonin Varenne

Forgotten Classic

Late Fame by Arthur Schnitzler – this was quite literally forgotten, or set aside by the author and never published until a couple of years ago

Turned into a Movie

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon – although I haven’t actually watched the two adaptations

Published This Year

Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski – what a brilliant, creepy, atmospheric story, capturing our passion for podcasts and the teenage grumpiness very well

Number in Title

Three Days and a Life by Pierre Lemaitre – a much gentler pace than this master of the chilling read has accustomed us to

Written by Someone Under 30

The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis – at least I think the author is still very young, and he published this in French quite a few years ago. Correct me if I’m wrong. Besides, I may want to turn this into ‘a book by someone over 70’ instead!

Non-Human Characters

The Humans by Matt Haig – well, it’s an alien and a dog who pull most at the heartstrings

Funny

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson – delightful comedy of manners

Female Author

Folle by Nelly Arcan – so many I could have chosen from, but I decided to choose one that could only have been written by a fierce and bitter woman

Mystery

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny – I couldn’t resist picking the title which has the most resonance – and it is, indeed, a mystery in a crime fiction series

One-Word Title

Men by Marie Darrieussecq – not my favourite book, it had a bit of a colonial feel to it

Short Stories

The Stories by Jane Gardam – klipp und klar, as the Germans would say – outstanding stories by a real master/mistress of the genre

Free Square

Most obscure: Vlad by Carlos Fuentes – and perhaps should stay so…

Different Continent

Boundary by Andree A. Michaud – Maine and Canada, border country, and an area I know very little about

Non-Fiction

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich – probably one of my top reads of the year

First Book by Favourite Author

Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim – it was a reread, but just delightful, even for a non-gardener like myself

Heard About Online

To Clear the Air by Mechtild Borrmann – I usually think Mrs. P’s recommendations are unbeatable, but this book did not quite do it for me. However, she has written others and they are better.

Bestseller

The Power by Naomi Alderman – I realised this was quite a difficult category for me, as the books I like don’t usually sell in the hundreds of thousand which shout bestseller to me, but I think this one did quite well after winning a few prizes. I’ve certainly seen it everywhere in bookshops and libraries.

True Story

This House of Grief by Helen Garner – just heart-breaking, another contender for book of the year – and I’m not even a huge non-fiction fan

Bottom of TBR Pile

On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe by Andrzej Stasiuk – I think this one has been on my bookshelves for quite a while, I can’t even remember when I bought it

Loved by a Friend

Tall Oaks by Chris Whitaker – Liz Barnsley, book blogger and crime fiction aficionado/editor had been buzzing about this one for ages – and it really lived up to every recommendation!

Scary

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson – subtle horror – in fact, just put all of Shirley Jackson’s work in this category

More than 10 Years Old

The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch – a nice old-fashioned feel to this, and yet still terribly timely

2nd in a Series

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner – she’s fast becoming a favourite author, and I can’t wait for the next one!

Blue Cover

Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie

And it will forever remind me of that wonderful, educational and inspirational weekend of poetry!

And, just because there weren’t a lot of pictures involved in the above, here is a gratuitous picture of my favourite non-human, bemused and bedecked for Christmas.

 

 

Quick Video Reviews: Women Writers 2017

The pile of books to be reviewed was threatening to fall from my ‘filing cabinet’ (aka armchair), so I am resorting once more to quick video reviews. These all have a rather sombre theme running through them, but are heartily recommended – for when you are of a cheery disposition to handle them. I’ve tried to add a festive mood nevertheless with some tinsel!

Goodbye, November and Top Reads

Yes, yes, November is not quite over yet, but this will be a busy week and I’m not sure I’ll get another chance to write a blog post.

Goodreads seems to be in a bit of a meltdown, mysteriously ‘disappearing’ my read books as if they were protesters against a dictatorial regime. Nevertheless, they assure me that I am about 9 books over my challenge of 120 books read this year. Let’s hope that this is somewhat more credible than the ‘official state news’ of Romania’s ‘booming agricultural harvests’ of the early 1980s, spurred on by Ceausescu’s visits to the fields of wheat and barley.

I’ve been back to a good month of reading in November: 12 books, contributing to several challenges. 3 of those were in German, 2 in French, 5 books by women   6 by men and 1 an anthology containing both, 4 (possibly 5) crime fiction, 1 poetry, 2 short story collections, 1 non-fiction and 1 did-not-finish. I’m happy with the mix.

#1968Club:

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin – magical, poetic language and complex ideas

#GermLitMonth and #EU27Project:

Arthur Schnitzler: Late Fame

Zoran Drvenkar: Sorry

Thomas Willmann: Das finstere Tal (Dark Valley) – a mix of crime fiction, Western, historical fiction – very atmospheric indeed

Nobe Prize Winner (and dnf):

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled – very promising start but could have done with a good editor, too long and self-indulgent

November Masterclass Preparation

Kathleen Jamie: Sightlines – the world dissected with real love, charm and understanding

Kathleen Jamie: The Tree House (poetry) – understated and deceptively simple poetry leaving profound marks

Swiss Reads: (joint review to follow on the blog)

Max Lobe: La trinite bantoue

Alice Rivaz: Sans alcools

Crime fiction:

Murder on Christmas Eve anthology (coming up on CFL)

Ragnar Jonasson: Whiteout (coming up on CFL)

Flynn Berry: Under the Harrow

In other news:

I’m working on launching the Asymptote subscription book club, which will be a dream come true for lovers of translated fiction: a surprise book a month, from an independent publisher, curated by our team of editors based all around the world. The common feature? Outstanding quality of both the original and the translation. I know that’s going to be my Christmas present to myself (and it will last all of 2018 as well).

WWWednesday: What Are You Reading? 15 Nov 2017

I skipped last month, so am coming back to it this November, but WWW Wednesday is actually a weekly meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Current:

Miklós Bánffy: They Were Counted – yes, still going… To be honest, I only started reading it properly in November, as I let it slide after the first page or two in September. But I am enjoying the descriptions of the sumptuous parties and large families (with far too many names). For #EU27Project.

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled – Rather enjoyed this one to begin with. A famous concert pianist arrives in a new town and promptly has everybody demanding things of him – it has all of that surreal quality of a dream (or a Kafka or Murakami Haruki story). But it just goes on for far too long. I am about halfway through and really wondering if I can be bothered to finish.

Recent:

Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen: The Wife Between Us – unsolicited ARC of a book to be published by Macmillan in Feb 2018. I just received it last Thursday and had no intention of reading it yet, but then I had a shouting match  civil altercation with my ex on the phone and was in the mood for some psychological drama where the husband is to blame for everything. I read it in two big gulps (helped by the fact that I was sick on Friday) and it’s what I would call ‘popcorn fiction’: very moreish, pleasing in the moment… but it doesn’t satiate you in the long run. Still, I can admire pacing, structure and twists even if I am not enamoured with the writing. The sleek New York lifestyle is a bit too far removed from my concerns.

Murder on Christmas Eve – anthology of previously published mysteries with a Christmassy twist, with well-known authors ranging from Margery Allingham, G.K. Chesterton and Michael Innes to more modern ones like Ian Rankin and Val McDermid. Full review to follow on CFL, but let me say here: I’m never quite sure who the target market is for these kind of books, as avid crime readers tend to prefer more in-depth mysteries, while the uplifting Christmassy story readers will be put off by the murders. Still, I suppose they make a handy gift if you don’t want to put too much thought into what someone likes to read. [In case anyone is asking, I would much prefer the new translation of The Odyssey by Emily Wilson, which is due to come out in hardback just before Christmas.]

Next:

I’ll be moving on to two Alpine countries next, because it is that time of year when my thoughts turn to skiing and snow. Besides, it was high time I read in French again.

Thomas Willmann: Das finstere Tal (Dark Valley)– it was filmed in Austria and it sounds very Austrian to me, although it is set in Bavaria, I suspect, and the author is a German Piefke (Austrian derogatory term for Germans). For #GermanLitMonth too.

Max Lobe: La Trinité bantoue (The Bantu Trilogy)- the author was born in Cameroon and settled in Switzerland (Geneva) at the age of eighteen. This book describes the life of a young man Mwana who tries to find work in a country somewhere in central Europe, where his white cousins are trying to chase out the black sheep (allusion to a disturbing election campaign poster in Switzerland). When he tries to return home to Bantu-land, he realises his mother doesn’t recognise him anymore. I think this story of displacement (at either end) is perfect for me. Lobe hasn’t had his novels translated into English yet, but you can read a story of his in Words Without Borders.

 

Who’s Sorry Now? #GermanLitMonth

Zoran Drvenkar: Sorry

I’ve just spent ten minutes writing, erasing and rewriting the first sentence of this review. I still can’t quite make up my mind about this book. There were parts of it which appealed to me: the setting, a few (very few) of the characters (Tamara, Wolf and the lovely elderly couple living opposite them), some passages of great power, anger and insight. But there were downsides too: the graphic violence and descriptions of paedophilia, being in the head of a remorseless criminal, characters you could not really care for (even if you felt sorry for some of them), the deliberate confusion of points of view to make the story more exciting.

It all starts rather too slowly for what then descends into a race against time kind of thriller. We hear a little too much about how Kris lost his job and found his calling in apologising for others. We spend far too long in the company of Tamara and her sister, then watch her and Frauke shopping to cook dinner to cheer up their friend Kris. I’m not sure what we have to gain by getting to know the back story of Wolf’s doomed love affair with a junkie. The back stories of the four friends are too long and irrelevant for what the book turns out to be. The only back story which does count is that of the killer – and that is given to us in dribs and drabs – rightfully so, as it heightens the tension.

The premise of the book is really appealing: these four friends in their late 20s, who thought they’d have made a success of their lives in Berlin by now, decide to start their own company and offer apologies for companies or individuals who have wronged people (unfair dismissal, bullying, etc.). Soon they have a roaring business and a long waiting list. Apparently, people are willing to pay good sums of money to cleanse their conscience. But then they end up in a house to apologise to a woman whom they find murdered and hung on the wall (I told you it was graphic). The murderer (their client) threatens that he will harm their families if they don’t clean up the mess and send him proof of it. And that’s when things derail and they all start behaving irrationally, not to say foolishly.

Old villas on the Wannsee in Berlin, the setting for much of the book.

The motivations are often puerile and random, and there is something of the grotesque about certain situations (the repeated attempts at burying the body, for example, has a farcical quality reminiscent of frenetic silent comedies). Then the tone changes and there is real menace or darkness, as well as frequent moments of sadness and despair. The tone veers too wildly from one to the next, it feels like the author is not quite in control of the narrative voice. Which, of course, isn’t helped by the fact that it also swoops from first to second to third person. Add to that the final bit of clever clogs-iness: the ‘before’ and ‘after’ timeline and lots of foreshadowing and commentary by an omniscient narrator – and you will find me well and truly irked!

So, overall, although it was fun (in a gruesome, reading-through-your-fingers kind of way), it was not the most memorable of reading experiences for #GermanLitMonth. I have bought his second novel Du (You) though, which is written entirely in the second person, because I have every confidence in the opinions of FictionFan and Margot Kinberg.

 

Elfriede Jelinek: In den Alpen #GermanLitMonth

Like her contemporary Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek is both revered and hated in almost equal measure in her homeland Austria. She is a Nobel Prize winning author, a beautiful writer and unafraid to experiment and tackle challenging themes, but she is also a sharp critic of the hypocrisy in Austrian society, its xenophobia and its unquestioning acceptance of Catholic authoritarianism. So an inconvenient thorn in the side of the establishment and the reputation of Austrian ‘Gemütlichkeit’ (warm, friendly, cheery mood). As recent election results show, her critique is entirely justified and the dark side of the Austrian soul is never too far from its more hospitable and charming surface.

In her volume consisting of three plays In den Alpen (In the Alps), Jelinek digs out the mountain of bones and darkness upon which resides that idyllic Alpine landscape her home country prides itself on. Not for nothing do the Austrians regularly refer to their country as the Alpenrepublik (a term which could apply to Switzerland too, but the Swiss like to think of themselves as a confederation).

Kaprun dam and mountain railway are part of the famous Salzkammergut tourist region in Austria. The first play entitled In the Alps looks at Kaprun as the scene of one of the greatest mountain disasters ever in Austria – in Nov 2000 155 people lost their lives in the railway tunnel when it caught fire, most of the victims being skiers and tourists going to visit the glacier. This play shows the contrast and eternal fight between technology and the environment, mass tourism and a healthy respect for the dangers inherent in nature. (See recent articles about not being able to see the lonesome beauty of Iceland or Peru because of the crowds of tourists). On the other hand, Jelinek also refers to the fact that Jews were excluded from the mountain-tourism associations in the early 20th century – as if they would taint the purity of the clean crisp mountain air. There is also the unspoken contrast between the pure Heimat (homeland) of the Alps, contrasting with the decadence of Vienna (full of Jews), a dichotomy which clearly influenced young Hitler as he was growing up.

The other longer play Das Werk (The Work) is about building the huge dam and power station, started in the 1920s and finished in the late 1950s with Marshall Plan funding. Before that, it had a bit of an inglorious past, with internment camp labour under the Nazis and later Russian POWs, many of whom died in avalanches and because of negligence in safety procedures. These two plays examine egos, ambition, exclusion and exploitation, natural and man-made catastrophes and the small, patient work of rebuilding. They are perhaps easier to read rather than to see performed: there is little action or dialogue – rather, it is more like a collection of long oratorios or tirades against industrial, political and military powers.

The plays have been performed in German (the first was premiered at the Munich Kammerspiele, the second at the Burgtheater in Vienna) but have not been translated into English. I found the volume by accident on the open shelves in the German studies reading room at the Senate House library (and read it there during my lunch breaks). An unplanned but lucky German literature month find!