Friday Fun: Location Hunting

I’ve been immersing myself in the world of my novel – and very much enjoying it. It does help that a lot of the locations in the novel (which takes place predominantly in Romania) are so picturesque.

The fatal accident that leads to everything that happens in the novel takes place on this road over the mountains, the Transfăgărășan crossing the Carpathians. From Romania Visitor Center.
Some crucial scenes take place at the Chalet on Lake Balea at the top of the mountain.
Our two main protagonists meet up with former classmates to try and find out more about the deceased here, on top of the National Theatre, at Enache’s Milk Bar. From bucurestiulmeudrag.ro
They make an important ally and friend in Curtea de Arges, not far from the site of the accident, and spend a short while in the grounds of this beautiful monastery. From TouristinRomania.wordpress.com
Eli does some research in the archives at the Central State Library in Bucharest, from Agerpres.ro
Clues lead them to the beautiful Transylvanian city of Sibiu, and they have lunch in the Big Square in the centre, from RomaniaExplore.com

Friday Fun: Library Lockdown

I wouldn’t mind getting locked down in any of these home libraries. Of course, some of them are fictional, but no need to limit yourselves to reality!

Under the eaves yet not dark at all, from deavita.fr
Another attic library, with a more realistic cluttered look, from mediabookbub.com
If you’ve seen the film Knives Out, I’m sure your pulses raced faster at the thought of having a study/library like this.
Another fictional library, from the TV series Gotham, as shown in Architectural Digest.
Slightly more rustic, but still incredibly inviting, from zillow. com
And if you have a few bob to spare, Bilotta.com creates custom-made libraries, wine-cellars, walk-in wardrobes and the like.

Friday Fun: Fireplaces and Christmas

There is something a bit samey about Christmas decorations especially in the English-speaking world in the northern hemisphere. But I might allow myself to be converted if there is a fireplace. I can imagine myself sitting in front of it and reading all the lovely new books I have bought for myself for Christmas (and the rest of the year).

Plenty of warmth and reading by candlelight in this Ideal Home picture.
American Christmas ideas, from Good Housekeeping.
That bench in front of the fire would be ideal for dividing up the books into piles, don’t you think? From Grandin Road.
A move away from the traditional colour scheme, the wood panelling adds some cosiness despite the lack of a rug. From Veranda.
Finally a household that understands a good reading chair is a must in front of a roaring fire. From Christmas.365greetings.com

Friday Fun: Cosy Backgrounds

Now that the nights are drawing in and I’m hibernating in the house with no chance of going skiing (I am not overly fond of going running in the rain), I’ve noticed that all my Teams and Zoom meeting backgrounds are starting to look remarkably chalet-like. So here are some cosy rooms with fireplaces that my colleagues almost started envying…

The white tulips make you think of spring, but the open fireplace says Christmas stockings to me. From OneKinDesign.com
Isn’t that leather chaiselongue just made for reading? From cabinlife.com
In summer I like it bright and airy, but there’s nothing like some glowing fire and candlelight in the dark in winter. From BrotherTedd.com
This rustic one is for rent on location-france.fr, with or without guitars.
The grandest and least cosy, but I’m sure there is a fireplace in there somewhere – and the view! From OneKinDesign.com

Japanese Crime Fiction: The Aosawa Murders

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda, transl. Alison Watts (Bitter Lemon Press)

I ‘accidentally’ borrowed this book from the library just before the second lockdown (i.e. it jumped into my arms from the ‘new acquisitions’ shelf when I went to the library to pick up my reserved books), and I have to return it soon, so I cannot wait until January in Japan to review it. All I can tell you is that it’s a really interesting, really fascinating read and I want to recommend it to everyone who has even a passing interest in Japan.

It is a very Japanese approach to crime and guilt, in that the focus is more on psychology and different (conflicting) versions of the story, rather than pure detection. I am thinking of books such as those by Natsuo Kirino or Kanae Minato with their tortured, twisted protagonists, but even the more ‘conventional’ police procedurals of Keigo Higashino, Tetsuya Honda or Hideo Yokoyama have elements of long-held grudges or unusual (one might almost say supernatural) coincidences. And of course we have the classic Rashomon to remind us to never take stories at their face value, that the truth may always elude us. If you are comfortable with ambiguity, with not quite being able to make up your mind what the definitive answer to the puzzle is, then this is the book for you.

The Aosawas are a wealthy family, owners of a local hospital which is located within their large villa in a coastal town in Japan. On a hot summer day in the 1970s they are celebrating three family birthdays but the joyful event turns to tragedy when 17 members of the family and servants die from poison in drinks which had been delivered to their house supposedly from a doctor in another town. There are only two survivors: the housekeeper who only touched a drop of the drink and was severely ill as a result, and the blind daughter of the house Hisako.

Although the prime suspect (the man who delivered the drinks) committed suicide, and the case was closed, there are many people connected to the case who are not satisfied with this so-called admission of guilt. Eleven years after the events, one of the people somewhat connected to the family publishes a bestselling book about the tragedy (although it doesn’t seem to point the finger of blame at anybody specifically). Thirty years after the murders, the case is investigated once more, this time unofficially by one of the people who read the bestselling book and who is now re-interviewing survivors and witnesses.

Each chapter is told from a different point of view, most of them in interview style, but some of them are chapters from the book or excerpts from police files. Some of the characters seem quite tangential to the story (the son of the owner of the neighbourhood stationery shop, for example, or the editor of the bestselling book), but each story adds another layer of complexity. At the time of reading, you may not realise the significance of certain scenes or descriptions or words, but at the end of the book, you go back and reread certain passages and things seem much clearer.

I was entranced with how different each of the chapters was stylistically. No danger of getting confused because all of the narrative voices sound ‘samey’. I can imagine the gender, regional and educational differences would be even more marked in the original Japanese, so the translator did an excellent job of managing to convey that with more limited resources available in English.

The book was originally published in Japan in 2006 under the name Eugenia, and the author won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for it. Riku Onda is a prolific and prize-winning author in Japan, with many film and TV adaptations of her work. She has written a few other ‘crime’ style books, and also across many other genres, including speculative and literary fiction. I hope the success of this book in English means that more of her work will become available to those of us who cannot read Japanese.

Friday Fun: Industrial Look Can Be Beautiful

When I was investigating tiny houses, I came across shipping container homes, which I thought sounded dreadful, but which in fact can be transformed into highly imaginative and attractive residences. So here are some shipping container and other industrial-look homes (and all still quite small).

Perfect little abode in the forest, rubushome.ru
A guesthouse from shipping containers to add to your pile of old stones, from Studio Architecture Rennes.
Utterly dreamy black pavillion, although I can imagine it might become a bit too hot in summer. from mariakillam.com
Danish summer house, from adventure-journal.com
Writer’s retreat at False Bay, Washington State, designed by Olson Kundig. From Small House Bliss.
And when you leave, you can just close up your cabin like a box – isn’t that perfect? Same credits as above.

#YoungWriterAward: Marina Kemp – Nightingale

When I first saw the shortlist for the Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, I thought that Nightingale by Marina Kemp sounded like the closest to what we might think of as a traditional novel, and that has certainly proven to be the case now that I’ve read it. I don’t say that in any disparaging way: in fact, I’ve often wished that some so-called auto-fictions or experimental novels had erred on the side of tradition and a coherent narrative and overarching structure.

From the beautiful cover, to the blurb promising dysfunctional families, secrets and lies, to the setting in the sleepy south-west of France, it has all the hallmarks of the perfect summer holiday read. It is the story of Marguerite, a young Parisian raised in a well-to-do family, who has trained as a palliative nurse and who has been hired to look after grumpy, wealthy Jérôme Lanvier, once the most powerful and feared men in the village. Marguerite’s past and the reason why she might be working in such an ‘unprestigious’ job become a source of speculation and gossip in the village. Yet the patient and the nurse very slowly, very cautiously develop some sort of understanding and even a grudging respect.

However much Marguerite may wish to keep to herself, she cannot help but become involved with some of the villagers: bolshy Brigitte who has been tasked with checking up on Jérôme’s nursing companions; her gentle farmer husband Henri; the old man’s sons who make a brief appearance from their successful Parisian careers and seem to care more about the inheritance than about their father; and Suki, whose family fled from Iran, and who feels the eternal outsider in a community of ‘mediocrities’.

So we have an intriguing cast of characters, and we have hints (actually quite broad hints – more like public road signs) of past pain and secrets that certain of the characters would do anything to protect. We also have trips to the boulangerie, drinking wine among the olive groves and picking ripe tomatoes on the vine. We have careful observation of gestures and dialogue, a gradual reveal of motivations and tensions, good pacing generally. There are also passages of lyrical, yearning intensity that are simply beautifully written. Yet, overall, the book failed to win me entirely over.

Firstly, despite all of its cultural references, I did not feel fully immersed in a stifling French village atmosphere with sinister overtones, as described so accurately by French authors such as Sylvie Granotier, Sébastien Japrisot or Pascal Garnier. Nor did it have the almost overwhelming charm and specificity of the novels of Joanne Harris or Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police series. Yet Marina Kemp is one of a long line of English-speaking authors to choose to set her novel in France, so I have no quarrel with that.

Secondly, there were quite a few instances when the author was not merely content to show us an emotion or interaction between her characters, but she also had to tell it. It felt like everything had to be underlined, emphasised, dwelled upon, to make sure that we don’t miss it as a reader. In French novels and films, so much is left unsaid, so much is merely implied, which is why the contrast struck me all the more forcibly. Finally, some of the secrets were dealt with in a rather melodramatic fashion which might have made more sense if the book had been set a few decades ago.

Having made all of the critical remarks above, I have to admit that I read the book in just a couple of days and found it an enjoyable experience. However, I don’t think it will be the most memorable book from the shortlist for me.

Friday Fun: More Living in Miniature

The temptation to live off-grid somewhere in a tiny (but well-insulated) house is becoming well-nigh overwhelming. No, this is not a comment on current politics or fears; this is a worry-free, escapist zone.

Small but mighty, this creation by BF Architects.
Palatial ambitions for this little house, from Buzzfeed.
Very different style, a beach hut feel to this one, from Instagram.
This one is actually a miniature model, but I can’t wait for someone to build me one to my human proportions. From iseeblue.typepad.com.
I may claim to be a simple girl at heart, but I rather like the more grandiose structures! From myincrediblewebsite.com
If in doubt, stick to a well-appointed garden shed – and what a garden! From owecraft.com
For the ultimate fantasy escape, this fairytale lodge from thisoldhouse.com

Friday Fun: You Don’t Need a Palace…

I’ve often said I don’t need much more than a little cabin or hut to house myself once the boys leave home. Although I might need another cabin or two just to house the books…

All you need in one small parcel, from tinyliving.com
A rather classy, high-end vision of the cabin, with amazing windows. From dorisleslieblau.com
It clearly doesn’t work for a couple (actually, for a single person with an occasional guest), but everything is neat and has its place. From TinyHouseMarketplace.com
An old barn feel to this tiny, but practical cabin – it even has a fire extinguisher! From tinyhomesbuilder.com
Finally one that satisfies my book cravings… from decoholic.com

Friday Fun: Life at the Top

What would life be like if you had high enough ceilings to fit in a mezzanine? Here are some suggestions of how to go about planning and decorating.

Industrial loft decor, room enough for a bike without tripping over it, from DesignMilk.com
A 1950s vibe to this decor, dog not included though! From Yatzer.com
This one seems to stretch over several floors – and we have books at last! From Wit and Whistle.
This feels more down to earth – and of course we have books and clutter too. From DorisLeslieBlau.com
As long as everyone keeps really quiet around the house, I could live with a mezzanine study. From pinimg.com
But my Prize of the Week goes to this cabin in the woods in Poland, which is a reader’s paradise. From LivinginaShoebox.com