Honesty, Likability and Book Reviews

Before I had my internet outage last week, I read a remarkably honest article about reviewing books when you have vested interests (are part of the publishing industry or are an author yourself). Sadly, I cannot remember the author nor find the article to link it here, but it left quite an impression. I started wondering just how honest my own reviews are, what my own hidden motivations are. I am about to write something that is deeply uncomfortable to think about, something which may not endear me to all those involved in publishing. But here goes…

Books, from wired.com

My primary purpose, when I started reviewing books on my blog, was to give an unvarnished opinion of what I had liked and disliked about a certain book, while recognising that it’s a matter of personal taste, that my taste is not infallible (far from it!), but I felt that I owed potential future readers full honesty.

Are you Kafka? No? Not sure about 5* then...
Are you Kafka? No? Not sure about 5* then…

I didn’t realise that star ratings are perceived very differently on Amazon and Goodreads than they are in my mind. To me, 5 stars is only for the truly exceptional (just to give you an idea: my favourite authors of all time, like Kafka, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, have got some 5 stars, but not for all of their books). Four stars is very high praise indeed, while three stars is a good, solid read, but it doesn’t really stand out in any way. Two is ploddingly average but readable, while 1 means I did finish it but rather regret the time wasted. And no stars at all means I cannot even begin to discuss the many, many things which I disliked about the book.

Then I discovered that many of my friends (in real life, on blogs or twitter) were authors and pressing their books upon me for review. I don’t want to hurt them, I know how much work goes into writing, finishing, editing a book. Belatedly, I also discovered that anything below a 5 star tends to provoke an author’s ire, however cleverly I argue my case (and point out both pros and cons). Admittedly, authors who’ve been in the business for a while and have had some success tend to be more … well, relaxed and professional about it. Many of them are still speaking to me after I gave them 3 or 4 star reviews on Crime Fiction Lover, and I think some publishers are resigned to the fact that I very, very seldom give out a 5 star. Which makes that rare bird all the more precious (to my mind). After all, if everything is a 5 star, how on earth can we ever decide what to read next?

However, I have been known to write to publishers or authors (particularly debut authors or self-published ones, who I feel need more support and understanding) and say: ‘I cannot give your book a good review. Would you like the honest feedback or would you rather I didn’t review it at all?’ Most of the time, invisibility is preferable to notoriety.

stars

I also have another problem with the swathe of 5 star reviews: they become a fashion statement, a self-fulfilling prophecy, a buzz – whatever we choose to call it. Once the first few reviewers have declared it a ‘wonderful work of fiction’ or ‘the next Big Thing’ (with Girl or Wife or Daughter or Husband or Man or Twins in the title), all the others can jump on the bandwagon and echo those sentiments. It’s called herd instinct or crowd control. If one influential person whose opinion I generally trust has declared this to be a work of genius, there must be something about it… And if I didn’t like it, then there must be something wrong with me, surely? Of course, this is exactly what publishers and publicists are hoping for, but where does our duty as a reviewer ultimately lie?

Book launches.
Book launches.

Each reviewer will have to decide this for him or herself. It is hard to give up the love-fest of ARCs and invitations to book launches and retweets or mentions by publishers, so it’s understandable that we don’t want to anger the publishers with less enthusiastic reviews. Oh, the embarrassment of meeting an author whom you slated at the next literary festival and having them hint that they’ve read your blog! Besides, I am truly grateful for the opportunity to read so many new and exciting books (for free), even if not all of them make me jump with joy. I couldn’t afford to read all of them otherwise…

Things get even more complicated if we aspire to be authors ourselves. Will we alienate agents, editors and fellow authors if we give them a bad review? Will they take revenge on our own humble offering in the future? And, anyway, who are we to criticise those who are more experienced, more talented, better connected than us? They clearly know something we don’t.

Of course there are reviewers who can get genuinely enthused by most of the books they read. I am not accusing anyone of hypocrisy. But I have discovered something very much like diplomacy in certain situations in my own reviews: ‘a page-turner’ may be my code word for ‘doesn’t require much thinking on my part’, ‘a profusion of characters which might confuse readers’ is another way of saying ‘stock stereotypes and far too many of them’. I’m not entirely proud of that, but it was my choice. I’ve opted for politeness over brutal candour when things are negative, but you can also rest assured that every word of praise is absolutely well-earned and honest.

From classicrarebooks.co.uk
From classicrarebooks.co.uk

As for who gets the completely raw and unfiltered review nowadays? Well, I’ve noticed the classics or dead authors are coming in for their fair share of bashing! Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust… they’re all fair game. It is also far easier to be honest about books in translation (because the author is less likely to read that review?). Finally, it is far easier to express your opinions about books which are not in your favourite genre, Caveats work a treat: ‘I don’t usually read science fiction, but…’ or ‘I don’t have much experience with YA, but…’

So what can you expect from me? Where do my responsibilities lie? With readers like myself, who have perhaps spent too much money and time to acquire the latest bestseller and are very sorely disappointed by it. With authors, who should know I will never get my fangs out for the sake of being different, courting controversy, getting more blog hits or seeking revenge. In fact, I don’t do fangs. I try to be fair, to remind everyone that I am just one solitary voice of opinion and bring my own biases to the table. But when I say ‘outstanding’, when I urge everyone to read a book, you can be sure I mean it from the bottom of my heart.

From red24management.com
From red24management.com

 

Reference Book to Treasure: Crime Fiction in German (Der Krimi)

crimeficgermanIf you have any interest at all in German literature or in crime fiction, you will enjoy leafing through this erudite and yet still very readable collection of articles. Or, if you are slightly obsessed like myself, you will read it from cover to cover and then start all over again. And I’m not just saying that because I was flattered to receive an electronic proof copy by the University of Wales Press. It is that rarest of creatures: an academic study which is also very enjoyable and could become a bestseller!

What is remarkable about the book is the breadth and depth of topics it covers. In terms of breadth, no stone is left unturned. The editor Katharina Hall (known to many crime fiction fans as Mrs. Peabody from her much-loved blog) and the other contributors cover not just the obvious subject areas (West German, East German, Austrian and Swiss crime fiction), but also lesser-known categories such as women’s crime writing, historical crime fiction, the place of Africa in German crime fiction and even television dramas. Furthermore, the definition of crime fiction itself is deliberately broad, and includes literary authors writing crime-infused experimental or social novels (Hans Fallada, Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek) as well as more traditional crime.

In terms of depth, you will find here not only comprehensive overviews of the development of crime fiction in each of the German-speaking countries, as you might expect from an academic tome, but also a focus on specific writers or books. Martin Rosenstock’s analysis of Dürrenmatt, for instance, is beautifully nuanced, pointing out how the Swiss author breaks all the classic formulas of the crime genre, whilst also poking fun at the self-aggrandising Swiss myths of neutrality, wealth and historical heritage.

Each chapter (or article) is followed not only by endnotes and a select bibliography of books (mostly those available in translation), but also recommendations for further secondary reading. Where no English translations are available for a work cited, there is a small extract in English at the end of the chapter as well, just enough to give you a flavour of the original and whet your appetite for more. This is also one of the stated aims of the book: ‘to provide readers with a springboard for further reading, viewing and research’. There is also an excellent table at the front with the chronology of crime fiction in German, including political, criminal and publishing milestones from 800 until the present day.

I will not attempt a blow-by-blow account of each topic, but allow me to highlight just a few.

Viennese tram. No relation to the book, but couldn't resist smuggling in that photo.
Viennese tram. No relation to the book, but couldn’t resist smuggling in that photo.

I may be slightly prejudiced in favour of Austrian writers, but I certainly appreciate the article on the odd humour and often extreme experimentation by Austrian authors, written by Marieke Krajenbrink, and have already ordered several books from her list of recommendations.

Thanks to an article Katharina Hall agreed to write for Crime Fiction Lover, I had previously experienced her encyclopedic knowledge of crime fiction dealing with different aspects or periods in German history (mostly the Nazi period and the reunification of the country after the Cold War). It was a pleasure, however, to read a more thorough analysis of the topic, as well as a detailed discussion of two fantastic (and very different) novels: Fallada’s Alone in Berlin and Simon Urban’s Plan D.

Finally, I cannot forget the fascinating articles which open up an entirely new world to me: Julia Augart’s analysis of the so-called Afrika-Krimi and Faye Stewart’s research on the Frauenkrimi (women crime writers). I had never heard of the first as a subgenre, and never stopped to compare the themes and styles of male and female German crime novelists.

In conclusion, either this book is a great exception to the rule, or else academic books have evolved considerably since my time, because I find it very approachable indeed. It achieves that wonderful balance between ‘speaking to ordinary readers’ without ‘dumbing down’. I’ve learnt something new in every single chapter and yet, try as I might, I can’t find any pretentious or obscure references which so often plague literary criticism. I was hoping for some Lacan or Foucault or at least Wittgenstein to throw my arms up at, but no! It stays admirably grounded throughout.

Congratulations to all the contributors and editors involved in this project. There is nothing quite like it in the English language. I will certainly treasure it and return to it as a work of reference for many years to come.

Tatiana Salem Levy: The House in Smyrna (transl. Alison Entrekin)

housesmyrnaBrazil is in the news today with the impeachment of its president – and will be in the news soon again with the Olympics (and will all the stadiums get finished in time).  Its troubled history and on-off economy are easy to mock; the violence inside and outside its favelas is dramatic. And yet it also remains a country of extraordinary beauty, passion, music and literature. I’ve vowed many times to learn Portuguese and to read its authors in the original. Luckily, for my sanity, there are splendid translators helping me to enjoy Brazilian literature, although very little contemporary literature gets translated. Is there a fear that it will not appeal? Certainly, the recent crime novel by Raphael Montes was strange and unsettling, but a refreshingly different read in a landscape that has often become rather uniform.

The same can be said for Tatiana Salem Levy’s exploration of cultural and personal identity The House in Smyrna. Apparently, this book was initially intended to be a dissertation on literature and family history, but Levy’s Ph. D. supervisor suggested that she write it as a novel instead.  The novel was entitled ‘The Keys to the House’ in the original Portuguese. Since its publication in 2007 (year in which it won a prestigious Brazilian prize for best debut), it has been revised and edited by the author prior to its translation into English. The author speaks English very well, as I found out when I saw her a couple of years ago at Lavigny, and she works as a translator, so she may have streamlined the text to make it more palatable to English readers.

Palatable, perhaps, but not easy. The narrative is fragmented, very much like Brazilian sensibility itself, which, the author says ‘if there is such a thing, it’s all about mixed identities’. The author is reluctant to close any doors, she doesn’t answer questions, merely asks more. It feels like she wants to allow the readers to find their own path through the novel and formulate their own interpretation of the story. So below is my personal interpretation of it.

A young woman lies helpless on her bed in Rio de Janeiro, filled with self-hatred and self-pity, victim to some kind of wasting disease. She has inherited a key to the house in Smyrna which her Jewish grandfather had left decades before as a young man. Her mission is to find the house and try the key. At first, she has no intention of doing that, but after her mother’s death, she somehow hauls herself off her sickbed and flies off to Istanbul. We then trace her route through Turkey, all her travel experiences, then her return via Lisbon, where she was born (her parents having lived there in exile during the dictatorship in Brazil). At the same time, we have flashbacks to her loving yet complicated relationship with her mother, and also a passionate but increasingly violent relationship with a lover.

By this point, it was getting very confusing: was the protagonist severely disabled or was she able to travel? What happened first, what next, all those switches between time frames made me nervous? And then I came across the following quote and the mystery deepened but also resolved itself:

This journey is a lie: I’ve never left this musty bed. My body rots a little more each day, I’m riddled with pustules, and soon I’ll be nothing but bones… How could I undertake such a journey? I have no joints; my bones are fused to one another. The only way I could leave this bed is if someone were to carry, but who would pick up such a repugnant body? What for? I have the silence and solitude of an entire family in me, of generations and generations.

This immediately gave an added poignancy to the story. We don’t know if the travel is real. It could be a pilgrimage in her mind, wishful thinking, an attempt to understand herself and the people around her while powerless to make the actual journey. Perhaps we are doomed to never quite understand our full heritage. Perhaps the paralysis is metaphorical: the equivalent of ‘writer’s block’, the need to find out more about the past in order to start building the future. The key is of course a metaphor, perhaps a very obvious one: the key to the narrator’s life, her sense of purpose.

tatiana-salem-levy-a-chave-de-casa-en-portugues-807711-MLA20602118566_022016-FThere is a throbbing, raw, emotional style to this kind of writing, which reminds me of Clarice Lispector and of Elena Ferrante. Unashamedly candid about sex, lyrical in the description of places the author visits, musical in its repetitions and waterfalls of sentences. Yet the pathos is gently tempered with down-to-earth humour. When the narrator proclaims that sense of loss of identity in exile:

I was born in exile, and that’s why I am the way I am, without a homeland, without a name. That is why I am solid, unpolished, still rough. I was born away from myself, away from my land — but, when it comes down to it, who am I? What land is mine?

we have the voice of the mother cutting down her fanciful pronouncements to size:

There you go again, narrating through a prism of pain. That isn’t what I told you. Exile isn’t necessarily full of suffering. In our case it wasn’t… We were in Portugal, eating well, speaking our own language, meeting people, working, having fun…

You can listen to an interview with the author in English on Australian radio, which I think helps greatly to unravel the mystery of this novel.

ravenscragCoincidentally, I was reading another novel of fragments and wildly different time frames just a few days later, Québécois author Alain Farah’s novel Ravenscrag. Initially exhilarating and intriguing, hinting at some mysterious disappearances and indoctrination, it ultimately disappointed me. By not exploring some of its most promising possibilities, it did not quite fulfill its promise and left me unsatisfied.

 

Friday Fun: Renovation Projects

If only I had the time, money and energy to rescue some of these wonderful, gracious old buildings! That’s what I would do with my millions, instead of stashing them in offshore funds.  And then open them to the public as cultural venues.

The grand staircase of the Constanta casino, from messynessychic.com
The grand staircase of the Constanta casino, from messynessychic.com
The exterior of the Constanta casino, from messynessychic.com
The exterior of the Constanta casino, from messynessychic.com
Moonhole mansion on the island of Bequia, from Pinterest.
Moonhole mansion on the island of Bequia, from Pinterest.
Piscine Molitor in Paris before the renovation, from messynessychic.com
Piscine Molitor in Paris before the renovation, from messynessychic.com
Piscine Molitor after the renovation, from konbini.fr
Piscine Molitor after the renovation, from konbini.fr
Villa Schneider, in Tallinn, Estonia.
Villa Schneider, in Tallinn, Estonia.
Schloss Potzleinsdorf in Vienna, now a Waldorf school (formerly the English School). From placeandsee.com
Schloss Potzleinsdorf in Vienna, now a Waldorf school (formerly the English School). From placeandsee.com

 

Poetry Link-Up: Content Inside

She’s forgotten the hot shiver
of a new hand
stroking her hair

Her skin stretched and soft
like blotting paper
no longer absorbs
the ink bruise of lovebites.

Crooning a broken record of a lovesong
she tangles her hair
for the few seconds
her body convulses

And feels the power she once had given
to the nook of broad shoulders on men.

Image courtesy of favim.com
Image courtesy of favim.com

I’ve been submitting quite a few poems to literary magazines lately, so I’ve been using this blog only to post very rough first drafts or discarded poems or poems which require substantial reworking. Apologies for that! I’m still cheekily linking this up to dVerse Poets Open Link Night, which starts later on today, because I always enjoy going there for a visit. Join me if you can!

Mary Oliver and Inspiration

maryoliverI was never a full convert to Mary Oliver’s poetry. Heresy, I know, but I dismissed it as ‘greetings cards’ type of poetry – plenty of feel-good factor, but too obvious and too easy to read (and dismiss). Too much of a bestseller?

Was this slim volume of selected poems entitled ‘Felicity’ going to change my mind?

At first, I thought not. The questions were almost touching in their naivety and blandness.

Things take the time they take. Don’t worry. How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?

Why do people keep asking to see God’s identity papers when the darkness opening into morning is more than enough?

There are plenty of aphorisms, of the type which I thought had died out after the Enlightenment or Oscar Wilde:

All important ideas must include the trees, the mountains and the rivers.

Beauty can both shout and whisper, and still it explains nothing.

The point is, you’re you, and that’s for keeps.

But then I came across the poems about love. And there the freshness, candour, surprise and even platitudes suddenly seemed appropriate when punctuated by breathlessness. You can feel the delight and search for new ways to express an emotion which catches us unawares every single time and makes youngsters of us all.

I did think, let’s go about this slowly. This is important. This should take some really deep thought. We should take small thoughtful steps. But, bless us, we didn’t.

Are the morning kisses the sweetest/ or the evenings/ or the inbetweens?/ All I know/ is that thank you should appear/ somewhere./ So, just in case,/ I can’t find/ the perfect place – / ‘Thank you, thank you.’

Mary Oliver is best known for her close observation of nature – and you won’t find much of that in this volume, so perhaps I am being somewhat unfair to her. So perhaps not the best introduction to her work if you are new to it, but a useful source of quotations for your own poetry? What do you think, am I being unfair to a poet that is appreciated by so many who would otherwise not read much poetry?

 

Crime Fiction Reviews: Gendered Crime?

I don’t believe in gender stereotypes, but it did occur to me that the last few crime/thriller novels had a bit of a gender bias in terms of subject matter. Written by women = psychological thriller; family, parenting and social issues. Written by men: violence, attacks, conspiracies, shadowy enemy (or everyone is an enemy), political agendas. I enjoy both types of subject matter, don’t consider one ‘better’ or ‘worthier’ than the other, and that’s why I alternate authors, genders and genres. I’m greedy, I want everything!

1974David Peace: 1974

I loved it and I hated it. It is very thought-provoking, a real fresco of the time and place (although just seen through the eyes of one character, which the author will remedy in the rest of the quartet). It is undeniably powerful and grim, perhaps too much so;  unrelentingly dark, so noir that not even a glimmer of hope or light comes through. And I say this as a huge fan of noir! I also found the staccato prose and swearing starts to grate after a while, although initially it is just perfect and captures the inflexions and nuances of Yorkshire speech patterns. But it’s worth remembering that this was Peace’s first novel, and that he keeps getting better and better.

Eddie Dunford, the main protagonist, is trying to make his mark as a crime correspondent. A right little prick he is too – using women, ready to cheat and lie and do anything to get ahead. But he is a bit out of his league with all the corruption and craziness going on around him. The story is (deliberately, I think) convoluted and often hard to understand, yet I can see how David Peace can become addictive.

Other male writers recently read: Matt Johnson – The Wicked Game. That too seemed filled with testosterone, hatred, machismo (nothing wrong with that).

tasteslikefearSarah Hilary: Tastes Like Fear

Sarah Hilary is fast becoming one of the most promising of new crime fiction writers (alongside other recent favourites like Mari Hannah, Eva Dolan and Stav Sherez). This is her third and perhaps most accomplished book to date. Everything just seems to come together in this one: perfectly-pitched plotting with alternating storylines (a device which has recently become so commonplace that it almost jars, but in this case it worked perfectly), atmospheric descriptions of a corner of London full of social contrasts, great observational skills and social commentary, occasional glimpses into the personal life of Marnie and Noah, the two main investigators, plus well-rounded characters, none of whom conforms to stereotype. I love the way Sarah Hilary takes topical subjects and makes you question every assumption or preconception you might have had.

This time the topic is about runaway teenagers and homelessness, vulnerability and visibility, anger and the need to feel loved/protected. Plus, what a great backdrop Battersea Power Station makes! (Oh, and Noah’s migraine suffering? Spot on, thanks for trying to explain to the rest of the world just how debilitating such an attack can be!)

whenshewasbadTammy Cohen: When She Was Bad

Many years ago, Anne Cater, American child psychologist, had to assess the impact of neglect and abuse on two small children in a horrific and notorious case which proved the making of the career of two of her (male) colleagues. Anne refused to go along with the consensus view and it seems she is now proved right, as one of the children went on to commit a horrifying deed in the UK in the present day. Just what it is and who it is – well, Tammy Cohen is teases us with the two strands of the story until the very end. This is one of those cases when the alternating between the two stories felt a little manipulative and intrusive (although they are both cracking stories in themselves).

The second strand is set in a workplace that will sound familiar to many. Kudos to the author for portraying so faithfully a place where targets, egos, ambitions, rivalries all are ripe fodder for resentment and murderous intent. A new boss soon creates a toxic atmosphere in a team in a recruitment consultancy. As distrust rises and tempers flare, matters are not improved by off-site bonding events (ah, yes, those dreaded things!). I have always wondered why there aren’t more novels set in the workplace, where we spend most of our lives, after all. But then I realised that it felt almost too familiar, it made me cringe with recognition – so perhaps there is not enough of an escapist element there. One small criticism would be that I felt the team members were selected especially to cover all bases (which is not the case in many workplaces, where there is a bit of clone effect in hiring): the gay man, the young ambitious guy, the stressed mother, the middle-aged woman cruising to retirement etc.

The other female writer was C.L. Taylor: The Missing, which I will review on CFL. The subject is very clearly domestic: the impact of a teenager’s disappearance on his family.

Now, when I talk about gender differences, I am not saying that the last two writers are ‘just’ women or treat ‘smaller’ subjects, but they do seem to have a more personal, immediate approach. Or perhaps I respond differently to them because I am a woman myself. Marnie and Anne are crusaders for truth just as much as Eddie in 1974, but there is less self-serving career advancement in their quest for justice, much more genuine concern for other people.