One of the pleasures of dedicating myself to writing (once more) is that I am rediscovering old friends whom I haven’t seen in years, and whose creative talents have matured like good wine. Our lives have taken such different paths, we are scattered all over the world, we may struggle with small talk and yet…
Our love of words unites us: in some ways, we are perhaps closer now, sharing the best of of our thoughts, than we were when we were living together side by side.
Let me introduce you to just three of these. First, Paul Doru Mugur, a friend from high school, the only one who kept pushing me (sometimes ruthlessly) to write. Here is a beautiful and rich essay of his about time, published in an online journal which he co-edits. He also translates Romanian poetry into English, has published several volumes of short stories and poetry, and is generally very active in the arts world – all while holding down a demanding job as a physician in New York.
Secondly, I have a niece who used to pull my hair as a baby, but whom I have barely seen since. She is now all grown-up, has just graduated from university, writes searing prose in Romanian and occasionally in English. We barely speak to each other at the big family reunions, but have grown close through our online love of writing. A facet of ourselves well-hidden from the rest of the family. Here is a poem in English, but I think her real talent lies in flash fiction or polemical pieces. Here is a lovely example called Tutus and Cigarettes.
Finally, a friend from university who writes like an angel. Her blog House of Happy has made me just that: profoundly happy. I think she has a direct window into my heart and head at times. Here is one of my favourite recent entries. I wanted to reblog it, but our different platforms means I will cut and paste instead (oddly appropriate for this poem):
Get some paper
Chop it up into small squares (a hundred freckles-wide by exactly four snails)
Retrieve bits of your life and write down trigger-words on the shell-and-freckle paper: trigger words are those words that drag behind them large, live memories, the type you can still see, feel, count, smell (but not always spell…); the kind that roll off the shelf, jump out of the bottle and burn your eyes.
Put them all in a hat, shake well.
Watch them settle inside, now still but still whispering their burnished secrets, a lake of life inside a hat.
Clutch the trigger word you caught tightly inside your fist.
(eat it up if you must – chew well, swallow carefully; this may be helpful but remains entirely optional)
In any case, hold that word, smell it, consume it or, better still, let it consume you.
Then write about it. Write as if your next breath depended on it.
Prose, verse, a picture, anything that would help you understand
why your heart still roars
although your life, bruised burden
and time itself
Oh, allright then, here is a terrible picture from those days, to counteract all these lovely words! And no, I’m not sharing which one of the wild-haired people was me!
Inspired by fellow crime addict Kerrie from the Mysteries in Paradise website, I compiled a list of all the books I had read in June. Imagine my surprise when I realised I’d actually read a lot more than I expected, probably thanks to Crime Fiction Lover, who keeps sending books my way to review. Yes, the vast majority of them are crime fiction:
Jo Nesbø: The Snowman
Jo Nesbø: The Redeemer
Jo Nesbø: Headhunters
Camilla Läckberg: The Stonecutter
Pia Juul: The Murder of Halland
Sophie Hannah: A Room Swept White
Victoria Hislop: The Thread
Janet Hubbard: Champagne: The Farewell
Magdalena Nabb: Death of an Englishman
Mari Jungstedt: The Dead of Summer
Anna Jansson: Killer Island
D.A. Serra: Primal
Some of them have already been reviewed on this blog or on the Crime Fiction Lover site. You may notice a certain repetitiveness: Jo Nesbø features a lot, because there will be a special on him on the Crime Fiction Lover website later in July. But which one was my pick of the month? Well, it was a close call between ‘Primal’ (review and author interview will be coming up soon) and ‘Headhunters’. In the end, ‘Headhunters’ won out, because the set-up was so absurd, the humour so wicked, the characters so vile… There was more than a touch of Patricia Highsmith about it, I felt. Now I can’t wait to see the Morten Tyldum film version (perhaps less so the upcoming American version).
I am always bemused by the acknowledgements pages in any great works published by men*, with that little throwaway remark: ‘Thank you to my wonderful/beautiful/lovely/take your pick wife, without whose support this would not have been possible.’ And perhaps some of them mean it, perhaps in some cases it’s just lip service, but how many are really aware of all it entails, being supportive to a genius? I wonder how many of these wives struggled with their own monsters, black dogs and depressions. Vivien Eliot, this one’s for you!
Thank You to My Wife for All Her Wonderful Support
The slit of her smile
split the face in dozens of jagged shards
each piercing each striking
at simulacrum of heart.
The effort of small talk
all weather-beaten smooth
crashed against the deserted, rambling beaches of her mind.
In the morning she could will the robot limbs to stretch
the hands to prepare, the voice to chide,
even goodbye kiss when called upon.
But bland pop on the radio did not drive
enemies away and back at the house
she would freeze into a lump
huddled in safety of naughty corner.
Calls postponed, duties not done till urgency bites
and school runs once more.
Sit still in self-embrace
and breathe and swallow
breathe some more
Take tiny step after baby step –
Don’t glance below! Don’t look ahead! –
soap sud slippery her grip
she braces, she faces, interlaces
then that sharp fell swing
where all she can do is hate.
But not one word passes the slit
which passes for a smile
on what passes for the face of the supportive wife.
* Increasingly, women too will thank their supportive spouses, but there is a difference in the level of ‘taking for granted-ness’.
As a bit of a change from my usual rather intense and depressing poetry, I decided to have some fun today with song lyrics. It works a bit like the book spine poetry which Breathing Spaceor Bettina Forget or DP Bowman do so well. Except that you choose song lyrics (rather than just titles) and, in my case, I stuck to David Bowie exclusively this time round. Not quite as good when the music is missing, but I happen to think there is some great poetry in these songs too. See if you can spot which songs they are from…
‘Can you hear me, Major Tom?’
‘Oh, no, not again!’
‘I thought you died alone, a long, long time ago…’
‘I never did good things, I never did bad things,
I never did anything out of the blue.’
‘Maybe we’re lying –
then you’d better not stay!’
This is ourselves under pressure:
the return of the Thin White Duke
throwing darts in lovers’ eyes…
It’s a godawful small affair to the girl with the mousy hair,
I am delighted to be a book reviewer for that very informative and fun website Crime Fiction Lover, not least because it helps me to be more focused and thoughtful about my reading. I do tend to read a lot of crime fiction anyway, but sometimes it is just swallowed down whole, undigested. I have even have been known to read the same book twice (having forgotten it) and only realised halfway through that I know who the killer is!
For Crime Fiction Lover, I am the ‘exotic settings’ specialist, which fits in well with my peripatetic (not pathetic!) existence, and also exposes me to authors who are perhaps less well-known in the English-speaking world. At the moment, there seems to be an endless appetite for all things Scandinavian. I recently reviewed a new (to the English audience) Swedish writer Anna Jansson for the website. You can read the full review here, but on this blog I want to compare her work with that of another Swedish author who uses the same location.
Welcome to the pretty medieval town of Visby on the island of Gotland, just off the coast of Sweden in the Baltic Sea. Full-time population: 20,000. Number of summer visitors: 800,000. The perfect place to celebrate Swedish Midsummer, let down your hair and get away from it all. Or the perfect place to commit a murder and get away with it?
This year, it’s not just one, but two Swedish thriller writers who introduce us to this ostensibly idyllic world, making Gotland the backdrop of their crime series. Both of them are well-known in Scandinavia, and both series have been adapted for Swedish and German television, but they are only just beginning to find an audience in the English-speaking world, thanks to the translations now available from Stockholm Text. However, neither of the two books are the first in the series (Jansson has written 13 so far and Jungstedt 9) , so there may be some character developments and allusions that I am missing out on. However, that shouldn’t impact on your enjoyment and understanding of the stories.
‘Killer’s Island’ introduces the feisty detective Maria Wern, who, on her way home from an evening out with her best friend, intervenes to rescue a young boy who is being beaten up by a gang. In return for her efforts, she herself is beaten and stabbed with a syringe filled with blood, thus spending much of the rest of the book worrying about whether or not she has been contaminated with the AIDS virus. The same gang also assaults a tired, insomniac nurse, Linn Bogren, who is facing personal and professional turmoil of her own. Linn is saved on this occasion by the timely intervention of her neighbour Harry, but not long after she is found dead, bloodless, dressed in white, with a bridal bouquet of lilies of the valley in her hand. Someone is trying to draw their attention to the myth of the White Lady of the Sea, who lures men to their doom in the dark undercurrents surrounding the island.
Maria and her colleagues at Visby Police Station, including her rather suicidal boyfriend Per and afore-mentioned best friend and forensic scientist Erika, are confronted with further attacks and murders, providing an increasingly complex case. The only link between these apparently unrelated crimes seems to be Erika’s new lover, Dr. Anders Ahlstrӧm. But how can such a compassionate man, who always finds time to listen to his patients and is such a loving single Dad to his 11-year-old daughter, be involved in such a sordid series of murders? And what is the connection between a hypochondriac, sleepwalking and a jealous daughter?
It becomes a race against time, as it becomes clear that the detectives themselves are also being closely observed by a highly intelligent and manipulative killer, able to taunt and provoke the police through superior computing skills.
Meanwhile, in ‘The Dead of Summer’, Visby’s finest sleuthing team consists of DS Anders Knutas (reasonably happily married), his glamorous sidekick Karin Jacobsson and the rather interfering journalist Johan Berg. They are investigating an execution-type murder on the beach just outside a campsite.The victim, Peter Bovide, was a happily married co-owner of a successful construction company. At first, the police suspect he and his partner may have been using illegal Estonian labour. The murder weapon, however, is unusual: an 80 year old Russian pistol, so suspicion turns to vodka smugglers aboard Russian coal ships. At the same time, flashbacks to 1985 suggest an alternative storyline, with a German family coming to explore the wildlife off the coast of Sweden. I found these flashbacks a little too intrusive and heavy-handed, providing clues that gave away the ending rather early on. I also found Johan’s on-and-off relationship with the drippy Emma a little wearisome, without adding much value to the story. Perhaps if you read these books in order (the four previous ones in the series are available in English), you might care more about their future together.
I couldn’t help comparing the two books while reading them, and not just because of the location. Both are police procedurals at heart, albeit with an extensive focus on the private lives of the members of the investigating team. Both are stylistically quite similar, with short scenes, moving quite rapidly from one viewpoint to the next, the pace quickening all the while to a dramatic climax. Anna Jansson is a practising nurse as well as a writer, so unsurprisingly both characters and clues are closely linked to the medical profession. Mari Jungstedt is a former journalist, so there are lots of realistic details about both local and national TV stations and reporters.
Of the two, I would say that Jungstedt makes better use of the atmospheric island setting, the isolation, the lovely long stretches of beach, while Jansson offers more rounded characters, a less predictable storyline and a more confident narrative voice. Both are less bleak than some of the typical Scandinavian fare, so perhaps a good alternative for those who prefer their crimes less graphic and their detectives less moody. Both are enjoyable fast-paced narratives to while away an evening or two. The next Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson? I think not. Which, given how I feel about Stieg Larsson’s literary abilities, is perhaps not such a bad thing. I look forward to seeing how these series evolve.
Who or what inspires you as a writer? What fuels your passion and your life? What makes you forget about time, eating, an aching back or even your friends and your children’s supper? Not that I would recommend the last of these. And I have only done it very occasionally. Hardly worth pointing out, really. Even if afore-mentioned children and friends do remind me of it on a regular basis.
So here are some of my favourite sources of inspiration in random order (ah, but is ‘off the top of my head’ really random?):
1) mountains and seascapes, preferably both together, as in the picture above
2) Shakespeare, especially ‘The Tempest’
3) the music of Brazil, almost any kind of jazz, plus David Bowie and a few other heroes
4) reciting or hearing poetry, the rhythm and roll of the images flooding your ears
5) when reading, finding the perfect phrase, the thought-stretching twist, the heartbreaking confession or the remarkable plot which makes me think:’yes, this is it, this is what life is all about’ and turn slightly green with envy that I could never write anything like that myself
6) the beauty of small creatures and shy buds, everyday things that are the last to be noticed and the first to be forgotten
7) the kindness of strangers, given without forethought or afterthought: things that make me believe once more in the generosity of the human spirit
All this is leading up to the Versatile Blogger Award that Polly Robinson has so kindly insisted I should have. Thank you, Polly, you are one of the most encouraging people I have had the pleasure of meeting on the Internet. I can always count on her to read my poems and make some comments. I don’t know when she does it all, write her own poetry, organise events in her local area in Worcester, United Kingdom, setting up writers’ groups and open mic evenings… she is just amazing!
The rules for this award are typical of many others: share 7 things about yourself (my sources of inspiration, above), thank the person who nominated you and nominate 15 bloggers whom you recommend unreservedly. I know that to some of them these awards (because they receive so many of them) can be a pain, so there is no obligation. Unless they wish to leave a small comment below sharing perhaps not seven, but at least one thing that inspires them. That would be wonderful!
I would so love to hear that from you all, and not just the people I am nominating below. I am trying to nominate some that I haven’t mentioned before, so they are all fairly recent discoveries to me, although some of them are very well known.