Reading, Writing, Sauntering About in March

I’ve already admitted that I’ve not managed the TBR Double Dare this month of only reading from the books I already own. It doesn’t mean I won’t try again over the coming months, though!

So what else have I been up to this month?

1) Reading:

I’ve read 12 books this month, of which 6 may be classified as crime fiction, 5 are from the TBR pile (hurrah!), but only 2 translations (initially, I thought three of them were, but one turns out to have been written in English by a Polish author). Must try harder…

I did manage to read two books for Stu’s East European Reading Month Challenge:

Vladimir Lorchenkov: The Good Life Elsewhere (also qualifies for Global Reading Challenge – Moldova – Europe)

A.M. Bakalar: Madame Mephisto -this is the one that tricked me into believing it was a translation, set in Poland and England.

FataleI reviewed two books for Crime Fiction Lover, as different as they could possibly be: the start of a cosy crime series set in Wales, The Case of the Dotty Dowager by Cathy Ace, and the very dark, very despairing Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette.

The other crime or psychological thriller type novels I read this month were: Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm (no review yet), Belinda Bauer’s The Shut Eye, Helen Fitzgerald’s Dead Lovely and Laura Kasischke’s Mind of Winter. Of this genre, the two most memorable (and, in this case, haunting) were Fatale and Mind of Winter.

liarjonesI also read Maggie Hannan’s hugely influential debut volume of poetry Liar, Jones (1995). It’s very different from any poetry I’ve recently read: more muscular, more playful, more deliberately obfuscating and difficult. Not quite my type of poetry, but there was a lot of fun and exploration. There were no efforts to be ‘poetic’, pretty or lyrical. I particularly enjoyed the poems addressed to or about Jones and the Diary of Eleni Altamura (a real historical character, an amazing Greek woman who dressed as a man in order to study painting, but tragically lost her children and thenceforth gave up her art).

Finally, I also read two of the buzzed-about books of 2014: Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves (moving but over-long) and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (not reviewed yet). I wonder if the buzz did them more harm than good in my eyes, as both of them were good pieces of fiction, with passages of very beautiful and perceptive writing, yet somehow failed to wow me overall. Perhaps my expectations had been set too high or perhaps I should stop reading reviews beforehand?

2) Writing

I’ve set an ambitious goal for myself for this year: to write my second novel by September and submit it to an agent (which means it’s got to be better than first draft quality, obviously). However, considering that I only started the first page at the end of February (although I had planned most of it out in my head already, bar the ending), and given my chronic inability to find time to write, I thought I would give myself an achievable goal for the first month: one page a day (about 8000-9000 words). May sound like nothing more than  day’s writing for some of you, but to me it was a mountain to climb. I know I need to up my game, though, in terms of quality and quantity, over the months to come.

Lyon13) Flannelling around

I was going to use the term above, based on the French ‘flâneur’, someone who is walking around aimlessly on the grand boulevards, but the English word actually means something very different. Far be it from me to try and flatter or mislead you! What I mean of course is ‘sauntering’ or ‘gallivanting’ about. This means I had a great time in Lyon, at the Quais du Polar, which is the highlight of my year in crime. I’ve just written a thorough round-up of my first impressions for the Crime Fiction Lover website today, but there’ll be a few posts to follow on this blog, with further details, pictures, lessons learnt and some great quotes.

Recently Read: Three Quirky Women in Fiction

There’s been quite a bit of debate lately about unlikeable characters – especially female characters. [As an aside, if men are boring, middle-aged, navel-gazing and tend to drone on about every little twinge and stirring of desire, that’s literary. Or so it seems at times.] Readers love to hate the main protagonists in Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Personally, I don’t need to like a character to find their story compelling – and if it makes for uncomfortable reading, it’s surely because we can catch in them glimpses of our innermost selves, all those things we dare not admit. Let him/her who is truly flawless cast the first stone!

So I prefer to call the women in the three books that I’ve recently read ‘quirky’ rather than unlikeable. I probably wouldn’t want any of them as my best friend (at least not as they currently behave during the course of the book), but guess what? My best friends would probably make for rather dull reading.

shuteyeBelinda Bauer: The Shut Eye

When Anna Buck’s son Daniel disappears one day, she blames her husband for leaving the front door open and very nearly loses her mind polishing the five little footprints he had left in the wet cement they day he went missing. She clutches at straws and – although initially sceptic about it – she consults a psychic (a shut eye) in an attempt to find out what happened. This psychic is also part of a police investigation into another, older missing child, an investigation which still haunts DCI Marvel and which he refuses to relinquish.

I did find Anna’s grief and anger a bit hard to read about – plausible, well written, but just emotionally draining. I have to admit that the ‘medium’ elements did not work well for me and the police seemed oddly incompetent or blind to things. So I was a bit on the fence about this book. Belinda Bauer is an excellent writer and I’ve enjoyed her previous books very much – she always has a chilling dark side. As a portrayal of bereavement and how grief drives to you obsession and madness, I found it very compelling, but as crime fiction – not so much.

deadlovelyHelen Fitzgerald: Dead Lovely

This is the story of a friendship gone very badly wrong. Wild child Krissie and picture-perfect Sarah have been best friends since childhood. Sarah is respectably married and trying desperately to conceive, while Krissie still dabbles in alcohol, weed and carefree one-night stands. But their friendship suffers a bit of a setback when Krissie accidentally becomes pregnant and then displays a bit of a haphazard attitude to looking after her baby (fuelled in part by post-natal depression). A walking holiday is supposed to bolster up old friendships, but turns instead to betrayal and violence.

Krissie is the main narrator and she often acts thoughtlessly and selfishly. Yet her voice is utterly unforgettable: razor-sharp, unsentimental, very funny and often a complete bitch. There are of course some reasons behind her frankly quite foolish behaviour at times, there are times of poignant lack of self-awareness (about her depression, for instance) and you really will her to succeed. The ending might be over-the-top, some of the description will make even hardened readers queasy – but it is Fitzgerald’s debut novel (she admits herself that ‘she had no idea what she was doing at the time’). A cracker of an outing for a strong fictional voice!

madammephistoA. M. Bakalar: Madame Mephisto 

I’m very proud that I managed to squeeze in a second book for Stu Jallen’s East European Literature Month. This time it’s a Polish author, with sharp and often very witty observations about the differences between Poland and the UK.

Magda is a recent immigrant from Poland who works in a variety of office jobs in London. Her descriptions of asinine corporate life and HR interventions make for great satire, but in fact all of these jobs are nothing more than a cover for Magda’s real career: building a cannabis-growing and dealing empire. Her family back in Poland worry incessantly about her apparent aimlessness, but she knows very well what she is up to. In spite of that, she often acts impulsively, and the author has rendered this divide by using first person for the practical strategist and third person for the angry bitch. It’s a device that doesn’t always work for me, but I did enjoy the sullen, rebellious voice of the main character and the way she tries to protect her family from her shadier dealings.

Some Polish readers have commented that the author is a little too unkind with her depiction of Polish prejudices and religious mindset, but that is typical of recent immigrants. A love/hate relationship develops with the home country. There is so much you are glad to have left behind, you feel alienated from your own culture, so you become hyper-critical of all that you are trying to differentiate yourself from. However, you begin to realise that you never quite fit into your adopted culture either. Magda is told that she is not getting jobs because she doesn’t smile, she is not ‘positive enough’ in the workplace, she refuses to play the silly team building games and speaks her mind too clearly for British politeness. Cultural contrasts and misunderstandings are subjects very dear to my heart, so I enjoyed that aspect of the book immensely.

This book fulfills many of my obligations, not just as an entry to the East European Literature Month canon, (but NOT for #translationthurs, as the author wrote this book in English), part of my TBR Double Dare Challenge (it’s been sitting on my tablet for a while) and for my second European entry for the Global Reading Challenge.