From now on, I will ignore both annoying politicians and ex-husbands, and focus only on books. I still have a few books to review, but I’m also starting my annual round-up. Perhaps I’ll even get around to a decade’s round-up.
I’ve found a very clever way around the limitations of the ‘Top Ten Books of the Year’ list. I will compile my choices by categories. In this first instalment, I’m featuring my favourite crime fiction books and the 2019 releases (never mind that these two lists might overlap, I will ignore that).
Second instalment will contain Non-Fiction and Classics, while the final one will be about new discoveries or new books by authors I already admire. And, since I’m an optimist about still finding memorable books in the 20 days still left of 2019, I will leave the last instalment open for late additions and only publish it on the very last day of the year.
Will Carver: Nothing Important Happened Today – if I say social critique and suicide cults, it will sound incredibly depressing, but this is a very unusual and highly readable mystery
Antti Tuomainen: Little Siberia – action-packed noir with a philosophical slant and surreal, even slapstick humour, this is a story about losing your faith and what it might take to regain it
Doug Johnstone: Breakers – heartbreaking, yet avoids sentimentality, this story of brotherly love and deprived childhoods
Helen Fitzgerald: Worst Case Scenario – at once a condemnation of the stretched resources within our probation services, as well as a menopausal woman’s roar of rebellion
G.D. Abson: Motherland – a fresh and timely setting for this first book in a crime series set in Putin’s Russia
Bogdan Teodorescu: Baieti aproape buni – sharp, scathing critique of political corruption and media cover-up
I notice that all of the below are rather dark, although they also ooze humour (maybe that’s just me and my love of black comedy)
Sarah Moss: Ghost Wall – misplaced nostalgia for a more heroic past and a domestic tyrant you will love to hate
Nicola Barker: I Am Sovereign – an ill-fated house viewing, where everyone seems to shed their multiple masks and either reveal or question their identity
Robert Menasse: The Capital – the almost surreal absurdity of a pan-European organisation and the people within it, a satirical yet also compassionate portrait of contemporary Europe and Brussels
Susana at A Bag Full of Stories always prods me to join some fun blog posts about my reading habits. When I read her Favourite Books by Most-Owned Authors blog post, I was inspired to examine my own bookshelves. Some of the results might surprise you, they certainly surprised me!
But first: what constitutes a lot? I have very many authors with 3-4 books on my bookshelf. In some cases they died too soon (Sylvia Plath) or they haven’t written more (yet – I’m waiting impatiently, Eva Dolan). In other cases, the rest of their works might still be at my parents’ house (Barbara Pym, Penelope Fitzgerald, Colette, Rilke, Liviu Rebreanu and Arthur Schnitzler take a bow!).
If endless editions of the same book count, then Murasaki Shikibu is also abundant on my bookshelf, with 5 different translations of Genji Monogatari, as is Cavafy with several editions (some electronic) of his poems in translation, including a bilingual one in Greek and English.
So here are the remaining authors who are present with five or more books on my current bookshelves (some of them in e-book form but only where I couldn’t easily access physical volumes).
Old Favourites I Cannot Live Without
Virginia Woolf – When it comes to Virginia, I am a bit of a completist, so although some of her books are still in my parents’s house, I nevertheless have her complete diaries, some of my favourite novels and quite a few of her essays on my bedside table.
Franz Kafka – the plain white Fischer Verlag editions of all of Kafka’s novels, stories, letters and diaries which I bought when I was 13-14 have accompanied me wherever I lived in the world ever since.
Tove Jansson – As with Virginia, I am a completist when it comes to Tove and my latest purchase is a volume of her letters. If I include her biography and all the Moomin cartoons (collected editions) as well as the Moomin books which are currently on my sons’ bookshelves, she is probably the most omnipresent author in my house.
Jane Austen – All her novels, including her juvenilia and the unfinished ones, plus her collected letters
Jean Rhys – not quite as complete as she deserves – four of her novels, a collection of short stories, her autobiography, her letters and a biography by Lilian Pizzichini.
Murakami Haruki – well, he reminds me of my student days. I prefer his earlier work and have pretty much stopped reading him since Kafka on the Shore (although, admittedly, I did fall for the Killing Commendatore hype and pre-ordered it).
Marin Preda – one of the most famous Romanian writers of the post-war period, he became a bit of a national hero when he published his last novel The Most Beloved Human. It was almost instantly withdrawn from sale, when readers interpreted it as a virulent critique against the communist regime. A few weeks later, he died under mysterious circumstances – some say possibly related to this book. I have it in three volumes, but also other novels, including the one we all had to read in school, about the destruction of village life before, during and after WW2, Morometii. I’d kind of forgotten he was so prominent on my bookshelf though…
Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö – the whole Martin Beck series, so ten books – bought as a job lot on Book People for a very low price, one of the best purchases I ever made. I absolutely devoured the whole lot in about 1 month and return periodically to them. The parents of the whole Nordic noir genre.
Muriel Spark – Another job lot from the Book People, which includes many of my favourites (Loitering with Intent, A Far Cry from Kensington, Girls of Slender Means). However, it doesn’t have some of her more challenging works (The Mandelbaum Gate or The Abbess of Crewe). So I may have to invest at some point in buying some more (although I’ve borrowed most of them over the course of the years from the library).
More Recent Discoveries
Below are all authors that I’ve discovered in the past 6-7 years (in some cases, even more recently) and have taken into my heart – or at least could not resist buying more of them.
Pascal Garnier – It all started with a request in 2012 to review one of his first books to be translated into English (by Emily Boyce and published by Gallic Books) for Crime Fiction Lover. This was the book How’s the Pain? and I was smitten. I have since reviewed pretty much all of the books that have been translated, as well as hunted him down in French libraries and second-hand bookshops. I even am the proud owner of a book signed by him to a certain Marie Louise (I think Marina Sofia is close enough, don’t you?)
Kathleen Jamie – initially I bought and read her poetry books, because she was doing a poetry masterclass with us back in my Geneva Writers’ Group days, but I soon fell in love with her insightful essays and strong sense of place as well.
Sarah Moss – I’d read a shopping list written by Sarah Moss: I admire the way her mind works. I either own or have borrowed all of her books, but my favourite book might not be the one most people like – it’s Night Waking, because it captures so well the challenges of being a mother and scholar.
Javier Marias – I read A Heart So White in 2016 and was so impressed that I hastily bought several more of his books, including the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow but I haven’t actually gotten around to reading any of them.
Antti Tuomainen – an author I discovered a few books in, once he got published by Orenda, but I’ve bought his (much grimmer) back catalogue since and have particularly enjoyed his recent forays into black comedy.
Old Passions Reignited
Shirley Jackson – an author I’ve always admired but only been able to find in libraries rather than bookshops, at least until recently. Luckily, her books are now back in print courtesy of Penguin Modern Classics, so I have availed myself of several of those, as well as The Library of America collection of her most famous novels and stories. I also have the illuminating biography by Ruth Franklin, and even her stories of the chaos of family life.
Mihail Sebastian – I’d always admired him as a playwright and was particularly fond of his novel The Accident, because so much of it was set in the mountains and referred to skiing. But this past year I’ve read his diaries and much less sentimental, more polemical novel For Two Thousand Yearsand I fell in love even more with his voice and clear-sightedness.
Jean-Patrick Manchette and Georges Simenon – actually, both of them are present with just 2-3 books each, but in each case one volume contain about 11-12 novels (I’ve gone for Simenon’s ‘romans durs’, although I have a few Maigret volumes as well).
Now all I have to do is to actually work my way through all of these, since not all of them have been read. Plus, I’d quite like to reread many of them!
You’ll have seen from previous posts that I think Karen Sullivan is a pretty special person and that she has created a wonderful family of authors, readers and reviewers with Orenda Books. So I was keen to take part in the #Orentober celebrations, although without the deadlines and hoopla of participating in a blog tour.
I read the most recent books by two of my favourite Orenda authors (which is a bit unfair to all the others, who are each brilliant in their own way, but I suppose these two most correspond to my very noir taste in crime fiction).
Antti Tuomainen: Little Siberia
Put simply, Tuomainen is one of the most versatile and interesting crime fiction writers currently at work. He can do dark and melancholy exceptionally well, but he is also one of the funniest authors out there. I really admire the way he blends the absurd or ridiculous with the violence, despair and sadness and would love to be able to replicate in my own work.
The plotline sounds like something taken out of a Russian novel deliberately designed to be fantastical or surreal in order to escape censorship. A suicidal racing driver is determined to wreck himself and his car on the snowy, deserted roads of Northern Finland. But then a meteorite crashes into his lap (practically). This rare and valuable artefact is carted off to the local museum, where it is guarded against potential thiefs for a few days, before it can be sent to London to be examined in a laboratory. One of the volunteer guards is Joel, a priest who is about to lose his faith – both in God and in his wife, who announces she is pregnant, although he knows for a fact that he is sterile.
Soon, everyone in the little town of Hurmevaara seems to be chasing the meteorite and what it represents: an easy way to get rich quickly and escape all of their problems. Joel himself is not immune to temptation, although he fends off the repeated attempts at burglary. He also suspects that among the would-be burglars there might lurk the father of his wife’s baby.
This has all the frenezy and farcical set-ups of a Mozart opera, all the cases of mistaken identity, dissimulation, not being able to trust anyone… Just like in Mozart, the often absurd situations are rescued by wonderful music (in this case, writing), which singes your heart while avoiding bathos. And you will see why I compare it particularly with ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, as (I hope I am not revealing too much) both have a beautiful scene of forgiveness.
Will Carver: Nothing Important Happened Today
Will Carver is a more recent discovery – I read his toe-curling, mind-bending Good Samaritans only back in May this year (by the way, I mean those adjectives in the best possible way). This new book is just as good at making the reader feel uncomfortable; it will throw up all sorts of questions about how we live our lives today. It’s eerie, unsettling and, in a very good way, political.
Nine strangers meet up on Chelsea Bridge one evening, with a coil of rope in their bags, which they calmly tie around their necks and then leap off to their deaths, all at the same time. It turns out that they are all unwitting members of a mysterious suicide cult called The People of Choice. Soon, the movement is attracting likes on social media and imitators all around the globe. How can you stop such a movement when there doesn’t seem to be any clear leader, when followers are not even aware they are being targeted, and where there is no clear ideology?
It is a very unconventional crime thriller, for, although it features a police detective, he doesn’t actually do all that much detecting for most of the book. In a way, you could claim that no crime has been committed, for all the victims freely chose their own death. It is in fact a pretty forensic examination of how brainwashing works, whether it be a religious or political group.
The key to building a successful cult is to fill it with real people. Take absolutely anybody. Find some common ground. Use it as your starting point. Listen. Don’t do too much talking. Pwer comes from hearing what others have to say. Now tell them what they really need. Believe that what you are saying to them is true. Now you can manipulate them to do what you want… Because everybody wants to feel like they are part of somethings. Something bigger than themsleves. Give them something they can belong to.
‘Cult’ is a disaparaging term, so I hesitate to use it, but I did study ‘new religious movements’ for my Ph.D. and I used to joke that I had the blueprint for creating my own movement. The frightening truth is that it is reasonably easy to manipulate huge swathes of people, and social media has expanded the reach of these ‘mind merchants’. At times, it feels like Will Carver is simply dissecting our contemporary society and showing all its ills. You might even be tempted to agree with certain passages, until you realise that they are actually written from the point of view of the master manipulator him or herself.
Anybody can feel like a nobody. Like the thing they are doing doesn’t matter. Like they wouldn’t be missed by anyoone if they were gone. And it’s not just the recent batch of entitled millenials, who want everything and want it now and for no effort. .. It’s their parents, too… And their own parents, who can’t keep up with the pace of technology and feel that the youth of today have no concept for what they have lived through…
Starting a cult is easier than ever.
Because people want a way out of their lives; they want it to be simple. A tablet that will melt all the fat so they don’t have to work hard at the gym or quit bacon.
Neither of these two books are the cosiest, most escapist of crime novels, but they are both excellent and pushing the boundaries of any crime fiction formula you might be expecting.
Despite having a houseful of children for most of this past week, I have been able to partake in some cultural events as well, both inside and outside the house.
Pain and Glory – Almodovar’s latest film shows the master has mellowed in middle age. The story of a lonely middle-aged film director struggling with lost creativity and ill health is not new, but Antonio Banderas turns in a beautifully nuanced, subtle performance. The flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood are rich in colour and emotion, but what stayed with me most is how we select and package our memories to attempt a coherent narration of our lives… and yet the truth is always more complex than that.
Marriage Story – Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are believably flawed yet appealing as a couple struggling through divorce. It was a little too close to the battlegrounds I am currently experiencing myself, so I’m afraid I embarrassed myself with tears. Filmed in a minimalist way, with close-ups of the actors’ faces engaged in monologues or dialogues, this had the feeling of an indie, mumblecore type of film. There was one particular scene I found all too familiar: where the attempt at having a conversation away from the lawyers descends into a screaming match, with all of the long-hidden resentments and accusations bursting out like an overflowing dam.
Lara – ice-cold in Berlin*. Another carefully observed film, full of significant details, but one where nearly all emotion has been drained. Lara is a domineering mother whose dreams of becoming a concert pianist were dashed in her youth and now feels proud yet nervous about her pianist son’s major concert, which takes place on her 60th birthday. We never see the drama of what led to the estrangement between mother and son, but there are hints of bad behaviour and nervous breakdown. Emotions are very tightly held in check for the most part, yet there are unexpectedly candid (if frosty) conversations between Lara and the people she encounters on her birthday.
*As a child, I firmly believed that ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ was a film version of Berlin Alexanderplatz
Since I had a few hours to kill between the two films at the London Film Festival on Friday, I meandered down Charing Cross Road, mourned the loss of so many second-hand bookshops (when I first came to London, I remember it used to take my hours to go down that road, there were so many bookshops, now turned into cafes or clothes shops – boo!). Nevertheless, I did stop at the few remaining bookshops, at Foyles, then at Second Shelf (again!) and at Waterstones Piccadilly and emerged with the pile below.
However, I’d also been busy ordering some books online, especially while sitting around waiting for the Nobel Prize for Literature to be announced. I ordered a couple of Russians, especially since I thought Ludmila Ulitskaya might be a contender…
And two Orenda books arrived on cue for my #Orentober reading. I’ve already devoured Little Siberia, which is less slapstick than Tuomainen’s last two books (I absolutely loved the black comedy, don’t get me wrong!) but not quite as bleak as his earlier books. I think it would be fair to say that the set-up is ridiculous and richly comic: a suicidal racing car driver has a meteorite drop into his passenger seat. A pastor with experience of fighting in Afghanistan is guarding the local museum where nearly everyone wants to steal the precious piece of rock. He gets plenty of opportunity to question his own faith and choices in life, as well as being exposed to the venality and self-serving excuses of others.
Last but not least, I’ve also watched some TV. Helen Mirren is commanding yet deliciously vulnerable as Catherine the Great (and, although she is almost certainly too old for the part, I cannot help but rejoice that an older woman is shown as both powerful and intransigent, yet also having sexual fun on our screens). And, of course, I’m excited to see the new series of Engrenages (Spiral), the first in a long while without Anne Landois as show runner.
If the first day of the CrimeFest in Bristol was more about dipping the toes into the water, the second day was more about excesses! Not of drink, but of meeting favourite authors and bloggers.
Although the conversations are often quite rushed in-between panels, I always enjoy chatting to knowledgeable and opinionated readers and bloggers such as Kat (aka Mrs P), Karen Meek (aka EuroCrime), Jacqui (aka RavenCrimeReads), Karen Cole (blogging at HairPastAFreckle), Ewa Sherman, Mary Picken, Emma Hamilton (blogging at BuriedUnderBooks), Louise Fairbairn. I can only recommend you seek them out and read their reviews. They know their stuff! Needless to say, I forgot to take pictures with most of them (slightly motivated by the fact that I hate appearing in pictures myself).
But you are probably more interested in the panels.
I discovered three new authors in the Tension and Paranoia panel, where I had previously only been aware of Alison Bruce. She is the creator of the Cambridge-based series featuring the endearing Gary Goodhew (I want to be his Mum!), but was here to talk about a standalone psychological thriller entitled I Did It for Us. Every time I think I am over psychological thrillers, I hear authors talking so passionately and relatably about their books and their characters, about the fears that every woman has about stalkers or something bad happening to their children or experiencing gaslighting. I wanted to buy every one of them, but decided to do so on Kindle rather than having to schlep four bags to the railway station. They were: Claire Kendal with a story about a pregnant spy which will be out later this year, real-life Derry Girl Claire Allan’s Apple of My Eye featuring another pregnant main protagonist and Lucy Clarke’s story You Let Me In, which should cure you of any thoughts of renting out your property on Airbnb.
The second panel I attended was on Partners and Sidekicks. Once again, it was about reconnecting with my beloved baby elephant (Vaseem Khan’s Baby Ganesh and Inspector Chopra series), but also about discovering new authors. Lynn Britney writes about a team of both male and female detectives and scientists who investigate crimes in post-WW1 Britain. T.E. Kinsey tackles cosy historical crime fiction with amateur sleuth Lady Hardcastle and her ‘servant’ (actually, friend) Florence, set in Edwardian Britain. Vaseem Khan’s series of course is set in contemporary India and is actually more gritty than cosy, although the baby elephant adds a bit of whimsy to the series (and will have to grow up very, very slowly, as the author admitted, since a grown elephant is not as cute). Meanwhile, M.W. Craven is the creator the curmudgeonly police officer Washington Poe, whom no one else likes, and civilian analyst, the brilliant but socially awkward Tilly Bradshaw, who has three Ph.Ds but doesn’t know how to boil an egg.
As I told you, this was a day of excesses, so no rest for the wicked and I went straight into the third panel about Guilt. Moderated by an Irish writer, Anthony J. Quinn and featuring two further Irish writers (Olivia Kiernan and Jo Spain) plus a lapsed Catholic (Vanda Symon), you can imagine this panel focused quite heavily on feelings of guilt, on being suspicious of other people and on how they feel about writing in a genre that has been called a ‘guilty pleasure’. Sarah Hilary, also on this panel, was let loose on this topic and said: ‘Why are literary authors never asked if they feel guilty about writing yet another story about a white middle-class midlife crisis?’ Olivia Kiernan agreed that genre is nothing more than a label for booksellers or librarians to order things on a shelf, while Jo Spain said that crime is a study of human nature and all great writers address it (Wuthering Heights, for example). Vanda Symon went so far as to say that crime fiction makes us feel safe, because we read about awful things happening to other people, so crime authors are providing a public health service.
The next panel on Secrets that Haunt You had me almost in tears… of laughter. Louise Beech is an absolute wicked riot as a moderator (or, indeed, as a panelist) and she gave her fellow Orenda authors Thomas Enger and Johana Gustawsson a particularly hard time, claiming they worked as a member of the Norwegian Chippendales and as a Tokyo cage-fighter respectively. Also on the panel were: Fran Dorricot, whose debut thriller After the Eclipse about sibling love and guilt was a huge favourite with my Crime Fiction Lover colleagues; and Barnaby (aka BP) Walter, who looks no older than my son, but has in fact written a rather grim psychological thriller A Version of the Truth whose moral is: Don’t ever go looking for things on someone else’s device, you might not like what you find out!
The panelists were divided in terms of plotting. Johana finds plotting one of the most fun parts of writing, like doing a puzzle, but she doesn’t take it quite as far as Barnaby, who does a full cast list and a chapter by chapter outline, otherwise it would unnerve him to start writing. Fran doesn’t plot much, but knows what emotional ending she wants for her characters, and she knows her characters well. Meanwhile, Thomas says he is still struggling to find the perfect methodology, even though he is on his tenth book, because he doesn’t plot and therefore has to do so many rewrites, as many as 18, which takes up far too much time. There were also some emotional moments, when Thomas admitted that his wife is his first and harshest reader. She has a great eye but tears his work apart, so he can only show it to her every 2-3 months, otherwise he would get too depressed. Meanwhile, Johana sends her father a chapter every day and they discuss it on Facetime, it’s a real partnership and she is frightened to think of the day when she will no longer have that support.
I had an indulgent lunch break when I discovered the cake stall in St Nicholas’ Market. Heartily recommended if you ever visit Bristol! The polenta and fruit cake was a dream and I am somewhat of a connoisseur.
After lunch I had a moment of pure hero worship, as John Harvey was being interviewed to mark his 80th birthday. He is in many ways the kind of author I aspire to be: he likes jazz and theatre, he writes poetry and even ran a poetry press for a while (he published Simon Armitage, amongst others). Of course, it would help if I had his work ethic. Before he turned to crime fiction, John used to write Western novellas, publishing as many as 12 a year. I loved what he said about ‘Fiction is a job and pays the mortgage, while poetry is something that gets written in the cracks.’
His Charlie Resnick series is one of my all-time favourites, and it was satisfying to learn that my personal favourite Darkness Darkness is also the author’s favourite. I also had to get his latest book Body and Soul, although I haven’t read any of his Frank Elder series, because John said it was most definitely his last book. He wants to rest, relax, watch afternoon movies in-between Stairlift ads. He still gets plenty of ideas, but he won’t act on them – maybe someone else would like to buy some of his ideas?
I was flagging a little by then but the last panel of the day, about Friends, Family and Convoluted Relationships (moderated by C. L. Taylor) cheered me right up. I know and love all four authors on this panel: the irrepressible Amanda Jennings, Antti Tuomainen of the wicked, wry humour, Mel McGrath (whose Edie Kiglatuk series set in Inuit territory I absolutely love) and Paul Burston, Polari Prize and Polari Salon founder. However, I did not know the story that inspired Paul’s latest novel: he was trolled and stalked online and off for a good few months. It kept escalating, until he had to take it to court. Writing the book The Closer I Get from the point of view of the stalker rather than the victim was quite cathartic, but it was understandably very difficult to find the right voice. Meanwhile, Amanda had no problems finding the voice of her teenage self in her book The Cliff House,which took her straight back to the 1980s.
I have remarked before how much I love Antti’s change of tone in his two most recent novels, but he also said that he now has more affection and empathy for his characters, even the villains. They are all rather inept at their jobs, and make even bigger mistakes when they try to compensate for a mistake, something he can identify with. He also claims that it’s harder to write humour than dark fiction, even though he believes that kind of outlook in life feels more natural to him as a person.
I did not attend the Gala Dinner, and my friends who were the judges refused to give me a quick heads-up, so I had to find out on Twitter… but I was delighted to hear that a Norwegian won the Petrona Award for best Scandinavian crime novel. It was the dapper, very smiley Jørn Lier Horst, who looks so much like a former Norwegian classmate of mine from Year 6, that it’s quite disconcerting. Well done to the Petrona Award Committee for reading all the entries and selecting such a worthy winner! I was nearly right in my predictions!
So we’ve finally reached the last couple of days of a busy, tiring, troubled year. May 2019 be merciful and kind and offer plenty of good reading at least, to distract us from the state of the world!
I’ve tried to hold off until now before making my ‘best of’ list, just in case some really good books that I read in December outweigh and outdazzle all of the others. In actual fact, only two of the December titles were contenders: two books about the war in Yugoslavia.
This is not a Top Ten or Top Twenty or any other systematic way of making a list. It’s simply a listing of all the books that really stood out and a brief quote or explanation to show why.
How could we have changed so much, if everything was still the same? It all seemed too much the same, in fact. I felt nostalgic for time itself… I was no longer the small child who had gone with his father to collect lime blossom, and yet I still was. Something seemed to be within my grasp, and with the right kind of effort, I felt that I might be able to reach out and take hold of it, like a ripe fruit…
Book I Was Most Obsessive About for a While
Lin Manuel Miranda & Jeremy McCarter: Hamilton The Revolution
Between Christmas 2017 and the time we went to see the Hamilton musical in April 2018, I had the soundtrack playing on repeat every single day, and these witty footnotes to the libretto and additional background on how the show came about was just what I needed. (Although I ostensibly bought the book for my son.)
Best Rediscovered Classic
J. L. Carr: A Month in the Country
I believe I can call this one a classic, although it was only written in the 1980s. Set in the 1920s, it has a very restrained, interwar novel feel about it, with a great deal of respect but no mawkish sentimentality for those who’d experienced the Great War. Also, a story of yearning rather than satisfaction, which reminded me of Brief Encounter.
To my complete surprise, it was not a crime novel which had me almost covering my eyes with fear and reading breathlessly, as if by putting this book down, I could endanger the characters in it, but this small, short story of a frustrated mother and a neglected boy on his birthday.
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain
In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve out identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.
Best Regional Curiosity
Ödön von Horváth: Tales from the Vienna Woods
Social and class differences, urban vs. countryside contrasts, and the whole atmosphere of Vienna in the 1920s form the backdrop for this not necessarily terribly original story of love, envy, greed, betrayal, disappointment, but which rises to the universality of human experience like Greek drama.
Most Recognisable Situation
Sarah Moss: Night Waking
Scratch a little deeper beneath the amusing surface of modern family life with lively children and not-quite-there husbands, and you get something much deeper: the tension between academia (or any work involving thought and creativity) and motherhood, tensions within a couple, gender inequalities, class and culture differences.
Because it’s snort-out-loud funny, in the whole Fargo back comedy school of writing which I love. Speaking of which, Antti also features in the list below.
Best Crime Fiction
I had to choose my Top 5 Crime Fiction picks of the year for Crime Fiction Lover. Spoiler alert: one of them wasn’t fiction and one of them wasn’t a novel.
Best Book About the Yugoslav War
A topic that I will always, always find fascinating and emotional, so I saw a play and read two books about it this year. My favourite of those is probably Ivana Bodrožić: The Hotel Tito, because it is both a coming of age novel, as well as the story of displaced children.
Two compete for this category and they both still felt chillingly relevant today:
Olmi had already destroyed me with her piercing understanding of mother/child relationships, with all of its tender but also dysfunctional potential, in her masterpiece Beside the Sea. In this novel she returns to this theme, with a mother who is a housekeeper in a posh Parisian apartment with largely absent owners, and her lonely son who is being bullied at school.
This story of an unravelling marriage and mother is just the right combination of funny, ironic, detached, cruel and devastating. A tour de force, hard to believe it was published in 1962, it still feels so modern. You might also want to read this poignant article about Mortimer’s marriage and life. “The outside world identified me as ‘ex-wife of John Mortimer, mother of six, author of The Pumpkin Eater’ [in that order]—accurate as far as it went, but to me unrecognisable.”
I had to pay a rather absurd amount for overweight luggage, although it was only my suitcase that was 4 kilos overweight, my older son’s suitcase was 4 kilos underweight and my younger son had no suitcase at all. What can I say except: don’t fly TAROM, as they clearly try to rip you off. So what was in my luggage? Of course all the Romanian delicacies that I miss so much when I am back in England: wine, homemade jam and honey, herbs and tea leaves from my mother’s garden, quinces (shame I cannot bring the tasty organic vegetables or cheese or endless array of milk products – kefir, sana, drinkable yoghurt, buttermilk etc.).
And, naturally, I had to bring back some Romanian books and DVDs. Romanian cinema is not very well known but highly respected in a small niche community. I got a recent film Child’s Pose, winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2013, which covers pretty much all the topics that interest me: domineering mothers, generational and class conflict, as well as corruption in present-day Romania. I also got two older films from the 1960s by one of the best Romanian directors, Lucian Pintilie: The Forest of the Hanged based on one of my favourite Romanian novels, and The Reconstruction. The latter was named ‘the best Romanian film of all time’ by the Romanian film critics’ association, although it was forbidden during the Communist period because it turned out to be too much of a commentary on the viciousness of an abusive, authoritarian society.
There are many beautiful bookshops in Romania nowadays, although not all of my pictures came out well. I certainly lived up to my reputation of not being able to enter any bookshop without buying something! Among the things I bought are Fram and Apolodor, a polar bear and a penguin homesick for their native lands, two children’s books I used to adore and which I am very keen to translate into English and promote for the BookTrust reading scheme for diverse children’s literature In Other Words
I succumbed to the lovely hardback edition of Mihail Sebastian’s diary from 1935 to 1944, such a crucial (and sad) time in Romanian history, especially from a Jewish point of view. I got two titles, both family sagas, by female authors that I already know and admire: Ileana Vulpescu and Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu (the latter is sort of our national Virginia Woolf, although not quite as experimental, but she nevertheless dragged Romanian literature into modernity).
I also bought some new contemporary writers to try out: Radu Pavel Gheo – Good Night, Kids about emigration and coming back to the ‘home country’, Lavinia Braniste – Internal Zero, a book about young single women in Romania today, Ioana Parvulescu – Life Starts on a Friday, a historical crime novel or time-travelling story. Last but not least, I sneaked back one of my favourite books from my childhood Follow the Footprints by William Mayne. Nobody else seems to have heard of this book or this writer, although he has been described as one of the ‘outstanding and most original children’s authors of the 20th century’. Sadly, in googling him, I discover that he was also imprisoned for two years in 2004 for sexually abusing young girl fans, so that leaves a bitter taste in my fond childhood memory.
While in Romania, I received a fairly large pile of books back home in the UK to my cat sitter’s surprise, some for review, some I’d previously ordered. So here are the things which came thudding through my letter-box.
I went on a bit of a Murakami Haruki binge following the reading of Killing Commendatore. I suppose because the book was enjoyable but not his best work, I wanted to get my hands on some of my favourites by him that I did not yet own: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Sputnik Sweetheart and South of the Border, West of the Sun. Unrelated, and possibly as a result of some Twitter discussion, I went on a Marian Engel binge – a Canadian author I had heard of, but never read. I had to search hard in second-hand stores but found The Honeyman Festival, Lunatic Villas and Bear (I had heard about this last one, the love story between a woman and a bear, and it sounds absolutely bonkers).
Meanwhile, I decided I needed to up my game with Chinese women authors, so I bought two Shanghai-based stories of illicit passion, Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and Wei Hui’s more contemporary Shanghai Baby. I also read an extract from Anna Dostoevsky’s reminiscences about how she met and fell in love with Dostoevsky on Brainpickings, so I ordered a copy of her out-of-print memoir.
I make no bones about being an unabashed fan of Finnish crime writer Antti Tuomainen, but I realised that one of his books was still missing from my shelves – his first to be translated into English (and possibly his darkest) The Healer. And the final, thick tome to make its home on my bedside table is from the Asymptote Book Club. I am very excited to be reading Ahmet Altan’s first book in the Ottoman Quartet – yet another family saga – Like a Sword Wound. Currently imprisoned in Turkey for his alleged involvement in the 2016 coup attempt, Altan (better known in the West as a crusading journalist, but much loved and respected in his homeland for his fiction) is currently working on the final volume of the quartet in prison.
Last, but not least, I also received a copy of Flash Fiction Festival Two, a collection of sixty micro fictions written by participants and presenters from the second Flash Fiction Festival in the UK, which I attended (and loved) in Bristol in July. I am delighted to be there among them with a tale about a kitchen!
13 books this month. Not surprising that a certain proportion of them were women in translation, given that it is #WITMonth, but I also felt tempted to read more women in general, which is reflected in the ratio of women to men: 8 women, 5 men this month. I was also keen to read more foreign authors in general: 11 are either in another language or in translation. My favourite genre remains crime fiction, obviously, with no less than 7 books in this area, but I have also read short stories, diaries and essays this month.
Women in Translation – done a good job of reviewing nearly everything
I only get around to doing it approximately once a month, but here is a lovely meme you might want to take part in, 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.
From being a very dark, existentialist writer, Finnish author Tuomainen has evolved to become one of the funniest noir writers around – yes, black humour, sometimes even slapstick. The thought of Finland’s beaches becoming the next hot tourist destination doesn’t seem so far-fetched this long hot summer, the writing is sharp and there are plenty of dead bodies, but also inept criminals, entrepreneurs who’ve seen too much Baywatch and groaningly recognisable house renovation situations to keep you entertained along the way.
Marina Tsvetaeva: Moscow Diaries 1917-22
How do you stay sane when the world you knew is collapsing around you, when you are struggling to survive and feed your children, when there seems to be no point in producing literature anymore?
Beatriz Bracher: I Didn’t Talk
Asymptote Book Club title for July was perfectly timed to arrive just before #WITMonth. Gustavo, a former school principal and university lecturer, is ‘downsizing’. The family house is being sold and he is moving out of Sao Paolo. As he goes through the paperwork, old memories resurface: of his family, his friendships, his pedagogical beliefs and how all of these fared under the military junta in Brazil. I’m planning to review this one very shortly, perhaps tomorrow.
I’ve got a craving to read something in a different language. I’ve recently finished reading a German book (which will also be reviewed shortly for #WITMonth), but I’d like to settle down with a French one. I’ve got a Veronique Olmi that I haven’t touched yet, or some Swiss Romande authors.
And Melissa Beck, classicist and avid reader, who blogs as The Bookbinder’s Daughter, has very nearly convinced me I should The Brothers Karamazov another go. This is my lasting shame: I love Dostoevsky and yet I’ve never been able to finish this book. Perhaps a different translation might do the trick. Fifth time lucky? It really gets going after the first 500 pages or so, I understand.
I’ve just finished writing my article for my Top 5 Crime Novels for Crime Fiction Lover, so I won’t repeat the ones that I mention there, as they will be available shortly on that website. However, I’ve read and enjoyed far more crime fiction than I had room to praise there. So here is an excuse to mention a few others that have caught my fancy this year. In fact, this post threatened to become so long, that I have split it up into crime fiction in translation and in English.
Part 1 is translated crime and I point out the setting for each book and of course the translator, have links to the full reviews (in some cases, they are quite brief) and try to sum them up with a short phrase.
Ragnar Jonasson: Whiteout – Iceland, transl. Quentin Bates – country house murder with frozen cliffs, a lighthouse and oodles of atmosphere
Pascal Garnier: Low Heights – France & Switzerland, transl. Melanie Florence – an infuriating old invalid and his patient nurse, trying to escape the past, trying to build a future, with slightly more optimism than is common in Garnier
Antti Tuomainen: The Mine – Finland, transl. David Hackston – betrayal, conspiracies, frozen north and ecology, from an author I will be mentioning again in my Top 5 for CFL
Andrée A. Michaud: Boundary – US/Canadian border, transl. Donald Winkler – slow-paced but allowed me to become steeped in atmosphere of suspicious neighbours in holiday homes
Kjell Ola Dahl: Faithless – Norway, transl. Don Bartlett – good old-fashioned detecting without a trace of boredom
Antonin Varenne: Retribution Road – London, US, Burma, transl. Sam Taylor – epic saga, both violent and subtle, the kind of thing TV’s Taboo promised to be but sadly didn’t live up to its promise (although I still love Tom Hardy)
I am somewhat disappointed that I stuck to the Northern hemisphere this year and want to try and broaden my geographical horizons next year. What about you, what translated crime fiction stayed with you? I know not all of you are fans of the genre, but I’d say at least 3 from the list above are crime in name only and deserve a wider audience.