Six Degrees of Separation: From The Slap to…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

The starting point for May is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. A controversial and marmite book when it first appeared in 2008, it certainly established Tsiolkas’ reputation as a frank and uncompromising critic of Australian society beneath the easy-going, laid-back surface.

I haven’t read The Slap, but I was utterly charmed by Christos when I met him at the Livres sur le quai festival in Morges in 2015. I have read other novels by him and I am linking up to Barracuda, the story of a working-class lad trying to escape his upbringing through his talents as a swimmer. Shockingly frank and unsentimental look at Australia’s so-called ‘classless’ society.

Another book which explores notions of class and takes place in a school (as large chunks of Barracuda does) is Different Class by Joanne Harris. Set in St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys, it returns to the fate of eccentric Latin master Roy Straitley who was persuaded to delay his retirement for a year – but begins to regret his decision with the appointment of a fashionable new Head, who was one of his nightmareish former pupils.

Joanne Harris is of course most famous for her book Chocolat, and another book with a strong link to chocolate is Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, which is a love story underlining the strong sensuous link between cooking and lust (or perhaps cooking as a sublimation of passion), and the prevalence of chocolate in Mexican cuisine.

Another Mexican writer I have discovered more recently is Valeria Luiselli. Her Faces in the Crowd is the story of an obsession, as the narrator, a somewhat harassed mother and writer in Mexico City, tries to remember her life in New York and her growing fascination with the life and poetry of Gilberto Owen (who was a real historical figure).

The title of the book above refers to an Ezra Pound poem, so my next link is to his volume of Cantos, which influenced me profoundly in my love for poetry and for exploring other cultures, despite what I later came to find out about his anti-semitism and collaboration with the Fascists.

Perhaps another reason why I liked Pound when I was younger was for his stylish and unconventional translations of Chinese poetry, so my last link is to one of the Chinese classics which we all had to read when I studied Japanese at university, Dream of the Red Chamber, written in the mid 18th century during the Qing dynasty. The opening poem of this epic family saga says all there is to say about the fine line between fiction and reality:

Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.

So that was a whirlwind world tour – from Australia to the United Kingdom to Mexico to New York City to China. Where do your literary connections take you?

Global Challenge? Only Just…

With some dexterous juggling, I can just about claim to have completed the Global Reading Challenge (Medium Level) this year. I had to be a little creative with Mexico and place it in Latin America so that I could sort of claim it was South America. But if you forgive me my geographical inaccuracies and the fact that I still owe you two quick reviews for Africa and the 7th Continent, then I can claim VICTORY!!!

2015global_reading_challengev2

The Medium challenge is about reading two books from (or set in) each continent, regardless of genre. I was initially quite ambitious and planned to visit countries where I’d never been (fictionally) before. But the second half of the year became a mad, disorganised scramble to get books off my Netgalley and TBR shelves, so I had to compromise in the end.

Europe:

Moldova – The Good Life Elsewhere

Poland – Madam Mephisto

Asia:

Israel – Route de Beit Zera

India – Witness the Night

Australasia/Oceania:

Australia – Barracuda

Samoa – Blood Jungle Ballet

North America:

Native American reservation: Sherman Alexie

Houston, Texas – Pleasantville

South America:

Mexico – Faces in the Crowd

Costa Rica – Red Summer

Africa:

Morocco – Fouad Laroui

lastnightLibya – The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra

The author takes us into the warped mind of Ghaddafi as he sits holed up in a secret location, trying to avoid both bombing and the wrath of his own people. There is little here to give you a profound insight into the politics or history of Libya itself, but I found it a precise dissection of a dictator’s mind, how it is possible to become a megalomaniac and lose touch with reality, how power corrupts and idealism can get subverted, how tantrums can turn vicious when you are surrounded by sycophants. I thought it also raised some interesting questions about the appeal of tyrants: how they often play the nationalistic card (us versus the foreign menace, we’re going to make our country great once more etc.), which explains their rise to power and the often confused legacy they leave behind.

7th Continent:

Space – Solaris

voyageCentre of the Earth – Jules Verne

I’d forgotten what fun this classic novel is to read – yes, even when the author enumerates all of the things Axel and his uncle the professor take with them on their expedition. Appeals to the geek in all of us, but also lessons to be learnt about how quickly he gets to the intrigue, how imaginative he is, how endlessly inventive. It’s not even remotely plausible scientifically – that underground sea alone is completely wrong for all sorts of reasons. So it’s not as good as some of his other novels, but still a rollicking read (best discovered in your youth, though).

 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Bernadette?

After a couple of failed attempts, I’m delighted to finally be able to feature one of my favourite crime reviewers here. Bernadette is joining us all the way from Australia, the land that book publishing forgot, as she humorously says on her blog Reactions to Reading. In an effort to improve international knowledge of Australian crime fiction, she also runs a blog called Fair Dinkum Crime and you can find her on Twitter too.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

Me ReadingI guess I can thank (or blame?) a combination of my mum and the librarian at our local branch of the Mechanics’ Institute (it didn’t become a Council operated public library until I was a teenager). Mum always took my brother and me along on her weekly trips to the library, so from early on I became as voracious a reader as she was. Early on I read the Famous Five and Bobbsey Twins, although apparently I derided these at an early age declaring them not to be criminal enough. I then moved on to Trixie Beldon and Nancy Drew, but it wasn’t long before I’d exhausted the kids’ stuff. So Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Nero Wolfe and Dick Francis followed. I’ve dabbled with other genres over the years – including a pretty intense horror phase in my teens – but I always make my way back to crime fiction.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I used to say I give anything a go but that’s not really true anymore. If it ever was. I avoid some subjects all together – gangsters and mafia storylines top of the list – and am very choosy these days about reading books featuring serial killers. I guess it’s still possible that someone will come up with a new take on that trope but most of what I see is derivative and boring. I also avoid books that feature ‘too much’ gratuitous violence. I know that defining ‘too much’ is subjective but I am heartily sick of reading about the hacked up bodies of women (‘cos in the types of books I’m thinking of it is almost always women who are tortured and mutilated).

Other than the above-mentioned things, I try to read a mixture of subgenres but my heart will always be won over by a story with a point. I love a good yarn, and even more one that explores some political or social issue. Books that show me some aspect of life I am unfamiliar with or take me into some part of the world I’ve never been to (even those close to my backyard) or make me think differently about a topical subject are the sort of thing I look for these days.

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

I’ve had a really great reading year so far but if pushed to choose just one I’d have to say Malla Nunn’s Present Darkness is the most memorable. Malla Nunn migrated to Australia from South Africa many years ago (lucky for us) but she sets her books in the country of her birth in the early days of apartheid. Present Darkness is the fourth book in her series and while I’ve thought its predecessors all excellent this one was her best yet. It does exactly what I was talking about earlier – it really gives readers a glimpse of the day-to-day grind and fear and inhumanity of being a black person living under that regime. Plus it’s a helluva yarn.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

I’ve spent way too long thinking about this question. Way, way too long. The likelihood of me actually being stuck on a deserted island after having had an opportunity to select some books to take along is really, really tiny. So I know my answer doesn’t actually matter. But still…

For a while my answer was going to be Dick Francis. I have a soft spot for this author, partly due to him being one of my mum’s favourites. For years each time he had a new book out, we would both get hold of a copy and compare notes as quickly as we could. The other part of my fondness is due to the global availability of his books. When I was young and un-arthritic I did a fair bit of backpacking and the biggest problem was finding something to read (I am woefully monolingual). Even when travelling there is lots of down time but in a pre-Kindle world you couldn’t carry a dozen or more books. I have scoured newsstands and second-hand stalls in many countries of the world and can report that if you’re looking for something to read in English in some far-flung part of the globe you can just about guarantee to find novels by Barbara Cartland and Dick Francis (or at least you could in the late 80’s and 90’s when I was abroad). As I’ve never been a romance reader, I always opted for the Francis books and I am eternally grateful to his global appeal.

But I have read them all multiple times so think I would want something a bit fresher on my island sojourn. It is tempting to opt for a long series that I’ve never started – maybe Ed McBain’s 87th St. precinct novels for example – but what if I don’t like even the first one? How depressing to be stuck on an island with plenty to read and no motivation to do so.

So after way too much thought I’ve decided to opt for the novels of Reginald Hill. I’ve read enough of them to know that I like his style a great deal but some would be completely new to me and even those that would be re-reads are still fresh enough. If I were allowed two series/sets of authors I’d throw in the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I’ve only read 2 or 3 of these and very much want to read them all. But there are only 10 and they’re very thin. Not bulky enough for a long stint on a deserted island.

TBRBookshelf
TBRBookshelf

What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

I’ve just put all six books shortlisted for this year’s Petrona Award on hold at the library. In recent years I have thoroughly enjoyed expanding my reading horizons via the explosion in translated crime novels from across the globe. But I have a soft spot for this award named in honour of a fellow crime fiction lover who passed away far too soon. Her love of good quality crime fiction in translation has been ably honoured by the previous shortlists and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into this year’s selection.

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

I love historical fiction and not only the kind that involves murder. I think the book I’ve recommended most over the years is Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders: plague, a strong female character, a not so subtle dig at religious hypocrisy – what more could you ask for?

Thank you so much, Bernadette, for your very amusing and candid observations; it’s certainly been worth the wait. I love the fact that all of my interviewees seem to assume a lengthy stay on a deserted island and are very much afraid of running out of reading material. As for me, I’d be terrified that I get rescued too soon and don’t have enough time to read everything!

What do you think of Bernadette’s choices? It reminds me that I certainly must read Malla Nunn, about whom I’ve heard such good things. You can see previous respondents in the series here and for future interviewees: well, you know the drill… Please let me know if you’d like to participate. I’m always eager to hear your recommendations.

Kitchen Cupboard Cleanout

Apologies, but this post is a bit of a ‘kitchen cabinet cleanout’.  That’s what we call it in my family when we have a bit of a pause to rethink and recalculate things. Necessary but evil admin, which probably will be of little interest to anyone but which is a useful reminder for myself.

We are more than halfway through the year: how are my reading challenges coming along?  Well, I’ve read 75 of my targeted 100 books, according to Goodreads, so I should be doing well.  But….  they are not necessarily the books I was planning to read for my Global Reading Challenge (Crime Fiction) and my Translation Challenge.

The Museum of Innocence
The Museum of Innocence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the latter, I have read a few (non-crime) books in translation, such as Pamuk’s ‘The Museum of Innocence’ and Kristina Carlson’s ‘Mr. Darwin’s Gardener’, but I haven’t had time to review them properly yet.  Still, it’s far less than I expected.  I have been reading an average of 1-2 books per month in French though, does that count?

For the Global Reading Challenge, I’ve had trouble with certain continents: Europe has been as forward as a middle-aged gossipy aunt, while South America has been rather coy.  I’ve revised my plans as follows:

1) In North America, I’ve exchanged the Arctic Circle of McGrath’s ‘White Heat’ for the swamps of Florida and Travis McGee (by John D. Macdonald).

Cover of "Havana Gold: The Havana Quartet...
Cover of Havana Gold: The Havana Quartet

2) I have found a book by Leonardo Padura at last, called Havana Gold, which will be my second Latin American contribution.

3) For Asia, I will move to Thailand and read ‘Bangkok 8’ by John Burdett.

4) For Australasia, I’ve had to give up on New Zealand and choose another Australian setting.  I’ve taken my own advice over at the Crime Fiction Lover website, and chosen a chirpy instalment in Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series.

Portrait of Wilkie Collins. Paiting in the Nat...
Portrait of Wilkie Collins. Paiting in the National Portrait Gallery, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5) Finally, for my 7th continent challenge, i.e. a new venture outside my usual area of exploration, I will read a classic: Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Moonstone’, often celebrated as the world’s first detective story.

You will have noticed that I did not mention Africa.  That is because it is possibly my favourite continent and I am hoping to discover a real treasure there.  Unfortunately, few of the writers I had in mind are available on Kindle (and I cannot find them easily in other formats over here).  Any suggestions will be most gratefully received.  I have read crime fiction by South African writers or set in South Africa, so I would quite like something set somewhere else in Africa.  Anything in Kenya or Ghana or the Maghreb?

Feverish Amounts of Reading

If there’s one upside to being ill (and having that illness drag out so long that you can no longer find anything amusing to tweet about!), it’s that you are forced to lie in bed and do nothing more strenuous than read.  So I am ahead of myself in all of my reading goals, although not quite up to date with the reviews.  Or with any other interesting blog post themes which I had planned.

Anyway, on to some simple arithmetic (my brain is still not able to cope with anything more strenuous).

I have read 10 books so far in February, all but two of them while I was ill:

1) Linda Gruchy: Death in Spiggs’s Wood – have reviewed it for Crime Fiction Lover

2, 3 and 4 I wrote about  in my review of four women writers  (I read the remaining one back in December)

5) Birgit Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast – I will review in more depth for the Translation Challenge

6) Fred Vargas: The Ghost Riders of Ordebec – I have been a Fred Vargas fan for years and finally got to read and review one in translation (review will be up shortly on the Crime Fiction Lover website)

Borisvian7) Boris Vian: Les morts ont tous la même peau – (The Dead All Have the Same Skin Colour)

This is one complicated, angsty, nihilistic and multitalented writer (and also jazz musician, songwriter, playwright, journalist, inventor) – the kind that France seemed to produce so many good exemplars of in the early to mid twentieth century.  Troubled by his lack of financial success or critical recognition as a writer, he wrote a series of potboilers under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan, in which his love of American crime fiction is evident.  In this book he is both celebrating and subverting the ‘hardboiled’ genre of writing.   It’s the story of Dan, a nightclub bouncer, who has kept his black roots well hidden and passes for white in a racist society. When his (black) brother Richard appears out of the blue to threaten his happy little status quo, the life he has built together with his blonde wife Sheila and their son, Dan goes on a rampage to protect himself and his lifestyle.  A disturbing and violent book, it nevertheless raises questions about identity, how we choose to define ourselves and how we respond to social pressures.

8) Franck Thilliez: Fractures

A psychological thriller by one of France’s most popular up-and-coming writers of  ‘polar’ (crime fiction).  He specialises in thrillers with a medical slant to them (either mental health issues or deadly viruses or bio-experiments) and is set to become better known in English-speaking countries too, as one of his books ‘Syndrome E’ has just been translated and optioned for film rights in the US. ‘Fractures’ is perhaps not one of his best, but a riveting read nevertheless (despite quite a few gruesome scenes) and with an interesting subject: multiple personality disorder.

Good Deed9) Steve Christie: Good Deed

This is a debut novel, a madcap chase through most of Scotland’s cityscapes.  It starts out with a simple enough mistake: Lucy Kennedy stops for a coffee at a service station just outside Dundee and leaves her car unlocked. Two opportunistic thieves steal something from her car. So far, so normal. Except that Lucy is a drug mule for a very unpleasant Scottish crime lord and his even less scrupulous fixer, Vince. And they will stop at nothing to get back their stolen goods: 2 kilos of pure cocaine. Detective Inspector Ronnie Buchanan of the Grampian police in Aberdeen is soon engaged in the man-hunt of his life, following the trail of Vince’s devastation and mind-games all over Scotland.

The plot twists and turns relentlessly, with lots of violent scenes, narrow escapes and tricks that the two main protagonists play on each other. Perhaps there is almost too much plot in here, a natural mistake for many first-time novelists, and this can be at the expense of the characters.  All in all, an amusing read (reminiscent of Colin Bateman’s ‘Divorcing Jack’), but could have done with some more judicious editing.

10) Arthur W. Upfield: Murder Down Under

MurderDownUnderMy contribution to the Global Reading Challenge for Australia, this classic crime novel introduced me to the philosophical, patient and methodical half-caste Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte of the Queensland Police.  The inspector uses his holiday to help out one of his protegés from the Western Australia Police and investigate the disappearance of a farmer whose car is found abandoned near the rabbit fence of the large government wheat farm.  Bony goes undercover as a farm labourer, to encourage people to talk freely to him, and soon finds himself involved in a second mystery, that of the enigmatic Mr. Jelly and his lovely daughters. The claustrophobia of a small farming community is perfectly rendered, although I found the casual description of pervasive racism of the 1930s and of the death penalty a bit shocking.

I had never heard of Bony before, but he completely charmed and captivated me. The author does tend to raise him to almost mythical status and give him all the virtues of both races: the wisdom, patience and close observation of nature (tracking skills) of the Aborigines, as well as the analytical abilities and eloquence of a highly-educated white man. Yet the story still feels fresh today, proving that you don’t have to use ‘heart in your mouth’ moments on every page, but can instead take time to build well-rounded characters.

One final thought to conclude this rather rambling post: does the way we feel (physically and mentally) have an impact on how we read books? I found, for instance, that I had enough fever and wild imaginings in my head, and so had no desire to encounter any more hectic pacing and convoluted plot lines. Instead, I was drawn to humour, well-drawn characters and a more cosy atmosphere. Comfort read, perhaps?