June 2018 Reading Summary

I’ve been a little naughty about tagging my books with Goodreads lately, plus they seem to have changed their way of showing what you have read, so I hope I haven’t forgotten any here. It seems that June was an opulent reading month: 16 books finished, only 1 abandoned. Lots of lighter reading too. 7 male authors, 9 women, 5 translations. And I even got to review some of these, so bravo bravissimo me!

#20BooksofSummer Challenge

I’ve done reasonably well, reading 5 books this month, which is not bad considering that I started nearly a week late.

Zygmunt Miłoszewski: Priceless, transl. Antonia Lloyd-Jones – an adventure and crime story about tracking down art treasures stolen from Poland during the Nazi occupation. Described as ‘reminiscent of Dan Brown’, I actually enjoyed it much more than Dan Brown – maybe because it is Europe NOT seen through the eyes of an American. Well researched, but the author also dares to go off on flights of (plausible) fantasy. This also fits in with my nearly forgotten #EU27Project, as an entry for Poland.

Belinda Bauer: Snap – gripping and sad by turns, another pageturner by Bauer, who is so good at creating believable children’s voices. Some implausible coincidences slightly marred it, thereby not making it one of my favourite books by her, but still a good read.

And then the three I reviewed earlierAuntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, The Single Mums’ Mansion and Bookworm.

For review on Crime Fiction Lover site:

Pol Koutsakis: Baby Blue – realistic and sombre portrait of present-day Athens and its homeless population

Eliot Pattison: Savage Liberty – historical crime set on the eve of the American Revolution, somewhat long but absolutely fascinating

Bob Van Laerhoven: Return to Hiroshima (review to come) – the after-effects of the atomic bomb, Japanese cults, expats in Japan – this one ticked all the boxes for me on paper, but did it live up to my expectations? You’ll have to check on CFL to find out.

Carol Fenlon: Mere – although it’s an atmospheric tale set in the meres of Lancashire, it’s not crimey enough, so I won’t be reviewing it for the site, although I might still do it on my blog

Then there was another book in this category which I did not finish. I had actually asked CFL to allow me to review it, as it was written by an acquaintance, but I didn’t like it. Tricky situation, telling my acquaintance that I wouldn’t be reviewing it after all.

Non-fiction

Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason  – hard to believe how out-of-date this book already is, given all that has happened since it was published in 2008. It really opened my eyes to things about American education, culture and public debates that I didn’t know or couldn’t believe. Although it is quite dense on scholarship and evidence, the prose is remarkably deft and accessible.

Blake Bailey: A Tragic Honesty – this biography of Richard Yates depressed me no end – because it seems his themes and nihilistic writing are a result of personal experience. I guess it really pays not to know too much about your favourite authors! He made all the mistakes, displayed all the boorish behaviours, was a dreadful husband and friend – and yet had the ability to notice, analyse and mock all of these characteristics in his writing.

Others

Joanna Walsh: Break.up – this one got me pondering, because whilst I welcome non-plot driven novels (and loved Tokarczuk’s Flights, which is in a similar vein), this one exasperated me in parts. Perhaps because the topic of lost love irritated me – it is a strange relationship anyway that the narrator is recovering from – a bit of a non-relationship really. However there were many enchanting and pertinent observations too.

Ali Smith: Autumn – I appreciated it but did not love it; the relationship between young and old is interesting and often underrepresented in fiction, and the description of post-Brexit Britain is necessary, but perhaps it’s too soon to produce masterpieces on that topic

Marian Keyes: The Break – an impulse library loan, it was funny, occasionally painful but a little too long

John Berger: G.  – watch out next week for Shiny New Books’ special Golden Man Booker Prize features, where I briefly analyse this by now largely forgotten winner

My favourite book of the month

is actually the first one I read this month: Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover. Brilliant story of an Iranian family who suffer political disillusionment, go into exile and never quite find themselves again thereafter, seen through the eyes of the daughter who is trying to continue the family line through IVF treatment. Full review to come soon on Shiny New Books. This also counts as a French entry to #EU27Project, like I don’t have enough French entries anyway!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WWWednesday: What are you reading on 13 June 2018

I only get around to doing it 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.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Current:

For review:

Carol Fenlon: Mere

Not ‘mere’ as in ‘mother’ but as in Windermere, it is a cross-genre novel set in rural Lancashire. Part family story, part crime, with elements of ghost story, it is about the destruction of the landscape, death of farming and the revenge of nature as well as about the human beings living there.

For leisure:

Ali Smith: Autumn – progress on this one has been slow, as I put it down to read something else and haven’t really returned to it. I rather like it, but clearly it does not grip me.

Finished:

For review:

John Berger: G.

Winner of the Booker Prize in 1972, I’ll be doing a brief write-up of it for Shiny New Books Golden Booker special. It will never be a popular or highly readable book, but I found this retelling of Casanova or Don Juan set at the turn of the 19th to 20th century a lot more fun than I expected.

For leisure:

Marian Keyes: The Break

I was in the mood for a little mid-life crisis and man-bashing, and Keyes is always brilliant at observing couples or parent-child dynamics. However, it did feel rather long and unedited, a bit self-indulgent for both the writer and the reader.

Next:

For David Bowie Book Club:

Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason – halfway through June and I still haven’t read the choice for May – don’t know why I hesitate about picking up this book, perhaps fear that it will make me rant about politics once more?

For leisure (and next on my #20booksofsummer list):

Belinda Bauer: Snap

Not sure if maternal abandonment is a subject that will cheer me up, but at least this book should have me reading well into the night, knowing the author. Not many books have done that lately!

 

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.

October Reading but November Prize to Be Won

I have been somewhat missing in action this month, which can only mean the following:  brainpower is being expended on the mechanical rather than the imaginative, and cold hard cash is being earned. However, in terms of reading, it has been a rich month of not very extensive but high quality reading. Mainly crime fiction, but with an angsty French novel thrown in for contrast. Sadly, October has not been a month conducive to detailed book reviews, so here are my top-line thoughts about each of the books.

M.J. McGrath: White Heat

Absolutely loved this tale of the iciest reaches of the Arctic and of the human heart. Edie Kiglatuk is half-Inuit, half-American and the incredibly strong yet vulnerable type of diminutive heroine that I cannot resist. Yes, there were perhaps some overly detailed descriptions of how to build an igloo, but I am an anthropologist at heart, so I was fascinated by all this.

DeadMenSkiPatricia Moyes: Dead Men Don’t Ski

Another wintry tale, but this time a much gentler one: Golden Age detective fiction transposed to South Tyrol. The author is of a later generation than Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie, but she has the same wit, elegance and careful plotting. Thank you to Margot Kinberg for making me aware of this author.

E.F. Benson: The Blotting Book

Charming little oddity, makes a nice change of pace and style to modern crime fiction, but perhaps not quite as intriguing to contemporary palates

Patrick Modiano: La Petite Bijou

Written in a deliberately flat, child-like style, this is the story of a woman’s search for her mother and her attempt to reclaim her past, or find her true identity. A short, moving, rather disquieting piece.

blacklands-by-belinda-bauer-259-pBelinda Bauer: Blacklands

There are some weaknesses and implausibilities here, but what an amazing debut novel this is! I was completely absorbed by the story of a boy and his grandmother, the far-reaching consequences of tragedy and a serial killer who is presented in an almost farcical style. (Sounds difficult to accept or believe, but you will understand if you read it.)

Peggy Blair: Midnight in Havana

An excellent near-impossible set-up which has the readers wondering throughout the story, plus lashings of what seems to me very authentic Cuban atmosphere. A visual, auditive treat, and an engaging Cuban cop who can see dead people.

Anya Lipska: Where the Devil Can’t Go

Where_the_Devil_Can__t_Go_coverI just love books describing the clash of cultures (in this case, between the Polish and the British communities in the East End of London). There is also a communality of sensitivity and historical experience of East European countries which makes me appreciate this novel even more. It does sometimes stretch belief a little that an amateur (even one who speaks the language) would have quite so much clout in an investigation, but all in all an engaging, high-octane read, which I gulped down quite greedily.

However, if you visit this blog tomorrow, 4th November, I will have a more detailed review of ‘The Greenland Breach’ by Bernard Besson for you. The first ecological thriller I have ever read, and what a rollercoaster ride it was!  Moreover, if you leave a comment, you can win a copy of it in e-book format, no matter where you are based in the world.