January Summary: Japan and Beyond

This has felt like an endless month, although I only went back to work on the 10th of January. It is still too dark, too cold, too Omicron to do anything other than hibernate. And read, as you can tell by the good number of books I’ve devoured. As always, reading Japanese literature marks a good start to my year. It remains a passion of mine, even though I can no longer read anything but basic, short texts in the original. Luckily, there are many talented translators springing up, particularly female ones. I managed to read and review six of them (one is not in the picture below, because I read it in December). It was a pleasure to reread Yosano Akiko in a different translation, great to expand my knowledge of Endō Shūsaku, Murakami Haruki and Tanizaki Junichiro with lesser-known books by them, and great to discover a new to me author Nakagami Kenji, who shows an aspect of Japanese life that is seldom present in literature. I was somewhat less impressed by the style of contemporary writer Hirano Keiichiro, although I felt the themes he addressed were quite interesting. In retrospect, I realise that should have read more women authors – a spread of five men to one woman was not a good choice!

Many of the remaining books of the month provided some light relief or entertainment. They had me turning the pages late into the night, but have not particularly stuck with me. I would include the following in this category:

  • Nicci French: The Lying Room – have loved previous standalone pyschological thrillers by this author duo, but this one felt a bit implausible and dull
  • Janice Hallett: The Appeal – the format of the story (emails and other correspondance) was far more interesting than the substance
  • Samantha Downing: For Your Own Good – for Virtual Crime Club – the story of a manipulative teacher, but I read it a week or so ago and can remember next to nothing
  • Bella Ellis: The Red Monarch – I know there is only so much crime that the Brontë siblings can detect in Haworth and its surroundings, but the London location was less successful to my mind
  • Jill Dawson: The Crime Writer – quite a charming yet unsettling riff on the unsettling writer Patricia Highsmith, slippery like an eel, hard to tell what is real and what is imagination or paranoia

Two of the books were truly noir and therefore quite difficult to read at times. Swiss writer Joseph Incardona’s Derrière les panneaux il y a des hommes is about a serial killer targeting young girls at service stations on the French autoroutes, but also offers a cross-cut of society through the multitude of individuals who congregate in such liminal spaces. Willy Vlautin’s The Night Always Comes was an excellent description of the American dream of house ownership turning into a nightmare, with characters trapped in poverty and endless disappointment, although those lengthy expositions via dialogue were a strange stylistic choice (a bit like a Greek chorus).

I tried to get one book to fit in with Annabel’s Nordic FINDS project, and I did get around to reading (but not reviewing) Jacob Sundberg’s We’ll Call You, a collection of short stories about job interviews. A sharp, funny little book, translated from Swedish by Duncan Lewis, full of the absurdities of the corporate world and our own apparently endless capacity for self-deception.

My favourite books of the month were the two I was reading on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, so as to start the year right: Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know and Real Estate, the first and last volume of her ‘sort of memoir trilogy’. I have marked almost every third sentence in those slim volumes, they all speak to me so much (although it was the second one that I read a couple of years ago which addressed my own situation most closely).

I have also watched some Japanese films in honour of January in Japan month (to add to the constant roll of Japanese anime in our household). I put up with the overly sentimental but beautifully drawn Violet Evergarden movie for the sake of my younger son (although he too agreed that the series was better). We loved the adorable Ponyo (although I think I still prefer Tottoro) and thought A Whisker Away was a bit strange but charming, especially if you like cats.

Of the more grown-up films, I watched two by the same director, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, who is mostly known for his horror films. However, Tokyo Sonata is a smaller-scale domestic drama, with the fine yet understated psychological insight of his predecessor Ozu, while Wife of a Spy was a stylish mystery thriller set in war-time Japan, with echoes of Vertigo or The Third Man.

February will be dedicated to Australian writers, and I will attempt to read more women this time, to redress the balance. Sadly, my choices are limited by the books I can find over here in the UK, which is not much (and most of it second-hand).

Incoming Books and Their Sources (5)

December was a month of book acquisition frenzy – as if I had to buy up everything before the shops closed for one or two days on Christmas Day. (Well, I knew no one was going to buy books for me as a present, and I was right!) I was planning to calm down in the New Year, but a couple of things have slipped through the net since. Plus all of you horrendously well-read bloggers tempt with various tidbits which are sometimes available at the local library… My book trolley is groaning under the weight. But the time has now come to put all of these new books in their rightful place on my shelves, so that they can patiently wait to be read.

The Turgenev Hangover

After reading my first novel by Turgenev as part of my Russians in the Snow, I wanted to explore more by this writer, so I got one of his earlier and one of his later books. Not necessarily the ones people recommended on Twitter, but the ones that sounded most appealing to me from the blurb (dangerous strategy, I know!).

The Brophy Bunch

A few days before Christmas, just as I started my holidays, Brigid Brophy’s daughter Kate Levey tweeted a little quiz about Brophy’s novels and life. My results were pretty woeful so I thought I should remedy that by reading two of her novels which come highly recommended: Jacqui liked both of them but it was her review of The King of a Rainy Country which made me choose that one, while Melissa was very pleasantly surprised by her first encounter with Brophy in Flesh.

My Hometown Buddies

As I was reading some German-language reviews of Marlen Haushofer, I came across the comment that she will always appeal to a niche audience, rather like Ilse Aichinger and Gerhard Fritsch, and will never have the acclaim (or controversy) of fellow Austrian writers Thomas Bernhard or Peter Handke or Elfriede Jelinek or Ingeborg Bachmann. I had read Aichinger before, but not much of Fritsch (who committed suicide at quite a young age). Plus, both of them are Viennese, so I consider them my ‘local’ people. As for Erich Kästner, he lived for a while in the city I hope to move to in the future, Berlin, but I came across his journal Notabene 45 about Germany during the dying days of WW2 and straight after in a review in the daily Viennese newsletter to which I subscribe – so again a connection to the city of my childhood.

Zoe approves of this book, clearly.

I was having a conversation with one of my colleagues at work, who is of Nigerian descent but has lived in a very white middle-class neighbourhood in London and gone to a grammer school in Kent. She recommended this book The Scramble for Africa to me, which she read to understand a bit more about her own background. I have always been fascinated by the way the great powers carved up a continent for its riches, not unlike Eastern Europe, I suppose, being at the mercy of constantly shifting borders and alliances.

Still in Africa

I attended a LRB session with the Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah being interviewed by Kamila Shamsie, after I very much enjoyed reading his novel Admiring Silence. So I was delighted to order a signed copy of his latest novel, After Lives, as well as finding a second-hand copy of his By the Sea.

The review copies, much loved by Zoe

Lola Lafon trained to be a dancer for quite a while, as well as spending a good portion of her childhood in Romania, so I have a bit of an affinity for her work. I am therefore really pleased that Europa Editions have sent me the ARC for her latest novel to be translated into English, Reeling (which does have a ballet theme). Meanwhile, Fum d’Estampa has a new book of short fiction out by Catalan author Bel Olid, while Canongate has a quirky Korean novel about a sixty-five year old female contract killer entitled The Old Woman with the Knife.

Vlogger’s Delight

The two books above (in this slightly shaky picture) winged their way towards me after hearing Liv Hooper, bookseller and one of my favourite bookish YouTubers, talk about them. Little Scratch is experimental fiction about an averag day in the life of an average woman, while The Least We Can Do is a manifesto about inclusivity and ethics, freedom of speech and moral discourse in the bookselling and publishing industry.

Rumer has it…

There was so much love for Rumer Godden from quite a range of bloggers in the past few years, especially HeavenAli, Harriet Devine and Fiction Fan, while Peter Leyland on Twitter said how much he had enjoyed listening to a radio adaptation of The Battle of Villa Fiorita, so I thought I’d expand my horizons beyond The Greengage Summer and The Black Narcissus. I’ve already read Villa Fiorita, which was good, but much sadder than I expected.

The American contingent

After the death of bell hooks, I just had to remind myself of her inspiring work, while various bloggers are to blame for the other temptations: Kaggsy was responsible for Gentleman Overboard, a neglected and strange little book; Guy Savage assured me I would love The Husbands; and I think I got Shelter after reading an interview with the author Jung Yun about her latest novel O Beautiful, which sounded less interesting to me.

The library books

I am now fully invested in the Brontë Sisters mystery series, so I got the latest (third one) from the library and am more than halfway through. For Your Own Good is our next Virtual Crime Book Club read, so I hope to finish it by the 31st of January, when we have our next meeting (I just picked it up today). As for The Appeal, yes, I admit, I succumbed to all the buzz about this and Janice Hallett’s even more recent one, The Twyford Code. It had better not be a disappointment, or I will blast all of my Twitterati!

Best of the Year: Sheer Entertainment

I have read quite a lot of escapist fiction this year – escapist in my case means crime fiction that keeps you turning page after page, or a book that immerses you in a particular time and place. A sense of humour also helps – I do like black, absurdist comedy; it must be my ‘living under a dictatorship’ heritage.

The problem with escapist literature is that you have to choose it well: some things sound far better in theory than in practice, or the blurb is misleading, and even the same author is no guarantee of success. See below which ones did not work for me and which I recommend in their stead.

  1. Instead of Sarah Pearse: The Sanatorium – try Allie Reynolds: Shiver

I am a sucker for books featuring winter in the mountains, especially when the setting is France or Switzerland, where the skiing terrain is familiar to me. Although The Sanatorium is atmospheric, the whole story feels implausible and the characters are stilted. I enjoyed Shiver, the tale of snowboarding rivalry, far more and read it in a single sitting. And you don’t need to be a snowboarding fanatic to cope with the terminology.

2. Instead of Catherine Cooper: The Chateau – try Stella Benson: The Swiss Summer

I read a previous book by Catherine Cooper, The Chalet, last year and thought this might be equally fun, especially since it was about an expat couple trying to renovate a dilapidated chateau in France (you all know how obsessed I am with chateaux). However, the plot was so preposterous and the people so awful (and flatly awful at that), that I struggled to finish this. I appreciated Benson’s far more nuanced approach to different types of expats and the relationship between then and the locals in her admittedly not thrillerish at all but enchanting Swiss Summer.

3. Instead of Valerie Perrin: Fresh Water for Flowers – try Margaret Kennedy: The Feast

The French author’s story of loss, grief and unspoken love touched many hearts, I know, so you will be cross with me for admitting that to me it felt kitsch, like wading through treacle. I much preferred the allegorical tale by Margaret Kennedy, which was full of witty social observations, as well as some really entertaining characters.

4. Instead of John Leake: The Vienna Woods Killer – try Catherine Ryan Howard: The Nothing Man

It’s perhaps a little unfair to compare a true crime account with a work of fiction that only purports to include true crime elements, but I really wanted to like the book about the Vienna Woods Killer, because it features one of those hard-to-believe cases about a serial killer who was a darling of the Viennese literary society. It is meticulously researched, but oddly lacking in any Viennese atmosphere (or proper interpretation of Austrian society) unfortunately. The Nothing Man did a much better job at bringing to the fore the trauma suffered by the victims as well as the narcisstic personality of the serial killer.

5. Instead of Tahmima Anam: The Startup Wife – try Nickolas Butler: Godspeed

A novel about a female co-founder of a tech start-up being manipulated and tricked out of her rightful place and a novel about a bunch of construction workers being bullied into delivering on an impossible deadline might not seem to have much in common at first glance, but they both skewer the American dream and its materialistic ambitions. I wanted to like the Start-Up Wife more, but it felt both predictable and lower in stakes, as well as more clunky writing, compared to the downward spiral story of the three male friends building a house – perhaps because a house feels like the solid kind of legacy that we all can understand (and it feels even more of a waste when it fails).

Further recommended reads:

All of these are perfect escapist reads, for whatever mood you might be in:

  • If you’re going on a train journey soon, then Kōtarō Isaka’s Bullet Train is a very entertaining, quite un-Japanese type of thriller, with echoes of Fargo.
  • If you miss theme parks (or adventure parks, rather), then Antti Tuomainen’s The Rabbit Factor, with its unique, darkly humorous take on the Finnish mafia, is perfect.
  • If you like the Brontës or historical crime fiction more generally, then the series by Bella Ellis, starting with The Vanished Bride, featuring the siblings as detectives will warm the cockles of your heart (and also bring a little chill).
  • If you enjoy historical crime fiction set outside England, then Maryla SzymiczkowaKarolina or the Torn Curtain set in late 19th century Krakow was both educational and entertaining.
  • If you enjoy satire about writers and literary festivals, and think the publishing world needs a good hard look at itself, then Dan Rhodes’ Sour Grapes will deliver in spades, although at times the farce is a little too puerile.
  • If you like stories about friendships going off the rails and how one bad choice in your youth can have serious consequences years later, but without the artificial construction of dual timelines and ‘that day that I will not divulge to you until the very end of this thriller’, then I really recommend Sharon Bolton’s The Pact.

Quick Reviews on Video (for a change)

I am not always sure that recording a video is quicker than writing a review, but this was more like improvisation based on bullet points. So, if you can bear me looking just about everywhere except for the camera, this is a good way to talk about four books which were very enjoyable, but about which I don’t have enough to say for a really comprehensive review. Or, to be honest, am also too busy to sit down and think about more comprehensively and coherently.

The books are (in order):

  • Catherine Fox: Angels and Men, set in Durham in the 1990s
  • Abir Mukherjee: A Necessary Evil, set in India in 1920
  • E.C.R. Lorac: These Names Make Clues, set in 1936 London
  • Bella Ellis: The Vanished Bride, set in Haworth in 1845.

Incoming Books and Their Sources (4)

I didn’t think I acquired lots of books this month, but surprise, surprise, it’s still quite a chunky pile!

Zoe seems quite smitten with my latest pile of books in the TBR trolley. Some of the others mentioned are in e-book format.

Yorkshire-inspired reading

Bella Ellis: The Vanished Bride and The Diabolical Bones. Bella Ellis is the pen name for Rowan Coleman – a series of murdery mysteries featuring the Bronte sisters – I had never heard of this series before, but it was a must after visiting the Parsonage. – discovered in the charming Wave of Nostalgia shop on Haworth Main Street, with its theme of ‘strong women’. The third volume has just come out: Rowan Coleman was at the shop recently to sign the book, but I thought I should start at the beginning. I’ve already devoured the first one and could of course imagine every room in the house and the surrounding landscape.

E.C.R. Lorac: These Names Make Clues – a present from the lovely Janet Emson, when we met at Sculpture Park, already done and dusted, short review to follow.

Margaret Kennedy: The Feast This one was actually inspired by a review from Jacqui, but it fits in well with an idea I had for a crime novel featuring disparate guests arriving for various reasons at a Buddhist retreat centre in Yorkshire (which might bear some coincidental similarities to the Christian retreat centre I stayed at).

Inspired by other readers

Shirley Hazzard: The Evening of the Holiday American author Lily King said in a recent article on LitHub that ‘one of the greatest loves of my life has been the short novel The Evening of the Holiday by Shirley Hazzard. I have kept a copy of it on the desk where I write for more than twenty-five years. I reach for it when I am stuck, scared, or bored, when I am at loose ends or bound up tight. I raise it like a sacred text, let it fall open where it will.’ It doesn’t take much to persuade me to pick up a Shirley Hazzard book, since I identify strongly with her wandering lifestyle and cross-cultural observations, but this ringing endorsement activated my trigger-happy finger instantly (I found a second-hand copy of it).

Abir Mukherjee: A Necessary Evil I read the first in this wonderful series set in Raj-era India for the Virtual Crime Book Club and then found another (out of order) at the library). Then other books came along and jostled for priority, but a recent review of Mukherjee’s latest by Mary Picken made me want to go back to it and attempt a bit of a chronological order (which is more important in historical fiction than in other crime series), so I borrowed this second one in the series from the library. Short review to follow soon, but highly recommended.

Annamarie Jagose: In Translation You can blame Lisa Hill from ANZ Lit Lovers blog once again for this hard-to-find book. A translator of Japanese literature, a love triangle and a potential fraud: could this book be any more me than that?? It is out of print (dates from 1994), but I managed to find it second-hand.

Inspired by Twitter

Alberto Prunetti: Down and Out in England and Italy An obvious reference to Orwell’s account of precarious work in Paris and London, I became aware of this book thanks to tweets by Tanya Shadrick and the Working Class Festival. The gig economy is so prevalent nowadays, so a very timely read.

Cristina A. Bejan: Intellectuals and Fascism in Interwar Romania. I’ve been following Cristina for a while on Twitter, she is a poet and an academic of Romanian origin, now living in the US. When I saw that her research into the interwar period in Romania (which some see as the ‘golden age of intellectuals and literature’) had been published, I instantly asked her to send me a copy, which she kindly signed for me. It features the world of Mihail Sebastian and his ‘friends’ – need I say more?

Joanna Cannon: A Tidy Ending. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was possibly one of the first books I downloaded from Netgalley back in 2015/16, but I didn’t get to read it until this year (and quite enjoyed it). I also like following the exploits of Joanna and her lovely, goofy German Shepherd Lewis on Twitter, so when I heard she has a new book out and read the blurb, I wanted to read it. I hope it’s not going to be mediocre psychological thriller territory – there have been far too many of those in recent years, they’ve all blended into mush in my mind.

Polly Atkin: Recovering Dorothy I met Polly on a poetry writing retreat in Wales a few years ago and have been following her work ever since. She has been very busy despite lockdown and other issues, and she has recently published not only a new collection of poetry but also a book examining Dorothy Wordsworth’s legacy (despite struggling with poor health and looking after her brother).

Inspired by literary festivals

Natasha Brown and Claudia Rankine discussing their work with Alex Clark.

Claudia Rankine: Just Us

Natasha Brown: Assembly

Although I felt pretty run-down and ill over the weekend (thank you, older son, for coming all the way from Durham to give me and your brother your tonsillitis and other flu bugs), I attended some of the sessions of the Cambridge Literary Festival (Winter Edition) – luckily, they are all recorded and available to watch until the 28th of November, so I still have time to catch up. I was particularly struck by the mutual admiration and thoughtfulness of the session featuring Natasha Brown and Claudia Rankine, so I ordered their books at once (I have several other Rankine books, but not her latest, and have heard excellent things about Brown’s debut novel).

Fatima Manji: Hidden Heritage

I expected to like the panel above, but what is lovely with these all-access festivals is that you stumble across unexpected delights, such as Fatima Manji describing how she researched the origin of various objects in British museums or forgotten papers in archives, to show the long history of Britain’s fascination with the ‘Orient’. I found out that Queen Victoria spoke and wrote Urdu, that Elizabeth I was corresponding with the women in the Ottoman Sultan’s harem in Topkapi Palace, that coffee houses were bemoaned as dens of iniquity by the ale-houses (for being Turkish temptresses) and so much more.

Publisher initiatives

Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob, transl. Jennifer Croft I’ve wanted this book ever since I heard the author and translator mention it at the Hay Festival in 2018, just after they won the Man Booker International Prize for Flights. In the meantime, many of the bloggers I love have been looking forward to it, and I hope we will exchange views on it even if we don’t do a readalong. I couldn’t quite afford the limited edition of it though, but the Fitzcarraldo newsletter mentioned that they had copies signed by the author at Foyles, so… it was a no-brainer.

Josep Maria Esquirol: The Intimate Resistance, transl, Douglas Suttle Thank you, Fum d’Estampa Press, for keeping me on their mailing list, although I still haven’t reviewed any of the three books they have sent me. I am very interested in this one, however, because it is a work of philosophy, which has now become an area of vivacious debate between my older son and me. He will no doubt have a very long reading list over the holidays, but maybe he will read this one too, and we can compare notes.

Willem Frederick Hermans: The Darkroom of Damocles, Beyond Sleep and An Untouched House, transl. David Colmer. I receive the Pushkin Press newsletter; when they mentioned that they are publishing a new book by Hermans, and would therefore be reducing prices on his three previous books in virtual format, I thought it was too good an opportunity to miss to read work by one of the most respected Dutch writers of the 20th century. Maybe I should have stuck to just one, to see if I liked his style, but as you can see, I don’t do things by halves!

Serendipity

Christine Mangan: Palace of the Drowned. Such serendipity, aka random pick, typically occurs in a library. While picking up my reservations, I saw this recently-published novel by Christine Mangan on display. Although I hadn’t read her previous one, Tangerine, I had hear good things about it, and the blurb for this one: ageing novelist, Venice setting in the 1960s, an over-eager young admirer… yes, it might sound a bit like Death in Venice or The Talented Mr Ripley, but it’s just the sort of thing I cannot resist.

What do all these different sources prove (other than that I am very easily led astray when it comes to books?)

  1. Publisher newsletters or special offers still work a treat
  2. Recommendations from other readers and bloggers are my default option
  3. If I know and like people on Twitter, I will follow their work with interest
  4. I nearly always buy books by friends
  5. Festivals sell books
  6. I love reading books set in a specific location, especially if I know it personally or want to visit that location
  7. Libraries are the best!