Here are just five of the lovely things that have happened over the past week or two, which help me put up with the not so lovely things. (Yes, there were plenty of those!)
Meeting (in person!) fellow book blogger Jacqui, who blogs at JacquiWine’s Journal. She was every bit as lovely as I’d expected from reading her blog, and she is also much more of a film and wine expert than I am, so we had a lovely chat about all of these Very Important Topics!
2. Watching the cult film Brother (Brat) at the BFI. It is set in St Petersburg in the mid 1990s, directed by Alexei Balabanov and starring the charismatic young actor Sergei Bodrov (who tragically died just five years later). Bodrov plays a young man just returned from military service. Although he claims to have been mainly confined to a desk job, he proves a little too handy with customising weapons and bullets, so there are hints he has seen some action in the Chechen War. When he joins his older brother in St Petersburg and becomes embroiled in gang warfare, as well as a love affair, he turns into something of a poster boy for the post-Soviet generation. Unsure what to think or believe after the collapse of all values and certainties, he has no moral compass, no real friends or community around him; he is simultaneously innocent and cynical. Above all, I felt it was a really good portrayal of the Wild East period in both Russian and East European history (although my Russian friend claims she does not remember it being quite so chaotic, but she is younger than me, so may have been more sheltered from the harshness of reality at the time). You cannot imagine what it’s like when one form of society collapses before there is any time to build a new one, when capitalism rages in its most primitive and untamed form, and corruption and crime are as rampant as inflation and poverty. Brother reminded me of those dark days.
3. British Library exhibition about writing, from the origins to the future, including some items that have never been displayed before and others of real emotional significance, such as Alexander Fleming’s lab notebooks, Scott’s last entry in the diary in Antarctica and Mozart’s own cataloguing of his works. Also a wonderfully stroppy telegram from John Osborne to one of his critics! Open until 27th August.
4. More box sets! I can only watch 1-2 episodes a night, rather than binging all in one day, but it is nice to be able to follow a whole series over the course of a week or so. I’ve made the most of my alone time. After Patrick Melrose, I watched another literary adaptation: My Brilliant Friend, which was frightening in its almost casual depiction of everyday violence and misogyny. I was in equal measure saddened and infuriated by FosseVerdon, especially when you realise how parents obsessed with their art and with each other can become neglectful of their own child.
5. Reunited with two lovely, tanned boys and catching up on their holiday pictures and impressions. Now we’re just waiting to hear about the GCSE results… And get them to cook, tidy up, vacuum and do other household tasks more regularly (standards started slipping because of above-mentioned GCSEs).
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!
It turns out that it’s not only the UK government that is doing a bad job with their Brexit mission. I have also been somewhat neglectful of my duties as reader, reviewer and curator of the #EU27Project in 2018. Nevertheless, I’m delighted to say that some wonderful bloggers have been linking to the page even without my prodding, reminding and thanking them.
Just to remind you all, because it’s been such a long time that I may even have some new readers on my blog, this is the plan to read books from all the 27 countries that will continue to remain in the EU after the UK pulls out. Read, review, link. That is it. Multiple entries from the same country are accepted (even the norm). But ideally I would love to have at least one representative from those harder to reach/ not so much translated countries that make up the EU.
So I am very pleased to observe that we now have over 100 entries (there are a few duplicate entries and a lost Norwegian trying desperately to join the EU).
Some countries are over-represented – and that’s probably true when it comes to translation and publication. It should come as no surprise that Germany (19) and France (16) are the top runners, but you may be surprised to hear that Austria is punching well above its weight in terms of population (10). That probably has something to do with Lizzy and Caroline’s wonderful initiative of German Literature Month, which is about literature written in the German language rather than just the one produced in Germany.
Other small countries (or sparsely populated ones) that have done well are The Netherlands (7) and Finland (6). It’s somewhat surprising that Ireland hasn’t done better (6), given that there are no translation issues and so many of the great writers of the English tongue are in fact Irish. I also expected Italy (6) and Spain (5) to do better, given their vast literary tradition and what seems to be a respectable amount of translation into English.
If this had been a crime fiction community, I suspect that Sweden would have done far, far better, but it’s only had one review so far! In contrast, teensy Denmark and Belgium have had 4 each. Of the more recent EU members, Poland leads the way with just 3, while Czechia, Croatia and Latvia have 2 each.
Notable absences from this list: Hungary (although I did do a vlog which included the first volume of Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy), Romania (because I was too picky about which book should represent my home country) and Greece – oddly, three of the countries I know best. from the EU. I have a couple of reviews to upload for Estonia and Croatia And I’m still struggling to find anything from Cyprus, Malta or Luxembourg. So I’d be especially grateful for any reviews that you might have reflecting all the countries in this paragraph!
Sincerely hoping that you will take part too if you read any books from any of the #EU27 countries between now and the end of March, I will leave you with this map of all the traditional Christmas sweets from Europe. (Not all of them are 100% correct, nor are they all EU, but we’re all about approximations for now!) Happy Holidays!
I still have some books that are winging their way towards me, and I may still be swayed by one or two reviews or recommendations before I close up book-buying-shop next year. Of course, I will still have the Asymptote Book Club subscription to stave off my hunger pangs. And a couple of hundred of unread books on my shelves…
So, with that caveat, what are my most recent acquisitions?
First of all, #EU27Project noblesse oblige, I had to find a book for Bulgaria and Slovakia. Well, strictly speaking, I’d already found a book for Slovakia but then I met a translator from Slovakian, Julia Sherwood, at the Asymptote Book Club meeting, and so I had to buy one of the books she translated. This is Pavel Vilikovsky’s Fleeting Snow, a gentle set of reminiscences about a long marriage as the wife of the narrator gradually starts to lose her memory. A very different novel about the fall of Communism in Bulgaria, Party Headquarters by Georgi Tenev seems to not have found many fans abroad, but that rather incited me to read it and make up my own mind.
From publishers, I received two crime novels to review. Bitter Lemon Press sent Petra Hammersfahr’s novel The Sinner formed the basis for the recent TV series, although the setting has been changed from Germany to the US. Many of the links are more obvious in the book than in the TV series, so it’s interesting to compare the two. Meanwhile, Simon and Schuster sent RJ Bailey’s Winner Kills All, featuring female Personal Protection Officer Sam Wylde. In the wake of the huge success of the TV series The Bodyguard, this book series may do very well indeed!
Most of the other new arrivals were the result of reading other people’s blogs. So hereby I am naming and shaming them! Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings is responsible for Portraits without Frames: Poems by Lev Ozerov, essentially a group portrait of Russian writers of the 1920s and 30s in free verse form. Jacquiwine’s Journal needs to take a bow for Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, although it may take a while until I summon up the courage to read this very sad tale. Melissa Beck, who blogs at Bookbinder’s Daughter, is the one who first drew my attention to Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel, translated by Boris Dralyuk (who also is one of the main translators of Ozerov). Last but not least, Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, with her #6Degrees link for December made me stumble across Black Run by Antonio Manzini, and I remembered I’d come across it before, mentioned by another Italian writer, and my ordering finger was once again hyper-active.
Who needs divorce lawyers sucking you dry, when your online friends also make sure they finish off your budget through their recommendations?
It’s been a long time since I was last able to attend a book launch, but last night I had the pleasure of attending a double book launch organised by Orenda Books: for Doug Johnstone’s Faultlines (sci-fi thriller) and Louise Voss’ The Old You(a thriller where the domestic becomes political). The venue was rather unusual for a literary event: the solicitors’ firm Colyer Bristow, with an art exhibition by recent graduates on the lower ground floor.
What is so amazing about Karen Sullivan, the dynamo behind Orenda, is how she has created a real community around her authors and books. Team Orenda is a reality and is full of enthusiastic, supportive people including authors, production and sales teams, reviewers, bloggers, readers. For example, Thomas Enger, one of Orenda’s authors, came all the way from Norway simply to support his fellow writers. And Karen never forgets anything about anyone’s family, aspirations and interests!
West Camel, editor at Orenda, introduced Doug Johnstone and Louise Voss as ‘seasoned’ authors, but they seemed lively and cheery to us. Both of them have been published elsewhere and remarked what a great experience it was to become part of Team Orenda.
Innocent-looking mother of twins Johana Gustawsson is one of the darkest and goriest minds at work in French or English crime fiction at this moment in time.
Of course, we cannot forget the cupcakes that Orenda has justly become famous for!
Barry Forshaw, expert on noir fiction in all its guises, and blogger Jen Lucas were just two of my online bookish friends whom I always enjoy meeting and chatting to in real life. But there was so much more! I finally got to meet Meggy Roussel, who gave me a quick comparison between internships at French and English independent publishers. I tasted Vicky Goldman’s notoriously addictive toffee vodka. Susi Holliday, Steph Broadribb, Katerina Diamond and Daniel Pembrey all shared some tidbits of what they are currently working on. And I met Roz Morris, author, writing coach, ghost writer and owner of a fabulous hat (who has links with a Zürich writing group that I know via Geneva Writers Group – it’s a small world out there, folks!).
What is lovely about the #EU27Project and its easy-going nature is that it bubbles along nicely even if I somewhat neglect it occasionally. And that is thanks to all of your contributions, dear readers and bloggers. Let me try to summarise, however, what has been added to the bouquet of links over the past 3 months. We now have a total of 70 reviews up there (although I have to exclude 4 which are either duplicates or errors) and, for the stats fiends amongst you:
France leads the way with 12 reviews
Austria is punching well above its size with 9
Germany and The Netherlands have 6 each
Denmark and Italy are next, with 5 each
Ireland and Finland have 4
Poland and Belgium are on 3
Portugal, Croatia and Czechia are on just 2 each
And poor Spain only has 1 review – thank you Lizzy!
We have had the good fortune of attracting some new contributors. Marcelle is a Norwegian booklover who blogs at Lesser Known Gems. As the name indicates, she likes finding the less obvious classical authors and books which deserve to be more widely read, and she does so from a very international perspective. She has added some Portuguese, Italian, AustrianBelgian and Dutch gems to our links page. In fact, her puzzled review of Grazia Deledda’s After the Divorce made me seek it out to read and make up my own mind.
Elsewhere, we have plentiful and excellent reviews from Jonathan, Susan Osborne, Lizzy’s Literary Life, The Book Satchel and Booker Talk. Some of our earlier contributors have taken a wee bit of a rest (as I have myself, so who’s to blame them?), but I hope they will remember to link some more of their reviews in the future. In the meantime, there is plenty catch up on here, if you just click on the Mister Linky button at the bottom of the page, you will see all of the countries, books and blogger names. Please feel free to add your own links, even if they are books you’ve read a few months ago. The more the merrier!
So my conscience is now telling me it is high time to pay some attention to previously unreviewed countries. I still have that collection of poetry from Malta. I have recently acquired a Latvian book High Tide by Inga Abele. I’ve kept mentioning Miklos Banffy (Hungary) and Javier Marias (Spain). On my ereader, I’ve got mainly German and French authors, so I will leave that aside for the time being. Above all, I keep meaning to review Romanian authors – and have indeed read quite a few in preparation, but then decided that they weren’t quite right for this project. Maybe I’m being too fussy.
What countries from the EU27 would you like to know more about? What have you read recently which opened your eyes to a whole new culture?
For the first three months of the year, I was on a book-buying ban, loosely participating in the TBR Double Dog Dare challenge on James Reads Books blog. I didn’t quite get to read that many from my TBR pile because a lot of ARCs came in for review, but by and large I managed to resist book buying temptations, with the exception of Lyon. However, since that was right on the last day of March, I consider that a success!
Since then, I may have succumbed *a little* to book splurges. I blame FictionFan for not bestowing her Queen of Willpower Medal on me! I blame Tony for sharing a picture on Twitter of his lovely Japanese novellas from Strangers Press, based at Norwich University. You too can get them here: Keshiki – New Voices from Japan. I also blame the other Tony for his rant about the Best Translated Book Award shortlist for ordering Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (Brazil, Open Letter Books). Neither of these two orders have arrived yet, so I can fool myself that there will still be room on the shelves for them.
However, when I tell you that the 25 vintage Penguin classics which I ordered from World of Rare Books are still patiently lined up by the desk, awaiting shelving, you will realise that I may have overdosed on books recently.
But how could I resist a special offer on the Penguins – a surprise bundle of 25 titles? It was mostly the orange fiction series (John Wyndham, Somerset Maugham, Nancy Mitford, Charlotte Bronte), but there were also a few greens (crime fiction by Christianna Brand, Holly Roth and Erle Stanley Gardner) and some unusual finds, such as Passages from Arabia Deserta, a sort of travelogue/anthropological study by Victorian travelling gentleman Charles M. Doughty; a biography of G. K. Chesterton by Maisie Ward;a strange little genre-straddling memoir by Richard Jefferies The Story of My Heart, which looks like a prose poem with wood engravings by Gertrude Hermes; two novels about the British Empire in India by now-forgotten novelist (and former colonel) John Masters; and a book by Peter Wildeblood Against the Law, ‘a first-hand account of what it means to be a homosexual and to be tried in a controversial case and imprisoned’, published in 1955.
The final two books I felt obliged to buy attracted me for different reasons. The first, Rumba Under Fire, edited by Irina Dumitrescu (Punctum Books), was because of its content. It is a collection of essays, poems, prose, interviews about what it means to do ‘art’ in times of crisis. Can art and intellectual work really function as a resistance to power? How do works created during times of extremes of human endurance fit into our theories of knowledge and creativity – can we even attempt to understand them from our privileged and comfy positions? There is quite broad geographical representations here: Bosnia, Romania, Congo, Turkey, Afghanistan, World War 2 concentration camps, India and Pakistan.
The collaboration between poet Derek Walcott and painter Peter Doig Morning, Paramin (Faber & Faber) is pure indulgence. Each double page spread features a poem and a painting, calling out to each other, answering and completing each other. The one to blame here is Melissa Beck, who reviewed this so magnificently on her blog.
While commenting on the review, we connected with Anthony Anaxagorou on Twitter, who asked if we would be interested in reviewing two books of poetry from Outspoken Press, which he promptly sent along. The first is To Sweeten Bitter by Raymond Antrobus, the second Dogtooth by Fran Lock. You can expect to read reviews of both of these very soon.