June Is All About Celebration!

June has always been my favourite month: not just because it contains my birthday (and now also my younger son’s birthday), but also because in my childhood it meant the end of the school year (with all the resultant parties, shows and sports days). Plus. it’s the month of Midsummer, long days, nice weather even here in the UK, gardens looking their best…

So I’m determined to ignore any negativity currently haunting the fringes of my life in the shape of one single misguided person and keep June light and giddy with joy! As you know by now, joy usually accompanies cultural events in my case, so this is what I’ve been up to lately.

On the 1st of June, I attended a graduation show at RADA 3 Winters  by Croatian playwright Tena Štivičić. The play has been described as ‘a  family drama that moves between three alternating time periods and four generations of one Croatian family. From the 1945 victory of Tito’s communist supporters, to the 1990 break-up of Yugoslavia, to 2011 and the brink of EU membership – the fortunes of the Kos family are entwined with that of their country as political upheaval mirrors familial struggles. I found the content very moving and the young actors were pretty amazing, it goes without saying, but I also had the pleasure of sitting next to a young woman who was graduating in technical theatre, and specifically in lighting. She was taking notes throughout – that kind of professional dedication just fills me with joy!

I also had a funny experience at the interval. The people behind me were wondering loudly about the historical events mentioned in the play, they didn’t understand the allusions to the Yugoslav War in the early 1990s. It turned out that most of them had been born after that war had started (or even ended). So I couldn’t resist turning around and explaining things to them – a womansplainer, I believe that might be called? To be fair, it was more of a Q&A session, and the young people were genuinely interested (and shocked) and wanted to find out more. Then, at the end of the play, an older lady, who had heard me talk to the audience members at the interval, asked with awe in her voice: ‘Are you the writer?’

On the 11th of June, I had the great pleasure of attending the English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer competition. Six finalists, three men and three women, showed us their dancing skills in a classical pas de deux followed by a contemporary solo. I thought the women in particular were hard done by with the choice of contemporary pieces, so it was not surprising that a man won: Daniel McCormick. He was, however, very gifted, and his leaps in the Le Corsaire pas de deux reminded me of Nureyev. My favourite ahead of the show was the Romanian ballerina Francesca Velicu (McCormick’s partner in the pas de deux) and she was certainly formidable in both her fast spins and the perfect balance in her slow pirouettes. During the show, I also fell in love with the cheeky charisma of Fernando Coloma (who reminded me of my younger son, so my friend was amused to hear me calling him ‘Cutie Pie’). Above all, it was delightful to see all their friends and colleagues, lots of young dancers, out in force to support them.

I’ve also been busy writing (not my poetry or fiction, unfortunately, but better than lazing around). The story of my inspirational grandmother Troy was published on the Women Who Made Me website.  If you haven’t heard of this initiative, I would encourage you to have a mosey on that website, as it’s all about hearing the hidden ‘herstories’ and finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. I could equally well have written about my other grandmother, the one I am named after, matriarch of the family, mother of seven, who had both German and Soviet soldiers  during WW2 bayoneting the hay in the barn searching for my grandfather (who happened to be the mayor in the village). I used to lap up their stories when I was a child and think that my own life would seem very tame and boring in comparison to my grandchildren. But then I took part in a revolution… So hey-ho, you never know what life will throw at you.

My beloved grandmother in one of my favourite places on earth, the Vienna Woods.

I’ve also recently reviewed the historical novel Savage Liberty (set in pre-Revolutionary America) and Baby Blue (set in post-austerity Athens) on the Crime Fiction Lover website, and my first batch of #20booksofsummer books on this blog. I’ve written an article for the Asymptote newsletter, comparing translations of one of my favourite books Tales of Genji (I had to cut it to half the original size, as I can waffle on endlessly about this topic and own five copies of the book). If you want to subscribe to the free fortnightly newsletter, you can do so here. Even better, do join the subscription-based Book Club to receive a monthly delivery of high-quality fiction in translation. I think it would make a perfect Father’s Day gift [and that’s the only mention of Father’s Day that you’ll get from me this year].

Entirely gratuitous headshot of Aiden Turner here – to turn heads.

The celebrations are set to continue over June and July, both via writing (I am writing three features on: German crime writers, Deadly Summers and When Detectives Go on Holiday, all for CFL) and by attending events. Next weekend, my actual birthday weekend, I’ll be partying in Berlin with two of my oldest and dearest friends who live there and who are also celebrating the same milestone birthday this year. I’ll be seeing the gorgeous and talented Aiden Turner in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, going for a gin-tasting with my local friends, chalking the White Horse at Uffington with a former colleague and our ex-boss, seeing a bilingual version of Tartuffe to celebrate the 14th of July, attending the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol (I’ll be volunteering, to keep costs down) and going to a production of Romeo and Juliet at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon on my way to a course in Warwick. Interspersed with lovely meals and conversations and cosy World Cup games viewing with my youngsters and cat – and life couldn’t be better!

 

 

 

#EU27Project Update in May

After four months of #EU27Project, I have to admit I have not been the hardest- working reviewer. I have only linked to six books in total (and two of those are from the same country, France, while the rest are : Germany, Czechia, Ireland and the Netherlands), so in reality only 5 of the 27 countries have been represented in 4 months. At this rate, I have little chance of finishing this project this year – but, unlike some politicians, I never thought it was going to be an easy and quick process, so I’m allowing myself time to continue this project next year.

However, I’m pleased to say that other book bloggers have been far busier than me, so, since my last update in March, we have moved from 16 reviews to 41.

France is the biggest mover, from 0 in the first batch to 6 reviews in the current one. Susan Osborne reviews two very different types of books: Marie Suzan’s poignant Her Father’s Daughter and the lighter French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain. Kate Jackson reviews a book by Sebastian Japrisot, one of my favourite French crime writers, while Karen from Booker Talk considers a contemporary crime novel Hell’s Gate by Laurent Gaudé. I have also reviewed two French books, the not quite satisfactory Men by Marie Darrieussecq and the dark but very funny and musical Les harmoniques by Marcus Malte.

Austria is also a popular choice for us book bloggers (a trend which I heartily approve!). It already featured in the first batch and has notched up an additional five reviews, although, to be fair, three of those are for short stories or novellas by Arthur Schnitzler by Jonathan: Late Fame, The Spring Sonata and A Confirmed BachelorLike Chekhov, Schnitzler was a doctor as well as a writer, and very much concerned with the human psyche. He describes perfectly the darkness in the Viennese soul at the turn of the 20th century (and not only then). Kate reviews a book set in the same period, Leo Perutz’ The Master of the Day of JudgementSusan reviews one of my favourite recent reads, Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist, with a guest appearance from Sigmund Freud.

Reviews from the Netherlands continue to trickle in. Karen attempts The Evenings, but does she like it any more than Lizzy did in the first two months of the project? Meanwhile, Susan found The Boy by Wytske Versteeg deeply unsettling. Ireland also features with two new reviews, a new one for The Glorious Heresieswhich makes it the most popular book so far (3 reviews in total), and Anne Enright’s The Green Road

The last country on the list with two new reviews is Italy, with the crime fiction of Augusto de Angelis and the story of the breakdown of a marriage by Domenico Starnone.

The remaining countries featured in the selection of March and April have been: Norway, represented by Anne Holt – Norway is not in the EU, but we will leave that link there anyway; Denmark with Dorthe Nors’ Mirror Shoulder SignalPoland with Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, Czech Republic or Czechia with Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains. The French might take exception with Marguerite Yourcenar representing Belgium rather than France, but that was Jonathan’s choice and that country is rather under-represented.

After a strong start in the first batch of reviews, Germany only managed one review in this round, a lesser-known Heinrich Böll oeuvre.

So what will the next two months bring? Personally, I intend to read more in this category. Perhaps two or three in May? I am currently reading the road-trip book by Andrzej Stasiuk (Poland), and will move on to poems from Malta and Pessoa’s pseudo-diary The Book of Disquiet (Portugal). But, as we all know, my plans for reading don’t always work out and I get easily side-tracked.

Special thanks and celebrations for Susan Osborne, Kate Jackson, Jonathan from Intermittencies of the Mind and Karen from Booker Talk, who have been the most prolific reviewers over these past two months, but thank you to everyone who has contributed, read, tweeted about this project.

 

Honesty, Likability and Book Reviews

Before I had my internet outage last week, I read a remarkably honest article about reviewing books when you have vested interests (are part of the publishing industry or are an author yourself). Sadly, I cannot remember the author nor find the article to link it here, but it left quite an impression. I started wondering just how honest my own reviews are, what my own hidden motivations are. I am about to write something that is deeply uncomfortable to think about, something which may not endear me to all those involved in publishing. But here goes…

Books, from wired.com

My primary purpose, when I started reviewing books on my blog, was to give an unvarnished opinion of what I had liked and disliked about a certain book, while recognising that it’s a matter of personal taste, that my taste is not infallible (far from it!), but I felt that I owed potential future readers full honesty.

Are you Kafka? No? Not sure about 5* then...
Are you Kafka? No? Not sure about 5* then…

I didn’t realise that star ratings are perceived very differently on Amazon and Goodreads than they are in my mind. To me, 5 stars is only for the truly exceptional (just to give you an idea: my favourite authors of all time, like Kafka, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, have got some 5 stars, but not for all of their books). Four stars is very high praise indeed, while three stars is a good, solid read, but it doesn’t really stand out in any way. Two is ploddingly average but readable, while 1 means I did finish it but rather regret the time wasted. And no stars at all means I cannot even begin to discuss the many, many things which I disliked about the book.

Then I discovered that many of my friends (in real life, on blogs or twitter) were authors and pressing their books upon me for review. I don’t want to hurt them, I know how much work goes into writing, finishing, editing a book. Belatedly, I also discovered that anything below a 5 star tends to provoke an author’s ire, however cleverly I argue my case (and point out both pros and cons). Admittedly, authors who’ve been in the business for a while and have had some success tend to be more … well, relaxed and professional about it. Many of them are still speaking to me after I gave them 3 or 4 star reviews on Crime Fiction Lover, and I think some publishers are resigned to the fact that I very, very seldom give out a 5 star. Which makes that rare bird all the more precious (to my mind). After all, if everything is a 5 star, how on earth can we ever decide what to read next?

However, I have been known to write to publishers or authors (particularly debut authors or self-published ones, who I feel need more support and understanding) and say: ‘I cannot give your book a good review. Would you like the honest feedback or would you rather I didn’t review it at all?’ Most of the time, invisibility is preferable to notoriety.

stars

I also have another problem with the swathe of 5 star reviews: they become a fashion statement, a self-fulfilling prophecy, a buzz – whatever we choose to call it. Once the first few reviewers have declared it a ‘wonderful work of fiction’ or ‘the next Big Thing’ (with Girl or Wife or Daughter or Husband or Man or Twins in the title), all the others can jump on the bandwagon and echo those sentiments. It’s called herd instinct or crowd control. If one influential person whose opinion I generally trust has declared this to be a work of genius, there must be something about it… And if I didn’t like it, then there must be something wrong with me, surely? Of course, this is exactly what publishers and publicists are hoping for, but where does our duty as a reviewer ultimately lie?

Book launches.
Book launches.

Each reviewer will have to decide this for him or herself. It is hard to give up the love-fest of ARCs and invitations to book launches and retweets or mentions by publishers, so it’s understandable that we don’t want to anger the publishers with less enthusiastic reviews. Oh, the embarrassment of meeting an author whom you slated at the next literary festival and having them hint that they’ve read your blog! Besides, I am truly grateful for the opportunity to read so many new and exciting books (for free), even if not all of them make me jump with joy. I couldn’t afford to read all of them otherwise…

Things get even more complicated if we aspire to be authors ourselves. Will we alienate agents, editors and fellow authors if we give them a bad review? Will they take revenge on our own humble offering in the future? And, anyway, who are we to criticise those who are more experienced, more talented, better connected than us? They clearly know something we don’t.

Of course there are reviewers who can get genuinely enthused by most of the books they read. I am not accusing anyone of hypocrisy. But I have discovered something very much like diplomacy in certain situations in my own reviews: ‘a page-turner’ may be my code word for ‘doesn’t require much thinking on my part’, ‘a profusion of characters which might confuse readers’ is another way of saying ‘stock stereotypes and far too many of them’. I’m not entirely proud of that, but it was my choice. I’ve opted for politeness over brutal candour when things are negative, but you can also rest assured that every word of praise is absolutely well-earned and honest.

From classicrarebooks.co.uk
From classicrarebooks.co.uk

As for who gets the completely raw and unfiltered review nowadays? Well, I’ve noticed the classics or dead authors are coming in for their fair share of bashing! Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust… they’re all fair game. It is also far easier to be honest about books in translation (because the author is less likely to read that review?). Finally, it is far easier to express your opinions about books which are not in your favourite genre, Caveats work a treat: ‘I don’t usually read science fiction, but…’ or ‘I don’t have much experience with YA, but…’

So what can you expect from me? Where do my responsibilities lie? With readers like myself, who have perhaps spent too much money and time to acquire the latest bestseller and are very sorely disappointed by it. With authors, who should know I will never get my fangs out for the sake of being different, courting controversy, getting more blog hits or seeking revenge. In fact, I don’t do fangs. I try to be fair, to remind everyone that I am just one solitary voice of opinion and bring my own biases to the table. But when I say ‘outstanding’, when I urge everyone to read a book, you can be sure I mean it from the bottom of my heart.

From red24management.com
From red24management.com