Summary of June Reading And Other Good Things

June has always been my favourite month – lots of hours of daylight, my birthday, my younger son’s birthday, my older son’s nameday, and in my childhood it used to mark the end of school (no longer the case nowadays). So we had a lot of cake, and even a few drinks with online friends and even with real, grown-up friends in actual flesh, in my garden, in strategically placed chairs. What more could you want?

Books

I really do believe I might have finally found my reading mojo which had been missing in action for months. I read 13 books this month (well, 12 to be precise, because one of them was a DNF, as mentioned below). Unusually for me, only four of the 13 books were translations, while ten were by women writers. Two were poetry collections, which require more attentive reading and rereading, but are shorter.  Of course, I still have to catch up with reviews. But here is what I have reviewed thus far, in case you missed it:

I was very pleased with myself that 11 of those were from my #20Books of Summer list! In fact, the only two exceptions were my Virtual Crime Book Club read (Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton) and a sort of in-memoriam read upon hearing of the death of Carlos Ruiz Zafon. The Shadow of the Wind has been enthusiastically recommended by so many people, and the theme of books and mystery and historical connections made me think I would love it. Sadly, this was the book I did not finish. I did give it a good thorough try: 246 pages, after which I realised I was finding it a bit of a slog, was never keen to get back to to it and I was in danger of losing my reading va-va-voom once more. The first few chapters were fun, but it all became a bit too sentimental, too repetitive, too clicheed and I lost interest in the characters and the big mystery.

Films

Since my last round-up of films, I’ve watched a few more, all coincidentally with a ‘fish out of water’ theme.

Toni Erdmann – In addition to the often very funny cringeworthy moments and the painful father/daughter relationship, I thought this was an astute look at capitalism and corporate culture taking over both individual and national cultures. It felt like Maren Ade did an excellent job in understanding the endless patience, hospitality and desire to please the foreigners (no matter how crazy they might seem) of the Romanian people with which the main German characters interact.

The Past –¬†Having previously been mesmerised (and saddened) by Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, I thought it would be nice to follow it up with another of his films currently available on Mubi. A moving portrayal of relationship breakdown and family dynamics with only a light touch of cross-cultural misunderstandings, I was especially impressed by the child/teen actors.

The Shining –¬†a rewatch with the boys, who don’t like horror films but quite like Stanley Kubrick. I haven’t read the book, but I understand why Kubrick made some changes in the script – and made it more psychological rather than supernatural.

Animal Crackers – struggle with this one, it just wasn’t to my taste. I never quite ‘got’ the humour of the Marx brothers as a child – always preferred Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy or Bourvil. And I clearly still don’t get on with it as a grown-up. There were a handful of witty repartees which I enjoyed, but not quite enough to make the film worthwhile.

Other Events:

Given my new incarnation as a literary translator who is going to be doing more than just the occasional one-off project, it’s not surprising that I’ve been keen to keep up with the very welcoming and utterly fascinating, cosmopolitan translation community. In addition to attending the Borderless Book Club and hearing translators and publishers talk about their choices, I have also attended some events aimed at translator audiences.

Translation Theory Lab Рdiscussion with Kate Briggs, author of This Little Art. 

Daniel Hahn, Katy Derbyshire, Arunava Sinha talking about their current projects and changes to their routines during the Covid crisis, hosted by the Society of Authors

The W.G. Sebald Lecture given by David Bellos – in which he dispelled what he called the ‘myths of translation’, which are a combination of wishful thinking and confirmation bias, and ultimately not that helpful to translators.

Plans for July:

I am planning to read a lot of Women in Translation for August, and thought I might start a bit early, to combine with Stu Jallen’s Spanish Literature Month (which includes Latin American literature). I’ve got Ariana Harwicz (Argentina), Lina Meruane (Chile), Liliana Colanzi (Bolivia) and Margarita Garcia Robayo (Colombia) on the TBR pile.

 

Quick Video Reviews: Women Writers 2017

The pile of books to be reviewed was threatening to fall from my ‘filing cabinet’ (aka armchair), so I am resorting once more to quick video reviews. These all have a rather sombre theme running through them, but are heartily recommended – for when you are of a cheery disposition to handle them. I’ve tried to add a festive mood nevertheless with some tinsel!

Quick Reviews on Video: October 2017

I am so busy with my two new jobs that I haven’t had time to write any reviews, so I have taken what is laughingly known as the ‘easy way out’ by filming myself talking about some books I have recently read and ones I am currently reading. 5 crime novels, one Israeli apartment block in Tel Aviv, an Argentinian in France and a sweeping Hungarian family saga. Pretty much par for the course…

[I should stop apologising for my awkwardness while filming – static camera and a very movable person do not mix well.]

Quick Reviews: Santiago Gamboa, Laura Kaye and Helen Dunmore

Sadly, I have little time to write leisurely reviews, so I thought I’d better write these short impressions, before too much time lapses since I read the books.

Helen Dunmore: Birdcage Walk

Having previously enjoyed Dunmore’s novels and having mourned her death earlier this year, I read her last novel with a rather biased view and excessive attention to detail. The strange, uncomfortable marriage of John Diner and Lizzie Fawkes seems to me to be a metaphor for death, and our own twisted relationship with it: longing for it, fearing it, trying to make sense of it, blinding ourselves deliberately to it at times. Above all, there is the dread of being forgotten, of leaving nothing behind – like the unmarked headstone of John’s first wife or the lost works of Lizzie’s writer mother Julia.

This is a slow-moving novel, far too slow perhaps for many readers. It relies upon gradual building of layer upon layer of atmosphere and characterisation. Sometimes the reader jumps ahead with conclusions (certainly in one scene, if they can read French), but the author won’t be rushed along. I won’t lie: initially it was a book that I returned to willingly but not with particular impatience. By the end, however, I grew to love it and it left me with a sense of uncertain chill but also profound satisfaction. If we slow down to the pace of the narrator, we can more fully appreciate the poetic language and allow ourselves to be fully attuned to the story. I enjoyed the beginning of The Essex Serpent more, but I enjoyed the ending of this one more.

Santiago Gamboa: Return to the Dark Valley (transl. Howard Curtis)

I haven’t read Colombian author Gamboa’s previous novel Night Prayers, where two of the characters in this novel first make their appearance. But the novel stands up very well on its own: if you can accept a rather zany stop-and-start beginning, where we move from one point of view to the next. It’s like putting your eye to an old-fashioned kaleidoscopic tube and waiting for the bright colours to resolve themselves into a pattern, but then they morph into something different. We meet troubled Manuela trying to make her way out of poverty and abuse into a life of poetry and love – and being thoroughly let down along the way. A fastidious consul searching for his beloved Juana, whom he wants to rescue from a life of prostitution. Tertuliano, a fiery Argentinian preacher with pronounced racist tendencies. Last but not least, and somewhat surprisingly, the poet Rimbaud, restless lifelong seeker, a devil with the face of an angel. Somehow, all these stories mingle against a backdrop of terrorists holding hostages in the Irish Embassy in Madrid and a newly prosperous Colombia trying to forget its vicious paramilitary past. This tale of learning how to hate and demand revenge is often surprising and has some memorable scenes set in a rather cruel (and uncomfortably familiar) world. It has conviction, but lacks coherence, to my mind.

Laura Kaye: English Animals

At times satirical, at times sad, this is a fearsome and fierce, but not savage depiction of cultural differences. Mirka is a young Slovakian girl who takes on a job as a housekeeper/trainee taxidermist in an English country home. Her bosses Richard and Sophie are by turns generous, chaotic and self-absorbed. Their marriage is a bit of an unknowable mess and puzzles Mirka, and she gets involved more than she should. Some of the secondary characters are completely outrageous, but Richard and Sophie are more like Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby: ‘careless people, who smash up things and creatures’ – only in this case they hunt and stuff them. It’s the carelessness which grates more than anything. I suspect that if this book had been written by a non-English person, it would have been far more vicious, and perhaps all the worse for it (but perhaps also better for it, it’s ¬†hard to know). I’m thinking of A.M. Bakalar’s corrosive depiction of cultural differences in Madame Mephisto.

 

The #EU27Project: Two Months On…

It’s almost exactly two months since I dreamt up the #EU27Project¬†of reading a book from each of the countries remaining in the EU, and about 7 weeks since I set up a separate page for linking reviews. So it’s time for a bit of an update.

I’m delighted to say that a number of you have responded – and it’s doubly appreciated, because it’s not the most intuitive linking method. You have to write the country, the author or book title and then your name in brackets, as it doesn’t have separate lines for each item of information.

We have 16 reviews and blogger Lizzy Siddal¬†has been the most prolific reviewer to date. She has posted two books from the Netherlands: Gerard Reve’s masterpiece from 1947 translated at last into English, and Esther Gerritsen’s description of a toxic mother/daughter relationship. Also, two from Austria: short stories by Stefan Zweig (perennial old favourite) and a disquieting thriller by Bernhard Aichner. There is also a sly dig at behind the scenes of literary prizes by Filippo Bologna from¬†Italy and a collection of short stories by Spanish writer Medardo Fraile described as ‘one of the best I’ve ever read’ – high praise indeed and it’s gone straight onto my TBR list. So here is a bouquet for Lizzy and her sterling work!

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Netherlands is front-runner in terms of number of book reviews. In addition to the two by Lizzy, there is also a review of Herman Koch’s story of personal and social meltdown The Dinner. Joint top of the leaderboard is Germany, with three historical novels. Susan Osborne reviews Summer Before the Dark, a fictional account of Stefan Zweig and Josef Roth spending the summer of 1936 together in Ostende, refugees in vacation land. Joseph Kanon’s thriller¬†Leaving Berlin is set in post-war, post-partition Berlin and is reviewed by Maphead. Finally, Ricarda Huch’s novella¬†The Last Summer is set in Russia just on the cusp of the 1917 revolution.

There are two book reviews for Ireland, both for Lisa McInerney’s riotous description of the less touristy side of Cork The Glorious Heresies: one by Kate Vane¬†and one by myself. Finland can also boast two reviews, both for historical novels: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen reviewed in French by Sylvie Heroux from Montreal; while Mrs. Peabody investigates¬†Kjell West√∂’s The Wednesday Club,¬†which provides a rather grim insight into Finland’s troubled history.

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A Greek muse, from theoi.com

Peirene Press is represented with no less than 3 reviews: in addition to White Hunger and The Last Summer, there is also a Danish representative The Murder of Halland , which is not so much a crime novel as a story about grieving, reviewed by Karen at BookerTalk.

Another publisher which is well represented here is Pushkin Press, with 5 reviews, most of them by Lizzy, but also Summer Before the Dark by Volker Weidermann. So well done to these two independent publishers for making so much European culture available to us in the UK!

Last but not least, one of the youngest EU members, Croatia, is represented by the book Girl at War by Sara Novic, highly recommended by Maphead.

In terms of personal plans, I’ve already veered away from my original ones. I oomed and aahed about my selection for Germany, gave up on considering Kati Hiekkapelto for the Finnish entry (because her book takes place in Serbia), switched my Irish entry, found a women’s writing collective for Lithuania (still to be reviewed) and am still conflicted about France… And I still have zero inspiration for Malta or Cyprus.

Another thank you to all participants, from my garden...
Another thank you to all participants, from my garden…

Thank you to all the participants and I hope to see many more of you in the months to come. I believe there are a few of you who have reviewed books which would fall into the EU27 category, but have not linked up yet, so please do so if you get a chance. There is no deadline, no pressure, and absolutely no shame in back-linking to older reviews from late 2016 or early 2017.

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In Case of Emergency…

I doubt anyone will even notice I am gone during the next few weeks, but just in case you are not away on holiday or if you have a bit of time on your hands, break the safety glass and get your hands on some of my favourite older posts.

Hanging my (writing) clogs up for a few weeks... Wish me luck!
Hanging my (writing) clogs up for a few weeks… Wish me luck!

My first book review: The Expats by Chris Pavone

My first Japanese poetic love: Tawara Machi

Rereading one of my favourite books: The Great Gatsby 

The first time I finished writing (instead of reading) a novel: This Is the End

One of my snarkiest posts, about Overrated Books

Finally, an unforgettable walk on the Franco-Swiss border

Tomorrow’s post Friday Fun will be scheduled, as I’ll be busy wrangling with boxes, burly removal men and irate neighbours unable to get out of their driveway because of giant lorries.

So next time I post live, it will be from England.

 

Reading in the Merry Month of May

It’s been a changeable old month weather-wise, this May, and that has been reflected in my choice of books. I’ve read 12 books, and only 4 of those were by male writers (and two of those were for review). I finally managed to tackle 4 from my Netgalley pile (sinking under the greed there…), 5 from my bookshelves (although two of those may have been VERY recent purchases), plus one random purchase while being stuck at the airport. 7 of the books above may be classified as crime, one was spoken word poetry and there was no non-fiction this month.

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Gotta love the cloudy days of May… Lake Geneva from Vevey.

 

Julie Schumacher: Dear Committee Members

Louise Penny: How the Light Gets In – dare I count this as the first of my TBR20?

Helen Fitzgerald: Bloody Women

Clare Mackintosh: I Let You Go

Daniel Quiros: Eté rouge Рthis one counts for my Global Reading Challenge РCentral and South America

Kristien Hemmerechts: The Woman Who Fed the Dogs

Quentin Bates: Summerchill – reviewed on CFL website; you can read my interview with the author here

Ragnar Jonasson: Snowblind – reviewed on CFL website; I’ve also had the pleasure of interviewing Ragnar here¬†

Megan Beech: When I Grow Up I Want to Be Mary Beard (poetry)

Ursula Poznanski: Blinde Vögel Рa Facebook poetry group turns deadly in Salzburg Рhow could I resist?

Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – philosophical fable – I thereby declare this #TBR1

Sara Novic: Girl at War – survivor of the war in Croatia returns ten years later to her home country – #TBR2

These last four were all memorable in quite different ways, so I want to write more thorough reviews of them soon, so watch this space.

Siglufjordur, location for Snowblind. Picture taken by the author, Ragnar Jonasson (thanks to Twitter).
Siglufjordur, location for Snowblind. Picture taken by the author, Ragnar Jonasson (thanks to Twitter).

Crime fiction pick of the month is going to be a tie between Snowblind and How the Light Gets In. But I also have my eye on this Austrian writer Poznanski now and hope she gets translated more into English (she also writes YA and children’s fiction and is known as Ursula P. Archer in the English-speaking world).

Finally, how has writing fared this month? Some rough handwritten drafting has taken place, but it’s been another tough month, with business trips, lots of holidays and parental visits. Must do better next month (famous last words?)… The good news is that poetry has started to flow again after a long period of feeling stuck.

 

 

 

 

 

Japan, Italy, Spain: Where My Crime Fiction Takes Me

I do love crime fiction set in different countries. I believe that crime novels are great at conveying the small details, the atmosphere, the cultural differences which make up a country. I tend to pack them in my luggage when I venture to a new country, right alongside the travel guides. The last three have taken me to Japan, Italy/France and Spain.

Japan: “All She Was Worth” by Miyuki Miyabe (No information about translator!?!), Oriel

all-she-was-worth

Inspector Honma is a gentle soul, on semi-retirement from the police force since his wife’s death, with the usual single father doubts about his parenting abilities towards his ten-year-old son Makoto. A distant cousin descends on him one snowy evening and asks for his help to trace his missing fianc√©. As Honma uncovers more and more unsettling facts about this woman and her past, he reluctantly has to bear witness to the dark side of Japan’s economic boom: the belief in a good life today rather than tomorrow, falling into debt and being pursued by loan sharks, succumbing to the temptation of hostess bars and … possibly… murder. The story is told at a much more leisurely pace than one might be accustomed to from a contemporary Western novel: there is almost something of the Golden Age detective novel feel about it, as one puzzle piece after another is found and carefully slotted into place. We may solve the mystery long before the main protagonist does, but along the way we experience a great fresco of Japan in the early 1990s, when the golden dream was becoming tarnished. All the while, I couldn’t help thinking of the much more excessive recent consumer excesses of the UK and Greece, for example. However, for Japanese standards (a nation of savers rather than credit cards), this must have been pretty explosive stuff at the time. The novel was written in 1992 and does show its age a little.

Italy/France: “Escape” by Dominique Manotti (Transl. Amanda Hopkinson & Ros Schwartz), Arcadia

ManottiTwo mismatched Italian prisoners break out of prison: Carlo is a former leader in the Red Brigades, Filippo a petty criminal from the slums of Rome. Yet it’s the latter who survives and who tries to make his fortune in Paris. While working as a night guard, this barely literate young man starts writing down the stories that Carlo told him in prison. The book is published and becomes a bestseller… with very dangerous consequences for Filippo, even though he tries to convince the reading public (and the police) that most of the novel is fiction.

This book has one of the most immediately gripping opening sequences I’ve read in recent memory… and we’re off on this rollercoaster of a ride through Italian politics of the 1970s/80s, the pretentiousness of the French literary establishment and the world of exiled Italians in Paris. Manotti’s work is at once dramatic and thoughtful, cinematic and intimate, politically engaged and also tongue-in-cheek. The characters often take themselves far too seriously, but the author never does: by offering us multiple points of view, she does a great job of pricking their balloon of self-satisfaction and self-deceit. She also does a great job of asking questions about the nature of memory, about the proportion of fiction in our truths, and just what is permissible in the name of success or political survival. A political thriller with a very personal story, this is a book quite unlike most crime fiction you find on the bookshop shelves today. An author who deserves to be far more widely known in the English-speaking world.

Spain: ‘Depths of the Forest’ by Eugenio Fuentes (Transl. Paul Antill), Arcadia

el-interior-del-bosqueAn attractive young woman is killed in a remote nature reserve in the north-east of Spain. Her boyfriend hires private investigator Ricardo Cupido to find the killer, as he fears the police are dragging their feet. Ricardo knows the local area, the secretive, closed nature of its people, but he has to start by uncovering more about the enigmatic and charismatic victim, Gloria, an artist who was equally loved and envied by those closest to her. Ricardo finds himself drawn towards her even after death, but a further death makes him wonder if the murder was at all personal.

Atmosphere galore in this novel: the claustrophobia of small-town rural Spain and the ominous wilderness of a great forest are both equally well described. The style is ornate, lyrical, with detailed descriptions, very different to the more spare Anglo-Saxon style, but beautifully written. A book to savour slowly, to let melt on your tongue. Once again, we are transported into other points of view and get to see both Gloria and the forest through multiple sets of eyes – a technique that is seldom used in UK/US crime fiction.

fuentesBut what I love about this author is the layers of meaning he instills in his books: superficially, they are simply a murder mystery, but underneath that they are character studies, and if you dig a little deeper still, you find the exploration of old mores and traditions, of cultural values, of natural forces fighting against humans. ¬†Cupido himself is an attractive character, thoughtful but not unduly melancholic, although a bit of a loner. Here he is described by another character: “He was about thirty-five, very tall, with clean-cut features and profile, although he gave the impression of not knowing how to make the most of his good looks. He never allowed himself a broad smile… He appeared calm by nature, but by no means impassive; he was sceptical, but not pessimistic…’ I certainly want to read more about him in other books.

 

Where have you recently ‘travelled’ via your books? ¬†Please share with me your favourite discoveries, as there is nothing I enjoy better than to explore new locations through an author’s eyes.

 

 

Two for Sorrow, Two for Joy

There are four books I’ve recently read which were particularly memorable. Two cheery, two rather darker. One was A. saddening and frightening, one was B. shrewdly observational and uncomfortable, one was C. full of acerbic wit yet charming , while the last was D. energising and taking-no-prisoners forthright. I’ll leave you to match the numbers to the letters.

1) Summer Pierre: The Artist in the Office

summerpierreDay after day, this is how it goes: You get up, go to work – and save your ‘real’ self for the cracks and corners of your off time. Even worse when you have family, children, elderly relatives, pets, associations, voluntary work and all the fanfare of the parade on Main Street to contend with. ¬†Where does your capacity for wonder go? For how much longer are you going to postpone your creative urges?

Writer, musician and illustrator Summer Pierre – you can find examples of her comics on her blog¬†– has wise words of advice on how to combine bread-winning with your passion. And, although she doesn’t quite tell you how to deal with all the family priorities too (this may change now that she has a child of her own), there is much to reflect upon in her no-nonsense approach to artistry. This book is about ‘waking up in the life we inhabit¬†now¬†instead of putting off life for¬†later’.¬†There are lots of little tips, suggestions and prompts how to make your working life more fun and meaningful (dancing with a co-worker, little creative projects, lunchtime adventures, using your commute in productive ways). But the real clincher for me was about being honest with myself about my priorities.

There are plenty of reasons to blow up your life: You want adventure; you hate your job; you are bored with your town, your relationship, and/or your whole life. The basic desire: YOU WANT CHANGE. This is all understandable, but ask yourself this before making any huge choices in the name of your creative life: What will be different? What will change besides circumstance?

It took me years to realize that I could do all kinds of drastic acts like quitting jobs, relationships, towns (or all of the above), but what showed up at the next job, relationship and town was still¬†me. In all creative lives, risk is important, but ask¬†yourself, how does it feel to do your art in the life you have right now? If it seems impossible to do now, what will really change with where you are later? If you can’t do your art – even a little – in the life you have now, with the person you are right this second, YOU MAY NEVER DO IT.

As usual, not everything will be applicable to every reader, but it’s a funny and quick read. It’s a slim, slight volume, and the variations in script may make it sometimes feel childish. The thoughts contained therein may be simple but they’re profound. I’d heard all those things before, even coached others about many of the issues, but when it’s someone else forcing you to stop and think, it’s much more powerful.

Broken2) Tamar Cohen: The Broken

How do you cope when you are a couple with children and your best friends (with children of a similar age) go through an acrimonious divorce? How can you avoid taking sides, how can you protect your own life and family when you’re being engulfed by the flames of dispute and revenge? This is the dilemma faced by the very average (yet refreshingly normal) couple Hannah and Josh, when their rather wealthier and more glamorous friends Dan and Sasha separate. Dan is leaving his wife for a younger woman and Sasha seems to fall apart in front of our eyes, with disastrous consequences for all. This makes for some deeply disturbing reading of squirmingly uncomfortable social and family situations, which the author analyses with¬†razor-sharp precision and sly observations about friendships and parenting, gender differences, nurseries, marriage. Great characters, which all seemed perfectly plausible in context, although in retrospect you kept wondering at their passivity or inability to grab the bull by the horns and spell out the truth. (Perhaps a rather English trait.)

It all starts out as a domestic psychological drama of the unravelling of a family and a friendship, which would have been enough excitement in itself. However, there is more tension, with childhood flashbacks which only start to make sense much later in the book and a sinister build-up towards the end. All in all, a really captivating read, which I finished in one go while waiting for my plane.

AllMyPuny3) Miriam Toews: All My Puny Sorrows

It is so hard to avoid melodrama and mawkishness when you are talking about depression, assisted suicide and family members. Yet Toews manages to steer clear of sentimentality in this fiercely honest semi-autobiographical novel. It’s the story of two sisters, who’ve lived through a Mennonite childhood and their father’s suicide. Outwardly, Elf is the successful one: the f√™ted concert pianist, married to a tremendously supportive husband, well-off… yet suicidal. Meanwhile, Yoli seems to be blundering through life, unable to hold down a steady job or a relationship, not having much authority over her children, always keenly aware of her mother’s disappointment in her. Yet it is Yoli who consistently picks up the pieces, who mediates, who moves between the stubborn, deaf and blind, between the desperate and the angry. She has to deal with her own frustration and fears, while also dealing with everyone else’s demands.

The style is disconcerting to start off with: a lack of clear speech marks, meandering through different time frames and the introduction of so many characters both major and minor. But it’s worth persevering, because it’s in the accumulation of detail that this book reveals its full poignancy. And if I’ve made it sound like an unbearably depressing read, there are actually many funny anecdotes from childhood and witty observations scattered throughout the book. ¬†This is ultimately a story of the power and limitations of sisterly love, as well as surviving grief and loss, coming to terms with the things we have and haven’t done, the paths not taken, a story of forgiveness (of self and others).

4) Lena Divani: Seven Lives and One Great Love (trans. Konstantine Matsoukas)

These are the memoirs of Sugar Zach, a cat who is now in his seventh (and last) life. Yes, in our part of the world in the Balkans, cats only have seven instead of nine lives, which I’m sure posed some challenges for the translator and editor. Admittedly, I may not be the most objective reviewer of this book, since, as regular readers may know, I’ve recently adopted a cat and am completely smitten by it. So of course I loved this blend of humour, wry observation of humans and feline suavery.

Sugar Zach is a beautiful white fluffy cat, a born schemer and social climber who is disparaging about his birth family. He is cunning, selfish and acts cool at all times, peppering his story with his numbered Meows – general observations about human frailty and absurdity. He also prides himself on his literary knowledge (gleaned from previous lives). He can be very harsh about his humans. Hear him describe the partner of his new owner, a writer:

He loved to waste time. In the mornings, he made his coffee, turned on the PC and played Tetris for about an hour, as a warm-up. After that, he played a few games of patience for good luck, answered his emails, made some more coffee because he was done with the first one and then he started thinking about how on earth to begin the first chapter of his first novel. Just as he became lost in contemplation, the rival thought would occur to him that he had a deadline to meet for his first script which meant he needed to stop thinking about his novel at once and start thinking about the script. He experienced a significant bout of stress. To counter that, he played another game of Tetris.

Yet, as the book progresses, as both Sugar and his owners grow older, change, separate, fall ill, the book settles down from its initial sarcastic tone and becomes a touching tribute to the love between cats and humans. Short and sweet, but ironic rather than sentimental – a delight!

It’s Grim Ooop North…*

While I was working in the north of England, it just seemed appropriate to be reading crime novels set in the north (Northumberland, upstate New York and Canada’s Northern Territories). Each of these novels has a strong sense of place, and there’s desolate rural wind blowing through their very different landscapes (as well as the usual village gossip).

CarnalSam Alexander: Carnal Acts

I have to admit I struggled with this one, because it was almost unbearably graphic and misogynistic (not the author, but many of the characters). I suppose it was bound to be a disturbing read, with topics such as sex trade, Albanian mafia and both traditional and modern slavery. Fiercely independent former London cop Joni Pax is an interesting character, but I found her ditsy hippy Mum a bit overdone, while her detecting partner Heck Rutherford promises to be intriguing but does not yet quite stand out sufficiently for me. It’s a thrilling enough read, but¬†I found the story a tad predictable yet not quite fully plausible. Stylistically, also, it feels lazy, with abundant clich√©s, as if the author is on holiday and allowing him or herself a bit of downtime with this book. ¬†However, I have to admit I admire Arcadia’s clever marketing ploy to discover the real writer beneath the pseudonym. And, like everyone else, I’m dying to find out #WhoIsSamAlexander. [And won’t I be biting back my words if I discover it’s one of my favourite crime authors?]

Linwood Barclay: Trust Your Eyes

TrustEyesWhat if you committed a crime and thought you’d got away with it, but discover a few months later that anyone with an internet connection could have witnessed it? A brilliant premise for a novel which reminded me of Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’. Linwood Barclay is the poor man’s Harlan Coben – and I mean this in the best possible way. In his breathtakingly exciting novels, all of which start with some kind of paradox, it’s not people with superhuman abilities or international spies who have all the adventures. No, it’s the average Joes, modest citizens like you and me, who find themselves suddenly in an impossible situation, completely out of their depth. In that respect, he reminds me more of Sophie Hannah or Nicci French… and there is a strong family component to his writing as well. This is an author who really ‘gets’ complex family dynamics. This tale of two dissimilar brothers (Ray the successful illustrator and his schizophrenic, housebound, obsessive brother Thomas who sees something he shouldn’t have online) goes much deeper than just a crime story – and there is quite a thrilling, multi-stranded plot here, make no mistake about that. Not surprisingly, I discovered that Barclay himself has a brother with mental health problems, and although he says the character of Thomas is not based on his brother, the frustrated love the two brothers have for each other rings very true indeed.

BoneSeekerM. J. McGrath: The Bone Seeker

I absolutely loved the near-anthropological descriptions of life in the Inuk community of Ellesmere Island in Canada in ‘White Heat’, McGrath’s debut novel featuring Arctic hunter and unwilling detective Edie Kiglatuk. Anybody talking about strong women should take Edie as a role model: diminutive yet tough as nails, caring yet unsentimental, thoughtful yet able to whip up a good bowl of seal blood soup. In this second novel the author has corrected some of the weaknesses of the previous novel: this one has more diverse characters, is faster-paced and avoids over-long nature descriptions. Yet somehow I enjoyed it slightly less than the first, perhaps because there is a whole government conspiracy to unravel as well as a crime to solve. (I’m not a huge fan of conspiracy theories.) The description of young Martha, however, the girl who hopes to escape from her community and see the wider world, is very poignant and memorable indeed.

 

* Nobody is quite sure of the origin of this phrase, but it seems to have been fairly well established as a trope in British culture since Victorian times at least. The North stood for all that was sooty, industrial, coal-miney and dark. Funnily enough, for us Southern Europeans or those in the Balkans, the North always stood for prosperity, non-corrupt democracy, fair-mindedness and social progress.