I Thought I Was Doing So Well…

I haven’t signed up to the TBR Triple Dog challenge this year (which means no purchasing or borrowing new books for 3 months, until you reduce your TBR pile considerably). I love the concept, but I failed rather dismally last year. Secretly, however, I was planning to tag along unofficially. I noticed, with some satisfaction, that in January I managed to read 14 from my TBR list, 2 review books, 1 from the library and 1 that a friend lent me. So I blithely informed James at his end of January update that I had done quite well.

But then books started arriving in the post, my willpower weakened and my clicky finger got activated…

So here is the truth of the matter:

Books I borrowed and had to read quickly before returning:

Christos Tsiolkas: Dead Europe

Ian Rankin: Standing in Another Man’s Grave

Books I got sent by publishers:

Karl Ove Knausgaard: Some Rain Must Fall – Vol. 5 about attending writing school and becoming an adult – I dived into it at once

Peter Gardos: Fever at Dawn – 1945 and Hungarian Miklos has just emerged from Belsen and is recovering in a refuggee camp in Sweden; he is looking for love and writes a letter to 117 Hungarian women from his village.

He Jiahong: Hanging Devils – Set in the mid 1990s, this debut by one of China’s foremost legal experts turned crime fiction author describes a rapidly-changing society.

Succumbed to Netgalley temptation:

Simon Booker: Without Trace  – a miscarriage of justice, a childhood sweetheart released from prison and then her own daughter goes missing – can she trust anyone?

Lisa Owens: Not Working – 20-something stops working to figure out what her purpose in life is

Joanna Cannon: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – 1976 and 2 ten-year-olds decide to uncover the mystery of the missing neighbour

Melissa Harrison: Rain – 4 walks in the English weather – better get used to it again

Ordered thanks to enthusiastic reviews (I name the guilty party too):

Javier Marias: Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (Tony Malone)

Andrew McMillan: Physical (Anthony Anaxagorou) – poetry: hymns to the male body, friendship and love

Rebecca Goss: Her Birth (Anthony Anaxagorou) – poetry: series of poems documenting the short life of a daughter born with a rare and incurable heart condition

Claudia Rankine: Citizen (Naomi Frisby) – I’ve read this but wanted my own copy

Complete Novels of E. Nesbit (Simon Thomas) – because I haven’t read any of her novels for adults

So I acknowledge defeat on the buy/borrow/download front, but will stick to reading more from the TBR pile at least…

 

 

January Reading Round-Up

Another busy month of reading, partly because of holidays and children’s illnesses, when I wasn’t able to do much else. Not so much reviewing, although some of the crime novels below will be reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover. A lot of rather dark reading, too, as befits this time of year. I have travelled all over the globe via books.

Crime fiction set in diverse locations

Panorama of Sarajevo, from Wikiwand.
Panorama of Sarajevo, from Wikiwand.
  1. Dan Fesperman: Lie in the Dark – Sarajevo under siege, who cares about a murder when people are dying every day?
  2. Yasmina Khadra: Qu’attendent les singes (What are monkeys waiting for?) – the impossibility of investigating murder honestly and openly in politically corrupt Algeria
  3. Johan Theorin: The Voices Beyond (transl. Marlaine Delargy) – vengeance and deadly rivalry on the island of Öland in Sweden
  4. Margie Orford: Water Music – crimes against young women and children in the beautiful surroundings of Cape Town
  5. Brooke Magnanti: The Turning Tide – London and the Hebrides alternate in this entertaining cross between chick-lit and political thriller
  6. T.R. Richmond: What She Left – suicide or murder of a young student at Southampton University?
  7. Angela Clarke: Follow Me – social media stalking and hashtag murdering in London
  8. Alison Bruce: The Promise – death of a homeless man opens up a can of worms in Cambridge
  9. Ian Rankin: Standing in Another Man’s Grave – Rebus is back and investigating a serial killer along the A9 heading north of Edinburgh
  10. Raphael Montes: Perfect Days – a crazy road trip with your kidnapper through Brazil

Non-Fiction:

Palace Hotel Gstaad, Switzerland, from betterlivingny.wordpress.com
Palace Hotel Gstaad, Switzerland, from betterlivingny.wordpress.com
  1. Padraig Rooney: The Gilded Chalet: Off Piste in Literary Switzerland
  2. Andrew Solomon: The Noonday Demon – a personal account into depression, but also an investigation into how depression is perceived and handled in the US and other parts of the world
  3. Anne Theriault: My Heart Is an Autumn Garage – a memoir of depression and hospitalisation in Canada

Other Fiction:

Dmitry Shostakovich, from allmusic.com
Dmitry Shostakovich, from allmusic.com
  1. Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time – a fictional account of the life and compromises of Shostakovich in the Soviet Union
  2. Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, Ging, Gegangen (Go, Going, Gone) – understanding the challenges of being a refugee in Germany
  3. Christos Tsiolkas: Dead Europe – an Aussie travelling through a rapidly changing Europe which has lost its innocence
  4. Lauren Holmes: Barbara the Slut and Other People – young Americans trying to find a purpose to life
  5. Anthony Anaxagorou: The Blink that Killed the Eye – life, art and death in an impoverished British society

The three crime reads which I most enjoyed were Margie Orford, Ian Rankin and Dan Fesperman, but I would find it difficult to choose between the three of them for a Crime Fiction Pick of the Month. The best book for dipping into was The Gilded Chalet – a real coffee table book if you have any interest in literature or Switzerland. Finally, the most memorable books of the month were by Julian Barnes, Anthony Anaxagorou and Jenny Erpenbeck.

Fiction Set in Dysfunctional Societies

Yasmina Khadra’s Algeria

KhadraSingesThis is the work of an Algerian writer disillusioned with his country. Disguised as a crime novel and a murder investigation, it is actually an indictment of the corruption of Algerian politics, law, police force and journalism.

A young girl is found dead in a forest outside Alger and Nora Bilal, one of the few female officers in the Algerian police, is entrusted with the investigation. Her methods are questioned and she is personally disrespected at every turn, especially when it turns out that some political figures may be involved in a complicated story of prostitution and thirst for power. Brutal, with a high body count and utterly merciless protagonists, as well as some very brave (or foolhardy) police officers, this is not a pleasant story. Khadra can come across as preachy sometimes, but he can also weave an exciting story, which ends in a very unexpected and dramatic fashion.

Other powerful fictional (more or less) representations of Algeria: Yasmina Khadra’s What the Day Owes the Night; Assia Djebar’s Algerian White; Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation.

Dan Fesperman’s Sarajevo

fespermanThe war in Yugoslavia: it’s about 1994/95 and Sarajevo has been under siege for about 2 years now. Vlado Petric has escaped army conscription by being a police officer, but even he has to admit that his job is utter nonsense: what does a domestic murder matter in a city where so many die daily in mortar attacks or shot by snipers?

Yet one night, when he stumbles in the dark upon a victim of shooting, close inspection reveals that this is no sniper incident, but a deliberate murder at close range. The victim is a head of security in the newly formed Bosnian Ministry of Interior, and it appears he trod on many toes: smugglers, black marketeers, local militia and so on. However, Vlado soon becomes convinced that something much bigger was at stake.

How is it possible to investigate in a city ravaged by hunger, corruption and desperation? How is it possible to keep your head and your integrity when all about you there is nothing but darkness and greed? This is an outstanding portrayal of a city and society driven to the utter limits, and you can forgive any plot inconsistencies or the rushed ending for the atmosphere it evokes.

Other books about Sarajevo which have stuck in my mind: Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, Alma Lazarevska’s Death in the Museum of Modern Art and Zlata Filipovic: Zlata’s Diary, for a child’s perspective on war.

barnesJulian Barnes’ Soviet Union

Barnes is a keen Francophile and has lived in France, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has adopted the French habit of a mélange between biography and fiction for his latest novel, an imagining of three key moments in the life of composer Dmitry Shostakovich.

In the first instance, we see a young, anxious Shostakovich waiting with his suitcase beside the lift in his block of flats, fully expecting to be taken in by the KGB for questioning during Stalin’s worst purges in the 1930s. His recent opera was denounced as bourgeois and unpalatable, and he wants to spare his family the pain of being carted away in front of their eyes. The second moment occurs ten years later, when he has survived the war and even emerged as a leading composer, reliable enough to be sent to a congress in the US, but nevertheless very fearful of saying or thinking the wrong thing. Finally, we see him old, resigned and somewhat complicit with the arguably more liberal regime under Khrushchev.

Although the biographical detail is fascinating and probably quite accurate, it’s the human and individual reaction to an oppressive regime, the attempt to create something of lasting artistic value within the constraints of prescribed Communist values, which makes this book really interesting. The daily fears and gradual compromises are described with great insight, candour and compassion. I will be writing a full review of this remarkable (and quite short) work for the next issue of Shiny New Books.

Other unforgettable books about the Soviet regime: Martin Cruz Smith Gorky Park; Tom Rob Smith: Child 44; Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago; Solzhenitsyn: The First Circle.

 

Christmas Presents Sorted

Getting what you want is so much more important than the surprise element, isn’t it? So I’ve just finished buying my Christmas presents. All books, of course, I completely agree with the Icelandic tradition. Here they are:

  • gildedchaletPadraig Rooney: The Gilded Chalet

From Rousseau to the Romantics, Conan Doyle, Patricia Highsmith, John le Carré and even Fleming’s Bond – all sorts of writers have found themselves attracted to the humble or luxurious or well-hidden Swiss chalet, the spas, the sanatoriums, the money-laundering, the tax-haven… From the blurb: ‘Part detective work, part treasure chest, full of history and scandal, The Gilded Chalet takes you on a grand tour of two centuries of great writing by both Swiss and foreign authors and shows how Switzerland has always been at the centre of literary Europe.’

  • erpenbeck_2Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, Ging, Gegangen

Here’s what Tony Malone says about this compassionate and very topical novel about a German academic and his gradual understanding of asylum-seekers and refugees in Berlin.

‘It’s this idea of individuals which the novel eventually focuses on, showing the importance of looking beyond the surface and seeing the people behind the story.  In fact, the importance of individuals actually refers just as much to those watching the refugees stream across the borders.  Yes, it’s easy to believe that it’s all too hard and that individuals will never be able to do anything to help out.  However, Erpenbeck and Richard show that this is far from the truth – even the largest of endeavours has to start somewhere…’

  • Alina Bronsky: Scherbenpark

Also the story of immigration: a young Russian girl, living with her family in a council estate ghetto in a German city. I’ve heard this is much better written than Tigermilk, so I’m hopeful.

But it’s not just for myself. I’ve also bought books for my boys:

  • boycalledDavid Walliams: Grandpa’s Great Escape
  • Matt Haig: A Boy Called Christmas
  • The Guiness Book of World Records

Will the children be pleased? Well, they are still negotiating for a much more prized Wii U. Sadly.

And finally, I did also receive a book in the post from my own father: his memoirs about his career at the United Nations and working as a diplomat. While it’s not quite the ‘warts and all’ gossipy type of political memoir which would have become a bestseller, it is a lovely way to archive some of his pictures, achievements and documents for future generations.

 

 

Reading Acrostic

What better way to start a week full of hard work and worthy projects than with a delightful bit of procrastination? Thank you to Susan, Annabel and David for the impetus… I think…

The rules are simple: make an acrostic of your name using the books you have read recently (or, in some cases, not all that recently). I have used books that have truly impressed me, that I have rated 4 or 5 stars. The links are to reviews, although not all of the books below have received the reviews they deserve from me. I don’t think I’ll have time to do them justice in the near future, so I’ve completed with brief comments taken from my Goodreads archive.

P1030398

M  Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson

An island, a lighthouse, a garden: what more could you want? The book where we get the clearest picture of the tensions between Moominpappa and Moominmamma, yet also a story of the triumph of family love and the beauty of impractical dreaming.

A  Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes

R  La Route de Beit Zera by Hubert Mingarelli

I  The Islanders by Pascal Garnier

N  No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary

A The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Amazing how the author manages to inject such a serious and heartbreaking subject, so many rather shocking and sad events, with humour, tenderness and the practical, no-nonsense yet vulnerable mindset of an adolescent. Beautiful and emotional piece of work.

S  Scarred Hearts by Max Blecher

Such a modern feel to this one: Blecher does not shy away from the good, the bad, the ugly, the things we would rather not acknowledge. Not for the squeamish or hypocritical. A burst of candour and poignancy, an urgent love of life, from a character (and an author) doomed to die. Heartbreaking.

O  Our Andromeda by Brenda Shaughnessy

This inspiring collection of poems has something for all tastes: from the playful and linguistically inventive (particularly for those among us who are more auditively inclined) to the deeply moving pathos of the title poem, which had me in tears even while queuing for 1.5 hours at US borders. Captivating voice and a willingness to be brave, honest and experiment, rather than showing off.

F Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli

I  Les Ignorants by Étienne Davodeau

A  Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Would love to see your own versions, so please don’t be shy!

P1020290

 

In the meantime, something’s growing in the jungle…

… while I’ve been busy deciding upon my #TBR20 darlings, sneaky old book orders I’d nearly forgotten about, new review copies and well-intentioned parents have added to my TBR pile. I will pretend I don’t have them and won’t dive into them yet, but I thought it might be fun to have a quick peek in the undergrowth…

epochtimes-romania.com
Picture from epochtimes-romania.com. No, my own TBR pile doesn’t look quite that bad yet!

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver [Oh, all right then, also the only two Moomin books still missing from our collection – Moominvalley in November – which always makes me cry – and The Exploits of Moominpappa – which always makes me laugh, but these all count as re-reads and it’s just to complete my Jansson collection]

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd – recommended by so many of my fellow book bloggers: Tony Malone, Stu Jallen, Caroline at Beauty is a sleeping cat, to name just a few.

Anya Lipska: A Devil Under the Skin – because I love Anya’s writing and her East European connection… and she knows it!

Gunnar Staalesen: We Shall Inherit the Wind – because Orenda Books knows I can never resist a Scandinavian author

Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star – because Naomi Frisby was so enthusiastic about it, she sent it to me, bless her!

A few imports from Romania:

Mircea Cartarescu: Fata de la marginea vietii (The Girl from the Edge of Life) – a short story collection from one of the best-known (though difficult) contemporary Romanian writers

Adina Rosetti: De zece ori pe buze (Ten Times on the Lips) – short story collection from a former journalist for Time Out and Elle in Romania, now turned fiction author

Alex Stefanescu: Barbat adormit in fotoliu (Man, Sleeping in an Armchair) – essay collection from this essayist, editor and literary critic

Rodica Ojog-Brasoveanu (1939-2002):  three novels by the grande dame of Romanian crime fiction. I’ve never tried her before and am curious to see if the comparisons to Agatha Christie are justified…

The good news is, I’m still on track with my TBR20 challenge. I’m on book no. 8 from that pile now. So I won’t get started with the above-mentioned ones immediately…

What Was I Expecting? Beep-beep, Fashion!

I try to stay away from books that are being hyped and fussed over by publishers, reviewers, readers and most especially the media. Yet sometimes I succumb to fashion (turn to the left), fashion (turn to the right)… I nearly always end up a little underwhelmed, as I’ve been by four books in a row that I’ve read over the past two or three weeks. So I was wondering why that’s the case. I suppose it’s because my expectations are being piled up to skyscraper proportions, so it becomes impossible for any book to satisfy my hunger.

So, just to be perfectly clear, all of the books below are good books, just not great books. Like an overly demanding parent with a child who doesn’t quite achieve the stunning results they expect, I love them nevertheless, but can’t help feeling a little disappointed. And, of course, this is just my opinion, there are plenty of other readers who loved these books, etc. etc.

thefarmTom Rob Smith: The Farm

The premise is irresistible: the over-protected child (now grown up and trying to protect his parents from the truth about his sexuality) has to choose between his father’s and his mother’s account of events. Whom to believe? What is really going on? Marketed as a thriller, this feels to me more like a family saga, and makes excellent use of its remote Swedish farmhouse scenario. But I do wish there had been more uncertainty, more of the father’s side of the story and, even though I usually like a clear chronology and straightforward storytelling, in this case I would have liked more complexity, more conflicting perspectives. For a very different take on this, see the review on Crime Fiction Lover.

StationElevenEmily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

This is going to make me a lot of enemies, as nearly everyone I know who’s read it has loved this book. I did find it beautifully written, with a glossiness and thoughtfulness of language which is very appealing to the poet in me. But when I reached the end, I did feel a bit: ‘Ho-hum, is that it?’ It pains me to say this, as I saw the author in Lyon and loved everything she said.

There were some memorable scenes and a few intriguing characters, not necessarily the main protagonists (I preferred Miranda, Clark, Javeen). However, because of the constantly shifting points of view, I felt I didn’t quite come to grips with any of them. More could have been made of the Prophet, as well, and his troupe.

I enjoyed the Shakespeare references (more The Tempest than King Lear to my mind, but perhaps that just shows my own preconceptions), the sarcasm about Hollywood and fame, the description of life after the pandemic. I’m not a huge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, and thankfully the book did not go too much into the horror mode of graphic descriptions of dying.

Ultimately, it’s a story about human relationships and the longing for connection and for the comfort of the past, set against the backdrop of a threatening, uncertain world. But it’s not as moving and tender as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and a little too tame. If you want to see a writer who really goes out on a limb in an alternative world, try the much less hyped Ioanna Bourazopoulou’s What Lot’s Wife Saw. I did an interview with Ioanna for Crime Fiction Lover for New Talent November.

For much more enthusiastic appraisals of Station Eleven, see The Little Reader Library, Janet Emson and Naomi Frisby.

liarschairRebecca Whitney: The Liar’s Chair

I’m rather a fan of so-called domestic noir, perhaps because of the ‘happy’ families I’ve known throughout my life. I do get fatigued by the inevitable comparisons to ‘Gone Girl’, as if that was the first of the domestic noir genre (Patricia Highsmith, Daphne du Maurier and Nicci French had been writing them way before the current batch). Furthermore, I don’t need likable characters to enjoy a book, so I thought I would be fine with the deceits and lies of the toxic marriage depicted here. In fact, my current WIP falls broadly under this same category.

The atmosphere of menace was very well done, particularly in the first half of the book, but it was a little hard to sustain throughout. At some point it felt like the author was piling on nasty gestures by either one of the couple, for no other purpose than to up the ante. Perhaps that was necessary, because there was no great moment of ultimate danger or huge revelation: the outcomes were somewhat predictable.

However, this is a talented author, with a great turn of phrase, whose future novels will almost certainly become even more intense and suspenseful. For more reviews, see Cleopatra Loves Books and Susan White for Euro Crime.

loindesbrasMetin Arditi: Loin des bras (Far from human arms)

Far from the arms of others, who can provide comfort and love, this metaphorical title describes not just the schoolboys in this book, who’ve been sent away to an expensive Swiss boarding school by their wealthy and indifferent parents, but also the teachers at this school. Each character is flawed and vulnerable in a different way: we have gamblers, homosexuals, former Nazi sympathisers (the book is set in the 1950s), people who have lost countries, languages or loved ones. A bit of everything in short, all longing for some human connection, for a sense of community, which this school provides in some way, while heading for bankruptcy. It was an enjoyable read, with short chapters and a sense of world-weariness very fitting with the landscape and the omnipresent subtle changes of the lake’s surface. The storylines are somewhat predictable, and some of the characters feel a bit cliché, but what disappointed me most was the bare, unadorned style.

The reason for that is again false expectations on my part. Metin Arditi is an intriguing person in his own right: born in Turkey, he moved to Switzerland as a child, became a professor of physics at EPFL Lausanne, and is also a very active promoter of culture and especially music in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Given his background, I expected a more flowery language, perhaps something in the style of Orhan Pamuk, but he dissects instead with incisive, cold precision, much more like a scientist. If you want to try reading him in English, one of his books has been translated The Conductor of Illusions

Perhaps next time I’ll do a post on the hyped books which did not disappoint me – there are a few that lived up to my expectations or even surpassed them. How about you? Do you read or avoid the buzz books of the moment? And do you ever feel that ‘is that all’ sigh?