From now on, I will ignore both annoying politicians and ex-husbands, and focus only on books. I still have a few books to review, but I’m also starting my annual round-up. Perhaps I’ll even get around to a decade’s round-up.
I’ve found a very clever way around the limitations of the ‘Top Ten Books of the Year’ list. I will compile my choices by categories. In this first instalment, I’m featuring my favourite crime fiction books and the 2019 releases (never mind that these two lists might overlap, I will ignore that).
Second instalment will contain Non-Fiction and Classics, while the final one will be about new discoveries or new books by authors I already admire. And, since I’m an optimist about still finding memorable books in the 20 days still left of 2019, I will leave the last instalment open for late additions and only publish it on the very last day of the year.
Will Carver: Nothing Important Happened Today – if I say social critique and suicide cults, it will sound incredibly depressing, but this is a very unusual and highly readable mystery
Antti Tuomainen: Little Siberia – action-packed noir with a philosophical slant and surreal, even slapstick humour, this is a story about losing your faith and what it might take to regain it
Doug Johnstone: Breakers – heartbreaking, yet avoids sentimentality, this story of brotherly love and deprived childhoods
Helen Fitzgerald: Worst Case Scenario – at once a condemnation of the stretched resources within our probation services, as well as a menopausal woman’s roar of rebellion
G.D. Abson: Motherland – a fresh and timely setting for this first book in a crime series set in Putin’s Russia
Bogdan Teodorescu: Baieti aproape buni – sharp, scathing critique of political corruption and media cover-up
I notice that all of the below are rather dark, although they also ooze humour (maybe that’s just me and my love of black comedy)
Sarah Moss: Ghost Wall – misplaced nostalgia for a more heroic past and a domestic tyrant you will love to hate
Nicola Barker: I Am Sovereign – an ill-fated house viewing, where everyone seems to shed their multiple masks and either reveal or question their identity
Robert Menasse: The Capital – the almost surreal absurdity of a pan-European organisation and the people within it, a satirical yet also compassionate portrait of contemporary Europe and Brussels
A couple of years ago I discovered that there is a trend now to promote ‘mood-boosting books’ in our local libraries (and perhaps nationally). Perhaps this is to counteract the trauma caused by the daily, weekly, monthly news cycle, or perhaps it’s a bread and circuses distraction so that the population stays calm and carries on. Whatever the reason behind it, it was something I welcomed, even as an inveterate and unrepentant reader of noir literature.
However, the selection is somewhat controversial, to say the least. No disrespect to the librarians who made the selection from what were probably limited resources, but I cannot resist suggesting some alternatives to the more blatant discrepancies between stated purpose and actual effect on the reader.
The choice of the Poldark series may have more to do with the phwoar appeal of Aidan Turner’s torso than with the actual storyline, which is often full of cruelty, grim poverty and sadness. If you were aiming for a family saga in which you can sink in, forgetting about your own worries for a minute, then I would recommend Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance or the Jalna series by Mazo de la Roche.
I recently borrowed The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, which was also on that mood-boosting shelf, expecting a book about a cat adopting a youngish couple to be charming and tender. Well, yes it was, but also rather wistful and sad, connected to the end of an era (Showa) and perhaps an end of a certain way of life in Japan. For a cheerier account of cats as saviours, try A Streetcat Named Bob or The Good, the Bad and the Furry. And if you want a satire of a changing Japan, then Natsume Soseki’s I Am a Cat is a classic.
I’ve laughed before how Alice Munro was mysteriously shelved under Happiness with her stark and unflinching short stories. I could say the same about The Miniaturist, or Chekhov’s short stories, or Louis Sachar’s Holes or A Month in the Country or even The Camomile Lawn. I suppose the idea is to read something about triumph in the face of adversity, but some of the titles seem to wilfully misinterpret what could make people happy. Maybe reading about other people’s suffering makes us more content with our own life?
There are, of course, some excellent choices that I cannot help but agree with: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, the irrepressible Adrian Mole, The Enchanted April, Matt Haig’s The Humans and even Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (aka These Foolish Things, although I have problems at times with the ‘white tourists going to exotic locations and poking gentle fun at them’.
What other books would you recommend to people who need escapism or cheering up? Top of my list would be Pippi Longstocking, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt, Paul Berna’s A Hundred Million Francs. What would be top of your list?
I’m still on a bit of a blogging hiatus, but I could not resist joining in this month’s Six Degrees of Separation a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked from one book to the next to form a total of six. The reason why I particularly wanted to take part this month is because Ali Smith’s How to Be Both is the starting point and it’s a book that I’ve been really curious about (I like outrageously experimental ideas) but somehow still haven’t read.
I have read one other book that relies on a dual narrative, however, and is very experimental (although not in the publishing format) and that is Michèle Roberts’ Flesh and Blood, which makes the reader work to piece together the two halves of the story of a broken relationship between mother and child, like doing up a zip.
From here it’s just a small step to Michèle Roberts’ memoirs Paper Houses, which I greatly enjoyed, and not just because I had the good fortune to meet the author and attend one of her workshops. This has everything that I ever dreamt of in my teens: living, working and loving in London in the 1970s, being part of the Spare Rib collective, marching and protesting, being an ardent feminist and also a lover of men, a thoughtful, introverted writer and also a sociable global nomad.
Political protests form the link to my next book. One that I’ve not read but am very interested in, if only I could find it in a library: The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton, set in Cairo in 2011. The government is crumbling; the people are in open revolt; and two members of the political underground, Mariam and Khalil, are determined to change the world as the meaning of revolution evolves in front of them.
Another revolution, another city links to my next choice: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, which was the blight of my Year 7 English. It wasn’t so much the story itself that annoyed me but having to analyse it to death in a class that couldn’t care less about the whole matter.
One book that we also had to read at school in Year 8 or 9 was The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, which definitely appealed more to all of us. A science fiction/horror classic. Now that I look back on the reading choices at our English school (Lord of the Flies was another), I can see that they were quite conservative and very UK-centred, although we were supposedly an international school.
My final choice, however, is a bit more international and was the book we read in our French class: Vipère au poing, that ‘cheery’ family drama by Hervé Bazin. Good choice from our French teacher, because it’s a vivid, shocking, often funny book of teenage rebellion. The evil mother Folcoche made such a strong impression on me that I’ve never quite forgotten her or the book.
So my literary association journey this month was mainly based around London and Paris, Britain and France, with a stopover in Cairo. Also, a predominance of the colours red and green in terms of covers. Where will your literary chain take you?
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 time for #6degrees, as featured on Kate’s blog Books are my Favourite and My Best (in fact, it’s a bit over-time, as I never get a chance to do it at the weekend). Start at the same place as other wonderful readers, add six books, and see where you end up! A seasonal starting point today with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
It would be far too easy to take the Christmas route here, but I prefer the snow association. Snow makes me think of skiing, what else, and there are far too few books which feature skiing. One crime novel which is all about the skiing is Dead Men Don’t Ski by Patricia Moyes, set in an Alpine resort, with someone dead on arrival in a chairlift (and no, it wasn’t the cold that killed him off). Witty and very Golden Agey, although written considerably later.
A far more brutal contemporary look at murder in skiing country is Black Run by Antonio Manzini. Deputy Police Chief Rocco Schiavone, with a passion for marijuana and a very personal concept of legality and justice, has transferred away from Rome to the freezing Aosta Valley, where he attempts to learn who is responsible for killing a man and burying the body beneath a ski slope. I haven’t read it yet, but it comes recommended by Italian crime writer Sandrone Dazieri, so I’m planning to read this at some point.
One of the classic books about taking drugs is Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, written in 1821. A contemporary and friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge, he was the ultimate drop-out and vagabond, struggling to make ends meet, although he did finally more or less manage to shake off his addiction.
I understand the recent film Suspiria is at least partially based on De Quincey’s book (or on its sequel, Suspiria De Profundis). A far more obvious influence on that film is the choreography of Pina Bausch. There is a recent biography by Marion Meyer about this most influential of 20th century choreographers and founder of the Tanztheater Wuppertal. I haven’t read this but would be quite interested if I can get my hands on it.
From biography to an autobiography (composed of diaries and letters) that I absolutely adored, namely Barbara Pym, A Very Private Eye. As her friend and champion Philip Larkin said, she had an uncanny ‘eye and ear for the small poignancies of everyday life’.
From one Barbara to another: Barbara Kingsolver has just published a new novel Unsheltered. Although her books have been a bit hit or miss with me, I will probably want to seek this one out and see if it is a return to form.
So an unusual chain for me this month, with three books that I haven’t read (yet), and journeys taking me through Victorian London, South Tyrol, the Aosta Valley, two more Londons at different moments in time, the industrial Ruhr/Dusseldorf/Wuppertal region in Germany and last but not least Vineland, New Jersey.
I had to pay a rather absurd amount for overweight luggage, although it was only my suitcase that was 4 kilos overweight, my older son’s suitcase was 4 kilos underweight and my younger son had no suitcase at all. What can I say except: don’t fly TAROM, as they clearly try to rip you off. So what was in my luggage? Of course all the Romanian delicacies that I miss so much when I am back in England: wine, homemade jam and honey, herbs and tea leaves from my mother’s garden, quinces (shame I cannot bring the tasty organic vegetables or cheese or endless array of milk products – kefir, sana, drinkable yoghurt, buttermilk etc.).
And, naturally, I had to bring back some Romanian books and DVDs. Romanian cinema is not very well known but highly respected in a small niche community. I got a recent film Child’s Pose, winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2013, which covers pretty much all the topics that interest me: domineering mothers, generational and class conflict, as well as corruption in present-day Romania. I also got two older films from the 1960s by one of the best Romanian directors, Lucian Pintilie: The Forest of the Hanged based on one of my favourite Romanian novels, and The Reconstruction. The latter was named ‘the best Romanian film of all time’ by the Romanian film critics’ association, although it was forbidden during the Communist period because it turned out to be too much of a commentary on the viciousness of an abusive, authoritarian society.
There are many beautiful bookshops in Romania nowadays, although not all of my pictures came out well. I certainly lived up to my reputation of not being able to enter any bookshop without buying something! Among the things I bought are Fram and Apolodor, a polar bear and a penguin homesick for their native lands, two children’s books I used to adore and which I am very keen to translate into English and promote for the BookTrust reading scheme for diverse children’s literature In Other Words
I succumbed to the lovely hardback edition of Mihail Sebastian’s diary from 1935 to 1944, such a crucial (and sad) time in Romanian history, especially from a Jewish point of view. I got two titles, both family sagas, by female authors that I already know and admire: Ileana Vulpescu and Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu (the latter is sort of our national Virginia Woolf, although not quite as experimental, but she nevertheless dragged Romanian literature into modernity).
I also bought some new contemporary writers to try out: Radu Pavel Gheo – Good Night, Kids about emigration and coming back to the ‘home country’, Lavinia Braniste – Internal Zero, a book about young single women in Romania today, Ioana Parvulescu – Life Starts on a Friday, a historical crime novel or time-travelling story. Last but not least, I sneaked back one of my favourite books from my childhood Follow the Footprints by William Mayne. Nobody else seems to have heard of this book or this writer, although he has been described as one of the ‘outstanding and most original children’s authors of the 20th century’. Sadly, in googling him, I discover that he was also imprisoned for two years in 2004 for sexually abusing young girl fans, so that leaves a bitter taste in my fond childhood memory.
While in Romania, I received a fairly large pile of books back home in the UK to my cat sitter’s surprise, some for review, some I’d previously ordered. So here are the things which came thudding through my letter-box.
I went on a bit of a Murakami Haruki binge following the reading of Killing Commendatore. I suppose because the book was enjoyable but not his best work, I wanted to get my hands on some of my favourites by him that I did not yet own: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Sputnik Sweetheart and South of the Border, West of the Sun. Unrelated, and possibly as a result of some Twitter discussion, I went on a Marian Engel binge – a Canadian author I had heard of, but never read. I had to search hard in second-hand stores but found The Honeyman Festival, Lunatic Villas and Bear (I had heard about this last one, the love story between a woman and a bear, and it sounds absolutely bonkers).
Meanwhile, I decided I needed to up my game with Chinese women authors, so I bought two Shanghai-based stories of illicit passion, Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and Wei Hui’s more contemporary Shanghai Baby. I also read an extract from Anna Dostoevsky’s reminiscences about how she met and fell in love with Dostoevsky on Brainpickings, so I ordered a copy of her out-of-print memoir.
I make no bones about being an unabashed fan of Finnish crime writer Antti Tuomainen, but I realised that one of his books was still missing from my shelves – his first to be translated into English (and possibly his darkest) The Healer. And the final, thick tome to make its home on my bedside table is from the Asymptote Book Club. I am very excited to be reading Ahmet Altan’s first book in the Ottoman Quartet – yet another family saga – Like a Sword Wound. Currently imprisoned in Turkey for his alleged involvement in the 2016 coup attempt, Altan (better known in the West as a crusading journalist, but much loved and respected in his homeland for his fiction) is currently working on the final volume of the quartet in prison.
Last, but not least, I also received a copy of Flash Fiction Festival Two, a collection of sixty micro fictions written by participants and presenters from the second Flash Fiction Festival in the UK, which I attended (and loved) in Bristol in July. I am delighted to be there among them with a tale about a kitchen!
‘There is far too much to do around the house!’ I wailed. ‘And who is going to fill up that empty fridge and prepare things for school? There are also many, many blog posts to read, books to review and events to plan…’
And yet, when I heard about Vanity Fair, I had to join in this month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme. Hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, it works as follows: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and you need to link to six other books to form a chain, each one linking to the next in the chain but not necessarily to the initial book. Vanity Fair was this month’s starting point and it was one of my favourite books as a teenager – all of us women need to be a bit more like Becky Sharp!
The fairground theme is the link to my next book, which has a small but significant scene set in the Prater, Vienna’s fairground and amusement park that was very similar to the Vauxhall Gardens featured in Vanity Fair. I am talking, of course, of The Third Man by Graham Greene, which became one of the most iconic noir films of all time.
Taking the option of Vienna for my next link would be all to easy, as I am such a fool about that city, so instead I will use the link of noir film adaptations. Another book that was beautifully adapted (probably surpassing the original) was The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. The external third person narrative feels a little too cold and impenetrable to me, and I like his Nora and Nick Charles characters far more than Sam Spade.
Another title containing the word ‘falcon‘ is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a travelogue by Rebecca West, giving a rather chilling picture of Yugoslavia on the brink of invasion by the Fascists in 1937. Interestingly, though, she was as staunchly anti-communist as she was anti-fascist, which meant that she was more of a supporter of the Chetniks (which later led to the revival of Serbian nationalism which led to the Yugoslav War in the 1990s) than of Tito’s partisans during the Second World War.
Speaking of partisans and anti-fascist resistance, I’ve not yet read but am fascinated by this book about Primo Levi exploring the reasons why he got sent to a concentration camp in 1943. Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy by Sergio Luzzato (transl. Frederika Randall) examines a lesser-known part of Italian history.
It would be too easy to turn to another Primo Levi book as the next chain in the link, so instead I will look at another period in Italian history. A family that fascinated me as a child, the Borgias are the apogee of ambition and ruthlessness, although I feel that poor Lucrezia Borgia was often a pawn in the machinations of her father and brother. Sarah Dunant’s Blood and Beauty: The Borgias tries to sort out fact from fiction.
Sarah Dunant has also written a novel Sacred Hearts about a young woman being sent away to the convent against her will in 16th century Italy, and it’s nuns forming the final link in the chain. Muriel Spark features the most manipulative and ruthless Mother Superior in literature in The Abbess of Crewe, while constantly portraying herself as a good Catholic. A parody of either Watergate or McCarthyanism – or both.
So my links this month have taken me from Vienna to the US to Yugoslavia, Italy and England. Where will your associations take you?