Cocktail of Reading in March 2016

What a month it has been! More snow than we’ve had all winter, amidst bursts of sunshine and flowers coming out. Helping to prepare a conference with the Geneva Writers’ Group and getting to meet so many talented writers. Getting even more impetus to work on my novel and poetry. And, of course, without fail, plenty of reading – a cocktail of flavours. Some day, I may even catch up with the reviewing…

Photo from Balugabar.co.uk
Photo from Balugabar.co.uk

Foreign language fiction:

  1. Pascal Garnier: Too Close to the EdgeBlack Vodka and Pomegranate
  2. Peter Gardos: Fever at DawnVodka and Cranberry Blush
  3. Mircea Eliade: Romanul Adolescentului Miop (The Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent) – a mocktail for underage drinkers to be reviewed for Necessary Fiction
  4. Marius Daniel Popescu: La Symphonie du Loup (The Wolf’s Symphony) – Bitter Orange and Cardamom
  5. Alina Bronsky: Scherbenpark (Broken Glass Park) – White Russian – the cream makes it a bit sickly

Crime Fiction (stretching the boundaries a bit):

  1. Quentin Bates: Thin Ice Margarita – let’s get the party started!
  2. Guy Fraser-Sampson: Death in Profile  – Pina Colada with an umbrella
  3. Joe Flanagan: Lesser EvilsOld-Fashioned with a twist of lemon
  4. Katharina Hall (ed.): Crime Fiction in German – Hefeweizen beer
  5. Elizabeth Knox: WakeBloody Mary
  6. Liz Jensen: The Uninvited – Sidecar – there’s far more to it than immediately obvious
  7. Claire McGowan: A Savage Hunger – Guinness
  8. Sara Gran: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead  Mai Tai – colourful, vibrant
  9. L.S. Hilton: Maestra – trendy Amaro-based mix (with oysters on the side)
  10. Laura Lebow: Sent to the Devil – Opera (or Bellini?)

Non-fiction

  1. Olivia Laing: The Lonely City  – Manhattan
  2. David Sedaris: Me Talk Pretty One Day – Cosmopolitan
  3. Mary Oliver: Felicity (poetry collection) – Long Island Ice Tea

18 books, of which 10 by women, 5 in translation, 9 crime(ish) novels and one book about crime fiction. Let me tell you which of the yet-to-be-reviewed books I really enjoyed: Olivia Laing, Liz Jensen and Crime Fiction in German. Meanwhile, Sara Gran, Laura Lebow and David Sedaris were a nice diversion. One book I did not much like, although it is currently getting a lot of hype and will no doubt sell well, since it is being marketed as ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ meets ’50 Shades of Grey’ is Maestra. [The art history and fraud element in there was the most interesting part to me, and I wish there’d been more of that instead.]

While there is nothing much I can do about the books I am given to review, I should make more of an effort to read more diversely, while also reducing the piles on my virtual and physical shelves. [Although I suspect I will be buying plenty of new books in Lyon, as usual.]

Here are some suggestions for myself: Marina Sonkina, Claire Fuller, Joanna Cannon, Sarah Hilary from Netgalley; Clarice Lispector, Yana Vagner and Virginia Woolf from my shelves; Circ (written by 10 authors), Jennifer Tseng and The Devil is a Black Dog: Stories of the Middle East by Sandor Jaszberenyi from ‘books found languishing on my e-reader for far too long’. But of course, I am also eager to read the books I acquired at the GWG Conference…

Fox Minding the Chicken Coop

There is a saying in Romanian that, if you are a wise farmer, you would not put the fox in charge of minding the chicken coop… However, at the Geneva Writers’ Conference this past weekend, they had no qualms about putting me (and the gentle, lovely Kathy – whom I want to resemble when I grow up) in charge of the bookstore. With predictable consequences!

I came away with quite a respectable book haul, especially since I could also get the authors to sign the books for me then and there. But even minding the bookstore is no guarantee that you’ll get hold of all the books you want, since some authors sold out so quickly, I didn’t have a chance to grab one of their books!

GWGPile

One of the big-name authors at the conference was Tessa Hadley, recent winner of the surprise Windham-Campbell prize. I had already seen Tessa in action at the Morges book festival, and she is the most articulate, inspiring and modest writer you could imagine. This time I bought her latest book The Past, about a family reunion in the house of her childhood memories, and Clever Girl, which in many ways feels like the story of many a gifted woman who allows herself to be weighed down by the crunch of daily responsibilities and the merciless grind of life itself.

An author who writes more in my genre (although she actually straddles multiple genres, and very elegantly too) is Liz Jensen. I had recently read her very chilling (and yet quite funny) book The Uninvited and had to buy the previous one, The Rapture, which is its companion piece (although an entirely distinct story).

I bought two more crime novels, this time by authors who are either part of the Geneva Writers Group or have close links to it. D-L Nelson is American, but has lived most of her life outside the States and writes murder mysteries featuring third-culture kid Annie Young. As a TCK myself (and mother of a TCK), this proved irresistible. Besides, D-L is the kindest, wisest person I know, generous of spirit and indomitable of heart.

The final crime novel Behind Closed Doors is by a Zurich-based writer, Jill Marsh, and takes place there. It’s about ‘poetic justice’: an unethical banker suffocate, a diamond dealers slits his wrists, a disgraced CEO inhales exhaust fumes… a series of apparent suicides by slimey businessmen. But of course, there is more to it than just a sudden attack of conscience…

Maps1The final book I came away with is very expensive but beautiful. Diccon Bewes has written several witty and insightful books about Switzerland and its people, but his latest, Around Switzerland in 80 Maps, is an utterly flawless combination of information and gorgeous old maps or illustrations.

Below are some examples of the illustrations. A lovely souvenir of my time in Switzerland, I think you’ll agree.

Maps2

Maps3

Maps4

Holiday Activities: Going to the Bookshop and Library

Just another day of holidays, but with coughs and flu looming, we didn’t go skiing. Instead, my sons and I (all of us great readers) had to return some books to the library and passed by the only two bookshops in the area. The first one is a standard bookshop, which is a resurrected version of the previous bookshop which had gone bankrupt and was rescued by an association of book lovers. We stopped there to collect a book we had ordered, one that my older son needed for his French classes: a junior edition of the medieval collection of animal stories/fables ‘Le roman de renart’ (roughly translated as: The Novel of the Fox).

Then we passed by the other bookshop, which specialises in BD (bandes dessinées – graphic novels and comic books), where I had acquired my original Max Cabanes adaptation of Manchette’s novel Fatale. I had chatted with Cabanes in Lyon and he told me he was redoing and continuing another Manchette adaptation, so I couldn’t resist asking if they had his latest. They did, so I acquired that – it’s a visual delight, as well as being based upon one of my favourite French noir authors.

While Younger Son was reading another BD cover to cover, Older Son asked me to buy the latest in the series ‘Seuls’, a Franco-Belgian children’s fantasy thriller about children having to cope alone in a world without adults. (Later on we discover the children are all dead.) Twice a winner in the youth category at Angouleme Festival, and winner of the Grand Prize of the Mickey Mouse Journal. The well-intentioned bookseller advised me to read these comic books with my boys, to make sure that they wouldn’t get scared. Then, when my eldest scoffed, claiming proudly that he was a teenager now and not easily scared, we received a zombie poster for him to put up on his wall, as well as a magazine with extracts from all the latest releases.

Haulbookshop

And that is why we love going into real bookshops: we spent a happy morning browsing, discovering new things, making mental notes about what to buy next time, and feeling the love of books and the personalised service of the booksellers. We never leave empty-handed.

tempsglacThe library run also ended with 6 books: 4 BD for the boys (fun holiday reading, as they also have a bit of a TBR pile at home) and 2 books I wasn’t intending to get… secret TBR Triple Dog Dare and all that… Fred Vargas’ Temps Glaciaires (the latest Adamsberg mystery, published in 2015) and Emmanuel Carrere’s  D’autres vies que la mienne (Lives Other Than My Own) – which is a story about grief and loss, but also a kind of memoir of how a narcissist became a more empathetic human being.

 

 

 

 

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.