Incy-Wincy Teeny-Weeny Reviews for End of 2018

Thank goodness for the holidays, which allowed me to read (although not necessarily finish) 15 books in December, including a real humdinger doorstopper like Lamentation. I will be reviewing those that fit into the #EU27Project separately if I haven’t already done so (actually, only Rein Raud fits here) but let me give a very quick review of the rest. Without reminding you too much of yellow polka-dot bikinis in this cold, I promise!

Cathy Ace: Wrong Boy

After glamorous international locations in her Cait Morgan series and a United Sleuths of the UK series, Cathy Ace returns to her home turf of Wales and a closed village community, a tale of family secrets, superstitions and dark folklore. Although I thought the plot a tad predictable and the ending overly dramatic, the tangled relationships and beautiful, if eerie landscapes made this an entertaining read. The book will be out January 9th.

Joan Didion: After Henry

The tribute to their editor (the Henry of the title) was very moving, the rest is a collection of essays, largely political, which were interesting but no longer cutting edge (all referring to the 1980s or thereabouts), so I skimmed through them. Not as good as other Joan Didion things I’ve read.

Petra Hammesfahr: The Sinner, transl. John Brownjohn

Reviewed it on Crime Fiction Lover. Interesting to compare and contrast the original German setting with the Americanization of the setting and the script.

S.J.I. Holliday: The Lingering

I don’t believe in ghosts and am not easily scared, so I suppose this wasn’t quite the book for me. I found the ‘cult’ aspect of it interesting though, and done quite well, without exaggerating the negative aspects.

Elif Batuman: The Idiot

I was an overseas student from a country perceived as backward in the 1990s, so I had such high hopes for this one. But it was dull. A lot of ‘she did this… and then she did this… and then they met… and then they talked.’ I just couldn’t be bothered to finish it, but perhaps it picks up towards the end.

C.J. Sansom: Lamentation

Katherine Parr is probably my favourite wife too (of Henry the VIII’s harem), so I enjoyed this from the point of view of time period and content. It is clearly well researched, and there are so many clever little details which fully immerse you in that period, without being overly stiff and pedantic. I enjoyed the characters, the random changes of politics and the depiction of the cruel and crude justice of that period, but I was not bowled over. It was just too long for my taste.

Antonio Manzini: Black Run, transl. Antony Shugaar

The murder plays second fiddle to the story of fish-out-water detective Rocco Schiavone exiled to Val D’Aosta. I loved the descriptions of mountain and snow and how Rocco struggles with his inadequate footwear, but the atmosphere did not quite make up for the lack of plot, real character depth or social analysis.

Marghanita Laski: The Victorian Chaise Longue

An odd little story of time-travel and the frustration of women’s secondary role in society in Victorian times and the so-called present-time setting of the book (I think it is set in the 1920s-30s, although it was published in 1953). Quite claustrophobic and disturbing, quietly terrifying, reminded me of The Yellow Wallpaper and The Turn of the Screw. But it is far more matter-of-fact and droll, with very sharp dialogue throughout.

Claire Fuller: Bitter Orange

Another book that excelled in terms of atmosphere and beautiful descriptions, but the story felt like something I’d read or seen a hundred times before. Notes on a Scandal and The Woman Upstairs spring to mind, and they both appealed to me more.

Lou Sarabadzic: La Vie verticale

One of the most effective and painful descriptions of what it is like to live with OCD, panic attacks, depression and then to undergo treatment when you are between cultures, between languages. Also an interesting ‘choose your own story’ structure, although it doesn’t really matter utimately, as there is no clear plotline or story arc. The structure is deliberately repetitive and circular, because this situation can reoccur, you are never entirely ‘cured’.

M.B. Vincent: Jess Castle and the Eyeballs of Death

English village cosy, with a dash of romance, although quite a horrific series of murders. It was a very entertaining and quick read, perfectly suited for New Year’s Eve, but not particularly memorable. Like M.C. Beaton but with younger protagonists.

Maybe I’d have been kinder to everyoone if I’d been reading in this armchair.

I realise I sound quite curmudgeonly about nearly all of the books this month. I was quite taken by the two books about the Yugoslav War and The Victorian Chaise Longue, but the rest were mostly popcorn and comfort food. However, 2019 has started strong with Scholastique Mukasonga’s The Barefoot Woman.

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Last Book Splurge, 2018

It’s not as bad as it looks, because some of these books are from the library (the thickest ones). I am clearly hoping for a quiet Christmas holiday period, with lots of reading. But I have to admit that I’ve also been tempted to spend more than usual on books this month, because in January my self-imposed book ban kicks in.

Christmas presents for the boys:

The full set – maybe something for the future.

They love manga and graphic novels, but I’m trying to get them to broaden their tastes, so I bought The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman and one volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s monumnetal History of Showa Japan (the Second World War). That’s because my older son is quite keen on history. Keeping the Japanese theme going (given my own background and the fact that we are planning a trip to Japan in 2021), a beautifully illustrated volume entitled How to Live Japanese by Yutaka Yazawa. Another passion that unites us all is the love for our cat, Zoe, and the little book Test Your Cat should provide hours of entertainment. Two further books – the first ones I bought for them before I became a little too indulgent – are Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe for the future engineer, and Inventing Ourselves. The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain by Sarah=Jayne Blakemore for the argumentative future lawyer. Last but not least – although not strictly speaking a book – I also bought some sheet music for my older son, who’s recently started playing the keyboard: The Very Best of John Williams (a compromise between the classical music I like and the stuff that would be too complicated for him to play).

Christmas presents for myself:

I’ve renewed my subscription for another year with the Asymptote Book Club, as I get so much out of it, even when I sometimes struggle to keep up with the reading (it shouldn’t be the case, it’s only one book a month, right?). So the Christmas delivery is finally a book from Africa (come on, publishers, do translate more from that continent!). The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga is going to be an emotional read, I can foresee, based on the author’s mother’s story of trying to save children during the genocide in Rwanda.

On my last day at work I also finally made a trip to the nearby Persephone Bookshop, that so many of you have praised to the skies (or warned me about, depending on your level of concern for my financial health). I came away with 4 books that I wrapped up and gave to myself as Christmas presents. No one ever gives me books as a present because: a) I allegedly have too many already; b) I’ve read everything already; c) they don’t know what I like. To which my answers are: a) I can always squeeze in a few more and regularly give away to charity; b) no; c) pretty much omnivorous.

So my Persephone choices were:

Noel Streatfield: Saplings – simply because I grew up with Ballet Shoes and Curtain Up and White Boots and loved all the brave and talented young girls in her books. I know this is one for adults, but it’s about children suffering as a result of evacuation during the war.

Dorothy Whipple: Someone at a Distance – my first Whipple, the last novel she wrote, an author warmly recommended by the likes of Ali Hope , Jacqui and Simon Thomas. Plus, it’s about adultery and the breakdown of a marriage, a subject I feel rather an expert in!

Elisabeth De Waal: The Exiles Return – Edmund De Waal’s mother was born in Vienna and grew up there until they had to flee in the 1930s. She never got a chance to return, but in this novel her protagonists return from exile. Can you ever fit back into a place that pushed you out?

Dorothy Canfield Fisher: The Home-Maker – written in the 1920s but still surprisingly relevant today, about the frustration of stay at home mothers, and the challenges (and satisfaction) of role reversals among parents.

Little Bits Inspired by Twitter:

Uwe Johnson: Jahrestage (Anniversaries)

Readers whose opinions I respect were just going on and on about the recently translated 4 volume masterpiece and I’m such a herd animal that I had to check it out for myself. I found a second-hand Suhrkamp box-set edition dating from 1988 on a German bookshop website and ordered it. It may not be pretty, but it was affordable and should keep me busy for the next several years!

Fernando Sdrigotti: Shitstorm

I’ve been following Argentinian writer and editor of online literary journal Minor Literatures for a while now on Twitter. This novelette is about a wealthy nobody who goes viral when he slays a protected lion on the plains of Africa (remind you of any recent story?). Described as a sharp and perceptive chronicle dissecting the murky waters of viral news.

Katya Apekina: The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish

I think this one might have been mentioned on one of those ‘under the radar’ books of 2018. It sounds like a pretty hard-hitting story: two young girls who are sent to live with their estranged father after their mother’s suicide attempt. Besides, I’m always fascinated by people who write in languages other than their mothertongue (same applies for Sdrigotti, above).

Penelope Skinner: Linda

I saw this performed in November and discovered that there is a script published by Faber and Faber.

Shirley Hazzard: The Transit of Venus

I’ve read Hazzard’s satire about the United Nations bureaucracy in People in Glass Houses and her look at Anglo expat life in Italy in The Bay of Noon. She has a great eye for human foibles, but above all such stylish and precise sentences! She was mentioned in The Paris Review’s annual round-up of favourite reads and I realised that I’d quite like to read her book about two Australian sisters coming to live in England.

Ralph Dutli: Soutines letzte Fahrt (Soutine’s Last Journey)

When I wrote about seeing a Soutine exhibition at the Courtauld roughly a year ago, one of my blogger friends Shigekuni (aka Marcel Imhoff) drew my attention to this novel about the last few weeks of Soutine’s life, as he goes back to occupied Paris in 1943 for a potentially life-saving operation. On the way, in a morphine-induced haze, he remembers his childhood and life in exile.

From the Library:

C.J. Sansom: Lamentation

Would you be shocked to hear that I’ve never read any of C.J. Sansom’s historical fiction? I read Dominion, his alternate take on post-war Britain as a satellite state of Nazi Germany (and was not that fond of it). However, so many people whose opinion I respect have raved about his most recent novel Tombland and just generally about the Shardlake series, that I felt I had to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Elif Batuman: The Idiot

I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I saw it shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK and for the Pulitzer Prize in the US. But mostly because it’s about a foreigner attending college in the US and trying to adapt to another culture. I cannot resist those ‘intercultural dialogues and misunderstandings’ themes. In the meantime, 180 pages in I realised that most of it was so dull that it didn’t make up for the few flashes of insight. So I abandoned it.

Claire Fuller: Bitter Orange

Simmering resentments and darkness, atmospheric, and the story of friendships knitted in the late 1960s – a good companion piece, perhaps to Sigrid Nunez The Last of Her Kind. I’ll read the two of them together.

I hardly dare to add up the total number of unread books lurking on my shelves, chests of drawers, bedside tables, in artistic piles on the floor etc. Suffice it to say that I think I might have a book to see me through every single day of 2019! So let’s get cracking!

Summary of November Reading

It’s a dark, dank month and we’ve been plagued by fog and migraines. Thank goodness the reading has made up for it! I’ve read a total of 14 books this month, of which 5 crime fiction, 6 foreign books, 6 by women authors (plus a collection of short stories which contains both men and women authors, of course). Three short story collections this month, which is quite out of character – I’m developing a love for the form. Quite a lot of memorable reads and only one turkey – rather appropriately, in a month in which American Thanksgiving is celebrated.

GermanLitThe best idea was participating in the German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. I’ve discovered so many new authors by reading the reviews of the other participants, remembered old favourites that I hadn’t touched since childhood and had the opportunity to explore some books of my own. I didn’t quite get to read everything I intended (Dürrenmatt will have to wait until another month), but I did reasonably well:

Alois Hotschnig: Maybe This Time – collection of surreal short stories

Bernhard Schlink: Liebesfluchten – another short story collection, but more rooted in reality

Vienna Tales – the third short story collection, all with Vienna as a setting, although I only discuss the Joseph Roth stories in this review

Hester Vaizey: Born in the GDR – fantastic set of interviews with the Unification Generation in Germany

I also read some French authors to balance this out:

A young Modiano, in the 1970s.
A young Modiano, in the 1970s.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Fuir – jetlagged escapade in China

Patrick Modiano: Un Pedigree – memoirs of the Nobel prize-winner’s childhood: born into a highly unconventional family, his parents separated quite early on and he was sent away to boarding-school and generally ignored/forgotten about until he published his first novel at the age of 22. Not a masterpiece of style, but a sad story which explains perhaps his literary search for identity and meaning.

TrucOlivier Truc: Forty Days without Shadow – intriguing debut crime novel about the Reindeer Police in Lapland

There were some memorable reads about women feeling out of place, trapped in their marriage… and about so much more:

Jill Alexander Essbaum: Hausfrau

Celeste Ng: Everything I Never Told You

There were quite a few fun, quick reads, which I heartily recommend in the run-up to Christmas:

SilkwormMarian Keyes: Angels – another woman running away from her marriage,but with Keyes’ humorous take on the subject and sly observations about Hollywood

Robert Galbraith: The Silkworm – she knows how to spin a good yarn, even if it’s somewhat wordy, and I love her sharp digs at writers’ egos and the publishing industry

Philip Kerr: Research – a break from the Bernie Gunther series, this is a helter-skelter of a funny thriller, again needling writers and publishers – are we discovering a new trend here?

Janet O’Kane: No Stranger to Death – shall we call this ‘tartan cosy’ – a new genre which mixes amateur detection and village gossip with some dark subject matter

Finally, the promised turkey, which I dutifully read to the end because it was a Book Club choice for November (although I felt like abandoning it many, many times):

C. J. Sansom: Dominion – it felt too bulky, repetitive, unedited, although I enjoyed the premise of an alternative past in which England was occupied by the Nazis. However, it’s been done so much more successfully and thrillingly in Robert Harris’ ‘Fatherland’, without the rather intrusive explanations and political discussions. And this one’s about 700 pages long to Harris’ 400. Shame, as I enjoy Sansom’s other books.