Monthly Summary – Comfort Reading

I know February has got 29 days this year, but I’m ready to end this month early. It’s been soggy and dark and with far too few signs of spring. All the more reason to indulge in escapist reading, not just Mary Stewart but also things such as:

Seishi Yokomizu: The Inugami Curse (aka The Inugami Clan, which would be closer to the original in Japanese) – a sort of And Then There Were None but all in the family, thanks to a rather strange and spiteful will. Much more about psychology than closed room puzzles and therefore more enjoyable to me than last month’s Japanese mystery.

Elizabeth George: A Banquet of Consequences – I used to pounce on each new novel by E. George as soon as it came out, but I somehow lost the plot a little after Careless in Red and have struggled – not very hard – to get back in. I’d previously put up with the suspension of disbelief that class still matters in the Metropolitan Police and the sometimes slightly touristy view of Britain (like Martha Grimes), also with the great length of the novels (because they made for interesting character development). But lately I’d been feeling they were getting too baggy and ever so slightly repetitive. While this one is not perfect (the Havers finding her groove sub-plot seems a little tagged on, for instance), the description of one of the most manipulative mothers in fiction and a truly dysfunctional family meant that I just couldn’t put this down and read it straight in two days.

Louise Penny: The Nature of the Beast – Purists might be shocked that I’ve read Louise Penny all out of order. I just read whichever book I can get my hands on and always enjoy a trip to Three Pines and becoming reacquainted with Gamache and his family and friends. This one came out in 2015/16 and I have a suspicion I had too many other things going on in my life at the time to be fully on the ball. It strikes me that there is a deep, deep sadness at the heart of Penny’s work, which contrasts with the cosy village atmosphere.

Brian Bilston: Diary of a Somebody – Many of you will have enjoyed Brian’s irreverent Twitter poetry. This is his first novel, about a hapless, bumbling middle-aged poet trying to navigate work, divorce and sharing custody of his son, book club and poetry club, and his arch-nemesis, the pretentious rival poet with the completely opaque poetry. It was trying a bit too hard to go for the laughs, so it gets a bit repetitive after all, but in small doses, it is very amusing.

Nicola Upson: London Rain – The mystery series featuring Josephine Tey has always been one of my (not so secret) pleasures, another one that I’ve read out of order. This one is set at the time of the coronation of George VI and features the BBC at the start of its glory period. Not my favourite of the series to date, but the recreation of the period feels very authentic.

Nick Bradley: The Cat and the City – a quirky, strange book with a series of interconnected characters and stories, all showing a rapidly changing Tokyo on the eve of the 2020 Olympic Games. On the whole, it manages to avoid most of the cliches about Japan that foreign authors are prone to fall into and does a good job of conveying the loneliness of the huge, anonymous city. It left me thoughtful and dreamy for a few days after finishing it. But be warned: there is a distressing scene involving a cat getting hurt!

In a way, I’ve continued the Japanese reading challenge theme – although sadly I won’t have time to reread The Makioka sisters with Meredith. If you do get a chance to read it, I’d really, really recommend it: imagine Chekhov’s Three Sisters blended with an unforgettable portrait of a rapidly modernising Japan in the early 20th century.

Helen Phillips: The Need – not strictly speaking the most comforting read, especially when you are a single mother with two children alone in a creaky house (luckily, my children are a bit older than the ones in this book). Less of a ghost or horror story than a sort of postmodern feminist tale, which will probably up your anxiety levels… about almost anything really!

To summarise: I read 16 books this month, of which 7 fall roughly into the memoir theme I had envisaged (if we count Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard and Kate Brigg’s This Little Art as quasi-memoirs too). I took part in #Fitzcarraldo Fortnight with just one book – the beautiful essay on translation as the ‘little art’ – and in the Paul Auster reading week with his early memoir The Invention of Solitude. 9 of the books I read this month were pure escapism, comfort reads, reflecting a much needed break for my poor brain after lots of translation and editing work. 11 of the books were by women authors, and only 2 were in translation (a deliberate choice, so that my head would be full of native English speakers and writers while I was trying to render a Romanian text into colloquial English).

Plans for next month? I’ll have finished editing the translation so can continue with my geographically themed reading. I’m thinking possibly Spain…

Easy Reading for Dark Days

You know what I hate about winter?  Not the cold, not the snow, but the darkness! It makes me crave comfort food and comfort reading. And, while I agree with the need for difficult books and enjoy experimental reading by and large, with the anxiety-inducing news that seems to be lapping (or do I mean nipping?) at our feet constantly, we all need some soothing. So, for the past couple of week, I’ve gone with the undemanding stuff: favourite authors, lots of crime fiction and perhaps even something funny.

Prabda Yoon: Moving Parts, transl. Mui Poopoksakul

An unusual collection of surreal stories based around body parts, which I probably wouldn’t have come across without the help of the Asymptote Book Club. A finger shouting out ‘yuck’ at inappropriate times, a teenager who gets to keep the hand of the girl he fancies but makes a mess of it, a young woman who fears that her lack of a real human tail will damage her love prospects… You get the point: these are all such unlikely, borderline absurd scenarios that you cannot help but chuckle as you read them. This Thai author has previously been described as ‘virtually untranslatable’ because of the word games and puns, the way he likes to experiment with language. He certainly presents a picture of contemporary Thailand quite far removed from the tourist sights or even the more sleazy settings of crime fiction.

Louise Penny:Kingdom of the Blind

In the afterword to this latest novel set in the almost mythical community of Three Pines, I was very moved to read that the author had seriously thought she had nothing more to write about Armand Gamache, her much loved detective, head of the Sûreté du Québec, and staunch family man. The reason for that was the death of her husband, who had been a partial inspiration for Gamache. Much to the relief of her vast legions of fans, she did come up with a new story involving all of the colourful characters surrounding Gamache, as well as the extreme harshness of a Canadian winter. The storyline of political shenanigans to discredit Gamache is starting to wear a little thin, I thought, but otherwise it is a fun story of family rivalry, a feud about inheritance, and institutional and individual corruption.

Hanna Jameson: The Last

Such a promising premise for this one: what if nuclear war broke out while you were at a conference in a remote location in the Swiss Alps? What if you find a murder has been committed and that one of the survivors camping out with you in that hotel must have done it? Yet this novel, described inevitably as And Then There Were None meets The Road, really doesn’t live up to that promise. There is very little murder mystery in there, much more of an exploration of the psychology of survivors and the minutiae of their daily lives. There is some fun to be had about the differences of opinions between Europeans and Americans, and the ‘hazing’ of someone whom we might consider a Trump supporter, but every theme appears to be mentioned, gone into briefly, and then dropped. Besides, I just couldn’t get over the fact that the Swiss, with their abundance of obligatory bunkers fully equipped with food and other necessities, will be the ones most likely to survive the apocalypse in comfort. And the author doesn’t take this into account at all!

Tana French: The Witch Elm

Another difficult white cover – is there a trend right now that I hadn’t previously noticed? A standalone by one of the best crime authors currently at work – I could hardly wait to read this one. And yet, it was disappointing. Far too much background  – the story only gets going about halfway through, and even then there is too much dithering. While I normally enjoy French’s slow build-up to horrifying conclusions (Broken Harbour is the perfect example of that), in this case I didn’t feel that the build-up was warranted. And although I normally quite like unlikeable characters, I just couldn’t care about the narrator in this instance.

So in the end, easy reading doesn’t always make for the most satisfying reading. Out of the four, I would say the short story collection, i.e. The most unexpected and experimental one, was the one that pleased me most, even if I didn’t love every story and even though I feel it is disloyal to Louise Penny. Onwards and upwards!

Seeking Comfort in Crime Fiction (1): Susie Steiner

In times of unrest, I always find comfort in a few well-chosen and lovingly recommended books. I turn to favourite authors and locations like the Quebec of Louise Penny, or I try out something completely new that I’ve seen other authors enthuse about, like Susie Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw series. Of course, poetry is always there to nourish and enlighten me. This is the first of three posts about comfort reading.

Susie Steiner: Missing, Presumed

From the blurb: Over the airwaves come reports of a missing woman – door ajar, keys and phone left behind, a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. Manon knows the first 72 hours are critical: you find her, or you look for a body. And as soon as she sees a picture of Edith Hind, a Cambridge post-graduate from a well-connected family, she knows this case will be big.

Is Edith alive or dead? Was her ‘complex love life’ at the heart of her disappearance, as a senior officer tells the increasingly hungry press? And when a body is found, is it the end or only the beginning?

When I first read the blurb of this book, I thought: ‘Not for me. Sounds far too similar to far too many recent releases, nothing special to attract me.’ How wrong I was! Luckily, I got intrigued enough by an exchange of tweets between Sarah Perry, Adele Geras and others to give the author a chance – and I am so glad I did.

It breaks all the rules of crime fiction with which agents and publishers hit us around the head. It does not start with a dead body, in the heart of the action. It has multiple viewpoints, not all of which take the story forward, but merely add nuances to it. It focuses on the characters and the private lives of the investigators more than on the plot. The plot ‘twist’ is not that surprising and the villains are not that hateful. And yet, and yet…

It is great fun to read: clever, humorous, sarcastic at times, sharply observant of human nature with all its foibles. It is Jane Austen writing crime thrillers – and not at all of the cosy sort. The main detective, Manon Bradshaw, is immediately relatable – not dysfunctional, not a drunk, not heavily traumatised, but just starting to feel the pangs of middle age and the fear of loneliness. Her dating mishaps are both sad but also hilariously cringe-worthy. And the author pokes fun at the pretentiousness of Cambridge students or London professionals with connections.

It’s an unusual police procedural, because it really takes its time to discuss department funding and interactions between team members, rather than rely on clichéed shortcuts. It felt more like the TV series Happy Valley or Scott and Bailey. Having given up on the book Tennison recently (although I loved Prime Suspect), because it had too many irrelevant details, I really connected with this one instead and stayed up all night to finish it. Not because it was full of ‘unguessable’ twists, but because it was so life-like, caring and well-written. I can’t wait to see what happens next with Manon and Fly and, luckily, I won’t have long to wait. The second book in the series Persons Unknown is due out in May 2017.