Best of the Decade: A Few of My Favourite Things

I’ve been reading blogs, reviews, online articles voraciously this past decade, far more than ever before. Perhaps also because for most of the time I did not have money to subscribe to any newspapers or magazines – and discovered that when I did subscribe, they ended up mostly unread in a kitchen drawer, fit only to peel vegetables on them.

The same fate has also befallen many of the reviews and articles I’ve written over the past 10 years. While they are mostly online, so not even suitable for vegetable chopping, I’ve sadly lost track of quite a few of them. So I thought I’d try to gather here a few of my favourites, in the hope that I manage to convince myself that this past decade has not been quite as wasted in terms of writing seriously (as I know it has).

Finally, I am also including some essays authored by others, which have really helped me understand myself better.

My current cosy reading nook in my friend’s house

Crime Fiction Lover

It has been my absolute delight and pleasure to be associated for 6 years with the online goldmine of crime-related information and reviewing that is Crime Fiction Lover. I had to take a step back this past year, to focus on my complicated personal life and my own writing, but there are many things published there that I’m still fond of. For starters, the article I wrote about the five books that got me hooked on crime fiction, even though this dates back to 2013 https://crimefictionlover.com/2013/05/marinasofia-the-five-books-that-got-me-hooked-on-crime-fiction/

I finally got to witter on about one of my favourite authors, Shirley Jackson, for a Classics in September feature in 2017 https://crimefictionlover.com/2017/09/cis-we-have-always-lived-in-the-castle/

Another woman writer to rediscover: Margaret Millar https://crimefictionlover.com/2017/09/cis-rediscovering-margaret-millar/

Josephine Tey as an author and a protagonist in crime fiction https://crimefictionlover.com/2014/09/cis-josephine-tey-as-author-and-protagonist/

I’ve always loved those classic stories that have a trace (or more) of crime in them https://crimefictionlover.com/2016/09/cis-10-literary-classics-that-are-also-crime-stories/

A report from the Quais du Polar in Lyon in 2015 – perhaps my favourite of the many years I went there https://crimefictionlover.com/2015/03/live-from-lyon-quais-du-polar-2015-special-report/

And of course a personal tribute to my beloved Maigret series https://crimefictionlover.com/2012/09/cis-revisiting-maigret/

I’m also proud of my explorations of different countries for crime fiction (French and German crime fiction, Latin American, Celtic fringe, unexpected settings, holiday settings) and my Five Women to Watch annual preview of up-and-coming women authors, including foreign ones, which makes it a bit different from the more run of the mill selections. Best of all, I got to interview fabulous writers such as Pierre Lemaitre, Sylvie Granotier, Adrian Magson, Kati Hiekkapelto, Ragnar Jonasson, Michael Stanley, Dolores Redondo and many more.

Other Reviews:

I regret not doing more reviewing for plucky literary journal Necessary Fiction, but one book that really stood out for me and which I find myself regularly recommending for those trying to understand the siege of Sarajevo is Death in the Museum of Modern Art by Alma Lazarevska.

I’ve also not been as prolific as I’d have liked on the Shiny New Books review site, but my two favourite reviews there were Julian Barnes’ reimagining of the hard choices faced by composer Shostakovich under the Soviet regime, and the immersive experience that was reading Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City.

For nearly two years I worked behind the scenes at a literary journal that I had long admired for its commitment to world literature, Asymptote. I was mainly busy with the Book Club, but I also got to contribute a few articles about my first encounter with Asymptote and how I keep on searching for the best but not definitive translation of Genji Monogatari. This latter doesn’t seem to be available online, but I have the original document and will post it on my blog at some point if anyone is interested.

Articles and essays that have inspired me:

The Crane Wife by CJ Hauser from The Paris Review, July 2019 – about having the courage to ask for kindness and appreciation

On Pandering by Claire Vaye Watkins from Tin House, 2015 – about self-censorship and writing to the (male) canon

Writer, Mother, Both, Neither by Belle Boggs from Lithub, June 2016 – about combining career, creativity and motherhood

Still Writing by Dani Shapiro – this is a book, but I am cheating by linking to a summary of some of its most powerful statements about the impulse for writing from BrainPickings.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit – the original article came out in 2008 but it was this version that I read in 2012 in Guernica magazine

Cultural Plans for 2019

I’m not quite sure what to call this post, because it is about far more than just reading (although reading plays a huge part). It’s also about writing, translating, attending literary events and far more. So let me just put the extremely broad label of ‘culture’ on it.

Reading

If you’ve read some of my posts about the #EU27Project, you will know what will keep me busy until end of March 2019. I have most of the books already sitting and waiting on my bookshelves (a couple maybe from the library, although our library does not do very well on anything foreign that is not a Scandi-thriller). Nevertheless, any tips for Cyprus and Luxembourg would still be gratefully received.

I’ve always had a bit of an obsession with the Paris Commune (perhaps because of its close association with Montmartre (where it started) and Belleville (where it ended), my favourite parts of Paris. So when Emma from Book Around the Corner reviewed a book about this topic (in no flattering terms) and suggested that Zola’s La D√©b√Ęcle (The Debacle) would provide a better background to it. So Emma and I have decided to read Zola ‘together’ in May 2019 – and you are very welcome to join in if you like. I also have other historical and fictional accounts of the Commune that I want to read that month, so May will my revolutionary month.

There are two rendezvous that I never miss ever since I discovered them: Women in Translation Month in August and #GermanLitMonth in November, so I hope to take part in those this year as well. I also want to read and review critically at least one book of poetry a month – because that helps me rethink my own poetry.

Last but not least, I have to make a serious indent in the books I already own. The stacks my shelves, assorted pieces of furniture, floor are toppling over, while my Kindle hides hundreds of impulse buys. I may not read them all, but I need to triage, discard or read and not buy any new books. Of course, I’ll still visit the library on occasion.

Other than that, I will rely more on reading by whim and happenstance. I’m cutting right down on my reviewing commitments. Although I’ll be very sorry to say goodbye to my long-term association (more than 6 years!) with the wonderful Crime Fiction Lover site, I want to follow in the footsteps of its previous reviewers who became writers, such as Luca Veste and Eva Dolan. And the only way to do that is to hoard my precious time more tightly to my chest!

I’ll still be following the Asymptote Blog, with its frequent interviews with translators and writers, and literary news from around the world.

Although my association with Asymptote Journal of literature in translation and its Book Club has been shorter (a year and a half), I am equally sad to cut my ties with a literary venture whose emphasis on quality (of both literature and translation) is second to none. I will hopefully still serve as a point of contact to help organise events for the Book Club, but am no longer able to keep up the daily second shift until late at night.

Writing

I’ll be blogging and tweeting far less. I won’t feel as pressured to review every single book that I read (which was perfectly fine for the first 2-3 years of my blog, but then I started to feel guilty about it). I will work hard on finalising the poems (and perhaps swapping out some old ones with some new ones) for the chapbook I hope to send out soon. I may share some of my progress (or lack thereof) on my novel. I don’t have a daily word target, or even a daily routine, but I will make sure to keep in touch with my own work far more regularly throughout the week, rather than treating it as a welcome but very distant relative who visits once or twice a year.

Other Plans

Manon publicity shot by Jason Bell, English National Ballet.

I still have a few theatrical escapades planned, but am again practising some restraint. Tickets are very expensive (and reviewing takes time, although I might still do it occasionally, as you get to experience shows you might otherwise not have come across). I will see the ballet Manon with the peerless Alina Cojocaru in January (one of my favourite ballets, so dramatic, so sad). In February it will The War of the Worlds with my older son.

Can I just do a proud Mum shout-out here? It is so rewarding to take him to a film or play, as he really dissects it and examines it critically (without being annoyingly nitpicky). We saw Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap yesterday in London for his birthday and we had such fun actually talking all the way back (no messing about with phones) about the play, favourite films of 2018 (Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody scored highly with both of us) and reminiscing about his toddler days. I really enjoyed his company, which is not always the case with children and teenagers, even though you might love them to bits. And I don’t think it has much to do with the way I brought him up, since younger son is not all like this.

No holidays abroad with the children this year and indeed very few holidays at all, but I will treat myself to a trip to the south of France around Easter time (if the planes will still be flying without a hitch after Brexit) to stay once more with the friends in Luberon where I’ve previously been amazingly productive.

I’ve also decided to be extravagant and treat myself to one crime festival this year. After carefully examining dates and pennies, I opted for CrimeFest in Bristol 9-12 May, so do let me know if you are planning to attend, as it’s always fun to meet up with people you know so well online.

One example of a Landmark Trust property which has caught my eye.

The final ‘treat’ will be a working holiday in July, i.e. going to a few university open days with my older son and taking in some of the sights in England along the way. It’s still a bit early to worry about university, but it gives us an excuse to meander and stay in some amazing locations, thanks to the Landmark Trust.

So those are my plans for 2019. Whatever your plans are, whether you make resolutions or not, I hope the year goes well for you, and that the pollution of world news and events does not impinge too much upon your daily lives.

Favourite Reads of the Year

So we’ve finally reached the last couple of days of a busy, tiring, troubled year. May 2019 be merciful and kind and offer plenty of good reading at least, to distract us from the state of the world!

I’ve tried to hold off until now before making my ‘best of’ list, just in case some really good books that I read in December outweigh and outdazzle all of the others. In actual fact, only two of the December titles were contenders: two books about the war in Yugoslavia.

This is not a Top Ten or Top Twenty or any other systematic way of making a list. It’s simply a listing of all the books that really stood out and a brief quote or explanation to show why.

Library designed for Andrew Solomon, from Architectural Digest. I think that’s roughly the amount of shelf space I need.

Most Pleasant New Author Discovery

Cesar Aira: The Lime Tree

How could we have changed so much, if everything was still the same? It all seemed too much the same, in fact. I felt nostalgic for time itself… I was no longer the small child who had gone with his father to collect lime blossom, and yet I still was. Something seemed to be within my grasp, and with the right kind of effort, I felt that I might be able to reach out and take hold of it, like a ripe fruit…


Book I Was Most Obsessive About for a While

Lin Manuel Miranda & Jeremy McCarter: Hamilton The Revolution

Between Christmas 2017 and the time we went to see the Hamilton musical in April 2018, I had the soundtrack playing on repeat every single day, and these witty footnotes to the libretto and additional background on how the show came about was just what I needed. (Although I ostensibly bought the book for my son.)

Best Rediscovered Classic

J. L. Carr: A Month in the Country

I believe I can call this one a classic, although it was only written in the 1980s. Set in the 1920s, it has a very restrained, interwar novel feel about it, with a great deal of respect but no mawkish sentimentality for those who’d experienced the Great War. Also, a story of yearning rather than satisfaction, which reminded me of Brief Encounter.

Best Suspense Novel

Hanne √ėrstavik: Love

To my complete surprise, it was not a crime novel which had me almost covering my eyes with fear and reading breathlessly, as if by putting this book down, I could endanger the characters in it, but this small, short story of a frustrated mother and a neglected boy on his birthday.

Best Biography

Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson. A Rather Haunted Life

Not that I read an awful lot of biographies this year, but this one would stand out any year.

Best Political Rallying Call

James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain

In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation ‚Äď if we are really, that is, to achieve out identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.

Best Regional Curiosity

√Ėd√∂n von Horv√°th: Tales from the Vienna Woods

Social and class differences, urban vs. countryside contrasts, and the whole atmosphere of Vienna in the 1920s form the backdrop for this not necessarily terribly original story of love, envy, greed, betrayal, disappointment, but which rises to the universality of human experience like Greek drama.

Most Recognisable Situation

Sarah Moss: Night Waking

Scratch a little deeper beneath the amusing surface of modern family life with lively children and not-quite-there husbands, and you get something much deeper: the tension between academia (or any work involving thought and creativity) and motherhood, tensions within a couple, gender inequalities, class and culture differences.

Most Inspiring

Marina Tsvetaeva: Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922

Because she continued writing even in the direst of circumstances. [I chose the pseudonym Marina partly as an ‘homage’ to her.]

Best Escapism

Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland

Because it’s snort-out-loud funny, in the whole Fargo back comedy school of writing which I love. Speaking of which, Antti also features in the list below.

Best Crime Fiction

I had to choose my Top 5 Crime Fiction picks of the year for Crime Fiction Lover. Spoiler alert: one of them wasn’t fiction and one of them wasn’t a novel.

Best Book About the Yugoslav War

A topic that I will always, always find fascinating and emotional, so I saw a play and read two books about it this year. My favourite of those is probably Ivana BodroŇĺińá: The Hotel Tito, because it is both a coming of age novel, as well as the story of displaced children.

Best Reread

Two compete for this category and they both still felt chillingly relevant today:

Tana French: Broken Harbour

George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

Most Heartbreaking

Veronique Olmi: La Nuit en vérité

Olmi had already destroyed me with her piercing understanding of mother/child relationships, with all of its tender but also dysfunctional potential, in her masterpiece Beside the Sea. In this novel she returns to this theme, with a mother who is a housekeeper in a posh Parisian apartment with largely absent owners, and her lonely son who is being bullied at school.

Penelope Mortimer: The Pumpkin Eater

This story of an unravelling marriage and mother is just the right combination of funny, ironic, detached, cruel and devastating. A tour de force, hard to believe it was published in 1962, it still feels so modern. You might also want to read this poignant article about Mortimer’s marriage and life. ‚ÄúThe outside world identified me as ‚Äėex-wife of John Mortimer, mother of six, author of The Pumpkin Eater‚Äô [in that order]‚ÄĒaccurate as far as it went, but to me unrecognisable.‚ÄĚ

Placeholder, Admin and Other Boring Stuff

I’m on another business trip and therefore falling behind on my writing and reviewing, so be warned… This is going to be the world’s most boring blog post, mostly a reminder to self what I have read and reviewed, what still needs reviewing… yes, a To Do list!

I started off the week with a review of Child 44 – the book, rather than the film. The book was written 7 years or so ago, but I was wary of reading it because descriptions of totalitarian regimes disturb me in a way that any number of dark crime fiction thrillers cannot. And this one combines Stalinist Soviet Union with a serial killer and graphic scenes of torture? Oh, no, thank you, I thought. Yet, with the film coming out now (haven’t seen it yet, but it looks compelling) and after meeting Tom Rob Smith in Lyon, I plunged right in. It’s a wild ride: I sat up till the early hours of the morning to finish it and that doesn’t happen very often. Yes, there are minor niggles about how faithful the portrayal of fear and belief in a an oppressive state system really is, but suspend your disbelief and enjoy the thrill!

I’m also rather proud of my introduction to Latin American crime fiction. It’s not that easy to find translations into English, but I did my best with what I had. Some I’ve read, some I’ve only read about and researched – but you bet I now want to read them all!

Then there are all those books weighing on my conscience:

1) epic and encyclopedic The Great War by Aleksandar Gatalica needs to be reviewed by the end of this month, preferably this week.

2) Natsume Soseki’s Light and Dark¬†has been on my bedside table since January and I’m still not nearing the end. It is so much like Henry James’s later works and I’m struggling with all the tiny details, that I wonder if I would be able to read James again nowadays.

3) Ben Byrne’s¬†Fire Flowers¬†introduced me to post-war Japan – and I want to write something about Japan’s experience of WW2 and how it’s been portrayed in both Japanese literature and abroad. I wrote something similar in my B.A. thesis, but that was a loooong while ago.

4) Three new to me authors this month: Virginie Despentes, Yasmina Khadra and Karin Alvtegen. I enjoyed their books (well, ‘enjoy’ is perhaps the wrong word to use, as each of their novels is harrowing in its own way), but I wasn’t completely bowled over. Yet. I do want to read more of them before I make up my mind, though.

5) I haven’t progressed much with¬†Tale of Genji – well, it’s a very THICK book and not easy to take with you on a trip…

6) I keep trying to resist the siren song of new releases, but I really, really want to read Sarah Hilary’s No Other Darkness.¬†So that is next on my TBR list, along with Philippe Besson, recommended by none other than Emma from Book Around the Corner.

Next week there’s no business trip coming up, the children go back to school and hopefully there’ll be time for reviewing as well as that all-important, now-critical writing!

My Favourite Moments in Lyon

I’ve written a pretty exhaustive report on the panels and encounters with writers (including quotes) for Crime Fiction Lover, so I won’t repeat myself here. Let me tell you instead some of my personal highlights.

Profile21) Max Cabanes

A few of you have noticed and complimented me on my new Avatar on Twitter. This is a very idealised portrait of myself drawn by Max Cabanes, one of the foremost artists of¬†bandes dessin√©es (graphic novels or comic strips, hugely popular in the French-speaking world but with no perfect equivalent in the rest of the world), winner of the most prestigious prize in the field, the Grand Prix du Festival d’Angoul√™me in 1990,¬†and a contributor to¬†Charlie Hebdo.¬†I had already bought his latest work, the adaptation of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s¬†Fatale¬†(I had dithered previously¬†over whether to buy this or the collected works of Manchette¬†… ended up getting both for myself for Christmas).

LyonVenue5However, I stupidly forgot it at home, right next to where I’d packed my suitcase, so I couldn’t get him to sign it (and BD artists always draw something when they give their autographs). So I kept walking up and down in the very busy main hall, trying to find a solution (they had none of Cabanes’ other volumes). Finally, I bought another copy and explained the whole dilemma to him. He was so lovely and chatty, we ended up talking for 20 minutes or so. He went to Paris initially to become a ‘serious’ artist and sculptor, claimed he wouldn’t sell his soul to BD, until he discovered he loved telling stories… and that it helped pay the bills much more effectively. He did admit that it was much more difficult for young artists today to break into the field and make a living out of it (and he had advice for my older son, who likes writing and drawing his own BD).

Fatale1Finally, although I knew that it takes at least a year to produce a normal sized graphic novel, I was stunned to discover just how long it took Cabanes to adapt Fatale – nearly 3 years! That’s because he is meticulous about his research, every little detail has to be perfect, and, even though Manchette is very cinematic in his writing, you still have to select the best ‘moments’ to illustrate. So, worth every euro, I think! He also told me he is reviewing his reworking of ‘Princess du sang’ by Manchette and will have a beautiful re-edited version published in autumn.

Meanwhile, I have a spare copy of¬†Fatale¬†to give away, so let me know if you read French and have a hankering for it…

2) Informal Encounters with Humans

Meeting some of the big names of literature can be an intimidating experience, especially when you are just one of the hundreds who are assaulting them at such events. Plus, I have the tendency to get uncharacteristically tongue-tied and shy (afraid I can’t think of anything intelligent to say, something they haven’t heard thousands of times before). So it really helps when you bump into them informally or somehow manage to catch them at a time when they are not being jostled into place for their next panel or signing. [It must be very tiring for them, to be honest, as the timing is very tight and you have to run from one venue to the next.]

NicciFrenchMost crime writers I’ve met are delightfully unpretentious, warm human beings. I gushed to Sean French and Nicci Gerrard (of Nicci French fame) that I’ve been a huge fan ever since I heard them speak about the Moomins and the Martin Beck series at the Henley Literary Festival 6 years ago and congratulated Nicci on her brilliant initiative to allow family of dementia patients improved access to NHS hospitals.

StanleyLockeYou have to balance this, however, with the danger of being considered a stalker. I happened to come across Attica Locke powdering her nose and was not sure if I should approach or not. I’m glad I did, though, because she is funny, down-to-earth and politically engaged. She was signing books next to one half of Michael Stanley – namely Stanley Trollip – from South Africa (of Inspector Kubu fame) and you couldn’t have asked for nicer neighbours at the table. Stanley explained the very collaborative writing process with Michael Sears as ‘like an old married couple, we may bicker but we haven’t got divorced yet’. A bit like Kubu and his wife Joy, then!

LouisePennyAlongside personal hero(ines) such as Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Val McDermid and Sylvie Granotier, I also got to meet Louise Penny.  I only discovered her series about Quebecois inspector Armand Gamache 2 years ago (thanks to Margot Kinberg), but she has become one of my favourite authors with her inimitable blend of cosy location, unforgettable characters, cracking plots and profound questions about the human condition, personal relationships and the nature of beauty and creation. She is so gracious, beautiful and generous: I want to be like her when I grow up!

LyonSpring23) Online Friends and the City Itself

But what would even a beautiful and gourmet city like Lyon be without the people you meet there? I got to spend some time with the charming Lyonnaise-by-adoption Emma, who blogs in English and has done an excellent write-up of the event.

Last, but not least, I had the pleasure of meeting once more my blogging friend Catherine, whose pictures of the event are much more professional than mine. She knows more about British crime fiction than any other French person I know, plus she is my constant source of reference for French and other crime.

LyonVenue4I’ll tell you more about Saturday night’s Murder Ball and the city-wide Murder Mystery Trail in a future post, as well as the books I bought and the new-to-me authors. I’ll probably drone on and on about this event until you’ll start wishing I’d never gone there. I don’t get out much, you see – this is my one big event of the year, so bear with me…

In return, please keep me informed of all the other great events in the UK and US that I’ll be missing this summer!

 

 

Reading, Writing, Sauntering About in March

I’ve already admitted that I’ve not managed the TBR Double Dare this month of only reading from the books I already own. It doesn’t mean I won’t try again over the coming months, though!

So what else have I been up to this month?

1) Reading:

I’ve read 12 books this month, of which 6 may be classified as crime fiction, 5 are from the TBR pile (hurrah!), but only 2 translations (initially, I thought three of them were, but one turns out to have been written in English by a Polish author). Must try harder…

I did manage to read two books for Stu’s East European Reading Month Challenge:

Vladimir Lorchenkov: The Good Life Elsewhere (also qualifies for Global Reading Challenge – Moldova – Europe)

A.M. Bakalar: Madame Mephisto -this is the one that tricked me into believing it was a translation, set in Poland and England.

FataleI reviewed two books for Crime Fiction Lover, as different as they could possibly be: the start of a cosy crime series set in Wales, The Case of the Dotty Dowager by Cathy Ace, and the very dark, very despairing Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette.

The other crime or psychological thriller type novels I read this month were: Tom Rob Smith’s¬†The Farm¬†(no review yet), Belinda Bauer’s¬†The Shut Eye, Helen Fitzgerald’s¬†Dead Lovely and Laura Kasischke’s¬†Mind of Winter. Of this genre, the two most memorable (and, in this case, haunting) were¬†Fatale¬†and¬†Mind of Winter.

liarjonesI also read Maggie Hannan’s hugely influential debut volume of poetry¬†Liar, Jones (1995).¬†It’s very different from any poetry I’ve recently read: more muscular, more playful, more deliberately obfuscating and difficult. Not quite my type of poetry, but there was a lot of fun and exploration. There were no efforts to be ‘poetic’, pretty or lyrical. I particularly enjoyed the poems addressed to or about Jones and the Diary of Eleni Altamura (a real historical character, an amazing Greek woman who dressed as a man in order to study painting, but tragically lost her children and thenceforth gave up her art).

Finally, I also read two of the buzzed-about books of 2014: Matthew Thomas’s¬†We Are Not Ourselves¬†(moving but over-long) and Emily St. John Mandel’s¬†Station Eleven (not reviewed yet). I wonder if the buzz did them more harm than good in my eyes, as both of them were good pieces of fiction, with passages of very beautiful and perceptive writing, yet somehow failed to wow me overall. Perhaps my expectations had been set too high or perhaps I should stop reading reviews beforehand?

2) Writing

I’ve set an ambitious goal for myself for this year: to write my second novel by September and submit it to an agent (which means it’s got to be better than first draft quality, obviously). However, considering that I only started the first page at the end of February (although I had planned most of it out in my head already, bar the ending), and given my chronic inability to find time to write, I thought I would give myself an achievable goal for the first month: one page a day (about 8000-9000 words). May sound like nothing more than ¬†day’s writing for some of you, but to me it was a mountain to climb. I know I need to up my game, though, in terms of quality and quantity, over the months to come.

Lyon13) Flannelling around

I was going to use the term above, based on the French ‘fl√Ęneur’, someone who is walking around aimlessly on the grand boulevards, but the English word actually means something very different. Far be it from me to try and flatter or mislead you! What I mean of course is ‘sauntering’ or ‘gallivanting’ about. This means I had a great time in Lyon, at the Quais du Polar, which is the highlight of my year in crime. I’ve just written a thorough round-up of my first impressions for the Crime Fiction Lover website today, but there’ll be a few posts to follow on this blog, with further details, pictures, lessons learnt and some great quotes.

What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime, Raven?

7e42f475d4f202bdd68eac647fceabf5_bigger (1)After a little business-related break, here is another installment in my series of interviews with crime fiction afficionados. Raven is the mysterious nom de plume of one of my favourite book reviewers, whose opinions have an uncanny tendency to match with mine. In real life (as if books were not real life?!), Raven is a bookseller as well as an avid reader and reviewer. And I am delighted to say that we are also comrades-in-arms as contributors to the Crime Fiction Lover website.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

Thanks to the encouragement of my mum, a keen reader, who started me reading at a very early age, I have always been a regular library user, and surrounded by books. I remember dipping into mum’s fiction collection so started on Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King, Eric Ambler and possibly some others that weren’t entirely suitable for my age at that time! However, the real turning point for me in terms of my passion for crime fiction came with the early issuing of my adult library ticket, and discovering the as yet unexplored delights of what seemed to me a never ending wall of crime books in our local branch. Consequently, I remember some of my first discoveries including Ed McBain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, William McIlvanney and Derek Raymond, and my crime reading career was forged in earnest from that point on.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

Thanks to my early reading experiences, I have a long-held affection for American crime fiction, not so much the more mainstream ‚Äėmass-produced‚Äô authors, but those that practice the noble art of sparsity and social awareness underscored with a nod to the dark side. So currently, I would cite authors such as George Pelecanos, Ryan David Jahn, Dennis Lehane, Frank Bill and Ace Atkins as among my more recent favourites. Likewise, I am an ardent fan of Scottish and Irish crime fiction, despite being neither, as this feeling of the darker side of the human psyche seems more in evidence in the police procedurals of this sub-genre. Also, with what I call ‘the Larsson effect‚Äô, I am positively lapping up the increasing availability of European crime fiction in translation, thanks to publishers such as Quercus, Europa Editions and Gallic Books et al, producing crime fiction that really ticks the boxes for me. Not one for cosy crime I must admit!

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

Pierre Lemaitre’s Alex and Irene, I found astounding in both their execution, and different take on the crime fiction genre. With my natural propensity to veer towards the darker side of the human psyche, and the positively masochistic preference for the probing psychological read, he has been a real discovery.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

No quibbling on this one. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series would be firmly ensconced in my washed up, hopefully waterproof, trunk. Also one of my numerous boxes of books that I would try to rescue in a fire!

Huge_pile_of_booksWhat are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

In the very lucky position of being an established crime reviewer and a bookseller, every day unveils a new reading treat, and a new or not so new author to read. Therefore, every new arrival on my crime radar is a treat in store and I particularly relish the discovery of a cracking new debut author. I look forward to reading them all, although I‚Äôm increasingly edgy about the new George Pelecanos collection not appearing until next year…

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

With my brilliant ‘day-job‚Äô as a bookseller, I am also a keen fiction reader, so actually spend an equal amount of my time recommending my fiction finds. I am an avid reader of classic and contemporary American fiction, less mainstream British fiction, Australian fiction, as well as European fiction in translation, and have a store of favourites from Elliot Perlman, Andrey Kurkov, Jim Crace, Magnus Mills, Gregory David Roberts, Ron Rash, Tim Winton and oh- countless others. When time allows I also enjoy an eclectic range of non-fiction titles, as I suddenly develop a strange interest in something, and am driven to read extensively about it. Reading is my passion and I love sharing this enthusiasm with anyone kind enough to listen!

Thank you, Raven, and that explains why your reviews speak to me so much – since you mention so many of my favourites: George Pelecanos, Ed McBain, Pierre Lemaitre… Looks like the dark side of crime fiction appeals to both of us. And of course we are all envious of your day job!

For previous revelations of reading passions, see here. And if you would like to participate in the series, please let me know either in comments below or on Twitter.

Some of the Best Review Work I’ve Done

gonefishingnotonthehighstreetFor most of the rest of this month I am forsaking reading and writing for the doubtful joys of money-making, business travel and being criticised no matter what I do (I guess that happens at home with the kids as well, but I know they don’t really mean it).

So I won’t be around to read or comment on blogs too much, nor write much here. Instead, please find enclosed a list of links to some of the best reviews I’ve done to date for the Crime Fiction Lover website. These are not straightforward book reviews (although I’m proud of them too), but slightly lengthier feature articles. Enjoy!

The Best of Dorothy Sayers for Classics in September

Holiday Reads for Most Popular Tourist Destinations

Special Report from Lyon’s Quais du Polar Crime Festival, 2013 edition

Starter Guide to French Crime Fiction 

Women Crime Writers to Watch in 2013

Revisiting Maigret for Classics in September

Five Books Which Got Me Hooked on Crime Fiction

May Reading/ Halfway Through the Year

farfromtreeThis is a post to wrap up not only my reading for May, but also a half year’s worth of reading. I am happy to report that I’m just over halfway through my Goodreads reading challenge of 150 books for 2014, so this might be a good point to take stock of which books have really astounded or delighted me thus far.

First, the May summary. It’s been a month of very diverse reading and 6 out of 15 have been foreign books.

3 Non-Fiction:

The brilliant ‘Far from the Tree‘ by Andrew Solomon, the puzzling ‘The Fly Trap‘ by Fredrik Sjoberg and the riotous memoir of the 70s and feminism by Michele Roberts ‘Paper Houses’. I have really found a kindred spirit in Michele Roberts and hugely admire her courage and sacrifices in order to focus so single-mindedly on her writing.

1 Poetry Collection:

Father Dirt‘ by Mihaela Moscaliuc – Hard-hitting and heart-breaking

5 Crime Fiction or Thriller:

ColdStealSpy thriller by Stella Rimington ‘The Geneva Trap‘, the short story anthology ‘In a Word, Murder’, ‘Cold Steal‘ by Quentin Bates, the domestic psychological drama of ‘All the Things You Are’ by Declan Hughes and the unputdownable ‘Cry Baby’ by David Jackson.

6 Other Genres:

Frothy satire of writing courses ‘Writing Is Easy‘ by Gert Loveday

Long-winded and ominous, but not as illuminating as a real Greek tragedy ‘The Secret History‘ by Donna Tartt

Satire that seems even more apt and sinister in the wake of the European elections ‘Er ist wieder da’ (Look Who’s Back) by Timur Vermes

Painful depiction of the breakdown of a toxic marriage ‘Une affaire conjugale‘ by Eliette Abecassis

A family saga of post-war Japan – a reinterpretation of Wuthering Heights for the modern world ‘A True Novel‘ by Minae Mizumura

A graphic novel with a rather similar theme of family secrets and growing up in post-war Japan ‘A Distant Neighbourhood’ by Jiro Taniguchi

CryBabyMy favourites this month? ‘Cry Baby’ in crime fiction, because I found it impossible to stop myself from reading it all the way to the end. A rarer quality than one might suppose, even in thrillers. This links to the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme hosted at Mysteries in Paradise.

And, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the stately pace and melancholy of ‘A True Novel’. [I am not including the non-fiction or poetry here, but they deserve a special mention, for they were all outstanding.]

Now for the half-year round-up. I’ve read 79 books this year (yeah, it’s been a slow couple of months at work, so I’ve had more time for reading). If I’ve added up all the numbers correctly, here is the balance of the year so far (some books fit in more than one category, so the totals won’t make sense).

Japanese edition of Volume 2 of A True Novel.
Japanese edition of Volume 2 of A True Novel.

8 books in French, 3 in German and 19 translations – so 38% of my reading has been foreign. Surprising result, I expected it to be much more! Curious to see if this changes by the end of the year. I’m very pleased I managed to stick to my plan of reading at least one book per month in French, though (since I am living in France and need to improve my French).

43 books have been of the crime fiction and thriller persuasion, so about 54% of my reading. This is less than last year, although I have continued reviewing crime for Crime Fiction Lover website. I have also read 5 poetry books, so about one a month, which is essential (and the absolute minimum) for a working poet. I have also read 9 non-fiction books (11%) – one of the highest proportions in a long while. So it would be fair to say that my reading has broadened this year, quite deliberately.

InvestigationAnd which books have truly captured my imagination thus far? I have liked, even loved quite a few of them. I was struck by the almost visceral power of ‘Mother Mother’ by Koren Zailckas and Claire Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs’, fell under the spell of William McIlvanney’s prose and Mahmoud Darwish’s or Brenda Shaughnessy’s poetry. But the five books that really stayed with me are:

Jung-Myung Lee: The Investigation – neither crime nor prison saga, but a tale of the triumph of beauty over despair

Pierre Lemaitre: Au revoir la-haut – moving portrayal of the harshness of post-war society

Minae Mizumura: A True Novel – perhaps because this book encapsulates my love affair with Japan

Mihaela Moscaliuc’s debut poetry collection: Father Dirt – because it’s part of me and gives me power to explore more in my own poems

Andrew Solomon: Far from the Tree – a book that had me thinking and talking about it for days and weeks afterwards, which forever changed certain of my ideas

 

 

 

 

 

February Reading: A Season of Grimness

I was offline for a couple of days and gathering my lists and reviews for February, when I realised that this short, dark month has provided me with quite a lot of grim reading. Not ‘grim’ in terms of the quality of the writing, since pretty much all of them have been very well written indeed. But the subject matter(s) has/have been relentless: child abductions, abuse, alcoholism, serial killers, cannibalism, mental illness, highly dysfunctional families, discrimination against immigrants… and an astronaut stranded on Mars.

Still, I managed to read 16 books this month, which is very good going, although I have fallen far behind in my reviewing.

1 Book Each in German and French:

Irena BreŇĺn√°: Die undankbare Fremde

Delphine de Vigan: Rien ne s’oppose¬†√†¬†la nuit – will be part of a larger post on mothers in fiction

5 Translated Books (and therefore worth knowing the translators’ names)

Jean-Pierre Alaux & No√ęl Balen: Nightmare in Burgundy, transl. Sally Pane (to be reviewed soon on CFL)

Pascal Garnier: The Front Seat Passenger (to be reviewed), transl. Jane Aitken

Shuichi Yoshida: Parade, transl. Philip Gabriel

Parade

Promising set-up: four young people who share a flat and seem to have nothing in common. Each is slightly off-kilter, dysfunctional, but not in a very obvious way. As a picture of disaffected youth, of the anonymity of city living, of friendships of the ‘chatroom type’ (even when people are living together) and of the darker side to Japanese society, it works perfectly. As a crime novel or even psychological thriller with a coherent story arc, it does not.

Pierre Lemaitre: Irène (to be reviewed), transl. Frank Wynne

Jung-Myung Lee: The Investigation (to be reviewed), transl. Chi-Young Kim

1 Non-Crime Book (More Science than Science Fiction)

Andy Weir: The Martian

Martian

Surprisingly technical, with a high level of scientific precision (and yet manages to keep it thrilling throughout). It really would make an excellent film. Lovely sense of humour of the main protagonist, plus a lot of the politics of NASA, the US and even China, keeps this lively. ¬†Ultimately, however, this one felt just a bit too geeky to me. It didn’t have enough of the human/psychological elements to it.

4 Books from Crime Fiction Series

Elly Griffiths: The Outcast Dead (Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist)

Denise Mina: The Red Road (detective Alex Morrow)

Donna Leon: By Its Cover (Commissario Brunetti) – to be reviewed

Nicci French: Waiting for Wednesday (psychotherapist Frieda Klein)

NicciFrench

I might have known that Nicci French would not do a conventional crime fiction series. Don’t expect a police procedural (although police are involved) and don’t expect a self-contained story, as so many recurrent characters reappear and so many allusions are made to events in the previous two books. Yes, there is a distinct murder, plus an intriguing trail which could mean several more murders, but this is all much more about loss and bereavement, trauma and its psychological consequences.

4 Standalone Crime Novels (although at least 2 of them really stretch the boundaries of crime)

Lucie Whitehouse: Before We Met

Natalie Young: Season to Taste

Paula Daly: Just What Kind of Mother Are You? – will feature in my ‘mothering’ post

Koren Zailckas: Mother Mother – will feature in my ‘mothering’ post

So many fantastic books this month, not a single turkey. A few frightened or even repelled me (The Red Road, Season to Taste, Mother Mother, Irène), most of them saddened me (even Donna Leon and the winemaker series were not so cosy this time round), so it was hard to choose my favourite. In the end, I opted for The Investigation, because it combines so many of my favourite things: poetry and mystery, Japanese history and the triumph of beauty and art over the most inhumane conditions.

I’m linking this to the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme organised by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.