Bookish Musings for July 2021

This past month has been a strange one for me (for the rest of the world too, possibly, but I’ll stick to what I know best). It was composed of roughly four quarters/weeks. The first was extremely busy at work with a major event (which went well, but exhausted me). The second was spent recovering from the aforementioned major event, catching up on home life and cautiously venturing forth into the Big City. The third was phenomenally busy but exhilarating with the online British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School, which made me realise how much I enjoy the literary life and wish I could spend all my days on it. And the fourth was going back to work, trying to catch up on everything while suffering one of my huge three-four day migraines.

So overall, it’s been the kind of month where my head felt very ‘ouch’ (both literally and metaphorically) and I struggled to concentrate on any reading or reviewing. I feel very far behind on just about everything. But I do want to recapture some of the sheer glee of the third week of July, when I lived in a literary bubble that consisted not just of myself, but many other people equally passionate about words and cultures, about comma splices and sounds and rhythms. Rather than a lone madness, I had the pleasure and privilege of experiencing a folie à deux – or rather, folie à plusieurs, which is much more fun!

My brain is currently a jumble of ideas and sudden personal insights relating to books, reading, writing and translation, so I thought I’d jot some of them down here, while they are still fresh. Apologies for not having a nicely digested, thoughtful essay, but just random bullet points.

  1. I mentioned that several of the books I read in July were excellent, entertaining holiday reads, but not particularly memorable. However, I feel they deserve more credit than that.
    • The White Shepherd by Annie Dalton is a mix of cosy and serious crime, with older female amateur protagonists, published in 2015, well ahead of the current trend of precisely such crime novels, which seem to be taking the bestseller charts by storm, perhaps in the wake of one written by a likeable male TV celebrity. It’s hard to be ahead of a certain trend, isn’t it? To my mind, this book was better than several others in this subgenre.
    • Caro Ramsay’s The Tears of Angels is a well-written, impactful police procedural and, although I haven’t read others in the series (which made the large cast of characters a bit difficult to place at times), has a great sense of place. However, although there is a lot of talk of #TartanNoir (which this one is not, not exactly), it seems that Scotland is still not perceived as being as atmospheric as Iceland, Sweden or Norway. I’ve seen far too many mediocre ScandiNoir fiction lately, so it feels like publishers are scraping the bottom of the barrel, rather than focusing on homegrown stuff of equal or mostly higher quality.
    • I’ve grown to like Joanna Cannon on Twitter, but am embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read any of her books (although I have them all on my Kindle – which usually means: out of sight, out of mind – I am far more likely to grab something off my shelves). I thought her debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was an intriguing mix of humour and grit, mostly seen through the eyes of a child, which is notoriously difficult to do. I thought she was quite clever in giving us the perspective of a child looking back, but also additional adult perspectives, which shows us events and interpretations that a child couldn’t possibly understand. And yet this breaks all the rules of what us wannabe novelists are told to do: don’t have too many points of view, don’t switch too much between timelines so as not to confuse the reader etc. By setting out all these rules, are publishers just setting themselves up for clones of whatever has been successful in the past?
    • There was a period in my late 20s and early 30s when all I read was crime fiction and Sophie Hannah was one of my favourites for the way she managed to write her way out of the most outrageous, impossible premise. Nowadays, I usually prefer crime with a social message, strong characterisation, atmospheric details, but every now and then I crave a thorough page-turner (if it has any of the above additional elements, then all the better) and am willing to suspend some disbelief for a book that will keep me up all night. It’s harder to do this than it looks, and it hurts me to say that Hannah herself seems to have lost this capability in the final stages of the execution. But one writer who seems to have taken over the mantle of this successfully is Catherine Ryan Howard. Her Nothing Man was one of the most appreciated books we ever had at the Virtual Crime Book Club, and I embarked almost immediately upon her lockdown thriller 56 Days, which is coming out imminently (and which fits none of my August reading plans, but rules are made to be broken, right?)

2. The Translation Summer School made me realise how much I belong to this ‘tribe’, i.e. of people who are fond of and curious about other languages and cultures, even if some of them got into translation by accident. To be fair, I think fewer and fewer are getting into literary translation by accident, unless they are particularly well connected, because it is becoming very competitive. Translation courses are becoming the new MFAs – yet I think there are very few translators who can make a living entirely out of their literary translations (hence perhaps the need to teach). In particular, there are still cultural institutions, funding and awarding bodies, publishers who distrust anyone who is not a ‘native English speaker’ for a literary translation, as if the (sometimes, not always) superior command and understanding of nuances in the source language is not as important as fluency in the target language. But many of us ‘immigrants’ or ‘non-natives’ have grown up with the English language, which has become a victim perhaps of its own imperial and corporate success. Given the recent brouhaha about accents on TV in the Olympic coverage, the myth of ‘proper English’ is still alive and well, although there has never been one unitary, commonly defined and monitored English language (unlike the Académie Française – which, incidentally, is looking increasingly out of touch, conservative and ridiculous), but many Englishes.

In addition to ‘who gets to translate’, there is also the issue of ‘what gets translated’. There is still far too much stereotyping of what the ‘the literature of a particular culture’ should look like, or what writing style will appeal to English language readers. There is far too much emphasis on what will sell among the big publishers, and it is left up to the small independent publishers, the ones who can least afford the risk of low sales, to educate readers and try to broaden their taste (or cater to a more diverse group of readers).

On a more cheery note, the Summer School made me realise how much I enjoy theatre and all the people who work in it (I was in the Multingual Theatre Translation stream and our tutor was the very thoughtful, encouraging and thoroughly engaging William Gregory). I was very active in theatre groups throughout school and university, and there is something incredibly satisfying about seeing a coherent, beautiful whole emerge from a group effort, something that is so much better than the work of any individual, and that depends on each person performing at their best. The work of a translator is often very solitary, but this collaborative effort that is inevitable in theatre translation is something that appeals hugely to me, and I will try to keep it in my life somehow, if I can afford it. At the very least, my eight fellow theatre group participants and I are planning to keep in touch and meet up occasionally to continue sharing our play translations.

3. The joys and woes of indie publishing

In my upbeat moments, I tell myself that Corylus Books is doing great work, taking on lesser-known languages and the kinds of quirky, genre-busting works that I like to read myself and that many of my (online or not) friends tell me they too like to read. However, the sales figures tell another story. Although each one of our books thus far has received excellent reviews, it appears that English language readers are not ready for Balkan Noir, nor for crime fiction that doesn’t fit neatly into one of the subgenres of police procedural or psychological thriller or spy thriller etc.

I don’t want to rubbish the crime fiction genre, which I truly love, and where so much great writing and experimentation is taking place. But I have to admit it is discouraging to see some of the very average and ‘samey’ offerings that are being churned out by the big publishers month after month, and which end up ranking very highly on the sales charts. Yes, maybe that is the sort of book that the wider public prefer, but I think it’s at least 50% due to the money they can afford to splurge on advertising and promotion, the connections they have to journalists and other media people, to festival organisers and celebrity endorsements etc. There is no point in being snobbish and saying that we are not influenced by the buzz: probably around 80% of readers are. It works, and that is why they do it. And if it doesn’t work for three out of ten titles, they can afford to swallow the losses, or the Amazon spokes in their wheels.

Last but not least, there is one aspect of being a small indie publisher that I hadn’t realised before (and probably should have). Namely, that if you are not a purveyor of literary fiction in translation, you are unlikely to have much chance of winning translation and publication grants from the source countries, or literary awards which can then increase sales and visibility (both are usually given to ‘works of literary merit’, which crime fiction is still not considered to be generally).

I’ve been in this position before, starting my own company, and know it can take a couple of years to find success. But at least back then, I was only tightening my own belt, while this time there are many other people that we are letting down if we don’t achieve at least a modest success. Ah well, we chose this path ourselves, so mustn’t grumble, as they say. We’ll find ways to access funding, pay our translators properly, market and distribute our books and promote our authors in innovative ways, overcoming the double barriers of Covid and Brexit.

Oh, and Happy National Day, Switzerland, miss you lots! Hop Suisse!

April 2021 Reading and Film Summary

Reading

15 books read, of which seven are crime fiction or true crime or, in one case, a literary curiosity labelled as crime fiction. This escapism into my favourite genre was counterpointed by some very good literary reads. Of the crime fiction genre, I enjoyed Rebecca Bradley’s start to a new series in Sheffield Blood Stained, Allie Reynold’s addictive Shiver, set in the world of snowboarding competitions, and Margie Orford’s haunting recreation of Cape Town’s older and more recent history Gallows Hill. For the Virtual Crime Book Club, I finally managed to get A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson from the library: I don’t usually read YA, but his one just zips along in a charming voice (think a slightly older Flavia de Luce set in a very contemporary world, where CDs are sooo last century).

The month was dominated by the reading I did for #1936Club and most of it was written by or about Romanian authors. While I did review Horvath’s plays for the #1936Club, I actually read them in March. However, I did read Max Blecher, Karel Capek, Mihail Sebastian and Liviu Rebreanu in April, all more or less fitting the requirements for the year 1936 or thereabouts.

There were three disappointments in this month’s pile though. The true crime book by John Leake The Vienna Woods Killer was written with too much of an American audience in mind, not particularly evocative of the Viennese atmosphere nor showing enough respect for the victims, but instead overly focusing on the investigation and court case. The novel entitled Sebastian by Gelu Diaconu was too much about other people, not enough about Sebastian (or else, did not add anything new to the Sebastian story). Sad to say, The Chateau by Catherine Cooper did not live up to the expectation raised by her first novel The Chalet, which I read last year. In spite of the fact that French chateaux are amongst my favourite things ever, as you well know.

But let’s not focus on the disappointments, because (aside from the books I read for the 1936 mission, which were all excellent) I also read two wonderful books this month. I reread To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (which I liked, but had never been my favourite novel of hers – that would be The Waves – but which certainly has gone up vertiginously in my esteem now). I still hope to review it at some point, although what can you say about a novel that everybody and their dog has opined about? The other novel I picked up because of my passion for Mozart: The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy: delightful, frothy, yet very intelligent, with the sort of precise, taut writing I hugely admire. (Very much like Mozart – perfectly controlled, it just seems easy like breathing.) I then listened to the Backlisted Podcast episode about it and appreciated it even more. Two perfect little gems for a rather tiring month (aren’t they all – tiring, I mean, not gems obviously).

Films

My patience for box sets has gone out the window. I started the second season of Succession and it was just more of the same: backstabbing amongst rich people behaving badly, so I abandoned it. Fortitude was beautiful for its landscape, but that stifling small community where everyone seems to sleep with everyone and the rather far-fetched storyline palled after 5-6 episodes (plus there were some unnecessarily graphic gory scenes). Even The Sopranos felt a bit ‘take it or leave it, I won’t suffer either way’ after two seasons, so I decided to cancel my NowTV subscription.

After a very ‘film-less’ March, I caught up with my love for films a little more in April. It was perhaps not quite as diverse as previously, quite international nevertheless:

  • Japan: A Silent Voice – anime about bullying in high school, much harder-hitting than I expected
  • Spain: Pan’s Labyrinth – fantasy, history, once again – much more powerful (nightmarish almost) than I expected
  • Romania: Collective – documentary about the nightclub fire in Bucharest in 2015 and its aftermath, revealing government corruption and the power of investigative journalism
  • France: A Prophet – prison drama, watching Tahar Rahim transform under your very eyes from a naive young man to a criminal wheeler-and-dealer
  • US: The King of Comedy – a satire that manages to be both fierce and very funny, and deeply disturbing, with a brilliant performance by De Niro.
  • UK: The Third Man – still one of my favourite films for the black-and-white atmospheric shots of post-war Vienna and a world that has lost in faith in humanity – but yes, my sons are right that the dialogues between Holly Martins and Anna are stilted and old-fasioned
  • Italy: The Ties – didn’t realise it was based on the Domenico Starnone book, which I had avoided reading because I was still raw about my divorce – so the film turned me inside out a bit, especially the reaction of the children. Felt cynical and glum, at times hammering home the message a little too much.
  • US: In the Soup – another black comedy mocking both wannabe talents and the criminal world, while also being the story of the relationship between a charismatic older man who teaches a clueless young man how to live. Although I did chuckle, it felt like I’d seen this type of story before – and done better – in Zorba the Greek.

Last minute update: In my last post about Rebreanu, I mention the dance Ciuleandra and I included a film clip. I should also have added (thank you to Calmgrove for reminding me) that there is a fairly good Romanian film adaptation of it dating from 1985. Here is the trailer, which includes the moment when the couple meet at the village dance, with French subtitles.

February 2021 Summary

Books

It is absurdly early to be writing an end of month review but a) I’ve got some online theatre to watch and review over the last few days of February; b) with some translation edits coming in and another planned full day of working on my novel, I don’t think I’ll have time to read and review any more books.

I was quite good at sticking to my February in Canada plan and, although I’d have liked more Quebecois authors in the mix, I remained faithful to my plan to read only what was already available on my bookshelves. I was fairly happy with all of the six Canadian books I read. While the subject matter of the Inger Ash Wolfe crime novel did feel like far too well-trodden territory to me, I was intrigued and inspired by Anne Carson (as ever) and surprised and delighted by Carol Shields and Marian Engel. In fact, I enjoyed Bear so much that I instantly decided to read another Marian Engel book, Lunatic Villas, which was very different to Bear, although the portrayal of harassed motherhood is very similar to Celia Fremlin‘s The Hours Before Dawn, but on the humorous rather than the sinister side of things.

In addition to Celia Fremlin, I also read several more crime novels:

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman for our Virtual Crime Book Club, which was fun although not quite as good as the hype makes it out to be. I do generally struggle with books written by celebrities, as I feel: a) are they just cashing in on their fame and writing books because everyone thinks it’s an easy thing to do?; b) do they really need any more money, when they have n other sources of very good income? However, to be fair to Osman, it is a witty book, mostly because of the characters and the age group depicted (showing what a variety of types of people you can find in a retirement community, not all old people are boring and cautious etc.). The plot does have some rather too convenient coincidences and a bit of an odd coming-out-of-nowhere conclusion, but I liked it enough to want to read more about these characters on a very occasional basis.

Untraceable by Sergei Lebedev: This is a book of many parts and many tonalities, which might put some readers off, but which really appealed to me. It is a thoughtful analysis of why a scientist would choose to collaborate with an evil regime, how science can be subverted, and how ideals go out the window. It is also a historical picture of the mess and lack of certainties after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is of course also a spy thriller, with a sinister opening and a mounting sense of dread. Yet, in certain parts, when the would-be assassins are embarking on a road-trip to find the rogue scientist, it becomes quite comical, even farcical. All in all, a really enjoyable read.

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse: February always puts me in the mood for skiing and therefore a mountain setting, so this book set in a Swiss mountaintop hotel seemed irresistible. The claustrophobic setting is indeed the star in this novel, the author clearly knows her Swiss winters, but the plot seemed rather far-fetched and I wasn’t that keen on the characters’ rather histrionic reactions to everything.

Finally, with a lingering glance back towards my January in Japan love, I read a graphic novel adaptation of No Longer Human, which was far more explicit and creepy than the novel, but also diverged from the story in interesting ways. I also read the first volume of Bungo Stray Dogs manga, in which Dazai is a detective with some supernatural powers – I’m not sure how appropriate it is to make fun of Dazai’s suicidal tendencies, although, given he made fun of them himself at times in his work, it’s probably OK. Plus, it features all sorts of other writers, Kunikida Doppo with a very bureaucratic mentality, Edogawa Ranpo who is firmly convinced he has supernatural abilities but in fact is simply very good at questioning and detecting, Akutagawa, who is a skilled adversary and so on. For someone obsessed with Japanese literature and familiar with most of the authors featured here, this is an absolute riot!

So 12 books, of which 2 graphic novels, 6 fitting the Canadian theme, and 4 crime novels. Only three books in translation (or other languages) this month, a low proportion by my standards, and an even gender distribution.

But have I contributed at all to #readindies? Well, hard to tell. Most of the books were bought second-hand and at the time of publication the publishers may have been independent, but have since been bought up (McCleeland and Steward are Penguin Random House now, Fourth Estate is Harper Collins, Pandora Women Crime Writers is Routledge). But I have found a few. My Quebecois writer is published by Editions Druide, a small independent funded by the Canadian and Quebecois governments and the Canadian Arts Council. Bear was published by Nonpareil Books, an imprint of Godine, an independent publisher located in Boston, Massachusetts. And Untraceable is published by New York-based New Vessel Press, which specialises in translated fiction.

Films

I’ve watched mainly TV series this month (Lupin, The Sopranos, My Brilliant Friend), but the few films I watched were very good:

  • a rewatch of Do the Right Thing, which was a classic film of my teenage years and still stands up so well today (sadly, not much has changed);
  • High and Low, a Kurosawa with a good deal of social commentary and personal dilemma, about the kidnapping of a child;
  • Uppercase Print, the latest film by Radu Jude, the case of a young student who was investigated by the security forces during the Ceausescu years – an unusual mix of actors reciting from the security files, interwoven with extracts from TV documentaries of the 1970s and 80s. This was hard for me to watch, because I was so familiar with it all from my childhood, but it’s an interesting piece of history that should be preserved for the next generation (or for those who are not familiar with what it’s like to live in a dictatorship).

With one son not caring very much about films and the other having very fixed ideas about what he wants to watch and generally poo-poohing Mubi, saying they only have films that about five people in the world want to see (despite all the evidence to the contrary), our chances of watching films together are decreasing. Meanwhile, I’m getting a little tired of doing things that don’t interest me simply to fit in with someone else’s taste (I’ve had years of practice with their father – and look how well that turned out!). Maybe the pressures of being together all the time is starting to get to us all…

Annual Summary: Crime Fiction

I have so many annual round-ups and best of lists to share with you, that I’m planning to divide them up by subject matter and bore you to death with posts from now until the New Year! The first topic is Crime Fiction. I have read probably somewhat less crime than in previous years: only 40 of the 127 books I read this year were crime fiction, so somewhat less than a third, while in previous years it would have been more like half. The following titles were particularly appealing and/or memorable.

Simone Buchholz: Mexico Street: Romeo and Juliet against the backdrop of immigrant communities and hardnosed port towns like Hamburg and Bremen, with Buchholz’s unmistakable witty yet also lyrical style.

Elizabeth George: A Banquet of Consequences – I was utterly absorbed by the book while reading it, but can no longer remember a single thing about it now. Don’t know if that says things about how long this year has felt (I read it in February), or about my memory, or about the book itself. I am giving George the benefit of the doubt in memory of the good old days when I adored her work.

Chris Whitaker: We Begin at the End – very intense and moving, more of a character study (and description of a location and a way of life) than a standard procedural. Duchess is firmly in my heart, a truly memorable creation.

Rosamund Lupton: Three Hours – one of our Virtual Crime Book Club reads, this was a heart-stopping, heart-racing race against the clock set against a backdrop of a school shooting.

Barbara Nadel: Incorruptible – a reunion with my old friends Ikmen and Suleyman, and an interesting story of Catholic vs. Muslim heritage in an increasingly totalitarian Turkish state

Eva Dolan: Between Two Evils – another ecstatic reunion with one my favourite recent crime authors and her uncompromising look at contemporary British society

Abir Mukherjee: A Rising Man – an excellent incursion into historical fiction, learning so much about the British Empire in India, another Virtual Crime Club read

Riku Onda: The Aosawa Murders – unusual, puzzling, thought-provoking, my favourite Japanese crime novel of the year

John Vercher: Three Fifths – more of a psychological thriller and moral dilemma, an indictment of perception of race in the US, in equal measure poignant and infuriating

If I was really pushed to give a gold medal to any of the above for this year, I’d say The Aosawa Murders, and here is the Japanese cover of it (in the original, the title is Eugenia).

Above all, I want to thank Rebecca Bradley and her Virtual Crime Book Club for getting me to read sub-genres and books that I might not normally have discovered on my own.

That’s Entertainment: Books and Films

I never thought I would complain about the excessive heat in the UK, but I am. Partly because it’s humid and muggy, while the heat in Greece and Romania is much drier, so I sweat just by breathing. Partly because my house is not designed to cope with either heat or cold (and yes, I tried additional insulation in the loft and double-glazed windows – houses built in the 1980s in Britain are a bit rubbish).

So this is a long introduction to just say: I cannot be bothered to write a proper thoughtful review of my final #20BooksofSummer read, Teffi’s wonderful Subtly Worded. If it cools down by the end of the week, you might get a review then. Instead, I’d like to share with you some of the things that have been keeping me entertained this past fortnight or so. Books and films, what else?

In addition to #WomeninTranslation, I have also been reading some relaxing crime fiction (well, it’s relaxing for me, at any rate).

Mark Billingham’s Their Little Secrets was a read for the Virtual Crime Club run by crime author Rebecca Bradley – a solid police procedural, involving a killer duo where the woman is the manipulator rather than the man. I have read many books in the Tom Thorne series before, but annoyingly not the previous one to this – and there were a lot of references to it in this book, which whetted my appetite. Best of all, Rebecca invited Mark to answer some questions at the start of the session and we were stunned to discover that he doesn’t plot his novels at all – or even the longer-term story arcs and character development for Tom and his team. He likes to keep himself surprised, even at the risk that he sometimes finds himself painted into a corner (and has to rewrite things extensively). You can hear a recording of the session on Rebecca’s site. (But be warned there are plenty of spoilers, if you haven’t read the book yet!)

Susie Steiner’s Remain Silent is the third in the Manon Bradshaw series, and I simply can’t get enough of the lovable, very real middle-aged female detective trying to navigate police work with a not quite fairytale marriage, a toddler, a teenager, an potentially terminally ill husband. Her acerbic comments on modern life are a real delight. The story of (perfectly legal) immigrants lured by the thought of forging a good future for themselves and their families back home, and instead being exploited for grim work in unsavoury conditions is hugely topical, of course, but does occasionally feel a little telegraphed in, what with the short chapters and moving rapidly from one point of view to the next. I know the author has had serious health problems lately, and I sincerely hope she proves doctors wrong and recovers very soon and gets to write many more in the series (or whatever else she wants).

I can’t remember the last time I watched anything live on telly, but police anti-corruption investigation series Line of Duty is back on, so I am catching up with Series 1, which I never got to see. It’s like watching a prequel to something very familiar, so of course you can’t help exclaiming ‘how young they were!’ but also noticing how some of the character tics (of Superintendent Hastings, for instance) became emphasised in later series, probably as a result of audience reactions and amusement.

I’ve watched far fewer films than I expected while the boys were away – perhaps because I really cannot bear to spend any more time in the study in the evening in front of my desktop, where I sit and work all day (I cannot use Mubi or NowTV or anything like that on my work laptop). However, I did watch two Italian ones from very different periods and yet another French one, and I am continuing my love affair with women directors too.

Fellini’s 8 1/2 is a sly portrayal of midlife crisis and creative block. Marcello Mastroianni is of course a charmer and we might think Fellini sympathises with the dilemma of creative burnout, but it soon dawns on us that the film director he portrays is behaving like a real mascalzone (to quote the film). The dream harem sequence in particular really pokes fun at him. When he banishes the women over a certain age upstairs (out of his sight), they start rebelling: ‘Are we lemons to be squeezed and thrown away?’ and ‘Down with Bluebeard!’ and he has to take out the whip. Completely outrageous and over the top, but does he get his comeuppance?

Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders is set in the Tuscan countryside and there’s a strange timeless quality about it. It’s an unromantic view of subsistence agriculture, beekeeping and small-scale production of honey, seen through the eyes of a somewhat naive 12 year old (very sensitive and mature performance by the 13 year old Maria Alexandra Lungu, who I’m proud to say is of Romanian origin). Yet it also mourns the loss of a way of life as the farming community succumbs to gentrification and becomes a tourist attraction thanks to a rather ridiculous TV show. There is a surreal Fellini-like moment when the children catch a glimpse of Monica Bellucci resplendent in a silver dress and with long white locks in the middle of an Etruscan necropolis.

Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living is based on the novel about a heart transplant by Maylis de Kerangal which I loved back in 2016. In the novel, the boy whose organs are donated (after initial shock and reluctance by the parents) is 20, but in the film he is 17, the same age as my older son. Additionally, the person waiting for a heart transplant is a single mother of two sons, one of them more dutiful, the other more wayward. So, with all of this too uncomfortably close to my own biographical details, you can imagine that I pretty much cried all the way through – a new record for me! However, what was impressive was how earnest, respectful and gentle the medical staff were throughout with the patients and their families, regardless of their own personal circumstances. The moment of ‘closure’ before they take out the heart – I defy anyone not to have tears in their eyes at that scene.

Phew, so maybe not quite so escapist after all, this entertainment malarkey!

 

 

#20BooksofSummer: Crime Fiction for Nos. 12 and 13

You know I enjoy my crime fiction books, and in these plague-ridden, uncertain times they provide me with more comfort than ever before. Especially the two authors who feature for No. 12 and No. 13 within my #20BooksofSummer. I’m also sneaking in a third book by a new-to-me author, which I read (and greatly enjoyed) for the Virtual Crime Book Club this month. So, I could entitle this post:

A Longterm Love, a Newer Love and a Brand-New Love (let’s see if you can figure out which is which?!)

Barbara Nadel: Incorruptible

I discovered Barbara Nadel’s crime series set in Istanbul about 12 years ago, when a friend who knows me well said that I might enjoy it, given my own passion for intercultural issues. I’ve always kept an eye out for them since, but in the past few years, as my reviewing duties went into overdrive and I started reading fewer books for pleasure, I had missed the last couple of books that came out in the Ikmen and Suleyman series (I am slightly less keen on the London-set crime series by the same author). So I ordered the latest one but started with an older one that I had on my bookshelf, which came out in 2018.

A young woman torn between her Catholic and Muslim mixed background is found brutally murdered, eviscerated. Before her death, she had been tearing apart public opinion with her claim of being miraculously cured of cancer and her visions of the Virgin Mary. Does her murder have a religious motive in a country that is increasingly separated into hostile camps based on faith? Or could the reason be closer to home, with a family equally torn apart by conflicting ideologies?

It was good to catch up with Ikmen as he nears retirement, but is wiser and more empathetic than ever, while I’ve always had a soft spot for the charismatic womaniser that is Mehmet Suleyman (who once again faces women trouble in this book). Meanwhile, their female boss is struggling to keep her police unit independent, free of government interference – and it was this description of descent into nationalism and dictatorship which I found particularly unsettling. The series has become darker and more thoughtful as time goes on, perhaps reflecting what is going on in Turkey currently. I know the author has been having trouble returning there for her research (she used to spend a great deal of the year in Turkey).

Eva Dolan: Between Two Evils

It has been far too long since the last Zigic and Ferreira novel set in Peterborough (although Dolan has written a standalone crime novel in the meantime). The Hate Crime Unit has been disbanded and they are now working with their colleagues in the general murder squad. The action is set in 2018 and both investigators (and the people they are investigating) are starting to feel the hostile post-Brexit environment.

A young doctor who works at the local female detention centre for illegal immigrants is found dead. Is this because he was a whistleblower or because he was one of the participants in the abuse of inmates in the centre (which is more or less like a prison and usually ends up with the inmates being deported).

As the title indicates, this book too shows a clash between two opposing forces and points of view. There is no sugarcoating, no representation of either side as being completely blameless – the protesters against the detention centre come off quite badly, despite their ‘progressive’ views. I like this subtletly in Dolan’s work, this refusal to over-simplify when the situation is so complex and messy. Another great entry in the series and I’m hopeful there will be more.

Abir Mukherjee: A Rising Man

This is the additional title, which was not on my 20 Books of Summer list, but which I read for the Virtual Crime Book Club run by crime writer (and reader) Rebecca Bradley. I’d been meaning to get started on this series, since I know next to nothing about India during that period (1920 onwards), other than that it was a troubled time, so I was delighted that it was the book club choice for July. This book too shows two opposing factions – the behemoth of the British Empire versus the Indian rebels, and once again the author manages to pull off the tricky feat of not resorting to stereotypes or presenting them as unified block.

Sam Wyndham is new to India: he survived the trenches of WW1 only to have his wife dies of the Spanish flu, so he has become world-weary, cynical and slightly addicted to opium. He also feels like an outsider in India – he is not really integrated yet into the colonial community, has a strong sense of fairness and feels uncomfortable with British imperialist attitude. But he is realistically of his time: more progressive than most, but nevertheless not overly modern (what one might call ‘woke’ nowadays). Two other outsiders join him (and will likely play key roles in the next books in the series): the Anglo-Indian secretary Annie Grant and his well-educated, wealthy ‘native’ sergeant nicknamed Surrender-not (which sounds offensive to me, but is accepted by the man in question with weary resignation).

The setting was one of the high points of the book for me, educating me while never becoming too didactic. As with all first books in a series, there is quite a bit of set-up and throat-clearing in this book, but there are sufficient hints of character development to keep me intrigued. I’m looking forward to reading more by this author.

 

Two Absolutely Contrasting Crime Novels

Here are two crime novels which have recently helped me regain some joy and focus in my reading. I’m not sure that ‘crime’ is the best way to describe either of them, although crimes do take place (arson, robbery and murder, to name but a few). Neither of them follow the standard crime fiction formula – yet they couldn’t be more different from each other if they tried.

One was written in 1934 while the other has only just come out. One is set at a country house in Surrey, while the other is in a small town in the US. In both we pretty soon get to know ‘whodunit’, but in one the focus is on ‘how will they get out of it?’ and in the other the focus is on the characters. One is light and funny, somewhat throwaway and escapist, while the other is rather grim and gruelling, though beautifully written.

I am talking, of course, of Alan Melville’s Weekend at Thrackley (in the British Library classic crime series) and Chris Whitaker’s We Begin at the End, respectively.

In the former, we have the typical Golden Age mystery novel set-up. Jim Henderson is a remarkably cheerful and stoic good chap, who has returned from war with all his limbs intact but without much work experience, and therefore struggles to find a job and make ends meet. To his great surprise, this underdog is invited to a country house weekend by someone who claims to have known his father, but whom he personally cannot remember at all. He goes there despite his misgivings, because his old school friend is also invited, and discovers a gloomy old house with an odd assortment of guests and a peculiar host obsessed by extravagant jewellery.

Most of the characters are paper thin, and the plot is rather obvious, but it’s all about derring-do and cute ironic observations, in that slightly bemused, self-deprecating style that was so common in the 1920s and 30s. I might argue that Jim and his friend Freddie, both public school boys, do somewhat fall into that cliche of ‘the nice, bumbling but well-intentioned and really quite bright underneath it all chaps’ which has done so much harm in class distinctions in Britain. However, it is encouraging that the hero of the story is the resourceful Jim rather than spoilt Freddie, i.e. the one who was raised by a single mother and who does not have easy access to a family fortune.

By way of contrast, Chris Whitaker’s characters are anything but spoilt. Thirteen year old Duchess Day Radley has to put up with things that no child should have to experience, as she struggles to protect her little brother and veers between pity and resentment at her perpetually depressed and drunk mother. This is life on the breadline, pretty much, and with no hope or escape in sight. Duchess is so used to being ignored, bullied, menaced, tricked, that she no longer can trust anyone or anything. She calls herself an outlaw and refuses to let anyone into her heart. She only half understands what is going on when the man who killed her aunt thirty years ago is released from prison and comes back to their home town, but she gets tragically caught up in the events that follow.

I’ve loved Chris Whitaker’s previous books, which described the same kind of milieu in small-town America, but this one is a shade darker, with far less black humour and fewer quirky characters to lighten the mood. I was afraid at times that the book was laying it too thick with all of the misfortunes that come the children’s way (almost like a Mexican soap), but it manages to avoid bathos. Crimes are just the pretext here for examining morality, how good intentions can lead you astray, how flawed every human being is and why standing idly by is sometimes as unforgivable as jumping in and making mistakes. A book I will not forget easily, although I’d have preferred to read it at a cheerier time. Just as well that I chased it down with the more puerile but easy-going BL classic!

 

Quais du Polar 3 #QDP2020: Five Years of Loyalty

Today I was going to read and review a third book by an author I met at Quais du Polar, but I simply ran out of time. The author was Craig Johnson, and the book is one in his popular Longmire series (and features a dinosaur, which made it absolutely irresistible). In 2016, Craig Johnson was also part of what some people called the ‘dream panel’, also including Sara Gran, Arnaldur Indridason, Jo Nesbo and Deon Meyer, as well as a French author who was only just starting out back then, Olivier Norek.

So instead I will link back to some of my favourite write-ups about this event from other years.

I first went to the Quais du Polar in 2013 together with my family. And, while they did the murder mystery treasure hunt all over the city and gorged on the food at the Bocuse brasseries, I instantly fell in love with the festival atmosphere, the beautiful venues, the authors and the bookshops. That first year I was quite restrained in my purchases and spoke mainly to French authors – and to the lovely chronicler of Greek society Petros Markaris. This was also the year that I got to see the wonderful late P.D. James, who was presented with the Medal of Honour of the City of Lyon, I got to interview David Khara and Sylvie Granotier, and I reported on the whole event for Crime Fiction Lover.

In 2014 I was much bolder about chatting to authors such as George Pelecanos and Lauren Beukes, heard Anne Landois talk about Engrenages and met fellow bloggers, and got to know many new to me authors. Incidentally, I found most authors very sweet and friendly, even when they are severely beset by fans. The only one who disappointed me in real life was Jo Nesbo.

2015 was a fantastic year – I met Emma for the first time at Quais du Polar (we then attended it together twice more) and I had my portrait drawn by Max Cabanes.  The panels (and perhaps I myself) got more political and my niece, who was studying in Annecy at the time, joined me for the festival, we stayed at a superb little boutique hotel on the Quais, ate at all the boucherons we could find and went to a crime festival ball.

2016 was tinged with sadness, for I knew that I would be leaving France soon and that it might be my last Quais du Polar, so I bought a LOT of books, my biggest haul ever. I got to meet some strong, bubbly, fun-loving women writers that year (and one whose book I did not like – and who seemed to live up to the expectations I had of her after reading her book).

Luckily, although I had returned to the UK by the time Quais du Polar 2017 rolled along, I found that it was still cheaper flying there and staying at a hotel than going to Harrogate. I got to meet Romanian author and publisher Bogdan Hrib there (who has now become my business partner) and heard Bogdan Teodorescu talk about his novel Sword (Spada), which had just been translated into French. I got to watch the first episode of Spiral (Engrenages) Series 6 before its release and see the actors in the flesh (they look much more glamorous in real life). Plus I attended panels on German crime fiction and got to meet and hear Ron Rash (whose novel Serena I will be reading and reviewing shortly).

After five years of faithful attendance, I had to stop going there for financial and other reasons. But I make the firm promise right here and now: next year, by hook or by crook, I’ll be there!

 

Quais du Polar 1 #QDP2020: Deon Meyer’s Cobra, transl. K. L. Seegers

I’ve seen Deon Meyer at Quais du Polar a couple of times and he is a larger than life teddy bear of a man, so it’s quite surprising to see how hard-hitting and suspenseful his thrillers are. He once said that he regretted making his detective Benny Griessel an alcoholic loner, as he sometimes felt trapped by this portrayal. However, in this book, first published in English in 2014, Benny works very closely with his whole team, ‘a splendid representation of the Rainbow Nation’, as one of the characters remarks at one point. And he is almost completely happy with the new love of his life, singer/songwriter Alexa. That’s probably as good as it gets.

But not for long. Benny and his team soon get into hot water and have to use subterfuge to conduct their investigations. A British citizen goes missing from a top secret, luxury guesthouse on a wine farm not far from Cape Town. His bodyguards are shot dead. But was Paul Morris an innocent victim: his passport is brand new, as are his suitcase and clothes. The shell casings at the murder scene have a spitting cobra engraved on them – could that be the sign of an elite international assassin? And why are so many foreign intelligence agencies interested in this possible kidnapping?

At the lower end of the crime spectrum, Tyrone is a young pickpocket who is trying to fund his younger sister’s medical studies. It’s a typical case of the wrong place (or picking the wrong pocket) at the wrong time and soon Tyrone finds himself on the run, fearing for his sister’s life. The story culminates in a nerve-wracking chase on the metrorail between Cape Town and Bellville.

What I really like about Deon Meyer’s books is that they are always exciting, not at all preachy, but all the while providing an ample picture of life in post-apartheid South Africa, warts and all. Among all the breathless action, Benny is given to meditating about the place of law and order in society, and his own career in the police force during a time of tumultuous changes

…when you worked at Murder & Robbery, your role was spelled with a capital letter. What you did mattered. Part of his smugness was because he had started to run with the big dogs then. The living legends, the guys whose investigations, breakthroughs, interrogation techniques, and witticisms were passed on in seminars, tearooms and bars, with an awed shake of the head… But the longer he worked with them… the more he realised they had feet of clay.

It was a depressing process. He had tried to fight against it, rationalise it and suppress it. Later he realised that it was partly out of fear of the greater, inevitable disillusionment: if they were fallible, so was he. And so was the system.

Deon Meyer writes in Afrikaans (although he speaks English fluently) and the translation has a lot of Afrikaans expressions, including Cape Flats vernacular. So much so that there is a glossary at the back. (Fortunately, if you speak English and German – or Dutch, many of the expressions will sound familiar and you can deduce them from the context)

March 2020 Summary

Miserable. That’s it. The one word summary.

In fact, I should be grateful, because for me it hasn’t been too bad. I am not one of the brave and dedicated frontline key workers that I so much admire and whom we all depend on for what semblance of a normal life we still have: medical staff, pharmacists, supermarket workers, delivery drivers, public transport, utilities providers and of course teachers.

All I had to worry about, for the three weeks until the actual lockdown was my children still going to school (one of them on the train), and me bringing the disease back into the house, with my commute to London and having my office in a very public building which only closed down on the 20th of March. Of course, I also worry about my parents right at the other end of Europe, stuck in the capital city rather than in their house in the countryside (on the other hand, the hospitals are closer and better equipped in Bucharest), both with underlying health conditions and both approaching 80 very soon. Like any recently divorced parent with a very acrimonious financial settlement that is still hugely resented by the ex, I do worry about the possible practical consequences of me falling seriously ill. I may need to get in touch with a solicitor friend of mine and make a will.

Other than that: I’m used to food shortages, to curtailment of liberties, to being essentially under house arrest… it brings back memories of my childhood. Not fond ones, no: I have no ‘stiff upper lip and carry on’ nostalgia. But I know that we survived those times (some less gloriously than others), so I’m hopeful we can survive this. My boys are fortunately old enough to keep themselves occupied whether the school assigns a lot of work or not. We have adopted a new feline member of the family, sweet, elderly Barney, and we are busy trying to get our ‘only child’ Zoe to accept him.

However, my reading and writing have both dwindled considerably. Not only because I am extremely busy with work during the week and feel exhausted all the time. Not only because of the bouts of insomnia which continue to plague me (and probably everybody else at the moment). Almost certainly because I am scrolling helplessly and fruitlessly on my phone for far too long, but also because I find it difficult to concentrate on anything for longer than half an hour. Add to that the fact that WordPress has decided now is the right time to make changes to their writing and formatting of blog posts and a general sense of feeling ‘what’s the point’, and you can understand why I’ve not even updated my blog regularly.

If I look back at March, however, there have been some lovely moments which seem to be as far away now as if we were seeing them through the wrong end of a telescope. On the 1st of March, I was fortunate enough to see the kimono exhibition at the V&A and on the 11th of March the exhibition on the portrayal of pregnancy in art at the Foundling Museum. I also attended an immersive adaptation of The Time Machine on the beautiful premises of the London Library and reviewed the show just a week or so before it shut down. I’d probably have delayed going to see all of these if I hadn’t been jolted by others. Moral of the story: never put off things you enjoy doing because you ‘don’t have time right now’.

The London Book Fair was cancelled, but I had a meeting on the 11th with my fellow Corylus Books founders and we discussed plans for publishing and promoting books this year and the next. It is possibly the worst time to launch a new publishing house and bring out books in translation by authors that nobody has heard of (yet). We also have problems with the actual printing and distribution of physical copies. So, much as I hate having to link to Amazon, this is the only way to find the two books we already have out now. Perhaps later in the year we will be able to attend all those crime festivals and organise all those book launches that we had planned.

Zodiac by Anamaria Ionescu
Living Candles by Teodora Matei

 

Last but not least, I did read eleven books, and most of them have been of the lighter, more escapist variety, with quite a bit of armchair travelling.

Crime fiction:

Will Dean: Black River Tuva Moodyson is back in forlorn Gavrik in the north of Sweden at the height of Midsommar madness to try and find her missing friend. With a full cast of dodgy characters, including snakes, the author proves that the Swedish forests can be creepy regardless of the season.

Graeme Macrae Burnet: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau Set in a sleepy provincial town on the Franco-Swiss border, not far from Strasbourg, this too is a creepy tale of loners, outsiders and personal obsessions.

David Young: Stasi 77 A series that I’ve really enjoyed, but somehow missed reading this particular book. The links to the end of the Second World War and hidden Nazis operating within the East German state were particularly harrowing (and historically accurate, although I wasn’t previously aware of it). Perhaps my favourite of the series thus far.

Murder in Midsummer  A collection of stories set in holiday locations (not always in summer, despite the title). Mostly famous authors, with lesser known stories. As always with such a collection, some of the stories are better than others, but overall a fun book to dip into.

Rebecca Bradley: A Deeper Song  DI Hannah Roberts is back with a bang and a sharp squeal of the brakes. Preoccupied by family problems, she nearly runs over a young man who darts out in front of her car. He is covered in someone else’s blood but cannot tell them anything, as the accident has provoked a temporary (?) amnesia. Soon Hannah herself is in danger and her team need to gather all of their wits and collaborative skills to find her.

Margot Kinberg: A Matter of Motive  A start of a new series by American author Margot Kinberg, featuring rookie murder investigator Patricia Stanley. A man is slumped over the steering wheel of his car, apparently the victim of a heart attack. Or was it? Both family and co-workers seem to have plenty of things to hide, although they keep emphasising what a nice guy Ron Clemons was.

Other:

Debbie Harry: Face It  She does not mince her words, does she? The beautiful, rebellious, cool as anything singer reveals as much as she damn well pleases in this memoir, including her vulnerabilities. Still an icon.

Malorie Blackman: Knife Edge  Second book in the Noughts and Crosses series, which I read to coincide with the TV adaptation. Such an interesting concept, although I did find the writing aimed at a younger audience than me.

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust  I was smitten with the original trilogy but only got a chance to read this prequel now. An exciting story, even if we know the final outcome (that baby Lyra did end up safely at Jordan College). Above all, I like the rich descriptive, yet never dull style, which offers something for both adults and younger readers.

Tiffany Tsao: The Majesties  The story of a rich Indonesian family of Chinese descent, with a mass murder from the outset and a smidgen of science-fiction added into the mix. A wonderful book – about families, the lies we tell each other and tell ourselves, the differences between perceptions of the Chinese in the east and in the west… and about insects.

David Foenkinos: The Mystery of Henri Pick  An unexpectedly light and humorous offering by Foenkinos, satirizing the pretentiousness of the Parisian literary society. Could a pizza maker who never was seen reading a book truly have written an almost perfect novel? Erudite, charming, delightful.

Meanwhile, if you find my reading concentration anywhere, do let me know, won’t you? As you can see, I have a whole pile of books planned for April!