Once again, I am jumping the gun a little with my September reading summary, as I don’t think I’ll have time to squeeze anything more in that isn’t intended for next month.
My reading got a little aimless and desultory during September, after a few really good months with very high-quality books. I struggled to really immerse myself in these books, which might explain why I’ve judged them more harshly than usual. There were two that really stood out for me, however, and for very different reasons. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Yearwas stark, gripping and revelatory, while Alison Anderson’s The Summer Guestwas wistful, dreamy and transported me to a better time and place.
On paper, I have read ten books, but two of those were very short indeed: a children’s book (Little Old Mrs Pepperpot, which I’m reading for the #1956Club) and a book of cartoons about the challenges of wearing a hijab in a Western country Yes, I’m Hot in This by Huda Fahmy. So, in reality, I have read eight books, of which two in translation. The Englightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar was interesting in its ‘stories within stories’ structure and truly beautifully written in parts, but rather hard reading in terms of subject matter. Also, I’ve never been a huge fan of magical realism, but I can certainly see the point of it to describe – and make bearable – the atrocities perpetuated here. Book burning, rape, torture, death and ghosts everywhere you look.
I was searching for comfort reads this month above all, but in truth found even the tried and tested categories of crime/suspense fiction a bit hard to click with. Stina Jackson’s The Silver Road seemed to howl with dreary loneliness and isolation. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters had far too many pages about that boring English class system to make up for the few genuine moments of ghostly frisson. Even Doug Johnstone, who’s proved a reliable writer for me in the past, did not quite win me over with A Dark Matter – probably because I was expecting it to be black comedy in the style of Antti Tuomainen. While I enjoyed Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land probably far more than Jonathan Coe’s Middle Englandas a depiction of current English society (it was stuffed to the gills with sharp, witty observations of gender relations and family tensions), it did all go unnecessarily bonkers towards the end with the murder mystery part of it.
So that leaves Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession, which so many assured me was the perfect sweet, gentle book for these troubled times. I have to admit I was reading it the weekend Barney died, and it was probably the only book I could possibly have read during that time. It was indeed a placid, even-tempered book with decent characters and touching interactions, people being kind and helpful, or at the very least apologising when they get things wrong. A little too sweet for my taste, perhaps, as I was constantly expecting someone to go amok, commit fraud or murder someone, but I liked its humour and the non-judgemental relationship between the two friends. It almost makes you believe in a nicer world – and don’t we all need a hope like that?
So I apologise for my general grumpiness this month. It’s been a very busy one at work, an emotionally gruelling one, an anxious one with the boys going back to school and no seeming respite from grim news worldwide. Next month, with Penelope Fitzgerald and Romain Gary to steady my ship, I hope to have a more pleasant tale to tell.
From now on, I will ignore both annoying politicians and ex-husbands, and focus only on books. I still have a few books to review, but I’m also starting my annual round-up. Perhaps I’ll even get around to a decade’s round-up.
I’ve found a very clever way around the limitations of the ‘Top Ten Books of the Year’ list. I will compile my choices by categories. In this first instalment, I’m featuring my favourite crime fiction books and the 2019 releases (never mind that these two lists might overlap, I will ignore that).
Second instalment will contain Non-Fiction and Classics, while the final one will be about new discoveries or new books by authors I already admire. And, since I’m an optimist about still finding memorable books in the 20 days still left of 2019, I will leave the last instalment open for late additions and only publish it on the very last day of the year.
Will Carver: Nothing Important Happened Today – if I say social critique and suicide cults, it will sound incredibly depressing, but this is a very unusual and highly readable mystery
Antti Tuomainen: Little Siberia – action-packed noir with a philosophical slant and surreal, even slapstick humour, this is a story about losing your faith and what it might take to regain it
Doug Johnstone: Breakers – heartbreaking, yet avoids sentimentality, this story of brotherly love and deprived childhoods
Helen Fitzgerald: Worst Case Scenario – at once a condemnation of the stretched resources within our probation services, as well as a menopausal woman’s roar of rebellion
G.D. Abson: Motherland – a fresh and timely setting for this first book in a crime series set in Putin’s Russia
Bogdan Teodorescu: Baieti aproape buni – sharp, scathing critique of political corruption and media cover-up
I notice that all of the below are rather dark, although they also ooze humour (maybe that’s just me and my love of black comedy)
Sarah Moss: Ghost Wall – misplaced nostalgia for a more heroic past and a domestic tyrant you will love to hate
Nicola Barker: I Am Sovereign – an ill-fated house viewing, where everyone seems to shed their multiple masks and either reveal or question their identity
Robert Menasse: The Capital – the almost surreal absurdity of a pan-European organisation and the people within it, a satirical yet also compassionate portrait of contemporary Europe and Brussels
No matter how engaged you might be with your current read, when it comes to a complex doorstopper like The Debacle, you need some alternative reads to keep you sane. Happy to report I’ve found, courtesy of Newcastle Noir and CrimeFest, just the remedy with the following crime fiction novels. These may be teeny-mini-reviews, but all the books are worth a look.
The first three (incidentally, all Orenda books – I promise I’m not on commission, though!) were the ones that most tugged at my heartstrings, so I suggest you be in a good place emotionally when you read them. They are not entirely depressing – there is hope and humour in each of them – but they are about as gritty as it is possible to get without turning into a sandpit on an abandoned building site. The remaining four are more conventional police procedurals, although there is nothing bland or boring about any of them.
Will Carver: Good Samaritans
Winner of the Description of the Most Dysfunctional Marriage Award, the sorry tale of insomniac Seth and his bored wife Maeve will stay with you. Fiercely funny as well as unbearably sad to read about their inability to communicate with each other, as well as about all the other lonely people out there and their desperate urge for connection, looking for it in all the wrong places. It will leave you reeling, uncomfortable, and wondering about your own life.
Helen FitzGerald: Worst Case Scenario
Another book with deeper messages rippling out as you read it, leaving indelible marks in your psyche. Beneath the humour and the refreshing ‘don’t-give-a-damn’ rebellion of the disillusioned and menopausal probation officer Mary Shields, there is a lot of social critique and an uncompromising portrayal of life at the margins of society, the kind of things we would rather not know about.
Doug Johnstone: Breakers
And, since we are on the subject of heartbreak, let’s move from the mean streets of Glasgow to one of the most deprived areas of Edinburgh, where 17 year old Tyler is trying to somehow hold together his precarious life and profoundly dysfunctional family. Filled to the gills with brutal scenes and characters that no child should have to deal with, it also has moments of tenderness involving puppies, bedtime stories and home cooking that nevertheless manage to steer clear of clichés and sentimentality.
G.D. Abson: Motherland
If you are equally fascinated and repulsed by Putin’s new (same old) Russia, then this is the book for you. Plenty of local colour and an all too believable backdrop of suspicion, corruption and cover-ups, with an engaging and tough heroine who is just trying to make her way as honestly as possible in a society that seems determined to thwart her at every turn. The start of a series that I will definitely be keeping an eye on.
Mari Hannah: The Scandal
I’ve been a huge Mari Hannah fan from her very first series (and still my favourite), the Kate Daniels one, although she has moved on to two other series since then. As a former probation officer, like Helen FitzGerald, she too injects a voice of authenticity and social concern in her writing, most obvious in this book in her description of the lives of those sleeping rough on the streets of Newcastle.
Mick Herron: London Rules
So many people had been recommending the Slough House series by Mick Herron to me, that I could no longer resist and jumped in at the deep end with one of his most recent. This did mean that perhaps the descriptions of some of the characters and their motivations were opaque to me, but I can see the appeal of this satirical, almost absurdist take on spy thrillers. The clumsy, incompetent and woefully mismatched ‘intelligence’ team led by the undiplomatic and uncharismatic Jackson Lamb (who reminds me slightly of Dalziel) are a joy to behold.
Vaseem Khan: Murder at the Grand Raj Palace
The much longed-for relief in a bunch of rather dark crime novels, this is a charming and quirky story about the rather earnest Inspector Chopra, his sweet-tempered and playful baby elephant, his practical wife Poppy… oh, and a murder at a luxury hotel. The author does a great job of balancing light and dark, without it ever descending into an unbearably cosy and unbelievable situation, and there are references to darker elements of Indian history and society.
Although I’ve written three posts about Bristol’s CrimeFest, I wrote a very long and detailed post about Newcastle Noir long before that, which I generously handed over to a different site. Since they still haven’t put it up yet (and may not do so anymore, since it’s out of date), I’ll put it up now. With apologies to the wonderful organisers and all the great people I met there for the delay. If it makes them feel better, I think I liked Newcastle the town (and the festival) even more than Bristol.
Newcastle Noir 2019
The 2019 event (3-5 May) was the sixth annual event, and this time it was housed in the City Library. While this did mean that the venue got very crowded at times (it remained a fully functional library and community centre and it was a busy Bank Holiday weekend), it also made it very easy for people to pop in for just one panel if they so wished. And why would they not wish to, since they were very reasonably priced (£4 – eat your heart out, Hay Festival!).
The timing of the panels was a huge bonus: they each lasted about 45 minutes, which gave attendees sufficient time to regroup, take a comfort break, get their books signed by the authors and then head back in for the next panel. And, while the event remains small enough to avoid parallel sessions, you didn’t face the pain of having to choose between two equally fascinating panels. There were a couple of fringe events (writing workshops or a guided tour of Newcastle’s fictional crime heritage) which coincided with a few panels, but these provided a change of pace and respite for those overdosing on author talks. A bookshop and a bar on site (as well as the library café) also offered small escape areas for when it all gets a bit too intense. However, if I had one small criticism of the event, it would be that there aren’t enough dedicated places to just sitting, resting or gloating over your newly-purchased books.
There were, however, more opportunities to mingle with the
authors informally in the evening. Or, as is typical in my case, fangirling
over my favourite authors and waylaying them with book signing requests.
Thursday night was a pre-festival Noir at the Bar Open Mic session of readings.
A great opportunity to hear not only from authors who were present at the
festival but also from emerging writers or others (such as Zoe Sharp) who had
to leave early. Friday night we all headed over to the Central Bar in Gateshead
for a cabaret evening. Crime writers proved themselves to possess enviable
talents as singers, songwriter and even stand-up comedians. Last but not least,
a silent disco on Saturday night gave everyone the chance to show their best
(Dad) dance moves or else catch up on the day’s events without having to shout.
But what about the panels themselves?
They were an intriguing combination of themes, yet managed
to avoid that forced feeling or random groupings which are sometimes the bane
of literary festivals.
I really liked the mix of the familiar faces and the fresh,
emerging talent. There were some obvious suspects there, such as showcases with
big hitters such as Yrsa Sigurdardottir, or Gunnar Staalesen and John Harvey,
or the finale with two of the most popular female crime writers working in
England today, Mari Hannah and Elly Griffiths. But there were plenty of chances
to find a new favourite regional author (Femmes Fatales from the NE including
Sheila Quigley, Danielle Ramsay and Eileen Wharton; Northern Noir with Mel
Sherratt, Caroline England and Robert Parker; Tyneside male authors such as
Howard Linskey and Mick Herron; Yorkshire Noir for example Nick Quantrill, June
Taylor and AA Dhand; and Welsh crime fiction with Phil Rowlands, John Nicholl and
GB Williams) or to discover debut authors such as Adam Peacock, Alison Belsham,
GD Abson and Noelle Holten. The international panels gave readers the
opportunity to travel further afield and discover new worlds. Alongside the big
international names, there were also writers from Romania, Australia and New
Zealand who are still relatively unknown (or who, like Helen Fitzgerald, are
not necessarily perceived as Australian), as well as fresh Icelandic writers
who have not yet been translated into English. Let’s not forget panels that are
loosely grouped around a theme but are likely to have a very wide appeal, such
as modern gothic and supernatural writing (SJI Holliday, Anna Mazzola and
William Ryan), LGBTQ authors (Paul Burston, Derek Farrell and Jonina Leosdottir),
historical crime fiction (Lesley Thomson, Oscar de Muriel, Nicola Ford and
Fiona Veitch Simon) or writers who have chosen woods as their settings for
murder (Antti Tuomainen, Matt Wesolowski, Will Dean and MJ Arlidge).
From BalkanNoir to
Bucharest Noir – here come the Romanians!
I was there to support my fellow countryman and women, the Bucharest Noir panel, represented by Anamaria Ionescu, Teodora Matei and their publisher and fellow crime author Bogdan Hrib.
Anamaria Ionescu was introducing her ‘hot off the press’ English translation of Zodiac, part of a trilogy featuring the nearest thing Romania has to James Bond. Sergiu Manta is a trained but reluctant assassin, who has to live apart from his beloved family in order to work for an organisation that is so secretive, it’s not even supposed to exist. The author acknowledged that a real-life person, a biker friend, was the inspiration for the Sergiu Manta character, and that she deliberately made him not quite as feminist as he thinks he is in a still rather traditional macho Romanian society.
Teodora Matei is well-known in her home country for her science fiction and fantasy novels, as well as crime and even (steampunk) romance. Her first novel to be translated into English Living Candles perfectly conveys the less glamorous aspects of urban life in present-day Bucharest. Her husband is NOT the source of inspiration for Toni Iordan, her main detective, although he had high hopes initially that he was. However, Toni does represent Mr. Average in every respect: a little overweight, a little fed up of his wife and kids, a little unfaithful but not quite as much as he dreams of being…
Bogdan Hrib is one of Romania’s most successful contemporary
crime writers (and publishers). He has had several novels translated into
English, although not necessarily in order of appearance. His series featuring
journalist Stelian Munteanu are fast-paced, moving from one European capital to
the next, with complex characters who vacillate between cold-bloodedness and sentimentality.
Quentin Bates, himself a respected crime writer and translator, helped edit the English language translations and moderated the panel in Newcastle. He asked the authors what they consider to be special and different about Romanian noir, and why it deserves to be translated into other languages. The answer showed, I believe, that noir is at the very heart of Romanian literature: ‘We have a different way of thinking and living. It’s hard for people to understand what it takes to move from Communism – actually, that wasn’t Communism, it was pure and simply a dictatorship – to Capitalism. We survived against all odds, we’re survivors and fighter, and sometimes we have to fight against ourselves first and foremost.’ However, there was also agreement that the books that do get translated (or even the books that get talked about in the Romanian press) tend to be literary fiction, often very experimental and impenetrable. There is a bit of snobbery about genre fiction in Romania as everywhere else.
Love and crime are
One of the liveliest panels despite the early morning start on Saturday was the panel What’s Love Got to Do with It? A feast of Orenda authors, moderated by Mamma Orenda herself, Karen Sullivan, talking about dysfunctional relationships and the crimes that people are ready to commit in the name of love. Lilja Sigurdardottir and Steph Broadribb’s kick-ass heroines both engage in dangerous (and sometimes criminal) pursuits to protect their children, so maternal love is strongly represented. In Doug Johnstone’s latest novel Breakers, it’s brotherly love that drives the narrative, although a Romeo and Juliet burgeoning of adolescent feelings gives some hope to the conflicted main protagonist.
Meanwhile, Will Carver’s insomniac Seth is desperate for
love and connection, feeling lonely and trapped in his marriage, so seeks to
talk to random people he selects from the phonebook. As the author says,
boredom should also be on the list of factors that motivate us to commit a
crime – the unbearable dreariness of routines often make us long to do stupid
Doug Johnstone agrees that he likes to focus on those
split-second stupid decisions that people make. Readers can relate to that:
they might think that they would act differently and wisely if they were in the
same position, but when we are under pressure, how many of us wouldn’t make a
Lilja Sigurdardottir admitted that one of the most embarrassing things she had done for love was to stalk her partner when she first met her (in pre-internet days), in order to convince her that they were right for each other. 24 years later, they are still together, so the panel agreed that what we might deduce from that is: ‘stalking works’.
One of the most surprising moments was when the authors talked about their own favourite reading matter, love related or not. Who would have thought that tough thriller writer Steph Broadribb likes to alternate crime with romance and chick lit type fiction? Doug Johnstone admits he is envious of Sara Gran’s writing, while Will Carver considers The Great Gatsby to be one of the most poignant love stories ever told. Lilja appears to be the most romantic (or possibly the most dysfunctional) of them all, citing Wuthering Heights as her favourite, as well as being a regular re-reader of Shakespeare.
Seen one festival,
seen them all?
Literature festivals are a bit like music festivals in the
UK at the moment – there seems to be one (or several) taking place every week
all across the country. Poetry, regional literature, special interest (children
and YA, romance, for aspiring writers etc.), big names and debut authors –
there seems to be something catering for every taste. Quite frankly, I don’t
know how any writing or reading gets done, as we could just spend three quarters
of the year touring from one event to the next.
Crime festivals seem to be particularly popular.
Unsurprising, since crime fiction is consistently one of the most bought and
widely-read genres. However, in this crowded landscape, how can you make your event
stand out? Well, if you are Dr Jacky Collins (aka Dr Noir) and her organising
committee, you pick your lively local town (Newcastle), put together an
eclectic but affordable programme of local, national and international writers,
with some quirky additional events (more about that later). Above all, don’t
forget to create a cosy sense of community around the event, while opening it
up to as wide an audience as possible. Newcastle Noir certainly succeeds in
having its very own distinct, informal feel.
It’s been a long time since I was last able to attend a book launch, but last night I had the pleasure of attending a double book launch organised by Orenda Books: for Doug Johnstone’s Faultlines (sci-fi thriller) and Louise Voss’ The Old You(a thriller where the domestic becomes political). The venue was rather unusual for a literary event: the solicitors’ firm Colyer Bristow, with an art exhibition by recent graduates on the lower ground floor.
What is so amazing about Karen Sullivan, the dynamo behind Orenda, is how she has created a real community around her authors and books. Team Orenda is a reality and is full of enthusiastic, supportive people including authors, production and sales teams, reviewers, bloggers, readers. For example, Thomas Enger, one of Orenda’s authors, came all the way from Norway simply to support his fellow writers. And Karen never forgets anything about anyone’s family, aspirations and interests!
West Camel, editor at Orenda, introduced Doug Johnstone and Louise Voss as ‘seasoned’ authors, but they seemed lively and cheery to us. Both of them have been published elsewhere and remarked what a great experience it was to become part of Team Orenda.
Innocent-looking mother of twins Johana Gustawsson is one of the darkest and goriest minds at work in French or English crime fiction at this moment in time.
Of course, we cannot forget the cupcakes that Orenda has justly become famous for!
Barry Forshaw, expert on noir fiction in all its guises, and blogger Jen Lucas were just two of my online bookish friends whom I always enjoy meeting and chatting to in real life. But there was so much more! I finally got to meet Meggy Roussel, who gave me a quick comparison between internships at French and English independent publishers. I tasted Vicky Goldman’s notoriously addictive toffee vodka. Susi Holliday, Steph Broadribb, Katerina Diamond and Daniel Pembrey all shared some tidbits of what they are currently working on. And I met Roz Morris, author, writing coach, ghost writer and owner of a fabulous hat (who has links with a Zürich writing group that I know via Geneva Writers Group – it’s a small world out there, folks!).