New TBR Reading Challenge – and Rereading

I’ve been following Jacqui’s recent deep-digging into her TBR pile with interest. Her latest blog post, reflecting on the experience of her #TBR20 challenge, was particularly enticing. Writer Eva Stalker launched the idea, and some of my blogging friends, such as Emma and Max, have also been persuaded to join in. So I plan to follow suit, while allowing some wriggle room for those inevitable review copies.

The principle is very simple. With so many books double and triple stacked on my shelves (not to mention stashed away on my e-reader), I really need to stop collecting and start reading some of them. So I plan to reduce the pile by at least 20, for however long it takes, and during this period I will refrain from buying any new books (other than those I am sent for urgent reviewing purposes). You are probably laughing, remembering how disastrous my TBR Double Dare challenge ended up… But this feels more manageable – or perhaps it’s just the right time of year to be doing it.

I do have an initial list of 20 in mind, but will allow myself to be open to the fickleness of moods and interests. I also want to incorporate a good selection of ebooks and real books, French and German books, poetry and non-fiction, crime and translated fiction etc. My Global Reading Challenge seems to be suffering a little here, so I may have to make some changes. I will probably need to do a serious cull of my ebooks at some point in addition to this.

So here are my first thoughts on the topic (the ones marked with C denote crime fiction titles, W is for woman writer)

1) Books in French:

P1030248All about the challenges and disappointments of everyday life in modern France – quite a contrast to the more luscious depiction of France in fiction written by foreigners.

Marcus Malte: Cannisses – small-town residential area C

Jérémie Guez: Paris la nuit Рthe alienated youngsters of the Parisian balieues  C

Emmanuel Grand: Terminus Belz РUkrainian refugee in Breton village, aiming to cross over to Britain  C

Fouad Laroui: L’etrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine – Morocco meets France in this collection of bittersweet and often very funny short stories

Dominique Sylvain: Ombres et soleil Рfinally, a woman writer too! The world of international corporations, dirty money and arms trade Рplus the charming humour of the detecting duo Lola and Ingrid.   C W

2) Books in German: 

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Jakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord  Рthird case for Kayankaya, the Turkish-born detective with a very Frankfurt attitude   C

Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs – stories from small-town Switzerland

Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe Рthe dying of the light in East Germany, a biology teacher who proves to be the last of her species  W

Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch – this wasn’t much liked by the IFFP shadow jury, but I was attracted by its Berlin setting and thought it could be the Christiane F. for the new generation ¬†W

Friederike Schm√∂e: Fliehganzleis – 2nd case for ghostwriter Kea Laverde: I’ve read others in the series and this one is again about East vs. West Germany and some traumatic historical events ¬† C ¬†W

3) Books on ereader

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Ever Yours – The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – one of my favourite painters, need I say more?

Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – an allegorical tale

John Enright: Blood Jungle Ballet Рthe return of detective Apelu Soifa and his fight against crime on Samoa  C

Sara Novic: Girl at War Рchild survivor of Yugoslav war returns to Zagreb ten years later  W

Ansel Elkins: Blue Yodel Рdebut collection of poetry, winner of the 2014 Yale Series of the Younger Poets prize  W

4) Other:

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Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts – Romanian writer who died of tuberculosis of the spine at the age of 29 in 1938 (perhaps fortunately so, since he was Jewish)

Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills – shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award this year, but written back in 1983, it’s all about Mother Russia, the artist’s life and living under censorship

Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night Рthe first in the Simran Singh series and always very topical about controversial subjects in India C W

Ariel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart – a younger person’s version of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ (which I didn’t like much), a teenager’s journey of self-discovery and running away from America ¬†W

Wendy Cope: The Funny Side Р101 Humorous Poems (selected and introduced by Cope)  W

Have you read any of these? Are there any you would particularly recommend starting with, or should I swap some over for something else? (They do strike me, on the whole, as a rather sombre pile of books).

The other idea that Jacqui planted into my head was to have a bit of a rereading challenge. I carry my favourite books with me in every place I’ve ever lived in and I look up certain pages, but I never get a chance anymore to reread them properly. (Where, oh where are the days when I used to reread all of the novels of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen every year or two?) So who would like to join me and Jacqui on a #reread challenge? Perhaps of 6 books in a year, roughly one every 2 months? Would that be feasible?

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Here are some instant favourites that spring to mind: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender Is the Night’; Virginia Woolf’s ‘Between the Acts’ (her last novel); Jean Rhys’ ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’; Muriel Spark’s ‘Loitering with Intent’ and Tillie Olsen’s brilliant collection of essays about life getting in the way of creating ‘Silences’. What would you reread, if you could and would?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rich Conversations in Lyon – Quais du Polar Part 3

In this, my final (and longest) instalment in Lyon Quais du Polar series of posts, I will finally share with you some of the witty or memorable conversations I heard during the panel debates (and while waiting in the queues).

Q15Panel 1: Freedom of movement, integration and new borders in crime fiction: Liad Shoham, Emmanuel Grand, Stuart Neville and Lauren Beukes

For all of these readers, the theme of frontiers/borders was not just random or a secondary consideration, but a deliberate choice. Whether we are talking the permeable borders within Europe and how that gives free rein to criminal gangs to ply their trade (Neville and Grand), the paradox of a country like Israel, built by immigrants, trying to deal with the new exodus from Eritrea (Shoham) or the blurring of divisions between the real world and social media (in Lauren Beukes’ dystopian novels set in the near-future), it seems that writers feel the urge to write about things that make them angry. The curtailing of liberties thanks to myths that our governments tell us (like the war on terror), the over-simplification of social problems (immigrants are the ones to blame) and creation of a new kind of slavery are all controversial themes which these authors felt compelled to present through personal stories. A novel cannot offer solutions to these issues, but it can highlight them through memorable characters and their realities.

P1020221Session 2: Recording for radio/ Interview with George Pelecanos

Talking about his latest creation, part-time investigator and Iraqui war veteran Spero Lucas: ‘I’ve gone on record as saying that the Iraqi war was not just and not necessary, but I wanted to let my characters speak for themselves. Spero is much ambiguous, reflecting what I heard from many vets: we were there to kill enemies and protect our brother and sister soldiers, not to liberate the Iraqi people or spread democracy. All that veterans want after the war is to return to normalcy, to the life they had before, rather than applause, medals and gratitude of the people.’

About Washington DC: ‘I never wanted to write about the government or federal city, I always wanted to talk about the real Washingtonians who have been there for generations. The city has changed so ¬†much in the last ten years: the black Southern city has been lost, and the whole of it will turn into Georgetown soon. I try not to be nostalgic. There’s nothing worse than middle-aged white nostalgia, and it is true that crime rates have gone down and there are more jobs than before. But the spirit of the place has changed, it’s become sanitised.’

About writing: ‘People tell you life is short, but it’s not. It’s long. When I was Spero Lucas’ age (29-30), I was working in restaurant kitchens. I just wanted to write a book to prove I could do it. But make no mistake: writing is a job, writers need to work all the time. It’s not something you do cos you’re lazy. If you’re lazy, you won’t make it as a writer. What does the future hold for me? Still ten years or so of script-writing, I hope, and then more books till I die. There’s only one thing that scares me more than death, and that’s retirement.’

Anne Landois
Anne Landois

Panel 3: Are scriptwriters the new novelists? (George Pelecanos – The Wire, Treme; Anne Landois – Engrenages or Spiral)

Both scriptwriters agreed that the new passion for quality TV series has put the writer back at the centre of things, even though the writing is much more collaborative. Fascinating contrasts emerged between French and American styles¬†of approaching TV series, despite the fact that Anne admitted she was hugely indebted to The Wire for her approach to Spiral. ‘Time is money’ in the US means that there is not much time for writing up-front, and a lot of changes are made on the go. There is no time to be strategic and there was no awareness that they were writing a series which would get so much acclaim. There was no big picture, they were just working inch by inch, and if they were told to write another ‘Wire’ now, it wouldn’t be possible. French TV traditionally goes for longer 90 minute episodes, so Spiral was breaking new ground with shorter episode format, but they show two episodes at once per week, so that requires much more advance writing. Writers typically spend about 2 years planning the scripts before the director comes in (which is a huge innovation in itself, as most French cinema and TV is still very much director-led). Also, Spiral was commissioned by a private channel Canal +: since viewers are paying for it, they also have high expectations for quality of its programming.

Paul Colize & Marcus Malte
Paul Colize & Marcus Malte

Panel 4: Dancing Machine: Music and Crime Fiction

What music do they listen to when writing? Cathi Unsworth – Barry Adamson¬†, Ace Atkins – blues, country and jazz, George Pelecanos – film soundtracks (instrumental, so words don’t clash with his own), Marcus Malte – traditional jazz, Paul Colize – huge rock fan but needs silence to create. However, they all agreed that music is important not just because they mention it frequently in their books, but in the way they use rhythms and sounds, even in the structure of the books themselves. Each novel has a specific tone, a certain aesthetic which fits well with a certain type of music, but we respond to music instinctively, even without understanding the meaning. How can we convey that emotion with words in novels?

Session 5: James Ellroy (with his French editor and translator)

Ellroy is a showman and he did not disappoint, with his tongue-in-cheek style and provocative statements. Yet he knows how to be a charmer: he said he was very grateful to the French people for raising him to icon status. Although he is a bestseller in many countries, his book sales are highest in France, perhaps because the French invented the term ‘noir’. Yet he is still obsessed with the crazy conjunction of men and women in LA and in the US, he is still full of respect andlove for the American idiom, he loves listening to the crazy shit of his fellow countrymen/women. He cannot write about anywhere else. He is currently working on his second tetralogy set in LA (to complement the LA Quartet and Underworld USA trilogy), using many of the same characters, but set earlier, during the attack on Pearl Harbour and the Second World War. How does he explain his productivity? Go to bed early, wake up early, lots of coffee, two bouts of work and two of sleeping per day, but also his Calvinistic work ethic. Oh, and ‘my mother always said I was born for the pulpit – and my pulpit is writing.’

By the Water-Cooler

Despite my mobile-phone-less state in Lyon, I was miraculously and luckily found by my friend Catherine from Le Blog du Polar du Velda. One of the most informed and widely read crime fiction bloggers in France, she has interviewed Ian Rankin, PD James, Denise Mina, William Ryan, as well as the best up-and-coming French authors.

The Four Musketeers of Crime Reading
The Four Musketeers of Crime Reading

Through her, I had the pleasure of meeting Mireille from Polardeuse¬†, who is equally fluent in English and can broaden your knowledge of French crime fiction. When I asked them about the ‘next big thing’, a secret recommendation that they might have, they both suggested¬†Petite Louve by Marie Van Moere – a debut novel about rape, violence and vengeance in Corsica.

Last but not least, the two ladies above also introduced me to Anne, who had come all the way from the UK to attend the festival. In some ways, she is the most admirable of all of us, for she doesn’t blog or write fiction herself. She has no ‘professional’ interest in crime fiction, but attends purely out of love for books and the craft of writing, or, as Virginia Woolf would put it, she is ‘The Common Reader’ (which is not that common at all…).

One final impression: Although I have heard some literary agents and publishers talk with some disdain about ‘uninformed and unprofessional’ reviews by book bloggers, all the authors I met were unfailingly polite and friendly with us. I think they are already a step ahead in their awareness of the buzz that can be generated via word of mouth and social media. And that perhaps people who are not part of the system can be more honest in their opinions, and are therefore sometimes more trusted by other readers.

 

 

 

Writers I’ve Discovered – Quais du Polar Part 2

One of the best aspects of literary festivals is that you get the chance to see and hear new authors you might otherwise never have discovered. Their personality (and in some cases, let’s admit it, their looks, yes, I’m thinking of Camilla L√§ckberg or Jo¬†Nesb√ł) wins you over and entices you to try out their books. Combine it with the opportunity to buy their books on the spot in paperback (rather than the expensive hardback you often get at British literary festivals) and spend quite a bit of time chatting with them at the signing (and having your picture taken)… you have the recipe for a perfect day. Here are some of the new (to me) authors I have encountered this year.

A delightful Liad Shoham poses.
A delightful Liad Shoham poses.

For a long time we were told that crime fiction is not a viable genre in Israel: there are too many current tensions and conflicts in that area for people to want to read about them in their fiction as well. Initially, the only way to publish crime fiction was under an ‘American-sounding’ name, featuring cops and robbers very far removed from the readers’ own reality. In the last two decades, however, it has gone mainstream in Israeli culture and has given a voice to subgroups that often go unheard. That is just what Liad¬†Shoham, a hugely popular crime writer and self-confessed legal geek, has set out to do: in his latest novel he discusses African immigrants from Eritrea and Northern Sudan, a hidden side of Tel Aviv that most of its inhabitants are completely unaware of. ¬†He¬†¬†is beginning to be¬†translated into English. For a funny anecdote about the inspiration behind one of his recent novels, see this personal essay here.

Emmanuel Grand’s debut novel is about Ukrainian and Romanian immigrant communities in France: a life on the edge, people smuggling and other nefarious practices. Can this be handled sensitively, without descending into clich√©s and sensationalism? A topic I am particularly sensitive to, having suffered prejudice about my origins virtually all my life. We’ll have to wait and see.

Jeremie Guez, on his 4th novel at just 26.
Jeremie Guez, on his 4th novel at just 26.

J√©r√©mie Guez is another author who deserves to be translated into English. The dark portrayal of the desperate youths of the Parisian banlieue in his first three novels have now given way to the post-war history of Indochina in his latest novel ‘Le dernier tigre rouge’. For a French review of this latest novel, see here.

Ace Atkins may be a bestselling author in his native United States, but I’ll be honest: I’d never heard of him before seeing him on the music panel. Living as he does in the Southern United States (Mississippi), professing a love for blues, jazz and gospel (the perfect backdrop for crime fiction and noir) and talking so wisely about the rhythm and music of language in a novel, I just have to find out more about him and read his work. He also talked about how listening to classical jazz for the Boston PI series he is writing for the Robert B. Parker estate helps him to access a different part of his brain and has led to a very different writing style.

Ace Atkins (centre) and Paul Colize (right) prepare to be interviewed by Vincent Raymond.
Ace Atkins (centre) and Paul Colize (right) prepare to be interviewed by Vincent Raymond.

Paul Colize is a prize-winning Belgian crime fiction writer, part of a new Belgian wave which is conquering the French-speaking world at least (together with Barbara Abel and Nadine Monfils). I’ve long thought that some of the best so-called French things come out of Belgium (Tintin, Spirou, Goscinny of Asterix fame, Jacques Brel and Stromae, for example), and when I heard Colize was also a pianist and that he wanted to be a Beatle at the age of 9, I just had to find out more. His novel Back Up is a romp through the musical world of the 1960s as well as a thrilling crime story. For an interview (in French) about his latest novel ‘Un long moment de silence’, see here.