Five Books, Five Decades (1970-2010)

I blatantly stole this idea from book blogger Gordon at Grab This Book, who invites crime authors every week to share five books, one from each of the last five decades, which they think should really be in everyone’s library. I thought that no one will invite me to do such a thing (at least not for the foreseeable future), so I might as well create my own post. Besides, it fits in rather nicely with my own five decades of life. I won’t stick to crime fiction, but will try to limit to books that I have on my shelves.


This is a toss-up between two books which actually have a lot in common: Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva (1972) and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (1979). Both are very short, both are a sort of stream of consciousness or philosophising about the minutiae of everyday life and the artist, especially the woman artist, and the sacrifices she still had to make to be able to create freely (and possibly still has, even now, fifty years later). Lispector’s novel was translated by Stefan Tobler in 2012.


I haven’t dared to reread this book, but back then it really changed my world; it was a sort of sexual awakening for me, all the more so because it weaved politics into love, and was forbidden in Romania for most of that decade. Which always makes a book irresistible: Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). Translation: Michael Henry Heim.


Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy was all published during the 1990s, with my favourite, the middle volume Chourmo appearing in 1996. This is the dirty, smelly, criminal Marseille before its facelift (and City of Culture status) – yet full of colour, rhythms, diverse cultures, fully alive. Howard Curtis translated this work for Europa Editions, reissued a couple of years ago.


Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel (2002) is one of those romantic novels which I supposedly don’t enjoy. I loved this very loose adaptation of Wuthering Heights set in Japan, which skilfully blends a social fresco of post-war Japan with a timeless love story. I most certainly want to reread it. Translation: Juliet Winters Carpenter.


This is the decade that I started blogging and reviewing for other sites, so I discovered a lot of new authors and read more new releases than ever before. One author who really bowled me over when I first read her, even before she won the Nobel Prize, was Olga Tokarczuk, but the two books that have been published in English translation were both published in the original in the previous decade, so I cannot use that. I will therefore alight upon Jenny Erpenbeck’s Gehen, Ging, Gegangen (2015), which describes so well the fear of refugees flooding one’s country and the consequences of that, which have pretty much marked (and scarred) this past decade. You can find it translated as Go Went Gone by Susan Bernofsky for Granta.

As I prepared this post, I realised two things:

A. I cannot resist cheating, so I snuck in six books rather than five (or even more, if you count the trilogy as three separate books).

B. A lot of my favourites are older than the 1970s, so I will probably create another one for the 1920-1960 period.

Reading Questions – from Twitter to Blog

I saw this fun Reading 20 Questions on Twitter. I doubt that 20 people would like it but I really want to do it, so I’m answering it for myself here on my blog. So there!


1. Everyone knows that I LOVE reading crime fiction best of all. I discovered it in my early 20s, when my brain was frazzled from doing 5 jobs at once, but I got to think of it as much more than a mere distraction. It is the most accommodating of genres – some of the greatest works of literature are crime novels (Crime and Punishment, Rebecca, The Great Gatsby).

2. Elmet by Fiona Mozeley and it is every bit as wonderful as people said. I would die to be able to write such beautiful sentences and be so observant of nature!

3. Probably the collection of Romanian fairy tales by Petre Ispirescu – Basme. My parents read them to me as a child. My poor father was exhausted and try to skip some pages, but I was wide-awake, knew them by heart and was very keen to correct him.

4. I wish they would hurry up and adapt all of the Narnia series (although I am not 100% happy with what they have done so far), since The Silver Chair and The Horse and His Boy are my favourites.

5. So many! But old loves are the best loves, aren’t they? I will stick to my beloved Pippi Longstocking, who refused to conform to gender or bourgeois expectations.

6. Count Fosco in The Woman in White¬†is rather wonderfully menacing – and deliberately presented as an anti-villain (corpulent yet light-footed, jolly-looking yet sinister). Although perhaps Wilkie Collins is a little too fond of underlining his Italian ways…

7. I write mainly poetry and crime novels. But I have written a small number of stories. You can read the first story I ever wrote here. (with the usual apologies and disclaimers)

8.¬†One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest¬†by Milos Forman captures all the craziness and menace of the original book by Ken Kesey and then some!

9. I’ve read 50 books so far in 2018 and at least 10 of those have been outstanding. One that really haunted me was Love by¬†Hanne √ėrstavik, translated by Martin Aitken, which I received as part of the Asymptote Book Club subscription.

10. I will read anything by Tove Jansson and Shirley Jackson. There you go, you get two for the price of one!

11. I used to think that fantasy or YA were my least favourite genres – and they are certainly not my go-to genres of choice. But the ones that I never pick up nowadays are romance novels. Although I did go through a period of adoring Georgette Heyer and Victoria Holt, if they count as romance.

12. Other than my favourite authors, you mean? My real-life friends seldom take my advice, but one author who has never disappointed when they did take it was Dorothy Parker (her short stories).

13. More film adaptations? OK, perhaps The English Patient. I read the book after sobbing my way through the film though. Besides, I was in love with Ralph Fiennes.

14. I used to read all of Jane Austen’s novels every year for about 10-12 years, and I still reread my favourite occasionally:¬†Persuasion. But, much more frequently than that, with my children,¬†The Gruffalo¬†and¬†Where the Wild Things Are. Every night for months, times two. I make that at least 180 times each.

15. Javier Marias:¬†A Heart So White,¬†simply because I’d heard that he was a long-winded writer who seems to change course in the middle of a sentence – an infuriating style. Instead, it really resonated with me.

16. Bulgakov’s¬†The Master and Margarita.¬†Completely insane, funny, sharply satirical and delectable.

17. Probably the Diaries of Virginia Woolf and the Letters Home of Sylvia Plath. They both showed me that you can be both a woman and a writer, suffer from depression and yet still be incredibly creative.

18. Hmm, I have the feeling it’s best not to meet your favourite writers, for fear of being disappointed. I think I might be somewhat tongue-tied but glowing in the presence of Simone de Beauvoir. Alternatively, I might be tempted to fatten up Franz Kafka and earn his disapproval forever.

19. Japanese writer Dazai Osamu – although be warned, he is not for the faint-hearted. He was drunk, depressive, treated women appallingly and tried to commit suicide several times (he succeeded at last, in a double love suicide in 1948). And yet nobody surpasses him in the description of the end of an era in Japan in his short stories and few novels such as No Longer Human and Setting Sun.

20. I return to crime with my favourite series of all time being Maj Sj√∂wall and Per Wahl√∂√∂’s Martin Beck series. Well thought out from the beginning – 10 years, 10 books, a critique of society and a method of policing that is much more about painstaking work than fast-paced chasing or technological wizardry. It changed the art of crime writing forever.


The Bookish Time Travel Tag: Lazy Sunday Reading

Sandra from the lovely blog A Corner of Cornwall tagged me for this at a time when I was extremely busy and technology-less, but it’s an intriguing idea. Like Sandra, I initially thought I didn’t read much historical fiction, so it wouldn’t apply to me, but the more you think about it… The original idea, by the way, comes from The Library Lizard, and you can answer as many or as few of the questions as you like, which makes it sound easy enough, right?


Medieval European courts – the Borgias, the Knights Templar, monks misbehaving in monasteries – you get the gist. As a child, I just couldn’t get enough of Jean Plaidy’s historical novels, or The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. I suppose the latter two were the Dan Brown of their day, only much better written.


So many. I think Christopher Marlowe would have been quite fun (with or without Shakespeare in tow) and Chaucer sounds like the kind of guy you would love to go to the pub with, who could tell you plenty of gossipy stories.

I would also love to meet some of my great literary heroines, like Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, but I would probably be completely tongue-tied and fangirling like mad. (And I dread to think what their sharp observational skills and merciless tongues would make of their encounter with me.)


I used to read a lot more widely when I was younger, and books which were by no means appropriate for my age,¬†so I’m tempted to say not much.¬† But there are some wonderful children’s books which were published after¬†the end of my¬†childhood, which I think I would have enjoyed more back then: most of Diana Wynn Jones, Cornelia Funke, Eva Ibbotson, Neil Gaiman.


ephronWell, I certainly have plenty on my TBR pile to keep me going until I am 120 at the very least, so it would have to be one of those!

At the same time, I can see myself reverting back to the classics and rereading old favourites when I grow old. I will also find comfort no doubt in the essays on ageing, loss, finding some kind of contentment and surviving of more or less feminist writers such as Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron. And of course, lots of poetry.


I’ve never been very good at selecting just one or two books when it comes to such questions. Besides, I always think of at least half a dozen even better choices after I’ve given my final answers. So here is a small sample:

Orwell’s 1984 seems futuristic, and probably was at the time it was published, but I’ve lived through a period and in a country which was very, very similar to it, so it is simultaneously historical to me.

And of course it has nothing whatsoever to do with the recent adaptation starring Jim Caviezel...
And of course it has nothing whatsoever to do with the recent adaptation starring Jim Caviezel…

I also loved all of the Alexandre Dumas books when I was a child and played at being the Three/Four Musketeers with my cousins during our endless summer holidays (I was always a fan of Aramis, by the way, and am pleased to see that the recent TV adaptation has him every bit as seductive as I imagined him/myself to be at the time). Nowadays, however, I probably prefer The Count of Monte Cristo.

There are also a small number of books about war which really marked me: Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Liviu Rebreanu’s Forest of the Hanged, for non-English perspectives on the First World War; Michio Takeyama’s Harp of Burma and Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain for the humble ordinary Japanese person’s perspective on World War Two.

Bucharest, Palace Square, from the 1940s. From
Bucharest, Palace Square, from the 1940s. From

Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy is also about WW2, but from the civilian perspective, showing the whole political, diplomatic¬†and social lead-up to the war. Frightening, because it still feels so relevant today.

I can’t say I loved them, it’s more that they shattered me. I think they should be required reading for all those who decide to go to war with such gung-ho spirit (and I simply cannot believe that Donald Trump selected the Remarque book as one of his favourites).


I may have done this on occasion… (mumble, mumble, hangs head in shame). But I am quite scrupulous about only reading the last 2-3 paragraphs, so usually I don’t really understand what is going on.¬†That is why I appreciate books which don’t have a major twist or denouement on the very last page.


chateauvoltaireI may enjoy reading about the cruelty and backstabbing of medieval European courts, but I wouldn’t want to go live there. I think I might have enjoyed working in the¬†laboratory¬†Madame du Chatelet and Voltaire created together at her chateau in Cirey-sur-Blaise, or else join Voltaire a few years later¬†at his chateau in Ferney and be a much more witty and well-read companion in his old age¬†than his rather frivolous niece Mme Denis.


yankeeFor a while I couldn’t think of any, as I’ve avoided books such as The Time Traveller’s Wife (call me prejudiced, but it feels more like Dr Who episode¬†than a novel I could lose myself in). But then I realised that I do have an old favourite: Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is very funny and clever, and also a scathing satire of American and British society and politics of the late 19th century. Another¬†book which¬†remains hugely relevant still today (sadly) and which deserves to be far better known. I can feel an urge to reread it coming on…


Probably most of the crime fiction series I like, since once you’ve read them, you can never ‘unknow’ the perpetrator and the plot twists (although in my pre-reviewing days,¬†I have on occasion borrowed a book from the library and wondered why it seemed vaguely familiar, only to discover right at the end that I had in fact read it before). A moment of silence please for the awe-inspiring Martin Beck series.



Impossible Choices and Alternative Endings

quaispolar16Only a few more days to go before the Quais du Polar (Crime Festival) kicks off in Lyon and I am trying to create an events schedule. Really tough choices, as so many events I’m interested in are taking place at the same time in entirely different locations. So, let me ask you, what would you choose between:

  1. An Hour with Jo Nesbo       vs.     Women in Crime Fiction (with Sara Gran, Jax Miller, Dolores Redondo, LS Hilton, Philippe Jaenada)
  2. Urban Locations in Crime Fiction (with Donato Carrisi, Walter Lucius, Carlos Zanon, Richard Price and Michele Rowe)      vs.    New Wave Brits (JJ Connolly, Jessica Cornwell, SJ Watson, James Oswald, LS Hilton)
  3. An Hour with David Peace     vs.    Crime Fiction from Quebec
  4. An Hour with Arnaldur Indridason        vs.    New World/Old Continents (with Parker Bilal, Colin Niel, Caryl Ferey, Olivier Truc, Nairi Nahapetian)

The other topic which has preoccupied me this Easter weekend was alternative endings to much-loved classics. My younger son had to write a new ending to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which his class are going to be performing next week). He had Puck taking mercy on Titania and being punished for that by Oberon. Then Titania has a sword fight with Oberon and kills him for his cruelty, but the mortals rush away just in time for the Duke’s wedding. So he’s made a tragedy out of a comedy and left Titania to rule single-handedly over the fairy realm. Which shows he’s either a budding feminist or future crime writer, I suppose!

That had me wondering what endings I would like to see in some other favourites. An alternative Great Gatsby ending is too easy: just look at Tender Is the Night for what would have happened if Gatsby had married Daisy…

Most of the time, I have to admit that the writers of great classics did judge the endings perfectly and the books would have lost of some of their power if they had any different resolutions. However, there are a few exceptions (some of which will raise your hackles, no doubt):

  1. Jane Eyre:¬† I’d have run away from Mr. Rochester no matter what. Not realistic, perhaps, in those days.
  2. Rebecca: A civilised separation and a settlement to enable the second Mrs. de Winter to live somewhere quietly in a place of her choosing, with equally beautiful rhododendrons and a view of the sea.
  3. Anna Karenina: I’m not for a minute suggesting a happy ending here, but I do think that poor Anna suffers the punishment for adultery, while the men get off scot-free for the most part. I’d like both her husband and Vronsky to suffer, and for her son to grow up in a more loving environment, perhaps with Kitty and Levin.

The ultimate Anna in my eyes: Tatian Samoilova in the Russian version of the film.
The ultimate Anna in my eyes: Tatiana Samoilova in the 1967 Russian version of the film.


Revisiting Childhood Favourites

Earlier this week I was looking for light and undemanding airplane reading matter. I ¬†can never sleep on long-haul flights, so I need to keep myself occupied without taxing the little grey cells too much. I chose ‘Das fliegende Klassenzimmer’ by Erich K√§stner. It is less well known than his delightful ‘Emil and the Detectives’, and perhaps not quite as exciting (there are no gangsters or chases through city streets, although there are a few fights and and a nearly tragic accident). It is a school story, in essence. However, it has the trademark¬†K√§stner humour and his clear understanding of what it means to be an imaginative child trying to be good, but not always quite succeeding.

I used to love school stories as a child, especially boarding schools. Being an only child, perhaps I craved that constant companionship, the midnight conspiracies, the leisure activities that were just not possible to do with friends during school hours. Mallory Towers, St. Clares and the Chalet School were very real to me, as were the stage schools described in ‘Ballet Shoes’ or the Sadlers Wells ballet series written by Lorna Hill. But I also had the other typical girl’s obsession with horses: Ruby Ferguson’s Jill and her ponies books were my constant companions. Sadly, they seem to be hard to find or out of print nowadays.

One of the pleasures of having children is rediscovering old reading favourites and discussing them with a new generation. Of course, they don’t always have the same reaction¬†— and not just because they are boys and therefore less interested in ballet or pony stories! My kids loved the whole series around ‘Five Children and It’ (especially ‘The Story of the Amulet’), but were left cold by ‘Swallows and Amazons’. ‘Treasure Island’ did not really rock their boat, while ‘The Hobbit’ did. They never really clicked with the Famous Five or Secret Seven, and I am still trying to get them to give Leon Garfield or Joan Aiken a chance.

My most fun rediscoveries, which the boys enjoyed just as much as me, have been: Paddington Bear, the Moomins, Asterix, Tintin and of course the above-mentioned Emil and his adventures in the big, bad city of Berlin.

What books did you love as a child? Have you reread them since and what do you think of them now? And how have your children reacted to your own childhood favourites?

When I Won the Booker Prize

OK, I admit: ever so slightly misleading title, but I couldn’t resist the pun!¬† No, it’s not the Booker Prize I am talking about, but a blogging award that the criminally wonderful Pat Wood kindly bequeathed to me. Please visit Pat’s funny blog – you will find something there to love, of that I’m sure!

So this Booker is for those who refuse to live in the real world. Says it all, really.¬† But alas, these past few months I’ve had to live for far too long in the real world.

The guidelines are simple, if reductionist: I have to pick my five favourite books of all time and then say what I am currently reading.¬† I always struggle with picking ‘favourites’ – it’s like having to say which of my children I love most.¬† But here’s an attempt:

1) The Great Gatsby (and I wax on about it at length here)

2) Jane Austen’s Persuasion – it even managed to convert Savidge Reads

3) Shakespeare: ‘The Tempest’ – does that count?¬† Well, if it doesn’t, I would publish it in a separate volume with ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘Macbeth’, entitling it ‘Must Read Shakespeare’.¬† But ‘The Tempest’ is my favourite.

4) Mishima Yukio: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion – what not to do when beauty and perfection eludes you

5) I.L. Caragiale: Plays and Sketches – virtually unknown outside Romania, he is one of the funniest and freshest voices of the 19th century

What am I reading now?¬† Well, just in case you thought the above choices were a bit too ambitious, you will be relieved to hear that the book I am going to share my bedtime with is… another installment from Lemony Snicket‘s brilliant Series of Unfortunate Events.¬† I first discovered the series a few years ago when I was selecting a present for a young niece.¬† The niece has moved on to other literature since, but I still treat myself to these tongue-in-cheek adventure stories.¬† I am hoping that my children will share my affection for them too (although so far their response to Famous Five and Secret Seven has been somewhat disappointing, to say the least).

But enough nattering!  Who are my nominees for this worthy (and clearly wordy) award?

The all-singing, all-writing wonder Nicky Wells from Romance that Rocks Your World!

Sensitive writer and translator Michelle Bailat Jones

Translator, poet, philosopher of the everyday, the wonderful Quirina at The Mind’s Sky

Natalia Sylvester, for being so sweetly herself !

And, just in case you think I am neglecting men, I also invite Sisyphus47 to join in

The truth is, of course, I am just really nosey, curious to see what they choose as their favourite books!