May Reading/ Halfway Through the Year

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

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

3 Non-Fiction:

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

1 Poetry Collection:

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

5 Crime Fiction or Thriller:

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

6 Other Genres:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Strange Narrators, Unusual Minds

This May is my month of eccentric and genre-bending reading. After three mammoth books, I’ve now had the opportunity to read three very unusual ones, in which we are taken into the mind of the narrator so completely, that we are nearly in danger of suffocation. All three books were interesting, although not outstanding, and certainly not the kind I would want to reread.

HarrietKrohnKarin Fossum: The Murder of Harriet Krohn

Karin Fossum and her Inspector Sejer have always been more on the introspective and melancholy side of the Scandinavian crime fiction phenomenon. Her pace is leisurely, she recounts detail after detail, and she always focuses on the psychological drama rather than action scenes. This one is even more extreme than others I’ve read in the series, certainly not your standard crime novel. Sejer barely makes an appearance in the proceedings. It is much more in the vein of ‘Crime and Punishment’, as we see the reasons behind a rather terrible and sad crime, and its consequences on the criminal and his family. Charlo Torp is an average man, flawed, weak, trying to do his best but never quite succeeding. Despite being a loving husband and doting father, he nevertheless gave in to his gambling addiction and now has to resort to a desperate act to pay off his debts and try to regain the affection and respect of his daughter.

Told entirely from Charlo’s point of view, we become privy to all his insecurities, doubts, anxieties, hopes and wishes. We are made to feel sorry for him, but the author never whitewashes his crime, never makes us doubt the criminal justice system. She just shows us that things are never quite black and white, that any one of us can resort to extreme solutions if we are desperate enough.

And who is Harriet Krohn? An inoffensive elderly woman, a victim, a nobody. Fossum is very subtle at showing that victims deserve names and dignity.

FlyTrapFredrik Sjöberg: The Fly Trap

I was sure this one was a novel and kept waiting for something to happen, for a change to occur and the narrator to learn something. But I later found out that it is in fact non-fiction, which would explain why it feels more like a loose collection of thoughts and essays, rather than a coherent whole. It is a meditation on the nature of obsession, on collectors, on explorers, on classification. And just when you think it is all about entomology it suddenly ends with a discussion about art and forgeries. There are some witty and profound observations about life and human nature, and the writing has an almost hypnotic, very restful quality to it. Perhaps a book to dip into while on holiday on an island, whether Scandinavian or not.

affaireEliette Abécassis: Une affaire conjugale 

Hard-hitting story of a divorce, showing just how nasty people can get in the process. Told entirely from the viewpoint of the wronged, downtrodden yet ultimately vengeful wife, you begin to wonder just how reliable a narrator she really is. Depressing but very readable, it does feel at times a bit like a soap opera, and there is an awful lot of Googling and Facebook chat going on, as if to make this timeless tale feel more modern. The main protagonist is a songwriter (lyrics), and she refers to several French chansons to express her pain and anxieties, perhaps to create a little distance. There are also some quite sharp observations about the ‘industry’ of lawyers, helpers, counsellors, financial advisers etc. that has sprung up to fleece people at their most vulnerable moment, i.e. when going through a divorce.  However, there is also genuine poignancy, especially when describing the fears of the negative effects on the children.

Have you come across books recently which were well-written, solid, yet which failed somehow to captivate you entirely? Books which you feel you ought to have liked more, but just didn’t?