Incy-Wincy Teeny-Weeny Reviews for End of 2018

Thank goodness for the holidays, which allowed me to read (although not necessarily finish) 15 books in December, including a real humdinger doorstopper like Lamentation. I will be reviewing those that fit into the #EU27Project separately if I haven’t already done so (actually, only Rein Raud fits here) but let me give a very quick review of the rest. Without reminding you too much of yellow polka-dot bikinis in this cold, I promise!

Cathy Ace: Wrong Boy

After glamorous international locations in her Cait Morgan series and a United Sleuths of the UK series, Cathy Ace returns to her home turf of Wales and a closed village community, a tale of family secrets, superstitions and dark folklore. Although I thought the plot a tad predictable and the ending overly dramatic, the tangled relationships and beautiful, if eerie landscapes made this an entertaining read. The book will be out January 9th.

Joan Didion: After Henry

The tribute to their editor (the Henry of the title) was very moving, the rest is a collection of essays, largely political, which were interesting but no longer cutting edge (all referring to the 1980s or thereabouts), so I skimmed through them. Not as good as other Joan Didion things I’ve read.

Petra Hammesfahr: The Sinner, transl. John Brownjohn

Reviewed it on Crime Fiction Lover. Interesting to compare and contrast the original German setting with the Americanization of the setting and the script.

S.J.I. Holliday: The Lingering

I don’t believe in ghosts and am not easily scared, so I suppose this wasn’t quite the book for me. I found the ‘cult’ aspect of it interesting though, and done quite well, without exaggerating the negative aspects.

Elif Batuman: The Idiot

I was an overseas student from a country perceived as backward in the 1990s, so I had such high hopes for this one. But it was dull. A lot of ‘she did this… and then she did this… and then they met… and then they talked.’ I just couldn’t be bothered to finish it, but perhaps it picks up towards the end.

C.J. Sansom: Lamentation

Katherine Parr is probably my favourite wife too (of Henry the VIII’s harem), so I enjoyed this from the point of view of time period and content. It is clearly well researched, and there are so many clever little details which fully immerse you in that period, without being overly stiff and pedantic. I enjoyed the characters, the random changes of politics and the depiction of the cruel and crude justice of that period, but I was not bowled over. It was just too long for my taste.

Antonio Manzini: Black Run, transl. Antony Shugaar

The murder plays second fiddle to the story of fish-out-water detective Rocco Schiavone exiled to Val D’Aosta. I loved the descriptions of mountain and snow and how Rocco struggles with his inadequate footwear, but the atmosphere did not quite make up for the lack of plot, real character depth or social analysis.

Marghanita Laski: The Victorian Chaise Longue

An odd little story of time-travel and the frustration of women’s secondary role in society in Victorian times and the so-called present-time setting of the book (I think it is set in the 1920s-30s, although it was published in 1953). Quite claustrophobic and disturbing, quietly terrifying, reminded me of The Yellow Wallpaper and The Turn of the Screw. But it is far more matter-of-fact and droll, with very sharp dialogue throughout.

Claire Fuller: Bitter Orange

Another book that excelled in terms of atmosphere and beautiful descriptions, but the story felt like something I’d read or seen a hundred times before. Notes on a Scandal and The Woman Upstairs spring to mind, and they both appealed to me more.

Lou Sarabadzic: La Vie verticale

One of the most effective and painful descriptions of what it is like to live with OCD, panic attacks, depression and then to undergo treatment when you are between cultures, between languages. Also an interesting ‘choose your own story’ structure, although it doesn’t really matter utimately, as there is no clear plotline or story arc. The structure is deliberately repetitive and circular, because this situation can reoccur, you are never entirely ‘cured’.

M.B. Vincent: Jess Castle and the Eyeballs of Death

English village cosy, with a dash of romance, although quite a horrific series of murders. It was a very entertaining and quick read, perfectly suited for New Year’s Eve, but not particularly memorable. Like M.C. Beaton but with younger protagonists.

Maybe I’d have been kinder to everyoone if I’d been reading in this armchair.

I realise I sound quite curmudgeonly about nearly all of the books this month. I was quite taken by the two books about the Yugoslav War and The Victorian Chaise Longue, but the rest were mostly popcorn and comfort food. However, 2019 has started strong with Scholastique Mukasonga’s The Barefoot Woman.

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Quick-Fire Reviews for Holiday Period

It’s been a long time since I last posted any reviews, although my reading has continued unashamedly. So I have some wonderful books to share with you. I will post more in-depth reviews of Tove Jansson’s memoirs and Lily King’s ‘Euphoria’, because I am comparing and contrasting two or more books in each case, but here are some quick reviews of the books I have enjoyed during the final days of 2014 and the first few days of 2015.

IslandersPascal Garnier: The Islanders

The ultimate anti-feel-good Christmas story. Olivier reluctantly returns to his home town of Versailles on a frozen December day to prepare for his mother’s funeral. Iced in, unable to leave, he bumps into his childhood sweetheart Jeanne and gets invited to Christmas dinner at her house, where she lives with her malicious blind brother, Rodolphe. Is it the spirit of generosity which makes Rodolphe invite a homeless man to take part in their celebrations, or something more sinister? And just what terrible secret binds Olivier and Jeanne? What I want to know is: how does Garnier manage to deliver, again and again, in such succinct formats, a devastatingly accurate description of people on the margins of society and on the borderline of alcoholism and madness? Once again, it starts innocently enough: a funeral, a claustrophobic and snobbish little town, strained family relationships… and it all ends in confusion and mayhem.

BlueNightsJoan Didion: Blue Nights

The same year that Didion lost her husband, she also lost her daughter after a prolonged battle with illness, coma and hospitals. Another moving book about loss, grief, the guilt of parenthood, the fears of being a parent, and the frailty of human life in general. I haven’t read a better description of the flaws and limitations of the medical system, of the humiliations of growing older, of the doubts, challenges and joys of parenting – elegiac rather than angry, thoughtful rather than didactic. A meditation on the reliability of memory, on multiple interpretations of facts and on what it means to love and be loved.

Time passes. Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.

Perhaps more disconnected and woolly than the Year of Magical Thinking book, more jumping around with seemingly disparate pieces of information, but it still has that vulnerability and depth which made the other book so memorable.

ShallowWatersRebecca Bradley: Shallow Waters

I’m always a little nervous when I read books by friends – what if I don’t like it? Will it destroy our friendship? Dare I be honest? But, luckily, there was no need to worry about that with this book! An in-depth review is forthcoming on Crime Fiction Lover, but for now let me just say that this is a solid police procedural, with an engaging female lead who is not profoundly damaged, drunk or unbearably lonely (what a relief!). The author skilfully hints at quite a back story there, but doesn’t let that overwhelm the investigation. The story revolves around kidnapping, abuse and murder of young girls, so it becomes almost unbearably grim in places, and we see just how much this affects each individual member of the police team too.

The very atmospheric cover, perfect for the genre and fitting so well with the story, has won a gold star from the very demanding Joel Friedlander of The Book Designer fame.

PiercedHeartLynn Shepherd: The Pierced Heart

Lynn Shepherd has created a great niche for herself with novels which may loosely classified as ‘historical crime fiction’, in which she plays with re-imaginings of real historical people and events, full of literary allusions. Her Victorian investigator Charles Maddox was previously involved with the family of the poet Shelley, and with the ambiguous justice system of the time (in a retelling of ‘Bleak House). This time it’s an interesting twist on the original Dracula – the vampire sceptic’s book about vampires, perhaps. Close enough to the original (right down to the names) to please fans of Bram Stoker’s book, but full of healthy human rationality and investigations. If you are sick and tired of YA literature’s obsession with vampires – or if you have family in Transylvania and are tired of factual inaccuracies about the historical precedent of Dracula – this is the book which combines spine-tingling suspense with a good dose of satire about superstitions. Some reviewers have found the end of the book implausible or over-the-top, but that is precisely the point, as far as I can see.

 

Reading Bingo for 2014 (Mostly)

Thank you to the wonderful Cleo for making me aware of the reading bingo meme below. She has some wonderful selections on her own blog, do go and check them out, and I doubt I’ll be able to do quite as well, but here goes. I’ve stuck mainly to books read in 2014 and linked to my reviews of them (where available).

reading-bingo-small1) 500+ pages: Pierre Lemaitre’s wonderful recount of the end of the First World War: Au-revoir la-haut

2) Forgotten Classic: Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes – I hadn’t read it since my schooldays and it was much better this time round

3) Book that became a movie:  Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Judge and His Hangman – adapted several times for TV and cinema, but its most famous and stylish adaptation is directed by Maximilian Schell

4) Book Published This Year: probably far too many, but one that comes to mind instantly is ‘On ne voyait que le bonheur‘ by Gregoire Delacourt

5) Book with a number in the title: 220 Volts by Joseph Incardona (review still to come) – an ‘electrifying’ account of a marriage in its death throes and a writer searching for inspiration

6) Book written by someone under 30: No idea, as the younger authors don’t usually have a Wikipedia entry with their date of birth, but I suspect that Kerry Hudson might fit into this category. I really enjoyed her novel ‘Thirst’.

7) A book with non-human characters: not really my type of reading, but Lauren Owen’s ‘The Quick’ featured vampires. Does that count? They are humanoid…

8) Funny: Light, witty and making me love my cat even more: Lena Divani’s ‘Seven Lives and One Great Love

9) Book by a female author: LOTS of them, hopefully, but a special shout-out for the delightful Wuthering Heights-like epic by Minae Mizumura ‘A True Novel’

10) Mystery: Well, most of my reading revolves around crime fiction, but I will mention David Jackson’s thrilling, heartbreaking read ‘Cry Baby

11) Novel with a one-word title: Surprisingly, there were a number of contenders for this, but I chose Shuichi Yoshida’s ‘Villain‘ – which is also a single word in Japanese ‘Akunin’.

12) Short stories: I realised this year that I haven’t read many short story collections recently, so I tried to make up for this and read about 4-5. My favourite was Alma Lazarevska’s  ‘Death in the Museum of Modern Art‘, stories set during the siege of Sarajevo.

13) A book set on a different continent: You know how I like to travel, so I have quite a choice here and went for the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean, as portrayed in ‘Devil-Devil’ by Graeme Kent.

14) Non-fiction: Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking‘ – the most honest and poignant depiction of grief I’ve come across in a long, long time

15) First Book by a favourite author: I’m cheating a little bit here, as I did not read it this year, but ‘The Voyage Out’ by Virginia Woolf surely counts? A much more conventional novel than her later work, it nevertheless contains many of her perennial themes (of trying to fit in, of the difficulties of communication, of allowing your emotions to be your guide and, finally, of becoming your own person with your own thoughts and stimulating intellect).

16) A book I heard about online: I discover many, far too many books and add them to my TBR list as a result of reading so many good blogs. Tony Malone has been the one to blame for many an impulsive purchase (usually well worth the effort!), and now he is also responsible for my obsession with Karl Ove Knausgård and his ‘A Man in Love‘.

17) Bestseller: I’m never quite sure if what I’m reading is a bestseller or not, as this is not one of the criteria I bear in mind when selecting a book. However, I’m pretty sure that ‘Norwegian by Night‘ by Derek B. Miller qualifies for that title – and it won the John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award.

18) Book based on a true story: The partly autobiographical account (supplemented by a lot of imagination and memories from other participants) of the life of her mother by Delphine de Vigan 

19) Book at the bottom of the TBR pile: Well, it depends if it’s electronic book or physical book. I have a massive chunk of double-shelving to get through and the one that happened to be behind all the others was a book I picked up at a library sale ‘Un sentiment plus fort que la peur’ by Marc Levy. Levy is the most-read French author, has been translated into 49 languages and currently lives in the US. I suspect his thrillerish bestsellers might not quite be my style, but at 50 centimes for 400+ pages, I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about.

20) A book that a friend loves: Several friends (both online and real-life) have recommended Claire Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs‘. I can completely understand their passion for it.

21) A book that scares me: I don’t read horror fiction very much and am not easily scared. However, horrible situations or characters, such as the mother in Koren Zailckas’ ‘Mother, Mother‘, do give me the creeps.

22) A book that is more than 10 years old: So many of my favourite books are… However, one I recently (re)read was Fumiko Enchi’s ‘The Waiting Years‘, written in 1957, and depicting an even older Japan.

23) The second book in a series: Frédérique Molay’s Paris-based detective Nico Sirsky reappears in the intriguing investigation concerning a dead man’s hidden message in ‘Crossing the Line

LongWayHome24) A book with a blue cover: I am susceptible both to blue covers and to this Canadian writer’s series about Armand Gamache: Louise Penny’s latest novel ‘The Long Way Home

 

Reading with a Theme: Thorny Marriages

A while ago I happened to read a whole series of books about mothers. Since my return from holiday I seem to have been on a roll with books about marriages – I was going to say ‘difficult marriages’, but at least one of them is about a happy marriage… interrupted by death. Incidentally, it also seems to have been a bit of a catch-up with North American writers, as Anne Carson, Louise Penny and Maxime-Olivier Moutier are all Canadians, while two of the remaining authors are American.

Joan Didion and her family in Malibu in 1976. From back cover of the book.
Joan Didion and her family in Malibu in 1976. From back cover of the book.

Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The portrait of a 40 year marriage of true minds. Didion’s husband died of a heart-attack in 2003, and this is the searing memoir of her befuddlement, grief, sense of guilt and sheer madness of the year following her sudden loss. (At the same time, her daughter was in and out of hospital, in and out of a coma, so it was probably the hardest year of the writer’s life.) This may not be her most polished work stylistically, but it has a rawness and honesty about it which is very moving.

I’m not sure why this has been branded as pretentious or whining or self-pitying rants of a rich bitch. It shows how grief can drive us all mad, whether privileged or not, whether calm and collected or dramatic and hysterical. The author has also been accused of coldness, because she tries to present things in a detached way. This feels to me more like a deliberate strategy to remain calm, to try and understand, to analyse oneself. The polar vortex of memory that she tries to avoid by not going to places that were familiar to them: how can that be described as cold and unfeeling?

Anne Carson: The Beauty of the Husband

beautyhusband

By contrast, Carson’s collection of poems all add up to an essay on beauty and truth, our search for perfection but our paradoxical human ability to put up with imperfection for a very long time. All in all, it presents the picture of a toxic marriage, a destructive relationship captured with true poetic flourish. Based on Keat’s assertion that beauty is truth, the poet then shows us just why the husband was anything but truthful, no matter how beautiful he was (and remained) in the eyes of the wronged wife.

 

Louise Penny: The Long Way Home

LongWayHome

I’m already a confirmed Louise Penny fan, but this 10th book in the Armand Gamache/ Three Pines series is less crime fiction and more the story of a Quest: for a missing husband, for inspiration, for one’s true self, for the Holy Grail almost. I wrote a full review of it for Crime Fiction Lover, but from the perspective of marriage, it is the sad story of the dissolution of a loving long-term partnership when the insidious three-headed serpent of jealousy, envy and inadequacy makes its appearance. Clara and Peter Morrow are both artists, who met in college. Peter has always been the more successful artist with his carefully controlled, intricate paintings, while Clara was the wild and messy experimentalist. But when Clara’s star begins to rise, Peter finds it impossible to rejoice for her, as he becomes aware of his own artistic stagnation.

 

louise douglas your beautiful liesLouise Douglas: Your Beautiful Lies

Set against the backdrop of the miners’ strikes in Yorkshire in the 1980s, this is the story of Annie, a woman who is feeling trapped in a very correct but rather dry marriage of convenience, which has provided her with a comfortable lifestyle but has also isolated her from the rest of the community. When her old boyfriend (who had been convicted of manslaughter) is released from prison and shows up on her doorstep, trying to protest his innocence, she is at first reluctant to engage with him. But then she unravels rather spectacularly and becomes very reckless indeed… This book has an old-fashioned feel about it, as if it were set in the 1950s rather than the 1980s, and I struggled to empathise with Annie.

And, just in case you thought that only women can write about marriage, here is the most depressing one of all, written by a man but from a woman’s perspective.

scelleplombeMaxime-Olivier Moutier: Scellé plombé

The title roughly translates as ‘sealed with lead’, which was apparently an old method for food preservation – until the poisonous qualities of lead were discovered. This hints at the poisonous conjugal relationship and what an odd, unsettling story it is. The husband is struck by lightning on a golf course and is buried by his wife and children in secret.  Told entirely from the point of view of the wife, but addressed to her husband in a tone designed to humiliate and provoke, we then discover the story of their marriage, the rising ennui, the many daily cruelties and sarcasms, the lack of communication, the secret lives each partner found refuge in. A chilling disregard for the children emerges from this novel: it appears it’s not the marriage, but the hearts themselves which have turned to lead.

 

Finally, I almost hesitate to include Ann Patchett’s ‘This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage’ in this post, not because of the word ‘happy’ in the title, but because this collection of essays is about so much more than marriage: it is about creativity, travelling, a beloved dog, a burgeoning interest in opera music, family, friendships and, above all, writing. It also talks about the author’s first marriage and divorce, which led to many years of avoiding commitment to her second husband. In her characteristic clear-eyed, fluid style, she describes the compassion and understanding that she developed for all women who suffered in their marriages, whether they were able to get away from them or not.

www.annpatchett.com
http://www.annpatchett.com

My mother had divorced my father when I was four. Two years later she remarried. My mother and stepfather spent the next twenty years trying to decide whether or not they should stay together. While growing up I had never faulted her for the divorce, but I hated what I thought was her weakness. My mother didn’t want to be wrong a second time. She wanted to believe in a person’s ability to change, and so she went back and back, every resolution broken by some long talk they had that made things suddenly clear for a while. I wanted her to make her decision and stick to it. In or out, I ultimately didn’t care, just make up your mind. But the mind isn’t so easily made up. My mother used to say the more lost you are, the later it got, the more you had invested in not being lost. That’s why people who are lost so often keep heading in the same direction. It took my own divorce to really understand… I understood how we long to believe in goodness, especially in the person we promised to love and honor. It isn’t just about them, it is how we want to see ourselves…

 

Showcase Sunday: Book Haul

Inspired by Pop Culture Junkie and the Story Siren, the aim of Showcase Sunday is to highlight our newest books or book related swag and to see what everyone else received for review, borrowed from libraries, bought in bookshops and downloaded onto eReaders each week. For more information about how this feature works and how to join in, see the sparkling and fizzy blog of Books, Biscuits and Tea.

This week the theme has been ‘return to old favourites or classics’ rather than new releases, all (new to me) books by authors I’ve already read and enjoyed.

In the postbox

didionJoan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

How can you deal with sudden, unexpected grief and loss? A heartbreakingly honest look at the year following her husband’s sudden death and the illness of her daughter.

Joan Didion: Blue Nights

Just after the previous book was published, Didion lost her daughter too.  A haunting, passionate and almost angry memoir of her daughter and of parenting in general.

I think these two will have me in a flood of tears… so the rest of my picks for this week are very light-hearted and easy to read.

PamelaPamela Des Barres: I’m with the Band. Confessions of a Groupie.

From the woman who hung out with Jim Morrison, turned down a date with Elvis Presley and was best friends with Robert Plant and Frank Zappa, here is a witty and warm-hearted kiss-and-tell account of the rocking and swinging 60s and 70s, without any of the sleaziness or score-settling that ruins other memoirs. Something to which I suspect my good friend Nicky Wells, rockstar romance writer, will relate.

Downloaded on special offer

Anne Zouroudi: The Bull of Mithros

artemisAnne Zouroudi: The Feast of Artemis

Two installments in the delightful series set in the Greek islands and featuring the mysterious, always nattily-dressed Hermes Diaktoros. The taste, smells and sounds of Greece truly come to life in her books – the perfect summer read.

Irving Wallace: The Prize

I saw the film, starring Paul Newman as the rather non-plussed Nobel Prize-winning writer, but have never read the book, which sounds like good, juicy, scandalous fun. Another ideal read for the summer.

Sent for review

corpseCathy Ace: The Corpse with the Platinum Hair

I have previously read and reviewed two books in the series by this Welsh-Canadian writer, featuring the indomitable amateur detective and dedicated foodie Cait Morgan. I’m happy to say that Cathy Ace never forgets to get in touch when she has a new book out to ask me if I’d be interested in reading it. Thank you, Cathy, always a pleasure!