What I’ll Remember of 2013

In terms of books, of course. I know the year is not quite over, but I am stuck in a huge book, so I don’t think I’ll get to read much else. 

I’ve done a summary of my top five crime reads (books published in 2013 and reviewed by me) on the Crime Fiction Lover website. These, however, are more of a motley collection of books I’ve loved, regardless of genre, reviews, whether they were published recently or not.  And they don’t fit neatly into a list of ten.

the harbour of Marseille
The harbour of Marseille (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Elizabeth Haynes: Into the Darkest Corner     The most frightening description of OCD, conveyed with a real sense of menace. Psychological shudders guaranteed.

Jean-Claude Izzo: Marseille Trilogy    Just glorious, despite the darkness – a symphony for the senses.

Birgit Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast    Damning, elegant prose, as precise as a scalpel, dissecting families and tyranny of all kinds.

Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers      Somewhere between anthropology and fiction lies this utterly moving book, an unflinching look at the everyday life, hopes and horrors in an Indian slum. The book that I wish more than anything I could have written.

Esi Eudgyan: Half Blood Blues     Who cares about accuracy, when it has the most amazing voice and melody, all of the whorls of the best of jazz improvisation?

English: Glasgow Cathedral and Royal Infirmary
English: Glasgow Cathedral and Royal Infirmary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Denise Mina: Garnethill       Another book strong on voice and characters, perfectly recreating a Glasgow which I’ve never known but can instantly recognise. Initially depressing but ultimately uplifting.

Karin Fossum: Calling Out for You     Almost elegiac crime fiction, with uncomfortable portrayals of casual racism, the cracks in an almost perfect little society/ This was an eerie and haunting tale, almost like a ghost story.

Ioanna Bourazopoulou: What Lot’s Wife Saw       The most imaginative novel I have read all year, it defies all expectations or genre categories. I felt transposed into an Alice in Wonderland world, where nothing is quite what it seems.

Bangkok
Bangkok (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

John Burdett: Bangkok Eight      Clash of cultures and unsentimental look at the flesh trade in Thailand, this one again has an inimitable voice.

Carlotto: At the End of a Dull Day     If you like your humour as black and brief as an espresso, you will love the tough world of Giorgio Pellegrini. So much more stylish than Tarantino!

Karl Ove Knausgaard: A Man in Love      Perhaps it’s too soon to add it to the list, as I only read it last week, but it felt to me like an instant classic.

So what strikes me about this list?

1) They are none of them a barrel of laughs, although there are occasional flashes of (rather dark) humour in them.

2) With the exception of the Katherine Boo ethnography, I wouldn’t have expected to be bowled over by any of the above. So keeping an open mind is essential for discovering that next amazing read.

3) There were other books which initially made much more of an impression (the Fireworks Brigade, shall we say), but when I look back on what really stuck with me, what made me think or feel differently as a result of reading them, those are the books I would have to point out.

English: Stockholm panorama. Lithography by Ca...
English: Stockholm panorama. Lithography by Carl Johan Billmark 1868. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4) They are each set in a different city and country: London, Marseille, a dining room in Germany, Mumbai, war-time Paris, Glasgow, Norway, the Dead Sea sometime in the future, Bangkok, Venice and Stockholm.  What can I say? I love to travel!

On that more upbeat note, I’ve discovered many new (to me) writers and series this year. Some of them are gentler, funnier reads, perfect to unwind. Here are a few that I hope to read more of: Louise Penny, Martin Walker, Pierre Lemaitre and Anne Zouroudi.

It’s All About the Voice

UntetheredYesterday I read my first official YA novel – because I am of that generation that didn’t have literature aimed specifically at my age-group, or paternalistic age-banding on books.  By the time YA literature made its official appearance, I had grown up and preferred to go back to my childhood favourites when I was in a nostalgic mood (Swallows and Amazons, Treasure Island, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or Ballet Shoes). I had no desire to relive my late teens, when back in high school all I wanted to do was be as pretentiously grown-up as possible.

But for a friend and fellow member of the Geneva Writers’ Group (who moreover shares my love of popcorn!), the one-woman dynamo that is Katie Hayoz, I decided to forsake my stupid genre scepticism.  I find genre such a meaningless category anyway. Her book ‘Untethered’ is labelled YA fiction, as the protagonist is a teenage girl. (But then, The Lovely Bones, Catcher in the Rye and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter should all be categorised as teen fiction.) It’s also labelled a paranormal novel, which is more than a little misleading, although it does deal with astral projection.

However, this is not a post about genre fiction, fascinating though that subject may be. Instead, it is about the importance of narrative voice. The narrator of ‘Untethered’ has a remarkably clear voice of her own: self-absorbed and whiny at times, self-justifying and pretentious at others, but also sharply observant, funny and poignant. Unique and yet representative of teenagers everywhere. Or the teenager we think we remember we were.

This is the one thing that literary agents say over and over again about submissions: what makes them instantly prick up their ears and read on is this strong individual voice.  Yet it is far rarer than you might think.  I read so many books this year (140 at last count) and only a handful or two of those have that truly unique voice. Confidence, an above-average plot and a polished style: yes, there are dozens like that and I rank many of my favourite authors amongst these. But a voice that grabs you (even when you don’t much like it) and takes you into their world (however unfamiliar)… it is an exhilarating experience when that happens.  I’ve felt that this year with Katie Hayoz’s Sylvie, Denise Mina’s Garnethill, John Burdett’s Bangkok Eight, Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy. All very different voices, but all whispering (sometimes shouting) potently in my ear.

Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin

Then I realised that it’s not just in literature, but also in music that I am bowled over by unique, strong, perhaps even unfashionable or unlikable voices. What I call ‘lived-in’ voices – people who have experienced much, suffered and not always overcome. Voices of experience, voices on the edge. Voices that you wouldn’t want to hear on your children, but in which you perhaps recognise just a little bit of yourself. Yes, I admire the perfect pitch, poise and modulations of great singers, but it’s these ‘broken’ voices, simultaneously world-weary and world-hungry, that make my heart do a double turn.

Good morning heartache, good morning Billie Holiday, Jim Morrison,

www.jimmorrissonline.com
http://www.jimmorrissonline.com

David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Maria Callas…

last.fm

Bangkok Eight by John Burdett

I can finally add to my Global Reading Challenge list, hosted by the ever-suave and encyclopedic Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.  

Bangkok8Welcome to Bangkok – you are in for a rollercoaster ride of thrills, spills and emotional manipulation in the hands of a supremely confident writer, John Burdett.

Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a half-caste cop from Bangkok’s District 8 (hence the title).  He and his childhood friend and partner, Pichai, are probably the only two cops not on the take in the city. In the opening scenes, they are following a US marine in his Mercedes E series, without quite knowing the reason for the close surveillance.  When they finally catch up with the American, they discover he has been trapped in his car and bitten to death by a swarm of cobras and a drugged python. A few minutes later, Pichai too falls victim to one of the snakes.  Sonchai is a devout Buddhist who may be intent on becoming an arhat (living saint), but only after he avenges the death of his soul-brother.

The American Embassy and the FBI get involved, of course, as does Sonchai’s corrupt but somehow likeable boss.  It’s a complicated plot, exposing all of the unsavoury underbelly of the City of the Angels: prostitution, violence against women, drug smuggling, dubious jade trade and desperate poverty.  And yet there is a lot of love and understanding for Thai culture here, albeit seen through the somewhat cynical eyes of an outsider, half-American and half-Thai, who never fits in completely with either culture.

buddhasWhat I most enjoyed about this was the singular, strong voice of the narrator.  He makes you enter a largely unfamiliar world with such aplomb, that you are completely on his side.  I cannot judge how accurate Burdett’s portrayal of Thailand is (I hope it is exaggerated), but while we have Sonchai’s compelling voice haranguing us farangs (foreigners), it is completely believable.  And I can’t get enough of his wily mother Nong, a retired prostitute ready to open a go-go club for the Third Age.

Exotic and quite distressing in places, it is a book best read before and after some calmer, cosier pieces, but I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it for the world.

 

Kitchen Cupboard Cleanout

Apologies, but this post is a bit of a ‘kitchen cabinet cleanout’.  That’s what we call it in my family when we have a bit of a pause to rethink and recalculate things. Necessary but evil admin, which probably will be of little interest to anyone but which is a useful reminder for myself.

We are more than halfway through the year: how are my reading challenges coming along?  Well, I’ve read 75 of my targeted 100 books, according to Goodreads, so I should be doing well.  But….  they are not necessarily the books I was planning to read for my Global Reading Challenge (Crime Fiction) and my Translation Challenge.

The Museum of Innocence
The Museum of Innocence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the latter, I have read a few (non-crime) books in translation, such as Pamuk’s ‘The Museum of Innocence’ and Kristina Carlson’s ‘Mr. Darwin’s Gardener’, but I haven’t had time to review them properly yet.  Still, it’s far less than I expected.  I have been reading an average of 1-2 books per month in French though, does that count?

For the Global Reading Challenge, I’ve had trouble with certain continents: Europe has been as forward as a middle-aged gossipy aunt, while South America has been rather coy.  I’ve revised my plans as follows:

1) In North America, I’ve exchanged the Arctic Circle of McGrath’s ‘White Heat’ for the swamps of Florida and Travis McGee (by John D. Macdonald).

Cover of "Havana Gold: The Havana Quartet...
Cover of Havana Gold: The Havana Quartet

2) I have found a book by Leonardo Padura at last, called Havana Gold, which will be my second Latin American contribution.

3) For Asia, I will move to Thailand and read ‘Bangkok 8’ by John Burdett.

4) For Australasia, I’ve had to give up on New Zealand and choose another Australian setting.  I’ve taken my own advice over at the Crime Fiction Lover website, and chosen a chirpy instalment in Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series.

Portrait of Wilkie Collins. Paiting in the Nat...
Portrait of Wilkie Collins. Paiting in the National Portrait Gallery, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5) Finally, for my 7th continent challenge, i.e. a new venture outside my usual area of exploration, I will read a classic: Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Moonstone’, often celebrated as the world’s first detective story.

You will have noticed that I did not mention Africa.  That is because it is possibly my favourite continent and I am hoping to discover a real treasure there.  Unfortunately, few of the writers I had in mind are available on Kindle (and I cannot find them easily in other formats over here).  Any suggestions will be most gratefully received.  I have read crime fiction by South African writers or set in South Africa, so I would quite like something set somewhere else in Africa.  Anything in Kenya or Ghana or the Maghreb?

Memorable Moments from Lyon Crime Festival

DSCN6589Did you know that 70% of crime fiction editors in France are women?  That is just one of the surprising facts that I found out at the Quais du Polar in Lyon this last weekend.

What I also found there: a great intimacy between readers and writers, a fun-filled atmosphere, resilience to stand in the queue despite the rain and cold, and plenty of memorable quotes and valuable nuggets of information such as:

1) The Festival in Figures: 4 days, 70 authors, 35 panel discussions, 5 live recordings of radio programmes, 5 literary prizes (less to do with money, more to do with prestige and a spike in sales), 10 films introduced by authors, 10 theatre performances and an estimated 60,000 visitors.

ClaudeMespledeClaude Mesplède was the President of the Readers’ Jury and the true beating heart of the Festival.  Passionate about crime fiction since the age of 10, he has edited anthologies of crime fiction, written the definitive Dictionary of Crime Literature and been instrumental in setting up the Toulouse Crime Festival.

UrbanPanel2) The Urban Panel: The urban landscape as a scene of desolation, poverty and deprivation, with petty crime and trivial, sensationalised news items. This is crime fiction at its grittiest, providing rich social commentary. Young writers Rachid Santaki and Jérémie Guez write about the Parisian ghettos from personal experience, Petros Markaris mourns the amnesia and almost casual descent into violence and indifference of Athens, John Burdett shows a side of Bangkok that the Thai Tourist Board would undoubtedly not approve of.  It is left to Swiss writer Joël Dicker to round it off with a critique of the American media reporting on crimes in his runaway success of a debut novel ‘The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair’. (Oddly enough, Dicker has become a bit of a media buzz himself – however, in the picture I took of the panel he is not visible, so you cannot judge for yourselves if he is indeed as good-looking and boyish looking as he is hyped to be).

3) Quotes about writing, sources of inspiration and the joys of being read:

It’s not about faith or inspiration, it’s about work. (David Khara)

I never wanted to write anything else but crime fiction. Writing a story that grips people, with strong characters, seems to me such an art and an achievement. (Sylvie Granotier)

When a community and a society is starting to lose its conscience, perhaps a writer has a duty to act as the collective memory. (Petros Markaris)

PetrosMarkaris
Petros Markaris

The banality of evil is what makes crime fiction so interesting.  We are always surprised to find a killer in our midst, which is why we always say ‘Who could have imagined X doing such a thing?’ But we never know people well enough to see what lurks beneath the surface. We seldom dare to look deep enough within ourselves even. (Joël Dicker)

I started out with crime fiction because it was something I liked reading and I thought I might be able to do it. But I didn’t think I would stay with it for so long. That’s because it is a genre that also allows you to say something true about men and women, and about the society in which we live. (P.D. James)

Amateurs wait for inspiration, the rest of us go to work.  You can’t be in it just for the money – I don’t chase the money (although it’s nice when I get it), but the readers’ hearts. However, Dickens, Shakespeare, Dumas all wrote for money.  The idea that a writer has to be   lofty and above commerce is a very modern one.  All I want to do is entertain.  If a reader takes my book to bed with them for 15 minutes and is still reading it at 5 in the morning, I have more than accomplished my mission. (Harlan Coben)

Diniz Galhoz
Diniz Galhos

Us younger French writers feel more like global citizens: we can write about America, about Japan, about anywhere in the world. A good story remains a good story, no matter where it is located. (Diniz Galhos)

The authors of obscure literary fiction who say ‘You have readers, but I have my dignity’ are kidding themselves if they think that their notion of success is any different from my notion of success.  Everyone wants more readers. (Jeff Abbott)

ElsaMarpeau
Elsa Marpeau

90% of present-day French crime writers have been influenced by American fiction, especially Elmore Leonard.  I am not sure that all those traditional differences between Anglo-Saxon and French literature still apply. (Elsa Marpeau)

Only bad writers think they are good, all others are insecure.  Your book is never quite what you want it to be. That’s what motivates you to write the next one. (Harlan Coben)

But above all, I found ornate, sumptuous and unusual locations, just right to celebrate literary delights!

Hotel de Ville, Lyon
Hotel de Ville, Lyon

MainHall
Main Hall

And here is my book haul from the festival.  I really made an effort to restrain myself.

DSCN6594