January 2023 Summary

Hasn’t this been the longest month ever? Cold, dark, busy at work, but not quite as miserable as the months preceding it because at least we have all been healthy. I’ve mostly snuggled in my burrow and read – even more than usual, now that I’ve decided not to worry about reviewing every book. 18 books this month, of which 7 fit with the January in Japan challenge (although one of the seven was not written by a Japanese author, but was a non-fiction book about the Japanese criminal world). Nine books in translation, three non-fiction books, ten by women writers, four that could fit under the crime fiction label. A good mix that I can live with.

Here are the books that I have reviewed this month (I am putting the Japanese author names in the Japanese order – surname first):

And here are very brief thoughts on the others I read:

Charlie Higson: Whatever Gets You Through the Night – entertaining, madcap, quick read, made for the screen – as so many current thriller books seem to be. This one is perhaps slightly funnier and slyer than most, fits a bit into the Knives Out/Glass Onion universe.

Percival Everett: The Trees – this one I regret not reviewing properly, as it is a quite unforgettable, excoriating view of the South of the United States and its history of lynching. By taking an almost absurd premise and bringing in lots of fierce humour, it brings this dark story to a wider audience. A surprising novel, with moments of true poignancy, although perhaps a few too many repetitive descriptions of crime scenes (deliberate, no doubt, and I can understand why).

Robert Thorogood: Death Comes to Marlow – my son goes to school in Marlow, so I go there nearly every day and I can see a big splash being made with this book in the local bookshop. I’m always going to read a book set in a place I know well, although I was disconcerted to discover that I know the real vicar’s wife (the mother of one of my son’s best friends) and she is nothing like the one featured in the book. Although I appreciated having three middle-aged women investigators, I couldn’t help feeling that their quirks are being exaggerated for comic effect, that the secondary characters are rather one-dimensional, so all the book really has going for it is the puzzle element. Of course I will continue to read this series, even if I complain about it, simply because of its familiar location.

Elin Cullhed: Euphoria, transl. Jennifer Hayashida – just like I will always read something about Sylvia Plath. This novel is a fictional account of the last difficult year of Sylvia’s life, sticking quite closely to the known facts and trying to combine elements of Sylvia’s real voice from the letters and diaries with a speculation of what must have really been going on in her mind. I am familiar with this kind of fictional recreation of an artistic life from France, where this is a much more common type of literature, but I am not sure what it adds to our knowledge of Plath. Instead, I see this more as the universal portrait of a marriage and a clash of two very strong and creative personalities, two tremendous artistic egos, particularly at a time when it seemed harder to accept equality within married couples.

He loved me as a motif. He loved the picture of me. He loved the type. The American, the emotional one, the poet. He loved my high demands (and hated them). He loved having a thinking wife. He loved having a wife. He loved that I was thinking and grinding my own thoughts, then there was nothing left of them later in teh writing. He loved that I tried by failed. That I got up and was stabbed, like a goat. That I was not who I wanted to be. He loved my imperfections, and I stood in the middle of it and tried to be perfect.

Fiona Spargo-Mabbs: Talking the Tough Stuff with Teens – trying to educate myself and not talk too much, yet encourage a rather silent teenager to open up. An encouraging, non-judgemental book, with many real-life examples.

Bec Evans & Chris Smith: Written – I’ve been following the authors on their Prolifiko website and subscribing to their newsletters, and this is a book about finding the writing routines and habits that work for you, instead of slavishly imitating others. Encouraging, friendly, with lots of good exercises and suggestions for further exploration.

Sara Gran: The Book of the Most Precious Substance – impossible to categorise this book, no wonder the author struggled to get it published and so created her own publishing house for it. It is not as chilling as Come Closer, but you can see elements of anger and grief here too, as well as the quirkiness and humour of the Claire DeWitt crime series. Although touted as a sex magic book (and it certainly contains elements of eroticism and supernatural), it probably won’t fully satisfy fantasy or erotica fans. I like the underlying ‘normalness’ of it, which keeps it somewhat grounded even when we are off travelling in a world of unimaginable luxury. Basically, it is a story of grief, of clinging to a sense of injustice, of the wisdom (and ability) to move on, and the hunger for power and money.

The trick isn’t to protect yourself. It’s to accept life. Not push it away when it gets messy.

The past is over and done. You have no choice but to live with it. There’s no getting over, there’s no making up for. But there;s a chance to see and create something new. That’s the only chance…

…a wall I’d built around something too broken to trust the world with it. But that wall had never kept me safe. It only locked me in with my pain, leaving it to fester and spoil. I’d locked out all hope, all pleasure, and now, with a force like th eocean, the wall had crumbled, and my protection had gone.

Antoine Wilson: Mouth to Mouth – a story within a story, with a supposedly neutral account of the wild tale told by an acquaintance. Another novel about the hunger for power and money, full of self-justification. Quite clever but nor terribly memorable. On the plane to Switzerland I read another book like it translated from French (not featured above, as I will present it as part of my personal French February reading initiative).

I read Balzac’s Lost Illusions for the winter long read for London Reads the World Book Club, and will review it of course during my French February. I still haven’t seen the film, which apparently is only available to stream in Canada. However, I have watched (and rewatched) quite a few good films this month – more than usual by my standards, partly because my older son the film buff was around for 9 days at the start of the month.

I really enjoyed rewatching My Neighbour Totoro for the nth time (especially after seeing the very innovative, delightful staging of it at the Barbican) and the beautiful, warm Portrait of a Lady on Fire, although I was perhaps somewhat less mesmerised by The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction this time round. I was moved by the Korean film Memories of Murder but even more so by the very recent Aftersun (which cut a little too close to home, so there were floods of tears). Stellar performances by Paul Mescal and young Frankie Corio.

By the way, I’ve had some friends asking who is hosting the #FrenchFebruary initiative – and the answer is no one, I just created this personal challenge for myself because I like alliteration and reading French language books. But if you would like to join in and read some books from France, Switzerland, Belgium, Quebec, French-speaking Africa etc. then please do! The more the merrier! Always happy to expand my understanding in this area.

#JanuaryInJapan: Loneliness and Finding Your Passion

I was going to write separate reviews, or at least talk about them two by two, but in the end they all seem to speak to each other. So I have attempted something new: an audio review (podcast seems a bit too ambitious a term).

They are all books about misfits, quirky outsiders who seem to struggle to socialise with other people, who all have a passion for something, who put up with many disappointments and ultimately find some kind of resilience or escape. They are all written by women, but in two of the books the main protagonists are men, which allows for an interesting contrast. I discuss several common themes that run through all the books: the lonely, socially inept main protagonist who explores ways in which to live their life via their craft or hobbies; the yearning for human connection, perhaps even love; the mentor character; the pragmatic character who provides a strong contrast to our dreamy protagonist; finally, some thoughts about style and appeal.

https://anchor.fm/sanda-ionescu/embed/episodes/Four-Novels-about-Loneliness-and-Finding-Your-Passion-e1tgul1

Kawakami Mieko: All the Lovers in the Night, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd

Miura Shion: The Great Passage, transl. Juliet Winters Carpenter

Miyashita Natsu: The Forest of Wool and Steel, transl. Philip Gabriel

Plus a Taiwanese novel that also fits this theme:

Lee Wei-Jing: The Mermaid’s Tale, transl. Darryl Sterk

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. However, you can also set up a link to your favourite independent bookshop and they too will get a share of the sale price.

You may be surprised to discover that The Great Passage has been adapted for an animated TV series. Here are the characters from the book in their anime form.

Last Few Acquisitions of 2022

And when I say ‘few’, I don’t really mean it!

Let’s take it from left to right, shall we?

As you know, I am always susceptible to book recommendations on Twitter (even though I am rapidly falling out of love with Twitter because of recent changes and furore). I saw Lauren Alwan wax lyrical about Emma Thompson’s diary of the filming of Sense and Sensibility, and I love that film and script, so I thought it would be a good investment.

The following five are all acquisitions from Newcastle Noir. Tony Mott is the author I am currently translating for Corylus (Deadly Autumn Harvest), and she kindly brought other books in her Gigi Alexa series, also featuring seasons in the title (Poisoned Summer and One Last Spring – provisional titles in English). I got talking with author Tom Benjamin who lives in Bologna and has written a series of crime novels set there, featuring an English private investigator, so that he could comment on cultural differences (my cup of tea, as you can imagine!). Passionate about social issues as I am, especially in my crime fiction, I instantly picked up the first in Trevor Wood‘s trilogy featuring a homeless man solving murders almost in order to protect himself. I’ve already read it and it is gritty, moving and quite unlike the run-of-the-mill police procedurals or psychological thrillers that seem to be a dime a dozen. Last but not least, although action thrillers are not my staple reading matter, after hearing author Amen Alonge talk about his book, life choices, stereotyping and the emptiness of vengeance, I had to get his first book in the Pretty Boy series, A Good Day to Die. Experts are saying that literary festivals don’t sell a lot of books anymore, but clearly they have never seen me in action! The only reason I stopped buying was because I had a rather heavy suitcase and a dodgy elbow to contend with on the way back from Newcastle.

I am not immune to book buzz, and I’ve been hearing about the next two books all year, so finally caved in and got them: Stu Hennigan‘s Ghost Signs is an examination of poverty in Britain today, made worse by austerity and the pandemic. And of course everyone has heard of Percival Everett‘s The Trees, shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year.

I have received the first in the 2023 Peirene subscription, History. A Mess. by Icelandic author Sigrun Palsdottir, translated by Lytton Smith, and it sounds intriguing, about an academic who makes a mistake and then is prepared to go to any lengths to hide that.

The next few books are all in German and took quite a while to be shipped over from Germany (and some were quite expensive). I’ve been fascinated with Hilde Spiel since I read her wonderful memoir of returning to post-war Vienna, so I ordered a whole bunch of her fiction in German (she also wrote in English), some of which has not arrived yet, as I hope to pitch her work to various publishers. Same applies to Ödön von Horváth, who is still mostly unknown outside Austria. Meanwhile, the book by Ingrid Noll was once again recommended by someone on Twitter – I’m afraid I can’t even remember by whom!

I’ve read a fair amount of Balzac over the years, but I think I only partially read Lost Illusions (or an abridged version). This is the long winter read for our London Reads the World Book Club, and I hope to find a way to see the latest French adaptation of it as well, because it looks very good (and evergreen topic, don’t you think?).

In addition to the above, there are a few that are still on their way and which might even make it here before 2023: Euphoria by Elin Cullhed, because I can never resist a book about Sylvia Plath; The Mermaid’s Tale by Lee Wei-Jing, because I’ve always been on the hunt for a worthy ballroom dancing partner; and a self-help book, believe it or not: The Little ACT Workbook by Sinclair & Bedman, as I’ve been looking for an alternative to CBT, which may be effective therapy for most people but doesn’t work for everyone.

Disclosure: I have set up my stall on Bookshop.org and if you go there, you will find not only find all the Corylus books available on that site, but also other lists with translated crime fiction that I particularly enjoy or books that I have recently bought myself or would heartily recommend. If you buy via those links, I get a very small commission myself, at no extra cost to you, and all the pennies will be ploughed back into producing better books for you at our tiny, very part-time publishing venture.