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,

David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Maria Callas…

Bumper Crop of August Reading

SayersLargeCrime Fiction, including some re-reads for Crime Fiction Lover’s feature special on Dorothy Sayers in Classics in September:

  1. Lynn Shepherd: A Treacherous Likeness
  2. Dorothy L. Sayers: Murder Must Advertise
  3. Dorothy L. Sayers: Have His Carcase
  4. Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night
  5. Philippe Georget: Summertime All The Cats Are Bored
  6. P.D. James: Shroud for a Nightingale
  7. Jean-François Parot: The Chatelet Apprentice – first in the Nicolas Le Floch series, read it here in English for the first time
  8. Helen Smith: Invitation to Die – more than a cosy crime novel, this is a witty satire about book blogging, wannabe writers and the rivalries and egos of the publishing industry
  9. Seth Lynch: Salazar
  10. John Burdett: Bangkok Eight – very distinctive voice, scenes that fascinate and repel in equal measure, quite hard to bear in some ways
  11. Camilla Ceder: Babylon
  12. Alan Bradley: I am Half-Sick of Shadows
  13. Jakob Arjouni: Happy Birthday, Tűrke! – in German, the first in the renowned Kayankala series
  14. Elly Griffiths: The Crossing Places
  15. Julie Smith: Mean Woman Blues – America, New Orleans
  16. John Enright: Pago Pago Tango – Australasia/Oceania
  17. Gail Bowen: A Killing Spring – Canadian academic crime fiction
  18. Alison Bruce: The Calling – third in DC Goodhew series, set in Cambridge, this was the first one the author wrote
  19. Stav Sherez: Eleven Days – second in the Carrigan & Miller series. The first one, ‘A Dark Redemption’ was one of my favourite crime reads of 2012. Tthis time the links are to South America, liberation theology, human trafficking and Albanian crime lords. Perhaps not quite as compelling as the previous book, but an excellent read nonetheless, and an inventive, poetic use of language.
  20. David Wagner: Cold Tuscan Stone – art smuggling in Italy, rather obvious tourist fare
  21. Kerry Greenwood: Flying Too High (Phryne Fisher) – delectable and frothy

2 in French which deserve to be better known

  1. André Héléna: Les Voyageurs du vendredi
  2. Sébastien Japrisot : Un long dimanche de fiançailles

Escapist Capers

  1. C.L. Konigsburg: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler – old childhood favourite that I had lost track of because of the impossible title
  2. Adharanand Finn: Running with the Kenyans
  3. Hatice Akyűn: Einmal Hans mit scharfer Soße – witty depiction of life as a 2nd generation Turk growing up in Germany
  4. Writers Abroad: Foreign Encounters – collection of poetry, creative non-fiction and short stories about the expat experience and cross-cultural encounters

Total read: 27; Abandoned 2 (not mentioned here).  

11DaysMy own internal rules dictate that I cannot count my reread novels towards my favourites this month, so my top crime pick of the month: Stav Sherez–Eleven Days.

Reread 5 books.

11 e-book format

2 in French, 2 in German, the rest in English (but 3 in translation)

2 non-fiction, 1 collection of poetry/prose, the rest novels.

Finished 108 of my proposed 120 books reading challenge for this year, which probably means I have set my bar too low.  Then again, from September onwards, I’ll probably struggle to read more than one book a week.

So what have you read this month? Anything you particularly remember or recommend?


Why Writers’ Retreats Work (Mostly)

Chateau+Lavigny+016-590x393Last night I discovered one of the great treasures literary life in the Lake Geneva area.

I had the great pleasure to attend  a reading of poetry and prose at the coquette Chateau de Lavigny near Lausanne.  This beautiful manor house set amidst vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva is home to the Ledig-Rowohlt foundation and has been hosting for two decades retreats for both emerging and established writers from all over the world. Once a month in the summer, the resident writers share their thoughts and works with a small public, in both English and French – and also, very often, their native languages.

Last night’s friendly and talented group of writers included: novelist and children’s author Ousmane Diarra (from Mali); poet Janet McAdams from the United States; fiction writer and translator Alexander Markin (from Russia); novelist and essayist Tatiana Salem Levy from Brazil; writer of Gothic novels Leonora Christina Skov from Denmark.

View from the Terrace.
View from the Terrace.

The Readings

Ousmane kicked off with an extract from his novella ‘La Revelation’.  It is the story of a child who discovers that his real mother is dead. He asks the local priest what death means and is told that his mother is now with ‘le bon Dieu’ (the good Lord). From now on he will wage war with the good Lord, in an effort to gain back his mother.  With his resonant voice and brilliant insights into a child’s confused thoughts,  the author gathered us around an imaginary campfire to hear this moving, thrilling and often funny tale.

Janet’s poetry was about finding and losing one’s identity, about moving on, about moving to other countries and about being observed and scrutinised. Haunting, thought-provoking poems, which struck a deep chord in me, although she seemed to fear that she was too serious and said at one point, apologetically: ‘It doesn’t get any more cheerful.’

Alexander read fragments from his semi-fictional diaries depicting the life of an artist in present-day Russia, a mix of minute details and philosophical reflections, anecdotes about artistry and repression, acute observations of everyday absurdity and a healthy dose of satire.

Tatiana read the opening of her first novel ‘A chave de casa’, an exploration of her family’s past, from Smyrna to Rio. She was lyrical, funny, tender, with richly sensuous details and an air of sepia-coloured nostalgia.

Last but not least, Leonora very bravely read out her own translation into English from a rough draft of her current work in progress.  This is a novel inspired by Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ and is set in a writer’s colony on a lonely Danish island.  Murderous writers, tongue-in-cheek and witty style, mordant characterisations: I can hardly wait to read this!

So, as you can see, a remarkable diversity of styles and subject matters, but all equally talented and passionate about writing.  Can you just imagine the dinner table conversations there? This is one of the beauties of writers’ residencies.  While conferences within your own genre are very useful and huge fun,  the best ideas often come from this diversity of visions and ideas. It’s the difference of approaches and the cross-pollination that ultimately leads to the most interesting experiments, that will make a writer venture out of their comfort zone.

Steamboat on Lake Geneva, near Lausanne (Switz...
Steamboat on Lake Geneva, near Lausanne (Switzerland) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Availability of English Translations

Or, rather, the lack of availability. In our post-reading chat over drinks, every one of the writers (except for Janet McAdams, who writes in English, obviously) emphasised how difficult it was to get translated into English and published in either the UK or the US.  This rather reinforces the point I made earlier about reaching a wider public if you are writing in English.

Although Tatiana Salem Levy is featured in Granta 121: Best of Young Brazilian Novelists, her work is not otherwise available to the English-speaking world. How is it that her first novel has been translated into French, Italian, Romanian, Spanish and Turkish, but not in English? Alexander’s diaries are being translated into German – everyone there agreed that German publishers are so good at discovering new talent abroad, that they are the fastest with their translations.  Yet the Germans themselves are just as worried about the demise of the publishing industry as anyone else.

To my mind, Leonora Christina Skov has all of the qualities to appeal to an American or British audience: she has that sly dark humour, she writes quirky Gothic tales and she is a Scandinavian bordering on crime fiction, for heaven’s sake!  What more has that woman got to do to be noticed?  It seems to me infinitely sad that she is seriously considering switching to English in her writing.

The Future of Writer’s Colonies

I don’t think there is a writer on earth who has not dreamt of going to a writers’ colony for a month or so, in a idyllic location, and having nothing else to worry about but writing.  Not even laundry, cooking and cleaning, let alone earning a living.  Most would agree that it is very conducive to writing, even if the company you find there may be challenging at times.

Of course, as foundation pots and art funds dwindle, it’s becoming harder and harder to fund these programmes.  Last night I heard rumours about initiatives like these closing down in Spain and Greece. Smaller profit-making initiatives are springing up, offering no stipends, but instead comfortable surroundings in which a paying visitor can get away from it all and be creative.   Not quite the same, is it, if you are still worrying about money and the taxman?

The group of volunteers from the steering committee at Lavigny are worried about the future.  They can’t get any funding from the Swiss state or local canton, because they have an international rather than a local remit. Meanwhile, PEN or other international art foundations are overwhelmed with applications on a daily basis.  Above all, they are reluctant to reduce the residency programme from its current 3-4 weeks to just one week, because they feel that is too short to get the creative juices really flowing.  I do hope the magic of Lavigny will be able to exert its influence on writers worldwide for a while longer.

Nothing like an inappropriate picture to end the article!
 Typical Swiss landscape, photo credit: Wink Lorch,



20 Years’ Celebration

Last night I had the great pleasure to attend a wonderful celebration: the 20th anniversary of the creation of the Geneva Writers’ Group.  Needless to say, I forgot my camera at home (I always do for momentous occasions), so I can only try and convey through words the emotions, warmth and fun of the event.

It’s been twenty years since a small group of women intoxicated with the beauty and power of words first started meeting at the Cafe du Soleil in Geneva.  Since then, under the passionate and expert guidance of Susan Tiberghien, the group has flourished and grown to 200 members (men and women).  I was delighted to discover the group soon after I moved to Geneva and the conference they organised in February 2012 was what inspired me to write poetry again.  It was also the gentle push into the world of blogging, reading, critiquing (and being critiqued) and generally connecting with other people who love literature as much as me.

So far, so predictable, right?  But what I would also like to convey is the sense of  deep friendship, mutual respect, humour and fun which were also present in the room.  And wait, there were more surprises…

A newly created literary prize for poetry, fiction and non-fiction.  20 words or less to describe what GWG means to each one of us.  A song worthy of Flanders and Swann performed by a trio with an endless collection of hats. And a special anniversary edition of the biennial publication  ‘Offshoots’, in which I am proud to say I have been included with a poem and a short story.  I don’t think I’ve been published on paper (at least, not for fiction) since I was in school.

And yes, I have to admit, old-fashioned old codger that I am, there is something special about seeing your name (or pseudonym) in print, that no amount of online publication can quite match in my own heart. But there is a downside to that: re-reading my own work (particularly when it is showcased next to other, far more experienced and talented writers),  it suddenly looks so slight, so flat, so mundane…

Ah well, will have to do better next time!  Forever onwards and upwards, proud pioneers!

*And there are some pictures from the event on Facebook, I am told.


All the Possibilities in the World…

San Diego City College Learing Recource City r...
San Diego City College Learing Recource City retrieve a book (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It doesn’t happen often anymore.  Yet I need it, it’s like a tonic.

I now read so many books for reviewing purposes, or for my reading challenges, that I don’t often have this luxury.  But I should occasionally escape the tyranny of my TBR list and do this more often.

Besides, I usually have two or three books on the go at the same time, so it’s not possible.  But why not?

What am I talking about?

The hiatus.  The pause.  That wonderful moment when you finish the pile of books on your night-table and stop.  To breathe.  To ponder.  To contemplate that world of endless possibilities.  What am I in the mood for next?  What new treasure will I discover, what old favourite will I pursue?  Everything is within our grasp…

O brave new world, that has such writers in it!

Reviewing Some of My Reviewing


In an idle moment (ha! as if I ever have those!), I was going through the book reviews I have written over the past year or so of blogging, both on this site and on the Crime Fiction Lover website.  I wanted to see if there were any patterns emerging.

Well, the first and most obvious pattern is that I read a LOT of crime fiction – I would say about 80% of my reading is dedicated to this genre.  And sometimes I worry that this will affect my own writing, as I also write in this genre.  Will I become too influenced by the writers I admire?  My excuse is that I read such a variety of books, from shaky debuts to authors at the height of their powers, from all over the world, with all sorts of different cultural influences and styles, that I am safe.

Within the crime fiction genre, over the past year I have read 26 police procedurals, 10 thrillers (of the high-octane action variety), 10 psychological thrillers (of the ‘hide under the covers and shudder’ variety), 7 ‘form-busters’ – that don’t fit neatly into any category, 6 classic detective novels, 5 cosy mysteries, 5 noir, 1 medical thriller and 1 historical crime novel.  After some pondering, I came to these conclusions:

1) Police procedurals are the most popular form being written today (and I include forensic teams or psychological profilers in that category, as they work so closely together).

2) This doesn’t necessarily reflect my personal preference. I like noir far more than that, and I like action thrillers far less than that, for instance.  However, sometimes you have to review books for which you do not have a natural inclination, which makes me wonder if I am doing them justice.  Perhaps someone with more of an appetite for non-stop action scenes would view them more kindly and convert my 3 or 4 stars to 5 stars.

3) I expected my non-English literature to outweigh my English one.  By this, I mean literature that was originally written in a language  other than English (I did in fact read a lot of translations).  However, in the case of crime fiction, I certainly read more English-speaking authors – 37 – than foreign ones – 31.  When it comes to overall literature, perhaps the balance is slightly better: 50/50.  And this, despite the fact that I am in a place where you have to make an effort to find English or American books (that are not translated into French).  That probably does indicate a slight preference for the familiar or a sense of ‘coming home’ to my well-known authors.  Then again, perhaps it just shows a reluctance to step out too far from my comfort zone.

But perhaps the most obvious conclusion is: with all of the business travel and workshop-preparing, and with all of this reading and reviewing, when on earth do I get time to do any writing?

Answers on a postcard, please.


Real Viennese Crime Fiction

This is not really a book review, more of a declaration of love for its setting, and it fits into my Global Reading Challenge, the meme launched by the incomparable Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise.

Ah, Vienna!  City of my heart – no matter how many places I live in, this is the place that feels closest to home, perhaps because I spent most of my childhood there.  Yet it’s not just gold-tinged nostalgia.  I will forever be regarded as an outsider there: no matter how fond how I am of Grinzing and the wooded hills extending beyond it, no matter how familiar I am with every element of the Viennese cuisine, no matter how easily I slip into the lazy lengthened vowels of the Viennese accent.

Viennese Souvenirs
Viennese Souvenirs

Yet still I thrill to the slightest mention of the city, and I cannot resist any novel that is set there.  Yet somehow, until recently, crime fiction set in Vienna seems to have been written largely by foreign authors. The obvious one to mention is Graham Greene’s ‘The Third Man’.  Both the book and the film are excellent at conveying the disquieting atmosphere of a city on the very border of the Cold War. Frank Tallis has series of novels featuring a psychonalytical detective in early 20th century Vienna, but I found it a bit too rich, like a Sachertorte.  J. Sydney Jones also addresses the same period in Austrian history, introducing real-life literary celebrities, musicians and artists such as Gustav Klimt and Gustav Mahler with his Viennese Mysteries series.

However, in recent years, there has been a surge of native crime writers telling us of their love/hate relationship with their capital city.  [Because you aren’t a real Viennese until you learn to complain about the city and its inhabitants.] Some of them rather obviously cater for the tourist market, much like the Mozartkugeln confectionery.  Some of them are intended for the domestic market (which includes Germany and Switzerland, of course).  None of them have been translated into English yet, as far as I am aware, but I will keep my eyes open for Wolf Haas (many of his books have been filmed for Austrian TV),  Edith Kneifl’s evocations of the Prater fun fair, Andreas Pittler’s novels set in the tumultuous 1930s, Marcus Rafaelsberger who changed his name to Marc Elsberg and now lives in Hamburg, and Alfred Komarek’s melancholy detective Polt, who lives just outside Vienna amidst beautiful vineyards.

But every now and then you find the genuine thing: a book that conveys all of the contradictory atmosphere of this city, everything that charms and frustrates you about it. This author is Stefan Slupetzky and his crime series is about Poldi Wallisch, a.k.a the Lemming for his tendency to engage in self-destructive behaviour.

LemmingThe book I read, ‘Lemmings Zorn’ (Lemming’s Rage) is the fourth in the series, but I don’t think this is a series you need to read in chronological order.  Not surprisingly, it’s about rage and frustration, about average people trying to make a life for themselves in the city of endless construction sites, unapproachable neighbours and high noise levels. It is also about powerlessness and revenge, about shame and shamelessness.

It starts out as a humorous family saga. It’s a lovely May Day holiday and the streets of Vienna are empty, save for Lemming and his heavily pregnant life partner, Klara. Suddenly, Klara’s waters break, the ambulance fails to arrive and panic sets in.  Until the couple are saved by a stranger, Angela, who helps them with the birth, names the baby and becomes a family friend.  A few months later, however, on Christmas Eve, Lemming has to leave the baby with Angela for a few hours.  When he goes to pick up his son, he makes a gruesome discovery which changes their lives forever.

Macabre humour mixed with slapstick, surrealist dream sequences, philosophical asides and tongue-in-cheek observations, this is a crime novel unlike any other you have read.  I absolutely loved it and laughed out loud throughout.  Whether it would appeal to anyone who doesn’t know Vienna or the black humour of its inhabitants, we won’t know until it’s been translated into English. I do hope someone hurries up and does just that!