Other Bookish Favourites of 2017 and Plans for 2018

After sharing with you my favourite books in translation, my favourite untranslated books, and the best of both translated and English-language crime fiction, including my Top 5 on Crime Fiction Lover, what is left? Well, all the other favourites, of course, which don’t fit into any of these categories. They fall mainly into the fiction category, with a couple of non-fiction mixed into it. (I will discuss the poetry separately, as I tend not to list the poetry books on Goodreads).

Now, what do you notice about this list? That’s right: it’s all women writers. I believe I’ve read roughly equal amounts of male and female authors, but it’s the women who have really appealed to me in this year of finally living on my own.

Rachel Cusk: Outline

Hard to categorise, I see this as a book of ideas, where essay and stories blend, where the narrator becomes a camera recording other people’s thoughts and reactions. A very Anglo-Saxon way of dealing with grief and separation, slightly detached, masking the heartbreak with cold detachment.

Katie Kitamura: A Separation

In many ways, the mirror image of Outline, but with more abandon. Once again, Greece is the backdrop, almost an excuse for a story about break-up and grief and self-recrimination – to a much more self-excoriating extent than with Cusk. A clear story arc, but also a novel of ideas, of reflection, but inwardly rather than outwardly focused.

Helen Garner: This House of Grief

Perhaps it’s not surprising that stories about separations loomed large in my reading this year, but this true crime account of a man who was suspected of killing his children took me to places where I barely dare to tread. Garner has a talent for unpicking not only the personal tragedy but also the judicial system and the way in which a jury’s mind can be made up.

Fiona Melrose: Midwinter

The farming heritage in me thrilled at this story of hard graft and taciturn farmer families.

Jane Gardam: The Stories

Controlled, ironic, melancholy

Alison Lurie: Real People

Writers’ retreats and big egos are an endless source of satire.

Elizabeth von Arnim: The Enchanted April

Delightful escapism, with a real love of beautiful location and a sharp eye for human foibles.

Winifred Watson: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Just as charming, warm-hearted but keeping the eyes wide open and critical.

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Quite simply one of the most quietly menacing, tightly written and brooding books ever!

Helen Dunmore: Birdcage Walk

Perhaps it didn’t quite live up to my expectations, but I still found it a beautiful read about an uncomfortable marriage and a bid for freedom.

Kathleen Jamie: Sightlines

Non-fiction of the highest intellectual and poetic order.

Liz Jensen: The Rapture

Eco-thriller with rich prose and unusual characters which deserves to be better known (full review coming soon).

Reading Plans for 2018

It looks like I will be reading quite a bit of translated fiction in 2018 – 12 titles are guaranteed, since I joined the Asymptote Book Club. I can’t wait to start getting involved in the discussions and all the special features (interviews with translators and authors, book selections, reviews, pictures and so on). Don’t forget you can join anytime during the year, for either 3 months or 12 months.

I will be continuing with my #EU27Project and spend more time planning to cover all of the countries rather than handling it haphazardly as I have done in the past year. After all, I want to show those Brexit negotiators what it means to be well prepared…

I also want to take part in the by now classic reading events such as January in Japan, Women in Translation Month and German Literature Month, although I make no promise about how many titles I can cover: at least one, hopefully more. Of course, I will continue reading and reviewing crime fiction: it’s a habit I cannot kick (nor do I want to).

Finally, I want to read and review more poetry and take part more frequently in the dVerse Poets Pub or other prompts, both to limber up my writing muscles and also to see what others are writing – always inspiring! Speaking of dVerse Poets, I am delighted to announce the arrival of an anthology of poetry from over 100 dVerse contributors all over the world. Entitled Chiaroscuro: Darkness and Lightthis surprisingly chunky volume is a testament to our friendship across borders and shared love for the well-chosen word.

Creepy, Funny, Poignant, Sad: Quick Book Reviews

Each one of the books below deserves a full review, but, as I was saying just yesterday, I cannot afford that luxury when I am so far behind with my reviews. The adjectives in the title describe pretty much every single one of the books in the selection below: they all have their poignant, funny, sad moments. And all except the Sedaris are unsettling and more than slightly disturbing.

uninvitedLiz Jensen: The Uninvited

A magnificent blend of genres and styles, sinister moments alternating with lighter ones. The author cranks up the tension almost unbearably without ever resorting to graphic nastiness. A rather endearing anthropologist suffering from Asperger’s (now that’s an unlikely notion, but produces clever and hilarious results), Hesketh Lock, is hired to investigate underlying patterns of a spate of suicidal saboteurs and children turning feral and criminal. The latter, in particular, is a most unsettling notion, especially since Hesketh has a rather lovely relationship with his stepson.  This book poses many questions about the world of adults and children, ‘them’ and us mentality, wishing to remain uninvolved and also the future of our planet. So ambitious themes, but handled with great ingenuity and suspense.

metalkprettyDavid Sedaris: Me Talk Pretty One Day

Whenever I moaned about my struggles with the French language since moving to Geneva, friends recommended this book and I finally read it. It’s not all about the author’s experiences of France, its language and its people, but it certainly is very funny and relatable when it does touch on that topic. It feels at times almost like a stand-up routine: ranting with purpose and humour. Trying to remember the gender of French nouns, trying to survive language classes with a sadistic French teacher, life in a small village – I was chuckling with recognition throughout. It’s not just the French who have to endure Sedaris’ sharp tongue, his Greek father, Americans abroad, New York eccentrics and many more all come in for a share of his satire. Because we have just celebrated Easter, let me share with you this delightful passage. The classmates are trying to explain, in their broken French, what Easter is to a Moroccan friend:

The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. ‘It is,’ said one, ‘a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and… oh, shit.’ She faltered and her fellow countryman came to her aid.
‘He call his self Jesus and then he die one day on two… morsels of… lumber.’
The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.
‘He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father.’
‘He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.’
‘He nice, the Jesus.’
‘He make the good things, and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today.’

granSara Gran: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

New Orleans is just as much the star of the show in this novel as is Claire DeWitt, a private investigator using decidedly unconventional methods (and more than a little partial to some recreational smoking). However, it’s a post-Katrina city, with many residents still missing or flooded out of their homes. It’s a city of decay and death, of criminality and corruption, and Gran spares no one’s feelings. But there is also much empathy and sadness in her heroine. Claire is a hard-boiled detective with a mystical side and an almost unearthly devotion to her former teacher and an old book of detection written by a Frenchman. It’s a colourful, intriguing and very unusual crime novel, in which the mystery is almost secondary to the fresco of life. I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing Sara Gran in Lyon.

wickedgameMatt Johnson: Wicked Game

This is a book written by an expert in UK military police and SAS. And it shows, in more ways than one. On the plus side, it is chillingly plausible and conjures up an explosive atmosphere of distrust and fear. On the negative side, it is sometimes a bit too detailed and full of jargon in its description, at least for this reader without a passionate interest in weapons and combat techniques. Robert Finlay, the aging protagonist, is very sympathetic and the plot will keep you on your toes till the very end (without resorting to Hollywood film clichés), so it’s an excellent read for thriller fans. Plus, look at the gorgeous cover!

 

Fox Minding the Chicken Coop

There is a saying in Romanian that, if you are a wise farmer, you would not put the fox in charge of minding the chicken coop… However, at the Geneva Writers’ Conference this past weekend, they had no qualms about putting me (and the gentle, lovely Kathy – whom I want to resemble when I grow up) in charge of the bookstore. With predictable consequences!

I came away with quite a respectable book haul, especially since I could also get the authors to sign the books for me then and there. But even minding the bookstore is no guarantee that you’ll get hold of all the books you want, since some authors sold out so quickly, I didn’t have a chance to grab one of their books!

GWGPile

One of the big-name authors at the conference was Tessa Hadley, recent winner of the surprise Windham-Campbell prize. I had already seen Tessa in action at the Morges book festival, and she is the most articulate, inspiring and modest writer you could imagine. This time I bought her latest book The Past, about a family reunion in the house of her childhood memories, and Clever Girl, which in many ways feels like the story of many a gifted woman who allows herself to be weighed down by the crunch of daily responsibilities and the merciless grind of life itself.

An author who writes more in my genre (although she actually straddles multiple genres, and very elegantly too) is Liz Jensen. I had recently read her very chilling (and yet quite funny) book The Uninvited and had to buy the previous one, The Rapture, which is its companion piece (although an entirely distinct story).

I bought two more crime novels, this time by authors who are either part of the Geneva Writers Group or have close links to it. D-L Nelson is American, but has lived most of her life outside the States and writes murder mysteries featuring third-culture kid Annie Young. As a TCK myself (and mother of a TCK), this proved irresistible. Besides, D-L is the kindest, wisest person I know, generous of spirit and indomitable of heart.

The final crime novel Behind Closed Doors is by a Zurich-based writer, Jill Marsh, and takes place there. It’s about ‘poetic justice’: an unethical banker suffocate, a diamond dealers slits his wrists, a disgraced CEO inhales exhaust fumes… a series of apparent suicides by slimey businessmen. But of course, there is more to it than just a sudden attack of conscience…

Maps1The final book I came away with is very expensive but beautiful. Diccon Bewes has written several witty and insightful books about Switzerland and its people, but his latest, Around Switzerland in 80 Maps, is an utterly flawless combination of information and gorgeous old maps or illustrations.

Below are some examples of the illustrations. A lovely souvenir of my time in Switzerland, I think you’ll agree.

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