13 books this month. Not surprising that a certain proportion of them were women in translation, given that it is #WITMonth, but I also felt tempted to read more women in general, which is reflected in the ratio of women to men: 8 women, 5 men this month. I was also keen to read more foreign authors in general: 11 are either in another language or in translation. My favourite genre remains crime fiction, obviously, with no less than 7 books in this area, but I have also read short stories, diaries and essays this month.
Women in Translation – done a good job of reviewing nearly everything
I’ve had a short break from this meme, but I enjoy it so much that I have to join in again this January. Especially since it starts with the first book in a series which I initially enjoyed a lot. The premise is simple: create a book chain starting with a book set every month by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, and see where it takes you in six quick rolls of the dice.
This month we start with Alexander McCall Smith‘s gentle detective fiction set in Botswana, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I loved Mma Precious Ramotswe, with her womanly figure and straight-laced charm, her kindness and thoughtfulness, but also relentless pursuit of criminals. Besides, it was delightful to read about Africa in a more positive light for a change. After 4-5 books, however, I abandoned the series: it started to be a bit too similar and unchallenging for my taste.
Another series set in Botswana is much more to my taste. Michael Stanley‘s Detective Kubu series also features a cuddly, larger-than-life detective, with enormous empathy and family feeling. The view of Botswana is much darker, however, and the crimes are much more tragic: political corruption, illegal organ transplants, the dark side of traditional medicine, oppression of Bushmen and so much more. I have Dying to Live still patiently waiting for me on my TBR pile and I always look forward to a new one in the series.
If books dealing with political corruption are your thing, there is one above all others which perfectly captures the Cold War paranoia (and is, perhaps, once more topical): Richard Condon’sThe Manchurian Candidate. A sleeper agent controlled by the Russians is about to assassinate political figures one by one. This frightening concept has been given the movie treatment twice, in 1962 (starring Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra) and in 2004 (with Liev Schreiber and Denzel Washington), and has given rise to a political term describing a candidate running for office who publicly supports one group to win election, but once elected uses executive or legislative powers to assist an opposing group. I could say something at this point about Theresa May and Brexit, but I will desist!
Manchuria is a region in China that was invaded by the Japanese in the 1930s with horrific brutality. There aren’t many Japanese books depicting this gruesome period in their history, but Abe Kobo‘s harrowing (and possibly semi-autobiographical) novel Beasts Head for Home shows a Japanese man returning after the end of the war to this region where he grew up, witnessing the consequences of those atrocities and questioning what it means to be one nationality or another, and what one might call home, in a period of fluid borders.
Abe Kobo is best known for his enigmatic novel The Woman in the Dunes, which has also been adapted into a film directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara. I remember both the book and film as been hugely suffocating, like being buried alive in that relentless onslaught of sand.
Another enigmatic book which also makes me think of endless sand and of being buried alive is Albert Camus’L’Étranger. The main protagonist Meursault’s act of violence on the beach in relentless sunshine and his complete lack of remorse hurt me profoundly as a teenager, but each time I reread it, I found different nuances and depths to this story. It’s one of the defining books of the 20th century and explains human indifference and passivity.
But before we get too bleak, let’s end on a more cheerful note, as befits Mma Ramotswe. Another outsider and free spirit is the joyous Huckleberry Finn (Adventures of…) by Mark Twain. He resists all attempts to be ‘sivilised’ or kidnapped or restrained, and has amazing adventures in the process. Although we could and should argue that it is escaped slave Jim who is the true outsider in this story and Twain is not shy about pointing out the hypocrisy of a system that treats Huck and Jim so differently.
So from Botswana to the Mississippi, via Manchuria, Japan and Algeria. Where will your book chain take you?
There was quite a bit of uproar on Twitter about the extremely worthy and ever-so-slightly pretentious beach reading promoted by The Guardian. Why can’t people admit that they crave chick lit or the latest Harlan Coben instead? They don’t have to be trashy airport novels (although most recently I’ve noticed a vast improvement in terms of variety being offered at airports), but they have to be able to withstand great heat, sun cream, the odd splash of water, and fried holiday brain. Can your expensive hardback of Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, written by John Banville, with beautiful photography by Paul Joyce, withstand that? Perhaps one to buy and keep at home as a coffee table book, rather than shlepp to distant beaches…
Of course, I won’t actually be going to any beach this summer, but I hope to get a few nice days of sitting in my deck chair in the garden and worrying about nothing else but reading. And I readily admit that I look forward to a nice dose of escapism to mix in with my literary education. So this is what I would really read if I were on a Greek beach.
Michael Stanley: Dying to Live
I’m a great fan of the Detective ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, and the Kalahari Desert setting fits in perfectly with the beach. Also, it’s a really intriguing tale about the death of a Bushman, who appears to be very old, but his internal organs are puzzlingly young. Could a witch doctor be involved?
Linwood Barclay: Too Close to Home
Another author that I would rather read on the beach than alone at night in a large house, as his nerve-wracking twists are prone to making me jump. The strapline on this one goes: What’s more frightening than your next-door neighbours being murdered? Finding out the killers went to the wrong house…
Helen Cadbury: Bones in the Nest
Like many other crime readers, I was very saddened to hear about the recent death of Helen Cadbury. I had read her debut novel in the Sean Denton series reviewed and marked her out as a talent to watch in 2014 on Crime Fiction Lover. This is the second in a series set in Doncaster, which unfortunately never had the chance to grow to its full potential.
Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy of a Scandal
The perfect novel for those who can’t quite take a break from politics: this is the story of an MP whose affair is made public, his wife who tries to stand by him in spite of her doubts, and the barrister who believes he has been guilty of rape. A searing look at privilege, hypocrisy and the social justice system.
Not my usual kind of reading at all, but I like to keep abreast of what my children are reading.
G.P. Taylor: Mariah Mundi – The Midas Box
Mariah is a young orphan, fresh out of school, who is employed to work as an assistant to a magician living in the luxurious Prince Regent Hotel. But the slimy, dripping basement of the hotel hides a dark secret. I’ve heard of the author’s Shadowmancer series, but never read anything by him. Described as the next Harry Potter, this book promises to take the reader into a world of magic and fun.
Paul Gallico: Jennie
Peter wakes up from a serious accident and finds himself transformed into a cat. Life as a street cat is tough and he struggle to survive, but luckily stumbles across the scrawny but kindly tabby cat Jennie, who helps him out. Together they embark on a bit of an adventure.
This is not only worthy reading, but highly enjoyable into the bargain! Although seeking out translations from some of the countries on the list is not that easy or cheap.
Hungary – Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (transl. Patrick Thursdfiel and Katalin Banffy-Jelen)
Satisfies any cravings for family saga and historical romance, as well as looking at a part of the world which is very close to me (Transylvania). Plus a society bent on self-destruction – what more could one want?
Romania – Ileana Vulpescu: Arta Compromisului (The Art of Compromise)
This author’s earlier book The Art of Conversation was an amazing bestseller in the early 1980s in Romania, partly because it went against all the expectations of ‘socialist realism’ of the time and was quite critical of socialist politics (of an earlier period, admittedly). This book, published in 2009, continues the story of the main character, but this time set in the period after the fall of Communism in 1989. Critics have called it a bit of a soap opera, but at the same time an excellent snapshot of contemporary society. Sounds like delightful light reading, with a social critique, perfect for reconnecting with my native tongue.
Spain – Javier Marias: The Infatuations (transl. Margaret Jull Costa)
Another story with a murderous aside by an author I’ve only recently discovered and whose baroque sentences mesmerise me… Every day, María Dolz stops for breakfast at the same café. And every day she enjoys watching a handsome couple who follow the same routine. Then one day they aren’t there, and she feels obscurely bereft. She discovers that the man was murdered in the street – and Maria gets entangled in a very odd relationship with the widow.
Women in Translation Month
Another project which has the merit of being both worthy and great fun. I plan to read several of the Keshiki project of Strangers Press – beautifully produced slim translations of Japanese short stories and novellas. There are plenty of women writers represented: Misumi Kubo, Yoko Tawada, Kyoko Yoshida, Aoko Matsuda and the improbably named Nao-Cola Yamazaki. I expect the strange, unsettling, disquieting and sexually heated… Phew!
I always knew Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books was a formidable woman and a passionate publisher, but she really outdid herself this evening. Where else can you see 15 excellent and diverse writers, from 7 different countries (8 if you count Scotland), all in the space of two hours on a Wednesday night in central London?
The concept was simple but effective: each writer introduced themselves and their book briefly, then each read a passage. There was a bit of time for Q&A at the end, but time just flew by and I could have listened to them for hours. They are a fun bunch of writers, who have gelled together really well and build upon each other’s words at public events. While it was predominantly a psychological thriller/crime fiction sort of evening, there are also some authors who have written outside that genre: Su Bristow with her poetic retelling of the Selkie myth, Louise Beech with her heartbreaking portrayals of children and Sarah Stovell with the story of an obsessive love which reminded me of Notes on a Scandal.
This was followed by an enormous and delicious cake, aquavit to celebrate the National Day of Norway alongside more usual beverages, and lots of informal mingling and book signing.
It was great to also meet some of the others on the Orenda team: editor West Camel, distribution group Turnaround, cover designer Mark Swan. There were familiar faces of bloggers as well. Karen has managed to create a real feeling of community and genuine enthusiasm around her authors and publishing house, which feels more like family than corporate care.
On the way there I was musing about Orenda’s ‘brand’. Karen makes no apologies about offering entertainment, but it is page-turning, original, good entertainment, rather than one relying on ‘more of the same cliché-churning drivel that is currently making money’, which some of the publishing giants are turning out. I may not love all of the books equally (I am not a huge action thriller fan, for example), but I have not disliked or left any Orenda book unread. I can count on them to entertain and enlighten, make me laugh and cry, while some of them have become huge favourites.
Of course I already owned all of the books, thanks to Orenda’s wonderful habit of involving bloggers and reviewers pre-release, but that didn’t stop me buying a few more to be signed or to give to friends. I also started Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski on the train on the way to the event and was so riveted that I did not stop until I finished it last night (or early this morning, rather).
The Roadshow will be stopping at Crimefest in Bristol next, so go and see them there if you get a chance. Congratulations to all, and I can’t wait to see what you are all up to next.
You know how quickly I devour crime fiction and that my preference is for the subversive, disturbing and relentlessly noir. However, quite a few my recent reads have been of a gentler persuasion, almost an old-fashioned feel. In descending order of ‘gentility’, may I introduce you to…
Margot Kinberg: B Very Flat
Margot is such a supportive, knowledgeable member of the crime-writing and reading community, plus I have a soft spot for novels with an academic setting, so I’d been planning to get this one for ages. Not easy to order outside the US, but I eventually got my paws on it (and am now waiting to meet Margot in person, so she can sign it for me).
Serena Brinkman is a talented violinist at Tilton University, a small but prestigious college on the East Coast. She truly seems to be the golden girl who has it all – but then death strikes on the night of a major music competition. A former detective, now professor of criminal justice at Tilton University, is asked to investigate the apparently accidental death a little further. We are firmly in Golden Age detective era type of fiction here, although there are all the modern accoutrements of student life nowadays (including PDAs and online gambling). What struck me was how very polite and nice all the characters seem – genteel, in other words (although, obviously, they can’t all be, since one of them at least is a murderer). Even the flawed ones, even when misunderstandings occur. It’s a book for readers who like a puzzle and a minimum of gore.
Frédéric Dard: Bird in a Cage (transl. David Bellos)
Dard was one of the most prolific crime writers in France (and that’s saying something, given that Simenon was also writing there). Best-known for his nearly 180 San-Antonio novels (think a more satirical and realistic Bond), he has also written over 100 standalone novels and shorter series, many of them under various pseudonyms (clearly, the publishers couldn’t keep up with him!).
This is a bittersweet novel with a perfect 1950s setting, which reminded me a little of Pascal Garnier. Albert returns to his old neighbourhood in Paris after his mother’s death (having spent several years in prison) and is captivated by a beautiful woman and her young child, whom he sees eating alone in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. He becomes involved in a very complicated and dubious story with the woman, her husband and the Midnight Mass for Christmas. A clever puzzle and a rather quiet, gentle man who is clearly being manipulated, although we are not quite sure how.
Jo Nesbø: Blood on the Snow (transl. Neil Smith)
I was struck at once by how similar this novel is to Bird in a Cage in terms of premise and feel (rather than style or plot). A professional fixer (with some moral scruples) is asked to ‘fix’ the wife of his boss, but starts to feel sorry for her. Falls a little in love. This is a much more brutal story, far less ambiguous than Dard, and Olav is not as genteel or well-spoken as Albert, but it is a quieter book, with an old-fashioned atmosphere which we’ve not hitherto experienced with Nesbø. Bet you weren’t expecting him to come smack-bang in the middle of this post!
Augusto De Angelis: The Hotel of the Three Roses (transl. Jill Foulston)
Another Pushkin Vertigo release, I had high hopes for this one, set in a boarding-house in Milan in 1919, written in the 1930s and filled to the brim with unreliable characters with a dodgy past. However, I found there were just too many characters, all lying with no compunction and very little concern about plausibility. There were just too many things happening, insufficient clarity and psychological motivation. This was gentility of the cold-nosed, snobbish variety, not even a smidgen of warmth or attempt to make me care about any of the characters. And, as for those creepy china dolls…!
Michael Stanley: Deadly Harvest
This is not the Botswana of endless cups of Redbush tea and astute yet gentle musings of Alexander McCall Smith. But it remains, nevertheless, a polite, traditional society with respect for rank and the elderly, even though we are dealing with some pretty horrible realities. Under the ‘quaint’ umbrella of traditional African medicine, muti, we find a profoundly disturbing superstition and increasing use of human body parts. As young girls go missing and the communities are too scared to talk, our beloved rotund Detective Kubu supports his feisty new recruit, Samantha Khama, who wants to find out just what is going on. Politics, traditions, family ties, AIDS victims and reactions to HIV-infected children, plus strong characterisation all form a delightful and far more believable alternative narrative of modern Africa. The authors scratch beneath the surface of the beauty, charm and nostalgia that the British Empire still has for Africa, yet carefully avoid making the country or its people the villain of the piece. One of my favourite series set in Africa.
I’ve written a pretty exhaustive report on the panels and encounters with writers (including quotes) for Crime Fiction Lover, so I won’t repeat myself here. Let me tell you instead some of my personal highlights.
1) Max Cabanes
A few of you have noticed and complimented me on my new Avatar on Twitter. This is a very idealised portrait of myself drawn by Max Cabanes, one of the foremost artists of bandes dessinées (graphic novels or comic strips, hugely popular in the French-speaking world but with no perfect equivalent in the rest of the world), winner of the most prestigious prize in the field, the Grand Prix du Festival d’Angoulême in 1990, and a contributor to Charlie Hebdo. I had already bought his latest work, the adaptation of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Fatale (I had dithered previously over whether to buy this or the collected works of Manchette … ended up getting both for myself for Christmas).
However, I stupidly forgot it at home, right next to where I’d packed my suitcase, so I couldn’t get him to sign it (and BD artists always draw something when they give their autographs). So I kept walking up and down in the very busy main hall, trying to find a solution (they had none of Cabanes’ other volumes). Finally, I bought another copy and explained the whole dilemma to him. He was so lovely and chatty, we ended up talking for 20 minutes or so. He went to Paris initially to become a ‘serious’ artist and sculptor, claimed he wouldn’t sell his soul to BD, until he discovered he loved telling stories… and that it helped pay the bills much more effectively. He did admit that it was much more difficult for young artists today to break into the field and make a living out of it (and he had advice for my older son, who likes writing and drawing his own BD).
Finally, although I knew that it takes at least a year to produce a normal sized graphic novel, I was stunned to discover just how long it took Cabanes to adapt Fatale – nearly 3 years! That’s because he is meticulous about his research, every little detail has to be perfect, and, even though Manchette is very cinematic in his writing, you still have to select the best ‘moments’ to illustrate. So, worth every euro, I think! He also told me he is reviewing his reworking of ‘Princess du sang’ by Manchette and will have a beautiful re-edited version published in autumn.
Meanwhile, I have a spare copy of Fatale to give away, so let me know if you read French and have a hankering for it…
2) Informal Encounters with Humans
Meeting some of the big names of literature can be an intimidating experience, especially when you are just one of the hundreds who are assaulting them at such events. Plus, I have the tendency to get uncharacteristically tongue-tied and shy (afraid I can’t think of anything intelligent to say, something they haven’t heard thousands of times before). So it really helps when you bump into them informally or somehow manage to catch them at a time when they are not being jostled into place for their next panel or signing. [It must be very tiring for them, to be honest, as the timing is very tight and you have to run from one venue to the next.]
Most crime writers I’ve met are delightfully unpretentious, warm human beings. I gushed to Sean French and Nicci Gerrard (of Nicci French fame) that I’ve been a huge fan ever since I heard them speak about the Moomins and the Martin Beck series at the Henley Literary Festival 6 years ago and congratulated Nicci on her brilliant initiative to allow family of dementia patients improved access to NHS hospitals.
You have to balance this, however, with the danger of being considered a stalker. I happened to come across Attica Locke powdering her nose and was not sure if I should approach or not. I’m glad I did, though, because she is funny, down-to-earth and politically engaged. She was signing books next to one half of Michael Stanley – namely Stanley Trollip – from South Africa (of Inspector Kubu fame) and you couldn’t have asked for nicer neighbours at the table. Stanley explained the very collaborative writing process with Michael Sears as ‘like an old married couple, we may bicker but we haven’t got divorced yet’. A bit like Kubu and his wife Joy, then!
Alongside personal hero(ines) such as Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Val McDermid and Sylvie Granotier, I also got to meet Louise Penny. I only discovered her series about Quebecois inspector Armand Gamache 2 years ago (thanks to Margot Kinberg), but she has become one of my favourite authors with her inimitable blend of cosy location, unforgettable characters, cracking plots and profound questions about the human condition, personal relationships and the nature of beauty and creation. She is so gracious, beautiful and generous: I want to be like her when I grow up!
3) Online Friends and the City Itself
But what would even a beautiful and gourmet city like Lyon be without the people you meet there? I got to spend some time with the charming Lyonnaise-by-adoption Emma, who blogs in English and has done an excellent write-up of the event.
Last, but not least, I had the pleasure of meeting once more my blogging friend Catherine, whose pictures of the event are much more professional than mine. She knows more about British crime fiction than any other French person I know, plus she is my constant source of reference for French and other crime.
I’ll tell you more about Saturday night’s Murder Ball and the city-wide Murder Mystery Trail in a future post, as well as the books I bought and the new-to-me authors. I’ll probably drone on and on about this event until you’ll start wishing I’d never gone there. I don’t get out much, you see – this is my one big event of the year, so bear with me…
In return, please keep me informed of all the other great events in the UK and US that I’ll be missing this summer!
If you have become accustomed to the gentle mysteries and charming portrayal of Botswana in Alexander McCall Smith’s series featuring Mma Precious Ramotse, you will find this crime series less comfortable reading. Michael Stanley is the pen-name for the successful collaboration between Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who are not from Botswana but have extensive experience of Southern Africa (one of them lives in Johannesburg). For an anthropologist, this novel is a dream: it not only has a very keen sense of place, but it also describes the conflict between the different ways of life of the ethnic groups in that country.
This is the third novel in a series featuring detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu (Kubu is his nickname and means ‘Hippopotamus’, referring to his generous proportions), but it works equally well as a standalone novel or an introduction to the series. Kubu is an absolutely delightful character, a man caught between traditional and Western culture, with an equal love for his job, his parents, his wife and baby daughter, but also thirsting for truth and justice.
It starts out simply enough. A park ranger is found dead, with three Bushmen hovering near the body. Are they trying to help or did they commit murder? One local detective believes the latter, but Kubu is not so sure. Especially when he is asked to take on the case by his old school chum, also a Bushman who is now an advocate for the native rights of these people. The Bushmen or Khoisan – both names are used somewhat disparagingly for what is a diverse group of people – used to roam freely in the Kalahari but are now being increasingly herded into reservations. The lack of evidence forces Kubu to free them, but then more murders take place, leading Kubu deeper into danger and forcing him to make difficult personal choices.
The Mantis, with its light brown colour and small proportions, is one of the animals most revered by the Bushmen of the Kalahari, and the double entendre of the title of this book is significant. While there are many deft humorous touches to the story, this is also a serious examination of societal issues and the consequences of modernisation. Yet these issues are addressed lightly, without preaching, in a thrilling and compelling story. I will certainly be reading more in this series and thank you to the book bloggers who have recommended it to me.
This was the final book (my second Africa entry) for my Global Reading challenge – Medium Level, hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Thank you to Kerrie for encouraging us to step out of our usual cultural comforts and for enabling me to discover so many new settings and authors this year!