I’ve had quite a few days of holiday this month, but somehow my plans to spend them mostly reading didn’t quite work. Nevertheless, this is the month that I’ve reached (and overtaken) my Goodreads challenge of 120 books, so it’s not all bad.
9 books read, 7 of them were for a particular purpose, while two were just to relax. Only three of them by women, and a total of six in translation. Here were the reading targets I set for myself:
1930Club – a reread of a classic of Romanian literature and a sobering look at the First World War – Camil Petrescu
Orentober – Orenda Book authors, with two dark and twisted tales from Antti Tuomainen and Will Carver
Finally, the two that were just for relaxation, commuting or travelling by plane were: How It Was by Janet Ellis – a rather piercing portrait of family dynamics in the 1970s and rivalry between mother and daughter; and Tammy Cohen’s They All Fall Down, set in a psychiatric clinic, yet miles away from All Dogs Are Blue, for instance.
November is German Literature Month, so instead of allowing Indonesia, the Middle East or Canada to beckon to me, I will probably linger in Europe for just a little longer.
You’ll have seen from previous posts that I think Karen Sullivan is a pretty special person and that she has created a wonderful family of authors, readers and reviewers with Orenda Books. So I was keen to take part in the #Orentober celebrations, although without the deadlines and hoopla of participating in a blog tour.
I read the most recent books by two of my favourite Orenda authors (which is a bit unfair to all the others, who are each brilliant in their own way, but I suppose these two most correspond to my very noir taste in crime fiction).
Antti Tuomainen: Little Siberia
Put simply, Tuomainen is one of the most versatile and interesting crime fiction writers currently at work. He can do dark and melancholy exceptionally well, but he is also one of the funniest authors out there. I really admire the way he blends the absurd or ridiculous with the violence, despair and sadness and would love to be able to replicate in my own work.
The plotline sounds like something taken out of a Russian novel deliberately designed to be fantastical or surreal in order to escape censorship. A suicidal racing driver is determined to wreck himself and his car on the snowy, deserted roads of Northern Finland. But then a meteorite crashes into his lap (practically). This rare and valuable artefact is carted off to the local museum, where it is guarded against potential thiefs for a few days, before it can be sent to London to be examined in a laboratory. One of the volunteer guards is Joel, a priest who is about to lose his faith – both in God and in his wife, who announces she is pregnant, although he knows for a fact that he is sterile.
Soon, everyone in the little town of Hurmevaara seems to be chasing the meteorite and what it represents: an easy way to get rich quickly and escape all of their problems. Joel himself is not immune to temptation, although he fends off the repeated attempts at burglary. He also suspects that among the would-be burglars there might lurk the father of his wife’s baby.
This has all the frenezy and farcical set-ups of a Mozart opera, all the cases of mistaken identity, dissimulation, not being able to trust anyone… Just like in Mozart, the often absurd situations are rescued by wonderful music (in this case, writing), which singes your heart while avoiding bathos. And you will see why I compare it particularly with ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, as (I hope I am not revealing too much) both have a beautiful scene of forgiveness.
Will Carver: Nothing Important Happened Today
Will Carver is a more recent discovery – I read his toe-curling, mind-bending Good Samaritans only back in May this year (by the way, I mean those adjectives in the best possible way). This new book is just as good at making the reader feel uncomfortable; it will throw up all sorts of questions about how we live our lives today. It’s eerie, unsettling and, in a very good way, political.
Nine strangers meet up on Chelsea Bridge one evening, with a coil of rope in their bags, which they calmly tie around their necks and then leap off to their deaths, all at the same time. It turns out that they are all unwitting members of a mysterious suicide cult called The People of Choice. Soon, the movement is attracting likes on social media and imitators all around the globe. How can you stop such a movement when there doesn’t seem to be any clear leader, when followers are not even aware they are being targeted, and where there is no clear ideology?
It is a very unconventional crime thriller, for, although it features a police detective, he doesn’t actually do all that much detecting for most of the book. In a way, you could claim that no crime has been committed, for all the victims freely chose their own death. It is in fact a pretty forensic examination of how brainwashing works, whether it be a religious or political group.
The key to building a successful cult is to fill it with real people. Take absolutely anybody. Find some common ground. Use it as your starting point. Listen. Don’t do too much talking. Pwer comes from hearing what others have to say. Now tell them what they really need. Believe that what you are saying to them is true. Now you can manipulate them to do what you want… Because everybody wants to feel like they are part of somethings. Something bigger than themsleves. Give them something they can belong to.
‘Cult’ is a disaparaging term, so I hesitate to use it, but I did study ‘new religious movements’ for my Ph.D. and I used to joke that I had the blueprint for creating my own movement. The frightening truth is that it is reasonably easy to manipulate huge swathes of people, and social media has expanded the reach of these ‘mind merchants’. At times, it feels like Will Carver is simply dissecting our contemporary society and showing all its ills. You might even be tempted to agree with certain passages, until you realise that they are actually written from the point of view of the master manipulator him or herself.
Anybody can feel like a nobody. Like the thing they are doing doesn’t matter. Like they wouldn’t be missed by anyoone if they were gone. And it’s not just the recent batch of entitled millenials, who want everything and want it now and for no effort. .. It’s their parents, too… And their own parents, who can’t keep up with the pace of technology and feel that the youth of today have no concept for what they have lived through…
Starting a cult is easier than ever.
Because people want a way out of their lives; they want it to be simple. A tablet that will melt all the fat so they don’t have to work hard at the gym or quit bacon.
Neither of these two books are the cosiest, most escapist of crime novels, but they are both excellent and pushing the boundaries of any crime fiction formula you might be expecting.
Will Carver: Nothing Important Happened Today – A dark thriller about suicide pacts of people who belong to a cult – even if they don’t know they do. I studied so-called cults for my Ph.D; it’s a term that I really objecto to, because, as the author quotes right at the start of the book: ‘Nobody joins a cult. Nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them. You join a religious organsiation, you join a political movement, and you join with people that you really like.’ For #Orentober reading with Orenda Books.
Sébastien Meier: Le Nom du père (The Name of the Father) – To continue with my Swiss in October reading, another francophone Swiss writer, despite his Germanic sounding name, with a psychological thriller.
Always in the background: Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries (the German edition) – trying to read one entry per day, although it usually ends up being 4 days’ worth of entries in one day and then a break.
Alex Capus: Almost Like Spring – part of my Swiss in October reading. The story of the two most notorious bank robbers in Basel or perhaps the whole of Switzerland. I had no idea this was based on a true story and was about to give it brownie points for the stylistic innovation of making it sound like it’s a documentary, with quotes from eyewitnesses and people reminiscing after the event.
Camil Petrescu for the #1930Club
Nicola Barker: The Cauliflower – From one guru to another; and finally a woman writer after a very male-centred week of reading.
China Mieville: Embassytown – because I think it might be a nice counterpoint to the Meier novel, with crime fiction as a pretext for uncovering so much more.
Looking ahead at November, because some of my blogger friends so kindly reminded me that it will be German Literature Month, I have the following possibilities in mind:
Despite having a houseful of children for most of this past week, I have been able to partake in some cultural events as well, both inside and outside the house.
Pain and Glory – Almodovar’s latest film shows the master has mellowed in middle age. The story of a lonely middle-aged film director struggling with lost creativity and ill health is not new, but Antonio Banderas turns in a beautifully nuanced, subtle performance. The flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood are rich in colour and emotion, but what stayed with me most is how we select and package our memories to attempt a coherent narration of our lives… and yet the truth is always more complex than that.
Marriage Story – Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are believably flawed yet appealing as a couple struggling through divorce. It was a little too close to the battlegrounds I am currently experiencing myself, so I’m afraid I embarrassed myself with tears. Filmed in a minimalist way, with close-ups of the actors’ faces engaged in monologues or dialogues, this had the feeling of an indie, mumblecore type of film. There was one particular scene I found all too familiar: where the attempt at having a conversation away from the lawyers descends into a screaming match, with all of the long-hidden resentments and accusations bursting out like an overflowing dam.
Lara – ice-cold in Berlin*. Another carefully observed film, full of significant details, but one where nearly all emotion has been drained. Lara is a domineering mother whose dreams of becoming a concert pianist were dashed in her youth and now feels proud yet nervous about her pianist son’s major concert, which takes place on her 60th birthday. We never see the drama of what led to the estrangement between mother and son, but there are hints of bad behaviour and nervous breakdown. Emotions are very tightly held in check for the most part, yet there are unexpectedly candid (if frosty) conversations between Lara and the people she encounters on her birthday.
*As a child, I firmly believed that ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ was a film version of Berlin Alexanderplatz
Since I had a few hours to kill between the two films at the London Film Festival on Friday, I meandered down Charing Cross Road, mourned the loss of so many second-hand bookshops (when I first came to London, I remember it used to take my hours to go down that road, there were so many bookshops, now turned into cafes or clothes shops – boo!). Nevertheless, I did stop at the few remaining bookshops, at Foyles, then at Second Shelf (again!) and at Waterstones Piccadilly and emerged with the pile below.
However, I’d also been busy ordering some books online, especially while sitting around waiting for the Nobel Prize for Literature to be announced. I ordered a couple of Russians, especially since I thought Ludmila Ulitskaya might be a contender…
And two Orenda books arrived on cue for my #Orentober reading. I’ve already devoured Little Siberia, which is less slapstick than Tuomainen’s last two books (I absolutely loved the black comedy, don’t get me wrong!) but not quite as bleak as his earlier books. I think it would be fair to say that the set-up is ridiculous and richly comic: a suicidal racing car driver has a meteorite drop into his passenger seat. A pastor with experience of fighting in Afghanistan is guarding the local museum where nearly everyone wants to steal the precious piece of rock. He gets plenty of opportunity to question his own faith and choices in life, as well as being exposed to the venality and self-serving excuses of others.
Last but not least, I’ve also watched some TV. Helen Mirren is commanding yet deliciously vulnerable as Catherine the Great (and, although she is almost certainly too old for the part, I cannot help but rejoice that an older woman is shown as both powerful and intransigent, yet also having sexual fun on our screens). And, of course, I’m excited to see the new series of Engrenages (Spiral), the first in a long while without Anne Landois as show runner.
If the first day of the CrimeFest in Bristol was more about dipping the toes into the water, the second day was more about excesses! Not of drink, but of meeting favourite authors and bloggers.
Although the conversations are often quite rushed in-between panels, I always enjoy chatting to knowledgeable and opinionated readers and bloggers such as Kat (aka Mrs P), Karen Meek (aka EuroCrime), Jacqui (aka RavenCrimeReads), Karen Cole (blogging at HairPastAFreckle), Ewa Sherman, Mary Picken, Emma Hamilton (blogging at BuriedUnderBooks), Louise Fairbairn. I can only recommend you seek them out and read their reviews. They know their stuff! Needless to say, I forgot to take pictures with most of them (slightly motivated by the fact that I hate appearing in pictures myself).
But you are probably more interested in the panels.
I discovered three new authors in the Tension and Paranoia panel, where I had previously only been aware of Alison Bruce. She is the creator of the Cambridge-based series featuring the endearing Gary Goodhew (I want to be his Mum!), but was here to talk about a standalone psychological thriller entitled I Did It for Us. Every time I think I am over psychological thrillers, I hear authors talking so passionately and relatably about their books and their characters, about the fears that every woman has about stalkers or something bad happening to their children or experiencing gaslighting. I wanted to buy every one of them, but decided to do so on Kindle rather than having to schlep four bags to the railway station. They were: Claire Kendal with a story about a pregnant spy which will be out later this year, real-life Derry Girl Claire Allan’s Apple of My Eye featuring another pregnant main protagonist and Lucy Clarke’s story You Let Me In, which should cure you of any thoughts of renting out your property on Airbnb.
The second panel I attended was on Partners and Sidekicks. Once again, it was about reconnecting with my beloved baby elephant (Vaseem Khan’s Baby Ganesh and Inspector Chopra series), but also about discovering new authors. Lynn Britney writes about a team of both male and female detectives and scientists who investigate crimes in post-WW1 Britain. T.E. Kinsey tackles cosy historical crime fiction with amateur sleuth Lady Hardcastle and her ‘servant’ (actually, friend) Florence, set in Edwardian Britain. Vaseem Khan’s series of course is set in contemporary India and is actually more gritty than cosy, although the baby elephant adds a bit of whimsy to the series (and will have to grow up very, very slowly, as the author admitted, since a grown elephant is not as cute). Meanwhile, M.W. Craven is the creator the curmudgeonly police officer Washington Poe, whom no one else likes, and civilian analyst, the brilliant but socially awkward Tilly Bradshaw, who has three Ph.Ds but doesn’t know how to boil an egg.
As I told you, this was a day of excesses, so no rest for the wicked and I went straight into the third panel about Guilt. Moderated by an Irish writer, Anthony J. Quinn and featuring two further Irish writers (Olivia Kiernan and Jo Spain) plus a lapsed Catholic (Vanda Symon), you can imagine this panel focused quite heavily on feelings of guilt, on being suspicious of other people and on how they feel about writing in a genre that has been called a ‘guilty pleasure’. Sarah Hilary, also on this panel, was let loose on this topic and said: ‘Why are literary authors never asked if they feel guilty about writing yet another story about a white middle-class midlife crisis?’ Olivia Kiernan agreed that genre is nothing more than a label for booksellers or librarians to order things on a shelf, while Jo Spain said that crime is a study of human nature and all great writers address it (Wuthering Heights, for example). Vanda Symon went so far as to say that crime fiction makes us feel safe, because we read about awful things happening to other people, so crime authors are providing a public health service.
The next panel on Secrets that Haunt You had me almost in tears… of laughter. Louise Beech is an absolute wicked riot as a moderator (or, indeed, as a panelist) and she gave her fellow Orenda authors Thomas Enger and Johana Gustawsson a particularly hard time, claiming they worked as a member of the Norwegian Chippendales and as a Tokyo cage-fighter respectively. Also on the panel were: Fran Dorricot, whose debut thriller After the Eclipse about sibling love and guilt was a huge favourite with my Crime Fiction Lover colleagues; and Barnaby (aka BP) Walter, who looks no older than my son, but has in fact written a rather grim psychological thriller A Version of the Truth whose moral is: Don’t ever go looking for things on someone else’s device, you might not like what you find out!
The panelists were divided in terms of plotting. Johana finds plotting one of the most fun parts of writing, like doing a puzzle, but she doesn’t take it quite as far as Barnaby, who does a full cast list and a chapter by chapter outline, otherwise it would unnerve him to start writing. Fran doesn’t plot much, but knows what emotional ending she wants for her characters, and she knows her characters well. Meanwhile, Thomas says he is still struggling to find the perfect methodology, even though he is on his tenth book, because he doesn’t plot and therefore has to do so many rewrites, as many as 18, which takes up far too much time. There were also some emotional moments, when Thomas admitted that his wife is his first and harshest reader. She has a great eye but tears his work apart, so he can only show it to her every 2-3 months, otherwise he would get too depressed. Meanwhile, Johana sends her father a chapter every day and they discuss it on Facetime, it’s a real partnership and she is frightened to think of the day when she will no longer have that support.
I had an indulgent lunch break when I discovered the cake stall in St Nicholas’ Market. Heartily recommended if you ever visit Bristol! The polenta and fruit cake was a dream and I am somewhat of a connoisseur.
After lunch I had a moment of pure hero worship, as John Harvey was being interviewed to mark his 80th birthday. He is in many ways the kind of author I aspire to be: he likes jazz and theatre, he writes poetry and even ran a poetry press for a while (he published Simon Armitage, amongst others). Of course, it would help if I had his work ethic. Before he turned to crime fiction, John used to write Western novellas, publishing as many as 12 a year. I loved what he said about ‘Fiction is a job and pays the mortgage, while poetry is something that gets written in the cracks.’
His Charlie Resnick series is one of my all-time favourites, and it was satisfying to learn that my personal favourite Darkness Darkness is also the author’s favourite. I also had to get his latest book Body and Soul, although I haven’t read any of his Frank Elder series, because John said it was most definitely his last book. He wants to rest, relax, watch afternoon movies in-between Stairlift ads. He still gets plenty of ideas, but he won’t act on them – maybe someone else would like to buy some of his ideas?
I was flagging a little by then but the last panel of the day, about Friends, Family and Convoluted Relationships (moderated by C. L. Taylor) cheered me right up. I know and love all four authors on this panel: the irrepressible Amanda Jennings, Antti Tuomainen of the wicked, wry humour, Mel McGrath (whose Edie Kiglatuk series set in Inuit territory I absolutely love) and Paul Burston, Polari Prize and Polari Salon founder. However, I did not know the story that inspired Paul’s latest novel: he was trolled and stalked online and off for a good few months. It kept escalating, until he had to take it to court. Writing the book The Closer I Get from the point of view of the stalker rather than the victim was quite cathartic, but it was understandably very difficult to find the right voice. Meanwhile, Amanda had no problems finding the voice of her teenage self in her book The Cliff House,which took her straight back to the 1980s.
I have remarked before how much I love Antti’s change of tone in his two most recent novels, but he also said that he now has more affection and empathy for his characters, even the villains. They are all rather inept at their jobs, and make even bigger mistakes when they try to compensate for a mistake, something he can identify with. He also claims that it’s harder to write humour than dark fiction, even though he believes that kind of outlook in life feels more natural to him as a person.
I did not attend the Gala Dinner, and my friends who were the judges refused to give me a quick heads-up, so I had to find out on Twitter… but I was delighted to hear that a Norwegian won the Petrona Award for best Scandinavian crime novel. It was the dapper, very smiley Jørn Lier Horst, who looks so much like a former Norwegian classmate of mine from Year 6, that it’s quite disconcerting. Well done to the Petrona Award Committee for reading all the entries and selecting such a worthy winner! I was nearly right in my predictions!
It’s been a long time since I was last able to attend a book launch, but last night I had the pleasure of attending a double book launch organised by Orenda Books: for Doug Johnstone’s Faultlines (sci-fi thriller) and Louise Voss’ The Old You(a thriller where the domestic becomes political). The venue was rather unusual for a literary event: the solicitors’ firm Colyer Bristow, with an art exhibition by recent graduates on the lower ground floor.
What is so amazing about Karen Sullivan, the dynamo behind Orenda, is how she has created a real community around her authors and books. Team Orenda is a reality and is full of enthusiastic, supportive people including authors, production and sales teams, reviewers, bloggers, readers. For example, Thomas Enger, one of Orenda’s authors, came all the way from Norway simply to support his fellow writers. And Karen never forgets anything about anyone’s family, aspirations and interests!
West Camel, editor at Orenda, introduced Doug Johnstone and Louise Voss as ‘seasoned’ authors, but they seemed lively and cheery to us. Both of them have been published elsewhere and remarked what a great experience it was to become part of Team Orenda.
Innocent-looking mother of twins Johana Gustawsson is one of the darkest and goriest minds at work in French or English crime fiction at this moment in time.
Of course, we cannot forget the cupcakes that Orenda has justly become famous for!
Barry Forshaw, expert on noir fiction in all its guises, and blogger Jen Lucas were just two of my online bookish friends whom I always enjoy meeting and chatting to in real life. But there was so much more! I finally got to meet Meggy Roussel, who gave me a quick comparison between internships at French and English independent publishers. I tasted Vicky Goldman’s notoriously addictive toffee vodka. Susi Holliday, Steph Broadribb, Katerina Diamond and Daniel Pembrey all shared some tidbits of what they are currently working on. And I met Roz Morris, author, writing coach, ghost writer and owner of a fabulous hat (who has links with a Zürich writing group that I know via Geneva Writers Group – it’s a small world out there, folks!).
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.