Repeat after me: summertime, and the living is easy… And, if it is not, we like to pretend it is. What better way to do so than with some new books? All recommended by online or writing friends.
After rereading Persuasion, Janet Emson decided to give Mansfield Park another go, which made me want to reread all the Austen novels, as I used to do once a year in my so-called less busy 20s (when I was juggling three jobs at at a time). So the perfect excuse to acquire these pretty new Vintage Classics editions of my two least favourite Jane Austen novels, Sense and Sensibilityand Mansfield Park. (I still like them a lot and these editions will make me like them more.)
Rebecca Watts: The Met Office Advises Caution grabbed my attention on Kaggsy’s blog. A debut collection of poetry which combines observations of nature, wit, science and human drama.
Meena Kandasamy: When I Hit You or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife caught my eye in this smart review, A List of People Who Should Read this book. I want to learn more about present-day India and anything about the struggle between marriage and art is bound to attract me…
Rae Armantrout: Entanglements is a tiny volume of poetry, but it’s apparently described as making poetry of physics. I did at one point want to study physics and most of my physicist friends (other than my husband) are also very fond of poetry. There seems to be a hidden connection there (as with maths and music). Furthermore, at our poetry masterclass, Laura Kasischke said that my poetry reminded her of Rae Armantrout’s (whom I have never read).
Charles Forsdick & Christian Hogsbjerg: Toussaint Louverture – A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions. This book was mentioned on the Repeating Islands website, which focuses on Caribbean art, culture, history and literature. The Haitian slave who became a military leader and governor, led the only successful slave revolt in history and founded the first free colonial society which explicitly rejected race as the basis of social ranking is a fascinating character. I had heard of him from my Haitian salsa teacher in France. After a year or two of having mainly girls as a partner, I gave up on salsa but I was impressed by the dancing skills and revolutionary spirit of my teacher (although he was less impressed with Voltaire than me).
After a couple of failed attempts, I’m delighted to finally be able to feature one of my favourite crime reviewers here. Bernadette is joining us all the way from Australia, the land that book publishing forgot, as she humorously says on her blog Reactions to Reading. In an effort to improve international knowledge of Australian crime fiction, she also runs a blog called Fair Dinkum Crime and you can find her on Twitter too.
How did you get hooked on crime fiction?
I guess I can thank (or blame?) a combination of my mum and the librarian at our local branch of the Mechanics’ Institute (it didn’t become a Council operated public library until I was a teenager). Mum always took my brother and me along on her weekly trips to the library, so from early on I became as voracious a reader as she was. Early on I read the Famous Five and Bobbsey Twins, although apparently I derided these at an early age declaring them not to be criminal enough. I then moved on to Trixie Beldon and Nancy Drew, but it wasn’t long before I’d exhausted the kids’ stuff. So Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Nero Wolfe and Dick Francis followed. I’ve dabbled with other genres over the years – including a pretty intense horror phase in my teens – but I always make my way back to crime fiction.
Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?
I used to say I give anything a go but that’s not really true anymore. If it ever was. I avoid some subjects all together – gangsters and mafia storylines top of the list – and am very choosy these days about reading books featuring serial killers. I guess it’s still possible that someone will come up with a new take on that trope but most of what I see is derivative and boring. I also avoid books that feature ‘too much’ gratuitous violence. I know that defining ‘too much’ is subjective but I am heartily sick of reading about the hacked up bodies of women (‘cos in the types of books I’m thinking of it is almost always women who are tortured and mutilated).
Other than the above-mentioned things, I try to read a mixture of subgenres but my heart will always be won over by a story with a point. I love a good yarn, and even more one that explores some political or social issue. Books that show me some aspect of life I am unfamiliar with or take me into some part of the world I’ve never been to (even those close to my backyard) or make me think differently about a topical subject are the sort of thing I look for these days.
What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?
I’ve had a really great reading year so far but if pushed to choose just one I’d have to say Malla Nunn’s Present Darkness is the most memorable. Malla Nunn migrated to Australia from South Africa many years ago (lucky for us) but she sets her books in the country of her birth in the early days of apartheid. Present Darkness is the fourth book in her series and while I’ve thought its predecessors all excellent this one was her best yet. It does exactly what I was talking about earlier – it really gives readers a glimpse of the day-to-day grind and fear and inhumanity of being a black person living under that regime. Plus it’s a helluva yarn.
If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?
I’ve spent way too long thinking about this question. Way, way too long. The likelihood of me actually being stuck on a deserted island after having had an opportunity to select some books to take along is really, really tiny. So I know my answer doesn’t actually matter. But still…
For a while my answer was going to be Dick Francis. I have a soft spot for this author, partly due to him being one of my mum’s favourites. For years each time he had a new book out, we would both get hold of a copy and compare notes as quickly as we could. The other part of my fondness is due to the global availability of his books. When I was young and un-arthritic I did a fair bit of backpacking and the biggest problem was finding something to read (I am woefully monolingual). Even when travelling there is lots of down time but in a pre-Kindle world you couldn’t carry a dozen or more books. I have scoured newsstands and second-hand stalls in many countries of the world and can report that if you’re looking for something to read in English in some far-flung part of the globe you can just about guarantee to find novels by Barbara Cartland and Dick Francis (or at least you could in the late 80’s and 90’s when I was abroad). As I’ve never been a romance reader, I always opted for the Francis books and I am eternally grateful to his global appeal.
But I have read them all multiple times so think I would want something a bit fresher on my island sojourn. It is tempting to opt for a long series that I’ve never started – maybe Ed McBain’s 87th St. precinct novels for example – but what if I don’t like even the first one? How depressing to be stuck on an island with plenty to read and no motivation to do so.
So after way too much thought I’ve decided to opt for the novels of Reginald Hill. I’ve read enough of them to know that I like his style a great deal but some would be completely new to me and even those that would be re-reads are still fresh enough. If I were allowed two series/sets of authors I’d throw in the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I’ve only read 2 or 3 of these and very much want to read them all. But there are only 10 and they’re very thin. Not bulky enough for a long stint on a deserted island.
What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?
I’ve just put all six books shortlisted for this year’s Petrona Award on hold at the library. In recent years I have thoroughly enjoyed expanding my reading horizons via the explosion in translated crime novels from across the globe. But I have a soft spot for this award named in honour of a fellow crime fiction lover who passed away far too soon. Her love of good quality crime fiction in translation has been ably honoured by the previous shortlists and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into this year’s selection.
Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?
I love historical fiction and not only the kind that involves murder. I think the book I’ve recommended most over the years is Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders: plague, a strong female character, a not so subtle dig at religious hypocrisy – what more could you ask for?
Thank you so much, Bernadette, for your very amusing and candid observations; it’s certainly been worth the wait. I love the fact that all of my interviewees seem to assume a lengthy stay on a deserted island and are very much afraid of running out of reading material. As for me, I’d be terrified that I get rescued too soon and don’t have enough time to read everything!
What do you think of Bernadette’s choices? It reminds me that I certainly must read Malla Nunn, about whom I’ve heard such good things. You can see previous respondents in the series here and for future interviewees: well, you know the drill… Please let me know if you’d like to participate. I’m always eager to hear your recommendations.
Still too busy with our house-guests to be able to do my customary end-of-month reading round-up, but on this last sun-dappled day of October, I’m looking ahead to November reading, but not forward to November weather.
November is German Literature Month – now in its fourth edition, jointly hosted by lovely bloggers Lizzy Siddal and Caroline from Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat. This time, instead of merely admiring from the sidelines, I will take part, although perhaps in a somewhat more relaxed and unconventional form.
I have a number of books in German or in translation on my shelves which I really must get around to reading, so that’s my top priority. However, I will also try to fit in with some of the challenges.
1) A work that is not a novel:
Edda Ziegler : Verboten Verfemt Vertrieben – a book about women writers who resisted the rise of National-Socialism in Germany. Some of them I’ve heard of (Anna Seghers, Veza Canetti, Else Lasker-Schüler), others are completely new to me.
2) Work by an award winner:
Bernhard Schlink: Liebesfluchten (translated as Flights of Love)
Winner of multiple awards and of course famous for his novel ‘The Reader’. What makes him even more interesting in my eyes is that he started out as a crime fiction writer.
Alois Hotschnig: Maybe This Time (translated by Tess Lewis)
Short story collection by this Austrian writer, winner of the Erich Fried Prize (small but prestigious Austrian literary prize).
3) A work relating to GDR or the Fall of the Wall:
Hester Vaizey: Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall
This one doesn’t quite fulfill the criteria (i.e. it was not written in German, although the interviews were conducted in German), but it is so compelling. The real life stories of eight East German citizens of the Unification Generation, caught up in the transition between Communism and Capitalism. How do they remember the GDR 25 years later?
4) A work written by or about Joseph Roth:
Another bit of judicious cheating here, as it’s just two very short stories by Joseph Roth in the beautiful collection of ‘Vienna Tales’, translated by Deborah Holmes, edited by Helen Constantine.
5) Read a recommendation from German Literature Month Editions 1-3
Friedrich Dürenmatt: Der Verdacht
Having reread The Judge and His Hangman recently, I want to reacquaint myself with this second post-modernist or existentialist crime novel featuring Inspector Bärlach.
I hope I’m not stretching myself too far, especially since I also have some other commitments. I have a few French books which I borrowed from the library and which I need to finish (around the theme of ‘male midlife crisis’). I’ll be reviewing and interviewing new authors for Crime Fiction Lover’s New Talent in November feature. Oh, and I may also have to do some ‘real’ work occasionally. (Or should that be ‘paid’ work, as this book malarkey feels much more real to me?)
What better way to celebrate 14th of July, the Day of the Fall of the Bastille, than with some French fiction? I’ve picked three very different French writers for you, who are perhaps not quite household names (yet), especially outside their home country. Each one has a very different style and approach to literature and life in general. Their books have been translated into English, but there are many more I could have recommended who are not yet available in translation. More’s the pity!
1) Delphine de Vigan: Nothing Holds Back the Night – Bloomsbury (transl. George Miller)
This is perhaps the closest to what you might expect from French fiction – moody, complex, eloquent and philosophical. It is somewhere between memoir and fiction: the autobiographical account (with embellishments and multiple interpretations) of the author’s childhood and, in particular, a portrait of her beautiful, fragile and troubled mother. A book that explores not just mental health issues and depression, family history and myth-making, but also whether we can ever truly help someone, as well as a meditation on the nature of memory, of how we construct our lives, our truths and semi-truths. Infused with some of Colette’s lyricism, yet analytical and even clinical at times, it is a book which startled, shocked and moved me deeply. I’ve reviewed it in the context of ‘bad mothers’ earlier this year. Currently available as an e-book, the paperback version will be published on the 31st of July.
2) Goscinny (text) and Sempé (illustrator): Nicholas (Le petit Nicolas) – Phaidon (transl. Anthea Bell)
Absolutely enchanting, nostalgic trip down memory lane, when classrooms still had blackboards and chalk and children were allowed to play outside on a vacant lot. Goscinny( of Asterix and Obelix fame) captures the voice of a seven-year-old with great accuracy and charm. Nicolas and his merry band of friends set out with the best of intentions, but somehow always end up doing something naughty. A mix of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Just William, set in 1950/60s France, there are plenty of witty subtleties which will appeal particularly to adult readers. However, my children loved the books too, as well as the cartoon series and films. Unpretentious, laugh-out-loud fun with a minimum of moralizing, the books in the original language are also great for improving your French.
3) David Khara: The Bleiberg Project – Le French Book (transl. Simon John)
Are you afraid that French literature is too ornate stylistically, too obscure or quirky in subject matter? Here is something refreshingly punchy and action-filled, but thought-provoking, to whet your appetite. It’s hard to do justice to the complex storyline, but this thriller blends memories of World War II atrocities with an account of a present day menace and manhunt. Many of the usual elements of international conspiracy are added in: an all-powerful global team, ruthless killers, betrayal of the principles of science… there are even sci-fi elements and biological experiments. Yet the cocktail is served in a fresh and exciting way. I’ve written a review of this book on the Crime Fiction Lover website, as well as conducted an interview with this popular young writer. The book will now be available in paperback from the 15th of July, courtesy of the hard-working independent publisher Le French Book. Since this is the first book in a trilogy, we hope that the next two translations are on their way soon
As for me, after a rain-soaked first week of the holidays, I just hope this weekend stays dry for the multiple planned fireworks displays! Bonne fête!