January Reading Summary

So what has my first month of reading freedom brought me? By freedom, I mean of course not having to read any books for review, following my own whims and jumping into rabbit holes. There was only one book that I had already promised to review, and that was the controversial story of child killers The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts. But other than that, I was free as a bird or a butterfly, so which flowers have I alighted on?

11 books, no less, and some of these were massive 500+ books, so great in terms of quantity, but also of quality.

First and foremost, January has got me obsessed with Romanian playwright, novelist and essayist Mihail Sebastian. I read his polemical novel about being Jewish in Romania, his essay in response to the outrage he experienced upon publication of that novel, and his diaries which pick up the story from where he left it off in the novel. I am also now rereading his novels and trying to get hold of his plays (in Romanian, of course, but some of his work has been translated into English, with more forthcoming).

Traditional uniform of Hungarian Hussars.

I’ve become equally absorbed with the work of Miklos Banffy, as I read the second and third books in his Transylvanian trilogy after a year’s break following the first volume. I was so reluctant to reemerge into the real world after bathing in that beautiful description of a vanished world, although I was slightly disappointed that the story stops with the outbreak of the war (and Balint’s family all gaily setting off as Hussars in the army). I will be reviewing the trilogy shortly for my #EU27Project, and beware! It might end up being a bit of a mammoth post.

The third obsession this month has been poets talking about poetry, where they find inspiration, the craft of poetry, what a poet’s role is in society etc. I’ve started with Denise Levertov and Maxine Kumin, but have a few others planned for next month.

Idyllic landscape of Rwanda today, hiding the scars of yesterday, from Africa.com

I read a lot of women this month too. In addition to the two poets, I also read Scholastique Mukasonga’s remarkable account of a rapidly disappearing traditional way of Tutsi life in Rwanda just prior to the genocide The Barefoot Woman. Another woman’s account of war was Pat Barker‘s The Silence of the Girls, a very different book, not based on personal experience, more shouty than understated.

I’ve also read Jana Benova‘s Seeing People Off, a Slovakian entry to my #EU27Project. I still have to write the full review of this short, snappy novel, a series of vignettes offering an often hilarious, satirical account of post-Communist life in the artistic milieu in Bratislava.

Another short but biting satire was Fernando Sdrigotti’s Shitstorm, forcing us to take a good hard look at ourselves and how we conduct our lives and debates online, moving quickly onto the next scandal that we can be indignant about, without really being fully implicated. I can’t help but wonder what Sebastian would have made of it all. I think this may become my theme when looking at any present-day news: ‘What would Orwell and Sebastian say about this?’, although Sebastian, with his gentler, more forgiving approach, is perhaps closer to me in spirit.

So much happier now that I’m following my own interests in reading, with no qualms about abandoning books that promise to be average or not quite captivating. This month I didn’t finish The Binding for example, a new book just out which sounded great in concept, but failed to set my heart alight. I’m sure it will do well commercially though, it has The Miniaturist success written all over it.

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Wrapping Up November 2018

The Romanian holiday has receded in the mists of time, as November proved implacable in terms of work load and ‘fun’ events that involved mainly my older son’s GCSE exams and life after those exams.

All this is the lead-in to explain why my reading has not been hugely varied this month. I managed to finish just 11 books (and others have been dragging on forever). 7 of those were written in English, 8 women authors (well, 7 in fact, for one of those authors featured twice – namely Tana French). I’ve also been very bad about reviewing the books.

Broken Harbour is missing from this selection, but it was a great reread.

Books I Loved

Tana French: Broken Harbour – this was the first book of hers that I read but did not review a few years ago, so this is a reread and it moved me all over again. Possibly my favourite among her books. Those ghost town developments, I wonder if they are beginning to recover as the Dublin property market picks up.

Simone Buchholz: Beton Rouge, transl. Rachel Ward – another writer who takes the crime fiction trope and runs away with it. The crime plays second fiddle to a hugely atmospheric portrayal of Hamburg (and Bavaria), and a cool jazzy riff on language and style.

 Books That Surprised Me

Prabda Yoon: Moving Parts – Surreal, fantastical, sly and witty stories from Thailand, with lots of word play and mind games and lateral thinking. An unusual delight, showing us a very contemporary and urban world, far removed from the exoticism we might associate with that country. Must have been sooo tricky to translate – and you can read an interview with the translator Mui Poopoksakul here.

Kathy Acker: Essential Writings – I’d read short bits and pieces by Kathy Acker before, but never a selection of what the editors consider her best stuff. Not sure if it does justice to the variety of her work, but she certainly still has the power to shock, jolt, anger and make you think!

Ahmet Altan: Like a Sword Wound, transl. Brendan Freely & Yelda Turedi – historical family sagas are not my cup of tea, but the initial soap opera quality of the book soon gives way to a fresco of a society, a certain time and way of life, much like the Transylvanian Trilogy. Another great Asymptote Book Club choice, just like the Prabda Yoon.

Books I Wish I Hadn’t Bothered With

Not necessarily bad, but just not as interesting or scary or crime-fictiony or funny as I expected. Sadly, quite a few of them this month, which perhaps put me off reading a bit.

Hanna Jameson: The Last – can’t make up its mind if it’s a mystery or a dystopian novel

Lucy Foley: The Hunting Party – giving all those who went to Oxford Uni a bad name

Tana French: The Wych Elm – a character who just dragged on and on and on

Noel Langley: There’s a Porpoise Close Behind Us – a few chapters of this could have been charming and funny, a whole book was just too much

Meh

Louise Penny: Kingdom of the Blind – normally this author can do no wrong in my eyes, but although it was nice to revisit Three Pines, I felt this one was a tad repetitive. Maybe it’s time to move on to another subject, another character.

Eva Menasse; Quasikristalle – good in parts, but not quite as clever or innovative as it tried to be

German Literature Month

I only managed to take part with two reviews (although Simone Buchholz fits in this category as well): Eva Menasse and Fred Uhlman’s Reunion, which I read just on the cusp of November. The latter was certainly far more memorable than the former.

Big Plans for Next Few Months

I’ve let my #EU27Project languish for far too long and there are only a few months until they really do become just 27. I was shocked to discover how many French and German books I’ve read, but how few from other countries. So I’ve used my last bit of money to buy some elusive ones, tracked others down from the library and will be focusing mainly on the 13 (thirteen!!!) countries I still have left to read. I’m still searching for books from Cyprus and Luxembourg, so do let me know if you have any recommendations.

Reading Summary for September

It’s always a bit of a surprise when I sit down at the end of the month to do a proper count of the number and types of books I’ve read. This month, I only managed to read 8 books, which might in part be explained by the fact that it has been a month full of travelling and other cultural events, as well as the back to school rigmarole.

More surprising and disappointing, by far, is the fact that of those 8, only 2 were in translation, both from Spanish, both winners of the biggest literary prize in Spain, the Planeta Prize. These were Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s subversive Naked Men and Dolores Redondo’s gripping (although at times long-winded) psychological thriller All This I Will Give to You

So perhaps NOT the best month in terms of diversity. I found myself reaching for authors where I know what to expect, such as Rachel Cusk, Tana French or Sarah Moss, whose Night Waking brings back many, many memories of failed attempts at being a good scholar and a good mother simultaneously. And, if the author wasn’t known to me, I stuck to situations that would be familiar, such as expat life (Singapore is only slightly more of a police state than Switzerland) in Jo Furniss’ The Trailing Spouse. I cannot stop myself from reading these sort of books, but I do wonder why in so many books about expats, the main female character is often annoyingly self-absorbed, entitled and thoughtless (even when the writers are women, such as Janice Y.K. Lee, Nell Zink, Jill Alexander Essbaum, or more recently Louise Mangos with Strangers on a Bridge.) Nice cover, though!

The only two male authors I read this month were Michael Redhill: Bellevue Square, which left me somewhat perplexed, and Leye Adenle’s When Trouble Sleeps, which left me depressed about corruption, politics and vote rigging, although it takes place in Nigeria rather than in the UK. I’ll be reviewing the book and interviewing the author for Crime Fiction Lover very soon.

Goodbye, November and Top Reads

Yes, yes, November is not quite over yet, but this will be a busy week and I’m not sure I’ll get another chance to write a blog post.

Goodreads seems to be in a bit of a meltdown, mysteriously ‘disappearing’ my read books as if they were protesters against a dictatorial regime. Nevertheless, they assure me that I am about 9 books over my challenge of 120 books read this year. Let’s hope that this is somewhat more credible than the ‘official state news’ of Romania’s ‘booming agricultural harvests’ of the early 1980s, spurred on by Ceausescu’s visits to the fields of wheat and barley.

I’ve been back to a good month of reading in November: 12 books, contributing to several challenges. 3 of those were in German, 2 in French, 5 books by women   6 by men and 1 an anthology containing both, 4 (possibly 5) crime fiction, 1 poetry, 2 short story collections, 1 non-fiction and 1 did-not-finish. I’m happy with the mix.

#1968Club:

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin – magical, poetic language and complex ideas

#GermLitMonth and #EU27Project:

Arthur Schnitzler: Late Fame

Zoran Drvenkar: Sorry

Thomas Willmann: Das finstere Tal (Dark Valley) – a mix of crime fiction, Western, historical fiction – very atmospheric indeed

Nobe Prize Winner (and dnf):

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled – very promising start but could have done with a good editor, too long and self-indulgent

November Masterclass Preparation

Kathleen Jamie: Sightlines – the world dissected with real love, charm and understanding

Kathleen Jamie: The Tree House (poetry) – understated and deceptively simple poetry leaving profound marks

Swiss Reads: (joint review to follow on the blog)

Max Lobe: La trinite bantoue

Alice Rivaz: Sans alcools

Crime fiction:

Murder on Christmas Eve anthology (coming up on CFL)

Ragnar Jonasson: Whiteout (coming up on CFL)

Flynn Berry: Under the Harrow

In other news:

I’m working on launching the Asymptote subscription book club, which will be a dream come true for lovers of translated fiction: a surprise book a month, from an independent publisher, curated by our team of editors based all around the world. The common feature? Outstanding quality of both the original and the translation. I know that’s going to be my Christmas present to myself (and it will last all of 2018 as well).

Summary of Reading October 2017 and Plans for November

Well, would you believe it how October galloped away with me! I only read 7 books, in spite of commuting and its inherent delaying tactics. That is perhaps the lowest number since I started recording my reading on the blog and on Goodreads – and probably reflective of starting two new jobs at the same time and also having children on holiday for part of the month.

Out of the 7 I managed to finish, I have to admit that the vast majority were crime novels (5), while the remaining two had criminal elements and themes. Humph – this doesn’t bode well for any railway professionals who might have the temerity to ask for my opinion about their services, especially given the high cost of commuting. 4 books by women, 3 by men, 2 in translation.

Julie T. Wallace as the She-Devil in the BBC adaptation of the book. Ignore the American film, which is terrible.

October Reads

Eva Dolan: This Is How It Ends -standalone from one of my favourite new writers

Lloyd Otis: Deadlands – debut novel about a serial killer in 1970s London, no review forthcoming but an interview with the author will be up on Crime Fiction Lover shortly

Adrian Magson: Rocco and the Nightingale – delighted to finally have a new book in this series set in 1960s rural Picardie, review to come on CFL

Jenny Quintana: The Missing Girl – less thriller, more a carefully nuanced coming of age story, with beautifully observed sibling rivalry and collusion

Peter Høeg: The Susan Effect – an entertaining enough premise – having the ability to make people open up to you and tell you their life stories (I seem to have that to a certain extent, but of course this is exaggerated in the book), but the conspiracy theory and the ending gets a bit silly

Ariana Harwicz: Die, My Love – upsetting insight into a disturbed mind, full of pain and depression, very emotional and riveting

Fay Weldon: The Life and Loves of a She-Devil – a quick reread to cheer on this subversive fantasy revenge story

November Plans

The #1968Club is taking place this week and I intend to (re)read The Wizard of Earthsea, which was published in that year and which meant the world to me when I was a child.

I need to write and update the #EU27Project – must finish it before Brexit is finalised… and I seem to be as slow and muddled about it as our beloved negotiators! But at least I have better and less selfish intentions than them, or so I believe.

I am also ploughing on through two mammoth reads: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and Miklos Banffy’s They Were Counted. They might take me all month or even last until the end of 2017.

Fingers crossed, I might be able to attend a masterclass with the wonderful Scottish writer and poet Kathleen Jamie in Geneva this coming month (I have applied but have to wait to see if I’ve been accepted). So I am planning to indulge in some of her work, especially poetry

Last, but not least, I have two Nordic literary events coming up (which will probably mean more books added to my groaning shelves). The first of these is the launch of the book Love/War by Swedish writer Ebba Witt-Brattström by Nordisk Books. Described as a feminist story which allows women ‘to see through male dominant behaviour’, and based on the author’s own bitter divorce, how could I resist it? The second launch is the by-now-legendary Orenda Books and Ragnar Jonasson’s latest novel in the Dark Iceland series Whiteout.

 

Quick Reviews on Video: October 2017

I am so busy with my two new jobs that I haven’t had time to write any reviews, so I have taken what is laughingly known as the ‘easy way out’ by filming myself talking about some books I have recently read and ones I am currently reading. 5 crime novels, one Israeli apartment block in Tel Aviv, an Argentinian in France and a sweeping Hungarian family saga. Pretty much par for the course…

[I should stop apologising for my awkwardness while filming – static camera and a very movable person do not mix well.]

June 2017 Summary

Yes, I know I always say it, so you can join in. Altogether now! ‘Where has June gone?’

It is always my favourite month, a birthday month for me, my younger son and several of my closest friends. But with the heat, the work, the travel, it somehow just sped by… I do, however, have some good books to show for it.

I’ve read 12 books this month, of which: 5 crime fiction, 1 poetry, 4 feel-good books and 2 not-so-feel-good books. 5 were from the library, 4 were review copies and 3 I bought myself (an unusual proportion this time round, I feel, but something to keep track of in the future). 9 were by women writers, 2 by men, and one was an anthology. Uh-oh only 2 books in translation (or the original)! I’ve not reviewed all of these, but have included links where reviews are available.

Crime fiction:

Karen Dionne: The Marsh King’s Daughter – a surprise hit with me, although the subject matter very nearly made me give up on it from the outset

Busted! Arresting Stories from the Beat – eclectic collection of short stories featuring largely US law enforcement professionals

Nicky Wells: Dead Hope – Nicky is a friend of mine in real life and has previously written romance novels featuring rock stars. This is her first thriller, although it does contain a good dose of romantic elements.

Annemarie Neary: The Orphans – a story of dysfunctional families and obsession set in London

Pierre Lemaitre: Three Days and a Life – study of youthful anger and guilt in a small French village

Feel-good:

Elizabeth von Arnim: The Enchanted April

Elizabeth von Arnim: Elizabeth and Her German Garden

Alison Lurie: Real People

Elizabeth Jane Howard: Marking Time (Cazalet 2)

Raymond Antrobus: To Sweeten Bitter – because poetry always makes me feel good, even if it is sad

Other (aka not recommended if you are suffering from depression):

Sarah Pinborough: The Language of Dying  – Slow-building sense of claustrophobia, gradual reveal about a family stretched to breaking point and … the unfairness, the pain, the poignancy of grieving yet with economy of detail. Succint, subtle and devastatingly effective.

Nelly Arcan author photo.

Nelly Arcan: Folle – I wanted to like this one so badly, but, although I appreciated the candour and insight into a troubled mind, I expected it to be much more frenzied and lyrical. It was instead a factual, often cold analysis of unsuitable passion, very frank about sex, but ultimately about a self-centred guy who was definitely not worth the narrator’s time and passion!

And you know what is most shocking? She was younger than me – and, despite her chaotic life and messed-up mental health, wrote 5 novels and has now been dead for 8 years.