I haven’t signed up to the TBR Triple Dog challenge this year (which means no purchasing or borrowing new books for 3 months, until you reduce your TBR pile considerably). I love the concept, but I failed rather dismally last year. Secretly, however, I was planning to tag along unofficially. I noticed, with some satisfaction, that in January I managed to read 14 from my TBR list, 2 review books, 1 from the library and 1 that a friend lent me. So I blithely informed James at his end of January update that I had done quite well.
But then books started arriving in the post, my willpower weakened and my clicky finger got activated…
So here is the truth of the matter:
Books I borrowed and had to read quickly before returning:
Christos Tsiolkas: Dead Europe
Ian Rankin: Standing in Another Man’s Grave
Books I got sent by publishers:
Karl Ove Knausgaard: Some Rain Must Fall – Vol. 5 about attending writing school and becoming an adult – I dived into it at once
Peter Gardos: Fever at Dawn – 1945 and Hungarian Miklos has just emerged from Belsen and is recovering in a refuggee camp in Sweden; he is looking for love and writes a letter to 117 Hungarian women from his village.
He Jiahong: Hanging Devils – Set in the mid 1990s, this debut by one of China’s foremost legal experts turned crime fiction author describes a rapidly-changing society.
Succumbed to Netgalley temptation:
Simon Booker: Without Trace – a miscarriage of justice, a childhood sweetheart released from prison and then her own daughter goes missing – can she trust anyone?
Lisa Owens: Not Working – 20-something stops working to figure out what her purpose in life is
Joanna Cannon: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – 1976 and 2 ten-year-olds decide to uncover the mystery of the missing neighbour
Melissa Harrison: Rain – 4 walks in the English weather – better get used to it again
Ordered thanks to enthusiastic reviews (I name the guilty party too):
Javier Marias: Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (Tony Malone)
Andrew McMillan: Physical (Anthony Anaxagorou) – poetry: hymns to the male body, friendship and love
Rebecca Goss: Her Birth (Anthony Anaxagorou) – poetry: series of poems documenting the short life of a daughter born with a rare and incurable heart condition
Claudia Rankine: Citizen (Naomi Frisby) – I’ve read this but wanted my own copy
Complete Novels of E. Nesbit (Simon Thomas) – because I haven’t read any of her novels for adults
So I acknowledge defeat on the buy/borrow/download front, but will stick to reading more from the TBR pile at least…
Another busy month of reading, partly because of holidays and children’s illnesses, when I wasn’t able to do much else. Not so much reviewing, although some of the crime novels below will be reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover. A lot of rather dark reading, too, as befits this time of year. I have travelled all over the globe via books.
Crime fiction set in diverse locations
Dan Fesperman: Lie in the Dark – Sarajevo under siege, who cares about a murder when people are dying every day?
Yasmina Khadra: Qu’attendent les singes (What are monkeys waiting for?) – the impossibility of investigating murder honestly and openly in politically corrupt Algeria
Johan Theorin: The Voices Beyond (transl. Marlaine Delargy) – vengeance and deadly rivalry on the island of Öland in Sweden
Margie Orford: Water Music – crimes against young women and children in the beautiful surroundings of Cape Town
Brooke Magnanti: The Turning Tide – London and the Hebrides alternate in this entertaining cross between chick-lit and political thriller
T.R. Richmond: What She Left – suicide or murder of a young student at Southampton University?
Angela Clarke: Follow Me – social media stalking and hashtag murdering in London
Alison Bruce: The Promise – death of a homeless man opens up a can of worms in Cambridge
Ian Rankin: Standing in Another Man’s Grave – Rebus is back and investigating a serial killer along the A9 heading north of Edinburgh
Raphael Montes: Perfect Days – a crazy road trip with your kidnapper through Brazil
The three crime reads which I most enjoyed were Margie Orford, Ian Rankin and Dan Fesperman, but I would find it difficult to choose between the three of them for a Crime Fiction Pick of the Month. The best book for dipping into was The Gilded Chalet – a real coffee table book if you have any interest in literature or Switzerland. Finally, the most memorable books of the month were by Julian Barnes, Anthony Anaxagorou and Jenny Erpenbeck.
These are not necessarily books published in 2015, but the books I’ve read and enjoyed this year, which is why I’ve held off with this post till long after all the ‘best of’ lists have appeared. I’ve read 170 books this year, so you can imagine that whittling it all down to just 10 favourites is an impossible task. So instead, here are the books that spoke to me most at various points throughout the year.
Best Winter Chill
Not necessarily books set in winter, but which bring a ‘frisson’ or shudder to your soul.
I’m cheating a little bit in this category, as I already have a list of Top Five Crime Reads on the Crime Fiction Lover website, so these are just a few additional books I really wanted to include but did not have place for:
With creaking bones and feverish mind, I just about completed some challenges – or rather, I did better in terms of reading than reviewing. The Global Reading Challenge saw me hopping across 7 continents (2 options for each one). I failed the TBR Double Dare for the first three months of 2015, but caught up later with a #TBR20 to whittle down my endless To Be Read lists. In January I only read one book for January in Japan – Kanae Minato’s sinister ‘Confessions’. In March I read two books for Stu’s Eastern European challenge, one set in Moldova, the other in Georgia. I took part in a Tale of Genji readalong (my longest book of the year by quite a margin) in April/May/June. I participated in Women in Translation month in August,German Literature Month in November and #DiverseDecember (which speaks for itself).I even managed to reread some old favourites: Tender Is the Night, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys and Tillie Olsen. But the hardest challenge was the Netgalley Reduction one: I managed to read about 9 from my Netgalley shelves between October and December, but promptly replaced them with other books. So I still lag behind at only 61% review rate.
My book of the year? So hard to select one, especially one I haven’t reviewed yet. Books fit in with moods and seasons, with personal experiences and the order you read them in. However, bless the book which got me out of a reading slump – and a new author to discover and devour! Javier Marias’ A Heart So White (translated by Margaret Jull Costa). I will write a full review in the new year, but this book is one to savour in small portions at a time (and not when you have a bad migraine). Just allow yourself to be carried away by his apparently rambling but ultimately very moving, incantatory style.
With some dexterous juggling, I can just about claim to have completed the Global Reading Challenge (Medium Level) this year. I had to be a little creative with Mexico and place it in Latin America so that I could sort of claim it was South America. But if you forgive me my geographical inaccuracies and the fact that I still owe you two quick reviews for Africa and the 7th Continent, then I can claim VICTORY!!!
The Medium challenge is about reading two books from (or set in) each continent, regardless of genre. I was initially quite ambitious and planned to visit countries where I’d never been (fictionally) before. But the second half of the year became a mad, disorganised scramble to get books off my Netgalley and TBR shelves, so I had to compromise in the end.
Libya – The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra
The author takes us into the warped mind of Ghaddafi as he sits holed up in a secret location, trying to avoid both bombing and the wrath of his own people. There is little here to give you a profound insight into the politics or history of Libya itself, but I found it a precise dissection of a dictator’s mind, how it is possible to become a megalomaniac and lose touch with reality, how power corrupts and idealism can get subverted, how tantrums can turn vicious when you are surrounded by sycophants. I thought it also raised some interesting questions about the appeal of tyrants: how they often play the nationalistic card (us versus the foreign menace, we’re going to make our country great once more etc.), which explains their rise to power and the often confused legacy they leave behind.
I’d forgotten what fun this classic novel is to read – yes, even when the author enumerates all of the things Axel and his uncle the professor take with them on their expedition. Appeals to the geek in all of us, but also lessons to be learnt about how quickly he gets to the intrigue, how imaginative he is, how endlessly inventive. It’s not even remotely plausible scientifically – that underground sea alone is completely wrong for all sorts of reasons. So it’s not as good as some of his other novels, but still a rollicking read (best discovered in your youth, though).
I finally worked up my courage to write this post after reading Matt Haig’s outstanding book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ and David Mark’s article a few days ago about access to mental health services in the UK.
‘Well, the blood tests seem fine. It’s just age – you’re not getting any younger, you know.’
And my French family doctor smiles ruefully, as if to apologise for being so ridiculously young and glamorous in the face of my galloping infirmity. I had been complaining of weight gain, migraines, insomnia, lack of energy, occasional palpitations. She suspects menopause or a shade of hypochondria.
I cannot complain that she is not helpful. After all, I am not entirely honest with her as a patient. I am reluctant to share my whole story, and not just because I fear breaking down in tears and using up all of the tissues from the box she has so thoughtfully placed on her desk. I also fear being labelled, once and for all, as mentally deficient or unstable or somehow missing that even keel that most people seem to be able to find. If most people can balance on choppy waters and tack against strong winds, why can’t I?
My mother tells me off each time we speak on the phone: ‘You’re just too bloody sensitive. It’s all in your head. Stop dwelling on things.’ This comes amidst many other helpful suggestions on how to fight obesity, be a better parent, earn more money and be more docile, loving wife. Unsurprisingly, our telephone conversations often end in shouting matches, so are becoming less and less frequent. But I fear she may be right (about the sensitivity bit) and I chide myself for being so weak, so helpless.
The other thing I fear is being given pills to dull my senses and make me gain even more weight. Pills speak of lifelong dependency rather than a temporary measure: it’s about acknowledging a long-term condition rather than a momentary blip in the system. Visions of 1984 hover in the sidelines. Fears of being sanitised and lobotomised swim towards me like shark fins. How will I be able to keep up with my children’s sprightly chatter and constant requests if I am dull as a cow laid out in pastures with grass too high for her to comprehend?
When I was younger, the periods of grim depression beset me mainly in winter, and were offset by manic bursts of activity for the rest of the year. As I get older, those moments of frenetic energy have become too strenuous and it’s greyness evermore. Everything is slowed down to the point of unbearable. I cannot think of more than one thing at a time and I’m forever forgetting what I was supposed to be searching for, where I left my papers, whether I’ve paid a bill or not. I leave everything for later because it is too difficult to do immediately or today or tomorrow or … soon. I get caught out without winter tyres when the snow begins to fall, so my car lurches and sloshes from kerb to ditch.
A sunny day makes me want to crawl under the duvet. You don’t even want to know or imagine what a rainy day makes me feel like. Above all, I want to dig my nails into my flesh, to escape this inner pain which seems to find no release, day after day after day.
When the self-pity has had its play with me, guilt and sneering take their turn. Middle-class ‘woman of leisure’ problems! The world is burning and this here woman can think of naught else but combing her hair! There are hundreds of people starving or dying or losing their homes all over the world at this very moment, while I’m boo-hooing about getting old, failing to live out my childish dreams of being a writer and an academic, being stuck to a faithless husband who doesn’t understand me – the oldest cliché in the book -, children grunting their way towards their teens, a family life which seems as alien to me as if I’d been parachuted somewhere in Papua New Guinea. Only the cargo cults don’t worship me – they despise and can’t wait for my ship to sail away.
My shepherd ancestors – tough cookies one and all – would despise my whingeing. They witnessed the rise and fall of empires, tyrants, wars, forced collectivisation, betrayals in the name of the fatherland or the Communist ideal or simply greed for one’s neighbour’s land or herd. ‘Life is hard, yes, but grit your teeth and carry on! Don’t expect anyone to help, love or understand you. Go up the mountains, all by yourself, find some peace and a mountain stream.’
But I’ve always been a weak urban sapling. The mountains I climbed, the streams that I found, I wanted to rejoice in them with others. I needed to believe that someone cared, that I could be my anxious, failing self and still be respected and loveable. Now I know that all love is conditional. And compassion is not an endlessly renewable source of water. Sharing is a weakness and each one of us is alone – that is the only thing we can count on in life.
‘My therapy is writing and reading,’ I used to say in my twenties with a faraway look in my eyes, hoping I resembled Emily Dickinson rather than Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen rather than Virginia Woolf. But, in truth, it has become more reading than writing now. How can I give voice to my grief and doubts without becoming annoyed with my privileged, spoilt self? How can I deal with the confetti of time left after anxieties, night sweats, endless To Do lists, yet another last-minute catch-up for work, yet another change of plan regarding parents’ evening? What words (other than swear words) will come when I tremble with fury after yet another point-scoring conversation drowning in logical circles? I cannot trust my own thoughts, my own words. I have to feed on the words (and pain and grapplings) of others. It gives me perspective, it makes me feel less alone.
Meanwhile, other than my compulsive reading, all I can do is flounder and flail. Now I understand my childhood nightmare of drowning. It was in fact not water but ash and sand in my mouth. The struggle to appear normal and smiley. The need to carry on.
I came across this on the Cleopatra Loves Books blog (which is a real treat of a book blog, so do go and pay it a visit if you are not familiar with it already). Cleo was very brave to admit her bookish foibles, and a few of her readers have followed suit. So, in the interests of transparency, it seems only fair to attempt my own form of accounting. I’m sure it will help rein in my book-buying or requesting (yeah, right!). I define TBR as the books I do actually own but haven’t read, rather than my wishlist.
HOW DO YOU KEEP TRACK OF YOUR TBR PILE?
I have’t to date, so this is my opportunity to be a star pupil now. Before, I would scroll down on my e-reader and sigh. Stare at the double or triple pile of books up on the shelves and learn to avoid them when they fall.
IS YOUR TBR MOSTLY PRINT OR E-BOOK?
Let the painful counting begin. 172 currently on my tablet, but another 10 or so in pdf or trickier formats on my laptop (I get sent a lot by author friends). Plus another 15 or so on my husband’s account on Kindle, which I conveniently forget about, books I downloaded back in the days when I had no e-reader of my own and didn’t really like those ‘dang things’. So a total of 200 or so in electronic format.
My collection of physical books is comparatively slender: only 78. Of course, I don’t include any library books in that pile.
HOW DO YOU DETERMINE WHICH BOOK FROM YOUR TBR TO READ NEXT?
As a reviewer for Crime Fiction Lover, I often have deadlines linked to the launch of a book or a broader feature such as ‘Classics in September’ or ‘New Talent November’, so those will take priority. I occasionally take part in reading challenges such as ‘German Literature Month’ or ‘Global Reading Challenge’, so that influences my choices.
Most of the time, however, I just go with my gut instinct, although I do find that one book will lead to another in a mischievous, conspiratorial way. For instance, I will find myself embarking upon a series of reads about bad mothers or male midlife crises, whether French or elsewhere. After such a bout of misery, I will then need to find something funnier, lighter to rinse out the bitter taste from my mouth.
A BOOK THAT’S BEEN ON YOUR TBR THE LONGEST?
This would be amongst the ‘forgotten pile of books’ on the Kindle. I believe it’s a tie between Jutta Profijt’s debut novel ‘Morgue Drawer Four’ (shortlisted for the Glauser Prize in Germany back in 2010 and translated by Erik J. Macki) and Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Solaris’ (I loved the Tarkovsky film, less so the more recent adaptation with George Clooney, but the author apparently didn’t think much of either of them).
A BOOK YOU RECENTLY ADDED TO YOUR TBR?
Just this morning, I made the mistake of going to Netgalley (to post a review) and lingered there… so I ended up downloading Lauren Holmes’ Barbara the Slut and Other People (who can resist a title like that, hope it will give me loads of insights into the younger generation) and Jean Teulé’s The Poisoning Angel, translated by Melanie Florence for Gallic Books. This latter is based on a true story about a 19th century female serial killer.
A BOOK ON YOUR TBR THAT YOU NEVER PLAN ON READING?
I live in hope of reading all of them… but I did discard one or two recently where I thought: ‘Was I drunk when I clicked the “buy” button?’ It’s just too easy to order things on Amazon – one more reason to avoid it.
AN UNPUBLISHED BOOK ON YOUR TBR THAT YOU’RE EXCITED FOR?
I’ve been an admirer of Ann Morgan’s thoughtful reading and reviewing back in the days when she completed her ‘Year of Reading the World‘ challenge. I got to chat with her via Twitter and email, and even got to meet her when she gave a TEDx talk in Geneva. So I was very excited when she told me that she has a book coming out on the 14th of January, 2016. ‘Beside Myself’ is a twisted psychological tale of identical twins who swap places for a day – but then one of them refuses to swap back. Sounds like just my cup of tea!
A BOOK ON YOUR TBR THAT EVERYONE HAS READ BUT YOU?
OK, I’ll stop feeling ashamed and admit that I’ve not read ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak. I’ve read about it, I’ve seen the film, I’m sure it’s the kind of subject I would be interested in… but somehow I never got around to it. I bought a second-hand copy of it this summer at a friend’s house clearance sale, so I finally have a chance.
A BOOK ON YOUR TBR THAT EVERYONE RECOMMENDS TO YOU?
I’m a big Pascal Garnier fan but haven’t read ‘Moon in a Dead Eye’ yet, which is the favourite Garnier for many of my fellow book bloggers. So, if it’s as good as ‘How’s the Pain?’ (which has been my personal favourite to date), I will be delighted!
A BOOK ON YOUR TBR THAT YOU’RE DYING TO READ?
No particular book but there are certain authors whom I really look forward to reading or rereading: Eva Dolan, Clarice Lispector, Virginia Woolf, Neil Gaiman, Simenon, Stefan Zweig.
You may not think so, given that in some cases I have more than a couple of books by them on my TBR pile but haven’t dived into them yet. Life just got in the way… and it’s sometimes easier to keep those ‘sure bets’ in the background for when you need some reading/writing inspiration.
HOW MANY BOOKS ARE IN YOUR GOODREADS TBR SHELF?
785 but that’s a wishlist, so it doesn’t count. I keep adding to it as soon as I read a review of a promising book or someone mentions a new to me author or a topic I’m interested in. (Basically, anything to do with Vienna, Brazil, immigration and expats gets an automatic look-in.)
However, the most amazing fact is that before 2009 or so I did not have any TBR pile or wishlists. I would mainly borrow books from the library and only buy a few books which I read almost immediately. In 2010, however, I started writing again myself, and my reading has increased exponentially (not that I ever was a lazy reader). Plus, my husband’s misguided attempt to cure me of buying physical books by getting me an e-reader has resulted in double the number of books!
Who said you cannot combine your work with your secret passion? During my recent business trip, I’ve taken advantage of my location to indulge in some literary pleasures.
In Quebec, I discovered local authors and McGill University alumni:
1) Heather O’Neill with her story of twelve-year-old Baby living a precarious existence with her junkie father fleeing from one short-term furnished let to the next, Lullabies for Little Criminals.
2) Alain Farah’s Ravenscrag (translated from French), described as an original blend of retro science fiction and autobiography about resilience, literature as remedy and survival through storytelling.
In London, I could not resist the lure of Waterstone’s Piccadilly (I had no time to go further afield, but spent a happy hour or so in there):
1) Penelope Fitzgerald’s short story collection The Means of Escape – I’ve never read any of her short stories
2) Pascal Garnier: Moon in a Dead Eye because I have difficulty finding his books in France, and it has been mentioned as a favourite among his works by so many fellow bloggers
3) Clarice Lispector: Near to the Wild Heart – one of my favourite authors, or at least she used to be when I last read her twenty years ago – high time to reread!
4) Javier Marias: A Heart So White – high time I explored this author – plus he was translated by Margaret Jull Costa, whom I got to see in my second extravagance on this trip. See below.
The London Lit Weekend, a little-known and not very widely publicised event (at least not online), took place on the 3rd and 4th of October at King’s Place in London. I attended a fascinating discussion on literary translation with Margaret Jull Costa (prize-winning translator from Portuguese and Spanish) and Ann Goldstein (translator from Italian, including the recent Elena Ferrante tetralogy), chaired by Boris Dralyuk, himself a translator from Russian. I’ll write a separate post about this event, as it was full of quotable insights. But I was too shy to take any pictures.
Well, what is London without a visit to the theatre? I couldn’t resist the adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which my older son and I both read and enjoyed recently. And yes, he is very envious that I get to see it and he doesn’t!