What If Books Disappoint You?

This weekend has been a rare one of reading disappointment, when I expected it to be as comfortable as a cocoon.

Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith (Photo credit: bhlogiston)

I embarked upon Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Found in the Street’ (one of her last novels, published in 1986) with the expectation that I would be intrigued, baffled, amused and chilled to the bone. In the past, I have always found her to be reliably good: slightly sinister, with dark humour and acerbic observations of people.  The sly observant eye and mordant wit were still there, but the story felt tired to me. There was not enough suspense, too many everyday chores described by several characters, too many lengthy descriptions and missed opportunities… By the time a crime was committed, I was past caring. It’s the first time that this author did not meet my expectations, which just goes to show that no one can be uniformly brilliant.

So then I turned to a light-hearted local read ‘Fric en Vrac à Carouge’ by Corinne Jaquet, a Swiss journalist turned crime and children’s novelist, who has a series featuring Commissaire Simon set in different neighbourhoods of Geneva. Even the pleasures of street- and café-spotting could not make me care for the rather slow-moving plot. I abandoned after Chapter 12 (yes, that is a new development this past year: I have been able to leave books unfinished with only a slight pang of guilty conscience).

NakedSingularitySo, if local colour and favourite authors do not provide reliable comfort, where can you turn to, how can you avoid disappointments? In my case, there was a surprising answer. ‘A Naked Singularity’ – a door-stopper of a book by Sergio De La Pava – is a book I had tried to read before a couple of months ago, but got lost. I now opened it again and was immediately captivated. It’s like a radio and merely requires a little re-tuning of the mind. Once you are on the right wavelength, it works beautifully. Early days yet, but let’s hope it continues to please.

Over to you, now. Have you had occasional disappointments with topics or authors which you thought you loved unconditionally? And what are your strategies for dealing with such disappointments?

How Challenging Were My Challenges?

2013 was the first year I joined in any online challenges and I am very pleased I did so. You sometimes need that extra little push or public commitment to go beyond the borders of your little world (or at least, I do).

 

2013GRC_mediumSo, how did I do?

 

I completed Kerrie’s Global Reading Challenge, which this year was still hosted on her Mysteries in Paradise website. Kerrie herself is a fantastic resource of information about crime fiction not just from Down Under, but worldwide, and I have learnt so much from the enthusiastic fellow participants in the challenge.

 

I completed the Medium Level of the Challenge, which meant two books from each of the six geographical continents, plus a seventh continent which could be a realm of fantasy or Antarctica or something you haven’t tried before.  Here are the books I chose (quite different from the list I had originally planned, subject to availability and mood).

 

Africa

 

Deon Meyer: Thirteen Hours – South Africa

 

Michael Stanley: Death of the Mantis – Botswana

 

Asia

 

Ōsaka Gō: The Red Star of Cadiz – Japan and Spain

 

John Burdett: Bangkok Eight – Thailand

 

Australasia/Oceania

 

Arthur W. Upfield: Murder Down Under – Australia

 

John Enright: Pago Pago Tango – American Samoa

 

Europe

 

Jean-Claude Izzo: The Marseille Trilogy – Southern France

 

Stefan Slupetzky: Lemmings Zorn – Vienna, Austria

 

North America

 

Louise Penny: Dead Cold  – Quebec, Canada

 

M. J. McGrath: White Heat – Northern Territories, Canada

 

Julie Smith: Mean Woman Blues – New Orleans  (because I felt guilty about ignoring the US)

 

South America

 

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza: The Silence of the Rain – Brazil

 

Leonardo Padura: Havana Gold – Cuba

 

Seventh Continent

 

Elizabeth Kostova: The Historian – paranormal, vampire, historical

 

Alan Bradley: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows – Flavia de Luce series, historical, YA

 

All in all, a fantastic challenge: it may sound cliché, but it really opened up a whole new world to me. I’ve always enjoyed travelling and reading about local atmosphere and customs in books, so these took me to places I may not have visited otherwise. There was only one book I really didn’t like (The Historian) and one which I found average (Mean Woman Blues). All of the others were good to excellent. I discovered writers that I am most certainly going to read more of (Louise Penny, John Burdett, Garcia-Roza, Michael Stanley).

 

My favourite discovery was the unparalleled king of the Mediterranean Noir: Jean-Claude Izzo, who completely transported me to the world of Marseille and got me listening to its music.

 

2013transchallenge-3(1)Until recently, I did not believe I had completed the Reading in Translation Challenge – or rather, I felt I had not reviewed enough books for it. Of course, I could have entered the same books for both challenges: Deon Meyer, Ōsaka Gō, Garcia-Roza and Padura would all have qualified. And I did read and review some other excellent works, such as The Mussel Feast, A Man in Love, A Crack in the Wall or Pietr the Latvian. So, in the end, I think I will consider that challenge complete too. Thank you, Curiosity Killed the Bookworm for enticing me to do it!

 

What challenges am I participating in for 2014? I would like to continue with both of the above challenges, but this time limit it to 1 book for each continent for the Global Reading Challenge and 6 books of translated literary fiction (rather than crime fiction, however much I love it). The reason I am being modest in this respect is because I am introducing two major challenges of my own:

 

1) The Clear My Physical and Virtual Bookshelves Challenge (CMPVBC – catchy title!) – as of today, I have 56 books on my Kindle, 21 on my shelves, and 8 on my laptop, all waiting for me. So that brings my target up to 85 before I have even taken a step.

 

2) The ‘My Favourite Countries’ Focus – I used to love reading books in German and Japanese, while Brazil is my favourite country. I want to reignite that passion and catch up with the best of contemporary writing from these countries. I have no upper target, but I would like to read at least 3 books from each of these countries).  I already have a few on my shelves: Arjouni, Zweig, Bernhard Schlink, but am constantly coming up with great new suggestions from outstanding bloggers such as Tony Malone, Simon Savidge, Dolce Bellezza, Words and Peace and Jackie at Farm Lane Books, to name but a few who inspire me.

 

English: Old book bindings at the Merton Colle...
English: Old book bindings at the Merton College library. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Wish me luck – I will let you know how I get on!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not a Book List as Such…

It’s not yet that time of year to make my ‘definitive book list’. I like to leave it until the last 2-3 days of the year, just in case that world-shattering read comes along at the last minute. However, Goodreads is congratulating me that I have reached my (upwardly revised) reading goal of 140 books for the year, so I had to celebrate.

dailycreativewriter.com
dailycreativewriter.com

Statistics: Want cold hard figures? Look no further. 140 read and a few more to squeeze in before December 31st (not enough to claim 150, though).   10 books a month on average (childless and workless August was the personal record with 27, but there were quite a few months with just 5-6). A respectable reading speed of 2.5 days per book, with some devoured in a single day (or night).

Challenges Completed: The Global Reading Challenge (for crime fiction), with two books for each continent, including a wildcard 7th continent – excellent for broadening my palate. Sadly, I was unable to complete the Translation Challenge – which sounds crazy when you look at the 27 translated titles on my list. However, most of them were crime fiction for review, and of the remaining there was only a small handful I reviewed or mentioned in any detail. So that doesn’t count. I did manage to read roughly one French book per month (in French) – my personal Holy Grail, as I try to improve my vocabulary. Sadly, literary works do not seem to equip you with the right words for dealing with tax offices or other bureaucracy. Perhaps I should stick to the swear words in the BD?

Lessons Learnt: What would I forget, borrow and learn from this year’s reading and take forward to next year’s reading?

1) When you set yourself such a high target, re-reading goes out the window. I would like more time to revisit old favourites.

2) You become cynical and less patient about clichés – and you have no qualms about abandoning a book if it still doesn’t move you after 50 pages.

3) Whether you sign up for a challenge formally or not, it is such a good idea to broaden your horizons and try out new things in literature. Some won’t work, but some will and then you have the pleasure of entering a whole new realm you had previously sealed off.

4) Although I always have 4-5 books on the go at any point in time, this simultaneity is a bit of a myth. I cannot enter, exit and parachute into other worlds quite so easily. I may not be in the mood for the same book during the day or in the evening, though, so having a couple on your bedside table makes sense. I usually alternate between a paperback and an e-book.

5) I must NOT buy any more books until I read all those I bought this past year. In 2014 I need to be ruthless about reading the books I have, instead of always reaching out for new ones at the library. I have 50 on my Kindle, 20 on my shelf and 8 on my laptop waiting to be read. And I suspect there will be many more ARC to review for Crime Fiction Lover too. Plus I have a few challenges of my own up my sleeve (am thinking of reigniting my passion for Japanese and German literature).

BookPileAnd now I have a goal of 140 to beat in the New Year…

Bumper Crop of August Reading

SayersLargeCrime Fiction, including some re-reads for Crime Fiction Lover’s feature special on Dorothy Sayers in Classics in September:

  1. Lynn Shepherd: A Treacherous Likeness
  2. Dorothy L. Sayers: Murder Must Advertise
  3. Dorothy L. Sayers: Have His Carcase
  4. Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night
  5. Philippe Georget: Summertime All The Cats Are Bored
  6. P.D. James: Shroud for a Nightingale
  7. Jean-François Parot: The Chatelet Apprentice – first in the Nicolas Le Floch series, read it here in English for the first time
  8. Helen Smith: Invitation to Die – more than a cosy crime novel, this is a witty satire about book blogging, wannabe writers and the rivalries and egos of the publishing industry
  9. Seth Lynch: Salazar
  10. John Burdett: Bangkok Eight – very distinctive voice, scenes that fascinate and repel in equal measure, quite hard to bear in some ways
  11. Camilla Ceder: Babylon
  12. Alan Bradley: I am Half-Sick of Shadows
  13. Jakob Arjouni: Happy Birthday, Tűrke! – in German, the first in the renowned Kayankala series
  14. Elly Griffiths: The Crossing Places
  15. Julie Smith: Mean Woman Blues – America, New Orleans
  16. John Enright: Pago Pago Tango – Australasia/Oceania
  17. Gail Bowen: A Killing Spring – Canadian academic crime fiction
  18. Alison Bruce: The Calling – third in DC Goodhew series, set in Cambridge, this was the first one the author wrote
  19. Stav Sherez: Eleven Days – second in the Carrigan & Miller series. The first one, ‘A Dark Redemption’ was one of my favourite crime reads of 2012. Tthis time the links are to South America, liberation theology, human trafficking and Albanian crime lords. Perhaps not quite as compelling as the previous book, but an excellent read nonetheless, and an inventive, poetic use of language.
  20. David Wagner: Cold Tuscan Stone – art smuggling in Italy, rather obvious tourist fare
  21. Kerry Greenwood: Flying Too High (Phryne Fisher) – delectable and frothy

2 in French which deserve to be better known

  1. André Héléna: Les Voyageurs du vendredi
  2. Sébastien Japrisot : Un long dimanche de fiançailles

Escapist Capers

  1. C.L. Konigsburg: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler – old childhood favourite that I had lost track of because of the impossible title
  2. Adharanand Finn: Running with the Kenyans
  3. Hatice Akyűn: Einmal Hans mit scharfer Soße – witty depiction of life as a 2nd generation Turk growing up in Germany
  4. Writers Abroad: Foreign Encounters – collection of poetry, creative non-fiction and short stories about the expat experience and cross-cultural encounters

Total read: 27; Abandoned 2 (not mentioned here).  

11DaysMy own internal rules dictate that I cannot count my reread novels towards my favourites this month, so my top crime pick of the month: Stav Sherez–Eleven Days.

Reread 5 books.

11 e-book format

2 in French, 2 in German, the rest in English (but 3 in translation)

2 non-fiction, 1 collection of poetry/prose, the rest novels.

Finished 108 of my proposed 120 books reading challenge for this year, which probably means I have set my bar too low.  Then again, from September onwards, I’ll probably struggle to read more than one book a week.

So what have you read this month? Anything you particularly remember or recommend?

 

Crime Fiction Pick of July

Come and join me over at Mysteries in Paradise, led by the very able and well-read Kerrie, to see what everyone has been reading this month.  In my case, fewer books got read this month, for a very simple reason called school holidays!

Even fewer got reviewed, so let me just add a sentence or two about my thoughts for each one:

1) Bernard Minier: The Frozen Dead

A strange tale involving a decapitated  horse, a serial killer and a mental asylum in the Pyrenees. Exciting read to cool off during the hot summer months (it takes place in winter, as you might have guessed from the title).  Full review will be shortly available on Crime Fiction Lover.

2) Frédérique Molay: The 7th Woman

Gokan3) Diniz Galhos: Gōkan  (in French, no English translation available yet)

Tarantino-like crime caper set in Japan, involving an American assassin, a French professor from the Sorbonne, grumpy yakuza chasing each other and a bottle of saké belonging to (you guessed it!) Quentin Tarantino.  Dynamic, explosive and just a shade incomprehensible.

4) Denise Mina: Garnethill

How did I ever miss this series?  A fantastic narrative voice, plunging you into the gritty world of low-paid jobs, drugs and Glasgow squalour. Not as grim as it sounds: ultimately hopeful and uplifting.

5) Karin Fossum: Calling Out for You (a.k.a. The Indian Bride)

Almost unbearably sad story about settled, peaceful middle-aged Norwegian man Gunder Jomann and his Indian bride, who gets murdered as soon as she arrives in the country.  It was disturbing to see how evil deeds can arise out of nowhere, in the apparently most peaceful little town in one of the safest countries in the world.  Not your average police procedural, and one that will haunt me for weeks to come.

6) Orhan Pamuk: The Museum of Innocence – will get a review of its own for my Works in Translation Challenge.

midas7) Anne Zouroudi: The Taint of Midas

Not as cosy as you might think at first sight, given the idyllic location of the Greek islands, the authoritative presence of the investigator Hermes Diaktoros and the overall charm of the author’s writing style.  The ‘whodunit’ component was not quite compelling enough, but this is a book to savour for its characters, descriptions and telling details.  Perfect holiday read, in the best sense of the word.

8) M.C. Grant: Devil with a Gun

Another great holiday read, this time a would-be noir set in San Francisco, featuring the Russian mafia and starring Dixie Flynn, the most feisty, witty, don’t care-ish female detective (actually, a journalist) since V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone.  Review coming up on Crime Fiction Lover.

9) The PEN/ O. Henry Prize Stories 2012

The quality of the stories is not in doubt, but I was somewhat disappointed by the uniformity of the selection.  All the stories were rather wistful and nostalgic, all a bit oblique – sometimes too much so, to the point where I felt like saying ‘So what?’.  But perhaps that’s just me being obtuse.

FossumHappy to say that half of my reads were by women authors this month, and four of them were originally written in another language.  And my Crime Pick of the Month?  It’s a tie between Denise Mina and Karin Fossum, very hard to choose,  but perhaps the Fossum book will linger in my memory longest.

 

 

Time to Read What I’ve Got

Today I was  late returning books to one of the multiple libraries in our area.  Yes, late again and once more (this never used to happen to me pre-children, I assure you!).  After apologising profusely and being excused my fine (French librarians are kind like that), I eyed the shelves greedily for my next ‘fix’.  Reading is a heavy addiction, and I did find something new to try out and experiment.

When I got home, though, I began to wonder why I borrow more and more books from the library, which I never have a hope in heaven, earth and hell to finish on time (especially when it’s in French)… when I have a pile of books at home, on my shelves and on my Kindle, patiently waiting to be noticed.

When I started counting them, I was shocked.  What have I been up to?  While I’ve been busy receiving books for review from publishers (I’m not counting those at all for now), I’ve also been steadily adding to my To Be Read list. Eight paperbacks, six on my tablet, 14 on my husband’s Kindle and one on my laptop.  That’s 29 books in all – enough to see me through till the end of the year, pretty much.  And I’m not even looking at the massive tomes of Maigret and Proust, which fall officially into the ‘would like to reread’ bucket.

Right, that’s me sorted for the next year or so.  Pray excuse me, while I see a man about a new pair of glasses…  and a better reading light… mutter… mutter…

And, just to be contrary, here are some inspirational libraries, both public and private, just for the joy of it.  Not that I plan visiting any of them any time soon. Promise! 

University of Aberdeen Library, Photo credit: Gordon M. Robertson
University of Aberdeen Library, Photo credit: Gordon M. Robertson
Chateau de Groussay. Bookmania.me
Chateau de Groussay. Bookmania.me
Peabody Library, Baltimore. Funonthenet.in
Peabody Library, Baltimore. Funonthenet.in
Wirtschaftsuni, Wien. Photo credit: Paulo Budroni.
Wirtschaftsuni, Wien. Photo credit: Paulo Budroni.

Not sure what is going to happen with this wonderful building, as the Business University of Vienna has just moved to a new campus over the summer.

Best Read of the Month: May

This past month has been  more diverse than most in terms of reading.  I have managed to finish 12 books, of which only 7 were officially crime fiction, 4 were love stories (of a sort) and one was non-fiction but proved to be a more exciting and unbelievable read than any fiction.  Two of them were in French, which makes me want to do a little dance of joy.  My goal has been to read at least one book in French every month, preferably two, so as to improve my language skills, but I am sure there have been many, many times when I have failed in this mission.  Finally, three of them were translations: one from Danish and two from Hebrew.

1) Sophie Hannah: The Carrier.  Some of Sophie Hannah’s earlier books gripped me completely: it felt as though the author had been in my head and uncovered my most hidden thoughts.  She always seems to set the reader up with an impossible puzzle, yet solves them with flourish, keen psychological finesse and not a little poetic vision.  Although this was not my favourite of Hannah’s novels, it is still a good read, although perhaps not at an airport when your flight is delayed…  For my full review on Crime Fiction Lover, see here.

Dicker2) Joel Dicker: La Verite sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert.   Having seen and heard the author at the Lyon Crime Festival, and having seen how many awards and accolades have been heaped upon this book in the French-speaking world, I was naturally curious to read it. Well, it’s an easy-to-read, quite exciting story, with reasonable plot twists along the way, but I am puzzled as to why it has won all those awards, since it feels good but not outstanding to me. The setting is a small town in the United States, and there is nothing remotely French or Swiss about this book.  There are a few cliche situations and characters, but the simple, even pedestrian language appealed to me as a non-native speaker of French.

3) Amos Oz: To Know a Woman.   Perhaps not my favourite book by Oz, but he still is such a magnificent writer. He takes a widower’s story of loss and grieving, and turns it into a universal tale of love, reassessment of one’s life, trying to truly understand another person, moving on. He piles on detail after detail (about Yoel’s daily routines, his gardening, his cooking, his thoughts, his travels) and each adds a layer, but you feel that the depth really lies in what is unsaid.

Tokyo host4) Jonelle Patrick: Fallen Angel: An Only in Tokyo Mystery

Once again, the full review is here, but this is an intriguing insight into the world of Japanese nightlife and host clubs, written by someone who knows Tokyo rather well but still brings an external perspective to things.

5) Alan Glynn: Graveland.    Not quite as enthralling as his previous novel Bloodland, perhaps because this one takes place all in the US, rather than Ireland or the Congo. It certainly feels very topical, dealing with unemployment, young protesters and the shadowy world of finance and corporations. I found the excessive amounts of web searching a little tedious, and the investigative journalist Ellen never quite grabbed my attention.  However, the character of Frank, former architect now working as a sales assistant in an electronics store, and worried about his daughter in college, was quite moving.

6) Benjamin Tammuz: Minotaur.    The principle of the story is similar to Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’: you get to see an unusual love story from multiple points of view, until you are able to discern what really happened and how each player in the drama justifies matters. I read this in one breathless go, but it is actually a book to be savoured slowly. It has so many beautiful passages and philosophical meditations on love, passion in life, music and fear of the unknown. It is a thriller, a love story, a history of Palestine, a hymn to the Levantine spirit, a noir.

7) Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers.     This book deserves an entry of its own: it is the book I wish I could have written, as an anthropologist, yet it reads like a novel.  Except that all of the events described are real.  It is the heartbreaking story of everyday life, hopes, fears and disappointments of slum life in Mumbai.  One of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time.

Cover of "The Concrete Blonde (Harry Bosc...
Cover of The Concrete Blonde (Harry Bosch)

8) Michael Connelly: The Concrete Blonde.      A mix of courtroom drama, police procedural and serial killer novel, this is a solid entry in the Harry Bosch series, with an interesting backdrop of LA after the racial riots.

9) Meg Wolitzer: The Uncoupling.     I actually left this book behind me (once I finished it) in a hotel room.  I was that sure that I would never want to read it again. Although I found this story of disintegrating love and familiarity breeding contempt quite compelling.  I think all of us women have experienced some of those sentiments at one time or another.  However, the fable element of the story and the supposedly magic spells that descends upon all the women in the New Jersey suburbs was a little annoying and artificial, especially the ending. When it stuck to the mundane, there were many funny moments in the book. It is all at once a sharply observed, witty look at modern life in the suburbs, and a universal statement about the relationship between men and women, the way they misunderstand each other and mistreat each other, even unintentionally.

10) Massimo Carlotto: At the End of a Dull Day – to be reviewed next week

11) Louise Doughty: Apple Tree Yard – to be reviewed next week

Français : L'auteur danois Jens Christian Grøn...
Français : L’auteur danois Jens Christian Grøndahl au Salon du livre de Paris lors de la conférence La société, source d’inspiration. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

12) Jens Christian Grondahl: Piazza Bucarest

This was an impulse loan from the library, as I stumbled across it while searching for something else, and I couldn’t resist the blurb.  The narrator tries to find Elena, a young Romanian woman who married his stepfather to escape from Communism and then abandoned him.  Sadly, the book was a disappointment, and not just because the woman was unsympathetic (or because we Romanian women cannot take a bit of criticism).  I was never quite sure what the author was trying to say or what the point of the whole thing was.  Maybe the fact that I read a French translation of the original Danish didn’t help much either – it’s like trying to see a landscape through a doubly opaque window.

My top read of this month (and many other months) is undoubtedly ‘Beyond the Beautiful Forevers’, and my favourite crime fiction pick?  Hmmm, that’s a tricky choice, as there were quite a few good ones, although nothing exceptional.  I think it’s a tie between ‘The Concrete Blonde’ and ‘At the End of a Dull Day’.  Both rather macho reads, though, so I need something more feminine next month to compensate.

So I have covered quite a few of my reading challenge requirements.  Although, don’t you find that, as soon as you near the goalposts of a challenge you set for yourself, you start moving them about? Taking them just a little further? Demanding just a tad more of yourself? Fearful of missing out on something?