Catching Up with Book Reviews: Crime

I’ve fallen far behind with my book reviews, so I will try to remedy that with a quick-fire post containing no less than four reviews of crime novels written by women and set in a variety of locations.

BrasoveanuRodica Ojog-Braşoveanu: Omul de la capătul firului (The Man at the End of the Line)

The ‘grande dame’ of Romanian crime fiction has been compared to Agatha Christie, but in this book at least she shows more similarities to Dorothy Sayers. It features an infuriating, yet charismatic and larger than life main investigator called (appropriately enough) Minerva, who cannot hide her elitism and know-it-all sentiment (she used to be a high-school teacher) this is great fun, though a bit elitist. It was written in the 1970s, so we not only have calls from phone-booths but also Communist censorship in Romania. So, with a topic of espionage and counterespionage, you might expect it to be breast-thumpingly ‘patriotic’ and ideological, but it is quite nuanced and interesting. Not at all what I expected.

atticroomLinda Huber: The Attic Room

Nina’s mother has just died and their content little three-generation-of-women household on the isle of Arran (including Nina’s daughter Naomi) has been disrupted. Then Nina finds out she has received an inheritance just outside London from a man she doesn’t know. Could this really be her long-lost father, as the solicitor seems to believe? But then, why did her mother claim that he died when she was a young child? As Nina gets sucked into her family’s history and dark secrets, the creepy house she has inherited starts to play a big part in her feelings of discomfort and fear.

There is a good story hiding in there somewhere, but I found the plot somewhat predictable and the style a bit long-winded. However, the characterisations are generally strong. I enjoyed the burgeoning relationship between Nina and her solicitor, and her concerns about her daughter.

burntpaperGilly Macmillan: Burnt Paper Sky

Another child in danger, another domestic thriller set-up, but what made this one stand out from the morass of frankly quite average recent surfeit of offerings in this area was the focus on ‘judgement by the press and social media’. Rachel is a single mother, still struggling to come to terms with abandonment and divorce, and she pays dearly for one brief moment of allowing her eight-year-old son to run ahead to the rope-swing in the woods just outside Bristol. She does not live up to the media’s expectations of what a distraught mother should look like or behave, and she is demonised and hounded by strangers and acquaintances alike. Helen Fitzgerald in ‘The Cry’ also touches on this topic, but here it becomes the main focus of the book. We also see the point of view of the investigating team, and how they too struggle to believe the mother.

Strong descriptions, sensitive use of language and great interactions between the characters make this a very promising debut novel for me. Heart-wrenching for any mother, I can promise you, so I had to read it very quickly to find out the worst (or not).

cherryblossomFran Pickering: The Cherry Blossom Murder

The cherry blossom is rather tangential to this story, but the Japanese setting is not, so it was a real pleasure to read it in Japan. It’s the first in a series featuring amateur detective Josie Clark, an Englishwoman trying to survive in the Japanese corporate world in Tokyo. She speaks Japanese and has friends, and she is a fan of the Takarazuka Revue (an all-woman cabaret show with a huge following in Japan). When one of the helpers at the fan club meetings is found dead just outside the theatre, everyone wants to keep a safe distance and let the police investigate. Yet Josie can’t help feeling that the police are just going through the motions, so she uses her Western rebellion and curiosity to dig a little deeper herself. With the help of her wise, if scruffy-looking mentor Tanaka-san, she unravels the mystery in this entertaining ‘cosy in an exotic location’. Perfect for armchair travellers, and reminiscent of Jonelle Patrick’s ‘Only in Tokyo’ series.

So there you have it: travelled to Romania, Scotland, Bedfordshire, Bristol and Japan lately, how about you? Coming up: a physical trip to Quebec, so I can feel another bout of Louise Penny coming on… I’ve been trying to find some Quebecois writers in French at the library here, but no luck so far. Nelly Arcan, Marie-Claire Blais, Elise Turcotte, Gabrielle Roy – there are lots of wonderfully subversive women writers from that province.


Friday Fun: Bookshops in Romania

There is a beautiful new bookshop that just opened up last week in the centre of Bucharest, in a recently renovated, gracious old mansion. I’m very excited about this and can hardly wait to go there to ‘visit’ (code word for ‘buy lots of books’).

Bookshop Carturesti Carusel, just opened in the Chrisoveloni House in Bucharest.
Bookshop Carturesti Carusel, just opened in the Chrissoveloni House in Bucharest.
It will be the largest bookshop in the country, extending over 6 floors.
It will be the largest bookshop in the country, extending over 6 floors.
The building was nationalised during Communist times and served as HQ for a bank at one point.
The building was nationalised during Communist times and served as HQ for a bank at one point.



But there are plenty of other wonderful bookshops round about Bucharest and Romania.

The library in the Institut Francais in Bucharest.
The bookshop in the Institut Francais in Bucharest.
Habitus bookshop in Sibiu, from
Carturesti bookshop in Brasov.
Carturesti bookshop in Brasov.

Advance warning: there will be a second blog post later on today, for the 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion initiative! It’s not too late: if you want to take part, find out more about it here.


25 Years Since

A bit of erasure poetry for you tonight (well, more prose than poetry), which I’m linking to that wonderfully welcoming venue for sharing poems and ideas, the dVerse Poets Pub.

It’s almost exactly 25 years since our revolution in Romania. For many years I called it a ‘stolen’ or ‘so-called’ revolution, as we saw people tarnished by their Communist and security forces links become the most vocal proponents of the free market (and profiting hugely by it). But, no matter what followed, that doesn’t diminish the magic and hope of those few days when we really believed we could change the world. I found my diary from that time and have chosen a few lines from here and there to give you a feel for the atmosphere.

Dad was called in to the office on Sunday evening.

‘Don’t send any Christmas cards abroad just now.’

Helicopters flying overhead.

In Timişoara, rubber cudgels. Bullets too, so we hear.

We’re all hoping for more.

‘No public gatherings, curfew at 8 p.m., keep your ID card with you at all times.’

The school is strangely empty, profs barricaded in the Dean’s office.

Nearly holidays but no tickets:  trains have been cancelled.

‘Those imperialistic and fascist forces trying to destabilise our fatherland.’

They’ve smashed bookshop windows and burnt Ceauşescu’s books.

They dared the army to shoot:

‘We are the people, who are you protecting?’

Rumours, rumours everywhere.

This morning he calls a public meeting, shown live on TV,

with slogan-filled banners, portraits of the Beloved Couple.

I’m on my knees, praying for something to happen.

Suddenly, someone interrupted – I heard, I heard the boos!

Utter befuddlement on his face:

‘You mean, they really don’t like me?’

Transmission cut for a few endless minutes.

radardemediaMy parents begged me not to leave the house.

‘All students should resign their party membership:

a party that can kill its own people has lost all credibility.’

Tanks rolled up, shooting continued into the night, dogs barking wildly.

No heroics, more like running, finding shelter.

Smashing glass with your bare head.

Radio switched on every few minutes.

What were we expecting?

All we heard were patriotic songs.

Then at 12:55 p.m. the music stopped:

‘This is Radio Free Bucharest. We have an important announcement to make.’

Appeals to go out to help, provide medical aid, electricity, food.

It feels like civil war.

I went to a hospital to offer my first-aid skills but they only took the gauze.

We want to hug. We need to run.

Trucks loaded with people, unarmed yet willing.

A joy to see how well-behaved and selfless people are,

even if enemies and sharpshooters lurk atop buildings.

In the breaks between the shooting, we help

provide free drinks.

Companionship of perfect strangers.

I drop the cherries in my pie, keeping time with the machine-guns.

This morning our block of flats was shot at:

it’s Christmas Eve.







Food for Thought: You’ve Never Had Anything Like This

Over at dVerse Poets, Abhra is urging us to write about our own cultural heritage via the uniqueness of our food and recipes. I thought I’d attempt something different: a prose-poem of sorts about experiencing Romanian food as an outsider, a child who had spent most of her life abroad.

You’ve Never Had Anything Like This

‘You’ve never had anything like this before.’

Uh-oh, here it comes, with warning lights!

As if I’d fall for tricks like that again. They’ve said it before, they can say it again. Too many times.

Usually, it involves something that looks like dog’s vomit covered in mayo.

Or meat wrapped up – for no good reason – in cabbage that’s gone off. They fill my mouth with sour revenge. For living abroad, for escaping them for ten months a year.

But this time, it’s a dessert. I have a sweet tooth, which I’m not allowed to acknowledge. However, this time… my carrot-munching, sugar-banning mother isn’t around. And even she cannot control what my aunt gives me in her own home.

I move in closer.

It’s foamy-white and quivers at the bottom of a bowl. I sink a spoon into its springiness and scoop it into my mouth. It melts on my tongue with creamy-egged smoothness and lingering longings of vanilla.

I gobble it up and ask for more.

‘What is it?’

‘Birds’ milk.’

From the recipe website

Comparing Reading Cultures

Every three years or so the literary magazine Livres Hebdo  in France does an IPSOS survey of not just its readers, but the wider French reading public. The latest edition of this survey (April 2014) reveals that reading remains the second favourite leisure activity of the French (after ‘going out with friends’). 7 out of 10 French read at least one book a month and about half of them claim to read every day.

However, e-readers have not made that much of an inroad yet into French reading habits. Its popularity has grown only by 3% in the last three years.

And what are the favourite genres? Crime fiction (known as ‘polars’) tops the list, unsurprisingly, followed by spy thrillers, self-help books and historical essays/biographies.

So, are there any causes for concern? Well, the French admit that reading does seem to be a pastime associated with the middle classes, the better-educated and economically better off. This finding holds true in the survey of reading habits in England commissioned by Booktrust UK. In fact, there has been talk in Britain of a ‘class division’ in reading culture, with a clear link between deprivation and lack of reading enjoyment.

But perhaps the English are further down the road of using digital media to do their reading. In England 18% of people never read any physical books, while 71% never read any e-books. A quarter prefer internet and social media to books, nearly half prefer TV and DVDs to books. Only 28% of people in England (and I think it’s important to point out that this data is only for England, not for the UK as a whole) read books nearly every day, so considerably lower than in France. Fitting in nicely with the stereotype of ‘highbrow French’ reading books with boring covers and impenetrable titles?

DSCN6650Worldwide surveys of reading habits do tend to confirm somewhat national stereotypes. Self-help books are popular in the US, while in the UK there is a marked preference for celebrity autobiographies and TV chefs. The Germans, meanwhile, prefer travel/outdoor/environmental books, while the French, Romanians, Italians seem to prefer fiction.

But the most interesting result may be found in Spain. Once the nation that read fewer books than any other in Europe, since the recession hit the country so hard, it seems that books have become that affordable luxury and has led to 57% of the population reading regularly. It has also become one of the biggest book-producing nations, bucking all the publishing trends. And what do they prefer reading? A very interesting mix of Spanish-speaking writers (including South Americans) and translations from other languages.

And what are we to make of a 2011 study from the University of Gothenburg showing that increased use of computers in children’s homes in the US and Sweden have led to poorer reading skills as well as less pleasure derived from reading?

At the risk of preaching to the converted, I leave you with a conclusion which has been replicated in multiple studies around the world and which refers to leisure-time reading (of whatever description):

People who read books are significantly more likely to be happy and content with their life.

Poetry Review: Father Dirt by Mihaela Moscaliuc

FatherDirtThe poet Mihaela Moscaliuc was born and raised in Romania, but came to the United States in 1996 to do her graduate work in American literature. She is now married to an American poet and lectures in world literature, poetry and translation in New England. She was recommended to me by another poet, because in her first poetry collection ‘Father Dirt’ she captures perfectly the ambiguity of living a-straddle between two worlds, two languages and cultures.

Like any immigrant, she has come across the ocean with ‘a saddlebag of ghosts’ from her homeland:

We carry cemeteries on our heads,

in our bellies, round our ankles.

She used to be:

the girl who dreamt her escape…

who now fuels homesickness with immigrant tales.

And what tales she has to tell! She remembers with sensuous delight the rich tastes, images, sounds of a Romanian childhood: the odd astringent friendship of quince, cutting the corn porridge with butter-combed strings, spitting out cherry stones in the graveyard, the wary pleasure of having blood oranges for Easter (an uncommon delicacy in those days), good-natured banter and gossip during the home-waxing sessions among women. There are also aspects of her cultural heritage that she struggles to come to terms with: the old-fashioned beliefs in potions and tinctures, the healing powers of nettle and marigold tea, rituals for the dead, whispered curses and protection against evil. There is both a luminous and an ominous quality to her remembered life.

Yet the shadows hanging over these childhood memories are much deeper than that, for these were the years of deprivation and dictatorship, when abortion was illegal and even young girls were subjected to forced fertility checks. Moscaliuc remembers denouncements of classmates in school assemblies, the arrest of midwives who performed abortions, the suicide of a high-school classmate, the forced sterilisation of Roma women. She remembers fear and innuendo, when a careless word could send you to labour camp.

In the most heart-rending section of the book, there are a series of poems about children in orphanages and on the streets, youngsters who died far too young, for whom Father Dirt was a comforting figure, opposed to the bleached soul of the poet who was trying to help them on a voluntary basis. These are angry, fierce, immensely sad poems, individual stories almost too grim to contemplate. Moscaliuc piles on detail after sordid detail, until they sound almost banal, in a condemnation of society’s collective blindness to the problem.

My orphans grew up and disappeared below the earth.

Twice a day they ascend, cross the boulevard,

Sniffing auroleac, flapping plastic bottles…

Sometimes they’re electrocuted. Come dawn,

they’re carted to common burial…

Come spring, the survivors will honeycomb the town,

each crater strategically placed to absorb warmth and mercy.

Portrait of Mihaela Moscaliuc, from
Portrait of Mihaela Moscaliuc, from

These poems come from a harsh, unforgiving place and they brought up painful memories for me.  The poet admits that they may not be to everyone’s taste or understanding, but she almost performs an act of exorcism by writing them down.

You ask me where these poems come from.

You traveled my country enough to know…

But this is the skin she wants to shed, the waters of yesterday that she no longer wants to wade through, although she will never completely forget them. She wants to fit in with her new world, with the sweet tomato aroma of her new home, and this is where she truly speaks to that yearning and sense of never quite belonging which every immigrant knows.

I want dreams in the American idiom –

[…] dreams with popcorn plots and slick endings,

dreams with heirloom seedlings, dreams

never in need of translation

An unforgettable volume of poetry (even given my biased reading, being of similar age and background as the poet). I was fascinated, absorbed, dragged into deep pockets of pain and back again. Above all, it has given me the permission to be bolder, more honest, more open about my own past and my cultural influences.




Fragment of a Chapter

I’ve been knee-deep in non-creative stuff lately, so this is my attempt to remind myself to be creative. Or to remind myself that I do have a book in mind! Here is the opening of Chapter 7 of my novel-in-progress, introducing the policeman who will help our two main protagonists to resolve the murder mystery.  The action takes place in a small town in the sub-Carpathians in Romania.  This is a slow, descriptive start to a chapter after some rather action-packed scenes, because it introduces a new character, one who will become important in the course of the investigation.  Do you feel it gives you a bit of insight into the character – too much, not enough? Would you read on?  And does it give you a bit of the local atmosphere?arges-250x187

Sergeant Dinu Vlăhuţ was up the stepladder, adjusting the flags in front of the Town Hall.  One of the flagpoles had got stuck again, so he had to get fiercely manual with it.  After all, you couldn’t have the national flag flying half-mast, as if it was a day of national mourning.

He’d climbed up there while it was still early and relatively cool, and he was in no hurry to get down.  It wasn’t like he had any exciting cases waiting for him in the office. Meanwhile, Gina and Lili at the public counter were more than capable of dealing with the ID card applications, criminal records checks and traffic fines.  Not that many of those ever got paid.

The Curtea de Argeş Police Station was located on the ground floor of the Town Hall, on the left. It didn’t even have a separate entrance, and they’d often get people wandering in asking about permits to open up shops or property certificates.  Dinu believed in helping people out and mucking in, but he did wish he could have a more slick, streamlined operation. A couple of computers wouldn’t go amiss, either.

However, according to the American cop shows he liked to watch on TV – and which now, after the Revolution, were plentiful on all TV stations –  NYPD didn’t have much better premises either.  Lots of open-plan offices with dingy furniture and everyone talking over each other while manning the phones…  Let’s face it, a darn noisy and tiring environment!  Surprising anyone ever got any work done, let alone solved complex crimes and hunted down serial killers, as they all seemed to do on a weekly basis.

He surveyed his surroundings from his superior vantage point.  Although Curtea de Argeş boasted a history dating back to the Middle Ages, the Town Hall was a modern building, designed to be functional rather than architecturally memorable.  It looked exactly like a school or a hospital, or pretty much any public building in Romania since the 1970s.  But Dinu was quite fond of the old place. At least it hadn’t been painted over in garish colours, like some other public buildings in recent years, in an attempt to freshen up after years of Communist decay.  There were even some flower arrangements on either side of the steps. And, because the gardener was paid directly by the Town Hall, he did actually bother to use the sprinkler every other day, so the grass was much greener than anywhere else in town in  mid-August. And…

‘Excuse me,’ came a voice from below, ‘Are you a police officer?’

Dinu looked down.  A pretty young woman was looking up to him.  Instinctively, he put his hands up to adjust his hat, then realised that he had left it down at the bottom of the stepladder. It had the annoying habit of falling off, being ever so slightly too large for him.

OK, time to get down.  He scooped up his hat as he descended and set it smartly on his blonde wavy hair,  his mother’s pride and joy.  He  folded up the stepladder. ‘Yes, I’m a policeman.  How can I help you?’

‘I wanted to find out more about the accident that occurred here a few days ago.   I am a friend of the deceased. Who would be the best person to talk to about that?’

She was indeed quite a looker. Surely there was no harm in being polite and helpful, although he was – of course –  a married man.