Sadly, I didn’t just bring back good memories and new friendships from Bloody Scotland, but also Covid. I started feeling a bit fluey on Tuesday/Wednesday, but thought I had caught a cold from my younger son. However, it appears that his cold is independent, and on Friday I tested positive, after several people who had attended Bloody Scotland had already announced they had fallen ill. It is optimistic to think that we can go back to a normal life in closed venues – it is, in fact, a lottery, and although I wear masks on public transport, I have to admit I did not wear one in the venues and probably not everyone tested for Covid before they attended the event.
So I just had quite a horrible weekend, and am not up to anything more intellectual than showing you pictures of the books I have acquired this month.
First of all, thank you to Stela Brinzeanu and her publisher Legend Press for the beautiful little parcel that arrived with the proper edition of the book Set in Stone (I previously read the ARC), a tote bag and a small jar of honey from Moldova.
I splashed out on quite a few books, although only two at Bloody Scotland (I did not have much room in my luggage and also my broken arm struggled with the tiny suitcase I did have).
The two I bought in Stirling were Last Girl Ghosted by Lisa Unger and The Killing Kind by Jane Casey, after attending their panel. I read them both half in Stirling and half on the train journey home, they were proper page-turners!
After the death of Javier Marias, I felt I wanted to acquire a few of his translated novels which I didn’t have, although for the time being I am reading the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, which was already on my shelves but which I had never quite started properly. I have already read and loved Lolly Willowes, and I borrowed Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin in the original French from my university library. I bought the collection of sci-fi-tinged stories Terminal Boredom after reading a couple of blog reviews, and I got two Tim Winton books after several of you started raving about him on Twitter following an article featuring an interview with him. As you can see, I am so easily led down the book-buying path…
I borrowed the Elizabeth George from the library on Tuesday and thought it would be just the thing for a Covid-stricken brain, but alas, her novels have been getting longer and longer, without any justification, so I very nearly abandoned it. Fish Soup is a Charco Press book that I did not have, but we’ll be reading it for our London Reads the World Book club, and I’ve liked the other Margarita Garcia Robayo book that I read, Holiday Heart. I didn’t get to hear Emma Styles at Bloody Scotland, but I sat next to her on the train back to London and when she described her debut novel set in Australia, No Country for Girls, I knew I had to get it. Think teenage Thelma and Louise in the outback!
Last but not least, the British Library has produced a beautiful illustrated volume of Poems in Progress, showing early drafts and manuscripts of famous poems by poets ancient through to contemporary. I saw my poetry mentor Rebecca Goss tweet that she was in it, and I didn’t need a second invitation.
There is one final purchase for this month (she said optimistically), which hasn’t arrived yet: Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black. I have to admit that I have never been able to get through the Wolf Hall trilogy, although I have much admired Mantel’s earlier novels, but did not own any of them.
Over the past two months I’ve been reading a lot of lighter literature, what one might call holiday or escapist literature – and boy, have I needed it! This was partly because I was on holiday and did not have access to all of my books so I relied on my Kindle. Once I returned from holiday, I was laid up with allsorts of ailments for over two weeks, plus I was increasingly anxious about the health of my darling cat Zoe, which meant that my reading had to be less challenging and grim.
My definition of escapist is usually crime fiction rather than ‘uplifting’ or ‘feel good’ literature, so most of the books fall into that category, although there is some historical fiction in there as well. Overall, 16 books fall into the escapist fiction category: only three of them fit into the Women in Translation month category, although I read a few of the latter two (brief reviews to follow in a separate post).
Bride Price by Barbara Nadel
As always it’s a real pleasure to reconnect with Ikem and Suleyman and the rest of the team. Although Ikmen is retired now and a widower, and although my personal favourite the handsome and irresistible InspectorSsuleyman is about to get married, they still seem to find time to solve quite a few mysteries along the way. You gain most from reading these books in order because the characters grow, develop, get old grow, form all sorts of additional ties, experience loss, make mistakes – in other words, their development over the years is as much part of the story as the crimes they resolve. I had somehow missed the previous two books in the series so was surprised to find Mehmet about to marry his rather wild Roma lover, having left him previously in the arms of a different woman.
The books are always set against a well-defined historical and social backdrop: these are not just tourist descriptions of particular areas of Istanbul, we also get to experience some of the political and social changes that have taken place there over the years. In this book there are a number of things going on, perhaps slightly too many: is somebody trying to curse the upcoming wedding? What terrorist organisation is trying to poison innocent customers with ricin? Is there an international art fraud conspiracy taking place?
I then went immediately back to one of my favourites in the series, Land of the Blind, set against the backdrop of the 2013 Gezi Park protests (brutally quashed), where Mehmet is a bit of an arrogant bastard in the background, while Ikmen proves that he is the perfect and thoughtful husband, father and friend.
Divorce Turkish Style by Esmahan Aykol, transl. from Turkish by Ruth Whitehouse
I stuck to Istanbul for this next one. Kati Herschel is half-German, half-Turkish and completely stubborn. She owns the only crime bookshop in Istanbul, and can’t resist dabbling in amateur crime investigations. This case involves the death of beautiful, well-educated wife of a millionaire – but was she killed because she was about to divorce her husband or because she was an ecological activist?
Set in Stone by Stela Brinzeanu
A trip to Moldova next, back in medieval times, when wealthy boieri commanded full loyalty from their vassal lords, only boys could inherit, Roma were slaves and women had few choices but marriage or the convent – or else be accused of witchcraft. Brinzeanu takes one of the oldest and best-known Romanian myths (the Ballad of Master Craftsman Manole) and gives an alternative interpretation, steeped in injustice, malevolence and superstition. There is also a tender love story between social classes at its heart, but distrust and fear threaten to destroy it. There is a YA feel to this story (just like with the other recent historical novel I read set in Romania, The Book of Perilous Dishes), but that is no bad thing, as it ensures lively pacing, vivid descriptions, as well as strong emotions and often impulsive actions of the main protagonists, rather than endless cerebral agonising.
The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer
Another historical romance with some cross-dressing like the previous book, but with far lower stakes (although perpetually threatened by possible accusations of fraud and treason)/ This is set in Georgian England, after the failed Bonnie Prince Charlie uprising, with two siblings disguised as members of the opposite sex to protect their identity. Aside from the misunderstandings one might expect, mayhem ensues when their con-artist father reappears to claim a vast inheritance. Not my favourite Heyer, but a charming and witty way to spend a lazy summer day.
Rocco and the Price of Lies by Adrian Magson
A combination of the historical and criminal: I love this series featuring Inspector Rocco in 1960s Picardie – I find them much more compelling and culturally true than the more overtly tourist-trap Bruno series by Martin Walker, but they sadly don’t seem to be as popular with readers. A cracking story about local and national interests, cover-ups and eccentric characters.
The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill
I always enjoy a book about writers and this is a very clever, slightly metafictional study of the construction of a crime novel. The conceit is that an Australian writer sends chapters of her work in progress to an American fan because her latest work is set in Boston and she needs someone familiar with the place to correct any mistakes. However, the American acquaintance gets more involved than one might expect in the story and starts making suggestions for altering the plot or the characters. At the same time, we are given to understand that one of the four main characters in the fictional book is a killer but that the author herself has not yet decided which one it will be. As we get caught up in the story, we forget that all exists simply in the fictional author’s head, but there is the additional creepy element of stalking and real crimes starting to take place. A great fun read, easily devoured in half a day.
Hinton Hollow Death Trap by Will Carver – if you want to have your brains twisted and start doubting yourself, this sneaky and clever but dark story written by Evil Himself is sure to do the trick!
The Good Turn by Dervla McTiernan – a solid and gripping police procedural set in Galway and Dublin, with at least two very strong characters investigating, want to read more
The House Share by Kate Helm – I remember quite enjoying this as I was reading it, although the luxury communal living premise seemed rather far-fetched, but like fast food – haven’t got any lingering memory of its taste
Anonima de miercuri by Rodica Ojog Brasoveanu (Romanian) – featuring that suave old lady Melania, freshly out of prison for fraud, this is entertaining enough but feels oddly in misstep with the time in which it is supposed to take place (1980s Romania)
Violet by SJI Holliday – set on the Trans-Siberian express all the way through Beijing, Mongolia and then Moscow, this is an unnerving story with slippery characters, very atmospheric – although goodness, I was a much more cautious traveller at their age (wouldn’t make for a good story, though)
Death on the Trans Siberian Expressby C J Farrington – another story where the Trans-Siberian train features, this time set in Roslazny – a sleepy Russian town along its route. Olga Pushkin is the railway engineer who witnesses a body being thrown out of the train and who cannot help getting involved in the investigation. This has the hallmarks of cosy historical crime, although it is set in 21st century Russia, but I love the idealism and resilience of fiery Olga.
Red as Blood by Lilja Sigurdardottir (transl. Quentin Bates) – a puzzling kidnapping and ransom case (with a side serving of tax evasion) – the second book in a new series by this prolific and talented Icelandic author, less action packed than her Reykjavik Noir trilogy, but equally fun
How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie – funny, completely amoral, highly political, this is Kind Hearts and Coronets for the present-day, another book that scores highly while reading it, but loses its fizz soon afterwards
As you can see, no time for lengthier reviews, but I do hope to be able to do a #WIT summary post too.
Stu from Winston’s Dad blog is an inspiration for all lovers of translated fiction. He seems to get through more books (and from a wider variety of countries) than nearly anyone else I know. For March, he is challenging and encouraging us to read fiction from Eastern Europe and I can only say bravo to him and feel slightly ashamed that I hadn’t thought of it myself, since I originally come from that part of the world. Which, of course, is currently very keen to rebrand itself as ‘Central European’.
Knowing what a massive problem emigration is for many of the former Communist countries, I picked a book from Moldova about economic migrants: ‘The Good Life Elsewhere’ by Vladimir Lorchenkov (translated by Ross Ufberg, published by New Vessel Press). This little-known former Soviet Republic is said to be one of the poorest countries in Europe. I have a special fondness for Moldova because it used to be a part of Romania, with whom it shares religious, historical and cultural traditions, and the majority population speaks Romanian (although the Russian state and minority population persist in calling it ‘Moldovan’).
It consists of a series of vignettes of the villagers of Larga in Moldova, who spend most of the book trying (and failing) to get to Italy, by hook or by crook, legally but mostly illegally. Italy becomes the ‘promised land’, the land of milk and honey, of plenty of job opportunities (cleaner, dishwashers or caring for the elderly) and amazing salaries of no less than 600-800 euros. Serafim Botezatu has a different but equally burning reason to get to Italy: he has been dreaming of its rich history and culture, its artists and architecture since he had come across a book called Views of Rome in the library as a ten-year-old. He has even taught himself Italian from an ancient, torn textbook that he borrowed from the library.
Needless to say, his dreams – and those of his friends and neighbours in the village – are systematically shattered. They each pay 4000 euros to people smugglers who fail to deliver them to their destination in Rome. They form a curling team in an effort to obtain an Italian visa, undeterred by the fact that they have no ice rinks or equipment, and need to practise using brooms on raked earth. They attempt to convert a tractor into a plane, only to be shot down by the cloud-dispersing bullets of the Moldovan government. The submarine they attempt to build out of the remains of the same tractor does not fare much better. One man sells a kidney and then tries to raise a pig as an organ donor. The village priest organises the First Holy Crusade of Eastern Orthodox Christians to the unclean land of Italy to reclaim the lost souls of Moldovans who have gone there.
All of these stories are cobbled together in a non-linear fashion, with jumps between viewpoints and time settings. It’s not very hard to follow, but it can be distracting, and adds to the slightly surreal quality of the tales. The humour is very black indeed: there is a lot of death by accident or suicide. Lorchenkov depicts a village and a country where everyone is corrupt, stupid, crazy or just desperate to leave, including the president, who is ready to fake his own death in a plane crash in order to find a job in a pizzeria in Italy. The satire is sharp, often biting, the stories grotesque, and – although I did smile at some of the scurrilous humour and absurd predicaments – I thought the author sometimes lacked real compassion.
I may be biased, but I did wonder if that was because he himself is Russian rather than Moldovan, and the son of an army officer rather than a farmer. At many points in the story the characters express a distaste for agriculture and hatred for the land, which does not quite ring true for at least the older generation of farmers. There were some comments about how life had deteriorated after the fall of the Soviet empire, which is probably true – the power supply, for instance, was always firmly situated on the Russian side of the border – and overall he sounds really fed up with life in that ‘failed state that no one wants’, as he has called it in interviews. But what irked me is the lack of presence of any Russians in the story, as if only Romanians and gypsies are doing silly or nasty things in present-day Moldova.
Moldova lives in constant fear that it could become the next Ukraine. In fact, there was a brief civil war between the two ethnic groups in the early 1990s and there is a separatist state within its tiny surface already. It remains a country with beautiful landscapes, delicious fruit and wine, a tortured history and a difficult present. I enjoyed this corrosive and viciously entertaining portrayal of a disillusioned society, but for a more nuanced depiction of the plight of Moldovan villages and the desire to emigrate, I’d recommend reading Stela Brinzeanu’s Bessarabian Nights.
I’m not going to finish any more books this month, so I might as well do the summary now. Total number: 11
2 in French (which is why it took a while for me to read them), 1 translated from French, rest in English in original.
5 crime fiction (perhaps my lowest proportion in ages), 1 poetry
Pierre Lemaitre: Au-revoir la-haut – deeply moving account of soldiers’ return from the trenches of WW1
Dominique Sylvain: Guerre Sale (Dirty War)
The ‘dirty war’ of the title refers to the war over natural resources and selling of weapons, which wealthy countries carry out on the African continent. In this book, however, it is barely mentioned within the African context itself. Instead we see a stream of characters with links to the Congo (perhaps too many characters, it gets hard at times to keep track), all acting out their sad tale of corruption, revenge and nasty secrets on the streets of Paris. Sylvain can write a good old plot twist as well as the best of them, but the opening and close of this novel prove what a great writing style she has too. This is the fifth in the Lola and Ingrid series, and I love the dynamic between these two unconventional investigators, but this time it was the police inspector Sacha Duguin who took centre-stage.
I’ve talked about Stela Brinzeanu’s ‘Bessarabian Nights’ and Claire Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs’ in the same post, dissimilar though they are in style and subject matter. I’ve also read two other books which I’ve occasionally heard labelled as ‘women’s fiction’ or ‘book club fiction’: Nancy Freund’s ‘Rapeseed’ and Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn: ‘The Piano Player’s Son’. Women’s literature or book club fictions sounds rather disparaging if you allow it to, but this is not my intent at all. Plus, I don’t like labels (on people, books or anything, except perhaps food labelling). However, they were of the ‘family secrets and resentments’ type of story. They were certainly not of the dull school of literary fiction, where nothing much happens except admiring self in mirror or noticing raindrops on the window. The stories were certainly not lacking in incident – in fact, there was perhaps all too much incident, like soap operas almost, full of ‘he said, she said’ accusations, misunderstandings, tears, shouting, sibling rivalry etc. I want to cast no disparagement against these writers – there were some entertaining characters and quite a few passages of excellent prose there, but I have to confess that book-length is just too much for me for this type of story. I am really not the best critic, as I am not the right audience for this kind of writing, but if you like family sagas, both these authors can write well.
Tony Parsons, known for his ‘male chick lit’ type novels about the trials and tribulations of thirty-something men with relationship problems, is now crossing over to crime fiction. Can he carry it off? Well, you’ll have to wait and read my review on the Crime Fiction Lover website.
Mallock: The Cemetery of Swallows
An unusual story, straddling the Dominican Republic and Paris, with a nearly impossible set-up and a solution that seems to border on the supernatural. Reminiscent of Fred Vargas, Mallock (both the writer and his eponymous detective) has got a style all his own. To be reviewed soon on Crime Fiction Lover.
Terry Hayes: I Am Pilgrim
I don’t like spy thrillers, I don’t like lone rangers who are mankind’s only hope of survival… and yet I read this book very nearly in one sitting. It breaks all the rules… and gets away with it. The first person narrator suddenly starts telling you in great detail things that happened elsewhere and what was in his enemy’s mind, things he couldn’t possibly know. It jumps back and forth in time, from country to country, from character to character, all the while with the main protagonist pronouncing sombrely ‘And that was my mistake… this is where things went wrong… if I had only known about that…’, which adds to the sense of ominous foreboding. It is at times simplistic and racist, but at other times complex and nuanced. It is incredibly exciting, a cat and mouse chase which will leave you breathless, yet the story is nothing spectacularly new (terrorist attack through biochemical weapons, anyone?). It has disturbing graphic descriptions of torture – and also moments of introspection, of cynical realisation of the unsavoury practices of police and government agencies in every country. To my surprise, I loved it: it really is a wowser of a thriller!
So, all in all, an excellent month of reading: 3 outstanding books in 3 different genres, 4 very good books and no duds, just books that weren’t perhaps quite my cup of tea. For Crime Fiction Pick of the month I would say ‘I Am Pilgrim’, simply because it was surprising how much I enjoyed it – the magic of storytelling indeed! See what other book bloggers have chosen as their crime fiction pick of the month over at Mysteries in Paradise.
Coming up in May: non-fiction about parenting Far from the Tree, crime fiction of course, and some German and Japanese literature for a change.
Perhaps it’s a sign of growing older, but I find it easier to relate to something or someone in most books nowadays. I can even empathise with characters described as ‘weak’, ‘silly’ or ‘unlikeable’. Perhaps because I am that myself! At least part of the time… Perhaps we are all much more fragmented, at conflict, darker, ineffectual than we like to think. Perhaps there are masks which we never take off, even in the privacy of our own rooms, for fear that we have to face a gawping void in the mirror. So here are three books I’ve finished recently, and I freely admit that all of them contain elements that I can relate to.
Claire Messud: The Woman Upstairs
Nora Eldridge is full of anger: from the spilling, thrilling outburst at the beginning to the more constructive anger at the end of the novel. She spouts invectives and hints at bleeding wounds, but then the style calms down a little. She becomes once more the ‘woman upstairs’, which in the author’s interpretation is not the ‘mad woman in the attic’ (the uncontrollable feminine power), although of course it slyly references that. In this case, it is the unobtrusive, undemanding, invisible neighbour that you barely speak to, who never complains, who lives in the service of others. So this book is a revolt of the meek. No more little nice girl! Anger becomes a productive force, as, in the wake of disappointments, failures and betrayal, Nora becomes convinced that the best revenge is to show others what she is capable of. She will discard the paralysing sadness and fear or cautiousness which has limited her life thus far. She has spent too long in the Fun House, hoping to find the exit to an authentic life, and seeing nothing but doors closing one after another. Nora will become as ruthless and single-minded as is necessary to pursue her artistic ambitions:
I’m angry enough, at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough – finally, God willing, with my mother’s anger also on my shoulders, a great boil of rage like the sun’s fire in me – before I die to fucking well live. Just watch me.
While this life-affirming finale is uplifting, I can also see how the rest of the novel could be unappealing to an American audience. The weakness, ineffectual dithering and self-obsessed over-analysis of the main character with her rant of self-pity is a taboo in American society, with its emphasis on taking action, positivism, the ‘you are what you think’ outlook. Nora is not old, but she is starting to resign herself to an unproductive, unfulfilled life, especially in the stifling world of pretentious academia and modern art around Boston and Cambridge, Mass. The descriptions of her small shoe-box creations and the contrast to her friend Sirena’s grandiose, over-the-top installations are more than a little tongue-in-cheek. Are they really innovative, or just jumping on the fashion bandwagon? And the name Sirena itself: surely not a coincidence, reminding us of the dangerous, addictive song of the Sirens. To guard against it, Odysseas has to tie himself to the mast and plug his sailors’ ears with wax.
One other criticism of the book that I’ve come across is that, while it is beautifully nuanced and well written, nothing much happens, i.e. it is too literary. However, I found it exciting, beautifully paced in crescendo, with a dark sense of menace. Something bad is going to happen, but who and what will provoke it?
Henry Sutton: My Criminal World
This will have writers of all persuasions, but especially crime writers, squirming in recognition. Poor David Slavitt is a mid-list author, whose popularity is dipping, slaving over his latest over-due novel, intimidated by the successes of his academic wife and the disdain of her colleagues. Agent-pecked as well as hen-pecked, he goes about his everyday tasks, trying to sort out plot twists between bouts of laundry and childcare, balancing his anxieties about the required level of goriness in his novels with worries about his wife’s possible infidelity. At times his mild ineffectuality and ego are so exasperating that you are willing him to confront his wife openly about adultery. You find yourself hoping that he will act out on his murderous tendencies. The interviews at the police station, in which David is more concerned about his writing career than in proving his innocence, are absolutely hilarious.
‘We’re talking about Julie Everett, your literary agent?’
‘Yes. Though, frankly, I’m not sure for how much longer. As I think I implied earlier, my career’s not going brilliantly at the moment. I narrowly missed winning a big award. And Julie’s not very keen on what I’m currently working on. […] She doesn’t think I’ve been promoting myself properly. You see, the market’s changed a lot recently.[.. .] And I suppose, to be honest, I’ve made a few mistakes.’
Although the ending felt a little forced and rushed to me, I found this to be a nuanced and very funny novel, not taking itself too seriously, yet with a rather profound underlying message about insecurity, delusion and reality.
Stela Brinzeanu: Bessarabian Nights
You may wonder what I recognise of myself in this sad story about sex-trafficking of women by a Moldovan writer now living in London. It is not the beautiful Ksenia (the girl that is forced into prostitution while on holiday in Italy) that I identify with, but with her ‘blood sister’, Larisa, who is studying in England. Together with their third childhood friend, Doina, she moves heaven and earth to find out what has happened to Ksenia when she goes missing. Larisa represents a cultural bridge between East and West, feeling equally out of place in both worlds, repelled by the backward superstitions in her home country (described as a place where men are either drunk or violent or frequently both), yet not quite fully accepted or integrated into the new culture.
The British TV drama ‘Sex Traffic’ (2004) did a fantastic job of showing both the individual stories of two Moldovan sisters and the global tentacles of the human-trafficking business. However, not all that much has changed since then. Human trafficking continues to be a major problem in Moldova and, although the government has recently cooperated more with NGOs to tackle the issue, it does not comply with minimum standards for eliminating trafficking. So this is an important story which needs to be heard. Again.
The title is a play on the ‘Arabian Nights’ theme, and Brinzeanu does come across as a Scheherazade of our times, eager to share stories about her little-known country on the fringes of Europe. This is a debut novel and the author is so brimful of stories that the book feels crammed with facts. The reader may well feel at times lectured at, even if it is disguised as dialogue. The book is at its most successful in those dream-like flashbacks describing the girls’ childhood in a Moldovan village where time seems to have stood still. Perhaps, like Scheherazade, the author needs to learn to select the most relevant scenes and polish those to perfection. There are a lot of gems in there, but they sometimes get lost in the multiple anecdotes.
So over to you, dear reader! Are there any books that have particularly resonated with you lately, any characters you have related to, or does an unlikeable character make you want to stop reading?