Incoming Books

Whenever I am worried about the state of the world, or my family, or my health, I build a wall of books around me. So, needless to say, October has been a month of intensive book acquisition.

Starting from the top, a book by an Austrian writer Franz Schuh, whose latest book of essays (somewhat in the acerbic satirical tradition of Karl Kraus) was written during the pandemic. The title is certainly quite a sobering one Lachen und Sterben (Laughing and Dying). I will be reviewing this for the Austrian Riveter produced by the EuroLitNetwork. I love it, but will it work for someone who is not as partial to Viennese humour and cynicism as myself?

A Quebecois journalist, travel writer and novelist next: Isabelle Grégoire. I’ve actually received two novels by her from a translator friend: Fille de Fer (The Iron Maiden? – not pictured here) is set on the railway lines of the very far north of Canada, while Vert comme l’enfer (Green Like Hell) is set at least partly in the Amazonian jungle.

Scottish writer Iain Hood’s Every Trick in the Book was a very kind present from Karen (whom you might know as Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings). She reviewed it on her blog, and I thought it sounded quite amusing and very clever.

The Haunted Hotel is the first of two Wilkie Collins acquisitions this month, inspired no doubt by Eleanor Franzen’s deep dive into this author. I had to buy his best-known novel, The Woman in White, too, because I realised that although it is one of my favourite English 19th century novels, I do not actually own a copy of it. You can’t go wrong with the very pretty, tactile Alma Classics editions, which often have some bonus material at the end of each book.

I think it was in an Australian contributor’s #6Degrees of Separation post (and I apologise, I cannot remember exactly who it was) that I came across the book Women of a Certain Rage, a collection of personal stories and essays about angry women by Australian women writers, introduced by Liz Byrski. Women openly expressing their rage is still perceived as so unseemly, so dull, so unnatural, and it makes me seethe (just like my mother’s admonishments: sit nicely, speak softly, don’t frown, don’t raise your voice, don’t lose your temper).

I have become a complete Marlen Haushofer fan and had been meaning to buy her biography for ages (or at least since I attended a conference about her work). Written by Daniela Strigl, its title is a quote from the author herself: ‘Wahrscheinlich bin ich verrückt…’ (I may well be crazy). I also bought her novella Die Mansarde (The Attic Room) and will probably read it asap for German Lit Month and Novella in November.

I’ve loved Lissa Evans‘ Old Baggage and Crooked Heart, so I acquired V for Victory on my Kindle soon after it came out. However, I never got round to reading it and when I saw a hardback at my library, I thought I would prefer to read it in this format. I am already 40 pages in and it’s proving the perfect comfort read.

Not one but two Bloomsbury books next. I used to joke in my 20s that if I ever appeared on Mastermind, the Bloomsbury Group would be my specialist subject. But in the meantime, there have been quite a lot of new books published about them, as they seem to be a perpetual source of fascination, scandal and gossip even with this generation. I have read Frances Spalding’s biography of Vanessa Bell, but thought it might be nice to own it, but I did not know about the biography of David (Bunny) Garnett, Bloomsbury’s Outsider by Sarah Knights, and am curious to see if my rather negative opinion of him will be swayed in any way.

Yet another chunky biography, this time of the problematic but hugely talented Austrian writer Joseph Roth, Endless Flight by Keiron Pim. This is turning out to be quite an Austrian acquisition month, isn’t it?

Finally, another library book, one I had to wait for, the ever-popular Anthony Horowitz with his latest Hawthorne mystery A Twist of the Knife, in which the author as ever makes an appearance as a somewhat egocentric, hapless participant, this time accused of murder because a critic panned his play on opening night. Great escapist fun!

I have also acquired some e-books, either buying them directly or from Netgalley. These are mostly light reads, perfect for cosy evenings under the electric blanket.

Kirsten Miller: The Change – a quiet Long Island community is shaken out of its complacency when three menopausal women find unusual means of empowerment. Sounds like a laugh, very Hocus Pocus or Practical Magic.

Susi Holliday: The Hike – two bickering sisters and their husbands go on a hiking trip to Switzerland but only two make it down the mountain. How can I resist the scenery and the premise (makes me glad to be an only child, right?).

Tom Hindle: The Murder Game – one house, nine guests for a murder mystery fun evening, trapped by the snow, very Golden Age feel to this one

Machado de Assis: The Looking Glass. Essential Stories (transl Daniel Hahn) – I’m terribly fond of this Brazilian writer, and these stories sound spooky, slightly sinister, quite bonkers. I still want to get hold of his novel The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, but am not sure which of two translations to get (probably the Margaret Jull Costa one).

Jo Callaghan: In the Blink of an Eye – I had the pleasure of hearing Jo read a little from this at the Bay Tales Noir at the Bar Halloween Special (where our author Jonina Leosdottir also read from her novel Deceit). It sounds like a fantastic slightly speculative crime novel: a real-life policewoman partnered with an AI officer.

Keigo Higashino: A Death in Tokyo – after rereading his Malice for our Crime Book Club, I couldn’t resist finding something new by this clever Japanese author with a great insight into the darkest depth of the human psyche.

Gregg Olsen: Starvation Heights – I don’t usually read much true crime, but this one’s a little different, about a sanatorium for ‘fasting cures’ in the Pacific Northwest in the early 20th century. This one does sound grim, rather than comfort reading, so I might leave it for later.

What Got You Hooked on Crime, John Grant?

John Grant author photo (Meteor Crater, Arizona) (1)Nothing like shaking things up a bit, so it’s Wednesday rather than Monday this time for my customary questions about reading passions.

It’s my pleasure to introduce you today to a very prolific author and dynamic blogger, Paul Barnett. Under the name John Grant, Paul is an award-winning writer and editor, born in Aberdeen, Scotland but now living in New Jersey, USA. He has written more than twenty-five fiction books (mainly in the fantasy genre but also a couple of fantasy/crime crossovers) and non-fiction books on an eye-watering variety of subjects, such as Walt Disney’s animated characters, crank and corrupted science, fantasy and science fiction and, most recently, film noir. His second story collection, Tell No Lies, was published just before Christmas. He has won the Hugo (twice), the World Fantasy Award, and a number of other awards. You can find out more about John Grant and his books on his website, but I personally got to know him via his insightful reviews of films noirs. I was also delighted by his wry humour when commenting on this blog. You can also find Paul/John on Twitter @noircyclopedia.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

The first time I got hooked on crime fiction was probably through reading Sherlock Holmes stories during childhood. My mum tried to get me to read Father Brown stories too, but for some reason I didn’t enjoy them as much.

Another milestone came when, still during childhood, I went with the family for a short B&B holiday in the north of Scotland. It was one of those places where there wasn’t much to do except go look at the cemetery. Even this bit of excitement was out, though, because it rained the whole time. I swiftly worked my way through all the reading material I’d brought with me, and then discovered there was precisely one other book in the B&B, presumably left behind by a previous guest. That book was Ngaio Marsh’s Scales of Justice, and I can remember being most reluctant to read it. Aside from anything else, it wasn’t science fiction, which had become my genre of choice by then. But it was either read the novel or watch the rain on the windows, so in I plunged . . . and loved it. It didn’t entirely break me of my science fiction habit, but it meant that from then on there was the occasional crime novel tossed into the mix.

What really did it was something silly. By my late teens I was an editor at a book publisher on London’s Fleet Street. More or less just across the road was the St. Bride’s Public Library, which naturally became a haunt. The UK publisher Gollancz used to publish all of its science fiction and crime fiction in uniform yellow covers, which made it easy for me to find the stuff. It wasn’t long before I worked my way through all the Gollancz sf in the place, so I thought I might as well give those other Gollancz yellowjackets a go . . . One protracted binge later, plus another binge on Wilkie Collins, and crime fiction had become an important staple of my leisure reading. These past few years, in fact, it’s become predominant.

JG's shelves 2Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I’m really not picky, to be honest. I try to make sure there’s a good admixture of translated work in there, just so’s I’m not always reading the same old, same old. I’m not hugely fond of modern cozies, although I do enjoy reading (or rereading) Golden Age mysteries, many of which are of course cozies. I like pulp hardboiled, although I haven’t yet read nearly enough of it to feel I’ve got a proper grasp of the subgenre. Scandi noir has become a favorite too, although I’m off it a bit at the moment having read a few over the past year or so that really didn’t impress me. I used to enjoy noirish urban fantasy until it became all werewolf detectives and nymphomaniac vampires. I’ve written a few stories in that fantasy/noir borderland myself (sans the werewolves and vampires, of course!).

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

Oh, lordy, that’s a difficult one. I guess it would have to be Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, which I read last autumn. I don’t know if it’s the best crime novel I’ve read recently, but it really spoke to me. It’s a very long book, but I devoured it in just three or four days and loved every minute of it. A good English translation (by Sam Taylor), too. Last year I was also impressed by Ariel S. Winter’s The Twenty-Year Death — another long book! — and blown away by my discovery of Karin Alvtegen.

But I’m not very good at ranking things. If you asked me this same question in just a few hours’ time, I’d be adding a few books, consternated because I hadn’t thought of them first time round.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author (crime fiction) to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

I’m not a great reader of series, although there are exceptions (Ian Rankin’s Rebus books, Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks books). Usually, though, I prefer standalones . . . and even with series books I generally leave a long enough gap between them so that they become in effect standalones. The one big exception to all this is Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. I gravitate towards these not just because of their near-uniform excellence but also, at least in part, precisely because of the series context. Mixing with Steve Carella and the rest of the gallant boys of the old Eight-Seven feels like coming home to me. In later years McBain was able to play all sorts of games using the basic format as a substrate — Fat Ollie’s Book, for example, is a marvelous piece of metafiction as well as hugely entertaining and funny — but I like the earlier ones too, where you knew exactly what you were letting yourself in for. So, yes, that’s the series I’d take with me to my desert island. An additional advantage of this series is that it gives me lots of books to read! In fact, I’ve even written a crime/fantasy novella, The City in These Pages, as a (surreal) homage to Ed McBain.

All of that said, I’m not sure McBain is the single author I’d choose to take with me. He might just get pipped at the post by Wilkie Collins, another prolific writer. Collins’s novels, for all their ups and downs in terms of quality, have a capacity to engross me — in a very schoolboy way, really: mouth open, eyes wide, turning the pages eagerly . . . Besides, it’s far too long since last I read most of them, so they’d make a good choice.

JG's shelves 1What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

That’s another problematic one. My day job, as it were, is writing nonfiction books — such as (plug, plug) my recent YA book Debunk It! — and my research reading for these has to be pretty structured, as you can imagine. So I make it a matter of deliberate policy not to plan my leisure reading too far ahead. I have several bookcases full of stuff I haven’t read yet, and I enjoy browsing through these to select my next book on whim.

The big exception comes, of course, when I’ve borrowed books from the library. I know that I’ll soon be reading Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s Death Rites, recommended to me recently, because it has to go back to the library soonish. I’m trying to cut back on my library habit a bit, though, precisely because I enjoy not knowing what’s the next book I’ll read until I actually pick it out.

We recently bought a tablet to use as an e-reader, so that’s likewise stuffed with goodies waiting for me. A lot of them are public-domain items from places like Gutenberg. A small part of the motivation for getting the tablet was that I’d become interested in expanding my horizons to encompass some of the mostly US crime/mystery writers of the early 20th century about whom until recently I’ve known virtually nothing: Isabel Ostrander, Anna Katharine Green, Mary Roberts Rinehart . . .

I also want to get round to having a second — and long overdue! — bite at G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories.

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

Some fantasy/sf writers: Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones — both much missed — Tom Holt, Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Charles De Lint. In nonfiction: Martin Gardner, Paul Davies. Others: George Eliot, George Gissing. I recommend my own books interminably, of course, but only to strangers who don’t know my home address and whom I think there’s little chance I’ll ever run into again.

Thank you very much, John (or should that be Paul?) for a very entertaining look at your reading passions and for adding a huge amount of new authors to my TBR list (and not just for crime fiction, either). I am glad to see some old favourites there too, such as Wilkie Collins, Ed McBain and Terry Pratchett. 

For previous participants in the series, just follow this link. This series depends so much on your participation, so please, please let me know via Twitter or comments if you would like to share your criminal passions with us.

 

Kitchen Cupboard Cleanout

Apologies, but this post is a bit of a ‘kitchen cabinet cleanout’.  That’s what we call it in my family when we have a bit of a pause to rethink and recalculate things. Necessary but evil admin, which probably will be of little interest to anyone but which is a useful reminder for myself.

We are more than halfway through the year: how are my reading challenges coming along?  Well, I’ve read 75 of my targeted 100 books, according to Goodreads, so I should be doing well.  But….  they are not necessarily the books I was planning to read for my Global Reading Challenge (Crime Fiction) and my Translation Challenge.

The Museum of Innocence
The Museum of Innocence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the latter, I have read a few (non-crime) books in translation, such as Pamuk’s ‘The Museum of Innocence’ and Kristina Carlson’s ‘Mr. Darwin’s Gardener’, but I haven’t had time to review them properly yet.  Still, it’s far less than I expected.  I have been reading an average of 1-2 books per month in French though, does that count?

For the Global Reading Challenge, I’ve had trouble with certain continents: Europe has been as forward as a middle-aged gossipy aunt, while South America has been rather coy.  I’ve revised my plans as follows:

1) In North America, I’ve exchanged the Arctic Circle of McGrath’s ‘White Heat’ for the swamps of Florida and Travis McGee (by John D. Macdonald).

Cover of "Havana Gold: The Havana Quartet...
Cover of Havana Gold: The Havana Quartet

2) I have found a book by Leonardo Padura at last, called Havana Gold, which will be my second Latin American contribution.

3) For Asia, I will move to Thailand and read ‘Bangkok 8’ by John Burdett.

4) For Australasia, I’ve had to give up on New Zealand and choose another Australian setting.  I’ve taken my own advice over at the Crime Fiction Lover website, and chosen a chirpy instalment in Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series.

Portrait of Wilkie Collins. Paiting in the Nat...
Portrait of Wilkie Collins. Paiting in the National Portrait Gallery, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5) Finally, for my 7th continent challenge, i.e. a new venture outside my usual area of exploration, I will read a classic: Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Moonstone’, often celebrated as the world’s first detective story.

You will have noticed that I did not mention Africa.  That is because it is possibly my favourite continent and I am hoping to discover a real treasure there.  Unfortunately, few of the writers I had in mind are available on Kindle (and I cannot find them easily in other formats over here).  Any suggestions will be most gratefully received.  I have read crime fiction by South African writers or set in South Africa, so I would quite like something set somewhere else in Africa.  Anything in Kenya or Ghana or the Maghreb?