#WiTMonth retrospective

This is the second year where for Women in Translation Month I only read books by women in translation. Last year that was really successful, this year my choices weren’t all quite as strong but there were still some very definite winners.

Before we start though, here’s my pile of potential reads. Let’s see which I actually managed…

Paradais, by Fernanda Melchior (translated by Sophie Hughes)

It’s hard to go wrong with Fitzcarraldo and Fernanda Melchior has had a lot of attention. Her Hurricane Season didn’t quite appeal, but I’m a sucker for novels in gated communities (or hotels, or boarding houses…).

Polo is a junior gardener on the Paradais estate. Franco is a similarly aged teenage boy who lives on the estate. Polo can buy drink outside the estate and smuggle it in. Franco can pay for it. So they pool resources and regularly get drunk together. All fine until Franco comes up with a plan to address his lust for his attractive neighbour and Polo’s need for money at the same time through a spectacularly poorly planned kidnapping attempt.

It’s well written, of course, and Melchior captures intensity of male adolescence well (I’m not saying female adolescence is any less intense, but having been a male adolescent I thought this extreme but recognisable). That said, this is in places a very ugly book with a lot of sexualised violence and some really brutal scenes. Too much so for me in fact. I’m not denying Melchior’s talent, but I prefer my ugliness leavened a little. Tony wrote a much more positive piece about this here which goes into more detail.

The Last and the First, Nina Berberova (translated by Marian Schwartz)

I’ve enjoyed several of Nina Berberova’s short stories/novellas, but this was my first novel by her. Ilya Stepanovich is a young farmer making his life in Provence. His step-brother Vasya is lured away from the farm to Paris with the promise of a return to Russia. Between them they personify the conflict in each of the Russian emigres between making a new life in France or seeking to preserve the lost Russia of memory.

Berberova always writes well, but I think I prefer her short fiction. The characters here were a bit too emblematic of their respective causes for me and I thought the greater length perhaps led to a loss of the subtle uncertainty I associate with Berberova. This was still a solid read, but I don’t think it’ll be an end of year contender.

Mr Darwin’s Gardener, Kristina Carlson (translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah)

This is an interesting one. It’s an exploration of the clash of science and faith told through the lens of the village an elderly Charles Darwin lives in, casting a huge celebrity shadow over the villagers’ ordinary lives.

Darwin himself isn’t a character here, more a prompt for villager reflection. Interestingly Carlson moves the narrative voice between individual characters (such as the eponymous gardener) and a sort of combined community voice. This is particularly well done in a scene with a church congregation, moving from them collectively during the service to their individual voices scattering as they leave.

It’s skilfully done and it manages that tricky task of both being a bit experimental while also highly readable. There’s a lot packed in to a short space here and it’s one I think I may return to in future. Grant wrote well about it here, particularly on the book’s style, and Tony unpacks some of the structure and talks a bit more about the style here (both pick up on that church scene).

Oldladyvoice, by Elisa Victoria (translated by Charlotte Whittle)

Oldladyvoice (great title) is a debut novel set in the ’90s. Nine year-old Marina is the narrator. Like most child narrators she’s precociously clever, but her home situation is unstable. Her mother is seriously, perhaps terminally, ill. Her mother’s boyfriend Domingo is nice but he’s naturally more focused on the mother. That leaves Marina’s grandmother with whom she’s very close.

There’s a strong element here of Marina’s developing sexuality, her longing for a first kiss and fascination with Domingo’s adult comics some of which have breasts in them! There’s a lot too though on the intense importance of making friends and being accepted.

For me the main issue was that the narrative voice just didn’t always persuade me. At times it felt very much like I was reading an adult author, not a nine year old. Sustaining a child voice over the length of a full novel is genuinely hard and Victoria mostly pulls it off, but for me not entirely.

Grant liked this a bit more than me and specifically says “she is far from being a precociously irritating child narrator” (I agree she’s not irritating…). He rightly calls out the joyousness of the book which is perhaps its greatest strength. Despite my reservations it is absolutely packed with life.

Karate Chop, Dorthe Nors (translated by Martin Aitken)

This was published in one volume with Nors’ novella Minna Needs a Rehearsal Space, but I’ve split them out. Karate Chop is a series of generally very brief short stories told in a fairly flat style. They’re enjoyable, but perhaps because of the brevity didn’t stick much in memory. If you’ve read other Nors and liked it you’ll like this (I have and did), but other than that I can’t remember enough to say too much about it. It may be that I’m just not Nors’ reader.

Byobu by Ida Vitale (translated by Sean Manning)

This is another interesting one and very difficult to describe. Byobu is in a sense the central character, but he is a blank with no real personal characteristics to speak of. Each chapter is a short reflection on an often surreal incident in Byobu’s life. It’s packed with references most of which I didn’t get (Vitale is Uruguayan which may have been an issue there) and is less a novel than an exploration of ideas.

WG has written extremely well about this here. She got this far more than I did, seeing that it was something of an everyman story exploring what it’s like to be alive today and taking pleasure in the language. I’d recommend you read her review since honestly this just didn’t connect with me and I struggled to get to the end of its short 85 page length.

Will and Testament, Vigdis Hjorth (translated by Charlotte Barslund)

Now we’re talking! I loved Vigdis Hjorth’s Never Mind the Post Horn (it made my 2021 end of year list). Will and Testament is just as well written but tonally very different.

This is not one I have trouble remembering. When the family patriarch dies the four adult children split over the inheritance. The narrator is long estranged from her parents, but sides with her brother against her two sisters over the apparent favouritism the parents have shown them.

Complicating matters further is the question of why the narrator became estranged (you’ll guess quickly, not least as she refers to Festen a fair bit). Her sisters want to build bridges now the father is gone, but they’re not willing to accept the roots of the narrator’s trauma.

This is properly meaty stuff, with great characterisation and a central family conflict that many of us will recognise. Even without the added complication of the narrator’s childhood the impact of the will on the family dynamic is brutal and believable.

Superb and highly recommended. Caroline wrote about this here and Heavenali here if you’d like more details. Interestingly Heavenali didn’t like it, so its useful to read her piece for a countering view.

The Pachinko Parlour, Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Here Dusapin explores intergenerational and intercultural tensions. Claire, a young French-Korean woman, visits her grandparents who own a small pachinko parlour in Japan. She takes on a job teaching French to a local child and plans a trip to Korea for her grandparents who’ve never gone back after fleeting the Korean war.

Claire’s Korean isn’t actually that strong, she’s better in Japanese, but her grandparents despite living in Japan for fifty years or so have never really mastered the language. That’s one reason they may not be really communicating, but far from the only one as Claire puzzles over why her grandparents seem so unengaged with the whole holiday in Korea project…

This is another one I think I’ll return to. It seems slight, but there’s a lot in here. It’s perhaps not quite so strong as Winter in Sokcho (though that could just be because Winter seemed to come from nowhere whereas now we have an idea of Dusapin’s style). Even so, it’s a strong read and the exploration of the gulfs between people is deftly done. Jacqui wrote characteristically well about it here.

When Women Kill, by Alia Trabucco Zerán (translated by Sophie Hughes)

Finally, a bit of non-fiction. I dislike the true crime genre so I only read this because of the author and because I got it on subscription. Then again, I take out book subscriptions precisely so I’ll be exposed to books that I wouldn’t otherwise have chosen.

Zerán explores four Chilean murders committed by women and through them explores larger questions about the role of women in society. It’s interesting, her careful research is evident and the light each of the cases sheds on Chilean society is fascinating.

Despite all that, I wasn’t wholly persuaded by the overall thesis. At one point Zerán comments that the press only take photos of the women on their way to or from court or prison. She takes this as a sign of society’s wish to whisk them out of sight, but surely it’s simply that it’s the only time their pictures can be taken? It felt to me more a practical issue than a sociological one.

To be fair to Zerán she escapes the usual challenge in true crime of an air of prurience because her goal here clearly isn’t simply to entertain. For me though it remains a genre I struggle with. One can impose meaning on these events, but each one is so particular on its facts that I’m not sure how much they really tell us about anything other than that people sometimes kill and sometimes they have reasons we can understand and sometimes not.

And that’s it! Here’s my photo of the final stack I read (minus the Nors as I read that on Kindle). Not bad and thanks again to #WiTMonth for encouraging me to broaden out my reading a bit.

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July roundup

I know, it’s very late, but I’m still catching up post-broken finger.

Oof but July was a month. Great books and lots of them. Some chunksters too, but then we had a two week holiday with a fair bit of train travel and I love reading on long train journeys.

The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng

I read Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain around 14 years ago. My review is here. It was a sweeping and sumptuous epic. I enjoyed it but did criticise it for every character being a bit too amazing.

Here a retired Chinese-Malaysian judge returns to her childhood home. This sparks memories of the period shortly after the second world war where as a young woman she controversially became the apprentice to an exiled Japanese master gardener. He later disappeared, possibly killed by communist guerrillas, possibly in an accident, possibly who knows how?

Like Gift it’s a dense rich soup of a novel. There’s history, big characters, cross-cultural tensions. Also like Gift there’s a slight tendency for all the characters to be larger than life, but even so I really enjoyed this and as the autumn nights roll in it would make a good novel to escape into on darker evenings.

The Day of the Owl, Leonardo Sciascia (translated by Arthur Oliver)

I read this out in Italy. A man is shot and killed in a Sicilian piazza as he runs for a bus. Nobody sees anything. Not the passengers, the driver, the people in the square. Everyone just happened to be looking the other way, which doesn’t make the investigating mainland policeman’s job particularly easy…

It’s a short and easy read and it brings out nicely how organised crime can stifle a place. It won’t make my end of year list but definitely worth reading if it sounds of any interest. Kimbofo did a good writeup of it here.

The Leopard, G.T. di Lampedusa (translated by Archibald Colquhoun)

Now this, this will make my end of year list. Simply brilliant. A profound examination of the decline of a culture through a single family. It’s another rich read here of an 1860s Sicilian prince whose family’s diminishing fortunes reflect those of the wider aristocracy and old regime. It’s exceptionally well written and incredibly evocative of Sicily (which I can swear to that because that’s where I read it).

There’s a good review of this at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat here. Caroline captures my own surprise not at how good this is (everyone told me that) but how subtle and varied it is too.

Black Narcissus, Rumer Godden

So I said it was a strong month. A group of Anglican nuns go to found a convent in remote Himalayan mountains where a group of monks previously failed. Their internal tensions threaten to tear them apart, but even more so the unforgivingly vast and inhumanly beautiful landscape. Outsiders do not prosper here.

There’s something quite special in conjuring up such a sense of space yet at the same time making it claustrophobic. Each of the characters is well captured as are the dynamics between them. An exceptional novel. Jacqui did a good write up of it here which prompted me to finally read it. Recommendations for further Godden to try would be very welcome.

The Locked Room, Sjöwall & Wahlöö (translated by Paul Britten Austin)

A battered Martin Beck and an increasingly politicised and incompetent Swedish police force investigate a bank robbery and a literal locked room mystery. A man found dead in a room locked from within has been shot in the heart. There’s no weapon at the scene so how did it happen? Suicide is the initial police ruling, but Beck unsurprisingly finds that a bit unlikely in the absence of a gun. The tone is darker than before and it’s perhaps not as easy a read as some in the series, but still satisfying.

Ride the Pink Horse, Dorothy B. Hughes

One of Jacqui’s recommendations (here) and a blisteringly good one. Three men come south from Chicago to Santa Fe during its annual fiesta. Two of them are separately chasing the third. What follows is as black a noir as any I’ve read.

Sailor is a thug formerly on the payroll of a corrupt senator. He’s intent on getting the payoff he thinks he deserves. The Senator is also being chased by a Chicago cop who hopes he can turn Sailor and bring out the good man he believes is buried deep under Sailor’s violence and pride. It’s an explosive mixture and Hughes deserves a much higher profile than she has. I’m writing this over two months after reading it and it’s still burned into my mind. Brilliant.

The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi

A climate-change inspired SF novel in which cities in the Southern US wage semi-legal resource wars with each other and the cartels all fuelled by the collapse of water supplies. Water rights are power. (Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes explores a similar theme.)

The McGuffin is a water right that ranks ahead of all others, giving legal priority that can be backed up by violence and sabotage. That’s all fine and the politics of water shortages is a genuine real-world issue that really could get very nasty indeed, but for me the novel was let down by the degree to which it absolutely wallows in horribly detailed descriptions of torture, sexual violence and murder. It all became a bit too relentless. I bailed before the end.

Foster, Claire Keegan

Novels from a child’s point of view are very hard to pull off. Here Keegan makes it look effortless. This is a beautiful novel about a young girl sent to live with childless relatives when her own family’s new baby arrives.

What emerges is a portrait of neglect seen through the girl’s wonder at her new home and temporary parents. There’s an examination too of community and of the lives of the couple who’ve taken her in and much more besides. It’s extraordinary and I can’t recommend it too highly. Radhika wrote a tremendous review of this here which captures the complexity and depth this packs into so few pages. Sadly the cover misleadingly makes it look like a misery memoir.

Petulia’s Rouge Tin, Su Tong (translated by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz)

This is an interesting one. It’s a fairly short novella published in ebook form by Penguin Australia. We’re in 1950s Shanghai and the state has just closed down the Red Delight Pavilion brothel, sending the women from it for work reeducation.

Petulia ends up in a factory (which isn’t as bad as the phrase work reeducation suggests, though it’s a lot less comfortable than the brothel was). Her friend Autumn Grace gets away and sets up with an old customer. The book then follows their lives over the years.

It’s very well done. In under 80 pages it creates a world I’ve no personal familiarity with (beyond other Chinese books and films) and it nicely contrasts the clash of cultures between old and new China as well as the flawed humanity of the former prostitutes compared to the Puritanism of the Communist women ‘reforming’ them and a nearby convent of Buddhist nuns. Worth looking out for.

If it does catch your interest there’s a very good review of at the Cha Review of Books and Films here. The review does pretty much tell you the whole plot but it’s not a plot driven novel and the review also provides some context and analysis which I found fascinating.

Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan (translated by Heather Lloyd)

A reread, but in a different translation. I previously read the acclaimed Irene Ash translation (review here). This time I tried the recent but perhaps more controversial Heather Lloyd.

Lloyd has been criticised for lacking some of the elegance and sparkle of the Ash. However, Lloyd’s is seen as more accurate than the Ash. It’s that classic translation dilemma of how to balance fidelity to text against fidelity to spirit.

Having read both and looked at a French copy to compare with the original it’s clear to me that Lloyd is more faithful to the French. Ash omits sentences, sometimes paragraphs, and sometimes changes meanings too. It’s not massive but it runs through the book. Ash also heavily edits the sex scenes.

I still love the Ash, but my view now is that Ash acted both as translator and as editor, adapting the original to an English readership who would be less comfortable with some of the original content.

So which should you read? Both, obviously, they’re not that long and the comparison is interesting. Jacqui wrote a fuller review of the Lloyd Bonjour here and wrote a bit on the translation here.

A Certain Smile, Françoise Sagan (translated by Heather Lloyd)

Penguin generously put two Lloyd translations in a single volume so I carried on to (re)read A certain Smile. My review of the Ash is here. I liked it a bit less this time, though whether that’s the translation or simply the effect of reading it back to back with Bonjour is hard to say. I suspect the latter to be fair to Lloyd.

Again the Ash translation is leaner but less accurate. Having now read the Lloyd translations I think they’ve got a bit of unfair stick. It’s not Lloyd’s fault that people’s impression of Sagan is founded on slightly inaccurate translations and there is real value in more accurate ones. On the other hand, the Ash translations are still a lot of fun. There’s room for both.

And that’s it! August was also a packed reading month, but September was much quieter. Now my finger is pretty much recovered I’m hoping to get those updates up before too long.

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September ‘22 round-up

September was a much lighter reading month than July and August, though given how much I read in July and August that’s hardly surprising. It’s also fair to say that I got bogged down in Sándor Márai’s The Rebels which I should probably have simply bailed on. I think it was Emma at Bookaround who talked once about it being a warning sign when you keep putting a book down then forgetting to pick it up again even though you’ve time you could be reading in.

Nothing this month that will trouble my end of year list (maybe Eversion if I have an SF category, but I suspect it’s more a fun read than a lasting one, we’ll see). Still, some new authors and if I never took the risk of new writers not connecting with me I’d never discover the new ones that I love.

Picnic in the Storm, Yukiko Motoya (translated by XXX)

There’s been a trend lately of slightly surreal/absurd short stories which shed light on ordinary life, often women’s lives. They tend to be recognisable situations but through an off-kilter lens. Here for example a saleswoman keeps having to bring new clothes to a customer who won’t leave her changing room. In another, a woman goes to the gym against the advice of her co-workers who think she’ll become unfeminine, yet as she grows increasingly muscular her husband seems utterly unaware. In the longest a wife finds that she’s becoming more like her dullard husband, not just in the usual way of couples picking each other’s habits but more fundamentally in mind and even body.

The stories are well written, but didn’t really connect with me. It may be that this sort of quiet surrealism simply isn’t my thing. It would be wrong to call these whimsical, there’s serious points being made, but I didn’t find them substantial. If though you’re a Hiromi Kawakami fan this could be a real find for you.

Cop Killer, Sjöwall & Wahlöö (translated by Thomas Teal)

This was the ninth of the Martin Beck novels and it’s a clever one. A murder takes place in a quiet provincial town. Separately, two cops on car patrol end up in a shootout with some fairly amateurish burglars that ends up with a cop dead and a nationwide manhunt. So far so typical in many senses, but the small town is home to the man convicted of the murder in the first book. It’s been so long in series he’s now been released. Has he returned to his old ways?

The murder investigation is the star here, but the manhunt is also very well done as is the need to juggle the two investigations. It’s a very solid entry in the series and I love the callback to the first book.

Eversion, Alastair Reynolds

This is a fun one. An early 19th Century polar expedition seeks a passage through the ice to some curious structure. The ship’s doctor, a drug addict, is troubled by memories that don’t belong and is caught between the two shipboard factions – crew and expedition. Is there more going on though?

Yes, yes there is, because quite soon after (this is on the back cover so not really a spoiler) disaster strikes. The doctor wakes up from disturbing dreams. It’s the late 19th Century and he is troubled by memories that don’t belong but that seem oddly close to the polar expedition he’s part of…

This is huge fun. It’s very much boys’ own adventure stuff but through an SF lens and Reynolds is clearly enjoying himself. It’s a clever twist on the old time loop concept except here it’s never quite the same situation, but more an echo. This one works best if you already know your SF fairly well, but if you do it’s thoroughly enjoyable.

Dark Neighbourhood, Vanessa Onwuemezi

Bit more on this one than most of the others I’m talking about this month.

By way of context, I like to mix short story collections in among my wider reading. It breaks things up and I think often it’s good for the collections many of which aren’t really designed to be read in one go from start to finish. So, in September, I tried Vanessa Onwuemezi’s debut collection published by the generally reliable Fitzcarraldo Editions.

The first and for me best story is the eponymous Dark Neighbourhood itself. In some fantastical quasi-post-apocalypse setting people queue endlessly to go through a portal into what exactly? Nobody knows save that surely it must be better. The narrator is a trader in junk, detritus of the pre-whatever-happened world, objects often given value as much by our attachment to them as for their utility.

It’s an interesting story with a lot of resonance. It also includes a stylistic technique that Onweumwezi uses from time to time. Unexplained gaps in the sentence, pauses which perhaps reflect speech or perhaps add emphasis. On this story it works well, but the technique is repeated in some of the later stories and for me repetition diminished it.

Otherwise, this collection didn’t quite land for me though I do plan to retry one of the stories, Cuba, a story about a hotel cleaner. It’s actually available for free online from Granta here. I’ve been fairly critical here, but I do think some readers will really respond to Onwuemezi (it just doesn’t look like I’m one of them). I’d recommend therefore following that link and giving her Cuba a try, it’s short but gives you a feel for her style. Onwuemezi is a very poetic writer, and I think poetic fiction requires a connection of sensibility between reader and writer even more than most forms of fiction.

The Master Key, Masako Togawa (translated by Simon Grove)

So the premise is great. A residential building inhabited only by woman, each of whom has her own story to tell (or to hide…). There is though a master key that’s kept behind reception. Anyone who can get hold of that can gain access to any room they want.

No surprise that someone does, and what follows is secrets unearthed, feuds pursued, and murder.

This is a mix of character vignettes of various women in the building and the wider story of the consequences of the stolen key. The problem is I’m not a golden age crime reader and here the explanation for what’s going on is so convoluted it requires a character to literally spend the last few pages explaining it all in a long section of exposition. I can forgive a bit of exposition, but in a film at least when the detective unveils the culprit in the drawing room it’s dramatic. Here it’s just an over complex plot that only makes sense once the author basically tells you what’s been going on.

If you’ve read it and loved it please do say. It may just be that this isn’t my genre.

The Rebels, Sándor Márai (translated by George Sirtesz)

There’s something endlessly fascinating about the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s a period and place which produced some truly great writers and which has inspired many others.

In The Rebels it’s May 1918 and a group of young men in a provincial town are awaiting their inevitable call-up. One has already been called and returned home missing an arm. They create a society which rejects convention, stealing objects for the sheer joy of it and praising each other according to how daring the theft is and how useless the object stolen. They embrace absurdity.

Into this comes a middle aged actor who becomes one of their circle, but if you’re wondering whether it’s healthy for a middle aged man to be be hanging out with a bunch of teenagers, well, that’s a good question.

The book opens with one of the group finding that one of the others has been cheating them at cards. But which? It’s the first sign that things are not as idyllic as they appear, but with the prospect of slaughter at the front for all of them it was always a false idyll. From there we get into issues of class, wealth and more.

It’s an interesting book and the concept is strong. Unfortunately it didn’t wholly work for me. There’s a big set piece scene involving the boys staging a private play with the actor and the scene becomes a bit overblown (theatrical in fact, but in a book that’s mostly naturalistic). Worse though the scene goes on far too long, for me dissipating the building tension that Márai had created. The result was that I felt the book lost some momentum as it came into the home straight, so that the end when it came was less shattering and more a bit of a relief. Stu wrote about this here and I think liked it a bit more than I did.

And there we are! I’ll post October fairly soon.

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Belated June update

Quick because I want to post my August #WITmonth reading before too long.

So, my finger is much improved though still fairly sore as I’m doing my physio exercises. It’s all part of the healing. Still, while I couldn’t type as you’ll see I was able to read, and I read a lot. Some really good choices among these too.

July and August posts will follow over the next couple of weeks.

The Murder of Halland, Pia Juul (translated by Martin Aitken)

An interesting one this, but then it’s from Peirene Press and their titles are always interesting. More of a novel about the aftermath of crime than about the crime itself. A man named Halland is shot leaving his partner Bess to pick up the pieces of her life without him. Bess is left examining her choices and what a life with such a sudden gap now looks like.

It’s well done, but didn’t quite work for me as while I get that Bess is disassociated I found her lack of curiosity about what exactly happened and her repeated casual failure to share obviously relevant information with the police all just a bit unlikely. I get the book isn’t about the crime, but I didn’t really buy the level of disengagement from the crime that the book’s focus required. Reviews by Heavenali here and by Guy Savage here. Both liked it more than me.

The Visitors, Jessi Jezewska Stevens

This one came from And Other Stories. C, a New Yorker, starts to hallucinate a curiously knowledgeable garden gnome. It’s just after the 2008 crash and the Occupy movement is at its peak – in fact here we depart a bit from our own history as Occupy gains even greater momentum. C’s life is coming apart, she’s romantically interested in her best friend Zo despite not previously being attracted to other women and her art supplies shop is drifting. It’s interesting and I can definitely see why And Other Stories published it, but somehow for me the many interesting parts didn’t quite gel into a greater whole.

White Tears, Hari Kunzru

I’m a massive Hari Kunzru fan, though I’ve never read his first novel which sounds quite different tonally to what came later.

We’re back in New York where sound expert Seth is paired up with trust fund rich kid Carter Wallace and between them they’ve become one of the hottest musical production outfits in town. Carter is obsessed with early African-American music and with authenticity. Seth is obsessed with the technology of sound and with Carter (and with Carter’s attractive sister too).

Seth accidentally records someone singing an unknown blues number in the park. Carter puts some music around it and uploads it only for it to be hailed as a lost early recording of an artist who everyone thought was never caught on wax.

What follows is a tremendous mix of obsession, racial tension, cultural appropriate, history, noir and more. It’s perhaps a ghost story, perhaps something stranger. I loved it.

Heaven, Meiko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd)

Lots of people have talked about this one, but Jacqui pushed me over the edge to reading it with her review here. ‘Eyes’ is a fourteen year old boy nicknamed for his lazy eye. Kojima is a girl in his class seen as dirty and poor. Both are victims of horrific bullying (which Kawakami doesn’t shrink from describing). They become friends, but less from an actual connection as from shared trauma.

The book becomes an exploration of meaning, not least when Eyes confronts one of the bullies and gets him to explain why Eyes is a target. Kojima meanwhile believes that her suffering gives her a kind of strength, that it’s something to be accepted or even embraced. She is stronger than Eyes, that’s true, but in letting her suffering define her is she being eclipsed by it?

This is a tremendous, clever and convincing novel. A very strong contender for my end of year list.

The Way Inn, Will Wiles

This is my second Will Wiles, after his tremendously entertaining The Care of Wooden Floors. Here it’s hard to beat the Guardian sub’s tremendous byline for their review: Terence Conran meets HP Lovecraft.

Neil Double is a conference surrogate. He goes to conferences on behalf of clients, attends the symposia, collects leaflets, produces a report all so that his clients can get the benefit of the conference without actually attending. Neil loves conferences, he loves the anonymity, the interchangeable corporate hotels, the opportunities for casual hookups, the lack of anything truly real.

Unfortunately for Neil things start unravelling when he’s staying at a Way Inn, one of an international chain, near a major conference centre which he manages to get himself banned from. That’s bad, career threatening, but not as bad as the discovery that the Way Inn may not be just a hotel chain but in fact some kind of infinitely replicated Escherian space or even entity…

It’s corporate satire meets horror and it’s a lot of fun. The first half is probably stronger when the sheer absurdities of the bland environments Neil inhabits are to the fore and the weirdness of the hotel is as much the intrinsic weirdness of these non-places as anything extra-dimensional. The second half goes a bit more full gonzo, which worked for me but has a bit less connection to lived experience.

Will is an architecture writer as well as novelist and he really knows these spaces. He’s also very funny. It’s a powerful combo and it’s refreshing too to see someone writing about the world so many of us inhabit and yet that so few novelists know much about.

The Abominable Man, Sjöwall & Wahlöö (translated by Thomas Teal)

The seventh of the Beck novels. An elderly policeman riddled with cancer is murdered in his hospital room. Who could hate such a distinguished figure so much that they’d murder him when he was dying anyway?

It turns out a lot of people hated him that much, because here Sjöwall & Wahlöö are turning their gaze on the Swedish police force, its militarisation and its brutalities. The much-decorated officer was a monster, the investigation inevitably runs into issues as any attempt to uncover motive reveals a lot that still-serving officers don’t want brought to light.

This is a blistering instalment both in its critique of Swedish society and simply at the level of a crime novel. Tremendous stuff. If you do have space for a crime series in your life this is definitely one to consider.

Legacy of Molly Southbourne, Tade Thompson

The fourth of Tade Thompson’s Molly Southborne series. I hadn’t actually expected a fourth of these and much as I enjoy Thompson’s work I’m not sure I needed one. Molly Thompson is the product of a Cold War experiment which leads to her replicating imperfect clones when she bleeds. Here the clones, many of whom are psychotically violent, face a foe going right back to their origin.

It sounds like nonsense I know, but Thompson can write and he is as capable with thriller motifs as he is SF ones. Here he’s giving the explanations the previous books lacked, but the previous ones had enough depth that I’d pretty much worked it all out anyway. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t essential for me.

Confusion, Stefan Zweig

I enjoy Zweig, but I’m not really a fan. Here an elderly professor looks back on his life and reflects on his youth. To his students he’s devoted his whole life to scholarship, but in fact he wasted his early years at university until an encounter with an inspired and passionate lecturer changed his life.

As ever with Zweig it’s all about big passions burning brightly. The puzzle here is the professor’s old mentor, a trudger academically who at times becomes lyrically passionate and inspiring. What’s his secret? Why is he sometimes so extraordinary and yet at other times so mundane? Why is his relationship with his wife so strained, what are the rumours that none will speak out loud?

You can probably guess. It’s enjoyable but not for me among Zweig’s best. Karen writes well about it here.

Cursed Bunny, Bora Chung (translated by Anton Hur)

Spectacular. This has been widely praised and deservedly so. It’s a short story collection that uses horror and the fantastic to critique contemporary Korea.

I’ve read quite a few novels and short story collections recently containing sort-of magical-realist elements. Like in The Visitors above for example. I’m growing a bit disillusioned with it as a trend. The results are often a bit unsatisfying as nothing really needs explaining and it’s all metaphor.

Bora Chung escapes that in two ways. Firstly, through the sheer quality of her writing. Secondly, because there is a persuasive logic to each of these stories even if sometimes it’s a dream logic. Like Mariana Enriquez the stories read as having a deeper sense to them than just here’s a fantastical element which sort of illustrates a theme. It’s more robust than that.

Grant wrote well about this here. It’s definitely going to be on my end of year list.

At Freddie’s, Penelope Fitzgerald

You can’t go wrong with Penelope Fitzgerald. Here we’re in a fading 1960s stage school run by the eponymous and extraordinary Freddy. A larger than life woman in her 70s so canny that when a theatre calls to complain about one of the child actors provided Freddy ends the call with them contributing free carpets to the school.

The school’s in trouble and not for the first time. The teachers are underpaid, the lure of TV is making Freddie’s theatre-only stance look very outdated, the finances are distinctly underwater…

Add together a possible investor, a couple of new teachers, a possible child prodigy and the indomitable Freddy herself and it’s just huge fun. A wonderful evocation of theatre life and the perpetual tension between the love of the arts and the practicalities of actually making a living from them. Top notch Fitzgerald, but then that’s true of pretty much all Fitzgerald.

Jacqui wrote a good review of this here which talks much more about it.

And that’s it! Looking back June was a really good month for me. I’ll post about July soon.

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Injury interrupts play

Hi all. I’ve got a broken finger on my left hand. Nothing serious, but it means typing is hard right now. My June update and maybe July will therefore be running a bit late – sometime mid or late August I’d guess.

June incidentally was a really strong reading month. I’ll do short write-ups of each of these once I can:

The Murder of Halland, Pia Juul

The Visitors, Jessi Jezewska Stevens

White Tears, Hari Kunzru

Heaven, Meiko Kawakami

The Way Inn, Will Wiles

The Abominable Man, Sjöwall & Wahlöö

The Legacy of Molly Southbourne, T. Thompson

Confusion, Stefan Zweig

Cursed Bunny, Bora Chung

At Freddie’s, Penelope Fitzgerald

Not a dud among them.

In the meantime, here’s a photo from Bologna, which we spent some time in during our July holiday:

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May 2022 roundup

May was an interesting month in reading terms. I tried a mix of new and familiar authors and read a lot of good books, but despite their quality there were few that I actually loved. None I think that will make my end of year list.

Before I go into those, looking back at the past few months it’s interesting to note which books have stayed fresh for me. For example, Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow is lasting in memory better than I thought it would.

Some of the books that have stuck with me are by authors I’ve known and loved for a while now – Penelope Fitzgerald, Irmgard Keun, Matthias Enard and Elizabeth Taylor. Others are by authors new to me but who I fully expect to return to – Claire Keegan, Tessa Hadley, and Chris Powers. Somewhere in between is Annie Ernaux, whose The Years I liked and respected but whose A Girl’s Story and Happening I found much more emotionally powerful (perhaps inevitably given the scope of Years compared to the narrower focus of those two).

There’s lots else I’ve enjoyed this year, but those are the authors I’ll be making a point of returning to. All that said, on to May!

Seesaw, Carmel Doohan

Seesaw uses a young woman’s relationship crises as a lens through which to examine the wider issues of the refugee crisis. That might sound a bit absurd, but it’s similar in that sense to Madeleine Watt’s The Inland Sea which uses a young woman’s self-destructive impulses and mistreatment of her own body as a mirror through which to examine wider issues of climate change and humanity’s mistreatment of the natural world.

Seesaw’s parallels are a little less on the nose than Inland Sea, but there is still a common theme of miscommunication and impasse. It also struck me as capturing something of how many of us actually navigate these issues. The protagonist cares about the refugee crisis, she volunteers and tries to get involved, but the rest of her life doesn’t stop for it and her impact is minimal next to the scale of the challenge.

There’s been a piece trending online recently arguing that nobody is writing state of the nation novels, that it’s all interior fiction. It’s an absurd argument. Seesaw is a state of the nation novel. As it closes Trump is on tv praising ’very fine people on both sides’. It’s also an interior novel. The one doesn’t preclude the other.

Minutes from the Miracle City, Omar Sabbagh

I can’t now recall how I discovered this. It’s set in contemporary Dubai and is something of a love letter to the city. It shows various people – a Pakistani taxi driver, a Ugandan waiter with dreams of becoming a writer, a Moroccan beautician, an Emirati journalist recently returned home from London and more – and how their lives intersect and impact each other in small ways and large.

It’s an interesting book, but given Dubai’s fairly awful record on treatment of non-natives I was left a bit unpersuaded by its portrayal of Dubai as melting pot. Of course, I may simply be projecting my own prejudices on a city I’ve not been to and if you do have connections with the city I suspect you might want to check this out.

A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood

Apparently this is seen by many as Isherwood’s best novel, though I preferred his Berlin novels (though I understand he had doubts about them). George is a middle aged Englishman living in 1960s California. His lover has died leaving George bereft, awash with grief. The novel traces a day in his life.

It’s superbly well written and beautifully observed, capturing much of the pain and the rewards of life. In fact, for a novel overshadowed by death it’s suffused with life.

If you’ve read any other Isherwood you should read this too, even if it did leave me a little cold on this occasion. If you haven’t I’d still probably start with the Berlin novels.

Murder at the Savoy, Sjöwall and Wahlöö (translated by Joan Tate)

Number six in the series and by this point they’re getting much more openly political. This one opens with a rich businessman being murdered while dining at the Savoy. His killer escapes, but seemingly through luck rather than plan. It looks like a professional hit, but what hitman would carry out a killing in such a public place and with apparently no escape route in mind?

Beck and the team are under huge political pressure here to find the culprit quickly, not least because senior political figures may have turned blind eyes to the murdered man’s illegal arms dealing.

This wasn’t my favourite of the Beck sequence, but they’re never less than solid and this again has memorable characters, a satisfying plot and yet again a tremendous portrayal of police work as actual hard work. A ten novel series is a fair commitment, but I’m not regretting this one at all.

Slow Bullets, Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is a hard sf writer I’ve long loved. This is one of his more recent and shorter novels. After a ceasefire between two interstellar societies, war criminals from both sides (plus a few people accidentally caught up with them) are being shipped in suspended animation to a prison planet. Disaster hits the ship and the prisoners wake up to find themselves badly off course. Worse, it appears they’ve been asleep for a very, very long time and there’s no home to go back to.

The survivors split into four factions – the two sides from the war, the small number of civilians being transported and the handful of crew survivors. The question for them all is can they find a way to live together given the terrible things so many of them have done? It’s a good premise, brought further to life by the main character being obsessed with hunting down one particular war criminal who left her for dead, her conflict a microcosm of the larger one.

This is a solid Reynolds for me rather than a great one – I preferred his recent and very good time travel thriller Permafrost in which the consciousnesses of a handful of scientists are sent back to the present day to avert an apocalypse. Still, I enjoyed it and I can imagine rereading it at some point.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Alan Sillitoe

One of the earliest reviews on this blog is Alan Sillitoe’s excellent Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. It’s taken me almost 14 years before reading more by him.

Loneliness is of course famous from the film and is the longest story here (almost a novella really). Along with the other stories we’re in territory that’s familiar from Saturday Night with northern working class lads out to screw the world and taking no prisoners as they do so.

The trouble is, it’s a little one-note. Saturday Night is brilliant, but these didn’t add a lot to it for me. I recommend that, not sure I recommend this. By contrast, Stan Barstow’s short story collection The Desperadoes also explores northern working class life but with a far richer palette ranging from comedy to tragedy to everything in between. Go read The Desperadoes is what I’m saying here.

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, Mariana Enriquez (translated by Megan McDowell)

My second Enriquez collection. She’s an Argentinian writer and her stories blend horror and social comment, but what surprised me is the extent to which they work as pure horror. These are not stories for the squeamish. I grew up reading horror fiction, much of it pretty lurid, and Enriquez can give any of them a run for their money.

As ever, the Argentinian dictatorship looms large. The ghosts, curses, returned dead are nothing against the real life terrors of the disappeared or those trapped in abusive families. It’s dark stuff, but very good.

Tirra Lirra by the River, Jessica Anderson

An Australian classic. Tirra Lirra explores the life of Nora Porteous who has returned in old age to her childhood Australian home after long years in London. We see her growing up, her suffocating suburban marriage, her later independence in London and now her return to where it all started. It’s a short book, under 200 pages, but as so often with memory it takes a while for everything to come into focus as Nora intersperses the present with the past and initially skirts round some of the less appealing bits.

Anderson is brilliant on the constraints Nora faces, going from the limits imposed by family to the far greater strictures of marriage where her husband tries to control her by withholding even the meagrest allowance. He seems a dull monster, but the book subtly undermines some of its own messaging with Nora at times wondering if she can still see the real man past the caricature he became for her afterwards. Similarly, Nora reflects on the limits put on her artistic talent, but on her return home she discovers that some of her childhood works done before she escaped to London were actually good and remain much admired, while she has nothing particular to show from the period when she had actual artistic freedom. It’s a clever book that makes its points about women’s lives well without ever being didactic. I can see why it’s a classic.

Guy Savage did a great write-up of this here which inspired me to read it. I agree with Guy by the way that it’s not a depressing book – it contains much that could be depressing, wasted years and lost opportunities, but it contains a lot more too. I’ve read a couple of novels recently which portray a whole life from cradle to grave and generally they’re bleak affairs, too much so to be entirely credible. Here Anderson shows not only the disappointments and frustrations, but also the joy, humour and resilience.

A World of Love, Elizabeth Bowen

I bought this ages back, before Bowen’s The Hotel, but never got round to reading it. It’s the story of a young woman, Jane, growing up in a crumbling Irish estate (are there any other kind in fiction?). The family dynamic is complex and claustrophobic. Jaded and fashionable Antonia owns the estate, but doesn’t know how to work it. Maud’s mother, Lilia, is married to Antonia’s half-brother Fred but years ago was in love with Antonia’s brother Guy who died in the war. Meanwhile Jane’s younger sister Maud runs half wild about the place. Among it all, Jane without realising it has become ‘a beauty’ leading to change when she’s noticed by ageing English neighbour Lady Latterly…

This is a novel in which in a sense nothing happens, yet it’s full of tension and drama. Early on Jane discovers some love letters clearly written by Guy, but perhaps not to Lilia. Lilia lives with Antonia because Antonia long ago felt responsible for her, and because Antonia needs Fred to run the estate, but Lilia has no ownership rights of her own and lives effectively as Antonia’s guest. It’s a situation that’s lasted years, inherently unstable yet unchanging.

While I preferred The Hotel, this is very well written and I do plan to read more Bowen. I’ll likely try her A House in Paris next. Heavenali did a really good write-up of this one here which I’d recommend reading as she has a much better grasp of Bowen’s work than I do.

And that’s it!

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April 2022 round-up

This was a strong, strong reading month. I read a lot of books, but more importantly I read a lot of good books. Many of these I wouldn’t have discovered (or at least wouldn’t have tried) without the blogosphere so thanks to those of you who’ve been busy posting about Tessa Hadley, Annie Ernaux and Jessica Au who I might well otherwise have missed or ignored.

The Past, Tessa Hadley

Simply brilliant. My first Hadley, but definitely not my last. It’s that classic middle class English novel thing about a bunch of fairly privileged people in the countryside not doing very much, but as ever execution is everything. Here family tensions come bubbling out as adult siblings take their partners and in one case basically an acquaintance on holiday to their old rural family home which they’re considering selling. There’s a lovely mid-section which ducks back several decades showing how events then inform events now. Just a really well constructed book. Lots of reviews of this one, but Jacqui’s here is the one that tipped me over into actually reading it.

Betty Boo, Claudia Piñeiro (translated by Miranda France)

Sadly my last Piñeiro, in the sense that I’ve now read everything by her in translation. Happily I believe more is coming. Here a former best-selling crime writer and washed-up former star crime reporter get together to investigate a murder in a rich gated community. They’re supported by the star reporter’s young replacement which makes for one of the novel’s better strands as the older reporter slowly and rather reluctantly becomes mentor to the younger.

Piñeiro explored the same territory in her Thursday Night Widows and unfortunately for me that one was simply better. The central characters here are great, among her best in fact, but the crime got a bit far-fetched and it all just felt a bit less tight than usual. It’s not bad, in fact it’s pretty good, but for me Piñeiro has written better. Guy wrote a great review of it here.

New Atlantis, Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar is a somewhat prolific SF writer that I quite like, so you’ll probably see more by him here in due course. This is a rather gentle picaresque novel set long long after an unspecified apocalypse has reshaped the earth. The archivist central character travels through a strange futuristic landscape with ominously intelligent ants and sentient coral in search of I honestly don’t remember what. The plot is actually pretty minimal, it’s very much about the world and journey and I rather enjoyed it.

Dead Stars, Álvaro Bisama (translated by Megan McDowell)

On to darker and more difficult fare here. The wife of a couple about to finalise their divorce sees in the paper that a woman she knew years before has just been arrested. Memories unfold from her and her husband as they each look back on a history shaped by politics both national and personal.

Technically this is pretty impressive. The chapters are small, sometimes just a sentence, and yet Bisama captures both a time in Chilean history and the history of a marriage. My ignorance of Chile’s recent-ish past means that I’m sure I missed a lot of context, but not so much this still wasn’t a fascinating read. Tony of Tony’s Reading List gives it a good write-up here.

Mothers, Chris Powers

I write these posts in the order I finished the books. In most cases that’s also the order that I read them in. Short stories though I space out, so typically by the time I finish a collection I’ve already been reading it (possibly interspersed with other collections) for a couple of months or more.

Chris Powers wrote an entire series in the Guardian on the art of the short story. He’s therefore set himself a bit of a high bar in bringing out his own collection. Fortunately he meets it. I thought this superb. The stories range in length and subject matter but show a real appreciation of the craft of the short story. Three of the stories are connected and some common themes run through the collection, but it’s the sheer skill Powers brings to this that made me love it. It’s hard to discuss Powers’ technique without spoiling some of the stories, but I will say that I immediately reread some just to see how he pulled them off.

David Hebblethwaite wrote a review of this which you can find from his blog here along links to an interview and to a couple of the stories (my favourite of the collection, The Crossing, and probably my least favourite, Johnny Kingdom).

The Many, Wyl Menmuir

There’s been a trend recently in horror cinema of horror as metaphor. Of course horror has always acted as metaphor, but recent films have made the link much more explicit exploring themes such as bereavement, male violence, fear of dementia, big topics. It’s not a hugely successful trend, mostly as later in the film you tend to get a tension between the logic of the horror narrative and the logic of the metaphor. Put simply, if you’ve established that the true horror is dementia then the metaphor demands the protagonists come to terms with their issues, but that doesn’t make any sense when in the fiction they’re grappling not with a declining family member but with some flesh-eating monster. The Babadook inspired the trend and did pull it off. Its successors less so.

Anyway, The Many. A man moves to a remote fishing community where he has bought up the home of a young fisherman who died in a tragic accident. The community aren’t exactly welcoming. So far we’re in the classic territory of the tension between gentrifier and local community (the film Bait explores this very well). Here however the narrative is slippier. The fish in the bay are few and mutated. Some unexplained (government? corporate?) agency buys the catches anyway. Reality seems at times slippery. I’ve made it sound like SF or horror, but it’s not, it’s metaphor.

It’s well written if at times perhaps a little too oblique. By the end however the metaphor for me rather overwhelmed the narrative with the result that it becomes a bit neither one thing nor the other. Too solid and real in the most part to work as fable or allegory. Too openly unreal to work simply as story.

I should say in fairness that plenty of folk, including the Booker jury, liked this a lot more than I did. You might find you have more in common with them than me on this one.

Babette’s Feast, Karen Blixen

I so wanted to like this. I’ve not seen the film Babette’s Feast but I have read and liked a Dinesen before (with some mild caveats).

The stories here are lengthy fables as much as anything else. Honestly I can barely remember any of them and I had to push myself to finish this. Blixen/Dinesen typically gets pretty good reviews so this may be just a case of bad chemistry, but I find it hard to write about this since all I really remember is that I didn’t like it.

The Fire Engine that Disappeared, Sjöwall & Wahlöö (translated by Joan Tate)

I’m reading one of these a month now. This is another great entry. Here a house fire results in several deaths and prompts an investigation when it becomes apparent it wasn’t an accident. With several victims though which one was the target? It’s not my favourite of the series but it’s definitely a solid entry with consistently great characters and a satisfying story. If you’ve any interest in the Scandinoir genre at all these are definitely worth reading.

Happening, Annie Ernaux (translated by Tanya Leslie)

What to say? I didn’t love The Years as much as many have (though I did like it a fair bit). A Girl’s Story I thought was great. This is something else. It’s the account of Ernaux’s illegal abortion in the 1960s.

Ernaux is unsparing, not just of the procedure itself but also of just how trapped she is in a society where condemnation comes easily but access to vital medical services is dependent on chance acquaintances being willing to risk punishment to point you in the right direction. Ernaux shows too how when you’re in trouble you really can’t predict who will help, who will try to take advantage and who will turn their back. It’s brilliant. Jacqui wrote an excellent review of this here. I know it’s a dark subject matter and I know you probably don’t want to read it, but this is great and honest writing and I recommend it very highly indeed.

Cold Enough for Snow, Jessica Au

A young Chinese-Australian woman walks through Tokyo trying to connect with her now elderly mother. It’s a slight novella, nothing really happens and the book is elusive enough that we can’t really be certain how much of what we read is real. This is a book of mood and moment. I’m not absolutely sure the whole is greater than the parts, but the parts are very good indeed and the whole comes in at under a 100 pages.

I’m pretty ruthless these days on what books I keep, due to space constraints. This has made the cut because I believe it will bear rereading. It’s a bit like poetry – what’s not said carries as much weight as what is, perhaps more. Kaggsy captures it well here.

And that’s it. Phew!

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Lyrically affected ladies are apt to commit thoughtless deeds.

Slightly late with this update as I’ve been a bit under the weather (though not with Covid according to my tests!). However, while April hasn’t been all it might have been March was pretty good. Mostly it was a return to authors who’re now old favourites, but there were some new discoveries too.

Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart, Irmgard Keun (translated by Michael Hofmann)

I started with what was sadly my last unread Irmgard Keun. Unusually for Keun this features a male protagonist, Ferdinand, a chancer in a world of chancers. Here we’re in post-war Germany, where everyone’s broke, everyone’s hustling and anyone who was provably a Nazi is doing their best to downplay the fact.

Ferdinand is a sympathetic character, but then this is a sympathetic book. Keun as ever cares about the struggles of ordinary people. She’s a tremendously humane writer, blackly funny but with a sense that she understands what it’s like to be desperate and yet to be hopeful. A tremendous writer and one I’ll revisit.

You can find a bit more about this one at Grant’s, here.

Tell them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, Matthias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell)

While I’m linking to Grant, here‘s another he’s reviewed. This is a short novel about Michelangelo, who has travelled to Istanbul to design a bridge. As ever with Enard it’s an exploration of the collision of East and West, or more accurately of the West with the West’s idea of the East. However, unlike his (for me) rather overlong Compass it’s tight and fun and a very enjoyable read.

Here Michelangelo is an undoubted artistic genius, but he’s perhaps less adept at politics, friendship and love. There’s enough incident in its brief 144 pages to fill a miniseries and yet it’s still fizzing with ideas. This is one that might make my end of year list, though competition is already looking fierce…

The Second Body, Daisy Hildyard

This is from Fitzcarraldo’s essays rather than fiction collection. The thesis is essentially that each of us has two bodies – our immediate, physical one and our global one in the sense of the impact we have upon the world. Hildyard explores our relationship with animals before broadening out her thesis to take on wider connections.

I liked the first part of this a lot, where Hildyard works through our ambivalent relationships with the lives around us, but while for me there was consistent interest the theme didn’t quite hold together. That said, the investigation of how we are part of the world, not separate to it as we often imagine, is interesting.

The Laughing Policeman, Sjöwall and Wahlöö (translated by Alan Blair)

My fourth Beck! This one comes with a slightly patronising introduction by Jonathan Franzen which I’d recommend skipping since it rather bizarrely includes a spoiler for later in the series.

Here an unknown killer has machine-gunned a whole busload of people, one of them an off-duty policeman who had no obvious reason to be on the bus in the first place. Cue the usual painstaking police investigation which Sjöwall and Wahlöö are so good at portraying. Nobody makes police work seem like work more than they do. As ever, when Martin Beck and the team reach the end they’ve thoroughly earned it, not by brilliance but by sheer persistence.

At this point I’m committed to the series, but it’s a happy commitment. I plan to start number five shortly.

Sisters of the Forsaken Stars, Lina Rather

I don’t seem to have written up Rather’s first novel, which this is a sequel to. It’s set in a distant spacefaring future in which a convent contained in a living spaceship make their way among the outer colonies who’re in conflict with an overbearing central Earth authority. If you’ve seen Firefly you have the basic concept, but with nuns and a living spaceship which obviously makes it better.

For me this wasn’t quite as strong as the first novel, mostly as the concepts were now familiar, but Rather is good on characterisation and she’s written a great setting. I suspect there’ll be a third in the series and if there is I’ll read it. Fun if you’re an SF fan but not one for those of you who aren’t.

The Hotel, Elizabeth Bowen

One of the fascinating things about middle class holidays in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is how often people seemed to gather in hotels or resorts for lengthy periods, pushed together but with nothing save their class in common. It must have been tremendous for writers.

The eponymous hotel here is in Northern Italy. It’s peopled with English holidaymakers of a certain sort, well-off and leisured but not necessarily best suited to living together harmoniously.

Conflicts here are low key but no less intense for that. Much is unspoken, either between the characters or even by Bowen herself. There’s two implicit lesbian relationships in this book but neither is ever clearly stated and there are many other emotional undercurrents. You have to read between the lines, and slowly too as Bowen’s prose is often a bit opaque, but it definitely repays the effort. This was my first Bowen, but I don’t think it will be my last. Jacqui wrote a typically perceptive review of this one here.

Border, Kapka Kassabova

Finally, a rare trip into nonfiction for me. Kassabova here explores the borders between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. She draws on childhood memory, local encounters, myth and (often ugly) history and the result is rich and rewarding.

I had this on Kindle and Audible and mixed reading it with listening to it (I only tend to listen to non-fiction or audiodramas on Audible, with fiction I prefer not to have someone else’s voice determining my reading). It worked well.

Dorian wrote a strong review of this which you can find from here, and Andrew Blackman interestingly wrote a much more critical one here. I’m more with Dorian than Andrew on this one, but Andrew’s arguments do have merit so it’s worth reading both pieces.

And that’s it! Next up April, which I’m still in so you’ll have to wait a little for that.

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February 2022 roundup

February was a month of two halves, with a strong start and then an unfortunate bout of insomnia which rather slowed things down. Still, there were some good books in the mix at least one of which is sure to be on my end of year list.

The Gate of Angels, Penelope Fitzgerald

I’d had a couple of disappointments in January so started February with an absolutely sure thing. Fitzgerald always seems to be on form and this was no exception. It’s the delightful tale of a 1912 romance between a young don living in a college that bans all females (even kittens!) and a working class nurse that he has an accidental bicycle collision with.

Angels becomes an exploration of the tensions and reconciliations between faith and reason, chance and determination. It has a wonderful MR James spoof in the form of an elderly don who loves to read his ghost stories out loud (one, a hilarious pastiche, is included) and as ever the characters are lightly but superbly well drawn.

Highly, highly recommended.

At Mrs Lippincote’s, Elizabeth Taylor

From Fitzgerald to Taylor! Actually, this was an unintended reread. In what perhaps isn’t the greatest compliment to a book I forgot I’d already read this, thinking I’d previously just started it. At about 50 pages in it became apparent that couldn’t be right.

To be fair to Taylor this was her debut and it is a well written and enjoyable read. It’s a novel of a marriage – the spirited but rather thoughtless Julia finds herself increasingly estranged from her much more traditional RAF husband and his cousin who lives with them and has an unrequited crush on him. None of the characters are terribly likeable, but all are credible and interesting including the wider supporting cast.

If it weren’t for the fact that I forgot I’d previously read this I’d recommend it more highly. It is a good book and a very solid debut, but Taylor went on to write better. I may try her A View from the Harbour next, but suggestions gratefully accepted (I have read her Mrs Palfrey which is brilliant). In the meantime, there’s a great review of this by Jacqui here.

Small Things Like These, Claire Keegan

I imagine everyone’s pretty familiar with this one. If not, stop reading this and go get yourself a copy now. It’s brilliant and it’s hard to imagine it not being on my end of year list.

It’s a short novel/novella, but densely packed. It’s a story of rural Ireland in 1985 and a successful local businessman who becomes aware that the young women being looked after at the local convent may be effectively slaves.

Horrifyingly, this is based on real Irish history. Here it’s used in an exploration of moral courage and compromise. It sounds dark, and to be fair it is, but it’s so well written that it’s never a struggle to read despite the subject matter.

Jacqui wrote eloquently about this one, far more so than I could, here. It’s an extraordinary book and I really couldn’t recommend it any more highly.

The Feast, Margaret Kennedy

For a long time I thought this was a contemporary novel set in the post-war period. I’d completely missed that it was actually written and published around the time it’s set.

It’s been widely reviewed elsewhere, not least by Kaggsy in an excellent piece here, and it’s the story of the owners, staff and guests at a rundown seaside hotel. The opening tells us that some of them will die in a landslip which destroys the hotel, but it only gives the identity of one of the dead.

What follows is a mix of whodunnit with no killer (more of a whosurvivesit) and morality play, XXX. Plus, which of us doesn’t love a novel set in a crumbling hotel or boarding house?

It’s an easy and entertaining read, if not hugely demanding, and there’s some allegorical depth too. It would make a great read for a holiday or long train journey.

A Girl’s Story, Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison L. Strayer

Ernaux’s story of how as a young woman she became obsessed with a slightly older leader at a summer camp she volunteered at, subjugating everything about herself in the hope of pleasing him. As with her The Years she somehow uses the personal to tell a story with much wider resonance.

This isn’t always comfortable reading. It’s very honest about a very awkward time in one’s life, but that unsparing quality is partly why Ernaux is so good (though mostly it’s simply that she can write – Grant talks about the honesty of her craft here, which is well put). I plan to read her The Happening next.

Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia

A misfire for me. This is a historical fantasy novel set in 1920s Mexico where a young woman living in poverty at the mercy of her much richer relatives unwittingly releases an Aztec god of death and goes on a quest with him.

The problem is, it’s basically young adult and our heroine turns out to be not just intelligent, strong willed and independent but also of course beautiful. Her only flaw is her family, which isn’t actually her flaw at all.

It’s a solid premise and would make a great read for an older teen. It wasn’t for me though and I bailed around page 100.

The Little Men, Megan Abbott

More of a long short story than a novella, this is a twisted little tale of golden age Hollywood obsession and madness. In that world, then and perhaps still now, it’s terrifyingly easy to waste your life pressing your nose against a window with fame just in view but ever out of reach

It wasn’t my favourite Abbot, but it’s still fun and who doesn’t love a bit of golden age Hollywood noir?

And that’s it! See you all for the March roundup.

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January 2022 roundup

January was a slightly disappointing reading month, though looking at my list of books read it’s hard to say precisely why. It’s a good mix of writers I already know and ones new to me, of genre and literary fiction, but somehow it didn’t hit the spot. That’s why I’ve started February with a Penelope Fitzgerald – you just can’t go wrong with her.

Any oddities in this post are likely due to one of my cats repeatedly walking over the keyboard as I try to write it, occasionally deleting chunks of text.

The Singapore Grip, JG Farrell

This is the third of JG Farrell’s thematic Empire trilogy, but for me the weakest. The setting is Singapore on the eve of World War II and Farrell draws a portrait of an out of touch English colonial establishment who can’t see that their time is distinctly drawing to a close. Absurd preparations for a centennial celebration for a local trading house go on as the threat of war grows nearer. The family patriarch who heads the company worries about marrying off his clever daughter and managing his useless son, while ignoring how his and his peers’ fortune is built on brutal exploitation of the local population.

Farrell’s Troubles and his The Siege of Krishnapur are both marvellous, bitingly funny while somehow still entirely serious. This though is almost twice the length of either, and it felt to me like Farrell had left none of his research off the page. The good stuff from previous books was all there – the writing, the keen sense of human folly – but I learned more about troop movements in 1940s Singapore than I suspect I needed to. If you’ve read the others you’ll likely want to read this too, but otherwise it’s not essential.

Weather, Jenny Offill

I called Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation ‘perhaps the best written unmemorable book I’ve ever read.’ On reflection that may have been a sign that I’m not Offill’s reader. Her Weather however was widely and well reviewed and is an interesting example of the recent rise of climate-change influenced fiction.

Weather captures the sense of slow impending apocalypse that is part of the background now of everyday life for many. The narrator, a librarian, is living her life against a backdrop of news reports of political crisis and looming environmental collapse. It’s well written, often funny, and definitely captures something of our moment.

It reminds me of someone I used to work with back when I was a lawyer who started survival prepping for her kid for after the apocalypse (which in the UK is pretty unusual). She was otherwise a normal middle class professional woman, but she just didn’t trust in the future any more. Offill captures that sense of unease – the need to continue buying groceries while wondering if there’ll be a world for your kid to grow up into. At the same time, she remains a writer I struggle to personally connect to so I’ll likely leave her to other readers in future.

The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday, Saad Z. Hossein

This is a fun SF/fantasy novella. An ancient and powerful djinn wakes up after millennia of imprisonment to find himself in an advanced future world he of course doesn’t comprehend. Fortunately, it seems, he meets an elderly Gurkha who is willing to explain to him how this future works and who takes him to a nearby city run by an all-powerful AI. However, the Gurkha has his own agenda and the djinn for all his power might not be the one people should be afraid of.

If you don’t enjoy SF or fantasy this likely won’t convert you, but if you do this is a fun and not too serious tale that doesn’t overstay its welcome. I’ll read more by Hossein – there’s always a place for well written light entertainment. Also, great title.

Echopraxia, Peter Watts

This is the hardest of hard SF by a famously bleak writer. It’s the sequel to his widely acclaimed Blindspot, a first contact novel which among other things posits that consciousness may be an evolutionary dead end and one that other intelligent species aren’t troubled by. It’s not a cheery read.

Echopraxia returns to the same world and concerns, but for me less successfully. The main character is something of a passenger as various transhuman and alien entities battle it out at levels of intelligence he simply can’t understand let alone compete with, which is a bit of a problem for this merely human reader. Also, like the Farrell, I had a feeling that too much of the research had made it on to the page.

Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enriquez and translated by Megan McDowell

I tend to read short stories on my kindle, often in bed to help me sleep. Argentinian writer Mariana Enriquez uses horror as a tool to explore Argentina’s traumas and some of the imagery makes this perhaps not a wholly ideal bedtime companion.

The stories are excellent, well written and with a sense of unease sometimes overspilling into out-and-out horror. In some ways though the horror is a relief – a ghostly visitation may remind us of Argentina’s history of disappearances but a missing street kid is a far more real and present nightmare.

One of the stories is available for free on Granta’s website, here, and there’s a nice review at Tony’s Reading List here. The title story, as he rightly calls out, is a devastating critique of women’s often limited choices. If I had to choose a book of the month this would probably be it. Recommended, but not for the faint hearted.

Sexing the Cherry, Jeanette Winterson

I loved Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and The Passion both (less so Winterson’s The Daylight Gate). I expected this then to be an early reading highlight of the year for me. There’s definitely a lot here to like: exceptional writing; Winterson’s sharp and slightly puckish sense of fun; and a lovely exploration of how a parent and child can love each other yet still somehow fail to communicate. Despite all that it just didn’t resonate for me on this occasion. I suspect this was me rather than Winterson. John Self, who knows Winterson’s work better than most, has argued here that this is her best novel so I’ve marked it for rereading. (He’s right on Heller by the way – Something Happened is Heller’s best novel.)

Shane, Jack Schaefer

I don’t generally read westerns so this was a departure for me, particularly as I haven’t seen the famous film based on it. It’s the story of a mysterious stranger who comes to a frontier farming community that’s under threat from a big local landowner. Classic stuff, and all narrated by a child old enough to follow events but not always their emotional undercurrents.

The trouble here isn’t the book’s fault, though it is perhaps the fault of the marketing. This is basically young adult fiction, juvenile as it would once have been called. I’d say maybe for a 12-14 year old? It was just too slight and too straightforward to keep my attention and not quite rip-roaring enough to work for me as pulp.

Goodnight Rose, Chi Zijian and translated by Poppy Toland

I chose to end the month with something of a departure, an unknown writer to me (though I think quite an important one in China) and a very different kind of story about a young woman in Northern China who moves to the spare room of an elderly Jewish woman. It becomes an exploration of the treatment and status of women, going to some fairly dark places as it does so but because it stays rooted in sympathetic and interesting characters it’s actually a fairly easy read. It’s cleverly done.

If you’ve any interest in contemporary China I would recommend this, and the angle of (admittedly lightly) exploring the Jewish diaspora in China adds to the interest. It gets perhaps a little unlikely in bringing things to a head, but a little melodrama later on gives the characters something to do and plays into the books themes so it’s not a serious issue.

And that’s it! Onwards and hopefully upwards in February.

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