So much of historical fiction is set in London or the Home Counties, one could easily believe that the rest of the country did not exist in the past. And for no period is this more true than Victorian Britain. In fact, I struggled to find 10, so I included 2 from the Regency period as well.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Set up as a true story, but being entirely fictional, we follow this grim, dark tale set in the Scottish Highlands. The sad thing is that stories like this did happen and worse as well. And it’s testimony to the authors brilliant writing style that I felt convinced that it must have happened just so.
The Strings of Murder (Frey & McGray #1) by Oscar de Muriel
Mystery series set in Victorian Edinburgh (and other parts of the British Isles). An English police officer sent to Edinburgh after falling into disgrace with his superiors has to work with Scottish police officer to solve crimes that may or may not have a super natural background. I love them.
Arthur & George by Julian Barnes
There is so little historical fiction set in the Midlands, it has to be celebrated. It’s probably my favourite Barnes. When Conan Doyle meets a young Indian man living in Staffordshire accused of a dreadful crime.
Crocodile on the Sandbank (Amelia Peabody #1) by Elizabeth Peters
They are silly fun mysteries usually set on archaeological digs somewhere in Egypt. Now and then I read one as a bit of a palate cleanser after reading something harrowing. Works every time.
The Anatomist’s Wife (Lady Darby Mystery #1) by Anna Lee Huber
Set in 1830ies Scotland and Northern England, I love this series! Solid mystery adventures.
The Black Country (Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad #2) by Alex Grecian
I live on the edge of the Black Country, another Midlands set book and despite the fact that I rolled my eyes at times, I still liked it enough to recommend.
The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson
This YA book is set in 1819 but I thought a historical romance would fit the bill quite nicely. Set in the area around Bristol it is a fabulous tale of mistaken identity.
The Strangler Vine (Avery & Blake #1) by M.J. Carter
What I like the most about Carter’s books is how she shatters one of the protagonists rosy-tinted view of the British Empire. Slowly, surely. This one is set in India.
Gaslight by Eloise Williams
Eloise Williams writes absolutely enchanting books for young people, without sparing them the grizzly reality of life back then. Older middle-grade, young YA book set in Cardiff in 1899.
The Convictions of John Delahunt by Andrew Hughes
Mystery set in 1840s Dublin based on true events. Victorian Ireland was shaken by the events and I can honestly say, so was I reading this book.
The past few years, I have co-hosted this readathon with Kate Howe and others and despite the fact that I am not co-hosting this year, I am still excited to take part.
Christmas and reading mysteries goes hand in hand for me and I tend to get through quite a few during Advent. This year the prompts are inspired by a country house mystery setting.
I occassionally make book lists on bookshop.org. I will get a small comission if you buy any of the books.
The first prompt is Study and I chose The Law of Lines by Hye-Young Pyun (translated Sora Kim-Russel) for it. There is never a shortage of Korean books on my TBR and over the last year, I have particularly loved some of the slow burn crime/thriller type books from Korea. I loved The Hole a lot, so I am curious and excited for this one.
My library has been shut since March, so no chance to borrow anything, so I chose to interpret this as reading a book from my own library and Kwei Quartey’s book has been waiting for my attention all year. It’s the first novel in the Darko Dawson series set in Ghana and it sounds absolutely fantastic. Quartey is a Ghanaian-American writer and he writes character-driven mysteries.
I have read a lot of Japanese crime fiction over the years, but I have not yet read anything by Keiichiro Hirano (transl. by Eli K.P. William) since this is actually the first book of his to be translated into English. A Man sounds intriguing. We follow Akira Kido, a divorce attorney whose own marriage is on the rocks. One day a former client shows up to ask him to investigate her recently deceased husband who seemed to have lived a lie. I don’t need to know anything more about this, this sounds 100% my cup of tea.
This will be the 3rd (of 4) Blanche mysteries. I am spreading them out because once I am done, I am done and I love them. Blanche is a Black woman, a housekeeper, raising her sister’s kids and just really trying to make ends meet, but mysteries just keep coming her way. I love her snark, her personality and quite frankly Blanche is one of the best female characters to ever been written. The books are not just fab for the mysteries, they are also brilliant for the observations on society and people in general.
I love mysteries and Argentinia has a great tradition of mystery writers. There has even been the term of Buenos Aires Noir thrown about. I am glad that Bosco is now more widely available and I cannot wait to read her novels. Most of her novels were originally published in the 1950ies and she was a bestseller at the time. This one is about a death in an elevator in a posh apartment building. Translated by Lucy Greaves.
It’s finally time to pick up Ovidia Yu’s mysteries. I have been wanting to read this Singaporean writer for a couple of years but things always happen and other books come along. I am a big lover of food based mysteries and I love Singapore, so it’s going to happen, I am reading this December.
When people think of closed circle mystery, they think of Manor House mysteries, but I wanted something else and The Investigation by J.M. Lee (translated by Chi-Young Kim) set in a prison sounded intriguing and very tense.
I love Sulari Gentill’s 1930ies set mystery series featuring Rowland Sinclair so much, it’s another one that I am spacing out so I don’t run out too soon. This is book 7 of 10. There are historical mysteries that are just fun to read but the historical bit is a bit on the sidelines and then there are those like this series where you find out loads about the historical period while a mystery is going on. I had no idea about the 1930ies in Australia before, I love in particular getting the Austrialian gaze towards Europe and the rise of Hitler (one of the books plays in Germany, that was tense) as well as the own issues of fascim in Australia at the time as well as all sorts of other societal contexts, I had zero clue about.
Book 5 of 8, as you can tell, I am reading a lot of series and I love Anna Lee Huber’s mysteries a lot (also her Verity Kent series). I class these books as comfort reads, when I want to just forget about the world, I pick one of these up and it never fails to do its magic. I emerge oddly comforted which may sound weird considering they are murder mysteries. I also like Huber’s ability to write about women who develop as characters throughout the series. She is really, really good at doing that.
I started sharing these lists of books on themes over on my instagram account, but thought, I share them here as well. After all why not.
I recently asked in my instagram stories what people wanted in terms of themed booklists and seasonal lists was mentioned more than once. So here is the first seasonal list for Winter.
Afropean: Notes from Black Europe by Johny Pitts
I picked this book in the early days of lockdown 1 and I really loved it yet, I remember wishing that I had read it in winter. In fact, I know that I will pick it up after Christmas to re-read, which will be perfect because that when Johny Pitts starts his journey travelling through a wintry Europe exploring what it means to be Black in Europe.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Translator)
The winter descriptions were delicious. I always love fiction set in small communities, I can say that most of my favourite books will be in such a setting. I also love books that are set in border regions, the most surreal of areas really because no matter how much I grow up (and I am getting on a bit now), I shall never be abel to accept that an arbitrary line is a border that people potentially die for or because of (got of on a tangeant here, this is not part of the book…). A bitingly funny novel which made me several times think: should not laugh, but I laughed anyway.
Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin, Aneesa Higgins
If ever we can travel again, I want to go Sokcho. Do books ever do that to you? Even if a place is not described as that wonderful, just because you loved a novel, you want to go. This was definitely the case here. I loved the atmospheric quietness of this novel, it felt cold in its atmosphere, really suppressing the emotions and feelings of the characters burning with plenty of heat under the surface.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
It’s so funny with hyped books, once the hype dies down they are never mentioned again. This seems to be a bit of the case here. This book is the first in a trilogy and definitely the favourite for me of the three. It’s the kind of winter book, you just want to snuggle up with tea and a blanket and escape to this mythical Russia. If Russian fairytales, winter setting, magic and adventure are your thing, then this may be your book.
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
Often, when I read a book I really like, I have a slight tendency to rush through it, almost breathless reading it and then in most cases, what will happen is that I immediately pick up the book again and re-read it. More slowly, more deliberate, with utmost attention. And this happened with The Shipping News as well. Whenever faced with that most of annoying question “What is your favourite book?”, I will quite often name this one. Of course, I have many favourite books, bookshelves full of favourite books. But people insist on a one book answer. Set in Newfoundland, we follow Quoyle as he tries to get back on his feet. It’s often very darkly comic, something I appreciate it any book, but it moved me without ever going into the melodramatic or cheesy.
Snow by Orhan Pamuk, Maureen Freely (Translator)
By no means a perfect novel, yet, I think this one is worth it for just the setting alone. I was debating for quite some time if I should include this book or not, but then I decided it needs to be on this list. Because for one, so many people believe that Turkey is this super hot desert-type place. So a wintry book set in Turkey will be an education but also because some of the aspects of this book are so relevant still. This remote Turkish village “beleaguered” by the different factions of the political-religious spectrum could be just as well be today than back then. And the outsider’s perspective coming to this remote village and then being stuck there was just wonderful.
Gorky Park (Arkady Renko #1) by Martin Cruz Smith
I do love mysteries, I cannot lie and I have loved Martin Cruz Smith’s books for decades (although the most recent ones not so much, I guess I am changing), but the early Arkady Renko novels are brilliant in capturing something of that Cold War edge of the 1980ies “last years of Cold War Russia”. Atmospheric and tense.
Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg, Tiina Nunnally (Translator)
In the 1990ies, I was hyper aware of all the literary sensations, a combination of being surrounded by readers, an avid newspaper reader, and hanging out pretty much every Saturday in my local bookshops chatting with booksellers. I care way less now about what’s hot and what’s not. It’s fair to say that this Danish thriller caused a sensation in the 1990ies. There are some things that have probably dated badly, like what we would call now the neurodiversity of the main character, but then again, I have read worse in more recent books. This book may have even kicked off the whole Nordic Noir thing.
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, Max Hayward (Translator), Manya Harari (Translator)
I remember watching this as a TV adaptation with my grandmother and getting so bored I fell asleep. So as a late teen I was reluctant to pick this up, but then got “sucked in”. The term is maybe a bit misleading because it suggests a pageturner, which it really is not. It’s a slow pleasure, incredibly tragic, often a bit melodramatic, sometimes so cruel you can hardly breat. A typical Russian classic really that needs no introduction. Don’t be fooled by people saying this is a love story.
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers
Golden Age crime, a genre in itself and quite rightly so. My time with the Golden Age has passed, I spent decades reading them, systematically making my way through the catalogues of the greats, then the forgotten and obscure authors, I have read an awful lot and still not read them all. And for winter settings this one is quite tremendous in the way it starts. Not much has changed on Britain’s roads when it starts to snow, I can tell you that. It’s book 9 in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, so if you are stickler (like me), you need to read the 8 other books first.
Over the last 10 days, I have hardly read. I finished Jacob Ross’ Black Rain Falling (excellent, absolutely excellent) and since then: nothing. I am depressed and quite badly so at the moment and for the most part of the day, when I am not working, I sort of just stare into space unable to settle on anything.
So here I am blogging, mainly because writing a blog post is a tangible thing that I did, when I mostly feel that I don’t achieve anything. Who would have thought that I’d use blogging as some sort of coping mechanism…
Anyway, let’s talk about the arcs that I have and what my thoughts are, why I requested them and that hopefully will inspire me to sit down and read some. I know it will make me feel better, so here it goes.
Die Bagage by Monika Helfer
It’s an autobiographical historical fiction novel which was nominated for the Austrian Book Prize and is currently on the shortlist. The prize will be announced in November. I doubt I will read it before then, because this month I am only reading books by Black Authors (well, currently not reading… but hey). It is set in rural Austria in a mountain village. While the father of the family is fighting in a war, the mother has a liason with an incomer that leads to a pregnancy and so the mother of the author is born. I am a sucker for these kind of stories, set in rural Austria or Germany, questions of belonging etc. It sounds like my thing.
Herzklappen von Johnson & Johnson by Valerie Fritsch
This book is slightly out of my comfort zone if I am totally honest. I don’t often read fiction with a medical theme. It either frightens me (we all have our personal horrors) or I am worried it pushes towards the melodramatic. I don’t think the latter will happen here, but I am still unsure how I will react to the book. Longlisted for the German Book Prize.
Putzt Euch, tanzt, lacht by Karin Peschka
Another provincial story. A mixture of grief and mental health, the claustrophobia of rural life, the lack of options – it’s like she took all the things I am fascinated by and wrote a novel.
Streulicht by Deniz Ohde
Don’t worry, dear English reader, I will also share books in English. Deniz Ohde was also on the German Book Prize longlist and it’s another “working class narrative”. It’s a story of a mother abandoning the family though, so, those are always tricky for me. Still, I am willing to give it a go.
The Mountains Sing by Que Mai Phan Nguyen
A Vietnamese family generational story exploring the impact of war and the devastation it has reverberating through the generations. I am always interested in these stories, I think we yet understand very little on how trauma is passed down the generations and it is something I am interested in.
Why the Germans do it better by John Kampfner
I started it in September, but put it aside for Black History Month but I am keen to continue. I have often issues with this type of book, because in my mind this kind of superlative does not apply to any country and certainly not to my home country. Despite the fact, that I think that there is a lot that Germany does well, I doubt this kind of generalised statement applies. I am curious to see if he picks up on this and how. I think the comparison is with the UK in general, so it will be fascinating to see how much I nod along, too.
Das Palais muss brennen by Mercedes Spannagel
A debut novel described as a reckoning with the right wing elite in Austria. I am here for it. A friend of mine read it and said it was incredibly funny (am I the only one who goes through life thinking that Austrian humour is definitely the best humour?)
Homecoming by Colin Grant
A series of interviews with men and women who came from the West Indies to Britain in the 1940s – 1960s. I heard great things about this book. I am particularly interested in how people arrived were treated here in Birmingham, so I hope there are several accounts in this book from the Midlands.
How we met by Huma Qureshi
Huma grew up in Walsall, here in the Midlands so that is the main reason, I wanted to read this book. As much as I don’t feel at home here at all, I am still seeking out “local” stories. Go figure.
When I took a portrait of my daughter over the weekend, she complained that putting her head on the book was uncomfortable.
Jokingly I said: “Sometimes art hurts.”
To which she replied with: “It’s art?”
It made me think a lot about my return to photography and this renewed urge to take pictures pretty much on a daily level. At the moment, I look at everything wondering “would this make a good photograph”. It’s both enjoyable and painful, e.g. when you drive past something wonderful and you cannot stop and take a picture. Or thinking about a possible picture and then remembering that we are in the middle of a pandemic.
Ever since the Brexit referendum, this country has no longer felt like home. Prior to 2016, I would have said without hesitation that the UK is my home despite the fact that I had and have no citizenship. I realise that this is a statement full of privilege and problematic beyond belief but it’s the truth, I felt at home here and the fact that my skin colour is white made assimilation fairly easy. On the surface, I fit in. White, well-spoken, hardly an accent. It’s not that it was all smooth prior to 2016, but certainly the fact that at least my legal status was not in question was a huge aspect and yet I did not even appreciate it. Such is privilege, right? I am thinking daily of all the people who constantly have to fight to belong even if they have a British passport, let alone if they don’t.
Ever since 2016 I felt more and more like this is not my home, withdrew more and more from all community work I was engaged with until I stopped altogether. The feeling of “I don’t belong here” echoeing through every thought and every day like a dull pain. Some of this totally homemade but the majority due to witnessing the rise of an increasingly hostile atmosphere. Yet, for me personally, apart from the legal status nothing had changed, I am still white, still well-spoken, hardly an accent, I sort of fit the picture and as people keep telling me, I am the right kind of foreigner. Not something that makes me feel better for a whole host of reasons (oh, so neighbour X is also a racist, great.). I also get told to move “back home” a lot, when I complain about things in a whole range of tones. It’s a regular reminder that really this was never my home, even if at some point I considered it this. This remark also usually comes from people who never moved further than a few miles from where they grew up. So in essence, I don’t really talk to a lot of people, I don’t consider this place my home anymore, don’t take part in stuff and yet, I know I will have to live here until the kid is done with school and as you can imagine that is not exactly a recipe for happiness.
In comes the photography. I was watching the kdrama Encounter (I kid you not) and Park Bo-gum takes pictures with a film camera and I thought: “Oh look that’s something that you used to love.” And just like flipping a switch, I started taking pictures again. Mostly street photography, capturing in pictures of how I feel about this place. I think the pictures are fairly good representations of my frustrations, my disilusion and how sad I am. I am unable to process any pictures in colour at the moment, in fact, when I look at them in colour the world feels strangely wrong and unfamiliar, but in greyscale, the world somehow is recognisable again.
Art, in its broadest sense, is a form of communication. It means whatever the artist intends it to mean, and this meaning is shaped by the materials, techniques, and forms it makes use of, as well as the ideas and feelings it creates in its viewers . Art is an act of expressing feelings, thoughts, and observations.
Author unkown, link to source provided above
So if art is an act of expressing feelings, thoughts, and observations, then I am most certainly doing art. I am not sure if the fact if it can be considered art or not even matters to me. The act of creating matters. The fact that I am leaving the house matters. The fact of sharing the images on instagram matters. The thinking about what kind of images I want to take matters. The associations and pieces of information around the image matter.
I once read that art connects you to your deepest roots. And as someone who does not feel any roots holding her in place, this act of rediscovering photography is giving me something to hold on to. It’s a tenuous link but a link nonetheless.
As a funny aside: I live in an area called Bearwood and the other day I chuckled when I realised that the ancient Bear Goddess Artio has the root of the word “art” and woods have roots… so it felt somehow even more apt to think about photography in the way I do at the moment. Art seeking roots in Bearwood. I find that somehow poetic.
Naturally, most of you reading this will just think, this is the middle-class whining of a middle-aged white woman. And it is most certainly that. Because in reality what do I even have to complain about. Yet, I cannot help feeling this sadness, it’s just there and it just won’t go away. So exploring roots and belonging may be just the ticket to get me to a calmer place.
I am so not ready to return to YouTube but I want to make a TBR, what does one do? Naturally, I share a lot of the bookish things on instagram, sometimes on twitter, but then I thought: Hang on, I could literally write about the books I am planning to read on this blog. Mad concept, but there you go.
October is Black History month in the UK and is often overlooked due to its US cousin which happens in February. I mean, I say overlooked, there are plenty of people talking about it, just I always feel the YouTube community forgets about it a little bit.
Naturally we all should always pick up writers of colour in all the months of the year, but if so far you haven’t join me this October by only reading Black authors. My decision to only read Black authors was inspired by Didi, Denise and Karen who frequently do “black out” reading where they only read Black authors. So this October this is what I am doing: most books are by Black British authors (one German and one American are in the mix) but all books are by Black authors. And so I cast aside all the Deutsche Buchpreis and Oesterreicher Buchpreis reading… good job, that books don’t come with a use by date.
The next book is a debut novel set for release in early 2021 but I got the arc and I am in the mood for it, so I am including it here. The Conductors by Nicole Glover is – as much as I gather – an alternate history of the Underground Railroad. It created quite the buzz when it was announced and I am curious to see what I make of it. US fiction and I have a temptestuous relationship, so fingers crossed it’s my cup of tea.
Terraformed by Dr. Joy White is a non-fiction book that has been lurking on my TBR since May. Dr. Joy White is a researcher into a whole range of social topics which include aspects like social mobility and urban marginality and this is essentially what Terraformed is looking at. She is using the example and her experiences of Newham, London to examine the wider implications of austerity and social exclusion on young Black lives.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo … clearly needs no introduction: everyone has read it, but me. Something that will be remedied this month.
A German non-fiction by Noah Sow “Deutschland Schwarz Weiss” (Germany Black White) is a book that I probably should have read years ago. I think the realities shown up in this book will be a reality check on my home country.
From the Jhalak Prize in 2017, I have two books left over and so I decided to pick them (finally) up.
Irenosen Okojie’s Speak Gigantular is a short story collection that sounds as if the stories are bordering on the weird genre in places and those who know me, the New Weird is something I quite like. However, I might be completely wrong and only reading it will have me finding it out.
And finally, the other Jhalak Prize 2017 book is Jacob Ross’ The Bone Readers a crime novel, described as literary, highly praised by many and the winner of the inaugural Jhalak Prize. Set both in the Caribbean and in London, it sounds quite dark, so I hope I won’t have to sleep with the lights on.
I have always loved taking photos. As a teenager when I got the “point and shoot” camera from a family friend, I would spend some of my hard earned cash on developing films. Over the years, the cameras got better and then in 2008, it became a profession. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but turning my photography hobby into a means of earning money was probably one of the biggest mistakes I have ever made (the list of mistakes is long though and the competition is fierce).
Society likes to tell us that if you are good at something and enjoy doing it, it has to somehow become profitable. Now, don’t get me wrong, of course, I am all for people loving what they do, it’s just that I don’t believe that the flip side is that all the things we enjoy doing have to become something that we have to sell to others, almost as if money is the only validation for our interests.
As for most photographers, wedding photography is the biggest earner, so I turned my focus on that. I have always loved taking portraits of my friends, so weddings seemed like a natural route to embark on. If you are a wedding photographer, let me bow in front of you, because no one really appreciates how hard this job is. I mean the taking pictures bit is the “easy” part, it’s all the rest that was not for me. I am not a people person by a long shot. As a wedding photographer, you have to 100% be a people person. You are the person the couple will spend the most time with on their special day, you have negotiate the relationships and frustrations at a glance (I am an empath, so recognising it was easy, but also draining) and make the best out of often really tricky situations. Half the wedding party will insist that they never look good in photos, whilst the other half will do their best to be in nearly all the shots. Then people get drunk and you have to deal with some people getting too touchy. I ended up really not liking weddings. But that was not the reason why I gave up on the photography business in 2013. The reason was burn out. I started to really, really hate having to take photos. This was not helped, by the fact that from the moment I made the decision to to give up, I had to shoot about loads more weddings, the most draining months. So after the last wedding was shot, edited and the album delivered to the client, I put the camera away and never picked it up again.
I never thought, I would ever pick it up again. Until a few weeks ago, when I was watching a kdrama called Encounter and Park Bo Gum has a film camera and takes black and white photos. It’s not even the major plot point of the drama, but I logged into my flickr account for the first time in 7 years and looked at the pictures I took for fun back then. And suddenly, I wanted to take pictures again. Like really, really wanting to take pictures again. It was the middle of the night and I could not sleep because all I could think about was to take pictures. The next day, I charged the digital SLR battery, cleaned my lenses. I ordered some film for my film camera. I discovered that my Holga is broken, goodness knows how that happened. But then I went out and took some pictures.
And now, I love it again. Love that I can tell little stories with images. Love the walking around and taking pictures of how I see the world and what I see in the world. I had forgotten how it feels to take photos. How happy it used to make me.
Technically, I am a bit rusty. Any skill without use will get lost, that’s just how it is. But it is coming back. And right now with that Covid and Brexit winter looming ahead of us, I think I will need those moments of taking pictures more and more.
Like a lot of readers, I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a good book a good book FOR ME. It’s often hard to really put my finger on why a book worked for me and why it did not. Yes, characters and story are of course important, but if pressed, I would have to say that a sense of place is probably one of the biggest pulls for me when it comes to reading. Quite often, even when the book as a whole may have not worked for me, the books with a strong sense of place will be those that I remember the longest.
I was reminded of that recently when I read the short story collection “Things we lost in the fire” by Mariana Enriquez (translated by Megan McDowell). Despite the fact that the stories on the whole did not work for me all that well (still not that much of a short story lover), I was impressed with the sense of place in all of them. I could smell the smells, feel the heat or the rain, hear the doors close, cars driving… I felt it all. And it’s that impression that is so valuable to me as a reader – especially right now where all of us are mainly not going anywhere. So today, I thought I share some books I love for their sense of place.
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim is one of those comfort books I have often turned to when stressed or depressed or both. The thought of escaping miserable, late winter rainy London to spend a delightful spring month in Italy in a Villa is just always an attractive proposition. I share below one of my favourite passages from the novel, I don’t know about you, but it stirs such a longing in me to be in Italy. Oh, Wanderlust in times of Covid.
All down the stone steps on either side were periwinkles in full flower, and she could now see what it was that had caught at her the night before and brushed, wet and scented, across her face. It was wistaria. Wistaria and sunshine . . . she remembered the advertisement. Here indeed were both in profusion. The wistaria was tumbling over itself in its excess of life, its prodigality of flowering; and where the pergola ended the sun blazed on scarlet geraniums, bushes of them, and nasturtiums in great heaps, and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed to be burning, and red and pink snapdragons, all outdoing each other in bright, fierce colour. The ground behind these flaming things dropped away in terraces to the sea, each terrace a little orchard, where among the olives grew vines on trellises, and fig-trees, and peach-trees, and cherry-trees. The cherry-trees and peach-trees were in blossom–lovely showers of white and deep rose-colour among the trembling delicacy of the olives; the fig-leaves were just big enough to smell of figs, the vine-buds were only beginning to show. And beneath these trees were groups of blue and purple irises, and bushes of lavender, and grey, sharp cactuses, and the grass was thick with dandelions and daisies, and right down at the bottom was the sea. Colour seemed flung down anyhow, anywhere; every sort of colour piled up in heaps, pouring along in rivers….”
Elizabeth von Arnim “Enchanted April”
It’s been well over 20 years since I read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I don’t remember all the details of the story, but I have never forgotten the smells and the tactile feel of the quilt as well as the overwhelming sense of community. Community is a place and this book demonstrates that so well. The quilt is of course a metaphor for the community and the coming together, but I often wondered if the community was not the real metaphor, the longing in all of us for a space we belong that if hardship comes knocking on our door, we can be stronger together.
I always jokingly refer to “Like Water for Chocolate” by Laura Esquivel (translation by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen) as the book that will make you hungry beyond anything imaginable. Yet, it’s not just the descriptions of the food but the process of making the food that are so evocative in this book. So often books with a food themes are all about the eating, but here it’s a lot of the preparation, the kitchen as a space of love and that just really spoke to me. Home as a sense of place and probably the only book I ever read where “love” in all its forms becomes a place of its own, too. It’s been decades since I first read it and I have not touched it in at least 10 years, but in my mind it’s as alive and fresh as if I read it yesterday.
Nada by Carmen Laforet (translation by Edith Grossman) was written in the 1940ies with Spain fully in grip by the fascists. No explicit mention is made in the book about this fact yet the spaces and places evoke this sense of claustrophobia and lives are lived devoid of nearly all hope. The run down apartment which was formerly glorious becomes alive and is such a vivid space, it almost becomes its own character. I felt as if I could sit down at the table and look at them all. Contrasted are the moments when our main characters can feel a sense of freedom from oppression: wide open spaces, sunshine, wind. Masterful in my opinion.
My obsession with Asian countries is an old one. (It started with Taiwan which I declared my favourite country age 16, in case you wonder). I bought The Glass Palace by Amitav Gosh in the week it came out, because as you may gather around the year 2000, I was obsessed with Burma. My favourite bookseller in Munich, one day said: oh there is a book coming out, historical fiction set in Burma, that should be your cup of tea… Aah, booksellers are special people, when they get you it’s the best thing ever. But back to the sense of place. This book is set during the British invasion of Burma and you feel everything as you read it. The heat, the humidity, the rain, the sounds, the languages, you are right there. It’s such a wonderful book, the first sentence drew me in and although it’s been 20 years since reading it, it has stayed with me in great detail. This is the opening passage:
There was only one person in the food-stall who knew exactly what that sound was that was rolling in across the plain, along the silver curve of the Irrawaddy, to the western wall of Mandalay’s fort. His name was Rajkumar and he was an Indian, a boy of eleven – not an authority to be relied upon.
The noise was unfamiliar and unsettling, a distant booming followed by low, stuttering growls. At times it was like the snapping of dry twigs, sudden and unexpected. And then, abruptly, it would change to a deep rumble, shaking the food-stall and rattling its steaming pot of soup. The stall had only two benches, and they were both packed with people, sitting pressed up against each other. It was cold, the start of central Burma’s brief but chilly winter, and the sun had not risen high enough yet to burn off the damp mist that had drifted in at dawn from the river. When the first booms reached the stall there was a silence, followed by a flurry of questions and whispered answers. People looked around in bewilderment: What is it? Ba le? What can it be? And then Rajkumar’s sharp, excited voice cut through the buzz of speculation. “English cannon,” he said in his fluent but heavily accented Burmese. “They’re shooting somewhere up the river. Heading in this direction.”
Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi was my first Ugandan novel written by a Ugandan author and we read it for Read Around the World Bookclub. Apart from having written an engaging novel, the thing that stuck with me was the descriptions of landscape. I have never been to Uganda and yet, I weirdly now feel as if I have seen it all and it’s really thanks to the author’s descriptions (her latest book is just as brilliant at evoking a sense of place). But the true magic of the sense of place in this book is that the characters themselves are so bound to the place they inhabit, that their actions and their thoughts reflect on their place within that space. Some authors make you jealous with their skill.
Another obsession of mine is Scotland and yet His Bloody Project by Graeme Macree Burnet was a book that I had written off for a long time as a “not for me” book. A buddy read made me finally pick it up and what a read it was. If you have ever been to the Highlands, maybe even to remote places like Gairloch or similar, you may have stood still on a walk and looked across the landscape and wondered how people would have lived in this place 100 or more years ago. On hikes, we often come across ruined hamlets and settlements in places where I shudder to think what life might have been like. Despite being an excellent thriller, Burnet has such skill at making the landscape instrumental in depicting the absolute hopelessness of the life of those crofters working land that is not their own, no hope for ever owning anything or improving on their status.
I have fallen in love big time with Indonesian literature this year and this book is where it began. The Birdwoman’s Palate by Laksmi Pamuntjak (translation by Tiffany Tsao) is essentially a “road” trip of an epidemiologist tracking down suspected cases of avian flu whilst experiencing Indonesia with some friends by eating a lot of food. Food is the ultimate in sense of place, nothing can transport me better somewhere than descriptions of food and also the places the food is served in. I loved this book, it made me hungry, filled me with a longing to go to Indonesia and made me buy more books written by Indonesian authors.
The New Year sees me continue to host the Read Around the World Bookclub on Goodreads. We are approaching the completion of our third year of reading one female author from a country around the world. I can’t begin to express how much joy this bookclub brings me. I love everything: Researching the books, creating the polls and of course reading and discussing the books.
Have I loved every book so far? No. Has it been worthwhile reading all of them? Absolutely.
And very often you come across a gem. Like The Remainder. This January we travelled to Chile. In fact, no matter which book would have been chosen, we would have read a book from this country, the situation in Chile is far from good and so it felt important to me to read a book from the country.
I am no stranger to Chilean authors, the first Chilean author I ever read was Isabel Allende back in the 1980ies, my boyfriend’s mother gave me The House of Spirits when I was knocked out with tonsillitis and I gobbled the book up. Sadly not something, I was able to recreate with the rest of her work. But back then, I went on a mission to read a lot of South American literature which included some Chilean authors, known quantities such as Neruda, Mistral and Sepulveda and much later also Bolano. I also delved into non-fiction on the topic back then and have been fascinated by the country ever since.
So it is fair to assume that sooner or later I would have gotten to The Remainder on my own steam, but I am glad that it was sooner because this is an incredible book. Told from the viewpoints of Iquela and Felipe, we explore a complex connection between family friends that spans decades right back to the end of the Pinochet regime to almost the present day. Felipe, obsessed with tallying up the official numbers of deaths caused by the regime with the “inoffical” number, the dead he sees everywhere, he tries to get to zero, but he just cannot make it work. Iquela, his friend, whose family partially raised Felipe seems to live in denial about the past, dreams of escape, yet is completely bound to Santiago. Then Paloma arrives in Santiago to bury her mother who had lived in exile most of her life.
For me as a reader, I have certain hot topic buttons when it comes to fiction: Family, grief, belonging, sense of place… all of these make me engage with a piece of fiction if they are well done, then I am yours and you got me hooked and this novel does this so well. The title could have not been chosen better, a mathematical term for “the amount left over after a computation” or generally: something that is left over after having dealt with everything else. Iquela, Felipe and Paloma are what is left behind from the generation before who tried to bring change, to resist, to overthrow and yet who failed. And what is left is a broken second generation. If you look at Chile now, you realise that nothing has been resolved at all and in this book you can feel the anticipation of the conflict we are seeing right now.
The translation is wonderful and I admire the skill shown by Sophie Hughes navigating the no doubt difficult decisions of how to translate the linguistic play between Chile born and bred Felipe and Iquela and Paloma whose Spanish is a bit more flimsy and stilted. It’s these kinds of details that make the difference between a translation and a great translation, so easily lost between the two worlds.
Paperback, 193 pages
Published October 4th 2018 by And Other Stories (first published January 1st 2015)
My year of reading Asian fiction had a really great start so far, with a clear focus on Japan thanks to #japaninjanuary.
In the past few months, I have fallen in love with Japanese mysteries and Keigo Higashino is hailed by many as the master of the genre. If the two books, I have read by him so far are anything to go by, then I can see where his reputation comes from.
Normally, I would stay clear of gritty crime. I prefer my mysteries to be neat and tidy, more in the Golden Age tradition. Yes, I want good characters, but I am mostly there for the puzzle.
It’s fair to say that the fact that I love this book came as a big surprise to me. It’s gritty, there are things in this book that are hard to swallow and tropes I normally stay clear from, the portrayal of women is often flat… yet, I found myself pulled in and flew through these nearly 500 pages in the span of two afternoons (don’t you love the Christmas holiday).
First of all, I liked the puzzle. A murder happens in a construction site ruin, the victim: a pawnbroker. Quickly some suspects emerge but they have to be eliminated due to airtight alibis. It’s fair to say that as the reader you have your suspicion fairly early on, much like the detective, but there is a part of you that thinks: Surely not. In the course of the novel and during the following decades, we follow the lives of some of the involved people and slowly but surely the whole grim tale unfolds.
What impressed me the most was how Higashino placed everything in front of us. All the details were there, but what they meant becomes clearer much later. If you were in my house while I was reading it, you may have heard me utter: “oh, sh*t” a few times in sheer astonishment.
I have another Higashino book waiting for me, but it will be a while before I pick it up. As much as I enjoyed my second book by him, I don’t think they lend themselves to be read one after another. Yet, I love that it sits there on my shelf. It may well come on holiday with me, I can see myself curled up somewhere in Scotland (hopefully) at Easter and the open fire going and reading another Higashino. Bliss.
Paperback, 539 pages
Published October 8th 2015 by Little, Brown (first published August 1999)