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An invite to the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Award Ceremony took me to London last week, specifically to RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) on Great Portland Place.

where I met bloggers David from Follow the Thread and Stu from Winston’s Dad  as well as blogger-turned-vlogger William from Just William’s Luck.  I availed myself of the refreshments …. of course I did – the event was sponsored by Taitinger ….

 

 

A couple of glasses later and it was time for Boyd Tonkin to deliver his speech.

 

Salient points:

1) Translated fiction does have a wide-spread audience (Top 3 UK fiction bestsellers w/c 22/05/2014 were all translations)

2) A special mention to the Shadow IFFP panel (that made Stu and David smile)

3) Another special mention for The Mussel Feast. (A bitter sweet moment – oooooh, it hasn’t won but there’s never been a special mention before – hooray! And I must say the Peirene Nymph behaved with absolute grace on the night. One day, Peirene, one day.) 

4) The winner is The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright.  

 

 

The audience applauded heartily though I confess to mixed feelings. I am delighted for Comma Press, the author, the translator and the short story.  (That’s the second short story collection to take a major prize this year; the Folio Prize went to George Saunders’ collection Tenth of December.) But it’s not a winner, I’m likely to read.  It doesn’t appeal. (Cf Shadow IFFP review from Dolce Bellezza)

Still enough of my grumblings – there was champagne to imbibe and German author Birgit Vanderbeke and her translator, Jamie Bulloch to chat to.  I also met translators Frank Wynne and Shaun Whiteside.  And, of course, the nymph Peirene. (The rumour mill has it that she had a sore head the morning after … I confess, I made sure her glass was kept topped up …. What else can you do?  1 glass to commiserate, 1 glass to celebrate, and repeat ….)

Translated from German by John Cullen

A new release from Juli Zeh is a cause for celebration in these parts.  I loved the combination of philosophy and page-turning suspense that I encountered in Dark Matter.  So too the utopic dystopia of The Method. I’m saving her debut Eagles and Angels for a rainy day (and as there are plenty of those in Scotland,  I must be waiting for a deluge.)  Decompression, however, had to be read in the week that Rossetti went gallivanting to Lanzarote with a pal.  (I don’t do beach holidays.)

Set – you guessed it – on Lanzarote, Decompression must be Juli Zeh’s most accessible novel to date.  I believe it reflects her new-found-but-real-life passion for deep sea diving and there’s a lot to be learned about it in these pages.  Nothing, it must be said to entice me below water but nevertheless, interesting – no, terrifying.  I don’t like being out of my depth.

The protagonist, Sven,  a trained lawyer, has escaped Germany – not because he is a fugitive but because he finds it too constricting.  Together with Antje, his live-in girlfriend, he has established a diving school. Antje is the reason for his success.  She does all the grafting and the paper work so that Sven can concentrate on his passion, the diving, the underwater world.  She has loved him since forever.  Sven, however, isn’t even comfortable calling her his girlfriend.  She’s nothing but a convenience and he’s not even grateful.  Unsympathetic?  I’d say so.

But he’s not a patch on the pair that are paying 14,000 Euro for exclusive access to his tuition for a fortnight.  The beautiful, German soap opera starlet, Jola, and her partner Theo, a middle-aged author with writer’s block, are, on the face of it, a dream team for Sven, but they are locked in a toxic relationship, the whirlpools and maelstroms of which Sven simply isn’t equipped to negotiate or avoid.    As the three of them dive deeper and deeper, Sven is sucked with centrifugal force into a trap.  The question to be answered is why Jola and her partner, Theo, would even bother.  The answer to that is the key to the novel and it’s not pleasant.  In fact, it’s downright shabby.

Discerning the truth of the matter isn’t that easy because the story has two narratives – a third-person written from Sven’s point-of-view and a first-person diary written by Jola.  The two stories harmonise at the start but as the fortnight passes by, discrepancies appear and soon they are worlds apart.  There’s a master manipulator at work here  … 

…. and the climax identifies the person clearly.  My only gripe is that it is too clearly sign-posted and I would have preferred a more ambiguous outcome but it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the novel.

Recommended for book groups (psychological analysis of the main characters is fodder for hours of discussion), fans of Patricia Highsmith and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

4_stars.GIF

I do enjoy a good homage novel but it’s not everyone that can write them and when it comes to Jane Austen, the crop is abundant but not necessarily grade A  …. On a scale of A to E, previous reads include Lynn Shepherd’s Murder in Mansfield Park (A) and P D James’s Death comes to Pemberley (E).  How will the most recent batch stack up?

Jo Baker’s Longbourn (2013) is easily the most original.  Like Shepherd, she has played with the template. She has taken us to the servant’s quarters, telling the story of Pride and Prejudice from the viewpoint of the lady’s maid, Sarah.  Except that Sarah is also washer woman, cleaning woman, yard-sweep and a few other things besides, the consequences of which play havoc with her poor hands.  Life in the servants’ quarters is illuminating, full of household maintenance tips from the past.  As a tea-drinker, I was fascinated by the usefulness of old tea-leaves.

As fans of Pride and Prejudice know, the Bennetts were not rich but their life described from Sarah’s point-of-view is certainly comfortable, enviable, if somewhat empty.  The tea-parties and balls hardly glamorous for the servants, rather occasions for hard graft, additional chores to be fitted into an already full schedule, complete with waiting-up duties which reduced the already paltry hours available for sleep. 

Life at the beck and call of the Bennetts is not easy but not without room for adventure.  Sarah may be kept busy but there’s still time for romance – in fact, she attracts the attention of Bingley’s exotic ex-slave man-servant and a mysterious stranger, who arrives, as if from nowhere, to take up service in the Bennett’s household.  

By creating a novel focused on details which Austen mentioned in the passing, if at all, (the Napoleonic wars, money making in the colonies), Longbourn has a broader view of life in Regency England than Austen’s novel of the chattering classes.  The downside for me, however, was the tendency to excess and I’m asking myself was it necessary for Wickham to be so wicked, or for Mr Bennett to be so imperfect?  Even Jane and Elizabeth become slightly imperious following their marriages.  I will accept all that but the subplot involving the housekeeper’s husband, specifically his death, went too far. I’m willing to change my mind if someone can show where Austen hinted as such things …..

The Borough Press have commissioned the retelling of Austen’s six major novels in contemporary settings. The series launched in October 2013 with Joanna Trollope’s retelling of Sense and Sensibility.  Now how can I say this kindly?  This is the weakest of the three novels under discussion today (though not as bad as Death at Pemberley).  Knowing the remit that Borough Press has given to the authors –  must keep the characters, must keep the narratie arc – I reckon that Trollope had her pen nib capped before she started.   I mean in our welfare state, would a widow with three daughters be so entirely reliant upon the beneficence of her male relations?  For that reason, this story never felt entirely feasible and the modern technology – the headphones, the mobile phones, etc – felt like a veneer.  In its defence though, Trollope makes the most of personality differences between Eleanor and Marianne and the girls behave as contempories would.  So Marianne’s passion for Willoughby is not just emotional, it is physical.  Neither is Eleanor simply an emotional crutch for her family – she becomes a working girl, lending economic support as well.  But the greatest pleasure in this retelling is Margaret who transforms from a background figure in Austen to a typical 21st century, precocious, know-it-all, interfere-in-it-all teenager.  I wouldn’t want her at my kitchen table, but I enjoyed the cheek and insolence in this audio book.

And so to the cream of the crop.  I’ve had a soft spot for Northanger Abbey since it was my O-level text.  I’ve reread it a few time since, though never the Mysteries of Udolpho, the gothic novel which it satirises.  (Later this year for definite …) So I was looking forward to McDermid’s satire on a satire.  She’s gone one better, having chosen to satirise that contemporary phenomenon, the vampire novel.  Not only that, she has moved the novel north from Bath and its season of balls to Edinburgh and its season of plays, concerts and books.  There’s no greater social occasion than the Edinburgh Festival and for bookish Catherine, Charlotte Square and the book festival is full of adventure.  Bella Thorpe is deliciously dreadful and her brother John an insufferable bore.  Speaking recently at Glasgow’s Aye Write McDermid said that she had been given strict instructions not to kill anyone off, but you can tell that her pen must have been feeling murderous when she wrote his scenes!  Love me, love my car could be John Thorpe’s motto, a modern riff on the love me, love my carriage of Austen’s original.

Northanger Abbey is the Tilney’s ancestral home in the Scottish borders and Colonel Tilney a bullying old man.  Ellie is as sweet and charming as ever though Henry is not as foppish as I remember his original.  (Or am I mixing him up with Edward Ferrars?) Actually he is quite an appealing well-read young fellow.  Yes, I can see what Catherine sees in him.  Although, of course, her overactive imagination which goes into overdrive apropos the death of the colonel’s wife almost ruins everything.  But it’s not her vampiric fantasies that cause her abrupt banishment but a malicious rumour – a twist as sudden as it is modern, for indeed, nothing else would estrange the right-wing colonel so effectively.  It’s along the same lines as one of the plot updates in Longbourn but McDermid isn’t salacious with it and so does not offend Austen’s spirit.

I listened to the unabridged audio, narrated by Jane Collingwood and I loved it from the first sentence.  So much so, that I bought myself the book.  Reading that sentence now it would be so easy to immerse myself into Catherine’s adventures once more.

It was a source of constant disappointment to Catherine Morland that her life did not more closely ressemble her books.

In McDermid’s retelling it does and there’s no disappointment to be had at all.

Longbourn (B)35_stars.GIF / Sense and Sensibility (C) 3stars.GIF / Northanger Abbey (A)4_stars.GIF

Shortlisted for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award

Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

You may remember I was ever so worried about Lila’s future, earlier in the year: Lila being the best friend of the narrator in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy, the brillian child whose parents refused to educate her and who decides that the only way out of grinding poverty is to marry up, financially speaking. The narrator, Elena, is luckier in that her parents were willing to make the financial sacrifices required for her to remain in education.  I also found myself worrying on her behalf.  Was she, like many before her and since, about to throw away her advantage by getting carried away with her boyfriend?

Thankfully, he has more sense than her.  

Lila’s story is not so straightforward and her marriage is an abusive one.  This is the Naples of the late 50′s and early 60′s and Lila can expect no support from her family.  Still, a few bruises won”t knock her down. She is the brains behind her husband’s commercial enterprises and she soon finds ways to return the abuse.  Like the – shall we say – creatively re-engineered bridal picture of herself, which hangs in the up-market shoe boutique, Lila is iconic.  Though not very likeable, becoming downright unpleasant as time goes on.  Everything about her life is dramatic and definitely not in a good way.  I actually began to wonder why her husband, Stefano, put up with her for so long.

Lila’s dramas leave Elena playing second-fiddle.  I get the impression, though I can’t say why, that Elena is the plain one. She’s certainly bespectacled.  Clever though having to work at it.  The setting designed to show off Lila’s dazzling diamond? And yet, the way I’m thinking at the end of book two, of more value.

I breathed a sign of relief when she won a scholarship to Pisa and was removed from Lila’s trajectory.  At last, she’ll be able to strike out on her own, giving her time to heal from the emotional damage caused by Lila’s callousness.  But Elena is nothing, if not self-deprecating.  

This is more or less what happened to me between the end of 1963 and 1965. How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quietens down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on a page and it’s done.

Except it obviously isn’t.  Something is holding Elena back from fully engaging with what should be the time of her life. Somethng that involved her first love, Lila, and a summer holiday with consequences.  

By the end of this installment, however, Elena seems to have come to terms with the past, and has a fiancé of her own (although he is rather distant).  I am rooting for her.  Lila’s marital dramas have left me exhausted and I wonder at her capacity to inspire unswerving loyalty in those she treats badly.   We know she disappears in book 3 (this is the prologue  to book 1) but I don’t really care at this stage why, when or how.  I want to see Elena emerge out of Lila’s shadow and be happy without her.  I doubt that will happen – while this trilogy is providing a captivating social history of mid-20th Neapolitan life – it is primarily the story of a friendship and without Lila, there would be nothing to document.

35_stars.GIF

My overwhelming impression at this stage, though – so much life, passion and drama in the lives of these two women, and they’re only in their early twenties.  Seems like the young ‘uns of today don’t have the copyright on growing up early.

 

When a book revealing the secrets of crime fiction , written by multiple Australian authors, dropped through the letter box earlier this year, I determined that 2014 would be the year for essay reading.  Having scoured the table of contents and discovered that I’d heard of only one of the 22 authors featured – Michael Robotham – and, even then hadn’t read him, I felt a bit non-plussed.  Where was I to start?

Given that the black humour of the book’s title – If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you – makes my toes curl with pleasure, I decided I’d start with the essay with the most pleasing title.  The crime-fiction-loving rock chick in me adjudged that to be essay #5 – I know it’s only noir (but I like it) written by Lenny Bartulin.  I suspected I was about to meet a kindred spirit ….

Noir is timeless, like jazz, like rock ‘n’ roll.  The thrill of reading, say, The Big Sleep or The Blonde on the Street Corner or Double Indemnity for the first time has never left me.  And apart from the stories themselves, it was the writing that blew me away: all that style, the sharp dialogue, the cynical humour, the flawless craft.

It was writing with intent and purpose, writing that delivered and gave the reader real pleasure.  It had bottom-end.  Weight. It could take you into tight-bends, at speed and you were never going to flip.

Yes, all that and more and Bartulin details many of those other reasons in his essay and shows how Chandler, Cain et al inspired him to continue in their vein: this despite the challenges of creating character-driven but honest and authentic plots, the necessity of giving characters heart, blood and muscle before they can show the author where the story is going, and the panic of being about two-thirds of the way through my first novel when one day, just like that, the earth split open beneath my feet and I found myself plummeting into molten lava.  … I thought my novel was a waste of space, absolutely terrible, and I had no idea how to finish it.

He was given a piece of advice: The solution is in your book.

At which point I was curious to find said debut and sample it with the intention to critique according to the conventions of noir that Bartulin outlines in his essay and to see if the problems he had hinted at were visible in the finished product.

All such rational thought left me when I discovered the US title of Bartulin’s debut novel: Death by the Book. Who? Where? Why? Funnily enough, the 3 questions Bartulin asks himself as he writes.  And no, it has nothing to do with the near brush with death permanent injury I had last night when one of my towering stacks toppled over with such force that it missed me by inches, even though I was a good six feet away ….

… although there must be plenty of towering stacks in Jack Susko’s second-hand bookshop. Now I know I’ve met a kindred spirit – who knew this reading trail was going to lead me straight to a bookshop and offer a salutary lesson on the dangers of obsessive book collecting.

Jack Susko is approached one day and made an offer he can’t refuse. A wealthy collector offers him 50 dollars per copy for as many copies as he can find of the work of a certain obscure poet. Easy money. Deal! Except that events start spiralling out of control when Jack finds himself in the middle of a bitter family feud, seduced by a blacker than noir femme fatale in the middle of a bitter divorce, life and limb endangered and that’s before his less than innocent past raises its ugly head. …

It’s all action, all authentically character-driven and if Bartulin got stuck 2/3rds of the way through, I can’t see the joins.  My only critique relates to the finale which is a little too – shall we say – exuberant? I can’t actually figure out how the good cop knows where to be …..

… but I’m glad he’s there, because he secures the continuation of what has become a trilogy. Expect my discovery of Bartulin to continue.

Death by the Book (US) / A Deadly Business (UK) 35_stars.GIF

This post is part of Australia and New Zealand Reading Month, hosted by Kim at Reading Matters.

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to hear Graeme Simsion talk about the real life inspiration for his best-selling Rosie Project: a former IT colleague, geek and misfit,  who became a best friend.  Not that we have to see Don Tillman as a portrait of  this friend.  Simsion emphasised that his characters are 1/3 someone he knows, 1/3 himself and 1/3 made up.  Neither are the events in The Rosie Project real in all their details but some real-life events have been given what-if makeovers.

While readers may recognise symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome in Don, the author was careful not to use the A word in his novel.  Had he done so, he reckons that his readers would have become uninterested in the characters and the comedy.  That would be a real shame  because Simsion’s debut novel is both character-driven and very, very funny.   A joy to read, in fact.

I’m not sure I entirely bought into the premise.  I had niggling doubts about whether Rosie, as large as character as Don but in a different way, would fall for him as she did.  That aside, I enjoyed everything about Don’s quest for a wife and the various ways in which he almost snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

I am looking forward to the sequel, The Rosie Effect, due in September.

3stars.GIF

I asked the author to sign my copy in preparation for a giveaway, which is happening now that it is #anzlitmonth on Reading Matters.  So, if you’d like to win a copy signed “To Lizzy’s Lucky Reader.  Well done! Graeme Simsion”, all you need to do is answer two questions.

Simsion carries a selection of coloured pens in his pocket, fastidiously arranged, just as Don would do it, in Richard-of-York-Gave-Battle-In-Vain sequence.

Didn’t he say that Don is 1/3 himself? Before he signs, Simsion asks the reader for their preferred colour. So question 1) Which colour did I ask my book to be signed in. (Clue: I have always loved this colour.  I didn’t wait to become old before dressing – frequently from head to toe – in it.) 2) Which colour would you have asked him to use?

Answers in comments olease. Winner will be chosen at random on Monday 12th May.  Competition open worldwide.

Shortlisted for the 2014 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize

Two officers, arch-conservative and well-to-do, loyal to the French army and highly rationale.  Neither  particularly sympathetic. One is the anti-semitic Colonel Georges Picquart, head of the French secret service, who discovers that the other, the Jew, Alfred Dreyfus, already found guilty of spying and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, is innocent.  What is one to do after honest approaches to the top brass have resulted in exile to an African outpost and assignment to what is effectively a suicide mission?  Cast aside the doubts, defend yourself and become a whistleblower!

The seeds of An Officer and A Spy were sown while Harris was working on the script of his previous novel, The Ghost, with Roman Polanski.  Polanski commissioned him to write a script about the Dreyfus affair.  During the course of his research, Harris decided that he would rather write a novel. There is much more to the story than can be brought out in a film script.  Polanski agreed and besides, he’ll get a film adaptation out of it at a later date.

Robert Harris at the Summerhall Historical Fiction Fetival

The outcomes of the Dreyfus affair are well-known, and yet the novel is an absolute page-turner. (479 pages read in the course of a weekend.)  Picquart’s narrative is absolutely compelling, said Harris, at The Summerhall Historical Fiction Festival, and to capitalise on that I wrote the novel in 1st person.  This places the reader inside Picquart’s mind and let’s them discover the actual spy and Dreyfus’s innocence in real-time so to speak.  I can confirm that this was a good decision because, as a reader, you also experience Picquart’s dilemma.  That he is a patriot, there can be no doubt.  Neither does he want to destroy the trust of the French people in the military, defender of French honour following the soul-destroying defeat to the Germans in 1870.  Yet there is higher justice whose call he cannot ignore …

… unlike Major Henri, who determines that honour demands unconditional support of the establishment. Any action that damages the reputation of the French army is traitorous. His mantra – tell me what to do and I’ll do it – or words to that effect.  Married  to the old code until death do them part, he is Picquart’s counterpoint.  The duel that the two fight isn’t just idealogical – at one point it is a physical 19th century duel with swords and seconds, ironically insisted upon by the man who is about to shatter 19th century values.

Harris said that he didn’t realise he had written a story about a whistleblower until he had finished (pre-Snowden) and he didn’t consciously emphasise contemporary resonances while he was writing.  Nevertheless the lessons to be learned from the Dreyfus affair are clear.  Justice must be seen to be done.  Corruption results when an institution polices itself, courts are held behind closed doors and decisions are based on the content of secret dossiers. (Insert your own 21st century example here.)  In addition, he said, the Dreyfus affair is a powerful argument for an unfettered press.  The ugly side – in Dreyfus’s case, the hysteria of the anti-semitic papers – was the price to be paid.  Without that freedom, Zola would never have been able to publish J’accuse and Dreyfus would have been left to rot on Devil’s Island.

4_stars.GIF

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