imageI have every intention of taking part in the 1947 Club, only I’m not able to do so in real time; i.e in the week hosts Kaggsy and Simon have put aside for it.  What I can do, however, is recommend a couple of brilliant reads for anyone who is looking for something exceptional to read this week.  Both authors were added to my completist reading list on the basis of their 1947 efforts. Links are to my reviews.

1) Hans Fallada – Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone

2) Patrick Hamilton – The Slaves of Solitude

I have also reviewed Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (but I didn’t like it much).

The book originally published in 1947 that I intend reading before the end of the year is forthcoming from Pushkin Press and will be published on 3.11.2016.   In a 2002 poll, members of the Society for Dutch Literature ranked The Evenings first among works since 1900 in the Dutch canon.  Once upon a time I might have read it in the original language, but I can’t do that anymore.  I’ll just have to wait patiently for this little beauty.  (I might even review it during German Literature Month in November.  Ssssssshhhh – don’t tell Caroline.)

imageTranslated from Dutch by Sam Garrett

My second read for #dutchlitautumn is the third novel published in English by Herman Koch, which I approached with trepidation still feeling sleazy after reading Summer House with Swimming Pool.  A make or break read if you will.  Would this reader/author relationship survive?

Koch specialises in unsavoury characters, and he doesn’t take long to hit his stride here.   The opening section is a monologue addressed to Mr M by Herman, a man with a grudge stemming from the appropriation of his adolescent self in one of Mr M’s novels. Herman is to all intents and purposes a stalker.  I have plans for you, Mr M, he says with menace.

Mr M’s novel, Payback, was based on a case in which a teacher disappeared without trace.  Jan Landzaat, married with two children, had been romantically involved with his pupil, Laura.  He struggled emotionally when she traded him in for the rather ugly and gangly, Hermann, and wouldn’t let go.  After following Laura and Herman to a remote hideout,  Landzaat disappeared without trace.  While no case was brought against Laura and Herman for lack of evidence, in Mr M’s novel Laura and Herman are guilty of murder.  It was a high profile case, and once can only imagine the resulting impact of the novel on the lives of the two teenagers.

Koch’s novel examines the events leading up to the teacher’s disappearance from the viewpoints of the main characters, and nobody comes out well:  Laura, the prettiest girl in the class, and arch manipulator; Landzaat, the teacher with form, and Herman, who owns a video camera, which he uses as a candid camera, filming people during moments of high provocation.  This is a foretaste of the stalker he is to become, as well as a delicious irony.  The  younger Herman is just as intrusive in other people’s lives as Mr M will be in his own. Is the fact that Koch gives Herman his own name a commentary on an author’s keen powers of observation? At what point does such observation become intrusive?

This is just the tip of the metafictional iceberg at the heart of Dear Mr M, which is as much an analysis and satire of the writing life as it is a mystery.  At one point Mr M is interviewed about his objectives and decision making processes. In those pages, explanations are given for the necessary simplifications and omissions in Payback which in turn clarifies the occasional bagginess of Koch’s long but clever novel.  If you look closely, this interview also hints at the solution of what really happened to Mr Landzaat.

The tone is sly and snidey throughout.  Those expecting the shock (as in horrifying) value of Koch’s previous offerings  may be disappointed, although there is a final twist which may shock some. I had seen it coming – not that it matters. It’s a satisfying ending in which loose ends are tied … apart from one.  Just what did Stella do?  The fact that both Mr M and Koch deliberately do not tell niggles the hell out of me …..  I shall ask Koch about that, if I catch sight of him at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Despite that Koch and I are once more friends and I look forward to reading more.  I notice that there is a fourth Koch novel in existence, Odessa Star.  I hope that Sam Garrett is working on the English translation as I type.

“Hell reigns”‘ he (Joseph Roth) writes to (Stefan) Zweig.  He also says there can be no compromises with the enemy.  Anyone who continues to have business with Germany,  anyone who so much as maintains a connection to Germany, is a monster.


They resent Thomas Mann for taking so long to make himself one of the exiles, for trying not to wreck things with the regime in Germany, for not wanting to lose the German market.

(Extracts from SUMMER BEFORE THE DARK, Volker Weidermann)

Earlier this year I read Volker Weidermann’s retelling of the summer of 1936, when the exiled literati of Nazi Germany (Zweig, Roth, Keun etc.) congregated in Ostend to console and encourage each other.  I haven’t stopped thinking of it since and a fascination with the 1930’s is developing. Reading the views of the exiles about Thomas Mann quoted above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was colluding with the Nazi state for the sake of his book sales.


Translated by Jeannette K Ringold

“Fair criticism or not? I have been wondering, and so I decided to kick off my #dutchlitautumn with Britta Böhler’s retelling of a pivotal three days in 1936 during which Thomas Mann deliberated whether to publish an open letter denouncing the Nazi regime.

Böhler’s fictionalisation cleverly writes into a historical gap.  While Mann wrote copious diaries, there is very little covering these particular three days.  As Mann’s deliberations are not on record,  Böhler can set out his thoughts and concerns without without fear of contradiction.  I have no doubts that these are based in the realities of Mann’s mindset at that particular time: not just those of the public persona, but of the family man and the private individual.  I separate those two facets deliberately, because there were secrets that Mann kept from his wife that were written in diaries hidden in his beloved Munich home, and that had been confiscated by the Nazis.  His fear of the Nazis discovering these and the resulting damage to his reputation is very palpable.

The timeframe of the novel is extended backwards in time through Mann’s thoughts which cover his marriage to a rich Jewish heiress, the raising of his children and his early criticism of the Nazi regime.  His exile in Switzerland from 1933 was in some ways self-imposed.  Warned by friends not to return, as arrest was imminent, he took their advice, and brought his half-Jewish children out of Germany before the Nazis got hold of them.  But the Nazis wouldn’t leave him in peace. Fined for his abandonment (!), his property confiscated, they continued to persecute him from afar. And yet, as he was not Jewish, his books were not banned.  A full denunciation of the regime would result in his books being burned with unfavourable attention being directed to his Jewish publisher.  Would it also constitute abandonment of his loyal German readers?   How would he feed his family when his Nobel prize money (which he had judiciously banked abroad) ran out?

Böhler succeeds in putting Mann in the moment, on the cusp of a momentous decision, which would result in the permanent loss of not just his income and his home, but his homeland.  The result is a human portrait of a man deliberating the pros and the cons until the deciding factor tips the balance; it is a picture enabling a more reasoned and charitable assessment than that of the exiles in Ostend.


Who would want to be without Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month?” asks Sally-Ann Spencer in the 20th anniversary edition of New Books in German. The good news is that neither Caroline nor I want to be without it. So it is our great pleasure to announce that German Literature Month VI is now inked in our diaries for this coming November.

Albeit a little less structured than in previous iterations. We’ve learned that regular GLMers are not short of ideas, and love to read as they please. So that’s what German Literature Month VI is about. Fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, novellas, short stories, plays, poetry, classic or contemporary, written by male or female, the choice is yours. As long as the original work was written in German, read as you please, and enjoy yourselves!

That said, there are a couple of scheduled activities for those who like to participate in group reading.

1) I will be hosting a Krimi week during week two concentrating mainly on Austrian and Swiss crime fiction. (If anyone is looking for a cracking read to discuss that week, I recommend Ursula P Archer’s Five.)

2) Caroline has scheduled a Literature and War readalong for Friday 25 November. The book for discussion is Walter Kempowski’s All For Nothing.

We are very much looking forward to this, and hope you will join us. Don’t forget to tell us your plans. There’s often as much fun in the planning as there is in the reading!

Sent from my iPad

WARNING: This is a long post about the best literary event I’ll attend this year, and three cracking books that I read for it.  There is much I wish to say.

What makes or breaks a literary festival event for the audience?  The chair, of course.  Not the one you’re sitting on, but the person in charge of the author(s). I’ve seen events fail because of a) the chair being too awestruck to converse rationally, b) the chair being determined to prove their intellectual superiority,  c) the chair not being able to control the length of the author readings, and d) multiple other pitfalls that can happen along the way.  c) is a particular bugbear of mine so my heart sank when Craig Sisterton asked the audience whether they wanted the three authors at this event to read from their work and the audience, by majority vote, answered yes.  However, and all credit to the three authors concerned, their readings were kept to between 3-5 minutes each.  Enough to hook the audience into the work (and sell a few copies afterwards) and not too much to bore folk like me who inwardly scream I can read the book for myself, thanks! (N.B if a reading is too long, I never read the book.)

Before I reveal the authors in question, a few more words about Craig Sisterton’s chairing.  One word suffices really.  Masterful.  The focus of the event was writing in exile. So two Scottish and one English author discussing the foreign settings of their novels and the reasons why they chose those settings.  There was a lot of ground to cover, but Sisterton ensured that it was.  TIme was allocated fairly between the three, with natural, and often witty linkages segueing from one author to the next. Not a single note in sight. (I appreciate just how much preparation or natural talent that takes.) Hats off, Mr Sisterton, take a well deserved bow.  My applause at the end of the event was as much for you as for the authors.

Time though for me to reveal the three authors and my thoughts about the books I read for this event, starting with the author on the right and the book he is reading from.


From left to right: Craig Sisterton, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Michael Ridpath, Craig Russell

The Ghosts of Altona, the 7th in Craig Russell’s Jan Fabel series is set in Hamburg, and won the 2015 Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. (The final one incidentally.  The prize has now been renamed the McIlvanney Prize.)  I hadn’t heard of the author before (despite him being a recipient of the CWA Dagger in the Library), but an award-winning book set in Germany was always going to demand my attention.  The question was, do I start with book 1 or with book 7?  Unusually I plumped for Book 7, because then I would be up-to-date and wouldn’t need to read the 6 earlier books ….

image…  or so I thought.  What I found between these pages sent me immediately to the website of Bookdonors, where I purchased the first 3 of the series in the current 3 for 2 offer.   For the ghosts of Altona are the living dead – those who have returned from near death experiences, including the detective Jan Fabel himself.  Fabel is happy to be alive, although some with similar experiences are not.  This includes a social worker now suffering from Cotard’s syndrome (believing he is dead.)  Another ghost is losing his mind and all too aware of what is happening and so writes a note to himself to remind him of the reasons why he must kill his fellow old-timer and best friend.   But Monika is the most haunting ghost of them all.  The discovery of her remains is the trigger for a killing spree linking former members of a death cult and perhaps the  most chilling psychopath ever with all of those identified above,  and Jan Fabel is determined to crack the case.  After all, he failed to do so 25 years previously when he was just a rookie.

Amidst the action are some compelling psychological portraits as well as the argument about near death experience.  Is it a supernatural one or are there rational, biological explanations?  However, the determining factor in my decision to read the entire series is the way Russell, a fellow Germanophile, has interwoven German cultural references, specifically gothic and Romantic ones into the story.  Oh yes, I’ll happily take as many novels as Russell cares to write playing that particular riff.

As will the Germans.  Such is their appreciation for the series that they have made 3 Jan Fabel films, and the Hamburg Police have awarded Russell the Hamburg Police Star.

imageMichael Ridpath, on the other hand,  cannot find a German publisher for his spy series set in Nazi Germany.  The difficulty lies in the hero  being a Prussian military officer.  As Ridpath explained to me in the signing queue, this are still some sensitivities regarding Prussian militarism in contemporary Germany.

The first in the series is set in 1938 when Hitler was steering Europe towards war.  Consternation on both sides: the German army worried that this would be a war they could not win; British politicians also, although they were divided in their approach. Should they appease Hitler or stand behind Czechoslovakia over the issue of the Sudetenland?    Enter Ridpath’s two protagonists.  For the British, Conrad de Lancey, once a pacifist, but now a disillusioned anti-fascist fighter in the Spanish Civil War.  After moving to Berlin, an innocent meeting with his Russian spy cousin, marks his card and he falls into the hands of the Gestapo.  He is saved by Theo, a childhood friend, the honourable Prussian officer and member of the Abwehr, the German secret service over which the Gestapo holds no sway, the organisation planning a coup in order to prevent Hitler destroying their country.  Theo tries to enlist Conrad to glean information about British intentions, as do the British to find out what the Germans are planning.  Conrad, however, wants none of it.  He is still trying to come to terms with the betrayal of his politcal ideals in Spain, the more personal betrayal of his wife, and the death of his cousin in Gestapo hands.  But he cannot fail to see the injustices and barbarity of Nazi society, particularly when he becomes romantically involved with a Jewess.

“I wanted to explore what makes a man turn traitor”, said Ridpath during the Bloody Scotland event.  My issue is that the traitor I identify isn’t one of the protagonists.  Both Theo and Conrad fight against the evil of Nazism, but that is a favourable judgment enabled through the passage of time.  In 1938 though, Theo was acting against the established government and Conrad on behalf of a foreign power ….

If the character studies of both men are compelling, so too is that of Klaus Schalke, the Gestapo antagonist.  He provides a study on the corrupting and brutalising effect of absolute power. A reluctant Nazi at first, he is sucked in ever deeper once recruited by Heydrich for his information gathering skills.  That position gives him power to be implacable, particularly when dealing with personal grudges.

Traitor’s Gate is based on historical fact. The afterword tells plans in place to overthrow Hitler in September 1938 and Chamberlain knew that the coup would be triggered if Britain held firm on the question of the Sudetenland.  Let’s hope he (Chamberlain) makes the right decision, says one of the characters. The rest, they say, is history, and Ridpath’s version of events leaves us in no doubt as to the true cost of that infamous peace in our lifetime. The fantastic thing is that the suspense is in no way jeopardised by our knowledge of historical outcomes.  I was shaking (literally) as I read the last few chapters.  So, yes, I will read the sequel, but I’ll need to take a breather first.

imageLast, but by no means least, you may recognise the author sitting to the right of Craig Sisterton.  Graeme Macrae Burnet’s second novel, His Bloody Project, has just been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  However, it was his debut, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau that was the prime interest here.  The novel had been sitting in my TBR since last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival where it came to my attention as I just finished talking to Georges Simenon’s son.  (I meet lots of interesting people in Charlotte Square.)   Enter a tall Scot, who gave a copy of said book to John Simenon.  I’d like you to have a copy of this novel that I wrote in homage to your father, he said.  Oh, thought I, I’ll  have to get me a copy of that …..

12 months later I read it.  The focus at Bloody Scotland was the location, a small French town,  Saint-Louis, in general and the Restaurant de la Cloche in particular.  Manfred Baumann dines here every single day.  The menu changes daily, in a weekly cycle.  So each Monday Manfred eats the same thing, each Tuesday too.  In fact, he is OCD about his routine.  He does not want to raise people’s suspicions. What is there to be suspicious of?  Oh yes, there is a very dark secret in Manfred’s past, which influences his behaviour and may have a bearing on the disappearance of the waitress, Adèle.

Manfred is an oddfish, an outsider, tolerated, never really accepted and, therefore, prime suspect.  He compounds his problems by lying to the investigating inspector, Gorski, and the reader knows he’s lying.  The seeds of doubt and his downfall are sown ….

Gorski has his own problems, mainly his harridan wife, who realises she has married beneath herself.  No Madame Maigret, she, although Gorski’s style is akin to that of Inspector Maigret.  He does not rush his investigation.  He’s happy to wait for his prey to confess, even when he has caught him in the lie.  Nor will he give up on his first case.  He knows the wrong man was jailed for that.

Macrae Burnet’s style is clear and downstated au Simenon, if you will.  (Not  quite as plain though.) The chauvinism of the early 1980’s won’t always please the politically correct of the 20-teens, but so what?  There has also been criticism that the female characters aren’t well-rounded.  Give me a break – Simenon often didn’t write well-rounded female character studies either. I did enjoy the book and the sometimes subtle nods to Simenon (riffs from The Man Who Watched Trains go by, for instance),  but I did feel that the dénouement regarding Manfred was hurried.  Also I was a bit puzzled by the post-modern conceit that the novel is a translation of a novel by Raymond Brunet with the requirement for an afterword by the translator Graeme Macrae Burnet. Likely that puzzlement will disappear on publication of Macrae Burnet’s Brunet’s next novel, which will return us to Saint-Louis. Looking forward to it.

Bloody Scotland, the crime writing festival, is now 5 years old.  This year saw some changes – not all of which worked well. I’m sure the organisers are aware of the issues but let me get this off my chest and then we’ll move onto to the good, even great things.


Albert Halls

The big events took place, as ever in the Albert Halls in Stirling,  but smaller events moved to a new location, The Golden Lion.  In my opinion the new venue was too small.  There was no room for queuing, with selling and signing tables squeezed into tight little corners. It was hot, stuffy and at times claustrophobic. I bought nothing. I joined a signing queue only once, and there were problems due to 3 authors at one table signing at different paces.  (Not normally an issue when separate queues can be formed but it caused a back-up and a bit of a kerfuffle when there was only space for one queue.) Finally, and crucial to the whole experience, there was nowhere to relax, enjoy a coffee and read between events. (The bar was mobbed, the foyer was packed with the aforementioned queues and the restaurant reserved for those wanting meals.) In conclusion, location 4/10.

The programme, however, was a wide-ranging 8/10. Over the course of the weekend I attended events covering classic crime (Josephine Tey), Victorian Gothic (E S Thompson and Oscar de Muriel), spy fiction (Charles Cumming, Alan Judd), psychological thrillers (Rachel Abbot and Melanie Raabe),  detective fiction set abroad (Graeme Macrae Burnet – France, Michael Ridpath – Iceland, and Craig Russell – Germany) and crime verging on horror (Neil MacKay and Alexandra Sokoloff). The festival ended on home territory with Ian Rankin and Quentin Jardine, who talked of the difficulties of finding new places in Edinburgh to send their experienced detectives.  Let’s just say that Quartermile can expect a (fictional) crime wave in the near future!

The biggest round of applause and a 10/10 is reserved not for Christopher Brookmyre who won the inaugural William McIlvanney Prize on Friday night, nor for the English Crime Writers who won the traditional England vs Scotland football match 7-1 on Saturday afternoon (I couldn’t let that pass unremarked – I’ve been there when winning boots were on Scottish feet), but for the new main sponsors of the festival, Bookdonors.  A not for profit organisation, whose mission it is to save books from ending up in landfill.  Over the course of the weekend, they gave away 10,000 (!) crime fiction books.  There was a gift on every chair at every event.  This led to a version of musical chairs as the audience walked up and down rows picking their seats based on the book that was on it.  Although there was no problem if you didn’t like the book on your chair.  You could always visit the stall in the Albert Halls, where there were crates and crates of books on offer, and swap one book for another. By Sunday afternoon, however, you could simply help yourself to as many books as you wanted!  Now that’s what I call booty-ful.

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I think tomorrow is the  official end date of #20booksofsummer.  And so a reckoning is due.  I posted the original list of 35 potential reads on 1.07.  This is how it looks now.  (Highlighted titles have been read, if not reviewed.  I’ll try and catch up with myself by end September.)


I’m quite pleased with this.  Considering I didn’t start until a good two weeks’ after the official start date, I’m not too far short of the 20 book target, and I only inserted 4 onto the original list.

But now it is time to move on and start my next reading project.  I am delighted to say that I will be attending the Frankfurt Book Fair at the end of October.  This year the focus is very much on Dutch and Flemish literature with the Low Countries being Guests of Honour.  What an ideal opportunity to catch up on some of those Dutch And Flemish novels, which are vying for my attention in the TBR.


I’m hoping to read at least 6 of these (and not necessarily the shortest) before the Book Fair.  If you’ve got some of these in your TBR, perhaps we can readalong?