Did you follow along over at Three Percent? If not, you can still catch up on all the action. The Women’s World Cup of Literature (henceforth WWCOL) came along just at the right time for a Lizzy in the doldrums. Returning from Germany to grotty Scottish weather – it happens every time. I’m all right now – the Edinburgh Book Festival programme has been published and Charlotte Square beckons. Still at the beginning of June the WWCOL was what I needed.

I don’t sign up for shadow judging – the committment is too great, but I thought, with a committment of one book a week, judging the WWCOL doable. OK it sometimes needed two books a week, but concentrated short spurts were also achievable.

For the record this is my WWCOL shelf. Let’s take it from left to right.

Lizzy's WWCOL

Judges’ names were drawn out of a hat and I was drawn to judge a second round match which would be played between the winner of Match 1 (China, The Last Lover vs Canada, Oryx and Crake) and Match 2 (The Netherlands, The Ministry of Pain vs New Zealand, The Luminaries).

Turnaround time was tight so I made a start on Can Xue’s BTBA winning novel, and quickly abandoned it at page 67.  The official judge of the match, Florian Duijsens, called it “utter torture”. I can only agree.  I then decided to reread Oryx and Crake (I think for the 4th time.) I found it as compelling as ever.  Finished it in one sitting, and I was delighted when it progressed to the second round.

I bought Dubravka Ugresic’s novel in the hope that it would see off Eleanor Catton.  (Nothing personal, Eleanor).  it didn’t and so my copy remains unread for now,  Was I going to reread The Luminaries, a book that hadn’t lived up to the hype on first reading?I decided I would because I suspected that I took it in too many little chunks first time round.  This time I took it in 5 huge gulps, but my initial impressions did not change.  There was no doubting the result of the match I judged in detail.  3-1 to Canada, and I had great fun writing this piece.

I was then called on to judge the third round match Australia, Burial Rights vs Cameroon, The Dark Heart of the Night.  You’re not.hallucinating – that is a purple kindle you see before you, and yes, I did read Cameroon’s entry as a pdf.  Not ideal – I couldn’t change the text size on the kindle  and eventually read it on an ipad.  I will review this in full for Women in Translation month in August, but, suffice to say it never stood a chance against Burial Rites, an historical novel that had previously entranced me and did so again.

This brings me to the semi-final Canada vs Australia, and a tough call which I was dreading.  In the end Canada proceeded to the final because of the one-sitting unputdownableness of Oryx and Crake – even on fourth reading.  It’s hard to argue with that.

What was going on in the other half of the draw though? Germany, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, was blasting all into oblivion.  Would one of the Spanish-language novels it was scheduled to meet in the semis stop it? The third round match – Columbia, Delirium vs Costa Rica, Assault on Paradise – looked really interesting.  So I purchased both and opted to read thr Columbian entry first,  A brilliant novel, which proceeded to the semis, and one I will review next week for #spanlshlitmonth.  Assault on Paradise remains unread for now.

I wasn’t called upon to judge Columbia vs Germany, which would have been even tougher than Canada vs New Zealand, but the other judges put Germany through setting up the Canada vs Germany final, and another reread for me.

I’ve been meaning to introduce rereading into my schedule, and I set myself a target of 4 for 2015. I didn’t expect myself to accomplish that during WWCOL though!  And it’s interesting to note that my initial impressions of a book changed only once. Oryx and Crake, always a good book, became a great book on fourth reading.

Which didn’t stop me voting for Germany in the final. Why? Because this was a football match and, if you’ve met Rosalinda, the main protagonist in Alina Bronsky’s novel, you will realise that there is no opposition on this earth capable of withstanding her relentless attacks! The majority of other judges agreed and Germay lifted the trophy!

Lizzy’s final scores: Books read 6 Re-reads 4 New reads 2 DNF 1 TBR 2

Short Stories from And Other Stories

I enjoyed Angela Readman’s short story Don’t Try This At Home when I shadowed the Costa Short Story Award in 2013. Although I didn’t pick it as my winner, I can say 2 years on, that it is the only story of the 6 that I remember. Not hard to do, this tale of a woman cloning her man, by slicing him in half every time she needs more from him, is pretty unforgettable, and is now the lead story in Readman’s first published collection. The story in which she won the Costa Short Story Award in 2014, The Keeper of the Jackalopes, is also included here.

Mixing the everyday with the fantastical, this is a collection to whizz through. By turns sad (the girl condemned to be a circus freak, the club-footed hunchback sent to live with the witch in the wood); by turns quirky and macabre (nothing more so than the lead title); by turns thought-provoking (just how would you react if a homeless old woman knew everything about you?). Always entertaining and very visual. You don’t read this pages, you watch them. No better way to expose the prejudices at the heart of many of these tales. Give me more!

Ivan Vladislavíc’s 101 Detectives could be a much more intellectual exercise. I’ll quote for a moment from the dustjacket. “Each story can be read as just that – a story – or you can dig a little deeper. take a closer look, examine the artifact from all angles and consider the clues and patterns contained within”.

I’ll save all that for a reread because first time through I was too busy enjoying myself. I wouldn’t say that every story hit the spot but the majority did. I loved the twist in the tail of the 101 Detectives, the dismount of the corporate ladder in Exit Strategy (was I meant to LOL reading this?) and the utter absurdity of the Industrial Theatre caused by the launch of the Ford Kafka. (As you can imagine lots of intertextuality to admire here!)

My favourite stories came towards the end; The Reading which charts the breakdown of the translator, as the author reads a harrowing account of her past, and The Trunks – A Complete History in which a dead man’s papers are retained for years by one hoarder after the next in the vain hope that a) they will be read and b) turned into a biography.

I recognise all the arguments but they have yet to subscribe wholeheartedly with the message of Claude’s trunks:

They were more than a warning about a debilitating fascination with the leavings of one life …… They were a prophecy of the distasteful end that awaits all those who set too much store by the written word. The pointlessness of paper.

Regardless, this collection has got me thinking and excited. Not at the prospect of the amount of paper material I will discard once the logic has permeated my brain cells, but at the amount of pleasure to come. Vladislavíc, although new to me, is an established multi-award winning South African author. & Other Stories publish a number of his novels, including The Restless Supermarket. Who can resist a title like that? Not me.

Don’t Try This At Home  4stars.GIF / 101 Detectives 4stars.GIF

JuneTranslated from Dutch by David Colmer

Gerbrand Bakker’s novels have taken the Anglophone word by storm.  The Twin (original Dutch publication 2006) won the IMPAC award in 2010; The Detour (original Dutch publication 2010) the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013. What will the world make of the recently translated June (original Dutch publication 2009)?

Firstly, it is typically Bakker – understated, detailed, focused on the everyday.  A quiet novel then?  With a dysfunctional family at its core – not really.

The main narrative is framed between the story of Queen Juliana’s visit to the northern provinces of Holland in 1969.  The point-of-view is special, and possibly controversial,in that it is told from a very human and, at times, very irritated queen’s point-of-view.  She is a momarch who is not afraid to deviate from her civil servant’s script and take a couple of extra minutes to talk to her subjects and stroke the cheek of a young child.

As the prologue ends, we discover that this event does not become a family highlight.  An unbearable tragedy unfolds later that same day.  We catch up with the family 35 years later and discover family members becoming progressively more eccentric as time passes, even as the burden of grief does not.

This does not make for an unremittingly bleak narrative.  Personalities provide light relief. Well, at least, until it becomes obvious that the woman seeking me-time, lying in the straw swigging a bottle of advocaat, isn’t simply throwing an egocentric strop.  She is a soul incapacitated by bitterness and grief; her husband and sons entirely incapable of dealing with her problems.  Adult pressures and general unhappiness are counterpointed by the lightness of Dieke, the 5-year old grandchild, who skips around the ramshackle farm in the obliviousness and innocence of childhood.

In front of her is the shadow cast by the farmhouse, stretching almost to the sheep shed. One of the two doors is hanging crooked on its hinges.  On one side of the sheep shed is the old dungheap , on the other a salt-stained, concrete silo.  The dung left on the slab is as black as ink and teeming with fishing worms.  There are elderberry bushes growing in the silo.

The physical state of the farm reflects the anguish of the family within.

The descriptive passages are as fine as any Bakker has written and his characters as real.  Yet I didn’t connect with this novel as I did with the two previous.  Perhaps the angles were too oblique?  More likely, The Detour, being one of my favourites of all time, is too tough an act to follow.


A quick visual recap of the action thus far:


The judging happens over at Three Percent, and today you’ll find my judging of the first second round match – Canada (Oryx and Crake) vs New Zealand (The Luminaries).

VSI Crime FictionCondensing the  history of crime fiction into 122 pages Is a challenge that Richard Bradford wins.  The output is an informative and thoroughly enjoyable little volume that takes us from Sophocles through to Nordic Noir.

Sophocles?  Bradford argues that Oedipus Is a precursor of the modern detective in that he conducts a meticulous investigation to unmask the murderer of his predecessor. Other antecedents throughout the ages, from Herodotus to Shakespeare to Fielding are discussed too.  Moving into the C19th, he argues that while Poe created the first recognisable detective in Dupin, the stories in Murders in the Rue Morgue were conceived more as philosophical exercises than crime stories.  The C19th sensation novels were the real precursors of what was to come with Collins laying the foundations of the English detective novel in The Moonstone.

Thereafter Bradford discusses the main stations in the development of crime fiction: the golden age, hard-boiled, and the transitions to modern day crime fiction and its sub-genres.  The usual suspects are mentioned, Conan Doyle, Christie, Sayers, Chandler, Cain and Hammett plus famous contemporary writers from both sides of the pond.  There’s space here too for less widely known writers and in discussing these, Bradford often reveals his personal tastes (which clearly do not gel with mine.)

I particularly enjoyed chapter 3 Transitions in which Bradford discusses the metamorphosis of crime fiction into the forms and perspectives that prevail today and chapter 4 which is devoted to International Crime Fiction.

Even though this is not a comprehensive overview, there are plenty of recommendations here for those looking for such.  As I read, I jotted down titles in my TBR.  It turned into quite a list, a surprising one at that with entries from Chekhov, Schiller and (Ellen) Wood.  I am, though, rather inclined to undertake this unexpected journey into the classics.  My first stop will be Ancient Greece.  I’m off to meet Oedipus!

A severe case of post-holiday doldrums has robbed me of blogging motivation.  A change is as good as a rest they say, so it is time for something  different …. the Women’s World Cup of Literature, courtesy of Three Percent!

Women's world cup of literature

(Click on the image for a full sized graphic.) More details over at Three Percent, and I heartily recommend you follow their blog, particularly when the tournament, which coincides with the actual Women’s World Cup, begins next Monday.  In the meantime, I’m off to read and gather my thoughts on Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood, The Ministry of Pain – Dubravka Ugresic, The Last Lover – Can Xue, and The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton because on the 22.6 I’m refereeing the 2nd round match Canada/Netherlands vs China/New Zealand.

This will either kill me or cure me!

As I had scheduled some high-brow cultural activities (including a 5-hour marathon staging of Schiller’s Wallenstein!) I decided that I would relax a little and read purely for entertainment’s sake while travelling in Germany last month.  Cue the German crime wave!

The Ludwig ConspiracyMy first destination was Munich, scene of my mid-degree year abroad and only a hop, skip and a jump from many of Bavaria’s best-known tourist attractions.  The same can be said of Oliver Pötzsch’s The Ludwig Conspiracy (translated by Anthea Bell) which starts in an antiquarian bookshop in Munich’s West End but includes “excursions” to all of Ludwing II’s famous castles.  “Excursions” – you’ll know what I mean when I describe the plot a little.

Steven Lukas owns an antiquarian bookshop in Munich’s West End.  His business isn’t thriving but he’s holding on for the love of it.  One day he discovers a book on his shelves that he hasn’t bought – it was parked there for safe keeping by a man since murdered.  Soon Lukas is the prime suspect and on the run, not only from the police, but also from a couple of mysterious organisations who would do anything to get their hands on this strange coded volume. The reason for this being that the book reveals the truth about the death of Ludwig II, Bavaria’s fairy-tale king and builder of Linderhof, Herrenchiemsee and Neuschwanstein. (The truth regarding Ludwig’s death, it must be said, is still shrouded in mystery.)

Clues to crack the codes are to be found at these locations. Hence the tour around Bavaria included in these pages.  Not that I had time to follow them this time but I have visited Ludwig’s castles and the scene of his death multiple times in the past, and I enjoyed revisiting 3stars.JPGthem in Pötzsch’s novel,  I also enjoyed the convoluted plot, the conspiracy and the exuberance of it all.  Pötzsch even manages to reincarnate the mad-king in contemporary times!

There are two narratives: the contemporary narrative solving the puzzle and the historical narrative, which emerges as the mysterious volume is decoded.  This latter gives a good indication of the tensions  in Ludwig’s court, as his fantasies threatened to bankrupt Bavaria and he refused to engage with reality.  Was he really mad? The jury’s out after reading this but I no longer see him as a romantic tragic figure.  I hadn’t realised that he hated Munich so much.  I’ve cooled towards him now …..

The Ludwig Conspiracy would make a fantastic film or mini TV series, though I suspect filming permissions at the key locations would be hard, if not impossible, to obtain.

SilenceMy second read is not located in any of my holiday destinations. Silence by Mechthild Borrmann (translated by Aubrey Botsford) won the German Crime Prize in 2012.  It too involves the uncovering of secrets from the past and serves as a warning. Sometimes the past is best left alone.

Following the death of his father, Robert Lubisch finds a photograph of a unknown woman in his papers and he takes it upon himself to find out who she is.  The only clue he has is the photographer’s stamp on the back.  Having enlisted the help of a journalis, he soons feels uncomfortable and tries to call it off, but the journalist refuses.  Which costs her her life.

Meanwhile on the Mediterranean,  Therese Mende is living in comfortable retirement, yet receiving updates on the investigation back home.  This triggers memories of her happy youth, her troubled teens and her unhappy early married life which culminated in her hasty departure from the village.   These chapters are easily the most powerful of the book as they show the insidious rise of Nazism and the effect on the German people themselves and the divisions caused in close-knit communities.

Lubisch’s research into his father’s past, the contemporary murder investigation and Mende’s memories are skillfully aligned to reveal the truth.  The silence of the past becomes “a membrane of time that cannot endure” and of all the cataclysmic revelations Lubisch discovers that he and his father “were closest when he was lying to me”.  What about? Time for me to preserve silence, I believe.

GoetheglutFinally I returned to Weimar and the second part of Bernd Köstering’s trilogy set in that wonderful place.  In Goetheruh, Hendrik Wilmut,  a renowned Goethe expert, was enlisted by the police to track down the thief stealing artifacts from Goethe’s House.  In Goetheglut, Wilmut finds himself accused of murder and needs to find a crucial piece of Goethe-related evidence to prove his innocence. It’s not easy – whoever is setting him up is intent of destroying him, slowly, surely, piece by piece. And just when he locates the evidence, the library housing – the Anna Amalia Library – burns down. This library is not just a cultural icon in Weimar – it is one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, and the fire in 2004 was real enough. I really enjoy his Köstering builds the real Weimar into these novels and I envy his character’s life there – traumas notwithstanding!

This is not a whodunnit – the haggard man with nothing is present from the start. The question is why done it and that becomes clearer as the victim count mounts. I actually had a certain sympathy with the haggard man’s grievance because Köstering’s main character showed a number of unsympathetic character flaws in these pages. Not quite the charming intellectual of Goetheruh, but then stress can bring out the imperfect side of us all!

WeltverlorenTo finish off my reading and holiday itinerary I needed a crime novel set in Dresden. I couldn’t find anything before I left but found plenty while I was there viewing the sights bookstores. Like Köstering, Beate Baum is using a local literary icon – in her case, Erich Kästner – as a building block for her Kästner-Krimi series.  There are now six volumes – I came back with book 4 – Weltverloren – for reasons that will become clear later in the year.  November, perhaps?  😉

The Ludwig Conspiracy 3hstars

Silence 4stars.GIF

Goetheglut 3stars.JPG


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,654 other followers