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It’s fair to say that David Young hit the ground running.  His debut, Stasi Child won the 2016 CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger. This sets quite a challenge for his second, Stasi Wolf, released today.

The novels are set in 1970s in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) – the mid-life,  as it turned out, of the short-lived state. At that time the GDR was as stable as it was going to be.  Its institutions had been established with the Stasi firmly in control.  Oberleutnant Müller  and her deputy, Unterleutnant Werner Tilsner, are Volkspolizei, criminal police,  free to investigate their cases without hindrance, provided the Stasi doesn’t impose constraints.  Which of course they inevitably do, because nothing must come to light that tarnishes the reputation of the socialist state.

So Müller has her hands tied behind her back in both cases. In the first, the case of the dead teenager whose bullet-riddled corpse is found lying in the snow facing away from the Wall, thus looking as though she was shot trying to escape from the West. Müller’s remit is to identify the body, not the perpetrator. Of course this stinks of a Stasi cover-up, but who are they protecting?  In the second, the case of snatched twins in Halle-Neustadt, she must find the babies without instigating house-to-house (or rather flat-to-flat) searches. The populace of the GDR’s flagship building project must not be unsettled.  But where traditional detective work is forbidden, creative methods must be deployed ….

Running parallel to the investigation in both novels is a first-person narrative, the purpose of which is provide background of the circumstances leading up to the crimes Müller is investigating.  These narratives are effective in adding depth, and take both novels beyond the police procedural. In Stasi Child this narrative starts 9 months earlier at a youth reform centre on the island of Rügen, a place of where sadistic brutes were free to inflict unfathomable psychological and physical torment.  In Stasi Wolf, the second narrative begins some 10 years previously.  The narrator is Franzi, a somewhat simple-minded woman who documents the struggles she and her husband have had in having children.  The convergence of the investigations and these stories accelerates the pace, resulting in an almost breathless rush to read to the end.

What I would say though is that the ending of Stasi Wolf is physically impossible. (I know from experience.) I’m happy to swallow the convenient connections to Müller’s private life for the sake of plot, but the final chase to Oberhof was the point my credulity snapped.  There are other seemingly improbable events in these novels, though most turn out to be based on historical facts. Young has researched meticulously and the atmosphere and daily life in the socialist state are convincingly brought to life.  I particularly love the sense of place, whether that be cold war Berlin, Halle-Neustadt, the Isle of Rügen, Oberhof in the Thüringian Forest, or Brocken in the Harz Mountains.

While Stasi Wolf is an excellent follow-up, Stasi Child is an exceptional 5-star thriller. There’s a pervading sense of menance which accompanies the Stasi officer, Jäger (the Hunter), which is missing for most of the second novel.   An arch-manipulator, he plays everyone in Stasi Child, including Müller,  in both her professional and her private lives. Jäger takes great delight in telling her about his professional oneupmanship but Müller has yet to understand the extent of the betrayal with regard to her husband.  I’m calling this The Great Secret.  If Müller ever learns it, will she continue to swallow the party line for the sake of the state?

One final point.  That final phrase sequence in Stasi Child.   Never has anything chilled me more.  Brrrrrrr.

 

 

I’m taking a different approach to literary festivals this year.  Pre-festival I’m going to read some of the books I’ve bought in previous years.  That way new festival purchases won’t simply get added to the old ones, and the overall effect on the TBR should be a zero increase rate.  That’s the theory anyway.  I’ll test it out with Ayewrite! which is just one month away.

First up is the book I bought following one of the best events I’ve ever attended at Ayewrite. The year was 2015 and Chris Dolan chaired an event entitled My Era is better than Yours!  3 authors were asked to pitch their chosen eras to the audience, which then voted on the one which appealed most.  The choice was between Tudor England (Rory Clements), The English Civil War (Michael Arnold) or Georgian England (Antonia Hodgson). I forget the way the public vote went but I came out and bought Antonia Hodgson’s debut, for which she won the 2014 CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger.

imageI was intrigued by a crime novel set in the notorious debtors’ prison, the Marshalsea. Not the Marshalsea brought to life in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, but the previous iteration – a place where the governor was so violent, he could act with impunity, (whipping prisoners to death, chaining them to corpses as punishment, etc) because as long as the place made a profit, its aristocratic owner didn’t really care what went on behind the gates.

So how could anyone make a profit in a debtor’s prison?  Because the debtors had to pay for food and lodgings and any other services that might be rendered. If they couldn’t, they were removed from the gentleman’s area and thrown into The Common Side, a squalid hell on earth, where gaol fever  (typhus) ran rampant and survival was improbable.

When Tom Hawkins lands in the Marshalsea for a £10 debt, it is a place in crisis.  The recent death of debtor Captain Roberts has been deemed a suicide (although his hanged body bears evidence of a severe beating), and now his ghost haunts the place.  His widow remains in situ, determined to discover her husband’s murderer.  This is not good for the reputation of the prison’s aristocratic owner.  So when Tom, having made an enemy of the governor, finds himself almost at death’s door, he is happy to come to an arrangement with the authorities.  If he can identify Captain Roberts’s murderer, his debt will be repaid and he will find himself a free man once more.

Little does he know what he’s let himself in for ….

The danger to Tom’s life and limb in the Marshalsea is palpable – whether it be from smallpox or typhus, corrupt officialdom, government spies or his roommate , Samuel Fleet, widely suspected of being the murderer.  Not that I cared much for Tom at first.  He’s the malcreant son of a vicar, reaping what he has sown through wine, women and gambling. Though not yet entirely without conscience, he hasn’t forgotten the meaning of charity and loyalty.  Personal betrayal was not a word in his vocabulary, but 4 days in the Marshalsea will etch it on his soul forever.

While the plot is good, the historical detail is a masterclass.  Hodgson shows how the Marshalsea had a microcosmic economy of its own.  There were those who, having established successful businesses which enabled them to pay off their debt, chose to remain within the confines of the prison walls.   The mix of fictional and historical characters is interesting also: the governor and most of the wardens and lawyers were real enough and their histories are included in an appendix.  So too was the infamous Moll King, mistress of the den of iniquity  coffee house Tom chose to frequent, which featured in the painting Morning by William Hogarth. That’s the world waiting for Tom, should he escape the Marshalsea: dirty, ribald, just as immoral and treacherous.  Hodgson paints the reality of that Hogarthian London too. It’s somewhat of an eye-opener to say the least!

January 2017 Wrap-Up

I’ve had an excellent start to the 2017 reading year, having read 13 books from 3 centuries with only one slipup apropos the TBR Dare.  But as I haven’t determined my exceptions policy for this year, I shall do so now.  I am allowed to read one 2017 acquisition per month for the length of the Dare.

But this post is about the books read during January 2017. Voilà!

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The reasons why these books worked their way to the top of the TBR follow with links to reviews available at the time of posting.

From the Adventures through the TBR B branch of my reading mindmap

– Books about Books: Lesen und Lesen Lassen, The Book Collector, Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop.  This latter was an e-book that I had to buy and read immediately after finishing the wonderful Parnassus on Wheels. Simply because nothing else would do!

– B is for Bronte, hence Anne’s two novels: Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Both somewhat of a revelation, Anne tackling the thorny subjects of governess abuse and domestic abuse in entirely realistic fashion, so far removed from the romanticised novels of her two sisters.  I preferred Agnes Grey to The Tenant.  Helen was just too perfectly pious for me.  Agnes, on the other hand, actually lost it on occasion!

– B is for Burns, as in Jean Burns, wife of the Scottish Bard, whom he called The Jewel.

From the International Dublin Literary Award longlist:

– Bernd Aichner – Woman of the Dead E-book my #EU27 entry for Austria.

– Esther Gerritsen – Craving  which is a #EU27 entry for The Netherlands.  (I will have several of these, as I continue to make my way through my Dutch TBR).

– Sofi Oksanen – When The Doves Disappeared (which I will use as my #EU27 entry for Estonia.  Oksanen is Estonian on her mother’s side and the novel is all about Estonia during the second world war.  It probably has more Estonian flavour to it than the Mati Unt novel I was going to read.)

From the W is for Whim Branch to be added to the mindmap.

– David Young – Stasi Child A whimsical read because the publisher kindly sent the sequel Stasi Wolf for review. Stasi Child was so good I read its 400 pages in one day and I’m not going to wait until April to read Stasi Wolf.  Now you know what February’s exception to the TBR Dare rules will be.

– Antonia Hodgson – The Devil in the Marshalsea Winner of the CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger in 2014, the same award that Stasi Child won in 2016.  Why read one winner when you have two in the TBR?

Book of the Month.  Lesen und Lesen Lassen (in the face of some fierce competition as both Parnassus on Wheels and Stasi Child were also 5-star reads.)

Are you participating in the TBR Dare this year?  If so, tell us all about your January over at www.tbrdare.com.

It was love at first sight – truly.

The book stood out from the others on the bookshop shelf in the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar.

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The word play in the title made me laugh (you only need to change one letter (s to b) in the German to get to the saying live and let live).  The jacket illustration made me laugh as well. I knew I could recreate it.  And so I did, once I had reclaimed my reading sofa from the unruly TBR.

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But the clincher was when I flicked through and discovered the book-culling poem by Eugen Roth.  What other treasures was I going to discover?

As it turned out a great many because Daniel Kampa’s selection of prose and poetry about the joys and frustrations of readers, writers, booksellers and critics is inspired.   The renowned Nikolaus Heidelbach has also illustrated the book, and those illustrations are as quirky as some of the pieces.  Sometimes they match the text, oftentimes they do not. But they do form a couples of series: the first of human readers,  the second the  imaginary animal reader.  Heidelback obviously has a high opinion of the cat’s intelligence, whilst he feels the canine to be a less sophisticated beast. (Grrrr.)

 

The reading itself consists of 51 pieces of prose and poetry from authors around the world.  Old favourites (Böll, Chekhov, Zweig) plus many, many more I had not read  before.  So in addition to introducing me to German authors (Mascha Kaleko, Joachim Ringelnatz,  Eugen Roth, Kurt Tucholsky)  I have also read the following for the first time: Chilean Pablo Neruda’s Ode to the Book (II), Czech Jaroslav Hasek being very mischievous at a book group, French Marcel Proust spending a day reading and Italian Italo Calvino putting his protagonist reader through hell on a beach!  The English-speaking literary world is also represented with pieces from Nathanael Hawthorne, A A Milne, Flann O’Brien, Henry David Thoreau.

As I was reading, I kept wishing that the book was in English, so that I could quote extensively here.  As it is, I’ve found two of my favourite pieces online: A A Milne on his library, which has made me less worried about the shall-we-call it random nature of my book piles; and Flann O’Brien’s satirical piece on  book-handling services for the rich, whose pristine libraries need to look a little more used.

I was reading the book throughout January. A slower pace than is usual for me, not because of the German – there was only one piece that made my brain ache – Karl Schimper’s poem Ein Leser.  Rather I kept taking diversions.  So an extract from Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop sent me to the shelves to read the whole thing as well as the prequel Parnassus on Wheels. Then last night I made a beeline for Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, because, after the piece noted above, I needed another fix.

Lesen und Lesen Lassen is a 5-star delight from the first page to the last. (In fact, that pithy little 4-line epigram from Goethe on the final page deserves 6 stars!) I expect I shall refer to this anthology time and again – particularly when I need a pick-me-up.  Plus there are the reading trails it has opened up.  In addition to those already taken, I used January’s purchase allowance on 2 books that I can no longer live without: Eugen Roth’s Menschlich/Merely Human and Flann O’Brien’s Best of Myles.

 

imageTranslated from German by Anthea Bell

Nominated for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award by the Salzburg City Library

*** Review contains mild spoilers ***

Eight years of married bliss are brought to an abrupt halt when Brünhilde Blum’s husband is killed in a hit and run. Mark was a policeman, working off-the-record on a case involving allegations of kidnap and torture of illegal refugees.  The woman, Dunya, making these claims had been written off as a fantasist by the police force, yet Mark felt otherwise.  Following his death, Blum listens to the recorded conversations between Mark and Dunya and becomes convinced that his death was not accidental.

She sets off to discover the identity of those Dunya knows only as the photographer, the priest, the huntsman, the cook and the clown to exact revenge, and the reader has no doubts whatsoever that she will be succeed. Because Blum is a dormant psychopath, having already avenged her tormented childhood on her adoptive parents – this episode forms the prologue.  She has the guts, the knowledge, and the wherewithall.

An undertaker,  there’s not much Blum doesn’t know about body disposal, so hiding the evidence isn’t a problem.  Nor is dispatching her prey, once located.  Her biggest problem is the father of the photographer, who suspects something malign has happened to his boy when he disappears without trace.  This thread adds the hunter is being hunted frisson to proceedings, because the police don’t have a clue that a serial killer is at large.

And yet Blum is a loving mother, a caring daughter-in-law and a genuinely grief-stricken wife. Cozy domestic scenes, interspersed throughout the book, are to be enjoyed, because the rest is brutal: the story of Blum’s childhood, that of the refugees, the revenge killings, the graphic and grisly dismembering of the corpses.  Plus an extra eek factor, which Blum reserves for the final scumbag.  This is not a novel for the faint-hearted.

I hesitate to say I enjoyed this, although I raced through it.  I certainly wanted justice to be done, but then I question whether I should have been empathising with such a bloodythirsty psychopath.  Or even with her nice-guy-but-dead-hubby.  Because there’s a secret revealed in the epilogue that shows him not to have been as honourable as we are led to believe ….

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This novel is as luscious as its cover!

Last year I very much enjoyed Gavin MCrea’s Mrs Engels – the story of Friedrich Engel’s mainly invisible-to-posterity female companion. That was a novel written very much into the spaces left by history. Czerkawska’s fictionalisation of the life of Jean Armour, the wife of Robert Burn’s has more historical backup. Nevertheless, in writing from Jeanny’s point-of-view, the talents, strengths and weaknesses of Scotland’s national bard are seen through the subjective eyes of the young girl who fell in love with him and never stopped loving him until her dying day, and that despite the hard times, repeated infidelities, and a widowhood that lasted 38 years.

What did he do to deserve it?  I was shaking my head at times, but then, times were different in 18th century Ayrshire, and Jeanny’s options were limited – particularly after falling pregnant to Burns, not once, but twice outside of wedlock. The wedlock status, it turns out, can be debated.  Certainly the civil arrangements that Burns had put in place were not recognised by her parents during the first pregnancy.  They loathed him.  He had no morals, no money and no prospects at that time, and so Jeanny’s parents packed her off to relatives in Paisley.  At which point Burns felt deserted and started the affair with Highland Mary, a rebound relationship, not only for him, but for her.  Just one of the many surprises in the twists and turns and emotional anguish that were endured before Burns and Jeanny were recognised as man and wife.

Not that the anguish abated.  9 children, only 3 of whom survived to adulthood.  Adopting her husband’s illegitimate daughter.  Recognition of her husband’s poetic talents brought fame, no fortune, but plenty of opportunity for further amorous adventures.  And pain when their private lives were put on show in his published poetry.  Further pain and humiliation when poems about his other women were published.  Czerkawska’s novel makes the emotional cost to Jean Armour of Burns’s success all too clear.

But, as we say in Scotland, she was some woman…. with an amazing generosity of spirit. She was Burns’s feet-on-the-ground anchor in Ayrshire.  Not without artistic talent of her own either.  She had a wonderful singing voice and the ballads that she learnt from her mother were the source of much of Burns’s material.  It’s no wonder Burns genuinely loved her (as best he was able.) She was the Belle of the Belles of Mauchline to him, his jewel, and his pet name for her was “mae wee lintie” (songbird).  In tribute to her, he included a woodlark on his personal seal.

The choice of an omniscient 3rd-person narrative gives the author freedom to include descriptive passages, conversations, and conjectures in a much more natural way than a 1st-person narrative would have done. The narrator doesn’t intrude for the most part.  (Except with one she’ll rue the day type statement after the couple’s first reconciliation.)  The dialogue has a distinctive Scottish cadence using local vocabulary of the time. It rings true, and there is a useful glossary at the back for non-Scots (like me).

Each chapter is headed by a short excerpt from one of Burn’s poems, relevant to forthcoming events.  I found this an effective way of showing the sublimation of life into art. Behind some of those poems are events that are often anything but sublime. Also people made invisible due to the brightness of their spouses’s star. Such as Jean Armour.  Czerkawska’s novel certainly brings her out of the shadows to give her the credit that is due. It also confirms that, when Burns chose her, he chose well.

I’ve taken my time with this post. I’ve been watching the various strategies that my fellow bloggers have been creating to see if there’s anything that I could adopt for myself – particularly with regard to purchasing targets.  I’ll come back to that later.

Reading plans, I need no help with – except perhaps on how to cut down on my ambitions.  You’ll understand when you look at the following mindmap. Believe me this is the simplified version!

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A quick explanation perhaps?

Reading from left to right, top to bottom.

The leftmost box (top level) is self-explanatory.  The mindmap will represent My Year in Books.  Level One (Grey round-edged rectangles): The top four are the broad categories  which will form the basis of my reading in 2017.  I started Adventures through the TBR with the letter A last year.  I wasn’t going to be so obvious as to move onto B this year but 2017 is the centenary of Heinrich Böll’s birth and I have a full set of the Melville House Press Bölls to read.  So B it is.  Following the recent cull, I know exactly what’s in My TBR and so it wasn’t difficult to find a few more B categories to flesh out the branch.  The other centenary this year is that of the Russian Revolution, hence R is for Russian – specifically Chekhov’s Short Stories and Doctor Zhivago, but I’m sure many more Russians come my way.  Also R is for recommendations – I have a pile of books purchased purely on the recommendation of others: bloggers, friends, authors at literary events.  You know how it goes.  Time to read them.

Categories 2 and 3 are lists I’m working on and ongoing reading projects.  Category 4 are all the social reading temptations that will come my way this year. As you can see, I am signed up to Stu’s Pushkin Press Fortnight, Marina Sofia’s #EU27 project and the forthcoming 1951 club.  There’s also the Voss readalong in March ….

Enough I hear you say for the full year.  No doubt, but I’m not restricting myself to this. The WHIM category, while not represented, will undoubtedly grow as the year progresses.  But, as a starting point, this little lot will keep me busy without any feelings of deprivation throughout the 3 months of the TBR Dare.

I was reasonably happy with my reading last year.  The one area of concern was that I only read 5 books published prior to 2000.  So this year I’m aiming for at least 25% of my reading to be older books.  Böll and the Russians  will help with that, of course. They’ll also help with the 33% target of works in translation.   I also want to read 6 chunksters (450+ pages),  6 non-fiction and at least 12 e-books.  I might also add 6 books in German to the mix (because if I don’t, I’ll just get lazy).

I think this is a plan that will keep me interested and that it will work for me.  I’ve tested it for the last 3 weeks, and I’m enjoying it. This is how the expanded measurable reading targets branch looks at this moment. (The colour shading indicates which branch the book originally came from. Green = B for Brontes, Purple = B for Books about Books. End bubbles show other categories that the book fits into also.).

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Of course, I could manage this much more efficiently on a spreadsheet, but that wouldn’t be as entertaining or as pretty!

And so to those pesky purchasing targets, or rather constraints. Before I say anything more, I want to be clear that I’m only doing this because I have run out of space.  For that reason e-books and review copies are exempted from the following statements.  I am drawn to Simon’s Project 24 but know, I will fail.  I’m also drawn to Caroline’s One Book A Week, but that won’t work when I’m at a literary festival.  I also enjoyed last year’s tactic of earning purchases which made me cull about 300 books, resulting in an over purchase of only 6 books for the year. I won’t have that many books to cull this year, so I’m combining Simon’s strategy with mine to form Project 24+.  This means that I have a starting allowance of 2 books per month.  Further purchases are earned using the same formula as last year: Additional Purchase Allowance = (Books read + Books culled) / 5.  Assuming that read plus culled will average 12 books per month, my total purchase allowance will be 24 + 144/5 = 52 books. (Same as Caroline’s One Book Per Week but with leeway for more if need be.😉)

This will still be a challenge.  3 weeks in and I need to finish 3 books before my purchases from the Folio Society Sale arrive.  😂😂😂).

So there we have it in a rather large nutshell.  But I’m looking forward to the 2017 reading (and purchasing) year. How are your reading and purchasing strategies panning out?