I need to be more objective in my judging during my Tournament of Books, realising that I failed miserably at my first attempt! So I have pre-determined the criteria for this bout: cover (as both of these books were added to my TBR due to their covers), plot, characterisation, scope and LOL moments. This last criterion is added because this bout will determine the book I will champion to win the 2017 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction.

Today’s post concentrates on Nina Stibbe’s Paradise Lodge, which can be said to have thrown down the gauntlet to James Robertson.

paradise lodgeCover 8/10
I couldn’t leave Paradise Lodge on the tables in the wonderful Main Street Trading Company this time last year. It’s a wonderful shop that I’m unlikely to visit again. I knew it at the time and so Paradise Lodge came home with me as a souvenir. The vibrant yellow dustjacket, with the almost louche child of the 70’s (the flared trousers and platform boots give it away) lounging on the bed, reading a book and smoking a surreptitious cigarette drew my eye immediately. Curiosity ensured the sale when I realised the novel was set in an old people’s home. So what is this young girl doing there? I had to find out.

Plot 9/10
Her name is Lizzie Vogel; she is fifteen, and she takes on a Saturday job at Paradise Lodge for the pocket-money to buy herself some luxuries (such as beer shampoo for voluminous hair!). Except it’s anything but a paradise – there’s a power struggle between the modernisers and those who hold the purse strings. The modernisers don’t win and leave to set up a rival home. As numbers deplete, through natural attrition and the superiority of the new facility, new custom and replacement staff become increasingly difficult to secure. The home, which at the beginning was run-down and chaotic, descends into a state of crisis, relying as much on voluntary help and food donations from the local Chinese restaurant as on professional staff.

Lizzie’s Saturday job soon becomes much more. Evening shifts, emergency cover, the matron takes advantage, not only of Lizzie’s good nature, but of the residents as well. Lizzie’s level of truancy increases accordingly and soon Lizzie finds herself threatened by an unscrupulous headmistress. She will be removed from the ‘O’ level stream unless she helps the headmistress kidnap remove her father from Paradise Lodge. He, it seems, is spending the headmistress’s inheritance on fees …

This is one of many entertaining subplots.  Another involves matron’s attempts to find herself a rich client who will bequeath her a home to live in.  And then there is Lizzie’s home life, almost as chaotic as life at Paradise Lodge, due to her clueless, bohemian mother.

There’s never a dull moment in these pages.  The subplots (each with an element of recognisable truth in them) twist and turn around each other in misadventure after misadventure, and yet Stibbe detangles them all in a most satisfactory and sometimes surprising way.  Neither is the novel devoid of its serious moments – this is an old people’s home where death is an unfortunate reality of life.

Characterisation 9/10

In many ways this is Lizzie’s coming-of-age, a time when she learns to separate the superficial from the important. Her Saturday job catapults her into an environment that accelerates the learning curve dramatically even as the poor girl must deal with the trials of adolescence (working out who her real friends are, the pangs of unrequited love).

Lizzie is a wonderful lead with selflessness and compassion beyond her years (though that could be accounted for by the responsibilities she has towards her younger siblings).  Yet the ultimate twist in the tale is the lesson this adolescent must learn is that sometimes she must put herself first.

She is supported by a host of vivid supporting characters: the residents and staff of Paradise Lodge.  The residents suffer the indignities of old age patiently with good grace.  Some are saints and some are … just a little bit naughty.  The sinning is reserved for matron and the headmistress, though only one can be declared villain of the piece by the end.

Scope and setting 8/10

This is a finely scoped situational comedy, venturing out of the old folk’s home only occasionally into Lizzie’s family home and school.  And yet as Lizzie reflects on the meaning of life, friendship, love and death, the scope of the novel expands into the philosophical.

The 1970’s setting with its lack of regulation (working hours, health and safety, truancy laws) gives the author leeway with regards to plot that a contemporary setting just would not allow.  It also allows for product placement, which for me,  also a child of the 1970’s,  brought back a raft of nostalgic memories.

LOL moments 8/10

I laughed out loud during the first couple of chapters, though I can’t remember exactly where.   Once I was acclimatised to Lizzie’s voice and could anticipate, not so much.  Even so, this is a very funny novel, and one I am likely to reread,  when in need of a pick-me-up.   The smile on my face, as I write this, is very broad indeed.

Total score: 42/50 or, if I were to use my former star-rating system: 4hstars

Why not 5 stars?  Lizzie’s mother annoyed me!

I began my Short List Tournament (now renamed Tournament of Books) by determining which book I shall be championing for the Dublin Literary Prize.  I had two of the shortlistees in the TBR: Mia Couto’s Confession of the Lioness (translated from Portuguese by David Brookshaw) and Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth (translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney).  Mia Couto is an established superstar in Mozambique and Valeria Luiselli is a rising superstar (or perhaps she has already risen) in Mexico.  Certainly I have heard many favourable comments about her in the blogosphere.

So we’re all set for the battle of the continents: Africa vs Central America

Except, all I can say is that this was not a good start to the tournament.  I disliked Confession of the Lioness for all the reasons cited in the Independent review here.  I have neither time nor inclination to write it up in my own words.

And, while I preferred the quirkiness of The Story of My Teeth, I was still underwhelmed.  So I’ll suffice by linking to Tony’s review and answering his final question: No, I don’t think its various components hang together well enough to form a successful novel.

I wouldn’t progress either to the next stage of my tournament but the knock-out nature of the competition means that someone must.  At this point I remember Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life (translated from German by Charlotte Collins) is also on the Dublin Literary Prize wshortlist. I loved it.  So in it comes on a wild card to KO both of the other contestants.

Next bout: To Be Continued – James Robertson vs Paradise Lodge – Nina Stibbe. Two comic novels to rid me of my grumpiness – hopefully.


I tried to resist, but I suppose it was inevitable given the programme.  Two events: one with three British authors writing historical crime fiction set in Germany, the second with three German crime fiction authors.  Both with the inimitable Mrs Peabody as chair.

So into the car I jumped and drove south to Newcastle upon Tyne, listening (finally) to Sascha Arango’s The Truth and Other Lies in preparation.  But then he was a no show – apparently he was needed on the film-set (which I suppose is good news in a way, because his novel is fantastic!)  His stand-in, Elisabeth Herrmann, never made it to Newcastle either due to a bomb scare at Berlin Tegel earlier in the day.  That second event turning into a logistical nightmare for the organisers … still 5 authors, Mrs Peabody and her delightful sidekick, Erich, the Bavarian duck did make it.  So a huge round of applause for them please. And another for the Goethe Institute, sponsors of the German Noir event.


Erich takes a bow

But let’s start at the beginning.

Arriving at the Literary and Philosophical Society (the Lit&Phil) in Newcastle, I was surprised to find a smallish space in which authors mingled and chatted quite naturally with the attendees.  I spied David Young of Stasi Child/Stasi Wolf fame immediately and couldn’t resist introducing myself with the statement I’ve got something to show you.   Cue photos from mobile phone.

“Surely you didn’t read Stasi Wolf and then visit Halle Neustadt”, he asked. As it happens, I did, but only in broad daylight! (Admittedly I was in Leipzig for the book fair and Halle Neustadt was only a S-bahn ride away.)

imageThereafter, it was straight into the German historical crime fiction event, the panel consisting of David Young (series set in the GDR), Luke McCallin (series set in Nazi times), and William Ryan (series beginning in Stalinist Russia, latest novel set in Ausschwitz).  All three talked about the gold mine of a totalitarian regime – a setting that just keeps on giving was how William Ryan described it.  How can a detective ever hope to preserve truth and justice in times when parallel moralities are at play?

William Ryan talked of the photographic inspiration for The Constant Soldier, Luke McCallin of his fear of writing about Berlin (his first two novels are set in Sarajevo, where he lived for 6 years) and David Young of his need for escape from the BBC! All acknowledged Phillip Kerr for leading the way in writing historical crime fiction set in Germany, and Luke McCallin divulged his fantasy of Kerr’s Bernie Günther and his Gregor Rheinhardt appearing in each others works!

Why are German authors not writing historical crime set in National Socialist or GDR times?  “They say it is too early”, said Mrs Peabody, pointing out to David Young that Simon Urban’s Plan D, set in an alternate present, is his nearest competition  “Oh, there’s far too much internalisation in that novel”, replied David Young. “It could have been much better.”

Cue coffee and a good old chin wag with Mrs Peabody before she left to prepare for the second event ….  Turned out it was Wulf Dorn’s 1st UK event, and only Cay Rademacher’s 2nd!


Cay Rademacher, Mrs Peabody and Wulf Dorn – courtesy of Mrs Peabody

Wulf Dorn was a psychiatric therapist before turning to crime writing.  He likes to explore the abyss of the human mind, using Friedrich Duerrenmatt as his role model.  His motivating factor is suspense, not blood and gore.  His novels have yet to be published in English (though I believe something may be in the pipeline), but all have a fantastic premise, said Mrs P. Then she asked:  “How do you come up with these?  Do you soak in the bath, go for long walks, or do you simply have a twisted imagination?”.  Wulf Dorn:  “If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.”

Cay Rademacher’s Inspector Stave series is available to English readers.  The Murderer in Ruins and The Wolf Children are set in post-war Hamburg.  Set in the cold, cold winter of 1947, the first is based on an unsolved case, reconstructed by Rademacher to provide a solution.  The second is set in the hot summer of 1948 which heralded the beginning of Germany’s economic miracle with the introduction of the German Mark. I intend reading  both when I visit Hamburg in June.

There was discussion about the popularity of the prologue in crime fiction, something authors are taught not to write.  Both authors agreed that the prologue has grown in popularity since the introduction of e-books.  These are now so cheap that a novel must have a hook in the first few pages to prevent readers moving straight onto the next one.

Time for audience questions:

From me:  Do you think that a crime novel will ever win the German Book Prize?  Both authors were adamant that it will never happen, (which is interesting given Marlon James’s success with the Booker Prize).

Another member of the audience asked for further German crime recommendations.  Works recommended were Volker Fischer – Babylon Berlin (in TBR), Melanie Raabe’s The Trap (best forgotten IMO), and Andreas Eschbach (new name to me and more science fiction than crime?)

With that a very interesting afternoon came to a close with lots of leads for further reading.  I made only one e-book purchase, deciding I couldn’t wait until Wulf Dorn’s work appears in English. When asked which novels should be translated first into English, he answered Phobia, which is set in London with the following premise.  A woman greets her husband when he comes home from work. He is wearing the clothes he went to work in and carries the same briefcase  … but he is not her husband.  Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? (To be continued.)

I was on the road March into April, and so I have two months of wrap-up outstanding.

I attended not 1, not 2, but 3 book festivals: Glasgow Aye Write!, the Leipzig Book Fair in conjunction with Leipzig Liest, and I’m just back from Newcastle Noir. (More on that later in the week.)

I read or listened to a total of 22 books during that time and I have reviewed only 10, which is not surprising given all the travelling.  A batch of mini-reviews will help me catchup on the thus-far-unreviewed.


Books Read March 2017

Total YTD: 39 read, 4 DNF, 3 audio books
Total for March 2017:  Read 7 plus 1 audio book
Total for April 2017: Read 11 plus 2 audio books


Books Read April 2017

Reviews March/April 2017: 10

What’s to Become of the Boy? – Heinrich Böll
 Mini-Reviews: Under A Pole Star – Stef Penney,  Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak, Billionaire’s Banquet – Ron Butlin, The Intrusions- Stav Sherez
Sand – Wolfgang Herrndorf
My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier
Maigret’s Memoirs – Georges Simenon
Where Were You, Adam? – Heinrich Böll
The Hour of the Jackal – Bernhard Jaumann

Book of the Month March 2017: Stav Sherez’s zeitgeisty and scarey The Intrusions

Book of the Month April 2017: I’m excluding Janice Galloway’s Clara as it was my Book of the Year in 2007.  Nevertheless, this is still a tough call because 2 of the books I read for the 1951 club were superb: Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel or Böll’s Where were you, Adam? It’s neck and neck until Böll steals it with the power of the final image.

Finally an update on purchasing targets.  I have bought more than I intended over the first four months of the year, BUT I have also culled many more than I thought I would.  The upshot of this is that according to my 2017 allowance equation,  I start May with an outstanding purchase allowance of 5 (and a wishlist of 205!)  Next update in August Wrap-Up – following the danger that is the Edinburgh Book Festival!

(2017 purchase allowance = 2 per month + (total books read + total books culled)/5)

hour of the jackalWinner of the 2011 German Prize for Crime Fiction
Translated from German by John Brownjohn

Lack of evidence ensured that no-one was ever successfully prosecuted for the 1989 political assassination of pro-independence, anti-apartheid activist, Anton Lubowski. Even if the identities of the killers were known.

In The Hour of the Jackal, Jaumann imagines what would happen, if decades after the event, someone decides that justice must finally be served. A merciless, brutal assassin begins to take out Lubowski’s killers. It is a race against time for he is, himself, terminally ill.

The detective, Clemencia Garises, makes the connection between the victims after the second killing and seeks to contact the other men the hit list. Yet she is obstructed by both by the lack of urgency in her own force and by influential others: the retired judge of the failed trial and her own superiors. She would make no headway if she didn’t have the help of a German journalist, whose interest in her is a little more than professional.

Clemencia is a dedicated officer with trials of her own. In an inversion of the usual trope, it’s not that she has no family, rather that she has too much. She shares the two-roomed home, paid-for entirely by her, with her two children and her extended family, including two meddlesome, match-making aunts. (They love the journalist, by the way.) Clemencia’s only demand that she has a room of her own. The sometimes comic tribulations of Clemencia at home contrast sharply with the serious and life-threatening problems of the case, which is dark, violent and steeped in the murky politics of the late-80’s.

The novel includes a portrait of Namibia itself, a vast country with dust-track roads and a climate of extremes. Changeable with sudden storms – just like the plot. Clemencia’s family life  allows the author to inject local colour, and is reminiscent of Alexander McCall-Smith’s Ladies Detective Series, although Clemencia is no Madama Ramotswe. Jaumann’s assassin has much in common with Frederick Forsyth’s jackal, and I’m sure the title is no accidental homage. Like Forsyth’s jackal, Jaumann’s is hunting real people, with uncamoflagued identities.  Given that they weren’t convicted of the crime in reality, and some were still living when Jaumann named them here, the author isn’t compromising in any way. Unlike his detective, who finds herself fighting to save the lives of men whose values she loathes. It makes for a most interesting dilemma.

This post is part of a series in which I investigate the German Krimi, guided by Katharina Hall’s Crime Fiction in German. Jaumann’s novel is discussed in more detail in chapter 5: Der Afrika-Krimi (Crime Novels set in Africa).


sandWinner of the Leipzig Book Fair Prize 2012
Translated from German by Tim Mohr

I was a little nervous going into this Leipzig Book Prize award-winning novel, having previously abandoned two others. I needn’t have worried – this one is a bit of a page turner!

Somewhere in the Sahara of the early 70s, two local policemen get drunk and take an IQ test for 12 to 13 year olds.  Polidoro scores a measly 102.  His colleague, Canisades, 130.  Soon they are interrogating a suspected murderer.  Allegedly he drove into the nearby American commune and killed 4 people.  During the interrogation, it is not at all clear whether he is innocent or guilty.  Regardless he is going to pay with his life.  And then he escapes and disappears into the desert.

At the same time a nameless man – known later as Carl, because of brand of his suit  – regains consciousness in a barn somewhere in the desert.  He has a bad head injury and no memory whatsoever.  But he knows he is in mortal peril.  Fortunately he hasn’t lost his resourcefulness, because he needs it and will continue to do so for the rest of the novel.  It seems that everyone is out to get Carl – gangsters, American molls, cod psychologists, enemies posing as friends. If only he could work out his identity, there might be a resolution.  As it is, he is beaten and tortured, chased from pillar to post,  or rather from sand dune to underground mine, in the course of which he effects escapes worthy of Houdini.

At one point, as he is being chased across the dunes:

Two flat slabs of rock stood in the sand next to each other as if in a toaster.  In their slipstream a deep trench had formed.  He threw his body into it, his head between the slabs of rock , and shoveled sand onto his legs and torso.  He burrowed his arms sideways into the ground. It wasn’t difficult to make little avalanches of sand pour down on himself from the slanted sides of the trench.  Finally he rotated his head back and forth between the rock slabs. …. He breathed deeply, closed his eyes and rotated his head back and forth again. Another load of sand slid down over his forehead to his cheekbones, dusting his eyelids, cheeks and the corners of his mouth like powdered sugar.  He had only a very rough impression as to how much of his face will still uncovered.  Probably his chin and the tipof his nose.  But he couldn’t turn his head any more now.  With a little puff he blew a few grains of sand out of his nose and waited.

Buried alive.  Hellish.  And yet it’s not the scariest thing that happens to him.

The mystery of Carl is the central mystery of this novel. It may, or may not,  involve espionage, drug-dealing, gold smuggling.  It certainly involves a man named Centrois, who may, or may not,  be Carl.   After Carl’s appearance,  the first crime disappears from view. Why its inclusion?  As far as I can see, it purpose is to signal some of the games that Herrndorf will play in the main narrative. He’s not going to pander to reader’s expectations.. The question of innocence or guilt – answered in the first case at the half-way point – is never clarified with regard to Carl, although I find myself presuming guilt (for, otherwise, all these bad people wouldn’t be after him, would they?) Yes, guilty even though we can do nothing but sympathise with the poor, persecuted soul.    There is also a comic element to Polidoro and Canisades, with comedy reappearing from time to time – possibly to relieve an ever darkening mood.  Regardless, the scene with the “psychologist” is very, very funny.  And the word play on the French word “mine”,  ingenious.

Written when Herrndorf was suffering from a terminal brain tumour, it’s telling that Carl has a severe head injury.

He tried to turn his head and felt pains he couldn’t pinpoint. As if a fist were trying to push his eyes out of his head from the inside …

Is Carl’s experience a projection of the inside of Herrndorf’s head at the time of writing?  Other reviews have used the word nihilistic.   Certainly Herrndorf allows something to happen to Carl that I would find unforgiveable elsewhere, and yet, knowing the author knew his own struggles to be futile, I understand completely.

This post is stage 8 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project.

Next stop: Denmark

With last night’s announcement of the Man Booker International Prize shortlist, I think all shortlists of interest have been declared.

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (1)

Best Translated Book Award (1)

Bolinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize (2)

International Dublin Literary Award (2)

Man Booker International Prize (3)

The Petrona Award (1)

Rathbones Folio Prize (2)

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction (4 plus 2 already read)

The numbers in brackets indicate the number of shortlist titles in my TBR.  It’s clear that some judging panels didn’t take that into account when making their choices! 😂 Nevertheless, with some crossovers (titles appearing on more than one shortlist), and 1 or 2 purchases (OK 3), I now have 16 shortlisted titles.  Just enough for a tournament to keep me entertained and away from further purchases until publication of the Edinburgh Book Festival Programme on June 8th ( following which there will be a flurry of acquisitions.)

Where possible books competing for the same prize are paired with each other in the first round.  Otherwise my logic – just go with it.  The resulting draw (edited on 22.04 with the late inclusion of two titles from the Helen and Kurt Wolff translation prize shortlist) is as follows.  I’m quite pleased with this.  Two groups: one for Anglophone fiction, the second for translated.  The two meeting only in the finaL

The Barry vs Tremain bout has been settled as I read both novels for the Costa Prize in January. I’m reversing the decision I made then, because Days without End has simply stayed with me better than The Gustav Sonata, and Walter Scott Prize Winners are always memorable!

Onwards …