Posts Tagged ‘Tournament of Shorlisted Books 2017’

imageWinner of the 2014 Nordic Council Award
Translated from Swedish by Neil Smith

I was rooting for this novel to lift the Petrona Award (for best Scandi Crime novel) on Saturday night, but it was not to be.  All I can say is that the winner (which I will be making a beeline for) must be utterly fantastic because The Wednesday Club was one of the most satisfying reads of 2017 to date.

It’s not your standard crime novel. In fact, after the prologue, in which Claes Thune’s secretary, Matilda Wiik goes missing, there’s no mention of the police for another 300 pages! Instead the narrative rolls back eight months to describe the events leading up to the disappearance.

Set in Helsinki 1938, following the Austrian Anschluss, it documents the unrest and tensions arising in Finland through the eyes and attitudes of Claes Thune’s fellow members of the Wednesday Club, a group that meets once a month to drink lots of liquor (!) and to debate issues of the day. Long-standing friendships mean that there is no rancour when disagreements arise. It is very civilised. For the sake of the group, Thune even swallows his pride when one of them runs away with his wife! And yet at this critical point in time, political attitudes are diverging and hardening. The group’s cohesion begins to weaken, and division becomes inevitable.

This group of gentlement works as a microcosm of society. There are Nazi sympathisers, supporters of appeasement, adherents of resistance and others, like Claes Thune who seem to be as bemused politically as he is personally. Hoping for the best. And there is the Jew, Joachim Jary, destined to be the victim, not only because of his race, but because of his chronic depression. His illness enables a disquietening discussion on the Nazi rationale for euthanasia of the disabled.

All of which is not necessarily specifically Finnish. The novel becomes so through the revelations of Mrs Wiik’s history. She’s a woman with a past she would love to forget and keen to keep secret. Why? Because 20 years previously she was on the wrong side of history, finding herself on the losing Red side of the Finnish Civil War. Even now this counts against her even though she was punished for it at the time with internment in a concentration camp, where unspeakable things happened to her. Yet her memories flood back, when she hears the voice of her persecutor on the night she works late to deliver drinks to the Wednesday Club.

And while she recognises him, he doesn’t recognise her, leaving the way free for her to plan a leisurely revenge. The identity of the man and how Mrs Wiik’s intends to revenge herself are the mysteries at the heart of this novel, both solved, along with her disappearance, only in the final 5 pages.

I didn’t see any of it coming, possibly because I found the historical revelations alongside their warnings for our future fascinating; the characterisation equally so.  Westö’s characters are not ciphers, one dimensional representations of political viewpoints; they are fully human with the capacity to surprise, by acting in ways contrary to their utterances.

So even though I now know the outcome, this is a historical crime novel with sufficient depth to fully repay a reread or two.  It is, in summary, quite brilliant!

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James Robertson’s novel faces quite a challenge, if it is to progress into the next round of my tournament of shortlisted books, given that Nina Stibbe’s Paradise Lodge scored a whopping 42/50. But this is a strong contender, and will fight like a true Scot.  So don’t write it off just yet.

As both novels are contending for Bolinger Everyman Wdehouse Prize for Comic Fiction, I shall evaluate To Be Continued using the same criteria as Stibbe’s novel: cover, plot, characterisation, scope and LOL moments.

Cover 10/10

This cover is a wonder – in fact, it was my favourite cover of 2016.  Why?  Because it transformed the book into a matching fashion accessory, and redefined the notion of well-dressed for me!


Need I say more?

Plot 8/10

Douglas Findhorn Elder is about to turn 50.  He has just been made redundant, is in denial about the end of his 10-year partnership, and his father has just been moved into a care home.  We meet him pondering  his crises on a bus journey through Edinburgh on his way to a funeral.  Except the bus is stuck in a traffic jam – much like Douglas himself.

He needs an adventure to get himself out of the doldrums, to reignite his life. And his first piece of freelance journalism is about to send him on a trip to a remote Highland estate, with a talking toad for companionship. It is an assignment/ escapade that will give more than enough inspiration for the novel he is failing to write, and will change his life forever.

Characterisation 7/10

Roll back a moment there. Did you say a talking toad? Indeed, I did. Mungo Forth Mungo is his name, who acts as Douglas’s confidante, conscience and at times, mentor.  Because Douglas needs someone to make him think as he has not thought for a long, long time. He comes into Douglas’s life one drunken evening  and leaves when it is time to hibernate – albeit belatedly, because those lengthy adventures in the Highlands require almost toad-ex-machina interventions at times.  Thankfully there is enough insect life to keep Mungo’s wits well-fed and sharp!

Douglas himself is a man in the full throes of a mid-life crisis, and although this is his story, he’s a bit of a grey flannel. However, there’s nothing less than a rainbow of subsidiary characters to brighten things up: the harridan ex-partner, the funeral assistant come whisky-bootlegger, the pub musician/alcoholic innkeeper/tee-total estate manager/whisky bootlegger (all different identities of one very mixed-up individual), the 100-year old grande dame of Glentaragar House and her granddaughter – another individual with dual identities.

Tis all very entertaining  and just a tad surreal and you need your wits about you to keep up. Reality intervenes in the form of Scotland …

Scope and Setting 8/10

… which is very recognisable in these pages, particularly to those who have sat for hours on a grid-locked bus in Edinburgh (that would be me), or tried to reach remote      areas on other forms of public transport (impossible as Douglas finds out).  Though when the action hits the glen – emptied of people other than tourists and the inhabitants of Glentaragar House there’s a slight sniff of politicism. Robertson is a proud and patriotic Scot and you can tell that the neglect of the Highlands rankles.

Possibly also the outcome of the 2014 Indyref? The novel is set a few weeks after the that referendum and Douglas Elder’s commission is the first in a mooted series on “The Idea of Scotland”. This strand didn’t enthuse me much, even though Robertson isn’t heavy handed. I can’t begin to tell you about how tired I am of Scottish politics at the moment.   Apart from a few dull pages, most of this is a knowledgeable satire on journalism.

The novel’s firmly set within the tradition of Scottish literary history with the plot. full of homage to classics such as Whisky Galore! and The 39 Steps,  and, I  suspect, many more. Oh yes, those dual identities – Jekyll and Hyde, what else!

LOL Moments 9/10

It takes a while to get going, and there are a few breathers here and there, but generally this is a full-on carry-on adventure.  A bit barmy, but there’s enough realism in the mix to keep things grounded.  I laughed more in recognition than in hilarity, but I loved, loved, loved the whisky-riff!!!  I need to be surprised to LOL, and it says much about me that it took a talking toad to do that! Mungo Forth Mungo’s wordplay is sublime.

Bout result

Which brings the final score on the door to 42/50.  It’s a draw!  But there must be a  knockout in a tournament of this kind. The judge must cast the deciding vote. And so, because there were times when I found To Be Continued slightly less than enthralling, I declare Paradise Lodge the winner!  Ironic isn’t it,  the comic novel that did make me LOL doesn’t progress to the next round …

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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!

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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.


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