“I have no patience with the modern neurotic girl who jazzes from morning to night, smokes like a chimney, and uses language which would make a Billingsgate fishwoman blush!” (Agatha Christie, The Murder on the Links)

You might be able to tell from my gravatar that my hair was worn in a very short pixie crop. I decided to grow it into a bob, and it’s taking approximately eleventy billion years to get there. The result of this is that despite my love of all things art deco, and indiscriminate detective show watching, I cannot watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries due to serious hair envy.

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Thank goodness Poirot is bald. And I don’t mind the fact that his moustache is (marginally) better than mine. So for now my experience of a fictionalised 1920s needs to be limited to novels where I can pretend that all the women have crew cuts.

Firstly, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I don’t read many thriller-type novels, and Waters wouldn’t wholly fall into this category, but she can certainly write a page-turner and I find myself reading compulsively to reach the end as soon as possible. Set in 1922, The Paying Guests is set amongst the hardships and fallout of World War I.  Frances Wray and her mother live in the mildly oppressive south London suburbs, grieving the loss of Frances’ brother in the trenches and the subsequent death of her father, which has resulted in the need for them to take in paying guests (Mrs Wray’s suburban sensibilities baulk at the term ‘lodgers’). Frances had been a suffragette and in a loving relationship with another woman before the war, but had given up both to support her mother, and live a kind of half-life:

“She was young, fit, healthy. She had – what did she have? Little pleasures like this. Little successes in the kitchen. The cigarette at the end of the day. Cinema with her mother on a Wednesday. Regular trips into Town. There were spells of restlessness now and again; but any life had those. There were longings, there were desires…”

The paying guests arrive in the form of Mr and Mrs Barber, and Frances is drawn towards the colourful and artistic Lilian:

“And that was all it took. They smiled at each other across the table, and some sort of shift occurred between them. There was a quickening, a livening – Frances could think of nothing to compare it with save some culinary process. It was like the white of an egg growing pearly in hot water, a milk sauce thickening in the pan. It was as subtle yet as tangible as that.”

Frances and Lilian begin an affair, and the brilliance of Waters’ writing means this is set within meticulous – but never overwhelming – period detail, and is simultaneously erotic and yet with a sense of foreboding that draws you onwards:

“Only when Frances’s lips began to travel to her knuckles did she draw one of her hands free – the left hand, the one with the rings on it. She set it down to steady herself against Frances’s embrace and there was the muted tap of her wedding band, a small, chill sound in the darkness.”

I won’t say much more for fear of spoilers, except that The Paying Guests is Waters at the height of her powers, achieving a compulsive plot-driven story that is also humane and moving:

“Making her way back to the yard, looking again at the rosily lighted windows of her own and her neighbours’ houses, she had the stifling sensation that she was putting herself beyond the reach of those warm, ordinary rooms, cutting herself off forever from all that was decent and calm.”

One of my favourite things from the 1920s

One of my favourite things from the 1920s

Secondly, Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. A fictional biography of Charles Carter, golden-age stage magician, Gold’s first novel follows Carter from his childhood discovery of his vocation, through his apprenticeship in seedy sideshows, to his zenith performing the titular spectacle.

“The rarest need in life is the one met suddenly and completely. This is how it was with Charles Carter and the art of magic.”

For much of the novel, Carter is in existential crisis (not as tedious at it sounds) having lost the love of his life. There’s also the small matter of being pursued by the Secret Service who suspect him of having killed President Harding and having an arch nemesis lurking in the background, waiting to strike. The 1920s setting is perfect, perched as it is on the cusp of a new world – technology is growing apace and the old theatre traditions are dying out, while the aftermath of the war adds an extra dimension to the audiences’ need for magic:

“Six nights a week, sometimes twice a night, Carter gave the illusion of cheating death. The great irony, in his eyes, was that he did not wish to cheat it. He spent the occasional hour imagining himself facedown in eternity. Since the war, he had learned how to recognise a whole class of comrades, men who had seen too much: even at parties, they had a certain hollowing around the eyes, as if a glance in the mirror would show them only a fool having a good time. The most telling trait was the attempted smile, a smile aware of being borrowed.”

As with magicians, Gold’s art is visual, he creates such vivid scenes that this was one of those novels that I could clearly see being filmed. Although a chunky novel, it doesn’t flag and, like Carter’s show, builds to a satisfying denouement.

Carter Beats the Devil is about the illusions we accept, those we refute, the role of marvel in our lives, and when to take the leap and abandon the need to know how it all works.

“Faith was a choice. So, it followed was wonder.”

To end, the most tickety-boo, spiffingest flapper of them all, the divine Josephine Baker, who truly is the cat’s meow:

“The inspector sat down on a stair, fired up a cigarette, and entered an immobility contest with a lizard.” (The Snack Thief, Andrea Camilleri)

Reader, I’ve been abandoned by a man.  He just left, with no word of when he will return and how I miss him.  He’s gorgeous, he lives in a place of outstanding beauty, he shares my food obsession and always brings the sunshine with him.

Apparently possession of a Y chromosome is necessary to become a police officer in Vigata

Apparently possession of a Y chromosome is prerequisite to becoming a police officer in Vigata

Image from here

Always a sucker for the BBC4 Saturday night foreign detective dramas, I am deeply traumatised by the ending of Young Montalbano, whose Sicilian sunshine was no end of help in getting me through these grey February days.  The deli across the road sells great arancini but carb-loading on the Inspector’s favourite food is not quite compensating for my loss.

The BBC tried to make up for the series ending by screening an interview with the author of the Montalbano books, 88 year -old Andrea Camilleri. The man is charm personified so if you have a chance to watch this interview in the next few weeks I definitely recommend it.  In the opening scene Camilleri pays tribute to Spanish crime writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban, after whom he named his creation.  So off I trot to Barcelona in the company of Pepe Carvalho, Montalban’s private detective, in the hope that Spanish sunshine will help keep my vicarious vitamin D levels up. For this post I’ve paired it with another Spanish crime novel, The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo (tr. Isabelle Kaufeler), which I was delighted to win in a giveaway on Elena’s lovely blog, Books and Reviews.  Do head over to B&R for Elena’s insightful review of The Invisible Guardian and interview with the author. These two books are also one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

In Tattoo (tr. Nick Caistor), Pepe Carvalho “an ex-cop, an ex-Marxist and a gourmet” is hired by a local hairdresser to identify a body that has been pulled out of the sea, badly disfigured but with the legend “Born to Raise Hell in Hell” tattooed on his back.  It’s a shame Montalban has died, because a cross-over novel penned by him and Camilleri would have been something to behold; their two protagonists are so similar that they’d either become bosom buddies or detest each other on sight:

“Strolling aimlessly around the market was one of the few ways that this tall, dark-haired man in his thirties, who somehow contrived to look slightly dishevelled despite wearing expensive suits from tailors in the smartest part of town, allowed himself some spiritual relaxation whenever he left Charo’s neighbourhood and headed back to his lair on the slopes of the mountain overlooking Barcelona.”

Carvalho’s investigation takes him from Barcelona to Amsterdam where he becomes embroiled in the drugs trade, gets badly beaten, and engages sex workers as informers. He is tough and cynical and in that sense very much in the line of familiar hard-boiled detectives, but Montalban has self-referential fun with this:

 “Carvalho did not want to seem too smart, or behave like a Chandler character facing a stupid, brutal LAPD cop.” 

This is Tattoo’s main appeal for me – a European sensibility brought to a Chandler-esque tale. I wasn’t keen on the violence towards women, particularly when one of them sleeps with Carvalho straight afterwards, but Montalban redeems himself slightly by having sex worker who is strong, independent, and not punished by rape and/or being killed off, which I didn’t entirely expect for a novel written in the 1970s. The tale is told with dry humour through some remarkable images: “the man had the mental recall of a great masturbator”. Quite.

This is the second Carvalho mystery and I didn’t feel I had to have read the first. Apparently the series becomes more politically engaged as it goes along, the ‘ex-Marxist’ element of the detective satirising Spanish politics, which is an interesting turn to take – for this reason I definitely plan on spending more time in Pepe’s company.

I do love me some Gaudi

Barcelona – I do love me some Gaudi

Image from here

From Barcelona to Basque country, and The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo. I am not a big reader of contemporary crime fiction, but I was intrigued by Elena’s review, which described how the Basque setting of Elizondo brought its own unique atmosphere to the novel:

“The Baztan forest is enchanting, with a serene, ancient beauty that effortlessly brings out people’s most human side; a childlike part of them that believes in fairies with webbed ducks’ feet that used to live in the forest… Amaia felt the presence of such beings in that forest so tangibly that it seemed easy to believe in a druid culture, the power of trees over men, and to imagine a time when communion between magical beings and humans was a religion throughout the valley”

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Image from here

Amaia is Inspector Salazar, deployed from Pamplona back to her home town to investigate a series of murders: young girls, strangled and laid out ritualistically. While the details of the dead are disturbing, I didn’t feel it was overly gory, and certainly not voyeuristically gruesome. We are never allowed to forget that these are young people, on the cusp of womanhood, robbed of their lives:

 “the girl’s small, pale face with tiny drops of water still trapped in her eyelashes acted like clamorous cries to which she could not help but respond”

As Amaia investigates the murders she also has to face the ghosts of her past, and although she is deeply troubled, she’s not the stereotype of a tortured, isolated, renegade detective. She is happily married (although the relationship is under strain), she has family around her including a loving, strong aunt,  and she follows procedure.

“This was her hometown, a place in which she had lived for most of her life. It was part of her, like a genetic trace, it was where she returned to in her dreams when she wasn’t dreaming about the dead bodies, assailants, killers and suicides which mingled obscenely in her nightmares”

What I thought Redondo did exceptionally well was mixing a recogniseable contemporary reality with the old religion, mysticism and mythology of the past; the investigation progresses through a combination of procedural police work with intuition and precognition. This never jars and adds to the eerie, unnerving quality evoked by the Baztan forest without losing the tension of the investigation. It’s an extraordinary achievement. My one reservation is that the dialogue occasionally felt a bit clunky, but I suspect this may be a translation issue as I imagine trying to capture natural speech is extremely difficult. The Invisible Guardian is the first in a trilogy and I’m really looking forward to the next two installments.

To end, a glimpse of where BBC4 is taking me after Sicily. I haven’t watched last week’s episodes yet, and although it looks great, I think I’ll need to get my vicarious sunshine elsewhere:

The Tendrils of the Vine – Colette (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #59)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

When I first started this challenge, I thought it would never be complete as I have commitment issues Wikipedia told me that Tendrils of the Vine had never been translated.  Yesterday in my favourite charity bookshop (handily located across the road from my flat, so I don’t have to stagger far with my heavy loads/nightmarishly located across the road from my flat – if you had a problem with drug addiction you wouldn’t live opposite a crack den) I picked up a huge volume of The Collected Stories of Colette for £3.50, and was very excited to see Tendrils of the Vine translated within it (by Herma Briffault – and I see Wiki no longer makes its fallacious claim).

In fact , Tendrils of the Vine, proclaimed A Fable in the title, is only 1000 words long and I may have been able to struggle through with my appalling French.  The difficulty is, being only 1000 words long, I really can’t say too much about it without spoilers, so this will be an uncharacteristically short post from me 🙂

The story begins in typical fable fashion, describing how the nightingale got his song:

“While he slept, the vine’s gimlet feelers – those imperious and clinging tendrils whose sharp taste, like that of fresh sorrel, acts a stimulant and slakes the thirst, began to grow  so thickly during the night that the bird woke up to find himself bound fast, his feet hobbled in strong withes, his wings powerless…”

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The nightingale escapes, and sings relentlessly to keep himself awake through the Spring,  thereby avoiding the terrors of the vine.  I can’t say much more, except Colette then expands this into a truly creepy and oppressive tale. The fact that she does this in 1000 words within a pastoral fabulistic setting makes it like a short, sharp punch to the sternum. What a writer – I’m looking forward to reading the rest of my newly-acquired tome.

Colette, who when she wasn't writing, sat around being awesome

Colette, who when she wasn’t writing, sat around being awesome

“We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.” (Robert Wilensky)

Gong Hei Fat Choi! Happy New Year of the Fire Monkey! To celebrate the start of the Lunar New Year I thought I would look at writers from cultures that celebrate this event: a Hong-Kong born writer’s Philippines-set novel, and a Japanese writer, as the interwebs tell me Japan celebrates both the Gregorian and Lunar new years.  These will also be two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Fire Monkey - this is going to be your year, my simian friend

Fire Monkey – this is going to be your year, my simian friend

Image from here

Firstly, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard by Timothy Mo (1995). I picked this up because it was enthusiastically recommended  in a lecture I attended on post-colonial literature. Brownout is set primarily in the Philippines, in the fictional city of Gobernador de Leon, where Victoria Init, admirer of Imelda Marcos, strives to extend her congressman husband’s power.

“Rubbish carts too dilapidated to carry the neat and frugal household wastes of Osaka had come from Japan; schoolbuses no longer fit to carry Korean children from Seoul; traffic lights , too laconic to blink longer at the soldierly traffic in Wellington would glare defeasance implacably red-eyed at the escaped lunatics behind the steering wheels of the Gobernador de Leon jeepneys. Traffic was absurdly heavy…you would stay in the same place a maximum of five minute before creeping on again…So what if it was only inches? Advance was cumulative; the achievement slow but palpable. In short, at the end of it you had made progress. Progress was Victoria Init’s idol. She would sacrifice everything and everyone at the feet of that stern shibboleth”

The second part of the novel deals with a conference of academics coming to the city, through which Mo is able to extend the portrait of corruption flourishing in the face of lazy indifference and self-interest far beyond the politicking Inits and a toothless journalist named Boyet. The visiting intellectuals have no understanding, wrapped up as they are in their own tiny worlds. Some are overtly derogatory to other cultures, others restraining themselves to sweeping racism:

“Filipinos don’t actually have a colonial chip on their shoulder…The ordinary pinoy likes America and Americans, in fact there’s nothing he’d like better than to be one. And as for the language of the oppressor issue, Holy Moses, they grow up speaking English. It’s as natural to them as…”

I think it speaks volumes that the sentence is unfinished by the speaker. As a satire Brownout doesn’t entirely work – there’s not really a character to care about, to anchor the narrative to or throw the corrupt into sharp relief.  It’s a novel filled with characters, a broad portrait that for me could have done with being a little deeper.  However, Mo is a highly skilled writer and, as my lecturer suggested, Brownout is certainly interesting from a post-colonial point of view. It didn’t wholly capture me but I enjoyed it enough that it makes it onto this blog, where I only write about books I recommend.

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Image from here

Secondly, The Diving Pool by prolific Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa (trans. Stephen Snyder), a collection of three stories written in a beautiful, spare style. In the deeply unsettling titular story a young girl falls in love with her foster brother:

“Sometimes I wish I could describe how wonderful I feel in those few seconds from time he spreads his arms above his head, as if trying to grab hold of something, to the instant he vanishes into the water. But I never can find the right words. Perhaps it’s because he’s falling through time, to a place where words can never reach.”

The narrator lives with a large extended family where she is the only biological child.

“I can never hear the words ‘family’ and ‘home’ without feeling that they sound strange, never simply hear them and let them go. When I stop to examine them, though, the words seem hollow, seem to rattle at my feet like empty cans.”

It’s quite a feat that for a precise, beautifully eloquent writer such as Ogawa, she makes what is left unsaid and unacknowledged the dominant theme of the collection. The girl in The Diving Pool carries out horrible acts of cruelty without really knowing why; in Pregnancy Diary, a young woman is mesmerised and yet alienated by her sister’s pregnancy:

“I wonder how she broke the news to her husband. I don’t really know what they talk about when I’m not around. In fact, I don’t really understand couples at all. They seem like some sort inexplicable gaseous body to me – a shapeless, colourless, unintelligible thing trapped in a laboratory beaker.”

Again, the narrator does not behave well, indeed, behaves in a shocking way, with quiet malice. The inarticulate nature of the narrators makes their behaviour all the more unsettling, as it is presented through simple statements of fact, unadorned and unjustified.

In the final story, Dormitory, a young woman returns to the dorm building she stayed in as a student:

“I would hear it for the briefest moment whenever my thoughts returned to the dormitory. The world in my head would become white, like a wide, snow-covered plain, and from somewhere high up in the sky, the faint vibration began…I never knew how to describe it. Still, from time to time I attempted analogies: the icy murmur of a fountain in winter when a coin sinks to the bottom; the quaking of the fluid in the inner ear as you get off a merry-go-round; the sound of night passing through the palm of your hand still gripping the phone after your lover hangs up…”

Ogawa is a stunning writer, and in this final story, rather than a psychologically disturbed protagonist, she unsettles the reader by leading them down a well-worn narrative route, before abruptly destabilising it with a surreal and astonishing final image. Highly recommended.