Weekend Coffee Share 14th August: Other Ways to Book

If we were having coffee and you asked me what I was reading at the moment (people always ask book editors —and sometime-book-bloggers—what they’re reading at the moment), I would tell you I’m reading a (slightly disappointing) thriller and also doing a lot of faux reading.

Yes. Fake. Reading. When you are short on spare time (I have mentioned toddler twins, yes?), us readers must find other ways to book. And while I can in theory sneak in 15 minutes on my commute, and another 5 while I meander (carefully) the streets of central London on my way to the office, and perhaps another 10 in bed before I pass out for the night, it’s not really enough. Plus in the multitasking fury that is my brain sometimes those train rides are for other things like the grocery order, the birthday message that is 3 days late, a really (un)important Facebook update or some mindless staring while said brain fails to latch on to any one thing for more than 10 seconds. I’m tired. And my brain is tired and sometimes even reading, to my utter disappointment, seems tiring.

And so I have found myself listening and watching ‘books’ instead. I know stories are stories but of late my radio listening and television watching is geared to the literary adaptation, and somewhere in my chaotic mind this ‘counts’ as book time. Not that I should have to justify it. Well, except that I’m a supposed book blogger who is too tired to read… In any case I have recently enjoyed some wonderful renditions of novels that have then inspired me to seek out the original material so that one day I can experience them again (properly—well, as intended) in their text-based form.

Radio 4 is one of the great joys of living in the UK and apart from hosting the only soap opera I care about, they broadcast the most wonderful radio dramas. It is from here that I have recently enjoyed the sheer fun and exquisiteness of Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (thanks to a tip-off from a friend), and the rich, intense, ambitious novels of AS Byatt’s ‘Frederica Quartet’. On television we this week finished the third season of the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, a wonderful series based on Kerry Greenwood’s delicious novels set in the 1920s and featuring Phryne Fisher, the most fabulous lady-detective ever invented. Earlier in the summer a delightful adaptation of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals (one of those books I fear everyone else in the entire world has read except for myself), kept us both entertained and endeared.

So here we are now on our second coffee (it’s been a long week, right?) and I can tell you that even though I may be too tired and my brain too busy to devote the time to reading that I would like, I am at least finding other ways to ‘book’, to immerse myself in intriguing, clever and enjoyable literature—the type of stories that both cheer and inspire.

And very soon, in a mere few moments, I will be off to bed with the thriller I’m reading to squeeze in 10 more minutes of reading joy before I pass out. Goodnight, coffee drinkers and readers. Book well.

Burned, Pierced and Scarred – the Henning Juul series by Thomas Enger

My crime novel collection is varied in style and geography. I have American Jeffery Deaver for thrillers, Australiaburnedns Peter Corris for PI procedural and Kerry Greenwood for the most fabulous 1920s lady detective ever, Andrea Camilleri for Sicilian detection brilliance, CS Harris for Regency romance and murder, Elmore Leonard for noir, and many more. What had been missing from my shelves for some time was a regular Scandinavian crime writer, but now I have found one—Thomas Enger.

It may seem odd that it has taken me so long to commit to a Scandi crime novelist. It does to me. What with the explosion over the last decade or so of excellent Scandi crime and thrillers hitting the English-language world. I had intentions. Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, Anne Holt… I think perhaps I was sated by the television: Unit One, The Eagle, The Killing etc. It doesn’t really matter, does it? I finally got there.

Henning Juul is a journalist with a knack for working out those things others don’t. A loner with a personal tragic mystery to solve—who set the fire to his home that killed his son, and why? In book one—Burned—we meet Henning as he returns to the workforce after he has recovered (physically) from the tragic fire. He is quiet, wearing scars and carrying a heavy heart. Each night he obsessively changes the batteries in his smoke detectors, and most of his thoughts are focussed on his son and his loss.

He starts work at an online newspaper in Oslo and covers the police rounds. He is an experienced journo—professional, eagle-eyed, able to get people to tell him things even if they didn’t want to.  Before long he is re-establishing contacts with the police, including a former school mate. And then there is the anonymous police source who contacts him piercedonline—who gives tips and helpful advice, and also seems to be able to assist in Henning’s quest to discover the truth surrounding his son’s death.

Meanwhile in Oslo, a young woman’s body is found on a frozen expanse. She has been stoned to death, whipped, and one of her hand’s is noticeably absent. Henning is sent to cover the story, and even though an arrest is made early on, something doesn’t add up for our protagonist and he finds himself continuing to investigate the crime.

In book two, Pierced, a former enforcer turned real-estate magnate has been found guilty of a murder he says he didn’t commit. He contacts our hero and promises information on the fire that killed Henning’s son if Henning helps clear his name. Henning understandably agrees, determined to get further in his personal quest, as long as he can avoid getting into deadly trouble himself.

In the latest book, Scarred, Henning is assigned to cover the murder of an elderly woman in a nursing home. At the same time his estranged sister Trine, the Minister for Justice, is accused of sexual misconduct and has the media at her door. Though the siblings rarely speak, for reasons of which even Henning is not clear, he believes his sister has been set up and seeks to discover the saboteur. As the two cases collide, we learn more of Henning and his childhood than we have before, and in some ways so does he. There is a family secret that is still not scarredperfectly clear but there is a sense our hero may be investigating his own background, along with discovering more about the deadly fire in his home, sometime soon.

I was recommended these books by their English translator, Charlotte Barslund. We sat next to each other at a dinner a couple of years ago and I asked her what were some of her favourite books to work on. She nominated Thomas Enger’s series and despite the generous wine pouring during the night I remembered them. And I’m very glad I did. They are some of the first novels I’ve turned to for holidays, a crime fix or when needing something different in tone after a great big sweeping novel.

Henning, despite his quiet intensity and personal distractions, is the kind of character who gets under others’ skin. In the books, this is partly due to his journalistic training, but for the reader it’s because he is a good man; a good, intelligent and sensible man who has lost a lot of himself due to his life’s tragedy but is capable of rebuilding over time, if he can get a few breaks, if he can find out who killed his son and learn to move on. He himself is a mystery we are keen to unravel, and at the same time we are happy and intrigued to join him as he unravels other crimes.

Thomas Enger’s novels are everything you need from your Northern crime stories—dark and mysterious, thoughtful and wry, with a protagonist we want to meet again and again, watching him solve crimes, avenge tragedy and grow as a person.


Weekend coffee share – April 23

If we were having coffee I would tell you how excited I was to be out of the house on my own having coffee with you. Somehow I am assuming my children aren’t with us. Not that I don’t love my children nor enjoy their company, but coffee without them is nice too. After the general excitement of adult coffee and cake selection (there is always cake) I would tell you how nice it was to have posted my first blog post in years. Years! How when I first moved to the UK, somewhat friendless and jobless, I expected to have loads of time (though back then I would have said ‘heaps’ of time) to tend to my blog, to nourish my writings. I’d be one of those hip but unassuming types sitting in a cafe banging out posts, paragraphs, chapters and tweets, paying too much for a flat white, wangling free cake out of the waiters I knew by name and birth order. But it didn’t work out that way. And that’s okay. Other things happened. Good things happened.

But now I have written one post. And I’m very much looking forward to writing more. On books and reading, editing and writing, readers and stories and all the balloon-shaped swell of reading joy that surrounds me. That surrounds us. And maybe some writings on other things too. Maybe in a different place. And certainly in some time to come. But the scratching and bubbling of thoughts and ideas to communicate are suddenly alive in my brain, and this and the previous post have flowed  from my fingertips like an ooze of letters that have been building up behind a dam. And all these things feel very good indeed.


Three shelves up

I moved house recently. Again. For someone with a steady career history and mostly sensible decision-making twinkling in my past I seem to have relocated with a pace akin to someone in the witness protection system. I am not in the witness protection system. But I am a renter, and I live in an expensive city, oh and I have 17-month-old twins and until a month ago the husband, kids and I were still living in a (lovely) one bedroom flat. Ever wondered how long you could share a bedroom with your two offspring before seeing the hall cupboard as a legitimate alternative boudoir? The answer is 16 months.

So we have moved. Again. And with us have come all the books. Between us, the husband and I have many, many books. And it’s not really all the books as 90 per cent of my  books are back in Australia, and a good percentage of his books are on the other side of England in his mum’s basement. And yet there are still many books. And as a four-person family in a (lovely) small flat trying to squeeze in all the things a young family has… Well. Book-space is at a premium. And yet we have hung on to the books. We have relocated a sofa, sacrificed a dresser, shoved DVDs under the bed, sold off unnecessary baby-related items, and perform contortions to sit around the dining table. But the books and their wooden houses are in place and the shelves they do groan.

Except for the bottom two shelves of any bookcase that are accessible to two small, over-curious children.

Because inquisitive 17-month-olds who love books, and love the sound and feel of paper, and love exploring, really, really, really love to pull books off shelves and “read” them. By which I mean  erratically flick through the pages, fling them about by their covers until said cover detaches from the rest of the book, stand on them to attempt to make one taller to reach yet more books, maybe have a little nibble on them for some daily roughage. And it drives the husband crazy.

Because to the husband, every book is precious. Every supermarket paperback, every airport buy, every 3 books for the price of 2 when you can never choose a third book but it seems like poor value to not take up the deal. Every. Single. One. He values an action novel written by three authors because the original author died a decade ago but there was a franchise to maintain, as much as a first edition. And he buys first editions. And signed editions. And he tucks them in next to grey-tinged paperbacks that cost £1 with a cup of motorway-services coffee. And when his (lovely) children start mangling them with affection he near hyperventilates. Because the husband values the physical copy of every book as much as he values the reading experience. To him, they are interlinked and both maintain the other.

I don’t tend to be quite so bound (ahem) to my actual books. I get rid of books I didn’t enjoy, I consider whether each is worth keeping. Sure, there are special copies of certain titles that I wouldn’t want the demolition duo to use to explore their aching hunger for literature and recycled tree products, but I am much more at ease with the idea that the value is in the story, rather than the pages. Much more at ease.

Well, perhaps not as completely as I thought I was. Because when  we tried to make a pile of lesser paperbacks that could go on a bottom shelf as a biblio-sacrifice to our voracious pint-sized overlords, the pile was very small and when the husband added to it with a couple of my bargain-basement, only-bought-it-because-everyone-was-talking-about-it paperback possessions I too wanted to protest and hide them away on the higher shelves that are currently out of the reach of tiny hands.

I am the person in our household who tidies and categorizes, who fills charity bags with unwanted clothes, who sorts through the filing cabinet for unnecessary papers that can be recycled, who almost passed out in pride when the husband started filling in the family planner. But it turns out I’m not entirely ruthless, and that even I am still an old softie when it comes to our books. All of our books – the high and the low, the good and the bad, the cheap and the overpriced. We don’t want to look at each book and decide if it sparks joy (sorry, Marie Kondo) – it is our collection of books that give us joy and make our bookish souls sparkle. Even if we can barely squeeze ourselves around the dining table for a family meal, and even if the collection of books starts on the third shelf up of every bookcase. It is joyful to know that our toddlers are so interested in books already, but it doesn’t mean we want them touching all of ours just yet.

Books I’ve talked about when I’ve talked about books at book group (part two)

I missed book group last week. It makes me sad for all the missed joys mentioned in the first part of this post series and also because when I can’t get around to reading the book-group book I feel it means I am not using my potential reading time as I should. It means I am letting work-reading start to take over again. It means I am checking emails while commuting when I could be reading my books. It means I am watching too many TV shows where an expert comes in to fix a bankrupt country house/failing hotel/failing restaurant or where amateur cooks try to make me feel un-gourmet by pretending they are proper chefs, and maybe we should all get over our fascination with goat’s cheese and pop-up restaurants. Not that we should blame the goat’s cheese.

So, yes, I wasn’t reading as much last month and I missed my previous book group meeting. Well, I opted out. But before that moment of truancy I had read a lot of book-group books. And if you didn’t catch the link to part one of this series above, I’m giving you another chance to click on it here.

Sometimes outsiders fear book groups are full of self-proclaimed intellectuals full of high talk about this literary theory and that rather brilliant but unfathomable novelist. Telling them you discussed Kafka the other month doesn’t help this fear. Mind you, if they’d been at the pub where we hold our meetings and overheard our conversation, they may not have felt so intellectually threatened. It went a little bit like this:

‘Oh my god, I just couldn’t finish it.’

‘I finished it but I didn’t really get it.’

‘I think I get what he’s on about but I don’t think I really care.’

‘Although, I am kind of glad that I can now legitimately use the term Kafkaesque.’

I was glad of that too, well not about using the term so much, but having now read a novel by Franz Kafka I will no longer feel as deceitful about the odd reference to him or his writing that I may have occasionally made in the past without having ever read any of his work.

So The Trial was not a resounding success, but not everyone hated it. The person who chose the novel, for example, adores it. He chose it for book group because it is one of his favourite books and he wanted to see what other people thought about it. He held up well, I must say. And he continues to attend our meetings so mustn’t think we’re entirely stupid. Plus the university student who sold me my copy at the bookstore raved on about dear old Franz for some time. And as once mentioned in a post a few years back, author and playwright Alan Bennett often wrote of Kafka in his journals.

So what did I think? I found The Trial a challenging reading experience. It took a lot of brain power to get through and as a reader who prefers a steady plot and reasonably clear character motivations my reading of this novel was slow. It was also tentative. I kept waiting for a penny to drop, for a revealing, for a proactive change in the character and/or his situation, I  kept waiting to feel as though I understood exactly what the point of the book was and therefore could allow myself to feel smart. I kept waiting. I also had a gap of a week or more between readings, which was not a good idea. It was difficult to get back into the tale even to the small degree that I had been ‘in it’ previously. I was on holiday and who wants to be reading Kafka while on safari? Well, maybe Alan Bennett and that girl from the book store. Maybe a lot of people, for all I know. But not me. It felt like homework. I was lying under a tree in the Namibian bush and I did not want to be doing homework.

Like my book group cohort who was glad they could now use the term ‘Kafkaesque’ without shame, I am still pleased that I have read The Trial, though perhaps not for the reasons I should. It is always better to be able to say that you didn’t really like a novel having read it, than pretend you know all about it when you haven’t. Plus sometimes it is good to challenge yourself, to exercise your mind and see how far it will stretch,  to be able to discuss how a book made you feel instead of avoid writings you are frightened you might not understand. In the end you may not enjoy the book, it might even make you feel a little bit thick, but going through the process and then discussing it with others can still be one of the joys of book group.

A little post on a little free library

When I was growing up, visits to our local libraries were weekly occurrences. There was a children’s library along my route between home and school and I would stop in often to switch one pile of books for another. I recall calico library bags groaning with treasures. I ended up working at that children’s library and at the main municipal library when I was in high school and found it hard not to check out for myself every book I was checking back in. Since finishing two stints at university in my twenties, I stopped frequenting libraries and I don’t really know why. Time, I suppose, that thing we claim never to have. No time to go, not enough time to read before needing to return your borrowings.

I don’t know about your neck of the woods, but they sure have been closing a lot of libraries in the UK over the last 12 months. It makes me angry, but I also feel guilty that I, like a lot of people, no longer frequent them, despite thinking them very important, for the community as a whole, as well as for accessing books. Maybe if more of us ex-library-goers still visited occasionally, local councils wouldn’t think they could get rid of them.

Not a ‘little library’ but a great one nevertheless. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

One of my blogging-friends this week presented her attempt to build community spirit, promote literacy and foster a love of reading. It’s called the ‘little free library’ and it’s a movement gaining popularity in the States. Participants build a small cupboard of some kind, fill it with books and leave it on their lawn or driveway for anyone and everyone to access. It was the perfect thing for Jeanne, a retired librarian, to do and you can read about, and see, her efforts here. And you should read Jeanne and Curt’s blog—Another Stir of the Spoon—anyway, especially if you like food, books or birds (and who doesn’t?!).

You can find out more about the little library people here. There’s only one in the UK so far, and also one in Australia… one day when I have my own lawn or driveway, I’ll have to add to those numbers.

Books I’ve talked about when I’ve talked about books at book group (part one)

A few weeks back I hit the one-year mark of living in London. It’s hard to believe, but some thirteen months ago all the talk of ‘Oh I’m just going  to the UK to see what happens’ became a reality. It’s been an interesting year; magical in some ways (I met my wonderful boyfriend and have visited lovely places), uneventful in others (one still has to work for a living, you know), ridiculously simple on occasion (you mean I just hop on this train and two hours later I’m in Paris?) and, at times, terribly difficult. The main difficulties come from being without family and social networks mixed in with a little British bureaucracy and the fact that even though Australian and British cultures have much in common, there are enough differences to sometimes make everyday conversations and errands somewhat… puzzling… and more difficult than you know they should be.

But the good times outweigh the tough times. Most of the time. The longer I’ve been here the more friends and contacts I’ve made and the more I seem to be able to function in society without having to use charades or repeat myself. Yes, this happens even when you’re both speaking English.

One of the best things I did last year was join a book group. They’re an excellent bunch of people, and I look forward to our monthly meetings. The chance of a group of strangers thrown together because they all ‘like reading’ getting on really well and even being able to talk about other things than the books they like (or don’t like), must be slim. Think of all those author events you’ve been to where everyone who asks a question seems to be a bore or raving lunatic… they all really like reading too.

So joining a book group worked out for me. For all the reasons I have mentioned in previous posts and now I also always gain a snippet of information about London life or a recommendation for a new thing to see, do or visit. Most of all, I like that it is my thing. My new book group is a little piece of my London life.

And so to the books. Selected for general interest, discussion potential, reputation, size (a shorter book has more chance of being read by all), enjoyment and intellectual growth, we have read six books in the last six months that I have yet to share with you. I am tired of focusing on the infrequency of my blogging (one of the not-good things that has occurred over the last thirteen months), so let’s just get on with it.


The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

A slim volume where the reader is put in the position of one of the characters. A not-particularly-interesting character but the person to whom the is-he-just-friendly or is-he-simply-dangerous narrator addresses himself throughout the novel. It’s rare as a reader to be being told by the narrator about what ‘you’ are doing. It puts you in an intriguing position. Do I feel uncomfortable because the story is setting me up to feel this way? Or do I just feel uncomfortable? And do I want to be continually addressed as a middle-aged American businessman? I am very different to those kinds of people. Aren’t I?

Our narrator, Changez, tells his story in a cafe in Pakistan to a man who he may or may not have run into on purpose. His story is of his development from an optimistic, ambitious Princeton student who socialised with the wealthy and aimed to have a New York business career, to a young man disillusioned with America and all it represents, so much so that he finds himself returning to Pakistan and ‘siding’ with Islamic fundamentalism.

The writing is technically strong, and the narrator slippery and clever. This has its annoyances for a reader. I read the whole novel with a sense of mistrust and a slight sinister feeling. I constantly wondered if I was being misdirected. I recall finding it difficult to relate to any of the characters, though I felt sorry for Changez at times. Could he really be a terrorist? Maybe he’s just a friendly man. Why do I assume he is dangerous? Is it because he claims to be sympathetic to the jihadists’ cause? Or is it just because of his clothes, his beard, his language? There is allegory and symbolism at play—perhaps a little too much. And I say this having not caught it all as I was reading the novel. When the extent of it was relayed to me by—more insightful—others, I do admit to some eye rolling on my part.

I found The Reluctant Fundamentalist an interesting read and it dealt with themes I wouldn’t usually choose to deal with in my novel-choices. Many in my group liked it and had enjoyed the author’s previous work. It was a good novel to talk about and, as we all know, for a book to work at book group it has to be able to be talked about.

With that premise in mind, the next selection definitely fit the bill. Ever wanted to use the term ‘Kafka-esque’ in context? Well, soon you will be able to. (Mind you, my readers being such a smart bunch you probably already do!) Our next selection was The Trial and I will post on it and other book-club selections sooner than you—or even I—could possibly imagine.

To be continued…