Now he had a decanted version of his thoughts, organised by gravity

The chalk circle man book coverThe Chalk Circle Man
by Fred Vargas
translated from French by Siân Reynolds

This is my France selection for the EU Reading Challenge. It’s a detective novel set in Paris that was recommended years ago on The Readers podcast (RIP). I do tend to prefer crime novels written by women (Fred is short for Frédérique in Vargas’ case) and I think that crime/detective fiction is often especially strong on setting/sense of place. I’m grateful for the recommendation, even if it has taken me a long time to follow up on it.

This is the first in a series of novels following Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. He is already an established, successful public figure thanks to solving some big, media-friendly cases in the Pyrenees. New to Paris and the 5th arrondissement, he is not trying particularly hard to fit into his new team. He’s quiet, contemplative, often seeming to ignore his colleagues. He doesn’t seem to be the right temperament at all for detective work.

Adamsberg trusts his intuition more than seems advisable for someone in charge of major crime investigations, and he talks a lot about trusting these gut feelings and not logic. But I think this is to some extent a mask, as he is in fact extremely observant and has an excellent memory. He also has a high tolerance for other people’s quirks, for example quickly adapting to the discovery that his second-in-command, Danglard, is an alcoholic who is only just managing to hold it together as a single father to five children. He sees through the alcoholism to Danglard’s intelligence and abilities, and judges when to stay Danglard’s hand and when to let him drink.

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Emptiness would move in, first into her favourite places

Next World NovellaNext World Novella
by Matthias Politycki
translated from German by Anthea Bell

I’ve had this book on my wishlist since it was published, as it got great reviews from people I trust. I did enjoy it, but it didn’t quite live up to my high expectations. This is my Germany selection for the EU Reading Challenge.

The story is simple but completely original. Hinrich Schepp wakes up one morning to find his wife Doro dead at her desk. Rather than call a doctor or undertaker, he decides he must read the papers she had been working on, as a goodbye gesture. So begins a process of memory, re-evaluation and inter-textual analysis that’s both sweet and…creepy.

Doro had dug out an old short story of Hinrich’s and annotated it. They’re both scholars of Chinese; this is Hinrich’s only attempt at fiction and he knows it isn’t good. (We’re treated to the full story, in chunks, to judge just how clunky his writing is.) But it isn’t the writing quality that Doro is commenting on. She appears to have been convinced that Hinrich was fictionalising an episode from their life together, one that has caused them both pain for many years.

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K-drama review: Secret Garden

Secret Garden banner

Like everyone else, I was devastated (in a good way) by the ending of Fleabag. Unlike (I’m guessing) everyone else, my reaction was to seek out the most cliched happy-ending romance I could find. And where better to find that than K-drama? This was one of the titles recommended to me early on as a K-drama classic, so I figured it would have the necessary ingredients.

Oh my. This was the most addictive K-drama for me since Boys Over Flowers. It’s from about the same time and covers much of the same territory, so that makes sense. In Secret Garden (SBS 2010) our leads are stuntwoman Gil Ra-im (played by Ha Ji-won) and CEO Kim Joo-won (Hyun Bin). As these tales always begin, she is poor but badass; he is rich and a total douche.

They cross paths when Joo-won steps in to help his cousin U-yeong (Yoon Sang-hyun) – who is a Hallyu star better known as Oska – escape a thorny romantic entanglement with an actress. When Joo-won tries to collect the actress from a film set, he accidentally ends up with her body double – Ra-im. The two immediately have a sparky, catty back-and-forth and it’s clear that hate will turn to love.

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May 2019 reading round-up

I think it might be summer. How did that suddenly happen? Lovely long evenings, feeling torn between enjoying the sun and avoiding too much of it – it’s that time of year again.

This month, we went to Bristol Old Vic to see The Remains of the Day, in an excellent production that I think might have moved me more than the book did. We also started rewatching The Sopranos to remind ourselves what truly excellent, well-written and beautifully filmed TV looks like.

We also had a really fun long weekend in the Peak District. We did archery, cycled across the moor, rode a cable car, explored caves and went to Chatsworth House, which is a pretty amazing place. They sadly seemed to downplay the Mitford sisters connection, but there was a lot of impressive art and beautiful grounds to explore.

How was your May?

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From outside there came to us the air-raid orchestra

Blitz Writing book coverBlitz Writing
by Inez Holden

The latest title from Handheld Press combines two short works by early 20th-century writer Holden – the novella Night Shift and her war-time diaries previously published as It Was Different at the Time. Together, they are a record of life in London during the Blitz the like of which I have never read before.

Night Shift is about workers at a London factory making camera parts for war planes during a week in the middle of the Blitz. They are mostly women, mostly working class and are just getting on with daily (or rather, nightly) life. The war is almost in the background but at the same time it’s ever-present. There’s lots of talk about the Home Guard and volunteers. Sometimes they’re late to work because buses can’t get through the rubble. They hear air-raid sirens and bombs but keep on working.

“The thump-hum-drum of the machinery was only the foundation of noise. From time to time there was also the sudden violent hissing of the stream jets which were used for cleaning out the bits of work, and the clattering sound of someone dropping or tripping over some castings…From outside there came to us the air-raid orchestra of airplane hum, anti-aircraft shell bursts, ambulance and fire bells. Sometimes bomb concussion caused the floor to give a sudden shiver.”

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Dorama review: Kantaro the Sweet Tooth Salaryman

Kantaro the Sweet Tooth Salaryman poster

I am in two minds whether I can really call this a dorama, as it’s barely a drama at all. This TV series (a 2017 co-production of TV Tokyo and Netflix) is in essence a travel food show, with a thin veneer of comedic storyline to tie it together. It’s very entertaining, but also very weird. And it definitely made me want to go back to Tokyo.

The lead character, Kantaro Ametani (played by Onoe Matsuya) is not an endearing man. He is the prototypical salaryman – always serious, focused, hardworking, rejecting colleagues’ invitations to socialise. But he has a secret – he plans his working day around opportunities to “bunk off” for half an hour at select dessert restaurants and then blog about them under the pseudonym Amablo. In fact, he even switched jobs (a relatively big deal in Japan, where it’s common to stick with one company for life) so that he could live and work in Tokyo, closer to all those delicious sweets.

As part of his new job is sales visits to bookshops (cue lots of scenes in Tokyo’s many many bookstores), this is relatively easy. The bulk of each episode is devoted to one particular dessert or sweet at one particular real-life shop or restaurant. The dessert is described in loving detail with high-def slow-mo photography of it being made. And the restaurant also gets an introduction that has clearly been written by its owner or PR person.

So far, so entertaining and lots of note-taking about where to go when we save our pennies for another Japan holiday. But then it gets weird.

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A monk’s thoughts must be like a town defended by a sturdy wall

Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf's Church book coverApothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf’s Church
by Indrek Hargla
translated from Estonian by Adam Cullen

This is my fourth book completed for the EU Reading Challenge, and the first one that came from a recommendation I received after my initial blog post. So thank you to Kätlin (who is Estonian but lives in the UK) for suggesting this book. I’ve learned a little about the history of Tallinn and enjoyed a satisfying murder mystery to boot.

The setting is 1409 Tallinn, which at the time was not strictly part of Estonia, but a recent addition to the Holy Roman Empire. A preface sets the scene: Tallinn is a small coastal town finally enjoying growth and prosperity after a terrible band of pirates have been caught and punished. Christianity is central to everything. As well as having multiple churches of its own, a new castle on the hill overlooking Tallinn houses monks and holy knights.

It is in this castle, Toompea, that the story opens, with a drunken knight stumbling towards his gruesome murder (I should add that only the barest of details are given – this is not a grossout/medically-detailed crime novel). When the body is discovered, Tallinn’s town magistrate, Dorn, is called upon to catch the murderer quickly. He in turn asks his friend, the town apothecary, to help him investigate.

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I have discovered a new thought that seems important

Cover of The Memoirs of MoominpappaThe Memoirs of Moominpappa
by Tove Jansson
translated from Swedish by Thomas Warburton

This is the third book I have completed for my EU Reading Challenge. I know it’s a little bit of a cheat because it’s a children’s book and it’s not strictly set in Finland, but I think you learn at least something about Finland from the Moomins.

This book is a little bit special, as it’s the first time this particular title has been published in the UK. This story started life as the much shorter Exploits of Moominpappa, which Jansson revised and added large chunks to 18 years later to create The Memoirs of Moominpappa. It was published in the US in 1994 but it did not include all of Jansson’s revisions, such as the prologue, which is a real shame as the prologue is particularly funny.

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A depressing forest of loneliness growing below everything else

Polyglot LoversThe Polyglot Lovers
by Lina Wolff
translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel

This is my second book for my EU Reading Challenge, this time tackling Sweden (though the book is set in three countries and includes lines from several more languages, as befits its title). It’s a strange, compelling tale told with a sense of humour.

The book starts brilliantly, with 30-something-year-old Ellinor recounting her dabbles in Internet dating, which lead her from small-town southern Sweden to Copenhagen to Stockholm. I loved Ellinor and her voice, her self-awareness. There is both strangeness and ordinariness in her story. The bulk of it is about a date that turns into a creepy, potentially dangerous situation. It manages to be both upsetting and empowering, following how Ellinor deals with the situation.

“Sometimes he read people’s messages to each other. And it would make him so sad he’d be useless for the rest of the day. As though his heart was enlarged and misshapen, its edges jutting into his chest, and all he wanted to do was cry…You see how one person writes to lots of others, keeps writing, gets cancelled on, breaks down…Hopeless, the guy who worked there said it was. Damn hopeless. And he said an undergrowth emerges, a depressing forest of loneliness growing below everything else.”

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April 2019 reading round-up

Bluebells

You’d think with two bank holidays and some empty weekends I would have read a lot in April, but bearing in mind that every other read is a 60-page mini book, I wasn’t especially prolific. However, I did have some lovely days in the Wye Valley with my mum, some good times (and unfortunately a little too much sun) with friends and I did a fair amount of sorting out books for my EU Reading Challenge.

I also watched some great films (I highly recommend Hearts Beat Loud, now on Netflix, and Eagle vs Shark, now on Amazon Prime Video) and great TV (yes, I am up to date with Game of Thrones – thankfully, as overheard conversations at work this week have been spoilerific). It’s a wonder I read any books at all, frankly.

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