reading

Yet more book reviews

A couple of weeks ago I said there was another possible opportunity for me to do book reviews. It’s now all come to fruition and my first review for The Bookbag is for a non-genre novel The Artificial Anatomy of Parks by Kat Gordon. Rather than reviewing books I’ve bought, or borrowed from the library (as often happens), this is the kind of reviewing where you choose from the available books and then they send you it to read. The excitement of receiving books through the post! You can imagine the glee this is filling me with, I’m sure. Don’t worry library, I haven’t forgotten you and I’m sure I’ll still be a regular visitor, but this is definitely going to help with my aim of reading more recent novels this year.

The Prisoner of Paradise by Romesh Gunesekera

Set in Mauritius in 1825 this is a richly descriptive novel about freedom and fetters, be it freed slaves, shackled convicts, or those bound by convention and the rules of society.

Don Lambodar is from Ceylon, the young interpreter for an exiled old prince of that island. Lucy Gladwell is a 19 year old orphan, recently arrived from England to live with her uncle who works for the British administration. Their class, race and gender separate them, yet events and a penchant for philosophical discussion keep throwing them together.

The heat and humidity, exotic flora and the ocean-dominated landscape are vividly conjured. I found the poetry of the language engaging, and a certain tension was built up as the paths that Don and Lucy’s lives would take unfolded. Outside of the focus of this pair, however, I felt that the other action (a slave revolt, for instance) became mere background with few consequences, and Lucy had a remarkable amount of leeway considering her uncle’s demeanour. Enjoy it for the strained romance and the beautiful writing rather than the history.

Today York, tomorrow… Ilkley

This is probably the last time I’ll mention the storytelling evening at this year’s York Festival of Ideas, but I wanted to convey a tiny bit of the buzz we got from the evening. OneMonkey (who was ably assisting with the technical gubbins) took a couple of action shots (with no flash so as not to disrupt us) so here is my friend Alice Courvoisier in her off the cuff storytelling groove:

Alice Courvoisier storytelling with JY Saville, York Festival of Ideasand here is me reading from the marvellous book I made for the purpose:

JY Saville reading at York Festival of Ideas, with Alice CourvoisierFor those that know me (too) well, yes I have had that shirt since 1994 and it’s wearing fine, thank you.

We told stories from around the world, in a variety of genres, all linked by the theme of secrets and discoveries. Two were stories that I’d written (one set in the past about Luddites, one set in the near future about the dangers of scientific discoveries in the wrong hands) and I’d hoped to record them so you could listen to them here, but unfortunately the computer’s built-in microphone made it sound like I was reading from the bottom of the garden in a storm, and the tablet sounded like I’d been recording with a sock over it (which I’m fairly sure wasn’t the case). However, should I find myself in a situation where I can record them more clearly I’ll do so and post them somewhere in this vicinity.

It seems like I’m going on about this event, I know, but we had such a great time putting it together, rehearsing, and then finally performing it to a (pretty full) audience, almost all of whom were complete strangers. One of those strangers, rather wonderfully, described the evening as ‘random, mad & fab‘ which Alice and I are quite happy with as our first review. I say ‘first’ because we’d quite like to do this again sometime, and other people have also expressed an interest in us doing so.

In the meantime, Ilkley Writers (which, as regulars here will know, includes me) this week kicked off their preparations for a second appearance at the Ilkley Literature Festival. Clear your diaries for the first week of October, we’re going to be fab.

Scandinavian crime: Camilla Läckberg

As with Karin Fossum, Camilla Läckberg was on my dad’s useful list of Scandinavian women who write crime, and I was fortunate to find her first three novels in one ebook from the library (though I only read 2 before the loan expired). The Ice Princess and The Preacher were both gripping novels set in and around the small Swedish coastal town of Fjällbacka. Again, as in Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, there is that sense of small-town interconnectedness, the potential for gossip and everyone knowing everyone else’s family background. However, there is no isolation here: Fjällbacka is a summer tourist destination, there are residents who’ve moved to the city (and some who’ve returned), and we occasionally follow characters to Gothenburg or Stockholm.

Having, as I said, only read the first two novels from a dozen or so years ago (and synopses of some more recent ones) it seems that the first volume, The Ice Princess, follows a different format. While the series as a whole seems to be referred to as the Patrik Hedström books, it’s hard to say who is the central character in The Ice Princess, and Patrik doesn’t appear for quite a while. We mainly follow the amateur investigations of Erica, a moderately successful non-fiction author who is temporarily in town sorting out her parents’ house after their recent deaths. When her childhood friend Alex’s body is found, apparently as the result of suicide, Alex’s parents ask Erica to write an article about Alex’s life. Speaking to Alex’s friends and family, and dredging up her own memories and photographs, Erica begins to feel that something isn’t right.

In The Preacher, the murder of a tourist seems to be connected to two twenty-five year old disappearances, and a divided local family. With the fresh death occurring at the height of the tourist season that most of the town depends on, the police are under pressure to clear it up as quickly as they can. If they don’t melt in the heatwave, first.

With The Preacher, there is an explicit connection to 1979 (including flashbacks to events of that time), but the death in The Ice Princess also has its roots in past events, and according to my dad the third novel, The Stone Cutter, delves into the 1920s. This put me in mind of Robert Goddard and his novels based around family secrets, with the key to the present being obtainable only by solving a puzzle from the past, so the series may appeal to his readers.

Camilla Läckberg draws out the human side of the Tanumshede police force, whether it’s Mellberg (the chief) with his comb-over, or young Martin’s disastrous love life, we’re reminded that they are people too. Patrik has his doubts and insecurities, mistakes are made and laziness creeps in with the summer heat. Because of that human side, there is a degree of natural humour in the books (in a similar way to Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels) and though there are descriptions of gruesome situations, the books are by no means bloody and grim.

Perhaps one of the things that initially drew me in to The Ice Princess when I began to read it was the herring connection. The book I’d finished reading the day before was Herring Girl by Debbie Taylor, set in North Shields and partly about the decline of the herring catch. In the early part of The Ice Princess, Läckberg talks about the decline of the herring catch in Fjällbacka (which I was delighted to discover is a real place) and how that changed the town, so it was interesting to see that mirrored on both sides of the North Sea. While I appreciate that not everyone will have such a niche interest, I think this series will have wide appeal with its engaging characters and well thought out thriller plots.

Reading crime, and a shift in patterns

June is National Crime Reading Month apparently – at least according to the Crime Readers’ Association, and surely they should know. True to form, I am of course reading Ed Reardon’s Week which (pilfered magazines from the library aside) doesn’t really feature any crime. However, some of you may be reading some Karin Fossum books after last weekend’s review, and there will be another Scandinavian crime review shortly (I won’t specify when, mainly because it’ll no doubt change in the meantime, but let’s pretend it’s also to give you a nice surprise).

That (in a loose sort of a way) brings me to the other matter, which is a change in blogging schedule. I know most of you won’t have noticed, let alone cared, that I mainly blogged on Wednesdays for quite a while. You may have noticed it go all to pot recently with the mini-series on train journeys of the North. This seemed like a good time to shift back to weekend posting, as I don’t seem to find the time during the week any more (she says, writing a blog post on a weekday evening. And conveniently forgetting about the scheduling facility). Whatever the excuse, posts will be available (on the whole, when I remember) on a Saturday or Sunday from now on. Until I change my mind again.

A Little Dust on the Eyes by Minoli Salgado

Cover of A Little Dust on the Eyes by Minoli SalgadoMinoli Salgado’s debut novel A Little Dust on the Eyes takes as its trigger a family wedding in Sri Lanka in late December 2004, which the reader knows is about to be disrupted by the Boxing Day tsunami. In the couple of weeks of calm beforehand, lonely PhD student Savi takes the opportunity to escape an English winter and try to reconnect with the family she left behind years ago.

The story is told with gentle insistence, and the vivid images juxtapose and mingle grey Britain with colourful, exotic Sri Lanka. We shuttle back and forth in time and place, from the south coast of England to the south coast of Sri Lanka, from the present day to points in Savi’s childhood or the more recent past. Revisiting a place you remember doesn’t necessarily match up with revisiting the memory, and if you’ve been away for long enough are you a visitor or going home? Memories, stories and truth – how closely are they connected, really?

Savi’s struggling thesis has her studying her native land from afar, through literature. Her cousin Renu on the other hand, whose formal education was interrupted by the civil war, is studying recent history through the gaps and inconsistencies in what people say when they talk about relatives who disappeared during the war. The core of the novel is the connection and contrast between these two women, practically sisters in childhood, whose lives have then been so different. One sent to an English boarding school, out of harm’s way but also out of family life, the other growing up in a community turning against itself, where everyone turns a blind eye and no-one wants to know the truth, just in case.

Dr Salgado lectures in English at the University of Sussex, and this academic background comes through via technicalities in Savi’s research, as well as the list of references at the end of the novel. Interestingly I felt almost cheated when she acknowledged the real source of a couple of quotes she puts in characters’ mouths, yet I assume (and probably expect) novelists in general are poaching dialogue left, right and centre, from a choice phrase at a bus stop to a neat summary sentence on the news. I know I do it now and then.

A minor niggle for me was the lack of a sense of timescale in the book – I wasn’t altogether sure how long it had been since Savi last visited Sri Lanka, or had seen her cousin, how long she’d lived in England or even how long Renu had been unofficially working with the NGO investigating abductions. That aside, I was captivated by A Little Dust on the Eyes and I imagine anyone who liked Romesh Gunesekera’s Noontide Toll (see my review here) would also enjoy it.

Casting the actors in your head

When I read fiction, it’s kind of like watching a film in my head through a murky window – the events play out in my mind’s eye, but not with absolute clarity, though the voices are usually distinct. Often I’ll end up with a real actor playing the character, either because the physical description put me in mind of them, or because they’ve played a similar character in something I’ve seen. Jack Shaftoe in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy, for instance, is for whatever reason played by a young James Bolam.

Where I’ve seen a TV or film adaptation, the casting for the version in my head is more straightforward. Both Marlowe and Spade are forever Bogart thanks to The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, I probably saw those films before I started reading either Chandler or Hammett. Hercule Poirot can’t be anyone other than David Suchet, again the TV adaptation might have just come to my notice before the books did. Maigret is a trickier one, however. I can no longer remember how I pictured Maigret, or how he spoke, when my dad first introduced me to a shelf of Simenon, but ever since we watched the TV adaptation in the early 90s, Maigret has been Michael Gambon whenever I’ve read the books. It’s with mixed feelings, therefore, that I read of Rowan Atkinson’s role as Inspector Maigret in two new TV films – I’m sure he’ll be good, I just don’t want to muddy the Gambonesque waters.

Interestingly (at least to me), OneMonkey doesn’t always read aloud/hear character voices in his head when he’s reading a book. Nor does he always picture the events being described. Naturally I assume I’m the normal one and he’s odd, but it would be fascinating to find out how other people read (as OneMonkey says, long descriptions of how a room looks are often wasted on him – as a writer am I generally wasting my time on that sort of thing or do most people get something from it?). Feel free to comment here and let me know.