A Murder Mystery: The Murder Bag – Tony Parsons

Crime fiction is my guilty pleasure. I pretend I will only read great works of literature – seminal novels – and then, when I am alone (or when I can hide behind my Kindle) I binge-read entire crime series. I like to get cross when I can guess a major plot twist in advance, then I am rightly put in my place when I can never guess the ending.

This series looks like it might be a good ‘un. A single father detective, and enough nods to historical crime to whet the appetite of any wannabe detective. When I’m not reading, I binge-watch Elementary, Criminal Minds, Cold Case, old Morse.

Parsons says, in an afterword, that he intends the series, and his protagonist Max Wolfe, to make good use of The Black Museum, or The Crime Museum in New Scotland Yard. A room containing evidence of “London’s fight against crime for the last 140 years”. I love this, the idea of a room stuffed with old weapons, clues that were never solved, early attempts at finger-printing and the like. There was an exhibition about it just this year. I missed it. I did, however, go to see an awesome collection called Forensics: Anatomy of Crime, at the Wellcome Trust. It was gory and wonderful and had replicas of the dolls houses that were ‘decorated’ with murder scenes to educate trainee detectives.

I would’ve been a good detective.

A New York Times Bestseller: A Man called Ove – Fredrik Backman

Is there a name for this kind of genre – The Man who climbed out of a window, and the like? They’re sort of grown up picture stories, without the pictures. Not fairy tales, something else. I’m sure someone knows.

Anyway, this one’s just lovely: grumpy old widower who spends his days patrolling the neighbourhood and telling people off, wants to kill himself. Instead, he has his life turned upside down by the ‘foreigners’ that move in next door. In the end, it turns out that grumpy old man can actually teach us all something about what it means to be a part of a community, and to ‘love your neighbour’.

That makes it sound like a simplistic, dull story. It is simple, but it is beautiful and very much worth a read.

A book that’s under 150 pages: The Lady in the Van – Alan Bennett

My dad told me that he had to leave the cinema fifteen minutes into the film of this book, because it wasn’t funny – it was too close to home. In his life’s work as a clergyman, he has come across enough people like Miss Shepherd to be unable to see the lighter side. I haven’t seen the film (surprise!), but I know that after I read the book I found the woman in the trailers of the film to be quite unrecognisable as the lady in the van of the book.

This is an immeasurably sad book – but an honest one – about loneliness, social mindedness, religion, mental illness. There are many moments that raise a smile – but it is a rye smile – it is not Laugh Out Loud comedy.

As someone who has always seen the romantic side of living in a van / houseboat / cabin in the woods, this book is a reminder of the darker side of living outside of society in that way. It’s also a frightening reminder that we still don’t do enough as a society to help the mentally ill, or the old (even decades later).

The first book you see in a bookstore: I love Dick – Chris Kraus

How can you not be drawn to a book that shouts, proudly, from its front cover I LOVE DICK? But that’s not what led me to choose this book, it was the quote on the front stating that this “is the most important book about men and women written in the last century” (Guardian).

I love to read to be entertained, but I particularly love it when I read a book which feels novel, momentous, important. This is one of those books. One which will sit with me for a long time afterwards. One of those books that makes me want to write. To really write.

I read this book in just one evening and morning. I read it with my phone next to me, so that I could look up all the people and things Kraus references: Hannah Wilke, Kitaj, The Third Mind, David Rosenhan. (How much I’ve learnt in just a few hours!). I kept a notebook by my side so I could record all the quotes that just seemed so important. I felt like a teenager again, discovering books that were written by real people, people who were smarter than me, but who’d had the same problems.

It’s a feminist manifesto. It’s about being a woman who is scared to write because “they don’t think anyone will listen” (p213). It is about being in love with men, even though you know that often they are merely a blank slate onto which you are projecting your own thoughts and impulses. Maybe it says something about why we feel we need men to give us permission. It is too clever for me, and it is inspiring and wonderful at the same time.

My favourite quote (and especially relevant after a weekend visit to my father’s church): “RD Laing never figured out that the ‘divided self’ is female subjectivity. Writing about an ambitious, educated 26 year old schizophrenic in the suburban 50s: ‘… the patient repeatedly contrasts her real self with her false compliant self’. Oh really” (p225)

At the end of the book, it seems that the male characters manage to erase the female author. That’s clever. And sad. And very, very important.

A book set in Europe: The South -Colm Toibin

I’ll confess: I let me reading challenge slide a little. I’ve been reading – just not the books I was supposed to. So, months after reading Toibin’s The South, I find that I can’t recall it at all. Don’t let this dissuade you from reading it, though, I’m sure I thought it was very good. It’s just that I don’t have a great memory when it comes to books. Or films. Or people I met at parties. Or… well… anything, really.

A book set in Europe. Ah yes! The husband and I went away to Barcelona for the weekend to celebrate his birthday. As I’m sure many  book-lovers do, I like to read books written in  the area to which I’m travelling. This book is written by an Irish man, about an Irish woman who runs away to Barcelona, leaving her husband and young son, and starts a love affair with an artist, Barcelona, and art in general. The kind of life I think I’d love to have… until I realise I’d be poor, life would be difficult, and without any kind of structure I’d go officially mad.

Barcelona was a delight. My aunt told me that my great (great?) grandmother was a Spanish gipsy, and (as my best friend said when I told her): That makes sense. It was a joy to be in a country of heat and colour and passion. And where being a brunette (on the hairy side) is normal and considered beautiful. I came home with all sorts of plans about where to take my ‘textile art’ in the future. (I’m using ‘textile art’ to describe it for want of a better phrase… it all sounds a little pretentious, to be honest).

 

A romance set in the future: Matched -Ally Condie

I was stuck for ages trying to choose a book to read that would fit under the category “Romance set in the future”. Mainly, I don’t enjoy anything that claims to be a romance, and also I’m a massive snob when it comes to reading anything. I didn’t want to read fan-fiction, and all the good dystopian novels could barely justify themselves as romances. Many people suggested the Divergence books to me – but I’d already read the series. Also suggested was Meyer’s The Host, another book I’d already read.

I found the Matched series on Kindle, and was drawn in by the description of a world where your partner is chosen for you by the government, based on the likelihood of the two of you making a good marriage.

In this world, where historical artefacts are mostly banned, and the written word has been made illegal, my husband and I would almost definitely not have been matched. But I think we make a pretty good team. So there.

I recommend the trilogy for some light reading, if you’re into those teenage dystopian stories that have become quite popular in recent years.

A book translated into English: Next World Novella – Matthias Politycki

The next in my challenge: A book translated into English. I’ll confess, what I really wanted to read was The Tin Drum, which an old boyfriend of mine raved about recently. But, you know, it’s reeeeaaaallly long. And, also, I found Next World Novella was already on my Kindle. I’m not sure how it got there – perhaps an offer which I snapped up, perhaps a recommendation since forgotten.

It was worth the read. Marriage, afterlife, writing, pain, revenge, threesomes…!

What I liked about it most were the bits from the narrator’s own book – horribly written and shamelessly naive. It gave me some ideas for That Novel I’m intending to write one day. Not that I intend it to be horribly written, just that this approach allows for terrible writing and is still beautiful.

This is a book about a man who promises he will meet his wife after death to hold her hand into the next life… and why that might not happen. But it’s also a story of why you should always speak the truth as soon as you know it, and not wait until it’s too late.

My husband and I don’t agree about what might happen after death, but I’d like to believe we’ll do it together, nonetheless. I want to hold his hand to everywhere.

A book set in your home state: The Sound of Broken Glass – Deborah Crombie

I had a wobble when I tried to decide what to read for this category. Firstly, I’m in the UK, so I had to decide how I would ‘translate’ the word state – home county? home town? Then, I had the usual problem that I’ve never really known where home was. I spent the longest period of my childhood, I suppose, in Oxford. A small village outside the city centre, which was both quaint and dull and -it’s beginning to dawn on me – I’ll miss it bitterly when my parents finally leave there next summer. But I’ve lived for nearly as long in London, now, and Crystal Palace has begun to feel like a forever home for me.

So, I thought I’d see if there were any novels set in my little part of South East London. Sure enough, Deborah Crombie (who lives in Dallas, Texas of all places) has set one of her Duncan Kincaid / Gemma Jones detective novels not 5 minutes from my house. The first murder happens in a hotel at the top of my hill, the characters frequent my local pub. The police spend hours of their time trying to navigate Westow Hill and the Triangle. It’s great. One character spent his teenaged summers playing his guitar under one of the sphinxes, something I would love to be able to do. That this character then got as far as he could from Upper Norwood because it was so scummy did nothing to quell the magic.

It’s not a bad little crime novel, either. I’ll certainly consider reading some of the others in the series, perhaps on my next holiday (I love a good crime series by a sunny swimming pool; or on a cold, English campsite). It also has the unusual quirk of being a novel about the Met where women detectives are in the majority. I’m not sure how true to reality that is, but it made a nice change.

A book you haven’t read since High School: Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

It makes me a little nervous to say: I first read this book over 20 years ago. Ouch. I’m pretty sure it was a GCSE text and, after devouring it and loving the curious language, I went on to read as many Thomas Hardy books as I could find. Does anyone else remember those ‘Classics’ you could buy for £1 in The Works? I lived off them as a teenager.

‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ doesn’t fail to excite and amuse as it did on the first read (perhaps one of the perks of a terrible memory). I do wonder, however, how much of it I could have really understood as a 15 year old. The story, sure, but some of the comments about men, women, and the torture of unrequited love I probably only imagined I had experienced.

I highlighted a whole bunch of quotes this time round, with the intention of producing them at dinner parties when an appropriate time arose. This is the sort of thing a good book does: makes you imagine you go to dinner parties where someone might appreciate you quoting classic literature (when you know you’d be better off learning lines for Anchorman). So I’ll reproduce a couple here… they’d make good Marriage Advice, perhaps.

“Perhaps in no minor point does a woman astonish her helpmate more than in the strange power she possesses of believing cajoleries that she knows to be false – except, indeed, in that of being utterly sceptical on strictures that she knows to be true” (p.149)

“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs” (p.276)

And this (which I like to think is a description of why The Husband and I have such a good relationship, after being housemates first): “Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best until further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality… Where… the compound feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death” (p.310)

YA Bestseller: The Fault in our Stars – John Green

The next book on my reading challenge was a Young Adult Bestseller. “Hurrah!”, thought I, “This will be a nice, gentle book – a real treat after Sophie’s Choice”.

Of course, I was falling into that trap that adults create for themselves, the one I wrote about in this book. Adults lie about childhood, or else they’ve forgotten. Being a young adult is far from nice and gentle. Especially when you have cancer.

I’ve not seen the film (she says, again… I wonder if this will be a pattern in my reading challenge?), but I imagine it’s quite a tear-jerker. It’s a great book, full of reminders about how we should be living our lives, given none of us really know how long we’ve got. And a beautiful glimpse into that all-consuming first love of adolescence, the sort that gives you goosebumps, and makes you believe that there has to be an afterlife, because when someone so young, so beautiful, dies they can’t simply cease to exist.

My first love died young. He wasn’t quite as romantic, or intellectual, as Augustus, but (to me) he was perfect. And there’s no way he isn’t still around somewhere.