Lucie Whitehouse: Keep You Close (2016)

Keep You Close

This is just a quick review of Lucie Whitehouse’s latest novel Keep You Close. It’s short because it’s more easily spoilt than other crime novels. It has a couple of really surprising twists and it would be sad to give them away.

The famous, rich young painter Marianne Glass is found dead in her garden. The police say that it was an accident. Her former best friend Rowan Winter doesn’t believe this. Marianne suffered from crippling vertigo and would never have gone this close to edge of the roof.

When Rowan hears of her former best friend’s death, she travels to Oxford and the home of the Glass family. Marianne’s house is a place where she once used to be a constant visitor. Rowan, who lost her mother as a young girl and whose father never had time for her, found a second family in her friend’s family. Coming back after all these years is intense, to say the least. Although the circumstances are dire, the Glass family, or what is left of them, are happy to see Rowan again and even ask her to house-sit for them. Rowan however has a hidden agenda. She’s the only one who cannot belive that Marianne’s death was an accident. Could it have been a suicide? She doesn’t think so, she thinks that something far more sinister has happened and wants to investigate Marianne’s death.

Early on we find out that Rowan and Marianne hadn’t been in contact for ten years because of something that happened back then. This was right about the same time Marianne’s father died in a car crash. The official version was that they had a falling out because Rowan intruded too much and didn’t let Marianne grieve. But the reader questions soon whether Rowan isn’t hiding something.

A lot of things are mysterious. Someone seems to watch the house at night. Someone else or maybe the same person tries to break in. A lot of people seem to gain, one way or the other, through Marianne’s death. Some even attack Rowan, saying that she’s profiting as well, since she was able to renew her friendship with the Glass’s and begins a relationship with Marianne’s brother.

Keep You Close is an entertaining book but not entirely convincing. I didn’t mind the slow pace as much as the implausibility of some of the twists. One was really surprising and well done, the others were over the top. All in all, it’s not a bad book, but not as good as some of her older novels. This is her fourth and I’ve read three of them so far. I liked both The House at Midnight and Before We Met better than this. If you’ve never read anything by Lucie Whitehouse, I’d suggest to start with one of her earlier novels. I read The House at Midnight before blogging, so you won’t find a review, but here’s my review of Before We Met.

 

On Maria Stankowa’s Novella The Black Woman and the Archer – Bulgarian Literature Month

Stankowa

I’ve never read Bulgarian literature before and when Thomas (Mystwostotinki) announced he would host a Bulgarian Literature Month in June, I thought it would be a great idea to join him. Since I didn’t know any Bulgarian writers, I picked a book by Maria Stankowa (or Stankova) that had received praise by German critics when the translation came out in 2010. The book is called Langeweile – Boredom and consists of three novellas. One of which The Black Woman and the Archer I’ve read for Bulgarian Literature Month.

Maria Stankowa was born in 1956 in Burgas. She’s a musician, assistant director, and editor. She has written plays, scripts, and prose and is said to be one of the greatest writers of contemporary Bulgarian literature.  The three novellas in Boredom tell stories of women in crisis. In The Black Woman and the Archer, a woman tries to break free from the boredom of a loveless marriage. When she meets her first love, she begins an affair but has to understand, that she’s not really able to love this man either. Instead, she moves on to the next man and we are led to believe that she’s not really able to love but loves being in love. The story explores marriage and relationships and turns a lot of the assumptions that people have upside down. It plays with clichés and stereotype and pairs those with new insights into gender relationships.

Not that much of a story and certainly not something I haven’t read before. What I haven’t read before though is Maria Stankowa’s style. It’s like nothing I’ve encountered before. It blends almost everything you could possibly blend. Straightforward story telling, myth, irony, metaphor, wordplay, poetry, lyricism. Nonetheless, there’s a unity of style. The novella wasn’t always easy to read but it had so many surprising elements, so many fresh and new ways of describing something, that I enjoyed it a great deal and will certainly read the others in the book as well.

Unfortunately, since I’ve read a German translation of a Bulgarian text, it’s not easy to convey her style but I’ll add two small quotes that I’ve translated from my German edition to give you at least a bit of an idea.

“. . .You can’t understand. You’re a woman . . . I have to go to work.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“That’s impossible. The wife has to stay at home. She has to take care of the house. And worry. You have to learn that – to worry. It’s very important.”

He left and she stayed at home and worried. The worries had only waited for that. They were crawling around everywhere. The black woman bought worry poison, swept them up, filled bags and carried them out of the house. But the worries didn’t diminish. And every morning the black woman asked the same question—shouldn’t she leave?

 

Once, a very long tome ago, he met a girl. She was his first girl. He was her first boy. Their love had been so clumsy and coy. They loved each other. Clumsily and coyly. When she left, she left behind the aroma of burnt grass and the decline of summer, a pain and the almost unbelievable feeling of being a man.

If Maria Stankowa is anything to go by, then Bulgarian literature has a lot to offer.

 

New Fiction in The Vignette Review and Ink in Thirds

Ink in Thirds

May was a particularly good month for acceptances. I’ve had three stories accepted, two of which have been published by now, the third is forthcoming at the end of this month.

I’m particularly happy about these acceptances because the stories are so diverse. One is a prose poem, one is a historical, and one a YA short story.

For those who would like to read them, here’s my historical flash.

The New Girl

and here’s my prose poem:

I Keep the First for Another Day

Ursula Bloom: Wonder Cruise (1934)

Wonder Cruise

Before Corazon Books contacted me and asked me whether I would be interested in reviewing Ursula Bloom’s Wonder Cruise, I had never even heard of the author before. It sounded like a novel by one of those wonderful English authors who wrote and published in the first half of the last century – Mary Stewart, Angela Thirkell, Barbara Pym -, so I said yes immediately. When the book arrived I was a bit worried because of the cover, but as soon as I started reading I knew I had nothing to worry about. Although it has an unfortunate cover, Wonder Cruise is an absolutely delightful book; it’s as charming as it’s witty. I could hardly believe that an author who wrote like this has become a forgotten author. Especially since Ursula Bloom wrote far over 500 novels. Yes, you read correctly – over 500. She’s even in the Guinness Book of Records.

Written and set in the 1930s, Wonder Cruise tells the story of Ann Clements. You could call it a story of awakening and transformation. Ann is a spinster of 35, with little hope of marriage or an otherwise fulfilled life. She works at an office, doing tedious, boring jobs. In her private life, she is pretty much under the thumb of her older brother Cuthbert, a pompous, self-righteous clergyman who manipulates Ann constantly. It doesn’t look as if there was a lot of hope for Ann’s future but, from the first page on we know that Ann’s a very keen observer and someone who is very much aware of the beauty surrounding her, and we instantly root for her.

She’s aware that she doesn’t like her life and her work but she doesn’t think it could change.

That was life at the office.

It went on and on and on for years, as it would go on and on, Ann felt, long after she was dead. It was a place that she had been sucked into by the giant machinery of life. An intricate pattern of living, and always dismally the same. You could not escape it.

Then something wonderful happens. Ann wins a lot of money in a sweepstake and suddenly life has promise. However, there’s Cuthbert to deal with. He wants her to save the money, so his own daughter will have something to fall back on. Ann’s torn between her feelings of duty and her yearning for another life.

Until this actual moment she had not realised that she was sick of digging, and of doing the same thing in the same way day after day. She had not realised that Mrs. Puddock’s rooms were awful, and that Monday washing, Tuesday ironing, Wednesday mending, Thursday hair-wash were much like a pair of handcuffs set like shackles on her wrists.

Once she’s conscious of her situation and the manipulations of her brother, she is able to break free. She books a cruise along the Mediterranean coast. The ship lands at Marseille, Gibraltar, Naples, Malta, Venice  . . . With every kilometer, Ann becomes more herself, discovers that she is still young and attractive. For the first time, she enjoys herself.

There was the scent of tuber roses, and of lilies and wistaria all blending together. It was far more beautiful than anything she had ever imagined, far lovelier than any picture she had seen, even the one inside the portal of the steamship company in Cockspur Street.

Cockspur Street.

How terribly far away that seemed – and was!

After a few weeks of enjoyment, Ann has to ask herself fundamental questions: Who is she really and what does she want? Can she ever go back to her dull life of routine? And what about the men she meets? Is there one among them that she could love?

I’ll stop here and let future readers find out from themselves how Ann answers these questions.

The descriptions of the various settings are so lovely and spot-on. I’ve been to many of these places and the way Ursula Bloom described them, shows that she knew these places very well. Ann is a delightful character. She’s endearing, naïve but enthusiastic and a witty and keen observer. It’s great fun to read her take on the various people who are on this cruise with her. Bloom enjoys poking fun at stuck-up, uptight Brits who treat the places and people they meet like artifacts in a museum and constantly complain about the heat and the food. Some of the scenes are really funny.

Wonder Cruise has been such a discovery. It offers intelligent, charming entertainment, features an endearing main character, and is full of witty observations and enthralling descriptions. I’d love to read more of Ursula Bloom’s books.

James Salter: The Hunters (1956) Literature and War Readalong May 2016

The Hunters

The Hunters was James Salter’s first novel. It is based on his own experience as a fighter pilot during the war in Korea.

The Hunters tells the story of Cleve Connell, an excellent, seasoned pilot who is sent to Korea. Cleve is anxious to get there. He wants to prove himself and become an ace, a fighter pilot who has shot down five enemy planes – MIGs. He knows he’s running against time because he isn’t a young pilot anymore.

One thing he was sure of: this was the end of him. He had known it before he came. He was thirty-one, not too old certainly; but it would not be long. His eyes weren’t good enough anymore. With a athlete, the legs failed first. With a fighter pilot, it was the eyes. The hand was still steady and judgement good long after  man lost the ability to pick out aircraft at the extreme ranges. Other things could help to make up for it, and other eyes could help him look, but in the end it was too much of a handicap. He had reached the point, too, where a sense of lost time weighed on him. There was a constant counting of tomorrows he had once been so prodigal with. And he found himself thinking too much of unfortunate things. He was frequently conscious of not wanting to die. That was not the same as wanting to live. It was a black disease, a fixation that could ultimately corrode the soul.

Cleve and every other pilot lives for nothing else but the adrenaline rush of a mission that may bring the possibility to shoot down an MIG and to survive another dangerous mission. The pilots are all competitive but that doesn’t mean they would endanger each other.

They had shot down at least five MIGs apiece. Bengert had seven, but five was the number that separated men from greatness. Cleve had come to see, as had everyone, ho rigid was that casting. There were no other values. It was like money: it did not matter how it had been acquired, but only that it had. That was the final judgement. MIGs were everything. If you had MIGs you were standard of excellence. The sun shone upon you.

Then, one day, Pell arrives. Pell is by far the most competitive pilot Cleve has ever met. And the most reckless. He’s assigned to Cleve’s flight, a small group of pilots of which Cleve’s the leader. Cleve hates him immediately. Not only because he’s so competitive but because he senses he would do anything for a kill and that he’s dishonest. Pell hates Cleve just as much. He’s jealous of his reputation and undermines his authority from the start.

At first, Cleve’s very sure of himself because he’s known to be one of the best pilots but after he returns from many missions, without one single kill, he loses confidence. On top of that, Pell shoots down one enemy plane after the other and, so, killing turns into an obsession for Cleve.

Cleve’s not the only pilot who seems to have forgotten, that ultimately they are in a war. The following quote might explain why this is the case.

They talked for a while longer, mostly about the enemy, what surprisingly good ships they flew and what a lousy war it was. The major repeated that despairingly several times.

“What do you mean, lousy?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Abbott said distractedly, “it’s just no good. I mean what are we fighting for, anyway? There’s nothing for us to win. It’s no good, Cleve, You’ll see.”

The Korean war is often referred to as the “forgotten war” and this sense of not really knowing what they were fighting for, seems to have been almost universal. Many of the pilots who fought in the Korean war, fought during WWII. While they had the sense of having done good in Europe and the Pacific, they often didn’t really understand why they fought in Korea. However, the book doesn’t explore the political or historical dimensions of the war. It only focuses on the drama of the pilots.

The Hunters is an excellent novel and the reader senses that from the beginning. The writing is tight and precise. Salter uses metaphor and foreshadowing with great results. He’s also very good at capturing emotions and moods like in this quote:

He was tired. Somehow, he had the feeling of Christmas away from home, stranded in a cheap hotel, while the snow fell silently through the night, making the streets wet and the railroad tracks gleam.

The book offers a fascinating character study, or rather the study of two characters. And it’s suspenseful. We wonder constantly whether Cleve will make it, become an ace and leave Pell behind or whether Pell will leave him behind for good. And then there’s the almost mythical figure of “Casey Jones”, a Korean Fighter pilot who is so reckless and successful that everybody speaks about him and thinks he’s invincible. Shooting down a pilot like that, would make up for everything else.

I can’t say more as it would spoil this excellent novel. It’s amazingly well written and surprisingly suspenseful. And, as if that was not enough, the end is unexpected and satisfying.

The book comes with a foreword, for which I was glad as it’s key to understand in what formations the pilots flew and to know what the characteristics of the respective planes were. There’s a great scene towards the end, in which Cleve and another pilot fight with almost empty tanks. The logic of this and other fights would have been difficult to understand without the introduction.

Other reviews

 

 

 

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The Hunters is the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2016. The next book is the US novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. Discussion starts on Friday 30 September, 2016. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including the book blurbs can be found here.

On Claudia Piñeiro’s “Elena sabe” (Elena Knows) – “Elena weiss Bescheid” (2007)

Elena sabeElena weiss BescheidElena et le roi détrône

Claudia Piñeiro is an Argentinian crime writer. Most of her novels have received prizes. This one is no exception. It received an Argentinian and a German prize. The good news—most of Piñeiro’s novels have been translated. The bad news—for reasons I really don’t get, this is one hasn’t been translated into English, but you can read it either in Spanish Elena sabe, French – Elena et le roi détrôné or German Elena weiss Bescheid. I suppose there are other translations.

Ever since I read Piñeiro’s All Yours – Tuya  in 2012, I knew I wanted to read more of her novels. Not sure why it took me so long. Two weeks ago, I thought of her again and ordered this one and another one, Thursday Night Widows.

Elena knows tells the story of a woman, Elena, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Her daughter, Rita, has been found dead in a belfry. The police have ruled that it was a suicide but Elena cannot accept that. She is sure that Rita was murdered. The book follows two alternating timelines, both from Elena’s point of view. The first is set firmly in the present, while the second timeline tells Elena and Rita’s story in flashbacks up until the suicide/murder. Since the police have stopped the investigation, Elena has decided that she will investigate on her own. Since she suffers from advanced Parkinson’s disease, this is a difficult task. The timeline set in the present follows her on a journey from her apartment to someone else’s apartment. She hasn’t seen this person in twenty years but hopes that she will “lend” her her body and investigate on Elena’s behalf.

What a breathtaking story. So well done and with an amazing twist at the end. I can’t say I knew a lot about Parkinson’s before reading this novel. I do now. I had no idea how awful this is. Elena’s days are an ordeal. Every single thing needs careful planning. Even the most mundane, routine acts. She cannot lift her head anymore, due to atrophied muscles in the neck. She cannot move, walk, etc, unless she takes tablets that take a certain amount of time to kick in and whose effect dwindles all too quickly. The flash back sections tell us that she lives with Rita, a forty-year-old single woman and that their relationship is one of love and hate. They exchange sentences that feel like the cracking of whips. Needless to say, Rita is the one who takes care of Elena. From what Elena tells the reader, we can deduce that Rita’s disgusted by her mother’s illness.

Following Elena on her trip to the other end of the city, is painful to read. But it’s equally painful to read about Rita’s life with her.

In a novel that is told like a taut crime novel, Claudia Piñeiro explores topics like illness, getting older, the responsibilities of women to take care of the elderly and of kids. She shows us women trapped in situations from which there’s no escaping. The end came as a shock but made perfect sense.

This is an outstanding novel. Sharp, taut, and unsparing. Highly recommended.

Pia Juul: The Murder of Halland – Mordet på Halland – Das Leben nach dem Happy End (2009)

The Murder of Halland

If you know that Pia Juul’s novel The Murder of Halland (Mordet på HallandDas Leben nach dem Happy End) plays with reader expectations, then you might enjoy this novel. If, however, you expect a conventional crime novel, you might be a little disappointed. Yes, it’s about a crime, but not a crime novel per se.

Pia Juul is a Danish writer, that’s why I read the German translation (I think that German is closer to most Nordic languages than English). While the English title is a literal translation of the Danish title, the German publisher chose to call the book “Life after the Happy End”. I don’t like the title but, at least, it didn’t sound like it was a crime novel.

The book opens with the murder of Halland. Or rather the discovery of his dead body. The man who found him says that Halland’s last words were “My wife killed me.” The reader knows that Bess, his partner, didn’t kill him. She was in the house, while he was shot.

Bess is a writer who left her first husband and her daughter because of Halland. She hasn’t seen her daughter since the girl was fourteen years old and has suffered because of this separation ever since. The daughter is now a young woman of 24.

Like most readers, even though I knew this wasn’t a typical crime novel, I assumed that the book would explore who shot Halland and why. The police does investigate, but it’s a half-hearted investigation. Of course, that’s not realistic, it was the writers choice to present the story this way. The reason for this is revealed later in the book when Bess watches a crime movie on TV and tells the reader that she’s never interested in the “who did it part” of a crime story and mostly forgets the end. She is much more interested in the people involved. The life of the victim, the investigator, and the friends and relatives of the victim. I feel a lot like Bess. I read crime novels for many reasons. Finding out who did it isn’t that important for me.

When Bess hears of Halland’s death, her first reaction is to call her estranged daughter. That reaction alone makes it clear we’re not going to read an ordinary story and from here on, Bess reacts in a rather unconventional way. And this is exactly why I found this book so great. Luckily, most of us will not encounter murder. We won’t find our partners shot dead or be friends with someone whose partner has been shot dead. So, why do we assume we know how a person would react under the circumstances? We think we know because we see how people in movies and books react. But maybe they wouldn’t cry and grief, maybe they would just go a little crazy? Maybe they would be so shocked that they wouldn’t react at all and just withdraw from the world?

Bess does go a little crazy but there are a lot of other things that are strange and the reader discovers with Bess that Halland may not have been who she thought he was and that he had secrets. Here again, expectations are not met. There are secrets but they are different from what we assume and possibly do not have anything to do with the murder as such. Or maybe they do? That’s for you to find out.

I really enjoyed this book. I found it refreshing, loved the brittle tone and how surprising it was. It’s never forseeable how Bess will react and in what direction the story will go next.

It’s a thought-provoking book that leaves a lot open. If you prefer the end of your novels to be less enigmatic, then this isn’t a book for you. If you like something more unusual, with unpredictable characters, then give it a try.

Here’s another take on the novel from Guy’s blog.

Das Leben nach dem Happy End