Crime novels for Easter

Photo of a yellow tulip

As I mentioned in my previous post Norway has an excellent tradition of reading crime novels during Easter and, as I have read little but cosy crime lately, I thought I should do my part to support the tradition by highlighting my favourite recent reads. All from the excellent British Library Crime Classics series.

Murder by Matchlight by E.C.R. Lorac was the first crime novel I read this year, thanks to a recommendation by Kaggsy. The mystery itself is good but fairly standard, the real treat is instead the atmosphere of war time London. First published in 1945 it must have been written during or directly after WW2 and it really shows.

Having read this one I immediately got the two other novels by E.C.R. Lorac currently in print, Bats in the Belfry (1937) and Fire in the Thatch (1946). They were both good mysteries, especially Fire in the Thatch, but they lacked that special setting that made Murder by Matchlight stand out.

The Division Bell Mystery, first published in 1932, is set in the British parliament. It was written by the Labour politician Ellen Wilkinson, who give us an inside view on the life in parliament, together with a neat locked-room mystery. Although the mystery was rather standard the inside-view of the political life in the 1930s was not, and I really enjoyed it. This one was also recommended by Kaggsy, who clearly have great taste in crime novels.

My third new BLCC favourite, Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert, is set in a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy during late WW2, a setting the author knew from personal experience. Many of the characters are rather flat and easy to mix-up and the mystery is fine but nothing special, however the setting is unique and claustrophobic. Although I may not have cared too much about who the murderer was, I really wanted to know who would escape and how. All in all it was probably the most thrilling BLCC I have read, and offered an interesting glimpse of life in a POW camp. Really recommended!

What all three books had in common was that they offered something more than just a decent mystery. They showed me glimpses of interesting worlds I can never visit, war time London, the British parliament during the 1930s, a POW-camp in Italy, all places that the authors knew well (I guess, I haven’t confirmed whether or not Lorac was in London during WW2). Only books can bring me to those places.

 

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A Late Beginner

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I recently treated myself by ordering three of Slightly Foxed’s paperback memoirs as my first book order for the year.  Two of them, Frances Wood’s Hand-grenade Practice in Peking and Dodie Smith’s Look Back with Love are still in my TBR-pile, but I just finished the third one, Priscilla Napier’s A Late Beginner.

In A Late Beginner Priscilla Napier looks back on her childhood in Egypt during the early 20th century. We follow her from a very young age and until she leaves Egypt in 1921, aged twelve, to go to school in the UK. The first world war and the early steps toward Egypt independence occur in the fringes of her consciousness, mingled with all the normal interests of a young child. Although largely written from a child’s perspective, Napier still manages to give a lively image of the Egypt she knew.

I really like memoirs that place you in the middle of important historical events. Of course the format is a limitation in that you only get one, usually not very objective, perspective on events, but what you gain is the impressions and feelings of someone who was actually there. It is the closest thing I know to time-travel. This one was a really good example.

My family and other animals

Butterfly

I must say that the reading year starts well, I am only four books in and have already discovered a new favourite. My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell’s memoir of his childhood on Corfu, is full of fun anecdotes, beautiful descriptions, and lots and lots of animals.

According to the memoir Gerald “Gerry” Durrell, youngest of four siblings, grew up in Corfu as the youngest son in a loving but chaotic family. Gerald himself appears to have greatly contributed to the general chaos by his interest in everything living and a somewhat inconvenient habit of bringing various animals home. I have great sympathy for young naturalists, and Durrell writes about his observations with an infectious enthusiasm, but there were a few times when I sided with his family. The chaos he created provides many great anecdotes though, so I am grateful.

I am normally not a fan of too humorous books but this one won me over completely. There were plenty of comic scenes but the comedy never felt forced. Highly recommended to anyone who loves amusing anecdotes and/or animals!

I’m counting this novel as my 20th century classic for the Back to the classics reading challenge.

November reading

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In October I finished another novel from my Classics club reading list, Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson. All I had left to do was to write a review, ideally post it during November considering its theme, and go on to other novels. Unfortunately I got stuck, November is already gone, and I still haven’t written that review.

It was not really writing the review that was the problem, I just had too much other things going on, but by now I think that the wisest course of action is to write something, anything, and move on.

So what can I say about it? Well, it was good, melancholy and beautiful, like Jansson almost always is. It is the last books about the Moomins and the Moomin family is not at home. Instead we meet some of the supporting cast from the other books, people who have all come to depend on the Moomin family’s presence and struggle to fill the void on their own.

All the Moomin books can be enjoyed by both adults and children but this one may be especially relevant for adults. I really liked it and do recommend it, but only if you have read most of the other Moomin books first, as it also act as a  farewell to Moomin valley.

A maid among maids

Sheeps in a meadowIn 1914 Swedish farms had difficulties finding enough labourers. Many young people from the country side preferred to move into the cities or emigrate to America to the hard work as a farm labourer. At this point a young Stockholm journalist, Ester Blenda Nordström (1891-1948), decided to find out for herself what it was that made people leave. Using an assumed name she applied for a position as a farm maid and spent a month working as a farm labourer. Back in Stockholm she wrote about her experience, first in an article series and later in a widely popular book, En piga bland pigor (A maid among maids) which is the one I have just finished.

So why do we need an outsiders perspective on the hard farm life when Sweden have so many great working-class authors who wrote about their own experience? Well, I must admit that I found the outsider’s perspective really helpful. Reading it today we are all outsiders and Nordström, as a very modern woman in 1914, acts as a bridge between me as a modern reader and the common life in 1914. She asks the questions I would have asked and she comments on thing I find notable but which may have been considered too normal to mention by someone who was not an outsider. She also wrote this before the working-class authors really broke through in Sweden so it was cutting edge both in its theme and the way it was done. It doesn’t hurt either that she was an excellent writer and that the book is genuinely funny.

In Swedish this type of undercover journalism is called wallraffa (to wallraff) after the famous German journalist Günter Wallraff. Perhaps it would have made even more sense to name it after the Swedish journalist who used the method more than fifty years earlier.

I may have already ordered some of her other works. I can’t wait to read about her time hitch-hiking through America or the time she spent one and a half year in Kamchatka. Unfortunately she doesn’t seem to have been translated into English so if you want to read anything by her my recommendation is to either learn Swedish or pester your favourite publisher until they translate her for you, whichever seems easiest

A Time on Earth

Birches in a meadow

The year is 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis casts its shadow over the world. In California the ageing Swedish-American Albert Carlson feels death approaching. The time has come for him to look back on his life and reflect on what he did with his one time on earth.

A Time on Earth (Din stund på jorden) by Vilhelm Moberg is a story about death and about living. About Albert who abandoned his dreams, and about his brother Sigfrid who died young and never got the chance to fulfil his.  It is a melancholic story, filled with regrets over two lives which never became what they ought, but it is written with a compassion for the characters which prevents it from being too bleak.

Albert Carlson has lived his whole adult life in the USA but never managed to make it his home. Now he spends his days in a lonely hotel room with his memories. He suffers from the common emigrant curse of longing for a country which no longer exists, the Sweden he knew has moved on without him (as an emigrant myself this is something I fear). The story moves back and forth from Albert’s life in California to his childhood in rural Sweden, both beautifully portrayed in the novel.

A Time on Earth is a beautiful book, which kept me captivated from the beginning, but it is not a very cheerful read. I believe I should find something a bit lighter for my next read.

This book was on my Classics Club reading list. I read it in Swedish but an English translation exists.

 

 

Middlemarch – first impressions

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I have a hard time reviewing Middlemarch by George Eliot, the latest book from my Classics Club reading list. I feel that I have only scratched the surface of this classic novel with my first read. Thus I am not yet ready to analyse it but I can share a few first impressions.

The first time I read something most of my focus is on the plot, which in this case starts slow and for a long time seems to meander aimlessly. It was excellently written and still enjoyable, but if I had not trusted the author I would have questioned the length of the novel. She did have a plan though. Behind the scenes she was carefully placing her characters, nudging them in the right direction, never going against their natures but still getting everyone exactly into the right places for the final resolution. It was masterful plotting and I look forward to re-reading it so I can better notice how she was doing it.

The other thing that really struck me on this first read was the interesting and realistic characters. They are all flawed, yet most of them memorable and easy to like. I found myself cheering for them and hoping that they all, well almost all, would have happy endings. I believe they will stay with me for a long time.

The only thing I did not like in the novel are a few rather ugly antisemitic comments made by characters. I do believe they were meant to be read as prejudiced rather then reflecting the author’s own opinion (unless I lost track of the family relations the characters targeted were not Jewish), but they are jarring. Apart from that I found that the text has stood the test of time very well and I really enjoyed it.