Category Archives: Peirene Press

The Murder of Halland – Pia Juul

It seems odd that my second read of the year should be the first review of the year especially as I only finished The Murder of Halland this morning. However I thought I would do a very, very fresh (as I normally take a while to mull a book) review for a bit of a change. In case you were wondering the first book I read this year was Artful by Ali Smith, which I do need to mull and don’t want to share my thoughts on before Hear Read This goes live on Friday. Anyway back to the book in question, The Murder of Halland

Peirene Press, 2012, paperback, fiction, translated by Martin Aitken, 170 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Everyone loves a cold crime don’t they? Yet the more and more that are translated and come over the more and more, bar a few exceptions like Yrsa Sigurdardottir, they seem the same. The Murder of Halland is a cold crime novel but it one with a difference as the murder at the start of the novel is not really the heart of the novel, in fact as we read on Pia Juul lets the murder fade into the background as the reader follow the deceased’s grieving partner after the horrific event – even then Juul gives us something rather different as Bess, the partner of Halland who has recently been shot by person unknown, is a much more complex character than first meets the eye.

To outside eyes, and indeed rather envious ones like Stine, it would appear that Bess has the perfect life. She is a well known author, her partner Halland is also respected and handsome, if a little older, and they seem to have a very comfortable and fulfilled life together. However we join Bess the night before Halland’s death as they are getting ready for bed and we are inside the house where things are normal yet there seems a slight tension in the air. Next thing Halland is dead and unlike in the police dramas, that Halland and Bess so liked to watch, nothing is solved fast and Bess is left confused and grieving, and looking back on her life – it is this which becomes the real story of The Murder of Halland and not the one that makes all the papers.

All I needed for happiness was a detective series. And there were lots to choose from. Simplicity was a virtue. First a murder, nothing too bestial. Then a police inspector. Insights into his or her personal problems, perhaps. Details about the victim. Puzzles and anomalies. Lines of investigation. Clues. Detours. Breakthrough. Case solved. Nothing like real life. I watched one thriller, then another. But as soon as the penny dropped I lost interest. The puzzle attracted me – the solution left me cold. Nothing like real life.

As Bess grieves, we soon come to learn that Halland and her were completely in love with one another and yet Bess never felt quite at ease with him. It may have something to do with the fact that she left her husband, Troel who isn’t the nicest of men and soon turns up wanting to see if Bess might fancy sleeping with him in her grieving state, and her daughter Abby after meeting Halland in a bookshop and electricity struck. It may be something to do with the neighbour Brandt. Juul is wonderfully ambiguous even to the very end. Whatever the case they were ‘happy’ but not ‘happy’ all at once.

Indeed after Halland dies one of his relatives, Pernille his sisters foster daughter, suddenly turns up heavily pregnant and wanting to know who will pay the rent of the room on her house Halland was using to stay in and to store things in. This is news to Bess and intriguing to us as we keep trying to solve the crime that Juul has tantalisingly led away from us because what she also really wants to talk about is the effect a murder has on those around it.

It isn’t just the closest of the deceased and the police that are affected, though Juul’s main focus point is Bess obviously, it is also those in the houses and town around the murder that get affected. Some point fingers, some act like it didn’t happen, some gossip, some go mad, some see it as a chance to change or reveal other secrets and Juul writes about this all brilliantly. Her best writing though is without a doubt when she is writing of Bess and her grief but also her confusion. Not just how she felt/feels about Halland and what she did or didn’t know of him but also what her life has meant, the questions of mortality that death often brings. It is deftly and all too realistically done, we don’t all just weep and weep and weep after all.

Halland lay alone in a bare room with a sheet over him. He looked the same and yet he didn’t. I both knew him and didn’t know him. I was his and he was mine, only now we weren’t. We were both alone. I laid my hand gently against his cheek, a gesture I made whenever he seemed in pain and I didn’t have the courage to ask him if anything was wrong.

I found The Murder of Halland a very compelling book. I read it in just two sittings, being one of the Peirene Press novels it is chosen for such a reading. It is part of their ‘small epic’ series and I can see why as for such a slight book it raises so many questions, not always answering them, and somehow encapsulates both a town caught up in a drama and the internal drama of a grieving woman all at once. I wouldn’t say it turns crime fiction on its head, which I read somewhere and was one of the reasons that I decided to finally read it on a random whim, but it is one of the most honest portraits (character study doesn’t seem quite right) of grief I have happened across and all done by a very accomplished writer I feel wish we had more of the translated works of here in the UK. I would definitely like to read more from Pia Juul.

You can see more reviews of The Murder of Halland at Reading Matters here, Winstons Dad blog here, Andrew Blackman’s blog here and David H’s blog here. Who else has read it and what did you make of it? Read any of Pia Juul’s other works? Have you read any other ‘cold crime’ works with a very different twist or take on things?

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Filed under Peirene Press, Pia Juul, Review

Next World Novella – Matthias Politycki

One of my highlights reading wise in 2010 was the joys of the a new publishing house that was translating short novels and novella’s that brought works from all over Europe into the English reading consciousness. This publishing house was of course Peirene Press. I was left rather breathless after reading ‘Beside The Sea’, thought ‘Stone in a Landslide’ was another beautiful book and was then impressed by the single sentence structure (which I didn’t think would be readable yet was) of ‘Portrait of a Mother as a Young Woman’. So why oh why then had I left it so long to read the 4th of their collection so far ‘Next World Novella’ by Matthias Politycki? Well I am not quite sure, though it might have been to do with the fact I thought it was a dystopian surreal novella from the title (wrong assumption), yet when I wanted something short that I knew would be good it was the book that I turned to next.

It would be hard enough to find the person you have been married to and in love with for the last few decades dead over their desk one morning out of the blue, the thought that flowers in a vase had rotten and gone off leading to quite a different discovery. It would then be even worse to then find that the person you had been happily married to, or so you thought, had in fact not been so happy all along. This is the position that Hinrich Schepp finds himself in one morning at the opening of ‘Next World Novella’ as sees that his wife has been keeping her secret thoughts about him and them in the margins of the work he wrote long ago and she has been secretly editing. Rather than call a doctor, or phone for an ambulance Hinrich starts to read his work and the thoughts his wife really had and soon comes to some uncomfortable and upsetting conclusions.

This is a book that I almost found unbearably sad. Not only is it a look at people’s beliefs in death, Hinrich’s wife Doro believes death is an island surrounded by a lake you must swim through only to die once more, and death itself but how we grieve and deal with it. Add to that the uncovering of someone’s true feelings that you can no longer question or argue with and you have a highly emotional piece of writing. This is no happy tale and indeed left me with a feeling of ‘goodness we never really know what anyone thinks do we?’ which was rather depressing and yet its written with such control, minimalism and understated raw emotion it’s a compelling and masterly piece of writing all in one, in fact credit must do to the translator Anthea Bell too for managing to keep all this in, all in under 140 pages.

What to me made the book an even rarer gem was the fact that though initially Doro I dead from the start I didn’t think she would have a voice, character, or live and breathe on the pages. Yet through her notes, and as Hinrich’s past and Doro’s thoughts on it all within them come to light, her character is actually the dominating voice of ‘Next World Novella’. This I found incredible, I don’t think I have ever read a novel before where a dead character, unless relating the tale from heaven or some such, can take so much control of a piece of fiction or be such an impressive force and shadow over every page.

As gripping as it is haunting ‘Next World Novella’ is in my mind a mini-masterpiece. I can only hope that now we have one of Politycki’s novels readily available in translation in the UK that there will be many more to follow. After all he has several other books and collections of poems that we are yet to discover here yet have sold in their hundreds of thousands in his homeland of Germany. If you are to discover one new author this year then I think Matthias Politycki would be your best bet and ‘Next World Novella’ should be added to your TBR pretty soon. 9.5/10

This novella was kindly sent by the publisher.

I have been left rather breathless by ‘Next World Novella’ and I think its my second favourite of the Peirene titles so far (though the new forthcoming ‘Tomorrow Pamplona’ has recently arrived and looks good), have you read any of the Peirene books and what have you thought? Have you a favourite? I have also been left thinking about ‘Next World Novella’ for several weeks after I put it down and those are the sort of books I want to be reading much more of. So have their been any books you have read of late that have had this effect on you as I would love to read some more books like this?

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Filed under Books in Translation, Books of 2011, Matthias Politycki, Peirene Press, Review

Portrait of a Mother as a Young Woman – Friedrich Christian Delius

Over the last year one of my missions was to read much more translated work. Well actually it was also to check out how much I read that was translated and wasn’t aware of, for some reason I always think that ‘translated by’ should be on the cover – not the case. One publisher that has helped me in this mini quest is Peirene Press who established themselves this year and whose previous titles ‘Beside The Sea’ and ‘Stone in a Landslide’ I have thoroughly enjoyed, one of them quite possibly heading for a place in my favourite books of the year list. So when the third arrived in the post I was really looking forward to it, yet I put it away for a while, I was nervous – would I like it as much as the first two?

‘Portrait of a Mother as a Young Woman’ sounds intimidating before you start it as the book is one long sentence which instantly filled me with dread. I don’t like it when a book does this for a few pages let alone a whole novella. However whether its down to the original, the editing or the translation (without reading the original in German I would never know – something I always think of when reading translations ‘was it this good originally, was it worse, was it better?’) it was a fear that proved unfounded as there are natural breaks in the pattern of the narrative.

Our protagonist is the woman of the title; we meet her during the war in 1943 as a young pregnant German woman residing in Rome while her husband is in army service in Africa. After doctors orders she is walking through the city from her guest house to the church. Initially she simply observes the city and looks back on how her relationship with Gert started and then starts to worry about the future, will her husband be safe, what world will her unborn child be born into? Normally a woman who believes that the almighty is powering and behind everything, worrying doubts are setting in her mind.

There is little more to the story than the way in which her thoughts progress as she wanders, you are simply privy to the internal workings and machinations of this woman’s thoughts. Yet this is not a book about plot, this is a book about time and place and Delius, through his portrait of this young woman, sets the time, place and surreal atmosphere in a city untouched by war yet very much feeling its effects (such as the coffee shortage – how did Italians cope with that?) now and again and forcing the reality of the situation into peoples minds when sometimes they forget.

The writing is simply stunning. Delius paints a vivid picture and an incredibly believable woman’s narrative voice, though the book isn’t in first person the flow of it and structure of a single sentence makes it feel like subconscious and very natural train of thought. Rome is painted vividly, I have never been and yet now feel I have walked those streets in that time period. In fact I feel I have walked those streets as that woman so vivid is the picture Delius creates.

Is there a downside? Well for me a teeny tiny one and that’s the title, which is actually perfect in terms of saying what the story is about and yet I keep getting it wrong when I talk or tell people about the book. I want to call it ‘The Portrait of the Young Woman as a…’ and then I think ‘no, it’s The Portrait of a Lady as a…’I am slightly worried I will tell people about it and they will grab Henry James or think James Joyce wrote a wonderful book about a young Nazi girl. Oh dear. The title though doesn’t really matter as the contents are so wonderful. (Oh and I must credit Jamie Bulloch on an incredible translation!)

A book that will: be perfect if you want something very different from your usual novella or novel and especially if you want to walk vividly in the footsteps of someone else. 8.5/10

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:

Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers – The whole way through this book I wanted to head back to this novel, nothing to do with the story line but everything to do with the descriptions of Italy and in a way the mentions and thoughts of religion strangely.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden – Again nothing to do with the story line or premise of Delius’s book because it’s so unique but another incredible example of a man writing women flawlessly.

Who else has read this book, what did you think? Will any of you be going to see the lovely Kim of Reading Matters in discussion with the author tonight at ‘The Big Green Bookshop’? If you are I may well see you there. Which books have you read that have left you feeling you have actually stepped completely into someone else’s shoes and life despite the fact they are fictional?

Oh and should you want a copy of this of you very own I am giving one away in the post below…

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Filed under Books of 2010, Friedrich Christian Delius, Peirene Press, Review

Book Giveaway – The Portrait of a Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius

Don’t you just hate it when you are in the middle of a book and you go and leave it somewhere? Well that happened to me last weekend with the latest Peirene Press book which I had wanted to read for an event tonight (see the post above for more details) when I went and promptly left it on my aunties sofa.

The very kind Meike and Maddy at Peirene heard of my plight (via Twitter) and very kindly sent me a second copy which of course means, once Gran has picked it up from my aunties and passes it onto me possibly reading it in between, I have a spare copy and its one that I am giving away world wide…

All you have to do is leave your name in the comments below (I was tempted to make it so you had to share a tale of a time you misplaced a book half way through and what the outcome was but then thought I bet everyone else isn’t as careless – though if you have been do share and make me feel better) before midnight GMT on Wednesday 17th of Sept and you could win it via a random draw – good luck!!!

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Filed under Friedrich Christian Delius, Give Away, Peirene Press

Stone in a Landslide – Maria Barbal

You don’t normally think that you would be in the position where you have really high expectations from the next book you read from a publisher, especially when it’s the second book they are publishing. That is however how I have been feeling with the latest Peirene Press release ‘Stone in a Landslide’ by Maria Barbal. It is really all the fault of their first book ‘Beside The Sea’, which I think is one of the best books that I have read in recent years, which I am still thinking about and recommending to anyone and everyone. So no pressure then for this book as I sat down to read it.

When reading ‘Stone in a Landslide’ I found it to have a rather reflective and nostalgic feel to it, despite the fact that I have never lived in Spain, though I have been quite a few times. I think this is all down to our narrator Conxa. It doesn’t give anything away to say that Conxa tells us her story aged 80 and looking back at her life which has not been one of the easiest. But then it possibly wouldn’t be so interesting would it? From her childhood, moving to her aunt Tia and Oncle’s house to be a worker and almost adoptive daughter, through a civil war that rages through the country even to the Pyrenees where she lives and onto life for an older lady in a world that just keeps modernising. We see her loves, her loses, her joys and her heartaches.

I don’t really know if any more should be said as I could give the whole plot away which would never do. Instead I will do as Kirsty at Other Stories did and quote Peirene’s publisher Meike Ziervogel. ‘I fell in love with Conxa’s narrative voice, its stoic calmness and the complete lack of anger and bitterness. It is a timeless voice, down to earth and full of human contradictory nuances. It’s the expression of someone who searches for understanding in a changing world but senses that ultimately there may be no such thing.’ I doubt anyone trying to write thoughts on this book could put it any better.

I can say more on the author, who is understandably one of Spain’s most regarded writers. Barbal is a wonderful writer, in her hands as a reader you are gently drawn through a lifetime of a woman. It’s a full life and yet despite the shortness of the book you never feel you are rushed. In fact often you are asked to stop a while and take in the smallest of scenes from a village dance to a family meal or joining women gossiping in the streets, all incredibly detailed and yet understated. Yet all of them breathe Conxa’s life and indeed the Spanish life into wherever you are reading the book. Does that sound a little loopy? It also has a rhythm that keeps you reading until whoops the book is finished. This could of course be the translation which has been done meticulously; though I have a feeling it’s quite probably a combination of the two.  

‘Stone in a Landslide’ has been a best seller around the whole of Europe since its initial release in 1985 and now having read the book I can see why, it’s a beautiful simplistic and touching book that leaves you feeling reflective, yet in a hopeful way. It’s also a book that makes me even more excited about what might be coming next from Peirene Press. 8/10

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:
Beside The Sea – Veronique Olmi (you must, must read this book!)

It is books like this, and indeed ‘Beside The Sea’, that leave me wondering just how many more wonderful European novels and novella’s we are missing out on here in Britain, and indeed all over the world? What possibly unknown European gems have you found that I (and many others) should be seeking out?

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Filed under Maria Barbal, Peirene Press, Review

Beside The Sea – Véronique Olmi

Some books you need to write about quite some time after you have read them to let the settle with you and other times a book hits you so strongly that you want to write about it the instant that you have finished it. I am doing the latter with ‘Beside the Sea’ by Veronique Olmi whilst the emotions which it has so strongly brought out of me are still fresh. 

I can’t really start my bookish thoughts on ‘Beside the Sea’ without stating that it is one of the most intense reads that I have had the fortune (though maybe that’s not quite the right word) of reading recently. It starts as the simple tale of a single mother taking her children on a holiday to see the sea for the first time only as the book develops much darker undertones start to slowly seep out of the narrative and you realise this isn’t going to be quite the picturesque read that you thought it might be.

To give away very much about this books storyline would be to spoil this book for the reader. I will try not to let the cat out of the bag when I describe what an amazing tension Olmi creates in this novel through the narration. The nameless young mother describes to the reader her trip away and as the tale goes on from the coach ride to hotel arrival, café treats to first sightings of the sea you are given small glimpses that something isn’t quite right. Health centres, social workers, Sundays in bed all day and medication start to be mentioned and the further you read on the more you get that gut feeling all is not well and something darker is coming.

“I like songs.They say things I can’t seem to say. If I didn’t have these rotten teeth I’d sing alot more, a lot more often, I’d sing my boys to sleep in the evenings, tales of sailors and magical beds, but there you are, we can’t be good at everything, we can’t know how to do everything, all of it, that’s what I tell the social worker till I’m blue in the face.”

One of the quotes on the books matching bookmark mentions that though not a thriller this book does read as one and that’s a very true statement. I can’t think of many books where the atmosphere and intensity of the novel come off the page so instantly and leave you to read on even if you aren’t sure you want to. I shall say no more but if you have read the book email me as I am desperate to have a chat with someone else who has finished it.

I know there are some people out there who think that if you don’t have children then you can’t relate to tales about mother’s (or father’s) feelings for their child or children. I think that’s a load of rubbish, I believe that a wonderful author can take you absolutely anywhere, into any mind or situation, that’s the wonder of books. Olmi is just such a writer who put me into the mind of a mother thinking of her and her children’s lives and left me rather an emotional wreck and not any books can leave me almost feeling physically winded.

A compelling book from an author whose entire back catalogue of work I hope will get translated. I would be the first in the queue to read anything of hers that comes out in English in the future, or I will just have to learn fluent French if not, that’s how good this is. It has also made me very keen to see what Peirene Press (a new independent and rather lovely publisher who kindly sent me this) has coming out in the future. This is a Savidge Reads must read book.

P.S I did mean to write more about how this was a wondrous start to ‘Lost in Translation’ and about Peirene Press, but the book has left me so stunned and slightly shaken that I need to go and sit and just be with people and noise for a bit before I can say anymore.

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Filed under Books of 2010, Peirene Press, Review, Véronique Olmi