Balthasar’s Gift

balthasar's giftThere’s a back story to this one. Once upon a time, now many years ago, a group of women writers, all friends online, came together over a feminist blog: What We Said. We were all involved with different kinds of writing; novels, short stories, nonfiction. Now one of our group has published her crime novel, Balthasar’s Gift, which is the first in a series featuring maverick journalist, Maggie Cloete.

The setting is South Africa, post-apartheid but before the turn of the millenium. Maggie is going about her normal business (chasing muggers on her motorcycle, in fact) when the call comes in: a shooting at the local AIDS mission. Maggie arrives to find a young man dying in the arms of the woman who runs the place, and it’s only when a passer-by knows the victim’s name, Balthasar Meiring, that Maggie realises she’s heard of him. A little while back he had called her on the phone, urging her to attend the court hearing of a class action against a doctor selling a fake cure for AIDS. Maggie had decided to pass the information onto her colleague at the paper who works on health issues, mostly because she was resisting the pressure Meiring seemed to want to put on her. And of course now, she regrets it.

While the general assumption is that his death is a robbery gone wrong, Maggie begins to suspect there’s a great deal more behind it. Following up on leads that she hides from her editor at the paper, she begins to believe that the two sides of Balthasar’s life have clashed: his private school friends, some of whom are now operating far too close to the limits of the law, and his work with AIDS sufferers, of whom there are escalating numbers. It’s the mid-90s and the government is reluctant to provide the drugs that could save thousands of lives, while the people react with fear and superstition. It’s a bad situation, ripe with all the urgency and exploitation that leads to murder.

Maggie is a terrific character: determined to be the alpha male in any situation, stubborn and provocative and with the subtlety of a jackhammer, but fundamentally it’s her tender side that gets her into trouble, undermining any professional distance she might try to have. She reminds me a whole lot of V. I. Warshawski.

But perhaps what I admired most in this novel is the setting of Pietermaritzburg. I’ve never been to South Africa and know very little about the country, but this story is so steeped in the atmosphere of place and time, I felt as if I’d been there. The best crime fiction doesn’t just tell a pacy, high-octane story, it also has a profound awareness of the social injustices and loopholes that create the right conditions for crime to flourish. I really admired this in Eva Dolan’s crime novel, Long Way Home, a few weeks back, and was again impressed by that same depth in Charlotte Otter’s.

I should also say that I read an early version of this novel, when Charlotte was first drafting it. It was a great read then, but now it’s amazing. Every scene is crisp, the transitions are smooth, the characterisation sharp and vivid, the story unfolds so neatly and lucidly… All too often I read books that feel a bit ragged still, as if they should have gone through another edit before reaching their readers. But this one is as slick and tough as a turbo engine. And finally, hard-boiled crime fiction has a new edge in the 21st century, led by women writers who marry uncompromising social insight with compassion. The old sisterhood would be justly proud to bits of Charlotte.

 

Monday Miscellany

1. Finally something properly good has happened for my son. He has a job in a well-known pub in London’s West End. This was entirely his own doing – he put together a CV and went around the pubs in his vicinity, asking if any were short-staffed, gradually widening his circle. Last week he did a couple of trial shifts and today he begins behind the bar. He says the people seem nice and it’s really, really busy. I am so pleased for him; to rescue oneself is a powerful experience. I had a post half written in my head about what it’s been like these past few months, and what we’ve all learned from them, but I can’t bring myself to write it down today. I feel worn out with relief.

2. One thing, though, is that recovery is not a linear event. It is circular. Round and around we go, pressing the bruises, feeling the pain, stepping back, irresistibly drawn to pressing them again. It seems like stasis, like being stuck, but more preparation for change is going on than we imagine. The paradox is that the emotional pain gets worse every time those bruises are pressed, not better, because each time we confront the reality of what has happened with more clarity, each time we can bear to face it a little more.

3. Another paradox: I believe that if we can find someone to help us bear witness to our big emotions and then feel them without any of those complicating problems of shame or embarrassment, then we can work through emotions much faster. But it’s very, very hard to be that witness, particularly for people we love. Their pain is our pain. Watching them suffer arouses unresolved emotions of our own. And emotion exerts a huge pressure of distortion. When we are not in the same place, the emotional person seems quite mad, such is the extent of distortion. And then we long to bring their perspective back in line with the reality we’ve all agreed is sane.

4. I think we have too limited an understanding of what sanity is, and that it’s easy to be afraid of anything lying beyond those narrow confines. I think there’s far too much insistence on people being strong and happy and flawless, that this ignores the reality of what it is to be human. If we don’t acknowledge negative emotions in ourselves, then either they turn inwards and attack us with anxiety, low self-esteem, lack of trust, or else they get displaced. When people rage and rant in an excessive way, about things that are irritating or annoying, yes, but maybe not as bad as all that, then I think it’s displaced emotions coming out over some issue that feels more justified than the one that caused the emotions in the first place. And then there’s the third option: contempt or indifference towards people in pain. The urge to think oneself superior, better than that. It’s a strong position inside but ugly from the outside.

5. Hmm, I’ll stop before I actually write the post I said I wouldn’t write, but I will add that any deduction I’ve made above comes from the trial and error of getting it wrong a lot of the time. I’ve had to do a lot of learning from mistakes.

6. I must apologise for being so bad at commenting on other blogs lately. I’m reading, but my thinking-of-the-right-thing-to-say muscle seems to be weary. I’m not actually in the mood for writing much of anything.

7. I have been watching a lot of television, which is most unusual for me. Mr Litlove was competing in the town rowing races last week, which meant I could watch whatever I liked. I ended up really getting into the first season of Downton Abbey, and whilst I am probably the last person in the world to watch it, I have to say it was completely splendid. Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham is brilliant, and the casting of Mr Bates was a stroke of genius (though I fear for that man’s fate – he has the face for suffering). I really admired the way the multiple storylines were handled; only the very last episode tried to squeeze too much in. My mum has the next two series on DVD and I guess I’ll be borrowing them from her.

8.  I’ve also been enjoying the sheer madness that is Boston Legal. I think these must be the most unprofessional bunch of lawyers ever to tread the far margins of legal ethics, but once again the acting is the thing. James Spader is outrageously good; he manages to be simultaneously arrogant and supercilious and dangerous and endearing and charismatic with more integrity than all the others put together. Plus seeing William Shatner as a complete psycho is a lot of fun, and very un-Captain Kirkish.

9. We’ve also been watching Hustle, which is Mr Litlove’s favourite and the one he always votes for, when it comes to a vote. We’ve watched the first four seasons and there’s hardly been a duff episode. They’re conmen (and woman) but with Robin Hood’s philosophy and it’s a treat to find something that’s a lot of fun as well as neatly plotted and rather smart. I never tire of watching the baddies brought down. If only such prescience were available in reality!

 

 

Friday Teasers

It’s boiling hot here – in a steamy sort of way – and we’re expecting family for the weekend, so rather than a real post, a few teasers for reviews I’ve written over on SNB that will take you to the best books I’ve read over the past few months.

 

The one I wanted as soon as I saw it, received through the post with glee and loved it as much as I’d hoped.

 

The one I thought had the best writing – on average three brilliant sentences a page.

 

The one I didn’t think I’d like, put off reading until the very end, and then found gripping, poignant and altogether amazing.

 

The one that was sheer quality and class from start to finish.

 

The one that had the best twist.

 

The one that was both brilliant and irritating that I wished I could discuss with other readers.

 

The one that was very funny, and very, very sad.

 

The one that was the best comfort read.

 

Hope you all have a lovely weekend!

 

The Very Inspiring Blogger Award

very-inspiring-blog-award-logo

I was immensely chuffed to find that two dear blogging friends – Susan and Annabel – had nominated me for this award (and I would nominate both of them right back if they hadn’t done this already!). It’s even more touching because I’ve been a rather intermittent blogger these past few weeks. Though that’s just been the force of circumstances, I hesitate to add. I love my blogging community and would be lost without you all and your brilliant posts and wonderful comments here.

So this award comes at the perfect time to celebrate blog friends. These are the rules:

  • Thank and link to the person who nominated you.
  • List the rules and display the award.
  • Share seven facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 other amazing blogs and comment on their posts to let them know they have been nominated (15 is a few too many for me, particularly as several of the ones I would have included have nominated me so I hope 10 will do)
  • Optional: display the award logo on your blog and follow the blogger who nominated you

I’ll give a special shout out to my other fellow editors at Shiny – Harriet and Simon – who are just wonderful, and then my nominees for this award (I’m supposed to have 15, but it just had to be 16 and there could have been more!), in alphabetical order:

 

Acid Free Pulp – just love these intelligent and thoughtful reviews.

 

A Gallimaufry – Helen makes me laugh every time; she is pure delight, and finds the best art, too.

 

A Work in Progress – should be on everyone’s Top Five Perfect Book Blogs list.

 

Beauty is a Sleeping Cat – great reviews and the best community readalongs.

 

Dolce Bellezza – one of the biggest, warmest hearted bloggers I know.

 

Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings – I am in awe of Karen’s seemingly effortless, wonderful reviews, and her secondhand finds!

 

Listenwatchreadshare – fantastic writing about books and life (and moving house!)

 

Mrs Carmichael – like having a drink with your funniest friend; the best family and travel adventure tales ever.

 

Necromancy Never Pays – brilliant reviews peppered with poems that I have a) never heard of and b) find hugely intriguing.

 

Novel Readings – such intelligent analyses of books; you feel smarter just being there.

 

Reading the End – no one reviews like Jenny; she is such an original and hilarious.

 

Ripple Effects – gorgeous photography and amazing film reviews; I get all my viewing recommendations here.

 

Shelf Love – Jenny and Teresa cover such an amazing range of books between them; and yet often they seem to be reviewing a book I’ve read or want to read.

 

Smithereens – what book blogging is all about, real passion for books and writing, squeezed into daily life.

 

So Many Books – one of the all-time great book blogs; classic and timeless.

 

The Curious Reader – mostly life, padded with books, and always wise and loving. I just wish blogger would let me comment more!

 

The Modern Idiot – social and political comment, a laugh, a rant and full-on passion all the time.

 

Thinking in Fragments – dangerously full of crime fiction I want to read! And deliciously readable reviews of all kinds.

 

And while I’m at it, I have to send love to Lilian and Pete, who do blog, but not often enough (because they are particularly busy!).

I’m supposed to add seven facts about me. But guys, I’ve been blogging for 8 years here – I don’t think there’s anything you don’t know by now! Though if there’s anything you want to know, you only have to ask.