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This place is awfully quiet, I do realize. I’m just briefly checking in for a bullet points post and hopefully I’ll be back soon.

- I have resumed my full-time job at the end of the maternity leave, so I’m still adjusting to the new «routine» with the 2 kids and have still to figure out how to fit blogging into my day. As you can see. If you have any tips, I’m all ears. Eyes. Whatever.

- By the way, blogging sometimes feels like running. Once you’ve fallen out of the bandwagon, it’s awfully sore to get back into the momentum. I must have thought about this post twenty times, and never got round to do it. I’m rusty, but I’m still here.

- As a matter of fact, I do write. But not here. Lots of lists for my daily life, but not only. I’m trying to take notes of the early babyhood stage and I hope I’ll manage a routine of diary writing. I’m very tempted by gratitude journals, but I lack the discipline. I’m still playing with an old story I’ve had for ages and I still care about it. But time is short, as is my attention span.

- Talking about attention span, reading also got more difficult, because Baby doesn’t really sleep through the night just yet. I’ve discovered that under these circumstances, I have little patience with books. I need plot, I need action, otherwise I’ll just fall asleep (and it’s not a vain threat, I’m literally falling asleep every chance I get). I’m still struggling with the right book to choose for these troubled times, and for the moment, the follow-up of the Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas made the cut where several other titles failed to grab my attention long enough.

- Talking about the Musketeers, I’m reading it on my Kindle, and I try to highlight all the location bits (every time Dumas mentions an address or a place in Paris). It’s something I’d wished to have done with the first novel in retrospect, with the hope to end up with a literary map of Musketeers’ Paris. The Kindle makes it so much easier and fun. Have you ever done or heard of such a reading for a book?

After ranting about Tana French, I got back to a classic whodunnit, in the traditional setting of a confined location with a small group of people who all have reasons to murder  the victim. Wanna play Cluedo, anyone? (Wikipedia tells me it’s called Clue in the US)

Here, it’s not the Colonel Mustard who has been killed in the library with a candle stick, it’s a literary critic who has been stabbed in the glass room of a writing retreat. Setting the crime in a writing retreat where aspiring writers are taught about crime fiction is a nice tongue-in-cheek idea. There are a lot of considerations (perhaps Cleeves’ own) about the publishing process and why people want to write. Vera Stanhope, not a big book lover herself, is at first baffled that anyone would be killed over a book, but we know better, right?

The plot is classic, à la Agatha Christie (every suspect is reunited near the end, I was nearly expecting Vera to explain the case in front of everyone like Poirot would, except there was a last twist), but it doesn’t mean it’s easy to guess. I found the pace rather mellow, but as I enjoyed the characters and the police team I was in no hurry to finish.

I have discovered Inspector Vera Stanhope’s adventures thanks to DVDs, and I quite enjoyed Brenda Blethyn’s interpretation, so it was only natural that I’d get back to her creator and books. I’m slowly learning UK’s geography thanks to crime fiction, and the Northumberland coast seems pretty familiar to me (although it seems pretty cold and wet, so I’m not sure we’d go there for a holiday but who knows?). It seems like the perfect setting for a writers’ retreat and it made me consider it with envy.

The Glass Room is my first read by Cleeves, although it’s not the first in the series (I rarely respect series order, because I take whatever the bookshop / library has), but it definitely won’t be the last!

I started this cozy mysteries collection with 2 things in mind:

- explore the Gutenberg.org catalogue of free books via my new Kindle

- explore little-known oldies in line with the Vintage Mystery Bingo that Danielle pointed out a few months ago (I’m not sure I’ll get anywhere with this challenge but it is enticing enough).

Violet Strange is an American debutante who moonlights as a private detective, for mysterious reasons that get explained in the last short story. She is very cute by that period’s standards (Green insists on dimples many times) and has a “natural talent” for detection although many of clients doubt her at the beginning because of her youth, social origin and sex. Since this work of hers has to remain a secret, her mysterious employer introduces her to the cases and, literary speaking, provides a third-person point of view to justify and underline her actions.

I’ll say it quickly: I wasn’t quite convinced by this collection. The language has aged and is pompous at times. There’s not much detecting itself in the resolution of the stories, and Violet often tricks the guilty person to uncover him/herself. There are a few disturbing lines implying that women detectives are good because of female intuition, while men are good because of their reasoning, that sounded more Victorian than early century American (Anna Katharine Green’s dates are 1846-1935, which means that she’s two generations before Agatha Christie, born in 1890). Some stories are more Gothic than mysteries, and a lot are quite melodramatic, bordering on implausible. The apt comparison in my mind would still be Wilkie Collins or Conan Doyle (on the lighter side), which makes me think that Green had not completely stepped into the 20th century at that stage (but I’m sure specialists would discuss that point).

For historic reasons, it might be worth a try, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a hardcore Christie fan, because it would be a disappointment.

Tana French, Broken Harbour (2012)

Well, I’m done. I can’t take it any more. There’s only so much gloom and tragedy I can take.

Only so many flawed police inspectors with a personal tragic back story that gets somehow entangled with a current case.

Only so many untied loose ends in the plot that you feel that you haven’t finished reading long after you’ve turned the last page.

Even if it’s perfectly written, with an atmosphere and a setting that gives you goosebumps (or makes you want a stiff drink), some deep societal issues (economic crisis, corruption linked to the Irish economic bubble, unemployment) and deep personal stories (trying to keep up with the Joneses, wanting to be perfect at all costs, breakdown issues, suicide issues, betrayal issues, respecting the law vs. your own moral conscience).

Anything else? Oh yes, add children murders. And perhaps an evil monster or two hiding in your home.

I confess I may have skipped a few pages, or my eyes have glazed over one too many scenes of heartbreak. I have read 3 books by Tana French too quickly (here), there should be a medical warning like on the cigarettes pack: “Never read this book in larger amounts, or for longer than prescribed. Reading too much of this writer may cause serious or life-threatening side effects.”

I did wonder what was French’s point for all this misery (obviously, it sells well). Not that I criticize her skills as a writer, because, wow, I have to bow and respect that. Setting the crime in a decaying, half-finished housing estate whose crooked developers sold dreams before disappearing with the cash is a stroke of genius. The book is a police procedural, a whodunnit, but also a thriller and a horror story all in one. A very dangerous combination indeed. Once you’ve started you have to read it till the end, and she doesn’t spare you.

It’s not even schadenfreude, not even a way to punish the reader’s perverted wish to witness terrible things. My take is that she wants to uncover the possibility of anyone to act monstrously. And shove it in your face. But that’s not something I’m comfortable with right now (will I ever?). Sorry Ms. French, I don’t have the stomach for another Dublin murder squad mystery for quite some time I suspect.

I haven’t been reading any short story collection for quite a while, and this one went down like a breeze, just as great as I’d expected. Why hadn’t I read it earlier? The plan for the next few months is to read all some of those excellent books that have been sitting on my shelves for way too long, especially when because I expect them to be good.

How come books that I think will be less than great get priority over the great ones? Obviously I’m doing something wrong. Let’s retrace my steps:

step 1 – The Persephone catalogue is such a treat. Ooh, I soo enjoyed Mollie Panter-Downes Wartime stories, if the peacetime stories are half as good I must have them (I order the book).

step 2 – Look at this perfect Persephone volume that just made its way on my doorstep. Let’s read the first few pages. Oooh, they’re good indeed! But wait, reading them all in a hurry wouldn’t honor their value, I should take my time to savour them properly. Besides I’m right in the middle of x-y-z, I can’t possibly read it right now. Let’s put it next to its Persephone sisters and wait for a good time to read it (the book disappears from my view, dust starts to pile up)

Yes, I know, waiting for a special occasion is pretty stupid. It took me 5 years between the Wartime stories and the Peacetime stories. Mollie Panter-Downes shouldn’t be kept waiting. Her stories are subtle little gems that just need 15 minutes of attention. Even with a baby I can manage those 15 minutes somehow, can’t I? (please don’t burst that bubble of optimism)

Those stories she wrote in the late 1940s and 1950s portray British upper middle class men and women faced with the disappearance of their world. The pre-war days were not coming back, even if the war was over. They had little money left, still had food shortages, the servants quit (or hadn’t returned from the war), they had to sell their large home and move to tiny flats, their children decided to marry working-class people, but they kept their wit and stiff upper lip, even in the middle of heartbreak. They had to make concessions to the times, adapt, emigrate or they would just disappear too, as the last witnesses of another era. Mollie Panter-Downes watch these harsh evolutions from the intimacy of the home, in the tiny details of everyday life.

Of course, you may say that “these people” were privileged in the first place, that they’d only got too comfortable before, and that misalliance or servants issues were nothing compared to the real tragedies of war, death and destruction. But still, one cannot dismiss it all the same, and Panter-Downes makes sure that we care.

I haven’t lived this postwar era, but it somehow reminded me of the same kind of upheaval in the workplace, when the old barons of traditional industry suddenly had to face the fact that office work was not like in the good old days (not sure when exactly it did happen). They didn’t have a secretary to type their letters anymore, sometimes they were stripped of their private little office and had to adapt to an open plan office. They had to learn to use a computer, were expected to manage their agendas by themselves, work faster and more creatively than ever before. Of course, they had fat pays and privileges in the beginning (and they mostly kept their jobs until retirement), but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them (well, most of the times).

Now I’m very curious about other books by Molly Panter-Downes, has anyone read them?

Having a second child is a bit like stepping back in time, but hopefully with added wisdom, but also with dangerous expectations. Rereading a book you loved the first time around is a bit similar in my mind, although I’m very new to this rereading thing.

When I was a child and a teenager I passionately reread favorite books again and again (Lord of the Ring springs to mind), but I reread it to discover tiny details that has escaped me and I wanted to soak in the story ever more. As an adult, I very little reread books in full. Sometimes I wish there was a Ctrl+F function on paper books so that I could easily find a quote or an image or a scene that have stuck in my mind (I never seem to remember the words or the exact details of them). Once I have found it, normally I don’t reread more than a few pages around it.

For the birth of my second son, I reread pregnancy manuals, but one book I definitely turned again to was Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions. As it is a journal, with irregular notes jotted down during her son’s first year, it is easy to pick it up and read an entry or two, especially around the time as my own son’s age. (But of course I didn’t wait an entire year to finish the book). Once again I found it an invaluable read, both comforting and eye-opening. I reread it in full, because I wanted to hear Anne Lamott’s voice, see how she goes from low to high in a matter of days, or hours. She literally makes me see things in my son that would have gone unnoticed otherwise, and she has fresh, funny and powerful images to convey the grace and frustration of the newborn days.

“Oh, but my stomach, she is like a waterbed covered in flannel. When I lie on my side in bed, my stomach lies politely beside me, like a puppy.”

“All these people keep waxing sentimental about how fabulously well I am doing as a mother, how competent I am, but I feel inside like when you’re first learning to put nail polish on your right hand with your left. You can do it, but it doesn’t look all that great around the cuticles.”

It was great to read of motherhood without the battles and the comparisons and the Pinterest checklists of “how to do it best”. In Lamott’s book, things come naturally, she doesn’t agonize over sleeping methods of Dr. Such and such, she doesn’t brag or argue, she doesn’t take motherhood as a special time, nor as a mission. It is so refreshing. I also admire how she makes do with her difficult circumstances, raising her son as a single mother with very limited money, but a great circle of friends.

As I read this book, I try to be patient with myself and with my baby, because I know what comes next, but I don’t want to rush it. I also use the book as an invitation to journal, to notice things and remember.

You can read my post from the first read here.

Some time in the blurry last weeks, I asked Mr. S to bring me a crime novel back from the library, and he came back with a Jane Smiley’s.

The funny thing was that he didn’t know Jane Smiley, and didn’t know I’d read and loved some books of hers: I always thought I should one day reread A Thousand Acres (first read back before internet) and I admired The Greenlanders (although I confess I never managed to finish it). And I wasn’t aware that Smiley had ever written a crime novel.

Well, a crime novel it technically is, with 2 people killed on page 1, a police inspector called Honey (you can almost see Smiley wink), a series of suspects, several disturbing incidents and some kind of a adrenaline-fuelled chase, but it’s rather a pretext for a fine analysis of characters, as always with Smiley.

The novel is set in Manhattan in the early 1980s, within a group of friends who all came together in the city from their native Middle West during the 1970s, as the members of a rock band among them had gained some notoriety and money with a hit record. They all stayed and stuck together (sharing keys to their flats and much more), but success didn’t quite materialize. Some of them moved on to dull jobs, some of them rehashed these 10 minutes of glory for years on, with some occasional cocaine parties. As time went by their friendship links were taken for granted, never realizing that they had drifted apart already. When murder arrises, it soon becomes obvious that they didn’t quite know each other as well as they’d thought.

The narrator of the novel is possibly the dullest friend of the group, the meek and reliable librarian called Alice. She always assumes the best of people, especially her friends, only to be sorely disappointed. But disappointment doesn’t come with a bang, it’s rather the soft landing of middle-aged realism that comes with compromises and bittersweet grief. Even when she faces a murderer and has to leave her flat by the window to save her life, she always remained down-to-earth (no pun intended). I came to love Alice a lot, despite her form of naivety.

The book also is an excellent portrait of New York in the 1980s, as far as I can judge. Smiley makes the city come alive, with its people, restaurants, trees and buildings, its smells and tastes. She really made me travel in time and space.

  • where did this book come from? the library
  • what format? paperback
  • where does this book go next? to the library

I’m trying a 30 minutes post during the baby’s nap. It’s clearly easier to write on a book that didn’t leave me with a very big impression, either good or bad. “Poirot and me” is just that kind. I’m no big fan of autobiographies, especially of actors’. That said, Mr. Smithereens clearly is, and wants me to give it a try, which I do gracefully when he finds a book about a series I particularly enjoy.

That was the case a while ago with the Little House in the Prairie, when he offered me the star memoir of “Nellie Oleson”, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, by Alison Arngrim, and this is also the case this Christmas, in a totally different style, with Poirot.

Of course I love Poirot, who doesn’t? (a bit like chocolate, the person who claims not loving chocolate makes himself suspicious in my eyes). And as the series have gone on and on for years, David Suchet has become the very personification of Poirot.

Although the book is quite repetitive, going over each season and nearly every episode, ending with the actor’s being uncertain whether the series would go on (of course it did), it was an easy read and a pleasant one too, because Suchet is very professional and doesn’t brag. In my mind his voice in the book is the epitome of proper Britishness (not Belgian at all!), and most suited to Agatha Christie’s prim and neat writing.

In a weird way, Suchet and Poirot have been together for 25 years and the fictional character has certainly influenced the real person, especially, in my opinion, in their common obsession to details and their attention to the moral and religious questions raised by their investigations.

That said, don’t expect Suchet dishing out any dirty secret from the backstage (opposite to Alison Arngrim’s memoir): everyone portrayed in the book is always good and nice. The worst you can get is when Mr. Suchet feels that this or that episode was not the best ever.

What was most interesting to me was to discover that Suchet had indeed a rich career outside of Poirot’s world (how could I imagine that this series alone would be enough for an actor for a quarter of a century?). So I loved reading about his career throughout the years and choice of roles very different to Poirot’s in movies and on stage. I recently discovered him in the BBC Shakespearean series The Hollow Crown, playing the Duke of York in Richard II. I almost didn’t recognize him.

With Ben Whishaw from The Hour’s fame playing King Richard II, I had a bit of a surreal moment: what did Freddy Lyon do arguing with Poirot in a cathedral?

  • where did this book come from? a christmas present
  • what format? hardback
  • where does this book go next? to be sold through Amazon Marketplace

Today is chaos, with big brother ill, little brother colicky (Cue: he wants to be held and nurse all day. Reality check: this isn’t happening), both parents up all night and an out-of-town business trip for Mr. S in the morning. So, why not blog? This won’t make me any less tired, but it will make me happier.

Uncle Silas is a Gothic tale reminiscent of the Udolpho mysteries (in fact, Le Fanu refers to Radcliffe several times), but while Radcliffe’s persecuted innocent girl annoyed me, this one, Maud Ruthyn, who is telling the story, seemed more plausible in her naivety and more likeable.

She lives a solitary life in the Derbyshire family estate with her father, a reclusive gentleman who has turned to mystical philosophy. Although her father loves her and she doesn’t lack anything, this doesn’t make for a very happy childhood (she’s supposed to be a teenager) but when her father hires a governess, it only gets worse: Madame de la Rougiere is a creepy, deceitful French woman with an awful accent and who has more on her agenda than teaching.

Maud learns before his father’s death that she has an uncle, Silas, with a terrible reputation: a gambler and a libertine, he’s also strongly suspected of murder after a guest of his and fellow gambler apparently committed suicide in a locked room at his place. Silas is supposed to have turned devout now, but is he really? Maud’s father is convinced of his innocence, so he draws a strange will. All his estate is going to Maud, provided she spends 3 years until her majority under the guardianship of Silas, at his place. If she dies before being of age, the money will go to Silas.

The idea, of course, is to tempt Silas to try and kill his niece, but if she lives, the family name will be cleared for good. Doesn’t that sound a dangerous (aka pretty stupid) idea? Yeah, to me too. And to all the people who hear about that. As for Maud, she wavers between believing her father, and being scared, not knowing whom she can trust.

The plot is far from being completely foolproof and consistent, but the idea is to throw as much foreboding (and a few red herrings too) as possible in the pages, until a few climactic scenes. Despite its flaws, it works. You constantly shake your head and think “don’t go there, it’s a bad idea”, but Maud does it nonetheless, and guess what, bad things happen. I guess it’s the Victorian equivalent of Scream, complete with the hot teenaged girl who always finds herself alone after dark despite being warned against it.

The comparison remains valid in terms of genre, because it’s more of a thriller than a supernatural tale (Le Fanu flirts with it, but it might only be Maud’s nerves)  and a pre-Sherlockian murder investigation (the locked room mystery is very peripheric). Once again, Le Fanu proves more fun than Wilkie Collins who is way more famous.

First came… the DVD. As you may have noticed, I’m a fan of British murder mysteries and Mr. Smithereens has indulged me in discovering the DCI Banks series, featuring Stephen Tompkinson as the obstinate inspector.

Of course I knew they were adapted from books, but for a while, the DVDs were good enough. At the end of the season, and at the end of the pregnancy, though, I wanted to try the books instead. But I was in for a disappointment.

This one is the first book with inspector Banks, of a series that now counts over 20 books, and it just doesn’t feel mature just yet. The characters take their time to get into the picture, so that the pace is far too leisurely to sustain my (very limited, I concede) attention. The small Yorkshire town where Banks has just relocated from London fails to materialize in my mind. I can’t figure out if it’s a big village à la Midsomers Murders, or a suburban town. I’ve never been to Yorkshire, and the TV series seemed much more urban/suburban to me than the book.

The crimes that Banks gets to investigate this time seemed rather bland to me (or I’m just jaded, or, more probably, the nature of fictional crimes has significantly escalated in the past 25 years): a couple of house break-ins by bored and drugged thugs, a peeping tom and an old lady found dead possibly in connection with the first or the second occurrence. It was surprisingly subdued and very very procedural. Whereas American police procedurals à la Law and Order may have jumped into conclusions, here Banks takes every care to ascertain if crimes are linked or not, which is a good point for realism, but not for the book’s pace.

I have the impression that the series got better over time. This one, though, has aged a bit. There is, in particular, the hilarious (in retrospect) scenes at the camera club where Banks’ wife Sandra goes to practice: some guys there complain of the newly introduced autofocus (or so I gather, I’m no techie and I read it in French) in film photography, on the account that calculating aperture and shutter speed manually is just as well. Clearly not ready for Instagram! The bit that annoyed me was the also dated character of the feminist advocate, making a campaign against the police for not taking the peeping tom case seriously enough, who is outrageously caricatured.

If you are a Alan Banks fan, which book do you think I should start with?

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