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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!

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’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

I knew Rachel Cusk from Arlington Park, which I at first had rejected for being excessively negative, then came round to see the truth in it, as an aftertaste. I was happy to have this other book under my belt before trying this one, and I was also happy to have had a first baby before reading this at the end of my second pregnancy.

I’m not sure I would have “enjoyed” it if I had read it five years ago, before or after the birth. I probably would have felt a mixture of recognition and a relief that I wasn’t the only one to struggle with this huge event, but my own experience would have been probably too raw and too recent to find the right distance with this book and not to take everything at face value.

It is a candid memoir of the first year of motherhood, so it doesn’t wax lyrical about the joy of motherhood and tiny babies. It is more about the hardships of sleep deprivation, the tiredness and boredom of staying home with a demanding infant, the hypocrisy of overly enthusiastic or overly domineering social groups and organizations aimed at new mothers, the breastfeeding vs bottle-feeding battle etc. It is about women, and changing identities, and changing dynamics in the couple, not about babies.

Candid memoirs and books have become a sub-genre on the maternity bookshelf, which is a good thing given that women should have an alternative to rosy, glowing, everybody’s-smiling-on-the-picture books. Of course, some people are still finding it offensive and controversial, but I don’t. I was happy to find those when I needed them.

But then in the candid genre Cusk is hardly the only one. I should name Anne Lamott’s Operating instructions (a journal), Judith Warner’s Perfect madness (an essay), Kate Figes’ Life after birth (now, if you want whining, Cusk is nothing compared to Figes), only to name the books in English I reviewed here. Even guidebooks are getting into the unpleasant, unglamorous details that only mothers probably want to know (because they are hugely relieved to read on paper that they are not the only ones to not fit into their pre-pregnancy jeans a month later, and to find it all awfully difficult and exhausting), I’m thinking about Vicki Iovine’s Girlfriends’ Guide to Surviving the First Year of Motherhood, which some may find cheesy but that found its way back to my nightstand for the second time around. Candidness and negativity about motherhood is also a French feminist tradition, so I didn’t find it exceptional.

I could relate to many experiences Cusk described, but I still found her tone very biting and bitter, all the while when she didn’t really present a full picture of her situation. The transition into motherhood is in itself very difficult and universal, but it gets harder with some particular circumstances, which I would have liked to learn more about from Cusk herself: a move to suburbia, the presence or not of close friends, a conspicuously absent partner, the relation to one’s own mother, etc. Instead she shrouds herself in distance and wit, which some may find a bit too dry. I know some people have accused her of being snobbish but I didn’t find any of that. What saves the book, I suppose, is that she is as merciless unto herself as she is to others.

With the hope of being efficient with my limited time (uh), I’ll say a word of both Tana French mysteries in the same post. It makes sense because I don’t intend to go into the plots’ details (yes I’m lazy, but considering their success, either you know about it already or you’ll have to get there yourself, which I highly recommend), swallowed them both within a fortnight and found them both equally brilliant.

All I knew from Tana French is that she was supposed to write good, unputdownable thrillers. Lots of praise everywhere, but I hadn’t bothered to investigate. I had simply no other clue when I borrowed Faithful Place at the library. And then of course I got hooked so badly that I asked Mr. S to fetch me another dose (being unable to schlep to the library by myself anymore)

On what planet have I been living the past few years, you’ll wonder? I didn’t even know that she was Irish, that her books were set in Dublin and had a strong link to the 1980s. Truth be told, I had thought her American, and I wouldn’t have consciously chosen a 1980s Irish noir with all the gritty realism it promised (Angela’s Ashes meets Billy Eliott? No thanks).

Where does this alternate reality to Tana French’s books come from? I realize I’ve confused Mystic River by Denis Lehane, with In the woods (shame on me). Three disappearing kids, only one coming back, traumatized but unable to tell about the events, who 20 years later becomes a cop? Is it just me or…?

Anyway, both books kept their promises: unputdownable. And gritty. And realist.

(And probably not the best tourist advertisement to visit Dublin).

(And also not the best public image that the Irish police force would wish to get… with one unresolved crime in one book and so much bickering between services in the other)

(And also not, you should be warned, mysteries adhering to the genre’s conventions — which makes it even better in my mind).

Knowing about the 20 years gap between the first murder in each book and the investigation itself, I’d feared that once again I’d have to put up with a dual plot line, my pet peeve. But French takes no shortcut, plotwise and characterwise. The way she intersects the present time with memories (unreliable by essence) is just great, flawless, an example to all those who resort to abrupt intercut because it is so much easier. I have read both books in translation, so I won’t comment on the writing itself.

Relationships and characters are clearly French’s strengths. I love the way she describes the evolution of both main characters (Rob from In the woods spiralling into self-destruction the closer he gets to his personal traumatic memories; Frank from Faithful Places getting reunited with his dysfunctional family even though he’d sworn he’d never get there again). People aren’t clichés or black-and-white and there’s no hero. Murder takes a back seat compared to people: French is more interested in showing the effects a crime has on people sooner or later on than on the resolution itself (a point that may leave some readers frustrated). A sort of anti-Agatha Christie of sorts.

Now that I’m officially a fan, I’ll probably read all Tana French’s remaining mysteries, but next time I’ll try to get a copy in English to get a better feeling of her writing.

It’s a shame I haven’t had time to write about this wonderful book earlier, but I hope that in the quieter days of this end of year, it will still find some interested book-lovers eager to discover something new.

I was made into a French movie one or two years ago, with Diane Kruger as the ill-fated Queen Marie-Antoinette, and offered a promise of lots of frills, beautiful decors and costumes, the hint of a lesbian kiss in Versailles (shocking!). I didn’t watch the movie (so I can’t confirm the kiss, which is not in the book), but I kept the title somewhere at the back of my mind until I got the book from our central library. I feared it would be a bit heavy on the lace like the Kirsten Dunst meringue, and centered on the modern idea of a commoner’s fascination for a star (something that was repeated over and over in reviews).

But instead, I found a great literary and historical novel that I wanted to offer to many bookishly-inclined friends (in fact I did).

Yes, you can find bodices and lace, and a lot more, because Thomas is basically a historian specialized in 18C royals’ biographies, not a novelist, so she has all the details of Versailles’ etiquette right down to the last golden button. And yes, you can find the narrator, Agathe-Sidonie Laborde, a bit naive and starry-eyed over her Queen (and I will even say bland), but as an official reader to the Queen (selected from aristocratic descent to be nothing more than a lowly, invisible cog in the well-oiled wheels of the court’s routine, knowing that Marie-Antoinette wasn’t into books) she is entirely believable. She doesn’t know anything outside Versailles, and her entire life revolves around the Queen, even decades after the monarchy will have been sent down.

I found myself fascinated by the detailed account of the few last days at Versailles, when outside events suddenly (well, not in a bolt-from-the-blue way, but in a mere days’ time) broke the apparently well-oiled wheels of royal power down, and the century-old social order based on aristocratic rules, privileges and traditions that proved empty and meaningless. The 14th of July is now well-known for Bastille Day, but seen from Versailles, a mere 20km (12 miles) away, it was a normal day of pleasure before an unbelievable rumor reached the palace.

How does History happen (with a upper-case H)? and how people who witness it know that they’re living a so-called historical event? I can’t help but compare to 9/11, when all journalists and cameras set on the Twin Towers made sure that every connected human being was aware of the moment’s historical importance. We do all remember what we were doing that day. But do you remember the very few first minutes, when people still thought it might be a freaky airplane accident? Or remember the day before, when the chief Afghan anti-Al Qaeda leader was assassinated? Only later did we finally assemble the jigsaw and made sense of the chain of events. In the meantime, “things happened” and we didn’t give them any special meaning (even if we are well-informed and well-connected by all standards).

Likewise, the sudden collapse of the French monarchy seems utterly unexpected and yet something that was one day doomed to happen. We see through Agathe-Sidonie’s eyes the state of decay (literal and metaphorical) of the palace: stinking corridors, a garden in disarray, a group of courtiers who are ridiculously obsessed over etiquette and appearances, a few steps away from real madness, but it looks like it could have remained the same for a few more decades. When the rumor is confirmed (although no real violence reaches Versailles), order, routine and politeness disappear, courtiers reveal their true nature like on the Titanic ship.

I happen to have been living in Asia during the 2003 SARS epidemic, and I had the opportunity to witness firsthand how an outside, utterly new event, fuelled by panic, rumors and the unpreparedness of authorities (not to blame them) can bring a sudden halt to all pretense of normal, social and economic life. And yet days are always 24 hours, you need to eat, sleep and fill your days… or decide to pack your stuff and flee. Here in this book Agathe-Sidonie is too conditioned by court life to take a single decision herself, especially one that would mean to venture outside the court’s bubble, but in the end “her Queen” will take that decision on her behalf, changing her life forever (if not her mind).

I read this book in parallel with a Jean-François Parot mystery set just a few years before (1783) and both books echoed one another in a wonderful way. It led me to think again about French revolution (a difficult subject that is so blurry in my mind) and to pour over history books, to make sense of this improbable chain of events, and to attempt to imagine how normal people might have lived them.

Oh, I’m conflicted about this one. I love Victorian novels, or set in the Victorian era, and I have nothing against heroines who start off as meek and conventional corset-wearing young women (here the sweet and proper Mariella, who spends her day sewing in her parents’ sitting room) and who learn along the way to be more daring and outgoing, even if it means losing her illusions in the process.

I had noticed this title among Danielle’s recommendations, and I was happy to go beyond my prejudice against the dull cover art (obviously a lack of inspiration from the creative team).

The point that won me over was that I really enjoyed learning about the Crimean war. The only thing I knew about this war before starting the book was the name of Sebastopol and the name of Florence Nightingale, but I’d have been hard pressed to say anything more. Yet as the plot moved from London to the outskirts of Sebastopol, I recognised names that I had just glossed over as a student when I caught up on 19th history at a hurried pace: Malakoff, Inkerman, Scutari…

This led me to some nice history refresher research on the internet (one of the perks of maternity leave, I should say, because I normally never have time to check those things out). Why have France and Great Britain decided to take this fight with Russia? How come French and British would fight along one another? (this didn’t go without problems) Why did the conflict end up in disaster on both sides? Why did the British army, that I had assumed more powerful, modern and organized than the others, face such a bloodshed? McMahon does not go into details, but through Mariella’s family we can see how Victorian opinion could be enthusiastically nationalist and warmongering at the start of the conflict, as well as bewildered and mobilized to help British soldiers on the front later on. In the second part of the book, we really get a feeling of what the Sebastopol siege must have felt like, in a way both traditional and modern (Crimean war was deemed the first modern war, but it really was a time where things were quickly changing). In short, I found McMahon’s research quite impressive, as well as flawlessly woven into the plot.

So far so good, so.

But this book’s weakness is probably to say too much. Its plot feels all over the place and lacks focus. There’s not only one heroine, but a second one, her cousin, the daring Rosa, who dreams to become a doctor, or second-best, a nurse with Florence Nightingale. Rosa is too brash, passionate and too unconventional to be the real heroin here, albeit a tragic one. Or is she? There are love interests, of course. Mariella’s fiancé is interesting per se, and has lots of conflicting feelings. And McMahon still finds some room for friends, relatives (and staff!) who all have a detailed back story.

Thick in the middle of the book, it felt like an overcrowded, stuffy, over decorated Victorian sitting room. Please give me some air! And the end was a bit disappointing, because it failed to tie some important knots. I’m not a big proponent of resolving all the issues nicely, but here, it felt rather hasty.

So if you want to make up your mind and learn about the Crimean war, I’d say: give this book a fair try. Many reviews have not been as positive, I know, but it definitely wasn’t a waste of time.

Once again a writer I woudn’t have tried but for the audiobook selection at our library. I knew of the author’s name because he stands on the French bestsellers lists, but I had assumed that it was light (read: shallow) entertaining Parisian (read: snobbish) read. Beware of assumptions! Entertaining it was, and absorbing, and surprisingly fun, especially while dealing with serious matters!

The books starts right before Christmas, when Marc invites his 4 best friends for a traditional dinner together and to bring them some news: he’s fallen in love with a Chinese young woman, he will get married very soon and he wants them to be their witnesses. The news is greeted with disbelief: Marc is a serial lover, not the marrying kind, and the picture of the fiancée shows a plain, ordinary girl who might well be a gold-digger. But the 4 friends have little choice but to agree to take part to his wedding.

Circumstances are indeed out of the ordinary. Marc is a famous fashion photographer. A hugely successful star. Thanks to his money he has been able to financially support his 4 best friends: one has become an art gallerist, another manages a luxury hotel, yet another one is basically jobless but for articles to support the Dalai Lama, and the last one is his personal assistant and spends his time grooming Marc’s luxurious cars and managing Marc’s dismissed girlfriends and agenda.

Then the book turns to tragicomedy: Three days before the wedding, they all find themselves at the airport to greet the fiancée with awful news: Marc has been killed in a car crash the day before. Do they want to destroy her by announcing her these news right there or let her enjoy a day in Paris under a false pretence before she takes a plane back to China, a widow before even having gotten married? They dither and fall under the charm of an astoundingly charming young woman: they’re unable to blurt out the truth. Is she a manipulator or the perfect wife for their late friend? Each of the 4 friends have reasons to love and hate her, and a score to settle with Marc.

I won’t go in any more detail about the plot, because it has many twists and turns, jumping from one friend’s point of view to the next with a share of secrets for each, that was highly entertaining. Of course, you have first to relinquish any requirement for realism: none of this is very believable, but still all the characters are endearing and I was game for the ride. It’s more like a fairy tale for adults, so you should expect some clichés too, but in the whole characters who at first seemed one-dimensional developed an interesting depth.

It was also a good analysis of friendship and manipulation, when the friends all discover that Marc’s lavish gifts put them all in a relationship mode close to dependency and that stopped them from exploring new interests or simply from moving forward in their own life. It’s not a grand masterpiece, but it reads fast and well and it was well worth the few hours spent with it.

This year the Advent calendar has a special meaning and added pressure: when Christmas will be over, there will be only a few days left before the baby arrives! Blogwise, this means that I’m trying very hard to finish posting about books and to finish most of the books that have been lingering on my night stand for… well, months, to be honest.

That, on top of Christmas presents, Christmas food orders (we host, since I’m unable to go anywhere), stocking up on supplies / furniture for the nursery, going to maternity classes (for a refresher) and trying to stay sane and rested… all this starts to feel a bit overwhelming.

What might very well happen: you might end up with a review on changing tables, my guests might have formula in Champaign glasses, get a brand new babygro wrapped in a christmas box, I’ll be spreading lotion on canapés, and there’ll be many unfinished books in my suitcase for the hospital. Or this blog will be very very silent (I wish you happy holidays and a happy new year, just in case) and I’ll be sound asleep by 6pm on December 24, while my guests will be at the door.

I plead guilty in advance.

So, just to talk about something a bit more literary, Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman. I have received a lovely hardback through Bookmooch and Litlove has loved it. But somehow, I didn’t quite warm up to it. It certainly ticked many of my boxes. Pre WWI Paris? Black and white movies? A young ambitious heroin determined to make it as a movie star, even by seducing the director? A complex relation triangle between the maid, the master and the mistress? All these appealed to me. And the execution was flawless.

Yet, the dual plotting line once again grated on me (this is soon becoming my pet peeve, except when it is well done). There’s enough mystery in the 1913 story with all its own back stories, the 1967 discovery of the movie reel and the dialogue between a journalist and the actress, now an elderly woman, didn’t seem necessary to me. Likewise, there’s a big twist at the end, which I won’t disclose here, but that wasn’t really necessary either.

It made me think of Sarah Waters, which definitely is a good point for Hitchman given the number of Waters’ fans, but unfortunately to me it had the same problem: coldness and emotional distance. I didn’t really care. I’m sorry to sound trivial, but I couldn’t believe that any of the characters were French, except perhaps the voice of the elderly woman. But I would be hard pressed to define what makes a French voice, or what would make Hitchman’s characters more French to me!

Given the enthusiastic reviews here and there, I’m statistically on the wrong side of the fence. This probably isn’t the book’s problem, maybe just mine. So if you want to give it a try, don’t hesitate and come here to let me know what I missed!

I often struggle with humor in books, but I heard so much good about this one that I tried it, in part to challenge myself (wasn’t that one goal of mine for 2013?) in part because I was plain curious.

Before you pause to ask: yes, I know who Tina Fey is.

No, I haven’t watched Saturday Night Live or 30 Rock. So how do I know her?

Tina Fey’s fame crossed the Atlantic when she impersonated Sarah Palin during the 2008 US presidential election. Europeans were appalled by Palin’s ignorance of international affairs (plus, French people love to make fun of Americans), so watching Tina Fey on Youtube was a kind of comforting reassurance that maybe she wouldn’t really become Vice President.

The book was fun and kept its promises from cover to cover (I even loved the blurbs!). The parts I loved least were, unsurprisingly, those about SNL or 30 Rock or with a lot of name-dropping for people I haven’t the faintest idea who they are (yes, I know Alec Baldwin and Jane Krakowski, but that’s about all). She seems to be quite business-wise and good as a boss too (a part I didn’t expect in the book). She might write things like: “Don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions; go over, under, through, and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing, and don’t care if they like it.” Which is always useful to hear.

I enjoyed all the more generic biographic parts, especially her childhood, her hilarious honeymoon cruise and her sassy feminist stance. The “career” part was simply not for me, but my interest picked up after she had her baby and had to juggle her powerful position with the needs of her daughter. (She hates the juggling question, by the way) The scene where she has to fit within a weekend a recording with Oprah, a Sarah Palin sketch and her daughter’s birthday party was both hilarious and exhausting, even by Oprah’s standards: “By the way, when Oprah Winfrey is suggesting you may have overextended yourself, you need to examine your fucking life.”

And overextended she does sound. I found her voice witty and accessible, but maybe my next book needs to be by a Zen master.

Contact me!

smithereensmail(dash)blog(at)yahoo(dot)fr

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