The One with the Finnish Girls Club

Leena Lehtolainen, Where Have All the Young Girls Gone (Finnish 2010; English 2019)

When it comes to Scandi-noir, I have read some Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, but never any Finnish mystery. I chose this one on Netgalley because Amazon Crossing often provides interesting, original discoveries. Among Finnish writers, I have read Sofi Oksanen and Tove Jansson (but she wrote in Swedish), and I had no previous knowledge of the Finnish society.

Because of my ignorance, I found myself relating to the victims who are foreigners, instead of relating to the Finnish characters, whom I didn’t quite understand (for a moment I was even confused about the gender of some of them). The investigator is Maria Kallio, a middle-aged policewoman with a successful track record, a wife and mother living in the suburbs of the capital Helsinki and working at a Special Victims Unit. The victims are 3 immigrant Muslim girls from various backgrounds, who faced the double weight of sexism at home and racism outside the home. All three disappeared after having been seen at the Girls Club, and Maria Kallio is called to investigate.

The good:

  • this policewoman is the hero of a whole bestselling series in Finland, and I was glad to try it and discover some things about Finland society and the treatment of immigration there
  • Many issues in the book are rather heavy and complex, and they are treated with sensitivity

The not-so-good:

  • I found that latching into the series at book #11 was rather tough
  • The investigator is nice enough but I didn’t particularly warm up to her.
  • The plot was rather sluggish, perhaps because the author was treading on eggshells. But because of the cultural distance to the author and context, going any faster would have lost me completely!

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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The One with the Ancient Persian God

Nicolas Wild, Silent was Zarathustra (French 2013, English 2016)

What do you know about Zarathustra? If you’re like me, probably nothing, except a vague relation to Nietzsche (except I never read it). I vaguely knew that it was an ancient god but I wouldn’t have put it on a map (it’s actually in Iran, then Persia). And I can understand that this subject doesn’t come up very often in conversation.

Still, the book was fascinating, and so very instructive. Normally I breeze through graphic novels, finishing them within one or two days, but in that case it took me more than one week, to learn and digest what I’d learn, and follow the adventures of naive-narrator-cum-journalist Nicolas from Paris to Iran to Switzerland and back.

In Paris, Nicolas meets a beautiful young Iranian woman who invites him to Iran to celebrate the life of her deceased father. A key figure in the last remnants of the Zoroastrian religions, he has been assassinated in Switzerland, in unclear circumstances, apparently a mere domestic fight. In Iran, Nicolas learns about the Zoroastrian religion and culture, which Iranian Muslim leaders barely tolerate when they don’t outright disapprove and threaten believers.

Nicolas Wild was inspired by the real life and death of a famous Zoroastrian public figure, but he reinvented a fictional character so as to be more free with his explanations and interpretations. His treatment is quite sensitive and subtle, but also funny and caring. The art reminded me of Tintin, and Nicolas’ own adventures are just as eventful! I’m a total convert (to Wild, not to Zoroastrianism!) and want to read his other books in 2019.

ps. this was the last book I read in 2018… better late than never…

The One with the Terse Swedish Procedural

The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Swedish, 1969)

After reading some Maigret in December, I decided that classic noirs and old police procedurals are totally worth returning to at regular intervals. And It was waaay too long since I’d read a Martin Beck police mystery. Fall of 2017, to be exact (thank you, blog archives!).

So as soon as 2019 rolled in, I reconnected with the Swedish police force, and it was as if not a day had passed since I’d left them. Beck is still at odds with his wife (and brother-in-law). Kollberg is still his grumpy old self. Melander is brilliant but boring. Gunvald Larsson is an unlikely hero. And there’s a newbie, a rookie policeman who is hilariously ambitious and clumsy (a dangerous combination).

I had forgotten how funny these books are. I mean, seriously laugh out loud funny, with just a few words for a full effect. People are so real, in their petty concerns, wishing for the weekend, hating the cold weather, bad-mouthing the colleagues… By any standards people are not very expansive and prone to emotional outpours but it delivers a punch. They do have a life beside the office, and in part because of that, and also because life is complicated, investigations often progress at snail pace, which is way more realistic than the 50 minutes open-and-shut cases of SVU and CSI. These books are not for hurried readers who want cheap thrill and twists in each page, but if you’re good with that, it is a real treat.

The fire engine that disappeared is a tongue-in-cheek title, because the story starts with an explosion, that could be arson, or murder, or suicide, or plain accident, and it takes a long time to settle between these possibilities. The fire engine that would have extinguished the fire took a very long time coming (yes, things don’t run as smoothly in Stockholm as the ideal country of hygge would have us think). There actually is a toy fire engine that gets lost in the story too, and this mystery too gets resolved in the end.

#UnreadShelfProject February

The #UnreadSelfProject worked almost too well for me in January: I finished (and enjoyed) the 2 books I set to read, and it got me reading a lot more books that I own. The big favorable push for me was that I didn’t go to the library for several weeks, so the temptation was lessened.

But I’m not quite sure if the momentum will go on. For one, I got back to my weekly library visit with the kids (who both load up their 15-books cards, so who am I to resist a few shiny new titles on my own car?). As a result, I could not not borrow anything for me (especially since Kate Atkinson’s Transcription was on the New Acquisitions Shelf! happy dance!!), and also, I was weak and downloaded a few ebooks on my Kindle in a moment of… lack of self-control, so to say.

Also, I am in the middle of rather big books (from my own shelves, yes sir!) started in January, so I want to reign in my ambitions for February. I am currently slowly making progress into :

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (477 pages – also in audio)
  • Kindred by Octavia E. Butler (287 pages)
  • The Borrowed by Chan Ho-kei (496 pages)

The #UnreadShelfProject guru founder says that the goal is to read any book off our #unreadshelf that has been GIFTED to us. I am grateful that my husband gives me books at birthdays or holidays, but I don’t read them as fast as he gives them to me! I am hesitating between 2 options :

  • The Victorian Chaise Longue by Marghanita Laski (a pretty Persephone grey and slim number)
  • The Course of Love by Alain de Botton, because the theme is very appropriate to Valentine’s and that I should read more of this author whom Mr. Smithereens loves.

But due to the reading queue I won’t be able to start any before the weekend (and I have Kate Atkinson lingering on the side!). If any or both of these two get finished by February, I’ll consider this challenge a win!

 

Two with Tough Book Choices

Gerard Reve, Childhood, two novellas (Dutch 1946-1949, Pushkin Press 2018)

The good thing about the #Unreadshelf challenge is that it forces me to answer hard questions with a deadline, instead of letting time fly without making any decision with a “maybe one day?” shrug. Is this book worth my time? Is it good enough? Do I enjoy it? And it’s not only for the one (or the two) books I selected for the monthly challenge, it’s for every single one.

I knew nothing about Gerard Reve before downloading this book from Netgalley. But I do trust Pushkin Press and I wanted to read more Dutch authors. Alas, it was not a good fit. This book presents 2 novellas of unequal size, but I couldn’t get into the story of the main one, Werther Nieland. The story is told through the eyes of a boy of 11, who is a bit weird and cruel. The view of an immature child with some degree of misunderstanding about his environment is a classic literary ploy, and it was well executed. Still, the story was dull and depressing, and it seemed to go nowhere fast. The boy was decisively unlikeable, it didn’t help. I was hesitating if I should try the second novella, but at 40% into the book, I decided to stop and move on.

A week ago I also started another book that was on my Goodreads To-read list for a while and that I’d bought last year: The Borrowed by Hong Kong writer Chan Ho-kei. I had just finished The Man in the Wooden Hat and I was craving more Hong Kong. A prize-winning thriller / mystery set there from the 1960s to the 2000s is rare enough, I simply had to read it.

Yet I had mixed feelings after reading the first chapter. The mystery was a sort of clumsy plot à la Hercule Poirot with all the suspects gathered in a hospital room around a dying old inspector, in a coma, though he manages to lead the questioning and uncover the truth by communicating through a computer. Can you hear my eyes rolling?

I was rather underwhelmed, but I found that I wanted to learn more about this old inspector’s background and early cases and that I cared enough to keep on reading. It helped that the book has glowing reviews on Goodreads too! I’ll review the two other books from the Unreadshelf challenge in due course but so far it’s a success!

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Two Maigrets for the Year End

Georges Simenon, Maigret et le fantôme (Maigret and the ghost, 1964)

Georges Simenon, Maigret se défend (Maigret on the defensive, 1966)

Last December I read two Maigret stories back to back. In fact, my library has the complete Simenon novels (not only Maigret) in a dozen volumes with Bible-type thin paper, and I could not stop after only one, it was so good that I immediately started another!

Maigret books never disappoint. Simenon writing is very simple and straightforward, but he manages to convey atmosphere, characters and situations with just a few words. But because he makes the action so direct, I felt as if I was travelling back in time, towards 1960s Paris, an era so close and yet so different from today!

Maigret investigations are always set in a very precise geography. The first one, Maigret and the ghost, takes place on the Avenue Junot, on the northern side of Montmartre, where a police inspector has been shot. This sorry man, Inspector Lognon (a ridiculous name), a pitiable loser by all accounts, saddled by an acrimonious wife, is the subject of mockery across the police force, but Maigret likes him, and even Mrs. Maigret takes upon herself to go help his ailing wife while he’s in hospital, even if she is clearly insufferable. What a surprise when policemen learn that Lognon had been visiting a young single woman who lived on this avenue (and who has since disappeared). Lognon with a mistress, who would believe it? But of course Maigret digs deeper to learn who is this woman (who is rather virtuous by all accounts) and what Lognon was doing at her place. Most of the action takes place in the 18th district, and you can check on Streetview how it still looks to this day.

The second mystery is even more fascinating: when a well-connected, wealthy young girl accuses Maigret out of the blue of having raped her, Maigret is suspended, and his team forbidden to investigate. Maigret has indeed been called in the middle of the night to help this girl he didn’t know, but Maigret suspects that she is not the one to have set him up. Some malevolent criminal is at work, but why and who? Maigret is in turn angry, bitter, shocked, slightly depressed, and it was a nice change of pace from his usual placid self. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I enjoyed the part of chance that comes into the explanation of it all. You won’t find any big evil mastermind behind this, as Simenon never gets into paranoia and his criminals are all slightly mediocre, even when they are intelligent.

As I’m writing this long overdue post, all the good things about these books come back to me and I really want to read a third or even a fourth Maigret!

The One with the Gay Father

Christophe Honoré, Ton Père (2017)

We’ve already passed mid-January and I still have a slew of 2018 books to write about. Better late than never is my pragmatic motto of the day… The books I had the most feelings about took the precedence, and I’m left with titles for which I hum and haw, that were neither awful nor awesome, or that I feel inadequate to talk about.

But for one, that was exactly my point. I’ve read many blog posts by fantastic people who resolve to read harder, to make bold book choices, to venture into uncomfortable zones of literature, and it seemed like is always a good idea. I know for a fact (because I keep track of piles), that I don’t read many books by authors of color, by LGBTQ authors, or anything very diverse. I didn’t want to commit to anything systematic, but I wanted to try a book that would talk about homosexuality as a topic, about a gay father, written by a gay writer.

Christophe Honoré is more well-known for his movies (he’s a screenwriter and a director) than for his books, and I’ve enjoyed his movies. The book is called a novel, but most readers will consider it a thinly-veiled retelling of true facts. Parisian writers love auto-fiction these days. The narrator Christophe, a gay movie director and father of a tween girl, is shaken to the core when he finds a homophobic slur on his apartment door. Who has written this? Since apartments have restricted access, it must be someone close to him. A neighbor, an ex-lover… Christophe has never hidden his gay identity, but he considered himself safe, respected, established, among friends and among open-minded people. But apparently this is not true. Someone attacks him as a gay father, saying that he shouldn’t be allowed to raise kids. This reminds him of his growing up in Brittany, in a small town, with a conservative father and a sister full of contempt for him. When he moved to Paris he thought that he would be free of this prejudice and hatred, but becoming a gay father puts him on the spot with other parents, with maternity staff, and with some gay friends as well.

I was moved by the subject of this book, because of the odious and the cowardly attacks the narrator and his daughter were confronted to, but the writing himself felt a bit flat and indulgent, not really straight to the point. I could feel his discomfort and shock replaced by fear and outrage, but it was diluted by a lot of various thoughts and memories. Overall I’m glad I dipped my toes into this difficult subject, there is a lot more to explore.

 

#UnreadShelfProject January Update

49304967_411823712689749_2472884066192988807_nI’m not really into Bookstagram, but I stumbled upon the Unread Shelf Project on Instagram when I heard about it on the popular podcast What Should I Read Next by Anne Bogel.

It seemed like the perfect idea to me. I don’t have huge piles everywhere at home, but the shelves we have are full (and frankly we have no space for new shelves). In addition to my husband’s books, I own a lot of perfectly delightful books that I don’t read, just because I always get to the library books first.

Why is that? Because library books have a deadline, and I have the feeling that I have all the time in the world for my own books, which is of course not quite true. So Whitney from the Unreadshelfproject has a drastic proposition: I choose one book from my own shelves for a dedicated month, and I have to finish it by the end of the book, otherwise… (avert your eyes if you’re sensitive) it goes to the nearest free library. That’s a challenge with consequences, but I totally get this philosophy and I feel that I can do it (…says the girl who never, ever follows through with a book challenge…)

For January, the challenge said to choose any book. That much I can follow through with. But given that I’m totally undisciplined when it comes to books, I decided that I would choose 2 books to read in January, and if I finished any of the 2 I would count it good. I chose two titles that sat on my nightstand for the better part of 2018:

  • Laurent Binet, The 7th Function of Language, a French comedy that I started reading in August… 2017… while in holidays and promptly stopped reading at the end of the holidays, for no good reasons, because the book made me laugh so hard.
  • Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat, a book that my husband gave me for my birthday… early last… year. Ahem. I’d never heard of Jane Gardam before, but I understand that my husband thought it was a good fit for me because of the Hong Kong background of the characters.

I’ve been making good progress on both books, so clearly the challenge is working so far! What about your good resolutions?

YA Roundup & Fair

In 2018 I checked off one item on my bucket list: I went to the largest and most famous YA Book Fair in France, the “Salon du Livre de la Jeunesse de Montreuil”, that takes place each year in early December in a town immediately north of Paris (it is on the metro network, so practically not even in the suburbs). It had been a long-time interest of me, but early December is usually a busy time at work.

For a book-lover and an aspiring published writer, you would think that it is a feast to browse through countless books offered by the 450 publishers attending the event.

Well, yes and no. I’m not doing well with crowds and the book fair has received no less than 179 000 visitors within 6 days. That’s a lot, by my standards or by anyone else’s. My strategy was to go on a Monday morning and it was objectively not crowded. I had ample time to check out books for all age groups, I didn’t fight or wait to reach the tables, although I did not attend book signings or readings by authors.

Yet I had not taken into account how overwhelmed I would be. I literally could not decide what book I would buy. To the credit of the publishers, they all seemed equally good! I ended up buying nothing at all and coming back with lots of catalogues. The other downside is that I felt as if every story had already been told and I couldn’t see how my own stories would ever be published.

The good side of this visit is that it renewed my interest to read more YA. In December, I read three YA novels:

Banksy et moi, by Elise Fontenaille (2014), a short novel about a young French black growing up in the projects. The last book I’d read by Elise Fontenaille was terribly dark, and this one is all too sunny and glowy in comparison. Darwin, the narrator, is raised by a single mother who works as a night taxi driver and emigrated to France from Sudan on a rickety boat. He takes an interest in artful street art that makes the concrete derelict buildings around him less ugly. His pet is a rat named Banksy and his best friend is a mysterious girl, Eva. The book is full of quirky characters and feel-good moments, but I felt it was a bit naïve and too Polyannaish, especially in the end that feels a bit rushed.

Pour qui meurt Guernica? (For whom Dies Guernica) by Sophie Doudet (2018) is a historical novel about two teenagers in the midst of the worst of the Spanish civil war in 1937. I just knew the basics of this historical era just before the onset of WWII : Nazis heavily supported the Spanish nationalist side that fought against Communists and liberals in general, and decided to experiment terror tactics on civilians that they would later use during their wide attack across Europe and Russia. It helped to have people embody the terrible fate of Spanish civilians, but it felt a bit too heavy-handed in the didactic part, and the characters lacked depth.

Personne ne bouge (Nobody Moves), by Olivier Adam (2011) is my first reading of this bestselling French author. I enjoyed this novella about a young boy who sometimes experiences an interruption of time: he’s the only one who goes on with his life while the rest of the world is “on pause”, at unexpected moments. How will he use this strange gift? Should he try to change the natural course of events or do forbidden things? It definitely gave me a taste to try more of this new-to-me author.

The One with the Roasted Gander and the Stabbed Farmer

Faith Martin, The Winter Mystery (2018)

I wanted an easy, cozy British mystery to read in between family meals during the Christmas holidays, and this book perfectly fitted the bill. I read it in two days, about the same time the action takes place in the book. Only it was a lot more picturesque: Christmas in Oxford. Nice landscape, snowy hills, old stones, family and good food, especially goose and pudding!

The good thing is that even if your own family reunion went totally awry, if you argued with family members about anything and everything, if the kids were over-excited and the dog knocked the tree down or ate all the food, chances are it won’t be as bad as Christmas with the Kelton family, where everyone hates the head of the farm, and where his sickly older brother is found stabbed to death in the kitchen.

The narrator is Jenny, a plus-size professional travelling cook, who has been hired for the occasion (Christmas, not the murder, of course). Being the first witness and first suspect in the case, she takes it upon herself to investigate this case and find who in the family might have committed the murder (well… everyone… duh) and who really did and why.

I don’t meant to be too harsh. This is a cozy mystery and it’s ok if there are plenty of tropes in this genre. My main problem is that I guessed the guilty party and the motive very early on, so I grew a bit impatient. Stylistically speaking, the writer loves her adjectives, and I would have preferred a stricter editing. It was fun enough, but I’d much rather spend Christmas with Miss Marple after all, even if the food might be not so good.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.