The Mitford-less Upstairs Downstairs Cozy Mystery

Jessica Fellowes, The Mitford Murders (2017)

I reached 60% of this book, then I gave a look at the tall (tall! it feels like a euphemism) pile of books waiting on my nightstand and I decided: I’ve given it a fair chance, and life’s just too short. Now let’s skim the rest and move on. (Then I started an angry blog post about it, and just left it to rot gather dust for a whole month, because, clearly, I had better things on my mind)

I wanted to love it (I mean, Mitfords, the roaring 20s, a murder – true crime!, a perfect book cover with a pretty font, what’s not to love?). I wanted to like it, but it didn’t move quite nearly fast enough. The Mitfords are just a pretext, they make cameo apparitions with their weird nicknames and quirky lifestyle, but the narrator is poor Louisa, a girl who gets to work for the Mitfords as a nursery maid by curious unbelievable means and just for a while. Louisa is no Mitford, her boyfriend is no Sherlock, and the murder story would almost work without Mitford at all. So why bother? The subtitle on the cover “Six sisters, a lifetime of mystery” is clearly misleading.

As for the murder story, it’s based on a true crime, so I believe the writer worked with some real historical constraints, but the pace was slow and many part of the development stretched my disbelief just way too thin… until it just broke (or whatever the apt metaphor is here). Some things were well researched, but the characters didn’t seem to react in a historically / socially appropriate way, and that’s one of my pet peeves. Sorry folks, not for me. Maybe I should try some original Mitford instead?

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The One with the Writer behind the Husband

Annie Goetzinger, Les Apprentissages de Colette (French, 2017)

I’m not a huge Colette fan. I probably should be, but I started Colette at the wrong time in my life and I didn’t persevere. I know, I know, you’re all shaking your head in disbelief, well I know at least Mr. Smithereens is, since he’s a big Colette fan.

In an attempt to reconcile with her, I borrowed this graphic novel (by a woman!) from the library, about the beginning of Colette’s literary career, from her marriage with Willy to her divorce from Jouvenel, her second husband, in 1923. I knew already about Willy signing Colette’s book and Willy’s philandering habits, but I didn’t know the details. This book starts when Colette is still a shy, small-town girl with a drawl from her native Burgundy. It’s not quite clear even after reading the book why those two got married, but it wasn’t a love match nor a money match. Willy was sure to get a young wife who wouldn’t be troublesome with his own philandering (before and after the wedding). Or so he thought…

The book follows her first attempts at writing a memoir / novel under her husband’s guidance. Willy employed several ghost writers and he obviously thought that his wife would be just another (non-paid) one. We see how she gets more and more confident, and more and more jaded about her marriage. She gets lovers of her own; she gets to know intellectuals and journalists and the most popular figures in Paris; she works as a journalist, but also as a scandalous actress who appears onstage barely clothed; she gets married again, has a daughter; she grows into the famously independent and rule-breaking woman that we know.

Although I was interested in the subject, I didn’t warm up to the book’s design, and it didn’t help me to warm up to Colette’s life. Annie Goetzinger draws very distinctive characters, they all seem a little deadpan, which makes them slightly aloof. But the period details and costumes (all those Edwardian and Roaring twenties dresses!) are very well-researched and will convince Colette’s fans and fashion historians alike.

The One with the What-Ifs

Jo Walton, Starlings (2017)

What if one of Jane Austen’s letter wasn’t sent to her sister Cassandra but Troy war’s Cassandra?

What if the old woman didn’t really suffer from dementia but was actually visited by aliens?

What if Joseph told his own version of the Annunciation?

What if Google’s search engine wanted to act morally by orienting some of its answers to our questions?

What if people sent a spaceship to colonize another planet in a few generations, but that their descendants no longer wanted to go there?

What if kids who had saved the world with magical powers during their childhood (Narnia style) grew up to become accountant, art historian and fake fortune tellers?

What if a fairy was discovered in the garden by an unimpressed 5-year-old?

What if the magic mirror from Snow White’s evil queen could speak for itself?

What if aliens did write SF books about a weird world full of creatures called “humans”?

What if clone technology had permitted anyone to give birth to a baby Jesus (and what would they grow up to become)?

These are a few of the numerous questions that Jo Walton set about to answer. The book is a mixed bag of short stories (some flash fiction), poetry, even a play and a writer’s bio in verse (that one is a keeper). A lot are funny, a few are set in dystopian worlds, a few are rather dark but not many. I chose this book on Netgalley a bit randomly, because the name rang a bell and I wanted to read some short story in genres that I don’t usually read. I’m glad I took this chance, because it was worth it, and the stories never took themselves too seriously (something I often fear when it comes to SF). Between the time I started and finished the collection, I read another Jo Walton, Farthing (which I reviewed first) so I’m now convinced that this prolific writer can indeed write great stories in a wide range of topics and tones.

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

The One from Romance to Kids Lit

One of Murail’s long list of publications. Aren’t they cute?

Marie-Aude Murail, Auteur Jeunesse, Comment Le Suis Je Devenue, Pourquoi Le Suis Je Restée? (French 2003, “Kids Lit Writer, How I become one, Why I remained one”)

I’m just going to mention this book briefly for those who might be interested in this highly specific topic, for a number of reasons:

  • it’s in French only, by a French kids lit novelist whose novels haven’t been translated as far as I know, about the French publishing market.
  • the book is out of print (this one comes from the library)
  • it has valuable information, but it’s not a how-to book by any means

Aren’t I a good salesperson? But please do stay on for one more minute.

I indeed borrowed it because I thought Marie-Aude Murail would spill out tricks of the trade, you see, and because she has indeed a successful career in kids lit (from kids to middle grade – her favorite audience – and to teens novels, although I don’t think it would completely qualify as YA; she has 85 separate books listed on Goodreads, just to give you a rough idea).

Marie-Aude Murail has a great sense of humor and deeply friendly voice and rather than tips and tricks, it’s her love of words that best comes out of this quick read. The specifics of her own career make it a bit difficult to replicate for aspiring writers. She wanted to earn some money at home and actually started her career by writing romance novellas for romance magazines (many haven’t survived but Nous Deux is the title that French people have in mind, it runs with romance short stories and photo stories since 1947, and it used to have a massive readership), under a pseudonym and with a highly-formatted type of stories. Basically the plot line and names of characters were given to her, and she had a very limited time to deliver the goods. Although not something that most writers are eager to confess, I do agree that it must be highly formative.

It helped a lot when she started to write for kids and she discovered that most kids lit publishers also have a long set of constraints that they pass on to their authors, may it be about words (no complex vocabulary), tense (present), or plot development. I wasn’t quite aware but France has a law regarding kids lit, and it provides every publishing company with a framework.

This law was passed in 1949 when American comics were massively imported and were viewed as a danger to the youth (was it?). It actually forbids publishers to sell books that would contain too much violence (now that’s good) or anything that would be an offence to morality (now that’s vague) or to the sensitivity of young audiences – especially for anything related to sex or porn.

I do wonder if other countries have these laws and whether it has helped steer kids lit towards a better quality, or instead has contributed to help censorship and to ban books about difficult topics. What do you think?

The One from the Pacifist in Exile

Erich Maria Remarque, Eight Stories: Tales of War and Loss (Washington Mews Books 2018; original 1930-1934) 

Of course I knew Erich Maria Remarque. Everyone in middle school and again in high school has 20C history class and you can’t avoid reading a few pages of his bestseller about the First World War: All Quiet on the Western Front. And so I did like millions of French teenagers, and I did not feel the need to read the whole book, because I got the idea. And so is Remarque’s name forever associated with the trenches, the gas attacks, the murderous deadlock between several nations at war for years on end.

Of course I guessed that these short stories were about the First World War, from a pacifist standpoint, and after reading a few of them I came to expect these vignettes of soldiers who had survived the war itself but still lived with the fallout. Wasted lives, missed opportunities, physical trauma, emotional trauma, isolation, loss of family and friends, loss of jobs and status. None really stood out, but the collection painted a rather complete landscape of the defeat’s aftermath. Except for one disturbing point: people didn’t seem angry or vengeful. Not the kind of anger and hatred that would explain how people came to see Hitler as the one man who could give the country its honor back.

I was grateful to read the invaluable introduction to the book by Maria Tatar and Larry Wolff, that was probably the most memorable part of the book. These eight stories’ publication spanned originally from 1930 to 1934 in American magazines, and I must say that this lone fact was highly disturbing to me. Remarque left Germany in 1933, just a day before Hitler was named chancellor. He went first to Switzerland, then to the US in 1939 right before the war broke out. So it’s weird (let’s put it mildly) that none of these were mentioned in any of the stories. As if Nazi violent ideology was not born out of the previous war’s defeat and resentment. As if Remarque could detach his present circumstances from the past.

I don’t quite understand what his intent was. Was he a blind pacifist? He wasn’t so blind as to remain in Germany, at any rate. His books were banned and tossed into bonfires. Did he think that the US readers were not ready for a more contemporary rereading of the previous war? Was he worried that people forget the previous war? Was he just cashing in on his bestseller, that was made into a movie in Hollywood in 1930, or did he think that American readers needed to be reminded that Germans were victims too? The collection doesn’t answer any of these questions, but it was intriguing to read and wonder.

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

The State of the Nightstand

writing-828911_640 (Pixabay)I wish I could add a few hours to each day, so that I wouldn’t have to choose between writing for the blog and writing for my side projects. I’m quite happy with the progress made on the latter, which means that I sadly neglect the former. But tomorrow morning I’ll be on my way to a writing retreat where I’ll be able to write all day long!

In the meantime, here’s a little list of books that will sooner or later appear on this space:

Books I’ve finished for ages and started a post about but never got round to finish:

  • Chicagoland, a graphic novel in French based on a 3-part noir novella by R.J. Ellory
  • Une double famille, by Honoré de Balzac: a surprisingly fresh novella from the 19th century master of sharp society and family situations.
  • The Mitford Murders (Mitford Murders #1), by Jessica Fellowes: disappointing, and that’s why I’m not very motivated to finish this blog post.

Books I’ve finished a while back but don’t quite know what to write about:

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions: I could underline every single line of this thin book and say “right!”, but this does not make a blog post, right?
  • Erich Maria Remarque, Eight Stories: Tales of War and Loss: a Netgalley copy. Really, I wasn’t quite convinced by this book, even though Remarque is so famous for his pacifist novels.
  • Les Apprentissages de Colette, by Annie Goetzinger: a graphic novel about Colette’s coming of age and marriage with Willy. Interesting but something’s missing and I don’t quite know what…
  • D’après une histoire vraie, by Delphine de Vigan: I was fascinated throughout and loved every minute of it… I finished it in April, slowing down my reading to enjoy it more. How come I’ve not yet written about? I wanted to pair it with Misery by Stephen King, but it’s not happening in the near future because King’s book is just too big…

Books I’ve finished recently:

  • The Air Raid Killer (Max Heller, Dresden Detective, #1) by Frank Goldammer: a Netgalley copy – the pages flew by, this thriller is responsible for a few late nights!
  • Marie-Aude Murail, Auteur Jeunesse, Comment Le Suis Je Devenue, Pourquoi Le Suis Je Restée?: a very short memoirish book about a YA novelist. Quite eye-opening on the French YA publishing industry (but admittedly not for every reader).

Books on my nightstand or in my luggage:

  • Starlings by Jo Walton (Netgalley): short story mix and match
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo: a non-fiction recommended in various places (Anne Bogel, Sinica podcast)
  • How Hard Can It Be? (Kate Reddy #2) by Allison Pearson: the sequel to the 2001 bestseller How does she do it, and it starts with a bang!

Have you read any of them?

The One with Batgirl on Instagram

Cameron Stewart, Batgirl, Vol. 1: Batgirl of Burnside (2011)

I read this graphic series in March as a readalong with my boy, and two months later, I don’t quite know what to tell you about this experience… yet.

I’m not a super hero fan, I’m sure you have noticed by now. But after having found my own way in the vast genre of European comics, and in the also vast but quite different world of manga, I felt that I was missing out if I didn’t ever try a US comics.

That’s how I came to borrow this Batgirl comics at the library, from the kids shelves. I wouldn’t even have tried a US comics from the adult section because they seem so violent and ugly, and… Ugh, as you can see, I was being intentional here, it was not a natural fit.

I know of Batgirl, but I don’t know Batgirl. I didn’t give it a second thought before I started reading, but I didn’t know anything about franchises, reboots, etc. I don’t even understand her past relationship with secondary characters like her friend Black Canary and her roommates (it said volume 1 on the cover, but it is misleading). She also never got to meet with Batman, and I don’t know if that’s normal (aren’t they related? are they estranged?)

I was clearly missing out on basic information, and so was my boy. It’s also highly disturbing for me to enter a world where different graphic artists contribute episodes of a same story with the same characters, but each with their own style and interpretation. It is just mind-boggling to me. When French or Belgian comics are a long-standing success, the author usually goes on, and on, until they die or retire, and then another artist will continue with exactly the same style.

In this book there were several episodes, and more than once I raised my eyebrow because it did seem rather like YA situation and not kids comics? Overall I was confused about who the readership is supposed to be. Apparently, if Goodreads is a good indication, I’m not the only one here. But it wasn’t too violent and Batgirl was kinda cool. Or is she? I don’t think the creators had mothers over 40 in mind when they wrote this, so I’m not even sure. My boy liked her but I’m not completely sure he “got” her completely either.

So, if I believe Goodreads readers, it seems that this Batgirl is not her usual self here, and I can believe it. To me, she seems barely out of teenage years and not yet fully an adult. She goes to parties, drinks too much, sleeps late, has hangovers, take selfies (the book came out before Instagram).

Batgirl kicks ass and has a smartphone, that much I can tell you. As for the rest, it would clearly require an investment in time and energy to catch up on all the backstory, so I’m going to politely drop out.

The One with the Tough Daughter

Jo Witek, Fille de (2017)

I’m under the impression that in English, the insult “sonofab…” is only for boys and that no similar insult exists for the daughters… In French, gender equality has reached verbal abuse (but not other more positive areas…) and both daughters and sons may be equally insulted, although on the receiving ends, it’s supposed to be worse for boys. But to be the daughter of a prostitute is a heavy burden indeed, and one that Hannah tackles head on.

She’s a tough one, is Hannah. She is a teenager whose passion is running. She trains tirelessly and as she runs, mile after mile (kilometer as it is set in France), she lets her feelings and her anger drains away. Running is a way for her to be a champion, to protect herself and to keep others at bay. In the eyes of others, Hannah is Olga’s daughter, an Ukrainian prostitute who arrived in France because of sex traffickers  and who has slowly reclaimed a precarious freedom from her exploiters. Olga and her best friends dote on Hannah but the young woman walks a fine line between shame, lies, prejudices and distrust. Because of her mother’s work, will she be able to trust and love a man? She has learnt early on how people despise her mother but how many men still secretly visit her. Will a young man love her?

This is a YA novella (an oddity in publishing terms) told directly by Hannah, in one breath almost, and it packs a punch. It reads in one sitting, but you cannot easily shake the inconvenient truth that Hannah confronts. I loved that it wasn’t sordid and hopeless, and I definitely look forward to discover other novellas in this collection.

The One with Cross Over Murder Party

Jo Walton, Farthing (2006)

I took a short story book by Jo Walton on Netgalley because the name sounded familiar to me, although I could not tell a precise book title. But I must have mistaken for someone else because I don’t know much about fantasy / scifi books. Then I was browsing the library’s murder and mystery shelves and a Jo Walton novel was on display. A coincidence, really?

I thought that clearly the universe was pointing me in a certain direction so I borrowed it, only to find out that yes, it was a murder mystery, but it was actually on the scifi shelf (just the next row) because it was a mystery set in an alternate history.

It is set in a 1949 Britain where Britain and Nazi Germany have signed a peace treaty in 1941, but it starts off as a quasi normal Agatha Christie / Dorothy Sayers murder in a British manor after a dinner party. All the classic ingredients are checked off one by one: motives like family feuds, infidelity, jealousy, lies, snobbery, prejudice. People lying about when they last saw the victim. Impossible crime scenes, wrong time of death, etc.

But then it veers off in two directions simultaneously: one being antisemitism in a context of Hitler having successfully conquered most of Europe and part of Russia. The other being homophobia in a context where gays and lesbians are everywhere in this plot but are illegal and banned from open conversation. When you mix every ingredient and shake well, you end up with a political conspiration to overthrow democracy and quietly install a fascist government in Britain. Wow.

It was quite a quick, entertaining read because the pace was quite fast and chapters alternated between the Lancashire police inspector (a closeted gay) and the daughter of the lady of the manor, who had married a Jewish banker despite the firm disapproval of her parents and of the press, and both were nice characters to root for.

But still the book let me a feeling of not enough: not enough exploration of this alternate world (I still have goosebumps when I think about other alternate books set in this period, like Fatherland or The Plot against America by Philip Roth, while the cozy setting and the feel-good characters make this impossible in this one), a plot rendered too obvious by underlining the red herrings and the clue with a yellow Stabilo pen, a bit too many clichés in the manor murder party turning it into almost satire (the only exception is that the victim was not found in a locked library).

I thought that the author maybe tried to kill too many birds with one stone. But I see that this book is the first of a trilogy and my interest is piqued.

The One with the Cute Scott before Culloden

Diana Gabaldon, Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander #2, 1992)

This is my winter’s small guilty pleasure, but in fact I’m not even feeling guilty and with 743 pages it’s not small by any standards!

After I’d finished Outlander #1 I knew that sooner or later I would be returning for a second helping, the day I needed a comfort read of the escapist kind. I had a sort of reading slump (and a cold) and I took this opportunity. They’re back: Claire Randall and James Fraser, and this time no Frank Randall but Claire’s daughter Brianna. The year is 1968, oops, no, wait, 1744, well, you know what I mean…

It’s bewildering how easily I have come to accept this sci-fi / time-travel / historical romance that would have made my eyes roll a few years ago if I had only heard of the premises. I am impressed how Gabaldon can pull it off and make it somehow plausible, but make no mistake : Claire’s research for Jamie’s grave and Brianna’s doubts aside, I don’t really care for the contemporary story line, I only waited for the 18C epic story to start again. I love how Gabaldon mixes real historical facts with her fictional characters and details about random period stuff (medical plants? check. merchant navy? check. French royal court manners? check. Potato farming? check. When I told you these were detailed and random…).

The only thing is that I knew too little about the real facts to make sense of the political intrigue of the big part when Claire and Jamie are in Paris to try to convince Bonnie Prince Charlie not to start the war that would end up in disaster at Culloden. This part would qualify as dragging if the plot didn’t have twists and turns every five minutes or so, and if the writing didn’t flow so easily.

The first volume was definitely better and more tightly pulled together, but I will probably continue the series one day when looking for an escapist read. At the same time, I guess that with every further volume the rationalization of this whole sci-fi / time-travel / historical romance will become harder and harder to justify, so I’m not too sure if I should persist. Any advice?