The one with the wise ram from Wales

Carol Swain, Gast (2014)

When I have a cold I am a grumbler. (I apologize in advance for any unjustified rant, only likely to be interrupted by a sneeze and a cough… lucky you, safe on the other side of the screen!) But I was a grumbler about this book even before I got this head cold. This book was so inconvenient! Huge and heavy, how was I supposed to lug it around from my workplace library to my home and return? It seemed hardly worth it.

The art (charcoal pencil) was so gray and seemed so slow, each tiny vignette for a switch of point of view, an exchange of looks, a silence after a question, a scribbled note on a notebook. So few words, as if the writer had nothing to tell!

But after a few pages like that, my own reading pace slowed down to accommodate the special, minimalist tone of graphic narration.

Helen is a lonely teenager. Her family has recently settled down in Wales and her parents give her free reign to explore the territory around their house (she has been known to bring back skulls of dead animals). She likes to take notes and sketches in her notebook about animals. One day a farmer neighbor tells her that a very special bird called Emrys committed suicide close to their home. She starts to investigate, and there…

She asks questions to the neighboring dogs and they politely (well, rather grundgingly) oblige her. One dog tell her that Emrys had no feather. (Yeah, there’s no content warning before this one slips into a quiet, everything-is-normal variety of magical realism)

Dogs are not the talkative kind, but they advise her to talk to the wise ram. Turns out that the bird who died was actually the neighbor, a lonely farmer who raised sheep and liked to use makeup and cross-dress.

There’s little hope and little warmth in this graphic novel. Countryside is not romanticized (I’ve been to Wales, and in real life it’s a lot more beautiful and people are nicer!). Sheeps get slaughtered, villagers are not particularly kind to transvestite neighbors in their midst  or to newcomers, dogs can’t even stop themselves from biting in the middle of a conversation. But the girl is tenacious and has decided to understand Emrys at the best of her ability. Helen is a great character, non-judgmental and quiet, and we never know if she imagines talking to the animals or really can do it. At the end she finds a little warmth in (who would think so?) a small town and in the woman serving meals at a local diner.

The story is told from a distance, yet it has a generosity and empathy for the world’s beauties and imperfections. A really nice discovery.

The one with the darkest fairy tales

Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013)

I was told several times by fellow friendly bloggers and commentators that I should try Neil Gaiman, and my best guess is that Emily recommended him to me first. It took me ages to listen, because he’s not really well-known in France and the only name that he’s known for is the movie Coraline which I wrongly pegged as another version of The nightmare before Christmas. I can almost see you shake your head in disbelief, but I must blame either a very wrong timing or a very wrong marketing campaign for this old mistake.

Anyway, I stumbled upon this book at the library and the detail that made me try it is that it won an adult literary prize. I wasn’t particularly in the mood for a YA, but I’d say some magical realism would make this fall more alluring. I was in for a wild and  fast ride! I literally fell into the book and couldn’t let it go.

The voice was really what kept me in: that of an adult looking back at his own self as a 7-year-old child with wide-opened eyes, nothing rosy or nostalgic. It reminded me of the little girl from A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok who read about myths larger than life to understand her troubled daily life during WWII. Here the hero’s daily life is grim and tragic, but soon turns into a horror larger than life too. The boy’s parents take a lodger who kills the boy’s cat upon arrival, and soon after commits suicide. The boy looks up at his parents and the adults around him but soon discovers how powerless they really are, how frail and messed up they can be, even those who have magical powers like the Hempstock women who live in the farm next door.

I loved how Gaiman puts magic and dark powers lurking beneath the daily routine as if they were entirely normal. As a 7-year-old, many things are a given, unexplained and unquestioned. As readers we are treated the same; we may read the story as a fantasy tale but also as a realist story misunderstood and distorted by the fantasy books that the boy read and by the bad memory of the adult he’s become. We’ll never know for sure, but that too is okay. Some things are better left that way. We’re not told everything, and it feels like Gaiman could have written a book twice longer without exhaust the full history of the Hempstock women, who they really are and what they are fighting against exactly.

I’m not sure where his inspiration comes from, and I feel like he has absorbed lots of traditional tales and myths, but I was surprised to feel immediately comfortable in his world, not that I was reassured. There are a few harrowing scenes, and other rather heartbreaking. This book will stay with me for a while.

The one that breaks another Sherlock taboo

Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (1994)

I fell in love with Sherlock Holmes when I was in middle school, so early in fact that my mother had to ask a special derogation for me to borrow books from the library that were not meant for my age. (I wonder if such a distinction still exists these days, in that period you had to climb behind the librarians desk to a mezzanine, so that they couldn’t miss who went there unauthorized).

The problem is that Sherlock didn’t seem to love me back. He didn’t seem to hold his fellow countrymen in high esteem, even when he condescended to solve their problems, and I don’t even start about his fellow countrywomen. Sherlock doesn’t like women except for Irene Adler, everybody knows that.

Yet Laurie King dared to write the most shocking hypothesis of all (not the one where he’s gay, which wouldn’t disturb anyone these days): the version where he finally meets his female match. A woman so intelligent that they can see eye to eye on such idiosyncrasies as identifying muds origins, playing with their deductive skills, various fight techniques, etc.

This book is the first of a series, and although I read it during our trip to the US this summer and am awfully late at mentioning it here, I have been looking forward to reading more of it ever since.

What I loved about the book is the entertaining and easy prose, the fast pace and the plot with cases and villains in the good old-fashioned late Victorian way. There was deduction, investigation but also hot pursuit, exotic adventures overseas, bombs and conspiracy.

What I didn’t like so much was that Mary Russell herself isn’t really a believable character: she’s so mature at 15 that I mistook her several times for a 25 years old. She’s too perfect in… well in everything. And she just pushes aside poor dear uncle Watson in a shameful way. I understand that it couldn’t really become a trio but I wish Watson wasn’t made into such an old fool as he is. After all, he’s not as clever as Holmes and Russell, granted (who can?), but he was a doctor and a soldier so he’s far from being naive and stupid.

But the few reservations I spelled out here don’t weigh much compared to the fun I had reading the book. My most favorite Sherlock’s continuation remains to this day the BBC series, but since the next season won’t come soon, there’s not much that will stop me from buying the next Mary Russell book when I’ll want some light comfort read.

Books for Paris lovers

I had this long-abandoned draft of a blog post titled “Books for Paris lovers”. I meant to show a few titles that I’d selected for family and friends that we’d visited in Massachusetts this summer. Of course we wanted to bring a little something from our hometown to them even if they didn’t speak any French.

Today this draft’s title rings dark, but at the same time I’m so glad to see so many Paris lovers and Paris friends all over the world. My Facebook account has been so full of notifications that I ran over quota and soon after ran out of power.

Running out of power is sadly an adequate metaphor. We feel so powerless. We have been running to the safety and comfort of home all weekend: playing with kids, a short stroll along the river Seine, a banana bread, a filling soup, a small glass of sweet wine…

Libraries were closed, at the same moment when I most needed the comfort of escapist books. I browsed our local bookshop looking for a comfort read. They had been forbidden by the police to put their usual stalls outside on the pavement for safety reasons, but they weren’t closed, and I was thankful of it. I bought the last Inspector Wexford mystery by Ruth Rendell. I always thought that Wexford was a very human investigator, just like Miss Marple, and turning to familiar heroes goes a long way on dark days.

Anyway, books for Paris lovers…

For those who think that French food does always include meat, I recommend The French Market Cookbook by Clotilde Dusoulier of Chocolate and Zucchini’s fame.

For those who love the Parisian night, there’s this book in laser-cut cardboard (you can play with a torch on a winter night and imagine yourself at the Opera, on the Eiffel Tower…)

For those who want a pretty refresher on all the monuments you should not miss in Paris, there’s a tiny pop-up book, very cute and girly!

Yet I hope that those books won’t be enough and that our foreign friends will still want to come to our beautiful city to see it for real!

The one that goes deep into Bletchley Park

Michael Smith, The Secrets of Station X (1998)

I have a thing for Bletchley Park, yes I do! I don’t remember when I first heard about it, but my interest was rekindled a few years ago by the ITV mini-series “Bletchley Circle“, who focused on a group of girlfriends in the early 1950s, all apparently quiet housewives or secretaries, who actually had worked at Bletchley Park during the war. Lately there was a BBC program presenting Bletchley Park’s women, and also a movie about Alan Turing’s life (which I haven’t seen).

So I took the opportunity of an Amazon promotion to buy The Secrets of Station X, in order to know more about Bletchley. And I did learn a lot alright, and perhaps too much for my own taste! This book tells in excruciating details every single code that has been broken during the war in Bletchley, which means that there are a lot of repetition (like, they get a bit of information, then get stuck for a while, get frustrated and then there is a breakthrough and then it is all clear, so they can move on to the next code… ugh!).

Michael Smith obviously did a lot of research, and had a lot of first-hand interviews with people who worked at Bletchley Park (at the peak, there were no less than 10,000 people, many of them women). The result is a huge mish-mash of interesting facts, trivia, personal memoir excerpts, all put on the same level, or so it seemed to me. We can jump from the use of codes to help fight the El-Alamein battle, to the logistics of having so many people in a rather small place, to the memory of Americans and British playing together during breaks, to the different particulars of each hut of the Park.

At the beginning Smith took some time to explain how an Enigma machine worked and how the de-coding went, but I didn’t really understand and so I was soon out of my depth. I would have enjoyed a more synthetized approach, but I guess that’s probably in another book out there.

Enough already with the hard and down-to-earth realities of non-fiction! This book put me in the mood for a good spy novel. Any suggestion?

The one on the sleepless nights of Phnom Penh

Nick Seeley, Cambodia Noir (2016)

I’m deliberately misleading here, because this book is no romantic comedy of any kind, no, it’s black and bitter and strong. Nights in Phnom Penh are definitely sleepless, but while some may be looking for love, a lot more find drugs, booze, prostitution and any other possible vices.

The main character is Will Keller, a photojournalist who has been on too many tragedies and war zones. He vegetates in Cambodia on joints and occasional shots of adrenaline as he gets called on crime scenes or political riots. He’s the traditional noir hero: broken, disillusioned, flawed and haunted.

I would never hang out with someone like him in real life, but on paper, hey, I have absolutely no problem, he’s like Bernie Gunther’s little American cousin.

Even though he understands Cambodia inside out, from the underage sex tourism to the complex local politics mired in corruption and violence, Keller finds himself out of his depths when a young Japanese-American intern at his newspaper disappears and when her sister asks him for help. What has she discovered and more importantly, who is she really?

Cambodia noir is an excellent page-turner. Characters are dark and multi-layered, the pace is brisk and full of surprises. The writing is crisp and efficient, and suitably sarcastic as the genre requires. Moreover, Nick Seeley knows his stuff (he’s a journalist and this is his debut novel), and the book is as informative on Cambodia as it is entertaining. I went to Cambodia in the early 2000s and there were talks of a possible job at a local newspaper there, and I remember both the awe I felt at the wonderful palaces of Angkor and the dark side I was warned against very pointedly by my then-colleagues in Hong Kong. Needless to say, I turned the job offer down.

This book definitely won’t be everyone’s taste, but if you like the genre, it’s good stuff. As far as Asian thrillers go, it will probably get compared to John Burdett but I find them different. Upon reading this one, I doubt you’ll take a ticket for Cambodia immediately, but remember, it’s fiction! And Angkor is something worth seeing in one’s lifetime.

I got this book through Netgalley. It will be published in March 2016 but I’m sure you can pre-order it.

The Writing Resolution: October Update

paris-in-octOctober rolled so fast that we hit November before I was fully aware of it. We’ve been speeding through work deadlines, school routines, a bout of fever and a few snotty noses for the smaller ones, but writing-wise, it was a good, but not a great month.

The good first. I wrote every day but two, making it probably the most regular month to date. Writing during my commute is really a great way to use this little bit of free time and to make it enjoyable too! For those who wonder, French commuter trains at peak time are not – I repeat, NOT! – the epitome of style and elegance. I almost always find a seat, and Parisians are very particular about their privacy in public, so I can get busy writing on the WordPress app on my phone without anyone glancing over my shoulder or speaking up.

The other good bit is that we celebrated our anniversary weekend sans kids, and I can tell you that a few hours of quiet and silence do wonder on my writing productivity. I may have started a dozen of blog posts and ideas of stories during that time.

Now on to the not-so-good. My old bad habit has returned with a vengeance. I have more unfinished drafts than ever, especially because my commute is not long enough for me to complete a blog post (man, I can’t believe I’d ever say that my commute should be longer!), and because I can’t work on the finishing details of a post on my tiny phone: typos, paragraphs, pictures, links, etc. It doesn’t matter much when I write on my private blog-diary, but I feel that I’m late at posting about books and I have so many bits of unfinished stories here and there. Tsk, tsk.


Which makes me think of an offer I received from Jacqui Lofthouse’s newletter “The Writing Coach”. Her post was provocatively titled “are you a dabbler or a finisher?” (well, provocative to me, at least!) and presented a course held in London next January. I didn’t fully relate to the program of the day, but boy did that title sting! I really need to do some progress to join the finisher team.

Another difficult thing this month was reviewing and editing the short nonfiction I’d written in September. It’s easy to understand that I so seldom finish anything that I’ve forgotten how to review and edit efficiently. I procrastinated a lot (until I realized that the end of the month was coming and I had done nothing! at! all!) and eventually had 2 sessions of editing to get a second draft, but I had so many doubts that I barely resisted tossing the whole thing away. I couldn’t believe at that time how enthusiastic I’d been about it at the end of September.

This month I want to complete the cycle and show this story around to get some feedback. I’m not saying “submitting” yet, but the idea is to not just stay cooped up all alone with my doubts, because they are too dark and fierce. I think this story will benefit from meeting other eyes and some fresh air. Even critical eyes.

I’m also thinking of all these guys who are doing Nanowrimo this month. I can hardly remember the girl I was when I sat down to write 50,000 words 10 years ago. I wonder if I could do it again. What kind of story would be worth a Nanowrimo? Do I have among those drafts and interrupted pages something worth expanding to a full novel?

What do you think? What are you writing these days?

The one where a young girl befriends Jane Eyre and a fox

Fanny Britt, Isabelle Arsenault (illustrator), Jane, the Fox and me (2012)

It took me very little time to read this graphic novel, but as soon as I finished I was ready to start over. At first I thought the book author was French, because it sounded like it, but soon I guessed it was rather a North American story. My guess is Quebec of the 1980s, because kids are sent to camp to practice English, and the boys listen to The Police’s records.

Hélène, the young girl at the center of the book is bullied by a clique of mean girls who suddenly take it against her after having nice to her. What made them change their mind isn’t clear for Hélène, and she finds herself defenseless. There has been an offensive graffiti on her weight scribbled in the toilets. Hélène lacks self-esteem and doesn’t dare raising the issue to her mother who has already lots to worry about. Instead, Hélène gets lost into Jane Eyre, and imagine how Jane would behave in her stead. When Hélène’s class goes to camp, her anxiety worsens and she ends up in the same tent with all the uncool girls. How will she survive camp? Will Jane Eyre be the solution to her problems?

I love the very delicate art of Isabelle Arsenault. The anxiety and loneliness of the character is expressed in the landscape of bleak, monochrome buildings. The handwriting is clumsy and naive. But whenever Hélène turns to Jane Eyre, everything changes, from sad, dark, greyish palette to deep colors, from the block letters to stylish italic. The words are very simple and few, like a prose poem, but you can see and feel so much more through every simple sentence.

It’s a very sensitive way to talk about inner life and the destructive effect of bullying. It will talk to introverts of all ages and to romantic minds. The issue of bullying is very real, but it also talks about loneliness, disconnection and how a new friendship can be miraculous, just as the sudden appearance of a fox in the middle of a wood. It made me remember how passionate a teenager I was when I discovered Jane Eyre. I thought I was the only one to have read such a book and I thought she was speaking to me, even though I didn’t understand everything. This Canadian book, in turn, made me want to re-read Jane Eyre.

Of the impact of the cover art

“Thou shalt not judge thy book by its cover!” Of course we all swear by this principle, don’t we? But in truth, are you sure to be fair to books that have cover art you don’t like? I will show you my recent personal experience.

I discovered a few years ago the British YA writer Mary Hooper at my local kids’ library. I was sold on the book by the cover art of the French edition, made by artist Pierre Mornet (I just looked him up today!) for Les Grandes Personnes publishing house (ie The Grownups). The French title is “Waterloo Necropolis”, which immediately sounds dark and Dickensian. I liked the dreamy, naive girl in the cover.

Recently, remembering the great experience I had reading this book, and looking for some YA historical novels, I typed “Mary Hooper” in Goodreads to know what else she’d written. I never knew she was so prolific an author! No less than 129 books were listed (I didn’t check for duplicates, but you get the idea…) But I barely recognized the book I’d loved from the cover art of the book “Fallen Grace”.  Why is this read-headed girl turning her back on me? I would have easily put the book is the gothic fantasy category, or perhaps in the Christian lit shelf. Anyway, I probably wouldn’t have even picked this book up with that cover. Would you?

This morning I was back at the kids’ library and while chasing my toddler I crossed the YA shelves, letter “H”. The idea of Mary Hooper came back to me, especially thanks to the memorable cover art. Mr Pierre Mornet, you probably don’t know how much you’ve changed my appreciation of the book and the writer! So I borrowed another one from the same publisher, who cleverly kept the same artist for the art cover: The Disgrace of Kitty Grey (very close translation this time).

Out of curiosity I checked the English cover art and the difference of treatment is quite shocking! While the Pierre Mornet’s art tells of a serious, possibly tragic fate of a very young girl who seems almost like a servant, the girly pink-and-blue bared shoulder-and-back view with flourish tells me of an almost adult girl who seems very shallow, possibly a princess with intrigues. I would never have given Mary Hooper another chance with this cover. Perhaps Mornet gives away too much of the story (which I haven’t even started yet), but in my opinion the English publisher dumbs it down, and is almost misleading in its promise.

What do you think? Is the French cover changing the orientation of the book? If you’re interested in whatever other painting Pierre Mornet is doing, you can check out this Pinterest board.

The one that added beauty to the darkest hours

Delphine Hirasuna, The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946

I love when the books I read accidentally collide. Of course, you can always argue that it’s not completely serendipity, but that I do search them out and that I am obsessed with a certain subject. I prefer to think that this particular subject is following me.

The latest occurrence happened this summer, but you need to rewind a little more to understand. It started last summer when I read the novella-slash-incantation-slash-historical novel by Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic. It followed a group of Japanese mail order brides from the moment they left Japan for America to the day they had to abandon their American homes in California for internment camps inland in 1942 following Pearl Harbor’s attack. I was enchanted by this book and it gave a memorable voice to a very singular slice of history. The sudden switch of perspective at the end from the choir of Japanese women to the choir of the communities emptied out of all their Japanese members was quite moving.

The second encounter with this particular theme was quite unexpected with James Ellroy’s Perfidia, that explore California in 1941-1942, following the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. If anything, James Ellroy is known for not avoiding painful and controversial subjects and the issue of anti-Japanism racism was quite glaring in the first part of the book that I read (I had to give it back to the library and haven’t taken it again so far), and it showed without ambiguity that some people had seen quite early their own interest in having their Japanese neighbors removed, willingly or not. Both books have a collective view of events, but as much as Otsuka was emotional and focused on women, Ellroy’s tone is male-dominated, cynical and brutal.

The third encounter is this book, which looks like a coffee book table but is really a lot more. The pictures present art objects that were designed by Japanese people while living in the internment camps. The book is bittersweet, because these objects are so beautiful and yet made with scraps and bits of reclaimed materials they saved from their already grim daily routine: twine, bits of wood, shells, rocks… Japanese families were allowed only a few bare necessities and they had to endure a harsh environment for years. They organized arts and crafts classes and groups to beautify their surroundings.

The title word of Gaman means “enduring what seems unbearable with dignity and grace”. The author’s parents and grandparents were detained in these camps and this book is a tribute to their ingenuity and spirit. These traumatic events of being singled out, detained and imprisoned despite their U.S. nationality, are a big taboo in Japanese families and in American schools, so I hear, and I guess that this kind of initiative, along with exhibitions and conferences associated with it, are a big step forward for those who want to know their family history in full and break the silence and shame around it.