The One that Goes Back to Lewis Island

Peter May, The Blackhouse (2009) & Lewis Man (2011)

Alright, I feel all the shame, because you can’t know it, but this post draft has been started in June, and at that time I was already late. Back in April I sat on a bench in a public park in Paris (in my previous home! in my previous town!) after finishing the second of these two mysteries and I wrote a blog post on my phone to declare my love to these two books. And even then I was already late, because I had not written about the first novel, and I read it at the beginning of the year!

WordPress apparently thought I should be punished, so it ate the April post while I wasn’t looking (too busy with real estate shenanigans), and I started over in June. Then life happened and I never got round to finish it. All the shame, I tell you.

Because these mysteries are awesome, and that is worth mentioning, even with almost-half-a-year of delay (!) [insert apologies here]. What I liked best was the atmosphere, and the suspense, and the twisty plot.

Peter May is Scottish, but he lives in France now and has been naturalized French (although I decided to keep his book in the British authors category). He has written several mysteries set in French countryside, and several mysteries set in China. I remember trying them years ago, and both settings I didn’t find 100% convincing (to my overly critical eyes), but I was fascinated by the Outer Hebrides (which I have never visited).

The investigator in this mystery series is Edinburgh police detective Finn McLeod, but he was born and raised on the island so there is a lot of back story to unravel. Finn McLeod’s childhood, relations and reasons for leaving the island make a great story line, and one book was not enough. The second book’s main character is an old man who had Alzheimer’s, whose memories are slowly going awry and whose past and childhood events are progressively taking the precedence over his adult and later years. Then a corpse is found in a peat bog, and the suspected murderer is the old man himself. Is it possible to even prove if he did it or to clear him? The credibility of this particular part was a bit stretched, but I liked it all the same. Finn McLeod is your traditional melancholy cop / gumshoe with a dark past, and his development was satisfying and interesting.

I’m quite ready to finish the trilogy in 2018, and I promise it won’t take me six months to let you know about it!

 

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The Ones on Medea’s Youth

Blandine Le Callet (story), Nancy Peña (art), L’Ombre d’Hécate (Médée #1, French 2013) – Le couteau dans la plaie (Médée #2, French 2015) – L’épouse barbare (Médée #3, French 2016)

 

Some people have strong opinions about modern retellings of traditional myths, or classics; I have disliked some, been puzzled by some, unimpressed by some and loved others. What’s for sure is that they have never left me indifferent.

At our new library I found a graphic series about Medea, which is totally amazing. I hesitate to report it because the series is still ongoing and it’s only in French, but for what it’s worth… Just like La Bouche d’Ombre which I reviewed recently, it is a cooperation between a female writer and a female graphic artist, which makes it even more interesting!

Medea is not an attractive female figure, she’s too shocking and disturbing. She is a dark witch, she is sexually active and she becomes so hysterical with jealousy that she kills her own children: who would want to identify with her?

Yet, in this retelling, we get to learn her life from her childhood on, and things take a different meaning. The Medea we know is the product of centuries of male domination and Medea is blamed because she is daring, intelligent and does not accept her fate. I have yet to read the third volume but the first two, about Medea’s childhood and her teenaged years were great. It  shows a girl with a modern mind stuck in an antique setting, whose only freedom is the one left to her by her tyrannical father because she has special skills (witchcraft!). It may annoy some readers, but it makes her so much more relatable. She meets Jason and falls in love at first sight because he’s a breath of fresh air in an oppressive palace. I can’t wait to read the third book that will likely delve into the dark, tragic side of Medea as a wife and mother in a foreign country.

The One with the Vengeful Spider

Fred Vargas, Quand Sort la Recluse (French 2017)

Of course I’m not talking about Spiderman!

I’m talking about the Brown Recluse Spider, a kind of nifty little arthropod that hides in woodpiles, sheds, dry cellars, etc. It has a necrotic venom (yes, this is apparently a word) and to weaker people it can be very dangerous (I am warning you right now: don’t – I repeat, DON’T look up images in Google, trust me. There are things you cannot unsee. If you want to know more, literary definitions are in my humble opinion more than enough!).

In North America, reported cases of recluse bites occur primarily in Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas (or so I’m told on Wikipedia), but in this novel, the recluse spider has killed no less than 3 old men in bad shape in France! Is it global warming? Police refuses to get involved, scientists from the national science museum say it just can’t be, but Commissaire Adamsberg has one of his famously weird gut feelings: to him, it’s murder. So the question is: who has succeeded in taming these tiny, shy spiders to attack people, how and why?

Now, if you are a regular reader of this blog you know that I will read anything Vargas. And at our workplace library, we need to buy anything Vargas and the queuing starts right now. For the next one. So I’m not even trying to be objective in my review.

It was fantastic, as ever, period. I didn’t even mind that I guessed by the middle of the book who might have done it. I read on for the sheer pleasure of following Commissaire Adamsberg and his whimsical trains of thoughts. In French we say it’s “tiré par les cheveux” (the reader is pulled by his hair) to mean that it’s goofy and far-fetched, but it’s all for the good cause.

I have no idea when the book will be translated to English, but it will be done!

The One with the Danish Girl in L.A.

Michael Connelly, The Black Box (2012)

Thank goodness for steady writers who deliver, book after book. I get back to Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller regularly and it’s like being reunited with a long-lost friend. It takes only twenty pages to get reacquainted and then it’s like we were never apart.

This time there is a prologue set in 1992 during L.A. riots. The city police is running from crime scene to crime scene, and the cases are handled much too quickly to go really into details. Amidst the chaos, the dead body of a young female Danish journalist is found in an alley by National Guards. This case seems off but Harry Bosch, a then-young police inspector, has no time to dig deeper. Twenty years go by, and Harry Bosch now works in the cold-case unit as a veteran detective. He is now able to fulfill his promise to find Anneke Jespersen’s killer, especially now that the same murder weapon has come up in a gang killing.

The few last times I read Connelly I had chosen his Haller series which are more legal thrillers than police investigations. I had forgotten how addictive the latter are! Finding a killer after 20 years is a mix of tedious checks on cold leads, taking advantage of the progress of science and technology, and a lot of luck. Of course, people may find it hard to swallow that Bosch is able to find people who still remember what they did twenty years ago (I would be terrible! Don’t even ask me!), but Connelly doesn’t make it a rule for every character and his seemless plotting makes it believable enough.

I didn’t care much for Bosch’s perfect daughter and his taste for jazz music, but the plot! the twists! the action! Classic Connelly. He has a great recipe and doesn’t budge from it. Still, it is entertaining and dependable and I will go back to him when the taste for a meaty noir arises again.

The One with the Freudian Daughter

Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother? (2012)

I tend to race through graphic novels, thin or thick ones, even if it’s not comics or mangas. But this one is really something. I needed several weeks to go through this thick memoir, and I didn’t stop thinking about it on my holidays (it was thick and heavy enough that I couldn’t bring it with us). I’m just floored at the complexity and intricacy of this book, that reflects how complex and multi-layered life is, especially when it comes to relationships, and the mother – daughter relationship in particular.

I had not heard of Bechdel, but I recently learnt that she was famous for her test on movies, that should have at least two women who talk to each other about something besides a man. Her book does pass the test easily! Her mother first comes out as a complex, rather cold and bitter woman, who has put her own dreams and ambitions aside to marry and be a mother. Yet Bechdel’s family is anything but traditional, since her father had a side business of running a funeral home and was a closeted gay.

I pause to tell you that Are You My Mother is the second memoir by Alison Bechdel, after a bestseller “Fun Home” that I wasn’t even aware of when I borrowed this book at the library. “Fun Home” is about her father, and there are many allusions to him and this book in this second graphic memoir, but it didn’t hinder my reading.

The book is a feast of references to psychoanalytic concepts, to the life and theories of Winnicott (pediatrician and psychiatrist), to Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich. Freudian theories remind me of my teenage years when I first discovered them and when I had a difficult relationship to my own mother (and father, to be fair, but less so). I had heard of Winnicott in relation to the Melanie Klein and Anna Freud disputes, but they definitely flew over my head then. The graphic form of this memoir is interesting to introduce some concepts but it was somewhat superficial (because Bechdel applied them to her own life of course). I would be interested to learn more about Winnicott’s idea of the good-enough mother (the name is catchy, but as all Freudian theories it’s a lot more complex than being against the perfect, helicopter mother), and of course Bechdel shows how Winnicott’s idea of the false self and true self applies to her own family, where her dad’s homosexuality was repressed and to herself, who seemed to discover her own sexuality after years of denial.

The book is not only highly intellectual, but also very visual and emotional. It’s intimate, as most memoirs are, and at times it feels like a lot of navel-gazing, but the intricacy of the layers make up for that. Like every self-discovery, the book is all about peeling off layer after layer of lies, pretense, shame and secrets.

The One with the Red-Headed Shadows

Carole Martinez & Maud Begon, Bouche d’Ombre (French vol.1 2014, vol.2 2015, vol.3 2017, vol.4 to be released)

I’m still in the process of finding my bearings in our new town, exploring local shops and… the library! Our new library (see how proprietary I get?) is quite nice, although it has a mandatory fee for adults (it was free in Paris except if you wanted dvds). There are several self check-in / check-out machines on each floor (the kids love them!). The ground floor is for magazines, CDs and DVDs, crafts food and gardening, and art books (it feels like a huge Miscellaneous department). The first floor is for kids books, and the second floor is for adult fiction and non-fiction, and each floor has a huge selection of comics / graphic novels.

I was lucky with the first pick I had from the adult graphic novels on display. “La Bouche d’Ombre” (“the Shadow’s Mouth”, a quote from a Victory Hugo poem I didn’t know) is an ongoing series (3 tomes are already published but it’s not complete yet) and the story is just as fascinating as the art itself. Even better, it’s a collaboration between a female writer (Carole Martinez, who got many literary awards) and a female graphic artist (Maud Begon, whose blog you can visit) and this is rare enough to be highlighted.

The first tome is set in 1985 and introduces us to Lou, a high-school junior in Paris with a large group of friends and a taste for partying and hanging out. A friend suggests a spiritualist séance to conjure up dead ghosts (because it seems fun and because they study Victor Hugo in school). The session goes only too well, and after a friend of hers commits suicide, deeply upset by the séance, Lou realizes that she can see dead people. This gift does not come kindly, and Lou struggles with what she feels and sees. There are many family secrets, and it seems that supernatural gifts have been running at various degrees in Lou’s family. Hypnosis helps Lou make sense of it, and understand what the deads want from her.

The second volume, titled Lucie 1900, focuses on the complex relations between science and the occult. The present and the past intersect under Lou’s eyes and in her dreams. We still see Lou in 1985, but when she gets obsessed with a young woman without a face, a woman named Lucie who lives at the beginning of the 20th century, a second timeline opens in the novel. The year is 1900 in Paris, when a huge international exhibition was held that showed the latest in science and art innovations. Lucie is enthusiastic about science, she gets acquainted with famous scientists Pierre and Marie Curie, but she also has a secret that is both overpowering and terrifying, and that threatens the rationals of science. Lucie is actually Lou’s grandmother! The end comes back to the present day with a shocking twist that will send the reader reeling.

In the third volume, titled Lucienne 1853, we leave science for literature. Lou still presents the contemporary framing of the story. She is devastated by the events at the end of the previous volume, but she now understand enough of her gift to decide to travel back in history to try to rectify the situation (ouch, it’s tough to avoid spoilers!). We visit Jersey island at the time when Victor Hugo and his family were in exile there. Victor Hugo is obsessed with the occult and the spiritualist movement, hoping to get in touch with his deceased daughter Leopoldine. But a mischievous, red-headed little girl-spirit messes with them.

There are so many interesting layers in this story. The art is quite atmospheric, at times romantic and scary. It is never static and conveys a deep sense of mystery. It’s girly without being one bit hokey. I can’t wait for the final volume!

Library Haul

You might think I have abandoned the library at my workplace because I rarely mention it. No, I still volunteer there every week! But I have been so busy with the real estate snafu in the first semester that I didn’t find the time to order any new books in English for the library.

And believe it or not, people have been noticing! “Oh, you actually don’t have the latest [insert writer / title]?” “Well, I have read all the [writer / title] available…” Still, I have a budget envelope to use up, so I have started to catch up!

Without further ado, here is the latest delivery of books in English (sorry about the poor quality photo!). I have tried to focus on bestsellers with a rather straightforward language, because most readers have English as a second language and they are easily spooked by specialized vocabulary and stylistic flourishes. Still, I find it very hard to judge a book by its vocabulary level. The ones on the far left are Snoopy and Peanuts collections, because people are less impressed by short comic strips. I have also ordered a whole bunch of bilingual editions (left page in English, right page in French), but they are not in yet.

Can you guess which book went out first?

The One on the Murky Aftermath of Revolution

Balzac, Une Ténébreuse Affaire (French, 1841 ; Eng. The Gondreville Mystery, a.k.a. A Murky Business)

I always finish the year complaining on how few classics I read… and yet, when I try to be intentional and read one, it’s not that easy!

Although it’s a short novel, This Murky Business (there are many different translations of the title) is so rich that it’s difficult to summarize. It starts awkwardly but then after 50 pages the action and the twists of events made me turn the pages until the end. It’s gripping and surprising and well worth the effort, but…

The BIG warning to potential readers (French and foreigners alike), is that a preface AND a postface would certainly be necessary to understand the context and make sense of it all. I just read the Wikipedia page and it wasn’t nearly enough. To Balzac in 1841 the revolution and the reign of Emperor Napoleon were still fresh in everybody’s mind, but to me, I struggle to remember what I learnt in freshman college history. And I can’t imagine what it means for English readers…

Let me try, even if I might make a mess of it.

The beginning of the novel is especially… murky (you can’t say that Balzac didn’t warn us in the title, right?). It’s set in 1803 in rural France, and the power of Napoleon isn’t set yet. People still remember who was responsible for the local guillotine killings. Aristocrats who want to get the king’s family back on the throne are in exile and it’s forbidden to help them. Still, a daring, beautiful young heroine, Laurence de Cinq Cygnes, an heiress whose parents were killed during the Terror, rides her horse across the countryside, seemingly because she’s wild and lonely, but really to help her two cousins, two twin young men who are desperately in love with her and illegally back from exile. The police suspects her and shows up at her castle, but she’s warned by a faithful servant and the cousins escape. The policemen know that they have been fooled and develop a strong grudge against both families.

The second part is set a few years later when the trio are quietly living in their domain under the reign of Emperor Napoleon. They dislike the Emperor and more or less put up with the situation, until they try to retrieve the family money that has been hidden during the Revolution. A complicated conspiracy get them arrested (along with the faithful servant of the first part) and tried for the abduction of a senator. They will barely escape with their lives.

The third part is set many years later when in a Parisian high society gathering, we recognize an old lady as Laurence de Cinq Cygnes and we get to understand the deeper meaning of the conspiracy.

The book offers a fascinating portrait of France at a very complex time. We often learn history by the large political, international events and our teachers lead us from one period to the next as we turn the page of a textbook. But true life events are not so clean-cut, and people don’t know that they are living through the end of the Revolution, or the beginning of the Empire. In the countryside, they might not even know who is in power in Paris. Sometimes even, they are pawns on a larger scale, just because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time, or because they have irked the wrong guys.

Laurence de Cinq Cygnes is a tragic heroine. She’s idealistic and still wants the king’s family to return to power instead of compromising with Emperor Napoleon. She will undergo a full 360 but at a very high personal cost. I liked her a lot, and looking things through her eyes made up for the intricate shenanigans I couldn’t fully understand. People who were of her generation lived under kings, emperors, tyrants, revolutions and wars and it must have been so tough.

The Na-wrimo Pledge

P1020929 - CopieYou may have noticed that I blog more irregularly these days than before. I have never been very regular anyway, but I have let many deadlines and routines go when it comes to writing and blogging. I often blame the poor internet connection in our new home (and we are bound with a 1 year contract, so we’ll be able to switch provider only next summer!), but I know it’s not really the truth. Many books are waiting on the sidelines, many post drafts are waiting to be finished and published. And they will be, one day, hopefully soon!

I don’t want to feel guilty and apologize whenever I show up here. I just want to make clear that I haven’t moved on or moved away from blogging. It’s not as if I had taken a new sport or a new hobby! I just need some time to recover my routine and find a new pace to write.

I have worked on a long story / novella on the side, long-hand. Yes, with a pen and a notebook! How revolutionary… This is a story I started years ago and never finished, but I am now clearer than I ever been where I want to lead it. I also switch from English to French and back, which is not great. I’m not sure it will be any good when finished, but gosh… it will feel good to complete it anyway. Remember Anne Lamott’s shitty first draft, right? More than ten years ago I joined the Nanowrimo and I remember what it feels like to write so many words every single day for 30 days straight. I had no kids then… and I made it to the finish line of 50,000 words.

I’m not that ambitious for this year, but I still feel strongly about writing every single day. Stories, memoirs, diary, gratitude lists. You will not see it here online every day, but I’m in the rear kitchen, cooking up something. It simmers for hours on end. And every day, a few more words add up to the richness of the gravy. If everything goes well, I should have a shitty first draft by the end of the month.

The One with the Gloomy Swedish Detectives

Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, Cop Killer (Swedish 1974)

Part of the fun to decide to read another Martin Beck police investigation is to search through the library shelves and try to remember how exactly both names of the writers are spelled. In my head, they are Maj and Per, which doesn’t exactly help. And you can’t really get help from the librarian if you don’t know how to pronounce them, right?

This one is Martin Beck’s ninth book, and they can be read out of order, but it’s probably best not to start with this one, because one can witness the trajectory of Martin Beck’s mood and beliefs from the beginning in the sixties to this one in the mid-seventies. In short, it’s not a spoiler to say that it doesn’t get better. Also, it’s better to have read Roseanna before, because one of the suspects of this investigation is a character from the first novel in the series.

If I was dealing with real people and if being gloomy was not part of the gumshoe’s and detective’s cliché image, I would be tempted to suggest a strong dose of Prozac to Beck and his close colleagues. Sjöwall & Wahlöö are part of the tradition that uses the conventions of the police procedural to denounce everything that goes wrong in society: miscarriages of justice, hasty judgments, unregulated use of violence by the police force, but also a country where young people struggle to find a right place, where they don’t find jobs and don’t find meaning in the jobs they may find. A country where press and politicians manipulate the news (has anything changed since?). 1974 is a time when young Swedish people are disenchanted, and except for smoking dope and having long hair, Swedish policemen such as Beck and Kollberg are just as disenchanted as they are. 1974 is the year heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped, the year Abba released Waterloo and when lots of bombings by extremists and the economic crisis worried people all over the world. The 1970s were dark and bleak and the book does reflect this mood.

Reading a Maj & Per book is not about big twists and big shockers, it’s about the work and the time policemen put in to find a killer, often without much recognition. Only dogged determination, and a part of chance too. The pace is slow and it takes more than half the book to understand why the book is titled Cop Killer, but I promise, this is all worth it.