So-so Reads: the Graphic edition

January was a mixed basket when it came to books. This post is a short chronicle of my disappointments. Not that I want to be all negative here, or that I enjoy thrashing books (they were not so bad!), but these books were not what I expected. I was caught off guard, but not in a good way.

The first surprise came with a very, very beautiful picture book for kids. The art is pure bliss. I had noticed it already in December at a bookshop. You can’t miss this book in any library because it is huge, so huge in fact that most libraries have trouble storing it on normal bookshelves. I was transfixed by the dreamy pictures of animals and people inspired by Nordic myths or by Philip Pullman Northern Lights. But the story itself was so disappointing:  disjointed, seemingly incomplete, only a few lines or sentences opposite these huge pictures. I reread several times the first pages because I thought there was some missing pages. It seems like a hollow draft of a beautiful tale that needs to be fleshed out. It’s all the more surprising that the basic plot was quite promising: in a faraway, frozen kingdom, a whole generation of children born the same year as the king’s heir get abducted one by one without anyone learning about their fate. I can’t figure out how a publishing house has let this text go to print just like that. It looks to me as if the story was just written as an afterthought to the paintings. Nevertheless, the artist is François Roca, and his art needs to be seen.

The second surprise came from Bastien Vivès, a graphic author that I had discovered with Polina, his prize-winning bestseller. Polina is about a Russian classic dancer. It was romantic and heart-breaking. I then read A Taste of Chlorine, and I loved, loved, loved the pages full of solid blue, not much dialogue, and still a lot of emotions underneath (the pun is quite easy for a book set inside a swimming pool). I had concluded that Bastien Vivès was a French romantic.

But I was obviously mistaken, because I met with another side of him, a more cynical, dark-humored side. The little books (in manga size) that he published on “Love”, “Family”, the “Blogosphère” (the blogworld) (there are others on war, video games, etc.) were comics that he may have shown on his blog. Let’s just say it’s not my kind of humor. At first, I smiled. He nails very accurately hipsters, egocentric men, marriage crisis, the dating game, parents overwhelmed by their teens, etc.). But what is fun in small quantity is just too much in a book that you read it from cover to cover. The art is always very beautiful, but the words hit hard. A lot of it is x-rated. Not exactly my cup of tea. My advice: stick to the titles above.

Writing Everyday ’16: January Status

Along with the last days of January, the elation of fresh start and clean slate seems to have gone south… or rather north, if you judge by the temperature. This January had a lot of highs and lows on the writing front.

It may just be because it’s the second year or the grey low skies and drizzle, but it took me a lot of willpower to just show up and write those words, and sometimes I hardly lined up 50 of those before declaring them all crap. Even journaling felt hard, even though I had no shortage of experiences this month. I learnt that I can’t just see experience something to be able to write about it the next day, even if I wanted to make it just an exercise in describing a place and atmosphere with noises, colors, textures etc.. I probably need longer to process it.

But it’s not all grumble and complaints! I still wrote every day in January but for three evenings where I just threw the towel. I finished a story and somehow edited it.

This editing thing, I’m rather new at it. I didn’t finish so many stories that I’d know where to start and how to proceed. Especially where to finish. I had my text printed in my handbag for several weeks (yes, weeks), until it became so messy and dirty that it looked like an ancient parchment manuscript. I resisted going back to the computer, editing little by little and printing a fresh copy every time as it felt like a never-ending task without much impact. But maybe that’s the wrong way to do it. Here is a small peak at one editing session at home (I love, love, love my Emma Bridgewater mug! A nice mug of hot tea makes editing a lot more efficient, doesn’t it?). The ugly, old usb device is for taking my text back and forth between home and work. And the firefighter truck book isn’t really mine, as you’ve guessed it.

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The good thing is that I really enjoyed writing this story, regardless of the final outcome. For a while I got sucked into research, especially as I discovered resources at the library that I’d never considered before. But I knew where I wanted to go and I kept this in front of myself for the whole time.

That’s probably the best lesson this January month has to offer. What will I learn next month? Onward to February!

The one with the Toronto detective bachelorettes

Rachel McMillan, The Bachelor Girl’s Guide to Murder (2016)

In 1910 Toronto, two young women get so fascinated by Sherlock Holmes that they start their own investigation venture, regardless of what other people around them expect of proper, well-educated single girls.

Merinda’s model is Sherlock Holmes, unconventional and unapologetic, unafraid of anything, prone to disguise herself, wear men’s attire and carry weapons for self-defense. She has some money of her own and despises difficulties or prejudices that cross her path. Jemima is Merinda’s Doctor Watson, more concerned with conventions and politeness, hampered by her long skirts, fears and scruples. Soon enough they run into difficulties and dangers, but they have two nice knights in shining armor (or not so shining, as it happens): a policeman, who gets some flak for allowing civilian women on a crime scene, and a penniless journalist, a recent Italian immigrant who knows the city inside out.

It’s a cozy mystery (the villain itself wasn’t that hard to guess) but the atmosphere of 1910 Toronto was quite fun to discover. The atmosphere was very similar to that of the TV series Murdoch, which is set in Toronto a bit earlier.

The thing that surprised me most was that the book was categorized under Christian fiction. I didn’t quite see how it fitted, except to say that the level of violence is quite mild. Jemima and Merinda are sassy and spunky and don’t let men walk all over them. They get emotional, but don’t swear beyond “cracker jacks!” and don’t go further than a rather chaste kiss. Evidently, the part where Sherlock Holmes is a heroin addict wasn’t really where those two ladies found their detective inspiration.

It was fun and entertaining, but as far as women sleuths are concerned, I still prefer Laurie King’s Marie Russell in the Beekeeper’s apprentice, which I read over summer.

Thanks to the publisher who provided me with a ARC of this book via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review!

The one where failed gods and cunning grannies intersect

Joanne Harris, A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String (2012)

I knew Joanne Harris by Chocolat’s fame but I haven’t read it. For some reasons, fantasies based on gorgeous food and picturesque French villages don’t quite work for me. I prefer the firsthand expedience that I’m lucky enough to get close by. Moreover I could tell you a thing or two the downside of these exotic fantasies, but then I’d just be another grouchy French person, which is yet another living and rather truthful cliché.

I borrowed this book from the library looking for a short story collection both comforting and easy to read, and that was the labels that the name “Joanne Harris” conjured up in my mind. Little did I know that she writes stories in very very different genres, from comic to magical realism, from literary to satirical. I was quite impressed that she could stretch her skills to such extremes!

It surprised me how much I enjoyed stories about gods who are living in New York under ordinary, human disguises. I’m not really into super-heroes, so I rolled my eyes starting the story, but it quickly seduced me. Just as seductive and even sweeter are the two grannies who are stranded in a gloomy retirement home and get their revenge over the vexations they endure all day. Some stories are spooky, some are just witty and emotional. It’s a rather mixed bag so I guess it’s normal to like some more than others.

The collection is comforting and entertaining, but also full of surprises, never sappy or boring. I certainly won’t discount Joanne Harris next time she crosses my path!

Venturing out of the closet

If you know me in real life, the blogging, reading and writing parts of my personalities are not what I like to present first (or present at all). To the “what do you do?” question, I’ve never answered “I’m a blogger” or “I’m a writer”. There are many other answers I can give that all seem easier too me. I don’t see myself like that outside of the internet.

To make things worse, I work in a company that is a world away from anything literary. While my colleagues often see my arriving in the morning with a book in hand (I read during my commute), they have guessed that I like reading, but they have no clue about my blog (do they know what a blog is?), and I don’t want that to change too much.

Well, maybe some change is in the air after all.

I’ve been reading Oprah magazine for a decade (at least!) and probably too many self-help books, but it’s only recently that I’ve started to try fun things without caring much about what other people might say or think of me. I’ve started to fake it if I could not yet make it. I’ve started to talk to people in bookshops (it’s not the proper Parisian etiquette, at all), to ask for book recommendations. I’ve started to speak about books to some colleagues. And the earth hasn’t stopped turning, apparently.

Yesterday, I ventured into a specialized library and I inquired about making research for a story I’m writing. It felt weird to my own ears to say things like:

– I am writing a novel set at a certain period and I need to do some research about it, do you know what kind of resources I could access here and how I can get a membership card?

I thought the librarian would roll his eyes and tell me that he had better things to do than answering phony questions of someone who has not been published. But he was too polite to do this. Maybe, just maybe, he believed me, because he gave me very useful information and got out of his way to show me everything available.

Today, I went to my office library and asked about some new books. The volunteer there is a new one, very keen on American comics (not my cup of tea). We had started to talk seriously about mangas the week before. When he said that they hadn’t had time to stock up on new books in English because they were short-staffed and there’s no one to take care of this shelf, I couldn’t believe myself when I just asked if I could volunteer! The old me would never never had tried that. I’m not an extrovert or impulsive person, or am I? I’ll see how this one will turn out, but I’ll go and meet some other volunteers on Tuesday to see how I can fit in.

What new experience are you trying these days?

The one from Vienna to Shanghai

Kathy Kacer, Shanghai Escape (2013)

Targeted towards young readers, this book sensibly addresses the fate of Jews who have managed to escape the Holocaust by fleeing to China. As I understand it, this is part of a Canadian book series by Kathy Kacer who has set up to interview Holocaust survivors and write down their personal experience especially for early middle school kids. I had never heard of this initiative before but the result is quite convincing. It seems truthful and does not shy away from explaining rather complex or serious issues but it manages not to be too terrifying.

The book chronicles Lily Toufar’s childhood from 1938 to 1945. It starts in Vienna at the eve of the Kristallnacht, when Austria has just been annexed by Nazi Germany and starts to see the effect of antisemitic policies and unrest. Lily’s parents decide to emigrate with the rest of the family to the only country that still grants them access: China. Lily is then 6 (?) and doesn’t quite understand the reasons for leaving her home. Lily’s family first settles down in Shanghai’s international neighborhood, the French settlement, and adjusts to a new life, more difficult than in Vienna but safe at least.

As years go by the whole family watches with increasing terror how Germany and its ally Japan gain power. The news from European relatives are fewer and fewer. Japanese soldiers control Shanghai and issue their own antisemitic laws. In 1943 the whole family, like all Jewish refugees, has to follow Japanese orders to leave the French Quarter and move into the ghetto of Hongkew, a crowded and dirty place at the town’s periphery. Dangers and hunger become daily ordeals for Lily’s family as they are trapped into the ghetto.

It could be a harrowing read, but luckily the tone remains cheerful and Lily’s family escapes unscathed, due to a series of lucky choices. Also, the book remains firmly at the level of the young girls’ eyes and what she can understand or not, what is important in her eyes or not. Yes, Lily is terribly hungry, but she has friends to play with, boring classes at school and celebrations to attend. As she grows up she starts to question her father’s firm reassurance that everything will end well, but even as the book ends she’s never a rebellious teenager and the story remains positive up until the whole family has resettled to Canada. [Yes, this was a spoiler, I know, but didn’t you guess? It’s a Canadian book series, so it had to end that way, isn’t it?]

I really enjoyed the story because I had only a vague knowledge of this point of history. Lily’s childhood is nicely fleshed out and her family’s destiny is quite extraordinary. Having been in Shanghai in the early 2000s I have seen no historical monuments or signs reminiscent of these events, nor did I know where to look for them if I’d known. There might have been some effort to dig out historical memory in the recent years.

The only point of criticism I have is with the writing itself, that comes out very dry. The tone is a bit flat, everything is spelled-out and a bit dumbed-down for the younger audience. I’m not sure what age Kathy Kacer has in mind when she writes this series, but I’d say probably from 8-9 if the kid is mature and interested in history. Since the story is so riveting it’s not much of an impediment, but the contrast was striking with the previous middle-grade novel I read, The Long Season of Rain, that was full of innuendos and unspoken emotions.

I was sent this book through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

The one with short hair in the damp Seoul heat

Helen S. Kim, The Long Season of Rain (1996)

August 1969 in Korea isn’t the summer of love, at least in Junehee’s family. She’s eleven and the second of 4 sisters in a conservative family. Junehee’s father is in the military and frequently overseas, but whenever he’s in town, he isn’t much at home and remains distant towards his wife and daughters. The one who runs the household is Junehee’s paternal grandmother, who doesn’t let her daughter-in-law have much say in the girls’ education. Much say at all, for that matter. Junehee’s mother had to quash all her dreams and desires, even the smallest ones like wearing dresses in the color she likes or cutting her hair short.

Junehee has no brother, and that’s something everyone openly regrets, because Korean traditions strongly rely on patriarchy: even in 1969, women must obey men, sisters their brothers and younger sisters their elder sister. A family without a boy is much pitied, while girls will go to live in their future husbands’ families. A mother unable to birth a boy is a failure. Through Junehee’s eyes, we witness her mother’s struggles and sacrifices. A young orphaned boy is sheltered in the family, and could be adopted if only Junehee’s father and grandmother agreed to it. Unfortunately, while her mother warms up to this shy boy, Junehee’s father is incensed by his arrival and tells the women that the orphan needs to go as soon as possible.

That summer, Junehee will mature a lot and understand many secrets that the adults don’t want children to hear. This novel is for middle-grade readers, but as a grown woman it nearly made me tear up because it reminded me of the machismo of traditional Asian societies. The tone of the book is soft-spoken but many deeper issues around gender and marriage are addressed. It was hard to read about the mother’s fate, but fortunately the book brightens up at the end and leave some hope that Junehee’s life will be a lot different from what was traditionally expected of little Korean girls.

The one with the post-apocalyptic Shakespeare

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)

To say that I’m ambivalent about post-apocalyptic novels is the major understatement of 2015 (I read it last year). I’m fascinated by them but they make me so very anxious and depressed (especially when done well, with any hint of realism) that I often prefer to abstain altogether.

I started the Road and stopped after a few dozens pages, not that it wasn’t good, on the contrary, but because it was way too depressing. I said I would come back to it on a very sunny and fun day, but then who opens The Road on a fun day?

I only heard very positive things about Station Eleven, and I asked around to trusted bloggers if it was depressing. Short answer: it isn’t. I took my sweet little time to listen to them but they were right. The tone is one of sadness and elegy over a disappeared world. Just as characters mourn the world they knew in their childhood. The book is surprisingly mellow: most of the gore and violence happens off stage, and the focus is on survivors of the flu 15 years later, so that the edge of the apocalypse has had time to soften and dust to settle over the few remnants of humanity.

I often object to books built with alternating timelines because it’s often just an excuse to build up density and structure. But here I liked it because alternating between the events leading to the mass epidemic wiping most of humanity off and the survivors’ new life allowed sadness to seep into the reading and to let us understand all that was lost. Some reviewers found it not cruel enough, too soft (I’m thinking of Janet Maslin of the NYT for example), but it kind of reconciled me with this genre.

Not to say I’m quite read for the Road yet, but I think that Station Eleven will remain in my memory for a while. Until the end of the world? I hope not.

The one with the button-eyed parents

Neil Gaiman, Coraline (2002)

I’ve finished reading this book in November, and I have this unfinished post draft for more than one month, so what’s been stopping me from hitting the “publish” button until now?

It’s not really as if you were eagerly waiting for my review to discover what Coraline is all about. But the fact that there are about 10,000 reviews (not, actually, 11,044 reviews and counting) on Goodreads for this book make me wonder if anything I’ll write hasn’t been already written 11,044 times before.

Once I’d dipped my toe into Neil Gaiman’s weird world, I knew I wouldn’t stop at just one novel, because the depth and the wealth of this author’s imagination made me crave for more.

The local library had nothing else by him but Coraline. I’d loved the Ocean, but I was still reluctant about Coraline. I thought it was too childish for my taste. Childish it is in a sense, but rather in a good way. I found the portrayal of the young narrator of the Ocean more complex, but Coraline is still an amazing, plucky little girl. I found myself rooting for her parents, because of course they are terribly busy and don’t pay enough attention to their daughter’s whereabouts, but I’m sure that it isn’t an easy task to keep her engaged and close by. I’m sure that she wouldn’t content herself with playing with her big box of Legos for the afternoon. (I chose to not read this book as a guilt trip for parents who don’t spend all their time with their kids – but it still lurked at the back of my mind… talking about a nightmare).

But then what child hasn’t pretended that his parents aren’t really his and that other parents were waiting for him elsewhere?  Like in the best fairy tales, an alternate world just coexists next to ours and it just needs one step aside… How Gaiman develops this fantasy of sorts is quite creepy, and he has the skills to never fully define the horror that awaits Coraline on the other side of the house. It reminded me of Roald Dahl, where kids’ adventures are never sugar-coated and that even nice happy ends can’t make up for unknown dangers still lurking in the corners.

In short, Coraline couldn’t match the sense of wonder and dread that The Ocean at the end of the lane opened for me, but it was pretty close. It’s the kind of book that I’d love my son to read one day, but I think I have still a few years to wait, otherwise he will have nightmares for sure!

2015 in Books: the 5 most memorable

Yesterday was about writing, today’s about reading. And counting. Like every year, I let my inner nerd come out to indulge in a flurry of stats.

Because you probably don’t share my enthusiasm about how many books of a particular country I’ve read last year, I’ll keep it brief. Or so I hope. And I’ll hold the charts and pies, I promise. I’m not that bad.

In 2015, I read 74 books, which is a lot more than in 2014 and even the year before. I think it’s because I read a lot more graphic novels and manga that I tend to read way too fast. I read 11 of them and I got still a few more for 2016 among my Xmas presents!

Strictly half the books I read were written by female authors. Like the years before, I read 16 mysteries and 14 non-fiction books, which means that my proportion of fiction increased quite a bit. I’ve read 20 books on my Kindle, 7 on audiobooks, which leaves a very large part to traditional paper-and-ink, but among those most come from libraries, which means that I didn’t fill our already-full bookshelves that much.

Among all those it was both easy and tough to name the most memorable ones. I’ve come down to 5 books across all categories:

In non-fiction, if you’re in the mood for learning a lot of fascinating trivia, I’d recommend The Victorian City: everyday life in Dickens’ London by Judith Flanders. Judith Flanders’ style makes you see the life and the people as they used to be in Victorian times, and that’s priceless.

In non-fiction, if you’d rather hear about the heart-wrenching memoir of a woman who has survived the Gulag and yet isn’t totally depressing, you should pick up Evguenia Ginzburg’s book Into the Whirlwind (in the gorgeous Persephone edition if possible!)

In mysteries, if you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller and a ticket to exotic locations, look no further than Cambodia Noir by Nick Seeley. I enjoyed every minute of it, even if it is not for the faint of heart.

In fiction, I’ve been swept off my feet by the tale of a Hasidic family from the Holocaust to today’s New York in “I am Forbidden” by Anouk Markovits.

Equally emotional, but in a whole different way, I still need to review “Station Eleven” by Emily St John Mandel and I’ve read it at the end of the year but it still made it easily into this top 5 list. I’ve loved it all the more that I was ready to put it aside if it was too hard, too anxiety-inducing or too depressing. For once, it was totally worth the hype! (and I’m not saying this ever, normally).

All these 5 books will make you travel in different times and/or different countries and see the struggles of different people in those circumstances. I don’t make grand plans for 2016 books, but I hope they will make me travel again!