The One with the Antipodean Heatwave

Jane Harper, The Dry (2016)

It’s hard to empathize with people in the middle of a heatwave when you’re in the middle of winter yourself, or is it only me? I can hardly fathom the temperatures that journalists report about the Melbourne tennis tournaments, and I couldn’t really feel the heat of the heavy atmosphere of this murder mystery set in the Australian countryside.

Expectations ran high, and it’s always a problem for me because I hope for a stunner and I’m disappointed if that’s anything less than.

Make no mistake, I enjoyed it and turned all the pages as fast as I could. It’s a small town atmosphere where people know each other from childhood on and have not forgotten, nor forgiven any missteps that anyone did ever since. People have only grown more bitter and more on edge due to the drought and heatwave that make tempers short and money scarce. Nothing grows in the fields, cattle have to be slaughtered for lack of food, and the river is no longer making a rustling watery sound in the background. When a farmer shoots himself after having killed his wife and son, only sparing his baby daughter, people whisper that he has been pushed to his limits, and then they whisper some more and suspect him to have been evil. They remember when a girl died in the river when he was a teenager and wasn’t he involved with her? The one who investigates is Aaron Falk, a policeman from Melbourne summoned to the small town of his childhood by the dead man’s father. And he, Aaron, is also suspected to have something to do with the girl’s dead.

The way the past and the present were interwoven is impeccable. I just wished that the middle part flew faster. That said, if you tempt me with another Aaron Falk mystery, I probably won’t resist long.

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The One with the Taiwan Bike Lost in the Jungle

Wu Ming Yi, The Stolen Bicycle (Origin. Chinese 2015; English 2017)

You guys, this book… I’m not sure I should brag or be ashamed, but it took me 5 months to read it, and I have no idea what I read most of the time.

I am no fan of bicycles (I don’t even know the technical words in English or French for the different parts of a bike – and I didn’t learn), but I have a personal connection to Taiwan that made me want to read that book as soon as I spotted it on Netgalley. It’s rare enough to find a Taiwanese novel, but when it’s a book that has collected so many literary awards in its home country, it doesn’t quite matter if it’s over 400 pages… (or does it?)

Highbrow it is, definitely, and deep, and experimental, and full of historical references that I was only vaguely aware of, so… It’s not my usual cup of tea, but I’m glad I tried it.

At first glance the story seems pretty straightforward… at least at the beginning. As his ageing mother is sent to hospital (presumably for her final days) and his siblings gather around to take care of her, the narrator wants to track his father and his bicycle, who both disappeared 20 years ago. The man is convinced that if he’s able to find the bicycle, he’ll understand the truth about his father.

Now, it’s only one story of this book, where many other characters and bikes and stories are intertwined. The bikes are just a tool to show how Taiwan was influenced by Japanese technology (the small island being colonized by Japan from 1895 to 1945), and how Taiwanese people were part of the WW2 conflict on the Japanese side. The island was bombed by the US, the men were conscripted into the Japanese armies (but at lesser ranks than “real” Japanese). Part of the book is set in the Malaysian jungles where a lot of fighting took place, and a lot of gruelling sufferings and deaths. Not only men did die, but also nature and animals, and the book shifts its focus towards elephants (another surprising turn), in a deeply moving way. Elephants were used and abused as war transports, and then some found their way into zoos.

Some parts of the book are really heartbreaking. Wu Ming-Yi is nostalgic, but his emotions show through mundane details of fixing a bike in the proper way, or showing up at a café to meet someone who might have an ancient bike. So if you’re tempted by an adventurous, unexpected read out of your usual range, look to further.

Six Degrees of Separation: February Game

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, which is the start of the February meme launched by Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, came only recently into my radar, and I haven’t read anything by George Saunders. I confess my utmost ignorance of American presidents before 1945 (I always get them all mixed up), and the Bardo didn’t evoke anything except a Tunisian museum, and I am pretty sure I haven’t read any books by Tunisian authors, so the first thing that sprang to my mind was…

The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly, that introduced cunning defense attorney Mickey Haller. It’s definitely not as highbrow as any Saunders book, as this one is deemed “compulsively readable legal thriller”. I’m pretty sure it’s a world away from Lincoln in the Bardo. But as I didn’t know at that time that Lincoln was actually a car make, I confess that I was puzzled for a long time why Connelly was referencing to an American president, all the more as nothing in the plot referred to anything presidential. Anyway, I am addicted to Michael Connelly’s thrillers and police procedurals, so it’s only fair game that I jump to…

Harry Bosch’s first mystery The Black Echo, which I read probably 20 years ago. I don’t think I read them in order, but this one stuck in my memory because of the anxiety-inducing scenes in the sewer tunnels. I now know that Connelly likes to anchor his plot in L.A. geography, but to me it was totally abstract and the stuff of nightmares. In this thriller Bosch has flash-backs from his stint in Vietnam, and it made me think of…

Ru, by Kim Thuy, one of the few Vietnamese writers I have read (and technically, she is Canadian, so I should be ashamed…) The Vietnam war is always lurking in the background of this book, but strangely enough I have read more about the Cambodian conflict and the terrible Khmer Rouges regime, which I first heard about when I read…

The Killing Fields, by Christopher Hudson, a book that was on my grandmother’s bookshelves. My grandmother didn’t read much, and I bet this was the movie tie-in, but as a teenager the book was probably traumatizing, all the more as it was clear that those events were real. I had no difficulty recognizing the cover of the French book edition, which is the one I read 25 years ago.

I found the difficult questions of the origins of Khmer Rouge totalitarian madness addressed in Patrick Deville’s Kampuchea once again, where the long and complex history of this small country is painted without shying away from explaining French role and influence.

It was a surprising echo to be found in the latest Nicholas Le Floch historical mystery, set in Paris in 1787 (less than 2 years before the Revolution!): Prince de Cochinchine, by Jean-François Parot (I’m currently finishing the book so a post should come soon!). Cochinchine is the old word for South Vietnam. I knew that France has conquered Indochina during the 19C, but little did I know that French people (especially religious authorities) were already trying to weave their influence at the court of these Asian princes.

Well, I told you I didn’t know the first thing about Lincoln, so don’t be surprised that my 6 steps took me far, far away from him!

 

The One with the Deceitful Cover

Julie Berry, All the Truth that’s in Me (2014)

This is a book I would not even have bothered with picked up if I had seen the English cover art. I was totally fooled by the French cover art, and it’s not the first time around.

A few years ago I had been tricked by the magnificent cover art by Pierre Mornet, this time around by another equally great cover by François Roca, a professional designer whom I had already noticed in many other books. (you can see other covers on this page)

I was immediately attracted to this haunting young woman whose mouth is hidden and kept shut by a tree, whose modest clothing (that could be of any period) is sad and blends into the cold and dark wooden background. It captures the atmosphere of this YA novel perfectly.

Told by Judith to an unnamed “You”, the novel is set in a puritan village in an undefined period, but probably during colonial America. Judith has been kidnapped the same day as her best friend was murdered and when she was finally back to her village, years later, she was mute. She has been a pariah ever since. People including her own mother see her as damaged goods and don’t trust her. Who has killed her best friend? Who has kidnapped her? She lives on the margins of the village life and watches in silence as the young man she always was in love with is getting married to another. Yet, the village has more pressing worries and attackers threaten all the villagers, but Judith has an idea to save them all.

I wasn’t quite comfortable with the lack of precise setting and the use of “you” at first. It was quite slow to start and jumping from one scene to another. I ended up liking it enough to finish within a few days, but if I had seen the original American cover art, my reaction would have been totally opposite. The ripped cover with bold red letters made me think of vampires, and the girl with lanky, bleached hair made me think of a high school drama. It’s such a weird choice!

Seeing Pairs Everywhere

Ever since I retraced my steps to what had “brought me joy” in 2017 books (to borrow from Konmari, but don’t worry, I’m not culling my shelves, I’ve culled quite enough before moving) I wanted to do more “parallel readings” or books that share some common ground (in the loosest sense because it’s highly personal) and that reverberate in one another. I want to keep my definition as loose as possible so that it remains open to my most personal interpretations all along the year.

gradyThe easy way to do it is to read together books set in the same period, and/or on the same theme. It’s quite fun and invigorating for me because it gives me a direction and leaves me not so overwhelmed in front of the huge number of interesting books available. It gives me an easier way to reject books (I always need a little nudge on that matter even at my age).

My first parallel reading has started in the first days of January, with a 1970s theme. I had been meaning to read The Girls by Emma Cline (a variation on the Manson family) and I jumped on the opportunity to read some iconic Joan Didion essays on the 1970s too. I’ve just finished this French-edited collection with Slouching Towards Bethlehem, On the Morning After the Sixties and The White Album. A post is due soon, but I needed to interrupt my reading of the Girls midway because the book was due at the library. I’m queuing up again to get it back soon! I’ve also started a French novel Mercy, Mary, Patty by Lola Lafon that’s loosely based on the Hearst kidnapping, but is also a portrait of young women under influence in the 1970s.

I have also started a French bestseller on audiobook, Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a true story, about an exhausted writer whose life gets “hijacked” by a new friend (I’m just starting the book so I might not be totally accurate – but it has been a called a perverse thriller about a toxic friendship). Guess who Delphine de Vigan has chosen as a quote on the first page of her book? Stephen King’s Misery of course! Perfect book pairing, especially if the writer points it out herself!

If you have recommendations of books about a toxic friendship (with or without writers involved), I’m all ears.

The One Praised by Neil Gaiman

Vera Brosgol, Anya’s Ghost (2011)

The sentence is the first thing you see at the top of the book: “A masterpiece” by Neil Gaiman. I  don’t normally focus on blurbs and famous writers’ references. Nor did it influence me into reading this book in the first place.

But after I finished the book and was still deep into its dark and grey atmosphere, I tried to find what it made me think of, and I noted this blurb. I found it so meaningful, that I used it as one of my arguments to convince my colleagues to put this YA graphic novel on the acquisition lists for graphic novels at my workplace.

This book was on my radar for quite a while when I bought some YA graphic novels in English for the library, but it didn’t make the short list at that time (in case you are wondering what I bought instead: “Smile” by Telgemeier, and “Nimona” by Noelle Stevenson). I must say that the art made me think strongly of Telgemeier, and the ghost theme reminded me of Telgemeier’s Ghosts, so I didn’t buy, but how wrong I was! It’s nothing like Telgemeier.

It starts quietly enough with a yet another high school student struggling with her immigrant identity (this time Russian): well-meaning parents who want her to succeed but don’t really get the American life, nerdish friends, an annoying sibling, a love interest who doesn’t look at her, yada yada yada. It is a bit cliché, until the story takes a sharp turn when Anya finds the bone of a deceased girl at the bottom of a hole in a park, and the spirit of the girl, Emily, comes out and befriends Anya. Anya is a lonely girl and this friend who has a lot more “depth” (pun intended) is first a boon to her teenaged, second-guessing self. Emily is 90 years old and she died in mysterious circumstances, and she’s so happy that Anya gave her a second chance at girlhood, until…

It’s snarky and dark and scary, and it doesn’t pull punches (for a middle-grade/YA, that is). You expect warm and fuzzy feelings due to the round, naive art and then you end up with a mean ghost that’s really evil. It’s not totally an apt comparison but it reminded me of the 1990s movie Scream, that had all the ingredients of the classic teenage movie, and inserted scary stuff for entertainment sake. I loved it! (Incidentally, my 9 yo son read it and he was scared stiff… so it’s probably for slightly older kids)

Btw, this is the last of my 2017 books to be reviewed, and coincidentally, and it took me a whole month to finish those posts! I think it calls for shorter and quicker posts, my friends, because my 2018 are all waiting in line now!

The One with the Closeted Gay Funeral Director

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (2006)

Oops, another 2017 read, in fact a September read… Why did it fall by the wayside, would you ask? Because September is not exactly the ideal period in the life of a working mother to pause and collect one’s thoughts. Especially when my brain was just recovering from the experience and was only able to form the words: “Awesome”, “Great” and “Is there more?” But those don’t really make a blog post.

I often take series out of order, but in that case immediately after I finished reading “Are you my mother?” I logged into my online library account to put a reservation for the first volume at the library. And it blew my mind, just as the first one did, but also in a different way.

Alison Bechdel is so intelligent, and funny, and snarky, and deep, and damn unlucky (or lucky, depending on how you see it). It’s bad enough that she grew up in a funeral home (hence the fun… home), that the atmosphere was gloomy and emotionally distant, that her father and mother didn’t have a really loving relationship, that her father was weird and lonely and strict and depressed all the time, but it’s even worse, in my book, after she became self-aware and could acknowledge her sexuality and be public about it, that her father died in difficult circumstances and that she understood finally that he was secretly gay all along. Wasn’t she lucky to have been born in an age when coming out was a possible option, when her father clearly didn’t see it that way?

This book circles around the layers of secrets that were wrapped around this family and this man so tight that the truth could never be out. It strips away layer upon layer, goes back and forth between periods of her life, as she could re-read her whole childhood with a new key of understanding that gave a new meaning to every incident (especially the bizarre circumstances of her father’s death, that could be an accident or a suicide). The book is not an easy read, not because of the heartbreak (which is real), not because of the psychological misery, but because it is intellectually challenging. There are many literary references (you don’t need to have read Joyce to understand it though), and a lot of Freudian material, and more than once you feel that she over-analyses some events of her life, but to me it was more fascinating than annoying.

I was told that there is a musical made out of this graphic memoir, which is perplexing to me as I cannot fathom how so many layers can be translated into songs and scenes, but I’m intrigued. Has anyone seen it?

 

The One with the Mariachis

Michael Connelly, The Burning Room (2014)

I usually read one Connelly every few years and upon finishing it, with a little satisfied sigh, I wonder every single time why I’d waited so long before reading another one. Well, this time I acted upon it and went for a second helping of Bosch goodness within the same season!

It is my understanding that “The Burning Room” follows rather closely, if not immediately “The Black Box”. In French, each title was so different from the original that I kept confusing them. “Mariachi Plaza”, for “The Burning Room”, in reference to the first cold case Bosch tackles in this book, a random shooting of musicians in an open ground, apparently linked to gangs, while the English title refers to the second cold case Bosch is introduced to by his new partner, a young female Mexican-American detective named Lucia Soto, who investigates the criminal arson that resulted in the death of several children in an illegal daycare.

I liked the interactions between the seasoned, slightly jaded and cynical detective and the rookie detective who has to figure out the right moves in the job. I can’t say it was fully surprising or original, but you get what you expect and you’re not disappointed, which is the whole point of comfort reads, isn’t it? Of the two I read last year, I did prefer “The Black Box” because of Bosch, revisiting his own actions in the past, but this one is a classic. And the good news is, if I start reading them in order, the next one in the series is actually a Mickey Haller & Bosch investigation. What a treat for 2018!

Six Degrees of Separation: January Game

January is already halfway through, and although I have been known to wait until the last minute to play along, it’s high time to join Kate’s meme from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest.  This month’s starting book is No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith.

I don’t think I have ever read one of the mysteries of this series on paper, but I have listened to them all, as they were dramatized and broadcast by BCC Radio 4 extra, the British literary radio (for lack of better definition), back before podcasts became the thing to listen to. I used to be an avid listener of this radio online, and somewhere in 2016 I kind of lost the habit. I loved the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency light mysteries, they’re the epitome of cozy, entertaining mysteries. Nothing stressful, and easy exoticism. This might be a good as well as a bad thing, depending on your mood and degree of seriousness.

Which makes me jump to another series, even lighter if possible, and also dramatized by BBC Radio 4 Extra, Agatha Raisin, by M.C. Beaton. For some reason, the title of the first mystery, Agatha and the Quiche of Death, never fails to make me smile. This is my kind of humor, I guess. It didn’t spoil anything that Agatha was played by Dame Penelope Keith, who is the quintessence of a British lady. I read a few, listened to a few more, until they all mixed happily together in my brain like British mushy peas.

Of course, Agatha Raisin made me think of Agatha Christie, and Penelope Keith was indeed the main character in a 1980s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s play The Spider’s Web, which I watched recently, but it was not a book so I chose The Body in the Library instead, because if you go the cozy way, dead bodies have to be found in the library, where else? This one is a Miss Marple’s early mysteries, published in 1942 and set in one of those quintessentially British manor.

Which made me think of another British manor and a book published right before the war, The Priory by Dorothy Whipple, published by Persephone Books. To say that it is one of my favorite books is a vast exaggeration, but it is a great reading experience, although it seems such a small and banal story from the outside that it’s hard to explain.

My next book has to be a Persephone Book too, my favorite of those, the short story collection Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, written between 1939 and 1944. War worries, food restriction, fear and evacuations are underlying themes, but just as Dorothy Whipple, Mollie Panter-Downes excels at taking tiny, mundane details to highlight her point.

I could have continued with some wartime diary, but instead I choose to remain very British and to go with Sylvia Townsend Warner and her novel Lolly Willowes. In fact, I have a short story collection of hers that I have to finish this year. Lolly Willowes starts all prim and proper, with a spinster that could be friends with Miss Marple, until her love for nature, her rebellion against conventions turns her into a witch (revealing her true self, and unleashing her deep power, of course). I absolutely loved it.

To stay on British soil until the end, with dark and powerful forces revealed through innocuous-looking women, I think of Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane. Neil Gaiman lives in the US but he was born in the UK, and this story is reminiscent of old fairy tales and magic tales woven through Celtic traditions or classics such as Lord of the Ring. It is a fairy tale for adult, because it’s scary and dark. It’s quiet a departure from Alexander McCall Smith and Mma Ramotswe, but I guess strong women with lots of wisdom is the common ground of these books.

What’s your take on this game? Where will Mma Ramotswe take you?

 

The One with Polish Past and Prejudice

Zygmunt Miloszewski, A Grain of Truth (Polish 2011, English 2013)

If you happen to be in Rouen, as soon as you’ve finished checking out the famous cathedral and the Gros Horloge medieval clock building, I suggest you drop all touristy pretense and head towards the huge indie bookstore L’Armitière. Last time I went to Rouen I didn’t even made it to the cathedral, but I didn’t miss the bookshop.

Their selection is impeccable on fiction, children’s lit, but the nicest discoveries I made were in the crime corner. I let myself be tempted by authors I hadn’t heard of because I knew it could be a nice surprise. I bought this Polish crime thriller and I wasn’t disappointed.

This book is the second novel featuring prosecutor Teodor Szacki, but it reads nicely as standalone. Apparently in the first book, Teodor Szacki was working in Warsaw, but in this book he has recently moved to a small town after his divorce. In Warsaw, it seemed a good idea to move to Sandomierz, a picturesque (real) town halfway between Krakow and Lublin close to the Byelorussian border. Prosecutor Szacki is an important figure in this bourgeois town. But as he settles down far from his ex-wife and daughter, he discovers that the grass isn’t greener elsewhere and he’s essentially bored. Big crimes are not a frequent occurrence in a small town, when suddenly the bloodless body of a woman is found on the grounds of the old synagogue (destroyed in WW2). The way she’s been killed evokes the persistent urban legend of Jewish ritual killings (blood libel). This is hot stuff in a city where people still struggle with the Antisemitic past, where Holocaust survivors have been “greeted” with more pogroms at the end of the war, and where prejudices are still running wild in the background.

I liked the setting a lot, and the political and social commentary. I liked them even better than the plot itself, which at some point seemed to lose a bit of steam (but I’m a stickler to boring middles, before the plot starts to gather speed again to tie most knots happily together). Yet, the glimpse we get on the Polish psyche is totally worth the read. Characters are often moping around and complaining, which makes them not particularly likeable, but at least true to life. Catholicism, nationalism, Polish resistance against Nazis and/or against Communism, post-communist restitution and/or reconciliation, all these themes are handled deftly as we get to see what it means practically in people’s lives, generation after generation.

I didn’t pick the first book in the series because the plot seemed to be centered on sexual exploitation and human trafficking (confirming the darker orientation of his writing), but I might try it after all.