Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993)

I wanted to read this book for more than one year, but every time I considered it was not the right time. It seemed big (not that big, 345 pages, but I read it on Kindle so I never quite know), it seemed heavy and depressing. Why, then, did I add it to my TBR list? I had enjoyed Kindred tremendously, and I’d loved Octavia Butler’s short stories, as collected by the Library of America. And Parable of the Sower was on my radar ever since the beginning of the pandemic.

The New York Times has a very recent full article on Octavia Butler: The Visions of Octavia Butler, with visually stunning 3D creations (I guess it’s beyond the pay wall, but please give it a try if you can).

In 2020, in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, many readers turned to Butler’s 1993 novel “Parable of the Sower,” which details the journey of a visionary and headstrong teenager, Lauren Olamina, set against a California landscape besieged by climate change and socio-economic crises — so many readers, in fact, that the novel appeared on the New York Times best-seller list, a first for Butler, fulfilling her stated lifelong dream 14 years after her death.

The Parable of the Sower is a very bleak book. It’s hard to pull away from it, but it is also very scary, because there’s so much we can find parallels to in our current world. The setting is 2026 and the USA are breaking down as a result of climate change and rarefaction of resources amplified by political graft. The wealthy are (still) relatively protected but the rest of the country is disintegrating into violence and survival of the strongest. This book should have plenty of trigger warnings.

My heart broke for Lauren Olamina more than once over the course of the book! It’s the first in a series, but I feel that I can’t really read it further for a long time. It is so very American that this apocalyptic book also takes the time to focus on an emerging religion. I don’t think a European or Asian writer would have had the same approach. For me, it was rather distracting from the main story, but I can understand that Lauren, the daughter of a preacher, would need some ideology to build her grit and energy upon. She and the other characters, barely left alive after the collapse of civilization, are all believable (in a painful way)

I totally understand how people would have read this in 2020 with dread, and even more in 2022 with the Russian attack on Ukraine. The idea that social order an political landscape are stable and eternal is dissolving, but I hope we can do something to prevent The Parable of the Sower to become too much of a reality.

Elizabeth Taylor, A Game of Hide and Seek (1951)

I don’t often feel guilty about a blog post, but I’ll make an exception for this book. This book and I haven’t had the smoothest relationship. I wanted to read a book by Elizabeth Taylor because I’d neglected her for too long. This novel was one that belong to my husband and therefore readily available at home. I selected it for the Summer reading challenge, but after reading 20 pages I didn’t really make progress and I pushed it out of my summer list. I restarted it at the end of August with the best intentions but I took me over a month to finish it. Several moments during the first part, I doubted it so much that I might have dropped it, if Laila from Big Reading Life hadn’t given me reassurance that she’d loved it. It was even among her favorites from last year! And yet, more than one month after finishing it, it still lingers in my to-be-reviewed pile.

By now you’ve guessed that it is a slow burning book, the kind that is tough to fall head over heels for. At the beginning, the characters were plain and boring, nothing much happened but a rather silly teenage crush that felt totally unwarranted. Harriet is a shy and socially awkward young woman, not very good at school and living in the shadow of her mother and her mother’s best friend, a brilliant ex-suffragette named Caroline. She works during summer as the companion to Caroline’s young children and meets Caroline’s nephew Vesey, who dazzles her. She falls in love with him, hopelessly, because Vesey is rather careless (uncaring?) and shallow, Harriet isn’t much of a catch to him. He’s more or less sent packing by Caroline and after summer, Harriet ‘s love is lost forever. She marries Charles, a man who is very serious and dignified, the complete opposite of Vesey. Not fun, but he genuinely loves her, while she… Will Harriet ever be able to forget Vesey? In the second part, set about 15 years later, after the second world war, Harriet is a bourgeois wife, and mother to a teenage daughter, when Vesey unexpectedly reappears in her life.

It is obvious that the second part of the book wouldn’t work without the first, but I couldn’t wait for the first to be over. Now, I quite enjoyed the second part, and it redeemed the whole experience. That’s one book I could easily have DNF and missed out on a lot. It asked very pointed questions on marriage and passion, on compromises and disappointments, as opposed to the fiery intransigence of the youth. Would Harriet have led a happier life if she’d been with Vesey all her life? There’s no easy answer, that would be an excellent book club discussion. I was also interested in the 3 generations here, the suffragettes women with high hopes and activism, Harriet and Vesey who both seem to be a disappointment and not as brilliant as their forebears, and the daughter of Harriet, Betsy. Will Betsy manage to live a more fulfilled life than her mother?

I had forgotten how melancholy Elizabeth Taylor could be (as I’d experience in A Wreath of Roses a while back), but I like her character analysis and psychology. There’s also touches of humor (when Harriet takes a small job in a dress shop, when adult Harriet interacts with her housekeeper, or with the Dutch maid who doesn’t understand British people at all). Tayler really has an eye for lonely and yearning characters, and she makes them so real you think about them long afterwards. I will try to remember this for next time, so that I’ll take my time to enjoy the fine lines with the right mood.

Rupert Latimer, Murder After Christmas (1944)

Now when I chance upon a British Library Mystery Classics chosen by Martin Edwards on Netgalley, my hand will automatically request or download the book. I’m always curious to discover one of those forgotten classics and to see why Edwards chose to redeem it. In that particular case, I’m totally won over! It certainly belongs to the category because of its publication date: it’s a wartime mystery with lots of references to the Golden Age mysteries, but it’s not really… classic. More like, unorthodox, at the very least, or a pastiche.

Muder After Christmas has all the ingredients of a classic mystery: an isolated mansion, a rather unpleasant, filthy rich old man with a large cast of relatives, neighbors, acquaintances, all of them with a good reason to wish for some of the old man’s money and with secrets to protect. Add to this a lot of snow, a mounting sense of foreboding, a Christmas party where people come and go, and the dead body of poor dear Uncle Willie discovered in the snow, right after Christmas (it doesn’t count as a spoiler of it’s in the title, right?) But don’t expect to be terrified or anguished at any point!

The tone is clearly comedy, lots of repetition jokes in the first part before the murder (and before Christmas) and quite a number of slapsticks scenes (the policemen jumping into the snow to test some hypothesis). It’s not one of those books where, like in an Agatha Christie novel, you’re given all the cards and clues and you can play detective on your own alongside a dead serious Poirot.

You have to be in the right mood to enjoy this book but if you’re OK to play along there are many parts where you’ll laugh out loud! Of course, you shouldn’t be nitpicking with red herrings. Some accusations don’t quite hold up and some characters are goofy well beyond any pretense of realism and credibility, but I believe that’s not the point of the book. I know nothing of Rupert Latimer but judging by the date of publication and the author’s obsession with mince pies and Christmas food, I believe that he mostly wanted to forget the war for a moment and provide light-hearted entertainment to British readers who certainly had their share of tragedy and deprivation.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

Malachi Whitaker, The Way Home and other stories (2017)

When I pick up a Persephone book I always know I’m going to discover some little-known secret, and if it’s a short story collection, that each of them will have been picked with care. That’s exactly what I felt for this book, although the stories are rather on the low key part. They do not shout for attention, they rather whisper into your ears before surprising you with some twist and leaving their mark in a subtle way.

Malachi Whitaker, from what I learnt in the Persephone introduction, is exclusively a short story writer, she wrote many of them, nothing else, and then none at all. By the 1930s she had stopped writing. Her stories are often sad, even heart-breaking, often about working class people from Northern England (she lived in Yorkshire). It’s not really the uplifting kind of stories, so it should be picked at the proper time (summer holidays weren’t ideal). Several stories are told through the eyes of children, and the voice was impeccable. Grief, unexpected pregnancy, illness, jealousy, family relations, lies, sibling relations, accidents… There’s nothing she seems to *not* write about, in her down-to-earth, unassuming way. I can’t list all those I enjoyed but as they are fairly short (a few pages) it was a treat to read one or two every day (so as not to get depressed).

Now I want to read another Persephone book for the fall! I seem to read one per year but I decided that’s really not enough!

Daphne Du Maurier, The Scapegoat (1957)

I knew I wanted to read a Daphne du Maurier novel over the summer, but I had no title in mind. I let myself be guided by whatever was available in promotion on my Kindle (which is the equivalent, I guess, to choose at random or to let unbridled capitalism exploit me). It was rather a lucky find! Very soon after starting I could not let it go and was thinking about it during my day.

I find the title a bit misleading, or confusing when we start the book, or at least a good starting point for a (book club?) discussion after finishing the book. It’s the story of a switch. John, a middle-aged British history professor on summer break, going through a mid-life crisis of sorts, finds himself in the French back country (French history is his specialty) contemplating a monastery retreat to fill the void in his life. But as he wavers, he gets face to face with his doppelganger, Jean de Gué, a family man, a man with several women around him, an impoverished aristocrat, living in a chateau and owner of a mostly failing glass factory. The man is unpleasant, cunning, but he’s also everything that the narrator isn’t. They have several rounds of drinks together, and next thing he knows, the British man wakes up with a huge hangover in a hotel room, with the other man’s clothes and bags and not a single thing belonging to him.

He could possibly go to the French police and try to convince them of the switch, but he’s tempted to try and live his doppelganger’s life for a moment, convinced that everyone will see through the switch and call him out. But as he’s getting out of the hotel room, everyone calls him “Monsieur le comte”. So over the following days, he gets more and more involved in this other life, tries to understand who the other man is, and then make some changes, involuntary or voluntary.

Although the book starts rather slowly, there’s a very titillating sense of suspense throughout the book (will he be discovered? what should he do? what will his actions cause?) but also psychological analysis and moral dilemmas. The Count himself is like a dark nemesis of Jean. Jean takes his place and plays it like a theater role at first. He discovers who Jean is through the eyes of the persons around him, but when he finds himself a cheating, lying, irresponsible, mean person, he can’t accept that persona and changes the course of actions that Jean would have taken. So the influence goes really both ways. The intrigue gets more complex as the novel advances, and the conclusion is not all black and white.

Just like The House on the Strand took me into a really unexpected territory of time travel and drug, this story is unique and unexpected. I loved it and now want to read yet another Du Maurier very soon!

If you’re curious about Doppelgangers, there’s an article in the New York Times just a few days ago.

Patrick Modiano, Rue des Boutiques Obscures (1978, Eng: Missing Person)

I don’t remember exactly where I read that this book was considered one of Modiano’s best, on par with Dora Bruder. I’m not always in agreement with these ratings but here I totally agree! It also won the Prix Goncourt in 1978, the most prestigious book prize in France. I’m at this stage where I enjoy reading more and more by the same authors, to contrast and compare, and Modiano is particularly adapted to this approach, as his favorite themes are the traces of memories.

Contrary to other of his books where we’re not sure if it’s fiction or non-fiction, this book is a story told by his fictional narrator Guy Roland. We follow Roland in search of his own past and his own identity. A victim of amnesia, Roland was employed in a PI agency in Paris but when his boss retires, he turns his investigation skills towards himself.

The beginning is quite vague, as Roland only follows intuitions (for lack of any concrete lead) and ends up following the guests at a Russian wedding in Paris. He stares at names, at faces in old photos, every time wondering: is it me? what if it was me? Or someone who knows me? The approach is puzzling to the reader too, as we get a bit lost among those names and addresses. Roland meets people and gets vague answers that then take him to new people and new hypothesis. At moments it seems to be getting nowhere, but it actually creates a memory landscape by accumulation of details.

About halfway through we start to see people and circumstances emerge from the fog. It has to do with the war (the second world War in France, the Nazi occupation and the persecution of Jews and foreigners). No wonder people might have had several identities, changing addresses and jobs, making dubious answers or ignoring what happened to their friends.

It is probably easier to read than other Modiano books because it’s a mystery of sorts, with a PI, a quest, leads and red herrings, but it opens up on the reconstruction of a certain wartime atmosphere, and at its widest it even interrogates memory itself, what is left behind after a person or a place has disappeared. It has the trademark Modiano melancholy and style, and more of something approaching a resolution than his other books.

A very interesting analysis of the book (in French, but on Youtube) can be found here

Donna Tartt, The Secret History (1992)

I can safely say that without the podcast Once Upon a Time at Bennington College, I would not have read this novel and I would have missed out on a great read. Would I have enjoyed it as much without the podcast? Surely not. It is also entirely possible that the story of a group of snobbish students in classical studies, inspired by a morally dubious, equally snobbish professor, might have made me roll my eyes.

Equipped with the back story on the university years of Donna Tartt, Bret Easton Ellis and others during the 1980s at an exclusive university campus in Vermont, where eccentricities were the norm, I feel closer to the book and its intentions. I understand better the parallels with Brideshead Revisited which fascinated some students at the time (I haven’t read the novel, and Mr S. claims I have seen the movie version with him but frankly I have no recollection whatsoever 🙄). The podcast draws parallels between fictional characters and real students of Tartt’s class at Bennington, but it takes us readers only so far because we don’t know them, but it serves to highlight the peculiar, decadent and slightly pernicious atmosphere on campus (which might have fostered creativity for some, but didn’t go well in the 1990s when one could say relations between students and professors were normalized).

Now, is it the best novel ever as some claim on Goodreads? I don’t think so, although I understand the appeal for younger readers because of the dark charm of the campus novel with brilliant minds where not all is at it seems (see the recent trend of #darkacademia). It could easily be edited down, and sometimes it comes out as pompous with not much substance behind it (the evil influence of Professor Julian Morrow is alluded to, but he’s so barely present along the novel that one might wonder if it isn’t yet another lie). It’s interesting to compare and contrast with The Prime of Miss Brodie where the teacher is front and center (I feel that I should reread it). Also I was a bit disappointed that Camilla, Francis and Charles weren’t as developed as they could be, given the size of the book, but of course it can also be blamed on the unreliable, selfish narrator.

Let’s not deny that it was a great entertainment and lots of fun! Yes it’s big but after 100 pages or so I simply could not put it down and the pages flew by. Now, should I read Brideshead Revisited or investigate this #darkacademia trend? Or should I try the other Donna Tartt’s bestseller, The Goldfinch? Any recommendations?

Colin Dexter, Death is Now my Neighbour (1996)

It’s really the second Inspector Morse mystery I’m reading, although I’m a long time fan of the TV series Endeavour and the spin-off Inspector Lewis. I have started reading the (book) series with its last book, which was totally random on my part (I found it on a second-hand bookshop). Just as randomly I picked up this one from a little free library, and it happened to be the second-to-last in the series. It appears that fate wants me to go backwards with Morse! Is there a hidden meaning to be found there? 🤔

Of course, if I’d known, I would have better understood the multiple meanings of the title. Death is approaching for Inspector Morse who is not in good health and who doesn’t particularly listen to doctors’ advice. Lucky for us, his investigations always have priority over rest and checkups, but we are aware that he’s not being reasonable and that he won’t really get better at this rate.

But also death is hitting randomly in a residential Oxford neighborhood and at first it doesn’t really make sense. A young woman is found shot in her home, and no motive or suspect seems obvious. To the point that Morse even thinks that the killer might be hitting at random.

As it was the case in the last book I read, I didn’t find that the plot was taken very seriously. It’s a jigsaw puzzle where you have to test a few combinations before getting to the only right one. The plot is complex and relies too much on coincidences. Mostly, it’s Dexter having fun with his character Morse and his sidekick Lewis. Morse offers fanciful theories in all directions, sometimes right and sometimes wrong and then sends Lewis to ask questions. It’s a bit like a version of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, where Holmes would be his insufferable know-it-all self, but then would just been blatantly disproved by facts. You can almost see Lewis/Watson rolling his eyes: “what else will the boss invent next?” There’s even a fun red herring sideline with a tie at a Marks and Spencer’s.

The books have probably aged a little bit, and I was slightly bored at all those beautiful young women fawning over powerful men. I still very much enjoy the quotes at the beginning of each (very short) chapter. It’s one of those books where the French translation robs me of most of the fun. I don’t intend to complete the whole series, but Morse seems to me a good series to return to from time to time, whenever I need a little visit to Oxford.

Agatha Christie, A Pocket Full of Rye (1953)

In her book on Agatha Christie and the family, Sonia Feertchak had mentioned A Pocket Full of Rye more than once for presenting the situation of a toxic family atmosphere. In her book on Agatha Christie and forensic science, Carla Valentine also mentioned this particular novel as using a very unusual poison coming from yew trees.

I didn’t remember ever having read this book, and as it’s becoming increasing rare to find a mystery by Agatha Christie that I’ve never read in my life, I jumped on the chance to read it! All the more as I managed to convince lovely Danielle from Work in Progress to do a read-along, which made it even more fun.

An arrogant and overbearing business man dies over his first cup of tea at the office. Poisoned! The office ladies are in a shock. But it seems that the crime has more to do with his home and family than with the business itself. The detective is confused when he finds in his pocket some rye. Is it a joke, or something more sinister?

This novel belongs to Agatha Christie’s mysteries inspired by nursery rhymes, because uh… why not? There are lots of others like Ten Little Indians, Hickory Dickory Dock, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe. This one is based on “Sing a Song of Sixpence”, which I didn’t know at all before starting the book. No clue if British kids still learn this one or if it’s just weird quirky rhymes dating back centuries:

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie. (…)

The king was in his counting house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.

The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes;
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.

The business man was obviously the king because his name was Rex Fortescue, and then you’ll see by yourself what is the fate of the queen and the maid. It’s so fun to try to find the references, although why would the killer get inspired by a nursery rhyme is not exactly clear. The least I can say without spoiling anything is that I had no idea of the identity of the killer until the very end. Danielle and I shared suspicions but we didn’t get close, even though the clues were hidden in plain sight!

The book was published in 1953 and there are hints at post-war Britain socio-economic context. Also, this is a Miss Marple mystery, but she only shows up halfway through, and under the flimsiest pretext ever! (But we love her, so we forgive her, right?)

Now, all I want to do is to return back to Feertchak’s book and re-read what she said about this one in particular. But no luck, someone has borrowed it from the library, it looks like I’m going to have to wait until summer’s end!

Daphne Du Maurier, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë (1960)

I was surprised to see that my library had this (non fiction) book among the translated novels of Daphne du Maurier (I rather think it’s a mistake as far as classification goes, but a chance for me since I wouldn’t have found it otherwise). As it totally fitted my goal to read more by Du Maurier and more non-fiction (two birds one stone yada yada), I decided to read it, thinking that I already knew a lot on Branwell Brontë. Or did I?

My understanding of Branwell Brontë came from Charlotte Bronte’s biography by Elizabeth Gaskell (read about 15 years ago, and probably skipped a lot) and from a lot of BBC documentaries and movies. I saw him as a useless alcoholic and madman next to his famous sisters, and that they spent way too much money, time and mental energy on him. Now, after reading Du Maurier’s biography, my understanding is a little more nuanced. I never took the time to see the world from his perspective. The brother and the sisters actually all started off in the same creative atmosphere, and they diverged due to… what? Bad luck or lack of stamina? To be pampered and cherished as a precocious genius during childhood, and then failing over and over at any job he could get, and then see his sisters succeed next to him? (Literally next, as they all worked and lived together in a rather small parsonage). No wonder he drank!

Patrick Brontë, the father, chose to not send Branwell to school, because he was too sensitive. That decision seems to have had a disproportionate impact on his whole life, because as much as it protected Branwell and enabled his imagination to run wild, it also cut him from the realities of the world. Yet he was expected as a boy, and a man, to make a living for himself, contrary to his sisters who were destined to be dependent, and therefore inherited money from their aunt.

The irony is that the sisters were better equipped to work and earn a living than he was. In the book we feel (and share) Du Maurier’s frustration at Branwell’s failures and immature behaviors, and then lying his way back to Haworth. It’s like he never grew up, and he seemed to hate this too. It’s not fiction, so I won’t spoil anything in writing about the false affair that Branwell pretended to have had with the wife of his one-time employer. I was really shocked that Branwell’s sisters really believed this and he probably believed his own lies too. He died at age 31, followed very soon by his closest sister Emily, then Anne.

After finishing this book, I’d love to rewatch the historical movie To Walk Invisible, and pay more attention to the brother’s character.