John Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016)

I never thought I would say something like that about a Harry Potter book but this one left me “meh”. It sure isn’t awful but there’s nothing to rave about either. Mostly, it felt a bit pointless. The Deathly Hallows offered to all fans a climax and a closure; it’s really tough to have anything come after that.

So what can The Cursed Child offer? A revisit to best loved characters, almost twenty years later. Time is not kind to anyone, and fans probably hate to see the kind of adults Harry, Hermione, Ron and the others have become. I don’t mind so much, but the whole thing about parenting is hard felt rather heavy-handed.

It offers also a new visit into famous moments of the canon, thanks to time-travel devices. But after the first moment of surprise the whole time-travel thing feels more like a gimmick. (And we all know that I’m not allergic on principles to time-travel in literature) Even my son commented that there was enough back-and-forth to give you motion sickness. The plot itself was not really what I expected of J.K. Rowling. There are really implausible parts (I don’t want to go into spoilers, but there’s a particular awkward detail that really beggars belief), inconsistencies and some predictability, which does not make for a good cocktail.

I love the Harry Potter series (still love it despite this one, which I don’t really consider part of the story), and I transmitted this love to my elder son, so that was only logical that I would buy him this book. It was perhaps a fault of mine that I didn’t read it before giving it to me. My son rather enjoyed it (but not to the degree of the rest) and when he told me to read it, I added it to the pile… for a full year and then more (to my shame). I picked it up for the Summer reading challenge (#20BooksofSummer organized by Cathy from 746 Books) because I wanted to something easy and light. In that respect it was alright, and it was entertaining in a fully nostalgic way, plus it was a good opportunity to talk again about Harry Potter with my rapidly-growing teenager.

I have a mild curiosity about how all this magic and time travel translates onto the stage but I surely wouldn’t pay a fortune to get tickets.

Els Beerten, Allemaal willen we de hemel (2008)

French Title: Nous voulons tous le paradis (2015) – Paradise is what we all want

Now it’s clear that I miss a system that tells me easily where I’ve first heard about a book, but it’s safe to say that this book has been in my TBR list for years, since 2017 actually (that’s when I added it on Goodreads): a book about war in Belgium is not that common. This is a young adult novel, but I’d say it has enough complex situations and all sorts of nuances to suit most adult readers. In France it is published in two volumes but the author originally published it as one. And by the way, after having researched my blog and my notebooks for hours, I’m officially reverting to using the title of the book as the post title, because it’s just way easier. It’s probably for the best if I spare the blog world my silly puns…

The story is told in short chapters that switch narrators and timeline. The shtick is that it never says who is speaking, you have to deduce it. There are 4 characters speaking in turn: Jef – a teenager in 1942, whose family believes that if they keep their head down and steer clear from the German (Nazi) occupying forces, they will be ok, and so they don’t want to have anything to do with resistance against the Nazis either. Ward, Jef’s best friend, whose father committed suicide before the war, and whose mother manages the village’s grocery shop. Renée, Jef’s sister, is secretly in love with Ward. And last, Rémi, Jef’s little brother, who is fed up with being always “the little one”. Ward plays the saxophone like nobody else, and all are united by music and friendships, until something happens that makes even the name of Ward taboo in the family and the whole village. As we dive deeper into the story of this broken friendship, we understand that Ward has been lured into the Nazi ideology and has volunteered to join the ranks of the Flemish troops on the Eastern front, to fight against the Soviet Union alongside the German Nazis.

At the end of the war, scores are settled. Jef is the village’s hero for having helped the resistance on one special occasion, and Ward has disappeared. When he returns in 1947, after having passed as a German for years, he will be judged and sentenced for treason and collaboration with the Nazis. But nothing is as clear as it seems. Why did Ward go away? Why didn’t his friends stop him? What happened between them? Ward was heavily influenced by the local schoolmaster and the Catholic priest to enlist in the Nazis troops; they appealed to his faith and his willingness to defend his people. But he was not the only one under influence, and lies and naivety have tragic consequences all around.

Flanders is the part of Belgium that doesn’t speak French (Wallon), they speak Flemish, which is not Dutch either (don’t go and vex people all around!). Nazis considered Dutch and Flemish as almost Aryans, so that they held both countries under their direct leadership and tried to foster nationalism to enlist people into the Nazi ranks (as second class citizens nonetheless). Which worked to a certain extent, especially as Flemish had been despised by French-speaking Wallons for decades. And as a full disclosure, my husband’s family is Flemish from the French border.

The novel is a tragedy of many layers and nuances. It is really heart-wrenching and I couldn’t wait to turn the pages to understand each of the characters’ choices and destiny. It’s too bad it’s not available in English, because I feel that it would be such a good book club choice.

The One of the Last Minute Before

Florian Illies, 1913: Der Sommer des Jahrhunderts (German 2012, English: The Year before the Storm, 2013)

This is a funny book about a time that was all too serious. It borrowed it on a whim from the library, and I must say that I went in and out of it rather than reading it from the first page to the last. The premises of the book are easy: to recap month by month, day by day, what happened to people (famous ones, or people who would have some reasons to be famous later) on that innocent year of 1913, a bit more than a century ago. Of course, this is a literary ploy, as the book was ready to be read in 2013 exactly. But even if I missed the mark by… 8 years (!), it’s still very interesting.

We see Marcel Proust writing La Recherche du temps perdu, but we also see some guy learning to play the trumpet, a boy named Louis Armstrong. We see Kafka being miserable after a failed marriage proposal. We see a guy named Hitler painting rather badly. It’s a lot of anecdotes, some silly, or mundane, some marked by melancholy and a sense of foreboding. The tone is ironic and the anecdotes pivot from one to the next on a pun or a mere coincidence. And coincidences run aplenty. Famous people cross each other’s path, they go to famous painting exhibitions, react to scandalous new art performances (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring), admire each other or insult each other.

It is a geological section of the world on any given year… and what a year! To enjoy this book, you need some knowledge about German writers and painters from that particular period, otherwise I’d say that it would seem rather mundane and even pointless… or you’d need to spend a lot of time on Wikipedia (well, that might be a choice for the weekend, but consider yourself warned). At that period, everyone was keeping a detailed journal, or so it seems, and so some famous writer’s toothache is reported alongside an intellectual dispute over the meaning of life, since they happened the same week of 1913. It really sent me down a rabbit hole of thoughts. In 1913, there was only 1,6 billion people on earth, now we humans are probably 7,8 billions, what kind of a book could be written about 2020, or rather 2019, if we take the same approach? What anecdotes would make it to a book written in 50 years’ time with perfect hindsight? I wonder…

The weakness of the book is that it’s awfully Germano-centric. The whole world of 1913 happens between Berlin, Vienna, Prag, and Paris. America is seldom mentioned, and Africa, Asia, South America, the Pacific are not mentioned at all. But still, it was a lot of fun.

If you want an audio companion to this book, try Radiolab’s episode: Dispatches of 1918, which looks at a special year across the globe (in Germany, but not only there), to see the aftermath of the war and of the flu epidemic. To think that this episode happened only 5 years later than the book sent me to a whole other rabbit hole… 🐰

The One with the Mumbai Fiancee

Anisha Bhatia, The Rules of Arrangement (2021)

The life of wealthy Mumbai young women is full of luxury and modern amenities, but for some matters it is still governed by traditions, especially when it comes to marriage. A young woman must marry before she is 25, to a young man presented to her by her parents, and she must smile, be thin and fair-skinned. She can’t be overly interested in her career, she can’t utter her opinions in front of prospective in-laws, she can’t paint her nails black and fart when doing yoga.

I downloaded the review copy of this book expecting light romance, but this is slightly misleading. While the book indeed has some tropes of the genre (happy ending, love triangle, office romance…), it is more about a young woman breaking away from social conventions and family expectations to forge her own destiny. The love story is not really the center stage here.

Zoya is very good at her marketing job, but she is fat and dark-skinned, and her chances of marrying well are shrinking fast, to the despair of her family, especially her mother and aunt. Zoya can’t really say no to them both as they conspire to get her married to a wealthy young man. It doesn’t seem to matter that he is actually a health and fitness freak, while Zoya doesn’t do sport, that his calorie-counting mother wants her prospective daughter-in-law to stay home and dutifully have kids, while Zoya dreams of New York. It doesn’t matter that the young man might have a few skeletons in his cupboard, especially when Zoya’s family may have been totally lying when presenting her as well. Indeed, this is not a match made in heaven.

There were quite a few weaknesses in the book, starting with this weird pigeonholing in the wrong genre. Secondary characters are rather schematic, the pacing is a bit uneven and the ending predictable from the get-go. Some scenes seem more than implausible (but plausibility and romance are not known to go hand in hand). Also, I can’t avoid mentioning that the novel is not even attempting to sugar-coat the fatphobic remarks that Zoya encounters every day from everyone, including in her own train of thoughts (Zoya is a strong character but nowhere near perfect). I understand that the book might not be for everyone but I guess it’s a reflect of Indian culture as well.

Still, The Rules of Arrangement has redeeming qualities. I really enjoyed the immersion in Indian culture (and that the author expects us to take it in stride, instead of dumbing it down with too much exoticism). We might have come in for a Bollywood glittery story, but we get to see how much stress and sadness there is behind the curtain for the women. I enjoyed how the writer shows the complexity of mothers and aunts who put pressure on daughters to perpetuate a tradition they themselves were also victims of.

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

The One with the Artist Bride

Nathalie Leger, La robe blanche (French, 2018; English Title: The White Dress, 2020)

I first heard of this writer and this book from Reading Indie’s newsletter, and I was sort of piqued that I’d never even heard of a French writer.

The White Dress is the sort of book that resists categorization. It’s probably an essay, although it could also be a novel intercepted with real facts. The narrator may be Nathalie Léger herself but I can’t say for sure, even though I will assume so in this post. She hears about the artist Pippa Bacca through the news and becomes obsessed with her. Pippa Bacca is a young performance artist, who left her native Italy in early 2008 wearing a bride’s white gown to travel across Europe depending on people hospitality and kindness. It was an artistic gesture of hope and trust, trying to meet people along the road from Italy to Jerusalem crossing the Balkans (just a few year after a terrible war) and Turkey. She hitch-hiked from place to place, and wherever she stopped, she met with local people and midwives and explained her artistic endeavor for peace, filming herself to document her trip.

Unfortunately, after a few months, Pippa Bacca meets a tragic death in Turkey, raped and murdered by a man who has taken her for a ride. Her idealist quest for peace has ended in senseless violence. Even worse, the murderer stole her video camera and filmed the wedding of one of his own relatives. It is both shocking and senseless, and Nathalie Léger never tries to give definite answers to all the questions that this event raises. What was Pippa trying to demonstrate? What about this wedding dress? Was she naive, religious or something else? Léger refers to a lot of other female performance artists and interrogates what is performance art and what are female artists attempting with these quests. I am personally fascinated by Marina Abramovic‘s performances, and I am aware that for most of these pieces, artists don’t provide a ready-made explanation of what they want to do, so as a reader you’re left with the mystery, even more so as Pippa is no longer alive.

The book has a second story line about the narrator’s own mother and her attempt to come to terms with a fault divorce. Léger’s father sued her mother for divorce, humiliating her publicly, and she never could defend herself. Along the book, we see the daughter and the mother getting closer to one another. It’s a bit confusing at first because the two lines of the book are apparently nothing to do with each other, but when I finished the book I could see it as an exploration of different aspects of violence against women.

I really enjoyed this book, even though it is very different from what I’m used to read. I find similarities with Patrick Modiano’s Dora Bruder, which is a personal inquiry into a real person, dead a long time ago, and how mysterious the life of others can remain despite our attempts. The White Dress is a part of a trilogy; I look forward to read the two other parts.

PS. The White Dress is available in English from the Dorothy Project, as are the two other books in the trilogy.

The One with the Metal Detectorists

Elly Griffiths, The Night Hawks (Ruth Galloway #13, 2021)

This is only my second Ruth Galloway mystery but I am already invested in this tightly-knit community of interesting characters – and I also know that this book won’t be the last I read in the series! I discovered Ruth Galloway and her little Norfolk village in March with #11 (yes, I know, this is not reasonable) and this one is #13, but I could catch up without any problem. I won’t say the book can’t read as a standalone, but if you do, be aware that you might soon get addicted like me and that you’ll want to read the rest!

Ruth Galloway is an archaeologist (and now the head of her university department), and so to her, metal detectorists are just annoying amateurs who are messing around and messing things up. I’ve hardly ever seen metal detectorists in my part of the world but I had never thought they actually could find real historical artifacts! But here, not only do they find an old burial site on the Norfolk coastline, but they also discover the body of a recently deceased person. And this person may not have died of natural causes… That’s one of those (happy?) coincidences where Ruth Galloway finds herself once again at a crime scene at the same time as DCI Nelson, who is also the father of her child.

I let myself being entertained by a mystery full of twists and red herrings, but I cared less for the whodunnit than for the interactions between the large cast of characters. Is Ruth going to enjoy her new position at work? Why is her newly recruited professor so cocky? Will Nelson ever consider retirement? What kind of Norfolk tradition and old tales will the mystical druid Cathbad refer to this time? How is it possible for a druid to be happily married to a police inspector? Where is Clough? (that one may have its answer in volume #14 that I missed). Thanks to Griffiths’ great skills at characterization and witty dialogues, I actually cared about this small world as if all these people really existed. (I do wonder how she keeps track of all these people though…)

The book will keep you turning the pages late into the night, and if you’re anything like me, Norfolk coastline will probably be added to your list of destinations to visit one day.

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

The One with the Tokyo Esperanto Poet

Tessa Morris-Suzuki, The Lantern Boats (2021)

I have been lured to this book on Netgalley by the gorgeous cover and the historical setting: Tokyo 1951. I had understood that it was a murder mystery (someone indeed dies), but it was a misunderstanding (all my fault): it’s mostly a thriller, albeit a slow one. And I’m not saying this to discourage you from reading it: it was quite a good read and an engrossing story, held together by good characters and a solid historical background.

In this novel two points of view in this novel alternate but barely intersect in the same streets of post-war, US-occupied Tokyo. One is Kamiya Jun, a young man, orphaned from a fishing community not far from the Soviet empire, a survivor from the war and other hardships, a man who has worked for many bad guys and can only count on his own resources. Kamiya is given a dangerous mission, then another, and then he’s given a rather simple task: follow a woman and report on her to his masters.

The second point of view comes from Elly, a Scottish Japanese woman who is married to a British journalist. Elly is a nice housewife who wished for a baby but couldn’t get pregnant. Her husband spends a lot of time out, and Elly begins to suspect that he has more than a professional interest for the woman he’s interviewed several times, a Japanese poet who has chosen an Esperanto name for herself, Vida Vidanto, and who has spent the war in China with Communists.

The book is original because there are none of the expected Japanese clichés. The author doesn’t shy away from the complex situation of histories and her characters are all rather unusual. Elly has a mixed culture and hardly fits into the traditional Japanese society or among the expat crowd. Kamiya also is a loner and an outsider. At some point we get to meet a Japanese-American soldier, but rather than going all patriotic, he confesses that his family was sent to one of those infamous US internment camps during the war. Kamiya seeks refuge in a Korean boarding house in a slum, literally with the outcasts of Japanese society. And Vida Vidanto herself, who comes from a privileged Japanese family, has turned her back away from them and chosen a life with Communists and other marginalized communities.

The book is fascinating as it brings to life a rather murky period of Japanese history and shows many little-known facts about the American occupation and the Cold War. Learning from the postface that some parts of the story are based on historical facts really gave me even more appreciation for this book.

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

The One with Obsessive Journalism

David Grann, The Devil & Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness & Obsession (2010)

This book was among the new acquisitions at the library and the name Sherlock Holmes was enough to make the book jump into my arms. Since my teens I’ve been a sucker for all things Sherlock, and while I’m very aware that this is totally fiction (I know that some die hard fans may not be aligned) the idea that these were real investigations related to Sherlock Holmes was fascinating to me.

In truth, the title is rather attention-seeking and even misleading. Only one story is related to Sherlock Holmes and the others stray rather far away. The common link is about quirky, often intense people stuck in weird, life-engaging situations. And the author dives into each case with an engagement bordering on obsession.

There’s the scientist who wants to find the giant squid (or raise its babies) even if it means fishing nights and days in a storm and getting bankrupt. There’s the Haitian military leader in exile who has committed violent terror against its fellow countrymen, but has been supported by the US and even allowed to settle down in the US. There’s an arson expert who might save or damn a prisoner on death row. There’s an astonishing case of faked identity. There’s this Manhattan firefighter who miraculously survived 911 but who is consumed by guilt and grief because he can’t remember how he saved his life. There’s this group of workers and engineers who work underneath New York to keep the water network flowing (engineering stories may seem boring from the outside but this one is positively hair-raising – also, claustrophobic please abstain). There’s this Polish man who might be a genius avant-garde writer, or just a sociopath killer who could not resist writing the story of his crime into a book.

Not all stories sucked me in but most did have a page-turner quality: it was a great new reading experience for me, as I read little non-fiction and that such in-depth investigations printed in tiny fonts in The Atlantic or the New Yorker or similar periodicals where they were initially published can’t sustain my attention.

Make no mistake, when the subtitle speaks of tales of murder, madness, and obsession, the obsession is as much for the journalist himself as for the subject of his investigation. All in all, I found that David Grann could well be a modern day Sherlock Holmes. I will certainly look into investigative journalism with a lot more interest.

The One with the Unexpected Voices of the Steppes

Simon Wickhamsmith, Suncranes and other Stories, Modern Mongolian Short Fiction (2021)

I pride myself of being curious and always ready to try new things, especially when it comes in short fiction (probably because I feel that I don’t commit too much time and energy if it’s bound to be over in 25 pages). But perhaps I am now getting to my limits. Talking about treading out of my comfort zone, this short story collection has been really challenging and puzzling.

I don’t think it’s the editor / translator’s fault, but I found very little to relate in any of those short stories. Wickhamsmith tries to give a large overview of the diversity of Mongolian writing throughout the 20th century, and he does it quite well in 27 stories that are very diverse in topics as in style. The English translation reads effortlessly, and there’s a useful glossary on Mongolian terms, but I could understand most of it from the context anyway. We get a bit of poetic / allegoric, a creepy ghost story, some love stories, some about family relationships… There’s also a very useful postface on each author and his/her context, but I really would have preferred to have it in a preface as most of the book felt like jumping in the pool feet first without really knowing how to swim.

I could say that I know nothing about Mongolia but that would be lying. The extent of my knowledge comes from my Asian studies and a summer internship program in 1997 where I was supposed to be churning out reports on Mongolia, but on that fateful summer Hong Kong returned to Mainland China and the Asian financial crisis hit many (other) Asian countries and my interest went far away from Mongolia. My understanding is that from the Chinese point of view, Mongolia is the poor hillbilly neighbor, although in historical terms the countries’ fate were intertwined (Genghis Khan was from Mongolia and Mongol dynasties rules over China for centuries) – and in economical terms, Mongolia depends very much on China. That I knew, but I had somehow missed the part where Mongolia had been heavily influenced by the Soviet Union, its other powerful neighbor.

That is why many stories in the beginning of the collection lean heavily on the socialist realist vein, and are clearly influenced by the later Russian literature. It’s hard to get passionate nowadays about stories speaking of production quotas and five-years-plan, although having read the equivalent Maoist stories I could get my bearing, if not my enthusiasm.

I was favorably impressed by the importance of nature in many of those stories. Pastoral nomadism is shown in its beauty and its hardships equally, and that’s the part I enjoyed the most. Other stories didn’t resonate with me at all, and I could not even get what I was reading. But again, this is entirely my fault. So this collection is a hit-and-miss for me, but I don’t regret trying.

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

The One with the Workers’ Paradise City

David Young, Stasi Wolf (2017)

I can’t believe it’s been 5 years (five! I would have sworn 3 maximum!) since I read the first book of this series. I still remember it quite well, which is a testament to David Young’s skills. I had quite enjoyed this foray into the world of the German Democratic Republic and its criminal underworld, especially as I am old enough to remember it. Young has created a believable character, Karin Müller, full of nuances. She is a police officer with crimes to investigate and murderers to catch, as expected, but her job is way more complicated in a country where crime is not supposed to exist, and where political surveillance applies to all including the police force itself.

This second book picks up a few months after the end of the first one, and I must say that, contrary to many mysteries, I strongly recommend to read the first one before. Karin has refused to work for the Stasi and she’s been punished with a boring cop job in Berlin admonishing rebellious youth. But she’s given another opportunity, away from the capital, in a town where two babies have recently disappeared. Her mission is to lead the investigation to find them asap, without telling any civilian that there actually was a crime. Halle Neustadt (aka Ha-Neu in short, pronounced like the Vietnamese capital) is supposed to be a model Communist town where model industry workers live an ideal life in modern apartments with all the modern amenities (toilets! fridges!). The disappearance of babies has no place in the propaganda, especially as Communist brother leader Fidel Castro will soon come for a visit.

Karin is highly frustrated by all the hindrances the secret police and the party are putting on the investigation, but if she doesn’t toe the line, her desk job awaits her back in Berlin. Soon enough, she suspects that the case is more than a simple disappearance. Her past is catching up with her too, as Ha-Neu is close to her childhood home, where difficult questions have been left unanswered.

I was fascinated by the setting of Ha-Neu and the book sent me right down the rabbit hole of archives photos to see how this socialist city was supposed to be back then and how it still functions now… or not. (Google Ha-neu only if you have some spare time ahead!). I didn’t enjoy the plotting structure as much as the first book, as Young alternates chapters from an unknown voice and chapters with Karin’s investigation, and there’s a lot of back and forth in time. Still, there was enough red herrings (in a red city, sorry-not-sorry for the bad pun) and twists to keep me hooked until the end. I was interested to learn more about Karin’s childhood and back story but it was a bit too easy to guess what was coming on that side.

[Spoilers ahead] The ending made me roll my eyes more than a little. There are far too many coincidences with the personal life of Karin… The poor detective has to give birth to twins with an emergency C-section and then hop out of bed, ride a car, a helicopter and God knows what else to save the day. Sorry but at that point the plausibility was stretched way too far! The research about history may be impeccable, but Young could have asked any woman having had a C-section (which is admittedly way easier than historical research) and she would have pulled down this part of the book before it went to print. It might be a solid digression, but it made me think of the male gaze and of the lack of women in the publishing industry (I would hope that a female editor would have objected too).

Despite its obvious weaknesses I am willing to give the series one more chance to redeem itself, because the setting and the main character are worth it. I am awfully late to the series (which is now at #6!), so have you read the next one(s) and does it remain as enjoyable?