The one with the wise ram from Wales

Carol Swain, Gast (2014)

When I have a cold I am a grumbler. (I apologize in advance for any unjustified rant, only likely to be interrupted by a sneeze and a cough… lucky you, safe on the other side of the screen!) But I was a grumbler about this book even before I got this head cold. This book was so inconvenient! Huge and heavy, how was I supposed to lug it around from my workplace library to my home and return? It seemed hardly worth it.

The art (charcoal pencil) was so gray and seemed so slow, each tiny vignette for a switch of point of view, an exchange of looks, a silence after a question, a scribbled note on a notebook. So few words, as if the writer had nothing to tell!

But after a few pages like that, my own reading pace slowed down to accommodate the special, minimalist tone of graphic narration.

Helen is a lonely teenager. Her family has recently settled down in Wales and her parents give her free reign to explore the territory around their house (she has been known to bring back skulls of dead animals). She likes to take notes and sketches in her notebook about animals. One day a farmer neighbor tells her that a very special bird called Emrys committed suicide close to their home. She starts to investigate, and there…

She asks questions to the neighboring dogs and they politely (well, rather grundgingly) oblige her. One dog tell her that Emrys had no feather. (Yeah, there’s no content warning before this one slips into a quiet, everything-is-normal variety of magical realism)

Dogs are not the talkative kind, but they advise her to talk to the wise ram. Turns out that the bird who died was actually the neighbor, a lonely farmer who raised sheep and liked to use makeup and cross-dress.

There’s little hope and little warmth in this graphic novel. Countryside is not romanticized (I’ve been to Wales, and in real life it’s a lot more beautiful and people are nicer!). Sheeps get slaughtered, villagers are not particularly kind to transvestite neighbors in their midst  or to newcomers, dogs can’t even stop themselves from biting in the middle of a conversation. But the girl is tenacious and has decided to understand Emrys at the best of her ability. Helen is a great character, non-judgmental and quiet, and we never know if she imagines talking to the animals or really can do it. At the end she finds a little warmth in (who would think so?) a small town and in the woman serving meals at a local diner.

The story is told from a distance, yet it has a generosity and empathy for the world’s beauties and imperfections. A really nice discovery.

The one with the darkest fairy tales

Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013)

I was told several times by fellow friendly bloggers and commentators that I should try Neil Gaiman, and my best guess is that Emily recommended him to me first. It took me ages to listen, because he’s not really well-known in France and the only name that he’s known for is the movie Coraline which I wrongly pegged as another version of The nightmare before Christmas. I can almost see you shake your head in disbelief, but I must blame either a very wrong timing or a very wrong marketing campaign for this old mistake.

Anyway, I stumbled upon this book at the library and the detail that made me try it is that it won an adult literary prize. I wasn’t particularly in the mood for a YA, but I’d say some magical realism would make this fall more alluring. I was in for a wild and  fast ride! I literally fell into the book and couldn’t let it go.

The voice was really what kept me in: that of an adult looking back at his own self as a 7-year-old child with wide-opened eyes, nothing rosy or nostalgic. It reminded me of the little girl from A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok who read about myths larger than life to understand her troubled daily life during WWII. Here the hero’s daily life is grim and tragic, but soon turns into a horror larger than life too. The boy’s parents take a lodger who kills the boy’s cat upon arrival, and soon after commits suicide. The boy looks up at his parents and the adults around him but soon discovers how powerless they really are, how frail and messed up they can be, even those who have magical powers like the Hempstock women who live in the farm next door.

I loved how Gaiman puts magic and dark powers lurking beneath the daily routine as if they were entirely normal. As a 7-year-old, many things are a given, unexplained and unquestioned. As readers we are treated the same; we may read the story as a fantasy tale but also as a realist story misunderstood and distorted by the fantasy books that the boy read and by the bad memory of the adult he’s become. We’ll never know for sure, but that too is okay. Some things are better left that way. We’re not told everything, and it feels like Gaiman could have written a book twice longer without exhaust the full history of the Hempstock women, who they really are and what they are fighting against exactly.

I’m not sure where his inspiration comes from, and I feel like he has absorbed lots of traditional tales and myths, but I was surprised to feel immediately comfortable in his world, not that I was reassured. There are a few harrowing scenes, and other rather heartbreaking. This book will stay with me for a while.

The one that breaks another Sherlock taboo

Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (1994)

I fell in love with Sherlock Holmes when I was in middle school, so early in fact that my mother had to ask a special derogation for me to borrow books from the library that were not meant for my age. (I wonder if such a distinction still exists these days, in that period you had to climb behind the librarians desk to a mezzanine, so that they couldn’t miss who went there unauthorized).

The problem is that Sherlock didn’t seem to love me back. He didn’t seem to hold his fellow countrymen in high esteem, even when he condescended to solve their problems, and I don’t even start about his fellow countrywomen. Sherlock doesn’t like women except for Irene Adler, everybody knows that.

Yet Laurie King dared to write the most shocking hypothesis of all (not the one where he’s gay, which wouldn’t disturb anyone these days): the version where he finally meets his female match. A woman so intelligent that they can see eye to eye on such idiosyncrasies as identifying muds origins, playing with their deductive skills, various fight techniques, etc.

This book is the first of a series, and although I read it during our trip to the US this summer and am awfully late at mentioning it here, I have been looking forward to reading more of it ever since.

What I loved about the book is the entertaining and easy prose, the fast pace and the plot with cases and villains in the good old-fashioned late Victorian way. There was deduction, investigation but also hot pursuit, exotic adventures overseas, bombs and conspiracy.

What I didn’t like so much was that Mary Russell herself isn’t really a believable character: she’s so mature at 15 that I mistook her several times for a 25 years old. She’s too perfect in… well in everything. And she just pushes aside poor dear uncle Watson in a shameful way. I understand that it couldn’t really become a trio but I wish Watson wasn’t made into such an old fool as he is. After all, he’s not as clever as Holmes and Russell, granted (who can?), but he was a doctor and a soldier so he’s far from being naive and stupid.

But the few reservations I spelled out here don’t weigh much compared to the fun I had reading the book. My most favorite Sherlock’s continuation remains to this day the BBC series, but since the next season won’t come soon, there’s not much that will stop me from buying the next Mary Russell book when I’ll want some light comfort read.

The one on the sleepless nights of Phnom Penh

Nick Seeley, Cambodia Noir (2016)

I’m deliberately misleading here, because this book is no romantic comedy of any kind, no, it’s black and bitter and strong. Nights in Phnom Penh are definitely sleepless, but while some may be looking for love, a lot more find drugs, booze, prostitution and any other possible vices.

The main character is Will Keller, a photojournalist who has been on too many tragedies and war zones. He vegetates in Cambodia on joints and occasional shots of adrenaline as he gets called on crime scenes or political riots. He’s the traditional noir hero: broken, disillusioned, flawed and haunted.

I would never hang out with someone like him in real life, but on paper, hey, I have absolutely no problem, he’s like Bernie Gunther’s little American cousin.

Even though he understands Cambodia inside out, from the underage sex tourism to the complex local politics mired in corruption and violence, Keller finds himself out of his depths when a young Japanese-American intern at his newspaper disappears and when her sister asks him for help. What has she discovered and more importantly, who is she really?

Cambodia noir is an excellent page-turner. Characters are dark and multi-layered, the pace is brisk and full of surprises. The writing is crisp and efficient, and suitably sarcastic as the genre requires. Moreover, Nick Seeley knows his stuff (he’s a journalist and this is his debut novel), and the book is as informative on Cambodia as it is entertaining. I went to Cambodia in the early 2000s and there were talks of a possible job at a local newspaper there, and I remember both the awe I felt at the wonderful palaces of Angkor and the dark side I was warned against very pointedly by my then-colleagues in Hong Kong. Needless to say, I turned the job offer down.

This book definitely won’t be everyone’s taste, but if you like the genre, it’s good stuff. As far as Asian thrillers go, it will probably get compared to John Burdett but I find them different. Upon reading this one, I doubt you’ll take a ticket for Cambodia immediately, but remember, it’s fiction! And Angkor is something worth seeing in one’s lifetime.

I got this book through Netgalley. It will be published in March 2016 but I’m sure you can pre-order it.

The one where a young girl befriends Jane Eyre and a fox

Fanny Britt, Isabelle Arsenault (illustrator), Jane, the Fox and me (2012)

It took me very little time to read this graphic novel, but as soon as I finished I was ready to start over. At first I thought the book author was French, because it sounded like it, but soon I guessed it was rather a North American story. My guess is Quebec of the 1980s, because kids are sent to camp to practice English, and the boys listen to The Police’s records.

Hélène, the young girl at the center of the book is bullied by a clique of mean girls who suddenly take it against her after having nice to her. What made them change their mind isn’t clear for Hélène, and she finds herself defenseless. There has been an offensive graffiti on her weight scribbled in the toilets. Hélène lacks self-esteem and doesn’t dare raising the issue to her mother who has already lots to worry about. Instead, Hélène gets lost into Jane Eyre, and imagine how Jane would behave in her stead. When Hélène’s class goes to camp, her anxiety worsens and she ends up in the same tent with all the uncool girls. How will she survive camp? Will Jane Eyre be the solution to her problems?

I love the very delicate art of Isabelle Arsenault. The anxiety and loneliness of the character is expressed in the landscape of bleak, monochrome buildings. The handwriting is clumsy and naive. But whenever Hélène turns to Jane Eyre, everything changes, from sad, dark, greyish palette to deep colors, from the block letters to stylish italic. The words are very simple and few, like a prose poem, but you can see and feel so much more through every simple sentence.

It’s a very sensitive way to talk about inner life and the destructive effect of bullying. It will talk to introverts of all ages and to romantic minds. The issue of bullying is very real, but it also talks about loneliness, disconnection and how a new friendship can be miraculous, just as the sudden appearance of a fox in the middle of a wood. It made me remember how passionate a teenager I was when I discovered Jane Eyre. I thought I was the only one to have read such a book and I thought she was speaking to me, even though I didn’t understand everything. This Canadian book, in turn, made me want to re-read Jane Eyre.

The one that added beauty to the darkest hours

Delphine Hirasuna, The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946

I love when the books I read accidentally collide. Of course, you can always argue that it’s not completely serendipity, but that I do search them out and that I am obsessed with a certain subject. I prefer to think that this particular subject is following me.

The latest occurrence happened this summer, but you need to rewind a little more to understand. It started last summer when I read the novella-slash-incantation-slash-historical novel by Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic. It followed a group of Japanese mail order brides from the moment they left Japan for America to the day they had to abandon their American homes in California for internment camps inland in 1942 following Pearl Harbor’s attack. I was enchanted by this book and it gave a memorable voice to a very singular slice of history. The sudden switch of perspective at the end from the choir of Japanese women to the choir of the communities emptied out of all their Japanese members was quite moving.

The second encounter with this particular theme was quite unexpected with James Ellroy’s Perfidia, that explore California in 1941-1942, following the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. If anything, James Ellroy is known for not avoiding painful and controversial subjects and the issue of anti-Japanism racism was quite glaring in the first part of the book that I read (I had to give it back to the library and haven’t taken it again so far), and it showed without ambiguity that some people had seen quite early their own interest in having their Japanese neighbors removed, willingly or not. Both books have a collective view of events, but as much as Otsuka was emotional and focused on women, Ellroy’s tone is male-dominated, cynical and brutal.

The third encounter is this book, which looks like a coffee book table but is really a lot more. The pictures present art objects that were designed by Japanese people while living in the internment camps. The book is bittersweet, because these objects are so beautiful and yet made with scraps and bits of reclaimed materials they saved from their already grim daily routine: twine, bits of wood, shells, rocks… Japanese families were allowed only a few bare necessities and they had to endure a harsh environment for years. They organized arts and crafts classes and groups to beautify their surroundings.

The title word of Gaman means “enduring what seems unbearable with dignity and grace”. The author’s parents and grandparents were detained in these camps and this book is a tribute to their ingenuity and spirit. These traumatic events of being singled out, detained and imprisoned despite their U.S. nationality, are a big taboo in Japanese families and in American schools, so I hear, and I guess that this kind of initiative, along with exhibitions and conferences associated with it, are a big step forward for those who want to know their family history in full and break the silence and shame around it.

The one for comfort and contentment

cover75064-mediumDonna Douglas, Nightingales under the Mistletoe (2015)

NetGalley is for book bloggers what Christmas toys catalogs used to be for kids. You browse through categories, always find something to your liking and lust after some stuff that your parents won’t ever agree to offer you. If you’re not familiar with the system, the thing is that you need to get approval from the publishing house to receive some books (not all though) and I haven’t yet been into it long enough to understand why I’m validated for some and denied others (that bit stings, I tell you!).

Anyway, I requested this title one afternoon when I was clearly in need for comfort. That’s retail-therapy for book lovers on a budget. The book choice is a bit out of character for me, but I have been known to enjoy Amish romances and read Call the midwife, so I’m going to own up to that one too.

This book is part of a series but easily reads as a standalone. I can understand why readers keep asking for more, because the stuff is pretty addictive, like a pink meringue! In this “episode” set in 1941-42, the Nightingale nurses are sent from Blitzed London to a small countryside hospital and they have to adjust to rough conditions, severe matrons and new friendships. The war and nursing environment provides a multitude of diverse profiles and opportunities for romance so that the plot never slows down. There are many different girls from various backgrounds, from the wealthy landlady who wants to be useful after losing her husband at war to the lowly orderly with low self-esteem, from the Irish hot-blooded flirt to the big city girl and each their own melodramatic story. No worry, all ends well, and no PG needed, all stays very chaste!

It reminded me of the movie and TV series Land girls, especially the part where a wealthy country estate is taken over by the army. I had fun while it lasted, and although the book won’t win big literary prizes, it was quite good as an escapist comfort read for colder evenings!

Birgit Weyhe, Im Himmel ist Jahrmarkt (German 2013, French 2014)

This graphic novel is an attempt for author Birgit Weyhe to find who her grandparents were, from tidbits of information (letters, photos and conversations) she collected after their and her own father’s death.

As Weyhe’s teenage daughters have to complete a family tree for a school report, this German graphic artist (born in 1969) discovers she knows very little indeed and starts her own research. The result is this huge black-and-white book on some dark family secrets and how her grandparents, born between 1894 and 1913, went through the tragic German history of the 20th century. In her introduction she candidly confesses that whatever she could not prove, especially people’s thoughts, she imagined in order to fill the blanks of the canvas, as shown in the French cover art.

The strength of this book lies in part in her characters. Weyhe doesn’t try to make her grandparents nice, likeable, or even consistent. There are full of yearnings, shame, secrets, compromises, successes and failures. They grew up during a deeply conservative and repressed era (think Freudian psychosis) that have shaped them all and they have all survived wars and traumatic events. Weyhe as a child took them for granted and didn’t understand or even question why they acted like they did, and she as an adult has this chance to shine a different light on their lives and choices.

Haniel-3There’s Grandma Marianne, who is a strong woman in her own mind: she rebels against the school’s Catholic nuns, decides at a young age to become a milliner and convinces her conservative parents to let her have her own career (no small feast!), but who until the very last days of her life will hide her private wounds of an abortion that has doomed her to hell. There’s Marianne’s sister Lea, who never rebelled but stayed at home, took care of Lea’s children for her but sometimes has flashed of hatred and resentment. There’s Grandma Herta, another strong woman, born in a wealthy family, who married as her father wished, but later fell in love with and married a man who cheated on her shamelessly. There’s Herta’s husband and his brother Carl Friedrich, who received a very strict education and still bore the scars into adulthood.

The strength of the characters’ stories is emphasized by Weyhe’s design. Using ink and brush, her art is a stark black and white, its hand child-like on purpose and she often takes her inspiration in historical pictures, photos or objects. Violent feelings or traumatic events are often presented with symbols rather than realistically, but nonetheless this is no comic book to leave around small kids in my opinion.

Despite having Paradise in its French title and Heaven in its German title, this graphic novel is rather a study in the best and worst of humanity and life during the 20th century. The result is quite memorable, if slightly depressing.

The one with the potty-mouthed nun

Philippe Bouin, Revenge on the River (French 2014, 2012, English 2015)

What are the odds that I would be reunited with Sister Blandine (no less than 6 years after our first meeting) thanks to Netgalley? When I saw that one of those local mysteries set in the Lyon and Saône region has been translated to English and was available for download, I didn’t want to miss this opportunity.

The plot may not be as twisted as a Fred Vargas’, but the characters are friendly, if not totally believable or directly relatable: who can put oneself in the shoes of a female police inspector reformed into a Catholic nun working as a nurse and living in a convent? On second thoughts, who cares only about believable and relatable when it comes to choosing novels?

The son of a local industry magnate is assaulted on his way home from a party. His assailant beats him up and threatens him with these cryptic words: Najuno, remember. This is “obviously” a revenge for an old incident that involved his father’s company in Chile years ago, where toxic waste has killed an Indian tribe called Najuno. But who is the hateful avenger and what does he want? As incidents keep occurring, the question is rather, where will he stop? Sister Blandine can’t keep away from this case especially as she knows both the victim’s family and some suspects.

The fast-paced plot isn’t very deep and it didn’t really manage to convey a sense of tragic urgency despite speaking of really serious events such as an industrial and environmental disaster. But the tone of the story is light and funny and the book is designed to be entertainment more than political denunciation, so I enjoyed it despite its weaknesses. The writer has worked in industrial companies and is careful of never showing a black-and-white picture of company managers and environmental activists. The level of violence is really mild and although Sister Blandine may rise some highbrows, she surely has the proverbial heart of gold, so readers will easily extend grace to her.

One of the strengths of the novel is the local setting in the Beaujolais area where the author lives, and English readers will certainly enjoy escapism in scenes of good meals and good wines that pepper the novel. The French translator has chosen to stay very close to native expressions, especially the most colorful or visual ones, and the language definitely contributes to the boisterous, joyful atmosphere.

The one for all kinds of fish in the ocean

Fish Anthology 2015

I’m terribly late at writing about novels that I’ve finished ages ago, but I have no clue how to review an anthology of pieces selected in a writing contest, so I’ve been putting this off since August. I feel doubly bad because these pieces are really interesting and I am aware that writers are already gearing up for submitting new pieces for the next competition… The clock is ticking my friends, the next short story deadline is actually end of this month!

I’d never heard of the Fish Publishing annual writing contest and its anthologies before Elizabeth Browne mentioned it in her blog “Fog City Writer”. In a rare post of her almost-extinct blog, she mentioned that she was a finalist for her memoir story. I know how well she writes, and the grace of a cheap Kindle edition gave me the impetus to download the 2015 edition.

I am so glad for this chance discovery as it gave me handfuls of new voices in several genres: short stories, memoirs, flash fiction, and poetry. Fish is a publisher in Ireland and their prize is supported by big names such as Roddy Doyle and Colum McCann as honorary patrons. The winning short story of 2015 was “The Pace of Change” by Chris Weldon. I was slow to warm up to this first one, but after that, I really was impressed by the diversity of stories and emotions. I enjoyed it as a reader, just for fun (although some subjects were quite heavy) but also as a writer, because it was nice to have such a range of different writings, especially in flash fiction. It was like jumping from one tiny bubble of raw emotion to the next, and I really slowed down to be able to enjoy each of them.

I’m not ready to enter any kind of competition with my stories, those little lumps of unfinished business, but I’m glad to have been made aware of what’s out there. Have you any other anthology to recommend for its variety and openness?