Emily St. John Mandel, The Singer’s Gun (2010)

When it comes to British or American writers, I try to read as much as possible in the original language. Sometimes I settle for the translation, but I always wonder how faithful it is in tone and style. That’s what happened with this book by Emily St. John Mandel.

After falling in love with Station Eleven, and again with The Glass Hotel last year, one of my bookish resolutions was to read more of her books. But Kindle versions were rather expensive, no second-hand book available from my trusted source and no paperback in new versions? My library, on the other hand, has perfectly available copies of most of her books in French… So, I have read “On ne joue pas avec la mort” (One shouldn’t play with death), aka The Singer’s Gun. Weird title choice, right? That’s where my nagging doubts kicked in. Did I miss out on something? I suspect I did, because regardless of the skills of the translator, I couldn’t find the usual dashes of brilliance of the writer’s style, and I missed it.

Still, the story and characters were quite good. It’s a thriller, and a mystery, and a family drama, and a character study all tied together. Here the main character is Anton Walker, whom we first meet alone on an Italian island. He is a newlywed but his wife has left him. He doesn’t seem to have a job. How he came and what he’s doing there will take 200 pages to clarify, but nothing is as it first appears. And as soon as you have peeled off one layer of explanations (often half truths) then another layer starts to appear. Any other way of telling the story would have made me despise or hate Anton, but on the contrary I feel his tragedy and his lack of options and bad decisions. He is weak, but so human.

It is of course a standalone novel, but I can find echos of other books by St. John Mandel. A chorus of people whose fate is intertwined in complex ways. People who lie for good reasons (or not), the get-rich-fast scams (The Glass Hotel), flawed relatives, people who start over and invent a new identity for themselves some place else…

Just like the other books it’s very hard to sum up and to do it justice in a blog post. It’s an experience you have to get immersed in. And it confirmed me in my wish to read all of Emily St John Mandel’s books!

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls (2018)

When this novel came out I knew that at some point I would read it, but I waited for quite a long time. It was because I’d worked on a short story / novella on the same premises: rewrite one of the Greeks classic myths (the Illiad and Aeneid) taking the point of view of one of the anonymous women mentioned in passing (those stories are full of names and details). I loved working on that story, but I didn’t finish it. Having a famous writer write and publish something similar was incredibly validating and somehow frustrating… But now my feeling is that thanks to the attention and time I devoted to the original Greek story, I enjoyed the novel even more!

The tragedy of Troy defeated by the Greeks is here told by Briseis, a woman who used to be a wealthy queen of a neighboring town but was enslaved by Achilles. She is mentioned many times in the Illiad because she’s a disputed war prize between Achilles and Agamemnon. But the Illiad doesn’t let her speak or act, she’s mere chattel and she of course has no say whether she is raped by one or the other glorious hero.

Pat Barker gives her an inner voice and the gift of observation and survival. Briseis has feelings and opinions and she is an actor of her life at different points of the book. Pat Barker also gives a reality of the fate of countless women that were enslaved to male warriors and whose lives depend on them. She describes the camps where soldiers lived and waited for the battle with rats and drunken parties and women in shacks doing chores. This is brutal and violent and does a great job counterbalancing Homer’s epic poetry (his chants are full of blood but the pictures are glorious and beautiful still).

The book is stunning and full of complexity, characters are multilayered and attaching, nothing is black-and-white, even in disturbing places, like when some women end up being in love with their master. But Briseis understand that even though women are basically invisible, their children (born out of rapes from Greeks) will still fondly remember their Trojan mothers. The descendants of the victors are also the descendants of the Troyan women somehow (probably a big difference with modern extermination wars where it was not possible for victors obsessed with racial purity to have kids with their concubines and still acknowledged as their own).

This is not a fun book but indeed a memorable one. I see that Pat Barker went on to write more about the fate of the Trojan women but given how gruesome this might be, I’ll prefer to wait before trying it.

Mark Stay, The Crow Folk (2021)

This is one of those books whose cover was calling out to me at the bookshop. In my edition, there’s a subtitle: “June, 1940. Rationing. Blackouts. Witchcraft.” which was really brilliant. And it’s true, there’s all that. But the execution? Not so much, or at least, not for me.

Faye Bright is the 17yo daughter of the publican in a small British village. She helps her father out and is eager to do her bit for the Home Front if only the men would let her. Her mother died when she was young, and now Faye has found a notebook of hers, which reveals that Faye’s mother might have been… a witch. The village gets under attack, not from German bombers, but for a bunch of creepy scarecrows that seem to have come alive.

It might be only me, but the book rubbed me the wrong way. It’s neither here not there. I couldn’t make up my mind if it was for adults, children or YA. The main character is supposed to be 17, but I couldn’t believe in her. The magical world that is presented here doesn’t make sense to me, and is just juxtaposed next to period details of World War 2, it could easily have taken place at any other moment in time. The bad guys are creepy, but the danger isn’t quite clear, and the war’s dangers are rather abstract too.

Well, guys, I was not convinced. If you want witches and creepy atmosphere in a rural British setting, I’d recommend The Ocean at the end of the lane by Neil Gaiman. It’s a lot darker, even without the need of blackout wardens.

Patrick Modiano, In the Café of Lost Youth (2007)

Now, that’s more like it… After the distasteful / disastrous encounter with Place de l’Etoile, Modiano’s first book, this more recent novel is what most people expect for this author, and it’s a good (albeit melancholy) story.

The focus of the book is Louki, a young woman who used to be a regular patron of a café in Paris, and who died after throwing herself from a window. The book is an attempt to understand her, but also the impossibility to really know who Louki was.

We’re not sure who the narrator is at first, and then once I thought I’d nailed it (a shy young man in the café, probably Modiano’s alter-ego, who many years later will remember Louki), then the voice changes. Sometimes it’s Louki herself, sometimes it’s a private investigator who has been hired by Louki’s husband. Not only does the point of view change, but also the time setting. At some moment we’re in an undefined past (the 1960s maybe?), sometimes we’re in the present and looking back at the past events. One of the good points of this book is the experience of feeling lost (as the title mentions), but it’s probably not for everybody.

The tone of the book is nostalgic but it’s not to say that the past is all rosy. Louki grew up with a single mother who worked at night at the Moulin Rouge and in her absence she took to walking alone in the streets, being arrested for vagrancy. Louki later belongs to a group of friends, but this is very vague, and there’s also some drug addiction involved, contributing to her general despair and loneliness.

The Café of Lost Youth is to me a reference to Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time. Modiano could actually borrow Proust’s title in its entirety. Louki is lost to the now adult narrator, as is the group of people she was with and many buildings and streets of Paris. As the song goes “Paris sera toujours Paris” with its Moulin rouge, landmarks, streets and cafés, but it’s also never the same.

One could also say that Modiano is always telling the same story about the past, but it’s also never the same. And I love it!

Laura Lippman, Sunburn (2018)

A while ago Leila from Big Reading Life got me thinking about TBR and lists kept on Goodreads or elsewhere. I mentioned that I had a “on-hold” list of books that I’d started, abandoned but don’t really want to give up on – and I realized that it was a bit, well, stupid. It really felt that I’d created a “should read” category that would weigh on me and make me feel guilty. High time to revisit that list and get read of it, one way or the other. Either read it or let it go.

Sunburn was one of those books that I had on shelf. As I was going for a break I took it in my luggage and planned to not come back with it, read or unread. So which one do you think it went?

My first reading attempt was stopped before page 100. The story is set in small town Delaware where a private detective is following a young beautiful, red-head woman in hiding. No, stop, it’s not so straightforward: it’s a private detective posing as a cook, working in an old-style diner alongside a runaway woman posing as a waitress. We don’t know what she’s running from and why he’s following her. We have his inner monolog and hers, and I remember being annoyed that much of the thoughts was: I know he knows I’ve lied, but he doesn’t know that I know he knows, so… Far too convoluted if I was tired or not fully focused.

Luckily the second time around, I was more relaxed, more patient (this is indeed a slow burner), and more open to suspending my disbelief. Characters in this novel are shady and not entirely likeable, and the atmosphere it conjures is definitely a noir movie. What is unusual is that for most of the book we’re not quite clear what the crime is. There’s a thick web of secrets and I didn’t see the ending coming. Laura Lippmann is indeed a plot master!

I’m glad I persevered with this book, although as a red-head myself, I’m not a great fan of the mysterious, venenous red-head woman trope.

Catel & Bocquet, Alice Guy (2021)

The tandem of authors, Catel (pseudonym for Catherine Muller) as a visual artist and José-Louis Bocquet as a writer, are now well established in France for creating graphic biographies of overlooked (female) celebrities, like Olympe de Gouges, or Kiki de Montparnasse. Alice Guy is exactly the kind of feminist heroine that needed such a biography.

I’m pretty sure that the name Alice Guy doesn’t ring a bell to most of you, but if it does, kudos to you! Alice Guy is the first female movie producer and director worldwide: she starts creating just 3 years after the first movies are invented by Lumière in 1895. Originally working as the secretary to Léon Gaumont, she had the idea to create fiction movies, instead of real-life scenes, and as those were successful she went on to direct literally hundreds of short movies.

In 1907, she married and left Gaumont to follow her French husband to the United States where they wanted to develop the movie industry, before the rise of Hollywood. She owned movie studios in Flushing NY, then in New Jersey until about 1917, when her husband leaves her for an actress. Alone with kids and penniless, her career in the movie industry basically stops around 1920 at age 50. She dies in the US in 1968, but the history of cinema had long since blotted her out completely. Biographies of Gaumont and others didn’t mention her, and as most of her movies didn’t survive, her role was largely forgotten until the late 1990s where cinema specialists started to hear from her again.

Catel and Bocquet give Alice Guy a well-deserved spotlight. The biography is quite linear and not very innovative in form, but since the information is not well-known, it is very valuable. After the graphic section, a long postface provides a short biography and context for all the people mentioned in the book, it must have been a huge work! I don’t want to rant about patriarchy (again?), but as movies became more and more important and big money was involved, women like Alice Guy who had great ideas and business acumen were pushed to the sidelines, and now female directors and producers are still in the minority.

Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman (2016)

This is my second encounter with Sayaka Murata, and my first oriented my reading of the second. Convenience Store Woman (in Japanese, Konbini Ningen – Human of the convenience store) is a strange literary object. We see the world through the eyes of Keiko, a 36yo single young woman who has worked as a lowly store clerk of a convenience store for 18 years, when most of her coworkers and managers pass before getting something better. Keiko has some difficulty to react the way other people expect her to, to read other people’s emotions or double-entendre. Keiko is probably neuro-atypical or Aspergers or something on the autistic spectrum, as Americans define, but nothing of the sort is ever expressed. Contrary to many American reviewers, I would argue that this is not important.

Sayaka Murata’s novella is a darkly sarcastic attack against Japanese conformism – a theme that was also strongly present in Life Ceremony. People are expected to marry, to get on with their career and onto the property ladder. People who don’t conform have no space, they are criticized by all and shunned by their own family. Keiko’s sister is so desperate for her to show a normal behavior that she pleads and cries out, but when Keiko pretends to have a boyfriend (in fact, an arrogant loser that would probably qualify as an incel in the US and a freeloading roommate), the whole family is relieved.

But to say that this book is only a scathing social criticism would miss the full point, and I even find disturbing that many reviewers on Goodreads find it funny. This is depressing and disturbing, some scenes really crept me out and I rather feared that the story would go off rails into violent or gore territory! Sayaka Murata’s Keiko walks a very fine line between being an odd, quirky, shy character who finds comfort in the ultra-codified little world of the convenience store, and being a perfect doll who interpret humans the way a bot sometimes makes mistakes. In my opinion, the microcosm of the convenience store is also a portrait of soul-grinding capitalism that make employees wear a smiling face and live like machines until they are discarded.

Having read her collection Life Ceremony, I know what Sayaka Murata is capable of: her Convenience Store Woman is certainly not to be underestimated, and if I were you, I’d quickly finish my shopping, not refusing to buy the onigiri she advertises on sales and not linger there after dark.

Jacqueline Winspear, To Die But Once (2018)

My first encounter with Maisie Dobbs was in 2018, when I plunged headlong into the saga at volume 13, just like some people jump all at once in a deep swimming pool, without putting a toe first. I knew the water wasn’t going to be cold, because the series came warmly recommended by lots of readers. Maisie Dobbs saga starts with World War 1, but volume 13 is set in 1939, and the whole arch is to follow the long term ripples of trauma on several generations. I thought it was a good idea to revisit Maisie, and so I downloaded book 14.

Four years had passed in my life (and a pandemic) and I can’t say I thought a lot about Maisie in the meantime. In fictional terms, only a few months had passed and it was 1940 and the catastrophe of Dunkirk. But I was expected to know everything about a whole cast of characters… and it was all too much.

Maisie’s world is a crowded one: Maisie’s close or distant relatives, numerous friends and their own spouses, kids and own relatives, staff of her private detective agency and associated spouses and kids, staff of the wealthy relatives and friends, neighbors (you guessed it, with spouse ans kids)… when it came to pets (luckily no spouse and kids mentioned), I was lost with all those names and story lines. All those characters have their own lives, as it should be, and their own mysteries, as the genre dictates… and by the time the novel started to come to an end, all of those story lines needed to find their own resolution.

What I enjoyed is clearly the historical setting and the fact that with such a large chorus you’ve got an almost representative slice of the British population. The book was interesting and entertaining, no mistake! But it required an effort of concentration and memory that I was not quite ready for. I would really recommend the publisher to put a character list for the exhausted readers. And for pity’s sake don’t attempt this book as a standalone.

Carla Valentine, The Science of Murder: The Forensics of Agatha Christie (2022)

I’m sure I’m not the only one to have quickly dismissed the cozy crime novels for being not scientifically accurate. We read cozy crime novels rather than police procedurals or darker subgenres because we don’t want the blood, the gore and the awful realistic details of a human death. We just want the fun and the plot – and a happy ending. But was Agatha Christine inaccurate in her novels? That’s the question that Carla Valentine, a mortician and certified autopsy technician, sets out to answer. I love all things Agatha Christie, and beyond her own novels, I also read books about her books and about her life: her notebooks, her complex views on dysfunctional families, or even a new take on one of her most famous novels, And then there were none. So when I stumbled upon this new book on Netgalley, I had to read it.

In short, I was not disappointed, although the book was a lot more exhaustive than what I expected. Agatha Christie is known for her fictional use of poisons, a qualification she got while being a nurse in a pharmacy during World War 1. But she was not a chemist behind a desk, she saw a lot more action than what I’d thought, and so she had practical experience of the blood and gore and all those pesky, dirty, often smelly details. All of which were not considered suitable for literary consumption, and one can conclude that she omitted all of them in order to make her books fun, not because she didn’t know.

Carla Valentine examines one by one all the forensic aspects of deaths in Agatha Christie’s novels. There is even a full list of her novels and stories with the method of death(s) in each one! Valentine is very didactic, and I learnt a lot (but didn’t retain everything). In short, Christie was interested in all the famous crimes of her time, as well as the forensic techniques and even firearms (although she made some rookie mistakes in her early books, she got better with them along the way). Valentine examines famous crimes similar to Christie’s books, even some cases where the criminal seemed inspired by the books, and other cases where reading the books actually prevented some murders (when people recognized telltale signs of poisoning, in particular).

You’ll need to be interested in science and forensics and have read a number of Agatha Christie’s books to enjoy it, but Valentine does the utmost to avoid spoilers, and rarely has a science book been more entertaining.

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

Flore Vesco, D’Or et d’Oreillers (2021)

I’ll confess that the first thing that attracted me in this book was the cover art. It is aesthetically pleasing (inspired by the famous Kiss by Gustav Klimt, and designed by Mayalen Goust) and also mysterious (I hadn’t noticed the black form around the sleeping girl’s head until much later). I knew Flore Vesco was a best-selling French author for young readers and I just picked the book at the library without any further information. It was indeed a lucky discovery!

The story is told in a fictional 19th British countryside, where wealthy aristocracy wants to marry off their daughters to the richest party around. The heir to Blenkinsop Castle, Lord Handerson, is the focus of attention, but his condition is that each prospective fiancée spends a night, unchaperoned, at the castle, alone in a bedroom with a huge pile of mattress. The ambitious Mrs. Watkins is ready to send her daughters Margaret, Martha and May there, together with their maid Sadima, but all 3 get turned back in the morning with no explanation.

This is the most unexpected rewriting of a classic tale (Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea”) that I’ve read. From the prologue we are warned that the original tale is sort of ridiculous: to check the nobility of a future wife based on her extreme sensitivity, or rather frailty, had always seemed to me like a weird choice even for a patriarchal logic. You’d think that a powerful lord would need a solid young woman with a stiff upper lip to bear his children, not a girl who’d whine about a pea. Anyway, here we’re in fantasy territory and not everything is supposed to be historically accurate. But it is also transgressive and positive!

I will spoil a little bit: Sadima the maid is the true heroine of this tale and she is strong, resourceful and daring. She’s not shy about her body, her skills, her intelligence and her dreams! She’s also not shy about exploring feelings and sex (after all, a bedroom with lots of mattress is not really about a lost pea, right?), although nothing is explicit in the book (the publisher suggest readers from age 14). The book takes many twists and turns, getting into romance territory to veer off towards supernatural and even horror. It might be a bit confusing to younger readers (especially the very metaphorical allusions to sex) but to me it was fun and liberating.

Flore Vesco is a French lit teacher and it shows, in the way she plays with words and levels of language (from casual to poetic, from formal to puns). My 13yo was not really attracted by the girly premises of the book, but I’m sure he’d have enjoyed it. This book was part of a selection by our librarians of books that have all participated to a particular YA / kids literary prize, the Prix Sorcieres (Witches). Now I’m really curious about other winners of these prizes!