The One with Cohorts of Chinese Serial Killers

Gang XueYin, A Devil’s Mind (English Oct. 2016)

It is quite understandable that China, having imported and adapted lots of Western concepts, would do the same for books, especially thrillers that are highly readable and quickly consumed. That is not to say that China doesn’t produce vastly original books of its own, but just to explain why I was curious to read a serial killer thriller with Chinese characteristics. Let’s say that I started out of intercultural curiosity, and that it is the sole reason that I finished this book.

Long gone is the day where writers didn’t write crime stories because crime supposedly didn’t exist in the Chinese proletarian workers’ paradise. From the several titles that Amazon Crossing has translated, I picked one at random because none seemed particularly set in a recognizable place. In that case, the main action is set in “J city of S province in southern China”, which is plain weird and highly frustrating for people like me who love settings. But I can understand. When touching with sensitive topics, Chinese writers protect themselves by making it crystal clear that it is fiction and that they don’t talk about any real bad, deviant, corrupt person.

The novel centers on Han Yin, a criminal profiler teaching within the Department of Criminal psychology at a police academy in northern China, but who, as the book opens, is asked to come and help the police team in J city. The local police has a dismembered victim that uncannily resembles a cold case of 1996: they fear that they might have a serial killer on the loose, and as the police takes a lot of flack from the public they request the analysis and assistance from professor Han Yin.

Now we all know that profilers in classic American serial killer novels are supremely intelligent and perceptive, but Han Yin is something else. Besides being handsome and charming, this guy only needs to look at a file and ask two questions before knowing who is lying and who is telling the truth. After visiting the crime scene, he often has a complete profile of the killer with age, occupation, childhood trauma, marital status, etc. You would say that with so much information it’s a shame the police isn’t capable to arrest the guy on the spot! Well, often enough they actually do! Beyond the case of the two dismembered victims, the book is littered with victims, gruesome crimes, and successful investigations. Wherever Han Yin goes, he finds a serial killer. I couldn’t decide if he was a clairvoyant or a walking disaster.

People who read this book but have never been to China will think that the country is most unsafe, but this rather over-the-top succession of crimes and resolutions is in my opinion the result of a faulty structure. The novel desperately needs some padding and some pacing, but since the author can’t put in any realist description of locations, any deep criticism of social problems (serial killers are ideal in that respect, they’re deviant and pervert due to their unique individual evil nature, not due to some wider issue), any deep introspection, then he fills the void with corpses. It becomes mechanical, and a bit ridiculous, if it weren’t so gruesome.

In short I do find the book terrible, but so terrible it becomes entertaining, at a meta level. By reading in between lines you can say that the book only confirms that lives of migrant workers are cheap and that if they disappear, nobody much cares, but that’s not really in the book. I can’t say I recommend it, but I don’t regret having read it.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for a honest review.

The One about the Legacy of Torn Lives

Sara Novic, Girl at War (English 2015)

I’m really glad of this opportunity to read Girl at War thanks to Netgalley.fr and the French publisher Fayard. Ever since the book was published in English I was curious of this book about a girl who spent her childhood in Yugoslavia, lost her parents during the war between Croatia and Serbia and was then adopted by American parents and raised as a typically American teenager.

Obviously there are many themes woven together in this story: war, trauma, grief, adoption, coming of age, cultural shock, guilt (and I won’t spill it all here), but I first came to this story because I could relate to Ana, the main character who is ten at the start of the Balkan war in 1991. I was in high school when the Balkan war broke off in 1991 and as a West European it was both shocking and senseless. We had been fed the “end of history” and universal reconciliation when the Berlin Wall had fallen two years before, and now people were killing each other on the doorsteps of the European Union. We had been brought up thinking Yugoslavia as a united country and ignoring ethnic differences and historical bad blood. Especially as a teenager, where all things are black and white, the messy war felt as if someone was taking the rug from under my feet and announced that my neighbors were very much likely to kill the people next door.

The war is seen through the eyes of Ana, a tomboyish ten-year-old Croatian from Zagreb. I like this childish perspective on events big and small, with its naivety and adaptability. Ana and her friend seem to take in their stride the sudden change of mood among adults, the food rationing and air raid alerts, the questions about ethnicity and the sudden leaving of men who are going to fight. They don’t get explanations from the adults, so it might be a bit difficult for a reader who would have not heard of the facts.

As a matter of fact, it might be a good idea to get a refresher on Wikipedia on Croatia during the Balkan war while one reads this novel, if only to clarify that Zagreb was not where the fighting was (it’s when Ana and her parents have to go to Sarajevo that things turn tragic), and that the role of Croatia in the later conflict was not completely pure. But you don’t need to know all that to feel for Ana, to understand her personal tragedy and to understand how her uprooting to the United States and her subsequent adoption by an all-American family could only be difficult.

We alternate between ten-year-old Ana and twenty something Ana who now is a brilliant student at NYU but suffers from (untreated) PTSD. Her friends and adoptive family don’t know much or anything about her past because it’s too foreign and too difficult, so she lies and fakes. At some point in the book she decides to travel back to her native Croatia to get answers – and get closure. That was another part of the book where I strongly related to Ana’s quest. We visited Croatia a few years ago, a country that is now a very touristic place for Europeans. It was an uncanny experience to realize that this beautiful place full of magnificent landscapes, beaches, historical landmarks was the same country that had suffered in the civil war. It seemed that people had put it all behind hoping to forget. No wonder that the book doesn’t tie all the plot lines neatly at the end with a bow, because there is no easy resolution for Ana.

The One in The Weird Maze of Hong Kong

Hon Lai Chu, The Kite Family (2015, Eng. 2016)

You can’t say I was lazy or fickle on this book. I tried hard, very hard. I had high hopes, because Hong Kong literature is not something that you often stumbled upon, and I have such fond memories of my years living there that I am often prejudiced in favor of any novel set in or written in Hong Kong. And this short story collection came with high credentials: it won the New Writer’s Novella first prize from Taiwan’s Unitas Literary Association and was named one of the Books of the Year by China Times in Taiwan.

Yet, I don’t do well with absurd. I don’t mind disturbing stories, I actually kind of enjoy magical realism, but I am a picky reader when it comes to surrealism. I just don’t get it, most of the times, unless I am able to care for the main characters.

I really enjoyed the book introduction by translator Andrea Lingenfelter, which highlighted some of the stories’ themes and allowed me to better understand some metaphorical meanings of the stories.

But still, few of them were really engaging to me. I had difficulties to relate to any character and to like them. One story’s main character is a guy that only finds his purpose in life as he becomes a chair. Another story features a family with a weird illness of obesity, to the point that the person will eat objects and that no room will be able to contain her body.

I was sorry to miss the point of most of these stories. Definitely this book is not for me, but probably will find other readers who are more tolerant with surrealism.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for offering me a copy in exchange for a honest review.

The one with CSI of the Song Dynasty

Antonio Garrido, The Corpse Reader (Orig. Spanish 2011, English 2013, French 2014)

This book is at times incredibly frustrating, at times very satisfying. It’s sold as a historical mystery, but I would argue that it creates its own subgenre as a crossover between a forensic procedural, heavy with scientific details and gore autopsy close-ups and a very complete manual of life in China Song Dynasty in the 12th century.

Think Kay Scarpetta, turn her into a man, into a Chinese man, make her wear a black silk bonnet, and throw her back to the Middle Ages to proceed to a postmortem autopsy. Without her fancy scientific instruments of course.

Still, there are many differences between this book’s main character and Kay Scarpetta. One of which is that the hero is probably the unluckiest man on earth at that period. Also Kay Scarpetta is likeable, whereas our hero is not really.

He’s a young man of 20, from a good, if not very wealthy family, and although he has studied medicine with a great master and is said to have a great intelligence and intuition, in everything but medicine he is so naive and stupid that you soon want to slap him. The first half of the book shows him getting more and more miserable as he loses his family, position, friends, money and dignity. He makes one stupid choice after another, and you can be sure that anyone he trusts at any time will betray him within a few hours or days. Even more frustrating, he doesn’t seem to learn from his errors. How can you then believe that he’s able to tell accurately the cause of death, thus earning himself the name of “corpse reader” and a reputation that will raise the emperor’s interest and make him an investigator to a very special and secret series of crimes committed close to the imperial palace?

If you don’t get too annoyed by the main character, the historical part of the book remains fascinating and well worth the read. Song dynasty in the 12th century was a period where China had a lot of threats but also a lot of creativity and artistic expression. Administration was very organized and it looked like quite a modern state. Garrido manages to bring this period alive and you almost can smell, feel, see what it was like back then (not all smells and sights were quite pleasant I’m afraid).

One last point: I was first drawn to this book by the French cover, that is a reproduction of a Song painting. But the English cover is totally unappealing to me and feels like a cheap B-movie from Hong Kong in the 1980s. I would never have picked up this book with the English cover! Would you?

The One where Hello Kitty Turns Angry

Risa Wataya, Kawaisoudane? (Japanese 2011) Pauvre Petite Chose (French 2015)

At first glance it’s a very light book, perhaps even a bit shallow. Julie is a Japanese young woman, employed at a department store selling luxury clothing, who is both ambitious and naive. When her boyfriend, a Japanese raised in the US, announces to her that his ex- is moving in with him, because she has no job and no money for the rent anymore, she raises her eyebrows but eventually comes round to it, because he assures that there’s nothing between them anymore, and that Westerners are cool with it.

She sure doesn’t like it, but she likes even less the prospect of rocking the boat because she loves him, or so she thinks. She doesn’t want him to think she’s uncool and a traditionally uptight, provincial Japanese girl, when he’s supposed to know the ways of the (Western) world. They each keep their own studio, but Julie still believe that he prefers her over his ex. Unless… Doubts and confusion gnaw at her until she can’t avoid confrontation anymore.

I thought I would finish reading within just a few hours, but in the middle of the novel I though “wow, it’s so clever!” and decided to slow down. Risa Wataya packs a lot within this short, short plot (142 pages). Economic uncertainty, job pressure, mindless sexist routines of female jobs, love disappointment, ambition and self-improvement at the cost of denying her own personality, self-doubt, broad cultural considerations brushed up with lots of humor.

Risa Wataya has received the Akutagawa prize when she was only 19, in 2003, and the Kenzaburo Oe prize for this very novel. While the main character is typically Japanese, the theme of the social pressure to conform is quite universal.

I don’t speak Japanese, but I saw that the original title Kawaisodane has been translated into different ideas that are slightly different. One is “isn’t she pitiful?”, which could equally refer to Julie or to the jobless ex-girlfriend. Another is “isn’t it a pity?”, and the French one is literally “Poor little thing”. In French depending on the tone the interpretation can range from pity to snarky to complete contempt. Another funny thing to contemplate is the difference between the French cover (where poor Julie is starting to find it not so funny anymore) and the original Japanese cover, where everything is just a cute (cutesy) world of girly fashion and flowers, the perfect world Julie aspires to.

The One to Get Lost in Paris

Patrick Modiano, Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier (2014) / So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood (English 2015)

This draft of mine has been lingering for more than one month somewhere in a dusty WordPress drawer waiting for the right moment, or maybe waiting for the revelation?

It’s been years since I wanted to try a Modiano, but I’m afraid I’ve started with the wrong one.

An old man, Mr. Daragane, spurred by a vague but uncomfortable phone by a stranger, suddenly remembers old memories of his childhood, names that don’t really ring a bell in an old address book, places he might have been to, people who might have taken care of him as a child. Everything is quite fuzzy, his memory is vague at best, and it’s not even clear why he (let alone I) should care.

I appreciated the reflection on memory and false souvenirs (which is exactly why I picked this one in the first place) and I liked the tone but I felt as if I was missing the point of the story. Perhaps there’s no point altogether, but this was a frustrating experience nonetheless. It’s even harder when it’s a national treasure and a Nobel Prize for literature and you feel you should a. be awed or b. just shut up about your own ignorance. I therefore choose c. try another Modiano asap.

The weirdest experience was perhaps when I visited the Goodreads page for this book (in the English version), which called the book a “haunting novel of suspense from the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature”:

In the stillness of his Paris apartment, Jean Daragane has built a life of total solitude. Then a surprising phone call shatters the silence of an unusually hot September, and the threatening voice on the other end of the line leaves Daragane wary but irresistibly curious. Almost at once, he finds himself entangled with a shady gambler and a beautiful, fragile young woman, who draw Daragane into the mystery of a decades-old murder. The investigation will force him to confront the memory of a trauma he had all but buried.

I had to pinch myself to be sure we were talking about the same book. “Threatening voice” and “shady gambler”, I got them, but the mystery of a decades-old murder? I have completely missed that one. People called the book a “noir”, and I get that the book is totally atmospheric like a 1950s movie. Paris streets and buildings are right there on the page. I could almost see the grainy cliché of a beautiful woman with impeccable lipstick who would spend hours in a café staring into the void and playing with her cigarette in her (perfectly manicured) hand. But if “noir” has some components of sadness, inevitability, slow pace that are in the book, “noir” also normally has a plot and some truth to discover at the end.

Strangely, despite its title, I felt completely lost in the neighborhood. Only the familiar street names gave me some frame of references. But again, it might have been Modiano’s intention from the start. Intriguing and unsettling.

The One with Black Spots and Dark Magic

Karen Maitland,  The Plague Charmer (to be released Oct.  2016)

I am incorrigible. Yes, I love historical fiction, but I should know by now that post-apocalyptic fiction is a high danger zone for me. I raved about Station Eleven but it was the exception; it wasn’t too violent and it kind of glazed over the worst of the mass dying. I should remember that post-apocalyptic fiction not only gives me shivers and nightmares, but that I tend to withhold any critical view and believe everything that is written on the page!

So what on earth was I doing when I chose a Netgalley book centered on the plague epidemic in the Middle Ages? Did I think it would be miraculously a quiet book, soothing enough to lull me to sleep? You bet it isn’t. The Black Death wiped out one out of three people in Europe, after all. If it’s not apocalyptic non-fiction, I don’t know what is!

Historical fiction at its best makes you feel as if you were living in a different century altogether, and boy does it work. The only thing is, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed living in this era. Well, it wouldn’t have been much of a choice because between dying at birth, starving, falling prey to thugs or storms or usual sicknesses or banal accidents, I wouldn’t have survived 5 minutes. But apparently some people did manage to survive and have kids before they died, duh. But only just barely.

The book takes place in a small fishermen’s village in England and in its nearby castle in 1361. After a storm a ship is washed up on the shore, with only one survivor, a strange woman with ominous words and evil intentions. A box is taken from the ship that probably shouldn’t, because soon enough the villagers recognize the deadly signs of pestilence (because the was a previous epidemic a decade earlier or so). Who will die?  Who will be saved, and at what cost?

The book circles between half a dozen different characters who tell what happens in turn. Some are likable, some not so much. One is a castle court dwarf, one is a fisherman’s wife, one is a crazily devout woman, one is a clever lady used to courtly politics, etc. The author doesn’t romanticize or over-simplify the people lives in the Middle Ages, nor does she give them more knowledge and wisdom that what they’d have known or experienced. It’s one of my pet peeves when characters behave in a modern way in a historical novel, and I found none of it in this book. Not to say that everything was completely realistic in the plot, because there are supernatural forces in the book, but these do really well blend in into this atmospheric, superstitious period drama.

Recommended if you are not squeamish and don’t have a deadline the next morning, because you’ll probably sit up late to reach the end!

I received a free copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The One on the Sweet Power of False Memories

– Moi, reprend-il, les souvenirs que je vends deviennent de vrais souvenirs. Comme si tu les avais vécus.
– Mais comment c’est possible? je demande.
– Ah ça, bonhomme, c’est mon petit secret. Et puis franchement, quelle importance de savoir comment ça marche? Après tout, quand tu vas chez le charcutier, tu ne lui demandes pas comment il arrive à rentrer un cochon dans ses propres boyaux. Le charcutier te vend du bonheur en tranches. Enfin, si tu aimes le saucisson.
” Moi j’ai eu envie de vendre des petits bouts de bonheur à ceux qui n’en ont pas eu assez, ou pas du tout. Souvent on regrette de ne pas avoir vécu ceci ou cela. La vie nous mène par le bout du nez et pas toujours où on voudrait. Eh bien moi, j’essaie de réparer un peu les oublis de la vie.

– The memories I sell, he said, become true memories. As if you had really lived them.
– How is it even possible? I asked.
– Listen buddy, that’s my own secret. Really, is it important to know how it works? After all, when you go to the butcher, you don’t ask him how he manages to fit a pig into its own guts, do you? The butcher sells you slices of happiness. That is, if you like cold cuts.
As for me, I wanted to sell little bits of happiness for those who don’t have enough, or any at all. Often people regret not to have experienced this or that. Life has us on a string, leading us not always where we want to go. Me, I try to make up for what life misses.

Ghislaine Biondi, le Marchand de souvenirs (Oskar Editeur, 2013) (my translation)

I came across this very short, very cute book at the library on the table for middle grade / teen lit new acquisitions in genre fiction. I say cute because I’m partial to round corners and getting a nice object does make the difference when choosing a book. Depending on your nerdy inclinations, I realize you might think that its either a pretty specific or a pretty broad way to discover new books.

The library I go with my youngest son is specialized in kids lit (i.e. has a very limited adult selection) and the building they’re in is very strange (a converted space under the roof, with lots of mezzanines, nooks and crannies) so I am always surprised how they have organised their sections. There’s one “room” for teen mainstream novels, but genre fiction each has its own shelf, so that I’m easily lost and prefer to rely on new acquisitions.

This book is very short but deep and sweet, and I instantly fell for it. Antoine is a teenager on his first day of summer holidays from middle school. His mother raises him on her own and he doesn’t know his father. She works as a cleaner during the day, so they can’t afford the seaside vacation he’d love, and his best friend has gone away, so that he expects his holidays to be boring and lonely. Except he finds a new shop close-by where the owner sells fake memories, objects that give to the person who buys them the experience of memories of things that he has never experienced. The boy first tries his hand on memories of seaside vacation, and they’re so good and so real, that he soon goes back to the shop to buy more and get memories of the father he never knew.

In a few sentences the situation is firmly established and the fantastic part weaves itself into the daily routine so smoothly that you can see it and believe in it just as easily as the boy himself. It doesn’t depart too much from reality, in the sense that the boy knows which memories are real or fake, but remembering things nonetheless gives a little nudge to reality and has an influence on present situations, if only through a lighter mood, a different decision to make, etc.

I’m really impressed that the writer could pack so much into a mere 55 pages and look forward to exploring more about this small press.

The One with an ounce of happiness hidden inside

Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living beyond Fear (2015)

I was so looking forward to reading Big Magic, and I want to say upfront that I thoroughly loved it. Yet, it might not be for everyone, and even for people who know me, it might come as a surprise.

Elizabeth Gilbert looks like a wonderfully nice person, but the thing she is definitely not is quiet, reasonable and low-key. Internet pegs her as an ENFP, and I’m an ISTJ (sorry non-MBTI people, in this very case this particular frame of personality analysis is very very apt, so Google it if needed and bear with me). The problem is right there, we don’t have even one letter in common. Where I am rational, she is emotional. Where she wants to hug you, I want to keep my distance. Where I organize and analyze, she just wings it and flashes forward. Where I follow up and feel guilty if I don’t finish, she lets go and moves on to the next dream without regret or remorse. ENFPs and ISTJs are normally a match from hell.

Except sometimes it works out fine! (albeit from a distance)

Yes, many pages made me cringe, especially when she gets all woo-hoo about divine inspiration, about the Muse jumping from one person to another via a hug (a hug of all things, how American!). It makes a fun story for my kids but I didn’t find it particularly useful for me. Yet her analysis of our Western culture that insists on being serious and passionate to the point that one must suffer alone like a martyr in order to create fascinated me. It resonates a lot with my own findings that french writers are supposed to be lonely geniuses writing their chef-d’oeuvre in their Parisian attic (it’s better to be in Paris to get published) and the distrust on any formal training in the literature art (MFAs don’t exist in France, you either have genius or you don’t). She offers an alternative model, the trickster’s, where play and fun and fearlessness and not-taking-yourself seriously are paramount. I love it.

Elizabeth (yes, something in her makes you want to be on first name basis) is such an antidote to that serious, elitist, privileged way of thinking: the way her book Eat Pray Love was a product of privilege had disturbed me before, but this one is not self-centered and more like a gentle, universal encouragement to follow one’s own creative outlet wherever it takes you.

It’s an antidote to bad mood, to self-doubt and to guilt trips. I would recommend it to anyone who suffers occasionally from these symptoms, and I bet there are quite a few of us!

PS. Good news : I have listened to her Magic lessons podcast with pleasure, and apparently a second season is coming soon!

The One with the All-Too-Obvious Secret

Fabrice Humbert, The Origin of Violence (French 2009, English 2011)

I realize that I have finished this book a while ago and not mentioned a word about it. Probably because I was a bit embarrassed not to be able to synthesize a clean, tidy opinion about it. At times I thought it was a very interesting book, at times I thought it was voyeuristic and complacent, at times I was just unimpressed. There are just so many books about the Holocaust, sadly (and horrific mass murders justified by racial or religious hatred have just continued, even more sadly); so many books about memory and family secrets.

A young high-school teacher visits the concentration camps together with his pupils, when he suddenly sees an old photograph with a Jewish inmate that bears a striking resemblance to his own father. Upon his return the young man starts to ask questions in and around his family, to discover that his father was born from an affair between his mother and the man who died in the concentration camp, his real grandfather. (This may look to you like a spoiler, but believe me, anyone can deduce that *secret* rather early in the book). The young man becomes obsessed with this grandfather and tries to confront his bourgeois upbringing to get to the bottom of the family secrets.

Maybe I have a problem with family secrets revolving around WWII, because this book reminded me of another novel, Memory by Philippe Grimbert, which didn’t work well for me either. Too bad.

The Origin of Violence is rather messy, as is my opinion about it. There are lyrical thoughts on the nature of evil (hence the title), a part set in the camp where no details of the brutality and horrors of death are spared to the reader. This part is quite difficult to read, but as the book is quite well documented, it is the most satisfactory. This is put together with a rather navel-gazing accounts of the difficult career of the young teacher in a tough neighborhood, of his romance with a beautiful German woman, of his difficulty to write the story of his grandfather. As Humbert himself is a high-school teacher turned writer, it is difficult to not wonder if any of the story is based on actual facts. The narrator is decisively unlikable, and probably untrustworthy, but it was the juxtaposition of some many random elements that made me uncomfortable.