The one where Iceland turns revolutionary

Fred Vargas, Les Temps Glaciaires (2015) English: A climate of Fear (released in July 2016)

I’m addicted to Fred Vargas so I’m not even attempting objectivity in this post. Every time I turn towards nonchalant Commissaire Adamsberg and his team of eccentric police investigators I’m looking for comfort, to make sure that the villains get their comeuppance even in the most implausible circumstances. And implausible they are!

The set of characters is fixed, the peculiarities of each member of the police precinct already well-known to me: the one who is suffering from a sleep syndrome and had to have a cot in the office for when he falls asleep at odd times, the female constable who is quiet and big, but whose first name is Violet, a small and fragile flower if any, the alcoholic sergent (I can’t possibly get the ranks translated right anyway) who has the deepest and weirdest knowledge of all, the naive one who remembers precisely what kind of coffee each policeman likes… These are like puppets that Vargas handles in a series of expected confrontations. But still she renews her stories every single time by inserting them in new and eccentric circumstances.

This time it’s the French revolution of 1789 and Iceland. I defy anyone to guess how Fred Vargas has put those two together, and I won’t tell you how she manages to go from the first topic to the other. I have no idea if everything she writes about Robespierre is accurate, but I know that she’s a professional historian (who hates travelling) and I suspect that she only tweaked what was necessary for the plot. The story itself is a mysterious maze with lots of characters, but some have argued that like a David Lynch movie, you don’t need to understand everything to enjoy the story if you let the main characters lead you wherever they want to go.

I heard a French literary radio show host say that Fred Vargas makes a combination of Commissaire Maigret and Harry Potter. It’s true that you start with a very traditional police procedural intrigue and it’s soon infused with something mythical, magical. The scenes in the Icelandic fog are full of supernatural. The secret society of Revolution fans who spend their evenings reenacting the Assembly meetings are as weird as a sorcerers’ congress. Vargas requires you to suspend your disbelief more than most crime writers, but it’s really worth it!

The one with the Toronto detective bachelorettes

Rachel McMillan, The Bachelor Girl’s Guide to Murder (2016)

In 1910 Toronto, two young women get so fascinated by Sherlock Holmes that they start their own investigation venture, regardless of what other people around them expect of proper, well-educated single girls.

Merinda’s model is Sherlock Holmes, unconventional and unapologetic, unafraid of anything, prone to disguise herself, wear men’s attire and carry weapons for self-defense. She has some money of her own and despises difficulties or prejudices that cross her path. Jemima is Merinda’s Doctor Watson, more concerned with conventions and politeness, hampered by her long skirts, fears and scruples. Soon enough they run into difficulties and dangers, but they have two nice knights in shining armor (or not so shining, as it happens): a policeman, who gets some flak for allowing civilian women on a crime scene, and a penniless journalist, a recent Italian immigrant who knows the city inside out.

It’s a cozy mystery (the villain itself wasn’t that hard to guess) but the atmosphere of 1910 Toronto was quite fun to discover. The atmosphere was very similar to that of the TV series Murdoch, which is set in Toronto a bit earlier.

The thing that surprised me most was that the book was categorized under Christian fiction. I didn’t quite see how it fitted, except to say that the level of violence is quite mild. Jemima and Merinda are sassy and spunky and don’t let men walk all over them. They get emotional, but don’t swear beyond “cracker jacks!” and don’t go further than a rather chaste kiss. Evidently, the part where Sherlock Holmes is a heroin addict wasn’t really where those two ladies found their detective inspiration.

It was fun and entertaining, but as far as women sleuths are concerned, I still prefer Laurie King’s Marie Russell in the Beekeeper’s apprentice, which I read over summer.

Thanks to the publisher who provided me with a ARC of this book via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review!

The one where failed gods and cunning grannies intersect

Joanne Harris, A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String (2012)

I knew Joanne Harris by Chocolat’s fame but I haven’t read it. For some reasons, fantasies based on gorgeous food and picturesque French villages don’t quite work for me. I prefer the firsthand expedience that I’m lucky enough to get close by. Moreover I could tell you a thing or two the downside of these exotic fantasies, but then I’d just be another grouchy French person, which is yet another living and rather truthful cliché.

I borrowed this book from the library looking for a short story collection both comforting and easy to read, and that was the labels that the name “Joanne Harris” conjured up in my mind. Little did I know that she writes stories in very very different genres, from comic to magical realism, from literary to satirical. I was quite impressed that she could stretch her skills to such extremes!

It surprised me how much I enjoyed stories about gods who are living in New York under ordinary, human disguises. I’m not really into super-heroes, so I rolled my eyes starting the story, but it quickly seduced me. Just as seductive and even sweeter are the two grannies who are stranded in a gloomy retirement home and get their revenge over the vexations they endure all day. Some stories are spooky, some are just witty and emotional. It’s a rather mixed bag so I guess it’s normal to like some more than others.

The collection is comforting and entertaining, but also full of surprises, never sappy or boring. I certainly won’t discount Joanne Harris next time she crosses my path!

The one from Vienna to Shanghai

Kathy Kacer, Shanghai Escape (2013)

Targeted towards young readers, this book sensibly addresses the fate of Jews who have managed to escape the Holocaust by fleeing to China. As I understand it, this is part of a Canadian book series by Kathy Kacer who has set up to interview Holocaust survivors and write down their personal experience especially for early middle school kids. I had never heard of this initiative before but the result is quite convincing. It seems truthful and does not shy away from explaining rather complex or serious issues but it manages not to be too terrifying.

The book chronicles Lily Toufar’s childhood from 1938 to 1945. It starts in Vienna at the eve of the Kristallnacht, when Austria has just been annexed by Nazi Germany and starts to see the effect of antisemitic policies and unrest. Lily’s parents decide to emigrate with the rest of the family to the only country that still grants them access: China. Lily is then 6 (?) and doesn’t quite understand the reasons for leaving her home. Lily’s family first settles down in Shanghai’s international neighborhood, the French settlement, and adjusts to a new life, more difficult than in Vienna but safe at least.

As years go by the whole family watches with increasing terror how Germany and its ally Japan gain power. The news from European relatives are fewer and fewer. Japanese soldiers control Shanghai and issue their own antisemitic laws. In 1943 the whole family, like all Jewish refugees, has to follow Japanese orders to leave the French Quarter and move into the ghetto of Hongkew, a crowded and dirty place at the town’s periphery. Dangers and hunger become daily ordeals for Lily’s family as they are trapped into the ghetto.

It could be a harrowing read, but luckily the tone remains cheerful and Lily’s family escapes unscathed, due to a series of lucky choices. Also, the book remains firmly at the level of the young girls’ eyes and what she can understand or not, what is important in her eyes or not. Yes, Lily is terribly hungry, but she has friends to play with, boring classes at school and celebrations to attend. As she grows up she starts to question her father’s firm reassurance that everything will end well, but even as the book ends she’s never a rebellious teenager and the story remains positive up until the whole family has resettled to Canada. [Yes, this was a spoiler, I know, but didn’t you guess? It’s a Canadian book series, so it had to end that way, isn’t it?]

I really enjoyed the story because I had only a vague knowledge of this point of history. Lily’s childhood is nicely fleshed out and her family’s destiny is quite extraordinary. Having been in Shanghai in the early 2000s I have seen no historical monuments or signs reminiscent of these events, nor did I know where to look for them if I’d known. There might have been some effort to dig out historical memory in the recent years.

The only point of criticism I have is with the writing itself, that comes out very dry. The tone is a bit flat, everything is spelled-out and a bit dumbed-down for the younger audience. I’m not sure what age Kathy Kacer has in mind when she writes this series, but I’d say probably from 8-9 if the kid is mature and interested in history. Since the story is so riveting it’s not much of an impediment, but the contrast was striking with the previous middle-grade novel I read, The Long Season of Rain, that was full of innuendos and unspoken emotions.

I was sent this book through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

The one with the post-apocalyptic Shakespeare

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)

To say that I’m ambivalent about post-apocalyptic novels is the major understatement of 2015 (I read it last year). I’m fascinated by them but they make me so very anxious and depressed (especially when done well, with any hint of realism) that I often prefer to abstain altogether.

I started the Road and stopped after a few dozens pages, not that it wasn’t good, on the contrary, but because it was way too depressing. I said I would come back to it on a very sunny and fun day, but then who opens The Road on a fun day?

I only heard very positive things about Station Eleven, and I asked around to trusted bloggers if it was depressing. Short answer: it isn’t. I took my sweet little time to listen to them but they were right. The tone is one of sadness and elegy over a disappeared world. Just as characters mourn the world they knew in their childhood. The book is surprisingly mellow: most of the gore and violence happens off stage, and the focus is on survivors of the flu 15 years later, so that the edge of the apocalypse has had time to soften and dust to settle over the few remnants of humanity.

I often object to books built with alternating timelines because it’s often just an excuse to build up density and structure. But here I liked it because alternating between the events leading to the mass epidemic wiping most of humanity off and the survivors’ new life allowed sadness to seep into the reading and to let us understand all that was lost. Some reviewers found it not cruel enough, too soft (I’m thinking of Janet Maslin of the NYT for example), but it kind of reconciled me with this genre.

Not to say I’m quite read for the Road yet, but I think that Station Eleven will remain in my memory for a while. Until the end of the world? I hope not.

The one with the button-eyed parents

Neil Gaiman, Coraline (2002)

I’ve finished reading this book in November, and I have this unfinished post draft for more than one month, so what’s been stopping me from hitting the “publish” button until now?

It’s not really as if you were eagerly waiting for my review to discover what Coraline is all about. But the fact that there are about 10,000 reviews (not, actually, 11,044 reviews and counting) on Goodreads for this book make me wonder if anything I’ll write hasn’t been already written 11,044 times before.

Once I’d dipped my toe into Neil Gaiman’s weird world, I knew I wouldn’t stop at just one novel, because the depth and the wealth of this author’s imagination made me crave for more.

The local library had nothing else by him but Coraline. I’d loved the Ocean, but I was still reluctant about Coraline. I thought it was too childish for my taste. Childish it is in a sense, but rather in a good way. I found the portrayal of the young narrator of the Ocean more complex, but Coraline is still an amazing, plucky little girl. I found myself rooting for her parents, because of course they are terribly busy and don’t pay enough attention to their daughter’s whereabouts, but I’m sure that it isn’t an easy task to keep her engaged and close by. I’m sure that she wouldn’t content herself with playing with her big box of Legos for the afternoon. (I chose to not read this book as a guilt trip for parents who don’t spend all their time with their kids – but it still lurked at the back of my mind… talking about a nightmare).

But then what child hasn’t pretended that his parents aren’t really his and that other parents were waiting for him elsewhere?  Like in the best fairy tales, an alternate world just coexists next to ours and it just needs one step aside… How Gaiman develops this fantasy of sorts is quite creepy, and he has the skills to never fully define the horror that awaits Coraline on the other side of the house. It reminded me of Roald Dahl, where kids’ adventures are never sugar-coated and that even nice happy ends can’t make up for unknown dangers still lurking in the corners.

In short, Coraline couldn’t match the sense of wonder and dread that The Ocean at the end of the lane opened for me, but it was pretty close. It’s the kind of book that I’d love my son to read one day, but I think I have still a few years to wait, otherwise he will have nightmares for sure!

The one about mindfulness for small drama princes

Sheri Van Dijk, Surviving the Emotional Roller Coaster (2016)

You, reader, have every right to shake your head and think: What on earth does she think she’s doing downloading from Netgalley a book about DBT skills for teens? She’s no doctor, she doesn’t know sh*t anything about DBT and she has no teens at home (yet).

Yes, you have a point. But my interest was roused when I read “emotional rollercoaster” and “skills” paired together in a single sentence, because we have a boy who is sometimes a tiny drama… prince, switching from bored to excited to grumpy to jumping up and down and back again. And I wanted to hear that there was something to be done instead of “waiting it out”.

DBT stands for Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and is, in my comprehension, a mix of behavioral therapy and mindfulness concepts. Its purpose is to teach how to regulate emotions for people who have some kind of borderline personality disorder or depressive tendencies, but in this particular book the writer talks to teens who are prone, by definition, to unregulated emotions. It teaches skills like meditation, naming emotions, non-judgmental self-validation, etc.

The voice of the book was that of a professional talking directly to the teen in an informed, but not superior, voice. Van Dijk is a mental health professional with a practice in Ontario, Canada, and she seems to have a lot of experience with teens and YA. There was no oversimplification nor sugar-coating about the effort that these skills require and how difficult it is sometimes to regulate one’s emotions. I guess many adults would benefit from hearing this too.

The small drawback was that I found it a bit dry and distanced. Of course, the point is all about being non-judgmental (especially in the points where Van Dijk points out that doing drugs and binge-drinking may have a negative influence on emotions), but sometimes I would have liked a bit more warmth and friendliness instead of “just” professional empathy. But too much warmth for an angry, aggressive teen in total rebellion might be a turn-off, so Van Dijk probably chose the most effective approach.

The book presupposes that the reader is already on-board with the program and has already a clear awareness that his/her emotions are unbalanced and generating lots of problems in his/her life. The reader is supposed to be quite mature about assessing him/herself, but only needs to learn some skills. I’m not sure if younger teens would have already this level of awareness and willpower, so I guess the book is best read by young adults and late teens. I might come back to this book for future reference, or maybe try to find some simplified version for younger kids.

The one with the dairy maid in shackles

Mary Hooper, The Disgrace of Kitty Grey (2013)

I had praised the French cover art for this book, but how disappointed I was by the book itself! Unfortunately, Kitty Grey is so rosy and naive that the American cover art with pink and curls is rather more appropriate.

Kitty Grey is a dairymaid during Regency in a farm that seems to me as realist as Queen Marie-Antoinette’s fantasy farm at Versailles, as it is incredibly clean, fun, friendly and easy.

By a series of coincidences that get less and less plausible along the way, she gets to London, loses all her money, finds a job at a dairy in London, turns her boss around from being a Dickensian villain to a heart-of-gold man, is arrested by the police and sent to the terrible Newgate prison, before being condemned to deportation to Australia.

I guess the most interesting part of the novel is the life in prisons in Regency London, and awfully easy it was to fall from a decent situation to a desperate one. Mary Hooper’s research is impeccable, from the Newgate squalid circumstances to the arbitrariness of the justice of that period. It wasn’t really a discovery to me but it was atmospheric enough.

But it’s Kitty’s character, her naivety yet resourcefulness, her open-mindedness and adaptability that stretched the credibility beyond my own limits. The happy ending was just too much for me. But I can understand that 12-year-old girls might believe and enjoy it. Still, I am quite willing to try another historical novel by Mary Hooper to see what she does next!

The one in the snowy Russian plains

Michel Honaker, Terre Noire: Les exilés du Tsar (French, 2009)

I swear I’m not trying to rush all these books along just to finish the year. It’s just that… okay, I give up. I feel like I have an obligation to mention those books I’ve finished recently before turning the page towards 2016.

I was looking for an easy read, a YA saga but not a fantasy. I chose this one a bit at random at the library, just because of the title: Black Earth, the Czar’s exiles. It felt romantic and exotic, and indeed it was! Sometimes that’s all you need to use as a kind of… well, palate cleanser before tackling a more challenging book.

The year is 1887 in Russia, under the reign of czar Alexander III. Stepan is a talented young pianist and composer with a growing reputation. He’s the adopted soon of an old aristocrat Baroness Danilovna whose health and wealth are declining. Upon her death, the old Baroness is supposed to bequest him a land called Black Earth, but her birth son is jealous of him and plots a twisted revenge that will send Stepan to exile, or even to his death. The only allies he can count on are Baroness Danilova’s young daughter Natalia who is secretly in love with Stepan, and his faithful servant who will help him flee the country.

I liked that the story was told through letters and diaries. The pace was brisk and eventful. The only drawback was that I could guess most of the story very early on, so I didn’t quite find it thrilling. It’s probably for a middle-grade audience on the youngish side, although the intricacies of the Russian politics might escape them. It was pleasing enough, but not so much that I would try to read the second and third books of the series.

The one to read with a bowl of ramen noodles and a Miyazaki movie

Kathryn Tanquary, The Night Parade (To be published Jan. 2016*)

Saki is a normal 13-year-old, more interested in her phone than in her environment, more interested in spending her holidays with the girlfriends clique in Tokyo than with her grandma and her family in the mountains, more interested in being cool than in respecting traditions. But at the beginning of Obon, the festival where Japanese people honor their ancestors, Saki makes a mistake: she unwittingly receives a death curse by trespassing into an old temple and she has to undo it by venturing into the spirits’ world, guided by three spirits.

It’s a middle-grade book, so I must keep that in mind before complaining that the plot line and character development are a tad too predictable for my taste. Saki goes from being rather obnoxious to finding her own voice to stand up against bullies and monsters. Each night she has to fight some monsters and rise up to some challenges, which was reminiscent of a video game and will certainly appeal to young readers.

My understanding is that the writer is an American living and working in Japan: while she draws a convincingly sulky teenager complete with eye rolls and little white lies, it sometimes seemed to me as if Saki was more Japanese-American than from Tokyo.
But the spirits world she encounters in the mountains is really fun and authentic. The Night Parade (Hyakki Yagyo) is a folk tale that says that each year the spirits go out into the world for a few nights and may take any human who ventures into the crowd of various demons. The book reminded me of Studio Ghibli animations, especially of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) and Pompoko, where the tanuki change themselves in traditional Japanese monsters.

I don’t know how much middle-graders know about Japan, but this book is a very refreshing adventure into the world of traditional myths and tales from Japan, without being too heavy on back-story explanations, side notes and being smug with its exoticism. They sure will enjoy the ride and ask for more animes and mangas after turning the last page. And I did too!

*I was sent this book’s ARC through Netgalley in exchange for a honest review.