The One with the Antipodean Heatwave

Jane Harper, The Dry (2016)

It’s hard to empathize with people in the middle of a heatwave when you’re in the middle of winter yourself, or is it only me? I can hardly fathom the temperatures that journalists report about the Melbourne tennis tournaments, and I couldn’t really feel the heat of the heavy atmosphere of this murder mystery set in the Australian countryside.

Expectations ran high, and it’s always a problem for me because I hope for a stunner and I’m disappointed if that’s anything less than.

Make no mistake, I enjoyed it and turned all the pages as fast as I could. It’s a small town atmosphere where people know each other from childhood on and have not forgotten, nor forgiven any missteps that anyone did ever since. People have only grown more bitter and more on edge due to the drought and heatwave that make tempers short and money scarce. Nothing grows in the fields, cattle have to be slaughtered for lack of food, and the river is no longer making a rustling watery sound in the background. When a farmer shoots himself after having killed his wife and son, only sparing his baby daughter, people whisper that he has been pushed to his limits, and then they whisper some more and suspect him to have been evil. They remember when a girl died in the river when he was a teenager and wasn’t he involved with her? The one who investigates is Aaron Falk, a policeman from Melbourne summoned to the small town of his childhood by the dead man’s father. And he, Aaron, is also suspected to have something to do with the girl’s dead.

The way the past and the present were interwoven is impeccable. I just wished that the middle part flew faster. That said, if you tempt me with another Aaron Falk mystery, I probably won’t resist long.

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The One with the Taiwan Bike Lost in the Jungle

Wu Ming Yi, The Stolen Bicycle (Origin. Chinese 2015; English 2017)

You guys, this book… I’m not sure I should brag or be ashamed, but it took me 5 months to read it, and I have no idea what I read most of the time.

I am no fan of bicycles (I don’t even know the technical words in English or French for the different parts of a bike – and I didn’t learn), but I have a personal connection to Taiwan that made me want to read that book as soon as I spotted it on Netgalley. It’s rare enough to find a Taiwanese novel, but when it’s a book that has collected so many literary awards in its home country, it doesn’t quite matter if it’s over 400 pages… (or does it?)

Highbrow it is, definitely, and deep, and experimental, and full of historical references that I was only vaguely aware of, so… It’s not my usual cup of tea, but I’m glad I tried it.

At first glance the story seems pretty straightforward… at least at the beginning. As his ageing mother is sent to hospital (presumably for her final days) and his siblings gather around to take care of her, the narrator wants to track his father and his bicycle, who both disappeared 20 years ago. The man is convinced that if he’s able to find the bicycle, he’ll understand the truth about his father.

Now, it’s only one story of this book, where many other characters and bikes and stories are intertwined. The bikes are just a tool to show how Taiwan was influenced by Japanese technology (the small island being colonized by Japan from 1895 to 1945), and how Taiwanese people were part of the WW2 conflict on the Japanese side. The island was bombed by the US, the men were conscripted into the Japanese armies (but at lesser ranks than “real” Japanese). Part of the book is set in the Malaysian jungles where a lot of fighting took place, and a lot of gruelling sufferings and deaths. Not only men did die, but also nature and animals, and the book shifts its focus towards elephants (another surprising turn), in a deeply moving way. Elephants were used and abused as war transports, and then some found their way into zoos.

Some parts of the book are really heartbreaking. Wu Ming-Yi is nostalgic, but his emotions show through mundane details of fixing a bike in the proper way, or showing up at a café to meet someone who might have an ancient bike. So if you’re tempted by an adventurous, unexpected read out of your usual range, look to further.

The One with the Deceitful Cover

Julie Berry, All the Truth that’s in Me (2014)

This is a book I would not even have bothered with picked up if I had seen the English cover art. I was totally fooled by the French cover art, and it’s not the first time around.

A few years ago I had been tricked by the magnificent cover art by Pierre Mornet, this time around by another equally great cover by François Roca, a professional designer whom I had already noticed in many other books. (you can see other covers on this page)

I was immediately attracted to this haunting young woman whose mouth is hidden and kept shut by a tree, whose modest clothing (that could be of any period) is sad and blends into the cold and dark wooden background. It captures the atmosphere of this YA novel perfectly.

Told by Judith to an unnamed “You”, the novel is set in a puritan village in an undefined period, but probably during colonial America. Judith has been kidnapped the same day as her best friend was murdered and when she was finally back to her village, years later, she was mute. She has been a pariah ever since. People including her own mother see her as damaged goods and don’t trust her. Who has killed her best friend? Who has kidnapped her? She lives on the margins of the village life and watches in silence as the young man she always was in love with is getting married to another. Yet, the village has more pressing worries and attackers threaten all the villagers, but Judith has an idea to save them all.

I wasn’t quite comfortable with the lack of precise setting and the use of “you” at first. It was quite slow to start and jumping from one scene to another. I ended up liking it enough to finish within a few days, but if I had seen the original American cover art, my reaction would have been totally opposite. The ripped cover with bold red letters made me think of vampires, and the girl with lanky, bleached hair made me think of a high school drama. It’s such a weird choice!

The One Praised by Neil Gaiman

Vera Brosgol, Anya’s Ghost (2011)

The sentence is the first thing you see at the top of the book: “A masterpiece” by Neil Gaiman. I  don’t normally focus on blurbs and famous writers’ references. Nor did it influence me into reading this book in the first place.

But after I finished the book and was still deep into its dark and grey atmosphere, I tried to find what it made me think of, and I noted this blurb. I found it so meaningful, that I used it as one of my arguments to convince my colleagues to put this YA graphic novel on the acquisition lists for graphic novels at my workplace.

This book was on my radar for quite a while when I bought some YA graphic novels in English for the library, but it didn’t make the short list at that time (in case you are wondering what I bought instead: “Smile” by Telgemeier, and “Nimona” by Noelle Stevenson). I must say that the art made me think strongly of Telgemeier, and the ghost theme reminded me of Telgemeier’s Ghosts, so I didn’t buy, but how wrong I was! It’s nothing like Telgemeier.

It starts quietly enough with a yet another high school student struggling with her immigrant identity (this time Russian): well-meaning parents who want her to succeed but don’t really get the American life, nerdish friends, an annoying sibling, a love interest who doesn’t look at her, yada yada yada. It is a bit cliché, until the story takes a sharp turn when Anya finds the bone of a deceased girl at the bottom of a hole in a park, and the spirit of the girl, Emily, comes out and befriends Anya. Anya is a lonely girl and this friend who has a lot more “depth” (pun intended) is first a boon to her teenaged, second-guessing self. Emily is 90 years old and she died in mysterious circumstances, and she’s so happy that Anya gave her a second chance at girlhood, until…

It’s snarky and dark and scary, and it doesn’t pull punches (for a middle-grade/YA, that is). You expect warm and fuzzy feelings due to the round, naive art and then you end up with a mean ghost that’s really evil. It’s not totally an apt comparison but it reminded me of the 1990s movie Scream, that had all the ingredients of the classic teenage movie, and inserted scary stuff for entertainment sake. I loved it! (Incidentally, my 9 yo son read it and he was scared stiff… so it’s probably for slightly older kids)

Btw, this is the last of my 2017 books to be reviewed, and coincidentally, and it took me a whole month to finish those posts! I think it calls for shorter and quicker posts, my friends, because my 2018 are all waiting in line now!

The One with the Closeted Gay Funeral Director

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (2006)

Oops, another 2017 read, in fact a September read… Why did it fall by the wayside, would you ask? Because September is not exactly the ideal period in the life of a working mother to pause and collect one’s thoughts. Especially when my brain was just recovering from the experience and was only able to form the words: “Awesome”, “Great” and “Is there more?” But those don’t really make a blog post.

I often take series out of order, but in that case immediately after I finished reading “Are you my mother?” I logged into my online library account to put a reservation for the first volume at the library. And it blew my mind, just as the first one did, but also in a different way.

Alison Bechdel is so intelligent, and funny, and snarky, and deep, and damn unlucky (or lucky, depending on how you see it). It’s bad enough that she grew up in a funeral home (hence the fun… home), that the atmosphere was gloomy and emotionally distant, that her father and mother didn’t have a really loving relationship, that her father was weird and lonely and strict and depressed all the time, but it’s even worse, in my book, after she became self-aware and could acknowledge her sexuality and be public about it, that her father died in difficult circumstances and that she understood finally that he was secretly gay all along. Wasn’t she lucky to have been born in an age when coming out was a possible option, when her father clearly didn’t see it that way?

This book circles around the layers of secrets that were wrapped around this family and this man so tight that the truth could never be out. It strips away layer upon layer, goes back and forth between periods of her life, as she could re-read her whole childhood with a new key of understanding that gave a new meaning to every incident (especially the bizarre circumstances of her father’s death, that could be an accident or a suicide). The book is not an easy read, not because of the heartbreak (which is real), not because of the psychological misery, but because it is intellectually challenging. There are many literary references (you don’t need to have read Joyce to understand it though), and a lot of Freudian material, and more than once you feel that she over-analyses some events of her life, but to me it was more fascinating than annoying.

I was told that there is a musical made out of this graphic memoir, which is perplexing to me as I cannot fathom how so many layers can be translated into songs and scenes, but I’m intrigued. Has anyone seen it?

 

The One with the Mariachis

Michael Connelly, The Burning Room (2014)

I usually read one Connelly every few years and upon finishing it, with a little satisfied sigh, I wonder every single time why I’d waited so long before reading another one. Well, this time I acted upon it and went for a second helping of Bosch goodness within the same season!

It is my understanding that “The Burning Room” follows rather closely, if not immediately “The Black Box”. In French, each title was so different from the original that I kept confusing them. “Mariachi Plaza”, for “The Burning Room”, in reference to the first cold case Bosch tackles in this book, a random shooting of musicians in an open ground, apparently linked to gangs, while the English title refers to the second cold case Bosch is introduced to by his new partner, a young female Mexican-American detective named Lucia Soto, who investigates the criminal arson that resulted in the death of several children in an illegal daycare.

I liked the interactions between the seasoned, slightly jaded and cynical detective and the rookie detective who has to figure out the right moves in the job. I can’t say it was fully surprising or original, but you get what you expect and you’re not disappointed, which is the whole point of comfort reads, isn’t it? Of the two I read last year, I did prefer “The Black Box” because of Bosch, revisiting his own actions in the past, but this one is a classic. And the good news is, if I start reading them in order, the next one in the series is actually a Mickey Haller & Bosch investigation. What a treat for 2018!

The One with Polish Past and Prejudice

Zygmunt Miloszewski, A Grain of Truth (Polish 2011, English 2013)

If you happen to be in Rouen, as soon as you’ve finished checking out the famous cathedral and the Gros Horloge medieval clock building, I suggest you drop all touristy pretense and head towards the huge indie bookstore L’Armitière. Last time I went to Rouen I didn’t even made it to the cathedral, but I didn’t miss the bookshop.

Their selection is impeccable on fiction, children’s lit, but the nicest discoveries I made were in the crime corner. I let myself be tempted by authors I hadn’t heard of because I knew it could be a nice surprise. I bought this Polish crime thriller and I wasn’t disappointed.

This book is the second novel featuring prosecutor Teodor Szacki, but it reads nicely as standalone. Apparently in the first book, Teodor Szacki was working in Warsaw, but in this book he has recently moved to a small town after his divorce. In Warsaw, it seemed a good idea to move to Sandomierz, a picturesque (real) town halfway between Krakow and Lublin close to the Byelorussian border. Prosecutor Szacki is an important figure in this bourgeois town. But as he settles down far from his ex-wife and daughter, he discovers that the grass isn’t greener elsewhere and he’s essentially bored. Big crimes are not a frequent occurrence in a small town, when suddenly the bloodless body of a woman is found on the grounds of the old synagogue (destroyed in WW2). The way she’s been killed evokes the persistent urban legend of Jewish ritual killings (blood libel). This is hot stuff in a city where people still struggle with the Antisemitic past, where Holocaust survivors have been “greeted” with more pogroms at the end of the war, and where prejudices are still running wild in the background.

I liked the setting a lot, and the political and social commentary. I liked them even better than the plot itself, which at some point seemed to lose a bit of steam (but I’m a stickler to boring middles, before the plot starts to gather speed again to tie most knots happily together). Yet, the glimpse we get on the Polish psyche is totally worth the read. Characters are often moping around and complaining, which makes them not particularly likeable, but at least true to life. Catholicism, nationalism, Polish resistance against Nazis and/or against Communism, post-communist restitution and/or reconciliation, all these themes are handled deftly as we get to see what it means practically in people’s lives, generation after generation.

I didn’t pick the first book in the series because the plot seemed to be centered on sexual exploitation and human trafficking (confirming the darker orientation of his writing), but I might try it after all.

Danielle’s Stories

mail-1707817_640John Burnside, The Bell Ringer & Peach Melba (from the collection Something Like Happy, 2013)

Is it still time to wish you all an awesome start of 2018? I hope so.

I normally start of the year with making stats and choosing my favorite books for the previous year, but we’re having a slow start after a hectic end-of-year over here, so I’m just pushing the “Publish” button today for the first time of 2018 to praise 2 shorts stories sent by Danielle.

One of the few 2017 resolutions that I was able to keep was reading more short stories, and Danielle contributed to my discovering new stories and new (to me!) authors. I’m so grateful. I have never heard of John Burnside before and couldn’t even tell when these stories were written.

I could tell that they are definitely British (there’s a stiff upper lip factor, and the witty replies are quite distinctive), but they are timeless and could have been written in the 1930s or 1950s. There’s a nostalgic tone that appealed to me and the writing was exquisite.

“Peach Melba” was about an old man reminiscing his meeting with a woman when he was a boy, a chance encounter that shaped him throughout his life in quiet ways. But the real stunner was “The Bell-Ringer”, that portrayed a middle-aged wife stuck at home in a lonely marriage (her husband works abroad and rarely comes home, only to bully her or ignore her). I loved the images of wintry countryside, with snow and quiet, interrupted by the church bells reminder of history and traditions. It’s a classic short story in style and form, with its understated hints left throughout the story and the epiphany at the end, and it’s really a gem. It reminded me of Raymond Carver’s stories, only on the other side of the Atlantic.

I felt really lucky to start the year this way by discovering a new story and a great writer. Stats and best of the year will come soon!

The One with the Cycle of Grief

Joyce Carol Oates, Missing Mom (2005)

Ahem, I was supposed to be gone for a few days for Christmas, but we had a car crash just when we were leaving, so we are home… and I have unexpected time to blog after all. Don’t worry, the kids are alright, the presents weren’t broken, Christmas wasn’t cancelled and I have only minor concussion (but no car any more!).

I have several unfinished posts and I don’t know where to start, but somehow Joyce Carol Oates’ book appeals to me especially after this traumatic event.

When you have already read some Joyce Carol Oates you expect something raw, unapologetic, subversive and probably some violence. You expect misfits and upstate New York and people who are a bit lost. To some degree I found all that in Missing Mom, but what I didn’t expect was a softness that some people will surely find melodramatic.

I read that she wrote this book after the death of her own mother, which makes this atypical tone understandable, but I also believe that Oates likes to be unexpected, and I can’t say I have been very surprised by the story, so it’s safe to say it’s probably not her best. The book is told by Nikki, the rebel daughter of a conventional housewife. Nikki is 31, she wears her hair purple, she dates married men, and finds her (widowed, retired, church-volunteering, bread-baking) mom rather boring. But when Nikki discovers her mother dead in her house in gruesome circumstances, she embarks upon a long period of grief.

Nikki starts out as self-absorbed and immature, and discovers that her mother was not as boring as she thought. That could be, well, boring, but it’s Joyce Carol Oates, and she has an eye for telling details, for finding meaning in tiny mundane details (baking bread, checking a calendar) and her scenes feel so true and so relatable. I guess everyone who has known grief will understand the book, although it might reopen certain personal wounds. So it’s not to put in everyone’s hands, but I certainly enjoyed it.

The One with the Heart-Warming Clichéd Paris

Jojo Moyes, Paris for One and Other Stories (2016)

I don’t think my IRL friends call me sentimental, nor do my family or coworkers. And yet, I have been known to be brought to tears by some silly things, unexpectedly. The one that still baffles my husband is the movie I wept through during my pregnancy, but you know, those hormones…

So it may surprise some people that I read and quite enjoyed Jojo Moyes’s collection of sentimental and romantic short stories. This is the first try I read Jojo Moyes, but I keep recommending her to the people who come to my workplace library, and they return their books saying lost of great things and sometimes even thanking me (one big perk of the job!), so it was first taking my own medicine so to speak.

I didn’t have very high expectations, except that I wanted heart-warming stories and happy ends every. single. time. Because 2017 wasn’t all roses and sunshine, was it? The collection I read has 11 stories, but I read reviews that say 10 stories, and it seems that the 11th one that has been omitted in some editions is “Margot”. It’s a story I appreciated a lot because it is so uplifting, even as it acknowledges those lemons that life gives you sometimes. Margot is the old woman whom Em meets while stranded in an airport, crying over a failed marriage. She has some important lessons to offer. The Christmas list is a bit on the same vein, when a married woman meets a cabby while shopping for her insufferable mother-in-law.

Moyes’ heroines are ordinary women, rather shy and full of doubts, women who are taken advantage of or taken for granted, and with the traditional British stiff upper lip, they don’t say what they think, they endure in silence until the breaking point where they unburden their souls in front of strangers. It reminded of an expression by Gretchen Rubin, the “obliger rebellion”, when some people meet expectations for quite a while until they snap and refuse to do anything anymore. I somehow relate to that feeling, so that’s why those stories by Jojo Moyes spoke so much to me.

I also enjoyed seeing Paris as a totally romantic and idealized place. I still struggle with my new identity as a suburban woman rather than a Paris city girl. Now that we live outside Paris, the city of lights seems at the same time shinier and shabbier. When I lived in town I didn’t find it glamorous but with a bit of distance, I am now able to see Paris through the rose-tinted glasses of Jojo Moyes.