One on the Side and Three for the Road

Sometimes I need a little nudge to take decisions… like DNF a book, for instance. I still have a few misgivings about abandoning a book. I sometimes wait ridiculously long before I decide to turn my back on a story (because I know how difficult it is to write a book, I suppose). I always fear that I’m missing out on something and that the book will redeem itself in the next chapter, or the next… I prefer skim-reading the rest just to make sure.

But there’s nothing like a fresh batch of new books to help me get rid of these scruples. Yes, that book might be good in the end, but it doesn’t hold the appeal and so… I am allowed to be fickle, aren’t I? The book that made me hesitate a lot is Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, of which I had heard a lot of good things. Yes, yes, I know, you probably loved the book… But I started it and I didn’t connect with the main character, Hadley, who marries Ernest Hemingway and moves to Paris with him, until… well, it’s no spoiler to say that their marriage ends badly.

I don’t know if I knew too much about Hemingway, or too little (I’m not a great fan), and I don’t know if McLain has done extensive research or how fictional Hadley’s portrait really is, but… I did sigh a lot at Hadley’s passivity and I just couldn’t see myself spending 250 more pages with her (I stopped at 20%). Hemingway is not my kind of guy, I just felt sorry for Hadley, but it’s not enough to sustain a passionate interest on my side.

So what am I going to read instead? I splurged for 3 books on Amazon, which is a rare treat these days (I have so many books at the library and at home, TBH) and I’m really looking forward to crack their spines open as soon as possible:

Kindred, by Octavia Butler: I really don’t know how I heard about this book, but since then the name Octavia Butler is popping up left and right calling for my attention.

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover: I heard a lot of good reviews, but the tipping point for me was the excerpt I got through Season of Stories, that convinced me that I needed to get my hands on it.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave: I’ve been meaning to buy this one for my workplace library since the beginning of this year, but it wasn’t listed, so… what can I say, I got it for myself!

Have you read any of them? Which one would you start with?

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The One with the Senior Party Gone Wrong

Harlan Coben, Don’t Let Go (2017)

Who doesn’t know of Harlan Coben? Who hasn’t read Harlan Coben? His page boasts 60 million copies worldwide… and yet I didn’t open one before this year. I’ve always been very snobbish and steered clear of his bestsellers… until I didn’t. And it was a hell of a ride, causing me a few short nights.

I was looking for an efficient page-turner, but not anything in the 800 pages category. This one was half this size and wow, did I turn the pages quick! I was sucked into the story in a few pages and didn’t… let go (sorry, I had to put this bad pun somewhere… Book titles with “let go” are just so banal that I wonder how publishers keep them apart – literally there are over 3300 books titles with these words in Goodreads!)

I have to give kudos to Coben for the masterly way he achieves to stretch the limits of my disbelief and critical thinking as if it was a rubber band. Where other authors would make me roll my eyes with similar questionable ingredients (a narrator with a totally improbable name, Napoleon Dumas, a twin brother, a disappeared girlfriend just before prom night, an abandoned military base), here I have no time to roll my eyes and I just get on with it, (almost) no questions asked. Alright, if I dissect the storyline I can see that it has holes and weird bits patched together, but overall I was too smitten to notice. Like a typical magician tricks.

I liked the pace, the twists and the humor. Nap Dumas has indeed a twisted past and a questionable relation to due process of law, but what kept me reading was his one-liners (or more precisely, Coben’s). If Coben’s other bestsellers are all as efficient as this one, I know where to turn for comfort next time around. So tell me, what is your favorite Harlan Coben’s book?

The One with Batgirl on Instagram

Cameron Stewart, Batgirl, Vol. 1: Batgirl of Burnside (2011)

I read this graphic series in March as a readalong with my boy, and two months later, I don’t quite know what to tell you about this experience… yet.

I’m not a super hero fan, I’m sure you have noticed by now. But after having found my own way in the vast genre of European comics, and in the also vast but quite different world of manga, I felt that I was missing out if I didn’t ever try a US comics.

That’s how I came to borrow this Batgirl comics at the library, from the kids shelves. I wouldn’t even have tried a US comics from the adult section because they seem so violent and ugly, and… Ugh, as you can see, I was being intentional here, it was not a natural fit.

I know of Batgirl, but I don’t know Batgirl. I didn’t give it a second thought before I started reading, but I didn’t know anything about franchises, reboots, etc. I don’t even understand her past relationship with secondary characters like her friend Black Canary and her roommates (it said volume 1 on the cover, but it is misleading). She also never got to meet with Batman, and I don’t know if that’s normal (aren’t they related? are they estranged?)

I was clearly missing out on basic information, and so was my boy. It’s also highly disturbing for me to enter a world where different graphic artists contribute episodes of a same story with the same characters, but each with their own style and interpretation. It is just mind-boggling to me. When French or Belgian comics are a long-standing success, the author usually goes on, and on, until they die or retire, and then another artist will continue with exactly the same style.

In this book there were several episodes, and more than once I raised my eyebrow because it did seem rather like YA situation and not kids comics? Overall I was confused about who the readership is supposed to be. Apparently, if Goodreads is a good indication, I’m not the only one here. But it wasn’t too violent and Batgirl was kinda cool. Or is she? I don’t think the creators had mothers over 40 in mind when they wrote this, so I’m not even sure. My boy liked her but I’m not completely sure he “got” her completely either.

So, if I believe Goodreads readers, it seems that this Batgirl is not her usual self here, and I can believe it. To me, she seems barely out of teenage years and not yet fully an adult. She goes to parties, drinks too much, sleeps late, has hangovers, take selfies (the book came out before Instagram).

Batgirl kicks ass and has a smartphone, that much I can tell you. As for the rest, it would clearly require an investment in time and energy to catch up on all the backstory, so I’m going to politely drop out.

The One with the Cute Scott before Culloden

Diana Gabaldon, Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander #2, 1992)

This is my winter’s small guilty pleasure, but in fact I’m not even feeling guilty and with 743 pages it’s not small by any standards!

After I’d finished Outlander #1 I knew that sooner or later I would be returning for a second helping, the day I needed a comfort read of the escapist kind. I had a sort of reading slump (and a cold) and I took this opportunity. They’re back: Claire Randall and James Fraser, and this time no Frank Randall but Claire’s daughter Brianna. The year is 1968, oops, no, wait, 1744, well, you know what I mean…

It’s bewildering how easily I have come to accept this sci-fi / time-travel / historical romance that would have made my eyes roll a few years ago if I had only heard of the premises. I am impressed how Gabaldon can pull it off and make it somehow plausible, but make no mistake : Claire’s research for Jamie’s grave and Brianna’s doubts aside, I don’t really care for the contemporary story line, I only waited for the 18C epic story to start again. I love how Gabaldon mixes real historical facts with her fictional characters and details about random period stuff (medical plants? check. merchant navy? check. French royal court manners? check. Potato farming? check. When I told you these were detailed and random…).

The only thing is that I knew too little about the real facts to make sense of the political intrigue of the big part when Claire and Jamie are in Paris to try to convince Bonnie Prince Charlie not to start the war that would end up in disaster at Culloden. This part would qualify as dragging if the plot didn’t have twists and turns every five minutes or so, and if the writing didn’t flow so easily.

The first volume was definitely better and more tightly pulled together, but I will probably continue the series one day when looking for an escapist read. At the same time, I guess that with every further volume the rationalization of this whole sci-fi / time-travel / historical romance will become harder and harder to justify, so I’m not too sure if I should persist. Any advice?

 

The One with the Sad Husbands

Raymond Carver, Short Cuts (1993)

I’ll assume that you have read some Carver stories and that you know how well written they are. Not one word is misplaced, not one is too much, and the atmosphere is set in a few sentences that are enough to build a whole world.

But oh my, what a world. I have read Carver before and he’s a master, but the experience of reading Carver is a post- #metoo world is that you cannot avoid noticing what a harsh this world is for women (a blue-collar world of the 1960s or 1970s?), how much abuse they get, how little consideration they get from their husbands and other men, how they’re supposed to stay quiet and follow the men’s orders. Many stories’ characters are husband and wife, ignoring each other, misunderstanding each other, cheating and lying when they are not hiding even darker secrets or suspecting their significant other of it, and there is a deep pessimism about marriage in general.

One could argue that the men don’t get a better treatment and that Carver’s pessimism is about life in general, not just marriage. He exposes people’s empty lives and dirty little secrets with a cold irony (at most), and he leaves the judgment to us readers. Beneath the simple surface emotional (or real) violence is lurking.

I know that these 9 stories have been made into a choral movie by Robert Altman but I haven’t watched it, and most probably won’t, as I enjoyed each of these perfect little, sad bubbles on their own, and I don’t want to have artificial, random links built between them. I’ll surely read some more Carver, but I guess I need a pink and sweet palate cleanser before the next collection.

The One where Harry Works for Mickey

Harry Bosch, The Crossing (2015)

I have sorely neglected this blog, being busy writing elsewhere. And my stack of read books to review has grown so much that it is threatening to crush me down. Virtually.

Where should I begin? With Harry Bosch, of course! Michael Connelly’s legal thrillers / police procedurals are the ultimate comfort food in books, if you like well-plotted mysteries like I do. I was sniffling and coughing and working my way through a big box of Kleenex, but I knew that my favorite L.A. detective didn’t care for my red nose. He was busy elsewhere fighting criminals. And not for the police anymore!

The last Harry Bosch I read, The Burning Room, was good but not great. I would never advise someone who doesn’t know Harry to start there. Although I didn’t admit it to myself at the time, it became glaring once I started the next book. Because this one, The Crossing, is great. Harry is back in shape! With inner conflicts! And hunches! And… and I should stop adding exclamation marks every few words, otherwise you’ll think I’m totally irrational.

Well, we go a long way back, Harry and me, so I may not be the most objective reviewer around. When I got to meet his half-brother Mickey, the Lincoln lawyer, I enjoyed it even more and couldn’t wait to see them reunited in another mystery. Almost dismissed from the LAPD, Harry plans to enjoy his retirement and has hired Mickey to defend himself against his former employers who pushed him out. Mickey has other clients to defend too, among which a guy who seems very, very much guilty of murder (based on DNA evidence found on the victim), but who has no motive, unless you accept the DA’s interpretation of a random, frenzied attack. Mickey wants Harry to investigate, but crossing the line between working as a policeman and working for the defendant is a tough choice to make.

It’s a question of personal choice, but one that will make him hard to talk with his former colleagues, friends, and even his own daughter who is not keen on this change either. Soon enough, Harry finds some disturbing details in the case, that convince him that the real murderer is still out there, and this, in Harry’s book, is a compelling duty, even if it costs him some friendships and endangers his own life.

 

Parallel Reading: Girls at the brink of the 1970s

Don’t think that I’m doing a catch-all post to quickly get rid of reviews that are long overdue… On the contrary, writing a post for each book would be easier for me, while trying to link books together is a bit of a challenge, to be honest. But that’s in that spirit that I read them, so here is my experience of parallel reading.

To start, even though it’s harder for me to report, the reading experience is so, so fun! I love when books talk to each other. Over the last 3 months I read 3 books that clearly had a lot of common ground: “America”, by Joan Didion, is a French collection of 11 essays taken from several of her best-known collections: “The White Album” (1979), “Slouching towards Bethlehem” (1968) and “After Henry” (1992). The second book was Emma Cline’s “The Girls”, an oblique retelling of the Manson murders, but also a coming of age story of a 14-year-old angsty girl in 1969 California. The third book, “Mercy, Mary, Patty” by Lola Lafon is a French take on the Patty Hearst kidnapping, told obliquely by a French young woman in the present day and a young girl with her American teacher at the time of the trial.

The first obvious parallel is the end of 1960s and 1970s, when the summer of love has turned sour, when drugs and violence have taken the high ground over idealism and peace and love. I haven’t witnessed it first hand, but I was born at the end of the 1970s when the mood was dark and hopeless and I have never fully understood what was in the air to shift so much from the hopeful days of the 1960s.

The second obvious parallel is young women and girls, as main characters written by female authors. None of these female voices in the three books are exactly likeable. They’re angsty, a bit whiny, both entitled and so unsure of themselves. Violaine in “Mercy Mary Patty” is the pet student of an American exchange teacher in high-school, she’s been chosen to help the teacher with the Hearst material to prepare for trial. She’s highly persuadable and in awe of these exotic characters (both Patty Hearst and the teacher), highly out-of-place in small town 1970s France. Evie Boyd in “The Girls” is lonely and lost, also in awe of Suzanne, the wild, dark (“feral”) young woman in an exotic cult that rejects everything Evie was taught in her upper class, ordinary family. Joan Didion does not quite use the same voice but she doesn’t hide how lost she felt. Although older at the time, a professional journalist whose mission is to observe the people she meets, I can’t help but think that she was strangely fascinated by these weird people in Height Ashbury (and perhaps in Manson’s ranch too, as we see her buying a dress for cult member turned trial witness Linda Casabian). And she was very close to a nervous breakdown.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Emma Cline read Joan Didion (required research reading, isn’t it?), and the result is that in my mind, Evie could very well have crossed paths with Joan in one of these dingy, decaying places where people did drugs all the time, or that Joan could have been invited to a polite party organized in California by Evie’s parents. Violaine, on the other side of the Atlantic, could very well have befriended Evie. She could have been fascinated by Manson or another guru if gurus were roaming the French countryside at that time (not that I know of… California is a far cry from the French Atlantic coastlines). Violaine is taken by the radical protest that her teacher introduces her to, she sees an authentic, pure idealistic woman in Patty Hearst, a young girl like herself who has gone beyond the lies of the civilized society and stifling, conventional parents. Violaine has a massive girl crush in Patty, similar to Evie who has massive girl crush on Suzanne, but doesn’t seem to be as fascinated by Manson. What adults see is that Violaine and Evie are taken into a cult, but what we see from the inside is the adolescent fascination for something different, whatever the discourse (political or spiritual) it takes. Joan Didion, as an adult (she is 35 in 1969, after all), looks at those drifting adolescents and younger with dismay, the same way Evie’s parents and her father’s girlfriend look at her.

The last parallel I’ll draw between the 3 books is the way the writer has addressed her stories and her characters. In the 2 novels, the writer has chosen an oblique approach, with the narrator speaking from the wisdom of her later years, a narrator is contemporary to the reader. Evie has not joined the cult herself but kind of drifts on the periphery (which saves her when things turn dark). Her life afterwards is basically a huge failure. Violaine has not joined any protest group and she has nothing to link her to Patty Hearst herself. Her life afterwards is basically… well, nothing much either. The oblique approach of “Mary, Mercy, Patty” and “The Girls” is what caused my reservations about both books. I didn’t care so much about the present timeline plot, I wanted to be with the girls and experience things firsthand. And I found that it was a bit too easy to make Violaine’s et Evie’s adult lives dull and empty.

Of course, Joan Didion didn’t choose such an oblique way for her essays, but she still starts the White album with this very famous sentence that looks back to the end of the 1960s from the end of the 1970s, in a failed attempt to make sense out of it.  In some ways, even after three books, the era will keep its mystery.

Quick Reading Notes

Last Thursday, I finished both The Girls by Emma Cline and the Raymond Carver’s short story collection Short Cuts within the same day, and then I promptly proceeded to come down with a big cold. Is that literature’s fault? I’d say yes and no.

Certainly, both books were so sad and melancholy that my immune system must have been down and unable to fight the passing virus. It certainly helped that I could read that much because I was stuck at home with my 4yo son who had a cold of his own.

The logical move after a few heavy books would be to pick a light, even humorous book, and I did just that, grabbing the Ellen DeGeneres fun book “Seriously… I’m kidding” that was on my nightstand since my birthday.

I might be weird and special, but when I have a cold I’m not very good with humor books. I’m not that great with humor books when I don’t have a cold, to be honest. And something with having to grab a Kleenex every ten minutes or so makes reading jokes not really funny. I love Ellen (come on, who doesn’t? she’s so fun on screen), but she’s not that funny on print. It feels so random and silly babble, and it helped pass the time, but it’s in no way memorable.

Now, I will just move on and turn back to comforting books… I haven’t finished the second volume of Outlander yet, but if it doesn’t spell comfort read, I don’t know what does. Also, I’ve discovered that I have The Crossing by Michael Connelly on my Kindle library. I’d even forgotten that I’d bought it on a whim when it was a monthly Amazon promotion. Between Claire Beauchamp, Jamie Fraser, Harry Bosch or Mickey Haller, all these powerful characters will be teaming up to help me get rid of my cold as soon as possible!

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!