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!

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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 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 Danish Girl in L.A.

Michael Connelly, The Black Box (2012)

Thank goodness for steady writers who deliver, book after book. I get back to Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller regularly and it’s like being reunited with a long-lost friend. It takes only twenty pages to get reacquainted and then it’s like we were never apart.

This time there is a prologue set in 1992 during L.A. riots. The city police is running from crime scene to crime scene, and the cases are handled much too quickly to go really into details. Amidst the chaos, the dead body of a young female Danish journalist is found in an alley by National Guards. This case seems off but Harry Bosch, a then-young police inspector, has no time to dig deeper. Twenty years go by, and Harry Bosch now works in the cold-case unit as a veteran detective. He is now able to fulfill his promise to find Anneke Jespersen’s killer, especially now that the same murder weapon has come up in a gang killing.

The few last times I read Connelly I had chosen his Haller series which are more legal thrillers than police investigations. I had forgotten how addictive the latter are! Finding a killer after 20 years is a mix of tedious checks on cold leads, taking advantage of the progress of science and technology, and a lot of luck. Of course, people may find it hard to swallow that Bosch is able to find people who still remember what they did twenty years ago (I would be terrible! Don’t even ask me!), but Connelly doesn’t make it a rule for every character and his seemless plotting makes it believable enough.

I didn’t care much for Bosch’s perfect daughter and his taste for jazz music, but the plot! the twists! the action! Classic Connelly. He has a great recipe and doesn’t budge from it. Still, it is entertaining and dependable and I will go back to him when the taste for a meaty noir arises again.

The One with the Freudian Daughter

Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother? (2012)

I tend to race through graphic novels, thin or thick ones, even if it’s not comics or mangas. But this one is really something. I needed several weeks to go through this thick memoir, and I didn’t stop thinking about it on my holidays (it was thick and heavy enough that I couldn’t bring it with us). I’m just floored at the complexity and intricacy of this book, that reflects how complex and multi-layered life is, especially when it comes to relationships, and the mother – daughter relationship in particular.

I had not heard of Bechdel, but I recently learnt that she was famous for her test on movies, that should have at least two women who talk to each other about something besides a man. Her book does pass the test easily! Her mother first comes out as a complex, rather cold and bitter woman, who has put her own dreams and ambitions aside to marry and be a mother. Yet Bechdel’s family is anything but traditional, since her father had a side business of running a funeral home and was a closeted gay.

I pause to tell you that Are You My Mother is the second memoir by Alison Bechdel, after a bestseller “Fun Home” that I wasn’t even aware of when I borrowed this book at the library. “Fun Home” is about her father, and there are many allusions to him and this book in this second graphic memoir, but it didn’t hinder my reading.

The book is a feast of references to psychoanalytic concepts, to the life and theories of Winnicott (pediatrician and psychiatrist), to Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich. Freudian theories remind me of my teenage years when I first discovered them and when I had a difficult relationship to my own mother (and father, to be fair, but less so). I had heard of Winnicott in relation to the Melanie Klein and Anna Freud disputes, but they definitely flew over my head then. The graphic form of this memoir is interesting to introduce some concepts but it was somewhat superficial (because Bechdel applied them to her own life of course). I would be interested to learn more about Winnicott’s idea of the good-enough mother (the name is catchy, but as all Freudian theories it’s a lot more complex than being against the perfect, helicopter mother), and of course Bechdel shows how Winnicott’s idea of the false self and true self applies to her own family, where her dad’s homosexuality was repressed and to herself, who seemed to discover her own sexuality after years of denial.

The book is not only highly intellectual, but also very visual and emotional. It’s intimate, as most memoirs are, and at times it feels like a lot of navel-gazing, but the intricacy of the layers make up for that. Like every self-discovery, the book is all about peeling off layer after layer of lies, pretense, shame and secrets.

The One with the Accident of the Train Across the Lake at Midnight

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1980)

Marilynne Robinson is one of these writers I have always been afraid of. Every time she’s mentioned, people speak about The Great American Novel, and I’m always convinced I won’t “get” it, and only Americans can “get” them. Another of these writers is Annie Dillard. I have started numerous times Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and never went beyond page 10. One day I’ll come back to it, I know, so many people have told me that I am missing out, but… intimidated I am.

I borrowed Housekeeping from our new library (more on that later!), and quite frankly I mistook it for Home, of which I had heard raving reviews from people who don’t only read highbrow books (I honestly don’t remember who especially). I didn’t know that Housekeeping was her first novel. I didn’t know what it was about. I didn’t know it had been published in 1980. In Modern Mrs. Darcy website, My name is Lucy Barton was recommended for people who love Marilynne Robinson, so why not try it the other way round ?

The first sentence made me pause, so pregnant it is with hidden messages :

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.

Wow. This packs so much into one single sentence. The orphans (why? how?), the absence of men, the family relationships, the formality and distances of Mrs., Misses, the conservatism (naming one’s daughter like the mother), the mystery of “when they fled”. I was hooked, and no longer intimidated!

The style is everything in this book. There are images that will stay with you for a long time, like that of a train that crashes into the cold lake, lost forever with the narrator’s grandfather in it. The pace is slow and nothing seems to happen, yet a lot goes on beneath the surface. I could never tell when the story is supposed to be set, or where it’s supposed to be. It could be in an imaginary place of fairy tales, but not the Disney version, the dark and sad ones, like Grimm or Andersen. It also reminded me of the melancholy witches of Neil Gaiman in The Ocean at the end of the lane.

The story is told by Ruth, and Ruth is all about her family’s past, and everything she says assumes a dreamlike quality. The writing is both simple and powerful, a bit like the Bible, so that everything happens feels like a myth or a metaphor.

At times the timeless story hit some hard places, especially when it incorporated some elements of reality, of normalcy. In particular, when Ruth’s sister Lucille decided to not follow Ruth and their quirky aunt Sylvie anymore, and when she decided to go to school and dress like a teenager and do what teenagers typically do; i.e. to conform and fit in, instead of staying on the margins of the town. When the village authorities showed up at Sylvia’s doorsteps trying to make her realize that Ruth had to lead a normal life and go to school. It was a hard landing from the dream to the reality for me, because deep down, I didn’t really “get” them and would rather identify with Lucille than with Ruth and Sylvie.

Still, the heartbreaking ending reconciled me with the whole novel when Ruth and Sylvie leave the village behind in a powerful scene and drift away across the country, hoping to find Lucille in Boston one day.

The One with Miss Marple’s Yankee Grandma

Anna Katharine Green, The Affair Next Door (1897)

Alright, this blog post is so long overdue it’s starting to be ridiculous. I can’t even remember when I read this book, but I’m pretty sure I was living in another house and wearing T-shirts: somewhere during spring (I mean this year, still).

My memory is fuzzy now, but I think it’s Danielle who mentioned a while back Girlebooks, a site with a lot of well-edited free ebooks. How could I resist? I loaded up on Elizabeth von Arnim’s novels, on Elinore Pruitt Stewart’s homesteading memoir, but then I was tempted by one of these old school mysteries, The Affair Next Door. I’ve tried the site again today, but there seems to be a problem with it now. Yet it’s not difficult to find a copy of this book elsewhere, it’s in the free domain.

While perusing through the oldies, I took a wrong turn. The name of Anna Katharine Green vaguely spoke to me. It reminded me of some classic sleuth story I’d read years ago. I thought she was the author of the Circular Staircase, a whodunit that had its fair share of implausibilities, but still readable and entertaining. Had I properly checked my own blog (insert eye roll here), I would have known that The Circular Staircase had been written by Mary Roberts Rinehart, while the one I read by Anna Katharine Green was the investigations of Violet Strange, which I had not really enjoyed.

Sometimes being wrong has its advantages, since I started the book with a positive prejudice, not the memory of the insufferable debutante that made me roll my eyes so much I’d got a headache. Instead, I discovered a nosy, busybody spinster with a high opinion of herself, who still managed to help the police with a complicated mystery involving a woman crushed under a bookshelf in an empty house.

Miss Amelia Butterworth could be the grandmother of Miss Jane Marple, but she’s not as cute and  likeable. She’s not your typical mousy grandma with her needlework, she’s a pompous, self-important old woman whose neighbors actively avoid her (shouldn’t it tell you something about her?). She has moments of doubts but most of the time she’s annoyingly proud of her sleuthing talents. Which are okay, but nothing spectacular. I mean, she still needs a real man to solve this mystery, ahem (Anna Katherine Green was probably progressive for her time, but not too much ahead of it). It’s 1897 after all, but if you’re annoyed by patronizing remarks coming from men, you should definitely pass.

I’m very sure that if Miss Amelia Butterworth was living next door I would avoid her too, but as a  fictional character she’s fun, because the writer treats her with kind irony. The mystery holds up and the pace isn’t slack. In terms of literary history, Anna Katherine Greene is born in 1846, which puts her one and half generation older than Agatha Christie. It’s possible that Christie read Greene’s mysteries and was influenced by it, although I don’t know if she would have cared about American novels.

Unfinished Business

Marion Shepherd, Mask of Innocence (2017)

David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000)

The DNF pile is by definition a mixed bag. Even if I try hard to find something, anything, there is absolutely nothing to link Mask of Innocence with David Sedaris’ short story collection, except for the fact that I didn’t finish either of these two books.

Actually I stopped trying to read these two books somewhere during the summer, but I kept some illusions to finish the Sedaris collection until recently. Until I was stuck in the middle and a gentle reader suggested I filed bankruptcy on some of my huge pile. I only post about them both together because I didn’t want to single the Mask of Innocence out. (There was an interesting discussion over at Café Society recently about what to do when one does not exactly love a book… I definitely choose to review, as is the case today)

This one was a poor choice on my side, and my excuse for it would be the great cover photo (who wouldn’t be interested to know more about this mysterious, glamorous red-head? confession: I’m a red-head myself). The novel’s subtitle promised “love, lust, loyalty and deception”, and it did deliver some, but I was annoyed by the lack of clear historical setting. We never learn exactly when the book is supposed to take place, and it’s probably just as well, because historical accuracy is neither here nor there. The main character, Francesca Merchant, lives in the big house in the Cotswolds. People ride horses, maids do curtsies a lot, mysterious events in the evening are lit by candles, but characters speak and react as 21st century people, and that grated on my nerves. I read 25% of it and then skimmed through the rest. There were twists and turns galore, but the whole adventure was not for me.

As for the Sedaris, it started great and it somehow petered out after a third of the book. There were days I could relate to the zany, dysfunctional family character Sedaris paints, but I discovered that it takes a particular mood to fit a Sedaris story. When I feel great and snarky and confident, I laugh out loud. When I feel less than great and tender and shaky, I don’t see the humor in it and sometimes it feels mean and/or pathetic. But it’s probably me.

That said, the stories about France are great and many expats will probably relate. I hope I will return to this collection one day when I feel in the right mood.