Stephen King, Later (2021)

Stephen King is a late discovery of mine (after I went past snobbish prejudices, I must confess) and I have no problem saying aloud that I love his writing so much… Yet there’s a catch: the size of his books. I’m always hesitant to commit to a chunkster of 500+ pages, even if I know that those pages will fly (or maybe because of it, I know that it will make me read into the night for far too long)

Later is the perfect book of the perfect size. The narrator is Jamie, a teen with a snarky voice and some unusual skills. The kind of skills that make you shiver: from his childhood on he has been able to see dead people. He sees them, is able to talk to them and hear them talk. Yes, à la Sixth Sense, but without Bruce Willis. And King is clever enough to make Jamie aware of the reference and roll his eyes. His childhood has been rather sheltered, with a single mother working as a publisher in New York city. But then as he grows up things get difficult and Jamie’s life is thrown in turmoil, even without his special skills.

I loved Jamie’s voice, and I loved that the coming-of-age story mostly takes the precedence over the supernatural. Until… I love that Jamie takes everything in stride, the cool and the sad, the mundane and the horrific. He’s a caring teenager, and I totally believed in his character, even when King takes the story into crazy, over-the-top directions (that I won’t spoil).

There are many unexplained things in the story itself, but I have one practical question: why is this book published in a collection called Hard Case Crime? The 1970s cover art is very cool, but also quite misleading. Jamie is born around 2000 I guess, as he remembers the 2008 financial crisis. The book is a mix between horror, thriller, fantasy perhaps? But a crime mystery it is definitely not.

Michael Connelly, Dark Sacred Night (2018)

In 2021 I read three books by Michael Connelly and this one was the last one, after the blunder I made about The Night Fire. I was sure I was reading this book, which is #2 in the series, while I was reading the Night Fire (#3) instead… so after that I had to retrace my steps and read Dark Sacred Night, right? Well, I normally don’t read series in order anyway, and for years I said I didn’t really care (I read from libraries and got what was available, and also international books were so much harder to procure) but I am slowly acknowledging that the experience of reading it in the correct order is, in fact, quite satisfying. Maybe the rebel in me has grown up… 😂 and I’m probably using an emoji that dates me…

Still, you came here for a review of Dark Sacred Night, and I’ll announce right away that you won’t get any plot details from me. It’s a bit fuzzy in my memory. I had fun while reading it for sure but I felt that it was not as good as The Night Fire. Not that I will quit Ballard and Bosch duo anytime soon, but since I had already seen the two of them work together in #3, I had little patience for the will-they-won’t-they of the two starting to get to know each other and learning to trust each other.

A big chunk of the book feels like a second part to Two Kinds of Truth. One of the cold cases Bosch takes here, the murder of a young girl called Daisy Clayton, is the result of a promise he made to her mother Elizabeth Clayton who had descended into drugs addiction as a result of the murder and the lack of justice. The relationship between Bosch and Clayton is ambiguous and well described.

I enjoyed the relentless pace and the renewed surprises of the plot. I absolutely didn’t see the solution coming! I do look forward to reading about this fabulous pair again and I will be careful about the right order!

Nancy Kress, Fountain of Age (2008)

Fountain of Age is a SF novella, but in France short stories is not a popular genre, so the translated novella was published separately. I chose it because I am reluctant to invest a lot of time in a large SF novel (what if I don’t like it? what if I’m out of my depth? Evidently, even as a grown-up 40-something woman, I still have my issues when it comes to SF…). I chose it because the French publisher was the same as the great novella by Ken Liu: The Man Who Ended History. The publisher is Le Bélial, and they have all sorts of SF chunksters as well as a lot of novellas. My third criteria for this selection was that I wanted a female writer, especially after having been blown away by the creativity of Folding Beijing.

The story line couldn’t be more classical: an old man, feeling death coming soon, is looking for the love of his life, whom he met – and lost – in his youth. The old man is very rich and has his own family whom he’s not particularly close to. He has become rich by dubious means, and he has had problems with the law before, but that’s not unusual. The love of his life is a woman named Daria who has married someone else and has not seen him ever again. So, nothing particularly SF really.

The business venture, now, is not what you’d expect in a standard novel: Daria has had a sort of tumor, whose cells injected in other people let them remain young forever. And so Daria herself has disappeared from public view to become a sort of ethereal life-giving entity. Her husband has turned it into a controversial but extremely profitable business. So the meeting between the old man and Daria is not an easy endeavor.

I can’t say that the story blew me away, but it kept my interest throughout. I didn’t really enter into the future world described by Kress (I didn’t get much of a sense of place), nor did the biotechnologies interest me much. But I liked the character of the nasty old man, and particularly enjoyed his friendship with the gypsies. I will probably explore more titles in this collection of novellas, as I find it a good way to try new SF authors.

The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021, Lee Child

It’s been quite a while since I listened to an audiobook, and this one came from Netgalley, whose app I was not familiar with. All this to say that it was not quite a smooth experience, and it has nothing to do with the stories itself. I had difficulties to focus, and I have wondered if short stories are more difficult to get on audio rather than a novel. I’d say that if your attention drifts away for a paragraph (or two?) of a novel, it’s often not a big problem because you can pick the plot line up again later, but in short stories, especially in mysteries, once you’ve missed a clue, that’s too late. But once again, all of this is my fault, and this collection has a lot of stories that kept my full attention.

As always, a short story collection, especially one gathering a wide range of writers and themes, is hard to review. Some stories I enjoyed, some I actively disliked, some left me a bit cold. The big names in the collection didn’t offer stories as dazzling as I’d thought. I was a bit disappointed by Sara Paretsky’s story “Love and other crimes”, which was not memorable. I was disappointed by the Sherlock Holmes story for which I had high expectations (“The Adventures of the home office Baby”). I was a bit thrown off kilter by the Stephen King’s story, “The Fifth Step”, which is masterfully written and nail-biting (as usual), but which to me doesn’t really fit into the mystery genre, it’s more into the horror genre. Same with the Joyce Caroll Oates’ story, “Parole Hearing”, which is a variation on the Charlie Manson’s horrific 1969 murders.

But a lot of other stories were just great discoveries from authors I had never heard about, and whose names I will track down! (That’s one of the great benefits of this sort of collections, in my opinion). Here are my favorites:

  • “The Gift” by Alison Gaylin; about a missing little girl whose rich and famous parents resort to a medium to help in the search.
  • “The 6th Decoy” by Paul Kemprecos; about a quirky PI on Cape Cod
  • “Requiem for a Homecoming” by David Morrell, about a 20 year old murder in a college town
  • “Heatwave”, with a PI who is given the seemingly easy case of a missing teenager
  • “Edda at the End of the World” by Joseph S. Walker, a sort of Thelma and Louise story (no spoiler)
  • “The Path I Took” by Andrew Welsh-Huggins, whose narrator reflects on his time studying in Ireland
  • “If you want something done right” by Sue Grafton, about a very, very organized wife who plans for her husband’s murder

Certainly I will get my hands on a full length mystery with Aristotle Socarides in the near future (Paul Kemprecos). For the other authors (except Sue Grafton of course), a little more research is required. Any name you’ve read?

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel (2020)

Oh my, she did it again! Emily St. John Mandel swept me off my feet with the most improbable novel. With Station Eleven (read 5 years ago!), she’d made me love a post-apocalyptic novel, a genre I actively avoid and always try to keep 10 feet away from me (I didn’t re-read it last year). And this time, she made me love a novel about… about what exactly? About a Ponzi scheme, about retirement savings, about a hotel, about a young woman, about her brother, about rich people and poor people, about a composer and an old woman who is not believed, about office workers… The cover shows a mysterious island lost in the mist, and this is a great representation for the entire book. I love it but I can’t describe it with precision, and every time I try to approach this mirage, it eludes me. All the synopsis you will read here and there don’t do justice to the book anyway, so I won’t even try.

I read the review by Boris Fishman of the New York Times and I was shocked that it was not a glowing one. Not a bad, scathing one à la Michiko Kakutani either, but the reviewer felt lost in too much jumping around, too much randomness and an absence of focus or powerful overarching message. (I’m paraphrasing, and if I got it wrong, it’s all my fault). It’s true that there’s a chorus of voices and a lot of moving back and forth in the chronology, just as in Station Eleven, but I didn’t feel lost. I let go of my expectations and let myself be guided by St. John Mandel wherever she wanted me to go: from New York to a small island near Vancouver, Canada, from a skyscraper with cubicles to a container ship. It is an immersive experience and a slow burner.

Just like in Station Eleven I felt such a melancholy and a sense of grief during the last part of the book. All along the story there are so many ominous sentences that we know it will end badly, but I was surprised of how much I cared for these random, deeply flawed characters, even though I couldn’t really relate to any of them (this is quite rare for me, normally when there’s nothing to relate to I can’t seem to bridge the distance to the characters).

I liked that the book was so very realistic and informative about random things like Ponzi schemes (referring to the Madoff scandal) or container ships, while mixing some supernatural elements without being clunky. In this book, things can be both true and untrue. What is solid (such as wealth) may not be so solid after all. Same as a civilization faced with a pandemic. But people reinvent themselves all the time in this book, and the tone is elegiac but not desperate.

I liked that St. John Mandel weaves a web of tiny puzzle pieces: it’s so satisfying to assemble the jigsaw at the end, but even if I missed some parts of these intricate stories, it doesn’t matter because the picture is still very beautiful. Certainly this book will be among my favorites of this year. NPR calls it “gorgeous and haunting”, and for once the blurb is not exaggerating. And now what I want to know is: what next title from Emily St. John Mandel should I read in 2022?

Nicole E. Williams, This Is How You Vagina (2021)

I chose this book on Netgalley to challenge myself with a non-fiction book, and a science one even. Exactly the kind of reading I never do, even though I’m a big fan of science podcasts in general. I don’t have much comparison, but it did sustain my interest through and through, making it close to a page turner! The tone is friendly and matter-of-fact, not patronizing at all nor too chummy. I believe that getting the tone “just right” (like Goldilocks) is most important when a science writer tries to teach, convince and dispel some prejudices or popular myths, while avoiding that the reader feels pushed around or treated like a child.

As a 40-something woman, I should probably know all about my vagina, but the truth is, I don’t! Or more precisely, I knew the basics by Dr. Nicole Williams taught me quite a lot about my own body! Well, not my whole body. The author is very precise when she talks about vagina, and she doesn’t approximate it with the whole reproductive organs in general. That’s why the pregnancy and birth part is very light, which surprised me at the beginning. She’s also very much against calling it with endearing / coy terms like vajayjay, which I have a bit more difficulty in practice than in theory.

A huge benefit of the book is normalizing talking about vaginas at any season of life, without shame or embarrassment, while acknowledging that this organ is culturally loaded. She not only addresses the medical aspect, but she also talks about the cultural and racial ideas about vaginas (newsflash: old ideas were almost all very negative). She is very good at highlighting how vaginas can be all very different and that there is not one better than the others. She adresses a wide variety of topics including menopause as well as the recent passion for plastic surgery (alarming to me! I had no idea!). It should be a required reading from high-school on.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

Lisa Gray, Lonely Hearts (2021)

A Lisa Gray thriller was just what I was looking for when I browsing aimlessly across Netgalley, in search of something fast-paced and strong like an espresso coffee. (Am I the only one to find Netgalley very messy and confusing now? I don’t take many ARCs, but I must say this site doesn’t make it easy). The first time, last year, I had stumbled upon her book by total chance, but now I knew what I was signing for, and I did sign gladly.

Jessica Shaw is a PI who somehow attracts messy cases. It starts out as a run-of-the-mill missing person case. A woman wants to find her best friend. Simple, no? But if you add that the friend has disappeared almost 20 years ago. And that the friend in question has a complicated past, as she had a child with a death row inmate. And not any death row inmate, a serial killer actually. Oh-Hum.

I knew theoretically that death row inmates and serial killers attracted romantic interests through pen pals. Here Shaw discovers a club of women who are all pen pals to prison inmates, and the girly reunion is quite a scene!

Lisa Gray crafts an efficient plot with lots of twists and turns and red herrings. It’s not as sophisticated as a Connelly novel but it still made me turn the pages fast until the last. I had guessed who the evil one was at about 75%, but the ride was no less enjoyable. You won’t get bored with Jessica Shaw!

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

Michael Connelly, The Night Fire (2019)

Let me make myself a complete fool in front of the whole Internet. I have read this book, marked it in Goodreads and enjoyed it thoroughly… all the time being convinced that I was reading Dark Sacred Night, and not The Night Fire!! 😅 Which means I went directly from The Late Show to #3 in the series… If I want to assign blame to someone, I’d blame my Kindle first, because with digital copies I barely see the covers of the books I read (which is a shame for all the pretty cover art in general, but not particularly for this one which is rather bland). And then I would blame Michael Connelly’s publishers too, for allowing too many similarly bland titles.

I get it, a prolific writer who constantly churns out bestsellers, now that’s such an inconvenience, you really scrape the bottom of the barrel to find a new original title… This being a Ballard novel, a reference to the night shift is clearly what publishers were aiming for, but publishers should realize that if readers (fans even) get confused, that might impact sales! 🙄 Alright, I confess, this argument is done all in bad faith, I was the one in too much hurry to read the next adventures of the gutsy, street-wise Renee Ballard from LAPD.

I enjoyed the interactions between Ballard and Harry Bosch, and Mickey Haller even did an appearance! I enjoyed that the plot was as solid as usual, and that there are additional storylines to keep the pace running smoothly all along, without the artificial device that we all too often see where minor plot lines are somehow linked to the main one (it’s just too convenient and smells of conspiracies). Here, Harry comes up with a cold case that has been gathering dust for decades in the office of one of his old mentors, now deceased… I found this pretext a bit too convoluted, but once it was out of the way, I was absorbed as quickly as ever and I turned the pages fast until the last one!

I think most readers feel that Connelly is preparing for Bosch’s exit and full takeover by Renee Ballard. It’s always highly complicated for a writer to make a beloved character disappear (see, obviously, Sherlock Holmes’ death and later forced resuscitation by Conan Doyle confronted to public outrage – imagine only the exponential outrage if Twitter had existed during Conan Doyle’s life). But Connelly is clever: Ballard has a lot of potential, especially in overcoming some possibly problematic traits of hers. Some Goodread reviewers have scoffed at her employing tactics that are not exactly by the book, and I saw it as something that might come back in later books to bite her hand.

Now, am I really holding a grudge against Connelly’s publishers? Mmh, I’m actually holding a reservation at my local library to grab Dark Sacred Night as soon as it will get back on shelf! 😉

Gale Massey, Rising and Other Stories (2021)

This is the ultimate (most cruel) test. Given that I’ve started reading this collection of short stories at the very end of August and finished it over a month ago, would I still remember them (all)? Or did they not stand the test of memory, eclipsed by fresher books? I love reading short stories but I detest writing about them, and in this case I procrastinated way too long…

The result is… yes, most of them are still fresh in my memory! (A little problem is that I don’t feel they have very memorable titles, but that’s editing, not writing: Gale Massey’s style is effective and evocative). I remember the story of the girl whose father has left during her early childhood because he was gay. She counted the time she was under her deeply religious father-in-law’s roof until she could get out of town. She enlists, finds some freedom but her stint in Iraq is cut short… I remember the story of the girl who lives in foster care where she somehow takes care of the younger girls. She thinks it’s a good idea to apply to a hostess job to get out of there but the place she gets to is a terrifying trap. I remember the title story, where a middle-aged woman, a depressed empty-nester, decides to fly solo to Peru. She wants to see a puma, an elusive and mythical animal, as if only the puma could give sense to her life. In the first story, a young daughter witnesses the rift between her father, a veteran whose best friend is a black man, and her racist mother who doesn’t see this friendship with a kind eye. I wondered when the story was supposed to take place, but I couldn’t get any clue if it was supposed to be present time or in the past. I remember many more stories, probably most of the 13 in the collection.

I’ve never been in the American Southeast, or in Florida where many stories are located. Still I feel that Gale Massey gave me a good impression of the land, especially the importance of water (sea or river) which is present even on the cover of the book. Many stories are dramatic, with young women confronted to tough choices or life-altering events. Most found a way to survive (but not all). I haven’t read anything else by Gale Massey, but I would gladly read more stories of hers.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit (2003)

Mr. S. bought me this book for my birthday after he saw it on my Goodreads wishlist for years (2017 to be precise). In retrospect, I’m surprised how much of a reference this book is. I didn’t know Twyla Tharp’s choreographic work before I started reading, I had never seen her dance or any of her shows. I knew that her book was universally recommended on creativity, and sometimes assigned in courses. I was expecting something similar to Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, one of my favorite books, because they are often listed together.

This was different from what I expected. It was more like an autobiography and an explanation of Twyla Tharp’s own method to keep creating new shows year after year, decade after decade. She sure does give examples and some exercises at the end of each chapter but it’s really not a how-to guide. The subtitle “Learn it and use it for life” is clearly misleading. But the title itself is very meaningful: creation is not seen as the produce of miraculous inspiration (where’s the muse?), but the result of hard work and ingrained habits. Conclusion which I wholeheartedly believe in, but it wasn’t really ground-breaking for me.

I appreciated that Twyla Tharp gave examples from a wide range of arts and creators. I much too often limit myself to writers, and I’d never thought about creative habits when it comes to visual arts or physical arts like choreography. I also liked the idea of “spine” that would support a whole creative project (to find what the spine is would help to build the rest of the work).

But I didn’t really fall in love with the book, in the way that other books about creativity seemed to reveal themselves to me. I believe that’s because I didn’t really learn much, which I’d be able to use for myself. And secondly, the tone of the book was a bit harsh and condescending to my taste – probably because dance is a very exacting discipline. The tone of the book wasn’t full of kindness and compassion. For that, I’d refer you to my two favorite books: Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.