The One with Shakespeare’s Vampire Friend

Deborah Harkness, Shadow of Night (2012)

Oops, I did it again! I’m sorry I couldn’t resist (the book, and the Britney Spears’ pun). That’s all Covid’s fault I’m sure. The virus and the accumulation of bad news made me do it. After A Discovery of Witches, I couldn’t stop there. I had bought the trilogy on Kindle (an economic choice, as the trilogy was hardly more expensive than the first book), so I had to continue.

What is any good? I certainly can’t pretend to be objective. Well, for the people who enjoyed the first tome, it was a lot more of the same with a change of scenery. For people who found the first tome ridiculous, I don’t think the second will have any redeeming value. Witch Diana and her vampire lover Matthew have chosen to travel back in time at the end of the first volume, hoping to discover more about the coveted manuscript of Ashmole 782, and to escape their enemies. And so they arrive in… 1590, where Matthew used to have lots of friends like Christopher Marlowe, Henri Raileigh, Shakespeare etc. They spend time observing their surroundings with a lot of name dropping and details about clothes and food, like in the first volume, and then lots of shenanigans occur. Not very logical, nor very plausible shenanigans, but enough to keep turning the pages.

I’m all for a change of scenery. I don’t have witches and vampires on my heels, I just have a global pandemic and a very likely third national lock-down. So at this stage I have nothing against Elizabethan England, and lots of details about food and clothes. I readily confess that this is not a highly intellectual motivation nor a very challenging read, but this book is pure fantasy and escapism, and in that respect, it delivers.

Thank goodness there is yet another volume in the trilogy! I will probably start it if/when the government orders the third lock-down. I hope that will be the last lock-down before vaccine, because no more Diana / Matthew frolics after the next book!

The One with Fangs and Wands in Academia

Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches (2011)

How is it possible to both enjoy a book and be aware at all times of its problematic nature? This book is a bit like a guilty pleasure, not only because it is a romance, but because it is not the kind of romantic relationship I would condone in real life. But hey, it’s about vampires and witches, so I’m just throwing realism to the windmills anyway.

If you want to have a bit laugh, go and read some of the one-star reviews of this book in Goodreads. Go ahead, I promise you’ll have a great time. I did, and I laughed, and I did not stop me from devouring the whole book and buying the trilogy. Alright, I might be weird.

In fact, I’d watched the series on dvd before, and I agreed with Mr. Smithereens that it was too schmaltzy. I could practically hear him roll his eye on the sofa. I didn’t really enjoy Teresa Palmer as Diana Bishop, but I sure did enjoy Downtown abbeyesque Matthew Goode as Matthew de Clairmont (how confusing that they have the same first name!). But it was one of those stories where the book has to be better than the series, because the action on the page is much more forgiving and the suspension of disbelief more effective. Also, I wanted more alchemy and more bookish details and I suspected these had been edited on screen.

On the ahem side, I can’t imagine that a relationship between two heroes would still be written this way in a post me-too world. If you concentrate on facts only, Matthew de Clairmont is borderline abusive, stalkerish, sneaky, and the way everyone is ok with him having his way with his girlfriend raises highbrows. Apparently consent is not vampires’ forte. Diana is annoyingly naive.

On the positive side, it’s a sweeping romance among people who love books, libraries, tea and history. And also magic. And time travel thrown into the mix for good measure (Outlander, anyone?). I am aware that my positive arguments are twice shorter than my negative ones, but it does not reflect the fun I had while reading it. Clearly, it could have been edited and details about clothes and food are largely unnecessary, but it still is quite a page turner and I ended up wanting more.

The One with Wise French Adults

Pamela Druckerman, There Are No Grown-ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story (2018)

I bought this book (at a train station, of all places) because I was intrigued. The 40s are not an age many people write about. Coming-of-age novels are about twenty-somethings, right? I can’t think of many novels or movies heroines that are in that age bracket (I hate this term). And now that (personal disclosure alert) I have reached the said bracket, I was looking for some guidance, some empathy, or some humor about its particular challenges. I did find all three, so the book did the job, right? It’s a bit of a mixed bag, and as many readers on Goodreads have been rather harsh in their reviews, I’m inclined to defend it.

Pamela Druckerman is well known for singing the praise of French education to anxious American mothers. I haven’t read that particular book (Bringing up Bébé), I just leafed through it. I tend to be too harsh with books that take the cultural traits of some people of a particular (exotic) country and generalize it, because it’s way too easy to find counter examples. Perhaps I’m getting mellower, but I enjoyed this one.

I expected a book about how well French women do their forties (and get fat in the process? no, Druckerman advocates for wisdom and balance instead), I didn’t expect the memoir-ish side of the book. The author comes from a Jewish family in Florida, who chose to keep her away from harsh realities (especially in social interactions) while she was growing up, so that she later felt that the truth was always escaping her. She chose the right career for this proclivity (journalism), and also married a man who seemed to provide all the answers to her questions. I really enjoyed the way she explained her upbringing and wrote about her vulnerabilities. I didn’t relate to her particular anxiety, but I really felt for her.

The French women she talks about are very privileged, as she seems to mainly socialize with the Parisian upper-middle class and expat crowd, but she really nails down some of the cultural traits of my fellow country people, and it was good fun, and highlighted some aspects of the American culture that remain very foreign to me. Here’s the time when she was asked to deliver a commencement speech at a private university in Paris:

French universities usually don’t even have a ceremony; they just mail your diploma. A professor at one of the top schools in Paris tells me that she once showed her class Steve Jobs’s 2005 commencement speech at Stanford. Jobs describes how he dropped out of college and studies calligraphy, which seemed pointless at the time but later became the basis for the font of Apple computers. He concludes that when you follow your passion, all your strange choices gradually make sense, and the great narrative of your life emerges. Her French students were unmoved by the speech, calling it “completely disconnected from reality” and “so Californian”.

That puts me in a tricky spot. The whole point of a commencement speech is to say something encouraging. Most of the ones I watch boil down to: Yes you can. Here’s how. But I’ll be in Paris, speaking to a graduating class that’s only a quarter American […]. If I say something too uplifting, I’ll seem deluded. The message of a French commencement speech would probably be: No you can’t. It’s not possible. Don’t even try.

It’s not a ground-breaking book, but it’s entertaining, moving and a quick read, proving that 40-something people are definitely fun to be around!

The One with more than straight As

Ed Lin, David Tung Can’t Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets Into an Ivy League College (2020)

I almost called my post “The One with the Longest Title Ever”, but I felt that I was setting a dangerous precedent, and that someone would go and name his/her book something even longer. This book is about competitive kids in high school, and boy is it exhausting at first when I started the book!

I was competitive in high school too, but never at the level of David Tung, who is grilling himself med school tests 24/7 because his SAT scores are already almost perfect. My mother wanted me to get into the best French colleges too, but never at the level of David Tung’s mother, who owns a family-style Chinese restaurant in a New Jersey suburb and won’t be happy until she sees her son in an Ivy League college. I will not disclose here if I had a boyfriend or not in high-school, but let’s say I could relate to some of David Tung’s predicament. (Also, French high-schools are very different from the American system).

The book made me smile a little bit, because I know how Chinese parents are in China, and I know how uber-competitive the Chinese high-school system is, as well as the college admission system in China, and let’s just say that David Tung has it easy, although he might not agree.

David is a straight-A student, nerdish and awkward at the beginning of the book, and it’s easy at first to dismiss him as a jerk when he strategizes his class scores all day long and can’t bear to have a female classmate with better grades. But there’s a lot more to him, rooted in social insecurity and shame: in a wealthy Chinese suburb, he has to work nights and weekends at his parents’ restaurant, and his classmates with lavish lifestyles never let him forget his lowly status.

I really enjoyed the book and grew to like David more and more along the way. This is a middle-grade / YA novel, but author Ed Lin is not afraid to confront some deeper issues (poverty, ambition, racism…) and does not resort to black-and-white clichés. The title of the book is indeed a cliché, but Asian American kids in the book (whether ABC, FOBs or bi-racial) have each their own personality and their own set of challenges. Even David’s parents have backstories. You enter the book expecting the clichéd cat-and-mouse game with the mean parents to go to the ball, but halfway through David sees that it never was really about that ball and that girlfriend, and that he needs to become his own self.

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

The One on the French Bayou

Sheryl Bize-Boutte, Betrayal on the Bayou (2020)

I was approached by the publisher to review this book, and I normally don’t really take more books in, but I was intrigued. I’m so glad I took the chance! It really made me travel far from my own place, both in time and space (in a year where I really went nowhere!). I know really little about Louisiana, but I enjoyed the atmosphere and the characters, and the book was quite original. Beware, there’s another novel titled “Betrayal in the bayou” (not “on”) and it’s a whole different story!

Betrayal in the Bayou is set in a fictional valley in Louisiana , but it actually starts in France in the 1850s, with Emile, a wealthy young man who is a lazy and quarrelsome seducer, to his parents’ despair. They marry him off and put them both on a boat to Louisiana. He arrives there a widow and the father of a little girl, and discover a segregated world dominated by the French code noir and by the heirs of the original French settlers, who literally rule the whole community. Using his usual schemes he manages to marry the heiress of the family, who agrees to finance his lazy lifestyle because she has her own agenda.

The novel soon introduces us to several characters who are outside of the clichés and manage to survive against the odds. I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns of the novel but it’s a family (or community) saga that spans from the 1850s to the end of the 19th century and even more. I wondered whose singular betrayal the title is referring to, because there are so many different betrayals in this book! I liked that the characters had depth and justification even when they behaved quite immorally or outside the social norms. Racial and sexual injustices are at the core of the book but it is never preachy. When I finished the book I had to check if the Tassin valley was a real place or not! The story stretched credibility to some extent but as the pace was swift I really enjoyed the ride.

The One with the Twenty Nine Palms Highway

Lisa Gray, Dark Highway (2020)

I downloaded this book from Netgalley on a whim, attracted by the book cover, ominously dark and rather restrained compared to other mysteries and thrillers (my latest pet peeve is the thriller cover with a woman running away seen from behind – I’ve seen it way too much). I really lucked out on this one; I’m glad I discovered Lisa Gray and that she has other books out there!

I didn’t know that it was part of a series, but it did read very well independently, although I missed some back stories about PI Jessica Shaw and how she came to work for another PI. I didn’t get to understand exactly why she needed some practice hours before having her own license and business, and what kind of dark trauma she experienced before, but I found her endearing enough, and tenacious as hell, which is a good quality for a PI!

In this story, several people go missing around Los Angeles and Southern California. One is a young female artist, whose affluent parents are paying for a private investigation, as the police is not convinced that the disappearance is suspicious. The young woman’s van was found in a remote part of Twenty Nine Palms highway, without any personal belongings inside, and her mother has heard of two other women disappearing in the same area over a decade or more. Still, given that the client is rather highly strung, the idea that those disappearances might be connected is rather far-fetched, as the three potential victims have nothing in common.

The story really took me for a ride! (pun wholly intended) I began to suspect who the bad guy was at about 3/4 of the book, and still the end of the book managed to pull out some more surprises. The book is clearly more about plots and twists than about character development, and I frankly didn’t care much for Jessica’s personal life itself. There are some titillating flashbacks but not so much that the pace didn’t flow smoothly: I really couldn’t turn the pages fast enough!

I didn’t know that the book focused on Twenty Nine Palms Highway of all places, and had I known, I might have skipped the book and missed out. This place (I’ve never been to California) always reminds me of one particular movie, that really shocked me when I watched it many years ago. When it comes to movies I’m really a scaredy cat, but I’m quite ok with violence in books, funnily enough!

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

The One with the Unflappable Granny

Dorothy Gilman, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (1966)

Danielle sent me this book last year and I’m so grateful: it is a present that keeps on giving! From the back cover I knew that this mystery / spying / adventure book was right up my alley, so I decided to save it for when the season would turn dark and cold and gloomy, and boy did I not know at the time what 2020 had in store for us…

Mrs. Pollifax is a very respectable widow from New Jersey. Now that her husband is dead and her children grown-up, she finds herself a little bored. Or completely suicidal, depending on how you see it. So she boards a train to Washington, as one does, and knocks on the door of the CIA to politely ask for a job. Of course.

After a funny mixup, she gets a mission that looks easy enough: to pose as a tourist in Mexico and retrieve a book from one particular bookshop on a particular day. But of course, nothing comes as easy as it’s supposed to be, and soon Mrs. Pollifax is abducted by evil forces.

I enjoy James Bond very much, but Mrs. Pollifax is a strong contender. Throw her in a dangerous prison in a faraway land with armed guards and she will make them sing and redecorate the place. She might be the daughter of Mary Poppins and the aunt of McGyver too, as her handbag is always full of random stuff that will help save the day.

This is a 1966 book, so the bad guys are the Reds (Russians and Chinese) and the world is both so easy and so complicated. Mrs. Pollifax approaches everyone with a kind of benevolent curiosity and she never, never lets desperate circumstances bring her down. This book is so positive and hopeful without being too coy or too Pollyannaish. I’m not saying that it’s exactly realistic, but it’s an adventure book with a light tone but it doesn’t shy from dangerous situations either.

What would Emily Pollifax do in 2020? Probably cheering everyone up and organizing support for hospital workers. I have been basking in Pollifax afterglow for a few days. How do I plan to get through the 2020-2021 winter? But of course, I need some more Pollifax books!

The One with the Surfing Night Cop

Michael Connelly, The Late Show (2017)

I’m a fan of Connelly, so I am biased and I don’t even hide it. But reading this book with a completely new heroine was so invigorating that Bosch paled a little in comparison. You can feel a new energy in Connelly having the freedom to develop a whole new character without being encumbered by the 20+ books that have come before and that he must remain faithful to.

Renée Ballard is quite a fresh and energetic protagonist, and also very different from Bosch. A young female detective on the night shift for the LAPD, she has an interesting backstory. Ambitious and driven, she used to be promised for great things, but a few years’ back she was sexually harassed by her boss and she publicly complained against him. The complaint didn’t go through and he made her pay. She’s supposed to just go from one case to the next and transfer everything to the daytime investigators, but Renée is determined to keep some cases for herself to investigate.

I couldn’t believe how fast I got into this new character, she’s just as good as Bosch in a completely different way. The idea of the night shift provides a lot of very different cases and plot twists to the stories, and Connelly doesn’t shy away from putting his new character in the most dangerous circumstances. The awesome thing about this bad-ass heroine is that she’s inspired by a real-life person, whom Connelly thanks at the end of the novel. More info here for the fans.

It’s the third Connelly I read in 2020, because I have really embraced comfort reads and self-care in book form. But I’m so glad to have several Ballard books ahead of me already!

The One with Jesus in the Black School

Jacqueline Woodson, Feathers (2007)

I borrowed this book (translated into French) because it was one of the two from this author owned by the library system and the only one available. I do believe that I wanted to try Woodson after hearing from her through Laila from A Big Reading Life (it might have been in one of Anne Bogel’s list too, but I’m definitely the worst to remember who recommended what), but I didn’t do my research so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Feathers is a middle-grade novel centered on Franny, in 5th grade in a black school on the wrong side of the highway. She has loving parents, a best friend named Samantha, who is very devout, and a deaf big brother who is very handsome. But Franny worries a lot. Her mother is not in good health and she has suffered several miscarriage, and now she’s pregnant again. When her teacher assigns Emily Dickinson’s poem Feathers to the class, Franny gets to think about hope, all the more as a strange new boy arrives in the class. This boy is not black, and the kids call him “Jesus”. Will his arrival change everything?

It took me by surprise that the book was set in the 1970s, and I didn’t quite understand what age the kids were at first. The tone of the book is gentle and kind, and the theme of hope is rather a rare one (and don’t we need a bit of hope these days?) There’s nothing wrong with the book, but Feathers is quite understated, and it lost a lot by being translated from the English.

First, because nobody in France hardly knows Emily Dickinson, and nobody studies her poems at school, so all the references to the poem were lost (the French title is “The boy who was not black”). All the spiritual and Christian allusions were also alluded, so we don’t really understand what Samantha is going through. The last cause of misunderstandings is that in France, kids aged 11 are not in primary school, they’ve entered middle school, with all the huge changes in their routines and perspectives and often a quick evolution towards teens, and to me Franny felt a little babyish still. But I realize that all this is absolutely not Woodson’s fault, just a case of culture shock.

I’m interested to read more Black female writers, and to read more Woodson in particular, but next time, I’ll get an English original version for sure.

The One with the Vietnamese Americans

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees (2017)

I’d heard a lot about these stories when they first came out, and I’m glad I stumbled upon this French translation at our local library. These eight stories are deep and subtle, dealing with difficult pasts, traumas and family relationships in a beautiful, spare language, and it’s hard for me to tell you which one I loved best.

There’s the first of the collection “Black-Eyed Woman”, whose narrator is a ghost writer for celebs who write memoirs, but she has her own traumatic past she tries hard to forget, until one day the ghost of her dead brother visits her.

I also loved “I’d love you to want me” with an ageing couple. The husband, an old university professor, has Alzheimer’s and starts to call his wife with another woman’s name. She gets to wonder if he had an affair in his past, and if it hurts her so very much to doubt whom he really loved more.

Nguyen captures the culture shock between Vietnamese who have escaped the war and have rebuilt their lives in America. The distance between the two countries illustrate some misunderstandings and illusions / projections that Americans have on Vietnamese immigrants, and vice versa (see the shock of this young refugee arriving in the US at the end of the war to be welcomed by a gay couple, “The other man”), and Vietnamese in Vietnam have on the emigrants who may (or may not) have a grand, easy life in the US (“Fatherland”). I also loved to see Nguyen tackle the divisions amidst the immigrant community, as they are no monolyth. In “War years”, a teenager boy watches how his hard-working parents in their small grocery shop are being harassed by a Vietnamese woman who collects money for the anti-communist fight. Will his mother give her some hard-earned cash? (No spoiler here for you, but the story is a rollercoaster of emotions)

After these stories, I’m now more tempted to try Nguyen’s prise-winning novel, The Sympathizer, although it was not on my radar before. Have you read it?