Caitlin Moran, More than a Woman (2020)

I haven’t read anything by Caitlin Moran before this one, but my husband did (How to be a woman), and he enjoyed them both a lot. He practically pushed this book into my hands, but I had plenty to read at the time (when have I not?). When I found the book on my nightstand over and over again, I knew my husband wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I had heard him laugh out loud several times, so it was a good sign, wasn’t it?

Did I laugh? A little bit at the beginning, because apparently Caitlin Moran and I share a list problem, and it rang very true! We also put things on the stairs expecting the 3 men in my household to take them upstairs without me having to nag (it doesn’t work, nor does it for her, so I’m just… normal). We have roughly the same age, a husband and kids and a never-ending to-do list. Caitlin Moran argues that it’s the same for every woman in her forties, and I’m not so sure about it. A lot of the book reads like one of those internal monologues I have when I am stressed out and overwhelmed, but perhaps it’s just because I’m in the same demographics as the author and nothing more. I feared that the book would be another of those men-are-shit books, but it’s more intelligent than that. Caitlin Moran encompasses everything in a middle-aged woman’s life experience, from the shallow (the neck, à la Nora Ephron, the hangover, a very British topic imo…) to the deeply moving, from the joys, to the outrage and the social and political aspects.

I felt a bit uneasy at the unlikely mix between the public, universal vindication for women’s rights, and the private, intimate confession of her daughter’s eating disorder. The laughs from the first few chapters turn into tears as we readers progress into the book. I hope that her daughter was/is on board with this part of her mother’s memoir, because otherwise it would be very disturbing. Women in the 40s are indeed the sandwich generation, and this book is a moving witness account of the terrors, glory and power of this stage of life. It reminded me of Judith Viorst‘ poetic vignettes of the 40s (How Did I Get to Be 40 & Other Atrocities) and later years, which is a compliment in my mind. I appreciated that she ended it with a note of hope.

Philippe Sands, The Ratline (2020)

I started by listening to the BBC podcast series, but it was so rich and fascinating that I thought listening (while cooking, taking the train or doing chores) was not good enough. I wanted to learn more about it, so I bought the e-book, which is a bit unprecedented for me. I usually buy books I hear about on podcast about books, never before had I bought a book that was the exact object of the podcast. The title is a bit misleading, because it’s not really about the Ratline, but it is so engrossing that I can easily forgive this. It kept me turning the pages during September, and for those who have read this blog for a while, that hardly ever happens to me for nonfiction books.

The Ratline is the story of two people, Otto Wächter and his wife Charlotte, Austrian citizens born at the beginning of the 20th century and who were early ardent supporters of the Nazi movement. We are so used to have Nazis made into cardboard evil characters in movies that it’s hard to read about “normal” people being genuinely enthusiastic about this ideology and adhering to this way of life. Wächter tried to overthrow the Austrian liberal government and suffered a momentary setback, but a few years later as Austria was absorbed into the Nazi empire there was almost no limit to the social climbing of these two. Wächter became a SS General, the Governor of the district of Kraków Government (in Poland) and then of the District of Galicia (in Ukraine nowadays).

Charlotte became the wife of the governor and the mother of his children, and because of his rank and career she got to choose any kind of available villa she fancied when Jews were expelled from the country, and she got to choose any kind of paintings in the museums of the district his husband ruled over. And she did it without qualms, and even with glee, as we see in pieces of her diaries and letters. She had fun, and no regrets whatsoever, and probably remained so until the end of her life. Little by little we get to see the heartless monstrosity of their attitudes but they never seem to realize it.

It’s rare and a bit of a surreal experience to get a glimpse of what Nazi rulers’ daily life. That part of the book was well before the Ratline (i.e. the escape route to South American Nazi officials found after their defeat thanks to friends and sympathizers, among which high-ranking prelates of the Catholic church) and this makes up for about half of the book. Wächter escaped at the end of the war, went into hiding and took false identities, making his way to Rome with the hope to find this route abroad. But money was lacking and connections didn’t fully deliver on his hopes, and he died in 1949 in Rome. The book takes a sharp turns when Sands ponders the causes of death, going into CSI-like details of post-mortem etc. Was Wächter death natural or suspect? If so, who would have killed him?

The book also explains how Philippe Sands came to this very strange investigation project. Otto Wächter’s and Charlotte’s younger son Horst collaborated with Sands to an extraordinary extent, while remaining convinced throughout the book that his parents were fundamentally decent, good people. He gave Philippe access to private papers and information even though the rest of the family didn’t agree. Philippe and Horst have a weird relationship throughout the investigation, going to the same places his parents lived and seeing radically different things. This book is a fascinating combination of biography, spy novel, scientific and historical research, and so evidently it is rather long (400+ pages), but I am convinced it is worth every minute of it.

Elly Griffiths, The Postscript Murders (2020)

Is there a part of me that’s bemoaning the start of fall? Certainly, but that’s no reason to hang to summer, and especially to the reviews of the books I read in August for the 20 Books of Summer challenge. Especially when I enjoyed those books! I’ve discovered Elly Griffiths earlier this year and I really liked the two books I read from her series with Ruth Galloway, a Norfolk archaeologist who always gets embroiled into murder investigations. I was happy to see that she has another series underway, with police detective sergeant Harbinder Kaur.

Harbinder Kaur is a 30-something Sikh woman who still lives with her somewhat meddling, ageing parents who hold a grocery shop. Harbinder can’t really tell her family that she’s gay, but it is clear to all that she’s gutsy and ambitious. Although she’s a great character, she hardly takes center stage in this cosy mystery, there’s a large cast and they are all good!

The Postscript Murders take place in a retirement home on the seaside. Now, didn’t I read just another murder mystery set in a retirement community in England? Yes, it was The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, which I’d liked a lot. It is rather an unfortunate publishing coincidence to have those two out almost at the same time, because it leads readers to play the comparison game and that’s not fair.

In both books, a group of mismatched amateur investigators are trying to discover the truth alongside the official police work. In both books, one of the old people clearly has some past linked to secret services. In both books, the “invisible” people who provide care to the retired people have a lot more back story and complex motivations than what one generally expect. In both books, you have elements of romance and a very sweet and perfectly British tone that makes my heart melt. Don’t make me choose one, I actually loved them both!

What I liked most is probably the tongue-in-cheek writing. Elly Griffiths is having fun, and knows that her readers share a lot of knowledge of classic murder mysteries and of Miss Marple tropes. Some dialogues are priceless and really made me laugh. She also pokes some fun at writers and publishers and writing conventions. This book is the second in a series, but it really holds well as a standalone. Still, I might go back and read the first one next time I need a dose of British cozy mystery.

Ann Cleeves, Cold Earth (2016), White Nights (2008)

I’m woefully behind in posting about books (10!! I don’t think I’ve been that bad in a long, long time), so I’m going to lump these two up. I’ve recently read a Vera mystery by Ann Cleeves, and it proved just as good as the TV series, so that I decided to continue in the same vein for the Summer Book challenge. I’ve watched several seasons of Shetland on TV with Douglas Henshall as detective Jimmy Perez, but had never tried the books before. A lot of the appeal of these mysteries are the beautiful landscapes of the Shetland islands, but not only… (If you don’t want to be sitting in front of this blog post forever, don’t start me on Douglas Henshall… Some people have Brad Pitt or Bradley Cooper… 😊 To each their own…). So I came to the book with high expectations (and also a bit disappointment that I wouldn’t see… Douglas Henshall… but I digress)

Following my own rule of being totally unrully when it comes to series, I had #2 and #8 in the Shetland series (that’s Amazon special offers for you), and I started with… the late one. My reasoning was that the #2 might have had a TV adaptation which I’d seen. Which proved actually wrong (or I am becoming even more forgetful than usual). Jumping back from #8 to #2 was indeed a little spoilery, but having followed the TV series I’m pretty much all spoilt already 😏. But for the sake of clarity I’ll report on them in chronological order.

In White Nights, the action takes place in summer, when the Shetland islands have long days because the sun never sets on those Northern latitudes. People do all sorts of wild things during this period, we’re told, especially as they want to enjoy this period before storms, rains and darkness come back for the rest of the year. The book opens with tourists getting down the boat in Lerwick. An art opening is taking place at an upscale gallery on the beach, organized by famous painter Bella Sinclair, and also presenting some paintings by Fran Hunter, who happens to be… Jimmy Perez’ girlfriend. During the gathering a man with an English accent, whom nobody can really place, makes a bit of a scandal and Jimmy Perez escorts him outside. But the next day, the man is found dead, hanging from a rafter in a nearby shed. As it happens, it’s not suicide, but finding who this man is proves to be a challenge, as is the rest of this investigation. If nobody seems to know the victim, why would anyone want to kill him?

I really enjoyed the story and its quiet pace. Every character is well developed and full of his/her own faults and story, even people you hardly see for more than a few pages. For example, one woman on the island is a shopkeeper who reads novels and is very shy, I’m glad Cleeves took the time to develop her, although one feels that Perez never considers her a suspect. The person in England who knows the victim has her own backstory too. Shetland has small communities where everybody knows everything from their neighbors, and so you wouldn’t think it possible to have so many lies, treasons, bitterness and heavy feelings hidden from one another (and from the police) for years. My only reservation is that the resolution seemed to come out of the blue; although it made sense in terms of motive and opportunity, I still found it a bit unrealistic.

Cold Earth takes place years after White Nights, and let’s cut the chase to state that a lot has happened since then and Jimmy Perez’ girlfriend is no longer Fran Hunter. The opening scene is formidable: a burial on a rainy, winter day in Shetland triggers a landslide, which engulfs the road and a nearby house and kills a woman. A woman in a red silk dress in a cottage that everyone thought empty. Who was she? Perez is obsessed, especially as he learns that she was in fact killed before the landslide. The landslide’s scene struck me, especially as I have recently watched the Crown (season 3) covering the Aberfan disaster in 1966 (I had no idea of this historical event and it is presented in a very powerful way). Here the cemetery is literally pushed by the mountain and the rain into the North Sea, and the mental image is sure to leave a mark.

Perez works on this case with a Scottish police chief detective named Willow, and there’s definitely a spark (and more) between them. That’s the thing about reading books out of order. Now I have to tell you that Fran Hunter is, in fact, dead, and Jimmy Perez is still grieving, and also taking care of Fran’s little girl (in the TV series, the daughter is a lot older, so I was confused for awhile). Will he be able to get over his grief to allow himself all the feelings for Willow? Don’t worry, Ann Cleeves steers clear of the romance territory, we’re still very much in the cozy mystery/ thriller genre and the pace is rather more gripping than in the White Nights. Once again, I have a tiny bit of reservation with the resolution, but I’m totally ok to follow along whatever Douglas Henshall… erh, Ann Cleeves has in store for me.

I enjoyed this one even more than White Nights, and I might get back to read the books in-between, if during the colder months I’m in urgent need of rainy, windswept landscapes, Scottish accent, and Douglas Henshall.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, English Climate: Wartime Short Stories (2020)

I don’t know about fellow book bloggers, but in my experience it’s so much easier to write about a book one dislike than a beloved book, and to add another layer of complexity, it’s way easier to write about novels than short story collections. All this to say that I’m sorry to write only now about this collection I read and enjoyed in early July (!). If I delayed writing this post many times, it’s because the book is really good and I don’t want to mess it up!

This collection presents 22 stories written between 1940 and 1946, many of them published in the NewYorker for American readers. Of course, as this collection is published by beloved Persephone, it begets questions and comparisons with other women-centric short stories of the same period, such as Goodnight Mrs. Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes (which I loved). Both collections focus on women’s daily experience on the home front (more often than not the quintessential British village or the upperclass mansion – think Midsommer Murders) and what goes in their hearts and minds beyond the official “Keep Calm and Carry On”: hopes and fears, tragedies, disappointments and tiny intimate upheavals. But Mollie Panter-Downes’ stories are a bit more emotional and kind, while these stories often have a darker undertone, although often tinged with enough humor to make it more palatable.

Even though I read them two months ago now, I still have fresh memories of these vivid scenes. Evacuee children from London to the countryside don’t react to their new surroundings like the adults expect them to. Tobacconists have few cigarettes left: which customers will they favor with their treasure? Wealthy homemakers contemplate the potentially liberating destruction of the home they’ve been restricted to. Women learn to use weapons in the perspective of a potential Nazi invasion, but perhaps they shouldn’t be trusted to have such powerful tools. Burrial ceremonies – and the ensuing family reunions – get disturbed by the impromptu falling of a bomb. Women in the absence of men make unconventional lodging arrangements. And so many other stories… We get to see a bit of everything, from wealthy to poor people, from Londoners to country people, and every time Sylvia Townsend Warner takes an unusual perspective.

I don’t know why Sylvia Townsend Warner is so little known and so little read. She’s been already a favorite writer of mine since Lolly Willowes, but I have neglected her for too long. This collection convinced me to try and find more books by her, either stories or novels. I’m writing this up for the winter!

Karen Maitland, Company of Liars (2008)

The book was pushed into my hands by Mr. S. himself, who encouraged me not to give up. Well I didn’t, although I was tempted more than once. I was squeamish about the pandemic setting (it’s set in 1348 during the Black Plague), but that wasn’t the problem. The thing is, it’s awfully slow. I might have enjoyed it more edited of a few hundreds pages.

I had understood that it was 1. a retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales 2. a mystery. Both are rather misleading. It compares to Chaucer to the extent that a group of different people travel together due to the plague and nothing more. The cover and the blurbs already announce that each of the travellers hide some secrets about themselves from the others, and then they die one by one. I’d supposed that some would die of the plague, but that’s not the case. And the first death actually occurs past the half mark of the book!

The book is actually part historical fiction, part thriller, part supernatural. I found the mix interestingly unusual but it is not my favorite. The question is not really whodunnit but why, and I didn’t care much for each person’s secret. The ending left me frustrated as well.

Still, I enjoyed the research on people’s everyday life and beliefs in the Middle Ages, which is rather unusual. I get that people back then had a lot of supernatural beliefs, but the supernatural part of the plot itself was rather distracting to me. It made me doubt the historical part.

I have a lot of great memories of Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders regarding the 1666 Plague and it should not compare… Any recommendations on good historical novels set in the Middle Ages?

Richard Osman, The Thursday Murder Club (2020)

The Thursday Murder Club is not a club where murderers meet on Thurdays to commit their crimes. It’s a weekly appointment for 4 members of Coopers Chase Retirement Village in Kent, all fast approaching 80 years of age, to put their skills and brains together to investigate cold cases. The story is told by Joyce Meadowcroft, a very proper retired nurse, who has been recently invited by Elizabeth, the group leader, to join the club, as Elizabeth’s best friend Penny is now in hospice care. In a retirement community, it is expected that some members will die. But it would be from illness or old age, and not from being murdered. Soon the group of friends is thrilled (!) to learn that the village property developer has been found murdered, and of course they are very keen to provide help to the local police.

This has the perfect recipe for a great cozy mystery: quirky and endeading characters (imagine Miss Marple who would have joined forces with other nosy old people; the bonus would be that each of them used to have a career or skills that would come handy to unmask criminals). I adored Joyce, and Elisabeth. I liked that the book has a really comedic quality, but also it can venture into a more melancholy tone.

I didn’t know that Richard Osman is a British TV celebrity, and frankly, I couldn’t care less, because the mystery, setting and characters are all delightful. I understand that this is his first novel, and at some points it shows a little, as the pace is rather uneven and there are too many characters and backstories crammed between the covers. But it is a resounding success, and a great entertaining read, and I’m sure to be looking to the next mystery that our friends of the Thursday Murder Club will be investigating.

Ann Cleeves, The Darkest Evening (2020)

I watch Vera Stanhope mysteries on TV, but I must confess that I haven’t read many Ann Cleeves mysteries in book format. In fact, I only read one, The Glass Room, and it was back in 2014! This is definitely something I should work on, because Ann Cleeves delivers a solid plot with characters I enjoy, and instead of wasting my time with some stories that hook you up but stretch your credibility beyond reasonable limits (I’m thinking Domestic noir, Girl on the train and friends), I should turn to classic British countryside whodunits such as this one.

The Darkest Evening starts with a snow storm, something that’s always nice to read about when you’re at home in summer (even if the weather is not really summery these days. Vera takes a wrong turn on the road, and she finds an empty car, doors open, stuck in a snow drift. Inside the car is a baby in his snowsuit, unharmed, but not trace of any adult around. Vera takes the toddler to the nearest shelter she finds on that road: her cousins’ big mansion.

If you’re familiar with Vera Stanhope, you probably know of her stinginess, her propensity to call everyone “love” and her dogged determination to solve crimes, even if it means bossing her team around at ungodly hours or in bad weather to follow some clue. I remembered from TV episodes that her father was an excentric and raised her on a lonely, run-down house on the moor. In this book, we get to learn that her father was the black sheep of an otherwise rather wealthy family. The Stanhopes are the lords and ladies of the manor, overlooking the villages and the farms but the manor itself is in bad financial shape.

I enjoyed this book with its numerous characters with secrets and backstories, the gossips and lies and the reveal totally took me by surprise. It’s always fun to see people underestimate Vera because of the way she talks or walks. I could picture Brenda Blethyn playing in this story. I don’t want to wait another 6 years to read another book by Ann Cleeves!

John Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016)

I never thought I would say something like that about a Harry Potter book but this one left me “meh”. It sure isn’t awful but there’s nothing to rave about either. Mostly, it felt a bit pointless. The Deathly Hallows offered to all fans a climax and a closure; it’s really tough to have anything come after that.

So what can The Cursed Child offer? A revisit to best loved characters, almost twenty years later. Time is not kind to anyone, and fans probably hate to see the kind of adults Harry, Hermione, Ron and the others have become. I don’t mind so much, but the whole thing about parenting is hard felt rather heavy-handed.

It offers also a new visit into famous moments of the canon, thanks to time-travel devices. But after the first moment of surprise the whole time-travel thing feels more like a gimmick. (And we all know that I’m not allergic on principles to time-travel in literature) Even my son commented that there was enough back-and-forth to give you motion sickness. The plot itself was not really what I expected of J.K. Rowling. There are really implausible parts (I don’t want to go into spoilers, but there’s a particular awkward detail that really beggars belief), inconsistencies and some predictability, which does not make for a good cocktail.

I love the Harry Potter series (still love it despite this one, which I don’t really consider part of the story), and I transmitted this love to my elder son, so that was only logical that I would buy him this book. It was perhaps a fault of mine that I didn’t read it before giving it to me. My son rather enjoyed it (but not to the degree of the rest) and when he told me to read it, I added it to the pile… for a full year and then more (to my shame). I picked it up for the Summer reading challenge (#20BooksofSummer organized by Cathy from 746 Books) because I wanted to something easy and light. In that respect it was alright, and it was entertaining in a fully nostalgic way, plus it was a good opportunity to talk again about Harry Potter with my rapidly-growing teenager.

I have a mild curiosity about how all this magic and time travel translates onto the stage but I surely wouldn’t pay a fortune to get tickets.

The One with the Metal Detectorists

Elly Griffiths, The Night Hawks (Ruth Galloway #13, 2021)

This is only my second Ruth Galloway mystery but I am already invested in this tightly-knit community of interesting characters – and I also know that this book won’t be the last I read in the series! I discovered Ruth Galloway and her little Norfolk village in March with #11 (yes, I know, this is not reasonable) and this one is #13, but I could catch up without any problem. I won’t say the book can’t read as a standalone, but if you do, be aware that you might soon get addicted like me and that you’ll want to read the rest!

Ruth Galloway is an archaeologist (and now the head of her university department), and so to her, metal detectorists are just annoying amateurs who are messing around and messing things up. I’ve hardly ever seen metal detectorists in my part of the world but I had never thought they actually could find real historical artifacts! But here, not only do they find an old burial site on the Norfolk coastline, but they also discover the body of a recently deceased person. And this person may not have died of natural causes… That’s one of those (happy?) coincidences where Ruth Galloway finds herself once again at a crime scene at the same time as DCI Nelson, who is also the father of her child.

I let myself being entertained by a mystery full of twists and red herrings, but I cared less for the whodunnit than for the interactions between the large cast of characters. Is Ruth going to enjoy her new position at work? Why is her newly recruited professor so cocky? Will Nelson ever consider retirement? What kind of Norfolk tradition and old tales will the mystical druid Cathbad refer to this time? How is it possible for a druid to be happily married to a police inspector? Where is Clough? (that one may have its answer in volume #14 that I missed). Thanks to Griffiths’ great skills at characterization and witty dialogues, I actually cared about this small world as if all these people really existed. (I do wonder how she keeps track of all these people though…)

The book will keep you turning the pages late into the night, and if you’re anything like me, Norfolk coastline will probably be added to your list of destinations to visit one day.

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