Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Abominable Man (1971)

Although this one is #7 in the series (of 10), this is my penultimate book (as I didn’t read it in order, but in function of what was at the library). Strangely enough, the library doesn’t have the whole series, and they might have been scared by such an abominable title. (or by the book cover). Another version would be that it was so good that a reader stole the library copy. Whatever the version I choose, I’m glad I have bought this copy, because it’s quite memorable.

The Abominable Man (in Swedish version The repulsive man from Saffle) is not the killer. It’s actually the victim. A man is killed with a bayonet as he lies defenseless in a hospital bed. He was a high-ranking policeman and a former soldier. But don’t cry for him just yet. As Martin Beck and his team investigate, they discover that this man was the epitome of police brutality. By his negligence, prejudices, direct or indirect actions, he’s responsible for the death of several innocent people and the harassment and unfair indictment of countless others. In short, he won’t be missed much and it’s rather difficult to narrow down a list of suspects. To make it even more relevant to some recent cases in the media, a lot of people among the police force were aware of his cruelty and abuses, and they all kept silent.

Contrary to several books of the series, where the crime is rather banal and the investigation is long and tedious, this book is flashy and cinematic. The killer with the bayonet will not stop just with one victim, his despair and hatred have turned against the whole police force and he’s not afraid to die. It’s a tragedy of epic dimensions, and the humor of the previous volumes is scarce. The denunciation of the systemic corruption of capitalist (patriarchy, conservative, insert any of the more current vocabulary) Swedish society gets more obvious, but never at the cost of forgetting the human dimension. That’s why Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s books are still so relevant today.

The book is so full of tension, it’s hard to stop reading, especially the last quarter of the book. There’s a rampage of violence, with a single man on one hand, and the entire Swedish armed forces on the other hand. The cliff-hanger is absolutely nail-biting, but I spoiled it a bit for myself by having read book #8 before. Don’t make the same mistake!

In a twisted way, it reminded me of a classic 1975 French movie with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Peur sur la ville (The Night Caller in UK/US), where the whole of the police force is hunting a cunning killer throughout a dehumanized landscape of modern towers, but in many important ways the movie and this book are polar opposites. In the movie, no soul-searching about the systemic violence of the police, no social criticism, but instead a not-so-subtle manly man demonstration of force to protect weak single women from evil killers who certainly aren’t worth a fair trial, and barely the bullet of the good detective’s gun. Unless you’re interested in cultural movie history, don’t bother watching this dud, but I guess the relentless movie music by Enio Morricone would be the perfect soundtrack for the Sjöwall & Wahlöö book.

We’re now in December, and only one last book left in the series to complete! I can’t wait!

Toshiya Higashimoto, Theseus’ Ship

Original Title: テセウスの船 (10 volumes, 2017-2019)

How do (young) people do with manga series? As the release of each episode is spaced out across months and years, do they really remember all details from the previous episodes? Or do they go back and reread? Or do they wait until the series is completed to launch into the adventure? My son is an avid manga reader, but I’m just an occasional one, and I feel slightly frustrated when I can’t move to the next manga volume. Or is it part of the experience?

Ship of Theseus is a manga for adults, not because of its sexual content, but because of psychological violence and occasional graphic one. It deals with the repercussions of a terrible crime in a small rural village in Japan in 1989, 20 people have been poisoned at a school fair, among which many kids. The local policeman is arrested and condemned for the crime, even if he never ceased to proclaim his innocence from death row. The family of the policeman was shunned and went on to bear heavy consequences for the crime.

Twenty five years later, the policeman’s son, who was born while his father was already in prison, feels compelled to return to the village where it all started. But a weird mist sets, and the young man finds himself in 1989, just months before the crime.

The young man gets the chance to meet this father he never knew, to investigate and try to prevent the crime from ever happening. But as he meddles with the past, events start to change and his own destiny is impacted.

This series is 10 volumes long. I read volumes 1 to 3 in 2019, and then I donated the books as I didn’t particularly want to keep them at home (it’s very dark). Then a few months ago I noticed that my local library has them up to volume 7. But I couldn’t remember the complex web of suspicions and lies among the villagers and the subtle modifications of the past / present/ future, so I started over and had to wait in line to read the volumes in order. And now that’s I’m done with number 7, my patience has to stretch out to the max until I’ll get numbers 8 to 10 (but even sure if they’re all out yet in French, the librarian has no idea). What’s a girl to do?

The only sure thing is that Toshiya Higashimoto has me hooked, line and sinker. The story is so clever that I half expected it to be changed in subtle details when I returned the second time. If I need to wait several months again, will I return to the beginning once more?

Magda Szabo, The Door (1987)

It’s really a shame that I can’t remember who recommended me this book (this recommendation came from more than one place, but whether it was a IRL friend or a book blogger, I really can’t say). It also came with the halo of the French Femina prize, which is sort a big deal. Which is the reason why I stuck with it for so long, despite my good resolutions to abandon books that don’t grab me. All those people must have seen something I don’t see… just yet… maybe?

In The Door, the narrator is a female writer who lives in a building with a caretaker, Emerence, who is very special. Emerence and the narrator develop a long-standing relationship over the course of twenty years, with many untold rules and promises, taboos and secrets. Emerence is the servant of the narrator, works tirelessly, but she also does everything as she pleases. She is also the center of the neighborhood, knowing everyone and their secrets, ruling over other servants and talking back to generals and policemen. Emerence seems to have no fear but she doesn’t allow anyone inside her own flat.

It’s a slow-paced book (although things escalate by the last quarter), and you can read many things between the lines, both historical and symbolic. The book was published in 1987 in Hungary, behind the Iron Curtain, so I couldn’t help but wonder how an officially socialist country like Hungary could have housekeepers. Also there are many references to church-going and religion and I was a bit lost. What was Szabo allowed to write and what was I meant to understand by omission? The little building and the neighborhood over which Emerence ruled seems so far from history and politics, except for references to World War 2. This is so different from the atmosphere of the dreary Democratic Germany!

The writing was good and the secrets that Emerence kept were powerful, but both Emerence and the narrator grated on my nerves, and I had little patience for their love-hate codependency relationship. That’s how I started the book in July and finished it in November. I’m quite glad I stuck until the end but I’m in no hurry to start another book by Madga Szabo.

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! 😉

Hao Jingfang, Folding Beijing (2014)

Folding Beijing is an awesome novelette, and it makes me so sorry not to remember where I heard about it. I know that what decided me to read it is the translation by Ken Liu, whose short stories I enjoyed more than once (The Hidden Girl collection and in a novelette of his: The man who ended history). It’s only when I finished reading the novelette that I learnt that Hao Jingfang is a young woman, that she wrote this while studying at Tsinghua University and that she is the first female Chinese writer to have won the prestigious Hugo award. I read the story without knowing all that, but now that I do, I’m even more impressed and I humbly think that this award is very well deserved!

Folding Beijing is set in a world divided in 3 classes of citizens: the rich, the middle-class and the underworld, that lead separate lives, not only spatially but temporally. When one class of people goes to sleep, their city folds itself into the ground and it’s now time for another class to unfold above ground and get up. Everything in this division is unequal, the rich get the most of the 24 hours and enjoy sunlight, while the underclass live in cramped, dirty lodging and live only in darkness. In the story, one man from the underworld sets to “go over the fold” and sneak into the privileged world for a risky, but rewarding mission.

The premise of the story is almost more interesting that the character’s quest itself. There are so many relevant themes in the idea of spatial and temporal segregation. Some themes are nothing new ([spoiler alert!] like the idea that blue collar workers are more and more replaced by robots), but the way it is exploited in this folded world felt fresh to me. Of course, the story is not explicitly taking on a political and social stance against the current situation in China, but it’s difficult to avoid thinking about it.

What was also great about Folding Beijing is that it is not any anonymous, futuristic, slightly American city that gets folded and unfolded, I still got a sense of old Beijing in the first part when we discover the “third space” that lives during the night. I’m no big reader of Sci-fi, but there’s obviously a great potential to explore here. (And I want to also explore if Sci-fi may be an outlet for Chinese expression that might not be easy to let out in other realms). I have not yet tried famous Chinese sci-fi writer Liu Cixin, but I should probably take a leap of faith and venture into unfamiliar territory. Any recommendation?

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.

Akiko Higashimura, Blank Canvas 2 (2013)

Original title: かくかくしかじか 2 / French Translation 2020

I’m always on the lookout for mangas that are not typically for young men (seinen) with lots of muscle and violence, or for young girls (shojo) with cutesy love stories. Luckily, a sliver of the manga market is for other artistic endeavors. This one is categorized as a josei, a manga for adult female readers, but I guess it could talk to anyone who has struggled as a student, which makes for a lot of people! It is also an autobiography, which is pretty unusual for mangas.

In the first volume, which I read in December last year, young Akiko managed to pass the very competitive university of arts by cramming for the exams with a very unconventional teacher. She’s now at university far from her family, her teacher and her usual environment (she’s from the tropical beaches and she got a northern university). It’s really hard for her to adjust and to get back to work, all the more as painting is not really what she wants: her secret dream is to be a mangaka.

Akiko is a very frustrating, annoying older teenager, and I totally reacted to the book as a mother of a young teenager (and future college student?). She does everything wrong: drink too much, spend her allowance, skip her classes, flunk her exams, lie to her parents and her teacher. The book is both honest and humorous. She also tells the story as an adult Akiko who knows better and reflects on her mistakes. The ending of this volume, when her former teacher comes to visit, is quite moving. I can’t wait to read the next volumes to see how Akiko manages to turn her bad habits around.

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.

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.