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 Workers’ Paradise City

David Young, Stasi Wolf (2017)

I can’t believe it’s been 5 years (five! I would have sworn 3 maximum!) since I read the first book of this series. I still remember it quite well, which is a testament to David Young’s skills. I had quite enjoyed this foray into the world of the German Democratic Republic and its criminal underworld, especially as I am old enough to remember it. Young has created a believable character, Karin Müller, full of nuances. She is a police officer with crimes to investigate and murderers to catch, as expected, but her job is way more complicated in a country where crime is not supposed to exist, and where political surveillance applies to all including the police force itself.

This second book picks up a few months after the end of the first one, and I must say that, contrary to many mysteries, I strongly recommend to read the first one before. Karin has refused to work for the Stasi and she’s been punished with a boring cop job in Berlin admonishing rebellious youth. But she’s given another opportunity, away from the capital, in a town where two babies have recently disappeared. Her mission is to lead the investigation to find them asap, without telling any civilian that there actually was a crime. Halle Neustadt (aka Ha-Neu in short, pronounced like the Vietnamese capital) is supposed to be a model Communist town where model industry workers live an ideal life in modern apartments with all the modern amenities (toilets! fridges!). The disappearance of babies has no place in the propaganda, especially as Communist brother leader Fidel Castro will soon come for a visit.

Karin is highly frustrated by all the hindrances the secret police and the party are putting on the investigation, but if she doesn’t toe the line, her desk job awaits her back in Berlin. Soon enough, she suspects that the case is more than a simple disappearance. Her past is catching up with her too, as Ha-Neu is close to her childhood home, where difficult questions have been left unanswered.

I was fascinated by the setting of Ha-Neu and the book sent me right down the rabbit hole of archives photos to see how this socialist city was supposed to be back then and how it still functions now… or not. (Google Ha-neu only if you have some spare time ahead!). I didn’t enjoy the plotting structure as much as the first book, as Young alternates chapters from an unknown voice and chapters with Karin’s investigation, and there’s a lot of back and forth in time. Still, there was enough red herrings (in a red city, sorry-not-sorry for the bad pun) and twists to keep me hooked until the end. I was interested to learn more about Karin’s childhood and back story but it was a bit too easy to guess what was coming on that side.

[Spoilers ahead] The ending made me roll my eyes more than a little. There are far too many coincidences with the personal life of Karin… The poor detective has to give birth to twins with an emergency C-section and then hop out of bed, ride a car, a helicopter and God knows what else to save the day. Sorry but at that point the plausibility was stretched way too far! The research about history may be impeccable, but Young could have asked any woman having had a C-section (which is admittedly way easier than historical research) and she would have pulled down this part of the book before it went to print. It might be a solid digression, but it made me think of the male gaze and of the lack of women in the publishing industry (I would hope that a female editor would have objected too).

Despite its obvious weaknesses I am willing to give the series one more chance to redeem itself, because the setting and the main character are worth it. I am awfully late to the series (which is now at #6!), so have you read the next one(s) and does it remain as enjoyable?

The One with the Nosy Krakow Socialite

Maryla Szymiczkowa, Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing (Polish 2015, English 2019)

When I first heard of a historical crime fiction set in Krakow, I was immediately intrigued. It’s not that often that Polish literature translated to English (or French) gives us some entertaining mysteries. At least, I haven’t heard of many. So I immediately added the book to my wishlist… and did nothing. Until Mr. Smithereens took the matter in his own hands (or rather my wishlist) and bought it for me as a Christmas present.

As the novel starts, Zofia Turbotinska is annoyed… and annoying. She’s the wife of a university professor (God forbid if you should forget it or state the wrong title) in 1893 Krakow. Not a very brilliant professor, to Zofia’s regret, but rather a shy little man who enjoys his dinners on time next to a beautiful wife in a beautiful home. And who will do anything to keep her happy, in the limits of what he deems proper for a woman. Zofia has already maneuvered (without him being aware) to get him the coveted professor title, but she wants more. And she’s bored.

Because she’s bored, she’s insufferable with her maids, and she tries to find any pretext to approach aristocratic ladies, including visiting some of them in a Catholic retirement home. When she gets there, an old wealthy widow has disappeared, found dead a few days later in an attic. While the authorities are quick to dismiss this death as due to old age, Zofia’s interest is awaken. She sees herself a detective as in the novels she enjoys reading and she pesters everyone around to answer all of her questions.

It’s a mystery full of humor, led by a main character who is a force of nature no one can resist. Zofia takes a little time to get used to, because she really comes off as an unpleasant snob at first. Fortunately, we get to understand the sources of her frustration and we get to see more than just a social climber and a name dropper. And Zofia Turbotinska is so much more interesting to follow when she has a mystery to solve than when she has nothing to do! I guess that might turn off some readers. The story itself is interesting and full of twists, although pacing was a bit sluggish in the middle. I kept wanting to understand more about the sociopolitical situation of Krakow at that period, because there are many allusions to historical events and real famous Polish people, but I didn’t find the chance and it didn’t hinder my reading.

This book obviously sets the stage for a series: I would be happy to read Zofia’s next adventures, as I guess the weaknesses of this first volume can easily be mended in the next ones.

Another tidbit of information is that Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pen name of two writers Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczynski, who are both openly gay and in fact married to each other. I was a bit surprised to see it mentioned on the back cover of the book (after all, the marital status of a writer has never been a criteria for good literature), but seeing how gay rights are routinely trampled over in Poland, I’m rather glad to support these writers by reading their book… and the next?

The One with the Feminist Radical Humor

Nicole-Lise Bernheim, Mersonne ne m’aime (French, 1978)

I have wondered if I should mention this book in this blog, and if so, how. It is not that this book presents anything remotely shameful, on the contrary. But it is completely, fully untranslatable, and if I attempt to explain how funny it is, I will get lost in a flurry of explanations that will be completely un-funny. This book is quintessentially French, and will surely never be translated into English. Anyway, here am I.

This book found its way into my husband’s hands in mysterious ways, as he has very eclectic reading tastes. He then had a good laugh and put it on my nightstand as soon as he’d finished it. It reminds me of another great parody mystery set in the 1970s, The seventh function of language by Laurent Binet, but the difference is that Binet’s book was published in 2015, while this one was published in the late 1970s. Far from being nostalgic, it really speaks of contemporary trends and characters and makes fun of them. I don’t think it was a huge bestseller at the time and now only few copies are still to be found.

Set in Paris in the 1970s, it is a feminist humorous sketch, in a domain that often takes itself very, very seriously. It portrays famous feminist figures and organizations, and it makes fun of it with endless puns and silly situations. Simone de Beauvoir is here renamed Brigitte de Savoir (meaning “knowledge”), the structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault makes a cameo as Foulcan (Get-the-F-out), etc. Even more sacrilegious, the book starts with the murder of said Brigitte de Savoir, whose lifeless body is discovered by a lowly female traffic warden who wanted to issue a ticket on her car.

Beyond name dropping of famous 1970s figures that have or have not remained famous nowadays, the book is not so much about a traditional mystery plot but about playing with words. Any word containing a reference to the patriarchy is replaced by a feminine equivalent. As you may know “père” in French means “father”, but “per” is a very common syllable, to be found in “person” for example. The title itself is a transformation from father to mother in the sentence “no per-son loves me”. The reading experience is not very fluid, but it is indeed memorable.

Last week, I listened to a Radiolab podcast episode about Facebook’s “Supreme court” that would give an advice on what is acceptable or not. Humor, especially when it addresses the topic of gender, is often challenged in those instances, because what one person finds funny may not be another person’s tastes. In my opinion, this book is very daring in its humor, but also radically feminist and completely respectful, a rare combination when it comes to sensitive topics.

The One with the Genial Laziness

Kendra Adachi, The Lazy Genius Way: Embrace What Matters, Ditch What Doesn’t, and Get Stuff Done (2020)

I was genuinely excited when I heard from Instagram and podcasts that this book was out, as I’m following its author on social media. I received it at the end of year, started almost immediately the first few pages, and then… I put it on a shelf where it lingered for months. It didn’t stop me from watching some more IG videos and listening to her podcast, but I had some difficulty to sustain the bubbly enthusiasm of Kendra Adachi when reading it on paper. I bet the audio-book experience is much more fun, as I realize much of what makes the message interesting is in Kendra Adachi’s personality.

The principles behind the catchy sentence of “Lazy Genius” are simple enough. They focus on women (especially mothers, but not only) who are perfectionists and are on the eternal quest for the one miracle step-by-step routine to have it all together. And when they fail they blame themselves and go to the next system. But Kendra Adachi reminds us that it is not the “how” but the “why” that makes a routine successful.

What I enjoyed:

  • the friendly and humorous voice
  • the author is not prescriptive but lets every reader defines her own priorities, her method is suited to almost every situation or phase of life
  • there are some very moving pages about authenticity
  • the book is both practical and philosophical
  • I’ve tried it and it works (which is the whole point, I guess)

What I didn’t enjoy so much:

  • the target reader is an American Christian suburban stay-at-home mother, and I’m definitely not in those categories, so many examples didn’t talk to me, but the principles are still applicable
  • the book seem to repeat itself at some points, it’s the kind of read that is best when you dip in and out for a quick few pages once in a while
  • too religious in the few last chapters, I didn’t come for that
  • many ideas are not fundamentally new or ground-breaking per se, I guess that it’s the combination of them that make this system successful

I’m afraid this is once more a case of expectations set too high, especially for books written by bloggers / podcasters / social media influencers. It doesn’t make the book terribly bad, and I’ll probably follow some of its advice, but I’d have been content with the Cliffnotes version, or a long Youtube video series. Still, a comforting self-help book which proves useful without being judgmental is well worth a quick read.

The One in 1937 Beijing

Paul French, Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China (2012)

I sadly don’t remember exactly where I first heard of this book, but I suspect that it might be on the Sinina podcast. Someone spoke of or wrote about this book in glowing terms, and I’m quite grateful that it put me on the scent of this true-crime-meets-history-book. I rarely read true crime books (as you may know that I read little non-fiction anyway), but this one fascinated me, not by the criminal aspect per se, but for the historical and social depth it provided. It made 1937 Peking alive again, and it’s no small feat. You can hear the noises, smell the street food and see the fancy hotels as well as the most sordid slums and bars.

I lived in Beijing (that’s how we’re supposed to spell Peking) for several years in the early 2000s and I never even heard of the foreign legation quarters. (That I didn’t hear about this particular murder is not surprising, given that’s it’s more of a footnote of history). It’s not that the Chinese capital is totally oblivious of its past… it’s rather that it’s very selective about it. The Forbidden Palace, yes, the Temple of Heaven, yes. Everything that celebrates the grandiose past of the Chinese capital is preserved. Some carefully preserved old neighborhoods where tourists can do tours, as well. In the Old Summer palace, there are signs in front of ruins reminding that the French and British troops are responsible for this destruction in 1860 and in 1900. But the fact that foreigners did live in Peking in an enclosed neighborhood as late as 1937? I’d never even thought about it. A short note at the end of the book mentions that the cemetery for foreigners, where the young girl at the center of this investigation was buried, has been replaced by the Second ring road: I believe it says a lot, and I can only credit the writer for his thorough investigation.

Pamela Werner was a British high school student who studied at a boarding school for foreigners in Tientsin, but she came back to her father’s home in old Peking for the winter break. On one night in January, as the Chinese are preparing for the Chinese New Year celebrations and the Russians celebrate their own festival, she goes to the skating ring to meet with friends, but fails to come back home. Her body will be found the next morning in an awful state.

The murder of a foreigner, and a young girl at that, was a shock for the foreign community in Peking and was a nightmare for the Chinese police who had to deal with diplomacy as well as the investigation, which was led conjointly with a British policeman sent from Tientsin. The investigation didn’t lead to any arrest, and Pamela’s father later launched into his own investigation and arrived to his own conclusion, based on very dubious confessions by very dubious people. Whether you believe it or not is entirely your choice, and I don’t think that I was 100% convinced by French’s theory, even though he presented it convincingly.

1937 Beijing was on the brink of disaster. The Japanese forces were increasingly present and arrogant (the murder occurred a mere 6 months before the Marco Polo bridge incident which marked the beginning of the war). Countless Russian refugees who had fled the Soviets at the onset of the 1917 Revolution were at the end of their tethers and lived in abject poverty, prostitution and drug trafficking. One single dead girl, however horrific were her circumstances, soon weighed little when war started and most foreigners left the country.

This book highlighted my selective ignorance of some part of the history of China and Beijing. I’m even more curious to find some social history of 20th China, which would counterbalance my knowledge which is far too centered on very high-level events.

The One with Too many Witches and Vampires

Deborah Harkness, The Book of Life (2014)

And so it is over. After an intriguing first volume, and a rather entertaining second volume, I’ve saved the final volume of this trilogy for the third lock-down, hoping that it will indeed be the last (I hope I don’t jinx it by posting it publicly). Indeed it took me very far away from my allowed 10km perimeter, to London, Venice, French countryside, Upstate NY, New Orleans, in a whirlwind. The characters travel by private planes from Europe to the US and back for one reason or another, blissfully unaware of any virus except for certain genetic diseases that I will spare you the details. For the lock-down, nobody can predict that it won’t return again (keeping fingers crossed for vaccinations soon!), but for this trilogy, I can safely say that I won’t return to it.

It was surely a difficult task to finish this mammoth story and to tie all the plot lines. But this is one big mess of a story, and 560 pages of it! There are way too many things happening in the book, far too many characters springing out of nowhere (oh by the way, I forgot to mention my best friend, whom I haven’t talked to in a year, and I obviously forgot to tell him that I fell in love, got married, ditched my job and got pregnant… and he’s taking it all in strides, even as I tell him I’m in fact a witch…) or disappearing altogether.

It is a page-turner, but this time I mostly turned very fast to be done with it and to get answers to my questions, which I didn’t really get in the end! The pace also is very uneven, and the story has many inconsistencies. I believe the writer is trying to push her luck and provide enough material for other books, but, really, no thank you. It finally pushed me over the edge, from benign amusement to real annoyance. I can suspend my disbelief for paranormal romances to some extent, but there’s only so much I can take, especially when the main characters become rather bland and too perfect to be honest. I’d say that the main weakness of this third volume is the lack of a powerful plot arch. Diana and Matthew are so good and powerful that I was never worried that they would succeed.

If you’re not into vampires and witches and you want to have a good laugh, there are hilarious 1-star reviews in Goodreads about this volume. It also redeemed the hours I spent on the book. Now, I would love to be swept off my feet by another big book, even without vampires. What would you recommend?

The One with the Norfolk Marshes

Elly Griffiths, The Stone Circle (2019)

I have followed Café Society bookish posts for quite a while, and she had (before her hiatus) always some great British mysteries recommendations, especially police procedurals. I had noted the name of Elly Griffiths, but had never actively sought it out.

When I saw this author’s name among the Amazon Kindle monthly deals, it sort of fell into my lap (for 2,99 euros) and I could not resist for long. Still, there was a “slight” problem: the book I purchased is #11 in the series and I had no clue who the characters were. Yes, I usually don’t strictly follow book series in order, but this is a bit extreme, even for me. I felt as if I was coming very late to the party, and the hosts had practically started eating desert.

But soon my discomfort disappeared, the hosts of the party being extremely welcoming. Yes, I had not the back story of any of them and they knew each other for decades, but they had a real spark and warmth, and I loved the interactions… It took me very few pages to start caring for Ruth Galloway, a single mother who works as an archaeologist at the university of Norfolk, on the coastline. The father of her daughter is actually DCI Nelson, who has a wife, two grown daughters and expects the birth of another kid sometime soon. Well, you can see that it’s complicated… There is a large cast of characters and each had his/her own way to react to a crime. I was more than ok to follow along the twists and turns of the plot that often invoked the past, previous investigations resulting in success and failures. The pace is fast but not too fast, and the writing has just the right amount of British witticism which makes me crave for tea and scones.

Frustrated as I am not to be able to travel, I was also very interested to learn about the Norfolk marshes and the sea henge dating from the Bronze age. Photos are impressive but the book had let me to believe that the circle of timber set in the sea was a lot bigger than it really is. Anyway, I’m definitely sold on Ruth Galloway’s adventures. I may not go back from the beginning all the way up to volume 11, but I might pick and choose a few along the way. If anyone can recommend favorites, I’d be glad!

The One with the Three Kopp Sisters of Pennsylvania

Amy Stewart, Girl Waits with Gun (2015)

I chose this book to go with the February prompt of the Unread Shelf challenge: a book I got for free, as I got it from a dear friend, but it could have also met the January prompt: a book with high expectations. This novel is a typical case of high expectations… which were not entirely met. (Luckily for the books I chose in January, my expectations then didn’t let me down). My high expectations came with the Elizabeth Gilbert’s blurb, calling it “smart, romping, hilarious”, and with the stylish cover art showing a short hair girl with a gun.

I should have known better than to trust blurbs, and a quick read of the back cover informs me that the action takes place in 1914, which is not at all the style of hair and hat that the book cover presents. (Yes, I am a stickler with historical fashion faux-pas, and all sorts of anachronisms). I’m sorry for the author, but the publisher’s choices are plain misleading. The book is smart, but romping and hilarious it is not. I found it rather slow-going, which is also fine except when one expects romping. The book sticks closely to the historical facts, and realistic history is rarely romping and hilarious per se. And because the author takes her research seriously enough to provide source materials at the end, I’m sure she is as sorry as I am about poor hair choices of the cover art.

I am surprised that the novel was published in 2015, because it seems that I have heard a lot of glowing reviews about it in 2019 and last year, and I had not noticed it so much when it first came out. Anyway. The book had attracted my attention by being presented as a historical crime fiction based on the little-known but true facts of the first female deputy sheriff. I was therefore disappointed that the book was more about the three sisters Kopp, who led a dull and isolated life on a small farm of New Jersey with no professions of their own. The bulk of the book does not feature a deputy sheriff at all, this is actually what the next book might well be about.

Still, there’s a lot of good things about this book. The research I already mentioned makes living in New Jersey in 1914 very true to life. We see how few prospects respectable girls had, and how any straying from the rightful path might be punished socially for years. We see three girls who have been raised by a very strict immigrant mother from Austria, who defined rules and behaviors and limited her daughters’ choices so much that even beyond the grave the girls can’t really decide for themselves how they want to lead their life. Constance Kopp’s slow awakening from these rigorous Victorian rules is interesting: the fact that only an unlucky close encounter with thugs and crime opens her eyes to who she wants to be makes her an endearing character, one who has a lot of potential for new adventures. I’ve just checked and it seems that there are now 7 books in the series (!!), I’m just not patient enough to follow it through.

Unread Shelf Challenge March Update

Sorry to hit you with the bad news first, there might be something like “reading challenge fatigue” just like Zoom fatigue or Covid fatigue. I’m not feeling so inspired by the challenge and the prompts. Don’t worry, I still want to stick to it because frankly, why buy books and let them gather dust on our (very small by US standards) home? Objectively I didn’t fare all that bad in February. I had picked 2 books I got for free. I read one of them fully (review soon), and I skimmed the other.

“Le Mystère Sherlock” by J.M. Erre is a laugh-out-loud kind of book, with OTT situations and zany characters all around. In a Swiss hotel called “Baker Street” is held a university convention of the top French Sherlock Holmes specialists. They have been all invited by the senior head of the university department who will designate his successor among the guests. But when the novel starts, a snow avalanche has been blocking all access, and when the firefighters get into the hotel, they discover all 10 guests dead.

Of course, this is a parody of Christie’s “And there were none”. We know what to expect from the start. It was fine to begin with, but the humor was a bit too much for me. A bit too… schoolboyish, even by French standards. I have already mentioned that humor books are a tough sell for me, and this one proved no different. I could take it in small quantities, but not for 300+ pages. The book is full of puns and jokes, and witty remarks on Sherlock Holmes fandom and university, but after a while it was bit repetitive, and each voice of the characters (who take turn to tell the story) was not very different from the others. I skimmed the second half of the book and I felt content with just that.

What about March? Whitney invites us to some (much-dreamed-about) travelling, she wants us to read a book we bought on a trip. Oh my, it made me so nostalgic about travel! I haven’t been traveling much or at all for more than one year, and the last book I bought on this last trip has been read and accounted for a while back. In the last few years I have purchased fewer books during our trips because either we didn’t find any bookshop in the small towns we went, or I had packed a full Kindle and I didn’t need any new reading material during our trip. With two kids and often no car, we have to keep our bags quite compact and paper books are a bit too cumbersome.

So, Whitney’s challenge left me in a quandary, and I decided to partially respect the prompt, and to ad-lib the rest: if she wants us to travel, I’d choose a book with a faraway destination. Here’s what I choose:

Maigret Goes to School by Georges Simenon, which is a book I bought on a whim last summer while we were visiting my parents on a socially distanced basis (and we were on a road trip to be independent, so no luggage worry, therefore the impulse purchase). It was one of these books you get for free when you buy a magazine, and Simenon always seemed like a good idea. Of course I haven’t even cracked the spine open yet. After Fécamp, where will Simenon take me this time?

My second book is Midnight in Peking, by Paul French, a book which sat on my wishlist for quite a while, since 2015 actually, and which I recently bought (more about that later). Peking in 1937 seems distant enough in time and geography to make me forget for a while our own present troubled times. The subtitle runs: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. I’m quite ready to be haunted!

Do you enjoy buying books while on a trip? (Remember trips?) What faraway destination do you like reading about?