Michael Connelly, Dark Sacred Night (2018)

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

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

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

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

François Médéline, La Sacrifiée du Vercors (2021)

This mystery was on the Librarians’ choice shelf a few weeks ago, and it was the first book I finished in 2022. From the cover I understood that the book got a (local?)literary prize, and from the afterword I gather that some characters in the book are inspired by real people, some of them close to the writer’s family… And so I wish that I’d enjoyed it more. In truth, it was just so-so.

It was a disappointment because the setting, both in history and geography, was very promising. It is set over the course of one day, in September 1944, when Nazis have been defeated in most of France but are still fighting further East in Germany. Americans have moved on to more pressing battlegrounds and people are left with the aftermaths. Not only of the battle itself but of years of Nazi occupation and the compromissions that people (some? many? most?) have done to survive, to endure or some to thrive under this regime. The Vercors takes a very singular place in the war. It is a beautiful region in the Alps and a lot of young people who didn’t want to be sent to Germany joined the Resistance groups there and hid high up in the mountains.

When the Resistance heard of the American arrival they led an uprising against the Nazis in the Vercors, but the Americans didn’t arrive until too late, when lots of resistance fighters and lots of civilians had been killed before the Nazis retreated. Because of those particular events, bitterness and anger were particularly ripe in the area and Epuration (the campaign to get rid of collaborators) often degenerated into personal vendetta and unlawful violence.

The book centers on the murder of one young woman who is found raped and killed in the mountains. Her hair has been shaved off, which is a tell-tale sign of a political attack. Women who were suspected of having had sex with the enemy were often condemned to this shameful sign by the population (police and justice, also suspected of collaboration, were in complete disarray at this period and only came later to turn Epuration into a legal, organized process – with its own flaws).

I clearly expected too much from the book. The writing is dry and quick like the Ellroy’s translations we have here (which is not exactly the real deal). The plot itself is no real mystery and there are way too many digressions. The atmosphere of hatred and bitterness is well painted, but it is spread too thin and some characters are only cardboard pictures. For a more punchy take on this very dark period, the memory of Romain Slocombe’s thriller is still very vivid in my memory (as in: I should probably not read another one too soon).

Manga Updates

The season has arrived where I have more books to review than days in the calendar before year end. And so, I’m lucky that some of them are mangas and that I’ll conveniently lump them up in a single post. Speaking of mangas and graphic novels, I read them so fast that I feel as I was cheating to reach my Goodreads goal!

I was happy to continue the unconventional series Blank Canvas (original title かくかくしかじか) by Akiko Higashimura. This autobiographical volume follows the footsteps of young Akiko after she graduated from art school. With no immediate job lined up, she comes back to her native Miyazaki province and her parents’ home. She works at her old teacher’s cram school. Frustrated to have paid for her university and see no progress, her parents get her a job at a call center. Akiko is lost and overwhelmed. She hates her job at the calling center, can’t face quitting her old teacher’s job, but she still has this dream of becoming a mangaka. That’s in these worst circumstances that she finds in herself the desperate energy to draw a manga and submit it to an art competition.

Volume 4 follows Akiko as she starts her true professional career as mangaka. After winning a prize at an amateur manga competition, she is now in contact with the editorial team in Tokyo and gets more and more chance to create mangas. All the time while still working her 2 jobs… Her goal is to save as much money as possible to leave her native province, but she still can’t confess to her old teacher that she does not want to be a painter, and that mangas are her main goal and not only a day job just for money’s sake. We follow her as she moves to Osaka and meets a lot of professional female mangakas who are still her friends today. I really enjoyed the balance of this series, between light and fun anecdotes, information about mangaka techniques and career, and a nostalgic tribute to her old teacher. Can’t wait to read the next – last – volume in the series.

In a completely different style, I tried the first volume of a shojo series Not Your Idol (original title さよならミニスカート Sayonara Miniskirt) by Aoi Makino. I’d already read a short story compilation by this mangaka, and I knew it was more traditionally in the shojo genre than what I normally enjoy. Nina is a very boyish high school student and everybody at school, boys and girls alike, treats her as a weirdo, except for Hikaru, a classmate who is also the star of the judo club. Hikaru recognizes that Nina is actually Karen, a popular pop idol, who used to be the main attraction of a girls band, very girly and sexy in mini-skirts. Karen quit the group and disappeared after a fan attacked her, but if Nina’s real identity is revealed, will her stalker come after her again?

The story is a bit dark for a shojo, as it explores many deep themes: gender identity, objectification of women, idol culture that requires girls to be perfect and pure, assaults against women (not sexual and not graphic, although Nina/Karen suffers from PTSD – but Makino also speaks of the phenomenon of groping in the public transport, and the necessity of women-only train cars). For Western female audiences the cultural gap is certainly important. It is a bit uncomfortable to see so many dialogues repeating that girls wearing mini-skirts are “asking for it”, but that’s certainly something still pervasive in Japanese traditional culture. I am curious to see how the series will evolve, but it’s a bit too coy and messy to my taste. If you want a very adult and darker take on the idol culture, Perfect Blue by Satoshi Kon is a 1997 anime thriller movie bordering on horror. (I just learnt from the internet that it was based on a book) It’s a bit depressing that more than 20 years later, the same themes are still coming up.

Margaret Atwood, Stone Mattress (2014) and The Testaments (2019)

I read somewhere of a Margaret Atwood November reading challenge. I didn’t join, but it was my plan from the beginning of 2021 to read The Testaments, so seeing the year end approaching fast, I jumped on this chance. I also came back from the library with Atwood’s short stories collection Stone Mattress, and I thought it would be interesting to read both books in parallel to contrast and compare.

Let’s cut the chase. I enjoyed the short stories a lot more than the novel, although the Handmaid’s Tale is among my favorite (I hesitate using the word) most memorable books. I can’t say that the book is bad per se, or if it’s the case of the TV show ruining the book. At any rate, I found that the book didn’t add anything to the original story or even to the show. It was nowhere near the shock of the book, or even the visual shock of seeing the book adapted on the screen (the first few episodes with Elizabeth Moss are still in my mind). On the contrary it explains way too much, it normalizes Gilead and there is little to no suspense in the story.

By comparison the 9 stories of Stone Mattress were fresh and showed Margaret Atwood with all her verve and imagination. Most of these stories center on an ageing main character; she (or he) has gained some wisdom, but has ample past experiences, regrets and traumas; in this later part of her life, she’s not afraid anymore and she doesn’t care about what others think. The first three stories, “Alphinland”, “Revenant”, and “The Dark Lady” are linked together, about an old female writer who has triumphed in creating a fantasy book series, an often dismissed genre. In the 1960s or 1970s she used to be a poet’s muse, but they parted ways when he cheated on her. Now widowed, the elderly writer can settle scores with her past.

“Torching the Dusties”, the last story in the collection, is set in a retirement home in a world that may be adjacent to Gilead. It is both moving and shocking. The title story is a revenge story on board a cruise to the Arctic, and the model for a perfect murder (if you ever need Margaret’s flawless plan, you can count on her sense of detail and execution). I won’t explain all the stories but none of them disappointed.

What did I learn from this parallel reading? The width of Atwood’s imagination, her love for realism tinted with what used to be seen as inferior genres: horror, science-fiction, fantasy, supernatural, mystery… I also saw glimpses of humor in both (Aunt Lydia’s monologues are great and save the book more than once) and the theme of getting old and dealing with the past, which is not something frequently read about. My conclusion in brief: I want to use this method more often!

Marie Donzelli, Adoleschiante (2020)

Why did I borrow this graphic novel from the library? Perhaps because I have a teen boy at home and I needed some comic relief. Or the comparison with a teen girl. Or to imagine what my teen may become in a few years (mine is 13 and in middle school, the girl in the book is a high school junior in 11th grade). Or to get comforted by the idea that my teen is not the worst teen ever (knock on wood).

Now comes the tough part for me: how to explain the title. “Chiante” in French means annoying, but less politely: in fact, a real pain in the a** (pardon my French). Adolescente means a teen girl. Mix both, shake a little, and you get something like… “annoy-teen” ? Which exactly describes how Laura is to her mother. Impossibly annoying at times, and just as suddenly, endearing and moving.

Laura wants a phone, Laura has a crush, Laura smokes on the sly, Laura messes up and tries to be independent. Each double page is a short episode that could be a blog post, but the book has its own narrative arch. It follows Laura and her family from the end of the summer holidays and the start of school year until the year end exams and the start of the following year’s summer holidays. As the family return to their holiday cottage in Brittany, we realize how much Laura has grown. Although the father and the two little brothers are present, the book focuses on the mother / daughter relationship.

In one review a reader asked if it was normal that this book made her feel old. I don’t know this reader’s age but for me the switch of point of view is not limited to this particular book. The mother figure in this book is very endearing too and I could totally empathize with her. Not only is she pushed onto her daughter’s rollercoaster of moods, but she also has her own struggles. After staying home to raise her kids for a few years, she wants to get her career back and she has her own insecurities to fight.

The book didn’t particularly strike me as typically French but I have to recognize that teenaged years in France and in the US come with their own sets of stereotypical moments. Even Laura in this book is speaking the typical French teenaged slang, which I know all too well from my own teen. I doubt that this graphic novel will ever be translated into English but if you’re interested in French daily life with a teen (and not fantasy French), this book is good fun.

Bernard Maris, L’Avenir du Capitalisme (2016)

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about business or economics since I finished my university degree more than 20 years ago. Not that I’m allergic to the topic, but I much rather consume that kind of information through the press, radio or magazines. When I saw this very, very thin book (a mere 80 pages) by Bernard Maris, whom I used to listen to in the French national radio, I thought that I could go out of my comfort zone, but that wouldn’t be too difficult a stretch.

Bernard Maris is well-known in France for sad reasons. He was an economist but also a journalist and he was one member of the staff of Charlie Hebdo who were assassinated by terrorists in Jan. 2015. The book is the published version of a speech he made. As you can guess from his working at Charlie Hebdo, he was indeed not a conservative. In this book he highlights the way capitalism has changed the way people lived and worked since the beginning of times: it changed the way people consider time, labor, technique and nature. He goes back to the origin of history, before capitalism, and shows that trade and labor existed before capitalism, but were deeply impacted by it. The essay is short but full of concepts and reflections, full of references like Max Weber, Freud, Nietzsche, etc.: indeed Maris’ conception was larger than just economy.

It’s hard to have a critical position with such a short text: either you were already convinced or you were not, but this opus will not make you change your mind. I enjoy how Maris’ train of thoughts flows and jumps from one fact or theory to the next, how the continuum of human history becomes meaningful thanks to his concepts. I also appreciate that he explains different possible future for capitalism, and not all of them negative, which I was not expecting. Yes, Maris is rather pessimistic about capitalism, but he still keeps the door open.

I enjoyed this short foray into economic theory. Some time ago, I had borrowed from the library a much more ambitious liberal economic theory: Thomas Piketty’s Capitalism in the 21st century, but it was clearly beyond my grasp (and almost 1000 pages!) and I returned it unread but for the first chapter. As I start to think about next year’s reading goals, should I try and read something in the middle?

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?

Claire Keegan, Foster (2010)

I took this book at the library without having heard anything about it, just on the basis of the publisher (Sabine Wespieser, that published another Irish writer I loved, Nuala O’Faolain) and on the basis of the little “heart” sticker that librarians put on the cover of books they want to promote. Well, it was not a bad choice at all, on the contrary. What a great chance discovery! I didn’t know what the book was about, as the French title of this slight book is “Three lights”, and not “Foster”, which gives away a lot more.

The book is told by an unnamed young girl, probably around 8, who is sent away by her father to live with a couple for a while. She doesn’t know them, and she doesn’t know how long she’s going to stay there, probably until the birth of a sibling. The girl is used to a large family and little money, and to people not really caring for her (the father even forgets to give her bag in the boot of his car before leaving). She’s stunned to be suddenly the only child, at the center of the attention of the farmer and his wife. As much as the original title would have let me wonder, this is not another account of fostering misery. On the contrary. The story is set in rural Ireland in the 1980s, and we see the daily life through the girl’s eyes, understanding little at first, then grasping at some secrets that people keep. In the summer she spends with the Kinsellas, she will definitely grow up and bloom. She will learn many things, big and small.

This is an emotional book, very short (about 100 pages), but deep and so beautifully written. The translation is flawless. A lot is left unsaid but readers still perceive emotions and connections. I would compare it to Elizabeth Strout on tiptoe. For sure, I’ll be looking out for other books by Claire Keegan.

Nancy Kress, Fountain of Age (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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