The One with the Guilty Sisters in Alabama

Chris Whitaker, All The Wicked Girls (2017)

Well, guys, I’m on the fence with this one and I have been during the whole time I was reading it, so much so that there were several times when I wanted to stop reading altogether. The cover art is beautiful, but the blurbs grated on my nerves. This is far from being “unforgettable”, but this being a mystery, I needed to know who did it, so I finished it.

As you may gather elsewhere, the action takes place in a small Alabama town, where young good girls have been disappearing a few years ago, and no one was arrested. Then another girl disappears, a church-going, straight-A girl who apparently voluntarily left home, and no one in town can find her. Her twin sister, who is deemed the “bad” one, doubts the police and sets about to find her herself at all costs.

There were definitely good things about this book:

  • The small town atmosphere of economic struggle, decadence and guilt and intense religion.
  • Characters who are deeply flawed but who are trying to do the right thing. The book was not judgmental and I really appreciated it.
  • Each sister’s voice and the alternating between sisters chapter after chapter
  • The twin sister’s sidekicks Noah and Purv, who really shone on the page. It’s mainly because of them that I kept on reading, to be honest.

There were some things that annoyed me:

  • The southern dialect, because I really struggled at the beginning and it slowed me down. As the author is British I have no clue if it sounds authentic or not, I’m sure they checked. It reminded me of the podcast “S-Town” where I really struggled to understand the audio.
  • The slow pace for most of the book. Everything accelerated during the last 20%, so much so that I had to re-read certain passages to make sure I understood all the explanations right. I like all the bows nicely tied up and it felt a bit rushed.
  • The heavy symbolism: I object in principle to twins as main characters, all the more when one is good and one is evil. Here it was okay, as the book shows that good people often are not that good and bad people not that bad. I also object in principle against use of meteorological events to underline moral issues. Yes, the atmosphere is dark and hot and sticky, but no need to have a unique kind of storm brew and sit over the town for weeks on end. We get it. We would even get it if the sky was blue. Same goes for the resolution scenes that coincide, you guessed it, with the storm breaking under a massive downpour.

There were a lot of bleak secrets and lies, but I still think that the two side characters Purv and Noah saved the book, in more ways than one.

 

The One with the Nasty Sofa

Marghanita Laski, The Victorian Chaise-Longue (1953)

I’m very very sorry, but I didn’t fall in love with this one, despite all the gushing reviews. In fact, I think I would have abandoned the book without finishing if it had been longer (it’s more a novella of 100 pages), if the reviews hadn’t been so glowing and if I hadn’t selected this book for my February #Unreadshelf Challenge.

Melanie, a young mother recovering from TB in the 1950s gets to nap on a Victorian chaise-longue she’s bought in a junk shop. When she wakes up, she slowly realizes that she is stuck in the Victorian era, in the body of Millie, another young woman who also suffers from TB and is treated coldly and harshly by her sister because of a shameful secret.

Oddly enough, it’s not the first time I encounter the theme of time travel in novels, even though I’m not a SFF reader at all. I’ve loved Outlander by Anna Gabaldon, and I have recently started Kindred by Octavia Butler. But The Victorian Chaise-Longue was kind of awkward, because it was just a novella and the character didn’t have time to regain her footing. As far as I see, Kindred’s heroin is active and plucky and she thinks on her feet about her situation, even as she desperately wants to be back in the present. Outlander’s heroin is even more so, because she seems to not be *that* bothered to be stuck in another century, she’s highly adaptable and takes it all in stride (her meeting a very charming Scottish warrior might explain some stuff, ahem…). But Melanie/Millie ? She whines and wonders and doesn’t move from her sofa all that much.

Is it a scary ghost story? Not really, there’s no ghost and it’s not completely scary. The feeling is more of slowly creeping anxiety, and confusion, and hopelessness. I guess that the writer achieved what she set about to do, which is create confusion and anxiety in the reader’s mind, and also draw parallels between the hopelessness of Victorian women and the one of post-war young wives. But I was too annoyed by her heroin to care much and ended up frustrated. It was a quick read, and I was glad to try, but I won’t go for another helping.

#UnreadShelfProject March

The #UnreadSelfProject is in full stride! For the third month, Whitney (@theunreadshelf) says that we should choose a book that’s been on your shelf the longest. I’m all about following the rules (the ones I like, that is…), but that’s a tough one!

I have never made an inventory of unread books because our shelves at home are manifold (and a bit everywhere): my books, my husband’s books (which I haven’t read, but often don’t really want to), our books (and kids books too, but they don’t count). Unless I want to waste hours and end up with back pain I won’t go about all the places to count books (we have a small home but many nooks and crannies for books). So my interpretation of the March challenge will be the book that sits on my nightstand for the longest time and/or a book which I bought more than 2 years ago. This is hardly long but after a while I don’t remember exactly when I got a book.

In the process of thinking about this March challenge I also got rid of a book that has sat on my shelves for a good 10 years : The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England, by Amanda Vickery. This book has followed me though one or two house moves, AND the theme is right up my alley, AND I’m sure it is very good and very important in feminist history, BUT every time I open it, I feel defeated by the tiny font, the thin margins and the amount of footnotes. Yesterday I heard Gretchen Rubin’s podcast and she talked about her personal rule “Three strikes out” for decluttering. Over the years it’s been more than 3 times that this book’s fate has been undecided, so I finally took it out for donation.

Here is my personal March challenge selection:

The Ensemble, by Aja Gabel, because it sits on my nightstand for at least 6 months and it’s originally from my workplace library that has shut down in November. I hope the library will open again in Spring, so I want to be ready to give it back read.

Saplings, by Noel Streatfeild, a Persephone book about WW2 and the children. I bought it 2 years ago (I think) when I visited the publisher’s bookshop in London. I understand this is a sad book, but a happy memory for me too. I want to continue on my WW2 reading streak.

If any or both of these two get finished or “mindfully abandoned” by the end of March, I’ll consider this challenge a win!

 

 

The One with the Last Glorious Expats

Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat (2009)

As far as I can guess, my husband gifted me this book because the action takes place in Hong Kong and it was supposed to be a light and humorous love story. I was grateful for his gift, but I promptly put this book on my nightstand where it gathered dust for the best part of a year… until I extracted it in time for the Unreadshelf challenge (January).

I didn’t know the first thing about Jane Gardam, and I was a bit thrown by the fact that this novel is the sequel to another novel, Old Filth, but I didn’t feel that I was particularly missing out. This book is the portrait of Betty Feathers (born Elisabeth McIntosh), the wife of a brilliant, old-school barrister (later judge), Edward Feathers, whose nickname is Filth as in “Failed in London Try Hong Kong”.

Well, they do meet in Hong Kong and spend most of their lives there until retirement, and their love story and marriage is both sweet, humorous and terribly flawed. It is deep and moving and quickly moves from nostalgia to British witticism (Jane Gardam has quite the eye to pinpoint a situation with just a few words). I understand that people who have read the first novel can see the complementary portraits of husband and wife, and how both spouses have misunderstood, complemented or contrasted each other during their whole life. Still, Betty Feather’s portrait stands on its own in a marvelous, subtle way.

The book spans from the late 1940s, when Betty and Edward meet in Hong Kong, where he rashly proposes and she rationally accepts, until the 1990s, long after the Feathers have retired and returned to the motherland and after Hong Kong has returned to China. Betty led a sheltered life of an expat wife, in luxurious surroundings of the last remnants of the British colonial empire. But there is so much depth and turmoil beyond the upper class veneer, and the trauma of her childhood can explain a lot of her attitude (she became an orphan during the war, which she spent in an internment camp in Shanghai).

It sent me down a rabbit hole of memories of my own time in Hong Kong and my own life choices along the way (not that my own marriage has anything to do with the Feathers!). I’m not sure if I want to read the other book, but I’ll check out whatever else Jane Gardam has written, because she’s such a skilled writer.

The One with the Structuralist LOL

Laurent Binet, La Septième Fonction du Language (The Seventh Function of Language, A Novel, French 2015, English 2017)

Here I am, reviewing the first of my January challenge books on the last day of February… The most important thing is that I read them in time, right?

Anyway, if you’re anything like me, you wouldn’t associate Structuralism and Laughing in the same sentence. I hope I won’t offend anyone if I confess that the bare minimum I learnt about Structuralism during my studies made me want to run for the hills, or sleep the whole class away. It bore me to death, but decades later, it managed to make me die of laughter.

I’m choosing a rather macabre vocabulary because this book starts with a death : Roland Barthes’ death in 1980, described in the novel almost like in the Wikipedia article. A random car accident, or is it really? The book takes the hypothesis that it was a lot more complicated.

It’s all about a big conspiracy, and secrets that promise to change the face of the world (but it’s not The Da Vinci Code), there are unlikely heroes, terrifying baddies and mysteriously sexy girls. Spies, sex, drug and rock and roll (or whatever people listened to in 1980). But it’s not James Bond, just a very inadequate and obtuse French policeman who recruits by force a graduate student / adjunct teacher fluent in Structuralism. In terms of investigating duos, it’s more Laurel and Hardy than Holmes and Watson.

The book is a lot about name dropping, and putting words into famous people’s mouth. Barthes, Derrida, Deleuze, Althusser, Foucault, Kristeva… whoever is in the literary analysis / history textbooks takes shape in the novel, often in the most hilarious ways. So I guess that readers who are not somewhat familiar with structuralist celebs or with French late 1970s – early 1980s politics and intellectuals will miss out on much of the fun. But my understanding is that French theory is better known in the US universities than in their French counterparts.

In real life, Roland Barthes’ death was almost coincidental to François Mitterrand’s election, the first Socialist president of France since the 1950s, which was a huge change (and somewhat of a surprise given that Mitterrand had lost previous elections and was not unchallenged in his own party). The novel links both events, and travels from Saint Germain des Prés to Nanterre University (a hotbed of flower power youth rebellions in 1968), from Italy of the darkest era to Cornell university.

Without being fluent in Structuralism, most names rang a bell and I was somewhat familiar with the historical context so I enjoyed the novel a lot. There are purely slapstick scenes, and also some laugh-out-loud dialogues. Mr. S. who is a bit older than me and can actually remember this era was laughing hysterically too. Consider it an official endorsement from us both.

The One with the Finnish Girls Club

Leena Lehtolainen, Where Have All the Young Girls Gone (Finnish 2010; English 2019)

When it comes to Scandi-noir, I have read some Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, but never any Finnish mystery. I chose this one on Netgalley because Amazon Crossing often provides interesting, original discoveries. Among Finnish writers, I have read Sofi Oksanen and Tove Jansson (but she wrote in Swedish), and I had no previous knowledge of the Finnish society.

Because of my ignorance, I found myself relating to the victims who are foreigners, instead of relating to the Finnish characters, whom I didn’t quite understand (for a moment I was even confused about the gender of some of them). The investigator is Maria Kallio, a middle-aged policewoman with a successful track record, a wife and mother living in the suburbs of the capital Helsinki and working at a Special Victims Unit. The victims are 3 immigrant Muslim girls from various backgrounds, who faced the double weight of sexism at home and racism outside the home. All three disappeared after having been seen at the Girls Club, and Maria Kallio is called to investigate.

The good:

  • this policewoman is the hero of a whole bestselling series in Finland, and I was glad to try it and discover some things about Finland society and the treatment of immigration there
  • Many issues in the book are rather heavy and complex, and they are treated with sensitivity

The not-so-good:

  • I found that latching into the series at book #11 was rather tough
  • The investigator is nice enough but I didn’t particularly warm up to her.
  • The plot was rather sluggish, perhaps because the author was treading on eggshells. But because of the cultural distance to the author and context, going any faster would have lost me completely!

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The One with the Ancient Persian God

Nicolas Wild, Silent was Zarathustra (French 2013, English 2016)

What do you know about Zarathustra? If you’re like me, probably nothing, except a vague relation to Nietzsche (except I never read it). I vaguely knew that it was an ancient god but I wouldn’t have put it on a map (it’s actually in Iran, then Persia). And I can understand that this subject doesn’t come up very often in conversation.

Still, the book was fascinating, and so very instructive. Normally I breeze through graphic novels, finishing them within one or two days, but in that case it took me more than one week, to learn and digest what I’d learn, and follow the adventures of naive-narrator-cum-journalist Nicolas from Paris to Iran to Switzerland and back.

In Paris, Nicolas meets a beautiful young Iranian woman who invites him to Iran to celebrate the life of her deceased father. A key figure in the last remnants of the Zoroastrian religions, he has been assassinated in Switzerland, in unclear circumstances, apparently a mere domestic fight. In Iran, Nicolas learns about the Zoroastrian religion and culture, which Iranian Muslim leaders barely tolerate when they don’t outright disapprove and threaten believers.

Nicolas Wild was inspired by the real life and death of a famous Zoroastrian public figure, but he reinvented a fictional character so as to be more free with his explanations and interpretations. His treatment is quite sensitive and subtle, but also funny and caring. The art reminded me of Tintin, and Nicolas’ own adventures are just as eventful! I’m a total convert (to Wild, not to Zoroastrianism!) and want to read his other books in 2019.

ps. this was the last book I read in 2018… better late than never…

The One with the Terse Swedish Procedural

The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Swedish, 1969)

After reading some Maigret in December, I decided that classic noirs and old police procedurals are totally worth returning to at regular intervals. And It was waaay too long since I’d read a Martin Beck police mystery. Fall of 2017, to be exact (thank you, blog archives!).

So as soon as 2019 rolled in, I reconnected with the Swedish police force, and it was as if not a day had passed since I’d left them. Beck is still at odds with his wife (and brother-in-law). Kollberg is still his grumpy old self. Melander is brilliant but boring. Gunvald Larsson is an unlikely hero. And there’s a newbie, a rookie policeman who is hilariously ambitious and clumsy (a dangerous combination).

I had forgotten how funny these books are. I mean, seriously laugh out loud funny, with just a few words for a full effect. People are so real, in their petty concerns, wishing for the weekend, hating the cold weather, bad-mouthing the colleagues… By any standards people are not very expansive and prone to emotional outpours but it delivers a punch. They do have a life beside the office, and in part because of that, and also because life is complicated, investigations often progress at snail pace, which is way more realistic than the 50 minutes open-and-shut cases of SVU and CSI. These books are not for hurried readers who want cheap thrill and twists in each page, but if you’re good with that, it is a real treat.

The fire engine that disappeared is a tongue-in-cheek title, because the story starts with an explosion, that could be arson, or murder, or suicide, or plain accident, and it takes a long time to settle between these possibilities. The fire engine that would have extinguished the fire took a very long time coming (yes, things don’t run as smoothly in Stockholm as the ideal country of hygge would have us think). There actually is a toy fire engine that gets lost in the story too, and this mystery too gets resolved in the end.

#UnreadShelfProject February

The #UnreadSelfProject worked almost too well for me in January: I finished (and enjoyed) the 2 books I set to read, and it got me reading a lot more books that I own. The big favorable push for me was that I didn’t go to the library for several weeks, so the temptation was lessened.

But I’m not quite sure if the momentum will go on. For one, I got back to my weekly library visit with the kids (who both load up their 15-books cards, so who am I to resist a few shiny new titles on my own car?). As a result, I could not not borrow anything for me (especially since Kate Atkinson’s Transcription was on the New Acquisitions Shelf! happy dance!!), and also, I was weak and downloaded a few ebooks on my Kindle in a moment of… lack of self-control, so to say.

Also, I am in the middle of rather big books (from my own shelves, yes sir!) started in January, so I want to reign in my ambitions for February. I am currently slowly making progress into :

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (477 pages – also in audio)
  • Kindred by Octavia E. Butler (287 pages)
  • The Borrowed by Chan Ho-kei (496 pages)

The #UnreadShelfProject guru founder says that the goal is to read any book off our #unreadshelf that has been GIFTED to us. I am grateful that my husband gives me books at birthdays or holidays, but I don’t read them as fast as he gives them to me! I am hesitating between 2 options :

  • The Victorian Chaise Longue by Marghanita Laski (a pretty Persephone grey and slim number)
  • The Course of Love by Alain de Botton, because the theme is very appropriate to Valentine’s and that I should read more of this author whom Mr. Smithereens loves.

But due to the reading queue I won’t be able to start any before the weekend (and I have Kate Atkinson lingering on the side!). If any or both of these two get finished by February, I’ll consider this challenge a win!

 

Two with Tough Book Choices

Gerard Reve, Childhood, two novellas (Dutch 1946-1949, Pushkin Press 2018)

The good thing about the #Unreadshelf challenge is that it forces me to answer hard questions with a deadline, instead of letting time fly without making any decision with a “maybe one day?” shrug. Is this book worth my time? Is it good enough? Do I enjoy it? And it’s not only for the one (or the two) books I selected for the monthly challenge, it’s for every single one.

I knew nothing about Gerard Reve before downloading this book from Netgalley. But I do trust Pushkin Press and I wanted to read more Dutch authors. Alas, it was not a good fit. This book presents 2 novellas of unequal size, but I couldn’t get into the story of the main one, Werther Nieland. The story is told through the eyes of a boy of 11, who is a bit weird and cruel. The view of an immature child with some degree of misunderstanding about his environment is a classic literary ploy, and it was well executed. Still, the story was dull and depressing, and it seemed to go nowhere fast. The boy was decisively unlikeable, it didn’t help. I was hesitating if I should try the second novella, but at 40% into the book, I decided to stop and move on.

A week ago I also started another book that was on my Goodreads To-read list for a while and that I’d bought last year: The Borrowed by Hong Kong writer Chan Ho-kei. I had just finished The Man in the Wooden Hat and I was craving more Hong Kong. A prize-winning thriller / mystery set there from the 1960s to the 2000s is rare enough, I simply had to read it.

Yet I had mixed feelings after reading the first chapter. The mystery was a sort of clumsy plot à la Hercule Poirot with all the suspects gathered in a hospital room around a dying old inspector, in a coma, though he manages to lead the questioning and uncover the truth by communicating through a computer. Can you hear my eyes rolling?

I was rather underwhelmed, but I found that I wanted to learn more about this old inspector’s background and early cases and that I cared enough to keep on reading. It helped that the book has glowing reviews on Goodreads too! I’ll review the two other books from the Unreadshelf challenge in due course but so far it’s a success!

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.