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The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd – fascinating

September 11, 2022 9 comments

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (2014) French title: L’invention des ailes.

Different roads converging into one led me to The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.

My mom had raved upon her other book, The Secret Life of Bees, which pushed me to blindly download The Invention of Wings when it was on sale on the Kindle store, not knowing what it was about but willing to try her as a writer. Then, The Invention of Wings was on display in historic houses gift shops in Savannah and Charleston and I looked it up only to find out I already had it with me, on my Kindle. I’m like the girl scout of reading, always ready!

Sue Monk Kidd is a white writer from Charleston, South Carolina. I think it’s important to know that. The Invention of Wings is based upon the life of Sarah Moore Grimké (1792-1873), who was the daughter of a rich planter, attorney and judge in South Carolina. Her family belonged to the local aristocracy. She moved up North, became a Quaker, an abolitionist and the mother of the women’s suffrage movement. Yes, all that in one person. According to Wikipedia, growing up, Sarah Grimké was close to her enslaved servant Hetty and Sue Monk Kidd chose to write her novel with two voices, Sarah’s and Hetty’s.

We follow the lives of these two women from 1803 to 1838. Sarah was twelve when Hetty (Handful, according to the name her mother gave her) was gifted to her as her birthday gift. The author takes us through the struggles of Sarah’s life, how she was denied higher education because she was a woman, how she loathed slavery and how she found in Quaker faith a way to abolitionist and women activism. Sarah’s life is documented and I’m not going to write her biography when there’s a full Wikipedia page about her.

Sue Monk Kidd pictures a Sarah who is obviously very intelligent and who had to break a lot of barriers to be able to reach her potential, promote her ideas and be true to herself. Her life is awe-inspiring for all the courage she had to carry on and be a pioneer in not only one but two controversial fields: abolitionism and feminism.

How she became a feminist is easy to understand. She was denied the education and profession she craved for because she was female. Just thinking of all the wasted talents and repressed lives this entailed makes my head spin. I’ll never understand how humanity thought (and still thinks) that the world is a better place when you discard the brainpower of half of the population because they are female.

I admire Sarah for leading the way to feminism but what impresses me the most is her early fight for abolitionism.

Sarah was twelve when she started rebelling against the condition of enslaved people through Bible classes. She secretly taught Hetty how to read. (In South Carolina, it was unlawful to teach an enslaved person how to read since 1740.)

And I wonder: How, at only twelve, did she get the idea that slavery was wrong? It was 1804 in Charleston, South Carolina, in a family of planters.

This system was all she knew. How intelligent, intuitive and clear-headed she must have been to be able to step aside and think out of the box! She was so young, living such a sheltered and privileged life and yet she recognized her equals in black people and did not accept her society’s rules and vision of the world. I admire people who have this built-in foresight and who are able to see and think beyond their cultural background. It’s a special brand of intelligence.

When Sarah’s life is documented, Hetty’s isn’t. Sue Monk Kidd decided to show the resistance of enslaved people through Hetty and her mother Charlotte.

There’s mental resistance, remembering Africa and keeping a free space in their mind. There are little acts of rebellion and sabotages in the house and sneaking out of the house to have some free time. There’s active rebellion through church and political movements.

When Hetty speaks, Sue Mon Kidd has the opportunity to describe her work, her fears and all the rules that are applicable to enslaved people. Badges and authorizations to go out of the house. Controls on the streets. The working house as a punishment. Their worth written down as furniture in inventory ledgers. Their fate when their master dies and wills are read. Crushed dreams and a lack of future. Living in fear because their lives were not theirs to live.

Through Hetty’s voice, we discover the quotidian of an enslaved house servant. She lived with the Grimkés all her life with her mother Charlotte. I believe that the lay out of the Grimké house is based upon the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston that I visited this summer. It was fresh in my mind when I read The Invention of Wings and I could picture Hetty and Charlotte’s whereabouts.

Rhett-Aiken House, Charleston, South Carolina.
Rhett-Aiken House. Stables and upstairs, enslaved people’s quarters.
And what I see as Charlotte and Hetty’s tree.
Rhett-Aiken House. Kitchen house and enslaved people’s quarters. Another view of the tree.

The Invention of Wings is fascinating and educational. It is useful and its success is an opportunity to broadcast anti-racist causes and feminist causes. And sadly, we still need that kind of books to make people touch these important concepts with their fingertips. Fiction has the power to strike the reader’s empathy and characters embody cold concepts. Readers can relate to Sarah and Hetty and the horror of Hetty’s life becomes real and not a disembodied history chapter in a textbook.

Sue Monk Kidd’s book is useful, informative and well-executed. But it took me a while to really dive into it and feel invested in Sarah and Hetty’s lives. I started reading it without knowing that Sarah Grimké was a real person. She even seemed unrealistic to me at the beginning! The outline of book’s purpose was obvious and well, I wasn’t fully on board until Sarah left Charleston. But that’s not a big enough flaw to deter you from reading it if you haven’t.

A good companion book to this one is The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, based upon another abolitionist’s life, John Brown. The narration more unconventional and inspired and it’s written by a black author.

The Invention of Wings is a great book, a mix between biography and fiction. I appreciated the author’s afterword where she explains where and why she took some liberties with historical facts. It’s an excellent read but since it’s a novel with a clear educational purpose, it lacks this artistic flame that comes with mind-blowing literary fiction.

Crime fiction in August: Mexico, America, South Africa and New Zealand

August 28, 2022 10 comments

Let’s have a tour of my August crime fiction travels. First, let’s go to Madrid.

Adiós Madrid by Paco Ignacio Taibo II (1993) French title: Adiós Madrid. Translated by René Solis

Paco Ignacio Taibo II is a Mexican crime fiction writer. I’ve already read Days of Combat featuring the PI Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. Adiós Madrid is the seventh or ninth book of the series.

This time, Belascoarán is sent on a mission to Madrid by his friend Justo Vasco, the assistant manager of the museum of anthropology in Mexico. He’s going all the way to Madrid to deliver Vasco’s threat. The Black Widow, “ex-rancheras singer, mistress of an ex-president of Mexico who had recently passed away, ex-icon of the Mexico nightlife and ex-landlord of the country.”, lives in Madrid.

Belascoarán has to tell her that if she tries to sell the plastron of Moctezuma, an antique that belongs to the anthropology museum, Vasco will leak all kinds of embarrassing information about her.

Belascoarán is happy to get a free trip to Madrid, the city where his parents grew up and it’s a bittersweet experience for him to confront the Madrid that his parents described to the actual and modern one. And then of course, things don’t go according to plan as far as the threat delivery is concerned.

Adiós Madrid is a very short book for crime fiction (102 pages in French) and it was good fun but nothing more. No need to rush for it.

After Madrid, it was time to fly to Washington DC and let George Pelecanos drive me through his hometown.

The Cut by George Pelecanos (2011) French title: Une balade dans la nuit. Translated by Elsa Maggion.

In The Cut, Spero Lucas, a former marine who was in Afghanistan, works as a non-licensed investigator for a lawyer, Tom Petersen. Spero’s job is to unearth useful clues that help Petersen during procedurals.

Spero starts on a case where he finds crucial clues that unable to bail Petersen’s client’s son out of jail. The thing is: Petersen’s client is Anwan Hawkins, head of a marijuana trafficking organization and currently in jail. Hawkins uses the “Fedex method”: send the drug via Fedex at the address of an unsuspecting citizen, follow up the delivery on internet, be on location at delivery time and intercept the parcel.

Now two parcels went missing and the loss amounts to 130 000 USD. For a 40% cut, Spero is ready to track down the missing parcels. And that will prove to be more dangerous than expected, even for an ex-marine.

Spero Lucas is a well-drawn character, we see him struggle with his military past and his father’s death. He comes from an unconventional tight-knit family with Greek roots and the personal side of the book was a nice addition to the crime plot.

My only drawback is Pelecanos’s style. You can see that he’s used to writing scenarios as it is very cinematographic. Lots of descriptions of driving the streets of Washington DC were hard to picture and didn’t bring much to the book. In my opinion, it could have been more literary. It was Good entertainment though.

Then, I traveled to South Africa to read my first Deon Meyer. He’s a writer I’d seen and heard at Quais du Polar and had wanted to read for a long time.

Dead at Daybreak by Deon Meyer (1998) French title: Les Soldats de l’aube.

Dead at Daybreak is, according to Goodreads, Matt Joubert book #1.5. This is a series I’m very tempted to read after this introduction to Meyer’s literary world.

Zatopek van Heerden is a former police officer, he’s adrift and when the book opens, he’s hungover in jail after fighting in a bar in Capetown. Like Spero Lucas in The Cut, he’s hired by a lawyer, Hope Beneke, to help her with her client Wilhelmina van As. Here’s the reason she hired van Heerden:

Johannes Jacobus Smit was fatally wounded with a large-calibre gun on 30 September last year during a burglary at his home in Moreletta Street, Durbanville. The entire contents of a walk-in safe are missing, including a will in which, it is alleged, he left all his possessions to his friend, Wilhelmina Johanna van As. If the will cannot be found, the late Mr Smit will have died intestate and his assets will eventually go to the state.’

It seems simple enough: find the will. Van Heerden will have to get out of his drunken funk, informally reconnect with his former colleagues, solve the case, get paid and move on. However, the case takes him to another affair that happened in 1983, during the time of the Apartheid and economic sanctions against South Africa.

Dead at Daybreak is a fantastic crime fiction book and it has it all. A riveting plot. Fascinating thoughts about South Africa, the change of regime and relationships between the black and white communities. Well-drawn characters.

The plot driven chapters are third person narrative, with the reader following the investigation. They alternate with chapters with first person narrative, where van Heerden writes about his life, from his childhood to the events that brought him to get into bar fights and drink too much. These chapters were captivating too. The ending of the book was both the closing of the investigation and closure for van Heerden.

Excellent book: highly recommended.

My next crime fiction book took me to New Zealand where I was happy to reconnect with Maori police officer Tito Ihaka.

Fallout by Paul Thomas. (2014) Not available in French. Published by Bitter Lemon Press.

Fallout is my second book by Paul Thomas as I’d already read and loved Death on Demand.

Fallout has a triple plot thread with interconnected stories. It starts with Finbar McGrail, the District Commander in Auckland who is on the verge of retirement. His first murder case in 1987 is still unsolved and he recently had a new lead. He asks Ihaka to look into it and see if he can find who murdered Polly Stenson at the posh Barton party in 1987.

Meanwhile, Ihaka’s former colleague Van Roon is hired as a non-licensed investigator to find Eddie Brightside. This man has been hiding abroad for years and he was seen in New Zealand.

On the side, Miriam Lovell, Ikaka’s ex-lover, contacts him regarding his father’s death, some twenty years ago. Lovell is writing her PhD thesis about work unions in New Zealand and as Ikaha’s father was a well-known unionist, she comes across breaking news: Jimmy Ihaka might not have died of a heart attack but could have been murdered. Ihaka decides to investigate his father’s death.

I loved Fallout as much as I loved Death on Demand. Ihaka is an incredible character. He’s a maverick police officer with a code of conduct of his own. He’s loud, crude but loyal. He’s either respected or despised and he’s not good with precinct politics. This is Ihaka, assessing a witness.

Gentle, thought Ihaka; sensitive; arty. Probably plays the guitar and writes songs about how hard it is being gentle, sensitive and arty in this fucked-up world.

Political correctness is not Ihaka’s strong suit and that’s why I enjoyed my time with him.

Fallout is a tour de force. I never felt lost between the three investigations, mixing up characters or stories. It was perfectly orchestrated, a fine-tuned mix of standard crime, personal matters and political issues as it branches out on the topic of New Zealand anti-nuclear stance in the 1980s. Fascinating stuff.

Excellent book: highly recommended.

So, that was my month of August with crime fiction. All in all, it was a good pick of books, various places and well-drawn characters and plots. I’m looking forward to reading more by Deon Meyer, so don’t hesitate to leave recommendations in the comments below.

All these books belong to my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

PS : Fallout is published by an indie publisher, Bitter Lemon Press, their books are available online and well, the more books they sell, the more chances we have that they bring us great crime fiction books.

Catching up on billets: six in one

July 17, 2022 20 comments

I really really have a hard time keeping up with billets and blogging at the moment, so I’ll catch up on different books I’ve read and write mini-billets about them. Everything is fine, I’m just terribly busy.

I’ve been reading American literature again or books related to America. All were good, I’ve been lucky with my reading choices. They all deserve a full billet but I’m too knackered to tackle six billets at the moment.

The first one is a French book, set in Ellis Island, Those Who Leave by Jeanne Benameur 2019. (Original French title: Ceux qui partent.) We’re in 1910, in Ellis Island, New York.

Emilia Scarpa and her father Donato, Esther Agakian and Gabor are all candidatures to emigrate to America. Emilia and Donato are Italian and she wants to be free and be a painter. Esther is survivor of the Armenian genocide. Gabor is a Rom and is fleeing the pogroms. All aspire to start a new life, either to leave traumatic events back in Europe or to open to opportunities they wouldn’t have in their native country.

Andrew Jónsson, an American photograph also spends a lot of time at Ellis Island, recording the arrivals of new immigrants. His father emigrated from Iceland with his grand-mother when he was a child and Andrew chases his own history through the newcomers.

All the characters meet at Ellis Island and their lives intertwine for a while. Jeanne Benameur muses about leaving, about new beginnings. Can you start over or as the song says, “You don’t rebuild your life, you only go on”? What do “roots” mean? How to you survive a genocide? How are you linked to your lineage?

Jeanne Benameur has a lovely and poetic style. Her tone is smooth, contemplative and tries to convey the characters inner thoughts.

It was a good read but sometimes I felt she could have said the same in less pages.

Then I was in New York again with The Fire, Next Time by James Baldwin (1963). This non-fiction book is composed of Baldwin’s letter to his nephew James and an essay about being black in America.

The letter was very moving, one James giving advice to his namesake nephew. Words of wisdom and self-confidence.

As always, Baldwin is spot on, direct and unflinching. He’s intelligent, nuanced and never lets himself fall into the pitfall of simplification.

He explores the idea of violence and various schools of thought about the future of the black community in America. He’s not convinced by any extremist thinking.

There is no hatred in his words but a challenge issued to white people: the condition of black people will change only if they’re willing to acknowledge that they need to change.

Then I moved to Kansas, around the same time as The Fire, Next Time, with In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965) I read it in French (De sang froid) in the 1966 translation by Raymond Girard.

This translation needs to be updated, that’s for sure. It was done in a time where we were a lot less Americanized and the translation reflects this with comments about obvious American things or weird spelling. (“base-ball”, really?) I was intimidated by In Cold Blood and thought it would be best to read it in French but I think I could have read it in English.

Anyway. I’m not sure it’s necessary to remind you that In Cold Blood is about a true crime affair. The Clutter family, a well-loved family in the village of Holcomb, Kansas was savagely murdered without any reason. Capote reconstructs the crime, showing the murderers before and after their crime, including their time in jail and switching of point of view to picture the family and the KBI inspectors who work on the case.

It was a memorable time for many people and Capote’s various angles shows the trail of devastation and life-changing moment that such a crime entails for a broad cast of people.

I enjoyed it a lot more than expected and it was easy to read. The chapters cover the different moment of this terrible crime, with a bit of suspense. The writing is vivid, like a reportage and it’s well worth reading.

After Capote, I changed of scenery but remained with law representatives. I went to North Carolina, where Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (2014) is set. It was my first novel by Ron Rash, as I had only read a collection of short stories before, Burning Bright.

In this novel, Les is 52, sheriff in a county in North Carolina. He’ll retire in three weeks, handing over his job to Jarvis Crowe. He has a burgeoning relationship with Becky, a park ranger. They both carry a heavy personal baggage.

Les has to handle two cases that represent the spectrum of country sheriff duties: on the one hand, he has to deal with Gerald who trespasses on his neighbor’s property and on the other hand he has a very precise intervention to close a meth lab, as drug is a major issue in this State.

Above the Waterfall is representative of books set in small towns America.

Like Longmire, the sheriff of the fictional Absaroka County, Les has to take into account the local history, the relationship between the parties and look the other way sometimes to preserve peace. They all have to live together anyway. Btw, this reminds me that I also read Hell Is Empty by Craig Johnson but I won’t write a billet about it as it’s not my favorite Longmire story. It felt like a long race in the cold, in the falling snow of the Rocky Mountains.

But let’s leave Wyoming behind and go back to Rash’s novel set in the Appalachians, where he lives.

His books are cousins to David Joy’s or Chris Offutt’s books. Should we call them the Appalachians School? They are in the same vein and as a reader, I think they give an accurate picture of their land. Rash is less violent than Joy and he’s also a poet. I know from attending his interview at Quais du Polar, that he reads his books aloud to ensure they ring well. Above the Waterfall has a very poetic side and I’m not sure I caught all the beauty of his descriptions of wilderness.

It was a story full of grey areas where what is right isn’t always legal and vice-versa. Life isn’t black and white and like with Baldwin, I appreciate that Rash doesn’t over simplify issues but turns his writing spotlight in different corners of this Appalachian county, near the Shenandoah National Park. He lets us see different point of views.

I still have another book by Rash on the shelf, Serena and I’m looking forward to it as I really think that Ron Rash is a talented writer.

Then I flew to Argentina and you may wonder how Thursday Nights Widows by Claudia Piñeiro (2005) belongs with a billet about America. Well, it does because it is set in a country, a gated community at 50 kilometers from Buenos Aires. This huge compound is modeled after its American counterparts and it’s a sort of Argentinean Wisteria Lane. Rich businessmen have their house there, they live in close quarters and their wives, who don’t work, have very few opportunities to spend time in real Argentina.

Everything is about status, not making waves and getting along with everyone. Buy a the end on the 1990s and early 2000s, a devastating economic crisis shatters Argentina and these couples’ carefully balanced life is at threat. Unemployment spreads at Covid speed. The husbands try to keep face, the wives are oblivious and everyone has dirty secrets that stay hidden (or not) behind closed doors.

Piñeiro excels at describing this microsociety and its unspoken rules. Their carefully assembled houses of cards is fragile and drama looms. We know from the start that a tragedy occurred and the author takes us to the genesis of it, coming back to recent events or to older ones with anecdotes that pinpoints the characters’ tempers.

I have read it in a French translation by Romain Magras. It is entitled Les Veuves du jeudi and I recommend it.

At my personal bingo of literary events, I ticket several boxes with these books. All but the Jeanne Benameur count for my 20 Books Of Summer Challenge. (Books 5 to 9) Thursday Nights Widow counts for Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month hosted by Stu.

Have you read any of these six books? What did you think about them?

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden – fantastic

July 9, 2022 10 comments

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden. (2020) French title: Justice indienne. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

I wondered what it was like to live without that weight on your shoulders, the weight of the murdered ancestors, the stolen land, the abused children, the burden every Native person carries.

After Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese , Winter Counts is my second contribution to Lisa’s First Nations Reading Week.

We are in South Dakota, on the Rosebud reservation, land of the Lakota nation. Virgil Wounded Horse raises his nephew Nathan on his own after his sister Sybil died in a car accident three years ago. Nathan is 14 and he and Virgil have found a way to live together. Nathan is a good student, interested in science. Virgil doesn’t make a lot of money but Nathan and he get by, leaning on each other to recover from Sybil’s death.

Virgil survives on odd jobs: he’s hired to beat people up when they did something wrong and are never prosecuted. Indeed, the tribal police can only intervene on minor offence and “the feds prosecuted all felony crimes on the rez, and they didn’t mess with any crime short of murder”. For all the crimes that are not interesting enough for the feds and out of the sphere of action of the tribal police, victims may hire Virgil for a kind of local justice. This explains the French title of Winter Counts, Justice indienne.

Then Ben, councilman at the tribal council wants to hire Virgil to go after Rick Crow, a potential drug dealer. Ben says that Crow is part of a criminal organization that aims at introducing heroin on the reservation. Virgil refuses the job, his guts telling him not to go there.

Then Nathan almost overdoses on heroin and it becomes a personal matter. Virgil accepts Ben’s contract and rekindles his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Marie. She’s a social worker on the reservation, she dated Rick Crow and she’s Ben’s daughter. Three good reasons to get involved. Soon, their path crosses the FBI’s since this case is important enough for them to investigate it.

Winter Counts is a crime fiction book and the plot is centered around the heroin trafficking and Virgil’s and Marie’s involvement in this investigation but it’s a lot more than that.

Weiden writes about life on the reservation and Lakota traditions. He explains the Lakota’s view of the world, comes back on their history. Virgil has distanced himself from Lakota ways while Marie wants to promote them, to come back to them and live by them on the reservation.

This investigation involves Nathan, Virgil’s only family and it forces Virgil to lean on the community. It brings him back to his people, their way of thinking and their rituals. Reading Winter Counts, we follow Virgil’s journey as he reconnects and embraces his Lakota roots.

The title Winter Counts comes from a Lakota tradition, the making of pictorial calendars or stories to remember major events of the tribe’s history. Virgil does his own mental winter counts and it’s another way for him to get closer to his Lakota background. Along his way, the reader learns a little bit more about Lakota culture and ceremonies. Weiden explains that Lakota ceremonies are secret and that he only describes what had already been revealed in other books. Not everything is written but we get a glimpse of what they are and it is enough for us philistines.

I always enjoy augmented crime fiction books. The gripping plot holds your attention and all the detours about the context are informative and give the plot and the characters an additional depth. Winter Counts is exactly that.

In an afterword, Weiden explains that the plot of his book is based on true facts and his description of life on the reservation sound accurate. He never sugarcoats reality and he brings a nuanced and factual vision of the Rosebud reservation. Like James Baldwin for black people, he points out and reminds us what the white man has done to Indigenous nations. (Btw, like Wagamese, Weiden uses the word Indian and not Native American.) It’s not in anger or with hatred but a calm way to set history straight and make it known. Cold hard truth.

I will definitely read more books by David Heska Wanbli Weiden in the future.

This is my #20BooksOfSummer number 5, another book published by Gallmeister with an outstanding translation by Sophie Aslanides, who also translates Craig Johnson and Jake Hinkson, among others.

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese – Native Canadians and hockey.

July 4, 2022 12 comments

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese (2012) French title: Jeu blanc. Translated by Christine Raguet.

This week Lisa from ANZ LitLovers hosts her First Nation Reading Week. In previous years, I read books by Aborigine authors but this year, I picked two books by North American Indians. (I use the word Indian because these writers use it themselves.) The first one is by the Ojibway Canadian writer Richard Wagamese. I had already read his Medicine Walk but I think that Indian Horse is even better.

Set in Manitoba and the north of Ontario, the book is the story of Saul Indian Horse who speaks from a rehab facility where he’s treated for alcoholism. His psychologist asked him to write his story to rid himself from its weight.

Saul was born in 1953 in an Ojibway family and had an older brother, Ben. He spent his first years living according to the traditional Ojibway ways, as his family hid the children in the woods to avoid their kidnapping by the government. They didn’t want their kids to be sent to a school belonging to the Canadian residential school system.

The authorities caught Ben first and after a fateful trip, Saul was sent to Saint Jerome’s Indian Residential School. This place is hell on earth. The catholic nuns and priests who run the place are positively awful.

The children have no actual education. They endure moral and sexual harassment. They have to work hard. They die due to child abuse and are buried in the woods. It reminded me of The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.

I’ll never understand institutions that abuse children. When these institutions are Christian, it’s even worse. Saul explains that breakfast was a torture because they had to eat bland and vile porridge when the nuns and priest at the nearby table had bacon and eggs. How is that in line with the message of the New Testament?

Saul’s way out appears when Father Gaston Leboutillier arrives at St Jerome’s and starts a hockey team. Saul has a gift for the game. It will give him a goal, a mental lifeline to keep going at St Jerome’s.

Hockey is his safe place. It’s a game he excels at and when he’ll later join a team, it will give him the immense pleasure of the game but also expose him to the ever-present racism against native Canadians. I confess that some descriptions of the hockey games went over my head. It’s not a popular sport in France –the French publisher had to include two pages of explanations about hockey to enlighten the reader about it –so I probably didn’t enjoy as much as I should have the outstanding descriptions of hockey games.

Indian Horse is the poignant story of a man whose identity was partly destroyed and stolen by an inhumane system. It is an ode to hockey and a descent into the life of an Indian in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s. It wasn’t pretty and it’s consistent with what Plamondon describes about the Migmaqs in Taqawan.

Saul’s life is built on drama but he still finds beauty and self-value in hockey. His sport gives him his worst and his best experiences. He faces racism and hatred but also builds friendships and a team family.

Wagamese writes well about the Ojibway culture and how white Canadians treated Indians in the 1970s. Some scenes are shocking but I don’t think his imagination went away from him. Like Baldwin for black people, he’s descriptive. He writes about actual behaviours in a system built to reject Indians. He shows the reader how things were and lets them make their own opinion about it.

We follow Saul in his quest for his lost Indian soul, his buried childhood trauma and his difficulties as an adult. I wanted to lift him up and ensure he’d live a better life from now on. A powerful book.

Highly recommended.

Three beach-and-public-transport crime fiction books: let’s go to Sweden, Japan and Australia.

June 12, 2022 13 comments

The summer holiday are coming soon, with lazy reading hours, waiting time in airports or train stations, train or plane travels and all kinds of noisy reading environments. That’s what my Beach and Public Transports category is for: help you locate page turners that help pass the time and don’t need a lot of concentration. So, let’s make a three-stops journey, starting in Stockholm with…

The Last Lullaby by Carin Gerardhsen. (2010) French title: La comptine des coupables. Translated from the Swedish by Charlotte Drake and Patrick Vandar.

It’s a classic crime fiction book that opens with a murder. Catherine Larsson and her two children are murdered in their apartment. She was from the Philippines, got married to Christer Larsson and they were divorced. He was deeply depressed and had no contact with his children.

Catherine lived in a nice apartment in a posh neighborhood in Stockholm. How could this cleaning lady afford such a lavish home?

The commissaire Conny Sjöberg and his team are on the case. The troubling fact is that their colleague Einar Ericksson has not shown up for work and hasn’t call in sick. Sjöberg looks for him and soon discover that Catherine Larsson and Einar Ericksson were close, that he used to come and meet her and play with the children. His sweater was in her flat.

Now the police are in a difficult position: their colleague is a suspect but Sjöberg thinks he’s a victim too. It complicates the investigation.

I enjoyed The Last Lullaby as the story progressed nicely, all clues clicking into place one after the other. I thought that the police team’s personal lives were a bit heavy. What are the odds to have on the same team someone with a traumatic past, someone who was raped and filmed, someone recovering of a heart attack and multiples divorces and affairs. It seemed a bit too much for me.

That minor detail aside, it’s a nice Beach and Public Transport book. Now, let’s travel to Japan for a very unusual story.

The House Where I Once Died by Keigo Higashino (1994) French title: La maison où je suis mort autrefois. Translated from the Japanese by Yukatan Makino. Not available in English.

The unnamed Narrator of the book and Sayaka met in high school and were a couple for a few years. Sayaka broke up with him when she met her future husband. He wasn’t too heartbroken, they never meant to spend their life together anyway. Seven years later, they reconnect at a high school reunion.

Sayaka contacts the Narrator a few weeks later and asks him to accompany her on a strange trip. When her father died, he left her with a key to a house. She knows that her father used to go there once a month but never talked about it. Since her husband is on a business trip, she doesn’t want to go alone. The Narrator accepts and they drive to a strange house in the woods by Matsubara Lake.

Sayaka doesn’t have any family left and has no memories of her early childhood. She wants her memory back and hopes that this house will trigger something in her.

The Narrator and Sayaka enter the house and start playing detective to find out whose house it is, why it is empty, where its inhabitants are and how they are linked to Sayaka’s father.

The House Where I Once Died is a fascinating tale and as a reader, I was captivated from the start. It’s like a children’s mystery tale, a strange house, clues in the rooms, a memory loss and weird details everywhere.

Step by step, along with the Narrator and Sayaka, we discover the truth about the house and its family. The ending was unexpected and the whole experience was a great reading time.

That’s another excellent Beach and Public Transport book at least for readers who can read in French, since it hasn’t been translated into English.

Now let’s move to Tasmania with…

The Survivors by Jane Harper (2020) French title: Les survivants.

This is not my first Jane Harper, I’ve already read The Dry and Force of Nature. This time, Jane Harper takes us to the fictional Tasmanian small town on Evelyn Bay. It’s on the ocean and along the coasts are caves that can be explored when the tide is low and that get flooded when the tide is high.

Kieran and his girlfriend Mia live in Sydney with their three-month old baby but they both grew up in Evelyn Bay. They are visiting Kieran’s parents Brian and Verity in their hometown. Brian has dementia and the young couple is here to help Verity pack their house to move Verity into an apartment and Brian goes to a medical facility.

This family is still haunted by the drama that occurred twelve years ago. Kieran was in the caves when a bad storm hit the town. Finn, his older brother who had a diving business with his friend Toby, went out to sea to rescue him. The storm turned their boat and they both drowned. Kieran has always felt responsible for the death of his older brother.

The storm devastated the town. The material damage was repaired. The psychological one, not really. That same day of the historical storm, Gabby Birch disappeared and never came back. She was fourteen and she probably drowned too. Her body was never found.

That summer, Kieran and his friends Ash and Sean were a tight unit who partied a lot. They were just out of high school and Kieran had secret hook-ups with Olivia in the caves. Gabby was Olivia’s younger sister and Mia’s best friend.

So, the group of friends who meet again in Evelyn Bay has this traumatic past in common. Olivia and Ash are now in a relationship. Olivia works at the local pub, with a student who is there for the summer. Bronte is an art student at university in Canberra. She waitresses at the pub too and shares a house on the beach with Olivia.

One morning shortly after Kieran and Mia’s arrival, Bronte is found dead on the beach. Who could have wanted to kill her? Old wounds reopen and everyone thinks about the storm and Gabby Birch’s unexplained death. The digital rumour mill runs freely on the town’s forum.

Are the two deaths related? How will Kieran deal with being in this town again in the middle of another dramatic event? What happens in those caves?

The Survivors isn’t an outstanding crime fiction book but it does the job. It’s entertaining and exactly what you need to read on a beach. Well, except for the fear you may get about rising tides and being stuck in caves…

The Survivors is my first of my #20BooksOfSummer challenge. Do you look for easy and entertaining reads for the summer or do you take advantage of the slower pace (no school and related activities, holidays…) to read more challenging books?

The Color of Her Eyes by Conan Kennedy – murky waters in the seaside town of Bognor Regis in Sussex

June 6, 2022 4 comments

The Colour of Her Eyes by Conan Kennedy. (2011). Not available in French.

This one has been on the Kindle TBR for 10 years, I think. I must have downloaded it after reading Guy’s excellent review.

John Dexter first met Ruth Taylor at a school disco when she was fifteen and he was twenty-five. She was a student and he was a young professor. Ruth got pregnant at that time, John says nothing happened between them.

They meet again five years later, by chance. John is now married with two kids. They go to a café and talk. Ruth is poor and struggles to raise her daughter Sandy. John gives her money to help her start over.

They meet again five years later. They become lovers and John takes interest in Sandy, Ruth’s daughter.

Ruth and John are a case of opposites attract. He was drawn to her when she was fifteen. The colour of her eyes is of the same green as the Southdown Motor Company buses that he used to take with his parents when he was a child. They used to spend the day at Bognor Regis. Happy memories.

Something happened, we know it right away because the first chapter of the book is a police transcript of Detective Inspector Harris interrogating John Dexter. The tone of the questions is judgmental. Harris has a dirty mind and he keeps putting words in Dexter’s mouth. Harris assumes that Dexter has sexually assaulted Ruth at the disco and that Sandy is his daughter.

Right from the start, we’re in murky waters. We read the police transcripts and John sounds sincere but also very clever. Enough to manipulate Harris and step aside all the obvious traps Harris plants in his line of questioning.

DI Harris has an awful personality. He’s oldish, always dreaming about constable Phillips’s breasts, he’s racist and judgmental. A real prick. The reader understands that he’s as an unreliable narrator as John.

The novel is constructed around the police transcripts, John’s narration and Harris’s thoughts and life. The language is rather crude on Harris’s side, more polite and elaborate on John’s side. It strengthens their voices and their roles and blurs the line between legal and illegal, moral and immoral.

Being in their mind is uncomfortable. John is weird and did he really fight his attraction to Ruth at that disco? Is their relationship a true love story or a sordid affair? Harris isn’t as professional as he should be and his vision of the world is narrow-minded and reactionary.

The reader tries to make their own opinion of what happened and who the protagonists are but their personalities make it hard to disentangle the true from the false. This feeling of walking on quicksand kept me reading and wondering what the truth was and where the author was taking me.

The ending blurred the lines again and there were threads in the book that bothered me a bit but I won’t say more to avoid spoilers.

Conan Kennedy also peppers his novel with thoughts about the British society as his two main characters muse about the world they live in or the EU (should I stay or should I go?). They express their distaste towards foreigners (even John’s wife, Yvette, who is Belgian), a feeling of loss of their “Englishness” and traditional values, and a general distrust of globalization. The Colour of Her Eyes was published in 2011, five years before the Brexit referendum. Maybe its outcome shouldn’t have been such a shock as it was all there already.

And ten years later, I recognize in Harris’s thinking the rank smell of the racist and retrograde arguments of some candidates at the last French presidential election. Seeing where the UK is headed, I imagine we could follow the same path. Now, that really, really scares me.

So, not-clear-cut crime fiction associated with social commentary, what’s not to like? Thanks, Guy!

Country Dark by Chris Offutt – In the Appalachian mountains, again.

May 26, 2022 4 comments

Country Dark by Chris Offutt (2018) French title: Nuits Appalaches. Translated by Anatole Pons-Reumaux.

I discovered Chris Offutt at Quais du Polar in 2019 and I knew I’d like his books. I started with Country Dark, published in 2018. I could have read it in English, I suppose, but Gallmeister editions are gorgeous enough to make me read in translation.

Country Dark starts in 1954. Tucker is 18, he’s back from the Korean war where he was decorated and learnt all kinds of surviving skills. He’s going back to Kentucky, where his roots are and decided to walk and hitchhike home through the Appalachian woods.

On his way home, he saves Rhonda from her uncle’s clutches just when he was going to sexually harass her. She’s only 15. Tucker helps her, makes sure that her uncle stays out of her life for good and buys the uncle’s car in the process. Rhonda and Tucker are now an item, two kids starting their adult life together.

1964. Tucker and Rhonda are married, with five children. They’re poor. Tucker works as a driver for a bootlegger, so, officially, he has no stable job. Hattie, the social worker who visits Rhonda from time to time isn’t really worried about the family. She provides help but sees that the children are loved and that their parents do their best.

Things take a dramatic turn when Hattie makes her rounds with her judgmental boss. The social services now threaten Tucker’s family and he turns to his survival skills to protect his wife and children.

I liked Tucker. He’s a solid guy with a lot of good sense, some of it acquired at home and some in the army. He’s intelligent, sober, hardworking and gentle. Chris Offutt pictures it in two paragraphs, when he describes a moment in Tucker’s trip home:

Tucker sought share and found a strip cast from the leg of a billboard encouraging him to buy shaving cream. He needed a shave, but didn’t figure a giant picture would convince him to spend money on something he could make from borax, oil, and chipped soap. He dropped his rucksack, opened a can of Libby’s Vienna sausages and ate them with saltine crackers. He used a church key to open a bottle of Ale-8, and drank half.

A katydid landed on his forearm and he admired its silky green body, serrated back legs, and delicate wings. They were prettier than a grasshopper and didn’t piss all over you like frogs did. The insect leaned backward and swelled itself, the thorax expanding, wings distending as if preparing for battle. Tucker nudged it away. He dropped the empty sausage can in a ditch blooming with milkweed and set off walking.

Tucker comes from a poor family from Kentucky. Chris Offutt describes people’s life in this area, how isolated they are from one another. It means that people need to take care of themselves. They are far away from a maternity ward when women give birth. They are far from the sheriff if something happens. Their job prospects are not good, some live during the week to work in the factories up north. Poverty means that kids have to help around the house.

Offutt’s novel progresses nicely, showing Tucker and Rhonda’s characters. His writing relays the importance of their natural environment on their lives. They are who they are because they were born and are living in the Appalachians.

The doctor from the social services sets everything in motion and puts Tucker in corner. He’s smart, acts coolly and selflessly. He’ll do anything to protect Rhonda and the kids.

Tucker’s only wealth is his wife and children. He has a lot of love to give to Rhonda and his children and his ambition in life is to live a peaceful life with his family, in his house on an Appalachian hill.

He’s different from men of his generation, I believe, because he’s not full of this toxic masculinity I associate with his time. He doesn’t need to show off his strength, to go to bars, to be violent or despise supposedly feminine tasks. He’s a good man and the reader understands his motivations and his actions.

In a way, Chris Offutt writes another answer to David Joy’s question For whom are you willing to lay down your life?

Highly recommended.

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné – a girl’s resilience

May 15, 2022 6 comments

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné (2018) Original French title: La vraie vie.

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné was our Book Club choice for April. It is set in a suburb in Belgium and since the author was born in 1982, I think she used the time of her childhood as a reference. The way of life in the novel matches with the 1990s. There’s a before and after cellphones.

The narrator is a girl who is never named. She’s ten when the book opens and her brother Gilles is six. It’s the summer holiday and the two children spend their time playing around in their generic housing development complex. Their father works at an amusement park, their mom is a stay-at-home mother.

Their father is a hunter and they have a whole room in the house for his hunting trophies. His most prized one is a tusk. Yes, the man loves to hunt and doesn’t hesitate to travel abroad and break the law if need be. I’d despise him just for that. Between hunting trips, he spends his free time at home, sitting on the couch, drinking whisky and beating up his wife. Now he’s just gone up from despicable to scumbag.

His wife is mousy and loves to spend her time with her pet goats. The Narrator calls her an amoeba. Pretty telling. She acts like a wallflower, trying to fly under her husband’s predatory radar. If it means that she neglects her children, then so be it. She devotes all her time and pours her love into her pets.

This explains why the children are joined to the hip and the Narrator feels responsible for her little brother’s safety. They’re a team and Gilles is the Narrator’s sunshine. He brings warmth in her life and she’d do anything to keep this sunshine alive.

That summer, a terrible accident happens. The children’s daily pleasure is to buy an ice-cream cone at the ice-cream truck that drives through their neighborhood. The old man who serves them always adds whipped cream to the Narrator’s cone even if he knows that her father forbids it. That day, the whipped cream maker explodes as he’s serving the Narrator. The impact is such that it takes away half of his face and he dies on the spot. The two children are witness and they are traumatized.

As their parents are faulty, they do nothing to heal their trauma. Gilles stops speaking, behaves weirdly, becomes mean. The Narrator swears to herself that she will bring him back.

The book covers several summer holidays, each worse than the previous one. The reader feels the tension building, sees the Narrator fight against her family circumstances. School is her safe place and she discovers that she loves physics.

Her mother’s distraction plays in her favor when she wants to do things on her own. She babysits some children in the neighborhood to pay for her physics lessons. She hides everything to keep out of her father’s wrath.

As things deteriorate at home, the reader feels that a dramatic event is bound to happen and dreads the conclusion of the novel. I kept wondering how it would end.

Children narrators are hard to pull off but Adeline Dieudonné made it. For her sake, I hope that nothing in her novel is autobiographical except how it was to be a child and teenager in the 1990s. It’s a powerful book, a novel that has several cousins in Betty by Tiffany McDaniel, by Gabriel Tallent, or Blood by Tony Birch.

Not a fun read, but highly recommended. As it’s not an easy book to tuck into a nice little box, we have a festival of book covers when we look at the various translations of Real Life. Ready for the show?

I don’t understand the English cover, as everything happens in the summer. The Spanish one is lovely but the reader will expect something sweet. The Hungarian is … I don’t know what to say.

I see a rabbit pattern in Germany and Finland but I don’t understand why. I’m not sure bout the Little Red Riding Hood reference of the Russian version.

I really like the Japanese cover, it fits the Narrator’s tone and it reflects the fact that she’s a child. And she’s never whining but always resilient and fighting. The Persian one is puzzling and the Polish one has the same idea as the Russian one.

What a diversity of covers! I wonder what the author thinks about that.

The Line That Held Us by David Joy – “For whom are you willing to lay down your life?”

May 8, 2022 6 comments

The Line That Held Us by David Joy (2018) French title: Ce lien entre nous.

I downloaded The Line That Held Us by David Joy after hearing his interview at Quais du Polar. He made a lot of references to Dwayne Brewster, one of the main characters of this novel, enough to push me to read his book.

The Line That Held Us opens on a fatal mistake.

We’re in Jackson County, in North Carolina. Darl Moody and Carol “Sissy” Brewster are both trespassing on Coon Coward’s land while he’s away for a week. Darl Moody is a hunter and he’s after a deer. Carol Brewster is poaching ginseng, a root that grows in the woods in the Appalachians and can be sold at a hefty price. (It’s like truffles in France, I believe).

Darl mistakes Carol for his prey and accidentally shoots him dead. Instead of going to the police, Darl calls his best friend Calvin and they bury Carol’s body in a makeshift grave on Calvin’s property. They don’t want Carol’s brother Dwayne to know what they did to his brother and Darl wants to escape any legal consequences for his action.

Carol and Dwayne come from a poor and dysfunctional family and the two brothers stick together and are each other’s family. Dwayne is the violent one who protects his soft younger brother.

Dwayne understood that his brother was not meant for this place, that some people were born too soft to bear the teeth of this world. There was no place for weakness in a world like this. Survival was so often a matter of meanness.

Dwayne starts looking for his brother when he goes missing. No one suspected that the old Coon Coward had installed video surveillance on his land. Darl and Calvin are easily recognized.

Dwayne doesn’t believe in the justice of men and despite his extensive Bible reading, he doesn’t believe in the justice of God either. He takes matter into his own hands.

The Line That Held Us is a local and universal tale. It is deeply rooted in Jackson County, in the Appalachians in North Carolina. David Joy lives there and he excels at describing the landscape with love and awe.

An unseasonable cold snap following one of the driest summers the county had ever seen brought on fall a month ahead of schedule. It was the last week of September, but the ridgelines were already bare. Down in the valley, the trees were in full color with reds and oranges afire like embers, the acorns falling like raindrops. The nights were starting to frost and within a few weeks the first few breaths of winter would strip the mountains to their gray bones.

He takes you to his home county and like he said in his interview, the old mountain way-of-life is slowly disappearing. His book is a way to give his people a voice and be a witness of the local ways. His characters are part of this land and they were raised in these customs.

Sixty-three years later, having happened three decades before he was born, Calvin knew the story the same as everyone else to ever come out of Jackson County. Things had a way of never leaving these mountains. Stories took root like everything else. He was a part of one now, part of a story that would never be forgotten, and that made bearing the truth all the more heavy.

People know each other and the family stories are carried on from one generation to the other. The police are people you went to school with. Everyone knows where people work and the places they like to go. It is small town life in secluded places, where solidarity holds hand with nosiness. Darl, Calvin, his girlfriend Angie, Dwayne and Carol all belong to a people living in a tough environment, where people love deeply but not necessarily express their feelings with words.

It’s also a land where people are rather religious. David Joy said he used to go to church three times a week with his parents and the stories from the Bible were an important part of his education. Dwayne Brewster reads the Old Testament on his own and interprets it his own way. He came to the following conclusion:

A God of mercy, they say. I look around this world and I don’t see no mercy. They talk about a God of compassion. I want you to look around. You show me a place where compassion outweighs selfishness. The only thing we might agree on is forgiveness.” Dwayne nodded his head. “I reckon He’d have to be forgiving when He’s done plenty worse Himself. A God of forgiveness. Now that I can see.”

I thought that The Line That Held Us was like a biblical tale, not that I’m overly familiar with them.

Dwayne is the one who forces Darl and then Calvin to face their fear and their selfishness. He challenges them, directly or indirectly. Darl would rather hide Carol’s death than man up and face Dwayne’s reaction and legal consequences. He convinces himself that it’s the best option since his sister relies on his help.

With Calvin, Dwayne acts like the devil or God who tempts or challenges a biblical character and forces them to make a tough choice. Dwayne makes Calvin strip his soul and reveal the raw core of his being. Think of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son.

The Line That Held Us is constructed like such a story and manages to be a social commentary of life in Jackson County wrapped in a poetical description of the surrounding wilderness.

David Vann binds his books with Greek tragedy tradition. David Joy ties his with Sunday School. In the end, both put their characters in life-changing and character-revealing situations.

We don’t know ourselves fully until we’ve had to answer the question “For whom are you willing to lay down your life?” Most of us hope to never find themselves in a position where they have to answer this question. Meanwhile, Dwayne reminds us:

“What I’m saying is that it’s easy to take the high road so long as there aren’t any stakes. But the minute you’ve got something to lose, a man’ll do all sorts of things.”

We all ought to meditate on that statement, I think. All this makes of Dwayne Brewster an unforgettable character despite his horrible actions. There will be other books by David Joy in my future and I’m looking forward to my visit to Jackson County in August.

Very Highly Recommended.

Three crime fiction books from France – three very different rides

May 1, 2022 10 comments
  • The Wounded Wolves by Christophe Molmy (2015) Original French title: Les Loups blessés.
  • Missing in Pukatapu by Patrice Guirao (2020) Original French title: Les disparus de Pukatapu.
  • Little Rebel by Jérôme Leroy (2018) Original French title: La petite gauloise.

This week I’m taking you through three different parts of France with three different authors. Christophe Molmy takes us to Paris, Patrice Guirao to Tahiti and Jérôme Leroy to a suburban town in Province.

Let’s start with Paris and Les Loups blessés by Christophe Molmy (The Wounded Wolves).

Molmy is the chief of the BRI (Brigade de recherche et d’intervention), the Gang unit of the French police. In other words, he’s specialized in fighting against organized crime. Like Olivier Norek, he’s policeman and a writer.

The commissaire Renan Pessac, chief of the BRI, is exhausted by his work, the relationship with his hierarchy and working on the field. He’s recently divorced and feels rather lonely. He has a close but complex relationship with his informers, a mix between co-dependance and sometimes attraction, as one of them is a prostitute. He’s not in a good place professionally or personally and if someone offered him an out, I had the feeling he’d take it gladly.

On the other side of the law is Matteo Astolfi, a criminal, with a master degree in holdups, living on the run and running a criminal organization. Astolfi is getting older, his partner accepts less and less to live under false identities. They a have a son, he’s six and it’s getting more and more complicated to keep him out of a normal life. Astolfi wants to do a last job and stop his illegal activities. He doesn’t want to go to prison and he wants to start a life in the open somewhere.

Two petty criminals from a Parisian suburb, the brothers Belkiche decide to branch out of hashish trafficking and attack a post office. Their team included Doumé, Astolfi’s little brother. Pessac is on the case and this affair will make Astolifi’s and Pessac’s lives collide.

Les Loups blessés is a good read as we alternate between point of views and see what happens on the three sides of the affair: Pessac, Astolfi and the Belkiche brothers have their say. Pessac felt real, with a physical and mental fatigue weighing heavily on his shoulders. Astolfi sounded human, despite the killings and years of criminal activities.

Recommended to Corylus Books, they might want to translate it into English!

Now let’s go to Tahiti.

Les disparus de Pukatapu by Patrice Guirao (Missing in Pukatapu) is set on a very isolated atoll in Tahiti. The kind of atoll where a boat comes every four months for resupplying. *shudders* You’d better not forget the sugar on the grocery shopping list! Maema an Lilith, journalist and photograph landed in this remote atoll to write an article about the impact of global warming on the locals’s life. There are 26 inhabitants on the atoll and no children.

Things start to go wrong when Lilith discovers a dead hand on the beach, while she’s lying down under a coconut tree. Whose hand is this? Maema and Lilith start investigating and digging into the inhabitants’ secrets.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the ocean, a military basis is doing secret researches and their laboratory is threatened by a submarine volcanic eruption.

The reader follows what happens on the atoll, only to realize that the paradisiac setting does nothing to abate humans’ baser instincts. The passages on the mysterious (and nefarious) military basis felt like jumping from one subject to the other and didn’t mesh well with Maema and Lilith’s work.

I thought that Guirao was trying too hard to pack an investigation and raise awareness about Tahiti and the destruction brought by the French presence there. It was in Tahiti, in the Mururoa atoll that the French government did their nuclear tests, without caring much about the consequences on the local population.

Trouble in Paradise would be a good title for this book, I think, but I wasn’t convinced by the story or the construction of the plot. The sense of place wasn’t good enough for me, which is also what I’m looking for in that kind of book.

Les disparus de Pukatapu is not translated into English and let’s say it’s not translation tragedy.

Now, the next one, Little Rebel is available in English, thanks to Corylus Books. Yay!!

It’s only 141 pages long but what a ride! It draws an actual picture of a part of today’s France. It is set in an industrial town in the West of France, where the extreme right has won the city hall election.

The characters ring true and Leroy shows the implacable puzzle of various pieces that lead to a terrorist attack. What he describes feels horribly accurate and his tone based on a sharp irony and direct talk to the reader is very effective.

I don’t want to go into details about the characters or the plot because it would give too much away.

It is a social crime fiction book and the analysis is accurate. Several important pillars of our society are eaten by pests and they threaten its foundation. Political abandonment of working and middle classes. Racism and fear. School and the disenchantment of teachers. Boredom. Infiltration of suburbs by foreign extremists. Social networks and the endless possibility to spread hatred and fake news.

And things aren’t as straightforward as they seem.

You want to read about a France that doesn’t look like Provence, sun and lovely postcards? Read Little Rebel. You want to understand how the dreadful Marine Le Pen scored that well at the last presidential election? Read Little Rebel.

On top of a breathless ride on this side of France, you’ll help Corylus Book, an independent publisher who wishes to bring new voices to crime fiction in English. And, as you know, our fellow blogger Marina Sofia is part of this adventure.

Little Rebel: Highly recommended.

Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala

April 13, 2022 2 comments

Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala (2010) Original French title: Photo de groupe au bord du fleuve.

Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala is a book I received through my Kube subscription. It’s the tenth novel by this Congolese writer and chemist. I have to confess that I’d never heard of him before.

Group Photo by the River is set in Brazzaville, in the Republic of Congo. Méréana is a divorcée who raises her two sons and her baby niece Lyra. She’s an orphan because her mother Tamara, Méréana’s sister died of AIDS. Méréana and Tamara were close and Méréana took care of her sister during her illness, causing a rift between her and her husband Tito. He started to go out a lot and when she demanded a condom before sex, he slapped her. She left him and now has to raise the children on her own, with the help of her Auntie Turia.

Méréana was a brilliant student in high school when she got pregnant by Tito and dropped out of school. Now, she’s barely making ends meet and she needs money to go back to school and get a degree in IT . She knows she’ll have a better paying job.

This is how she found herself by the road, breaking rocks to make bags of gravel. She works with a group of women and they sell their bags to middlemen who supply construction contractors. It’s an exhausting job, outside, in the sun and with low selling prices.

One day, they learn that the sale prices that the middlemen have with the construction contractors skyrocketted because a lot of gravel is needed to build the new national airport. The ladies want a part o this profit and decide to stick together and ask for a higher price, even if it means that they won’t sell their bags right away.

The novel is about this fight for a decent income and for a decent life. This group of eight women will get organized to improve their daily life. They choose Méréana as their representative because she’s the most educated of them.

We follow their struggle, their actions and their doubts. Dongala has two goals with this novel: he wants to write a feminist book and an homage to Congolese women and he denounces the corruption of the power in the Republic of Congo and the hypocrisy around grand shows designed to appease international institutions.

This is a country where you can get poisoned for speaking up and imprisoned for nothing. Demonstrations are repressed with guns and real bullets. Méréana goes to a ministry and she berates herself because she forgot to tell someone where she was going. And in this country, you need people know you’ve been to a public office in case you just vanish into thin air and never come back.

Dongala shows us the condition of women in Africa through his characters’ life stories. They include rapes during the civil war, repudiations, expulsions from their home after their husband died, accusations of sorcery and agreement with fetishes and losing their son after the power in place kidnapped and killed them. One of them is a second office, a mistress, and there is an outstanding scene in the book where she’s in a bar at the same time as her lover’s wife and they have a verbal fight over him through karaoke. Brilliant.

Dongala points out the impacts of traditional beliefs and customs on the condition of women. Ignorance and fear of otherworldly creatures pushes villagers to act inhumanly. Family traditions allow brothers and envious sisters-in-law to strip a widow of her home, her business and her belongings. Nothing is done to stop them.

The author depicts husbands and fathers who are violent, unfaithful, lazy and cowards but not all his male characters are that way. Armando the taximan and brother to one of the women of the group provides them with free rides and contributes to their fight. One of ladies explains how her husband who had a fatal illness provided for her after his death by playing on the fear of fetishes. They built a scam to make people believe that she was protected by a powerful fetish and that people should leave her alone. It was his way of taking care of her after his death, she kept their home.

Group Photo by the River is a very attaching novel and Dongala manages to balance the militant side of his book with moving the plot forward and describing the women’s fight. As a reader, you root for Méréana and her friends and hope they will get what they want.

It would make a wonderful film and I truly don’t understand why it is not translated into English. What can I say, that’s another Translation Tragedy.

For another take on this book, see Nathalie’s, at her blog Chez Mark et Marcel. (Mark Twain and Marcel Proust)

Three crime fiction books set in Africa

April 9, 2022 10 comments

Adieu Oran by Ahmed Tiab (2019) (Adieu Oran)

Hunting Down the Shrew by Florent Couao-Zotti (2017) (La traque de la musaraigne)

The Head Chopper Case by  Moussa Konaké. (2015) (L’affaire des coupeurs de tête.)

I’ve always loved to explore other countries through crime fiction. These books usually take you out of the bourgeois society and show you the dark side of a place, the one you won’t find in a tourist guide. I’m also more and more interested in reading Francophone literature, to see how French sounds in other countries. I’m not talking about Belgium or Switzerland here, their French is really close to the one from France, itt is more about French from Québec or Africa.

It wasn’t deliberate but I ended up reading three crime fiction books set in Africa in three weeks. All come from former French colonies, which explains why they are written in French.

Ahmed Tiab is an Algerian writer born in 1965. He lives in the South of France since 1990. Florent Couao-Zotti was born in Benin in 1965. He’s a writer and a journalist. Moussa Konaté (1951-2013) was a writer from Mali. These three books have first been released by independent publishers, Les Editions de l’Aube for Ahmed Tiab, Les Editions Les éditions Métailié for Moussa Konaté and Jigal Polar for Florent Couao-Zotti.

Now, the books!

Adieu Oran, as the title suggests, is set in Oran, a big city on the Mediterranean, west from Algiers. It features Tiab’s recurring character, the commissaire Kémal Fadil.

Adieu Oran is hard to sum up because the plot isn’t really straightforward. We have Chinese workers murdered in Oran and human trafficking. Fadil’s girlfriend Fatou is an emigrant from Niger and she works as a nurse for a non-profit organization in Oran. Along with other migrants, she’s kidnapped and sent to the South of Algeria to be sent back to her country.

I thought that the plot was a bit messy and we were following the murder of the Chinese and then left this case a bit behind to run after Fatou who was kidnapped. Note that, like in Yeruldelgger by Ian Manook, the crime involves Chinese businessmen who run business out of their country, import their own workers, work according to their own ways and have their ambassy meddling in the investigation, bypassing the local police.

Tiab delivers a scathing portrait of Algeria with corrupted and inept politicians. Nothing runs well and the population’s needs are never met, the country paralyzed by former military men whose resume is reduced to having fought against the French for the country’s independence. This act of glory is enough to maintain them in power and hush up any criticism.

Tiab also shows how the Islamists have set roots in the country, importing their vision of Islam from the Middle East. He sums up Algeria that way, in a pessimistic statement:

Lorsque que la génération qui a fait la guerre sera éteinte, le pays entrera alors dans le XXIème siècle avec ses rejetons imprégnés d’une idéologie directement inspirée du Moyen Age. Bonjour la modernité !When the generation who has fought in the war will be dead, the country will enter into the 21st century with an offspring permeated with an ideology directly inspired by the Middle Ages. Hello modernity!

(By the way, this use of “it’s the Middle Ages” is a very European-centered point of view because at the time, in some aspects, the Arabs were more modern that the Europeans.)

Adieu Oran also takes you to into the city’s streets where the past French colonization is still palpable with the streets’ names. Even the high school where Fadil went kept its French name. Coming from a country where the 1789 revolutionaries even changed the calendar, I’m surprised that the Algerians didn’t change the street names or the name of places right after the independence to erase all traces of the French occupation and show that they regained control on their land. For example, there’s still a Michelet market.

I discovered the issue of migrants in Algeria. I wonder why I was so surprised. How dumb of me: did I think that they arrived to the shores of the Mediterranean by magic? Of course, they had to cross other African countries to end up there and Algeria is one of them. We usually hear about Morocco because it’s close to the Spanish border or Tunisia, because of its border with Libya and its proximity to the Sicilian coasts. It never occurred to me that Algeria was a destination too.

Tiab describes the discrimination against migrants and the racism of the local population against black people, migrants or not. Some characters use the derogatory term of nigrou. He also comes back to the complicated relationship between France and Algeria since the independence, through two characters, a French colon who fought with the Algerians for their independence and remained in Algeria and a mysterious women hidden behind a veil, born from the rape of her mother by a French soldier.

Adieu Oran broaches too many topics at the same time to keep the story in a straight line and it is a book I found more interesting for its context and its characters than for its plot.

The two other books I read were more plot driven.

Hunting Down the Shrew by Florent Couao-Zotti is the story of a chase and a bad case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The book opens in a strip-club and jazz club in Porto-Novo, Benin. A Frenchman, Stéphane Néguirec has left his Brittany to settle in Porto-Novo. He’s about to leave the club with one of the dancers when she’s kidnapped on the street and he’s assaulted. His path will also cross Déborah’s, who is on the run. Stéphane accepts to hide her but they are soon attacked by criminals.

Déborah’s real name is Pamela and she left the neighboring Ghana after she participated to a hold-up that turned into a triple murder. She left with the money.

Her former partner in life and in crime, Ansah Ossey, aka Jesus Light, is the other survivor of the hold-up and he’s quite enraged that she left him and took the money. He’s after her too and we follow him on his road trip from Ghana to Benin to track her down. The novel is a double track race across Benin, Stéphane and Déborah on one hand and Jesus Light on the other hand. The reader discovers the country through the characters’ eyes.

Along the way, Stéphane, as a French, is seen as bait money by the Islamist rebels. They want to kidnap him to get a ransom and finance their war. The Islamist threat is present in this novel too, as it is in Tiab’s.

The plot was a bit confusing at times but I enjoyed the ride. Couao-Zotti has a wonderful voice, a French language that mixes the codes of Noir fiction and French from Africa.

The Head Chopper Case by Moussa Konaté is the lightest of the three books.

Set in Mali, It features Konaté’s recurring character, the commissaire Habib. The story is set in the city of Kita where several bodies of beheaded hobos are found. The local commissaire, Dembélé, is dumbfounded and doesn’t quite know where to start the investigation. They have the bodies but not their heads which complicates the identification of the victims.

A local pious man receives a out-of-the-world message about Kita being sin city and needing to atone for its sins. The souls of the ancestors are also seen up the mountain and the population, Dembélé included, is tempted to believe in an otherworldly intervention.

Commissaire Habib is more into earthly criminals and is sent from Bamako to his hometown to solve this case.

The Head Chopper Case pictures a Mali torn between traditions and modernity. Kita seems like a religious town, where the imam plays an important role, the one the Catholic church used to have in France too. Konaté describes Kita and its culture and how he and his second in command Sosso have to adapt their investigation methods to the local ways. According to the person they want to interrogate, they choose the straight police line or make a detour through polite conversation to make the person talk and not clam up in front of a policeman.

Konaté’s characters make frequent jokes about their ethnic origins. Kita is mostly of the Malinké ethnic group. The policemen Sosso and Dialo are Fulani. They throw goodhearted digs at each other but I couldn’t help wondering how this banter would turn out if the population was thoroughly manipulated by extremists.

The Head Chopper Case was written in 2015 and since then the civil war has blown up in Mali and violence seems out of control. Sadly.

So, what about these three books? I had a nice time with the three of them, they were armchair traveling. They took me to countries I’ve never been to and enriched my vision of the world.

Unfortunately, none of them are translated into English.

Mongolia and Montana : two crime fiction books

February 13, 2022 14 comments

Yeruldelgger by Ian Manook (2013) Not available in English

Ian Manook is the penname for the French writer Patrick Manoukian. (A play-on-word on his surname Manoukian/Manook Ian, I guess) Yeruldelgger is the first volume of the Commissaire Yeruldelgger trilogy set in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. It won the Prix SNCF 2014, a prize dedicated to crime fiction.

Commissaire Yeruldelgger is still recovering from a personal tragedy when he’s called on two crime scenes at the same time. One is in the steppe, away from the capital. Nomadic people called him because they found the body of a little girl, buried with her tricycle.

The other is in Ulan Bator: three Chinese men were killed and their penis was cut and stuffed into three hookers’ mouths. Six bodies and a horrific crime scene. Inspector Oyun who works under Yeruldelgger, goes on scene and starts the investigation.

Yeruldelgger and Oyun work on the two cases at the same time. We meet the police of Mongolia, its corrupted and non-corrupted members. Yeruldelgger works with two women, Oyun and Solongo, the medical examiner. A street boy named Gantulga will help them.

Their investigations will lead them to Yeruldelgger’s past, to the exploitation of Mongolia’s natural resources by Chinese companies, to corrupted Mongolian business men who organize wild rides in the steppe for rich Koreans and to Mongolian neo-Nazi groups.

While the plot is solid and the story unfolds nicely and according to the codes of crime fiction, I can’t say that I loved Yeruldelgger. Something was off. The sense of place felt stilted, the landscape descriptions as fake as a theatre décor. I am sure that the details about Ulan Bator and the cultural references were accurate but they didn’t flow well.

The titles of the chapters were disconcerting, sounding like 19thC literature. You know those titles like “Where Mr … goes to XX and makes a fool of himself” The language couldn’t hide that the book is written by a Frenchman. A native from Mongolia would have written differently, with another sensitivity.

I think the book would have been better if Ian Manook had embraced the fact that he was a Frenchman writing a book set in another country. Yeruldelgger could have become a foreigner living in Mongolia, working with the local police under whatever capacity and all would have been well. The awkwardness would have had an explanation.

Yeruldelgger is not available in English and for once, it’s not a Translation Tragedy.

Dead Man’s Fancy by Keith McCafferty (2015) French title: La Vénus de Botticelli Creek. Translated by Janique Jouin-de Laurens

After this visit to Ulan Bator, I turned to one of my comfort crime fiction series: cozy crime by Keith McCafferty. Back to Montana with the sheriff Martha Ettinger helped by Sean Stranahan and Harold Little Feather.

In Dead Man’s Fancy, Nanicka Martinelli, a fishing guide at the Culpepper Ranch, goes missing. For once, she was riding with the tourists of this dude ranch and her horse came back to the ranch, without its rider. A wrangler took off to find her in the mountain and he’s found dead, impaled on an elk antler. (Who needs guns for a crime scene when the wilderness provides such weapons, eh?)

The investigation leads Martha and her team to the controversy around the reintroduction of wolves in the mountains. Nanicka was pro-wolves while her father Alfonso worked for the ranches to control the population of wolves. Another strange character haunt the woods: Fern Amarok, a pro-wolves activist who camps in the area with his girlfriend. Did Nanicka and Fern know each other? Is she missing or dead?

The plot is well-drawn but the fun isn’t in the story. It is in what happens around the plot. I wonder how Keith McCafferty got the idea of Nanicka’s father, Alfonso, a Frenchman born in the Hautes-Alpes, in the village of Saint-Véran and who emigrated to Québec, British Columbia and then Montana.

Our hero Sean Stranahan now lives in a tipi. He still paints but has an office at the community center because he can’t paint in his tipi. I didn’t that change coming in the previous volume.

Stranahan works for the sheriff but never forgets to take the time to fish. He stops to fish any time he wants. Determined to try out all the rivers possible? Given McCafferty’s job as Survival and Outdoor Skills Editor of Field and Stream, the descriptions of fishing and living in Montana ring true.

I found in Dead Man’s Fancy the fun and relaxation I was looking for, even with the dreadful elk antler and the wolf cries. Despite the violent crimes, some unmistakable peace oozes from this series. I’m a bit dubious about Stranahan’s new accommodation and life style, I find it a bit too much. So, now I’m curious to see what McCafferty will do with his characters in the next volume.

Dead Man’s Fancy is published by Gallmeister, an independant publisher in France. It belongs to Oliver Gallmeister and it’s specialized in crime fiction and Nature Writing from the USA. It has recently branched out to Italian fiction, always with nature as an important part of the book.

The Day Will Come by Giulia Caminito – Italia Reading Challenge

February 8, 2022 14 comments

A Day Will Come by Giulia Caminito (2019) French title: Un jour viendra. Translated from the Italian by Laura Brignon.

In A Day Will Come, Giulia Caminito takes us to Serra de’ Conti, a village in the Marche region in Italy. Nicola and Lupo are the two surviving sons of the poor baker of the village, Luigi Ceresa. They have two sisters, Nella, who becomes a nun and Adelaide, who dies in young age. The boys are close in age and Nicola is under Lupo’s protection because he’s too fragile and afraid of everything. Together with a pet wolf, they are a close-knit unit to face the world. Their parents are absentees at best, violent sometimes.

Lupo will do Nicola’s chores to allow him to learn how to read and get an education. Nicola loves to read and write and becomes the erudite of the duo. Lupo is more into action and he finds a good outlet for his energy in the Anarchist groups that spread their ideas in the country. The peasants were mostly sharecroppers, for the convent and for other landowners. This system was very inegalitarian and the peasants were open to Anarchism that promised to erase it.

Their village of Serra de’ Conti has a convent with Clarisse sisters. Their abbess is Sister Clara, a woman who became a nun after she was kidnaped in Sudan, her native country. The convent plays a steady role in the villagers’ lives, with work, shelter, help. And music. Sister Clara plays beautifully and the villagers can hear her play. The boys’ sister, Nella is there, against her will. She got pregnant out of wedlock and her father put her in the convent and took the baby.

Through Nicola and Lupo’s story, Giulia Caminito dives into the history of this corner of Italy and shows how politics and decisions made at national level drizzle and affect people’s lives even in remote villages.

The boys were born in the early 1890s, only twenty years after the independence of Italy, won over the Austrians. It also meant that the young State has to incorporate papal territories in the new country. The fate of the convent in Serra de’Conti reflects this evolution: the church land and properties are taken over. The Anarchist movements were strong, leading to the Red Week in Ancona (CHECk), the nearest city to Serra de’ Conti.

The Great War is another shock and I discovered battles between the Italian and the Austrian troops. I know more about the battles set in France than about the ones abroad. They were just as abominable.

The Great War washed away the Anarchist movements and the brothers’ illusions. The Spanish influenza was another tide over the Great War one. The country landed in the 1920s and Mussolini took over.

I see Nicola and Lupo as a modern and peasant version of Romulus and Remus. One is word and the other is action. They are the people who are the foundation of the new Italy. They are inseparable and they have a wolf pet who protects them and Lupo, whose name means wolf, is Nicola’s protector.

In a note at the end of the book, the author explains that her grand-mother came from this village of Serra de’Conti. The characters of this novel are based on real people. Her great-grand-father, Nicola Ugolini, was one of the Anarchists of the Marche region and Giulia Caminito dug into the archives of the movement, its roots and its actions. The participants really believed they would lead to happy changes for the people. Sister Clara really existed under the name of Zeinab Alif who, in real life, became Sister Maria Giuseppina Benvenuti.

Gallmeister, the publisher, included a note about the historical landmarks that are spread into the novel. It was very useful but I think that this note would be better as a foreword as it contains no spoilers but gives useful pointers to understand the historical references of the book.

Like Betty by Tiffany McDaniel, A Day Will Come is based on the author’s family story. There’s no way to know what’s true and what isn’t and honestly, I don’t care. I enjoyed Caminito’s book for its unusual characters, for the light it sheds on a specific moment in the history of the Marche and for the poetry of her writing.

Translation Tragedy, sadly. This is another contribution to Diana’s Italia Reading Challenge.

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