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Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett – Killing in the name of…a game

February 3, 2022 8 comments

Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett (2019) French title : Vigilance. Translated by Gilles Goullet.

His Ideal Person is between sixty-four and eighty-one years old. Their average net worth is $202,900, and they are male, Caucasian, and increasingly burdened with medical debt.

Living conditions, he thinks.

McDean’s Ideal Person is decidedly suburban or exurban, having resided an extensive, rigorously planned residential environment (two trees per front yard, gated community, six possible styles of brick) for at least the past ten years, and their home falls between 2,000 and 6,500 square feet— They are not, in other words, « urban » in any sense of the words, and they are decidedly isolated.

Another variable, he thinks. Marriage.

His Ideal Person has been married but the number of marriages doesn’t really matter : McDean’s models indicate that an Ideal Person with up to six marriages under their belt will still generate the minimum target market activation level.

Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett is a dystopian fiction set in the USA in 2030. America has become a country where people are afraid of terrorists, feel threatened by immigrants and everyone has guns. Mass-shootings are the norm.

McDean is an executive at ONT, a cable TV channel and in charge of the reality TV show Vigilance. All he thinks about is his targeted audience (The Ideal Person), his Target Market Activation level and maximizing the revenue of advertising.

We arrive in the book just as McDean is going to launch a new episode of the show Vigilance.

Basically, Vigilance is a live mass-shooting program. ONT organizes a mass-shooting somewhere in the country. Three candidates are armed by the channel, picking their own weapons and are sent out on a location with the aim to kill as many persons as possible. The last killer alive wins a hefty prize. If someone on the location kills a candidate, they get a prize. People are motivated to have a gun with them and use it. Indeed, a Vigilance game can start anywhere, any time. They are told to be ready.

The killers are profiled by AIs. Algorithms and AIs select the location where the shooting takes place. Malls, train stations, most of the time. Bots spread information on social networks to have the public on edge. People know a new episode of Vigilance is imminent but they don’t know where and when.

The point of view shifts to Delyna, a barmaid to a local dive, the South Tavern. Her customers are drinking and speculating about the next Vigilance episode. Most of the patrons have guns. Delyna doesn’t share their love for guns since her father was a policeman and he was shot on duty. She’s wary of firearms and appalled by the behavior of the patrons. They are looking for a fight. They are excited by the game. They’re so intoxicated by the advertising (propaganda?) of the game that they don’t even realize what this show is about: killing people.

Like in a film, the camera swtiches from the TV headquarters to the bar, as we follow the action on both sides. We see all the TV and AI machinery used to manipulate the public and maximize profits. We see how much it works and how people have lost all critical sense. It’s their new normal. The people who get killed? They weren’t quick enough on their feet, not vigilant enough to save their life.

Vigilance is like an action movie set in an America who has surrendered to gun power and fear. It’s chilling. In 150 pages, Bennett draws an implacable picture that sounds way too realistic. Punchy, scary and thought-provoking. It reminded me of books by Max Barry, especially Jennifer Government.

Very highly recommended.

PS : In France, Vigilance is published by the Indie Publisher, Le Bélial, specialized in SF and Fantasy. Not my usual reads. I came accross Vigilance thanks to the libraire of Un Petit noir. Indie publisher, indie bookshop, all is good for Karen and Lizzie’s #ReadIndies2.

The Island of Souls by Piergiorgio Pulixi – Perfect crime fiction in my book

January 30, 2022 14 comments

The Island of Souls by Piergiorgio Pulixi. (2019) French title: L’île des âmes. Translated from the Italian by Anatole Pons-Reumaux. Not available in English.

The Island of Souls by Piergiorgio Pulixi is a crime fiction novel set in Sardinia. I bought it at Quais du Polar after a panel about crimes set on islands. The authors were David Vann, Susanna Crossman, Piergiorgio Pulixi and Patrice Guirao. I liked the idea of showing that islands don’t always rhyme with paradise.

The Island of Souls is the first book featuring the two detectives Eva Croce and Mara Rais. They have just been assigned to set up the first cold case unit of the Cagliari police. It is not a promotion.

Eva Croce is a transfer from the Milan police. Sardinia is a demotion for her, after a screw-up, her divorce and another personal drama. She arrives on the island, bruised and battered. One day at a time, one foot before the other is her survival attitude. Her first meeting with Mara is frosty.

Mara was also set aside from her team after her divorce. Her ex-husband used his connections to get to her professionally and her prickly attitude fueled his claims.

So, our two detectives set their office down in the musty archives department, where all the documentation on their cases is stored. Their first case is the ritual murders of women spread over several decades. It is an obsession for their colleague Moreno Barrali, who is terminally ill. Eva and Mara have to get as much information as possible about the murders before he dies. They know that the commissaire Farce asked them to look into it to keep them occupied and out of trouble but also to indulge Barrali, who is well-respected.

Eva and Mara meet with Moreno and dive into the case. And then Dolores Murgia goes missing.

The police eventually find her body, murdered according to the same ritual. The cold case merges with a very hot one. Eva and Mara will work with the investigation team.

All these women are killed according to a religious ritual that goes back to the ancient Nuragic civilization, the oldest one on the island.

It is still alive through their descendants, the Ladu clan. They live off the land in the mountains. Their leader is Bastianu, who is taking over his dying grandfather, Benignu. They live according to clan rules and they worship a goddess according to an antique cult. And Bastianu has a problem: they are facing a severe dry, the harvest isn’t good and the sheep cattle is impacted too. According to ancient rules, it means that the Goddess expects the sacrifice of a young woman…

But the Nuragic civilization is also alive through the neo-Nuragic cult, a group of people who reenact the Nuragic religious customs. Needless to say, the police is suddenly very interested in their activities…

The Island of Souls is exactly what Touch and Go isn’t. It is literary crime fiction. It is engaging. It is educational. As a reader, I wanted to know more about Eva and Mara’s pasts and I enjoyed watching their interactions and the building of their work relationship. The investigation wasn’t straightforward, leading the readers to dead ends, progressing in zigzags as the police know more about the victim and the neo-Nuragic group. In parallel, we have Bastianu, who faces the worst dilemma of his life. And I kept wondering if the stories were indeed parallel or if their path would intersect at some point. And on top of the stellar characterization, the excellent plot, you have a breathtaking description of Sardinia.

It’s my perfect crime fiction combo. Literary, unusual, intelligent and with a great sense of place. Pulixi disoriented me and I didn’t guess the ending.

A terrible Translation Tragedy for you, anglophone readers as it’s only available in French and Italian. Gallmeister has branched out of American literature with Italian literature and it’s a success!

PS: Diana from Thoughts on Papyrus hosts an Italia Reading Challenge and I decided to join her as I enjoy Italian literature very much.

Novelist as a Vocation by Haruki Murakami

January 26, 2022 33 comments

Novelist as a Vocation by Murakami Haruki (2015) French title: Profession romancier. Translated by Hélène Morita.

In Novelist as a Vocation, published in 2015, Haruki Murakami writes about his experience as a novelist. The book is composed of eleven chapters, the first six had been previously published in Monkey Business and the five others are new. In French, it is translated as Profession romancier, but I don’t think there’s an English translation of this collection of essays.

I used the title Novelist as a Vocation because it is included in my French copy of the book, under the original title in Japanese, shokugyõ toshite no shōsetsuka.

But Novelist as a Vocation isn’t the same as Profession romancier, which means Novelist as a profession. Between vocation and profession, in my opinion, stands the line between artist and craftsman. The Japanese title means Occupation: Novelist (Thanks Marina Sofia!), closer to the French title. Back to the book.

Murakami evokes several aspects of his life as a writer. How anybody can decide to write a book. How he had an epiphany at a baseball game –hence the cover of the book, I imagine—and how he decided to write a novel. His first success when he was thirty. He talks about literary prizes and says he doesn’t care he never won the Akutagawa prize. He’s still a hugely successful writer.

After these generalities, he dissects his writing life and his vision of talent. For him, being “original”, “new” will only be validated with time. Will a book become a classic? Is it really a revolution in literature the way the Beatles were a revolution in music? Time will tell if the public includes a novel in their modern classic pantheon or forgets it.

He gives recommendation to aspiring writers and describes his disciplined life. Write 400 signs per day. First draft. Re-read and correct. Second draft. Start again the process. His wife is his first reader and critic. He says he gives his best to each book and thus has no regret. He couldn’t have written them better at the time he wrote them. Sounds like a smart way to look at things.

His days are made of early rising, writing five to six hours and running for an hour. He insists on the importance of being fit to be a long-lasting writer. Your body must be an ally and not get in the way of your writing.

He gives us a glimpse at his school years and how he was bored in school. Books were his anchor and his solace.

The pages about his writing and the evolution of his style made me think that a reader should read his books in their order of publication. Each one was a step towards the writer he is now. He explains how, at the beginning of his writing career, he was unable to give names to his characters. He comes back to the first time he thought he could pull off a third person narrative.

He talks about his readers and the imaginary bond he feels between his words and the people who read them and receive them. However, he recommends to write for oneself and not for readers. A sign of success? For him, he’s happy when his books are read by people of different generations.

He also comes back to his moving to the USA, the reasons why he left Japan and his early successes in America. He had a plan to conquer the American market, one that included a good agent, a good translator and a willing publisher.

He’s very humble all the time, as if he weren’t that talented or as if the idea of writing came late and out of the blue.*

But between the lines you can sketch out a personality who stands out and doesn’t conform. He was born in 1949, it must have been hard not to conform in Japan, when he was young. He acknowledges that he didn’t follow standards, go to university, start a job in an office and get married. He got married first, opened a jazz bar with his wife and then got his degree. Then he started to write.

We guess that he’s someone who is an individual, who needs to do what he wants and live according to his own tune. Not a rebel or someone dangerous, more someone closer to the Western vision of individuality than to the Japanese culture of being one in a crowd. He is different and original compared to other Japanese men of his time.

He has a unique personality, backed up by a strong work ethic and a will to be successful, despite his apparent protests. This influences his books and that’s probably why they sound original. He doesn’t feel special but he is and so are his books.

I am not a die-hard Murakami fan. I loved South of the Border, West of the Sun and Kafka on the Shore (pre-blog). I wasn’t too fond of Norwegian Wood and couldn’t finish The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. Incidentally, my billet titles are all related to music: Teen without spirit for Norwegian Wood, She moves him in mysterious ways for South of the Border, West of the Sun and lastly The wind-up bird never sang to me for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. (obviously)

After reading Profession romancier, I feel like trying another of his books and thanks to Marina’s post about Sputnik Sweetheart, I picked this one as my next Murakami.

This contributes to two blogging events, Japanese Lit Challenge 15 hosted by Meredith and Nonfiction Reader Challenge hosted by Shellyrae.

Touch and Go by Lisa Gardner – déjà vu and too clichéd for my taste.

January 22, 2022 18 comments

Touch and Go by Lisa Gardner (2013) French title: Famille parfaite.

Touch and Go by Lisa Gardner was our Book Club choice for January. It’s a thriller set in Boston and in New Hampshire.

Justin has been married to Libby for eighteen years and they have a fifteen-year-old daughter, Ashlyn. In appearance, they look like a perfect family. Justin is an entrepreneur and took over his father’s construction company and developed it. Libby works from home and creates jewels. She mostly has the role of a trophy wife, entertaining Justin’s clients and employees, being the main care giver to Ashlyn.

Justin and Libby’s marriage exploded six months ago, when Libby discovered that Justin cheated on her with a twenty-something travel agent from his office.

And now, they get kidnapped in their Bostonian brownstone. The Boston police arrive on the scene but the FBI takes over as soon as Justin’s jacket is found in New Hampshire. The local sheriff, Wyatt assists the Feds. Tessa Leoni, a former state trooper has been hired by Denbe Construction as a private investigator and is on the case too.

We’re in a classic thriller where on the one hand, we follow the investigation team and on the other hand, we follow what happens to the Denbes through Libby’s thoughts and point of view.

The plot is fast paced, I read it as you watch an action movie. It’s entertainment. But…it’s a weak book.

Half way through the book, I guessed the ending which is the kiss of death for a crime fiction book.

If the reader finds out so early in the story, who did it and why, it means that the plot is too thin and not woven properly. I don’t feel like a clever reader, I only think that the writer is not up to par.

The other weakness is the string of thriller clichés: the rich husband who cheats on his wife, the wife who has no real professional life but sells the jewels she makes, the crumbling façade of a perfect marriage, the kidnapping, Tessa Leoni and her traumatic past and the attraction brewing between her and Wyatt.

Other easy plot devices arrive later in the game but they would be spoilers, so…The only cliché that is missing is the classic conflicts between FBI, local police and PI. They get along rather well.

I’ll spare you the banal thoughts about marriage, love, pain and guilt that Libby inflicts on the reader as part of her thought process.

All this would have been insufferable in lit fiction but when it’s crime fiction, we seem more forgiving as a we’re only looking for a good time.

Then, it got me thinking about common tropes in fiction and I wondered how some American authors would fare if they were French. Indeed, writing in a French context would mean:

1 – Free social security. So, characters with crippling health bills are out of the question,

2 – Community property as the most common matrimonial regime meaning that property owned by one spouse before marriage, and gifts and inheritances received during marriage, are treated as that spouse’s separate property in the event of divorce. All other property acquired during the marriage is treated as community property and is subject to division between the spouses in the event of divorce. (Wikipedia) No prenup-driven plots or one-spouse-loses-all plots when divorce is involved.

3 – By law, one cannot totally disinherit their children or give all of their money to one heir. The part that one can freely dispense of depends on the composition of the legal heirs. Say you have two children, you’re free to do whatever you want with one third of your money. The rest goes automatically to your children. It limits the power of inheritance driven plots, no?

Back to the book.

My billet may sound a bit harsh as the book has a solid 4.07 stars on Goodreads. That’s my opinion. I like my crime fiction more literary and more original but I understand why other readers enjoyed Touch and Go.

Stay tuned and discover soon a wonderful Italian crime fiction book that mixes a good plot, original police characters and a great dose of information about Sardinia’s culture.  

What do you think? Have you read this book?

PS: A word about the covers. The American one is OK. The French ones are just awful. The person who chose the picture of Wisteria Lane has not read the book as the Denbe’s brownstone is almost a character of the book. And the other one with the young girl behind the wire netting, I don’t see how it relates to the book.

Taqawan by Eric Plamondon – 1981 on the Mi’gmaq reservation in Gaspesia

January 19, 2022 17 comments

Taqawan by Eric Plamondon (2017). Not available in English.

Au Québec, on a tous du sang indien. Si ce n’est pas dans les veines, c’est sur les mains.In Québec, we all have Indian blood. If it’s not in our veins, it’s on our hands.

Eric Plamondon is a Québecois writer but I don’t think that his book is translated into English. I will never understand why Canadian books are not available in the two official languages of the country. I received his novella Taqawan through my Kube subscription.

Taqawan takes the reader back to the month of June 1981, to the Indian reservation La Restigouche in the Gaspé Peninsula in Québec. The indigenous nation living on this reservation are the Micmac, or Mi’gmaq.

When the book opens, Océane, a Mi’gmaq teenager is on her way back to the reservation at the end on her school day. She goes to an English-speaking school in New Brunswick. She’s on the school bus when it is stopped on the Van Horne bridge that separates Québec from New Brunswick.

Understanding that the police are blocking the entry to the reservation, she slips out of the bus and despite the danger climbs down from the bridge to the ground to go home.

What follows that night is a violent police intervention related to the “salmon war” between the white Québec authorities and the Mi’gmaq nation. The Québec government has set new rules to issue fishing permits for salmon and these rules are unfathomable for a Native Canadian. They don’t want to abide by them because they simply don’t understand them. 300 policemen of the Sécurité of Québec are sent on the reservation to confiscate the fishermen’s nets.

In the middle of the mayhem where the police force abuse of their power, beat several Mi’gmaqs, arrest them without cause, three policemen rape Océane in the woods and left her there to her own devices. Yves, a former ranger who lives in a cabin in the woods finds her, brings her home and seeks for help. Beyond the basic human reaction to help someone in distress, Yves holds a grudge against the local authorities. He quit his job as a ranger because he didn’t approve of the treatment of the Mi’gmaqs and he didn’t want to lend a hand to the police, as required by his hierarchy.

Yves knows William, a Mi’gmaq who also lives in the woods. Together and with the help of Caroline, Yves’s former lover, they will help and protect Océane, putting their own safety at risk.

In the thread of Océane’s story, Plamondon inserts vignettes from the past and from the present politics. The images of the past go back to the importance of salmon for the Mi’gmaqs, to the help the Mi’gmaqs provided to the European first settlers. They wouldn’t have survived without their help. There are passages about fishing and Mi’gmaq culture and these short chapters give a historical context to the book and remind the white Québécois what they owe to native peoples.

The other set of vignettes comes back to the political context of the time and how the fight between Québec and the federal government ricocheted and impacted the daily life of the Mi’gmaq community. The issue of the salmon fishing rights is a pawn in the war between René Lévesque at the head Québec and the Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. We’re just the year after the 1980 referendum for the independence of Québec, lost by the partisans of Québec sovereignty.

Plamondon draws a severe picture of the Québec government, of the racism and violence of the Sécurité of Québec (we’re far, far away from Inspector Gamache’s gentleness) and of the treatment of indigenous nations in Canada. I understood that William, the oldest Indian character, has been in one of those despicable residential schools. But remember, the book is set in 1981.

Percé, Gaspésie.

On a lighter note, as usual when reading Québec literature, I had fun tracking down the funny words and expressions. I still don’t understand why we don’t use the same gender for some words between France and Québec. Why say son jeep (masculine, Québec) and not sa jeep (feminine, France), since the word car (voiture) is feminine. Maybe it’s because Québécois say char for voiture and char is masculine? Same for job. Why say une job and not un job since all the French words for job are masculine? (un travail, un emploi, un métier.)

I also love hearing the English under their French and chuckled when I saw Heille, man, a Gallicized version of Hey, man. The most endearing is when both French and Québécois use an English word in their French and France gets it wrong. Québécois use the appropriate English word choke for the device used to start a car when the French say un starter!

I need to read more Québec litterature, it’s often really enjoyable. It’s a pity that Taqawan isn’t translated into English and it goes in the Translation Tragedy category. It’s available in German, if that helps. Another good score for Kube!

PS: Remember my billet about The Grey Ghost Murders by Keith McCafferty where I discovered the existence of antique fishing flies? Well, Plamondon says that the oldest drawing of fly-fishing dates back to Ancient Egypt, fourteen centuries BC. I should start a “fun facts about fishing” category.

Joyeux Noël and A Christmas Legacy by Anne Perry.

December 24, 2021 21 comments

A Christmas Legacy by Anne Perry (2021) Not available in French.

So, we’re back on the Covid merry-go-round, playing a game of Omicron Says. In other words, it’s Christmas with Covid Season 2.

New restrictions are blooming all over Europe like toxic mushrooms infecting our Christmas again. In France, we are exempted of too many restrictions for now, except the usual health pass, the hydroalcoholic gel fiesta and the mask wearing. They are starting to feel as the new normal. We’re in a frenzy of PCR testing for family reunions and we’ll try to enjoy ourselves despite the omicron cloud over our heads.

With all the bad news piling up, I was looking for something sweet after reading Betty by Tiffany MacDaniel. I turned to Anne Perry’s last Christmas story, A Christmas Legacy and it did the job.

In this one, we’re with with Gracie, Charlotte and Thomas Pitt’s former maid. She has now left their service to get married. She has three children and is happy with her new life. A few days before Christmas, Millie, a girl Gracie has taken under her wing and who works as a housemaid in a Londoner townhouse, comes to her house and says she feels insecure at her employer’s house, Gracie replaces her for a couple of days to investigate what’s going on in this mansion.

This is a book you read under a plaid with tea, Christmas cookies and papillotes. It’s nothing to write home about but a nice and relaxing read. Exactly what I needed.

I hope you and your family are safe and well and that you were able to spend Christmas with the people you love. If you’re locked down because of this damned virus, I hope you planned a wonderful self-party and celebrated the holiday anyway. We, avid readers, are lucky bastards: our main enjoyment is Covid-compliant. We should count our blessings, and that’s definitely one.

Give me some news in the comment section if you wish and Joyeux Noël!

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel – Highly recommended

December 19, 2021 19 comments

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel (2020) French title: Betty. Translated by François Happe.

No matter how beautiful the pasture, it is the freedom to choose that makes the difference between a life lived and a life had.

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel is our Book Club choice for December and the proof that one should never write their best-of-the-year post before the year is truly ended. What a book.

Betty Carpenter was born in 1954 in a dry claw-foot bathtub in Arkansas. She’s the sixth child of a family of eight children. Her parents were a mixed couple, her father Landon was Cherokee and her mother Alka was white.

Betty is our narrator and she tells us her family’s story from 1909, her father’s birth to 1973, the year he died. Her parents were dirt poor and after a few years of moving around, they settled in an abandoned house lent by a friend in Breathed, Ohio. It was Leland’s hometown. They lived off the land, off the medicine Landon could concoct and off odd jobs. They were dirt-poor.

The first part of the book covers the 1908-1961 years. It’s shorter because Betty doesn’t have her own memories of these years but it’s an important part to root the family tree in its history. Landon’s Cherokee roots mean that he comes from a culture with a matriarchal tradition and a history of violence as his elders hid in the wilderness to avoid deportation to Oklahoma. Alka comes from a Bible abiding family with a history of domestic violence and no respect for women.

Alka and Landon have eight children: Leland, Fraya, Yarrow, Waconda, Flossie, Betty, Trustin and Lint. Yarrow and Waconda died before they were two. Betty’s story is centered around her and her sisters Fraya and Flossie. They father told her:

“In different native tribes, the Three Sisters represent the three most important crops. Maize, beans, and squash. The crops grow together as sisters. The oldest is maize. She grows the tallest, supportin’ the vines of her younger sisters. The middle sister is beans. She gives nitrogen and nutrition to the soil, which allows her sisters to grow resilient and strong. The youngest is squash. She is the protector of her sisters. She stretches her leaves to shade the ground and fight off weeds. It is squash’s vines which tie the Three Sisters together in a bond that is the strongest of all. This was how I knew I’d have three daughters, even after Waconda died. Fraya’s the corn. Flossie is the beans. And you, Betty, are squash. You must protect your sisters as squash protects the corn and beans.”

A tall order for Betty, who becomes the custodian of the family stories. Her mother tells her about her personal tragedy. She witnesses Fraya’s horrible fate and the two sisters share Fraya’s secret. She knows about Flossie’s dirty secrets too. A resilient child, Betty understands that women and men don’t have the same opportunities in life.

I realized then that pants and skirts, like gender itself, were not seen as equal in our society. To wear pants was to be dressed for power. But to wear a skirt was to be dressed to wash the dishes.

Betty is an ode to generation of women who had to live through discrimination due to their race, their gender or their social status. And sometimes the three at the same time, like Betty who was ostracized and bullied in school because of her Cherokee physique, her poverty and her gender. Telling Alka’s, Fraya’s and Flossie’s tragic lives is a way to keep them alive and tell the world that their lives mattered. The three of them were captive of a man around them, their father, their brother or their husband. Alka explains to Betty:

“My mother used to have figurines,” Mom said as she lifted her chin as high as it would go as she added another layer of lotion to her neck and collarbone. “All of the female figurines you could take apart because they were boxes or bowls. They all held somethin’. In their skirts, in their bodies, they all held somethin’. None of the male figurines held anything. They were solid. You couldn’t put anything in and you couldn’t take anything out. I suppose if you think about it long enough, you’ll see why this is like real life.”

Alka, like Hattie in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, due to her own issue, isn’t equipped to mother so many children. As often in this case, the oldest daughter steps up and helps. But contrary to Hattie’s children, Alka’s children had their father. He’s the glue of the family. The one who heals with plants, teaches through gardening and relies on nature to help his children see the beauty around them instead of focusing on their misery. He loves his children and he mothers their bodies and their souls. He has stories about everything to turn a magic and poetic camera on the harsh reality of their lives.

I realized then that not only did Dad need us to believe his stories, we needed to believe them as well. To believe in unripe stars and eagles able to do extraordinary things. What it boiled down to was a frenzied hope that there was more to life than the reality around us. Only then could we claim a destiny we did not feel cursed to.

And the admirable outcome is that she’s able to say: Through his stories, I waltzed across the sun without burning my feet.

He’s a deeply caring man, one who is invested in his children’s life and education, who has no expectations of them, except to become what they want. Sons or daughters, it doesn’t matter. Intelligent, troubled, impaired or shallow, he loves them equally and is the real glue of the family.

Betty is emotional, tragic, violent, poetic, lyric, resilient and empowering.

Betty is actually Tiffany McDaniel’s mother and the author writes a beautiful ode to her lineage of strong women and an even more beautiful one to her grandfather, a man she never knew but was unusual in his generation for thinking that his daughters could be more than wives and mothers.

Betty is as much a tribute to Landon Carperter as the story of the Carpenter women. Betty says:

“Growin’ up,” I said, “I felt like I had sheets of paper stuck to my skin. Written on these sheets were words I’d been called. Pow-wow Polly, Tomahawk Kid, Pocahontas, half-breed, Injun Squaw. I began to define myself and my existence by everything I was told I was, which was that I was nothing. Because of this, the road of my life narrowed into a path of darkness until the path itself flooded and became a swamp I struggled to walk through.

“I would have spent my whole life walkin’ this swamp had it not been for my father. It was Dad who planted trees along the edge of the swamp. In the trees’ branches, he hung light for me to see through the darkness. Every word he spoke to me grew fruit in between this light. Fruit which ripened into sponges. When these sponges fell from the branches into the swamp, they drank in the water until I was standin’ in only the mud that was left. When I looked down, I saw my feet for the first time in years. Holdin’ my feet were hands, their fingers curled up around my soles. These hands were familiar to me. Garden dirt under the fingernails. How could I not know they were the hands of my father?

“When I took a step forward, the hands took it with me. I realized then that the whole time I thought I’d been walking alone, my father had been with me. Supportin’ me. Steadyin’ me. Protectin’ me, best he could. I knew I had to be strong enough to stand on my own two feet. I had to step out of my father’s hands and pull myself up out of the mud. I thought I would be scared to walk the rest of my life without him, but I know I’ll never really be without him because each step I take, I see his handprints in the footprints I leave behind.”

Isn’t this what parenthood is all about? Steadying feet and hanging lanterns along the path to adulthood?

Highly recommended.

PS : The original cover of the book (kept for the French edition too) is based on an Afghan crocheted by Betty. The UK paperback edition features a picture of Betty as a child. More pictures here, on Tiffany McDaniel’s website.

The Wild Inside by Jamey Bradbury – Born to be wild

November 28, 2021 13 comments

The Wild Inside by Jamey Bradbury (2018) French title Sauvage. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

Jamey Bradbury was born in 1979 in the Midwest and Alaska has been her home for fifteen years. The Wild Inside is her debut novel.

Tracy is seventeen years old and lives in Alaska with her younger brother Scott and her father Bill. Her mom died about a year ago and the three of them had to adjust and go on with their lives as best as they can. Bill is a musher, he used to compete in the Iditarod race and his wife was his partner in this. She helped preparing and training the dogs. Everything fell apart when she died. Bill had to find other ways to support his family, to raise his children alone and to cope with his grief.

This is the background story of Tracy. High school is not her cup of tea. She loves nothing more than hunting and racing with her dogs in the Alaskan wilderness. She sets traps in the forest to catch animals. She stays outdoor for hours, with her sleigh and her dogs. It is vital for her. She’s restless if she can’t hike in the forest everyday. She competes in the Junior Iditarod and she’s passionate about her sport.

Like her mother, Tracy has a special way to connect with animals and the wilderness around her. She relies on instinct, on a unique way to plug her brain to the nature around her, to be attuned to it the way animals are.

Tracy struggles with this new life. She misses her mother and even more since she was the only one who knew and understood Tracy’s gift. She doesn’t like her father’s choices: she wants to compete again, to train the dogs but they can’t afford to hire staff to take over her mother’s workload. Bill doesn’t want her to spend so much time in the wilderness hunting with the dogs. Whatever. Tracy will wait for him to sleep like a log to go out at night.

Tracy’s life changes when a man attacks her in the forest and she wakes up with blood on her. She’s certain that she has fatally injured him. Actually, Tom Hatch, her victim came to their house and her father took him to the ER. She knows he has survived but does he know that she kept his backpack with all his money? Will he come back for her? This possibility is constantly on her mind, fear impairing her thought process.

A short while later, a young man arrives at their property. Jesse saw the ad that Bill put up to rent a cabin on their land, in order to make a bit of money. Jesse proposes to trade work against rent and utilities. He soon makes himself indispensable to Bill and is a game changer in the family’s dynamics.

The Wild Inside is part thriller, part horror, part coming-of-age novel, a risky mix that Jamey Bradbury pulls off with the ease of an experienced writer. We wonder if Tracy is really in danger or if she’s so stressed about Tom Hatch that she makes up problems where there aren’t. I won’t say anything about the horror element as it would spoil the novel for a new reader. It was disturbing and unsettling, I didn’t know what to do with what I was reading. Jamey Bradbury kept me on my toes.

And along with the thriller/horror side, she manages to explore the quest of identity of the characters. Bill is trying to build a new life without his wife. Scott doesn’t find a comfortable place between his sister and his father as he doesn’t share their love for the outdoors. Tracy struggles to understand who she is, how to handle her gift. Her attraction to Jesse leads to an unsuspected surprise. Who is he? Where does he really come from and what brought him to Alaska?

The décor of the book is the incredible beauty of Alaska. I know that writers don’t have to write about something they know to picture it properly. However, I think that life in extreme conditions like Alaska or Wyoming winters are best described by writers who actually live there. They have a sense of the place, a knowledge of the climate and the wilderness that runs in their blood and seeps on the page. Jamey Bradbury makes you armchair travel to Alaska with Tracy and her dogs.

The Wild Inside came with my Kube subscription and I’ve never read anything like it. I had to put it down because I felt spooked by what I was reading. I was so unsettled at times that I almost abandoned it but I couldn’t. I had to know how things would end. One of my friends read it too and had the same reading experience. Unease, compulsion to finish and awe. What a book!

Four novellas, four countries, four decades

November 20, 2021 37 comments

The blogging event Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca has a perfect timing, I was in the mood to read several novellas in a row. One has been on the shelf for almost a decade (Yikes!), two arrived recently with my Kube subscription and one was an impulse purchase during my last trip to a bookstore. So, here I am with four novellas set in four different countries and in different decades.

The Origin of the World by Pierre Michon (1996) Original French title: La Grande Beune

We’re in 1961, in the French countryside of Dordogne, the region of the Lascaux caves. The narrator is 20 and he has just been appointed as primary school teacher in the village of Castelnau. It’s his first time as a teacher. He takes lodgings at Hélène’s and discovers the life of the village. Soon, he becomes infatuated with the beautiful Yvonne, the village’s tobacconist and the mother of one of his pupils, Bernard.

Michon describes the narrator’s sex drive as he walks in the country, as he visits caves with paintings, as he obsesses over Yvonne but still has sex with his girlfriend Mado.

The English translation is entitled The Origin of the World, probably as a reference to the caves, their rock painting and the beginning of humanity and to femineity, like Courbet’s painting. The French title, La Grande Beune, is the name of the river near the village.

Pierre Michon is considered as a great writer by critics. He’s not my kind of writer, I don’t connect well with his prose. I can’t explain why, there’s something in the rhythm that doesn’t agree with me. It’s the first time I read a book by him, I only saw a play version of his book, Vie de Joseph Roulin. Roulin was the postman in Arles, the one who was friend with Van Gogh. I expected a lively biopic, it was one of the most boring plays I’ve ever seen.

After my stay in Dordogne, I traveled to Sicily, in a poor neighborhood of Palermo.

Borgo Vecchio by Giosuè Calaciura (2017) Translated from the Italian by Lise Chapuis.

Calaciura takes us among the little world of the Borgo Vecchio neighborhood. Mimmo and Cristofaro are best friends and Mimmo has a crush on Celeste.

The three children don’t have an easy life. Mimmo’s home life is OK but he’s worried about Cristofaro whose father is a mean drunkard and beats him badly every evening. Celeste spends a lot of time on the balcony of her apartment: her mother Carmela is the local hooker and she works from home. Her daughter stays on the balcony, to avoid her mother’s clients and witness her dealing with men. Cristofaro and Mimmo find solace in nurturing Nanà, a horse that Mimmo’s father acquired to run races and make money on bets.

The neighborhood’s other legend is Totò, the master of the thief squad, a quick worker who gets away with everything because he’s fast, agile and knows the neighborhood’s every nook and crannies. The police can’t compete with that and the fact that the inhabitants of Borgo Vecchio protect their own.

Calaciura’s prose is poetic, almost like a fairy tale. It tempers the horror of the characters’ lives but doesn’t sugarcoat it. It breathes life into Borgo Vecchio and we imagine the alleys, the noise coming from the harbor, the life of the community, the importance of the Catholic church.

Everyone knows everyone’s business. It’s a mix of acceptance, —Carmela belongs to the community and is not really ostracized—and cowardice –nobody intervenes to save Cristoforo and his mother from their abusive father and husband.

We get to know the neighborhood and the tension builds up, leading to an inevitable drama. The reader feels a lot of empathy for these children. What chance do they have to do better than their parents?

After Borgo Vecchio, I traveled to Japan and read…

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016) French title: La fille de la supérette. Translated from the Japanese by Mathilde Tamae-Bouhon

With Sayaka Murata’s book, I discovered the word kombini, a work that comes from the English convenient store (supérette in French)

The main character, Keiko Furukura, is a peculiar lady. She’s 36 and had been working at a SmileMart convenience store for 18 years. She’s single, never had a boyfriend and, according to her voice, she seems to be on the spectrum.

Her life is made of working hard, following her routine and learning social cues from her coworkers. Anything to sounds and behave like a normal woman, whatever that means. All is well until a new employee, Shihara, joins the team. He has his own issues with Japan’s expectation of him.

Convenience Store Woman is a lovely novella about a woman who struggles to fit in a society that likes nothing more than conformity. She stands out because she’s single and is not looking for a husband and because she’s happy with what is considered as a temporary job for students. Shihara disrupts her life and makes her question herself.

This theme about fitting in reminded me of Addition by Toni Jordan, with less romance and more sass. I liked Keiko and I’m glad got to spend time with her. The author has a good angle on the pressure for conformity of the Japanese society.

Then I virtually flew to Iowa at the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to…

Remembering Laughter by Wallace Stegner (1937) French title: Une journée d’automne. Translated from the American by Françoise Torchiana.

Alec Stuart and his wife Margaret are wealthy farmers. Their life changes when Elspeth, Margaret’s younger sister, comes to live with them, freshly emigrated from Scotland.

Elspeth is 18, full of life. She marvels about the farm, looks at everything with enthusiasm and with a fresh eye. She instills energy and joy in Alec and Margaret’s settled life. She’s also awakening to desire. She and Alec become close, until an unhealthy love triangle arises from their staying in close quarters.

Love, betrayal and tragedy are round the corner of the barn.

Wallace Stegner is a marvelous writer. His characters are well-drawn, revealing their complexity, their innocence or their flows. The countryside of Iowa leaps from the pages, with its sounds, its smells and its landscapes. According to the afterword written by Stegner’s wife, this novella is based on the true story of her aunts, which makes the story even more poignant.

This was my second Stegner, after Crossing to Safety, which I recommend as highly as Remembering Laughter. Imagine that Stegner taught literature and had among his students Thomas McGuane, Raymond Carver, Edward Abbey and Larry McMurtry. What a record!

As mentioned at the beginning, this is another contribution to the excellent even Novellas in November. Thanks ladies for organizing it! Reading novellas is fun.

Chances Are…by Richard Russo – friendship at Martha’s Vineyard

November 7, 2021 8 comments

Chances Are… by Richard Russo (2019) French title: Retour à Martha’s Vineyard. Translated by Jean Esch.

For our October read, our Book Club had chosen Chances Are…by Richard Russo. It’s not my first Russo, I’ve already read Empire Falls (pre-blog) and Straight Man and I have fond memories of them.

Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey have known each other since college. They are now in their sixties and Lincoln is about to sell the house he inherited from his mother in Martha’s Vineyard. Before selling it, he invites his college friends for a last weekend there, in this house and place where they spent the Memorial Day weekend after graduation in 1971.

Lincoln married his college girlfriend, Anita. They have six children, he works in real estate, she’s a lawyer and they make a comfortable income, even if the 2008 crisis rocked Lincoln’s boat.

Teddy works for an endangered publishing house attached to a university. It is specialized in religious books and it was under the patronage of the dean, Theresa. Now that Teresa has taken a better position at another university, Teddy knows that his job is at stake. Teddy never married and none of his friends has ever seen him in a long-term relationship.

Mickey is a musician. He has a rock band and he spends his life on tour. He’s single, dresses like a rocker and acts as if he refuses to get old.

In college, the three of them bonded as children from the working or middle class thrown with students from the upper classes. They worked at the Theta House as servers and washer-up and it is where they watched on TV the Draft Lottery for the Vietnam war on December 1st, 1969.

Mickey was number 9, Lincoln’s number was in the middle and Teddy was 362. Chances were that Mickey would go to Vietnam, Teddy wouldn’t and Lincoln could hope that the war would be over before his day came. They had respite until they graduated in 1971, since they could finish school first.

At university, the three young men saw themselves as the Three Musketeers and their D’Artagnan was Jacy. She was a member of the Theta House, a rich girl who wanted to be free from her social class constraints. The three boys were in love with her but none of them made a move and they remained friends.

At the moment of the Memorial Day weekend in 1971, Jacy was half-heartedly engaged to a young man from her social class. Mickey was about to get shipped to Vietnam. Teddy was undecided and Lincoln was with Anita who knew how to steer her boyfriends into the direction of her life plans.

Jacy disappeared at the end of this fateful weekend and none of them knows what happened to her. That weekend was their last weekend together, before starting their adult life and it ended with an enigma. When they meet again in Martha’s Vineyard all those years later, they still wonder what happened. Jacy’s shadow hovers over them and they wish they knew for sure what had become of her.

Back at Martha’s Vineyard where their adult life abruptly started, everything brings back old memories and pushes them to find closure. They reminisce their past, they probe their memories and the facts, to reflect on their lives. Lincoln starts digging as a sleuth. Teddy re-visits places and fights against a massive anxiety attack. And Mickey brings the fun and their youth because in appearance, he remained the same.

The reader learns about their childhood and the mark their education left on them. The chapters alternate between Lincoln’s and Teddy’s voices, until Mickey finally adds his voice to the choir. The reader discovers bits and pieces of their lives and the fault line that Jacy’s disappearance left on their souls. Lincoln is as fragile as his two friends but Anita’s steady presence keeps him standing, like a prop for a plant. Teddy suffers from severe anxiety crises. Mickey never went to war and fled to Canada instead. He seems carefree, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get person, but is it true?

Chances Are…explores the paths of three men whose lives were impacted by odds. Working and meeting at the Theta House when they came from different States and different background. Striking a friendship with Jacy. The Vietnam Lottery. For Lincoln, meeting Anita.

The novel also questions the nature of friendship. They never addressed the fact that they were all in love with Jacy. They didn’t want to break the fragile balance of their friendship. Did she have feelings for one of them? Was it better to keep wondering who was her favorite?

And a last question, do we really know our friends? The three of them kept secrets that none of them suspected. They rarely meet in person because they live far from each other. It’s easy to keep up appearances when contacts are not frequent. Do they still know each other? If they met now, would they become friends?

This last weekend in the Martha’s Vineyard house will break all the walls and leave them naked in front of the truth.

The antidote to bleakness – comfort books.

October 23, 2021 28 comments

As mentioned in my previous billet B Is For Bleak: the bleak fest continues in Oktober, I tried to mitigate the effect of bleak reads and plays with comfort books.

The first one was The Stationery Shop by Ogawa Ito. (2016. translated by Myriam Dartois-Ako).

I had already read another of her novels, The Restaurant of Love Regained and I knew I’d be reading something soft and uplifting.

In The Stationery Shop, Hatoko is 25, she’s back in her native town of Kamakura to take over the family business after her grandmother passed away. Hatoko inherited a stationary shop and has to replace her grandmother as a public letter-writer.

We follow her as she settles into her new life, meets people in the neighborhood, connects with clients and learns about her past. I knew nothing bad would happen and that Hatoko’s life would improve as she made peace with her past and built her future. It didn’t disappoint on that part.

However, The Stationery Shop has the same backbone as The Restaurant of Love Regained and the parallels are striking. A young woman comes back to her hometown or village. She’s lonely. She has unsolved issues with the woman who raised her, mother or grandmother. She starts or runs a business based on Japanese traditions. She knows a craft deeply embedded in Japanese customs, cuisine for one, calligraphy for the other. She connects to her Japanese roots through this craft, one that is turned towards others and aims at making her customers happy with a meal or with the right letter for an event or to a dear one. While she applies her craft as a balm to her customers’ souls, she finds her inner peace. It bothered me to find out that the two books had the same structure.

Ogawa Ito gives a lot of details about Japanese calligraphy. To be honest, I don’t know enough about Japan and its tradition to catch on all the calligraphy explanations and details about the writing, the quill, the choice of paper, of stamps…I missed a layer of knowledge and all these details bored me, which is even worse than getting emotional over a bleak play. So, the comfort book wasn’t that comforting, I thought it was a bit slow and dull. A bit goodie-two-shoes too, you know, a novel aimed at spreading love and good feelings.

The next time I turned to a different kind of comfort read, crime fiction set in Montana, with The Grey Ghosts Murders by Keith McCafferty. (2013. Translated by Janique Jouin-de Laurens)

I’d already read the first volume of the series, The Royal Wulff Murders and had enjoyed it. I expected entertainment and a reprieve from emotional books.

It’s crime fiction, so, of course, there are terrible deaths and corrupt politicians like everywhere else, and it doesn’t qualify as a fluffy feel-good novel but the context is positively endearing.

No stiff in dirty back alleys like in a Connelly novel. No, you’re in the wild part of Montana. The police and the medical examiner have to hike to go to the body, only to discover that bears messed up with the evidences and that their pepper spray is damned handy when they get too close to a mamma bear and her cubs while on the job.

The main character, Sean Callahan shares his time between working as a fishing guide, painting Montana landscapes for tourists and playing amateur sleuth. Beside the murders, a group of fishermen who purchased a cabin together for their fishing holidays, ask him to investigate a theft: two of their antique fishing flies were stolen from their display cases. They were mounted by famous fishermen who invented these flies, a breakthrough in fly-fishing techniques. It’s as serious as stealing Dumbledore’s wand and yet, it’s funny to think that somewhere, there’s a parallel world where fishermen collect antique flies.

Sean helps with the murders investigation and researches thoroughly the person who had the idea to steal antique fishing flies.

Sean is quirky character, with a tender heart and he falls in love too easily, with the wrong women. He has a touchy relationship with Martha, the sheriff. He has decided to settle in Montana for good and we understand why, with all the attaching second characters in the book.

This comfort read totally worked because, to me, it’s exotic and took me far away from the previous book. It did the job and I’ll get the third volume on the shelf for future comfort read. It’s like having a Louise Penny on the ready.

That was before I read Sandrine Collette. After that one, I needed a solid pick-me-up and decided to take the safest option with guaranteed HEA.

I read Beauty and the Beast, the 1740 original tale by Madame de Villeneuve. The story was consistent with the children version I’d read before. The Disney movie and the film by Cocteau are based on a later version of the story, written by Madame Leprince de Beaumont.

Compared to this well-known version, the original has an additional part in which Madame de Villeneuve describes the war between the fairies and explains how the prince fell under a magic spell and why Beauty ended up with her father’s family. Interesting and relaxing.

Now my reading has come back to its usual mix of easy, challenging and entertaining books, like Richard Russo, Michael Connelly and Balzac.

What kind of books do you turn to after a challenging or emotional read?

B is for bleak : the bleak fest continues in Oktober

October 17, 2021 28 comments

As I said the discussion about Slobozia by Liliana Lazar, I’ve been in bleak book festival. That’s unintentional but still. For September, our Book Club picked Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-Sook. I read it after the Lazar but also after the Norek set in the Jungle in Calais, the camp for illegal migrants who want to cross the Channel and emigrate to the UK.

Please Look After Mom is a Korean novel. Published in 2008, it relates the literal loss of a mother who vanished in a metro station in Seoul. She was in the city to visit her children with her husband, they got separated in a crowded station and they couldn’t find her anymore. She doesn’t know how to read and she has a degenerative illness that confuses her. In other words, she was ill-equipped to find her way to her son’s house.

The novel has several voices as her family look for her. Her eldest daughter, Chi-hon is a famous writer. She knew about her mother illiteracy and about her disabling headaches but didn’t do anything to force her to go and see a doctor. We hear her eldest son, Hyong-chol, who bore a lot of responsibilities due to his status of first born. Her husband is almost surprised to discover that he misses her, she was his servant and a constant fixture in his life. And we hear from her, although we never know where she is.

Please Look After Mom is sad because hardly no one knows Mom’s name. She was a daughter, a wife, a mother but not often a woman. Her family realizes that they never knew who she was as a woman. They discover after her disappearance that, unbeknownst to them, she did have a life as a woman: a friend (lover?), charity work or reading lessons.

I suppose this mother is also the symbol of her generation of women: the uneducated peasant ones who worked hard, served their husbands and children, had no personal lives and saw their children move to the city after they went to school and got better jobs.

From a literary standpoint, I wasn’t too keen on the style, especially the chapters narrated with “you” all the time.

The next bleak book was Black Tears on the Earth by Sandrine Collette. (The original French title is Les larmes noires sur la terre) Phew. How bleak and desperate. It’s dystopian fiction, we’re in something like 2030.

Moe left her native Tahiti behind to follow Rodolphe to France. Their relationship disintegrates quickly. After her baby was born, she decides to leave him and as she fails to find a job, the social services take her to a place called La Casse. (The Breaker’s Yard) In this camp, the authorities park poor people and make them live in broken cars.

The cars are arranged in blocks of six vehicles and Moe is assigned to a Peugeot 308. (For non-European readers, it’s smaller than a Toyota Camry) She meets the other five ladies of her block, Ada, Poule, Nini-peau-de-chien, Jaja and Marie-Thé. Under the protection of Ada, they share their resources, protect and take care of each other and try to keep on living as best as they can.

The camp is like the Jungle in Calais described by Olivier Norek. Dangerous, hopeless and dirty. The passing fee to get out is so high that nobody can afford it. There are guards to ensure that nobody escapes. Moe has to do something to get her son out of here and give him a better life. For him she’ll take all the risks and bear all the humiliations possible.

I can’t tell you how hard it was. I wanted to stop reading and yet I didn’t feel that much empathy for Moe. The hopelessness weighed on me and as always in dystopian fiction, it’s reality pushed a little further and it is unsettling. Sandrine Collette writes really well, as I’d already noticed when I read her book Il reste la poussière. It’s a good piece of literature but you need to brace yourself for it.

The worst was yet to come with the British theatre play Love by Alexander Zeldin. The cast was British, with subtitles and composed of excellent actors: Amelda Brown, Naby Dakhli, Janet Etuk, Oliver Finnegan, Amelia Finnegan in alternance with Grace Willoughby, Joel MacCormack, Hind Swareldahab and Daniel York Loh.

The setting is a temporary shelter that belongs to the social services. People are placed there while waiting for a council flat. Colin has been there with his ageing mother Barbara for twelve months. They share a room, she’s incontinent and they hope against hope for new lodgings. A family of four has just arrived: Dean and his children Paige and Jason and his new companion Emma, who is pregnant. They were evicted and need a council flat. Dean soon learns that he lost his social benefits because he missed an appointment at the work center the day they were evicted. The other residents are two immigrants who are also waiting for a better place to stay.

We see their hardship, the simmering violence, the difficulty to live together, share a common room, a kitchen, bathroom and toilets. But there’s also burgeoning solidarity and a good dose of tolerance, empathy and politeness. They manage to retain their humanity.

The direction was excellent and the actors felt so real that we went out of the theatre with leaded shoes. Contrary to the Collette, this is not dystopian fiction. We did empathize with them. A lot. We also knew that the play was realistic and I read afterwards that it was based on true stories, that Alexander Zeldin has spent two years meeting with residents of these shelters.

That such circumstances last several months in our rich societies is a scandal per se. Art and literature always do that for you, they turn statistics into flesh and blood characters and make you acknowledge them and their problems. You can’t turn a blind eye or decide to forget that they exist. You have to face the fact that there are children like Paige, who don’t have enough for dinner, who rehearse the school play in a communal room among strangers and who need to share their space with them. It was emotional and bleak but not totally hopeless. The love between the characters still persisted and brought a timid ray of sunshine.

The Collette and the play by Zeldin both portrayed a hard society, one who thinks of poor people as delinquents and doesn’t want to see them or take care of them.

I could have drowned all this Oktober bleakness in beer but I don’t like beer. As any respecting book fiend, I picked other books to balance the acid pH of this bleakness. I chose comfort books and the billet about the antidote is upcoming. Stay tuned! 😊

Lesser of Evils by Joe Flanagan – Great debut noir fiction

September 19, 2021 4 comments

Lesser Evils by Joe Flanagan (2016) French title: Un moindre mal. Translated by Janique Jouin-de Laurens.

Lesser Evils by Joe Flanagan is an excellent example of what neo-noir can be.

Cape Cod, 1957. Bill Warren is acting as chief of police in the small town of Barnstable. The appointed chief of police, Marvin Holland is in the hospital after a heart attack and might be forced into early retirement. Warren lives alone with his disabled son, Michael, nicknamed Little Mike. His alcoholic wife disappeared on them and never came back.

Several crimes happen at the same time in Cape Cod. Two boys are found dead and were sexually harassed. A man was beaten up after he failed to reimburse his due to loan sharks. The local police start investigating but the DA, Elliott Yost transfers the affair to the State police led by Dale Stasiak.

Warren is furious but he’s on shaking grounds with his team, the town council and the DA. He’s only acting as chief of police and he’s different from Chief Holland, less smarmy and ill-at-ease with the political side of the job. He doesn’t want to compromise and let things slide when it comes to prominent citizen.

The plot thickens as corruption, mafia, sexual predators are settling in otherwise quiet Cape Cod. Who is behind the boys’ murders? Is the Boston mafia trying to set up a place for illegal bets and loans? Who are the crooked cops and the honest ones? How deep in the mud are local politicians?

Warren keeps investigating, even if he’s not supposed to.

Lesser Evils is Joe Flanagan’s debut novel and it’s a tour de force. Everything sounds right and is perfectly orchestrated. The characters are deep enough, well-defined and come to life. The atmosphere of Cape Cod seems realistic –to me, at least, after all, I’ve never been there—and the author comes from the area.

The plot threads are masterfully developed and equally engaging. A lot of characters come into play but the reader is never lost among them and always knows how to place them. It’s suspenseful and I couldn’t put the put down.

Warren is an engaging character, with his kind relationship with his son and his fair dealings with his team. Like Johnson’s character Walt Longmire, Warren was a police officer in the army before joining the police force after the war. We are in a classic neo-noir with an investigator who is honest and is willing to jeopardize his career, put his life on the line to keep his integrity.

You can imagine this story in a black-and-white movie from the Hollywood Golden Age. I read it during the holidays and couldn’t put it down.

Highly recommended, especially since, in the Northern hemisphere, we’re heading towards cold Sundays with reading under a blanket.

See Marina’s review here. She’s a little less enthusiastic than me.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis – good literature but too bleak for me.

September 15, 2021 13 comments

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (2012) French title: Les douze tribus d’Hattie. Translated by François Happe.

As often, I’m late with my billet as The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis was our Book Club choice for July.

In 1923, the young Hattie moves out of Georgia with her family to settle in Philadelphia. They go to the city and away from the Jim Crow laws. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is made of twelve vignettes, each for one of Hattie’s offspring, with Hattie as an Ariadne thread along the book. We meet each child or grand-child at one moment in their lives and through the different chapters, we get an idea of Hattie’s life. Each chapter is a key moment in Hattie’s life and each belong to one child.

We start in 1925. Hattie is now married to August and they have seven-month twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee. The twins die of fever, no, out of poverty. Hattie and August didn’t have the money to buy the penicillin that could have saved them. This made Hattie’s and August’s lives derail with sorrow.

We leap to 1948 where we meet Floyd, the jazz musician of the family.

We’re in 1950 and we spend time with Six, the future preacher.

We’re in 1951, when Ruthie was born and Hattie tried to leave her husband.

In 1954, Ella, Hattie’s last baby is sent out to live with her barren aunt Pearl, in Georgia.

In 1968, we see what has become of Alice and Billups and why they have a special bond.

In 1969, we spend some time in Vietnam with Franklin.

In 1975, Bell is dying of tuberculosis and we learn about her difficult relationship with her mother.

In 1980, Cassie is schizophrenic and Hattie and August have to hospitalize her. Her daughter Sala comes to live with her grand-parents.

Hattie spent her life taking care of her children, preparing meals, cleaning and worrying about money while August paraded in new clothes, went out dancing and had various affairs. She also had an affair with Lawrence and would have left August if she could have taken her children with her. The untimely death of the twins shattered her confidence for a better future.

It is the life of a woman who never had time for herself, was a tough cookie and never managed to communicate her love for her children. Her love was in the energy she put in feeding, clothing and nursing them. But with nine children and her pregnancies, did she have time for anything else?

On paper, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is my kind of book but I wasn’t too fond of it. The form of the book left me hanging. Each chapter is devoted to one child and then we never hear anything from them again. We leave Franklin in 1948, he’s a gifted musician, he has just understood that he’s gay and then poof! he disappears of the book. That was disappointing, as if they only had an existence to pinpoint a moment in Hattie’s life.

And then I found it too bleak. Not one of them has a better life, except maybe Floyd and Ella but we don’t know for sure. They are all marked by tragedy or illness. One had 50% of his body burnt when he fell in boiling water. One is schizophrenic. One was abused as a child and his sibling knew about it. One is a drunkard. One is separated of her mother to live with her aunt. One is in an abusive relationship.

Bleak, bleak, bleak. Not one uplifting moment in the whole book. It’s not even plausible that, out of nine living children, not one lived to live an uneventful life, especially during the Post-war economic boom. Then I read in the Acknowledgments that Ayana Mathis thanks Marilynne Robinson for her friendship and guidance and I thought “Of course, now the bleakness makes sense.” I really really disliked the only Robinson I’ve read, Housekeeping. All I remember about it are broken souls, bleakness and constant rain.

Hattie’s children have a complicated relationship with their mother as they grew up in a tough environment. They have attachment issues. And of course, seen from the book’s angle, it seems to be Hattie’s fault. August was absent, throwing away money that could have helped the household but he’s not the defective parent. Too much depends on women and the children’s difficulties all seem to stem out of her lack of hugs. I would have liked to hear about the children’s difficult relationship with their father too, but it’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, not of August, as if children only belonged to their mother. And in Hattie’s time, it’s probably true. The responsibility of raising children only fell on the mother’s shoulders.

If I look at The Twelve Tribes of Hattie through a literary magnifying glass, it’s an excellent book. The style is good, you can see it’s well-constructed, the story makes sense and there’s a goal in showing black America from the 1920s to the 1980s, although, in my opinion, the fact that it’s a black family isn’t that important. You could have had the same story in an Irish-American family. The only difference is that, due to their leaving Georgia, Hattie was out of a support system when the babies were sick. No tribe for Hattie’s generation, no sense of community like in American-Italian neighborhoods.

The most disheartening part of it is that the book is called The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and not Hattie’s Tribe. Each offspring is on their own. These siblings don’t make one united tribe and that’s probably their parents’ biggest failure.

Have you read this book? I’d love to discuss it with another reader.

Between Two Worlds by Olivier Norek – Translation tragedy. This book needs an English translator.

September 11, 2021 12 comments

Between Two Worlds by Olivier Norek (2017) Translation Tragedy: not available in English. Original Franch title: Entre deux mondes.

Our first book for our new Book Club season was Entre deux mondes by Olivier Norek. The title’s literal translation is Between Two Worlds. Olivier Norek is a French crime fiction writer who was a humanitarian worker during the war in Yugoslavia and who is now a police officer is the tough department of Seine-Saint-Denis near Paris. For once, we have a French writer who is neither a journalist nor a teacher or an academic.

Entre deux mondes relates the story of Adam Sirkis, a Syrian who worked undercover in the Syrian police department but fought against Bashar al-Assad. The book starts when one of his accomplices has been caught and is now tortured.

It’s time for Adam to flee the country. He knew it was a risk and he’s ready for it. First, he sends his wife and daughter abroad, to Libya where they will hop on a boat towards the Italian coasts.

Early on, we know Nora and Maya won’t make it. Adam arrives in France in the Calais Jungle. It was a camp for migrants who repeatedly tried to go to UK (Youké, as it is spelled in the book)

Bastien Miller, a police lieutenant freshly transferred to the Calais police force, arrives in Calais at about the same time as Adam. His wife is depressed, his teenage daughter isn’t exactly happy with the move. His colleagues at the station introduce him to the particularities of their job in Calais.

As a murder occurs in the Jungle, Adam and Bastien collaborate.

Entre deux mondes is one of these vital books that make you understand a tricky political and humanitarian situation. Norek manages a tour-de-force with this book. There is no sugarcoating the situation. We encounter various migrants, each with their personal story and nothing is ever black or white.

We see the terrible job of the police force in Calais, caught between doing their duty, trying to protect the Calais population’s lives and at the same time hating the operations against the migrants that they have to do. Norek describes extremely well the controls performed by the police before trucks are allowed through The Channel Tunnel.

We see migrants with their despair and their hope for a better life in UK, where they may have family and often know a bit of the language. We see that they arrive from countries at war with deep scars that nobody sees in Europe because they have seen and lived through things that we cannot imagine. Through a child character, Kilani, we understand how wrong our perception can be, because we have a mental set of references that conditions how we grasp situations.

We see how life is organized in the Jungle, the violence, the closed camp for women to avoid rapes, the trafficking and the powerplays between ethnic groups and people.

There is no naïve optimism in Entre deux mondes. No bad or good people. Only humans who aspire to a better life and other who try to do their best and to not hate themselves for it. Norek shows that there is no obvious solution, no ready-made action plan and how helpless the police and humanitarians feel. Law enforcement characters sound real and the migrants aren’t only victims. Norek demonstrates that difficulties to communicate between people who don’t speak the same language may have dramatic consequences and that it doesn’t help with already complex circumstances.

We were all deeply moved and quite stunned by the book. It brings something to the world. Through a nuanced story, we have a raw picture of the migration Catch 22.

THIS BOOK NEEDS AN ENGLIH TRANSLATOR.

Another book about this topic : Eldorado by Laurent Gaudé. This one is available in English.

PS : As a bonus, Olivier Norek has lovely words for libraires and book bloggers in the Acknowledgment section of the book.

I’m thankful for… (…)

Libraires whose daily fight to exist is commendable. When we won’t have independant bookstores anymore, we’ll only have the phone book to read.

Bloggers. For small blogs, big ones, the ones full of emotions, the ones with mistakes, the heartfelt ones, the poetic ones. For bloggers who become more than mere acquaintances, those who write about any kind of authors, those whose walls hold up with TBRs, the ones who tell you when your book is bad and go to book fairs with you. You are the real chroniclers of crime fiction.

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