Old World and New: Louise Penny and Antonin Varenne

More escapist comfort reading, which took me to some very strange places indeed. Quite a contrast in style and subject matter, but both proved to be excellent distractions and got me back into the reading groove again.

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery

I am an unabashed Penny fan, cannot get enough of her delightful, gentlemanly, wise and slightly melancholy Armand Gamache. While I quite enjoy closed room mysteries, I couldn’t help but be sceptical of the audacity of setting this book in a secluded monastery, locked away from the outside world, and with no mention at all of our beloved Three Pines, the idyllic Quebecois village that we all want to live in. But I should trust the author: I have followed her before, moving away from the realm of crime fiction in The Long Way Home, and I have continued to enjoy everything she brings to the table.

As always with the Gamache novels, there is a murder to be solved, as well as a personal vendetta and conspiracy within the S√Ľret√© du Qu√©bec. I’ve not read the books in order, so I already knew how things had worked out between Gamache and his faithful sidekick Beauvoir once their corrupt and evil boss Francoeur waggled his serpent’s tongue. That took some of the suspense out of the book, but there is still the mystery of who killed the choir director in the tranquil and long-forgotten community of monks, who have recently become famous because of their amazing recording of Gregorian chants. Comparisons to The Name of the Rose¬†are inevitable, given the setting, but Louise Penny makes this her own, with beautifully rounded characters and sensuous details (those chocolate-covered blueberries!). She turns this very much into a meditation on good and evil, the search for the divine vs. seeking fame, the virtues of silence vs. communicating via words.

As for the reason why I find her books so comforting, the author herself describes it best:

My books are about terror. That brooding terror curled deep down inside us. But more than that, more than murder, more than all the rancid emotions and actions, my books are about goodness. And kindness. About choices. About friendship and belonging. And love. Enduring love. ¬†If you take only one thing away from any of my books I’d like it to be this:¬†Goodness exists.

 

Antonin Varenne: Retribution Road (transl. Sam Taylor)

You will love this book if, like me, you were excited by the premise of the recent BBC TV series¬†Taboo,¬†starring Tom Hardy, but somewhat disappointed by its execution (great build-up, but didn’t go very far and let down by its ending, as is so often the case with a story told over several episodes). A¬†damaged but principled individual returning from a traumatic experience abroad, the East India Company as an out-and-out villain, the dirt and miasma of London and its poorest people, the lure of the New World across the Atlantic – both stories have these elements in common. The book is a chunky 500+ pages, but it’s one of those rollicking adventures of the Alexandre Dumas/ Robert Louis Stevenson type, so it didn’t take long to read.

It’s panoramic, epic and historical crime fiction, three epithets which usually put me off a book, but it really works in this case. A further no-no in my book: it’s about a serial killer, and it spreads over three continents and 11 years. It starts in 1852, with an ill-fated mission in Burma organised by the East India Company. The men are captured and tortured; there are only ten survivors, and they come back more like zombies or ghosts rather than men.

Six years later, one of the survivors, former sergeant Arthur Bowman, works as a policeman in a pestilent, drought-ridden London, and continues to battle his demons in a haze of opium and alcohol. Then he discovers a corpse in a sewer, bearing the same mutilations as they experienced in the jungle, and he becomes convinced the killer is one of the ten men. His mission to discover the killer – who does not stop at one victim, of course – takes him to the New World and ultimately to the Wild West, but above all it’s a journey to find himself.

It takes great courage to combine all these different genres together: adventure story, serial killer thriller, Western and character study, so bravo, Monsieur Varenne for this ambitious tour de force!¬†It has all the breadth and variety of RL Stevenson, the darkness of Joseph Conrad and none of the ‘going off on a tangent’ of Moby Dick.

The book was published on 9th March by MacLehose Press.

Deep Down Dead: The Road Trip to Hell and Back

deepdowndeadDisclosure required: I’ve known Steph Broadribb under her online username Crime Thriller Girl for a few years now. She blogs, reviews, tweets and goes to literary festivals, all in the name of crime – so clearly a woman after my own heart! –¬†and has now written¬†a feisty action thriller Deep Down Dead, to be published by Orenda Books on the 5th of January. However, liking a person in real life (or even online life) is not an automatic guarantee that you will like their writing. And I am not a huge fan of action thrillers, or so I told myself…

However, this is an action thriller with a difference: it is written by a woman. So, although we do have lots of page-turning action and fights and dangerous moments, there are also moments of tenderness, doubts, genuine warmth. This is an action thriller with heart and compassion, combining the darkness of film noir with a family story and the ruggedness of a Western.

Female bounty hunter Lori Anderson is clearly related to VI Warshawski or Kinsey Milhone, or such no-nonsense, kick-ass female heroines, but she is also a single mother to a rather ill nine-year-old girl. The medical bills keep lining up, the cancer may come back at any time, so Lori is desperate to take on any job, even those she should steer well clear of. One suspiciously well-paid job involves her bringing JT, her former mentor (and lover) back to Florida. It sounds straightforward enough and, when her childcare arrangements fall through, she ends up taking her daughter with her on a three-day¬†road-trip across several states which ends up veering completely out of control. She hasn’t seen JT in ten years – could he have turned into a criminal in the meantime? Or is he indeed hunting down a paedophile ring, as he claims? The Mafia gets involved, so does the police, and soon they are on the run.

stephbroadribbWe follow Lori and JT in this entertaining and non-stop gruelling journey, with plenty of kidnapping, violence, shooting, car chases, and my own personal highlight: running amok through a theme park. As the stakes get higher and higher, we ask ourselves: are these two bounty hunters using such unconventional methods to cover their own asses, or are they really going to achieve some form of justice? They keep going in spite of the constant menace from all parts and their injuries, but they are not superhuman (as they might be if this were written by a man, perhaps). The author describes all the pain and difficulties the main protagonist endures in quite graphic detail.

There is a danger perhaps that this kind of cat-and-mouse hunt of a novel could become repetitive, but Steph Broadribb just manages to avoid that, adding a new twist to every scene of capture or escape. What I really admire is her ability to absorb and render the American idioms, twang and way of life so believably (the author is British, although she did live for a while in the US). What we have here is all the swagger and tension of a Western: who is going to blink first, who is going to be slower on the draw?

Perfect escapism for this time of year and a great start to my holiday reading.

Rebellious Songs

Today is another ominous, rainswept day and I turn once more to music to lift my mood.¬† Yesterday my good friend Nicky Wells posted the lyrics and translation of possibly one of the saddest (though most beautiful) songs in the world, which didn’t help.¬† So I turned to more revolutionary songs that meant a lot to me in my youth, like Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’.¬† But that was depressing too, so what to do?

Confession time: I was never an avid follower of fashion in either clothes, music or literature.¬† Especially with music, I just liked what I liked, usually becoming obsessive about a certain artist or band, following every single release and snippet of news about them.¬† Some of my choices were kind of obvious for the time (Madonna, Duran Duran), others were more unusual¬† or considered old-fashioned¬† (David Bowie, Queen, Dire Straits).¬† But one constant pattern in my life (which only really becomes obvious with the gift of hindsight) is my love for rebellious songs.¬† Perhaps it’s the legacy of growing up in a Communist dictatorship, but I’ve always had a soft spot for¬† songs that protest against the established order of things, that are critical of an unjust society, whether that society is democratic and capitalist (Bruce Springsteen) or more obviously in the grips of dictatorship (Mikis Theodorakis).

So here are two of my favourite songs, with very suggestive lyrics.  And, despite the serious subject matter, the music somehow manages to uplift rather than dampen me!

First, the classic Supertramp song that almost anyone can hum along to: ‘The Logical Song’.

Here’s a glimpse of Supertramp in action:


And these are the lyrics that get to me every single time:

But then they sent me away
To teach me how to be sensible
Logical, responsible, practical
And then they showed me a world
Where I could be so dependable
Clinical, intellectual, cynical

Secondly, a rather less well-known song ‘Superbacana’ by the great Brazilian singer,¬† composer and political activist Caetano Veloso.¬† He was briefly imprisoned by the military dictatorship in Brazil and had to go into exile in the late 1960s. I was unable to find a video of Caetano singing this, but here is an audio snippet:

My knowledge of Portuguese is very rudimentary, so my translation is probably not very accurate, but to me the song seems to be mocking the rhetoric of the absolutist Brazilian government of the time, promising ‘supersonic aircraft, electronic (high-tech) parks, atomic power, economic progress’, everything super-duper in fact, while contrasting it with the actual poverty of the vast majority of the population, who have ‘nothing in your pocket or your hands’.

Why do these songs cheer me up a little on such a gloomy day? [By the way, you may think I am harping overly much on the fact that it is raining, but I have been known to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, so it really is all in my mind!]  Because they express anger in a humorous way.  I find anger a more productive sentiment than sadness and despair, because it usually makes you want to do something to change matters.  And when anger is tinged with humour, it no longer is simply destructive, but becomes instructive and constructive.

What do you think of these songs?¬† Are you a fan of songs with ‘political’ messages?¬† Or does that create an obstacle in your appreciation of a song?¬† And what about songs in different languages, where you might not understand the subtext or even the outright meaning at all?¬† Can you still enjoy a song, even if you think it’s about something completely different?