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 Sûreté du Québec. 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.

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Tatiana Salem Levy: The House in Smyrna (transl. Alison Entrekin)

housesmyrnaBrazil is in the news today with the impeachment of its president – and will be in the news soon again with the Olympics (and will all the stadiums get finished in time).  Its troubled history and on-off economy are easy to mock; the violence inside and outside its favelas is dramatic. And yet it also remains a country of extraordinary beauty, passion, music and literature. I’ve vowed many times to learn Portuguese and to read its authors in the original. Luckily, for my sanity, there are splendid translators helping me to enjoy Brazilian literature, although very little contemporary literature gets translated. Is there a fear that it will not appeal? Certainly, the recent crime novel by Raphael Montes was strange and unsettling, but a refreshingly different read in a landscape that has often become rather uniform.

The same can be said for Tatiana Salem Levy’s exploration of cultural and personal identity The House in Smyrna. Apparently, this book was initially intended to be a dissertation on literature and family history, but Levy’s Ph. D. supervisor suggested that she write it as a novel instead.  The novel was entitled ‘The Keys to the House’ in the original Portuguese. Since its publication in 2007 (year in which it won a prestigious Brazilian prize for best debut), it has been revised and edited by the author prior to its translation into English. The author speaks English very well, as I found out when I saw her a couple of years ago at Lavigny, and she works as a translator, so she may have streamlined the text to make it more palatable to English readers.

Palatable, perhaps, but not easy. The narrative is fragmented, very much like Brazilian sensibility itself, which, the author says ‘if there is such a thing, it’s all about mixed identities’. The author is reluctant to close any doors, she doesn’t answer questions, merely asks more. It feels like she wants to allow the readers to find their own path through the novel and formulate their own interpretation of the story. So below is my personal interpretation of it.

A young woman lies helpless on her bed in Rio de Janeiro, filled with self-hatred and self-pity, victim to some kind of wasting disease. She has inherited a key to the house in Smyrna which her Jewish grandfather had left decades before as a young man. Her mission is to find the house and try the key. At first, she has no intention of doing that, but after her mother’s death, she somehow hauls herself off her sickbed and flies off to Istanbul. We then trace her route through Turkey, all her travel experiences, then her return via Lisbon, where she was born (her parents having lived there in exile during the dictatorship in Brazil). At the same time, we have flashbacks to her loving yet complicated relationship with her mother, and also a passionate but increasingly violent relationship with a lover.

By this point, it was getting very confusing: was the protagonist severely disabled or was she able to travel? What happened first, what next, all those switches between time frames made me nervous? And then I came across the following quote and the mystery deepened but also resolved itself:

This journey is a lie: I’ve never left this musty bed. My body rots a little more each day, I’m riddled with pustules, and soon I’ll be nothing but bones… How could I undertake such a journey? I have no joints; my bones are fused to one another. The only way I could leave this bed is if someone were to carry, but who would pick up such a repugnant body? What for? I have the silence and solitude of an entire family in me, of generations and generations.

This immediately gave an added poignancy to the story. We don’t know if the travel is real. It could be a pilgrimage in her mind, wishful thinking, an attempt to understand herself and the people around her while powerless to make the actual journey. Perhaps we are doomed to never quite understand our full heritage. Perhaps the paralysis is metaphorical: the equivalent of ‘writer’s block’, the need to find out more about the past in order to start building the future. The key is of course a metaphor, perhaps a very obvious one: the key to the narrator’s life, her sense of purpose.

tatiana-salem-levy-a-chave-de-casa-en-portugues-807711-MLA20602118566_022016-FThere is a throbbing, raw, emotional style to this kind of writing, which reminds me of Clarice Lispector and of Elena Ferrante. Unashamedly candid about sex, lyrical in the description of places the author visits, musical in its repetitions and waterfalls of sentences. Yet the pathos is gently tempered with down-to-earth humour. When the narrator proclaims that sense of loss of identity in exile:

I was born in exile, and that’s why I am the way I am, without a homeland, without a name. That is why I am solid, unpolished, still rough. I was born away from myself, away from my land — but, when it comes down to it, who am I? What land is mine?

we have the voice of the mother cutting down her fanciful pronouncements to size:

There you go again, narrating through a prism of pain. That isn’t what I told you. Exile isn’t necessarily full of suffering. In our case it wasn’t… We were in Portugal, eating well, speaking our own language, meeting people, working, having fun…

You can listen to an interview with the author in English on Australian radio, which I think helps greatly to unravel the mystery of this novel.

ravenscragCoincidentally, I was reading another novel of fragments and wildly different time frames just a few days later, Québécois author Alain Farah’s novel Ravenscrag. Initially exhilarating and intriguing, hinting at some mysterious disappearances and indoctrination, it ultimately disappointed me. By not exploring some of its most promising possibilities, it did not quite fulfill its promise and left me unsatisfied.

 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Vanessa Delamare?

VanessaThis time we travel to Canada to meet the delightful Vanessa Delamare and hear how she developed an appetite for a life of crime (fiction). Vanessa is not only bilingual in both her reading and blogging habits (look here for her enthusiastic reviews in both languages), she is also the organiser of QuébeCrime, an unrushed and intimate crime fiction festival set in beautiful Québec City. You can also find Vanessa on Twitter, where she is also busy setting up a new website and Twitter account for QuébeCrime.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

I don’t remember exactly which book got me hooked, but I have clear memories about ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. I couldn’t tell you the story in detail now but I still feel that sense of malaise when I think about that book. It felt good to me as a child, knowing a book can give you such feelings of fear and stress, but at the same time, you’re safe at home. I also remember reading a lot of Agatha Christie’s  books and preferring Miss Marple ! But after a while, I wanted something more modern. It was then that I discovered Patricia Cornwell. At the time, I was working with computers and I could tell that what Lucy was doing was credible. I’ve asked a nurse about the medical stuff and she told me that was accurate too. I loved that accuracy in fiction, unlike in a TV show where the geek presses a button on his keyboard to show pictures when everybody else would use their mouse! So I discovered that I could learn new things whilst also having fun reading. I then moved on to Ellis Peters’ Cadfael. What a pleasure to learn historical things too! I just love the diversity in crime fiction.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?
Yes and no. I do seem to read a lot of noir fiction – I really appreciate tartan noir, nordic noir… all that is noir. But after a few of those novels, I need to read a historical crime fiction book or something more technical, just to change. I’ve even learnt to appreciate spy fiction, which is not really my cup of tea. It might be the only sub-genre that wouldn’t be my first choice, but I really loved Terry Hayes’ ‘I Am Pilgrim’. And now I’m reading David Khara’s ‘The Bleiberg Project’ and it’s really good (about spies and WWII and crazy science…) In fact, as long as a book keeps me on edge or interested, I’ll love it!
What is the most memorable book you have read recently?

In truth, there’s quite a few books I really enjoyed this year (those I gave 5/5 on my blog) but as I must name a single book, I’ll go with Donato Carrisi’s ‘The Whisperer’. It’s Carrisi’s first book and it’s excellent. Quite often, debut novels have a certain clumsiness or lack of confidence, but not in his case. I might be a gullible reader but at one point I just shouted “no way!” and I love that: to be completely led by the nose. 

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

Ah, I’m always asking that of writer, so now it’s my turn to not really know how to answer (serves me right I guess!). I could say Maxime Chattam, a French writer I really admire, but I’ve already read all of his books, so it might be a bit annoying to already know the end of each story. It’ll be the same with Chris F. Holm’s ‘The Collector’ series, so I’ll have to go with an author whose books (some of them, at least) I have yet to discover. It could be Ian Rankin or Pierre Lemaitre (and I can’t thank you enough for recommending the latter to me!), but perhaps in the end I’ll take Val McDermid’s numerous books. I really liked the suspense she puts in ‘The Torment of Others’ and what better way to counter the stillness of a desert island than with something thrilling?

VanessaShelvesWhat are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

Well, I’ve bought a lot of Pierre Lemaitre’s books, so I guess that’ll be my next focus! I’ve also just discovered David Khara, a French author that I really enjoyed, so I’ll read his second book in the trilogy featuring Eytan Morgenstern with pleasure. I’m also currently reading Lisa Unger’s ‘The Whispers’, about a newly widowed wife and mother who after a car crash can see/hear people in danger or dead, a kind of psychic who helps the police. It’s a fast and enjoyable read, so I think I’ll love the next book too. In fact, my TBR is so big I don’t know if I’ll be able to read all in the next few months!

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

Fantasy! I’ve tried more ‘noble’ literature but I found it boring (who am I, why am I, etc.). I’ve occasionally tried Goncourt prize winners, but I find them disturbing (in a bad way): too many sickos, too much gloominess. With fantasy, I can travel to other worlds, discover other cultures. I’m really fascinated by the imagination writers must have to be able to make a non-existent world come alive.  My first encounter with the genre was Harry Potter (like a lot of people, I guess). Then I read Game of Thrones (so good!) and even Diana Gabaldon’s series Outlander. Well, it might not be pure fantasy but it’s neither crime nor boring fiction! From time to time, however, I do find a literary book that will spark my interest: I enjoyed ‘Rû’ by Kim Thuy or ‘La main d’Iman’ by Ryad Assani-Razaki. [Sadly, neither of them are available in English yet.]

Thank you, Vanessa, for your refreshing candour and ever-present enthusiasm about books! And a great shout-out for French crime fiction too.  I’m starting to save up money already for a possible future trip to QuébeCrime. What have you read/ loved from Vanessa’s list of authors? 

For previous participants in this series, please look here. And please let me know if you are passionate about crime fiction and if you would like to take part. 

Review: Dead Cold by Louise Penny

DeadCold‘Dead… what?’ you may well ask, because outside the UK this book was published as ‘A Fatal Grace’.  Somehow, this title was not deemed suitable for the British, but the original title was nowhere to be seen, so I spent quite a bit of time on Goodreads and other sites to find out which book I had just finished reading.  Don’t you love it when that happens?

This is my incursion into Canada for the Global Reading Challenge, that wonderful meme hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.  And a very frosty, atmospheric journey it was too, set around Christmas in the sleepy village of Three Pines in Quebec.  This is the second book in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series and I picked it at random, simply because it was the only one available at my local library. It is perhaps not the strongest in the series, but I enjoyed the atmosphere and the characters so much that I have already ordered a couple more from abroad.

Every now and then you come across a crime series that has a fully developed world of its own, its own language and in-jokes, the interplay of characters, which you only gradually penetrate, book by book.  It is a pleasure to sink into such a complete and satisfying landscape, and I feel about this series much the same as I felt about Lindsey Davis’s ‘Falco’ series set in Ancient Rome. It’s like meeting an old friend.

Yet, at the same time, this is cosy fiction with an unsettling undercurrent, not just an escapist read. Gamache is a complex, thoughtful, sensitive detective, who never once falls into cliché.  The village seems idyllic, but is of course filled with quirky characters, many of them artists and writers who have dropped out of the big city rat-race.  I especially enjoyed big-hearted and insecure Clara, straight-talking poet Ruth and gay couple Olivier and Gabri.  Yet one member of this peaceful community is responsible for the death of CC de Poitiers, a pretentious, unlikeable woman with a murky past, a ruthless streak and an obsession to become the next big lifestyle guru.  Death by electrocution, no less, while watching a curling game.  And what is the connection with the death of a homeless person back in Montreal?

The plot is not the main thing here, however. It’s all about the wintry atmosphere, the humorous descriptions of curling and the bulky attire inevitably linked to the Canadian climate. I also enjoyed the sly observations about the ‘others’, in this case the Anglos with their contained emotions, never quite saying what they mean. (The author herself is just such an Anglo, it should be noted, but she steps seamlessly into the shoes of the French-speaking community in Quebec.)