16 July 2018

The Shepherd's Hut / Tim Winton

As Jaxie Clacton drives away from the tragic scene that has forever changed him and towards what he hopes will be a new life with his beloved Lee, he tells us in straightforward fashion how he came to spend months in this sparsely inhabited part of Australia, how he met an aging priest leading an ascetic life in a shepherd's hut, and how the precarious stability they had managed to build despite their respective secrets was brutally shattered. No stranger to hardship thanks to his family history, he has now discovered where, who and what he is. Now he only seeks peace.

This wonderfully evocative novel can be summed up in one word: intense. The emotions are raw and genuine, the setting deeply rooted in Australia, its rich topography, flora and fauna. The writing is a sensory feast teeming with sounds and scents, the tactile sensations of heat, sweat, grime, the coolness of water on bare skin.

I didn't think I could ever become so engrossed in a book concerned with a young man's coming of age, but Jaxie is a wonderfully compelling anti-hero; brash, hot-headed, earnest, idealistic, resourceful, self-reliant, he stirs the heart in unexpected ways. Especially touching are the passages where he remembers his late mother and dreams of Lee. 

I was provided with a free electronic copy of this book through NetGalley by the publisher, Pan Macmillan, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: ****

9 July 2018

My Best and Worst Reads — first half of 2018

Every book blogger and booktuber seems to be doing a half-year recap, which I think is a brilliant idea instead of waiting until late December/early January to cover an entire year of reading.

Without further ado, here are my most memorable reads of January-June 2018... for better and for worse.

Let's start with my bitterest bookish disappointments:

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
The storyline had so much potential! Alas, lacklustre characters and the author's tedious tendency to tell and not show completely ruined it for me. (You can read my full review here if you wish.)

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld
After hearing someone on YouTube enthuse about this novel, I thought it would rekindle my love for crime fiction... I couldn't have chosen worse! I can't stand the overdone "complex, moody and difficult" main protagonist thing any more than I can a stereotypical "drunk & divorced" cop. The paedophilia didn't help either.

I also need to mention a few of the books I couldn't even finish:

- The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill
A book set in Montreal from an author praised by some of my favourite booktubers — this sounded very promising. I regret to say that writing that everything "looks like" something else or that it "is as if" something else multiple ones in every single paragraph doesn't equate "style." Also, the endless, meaningless dialogues made me want to tear the pages out. 

- The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
I have no clue how anyone could read this for pleasure. I found it completely unengaging and boring.

- Two Nights by Kathy Reichs
I'm a fan of the early Temperance Brennan novels, which went absurdly formulaic around the sixth or seventh in the series... This being a stand-alone book, I thought I'd give it a go. NOPE. I had to stop reading when the main character started moving between hotel rooms in various disguises à la Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo...

Fortunately, the positive vastly surpassed the negative; here are my loveliest literary surprises of the year thus far, with links to my full reviews on this blog. I heartily recommend each and every one of these novels.

The House on the Strand by Daphne Du Maurier

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

The Good People by Hannah Kent

Fingersmith and The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Sal by Mick Kitson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Le Labyrinthe des esprits de Carlos Ruiz Zafón

2 July 2018

In the Valley of the Devil / Hank Early

Private investigator Earl Marcus is at war with the white supremacists infesting his rural Georgia town. With the assistance of his blind best friend, an angelically patient library director, a man he'd rather have nothing to do with, a girl whose brother has also disappeared, and a raft of other allies, he races against the clock to save his girlfriend, a black homicide cop who went missing in a spooky cornfield — allegedly captured by Old Nathaniel, the devilish mythical figure that haunts the valley. Earl, still reeling from his traumatic relationship with his fire-and-brimstone preacher father and disturbed by his latest prophetic dream, battles both powerful enemies and a shadowy bogeyman.

While the basic message it champions (racism = bad) can only be praised, sadly this book tests the tensile strength of its readers' credulity to such an extent that the facepalms detract from any good intentions it may have. Earl's escapades as he runs from point A to point B to point C with little apparent rhyme or reason, liberally distributing punches, pointing his gun with predictable regularity, getting knocked around, then setting off again on his wild pursuit, left me thoroughly exhausted and bewildered. What saves this novel, in my opinion, is the weaving of local folklore and criminal history into Old Nathaniel as an instrument of racist violence.

If you're looking for a novel featuring an impressively lucky yet spectacularly unlucky character with poor impulse control, frequent memory lapses, quasi-superhuman resistance to pain, and chronic phone charging issues, this comedy of errors is for you.

I was provided with a free electronic copy of this book through NetGalley by the publisher, Crooked Lane Books, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: **

25 June 2018

An Ocean of Minutes / Thea Lim

Polly and Frank met, fell in love, and secretly planned to get married. One day, they decided to drive from Buffalo, NY to New Orleans, but somehow overshot it by 3 hours. They ended up in Texas, where they got stuck because of the flu epidemic that rapidly spread throughout the country.

When Frank develops the disease, Polly, to get him access to health benefits, signs on to travel 12 years into the future where she'll work off her bond to TimeRaiser, the company that controls the technology that makes this possible. But something goes wrong: she winds up 5 years later than stipulated in her agreement, and must now try to find Frank — if he's still alive.

This sounded like a fantastic premise, and I was interested to see how the author would explore someone's reaction to being placed in such distressing circumstances. 

We follow Polly in a post-pandemic world where a vast proportion of the population has died, the country has split in two, and time-travellers are brought in as an indentured workforce to perform different tasks depending on their skill level and housed according to their status. Everything is disorientating, intractable and nonsensical.

Alas, Polly never seems to get over the dazed stage of her experience; she staggers around, anesthetized, impotently looking for Frank; she asks the wrong questions, makes the wrong decisions; then one day, just a few months later, she simply gives up on seeking for the love of her life. After her initial flurry of ineffectual activity, she becomes almost apathetic, expecting Frank to come to her rescue. I think this last point sums up Polly both before and after her trip to the future: the only times anything happens to her are when other people make it happen for her, taking her hand and guiding her step by step. She demonstrates very little will of her own, making her a tremendously dull main protagonist.

All of the emotions that may be predicted in an individual who, because of their deep devotion to someone, was uprooted and set down in the same spot but in an unfamiliar world — fear, despair, loss, hope, loneliness, discouragement, anger — are mimed rather than experienced with any kind of depth. I tried my best to feel sympathy for Polly, but hers is such a flat, untextured surface that there was nothing on which to grab hold.

This book has an unengaging and frustrating plot that lost my interest long before its baffling conclusion. Everything remains superficial, most notably the dialogues: people don't have conversations, they vaguely utter sentences in each other's general direction. As a reader, I was expecting some revelations about the human condition or insights into people's motivations, but was sorely disappointed.

I was provided with a free electronic copy of this book through NetGalley by the publisher, Penguin Random House Canada, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: **

18 June 2018

slowing down

Now that the weather has finally turned, I find myself busy with a variety of things that take up much of my reading time. This means that, at least until the end of summer in the northern hemisphere, I'll only be publishing one post per week (on Mondays) instead of the customary two.

Thanks for visiting!

Le Labyrinthe des esprits / Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Une histoire est un labyrinthe sans fin de mots, d'images et de pensées réunis pour nous révéler la vérité invisible sur nous-mêmes. En définitive, une histoire est une conversation entre une personne qui raconte et une personne qui écoute. Or un narrateur ne peut conter que dans la mesure de ses capacités, et un lecteur ne lit que ce qui est déjà écrit dans son âme.

L'annonce faite il y a quelques années que la trilogie du Cimetière des livres oubliés allait devenir une tétralogie m'a remplie à la fois d'exaltation et d'appréhension. Cet intrus dans l'univers étrange et parfois cruel qui m'était si cher allait-il tout saboter? S'agirait-il seulement d'un roman au scénario faiblard, écrit et publié pour des motifs bassement mercantiles? J'attendais tout de même avec impatience la parution de la traduction française.

Vous devinez mon angoisse en entamant ce quatrième et dernier volume... Il s'avère cependant que toutes mes craintes étaient non fondées.

Je croyais naïvement que la trilogie formait un tout, que chaque trame avait été menée à sa conclusion. Chacune des trois parties du labyrinthe jusque-là dévoilées par l'auteur y ouvrait une porte d'entrée distincte — mais voilà qu'il révèle un pan encore insoupçonné du dédale.

Bien entendu, c'est un livre qui sert d'élément perturbateur. Cette fois il s'agit d'un volume d'une série interdite intitulée Le Labyrinthe des esprits, espèce d'Alice aux Enfers. Sa découverte dans le bureau de Mauricio Valls, écrivain acclamé, ministre de l'Éducation nationale et ancien directeur de la prison de Monjuïc (dont la seule mention donne des frissons à quiconque a lu les livres précédents) après la disparition de celui-ci lance l'énigmatique agente opérationnelle Alicia dans une enquête qui la ramène dans la Barcelone qu'elle a quittée depuis la guerre civile, où elle a subi de terribles blessures.

Afin d'éviter de révéler l'intrigue de l'ensemble du cycle du Cimetière, je m'abstiendrai de fournir de plus amples détails. Sachez seulement que, selon moi, l'auteur ne déçoit pas les fans de cette série et mène ce remarquable exercice littéraire à une conclusion tout à fait satisfaisante. J'ai retrouvé avec bonheur tous mes personnages préférés — l'inénarrable Fermín Romero de Torres et le grincheux Isaac Monfort — ainsi que ceux que j'aime détester, et j'ai rencontré quelques autres que j'ai appris à beaucoup aimer, dont Alicia. J'en ai appris un peu plus sur l'existence rocambolesque de Fermín (et dans quelles circonstances il est devenu accro aux Sugus). Et j'ai de nouveau été plongée dans l'atmosphère familière et paradoxalement réconfortante si brillamment créée par Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Oui, l'enchantement fonctionne encore!

(Point supplémentaire pour la première phrase et sa référence à Rebecca de Daphne Du Maurier.)

Une seule déception : contrairement aux trois autres volumes, celui-ci n'a hélas pas été traduit par le maestro François Maspero, mort en 2015 (paix à son âme). La qualité de la traduction s'en ressent considérablement; je l'ai trouvée souvent bancale et maladroite, ce qui a quelque peu atténué mon plaisir de lectrice.

Les quatre romans qui forment le cycle du Cimetière des livres oubliés s'emboîtent si intimement qu'on peut en effectuer la lecture dans n'importe quel ordre. Bien que Le Labyrinthe des esprits soit le plus récemment publié, vous pouvez tout à fait commencer par celui-ci si le cœur vous en dit.

J'ai emprunté ce livre à ma bibliothèque locale.

Cote : *****

14 June 2018

We Have Always Lived in the Castle / Shirley Jackson

In my post about bulletproof kinks, I mentioned how much I love novels that feature the close relationship between sisters. Well, I've found a new one — but ooooh mercy, this ain't Sense and Sensibility!

We Have Always Lived in the Castle's narrator is 18-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood, known to one and all as Merricat. For the past 6 years, since the deaths by poisoning (arsenic in the sugar bowl) of her parents, brother and aunt, she has lived in the family home with her dear sister Constance, her cat Jonas, and her uncle Julian, an invalid slowly dying from the effects of the poison.

Given the shocking nature of the case and the subsequent acquittal of Constance on all charges, the remaining Blackwoods have become pariahs. Aside from Merricat's twice-weekly errands to the library and the grocery store (all the while fantasizing about walking on villagers' corpses), their rare contacts with the outside world consist in awkward afternoon tea with guests too fearful to let any refreshments touch their lips.

Everything runs in an orderly fashion, with precise tasks assigned to every day and each inmate having their own duties. Constance, who handles all of the cooking and gardening, is never happier than in her beloved kitchen; she is patience itself with her frequently trying sister and uncle. Merricat is the self-appointed protector of the house; abiding by her arcane rules and maintaining the physical and intangible safeguards she has put up around the grounds is almost a full-time job. Uncle Julian has made it his life's work to chronicle every single detail of that fateful day when he lost his wife, brother, sister-in-law and nephew, to the point where he often confuses past and present.

The trio is content with their quiet existence, but when Merricat notices that the notebook she'd nailed to a tree has fallen to the ground, she knows that something terrible will soon trouble their peace.

This was such a pleasure to read! There's something almost feral about Merricat that reminds me of myself as a child, and the loving relationship between the Blackwoods in such a singular context is  all the more touching. I think this novel would be just the thing for a rainy weekend.

I borrowed this book from my library network through ILL.

Rating: ****

11 June 2018

Middlemarch / George Eliot

We get the fonder of our houses if they have a physiognomy of their own, as our friends have.

7 June 2018

The Prince of Mirrors / Alan Robert Clark

"With the right heart beating beside yours, all is possible."

What a pleasure to read historical fiction that expands on known facts not only in breadth, but also in depth! Such is the case in this novel, which imagines the nature of the relationship between Eddy (Prince Albert Victor, grandson of Queen Victoria and second in line to the throne) and his tutor Jem (James Kenneth Stephen, a cousin of Virginia Woolf) from 1883 until their tragically early deaths.

Aside from their complex rapport with their respective fathers, the two young men appear perfect opposites — mirror images: Eddy, who doesn't seem to possess any useful qualities save for his kind heart, is a sad disappointment to his family, while academically gifted and acclaimed sporting hero Jem's future shines bright. But as the years pass, their loyalty to each other must bear the weight of the very different expectations placed on their shoulders and their shared fear of not being "up to the mark."

Reading this book is a rich sensory experience, though at times a slightly uncomfortable one. While there's a surfeit of frank sexual content and language in its earlier part, the novel later takes a bolder turn, exploring the profound bonds that can exist between individuals beyond the physical and their life-enhancing, life-altering effects. Our protagonists' vulnerabilities are exposed in a sensitive, understated way, and there are truly touching descriptive passages.

I'm very much looking forward to Alan Robert Clark's next novel, Valhalla, about Eddy's intended wife Mary of Teck.

I was provided with a free electronic copy of this book through NetGalley by the publisher, Fairlight Books, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: ***

4 June 2018

The Fairfax Incident / Terrence McCauley

In 1930s New York City, private detective Charlie Doherty is weathering the Depression just fine. Bankrolled by a wealthy man whose son he rescued and whose sole condition is priority access to any records and photos, he enjoys a comfortable apartment, an elegant wardrobe, and a brimming bank account.

Doherty's latest client, Mrs. Fairfax, wants him to prove that her husband's recent death was not suicide. Early one morning, Walter Fairfax, head of a successful insurance company, entered his office, sat at his desk, took a phone call and shot himself in the head. Just when former Marine and ex-cop Charlie Doherty thought he'd left the horrors of war behind him, this seemingly open-and-shut case revives painful memories and could turn out to have global consequences.

Told by Doherty himself in what could be the voiceover for an old-fashioned detective movie, this suspenseful story deals with façades and what hides behind them. I truly enjoyed the unexpected complexity of the plot and the tension that the author maintained throughout this novel. The style of the narrative was perfect, Doherty's wisecracks punctuating his account with welcome touches of humour like flashes of lightning in the dark, broody atmosphere.

I was provided with a free electronic copy of this book through NetGalley by the publisher, Polis Books, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: ***