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review 2020-04-28 14:38
“The Invisible Guardian – The Baztan Trilogy, Book 1” by Dolores Redondo
The Invisible Guardian - Dolores Redondo,Emma Gregory

A memorable, original, well-written book that snagged on a genre boundary inflexibility that I didn't know I had.

 

 

I used to add a tagline to my stories:

 

'What you read is not what I wrote. I provide the text. You provide the meaning.'

 

So I thought I understood that a book isn't just the text that the author puts on the page, it's also the expectations assumptions and preferences that the reader brings to the book.

 

Except, as reading 'The Invisible Guardian' showed me, I hadn't applied this knowledge to my own reading so, instead of being swept along by all the strengths of this book, I reached a point where I tripped over my own inflexible genre boundaries and fell flat on my face.

 

I delayed writing this review for a week to give myself time to think about this. Towards the end of the book, I was all 'What just happened here? Where did this go wrong?' But now I have to acknowledge that the book didn't go wrong, I did.

 

A week later, 'The Invisible Guardian' is bright in my memory for its strong emotional impact, its distinctive sense of place, its clearly carved characters and the complex relationships between them and its unflinching exploration of a fundamentally abusive relationship between a mother and daughter.

 

It also works as a solid police procedural pursuit of a serial killer, with a complicated plot and side plots. The politics between and within the different police units are nicely handled and the pacing of the slow reveal of who the killer is was pretty much perfect.

What tripped me up was a supernatural element to the story that I felt didn't fit. On reflection, the only thing it didn't fit with was my expectations. I'm happy to read books with supernatural plot elements but I'd labelled 'The Invisible Guardian' a police procedural set in the Basque country and so I rejected the supernatural elements as unnecessary and inappropriate.

 

Yet the story is called, 'The Invisible Guardian' so why didn't I expect there to be one. The story is set in a part of the Basque country famous for its witch trials and its ancient pre-Christian beliefs, so why didn't I expect witches and pre-Christian beliefs to play a part in the story? From the beginning, the forest and the mountains are almost a character in the story, dominating the village and making its continued existence over centuries into an act of sheer will power. So why had I not expected the spirit of the mountains to be as important as the spirit of the town? Why did I not see that women in the novel, including the Inspector Salazar have had their whole view of how the world works formed by growing up in that valley?

 

All of this is in the book and I see now that what didn't work was my reading, not Dolores Dolondo's writing.

 

I'll be back for the rest of this trilogy and this time, I'll read with my eyes and my mind open.

 

Below I've included the impressions I had of the book as I went along plus some notes on what I think now that I've finished the book. If you follow my journey you'll see where and how I stumbled.

 

 

20% I'm not sure what to make of this yet

 

I'm not sure what to make of this book yet. 

 

I picked it up because it was promoted as the best example of Spanish 'literary crime fiction'. I also liked that it was set in Baztan and was said to draw on Basque traditions and history. 

 

The premise is the inspector Amaia Salazar is sent back to her home village of Elizondo to investigate an apparent serial killer.

 

So far, most of the focus has been on Salazar and her family (husband, sisters, aunt, strained childhood relationship with her, now dead, mother,) than on the investigation of the crimes.

 

I'm glad about this. I've become averse to reading books about men killing lots of woman in some bizarre ritual that meets their needs. Too often, they lead to a kind of twisted empathy between the investigator and the killer and the women become plot devices or the raw material for the killer's 'art'.

 

The prose is calm. This doesn't smell like a thriller. It feels more like a troubled, discontented but successful woman re-examining herself in the mirror presented by returning home in a role that carries authority and brings conflict. I don't feel I'm really in Salazar's head yet, although I'd like to be.

 

I do like the sense of place, particularly that sense of silent sentience you get when you're alone in an ancient woodland.

 

Editor's Note: I should have paid more attention to that silent sentience. Also, this turned out to be a book that was mainly about powerful women and weak men.

 

 

30% This is not a standard police procedural and a sidebar on tarot

 

This is not a standard police procedural. Nor is about a tragic, world-weary DI with dark secrets in her past. It seems that it's about a deeply intuitive, well-trained investigator being asked to see what is happening in the town she grew up and being challenged to open herself up to the possible reality of things she had long ago dismissed as myths.

It's very well done. It doesn't push. It doesn't use clichès or tropes as a short cut to exposition. It also doesn't really let me in Salazar's head. Rather it lets me watch her as closely as someone who knows her well might have the opportunity to do. It presents scenes from her history and shares some of her reactions but it sets me the challenge of reading her.

 

I'm rather enjoying that. It's nice when an author has the courage not to present a definitive version of a person. I'm sure there's no definitive version of me, so why should I believe a definitive version of a fictional character.

Salazar's aunt reads the Tarot. There is an interesting discussion on what is needed to read the cards. The aunt believes it requires a talent she calls being a 'super receptor' and that, for those with the talent, the cards provide a framework for gathering information and presenting a narrative.

 

This rang true for me. I used to read the tarot and read palms when I was at university. Later I qualified in using various psychometric tests. I found that both of them gave me the same kind of framework for reading people or, more accurately, for helping people read themselves. 

 

Editor's Note: I can see how I was already dismissing anything more than logic and intuition from what I was reading. I think this was reinforced by the fact that the aunt had a background in psychology but the signs that something else if going on were already there.

 

50% Some of this is hard to listen to...

 

...that is, it's a disturbing listen. The prose is smooth and mostly calm and the characters are described with dispassionate accuracy, so I can start to be lulled into a sort of  there's-nothing-to-worry-about-here  mood and then we'll be back in Salazar's childhood and her mother will be doing something unpleasant and WHAM the emotion goes from nothing to very distressing. 

 

I'm rolling with it at the moment, but there'd better be a very good reason for these scenes or because if all this is gratuitous, I'll be very pissed off.

 

Editor's Note: It became more disturbing as it went along. The flip from calm to distressed was actually a way of showing how Inspector Salazar dealt with, or perhaps experienced is better, her childhood trauma. Her mother is truly frightening in this and those scenes burn brightly in my memory but none of them is gratuitous.

 

 

83% Err what just happened?

 

 

So I just slipped from police procedural, wrapped around with dark family history and possible PTSD, into full-blown let's-solve-the-case-using-Urban-Fantasy in a single step. It felt like stepping out on to rock only to find that it's scree and you're going to go somewhere you really hadn't intended to. 

 

Editor's Note: what can I say? That's how it felt. Yet the ending of the book had almost nothing supernatural about it. It was a good conclusion both to the family story and the crime. Yet, I can see that the next books must continue the supernatural theme because Salazar can't unsee what she's seen or be someone other than who she is.

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review 2020-03-06 18:34
"The Yellow Dog - Maigret #6" by Georges Simenon
The Yellow Dog - Georges Simenon,Linda Asher,Gareth Armstrong

Maigret sits in judgement on the bourgeoisie of a small Breton town

 

I'm new to Maigret. "The Yellow Dog", the sixth Maigret, is my first Maigret novel, so apart from what I read in "A Maigret Christmas And Other Stories" I came to this novel with no particular knowledge or expectations of Maigret as a person. Now that I've read the book, I still know very little about him but I know that I want to read more.

 

"The Yellow Dog" was recommended to me by Tigus as one of Georges Simenon's best novels, so I skipped the first five books and started with Maigret, not in Paris but in a small Breton seaside town where he is investigating a shooting.

 

Yet the novel isn't really about Maigret's investigation. He's not the kind of man who follows a rigorous process of generating hypotheses and checking them against the available evidence. He doesn't share brilliant insights with the detective who is working under him. From time to time he will, if pressed, summarise the available facts in a way that makes it clear that, while there may be a basis for saying that it is very unlikely that certain individuals committed specific acts, there is no basis for saying who did commit them.

 

Of course, the fact that he states this does not mean that he believes it. Maigret is a man who judges people. He looks at them clearly and takes a view on who they are. He is not dispassionate in this. He is not objective. He judges based on his values and his impressions of people and then he waits to see if he can substantiate his judgements and hold those he sees as guilty to account.

 

What this novel is really about is Maigret's profound distaste for the bourgeoise men who dominate this small, relatively poor, Breton town.

 

Yes, someone gets shot, then there is an attempt at poisoning, and a disappearance and the appearance of a giant of a man with tendency to violence and then another shooting but, in all of this, Maigret's focus remains on three things: the group of wealthier-than-every-one-around-them men who see themselves as distinguished citizens and prove this to each other by eating and drinking each night at the only decent hotel in town, the face of the waitress who serves them and the recurring presence of an unknown yellow dog.

 

For me, Maigret's focus became more of a puzzle than figuring out who committed the various acts of violence. I couldn't understand what he was doing or what he was thinking. I slowly came to understand that Maigret is the camera lens through which Simenon presents the society in which the crimes are being committed. Like any good cameraman, Simenon shapes what we see before we are even aware of the conclusions we are being led to.

 

From the first chapter of the book, when Maigret enters the hotel and the distinguished gentlemen introduce themselves. I felt my lip curl at their smug entitlement and was taken aback by the casual misogyny at the heart of the story. The awful way the waitress is treated, including by Maigret, ought to have been a big deal but is was presented as if it was perfectly normal. At the time, I thought I was being distracted from the mystery by my annoyance at how obnoxious the men in the story were, Now I know that I was actually having my attention drawn to exactly what Georges Simenon wanted me to see.

 

I'm not going to go into the ins and outs of the story other than to say that it kept my attention, kept me guessing and gave me a clear picture of how working people could come to despise the idle but wealthy men who squat on the life of the town.

 

I did learn some things about Maigret. He resists authority other than his own. He is not a misogynist. He sees people clearly. He bides his time. He also acts on his own view of what is just. In this novel, Maigret sees himself as an instrument of justice rather than as an enforcer of the law. I rather liked him for that.

 

"The Yellow Dog" was published in 1931 but the writing feels very contemporary. This means that it provides a very accessible view of a France that is long gone. I know Brittany a little and it had never occurred to me that, in the 1930s, a relatively prosperous port might have unpaved streets that turned to mud in winter or that the women still wore the traditional Breton headdress. Its also gives a view of France that is still there, where Paris dominates, cronyism rules and the distribution of wealth ensures privilege for a few.

 

So, having had my first taste of George Simenon, I'll be coming back for more both of his Maigret mysteries and his other novels.

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review 2019-12-22 01:26
"A Maigret Christmas and Other Stories" by Georges Simenon, translated by David Coward - Highly Recommended, especially as a Christmas read.
A Maigret Christmas And Other Stories - Georges Simenon,David Coward

Door 7:  International Day for Tolerance

 

Book: Read a book set in Paris (seat of UNESCO).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was my first ever Maigret book. I bought it because I loved the cover - which is an odd reason given that I read the Kindle version where no one but me sees the cover.

 
 
 

I opened it hoping for Christmas-themed crime with a French flavour, meaning something that managed to be nostalgic but avoided saccharine sentimentality. Georges Simenon exceeded my expectations on all counts.

 
 
 


The book contains three short stories: "A Maigret Christmas", "Seven Small Crosses In A Notebook" and "A Little Restaurant Near Place Des Ternes". I'd expected to find a strong Maigret story to anchor the book and then two "And Other Stories" to pad things out. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the stories got better as the went along, with the final story being my favourite.

 
 

 
 
 

"A Maigret Christmas"

 
 
 

"A Maigret Christmas" was my first meeting with Maigret. I found him to be a gentle, slightly melancholy man who knows himself well enough to understand that he will not change and holds himself to account enough to know that this is something he must sometimes make amends for.

 
 
 

The story takes place on Christmas Day which Maigret intends to spend quietly at home with his wife. It becomes clear that, for Maigret and his wife, spending such a day will require kindness and resolve from both of them.

 
 
 

I was impressed with and puzzled by how clearly and economically Simenon draws the relationship between Maigret and his wife. We don't get inside Maigret's head or anyone else's. I don't even know his wife's first name, although she's present throughout the story. And yet there is a strong sense of intimacy, of the kind where you can recognise someone from the shape of the back of their head or by hearing them cough.

 
 
 

Simenon creates this intimate picture through small details that come together when seen from a distance, like a pointillist painting. For example, even though Maigret knows his wife has slipped quietly from their apartment in the early hours in order to fetch coffee and croissant to serve to him in bed, and that this token of her affection is important to her, he cannot bring himself to stay in bed until his wife's return.

 
 
 

Simenon shows that between Maigret and his wife there is love and loyalty but there is also regret, perhaps even grief, strong enough that it cannot be spoken of without pain, for the absence of a child in their lives. Their marriage echoes with the lack of a child.

 
 
 

Maigret's wife is quietly and determinedly but modestly hopeful. I was left with the impression that Maigret draws heavily on her strength and feels himself unable adequately to offer his strength in return.

 
 
 

Simenon describes Paris of the 1950s vividly and with deep affection. It's a Paris that is very different from the one I know but one who's bones can still be seen beneath the skin of Paris as it is now. Here's how he describes the arrival of fog on Christmas Day:

 
 

"Thick yellowish fog had suddenly blanketed Paris, which is quite rare. The lights were on in all the buildings; from one end of the boulevard to the other, all of the windows looked like distant ships’ lanterns; the details of everyday reality were blurred to the point where, had they been at the sea’s edge, passers-by would have expected to hear the boom of a foghorn. "

 
 
 


Of course, crime was bound to intrude on Maigret's Christmas. Early on Christmas morning, Maigret, at the request of his neighbours, is drawn into an investigation of the appearance, on Christmas Eve, of Santa Claus in a little girl's bedroom in an apartment across the street from Maigret's own.

 
 
 

Working largely from his home, Maigret relentlessly uncovers the sinister background to this event, catches the evil-doers and arranges, at his wife's barely voiced but deeply felt plea, to take care of the little girl, at least for a while.

 
 
 

It's a masterful piece of storytelling and made me keen to try one of the Maigret novels. I'm going to start with "The Yellow Dog"

 
 

 
 
 


"Seven Small Crosses In A Notebook"

 
 
 

This is a police story but doesn't have Maigret in it. It seems to me that Simenon set himself a difficult challenge in this story: how do you deliver and solve a tense mystery during two continuous shifts of the Paris police control room, starting on the Christmas Eve night shift and going through the next morning, without ever leaving the four walls of the control room?

 
 
 

He does it by bringing to life Lecoeur, a police officer in the control room who is given the chance of a lifetime to apply his detailed knowledge of Paris police districts, his meticulous record-keeping and information gathered by living for decades in the same neighbourhood, to identify and solve a crime.

 
 
 

The plot is ingenious and original. The pacing is perfect. The now-long-gone environment of control room filled with a map and telephone sockets and people with headphones is made vivid and exciting.

 
 
 

What I liked most was the way the unravelling of each twist in the plot puzzle served to give a deeper insight into Lecoeur's mind and into his family history. I felt I knew Lecoeur (the heart of policing?) by the end of the story. He is a man who has turned the police control room into a refuge where the little crosses he places in his notebook to track the calls he takes give him the ability to impose order on the chaos of the Paris night. Here his discipline and focus give him control and value that is denied him in other areas of his life.

 
 

 
 
 


"A Little Restaurant Near Place Des Ternes"

 
 
 


This is my favourite of the three stories. It's subtitled "A Christmas Story For Grown-Ups". This isn't a "Miracle On 34th Street" kind of Christmas fable. This is grounded in the reality of Christmas in the big city as experienced by the marginalised or excluded. If Edward Hopper had set "Nighthawks" in Paris on Christmas Eve, he might have painted "A LIttle Restaurant Near Place Des Ternes".

 
 
 

This is the story of Long-Tall-Jeanne's Christmas Eve, which starts with a very public suicide and ends in the police lock-up. Jeanne is a prostitute who has taken Christmas Eve off, intending to take a quiet supper in a local café and then go back to her room alone. The night doesn't go that way and Jeanne finds herself playing reluctant guardian angel to another girl.

 
 
 

This is a very unsentimental story and yet, in its way, it has more Christmas spirit in it than any Hallmark movie.

 
 
 

Now that I know how good Simenon's non-Maigret stories are, I'm planning to read "The Snow Was Dirty", a novel set in Nazi-occupied France.

 

 

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review 2019-10-17 19:37
"The Awkard Squad" by Sophie Hénaff
The Awkward Squad - Sophie Hénaff,Sam Gordon

 

 

 

An entertaining, original, humorous, well-plotted story of a new squad of outcasts in the Paris Police coming together to solve two murders.

 

"The Awkward Squad" is the English translation of "Poulet Grillés", (literally 'grilled chickens' - although poulet is also used a term for prostitutes) which has a slightly more pejorative feel to it than the English title suggests. The Awkward Squad sounds defiant in a bloody-minded other-ranks-insolence kind of way whereas Poultries Grille suggests people who have burned their careers.

 

The book has a premise that I think is a peculiarly French mix of the logical, the absurd and unacknowledgeable but well-understood reality. The Paris police have set up a new Squad, led by a previously promising but now disgraced Commisar, into which they've dumped forty or so failed but unsackable police officers and a collection of unsolved cases. There's no expectation that the squad members will turn up never mind solve a case. The declared purpose of the Squad is to make the stats of the other Squads better by concentrating all the failure in one place.

 

This is a great set up or dry humour, eccentric characters and a bit of suspense. To my surprise, it also turned out to include complex investigations into a couple of murders.

What makes "The Awkward Squad" different from Anglo versions of the same kind of story of outcasts working cold cases is the stoicism of the officers who have been branded as not wanted. They don't throw angry tantrums. They accept where they are and hope that things might get better. They discover that by learning to trust and support each other, they can win back their self-respect.

 

Their leader, Comisionaire Anne Capestan, a woman whose anger and loss of control has cost her her marriage and her career, declines despair, opting instead for cautious optimism and patience. She doesn't use her authority in traditional ways, nor does she allow her boundaries to be set by her bosses. Instead, she prods and encourages and cajoles the misfits into taking on challenging cases, even though they have no resources and almost no authority.

 

The members of the Squad are well-drawn individuals rather than stereotypes. They each have problems but they also have something to offer. The English phrase for them is probably a motley crew

 

I'd expected the investigations to be little more than a vehicle for humour and character development but Sophie Hénaff delivers a well-paced, complex investigation that goes to some unexpected places and changes the overall perception of what the Squad is for.

 

"The Awkward Squad" was a book that I read with a smile on my face, not so much because it was funny, although it often was, but because this book manages to be hopeful without getting mushy or sentimental. It was a book I enjoyed reading and looked forward to getting back to. For me, that's quite rare.

 

Sophie Hénaff is a French journalist who writes humorous columns Cosmopolitan. "The Awkward Squad" was her first novel. It won the 2015 Polar Series Prize, the Arsène-Lupin Prize and the 2016 prix des Lecteurs du Livre de poche (Paperback Readers Award). The series currently stands at three books, the first two of which have been translated into English. I already have the next one, "Stick Together" in my TBR pile.

 

 

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review 2019-06-23 22:21
Baccano!, Vol. 2: 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Local (book) by Ryohgo Narita, illustration by Katsumi Enami, translated by Taylor Engel
Baccano!, Vol. 2: 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Local - Ryohgo Narita,Katsumi Enami

The year is 1931, and the Flying Pussyfoot, a limited express train bound for New York, has just acquired several groups worth of dangerous passengers, nearly all of whom think they'll easily be able to take over the train for their own ends. There's crybaby bootlegger boss Jacuzzi Splot (best name ever) and his misfit band of delinquents, who plan to steal some secret cargo. There's the Lemures group, a bunch of terrorists determined to take some hostages in order to free their leader, the immortal Huey Laforet. There's murder-loving Ladd Russo, the nephew of the head of the Russo mafia family, his bride-to-be Lua, and his group of fellow killers. There's the mysterious monster known as the Rail Tracer. And then there are a few less dangerous passengers, like the thieves Isaac and Miria.

All of these passengers have their own goals and motivations. Only some of them will make it to New York alive.

First, a disclaimer: I have seen (and enjoyed) the anime, which adapted several books in this series, including this one. I suspect it helped my ability to follow along with the characters and story. Normally, I'd suggest watching the anime prior to attempting these light novels, but the anime has gone out of print and, as far as I know, isn't legally streaming anywhere (to anyone who wonders why I still buy so much anime when streaming is an option, this is why).

As far as reading order goes: Although Narita wrote in his afterword that he planned to keep each volume as self-contained as possible, that doesn't mean the books can be read in any order - definitely read Volume 1 before starting this one, even though only a few characters from the first book make appearances in this one. Also, if you make it past Volume 1 and plan on reading Volume 2, you might as well buy Volume 3 as well, because Volume 2 isn't self-contained. It doesn't end in what I'd call a cliffhanger, but it does leave a good chunk of the story untold. Multiple characters show up, only to disappear again, the details of their fates saved for Volume 3.

In my review of the first volume of this series, I wrote that the writing/translation was bad but that this somehow didn't interfere with my enjoyment. That was sadly not the case with Volume 2. I don't know whether it was actually worse than Volume 1 or whether I was just less in the mood, but there were times when the writing literally ground my reading experience to a halt as I tried to figure out what Narita meant. One example:

"Nice objected to that idea. Since she was talking to Nick, even under the circumstances, she meticulously parsed out casual speech and polite speech to the appropriate listener; Nick received the latter." (147)

It would have been simpler to say that, even though she objected to Nick's idea, she still did so politely. Not only is the phrasing incredibly awkward, I'm not sure that "parsed" is the right word here. "Parceled out" might have been more appropriate.

Here's an example that just made me shake my head:

"Without giving an audible answer to that question, Lua nodded silently." (48)

Can we say "redundant"?

As in Volume 1, the writing was almost completely devoid of descriptions. Nearly all of the book's historical and setting details were limited to pages 61 to 62 - otherwise, it was all character introductions, dialogue, and action, pretty much in that order.

It's a sign of how excellent Ladd Russo's English-language voice actor was that I kept hearing him every time I read Ladd's dialogue. Of all of this book's many characters, Ladd and Jacuzzi probably stood out the most. Jacuzzi was a relatively fun and interesting character, a young man who tended to cry and panic about everything but who nonetheless inspired intense loyalty within his group. Ladd, unfortunately, just came across as an excuse for occasional mindless bone-crunching violence.

Isaac and Miria were a disappointment this time around. They continued their role as the series' comic relief, but instead of being oblivious to the violence around them, they were presented as being well aware of what was going on, but so used to it that they were unfazed. Honestly, it made them seem more creepy and disturbing than, say, a more in-your-face monster like Ladd.

I don't expect the series' writing to improve, but I'm hopeful that I'll like Volume 3 more than this one, because all of the fantasy elements that Narita only hinted at in this volume will actually be on-page in that volume. Also, my favorite character from the anime, Claire, will finally get more than just a few vague mentions.

I'll wrap this up with a couple things that made me go WTF. Was the fingernail thing in the anime? I can't remember, but in the book it made me wince. Fingernails don't work like that - I don't care how you shape or cut them, you're not going to be able to saw through multiple ropes with them, and certainly not quickly enough to do any good. Also, if you did arrange to have one of your nails shaped like a tiny saw, you would constantly regret it as you accidentally cut yourself or other people or even just got the nail caught on cloth or whatever. And then there was the thing under Nice's eye patch, which I know was definitely in the anime, although I'd completely forgotten about it. So much wincing. Just a bad, bad idea.

Extras:

Several color illustrations at the front of the book (with text that will likely only confuse readers who haven't yet read the volume and haven't seen the anime), several black-and-white illustrations throughout, and an afterword by the author.

 

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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