Best of 2015

29 January, 2016

So we’re well into January and I’m a little late but I wanted to let you all know my favourite books of 2015. And before you go on about my sparse list of reviews last year, I did read a lot more than I wrote about and I’m hoping to recapture my lost blogging enthusiasm. Like many of my book blogging friends, I think it’s hard to balance a fulltime job, a social life and personal projects of which book blogging is one and my balance went a little askew as I had it pretty much full on last year. I also had my first reading slump since I started this blog in 2009 which I drowned with a lot of Korean dramas that left my brain in a happy but slightly lobotomised state although it did spur me on to learn Hangul and dip my toes in Korean literature (I just finished reading Han Kang’s astounding The Vegetarian and Tony has a brilliant list of suggestions). Hopefully things will be a little bit calmer this year, although every year seems to get busier and busier or am I just losing the plot and my organisational skills are becoming redundant? Who knows but as long as there are books to read and discuss, I’ll be here, maybe just not as often or on schedule.

But, even though there may have been a paucity of reviews, 2015 turned out to be a fine year for well-crafted and sublime books. I allowed myself to read titles one after another in a series which kept me immersed in the stories but also made it harder to review without giving away spoilers. I also loved many of my book group choices which can often be hit and miss as we all have very different tastes which is what makes our book group so great.

Here’s my list of twelve in alphabetical order with links to reviews. I’m hoping to review the others soon.

Blackout

Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis – I can’t tell you how much I admire and love Willis’ work. They are all clever, substantial, thrilling and with a perfect balance of darkness and humour. If you haven’t read her novels, you are missing out.

Bastard Out of Carolina
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison – devastating and brutal but brilliant.

Bonjour Tristesse
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan – my first re-read after 20 plus years and still as shocking. Takes me back to my teenage years.

Child 44
Child 44 by Tim Robb Smith – clever, fast-paced and brought back my interest in the eternally complex and hypocritical construct that is the USSR.

Everything I Never Told You
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng – beautifully written, melancholic and dream-like.

Grass is Singing
The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing – powerful and stark debut novel from a master writer.

Hotel
Hotel by Joanna Walsh – what can I say, I’m a huge fan of Walsh’s, from her illustrations to her short stories. And Hotel, as I have come to expect, simultaneously surprised and delighted me with its astute observations and wry humour. I’ve already bought an extra copy for a friend and will be buying more as gifts for other discernable readers.

My Brilliant Friend
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante – probably the truest depiction I’ve read of female friendship in all its complexity. I’m still in the middle of the third book of this incredible quartet as I don’t want it to end.

Raven Boys
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater – first book in an absorbing quartet. Beautifully written and reminded me a lot of The Secret History. I read all three books that are out one after the other and cannot wait for the final volume.

Spring Snow
Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima – gorgeous, tortured and just exquisite. I need to read the rest of books in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy.

Station Eleven
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – this was a surprise hit for me. I didn’t enjoy it all that much when I was reading it but the story refused to leave my mind and I am still haunted by it.

True Grit
True Grit by Charles Portis – incredibly tightly written and absorbing for a genre I wouldn’t normally touch with a barge pole. And with a kick-ass protagonist too.

What about you? What were your favourite books of 2015?

Bastard Out of Carolina

We’ve certainly had a run of incredibly good books for our book group choices this year. Last month’s book, Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, was one I hadn’t heard of before but the cover was so gorgeous I had to go and get myself a physical copy of the book instead of a kindle download. Don’t you love it when a cover hooks you like that?

There was also a recommendation from Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favourite writers and author of The Poisonwood Bible, which also further provoked my interest and she wasn’t wrong. Bastard Out of Carolina isn’t an easy read but it is brilliant. Brilliant because Allison manages to keep the tension simmering just below the surface, occasionally unleashing it, and then dropping in scenes of such domestic love and comfort that you forget the danger that lurks just behind the half-closed door.

Set in Carolina in the 50s, Allison’s novel centres on a large white-trash family with colourful characters and histories who love and fight their way through life. Our heroine Bone is the illegitimate daughter of teenage Mama, the youngest and fairest of her large, boisterous family. There are no ends to suitors but she falls for a charmer traveling through town who vanishes as soon as she gets pregnant. Nevertheless determined to correct Bone’s birth certificate, she faces the moral contempt of self-righteous officials at the town hall who refuse to change Bone’s legal status but she keeps trying year after year. Then she falls in love and marries a sweet young man who is ready to adopt Bone but who meets with an accident and Mama is left grieving with two little girls. Forsaking love, she works at the local diner until her brother Earl brings Glen, an intense young colleague who is the outcast son of a well-to-do local family with daddy issues. Glen is patient and woos Mama over a year and she gradually falls in love with this brooding young man who has been so starved of love and decides to marry him only after he promises to love both her and her girls. Blinded by her love for him, she fails to acknowledge his many complexes, especially when he cannot hold down a steady job without getting into fights. But Glen loves her and she loves him and they both believe that it will all come together. That is until tragedy strikes.

It’s pretty early on in the novel, but this loss coincides with a shocking incident that will completely derail the reader. Up until then, you may be forgiven if you think Bastard Out of Carolina is all about big families and poverty. The novel takes a decidedly darker tone and you see what menace lurks beneath the surface. Allison tackles the fragile structures of love and families through the secrets we keep from each other. And throughout this, the crux is Bone, so young, so alone and trying desperately to keep her small, precious family from falling apart. What Allison does so brilliantly is intersperse scenes of Daddy Glen’s anger within their nuclear family with the warm, protective nature of Bone’s extended family with her larger than life aunts and uncles who would do anything to protect their kin. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have problems of their own, what with their fighting, alcohol abuse and infidelities all casting a shadow across their lives. And yet they are in stark contrast to the cold, unwelcoming family in which Daddy Glen grew up and to whom he stubbornly brings his little family once a year to visit whether they like it or not.

As a psychological study, Daddy Glen is a classic case of the youngest son who didn’t grow into his potential and who is forever trying to please his successful father and two older brothers. But the most interesting character in this novel is Mama, who stays with Daddy Glen even though she knows things are not quite right in their house. Even after witnessing his harsh punishment for Bone’s adolescent transgressions, she makes a half-hearted effort to leave him but returns when he begs for forgiveness. For Daddy Glen, Mama is the love of his life. And so it becomes even harder to understand the motives behind his actions, even if you look to his unhappy childhood.

The bits that I liked the most were those describing Mama’s family. You see her bond with her siblings, their love for each other coming through so strongly at family gatherings, holidays and over food. The colourful histories of each individual are so captivating that you wish you were a part of their brood. And yet they weren’t enough to shield Bone.

Bastard Out of Carolina, like all the best books, leaves you with even more questions at the end. It’s dark and devastating but pierced with moments of such warmth and joy, that it will remain long in your heart. The inevitable ending may be more than you can bear but what happens after will truly break your heart.

Allison says that so many of her readers have told her that she has written their story and we can see why. She gets into the head of Bone so well, putting into words the confusing, constantly shifting feelings of fear, pain and anger which a child cannot fully express. She doesn’t sentimentalise or rationalise these thoughts, she just puts them down as they are. When everything is stripped away, what remains is Bone’s resilience. Although not autobiographical, nevertheless we can see parallels to Allison’s own childhood. Perhaps what she really wanted to explore was her mother’s choices. I’m not a fan of depressing novels and I read this was trepidation, dreading what was to come, but such is the power of Allison’s writing that I couldn’t keep myself from finishing this incredible novel.

Grass is Singing

August’s book group choice by Kim was Doris Lessing’s debut novel published in 1950, The Grass is Singing. A Nobel Prize Laureate and author of many novels including The Golden Notebook, I had heard so much about Lessing and yet felt slightly afraid to read her.

The Grass is Singing is set in Southern Rhodesia in the 1940s and begins with the murder of Mary Turner by her black servant Moses. In a land where strict racial rules are the means by which the white colonisers maintain their control, any untoward issues that don’t fit in with white society’s ideas of how people should act is quickly and unsentimentally cleared away, untouched. Mary’s murder is cleared as one catalysed by greed. But what Lessing does so beautifully here is to go back in time to find out who Mary Turner was to see why she had to die. And what unravels is a tense, bleak tale of a woman, once happy in her independance and freedom, who is gradually stifled and suffocated by society’s expectations and petty rules.

Free at last from her poverty-stricken childhood, a young Mary is living a happy and carefree life in town, working as a secretary and living in a girls hostel where she is never without friends and things to do. She is happy to carry on in this way, having no need for a husband or a house of her own until she overhears her friends ridiculing her behind her back. This sudden shock instigates a paradigm shift in her world view and sets her on a course which she may not have otherwise chosen. She is nothing if not proactive and immediately changes the way she dresses and goes on several unsuccessful dates, making her unhappy and suspicious of other people’s motives. That is until she meets Martin Turner, up in town for the day, a shy, awkward young man who spends most of his time alone working on his farm. Although they feel no attraction to each other, nevertheless, Martin is lonely and Mary needs to get married, and so this happens before they get to really know one another. Mary is happy to leave the town that has soured and Martin is eager to start a family once he has made his farm profitable and has enough money. But life on a farm in the middle of nowhere is far from the life Mary ever envisioned for herself, as is the lack of money. Martin is kind, if not stubborn, but the evergrowing failures of all his ventures quickly grinds down her respect for him. Mary is also uncommunicative and cold and Martin soon realises that his idea of a warm family life may never materialise. And yet the two continue in this vein, Mary slowly succumbing to ennui and depression as the heat gets to her, ever relentless, and her encounters with the natives who work for Martin are fraught with suspicion and trouble. The two are bound together in their wretched house, isolated, and what happens is a slow disintegration of will.

Until Moses, one of Martin’s workers, comes to work for Mary in the house. His arrival acts as catalyst, suddenly awakening Mary out of her stupor and bringing up complex emotions that highlights the subtly fraught relations that exist between servant and master, family and friend.

And then there is Charlie Slatter, Martin’s neighbour and local kingpin who overseas the social and agricultural goings on in the area. He is the one whom they contact first when Mary’s body is found. He is the one organising and directing the police sergeant who arrives later. And he is the one who makes sure that no extra detail is leaked to the papers. For his duty is to keep the status quo and protect their own.

In The Grass is Singing, Lessing binds together a number of important issues; the segregation and treatment of the natives, the unspoken social rules from which you cannot veer and the limited roles within which women can exist in that time. For Mary, she was doomed if she didn’t get married, and she was doomed when she did. What is perhaps poignant is that ultimately both Mary and Martin aren’t exactly bad people. Martin is generally friendly towards his native workers, with a deep understanding of how things work in his country, if not his occupation. Mary starts off carefree, independant and happy, and probably her sole mistake is to get hitched without really thinking things through. What the the pair want are two different things, and because they are gauche and awkward at communicating, are like two cars just missing each other in the fog. Unable to really talk, they just keep diverging in thought and deed.

Lessing has created an incredibly nuanced yet striking novel. But there are so many questions which remain unanswered. What exactly was Mary’s relationship with Moses? What at first seemed as though it could have been a forbidden attraction turned out just to be fear. And yet, it was more than that. Charlie Slatter may have tried to tidy the murder as one committed by an angry and greedy servant, yet Moses’ feelings for Mary, although at the end seemed to be of power, had something more. What was it? Mary, though she needed Moses for her survival, much, much more than Martin, could never overcome her fear of him. And Moses, who knew he had power over her, didn’t leave because he knew she needed him. This strange, complex power relationship rings so true because it is pretty much the essence of relationships in its basic form. It stuns me to think that Lessing is able to convey this together with that of a marital couple, friends and neighbours to produce such a layered first novel. And leaving the central question unanswered may have been a stroke of genius. For what remains puzzling is precisely what will stay with you long after you’ve finished.

Lessing’s novel is nothing less than a novel about power in its many nuanced form. And she does this subtly and beautifully.

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

30 September, 2015

Spring Snow

The Shinkawas were both irritated and flattered by the Matsugae’s invitation to the blossom viewing. Irritated because they realized how bored they would be. Flattered because it would give them an opportunity to display their authentically European manners in public. The Shinkawas were an old and wealthy merchant family and while it was, of course, essential to maintain the mutually profitable relationship established with the men from Satsuma and Choshu who had riesen to such power within the government, the Baron and his wife held them in secret contempt because of their peasant origins. This was an attitude inherited from their parents, and one that was at the very heart of their newly acquired but unshakable elegance.

Reading a novel by Yukio Mishima is rather a daunting prospect as he comes with a lot of baggage, from his highly sensationalised life and death to very divided opinions on his work amongst his Japanese readers. However, what can’t be disputed is his place in Japanese literature. He missed getting the Nobel Prize to Yasunari Kawabata, one he felt was unfair but perhaps inevitable in Japan’s strict hierarchical society even in literary circles, and some say this may have led to his inevitable foray into nationalism and death. But my mother told me many years ago that Mishima’s writing was beautiful and that I must read him. And so I chose him for my book group this summer.

Spring Snow is the first volume in Mishima’s Sea of Fertility quartet detailing the bittersweet love story between Kiyoaki Matsugae, son of a recently elevated Marquis at the Emperor’s court and coming from a long line of Satsuma samurai, and Satoko Ayakura, daughter of a waning aristocratic family, and how it reflects the seismic changes within Japanese society at the beginning of the 20th century. Following the Meiji Restoration, the power structure shifted from the samurai families back to the aristocracy once peace was established. The Marquis Matsugae had sent Kiyoaki to be educated in the Ayakura household and as a result, they no longer have anything in common, Kiyoaki having grown into a rarefied and refined gentleman studying at the Peers School until he is given a position at Court unlike his friend Honda, who has no privileged family connections and is studying to become a lawyer like his father. Into this friendship comes Satoko, Kiyoaki’s childhood friend, a beautiful and self-assured young woman, a few years older than Kiyoaki, who is in love with him. But Kiyoaki has been trained to contain all displays of emotions, fooling everyone around him and ultimately himself.

When Satoko’s engagement to an Imperial Prince is announced, Kiyoaki suddenly realises his love for her and is desperate to see her. With the help of Iinuma, his servant, and Tadeshina, Satoko’s maid who has worked for the Ayakuras since before Satoko’s birth, Kiyoaki sets in motion events which will have severe repercussions for both families.

This sounds rather grim and there are echoes of Romeo and Juliet here, however, it is Mishima’s style and his beautiful writing that elevates and transforms this tale into something so much more. Here is a microcosm of aristocratic Japanese society, still reverberating from the Meiji Restoration. Satoko, however spirited and intelligent and emotionally so much more mature that Kiyoaki is nevertheless bound by her family and society’s rules and makes the only choice available to her. We see her living, loving and finally realising the true metal of her lover, and although harsh, the choices she makes are the only ones which will set her free. Apart from Satoko, whose only flaw is to fall in love with Kiyoaki, most of the other characters are ineffectual and don’t realise their mistakes until the end. Kiyoaki’s parents are weak and blind to his faults and believe money will solve everything; Honda, Kiyoaki’s friend, tries to help but is too in awe of him; the Ayakuras are living off others and are consequently in a bubble; Iinuma, fanatical and unable to fit into Tokyo life; and Tadeshina, supposedly loyal with a cruel streak inside.

Mishima brilliantly depicts the subtle undercurrents within Satoko and Kiyoaki’s circle. The importance of keeping face as opposed to the often ugly side of reality, the obsession with strict rules and manners when real communication between people are lacking and most importantly, intent over-ridden by duty. Both Satoko and Kiyoaki try to break free from their restraints but their methods differ and ultimately fail. There is a tragic sense of miscommunication leaving the reader feeling, ‘if only he had’ or ‘why didn’t he just say something?’ This puts the onus on Kiyoaki, but it’s by no means only his fault. Satoko, who should have known him best failed too. All in all, it’s a glorious piece of tragic storytelling mixed in with cultural and historical detail. Mishima’s knowledge of history and his curiosity of other cultures are evident too. But what really strikes the reader is his mastery of language. His prose is light, whimsical and exquisite. And yet he delves into such dark themes. I loved this book which is so beautifully translated by Michael Gallagher and am looking forward to reading the other novels in the quartet, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn and The Decay of the Angel.

I read this as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 9. Do also check out the reviews by Kim and Tony.

Q&A: Aliette de Bodard

24 September, 2015

House of Shattered Wings

In the late twentieth century, the streets of Paris are lined with haunted ruins, the remnants of a Great War beween arcane powers. The Grands Magasins have been reduced to piles of debris, Notre-Dame is a burned-out shell, and the Seine has turned black with ashes, rubble, and the remnants of the spells that tore the city apart. But those who survived still retain their irrepressible appetite for novelty and distraction, and the great Houses still vie for dominion over France’s once-grand capital.

Once the most powerful and formidable, House Silverspires now lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; it founder, Morningstar has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House three very different people must come together: a naïve but powerful Fallen angel; an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction; and a resentful young man wielding spells of unknown origin. They may be Silverspires’ salvation or the architects of its last, irreversible fall. And if Silverspires fall, so may the city itself.

Aliette de Bodard’s new novel, The House of Shattered Wings, set in a 20th century post-apocalyptic Paris filled with fallen angels and mortals vying for power while something dark and dangerous is slowly picking them off, is a wonderful blend of fantastical elements from both Western and Eastern mythologies. I’ve been a huge fan of her work for a number of years and love her stories set in the Xuya universe and her Obsidian and Blood trilogy set during the Aztec Empire of which Servant of the Underworld is the first volume.

Upon reading her latest novel, I sent her a number of questions which she was kind enough to answer. Enjoy!

1. In The House of Shattered Wings, which character did you most connect with and who did you most enjoy writing about?

That’s a bit like asking me to pick a favourite child! I really like all the characters in the book (even though they might not like me, as I put them through a bit of a ride!). I particularly connect with Madeleine, the House alchemist, who is a bit of a geek and inept at social situations (the scene where she attempts to play high-level politics and fails was something that was very familiar to me!). The character I enjoyed writing about the most is actually head of House Hawthorn and part-time antagonist Asmodeus – I certainly wouldn’t like to have a drink with him or trust him with much of anything, but as a writer he’s great to put in scenes because of all the snarky comebacks. Also, the fact all three main characters distrust him, fear him and/or hate his guts make him a great plot mover and generator of conflict.

2. What were your inspirations for the novel?

I had a lot of inspirations for the novel: part of it is my love letter to 19th Century novels (Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, Hugo’s Les Misérables, Zola), part of it draws from manga and anime (I took some lessons in period drama and creepy monsters from Full Metal Alchemist, and also took some inspiration from Black Butler‘s alternate and phantasmagoric Victorian England), and part of it is classic fantasy of people doing small and epic things against overwhelming odds (David Gemmell’s King Beyond the Gate and the other Drenai novels, and books by Elizabeth Bear, Kari Sperring, Tim Powers, China Miéville and many others!). And finally part of it is fairytales and myths from Vietnam my grandmother used to tell me when I was a child.

3. Could you tell us something about your writing rituals? Do you create as you go along or plot meticulously?

I am a methodical plotter and I tend to do very badly without an outline (translate by ‘flailing around and moaning a lot’!). I generally do a chapter by chapter, scene by scene outline which I use as a basis for launching into the book. It tends to be a bit vaguer as we get close to the end (one book in the Obsidian and Blood series memorably had ‘somehow, they win the day’ to cover the last three chapters of epic battles!), and I also tend to heavily rework out as I go. For instance, The House of Shattered Wings originally had Madeleine returning of her own will to House Hawthorn, and this bit ended up not making sense at all, so I changed the timeline of the last three chapters. The ending (I won’t go into it because spoilers!) was also one of those totally unplanned things that ended up looking as though it’d been there all along – it was kind of a relief and kind of scary, actually – felt like my muse and unconscious had been working double time while I was desperately trying to get the last chapters working!

I write when I can, which means when the infant isn’t taking up all the space in my life: I do a lot of first drafting on the metro while commuting, and a lot of revisions in the evenings or on weekends. I am a slow first drafter, but I revise pretty fast fortunately (and don’t quite need as much brain space and immersion), so that helps!

4. I love that you incorporate other cultures in your work, especially your Xuya Universe and the Mexica Empire in your Obsidian and Blood trilogy, and I want to read more. What sparks your interest and how do you go about your research?

I’ve incorporated other cultures in my work because I feel the need to bring fantasy beyond Western, pseudo-European cultures, and draw inspiration from further afield. Part of it comes from growing up away from the mainstream and with a different culture – I feel like, in many ways, I’m always writing for ten-year-old me, who was so desperate for anything Asian that she devoured anything with dark-haired, short women in them.

I also think a lot of it (particularly the Chinese in the Xuya universe) was my way of circling Vietnamese culture and never quite bringing myself to write about it because I was scared I wouldn’t do it justice! (And I was already imagining my entire maternal family coming down like a ton of bricks on me). It took a conversation with my good friend Rochita Loenen-Ruiz to realise that if I didn’t do it, who else would?

I do research with a variety of sources: primary sources, academic texts, fiction–and people (for Obsidian and Blood I didn’t do that last and it was a mistake).

5. And what are some of your favourite books and authors?

Ha, too many to be listed! I really love Terry Pratchett: I own all the Discworld books and come back to them from time to time, like old friends. Recently I’ve enjoyed Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem, a combination of hard SF and Chinese history that is mindblowing (and I’m looking forward to The Dark Forest), Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts, an epic fantasy set in an analogue of the Silk Road, J Damask’s Jan Xu books, wonderful family-focused urban fantasy set in Singapore, and Sergey and Marina Dyachenko’s The Scar, a dark and intense fantasy about a man’s search for redemption in the aftermath of a magical war.

Thank you so much to Aliette for providing such fabulous answers. I will certainly be checking out her incredibly diverse list of books and will be waiting with bated breath for the sequel to The House of Shattered Wings.

Servant of the Underworld

House of Shattered Wings

Fallen blood is power.

Aliette de Bodard is one of the new breed of writers ushering in a welcome change in the SFF literary community with her stories set in the Xuya universe, a brilliant coalescence of Western SF traditions and her mixed Vietnamese background, so compelling and beautifully written. She is also the author of the Obsidian and Blood trilogy, murder mysteries set in the Aztec Empire beginning with Servant of the Underworld, a series I love tremendously for its ability to immerse you in an utterly foreign culture with a completely different set of rules and a religion in which magic plays an important part. If you haven’t read her fiction already, I urge you to try.

In her new book, The House of Shattered Wings, she tries something different. Set in a post-apocalyptic Paris forsaken by God, there exists a fragile equilibrium controlled by the Houses, structured communities of fallen angels and humans, of which the three strongest are Silverspires, Hawthorn and Lazarus. The novel is set sometime in the 20th century, many years after the Great Houses War which destroyed most of Paris leaving it an empy hull with pockets of surviving communities, the safest being the Houses protected by the Fallen, of whom Lucifer Morningstar is the most powerful. But it’s been 20 years since Morningstar’s disappearance and his successor, Selene, is still struggling to overcome her doubts in taking charge of Silverspires, once the grandest of the Houses.

Every so often, a newborn Fallen is thrust out of Heaven and lands in a part of Paris and there is a race to retrieve him or her. If a House gets her, she will become a strong ally, if a Houseless gets to her, she will be harvested for her magic, every inch of her skin, bone and flesh used to ingest, produce and barter, a sick but lucrative trade. When Selene saves Isabelle, a newly Fallen, she also captures Philippe, a mysterious Annamite with hidden powers, a member of a Houseless gang. When he unwittingly unleashes a malevolent spell, Silverspires is drawn into complex game of survival. For something or someone is determined to destroy Morningstar’s legacy, leaving behind a trail of corpses. As Selene, together with Isabelle, Philippe and Madeleine, the House alchemist with a secret of her own, struggles to contain the darkness, can they stop the darkness which threatens the very safety of Paris itself?

One of the first things that you encounter as you read this tale is Bodard’s striking vision of Paris.

The Grands Magasins have been reduced to piles of debris, Notre-Dame is a burned-outshell, and the Seine has turned black with ashes, rubble, and the remnants of the spells that tore the city apart.

I just loved the way she described a Paris that is at once reminiscent of its medieval heritage yet is set in an alternate 20th century with glimmers of history which seem familiar but isn’t.

As well as being a mystery, The House of Shattered Wings delves deep into the matter of faith. What happens when the thing you believe in the most rejects you. Bodard tackles this head on not only with Christian but also Vietnamese mythology. The character of Philippe, an Annamite exiled from his own land with its own religio-mythology in the Court of the Jade Emperor and its parallel history of colonialism, is fascinating in itself as we see him coming to terms with his loss and anger. I loved when his story of ancient Vietnam meets that of Selene’s Paris and Bodard does a wonderful job in tying the two parallel strands together in a credible way. You would think there might be a jarring of the two disparate worlds yet they complement and work together seamlessly. Philippe’s tenuous friendship with Isabelle, his sparring with Selene and his dealing with the Houseless, who initially took him in, and Asmodeus, the head of House Hawthorn, Silverspires’ nemesis, paints him as a complex figure, probably the most human with his mixture of compassion and street smartness. I found Madeleine, a human originally at Hawthorn saved by Morningstar when Asmodeus staged a coup to take over his House, fascinating in her despair and misguided memories, unable to get over her trauma and hiding her growing addiction, while trying to function in her job. But the two most intriguing characters are Asmodeus because he’s evil but with a secret agenda and there is always the spectre of Morningstar, more glorious, more powerful and more cruel than all the Fallen who haunt this book. In comparison, Selene is probably the weakest, always unsure and so hesitant for a leader of a House, but with the unwavering support of her lover, Emmanuelle.

Bodard’s plotting may have gotten the upper hand over her characterisation in this novel, it’s intricate and polished, her story substantial but wearing the research lightly, and I certainly wouldn’t have complained if it was longer, especially with her sublime prose. So I’m really looking forward to learning more about her varied characters in the sequel, many of whom seem to have incredibly intriguing back stories. And although the ending may have left me slightly wanting, I can’t deny that in The House of Shattered Wings, Bodard has created a richly textured world, intricate and beautifully written.

Do also check out Bodard’s In Morningstar’s Shadow, which includes 3 short stories that complement and is set before the events in The House of Shattered Wings, and Of Books, And Earth, and Courtship, about Selene and Emmanuelle. Lovely vignettes exposing more of Bodard’s talent. You can also read more of her stories on her website.

Maigret by Georges Simenon

12 August, 2015

Maigret

I’m going to tell you everything, Uncle. I’m in big trouble. If you don’t help me, if you don’t come to Paris with me, I don’t know what will become of me. I’m going out of my mind.

Georges Simenon’s 19th novel featuring his eponymous detective Maigret which was first published in 1934 is my first foray into the famous detective’s world. In this episode of the detective’s long literary career, Maigret is enjoying his retirement in the countryside with his wife when his nephew, Philippe, comes knocking at the door late one night.

A rookie cop following in the footsteps of his uncle, Philippe is still young and naive and has found himself in trouble. On a stakeout for a drugs raid in Floria, a night club in rue Fontaine, Philipe takes the initiative to wait inside the club against orders and promptly finds himself with the corpse of the suspect on his hands. Rattled, he runs off leaving behind his fingerprints and is also seen by a witness. Having nowhere to hide, he begs his uncle for help.

And so begins a cat and mouse chase as Maigret returns to Paris to find the killer. Some of his colleagues, especially Detective Chief Inspector Amadieu who took over from Maigret, are none too pleased to find him back in his former workplace. However, when Philipe is arrested for murder, Maigret sets about catching the real culprit but this time without the authority of his badge. With the help of Fernande, a prostitute who frequents the Floria, Maigret must pit his wits against an intelligent and ruthless man who holds the strings to the case, and Philippe’s freedom.

Maigret was an interesting story because it showed the detective’s chase from the other side of the official fence. What struck me was the gritty, adult nature of the novel. There is sex, there is violence and real evil. Without being explicit, nevertheless the harsh reality of a criminal life and the psychology of the criminal mind is all there. This isn’t some cosy crime caper, it’s a gritty noir. It’s somehow difficult to believe that this was written in the mid-30s. There’s a lot of smoking, drinking and flirting going on. It’s a different world to what we know now, but it brings back a whiff of nostalgia mixed in with modern grittiness that I would like to revisit again.

At an event celebrating Simenon’s work, his son John said he wanted readers to become addicted to his father’s books. This short, sharp tale will do just that.