Friday, May 30, 2014

a truly innovative crime novel from Europa Editions World Noir: The Cemetery of Swallows, by Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol (aka Mallock)

Europa World Noir, 2014
originally published as Le cimetière des birondelles, 2012
translated by Steven Rendall
384 pp


Once in a while I pick up a crime novel that literally blows me away.  Cemetery of Swallows, published by Europa Editions as part of their World Noir series  is one of them.  By the last few chapters I was literally talking to the main character  out loud saying "come on! I know you'll figure this out! I know there's got to be a logical explanation!"  I don't tend to get that excited in the normal course of crime reading, but this book put me through the wringer and kept me there up until the last minutes. 

Police superintendent Amédée Mallock is famous for his work on difficult cases.  He lives alone, and considers himself “the king of the homebodies” since having lost his wife and son some years ago. He has haunting and recurring dreams about his little boy, and never talks about him to anyone.  He's a great cop and he has a great team.  One of his team members is Julie, and a week before we first meet Mallock on a plane to the Dominican Republic, she tells him she must take a special leave because of her brother. Her distress is so obvious that Mallock has to ask her why. She relates a very unusual story to her boss that started a week earlier.  One morning, her brother Manuel  Gemoni was watching a video a friend gave him about cigars (which he's passionate about) and cigar making in the Dominican Republic, when he recognizes a face on the screen.  He doesn't know who it is exactly, but he knows he has to kill him.  Abandoning his wife and baby, he travels to the island nation, where he waits in a place he knows the guy will eventually show up. When the opportunity arises, Gemoni kills him in front of a number of witnesses and is himself wounded and then arrested. The only thing Julie really knows is that upon his arrest, her brother made a bizarre statement that no one understands:

"I killed him because he had killed me."
I have a post about this novel on the crime page, but for now I'll say that Cemetery of Swallows is not only innovative, but it's also one of those books where you literally have to wait until the very end -- only then does the light bulb go on and you get to the "aha" payoff moment.  Whatever this guy writes in the future, I'll be buying as soon as it's published.

May Reading Roundup

Most of May found me on the Big Island of Hawaii, and while there was ample time for reading, I spent most of the time hiking or exploring both sides of this beautiful island.  Still, it wasn't a bad month -- I'm just way behind on posting about what I read. Here we go:


Everland, by Rebecca Hunt 
Ruby, by Cynthia Bond (not yet posted)

The Case of the Sharaku Murders, by Katsuhiko Tamahashi
The Cage, by Kenzo Kitakata (not yet posted)
Cemetery of Swallows, by Mallock (not yet posted)
sadly, nothing in May (it really was a good month for just fiction)

weird fiction/horror/fantasy/sci-fi
The Revenants, by Daniel Mills (not yet posted)
The Complete John Thunstone, by Manly Wade Wellman

Now the rest:

1) Wishlisted books:
      A) Crime Fiction:
absolutely nada

       B) General/Literary Fiction
In the Light of What We Know, by Zia Haider Rahman

      C) The Weird, the Strange, the Supernatural, etc.
 The Complete Cabalistic Cases of Semi Dual, Occult Detector, Volume 1, by J. U. Giesy and  Junius B. Smith
Mayhem, by Sarah Pinborough 

      D) Nonfiction:
absolutely nada again

2) Books bought this month: 

      A) crime fiction 
 Plan D, by Simon Urban
Forty Days Without Shadow, by Olivier Truc
The Three Evangelists, by Fred Vargas
Dog Will Have His Day, by Fred Vargas
Black Eyes, Red Blood, by Kjell Eriksson

      preordered: The Front Seat Passenger, by Pascal Garnier

   B) general/literary fiction
 In Paradise, by Peter Matthiessen 
Arctic Summer, by Damon Galgut
Heaven and Hell, by Jon Kalman Stefansson
The Letter Bearer, by Robert Allison
Tower, by Avan Jesia

      preordered: Eyrie, by Tim Winton

      C) the weird, the strange, the supernatural, sci-fi etc
 Tales of Jack the Ripper, ed. Ross E. Lockhart
Glow, by Ned Beauman
The Snow-Image, and Other Stories of the Supernatural, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Terror Tales of the Seaside, ed. Paul Finch
Beyond the Pole and Other Weird Fantasies, by Philip Fisher
Sin's Doorway and Other Ominous Entrances, by Manly Wade Wellman
Psychomania, ed. Stephen Jones
Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver

      preordered: Fearful Symmetries, ed. Ellen Datlow

      D) nonfiction
nothing this time around 

3) Indiespensable, Book Passage Signed First Edition, and Politics and Prose Signed First Edition  books for this month:
Indiespensable: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
Book Passage:  All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr  (yes -- they chose the same thing)
Politics and Prose:  Updike, by Adam Begley

4The book group read  Sandrine's Case, by Thomas H. Cook, which gave us a lot of interesting discussion points. 
5) Currently reading:
weird fiction: going back to Beyond the Pole and Other Weird Fantasies, by Philip Fisher
regular fiction: All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld
nonfiction: getting back to  Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family, by Gabrielle Carey (halfway through)

this month I gave away 7 books! Thanks to all who gave them new homes.

That's it.  Sayonara.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

in which one person's hero is another one's villain: Everland, by Rebecca Hunt

Penguin/Fig Tree, 2014
295 pp

hardcover - from the UK

(kindle version available in the US) 

If what actually happened and the perceived truth were contradictory, it hardly mattered. No one would ever know the difference.” 

Here's how good this book is: I started it on my vacation, and even though I was stretched out on a balcony overlooking the beautiful Pacific on the Big Island of Hawaii, I could have cared less about the scenery while I was reading this novel.  I have a huge fondness for books about polar exploration, especially in Antarctica, where the action in this novel takes place. Moving back and forth in time across an entire century, Everland is the story of two very different groups of explorers who undertake two very different expeditions. The first, in 1913, is set in the heyday of British polar exploration; the second, marking the centenary of the first, takes place in 2012. Despite the passage of a full century, unmistakeable and eerie parallels exist between both expeditions.

In March, 1913, the captain of the British ship Kismet dropped the mate and two others off in a dinghy to begin their journey for a short stay at an unmapped island the mate christened Everland. The idea was that while the men, Napps, Millet-Bass, and Dinners, were exploring the island, the rest of the Kismet's crew would be sailing around Cape Athena "for a last geologizing excursion," and would meet back up with the team in just two weeks. The Kismet sails off, but immediately problems set in, beginning with a storm that made the four-hour dinghy journey last about six days; unbeknownst to the three explorers, the Kismet had also suffered in the same storm and had to stop to make repairs. It wasn't until April that the Kismet returned to take the three-man team home, but only one badly-frostbitten, nearly-dead man was found on the island. What happened on that island became the stuff of legend. In fact, one hundred years later, in celebration of another three-person expedition that is about to be launched to Everland from the Antarctic base Aegeus, the film night pick is a 60s "classic" called Everland, a movie the group knows by heart about the 1913 ill-fated venture based on the "famous book" written by the captain of the Kismet.  The novel goes back and forth between the two expeditions, chronicling the events during both. The similarities are notable -- the flaring resentments, the tensions, the dangers and ultimately the choices that are made among each team for survival echo across the century.

Both accounts are tension filled and downright distressing in parts. Yet, while there is plenty of action going on,  even more interesting is the idea running through the book of the distortion of reality.  Here the truth is based on collaboration and self-serving motivations, while the reality of what actually happened during these expeditions is left behind forever on Everland -- leaving the altered version of events  to be passed down as  history and fact.    As a result, reputations are made, both positive and negative. In the case of the 1913 expedition, the reader is first given the modern-day understanding of events that coincide with the book written by the captain and then the movie, but throughout the story, the author fills us in little by little about what actually happened to these men.   In the second expedition, the situation is not only manipulated by one of team members,  but after a particularly dramatic scene, a deal to elevate one story over another is tacitly agreed to for reasons particular to and kept secret between the parties.

I bought Everland  thinking it was something along the lines of a Scott or Shackleton type historical fiction novel, but I got so much more. While the stories of both expeditions were intriguing,  for me the 1913 setting  was much more interesting. In terms of survival, both narratives were filled with tension, although the modern explorers came equipped with technology that the earlier ones could never have dreamed of, and they were only an airplane flight away from rescue, so that sort of lessened the drama for me. In setting up the often-striking parallels between the two, I suppose to some readers it might seem contrived (and I suppose maybe it is a little), but it works well.  More than anything, though,  I absolutely loved how the author let the idea of the distortion of reality play out through the novel, even before the reader fully comes to understand why and how it's important.  I also walked away with pity for the so-called "villain" of the piece, as the real truth turned the established history on its head.

I've only offered a bare-bones outline here; obviously there's much more to this book that I ended up absolutely loving.  I have to admit that things started out a bit slowly, but I hung in there and was greatly rewarded.  I also found myself backtracking to the chapter headings to keep the chronology straight, since not only does the book go back and forth over a hundred years, but within the 1913 time frame, it goes back and forth from the expedition to back on the Kismet.   Otherwise, it is  a very engrossing read that left me frustrated whenever I had to put it down. I'll be adding it to next year's book group reads.  Highly, highly recommended. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

A truly fine novel: Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, by Cyrus Mistry

Aleph, 2012
247 pp


"We are all alive -- every single one of us -- in one form or other..."

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer won the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, competing against the following novels:

 Book of Destruction, by Anand
Goat Days, by Benyamin
Island of a Thousand Mirrors, by Nayomi Munaweera,
The Blind Man's Garden, by Nadeem Aslam

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid, which is the only other book on the list I've read although I also own Blind Man's Garden.   

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer did not exactly start out as a novel in the author's head, but rather, as he says in the author's note at the end, it was based on a story the author had read while researching a documentary on corpse bearers in Bombay's Parsi community.  While the documentary was a no go, one of the stories heard by  Mr. Mistry left an impact on him, so much so that the author notes his wish for this book to be "an offering to the memory" of the subject of that story, a man he'd never met. Like the main character in Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, this man gave up his former life to marry a khandhia - corpse bearer -  "the lowest caste of the Parsi community, who are seen as 'sources of contamination who are forbidden from normal interactions with others,' according to the author in this Wall Street Journal blog piece.  They are a marginalized group; while they are important for religious ritual, they must live their lives away from the rest of society.  This book joins only a few others that rank high on this year's favorites list for the author's excellent writing, for the story itself, and mostly because of the glimpse into a subculture that frankly I never even knew existed.  Anyone who enjoys fiction from India and is looking for something entirely different really ought to pick up this novel.

At the age of eighty, Phiroze Elchidana, aka Elchi, sets down his life story  The son of  the head priest of a Zoroastrian fire temple,  Elchi lived with his parents and his brother Vispy. Vispy is the scholar of the family, while Elchi knows he's not the studious type. When final matriculation exams come around, he flunks; while supposedly studying for the retake, he takes to wandering all over the city of Bombay instead, recalling his solo outings as "the best moments of my youth."   One of the places he discovers during his walks is the beautiful gardens in a place called the Towers of Silence, a Parsi religious establishment where, after certain rituals,  the dead are placed on the towers for the vultures and the hot sun to do their work  "in a final act of charity."  

Old photo of the Towers of Silence, Malabar Hill, from

One day, at the age of 17, accompanying his mother to a funeral there, Phiroze happens to notice a young girl who then disappears; upon returning the next day, she finds him. As he notes, "it only took that first physical touch," and they knew they were destined to be together. The girl is Seppideh (Seppy), whom, unknown to Phiroze, is an estranged first cousin as well as the daughter of one of the khandias, or Parsi corpse bearers, who bring the corpses to the Towers of Silence and prepare them for mourners and their ultimate fate.  Her father demands that if the two are to go on seeing each other, Phiroze must marry her, work and live out his life at Doongerwaadi as a corpse bearer, a situation that will make Phiroze a veritable pariah to his family and all outside of this small community due to his close association with the dead.   Despite his father's wishes, Phiroze gladly accepts the terms.  The remainder of the novel focuses on his life in this very traditional and secluded community, which in time, slowly begins to undergo change, while on the outside, India is changing rapidly, moving  from the end of  its colonial period into independence and partition, and later, on into the modern era.
Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer has so much between its covers. It is  a love story, a story of Phiroze's relationship with his father,  and it reflects largely on love and loss, life and death. It also offers a look at this very insular community of khandhias.   But all of that is just for starters.  It also examines the marginalization of this group in the bigger context of society -- including how their work affects the lives of their children when they're ready to enter the wider world --, the  working conditions that these people were forced to endure, and how many of the people chose this life to escape the horrific poverty that would otherwise be their fate.  There's  much, much more -- I'm only scratching the surface here.  I also love how he writes, combining dark humor, honest human emotion and some genuinely moving moments,  all sprinkled throughout with ironic touches to create a wonderful and extremely readable story.

I have to say that I loved this book -- absolutely, and wholeheartedly recommend it. It's one I definitely will not soon forget. It is a beautiful and moving tale that totally captivated me.

does anyone in the US want a free copy of Anthony Doerr's new book?

Once again, in their less-than-collective-infinite wisdom, Powell's Indiespensable and Book Passage's Signed First Editions club have selected the same book.  That means I will soon have two signed editions, and I can only read one.  If anyone living in the US would like my extra copy, all you have to do is be the first to leave a comment below and it's yours. I will pay postage -- will someone PLEASE give my book a home???

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

aloha and aloha from the Big Island

Today's our last full day in Hawaii and it's been a very full trip.   I have to confess to not getting much reading done, though...with sights like the view from our room (above),

 Mauna Loa at night, or taking a 3-hour hike down into and across a crater still active with steam vents in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (view from above, before we started down), and much, much more (including night snorkeling with manta rays!),

there's not been much time for reading. But I have managed to finish a few:

Ruby, by Cynthia Bond 
The Cage, by Kenzo Kitakata
Revenants, by Daniel Mills

and I'm smack in the middle of Rebecca Hunt's Everland.  I have a feeling the long, long plane ride will make for great reading time. And then, back to business as usual after a few days of readjusting from the 6-hour time difference between Hawaii and home. 

I would also like to take a moment to say something about another blogger, Jackie, from Farm Lane Books in the UK. I just received a notice that she'll be taking a break from blogging for health issues, and I'd like to wish her a speedy recovery and tell her that I'll miss reading her posts.  Get well, Jackie!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

from the weird fiction page: Pulpy goodness with a big touch of weird: The Complete John Thunstone, by Manly Wade Wellman

Haffner Press, 2012
646 pp


 The Complete John Thunstone turns out to be a gem of a book that kept me happy for days and days while I read through it.  I happen to love pulp fiction, and this is mixed with enough supernatural weirdness to make it well worth what I paid for it, which was quite a bit. The title character,  John Thunstone describes himself as a "truth teller and a truth seeker" whose life's work has been to "seek the nature of reality."  Sometimes "that nature seems to be beyond nature, beyond the nature we know and recognize."  He's also been known as an "explorer of strange occurrences," strange being the operative word.  He is never without his cane, complete with silver blade that was supposedly forged by St. Dunstan and comes in very handy in the most harrowing moments.   His story most fully comes out in What Dreams May Come, a novel included in this collection, and there are clues throughout as to who John Thunstone really is and what he really does.

Here, in The Complete John Thunstone, all of Wellman's John Thunstone's stories have been collected in one volume, and while they're not all spine-tingling extravaganzas, the bottom line for me was that it was pure fun.  Anyone interested can read on at my weird fiction page of this reading journal, located here.  Scoff if you like, but I'd put it up against a lot of what's being released today and it would come out miles ahead. 

from the crime segments: In which academia, art and mayhem lead to The Case of the Sharaku Murders, by Katsuhiko Takahashi

Thames River Press, 2013
originally published as Sharaku satsujin jiken (写楽殺人事件), 1986
270 pp

translated by Ian MacDonald


The Case of the Sharaku Murders  is a selection of the Japanese Literature Publishing Project, and is only the first of a trio called the  "Ukiyo-e Murder Trilogy."  It begins on a dark and windy night with two men looking for someone along the cliffs on Japan's northeast coast near Tanohata, and having no luck.  A newspaper article four days later reveals that the missing man is Saga Atsushi, an award-winning calligrapher, chairman of the Tokyo Bibliophilic Society, scholar of ukiyo-e and a "central figure in the Ukiyo-e Connoissership Society," and that his body had been found floating in the ocean, picked up by a man on a squid fishing boat.  The verdict is suicide. But when more people start ending up dead, the police inspector investigating the case starts to wonder if perhaps there was more to Saga's death than meets the eye. 

This book is not your usual crime read: about one third of the book is an exposition on the history of Japanese art, most especially Ukiyo-e, the art form represented on the cover. Once you get past all that, though,  there is twist after twist, and the payoff is a good, solid whodunit. Along with the history of ukiyo-e and a smattering of Japanese history,  it also explores the "dog-eat-dog world" of academia and the professional rivalries that exist within the art world.  As always, my chatty self has much more to say about it at my crime page -- here's the link.

Friday, May 2, 2014

starting off the month with an incredible book: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre

Crown, 2014 (July)
384 pp


My very grateful thanks to Crown and to LibraryThing's early reviewers program for my copy of this book.

I have been a huge fan of Ben Macintyre since I read his Operation Mincemeat; I've devoured every book he's written since and have never been disappointed. And once again he delivers with his newest book, A Spy Among Friends, which is, in his words, "not another biography of Kim Philby," ... "less about politics, ideology and accountability than personality, character, and a very British relationship that has never been explored before." Macintyre notes also that the "book does not purport to be the last word on Kim Philby," but rather "it seeks to tell his story in a different way, through the prism of personal friendship..." and his work succeeds on every possible level: impeccable research, the very-well developed investigation of Kim Philby's dual character, and frankly, despite the fact that it's nonfiction, it reads like a highly-polished, top-tier espionage novel,, making it reader-friendly  for anyone at all interested in the subject.   This book is, in fact, one of the best I've read this year. 

If you'd like to learn more about it, I've written about it on the nonfiction page of this reading journal -- just click here to get there. It is, in one word, stellar.

May equals vacation. And so does my reading plan.

I love May -- it means vacation for us. In about a week, we're off to the Big Island in Hawaii, spending about 10 days there both on the Kona side and the Hilo side.  Kona is all about the beach; Hilo is hiking the volcano.  I'm stoked.  Since the 10 days is all about relaxing, I'm not taking anything serious with me -- so that means my reading time is just about fun.  And for me, that's crime fiction and anything at all in the weird fiction zone.  I have tons of each from which to choose, so this month's reading will be really random. And relaxing. And fun. Stress free. Cool.