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Force of Nature by Jane Harper

July 16, 2018 11 comments

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (2017) French title: Sauvage

Force of Nature is the second volume of the Aaron Falk crime fiction series by Jane Harper. Five men and five women from the company BaileyTennants are sent on a company retreat in the Giralang Ranges. The two groups have to hike during several days, looking for banners, going from one campsite to the other until they make it to the arrival.

The problem is…only four women come back and Alice Russel has disappeared. Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen are worried about this because Alice was the whistleblower in the case they’re working on. Daniel and Jill Bailey, the managers and owners of this family business are involved in money laundering for wider criminal networks. Falk and Carmen are only cogs in a giant investigation and they were about getting crucial documents from Alice about the Baileys’ business.

Does her disappearance have anything to do with their case?

Jane Harper weaves a masterful net of relationships between the women. They are mismatched. The group leader is Jill Bailey, as a member of senior management. Alice Russel, the one who disappeared is here with her assistant Bree McKenzie. Lauren Shaw went to a special boarding school with Alice Russell and they’ve known each other for thirty years. The last participant is Beth McKenzie, Bree’s twin sister.

All have a specific relationship with Alice. Alice is known as an ice queen bitch, so the others might have her reasons to wish for her disappearance. Jill muses:

Being around Alice was like owning an aggressive breed of dog. Loyal when it suited, but you had to stay on your toes.

There’s some resentment between her and Lauren, she tends to bully Beth. Jill’s side business in the firm is threatened by Alice’s interactions with the police. The book is constructed in such a way that the reader alternates between following the police investigation and the rangers’ researches to find Alice in the bush and following the women’s hike and discover how things went wrong. At the beginning, the device bothered me a bit but it proved excellent because it broke the monotony of the investigation and broke the palpable tension I felt when I was following the women’s hike. The bushland setting contributes to the tension of the story as it is rife with dangers. In a way, it talks to our deepest fear, the ones we heard of in fairy tales when we were little, the fear to get lost in the forest.

It was strange, Jill thought, how much the bushland started to look alike. Twice she’d spotted something – once a stump, the other time a fallen tree – which she was sure she remembered from earlier. It was like walking in a semi-constant sense of déjà vu.

The bushland is another character, it’s not human but it sure helps move the plot forward and add on the feeling of urgency and of threat.

It’s a clever crime fiction novel, one I’d recommend as a summer read. Harper’s style is efficient, to the point but not very literary. There are better crime fiction books than this one, as far as literature is concerned. However, it’s an excellent reading time.

On last note, I bought a copy in the original and it gave me another opportunity to work on my spoken Australian English, after Anita Heiss and Marie Munkara. And I am puzzled by the Australian habit to shorter words like bikie or barbie. I’m getting used to the short words with an “ie” as a suffix though. However, I had to google spag bol because I couldn’t figure out what they were eating. (It doesn’t help that visually, bol is bowl in French)

Force of Nature is another contribution to the Australian Women Writer Challenge.

What Stays in the Forest by Colin Niel

June 24, 2018 12 comments

What Stays In The Forest by Colin Niel (2013) Original French title: Ce qui reste en forêt. Not available in English.

What Stays In The Forest is the second volume of the crime fiction series written by French author Colin Niel and featuring Capitaine Anato. Here’s my billet about the first book, Les hamacs de carton. This series is set in French Guiana and it’s a great part of its appeal.

When the book opens, the scientist Serge Feuerstein is found drowned near the research station he worked for. It is set in the heart of the Amazonian forest and it’s a very remote location, accessible via helicopters. Scientists have been settled there for a few years and they are now surrounded by illegal gold-washers. Indeed, this part of the Amazonian forest is full of gold and poor people from Brazil come illegally to French Guiana to work in ad-hoc and illegal gold mines. It’s a cat-and-mouse game with the French gendarmerie but they’d rather be caught on the French territory with its milder police methods than in Brazil.

Colin Niel creates an interesting set of characters among the scientists living in close quarters at the station. How was Serge Feuerstein killed? Did he disturb illegal gold-washers who decided to eliminate him? Does his death has anything to do with the strange discovery of a dead albatross in French Guiana, a place not frequented by these birds, and incidentally the ones Feuerstein chose as a topic for his PhD.

The crime investigation is well-crafted and Colin Niel describes life in Cayenne very well. It’s a strange mix of exoticism and familiarity with all the French organization of society (police,…) and the natural setting which is totally foreign for a French from mainland France.

Captain Anato is an interesting character. He’s from the Maroon community in Guiana but was raised in the suburbs of Paris. He has asked to be transferred to French Guiana after his parents die. He’s trying to get his footing at work while getting reacquainted with his family. He needs to understand his personal history. His parents were tight-lipped about their reasons for moving to Paris. He’s slowly meeting with his family and discovering where he comes from. We also learn more about the personal lives of his two colleagues Vacaresse and Girbal.

I enjoyed everything about this book: the setting, the murder investigation, the explanations about illegal gold-miners in Amazonia, the descriptions of Cayenne and Anato’s internal turmoil. What Stays In The Forest was our Book Club choice for April (I know, I’m late again) and we all loved it. We all enjoyed the style, the story, the fascinating discovery of a piece of France we know nothing about. Anato is an enjoyable character, full of nuances and personal hurts.

Call it literary serendipity but the issue of gold mining in the Amazonian forest has recently made the headlines in France. The governement wants to grant authorization to set up a giant gold mine in the heart of the forest, discarding ecological consequences or the ones for the indigenous people living off the forest on the Maroni river. See an article here.

Sorry for foreign readers, this is not available in English. For French readers, it’ll make a wonderful summer read.

There Will Be Dust by Sandrine Collette

June 4, 2018 10 comments

There Will Be Dust by Sandrine Collette (2016) Original French title: Il reste la poussière. Not available in English.

La vie n’attend pas qu’on ait envie d’y mettre les mains. Life doesn’t wait for you to be ready to put your hands in it.

In There Will Be Dust by Sandrine Collette, we are on a small farm in Patagonia at the beginning of the 20th century. Rafael is the youngest of four boys and has always been bullied by his brothers. Their father disappeared one day, never came back and the mother runs the farm with an iron fist.

Her sons are working slaves not better treated than mules and horses. She knows her older sons mistreat their little brother but she doesn’t care. They’re like a pack of dogs, she feeds them, lets them live under her roof but lets the pack find their own leader. She doesn’t give them any affection and Rafael finds solace in his horse and his dog.

Their life is tough, their farm is isolated and only the oldest sons, the twins Joaquin and Mauro are allowed to go to the nearest town with their Ma. The third son, Steban, doesn’t speak and tries to remain neutral between the twins and Rafael.

It’s a hard book to sum up because a lot of it is spend in everyday life and peering into the brothers’ minds. I felt closer to Rafael but also sorry for the others, to live in such dreadful conditions with such a hard mother. Their world is changing fast, there’s less and less room for small farms and they always struggle with money. One event will change their life but I can’t tell more without spoilers.

There Will Be Dust is a very atmospheric novel. It has an incredible sense of place. Sandrine Collette has a style that talks to all your senses. You can imagine the wind, the sun, the rush of riding a horse, the smell of the country. Her descriptions of sheep farming and sheep shearing ring true. She writes about the noise, the smell, the behavior of the sheep.

She takes you to this hard world, into this desperate family of hard working farmers. There’s a lot of violence in their life and Rafael seems to be their only hope for a different vision of life. But how to escape the yoke their mother put on their necks? How will they have a chance to life in a different light and let warmth seep into their interactions instead of the coldness ingrained by their heartless mother?

Their mother is like a dark spider, controlling everything and everyone. She’s a witch with economical and emotional power that she uses freely. Rafael’s natural temper is different and he’s incredibly resilient. His brothers and mother bully him and it should make him change. But he remains softhearted and hopeful and trusting in human nature. He’s their gift, his brothers’ chance at breaking their mother’s spell on them.

It’s an extremely powerful read. It’s a bleak family story in an unforgiving environment. In a way, it belongs to the same family as The Hands by Stephen Orr. Translation Tragedy

Kindness Goes Unpunished by Craig Johnson

May 21, 2018 11 comments

Kindness Goes Unpunished by Craig Johnson (2007) French title: L’indien blanc, translated by Sophie Aslanides.

Kindness Goes Unpunished is the third volume of the Longmire crime fiction series by Craig Johnson. (See my billets about The Cold Dish and Death Without Company  Longmire is the sheriff of the fictional Absaroka country in Wyoming. When the book opens Longmire is driving to Philadelphia to accompany his best friend Henry Standing Bear (The Bear) who is hosting an exhibition about Indian Art at the city museum. Longmire’s daughter Cady works at a law firm in Philly and she wants her father to meet with her boyfriend, something Longmire dreads a little bit. Philadelphia is also the hometown of Vic Moretti, Longmire’s second in command in the sheriff’s office in Wyoming. Her father and brothers work for the PPD. With three good reasons to visit Philadelphia, Longmire leaves his beloved Absaroka county for a trip to the city.

When Longmire and The Bear arrive in Philadelphia, Cady isn’t there to welcome them. She has been assaulted and is in a coma. Worried sick about her, Longmire starts digging to understand what happened to his only child. After all, he must occupy the time between painful visits to the hospital. This terrible event turns into an opportunity to meet Vic’s family, her mother as a support system and her father and brothers as policemen.

When Cady’s boyfriend Devon is murdered a few days after she was assaulted, it is clear that the attack against her wasn’t random and that Devon was involved in shady businesses. This is how our country sheriff gets sucked into a dangerous investigation about drug trafficking while getting to know Vic’s family.

What can I say? This series is good. The plot held my attention. The criminal investigation was interesting. With all the walks and rides in Philadelphia, it makes you want to visit the city and see the places for yourself. The characters are flowed and likeable. Their interactions are subtle. Craig Johnson explores their feelings with a light painter’s touch, drawing their inner thoughts and struggles, slowly building up relationships, the way they do in real life with daily small interactions.

The change of setting was a good idea, a way to build a bridge between Wyoming and Philadelphia, where Vic’s and Longmire’s families live. The personal lives of the characters move forward but without too many details, which still makes it possible to read this book without reading the previous ones. I like that there’s always something about Native Americans in his books. Here, far from Wyoming, they are present through The Bear’s exhibition, Cady’s work as a lawyer and a character from the criminal plot.

Craig Johnson’s writing is warm like Louise Penny’s, if you’ve ever read the Armand Gamache series. Both managed to create a set of characters the reader is happy to hear about and see how they are doing since the previous book. I’m slowly reading this series and I have three unread ones on the shelf, a comforting sight for future comfort reads.

La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre

May 6, 2018 8 comments

La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre. (2017) French literature, not available in English. (Yet)

La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre will probably end up on my 2018 best of. Meet Patience Portefeux, 53, a widow with two grown-up daughters, with a boyfriend in the police force, and a mother in a nursing home. She’s an underpaid translator from the Arab for the French department of Justice.

As a translator and interpret, Patience spends hours and hours translating and transcribing conversations between drug dealers and other criminals. She also spends hours at the Law Courts, assisting during hearings and questionings. She struggles financially: her daughters are in university, the nursing home costs an arm and a leg, her job pays indemnities instead of wages, which means no retirement money.

So, one day, she seizes an opportunity and crosses the red line and uses what she hears during her job to hijack a huge quantity of marijuana. She becomes La Daronne, the boss of a small dealing network. (In French, daronne is a slang word to say Ma.)

I was waiting for the paperback edition to read La Daronne, a book that won a prize at Quais du Polar last year. I started to read it while I was standing in line at this year’s festival. I can’t tell you how long I waited, I was too engrossed in the story to complain or get impatient. I was waiting for Hannelore Cayre to arrive and sign her books. We chatted a little bit, she was stunned by the line of readers waiting for her. But after reading La Daronne, I’m not surprised that readers wanted to meet her.

Like I said, I was caught in her book from the first pages. Everything drew me in: Patience’s sharp tone, her unusual background, the other characters around her, the original story and the plausibility of it. Contrary to Arctic Chill, this plot doesn’t sound like déjà vu.

Patience sounds real. She has the problems of her age: she’s sandwiched between university costs and nursing home costs, between her daughters and taking care of her ageing mother. The descriptions of the nursing home are vivid, spot on, crude but without pathos. I loved Patience’s irreverence. Political politeness is not her middle name and I loved it. See an example:

J’ai mis une bonne semaine à la repérer [une aide-soignante] vu que dans mouroirs, c’est comme dans les hôpitaux ou les crèches : il n’y a pratiquement que des Noires et des Arabes qui y travaillent. Racistes de tout bord, sachez que la première et la dernière personne qui vous nourrira à la cuillère et qui lavera vos parties intimes est une femme que vous méprisez ! It took me a week to spot her [a nursing auxiliary] because in old people’s houses, it’s like in hospitals and creches: almost all the employees working there are Blacks or Arabs. Racists of all sides, you’d better know that the first and the last person who will feed you with a spoon and wash your private parts is a woman you despise!

If you want to imagine the tone of this book, its dark humor, its bluntness and its exploration of French society’s dirty corners, think of Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes.

La Daronne is a fast-paced trip into Patience’s life but also a journey into the quotidian of small criminality seen from all sides: the marijuana drug dealers’ ecosystem, the policemen’s never-ending work to catch them and the judicial system to judge them.

Hannelore Cayre is a criminal lawyer. She knows perfectly the ins and outs of the French judicial system. What she writes about the translators’ status is true. And so shocking. Imagine that the Department of Justice, the one in charge to enforce the laws of this country cannot afford to pay social charges on the translators’ work and found a trick to avoid paying them. How is that even possible? Especially when you know that private companies have to check every six months that the suppliers with which they do more than 5000 euros of business per year have paid their social security charges. Imagine the paperwork. And the same politicians who impose these useless checks to the private sector turn a blind eye on the Department of Justice employing only freelances to avoid social costs because of budget issues? Truly, I’m ashamed of the way this country treats its judicial system and of how little money we put in this crucial pillar of our democracy.

But back to Patience. Knowing all this, can we really judge her for crossing moral lines? Hannelore Cayre puts an unflattering light on this corner of our world. It’s eye opening, refreshing, new and engaging. This is the real France, not the postcard one.

It’s a Translation Tragedy book, at least for the moment. I saw that her previous books have been translated into German, this one might make it too.

A last quote, just for the pleasure of it.

Dehors, c’était l’automne. Il pleuvait tous les jours comme sur les planètes inhospitalières des films de SF, alors qu’à la télé les infos diffusaient des reportages pour apprendre aux gens à faire des garrots en cas de membre arraché par une bombe. Outside it was autumn. It rained every day like in inhospitable planets in SF movies. On TV, the news flash broadcasted reportages about how to do a tourniquet in case someone lost a member during a bombing.

Welcome to France after the Islamic terrorist attacks…

Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indridason

May 6, 2018 6 comments

Artic Chill by Arnaldur Indridason (2005) French title: Hiver arctique. Translated from the Icelandic by Eric Boury.

When Arctic Chill opens, Inspector Erlendur is on a crime scene. Elias, a ten years old boy has been murdered. He was born in Iceland from an Icelandic father and a Thai mother. Could it be a racist crime? Erlendur and his team are on the murderer’s trail and will make lots of detours before finding the culprit.

What can I say? I’ve heard a lot praise for Indridason and was utterly disappointed. I thought that the plot was trite, the investigation was dragging along, the ending was banal and unsatisfactory. Erlendur and his colleagues Elinborg and Sigudur Oli aren’t that fascinating. It took 404 pages to reach the conclusion in a tepid style. I didn’t even have the satisfaction to learn about Iceland. It didn’t help that the characters’ Icelandic names with their “dur” and “borg” endings evoked pictures of Vikings with swords, helmets and sheep skin clothing rather than 21st century human beings but that’s on me.

Paper thin plot + No real literary creativity + Rather boring book = short billet.

Why bother to write something then?

Because of my only rule : one book, one billet. I’m often behind with the writing and I feel that if I let myself not write about one book, other deserving ones might know the same fate. I need to respect this rule.

And also because I want to know: is this a bad one in the Erlendur series or are all the books like this? Please let me know what you think of Indridason if you’ve already read something by him.

Quais du Polar 2018

April 8, 2018 10 comments

For newcomers to Book Around the Corner, Quais du Polar is a crime fiction festival set in Lyon. Writers come and meet with readers, participate to panels about crime fiction and celebrate this literary genre with amateurs. The whole city organize meets, games, conferences, films, exhibits around crime fiction for three days. A giant bookshop made of the aggregation of the stands of independent bookstores from Lyon is set up in the great hall of the Chamber of Commerce.

It used to be the Lyon Stock Exchange and during a weekend, it’s a crowded place full of crime fiction lovers who interact with writers, talk with enthusiast libraires (sorry, I can’t call a libraire a book seller, especially not the ones present at Quais du Polar) and read in the alleys between signing and conferences. Here’s the picture of this unique bookstore, on Saturday morning, before the big crowds arrived.

Of course, it ends up with a book haul. That’s inevitable, here’s what I bought:

Craig Johnson was in Lyon again and he will be in other cities in France. It seems that when he’s not in Wyoming, he’s in France! I got another book by him, the edition by Gallmeister because they’re so much better than the paperback version by Le Point.

I started to read La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre while I was waiting for her at her stand and I finished it the day after in a queue before a conference. I was totally captivated and the world could have collapsed around me and I wouldn’t have noticed. I’ll write a billet about it. I’d heard it was excellent and I wasn’t disappointed.

Another French writer: Pascal Dessaint. I’ve never read him and he’s not available in English. He’s published by Rivages Noir which is a good sign for me. He recommended to start with Loin des humains. He said it encapsulates the elements that are the trademark of his work. Who am I to contradict the author? I trust his judgement and will discover his work with this one.

I’d heard about My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent through the newsletter of his French publisher, Gallmeister. If they decided to publish it, then it’s good American literature. I bought it in English even if I’m sure that the translation is excellent.

This year, the festival was dedicated to Italian crime fiction and I bought Piste noire (Black Run) by Antonio Manzini after hearing him at a panel about Italy.

I was tempted by many other books and was a bit disappointed not to find any Australian crime fiction gem. I asked to several libraires but Oz crime fiction isn’t widely spread here.

I only went to three panels, one about Italy and its regions, one about republishing books and one among writers who have a teenager as central character in their latest book. I’ll write more about the conferences. This year I could only attend the festival for two days but I had a great time with friends, I loved wandering in the bookstore, being among so many avid readers.

As always, writers seemed to enjoy themselves as much as the visitors. This 14th edition of the festival was a success, a great way to celebrate crime fiction as a noble literary genre.

Tom from Les Expectations de Hurlevent (That’s what his blog Wuthering Expectations has become during his stay in France) wrote three billets about the festival, you can find them here, here and here.

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