Raven Black by Ann Cleeves (2006) The Shetland Series 1

Raven Black is the first in Ann Cleeves Shetland Series. It has been on my piles for ages and when the first cooler days arrived – they are already gone again, temperatures are back to 20° – 25° C – I felt like reading it finally. I always meant to read Ann Cleeves as I had heard good things about her. While I wasn’t blown away, I still enjoyed it very much and can see why people praise her.

On a morning walk, back from school, where she dropped off her daughter, Fran Hunter discovers a dead girl in the snow. Fran has moved to Shetland because her ex-husband lives here and she wanted to give her small daughter the opportunity so see him more often. She doesn’t really fit in, and if it wasn’t for Cassie, she’d rather live in London. Cassie has adjusted better but she has some difficulties with her teacher who doesn’t like that she’s so self-assured. The teacher’s daughter, Sally, is the opposite—shy and submissive. At least until Catherine Ross arrives in Shetland. The two girl become unlikely friends. Catherine is confident and rather rebellious. And now she’s dead. Someone murdered her.

Years ago, a young girl disappeared. Her body was never found but the community suspected that the loner Magnus Tait had something to do with her disappearance. He was never convicted, but with Catherine’s murder, the old suspicions reawaken.

The two detectives in charge of the case, local Perez and Taylor from Yorkshire, aren’t convinced of Magnus’ guilt. At least not in the beginning.

Raven Black is suspenseful but the suspense wasn’t the book’s chief appeal. I really liked the characterisations and the sense of place. Ann Cleeves takes a lot of time to introduce us to her characters. Most chapters are written from a different perspective. That could have taken away a lot from the suspense but it didn’t. We got to know the characters well, but most of them still stayed suspicious.

Perez was by far one of my favourite characters. He’s become a bit of loner after his divorce, possibly always was, since his family, as the name indicates, isn’t from Shetland originally. He used to be Fran’s ex-husband’s best friend but nowadays, they don’t really see eye to eye.

As I said, this was my first Ann Cleeves novel. I wouldn’t mind reading her again. I liked the care with which she described her characters, the plotting is well done, and the writing is assured. The reader senses immediately that this is an experienced writer.

I could also imagine, that this series gets better because the main character, Perez, is interesting and likable and he’s left at a point in his life where a lot of changes could be expected.

The Shetland Series has been made into a BBC 1 TV series. It’s available on YouTube.

Have you read Ann Cleeves? Which books would you recommend?

 

 

Literature and War Readalong October 2017: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

 

Irène Némirovsky’s posthumously published book Suite Française has been on my pile for ages. I bought the French edition when it came out in 2004. The book consists of two fifths of a novel that was planned to have five parts. Irène Némirovsky wasn’t able to finish her work.  The author, who was of Ukrainian Jewish origin, was deported by the Nazis and killed in 1942.

Usually I start my readalong books later in the month but given that this one is over 500 pages long, I started early. That’s why I can do something, I usually can’t do— urge you to pick this up. I haven’t finished yet but I can already tell – this is fantastic and will make my end of year list.

Most WWII novels we’ve read for the readalong were written either with hindsight or as contemporary historical novels. Not this one. It was written while things happened, which gives it a poignancy, many other books lack. In that it reminds me of Duras’ La douleur.

Here are the first sentences:

Hot, thought the Parisians. The warm air of spring. It was night, they were at war and there was an air raid. But dawn was near and the war far away. The first to hear the hum of the siren were those who couldn’t sleep—the ill and bedridden, mothers with sons at the front, women crying for the men they loved. To them it began as a long breath, like air being forced into a deep sigh. It wasn’t long before its wailing filled the sky. It came from afar, from beyond the horizon, slowly, almost lazily. Those still asleep dreamt of waves breaking over pebbles, a March storm whipping the woods, a herd of cows trampling the ground with their hooves, until finally sleep was shaken off and they struggled to open their eyes, murmuring. “Is it an air raid?”

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Suite Française by Irène Nemirovsky, 432 pages, France 1942, WWII

Set during the year that France fell to the Nazis, Suite Française falls into two parts. The first is a brilliant depiction of a group of Parisians as they flee the Nazi invasion; the second follows the inhabitants of a small rural community under occupation. Suite Française is a novel that teems with wonderful characters struggling with the new regime. However, amidst the mess of defeat, and all the hypocrisy and compromise, there is hope. True nobility and love exist, but often in surprising places.

Irène Némirovsky began writing Suite Française in 1940, but her death in Auschwitz prevented her from seeing the day, sixty-five years later, that the novel would be discovered by her daughter and hailed worldwide as a masterpiece.

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The discussion starts on Tuesday, 31 October 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Leslie Marmon Silko: Ceremony (1977) Literature and War Readalong September 2017

The good news first—I got along better with Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony than with N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn. I found the writing evocative; the descriptions of the landscape are stunning and it’s a very rich, multi-layered book. The bad news—it was still hard work. There’s not much of a plot, the story isn’t told chronologically, there’s a mix between prose and poems, and without some research, a lot of it would have gone over my head. And that even though I studied cultural anthropology and have at least some idea of Native American mythology.

Given its complexity and that I did only very little research after finishing it, I can’t write an exhaustive review. But I can give you a brief summary and focus on some of the elements that stood out for me.

Tayo, who is half Laguna and half White, suffers from PTSD. He’s a veteran of the war in the Pacific. But not only that, he was also a prisoner of war and one of only a few to survive the notorious Bataan Death March. He’s haunted by the atrocities of war, like the killing of Japanese prisoners, and the things he saw during the march, especially the death of his best friend Rocky. After his captivity, after the war, Tayo spends time at an army hospital but back at the reservation, it’s clear, he’s not cured. He hallucinates, hears voices, drinks too much and gets violent. His family feels that only a medicine man can help but the first ceremony doesn’t change anything because the medicine man is stuck in the past. Only when Tayo finds another medicine man, who incorporates the changes the world has undergone, does he have a chance to heal.

The book explores many themes. Change and identity, the way white people destroy nature and other humans, war, spirituality, the landscape and nature. One could pick any of these themes and write endlessly about it. Since I read this for the readalong, I’ll focus on  a few of the war elements.

There are several things that stood out. First, Tayo, Rocky, and their friends sign up because they hope that fighting for the US, will help them to be accepted. To become “real Americans” one could say. Once back, they soon learn that nothing has changed. They don’t receive any recognition and are pretty much where they were before, only worse off because now they have to deal with contradictions and trauma. Tayo discovers one of the biggest contradictions once he realizes that the Japanese look similar and that the faces of his friends and the soldiers merge in his hallucinations. That’s when he understands he has been instrumentalized by the whites. But not only that – they value him and his people as little as the Japanese. The atomic bomb was tested near the Indian reservations and then used to bomb people, who look a lot like the Indians. The sequence below illustrates this very well.

He had been so close to it, caught up in it for so long that its simplicity struck him deep inside his chest: Trinity Site, where they exploded the first atomic bomb, was only three hundred miles to the southeast, at White Sands. And the top-secret laboratories where the bomb had been created were deep in the Jemez Mountains, on land the Government took from Cochiti Pueblo: Los Alamos, only a hundred miles northeast of him now, still surrounded by high electric fences and the ponderosa pine and tawny sand rock of the Jemez mountain canyon where the shrine of the twin mountain lions had always been. There was no end to it; it knew no boundaries; and he had arrived at the point of convergence where the fate of all living things, and even the earth had been laid. From the jungles of his dreaming he recognised why the Japanese voices had merged with Laguna voices, with Josiah’s voice and Rocky’s voice; the lines of cultures and world were drawn in flat dark lines on fine light sand, converging in the middle of witchery’s final ceremonial sand painting. From that time on, human beings were one clan again, united by the fate the destroyers planned for all of them, for all living things; united by a circle of death that devoured people in cities twelve thousand miles away, victims who had never known these mesas, who had never seen the delicate color of the rocks which boiled up their slaughter.

Needless to say, that the book is to a large extent a criticism of white society and the way White people destroy everything – other people, animals, and nature. In the ceremony, Tayo learns that there are forces, called destroyers, who brought witchery, or dark witchcraft into the world to destroy it. The whites seem to have been the most infected and now act according to the destroyers’ will.

I know I’m not doing this book justice. It’s extremely complex and poetic. To properly review and analyse it, it would need, at least, a second reading.

I didn’t fully warm to Ceremony. I liked the descriptions of the landscape best. And the parts where Tayo’s on a quest to find his uncle’s cattle. Tayo’s a keen observer and the harsh beauty of the land, the precariousness of life in a dry, desert like place, where livestock is constantly threatened to die of thirst, is powerfully rendered. On the other hand, when I look at our world today, the way climate change affects us all, when I think of the 6th extinction that’s currently underway, and how “he who shall not be named” uses a rhetoric of total destruction, I can’t help but notice that Ceremony is an important book. Many of the themes are as actual today as they were when Leslie Marmon Silko wrote it.

I hope I could give a bit of an idea of the book. Its’ definitely ideal for students of American and/or Native American Literature, as it’s so rich and offers so many topics for analysis and discussion. 

Here’s one of my favourite quotes:

The buzzing of grasshopper wings came from the weeds in the yard, and the sound made his backbone loose. He lay back in the red dust on the old mattress and closed his eyes. The dreams had been terror at loss, at something lost forever; but nothing was lost; all was retained between the sky and the earth, and within himself. He had lost nothing. The snow-covered mountain remained, without regard to titles of ownership or the white ranchers who thought they possessed it. They logged the trees, they killed the deer, bear and mountain lions, they built their fences high; but the mountain was far greater than any or all of these things. The mountain outdistanced their destruction, just as love had outdistanced death. The mountain could not be lost to them, because it was in their bones; Josiah and Rocky were not far away. They were close; they had always been close. And he loved them then as he had always loved them, the feeling pushing over him as strong as it had ever been. They loved him that way; he could still feel the love they had for him. The damage that had been done had never reached his feeling. This feeling was their life, vitality locked deep in blood memory, and the people were strong, and the fifth world endured, and nothing was ever lost as long as the love remained.

Other Reviews

TJ (My Book Strings)

 

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Ceremony is the fifth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the French WWII novel Suite Française by Irène Nemirovsky. Discussion starts on Tuesday 31 October, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

Flynn Berry: Under the Harrow (2016)

I’m so glad I came across Under the Harrow on Danielle’s site here. I knew right away I would love it and I was right. Flynn Berry received the Edgar Award for her début and she certainly deserved that. It’s one of the most convincing and surprising psychological thrillers I’ve read in a long time. Think “Gone Girl” or “Girl on a Train” but much, much better and tighter, in spare, convincing prose, and with a literary quality.

At the beginning of the book, Nora’s on a train from London to the English countryside where her sister Rachel lives and works as a nurse. Rachel doesn’t pick her up at the train station, which isn’t too strange because she’s very busy, but when Nora approaches the house she senses something isn’t right. And then she finds Rachel’s dog brutally murdered and her sister savagely killed.

We ate dinner together every night in Cornwall and had an endless number of things to say. She was my favourite person to talk with, because what caught her attention caught mine too.

The police investigate and soon Nora finds out she might not have known her sister as well as she thought. Because she’s not happy with the investigation and thinks she knows who did it, she starts to investigate on her own. Her emotions complicate things considerably. Her grief is so raw, so palpable, and very complex. Nora misses Rachel so much and often forgets that she’s dead. It’s absolutely harrowing.

She had so much left to do. It isn’t that she had something grand in mind, at least not that I know of. It is worse than that, she has been taken away from everything, she lost everything. She likes red lipstick, and will never again stand in the aisle at a chemist’s, testing the shades on the back of her hand. She likes films, and will miss all the ones coming out at the holidays that she planned to see. She likes pan con tomate, and will never again come home from work and mash tomatoes and garlic and olive oil, and rub it onto grilled bread, and eat it standing in her kitchen.

The reader finds out that there was a dark element in their relationship and begins to wonder whether what Nora’s saying is really true. So does the police.

And then there’s an incident from Rachel’s past that casts a shadow over everything. As a teenager she was brutally attacked and ever since then had tried to track down the man who did it and was never found by the police.

All these different plotlines come together in the end. The ending is one of the best I’ve come across in a long time. It’s a huge twist but it’s entirely plausible.

Flynn Berry is very good at creating great characters. Both Rachel and Nora feel very real. Full of contradictions, a mix of darkness and light. The secondary characters are equally convincing.

Under the Harrow is atmospheric and suspenseful but it’s much more than a simple page turner. It explores the often complex relationship between sisters, devastating grief, and the way the past can haunt us.

I know I’m raising the expectations of future readers but I have to say it— This book is stellar.

Nicci French: Saturday Requiem (2016) Frieda Klein Series 6

Those who follow this blog know how much I like the books of writer duo Nicci French. Their standalone novels and their Frieda Klein series.

I still think that the first two in the Frieda Klein series are the best but I did enjoy some of the others, even though Frieda’s life often took up much more space than the mystery itself. Not so in this book. From a mystery point of view, Saturday Requiem is one of the best in the series. Sadly, I liked it less than the others before because Frieda’s turned into a bit of a cypher. Her life took up minimal space. There was zero development on the personal front. That was a bit disappointing. In the last two books, the personal life was almost too much in the center and here, we got only glimpses.

The book starts when Frieda’s asked to visit Hannah, a patient in a psychiatric ward. The woman has been there for 13 years, ever since she was found guilty of savagely killing her whole family. The detective who had been working on the case back then, is under investigation and it’s possible that he made mistakes with this case. That’s why Frieda’s asked to try and talk to Hannah and tie up loose ends.

When Frieda visits Hannah, she shows every sign of being mad, but Frieda doesn’t think that she was always like this. It rather looks as if being charged with the murder and sent to a psychiatric hospital for life, may have caused her “madness”. Clearly, Hannah spends a lot of time in solitary confinement. Since the police do not want to reopen the case, Frieda, who doesn’t think Hannah is guilty, begins to investigate on her own.

Like in the other books of the series, there’s the shadow of the perpetrator from the first book looming in the shadows. Possibly he even enters Frieda’s house.

Overall, the book is suspenseful. Not unputdownable, but very readable.

It’s pretty obvious, the series is coming to an end, not only because it’s logical, given the titles of the books, but because this one ends with a major cliffhanger, something none of the other books in the series do. Nicci French is definitely gearing up for the finale.

If it wasn’t for this cliffhanger and the overarching story, I might not have picked up the next one. There are just too many great crime series out there that I still want to read. But then again, I want to see how it all ends and so I’ve already got Sunday Morning Coming Down waiting on my piles.

Here are the other reviews of the series

Blue Monday

Tuesday’s Gone

Waiting for Wednesday

Thursday’s Child

Friday on My Mind

Literature and War Readalong September 2017: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony is the second Native American novel we’re reading for this year’s Literature and War Readalong 2017. I truly hope it’s more accessible than the first we read N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn. I struggled quite a bit with it as you can see here.

Leslie Marmon Silko was born in 1948, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is of mixed heritage, Laguna Pueblo, Mexican and white. She grew up on a Laguna Pueblo Reservation and continued to live there later in life.

Ceremony immediately became an American classic after its publication in 1977. It especially spoke to the Vietnam war veterans who related to the novels’ exploration of a veteran’s way of healing.

Here is the first sentence of Ceremony:

Tayo didn’t sleep well that night. He tossed in the cold iron bed, and the coiled springs kept squeaking even after he lay still again, calling up humid dreams of black night and loud voices rolling him over and over again like debris caught in a flood.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join:

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, 243 pages, US 1977, WWII

The great Native American Novel of a battered veteran returning home to heal his mind and spirit
More than thirty-five years since its original publication, Ceremony remains one of the most profound and moving works of Native American literature, a novel that is itself a ceremony of healing. Tayo, a World War II veteran of mixed ancestry, returns to the Laguna Pueblo Reservation. He is deeply scarred by his experience as a prisoner of the Japanese and further wounded by the rejection he encounters from his people. Only by immersing himself in the Indian past can he begin to regain the peace that was taken from him. Masterfully written, filled with the somber majesty of Pueblo myth, Ceremony is a work of enduring power. The Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition contains a new preface by the author and an introduction by Larry McMurtry.

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The discussion starts on Friday, September 29.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman (2017)

Sarah Winman’s Tin Man is another novel I bought because of some rave reviews. Luckily, this time, I enjoyed the book a lot. It’s actually surprising because Sarah Winman does something I normally don’t like. She switches narrators in the middle of the novel, using a narrative device that can easily sink a novel – the use of a diary. In this case, the switch added poignancy and turned a very good novel into an excellent, heartbreaking book.

Before I start with a brief summary, let me emphasize what a great cover this book has. Until you read it, it’s just a pop of yellow color with a man riding a bicycle on it, but once you’ve read the book, you know that the yellow cover alludes to one of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings – The Sunflowers.

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

The painting stands for beauty and the belief, as one of the characters’ mother says, that boys and men are capable of beautiful things.

As a matter of fact, the book starts with the painting or rather how Ellis’ mother won a copy of it in a raffle and put it on a wall, in an act of defiance. Her brutish husband would have preferred her to take a bottle of whisky. The year is 1950 and it’s Ellis’ birth year.

The book then moves to 1996. We are in Elli’s house. There’s a photograph of three people on a bookshelf. A photograph Ellis rarely looks at because two of the three people in it are gone. One, his wife, is dead. What happened to the other one, his best friend Michael ,will be revealed over the course of the novel.

Annie, Ellis’ wife, has been dead for five years, but the grief is still raw. It’s one of the reasons why Ellis works at night. In a factory. Factory work wasn’t exactly his calling. He wanted to become a painter but after his mother’s early death, his dad didn’t allow it.

Ellis’ whole life is slowly revealed. At its heart is his friendship with Michael, a lonely orphan, who lives nearby and visits often. The two boys are very close. Also physically close and for the longest time, one of them, Michael, thinks they will be lovers. They will, in fact, but it’s a furtive thing. Ellis doesn’t really seem to be gay. And once Annie comes along, there’s no doubt, this is the love of his life. At least romantically speaking, because in terms of emotional love, there’s not much of a difference. He loves Michael just as much as Annie.The truly magical thing, though, is that Michael and Annie become best friends as well.

Of course the reader wonders where Michael is. Why is Ellis’ best friend not with him and helps him to get over his grief?

Ellis has an accident and is on sick leave for a long time. Having so much time for himself, has a huge impact. He revisits his life, his aspirations, his dreams. And then he finds Michael’s diary and we finally learn what happened. How they lost contact and why they are apart.

The first part, Ellis’ part, is sad, but the second, Michael’s, is heartbreaking. The relationship seen through his eyes, gets another meaning and the book explores another form or grief—heartbreak.

Here’s what Michael says

I rest till I’m calm and my breathing has settled. I lift myself out and sit by the edge of the pool with a towel around my shoulders. And I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.

Both men travel to the South of France, following Van Gogh’s itinerary but also, in Ellis’ case, exploring where Michael spent some time.

These parts are beautiful and capture the landscape, its colors and scents so well

It’s a rare overcast day and I walk over to Mausole, to the St. Paul asylum where Van Gogh spent a year before he died. The air along this stretch of road is filled with the scent of honeysuckle that has crept over a neighbouring wall. I think it’s honeysuckle. It’s sweet and fragrant, but I’m not good with plants – that was Annie’s thing. I veer off through olive groves where the sun has yet to take the colour of the wildflowers. In two weeks, though, the grass will be scorched and lifeless.

Since this novel is mainly set in the 90s of the last century and does explore what it was like to be gay back then, it touches on so many really sad topics like HIV, the way homosexuals were perceived by society, how many never came out, how they had to hide. Things have gotten so much better by now, that we almost tend to forget that not too long ago, they were very different. In the early 90s HIV was still synonymous with Aids. Once you were infected there wasn’t a huge chance you wouldn’t get seriously ill sooner or later and then, because there was no cure, die. There are passages, in which Michael visits men in an Aids ward. They are harrowing.

Tragic books, especially when they describe raw emotions can turn mushy or tacky. This one never crosses these lines. It’s moving and deeply touching without being sentimental. It’s an emotional ride that explores themes like grief and loss, loneliness and unrequited love, finding one’s path, following one’s calling and, most of all, fining beauty where there seems to be only ugliness. A truly beautiful book.