Friday, 15 December 2017

A Maigret Christmas by Georges Simenon


A Maigret Christmas by Georges Simenon
First published by Presses de la Cite in France in French as Un Noel de Maigret in 1951. English language translation by David Coward published in the UK by Penguin on the 2nd November 2017.

Where to buy this book:

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How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is Christmas in Paris, but beneath the sparkling lights and glittering decorations lie sinister deeds and dark secrets...

This collection brings together three of Simenon's most enjoyable Christmas tales, newly translated, featuring Inspector Maigret and other characters from the Maigret novels. In 'A Maigret Christmas', the Inspector receives two unexpected visitors on Christmas Day, who lead him on the trail of a mysterious intruder dressed in red and white. In 'Seven Small Crosses in a Notebook', the sound of alarms over Paris send the police on a cat and mouse chase across the city. And 'The Little Restaurant in Les Ternes (A Christmas Story for Grown-Ups)' tells of a cynical woman who is moved to an unexpected act of festive charity in a nightclub - one that surprises even her...

Penguin have republished a trio of seasonal Maigret short stories, collectively entitled A Maigret Christmas, and offered me a review copy of the first story. The only other Georges Simenon book I have read was very different and I never watched any of the television adaptations so I wasn't previously familiar with the Maigret crime mysteries. In some respects A Maigret Christmas was a good place to start discovering the series.

The short story is set over the course of Christmas Day in Paris and mostly takes place in Maigret's own apartment and that of his neighbour. I liked the strong sense of the time period - I believe the story was originally written in the 1950s and set in the 1930s - and the telling details of people's dress. You just know a woman isn't quite respectable if she leaves her home without stockings on! I liked the glimpses into a French Christmas Day such as bakeries still being open to buy fresh croissants. With regards to the case itself though, I found it hard to believe that so much of the research demanded by Maigret of his staff could have been carried out as swiftly as the tale's timescales required. Lots of the logic jumps and conclusions seemed just too convenient for my tastes and the small cast of characters made it pretty obvious where we would end up - although not exactly how we would get there. Overall I thought A Maigret Christmas was a quaint mystery with a nice seasonal vibe.


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Books by Georges Simenon / Short stories / Books from Belgium

Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan


The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan
First published in Russian in Russia by Livebook in 2009. English language translation by Yuri Machkasov published in America by AmazonCrossing in April 2017.

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How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Gray House is an astounding tale of how what others understand as liabilities can be leveraged into strengths.

Bound to wheelchairs and dependent on prosthetic limbs, the physically disabled students living in the House are overlooked by the Outsides. Not that it matters to anyone living in the House, a hulking old structure that its residents know is alive. From the corridors and crawl spaces to the classrooms and dorms, the House is full of tribes, tinctures, scared teachers, and laws—all seen and understood through a prismatic array of teenagers’ eyes.

But student deaths and mounting pressure from the Outsides put the time-defying order of the House in danger. As the tribe leaders struggle to maintain power, they defer to the awesome power of the House, attempting to make it through days and nights that pass in ways that clocks and watches cannot record.

I received my review copy of The Gray House back at the beginning of 2017 but, being intimidated by its 700+ page length, kept putting off even starting to read it until now. This was a serious mistake - The Gray House is absolutely brilliant! Seclude-yourself-for-a-week-with-your-phone-turned-off breathtakingly brilliant! I could easily write a whole review of fangirl superlatives, I loved this book that much. Yet, that said, it won't be to everyone's taste. I have seen other reviews using The Lord Of The Flies as a comparison and inasmuch as that book centres on a group of unaccompanied boys I can see their point, but I wouldn't necessarily agree. Perhaps if Salman Rushdie had written Gormenghast the result might be closer to the fantastic and fantastical richness of The Gray House?

I obviously want to impart as much of my enthusiasm as possible, but am struggling to describe Petrosyan's novel in a way that will do it justice! It is set in a neglected House for physically disabled children, children who have mostly been effectively abandoned there by their families so, other than attempts at lessons, the tribes of boys (and, later, girls) are left to their own devices. Living by complex sets of rules and Laws, we see their limited world through their own eyes. I loved that this world is limited by the borders of the House, not by the various disabilities. Ingenuity, inventiveness and camaraderie seem to render most disability irrelevant.

The story is told from different points of view, some first person and some third person, with each speaker having their own distinctive voices. The Gray House is divided into three books each with their own lengthy character list at the beginning, but I didn't bother with the lists as I soon found myself easily identifying and remembering characters by their Nicks (nicknames) and actions. Like new boy Grasshopper, it took me a while to settle into the House, but once I began to understand its ways and its stories, I was absolutely engrossed.


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Books by Mariam Petrosyan / Contemporary fiction / Books from Armenia

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Beauty And Beastly by Melanie Karsak + Giveaway + Extract


Beauty And Beastly: a steampunk Beauty and the Beast by Melanie Karsak
Self published in America on the 6th December 2017.

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Add Beauty And Beastly to your Goodreads

In this tale as old as time, Isabelle Hawking must tinker a solution to a heartbreaking mystery. When Isabelle Hawking and her papa set out from London on a sea voyage, Isabelle is thrilled. Visiting foreign courts, learning from master tinkers, and studying mechanicals is her dream. And it doesn't hurt that the trip also offers Isabelle an escape from her overbearing and unwanted suitor, Gerard LeBoeuf. But Isabelle never arrives. Swept up in a tempest, her ship is lost.

Isabelle survives the storm only to be shipwrecked on a seemingly-deserted island. The magical place, dotted with standing stones, faerie mounds, and a crumbling castle, hints of an ancient past. Isabelle may be an unwilling guest, but her arrival marks a new beginning for the beastly residents of this forgotten land.

See how NY Times bestselling author Melanie Karsak puts a steampunk spin on the classic Beauty and the Beast fairy tale.




Extract: Arrival at the castle

“Hello? Is anyone there?”
The sky overhead darkened, and in the distance, I heard the rumble of thunder.
Oh no. No, no, no.
I looked up at the sky. My head swam.
I needed to find shelter.
I turned to go back to the path, but when I did so, I didn’t see the path, nor the ring of mushrooms, nor anything else vaguely familiar.
Once more, the sky rumbled.
I felt the first of the raindrops on my head, but luckily, the thick leaves overhead sheltered me somewhat. As the storm rolled in, the forest grew dark.
I cast a glance around.
It didn’t matter which direction I went. Eventually I would find the shore once more.
Turning to head out, however, I spotted a bluish colored light in the distance. A house? A fire? A lantern? A…something.
“Hello?”
No reply.
Turning, I followed the bluish glow. I headed deeper into the forest, chasing after the light, but soon found its source. It was a mushroom. The glowing mushroom had been sitting on a rise. It had played a trick on my mind. Then I spotted another glowing fungus, then another, and another, all of which held an incandescent blue light. They grew in a straight line. Without a better recourse, and feeling half suspicious of the supernatural, I followed the glow of the blue mushrooms as the rain pattered overhead, the sky rumbling. I followed the blue lights deep into the ancient woods, aware that I was passing other sacred rings. I walked past a mound of earth, a barrow, the final resting place of some ancient person—and some said a passageway to the Otherworld—as I hurried deeper into the woods. Surely I would find the shoreline soon.
Lightning cracked overhead.
Then, on the horizon, I saw golden light. A fire? I squinted my eyes, trying to make out the shape through the trees, but my head ached miserably. Leaning heavily against my staff, I moved toward the golden colored light.
The forest thinned. The glowing mushrooms led me onward toward the glow of the yellow light in the distance. Praying to find someone—anyone—I followed along, well aware that my quick exertion had my stomach rolling. Black spots wriggled before my eyes. The line of mushrooms ended. To my shock, I’d blundered to the center of the island and found myself standing outside the gates of a castle.
I gazed up at the enormous structure. It towered over me, a black silhouette on the horizon. Light glowed through one of the windows in the upper floors. It was raining in earnest now. Not waiting a moment longer, I pushed the gate. It swung open with a creak.
It was pouring.
I leaned my walking staff against a metal bench in the perfectly manicured garden, then grabbing my skirts, I ran for the castle door. As I rushed, lightning flashed. It created an odd illusion on the bushes and flowers around me. For a moment, they all seemed to glimmer like metal under the bright light.
My temples pounded. My stomach rolled. I raced through the heavy rain to the castle door.
Hoping whoever was at home would forgive me for letting myself in, I pushed open the castle door and crept inside.
The place was eerily silent.
“Hello?” I called. “Is anyone here?”
Breathing deeply and quickly, I realized the moment I stopped that I was not well.
I cast a glance toward a roaring fireplace nearby. A chair was seated before the hearth, a glass of something dark sitting beside the seat. I heard a strange clicking sound.
“Hello?” I called again, but this time, my head began to spin. I put my hands on my hips, trying to catch my breath. I closed my eyes. Everything was twirling.
Footsteps approached.
“I-I’m sorry I let myself in but…” I began then opened my eyes.
Standing before me was a massive automaton, its silver eyes staring coldly at me.
A nauseous feeling swept over me, and my head swam. Black spots danced before my eyes.
“Pardon me. I think I’m about to—”
Faint.
But the word was lost.
And so was I.


Meet the author:
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Melanie Karsak is the author of The Airship Racing Chronicles, The Harvesting Series, The Burnt Earth Series, The Celtic Blood Series and Steampunk Fairy Tales. A steampunk connoisseur, zombie whisperer, and heir to the iron throne, the author currently lives in Florida with her husband and two children. She is an Instructor of English at Eastern Florida State College.

Author links:
Twitter ~ Website ~ Facebook ~ Goodreads ~ Pinterest ~ Newsletter
Join Melanie's newsletter and get 2 free books!


And now for the giveaway!
Open internationally until the 31st of January, the prize is a Disney’s Belle Funko Pop, a Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Writing Journal Beauty and the Beast Light-up Rose Cup from Disneyland.

a Rafflecopter giveaway



Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Melanie Karsak / Steampunk fiction / Books from America

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The Shelf Life Of Happiness by David Machado


The Shelf Life Of Happiness by David Machado
First published as Indice Medio de Felicidade in Portuguese in Portugal by Publicacoes Don Quixote in 2013. English language translation by Hillary Locke published in America by AmazonCrossing in 2016.

Where to buy this book:

Abebooks

Amazon UK

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Speedyhen

The Book Depository

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Wordery


How I got this book:
Bought the ebook from Amazon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ripped apart by Portugal’s financial crisis, Daniel’s family is struggling to adjust to circumstances beyond their control. His wife and children move out to live with family hours away, but Daniel believes against all odds that he will find a job and everything will return to normal.

Even as he loses his home, suffers severe damage to his car, and finds himself living in his old, abandoned office building, Daniel fights the realization that things have changed. He’s unable to see what remains among the rubble—friendship, his family’s love, and people’s deep desire to connect. If Daniel can let go of the past and find his true self, he just might save not only himself but also everyone that really matters to him.

I don't have much experience of Portuguese fiction, but the books I have read all seem to have a dystopian viewpoint and The Shelf Life Of Happiness fits right into that genre despite its present day setting. Perhaps its cover art doesn't really fit with the storyline because, although a road trip in a worn out minibus is part of the tale, the main narrative is of a man being reduced to homelessness and almost to destitution as a result of the crumbling Portuguese economy. It's a preview of how much of Britain will look after a few more Conservative years, those areas that aren't already wrecked anyway!

Daniel isn't an easy character to sympathise with but I found myself liking his bloody-minded refusal to give up hope. Even as his dream life falls apart around his ears, he still has hope for his own future and that of his family. The Shelf Life Of Happiness title is actually a mistranslation of the original Portuguese title which references an Index of Average Happiness (nations ranked by the average professed happiness of their people) and I couldn't see why this was changed for the English language edition. The Index is an interesting (and presumably genuine) list which, along with Daniel and his friends, got me to thinking about how I would score my life (pretty high, I think!)

For a book ostensibly about happiness, this is a pretty dark read. One character is trapped in his home by chronic agoraphobia, another spends his leisure time assaulting homeless men, the horrors of factory farming are reduced to a cute computer app, and Daniel himself is struggling to stay financially afloat. Yet, despite all this misery, Machado lifts his tale with black humour and an engaging writing style that I enjoyed reading. I was surprised that I wasn't depressed by the book at all!


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Books by David Machado / Contemporary fiction / Books from Portugal

Monday, 11 December 2017

The Element In The Room by Helen Arney and Steve Mould


The Element In The Room: Science-y Stuff Staring You in the Face (Festival of the Spoken Nerd) by Helen Arney and Steve Mould
Published in the UK by Cassell on the 5th October 2017.

Where to buy this book:

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How I got this book:
Bought the ebook from Amazon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Why is it impossible to spin your right foot clockwise while you draw a 6 with your right hand?

Can you extract DNA from a strawberry daiquiri?

Would you make love like a praying mantis?

Should you book a holiday on Earth 2.0?

The Element in the Room will take you on a rib-tickling, experiment-fuelled adventure to explain everyday science that is staring you in the face. If you are sci-curious, pi-curious or just the-end-is-nigh-curious then this is the book for you.

Steve Mould and Helen Arney are two thirds of science comedy phenomenon Festival of the Spoken Nerd. As a trio they have appeared on QI, created their own experimental* comedy show 'Domestic Science' for Radio 4, toured their stand-up science shows to over 50,000 nerds (and non-nerds) and accumulated millions of views on YouTube.

I love going to the Festival of the Spoken Nerd live shows, but do sometimes find myself getting a little left-behind by explanations of the experiments I witness. Self-guided experimentation by way of The Element In The Room is therefore perfect for me. I can reread the scientific whys and hows enough times that the information actually lodges in my brain rather than skimming off into the distance!

The Element In The Room includes much of what is most fun about FotSN live shows - the humour, the tangential leaps of subject, and there's even a song. It is geared towards the home though and I have been enjoying trying out experiments in our caravan. I hadn't previously considered what a good laboratory it makes, but we have turmeric and noodles and I can cook up a curry. Making a grill pan chime like Big Ben is particularly impressive in such a small room. On the downside, poor Dave has had to listen to me recounting Quite Interesting facts and misremembered theories for the best part of a week. He's now reading The Element In The Room for himself and looking forward to extracting DNA from strawberries sometime soon.

If you're fascinated by the world around us and like your science based in practical experimentation, this could be the perfect book for you too.


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Books by Helen Arney and Steve Mould / Science books / Books from England

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Blackmail, Sex and Lies by Kathryn McMaster + Giveaway + Extract


Blackmail, Sex and Lies by Kathryn McMaster
Published by Drama Llama Press in August 2017.

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Add Blackmail, Sex and Lies to your Goodreads

Blackmail, Sex and Lies is a story of deception, scandal, and fractured traditional Victorian social values. It is the tale of a naïve, young woman caught up in a whirlwind romance with a much older man. However, both have personality flaws that result in poor choices, and ultimately lead to a tragic end.

For 160 years, people have believed Madeleine Smith to have been guilty of murder. But was she? Could she have been innocent after all?

This Victorian murder mystery, based on a true story, takes place in Glasgow, Scotland, 1857. It explores the disastrous romance between the vivacious socialite, Madeleine Hamilton Smith, and her working class lover, Pierre Emile L’Angelier. After a two-year torrid, and forbidden relationship with L’Angelier, that takes place against her parents' wishes, the situation changes dramatically when William Minnoch enters the scene. This new man in Madeleine’s life is handsome, rich, and of her social class. He is also a man of whom her family approve.

Sadly, insane jealous rages, and threats of blackmail, are suddenly silenced by an untimely death.


Extract

The novel is based on the true story of the infamous Madeleine Hamilton Smith, a young socialite from Glasgow. In 1857, she was accused of murdering her working-class lover, Pierre ‘Emile’ L’Angelier with arsenic. In this excerpt we see L’Angelier’s young colleague, Robert Baird, being placed in an invidious position when he asks his aunt and uncle, on Emile’s insistence, if they could arrange a meeting between Emile and Madeleine. Emile is not of the same class as the Smith family, and the request is not well-received at all. How will Emile finally manage to contact young Madeleine on whom he has now set his sights?

‘Robert Baird hoped Emile would forget about wanting to meet Madeleine Smith. He did not. Emile’s constant bombardment of requests became insufferable until finally, under intense pressure, he broached the subject with his aunt and uncle one evening at dinner.
Robert cleared his throat.
“I’ve a friend who’d like to meet Madeleine Smith. He wonders if you’d help arrange it.”
“Well that depends, dear,” replied his aunt, briefly looking up at him before daintily manoeuvring her spoon around her bowl. “How old is he?”
“Difficult to say, perhaps ten years older than Madeleine. I think he’s about twenty-seven or twenty-eight.”
“I doubt he’s established at that age, unless he comes from good money. Do we know him?”
“I don’t think you do, Aunt.”
“Well why not? Who is he?”
“His name is Pierre Emile L’Angelier, but his friends call him Emile.”
“Ah, a Frenchman, that sounds intriguing, Robert. Is he part of the diplomatic corps?”
“Um, no, he isn’t. His parents are French, but actually he was born on the island of Jersey.”
“Well, there’s money in Jersey. What does he do?”
Robert stirred his soup for the twentieth time. Sweat bloomed on his neck. He could feel the small beads trickling down under his stiff shirt collar despite being seated nowhere near the fireplace. 
He drew in a deep breath, avoided looking at his aunt before he managed to say, “He’s a packing clerk at Huggins.”
Robert’s uncle, unusually mute during the entire conversation, roared. Robert involuntarily jumped. The silver spoon in his hand jerked too, ejecting tomato soup in a far-reaching arc over the crisp damask tablecloth. He stared in horrified fascination as the orange-red droplets beaded, sank and spread into the woven fabric leaving behind unsightly blotches. 
“The audacity of the man! Doesn’t he realize who she is? What man of his position would dare ask to meet a young girl such as Madeleine? A packing clerk? This is preposterous, Robert. I forbid you to raise this topic ever again in my company or your aunt’s. I will not entertain this conversation a minute longer, and you should know better than to have raised it.”
“Yes, Uncle.”
“You can go back and tell this scoundrel, Pierre or Emile, or whatever he calls himself, that Madeleine Smith is a young lady of good social standing and he should rather look to his own for female company. If he doesn’t, he will have me to answer to. A good whipping should soon settle this.” ‘

Review

I don't remember having been aware of the Madeleine Smith / Pierre Emile L'Angelier poisoning case prior to reading Blackmail, Sex And Lies despite, like Kathryn McMaster, being a keen reader of true crime books as a teenager. It's a fascinating affair of young love set against strict Victorian rules and I couldn't help but wonder if there would have been such a murderous outcome if the situation arose in our less class-defined society these days - excepting that it is now far more difficult to buy sufficient arsenic of course!

I liked how McMaster combines fiction and nonfiction elements within her novel. The writing style is very much nonfiction rather than historical fiction. The inclusion of lots of Madeleine's genuine letters to Emile adds great authenticity and fictional scenes are cleverly woven around them so we can experience events as McMaster imagines them before reading Madeleine's own words written at the time. Dialogue is occasionally a tad clunky, but I felt I got a good idea of Madeleine and Emile's characters - she the naive socialite, he the obsessive and controlling older man. At times I wondered what on earth attracted Madeleine to such a bullying and (by modern standards) obviously disturbed potential partner, but considering the other men she was allowed to meet and the example of her dictatorial father helped to understand her motivations.

Blackmail, Sex And Lies details every aspect of Madeleine and Emile's relationship, but refrains from 'taking sides' until the very end. We as readers are given the facts and allowed to make our own minds up about guilt and innocence before McMaster weighs in with her thoughts on the legal outcome. It's an interesting device, quite different to most historical fiction I read so refreshing in that sense, although as a result I did sometimes feel more detached from the story than I would have liked.


Meet the author:
Kathryn McMaster is a writer, entrepreneur, wife, mother, and champion of good indie authors. She co-owns the book promotion company One Stop Fiction, where readers can sign up to receive news of free and discounted 4 and 5 star reviewed books. She is also a bestselling author of historical murder mysteries set in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Her debut novel, "Who Killed Little Johnny Gill?" was well received. All her novels are based on true stories, and she melds fact with fiction, writing in the creative nonfiction style. She lives on her 30 acre farm in the beautiful Casentino Valley, Italy for 6 months of the year, and during the other half of the year, on the small island of Gozo, Malta.


Author links: 
Website  ~ GoodreadsFacebook ~ Twitter

And now for the Giveaway

The Prize is one ebook copy of Blackmail, Sex and Lies by Kathryn McMaster.
The Giveaway is open worldwide. Entries must be submitted through the Gleam widget below by midnight (UK time) on the 25th December and I will randomly pick a winner on the 26th. If the winner does not respond to my email within 3 days, they will forfeit the prize and, yes, I will be checking that entrants did complete whatever task they said they did!





Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Kathryn McMaster / Historical fiction / Books from South Africa

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery


Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
First published in French in France by Gallimard in 1943. Bilingual edition with English translation by Wirton Arvel published by Kentauron in January 2015.

Where to buy this book:

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How I got this book:
Borrowed from my partner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the story of a grown-up meeting his inner child, embodied by a Little Prince. Travelling from an asteroid, he left his rose there in order to discover the world. Before landing on Earth he visited many planets and their inhabitants where all grown-ups incarnate humankind’s most common vices. 

I'm proud to have finished Le Petit Prince because it is the first book I have read entirely in French since my A Level exams over twenty years ago! Admittedly this is a children's book and it took me the best part of two weeks, but it's an encouraging start!

I hadn't read this story before so wasn't prepared for how surreal it is. On one hand this was great for me because I thought it an entertaining tale and Saint-Exupery's imaginative details frequently had me laughing out loud. It's vitally important to keep your volcanoes well swept! On the other hand though, bizarre plot ideas often had me doubting my translation skills. I was sure 'Dessine-moi un mouton' meant 'draw me a sheep' but that made no sense. Nonsensical however is what Le Petit Prince is all about so sheep were indeed drawn!

Saint-Exupery veers from surreal to overly-sentimental and is often repetitive. Had I read the story through just in English, I probably would have been irritated by this, but for language study purposes it was useful to have new words reoccurring in later pages. Whether I will ever again need the words for someone who lights streetlamps or a man who manually changes railway points is another matter. The French did often seem overly flowery and I notice Arvel's translation sometimes paraphrases to simplify this. Overall I enjoyed this book and it is a fun tale, albeit a completely mad one!


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Books by Antoine de Saint-Exupery / Children's books / Books from France