Maigret et le marchand de vin [Maigret and the Wine Merchant] by Georges Simenon

Read: 21 July, 2009

According to my dear ol’ mum, bless her French book-reading heart, there’s an entire series of Maigret detective novels. For my own part, I’ve only encountered this one, so I’ll have to take her word for it. In this episode, the owner of a wine distribution company has been murdered and Jules Maigret is called in to investigate.

Le marchand de vin is rather different from many of the detective novels I usually read. For one thing, it’s an actual detective novel – in that the person doing the investigating is a detective in the police force. This introduces a rather different dynamic than I’m accustomed to. My detectives are usually sucked in to a mystery, often reluctantly, and half the story is trying find some way to convince the authorities to serve justice. But here, Maigret has the benefit of the authorities being on his side, but he’s also constrained by this. There are rules to follow, and tactics that are simply off-limits.

I enjoyed how dependent this novel was on conversation. The focus was very little on the discovery of clues, but rather on the interactions between Maigret and his various witnesses and suspects. The whole book reads more like a play than anything else. As a result, character development is emphasized, but also somewhat more subtle. We’re rarely told what characters are feeling, but are left to guess based on their verbal responses. This is fairly common in French literature, but I read so little of it that it made for a refreshing change.

As far as the mystery itself goes, it’s fairly run-of-the-mill. It’s written from a local’s perspective, so it doesn’t have the charm of otherness that Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now had, for example. Maigret is not especially “quirky” like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. In other words, there’s no gimmick to the story. It’s just a plain detective story, albeit of a higher calibre than most. It’s well worth the read for fans of the genre, if only for exposure to how good an ordinary detective without some extraordinary selling feature can be.

Mistress of the Art of Death #4: A Murderous Procession by Ariana Franklin

Read: 24 June, 2010

Adelia Aguilar has been enjoying a simple life with her daughter and friends, but King Henry II has come for her again. This time, he needs her to accompany his sister, Joanna, to Sicily. To ensure that Adelia returns when the task is completed, he keeps her daughter in England as a hostage. As the procession makes its way, strange things start to happen and Adelia is suspected of witchcraft.

There isn’t much to say about this that hasn’t been said for the last three books. If you’ve enjoyed the last three, you’ll enjoy this one too.

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Druids by Morgan Llywelyn

Read: 12 March, 2009

When Ainvar’s grandmother gives her life to save her tribe from starvation, he begins his journey to learn the true meaning of sacrifice. Along with his “soul friend,” the warrior Vercingetorix, Ainvar must find a way to end Caesar’s conquest of Gaul.

POSITIVE: Great plot and a fantastic pace. After a painful beginning, this novel quickly became an exciting page-turner.

NEGATIVE: Unfortunately, this great story was burdened with several narrative issues. Right from the start, the reader is met with page after page of unnecessary exposition. Exciting scenes would be broken up by dull interludes explaining the meaning of this or that ritual or detail. The choice of the first person narrative may also have been a mistake as there is no clear perspective or reason for the telling of the story (at one point, Ainvar says “I must remember to ask Menua,” despite the fact that Menua has already died from the narrator’s perspective). Finally, I have to mention the scene where Ainvar looks into a mirror. He describes the “young man staring back at me” as:

“He had an elegant narrow head with a long skull suitable for storing knowledge. The eye sockets were deeply carved, the cheekbones high, the nose prominent and thrusting. It was a strong clear timeless face full of contradictions, brooding yet mischievous, reserved yet involved. Fathomless eyes and curving lips spoke of intense passions carefully suppressed, concentrated in stillness.”

Who, I ask, would ever write in this way about themselves? It’s just silly.

Overall, I would say that this book is worth the read, especially for people with an interest in historical battles or the history of Gaul. That being said, readers should be prepared for a less-than-fabulous writing style and an incomplete mastery of the first person narrative.

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Marguerite Makes a Book by Bruce Robertson (illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt)

Read: 29 November, 2008

I picked up this book because the concept struck me as such a wonderful idea that I didn’t want to pass up the chance and risk not being able to find it (or of forgetting about it) when I have someone age-appropriate in the house to share it with. I’m really glad I did!

The book is superb, from cover to cover. The art is gorgeous. For some reason, a lot of children’s books have awful squiggly line art, as though kids wanted to see drawings that were apartment made by people at their artistic level. Maybe that’s true for some children, but I never appreciated being talked down to – even artistically. In this book, the illustrations (mostly watercolour, with some shiny gold detailing) are absolutely enchanting. They feature plenty of pictures detailing the process of making a book in the Middle Ages, as well as city streets and even maps of Medieval Paris.

The story itself is quite good, though fairly standard. Marguerite’s father makes books, but he’s getting too old. The deadline for a new book is coming up, but he’s broken his glasses, so Marguerite has to finish the book on her own. She walks around Paris shopping for the ingredients and then goes home to work on the book. The deadline comes and she’s finished it and the book is very beautiful and everyone is happy and proud of her.

The book is quite educational: going through several Medieval trades (including tanner and herbalist) and explaining in fairly good detail what goes into making a book. There’s an explanation of how each colour is made, how the actual painting is done, what the “paper” is made out of, etc. And then there’s all the added information contained in the pictures themselves, such as what a Medieval street might have looked like, how people dressed (depending on class), and so forth.

If I had to pick something negative to say about the book, it would be Marguerite’s treatment of the tanner. It only lasts a page, but she just comes off as being rather rude. I suppose it’s historically accurate, but it just isn’t very nice. Then again, that just opens up a nice time to talk to kids about treating everyone with respect, even if their job makes them very stinky.

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