Reviews

REVIEW!! The Readers Room by Antoine Laurain

When the manuscript of a debut crime novel arrives at a Parisian publishing house, everyone in the readers’ room is convinced it’s something special. And the committee for France’s highest literary honour, the Prix Goncourt, agrees.

But when the shortlist is announced, there’s a problem for editor Violaine Lepage: she has no idea of the author’s identity. As the police begin to investigate a series of murders strangely reminiscent of those recounted in the book, Violaine is not the only one looking for answers. And, suffering memory blanks following an aeroplane accident, she’s beginning to wonder what role she might play in the story …

Every so often a book comes along that, for want of any better word, is utterly charming. Not necessarily the most memorable or original or well written or thrilling but, quite simply, a captivating and delightful slice of readerly delight. The Reader’s Room, the latest novel from Parisian author Antoine Laurain, is one such book.

Set around the reader’s room of a Parisian publishing house, The Reader’s Room is part whodunnit, part character study, and part irreverent send-up of the publishing industry. When renowned editor Violaine Lepage opts to publish Camille Désencres Sugar Flowers, she is only mildly concerned its elusive author cannot attend the office to sign the contract and is contactable only be email. When the novel gets nominated for the Prix Goncourt however, finding its author becomes a priority. And when a police detective investigating three murders that bear a striking similarity to those described in the book arrives in Violaine’s office, learning Camille’s true identity becomes an imperative.

Unfortunately for Violaine, she herself is struggling to understand who she is. Following a freak accident, she is left with huge gaps in her memory. Why does her office smell of smoke when she cannot stand cigarettes? How did several dresses end up in her closet when she does not remember buying them? Exactly who is Violaine Lepage? And how is she involved with Camille Désencres?

Given that The Reader’s Room can be read over the course of an afternoon (it comes in at a relatively slender 182 pages), it packs in plenty of story. In addition to the question of whether the author of Sugar Flowers might be a cold-blooded killer, there are the various mysteries of Violaine’s own life, the police investigation into the killings, and an insight into the inner workings of the reader’s room and the awarding of the Prix Goncourt. All elements that should not blend together in any reasonable way but that, in the hands of Antoine Laurain, somehow do.

Although there were moments when I had to seriously suspend my disbelief in order to stay with the plot, The Reader’s Room made for such an enjoyable slice of Parisian delight that I didn’t really mind the more outlandish moments or the character’s somewhat eccentric natures. The book had the quality of a modern-day fairy-tale – think to hard about it and the magic goes away so best just to sit back and enjoy the story – and, for that reason, I very much suspect that it will not appeal to everybody. There will almost certainly be some readers who feel that the book veers too much into whimsy whereas others (like myself) will point to the languidly beautiful writing and the wryly observed vignettes and proclaim them to be enchanting and charming.

Because whilst I’m not sure the extent to which The Reader’s Room will stay with me, I very much enjoyed the time I spent with the book. I whiled away a delightful afternoon with Laurain’s simple yet elegant prose (which has been rendered beautifully by translators Emily Boyce, Jane Aitkin, and Polly Mackintosh) and was captivated by the gradual unravelling of the connections between Violaine, Sugar Flowers, and the ongoing murder investigation. And whilst there were some moments that required me to firmly set logic and probability to one side, the easy charm and wry comedy of the book allowed me to easily forgive its more unlikely plot twists.

Fans of Laurain’s previous work will, I’m sure, adore The Reader’s Room – it very much seems to have the hallmarks of his style. As someone new to his work, The Reader’s Room provided an enjoyable introduction – and a very pleasant afternoon’s reading – so I shall certainly look out for some of his other books in the future.

The Reader’s Room by Antoine Laurain, translated by Emily Boyce, Jane Aitkin and Polly Mackintosh, is published in paperback by Gallic Books on 17 June 2021 and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo

Two boys venture from their village to hunt in a nearby forest, where they shoot down bats with glee, and cook their prey over an open fire.

Within a month, they are dead, bodies ravaged by an insidious disease that neither the local healer’s potions nor the medical team’s treatments could cure.

Compounding the family’s grief, experts warn against touching the sick.

But this caution comes too late: the virus spreads rapidly, and the boys’ father is barely able to send his eldest daughter away for a chance at survival.

Made up of a series of linked vignettes, this meditative novel charts the course of the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Beginning with two boys whose hunt for bushmeat results in the sickness arriving their village, this short but powerful novella follows healthcare workers, grave diggers, foreign NGO volunteers, grieving families and Ebola survivors to tell a story of human hubris, weaving the story of the virus’s decimation of humanity into a profound fable about the devastation caused to the natural world by human endeavours.

Given the subject matter, this isn’t exactly a book that I ‘enjoyed’ per se. Beneath the lyrical prose, there are some incredibly difficult scenes and the author does not shy away from portraying the terror and heartbreak of the crisis, and the humanitarian issues that followed in its wakes. The sparse but evocative language adds to the depth of the writing, resulting in a powerfully moving tale that packs a punch that belies the novella’s slender length.

I found the way in which Véronique Tadjo wove in chapters told from the perspective of the baobab tree, the bat, and even ebola itself fascinating although I have to admit that I wasn’t entirely convinced that the connection between the environmental destruction caused by humans and the spreading of the virus always came across clearly.

Whilst I found these chapters beautifully written and interesting, I felt the book was at its strongest when showing the range of human responses to the virus, from the compassion of the healthcare workers and the practical concerns of the gravediggers to the fear, pain, anger, and denial faced by the population affected by the virus.

Written with wisdom and compassion, In the Company of Men is a powerfully affecting book that, whilst it won’t be for everyone, offers a beautifully written and evocative tale about humanity’s capacity for destruction, hope, renewal, and resilience.

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo is published by Hope Road and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 26 April 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

REVIEW!! The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

The Japanese cult classic mystery

The lonely, rockbound island of Tsunojima is notorious as the site of a series of bloody unsolved murders. Some even say it’s haunted. One thing’s for sure: it’s the perfect destination for the K-University Mystery Club’s annual trip.

But when the first club member turns up dead, the remaining amateur sleuths realise they will need all of their murder-mystery expertise to get off the island alive.

As the party are picked off one by one, the survivors grow desperate and paranoid, turning on each other. Will anyone be able to untangle the murderer’s fiendish plan before it’s too late?

Originally published in 1987, Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders is considered a cult classic in its native Japan and is credited with reviving interest in the traditional puzzle mystery format, inspiring a new generation of Japanese crime writers.

Now re-issued by Pushkin Vertigo with a translation by Ho-Ling Wong, the novel pays homage to several Golden Age crime classics, most notably Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Despite some misgivings, several of the most prominant members of the K-University Mystery Club head to the now deserted island of Tsunojima in an attempt to solve the myterious triple murder that happened there six months previously. Setting up camp in The Decagon House – the only remamining part of eccentric architect Nakamura Seiji’s Blue Mansion complex – it isn’t long before the group begin to suspect that they may not be as alone on the island as they thought.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland, former club member Kawaminami Taka’aki receives a sinister note signed by Nakamura Seiji – “My daughter Chiori was murdered by you all”. But Nakamura Seiji was one of the Tsunojima victims, and has been dead for six months.

Alternating between Kawaminami’s investigations on the mainland and the increasingly sinister events taking place on the island, The Decagon House Murders offers an homage to Christie’s original whilst creating a uniquely twisty and cleverly plotted mystery all of its own. Replete with references to Christie’s classic – and to the detectives and writers of the wider Golden Age milieu – the novel still manages to innovate and there are a number of intricate twists on well-worn formulas.

I particualrly loved the way that the novel wears its antecedants and inspiration on its sleeve – the writing is incredibly self-aware and delights in being knowingly referential without this ever feeling like a distraction from the plot. Readers familiar with Golden Age crime will delight in picking up on references as much as they’ll enjoy the fiendishly clever mystery that has been created with the bones of the crime fiction it pays homage too.

Because for all its referential playfulness, The Decagon House Murders is a twisty and enjoyable mystery in its own right. With its contained setting and cast, dual narrative and dual timeline, there’s plenty of space for red herrings, plot twists and sudden revelations. Although I did guess the ‘who’, I have to admit the ‘how’ still surprised me – and there was an enjoyable twist at the novel’s close that I did not see coming!

I also really enjoyed getting to know the characters – especially Kawaminami and his fellow ‘detective’ Shimada – and was impressed by how well drawn each of the detective club members felt, despite some of them only being in the story for quite a brief period of time.

If you don’t enjoy classic or ‘Golden Age’ crime, The Decagon House Murders probably isn’t going to convert you – it honours the genre and conforms to many of its tropes, albeit in a knowingly playful way. Fans of the classics of crime fiction will, however, find much to enjoy here and the book makes for a fantastic introduction to Japanese crime fiction, or to crime fiction in translation. As a fan of the genre, I really enjoyed The Decagon House Murders and look forward to reading more of Pushkin’s translated Japanese crime classics very soon!

The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji is published by Pushkin Vertigo and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda

The Aosawa Murders CoverOn a stormy summer day in the 1970s, the Aosawas, owners of a prominent local hospital, host a large birthday party in their villa on the Sea of Japan. The occasion turns to tragedy when 17 people die – poisoned by cyanide placed in their drinks. 

The only clues to what might have happened are a cryptic verse that could be the killer’s, and the fact that the Aosawa’s blind daughter, Hisako, was the only family member spared death.

When the prime suspect commits suicide soon after his actions seem to seal his guilt – but also ensure his motives will remain forever a mystery. Inspector Teru, an origami obsessed ex-chain smoker, is convinced that Hisako had a role in the crime, as are many in the town, including the author of a bestselling book about the murders written ten years after the incident.

Several decades later, the truth is revealed through a skilful juggling of testimony by different voices: family members, witnesses and neighbours, police inspectors and of course, the mesmerizing Hisako herself.

Billed as Kurosawa’s Rashomon meets Capote’s In Cold Blood, this unconventional Japanese mystery novel sounded right up my street. Riku Onda is an established novelist in Japan, and the winner of the Mystery Writer’s of Japan Award for Fiction, but The Aosawa Murders (first published in Japanese in 2005 under the title Eugenia) is her first novel to be translated into English – although hopefully it won’t be her last!

Told as a series of monologues, The Aosawa Murders provides very different story beats and formulas to the traditional Western crime novel. With many of the chapters being recounted to the unidentified interviewer some years after the mysterious murders took place in the Aosawa’s rural villa, and often by people only tenuously connected to the tragedy or those involved, it can initially feel as if the crime itself is being kept tantilisingly out of reach. As the novel progresses, however, each narrative voice adds another layer, gradually revealing the truth – or possibly just ‘a’ truth – behind the tragic events of that long-ago summer.

There are certainly times that the manner of The Aosawa Murders‘ telling can feel somewhat disorientating. The narrative structure is certainly not a common one in Western crime fiction (although the use of the monologues from different perspectives, each of which adds to an understanding of the central mystery, did remind me of Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories series) however I found that, once I got used to it, the style really pulled me into the events of the novel.

Although each characters voice is unique, you do have to pay attention to orientate each of the characters in relation to each other and to the crime itself. If you’re prepared to exercise a bit of brain power however, making the connections is a rewarding experience – Onda deserves praise for the precision with which she has handled these links and woven together her seemingly disparate cast.

Whilst The Aosawa Murders won’t be for everyone as it’s not a straightforward crime mystery that wraps up with a neat and tidy bow. For those prepared to invest a little time and energy into un-knotting the various strands and peeling back the layers of Ondu’s plot however, there is a rewardingly twisty and beautifully written murder mystery here that deserves to be widely read and enjoyed.

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda, translated by Alison Watts, is published by Bitter Lemon Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, as well as to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 03 March 2020 so do check out the other stops along the way for more reviews and content!

Aosawa Murders BT Poster