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Alfred J. Kwak

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Sputnik Sweetheart: Roman
Sputnik Sweetheart: Roman
par Haruki Murakami
Edition : Broché
Prix : EUR 9,85

4.0 étoiles sur 5 Ode to Mozart et cetera, 21 septembre 2015
Ce commentaire fait référence à cette édition : Sputnik Sweetheart: Roman (Broché)
Lively and entertaining book full of little dramatic scenes and quasi-philosophical observations, gradually turning into high drama. It is mainly about chaotic Sumire (22), whose sole passion is to write the ultimate novel and has never felt any sexual desire. Until she meets Miu (38), a married Korean-Japanese ex-pianist, now businesswoman, who transforms her into a non-smoking, perfectly-dressed and competent personal secretary. The person recording it all is an unnamed male person, K (24), a fellow student Sumire trusts and loves above anyone else, calling him at all hours, discussing music, books and life until dawn. K is keenly attracted to her physically, but knows any pass would spoil their bond forever.
This reader (m) is an amateur re HM, having read only a handful of his novels. Here, the lighter parts read like Milan Kundera, the name dropping of foreign brands more like Bret Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney; the vast knowledge of pop, jazz and classical music is strictly HM’s own. The novel ups tempo when K in Tokyo receives a call from Greece from Miu. Could he please rush to a small island near Rhodes? Why? Because Sumire has disappeared, as if gone up in smoke…
What happens next is for readers to find out. This reader is of the recreational type, not keen on explaining philosophical or supernatural matters. However, one theme is the utter loneliness of every soul on earth and beyond, symbolized by the dog Laika viewing the earth briefly in 1957 from the SU Sputnik satellite. Another is Japanese upbringing and schooling: the little shoplifter in Ch 15 might now be a “hikikomori” a stayer-with-parents, adult Japanese rejectionists of real life not found in such great numbers elsewhere. But his teacher K. may have saved him just in time…
When finished I realized that even the most innocent remark, image or anecdote, would return later in a different context. Parallel worlds, time warps, stellar dark holes like deep wells in which a character pines for release, are ideas and images Murakami elegantly hogties with more mundane writing, creating a unique worldview. Diehard (f?) fans will grab its gravitas all at once, or reread it again and again, while playing all the musical pieces with the right performers, accessed via Google and YouTube. Found one minus point: Sumire’s early attempts at defining herself. Too woolly for recreational readers. Otherwise, engrossing and worth re-reading.

The Blue Room
The Blue Room
Prix : EUR 6,59

5.0 étoiles sur 5 Super, 17 septembre 2015
Ce commentaire fait référence à cette édition : The Blue Room (Format Kindle)
Georges Simenon grabs readers by the throat in his opening chapters, then rarely lets go. This brilliant psychological novel’s first chapter is quite steamy and absolutely key to what follows in the rest of the book. What is described is also instructive literature in a day and age promoting via apps, websites and TV-docudramas the act or practice of adultery: it is worldwide and in every religion frowned upon or severely sanctioned, a legal ground for divorce and motive for manslaughter or murder. Many cultures tolerate men having an occasional one night stand or maintaining another woman as a maîtresse. Simenon describes a dangerous, secretive variety with lovers equal in passion but acting from different ulterior motives.
This emotionally taxing and intrusive novel describes the affair of Andrée and Tony, both married to others. They meet in the blue room of a small provincial hotel with a terrace below whose clinking- and other noises and voices can easily be heard, as if the Others are always close. They meet eight times in 11 months, untraceable as a pair, taking every possible precaution. Their final passionate tryst described in Ch.1 contains some halting dialogue, pierced at a crucial moment by the shrieking warning sound of a passing express train. Soon after, a slow train stops and Tony spots Andrée’s husband among the passengers, minutes later sitting down on the terrace below. He panics and flees.
What follows is a brilliantly-worded tale of a slow, dramatic aftermath... Later, Tony is arrested and jailed, trying to remember what he said or promised while the noisy train sped by. He is questioned time and again by the law and its experts. Why? What has he done? Where is Andrée? What about her sickly husband Nicolas and Tony’s caring wife Gisèle and little daughter Marianne? This reader won’t tell and wishes new readers the same hype he experienced himself to find out.
By all accounts, Simenon himself was a hyper-active lover. His novel is morally troubling and a warning, not an endorsement of adultery. Readers (m/f) will find it hard to put this book down once begun and will not miss his message. Could it be a great choice for readers clubs too?

The House By The Canal
The House By The Canal
par Simenon
Edition : Relié

4.0 étoiles sur 5 Intriguing early work, 15 septembre 2015
Ce commentaire fait référence à cette édition : The House By The Canal (Relié)
Relatively early (1933) and -unknown psychological novel of a writer most famous for his creation of Commissaire Maigret. Belgian experts think this was his fourth such novel, written at a time when he had grown a little tired of Maigret (19 novels in <3 years) and not keen to be remembered as a writer of ‘romans policiers’ only. Eventually, Georges Simenon (1903-1989) wrote 102 Maigrets and 116 ’romans littéraires’… Belgian experts do not consider this a masterpiece and were surprised to find it included in the highly prestigious French “Pléiade" series along with 20 more of Simenon’s most representative works.
From page one this novel breathes darkness, inclement weather and disaster foretold. Bourgeois-educated French-speaking Edmée (16) from Brussels has been orphaned and can stay with relatives from her mother’s side she has never met or heard of before. They live in the eastern province of Limburg, close to the river Meuse and the Netherlands. The moment she arrives, the family father passes away, leaving behind a mother and six strange-looking children aged 4 to 21. They are owners of vast irrigated meadows producing hay for the army’s horses, but the estate was not well managed. The three oldest children Fred, Jef and Mia can speak French too, but Aunt and the little ones speak and understand only Flemish.
Simenon follows from Edmée’s perspective what she and her weird new family go through over the next year or two. She has lively, feverish bouts of fears and fantasies and is no stranger to prejudice, intrigue and manipulation. Opportunistic too. And beautiful. This in stark contrast to members of her adopted family, whom she suspects of genetic decay. Can the estate be saved? Who will win over Edmée, incompetent caretaker Fred or ugly workhorse Jef? Or is the choice up to her and will she strike out in new directions?
Weather plays a key role. It is rarely sunny and dry. People always walk mud and clay into the house, which is leaky, droughty, ice cold and humid. Strong contrasts permeate the tale: black or white vs. red. The Mondrian-like, sculpted landscape dotted with reservoirs and locks linked by straight (sub-) canals and outlined by clean rows of planted, tall wind breaking poplars, clash with the facial and other irregularities of a family, Edmée thinks, embodies generations of inferior life on a farm. Culture vs Nature?

Flight From Honour
Flight From Honour
par Gavin Lyall
Edition : Broché

4.0 étoiles sur 5 Lovingly written & a delightful read, 13 septembre 2015
Ce commentaire fait référence à cette édition : Flight From Honour (Broché)
Delightful spy thriller is situated in the summer and balmy autumn of 1913 (as Trevanian’s “The Summer of Katya”} when, with mainland Europe boiling with conspiracies, Britain’s Bureau of Secret Intelligence, the infant version of MI 6 (est. 1910) is finally, and incrementally, expanded. The Army and Navy long had their own intelligence branches, whilst the Foreign Office disdained espionage as a profession or career track. Therefore, the new Secret Intelligence Bureau- all stakeholders agreed- must be kept small and manageable, commanded by a mere colonel. Britain’s new counter-espionage bureau was also headed by someone easy to overrule from above... Early on, a commentator remarks that such services are useless unless controlled independently by the PM’s Office or the Cabinet’s Office.
BSI’s new staff intake is tiny: Major Dangler served in the Indian Army as a spy. He is by far the most experienced in the craft. Capt. Matthew Ranklin (MR) narrowly escaped bankruptcy and readers will see through his eyes what happens next. He is analytical and a good planner. Irishman Conall O‘Gilroy spent years in South Africa, then ran afoul of ‘Fenians’ back home. He is a proud man, an evasion & surveillance expert and a fierce fighter. And keenly interested in technology, esp. flying. This trio is also tasked with training four fresh volunteers from the armed services.
This thriller gathers real pace thanks to an Italian Senator, two foreign assassins and two sexy female characters, one English , the other an American future heiress and MR’s unlikely lover. Each and every character has secrets of their own. Professionally or personally, their minds are primed to uncover secrets of other persons and their governments.
Asked why espionage is called the Great Game, one character said Englishmen would not take spying seriously otherwise. Well researched re European pre-WW I history and regimental and class issues over centuries esp. pertaining to reasons to start wars. GL highlights GB’s 1913 industrial and fashion prowess via e.g. Burberry and BSA (Birmingham Small Arms). Also illuminating about the use of airplanes this early (GL often featured planes and their pilots in his books). This thriller taught me where the word ‘sabotage’ comes from and rushed me to the next page and chapter. Great read for fans of the history of flying, pre WW-I history and lots of intrigue. Highly recommended thriller, more authentic and better written than most..

The Secret Servant
The Secret Servant
par Gavin Lyall
Edition : Broché
Prix : EUR 15,76

5.0 étoiles sur 5 Brilliant from start to finish, 8 septembre 2015
Ce commentaire fait référence à cette édition : The Secret Servant (Broché)
First spy thriller starring Major Harry Maxim (HM) as a troubleshooter acting from inside Number 10 Downing Street. Why was he picked? He does not know. A soldier with a perfect service record abroad and unconnected to either Britain’s MI 5 or 6, he is given a tiny room upstairs, soon joined by the PM’s cat seeking rest from the bustle below. There, two sets of bureaucrats--separated by a single door and circulating for half an hour informally for tea each afternoon--daily vie for attention, control and prominence. One team is devoted to the Headmaster (the PM), the other, bigger lot serves the Cabinet, which meets weekly at Number 10.
Why the call for Harry and the urgency? Because of a suicide by someone linked to a letter written shortly after Cambridge Professor John White Tyler was appointed head of a committee reviewing GB defence policy. Early on, the professor wrote a bestselling book about his WW II days in e.g. North Africa, inspiring HM to become a soldier. What follows is a thoroughly satisfying spy thriller with lots of Whitehall intrigue between the services, a foray into Ireland, a flashback to Egypt, Libya and Tunisia during WW II, and a compelling ending.
This is a quintessentially British Cold War thriller, quality-wise fully on par with John Le Carré’s best in the 1970s and -80s. GL’s plot is exciting, brilliant even. His characters are excellent too, esp. Agnes, MI 5’s liaison to the PM’s office, and her interactions with George Harbinger, the PM’s in-house defence advisor. Lesser characters are well portrayed too. Dialogues and language use often cynically mimic British upper middle class values. Great read and value for money, this work has aged well or not at all. Highly recommended.

An Officer and a Spy
An Officer and a Spy
par Robert Harris
Edition : Poche
Prix : EUR 7,19

5.0 étoiles sur 5 Artful and brimming with life, 1 septembre 2015
Ce commentaire fait référence à cette édition : An Officer and a Spy (Poche)
Turning facts into fiction is given to everyone. Turning a huge body of historical evidence into a factually near-perfect and thrilling novel is a rare talent. Loved the book throughout for its controlled pace of mounting intrigue and its atmosphere of smelly Paris in the mid 1890s. Enjoyed the author’s words of thanks to his wife, serving up cheerful meals to so many of his covert book sources over time.
This doorstopper of a book is ideal for people on long missions abroad, living through long, dark winters, and everyone else relishing a perfectly entertaining, bulky page turner about the greatest French scandal and miscarriage of justice of the 19th century, the Dreyfus affair. It is perfectly researched and highlights the precarious status of French Jews after France’s crushing defeat to Germany in 1870. It was the first war where artillery was used on civilian targets. France lost 130.000 souls and its eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. There and then, the victors decreed a choice of allegiance: who stays becomes German, who leaves chooses for France. Most Alsatian Jews chose German citizenship, but not all… Since 1870, Jews in France became increasingly stereotyped as shifty people without a country, unreliable in war or in a French army.
In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army was arrested for treason to Germany. He was interrogated, tried and sentenced to exile on Devil’s Island, a French penal colony in South America. Did he get a fair hearing or trial? How conclusive was the evidence against him? Had he raised suspicion before? Was he a scapegoat for lingering defeatism? Halfway into the book, the purported author of the investigation has enough evidence to exonerate Dreyfus and indict someone else. This is where this reader bows out because from now on the plot thickens…
Written in the I-form, this brilliant novel follows the one person who witnessed all court proceedings from start to finish, Georges Picquart (40), quite a character with his North African and Indo-China experience, through whose Alsatian eyes this tale unfolds. The loss of his Alsace is key to the book, so is his Alsatian network of family and friends and fellow exiles. Robert Harris describes Paris as a city of inequalities, stereotypes and second loves, suffering from seasonal stench, but also as the capital of a French state and army rapidly embracing novelties like gas and electricity, telephone & telegraph and automobiles. Highly recommended.

Sweet Tooth
Sweet Tooth
par Ian McEwan
Edition : Broché
Prix : EUR 8,22

5.0 étoiles sur 5 His best, 26 août 2015
Ce commentaire fait référence à cette édition : Sweet Tooth (Broché)
With so many reviews it is hard to add anything original or unexpected. McEwan tells the story quite convincingly from the perspective of Serena, a woman of around sixty reliving her youth and upbringing, early talents, time at Cambridge and her loves, and especially her brief career in Britain’s MI5, responsible for UK domestic security in the early 1970s, lasting only 18 months. Thereby condemning readers to turn page after beautifully-written page to find out what happened back in the early 1970s, which is a feast thanks to McEwan’s awesome background research.
Lots of linkages make great plots and books. McEwan is a master at casually dropping clues to explode later on or phrases to haunt a book. Brilliant re MI 5 in war and peace, the 1972- 1974 Troubles, energy crisis, miners strikes and other crises that beset Britain and the uses of the arts during the Cold War by intelligence agencies. Also brilliant re the novel’s other characters and his attention to detail throughout. Stunning achievement, highly recommended.
But there is more, far more for readers to discover esp. in the stunning final chapter. Kudos to John Le Carré and Martin Amis, but not to a policeman named Barnes. Viewed the use of italics in Tom’s weird stories as esthetic, to relax the eye, making blocks of text more readable, but could it have another, deeper meaning? “Saturday” has long been my favorite McEwan novel. Now “Sweet Tooth” is.

The President
The President
Prix : EUR 9,34

5.0 étoiles sur 5 Relentless, effortless masterpiece, 26 août 2015
Ce commentaire fait référence à cette édition : The President (Format Kindle)
Time wise, the novels of Georges Simenon often last only a few days, but his masterful use of memories and flashbacks provide unusual depth to his often driven, obsessed main protagonists. “The President” (1958) has been translated afresh and describes in painstaking detail the unbroken spirit and thought processes of a retired, but still feared French politician. He is 82 and is in a physically fragile state whilst his mind still works like clockwork. Surrounded by staff who look after his safety and wellbeing, he lives in a converted farm on the Normandy coast surrounded by books inside whose pages he has hidden his stock of incriminating material on former colleagues and rivals. He still rises at 5:30 on the off chance of being called to rescue the nation once more, to do his lifelong duty and take charge again. He served as a minister 22 times, eight of which as prime minister .
Written in 1957, before France finally became a stable political entity in 1959 under Charles de Gaulle, this is a compelling novel about French politics, rule by coalition, role of the press and blackmail. It is also a fine character study of a man without compromise, assuming full personal responsibility again and again, ready to do whatever is necessary to prevent France from sliding into chaos. Stunning finish. One question: why this title? After all, a job he cherished, but never attained. Great read, great author.

The Saint-Fiacre Affair: Inspector Maigret #13
The Saint-Fiacre Affair: Inspector Maigret #13
par Georges Simenon
Edition : Broché
Prix : EUR 10,53

4.0 étoiles sur 5 Very personal early Maigret mystery, 19 août 2015
Ce commentaire fait référence à cette édition : The Saint-Fiacre Affair: Inspector Maigret #13 (Broché)
Early work from 1932 and arresting for its bleak atmosphere. Commissaire Maigret returns to the village of his birth and to the castle whose farms and grounds his father managed for the aristocratic feudal estate of the Saint Fiacre family. He returns because of a murder foretold, with two weeks to spare. When? On All Souls, 1 November 1931 during early mass. Who will be killed? For the time being, that remains a mystery. On the eve of the fateful morning Maigret leaves Paris and at dawn attends mass in the village of his childhood, where, turned a sturdy man of 42 and smoking a pipe, nobody recognizes him anymore. And sure enough, someone dies during mass, someone he admired as a child, the Countess Saint Fiacre… But was she really murdered?
Maigret is one of several highly emotional main characters in the aftermath of her death. He is angry about the decline of the estate and whoever was or were responsible. Others are distraught for other reasons and few of them come out smelling of roses. Simenon acknowledges Sir Walter Scott as the original source of the Gothic-style finale of this family tragedy, with all likely suspects plus some innocent key witnesses, wining and dining in a candle-lit room in the castle, the deceased laying in state above them on the next floor and her only son Maurice about to give the performance of his life…
Lovely intermezzo between hi tech and dark web thrillers. As in much of the rest of Europe, in Simenon’s early 1930s rural France inns or homes often had no electricity and were poorly heated; few people enjoyed hot showers. Telephones were rare and a call to Paris took 15 minutes to get through. Catholicism was quite dominant and so was inequality between landowners and landless, masters and servants.
Finally, Simenon always wrote at breakneck speed. Aged 29, this was his 13th about Maigret after producing ten (10) titles in 1931. It follows that readers intent on justice for all with no loose ends remaining, are occasionally disappointed. Read earlier his 1939 “The Burgomaster of Furnes”, a psychological novel and found that novel really good. “The Saint Fiacre Affair” is a page turner and highly amusing because of Maigret’s personal fury and all the pathos and human frailty described.

Sleeping Beauty
Sleeping Beauty
Prix : EUR 10,77

4.0 étoiles sur 5 About adultery, avarice and anger, 8 août 2015
Ce commentaire fait référence à cette édition : Sleeping Beauty (Format Kindle)
This thriller is about an oil spill off the coast of California and the impact it has on the family owning the drilling concession. Within hours of the news breaking, PI Lew Archer accidentally meets one of its members, Lauren whose rescued seabird dies in her hands. He drives her to his apartment for her to clean up, learns more about herself and the name of her husband. After she has gone, LA finds his supply of sleeping pills missing. He starts a search, beginning with her husband, who hires him to find her, then questions separately friends and relatives for hours and hours, digging up a little dirt at every turn about members of a family held together by the promise of money….
Ross McDonald follows Archer’s progress in a neutral style and with lots of dialogue. Situated in 1973, not a word about Vietnam, all the more about WW II, still fresh in the minds of several key protagonists. Subtle, sincere and authentic throughout and carefully composed.
I enjoy rereading crime and spy writers of the 1960s and -70s to see how their books compare with today’s offerings. Most oldies worked alone or with a little help from their friends, eschewing the latest technology (Le Carré) or partially making it up (Deighton). Salvage consultant Travis McGee probed deep into various Florida-based scams and earning models; to get the details right, his creator John D. McDonald may have paid a researcher or two. Today’s virtual arms race among authors re digital matters, makes paid outside expertise indispensible. In addition, books have also increasingly been produced on creative assembly lines employing a dozen or more specialists full time, netting 3-4 titles annually, e.g. the late Tom Clancy, Harlan Coben. In other words, writing, once purely a craft, has become more industrial. Without external help, craftsman Georges Simenon (1903-1989) wrote 220+ books, selling 550m worldwide on a typewriter at a top speed of 60-70 pp/day. That is extreme. The other extreme is today’s bestselling sector churning out like linked sausages millions of market research-based, overlong and instantly forgettable books, not book titles...
So, this reader is pleased to see Ross McDonald is still remembered and being reprinted.

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