Book Review: Black Water-lilies, by Michel Bussi

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_black_water_liliesMichel Bussi writes French detective novels, some of which have been translated into English. He is one of France’s bestselling writers of this genre. Black Water Lilies was first published in French in 2011 as Nympheas Noirs.

A widow who sees everything but whom no one sees narrates part of this book. She observes and stores the information she sees. As she watches the people in this small close knit community she manages to merge into the local landscape, to remain almost invisible. A dog Neptune is her only companion. We are told that the story will cover 13 days, and will begin and end with a murder.

In the village of Giverney, where the artist Claude Monet lived and painted his famous water lily pictures, a body is found face down in a stream. The strange thing is that cause of death is not necessarily as it seems. The body may have been moved. Why did it have a gash to the skull with the head under the water, and a wound to the heart? Did he drown or did he die from the blow to the head or the cut from the blade? The victim is local bigwig Jerome Morval, a well-known ophthalmologist. Inspector Laurenc Serenac and Inspector Sylvio Benavides are between them, investigating Morval’s death.

Jerome Morval had been born and grown up in the village and was married to a local girl Patrica Cheron and appears on the surface to have had a happy marriage. He came back to Giverney after he had finished his medical studies. Morval also had a roving eye and was not averse to flirting with a pretty woman. The two inspectors visit the widow showing her a postcard with the typed message “ELEVEN YEARS OLD. HAPPY BIRTHDAY” with some strange words underneath: “The crime of dreaming, I agree to its creation.” The postcard had been found in one of her husband’s pockets. Patricia has never seen the postcard before and has no idea what the words mean.

An envelope is delivered to the police station with 5 photographs in it. Jerome Morval is present in every one but none of the women in the photos are his wife. The only woman that is able to be identified is the local school teacher Stephanie Dupain. The detectives have to follow every possible lead from trying to ascertain whose boots belong to the footprint recovered from the crime scene and if a jealous lover or husband has committed the crime.

The story then becomes rather muddied. We find ourselves following a story-line of the village children; Fanette a young talented artist and her friends Camille, Vincent and Mary. I initially couldn’t understand where this part actually fitted into the story, but then, the penny dropped. This is a book you really have to think about. The past and the present become intertwined. The ending is shocking.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Black Water-lilies
by Michel Bussi
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
ISBN 9781474601757

Book Review: The Dumpling Sisters Cookbook, by Amy and Julie Zhang

Available now in bookstores nationwide.cv_the_dumpling_sisters

Most of us will have fond memories of having Friday night Chinese takeaways as children – luminescent pink sweet and sour pork, super crispy wontons and the ubiquitous lemon chicken. While this style still has its place as the occasional treat, The Dumpling Sisters invite us into their family to experience and learn some of the less westernised aspects of Chinese cooking.

I first came across The Dumpling Sisters while living in London. Jamie Oliver raved about them after they entered his FoodTube competition. They share the story of their upbringing in Christchurch and selling their traditional food every Saturday morning at the local Riccarton market, and the pivotal role that food and cooking has to their family.

Knowing that these are all recipes made by a regular Chinese family in a New Zealand kitchen makes them a whole lot more approachable to your average Kiwi cook. The book is laid out in several sections, from Yum Cha to Banquet. And my personal favourite – Chineasy. This particular chapter has super easy recipes that make one or two portions and all from ingredients likely to already be in your fridge and pantry. Likewise throughout the rest of the book, I was impressed at the number of recipes that didn’t have extensive ingredient lists of items that would languish in my refrigerator forever more!

The recipes follow very simple step by step instructions, and often come with a little back story about how the recipe came to be part of their family’s repertoire. Aside from the recipes themselves, there are several helpful sections to help gain a better understanding of Chinese cooking and eating – Know Your Mouth Feels was just fascinating and really cements the fact that cooking and eating is such an integral part of the Chinese cultural and family life. The girls also share some great tips they’ve learnt from their parents and that can be used in many of the recipes, such as marinating meat in baking soda. A wonderful picture glossary of ingredients is also included at the back of the book to make that visit to the Chinese supermarket a little less overwhelming.

The Dumpling Sisters have captured their personal style in this book, and it flows through into the easy to read recipes and the appetizing pictures. This book has something for everyone, whether you have 30 minutes to throw together a quick dinner after work, or you want to impress friends for Sunday Yum Cha. A delightful introduction to Chinese cooking and I hope we see more of the Dumpling Sisters in New Zealand soon.

Reviewed by Annette Franklin

The Dumpling Sisters Cookbook
by Amy and Julie Zhang
Published by Weidenfield & Nicolson
ISBN  9780297609063

Book Review: Woman of the Dead, by Bernard Aichner

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_woman_of_the_dead

If you, at age six, had to begin work in preparing bodies for funeral directors–your parents– what effect would that have on you?

For Brum, it taught her to shut down her emotions, right up to the day she allowed her parents to drown. She took over the family business, reinvented and remarketed it, built it up as a successful business, but always dedicating herself to giving dignity to the deceased.

Her life is gently comfortable, until she sees her husband–police officer and father to their two daughters killed by a black car slamming into him on his motor bike. Her life is upturned, as she grieves, listens to her late husband’s phone calls on his cell phone, and discovers he was spending time interviewing and calming an aggrieved young woman.

Emotionally bereft, Brum finds comfort in the companionship of her husband’s best friend, police officer Massimo. She is driven to find the woman her husband had been consoling, and when she does, is horrified to learn of her tormented life as a captive. Gradually she draws more and more information about the woman’s torturous life, whom she invites to stay with the family. One morning, the girl goes shopping for the family, and never comes home.

Massimo tells her of the discovery of a drowned homeless woman, whose body is in the police morgue. Brum is driven to track and remove each of the young woman’s tormentors, aided by her mortuary assistant, Reza – a man with his own criminal past. He is detached from emotion after years of creating trauma and serving time, but warms to the welcome Brum’s family have given him.

Her tracking of each of the sadists and what she does when she succeeds makes gut-churning reading, which in turn makes it impossible to put down the book – in case what you imagine is worse than what is written next.

The resolution is a reveal of a shuddering discovery, and handled in the same way as with the first three sadists. I’d have read this in one session, but starting in the late evening made it impossible. Guess what I was reading over breakfast next morning. I hope to be reading more from Aichner, and soon.

Reviewed by Lynne McAnulty

Woman of the Dead 
by Bernard Aichner
Published by Weidenfield & Nicholson
Paperback ISBN: 9780297608486
Case bound ISBN: 9780297608479

Also published on Lynne’s own blog, Red Penn Reviews

Book Review: City of Lies – Love, Sex, Death and the search for truth in Tehran, by Ramita Navai

“Let’s get one thing straight: in order to live in Tehran you have to lie. Morals don’t come cv_city_of_lies_love_sex_deathinto it: lying in Tehran is about survival.”

Searing words form a harrowing reality, giving the reader an excellent basis to start an exceptional book. British-Iranian journalist Ramita Navai tells the real-life stories of eight protagonists in City of Lies – Love, Sex, Death and the search for truth in Tehran. The sycamore-lined Vali Asr Street is the central setting, while the stories span over years.
Navai has created a remarkable non-fiction book. Her choice of stories may make the reader think they’re reading a collection of fiction short stories. Every now and then I remembered that these were true stories, throwing me in to disbelief and I found myself researching the author and book to ensure that these weren’t made up.

The Tehran in City of Lies is one made of gangsters, housewives, terrorists, and schoolgirls. Following extensive research and interviews, Navai has been able to bring the reader in to the world of an Iranian-American terrorist who has been given an important task, a schoolgirl finding love in an unexpected place, and a basiji making a life-changing decision.

The stories reveal a Tehran riddled with political, religious, social, and sexual contradictions. In one story, following her first encounter as a prostitute “she did not feel dirty or degraded. Just scared of God”. Navai doesn’t shy away from any topic throughout the book, and an open-mind from the reader is required. The ending of at least one story left me shocked, a ringing in my ears. Just be prepared. “This was the new Tehran, where tradition and class are blended together and trumped by money.”

Navai provides a short autobiography at the end of the book, which sheds further light on her relationship with Tehran. A glossary appears also, and is accompanied by her sources divided by chapter. The sources provide excellent information for the reader, but I suggest waiting until you complete all the stories before reading them.

With an excellent mixture of stories, characters, and settings that Navai has managed to track down and document, City of Lies is a must-read for any person interested in astonishing stories of human survival.

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

City of Lies – Love, Sex, Death and the search for truth in Tehran
Written by Ramita Navai
Published by Weidenfield & Nicholson
ISBN 9780297871316