Book Group Report – Jean Teulé

The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé

suicide-shopOur book group read for July into August was actually a re-read for me. We’d wanted something quick and light as due to our schedules we only had three weeks between meetings instead of our usual four or five. I had read Teulé’s 2007 novel, published in English translation by Sue Dyson in 2008 when it first came out pre-blog – but thanks to my spreadsheet that I was already keeping back then I can retrieve my capsule review:

This very French, dystopian fable reminded me very much of the stylish film Delicatessen (a hilarious post-apocalyptic French sort of Sweeney Todd), but lacking some of its virtuosity. That’s not to say that it is unimaginative … Some of the ways that the proprietors of The suicide shop devise to help their customers do away with themselves are really hilarious, but it lacks the film’s lightness of touch with its macabre material. In particular, the Alan Turing suicide kit is inspired, as is the Kiss of Death given to Marilyn as her coming of age birthday present.

The Tuvache family who own the shop are all cartoon characters, all named for famous suicides which tell you all you need to know about them – there’s the father Mishima, the mother Lucrèce, son Vincent, daughter Marilyn, and the wayward youngest son. He’s named Alan after Turing, but does not display any of his namesake’s traits! Alan is the despair of his parents being all too happy, and happiness is catching in this sulphurous City of Lost Religion (presumably a take on Paris being the City of Light?). Usually in novels, it’s the other way around with everyone starting out happy before diving into the slough of despond – but this does allow a neat ending. A clever and funny, quick novel to read, but a little heavy-handed.

Yes, it’s literally about a shop where you can buy everything you need to kill yourself in whatever way you please. M. & Mme. Tuvache are only too happy to will help you decide how. There are some delightfully gruesome jokes here – but I will only share a bit of the Alan Turing one with you in case you want to read the book yourself:

‘The inventor committed suicide in an odd way. On the seventh of June 1954, he soaked an apple in a solution of cyanide and placed it on a small table. Next, he painted a picture of it, and then he ate the apple.’
‘He never did!’
‘It’s said that this is the reason why the apple Macintosh logo depicts an apple with a bit out of it. It’s Alan Turing’s apple.’
‘Well, well… at least I won’t die an idiot.’

(Wikipedia tells me that a half eaten apple was indeed found beside Turing’s bed, but it wasn’t tested for cyanide. His inquest wondered if he had accidentally inhaled cyanide fumes from gold electroplating which he did in his spare room.)

I really enjoyed the book all over again, but what did the others in the group think?  Well – no-one hated it outright. We were split over the plot, or perceived lack of it – some wanted more, others somewhat disagreed with as it is only 160-odd pages of big print – a short novel really and it does have a main storyline with other elements. I think all but me felt a little cheated by the final ending, but I won’t expound further. Everyone did at least like some of the jokes. Needless to say, we all found it very French! Given the amount of discussion though, it did make quite a good book group read. I particularly loved the shop’s slogan – ‘Vous avez râté votre vie, réussisez votre mort…’ translated as, ‘Has your life been a failure? Let’s make your death a success.’ (8.5/10)

By the way, I recommend the film Delicatessen from 1991 directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro – a post-apocalyptic character-based French comedy about the inhabitants of a building block. Full of grotesques and very quirky – very Terry Gilliamesque, but in French. The Suicide Shop has been made into a French animated film too, but I haven’t seen it and aren’t sure if it’s subtitled.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé, Gallic Books, paperback 169 pages.
Le Magasin des suicides (DVD) ~ Patrice Leconte
Delicatessen [DVD]

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Still more Shiny linkiness

I know, it’s getting a bit like Monty Python’s Gondolas around here… but I have to highlight my last two new reviews in Issue 2 of Shiny New Books for you, don’t I? Again, it’s one fiction, one non-fiction:

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The Way Inn by Will Wiles

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I really enjoyed Wiles’s first novel Care of Wooden Floors (which I reviewed here) – a quirky farce about flat-sitting for a minimalist with new flooring.

His second novel is equally quirky, but he has moved into much darker territory. The Way Inn satirises lookalike hotel chains, trade conferences and the business types that frequent them, and be warned, it will definitely mess with your head!

Needless to say, I really enjoyed this one. (9/10 and I bought my own copy.)

Read my full Shiny review here.

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The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman

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You may have heard of Lightman before from his quirky novels and stories. However, first and foremost he is a physicist and has published many books of essays.

This is his latest – a survey of the latest thinking on the origins of the universe. Each essay takes a different aspect and alongside the technical discussion (which is lucid and understandable to the non-scientist), he illustrates it with his own life experiences and how nature does it. Fascinating stuff (8/10, Source: publisher – thank you.)

Read my full Shiny review here

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To explore either of these books further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Way Inn by Will Wiles, pub Fourth Estate, June 2014, Hardback 352 pages.
The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew by Alan Lightman, pub Corsair, May 2014, Hardback 176 pages.

OK – you’re wanting to see the ‘Gondolas’, aren’t you. Here’s the full Python travelogue, narrated by John Cleese. It was originally shown as a short in the cinema before Life of Brian

Mix Douglas Adams with Jewish Mysticism, Marco Polo, a dash of the X-Men and time travel for weird fun!

A Highly Unlikely Scenario : Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor

Rachel CantorIf I said that a wacky speculative fiction novel about a 21st century world governed by the philosophies adopted by fast food chains was actually great fun to read, you might begin to doubt my sanity.  I wasn’t sure about this book before I started reading it, but on the back cover is a quote from Jim Crace, an author I respect:

It’s as if Kurt Vonnegut and Italo Calvino collaborated to write a comic book SF adventure and persuaded Chagall to do the drawings. One of the freshest and most lively novels I have encountered for quite a while.

That sold it to me, and I’m glad I gave it a go, for it was a total hoot.

Leonard lives in his sister’s garage in which he has a totally white room where he works the night shift for Neetsa Pizza, the Pythagorean pizza chain, fielding customer complaints. Leonard is a natural listener, and this job suits him fine, for except for meeting his sister’s son Felix off the school bus, Leonard doesn’t go out.

One night Leonard gets a call from a guy called Marco, who tells him all about his exploits as a 13th century explorer. His sister, meanwhile theoretically works for the Scottish tapas chain Jack-o-Bites, but is more likely than not to be involved with her ‘Book club’ with whom she keeps disappearing on missions, leaving Leonard to look after Felix.  She’s totally unsympathetic to Leonard:

You sedate the postindustrial masses with your pre-Socratic gobbledegook, she said, running a pick through her red afro. Pythagorean pizza is the opiate of the middle classes!
Is not! Leonard said.
Is too! she replied. Pass me my tam.
Carol only pretended to be a Jacobite: in fact, she was a neo-Maoist. According to her, the revolution would originate with suburbanites such as herself. It had to, for who was more oppressed, who more in need of radicalization? She took issue with Neetsa Pizza’s rigid hierarchy, its notion that initiation was only for the lucky few – the oligarchy of it!
Pizza, she liked to exclaim, is nothing more than the ingredients that give it form.
No! Leonard would cry, shocked as ever by her materialism. There is such a thing as right proportion! Such a thing as beauty!
Leonard lacked his sister’s sense that the world was broken. He’d been a coddled younger child, while she had been forced by the death of their parents to care for him and their doddering grandfather. No surprise she found the world in need of overhaul. In Leonard’s view, bits of the world might be damaged, but never permanently so. It was his mission, through Listening, to heal some part of it. No need for reeducation, no need for armed struggle.

Leonard’s calls from Marco end, and someone called Isaac who sounds exactly like his dead Jewish grandfather calls, telling him that he passed the test with Marco and that he must give up his job, and go to the library where he’ll meet the grandmother of his grandchildren.

Leonard who is not used to being outside, eventually engages his inner rebellious streak, and does what Isaac says. Taking Felix with him (for Carol has not returned from her ‘Book club’) goes to the library where he meets Sally, a librarian and Baconian (after Roger Bacon), who shows them this ancient Jewish manuscript written in an unsolvable code, which it turns out Felix can read.

However, they are interrupted by the police and have to flee, and eventually end up time travelling back to the 13th century where they have to pretend to be pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela and escape the Spanish Inquisition to get Felix back, who was taken off by Abulafia, another mystic whom they have to stop to save the world.

Once Leonard is hooked, the story becomes one massive adventure, with Leonard as the archetypal fish out of water, who has to overcome his neuroses and show hidden reserves of gumption to survive.  Initially Sally is stronger than he is, but these roles reverse once they time travel and Leonard starts to come into his own, finding his inner-hero and living up to his grandfather’s expectations.

The wackiness and wordplay reminded me strongly of Douglas Adams minus speech marks – the author doesn’t use any, but who says what is pretty clear so that didn’t matter. Some of the set pieces could have been Monty Python sketches. I also liked her weird vision of this 21st century via Brave New World crossed with the Summer of Love with its kaftans and afros.  The whole was great fun and I rather enjoyed it, despite (still) knowing absolutely nothing about Jewish mysticism! A diverting and humorous tale of pure escapism. (7/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Highly Unlikely Scenario : Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor, pub 23rd Jan 2014 by Melville House UK,

Here, meat IS murder …

Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband by Natalie Young

season to tasteThis is the strangest premise for a novel that I’ve read in a while, and I do enjoy a high quirk factor in a book. Season to Taste is the tale of a marriage gone wrong, and it starts off with a murder…

One day Lizzie Prain snaps and murders her husband of thirty years with a spade. She then dismembers the body and freezes it. Her plan is to eat the evidence and then disappear off to a new life in Scotland.

Lizzie takes the project of eating Jacob terribly seriously.  She prepares each joint in as gourmet a fashion as she can manage, with plenty of herbs and spices to make it all seem more palatable.  Preparation of the meat is difficult though …

It wasn’t helpful to look at the severed end where the bone emerged with flesh attached and shiny bits of cartilage. So she covered it up with the tea towel and focused on the knuckle area and fingers. She cleaned the nails with a nailbrush, rinsing in the sink; and then she brushed the skin with an oil brush to give it a good crisp. She rubbed all over the hand with olive oil and salt and then twisted the pepper grinder; and she laid his hand on a non-stick roasting tray, carefully straightening the fingers out.

Yes, I’ll say it so you don’t have to – did she serve it ‘with fava beans and a nice chianti‘?  There is no need for the author to refer to Hannibal Lecter, I’m sure she is happy for us to have a little joke with ourselves though.

Yesterday I was discussing this book in my favourite local bookshop, when my friend Julia who works there produced menu cards for some of the recipes, which the publisher had sent out. They had a spare set to give me – so here is that hand recipe …

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In the beginning, we are fascinated in a truly macabre way by Lizzie’s gourmet recipes to make her husband’s remains palatable, and the care with which she treats it.  A couple of weeks later, Lizzie’s protein-rich diet is beginning to wear on her, and what was almost a last act of love is becoming a little more desperate. The recipes are mouthwatering in their awfulness though!

In between the recipes come Lizzie’s lists to help keep herself strong and get through the project. After those we get to hear about her and Jacob. It wasn’t exactly a love match, but they did seem to sort of care for each other in a claustrophobic, self-centred way.  Frankly, I found them both totally unlikeable, like the two main characters in Gone Girl, review here; I had to read on to find out whether she gets away with it.

This novel is destined to become a talking point with all who encounter it – talking with horror, with disbelief, even at times with sympathy, (well just a bit) – the author cleverly plays with all our emotions.  When it does start to go a bit wrong as Lizzie’s overconfidence leads to too much fraternisation with the neighbours, I initially rubbed my hands with glee.  My only criticism of this book is that I would have liked a stronger ending, but that would risk being rather formulaic, and that is something this quirky novel definitely is not!  (8/10)

Can you stomach this kind of novel?
Or does the very idea of it just make you squirm?

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband by Natalie Young, published 16th Jan 2014 by Tinder Press. Hardback, 288 pages.

“Echoed voices in the night she’s a restless spirit on an endless flight”

Babayagaby Toby Barlow

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Toby Barlow’s debut, Sharp Teeth, which I capsule-reviewed back in the early days of this blog should have really appeared in my Top novels I’ve read by men post from a couple of days ago. His Sopranos-style story of gang warfare amongst the werewolves in LA, written in the form of a prose poem has stayed with me ever since I read it, however back then I only gave it 9/10 and it didn’t make the cut for that list.

When I read he’d written a new novel, I couldn’t wait for the UK publication and ordered a copy of the American hardback, and for the past few days I’ve been totally absorbed in reading Babayaga.

The Baba Yaga of Eastern European folklore were supernatural and ferocious women, said to live in a hut on chicken legs, typified as a sorceress/mid-wife/fortune-teller style character with a large pestle and mortar, who had a close relationship with nature and could be benevolent – or more often not.

The Babayagas of Barlow’s new novel are definitely sorceresses. The setting is Paris in 1959. The book starts with Zoya, a beautiful young woman of Russian extraction, who has realised that Leon, her lover of fifteen years, is starting to question why she’s not looking any older.  Time to get rid of him – she didn’t quite mean to impale him on a railing though.

Meanwhile, Will Van Wyck, an American working in the Parisian branch of an advertising agency, is despairing over the big ideas of his last remaining client, and wishing that he didn’t have to put together those company profiles for Mr Brandon who would appear to be linked to the CIA. Two years in Paris, and he still doesn’t really understand the city and its inhabitants, but neither does he want to go home to Detroit.

Zoya turns to Elga, an older woman, a more traditional wicked old witch (although she wasn’t always thus as we eventually find out). These two have been working their way around Europe for centuries, always moving on when trouble looms. Elga is fed up of Zoya’s misfortunes with men though, and when Zoya unwittingly puts Elga in the frame for Leon’s murder, the old crone starts to dream of vengeance.

As for Inspector Vidot, he gets the case – and following the trail Zoya leads to Elga nearly meets his own end, instead being transformed into a flea.  Hopping from host to host, he will continue to try to unravel this mystery in true Kafkaesque style.

Soon Will meets Zoya, and it is love at first sight, but Will also gets mixed up with Oliver, another American under Brandon’s umbrella. Oliver is Gatsby to Will’s Nick, and leads him a merry dance through Parisian high-living and lowlife contacts. At last together, Will and Zoya get to know each other a little better. She encourages him to talk about his work in advertising…

‘What do you think works?’
Even though Will had answered this in presentations to clients a hundred times before, it made him blush to answer the question now. ‘Seduction.’
‘You seduce them?’ Zoya thought about it for a second and then her eyes brightened. ‘Yes, I see, so this client of yours believes it is a kind of war, but you think you can win with love. Maybe you’re both right. People can be conquered, certainly, but your idea is more like those pretty women I hear they have put to work in the airplanes now.’
‘The stewardesses?’
‘Yes,’ Zoya said. ‘You see, it’s not enough of a miracle to be flying high up in the air, even all the way across the entire ocean, that magic isn’t enough, so they put someone pretty and seductive on the plane, now there’s a possibility of sex or romance, a temptation to lure you in. It’s right out of a folktale, a beautiful girl with a fool in a flying ship.’
‘Well, I don’t – it’s a little more simple than that.’ Will stammered, her mention of sex making his heart skip a beat. ‘You really only have to show them a bit of life they admire or desire, a story they want to be a part of, paint them a picture and then invite them into it.’
‘Ah, I understand.’ She smiled, almost to herself. ‘So it’s not love, it’s merely a spell. So, then what? Tell me, what happens after these victims of yours buy your product and the spell is broken? When they awaken to find their life is as empty and sad as it was before, only now a little poorer too?’

Isn’t advertising spin ‘magic’!

We’re all set up for a fantastic, in all sense of the word, multi-stranded adventure combining witches, spies, gangsters, murder, sorcery and romance. It is complicated, and in a few places, a little slow paced, but that’s a small price to pay for finding out how it all comes together.

Ruby-Tandoh-5Will is such a sweet character – an innocent abroad, and a little wet. This adventure arrives at the right time for him, but he is put into so many tricky situations, you can’t help but feel for him. Zoya can be rather irritating though – I was watching The Great British Bake Off  just before finishing the book the other night, and I couldn’t help identifying her with Ruby of the puppy dog eyes! But then as she’s survived all that time (Zoya that is), it’s not surprising that she’s a bit self-centred! Elga is a proper witch, ancient and so cunning, a formidable opponent to anyone who crosses her. I really loved Inspector Vidot though, who has to employ all his resources to stay alive and solve the case.

Although ostensibly set in 1959 at the height of the Cold War, this novel felt as if it was much earlier – the twenties, or even a little earlier. Artefacts and events to anchor the book to the late 1950s were few and far between – and indeed much of the Paris described would have been there already in previous decades.

Most essentially in this novel, the magic works. The way the women make their spells is quite realistic and combines, like British magician and mentalist Derren Brown, “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship”. Their magic, however, isn’t the stage kind, and there is a physical cost involved keeping it real, which is so important to help you suspend your disbelief.

One nice touch linking back to Sharp Teeth, was the inclusion of some prose poems between the chapters in the form of witches songs.

Ghosts, they say, stay for three simple reasons:
they love life too wholly to leave,
they love some other too deeply to part,
or they need to linger on for a bit,
to coax a distant knife
toward its fated throat.

This novel is funny and fun, always quirky, yet dark and romantic too. A perfect autumnal read – I loved it. (9.5/10)

I shall leave you with the source of the quote at the top of the post. It’s from Witchy Woman by The Eagles.

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Source: Own copy. to explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Babayaga by Toby Barlow, pub August 2013 by Farrar Straus Giroux (US), hardback 383 pages.
Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow, paperback

Stieg Larsson meets Forrest Gump but way better …

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, translated by Rod Bradbury

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You might think he could have made up his mind earlier, and been man enough to tell the others of his decision. But Allan Karlsson had never been given to pondering things too long.
So the idea had barely taken hold in the old man’s head before he opened the window of his room on the ground floor of the Old People’s Home in the town of Malmköping, and stepped out – into the flowerbed.
This manoeuvre required a bit of effort, since Allan was one hundred years old. On this very day in fact. There was less than an hour to go before his birthday party would begin in the lounge of the Old People’s Home. The mayor would be there. And the local paper. And all the other old people. And the entire staff, led by bad-tempered Director Alice.
It was only the Birthday Boy himself who didn’t intend to turn up.

Thus begins a great comic caper and adventure.  We chose this as our book group choice for April, and it was a great success, charming all of us.

As you’ll have already surmised, Allan is prone to act on impulse. He makes it to the bus station – buys a ticket for the first bus leaving, and steals someone else’s suitcase! He can’t explain why he did it. Later after getting off the bus randomly, meeting a chap called Julius, a bit of a scoundrel but who is up for an adventure, they open the case to find it’s full of money – only to discover that its owner is on their trail.

A brilliant caper ensues, with Allan and an increasing cadre of friends, who will all take a share of the money, traverse the country, pursued by the suitcase’s owners, and the police.  Allan and Julius manage to remain one step ahead, while accidentally disposing of their pursuers one by one in some very imaginative and funny deaths that beat Stieg Larsson hands down.

However, after the opening chapters we start to alternate between Allan’s present predicament, and his life story – which is like a history of the 20th century. Having become an explosives expert, he accidentally blows up his house, and homeless goes off on a whim to Spain, where he accidentally saves the life of General Franco. He ships out to the USA where he meets President Truman, and accidentally helps Oppenheimer towards the solution on making an atomic bomb.

By now, you’re getting the picture, and we were all thinking – who will he meet next?  Well, he seems to meet most of the 20th century’s key movers! It’s notable though, that the moment he gets close to these historic figures, and is invited to join in the politics, Allan jumps ship and goes somewhere else, maintaining his strict neutrality and, nearly always, manages to remain friends.

Allan has an engaging naïvety that is reminiscent of Forrest Gump, sailing through life having amazing experiences, yet remaining unfazed by it all.  He is also a 20th century equivalent of Alfred Nobel, 19th century inventor of dynamite, initiator of the Nobel Prize, a man who travelled a lot, lived in several countries and learned many languages.

Although broadly a comedy, there are small pauses for serious matters now and then; managing to be committed as a young man for his learned propensity for blowing things up, Allan was a victim of the Swedish forced sterilzation programme. He was destined never to have an heir, although he never mentions this, he just gets on with life.

Allan’s story gave us plenty to talk about, and the imaginative demises for the hoodlums after the suitcase, and the encounters with all those famous people gave the chuckles.  This is such a fun and easy read – if you’ve not read it yet, do take it on holiday – if summer ever comes!  (8.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, Hesperus Press, 2012, paperback 385 pages.