It’s a break-up novel…

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

10798418Daniel Handler, best-known as the author of the Lemony Snicket series of books for children has also written several novels for adults; I reviewed one of them – Adverbs here. Like Lemony Snicket, Adverbs was quirky and full of off-beat humour. Why We Broke Up is a little different in style. It’s still quirky, but its humour is more ironic and very bittersweet – it is, after all, a break-up story.

It sits firmly in crossover territory – being published in the UK under Egmont’s YA imprint, Electric Monkey, but is actually a sophisticated tale that teens and adults can enjoy alike. Each chapter is prefixed by a colour illustration by Maira Kalman and these are equally quirky and fit the novel’s style perfectly. One last bonus is that on the inside cover – instead of publicity puffs from other authors and celebs, there are short paragraph teenaged break-up stories from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Brian Selznick, David Levithan and Holly Black – some of the cream of current YA writers – a neat touch. This is backed up by a Tumblr blog where readers can share their own break-up stories.

Why We Broke Up is the story of the short-lived relationship between Min Green and Ed Slaterton, as told by Min. It starts:

Dear Ed,
In a sec you’ll hear a thunk. At your front door, the one nobody uses. […]
The thunk is the box, Ed. This is what I am leaving you. […] Every last souvenir of the love we had, the prizes and the debris of this relationship, like the glitter in the gutter when the parade has passed, all the everything and whatnot kicked to the curb. I’m dumping the whole box back into your life, Ed, every item of you and me. I’m dumping this box on your porch, Ed, but it is you, Ed, who is getting dumped.

She’s not bitter at all then?!  They meet at a party, not the usual type of one Ed goes to. He’s a jock, one of the stars of the basketball team – he only goes to non-jock parties when they lose.

– and then you asked me my name. I told you it was Min, short for Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom, because my dad was getting his master’s when I was born, and that, don’t even ask, no you couldn’t, only my grandmother could call me Minnie because, she told me and I imitated her voice, she loved me the best of anyone.

You said your name was Ed. Like I might not know that. I asked you how you lost.

“Don’t,” you said. “If I have to tell you how we lost, it will hurt all of my feelings.”

I liked that, all of my feelings. “Every last one?” I asked. “Really?”

“Well,” you said, and took a sip, “I might have one or two left. I might still have a feeling.”

I had a feeling too. Of course you told me anyway, Ed, because you’re a boy, how you lost the game.

We then go on to work our way through the box with Min explaining each item’s significance chronologically. The first item is a movie ticket from their first date. Min is an arts student and an aficionado of old movies. She and Ed go to see Greta in the Wild, which stars the beautiful, young Lottie Carson. As first dates go it’s a success and Ed is amazed by this quirky ‘different’ girl who persuades him that an old black and white film is the business! He indulges Min who is convinced that an old lady who goes to see all these vintage films is Lottie Carson herself – and this becomes a bit of an obsession for Min which escalates throughout the novel.

Romance blossoms for Min and Ed, despite Min’s BF Al and Ed’s older sister Joan knowing it’ll never work. Geeks and Jocks just aren’t really made for each other – they’re too ‘different’. Min has a go at watching basketball practice along with all the other jock’s girlfriends who seem happy to be bored out of their brains on the benches – it’s so obviously not her and naturally, Al feels ignored missing their after-school chats.

It works for a while though…

I loved this novel. Its monologue style reminded me of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (review here). They may share a High School setting, but Why We Broke Up is a good old-fashioned romance, it’s not issue-led like TPOBAW, although that is one of my favourite novels of this type. The added mystery over Lottie Carson gives Why We Broke Up all the side-plot it needs although that was rather over-extended. It was, however, a relief to read compared with all the dark Issue lit on the YA shelves these days. It’ll make a great movie …

Sophisticated, tender, bittersweet, quirky, funny – this is a YA/Crossover novel to savour and enjoy. (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (2012), illus Maira Kalman. Paperback (Jun 2015) Electric Monkey, 368 pages.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, paperback.

Simenon’s most autobiographical roman dur…

Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon

three bedroomsLast month I had the opportunity to meet John Simenon, Georges’s son at an event celebrating the prolific Belgian author and his work. Apart from all the Maigret novels, Simenon was famed for his romans durs (hard novels) which are standalone, and typically quite dark and noirish in character  – I previously reviewed one of them, Dirty Snow, here. At the event, I mentioned to John that I’d read one of the romans durs in preparation for the event: Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, which is reputedly very autobiographical and he told me that it was basically a novelisation of how his mother and father met.

John’s mother was Denyse Ouimet. Georges met her in Manhattan in 1945 when he interviewed her for a secretarial job. She was seventeen years younger than Georges and they married in 1950, once Georges’s divorce from his first wife was finalised. Their relationship was, by all accounts, tempestuous and Denyse suffered from psychosis in later years, but Three Bedrooms was written in 1946 when the couple were still getting to know each other, and could seen as coming straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak. Being so autobiographical, it’s not perhaps a typical Simenon in plot terms being a romance, but it is a typical Simenon in writing style.

Francis Combe is middle-aged, a noted French actor who has escaped to Manhattan from Paris when dumped for a younger man by his wife. However, once in New York, he finds parts difficult to come by and makes ends meet voicing radio dramas and living in a small apartment in Greenwich village. The novel opens with him waking at 3am and going out to walk rather than listen through thin walls to the drunken antics of his neighbours:

What were they doing, up there in J.K.C.’s apartment? Was Winnie vomiting yet? Probably. Moaning, at first softly, then more loudly, until at last she burst into an endless fit of tears.

Forced to be an insomniac, he goes into a late night diner and meets Kay in a scene that comes straight out of Hopper’s painting Nighthawks which was painted in 1942, (and is even more amazing in real life at the Art Institute of Chicago – it was one of my main reasons for choosing to visit Chicago one vacation ages ago – another was to see Grant Wood’s American Gothic there too, but that was out on loan. Grr!)

Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942

Nightawks by Edward Hopper, 1942. Art Institute of Chicago

‘You’re French?’
She asked the question in French, a French that at first he thought betrayed no accent.
‘How’d you know?’
‘I didn’t. As soon as you came in, even before you said anything, I just thought you were French.’

They eat a little, make small talk – he finds out she’s from Vienna – then, they walk through the streets of the Village and end up in the second bedroom – in a hotel.

The next day, Francis takes Kay back to his apartment, she essentially moves in straight away having been thrown out of the one she shared with a girlfriend which had been financed by Jessie’s now ex-boyfriend. At first Francis tries to resist falling in love with Kay, but Kay immediately and totally falls in love with him:

She said, ‘When we met’ – and she said it even more softly, so that what she was confiding to him now seemed to vibrate within his chest – ‘I was so alone, so hopelessly alone, I was so low, and I new that I’d never pull out of it again, so I decided to leave with the first man who showed up, no matter who he was.
‘I love you, François.’

Having been found and her feeling declared, Kay becomes resolutely upbeat, willing to put up with all of Combe’s moodiness (and boy, he is a moody one!). He is the half of this couple that needs convincing, allowing Kay to look after him, sometimes almost smothering him it seems, but over the course of a few weeks as they walk for miles, eat (slowly), drink (lots), smoke, talk, embrace, being quiet together, collecting Kay’s things from the third bedroom,  Combe will eventually succumb.  It’s touching that they find ‘their song’ on a jukebox, and this is a trigger for Combe – realising his own feelings after fits of jealousy, wondering what she is doing when they are momentarily parted.

The style may be typical Simenon but, there’s a Gallic coolness to it. If you weren’t aware of the autobiographical elements of the story, it would take you some time to warm to Combe, or Kay, but you actually do will them to work it out and find the happiness they are both searching for.  That certainly raised this short novel in my expectations, and I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)

I read the NYRB edition which has an excellent introduction by Joyce Carol Oates.  The novel was translated by Marc Romano and Lawrence G. Blochman.  For another review of this story, read that by Jacqui – click here

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The Late Monsieur Gallet by Georges Simenon

galletSpace here for a short word about the second Maigret novel in the new Penguin editions, translated by Anthea Bell. This was the first Maigret to be published as a book, rather than serialised as Pietr the Latvian had been (reviewed here).

Maigret is sent to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Monsieur Gallet, a travelling salesman – or so his widow thinks.  He turns out to be living a double life, and his family seem to be rather unpeturbed by his death – What is going on?

In a mere 155 pages it got so complicated I struggled to keep up and Maigret had to display much dogged determination to solve the mystery too. Aside from Maigret himself,  there were no characters to really warm to either. Not one of the best for me. (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, affiliate link, please click below:
Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (New York Review Books Classics)
The Late Monsieur Gallet: Inspector Maigret #2 Penguin classics.

The One Version of Laura Barnett

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

versions of usLast night it was a balmy evening in Abingdon – perfect for an author event in the packed courtyard garden of Mostly Books during Independent Bookshop Week. Visiting was Laura Barnett, author of The Versions of Us, a fantastic novel featuring three possible versions of the life of a couple. Publicists have billed it as ‘One Day meets Sliding Doors’, and it’s an apt comparison, as we follow Eva and Jim through the years with roughly annual snapshots in three different versions of how their lives could have turned out adding the what if? aspect of Sliding Doors, although Laura’s novel is more satisfyingly complex than either of them.

The story starts with a prologue in which Jim and Eva are born in 1938. Then we jump to 1958 when Eva and Jim are both studying at Cambridge (where Laura studied) and the timeline splits into three versions of their fateful meeting as Eva is cycling along the banks of the river Cam and she swerves to avoid a dog.

Version Two…

‘Are you all right there?’ Another man was approaching from the opposite direction: a boy, really, about her age, a college scarf looped loosely over his tweed jacket.

‘Quite all right, thank you,’ she said primly. Their eyes met briefly as she remounted – his an uncommonly dark blue, framed by long girlish lashes – and for a second she was sure she knew him, so sure that she opened her mouth to frame a greeting. But then, just as quickly, she doubted herself, said nothing, and pedalled on. As soon as she arrived at Professor Farley’s rooms and began to read out her essay on the Four Quartets, the whole thing slipped from her mind.

The three versions of Jim and Eva’s lives go on to intertwine around each other throughout the book, and we go from Version One to Two to Three as we move through the years. You may be reminded of the structure of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (reviewed here) – but there is no evolution in the lives here – there are just the three interwoven versions. Laura told us how Life After Life had been published as she was halfway through her first draft and she didn’t read it deliberately.

Why three versions? Laura always wanted to have one with the big romance at the start, one where there was a spanner in the works, and well, one that was completely different. Three felt right. She wrote all the stories together, intertwining them from the beginning, envisaging the novel as a plait. She didn’t plan out the three arcs in detail, but did include around five set piece scenes which occur in each version – big birthdays and funerals essentially. Outside of those, she let the lives of her characters develop as they went. She aimed to keep the balance between the three storylines, not favouring any of them, keeping them and the reader guessing, and always trying to maintain compassion for the characters.

Jim and Eva are fantastically well realised in all three versions. We ride the ups and downs of life with them, through good times and bad, infidelities, marriages, parenthood, their careers. We laugh and cry with them, get annoyed with them and get wrong-footed when they don’t do what we expect. Yet, we rarely get confused which version we’re in, except just a little in those segments where the three versions come together at a single event which of course will go three different ways. The Versions of Us is a very accomplished novel and I really enjoyed it.

P1020505 (640x480)

Laura’s other day job is as a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic for several London newspapers and Time Out magazine, so she’s no stranger to writing and had written two unpublished novels before coming up with the idea for The Versions of Us.  She told us how, after she’d finished the novel, she found an agent by googling the authors she admires and contacting their agents. In this way, she was picked up by Sarah Waters’ agent, and when they were ready to submit the novel to publishers, just before the annual Frankfurt Book Fair last year (good timing!), there ended up being a bidding war between six publishers and she had the luxury of picking the one she felt most at home with – W&N. Foreign rights are going well too, so it’s been a whirlwind time for Laura, now doing the publicity rounds.

One really great question from the audience was about if she felt that her novel had changed her as a reviewer and critic in any way. Laura’s honest reply was that she didn’t think she could review fiction any more, because she is so aware of what it takes to write a novel now and has great respect for the craft of writing. I asked a seriously smart alec question about the Fates from Greek mythology who spin, weave, measure and snip the threads of life and whether she’d imagined the fates of her characters like that at all with her ‘plaiting’ of their tales. Laura, bless her, hadn’t studied any classics at her South London comprehensive and was amazed at that congruity – she charmingly said she’d have to look it up!

Laura proved to be a very engaging speaker and she was happy to chat and sign books for all. If she’s coming to your neck of the woods, it will be well worth a visit to see her and I can recommend her novel too – bring on the next! (9/10)

Shiny Debuts – Love and Linkiness…

Today’s batch of Shiny linkiness from my reviews in issue 5 of Shiny New Books features three debut novels. All absolute crackers! Please click through to read the full reviews and join in the comments:

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

eorj This is a quirky quest novel, wherein 80-year-old Etta decides to walk to the sea – 2000 miles from Saskatchewan to the Atlantic Ocean. She leaves behind two men who love her, husband Otto and neighbour Russell, and we’ll find out all about the three of them as her journey goes on. And no, it’s not the Canadian Harold Fry – it’s totally different.

This novel was a quirky yet understated pleasure to read – I loved it.

Click here to read my full review (and see a clip of Emma talking about her grandparents who inspired the book).

Fire Flowers by Ben Byrne

Fire Flowers Europa Editions’ first British novel is a story of lost siblings and romance set in Tokyo following the prolonged firestorm that moreorless destroyed the city, and starts on the day of the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII.

The story is told by four characters. Satsuko Takara and her younger brother Hiroshi have been orphaned and separated by the firestorm. Satsuko will never give up looking for her teenaged brother, whereas he assumes she is probably dead. Then there is Hal Lynch – an American who used to be an aerial photographer, now a photo journalist for the US press in Tokyo. Lastly we follow Osamu Maruki, a writer and Satsuko’s lover before he was sent to the South Pacific. The four have separate lives in the ruined city, and they will cross paths although not necessarily meeting.

Fire Flowers is the first novel I’ve read set during this time and place. It was a gripping historical story, heart-breaking and heart-warming in equal measure. A remarkable debut – I loved it too.

Click here to read my full review

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

fuller I’ll put my cards on the table – as of today, this is still the best book I have read so far this year!

It tells of a girl Peggy, daughter of Ute, a German concert pianist and James – a survivalist. In 1976, James takes little Peggy off to live in a hut in the woods in the Black Forest, telling her the rest of the world has gone. Nine years later she is back, naturally damaged by her experience. We tease out the story of what happened in the book’s present and in flashback. It is full of fairy-tale resonance, very dark, sometimes humorous, but always full of music. Absolutely fantastic!

Click here to read my full review.

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Source: Publishers – thank you all!

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):

 

A Dance to the Music of Time 2: A Buyer’s Market

Dancing Powell

A Buyer’s Market

So we come to the second volume of Anthony Powell’s sequence of twelve novels. If you’d like to catch up with my summary of the first part follow the link to A Question of Upbringing.

It’s now the late 1920s and Jenkins is living and working in London for a publisher of art books. As the novel begins he reminisces in his narration about Mr Deacon, an ageing artist of middling reputation he had met in Paris:

Mr Deacon was grown-up still: I myself, on the other hand, had changed. There was still distance to travel, but I was on the way to drawing level with Mr Deacon, as a fellow grown-up, himself no longer a figment of memory from childhood, but visible proof that life had existed in much the same way before I had begun to any extent to take part; and would, without doubt, continue to prevail long after he and I had ceased to participate.

powell 2
The ensuing story is inspired by Jenkins’ memory of seeing a painting (just as Vol 1 began), this time an indifferent picture by Deacon, hung inconspicuously in the house of the Walpole-Wilsons, Jenkins’ hosts for a house-party. Jenkins is always a little in love with someone – this time, it’s Barbara Walpole-Wilson – but hidebound as he is by the rules of society, she is probably unattainable whereas her sister Eleanor would be. Powell, however, in a rare example of only using a few words instead of a hundred, has Barbara mordently describe her thus :

Barbara used to say: ‘Eleanor should never have been removed from the country. It is cruelty to animals.’

I’m sure that in time Nick will find the right girl for him. Having concentrated upon the old boys’ network in the first novel and making useful contacts to get one’s career kick-started, volume two is largely concerned with establishing oneself in society and finding a mate. Nick sounds out one of his dinner companions, Lady Anne Stepney, about her sister Peggy, whom his old school-friend Stringham had had a thing for:

‘As a matter of fact, Peggy hasn’t spoken of Charles Stringham for ages,’ she said.
She did not actually toss her head – as girls are sometimes said to do in books – but that would have been the gesture appropriate to the tone in which she made this comment.

Jenkins is so easily distracted by the fairer sex!

One seeming obstacle to his progress is his continued association with Widmerpool, who crops up all over the place like an eternal gooseberry, often getting in the way and making Jenkins wonder how he comes to be invited to these dos, and:

It suddenly struck me that after all these years of knowing him I still had no idea of Widmerpool’s Christian name.

Widmerpool will be subjected to several humiliations throughout the novel and laughed at by his companions; Nick to his credit, although ever the observer, doesn’t join in. Widmerpool seems (at this stage anyway) doomed to fail in the romance stakes but we will find out that he is not without desires. He is, however, obviously useful in the business and government circles in which he works and is acquiring a solid reputation therein. Again, Widmerpool is the most intriguing character in the novel.

Many of the others from A Question of Upbringing pop in and out of the narrative from time to time. Sillery turns up at a decadent party; Uncle Giles gets a mention or two – including his abhorence of ‘champagne, beards and tiaras’, and Nick’s first love Jean will make an eventful reappearance – sparking in Nick a ‘sudden burst of sexual jealousy’.

In their twenties, life is one long social whirl for these Bright Young Things moving in the higher echelons of society – it really is a buyer’s market. Just imagine if the Tinder app had been around for this lot!

Again written in four long chapters echoing the seasons, A Buyer’s Market ends back with Mr Deacon bringing the year full circle, and finally – Jenkins finds out Widmerpool’s forename.

This time, knowing Powell’s style with it’s long convoluted sentences full of sub-clauses, I was able to jump into the text and enjoy it fully finding much more humour in particular. Having introduced us to the main characters at length in volume one, the narrative takes off launching us fully into their lives. I really enjoyed it – although the title of volume three, The Acceptance World, infers a seriousness to come – or is it just an initial settling down?  Back next month!  (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):

A Question Of Upbringing (Dance to the Music of Time 01)
A Buyer’s Market: Vol 2 (Dance to the Music of Time 02)

 

The quest for Mr Right…

Last week you may have seen my post about ephemera (here) reporting my finding of some marginalia in an old book – well it made me want to read said book instantly – so I did!

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

pursuit of love 2Published in 1945, The Pursuit of Love is the companion piece to Mitford’s later novel Love in a Cold Climate (1949) (which I reviewed here previously). Both are narrated by Fanny, somewhat of an outsider to the central families of each novel, but otherwise they are standalone, so reading them in the wrong order doesn’t matter. I was delighted to find that I enjoyed The Pursuit of Love a lot more than the later book – it was funnier and more frothy.

The comedy is evident tight from page one, where Fanny describes her eccentric and irrascible Uncle Matthew’s prowess in WWI with an entrenching tool. Fanny always stays with the Radlett family at Christmas – and it can be a stressful time:

There was the unforgettable holiday when Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie went to Canada. The Radlett children would rush for the newspapers every day hoping to see that their parents’ ship had gone down with all aboard; they yearned to be total orphans – especially Linda, who saw herself as Katie in What Katy Did, the reins of the household gathered into small but capable hands. The ship met with no iceberg and weathered the Atlantic storms, but meanwhile we had a wonderful holiday, free from rules.

Fanny lives with her Aunt Emily, Sadie’s sister, her mother, known as the Bolter, having abandoned her when she was just one month old, and her father now being on his fifth wife! The story starts when Fanny and Linda, one of Sadie’s daughters and Fanny’s best friend, are both fourteen – at this age they are both ‘very much preoccupied with sin’, finding out about sex and looking forward to their coming out in the future.

Despite frequently falling foul of Uncle Matthew’s bad temper, the children have the most marvellous time with minimal education, loads of riding and outdoor pursuits, together with closeting themselves away in their hiding hole ‘Hons’ cupboard – where people they like are declared ‘Hons’ and those they don’t – Counter-Hons.

The girls reach their coming out ball, and no-one except Fanny could have imagined that Linda would fall for the first boy to look at her. Tony is the son of the Governor of the Bank of England, in his last year at Oxford, in the Bullingdon(!).  ‘Tony is Bottom to Linda, isn’t he?’ says Fanny sadly. The marriage isn’t to last, after nine years, leaving her daughter, Linda takes after her aunt and does a bolt – falling for Christian, a communist whom she will follow out to Perpingnan on the Franco-Spanish border, only to find out that she’s not what he wants at all.

It’s not until Linda escapes again ending up in Paris, that she meets the love of her life. Fabrice is older, extremely rich (he’s a Count), wordly, a serious and serial lover of many women. I now know, thanks to my mum’s marginalia, that the character of Fabrice was based upon Mitford’s lover Gaston Palewski to whom the novel is dedicated.  Fabrice is the great love of Linda’s life, only for them to be separated by WWII. Back in London, Linda and Fanny catch up:

Oh, don’t pity me. I’ve had eleven months of perfect and unalloyed happiness, very few people can say that, in the course of long long lives, I imagine.

It’s notable that these privileged young women seem totally immune to scandal – all this bolting from one love to the next would be completely frowned upon by the working classes. This freedom lets them be giddy and frothy and have so much fun. What is refreshing is that Linda, for all her excesses and lack of formal education, except for schoolgirl French and riding it seems, is a game girl in her pursuit of romance, and we can’t dislike her for it. Fanny our narrator may be terribly witty but, with her own happy marriage and children, she comes over as a bit staid in comparison.

As Fanny says though, this is Linda’s story – and it’s funny and sweet and touching – I loved it. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Pursuit of Loveby Nancy Mitford, Penguin paperback.
Love in a Cold Climate and other novels (Penguin Modern Classics)omnibus edition includes The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate and The Blessing.

Romance in a Paris Cinema – a feelgood recipe for success?

The Secret Paris Cinema Club by Nicholas Barreau

untitledAlthough I rarely read full-on romance novels, I couldn’t resist this one. It has all the feelgood ingredients one could ask for – an old cinema, a beautiful woman in a red coat, a classic boy meets girl/loses girl/finds girl (one hopes) romance – and it is set in Paris. Will this be a recipe for success?  Or just too cheesy?

Alain Bonnard is an old, but young romantic. He is the owner of a small arthouse cinema in Paris that he inherited from his beloved uncle. Working there is a labour of love, but Alain does love the Cinéma Paradis. He runs it as a traditional picturehouse showing no Hollywood blockbusters, there is no popcorn either.

Every Wednesday evening he shows a classic film about love – Les Amour au Paradis as he calls this slot in the cinema’s programme. Each week a beautiful woman in a red coat comes to watch the romantic movie and always sits in row 17.

Alain is talking about her with his best friend Robert…

“You mean to tell me that this girl you fancy so much has been coming to the cinema for four months and you still haven’t even spoken to her?” …
… I nodded again and thought back to the time the girl with the red coat had first appeared at the box office. I always called her ‘the girl,’ but in fact she was a young woman, somewhere around twenty-five to twenty-eight, with shoulder-length caramel hair, which she parted at the side, a delicate heart-shaped face with a scattering of freckles, and shiny dark eyes. To me, she always seemed a little lost – in her thoughts, or in the world – and had a habit of nervously tucking her hair behind her ear with her right hand as she waited for me to tear a ticket off for her. But when she smiled the whole place seemed to fill with light, and her expression became a bit roguish. And yes, she had a lovely mouth and wonderful teeth.

Eventually Alain plucks up courage, and he and Mélanie go out for a late supper after the film one night. At the end he walks her home and they kiss and agree to meet next week. Alain is head over heels in love, and it seems the feeling is reciprocated. In the classic romantic plot, Alain must now lose Mélanie and find her again after much angst and searching.

This is where the American indie film director Allan Wood (yes, you read it right, and yes, this is a very thinly disguised character based upon the celebrated American film director) comes in with the star of his next film, Solange Avril. They are looking for a location to film some cinema scenes. Solange used to come to the Cinéma Paradis as a girl, and Alain, once approached can only say yes – it’ll be a huge financial boost for him.

He finds himself invited to dinner with Wood and Solange, and whilst having a post-prandial cigarette outside with the actress who is ‘available’ – he turns her down – she does a Gallic shrug and puts her arm through his, when Flash! the paparazzi are there, and he finds himself on the front pages of the tabloids touted as Solange’s new boyfriend. Naturally Mélanie doesn’t turn up the next week. What is Alain to do?

There will be complications and twists aplenty for Alain in his journey to regain his new love, aided and abetted by Wood and Solange.

I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book – and yes it was incredibly cheesy – which rather added to its allure.  The character of Allan Wood was funny and irritating in his transparent characterisation at the same time – but he spouted plenty of Allen-esque lines that made me smile…  Solange and Mélanie were just too good to be true, but you did want the lovelorn Alain to win her back. It was the perfect light-hearted palate-cleanser after getting stuck into the heavyweight literary novels I’d been reading before.

Then I went to look up the author, as he has written another novel – The Ingredients of Love, and the mystery deepens. Nicholas Barreau, so the blurb goes, is an acclaimed Parisian writer of mixed parentage who went to the Sorbonne, and worked in a bookshop on the Rive Gauche – but his name is a pseudonym and his identity is known only by his editor.

Another reclusive author like Elena Ferrante…  but, it seems, the truth is not so romantic – and it has put me off wanting to read the other book. Outed in Germany, Barreau is apparently a collective pseudonym for a series of authors writing romances to order to meet market preferences – just like the Daisy Meadows fairy books for little girls.

I must admit that I feel a bit cheated by that discovery, but it hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for this particular book – whomever its real author is – it was great page-turning fun! (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you!

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Secret Paris Cinema Clubby Nicholas Barreau, pub September 2014 by Quercus, 336 pages, paperback original.

Are there dark days coming? I don’t think so …

Apocalypse Next Tuesday by David Safier

apocalypse_next_tuesday_1A bestseller in Germany, Safier’s novel, translated by Hilary Parnfors, got me interested within a few words of the press release in which it told how Satan, who has come back to Earth as a dead ringer for George Clooney, is recruiting horsemen for the apocalypse next week.

Gorgeous, soon-to-be-married-and-thus-no-longer-available-for-us-me, George? Nooo! But you must admit that’s one hell of a hook for a contemporary comic novel about Armageddon, guaranteed to pique the interest of readers of both sexes.  You know how it’s going to go from the first paragraph, in which we meet Marie…

There’s no way that Jesus can have looked like that, I thought to myself as I sat in the parish office staring at the painting of the Last Supper. He was a Levantine Jew, wasn’t he? So why did he look like a Bee Gee in most of the pictures?

Marie, a single, overweight thirty-something has gone to discuss her forthcoming nuptials to Sven with the Reverend Gabriel. Gabriel is challenging her desire to get married in church because he thinks she doesn’t believe enough. ‘You were already doubting God during confirmation class twenty years ago,’ he quipped.

20140715_132241_resizedMarie definitely believes in the free will approach to the Almighty, unlike her atheist sister, Kata who is a cartoonist and draws a regular strip chronicling their sibling life. Kata’s cute philosophical cartoons crop up throughout the novel, whenever there is a big question to be asked.

When Marie has a crisis of faith and jilts Sven at the altar, she retreats home to her father’s house, where her Dad’s new even-younger-than-Marie, Belarusian bride Svetlana is in place. Everyone else is happy except her, and she hates Svetlana. She moaned: ‘I was now officially a M.O.N.S.T.E.R. (i.e. Majorly Old with No Spouse, Tots, Energy or Resources).’  As if to confirm this, the roof falls in on her, literally.

However, her life will change with the arrival of a thirty-something carpenter come to make the repairs called Joshua. ‘The carpenter’s gentle, dark brown eyes seemed very serious, as if they’d already seen a thing or two.’ Yup, you’ve guessed it. It’s the Messiah, returned to Earth to thwart Satan and reclaim Earth for God. Joshua hand’t reckoned on arriving in a little town in Germany though, let alone meeting a third rather outspoken and tomboyish Mary in his life.

What follows is one of those When Harry Met Sally type of romances, with added Satan doing nasty things in the background.  Joshua has a lot of wising-up to do to exist in the 21st century – being nice isn’t good enough. Marie finds herself falling for this old soul, and their one step forward, two steps back relationship is rather charming.  I’ll refer you to the Book of Revelations for an idea of how it all might end …

I did enjoy this book a lot, but I don’t think it was entirely successful as a comedy. Although I’m a non-believer, I did like the way it didn’t make fun of Jesus or God, just the situations they were in, but there wasn’t enough of Satan. He could have been more like Bulgakov’s devil, whipping up the townspeople more, creating more obstacles for Marie and Joshua to overcome. Instead he was mostly absent in the middle of the book, and just left them to get on with it.

The novel is set in a small town in Germany and, like the Asterix books, all the German idioms and references have been translated into the appropriate English ones. Sometimes this jarred a little; Marie would comment for instance, ‘There seemed to be more sex and crime in this book [the bible] than on Channel 5.’  There were many pop music references but I suspect that many, if not most of them, also appear in the German.

I found this novel chucklesome rather than laugh out loud, (unlike the wonderful Rev Diaries) but it would make a diverting summer holiday read. (7/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Apocalypse Next Tuesday by David Safier, pub May 2014 by Hesperus Press, paperback 272 pages.

A new brand of WWI spy …

Jack of Spies by David Downing

downing

US cover

Some readers may already be familiar with David Downing; the six books of his ‘Station’ series of spy thrillers set in WWII Berlin are highly regarded. Now he has set his sights back to just before the First World War to start a new series of spy novels with a new hero – Jack McColl.

Jack McColl is a car salesman, travelling the world with a bottle-green Maia automobile, taking orders from those with money for whom the luxury of a hand-made British vehicle will show that they’re somebody, not just an everyman that would buy a factory-built Model T from Mr Ford.

When our story starts in 1913, McColl is in China. He has been joined on this leg of his round-the-world tour by his younger brother Jed and colleague Mac. This suits McColl fine – it gives him more time to do his other job:

It was left to part-time spies to do the dirty work. Over the last few years, McColl – and, he presumed, other British businessmen who travelled the world – had been approached and asked to ferret out those secrets the empire’s enemies wanted kept. The man who employed them on this part-time basis was an old naval officer named Cumming, who works from an office in Whitehall and answered, at least in theory, to the Admiralty and its political masters.

With all the unease at home over the likelihood of a European war, McColl has been asked to find out the disposition of the German fleet in Asia and whether the Chinese are supplying them with coal. McColl’s hotel in Tsingtao is full of Germans, and he’s made ‘his sad lack of linguistic skills’ clear to them; in reality languages are McColl’s gift and he gets useful nuggets of information from listening in. One of the Germans, an engineer called Rainer Von Schön, is friendly to McColl and they enjoy a drink and conversation together.

Staying in the hotel is an American woman journalist, Caitlin Hanley. She has dark brown hair and green eyes and comes from Irish descent. It is clear that she will become the love interest in this novel – but when they embark upon a small affair – intended to last until he has to return to England and she to New York, little does McColl know, just how Irish her family is and how they will become tied up in his investigations.

Before that though, the next leg of the journey involves shipping the Maia to San Francisco, via Shanghai, and it is there that he is mugged and stabbed – and ends up spending the voyage released from hospital but flat on his back recuperating. Was he mugged? Or was someone out to get him? Had his cover been blown? By Whom?

UK cover

UK cover

Caitlin is on the same ship, and when she finds out and he is better, they resume their affair, but she’ll be staying with friends at the other end. This might be it, but you know deep down it’s not. McColl jacks in the car sales job, and take up Cummings’ offer of being a full-time spy, getting diverted down Mexico way for a while, before returning to New York and getting seriously embroiled into Irish politics.

McColl is a likeable enough spy, but lets his heart rule his head in this novel. If that carries on, he won’t live much longer – although you do see him being to develop the detachment needed towards the end. All the way through, he is on the edge of being exposed to Caitlin as a spy who’s using her to get information, knowing it’ll kill the romance dead. He’s a former soldier, so he is able to handle himself well in adversity, but it does make him a bit boring. Caitlin, of course, is a sparky new feminist, a suffragette fan.

The globe-trotting locations naturally brings 007 to mind – his villains would never do their dastardly deeds somewhere a bit ordinary. However, here, it just makes the novel rather bitty – McColl is no Bond, and his villains are political and real in the form of the Germans and their allies; the Chinese and the Irish in this case. There’s quite a lot of explanation of the political situation all the way through which, while necessary to some extent, was very dry and I found the whole Mexico section to be hectic but boring.

While I suppose that to some extent, the first novel of a series often has to do a lot of setting up situations for its sequels, Jack of Spies ended up being too wide-ranging and episodic, meandering around the world. I probably would read its sequel, but I’d prefer to encounter Downing’s other spy John Russell in the Station novels first (#1 – Zoo Station is on my shelves). (6.5/10)

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Source: US Publisher, Soho Press – thank you.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Jack of Spies by David Downing. Old Street Publishing, paperback June 2014.
Zoo Station (John Russell 1)by David Downing (2007)

 

Riding the slipstream …

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

The-Adjacent-Christopher-Priest-198x300 Today I shall direct you to another review I wrote for Shiny New Books:- The Adjacent by Christopher Priest, now out in paperback.

Priest is one of those authors who defies genre, yet routinely gets categorised as a science fiction author. True his books often have some SF elements in, and The Adjacent was short-listed for the Arthur C Clarke Award this year (losing out to Ann Leckie).  However, to me, he’s more a spec fiction writer – riding the slipstream rather than pure SF.

Those of you who have seen the film The Prestige will have encountered the mind of Priest, (although the film did remove one whole contemporary plot-strand which would have complicated things to much for the big screen), so you’ll realise that a level of the fantastic is a part of that story.

Priest is a great ideas man. This novel with its central echoing romance, goes from a bleak future back to WWI and through WWII before coming full circle. I really enjoyed it.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (pub 2013, Gollancz, paperback 432 pages).