Book reviews by Helen Meehan
Would you like to go on a highly entertaining expedition through Europe, with an emphasis on your visit to France? If so, read Dave Taylor-Jones’ eclectic suite of stories called ANOTHER SIDE OF FRANCE. These loosely-linked stories and vignettes are partially autobiographical, so you’ll get to know Mr. Taylor-Jones. He’s a friendly, intelligent writer with a fine command of his pen, an observant ear and terrific sense of humor.
There are cultural gems and amusing descriptions of Europeans: the organized Swiss, the economic prudence of the Dutch, and those exceptional French. When a cursing German traveler has his plane ticket taken away by the authorities, he simply can’t believe it. This anecdote is amusing; Germans often comment about an inconvenience such as a long queue or, in this case, a delayed flight by saying Das gibt doch nicht – This can’t be real. Precisely the way it’s so humorously presented here.
There is a masterful story about Monet’s paintings narrated by an art teacher at an engineering school. Another story asks the question “What was the most cherished moment in your life”? You are prompted to find the answer and imagine it. When you die, you’ll live out that image eternally in heaven. This thought-provoking question is revealed with great pathos and nudges the reader to think about what really matters in life.
There is beautiful language describing southern France’s fragrant and colorful foliage, with the stunning backdrops of blue sea and white-capped mountains. We travel here and learn about other worlds: a macabre visit to a haunted old chateau, beekeeping and the glories of honey, dog personalities, and the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi. Never heard of it? Maybe you are just graduating from feng shui and hygge comfort? Well, they’re old hat and you might want to add wabi-sabi to your home decorating wish list. Wabi-sabi is about the beauty found in imperfection and transience. This story was also interestingly communicated and lent a poignancy to ANOTHER SIDE OF FRANCE as it served as gentle reminder of how fleeting life is.
The tour de force of ANOTHER SIDE OF FRANCE are the visits to Terra Amata paleontology museum in Nice and the ensuing stories. The museum includes a footprint of a 400,000 year old man and has evidence of man’s earliest use of fire. With clever inventiveness and lots of local color, Taylor-Jones serves his readers a plate of intrigue here. Spoilers withheld. This is one book to relish.
A brilliant memoir about Europe in the first half of the 20th century; it’s the story of the birth of the modern system of international justice. Philippe Sands sustains intrigue that is comparable to a first rate thriller. The author’s success as a leading human rights lawyer no doubt contributes to his masterly forensic probing into the legal figures behind the prosecution of the Nazis in Nuremburg.
The novel reads like a masterly Whodunit, but it’s really a What Happened Here? Carol Drinkwater’s THE LOST GIRL is suspense fiction at its finest. History, drama and romance unravel from multiple perspectives and time frames. The story rises above sentimentality because of its structural strength: both the regular changes in point of view and the systematic doses of adrenaline allow the reader to travel closely along with the characters.
In an inviting Paris bistro, an aged French actress and a British photographer start chatting. Something is soon terribly amiss and the reader dives irretrievably into their story. Some of the book’s topics come from today’s cultural winds: jihad and occupation in Palestine. Other topics are universal: the glories of young love, heaving disappointment, angry teens, and the perpetual battle between motherhood and self. One element that makes the story enthralling is the rapid jumps between Paris, London and the middle east. At the same time, the author skillfully weaves in and out of the lives of several characters and their timelines. This movement creates steady tension that swiftly propels the reader forward. The novel begins with a visit to the real-life Dieppe raid in 1942, where the Royal Air Force lost a catastrophic 100 aircraft in one day. We are then speedily transported to the Paris bistro in 2015 and, before we can blink an eye, we are back to post-war Paris. Soon we move to southern France and the world of cinema in Cannes. The frequent changes of perspective, at a rapid gun fire pace, make a thrilling read. During the journey of the novel, we slowly learn the poignant background story. The photographer’s sixteen year old daughter disappeared four years earlier when her mother was photographing in the middle east. Now the mother is in Paris desperately hoping … Well, I can’t give you the denouement, but I can guarantee you’ll be glued to the page until the last sentence. Before the end of your voyage, you’ll experience a terrorist attack. “Heart pounding, punch against her rib cage. Feet torpedoing… a stitch clawed her.” Drinkwater describes a Paris bloodbath that one usually sees only on television. “Victims were being wrapped in gold-foil space blankets as thermal protection, shivering, shaking, convulsing. Ambulance, fire brigade and paramedics were trolleying injured bodies, some with oxygen tanks, and heaving them one after another into red ambulances.” This is a stunning novel, so grab it and be riveted.
Winner of the 2017
Man Booker Prize
Based on the real-life death of Abraham Lincoln’s beloved 11 year old son, this unique and brilliant novel captures the enormity of grief. One man’s personal agony is echoed by the universal sorrows encountered in the Civil War. The reader hears from a bizarre mix of ghosts and spirits, who reveal their own painful life versions. The novel becomes more poignant as it moves from the heartache of one to the contemplation of the human condition as seen through the unspeakable horrors of war. All this told by a masterful scribe.
If the idea of a crazily suspenseful roller coaster ride experienced from the comfort of an armchair appeals to you, it is time to read I AM PILGRIM by Terry Hayes. It’s highly unlikely you’ll be disappointed with the two main characters: an American secret agent doing his best to save the world vs. an infamous jihadi terrorist bent on creating the apocalypse. You won’t stop to breathe much during this globe trotting thriller because everything is thrown in except the kitchen sink: gruesome murder, beheading in the middle East, the mountainous Hindu Kush, and the mandatory Nazi death camp. Mr. Hayes pulls it off with non-stop suspense and lightning speed.
This is a wonderful, deadpan humorous and, ultimately, uplifting book. ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS FINE takes us on the painful but hilarious journey of a likable, yet outwardly weird, woman whose inner voice makes her insistently real to the reader. Thirty year old Eleanor avoids social interactions and is grievously lonely - however, she is the agent of her own life. There is an unknown background tragedy that has left Eleanor emotionally damaged, nearly destroyed, however, she embarks shakily, but with some determination, out of her dark abyss. This leads to her unravelling but eventual redemption. The book is filled with poignant moments, as when she describes loneliness as "a fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don't want to hear the word spoken about for fear that they might too be affected." As for laugh-out-loud moments, there were so many that my abs got a slight workout after an evening of reading. So frequent were these amusements that is difficult to pick out one. Here is a gem. Imagine the scenario where you arrive at an event with what appears to be your man. He is not a looker and, at the very least, quite unkempt and unappealing. A glamorous woman at the event points that man out to you saying "Hey, you could do worse, get him cleaned up a bit." Our Eleanor replies "Oh you've completely misunderstood. I already have someone. He's handsome and sophisticated and talented - a cultured educated man." The woman smiles at Eleanor and says "Lucky you ! How did you two meet"? Eleanor replies "Well, we haven't as yet, but it is only a matter of time." The woman laughs hysterically at this and invites Eleanor for a glass of wine. You see, our Eleanor lives in a fantasy world; she will however wake up, slowly but surely, to the real one. Goodbye Eleanor, you and your literal way of looking at the world, your genius diction and your whole unique story will be missed.
For all you folks out there dreaming of hitting the road, this memoir is for you. It is a tale of personal reinvention. With a witty and pitch perfect voice, Ms. Strayed reveals her story while hiking alone on the naturally wondrous trails of the American Pacific Crest Trail. Because of her humor, self-awareness and clear prose, the reader glides along with her. We learn her background tragedy and how she found the courage to change through determination and self-discipline. The book is a redeeming reminder that when your life appears at its lowest, change is possible.
Admirers of Jodi Picoult will no doubt be captivated by her latest book as it's classic Picoult. She explores a controversial topic, adds engaging characters and successfully threads it all together in a riveting courtroom drama. The subject here is racism. However, the abundance of African American stereotypes is near disgraceful. Topics are touched upon as if in preparation for a quiz on racism: how black or light are you? how are you affected by the legacy of slavery? how bad does the welfare system treat you? Is it better to isolate or integrate? Nevertheless, the author is a masterful storyteller and her virtuosity is on display.
Winner of the 2017
Nobel Prize in Literature
This poignant novel captures love and, by extension, all of the woes and glories found in humanity. Ishiguro’s masterful narration fuels the reader’s curiosity propelling her quickly forward. The story captivates in an odd yet brilliant manner; it gives us lifeblood by demonstrating just how elusive and fragile life can be. The topical subject of cloning found in this story is made relevant by our extreme empathy for the main characters. Both the story and writing reach to genius heights in Ishiguro’s hands.