Far back on the Left Bank, there is a secret quarter.
A warren of quiet streets sandwiched between boulevards where little traffic moves. On a corner stands a building with a turquoise door – Number 37
Set over a hot summer in a shabby corner of Paris we are introduced to the residents of Number 37. Heat is central to the novel and it is what binds the stories together – from a city tense with heat and boiling tensions over nationality and immigration, to feverish dreams, and the languid and stifling air of the apartment block.
A debut novel from Fran Cooper this book is character driven, and if you don’t like or at least empathise with them then maybe this won’t be the book for you. Some I liked better than others and for some the more I knew about them the less they interested me. But others have stuck in my memory.
This novel is really a series of vignettes about the neighbours loosely coupled by the building they share and the city they live in. Sometimes their lives overlap and sometimes they are oblivious to the lives of others around them.
Through Edward we are introduced to the building. Edward has come to Paris to escape his own grief and an offer of an attic room by his friend Emilie brings him to Number 37 and the world of Frederique and her bookshop, Anaïs and Paul, Chantal and Cesar, Madame Marin and her beige husband, Isabell Duval, Monsieur Lalande, Amina and Ahmed, and the homeless man, Josef, who watches all the comings and goings at Number 37.
These Dividing Walls depicts a microcosm of society and features a cast of troubled characters – those living with grief, or looking for escape from it, night-time keyboard warriors, misguided ‘everymen’, and those lost in their own lives. “This is not the Paris you know” but maybe you may recognise these same characters living in your own community.
Dystopia: relating to or denoting an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.
I love a great dystopian novel, it’s a genre that can veer into classic science fiction, but the ones I love the most are the ones you can imagine happening in your world, if the circumstances changed just slightly, a world power got that much more control, a disease could not be contained or the general populace let things that are deemed as unacceptable become acceptable, little by little. Ordinary people trying to survive, railing against the system or changing it forever.
When I began reading Gather the Daughters, by Jennie Melamed, it was no surprise that both the victims and heroines of the story were young girls. Melamed is a psychiatric nurse who specialises in working with traumatised children. The girls in this debut novel slowly come to the realisation that the only world they have known is filled with lies and not as idyllic as their leaders have taught them it is.
The girls live on an island, living a puritan life, where everyday decisions and everyone’s lives are constrained by a set of rules set down by “The Ancestors”. The male descendants of these original peoples who fled The Wastelands across the sea run the island along rules to suit their own needs. Young girls are married off to older men as soon as they come into ‘fruition’, at puberty.The rules set down, called Shalt Nots, include practices that are definitely of benefit to the elder men, not their young daughters.
Every summer until then, the children of the island run rampant, rarely going home, sleeping rough and enjoying their freedom until the shackles of childbearing and helping the community survive are placed on them.
Told through the eyes of the older girls who are all about to reach fruition, chapters are given over to each girl in turn and I enjoyed the pace of the book and the way the author slowly revealed the horrors of being a young girl on the island. Little is shown of the feelings of the young boys, or the men’s justifications for their actions.
The main heroine is Janey, who should have reached fruition at 17, but is so desperate not to be a woman and succumb to the demands of a husband, she is slowly starving herself. She and Vanessa, who has access to her father’s library of books from past days, give the other girls knowledge and courage, trying to find a way to escape, or at least effect change.
Janey wakes early the third morning, at the first tint of crimson shattering the black night sky, as if someone had shaken her from slumber. She takes the precious moment gladly and watches the girls sleep peacefully. Let this last, she prays, she knows not who to – certainly not the ancestors, or their puppetmaster God. Just for a little while, let them have this. Let them have it. Please.
If you love a good dystopian tale about strong young women who decide to take a stand, this is your book. I powered through it in a few days, which is pretty amazing for me. I was in turn heartened and horrified but kept on turning the pages, wanting to see the fate of these young heroines clinging onto their childhoods to save their lives.
Right at the end of the School Holidays I succumbed to ‘The bug’.
Temperature, shivers, face-ache, sneezing, splutterings, sore throat, several hot-water bottles, over the counter meds and copious amounts of tea/coffee/honey, lemon and ginger combos later, I am now dealing with a more head cold-like scenario. What really upset me is my diligence in having the Flu Jab appears to have been for nowt!! Swiftly moving on …
Streaming eyes and almost constant nose-blowing meant that the only source of entertainment I could tolerate was talking-books … Plug in and LISTEN. So I did.
First offering from OverDrive audiobooks was Round the Horne Movie Spoofs. In my weakened state I managed several wry smiles – OK 1960s British ‘camp’ humour admittedly, but quite clever for all that although one offering was sufficient as smiling wasn’t helping the face & teeth-ache symptoms!
Second offering was The Captive Queen the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine – wife of two kings – King Louis VII of France and King Henry II of England, and mother of such notables as Richard the Lionheart and King John (of ‘Magna Carta’ fame). I just thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t live in huge, draughty castles and gratefully placed my hot water bottles in my ‘nest of rest’ set-up for the requisite warmth and comfort.
Third offering I had picked up from the library prior to being ‘felled’ – I persevered, but really CDs don’t work in a sick-room environment. The constant getting up to change the discs is tiring. It takes forever to rearrange yourself back to that exact comfortable position you had previously discovered. But then, adding insult to injury, just as you start to feel relaxed and drowsy, the sonorous tones of the narrator announce that ‘this ends Disc xx’. Do this manoeuvre fifteen times and you are ready to hurl said CD Player through the bedroom window. Common sense prevailed as this would have left me both freezing cold and wet as rain lashed down the east coast of the South Island. Sufficed to say I can remember little of the plot or characters.
Final offering is a BBC Radio dramatization of an Ellis Peters ‘Cadfael’ mystery and will keep me going until I feel ready to open the physical pages of a book.
My listening choices will, in all probability, not be yours, BUT the variety that is available is a fantastic resource to have with just a library card and a Pin/Password.
No, I’m not talking about Pride and Prejudice and Kittens. Jane Austen’s novels are justifiably well known, but her shorter works are equally amusing. If you’ve seen the film Love and Friendship then you may be aware that it’s based on a short epistolary novel entitled Lady Susan. I highly recommend seeking it out. It’s often bundled together with unfinished works The Watsons and Sanditon.
Some of my favourites, however, are the ridiculously silly short stories composed when she was a teenager. They run the gamut from murder:
I murdered my father at a very early period of my Life, I have since murdered my Mother, and I am now going to murder my Sister.
It was not till the next morning that Charlotte recollected the double engagement she had entered into; but when she did, the reflection of her past folly, operated so strongly on her mind, that she resolved to be guilty of a greater, & to that end threw herself into a deep stream which ran thro’ her Aunt’s pleasure Grounds in Portland Place. She floated to Crankhumdunberry where she was picked up & buried; the following epitaph, composed by Frederic, Elfrida & Rebecca, was placed on her tomb.
Here lies our friend who having promis-ed
That unto two she would be marri-ed
Threw her sweet Body & her lovely face
Into the Stream that runs thro’ Portland Place.
The beautifull Cassandra then proceeded to a Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook & walked away.
“Oh! when there is so much Love on one side there is no occasion for it on the other. However I do not much dislike him tho’ he is very plain to be sure.”
And, of, course, cannibalism:
She began to find herself rather hungry, & had reason to think, by their biting off two of her fingers, that her Children were much in the same situation.
I also highly recommend Austen’s History of England, by “a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian”. Really any Austen will do, just read the lot and tell me what you think.
Ian Rankin was born in Fife. I was born in Fife. Ian Rankin studied at Edinburgh University. I studied at Edinburgh University. Ian Rankin writes successful, suspenseful and gritty crime fiction. Nope, nothing. But I am most affirmatively a mahoosive fan-lassie for his thrillers set in the Athens of the North a.k.a. Edinburgh and featuring Mr Booze John Rebus.
Last night Christchurch played host to Ian Rankin as the opening event of the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season and it was a full house at the Charles Luney Auditorium of St Margaret’s College. It was also a slightly more blokey audience than most book events attract, albeit it in a very metro, groomed and grizzled with grey fashion. Marcus Elliott, the Christchurch coroner, was asking the probing questions.
Rankin claims most crime writers would rather be rock stars than writers. Aged 12 he created a band called The Amoebas. With no musical ability himself – and no friends who actually wanted to be in a band – The Amoebas were entirely fictitious, but Rankin still managed to create world tour itineraries, lyrics for top 10 hits and music press interviews.
Writers are shy, nerdy kids who create worlds
he said, and while for most people the adult world draws a halt to childish imagination, for writers it keeps going. Rebus is his imaginary friend, but one who wouldn’t like Rankin in the real world. Rankin claimed Rebus would label him “a wishy-washy liberal”.
The first Rebus novel, Knot and Crosses is celebrating its 30th anniversary and Rankin said the character of Rebus leapt “fully formed” into his head. He didn’t entirely realise he was writing a crime novel and was a little perturbed to see what he thought was the next great Scottish novel appearing in the then “not sexy” crime section of his local bookstore.
He was aware early on he needed help with creating an authentic police world and wrote to the then Lothian Police to get some advice. He was also briefly a suspect in a missing person/murder case!
Asked if he counted policeman amongst his fans, Rankin said “weirdly yes”. Everyone likes a maverick and Rebus is his own man but also on the right side. His novels represent authentic investigations but with all the boring bits taken out, a streamlined version of a real investigation.
Rankin added that keeping the series fresh wasn’t too challenging as Edinburgh, Scotland and Rebus had all changed. Rebus has retired, and after years of booze, fags and fried food, his body is starting to wind down. Rankin has recently gifted Rebus Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) but added he needs to work hard at remembering new story elements, for example he forgot he’d written in a pet dog for Rebus and then had to re-write and add the pooch in later!
Rankin said he likes to explore different social issues and each novel starts with a theme: immigration, people trafficking, xenophobia, banking crisis or business scam – but he is mindful that he also needs to create an exciting read. He says he doesn’t plan too much and sometimes the ending changes because the narrative knows better and he has to “trust to the muse”. All his books end before the criminal trial because, he says, he knows nothing about the Scottish criminal system and is too lazy to do the research.
Marcus Elliott asked about the TV versions of Rebus, and Rankin said there was early interest from the actor Leslie Grantham better known as Dirty Den of Eastenders’ fame. Later the BBC wanted the rather rotund Robbie Coltrane to play Rebus, and Rankin was like “Jesus you know he (Rebus) was in the SAS”! He recently got the rights back and would like to see them filmed in a more leisurely Scandi-style rather than the breakneck a-novel-condensed-to-an-hour speed of the ITV series. Writer, and fellow Fifer Gregory Burke is involved and the actor Ken Stott may even reprise his role.
There was time for a few questions from the audience, and it was the usual mixed bag with questions that aren’t questions and some sneaky self-aggrandisement. Rankin was asked about his love for the music of the late Jackie Leven, a prolific Scottish singer-songwriter, who he collaborated with on a CD and series of stage performances. He was also asked how he researches and makes authentic the criminals that appear in his fiction. He has spent time in prisons particularly through literacy in prison programmes, but was recently shocked when a fan described his recurring crime boss “Big Ger” Cafferty as a “big, huggable, loveable bear of a guy”. He fears he has perhaps over-identified with Big Ger and is going to make him horrible again.
The session started to wind up but Rankin still had time to apologise for Donald Trump being half-Scots and to warn us of the seething rage and stabby darkness carried inside romantic fiction writers. This was a witty and polished session with truck loads of well-executed anecdotes and crime fiction insights.
In Eric Lindstrom’s latest young adult novel, A tragic kind of wonderful, Mel is a beautifully complex young woman grappling with confronting decisions and emotions, navigating relationships with her family, friends and her internal ‘animals’.
Lindstrom’s use of a first person narrative allows the reader to experience the intensity of Mel’s experiences, memories and decisions as she tries so hard to navigate her present dilemmas and the omnipresent events that led to her brother’s death.
As much as Mel would like to curl up and withdraw from the world, her own spirit and those around her prove time and time again the importance of connections and taking leaps of faith.
Mel must face her greatest fears and be honest with herself and others to an extent that to her feels like jumping over a huge cliff.
Before I read this book I thought my review would centre on the ever present challenge Mel had with her Bipolar disorder. However I now feel that Eric Lindstrom presented Mel’s experience so empathetically that I understand how mental illness did not define Mel but was ultimately what made her and her bonds with family and friends all the more tragically wonderful.
This book shows us ways in which mental illness and traumatic events can impact individuals in similar and very different ways and the possibilities for hope that exist at the darkest of times.
Everyone knows you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, right? But we do, of course. I mean, when you’re browsing the library shelves, it’s the cover that attracts you to a book, isn’t it? I’ve heard that you’re supposed to read to page 90 (!) of a book before you decide if you should read it, but I sure don’t have time for that!
So anyway, when I saw Resistance is Futile the other day, I was sure this was just the book for me. Anyone who’s read my blog posts before will know that I’m a bit of a Star Trek nerd (just a wee bit!) so I was really excited to read this geeky love story with a Trek reference in the title. It looked like it was going to be the perfect read.
But I was wrong. It wasn’t that the story wasn’t any good–I enjoyed it well enough–it just wasn’t what the cover had lead me to believe. I was expecting a kind of Rosie Project-ish story, but with a geek-girl protagonist and a few Star Trek references thrown in. But what I got, was an X-Files-ish murder-mystery-come-alien-romance story. There was not so much as a single “Beam me up, Scotty” or “Live long and prosper” to be had. I think there might have been a vague reference to the Prime Directive on page 265. Maybe. Or maybe I’m just clutching at straws.
Of course, sometimes it’s the other way around.
When I read the blurb of The Round House by Louise Erdrich (“A mother is brutally raped by a man on the North Dakota reservation where she lives… Traumatized and afraid, she takes to her bed and refuses to talk to anyone – including the police…”) I groaned inwardly. “Who chooses these books anyway?” I grumbled. But it was for book club, so I had to at least attempt to read it. Grudgingly I began…
…and instead of the abhorrent, disturbing tale I was expecting, I discovered an arresting, thought provoking story of a young man’s search for justice for his mother. Although the story was often upsetting, it was not gratuitous. I learnt fascinating and shocking things about life on a Native American reservation. I was amazed that Erdrich, a (then) 57 year old woman, could create a teenage-boy-character so utterly believable and real as Joe. I laughed at the oddball characters of his extended family. And I cried as the conclusion approached, knowing, without knowing, what was about to happen.
And… I reveled in Joe’s love of Star Trek! Both for its own sake, and because it was so unexpected! Joe and his friends idolised the super-strong, fully-functional android Data; they wanted to be Worf, the Klingon warrior* (they were also Star Wars fans, of course–but I forgave them). A few chapters in, I suddenly realised that each chapter shared its title with an episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation (yes, I am that much of a Trekkie that I know the titles of the episodes, and I only had to check the synopsis of a couple of them to be sure what they were about). I then had a sudden desire to watch all those episodes, and analyse the connections with each chapter. In fact, I found myself wanting to write whole essays on this book. Back in the dim reaches of history, I actually did a degree in English. I was even invited to do Honours (though I didn’t, for reasons which I’ve now forgotten). I loved studying, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book since that I so wanted to write academic essays about. The more I think about it, the more I think this book deserves the “Missbeecrafty Best Book” award. I’m sure that’s almost as prestigious as the American National Book Award for Fiction which it actually won in 2012.
Literary prize winning books aren’t for everyone, I know, but don’t judge this book on its prize-winning-ness. And don’t judge it on it’s Trekkie-ness! If you’re not a Star Trek fan, don’t worry, I’ve read a bunch of reviews, and hardly anyone else seems to have even noticed it, and they still loved it. And don’t judge it by its cover, either!
Caitlin and Eva have something and nothing in common. They’ve both lost their husbands. While Eva is the poised, business-like widow of a celebrity actor, Caitlin is a free spirit who dropped out of university to have a child, and is seperated from Eva’s brother, Patrick.
When Patrick volunteers Eva’s pristine, designer house for fortnightly visits between Patrick and his children Joel and Nancy, Eva is forced out of her comfort zone of grief and into facing her future without Mick, her famous husband.
Nancy, only four, is carrying a secret. Unable to speak since the separation, Nancy thinks it was her wish that made her father go away…
All I Ever Wanted tells the story of how this family is broken apart, then brought together by a common goal: to get Nancy to speak again,
Lucy Dillon writes with an eye for physical detail and emotional nuance, she skillfully relates the feeling of a parent unable to help their child, the frustration of a couple unable to communicate and the pain of Eva’s childllessness. She notes the personality traits that make us unique, and the ways in which we understand and misunderstand one another.
I was swept up in the often moving journey of her characters. A little gushy towards the end (I’m not normally a romance reader) this is a powerfully written book.
All I ever wanted
by Lucy Dillon
Published by Hachette New Zealand
The Atomic Weight of Love is the debut novel of Elizabeth J. Church and I hope we see a lot more books from her. This book is an ideal Christmas present. It appeals to a wide audience and will make a great holiday read and is not without a little racy love interest.
Meridian has won a place at the University of Chicago where she studies ornithology working towards a graduate degree and eventual doctorate. Just as her wings are opening and she starts to glimpse new horizons she falls in love with a college professor two decades older than herself and her wings are clipped.
It is written in a memoir style following Meridian as a woman growing up in the 1940s through the fifties and sixties into the seventies and the emergence of women’s liberation. You will find yourself reflecting at times how so much has changed yet still remains the same.
Meri marries Alden and follows him to Los Alamos where she attempts to fit into the group of ex-academic wives she meets there. It is the era when a wife is expected to follow their husband and make the best of it. She struggles to be a good wife while salvaging something of her studies by continuing to study Crows, having left her graduate study dreams behind her.
The novel’s dual strands, the place of women with the emergence of the women’s liberation movement, and the atomic bomb with its resulting anti-war Vietnam and Korean war movements, almost splits it characters by gender over its two themes.
Some of the characters could do with more development – they feel a little clichéd. It seems women have little to say on war in this novel and men little say on the home front. Even for the times this feels a little stretched. She skims over the women who Meridian meets in Los Alamos except her best friend Belle, a strong woman who urges her not to minimise herself yet when it comes to the crunch still tells her to stay in her marriage and try to make it work.
That being said bird studies draw amusing parallels between human and bird society. Each section of the novel starts with an ornithological reference “A Parliament of Owls”, “A Deceit of Lapwings, “A Murder of Crows”. When Meridian meets Clay, a young hippie ex-marine about two decades younger than her, it seems they are about to repeat past mistakes. Her husband seems not to understand her sacrifice while her lover urges her to soar again.
Together We Read allows readers across Australia and New Zealand to borrow the eBook Worlds Apart simultaneously for free.
For a two-week period beginning today, you can borrow the eBook Worlds Apart by Ber Carroll. There will be no waiting for this popular modern family story.
Worlds Apart is about two women, cousins and best friends, who are worlds apart and one secret that changes everything. As two women desperately try to find their place in this world in Ireland and Australia, a shocking family secret comes to light, and nothing will ever be the same again. Ber Carroll’s novel is a story about modern-day women, their relationships, family dynamics, conflicts and ambitions.
Together We Read is facilitated by the OverDrive platform for eBooks and eAudiobooks.