The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George

F96E7CCB-2F2E-4033-A1CA-9F4483B1F637A friend once told me that I was the most romantic person they’d ever met. I don’t actually think that’s true. Or, if it used to be true, it’s not true anymore. I think I am cynical about romance now and it’s through that cynical lens I read Nina George’s much lauded novel The Little Paris Bookshop which made me cringe on so, so many levels.

Jean Perdu (and as I was pointing out some of the novel’s cringe-ier moments, my son said “Perdu means lost, mom”) is a “literary apothecary”. Basically, he can find the right book for what ails you. Geesh, I can do that out of my classroom library, but whatever. He lives in Paris and sells books out of a barge docked on the Seine.

One day, a new woman moves into his apartment building. She’s left her husband and has nothing, so the concierge of his building asks if he might have a table to loan her. He does; the problem is that this table is in a room that he blocked off with a wall of books twenty years ago. For reasons.

The delivery of the table sets off a whole chain of events. The woman, Catherine, finds a letter in the table and it is this letter (and Perdu’s sudden and unexpected feelings for Catherine) which set the novel’s main narrative in motion. Because suddenly Perdu knows what happened to Manon (simply called ———-, for the first part of the story because, clearly, it’s too painful for Perdu to even say her name), the LOVE of his life. She disappeared twenty years ago and for twenty years Perdu has been healing others with his books, but not healing himself. (INSERT EYEROLL)

When he gets his first erection of the last twenty years, Perdu has no choice but to RUN AWAY. He hops onto his barge, about to make a clean getaway when suddenly he is joined by Max Jordan, a wunderkind writer who is now suffering from crippling writer’s block. So, the two of them float down the Seine – Perdu in an effort to bury the past and Max just because.  Along the way, they pick up one more guy, Cuneo.

The Little Paris Bookshop is a road trip bromance sort of novel filled with pithy observations about the world and set-pieces designed to show these dudes as enlightened beings. The women in the novel are props. Everyone is thoughtful and forgiving and treacly.

I had high hopes for this book. Paris (which I visited for the first time in July 2018), books: what’s not to love? I thought.

Le sigh.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

155356C2-E75D-4FCF-8F1B-CEB6EB1DA2B9Eleanor Oliphant, the titular character of Gail Honeyman’s debut novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, is not like anyone else you have likely met before. She has worked in the same office for the last nine years, she has no friends and she lives on a diet of vodka and pizza or pasta and pesto. Her life is structured and predictable, right down to her weekly calls from “Mummy.”

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Eleanor is actually not completely fine. She is pretty much the loneliest person I have ever met. She has no aptitude for social niceties; she says whatever pops into her head. It makes it difficult for her co-workers to warm up to her. Her mother is particularly harsh.   When she wins tickets to a concert and asks one of her office mates to accompany her, she becomes the butt of the joke because as everyone knows “she’s mental.”

Enter Raymond. He’s the new office IT guy. When he comes to fix Eleanor’s computer she notes that “he was barely taller than me, and was wearing green training shoes, ill-fitting denim trousers and a T-shirt showing a cartoon dog lying on tops of its kennel. It was stretched taut against a burgeoning belly….All of his visible skin, both face and body, was very pink.”

It’s funny that Eleanor dismisses Raymond as she has, similarly, been dismissed by others. She is aware of her own appearance, her “face a scarred palimpsest of fire. A nose that’s too small and eyes that are too big. Ears: unexceptional.” But Raymond doesn’t seem to see Eleanor’s appearance – or care much either way, at least, and is persistent and the two become unlikely friends.

The stuff that comes out of Eleanor’s mouth is often funny. She has no filter and doesn’t seem to take offence to the things she hears, even when she is the subject of ridicule. When an office mate makes a cruel joke at her expense, Eleanor admits that she “laughed at that one, actually.” Her world is very black and white. When she and Raymond stumble upon an elderly man in distress, Eleanor is tasked with keeping him calm.

…don’t worry, you won’t be lying here in the middle of the street for long. There’s no need to be anxious; medical care is completely free of charge in this country, and the standard is generally considered to be among the best in the world. You’re a fortunate man, I mean, you probably wouldn’t want to fall and bump your head in, say, the new state of South Sudan, given its current political and economic situation.

Oh, Eleanor.

It is Eleanor’s friendship with Raymond that starts to crack open her insular, dysfunctional life. The more we know of her story, the more amazing she becomes. Eleanor Oliphant will stay with you long after you’ve closed the final pages and you will leave her knowing that she will actually be completely (mostly) fine.

 

Dear Mrs. Bird – AJ Pearce

Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce is one of those frothy, inconsequential novels that is 54A58E82-4A09-4E79-93EB-33445980025A
easily read and just as easily forgotten. I actually read the first thirty pages or so and put it down; I only picked it back up and finished it because it was a book club pick and I hate going to book club without having read the book.

Emmeline Lake lives with her best friend, Bunty, in London during WW2. Emmeline works at a solicitor’s office and volunteers at the Auxiliary Fire Service, where Bunty’s boyfriend, William is a volunteer firefighter. What Emmeline aspires to, though, is becoming a Lady War Correspondent and she thinks she’s hit paydirt when she sees an advertisement in the paper for a Junior at The London Evening Chronicle.

For the last ten years – ever since I’d won a trip to the local newspaper as a prize for writing a quite dreadful poem when I was twelve – I had dreamt of a journalistic career.

Turns out, the job isn’t much more than glorified secretary to Mrs. Bird, Woman’s Friend’s  agony aunt. (Woman’s Friend being the poor relation to The Chronicle.)  Emmy is shocked and dismayed to realize that she’s taken the wrong job, but gives a “plucky Everything is Absolutely Tip Top Smile.”

Mrs. Bird has a strict policy about the sort of letters she will and will not answer in the magazine. Letters concerning marital or premarital or extramarital relations are to be binned. Mrs. Bird will not deign to answer queries about physical relations, illegal activity, politics, religion, the war or cooking. There’s also a long document containing a list of “Words and Phrases That Will Not Be Published Or Responded To By Mrs. Bird.”

Emmy feels stifled by her inability to help the people who write to Mrs. Bird looking for a light in what is clearly often a dark time. And this might have been an entertaining story, if it weren’t for the fact that Emmy is annoying and the story is pretty much a “you-can-see-it-coming-for-a-country-mile” romp.

For starters, Pearce capitalizes random phrases in the middle of sentences so, I think, you can hear how British and, well, to steal a phrase from Emmy herself, plucky these characters are.

Bunty said rather too quickly that the army always lets you know if something awful had happened so No News Is Good News and then Bill took up the baton and said Don’t You Worry, Emmy, Edmund Is Made Of Very Stern Stuff.

I can’t tell you how annoying that got after a while. The story sort of veers away from the letter writing, too, once the ‘tragedy’ happens. It all gets knit together in the end, though, So That’s All Right.

Ultimately, Dear Mrs. Bird wasn’t my cup of tea, even though it might have been a winner in different hands. I will be passing this book on to my 80-year-old aunt. I think she will love it.

The Light Between Oceans – M.L. Stedman

lightbetweenI feel heartless for saying it – but I didn’t particularly like M.L. Stedman’s first novel The Light Between Oceans. I’ve had the book for a while, but it was last month’s book club pick, so I finally had occasion to read it. [insert long-suffering sigh]

Tom Sherbourne is a quiet man, intent on living a quiet life after having survived WW1. He’s returned to Australia and is about to take up his new post as lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, an island off the coast of Partaguese on Australia’s western coast.

Teetering on the edge of the continental shelf, Janus was not a popular posting. Though its Grade One hardship rating meant a slightly higher salary, the old hands said it wasn’t worth the money, which was meager all the same.

Tom likes the idea of isolation thinking “If only he can get far enough away – from people, from memory – time will do its job.” It’s the horrors of war, he’s escaping, of course. But also his own childhood: a dead mother, an estranged father, a cold brother.

Just before Tom is about to leave for Janus he meets pretty, young Isabel Graysmark. Eventually the two marry and Isabel moves out to Janus. With a boat coming with supplies only about every six months, the newlyweds are certainly isolated, but they are happy.

Things start to get grim though, as Isabel suffers a series of miscarriages and then, shortly after her third, a small craft drifts into shore and in the boat a dead man and an infant. Isabel takes this as a sign from God, but Tom feels that they need to do the right thing, signal the mainland and report the incident. The decision the couple makes carries them through the rest of the novel.

So what’s not to like, you ask?

Ahhh….the melodrama. There’s boatloads of that. As Tom and Isabel wrestle with the moral, ethical and emotional questions posed by the foundling, their marriage suffers and they suffer personally, too. The constant negotiating got a little on my nerves, I have to say.

But there is another side to the story and that side belongs to the child’s birth parents. The introduction of these new characters is meant to up the emotional ante, and while it did for some of the ladies in my book club, I just felt like we were meant to wallow along with these suffering people and I just couldn’t muster any real feelings. Yes, I felt sympathy. I am a parent and I can only imagine how difficult the whole thing must have been. But to a certain degree I could see the clunky machinations of trying to fit all the pieces together and the swelling, heartfelt conclusion just left me feeling manipulated.

Bear Town – Fredrik Backman

beartownI actually put Fredrik Backman’s novel Beartown in my ‘to donate’ bag before I had reviewed it…and I guess that’s pretty telling. This was a book club selection, and not a book I would have ever chosen to read otherwise, so I guess I was skeptical from the beginning. Beartown made me cranky.

Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.

This is the story of how we got there.

From that relatively interesting beginning, Backman spins a melodramatic tale of a small, isolated town in Sweden. Beartown is a hockey town and I mean a fanatical hockey town. It’s the day before the Beartown Ice Hockey Club plays in the country’s biggest tournament and while that might not seem like a big deal, it’s a huge deal in Beartown.

There’s not much worthy of note around here. But anyone who’s been here knows it’s a hockey town.

Everyone in this novel is connected to hockey.

Amat “sleeps with his skates by his bed every night.”

Maya “hates hockey but understands her father’s love for it.” Her father, Peter, is the hockey club’s general manager. He’s a former NHL hockey player who has returned to his hometown.

Sune is the coach of the A-team. He’s on the verge of being fired by the board even though he’s been with the hockey club forever, even though everyone knows him. He knows that they want to fire him because he tells his players to play from the heart instead of telling them to win.

There’s Kevin, Beartown’s star player. Despite the fact that he’s good enough to play in a bigger town for, perhaps, a better team, he keeps turning down the offers. “He’s a Beartown man, his dad’s a Beartown man, and that may not mean a thing anywhere else, but it means something here.”

Yeah. Okay. We get it. Beartown is a hockey town. And although it’s probably un-Canadian to say – I haven’t cared much about hockey since the days of Wayne Gretzky and Brendan Shanahan. I certainly never cared about it as much as the folks in Beartown do. I certainly have never cared about it enough to read 415 repetitive pages about how characters driven by the desire to win backstab and bully and belittle others. There’s also a crime in the book that divides the town in a way that is wholly unbelievable.

Perhaps something was lost in translation, but for me Beartown was 200 pages too long and peopled with stereotypes. I often felt the novel’s didactic impetus. Pithy nuggets like “We become what we are told we are” and “A long marriage is complicated” are sprinkled throughout and, honestly, made me roll my eyes.

A big no for me.

 

Fierce Kingdom – Gin Phillips

fierceJoan and her four-year-old son Lincoln are enjoying a late afternoon in the zoo when Gin Phillip’s novel Fierce Kingdom begins. It’s almost five o’clock and they are in the Dinosaur Discovery Pit playing with Lincoln’s menagerie of action figure heroes and villains.

She and Lincoln come here sometimes after she picks him up from school – they alternate between the zoo and the library and the parks and the science museum – and she steers him to the woods when she can. Here there are crickets, or something that sounds like crickets, and birds calling and leaves rustling but no human sounds except for Lincoln calling out his dialogue.

With only a few moments left before the zoo closes, Joan and Lincoln make their way to the exit. Joan has a moment of prescience when she imagines “camping in the zoo overnight, maybe even intentionally hiding back there, going to visit the animals in the pitch-black of midnight.” They are almost at the exit when Joan notices the bodies (at first she thinks they are toppled over scarecrows, but no…) and the man in dark clothes, carrying a rifle. Joan grabs Lincoln and they run. For the next three hours the pair are trapped in the zoo with armed men intent on killing them – and anyone else they find.

The scariest thing about Fierce Kingdom is probably that in the current climate it’s not such a far-fetched premise that innocent people are gunned down in what is supposed to be a safe place. I live in Canada and we don’t have the same love affair with our firearms as Americans do, but even so, it’s hard not to be paranoid about being  at the wrong place at the wrong time. Joan might have taken Lincoln to any one of their regular spots – but today they are at the zoo.

Joan’s number one priority is to get them to safety and for a big chunk of the novel they hide out in an old porcupine enclosure “deep in the twists and turns of the primate house. It does not look fit for humans, and that is what strikes her as perfect about it.”  Everything Joan does, every decision she makes, is about protecting Lincoln, and her ingenuity and bravery will likely strike a chord with anyone who has kids. Well, with anyone, really, who has a desire to live.

Phillips keeps the focus  – for the most part – on Joan and Lincoln, but she does introduce a handful of other characters (Kailynne, a teenager who works in a concession stand; Margaret Powell, an older school teacher; Robby Montgomery, a young man with a connection to the shooters), which keeps the narrative from being too insular.

As Joan works to keep Lincoln safe, she ponders the peculiarities of motherhood…the myriad of ways that harm might come to our children. As any parent knows, you can’t think about that stuff or you’ll go crazy; you’d never let your children leave the house.

Fierce Kingdom  is a book about what it means to be a parent wrapped up in a page-turning thriller.

Nutshell – Ian McEwan

nutshellThere’s no arguing with the fact that Ian McEwan is an astoundingly good writer. I have read enough of his books over the years to know that I like him, even when he’s hard work. (I have read Saturday, On Chesil Beach, and The Children Act   Predating this blog I’ve read First Love, Last Rites, The Comfort of Strangers, The Cement Garden and my favourite McEwan novel, the devastating Atonement. I have a couple more on my tbr shelf.) McEwan is astonishingly prolific and you really never feel like you are reading the same book over and over. He has lots to say about a variety of topics and he says it well.

That’s the saving grace of Nutshell, which was chosen as our book club selection this month. I did a little inward grown when Sylvie revealed this book. Not because it was McEwan – clearly that wouldn’t bother ne – but because I already knew about the novel’s conceit and I wasn’t really interested in reading this book. At all. But then: it’s McEwan. In less capable hands, this book would be a dog’s breakfast and instead it was, while not exactly enjoyable, an easy read.

So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as it muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise. That was in my careless youth.

That’s the opening of Nutshell. If it’s not obvious, the narrator of McEwan’s book is an unnamed fetus. He’s sentient and trapped inside his mother’s womb. I say trapped because instead of biding his time until he’s born, he must listen to his mother, Trudy, plot with her lover, Claude, to kill Trudy’s husband, John. Matters are further complicated by the fact that Claude and John are brothers. If any of this sounds familiar, you know your Shakespeare. That’s all I’ll say about that.

Although the conceit of having the story narrated by a fetus might have proven problematic in less capable hands, Nutshell, is totally readable. Of course it is. Our narrator relates overheard conversations and imagines others to which he is not privy. Through him we see the adults in this story – none of them particularly likeable.  For example, he describes Claude as “a man who prefers to repeat himself. A man of riffs….This Claude is a property developer who composes nothing, invents nothing.” As for Trudy, “my untrue Trudy, whose apple-flesh arms and breasts and green regard I long for”, our narrator both loves and hates her. John, his father, was “Born under an obliging star, eager to please, too kind, too earnest, he has nothing of the ambitious poet’s quiet greed.”

As the narrator contemplates his mother and her lover’s plans to kill John, he also waxes poetic on a variety of topics including philosophy, poetry, and the best wine. He might be stuck where he is, but remarkably (or maybe not remarkably: this is McEwan, after all) the plot moves along at the pace of a good page-turner. Careful readers will love the allusions and readers smarter than me will likely find the overall reading experience intellectually satisfying.

Nutshell  is classy fan fiction by a writer whose talent and intelligence are undeniable, but I wouldn’t have ever picked this book up on my own.