Thursday, October 9, 2014

Marie C. Reviews The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster

The Unknown Bridesmaid is one of the best books about the dark side of childhood I've ever read. It's the story of a girl who grows into a troubled teen and then a deeply dysfunctional adult who helps others without realizing how much help she needs herself.

Julia is raised by a secretive, authoritarian mother who belittles and shuts her daughter out. Nobody will talk about her father, who died when Julia was five. Julia grows up with her mother's sister Maureen, Maureen's beautiful daughter Iris and later Iris's family, consisting of her second husband Carlo and daughters Elsa and Fran. But before there is a family with Carlo there is a wedding to Reginald, Iris's first husband and Reggie, her little son, who die, and nobody will talk about them, either.

This ordinary family holds a lot of secrets, and Julia grows up believing she has the most devastating secret of all. This secret gives her guilt and shame, but it also gives her power. Julia is a deep introvert who cannot find a way to fit into the warm, extroverted family with whom she must live after the sudden death of her withholding mother, who taught her to disdain her cousin.  Her feelings of insignificance are transformed into bullying and aggression towards Elsa, Carlo and Iris when her mother's death leaves her feeling abandoned and alone. As an adult, Julia becomes first a teacher and then a counselor to troubled children, but it takes meeting an unhinged adult who strikes Julia as another version of herself, to get her to face her childhood demons.

Of course in her chosen profession Julia is reliving and dealing with her issues every day, even if she doesn't realize it. And here's the thing. Julia is not a nurturer; she is clinical, detached and strategic, and even to the end she cannot fully understand or admit to the damage she's done to the people who loved her, because she cannot admit her own importance to them. Margaret Forster's genius is convincing us how it happened, how powerless she felt, how frustrated by the silence around her, and how her actions made her feel like she mattered, made her feel like she could have an impact when all around she was told to be quiet, not ask questions, sit on the sidelines. It's painful to see how different things could have been for her. She can't understand, even into middle-aged adulthood, that she did matter to her cousin's family, and to her only friend. It might be too late to undo some of the damage, but not too late to make it better for somebody else.

Forster has written a quiet and devastating novel about how the wounds of childhood carry over into adulthood and how hard it is to let go of the image one has created of oneself, no matter how strenuously others contradict it. And it shows how precarious our lives are, how one person takes a wrong turn when someone else, equally flawed and vulnerable, doesn't. It also offers hope that it doesn't have to be this way, that healing and help are possible, if only one reaches out. It's a tough read and a beautiful one, too.

You'll find yourself thinking back on this book for a long time after you're done reading. It'll definitely show up in my favorites list this year.

It's the 11th book I've read for the 2014 Europa Challenge.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Marie C. Reviews RED JOAN by Jennie Rooney

Red Joan, by Jennie Rooney. Published 2014 by Europa Editions. Literary fiction; historical fiction.

Red Joan is an excellent novel based on the true story of an octogenarian British woman who was revealed to be the KGB's oldest living British operative. Of course what everyone wanted to know was, why? In the case of real life, the woman was a die-hard Communist true believer, but Jennie Rooney has decided to make her heroine an entirely different person and has crafted from this rich premise a tense and absorbing tale about love and what it means to be loyal.

Rooney alternates the narratives between the past and present, the present being when elderly Joan is brought in for questioning after the sudden death of a fellow spy. She is living a quiet life in England and her son, a successful lawyer, rushes to her aid. He doesn't believe that she could be guilty of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets but as her story unwinds she gradually lets down her guard. Then it's just a matter of why.

Set starting just prior to the outbreak of World War 2, Joan is not a true believer, but rather an ordinary lower-middle-class girl making her way at Cambridge. She encounters Sonya, a glamorous Russian who takes the mousy Joan under her wing and introduces Joan to her cousin Leo, a magnetic young man with whom Joan becomes infatuated. They become lovers. Leo is a committed Communist and Joan accompanies him to rallies and meetings, and while the philosophy behind Communism is not unappealing to her, she is largely apolitical. What she believes in is Leo, at least until she learns she can't. When war breaks out she is offered the opportunity to work in a lab doing nuclear research. The man who runs this lab is married but in love with Joan; she returns his feelings but is torn. At this point Leo, Sonya and their associate William step up pressure on Joan to spy for them. Eventually she accepts.

Meanwhile in the later timeline, Joan slowly buckles to the pressure to tell what she knows, and has to explain herself to Nick.

I really loved this book. The last few chapters are tense page-turners as Joan's activities lead to consequences she doesn't expect and she has to work her way out of a very tight spot indeed.  Joan is an interesting character, an ordinary woman caught up in events and just trying to keep her head above water for much of the book. Then, when the waves crash too high, she has to pick a side. Rooney doesn't exactly convince us that Joan was right, but that what she did made sense for her at the time she did it, for the reasons she did it. Nick is the skeptical reader's stand-in and doesn't understand her, but Rooney shows us the past is another country. The story is more about relationships than politics,  the triumph of real love and the power of love to save ourselves, and others.

The readers I would have in mind for Red Joan like literary fiction, British war stories and a good love story, too. For me it was a winner.

This is the 10th book I've read for this year's Europa Challenge.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Pushpak K. reviews "The Woman with the Bouquet" by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt

“Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” 
- Khalil Gibran

Of all the complex emotions that separate the homo sapiens from the rest of the species, love remains - after a millennia of evolution - the hardest to define, yet the simplest to experience. History overflows with reams of parchment, ink, musical notes, paint and countless other media that have all been employed by artists in the single-minded pursuit of this elusive wisp. But, as in the tale of the blind men and their elephant, our perception of love, when viewed through the lens of such works, gives us but a tiny glimpse into the mysterious machine that fuels most of our existence.

Eric Emmanuel-Schmitt's "The Woman with the Bouquet" is a superlative collection of short stories (and a novella) that take us on a tour of this enigmatic landscape, but forgoes all the tourist traps. This is a journey through the wilder, somewhat darker and deeper parts of human psyche that shake, jolt, rattle and in general string us up in the most surprising ways possible. We emerge bloodied, battle scarred (for life), albeit richer in our ability to experience and understand the various facets of love. Make no mistake though - you will lose a part of yourself in these stories - you will never be whole again! And that, is a GOOD thing!

We encounter "The Dreamer from Ostend" in the opening novella, an old woman who refuses to move with time. Surrounding herself with books of classic literature, she refuses to open a door to any contemporary influence, clinging on to her only remaining thread to a past that was filled with love. Until, she encounters the narrator, a young writer who has come away from his past after a romantic breakup. After a few terse encounters, she finally relents and opens up to him about her past - a life so full of fantastical incidents that he refuses to believe in them, until it is too late.

In "Perfect Crime," Schmitt tackles the difficult transition of insecure, lifelong love morphing into a deadly obsession, and the tragedy that inevitably results from such a change. Without spoiling the story, suffice it to say that it has a bittersweet ending that may stay with you for a long long time.

"Getting Better" is a double entendre that describes the two protagonists in the story about a blind, paralyzed patient and his plain-jane Parisian nurse. Their encounter sets up a chain of events that irrevocably changes their lives, perhaps for the better?

"Trashy Reading" is a tragicomedy, a black satire on the effects of a lifetime of abstinence and the flood of complex emotions that usually follows a brief exposure to the forbidden substance. Schmitt is masterful in this tale, weaving a fast-paced narrative through the world of an uptight, bibliophile professor who is initiated into The Chamber of Dark Secrets, by his cousin on a holiday trip.

The final story is the titular tale of a woman who has been showing up on a platform in Zurich station, a bouquet in her hand, for fifteen years. Who is she waiting for, and why wait for such a long time? Schmitt channels the reader's curiosity through the eyes of a group of young adults who speculate if her daily ritual is a sign of loyalty or a desperate plea of resignation? Although the smallest story in terms of pages, it is also the deepest exploration of the subject by the author.

Alison Anderson works up her magic translator machine once again, and delivers the narration in an almost lyrical prose that captures the ethos of the stories, while resisting the easy slide into mushy-ness. The prose is hard-hitting, and visceral, with a calculated effort to translate not only Schmitt's words, but his style de narration.

Highly recommended!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Marie C. Reviews TAKE THIS MAN by Alice Zeniter

Take This Man, by Alice Zeniter. Published 2010 by Europa Editions.

Sometimes I think Europa ought to take a handful of its titles- just a handful- and try pitching them to a Young-Adult or New-Adult audience because I bet some titles would work well for that demographic, and they may never get to those readers because they are shelved and marketed as adult literary fiction. Since the distinction is often one of marketing and not merit, and since YA is used to distinguish many fine novels by audience, books often miss appreciative readers because of where they are shelved. Recently Europa readjusted its strategies with respect to its mysteries, grouping them into a World Noir line, and I wonder if it would be worth their while doing something similar with a select group of titles for teen and twentysomething readers.

And yes I think Take This Man would be an excellent candidate for just such a move. Set in modern day France, it tells the story of a couple, if you can call them that, Alice and Mad, French twentysomethings about to get married. They have been best friends since forever- they've always known each other and they love each other dearly- as friends. But Mad is from Mali and not a French citizen, and he is about to be deported, at least for years and possibly for the forseeable future. In a last-ditch effort to stay in France and get on the path to legal residency or citizenship (I am unclear on this point) Mad asks Alice to marry him. Alice loves him and considers herself a "child of socialism," a Mitterand-era-raised liberal and biracial child of a Caucasian French mother and Algerian father. She understands racism, despises the conservative trends in French political and social culture and jumps at the opportunity to do something concrete.

Alice's voice is what makes this book so distinctive. Author Zeniter writes Alice as energetic, vibrant and full of life; her sentences run on, she goes back and forth in time with anecdotes, relates all kinds of details and stories. Sometimes she seems very immature; she refers to her parents as "Mommydaddy" and most of her time seems occupied with social life. The move to marry Mad can come across as ill-considered and impulsive, the act of a child. But she also expresses a lot of angst, concern and real trepidation over the consequences of the decision for her and her friend even if she spends a lot of time congratulating herself too. She comes back time and again to the panic over losing Mad, his anxiety over having to leave France, and how this is something she has to do, like she's trying hard to convince herself and the world this is the right decision.

I enjoyed the book because I liked Alice and cared about what happened to her. The style of writing with its run-ons and associations and endless anecdotes about parties and friends and teenage life was not really my cup of tea but I liked the social message and politics and the guts it takes to really put yourself on the line for what you believe in. It has a certain lightness about it if you will even given the serious subject matter and one disturbing incident of racial harrassment suffered by Alice and her parents when Alice was little. It's a neat look at modern French life and the energy and verve of the writing is more than enough to get you through.

This is my ninth book for the 2014 Europa Challenge.

I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Marie C. Reviews Four Europas

I've read a bunch of Europas over the past few weeks and rather than write four long reviews I decided to just do quick recaps.

The Cemetery of Swallows, by Mallock. All over the place in terms of tone and style but compelling nonetheless, it tells the story of a Frenchman who murders an elderly man in the Dominican Republic, for reasons that no one understands. Mallock is also the name of the detective in this case, a friend of the murderer's sister. He starts his investigation in the DR where he encounters corruption, a house of amber and more, with just hints of the horrors awaiting him to discover back in France. The story then takes a turn to World War 2 atrocities and reincarnation. Along the way you'll be treated to prose both purple and page-turning, until this hot mess bumps its way to a pretty conventional ending. 2014.

Seven Lives and One Great Love, by Lena Divani, is a light bonbon about a cat and the woman he
loves. A pretty white cat named Zach is adopted by a woman he worships for no discernable reason; she's not a very good cat owner, that's for sure. Anyway he remains devoted and tries with some success to win her affection and attention. This would be fun one for the beach bag. 2014.

Margherita Dolce Vita, by Stefano Benni, is an older title that tells a coming of age story mixed with an anti-materialism message. Margherita is a dreamy teen who lives with two brothers and her parents and everything is peachy until the Del Benes move in next door with their black cube of a house and shopping-mall lifestyle. Things take a dark turn and Margherita must figure out how to save her family from the changes she sees coming- if she can. I liked this book and I think it would appeal to readers who like a little quirky in their literary diets. 2006.

Revolution Baby, by Joanna Gruda, was my favorite though. This is a
quasi-novel about a Jewish Polish boy who is hidden during World War 2 and the Holocaust, in various places around France. Julek has a peripatetic childhood even before war breaks out; his parents, hard-core Communists, don't want to raise him and have him to live with Polish comrades of theirs. His mother takes him to France but sends him to boarding school, then sends him all over the countryside in an effort to keep him safe. Told from his perspective and in simple language, his is a story of alienation and the constant struggle to find a place for himself, find a family, find a place to call his own. The adult narrator makes no effort to contexualize what happened to his child-self so we have to read between the lines to understand and I like it when a book makes me work a little like that. I really loved this book and want to recommend it to everyone.

These are books 5-8 of the 2014 Europa Challenge!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Marie C. Reviews TIME PRESENT AND TIME PAST by Deirdre Madden

Fintan Buckley is a middle-aged, middle class man, with a wife of 24 years and three children- two teen-aged boys and a 7 year old girl, Lucy, the apple of his eye. They are Irish and live in Howth, an upscale seaside suburb of Dublin. His mother Joan lives nearby, as does his sister Martina. The time is just before the financial crash of 2008. Fintan enjoys history and finds himself fascinated by autochrome photography, an early form of color photography that had its heyday between 1907 and the early 1930s when it was replaced by subtractive color film. Fintan's interest in autochrome photography leads him to have certain hallucinatory experiences, taking him, and the narrative, in and out of his present life in ways that he never expects.

At the same time the life of his family goes on around him. He and his wife, Colette, manage their family as their sons grow up and their little girl explores her world; Fintan, who had thought he was finished having children, has found himself quite besotted with his youngest and enjoys being a father to her more than he ever thought he would. Colette gets to know his sister Martina, a beautiful woman with an eye for clothes and a good business sense but a slightly shady past. Martina is just returned from time spent living in London but won't tell anyone why she's come back. Now Martina's opened a boutique, and seems to be settling in, but questions remain. Joan is a fashionable lady with firm ideas about family but she harbors her own secrets as well. The family must deal with its past just as the future is about to launch itself onto their lives.
Howth Harbor, October 2013
I had not heard of Deirdre Madden when I picked up this book but it just looked like my kind of thing, and I have to say I really loved it. Madden is an excellent writer with a keen eye for detail and psychology and Time Present is solid, strong literary fiction that will appeal to lots of readers. I want domestic and family fiction readers to read this, and litfic readers generally. I know I want to read everything she's written now- I feel like I made a real discovery when I found this book sitting out in a bookshop in suburban Dublin, not far from the actual setting. And I was thrilled to see Europa publishing it and bringing it here, because I think lots of readers will love it and feel about Deirdre Madden the way I do- that she's one to follow.

It's my fourth book for the 2014 Europa Challenge.

Rating: BUY!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Seana reviews Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored by Philippe Georget

Here's most of the review that I put up over on Escape Into Life yesterday. I also put in a little link to this site, so that others interested in the Europa Challenge can join in. 

Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored (L’été tous les chats s’ennuient), by Philippe Georget

English edition translated by Steven Rendall

Editions Jigal, 2009, Europa Editions, 2013
Reviewed by Seana Graham
A book with the word “summertime” in the title may seem cruel to mention to those of you still struggling with winter, or at least a cold, wet spring, but really, what better time to get away to the hot coast of the Mediterranean than at just the moment when it seems that summer will never come?
Philippe Georget’s prizewinning police procedural opens up at a little beach campground on the French Mediterranean, not too far from the border with Spain. Of course, as this genre would be nothing without a crime, a body will turn up shortly.

After this brief prologue, we find ourselves in the regional capital city of Perpignan, in the company of the man who will be our companion throughout our journey, Inspector Gilles Sebag. As his story opens, he is not thinking much about crime. He is, brooding about the summer ahead.  We soon learn that Gilles, though able, has not risen as far through the ranks as by all accounts he should have. This is because of a decision he made in the now quickly receding past. What could this dark shadow be? It turns out that when his children were born, he opted to spend more time with his family than in pursuing his career. To make matters worse, this period is drawing to a close, as all his family members seem to want to be anywhere but home. Sebag’s ongoing concern about what has become of family life makes him a rather unique detective, at least in my reading experience.

Meanwhile, several young Dutch women visiting the region have come in harm’s way, and at least one of these has been murdered. Much of the book will be occupied with how the strands of their lives are woven together—and by whom. It’s a very twisty sort of tale, more successful I think in some aspects than others, but very enjoyable for all that. One of the author’s stated aims was to convey something of the flavor of this region of French Catalonia or Roussillon, as Georget frequently refers to it, and in this I think he has succeeded. Before he was a novelist, Georget was a newsman, and like several of his characters, he is a transplant to the region, and eager to soak up the local culture. We learn about many of the aspects of the area, such as the lore around Canigou, a mountain of almost sacred importance to the Catalan people.