As I have mentioned before on this blog, I am a sucker for any book set in Paris. I keep reading any and every book that boasts that city as its backdrop, and more often than not, I am disappointed; Paris, wonderful as it is, just can’t carry a whole book. But occasionally I am not disappointed; here are two books with the Parisian flavor that also delivered as good stories.
The first book is Unbecoming, a debut novel by Rebecca Scherm. I’m happy that I read it before looking at Goodreads to see what people had to say, because everyone there was comparing it to The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, to The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, and (inevitably and inanely) to Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. Because I did not see all the comparisons to other authors and styles, I was able to approach it “fresh”; and without all those judgments to hinder me, I was delighted by it.
The book takes place partially in the present day and partially in flashback. A girl named Grace is living in Paris, and although she is from Tennessee, she tells people her name is Julie and that she hails from California, because she is in hiding. She is living a quiet life, working for a small shop that specializes in restorations, and spends her days mending teapots and re-setting gems. But there is a mystery in her past, to do with the boy she married and the boy she loved (two different boys); she has just learned that the two have recently been paroled from prison sentences they served after an art heist gone bad that was planned by Grace but from which she escaped unscathed, and now she’s afraid they’ll be after her.
The evolution of the main character and the degrees of denial and self-knowledge, combined with the plots and plans, the failed heist, and the anticipation of revenge, all kept me intrigued throughout this novel. Ironically, the only thing that disappointed me a tiny bit was that the Paris setting wasn’t all that distinct—she worked in a shop with a girl from Poland via Amsterdam; she lived in a suburb outside the city with a German landlady; and there was almost no Parisian “feel” to it, not even in the street market scenes, which were more grim than they were picturesque. Also, more of it actually took place in Garland, Tennessee than in Paris. But that’s a small caveat—this was a skilled debut from an author I will revisit should she write more.
The second book, A Week in Paris, by Rachel Hore, fulfilled every expectation I had for a book that would evoke the feel and ambiance of Paris—the streets, markets, music, cafés, churches, schools, everything. That by itself sets the bar pretty low for a reason to like a novel, but after having read a slew of books that promised me Paris and didn’t deliver, this one was completely satisfying—not only for that reason, however!
Although the two protagonists, mother and daughter, are both English by birth, both of their stories—one beginning in 1937 and the other in 1961—take place in the City of Light. Fay Knox, the daughter, knows little of Kitty Knox’s story, or in fact her own; her childhood before the age of six is a complete blank to her, and her mother doesn’t talk about it, with the excuse that it’s too painful to revisit the time directly after she lost her beloved husband, Eugene.
Two things happen nearly simultaneously that lead Fay to that past: Kitty has what amounts to a nervous breakdown and is hospitalized in an asylum to recuperate; and Fay is hired by an orchestra (she is an accomplished violinist) to play three dates in Paris over the course of a week’s time. When Kitty’s doctor convinces Fay that in these early stages of her depression her mother won’t even notice that she’s gone, Fay takes the job and, while in Paris, connects with an old friend of her mother’s who reveals a surprising and disturbing version of the past that Fay has never heard before.
Both the story and the style of writing reminded me of Kate Morton, particularly evoking her book The Distant Hours. I’m tempted to describe it as Kate Morton “lite,” although I don’t mean that in a negative way; simply that, as detailed as Hore’s book is, it’s simplicity itself when compared to the microscopic descriptiveness of Morton’s works. But the pattern of a mystery from the past intruding itself on the present, and a daughter attempting to solve the puzzle of her mother’s life, are quite similar, and equally well done. I haven’t read anything else of Hore’s, but will definitely seek something out soon.
Either of these books, in fact, would appeal to someone who appreciates a mystery but doesn’t wish to read about murder, victims, police, or the other trappings of a straight-up mystery novel. I guess you could call them “puzzle” books rather than mysteries, but the solution to a secret from the past is integral to their plot lines.
An extra comment: I am always intrigued by what publishers do to sell their books once they make the move from hardcover to paperback. Unbecoming went from a cover that did express its contents, though weirdly turned on its side, to something that looks like a rather obvious young adult novel about a girl who disappears, while the cover of A Week in Paris morphed from a photo that evoked the somewhat somber mood of the story to one that might more accurately portray its contents, but with a typeface choice that gives it a slightly upbeat chick lit feel. Do book art directors ever actually read the books, one wonders?
Even though, by and large, e-books tend to cost a lot less than picking up a hardcover, those $1.99 to $9.99 charges do eat away at your budget. I try to check out as many as possible from the public library, but often the book either isn’t digitally available from my library, or it’s on hold due to the burgeoning population of Los Angeles folk who have discovered this economical way to read. But there is another way, which was recently shared with me and which I will share with you: Books in the public domain. There are many e-books (notably the classics, but others as well) that you can obtain for free from a variety of sources; E-book Friendly recently shared a list of 25 sources where you can find a free e-book to read. While you are there, be sure to explore the website’s other lists and resources.
Many have by now read the popular book Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes, about the lower-class girl living an ordinary and rather stultifying life, who first works for, then falls for the upper-class guy who happens to be a quadriplegic. Both of their lives are transformed (and also derailed) by their relationship, and hankies are passed at the end. I’m sure some have also seen the movie.
Although the first book was wildly popular (#1 NYT Bestseller), the second book, After You, got fairly short shrift by some readers (and reviewers), who apparently didn’t think that Louisa Clark was a compelling enough character to carry the story on her own. I differed with that opinion, and though my first judgment of the book was “adequate and somewhat endearing sequel that wasn’t quite up to the first book,” upon re-reading it recently I revised my opinion upward. The thing I particularly enjoy about Moyes’s books is her character development: She doesn’t just flesh out her protagonist and other main folks, she makes sure to create a complete and usually quirky personality for everyone who appears for even a moment. The result is lively and specific interaction on every page.
I will say that the first third of the book bored me a little, and I was just about to opt out when a couple of new and unexpected characters popped up and put some pizzazz into the story. I ended up enjoying it quite a bit more than I initially expected.
The third book, Still Me, took Louisa out of her British background and environment and put her up against a new life in New York City, which finally gave her the chance to expand beyond Will Traynor, and beyond the essentially small-town girl she remained in the second book, despite her travels and new relationships. It still, however, highlighted the gaping trench between the classes, with the difference that in New York City, it’s all about the money. The glimpses of city life and how much it differs for the rich vs. the poor were intriguing, the ups and downs of romance were good, but where this author shines, again, is in the creation of her characters. Although they were all compelling, I particularly enjoyed the elderly fashion maven, Margot, and her pug dog, Dean Martin.
If you liked the first but hated the second, you might enjoy the third. If you liked both books #1 and #2, then you definitely should get you some more Louisa Clark. And if you never got around to reading any of them, maybe you will want to give them a try!
The author, JoJo Moyes, has been quite outspoken about the presentation of some of her titles as “chick lit,” saying
“I just try to tell a story which will maybe make people feel something, and perhaps think a little too. Ultimately, fiction is entertainment and no matter how beautifully or thoughtfully done, it succeeds or fails based on whether people are entertained.” We touched on this in my readers’ advisory class in our discussion of mainstream fiction: Joyce Saricks, readers’ advisory guru, in the chapter entitled “Emerging Genres” she penned for the book Genreflecting, argues that this type of book falls into a bigger category called “Women’s Fiction.” She defines women’s fiction as consisting of “books written primarily by women for women, that feature female characters, and that address the issues women face in their professional and domestic lives.” While acknowledging that this is a solid and definite trend, especially if you include the outliers of chick lit and erotica, I find the descriptor “women’s fiction” to be somewhat pejorative—dismissive and ghettoizing. Perhaps I am wrong, and should look at the positive elements of this: that women are writing, that women are writing about other women, that we have a positive trend to claim. But! No one ever called any aspect of fiction (except perhaps the truly macho genres, such as westerns) “men’s fiction.” When men were the primary writers of fiction, it was all just fiction, whether literary, mainstream, or genre-based. So why do we need to distinguish “women’s fiction”? It raises my hackles a bit.
I would like to propose that a more useful way of designating this subset of mainstream fiction might be “relationship fiction.” It still focuses on the most important aspect of so-called women’s fiction, which is the relationships between the characters, but it would include such male writers as Nicholas Sparks, Chris Bohjalian, Matthew Quick, and other men who write about relationships, sometimes from the viewpoint of a female protagonist, and would additionally embrace so-called family stories, while avoiding the condescending terminology that puts female writers in a subtly “less than” category.
Regardless of how you label them, JoJo Moyes’ books are, as she aspires to be, both thoughtful and entertaining.
In my view, books should be brought to the doorstep like electricity, or like milk in England: They should be considered utilities, and their cost should be appropriately minimal. Barring that, poetry could be sold in drugstores (not least because it might reduce the bill from your shrink). At the very least, an anthology of American literature should be found in the drawer of every room in every motel in the land, next to the Bible, which will surely not object to this proximity, since it does not object to the proximity of the phone book.
—Joseph Brodsky, “An Immodest Proposal”
This is the time of year when I look back at all the books I read in the past 365 days, and ponder which were my favorites, which were the best books I read this year, and whether those are one and the same. Goodreads, where I record my reading, conveniently keeps track of statistics for those who set a reading goal, so before I get to the specifics, here are some of mine:
I read 41,346 pages across 113 books.
My shortest book was an e-book-only novella (71 pages) by Sharon Bolton, while my longest was a reread of a Diana Gabaldon book (928 pages) in preparation for the next season of Outlander on TV. The average length of book I read was 365 pages.
The most popular book I read this year was (surprisingly) The Princess Bride, by William Goldman (which I read for high school book club), while the least popular (though one of the most useful to me) was the “textbook” (Reading Still Matters, by Catherine Sheldrick Ross) that I assigned to my readers’ advisory students in the masters program at UCLA. And the highest rated book that I read, according to Goodreads, was The Empty Grave, a young adult horror novel that is the final chapter of the Lockwood & Co. books by Jonathan Stroud, a wonderfully entertaining series for 8th grade and up.
One of my favorite books of the year, but not one I would consider a “best book,” would be Thick as Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner. It was a favorite for a couple of reasons: It was a long-anticipated fifth in her beloved Queen’s Thief series (beloved by me, though apparently unknown to far too many people); and it had her typical intricate yet understated plotting and humor that made me appreciate it throughout and also at the end. But for most people, it would probably be far too subtle to consider as a “best book,” and it needs to be viewed within its setting as part of a series to give the full effect. If you are, however, looking for a good and also untypical fantasy immersion to start off your year of reading, pick up The Thief (the first book) and savor the story through The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, and finally, Thick as Thieves. It’s one of those series that gets exponentially better as it goes along.
Tess is a slow, compelling, character-driven fantasy, so if you are impatient for breathless action, it may not be for you. But I found the writing, the characters, and the story all to be completely gripping. Tess’s transformation throughout the book was a fabulous coming-of-age story for resentful and impetuous young women everywhere. I identified with her repression by a rigid, religious mother, was dismayed by the ways she tried to disengage from her life, and was delighted by her choices, though some of them seemed idiotic in the moment.
Defy the Stars was entertaining from start to finish. I loved the characters—Noemi is so idealistic, stern, determined, and committed, but with a squishy interior that occasionally surfaces. Abel is, well, a ROBOT—this is my favorite robot book since the Lije Bailey/Daneel Olivaw pair-up in Isaac Asimov’s old mystery series. As with Daneel, Abel turns out to be so much more, mostly because his creator, Burton Mansfield, gave him enough agency to continue developing on his own. But Noemi is really the catalyst who brings him to his ultimate personhood. What I especially liked about this book is that it gave you a glimpse into possible worlds that could have been colonized from Earth, and how they evolved differently depending on the expectations and ideals of their colonizers. This isn’t just space opera; it also goes into religion, environmentalism, and politics, and is thought-provoking in all areas.
One of my faves that I would also consider a “best book” was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. Her quirky character Eleanor is, in many ways, profoundly broken, and Eleanor’s metamorphosis depends on courage that she wouldn’t have found without making some human connections, but it is not a romantic book, for which I was grateful. Her story is told in a tender, sweet, and humorous way that isn’t manipulative and never descends into mawkishness, that pulls both Eleanor and the reader out of melancholy into hopefulness. I was impressed that this was the author’s debut novel: The language, the characters, and the world in which she places them are smart and engaging, and she writes with confidence. I have always believed re-reading potential is the true test of a good book, and as soon as I finished this one, I wanted to go back and read it again to feel the emotions brought forth in me by the story.
In the mystery category, I thoroughly enjoyed the reliable offerings from among my list of favorites: Louise Penny, Elly Griffiths, Robert Crais, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Sharon Bolton, and Craig Johnson; but the most anticipated and most enjoyed one had to be Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. I was completely enthralled by everything about the book: The initial mystery, of the mentally ill homeless man who has fastened onto the fame of detective Cormoran Strike and touchingly believes that only he can ferret out the truth about something the man witnessed as a child, is just the kind of thing that Cormoran latches onto like a dog with a chew toy and won’t let go until he’s thoroughly decimated it. But then, to have not one but two more cases to solve, both of which go somewhat against the usual principles that Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott consult before taking on a client, boosted up the energy exponentially. I was thrilled that the book picked up right where book #3 (Career of Evil) left off, which was immediately after the wedding ceremony in which Robin married the detestable Matthew Cunliffe. When she returns to work as Cormoran’s partner, he labors to keep their private lives carefully separate, giving the reader a delicious simultaneous sensation of frustration and anticipation as we find out where their personal choices will lead them.
I have already mentioned, in a recent post, my favorite fantasy of this year, Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor; if you have, in your past, been prejudiced against books because they were given a “young adult” categorization, please let go of that long enough to pick up and read Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares. You won’t be sorry. I will add to the best fantasy category another, completely different offering: Vengeful, the long-awaited sequel to Vicious by V. E. Schwab.
As usual, being the bibliophile that I am, I managed to find a few new novels based on reading and bookstores to add to my list, including The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson, Paris by the Book, by Liam Callanan, and The Lost for Words Bookshop, by Stephanie Butland. I think the last would be my favorite of these.
Please feel free to respond with your comments on any of my favorites, and share your own—if I receive enough responses, I will publish an end-of-the-year book bonanza from readers, full of ideas for January catch-up!
“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resides, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that beats only in the chest of another.”
—Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby (2013)
As she says…although we readers like people perfectly well, there comes a point…
“It’s not that I don’t like people. It’s just that when I’m in the company of others—even my nearest and dearest—there always comes a moment when I’d rather be reading a book.”
—Maureen Corrigan, author
Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books
from the Book Adept!
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
—Cosmos, Part 11: The Persistence of Memory, by Carl Sagan
Vicious, by V. E. Schwab, was a confusing, frustrating, sensational book. The hero/protagonist was definitely not a hero, not likable, had no redeeming qualities, and yet you root for him. The villain terms himself the hero, and you see his vulnerability and his delusion and want to like him, and yet you can’t. The secondary characters are all compelling—fully fleshed out, insinuatingly engaging, and also impossible to pigeonhole.
On the surface, the premise is a comic book—ExtraOrdinary people (EOs) who have special abilities—but there the comparison ends, because they go around using their abilities, not for good, but for their own advantage and to others’ detriment, unless they are in the mood to be lenient or merciful, or the person is useful to them. This isn’t what we’ve been taught to believe “superheroes” would do, but…why not, really? If you woke up from a coma and discovered that you could tell everyone around you what to do and they would do it, would you refrain? If you were able to heal from any wound, no matter how grievous, would you still act like a normal human being fearful of death, or would you take any risk, pull any stunt, knowing you couldn’t be hurt?
It’s a fair question. No one ever says, What impulse supplies the moral certitude of a Superman to always do good, never evil? Where is the moral ambiguity in these tales? This book is true science fiction, because the job of science fiction is always to ask, What if? and then try to supply the answer, and Schwab has done a superb job of going where seemingly no one has wanted to go before (at least to my admittedly limited knowledge). Bravo.
Vengeful, the continuation of the story, did not disappoint. Having said that, I don’t think it was quite what I was expecting, either. The parts I was expecting: She continued to write from her head-spinning stance of the first book, which is to say she jumped back and forth in time at will, reorienting the reader with every chapter heading. She also randomly switched perspectives between multiple characters. Not many authors can pull that off, and those who try sometimes actively irritate me, but Schwab can do anything she decides to do, it seems. She gave us the next chapters for each of her major characters from the first book, while further developing Stell’s campaign against the EOs, and she also introduced some kick-ass new ones, notably the powerful women, Marcella and June.
The new characters are part of what I wasn’t expecting. I thought this book would be the resolution of all the story lines among Victor and Eli, Sydney and Mitch, and this resolution is largely accomplished; but we also get a pretty thorough development of these two new people to the EO panoply. Marcella in particular is a gripping portrayal of what happens when a woman is consistently appreciated only as arm candy and she decides to let the world (husband first) know exactly what’s wrong with that picture. June is more of a picaresque character, popping in and out and supplying (dark) whimsy and intrigue; but Marcella is a force of nature, and we’re talking hurricane.
Ultimately, what makes this book as gripping as the first is that they are all terrible people, unmoored to any sense of absolute right or wrong, and Schwab makes you simply not care; or rather, she makes you care deeply, despite how horrifyingly cruel and brutal they may be. The juxtaposition of violence and murder with sweet family scenes incorporating mac and cheese and hot chocolate further solidify the irony.
The ultimate thing I wasn’t expecting is that this may not be the end. This was billed as a duology, but so many loose ends were left as possibilities; people walk off into the sunset, and where are they going? Who will stay together, who will be riven forever from one another, how will they live, what will they do? Now that some of them have achieved their objectives, what will be their life’s purpose? I felt like the characters who walked away at the end could be trusted to disappear out there and never resurface in fiction, but for one: The fact that we know so little about June—her back story, how she became the way she is, and her future intentions—gives me a suspicion that we haven’t seen the last of this world.
Shall we hope for a third tale?
I was emailing with a former co-worker from the library the other day. She shares my love of a good mystery, and we were doing the usual “Have you read…” conversation, wherein I discovered that she had not yet read any of Louise Penny’s series set in the mythical Three Pines, somewhere in the snowdrifts below Montréal, Canada, and starring the inimitable Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec.
I immediately encouraged her to drop everything and start reading with the first book, Still Life, and then…I paused. I love this series almost unreservedly, and yet it is not a series that you can recommend to just anyone. It has quirks.
The first quirk is that the development of the characters is far more instrumental to the reader’s love of this series than are the individual mysteries/murders/cases pursued in each volume. With a few standout exceptions, I have released from my memory the specifics of the cases, and yet I retain every detail about the inhabitants of Three Pines and the officers of the Sûreté who make recurring appearances or simply loom as brooding, somewhat intangible threats over Gamache’s future.
The second quirk is that the mysteries themselves are weird. Victims are shot by arrows, electrocuted in the middle of a village fair, die of fright in the midst of a séance. Penny seems determined to come up with deaths so out of the ordinary that the reader must struggle a bit with “the willing suspension of disbelief” in order to continue with the book or the series.
The third quirk is more a matter of degree or intensity than it is anything unusual, and that is the level of psychological and personal involvement one develops with the character of Armand Gamache with each subsequent book. I phrased that last sentence purposefully, because the character of the man is what draws me to these books and keeps me reading. He is the hero you could wish for as the head of any police department, and yet because of his high standards and philosophical rigor, his expectations are hard to meet, and in fact many of the officers of the Sûreté not only don’t try to meet them, but purposely flout them. Those within his magic circle realize that he is as deeply flawed as they are, and that his flaws are what drew them to him as a mentor and eventually as a friend. But even those who claim friendship have never plumbed the depths of Armand Gamache, and this is what makes him forever fascinating.
I began this intending to give a review of the latest book, Kingdom of the Blind, number 14 in the series. It is true to form, in that the initial mystery is puzzling and offbeat—Gamache, Three Pines bookstore owner Myrna, and Benedict, a young builder unknown to either of them, have been summoned by a notary to discover that they have been designated liquidators (executors) of a will, but for a woman none of the three has ever met. Becoming somewhat reluctantly involved with this duty ends up leading them to a murder, and to the puzzling facts of the will itself, which bequeaths possessions not actually owned by the deceased. Running alongside this new conundrum is the leftover entanglements from the last book, in which a powerful new drug was released onto the black market, partially as a result of controversial actions by Superintendent Gamache, with the consequence that he has been suspended from his position at the Sûreté, temporarily replaced by his close associate and son-in-law, Jean-Guy de Beauvoir.
A few commenters on Goodreads expressed the feeling that the familiar characters in Three Pines are becoming redundant, and that Penny should start fresh with a new project. Although I can’t agree with this, I do think that this was not one of the 40 percent of standout books in the series. I wasn’t a big fan of the story line with the will and the historical puzzle contained within it; but I did breathlessly follow the events in this book that played out the contentious actions from the last, and watched with intrigue Gamache’s desperate attempts to remedy his daring ploy that put a dangerous drug on the streets. And an exceedingly surprising plot twist at the end may do something significant for those readers bored with the inhabitants of Three Pines….
In her afterword to this book, Penny confessed that she thought she had already written the last Armand Gamache book, and had expected to confess as much and default on her commitment of another to her publisher. Penny’s beloved husband, Michael, passed away in 2017, and she had believed that his embodiment of Gamache and his constant participation in all aspects of her writing life would keep her from going further once he was gone. But one morning, she woke up with an opening sentence in her head, and realized that, far from being unable to go on, the continuation of this series kept her husband’s integrity, courage, and good humor present in her life and in her writing.
I ended up reiterating my recommendation to my friend about the series, with the caveat that the mysteries are weird and not always satisfying, but that it is the community in which you live while you read them that will keep drawing you back. I plan to check in with her after she’s read a few, and see if she has invested in them as I have. The series is about kindness, humor, wit, love, and affection. The fact that it’s sometimes also a window into despair and inhumanity simply points up the contrasts.