Wednesday 30 April 2014

The President's Hat by Antoine Laurain

Dining alone in an elegant Parisian brasserie, accountant Daniel Mercier can hardly believe his eyes when President François Mitterrand sits down to eat at the table next to him.

Daniel’s thrill at being in such close proximity to the most powerful man in the land persists even after the presidential party has gone, which is when he discovers that Mitterrand’s black felt hat has been left behind.

After a few moments’ soul-searching, Daniel decides to keep the hat as a souvenir of an extraordinary evening. It’s a perfect fit, and as he leaves the restaurant Daniel begins to feel somehow … different.

Goodreads Description

I bought this little gem on impulse. It was one of those reduced price kindle offers and I thought I hadn't reviewed many French books on this blog (a couple I think), so I took a punt. 

The hat at the heart of the story passes from owner to new owner by a series of coincidences and each time the new owner changes his or her life, becoming more decisive and taking control of circumstances. Is this because of the hat? Daniel Mercier thinks so: his search for the hat he lost shortly after acquiring it ties the two ends of the novel together. But we are never told whether the hat has magical properties. Just as dressing up in your finest clothes makes you stand taller, it could simply be that the action of wearing this rather superior hat makes its recipients reach into themselves and find the resolve they have been lacking. 

The President's Hat is a positive, life-affirming read. Each of the hat's recipients has lost their way - one is a young woman in a relationship with a married man that is going nowhere, another is a perfume maker who has lost his creativity, and the last is a member of the conservative aristocracy who throws over his conservatism to become a patron of the arts. I suspect that there is some clever commentary on French society and the changes Mitterand wrought in it, but it was lost to me. The book is obviously very French and set in a time (the 1980s) which already seems very distant. 

The President's Hat is a short book with an easy-to-read style and so can be read in one session, but you will probably find yourself thinking about it afterwards. It raises some interesting philosophical questions - about how a chance occurrence can have big consequences, about power and its transfer and of course about how we can change our circumstances.

I will keep my eye on those kindle daily deals, if this book is anything to go by.
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Wednesday 23 April 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

Coney Island, 1911: Coralie Sardie is the daughter of a self-proclaimed scientist and professor who acts as the impresario of The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a boardwalk freak show offering amazement and entertainment to the masses. An extraordinary swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl,and a 100 year old turtle, in her father's ""museum"". She swims regularly in New York's Hudson River, and one night stumbles upon a striking young man alone in the woods photographing moon-lit trees. From that moment, Coralie knows her life will never be the same.

The dashing photographer Coralie spies is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father's Lower East Side Orthodox community. As Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the mystery behind a young woman's disappearance and the dispute between factory owners and labourers. In the tumultuous times that characterized life in New York between the world wars, Coralie and Eddie's lives come crashing together in Alice Hoffman's mesmerizing, imaginative, and romantic new novel.
Publisher's Description 

This book is many things: a love story, a historical novel, and a mystery. It has much that I love in fiction and in magic realism. It is magical and at the same time dark, unafraid to tackle hard subjects: the abuse by unscrupulous employers of immigrant workers, the abuse of women in a patriarchal society, and the commercial exploitation of the "freaks" in the Professor's museum. In some hands these subjects could be too heavy, but Hoffman's magical and lyrical storytelling allows the reader to engage with the story. Nevertheless, unlike some of Hoffman's other work, this book is very much for adults. 

The writing structure is an interesting one - with the two first-person narratives (Eddie and Coralie)  being interspersed by that of  an anonymous third-person storyteller. At first this structure took a bit of getting used to, but I soon found that I liked the way the third-person narrator was used to bring an extra dimension to the story. The accounts of the historically true incidents which frame the story - the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the Dreamland Fire - are told in the third-person and are no less powerful for that. The image of the trapped factory workers jumping to their deaths will stay with you: At first, the falling girls had seemed like birds. Bright cardinals, bone-white doves, swooping blackbirds in velvet-collared coats. But when they hit the cement, the terrible truth of the matter was revealed.

Hoffman's use of themed imagery is on display here. The most obvious themes are fire and water, but there are others such as that of birds: a livery man with a dark past is shown to have changed through his love of birds; the hummingbirds in the Museum are tied to the cages on leashes of string; the imported starlings at first are seen as exotic and then despised by the people of New York. Some people might find such repeated imagery to be over-heavy, but I liked it.  

Hoffman is known for her use of magic realism. In this book there is usually an explanation for any perceived magic, indeed it is often shown as illusion, most obviously in the Professor's Museum. The Professor is a fraud, presenting as magically real that which is constructed in his cellar of horror. At the same time the freak-show performers are portrayed as very human and humane. We see them through Coralie's eyes.  The real monsters are the Professor and the people who come to gawp and abuse. And the true magic is that of human love.

I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe by M Henderson Ellis

Not long ago, John Shirting--quiet young Chicagoan, wizard of self-medication--held down a beloved job as a barista at Capo Coffee Family, a coffee chain and global business powerhouse. When he is deemed "too passionate" about his job, he is let go. Shirting makes it his mission to return to the frothy Capo's fold by singlehandedly breaking into a new market and making freshly postcommunist Prague safe for free-market capitalism. Unfortunately, his college nemesis, Theodore Mizen, a certified socialist, has also moved there, and is determined to reverse the Velvet Revolution, one folk song at a time. After Shirting experiences the loss of his sole "new-hire" -- a sad, arcade game-obsessed prostitute -- it is not long before his grasp on his mission and, indeed, his sanity, comes undone, leaving him at the mercy of two-bit Mafiosi, a pair of Golem trackers, and his own disgruntled phantom.

A dazzling combination of Everything is Illuminated and Don Quixote, with a jigger of Confederacy of Dunces, and Lord of the Barnyard, Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Café is the first novel to so exquisitely capture the ambiance of expat Prague. Poised to be an underground classic, it asks: what does it mean to be sane in a fast-changing world?
 Goodreads Description

Over on the Magic Realism Books Facebook page we regularly get into discussions about what is magic realism. One of the strands in these discussions is that magic in some places, cultures and lives is a reality.  Some people argue that this is not the case in Western/European culture, but I have always begged to differ. In Easter 1990 I found myself wandering the streets of Prague, a city that was waking after the nightmare of communism. I was very much aware of the strange magic energy of the place. I now spend a lot of time in the Czech Republic and regularly visit Prague. I find that the magic is diminished but it's still there. It is therefore not surprising that having read the blurb (above) I leapt at the chance to read and review this book.  

Keeping Bedlam at Bay is set in the early 1990s when the former Eastern bloc countries were attracting oddballs, rampant capitalists, mobsters, psychics and hippies. At this time the Czech capital was very much like a wild west frontier town where anything was possible. We see this weird world through the eyes of naive man/boy, John Shirting, who bumbles along in his self-aggrandized, chemical-fuelled mission. The world that Shirting encounters is a darker one than I experienced. I suspect many readers would think much of what is described as comic fiction, and while there is a degree of elaboration much is nevertheless recognizable, for example: the babushkas: what is the collective of Babushkas? - Shirting, in his travel journal would humbly submit a scold of Babushkas; the alchemical references (black bile); and Czechs talking in all seriousness about hunting the Golem: conditions are right for the beast's return. Intergalactic alignment, extraterrestrial accord, crap like that. Historical shiftings, dangerous levels of antimatter. All of which makes me consider again that question of what is magic realism. What is real? What is magic? What is fiction? In a place like Prague the real can sometimes be more magical than fiction. 

But did I like this book? Did it live up to the blurb? The answer to the second question is no, but that is not surprising, given the hype. As for the first, not particularly. It was amusing at times, but not as original as it might perhaps appear to readers without my inside knowledge. But good comedy to my mind needs to have a humanity about it. The book does not attempt to understand the people of Prague, at one point a character says: You people are crazy... you Americans. You come to here and all you can say is how beautiful the city is but nobody ever stops to look at the people. This is partly because of the nature of the central character, who fails to understand himself and how others see him, let alone to understand or sympathize with the Czechs he encounters and whose language he never learns. In return I found myself becoming less sympathetic towards him. As the book doesn't have much in the way of a plot (it is just a series of episodes in Shirting's life) and the character does not have the ability to learn from what happens, I increasingly found it a rather depressing story for all the comic incidents. 

I was given this book by the publisher via Edelweiss in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 9 April 2014

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

The extraordinary journey of one unforgettable character - a story of friendship and betrayal, loyalty and redemption, love and loneliness and the inevitable march of time.

Harry August is on his deathbed. Again.

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. 'I nearly missed you, Doctor August,' she says. 'I need to send a message.'

This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow

Goodreads description

Last year I reviewed the critically acclaimed and Booker short-listed Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – a novel in which the central character dies and then restarts their life repeatedly. Now along comes another book that is based on the same idea. What must Claire North and her publishers have thought when Kate Atkinson beat them to it? Or maybe Claire North is Kate Atkinson, having another take on the subject, which seems only appropriate in the circumstances. I am sure many writers would like to revisit a concept as strong as this. I can speculate like this because Claire North is a pseudonym for an acclaimed British author, or so the the note at the back of the book tells me. Whoever Claire North is, she has a very different approach to the concept.

Atkinson's novel is clearly literary fiction and the repeated lives are presented as a literary device. Claire North's novel is genre fiction – science fiction. There is a whole group of people who repeat their lives and even a secret society through which they help each other and protect the world from one of their kind abusing their knowledge. Of course the plot line concerns a message from the future that the world's end is being speeded up by a rogue xxxx. The book becomes a quest across Harry's fifteen lives to save the world. And a thoroughly good romp it is too, well plotted and with a strongly drawn and by no means perfect protagonist.

Whilst the heroine of Life After Life only vaguely remembers her previous lives, Harry August remembers everything. The advantage of this is that it allows Harry and us to consider the philosophical and logistical implications of the device. At times this debate can get a bit tedious, but it is thought-provoking. I'm not sure that I was entirely convinced by how the impact of alternative lives on world history was explained. But you have to accept the internal logic of such stories and get on with enjoying the action.

I read somewhere that science fiction cannot be magic realism and in this case I think that is probably true. Nevertheless I enjoyed this book.

I received this review from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.

Friday 4 April 2014

Incendiary Girls by Kodi Scheer

Incendiary Girls explores our baser instincts with vivid imagination and humor. In these stories, our bodies become strange and unfamiliar terrain, a medium for transformation. In “Fundamental Laws of Nature,” a doctor considers her legacy, both good and bad, when she discovers that her mother has been reincarnated as a thoroughbred mare. In the title story, a mischievous angel chronicles the remarkable life of a girl just beyond death’s reach. In Scheer’s hands, empathy and attachment are illuminated by the absurdity of life. When our bodies betray us, when we begin to feel our minds slip, how much can we embrace without going insane? How much can we detach ourselves before losing our humanity? Scheer’s stories grapple with these questions in each throbbing, choking, heartbreaking moment.
Goodreads description

Kodi Scheer combines her medical training and understanding with magic realism to form an original collection of short stories. 

In Fundamental Laws of Nature a woman doctor and cancer sufferer believes her daughter's horse is the reincarnation of her mother. 

Transplant - a story about a woman with a transplanted heart who becomes a convert to Islam; this is about a woman searching for hope.

Miss Universe - the contestants turn violently on Miss Afghanistan. 

Gross Anatomy - a medical student is visited by the cadaver she is dissecting.

When a Camel Breaks Your Heart opens with the line: Your lover hasn't always been a camel. Yesterday Mahir was human. But this isn't a simple surreal story, it is a sad painful portrait of a cross-cultural relationship.

No Monsters Here - a wife and mother with OCD starts finding body parts hidden in her home. These belong to her doctor husband who is on duty in Iraq.

Salt of the Earth - an account of an outbreak of a love virus in a small town. 

Modern Medicine - a nurse in a burns unit tries to cope with the trauma of her work by abusing drugs.

Primal Son - how do a couple cope when their much wanted baby is born an ape?

Ex-Utero - a medical student's experience on the ward.

Incendiary Girls - an account by an angel of death of a young woman's experience of the Armenian Genocide.  A shocking account of a terrible and forgotten event in twentieth century history. 

The author's medical insight is important to these short stories, not just in terms of her choice of subject matter but also in how she sees and portrays the world. In addition, in Transplant, Miss Universe, When a Camel Breaks Your Heart, No Monsters Here and Incendiary Girls there is a focus on war, genocide and intercultural relations. 

A fascinating collection.

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.