Book Review: Paris Echo

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Who cares about history?”
“We weren’t remembering it anyway. We hadn’t been there – neither had our teachers, nor anyone else in the world – so we couldn’t remember it. What we were doing was imagining it…”

The ideas at the heart of the Age of Enlightenment spread across Europe in the eighteenth century and are credited with inspiring the French Revolution. Paris became a centre of culture and growth that welcomed artists, philosophers, and also an influx of migrant workers. The twentieth century brought further war and division with violent conflict between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Internalised hatred between neighbours was unleashed.

Paris Echo opens in contemporary times. It offers a view of the history of the city from the contrasting perspectives of two recent migrants.

Tariq is a nineteen year old raised in Tangier, a shallow narcissist who cannot look at a female without undressing her in his mind. He is studying economics at college, a route to a better life in his father’s eyes. He has little interest in world affairs but is frustrated with his current life. He decides to escape to Paris where his late mother was born and raised. A non-practising Muslim, Tariq hopes to meet Christian girls who, unlike his female friends at home, behave as he has watched on American TV.

Hannah is an American postdoc researcher returning to Paris after a decade. Her previous visit left her emotionally scarred but, as a historian, the city offers professional opportunities she is eager to utilise. Hannah’s association with Tariq is somewhat contrived but enables the author to construct a story from the points of view of the jaded academic and the naive young man.

“You couldn’t know everything […] there were only degrees of ignorance.”

Tariq secures a low paid job in a food outlet and, once he has landed decent accommodation (however unlikely this may appear), enjoys exploring the city. We see it through his eyes, especially the contrasts with his homeland. He encounters figures from the past and is intrigued. The timeframes are at times inexplicably fluid, history presented as pageant. Tariq’s story is a coming of age.

“This was, so far as I knew, my first attempt at living on this planet and I was making the whole thing up as I went along.”

Hannah spends her days researching the experiences of ordinary women during the German occupation of the Second World War. She listens to recorded accounts of their lives at the time, commenting:

“contemporary witnesses seemed unaware of the meaning of what they’d lived through”

This opinion, that it is historians who ascribe importance, suggests a lack of understanding of the impact of events on individuals and how each must somehow find a way to live with challenging memories.

“this will never, ever go away. Not until every last person who lived through it is dead.”

Hannah meets regularly with an English colleague she knew from her last visit to the city. He grows concerned at the impact the women’s testimonies are having on his friend as her empathy develops. Tariq, for all his insular concerns, can see more clearly yet is not taken seriously. Hannah continues to regard him as he was when they first met.

One of Tariq’s co-workers hates the French for what they did to the Algerians during their battle for independence. Tariq’s lack of knowledge of historical events in Paris and the ripples these caused through time is gradually remedied.

“What, really, is the difference between the commemoration of an atrocity and the perpetuation of a grievance?”

The story is engaging and fluently written with some interesting insights into the conceits of intellectuals and how differing cultures disseminate history. Both Hannah and Tariq become more aware, especially of themselves. Paris, the sense of place, is appealingly presented.

Any Cop?: Although a pleasant enough read this book did not have the powerful impact of Birdsong or Engleby. I would say it is more akin to Charlotte GrayOn Green Dolphin Street or A Week in December. That it mostly avoids character clichés is a notable strength. Despite the occasional structural flaw it offers thoughtful perspectives.

 

Jackie Law

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Book Review: The Groundsmen

The Groundsmen, by Lynn Buckle, is a brutal and disturbing story about an Irish family caught up in a generational cycle of abuse. It is told from five points of view. The protagonists are all victims of a community unwilling to confront the actions of those living within their midst. Dark secrets fester but are kept.

Louis is a successful IT manager who moved his wife, Cally, and their daughters, Andi and Cassie, to the newly built suburbs of Dublin before the Celtic Tiger economy collapsed. Now Cally spends much of her day in bed. Teenaged Andi resents that she is left to look out for her little sister. Five year old Cassie copes with the familial disharmony by pretending to be a dog, burying objects that represent hurtful behaviours in the garden. Louis’s brother, Toby, is a regular visitor. Louis and Toby have always been close but the truth of their relationship is toxic.

The story opens on a typical weekend. Louis and Toby are getting drunk watching football on TV, internally fantasising about what they would do to women they know. The violent degradation inherent in their thoughts is sickening to consider.

Cassie is in the garden burying the remote control. Andi is checking the personal treasures she hides in her wardrobe.

Cally has escaped upstairs and is thinking with disgust of what her husband has become – the rank smell and diseased skin that he regularly forces on her.

When Cassie becomes too lively inside the house she is punished. She copes with the pain by going elsewhere in her mind, thinking of all the items on her childish want list. Her family cannot understand that much of her behaviour is a cry for love, regarding her as weird and a nuisance.

Andi seeks love on line, posting photographs of herself at the behest of a boy. Toby has noticed how his niece’s body is developing.

The following Monday Louis oversleeps making him late into work. On arrival he discovers that Toby has been sacked. Inappropriate images were observed on his computer. There is to be an investigation. Louis struggles to make sense of what he is being told. As the story progresses the reader comes to understand that these adults operate in a state of denial about consequences. Damaging behaviours have led to a spiral of sordid desires which they refuse to acknowledge.

Louis regards women as objects available for his pleasure, resenting any agency they acquire. Cally recognises that she should act to protect her children but, inured to a life of submission, is overwhelmed. Louis will do whatever it takes to hold onto what he believes is his by right. Toby has his own agenda.

The subject matter and detail made this a challenging story to read. The author remains resolute in portraying the extent of the degeneracy and wider culpability. This is savage social realism, the twitching net curtain torn asunder. It is searing in its plausibility.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher époque press.

Book Review: The Plankton Collector

“That picture […] will be amongst the snaps which she keeps all her life in the old chocolate box, the captured iconic moments of seaside holidays, made happy by a trick of memory”

The Plankton Collector, by Cath Barton, tells the story of a family struggling to cope in the wake of a death. Rose and David live in comfortable surroundings with their three children but their marriage is not a happy one. Each believes that, over the years, they have given the other what was expected and required, yet neither feels fulfilled. When their elder son, Edgar, dies following an illness they and the boy’s siblings each retreat into individual, dark shells.

Ten year old Mary seeks solace in books, escaping from her home when she can, now that Mother is always crying. On a day like any other she meets a stranger who, despite warnings to the contrary, she knows she can trust. He takes her to the seaside where she plays with a new companion. The episode is surreal, inexplicable, yet remains as a comforting memory.

Rose’s memories from her younger days bring her little comfort. She believes she was happy once, before she lost her best friend. Now she has lost a child and fears her husband is increasing the distance between them. A stranger she meets as she tends her son’s grave takes her on a journey that reminds her she must work on the small things so as not to be defeated by the bigger picture.

Twelve year old Bunny meets the stranger in a den he used to spend time in with Edgar. Bunny finds he can talk almost freely about many issues that have been bothering him, although not about his father. The man understands and knows to bide his time.

David is troubled by his recent behaviour yet unsure how to extricate himself. To help him the stranger, in the form of a rich uncle, offers to take the children away for a week’s holiday. Left to themselves Rose and David can talk about their growing rift.

The stranger is the Plankton Collector, although to each he goes by a different name. He appears when most needed. The journeys he takes with each family member are as real as they need them to be.

In haunting, exquisite prose the author explores the disconnects that exist within families as each deals with the internal difficulties inherent in life as it progresses. Moments of happiness can be overshadowed by loss, yet it is the former that should be granted attention and treasured.

In this short novella a world has been conjured that recognises the depths of unhappiness yet offers hope. It reminds that reactions when grieving are neither uniform nor prescriptive, but that individuals, once known, are never entirely lost.

‘You will remember this place,’ he continued, ‘and you will always be able to come back to it in your minds. No-one can take your happy memories away from you.’

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, New Welsh Rarebyte.

Book Review: The Incendiaries

The Incendiaries, by R. O. Kwon, is a doomed love story between two troubled students who attend an elite American university. It opens with an explosion. The voice switches between Will, Phoebe and the snake oil salesman John Leal. Will is looking back, trying to understand why his Phoebe would get involved in a violent protest during which people died.

Will was at a bible college until he lost faith in the existence of God. He is now at university on a scholarship but has to supplement this with a job at an upmarket restaurant. He meets Phoebe at a party when she spills her drink down his trousers. Phoebe seeks distraction in the form of attention and alcohol to drown her grief following the death of her mother. Both these young people have an aching hole in their lives. John Leal has observed how humanity craves something to believe in. He is seeking power by creating a religious cult.

Will is drawn to Phoebe from the first night they meet, fantasising about how they would be together. When this happens for real he regards her as an amalgam of what she shares of her background and the ideal of his desires. Both had childhoods cloaked by intense faith, followed by loss, guilt and disappointment. They look to each other for hope, a chance of redemption, but instead find flawed individuals. When John Leal’s bait is accepted and he starts to wind Phoebe in, Will grows jealous. He wishes to save her, but for himself.

Phoebe is fond of Will and does not want to let him down as she understands others he loved have done. She also desires John Leal’s promises of deeper meaning and higher rewards. Observing her inculturation Will tries to force her hand. He behaves abominably.

In spare and powerful prose the author adds layer upon layer of reason and action fleshed out by numerous twists and shocks. The supporting characters evoke campus life and how little even close friends know of each other’s inner turmoils. Throughout the story being narrated Will is trying to understand. Yet the Phoebe he desires is an imagined one who puts him at the centre of their universe.

The varied roles of religion and the manipulations this allows are well portrayed. Little in the story is black or white. The denouement leaves much to ponder, not least that love may be as much a human construct as other beliefs.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Virago. 

Book Review: Dear Mr Pop Star

For nearly ten years the author(s) going by the names Derek and Dave Philpott wrote letters to pop stars querying the lyrics of well known songs. They started to put these on a website that grew in popularity. Then the pop stars started writing back. This book is a compilation of their one hundred best missives. While many respondents appear incredulous at the points the Philpotts raise, they mostly answer in the spirit of the endeavour. The correspondence is pedantically bonkers but amusing.

As an example, Derek Philpott writes to Lindisfarne explaining in some detail why he must decline the invitation to have a pint or two, and pointing out that fog cannot belong to one person only. In response it is explained how ownership of airbourne precipitation in the Newcastle area has been claimed over the years. Should Derek wish to meet for a drink on a Friday night he is assured:

“Lindisfarne are advocates of responsible drinking, i.e. you have to get your round in”

Many of the letters reference the pop star’s other songs making the book an entertaining challenge for aficionados as they try to place track titles or lyrics.

There is an excellent culinary response from Mark Nevin for Fairground Attraction when Derek explains how a recent dinner party was a resounding success despite not being perfect.

Gerard Casale, founder of Devo, salutes Derek’s astute insight and then states:

“De-evolution is real and you are there on the frontline helping to prove it.”

The answers provided can be as bizarre as the questions asked. Some recipients appear perplexed, others serious if surreal. The Philpotts take the lyrics from bygone hits both personally and literally. Owen Paul is told, since he asked:

“My favourite waste of time in the 80s was standing on the terraces at Brentford, and in the 90s watching England in the Euros”

A precis of the reply would be that time enjoyed is never time wasted. The Philpotts do not state if the football alluded to provided any such pleasure, surely an omission requiring clarification.

Part of the pleasure of reading the letters is remembering the songs under scrutiny. I also enjoyed that the Philpotts ignored all the sexual innuendo and metaphor, demanding elucidation of scrutable meanings.

Several of the pop stars mention that the letter received was not the first. One requested:

“please lose my address”

This is a book that should be dipped into and perhaps shared. The format does not change so reading too much at once risks repetition. There are nuggets to be enjoyed from many well known names as well as a few perhaps forgotten despite their songs remaining familiar. Derek Philpott is ‘a character’, in all its meanings.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author(s).

Book Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series premiered in 1997 and has remained popular ever since. I came to it late and am still working my way through the DVD box set. It is my go to show when I need some light entertainment because watching a group of young people fighting the vampires, demons and forces of darkness that roam their neighbourhood gives me hope, even when it does get a bit silly. Our real world is full of forces of darkness in human form and maybe they too can be defeated by those brave enough to stand up to them.

While Buffy may remain popular with adults and young adults, the themes and depictions in the TV series may prove too scary and at times risqué for younger viewers. This picture book, then, provides an introduction to characters children may have heard of but not yet got to know.

In the story Buffy is eight years old and attending Sunnydale Elementary School, something purists may object to but let’s go with it anyway – continuity hasn’t always been adhered to within the wider Buffyverse. Giles is the school librarian. Willow and Xander are Buffy’s best friends.

Readers are introduced to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and told that before she knew she was the Chosen One of her generation, a slayer, Buffy was afraid of the dark.

At bedtime, after her mom turns out the light, young Buffy hears scratches and thumps coming from her closet. She decides to invite Willow and Xander over for a sleepover, but none of them are brave enough to open the closet door.

The next day they go to Giles for advice. He tells Buffy that she must appear brave even when she doesn’t feel it. She must face her fears.

The three friends, acting in character with the young adults developed in the TV series, enter the closet after dark. What they learn is that kindness can lead to extraordinary alliances that benefit all.

The pictures are clear and bright with just the necessary words to move the story along. The monsters introduced are recognisable so enjoyable for existing fans. I particularly liked the way pronunciation of certain names were explained.

This is a sweet and gently spooky story that was fun to read. It offers a fine introduction to Buffy for the next generation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk.

Book Review: The Dominant Animal

The Dominant Animal, by Kathryn Scanlan, is a collection of thirty-six short stories portraying ordinary if atypical aspects of the lives of fictional Americans. There is a detached and disturbing undercurrent as individuals’ private moments are observed. The raw imagery appears somewhat shocking in our carefully curated and sanitised social world.

A Deformity Story is set during a lunch where friends are gathered in a restaurant and the narrator wishes to share an anecdote. How often in social situations are participants performing to the crowd?

“I had a story I wanted to tell. I had half an ear on the conversation but mostly was thinking of how I would enter it.”

People and the things they interact with are presented as grotesques, as, to conclude, is the behaviour of the friends.

Colonial Revival condenses a life into three pages. A man returns from a war, builds a business and home, marries, has children. The hollowness and futility of what many would aspire to and be admired for is brought to the fore by the lack of emotion. There is kindness and there is death – and time moves inexorably on.

Surroundings are described and, at times, enjoyed but many of the lives are lived without apparent beauty. Humans encountered are disturbing, their distasteful aspects presented unadorned and without obvious recourse. There are moments of horror – one story includes the sexual abuse of a baby – but even the more mundane lack hope of uplifting. And yet, the characters mostly accept their lot. It is, perhaps, this reader who looked for succour.

To give an example, descriptions of foodstuffs are of bagged, wet, congealed, oily concoctions. Taste is rarely mentioned. There appears little desire to create pleasure. The characters are mostly insular and focused on self.

Small Pink Female describes what its narrator considers a typical date.

“I’ve courted in the traditional fashion, of course – coming together on evenings arranged in advance, in the dark, on padded seats, facing the huge brash rectangle, or else in simulated candlelight, knees tucked beneath a drooping white cloth, enduring protracted sessions of mastication and, later, abbreviated fornication.”

Where is the excitement? the potential for fun?

Salad Days describes a relationship, its beginnings where everything, however ordinary, feels like a prize. Inevitably this cannot last. Dissatisfaction leads to violence.

Within these pages parents dislike their children and children their parents. Couples tolerate derided behaviour and take part in activities they do not enjoy. Those who manage to escape rarely find anything better. In Bait-And-Switch a couple carelessly destroy the comfort they have unexpectedly been granted.

The subjects may appear hollow and dark but there is a breathtaking honesty in the layers of meaning, however challenging this is to absorb. I was left feeling bereft at the humanity presented, yet in awe of the skills apparent in the author’s writing.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Island Press.