Villa America by Liza Klaussmann

Villa America by Liza KlaussmannVilla America was, perhaps, my most anticipated read of the summer. I loved Liza Klaussmann‘s last novel, Tigers In Red Weather (review), so much. That plus the fact that Villa America recounts the life and times of Sara and Gerald Murphy and their famous friends, including Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Picasso, and I felt certain that this book was going to steal the summer. Continue reading

In Montmartre by Sue Roe

In Montmartre by Sue RoeSometimes I wish I had studied Art History in university. That’s why I picked up In Montmartre by Sue Roe. It looks at the rise of Modernism in early 20th Century Paris by focusing on Picasso and Matisse. And when I say Picasso and Matisse, I mean mostly Picasso, which was a disappointment because I’m more of a Matisse kind of gal. Continue reading

Mademoiselle Chanel by C.W. Gortner

Mademoiselle Chanel by CW GortnerI know that many people will be interested in this novel just because of Chanel’s name, but I think you should be interested in Mademoiselle Chanel for far more reasons than just that. C.W. Gortner has written a fascinating tale of the 20th century by tracing Chanel’s rags to riches story. Continue reading

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

all-the-lightI should have listened. All my blogging friends were raving about Anthony Doerr‘s new novel, All The Light We Cannot See, and I wrote it off. I thought I wasn’t interested. Thank goodness the good people at Simon and Schuster Canada sent me a copy. I couldn’t have been more wrong. All The Light We Cannot See rates up there as one of the best novels I’ve read so far this year. Continue reading

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half-Blood-BluesYes, it has taken me a long time to get to Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. Sometimes too much hype about a book can keep me away. Edugyan emerged out of nowhere in 2011 and became the It girl of Canadian fiction in 2012. There is scarcely a prize for which she wasn’t nominated. This was topped of in 2014 with Canada Reads. Continue reading

Brave Genius by Sean B. Carroll

brave-geniusI’ll admit it, the thing that attracted me to Brave Genius was a combination of the cover and the title. As far as titles go, this is a good one. My impression of the book only got better when I read that it was about Albert Camus and his involvement in the French Resistance during WWII. The book also tells the parallel story of Jacques Monod, a biologist, who like Camus worked in the French Resistance. Both Camus and Monod went on to win the Nobel Prize in their respective fields in the years following the war.

The book is basically broken into two parts: Camus and Monod during the war years and their lives and work after the war. I quite enjoyed the first part. The war in France is something I know shockingly little about and Brave Genius did a commendable job at filling that gap. In addition to relaying the lives of these two geniuses, Carroll provides ample context for their actions by really laying out what was happening throughout France in the greater theater of the war. All of the background material is wonderful, but did give me the impression that I was reading a book specifically about WWII in France.

By the time I reached the second half of the book 250 pages later, I was, quite honestly, exhausted. I dove into the second half but was quickly bogged down by the biological details of Monod’s work. Because of the thoroughness of the first part of the book I feared too much detail would follow and gave up on the book. This is not something I do lightly. I would like to stress that Brave Genius is a brilliantly researched and well written tome. As a reader who merely dabbles in non-fiction, usually of a more narrative variety, I found the book to be just a little too much for me.

Who would like this book? There a several obvious answers to this question: 1/ fans of Camus who want greater insight into his life and the effects of WWII on his writing; 2/ Fans of Monod for the same reasons; 3/ those interested int he intellectual culture of Paris and France during the Resistance and the years following the war. Another area that may be explored in the book is what exactly is it about these two men and their circumstances that propelled them to the heights of winning a Nobel Prize? As I did not finish the book I do not know whether or not this is covered, but is certainly something I would be interested in reading about. And regarding Brave Genius‘s status as a DNF – I may return to it in the future when I have more time to dedicate to it. But with the fall book season, there are just so many  things I want to read right now.

I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Malavita by Tonino Benacquista

malavitaYou may have noticed that I’ve gone a little light with my reading lately. Well, Malavita by Tonino Benacquista fits right into that category. The only thing that might raise it into highbrow status is the fact that it is a translation from French. Malavita is a comedic novel that looks at an ex-Mafia family now living in France under a witness protection program. It would appear that you can take a man out of the Mafia but you can’t take the Mafia out of the man.

One night, under the cover of darkness, Fred Blake aka Giovanni Manzoni and his family move into a house in rural France. This is, hopefully, the last of a series of moves made by the FBI/CIA to keep Blake and his family safe from the long, strong arm of the Mafia. In spite of the Blake family’s efforts at normalization, it seems that where ever they go their ingrained Mafia tendencies get them in trouble. Extortion, manipulation and coercive violence are hard habits to break.  In spite of the small incendiary Blake’s wife sets off at the grocery store, she appears to be the only family member invested in living a normal life.

Malavita presents itself as Mafia-lite.  And before you ask, yes it has been made into a movie, The Family, set to come out September 13, 2013. I’ve looked at the trailer and it appears that the movie will not be as good as the book, but that is usually the case. Starring Robert DeNiro, it reminded me a bit of Analyse This but with a healthy dose of violence when the Mafia comes to France to hunt down Blake.

Malavita falls into many of the stereotypes surrounding the Mafia, but in a good way. We all like to laugh at made men. One scene in which Blake is called on to comment on the movie Goodfellas does nothing to explode readers’ preconceived notions about Mafia life, but it is exactly what readers, as well as Blake’s audience, want to hear. Yes, the gun battles and explosions near the end tend towards the extreme, but I guess that is why it is fiction.

My only complaint about the novel is that there is a rather lengthy digression in the middle of the book. Although it progresses the plot, it is also so long winded and convoluted that I found it tiresome. That part is sure to be left out of the movie.

Who would like this book? Malavita is not going to win any prizes for writing, but it is an enjoyable romp. It is kind of like watching a movie or TV. In spite of the fact that DeNiro is starring in the movie alongside Michelle Pfeiffer and Diana Argon I am not expecting great things at the box office. Instead I would recommend reading the book even if you are not a big reader. It is fun and humorous. I suspect that for those more versed in Mafia lore than I am there are many inside jokes. It might also be good on a trip to the French countryside.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

zThe second I saw Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler listed on NetGalley I knew I had to read it. I have been a fan of the Fitzgeralds since I read The Great Gatsby in high school. I am enamored by the legend that surrounds them and the other great writers of that age: Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, Max Perkins. Z follows in the tradition of Hemingway’s A Movable Feast, That Summer in Paris by Morely Callaghan and Everybody Was So Young by Amanda Vaill – a fictionalized telling of the time. The story that is told is one we know well, the difference this time, however, is that Zelda is the center of attention rather than a mere spectator.

Fowler has chosen a formidable character in Zelda. She has often been regarded as a Jazz age playgirl whose life, in the end, goes helter skelter. That rendition of her life is far too simple and Fowler does a good job at filling in the gaps. Most importantly, Fowler gives Zelda’s motivation for many of the antics that she is know for. The interplay between Zelda and Scott shows just how troubled Scott was and how his cruelty pushed Zelda over the edge.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of Z is the way in which Fowler depicts Zelda’s fraught relationship with Hemingway. The animosity between the two of them has often been commented upon, but never explored. I don’t know how much of Fowler’s rendering is grounded in fact but she places a plausible scenario before us to consider.

Who would like this book? Overall, I recommend this book very highly, particularly if you are a fan of the Fitzgeralds and the Lost Generation. It is well, written, well told and well researched. Yes, it is a story you’ve heard before, but the perspective is considerably different this time around. I imagine Z will become a book club favorite in much the same way as Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife and Tanis Rideout’s Above All Things have. There seems to be a certain trend in literature right now to retell the stories of the wives of famous men. This I find slightly troubling, as though these women are only of note because of who they are married to. I feel that Z escapes this trend to a certain extent as Zelda is continually striving to find definition for herself outside of the role of wife. In fact, by the end of the novel being referred to as Scott’s wife is almost enough to send her back to a mental institution.

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

swimming-homeSwimming Home by Deborah Levy was plucked from my To Be Read pile. It was there largely because it was nominated for the 2012 Booker Prize. I had heard various things about it, both good and bad, but the real reason I wanted to read it was because it reminded me of the 2003 British movie Swimming Pool. Both are reputed to be thrillers, both are set in the south of France and both involve a young, nubile, uninvited guest. Now truthfully, I can barely remember Swimming Pool, but I would say the similarities end there.

Swimming Home was purported to be a psychological thriller. When it comes to literary fiction, perhaps that is what a thriller is, but the truth is, it did not keep me sitting on the edge of my seat. Rather, I would classify this novella (it is very short) as a character study. The core of the story revolves around Kitty, an uninvited and psychologically troubled guest at a holiday villa occupied by two middle aged couples and a 14 year old daughter. Kitty is found swimming naked in their pool one day and is invited to stay out the rest of the week with the family. Ostensibly the reason Isabel has invited Kitty to stay is so that she can ‘catch’ her husband in a compromising position and end their marriage.

I said I would classify Swimming Home as a character study, for that is what I imagine it is trying to be. The problem is that most of the characters are not fully flushed out. Early on we get the sense that Kitty is odd (and has a propensity for nudity), but the depths of her psychological problems are not fully explored. Instead she seems slightly ‘touched’, as Isabel describes her. In particular, Laura and Mitchell, the couple with whom the family is sharing the villa, seem like cardboard cut outs. In many ways, Swimming Home feels like it was left unfinished. The premise of the story is engaging, but it just doesn’t pan out.

Who would like this book? I love reading novels that give the reader a sense of place, especially when that place is somewhere far away. All of its other weaknesses aside, Swimming Home made me want to beeline it for the south of France. Levy really conveyed the feeling of a lazy holiday in the summer heat. In that sense I think it would make a good holiday or beach read. For me, it provided a quick bout of escapism (and warmth) when I needed it.

The Crowded Grave by Martin Walker

brunoBruno Chief of Police is back again solving crimes and cooking up a storm in The Crowded Grave by Martin Walker. If you are not familiar with Bruno, you should get yourself acquainted. He is a food loving, rugby playing, horse riding, wine loving French charmer, who also happens to be the Police Chief of St. Denis, a small village in the Dordogne region of France. St. Denis, in addition to being the gastronomic heartland of France, also seems to be beset by an unusual amount of crime.

In The Crowded Grave, the fourth book in the Bruno series, St. Denis finds itself at the epicenter of the war on fois gras while preparing to host a major political summit between France and Spain. But is the kerfuffle over fois gras really just a smoke screen to distract Bruno from a potential attack by Basque separatists during the summit? Oh yeah, and an archaeological team digging in the area come across a dead body. Needless to say, Bruno has his hands full.

One of the most impressive things about The Crowded Grave, like all the Bruno books, is how author Martin Walker is able to convey the complexities of topics such as the Basque separatist movement without becoming heavy handed. Looking at Walker’s background as a Senior Scholar in International Relations it comes as no surprise that he has a thorough understanding of such matters, what may be surprising is the clarity of the language that he uses. The passion Walker has for Dordogne’s food and culture is wonderfully depicted and makes the fictitious village of St. Denis as much a character in the novel as anyone else.

Who would like this book? This book is obviously a must for anyone travelling (armchair or otherwise) to the Dordogne region of France. Walker makes the character and the food of the place come alive. His descriptions of the food made me hungry for days! There seems to be a whole genre of light mysteries out there that are as much about a sense of place as solving the crime. Think Alexander McCall Smith and his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series, or Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri series. The Bruno books fit in nicely with those. However, if you are looking for a mystery or police procedural with lots of high paced action, blood and guts, this may not be for you.