Book Review: Parisians – Graham Robb (Picador – 2010)

Graham Robb is an author and Francophile who has collected a shelf-full of awards for his books and it easy to see why as this book is an absolute delight.

Robb has taken episodes from the lives of Parisians, as well as those who may have been temporary inhabitants, and crafted these into a series of short stories in which the known facts are elaborated upon with a realistic imagining of scene and dialogue. The results are by turns entertaining, exciting moving and, often, just incredible.

Many of the characters are famous, for example Napoleon Bonaparte, Marie Antoinette, Emile Zola and Francois Mitterand. However, Robb has chosen tales from their lives that may not be so well known to the average reader. I found myself relying on Google extensively to find out more about many of the historical references.

Each chapter is a perfectly encapsulated distillation of history, drama and the changing face of Paris over the centuries. Each one can be read as a stand-alone short story, but the reader will be eager to move on to the next chapter and the next in one sitting.

In the very first chapter, we meet a young Napoleon Bonaparte experiencing the delights of the Palais Royal for the first time whilst in Paris to petition the government on behalf of his family.

The second chapter follows Marie Antoinette, lost in the streets around the palace whilst trying to escape with the King in one of a series of disasters that blighted the ‘Flight to Varennes’, in which the Royal Court attempted to seek a safe haven in the face of growing popular unrest.

The story of the deathbed confession of Francois Picaud, a humble cobbler who was wrongfully imprisoned but made powerful friends and became unfeasibly rich is a spectacular tale of complete and devastating revenge. This was one of my favourite chapters of the book and I was swept along with the adventure and amazed by the audacity and vindictiveness of Picaud. Alexandre Dumas based The Count of Monte Cristo on a second hand account of the confession of a man who said he had murdered Picaud.

Another highlight is the chapter telling the story of Emile Zola’s wife. The writing is expressive and atmospheric. We feel Madame Zola’s disappointment with how small Paris appeared when viewed from the top of the Eiffel Tower. The great city did not appear so all encompassing when viewed from a different perspective and if Paris is small, what does that make its inhabitants? This chapter contains one of my favourite descriptive images. Zola’s cottage is ‘squeezed between two tall towers like a victim of mistaken identity being marched to the commissariat by two hefty gendarmes.’

The chapter entitled ‘Occupation’ gives a child’s eye view of Nazi controlled Paris and is both eloquent and heartbreaking.

A more recent historical oddity is based on a hoax assassination attempt on Francois Mitterand. The almost farcical, embarrassing drama contrasts with the experiences of President De Gaulle who routinely faced genuine assassination attempts.

This is a very well written and immensely interesting book that I would strongly recommend. Not every chapter Is a jewel but there are enough gems to reward most readers.

Book Review: Under The Paw – Tom Cox (Simon & Schuster 2008)

Think there are too many cats on the internet? Then look away my friend, this review is not for you.

Many of you may already know Tom Cox via his magnificently witty Tweets under the name of @mysadcat. These are simply some of the best Tweets around and reason enough to check out Twitter. If you’ve never seem them, go and take a look.

Tom was formerly a rock critic and now writes regularly for national newspapers and magazines. This is the first of three books he has written so far that focus on his life as a massive cat enthusiast.

His writing is very funny and easy to read and I did laugh on several occasions. I’ve been caught out before by books whose cover blurb promises that it is ‘unputdownable’ and will have you in uproarious fits of laughter, only to find that they have been all too ‘putdownable’ and as funny as scabies. It’s nice to read a book that is genuinely warm funny and compelling.

Tom writes about his life as a cat lover. From being a furtive feline fetishist he develops into an unabashed ‘cat man’, a beer drinking, golf playing, music loving antithesis of the stereotypical crazy cat lady of contemporary folklore.

We are introduced to all of the cats that he and his wife Dee have owned and their personality traits, real and imagined. There is Janet, a male cat named in a period of confusion as to his true gender – well, it can be hard to tell with all the fur. Brewer, a bird-loving risk-taker who was sadly killed in a road accident. Bootsy, a tiny cat who seems quite timid but soon has Tom and the other cats marching to her beat. Ralph, a seemingly hormonal cat whose tendency for depression may be linked to the fact that he was originally named Prudence (yes, very furry down there). We briefly meet Raffles, who may have been responsible for some of the urban sightings of panthers over the years. And then there is the grand old man of the bunch, known as The Bear, who is the star of the @mysadcat tweets.

Moggy life in all it’s loving, funny and stomach-churning glory is revealed and cat owners will smile and nod when reading about spraying, puking and dead mice.

As a cat owner, I would find it difficult to say if this book would appeal to non-cat owners. Leave a message and let me know. Readers who do not own cats may finish the book wanting their own little furry bag of neuroses. Conversely, tales of toilet errors and cleaning up amorphous blobs of blood and guts may put them off for life.

We get glimpses of Tom and Dee’s life. Their decision to move out of London to Norfolk could probably make a good book on its own. The challenges they face include sociopathic techno neighbours and dawdling old-people in Post Office queues (a universal phenomenon which has developed into a competitive level sport in Norfolk).

I particularly enjoyed the appearances of Tom’s dad, a man so loud that lower case letters are not needed when transcribing his prophetic and sage like utterances such as the advice to ‘watch out for nutters’. I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

If you like cats and like reading , you will enjoy this book.

Book Review: Assassin’s Apprentice – Robin Hobb (Harper Voyager 2011)

This book is old enough and Robin Hobb is successful enough for a review to be essentially meaningless, a bit like reviewing The Lord of the Rings or Terry Pratchett.

However, two factors have led me to review this book;

1. It was free on Kindle.
2. I’m reviewing every book I read.

The story centres on a young boy, the illegitimate offspring of a king in waiting and one who displays powers to communicate telepathically with animals. The boy is referred to as ‘boy’, ‘newboy’, ‘fitz’ or ‘bastard’. I did find the frequent use of the word bastard to be quite jarring, perhaps it’s my delicate English sensibilities! Bastard can still be a grave insult if said with sufficient vitriol but the thing that grated most was the fact that adults were using the word with malice against a child. This felt just cruel and wrong and it must surely have been the intention of Robin Hobb to make the reader empathise with the boy, whose real name is FitzChivalry Farseer, by giving him an upbringing that is so tough and downright medieval.

The world in which Fitz lives is a typical feudal model from the Middle Ages with interesting twists. The king rules by divine right and all others know their place. This is not to say that the rulers are ruthless megalomaniacs. King Shrewd (royals are given names to reflect personal qualities or in the hope that they will act in a manner befitting their name – hence princes Chivalry, Verity and Regal) cares deeply for his kingdom and works tirelessly to protect it using Machiavellian political intrigue and ‘the skill’, a form of telepathic suggestive control.

FitzChivalry is brought up by royal stable master Burrich, one of the strongest and most upright characters in the book. Whilst he is a disciplinarian Burrich is the closest thing that Fitz has to a father.

Although he is a ‘bastard’, Fitz cannot be ignored given his father’s position and is dragged into the dangerous world of political scheming. King Regal decides that he should be taught by his faithful assassin, Chade, who is another compelling character and displays some compassion for young Fitz despite the unsavoury nature of his trade.

Fitz, as son of the heir to the throne is seen as an asset by some but as a threat to be disposed of by others. He is dragged into situations not of his making and his life is often in danger because of who he is. Many of us will not feel wholly in control of our lives on occasion and Robin Hobb demonstrates how much more acute this is for children.

The book follows Fitz as he grows up and develops relationships with those inside and outside the royal court. The King’s Fool is an especially intriguing character who talks in riddles and seems to take an interest in helping Fitz, albeit in oblique ways. The book unfolds at a leisurely pace that is just perfect for giving real insight into the characters. Robin Hobb is obviously a very skilful writer but nobody who has read one of her books needs me to point that out.

Towards the end of the book the tension ratchets up as a royal wedding takes Fitz, and much of the Court, to a neighbouring kingdom where he finds himself in danger and seemingly out of reach of his protectors.

I have to admit that the resolution to the book felt a little rushed, as if Robin Hobb was already mentally writing her next book. Had a few more pages been devoted to the ending it would have been more fitting given the painstaking way in which the tale unfolded. Having said that, this is a very good book which has been, and will continue to be, enjoyed by many, many people.

Book Review: The Atomic Sea – Jack Conner

I tend not to finish books that I’m not enjoying on the basis that life is too short and there are plenty of others out there that I will like.

To date, I have not reviewed a book I haven’t finished as I thought it might be unfair on the author and I would leave myself open to suggestions that if I had read it to the end I would have enjoyed it.

However, a WordPress contact suggested that I write a review and explain why I didn’t finish the book and that is what I am doing here.

Jack Conner hails from Austin, Texas and has written a number of popular fantasy/alternative fiction books.

This is by no means a bad book and I enjoyed parts of it. The idea of the Atomic Sea itself, a churning, boiling, radioactive ocean full of magic and nightmares is excellent. The early part of the book, set on board navy ship G.S. Maul is captivating. Terrified sailors and whalers carry out their duties whilst attempting to shield themselves from the contaminated water and the creatures that emerge from it.

I was drawn into the story and was convinced that I’d stumbled across a great find.

The central character is naval surgeon, Dr Avery, a 42 year old man with a comb-over. Dr Avery is a slightly unusual leading figure and maybe he is designed to appeal to fantasy fans who are in the mould of Comic-Book Guy from The Simpsons. Dr Avery is also the ‘on call’ sexual partner of cigar smoking, no-nonsense ship’s captain Sheridan, another interesting character.

The ship is part of the naval forces of Ghenisa, which is in a desperate fight for survival against the forces of neighbouring Octung. To me, Octung sounds like a cross between the Scottish exclamation ‘Och’ and the German word Achtung (baby!). Because of this I found it difficult to take the name seriously.

I know it can be easy to mock the names in SF and fantasy books but there were a few incredible names in the book that made me roll my eyes, Muirblaag being one. In the book, this is the name of a man/fish hybrid but it should surely be a sound effect for somebody vomiting violently. MUIRBLAAG !!…. sorry, too much to drink last night.

Dr Avery discovers that the ship, and Ghenisa itself, is packed with spies and saboteurs. Almost simultaneously, a mysterious woman is found in the sea who has supernatural powers and seems to offer the chance of ending the war.

The action then moves away from the sea to land and became, for me, less interesting and more of a conventional fantasy quest style book. This is the first in a series of books and it felt as though much of the story was either scene-setting or ‘filler’ to ensure that an epic of the required length could be produced.

The plot involves a lot of chasing and attempts to make contact with ‘friendly’ gods whilst avoiding the agents of Octung and malevolent gods.

Unfortunately, my interest faded when I was around 2/3rds through the book and I abandoned it. I had carried on reading to that point to see if the story would return to the Atomic Sea with all of the mystery and atmosphere it promised but, sadly, it didn’t.

Whilst interesting, the characters are not particularly likeable or sympathetic. Some appeared just as ciphers or makeweights for the band starting on the quest.

In summary, I feel there was a very good story idea here but it was lost by spreading it across a multi-part epic rather than just concentrating on what could have been one cracking book.