Book Review: City of Crows, by Chris Womersley

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_city_of_crows.jpgI couldn’t find out if Paris was ever known as the ‘city of crows’, but crows, rats, disease, decay, plague, superstition, religious zealotry, witchcraft, burnings at the stake, evil, the devil, potions and spells all feature in this Paris of the 1670s. It is impossible for us in our sanitised, almost sterile and secular existences to even begin to imagine how hideous life was 350 years ago. The imagination required to create this story, and the skill to craft it is immense.

The mental pictures and images conjured up by the writer are so incredibly vivid. The physical descriptions of Paris, its poverty and depravity; the rural country side and forests in their untamed beauty and simplicity of living; life as a prisoner sentenced to years working as a galley slave; what people wore, what they ate, how they behaved towards each other (with mostly cruelty and ruthlessness).

But it is magic, black magic mostly, that is at the core of this novel. As a species, our whole society rests on how we explain the unexplained. Myths, legends, fairy tales, religions all present explanations for where we come from, what makes the sun rise every day, where storms come from… we worshipped gods of harvest to ensure food for the next year. These are just a few of the thousands of ideas we have come up with to explain the inexplicable – the ultimate tribute being a sacrifice of animals or humans to ensure the favour of the gods. So in 17th century Europe, with plague and pestilence or simply unexplained illness running rampart with no end in sight, and with praying getting no one anywhere, it is hardly surprising that people resorted to magic as yet another tool in the battle to stay alive and  get ahead.

Charlotte Picot is a young peasant woman who has lost her husband to plague, and three other children in years past. She has decided to leave her sick village in search of a better life, and with her young son Nicolas, takes to the road. Nicolas is kidnapped by child slave traders, Charlotte left for dead. She is rescued by an old woman, well known and feared by locals as a witch. The witch passes to Charlotte her spells book, shows her what she can do to get her son back, and sends her on her way.

At the same time, an unusual man who goes by the name of Lesarge is also on the road, making his own way to Paris. He is probably what we would nowadays calls a trickster, a magician, a con man. He has been released from a ten year sentence on the galleys, and is on his way to recover a fortune he knows exists in Paris. Somehow, magic brings he and Charlotte together, and they forge an unlikely alliance. After a number of adventures and encounters, they make their way to Paris.

It is definitely a strange book, and it walks a very fine line between the real world and the magical world. Both of the main characters are extraordinary, and I veered from liking to disliking to liking to being horrified by what they will do together and individually to survive. There is always that little bit of tension too in the writing – will they see a way around their differences and fall for each other, or will they always remain distrustful and scared of each other.

Unfortunately, for me, the magic got to be a bit much. The ending was most unexpected, rather horrifying, and ultimately plain silly. However, as another review I read pointed out, we have no way of knowing what state of mind Charlotte may have been in, deeply grieving, losing her last surviving child, always on the brink of finding him, but never doing so. Is it this state of mind that tips her over the edge? Or are there really darker forces at work? And Lesarge’s moral compass is somewhat disturbed as well, and he struggles to break away from his past life in the shady world of magic, potions and poisons.

There is a fantastic imagination at work here, and the writing is terrific. But there is also a lot of magic and weirdness, and if the fantasy genre is not your thing, this will only be a 3 star. If fantasy is your thing, then this could well be a great read for you.

City of Crows
by Chris Womersley
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781760551100

 

Book Review: The Necessary Angel, by C K Stead

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_necessary_angelSet in Paris in 2014, this is the first novel from C K Stead in five years. It follows the fortunes of Max, an expat Kiwi working in Paris, married to a French woman and father of two children. It is a literary novel, both in content and in style. Max is a lecturer and writer so his world is peopled with academics. Reading, writing and literary criticism are central to the story along with politics and change. In 2014 Europe was grappling with economic, migrant and terrorist issues. These are the background and form a final twist at the end of the tale.

On another level it is also about love, relationships and fidelity. The approach has a distinctly French flair, but as Max is a New Zealander we see events with a slightly blurred lens. He moves between relationships in a similar way to his conversations: highly academic but not totally committed. The setting is perhaps one of the main characters as we wend our way down back streets, into courtyards and cafes and through apartments. This helps the reader become part of the story rather than reading from the outside.

Much of the text involves discussions about books I have read and long forgotten. I regretted my ignorance of some and felt relieved I had not tried others. I can see this book being much discussed and debated by the literati, but it was a challenge to one less read. At times the complex web of relationships and half-truths became hard to follow, and this became even more complicated when an artwork disappears.

Waiting 5 years for this publication was well worth while. IIt is not a quick read, but a slow savour, inviting you to re-read and re-think the ideas within, to allow you to truly enjoy the book. In some ways it is like a visit to the art gallery, where each room uncovers new treasures.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Necessary Angel
by C K Stead
Published by Allen & Unwin NZ
ISBN 9781760631529

 

World Search: Amazing Jobs, by Lonely Planet

Available now in bookstores.

This is a sturdy large board book with lift-flaps, showing cv_world_search_amazing_jobssome exciting jobs that people around the world do.

The jobs themselves can be rather normal – police officer, vet, doctor – but police officers in Paris wear roller blades (I don’t remember this…) and vets in Africa look after gorillas and have to watch out for lions! Meanwhile, doctors in Australia can be ‘flying doctors’. It’s all about context.

My 3-year-old enjoys this book so much that he is even forgoing his usual relax time in front of the telly first thing in the morning, to get me to go through it with him. He likes making up stories about all of the little incidents illustrated, and the little puzzles of where things are in the pages are at just the right level for his age. He has decided he would particularly like to go to Paris and see the police officers on roller blades.

This book does a lot – it acts as an informative guide to jobs and where they fit in different cultures, it teaches good observational skills with lovely little ‘find this’ clues a la Where’s Wally for a junior audience, and it stimulates curiosity with the lift-flaps. There are even stickers. Pre-readers can run through the scenarios they see for themselves, and readers can challenge themselves with extra clues for finding things at the back of the book.

A lovely entry into the market for younger readers by Lonely Planet, who consistently impress me with the quality and the imagination behind their publications. They clearly have a marketing and publication team that is at the top of their game.

Highly recommended for ages 3 up.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

World Search: Amazing Jobs
by Lonely Planet
Published by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781743219195

Book Review: You should have come when you were not here, by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Available now in some bookstores

For those of us like myself and Brannavancv_you_should_have_come_here_when Gnanalingam, who adore the nooks and crannies of history and have found Paris too lacklustre, instead hosting a city of loneliness, You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here will be a story to relate to and sympathise with. It tells the lonely tale of Veronica, a thirty-something asexual female journalist from New Zealand who travels to Paris late as a freelance journalist only to find the city indifferent to and from her.

Veronica is a lonesome (although not lonely) and apathetic character whose disdain for adhering to mainstream activities takes the story to obtuse and more interesting experiences of the lovers’ city. Veronica’s story depicts some of Paris’ least commendable areas, people, and tendencies, and is studded with historical footnotes, often expertly woven as mysterious characters drawn from Paris’ long and intricate history, moonlighting almost as figments of Veronica’s unconventional imagination. Gnanalingam has his own unique flair, and it is his creative storytelling – raw and economical, painting beautifully truthful pictures – that most draws the reader in. Though I would not recommend it to the rose-tinted Paris-virgin (for fear of killing romantic enthusiasm), those who have experienced Paris enough to both love and lament the elegant city will find the writing sufficiently quirky and entertaining, and the tale best left to permeate.

Gnanalingam set out to write a more austere account of Paris, to balance out the city’s excessive amorous embellishments in popular culture. Sometimes I think people say they loved Paris simply because it is pas acceptable to say one didn’t find it to his liking. You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here dares to defy the rose-tinted glasses and reveals the reality of Paris: sometimes this is glamorous and elegant, but more often it depicts exactly what Gnanalingam aimed for: “a segregated, austere, and above all, disorientating place.”   paris_dark

Despite the intelligent charm of Gnanalingam’s writing and his honest depictions of Paris, one cannot help but feel frustrated by the absolute inaction and apathy of Veronica, who, having spent ten years managing to get to Europe, now spends months in Paris without making any proper friends or money or accomplishments. Veronica actively avoids the main sites of Paris with a sort of hipster high-brow, while managing to achieve little else anyway. Veronica is clearly most comfortable on her own, but her lack of revered relationships with anybody in the city – even family and friends from home – is difficult to swallow, especially given the lack of anything else of substance in her Parisian life. If Veronica is surprised at Paris’ indifference to her, she does little to demonstrate that shock, and nor does she adapt or try to change it.

The finale of a quaint and delicately-woven story either mars or saves it: the twist is stomach churning and dégoûtable, but essentially shock lifts the story and leaves the reader turning the tale over on your tongue and in your mind. You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here is a lonely tale but Gnanalingam’s artistic writing will keep you turning pages and the book will transpire a heavy sense of contemplativeness. In a good way.

Review by Abbie Treloar

You should have come when you were not here
by Brannavan Gnanalingam
Published by Lawrence & Gibson Publishing collective
ISBN Unknown

Book review: Paris by Edward Rutherfurd

cv_parisThis book is in bookstores now.

My advance review copy of Paris weighs over 900 grams and is over 670 pages long. I didn’t keep count of the number of characters the book follows, but the number was high – and with about 800 years of Parisian and wider French events to cover, it’s understandable.

Paris tells the story of the city through the lives of four families who bump against each other and occasionally intertwine over many centuries. Significant events and periods in Parisian history – from multiple religious expulsions to The Terror, the reign of the Sun King to occupation in World War II – are interpreted by the actions and reactions of members of the families, all from different social strata, but all determined to survive.

I will admit to struggling to get into Paris – but once I got the hang of the plot skipping backwards and forwards between families and time periods, and realised that there was a central plot arc that everything was feeding into, I found it hard to put the book down, and the housework and garden were neglected as I chose to keep reading to get to the story’s conclusion.

The bulk of the novel deals with a set of characters living between the 1870s and the end of World War II, and the stories that fall outside this period are a seasoning that add richness and dimension to the story. Rutherfurd cleverly weaves his narrative so that you don’t always realise the significance of a scene, or even a whole chapter, until later in the story; I found myself having small “a-ha!” moments when I’d realise that something I’d read dozens (if not hundreds) of pages earlier was a clue to the current storyline.

A strength of Rutherfurd’s style is that he doesn’t assume the reader has prior knowledge of French history or language, of Parisian geography. The story is clearly very well researched, and events are explained without feeling like you’re sitting in a school room, and not needing to stop and check what a French phrase meant was great. Being an advance proof, my copy did not contain the family tree or maps of Paris that are in the final published book and will greatly add to the richness of the reader experience. Without these, the travelling backward and forward in time, the historically correct repetition of ancestral first names, and my ignorance of the layout of Paris, made some parts of the story feel a little muddy. I understood the action, but couldn’t always see things clearly.

Characters in Paris, as in the real world, sit on the spectrum from thoroughly unlikeable to delightful, with steel worker Thomas Gascon being a favourite of mine. I was really interested in some of the minor players who weren’t from the main four families, particularly some members of the Renard/Fox and Jacob families, and would like to have read more about them. It felt like the Gascon family got less attention than the other three families, and I would have like to follow their story more. The death of a strong female character near the end of the book was not commented on by the other characters, which felt odd and jarred a bit, especially in the circumstances; it felt like a loose end that had been dropped. Over everything hung the spectre of a rigid class system, blindly accepted by some characters, and fought against by others.

When I started Paris I wasn’t sure that I’d be writing a genuinely positive review; now I’m looking forward to rereading it, with family tree and maps close to hand.

For an interesting review with the author about this book, I recommend this interview on Radio NZ National (the audio file will download when you click the link).

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Paris
by Edward Rutherfurd
Published by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
ISBN 9781444736809