Malin’s #CBR5 Review #126: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Anna Oliphant doesn’t want to go to school in Paris. She’s not sure why her father (who basically seems to be a thinly veiled parody of Nicholas Sparks) has enrolled her in a boarding school there. She had perfectly nice life in Atlanta with her mum and little brother, a great best friend, a very promising crush on one of the guys she works with at the local multiplex. Now she’s a continent away from everyone she loves, surrounded by clever and cool teenagers who all know the school really well. She doesn’t even speak French! Then she meets Étienne St. Clair, who is helpful, generous, charming, smart and gorgeous. Of course, he has a girlfriend. And even if he didn’t, her new friend Meredith also obviously has a crush on him. So Anna is unlikely to experience any French kissing from him, right?

Now, at the start of the book, I was torn between wanting to slap some sense into Anna, and give her a hug. Her excessive whining that her pompous, somewhat emotionally unavailable, but very rich father has see fit to send her to a posh boarding school in Paris, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, is pretty much what you’d find in the dictionary as an example of first world problem. Yet at the same time, she’s never been away from home before and she’s an insecure teenage girl, and now she’s half a world away from everyone and everything she knows, in a foreign country full of culture and sophistication. It speaks to her dad’s cluelessness that he’d send his daughter to a boarding school in a country where she doesn’t even speak the language. As someone who voluntarily moved to Scotland to go to University when I was eighteen, and had some pretty big culture shocks, I can understand and symphatise, because Anna’s situation is so much scarier.

Full review on my blog.

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Polyphonist’s #CBR5 Review #23: French Milk by Lucy Knisley

french milk - Lucy Knisley
A few years ago, a friend recommended I check out Lucy Knisley’s work and it was something that went in my mental bank for after then. Which turned into now, since my library had a copy and I’ve been on the hunt for some good graphic novels. This one is not your typical story-based graphic novel, but more of a travel diary told through narration, photos, and illustrations by the author.

In January of 2007, the Lucy and her mom spent a month in Paris to celebrate her mom’s 50th birthday and get some good mother/daughter bonding in. (Man, I want to go to Paris to celebrate a big birthday like that. I’d love to go with my sister, because that would be AWESOME.) Since the author is also an artist, she decided to keep a journal of her time just before and in Paris. The title of the book (reference to actual milk that Lucy almost obsessive feelings for, but that doesn’t really show up until near the end of the book) should be a clear indication that there would be a heavy emphasis on food and drink. Much of the entries recorded what the Lucy and her mom ate and drank, and where they did so.

The entries that weren’t focused on food and drink talked about the shopping they did at boutiques and flea markets they hit, the art museums (oh god, I want to visit Paris for the museums alone!) they went to (and Lucy includes sketches of her favorite works of art, which was cool in that meta way), and in general their experiences while there. Peppered throughout all this were some photos that either Lucy or her mom took, some background of various important friends and family, and the artist’s general struggle as she grows and figures out her place in the world while taking a holiday abroad.

Fans of travel journals, Paris, art, and food will more than likely appreciate Lucy’s fun style and interesting take on the city and it’s offerings (including, of course, French milk). I know I did.

Malin’s #CBR5 Review #106: The Chocolate Touch by Laura Florand

Dominique Richard worked in an abattoir in his early teens, but is now one of the chief chocolatiers in Paris. His chocolate, like his reputation, is darker and his flavour combinations are much more unorthodox and edgier than those of his rivals. Yet for all that Dominique is known for his volatile temper, his employees all adore him, and treat him more like an older brother than a boss. They all want him to find lasting happiness, not just indulge in meaningless one night stands.

Jaime Corey is recovering from a terrible ordeal. She used to travel the world, trying to develop sustainable farming and fair trade practices among the suppliers to her family’s chocolate empire. Now she’s a mere shadow of herself, slowly recuperating in Paris, resenting the cloying concern of family. Every day, she spends some time at Dominique Richard’s shop, watching him from afar, never dreaming that he’s taking just as much notice of her. Why would the darkly charming and brilliant creative genius have a scarred little nobody like her, when sophisticated Paris ladies keep throwing themselves at him?

More on my blog.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #35:Pure by Andrew Miller

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Set in 18th-century Paris on the eve of the revolution, Pure is the fictional tale of the destruction of les Innocents cemetery and its church (structures which really existed and were destroyed). The main character is the engineer hired to oversee the project, Jean-Baptiste Baratte. He is an idealistic young man, a fan of Voltaire who once conceived of a utopia called Valenciana, where “… economics and industry were threaded together to the benefit and improvement of all. The king’s minister Lafosse has hired Baratte to remove the bodies and purify the environment that has poisoned the air, water and food in the surrounding neighborhood. Lafosse tells Baratte, “It is poisoning the city. Left long enough, it may poison not just local shopkeepers but the king himself. The king and his ministers.” As Jean-Baptiste works to purify les Innocents, greater transformations are occurring around him and also within him. The question might be whether anything is really purified in the end and whether the means of purification aren’t themselves quite polluted in some way.

Baratte finds himself surrounded by a large and colorful group of characters once he moves to Paris. His landlords, the Monnards, have a beautiful daughter who is deeply troubled by the destruction of the cemetery. The church organist Armand becomes a friend who supports the destruction even though it means the end of his livelihood. LeCoeur, his old friend from their days together at the mines at Valenciennes and co-creator of “Valenciana,” is recruited to help with the project and provide laborers from the mines. There is a strange and reclusive priest (who reminded me just a bit of Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre); Dr. Guillotin, who is interested in the disinterred bodies; and several women whose interactions with Baratte change their lives completely — Jeanne, the sexton’s granddaughter, Marie the maid, and the prostitute Heloise.

Baratte starts his project with great enthusiasm and idealism. In his mind, “…destroying the cemetery of les Innocents is to sweep away in fact, not in rhetoric, the poisonous influence of the past.” But as the project proceeds over the course of the year, a number of problems develop that corrupt Baratte’s enthusiasm. The work in the cemetery pits is filthy, depressing and dangerous. The excavations seem to have a deleterious effect on both the miners and residents of the neighborhood, and Baratte himself is physically harmed as a result of the work. Moreover, this is a time when political and mob violence are on the rise and incendiary slogans appear on the streets. Eventually, Baratte’s reflections change from utopian dreams of the future to musings on violence and its inevitability.

This is a fine piece of historical fiction. It begins and ends at Versailles, showing in subtle and not-so-subtle ways the changes occurring in France and the rising tide of revolution. The story of Baratte himself is compelling as well, showing youth’s loss of innocence and idealism in the face of an increasingly unfair and violent reality.

xoxoxoe’s #CBR5 Review #9: The Crypt Thief, by Mark Pryor

Mark Pryor has released his second novel in the Hugo Marston mystery series, The Crypt Thief: A Hugo Marston Novel. Pryor, currently an assistant district attorney in Austin, Texas, also has a true-crime blog D.A. Confidential, as well as authoring these set-in-Paris modern policiers.

Author Mark Pryor

American Hugo Marston is the head of security at the United States Embassy in Paris. During the course of his investigations into a mysterious double-murder at the famed tourist destination, the Père Lachaise cemetery, Hugo becomes convinced that it may be just one in a sequence of escalating murders — and there is no time to lose as the killer is counting down to a dangerous finale. He is sometimes helped, sometimes hindered, by his friend Tom Green, who is associated with the CIA, Paris policeman Capitaine Raul Garcia, and inquiring reporter and old flame Claudia de Roussillon.

What works:

The characters of Hugo and his local policeman friend Raul Garcia have a genuine rapport and are likable. They also share one of the best and suspenseful sequences in the book, when they are trapped together in a burning building.

What doesn’t work:

Hugo’s friend Tom is beyond annoying, and his ersatz love interest Claudia keeps turning up on cue and is irritating in the extreme. If Hugo and Claudia had any chemistry in the first book, The Bookseller, it has long since been diluted.

I wasn’t completely convinced by Hugo’s Paris. The author and his hero seemed most comfortable when they were in the Père Lachaise cemetery, or out of town chasing clues. Familiar landmarks like Place Pigalle and the Moulin Rouge were visited or alluded to, but remained foggy background. This is not the sort of book that will make a Francophile exclaim, “Yes, that’s my Paris.”

The Crypt Thief would have been a more engaging read if Pryor had included more Paris history. Jane Avril, La Goulue, and the Moulin Rouge are alluded to as being central to the mystery, but then dropped as the focus turns to the outlandish and unbelievable villain and his increasingly stomach-turning crimes. Pryor chooses to follow his creepy killer and Hugo through a mythical subterranean Paris, while throwing in a flimsy terrorist subplot to make things even murkier.

The book’s pace moves quickly enough, and the central criminal, a sort-of serial killer who seems as interested in digging up dead bones as killing live bodies, is certainly repellant, in the tradition of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter and villains in Douglas Preston’s and Lincoln Child’s Agent Pendergast series (Relic, The Cabinet of Curiosities, The Book of the Dead, etc.), but he is hardly a criminal mastermind, or ultimately compelling. Maybe better luck next time. Hugo Marston is due to come back in an all new mystery — there is already a third book in the works, The Blood Promise, due to be released in January 2014. Hopefully Pryor will have Hugo ditch his boring friends Tom and Claudia and team up solely with Chief Garcia to solve the case.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e
Originally published on Blogcritics: Book Review: ‘The Crypt Thief: A Hugo Marston Novel,’ by Mark Pryor

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loulamac’s #CBR5 review #25: The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

dud

This wonderful book came into my life by accident, perhaps as all truly delightful books do. I was reading an article about Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City (it’s great, give it a go http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/apr/19/sex-city-bushnell-hadley-freeman), placing it in the tradition of Edith Wharton, Dorothy Parker and Mary McCarthy. Having included Bushnell in such hallowed company, the journalist went on to make reference to Elaine Dundy ‘whose wonderful 1958 novel, The Dud Avocado, which was set in Paris, has more than a touch of Sex and the (French) City to it.’ That was enough to pique my interest, and after a bit of Googling, I bought a second-hand copy on Amazon. Little did I know just how much of a treat I was in for.

Our heroine is Sally Jay Gorce, an American in Paris. She’s a young woman of some small means, who is having a two-year jaunt in Europe financed by an indulgent uncle. When we first meet her, she is three months in, sauntering down the Left Bank on a September morning. She’s wearing an evening dress because it’s all she’s got left (who can get to the laundry in time to pick up their clothes?), and has dyed her hair pink (it’s ‘a marvelous shade of pale red so popular with Parisian tarts that season’). Over the coming minutes, hours, days and weeks she decides she’s in love with her American ne’er do well friend Larry, ditches her married (or is he?) lover, takes the stage by storm, and high-tails it to Biarritz for the summer, where she gets a bit-part in a film financed by a famous bull-fighter. And all of this in a haze of martini hangovers and not enough sleep. It’s genius.

Apparently the book caused a bit of a stir when it was published in 1958, and I suppose I can see why. Dundy presents the semi-autobiographical adventures of Sally Jay with such charming frankness. No apology is made for her promiscuity, drunkenness, temper-tantrums, ill-advised friendships or falling out with the American consulate over a mislaid passport. I lost count of the number of times the book made me laugh out loud, even though the writing is totally straight. Every page is crammed with quotable, read-aloud lines. The description of a group of young men who fancy themselves hipsters was a particular favourite (perhaps because I work in excruciatingly trendy Hoxton):  ‘A rowdy bunch on the whole, they were most of them so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable’.

Sally Jay greets all of the situations she gets herself into, and the people she meets, with the same dead-pan self-absorption. Generally speaking she can barely be bothered to raise an eyebrow, and her caustic observations reveal just how bright and complicated this neurotic tram-smash is. She gets into such pickles, but always with her eyes open; she just seems unable to say no or do the sensible thing. Or doesn’t want to. She’s rarely troubled by what other people think of her, but is her own harshest critic.

If you’ve ever fancied yourself as a girl about town, or given yourself a hard time because you lost your mobile phone on a night out, woke up next to someone you shouldn’t have, or spent your rent money on shoes, this is the book for you. Or even if you haven’t, you really should give it a whirl. Sally Jay is a girl you’ll never forget.

Jen K’s #CBR5 Review #55: The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

While I had already bought and decided to read this novel before this review by a fellow Cannonballer (which the author even responded to!), the review certainly helped move it towards the top of the pile. While I didn’t love it as much as Jamie, I enjoyed the novel.
The novel is told from the alternating perspectives of Antoinette, the older sister and protector of her two younger sisters, and Marie, the middle sister, the shy one with the most schooling. The family has always assumed that Grace, the youngest, would be the professional ballerina, especially after Antoinette’s attitude got her kicked off the troupe, but after their father’s death, Marie and Grace both end up trying out for positions on the same day, and both make it. Their mother is an alcoholic, and Antoinette sees herself as their guardian, taking care of Marie and Grace to the best of her ability. Unfortunately she meets a boy, who becomes a major distraction for her, Emile, and as a result of his influence, she soon finds herself descending the rungs of society to help him when he gets in trouble.