Monday, July 30, 2018

Peaches for Monsieur le Curé

Peaches for Monsieur le CuréPeaches for Monsieur le Curé
  - Joanne Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I never got around to writing reviews for ‘Chocolat’ and ‘The Lollipop Shoes’ (also known as ‘The Girl With No Shadow’) as I had planned to. I read both of these at the very beginning of this year, Chocolat being a reread. I deliberately didn’t pick up the third book immediately, and before I knew, it became a large gap. I finally read the third book, ‘Peaches for Monsieur le Cure’ this weekend, finishing it over almost one night and part of a day.

In the meanwhile, I had read two other books by Joanne Harris, and though both were very well written, engaging stories which I loved, they were quite different in tone (which shows what a wonderful story teller she is). With Peaches, it was great to return back to the enticing atmosphere of Chocolat, with spunky and charming Vianne Rocher.

Chronologically, The Lollipop Shoes follows Chocolat, and it is a progression on the story, in terms of timeline, and the significant events that intervene (addition of Rosette, and then Roux, to the family, Vianne setting up a new shop in Paris). Though it’s very dark and subversive theme makes it somewhat different in tone. In Peaches, we return to the familiar setting of Lansquenet, and are told the story in the dual voices of Vianne and Father Reynaud; in this sense, it feels closer to, and more like a sequel of Chocolat.

The story starts with Vianne receiving a posthumous letter from her old friend Armande, requesting her to visit Lansquenet once again, since the town needs her help, but the people are not aware of this. With great reluctance and persistent doubts, she arrives there with her daughters. She finds the town in a great tension between the older inhabitants and newly arrived Muslim immigrants, who now constitute a significant size of the town’s population. In a parallel with Chocolat, where she arrives in the town at the beginning of Lent, this time she reaches there at the beginning of Ramadan. Her nemesis from the earlier book, Father Reynaud is in disgrace, accused of burning down a Muslim girls’ school.

What is commendable is her courage in taking up theme of such a controversial nature, especially in current times, and creating a credible, empathetic story out of it. It takes a look at cultural differences between the two communities, in an objective manner for most part. However, the conflicts it explores are universal – tradition vs modernism, old vs youth, orthodoxy vs liberalism, resentment against outsiders. The themes such as differences, tolerance, sense of belonging, community, are a concern of every human being. In her efforts to restore peace in the community, Vianne tries to get to the root of the matter, and we get to see how little prejudices and misunderstandings can take the shape of a huge conflict, which takes very little to fuel up – this is usually how riots erupt, and we know it too well in our part of the world. It also illustrates how easy it to deceive people, particularly when fanaticism or ignorance come into play.

Vianne is as charming as ever - the flawed, yet empathetic character, who appears vivacious and undefeatable to outsiders, but suffers from restlessness and uncertainty. Father Reynaud’s is the character that has really evolved in this book, and is portrayed with great nuance. He considers himself to be changed much, but as readers we get to see that it is not really so - he has become a little more tolerant, but it is in accepting his vulnerability and seeking help, that he becomes very likeable. He understands a little, though does not fully comprehend, his shortcomings, but works with the best intentions for the community at his heart.

The story itself was very engaging, somewhat in the vein of a suspense thriller, delivering some nice twists, including one minor and one major, that took me altogether by surprise. It keeps a good pace, but retains enough details to bring alive the atmosphere.

As in the preceding books, the author has beautifully captured the landscape and essence of a small riverside town in France. The imagery is vivid, with evocative descriptions of sights and sounds and smells, that gives me a feeling of delight with a little twinge of sadness, that makes it all the more alluring. The food still plays an important part here, though now the Moroccan cuisine is added to the French. However, I really missed the preparations of Vianne’s concoctions, which created the magical environment that was a great delight in the previous two books. In fact, I would say that I was disappointed by this omission, as it steered the story from magical realism towards typical fiction. This book also doesn’t add much to Vianne’s story – not much has changed in her life since the previous book, and not much changes for her through this one, even though she helps the town out of a particularly difficult time. A must read, if you loved Chocolat, though I felt it didn’t quite recreate the magic of the previous two.

Questions/Inconsistencies - MAY HAVE SPOILERS

I found it a little ironic that in case of the Catholic community, the old and more conservative thinking of Father Reynaud was emphasized with, and prevailed in the end, while in the case of Muslim community the liberal thinking of old imam was favored against the orthodox views of his son. While I fully support the progressive viewpoint of the latter, I don’t understand why the modern ways of the new priest were undesirable.

In Chocolat, it seemed that only those with “sight” can see Pantoufle – Anouk’s special rabbit. Appeared to be the case in The Lollipop Shoes as well. However, here, depending on circumstances, anyone can see Pantoufle, and particularly Bam.

I found Jean-Pauls’ sudden and complete change of heart totally unconvincing – it is inconceivable that a foul-mouth bad-tempered person can suddenly become calm and considerate. Worse still, it leaves Josephine stuck once again with her abusive husband, who she had wanted to leave for several years, especially when she had just found the courage to do so, and had discovered a mutual connection with someone else.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Little Paris Bookshop

The Little Paris BookshopThe Little Paris Bookshop
  - Nina George

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I chanced upon this title through the ‘books about books/bookstores’ lists on goodreads. The title was enticing enough – what can be more wonderful than when books and Paris are mentioned in the same breath? The blurb was very interesting, and when I read the first few pages from the sample, I was sure I was going to love this book. The concept holds so much promise …. a bookseller who has the gift to see what ails his customers (from the invisible, emotional perspective, that is), and prescribes books as remedies, and therefore calls his floating bookshop on a barge as literary apothecary …..

However, I was quite disappointed, more so because it could have been turned into such a delight (Chocolat comes to my mind). I didn’t quite hate it, but I skimmed through the last 25-30% of it to reach the end. Further, the promise it held out didn’t last long – in the initial chapters, there are several instances of the bookseller’s dealings with his customers giving them books they need rather than what they want, but these get increasingly rare as the book progresses.

This was a shame because there was quite a bit to like. There is the lovable bookseller Mr Perdu, and the young insecure writer Max, and the bond of caring and affection they come to share; their adventures and friendship with the flamboyant chef Cuneo. There are, of course, the thoughts and quotes from and about books. And of course, beautiful description of landscape and atmosphere of cities and towns, and canals and waterways, along the length of France. I wish I could make a similar journey in my lifetime. The book also deals with the themes of coming to terms with loss, longing, fears and death in a sensitive manner.

But unfortunately, it didn’t turn out to be the book it could be. For one thing, I found the language and the flow inconsistent, as if it was written by two different people. At places, the language is charming, and the atmosphere serene and warm. There are many lovable, believable characters, and the author has tackled their feelings and insecurities very well. At other places, the words and phrases are jaded, the dialogues are clichéd and the plot seems to have lost the reason. Some of the worst sections were the snippets from the diary of the absent love-interest, Manon. They were badly and incoherently written, and reflect her as an immature and selfish person.

Or perhaps the author couldn’t make up her mind about the genre she wanted to write, and kept on hovering indecisively between magical realism and sloppy romance. This actually was my biggest peeve with the book – absolutely cringe-worthy love-making scenes, which also featured most of the bad dialogues mentioned above. She also seems to have an undue fascination for the word ‘naked’, which is repeated every so often, and frequently unnecessarily. Delete these, or replace them with something either with more subtlety or with more sophistication and passion, and it could have been a downright winner.

Gentlemen and Players

Gentlemen and PlayersGentlemen and Players
  - Joanne Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prior to this, I had read three books by the author – the very popular ‘Chocolat’, it’s lesser known sequel ‘The Lollipop Shoes’, and perhaps still uncommon ‘Five Quarters of an Orange’. All of these were told from the perspective of strong women characters, and food was an integral part of the stories – with such delightful descriptions that you could almost sense the aroma, and yearn for a taste.

Gentlemen and Players is completely different in tone and setting – it is set in an old, traditional boys’ grammar school in England, and narrated in two voices - that of an old teacher of Classics with a great devotion towards his school, and his adversary who wants to destroy the institution. I have come to regard Joanne Harris as a wonderful story teller, who can take such diverse settings to build up the atmosphere very well, and tell a compelling story. This one is quite dark, darker than Five Quarters of an Orange, though not with as much complexity in relationships and personality. It is more of a psychological thriller, and quite a good one at that. It has an engaging plot, and keeps a fast pace, without sacrificing the character development. The double twist at the end almost knocks you out (no other spoilers here – they are at the end, but couldn’t keep myself from mentioning this at least). This has some adult themes, and I wouldn’t recommend it for teens under 15 or so (but that is just me :) ) 

The story moves forth in two time periods – the present, and the past of 14 years ago which has caused the repercussion leading to the present day situation. This book is styled with a chess theme, and the chapters bear the titles indicating moves of the game. As in the game, moves are feigned to misdirect the attention, and pawns are ruthlessly sacrificed. The first protagonist, the old teacher Mr. Roy Straitely, is an institution in himself, adhering to the old ways, well loved by students, though unwanted by the management. The school is his life, and he is driven by the love of school and his students. The way his character is shaped up gradually is simply wonderful, and you love him for, and despite, his eccentricities which hide a sharp intellect. His nemesis, the unnamed enemy, infiltrates the organization to strike from within to bring it down once and for all. I would describe this character as a psychopath, who holds nothing sacred, but still bears a kind of regard towards the old teacher. Looking back now, I find it quite interesting that the teacher’s character is developed almost entirely in the present, while that of his enemy is defined and shaped in the events in past. This book kept me hooked so much as to give up a night’s sleep, and totally occupied my thoughts for a couple of days (until I started reading something else).

I was kind of disturbed to find kids as young as 13 or 14 freely engaging in sex. And not all of them came from unprivileged background or broken homes. This also happened in The Lovely Bones, which is set in US and in a different time period. Is it a cultural difference, or have I lived my youth (I am still young, btw ;-)) under a rock? 

One aspect that frustrated me was the ongoing hint/mention of aterrible event that happened earlier, that fueled the second narrator’s desire for revenge. I got a sense of déjà vu – in Five Quarters, revelation of a similar event was so long drawn that by the end I had ceased caring; thankfully here it was not stretched till the end. But for this long drawn surprise (I would instead have appreciated to have no hint to that terrible something till it was disclosed), and the point in the spoiler ahead, I would have rated it a 5.

This is FYI – the book deals with themes such as LGBT life and persecution, child abuse, bullying, objectively and in a sympathetic manner. 


The twist that revealed the identity of the antagonist came as a big double surprise. However, I think that the author may have been deliberately misled the reader here, to be certain in their mind as to who it was, and focus on what happens next, and how the things pan out. This was unfair to the reader, and took away some of the credibility of the narration.