Category Archives: Gallic Books

Rounding Up The Reviews #4; A Bumper Crop of Book Reviews Before 2014 Ends

So in an effort to combat my blog OCD panic, I like to have reviewed everything I have read in a year and start a year a fresh, and a backlog of reviews I thought I’d do a round up of some of the books – there are more to come – that I have read and wanted to share thoughts with you about – be they good, bad or indifferent. So no waffle, just some quick(ish) book reviews today…

Scoop – Evelyn Waugh

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1938 (2000 edition), fiction, 240 pages, bought by my good self

I like Evelyn Waugh a lot and had heard marvellous things about Scoop from all the right people, so it had been on my ‘to read at some point’ list for quite some time when Rob chose it as a classic choice for Hear Read This! a few months ago. Sadly I really, really, really didn’t like it. The tale is one of mistaken identity as William Boot, who usually writes about things such as badgers and crested grebes, is sent in place of another journalist named Boot to the African state of Ishmaelia where he is to report for The Beat on a ‘very promising little war’.

By rights this book should have been completely up my street, a satire on the industry that I worked for (and hasn’t changed) for quite some time by an author I loved. I just found it deeply dated, rather boring, nothing new and actually a little bit (to put it mildly, I hate the excuse ‘of it’s time’) racist frankly. There were a few moments that I almost enjoyed but generally I was bored and couldn’t wait for it to be over. You can hear my thoughts along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter

Vintage Classics, paperback, 1984 (1998 edition), fiction, 368 pages, inherited from Granny Savidge

I have an interesting relationship with Carter’s writing, I either think it is utterly magical and wonderful or I just think it is rather bonkers verging on silly. Sophie Fevvers is famous around the world for supposedly being either part swan, with her amazing wings, or an utter fraud. Jack Waltzer, journalist, goes to interview her and find out not realising he is about to follow Sophie on quite the journey between nineteenth-century London, St Petersberg and Siberia. I found Nights at the Circus (again another book I have been meaning to read for ages and then my old book group chose it) to be a mixture of the two the whole way through, a romp I enjoyed yet occasionally didn’t get or felt went a bit too far magically and plot wise – what was Carter on?

Overall I enjoyed it immensely for its camp bonkers moments and gothic turns and eventually succumbed to its madness. Yet having finished it, I realised I didn’t have that much to say about it, I just enjoyed it overall which makes it sound more of a damp squib than I mean it to. I felt it should be a collection of short stories about Sophie rather than an adventure with her, if that makes sense? I think I wanted something like her fairy tales and didn’t get it; maybe I need to read it again?

Wind Sand and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1939 (2000 edition), memoir, 144 pages, borrowed from the library

Like me, you may not know Saint-Exupery for anything other than The Little Prince and not for his stories, both fiction and none, of pilots and airborne adventures. Wind Sand and Stars is a nonfiction set of accounts of some of his flights from when he started in 1926 until and just passed the time in 1936 when he crashed in the desert and somehow survived. I have to say the idea of a book about planes excites me about as much, well maybe a bit more, as a book about boats BUT having loved Julian Barnes Levels of Life and its tales of ballooning and grief I was up for something new.

On one level, pun not intended, Wind Sand and Stars is a tale of one man and his first exciting, and often death defying, trips into the air. Now I don’t like flying but I could completely understand, through his writing, how Antoine became addicted. The descriptions of the freedom and the awe it gives is rather contagious. I also found the story of the crash to be a genuinely terrifying then thrilling reading experience. Yes, there’s a but coming. The problem with the book is that it takes on this almost meta meets philosophical tone which becomes rather preachy/smug and a bit annoying, so apart from the beginning and the drama I found the book a bit ‘meh’. I wanted to like it more, honest. You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

Cold Hand in Mine – Robert Aickman

Faber & Faber, paperback, 1975 (2014 edition), short stories, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I received all of Aickman’s reissued collections unsolicited from Faber & Faber earlier in the year and thought ‘ooh these sound weird and wonderful’ and so thought they would be interesting to bring to the table for a classic choice on Hear Read This! (I know most of the books we do on there end up in round up review posts) as something different. As you will see in the next week or so 2014 has been the year of rediscovering the short story for me and so it ticked that box too being a collection of self proclaimed ‘strange stories’.

Well strange indeed they are but almost too strange. I like a ghost story, a horror story, urban legend, twisted fairy tale or just piece of bizarreness if it has a point/plot/thrill to it. All Aickman’s tales in this collection rather let me down, even the ones I rather loved like the almost-but-not-quite brilliant The Hospice, because the endings all let them down. Sadly in actuality sometimes the bonkers premise/middle (The Real Road to the Church, Niemandswasser, The Clockwatcher) just didn’t make sense and lacked punch. I felt like Aickman wanted to always be more clever, tricksy or just weird than the reader but in a way that made him feel better and doesn’t actually do anything for the reader. Each tale left me feeling cheated. Gav said this is the weird genre, I think maybe it is just not the genre for me. Glad I can say I have read them, unsure if I will read anymore unless one of you convinces me. You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

The Poisoning Angel – Jean Teule

Gallic Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I love Jean Teule’s writing and so chose The Poisoning Angel for Hear Read This! as I thought a darkly funny book in translation would be something different. Like the brilliant, but very dark and gory Eat Him If You Like, this is based on a true story – the case of Helene Jegado who became one of the most notorious prisoners of her time and indeed in French history, we follow her journey from the time she poisons her mother…

Unlike Rob, Kate and Gavin, I really enjoyed this book. I laughed the whole way through, which I think you are meant to do, as Helene just wanders around the countryside for a few decades killing people off, not being caught by the police and no one thinking the better or inviting her in. That isn’t a complete spoiler, you know that from the blurb. There isn’t masses more to say about the book other than give it a whirl! You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

The Hypnotist – Lars Kepler

Blue Door Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 624 pages, from my own personal TBR

I read this while I was off in the authors; there are actually two of them, homeland of Sweden between two of the Camilla Lackberg novels – I truly was on a cold crime binge. It is a hard book to explain so I am stealing the blurb “Detective Inspector Joona Linna is faced with a boy who witnessed the gruesome murder of his family. He’s suffered more than one hundred knife wounds and is comatose with shock. Linna’s running out of time. The killer’s on the run and, seemingly, there are no clues. Desperate for information, Linna enlists disgraced specialist Dr Erik Maria Bark, a hypnotist who vowed never to practice again. As the hypnosis begins, a long and terrifying chain of events unfurls with reverberations far beyond Linna’s case.” This sounded just my kind of thing.

Now it is quite a doorstopper but as it started I was racing through the book. A creepy child, a scary serial killer, some hypnotism what wasn’t to love? Then I started to get, not bored exactly, a little jaded with it. You see I love a twisty book like Gone Girl or the even better (seriously) Alex and this felt like one of those initially, in fact more like Alex as it’s really quite nasty. Then the twists started to get too much, I started to get confused and lose belief in the story as I went on. I think the best crime authors have the generosity to make the reader feel clever and twist them at just the right times whilst spinning a true spiders web, this began to feel a bit like the authors were being too clever – Aickman syndrome, see above. It was a page turner, it was clever, it was twisty… It just didn’t quite get me along for the whole whirlwind ride.

Orfeo – Richard Powers

Atlantic Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I have left my thoughts on this one till last as it is the only book in this selection I didn’t finish and actually threw at a wall. I admit it started off very, very well. I liked the idea of a lonely composer calling the police when his dog dies, them discovering his home made science lab and thinking he might be a terrorist. A bit farfetched maybe, but fun. Then the writing bowled me over, I have never seen music written about so brilliantly.

The notes float and rise. They turn speech as pointless as a radio ventriloquist. Light and darkness splash over Peter at each chord change, thrill with no middleman. The pitches topple forward; they fall beat by beat into their followers, obeying an inner logic, dark and beautiful.
Another milky, troubled chord twists the boy’s belly. Several promising paths lead forward into unknown notes. But of all possible branches, the melody goes strange. One surprise leap prickles Peter’s skin. Welts bloom on his forearms. His tiny manhood stiffens with inchoate desire.
The drunken angel band sets out on a harder song. These new chords are like the woods on the hill near Peter’s grandmother’s, where his father once took them sledding. Step by step the singers stumble forward in a thicket of tangled harmonies.

So why did I throw it at the wall? Two reasons. Firstly, the writing about music is incredible… the first, second and even possibly the third time. Powers soon becomes a one trick pony as he carts this trick out over and over and over, there is almost a lyrical comparative sentence in every paragraph at one point. Clever becomes too clever and smug a theme with some of this selection of books! Secondly, remember I mentioned the farcical element, again went too far and made the story of Peter’s past seem all at odds with itself and slightly clichéd and done before. You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

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So there we are the last round up of the year, well if you exclude a small catch up of books I don’t want to spoil which I will post in the next week or so! Have you read any of these books? If so what did you think of them? Would you recommend any other books by these authors?

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Filed under Angela Carter, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Atlantic Books, Blue Door Books, Book Thoughts, Evelyn Waugh, Faber & Faber, Gallic Books, Lars Kepler, Penguin Classics, Review, Richard Powers, Robert Aickman, Rounding Up The Reviews, Vintage Classics

Eat Him If You Like – Jean Teulé

Fiction based on historical events, or ‘faction’ as I believe it can be called, is something that appeals to me but all the more when it’s on the a smaller scale. We are often given fictional accounts of wars and the bigger things, which are all well and good, but occasionally it’s the lesser known stories, often the more bizarre, that tends to capture my imagination. It’s like when you are told old family tales which you just couldn’t imagine happening, we all have one don’t we, for example there was my great-great aunty Betty who after not visiting her husband’s grave for several years turned up to discover another woman was buried with him where she was meant to go one day. It’s these true yet unbelievable tales that can be the most appealing because they seem stranger than fiction. In the case of ‘Eat Him If You Like’ Jean Teulé gives us not a dark family tale but one of a whole village that seemed to turn mad one summer day.

Gallic Books, paperback, 2011, fiction, translated by Emily Phillips, 144 pages, borrowed from the library

‘Eat Him If You Like’ fictionalises the true events which took place on the 16th of August 1870 when the town of Hautefaye collectively seemed to lose their minds. The village was having one of its regular fairs when there was some misunderstanding between the locals and Alain de Moneys and his cousin the Vicomte Camille Maillard Lafaye who was reported to have said something negative about the current state of the war between France and Prussia. Camille managed to flee the scene and so the villagers turned on Alain and subjected him to horrific torture before burning him alive and eating him.

Here you may think I have given too much away, but the blurb says all this on the back of the book, and it is the situation, how it happened and the outcome that made me want to read about it; and what happens after the horrific event is indeed grimly fascinating (along with the fact that I thought Jean Teulé’s novel ‘The Suicide Shop’ was a brilliant black comedy and had wanted to read more by him).

In fact ‘grimly fascinating’ really sums up ‘Eat Him If You Like’ because it is possibly one of the goriest tales I have read in some time. I have quite a hardened stomach and there were two moments in this novella that I both squirmed and actually felt slightly unwell. Yet these events actually happened, so this isn’t an author using the horrific to shock, he uses it to make a point and to really show just how awful the events happened and how a simple misunderstanding can become something so horrendous and how people will pin blame and follower a leader without thinking things through.

‘Now now, my friends, what’s going on?’ said Alain, limping towards them.
‘It’s your cousin,’ explained a pedlar. ‘He shouted, “Long live Prussia!”’
‘What? No! Come now, I was standing just here, and that’s not what I heard at all! And I know de Maillard well enough to be sure he would never say such a thing. “Long live Prussia”? That’s almost as ridiculous as shouting “Down with France!”’
‘What did you just say?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘You said “Down with France!”’
‘What? No, of course I didn’t!’
‘Yes, you did! You said “Down with France!”’

As well as being horrific this novel is also rather moving, and indeed in parts very funny – I had this same reaction to ‘The Suicide Shop’ if I remember rightly. Teulé gets us into the head of Alain ery quickly, we learn he is a sweet, possibly a little too innocent, young man who was doing much for his local community and helping the villagers and indeed village of Hautefaye in many ways. Hence why what follows is made all the more shocking and saddening as people he helped seem to forget all that in favour of the heightened drama. Teulé  also uses this to humorous effect, for example when Alain is being dragged through the street with people throwing rocks at his head and screaming he is an evil Prussian, Teulé  writes that his victim of circumstance dreamily ponders that he ‘had never had a nickname before, but it seemed like this one was sticking.’ Well, it made me laugh anyway.

Despite the initial funny moments overall Teulé manages to build up a sense of Alain as a person, the heightened political tensions of the time and the villagers and the atmosphere of a village in the middle of nowhere. As he does this he builds a real sense of impending dread and doom before suddenly the true horrors are unleashed. This, as I mention before, is all done for a reason, as by the end I found myself incredibly moved by the unfairness of Alain’s tale and circumstance, shocked people could actually have done such a thing and a sense of the loss of a village who have to deal with what they have done in what was an incredibly long moment of madness.

‘Eat Him If You Like’ is a beguilingly small book for all it achieves. If you are rather faint hearted then it might not be advisable to pick this up, however if you are made of sterner stuff this is a novella I would certainly recommend it makes you feel uncomfortable for all the right reasons, in fact I found myself watching the news and thinking ‘have we actually moved on from this mentality in some ways, isn’t this very thing still happening now?’ A thought provoking novella and one that shows a superb author keen to tell a tale that we can learn from.

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Filed under Gallic Books, Jean Teulé, Review

The Baker Street Phantom – Fabrice Bourland

There was quite a lot of buzz when ‘The Baker Street Phantom’ by Fabrice Bourland came out last year. I remember seeing posters for it absolutely everywhere in London and being intrigued by the idea of a supernatural 1930’s twist on a Sherlock Holmes-esque tale of murder and mystery.  However the hype seemed to get a little too much, it was appearing here, there and everywhere and being given away in London hotels. So I mentally popped it into my ‘maybe one day’ pile of never ending books I might read. Then I saw Sakura’s review of it and thought ‘ooh maybe I will give that one a go’. It happened to be in my library just the other week and so I picked it up.

Gallic Books, fiction, 2010, paperback, translated byMorag Young, 185 pages, borrowed from library

The premise of the novel is quite a simple on. We have two detectives Singleton and Trelawney who have recently arrived in London from Canada, where the crimes weren’t taxing enough for them, where they have set up a shared abode in Bloomsbury. There has been a particularly nasty spate of murders in the last few months and when a woman comes to call, who happens to be Arthur Conan Doyle’s recently widowed second wife, with a mystery of ghostly activity at none other than 221 Baker Street. Why the duo must of course investigate. Is it reminding you of anything at all?

“My friend James Trelawney and I never imagined for a moment what would follow when there was a knock at the door of our rooms in Montague Street towards the end of the morning of Friday, 24th June 1932. We knew no one in London and since Miss Sigwarth, our landlady, had let someone come up without calling up from downstairs in her shrill voice – something we had asked her not to do – it probably meant that the visit was professional. It was not a moment to soon. Three months had passed with nothing to fill our days and the wait was starting to get James down.”

I admit that at first I thought ‘The Baker Street Phantom’ wasn’t going to be a book I could finish, it seemed a rip off of Conan Doyle and I wasn’t initially impressed. However it was becoming one of those books where at the end of every chapter you think ‘oh, I will just read one more’ and I was glad I did because as the book goes on, and the spirit of Sherlock Holmes (I know, he’s a fictional character but I bore with it, so others should) appears, we enter the world of spiritualism that Conan Doyle himself became part of. This became a homage both to Conan Doyle and his invention Holmes.

It also became a book about Victorian books and the sensational, a period and genreI adore, but sadly this did detract away form something which could have made the book all the more successful – for me at least. You see my slight issue with the book was that for a book in the 1930’s it lacked that period’s atmosphere. It was so focused on Conan Doyle, Dickens, Wilde, Jack the Ripper, Jekyll and Hyde etc that it became steeped in the Victorian and let me wanting. It seems silly that someone who loves Victoriana so much would say that, but I didn’t really feel I was in the 1930’s London which I would have liked too. I wouldn’t have minded the book being a bit longer in order to gain that atmosphere either.

The book does get far fetched but do you know what, sometime we all just need a book that’s escapist, entertaining and a romp. This is just that sort of book. The character Singleton actually seems to completely encapsulate the book when he discusses the crimes as they go on “A literary crime… supernatural powers… spiritualist séances going wrong.” If that’s your sort of thing then you will no doubt enjoy this. I did.

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Hector and the Search for Happiness – Francois Lelord

There was a rather large amount of buzz of ‘Hector and the Search for Happiness’ when it was published back in April (interestingly when I got it out from the library after seeing it advertised in almost every tube station – its only taken me 4 months to read it) and the more I heard about it the less I instantly wanted to read it. You know how it can be; you hear lots about a book you want to read it but maybe not until the chatter dies down a little. The more I did hear though the more I couldn’t work out if it was meant to be a self help book or fiction and that could very much be a make or break with me as you might have seen when I read ‘The Alchemist’.

You can pretty much guess what the premise of Francois Lelord’s novel is going to be from its title ‘Hector and the Search for Happiness’. Hector is a rather successful psychiatrist treating both clients in hospitals and people privately. Yet the more and more he works the more he realises there is dissatisfaction in the world and the less her really believes he can help people. So he decides to travel the world in search for what makes people from here there and everywhere happy and see what he can find out.

From the opening line ‘Once upon a time there was a young psychiatrist called Hector…’ I thought this might be some rather marvellous modern fable and fairy tale. As the book continued in the same narrative, rather like you are a child being read to, I began to feel more and more patronised and slightly riled. Lines such as ‘Roger believed that the good lord talked to him constantly, what they call hearing voices’ and ‘the airline had overbooked the part of the plane where Hector was supposed to be sitting, and she was giving him a seat in the part of the plane where you normally had to pay a lot more. That part of the plane is called business class’ had me inwardly groaning and I was getting more and more annoyed. And I haven’t even mentioned the lessons Hector learns along the way yet…

Lesson number 6: Happiness is a long walk in the mountains.
Lesson number 12: It’s harder to be happy in a country run by bad people.
Lesson number 18: Happiness could be the freedom to love more than one woman at the same time.
Lesson number 22: Women care more than men about making others happy.

So why didn’t I just put the book down and walk away? Well ‘over 2 million copies sold worldwide’ was why. I wanted to see what it was that made that many people by it. By the end I admit I was despairing that so many people had bought it or that it had indeed been published, to me it was a positive it was short. I know I am one in a very small minority but then maybe this is a lesson for Hector, lesson number 24: happiness can be being the odd one out of 2 million plus! Too be fair though I did read the whole thing, just with slightly gritted teeth.

A book that will: either enlighten and entertain you or possibly drive you crazy enough to need to see a psychiatrist yourself. 2/10

It’s very, very unlike me to be negative about a book. I think in all honestly being on of the judges of The Green Carnation Prize is going to be of great benefit because I am reading some corkers that have hardly received any attention whilst books like this get pushed into the mainstream and heavily promoted. It irked me. I do feel a bit bad posting this but I am using it to highlight something I think is important. I also don’t think anything I say will stop this being a best seller and good luck to it too. I also know those of you who read this blog are intelligent enough to want to try books out yourselves regardless of my thoughts. There, I feel much better.

Maybe this is the start of a new leaf in Savidge Reads? Or maybe this was a book that just had a profound effect on me that I couldn’t help but post my thoughts no matter how negative they might be or make me seem. I am a very happy person, honest! Who else has read this book? What did you think? What are your thoughts on ‘self help fiction’? What are your thoughts on negative reviews?

(Sorry to Gallic books as you publish some gems it’s not personal it just made me a bit cross when it should have made me happy!)

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The Suicide Shop – Jean Teulé

I always find that when people send me books who I don’t know too well send me books they shoot up the TBR faster than from people who I do know well. I guess I think the latter won’t be offended! This has been the case with ‘The Suicide Shop’ by Jean Teulé which a very kind reader of this blog sent me as a treat and because they thought that ‘it would be a very Savidge read’ and ‘mixes dystopian literature with lots of dark laughter’. I always wonder if the blog gives enough of my personality away and if my reading, which is quite varied I like to think, ever shows a pattern of what might make a book quite ‘me’. It seems it might, though you may not agree?

Set in a not too distant future the life for people in the City of Forgotten Religions isn’t great. The world has gone into a huge environmental decline; the sands are taking over and sulphuric acid rains down from the skies. There isn’t much to live for really as the world seems truly without hope. That’s where the Tuvache family come, in for they run ‘The Suicide Shop’ which has everything a suicidal customer could want no matter what the budget. In fact at one point they give a tramp one of their free carrier bags to suffocate himself with as long as people can see the logo ‘Has your life been a failure? Let’s make your death a success’ clearly.

However there is a flaw in the Tuvache family, as after generation after generation of miserable sons have been born Mishima and Lucrece’s youngest son Alan is born with nothing but joy, love and positivity in his heart. This is neither good for custom or indeed for the family as it seems to be contagious, even elder sister Marilyn falls in love with the local cemetery warden not long after she is injected with a venom that means she can kill with her saliva, making her the perfect kiss-o-gram for the shop. What follows is a comic caper of family drama and a wry look at just what could happen to the future of society.

I haven’t laughed out loud so much at a book in ages, not quite sure what that says about me? I know it’s a delicate subject but sometimes we need to have a look at the comic side of the worst aspects of life and this book does just that. What makes it such a great read is that despite their being the setting of a future world where anything could happen and having situations that could go into melodrama Teulé never does, it’s always just funny enough without going too far and some authors simply can’t get that balance. Teulé’s humour is spot on. Translator Sue Dyson must also have great humour to have translated this so well from its French origins too.

‘The Suicide Shop’ isn’t a book that I had heard about before I was so kindly sent it. My initial thoughts when it arrived where purely materialistic as ‘what a nice cover’ popped into my head along with the quote ‘you will die laughing’ it definitely had initial promise. However there has to be more to every book than a nice cover and a great quote, fortunately ‘The Suicide Shop’ is one such book. It didn’t change my life but it was damned entertaining. A darkly comic read that will leave you in shock by the ending that you won’t see coming, I had to read the last few paragraphs twice. I will be reading more Jean Teulé in the future if more of his books are translated. 8/10

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:

Little Hands Clapping – Dan Rhodes (set in the now this is a dark fairytale, rather than dystopian vision, or two which centre around a museum of suicide, its disturbingly funny)
Shades of Grey – Jasper Fforde ( the future has never been more dangerous nor so funny)

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Filed under Gallic Books, Jean Teulé, Review