BLOG TOUR! Alex George’s The Paris Hours

The Paris Hours by Alex George

Publication Date:  May 5, 2020

Publisher:  Flatiron Books

Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for The Paris Hours!  Check out my thoughts and ruminations on the book, as well as an excerpt, below.

What do an Armenian puppeteer, a down-on-his-luck artist, a French journalist with dreams of America, and Marcel Proust’s former housekeeper all have in common?  At first you’ll think “absolutely nothing”, but oh, you would be wrong.

Author Alex George’s newest offering rambles unhurriedly through a single day in the City of Lights in the time between the Wars, introducing us to this foursome of Parisians (both native and not), each with a quiet purpose, each unknown to the others.  Armenian Souren Balakian is a refugee, who scrapes out an existence giving free puppet shows in a local park each day for coins thrown in a suitcase.  The quintessential starving artist, Guillaume Blanc, needs a big sale from one of his works in order to pay off an unsavory mobster.  Journalist Jean-Paul Maillard, who pines for his wife and child, is perhaps the most melancholy of the quartet (although Souren could give him a run for his money there); he’s constantly looking for his daughter but will he ever find her?  Finally, Camille Clermont embarks on city-wide search for a lost journal belonging to Proust and harboring a black secret.  And while our protagonists are seemingly ordinary folks, they also rub elbows in Paris with Gertude Stein, Josephine Baker, Ernest Hemingway, Mr. Proust, and host of other only slightly-lesser celebrity lights.

The characters are the thing here, and these characters are Alex George’s strength.  As the day unfolds, stories and histories are revealed, and we come to know and understand Camlle, Jean-Paul, Souren and Guillaume a little bit better with each passing page.  This is a novel on a constant, slow burn and, if you’re looking for a quick payoff, you won’t find it here.  Kindling is steadily and masterfully thrown on the smoldering embers of each individuals’ story until they all come together in one blazing conflagration.  This is a novel that rewards patience.

Many thanks to Flatiron Books and Cat Kenney for inviting me to be a part of the blog tour and providing me with a review copy of The Paris Hours.  Many more thanks are due to Alex George for creating this lovely story and sharing it with us.

During these difficult days, it’s more important than ever to support our small and local businesses.  If you’re so inclined, you can click here to purchase this title from your local indie bookstore.  And check out the excerpt below!

1
Stitches

THE ARMENIAN WORKS BY the light of a single candle. His tools lie in front of him on the table: a spool of cotton, a square of fabric, haberdasher’s scissors, a needle.

The flame flickers, and shadows leap across the walls of the tiny room, dancing ghosts. Souren Balakian folds the fabric in half, checks that the edges align exactly, and then he picks up the scissors. He feels the resistance beneath his fingers as the steel blades bite into the material. He always enjoys this momentary show of defiance before he gives the gentlest of squeezes, and the scissors cut through the doubled-up fabric. He eases the blades along familiar contours, working by eye alone. He has done this so many times, on so many nights, there is no need to measure a thing. Torso, arms, neckline—this last cut wide, to accommodate the outsized head.

When he has finished, there are two identical shapes on the table in front of him. He sweeps the unused scraps of cloth onto the floor, and picks up the needle and thread. After the sundering, reconstitution. Holding the two pieces of material in perfect alignment, he pushes the tip of the needle through both layers of fabric, and pulls the thread tight. He works with ferocious deliberation, as if it is his very life that he is stitching back together. He squints, careful to keep the stitches evenly spaced. When he is finished, he breaks the thread with a sharp twist of his fingers and holds the garment up in the half-light. A small grunt of satisfaction.

Night after night Souren sits at this bench and sews a new tunic. By the end of the day it will be gone, a cloud of gray ash blowing in the wind, and then he will sit down and create another.

He lays the completed costume on the work surface and stands up. He surveys the ranks of sightless eyes that stare unblinking into the room. Rows of hooks have been hammered into the wall. A wooden hand puppet hangs from every one. There are portly kings and beautiful princesses. There are brave men with dangerous eyes, and a haggard witch with warts on her ugly chin. There are cherubic children, their eyes too wide and innocent for this motley group. There is a wolf.

This ragtag crowd is Souren’s family now.

He unhooks a young boy called Hector and carries him to the table. He pulls the newly sewn tunic over Hector’s head. He turns the puppet toward him and examines his handiwork. Hector is a handsome fellow, with a button nose and rosy cheeks. The tunic fits him well. The puppet performs a small bow and waves at him.

“Ah, Hector,” whispers Souren sadly. “You are always so happy to see me, even when you know what is to come.” He looks up at the clock on the wall. It is a few hours past midnight. The new day has already begun.

Each evening Souren battles sleep for as long as he can. He works long into the night, applying fresh coats of paint to the puppets and sewing new clothes for them by candlelight. He stays at his workbench until his eyes are so heavy that he can no longer keep them open. But there is only so long he can fight the inevitable. His beloved puppets cannot protect him from the demons that pursue him through the darkest shadows of the night.

His dreams always come for him in the end.

2

A Rude Awakening

RAT-A-TAT-TAT.

Guillaume Blanc sits up in his bed, his heart smashing against his ribs, his breath quick, sharp, urgent. He stares at the door, waiting for the next angry tattoo.

The whispered words he heard through the door scream at him now: Three days.

Rat-a-tat-tat.

His shoulders slump. There is nobody knocking, not this time. The noise is coming from somewhere closer. Guillaume turns and squints through the window above the bed. The first blush of early morning sunlight smears the sky. From up here on the sixth floor, the rooftops of the city stretch out beneath him, a glinting cornucopia of slate and glass, a tapestry of cupolas and towers. There is the culprit: a woodpecker, richly plumed in blue and yellow, perched halfway up the window frame. It is staring beadily at the wood, as if trying to remember what it is supposed to do next.

Rat-a-tat-tat.

It is early, too early for anything good.

The shock of adrenaline subsides enough for Guillaume to register that his temples are pounding. He rolls over, spies a glass of cloudy water on the floor next to the bed, and drinks it thirstily. He rubs a dirty palm against his forehead. An ocean of pain to drown in. An empty wine bottle lies on its side in the middle of the small room. He stole it from the back of Madame Cuillasse’s kitchen cupboard when he staggered in last night. It was covered in dust and long forgotten, not even good enough for her coq au vin, but by then Guillaume was too drunk to care.

Rat-a-tat-tat.

It feels as if the woodpecker is perched on the tip of Guillaume’s nose and is jabbing its sharp little beak right between his eyes. It’s typical of his luck, he reflects. The bird has no business in the dirty, narrow streets of Montmartre. It should be flying free with its brothers and sisters in the Bois de Boulogne, hammering joyfully away at tree trunks, rather than attacking the window frame of Guillaume’s studio. And yet here it is.

Rat-a-tat-tat.

The woodpecker’s head is a ferocious blur, then perfectly still again. What goes through its head, Guillaume wonders, during those moments of contemplative silence? Is the woodpecker asking itself: who am I, really, if I am not pecking wood? Am I, God forbid, just a bird?

Three days.

Guillaume lets out a small moan. There are lightning bolts erupting behind his eyes. He casts his mind back to the previous night. He was wandering through Montmartre, anxiously trying to outpace his problems, when he had seen Emile Brataille sitting alone in the bar at the end of his street. Brataille is an art dealer who spends most of his time at the zinc of the Closerie des Lilas, schmoozing with collectors and artists, striking deals, and skimming his fat commission off every painting he sells. He has no business in Montmartre anymore: all the painters whose work hangs on the walls of his palatial gallery on Boulevard Raspail have left Guillaume’s quartier for the leafy boulevards of Montparnasse, where the wine is better, the oysters fatter, and the women more beautiful. Guillaume pushed open the door and slid onto the chair next to Brataille.

The alcohol lingers sluggishly in his veins. How much had they drunk, in the end?

After they were three or four carafes to the good, Emile Brataille made his mournful confession: he’d come to Montmartre to declare his love for Thérèse, but she wanted nothing to do with him. And so here he was, drowning his sorrows.

Thérèse is a prostitute who works at the corner of Rue des Abbesses and Rue Ravignan, next to Le Chat Blanc. Guillaume knows her, albeit not professionally: he has painted her many times. Lubricated by the wine, he embellished this acquaintance into a devoted friendship, and suggested to Brataille that he might be able to intercede on his behalf. At this, the art dealer began to weep drunken tears of gratitude. How can I ever repay you? he asked. Guillaume scratched his chin. I don’t suppose you know any rich, art-loving Americans, he said.

Brataille began to laugh.

 

Olivia Hawker’s One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow

We’ve all been told that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression, and this book has that going on with a title that should live forever.  First line is good, too.  A killer – literally.  “I was leading the cows to the milking shed when my pa shot Mr. Webber.”  Nothing, not one thing could have stood between me and this book after that glorious beginning.  The Heavens opened, and the angels sang.  However……….oh, hold my hand, please, while I confess.  Further reading betrayed me, and I found myself determined to dislike this one, to find fault.  Melodramatic, a book in search of a direction, hyper-indulgent descriptive language, sentences that rambled on forever.  In other words, I was peevish and digging it.  Continued to read, though, maybe just to see how bad it could be, but author Olivia Hawker continued as well.  Stitch by stitch, she built a gorgeous tapestry of a book – this very book – and my gnarly old heart had to relent.  I gave it up to her work, and the angels sang once more.

Ms. Hawker says she wanted to write about death, however the book she wrote (perhaps inevitably so) is about life and the living – the eternal cycle, the hopeful over and over of all living things.  Just to set the scene for you, it’s 1876 in the Wyoming territories, and the Webber and Bemis families have adjoining homesteads twenty miles away from Paintrock, the nearest town.  No other neighbors, and there is bad blood between the two families.  Death?  It was never far away in those days.  You will fret and worry and care.  Maybe you’ll find a little fault, too, but it’s been a long time since a book earned my respect as this one did.  Worked for it.  Imagine that.  High praise, and enough said.  Readers, expect to be rewarded.

This title flew into bookstores back in October so shop your local indie bookstore for a copy.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Lake Union Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage

It’s 1928 and, in Britain, women of property now have the vote thanks to brave and tireless women like Mattie Simpkin.  Even so, Mattie stays in contact with her suffragette sisters, continues to lecture on her experiences and for the right of all women to vote.  She also carries a small club of polished ash in her handbag and lives in a charming old house called the Mousehole with her friend and assistant Florrie Lee, known as The Flea.  When they engage a sixteen-year-old housemaid named Ida, Mattie begins to see just how limited ordinary young women of the day actually are.  With Ida as the first member and reluctant recruit, Mattie begins a club for girls and young women – outdoor activities, exercise, sleuthing games, debate and adventures.  Mattie believes in living life with brio, and it all goes swimmingly, as they say.  Until, that is, Mattie, always a confident woman, becomes a bit over-involved, puts a foot wrong, steps in something smelly, and it all goes to hell.  But keep your eye on the wickedly intelligent Miss Simpkin.  This good woman has a sure instinct for steering the right course, and she will find her way.

Tell you what.  I think I was in the mood for (or maybe in need of) a case of the Brits.  Steadying, bracing, what is it?  Don’t know about you, but I can only go so long without ‘em, and Ms. Evans book is so very, very……well, it’s as British as a cup of tea and a biscuit.  Characters, time and place, humor – loved all of it, and there’s an interesting political timeliness as well.  Topping, spot on, jolly good, righty-o and all that.  This one will put you right as rain.

Available now, so shop your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by HarperCollins Publishers / Harper Perennial via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Louisa Treger’s The Dragon Lady

I was ready for a good chunk of a novel – not genre, not froth, not gimmick, not avant garde.  And by chunk, I’m not talking about heft, but rather, density, depth, a novel that you unpack as you read.  A novel that ends before you want it to.  Are you with me?  I just wanted a dadblamed book!

So…..you know that first line thing, lines that get the job done?  Well, here’s one.  “I’ve spent a lifetime trying to forget, yet the smallest thing takes me back to the time the Dragon Lady was shot.”  Let the unpacking begin.  The Dragon Lady is Virginia Courtauld (Gini), wife of Stephen Courtauld, and the dragon is not a dragon.  It is a snake, a fearsome serpent, tattooed up the side of her leg.  Scandalous.  How far up it goes no one knows except Stephen.  Did such a tattoo ever exist?  Not sure about that, but Gini and Stephen did, and The Dragon Lady is a fictionalization of their lives – Sir Stephen and Lady Virginia Courtauld.  In fact, their home, La Rochelle in what was then Rhodesia, is now a hotel.

Stephen’s family is British and very wealthy.  To be more precise, they are upright folks, filthy, stinking rich, and so is he.  He’s a WWI vet (with flashbacks), a highly principled man, involved in the Arts, devoted to Gini, and he spends gobs and gobs of money.  Gini, well, she is already tattooed when she marries Stephen.  She is wealthy, too, but not as, and it’s upstart wealth.  Also, she’s half Italian, half Romanian.  Hmmm.  Antecedents are so important, you know.  A fascinating, mysterious woman and a bit of a social climber, but, to her disappointment, she never quite makes the cut.  As a couple they are genuine, liberal, philanthropic and always, always controversial.

The book moves back and forth in time from the 1920s to an epilogue in the 90s, but focuses on Stephen and Gini in Rhodesia in the 1950s.  They move to Africa for a new start, and build a beautiful home only to find that native Africans are held in dreadful contempt, and white society is both fearful and fearfully racist.  The Courtaulds reach out for ways to help.  They start a Home and Craft Center for native women, a school for African children, a model farm teaching agricultural methods; they build a theater and an art gallery.  However, as you well know, no good deed goes unpunished.  Stephen is ultimately knighted for his work, but they gain only anger and animosity from their white neighbors.

Oh damn, I hope I haven’t managed to make a slam dunk sound boring.  And I was off to such a good start, too.  Trust me, Rhodesia, a powder keg at that time, cannot be boring.  Neither can Stephen and Gini.  Nor can a ghost, a pet lemur, ladies who smoke slim cigarettes and people who – as if in a Noel Coward play – call each other “darling”.  The very names of African trees will make your eyes light up.  And did I mention the Duke and Duchess of Windsor?  This, my darlings, is a book.

Book your trip to Rhodesia and the past on August 13 when The Dragon Lady hits bookstore shelves.  Support your local indie bookstore if you like by pre-ordering here.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Bloomsbury USA / Bloomsbury Caravel via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Women of Copper Country

The very first word that occurred to me when I began reading Ms. Russell’s book was “solid”, and then, I swear, there was a sense of relief.  This book is solid, and this is not faint praise.  I knew I could count on it, lean into it, walk around in its rooms and settings and not trip or fall through a weak spot.  Hosanna!

Set in the copper mining country of upper Michigan, the story is a harsh one, based on events arising out of the labor movement of the early Twentieth Century, and in particular the Michigan copper mines strike of 1913 and the Italian Hall disaster.  Characters are, for the most part, actual persons or composites.  There is Anna Klobuchar Clements, the tall woman, wife of a miner, America’s Joan of Arc, who inspired and led a wildcat strike of nearly a year’s duration, protesting low pay, long hours, and dangerous conditions for the miners.  With Anna as its primary figure, the book focuses on the women in the movement, the women behind the miners, their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters.  These women lived with horror and loss on a near weekly basis – crippling, maiming, work-ending injury and death in the mines.  Not if, but when.

Strong material for sure, and with her deft and artistic hand, Ms. Russell knows just what to make of it. Good material and diligent research, skillful plotting and narrative, fully realized characterizations, sure sense of time and place.  It’s all there.  For, you see, Ms. Russell is not only an artist, she knows her craft, and it is craftsmanship that makes this the good book that it is; good and, yes, solid.  A book you are grateful for, that you can count on.  Lean into it.  It will hold.

You’ll have to wait until August 6 for The Women of Copper Country to hit bookstores.  But why wait when you can pre-order this gem? Click here to support your local indie bookstore or here to pre-order from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Atria Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Hans Fallada’s Nightmare in Berlin

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Written and set in Germany just after the end of WWII and the fall of the Nazi regime, this novel is not a pleasant read.  An ambitious country and a proud people drank the Kool-Aid for twelve years, and now lie in ruin.  The German people are almost universally held in contempt; any Berlin building with windows intact is a miracle; conquering armies (Russia, in this instance) are feared.  Conflicts arise between those who supported Hitler and those who did not, and even some of the latter are beginning to view his regime as a time of plenty and, perhaps, to wish for its return.  Understandably in distress, characters show their baser sides, and most are quite dislikeable.

Though this novel is widely considered autobiographical, Hans Fallada (pen name of author Rudolf Ditzen) denied this.  However, his central actor, Dr. Doll, is a German author of note, and most of his story here does seem to parallel that of Fallada, who has been compared to Mann and Hesse.   As Germany struggles with the aftermath of all-out war, Dr. Doll struggles with financial ruin, addiction, frequent hospitalizations, a difficult, much younger wife (also an addict) and the contempt of his neighbors, and, even though Dr. Doll has hopeful moments, you somehow know that he is not convinced.

Yes, this resurrected novel is dark, dark and challenging, but it is important for its contemporaneous look at Germany after the war, for its probing insight into human honesty and deceit, and for the artistry of the work.  Fallada/Ditzen wrote only one more work, Alone in Berlin, before he died in 1947, but Dr. Doll and a fallen Berlin will return to you time after time.

Click here to order Nightmare in Berlin from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Scribe US via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher and Edelweiss+ for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

John Burnham Schwartz’s The Red Daughter

I doubt the name Svetlana Alliluyeva means anything to most of us today, but Joseph Stalin’s daughter was a political hot potato when she defected from Mother Russia during the Cold War.  Whether you know of her, and regardless of your knowledge of the Cold War and Russian history, you will tear through this novelization of Svetlana’s life.  Mr. Schwartz writes of her confusing and privileged young life and provides the background to her defection, but the story is primarily that of her life after arriving in the U.S., and it is totally engrossing.

Intelligent, guarded and seemingly hard, Svetlana hides her vulnerability and her past, to the extent that she can or is allowed to; but her life as her father’s child and as an adult under the rigid control of Soviet society leaves her unprepared for Western life and choices.  She is haunted by the two nearly adult children she left behind; the U.S.S.R. tantalizes her with them, and U.S. authorities fear her children will be used to lure or harm her.  There is a brief remarriage, and a baby boy born late in Svetlana’s life.  She adores this child, hides his grandfather’s identity from him until he is a young teenager, and there are traumatic consequences.  You will swear that what you have before you is non-fiction reading as fiction, but, no.  The strength of this work is the story – fiction reading as blisteringly masterful fiction.

Available to everyone on April 30, or pre-order at Amazon.com: The Red Daughter: A Novel

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group / Random House via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Leonard Goldberg’s The Disappearance of Alistair Ainsworth

This third in the “Daughter of Sherlock Holmes” series was my introduction to Joanna Blalock Watson and her small family, born sleuths, all of them.  Joanna is the flesh and blood daughter of the famous detective, and her father-in-law is the ever-present Dr. Watson.  Her husband, Watson’s son, narrates, and her son Johnny promises to be his grandfather Sherlock all over again.  It’s World War I, so, as you’d expect, there are German spies, zeppelins and U-boats, encryption and experts, clandestine affairs (or not?), and a dastardly traitor.  Who?  (I figured it out; I figured it out!)  There’s even a fake funeral involving a long-dead cat.  Nice touch.

All this gives Joanna ample opportunity to dazzle with that famous deductive reasoning, but, in the Holmes tradition, there can be no rush to judgment.  She moves at a measured pace, dispensing conclusions in small, intriguing doses, and, like her father, is more than a bit condescending to those of lesser gifts……and isn’t that everybody?  While it may be something of a trudge for the modern reader, if you’re a Conan Doyle fan and don’t want to re-read him for the umpteenth time, this is well-done and as close as you can get.  Prefer your detective series in order?  Begin with The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes and follow with A Study in Treason.  This installment makes its appearance on June 11 from Minotaur Books.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by St. Martin’s Press / Minotaur Books via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

 

Dominic Smith’s The Electric Hotel

The title?   Didn’t think it sounded too promising, you know; but I was wrong, so very, very wrong; and it was my good fortune to meet an elderly French gentleman, Claude Ballard, living out his life in a rundown Hollywood hotel.  This is not the electric hotel of the title, but it is the same hotel where, according to this novel, D.W. Griffith died.  Turns out, Mr. Ballard has a history in silent film that predates Griffith, and we go back in time to learn about the earliest days and the simplest of films, moving figures in a stream of light.   Here is a man who films his own sister’s death from tuberculosis as he tries to understand and promote this new medium.  Meet Sabine Montrose, a bold-going stage actress who transitions to film and then into exile after starring in a doomed masterpiece.  And Chip Spalding, teenage Australian daredevil, forerunner of all Hollywood stuntmen to come.  Hal Bender from Brooklyn, where he stays a step ahead of trouble eking out a living with nickel peepshows, to studio head where he struggles to stay…………

Unforgettable.  Lose yourself in layer upon rich layer and a stellar cast of characters.  Read Dominic Smith’s lovely new work, you lucky reader, you.  It is truly a find.

The Electric Hotel is not scheduled for release until June 4, 2019 so put this on your calendar.  Not to be missed!!!

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Sarah Crichton Books via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Mary Lynn Bracht’s White Chrysanthemum

Beginning in Korea during World War II, this beautiful work of fiction tells the story of two sisters born into the diving women of Jeju Island which has been under Japanese occupation since the early 1900’s.   The diving culture itself is harsh and fascinating, as is life as second class citizens under Japanese domination.   We know so little about Korean culture and history, and this good, good book is eye-opening, entertaining and well worth the read.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by PENGUIN GROUP Putnam – G.P. Putnam’s Sons via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.