Utopirama: Pigeons, the Elderly and Personal Growth…

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It has been a considerable while since I last put up a novel in the Utopirama category, but today’s delightful little tome simply could not fit anywhere else.  We received a copy of Soft in the Head by Marie-Sabine Roger via Netgalley and as it is a translation from the original French, I should probably mention that the translator was Frank Wynne – this will be important to know later.  Let us begin.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A humorous, heartwarming story follows the intellectually dim-witted 45-year-old Germain as he meets and slowly gets to know 85-year-old Margueritte, who sits in the park every day watching the pigeons and reading. She speaks to him as an equal, something his friends rarely do, and reads to him, sparking in him a previously undiscovered interest in books and reading. When she reveals to Germain that she is starting to lose her eyesight to macular degeneration, he is inspired for the first time in his life to work at reading so that he can read fluently to his new friend.

soft in the head

Quick Overview:

This is a novel in which, I can happily report, nothing particularly distressing occurs.  The old lady does not die in the end.  There is a bit of language and sexual allusions, to warn those who are squeamish about such things, but overall the story explores the developing friendship between Germain and Margueritte, as well as charting Germain’s growth in self esteem, motivation and personal purpose.  If this sounds like it flies a bit too close to the winds of tedium for you, I can assure you that the gentle pace is more than made up for by the charmingly personable narration of Germain.  The effect of the whole story is a lingering sense of upliftedness and an appreciation for the small things in life.

I have had a bit of trouble with translations from French in the past, for reasons that I can’t quite pick.  Perhaps I’m just not finely attuned to the French sense of humour.  This translation though, was excellent, in that it kept the Frenchness of the characters and story and setting, yet seamlessly incorporated turns of phrase in the English vernacular that added to the atmosphere and allowed the characters to be more fleshed out for an audience unfamiliar with the nuances of the French language and lifestyle.  The narrative style was immediately engaging, and Germain is such a likable and sympathetic narrator that I couldn’t help but take his arm and stroll along into the story.

If you are unfamiliar with Netgalley, you will be unaware that reviewers may request books months before their release date and it was just such a circumstance that had me completely forgetting the specifics of the blurb before I began reading.  For this reason, I went into this story thinking that Germain was in his early twenties rather than mid-forties.  His style of narration and continual admissions to being slightly below par in the intelligence stakes did nothing to dispel this misconception, so I was more than a little surprised when Germain mentions about halfway through the book that he is actually 45!  After allowing my brain a few chapters to reconceptualise the main character, I quite easily got back into enjoying the flow of the story.

This would be the perfect pick for a lazy holiday read or to keep on your nightstand for when you need a gentle easing into sleep.  It’s funny, touching and generally focused on finding the good in people and the magic that can happen when an unexpected friendship bears the fruit of positive change in the participants.

Utopian Themes:

Books as solace for the weary heart

Traditional skills and hobbies

Intergenerational friendship

Overcoming adversity

Forgiveness

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

protective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubble

Five out of five protective bubbles for the simple pleasure of feeding pigeons from a sunny spot on a park bench.

Until next time,

Bruce

Shouty Doris Interjects during…The Casquette Girls!

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Shouty Doris interjectsShouty Doris and I would like to welcome you to another tag-team review, this time for a three-quarters intriguing, one-quarter dragging new release YA novel.  We received The Casquette Girls by Alys Arden from the publisher via Netgalley.  It’s a book that nearly made my Top Books of 2015 list for originality and a cracking tale, but by the end, I opted to leave it off the TB2015 and just recommend it to you as an exciting story with familiar themes but some quite intriguing ways of expressing them.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Seven girls tied by time.
Five powers that bind.
One curse to lock the horror away.
One attic to keep the monsters at bay.

After the storm of the century rips apart New Orleans, sixteen-year-old Adele Le Moyne wants nothing more than her now silent city to return to normal. But with home resembling a war zone, a parish-wide curfew, and mysterious new faces lurking in the abandoned French Quarter, normal needs a new definition.

As the city murder rate soars, Adele finds herself tangled in a web of magic that weaves back to her own ancestors. Caught in a hurricane of myths and monsters, who can she trust when everyone has a secret and keeping them can mean life or death? Unless . . . you’re immortal.

casquette girlsI was initially drawn to this title because of its setting in “Post-Storm” New Orleans.  The catastrophic event that was Hurricane Katrina is as mesmerising as it is heartbreaking.  It appears that publishers have decided that the “too-soon” period has passed, as there seem to be a number of YA titles around at the moment that are set in New Orleans in the close aftermath of the hurricane.  The added bonus of a magic curse or family secret alluded to in the blurb just sweetened the deal and for the first few chapters I was riveted by Adele’s cautious return to the remnants of her hometown.

Shouty Doris interjects

Riveted, were you? 

Not at all concerned about this young woman’s safety then!  What kind of person would bring their 16 year old daughter into a lawless, foodless, shelter-less disaster zone,  just because the girl begs to return? Shocking parenting, if you ask me. 

Well, yes, I will admit to a little bit of disbelief at the apparent lunacy of returning to a place with no electricity, scarce food, hardly any security, no school and a primary place of residence that any ordinary person would consider to be structurally unsound.  But I pushed past this minor quibble and got caught up in the weird goings-on that materialise around Adele – there’s a bird attack, a very creepy incident with an old convent…and the fact that corpses keep turning up in non-Storm-related circumstances.  Just as I was getting into the story however, one of my pet peeves turned up: unnecessary romance.Shouty Doris interjects

I didn’t mind at all when those handsome young lads turned up.  Lovely European manners, too!

Now come on Doris,  you knew they were going to be trouble as soon as they appeared.

Shouty Doris interjectsWell, boys will be boys now, won’t they?

Well, as it turns out, boys will be…..actually that would be a major spoiler.  Essentially, a number of handsome (of course – why can’t they just be ordinary looking?) young men turn up to vye for Adele’s attention and apart from fulfilling some major plot points, generally end up slowing everything down as we are subjected to your typical swooning girl/smarmy-but-drop-dead-gorgeous-older guy/disgruntled-initial-suitor-who-would-be-a-much-better-fit-for-the-female-protagonist-but-has-temper-issues attraction triangle.  Bummer. 

Just as I thought the magic/paranormal part of the story would start rolling along, we are introduced to the diary of  Adeline Saint-Germaine – a young French girl who has some unspecified connection to Adele and the odd circumstances surrounding her return to New Orleans.  Cue historical fiction interludes!  I quite enjoyed this unexpected jaunt into the strangely similar events of a couple of centuries pre-Adele, but again, after a while I felt that these sections also slowed the pace of the book and made it seem much longer than it needed to be.

Shouty Doris interjectsDon’t forget all the French.  It’s je suis this, and croissant that all the way through.  It’s a wonder I could make out any of the story at all!  Honestly, the book should have come with a cautionary sticker: Only attempt this book if you have studied French at tertiary level.

Hmmm. Yes.  I agree there is quite a bit of French language scattered throughout – appropriately enough, given the story’s setting and the fact that Adeline Saint-Germaine and her cohorts are French – but this may be a bit annoying if you are reading the book in print format.  Luckily, I was reading on the Kindle so the translation function got a good workout.

French aside, by the halfway mark in the book there are a number of parallel storylines playing out with plenty of secrets left to be uncovered.  By this stage I was still certain that this would end up being one of my Top Books of 2015, but by two thirds of the way through, it just…

I just…

Shouty Doris interjectsSpit it out. While we’re young. Or some of us, anyway.

That’s just it!  By two thirds of the way through, I wanted the book to be over.  I was ready for the action-packed climax, wherein all the twisty turns were explained and Adele and her friends set themselves to the task of ridding their fair city of the curse that plagues it.  Instead, I got more drawn-out interludes between Adele and both lots of handsome young men that seemed hardly believable, given the fact that the one she likes most is….dangerous.

Shouty Doris interjectsI agree.  Despite ol’ Mr Handsome-Pants’ suave European romancing, I think young Adele is far too intelligent to fall for his life-threatening charms.  But then again, the authors these days have to put SOMETHING in to keep the young ladies reading books instead of shutting themselves away on the Tweeter all day.  A bit of descriptive courting is sure to draw them in.

*muffled giggling from the younger shelf-denizens*

My dislike of romance (especially gratuitous romance) is well known and the amount of simply unbelievable romance bits in this book really brought my enjoyment level down by the end.  I can’t help but thinking if a lot of these sections were more tightly edited, the pace of the book would have benefitted immensely.

On the whole though, this is a complex tale with action, magic, paranormal elements, historical fiction and some standard contemporary-teen problems, all wrapped up in a highly engaging setting and brought to life with the help of some extremely colourful characters, almost all of whom are not who they appear to be.  Despite my decision to ultimately not add this to my TB2015 list, it’s still a cracking and fascinating read that will keep you hooked – provided you don’t mind a bit of teenaged mooning over handsome Europeans.

Shouty Doris interjects

Don’t forget the doe-eyes.  Or the illegal hooch. 

Which reminds me, it’s time for my afternoon snifter. 

It’s ten in the morning, Doris.

Shouty Doris interjectsIf anyone wants me, I’ll be in the drawing room.

That’s the door to the bathroom, Doris.  Doris?

Until next time,

Bruce