Review: City of Crows by Chris Womersley

City+of+Crows+Cover+copy.jpgChris Womersley’s latest novel sucks you in from the opening passages. Set in 1600s France this is a gothic masterpiece firmly based in the historical realm but will have you believing in magic, witchcraft and maybe even the devil himself.

It is 1673 and The Plague grips the countryside. Charlotte Picot has lost three of her children to fever and her husband has also just passed away. She decides to flee her small French village with her remaining son Nicholas and set off across the countryside to seek refuge in a larger town. They are attacked upon the road and Nicholas is taken by slavers and Charlotte is left for dead. Desperate to save her son Charlotte is makes a deal with a woman claiming to be a witch to summon forth help in her time of need.

Meanwhile a man is freed from the prison galleys having served a brutal seven year sentence. He is desperate to return to Paris and retrieve a buried fortune but he cannot recover his treasure alone. His path will cross with Charlotte’s and they will both find more than they bargained for in the dark and uncanny underbelly of 17th century Paris

While on the surface setting a book in 17th century France seems to be a far removal from Chris’s previous work there has always been a gothic undertone to his novels. At one point in Bereft I was almost convinced the main character was possibly a ghost and Womersley uses similar devices to keep you off balance about where reality ends and magic actually begins.

Rooted in historical fact this is a novel that entrances you, bewitches you and keeps you thoroughly enthralled.

Buy the book here…

The Snow Kimono

Snow KimonoA buzz has been building about Australian author Mark Henshaw’s long awaited second novel after Out of the Line of Fire. The Snow Kimono (Text) is a literary psychological thriller set in Japan and France. Insights into both those countries shape the contours, ridges and atmosphere of the novel. Paris is wet and snowy and its streets and iconic buildings are lit with fireworks and the elements. Japan is elusive and mystical, with bamboo, bridges over water and the sounds of frogs, the slow tock, tock, tock of the water clock, the strings of a shamisen in a night garden. It is also a place of snow, birthing the snow kimono.

A retired French police inspector, Auguste Jovert, receives a letter, has an accident and meets Tadashi Omura, a former lawyer from Japan. Omura begins the story of Fumika, the girl he pretended was his daughter and, over the course of the novel, relates the story of his inconceivable life. Japan, and some of its secrets, is vividly revealed to us through a Parisian prism.

Jigsaw puzzles are a tantalising symbol. Omura’s father loved the ancient tradition of jigsaws where each piece is unique and designed to deceive – to make the puzzle more difficult. He owned rare, antique puzzles made from exotic wood with inlays of precious materials. The best had infinite or contradictory solutions. Omura explains, In our tradition, how a puzzle is made, and how it is solved, reveals some greater truth about the world… Puzzles are objects of contemplation.

The lie behind Omura’s life unfolds like the exquisite mirror-scope that he constructs for Fumika to see the flying kites. We learn of his brilliant, devious friend, Katsuo who is about to be released from prison and whose past life shadowed Omura’s own. Katsuo is an author who mimicked his friends’ and acquaintances’ mannerisms, almost imprinting them onto himself, as well as conjoining them into his writing. He demanded stories be told to him again and again, craved power over people and displayed controlled patience.

The kimono is an alluring motif. The snow kimono was made by Sachiko’s grandmother and becomes hers when she moves to inscrutable Mr Ishiguro’s house. She is one of a number of characters who feature in the story. The clever narrative is structured into parts, showcasing major characters such as Jovert, Omura and Katsuo, as well as the females whose lives intertwine with theirs – Sachiko, Fumika, Natsumi, Mariko and Martine.

I would highly recommend The Snow Kimono to readers of Haruki Murakami’s style of literary fiction. It is likely to appear Colorless Tsukuru Tazakion upcoming Australian award shortlists.

Bohemian (And Book-Reading) Idyll

Books, Baguettes and BedbugsIn my family, there’s only (and happily) one type of Christmas gift: a book. I look forward to the book I’ll receive each year with relish. And, of course, with relish towards the books that everyone else will receive that I might be able to poach.

The sleep countdown until the all-too-fast-approaching Christmas got me thinking about some books I’ve received Christmases past. In particular, one that my brother bought me and that caught me by surprise. I hadn’t heard of it then and I haven’t heard of it since, but it hit the perfect note.

Called Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs (something that I think is a slightly simplistic and naff title and that doesn’t do this gem of a book justice), it’s about one of the world’s most famous bookshops, Shakespeare and Company. Which, in spite of its apparent fame, I’d never heard of. Regardless, situated on the Left Bank in Paris, it was famously frequented by the esteemed likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Allen Ginsburg, and William S Burroughs.

The bohemian premise, which apparently continues to this day, was that starving writers could live in the bookshop, penning their masterpieces surrounded and inspired by the great works that were published before them, as long as they helped out by occasionally manning the till. Of course, bohemian idyll on paper never quite translates to real life, and the dysfunction of the shop is exceeded only by the dysfunctional but entirely fascinating quirks of its artists in residence.

Canadian and former crime reporter Jeremy Mercer was one of those artists (or at least observing them) when he went to Paris on a whim and found himself less lean-living adventurer, more skint, stranded backpacker. Money-less, job-less, and generally down and out, he found sanctuary and the rich, eccentric material for a memoir within Shakespeare and Co.’s walls.

I’m not doing the book justice—Michael Palin, who wrote the cover note, deemed it ‘An affectionate, revealing slice of life and the most singular, eccentric, and magical of bookshops’. I will say, though, that Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs is surprisingly good, both in terms of its content, which adheres to the adage that the truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and because it’s a tale well told.

I was (don’t tell my brother, who gifted it to me), not overly sold on the book when I unwrapped it. But I was hooked almost from the first page and subsequently absolutely devoured it. So hooked and so inspired, I have, given that I’m a writer and all that, since been harbouring serious intentions of making such a dysfunctional writer-in-residence pilgrimage to Paris.