February 2018 book reviews
Cycling advice and thrilling detective writings from a wine expert
Savages : The Wedding, Sabri Louatah, Corsair, £12.99 ISBN: 978-1-4721-5322-7
Inspired by riots in France and Dostoyevsky’s Demons, this is a French election on a knife-edge after an assassination attempt on the leading socialist candidate; who is also the first Arab candidate.
There is no denying that this is a seductive book and the writing in translation is simple but deceptively subtle. It is pacy without seeming rushed, detailed without being boring. 200 pages fizzle past.
Starting as a pure novel with mention of the rising threat to candidate Idder Chaouch, Savages takes on a darker tone when we meet the other side of the religious divide and Krim. His full name is Abdelkrim, an extraordinarily conflicted young man. He is receiving texts from his cousin Nazir who is deeply involved in crime. He has saved Krim from retribution for stealing from a gang leader and has him wound up to just the point he wants him.
It is a bad combination for candidate Chouach but also for his daughter’s new partner, the idol of much of France’s youth, actor Fouad Nerrouche. He is Nazir’s brother.
The writing here is tense and dramatic and the characters utterly believable for anyone who has lived an election campaign. It does, however, feel a bit like a ‘sell’ for a TV script… and is the first of a four-part series.
Sisters to the King, Maria Perry, Andre Deutsch, £16.99 ISBN: 978-0-23300-529-4
He was larger-than-life and had six wives but the sisters of Henry VIII left an arguably larger mark on European perception.
Margaret and Mary, the Tudor sisters, became queens of Scotland and France but they and their husbands (and second husbands) were better known than the succession of wives. That may not be a good thing.
Love and sexual antics play a part but a sizeable section of the early part of the book is devoted to the word ‘perhaps’ and its effect on the Reformation and later pages are wholly on Henry VIII and his bid to divorce Katherine of Aragon (or is it Catherine of Aragon?).
Readers may expect that they need to be reasonably well versed in the English and French monarchy for this but will also need to bone up on their Scottish lineages, for Margaret had an unusually lusty life. She also, as is revealed in her begging letters to her brother, seems to have loved beautiful clothes to excess.
She plays a surprising role in bringing Scotland and England together after her husband, James IV of Scotland, is killed by her brother’s army at Flodden, but in correspondence with the pope shows “a steely determination to preserve the powers of the crown both for herself and her sons”.
A lumpy book that bumps along without catching a grip of the reader’s attention…
Reflections & Realities, Marion Kaplan, Moho Books, £16.99 ISBN: 978-0-9557208-3-3
What some people see as retirement is a chance for others to discover a new way of living and, for photojournalist Marion Kaplan, a new way of working.
Moving to France led her to slow down and some of the results of her work are here.
Not just beautiful, atmospheric photos but a snapshot of the many facets of France and a real cornucopia of information on what many people would never even think exists: Europe’s largest and softest mountain, the village that was saved by books, the highest museum in France, mutating monster frogs, the lands where Hannibal led his elephants…
Admittedly idiosyncratic, it is a flight of the imagination across a country she has criss-crossed over three decades.
However, the quality of the bookbinding leaves a little to be desired as one short 20-minute read left several pages loose…
Cycling the Loire Cycle Route, Mike Wells, Cicerone £16.95 ISBN: 978-1-85284-842-2
Running from the extinct volcanoes of the Massif Central to the Atlantic at St-Nazaire, the river Loire has given birth to some of France’s most fertile farmland, some of its most beautiful chateaux and helped create the landscapes of Rhône-Alpes, Auvergne, Burgundy, Centre and Pays-de-la-Loire.
As a cycle route it runs for 1,052km alongside the ‘Royal’ river and it is passable for all cyclists… with the bonus that, following the river, it is mostly downhill.
Like all the Cicerone guides, this is a fabulously detailed route map with fun and fascinating stop-offs plus plenty of possible off-route distractions for those keen to explore.
Cycling at a normal pace of 80km a day, a fit cyclist should manage the 26 stages in about a fortnight but for those who are more adventurous and fancy those off-route distractions, three weeks.
Requiem in Yquem, Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen, Le French Book, $15.95 ISBN: 978-1-943998-11-1
He may be France’s pre-eminent wine expert but we do not see much of the winemaker detective making wine, although he does enjoy a verre or two, and enjoys pondering the wines of the areas he visits.
So, when an old couple in Sauternes are found shot dead in bed it naturally, for Cooker anyway, turns his thoughts to Chateau d’Yquem, its wines and the morning mists that help make them.
The discovery of the bodies is both touching and shocking: lives long lived but for not much money and for nothing worth stealing. Still, the deaths touched Cooker and he is intrigued.
And his intrigue gifts us a masterclass on Chateau d’Yquem and the wines of the area… a mouthwatering prospect if it was not for the presence of two bodies, and a seemingly motiveless murder.
He and his assistant, Virgile, break open a probably priceless bottle of 1947 Yquem as a little something to have with their dessert cannelés and, still intrigued by the murders, decide to pop over to Sauternes to learn more.
There is something beguiling about the way the winemaker detective works and, although the story is slight, the telling of it is worth an evening in an armchair.