The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

The Paris Library – Janet Skeslien Charles Simon & Schuster HC $28.00 – 9781982134198 2/2/2021

 

There is a special pleasure in reading books about books, books about words, books about reading. The same joy derives from characters who have a love of words and print and they find the path to our hearts an open one. I am put in mind of the JoJo Moyes title Giver of Stars, the story of itinerant horseback librarians in depression era Appalachia. In both books a dedicated cadre of book lovers not only strives to assure that their patrons are supplied with the books they crave, but they put themselves at considerable risk to do so. At root is the love of reading and compulsion to impart that love to others. It is a noble cause and those who engage in it are imbued with that nobility. How reading functions as a lifeblood, therapy and escape is a subject of exploration here and the larger themes of friendship, loyalty, guilt and betrayal are on full display.

With an easy-flowing prose style the author guides us through the German occupation of Paris in WWII and the women and men whose mission it is to keep open the American Library of Paris. In alternating chapters we see the coming of age emergence of a youthful French librarian and a young woman in 1980s Montana struggling with identity, loss, and jealousy. Both Odile, the young Parisian and Lily, the American teenager are given to impetuous outbursts, honest but undiplomatic. They are ruled by strong emotions barely kept in check and frequently regretted, but sincere and benevolent at root. These two find truth in self-examination and the willingness to absorb the wisdom of others. They are charming, naïve, strong willed and thoroughly likeable.

There are some engaging devices used in the narrative that add piquancy to the tale. Odile is steeped in the Dewey Decimal System and refers to life occurrences according to their classification. Fiction, geography, cooking, each have their designations which are salted into the text and add a charming flavor. The intriguing play of language differences, cognates and root words, how the character of a tongue defines the nationality of the speaker, and the deep emotional attachments to one’s native speech are interspersed in the relationships and conflicts between parent and child, the French and the Germans and also among fast friends. Both the learning of a new tongue and the cultural differences encountered are a part of the charm. The reality of living under occupation also contributes to the atmosphere.

Based on real events, this fictional account is an enchanting reading experience and one that avid readers and lovers of the printed word will find irresistible. I recommend it with enthusiasm.

 

Shelf Talker: The heroic efforts of a small group of French librarians to resist the closing of the American Library of Paris during WWII is contrasted with a coming of age tale of a Montana girl in the 1980s and tied together with themes of friendship, loyalty, guilt and betrayal. A satisfying and substantial read.

Snow by John Banville

Snow: A Novel – John Banville – HarperCollins HC $27.99 – 9781335230003 – 10/6/2020

 

This is a somewhat grisly and slightly depraved crime drama garbed in the raiment of an English cozy, at least one would think so for a few pages. The quirky detective who isn’t sure that he should be one is sent to the Irish countryside from his post in Dublin to investigate the murder of a local priest. The body has been discovered in the library of a country estate. So much for the conventional Christie-esque part.

The place, the people, the situation all seem to him to be theatrical, phony even. There’s an ersatz ancestral home, a delusional family with neurotic tendencies, a clergyman with a shady flavor, a local constabulary populated by malcontents, sociopaths and a drunken grief-ridden chief. These country coppers are of little or no help, and an assistant who doesn’t like him makes St. John (Sinjun) Strafford’s job more burdensome that necessary. Complicated by a dreary romantic past and disturbing present sexual temptations his investigation has a hard time getting started and not much better success going forward. The deck does seem to be stacked against him, and he’s not feeling empowered by the resistance of his superiors back in the City and by the reluctance of the Church to publicize any scandal involving one of its members.

Religion is an integral part of the crime and of its investigation, or at least the practitioners of faith are. A Protestant (or Prod, as the locals have it) digging into the bowels of the Catholic church’s management of its priests, Strafford finds himself in a confrontation with the Archbishop of Irish Catholics who warns him against making public any findings that may cast a negative light upon the flock. His boss, the Detective Chief Inspector, back in Pearse Street, Dublin is not eager to involve himself in anything that is likely to put him in poor favor with the clergy and leaves the sleuth pretty much on his own. The reader needs to know that it’s not in any way a traditional cozy, but apart from that it’s a great whodunit.

 

Shelf Talker: The Irish countryside in winter, a murdered priest in the library, immoral goings on everywhere and a self-doubting detective make this an intriguing and engaging murder mystery with a unique flavor.

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse

The Sanatorium – Sarah Pearse – Penguin HC $27.00 – 9780593296677 – 2/23/2021

 

This tightly written and tense suspense novel maintains a brooding sense of evil practically from the first page. Like the best of the genre, this tale unfolds in bits and pieces with some entertainingly distracting sidetracks that will keep the reader alert and guessing. Intelligently plotted and with an intriguingly disturbing and exotic setting, it contains all the right stuff.

Elin Warner, a British detective on leave after a harrowing case that traumatized her and dredged up memories of a childhood tragedy is vacationing with her partner Will at a refurbished sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. Formerly a haven for tuberculosis patients, the building has been completely remodeled into a modern hotel with minimalist décor. Still, a sinister consciousness overhangs the atmosphere, fueled by exhibits of arcane and vaguely menacing medical instruments used in the 1920s. A young woman’s body is found with fingers missing and an unusually formed rubber mask over her face. A glass case, like those on exhibit in the hotel, contains her severed digits arranged with copper bracelets, each numbered with what appear to be patient ID numbers.

As Elin struggles with her own demons, the situation escalates, more women are murdered and mutilated, and doubts about herself, her abilities and her family and friends increase. In spite of her precarious mental health, she digs into the meat of the mystery with determination. As a flawed character, she engenders sympathy from the reader as real human, not a caricature or cartoon of a detective. At the same time frail and strong, she walks a fine line between paranoia and genuine suspicion, all the while getting closer to the solution which could bring personal tragedy or even physical harm to herself and her companions.

Add to the mix a killer snowstorm, multiple avalanches, some truly disturbing medical artifacts, and any devotee of crime thrillers or psychological mysteries will love this one. It’s well done and challenges the reader in all the right ways.

 

Shelf Talker: Taut, exotic and unsettling, this thriller will push all your crime fiction buttons. Set in a refurbished sanatorium with a sinister past, the tension escalates deliciously to a satisfying denouement.

The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams

A circus tent of wordplay and bizarre lexicography, this tale of two toilers in the trenches of dictionary-making is funny, creative and often amazes with the facility displayed by the author in making the English language fresh.

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